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Hands intertwined
Hands intertwined

When people talk about "relationships", they commonly mean romantic ones, as in dating or marriage. But we have relationships with family, friends, neighbors, coworkers, vendors, customers, colleagues, and even strangers. We even have relationships with "unreal" or imaginary others, including fictional and historical characters, and deceased or otherwise departed family and friends ~ as well as with animals, plants, places and things.

What do we mean by this more general word "relationship"? We have a relationship with someone or something when we hold expectations, feelings, attitudes and desires about them and experience them in a way that matters to us. Proximity is not essential ~ it is possible to have no relationship with someone living three doors down but have a lifelong one with a friend in Paris.

Although each relationship is different, there are common principles which can guide us toward greater satisfaction in every relationship. These principles are not absolutes but directions in which to move or aspects to pay attention to. And they are most important in the relationships that are most important to us.

back to top Balance

Satisfaction in relationships is a direct function of their degree of balance. Some relationships are apparently one-sided ~ the book I'm reading does not care if I like it or not. But all healthy relationships are balanced, in that we experience giving to the other (I spend time with the book and give some attention to it) as well as receiving (I get a benefit from reading it, hopefully). If a relationship does not involve the experiences of giving and receiving, then it is imbalanced.

We're not suggesting that relationships should be 50-50 or evenly matched among the parties to it. Balance in relationships is simply about the reciprocal nature of healthy relationships. If it is all about us investing with no associated sense of return (we're a "doormat"), or all benefit with no contribution from us ("user"), then ultimately it will be unsatisfying.

In fact, relationships are rarely 50-50, at least moment to moment ~ sometimes we give a lot and receive little or nothing, while at other times we may be getting more out than we feel we are putting into a relationship. Balance in a relationship is sometimes only evident over longer periods of time. For example, we may have to finish a movie or book or know someone for a long time before we have a sense of reward in the relationship; until then, it may seem all about giving. On the other hand, we may get a lot from our parents as children but, hopefully, get to return the favor later in life.

Therefore, patience is a key quality in those who wish to have satisfying relationships ~ if you need to get as soon as you give, your relationships are more likely to be short-lived and of less satisfaction. Tit-for-tat is not a good standard for either giving or receiving.

Back to top Flexibility

Relationships stand a better chance of lasting long enough to develop more satisfaction for the participants if they are flexible in the face of changing circumstances. Nothing in life is permanent; if your relationships with friends, family, or lovers are based on a specific set of conditions -- health, money, job, looks -- then you are more likely to struggle with maintaining a relationship if any of those conditions change...and change they will!

Flexibility can be built through bettering our self-esteem -- if my sense of competence and self-worth can survive the ups and downs of life, I can better maintain my sense of relationship with others as they change for better or worse. When my survival is less dependent on a particular person being in my life, I will put less pressure on that person to stay the same no matter what.

Remember the traditional wedding vow that goes "richer and poorer, in sickness and in health"? This speaks to the commitment that helps us stay connected even when circumstances surrounding a relationship become more challenging. And challenge may mean increased success, not just the threat of failure...imagine if your spouse gets a great job while you remain stuck in what you consider your mediocre one. Jealousy and sabotaging behaviors can creep into even the best relationship when we measure ourselves against another.

Back to top Freedom

The Beatles sing, "I used to be cruel to my woman, I...kept her apart from the things that she loves", in "Getting Better".(1) Controlling our family, friends or loves is not only impossible, ultimately, but actually can destroy what we value in the relationship.

Just as we should be free to explore and express ourselves in ways that are most satisfying for us, so too should the others we relate to be free to be themselves, even when that freedom seems to jeopardize the relationship. "If you love them, let them go." What this means is that we may extinguish the spark of life in someone we supposedly care about if we imprison them within rules and conditions that are unnatural for them.

Instead of viewing a partner as someone who must fit our requirements, instead consider that what we value about them is best nurtured through freedom. Let them make their own mistakes, try their own experiments with job, lifestyle, diet, and play. This doesn't mean we want to be around for all of it. If your husband wants to watch football, to use a cliche, then you may want to spend that time taking a walk. But he should be free to entertain himself as he sees fit.

When someone's choices are too offensive or contrary to our own values, such as when we absolutely hate football, we should distance ourself from the relationship rather than try to control that person. Find people you can relate to for themselves, just as you want to be related to for who you really are, rather than for whom someone else wants you to be.

Back to top Commitment

It is sometimes difficult to know how to stay committed to a relationship during times of stress or challenge. Should a mother visit her son in prison? Should a brother spend time with a sister who always listens to ear-splittingly loud music that he hates?

A helpful concept is that of "minimum safe distance" -- just as a fire can burn you if you are standing too close to it, some relationships are harder if we are too involved or spending too much time with someone. Let your time together be dictated by how good it feels, keeping in mind the principles of freedom and flexibility discussed above.

I can better stay committed to a relationship through ups and downs if I keep a significant portion of my energy focused on taking care of me. Not all of it, of course. But the instructions of the airplane tell you to put the oxygen mask on your own face first and then your child's. The reason is, if you die because of fumes or a lack of air, you can't help your child. Similarly, you can't stay satisfied in a relationship if you must see someone every day, all day, regardless of how that feels.

But if I can move in or out, figuratively (and sometimes literally) speaking, depending on circumstances -- there's flexibility again -- then I can maximize the amount of time I spend with someone when it feels good. Remember, this is true for the other people in our lives as well!

Back to top Respect

What does it mean to treat someone with respect? It means to consider and support what is true about them -- if they like salmon but hate chicken, we invite them to a sushi restaurant, not KFC!

Self-respect is just as important in relationships as other-respect. Knowing what works for us, and communicating it, is critical to maintaining and developing quality relationships. Encourage your friends and family to do the same, with you and anyone else in their lives they wish to relate to. Ask questions, share feelings, make it part of your relationships with everyone that you and they will communicate about our wants and need and ask that others keep them in mind.

If we are keeping balance, flexibility, freedom, and commitment in our relationships, we have gone a long way towards respecting ourselves and others with whom we are connected.

  1. "Getting Better" from "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band". c. 2008 Apple Corps.

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