What's Normal in Relationships?

I hear this question a lot. Folks going about their lives and sometimes unsure if what they are doing or experiencing is normal. This is a really tricky question. And frankly, I think it's the wrong question to be asking. There is a lot that is "normal" that's terrible. Social media is explicitly demonstrating that sexual harassment is normal, with the bravery of women and men posting "me too" and sharing their stories. This is a glaring and horrific example of something that's "normal" yet utterly shameful. 

If the goal is creating and maintaining healthy relationships, I propose there are two questions that are significantly more useful. 

1.) What's normal for you?
2.) What do you want/need to be your new normal?

What's normal for you?

The single most powerful force that shapes our perspective of what's "normal" is our experiences growing up. The way we see our families handle conflict, stress, disappointment, friendships, love, work, emotions etc. provide a blueprint for us as we grow up and engage in similar experiences. This blueprint for normal is often a mixed bag. Most of us are given some norms that help us navigate our lives well, along with some other norms that are significantly less useful and even problematic. 

In 2005, David Foster Wallace gave a commencement speech that garnered a good bit of attention. He starts the speech with the story below:

"There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way. He nods at them and says, 'Morning boys, how's the water?' The two young fish swim on for a bit, and eventually one looks over at the other and goes 'What the hell is water'

This is often how our individual and family norms function. They're so familiar to us, that we often have a hard time even noticing them until they begin to give us trouble. 

When you need a new normal.

Needing a new normal usually comes from one of the following:
 1.) Internal conflict: your values aren't aligning with your norms anymore. One example I hear often is when people grow up in a  patriarchal household, yet their values regarding gender no longer align with that model of family life. 
2.) Conflict in your relationships due to your norms clashing. Our expectations come from what we believe is the norm. When your expectations don't align, you're likely to end up in conflicts that can leave you in a power struggle. This can come in many forms, such as how responsibilities are divided, how you approach disagreements, what is acceptable behavior, how much involvement is expected from extended family, what each of you believes affection looks like, etc. A willingness to co-creating a new normal for your relationship is often required if the relationship is going to continue without resentment or dissolution. 

Creating and Maintaining healthy relationships that work for everyone requires knowing what your norms and expectations are, and practicing flexibility. Whatever the reason you have for wanting or sometimes needing a new normal, keep in mind the following

  • You have a fundamental right to create or co-create new norms in your life.
  • Your current norms or the norms you grew up with do not have to be the norms you carry forward.
  • You have the right to enjoy your life.
  • Like all change, the process is usually uncomfortable. 


Ideas for creating new norms that enrich your life and might even save your relationships. 

Keep in mind that the list below is by no means comprehensive. Use these as a starting point to start brainstorming what kind of new norms you'd like to integrate into your life. 

  • What do you want the norm to be regarding how you express appreciation and feel appreciated?
  • What kind of norm would you like to have regarding how your family deals with conflict? Do you need to make a conscious effort to address conflict early to avoid explosive arguments becoming the norm? Perhaps integrating weekly or bi-weekly family meetings to address challenges from the week or encourage people to share their concerns who usually shy away from conflict?
  • Is there a need for improvement in the way you show respect in your family? How might you demonstrate this to your loved ones?
  • Would you like to adjust the norm regarding how much time is spent with your immediate family? Your extended family?
  • What kind of norms do you want to establish regards meals together? Play? Pleasure? Time with friends? Kinds of activities that you participate in? Amount of activities? Technology in the home? Holidays traditions?
  • What norm would you like to establish regarding the sharing of emotions (guys too)? dance parties in the living room? storytelling? playing pranks (the good-hearted kind)? Sharing household responsibilities?