Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Measuring Relationships

Marriage and family therapists are frequently asked the question whether or not a relationship is a healthy one.  Our clients want our opinion on whether their partner is good for them, whether they are soul-mates, and whether we can predict a long, healthy relationship.  Obviously, therapists are not in the position to make such statements.  Also, therapists are not immune to wondering if their own partner is good for them.    How can we determine whether a current relationship is healthy?  There is a viable way to assess a relationship to determine whether it is in fact healthy.  
What seems insignificant in this problem is the concept of love.  There are many people in life that one can love.  Loving others is very easy to do.  However, loving someone else seems almost inconsequential when it comes to whether the relationship is healthy.  We fall in love for numerous reasons that have nothing to do with compatibility.  People fall in love because of chemistry, because they are opposites of who we are, or even because they resemble a parent.  Probably everyone has had the experience of loving someone who was unquestionably bad for them.  
Usually when you ask how come someone is with their partner,  most will answer because they love them.  In substance abuse treatment, when counselors ask partners how come they are together, clients are first cautioned that they are not allowed to refer to love when answering the question.  This often results in partners having difficulty answering the question.  It is easy to say that you are with someone because you love them, but if you were to lay that aside, would you be able to give coherent reasons for being with your partner?  
When I was a young man, my insecurity had a huge effect on my relationships.  I was always afraid that my girlfriends would meet someone ‘better’ than I was.  I was afraid they would meet someone who was better looking, more athletic, richer, cooler, smarter or drove a better car.  The result was that I would hold on to these relationships with a death grip, to keep from losing them.  As you can imagine, no matter how much a girl likes you, if you hold on that tight, they will eventually run away, usually kicking and screaming.  
Then, when I became engaged to my wife, I remember Carl Whitaker telling me, “you shouldn’t get married, unless you can handle being all alone.”  He knew that marriages fail if you hold on to your partner too tight.  This gave me a clue as to how to recognize a healthy versus an unhealthy relationship.
In a healthy relationship, your world grows.  You are involved with your family and friends.  You are involved in activities you enjoy, sometimes with your partner, sometimes alone.    When you are in an unhealthy relationship, your world gets smaller.  Your partner discourages you from seeing your family.  They don’t like your friends.  They complain when you stay at work late.  They may check your cell phone to see who you are calling.  They may monitor your Facebook or Twitter accounts.  They are constantly giving you feedback that you need to spend your time with them exclusively.  
The next time someone questions whether their current relationship is a positive one for them, ask them if their world is growing or getting smaller.  They will know right away whether they are in a healthy relationship or not.