How to differentiate between healthy and unhealthy relationships?

Understanding the difference between healthy and unhealthy relationships increases the chance of being in the one of your preference, and if you are a clinician, it will enhance your ability to educate, assess and formulate treatment plans.

In healthy relationships, you’ll looking for:

An atmosphere of safety that enables both people to relate and respond to each other spontaneously, freely and fully – regardless the ‘difficulty’ or the ‘negativity’ of feelings and situations), and includes how they feel towards each other and in the relationship.

Unconditional acceptance, an embracement of the “mixed-bag” principle that makes it safe to be different and have differences, and discover new things about each other without judgment. Differences are a given, welcome and appreciated. ‘Apple/Orange’ (Hendrix) Understanding – to what extent is each one getting where the other is coming from each other; as opposed to talking at rather than talking to, or not talking at all.

Ability to have conflict, resolve conflict.

Ability to make agreements, work as a team, implement plans and fulfill assigned roles.

Each person acting as separate, autonomous Selves. They can go their separate ways and come back together, where they meet and “co-create,” only to then part ways and return all over again.

Each person to be (relatively) self-aware and able to represent his or her experiences, i.e. thoughts, feelings, desires, and making “I” statements.

A level of trust - that they are looking out for each other, and can count on being responsible, that is, “Do as they say, say as they do.”

‘Unconditional interest’ in each other, to get to know and understand each other more deeply and better (not necessarily all the time, but more time than not.)

Respect and regard weaved into the fabric of their relationship, which doesn’t have to be conscious or explicitly expressed, but is felt and taken for granted.

Healthy relationships grow and deepen over time. Relationships are as healthy as the two people in them. Both people enter into the relationship as healthy, “fertile” Selves – Self-aware, in touch, grounded and centered, each one has their own ‘home’ they leave from and return to.

In contrast, in unhealthy relationships, you’ll be seeing:

A lack of safety and acceptance that impedes the free flow back and forth. Neither person will be inclined to be open, honest and vulnerable, as unconscious defensiveness keeps them from ever getting close enough to connect.

Heightened levels of emotional distress, discord, distance, tension – unexpressed communication.

Conflicts becoming long polarized battles in which both people lose, and lose each other. Differences pose a threat to the relationship and are often not accepted or tolerated, as there is a reliance on the false security of sameness and conformity, which makes it impossible to see and appreciate each other as separate, different, autonomous Selves.

Difficult feelings being too overwhelming to deal with, therefore avoided, which creates an atmosphere of tension and distance. Both people are on automatic, going around and around like a broken record - disconnected, while they are unable to stop themselves, or change directions.

Unhealthy relationships generally do not consist of two separate, autonomous Selves, as neither person is Self-aware – there is no one ‘home.’ Each person depends on the other to provide what’s missing.

No two people can ever truly connect if they cannot consciously differentiate one from the other. They will not be able to build a bridge of understanding that connects them and keeps them separate.

There are two predominant types of unhealthy relationships. They tend to be either “over-involved” or “under-involved.”

“Over-involved” is too much attention on the other and too little on one’s Self. These relationships can be described as merged, entangled, enmeshed, boundary-less, “Other-centered,” externally based or codependent.

“Under-involved” is too much attention on oneself and too little on the other. These relationships can be classified as narcissistic, or being self-absorbed, when “it’s always all about the other person.”

In both cases, they are going to be more disconnected than connected. Neither Self will be “fertile” enough to “conceive.”

Now, with this understanding, you might look at your relationships differently. Provide examples of relationships you’ve been in or around and assess and identify the ways they are healthy or unhealthy.

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