• Chelsea Twiss, Ph.D., LP

The Importance of Healing Relationships: An Autobiographical Piece

It wasn’t until my late twenties and early thirties the notion that it might be important to find a healthy way for me to move through relationship pain struck me. Even with my professional training experiences and as someone who is a relationship-oriented person by nature I had not put intention or focused energy toward this particular part of myself.

I grew-up as a person naturally inclined to care for others. As a cis female growing up in a patriarchal society, this tendency was highly culturally reinforced and it took me many years to learn the dark side of my caregiving and how it could harm me and render me invisible in my own life.

I have been helped along this process of coming to know and learn about myself through relationships, intentional self reflection (not self flagellation or self-shaming) and through the teachings of mentors and authors of works that propose more authentic and connected ways of being. These scholars include Robin Wall Kimmerer, adrienne maree brown, Francis Weller and Harriet Lerner.

I always knew relationships were of central importance to me but I did not always understand the concept of healthy connection in relationships and what that looked like in action. For the most part, I have had to build these healthy connections brick by brick. I have had to cultivate healthy relationships with the great care of a dedicated gardener. These relationships did not manifest through a chronic and persistent diminishing of myself and my needs, as I was taught in my family of origin and in the greater culture at large.

I had to work on learning discernment; finding a way to know which relationships were good for me and which weren’t. I had begun my quest in forging adult relationships from a position of starvation, of scarcity. I believed that licking up crumbs of love, all the while harboring resentment for what I wasn't getting, was the best it would ever get for me. Unfortunately, most of the time, these beliefs were reinforced particularly in relationships with cis male partners.

I remember a clinical supervisor once remarked that I should put more thought into judging the behavior of others after watching a video of me sitting in a therapy room and failing to challenge a male client who was exhibiting openly disrespectful behavior toward me. As a counselor, openness, acceptance and compassion were parts of me that I always believed to be my greatest strengths and, while in a large part they are, they also blinded me to problematic and unhealthy behavior at times: both in my clients and in my personal life.

I am aware that my tolerance of disrespectful behavior has a longstanding legacy. The “look the other way” mentality has persisted for at least two generations of my foremothers and therefore has leaked into my own life. I am still in the process of coming to terms with my own legacy (as Harriett Lerner would encourage us all to do) and how this legacy has led me into many a dissatisfying and painful relationship with family, friends and partners.

Learning what “no” feels like in my body is also something I was not culturally conditioned to do. My adolescence and young adult life was rife with sexual experiences that were not pleasurable or consensual. I only knew that it was important to be wanted but I never learned how and what to want for myself. I often approached love with the force and vast emptiness of a black hole. I would choose partners bound to disappoint me but not leave me. I was afraid to be vulnerable and to ask for what I wanted in case the answer would be “no.” I did not carry within me the kind of love for myself needed to withstand rejection. The result was many unfulfilling relationships that dragged on for years of pain and disappointment, leaving me to wonder how to trust myself when it came to choosing friends and partners.

I had no guidebook, no map to tell me what kind of relationships are healthy and which aren’t. When you grow-up in a family that has not come to terms with its intergenerational trauma and does not engage with emotional pain in a healthy way, it is impossible to know how to navigate healthy adult relationships without guidance.

A lot of the anecdotal information out there for people learning about relationships in movies, magazines and social media can feel highly shame-inducing. Much of this information supposes relationships should just magically happen or they don’t; leaving the reader to feel that they have failed if they have to work toward maintaining health in a relationship for any reason. This information often fails to recognize the many nuances; the need for constant communication and attention to emotional experiences necessary to determine the health and quality of a relationship. I still talk to people who think discussing consent in a sexual relationship is unsexy.

As a cis hetero-leaning woman, I’ve also lately gotten the message (and often have to fight my own internal biases) that as long as I seek cis male partners that I’m basically doomed when it comes to having an equal and satisfying relationship. As long as cis men exist on this planet, we have to hope that they can be better. My hope is that we can all work together and be invested in creating a culture that actively works to dismantle patriarchy and white supremacy.

These systems of violence and oppression only serve to distance us from ourselves and others. They make creating healthy, reciprocal and equal relationships impossible. We must work to build a world driven by the desire for relational equality while encouraging honesty, accountability and vulnerability in everyone. Ultimately, the relational healing work I do exists within a decolonizing framework that supposes we are not all free to enjoy the beauty of healing relationships until these oppressive systems are abolished.

This relational healing work is for anyone who values relationships and hopes to experience the beautiful process of self healing that is possible through the vehicle of healthy relationships. I own that my lens and perspectives come through the eyes of a person who has walked this world as a white, cis hetero leaning, able-bodied woman. I am actively working to heal the perfectionism, or the ghosts of white supremacy and colonization that exist within me every day. Reading about indigenous ways of knowing and transformative justice, spending time with my plants, intentional time with my friends, family and partner and with my dog are all healing rituals that actively help me move through this healing process. And so I come to you in the process of becoming. My hope is that you will find something valuable in what I have to share of myself and my experiences.

I am a relationship and attachment counselor and decolonizing practitioner based in Fort Collins, Colorado. I obtained my Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from New Mexico State University. I currently offer virtual counseling to clients in Colorado State where I am licensed as a psychologist.

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