Jessie grew up with a narcissistic father, then she found a man who acted a lot like her dad because that is what felt comfortable to her despite the abusive patterns. By the time she discovered what narcissism is, she was with husband number two and sick to her stomach to discover she had married yet another narcissist. That marriage ended and now she’s afraid to date anyone. When she wrote to me this week, she said she might end up alone for the rest of her life. She asked if I could explain what a healthy relationship looks like.
Remember if you grew up with a narcissistic parent, it makes you more likely to choose a narc partner. And if you dealt with religious abuse, it makes figuring out what real love looks like even more difficult. So please go easy on yourself if this happened. It wasn’t your fault. Like Maya Angelou said, “When we know better, we do better.”
My husband and I were married twenty-seven years ago this week. That means we’ve lived with each other for more than half of our lives. I won’t lie to you and say it has always been easy. It is both the hardest and the most wonderful thing I’ve ever done. It’s also important to note on such a journey together, nothing stays the same because both people in the relationship are always growing–everything that happens has the potential to change us as individuals and sometimes even threaten to capsize the ship. Through every event, we either grow closer together or farther apart. The goal is to keep such a loving environment in the home that we keep growing closer.
I’ve heard people say things like, “He’s not the same man I married.” It’s ridiculous to fault someone for changing because you aren’t the same woman he married. We are all changing every day. I had a counselor once who often said, “Whether you go to work or stay home, you are both changed by the things that happen to you every day so cherish each other even through the changes.”
This advice might sound scary or depressing, but it’s actually what keeps life interesting. Would you really want your beloved to stay exactly as they were the day you met and never change? Consider how a book or movie helps us grow as human beings. Every experience and every trial is an opportunity for growth to grow closer in love with each other. So that said, let’s talk about what I believe are the five most important attributes of a healthy relationship.
Respect is the most essential ingredient for a healthy relationship. We often show respect at work and to our friends, but many people slack off in marriage or family relationships because they feel comfortable, but we should never feel so comfortable we take our most important relationships for granted enough to show disrespect.
If you’re dating someone who shows no respect for their parents or boss or even the government, this could be a sign of grandiosity which is just one of the signs of narcissism. There are people who lack respect who are not full blown narcs, but there is nothing that can make up for a lack of respect in any relationship–whether it’s in a marriage, friendship or family.
What does respect look like? I would say equality between the partners where no one feels obligated to always bow to the other’s needs, but it really comes down to boundaries and freedom. We’ll talk more about those later. None of these matter without honesty.
I’ve seen some marriage books and seminars where the guru says men need respect and women need love or honesty, but I don’t think this is a gender issue. Among the couples I know, there can be no compromising of respect and honesty for either partner. Honestly and respect are foundational to every relationship. And the word honor goes hand in hand with honesty, so when the bride and groom agree to honor each other for life, that means to tell the truth to each other.
I like to say–without respect and honesty, we’ve got nothing. That’s because any relationship lacking in honesty is a mystery relationship–like some secret person hidden behind the door in that old dating game show. When the person you are with is hiding something, life’s always a crap shoot and you never know what risqué business might pop up.
Once you have respect and honesty, boundaries are much easier to work out. Dr. Henry Cloud, who wrote several books about boundaries, says to think of boundaries as a gate and not a wall. Some people have been confused about this. A doorway or gate has flexibility while a wall is a much more substantial border. If you want a healthy relationship your boundaries must sometimes bend to meet other people. The trick is to know where you can give and where it would compromise your own integrity to give in to what others need or want.
Boundaries reveal our responsibility lie and offer us the option of giving out of our abundance rather than feeling obligated to meet the needs of someone else. Boundaries are another tool to help us define who we are because without such self-knowledge we might not realize where other people end and we begin.
All of these concepts are great–but they only work when you know yourself. If you’re still trying to decide if you like people who talk or people who prefer silence at meals, then do yourself and your future partner a favor and find out who you are and what really matters to you. If you don’t know yourself, you could set up inappropriate boundaries because you don’t realize what healthy boundaries for you might look like.
True respect starts with self-respect and self-respect requires self-knowledge in order to govern self. Here are just a few ways you can get to know yourself better–
- Keep a journal so you can look back on your emotions and spiritual growth
- Take personality tests like the Myers-Briggs and my favorite The Enneagram.
- Examine your beliefs and make a personal mission statement
Remember the fruit of the Spirit in the Bible? Some versions say self-control, while others say self-governance. To govern self, one must know self. Self-knowledge is the beginning of honesty and respect for self which in turn, enables us to have honesty and respect for others.
We can talk all we want about honesty, respect, boundaries and knowing ourselves, but no relationship can survive without freedom. As hard as honesty and boundaries might seem, freedom is the hardest requirement to meet. but freedom is the oil that keeps the relationship going.
There are no shortcuts around freedom. You probably realize this already if you were raised by or married to a narcissist. This is the problem at the heart of narcissistic abuse–a desire to use others for self or coerce others to meet the narc’s needs.
While it’s a sign of narcissism to lack empathy for others and milk them for all they’ve got, they are many people who don’t have Narcissistic Personality Disorder who simply want to feel safe who try to exert control over their beloved. Many of us start out in life wanting to control other people because it helps us feel safe. I know from my own experience (which would be way too long of a story to share here) that there can be no love without freedom.
And if you really love someone, you won’t force them, shame them, coerce them or guilt them with your expectations. That old adage “If you love someone, set them free and if they come back to you, it was meant to be,” is true.
It might be hard to let go, but when the tables are turned, isn’t true freedom what every one of us wants? And do we want someone to pretend to love us who feels obligated or do we want another free human being who is growing, stretching and loving alongside us?
Perhaps you wonder why I didn’t mention love before. Because the word love has been misused to mean everything from infatuation to obligation. Love is manifested through action and it is way more than just an emotional feeling we experience when we love someone. True love is infusing all five of these values into your relationship so you can enjoy more positive emotions with each other than the negative ones.
When you wake up and find yourself at peace with whatever you need to do for that day, and if you can find someone who supports your dreams and cheers you on, while you cheer for them too–that is true love! Hang on to it, but keep it free!