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Are you in a healthy relationship?

When people talk about relationships, they often rate them as healthy, toxic or somewhere in between. But what exactly is a healthy relationship and how are they formed?

Deakin University’s Professor Craig Olsson is the director of the Centre for Social and Early Emotional Development (SEED). He is the scientific director of the Australian Temperament project, Australia’s longest-running longitudinal study of child development. The project charts the emotional development and relationships of 2000 people who were born in 1983. Prof. Olsson and his team have also been tracking the way the parents in the research group relate to their offspring. He says the relationships we form with our parents are likely to dictate how we’ll form bonds with friends, colleagues and romantic partners in the future.

Prof. Olsson’s work reveals that the road to healthy adult relationships starts – you guessed it – with a safe, supportive childhood.

How does childhood impact your future relationships?

All children need to go through important developmental phases in order to form meaningful adult relationships. When parents tend to every need, children are naturally narcissistic. But as they grow, young people evolve from being a receiver of care, to learning how to provide care to others. ‘There is massive journey from egocentrism to progressive levels of generatively – an ability to take an interest in the “other”,’ Prof. Olsson explains.

If you’ve been raised in a secure, safe environment, Prof. Olsson says you’ll have witnessed good models of care that will drop into your unconscious and help to form a secure bond with your parent. In a secure base, you’re emboldened to live your life, to grow, to do things you wouldn’t have done of your own accord. ‘A good parent will let their child go to the edge of risk and support them, so that they can build self-trust and confidence,’ he says. A child from this background will typically go on to exhibit these characteristics in a relationship, emboldening their partner and allowing them to thrive.

What if you didn’t grow up in a secure environment?

Prof. Olsson says that when a child has poor experiences with their parents, doesn’t build good friendships and perhaps doesn’t feel confident, their adult relationships can implode later in life. As children they may seek proximity to an emotionally unavailable parent. According to Olsson, when a secure bond doesn’t form, ‘the need to connect will still be there, burning like it is with everyone else, but they’ll build a defence’.

If you were raised in an insecure attachment environment, those engrained defences might have an impact on your romantic relationships in the future. ‘Those children will try to elicit a “please notice me” response. You get the kid who retreats, and the kid making you aware they exist by crying or screaming,’ Prof. Olsson points out.

‘If the transition to learning how to care for others hasn’t happened, people start to pair up based on how well a person fits their shopping list of commodity items, rather than how those individuals fulfil the functions of a secure attachment,’ he says.

Can you reverse your parents’ impact on you?

‘The natural propensity for a girl or boy with an insecure attachment history is to seek out relationships that aren’t good for them. Then it perpetuates the belief that no one can be trusted,’ Prof. Olsson says. But that’s not to say someone can’t sweep in and prove that person wrong. He highlights a study where one woman from an insecure attachment background settled with a man from a secure background. ‘Within 18 months her whole attachment configuration remodelled,’ he says. This is because this romantic partner successfully emboldened her and provided a safe haven. So, yes, the good news is you can undo those hard-wired behavioural patterns.

What should you look for when seeking a secure relationship?

You can tell if you’re in a secure relationship when the relationship is under stress – not when it’s easy, according to Prof. Olsson. You want to be with someone who provides security in times of need, rather than being emotionally unavailable.

He returns to the two most important things required to sustain a successful relationship: the ability to embolden a partner and help them to feel safe when they need it. ‘The ability to truly share with another person is what makes a healthy social and emotional life. In order to have that relationship with another, the relationship has to be founded on respect, kindness and honesty,’ he concludes.

 Learn more about Deakin University’s Centre for Social and Early Emotional Development (SEED) and studying at Deakin’s School of Psychology.

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Professor Craig Olsson
Professor Craig Olsson

Professor, School of Psychology, Deakin University
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