Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Healthy versus Unhealthy Relationships

My clients often ask about the difference. So here are just a few of the main ideas explained in detail.

They can look similar. For example, all relationships have anger -- people ALL get angry. But it's the way the anger is expressed that defines healthy versus UNHEALTHY.

People model their relationships after those of family -- and everyone ASSUMES the way they behave in a relationship is NORMAL and HEALTHY.

However, not everyone acts healthy in a relationship. Read below to identify if YOU are acting right, or if your partner is.

If you've been raised in an unhealthy way, it's your obligation to heal yourself, and change your behavior in the future. Otherwise, you WILL create unhealthy future relationships in ALL areas of your life, and without real change, any future children you should have WILL be affected and will continue the cycle. This is GUARANTEED to happen unless you choose to change.

Acting in an unhealthy way in an relationship violates the basic ideas of what love is. This tears a relationship down and results in destruction -- divorce, break-ups, violence, and depression, unhappiness and stress-related health problems (for those who stay in unhealthy situations).

What a healthy relationship looks like:

1. Concern for partner's well being: The partners comfort level is placed on an EQUAL level as one own's. For instance, if a girl is afraid of heights, her boyfriend should not demand she take a helicopter ride (even if he thinks it'll be fun). He will respect that this makes her uncomfortable.

Unhealthy: The boyfriend will push the girlfriend to take the helicopter ride, may use threats or insults to manipulate him into doing it -- this IGNORES her well-being. He won't respect her boundaries, and will instead use guilt, violence, or threats to insist she do what he wants. Or, he may say nothing, and if there is a cycle of abuse, a threatening look may warn her of future abuse. He may say "Oh come on. I went to the mall with you ALL day, and you won't do anything in return? You are selfish!" Or he may simply repeat "We're going, whether you want to or not." If he has the keys and is driving, it may be difficult for her to get out of the situation.

The main idea here: the unhealthy relationship will have a lack of concern for the well-being (emotional or physical) of the partner.

2. Concern for OWN well being:
In a healthy relationship, both partners are equally concerned for their own comfort. They won't sacrifice their sense of safety to please a partner. In this example, the girlfriend won't do something she's not comfortable with (take a helicopter ride) -- and she knows the boyfriend will respect that. If he doesn't respect that, or isn't concerned with her well-being (see #1), then she will leave him.

She will be assertive and say "I'm not comfortable taking a helicopter ride."And he will respect this, and find a way to meet his need for doing so in a way that doesn't cause discomfort to her. He will respect her feelings on the issue, and not want to cause any harm to her.

Unhealthy: A partner will sacrifice their sense of well-being to please a partner. This causes harm to come to the victim, (who is not feeling safe or like their well being is being considered) and enables abuse to continue. It also causes future anger and resentment.

3. Anger is healthy and used to create boundaries -- if a healthy boundary is overstepped, the anger helps a person to assertively re-create that boundary. Healthy anger has a purpose of protecting a person. It is assertive, NOT abusive. Its purpose is NOT to attack or cause harm. Unhealthy anger is used to control, threaten, and abuse, which makes an abusive person feel more powerful.

Healthy example: I'm very angry because you've invaded my privacy by reading my diary! I will put a lock on my diary now, until I can trust you to respect my privacy." (anger expressed with an "I" statement. Boundary is created, with the action to put the lock on the diary). Person takes responsibility for their own angry feelings ("I" feel angry). The person may raise their voice a bit, but they do not snap into a rage state. They are still in-control of their words and actions.

Unhealthy example:
(Rage) "You have made me angry by reading my diary! I can say whatever I want to you, because it's YOUR fault for making me angry! You are pathetic and a loser! I don't love you after this, and I will never talk to you again!" (Here we have attempts to punish and abuse -- character attacks and verbal abuse. There is no attempt to create a healthy boundary, and the point here is that the abusive person is going into a RAGE in order to feel more powerful.

