What’s Healthy, What Isn’t . . . . Who Knows?

It’s the Holiday Season. Time for jokes about “Family Drama.” It’s the time when we all go back home and re-visit our “normal.” Or we may just choose to remember it – from a distance.

drama bomb Over my decades of working with families, I’ve heard everything. Everything. Believe me. And no matter what behaviors and interactions the storytellers have presented to me in my work, the description of one form or another of “family drama” is defined by the person telling their story as what is normal in their family.

More often than not, “normal” really means “I’m used to it.” If people in your family argued in front of everyone, this became your normal. If people interfamily dramaacted in cold-silence during a conflict, this is what you are used to. If someone hit you, you might think it’s normal. Ask yourself. Check in . . . . Are you used to being mistreated?

Many victims believe that being mistreated by people who claim to love them is “normal.” I’ve even heard that “every relationship” has something you have to settle for or put up with. And for too many women, settling includes accepting mistreatment. I believe that there is a very unhealthy pattern among women who endure abuse from their intimate partners that being hurt is part of “taking the good with the bad.”

I disagree. Don’t settle for being hurt. That’s not normal.

Getting along and accepting differences in your partner is supposed to be about things like allowing yourawkward dancer partner to squeeze the toothpaste from the middle instead of from the bottom-up. It’s about allowing your partner to enjoy things you typically don’t enjoy and going along because of your mutual respect for each other and how much you like seeing your partner have fun. My husband and I went to a gala fundraising event over the weekend. There was dancing. He didn’t want to dance. But when my girlfriend grabbed her husband by the hand to go to the dance floor, I asked again and grabbed him by the hand. He danced with me even though he felt a little self-conscious because he enjoyed watching me having so much  fun! He did this by choice, not by coercion.

My example brings up another point, in healthy relationships, the compromise is a two-way street: both partners give in this way. I, for example, attend more sports esports fan couplevents

than I would if I wasn’t with my husband. I enjoy the events with him although I wouldn’t even consider going if this wasn’t one of his interests.

For victims and survivors of domestic violence, compromise is usually only given by one person in relationship. This may be what you are used to, but it isn’t healthy or good for you.

When I have this discussion with survivors, I always get blank stares back in my direction. The idea of only allowing people in your life who see you for your strengths and positive qualities and who treat you with respect on a consistent basis seems “like a fairy tale,” as one survivor put it. But it’s not a fairy tale.

The critical issue is that you must understand the difference between what is healthy and what isn’t. Many victims haven’t been taught the distinction between healthy and abusive. I recently had a conversation with a former victim who described her former husband as being cold, withdrawn and verbally belittling toward her. Then she said: “But I still don’t see myself as [having been] a victim.” Why? She was used to it!

It’s one thing to know what is abusive and recognize what healthy looks like. The next bit of work is in getting used to healthy. Getting used to accepting nothing less than healthy in a potential partner. This means you have to make healthy choices and stick with them based on your understanding that this is better for you in the long run.

So what is healthy?

Let me list a just a few contrasting definitions of “love.”

Frog Kiss

Stop kissing frogs!

Healthy love is something that develops slowly, only once you feel secure. Healthy love never pushes you or manipulates you into relationship in a way that causes you discomfort. Healthy love is the opposite of that thing that happens inside of you when someone you just met starts saying things like “I love you” or “we are soul mates” or “you are perfect for me” and inside your head or somewhere in your body you get a signal that tells you “something is wrong here.” You know it’s too soon, but the words you’re hearing feel so good. This is your choice point; are you going to listen to your better judgment or are you going to jump into the pool? Making the choice for healthy love requires that you hold yourself back and honor your inner voice over the sparkly promise of fairy tale love. Fairy tale love exists, but the process of finding someone who can create that with you is a careful, slow process – involving lots of choosing to stay by yourself rather than hoping a frog will transform into a prince. Frogs don’t turn into princes.

Healthy love comes from being able to take care of yourself so well that you don’t feel like you need someone else in your life. Choosing relationship because you don’t want to be alone doesn’t often lead to healthy, but compulsive or addictive love. Figure out how to fill yourself up, then you will have plenty to give and love will look very different to you. You won’t be looking for someone else to complete you. Instead, you will recognize you have a lot to offer and won’t settle for less than you deserve.

There is a pattern here: the ability to build a relationship based on healthy love begins with a healthy relationship with yourself.

To listen to the first part of a four-part series on healthy love, click here.

© Tamara Bess, LMFT 2014 All Rights Reserved. Any use of this article without Tamara’s express written permission is prohibited.

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