The 6 Strands of Connection
Measuring the Health of Relationships
As a relationship expert and couples counsellor, I’m often asked what attributes to look for when trying to determine how good or bad a relationship is and whether or not the differences or gap between them are too large to overcome. Simply put, do we stay and try and work it out or cut our losses.
What I look for in determining the state of a relationship are 6 key elements that I call the “strands” which are essential to connect people together in order to thrive. Like rope, when new and freshly formed, is at its strongest, but when pressure, tension and strain are added, over time, the strands begin to fray, unravel and ultimately weaken the overall integrity.
These strands are the markers or litmus to measure the health of a relationship. In broad terms, they fit into 6 categories, although there are some cross over and interplay. They are physical, mental, emotional, psychological, financial and sexual strands of a relationship. In addition, I have two (2) caveats they are Historical Significance and Important Life Events.
What differentiates, divides or joins us from each other as humans is our ability and willingness to connect in relationship to another. It’s the how and why we gravitate towards or away from one another and how our relationship develops over time. Often too much or too little or difference can topple the relationship into free fall. When assessing the strength of a relationship, we need to undertake an honest inventory and dissection of the individual strands to determine how healthy or sick each element is and the impact overall to a relationship.
These strands will have a hierarchy of importance to every individual which may not align with a partner. That, in itself, can be the cause of conflict and confusion in a relationship.
The physical strand refers to how comfortable we are with one another or how you feel in their physical presence. Can you sit in comfortable silence of does the mere presence of the other get under our skin? Do you really enjoy their company or do you feel the other has just stop trying to engage or spending time with you?
A relationship begins to falter when one party starts to feel less or more for the other. The emotional and sexual strands have started to unwind. Often feeling like a “flat mate” or only operating on a functional level and feeling a sense of loss or relegation of priority in their partner’s life. Perhaps moved into the “friend zone”, meaning you don’t feel the same way about me as I do about you.
Conversely, often issues around control enter the relationship over fear of losing their partner when one expects the other to spend every minute of every day doing everything together. Or alternatively, becoming obsessive about how the other spends time external to the relationship, where feelings of jealousy or mistrust begin to seep in.
A healthy relationship is one where you can enjoy each other’s company, undertaking shared interests or activities, but respect the other’s individual need to spend time with others or alone without feeling threatened or rejected.
It can be as a simple as working with your yin and yang around household chores by organically doing what the other hates and vice versa. Working as a team or in partnership adapting to changing circumstances such as an increase/decrease in work hours, children being ill, etc. Or simply ensuring you carve out time personally to pursue individual interests, self-indulgence or spending time with friends.
IQ – you’re born with it. Can’t change it. But you can try harder or spend more time mastering a task that doesn’t come naturally. Yes, it is unfair, but it is, what it is. However, don’t ever equate academic intelligence to being smart or wise. In relationships, this strand refers to value placed in what individuals bring to the relationship from their worldly knowledge and lived experience.
Cognitive function is only one way of the brain processing data. Remember Charles Darwin once said that it’s not the strongest or smartest that survive, but those that are most adaptable to change. Can people with very different IQ’s make a relationship work – absolutely but pointing out the deficits in the other’s thinking or belittling their capacity for knowledge is just another form of bullying. Usually the higher IQ’s excel in facts, details, areas of black and white, however, it’s the other who is more emotionally attuned and understands grey areas, the humanistic element in problem solving.
Although, she was once perfect for him or he was her “Mr Right”– neither dreamed they’d marry Mr Always Right or Little Miss Perfect. Once in session, a client, who after hearing their partner say “I’m not always right” quipped, “well you’re never wrong”.
A healthy mental connection can be as simple as shared humour, similar understanding of certain events, devising strategies to obtain shared goals, consulting, inclusion of decision making and prioritising areas of your life and valuing each other’s input.
I fundamentally disagree with the term emotional intelligence as it assumes it is a non-linear measurement of someone’s emotional health. My definition is in relation to “emotional maturity”, regardless of age or length or relationship. When life goes awry for whatever reason, how do you manage your emotional response. Do your behaviours reflect maturity? When life doesn’t give you what you want or expect, how do you emotionally manage the situation, event or relationship.
When times are good in a relationship, both parties believe that they are on the same page, it’s when difficulties arise, they can appear to be poles apart in their strategies with dealing with the challenges. I’ve heard “I don’t even know this person”, “I couldn’t believe it when…” etc., it’s like they have met their “real” partner for the very first time. Strong people have been seen scampering in corners, curling up in the foetal position choosing to hide away for days on end. Others become the “hulk”, “a bull in a china shop” a “madwoman” or “princess bitch-face”- all of which affects their partner.
How emotionally compatible are you as a couple when dealing with life challenges, difficulties or differences? In other words, how well to you manage conflict in your life. When the relationship is in trouble holding on or trying to let go can feel like a game of tug-o-war with your partner, using the strands as weapons.
