What exactly do we mean by “healthy?” This term gets thrown around a lot these days, especially in reference to psychological or emotional health; and while it’s easy to identify “unhealthy” or “dysfunctional” relationships (abuse, addiction, enabling, etc.) it’s a bit more difficult to determine exactly what that means. Does someone’s idea of happiness, fulfillment, and health have to align with mine, or is it an open ended point of view?
For example, take a couple who has been married over 25 years, has adult children, and both grew up in less than ideal families (like many couples). She is narcissistic, manipulative, and emotionally stunted; while he is a classic enabler, withdraws as often as possible, and has secret addictions. While they have had their ups and downs, they’ve made it work, and there’s no reason to think they won’t be together for life. However, if either one of them (or both) sought counseling and became “healthy” the marriage would likely collapse with the realization of their toxic relationship. The very attributes that have been disastrous individually have also sustained the life they’ve created together; and I suppose if someone asked if they were happy, they would say, “yes” … even though it may look like hell to someone else.
As another example let’s ponder societal roles. Many of us shun individuals who bring us down, are abusive, control freaks, etc. However, there seem to be roles and offices in society that require people with these otherwise dysfunctional traits (perhaps not require, but play to their strengths and reward them), and in return we enable them – or at the very least, turn a blind eye to it. Many of our world leaders (and many of them good) have characteristics that make a healthy family life impossible, but simultaneously allow them to perform their jobs very effectively. Of course this isn’t limited to world leaders, nor is it to say all leaders must carry a certain level of dysfunction to succeed. What I am suggesting, however, is that certain traits we often categorize as “dysfunctional,” in terms of close relationships, seem to be helpful in some jobs. A darker example of this can be seen in some branches of the military where soldiers are trained to cope and even excel with a certain level of PTSD. While this is helpful for military performance it rarely translates over to the rest of life, and it can be of little coincidence that so many of our special forces have become military contractors and in some cases foreign mercenaries.
All of this is to ask, “What does healthy mean?” Perhaps the best way we can begin to answer that question is to ask in return, “What kind of life are you trying to live?” because it seems to be relative. Is there a standard by which we can define mental and emotional health, or is that definition relative to life goals and choices? If the answer is “no”, we must then ask ourselves what kind of world would exist if everyone lived up to that standard (whatever that would be), and would it work?