By: Logan Cohen, LMFT-S
Every Person, Relationship, and System of Relationships, no matter how AMAZING and fulfilling, tends to have a bit of room for improvement. Whether clients are seeking help with a small handful of concerns or a wide array of life stressors, I frequently get to observe clients discover that all too often there are only one or two fundamental themes or issues creating ALL of the heartache and stress in the client’s day-today lives. These few "blind spots" stand to REALLY wreak some havoc if they are allowed to go unchecked! Since we tend to be such creatures of habit, it is possible for us to also be proactive in order to make sure that we embody certain characteristics/traits so that these issues cannot impact our lives and/or relationships so globally. Given these findings over the years, I decided it was time to write an article about these phenomena, so here you have it…The 7 Characteristics of a Healthy Relationship (to Self & Others).
1. Can Have Conflict Openly
The ability to deal with conflict openly and directly is perhaps the most important facet of a healthy relationship to Self and Others. We MUST feel free to express discontent openly with ourselves and other people because if this is not occurring, we block the growth of not only ourselves, but also our Loved Ones. How would you know this is happening in your own life? Well…it looks like us and our relationships being totally STUCK!
It is very common in my practice that I will be working with a high-power executive who appears to “have it all together” on the outside, however internally is overwhelmed by Anxiety, Depression, or some other type of Emotional Pain. Inevitably at some point in The Work, we stumble upon a significant insight for the client about one or more aspects of their life/character and upon further exploration, discover that these pathological aspects of their life are globally present throughout virtually all others aspects of their life; from romance, to business, to Family, and even peer relationships. When this has occurred, it is subjectively experienced as quite the sticky situation and unless the client is willing to push past this inflection point and if not, then they are oftentimes unable to grow to their fullest potential. The only way we can be dig deep enough to be real with ourselves and loved ones, and position ourselves for the fullest growth potential is by being open to engaging in enough open/direct conflict with Self/Others to realize that change might be more satisfying and may even be necessary for long-term sustainability, even if it requires overcoming some acute barriers.
2. Have Adequate Boundaries.
Notice the word choice of “adequate” here in terms of the Boundaries. The boundaries don’t have to be perfect, but they have to be good enough to serve the purpose of providing enough clarity to define each part of the Self/Relationship System in terms of their multiple roles and established rules of engagement. This is true for our “Parts” internally, insofar as how we balance the demands of Work/Family/Life to make sure there is enough room for what we have decided to prioritize in our own Lives. This is also true for Relationships, Families, and even Businesses. What is the role of each entity in the transactions? What should you expect in trade of your time and/or resources with your Relationships, Marriage, Family, or Business? If there are not clear rules of engagement or if the Members of a Relational Group cannot be expect to be treated fairly and equitably, then the relationship to Self and/or Others cannot be sustainable.
An example of this on a personal level would be somebody who knows physical fitness is an important part of their lives, however at the same time fails to prioritize their physical fitness when life presents other competing demands. Maybe they have always been very physically engaged in their environment or perhaps they just discovered this in high school sports, but once they launch from their homes as an adolescent and become an adult, it is common for young professionals to “forget” some of this self-knowledge as they try their hand at climbing the corporate ladder. If this individual does not have a very clear process to manage competing wants/needs with the rest of their Lives, they are prone to de-prioritizing their physical fitness once professional demands increase, then their level of physical fitness will fall until this person realizes that their process of life prioritization is no longer sustainable. This might occur after they get out of shape, their partner comments about their appearance, or maybe even goes so long that their Doctor asks them about their weight and suggests medication for blood pressure/sugar. This person’s boundaries with Self need to be adjusted so that they can more actively prioritize the fluctuating demands of their own lives to best suit their needs at any moment.
An example of this taking place in a Family or System of Relationships is around how each member goes about (to piggyback on item #1 above) expressing their opinions when there is a decision yet to be made. How does each member speak to their opinions? How forceful can they be? How must they be presented? What right do they have to present those opinions relative to other Members of the Relational System? If these boundaries (rules and roles for each Member) are not clearly expressed, then the Members within this Relational System cannot advocate for their optimal health as wants/needs evolve and grow.
