I recently heard a highly respected therapist and author (Nancy McWilliams) describe 16 characteristics of mental health. She made the critical point that what we think of as “health” is much more than just the absence of problematic symptoms. Even more importantly, she spent several hours describing the characteristics and capacities of mentally healthy people.
As I considered her list, it occurred to me that these same characteristics are essential in establishing healthy, intimate relationships. Not surprisingly, research shows that a healthy, intimate relationship (like those achieved in successful psychotherapy) can help develop similar capacities in those wanting to experience mental health. In short, mentally healthy people can help cultivate healthy relationships which in turn can produce mentally healthier individuals.
This should certainly make sense to anyone who has ever been in a healthy family, church, friendship, marriage, etc. Relating to healthy people has a way of making us all healthier. And the healthier we are, the better able we are to extend that health to the social and intimate relationships we are in.
I thought I would take a closer look at each of the characteristics mentioned by Dr. McWilliams as a way highlighting their importance to our overall emotional and relational health; as well as offering anyone who wishes a means of measuring yourself against characteristic markers of good mental health.
Love never fails... (I Corinthians 13:8)
The first one in her list was love. This is a certainly the place where most of us would start when thinking about forming a marital relationship. We want to know whether our potential partner has a “healthy” capacity for loving us the way we want to be loved. But the type of love I am describing here goes quite a bit beyond that kind of self-serving notion.
A capacity to love authentically, honestly, and vulnerably is without question one of the most obvious and apparent aspects of a healthy, intimate relationship. As I have frequently mentioned to clients, vulnerability is the prerequisite to intimacy. If you can’t be vulnerable, you can’t be intimate.
The same is true of being authentic and truthful. If you are going to hide behind walls of defense because of past wounds, you will find it impossible to be in a loving relationship of any depth. Even when you think you might be loved by others, you might be convinced it is because they don’t really know you.
This type of love carries with it the idea of “devotion.” It is the loyal love particularly true in adult to child love, or adult to “impaired” adult loving relationships. This is a love that does not seek equal levels of gratification or return for love given to others. It is the kind of love that serves an ailing spouse, or extends itself even when children or ailing parents require care and attention that is not reciprocated.
This is also the type of love that is stable and unchanging over time or circumstance. It is the kind of love we see in long term relationships where love is given, not because you depend on the loved other to immediately love you back, but because you believe in the inherent value of your self, the other, and the relationship.
It is a love that finds meaning even in the inevitable suffering that occurs in all close relationships. It can withstand the temporary ups and downs of daily living. It remains loyal, even in the toughest of times. It is sacrificial and costly. This type of love doesn’t always feel good but many times has the transformative capability of turning situations that would otherwise be disastrous into something really beautiful.
What I am describing is the type of love the bible portrays God having for us and which is most fully evident in the person of Jesus who entered history and lived out this type of love. It is a love that cost him everything by leading to a Roman cross. John, a disciple who knew the love of the Messiah, declared: "We know what real love is because Jesus gave up His life for us. So we ought to give up our lives for our brothers and sisters (I Jn 3:16 NLT).
Now, it’s safe to assume, none of us live out that same level of love for one another. But, can you do an honest self evaluation regarding the characteristic of love? Is your love a committed and unconditional love? Is it unchanging? Does it seek the well being of another, sometimes even at your own expense? Is your love given freely or do you have an implicit expectation that you will be repaid in return? Would your spouse or partner say you are kind and patient? If you don't know, ask them. Are you interested in hearing the truth?...Because love rejoices with the truth. (1 Cor 13:6)
So much more could be said about love but maybe that's enough to get you started on your own self evaluation. How “healthy” are you? What areas of your “lived out love” need your attention? If you find an area in which your “love” has been weak, try to exercise some health in that regard. See if you don’t notice some type of transformation in either yourself or in the one you love.
The next item on our list of mental health characteristics is “work.” We will get to that next time. For now, feel free to join me in conversation about this list. Maybe you have some ideas about what it means to be mentally healthy. Share your healthy characteristics with me and I’ll try to incorporate them in my own list.