Our happiness and well-being is linked to many factors in our lives, like our physical and mental health, which in turn influence each other. One of the main sources of happiness in our life is the connection we have to other people. Our relationships can make us feel fulfilled or miserable, as they represent one of the central aspects of our lives. Relationships, along with things like work, are a path to fulfillment and happiness, whereas a dysfunction can lead to a lot of negative emotions, bad decisions, and unpleasant situations.
People are not wired to be alone – we are fundamentally social beings. From the point we are born and throughout our lives, we have a certain degree of dependency on others. We need healthy and satisfying relationships in order to be happy, as the need for connection and belonging is among the fundamental needs of the individual. Relationships also connect significantly to other aspects of our life. Loneliness, for instance, can lead to a worse health, as can stress from constant conflicts. Lacking social connections might affect your job search or a lack of social skills can affect your academic and work performance. Relationships are not only important in our personal lives, but also in relation to the work we do, our health, our hobbies, our opportunities, and many other things.
Some people might need less social interaction and be content with a few significant relationships, while others might need more. For example, a person who is more of an introvert might be satisified with having a couple of close friends, while someone else might want to have a lot of friends and acquaintances. However, with few exceptions, our relationships represent a big part of our happiness and we can’t feel satisfied with our lives unless we feel connected to others.
Is this indeed a fact? We might consider as evidence what happens to people who become fully socially isolated. A person who has a prolonged isolation, for example, a person in solitary confinement, tends to develop lasting and pervasive symptoms of psychosis, loses their willpower, and show other severe negative effects for a long period of time. Being isolated literally drives people mad – and we are not talking about a population who is especially sensitive, but about people who are in jail. Forced solitude can be very difficult to take, so isolating a person from contact and connection can be harmful in the extreme. While people under most cirumstances rarely become so isolated, having limited contact or difficulties with relationships can be pretty harmful too.
Generally speaking, the need for relationships can go unfulfilled in two ways: the person feels lonely and lacks connection or the person is dissatisfied with their relationships and has a lot of conflict in the relationships they do have.
First, let’s talk a little about loneliness. Loneliness is a deficit of relationship, a dysfunction characterized by a general lack of connection. Even though a person might have people around, they may still feel lonely if they can’t find a way to connect to others. Loneliness is consistently associated with a lower well-being, depression, worse physical health, and worse mental health.
A person might be lonely not because they lack the opportunity to make connections (although this can also be the case, for example, with someone who has moved to a new country), but because it is difficult for them to get closer to others, be vulnerable, or build a meaningful connection with. For example, a person might have many sexual encounters with different partners, but not pursue a relationship with any of these partners and feel even more lonely after sex. It’s not about physical presence, but about connection.
Why might people become lonely? They might experience a significant change that leads to them not having the connections they had before, for example, moving to another city or country. They might have difficulties forming new relationships, due to being shy or introverted. They might experience difficulties opening up or getting close to someone. They might feel worse than other people or less worthy or less interesting.
Next, we have relationship conflict. While a certain degree of conflict is normal in a relationship, a relationship that becomes defined by conflict tends to be toxic. There are different ways in which a relationship can be toxic. It can be abusive or be characterized by constant fighting from both sides. It can be toxic in more subtle ways, for instance, forcing the person to always pretend and act in a specific way or hide an aspect of themselves.
Due to the fact that we are wired for connection, if the person’s relationships are toxic, they might still prefer them to no relationships at all. For example, a woman in an abusive marriage will often find herself isolated and lacking in relationships, making her more dependent on the one relationship she does have, even if it’s a horrible one.
Toxic relationships are harmful to our well-being and mental health. They can erode our self-esteem and confidence, be a source of chronic stress, take up a lot of time and energy, and limit us in many different ways.
Sometimes, a relationship dysfunction can not be fixed, except by exiting the relationship. This may be because it takes two people in a relationship to make a change. For example, an abusive relationship may not always be fixed, as sometimes the abuser will not be willing to change or it will not be safe for their partner to stay and hope for something better. Other times, a relationship dysfunction is associated with a repeating pattern of conflict that is associated with a problem in communication or something else. For example, a couple that often fights might do it repeatedly due to a pattern of miscommunication that affects them in different situations. If the couple learns to communicate, they’ll be able to change the pattern of conflicts.
