Gardens & Relationships

With flowers in bloom and garden crops reaching skyward, I can’t think of a better time to talk about love. Relationships are like gardens, when we don’t pay attention to them, they might not work the way we want them to.

The big question is, how much attention is enough? After all, people can over-water. We can spend too much time obsessing over every weed and forget that one person’s weed may be another person’s landscaping plan. I fully admit that the ferns that grow around my house need no attention and I love the way they look. I’ve noticed that on my street many people don’t have ferns in their yard. I can’t help but wonder if those folks look upon my ferns as an invasive species, tainting the neighborhood, making me a lazy homeowner.

Like I said. I like the way ferns look. And you might be thinking, what in the world do ferns have to do with healthy relationships? I think the answer lies in being true to your values while in a relationship.

Caring enough, and paying enough attention, whether it is about gardens, landscaping, marriages, or children is really important. What is the balance? I believe that every relationship in our lives functions like an ecosystem. We bring ourselves to it, and the other person brings themselves, too. The harmonizing process is both exciting and terrifying. It may sound dramatic but organisms get fed or get killed in ecosystems everyday. Human beings are no different.

I use the ecosystem idea to drive home the point that things are growing. Weeds, flowers, squash, tomatoes, poison ivy… Being alive cannot exist separate from growth. Whether it’s good growth or diseased growth is a matter of interpretation. A relationship is an organism that does not stop growing either. We are creatures in motion, and we have the amazing ability to influence the growth of the people around us—not completely control, but influence.

The term codependency is a word I discuss over and over in sessions with people. This term is associated with a dysfunctional relationship. The term that I use to describe the healthier end of the relational spectrum is interdependence. Codependent people believe they can completely control the behaviors and feelings of another person (or growth—to go with the garden metaphor), and when the person does not meet their demands/expectations, they feel bad. Then they get mad at the other person, and then they feel bad. A relationship can get so entrenched in this “blame game” cycle, that people lose their sense of self, as well as their ability to manage their individual feelings. I have met with many people who suffer from paralyzing depression and/or anxiety because they have lost their sense of who they are in the futile quest of controlling the person they love. Being interdependent is understanding where our individual strengths reside in the context of a relationship and not letting our powerlessness over another person’s behavior and feelings diminish those strengths.

The tricky part about codependency versus interdependence is having to recognize and balance both our individuality AND our ability to influence the feelings of others. To what extent do we feel comfortable relying on others? Is it difficult to be vulnerable? This may sound paradoxical, but in my work with people, I have discovered there is great relief when people acknowledge their vulnerability. They acknowledge that relationships can be fragile. Gardeners know that a few worms can take out a whole row of tomatoes. From this vulnerability comes more honest communication and problem-solving about individual versus relational needs can be explored.

To prevent disaster, whether in the garden or in the home, we have to pay attention in a balanced way to our own needs and the needs of others. This is sometimes hard work. Untangling people’s individual problems from those of an intimate or family relationship problem are common themes in talk therapy.

Come on in and we can talk about relationship health. Your summer of love may be within reach, and you might only have to figure out what to do with the ferns.

Pete Afflerbach, MA LCMHC is a licensed mental health counselor. Pete works with all ages and has particular specialties in working with teens and those struggling with addiction. Pete is enthusiastic about helping people break down the challenges they face into smaller, more manageable pieces.

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