“Malnutrition Blamed for Relationship Deaths”

The local newspaper headline caught my attention. I read it again: “Malnutrition Blamed for Relationship Deaths.” My heart sank with the news of the tragedy. My mind raced with thoughts about a similar report last month, and now—more deaths. The media report appeared to be true. The county’s Relationship Coroner had completed a thorough investigation of ten recent breakups, and he concluded that the relationships had fallen victim to a leading cause of relationship death—malnutrition. My emotions churned as I pondered this deadly disease and its growth toward epidemic proportions. The report estimated that throughout the county hundreds of other relationships are currently in a moderate-to-severe state of malnutrition and that additional relationship deaths are projected. In concluding his comments the Relationship Coroner warned that all human relationships are at risk from malnutrition and recommended that good nutritional patterns be practiced and protected. 

Before we go further I need to clarify, and perhaps confess, that I imagined the headline. This particular newspaper article never actually occurred. However, one thing is not imagined: the reported threat is very real. The fictitious headline reveals a serious issue that affects every human relationship and deserves our thoughtful attention. What about your reaction to the headline? How often do you wonder about relationship deaths in your city or county? In particular, how concerned are you about the reported CORD (Cause of Relationship Death), that is, relationship malnutrition? To what extent do you worry about your own relationships, especially your marriage? Is malnutrition posing a current threat to the health and happiness of your primary relationships? Clearly, the high number of marital separations and divorces is the predictable result of relationship malnutrition. Friendships and family relationships are susceptible to the same threat.

Preventing Relationship Nutrition

Let’s explore this relationship malnutrition threat in more detail.  Essentially the term “malnutrition” means “bad food.”  Regarding relationships, malnutrition can be observed in at least two different forms, and both forms spell disease and death for our relationships.

First, malnutrition may mean an inadequate diet—not enough of the right food.  This type of dangerous diet focuses on what we don’t do, that is, we fail to provide the type of food (positive behavior) which is required by our relationship.  Apathetically, we ignore the need. Absent-mindedly, we simply forget.  Angrily, we withhold. Whatever the reason, the result is the same: our relationship starves to death.  A husband may declare, “I’m not mean to you and I don’t abuse you. What’s your problem?”  In pain the wife replies “The problem is that you do nothing.  I’m starving to death in this relationship and you do nothing!” Painful relationship death often occurs simply from an inadequate diet.

Secondly, malnutrition may involve an inappropriate diet—too much of the wrong food.  This dangerous diet focuses upon what we do more so than what we don’t do.  Through hurtful and harmful behavior (what we say or do) we poison our relationship, resulting in painful statements like “You’re killing us with your negative behavior.  Our relationship cannot survive much longer!” Hypothetically, if I were to fill my car’s gas tank with kerosene, I would certainly run the risk of damaging the engine.  Car lovers would yell loudly, “You can’t do that!  You shouldn’t treat your car like that!” And they would be right. We know to treat our cars with respect. But, then, we proceed to fill our “relationship tank” with the wrong “fuel” by talking and behaving in such a way that great harm is done, thereby seriously damaging our “relationship engine.”
Suppose you could choose how your relationship is to die—by starvation or by poisoning.  Which would you prefer?  If you value your relationship, you would prefer neither! To starve or to poison—both choices are deadly. The malnutrition process usually follows three predictable steps.  First, we wound the friendship through inadequate or inappropriate diet.  Secondly, we weaken the foundation through the damage which has been done. Thirdly, we witness the failure; we see the death—the mistakes, the messes, and the resulting misery. 

So, what’s the official diagnosis? Someone quickly objects with “What diagnosis? Why do we have to make a diagnosis?” Objection noted, but bear with me. I usually like diagnoses, especially when they make sense and help me to understand and resolve a problem.  Unfortunately, there may be times when a diagnosis may create a new problem.  For example, the story has been told of one man who struggled with alcoholism.  During a routine checkup one day he asked his physician for help.  “Doc, my wife is on my case constantly about my drinking.  You gotta help me out.”  The physician must have been in an accommodating (and musical) mood, for he suggested that the patient tell his wife that he had “syncopation.” The following night the wife began her usual fussing, and the man explained that his doctor had diagnosed “syncopation.”  Immediately she felt concerned and backed off. He celebrated his new diagnosis.  However, later that night the wife became curious and consulted a dictionary to understand her husband’s malady.  She discovered the definition of syncopation: “going unevenly from bar to bar.”

However, let’s get back to our diagnosis of our relationship malnutrition problem.  It appears to me that such a relationship is suffering from IHS—Interpersonal HARM Syndrome. According to the Baker Dictionary of Current Relationship Terminology (p. 219),* IHS includes several important elements. The term “Interpersonal” suggests “between two people.”  “Syndrome” refers to a “grouping or constellation of symptoms indicating a common problem.”  The acronym “HARM” stands for “Habitual Accumulative Relationship Malnutrition.”  As a syndrome HARM involves several key components. First, the behavior is habitual; the negative actions are both consistent and persistent.  Further, the impact of the negative behavior is accumulative; each behavior tends to build upon those behaviors already committed.  By definition the ultimate result is harm to the relationship. In terms of prognosis IHS is always ultimately fatal to a relationship. The failure to feed means malnutrition, and, conversely, malnutrition feeds failure!  

