First, let’s start with how NOT to have a healthy relationship.
1. Blame and criticise the other person: Make sure you include denigrating judgements such as arrogant, uncaring, insensitive, inconsiderate, manipulative, irresponsible, or autocratic. Labels and put-downs contain no useful information, so you’re guaranteed to stop the other person from learning anything useful.
2. Deny responsibility: Get fast results by blaming others for your woes, for the things you said, or for your actions. Everyone loves a victim, don’t they? The “poor me” act is an excellent way of giving away your personal power.
3. Make demands: Tell them what to do. Order them around. If the other person submits to your demands, you can be sure they’ll begrudge you. Hello resentment! If they have a rebellious streak, you’ll have conflict on your hands. This is a great way to erode empathy.
4. Make threats: Another winner! When people think they may be somehow punished for not doing things your way, you can end up with lying, cheating, conniving and other joyful things.
There are several other relationship busters, but let’s turn to healthy relationships. They obviously involve little or none of the above, so what goes on in a healthy relationship?
I believe honest expression and empathy are what occur, and that these are the cornerstones of a healthy relationship.
What is honesty? By adulthood, we know that it involves more than just not telling lies. Some people think it is “honest” to say things like: “You’re being immature”, “She’s dishonest” or “He’s egotistical”. But this is blame and criticism (see above) and the other person typically gets defensive so we don’t achieve what we ultimately want. By honest expression, I mean saying clearly and specifically what we see, how we feel about what we see, saying what we need or want, and making requests on that basis.
Here is an example of how this might sound:
“When I see you come home from work and sit down to watch TV without saying hello, I feel hurt because I want some recognition. Next time, could you say hello and ask me how my day was before turning on the TV?”
Easy right? Easy, if you stay calm and first get clear about your feelings and needs!
So, what is empathy? After expressing yourself honestly, your focus turns to what goes on inside the other person. You might ask: “How do you feel about what I just said?” Empathy is the same process described above turned outwards. In other words, listening with curiosity to what the other person sees, sensing or asking how they feel about this, sensing or asking about their need, and asking what actions or solutions might meet their need.
If you receive blame or criticism, you can ask your partner to get specific about their feelings and needs. Getting specific helps you get clear. Clarity brings you closer to agreement. Don’t accept judgements of you such as “lazy” or “selfish”. Ask the other person to say specifically what they are referring to, what they feel, what they need, and what they would like to request of you. This is how you can learn together.
When it come to making requests, always be willing to hear a “No” and to say “No”. If someone cannot do the request willingly or genuinely, you are back in the realm of making demands (see above). Instead, hear the ‘yes’ behind the ‘no’ by asking what is preventing the other person from saying ‘yes’. This dialogue will be more likely to lead you to a creative solution that works out better for you both.
It’s very easy to avoid, blame, demand and threaten. Having a healthy relationship involves hard work, though not the kind of hard work we usually mean. By hard work, I mean a willingness to tolerate feeling uncomfortable or vulnerable (which can be hard), to take responsibility for your own feelings and needs (which can be hard), to not take responsibility for the other person’s feelings (which can be hard), and to put time and effort into getting this right. In my experience, it is well worth it. You end up with a relationship characterised by communication, honesty, openness, empathy, cooperation and connection.
Looking for couples counselling? The team at North Brisbane Psychologists can help. Book an appointment today.