When talking about toxic relationships or lack of relationships, these two types of dysfunction, it’s important to note that the source for these conflicts may be in a signle mindset – that the dynamics of an individual’s relationships can not change. For instance, a person who feels lonely and struggles to make connections might feel that this pattern is too ingrained and they won’t be able to change it. A common idea may be that there is something “wrong” with the person or that the situation is hopeless, because others won’t respond or won’t be interested in a relationship with the person. These false beliefs and learned patterns of behavior that continue on and on reinforce the idea that relationship dysfunctions might not be changed.
However, there is a way that enables these dysfunctions to be viewed as problems that can be resolved. This is the view of these issues as addictions, rather than features of the individual’s personality. For example, if I view myself as someone who is less interesting that others, who is shy, or who struggles with relationships, I am setting myself up for failure, because I view it as a part of who I am. Changing a part of who I am, a part of my identity, seems much more complicated than working with an addiction, so reframing the issue can help reduce the anxiety associated with it and view it as something truly changeable and within your control.
You might wonder about the use of the term addictions. This is an unusual view, but it is also one that has proven beneficial to many people struggling with these issues, as well as those dealing with other types of addiction. We can view any dysfunctional patterns of behavior, including relationship dysfunctions as types of addictions. We become caught in a specific pattern that repeats over and over again and hurts our well-being. This pattern has an effect on us on a neurological level. However, we don’t have to stay addiction to conflicted or toxic relationships or even to a lonely lifestyle. We can overcome it if we so choose and if we seek the right method.
The view of relationship dysfunction as addiction is constructive, because it offers a clear solution to the problem and separates the problem from the individual. You can resolve your problems with relationships and change what’s within your control to change. If you change your patterns, you will find that other people respond differently too.
You can only change yourself, as changing others, what they think or want, is not up to you. However, change in yourself changes the ways you interact with others. For example, a person who rarely takes initiative in a relationship due to shyness might be percieved as aloof or uninterested. If the person becomes able to take the initiative more, others might see it as a sign of interest and become more involved as well. Our relationships with others are dynamic and a change in ourselves can lead to a change in the other, at least, to some sort of change, even if the change is not exactly as we wanted it to be. Imagine a couple who have been fighting for a while over the same things. It becomes a familiar pattern, which both partners continue when they get the related cues. It becomes automatic. However, if even one of the partners doesn’t engage in the pattern, the other can’t follow the same automatic set of reactions either. There is a change and a possibility of new solutions.
A proposed solution for relationship dysfunction is the Answer Model developed by Todd Ritchey. This model approaches all types of addiction, including those associated with relational patterns, and works to help people create a lasting, profound change, working from a neurobiological perspective. By working with neurological patterns and changing the way in which the brain works, as well as by working with the person’s habits and beliefs, it’s possible to create a real change in an individual’s life and their relationships.
Within this model, addictions are considered to have a neurobiological basis. It means that at a certain point the person’s brain adjusted to a situation through the development of an addiction, often doing this unconsciously and outside of the individual’s control. The person learns a pattern that creates a response in their brain, continuing it in their life despite the negative effects. Often, the person can not find a conscious reason for why they should continue this pattern, even though they may rationalize it.
The Answer Model is offered at the Trilluminate center, the only location that offers this method. It doesn’t work only with the addiction, but rather offers a holistic solution, including different therapeutic approaches and activities, like yoga, art therapy, and many others. The therapeutic process helps the person work through the issues in a supportive environment. The additional activities can help the person change their pattern and discover new aspects of themselves. It is a way of changing the habitual pattern. The program is individualized and also offers the person the change to meet and interact with new people.
Resolving relationship dysfunctions through this model can also lead to real changes in other areas of a person’s life and a significant increase in the well-being of a person and their quality of life. Improving our existing relationships and creating new, better connections is one of the paths to happiness that can lead us to a better life.