Sejal Barden, associate professor of counselor education and executive director of UCF’s Marriage and Family Research Institute, considers healthy relationships as important in one’s life as water, food and shelter.
“We have found if you have toxic relationships, that is predictive of negative health outcomes from heart disease to stroke to early onset Alzheimer’s,” Barden says. “So healthy relationships are not just related to our mental health, but they’re really related to our physical health, too. At our core as humans, we need to feel understood and have a sense of belonging to people.”
While some aspects of our physical health may be out of our control due to genetics, Barden says the good news is that we are all capable of learning techniques to foster better, healthier relationships in our lives. This may be more important than ever after the stress and isolation that the COVID-19 pandemic inflicted on all of us.
Barden applies her expertise to share some warning signs and useful tips to help strengthen the relationships in your life.
Set yourself up for success.
If you want to maintain healthy relationships, Barden says that starts by establishing boundaries. “We teach people how to treat us,” she says. “So much of relationships is patterns, so if we start by talking eight hours a day or spending every waking moment together, at some point that is not going to be a sustainable pattern, and that can lead to a lot of hurt feelings and misunderstanding.”
Don’t wait to take action.
“Statistically we find that couples wait way too long to seek help, and early intervention is so important for couples,” Barden says. “Just because you start out healthy doesn’t mean you are always going to stay healthy. Everyone is at risk for having upsides and downsides in a relationship. We expect that, and having some tools can help foster relationship resilience.”
Conflict is healthy, but watch out for criticism.
Barden says conflict is inevitable in any relationship, but how we argue with our loved ones is key. “It’s really important to not come out of the gate blaming and attacking the other person, but instead saying, ‘My feelings were hurt when this happened; can we talk about this?’ Research has shown for decades that the way in which couples handle conflict, specifically the harshness or softness in how they approach those conversations, ultimately is a deciding factor if they stay together or get divorced.”
Vocalize appreciation and gratitude daily.
“Appreciation and gratitude are fundamental and foundational to all relationships — siblings, parents, spouses, kids,” Barden says. “And it’s not just saying, ‘I appreciate you for being awesome.’ Instead try something focused like, ‘I really appreciate when you made my coffee this morning because you could see I was really tired.’ Even in the chaos of our busy lives, there’s always time to communicate simple appreciations.”
Timeouts are ok.
Barden says when the intensity of a conversation gets to be too much, it may be time to take a step away. “Physiologically our bodies stop being able to process information at that point,” she says. “Timeouts are so important, but it doesn’t mean just getting up without saying anything and walking away from your partner. Instead, say, ‘I feel myself getting really emotional right now, so I need to take 10 minutes, and I’ll come back to you.’ ”
Truly listen to your loved one’s feedback.
“Listening is probably the hardest thing to teach and do, and it couldn’t be more important in a relationship,” Barden says. “Most of these things that we have conflict about are not solvable. We all just want to feel heard and understood. So when we can validate our partner’s feedback, even when it’s not positive, by saying, ‘I can see your perspective,’ it shows them that you’re listening.”
UCF’s Marriage and Family Research Institute
The impact of Associate Professor Sejal Barden’s research and work is far-reaching, both within and beyond the UCF community. This year, UCF’s Marriage and Family Research Institute (MFRI) earned a national award from the American Counseling Association “for making a significant contribution in the counseling field in support of families and family members.”
To date, Barden has secured more than $20 million as lead or co-investigator on research to improve outcomes for couples facing their darkest times, including a five-year, $7.5 million grant from the federal Office of Family Assistance to compare the benefits of in-person and online interventions for low-income couples.
MFRI was established in 2003 on the main campus and is open to anyone over the age of 18 in the Orlando community. Run by trained professionals, the institute’s services are supported by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, so its resources are offered free to the public.
“Couples who have been through our program say, ‘This saved our marriage. This has been the most meaningful thing we’ve done in the last decade,’ ” Barden says. “Word of mouth is our No. 1 referral source, and I think that speaks volumes about the work we do.”