Making good relationships great

Great relationships don’t just happen. A good relationship may develop through time spent together and experiences shared but a great relationship requires something more.

I was waiting for the call that would have me immediately drop everything to catch an interstate flight. My friend Thea would be giving birth to her first child at any moment and she wanted support during what was to be a long but intervention free home water birth. Fortunately I did get there in time. It was a beautiful two days that culminated in seeing a new little being rise up from the water into her mother’s arms.

I had the honour of being there as Thea gave birth. Thea had been there for me when I got married and we had been there for each other when we stepped out into the world into our chosen vocations. We have supported each other through career developments, relationship troubles and life transitions. There is nothing I couldn’t tell her…sex, death, love, God; we have explored it all.

Great relationships don’t just happen. A good relationship may develop through time spent together and experiences shared but a great relationship requires something more. It takes deliberate on-going care and attention to build such a relationship. This applies to romantic, friendship, family and even work relationships. In essence these relationships are creative and life affirming because great relationships help build great people.

Relationships all have their own idiosyncratic qualities depending on the personalities of the people involved but there are some common factors that help build a more special relationship. Three of these factors are courage, generosity and compassion.

Courage

In my work as a psychologist I meet many people who say they have good relationships with their friends, family or lovers. While it is wonderful to have the shared understandings and experiences that make up a good relationship a great relationship requires more than this. My job is to help people take these relationships to the next level. This process takes courage.

If we have courage we will be open to the opportunity for growth that a relationship can provide. This growth requires honesty and openness. No longer can you sweep things under the carpet. (It just gets lumpy and will trip you up later anyway!)

I remember working with two friends Angela* and Janice who had decided to become business partners. They wanted their project to have integrity and vitality but knew they needed help stepping into this new territory. I explained that even though their relationship was strong they now actually needed to make themselves vulnerable.

“But how could being weak possibly help anything?” Angela was the more dynamic of the two and she was making the mistake that many make of equating vulnerability with weakness. It is actually the opposite. What I was asking of Angela and Janice was that they be prepared to reveal themselves without protecting the others’ insecurities or defending their own.

Both women had a good degree of self-awareness so now they would need the courage to put this to good use. This would mean admitting to their own flaws and being able to apologise when they made mistakes. Conversely it would mean speaking up when they had doubts about what the other was doing.

In the past Angela and Janice had never really had disagreements since their personalities complemented each other. This was why they felt they would be good business partners. But they did have different ideas about how a business should be run! Now Angela’s dynamic but scattergun approach to things was irritating to Janice’s more measured and thoughtful nature.

Initially they were rocked by their disagreements but over time the two women discovered the creativity that comes from working through difficulties. They learnt to courageously offer their own input and at the same time to accept the influence of the other. The alchemy that resulted gave their business a good chance of being a success.

Generosity

It takes on-going generosity for people to find ways to relate well with each other. This is not the generosity of compliments, favours or gifts too often given as purchase for self worth, approval or the esteem of others. It is the generosity that has us step outside our usual way of being to make the effort to understand, respect and work in with other peoples’ different ways of operating.

The counsellor Dr Gary Chapman says that there are five different ways (languages) to express love or care. Some people need it said in words, some need physical touch, others like gifts, others acts of service and the rest need quality time in order to feel loved. In a good relationship a person will regularly express love or care to the other. In a great relationship they will express love in the ‘language’ of that other person, not their own language. For example I find it easy to tell my partner about my love for him but this doesn’t impact him. He needs to receive it in the form of some action I do for him. So I do little things like make his lunch for work. When I ‘speak’ in this language he can hear me. It is a ‘gift’ we give when we translate our love into an unfamiliar mode.

A good relationship may go through phases over time but this may not be consciously noticed. In a great relationship people notice the phases and adjust accordingly. Again this requires a generous attitude. For example if you don’t have children you still share in the ups and downs of your friend’s parenting experiences. And similarly if you are the one with children you still support your friend’s career or relationship aspirations. You don’t let the relationship drift apart just because there are no longer the familiar shared experiences. You grow from being able to share the differences.

A great relationship also requires that people feed it generous helpings of appreciation and affection. This takes conscious effort because too often we take the daily ‘gifts’ of others’ contribution to our lives for granted. When I work with couples I will sometimes suggest that they attempt to give daily positive feedback to their partner. Too often though when I see them again and ask how this went the reply is, “Woops, we completely forgot about it!” Instead, to create a great relationship you need to notice good things about the other person and make the effort to comment on them. You generously affirm, support and celebrate the other person’s life.

Compassion

“Did you hear what she did?!”

“Oh, I know. It’s dreadful isn’t it? And you know what John said about her. He said…”

You can hear such conversations in any café on any day. Two or more people get together and gossip about someone who is most probably a ‘friend’. It is the antithesis of a great relationship where people vent and form alliances to make themselves feel better about their own insecurities.

In a mature relationship the people involved still have their own insecurities but they don’t use the other person to make themselves feel better. They understand their own weaknesses and that of the other person and treat this knowledge with respect and compassion. It doesn’t mean that you don’t speak up about problems but you do so in confidence. And it is not about trying to make someone else change. It is about supporting your friend, lover or colleague to grow into their best self.

