by Michael Raitt -
SGN Contributing Writer
How do you know whether your relationship is healthy? What do you look to, to get a sense of that? This is a question asked of me frequently, and that is the question I pose back to people. A lot of the time, people don't really know. Here is some perspective.
It is common for people to think that their relationship is healthy if they have no problems. It is a goal that people strive for. It is my opinion that this belief makes relationships unhealthy because people are working for something that is basically unattainable and are measuring their success by that metric.
All relationships have problems and here is why: the world, and each of us, are dynamic and ever-changing. Nothing and no one is ever static or the same. It is because of this that it is impossible for problems to not exist in a relationship. For example, one day I'm in a good mood because I've had a great day and I come home and there are dishes in the kitchen sink. No big deal. Another day, my boss has been on my case, traffic is bad, the cold weather has gotten to me, I come home to the very same situation - and I get frustrated and start slamming cupboards or get in an argument. Another example is one day I might feel confident while another day, not so much. This difference in my own self-perception will affect how I interact with others - I might be grumpy or withdraw. This fluid world will affect my reactions, which in turn will influence dynamics between me and another person.
THE TRUE MEASURE
The bottom line is that a healthy relationship isn't measured by whether there are problems or not. It is measured by how well we deal with problems when they come up.
To check how healthy you think your relationship is, honestly assess the following components. If you feel you are doing them well, you are likely dealing with problems in the relationship better than many others are. If you look at them and don't think you are doing well with any or all of them, there might be problems.
The first is honesty. The vast majority of people rank honesty very high as a valued quality of any relationship. However, it is harder than you may think for some to be honest. This is because honesty creates a dilemma. What this means is if I have to be honest about something, the other might get mad at me, but if I'm not honest, they'll be mad because I've also lied (and believe me, they will find out - we've all experienced that!). Therefore, people lie about big things and little things. This erodes trust in any relationship. Frankly ask yourself how honest you are in relationships.
How well do you compromise? Compromise is mutually working together with another to reach an outcome that is acceptable to both. It is flexible because needs change for people all the time. Most Friday nights one might not have a need to go out and blow off steam, but sometimes after a long, stressful week, that need might become a high priority. How does the couple adapt to these changing needs? When you compromise in a relationship, both partners should be able to say that it feels mostly fair - that both give and take regarding the needs of each at a given time. How well do you work together to address the changing needs of one another?
Collapse is a component related to the above two. Collapsing means that one stops doing and being who they are, so the other will be happy. If you've collapsed, you are likely not as honest as you need to be. Collapse isn't the same as compromise. When I've compromised, I've willingly, knowingly given up something for the benefit of the other. When I've collapsed, I've basically stated that my needs and wants are less important than the other's, and this is usually a pattern. If you collapse too much, you will not feel that it is a generally fair and balanced relationship. On the flip side, if I chronically push the other to collapse, it means I'm assessing my needs and wants as greater than theirs. Either way, it never feels good if there is too much collapse.
Finally, the satisfaction factor. Overall, how satisfied are you? Nothing is ever perfect. However, if you can say you are generally pretty satisfied and happy, the relationship is feeling honest, no one is collapsing, and compromise is working out. If, on the other hand, you are feeling a lot of resentment in the relationship, something isn't working and you can look in those three other areas to see what might be amiss. Resentment is always poisoning in a relationship. If resentment is chronic with one or both, then there should be concern.
IMPERFECTION IS OK
Remember the difference between 'events' and 'a way of life.' If you periodically have a little resentment come up in your relationship, don't panic. If you are resentful much of the time, then start to reflect. I'd like to say in a perfect world we are all always honest but we are not in a perfect world! The same concept applies: if an occasional lie about something small happens, let it go. If it is happening a lot or all the time - or is related to a significant area of the relationship like fidelity - then I'd advise you to take a good, hard look at what is going on with each individual and in the relationship.
This isn't easy stuff. If you are uncertain and you need perspective, call a professional who can more objectively assess what might be going on.
I can't emphasize enough, however, about what your ultimate objective is. Measure your success by how well you deal with normal problems in a relationship. Never set yourself or your partner up to a standard of perfection!
Michael Raitt, M.A., L.M.H.C., is a therapist who writes a bimonthly column for SGN. If you would like to comment on this column, ask a question you'd like him to write about, or suggest another topic of interest, please contact him at email@example.com.
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