Using Positive Psychology to Build Healthy Relationships

The Author

E. Alana James

E. Alana James

Dr E Alana James is reinventing herself again! Coming full circle to the first love of her life - art - and bringing back to her images all the lessons of her life as author, researcher, academic and wife. Concerned mostly with the idea of images as vehicles for expression of the truth of our inner and outer life experience.

Many people stay in unhealthy relationships much longer than they should, and sometimes for their whole lives. An unhealthy relationship might be one in which both parties are just not as happy as they should be, or it might be severely abusive (whether emotionally, physically or otherwise).

Being in an unhealthy relationship can damage your confidence and self-esteem, and use up a lot of emotional energy that could be used much better elsewhere. Because they are so draining, getting out of an unhealthy relationship is difficult. Putting all your energy into trying to keep the relationship stable means you do not have any left to end it.

Most of us have probably been in a relationship that was in some way unhealthy, and sometimes that is just down to bad luck. Some people have a repeated pattern of unhealthy or abusive relationships. That pattern can be very firmly rooted, often caused by mirroring of parents’ bad relationship or a difficult first couple-relationship. To get out of such a pattern often takes a conscious effort. This is where positive psychology techniques can help.

PERMA and Relationships

The PERMA approach to positive psychology developed by Martin Seligman includes developing better relationships as a key part of it. PERMA stands for:

P – pleasure

E – engagement

R – positive relationships

M – meaning

A – accomplishment.

The R relationships refers to all kinds of relationships, including work and parent/child relationships, but we can look specifically at how it could be applied to couple-relationships. Building good relationships in general is at the heart of positive psychology – whether we choose to see it or not, all of us need relationships with other people. Having positive relationships helps you achieve pleasure, engagements, meaning and accomplishment too. Being stuck in a bad couple-relationship can damage your ability to achieve these things, as well as your other relationships. . See this page for more information on the PERMA approach.

How to Break the Cycle

Bad relationships trap people in a negative emotional state. People tend to stay in them because they are frightened, and fear is an extremely powerful emotion. Fear of being alone, fear of what an abusive partner might do, fear of having to resolve practical problems like housing and money – all these can seem like good reasons to stay in a bad relationship. To get out of a bad relationship, you need to positively consider your own needs. Whether your partner is abusive or just not the right one for you, in order to effect change you need to look to yourself.

Many people have a strong tendency to try and channel positivity into the bad relationship. They might try and focus on being kinder to their partner, in the hope of getting that kindness back. They might think that being positive, means being forgiving, and believing that things might change. Women in particular tend to do this, perhaps because our society tends to condition women to hang much of their self-worth on their ability to ‘catch and keep’ a man.

People can tie themselves into positive relationships because they feel trapped by shared history. This can be especially true of married couples – having asked people to come to their wedding, spend money on wedding gifts, perhaps having accepted money from parents towards wedding costs – people feel that they would be letting other people down if they were to split up. They look around their marital home and see things that tie them together – the wedding photo, the personalized ‘happy couple’ glass engraving, the special souvenirs they picked up on honeymoon – and feel that the relationship and their life as an individual cannot be separated.

We all want to be ‘good’ people, and in these ways being ‘good’ can actually become a negative thing. Being positive is not always the same as being good. It can mean being what some people would call ‘selfish’ – something we are taught to see as wrong. To have PERMA we need to be able to be positive about ourselves, and take the decisions that are right for us.

If you are in a bad relationship that you are not sure how to leave, start by looking at what you want to achieve with your life. It can help to make a list. Include things that you think you cannot achieve. Then look at how you might work towards each one, even if you think you cannot, and even if you have to do it in little steps. Look at the things you think you cannot achieve – how many of them are things you think you cannot achieve because of your relationship? If you are in a bad relationship, the chances are there are many things you would like to do but cannot, because of the relationship. Start focusing on your goals and you may find leaving much easier than you thought.

Alison Styles is a freelance writer and relationships specialist. She has spent time studying the patterns of bad relationship behavior and is committed to helping others identifying these and taking action for a better life.