The abuse is blamed on the victim for "causing" it. This makes the abuser feel entitled to do and say whatever they please. This is not true, because everyone is responsible for their actions. The abuser may also play the silent game, or withhold things their partner wants as a way to harm their partner and "punish" them (attention, sex, etc.). There may also be physical violence. The abuser feels the victim "caused" the situation, so they are entitled to do whatever they'd like.

We see there is NO resolution or boundary set in this unhealthy example. No decision about what to do about the diary in the future is made. This of course sets the stage for repeated problems, since nothing was resolved and NO healthy boundary was set.

4. Honesty/Trust -- In a healthy relationship, both partners are honest. They don't stretch the truth, or leave out important details. They aren't vague or overly quiet. They also don't feel the need to tell EVERY single detail, as they are entitled to keep some private information to themselves. However, information which impacts the partner (now or in the future) needs to be revealed to their partner -- especially if this information is important for the partner's well-being (see #1 above). Sometimes these conversations are difficult to have, but if the partner's well-being is affected, the information NEEDS to be shared. Otherwise, trust will be destroyed. Information that is hurtful (for the sake of being hurtful) is NOT shared, if it is not something the partner is affected by or needs to know. For instance "You look fat today."

The questions to ask: 1) Does my partner need to know this for their own well-being? 2) Will this information impact my partner (now or in the future)?" 3) Will not telling my partner this information break the trust, if they were to find out later on their own? 4) If I need to say this, how can I say so in the least hurtful way?

So even "you look fat today" could potentially be something that needs to be said if: 1) Being fat is impacting their health. 2) Not dealing with this will cause diabetes or heart disease in the future. 3) I want my partner to trust me to be concerned with their health. 4)I'll have a kind conversation about the importance of health, and my concern about my partner's future health. (the word "fat" will be left out of the conversation)

Healthy example:
"Honey, I'm really wanting a new sofa. I'm thinking of something brown. I looked at some web sites, and there is one I'm interested in buying. What do you think?" (open to hearing viewpoint)

Unhealthy example:
Simply buying the new sofa, with no discussion. The wife choosing to buy the couch without consulting the husband is BAD because it affects him both financially, well-being-wise, and on a trust level. They both sit on this couch, and should both have a voice in deciding whether to buy the couch. Not mentioning this to him makes him wonder if she is hiding other things. The trust is lowered.

Other examples include being vague, or leaving out details. NOT mentioning information is as bad as lying.
*Not mentioning having an STD, even if the conversation hasn't "come up." (Clearly this affects the partner's well being)
*Sidestepping conversations about an important issue and where they stand on it. For instance, not mentioning their desire to NOT have children, until after they are married.
*By the way, I just____. (bought a new car, switched jobs, invited my mother to stay on our couch for 3 weeks, withdrew a large amount of money, etc.) These are ALL things that need to be discussed, because they IMPACT the partner.

5. Keeping promises. Healthy partners KEEP their promises. In the RARE event they cannot, they 1) Apologize for not keeping the promise. 2) Immediately offer an alternative promise. 3) Make good on this promise.

Promises are contracts. Not keeping up your end breaks a contract, and this breaks trust. Healthy partners apologize if they are unable to keep this contract, and they do not "blame" the situation on outside factors, but rather take responsibility. They show that KEEPING promises is important to them, and they show empathy for the pain of their disappointed partner.

Healthy example: I'm so sorry I missed the movie. I know it was important that I meet you there on time, and I'm sorry to have broken that promise. I know you are disappointed, and I hate to see you sad. I should have told my boss that I needed to leave early, and instead I let my work take over. Now, I'd like to take you to a movie tomorrow night, and I will get there early, and I will pay for both tickets! I hope you forgive me. (Every effort is made to keep this promise). (Taking responsibility, apologizing, new contract/promise is made, empathy is shown).

