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Origins of Unhealthy Relationships

Couple intimidation

I recently watched the movie, I Can Only Imagine. In the movie, the father is abusive to his wife and son and they both eventually leave him. Several years later the son returns, and the dad is trying hard to make amends. He’s been reading books and learned how to cook. It’s evident he’s trying to do better, but doesn’t know how. At one point he says, “I have so many questions, but don’t know who to ask.”

It broke my heart.

I imagine he learned the abuse from being abused. I’m not justifying his actions. Many abuse to control and manipulate, but many simply don’t know how to behave differently.

Where do unhealthy relationships come from?

I think this is an important question. Most people want a good relationship, but not all know what that means or how to have one.

We learn about relationships through our relationships with friends and family, and also through TV, movies, YouTube, social media, video games, and how the people around us interact (classmates, co-workers, neighbors, etc.). For more on this, see last week's post Why I Stopped Watching Friends. And stay tuned for next week's post.

Depending on what we’re surrounded by we can learn healthy and unhealthy traits. So first we need to think about what we’re surrounded by, how it makes us feel, and look around to observe other examples. For example, when my kids were young, I realized I didn’t like the message in the movie Grease – where over and over Sandy tries to win Danny’s affection. Eventually, she completely changed how she dressed and the activities she joined to be with Danny and “be happy”. So, if we watched Grease, or other movies with unhealthy messages, I talked with my kids about the messages. I also found other movies with healthier messages such as the Love Comes Softly movie series, Greater, Radio, Remember the Titans, etc.

Next, we need to learn what healthy traits are and how to practice them. Most of us know terms like kind, patient, and nice, but what does that mean in a relationship?

Thinking of the people in our lives, learning their likes and dislikes, and doing things for others without expecting anything in return is a way to show kindness and that we value the other person. In a family, this can be making time for dinner together. Not just sitting around a table eating, but putting devices away, asking about each other’s day, and supporting one another is important.

Most of us will develop a mix of traits and as we grow in our relationships, we may need to look closely at how we interact, how it impacts people in our lives, and if we need to make changes. For instance, when my kids were little, and I wanted them to do something quickly I often asked, then yelled to get them to do the task, get ready for bed, etc. Understandably, they were upset and while I obtained the desired action, I didn’t like the way it felt. So, I started to look for different ways to handle situations such as planning ahead and building in time to talk with my kids about what we needed to get done and why. And I stopped to listen to their thoughts and answer their questions. As the yelling stopped, they relaxed, and felt valued. Positive communication built a stronger bond between us.

Other healthy traits include:

  • Willing to compromise

  • Making important decisions together

  • If a conflict arises, talking calmly and listening to each other’s point of view

  • Not making assumptions. Asking questions to understand the other person.

  • Taking responsibility for mistakes

  • Apologizing when you do something to that hurts the other person


But what if someone didn’t grow up being exposed to these traits? How does someone who has learned unhealthy traits learn what healthy traits are and how to be in a healthy relationship?

  • Seek healthy examples – this can be in a new club or group of friends, or healthy messages in social media or new kinds of TV shows or movies.

  • Resources – There are tons of books and podcasts about healthy relationships and positive character traits. It's important to decide which are best for you.

    • A few of my favorite podcasts include Focus on the Family, Your Move by Andy Stanley, Proverbs 31 and Therapy & Theology.

  • Some of our previous posts dive deeper into this, such as Love Is or Healthy Relationships.

  • Seek counseling – if you’ve been subjected to unhealthy relationships you need time to health and learn about healthy relationships. Counseling can help.

It’s a life-long journey. As I heard on Proverbs 31 ministries we should always be growing.


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