Cultivating Healthy Relationships
This episode is on finding, creating, and maintaining healthy relationships. You may be looking to establish a healthy relationship -- or you want to improve your current relationship. These practices can be applied to romantic relationships, family, and friends. In this episode, I use the 20+ years experience I have as a marriage and family counselor to bring you widely tested tips and practices for you to create the relationships you want.
Learn more at relationshipsolutionsprograms.com.
Hello, and welcome to my very first podcast. I'm Susan Regan. I'm a relationship expert and coach, a certified mediator certified group leader, a seasoned marriage family therapist, and I have practices in both Boston and am Licensed in Massachusetts.
I think that the main thing you need to know about me is my motto:
“I think relationships are everything.”
One of the pillars of our life is whether we have healthy relationships. So, I wanted to start off my very first podcast just talking about healthy relationships.
I'm imagining you want to have a healthy relationship, if you’re not already in one. And you probably just want to double-check the boxes that it's healthy. Of course, healthy relationships can extend to friends, family, coworkers, and a relationship with yourself. So, my podcasts are going to explore relationships and all the various aspects.
Is your relationship adaptable?
Our relationships, as we go into different chapters of our lives, change. When we're in our 20s, we're having completely different relationships than when we are in our 30s and 40s. Our needs change. So, it's really important to keep that in mind. We could be asking for many different things in relationships and those may have to do with our personality and our needs and what we want, what we like, and what are what we're aiming for – whether it be career, or whatever our life chapter is like. Those will all extend into and align with the period or chapter in our life. But I think the one thing to keep in mind is that there are going to be some markers in all relationships – and as an aside, relationships don't have to be traditional. We're finding out, more and more, that traditional relationships have been kind of a setup for relationships – not to really succeed or not to have deep fulfillment. That’s not to say that traditional relationships don’t work for some people, but they don’t work for everybody. It’s based on sexuality, what you imagine your life goals to be, whether you want kids, marriage, a long-term relationship, or more than one partner, etc. Many things change and there are many priorities in relationships, but one of the key characteristics is – is the relationship adaptable? Are you and your partner – or whoever you're interacting with – do you guys have the ability to change, grow, and adapt to situations?
How much stress can your relationship take?
One of the biggest obstacles I find when I'm working with my couples in relationships is stress. Sometimes I ask my couples this question: how much stress can your relationship take? There are some times in our life when our relationships are very fragile and they can't take so much – and we have to treat it as its own entity and we have to feed it. The entity is made up of both personalities and both people, but it is its own thing – so we really need to treat it as an island and it needs to be fed. But sometimes it can’t take so much.
Does it feel secure and safe?
So, I really want you to think about some of the areas in your life where your relationships are really strong and you don't have to do a lot of work on them. They are just naturally healthy and naturally feel good. Whereas in other relationships that you have, you're always worrying or wondering or feeling like you need to check things out. You’re always questioning, why is that happening? Is that a personality thing, a stress thing, is that you're there's some kind of different stages of life going on so that you're seeing things very differently than other people?
So, here are a few things to just start thinking about as I'm talking and doing this podcast: what do you relate to here?
Can you talk about everything?
Another critical thing is communication – open communication. Can you talk about everything? Can you talk about successors, failures, everything in between anything that's difficult, intimacy, sex, money, relationships that you have with friends and in-laws, and differences and how you negotiate individual time? A lot of couples come to me and they really want to work on communication and I have to really get in there and experience how they talk to each other and observe it because there are so many small idiosyncrasies that show up in people’s communication styles, and there’s also the feeling of not being interested, being condescending, or taking too much or talking too little – all of those things have a big impact. So, I really want you to think about your communication. How is your communication in the relationships that you’re working on or that are important to you? How do you feel you are showing up in terms of talking and communication are also listening and asking a question and being interested and bidding interest?
Communication is also about not having a huge opinion about differences and judgments. People are allowed to have a difference of opinions, right? So how do you listen to these differences? And maybe there are some times in relationships, some topics that aren’t the most welcome topics because they’re topics of conflict like politics for example, or things that have been talked about too much. So note that. What are the taboo topics in your relationship and are they might be taboo because they’re like keeping the peace topics? Others might be difficult to talk about but they’re most necessary to talk about. Differences of opinion are allowed – and that is good communication.
Do you trust your partner (and feel trusted)?
