Healthy Relationships: Why Health and Relationship Are Connected
We all know a good relationship can help you be a healthy person. It’s a truism because it’s inherently true! A happy person is a healthier person, and vice versa, a healthy person is happy. We see this principle at work when we hear the story of a man getting a cancer diagnosis, who locks himself in a hotel room with his favorite comedy films, and laughs himself into remission. In truth, he probably did some other things to recover his health once he lifted his spirits up enough to leave that hotel room having taken charge of his healing crisis. See the list of 9 things people did who had radical remissions to turn around their health. Starting with changing their attitude about suppressed negative emotions.
We also see the connection between health and relationship when two elders who have formed a union die within a short time of each other. One goes and the other quickly follows, because of grief. Grief, sorrow, anger, resentment and fear weaken the immune system. Love, joy, laughter, happiness, acceptance and gratitude strengthen it. Why is that? Because our emotions are somatic. They’re embodied. And for that reason, our emotions affect our immunity, our hormones, our level of inflammation, our stress and acidity, our appetite, and our energy—our zest for life.
So how do we nurture a good, healthy intimate relationship that’s good for our overall health?
I was wondering about this question myself recently when my wife broke a promise she had made that concerned our relation to her, well, let’s say very challenging family, particularly her mother who is chronically ill. And like all illness, her’s affected her mental, emotional, physical and spiritual Self. Her whole Self. And like every illness, her’s affected all her relations.
That promise, to me, had protected us from the encroachment of these ill relations into our intimate space. And with the promise broken, a wave of repulsion began to rise up out of the bottom of my spine that activated some adrenaline. I was on high alert. Trust had been broken. Suddenly I was scrutinizing everything as an old pattern began to repeat itself with a momentum that was moving swiftly toward another crisis of illness.
A dear aunt was to be moved from her apartment into an assisted living facility. She was losing her mind, her health, her Self. How sad. Her decline had spun out over the last decade and little was done to help her. Late in the game she was diagnosed as overmedicated. Her primary relationship had become her psychiatrist, and he had prescribed one psychotropic drug after another until she had bladder damage and weak kidneys and gutbrain problems and weakened immunity. And dementia. Because overmedication is a common cause of dementia in elders. And it can harm the neurobiology of adolescents and even children as well.
Challenges naturally came up over how to respond to this aunt’s decline. And in this struggling family, the response was…not much. Nothing really was ever done. Time just seemed to roll on in this endless slow motion that was actually speeding her from one illness into another in a downward spiral. The dementia this aunt suffered from seemed to resonate within the family itself, making it harder for reasonable suggestions for healthy change to be heard.
“Enough!" some primal voice in the pit of my embodiment was saying in a really clear, loud voice. And then I did something that people who have miraculous remissions do. I reached out for social support. I sent out a request for help into the universe. Into the Field of All Possibilities.
Almost immediately, the phone rang.
It was my old friend Cath Curtis. Could she stay with us tomorrow? She was driving in to adopt a dog rescued from a Korean kennel that had been flown all the way to LA. “Lucky dog,” I said. I got off the phone and thought, there are three lucky dogs about to get rescued. The dog from Korea about to be named Shadow. And me and my wife. Because Cath Curtis is a renowned Internal Family Systems Therapist, and her wife, Toni Crossen, is an equally amazing couple’s therapist. They live in Santa Cruz, CA, and when they work together in workshops magic happens. I wish I could link you to their website, but they don’t have one! I’m encouraging them to be more social, but the truth is, social in that way isn’t their thing. But when it comes to intimate relationship, starting with the intimate relationship with yourself, these two are a walking Red Cross team, and they were arriving immediately.
