Relationships can be challenging. Relationships can also add to our quality of life and mental health. When we work to make our relationships healthy, we increase the chances that our relationships will add to, not take away from, our life enjoyment and fulfillment. So, how can relationships work for us and not against us? Making relationships a positive in our lives means choosing wisely who you keep close to you, working hard to nurture healthy relationships, and learning effective communication skills. Below, you can read how those 3 broad ideas can be translated into five tips that can help you move toward more compatible relationships in your life. Keep in mind, these tips often work in conjunction with each other to be truly effective in building more effective relationships. Therapy is often a piece of the healthy relationship puzzle, as well.
Tip #1 – Remember, We Are All Human
One of the first things to remember is: we are all human and humans make mistakes. At times, I have felt hurt by something someone close to me has done or said. I have also had moments of feeling disrespected when my children did not seem to hear or follow through with something I’ve said. On the flip side, others have inevitably felt hurt by something I’ve said or done, and sometimes by something that was entirely outside of my control. While I have never set out to intentionally hurt someone, especially loved ones in my life, I acknowledge that I have hurt people inadvertently. Or, perhaps more accurately, people have felt hurt by me at various moments. Over the course of my life, I have come to believe what I see as a truth of life: we generally get upset with someone when they aren’t being the way we want them to be. While I realize this comment reflects a distilled version of reality, I find it to be true. And when I think about it, I ask myself, “Why would I expect anyone to be the way I want them to be at any moment, much less all the time?” Remembering that we are all human can help us maintain perspective in moments when we feel hurt or otherwise upset in our marriage, friendships, or other relationships.
Tip #2 – Consider Compatibility and Willingness
While romantic books and movies, or even a certain 1970’s tune can make it seem like being “in love” is all that a successful marriage or relationship needs, it takes more. Love is a necessary, but not sufficient, component of a healthy relationship. While the Beatles assertion that “All You Need Is Love” made for a catchy tune, I wouldn’t say it is completely accurate. For healthy relationships, while you do need love, there must also be effort, compatibility, trust, communication, etc. What you specifically need in your relationship partly depends on you and what you and your partner need in the relationship.
What I’ve learned from years of therapy with couples is that, if there is willingness and capability, relationships can grow (or heal) and become healthy. Long-term romantic relationships can be complex due to the various roles we adopt in relation to the other person. Early in the relationship, the roles are simpler – friends, romantic partners, lovers. As we move through life and the relationship grows, the roles become more complex – roommates, business/financial partners, parenting partners, and life partners. It is important to consider whether there is compatibility (or whether you truly imagine there will be) across all of these roles, and couples counseling can help uncover whether that willingness is there to build upon.
Tip #3 – Set and Maintain Boundaries
People are not mind readers and we don’t all share the same exact preferences in relationships. So, we each need to learn where our boundaries are, how to communicate these to the other people in our lives, and when to let others know that they’ve crossed those boundaries. For example, my wife and I have a list of ‘non-negotiables’: no lying, no cheating, no hitting. While we are willing to forgive almost any transgression, those three are potential deal-breakers. We have said this to each other repeatedly, so there are no surprises there. I challenge you to identify your boundaries and develop the courage to set and maintain them. While it can feel uncomfortable for some of us to set and maintain boundaries, remember that you aren’t doing anything wrong when you set and maintain boundaries or when you discover someone else’s boundaries. Sometimes the way we learn where boundaries are is to bump up against them, and that can be a bit uncomfortable. Couples therapy can help you uncover what your own personal boundaries may be, and help you learn what it might mean to enforce those boundaries.
Tip #5 – Ask for What You Need
Again, people are not mind-readers and the only way someone can know for sure what you need is to ask. Keep in mind, sometimes you might need to be specific. It might not be very useful to ask for “more time” from someone, since more time could mean 1 minute or 1000 minutes. It might be more effective to communicate that you generally need to see them for at least an hour 3-4 times a week (or whatever works for you). Remember, needs vary. Some people need quality time together, while others might need to hear they are loved and appreciated. Often, our needs shift over time and while we used to like to receive gifts, for example, to feel loved, we might now need hugs or other physical touch. The trick is to find ways to ask for what you need without blaming the other person for not knowing and providing what you need already.
Tip #5 – Learn to Listen: Reflect, Be Curious, and Validate
People tend to listen to respond, not to understand. Once they hear something they disagree with, have an explanation for, or want to make a counterpoint to, they stop really listening. We need to flip this and practice listening to understand rather than respond. It is hard to listen and truly aim to understand the way a loved one is feeling when we don’t want them to feel that way, especially if the implication is that we contributed to that feeling. When we care about the people in our lives we don’t want them to hurt. However, no amount of me wanting someone to not hurt is going to change the fact that they will sometimes hurt. So, instead of trying to talk them out of hurting or saying they don’t “need” to hurt, I can try and understand their hurt and simply be there as a comfort to them. When listening to understand, try following these three steps – reflect (say back to them what you heard them say, so they can either confirm or clarify), be curious (ask questions to help you understand more fully without trying to make a point), and validate (let them know that you can now understand why/how they feel the way they are feeling). If you can do this successfully, you will come to understand them much better and once they feel heard they will most likely be in a better position to actually listen and understand you.
While there are more tips where those came from, understanding and practicing those tips might help you begin to develop a healthier marriage or other relationships in your life. Allowing for humans to be human, working to assess and develop compatibility across the various roles in your relationships, setting and maintaining boundaries, asking for what we need, and learning to listen can help. Remember, staying in a relationship that is unhealthy is not a sign of love, it shows a lack of respect for yourself and the other person. If you work hard and things just don’t improve, it doesn’t mean you (or the other person) is not good enough or did something wrong, it might just mean there isn’t enough compatibility to create a healthy relationship.
Getting Started in Couples Therapy
The first step to uncovering this is often through marriage counseling, couples therapy, or individual therapy.
To book a no-strings-attached appointment to talk about your wants and needs in your marriage or relationships, click here to be brought to our online scheduler. The initial consult is complimentary as you determine if we are a good fit for your needs. Is your marriage or relationship worth it? We think so.
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Dr. Mike Ghali, owner of Individual and Couples Therapy, has been practicing therapy for over 20 years. He is licensed as a Psychologist in Colorado and Florida. While physically located in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where he holds in-person sessions, you can also schedule telehealth sessions with Dr. Mike from anywhere in Colorado or Florida.
If you’d like to schedule a free 15-minute consultation call with Dr. Mike at Individual and Couples Therapy, please visit www.inctherapy.org and choose the available time that works best for you and your partner. If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to contact Dr. Mike at firstname.lastname@example.org. *Please do not include sensitive clinical information in emails.