What differentiates a healthy relationship from an unhealthy one? And how are the foundations for each of those laid?
Whether referring to romantic relationships, platonic friendships or other human affiliations, many would answer these questions with a host of experiential data points and opinions. These might be laced with a variety of subjective impressions, common-sense concepts or wisdom gleaned from parents, grandparents, friends and mentors.
Sadly, all too many women in our society suffer in the self-image department. Social media, advertising, entertainment, press, peer pressure and the expectations of others often converge to create inner turmoil around one’s self-image, greatly undermining self-esteem and self-worth. Even things like the desires and expectations of a parent can factor prominently into a woman’s self-image, as well as the choices they make.
“This self-image sabotage goes double for women of color, who have been forced to endure discrimination, stereotypes and varying levels of socioeconomic disenfranchisement on top of everything else,” says Montrella Cowan of Affinity Health Affairs, LLC—a renowned relationship expert, author, speaker and licensed independent clinical social worker. “While many of these conditions have improved dramatically since the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, they remain far from ideal.”
According to Cowan, there’s an age-old conundrum—at least in our modern society—of why some women stay in unhealthy relationships. “If we haven’t had direct experience in this area ourselves, most if not all of us have encountered that relative, friend, coworker or acquaintance who’s suffered for years in a toxic, or even a demonstrably abusive, dangerous relationship,” Cowan points out. “Carefully navigating our judgment over her choices, we support, empathize and advise … ultimately lamenting how little we can do beyond that. Even in situations where she’s mustered the courage to get away from the toxic relationship, some inexplicably end up finding another partner who’s twice as bad as the one she fortuitously escaped.”
Why does she do it? We wonder. Why?
“Often, the reasons women give for staying in unhealthy relationships include such things as financial security, familiarity or the perception that her children need a father,” Cowan says. “Many women of faith remain in toxic marriages because they don’t want to appear ‘ungodly,’ or think of themselves as such if they file for divorce. All of these rationalizations pale in comparison to the stresses inherent in enduring an abuser, or maintaining a relationship with a partner who is emotionally wounded themselves, distracted or simply of an incompatible temperament.”
With all of that said, millions of women wonder how to overcome obstacles that prevent healthy relationships.
Cowan says that most of the tribulations women encounter in their quest for loving, nurturing connections comes down to basic issues of their own self-perception, coupled with the many external pressures outlined above.
In fact, in her book, The Purse: An Essential Guide to Healthy Relationships, Cowan deconstructs all of those obstacles and lays out a straightforward approach to cultivating and maintaining sound and enriching relationships.
Raised in the projects of Brooklyn, New York, and in Washington D.C., Cowan is all too familiar with the socioeconomic disenfranchisement and myriad of hazards that young Black people face while growing up in America. After being raped as a teenager, then discovering shortly afterward that she was pregnant, Cowan found herself reeling mentally and emotionally. This situation was exacerbated by her reality of having a drug-addicted, codependent mother and as she struggled within the foster care system. Amid these hardships, Cowan quickly found herself battling clinical depression.
“Having the world expect you to stay strong despite whatever abuse, misogyny, ridicule and heartache is thrown your way is a cruel burden to bear,” Cowan bemoans. “Whether intentionally or unintentionally, many women are groomed to be victims from an early age. More often than not, they’re blind to the machinations of men who have predatory or abusive tendencies because they’ve never been trained to recognize them. This makes them far more susceptible to the manipulations of these men, who seemingly have an ‘internal radar’ for finding women who are emotionally vulnerable.”
Deep down, beneath the family dysfunction, abuse, stigma and shame, Cowan knew she was more than some ethnic stereotype or a statistic. Even so, circumstances and her relationship choices continued to militate against her peace, prosperity and personal growth.
Struggling financially, trapped in a demoralizing relationship and growing increasingly depressed, Cowan discovered she was pregnant once again. With no desire to marry the father—her on-again, off-again narcissistic boyfriend who dealt drugs and kept her emotionally hobbled—she enrolled in a personal development class at the suggestion of a friend. The price of the class was a king’s ransom at the time, but Cowan managed to swing it. Miraculously, another friend—who’d registered for the class but decided not to attend—passed her ticket on to Cowan.
The class changed her entire life. Extricating herself from her relationship, Cowan began to take an observer’s view of her life and choices, subsequently applying what she’d learned to her own set of experiences. Slowly, but surely, she found herself increasingly able to make different, more judicious decisions that gleaned far better results.
“When you lack the proper materials, you’re constantly searching for something (or someone) to patch the holes and cracks that appear over the course of your [life] journey,” she writes in The Purse. Starting with that fateful personal development class, Cowan began to build a new foundation. She discovered that the “proper materials” were knowledge, wisdom and personal power, and that the faith she’d neglected over the years was the glue that would hold it all together.
Cowan went back to college where she ultimately earned her first degree in interdisciplinary studies and social work from the Catholic University of America, where she was the only Black student in her class. She knew she’d always had a passion for learning, which had been stultified by her circumstances and the predatory men with whom she’d been involved.
Success breeds success, however, and Cowan was then well on her way.
Healing takes time, as anyone who’s dealt with resolving trauma can attest, so there were bumps in her ever-winding road. Surviving a failed marriage, a secretly married boyfriend and all that goes with such things helped bring into focus the fact that Cowan needed to actively participate in her own healing from the traumas she’d suffered—which she references as “spiritual annihilation”—in order to realize her dreams. This tumultuous path ultimately led Cowan to a successful career in the fields of social work and therapy.
In her book, Cowan uses The Purse as an analogue for the mental, emotional and spiritual toolkit that every woman should have for addressing relationships. Throughout the narrative, Cowan provides methods for building and reinforcing self-image, overcoming relationship pitfalls and addressing various aspects of life. This she presents in the form of “recipes,” complete with prep times and serving sizes, as well as “action steps” for tackling the bigger challenges.
The Purse offers a frank, enlightening and occasionally gritty account of one woman’s rise from inner-city squalor and family dysfunction to entrepreneurial success and personal fulfillment. It’s rife with inspirations readers will surely take to heart and that are indelibly worth carrying with them wherever they go.
Forbes Business Council Member Merilee Kern, MBA is an internationally-regarded brand analyst, strategist and futurist who reports on noteworthy industry change makers, movers, shakers and innovators across all categories, both B2C and B2B. This includes field experts and thought leaders, brands, products, services, destinations and events. Merilee is Founder, Executive Editor and Producer of “The Luxe List” as well as Host of the nationally-syndicated “Savvy Living” TV show. As a prolific consumer and business trends, lifestyle and leisure industry voice of authority and tastemaker, she keeps her finger on the pulse of the marketplace in search of new and innovative must-haves and exemplary experiences at all price points, from the affordable to the extreme. Her work reaches multi-millions worldwide via broadcast TV (her own shows and copious others on which she appears) as well as a myriad of print and online publications. Connect with her at www.TheLuxeList.comand www.SavvyLiving.tv/ Instagram www.Instagram.com/LuxeListReports / Twitter www.Twitter.com/LuxeListReports / Facebook www.Facebook.com/LuxeListReports/ LinkedIN www.LinkedIn.com/in/MerileeKern.
***Some or all of the accommodations(s), experience(s), item(s) and/or service(s) detailed above may have been provided or arranged at no cost to accommodate if this is review editorial, but all opinions expressed are entirely those of Merilee Kern and have not been influenced in any way.***