We know the importance of healthy relationships intuitively. When we feel connected in our communities and with our friends, we feel happier, experience less depression and anxiety and find greater joy in living, even when we are on our own. We have lower blood pressure, are less likely to develop stress related illnesses and recover better from grief and trauma.
One study, for example, found that lack of close relationships in later life increased the risk of premature death by 50%, a rate comparable with smoking.
Our closest relationships have the biggest effect on our happiness. So how do we know that we are falling in love with someone that is good for us? Or whether our friendships are nourishing and strong?
Here are some signs that you are in a healthy relationship:
You like yourself
Someone very wise once asked me; “But do you like you when you’re with them?” It is easy to focus on what we like about the other person, but how do they make us feel about ourselves?
You feel good (mostly) after you connect with them
Watch how you feel after seeing them; do you feel happy, energised, sad, peaceful, ashamed, depleted?
You have your own space
There is room for you to pursue your own life, interests and relationships outside of the the main relationship. And even more than that, it is actively encouraged; both of you understand that your lives ‘outside’ draw nourishment into the relationship and keep it, and you, healthy.
You both prioritise the relationship
Togetherness is important to you both. You like spending time together and take care of each other’s feelings.
You can say ‘No’
Your partner respects your boundaries. You can say ‘No’ without being coerced, threatened, shamed or manipulated.
You can talk about the difficult stuff
It is ordinary to need to have conversations that are tricky; in a relationship, you are navigating two people’s different experiences, wants and needs. Life can be complicated, with children and parents and finances and work, and all the other various complexities that we experience as we go along. You need to be able to have the difficult conversations in a way that is constructive.
There is room for both of you in the relationship
You both, reasonably speaking, should ‘count’. Although of course there will be times of stress where one partner needs more, there should ordinarily be room for each of you to draw on the supportive presence of the other.
You can argue
This follows on from the last two points; you should be able to argue, or at least disagree, knowing that this will not break your relationship. And you do this (mostly) in a way that is not destructive. And if you do err, there is space for you both to apologise and move on.
You feel/are safe
This is a big one. There is no room for physical, psychological or sexual abuse in a loving relationship. If you are, or you fear you might be experiencing any of these, seek more information and specialist support if necessary. A good relationship is one where you feel safe. Where you feel kindness, rather than contempt, both for and from your partner.
(This is said with the caveat that sometimes, when we have experienced abuse in a previous relationship, we can experience current relationships as more threatening then they are. We become wired for protection rather than connection. It might be appropriate to seek specialist support if you feel that this is the case so you can unpick what is past and what is present.)
The above is not to suggest that we should be perfectly happy and perfectly balanced at all times in our relationships. Life can be hard and wearing, and inevitably, these times have an impact on our closest relationships.
But despite that we should know that when the chips are down, those closest to us have our backs.
An almost universal response to being abused is to turn the blame and sense of responsibility inwards. Sometimes, we internalise the abuser’s words, the names that we are called, the negative qualities that are attributed to us. Or we may feel responsible as a way of giving ourselves back some power in a situation where we had little, or none.
This happens in two ways; we develop ways of relating with the world and ourselves that cause us problems in our lives, and/or we can develop pockets of trauma or shame. I’ll look at both of these separately, and also look at how you can help your own healing from self-blame if you have been in, or still are in, an abusive relationship.
The abuser blames the other; “it’s your fault, you made me do this”. We may hear this either said explicitly or it may be subtler; implied instead of spoken. The look, the sigh, the eye roll. In my experience, even if you can see this happening, it still has an effect on you (although not as big an effect as if you are not aware of it).
The abuser takes our healthy, pro-social process of taking responsibility for ourselves, and turns it into a way of gaining and maintaining control over us.
We then start to believe that we are responsible for the feelings and actions of others; we actually start to relate to other people in the way that we relate to the abuser.
You may not even be conscious of blaming yourself; this is the tricky bit, you may feel that you are actually at fault. It may even feel wrong to not hold yourself responsible in this way.
Healing can be scary, because to do this we probably have to face why we adjusted our behaviour in the first place. It involves beginning to trust people again, to believe that the rules that we learned in our abusive relationship are not, actually, transferable to the ‘real’ world, and that we will need to learn or relearn how to be *vulnerable again in a way that is healthy.
(*Vulnerable means different things to different people, I think. For some, vulnerable means just that, learning to be soft where it is appropriate to be, but for others, to be vulnerable means to be assertive. You’ll know best what you habitually find hard.)
Triggered into shame
Another way that we continue to be hurt by an abusive relationship is when we are ‘triggered’ back into the trauma. Someone says or does something that reminds us of what our original abuser did to us (we may or may not be conscious of being triggered), and we find ourselves flipped right back into those excruciating feelings of shame, self-hatred and guilt.
A useful process for unpicking this is:
What was the trigger? See if you can separate the past from the present, sometimes this is enough to allow you to respond appropriately in the moment. Saying to yourself ‘it’s a memory’ in a gentle, reassuring tone can help.
Take a moment, breathe deeply, steady yourself if you can, or excuse yourself if you need to. Give yourself some choices about how you respond.
