Relationship health is mental health: Identifying supportive and detractive factors in our relationships
Friends, family, partners, colleagues, neighbors — our daily lives are filled with relationships that can impact our mental health for the better or worse. Learning how to identify healthy and unhealthy relationship signs, in ourselves and others, is a skill that can protect and benefit our mental health.
“It’s very difficult to be a healthy person, physically and emotionally, if you are being depleted by unhealthy relationships,” said Stacy Ring, Community Alliance’s behavioral health and education manager.
Identifying healthy relationships
Our mental health is immensely supported by healthy relationships. They celebrate and recognize our progress, they help us through difficult times, and they encourage us to explore new ideas, places and skills to be more mentally and emotionally flexible. When a relationship is healthy, we should generally feel:
- Recognized and valued — We build each other up and note each other’s worth and strengths.
- Authentically connected — The relationship is not “just for the pictures,” it’s a genuine connection with someone who will stick with us through good times and bad.
- Respected — We don’t just verbalize respect, we show it through our actions.
Recognizing unhealthy warning signs
Conversely, unhealthy relationships are detrimental to our mental health. We can’t be healthy if our relationships are not. In an unhealthy relationship, warning signs may look like:
- Masking — We feel like we can’t be who we really are or who we want to be.
- Disrespect — Not to be confused with healthy challenge, disrespect involves someone consistently ignoring our communicated values or needs.
- One-sidedness — One person is always putting in effort that is not reciprocated.
- Control — Physical, emotional, financial and any other type of controlling behavior is extremely unhealthy.
Unhealthy relationships can include people we don’t know very well, such as celebrities or acquaintances on social media. If these accounts leave us feeling discouraged about our own lives, it may be time to mute or unfollow them — or take a break from the social platform.
“We may compare ourselves to others, like social media influencers, or even people we do know in our social media lives who seem to have it together,” said Stacy. “This creates an unhealthy, unrealistic expectation that relationships are always perfect.”
Maintaining healthy relationships
Healthy relationships need ongoing reflection and nurturing, and some unhealthy relationship tendencies can be curbed with effort. If we’re unsure about the health of a relationship, we may ask ourselves:
- Is this relationship mutual? Or is one of us always initiating?
- Is there honesty in this relationship? Can we both say what needs to be said and be who we truly are?
- Does this person really know who I am, and have they earned the right to know me?
- Do I really know this person, and is there safety on both sides that we can share and honor?
- If one or both of us have tested a boundary, are we both invested in trying to make this better?
- How do they show up for me, and how can I show up for them more?
Nurturing the relationship may involve “relationship goals,” such as setting routine dates to meet up, committing to a schedule or other actions that show both people are invested in maintaining the relationship.
Some relationships require more boundaries than others to maintain, like families with a history of conflict. Setting expectations for ourselves ahead of the interaction, such as safe topics versus triggering topics, a clear exit strategy or a planned time limit for the visit, can protect our mental health without detaching from the relationship entirely.
And if we’ve stepped away from a relationship in the past, it doesn’t mean we can’t re-enter. Stacy advises searching for ways to test out if someone is willing to change for the better.
“Just because someone wasn’t able to maintain a healthy relationship years ago doesn’t mean they’re not in a different, better place now,” she said. “You may be in a better place now, too, with the skills to more clearly ask for what you need.”