As we painfully consider the damaging impact of relationship malnutrition through IHS we reach a point when we want something better, specifically some way of relating to other people which promotes the growth of healthy relationships.  This desire invites an exploration into the arena of relationship nutrition.

Prescribing Relationship Nutrition

Breakfast—that first meal of the day!  For some people breakfast is merely a requirement to be completed as quickly as possible.  For other folks it’s a time to savor the moments.  What about you? What did you have this morning for breakfast?  A doughnut or a nutrition bar?  Eggs or cereals?  Whatever we ate, we did so for a purpose.  We needed the energy, the fuel, for functioning at our best level. It is my hunch we’ll also have lunch. Then we’ll have dinner, to be followed later by a bedtime snack. Why so much food intake? Simply, we all need physical nutrition. Our personal physician will tell us without hesitation: nutrition matters!

People must have nutrition or ultimately death will occur.  This fact was illustrated clearly in 2005 when millions of people around the world watched and waited to see what would happen to Terry Schiavo in Florida when her feeding tube was removed.  As anticipated, the cessation of food resulted in her death.  This same fact touches our lives when we have family members who are at great risk because they’re unable to eat. Predictably, insufficient nutrition brings disease and death. Malnutrition is indeed a serious business.

Plants are living things and therefore require food.  Without proper nutrition in the form of sunlight, water, and fertilizer plants will eventually wither and die. Our possessions often require food.  You see a man with a red container walking away from a car parked alongside the interstate and you suspect malnutrition:  his car ran out of gas!  To keep those wheels turning we must provide appropriate gasoline for our cars; the fuel becomes the nutrition that our vehicles need. Many other possessions, like appliances, need food.  Thus, we pay our power company big bucks to keep the electricity flowing.  Occasionally, our air conditioning system needs additional coolant to keep providing the comfort we desire.  Automobiles, appliances, air conditioning—all require the right nutrition for effective functioning.  We understand this requirement and we make sure we provide the right food.

We accept and apply the principle that people, plants, and even possessions need “food” of various types.  We understand the importance of this “food” to health and functioning.  Nutrition matters in regard to healthy relationships. So we come to an interesting question:  why then do we so often fail to feed our human relationships?  Are not human relationships like “living organisms” which require “food” for healthy functioning?  Good questions--and good food for thought!

Let’s consider one couple whose relationship was being threatened by malnutrition. John and Jennifer** were struggling in their marriage relationship and comments about divorce were being mentioned. Both admitted that they were frustrated and dissatisfied, but they didn’t want to lose their relationship. They talked with their minister at church who recommended that they consult with a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. Over the next few months John and Jennifer had several marital therapy sessions and their overall relationship improved significantly. The therapist diagnosed IHS (that is, Interpersonal HARM Syndrome), and he helped the couple to explore their specific relationship malnutrition. The therapist wrote out a prescription which he gave to John and Jennifer. According to John, the prescription for “Relationship Nutrition” contained two key components:  (1) Practice Damage Control and (2) Provide Positive Nutrition. The couple was encouraged by the therapist to stop saying and doing the negative behaviors that had been damaging the relationship. They were also encouraged to start providing specific “nutrition” that would strengthen and nourish the relationship. John reported that he and Jennifer took the prescription to heart and worked at the two components on a daily basis. As a result, they are both much more satisfied now in their marriage.

Providing Relationship Nutrition

Most of us have learned how to feed our physical bodies. The prevalence of obesity might suggest that we’ve learned too well! People who prefer a healthy body learn how to eat in a healthy manner, that is, they understand the foods to avoid and the foods to eat. They know that both the quality and quantity of food merit careful monitoring.

In terms of relationship nutrition we need to grow in our understanding of what feeds or nurtures our relationship toward greater healthiness. The two individuals in the relationship need to discuss openly and clearly what is needed and desired for mutual nourishment. The discussion should include an identification of specific words and behaviors that need to be either shared or avoided. In this limited discussion of Relationship Nutrition let’s explore briefly three important types of relationship nutrition:  communicating with truth, cultivating mutual trust, and celebrating the treasure. These three activities are essential to the sustainment and growth of our relationships.
Communicating with Truth . . .

Dishonesty expressed through lies and deceptions is a form of malnutrition, an inappropriate diet that poisons and kills the relationship.  In contrast, truthful communication is a vital form of good relationship nutrition. Individuals who aspire to have healthy relationships must commit to truthfulness and honesty. They resist the temptation to deceive and instead learn to excel in truth-telling. In this spirit of honesty they work hard to encourage mutual self-disclosure and to explain themselves to each other for mutual understanding. Both individuals must speak the truth and they must make sure that they are speaking the truth in a loving manner.

Cultivating the Trust . . .

Another vital type of relationship nutrition is mutual trust. Both individuals commit themselves to a lifestyle that is inherently trustworthy, and, as a result, mutual trust is nurtured. Their trust in each other is a form of nutrition that is highly respected and deeply valued. Behaviors and actions that betray the trust are clearly recognized and conscientiously rejected. The mutual trust is safeguarded on a daily basis.
Celebrating the Treasure . . .

