January 17, 2019

Building Healthy Relationships


In my last blog, we relayed our human longing for connecting with others by looking at the steps leading up to making a new friend. In this blog, I want to take a moment to discuss ways that we can cultivate healthy, mutual relationships with others.

Barriers Towards Healthy Mutual Relationships

Meeting our Parents Needs

First it’s important to name that there are multiple reasons why it’s hard to cultivate healthy relationships.  Primarily if we’ve been taught or seen examples of unhealthy relationships, it becomes more difficult to discern mutual satisfying relationships.  Maybe as a child you had a parent who was emotionally immature. In your efforts to gain the affection you were craving you adapted unconsciously to be what that parent needed.  (Here’s an article about Emotional Neglect from our therapist Tina Choi) In essence, you found that the only way to get your needs met, was by providing for the needs of others.  I’m speaking to my fellow therapist, health care professionals who often find themselves giving in relationships that are helpful, good and necessary, but may not be mutual.

Becoming Totally Sufficient

The reverse can also be true, instead of meeting the parents need, you determine that the parents are not able to meet the need and so you become self-sufficient.  Instead of being dependent on others, you become very independent. This independence can serve you well. Others see you as mature, competent, efficient, and not lacking anything from anyone else.  People crave to be around individuals like this, but because you have learned how to be sufficient, it may be difficult for you to have a mutual relationship.

Attraction via Intensity

Maybe you lived in a community or family where chaos was the norm.  You lived in moments of survival and high stress environments. As a result, you may find yourself familiar with this level of intensity and may gravitate to individuals who match it.  

If any of this resonates with you please know that you are not alone.  I highly recommend meeting with a therapist to unpack this further or reading the book Attached by Amir Levine & Rachel Heller or Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents by Lindsay C. Gibson.

I think it’s important to look at our own understanding or experience around having mutual relationships in order to cultivate healthy ones.

7 Steps Towards Healthy Mutual Relationships

  1. Practice give and take conversations.  Simply what I mean by “give and take” conversation, I mean for every comment someone makes, you provide a comment back.
  2. Match the level of personal disclosure to the other person.  Telling someone your deepest darkest secret, when they’ve just told you their favorite color isn’t matching their level of self disclosure.
  3. Look for evidence that someone is trustworthy.  This may be difficult to determine from earlier interactions, but as time goes on, does this person seem to be someone who can keep your confidences?  Are they someone who seems to talk about others “behind their back.”
  4. Experiment.  Ask someone to help you with a small task and see what they say/do.  If they seem to express interest, engage in the activity in an eager way than you can ask them to help you with other things.  
  5. Practice Assertiveness.  Practice asking for what you want and consider how you feel based on their response.  If someone says “no” to your request do you find yourself continuing to ask, but in a different way?  Do you set an ultimatum? Do you end the relationship?
  6. Clarify your intentions.  Often times we feel unsatisfied in our relationships because one person wants one thing, and the other person does not.  As strange as this might seem, it’s important to explore what your expectations are in this friendship. For instance, if I text you, do I expect you to text back?  Or, if we decide to go to the movies and I pay for your ticket, do I expect you to pay me back? Confusion and arguments often arise at our unsaid expectations.
  7. Celebrate one another’s achievements.  There are joys in this life that you will each experience.  Those that I am closer with ask me questions about my achievements, cheer me on, and celebrate with me.
  8. Walk with one another during trials.  Lastly, we all will experience difficulty or pain.  When it occurs, does our friend hide it from you? Does your friend ask for support?  Are you given an opportunity to walk alongside them? The answer to these questions can help to assess your level of mutual support and respect that you have for one another.  This doesn’t mean that you can only turn to one another for support during difficult times. What I am saying though, is if we do not lean on one another at all, then maybe this isn’t a mutual relationship.

Finding community is something that I have longed for and continue to strive to find in my 30+ years on this earth.  We aren’t made to walk alone. Therapy is certainly a space to explore and develop mutual relationships. I invite you to reach out if you feel like support with building relationships that are mutual could benefit you.


Written by therapist Pamela Larkin


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