Fostering healthy relationships

Jesus tells us.[1] Psych research tells us.[2] Our experience tells us. We are relational creatures and the health of human relationships is a powerful ingredient in our emotional wellbeing, whether in our marriages, families, friendships, neighbourhoods, workplaces or churches.  Chronic loneliness has been shown to be worse for our health than smoking 15 cigarettes a day or being an alcoholic[3], and is an epidemic on par with the opioid crisis or obesity.

In these last three editions of the Well on the Way series, I will dive into some principles and practices that have guided me in this arena of healthy relationships.

If there is one issue that raises its head very regularly in my office, it is the issue of assertiveness. I have met SO many lovely Christian people who are very passive. They mistake passivity for godliness. They feel unable to say no to requests made of them and they are not able to ask for what they want. These people genuinely want to serve God in their lives but find themselves mired in depression or anxiety because of underlying resentment, guilt and frustration.

Jesus neither models being a “doormat” nor ever tells us to be such extreme people-pleasers.

I often draw a simple diagram to illustrate how passivity and aggression are the two ends of a spectrum in how we relate to other people. On the aggression end, two things are happening: I am only thinking about my needs and I am giving no thought to the needs of others. Conversely, a passive person does the opposite: they only consider what others need and they are unable or unwilling to articulate their own needs.

This may sound noble, but in reality, it’s highly dysfunctional. Jesus neither models being a “doormat” nor ever tells us to be such extreme people-pleasers. Frequently in the Gospel narratives we see Jesus saying no to unreasonable requests (Mark 1:37-38), asking others for help (John 4:7), stating his opinion clearly and emphatically (Luke 17:3), and initiating, maintaining and terminating conversations (Matthew 16:4, 13-20).

Assertiveness sits happily between the two extremes of aggression and passivity. It enables me to respect both myself and the other.  Assertiveness allows me to say no without feeling guilty. It allows me to ask for what I want without apologising. It looks and sounds healthy, adult, grounded and wise.

No apologies. No maybes. Just firmly, kindly saying what I think.

Developing gentle assertiveness starts, I think, with seeing what a healthy option this is, and beginning to notice it in the interactions around me. It can be helpful to think back over previous interactions and write down what I could say differently next time to express more assertiveness. For example, “Thank you for inviting me onto this committee, but at the moment I won’t be able to help you with it.” No apologies. No maybes. Just firmly, kindly saying what I think.

It’s then a process, and usually a slow process, of having a go, making mistakes and learning from them!

Assertiveness requires believing in myself – a concept some Christians balk at. It requires believing that God’s hand has been shaping my unique person and that God has given me competence in a range of gifts and skills (2 Corinthians 3:5; Ephesians 2:10). It requires believing that God knew what he was doing when he made me, and believing that I have a voice and opinions that I can express.

This leads me to:

Core idea 7: Respect for yourself is a key ingredient in healthy relationships.

Respect for yourself – having some acceptance and enjoyment of the person you are – will allow you to do the following:

1. Initiate conversations and friendships with people you want to get to know.

2. Not allow people to denigrate you or take you for granted. For example, by saying, “Please don’t speak to me like that.” (Note: if there is abuse in the relationship, that is coercion and control, please seek professional support or call 1800 Respect: 1800 737 732.).

3. Ask for what you want in the relationship, for example, “I’d like us to spend more/less time together. I was wondering whether we could pray about that together?” or “Do you think we could have a conversation about … our future/ sharing domestic chores/our use of our money/our sex life?”

4. Do the scary thing of expressing concerns about our relationship. For example, saying, “I feel that we have been drifting for a while. What do you think? Maybe we need to think about investing in our relationship a bit more?”

5. Take the first step in resolving conflict (Matthew 18:15; Matthew 5:23-24) rather than waiting for the other person to take the lead. You could do this by asking a question like, “Are you ready to talk about our spat earlier or should we try to understand it tomorrow morning?”

6. Choose to serve others out of fullness not reluctant obligation!

7. Express your emotions, fears, vulnerability when the time is right.

8. Take time out for rest and relaxation.

9. Firmly coach yourself away from sin and towards healthy growth in Christ.

In addition to the above suggestions, here is my practical tip:

Practical tip 7: Scaling questions

A scaling question asks for a response on a 0-10 scale.

My husband and I do it all the time in relation to movies, food, sermons, books and podcasts. What would you rate that on a 0-10 scale?  Somehow it is easier and more effective than asking for adjectives!

In our relationships, it can give us really valuable information, to ask:

How would you rate our relationship out of 10 at the moment? What is contributing to that score?

What rating would you have given us last year?

What will be different when we are a few points higher up the scale? What can we be doing differently to move in that direction?

The rules are: Be gentle! No blaming or attacking. Just honest reflection and sharing.

Assertiveness really does have the capacity to supercharge your sense of yourself and invigorate your relationships. I think it is where healthy relationships start.

Sue Bartho is a clinical psychologist who runs Well on the Way Psychology in Sydney. To read more articles in this series, click here.

[1] Matthew 22:39: “And the second (greatest commandment) is like it: Love your neighbour as yourself.”
[2] ‘What the Longest Study on Human Happiness Found Is the Key to a Good Life‘, The Atlantic, 2023
[3] ‘The Silent Threat of Our Time: Addressing the Loneliness Epidemic‘,, 2023

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