What's Buggin' Ya?

Advice on Life and Love at Stanford:
Healthy Relationships, Part One

Dear D-Bug,
Since coming to college, we have gotten inundated with information and education about Title IX, sexual assault and dating violence. This barrage of info is good because this violence has been happening forever, on campus and off, and it needs to be stopped. However, it occurs to me that I’m not even sure I could define a healthy romantic relationship if asked. Can you help?

Hunting for Healthy

Dear Hunting,
You, my healthy hornet, have your relationship-seeking stinger pointed in the right direction. Unfortunately, our culture is going to manifest the same tendencies as we humans: being more reactive (to the negative) than we are proactive (in reinforcing the positive), and trying to fix it after it’s broken versus preventing the damage in the first place.

One could get a PhD responding to your astute inquiry (as many have), but I will do my best to provide you with some important puzzle pieces from which we can begin to assemble a vision of healthy romantic relationships:

  • Imperfectly Perfect - Relationships are never perfect. If you build a new home (or bee hive), it might be “perfect” right before you move in, but relationships are always a work in process. Even when we make great progress in one area, life will change and so the relationship will have to adapt. Think of it more like having a healthy body. You can’t say, “I worked out a lot in 2015 and so I don’t have to work out of rest of my life.” Come to think of it, the house metaphor was actually a good one: a relationship needs constant maintenance. (Note: no one said this maintenance could not be interesting and even fun.)
  • Learn to Repair - Because perfection is not possible and relationships are like a challenging problem set (just more enjoyable), mistakes will happen. Thus, one skill that is indispensable is the ability to initiate repair. That is, practice apologizing. The Japanese art of Kintsukuroi (to repair with gold) even celebrates the repair of broken pottery, viewing it as stronger and more beautiful than it was beforehand.
  • Convenience is not the goal - In the words of Dr. Kelly Flanagan, a relationship (e.g., marriage) is “not a convenience store.” We should not have one just so we can have whatever we want whenever we want it. But where the convenience store metaphor/analogy could apply is that in relationships we must pay the price and do the work in order to reap the benefits. That is, there are rights and responsibilities in relationships. Many college students come see me because their partner wants all the good stuff, but then wants to be left alone the rest of the time so he/she can get coding done. Relationships are not a convenience store — but they might just be a bank. This comes from the work of relationship guru John Gottman, who teaches us that we must constantly make deposits into the piggybank/ATM of our relationships so that when it is time to make a withdrawal (e.g. have a difficult conversation, request something of our partner(s)) ... well, you get it.
  • “You are (not) my everything!” - The other person cannot be everything to/for us. Alongside what I call the “Soul Mate Myth” (umm… there are over 7 billion people on the planet), there is the misperception that our partner should be and do everything for us. Well, that is silly, right? They can’t be the dog, the children or replace your best friend. And they should not necessarily be fixing your car (especially if it is a Tesla) or computer or putting in a new sewer main — unless that is their actual job.
  • Living with differences - Times when we “click” with another person, and think — “We have so much in common” — are fun and convenient, but they are not the point of relationships. Daniel J. Siegel teaches us that what characterizes all well-functioning complex systems is that they are integrated. That is, that these systems are made up of parts that do very different things which are linked together, or synchronized, in harmony. The best analogy is an orchestra. So enjoy your commonalities, but also celebrate your differences. Approach them with patience, curiosity and as an opportunity to grow and learn.
  • Valuing our partner’s growth as we do our own - This one may be the most important of all. Each partner should care deeply about the growth (personal, professional, etc.) of the other. Attachment theory teaches us that a healthy relationship serves the same function that a base camp does for climbers. It is a safe, warm, rejuvenating place where people can return from a day out in the world to recharge before heading back out the next day. This is why abusive relationships are anything but healthy. The abuser has no  intention of honoring the growth or even needs of his/her partner.

… to be continued: In the March issue of Student Health 101, D-bug will provide you with Part II of this stinging discourse. Until then, my curious cucaracha, keep contemplating the characteristics of a quality human connection.

With Care,
"Whenever you interact with people, don't be there primarily as a function or role, but as a field of conscious presence." - Unknown

See Part Two of D-Bug on "Healthy Relationships" in the March issue of:
Stanford Student Health 101

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See the BeWell@Stanford Student page.