Relationship Architecture: Understanding Columns and Shadows

The metaphor that we use over here at UN|HUSHED for healthy relationships are the four columns of Respect, Equality, Safety, and Trust. Thinking about these four elements as columns that hold up a relationship and make it strong, sturdy, and reliable makes for a pretty good graphic.

It makes intuitive sense to people of all ages that these are important parts of a healthy relationship.

Now, many people think that unhealthy relationships are pretty easy to spot. They say that an unhealthy relationship is when someone is hitting the other person. Or forcing them to have sex. Or when someone is pretending to love the other person but are just using them for their money.

And it’s true, all of these relationships are unhealthy. But they are not the only kinds of unhealthy relationships.

It is far harder to label a relationship as unhealthy that is not quite so dramatically problematic – relationships that aren’t necessarily abusive but also aren’t serving everyone in them very well. They may even be using the language associated with the columns of a healthy relationship, even though they are actually unhealthy. We call these the shadows of an unhealthy relationship.


This kind of visual helps to clarify that there are parts of relationships that will hold up a relationship, but that there may also be parts of a relationship that won’t support the relationship.

But now do you know the difference?

The young people in UN|HUSHED programs find this model of thinking about relationships incredibly clarifying. The combination of language, metaphor, and visuals provides them with a way of thinking about their relationships (and their friends’ relationships!) that is unique, practical, and helpful.

There are so many ways that this model can be used be used in the classroom! It forms the basis of the initial introduction to healthy and unhealthy relationships in all of the UN|HUSHED curriculum, but it is taken in different directions from there.

One activity looks at examples of relationships to consider through the Columns and Shadows lens. Inviting the participants to share their own ideas or experiences can be problematic because they can end up sharing tough details about their peers or families that the people did not want shared. This approach may also be more likely to cause harm or trauma to the participants because they are thinking about potentially very personal examples in a group space. So instead, we use questions that teenagers have asked about their relationships online.  These come from places like the incredible discussion boards on that provide a space for young people to learn about and discuss all things related to sex and sexuality. This provides a fantastic framework for concrete conversations about relationships columns and shadows.

So click here to download the full Columns and Shadows graphic and we hope you’ll enjoy using it!