What is Love? Identifying Healthy and Unhealthy Relationships

Dr. Asa Don Brown, Ph.D., C.C.C., D.N.C.C.M., F.A.A.E.T.S.

couple sitting with man concerned for woman

What is love? There are a variety of ideas, philosophies and beliefs around the concept of love.  Love is romanticized in the movies, novels, and on Broadway. Love has a flowery and poetic way about it. We are all aware of the February’s contribution to love, but what really does it mean to love? 

When you think about love, you may think about your own children, family, friends, and partners. As soon as you think about love, there is a rush of intense emotions and feelings that flood your being. Love is not exclusive to our human counterparts. Love may be expressed for our pets, our religious affiliation, our earthly presence and for principles that we hold near and dear to our own hearts. 

Unfortunately, we are never explicitly taught how to love. We are expected to know what love is, but do we really know how to love. In fact, while we may all express love, it does not mean that our perception and concept of love are equal. 

In the early stages of a relationship, there is an overwhelming expression of love, infatuation, and admiration for those that we connected with. Often, it may be challenging to distinguish between love and lust. Lust is driven by our sex hormones and primitive neural network. When we are falling into love, there are chemicals that are released, causing a physical and emotional response. This may be associated with an individual feeling:  blushed, having an increased heart rate, sweaty palms, feelings of euphoria, intense excitement and happiness. We know that the brain is a complex structure, but the primitive aspects of the brain are often triggered by behaviors and interactions that are related to the brain’s reward circuit. The brains reward circuit is reinforced when we have intense and intimate relationships; sexual intercourse; food consumption and alcohol or drug use. While the science behind love may provide us a biological and neurological impression of love; it cannot teach us how to love. 

Love is…

While love is one of the most studied displays of affection, it remains one of the least understood emotions of the human condition. When we are falling in love, there is a change in our physical makeup. There have been countless studies that have demonstrated the unique benefits of romantic and other forms of love. 

As children, we are not taught how to love, or what love is. It is presumed that love is being shared and nurtured in the home. Moreover, there are many teachers, who they themselves, do not fully comprehend the concept of love. Yet given love’s central importance in our lives we neglect to teach how to love.

The Signs of an Unhealthy Relationship and Love

We are all programmed to love. Whether we are loving an individual, a puppy, or something less tangible; we are inherently designed to love. When the romance turns into less infatuation and more burden, we may be entering the early stages of an unhealthy relationship. 

Believe it or not, everyone will, or has had, an unhealthy relationship. Unhealthy relationships do not have to be an intimately driven relationship; nor do they have to be a relationship forged by family or friends; but unhealthy relationships are often a burden upon the individual. Unhealthy relationships are paralleled to healthy relationships in that they often begin by an intense emotional connection. The relationship’s newness overshadows any indicators that this may not be a good connection. 

The Signs of an Unhealthy Relationship are

  •  The individual is often clingy and overly needy.
  • The individual may persuade you to spend a majority of your time with them.
  • The individual may isolate you from your friends, family and support system.
  • There may be signs or expressions of extreme jealousy.
  • There may be indicators that this individual is overly possessive and has mistrust.
  • They may refuse to listen to you when you express your love for them.
  • An unhealthy individual may be demanding of your time and your person.
  • An unhealthy individual may use belittling words as weapons.
  • An unhealthy individual may tell jokes and stories at your expense. 
  • An unhealthy individual may be impatient and intolerant of your needs. 
  • When someone is unhealthy, they have poor and toxic communications skills. 

When we are in an unhealthy relationship, we are met with an individual who is frequently volatile. The volatility may be expressed through threats of suicide; expressions of self-doubt or self-defeating language; or the language may cause you to feel belittled or to have self-doubt.  Unhealthy relationships are often masked by the semblance of love, but in reality, they are an entirely different creature. An unhealthy partner may make you feel unworthy, undeserving, lack confidence, and to bring your own loyalty into question. Unhealthy partners make you feel dependent upon them and that life is centered around that individual.

It is important to understand that an unhealthy relationship may have originated on the right track, but somewhere along the way the relationship derailed. Even the unhealthy partner may have the best of intentions, but their own insecurities and personal dysfunction may have taken over, consuming that individual. Likewise, it is not uncommon for both partners in an unhealthy relationship to have mental health issues. Thus, the relationship’s dysfunction may be more volatile due to the partners’ mental health issues. 

Recognizing an unhealthy relationship must begin with the individual. If you are feeling as though “love shouldn’t feel like this,” then you may be in an unhealthy relationship. Recognizing the signs of unhealthy love is the first step towards pursuing your health. We must be aware of the emotional language and communications used in our relationship. The truth is, we often harm and disrespect the ones we love. 

The Signs of a Healthy Relationship

  • A healthy relationship is an ever growing and maturing relationship. 
  • Healthy individuals recognize that they are not perfect, but are always seeking to improve their individual person. 
  • A healthy individual is supportive and encouraging.
  • A healthy individual encourages an individual to have personal independence. 
  • The communications of your partner should seek to build you up, never to break you down. 
  • A healthy partner should be your greatest ally, advocate and support system. 
  • A healthy partner should be reliable. 
  • Healthy partners should keep your secrets and be loyal. 
  • Healthy partners should make you feel more confident. 
  • Healthy partners should make you feel worthy, deserving, appreciated and approved. 
  • Open and healthy communication is key to a healthy relationship. 
  • Healthy relationships should be recognized by their mutual respect, patience and kindness.

The key to a healthy relationship is to recognize your role and personal responsibility in that relationship. There is no such thing as a perfect relationship, but healthy relationships are continuously striving to improve. While practice may make you better, it will not make you perfect. We are all going to make mistakes. Even for the healthiest of relationships there will be bouts of anger, frustration, and volatility. However, in a healthy relationship, you will recognize when you have erred in your ways.

The Benefits of Love  

The benefits of a healthy relationship are numerous. An individual in a healthy relationship, whether intimate or not, will feel positive benefits from that relationship. Healthy relationships are mutually respective and uplifting. A great number of studies have demonstrated the undebatable benefits of love. In simple, unconditional love has no parameters. Unconditional love occurs through the selfless act of loving an individual.  Research has indicated that love’s role on mental health is extensive. A few of the benefits of love are: 

  • A healthy attachment and bonding unto others.
  • Individuals who receive love frequently report having happier lives. 
  • Love can have a positive effect upon our physical and mental health.  In fact, there are indications that love can increase our immune system. 
  • Love not only has a positive contribution, but it is also capable of interrupting the neural connections for negative emotions, such as intense fear, anxiety, insecurities, and social judgement.  

Fostering a healthy relationship occurs when everyone involved has the same ambition. Healthy relationships are not perfect relationships, but they will continuously strive for improvement.   Healthy relationships encourage authenticity and genuineness. Whether we are in a new relationship, or we have spent many years with an individual, it is never too late to improve our relationship. It will take desire, dedication, persistence, and attention to becoming healthier.

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