Most things worth having are challenging at first. Think about any hobby that you love, such as sports, painting, woodworking, or playing a musical instrument. How did you learn to do it well? Someone likely taught you the key skills. Then you started practicing. At first, your efforts were probably a little messy. If you were lucky, you had a great teacher or coach who helped guide you. Over time, as you practiced, maybe you got really good at your craft. It’s a great feeling!
Relationships are no different. There is both an art and a science to healthy relationships. You can learn the key skills to get better at them.
You might be thinking, “But I know those key skills.” Maybe you were taught that God wants us to love others, care for those who are hurting, and bear fruit like joy, goodness, peace, humility, gentleness, faithfulness, patience, and self-control (Gal 5:22-23). Above all, maybe you were taught to be kind. It should be simple, right?
So, why are relationships with parents, children, spouses, friendships, or church communities still so hard at times?
I’d like to suggest 3 reasons:
1.) We are not taught how to practice healthy relationships. Think about it: You likely learned how to write and then practiced in order to get better at it. Maybe you took a driving course and then practiced driving. But, did anyone teach you the skills needed to choose relationships wisely? Furthermore, did anyone coach you through the practice of developing a healthy relationship over time?
2.) We bring our own wounds into our relationships. By the time we reach adulthood, most of us have picked up a wound or two. You might struggle to trust others, or you may struggle with shame. Maybe you don’t feel very good about yourself, and that experience impacts the way you let others treat you.
3.) Others bring their wounds into our relationships. It’s not just you who arrives at adulthood with a few wounds. So do the people you are drawn to. In fact, we tend to be drawn to other people whose wounds match up with our wounds. For example, if you struggle with low self-esteem, you might find yourself drawn toward someone who is controlling. If you struggle with shame or lack of trust, you might find yourself drawn to someone who initially presents as having it all together.
Inevitably, as a result of these factors, relationships get hard. They start to feel complicated and messy. The good news is that you can learn the key skills. You can learn how to address wounds and practice healthy relationships going forward.
The Key Building Blocks for Healthy Relationships
In the 1950’s and 1960’s, psychologist Erik Erikson proposed 8 stages of human development. His belief was that each person must successfully resolve the key skills of each stage in order to progress on to the next one. Guess how many skills we must master before we even get to the stage of healthy relationships with others? FIVE.
That means that if you’re struggling in relationships now, it may well be that we need to look back at those earliest stages, before we can look forward.
Today, I’m going to teach you the first 4 stages—these stages are the ones that we ideally resolve in childhood. You will notice that many of these stages reflect topics I write about frequently: trust, shame, guilt, and autonomy. That’s because these are formative themes that we all must learn to master in order to establish healthy relationships with other people.
Here are the first 4 stages:
1. Trust vs. Mistrust: Can I trust other people?
Young children from birth to approximately 18 months are almost entirely dependent on others. Even though you do not remember this time, it has a profound impact on your future relationships. If your caregivers fed, nurtured, comforted, and provided healthy physical touch for you during these years, you experience what psychologists call “secure attachment.” You have a foundational experience of another human as trustworthy. On the other hand, if you didn’t experience a secure attachment with a primary caregiver as a baby, you might be inclined to see others as untrustworthy. You may find it difficult to distinguish between people you can trust and those you can’t. In this case, you might have picked up a burden deep inside that says, “Don’t ever trust anyone,” or “No one cares about me.”
2. Autonomy vs. Shame: Can I trust myself?
From 18 months to 3 years, children enter into a new stage of development. In this stage, you start to explore the world away from your parents. You learn basic skills such as toilet training, feeding yourself, and moving on your own. Again, even if you can’t remember much from this time, it still impacts you. If you are encouraged to explore and grow in independence, you develop a sense of healthy pride in yourself and your abilities. However, if you were ignored, punished, criticized, or controlled during this time, you may start to pick up burdens of shame, such as, “I can’t,” or “I’m not capable.”
3. Initiative vs. Guilt: Am I capable?
As you move toward 5 years old, you start to play more with other children. You reach out and take initiative. You might be drawn to certain types of activities and individuals. As you begin to take more initiative, healthy parents will continue to support your efforts, while also teaching you healthy boundaries. If you were guided through these areas with support and healthy accountability, you gain a sense of self-efficacy. However, if your efforts were met with indifference or shaming, you may wind up doubting yourself. In this case, you might pick up messages of guilt and shame, such as “What I want is bad.”
4. Industry vs. Inferiority: Am I enough?
From ages 6-11, you begin to gauge your competence, primarily at school. You learn how to read, write, and interact more frequently with your peers. You are getting grades. And, you become increasingly aware of how your own performance at school both academically and socially stacks up against your peers. This is such a critical time for parents and teachers to help young children formulate how they think about themselves. In the absence of guidance, you may start to think of yourself as inferior to other people. For example, if you were bullied by your peers or struggled in school, you might pick up burdens such as, “I’m less than,” or “I’m not enough.”
Each of these stages impacts your later adult relationships. We’ll discuss more how that happens next week. But, for now, as you review these first four stages, ask yourself some of these questions:
- Does any stage stick out as one that might have been particularly difficult to you?
- Which of the 4 key questions do you continue to wrestle with?
- What burdens mentioned above resonates with a burden you still carry?
- How might this burden impact your current relationships?
For Further Reading on Why Relationships are Hard:
The Effects of Toxic Parents and 5 Steps to Healing
The Enmeshed Family and 6 Signs of Toxic Behavior
Join the conversation. Leave a comment below:
Which of the stages or key questions stood out most to you?
Belinda Johnson says
Growing up was great in family terms. School on the other hand was difficult. I was always bullied, called fat and ugly and was never picked for teams. I feel as if I am not good enough.
Interested in what you have to offer.
It seems to me, that the whole idea and practice of comparing never turns out real well. I’m either less than or I’m better than and neither feeling or attitude contributes to positive relationship.
Sandy Powers says
Aha! Now it makes sense why I have always and continue to struggle with feeling inferior to others and “less than”, mixed with constant battles with shame. I have vivid painful memories at 4 of being so humiliated by my parents in front of other people that once I cried so hard I blacked out for a bit! My dad would try to dismiss my pain by saying they weren’t laughing “at” me but they were laughing “with” me. Ha! As if I ever once laughed “with” them! Having no voice and being humiliated over and over again formed my opinion of myself that a bazillion self-help books, Bible studies, and sermons have not been able to completely heal. BUT… I will say that the principles in your Soul Boundaries book and podcasts have done more to help me than all the others combined! Thank you so much for the work you do!!! It continues to make a huge difference in my life! 🥰
Elsie Weaver says
I would love to subscribe to your email updates. Thanks so much.