Unhealthy example: I couldn't make it to the movie because I had to work. You should understand that my work is important. Just go to the movies with your friends. I can't predict what's going to happen! I'm not psychic. You should understand that things come up. Life is unpredictable. You're unrealistic to expect otherwise. Tomorrow? I can't go tomorrow because I'm going to be relaxing after work. (Not taking responsibility, no empathy shown, no apology, no new contract/promise made).

6. Meeting each other's needs. In healthy relationships, partners place their partners needs on equal footing with their own. BOTH are important, and partners do everything possible to meet each other's needs fairly. There are times they won't be able to, of course! So both partners make an effort to have their needs met by themselves, and several other sources when possible (such as having friends for social needs). The only exception to this, is of course sexual needs, which should NOT be met by people outside of the relationship -- this is of course called cheating or adultery.

Partners realize that they will be expected to meet certain needs often. They do so whenever possible. To ease the burden of their needs on their partner, they make an effort to meet their own needs when possible, or find other people to do so. However, one of the points of having a relationship is to meet each other's needs, and to enjoy doing so.

Healthy example: "I'm not really hungry right now, but I know that you are starving! So let's figure something out for you. Maybe we can stop and grab you some lunch on the way to the play?" (effort to meet partner's need to eat).

Unhealthy example: "I'm not hungry at all. You should have made yourself a sandwich. It's too late now. I want to get to the play on time." (No effort to meet partner's need to eat).

One key of abusive/unhealthy relationships is the abusers naturally DENY the victim's right to have needs. They want to pretend that only their OWN needs matter, and that everyone else SHOULDN'T HAVE needs. They will call people with normal needs "needy" or "clingy" as way to justify NOT meeting their partner's needs.

I've had clients date someone only 1 time per week (with no calls or contact in-between) who are called "clingy" or "needy" when they ask to speak more often. This is a classic example.

7. Having empathy for each other. In a healthy relationship, partners are able to "feel" what they other is feeling (bad or good -- they can step into this person's shoes). Whether or not they agree with their partner's viewpoint, they can wrap their minds and hearts around how their partner sees something.

Abusers don't have empathy, or they chose to IGNORE their natural empathy when in a rage state. Either way, they don't step into other people's shoes.

Healthy example: "Even though we don't have the same religion, I can understand that you were really moved by walking by this church today. I could see your whole face light up, and I know it touched you deeply."

Example 2. "I know you're so upset about your dad dying. I can tell you're hurting so deeply, and I want you to know I understand that you're feeling guilty and in pain."

Unhealthy example:
"I don't see how you feel at all. I just don't understand it." (and this partner doesn't care to try, either).

Example 2. "Whatever, just get over it." (no empathy).

8. Commitment to putting effort into the relationship.
People in healthy relationships know that relationships are like plants that need to be watered. You get what you give, and you are "making deposits" into a relationship bank account, that you can later draw on. This builds your relationship foundation for tougher times in the future.

Unhealthy people expect to put little to no effort into a relationship, and still withdraw from the "relationship bank account." This model simply doesn't work.

Healthy example: Effort is spent every single day on the relationship, even during busy times, any few spare minutes are spent to strengthen the relationship: sending a loving text, leaving behind a kind note, doing a thoughtful task around the house, making a quick call, or unwinding together at the end of the day. These efforts are enjoyable and are not seen as "work" but as a good thing -- they don't expect to be overly thanked, as it's expected to do these things. When temporary situations pull the partners away, they have a solid foundation to draw from, and easily weather "storms." Healthy people are not stingy about giving, and they are not greedy about getting -- there is a balance, and there is a feeling of there always being "enough" love to go around.

