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What is a healthy relationship?

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A healthy relationship is the result of a continuing cycle of teaching, fostering and appreciating another person. We know it is a success if someone can turn around and teach the appreciation of healthy relationships to another. In an interview with psychiatrists, Jacqueline Olds and Richard Schwartz after a dynamic TEDx Bermuda presentation on healthy relationships, Jacqueline warns that it starts when we’re young, and there is no getting around it. “Some children grow up with no experience of what a happy marriage looks like. So, they begin to create that script from movies, media, etc.”

Whether they have the skills or not, all children are eventually launched into society expected to create relationships – at work, at home, in school. Without someone to model after, habits turn into unhealthy (and unwanted) qualities. Positive or negative, “this can allow them to eventually enter into one of the most important relationships of all – marriage – already thinking that marriages fail.”

This, by no means, implies that nuclear families are the only healthy relationships. “Single parents can be amazing, and couples can be terrible.” It’s possible even in single-parent families, to demonstrate love, respect and care to those around you. Olds suggests that even if that love and care are not present in the home, “to send a child to a friend’s house, or have them read books where they can watch how healthy relationships work.”

Most healthy relationships are directly related to self-care. If you’re healthy and happy with who you are, that’s when you are able to effectively “show up” in a relationship. “Parents can get caught up in the baby, in work, in the house,” says Olds, “but they have to find time for themselves and each other. If the parents are taking care of the primary relationship, the kids notice”, and emulate. Many parents tend to be too exhausted to remember that children are paying more attention than we give them credit for.”

Without a doubt, they are watching as you work hard, but say no to being taken advantage of.  They pay attention to your you-time, and how that makes for better them-time. They don’t necessarily need an audience 24/7, they need to see what self-love looks like.

What is the key to relationship success?

Marriage expert John Gottman, who has conducted 40 years of breakthrough research with thousands of couples, tells us the key to successful relationships. He says that it does not lie in candlelit dinners. It is not found in trips to Paris or horse and carriage rides under moonlit skies. The key to relationship success is: in small moments of positive attention and communication.

Communication skills are essential, especially in the age of smartphones. Being the “strong silent type” may be all very well in films or novels of a certain era, but does little to show your partner, or child that you care for and love them.

Focus on:

  • How to greet them and initiate a conversation
  • Listening (a seriously under-rated skill)
  • How to show understanding
  • Being able to empathise with their feelings and concerns
  • Knowing how to read social cues to avoid miscommunication and potential embarrassment
  • Working with them to address and solve problems openly and candidly
  • Learning how to apologise. Everyone is fallible, makes mistakes and can be wrong

Technology in relationships

While, smartphones and other devices can be used to enhance relationships (both Skype and WhatsApp are incredible communication tools that have changed the way we do distance relations), but be aware of how dangerous the seductive distraction of a cell phone can be.

Jacqueline Olds and Richard Schwartz bring up the term “fubbing”, which refers to the act of snubbing someone with your phone. “If we are feeling lonely, neglected or left out, we look at our phones to suddenly feel included in something”. These devices, dating apps and social networks increase temptation by creating the illusion that there are more opportunities for happier relationships outside of the marriage.

With smartphones, we have other people at our fingertips, namely our co-workers, with whom we spend the majority of our lives. Temptation comes quickly with people that we become close with at our workplace, giving the potential for something Schwartz calls a “work spouse”, where we prefer to talk to our co-worker about our problems than our partner.

This can bring about jealousy, and while Schwartz explains that a little bit of jealousy should be welcomed as a healthy alarm to change needed in a relationship, on-the-edge living combined with poor communication can end it.

Sex! Do it for the family

Sex, and even intimacy, after birthing babies, a significant death, or 10, 20, 30 years of marriage can get difficult to initiate. After so long with little or no intimacy, we fall into something called the “rustiness phenomenon”, where we become shy, timid, and, even though the love is still there, a little bit cold. At this point, the fairy tale relationship is obsolete, and we actually have to work at everything in the couple.

Good, connected sex is something that shows on your face and runs through your movement, including how you engage outside of the bedroom and interact with your children. Olds understands that initiation can feel like one of the most difficult things, and suggests that to start, a couple lay completely nude together without the pretence of intercourse. “Nine times out of ten, the couple ends up having sex!”

To have good sex involves all the skills needed for healthy relationships – practising empathy, asking the right questions and listening to the answers. The bedroom is a good place to put it into practice. Married couples who have sex regularly live longer, have better heart health, enjoy a deeper connection, and can let go of annoyances easier. This, at the helm of the family, can only be a model for a healthy relationship as a child grows older. So, get the kids to bed early tonight!

Intimacy and a healthy sexual relationship between committed and caring adults are not something to be hidden (as in “Not in Front of the Children”), but shown to be a natural part of a loving, adult relationship. Its power should never be taken for granted.

Society can also play a role in this philosophy by adding it too early learning. The couple suggests that sex/health education should also include the physiological and emotional differences between the way that men and women argue. For instance, men take longer to reach a stress peak, but they also take longer to calm down (hence, the reason why men are often perceived as uncaring in a fight, until they care too much.) Most decide to walk away from a heated argument, to then come back later for a calmer and more rational solution.

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