What does it even mean to have a healthy relationship?
It may be one of the most compelling questions I’ve ever had a client ask. We discuss the importance of healthy relationships, we examine the elements that are damaging to our relationships and the aspects that make our relationships feel successful. But very rarely do we start our discussion about relationships by defining a goal, by establishing a consensus about what the inherent characteristics of a healthy relationship are.
Is it any wonder that so many relationships struggle?
We put ourselves in the unenviable position of trying to address our relational health by reacting to negative experiences; relational health becomes a process of reverse engineering, figuring out what not to do. My client’s question suggests a much better approach. To that end, I would argue that three conditions are required to foster and sustain healthy relationships:
- feeling safe: Feeling safe in a relationship reflects a level of trust in another person, both in the genuineness of their feelings and the character of their actions. Feeling safe encourages openness, authenticity, and vulnerability, which in turn make it easier for others to know us more completely.
- feeling known: Feeling known is the confidence that you are recognized as a unique and compelling individual, not simply as the response to someone else’s needs, perceptions, legacy, self-interest, etc.
- feeling valued: Feeling valued addresses the need for meaning in our lives, the need to recognize that our existence matters. It is difficult to feel truly valued if one doesn’t feel known, just as it is difficult to be truly known if one doesn’t feel safe enough to be vulnerable.
Clearly the three components are inextricably linked. Damage or neglect in one area is invariably reflected in another. Likewise, relational injuries have long memories and may far outlive the relationship. Hence, unsafe experiences in one relationship may make it more difficult to trust in another.
The good news is that this principle works in reverse too. Being open not only conveys feelings of trust, it encourages trust in others and helps them feel valued. It also makes it easier to address conflict more quickly, more compassionately, and more effectively.
Jill Howgate, LAPC
jhowgate @ growcounseling.com