Build better relationships

by Gary Gilles

Build better relationshipsWhat does it take to build better relationships? Well, let’s start with what is meant by “relationship.? When we use the term “relationship” we usually refer to it in the generic sense. “I have a good relationship with my spouse.” Or, “I have a close relationship with each of my children.”

We read into these statements as being positive, but in reality these statements of relationship tell us nothing about the quality of the relationship: The type of communication that goes on from one person to another, the level of trust that is built and maintained, how or if conflict is resolved, etc.

We live in an era where relationships get so much attention through books, seminars, magazines, television, therapy, etc. and are the focal point of so much conversation. We have an insatiable interest in how to have better relationships. And that’s good. We are most whole when in meaningful relationships.

Good intentions gone wrong

Yet as preoccupied as we are with how to do relationships better, we seem to be doing rather poorly on the whole. Here are some examples:

  • The divorce rate still hovers around the 50% mark despite all of our relationship resources
  • There are an increasing number of teen-parent problems due to a complicated landscape for adolescents who are caught between being dependent and thinking they are independent
  • The majority of people who dislike their jobs (approximately half) have ongoing manager-employee conflicts
  • The revolving door of dating that is common among many young adults who have more interest in recreational sex than finding a stable committed relationship
  • Cohabitating couples often take this path to ensure that they are compatible before marrying. Yet, cohabitating couples who go on to marry have a higher divorce rate (60%) than non-cohabitating couples

If we take the above as a sampling of how we are applying our collective knowledge about relationships, we can conclude that we are not doing all that well at managing our relationships. So, how is it that we have so many resources (many very good) yet we don’t seem to be apply this knowledge to have healthier relationships?

Experiential trumps head knowledge

The answer: it is our experiential understanding of relationship that is far more potent than information about relationships. We unconsciously draw upon those developmental years in our family for how to relate. This is where we learned how to interact with others. To the extend that we learned healthy ways to interact, resolve, care, apologize, etc. we carried these skills into our adult life. But if you didn’t have healthy teachers or an abundance of good “lessons” in interpersonal interaction, you are left to guess. It’s like taking a comprehensive exam at the end of the year without studying. You guess your way through. Sometimes you guess correctly, but most of the time you guess wrong. And too many wrong guesses lead to complicated, confusing and conflictual relationships.

changing relational patternsReflecting on the past

So, how to you assess whether you are repeating unhealthy patterns from your past?

  1. For starters, periodically reflect on your past relationships to learn what they might be able to teach you. Record your reflections in a journal or on a digital recorder or even share them with a friend. The idea is to reflect on these patterns to make them clearer.
  2. Explore your comfort level with emotion. Are you able to identify, name and verbalize your feelings easily? If your spouse or a friend asks you to explain your feelings is it easy and comfortable for you to put them into words? Or does it seem elusive or difficult to get clarity on what you feel?
  3. Identify at least one fear you have in relationships. We all have them to some extent. Do you fear conflict or disclosing things about yourself or being criticized? How much energy do you spend trying to avoid the relational tangles you are afraid of?

Here are some additional questions to get you started in your self-reflection:

  • How was discipline experienced in your home growing up?
  • How was conflict experienced in your family of origin?
  • How was love communicated between the members of your family of origin?
  • How would you describe the relationship between your parents and what model of love do you have as a result?

If you give some serious reflection to these questions, you will find that it provides insight into your relational history and helps you identify where you might be repeating patterns. While this awareness isn’t always comfortable, it allows you to begin making conscious choices to change those patterns and potentially improve the health of the relationships that mean the most to you.

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