What’s wrong with relationships?

“Children develop within an environment of relationships that begins in the family but also involves other adults who play important roles in their lives. This can include extended family members, providers of early care and education, nurses, social workers, coaches, and neighbors,” states the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University in From Best Practices to Breakthrough Impacts: A Science-Based Approach to Building a More Promising Future for Young Children and Families (2016). The seemingly benign statement is fraught with potentially negative results.

In order for us to understand this more clearly, let’s first understand that the word relationship in English has multiple meanings and therefore is confusingly overused. There are many synonyms as well: connection, interaction, relation, association, link, correspondence, parallel, alliance, friendship, romantic interlude, and bond, just to name a few. Fundamentally, relationship entails the manner in which two things are connected. Above, in the quote, perhaps the word interactions is clearer? Children do develop within an environment of interactions that begins in the family, don’t they? Even if there are no actual interactions, that lack of interactions is the environment in which the child grows and in which the brain and nervous system develops. Nonetheless, relationships are also defined as the state of being connected by blood or marriage; the cultural message all of us hear is that a relationship is intimate, private, unknown and unknowable by anyone else. This is a very gray zone. It’s where he-said-she-said lies, it’s where hearsay lies, it’s where “that’s none of our business” lies. Indeed, it is where most trauma lies.

Going back to the original statement, family and coaches are given even footing under the rubric of relationship, but the actual connection between, say, a 10-year-old boy and his father is fundamentally different from that between him and his coach; legally this is true, socially as well. Of course, there are plenty of young men who are fatherless or nearly fatherless and for whom the coach plays a fatherly role, but we also know that there are coaches (and of course fathers) who also breech the child’s boundaries and become perpetrators. Could the overuse of the word relationship be a foggy blur that actually hides nefarious intentions? More commonly, might the word relationship also create an umbrella of unregulated and perhaps even unconscious interactions that might have a subtler and less noticeable perpetrative effect? And could using clearer language protect children, recipients of public services, and people in crisis or confusion?

Most people who work with children and especially vulnerable children (i.e., children who do not have safe, protective adults in their lives who wholeheartedly advocate for their well-being and are aware of their normal behavioral patterns and therefore also variations in their normal behavior) are constrained by laws and ethics to curtail the types of interactions they have with children and clients more broadly. In the Trauma Survivor’s Bill of Rights by Thomas V. Maguire, PhD., it says—among other things—”Know that your therapist will never have any other relationship with you—business, social, or sexual.” While refreshingly clear on one level to know these specific boundaries, does not a therapist already have a form of a business relationship with the client? Is this clear or unclear?

In March 2015, Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child released a study saying, “Every child who winds up doing well has had at least one stable and committed relationship with a supportive adult.” With this formula (child [interaction] caring adult = doing well), permission was granted for a wholesale onslaught of self-proclaimed caring adults to have relationships with children who appeared to be lacking this force for good. However, the formula emphasizes stable, not hot-and-cold, on-and-off, conditional or contingent on behavior types of relationships. Actually, these temporary or paid-for relationships are fundamentally transactional and can become highly destabilizing for the children on the receiving end. What does a teenage runaway tell us by her very behavior, but that the world of unknown and maybe unsafe people is preferred over the world of known and definitely unsafe people? In fact, maybe these types of transactional, conditional, temporary relationships are part of the cycle of unsafe behaviors that ultimately contribute to disease, disability and social problems as highlighted by the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study. While there is much well-researched emphasis on the benefits of stable relationships and on the costs of traumatic relationships, there is a near deathly silence on the costs of intermittent, paid or voluntary, “caring”-today/gone-or-disapproving tomorrow” people within the lives of vulnerable children and adults. Emblematic of this kind of rescuing mentality is the scourge of failed adoptions, as beautifully detailed by Reuters Investigates. We know there are these perpetrative rescuers: just think of animal hoarders, cult leaders, scamming fundraisers, phony tele-ministries.

Might it be as helpful to protect children from these perpetrative rescuers as from the abusers themselves? Might proclaiming the “one caring adult” provide cover for actual perpetrators to disguise themselves as “one caring adult?” Might developing a clear, safe, protective role for people who do work in helping professions help the recipient, the provider, the taxpayer and the collective?

For these reasons as well as many others, it may be beneficial for everyone to no longer use the word relationship when speaking of people involved in the lives of other people’s biological children or people involved in publicly funded services, but to use the phrase “safe connection” instead. As an extended family member, provider of early care and education, nurse, social worker, coach or neighbor, I can be a safe connection to many children or people. Safe connections allow for the government to intervene in people’s lives temporarily yet safely. By being a safe connection, I can work with many children, families and adults. I can communicate safety, boundaries and limits. Unconditional positive regard is the baseline for safe connections. James Isberg writes, “[T]o do this, do not attempt to control or change the person.” A safe connection offers choices and respects rights, laws, limits and realities. It offers assistance but does not force rescue onto the person who is not in imminent or immediate harm’s way. A safe connection knows the difference between risk over time and imminent and credible threat. A safe connection acts accordingly. A safe connection prioritizes your safety over this relationship. Always.

In calling myself a safe connection, I imply that relationships are precious, requiring proof of trust, stability over time, investment by both parties, ability to self-protect within that intimacy, and are incredibly rare. I can also reserve my own deep, private, emotional world for my own voluntary relationships, those few people whom I trust, whom I care for wholeheartedly. I can also safely interact with a wide range of people I like or not, trust or not, care for or not. It allows me to function in the modern world. It allows for us to be able to see when someone comes on too hot, too close, too fast. Safe connections teach us that our inner lives are a gift to give to those we choose to give it to, and—perhaps most importantly—safe connections teach us that we can protect ourselves against those who first promise to help and then threaten to leave. Perhaps it is a safe connection that allows us to see with whom we actually want to risk having a real relationship.

The opposite of a safe connection is an individual who pretends to be trustworthy, or is held in high esteem due to their role as an advisor, or who focuses on their need in the relationship over the other more vulnerable person. Examples include a doctor who abuses a patient, or a therapist who manipulates the client, or a teacher who uses sex to control a student. What these people are doing is engaging in Trusted Advisor Abuse.


  • Gabriella Grant is the director of the California Center of Excellence for Trauma Informed Care and also coordinates the Santa Cruz Trauma Consortium and oversees a public and information advocacy project called Stop Trusted Advisor Abuse.