Trust is also a big thing. It’s beyond just lying and cheating. It’s about safety and integrity – and feeling like the person has as much respect or as much ability to tend to you as you have to them. So, there’s a deeper level of connection. Like you can count on that person and you can actually tell them your deepest, darkest and you won’t be judged– they don’t turn away from you. So, trust is a huge part of a relationship. And so sometimes, couples struggle because trust gets broken and trust can be broken in all different ways – sometimes, unintentionally, to protect someone, (sometimes in a financial matter) so it’s important that when trust is broken, it is rebuilt. And that you actually strategize about the rebuilding. So, I’m giving you some pros and cons - and how important trust is - and if it has been broken, how important it is to build it back into the relationship.
Can you maintain your independence?
Then, there's the whole part about, can you be your own person in this relationship? There’s a kind of a merging that happens in relationships – and that’s how you get close – but can you stay separate?
There’s this term called codependency. Of course, there's going to be some codependency in the relationship because there is a reason why you're getting together and there's a dependency – like, you're depending on this person to be with you or to be in some kind of relationship with you, or relating to you in some way. But interdependence is a word I like a lot more.
I know a couple who actually had a perfect model of interdependence, I thought. I knew them a lot behind the scenes too, so I think it really held up. They had different lives, different work, and different friends, and they often had their really solid set of friends outside the relationship – and then they had some overlap with other people, with each other, and then they had a very strong interdependent relationship with just them, pursuing interests on a regular basis. I really admired how much independence they both had and how strong their relationship was because of this interdependence. There isn't an enabling of the other person, but people can be their own person, and they understand the limitations of how much independence they can have in their relationship – and that is also really based on their personalities. This is because some people like to be closer than others – and that's sort of a natural thing, like how much alone time each person might require. So, it’s interdependence instead of codependence.
Is there a mutual curiosity?
I love the thought of curiosity and relationships – and curiosity to me means that both people are allowed to be curious in the outside world (the external world) not the internal world that they might create. That curiosity actually helps the people in the relationship to grow and change and evolve, and this curiosity also leads to conversations about what's needed for that person to be happy. A lot of people feel that you can actually get all your needs met by one person – that your relationship can be everything – the biggest part of your life. I very rarely experience people who live, work, and socialize together. There's rarely a couple who works together and also lives together in the same household – rarely. I think it's because I think most people need a little bit more separation and a little bit more of their own identity. It's hard to play different roles in each other's lives. It's easier to have some overlap time, some really conscious and intentional overlap time, and other times when you're actually having your own identity outside of the relationship. For some personalities, that’s what needs to happen, but for others, they may be able to have a little more closely and be able to share a few more roles. I notice this a lot when people have kids.
In our current society, where both people usually work, there is a lot of sharing different roles – and that can get quite complicated because you have to talk a lot. In the more traditional relationships, the less you have to really negotiate things, so it's a little bit easier. You kind of know what you're supposed to do. But, in relationships that are trying to change and grow, then there needs to be more conversation about what each party wants so that their desires can be met.
So, that’s what I'm talking about – and I really want you to think about that in your own relationship. How much overlap do you have with your partner and how much curiosity takes you out of the relationship and makes the relationship still work?
It may be that you get along well, as you have your own space – and if you don't have that much space, you may not get along as well. So, just watch that measure of distance. How much distance do you keep in a relationship that keeps the relationship healthy and communication happening?
Has laughter remained a present element?
When I see couples in a couples relationship therapy context, I ask them a question about what attracted them to each other. This is one of the questions I ask when people are wanting to work on their relationship – and usually, when people answer that question, not all the time, but usually, I hear this light-hearted, playful response about what initially attracted them to the other person. It's a really good way to start the conversation because we’re remembering when it all was new and when it all was lighthearted and fun.
Also, one of the indicators, when things get really rigid in a relationship, and there isn't that light-heartedness, joking, playing around kind of energy within a couple, and things are really taut, I hone into things like the tit-for-tat conflictual style because I know that there may be a lot of resentment that’s built up. The rigidity of that relationship is the reason to talk about what that is. Something to notice is that if you stop laughing with someone playing around with someone being able to have light-hearted conversations, then this is a real indicator that there's some work to do.
