By Joel Delgado ’12 MS ’17
From the dorm room to the workplace, relationships are a part of our daily lives.
Sometimes, the relationships we have are fulfilling and provide the support we need to live a healthy life. Other times, they can become a source of stress and anxiety.
How can we make sure that our most important relationships are healthy ones?
Barbara Padron, a licensed marriage and family therapist in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health within the Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine, says it is important to take some time to take inventory of our most important relationships to determine whether or not they are healthy ones.
She recently hosted a lunch and learn event titled “Anxiety and Our Relationships” that explored the different relationship dynamics that cause anxiety and the pillars necessary to building healthy and supportive relationships.
“For a lot of people, relationships can cause anxiety,” says Padron, who provides outpatient services for FIU Health. “There could be something happening in a particular relationship that is triggering that anxiety in different ways and sometimes we’re not even aware of it.”
Cultivating healthy relationships is also critical for college students’ success both in and out of the classroom.
“It’s critical for students to take a serious look at their relationships and ask themselves if these relationships support their academic success,” Padron says. “Students in healthy relationships are more willing to explore opportunities offered to them, and feel at ease balancing relationships and academic demands.”
Here are some of the key ingredients that make up healthy relationships:
Developing intimacy in relationships, a degree of closeness that allows those in a relationship to be vulnerable, is an essential aspect in our most important relationships.
Of course there are different levels of intimacy for different types of relationships (don’t divulge your deepest, darkest secrets of your past with a classmate you met yesterday, for instance). But for romantic relationships and relationships with close family members in particular, a higher level intimacy and trust will lead to a more satisfying and fulfilling relationships.
“Transparency builds intimacy. It’s the idea that I can be transparent with that other person,” Padron says. “When you are okay with being yourself and vulnerable in front of somebody, that’s what creates intimacy.”
Creating autonomy in your relationships boils down to two things: be yourself and allow others to be themselves.
“Autonomy is allowing another person to be who they are. And if who they are is very stressful because it’s very unhealthy, then you may need to reassess if this is a relationship that you need,” Padron says. “True autonomy happens when the separateness of other people is encouraged, valued and nurtured.”
There is a danger in relationships of sacrificing too much of yourself in the hopes of pleasing others or in trying to fit in with a group of people. In those instances, it’s easy to enter relationships where you feel pressured to act a certain away.
“We have to allow each other liberty to have their own lives and be themselves,” Padron says. “If we’re too rigid, one member will dominate interaction and be controlling many aspects of the relationship. And that’s when you lose autonomy in a relationship.”
Another huge aspect of healthy relationships is establishing a mutual respect for one another and creating a culture where the ideas, thoughts and opinions of both partners are equally heard and considered.
“When there is equality in relationships, there is empathy – an effort to try to understand what the other person is feeling and where they are coming from,” Padron says. “There is a genuine connection. There is a mutual give and take of caring between partners.”
When favors done for you are used as leverage to get something from you later on, when you never hear from friends unless they are in trouble, or when you are constantly on the giving end, those are several red flags that may signal that the relationship is not on equal footing.
Even worse, when coercion, threats and intimidation are used in a relationship, these are signs that you may be in an abusive relationship and you may want to reach out to the Victim Empowerment Program.
The bedrock to any healthy relationship is made up of clearly defined, and enforced, physical and emotional boundaries. But how do you know what should or shouldn’t be a boundary?
“In order to develop healthy boundaries, you have to understand what you feel comfortable with and don’t feel comfortable with in relationships,” Padron says. “Boundaries are your way to let someone know whether something is okay or not okay in your relationship.”
There are many different kinds of boundaries, ranging from topics of conversation that may be off limits to acceptable physical contact, and they differ from person to person. But no matter what boundaries you choose to establish in a relationship, it’s important that they are clearly communicated with the other person and that there is a commitment to enforce and preserve those boundaries by both parties.
“Healthy boundaries allow you to have high self esteem, self-respect, and help you feel good about yourself,” Padron adds. “You feel assertive and confident. You judge yourself and others less. You recognize that boundaries and needs are different for other people.”
If you are in an unhealthy relationship or would like to talk to someone about how to build healthy relationships, there are free and confidential resources available on campus to help you navigate through these issues. Counseling and Psychological Services offers group therapy with a focus on relationships, in addition to counselors and psychologists available for individual appointments. The Victim Empowerment Program provides support and safety planning for those in abusive relationships, as well other forms of victimization, including stalking, assault and hate crimes.
This article is part of our Secrets to Success series.