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Is this relationship healthy?


I went for a walk one evening and it started with a bit of an existential crisis. Umm – no. Not crisis. Existential pondering, I suppose. What is the purpose of my life? Why am I here? As I started down this path, I thought of a question I often ask my clients (this comes from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy), “if you were to die, what would you want your obituary to say?” The idea is to get people to identify what they find most important in their own life. That way, when they start making changes, we can ask the question, “does this bring you closer to or further away from ...?” (whatever they’ve identified as important– such as being a good dad, being kind, being charitable... etc.)


Thus, on my walk, I thought to myself – what will I be remembered for? What brings my life purpose? I think in some ways, my work has been purposeful. I don’t know that I’ll be remembered for it, however. Unlike many of my friends/family, I do not have children (nor do I want them), so my life is not purposeful in that way. I then started to think about relationships – both intimate and friendships, and that is what led me to my main topic today.


My mind wandered to the question, "How do we know if a relationship is healthy or not?" I’ve written about this a bit before. It's been on my mind recently because I've been taking classes on couples therapy, as I’ve just started providing therapy to couples. It’s something that I have avoided in the

past. While I generally don’t think of myself an expert on any topic (my approach to therapy is that my client is the expert in their own life. They know what works for them and what doesn't. I’m merely a partner, helping them to explore options they might not have considered.), I feel I am a novice in recognizing healthy relationships. As I’ve mentioned, I have not had the best role models in this regard. The fact that I’ve been in a relationship for almost 18 years, speaks more to the testament that relationships can work if you work at them (and while I absolutely love my boyfriend, our relationship has definitely included some work).


I’ve mentioned before that I’ve taught about “healthy relationships” in the past (ha! The naivete!). I did this directly out of college; it was part of a much larger program, aimed at preventing abuse. The foundational concept was that healthy relationships have four cornerstones: communication, respect, trust and boundaries. I still believe these to be critical to a healthy relationship. But, the simplicity of those might be a little deceiving. When we look at some of the most common problems for relationships: financial disputes, disputes about child-rearing, disputes about fidelity, it’s obvious that those four concepts are pivotal to the health of a relationship.


Over the past week, I keep thinking about trust. We often think of trusting our partner to do what is in our best interest. But, we also have to trust our partner to do their own emotional work, and we have to do ours. That is a big ask! I say that because I constantly hear people (both friends and clients) talk about how they’ve had an argument about xxx – but that it came from (plug in: problems they had when they were growing up; problems they had in a past relationship). We are often battling those demons from the past, rather than working with the person in front of us. That’s not fair; but, that is human nature. If we are doing the work we need to, we can start to recognize these challenges. I know I’ve realized, often mid-argument, that I’m getting upset based on really old stuff which has nothing to do with my boyfriend. He is triggering some old insecurities by something he is doing or saying. It frequently takes a bit of time to untangle.

What I came to is that many relationships take compromise. Many of us must compromise about things like where we live, how we live, children, careers, wall-color. Some decisions are insignificant, but some not. I remember many years ago, I came home from work to find that my walls were now covered in a color I did not love. The irony, of course, was that my boyfriend was trying to be helpful. He knew I was really busy at the time (working three jobs) and that I would be happy not to paint. But, the drab grey pulled on my soul, and actually caused resentment that he had made the decision about something that impacted my day-to-day life without consulting me. Wall color? Who knew?! (It’s now a much happier shade – literally only a few shades away from what it was, but it has made a world of difference).


Relationships take tons of compromise. How do we know what we are willing to compromise or not? Well – that takes, at least from what I can tell, some certainty about ourselves. Who are we, and what are the areas we are willing to bend on? Many moons ago, I had a supervisor who moved across the country. We had become close friends. I remember her telling me that this was the first decision in her marriage that was entirely to benefit her spouse. He worked in a rather specific field, and jobs were hard to come by. Had it been solely her decision, they would have stayed in the DC area; but, he couldn’t find a job here. I also know other people who have told me they absolutely would not move for their partner. What’s right? Who is to say? It’s whatever is right for the two people involved.


What interests me about compromise, however, is thinking about how people decide what is enough/too much. When I was in my twenties, a mother of a close friend told me, “in relationships, you have to make sure you are at least 51% happy.” That has stuck with me over the years. I’ve repeated it to several people. My therapist, for instance, disagreed. She thought healthy relationships should equate to at least 75% happiness at all times. Interesting, right? People even compromise on happiness levels!

At the end of the day, people compromise on everything. People even compromise on who is in their life (and how). I have a client whose girlfriend wants to be copied on every text she sends. Another client’s partner wanted open-access to his phone at any time she wanted. (I find both of these quite intrusive and lacking trust, but others think this is fine). I’ve seen people compromise on hanging out with friends or even family members because of their relationship. At what point does it become an unhealthy compromise?


My feeling is that each couple must decide for themselves what is healthy or unhealthy. What strikes me as problematic, however, is what I said before. To really know what to compromise, we have to be fairly secure in ourselves. What happens if we aren’t? Or, what happens if we’ve grown up in an unhealthy environment? We’re less likely to recognize some of the unhealthy aspects of our own relationships.


Another class I taught in my early twenties was on dating violence. We talked about some of the tell-tale signs that there might be violence (or, that the relationship was headed towards violence). Those included signs such as: rapid mood changes, explosive anger, breaking boundaries, controlling behavior, and isolation.


At the end of the day, how do we know? How do we recognize whether we are healthy or not? Relationships are tricky, right? Because it isn’t as if relationships where there is violence started out with violence. Otherwise, people would never stay. Often it’s a slow crawl towards one person’s independence being eroded; one person’s confidence being eroded; one person’s security being eroded. But, how do we recognize it when it’s us?

Truly, I have no real answers. Thankfully, I’m jaded enough that I’m on the constant lookout for such things. But, I’ve often had the question in my own head: how much compromise is too much? It’s sometimes hard to know. For me, personally, I think the answer lies in whether I am getting more from the relationship than I’m giving up. In my case, I am. But, it’s not always an easy question. The other thing for me is that I’m not married. To be honest, this is partially the reason why I’m not. I get to ask myself every day whether I’m still happy with where we are. He gets to do the same. That means, we won’t get complacent. I’m not making a judgment call on anyone else’s situation. I really do believe that I cannot know what is best for anyone else. I only know what is best for me (and not always!). These are simply the ways that I use to stay vigilant in maintaining the health of my relationship with my significant other.


What tools do you use to maintain the health in your relationship(s)?


"Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength, while loving someone deeply gives you courage." — Lao Tzu




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