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Relationship Toolbox

  • Noticing: Remember and comment on the little things (eg. their haircut, child’s progress).
  • Self-awareness: Know when it’s your issue firing up; know when it’s theirs.
  • Sensitivity: Sandwich negative feedback between two positive comments.
  • Humility: It’s not all about you! Don’t take things personally when someone reacts badly to something.
  • Empathy: We are all different – make an effort to get the other’s point of view.
  • Affirmation: You need 5 positive statements to balance the effect of every negative comment made.
  • Celebration: Share in and affirm others’ successes.
  • Effort: Make the time! (to call, e-mail, catch up)

Colleagues

As a psychologist I see a lot of people who are sorting through work issues and people report that it is actually rare to come across great work colleagues. Too many people let their insecurities rule them. This results in workplaces that are competitive instead of collaborative, where jealousy and sabotage replace generosity and support.

If you are interested in fostering great work relationships then you have to stay ‘clean’. This means you don’t join in with gossip or dirty politics no matter what tone is set by those higher up the ranks.

A wise employee realizes that a healthy workplace can actually help people evolve regardless of the product or service involved. With this insight you would encourage collaboration and power sharing because you would want people to thrive and develop. You would respect others’ differences, allow their strengths and support their progress. And you don’t have to be in management to do this. From the bottom up you can be quietly influencing the business culture, forging relationships that are ethical, creative and mutually inspiring.

Families

Plenty of people who come to sit on my couch for therapy report that their family relationships are good. But it doesn’t take much digging to discover stories of confusion and enmeshment. It is all too common for ‘caring’ to become the motivation for stepping into other family members’ territory.

One of the most important ingredients for great family relating is the maintenance of clear boundaries. What this means is that the parents stay as the parents and the kids remain the kids. Parents are not their children’s friends and a child should not become a parent’s confidant. Nor should parents force their identity or ideas onto a child. They are there to give the child their blessing as only an adult can do to a younger person.

Conversely, children are responsible for living their own lives not fixing up or compensating for their parents mistakes and suffering. And their parents’ relationship is none of their business. Their only business is to take the gifts their parents may have given them and use this to build the most satisfying life they can. At the deepest level respect for such boundaries creates a freedom and satisfaction that is too often lacking in family relationships.

Lovers

Gavin and Leonie were both creative self-aware people who had been in relationship for a few years. Both were following their own passions and supporting each other in this even though the balance was difficult to achieve at times. They had worked through challenges together and felt sure in their love for each other.

Gavin and Leonie came to see me because they were concerned about the frequent arguments they were having. They wondered why this was happening in an otherwise good relationship. As we spoke together it became clear that the fights were occurring because they were heading into a new phase in their relationship. They were going deeper and revealing more of themselves. They could see past each other’s persona to the true self behind this. This is not always pretty and it is definitely not comfortable. Many people choose never to be this honest.

One of the essential things they both learned to do was maintain their own sense of self regardless of what was going on with the other. Many relationships set up a co-dependency where both people lean on each other. While this might seem cosy it means that when one wobbles the other does too. In reality your partner is not a surrogate parent, there to hold you up. You can never become fully adult until you can hold yourself up or ‘self-validate’ as the psychologist Dr David Schnarch calls it.

As Gavin and Leonie negotiated this new territory they found it brought rewards despite the challenges. They became better at staying with the difficulties instead of avoiding, blaming the other or being defensive. They were better at accepting themselves and better at accepting their partner. And over time they reported they could quickly get back to the love after a disagreement. The result was two compassionate and emotionally intelligent human beings. This is the hallmark of a great relationship.

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Relationship Repair

  • Patience: Allow time to cool off before attempting to sort difficult things through.
  • Gentleness: Make a soft overture to demonstrate readiness to re-connect.
  • Generosity: Acknowledge your part in the joint responsibility for the difficulty.
  • Courage: A simple “sorry” goes a long way.
  • Openness: Make eye contact.
  • Invitation: Discuss how the problem developed.
  • Negotiate: What changes might be necessary to prevent further difficulty?
  • Restitution: How could you make it up to each other?
  • Celebrate: Affirm the success of the repair by doing something fun together.

Conversation Topics that Keep a Relationship Up to Date

  • Ask: What is new in their life?
  • Follow up: What issues/events have they been dealing with recently?
  • Discover: What are the recent triumphs or successes?
  • Affirm: Give appreciation for their accomplishments.
  • Support: What are their present challenges, insecurities or concerns?
  • Feedback: Discuss how they are managing the situation.
  • Share: What are their future dreams or plans?

Love

Great relationships are actually about love. This doesn’t mean romance or good feelings although it might include these things. Love is actually a force of evolution. It helps human beings grow. It is an active thing and a conscious choice. It takes effort to be our best self and it takes effort to foster this in others. We have to go beyond what is comfortable and face up to the truth of our less attractive qualities. In a great relationship we relate from the generosity of our own heart and we speak to the greatness within the other. This is love in action.

*Names have been changed to protect confidentiality

Cynthia Hickman is a psychologist working in private practice in Melbourne. See her full website at www.cynthiahickman.net. First published in MindFood magazine.

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