February is quickly approaching, which means Valentine's Day will be here before we know it.
Now wait, don’t groan just yet. Valentine’s day can be a bummer for a lot of people, but it doesn’t have to focus on just intimate relationships. There are plenty of other relationships in your life that you can celebrate: those with your friends, family, coworkers, or even yourself!
But with this celebration also comes a chance to reflect on the health of your relationships. Are all your relationships built on trust and mutual respect? Or are some people in your life more prone to putting you down and not giving you the validation you deserve?
Your family relationships can be both rewarding and tumultuous. Family is forced into your life; they’re there for you through thick and thin, but not always for the better. Unfortunately, families can haunt you too, but that doesn’t mean you have to lower your standards on what constitutes a healthy relationship. Even if you rely on your family for care and assistance, you still have the right to set boundaries that can protect you.
Unlike your actual family, friends are the family that you get to choose. This doesn’t exempt them from practicing unhealthy behaviors, however. Friends should be supportive, caring, empathetic, and there for you during times of trouble. They might not always be able to support you like your family, but good friends should be willing to stand up for you. Do they?
There are also many stages of romantic relationships: from first dates, to one-night-stands, to more long-term and permanent situations. But just as with any other relationship, your romantic relationships should be based on the same principles.
Let’s look at why healthy relationships are so important and what you can do to build better relationships throughout your life.
Communication is the basis of every relationship. You should always be able to talk comfortably with others, discuss topics, consider compromises for conflicts, and unapologetically be yourself.
However, that is easier said than done. If you’re a highly empathetic person, it can be hard to be honest to people when they’ve hurt you (which can make it difficult to set up boundaries). Similarly, if the person who hurt you has some sort of position of power over you (such as your boss, your parents, or maybe even a partner), it can be scary to communicate your needs to them.
Luckily, it’s never too late to start creating positive communication habits. In your family, work on reserving judgment when someone wants to tell you about their day or a mistake they made. When anyone has an outburst of emotions, take the time to talk with them about the underlying issues. Reward honesty and openness, even if it reveals that someone did something dangerous or rude.
In your friendships and romantic relationships, you should share a mutual interest in each other. No one person should dominate the relationship, and it should be an even give and take, with both sides communicating their needs and listening to the other.
As a person with disabilities and mobility issues, you should always feel comfortable communicating your needs to the people in your life. If someone makes you feel like a burden for taking up space and communicating your needs, then that relationship needs to be reevaluated.
Every relationship you have in life should make you feel safe to be yourself. This includes your family, friends, and especially your romantic partners. If you don’t feel safe to express your thoughts, tell a story, ask for assistance, or simply be yourself, then there is an obvious lack of respect in that relationship that is causing it to be toxic.
Evaluate the friendships that you have right now. Have any of your friends gotten mad at you for not being able to make it to an event, even if the event wasn’t accessible for you? When you had a bad date and wanted to tell them about it, did your friends listen, or did they only talk about themselves and their own experiences? This can be a sign that your friend doesn’t respect you or simply sees you as a tool for themselves.
However, it’s important to remember that you need to show that respect to others, as well. It’s always a two-way road. One of the best ways to show respect is to validate others for their experiences.
It’s important to create safe spaces for everyone in your family, where every member can feel comfortable asking questions, sharing stories, or simply being who they are. One of the best ways to do this is to reserve judgment if you disagree with them and to show empathy when someone shares a tough story. Validate their emotions. Instead of jumping to conclusions or being condescending, focus on making them feel better despite any mistakes they might have made. If there is a disagreement, work on finding compromises or meeting halfway.
When something exciting happens to a family member, celebrate it with them! Get excited and congratulate them, even if it was a small task or accomplishment. All small victories should be embraced, and showing them how proud or thankful you are can help cultivate an important environment of emotional support for when they go through trying times. It will help them build up their self-esteem, self-worth, and emotional health: all important aspects of respect.
Similarly, for yourself, you should take the time to acknowledge your needs and ask your family, friends, and partner to celebrate and validate you when you worked hard on achieving a goal or had a bad day. Especially as a person with disabilities, your friends and family should be advocates and allies for you in every sense of the word.
To build healthy relationships, keep in mind the importance of emotional support, communication, boundaries, and advocacy. Be an advocate for your family and friends, and ask them to be an advocate for you in turn.