A healthy relationship recognises and acknowledges the emotional content of the challenge and plays a supporting role if their partner has been affected without absorbing their partner’s emotions. Or have the capacity to sit together to discuss an agreed strategy or resolving conflict, whilst understanding and responding to the difficulties faced in a measured way.
Money doesn’t buy happiness but it does create options and opportunities. Sadly, in today’s society it can be a duel edge sword. Some relationships are so financially interwoven that they appear unravel-able to the point that it’s the only thing keeping the relationship together. There are families that cannot afford to stay together emotionally yet can’t afford to separate financially so they operate from a purely functional space. Using, withholding or misusing funds in relationships can cause fractures. Financial control is just another form of relational abuse.
Having financial compatibility in the relationship DOES NOT mean that both parties earn and/or financially contribute equally. It’s the VALUE you place on each other’s financial and non-financial contribution. It’s about the joint understanding and responsibility pertaining to finances, whether it be priorities, savings, spending, frugality, or frivolously spending whether it be for celebratory or fun determines the health of the relationship in this area.
Sexual attraction lust, sexual chemistry, sexual compatibility, playfulness and flirting – oh the excitement. The measurement of how sexually and physically attractive you are to your partner. Sexual compatible includes how sexually adventuristic you are, and whether libido levels on par both contribute to forming a strong sexual connection. Healthy relationships have shared understandings, equal interest, compatibility and initiation in a relationship.
Often when the sexual thread is out of whack – it tends to have a ripple effect on all the other strands of the relationship. One party may feel rejected, or one feels the other may be withholding sex when angry, etc all play into an unhealthy relationship. When the relationship is out of kilter, sex can be the first strand to fray for some whereas for others, depending on the level of importance sex holds in their life, it’s the last – fearing once they lose interest in that area of the relationship, it’ll be hard for them to get back on track.
This strand refers to the way in which you view the world, what is your perspective, your lens on life and of others. It’s the mental plus emotional fusion that develops your opinions, your fundamental belief systems, your judgements and values. Mostly, drawn from lived experiences that have shaped the way in which your views are formed. How do you feel about social issues, political views, religious pursuits, environment concerns, etc. This is an incredibly important strand – most wars are caused and continue to be fought over having differing views or beliefs.
For many, these are the deal breakers, the non-negotiable elements of the relationship, particularly around dysfunctional behaviours such as alcohol, drugs, gambling, pornography, etc. Especially when addictive behaviours are at play, generally accompanied with unbecoming character traits such as dishonesty, deceit, cheating, betrayal, etc. It is the latter that partner’s find the hardest to understand, reconcile, overcome or forgive.
Remember, we are all as unique as fingerprints, there is no two of us alike anywhere on the planet. Therefore, we will not view the world exactly the same as anyone else. We all have different tastes, preferences, likes, dislikes, but it’s how we respect each other’s beliefs, discuss differences and engage in discussion without being abrasive to people we love, sets the tone for a healthy relationship.
The Two Caveats
Historical Significance (more aligned to friendships)
This one falls into the outer basket of categorisation as it is often only history that has kept a connection alive. This is highlighted when reunions and occasional catch up with old friends whereby the only thing they have in common is their shared past. They are grappling around in shared experiences to keep the conversation alive. The only highlights are shown in conversation starters with “remember when” or “whatever happen to” or “what about the time when” or “who’s heard from” seem to be the only entrée to group conversation and perhaps reliving old times again and again.
However, this becomes particularly troublesome in a romantic relationship when there is a sense it has become stale for no particular reason or an underlying feeling of “owing” the other person for a past loyalty or life decision. The only strand keeping it going has been the history i.e. too much time has been invested, or too much time has passed, or we’ve been through too much or its all too late. Regardless of the of health or condition of the strands, it is now just going through the motions of a life with another. It’s reached acceptance of till death us do part.
Traumatic Life Events (One off or Unexpected Events)
Having children, a death of a love one, loss of a job, extended family dramas and many other major life events external to the relationship or out of your control, but nonetheless, have an impact on the strength of the strands. Getting external help through avenues such as counselling or support groups is the best way to assist and navigate your way through these uncertain times and events.
Relationships are ever changing and evolving – the longer you are together the greater the chance of having to ride the ebbs and flows, face difficult challenges and endure external forces.
If your relationship starts to breakdown and the strands begin to fray – hopefully this information will help you to organise your thoughts, gain clarity around where attention and love is needed and help pinpoint the fracture in the individual strand.
Remember, all relationships will endure pressure and change so the strength of a relationship will be continually tested. Seeking expert advice and help can mend bridges, improve communication, resolve conflict and repair frayed strands to get the relationship back on track.
Narelle Brigden Counselling, 2018