“We can’t underestimate the power of a relationship in helping to promote well-being,” says NIH psychologist and relationship expert Dr. Valerie Maholmes. Studies have found that having a variety of social relationships may help reduce stress and heart-related risks. Strong social ties are even linked to a longer life. On the other hand, loneliness and social isolation are linked to poorer health, depression, and increased risk of early death.
As a child you learn the social skills you need to form and maintain relationships with others. But at any age you can learn ways to improve your relationships.
What Is Healthy?
Every relationship exists on a spectrum from healthy to unhealthy to abusive. One sign of a healthy relationship is feeling good about yourself around your partner, family member, or friend. You feel safe talking about how you feel. You listen to each other. You feel valued, and you trust each other.
“It’s important for people to recognize and be aware of any time where there is a situation in their relationship that doesn’t feel right to them or that makes them feel less than who they are,” Maholmes advises.
It’s normal for people to disagree with each other. But conflicts shouldn’t turn into personal attacks. In a healthy relationship, you can disagree without hurting each other and make decisions together.
“No relationship should be based on that power dynamic where someone is constantly putting the other partner down,” Maholmes says.
If you grew up in a family with abuse, it may be hard as an adult to know what healthy is. Abuse may feel normal to you. There are several kinds of abuse, including physical, sexual, and verbal or emotional. Hurting with words, neglect, and withholding affection are examples of verbal or emotional abuse.
In an unhealthy or abusive relationship, your partner may blame you for feeling bad about something they did or said. They may tell you that you’re too sensitive. Putting you down diminishes you and keeps them in control.
In a healthy relationship, however, if you tell your partner that something they said hurt your feelings, they feel bad for hurting you. They try not to do it again.
Abuse in an intimate relationship is called domestic or intimate partner violence. This type of violence involves a pattern of behaviors used by one person to maintain power and control over someone that they are married to, living with, or dating now or in the past. A pattern means it happens over and over.
In an unhealthy or abusive relationship, you may not be allowed to spend time with family, friends, and others in your social network. “One of the signs that’s really important in relationships where there is intimate partner violence is that the partner that is being abused is slowly being isolated from family and friends and social networks,” Maholmes says. “Those social networks are protective factors.”
Social Ties Protect
Studies have shown that certain factors seem to protect people from forming unhealthy relationships over their lifetime. The protection starts early in life. NIH-supported research has shown that the quality of an infant’s emotional bond with a parent can have long-lasting positive or negative effects on the ability to develop healthy relationships.
“The early bond has implications that go well beyond the first years of life,” says Dr. Grazyna Kochanska, an NIH-funded family relationships researcher at the University of Iowa. The goal of Kochanska’s research projects is to understand the long-term effects of that early bond and to help children develop along positive pathways and avoid paths toward antisocial behaviors.
A family that functions well is central to a child’s development. Parents can help children learn how to listen, set appropriate boundaries, and resolve conflicts. Parents teach children by example how to consider other people’s feelings and act in ways to benefit others.
Secure emotional bonds help children and teens develop trust and self-esteem. They can then venture out of the family to form other social connections, like healthy friendships. In turn, healthy friendships reduce the risk of a child becoming emotionally distressed or engaging in antisocial behaviors.
On the other hand, having an unhealthy relationship in the family, including neglect and abuse, puts a child at risk for future unhealthy relationships.
“One caring adult can make a huge difference in the life of kids whose family structures may not be ideal or whose early life is characterized by abuse and neglect,” says Dr. Jennie Noll of the Center for Healthy Children at Pennsylvania State University. “That caring adult could be an older sibling, or a parent, or someone else in the family, a teacher—the kind of people who have a large influence in communicating to the child that they matter and that they’re safe, and that they have a place to go when they are needing extra support.”
Healthy friendships and activities outside of the home or classroom can play protective roles during childhood, too. In fact, everyone in a community can help support the development of healthy connections. Adults can serve as good role models for children, whether the children are their own or those they choose to mentor.
Helping and Getting Help
At any age, your relationships matter. Having healthy relationships with others starts with liking yourself. Learn what makes you happy. Treat yourself well. Know that you deserve to be treated well by others.
Having an unhealthy or abusive relationship can really hurt. The connection may be good some of the time. You may love and need the person who hurts you. After being abused, you may feel you don’t deserve to be in a healthy, loving relationship.
With help, you can work on your relationship. Or, sometimes in an abusive relationship, you may be advised to get out. Either way, others can help.
If you or a friend needs help with an unhealthy relationship, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at www.thehotline.org or 1-800-799-SAFE. If you know a child who may need help, find resources at the Child Welfare Information Gateway at www.childwelfare.gov