Autonomy and Consent
Bodily autonomy and consent are both important topics within romantic relationships, but they can extend to the family and your friends as well. Especially within your family, practicing consent can help build a strong foundation of self-awareness and self-esteem at an early age.
It’s important to create boundaries in your family. This can be anything from a “quiet time” with your kids, to even allowing your kids the opportunity to make mistakes and learn from them. Help them understand that they are only in control of their own actions, and they cannot control others, even if it frustrates them. Boundaries will also help teach your children (and yourself) the importance of consent and bodily autonomy in a relationship. For example, your children are allowed to say “no” to hugs from relatives, and you should support their decision.
There should be boundaries in your friendships too, and those boundaries can help build a solid foundation of trust and respect. Your friends should never force you to do anything you’re uncomfortable with or unable to do, and should never tell you how you should feel about something. Instead, they should be supportive figures for you, and they should listen to and validate your concerns.
Most importantly, in your romantic relationships, there should also be boundaries and a mutual understanding of consent. This includes being open and honest with each other about any past relationships, your current health (especially if you have been or were potentially in contact with an STD), your concerns, and what you want most out of the relationship. Consent should always be an enthusiastic “YES!” in any situation: whether sexual or otherwise. Communication can play a key part in ensuring that consent is understood and respected.
When conflicts arise, work hard to find a solution that fits everybody’s needs. This includes ensuring that every member of the family, your friend group, or your romantic relationship has their voice heard, and everyone works on making a compromise.
If someone is really upset about a situation, don’t tell them to get over it – sit down and talk with them about what the underlying issue is. Do they feel ignored? Did they have a bad day at school and are now lashing out as a result? Listening to the needs of everyone can be tricky, but simply offering a listening ear is extremely powerful in building trust and creating a positive relationship. In turn, your relationships should be able to offer you the same.
In your romantic relationships, resolving conflict is especially important but can be difficult. You always hear about how you should never go to bed angry, but that can be tough to avoid. Fights and disagreements might happen often, but you should always talk your way through them. Find the underlying issue and don’t be afraid to be vulnerable. Even if everything appears fine on the surface but communication isn’t happening, it could be best to seek out professional couples counseling as an option. Don’t wait to seek out help if you need it. Be proactive about finding solutions that work to mend or heal.
Power can come into play in any relationship. In romantic relationships, men sometimes have more power simply because of cultural conditioning and social standing, although much of that conversation is now shifting and coming to light with the #MeToo movement. However, outside of romantic relationships, power can also come into play in families and through friendships.
Your parents, especially, might hold a lot of power over you simply because of their age and how they raised you. Unfortunately, in those positions, they can also wield that power in a destructive way. They may use it to make themselves feel superior while putting you down in the process. They may also invalidate your pain or experiences, or simply tell you you’re not trying hard enough (to heal, to grow, to learn, or whatever). If your family ever uses your disability against you, you have every right to defend yourself and avoid that toxic behavior.
In the reverse, if you are a parent, you need to also be aware of this power dynamic. It’s important to acknowledge and not abuse the power you have over your children. Instead, work on creating an environment of mutual respect, support, and empathy.
This also plays into autonomy and consent, as those in power can often force others to do something they’re uncomfortable with simply because of their proposed status. It’s important to understand the boundaries of others and to respect them in every relationship.
Letting Go of Toxic Relationships
If you’ve come to find that many of your relationships are unsafe for you or are toxic, then it is absolutely within your best interest to work on resolving those issues or to leave those relationships. Unfortunately, not everyone can be convinced of their toxic behaviors, and for your own health, you should consider avoiding toxic people.
Of course, it is also extremely important to acknowledge that this can happen within your family, too. Family members are independent people — just like you are — and you cannot control their actions. However, you can make the decision for yourself to avoid toxic behavior, even when it comes from your family. It can be hard but don’t be afraid to leave if your health is at risk around your family.
For your friendships, it can be easy to fall into the trap of clinging onto friends even when they’re unhealthy. Especially when you’ve known someone for a long time, moving on can be extremely difficult. However, it’s important to recognize your personal worth. Do your friends see your worth too, or do they measure that worth on what you can give to them?
If you find that some of your friends are more toxic than others, then make the transition to spending less time with them. There’s no reason you need to waste time around people that don’t lift you up or listen to you. The same goes for your romantic relationship. It can be extremely difficult to break up, but your health should always be your first priority.
It’s an act of self-care to cut out toxic people from your life. Don’t limit yourself or your time on this Earth to bad relationships!