Relationships – the foundation of mental wellness
“Relationships and our ability to successfully navigate them are a key element of a successful life.” So says Carl Jung, giant in the world of psychology. Highly complex relationships permeate our lives, parent-child, worker-boss, boyfriend-girlfriend, teacher -student, wife-husband. It is through relationships we get wounded and wound others and it is through relationships that we heal and grow. So what causes us to have good ones, what makes them bad and can we do anything to improve them?
Early relationships - a guide for life
When a therapist and client sit together to solve a current difficulty they attempt to uncover the family history and early life experiences of the client. Crucially here in these early years each of us learns through overt training and subtle family and social cues how to relate to ourselves, to other people, to the world at large and to experiences of fear, love, joy, pride, success, failure, friendship, anxiety, sadness, intimacy, trust and security. These lessons are the guide for the rest of our life, prompting our decisions, actions and choice of future relationships. Often the guide is accurate and helpful, perfect for the task, in many circumstances we find it to be good enough and occasionally we discover the guide formed early in life to be unsuitable, unhelpful and even harmful in current circumstances. With each new experience we have the chance to integrate new information and experiences, to update our guide to be more helpful and suitable.
Costs of bad relationships
While happily married people enjoy better health than singles, relationship research shows that marital conflict can lead to depression and decreased life satisfaction (Choi and Marks 2008). Researchers at Ohio State identified that hostile words and body language caused physical stress, negatively impacting the immune system. Public health scientists at John Hopkins university, Hughes and Waite (2009) have reported that distressed romantic partners experience increased coronary problems, vulnerability to flu, poorer and slower recovery from injury and illness and at a higher risk of cancer. The mental toll is also punishing (Whisman and Uebelacker (2003) identified distressed couples are three times more likely to experience depression or anxiety and twice as likely to develop substance use problems.
Work, school and parent-child relationships can be just as testing. Prof. Stephen Stansfeld's workplace stress research shows poor work environments are associated with 18% of workplace absenteeism are a moderate cause of depression, anxiety, self esteem problems and substance use, due to lack of autonomy and poor working relationships. Poor relationships in school settings contribute to anxiety, depression and damaged self esteem due to overwhelmed and hostile teachers as well as competitive, comparative peer relationships.
Parent-child relationships can strengthen or erode mental and physical health. The Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) study indicates children's vulnerability to anxiety, depression, conduct problems and lifespan physical illness is affected by parents ability to manage their own negative emotions; how parents regard and describe their child, overly strict discipline and discord between the parents.
Hallmarks of distressed relationships
Relationships of all types, romantic, family, friends, workplace or parent-child go wrong in similar ways for similar reasons. World renowned relationships therapists John and Julie Gottman have spent 45 years researching the masters and disasters of relationships to identify the differences in knowledge, skills, qualities and attitudes that lead relationships too succeed or fail. The Gottmans call the warning signs the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. These are, Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness and Stonewalling. Criticism includes complaints about a partners actions and behaviour such as “you're never there when I want you” or “can't you ever tidy up after yourself”. We use criticism in the belief that it helpfully communicates to others how would we like things to be and guides them on how to act.
Contempt consists of any verbal or non-verbal behaviour aimed to show disrespect, dismiss or belittle people and their character such as eye-rolling, hostile sarcasm, mimicking, and global statements such as “typical, I should never have expected anything more from you” or “you're such a slob”. Contempt shows disgust towards others and is the biggest single predictor of relationships heading for failure. When criticism fails to achieve the desired result and peoples view of eachother becomes increasingly negative, contempt develops as a way to increase the punishment of others forcing them to change.
Defensiveness is defined by efforts to justify our own behaviour by referring to others actions and behaviour. We become defensive when we perceive a threat or blame. Defensive statements such as “I only did that because you...“ act as a barrier to understanding, responsibility and connection. Defensiveness communicates “it's nothing to do with me, its all your fault”.
The fourth is Stonewalling. Two types of stonewalling exist, the first is intentionally giving someone the cold shoulder or cutting them out as a way to hurt them, because they have hurt us. This type belongs in the 'contempt' category. The second type occurs when someone is flooded emotionally and physically by distress and stops communicating. While there is no intent to hurt here, it can leave their relationships partner feeling cut off and abandoned.
Masters of Relationships
Disasters can become masters with some knowledge, skills and the right attitude. Masters learn to replace criticism; they practise expressing their wishes and feelings constructively with phrases such as “it really means a lot to me when...” and “I like it when you...”. To prevent contempt, masters develop a positive perspective, they seek out what they admire and show their admiration for eachother. They build trust, commitment and security by responding positively in little ways to eachothers bids for connection. In arguments masters calm themselves and avoid becoming flooded with distress. They remain open to the influence of their partner and seek responsibility. Masters accept that up to 69% of problems are not resolvable as they are rooted in differences in upbringing or temperament. They seek to understand the meaning behind eachothers point of view in areas of disagreement and points of connection. Masters also make efforts to know and help make eachothers life dreams come true. Forty five years of systematic research have made it possible for anyone to have happier healthier relationships by acquiring some knowledge and practicing some skills.
“The How of Happier Relationships”
Wed Jun 28th 7pm Carmelite Community Centre, Aungier St Dublin 2
Sat July 1st 12pm Donnybrook Centre, 51 Donnybrook Rd Dublin 4
Tickets on Eventbrite
PLEASE NOTE: Information provided on this site is for general information and should not be treated as substitute advice in seeking mental health support. We highly advise that you should always consult a GP if you are concerned about your mental health. WellSpring Therapy is not responsible or liable for any mental health diagnosis a user may arrive at based on the information from this site.
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