Northern Ireland needs to learn to communicate

9 Jun 2022 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 9 Jun 2022

Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash
Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash

Local people know the crippling effect relationship distress can have on their lives. However, most are reluctant to discuss their problems – and many don’t even know how.


Northern Ireland is a buttoned-up society.

Almost 80% of the local population knows how much poor relationships can harm our mental health, yet most of us – 60% - say we would prefer to keep any relationship difficulties from our family and friends. A quarter of us say we don’t even know what a healthy relationship is.

These are some of the findings from a recent survey from Relate NI.

The organisation says its polling reveals the local stigma in discussing our relationships, and particularly the problems in those relationships. Those can be issues within a marriage or other romantic relationship, between family members, friends, work colleagues – or any two or more people who are, simply put, in a relationship.

The findings reveal a local inclination to keep any stresses and strains behind closed doors. This can be extremely destructive, and Relate NI is calling for a culture change, where people are willing to be open and talk – in a constructive way – about what makes a good relationship and how we can nurture our most-valued relationships to improve our own lives and the lives of those we care about the most.

To that end, Relate NI this year launched its Sustaining Healthy Relationships programme, which is an early-intervention toolkit (in other words, not counselling, which is a core piece of the organisation’s other services) designed to help anyone and everyone both better understand what  healthy relationships are, and how to build them.

So, what is a healthy relationship? How do you build them?


Communication is obviously vital.

However, how many people realise that it is sometimes far healthier to talk about ourselves and our own feelings, rather than what we think about our other halves? How many people realise that talking isn’t just about fixing problems, it is an end in and of itself?

Kellie O’Dowd is Development Manager at Relate NI. She told Scope that, if you are stressed or anxious or overwhelmed, it’s important to talk about how you feel.

“It’s about speaking in ‘I’ and talking about your own emotions. ‘I’m feeling angry that…’ or ‘I would really appreciate it if you clean that up…’ as opposed to ‘You never clean the kitchen.’

“Keep the focus on how you are feeling and not on whatever the other person – your child, partner, friend, colleague, whoever – did wrong. If you do the latter, you can get into a cycle of listing all the things they have ever done wrong.”

She said trying to talk about what another person has or hasn’t done, rather than about how you feel, can be destructive, rather than positive or productive.

Of course, communication is a two-way process. It is just as important to be self-aware, and to listen to others when they speak.

“You need to know when your body is telling you that you are ready to explode, so you can take a step back. Take some time.

“When you are listening to someone, make sure you validate their emotions. Tell them you understand that they are feeling angry, or frustrated. Help them feel seen and heard.

“And bear in mind that these conversations are not about fixing things. Some people, when they have a discussion like this, instinctively want to move on immediately to fixing something. ‘OK, you’re upset – how can I fix it?’ But that’s not how to build a healthy relationship. Let someone talk, listen to them, and let them know you understand what they are saying.

“Healthy relationships are not the factory setting. We learn about relationships from the relationships we find ourselves in, including with our family. That means mistakes, like poor communication, can be passed on.

“A lot of people tend to bottle things up. Bottled-up emotions become a struggle. Either you become a volcano and explode, or over time you become resentful, indifferent and stop caring.”

Ms O’Dowd is also clear about why this is so important for personal wellbeing.

“Our relationships are the things that sustain us when times are tough – so we need to know how best to sustain those relationships.”


Relate NI’s polling asked questions of a representative sample of 1,000 local people.

As well as the figures mentioned about, the survey found that:

  • 45% of people said they would benefit from advice and help with managing conflict in their relationships
  • 25% of people do not know what a healthy relationship looks like
  • 53% of people felt self-help resources with information and guidance from trained professionals would be helpful
  • 48% of people felt educational interventions to work on and improve relationships would be useful
  • 55% of people said that they had either witnessed their parents or themselves have fought in front of the children
  • 53% of people had either witnessed in their parents’ relationship or themselves had undermined each other as parents
  • 55% of people said there was a total lack of discussion about anything in their own relationship or witnessed in their parents’ relationship.
  • 16% of people said they felt ashamed in seeking relationship support

According to Relate NI’s own analysis of these figures: “We know that conflict between parents and in families is always going to happen and is totally normal (we are all human,) but how it is handled, has a massive impact on the future of our kids.

“The evidence shows that children growing up with parents who have low levels of parental conflict or well-resolved parental conflict, whether they are together or separated, enjoy better physical and mental health, better emotional wellbeing, higher qualifications and a lower likelihood of engaging in risky behaviours.”


Relate NI’s Sustaining Healthy Relationships programme is more prevention than cure.

It is not a counselling service, it is an early intervention and it is educational. It involves the organisation going into communities and holding discussions with people to help them prevent or reduce relationship distress.

Counselling and therapy are very important services for the people who rely on them. However, if healthy relationships can be curated before those services are needed, that’s good news.

Ms O’Dowd said: “This is about early intervention to help people manage and negotiate the times when there’s stress or pressure or points of transition in their relationships.

“This project started in January so we are only five or six months in. It’s taking the great work of Relate NI out  into the heart of communities. We want to help people to build and maintain healthy relationships before things deteriorate or become more difficult.

“We are well aware that a lot happens behind closed doors. We know there is a certain amount of shame for people, in terms of talking about these things. The idea of these workshop is that you can talk about your relationship in a safe environment. You don’t have to expose what’s going on in your life if you don’t want to.

“Right now we are working with Sure Starts and family support hubs - but we are happy to take these workshops into other community settings or centres that wants them. Or, if people want to come out of their communities and into different settings then this can also be facilitated.

 Online materials are also being developed.

These discussions cover many aspects of healthy relationships. It’s not about communication on its own, it’s also about expressing the value of the relationship (which can mean love and affection with a partner, or respect and trust with a work colleague), fostering honesty, and more.

Find out more about Relate NI and Sustaining Health Relationships here.

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