Healthy relationships though can use this as a cue – like we need to spend some time together; we're working too hard out/in the house and people aren't getting enough downtime. Use it as an indicator to go back, just like with curiosity, into the relationship. What needs to happen to help people feel like-hearted again and playful?
Do you have physical intimacy (not just sexual)?
I always think the hardest thing to talk about is sex and intimacy. It's really difficult as well to talk about money but physical intimacy is really important in a relationship – not sexual intimacy is as much – because as people have different chapters or health issues, sometimes sexual intimacy can be put on the back burner – but physical intimacy, the proximity that you keep with somebody (like being able to reach out and hold their hand), that kind of thing is really important because, as human beings, one of our basic needs is being touched. So not being touched in our intimate relationship that's going to be problematic.
And we also might not be touching each other for a reason. Maybe we don't find the other person attractive anymore, maybe they don't find themselves attractive anymore. Maybe people have stopped taking care of themselves. so this is another indicator and what is bumping into is – can you talk about the changes that you're seeing in your relationship if they're bringing you into a place where there's no physical intimacy can you talk about it and can you strategize a how you’re going to work with your partner to have these conversations and come to resolution.
A strong relationship can also feel like the party has become a team like they have each other's back and so even with physical and sexual intimacy that it can be looked at if there needs to be a change or somebody's not getting their needs met or someone's not happy this is talked about instead of it feels like pressure or rejection or anger or frustration like all of this can be open dialogue right.
Do you operate as a team?
So, there's a teamwork approach -- like, how are we going to solve this? We can solve this. We have the skill set to solve this. We want to solve this. We don't want either person to feel bad, right? So we have to be really really clear about all these things in relationships to get closer because if you think about it all these things are developmentally correct. You can learn this and you can actually get good at this communication style and ask for what you want and point out what you think is not working and strategize how to make this work. All of this is developmental and it's so exciting to be in a deep connection with somebody and to actually work on that as a common goal.
Can you resolve conflict, constructively?
Conflict resolution is another important key conflict that has to be resolved. One of the areas that I think I see as the most difficult is when people avoid conflict and instead they placate or they just stop talking, or they keep their unhappiness a secret. That can build up over years and I see that a lot when people’s relationships don’t work out. They didn’t talk about their unhappiness a long time ago, so the other person assumed that everything was fine and they were really shocked when they found out that it was. So, if you’re unhappy and there's conflict and you haven't been able to talk about the things that are really bothering you, and the conflict either becomes hidden or open, we really want to work on how to make conflict have a solution because there is actually a solution to every problem and sometimes the problem might be that we're just agreeing to disagree so I hope that makes sense to you conflict resolution is also a developmental skill you can resolve conflict.
What about Unhealthy Relationships indicators?
I think I've mentioned eight points of a healthy relationship or at least a bunch that you can kind of tease out here but one of the things that I want to start talking about in contrast to healthy relationships is an unhealthy relationship.
Are you asking/being asked to change?
One of the biggest indicators that the relationship needs some work, is whether someone is trying to change or control the other person. Where did this come from? This is not anything that's just innate to a person, it’s a learned behavior, from seeing and observing your models of relationships. So, I often ask my couples, who are your model of relationships? It could be like a TV show or there could be some elements in the people around you in their relationships or in your family's relationships or partnerships. That you’re like I like that element, that was a really healthy element. I use the example of an interdependent relationship that I know about -- and it’s really good to see to point out and remember that relationships or the couples that you’re hanging out with, that you see have really strong characteristics of a healthy relationship -- it's good to see how they deal with it - how they deal with life.
I remember going to a program a long time ago, I think it was called A Rescue, and it was kind of a Christian-based program. I was experimenting with places where I could send my couple relationships to do a retreat and this program was great because everyone there was in a long-term relationship and everyone there understood that it’s hard to be in a long-term relationship and to be in a commitment and work out life with a partner. So there was a lot of empathy in the group about the struggles around this.
One of the exercises that I learned with this program, and I passed this on to my couples for years, was dialoguing. You could get a listing of questions sent to you every day and you get to decide which question(s) to answer and how. Each person typically writes a page of notes to the questions and then sends it to the other person. You could handwrite your responses or write on your phone in notes, but you write your own answers to the questions, and sometimes, it might be information about you that your partner doesn't even know.