3. Stay Focused
In order to find and maintain health, we as Individuals and the Relationships we participate in must be focused on tasks in order to complete them adequately. This might sound like common sense, but we have all met the guy or gal at the office who doesn’t stay focused on their assigned tasks, then is Defensive about their low performance when they are held accountable. In short, these individuals tend not to have a long “shelf life” in one particular (Healthy) workplace once their low of level of functioning is discovered. You might not be surprised to find that this co-worker even complains about other tasks outside of the workplace that pile up, then if you engage in that conversation any further with them, you will probably find that they CHANGE THE TOPIC. Can I ask you…how can we address something adequately if we are not willing to focus our immediate energy enough over a consistent enough period of time to do so? Exactly…NOT getting done!
This issue of “staying focused” gets even messier when taken into a Relational System. Have you been to a company/board meeting where all of the participants are focused on different initiatives? Unless there are very specific rules of engagement, there is not much getting done (read more about how relational groups avoid addressing concerns directly HERE). At the same time, the person mentioned in the last paragraph are fine in these types of meetings, because there is already such a smoke-screen of distractions that the likelihood of their under-functioning being discovered is dramatically lowered. Sometimes, people even use the method of distracting with irrelevant or emotionally laden topics in order to take the focus off of themselves. This is often a very effective tactic until the rest of the Relationship System realizes that this other Member, whether consciously or unconsciously, is keeping them stuck in their pathology with distracting from the most salient topic at hand. In order for the Relationship System and Members within it to grow to their fullest potential, they MUST be able to stay focused on the task at hand if ALL Members of this Relational System are to meet their needs.
4. All Members Are Accountable For Their Behavior
Notice I didn’t say “some”, “most”, or even less powerful Members, but ALL Members hold themselves accountable to expected behavior. This can be a very tricky thing and in a society that tends to be stratified into so many divisions of power like our current American Culture, this is MUCH easier said than done. In fact, it is very common these days that whoever has the most power or leverage in any given scenario is actually the entity that “wins” because no other entity can buffer their influence. This is a “sure fire” way to end up with transactions that only protect the power of an elite few while limiting Members who actually have a higher acute need to access resources. This plays out in Families when one caretaker has significantly more influence than the other, or if the whole Caretaker Team does not reflect back to the children adequately to make sure their thoughts/feelings are taken into consideration to create optimal expectations as everybody grows up and day-to-day needs evolve. The only way each Member can get their needs met optimally is if each Member, regardless of how high up they are on the “totem pole”, is willing to also be accountable to the expectations that govern the entire Relational System.
Lack of accountability also plays out internally inside of us as individuals. It is very common that a given Culture will put more emphasis on a particular skill-set versus another one. For instance, being in a largely “Capitalist System” (has both good and bad parts, so no fear of McCarthyism lol), our Culture tends to project more worth onto enterprises that generate financial wealth versus say, meeting our needs of “love and belonging”. As a result, we see many American Professionals in our practice who have fallen into the trappings of prioritizing their own accumulation of wealth over personal Relationship satisfaction. Over time this oftentimes results in a high horsepower professional career over a relatively short period of time, while one’s personal Relationships are de-prioritized, oftentimes resulting in their withering up. It is even somewhat common for these individuals to see this happening to some degree, then decide to carry on with the over-prioritization of professional tasks and becoming “workaholics”, or attempting to satisfy all/most of life’s needs through professional acumen rather than authentically engaging in satisfying personal Relationships. For a species as social as us Humans, this will result in the development of Anxiety and/or Depression if it was not already occurring, then even the development of more obvious physiological concerns. In fact, I’ve worked with many powerful executives who sought out their own therapy after dealing with massive strokes, heart attacks, or even debilitating autoimmune illnesses, then in the process of working together we realize that their body gave them signs they were working too hard professionally in place of seeking out other life experiences 5, 10, sometimes 20 years before they began to develop more obvious physical symptoms that only became more problematic/harmful as they continued to neglect being accountable to their own needs.
5. Members Can Provide Constructive Feedback Openly/Honestly
This can be mistaken with item #4 above about personal accountability, however #5 here is completely different. The last item was about accountability aimed inward, while this item is more about accountability aimed “outward”, or otherwise directed towards others. While personal accountability is quite important (as discussed above), the ability to hold Other Members accountable directly and clearly is just as essential.
