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Growing Pains

Updated: Oct 18, 2023

As a Mental Health Professional, I have noticed a new catch all phrase being used to describe a not so perfect person or relationship. According to psychology today, this word was the most used word of 2018, and that word is “toxic” (link to the article is at the end of the blog). While I certainly will not take away from the fact that, yes, at times people or relationships can be completely toxic, it is not a catch all phrase for imperfection. For instance, relationships are hard to say the least, there will always be setbacks and growing pains that present themselves usually at inconvenient times. I am going to use myself and my relationship as an example. Entering a new relationship after my husband died was very difficult. I battled guilt for moving on and struggled with the fear of losing someone again. To me the answer was “well, if I have a problem I will just leave.” It made more sense to me at the time to split than to work it out. Truth be told I had to do a lot of my own therapy to reveal that this response was driven by the guilt and trauma of being a widow. What it took for me to grow past this was the love of a man who was gentle and kind enough to communicate his needs and feelings when these things came up. I feel that with the help and patience of someone loving me enough to talk things through in a gentle way showed me it was okay to let another person in and that I am safe. Since then, we have made significant improvement in our communication and other areas of our relationship. I hear a lot of opinions by people who are quick to label others as “toxic” based on their own biases or experiences regarding relationships or people. This labeling feels like black and white thinking and creates cognitive distortions regarding what a relationship is, and how it holds up to imperfections. In cases where “toxic” is being thrown all around as a catch all phrase is not a definition of a healthy relationship that has growing pains. Another popular descriptive word is “red flags." I think it is easy in this culture to get caught up and stuck on everything that is wrong, especially if we feel it will fit the narrative the way we want it to or help to manipulate another person for personal gain and agenda. I don’t believe humans are all bad or all good, therefore, neither can relationships be one or the other. What is just as important to equally recognize are “green flags." Through the growing pains of my relationship and both of us recognizing our “red flags” we have been able to secure and identify our “green flags." For instance, the way we have redefined what commitment and communication will look like to fit both of our needs has given us the ability to withstand moments of disagreement or strong emotions. We also practice appreciation and quality time together. This has contributed to higher confidence and independence because we both feel safe enough and secure enough to communicate feelings and boundaries. When one partner verbalizes a boundary the other one is respectful and understanding. Our relationships are balanced with empathy and the willingness not to have the last word or always be right. I have found that when we spend time talking about the life and family, we want to build together it is just as beneficial in reminding us of what we are working toward. Although not every relationship will be perfect, if you both work hard and strive towards a common goal, while simultaneously improving your communication skills and growing through tough times, then the outcome can be more rewarding. I could not imagine my life without this person in it and if the world were ending, he is the one I would want to spend my last day with. This does not mean that I have forgotten Joe or that I love him less, it just means that I can appreciate that relationship and still live my life with the person that I have chosen for me now. I address issues that may trigger me in this way, since I recognize that we both experience ups and downs, but we are accountable to each other and not always right. Love is the language of our understanding. It is possible to have a better than good relationship, but a perfect one does not exist. The important thing is that you are both willing to do the work, appreciate the other person, and if you need counseling, I am here for that, too. It’s okay to have conflict it’s our willingness to grow from those experiences that determines the outcome.

References: Susan Krauss Whitbourne PhD, ABPP, S. K. (n.d.). Toxic Is the Number-One Word in 2018 This Could Be a Bad Sign for Relationships.

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