Healthy Relationships Part I:: Four General Principles to Live By
What makes for a healthy relationship? Have you ever thought about it? Perhaps you’ve heard some general answers such as, “Good Communication,” or “Maturity,” or “Trust.” They’re great words, but what do they actually look like day-to-day in a relationship?
In this series, I’d like to offer some very specific and practical ideas to build healthy relationships. In Part One, I will discuss four general principles that can enhance or destroy a relationship. For this post I’ll be referring to any relationship (romantic, friend, parent-child) but in my next posts I’ll focus specifically on building healthy romantic relationships and avoiding abusive ones.
Principle 1: You Cannot Change Anyone
Some people become therapists because they think they can change people. I must confess, as a young college student I thought that therapy was about “fixing” people’s problems. I quickly learned however, that a therapist does not fix people, a therapist can only provide guidance, support, and tools for a person who has inner motivation to change.
It is the same with all other relationships: you can not change your girlfriend, your husband, your best friend, or even your child (although have an extremely heavy influence on your children). All motivation for change comes from within each person. It does not matter how loving, smart, beautiful, or rich you are, you cannot change another person.
I’m sure most of you have known people like Tom,* who was in a relationship with a woman named Allison, who became addicted to Vicodin before they were married. “She had a troubled past,” says Tom, “I thought if I gave her a stable home and relationship she would be able to give up the drugs.”
If you need a less extreme example, listen to what Mary has to say: “I married Jim, knowing that he didn’t believe in God.I thought he would start going to church with me and that we’d go to church together with our children.It never happened.”
In both cases, Tom and Mary knew what their spouses were like before they married them, yet they chose to marry them anyway, believing they would change. This is not to say that people don’t change, it’s just that they don’t change just because we want them to or by merely being in relationship with us.
The same applies to all other relationships. “My friend Judy always lies to me,” confessed Diane, “it hurts” Judy lies about lots of things and it has nothing to do with Diane or anyone else in her life, it’s a problem that Judy has. “You know Judy lies,” I told Diane, "She always has and she always will. You can tell her it bothers you, but you can’t change it Can you live with it?" (I have not got an answer from Diane yet).
So, what should you do if someone in your life has a serious issue that affects you? If you are seriously dating someone, ask yourself, "Can I live with this forever if it doesn’t change?" Give up the idea that you can change the issue… The only person you have control over is yourself!
I am not saying that you cannot ask a person to change, I am just saying that you cannot make them change. There is a huge difference. We’ll talk about making requests in your relationships in another post.
Principle 2: What You Put Out, You’ll Get Back
This is also known as the “reap-sow” principle. If I smile and am friendly, many people are going to smile and be friendly in return (try it if you do not believe me!)
In our relationships, we will “get back” or reap something directly related to what we “put out” or sow. For example, early in my marriage, I tended to complain about so many things all of the time!. I’m not sure what I expected from my husband (probably sympathy and help) but I did not reap anything positive from him while I was complaining. In fact, I noticed that he tended to get grumpy when I complained a lot. One day he told me how much my complaining bothered him. I have stopped my constant complaining, and now I have a husband who is more willing to listen when I do complain!
“Well, I’ll be nice to him when he is nice to me!” I’ve heard some form of that statement many times over, the idea that “I’ll do things differently when he/she changes.” Trouble is, if two people are waiting for the other to respond differently, then nothing swill ever happen!
Try doing something selfless/giving/nice for your partner without first waiting to “get” something or without expectation of an equal “return” for your effort. Then, make sure you take note of what happens!
Principle 3: The Importance of Keeping Your Promises
There is a test that I give some children that includes a question about why keeping a promise is important. Most children that I have asked this question have a good answer, "so you will be trusted," or "because the person is counting on you." These are simple but profound answers. If you cannot keep your promises, your relationships will limited in how healthy and intimate they are.
This may seem like a simple idea, but all of us have difficulty at one time or another in their lives keeping our word. Take Jane, for example, who is “always late.” She may dismiss her lateness due to being “super busy,” and her friends may excuse her saying, “that’s just Jane.” But the truth of the matter is no one can trust Jane to show up when she says she will.
Again, early in my marriage, whenever I asked my husband to do something for me the answer was always, “Yes!” However, I got to the point when I knew when he really meant “yes,” and when he really meant “no.” When my husband began to realize the value of a promise he began to say “No,” a lot to me! While it’s hard sometimes to hear “no,” I was also relieved to finally get an honest answer. Today I have a husband who I can trust will follow through when he says, “Yes!”
Is it a big deal? Yes! If someone cannot trust you with something small, how can they trust you with something really big and important? I have seen many children whose hearts are crushed because a parent breaks a promise. I have seen many adults who talk about a time that parent broke a promise to them! Keeping promises is critical for developing and maintaining healthy relationships.
Principle 4: It’s Not All About You!
Many of our difficult interactions with people are not about us, but about an issue that the other person has. If the person behind the counter at the Post Office is rude to you, it’s most likely about an issue they are having and not anything personal about you. Yet the natural human response seems to be to take things personally and react to them. You can be rude back to the postal worker, but does that help your interaction with them? You might feel better in the moment that you’ve “stood up for yourself,” but the grumpy clerk is still going to be grumpy.
In the past, there has been a lot of emphasis in psychology about asserting our own rights and sharing with others (such as parents) about how we’ve been hurt and wronged. Trouble is, these interactions rarely do much to heal or enhance relationships. I am not saying we shouldn’t share our feelings! Rather, I am merely suggesting that we think about what result we are trying to cause in the relationship.
I work with a lot of individuals who can articulate very eloquently what is wrong with their spouse or partner. And, they may be right…but we can’t change people, remember? So, what is a person to do?
Shelby is married to a nice guy named Rick who tends to say negative and even sometimes mean things when he gets really frustrated about things that happen in life. When Rick would make negative comments, Shelby would take them very personally and respond to Rick with a defensive answer that came directly out of her hurt feelings. Sometimes this interaction led to a fight where neither Shelby nor Rick felt like the other “heard” them.
One day Shelby came into session very pleased with herself. “Rick couldn’t find his drill the other day,” she said, “a_nd he started ranting about how messy the garage is and how he can’t stand it. Normally I’d start telling him how busy I am and that he doesn’t appreciate all I do around the house.But that day I finally realized his frustration is not about me (Rick had told her this before) and I just walked away. Ten minutes later Rick was calmer, he apologized, and we had no fight. In fact, he admitted that he was more frustrated about something that happened at work that day and it all came out when he started looking for the drill. If I had assumed his frustration was about me, I never would have heard what was really bothering him!”_
What I am saying does not apply to abusive relationships (we’ll talk about those later), nor am I suggesting that we should not share our feelings with our partner! I am merely suggesting that we consider the source of our partner’s behavior (many times it is an issue of theirs) before we react to it in a personal way! By not immediately taking something personally, we can often choose a far more effective response to our partner.
*All client names/details have been altered to protect confidentiality
Jennifer Fee is Director of Vision Quest Psychological Services. She is a psychologist licensed to practice in the State of California. She wrote for HealthCentral as a health professional for Anxiety Disorders.