How are we supposed to know what a "normal" relationship looks like anyway?
In my practice as a relationship coach, I require that clients fill out an intake form where they share how they developed their ideas about relationships and sexuality. This information is super illuminating and helpful for me to understand what narratives around relationships we may be working with throughout our process. Though each person’s experience is unique, I have found some unifying themes in how information about relationships is absorbed passively through a few major sources: caretakers, peers and media. Some of the implications of this are good and others, not so much. Here are some of the things I have observed and some suggestions of how to start building better relationships no matter your age or experience level!
Where do we learn about healthy relationships?
Most of the time, we are not explicitly taught what a healthy relationship looks like. We start gathering data as small social creatures – assessing our environment for what is ‘good,’ what is desirable, what is forbidden and what is personally appealing. Our first models are our caretakers and since they are also people with their own issues, they don’t always provide us with the healthiest representations. We absorb information about dynamics and what to expect or what is deserved through how we witness and experience love.
I often share parenting articles on social media not only for parents, but for the grown-up child reading the article to understand how being parented in a certain way might affect their understanding of relationships. Caretakers and parents are usually doing their best, but that doesn’t always mean they know best. You can make it through life, marriage, and parenthood without necessarily understanding healthy boundaries, how to express one’s needs, or how to reach out to another person.
Another source of information is our peer group and community. The information we get here will likely be informed by the norms and constraints of the dominant culture we grow up in and the subcultures we are raised in or choose to identify with. It’s also where we get information about what is hot or not and what we should do to fit in.
Media also plays a large role in crafting a narrative around relationship arcs and dynamics. From the news, books, magazines, social media, music (lyrics: “when a man loves a woman ...”), television and film we consume, we are constantly being fed messages that are explicit (a good relationship mean XYZ) and implicit (the “good” girl gets ABC, the “bad” girl gets XYZ). There are cues in what is covered in the news and what is portrayed in these mediums. These mediums often project an idealized version of what one should want and the best way to get these desired things through behaviors. So whether it’s a book like “The Rules” or “Why Men Love Bitches,” fiction like “Madame Bovary,” an Instagram feed with world traveling yogis living in a van, or a stream of movies that show certain characters winning the object of their desire by behaving in a certain way - messages about “normal” and aspirational relationships are everywhere.
What does this mean for me?
There are many implications from learning about relationships passively (external messaging and representations) versus actively through explicit education. Take, for example, if you are raised in a household or environment where there are unhealthy dynamics and dysfunction, you may see unhealthy or harmful behaviors as the norm. One might end up in different situations with similar dynamics without understanding why. Learning from our friends could be a case of the uninformed leading the unexamined and create more confusion. Further, if your expression of sexuality or relationship interests are not the norm among your peer group, you may feel isolated. Media and culture tend to privilege certain kinds of experiences or expressions of sexuality and relationships that one might not necessarily jibe with. Media can also shove an idealized version of relationships or lean on the idea that in order for relationships to be good or healthy, they have to be perfect. Anyone who has actually called and checked up on their bud with the amazing social media and had a relationship outside of the Hallmark Channel can be sure to know that this content is deeply edited and errs on the side of aspirational.
Relationship and sex mythologies are built and maintained when we don’t have honest and thoughtful dialogue about what a healthy relationship entails or looks like.
Some of the messages from family and community I have heard clients share include:
Relationships are hard and pointless.
Men are assholes and women are weak.
Once you get married your sex life/life life is over.
Be careful who you end up with because they can take all your money.
Sex is only for marriage, sex is not for women.
Homosexual relationships are not “real”, bisexuality isn’t a real sexual orientation.
There is always a “special” person (the one who gets their way and desires constantly met) in a relationship etc.
What are things to be aware of in developing & maintaining healthy relationships?
I think when we are young and downloading all the information from our family and surroundings, this time is really important – it is the first point of contact with some of the lessons you will learn in your life. Some models are quite healthy and could be good sources of information. They will provide you with things you might want to emulate and some fodder for healthy rebellion.
Positive relationship education would include information about boundaries, pleasure and self-worth. I think learning the basics of healthy communication, boundaries and body sovereignty would be an amazing place to start. When young people have the opportunity to learn about how the constructs of gender and sexuality as something that is not one size fits all there are better health outcomes. Having boundaries is knowing when to have empathy for a person and lead them to resources such as a therapist or counselor, and when it’s time to exit an unhealthy relationship. Positive relationship education would make pleasure a part of sex education and body positivity as a part of the package.
Things to be aware of in developing and maintaining healthy relationships:
Get to know yourself and learn about you desires, needs, hopes, dreams and fears.
Understand your inherent value as a unique being whom is deserving of love despite your perceived flaws.
Love yourself enough to work on your issues.
Understand and love your body.
Become a critical consumer of culture. Realize that instagram perfection is edited reality, religious doctrines are not sex manuals, and romantic comedies should be enjoyed with the distance and warning, “situations in the movie may be idealized to sell tickets.”
Busting the myth that relationships are something that if they are easy are good and if they are challenging something is wrong with them. The difference between challenging that is mundane, toxic and all the shades of grey in between.
Understand that intimate relationships are an amazing place to learn about ourselves and other people.
Header image edited by Marcy Gooberman
Shula Melamed MA MPH is a Relationship Coach who works with individuals, couples and groups looking to identify and address challenges in their intimate lives head on, exploring issues related to communication, sexuality, and pleasure. Her approach is informed by theories and practices of psychology, sociology and anthropology.
Shula holds an M.A. in Psychology from the New School University and an M.P.H. in Sexuality and Health from Columbia University where she did research on women who take pole dance fitness classes and the role of pleasure in sexual health interventions. Before she started her practice she worked as the assistant to an upscale matchmaker, a social skills coach and as a dancing anthropologist for a NIH funded research program.
Check out her coaching programs at shulamelamed.com and mention tabú for a free consultation.