A third type of relationship nutrition is what I call “celebrating the treasure.” Each person views the relationship itself as a treasure, something to be valued, protected, and preserved. This daily celebration includes many activities which might fit somewhere within three different categories.

First, we celebrate the treasure when we extend approval to the other person. Our approval may be expressed through verbal affirmations and positive reassurances. Essentially, our goal is to build up each other as often as we can. Therefore, we look for opportunities to compliment each other on specific traits and behaviors that we admire and appreciate. The statement “I’m very proud of you” is expressed as often as possible. We mention frequently how valuable the other person is to us.

Secondly, we celebrate the treasure when we express affection to the other person. The affection behavior that we express will help us develop both physical and emotional closeness. The two people in the relationship must let each other know the specific amount of affection they need along with the specific ways through which the affection is to be shown.

Thirdly, we celebrate the treasure when we expand each other’s personal abilities. Our purpose is to promote each individual’s personal growth and development. In this effort we become each other’s “booster club” in that we are rooting for and encouraging positive effort and specific accomplishments. Rather than feeling threatened by the other person’s strengths and abilities, we choose instead to promote and encourage continuing growth and development.
Special Challenges in Relationship Nutrition . . .

In our travels along the Relationship Highway we sometimes encounter special challenges in regard to the provision of relationship nutrition. These nutritional challenges are often experienced as frustrating and overwhelming. Two of them warrant our current attention.

One special challenge is the high-maintenance relationship. In this relationship one or both people cannot be satisfied; nothing is ever good enough, either in quality or in quantity. I’m reminded of an automobile I once owned. The initial price tag was very reasonable, so I thought I was really getting a good deal. However, the price tag increased quickly in terms of maintenance. The large engine guzzled gasoline faster than I could pump it in. Regular maintenance was expensive as were the frequent repairs. I think of that particular car as a high-maintenance vehicle. It looked good on the outside and I enjoyed driving it, but the price tag was huge. Likewise, in a high-maintenance relationship the individual is constantly hungry for more nutrition, but no amount of “food” is seemingly sufficient or satisfying.  Essentially, the person is “unpleasable” and is therefore in a constant state of dissatisfaction. The underlying issue may be excessive neediness. The person may endorse the unrealistic expectation that “if you really loved me, you’d provide everything I need so I can be totally satisfied.” Clearly, this individual is depending too much upon the other person to fulfill every physical and emotional need. If two such needy people get married to each other, both of them will remain unsatisfied and unhappy. The overly-needy person would do well to get into some good therapy to overcome this unhealthy pattern. Unfortunately, our culture has indoctrinated us to believe that we must be constantly fed, that we are entitled to be taken care of by other people, and that we deserve total satisfaction in life. The high-maintenance person has been deceived into believing that a high level of attention and fulfillment is absolutely essential to personal well-being. The truth is that all of us could get by on much less and survive quite well. 

A second challenge is the high-misunderstanding relationship. The main problem is the lack of mutual understanding in regard to relationship nutrition. The two spouses are either unable or unwilling to communicate clearly how much nutrition is needed and how the nutrition should be provided. The failure of self-disclosure forces both spouses to guess at the other person’s needs. Predictably, their guesswork leads to inaccurate assumptions and unmet needs. In this kind of unhealthy relationship the two spouses endorse the unrealistic expectation that “if you really love me, you’ll know what I need without my having to tell you.” However, the presence of love does not guarantee the practice of mind-reading. The solution to this challenging relationship is quite simple:  “know your nutritional needs and discuss them openly and clearly with your spouse.” If it’s really hard for you to identify your needs through honest self-examination or if you don’t know how to communicate your needs to your spouse, you may want to consider the benefit of a few sessions with a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist or a similar professional.

Concluding thoughts . . . 

Successful travels along the Relationship Highway require good nutrition—the right type and the right amount. An adequate and appropriate diet will provide the nutrition necessary for the continuing health and growth of the relationship.
In a healthy relationship the two individuals are in a 4G network with each other. The four “Gs” refer to four specific efforts by both people. First, they will work at Grounding the relationship in mutual truthfulness. Secondly, they will work at Gaining mutual understanding. Thirdly, they will work at Growing mutual trust. Fourthly, they will work atGiving mutual nourishment. These efforts will serve to strengthen and safeguard the relationship, and, as a result, both individuals will be healthier and happier as they travel the Relationship Highway.

I wish you well as you consider this important issue of Relationship Nutrition. And, as always, I wish you well in all of your relationship travels.
*BDCRT:  The Baker Dictionary of Current Relationship Terminology is not an actual book. It is a fictitious compilation of mine designed to describe and illustrate various relationship issues. – Dr. Bill Baker

 ​**Disclaimer:  John and Jennifer are not actual spouses, but they represent all of the people who struggle with nutrition issues in their personal relationships

VIDEO:  To see a short television interview in which Dr. Baker discusses "Relationship Nutrition" click on the image to the right or just click here.


(To listen to an audio version of this blog entry, click the Play button below.)



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