As we launch Healthy Relationships Initiative this month, we want to introduce you to the leaders of HRI. Today, we’re featuring Christine Murray, who is the Director of HRI and an Associate Professor in the UNCG Department of Counseling and Educational Development.

Tell us a little bit about your professional background and how it connects to your work with the Healthy Relationships Initiative.

My background is in the counseling field, and specifically couple and family counseling. I knew very early on that I wanted to be a family counselor, and in fact made that decision when I was in high school. When I went to college, I loved learning about family dynamics and the psychology of relationships. I went to the University of Florida for graduate school to become a marriage and family therapist, but ultimately went the academic route to become a professor. I’ve been working at UNCG since 2005, where I coordinate our department’s couple and family counseling track. I love working with our students as they launch their careers in the counseling field!

In recent years, most of my research has focused on survivors of intimate partner violence and other forms of abuse in relationships and families. I’m passionate about this work and stay connected to research and practice that addresses violence and abuse through such activities as the See the Triumph campaign that I co-founded and service on the Executive Committee of the Guilford County Family Justice Center.

My work with Healthy Relationships Initiative is highly connected with my work on violence and abuse. Through HRI, we are “swimming upstream” to work toward preventing violence by promoting safe, healthy, and happy relationships. Violence and abuse are preventable, but we need to support people in learning information and skills that can help them to build and maintain health and safety in their relationships.

Why are you excited to be involved with the Healthy Relationships Initiative?

There are so many parts of HRI that I’m excited about, but one of the things that I’m most excited about is the opportunity to partner with so many great organizations and people in our community. You can see many examples of this in our partner organizations throughout our February launch activities, but you’ll see many more partnerships and collaborations as the initiative evolves in the coming months and years. It’s going to take many different segments of our community working together to truly change the culture around relationships in our community, and I love how we can be innovative in partnerships when we get out of our silos and start working together across disciplines and organizations.

I’m also especially excited to be involved with HRI because we get to take a strengths-based focus on relationships and families in our community. There are a lot of challenges, problems, and barriers in our community that keep people from having the best possible version of relationships that they could experience. But, we assume that people already possess resources and strengths that they can build upon to address these challenges. Through HRI, we have the opportunity to support people as they learn new information and skills to strengthen their relationships, from whatever starting point they begin that process!

If you could change one thing about relationships in our community, what would you change?

The biggest change I’d like to see is for more people to feel comfortable reaching out for help to address the relationship and family challenges they face. There is a big stigma in our society that often keeps people from admitting they are having problems. People can feel pressure for everything to look okay and that everything is under control. Far too many people suffer in silence because they’re afraid of reaching out for help or admitting that they have problems.

The truth is that relationships are hard! Problems and challenges are a natural and expected part of relationships and family life. The stigma around admitting you’re struggling in relationships–or any other area of your life–is a really major issue for our community. It’s certainly possible that problems will go away on their own, like the old saying that says, “Time heals all wounds.” This may be true in some cases, but what I’ve seen more often is that, when people don’t resolve or manage the problems in their relationships, they actually get worse!

It’s ironic, then, that the things people do to act like everything’s okay actually can make problems worse! It’s a vicious cycle, but it can be stopped. Problems are much, much easier to address when we catch them early on. That’s why it’s so important for our work with HRI that we do all we can to change the culture in our community to one where people feel comfortable admitting they are struggling and then reaching out for help. And, when they reach out, we need to make sure that they are able to easily identify and access the help they need.

How have your own experiences with relationships and your family influenced your thinking about the Healthy Relationships Initiative?

My professional background has equipped me with a lot of knowledge about relationships. And yet, I always have to sort of laugh when people refer to me as a “relationship expert.” If I’ve learned anything through the intersections of my personal life and my professional career, it’s that there’s a huge difference between having head knowledge about relationships and the messiness and complications of relationships in the real world!

I’ve read many textbooks and other sources that are full of theories and research about relationships and families. It always makes so much sense and seems easy in the textbooks. But then, we get to real life relationships, and it’s anything but easy! Every person, and every relationship is so unique. There are no easy answers to many of the relationship and family challenges that people face. However, I believe that people can benefit in all of their relationships if they learn information and skills for fostering strong relationships.

In my personal life, I’ve experienced some of the best and worst that relationships have to offer. I’m blessed with many great, supportive relationships with friends and family members, and I’m thankful for this every day. At the same time, I’ve been through some major relationship and family challenges that I wouldn’t wish on anyone! I’d like to think that all of these experiences have helped me to understand more deeply the types of challenges that other people may be going through, so that I can be best equipped to help them through those challenges.

What do you think is the #1 key to a happy, healthy, and safe relationship?

I’m going to say there are actually two keys to happy, healthy, and safe relationships, and they are kindness and a willingness to grow and learn.

Kindness says, “I’m going to intentionally seek out ways to show I care for you.” It’s really tempting to take relationships for granted over time. We can start forgetting to show the people who mean the most to us the kindness that we show to others. But when we try to be intentional about bringing kindness to our closest relationships, we show those people that they matter for us, and we infuse those relationships with positive energy and opportunities for connection.

A willingness to grow and learn says, “I’m not you, but I want to understand you, and I’m willing to make changes in my life so that we can build the best relationships we can possibly have.” When we can admit that we still have learning and growing to do in order to make our relationships the best they can be, we keep an open mind for seeing new ways to connect in our relationships. When it comes to relationships, I think that what we do know is often less important than what we’re willing to admit we don’t know.

In my view, happy, healthy, and safe relationships start with a foundation of kindness and openness to learning and growing. When people bring these two characteristics to a relationship, it opens so many opportunities for building great relationships

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