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Relationships are integral to our mental health, and the quality of our intimate relationships has a significant impact on whether we experience psychological health (or illness). Key ingredients for a quality or ‘good’ relationship include secure attachment, validation and a higher ratio of positive to negative interactions. Even ‘good’ relationships can have difficulties though, not just toxic relationships. It’s important to know when to seek professional help for relationship difficulties.

Most of the psychological, emotional, and psychophysiological problems that we experience as humans develop due to problems in close intimate relationships. Based on this, it goes without saying that we all need to have good stable relationships in our lives, in order to optimise our mental health and to avoid the development of mental illness

Our ideas about relationships begin to form from a very young age. Parents and primary caregivers implicitly and explicitly teach children about how to manage their feelings, how to relate to other people, how to see and treat oneself, how to tolerate and regulate negative experiences, how to enjoy positive experiences and much more. 

The relationships a child is exposed to in early life, as well as the first relationships they form themselves with their parents and other close family members, sets the foundation for the child’s understanding of relationships – what they mean and their role in them. Children who witness healthy interactions between parents in the home, characterised by trust, respect and care for instance, are likely to have a positive impact on what the child believes about intimate relationships. In contrast, being exposed to tense or violent interactions between parents may suggest to the child that this is the norm for intimate relationships. 

As children grow, they start applying learned material independently in their own lives to their own relationships, and hopefully upgrade unhelpful learned material and skills to better relate to people around them and to subsequently form positive healthy relationships. Even relationships that are good – they are never perfect, and for a relationship to work it requires efforts from both people.

So what is a good or healthy relationship, and what is a bad relationship? 

 

Good relationships are defined by secure attachment and validation, and they bring more positive experience into our life than negative.

We need secure attachment and validation for the relationship to work for us, and we need more positive experiences than negative for the relationship to be sustainable. Emotional safety and secure attachment can be summarised in the following simple statement: “I am here for you no matter what”. And validation adds: “and now you can go and independently achieve what is important for you.

It is a bit counter-intuitive, but the ability to be securely dependent and independent work together. The more we have an opportunity to be dependent and vulnerable in a safe and nurturing relationship, the bigger our capacity for independence outside of that relationship is. Think about it this way – 

When we know that someone has our back no matter what and we have a safe space to hide in if need be, the freer our mind is – to think about how we can achieve what we want in life outside of that safe space.

If we do not feel we have that safety, then our mind will be preoccupied with it, and as a result we will not be capable of putting 100% effort into the relationship succeeding in reality.  Similarly, the reason most successful family or close friendship groups work is because all members of the relationship are committed to its success, they enjoy both belonging to the group and being an autonomous and independent part of it. 

In a good relationship you are free to have all of your feelings and to feel distress when you feel it. Because feelings of sadness, anger, and guilt are actually a normal and irremovable part of any good relationship they are embraced for what they are – even if it is uncomfortable, and feelings of distress are accepted as a signal that something requires your attention, even if it feels unpleasant and tempting to avoid. 

In healthy intimate relationships, each person is entitled to be themselves without fearing for their emotional safety – that is not being criticised, ridiculed, or hurt because of being open, honest, or different. Each person in the relationship is also entitled to open communication which is based around both people’s needs. One person is not the main focus of care and attention at the expense of another one, even if it seems that there are reasons for it. Both people are entitled to know the truth about what they mean for the other person and where they stand in their relationship.

Now let’s have a look at what can cause relationships problems.


First of all, any relationship will struggle if there are:

  • problems with openness and honesty;
  • if there is lack of love, respect and acceptance of the other person for who they are;
  • and/or if one or both of the people in the relationship struggles to tolerate their feelings;
  • and, as a result, can act in an emotionally, mentally, sexually or  physically hurtful way.

In the list  below, we outline other factors which are very important for quality of the relationship and emotional intimacy:

  • We both  feel accepted, safe and supported and are not being hurt for no reason, especially not in unpredictable ways. For example, we both know that neither of us will be attacked because our partner cannot tolerate or deal with their problems. The problems are dealt with constructively – any help is accepted and appreciated, instead of using a partner as an emotional discharge object.
  • We both respect our boundaries and privacy and do not feel obliged to having to always accommodate needs and wants of another person.
  • Our differences are respected in the relationship. Genuine acceptance and respect of difference is considered to be one of the main determinants of personal maturity i.e., “I might not always agree with you, but I accept your point of view. I do not feel threatened by our difference and I won’t attack you because of it. I will also not attack or criticise you if I think you are not tolerant of my actions enough.”
  • We both have control over our lives and what really matters to us and do not let alcohol, drugs and other addictions rule over our lives.
  • Neither of us has an alternative or secret life/reality on the side, because we know that it will sabotage trust in our relationship and deeply hurts the other person.
  • We are free to communicate openly and honestly in a manner that is considerate of the other’s feelings. We communicate to solve the problem, to improve how things are, and not to have a fight and to hurt the other.
  • The efforts of each person are valued, acknowledged and appreciated. We both contribute relatively equally in terms of effort and acknowledge that the other person does not owe us anything.

The quality of our relationships can have a great impact on our overall health and life. Chronic problems within close and intimate relationships for example have been found to result in anxiety , depression, sleep problems and night-mares, chronic pain, disordered eating and other self-destructive tendencies.

If you find yourself negatively affected by any relationship in your life – please, do not dismiss your suffering and seek support from people with whom you have positive relationships, and talk to your doctor and/or a psychologist.

Please let us know if you have any questions and we will do our best to answer them.

Valeria Zoteyeva, Health Psychologist
This post is an intellectual property of the Melbourne Health Psychology Centre (c) 2020

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