Let yourself be scared/hurt/ashamed. It may not feel appropriate to the present situation, but it’s real that you feel it, and it likely makes sense in the light of your past. When you’ve allowed it, it might help to put your hand on your heart, gently, and say to yourself – either aloud or in your mind – whatever it is you need to hear; ‘it’s not your fault’, ‘you’re safe now, even if you don’t feel it’, ‘I love you’. (Try and come from a gentle, loving place, or imagine a dependable other – real or imagined – saying it to you with great, real compassion.)
Let yourself off the hook if you weren’t able to respond in the moment as you would have wished; being triggered can make it really hard. Your body kicks into a trauma/survival response that is beyond your conscious control (fight / flight / freeze), plus the shame you’re feeling probably was part of the original trauma anyway.
*Write about it / talk it through with a safe friend or therapist. If you’re writing about it, see if you can call to mind a compassionate other and let yourself open to their compassion and understanding. (Even if you feel nothing, or feel sad, or angry, that’s fine; breathe, sit with it, allow it to flow through you. What’s important is that you are allowing yourself to be held in your hurt.)
Imagine how you might successfully respond to being triggered, then let it go. Just imagining yourself navigating it well can begin to strengthen different neural pathways, as the brain doesn’t really differentiate between internal and external experiences. This will give you a better chance at dealing with it differently next time.
*A word about safety; with trauma, sometimes it is far more appropriate to distract and comfort rather than engage with the trauma head on. So if you find yourself getting too dysregulated or overwhelmed when trying to unpick it, drop it and find a way to soothe yourself. Call a (safe) friend, watch or read something comforting, imagine yourself held in a gentle, healing light or by a gentle, healing other – imagined or real. Investigate and experiment with what makes you feel comforted, and under what circumstances.
If you find yourself consistently being triggered and aren’t able to navigate it yourself, therapy can be a useful tool.
Other ways to help yourself heal
Knowledge is power
Read about emotional abuse, how it happens, what it looks like. If you know what is happening, you can at least begin to unpick it. There are lots of amazing resources out there; books, articles, podcasts, internet forums.
When we are in an abusive relationship, their perspective tends to dominate; it is a process similar to that seen in cults, for example. You usually have access to limited information, so as well as researching abuse, you could start talking to safe friends, or a therapist, or a helpline, or an internet support group about what is happening in your relationship. Try and allow yourself to consider these other perspectives, and see if you can figure out what you think too (if you don’t already know).
Give the responsibility for the abuse back
You can give the abuser back the responsibilty for their actions, and you can understand your reactions (at least in part) as a response to living in a confusing, frightening and sometimes dangerous situation.
Humans are wired to respond in certain ways to certain stimuli; there’s nothing wrong with you for responding however you did; whether that was to fight back, to argue, to use emotionally abusive tactics yourself, to dissociate, or however else you protected your vulnerable spot.
This also means that you can look for where your choices are; what is actually in your power to do and change.
Try and access some self-compassion
Watch how you talk to yourself; would you talk to a friend like that? How can you understand your feelings and actions in a gentle, non-blaming, non-shaming way?
Sharing with a safe other can really help. If you are feeling particularly ashamed or churned up, therapy can be really useful as a way of gaining insight into yourself, your responses and your actions. The increased understanding of yourself often aids self-acceptance, if you can allow yourself to take it in.
Set boundaries / take appropriate responsibility for yourself
People who have been bullied, shamed or coerced in abusive relationships often really struggle to stand up for themselves; they either go into fight or people please mode. So you might want to work on becoming more assertive and less passive, aggressive, or passive aggressive. (These are all responses to not being able to state your wishes, feelings, thoughts and needs openly and having to hide or fight for these things.)
If you are still in your abusive relationship, do be thoughtful about setting boundaries in this relationship. Often abusers will escalate their abusive behaviour in order to regain control. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t make changes if you want to, more that you might want to make sure you are prepared for a difficult road if you do, and get enough internal and external resources to support you.
Note: If your relationship is physically abusive – or you fear it might become so – please do seek specialist advice. It can be very dangerous to challenge a violent or potentially violent abuser.
I put this at the end, not because it is the least important, but because it is the most important part of your journey. Treat yourself as valuable, use your time wisely or watch terrible TV if that’s what you need. Move your body in a way that makes you feel good, invest in relationships that make you feel good, take care of yourself in relationships that don’t. Follow your dreams, pay your bills, take care of your responsibilities or let go of the responsibilities that you have picked up unnecessarily. Say yes more or say no more, be more present for your loved ones or be more present for yourself. Grieve. Laugh. Take up a hobby, let one drop. Let yourself off the hook, or hold yourself accountable (kindly).
Sometimes simply to survive is all we can do, at others we will feel we can reach the moon. Only you will know what self-care looks like in any given moment for you, and what looks like self-care for one person can be the opposite for another. Find your own way, according to the needs of the moment.
And last but not least: Build yourself a network
Everyone needs a network. As social creatures, I think that we all need to feel rooted in some way, so deepen (or find) your tribe, in person, online, a support group, and connect with them in a way that suits you. It will help you not only feel grounded, but also gives you more opportunity to ‘take in the good’ of other people’s kindness, to allow yourself to feel loved and valued and safe in relationships, and safe and held in the world.