Unhealthy example: Other areas of life take priority. Work, hobbies, friends, or other areas make the top of the list, and tasks in these areas are always accomplished first and completely, before the relationship is considered. It's clear that the relationship is not #1, and perhaps not even #5! Many days pass with little-to-no effort put forth into the relationship. Efforts are seen as "work" and this person expects to be thanked for days for doing any task related to the relationship. "Hey I called you last Wednesday! You better appreciate that!" People like this may have intimacy issues (trouble getting close to others), and they often become workaholics or addicted to other things, as a way to avoid getting closet to people. Yet, despite not "depositing" into the relationship, they expect to "withdraw funds" whenever they'd like -- they might not have even called in weeks, but expect their partner to drop everything to help them. Affection is dolled out in small doses, with the unhealthy person's partner begging to act like Oliver, "Please sir, can I have some more??" "NO! You may not have more."

9. Healthy partners want to spend time together.
If people in a relationship don't want to spend much time together, or find excuses to not be together often, the relationship isn't healthy.

Healthy example, "I know I"m busy at work, so I'm hoping we can go to dinner tomorrow to just hang out for a while."

Unhealthy example, "I'm busy at work, and I can only unwind by hanging out with my friends. So I'll be with them for the next few days."

10. Healthy relationships show interest

In a healthy relationship, partners how interest in each other's lives, and each other. They want to know how your day went, and are interested in hearing about hobbies, friends and activities. They may want to come cheer on their partner at a sporting event, or just to see how they're new craft hobby is coming along. Unhealthy partners how little-to-no interest in each other's lives.

They also show interest in each other romantically. Both partners feel desired and wanted most of the time. In unhealthy relationships this is not the case, and there are many feelings of rejection.

10. Healthy partners are loyal

In healthy relationships, both partners are loyal to each other -- romantically, sexually and in terms of intimacy. This means they do not cheat on each other. They don't share romantic moments with other people (even if these moments are not specifically "sexual"), and they avoid intense emotional intimacy, except with their partner.

Healthy example: At the end of a long day, a couple talk about their days on the couch while recounting some of the more personal or private details from the day -- an embarrassing moment from the past might come up, etc. There are no strange phone calls or texts coming into their phones, and they have nothing to hide.

Unhealthy example:
Though they may speak to each other, the couple don't speak in an intimate way. They only discuss the "facts" of what went on during the day. It's essentially the conversation of strangers. There is little-to-no-intimacy. Both may have other people who they "really talk to" and they have something to hide. Perhaps one or both of them meet with a "friend" or other member of the opposite sex occasionally to have dinner, and they discuss private and intimate things together (that should be shared only within their relationship) -- intimate "friendships" can lead to affairs quite easily, and they may continue this into a physical romantic affair, which they keep secret from their partner.


If you've been lucky enough to have been raised in an emotionally HEALTHY household, good for you! Make sure to fine-tune though, since it's rare to have ALL 10 of the above areas met.

If you've been unlucky and grew up surrounded by UNHEALTHY individuals, you have some work to do. Work on realizing what's wrong with the way you were raised, and don't ASSUME that what you KNOW is what is RIGHT. Work hard to change your ways, and you CAN develop satisfying and HEALTHY relationships. Change is tough, but it's POSSIBLE with lots of work and by building new HABITS.


Lack of health in relationships is SO destructive, it can be compared to any serious disorder, let's say alcoholism.

A friend recently pointed out to me that the 12 steps can be used for just about ANYTHING, not just drinking problems, but any sort of problems.

So let's apply that to relationship problems, as a solution. (Remember that you don't need to believe in God in order to follow this -- replace the word "God" with "ask a wise part of yourself." The process really makes sense for creating change,and I encourage you to give it a try.


1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become

2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to

3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we
understood Him.

4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.

5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature
of our wrongs.

6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.

7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.

8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make
amends to them all.

9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do
so would injure them or others.

10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly
admitted it.

11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with
God, as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us
and the power to carry that out.

12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these Steps, we tried to
carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our


Healthy versus unhealthy relationships, explained:


Why rage is unhealthy anger: http://www.recovery-man.com/abusive/rage_vs_anger.htm

images from free digital photos.net

1 comment:

Samuel Christian said...

What an interesting post to read, thanks for bringing it up.

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