What's so interesting to me, is that sometimes, when we're living life with someone, we don't know a whole lot about them – about their thoughts about what they do, about maybe challenges that they had – because life is busy right and we have our partnerships for certain parts of the day. We’re not with them 24/7, usually.
So, this is a really great way to just have a whole other dialogue that doesn’t have to do with daily life. That increases intimacy a lot. The ability to have a couple tools that you use to practice having healthy relationships is elementary. What do you do as a couple together, to connect at the end of the day to wake up together, to spend time together, instead of just always being occupied or on social media and watching a TV series, or something like that? How do you actually interact? What are some of the regular rituals that bring you back to center?
My couple rituals section goes into the other thought of spending enough time together and actually bleeding into that. Are you spending enough time together or does the relationship get put on the back burner and never get any attention at any time? This happens during the child-rearing years when children take prescient. But, it’s really important to try to have those daily couple practices, so that you can actually have the relationships solidify and also have some capacity that you're building into the relationship on the constant constantly and consistently.
Do you have good relationship boundaries?
Then we have the element of boundaries of having good relationship boundaries – and what does that exactly mean? It could mean lots of things. It could mean the kind of privacy you’re allowed to have in the relationship, it could mean what’s yours, your own time, your own thoughts. Do you write in a journal? It could also be the boundaries of the space which you occupy. Are people allowed to come into your space because your partner likes to be really social or are there boundaries that are created so that you get to decide that together?
I know that in a past relationship that I was in, since I’m not a hugely spontaneous person, I didn’t like people just coming into my home uninvited or unannounced. My partner at the time was very spontaneous; the door was always open, so people were coming in and out. That was difficult for us because I needed my own space and personal and private time. Then I had times when I could be social, but I couldn't be social all the time, so it was sort of that introvert-extrovert difference. So, that’s something to think about.
Boundaries can be about what you talk about your relationship with other people. It could be how you hold the relationship sacred around friends and extended family. Boundaries can be around prioritizing the relationship – like on date night. For example, if you're on date night or you're out in the community, you don't interact with other people during that time. You, instead, hold a boundary around the relationship, so that you can have space with your partner and know that the whole neighborhood's not invited on that date.
So, boundaries can be really important. Just think about some of the ways that you feel like boundaries are upheld well in your relationship and some places where you think there might be some weakness and who's doing that and what's the boundary difference between you and your partner and you might want to be able to look at that little bit and think about how we hold boundaries if things are not matching there.
Does Your Relationship Feel “Equitable”?
There's a thing that's called inequities in a relationship, where things seem unequal. One of the main problems that I see coming up with partners is that somebody has an unequal balance in how much they accomplish. For example, in the home, with domestic tasks – and that really is a stickler. Sometimes, one of us is better at something – at a task – than another person (finances vs. gardening or cooking, cleaning, organizing, or social life – and that's going to happen, because we're not the same person, and human beings love differently. So, we sometimes marry, or we are close to or have friendships or deep relationships that are opposites – so we really have to negotiate – not only how time is spent – but if we’re starting to feel that things are always on us, we have to ask ourselves, are we putting it on ourselves because we’re good at that thing like cooking, for example. Are we assuming that role – or do we need to say aloud that it feels unfair or unequal? So, it’s something to think about and really look at when inequalities come up. Inequality could be that someone makes more money, someone has more friends, someone has more hours at work, or someone has more downtime – all of those things can feel unequal – and they have to be talked about, instead of building resentment. So, to reiterate, talk about disagreements and try not to be afraid of talking about disagreements – and if you are afraid, you should talk about that part as well.
A Few Questions to Consider
So, I wanted to summarize here and just talk about a few questions I want you to ask yourself in your relationship:
- Has my partnership encouraged me to grow?
- Do my partner and I have the same vision for our future?
- Do we want to have the same kind of relationship?
- Can I be myself?
- Can I accept them for who they are?
And the final question Is whether you,
- Are you willing to do the work?
Are you willing to put the time in to work through things as they arise?
The adaptability of life is whether you can work on yourself and whether you're committed enough to work through some of the challenges of your relationship.
Because actually, that is your own Evolution. You are at least 50% of this connection and when you work on it you actually do the deeper work on yourself and figure out how to grow your capacity and have some healthier deeper more satisfying connections
So, I hope that you'll give me some feedback about the podcasts if you have further questions or if you’d like me to take a different angle.
Thanks for listening!