Thursday, January 10, 2008

Health Relationships

By: Peter Mastroianni, MA - UCF Wellness Center

There really should be a class on how to establish, build and maintain a healthy relationship. Most of us are certainly not taught these skills and few have perfect role models to learn them from. Even if your parents do have a “healthy relationship”, it is likely that you have not seen “the work” they put in to make that happen.

Romantic relationships can be an incredible addition to our lives and help bring out the best in both partners. Even healthy relationships, however, will at times be confusing, frustrating and challenging.

Some relationships start off with the proverbial “fireworks,” with both partners feeling exhilarated, care free, and the desire to spend a great deal of time together. Yes, even this has been shown to be caused by a physical/chemical reaction in the brain, specifically a release of endorphins - your body’s natural pain killing substances. Some people enjoy this feeling so much that they are disappointed when this phase ends and mistakenly think they have fallen out of love. Other relationships grow slowly out of friendships. Either way, couples tend to go through a period of “love blindness” when they see only the good points of their partner and ignore signs of problems or obstacles.

Relationship counselors recommend taking the time to explore each other’s interests and find things you enjoy doing together. This is also the time to establish a pattern of appreciating and respecting your partner. Practice letting them know you appreciate “the little things” they do for you and avoid focusing on “mistakes” they make. This is also a great time to learn and practice saying “I’m sorry”. It shows your willingness to take responsibility for your words and actions.

Change is inevitable. People change, expectations change, needs change. Try to see change as a positive stress or challenge that, if handled well, can make the relationship stronger. Communication is crucial to negotiating how to keep the relationship strong over time and through the changes. Fear of change may lead to less communication, less flexibility and serious problems for the relationship.

While many people will say that communication is the key to a healthy relationship, putting it into practice is much more difficult. Examine your own communication style and that of your family. If your family members are not effective communicators, you may need to learn new skills and attempt to communicate in ways that are more effective. You need to be able to do two things. The first is to express your needs, desires and expectations clearly. Be specific. Vague requests may not be understood. “I would like it if you would hold hands with me more,” is much clearer than, “I wish you were more affectionate.”

The other half of communication is active listening. Many people half listen to other people while thinking about how they are going to respond. That is not active listening. Active listening means really paying attention to both the words your partner is saying and to the feelings behind the words. The active listener truly believes it is important for him/her to know how the other person is feeling.

The important thing is how you fight or argue. What is your intention? If you ”need to win” then the relationship will lose. In a healthy relationship both partners want the relationship to win. Compromise is an important tool. This does not mean that you never have your needs met. It does mean that you will need to give in at times, have each person’s needs partially met at times, and never lose sight of the important needs that are being met simply by having the relationship.

When conflict does arise, remember that people handle it differently and you and your partner may need to learn to adjust your styles for the sake of the relationship. If you have built a strong foundation and each partner knows he/she is respected, then conflict should be less scary.

1. Take a time out if you are too angry to express yourself clearly and to listen to your partner. Avoid starting the discussion with a critical statement. That will only escalate things.
2. Let your partner know that you love them, want to be in a relationship with them and want to work things out.
3. Be very clear when you express your desires and feelings. Clear enough so that an outsider watching the argument would understand what you need.
4. Deal with one issue at a time. Do not “get on a roll” and hit them with everything that has been building up in you for months.
5. Go into it with a WIN/WIN attitude. Are you making demands that couldn’t possibly be met? Have you thought of a way for your needs to be met in a way that your partner’s are also, or that he/she is capable of fulfilling without changing their entire personality?
6. LISTEN. LISTEN. LISTEN. Allow your partner to respond and be willing to hear their side. Listen to how they are feeling.
7. Try to find a mutually acceptable solution.
8. There will be times you will simply have to agree to disagree.
9. If you cannot find a resolution, do not hesitate to ask for help. The University Counseling Center offers couples counseling. Call 407.823.2811 for an appointment.

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