I was relieved. I knew that healthy relations start with the ability of both people to have emotionally honest conversations about their feelings, needs and wants. Shared values are discovered in this way, empathy is found, trust is deepened, understanding is cultivated, and the couple gets creative finding ways to get both parties’ needs and wants met. However, our conversations were breaking down fast. The flow of sentences that ended conversations, sometimes abruptly, were exceeding the flow of sentences that opened doors and asked, "Tell me more.” And when conversations break down, or never take place, the outcome can be less than happy. Disharmony can walk in the front door and take a seat in the living room, or lay down in your bed at night. Unhappiness can move into the guest room with no departure date. Before you know it, nobody-is-happy has taken ownership of the house. And soon there is a crisis. And like any healing crisis, saying you’re fine when you’re not, or saying after the fact that you didn’t see it coming, or thinking it won’t happen to me when it was happening to you—all of that avoidance and denial and deliberate ignorance doesn’t stop the healing crisis, does it?. Because healing only happens when we address root causes, rather than chase symptoms.
It wasn’t long after they arrived that we were talking about our relationship challenge. Toni cut to the chase on the relationship side of the equation. “What do you need, Camilla?” she said, looking calmly into my eyes. “I just need to see movement,” I blurted out. It came from a deep place. Not just a thought. But something deeper, a feeling. For me, repetition and stagnation was associated with illness and death, and movement and change with health and life. Everyone sighed a sigh of relief. Including myself. My need was so approachable and doable. We all knew instinctively it would be fairly easy for me to get my need met. And just as easy to ask my wife what she needed. From there, a conversation could naturally develop, and the path back to harmony would rise up to meet us.
Here are a few jewels from what I learned with Cath and Toni in one evening talking candidly about how to handle challenges that come with any relationship. Remember these for a time of need. They work!
First, Cath said, start with your relationship with your self, including all your parts. You want to be comfortable having conversations within you, with your various internalized roles, before you can hope to have a good conversation with your partner, and all his or her parts. Hence the word “internal” in front of family systems that makes Internal Family Systems different from other forms of family therapy. It shifts attention from our external family relations to what we have internalized of our family and the various roles we developed in order to cope. These are aspect of self that can become quite dramatic characters, and can say and act out all sorts of things. Often in contradiction to what other parts of you want or need.
In IFS therapy, these parts are categorized into exiles, managers and firefighters. The exiles are often young fragments of our Self that got wounded and traumatized, and managers and firefighters are parts that developed to protect these wounded vulnerable parts that got exiled—buried and pushed into the closet because they carry the lower emotional vibrations of shame and blame, guilt and humiliation, anger and resentment, and feeling unloved and unloveable. When exiles get triggered, managers like to take control of the situation. And firefighters put out fires, often leaving quite a mess in their trail. In the center of these three types of defenders and wounded splinters of self that need defending lies the Core You—your Self Energy. This is your Core Self, the loving, caring, happy, content, intentional and visionary you capable of healing whatever life throws at you (or you throw at yourself out of unconscious habitual repetition) with grace and wisdom, and compassion and empathy. This is the Higher Self capable of loving and caring for you first, and then, because you can love yourself and all your parts in this way, also love and care for a partner who has exiles, managers and firefighters of her or his own. Coming from Core Energy makes it easier to have compassion for your partner’s wounded exiles, to be able to manage the managers and call off the firefighters in order to have a productive conversation with your intimate partner's Core Being. Coming from Self Energy rather than wounded parts and protectors, the Core You is capable of making good decisions—good because they are for the higher good of everyone involved. Good for you, good for your partner, good for the couple, good for the family and community.
So when conflict rises up on the event horizon of your relationship, talk to your parts, take them for a walk, get to know them deeply, how to recognize them, and what they need to be well and happy. Do you know your exiles? Can you name them, and recognize them when they enter a room? Do you know what they need to heal? Can you have a private conversation with your firefighters before they leave the firehouse with all their sirens on and hoses in hand? Do you know your managers well enough—the parts of you that think if you control the situation, or your partner, or your self, that somehow it will turn out better than trusting in the process of listening empathetically, talking honestly, negotiating, and making mutual decisions together.
Because if you do know and understand your Core Self and all your parts internally, and you know how to relate to yourself internally, then you can also learn to know and understand your intimate partner and all her or his parts, and know how to help them be their Core Self while being in relation to you. That makes for a happy healthy marriage—a union of two individuals each in internal harmony, who are also in external harmony with each other. From that place of happy union, it’s easy to take care of, and to care for, each other for greater emotional, mental, physical and spiritual health and wellbeing. They’re all connected.