By Christine Murray, Healthy Relationships Initiative Director

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In many ways, Guilford County is a wonderful place to live. We’ve seen many exciting changes and developments in our community in recent years that have enriched the quality of life in our community. The diversity of our community weaves a beautiful fabric of people from all walks of life working and living in our community. We are fortunate in this community to have many new and exciting resources and initiatives underway, which build on the foundation that many long-standing organizations have built. Personally, I’ve called Guilford County home for over 11 years now, and I’m especially thankful for the opportunities this community offers for my nurturing my own family and friendships.

As a counseling professor who specializes in couple and family counseling, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to become involved in the Guilford County Healthy Relationships Initiative. Promoting healthy relationships and preventing relationship and family distress have long been a passion of mine since I decided I wanted to be a family counselor many years ago. I knew how important this initiative would be for people in the community–not just those who are facing problems in their relationships, but also those who are interested in being intentional about building strong, healthy relationships.

I didn’t need any convincing about the need for the Healthy Relationships Initiative, but of course I’m an easy sell, given my professional background. As our planning process for the Healthy Relationships Initiative moved forward, we knew we needed to build a strong, data-based case for the need for an upstream, preventive approach to strengthening relationships and families in our community. So, this past year, as part of our planning process, we worked hard to gain a deeper understanding of the current state of relationships and families in our community. In the coming months, we’ll share more details about what we learned, but for now, I’ll share a few key pieces of information that we learned that show just how important a relationship-building initiative is for Guilford County today.

The data sources we used included 40 existing reports and other sources of existing data about our community, such as agency-provided data; a geographic analysis of US Census data for Guilford County; a community needs assessment survey; and interviews and focus groups with community leaders. Our main questions were to learn how safe, healthy, and happy relationships and families are in Guilford County, in line with our Mission Statement for the Healthy Relationships Initiative: “To infuse the local community with information, resources, and services to promote happy, healthy, and safe relationships and prevent the negative consequences of relationship distress.” Let’s take a look at a few key indicators of the safety, health, and happiness of relationships in our community…

Starting with safety, did you know that Guilford County led the state of North Carolina in 2013 and 2014 in the number of domestic violence homicides 1? This was a tragic distinction for our community, and it did lead to some positive actions through the creation of the Guilford County Family Justice Center, which opened in June 2015 and is a wonderful resource for people affected by domestic violence, sexual assault, elder abuse, and child maltreatment in our community. Rates of all forms of abuse in our community remain high. In fact, in its first year of operation, the Family Justice Center served nearly 5,000 primary and secondary victims of abuse. It is clear that there are many people in our community who still are not able to achieve even a basic level of safety in their relationships, although certainly with the opening of the Family Justice Center and increased collaboration and awareness in the community, there is greater safety than there was even just a few years ago.

Healthy and happy relationships are a bit more difficult to define and measure. However, we know that many people in our community are able to experience healthy and happy relationships. For example, we heard the following quotes from participants in our community needs assessment survey when they were asked to describe their favorite things about their relationships and families:

  • “We support each other in our challenges and successes.”
  • “We have a lot of the same interests and get along well together. He makes me laugh.”
  • “We work together to provide a safe, secure and supportive home for our family”
  • “We are not afraid to have open and sincere conversations to work through our problems, and we can trust each other.”
  • “Trust. We are very open with each other, and we always talk when we have problems or concerns.”
  • “My daughter and how amazing she is to spend time with on a daily basis.  Seeing her grow up into a wonderful person.”
  • “Watching our children thrive and the closeness of our relationship”
  • “Being able to help my children develop a positive thought process and decision making skills. Just listening to them talk allows me to see them grow”

Happy, healthy relationships are definitely possible in Guilford County. However, through our planning and research process, we also have heard from many sources that there are significant barriers in our community that can prevent people from achieving healthy relationships. Some of those we’ve identified through our research and planning process include trauma, substance abuse, untreated mental health symptoms, lack of positive relationship role models, communication problems, feeling overwhelmed with responsibilities, having a lack of time for loved ones, isolation, economic challenges, the proliferation of technology, and societal norms that encourage negative relationship behaviors.

The challenges that residents of Guilford County face that can create stressors for families and relationships are significant. People who face these challenges often struggle in silence, afraid to admit their problems or reach out for help. We’ve heard many times in our planning process that people often feel a major pressure to project an image that their relationships and families are perfect, even though relationship challenges and stressors are normal and expected. Because of this, we need to continue to work to not only ensure that relationship-supporting resources are available, but also to ensure that people feel comfortable and empowered to reach out for help.

As much as I immediately understood the importance of the Healthy Relationships Initiative when we first started planning it, I can say with all certainty that I am more confident today than ever before about the need for this initiative in our community. The data and feedback we’ve received through our planning process all point directly to the need for more resources and information to help people navigate the complexities of relationships and family life.

We call this the Healthy Relationships Initiative, but I like to think of it more as a movement. We’re not just trying to initiate and start change in the community–We want to move toward a cultural shift in our community in which people will feel deeply that they’re living in a community in which happy, healthy, and safe relationships are valued and supported. Relationships can be one of the most wonderful and exciting parts of life, and yet they also can be extremely challenging and confusing. Through the Healthy Relationships Initiative, we look forward to partnering with local organizations and community members to continue building a community in which happy, healthy, and safe relationships are available to all.

Reference:

1 – Guilford County Family Justice Center Baseline Report, June 2015