How to Create Healthy Relationships

by Steven Kessler, MFT


These guidelines apply to all the different varieties of relationships, including friends, co-workers, lovers, etc.

First, learn about healthy boundaries.

There a many good books about boundaries available. Read several of them and do the exercises until you

  • develop your own capacities to make and enforce healthy boundaries in general
  • decide what boundaries are right for you in this particular kind of relationship
  • figure out how you will enforce those boundaries

Second, learn what safety actually feels like. 

You may not have ever experienced real safety. Many of us grew up in unsafe, even dangerous, environments and became accustomed to that, thinking that is just how things are. In our attempts to cope and create some feeling of safety, most people automatically, habitually resort to a defense strategy -- we fight or flee or accommodate or manipulate or endure or try to be perfect. In real safety, these strategies are not necessary, because your being is valued and respected to begin with. In situations of real safety, there is no need for defense. If you have no bodily experience of real safety, you need to get that, either through therapy of some other safe, holding experience. If you don't know what real safety feels like, then you don't know what a healthy relationship feels like. Without that reference point, assessing your relationships will be that much harder.

Third, when creating a new relationship with someone:

1. Assess their capacities to

  • self-soothe
  • regulate their own internal state in general
  • recognize when they are in a defense pattern and come out of it
  • control their words and actions toward others
  • control the energy they send to others (the blast of anger, the tug of need or seduction ...)
  • set and maintain their own healthy boundaries

It is your job to assess them. Do not put this task on them and then blame them for not doing it. It is your own responsibility to keep yourself safe. They may be able to describe their own capacities accurately, but then again, they may not. None of us are able to see into our own blind spots.

They don't have to be perfect. None of us is. They only have to be able to do what is needed to support the particular kind of relationship that you want to have with them. Imagine that you're about to drive your car across a bridge. The sign says “Weight limit – 1 ton.” It is your job to read the sign and compare the weight of your car to the bridge's capacity. If you overload the bridge, it will let you down. Every time.

Unless they are engaged in serious inner work, don't expect that their capacity will be different in the future than it is today. The same goes for you. Personalities and defense strategies are more likely to stay the same than to change. Trust in that, not in your fantasy of some ideal future.

2. Negotiate with them what the norms of this relationship will be.

Whether you are becoming friends, co-workers, lovers, or something else, the ways you behave towards each other now will become the ways you are allowed to behave towards each other in the future. The negotiation process may be conscious or unconscious, verbal or non-verbal, but it will take place and it will set the standards for your future interactions.

Notice in particular how power, respect, time, and space are handled in this relationship. Notice what each of you contributes and each of you receives.

  • When, where, and how are each of you available to the other? Who decides?
  • How do each of you express your needs and wants? How does the other respond?
  • How do the two of you handle misunderstandings, differences and conflicts?
  • How are decisions made? Who makes them?

Again, unless the two of you are engaged in serious inner work and growth, the ways you interact today probably predict the ways you will interact tomorrow. The way the two of you resolve (or don't resolve) your first disagreement is a good indicator of what is likely to happen following future disagreements. Unless you each take action to change yourselves, the limitations you each have today will still be there tomorrow.

If you want the other person to change in some way, ask them (don't command or manipulate or threaten). They may be willing; they may not. They may be able; they may not. Be prepared for a 'no', or “I can't”, or “I don't know how”. This is their decision. Consider what you are doing that contributes to the problem, and offer to change your part. For more specifics, see my article “Communication 101”.

3. As you get to know them, and only to the degree that you have established a healthy relationship and feel safe with them, gradually begin to open up and be more vulnerable.

Do not lead with vulnerability, hoping that it will make them love you, want you, or take care of you. Open this door only to the degree that you have determined that this person is capable of the sort of relationship you desire and after the two of you have negotiated a set of norms for the relationship that you deem to be healthy for you.


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