For the individual, a lack of openness to constructive feedback often shows up as a person’s tendency to literally convince themselves of things that are not true, at least until the immediate stressor is over. An example of this is in a person who has a substance dependence issue. A cornerstone feature of substance dependence is this occurrence of “denial”, wherein the individual placates themselves so much internally that they have actually convinced themselves there is in fact no problem that requires ceasing substance abuse. In this case, the Addiction has indeed become so powerful that this part of self actually placates the other parts of Self until those parts actually become convinced that there is not a problem. Once this occurs, the Addiction can continue with it’s destruction unchecked until the individual harboring the denial can cease their placation of self.
A Relationship System or a Marriage takes place a bit more obviously since it tends to involve outward interactions between Members. In these instances, some Members are convinced to placate (with-hold constructive feedback) from other Members with the understanding that this will limit stress for them personally or somehow make their lives easier down the line. While this is usually done with kind sounding intentions (such as avoiding hurting someone’s feelings), this will tear a Relationship System apart of the long-run. In the end, all this does is limit the ability of this System to self-regulate by utilizing adequate “checks and balances” within the System of Relationships. That very information involving the constructive feedback being with-held could actually be utilized to improve the functioning of the entire System as a whole, but instead the placating blocks the Relational System from fulfilling its potential, as well as that of the Members who function within it.
6. Safety Expressing Emotional Vulnerability
How could we POSSIBLY have a chance of successfully maintaining a healthy relationship with ourselves or Others without the safe ability to engage in vulnerable emotional experiences? That is a very good question and one of the main reasons emotional vulnerability made the cut.
Have you heard a successful Person, Couple, Family, or Business tell a story about how a REALLY difficult period of time, even a crisis, pushed them to the edge of their Sanity and back, then how much they learned about themselves and their Relationship through those trials and tribulations? Oftentimes, these Folks will even credit those difficult/painful experiences providing the needed push for their optimal growth and making their current success possible. The weathering of a good storm (surviving through a crisis) is a powerful experience for many different reasons, but perhaps the most important one is that they test us at our limits, show us where our “breaking points” are, then give us something to do when we are tasked with putting it all back together again. In this “breaking apart”, we get to see our own Being, Colleagues, Lovers, and/or Family Members past the point of self-regulation where they are able to “keep it together” and hide their experience of emotional vulnerability.
In these scenarios, it is much more common to see Others visibly upset, even crying or having other types of emotional outbursts. It is these experiences together; how the Relationship System attunes to it’s members, that really lets each Member in the Relational System know where they stand and how safe they are to be what they know themselves to authentically be. If all members can be safe in expressing emotional vulnerability, the Members as well as the Relationship System can grow to is fullest potential.
7. Room to Grow
We saved the best for last here…lol just kidding, but it is VERY important. The final of the 7 Characteristics of a Healthy Relationship is…drum roll…that each individual has ROOM TO GROW. This means that each individual has as much independence/creativity as they can manage, and also has clearly defined and supported ways to further develop/grow their independence and productivity.
I can use myself here as an individual example for this one because after all, I have to make sure that YOU the reader can allow me to safely express my emotional vulnerability if we are to continue on in this piece of literature together 😉 In early 2016, I realized it was time for me to get more serious about New Leaf Counseling Group if I was going to be able to develop professionally past community mental health. I had been working in community mental health since 2006 and started New Leaf in 2014 and while it was doing OK, I would have to work harder to generate enough referrals to keep myself busy enough to "make a go at it" in private practice, especially if I was to leave my full-time employment in community mental health and continue with meeting the demands of being the primary provider for my Family. This meant that I had to see less clients week to week and therefore make less income for my Family in the short-term, then deliberately carve out time to work on the time consuming administrative efforts that go along with starting/growing a small healthcare practice. As a result, I chose to temporarily spend less time seeing clients during the week and make a bit less revenue in order to create more time for the completion of those administrative efforts and growing the rest of the practice. Over time the administrative efforts paid off, then I was able to start seeing more clients again and now, there are several other therapists with the practice who make room for themselves to grow professionally and personally by doing the same thing.
Our Relationships require us to have enough room to grow. We do not stay the same as Individuals throughout our lives, so why would we expect our Lovers, Colleagues, or Children to do the same? When each Member in a given Relationship System has enough room to grow and develop, the entire System can grow and this serves to inherently benefit each Member within the System.
Are you struggling to develop and/or maintain a Healthy Relationship with Yourself, Your Loved Ones, or your Workplace? BOOK US NOW for support in doing so, or read more about how else we can support you HERE.