- Due to their history of normalizing unhealthy behaviors, trauma survivors may struggle to identify healthy behaviors in relationships.
- To those who grew up in families with a lot of conflict or dysfunction, a first experience in a healthy relationship can feel foreign.
- Because chaos feels normal to them, healthy relationships can feel boring to many family-of-origin trauma survivors.
Many who experienced family-of-origin dysfunction or trauma grew up with poor examples of relationships, leaving them with a limited reference of what is healthy. Many enter their own relationships only to repeat patterns they swore they would avoid—but familiarity takes over in the absence of healthier coping skills.
In my work with survivors working to overcome family and relationship trauma, we move toward developing new expectations for romantic relationships, which often includes relearning how to engage with others in ways that reinforce healthy behaviors.
Here are eight elements of healthy relationships that we focus on working toward:
1. Mutual respect for each other's boundaries. This goes beyond the basics, such as not reading each other's emails or diaries, and moves into deeper territory. Our boundaries make up the metaphorical lines we draw around ourselves and others in ways that keep us most comfortable. These can be things such as limits on what physical contact we will allow, who we want in our personal space, and what topics we are comfortable discussing. Healthy partners understand that trying to force each other to bend or change boundaries will make them uncomfortable and could lead to resentment or arguments.
2. Open communication. To those who grew up in families with a lot of conflict, or even avoidance of conflict, communication can feel scary and uncomfortable. This does not mean that healthy, open communication is unattainable—it just might feel foreign in the beginning and might take some practice. Communication is essential to expressing needs and wants, and to discussing boundaries—all of which are healthy elements of a relationship. When a couple tells me, "We don't have boundaries," or a family tells me, "We already know each others' wants and needs; we do not need to talk about it,"—I know there is work to do.
3. It can feel boring at times, especially to those of us who grew up in chaotic or dysfunctional families. To someone with anxious attachment, boring can signal distress in the brain. When we grow up in environments in which there is a lot of fighting, tension, and strained relationships, we learn that this is how we can expect people to engage with each other. It can become normal to get used to the high that comes from the honeymoon period after an argument, and then it becomes a cycle. In healthy relationships people get their needs met without the cycle of conflict, which can feel boring at first. But boring is normal. It's healthy, and it's secure.
Children who grow up in chaotic and dysfunctional environments know that the boring times were few and far between, and they were usually following or preceding a chaotic or traumatic event. Much as we associate anxiety with the calm before the storm, these children become adults who are uncomfortable when things are calm. "We elicit from the world what we project into the world; but what you project is based upon what happened to you as a child." (Perry et al, 2021).
4. They know how to fight. Rather, they work together to problem-solve effectively. They confront conflict head-on, but in an assertive and respectful way. In families in which caregivers do not model healthy communication, children learn that conflict is uncomfortable, or even scary, due to the way in which it was handled. When conflict is handled as a punishment, either through aggression or passive aggression, children learn that it is something to avoid or even fear.
Healthy couples argue sometimes, and this is OK. Sometimes they argue about big things, and sometimes about small things, such as who misplaced the butter—and this is all normal. The real test is whether you can turn to each other in the aftermath and say, "I'm sorry, that was silly."
5. Both parties contribute equal effort. It takes a lot of work to relearn the behaviors that contribute to a healthy relationship, and a lot of times that means doing the work on unlearning behaviors that are toxic, dysfunctional, and counterproductive. But both people need to do the work in order to have a healthy partnership, instead of one putting in more effort. If one person is carrying the heavier burden, it starts to blur the lines of codependency or enablement, or even caregiving—all of which are common in family trauma survivors who have not done their work of healing.
6. Feeling understood. Many couples, when reflecting on what initially drew them to each other, will remark that they felt that the other person "got" them, or understood them. Much like in romantic comedies where the eccentric characters find each other, people want to feel like they have found "their person," or at least someone who understands them and loves them for who they truly are, and not who society wants them to be.
7. Trust and security. Each partner needs to feel that their partnership is a secure base. There is a lot of growth in couples who have their own interests, and are able to embrace those. Traveling solo, attending classes or events alone, and having friends whom you see one-on-one are all part of having healthy individuality. If you do not trust your partner to do occasional solo activities, ask yourself why not, and explore what comes up. It might be that you are following your gut, or it might be something deeper within yourself.
8. Intimacy through shared interests and passions. Much like the previous quality emphasizes the importance of solo interests, couples that have shared enjoyment in their relationship tend to report more purpose and longevity, (Murray et al, 2021). This is not about frequency or quality of sexual interactions, which is a common question among many couples concerned if their relationship is "normal," but more about all areas of what the couple identifies as their shared intimacy. If you share coffee together every morning, a Sunday morning yoga class, or an evening walk through the neighborhood every night, these rituals are part of your shared intimacy.
Facebook image: Mangostar/Shutterstock
Murray CE, Ross R, Cannon J. The Happy, Healthy, Safe Relationships Continuum: Conceptualizing a Spectrum of Relationship Quality to Guide Community-Based Healthy Relationship Promotion Programming. The Family Journal. 2021;29(1):50-59. Accessed 7/21/22.
Perry, B. D., & Winfrey, O. (2021). What happened to you?: Conversations on trauma, resilience, and healing.