Developing Healthy Relationships

Humans by nature are social creatures, and most individuals do not do well when deprived of contact with others. Relationships give meaning and purpose to our lives like no other activity or endeavor can. At a time when students are learning about greater independence and responsibility, they are expected to know the skills of developing significant or intimate relationships with others.

There are identifiable skills one can acquire to navigate the unpredictable and sometimes turbulent waters of relationships, but where do you start? Also, there are healthy relationships that allow for individuality and bring out the best in people, and there are unhealthy relationships that stifle growth and have negative effects on the individuals involved in those relationships.

So, how do you develop healthy relationships, or if you are currently in a bad one, how do you learn to let go? These are a few questions that we hope to address by providing you with some basic but essential relationship skills. These skills are meant to apply to all kinds of relationships including significant others, parents, siblings, roommates, peers, friends, co-workers, and professors to name a few.

The top five skills for developing healthy relationships are (in no particular order):

The Art of Communication

Communication is always near the top of the list when people are asked what they think is an important ingredient in a healthy relationship. Wait a minute! Aren't we communicating all the time through verbal and nonverbal messages? Yes, but we are not always communicating in an effective, honest, and direct manner that is conducive to our building relationships. We all want to put our best foot forward but can actually put our foot in our mouths when it comes to being genuine and open in our relationships. So, how do we start?

Know what you want to communicate when you are making a statement or expressing a feeling, and then focus on how you want to convey that message. For example, a great way to bring down defenses and to communicate in an assertive manner is to use “I -statements”. Using this format, allows you to state things in a positive and open manner, which tends to minimize the blaming usually indicated by “you-statements.” When we use “I-statements”, we are also taking responsibility for what we think, feel, and need while avoiding blaming or accusing others.

Listen to what the other person is saying. Too often, we get into the habit of tuning out what others are saying as we prepare our own rebuttals or list of needs. Learning to listen and then reflecting back to the person what you think they are saying and feeling (without interrupting with “yes, but…”) helps defuse situations and enables real progress to be made in your attempts to communicate well.

Develop a strategy or solution that suits both of your needs. Rather than focusing on what you want exclusively or giving in when you should assert your rights and opinions, discuss each of your concerns in a calm and solution-seeking manner so that together, you can come up with mutually acceptable and satisfying decisions.

Express your appreciation. This is a big one. Let others know when they have made you happy and compliment them for their genuine efforts to maintain a healthy relationship with you. Every person needs and appreciates compliments and recognition for their efforts and taking the time to notice their acts of kindness and thoughtfulness will benefit your relationships.

In fact, research shows that it takes a 5:1 ratio of positive statements to make up for one negative statement or action you make in a relationship. Increase your awareness of all that your partner, friends, family, and peers do that is positive and relationship-enhancing and then let them know directly that you noticed and appreciated all their efforts.

Expressing Empathy and Genuine Concern

It is easy to get caught up in all of our own activities, worries, and goals that we forget that others have their own issues and goals. Take time to express your genuine concern about others and express empathy by giving of yourself and time. Maybe it is simply allowing the person with whom you have a relationship to express their frustrations or concerns, or maybe it is you taking the time to talk honestly or directly to a friend in need or someone headed in the wrong direction.

It does not take a relationship expert to express empathy and concern, it just takes someone who is willing to look beyond their own needs and desires long enough to see that others are hurting or in need of support, comfort, or a listening ear.

Expressing Yourself and Fighting Fair

One of the relationship myths we find is that if the other person really cares, they should know what you are thinking without your having to say it. This is such an unfortunate and damaging false assumption. Every individual has their own needs, beliefs, values and concerns that are unique to them. Expecting someone to have “mind-reading” capability is unfair and unproductive because more often than not, you are going to be disappointed and angry when the other individual fails to live up to that unrealistic expectation.

It is much better to be honest and direct in expressing what you need and want. The other person may not be able or willing to provide what you request but at least they have a chance and choice in addressing your concerns and needs.

Inevitably, individuals will have disagreements because we are all so unique. However, this recognition does not mean that fighting and loss go hand-in-hand. In fact, couples who fight fair by being respectful and focusing on the immediate issue at hand (versus throwing in the “kitchen-sink”) often find that the successful navigation of disagreements leads to healthier and deeper commitments to their relationships.

Unfair fighting includes name-calling, ignoring or shutting-out your partner’s view, belittling, and/or discounting another’s feelings in attempts to win. Ironically, those who choose to fight this way always end up on the losing end even when they think they have “won.

Some basic ground rules for fighting fairly include:

  1. Maintaining a spirit of goodwill – remember: you care about this person
  2. Avoiding attacks and keeping the focus on behaviors, not personalities.
  3. Sharing your feelings honestly and listening to your partner’s feelings as well
  4. Focus on the present and let go of the past. Concentrate on what you can change or modify, not on past disappointments that have no solutions.
  5. Keep an open mind and recognize that ultimately, you want to develop healthy strategies and patterns for dealing with any conflicts that arise in your relationship.
  6. After the discussion is over, reaffirm your respect and affection for each other, and express your appreciation for the other person’s listening and discussion of the issue.

4. Knowing Yourself and Your Needs

“Know thyself” is one of the most popular and well-known quotes in time, yet we rarely take the time to really understand the wisdom in those two short words. Introspection and self-reflection are critical to achieving satisfaction in our personal goals but we tend to look to other sources than within when feeling discouraged or “lost”. How does one go about knowing him-or herself? Taking the time to thoughtfully consider your own values and beliefs and aligning your goals with these values and beliefs is one benefit of knowing thyself. Recognizing your own personal needs from relationships and knowing what strengths and limitations you bring to these relationships is also a facet of good self-knowledge. Asking others about how they view you, including what they see as your assets and challenges can be informative as you begin your reflection process but keep in mind that you know yourself best of all, if you will give yourself the time to honestly reflect and analyze who you are as a person, what you want from life, and what you can offer to others in relationships with you.

5. Asserting Your Rights and Respecting and Honoring Others’ Rights

Learning when to say no to unhealthy relationships or unfair requests in a relationship is very important. While you want to use all of the suggestions above including empathy, effective communication, and flexibility, you should never feel as if you have to compromise significant beliefs or values to make another person happy. It is also important to recognize others’ rights and respect their decisions or differences of opinion. In most situations where differences do occur, couples can work through the differences to develop mutually satisfying and relationship-enhancing solutions. If, however, you ever feel uncomfortable or forced into situations that are not right for you, asserting your needs and even getting out relationships that may be unhealthy for you can help preserve your rights and self-esteem. It is never okay for others to manipulate you into doing or committing to things that make you sad or uncomfortable. Talking to friends and family when you have questions about which way to go can be beneficial. Your R.A. or a professor are potential sources of guidance as well. If, you are ever in an abusive situation, please take all measures to get out of the relationship and talk to others including one of our counselors here at the counseling center, who can assist you in developing healthier relationships.