Double Take: Relationships get a health checkup at the clinic

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Ben: What if there were a health clinic for relationships? If you could just walk in for a checkup, what would the doctor say? Until that clinic gets some funding, here are a few diagnoses I’ve seen in both couples and friendships. You might check your relationships to see if any of these apply.

l Addiction. One person cannot become your all-in-all. It’s great to care deeply for someone, but you cannot put all your chips on one person, especially in pre-graduation years. If your social life rests on the shoulders of a single person, then you are looking at a painful bout of rehab if he or she ever leaves.

l Cancer. We always hurt the ones we love, but sometimes we make someone’s bad choice synonymous with his or her identity. Are there any people whom you identify more by what they did to you than who they are? If you leave that resentment unchecked, the cancer will spread to every aspect of your relationship until it’s deceased. The only cure is for both parties to confront it, stat.

l Heart problems. If you can’t be real with the people you’re dating or if they don’t like the person you are (i.e., they’re always trying to change you), then your relationship probably isn’t going anywhere too great. If you can’t accept an unabridged version of each other, then that’s going to play out poorly down the road.

l Brain damage. Think about it. Do you have friends who consistently do things you know are wrong? Do they drag you down with them? If yes, then cut out the tumor before the damage gets worse.

l Hallucinations. You’re not dating the perfect person, so don’t pretend that you are. You put a lot of pressure on a person when you idealize him or her, and it’s going to hurt both of you when he or she inevitably shatters your illusion.

l Hypochondria. When one joke or criticism sends your significant other into a state of panic, you’ve probably got dating hypochondria. A hypochondriac always assumes something is wrong with your relationship. We all experience this sort of anxiety to an extent, but we have to be careful that it doesn’t mess with our heads. Insecurity often leads to doubt, and nothing poisons a relationship like a lack of trust.

Any of these sound familiar? If so, don’t just slap a Band-Aid on your problem and call it resolved. Whether you need to have a sincere talk with someone or you need to cut the cord on a relationship, most of these require some surgery. Take the time. Don’t ignore the symptoms.

Wes: Lucky us! There are such clinics. Most therapists recognize that mental health conditions are often related to social and relational environments, so many treatments involve those interactions. Thus, I’ll extend a couple of Ben’s points, based on 18 years of experience working that way.

Expecting too much is a certain ticket to disappointment. Trying to re-engineer someone into who you think they should be usually ends in disaster, no matter how positive the changes you envision. That said, most serious friendships and any good romance will change both partners. That’s one of the major attractions in getting close to anyone. Your job in choosing a relationship is to determine whether a given individual’s core personality can stand the upgrade and whether he or she really wants to be different. Simply put, most people want to change, but not very much.

Next to expecting too much, the most common mistake I see people make is expecting too little. There are no flawless people, but there are quite a few who don’t self-destruct at every turn and take their partners with them. Many are good-hearted, have goals and ambitions, aren’t drunk or high most of the time, and disavow abusive or antisocial behavior. If you see any of those problems creeping into your relationship, push the eject button. Trying to change such folks instead tends to enable more of the same.

Likewise, just because there’s no perfect someone waiting for you, there are a great many someones who you might be perfect with — if you give yourself a chance to sort them out. The third most common mistake I see is settling for a poorly matched partner simply because you don’t believe you can “trade up.” Get up every day and assume you deserve the best relationship you can find. Then find it.

I have several rules for dating and marriage, and they work pretty well for finding good friendships, too. Look for someone better than you, then let them lift you up gently. Never be with anyone you have to be with, lest you become powerless in the relationship. All relationships are paradoxical that way. The neediest party is the most motivated to be in the relationship, and the most motivated person is always the one with the least power. If at any point you find yourself in a severely power-mismatched relationship, the best thing you can do is get out or at least make the other party aware that you could do so. There is no other way to even the playing field.

Finally, we like to think of relationships as feeling-based, when they are almost always thought-based. Give yours a little courageous thought and see what you find.

Next week: Developing empathy in teens.

— Dr. Wes Crenshaw is a board-certified family psychologist and director of the Family Therapy Institute Midwest. Ben Markley is a senior at Free State High School. Opinions and advice given here are not meant as a substitute for psychological evaluation or therapy services. Send your questions about adolescent issues (limited to 200 words) to All correspondence is strictly confidential.