I facilitated a workshop about crisis intervention for young adult participants of an AmeriCorps program for ages 18-26. Some asked about communication in relationships and that question led to me asking the participants, “How many of you have witnessed a healthy relationship?” Some members raised their hands, but others had confused looks on their faces. That led me to ask, “Do you know what the components of a healthy relationship are?” Again, I saw puzzled expressions looking back in my direction and then someone said it, “There are no such things as healthy relationships!” I heard the word “wow” escape slowly from my lips.
I have been on this earth for many years. I participated in numerous discussions about love, black love, marriage, divorce and I remember there was always someone in the conversation that didn’t believe in love or healthy relationships. Hearing someone say that always made me sad. I asked the young man what made him say that? He said, “I have never seen love work in my life. Someone is always getting hurt.” There were other participants anxious to add their input. Another young man said his aunt and uncle were married for forty years and they loved each other deeply. His conclusion was that love was possible but just hard to get and keep. The conversation was rich. The questions made sense since many crises were spawned within relationships. I believe that these are the necessary components to a healthy relationship:
A Spiritual Foundation I need someone to pray with me. I have to trust that you listen to and obey God. I could not feel completely safe with a person who was in a completely different spiritual place. There will be things in your lives that will test everything. How will you get through it? For me, God has to be the author of that foundation. Even if you believe in something else, you must be equally yoked.
Open and Safe Communication Being able to communicate openly and honestly takes maturity, patience and people who are willing to be completely transparent. Being ever mindful of their partner’s feelings. Can you tell your partner everything? Is your partner a safe place to communicate? Are you safe? You must able to listen in a non-judgmental way. Listen to facts and feelings. Clarify what you hear with “I” statements. Don’t make assumptions about how your feelings or thoughts will be received.
Why is it so hard for us to communicate? Fear! According to my fiancée Dan, fear of being judged, rejected, ridiculed, disappointing someone, failing to meet expectations, not wanting to hurt someone, and having to explain themselves to name just a few. I forgot fear of being misunderstood. The biggest question is, “Are you with someone you feel safe enough to divulge anything? If not, why are you with that person? That means you are in a relationship with someone where you don’t feel completely safe. Is there a history? Did they put you or your ideas down? Have you been in conversations where you felt ridiculed or the person was condescending? The very act of communicating openly makes us vulnerable. In order to be this vulnerable, you must feel safe. You can start by establishing boundaries.
Learn to fight fair. It is okay to disagree. It is how you do it that counts. Dan and I have had debates. We have differing ideas about some things, but I respect his perspective and I don’t always have to be right. Do you? People fight dirty to win. Couples may get petty and start name-calling when they have reached the bottom of their arsenal of zingers and they feel the win slipping from their grasp. When you love someone, you don’t need to win. When you feel safe and know that your partner will not attack you, there is a luxury to dig deep and figure out how to say something without hurting your partner. No name calling.
If your emotions are rising to that extent, check yourself! Take a break or a walk. Ask yourself why are you so angry? Did you let something build up? Was there a prior offense and you just let it go but didn’t really let it go? Check yourself before you open your mouth. I always say you cannot take your words back and they hurt! There were times in my life when words were so destructive that I felt they were the equivalent of knives and swords and the person might as well have used knives and swords at least I could potentially heal. Sounds ridiculous right? Think back to the most hurtful things someone you loved said to you. What did it feel like? You both have to set a boundary that neither will cross.
Do things for each other without expectation. This works when both people in a relationship participate. If not, both parties will eventually resent the other. I love to make Dan laugh. I see things that I know he may not get for himself. I try to remember to do the little things to make him happy because I treasure what he means to me. He does the same thing for me. Many times, we do things with the expectation of reciprocity or appreciation. My mother taught me if you do something for someone, do it without expectation and then you will not be disappointed. I have tried to live this way and she was right. I am the spontaneous massage queen. It is nothing elaborate although it could be. I do it because it makes Dan happy. Be selfless.
Protect each other’s heart If you are getting ready to do something and your partner may get angry, misunderstand, be hurt or feel betrayed, then that is your indicator that it is not something you should do. You would want that same consideration when it comes to your feelings. If you are still not sure, think about the outcome. How would you feel if your partner did it and you found out?
Friendship I’ve seen men and women treat their best friends better than their husbands, wives and significant others. Forgive their friends for major transgressions but want to leave their partner for a minor offense or slight. If your lover is not your friend, why? That foundation is what secures a strong, loving relationship. Friends tell each other everything, laugh, considers each other’s feelings and bears more than a relationship based on love alone. It is there when you are going through a crisis and may not be able to get in touch with Eros love. It will keep you grounded when your body or mind betrays you. All of the sudden an irrational thought crosses your mind about why he didn’t call you, then friendship steps in and tells you to stop tripping because he never did anything to make you question your trust in him.
Why do we settle for relationships that only have a few components and not all of them? Fear of being alone. We have to fight that inclination! Get to know yourself and enjoy your own company. I really didn’t get to know myself until I got out of a toxic relationship. How much time and energy have you put into making yourself that person of excellence for someone of equal standards?
The answer to the question of, “Do healthy relationships exist?” “Are they possible?” The answer is yes! I love love! I have failed at love, been hurt, and hurt someone that I loved. I am not perfect but strive to be better every day. Dan and I have been swimming in love-inspired endorphins without interruption, every day for the past thirteen years with no sign of an end. I want everyone to have that kind of relationship.