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Couple holding handsWhat's the deal with relationships?  Why the hell are they so hard? 

Despite my own obvious limitations in this area - (er, three ex-husbands) - I sense a few ideas taking form which I'd like to explore, none of which refers specifically to any person, relationship or situation in my own life, by the way.  It's all general ideas.
Whether it's a friendship, a family relationship or a romantic relationship, a common factor is how well you can see yourself as a separate person from the other.  What was it they said at one of my weddings, something like "drink not from the same cup"?

Some of the things we commonly do which get in the way of keeping our relationships healthy are: 

 - Projection.  Taking things you sense about yourself which you're uneasy about, and attributing those things to the other person.

- Judging.  Related to the concept of projection. Rating the other person, whether it's their physical body, their manners, their interests, their skills, their conversational style, their taste or anything at all about them. Every other person in the world has a different 'map' of it than you do, and each of these maps are just our own perceptions based on our own experience, beliefs, values and filtering.

- Self absorption or narcissism.  Where your interest in the other person is all about you.  Seeking approval or recognition from the other person, wanting to see yourself through the other person's eyes.  Not that this in itself is a totally bad thing.  It's lovely to recognize admiration from another person.  One of the most attractive things about someone can be that they have the good sense to appreciate us.  But, I do think we need to tread carefully in this area in particular and keep a balance.  How?  Perhaps by imagining the other person has never even met you, so you know nothing about how they feel towards you.  Now, how do you feel towards them?

- Not listening.  Listening means more than waiting your turn to speak.  It's much more difficult to do well than we often think.  Simply hearing what the other person is saying and really taking it in, is such an important and valuable, and sometimes difficult thing to do.

- Reacting.  Ineffective handling of the other person's communication.  Knee jerk and defensive or angry responses where they're not appropriate.  (Are they ever?)

- Manipulating or seeking to control or coerce.  Any instance where you are trying to assert an unfair advantage over the other person, or covertly trying to cause them to take a particular action which may not be in their best interests.

- Co-dependency.  Where each partner is using the other as a crutch.

To have positive relationships with others, we need to be emotionally healthy.  Engaging in any of the behaviours mentioned above lowers our self esteem, and low self esteem increases the tendency to engage in these behaviours.

So self-awareness and taking total responsibility for oneself is the place to start.  Nobody else can cause you to feel bad - how you respond to any given situation is entirely your choice.

If we feel ok about ourselves, we naturally have more respect for other people.  Those who engage in bullying or manipulative behaviour do not do so from a position of healthy self esteem.  Those who hog the conversation, play the victim, criticize or pass judgement are also likely to be doing so because of how they feel about themselves.


With our friends, we often get to choose how we spend our time together and for how long, which makes it one of the easiest relationships to manage in some respects.  One of the best things we can practice with our friends is listening.  It's hard to do, because with friends, of course we want to talk.  We want to get it all off our chest, speak freely, relax, have fun, gossip, laugh and so on.  Which is all good, but it's easy to overlook really paying attention to what the other is saying.  It's amazing how many little details can be missed or glossed over, and there's so much to be heard 'between the lines' as well, if we really pay attention.

We needn't let perfectionism get in the way of developing better listening skills.  It only takes a few seconds of effort here and there to gain the benefits of this.  You don't have to have the full picture all in one go.  Little bits of information you pick up, which may not be very meaningful at the time, add up over time to give you a better understanding of your friend, which makes you able to be a better friend. 

Having better friendships is about being a better friend, and that can be done in lots of little ways.  Listen to your friends, care about them, get to know them. 

There's no need to be self-sacrificing to do any of this by the way.  Just be considerate and care.  Do something nice for someone because you feel like it, not because you want to 'earn points', make yourself feel better, or have something to throw in the other's face at a later time.  When someone does something kind for you, accept it graciously, and don't accept it if it's uncomfortable or has strings attached.

Parent/child relationships

This would have to be the most practical place to focus for improving your relationship skills.  Children are very open and easy to read compared with adults, and handling a situation well can show you an immediate positive result which can be learned from.  You won't have to wait long for an opportunity to experiment with improving your skills.

Say for example, your child is annoying you, being unreasonable, whinging or complaining.  You can feel the reaction coming on.  You feel ......what do you feel?  Before saying or doing anything, just have a look at that.  Now remember, it's you that's feeling that, and it's not necessary to assign blame for how you are feeling.  What makes more sense is to respond in a way which is most likely to get you the result you want.  So what is that?  You want your child to do the dishes and stop moaning about it.  If you get angry at them, you've engaged with that and amplified it.  If you play the victim, you're demonstrating to your child how to engage in manipulative behaviour.  And in either instance, the dishes are not getting done any sooner, and you're not feeling less irritated.  Not only that, but your child is not feeling more confident in you or respectful of you.

If you are able to just notice how you are feeling, then focus back on the desired outcome, and firmly but gently provide the leadership you need to, or listen to your child carefully without passing judgement and before responding, the benefits can be profound and instant.

How we relate to our children is often driven out of habit, and influenced by how we are feeling in other parts of our lives, or by our relationships with other people.

Treating our children with respect, and from a position of respecting ourselves, not only demonstrates to our children an example of a positive way to relate, but is practice for us in how to deal with all our relationships. 

Romantic relationships

This one is a mine field in which I've been blown up quite a few times, but what I do know is that the basic stuff mentioned above all applies.  For romantic relationships to last, getting the basics of self esteem, respect and communication right are the bare minimum.

And it's just with this simple stuff that so many relationships fall down, which is sad, because these things are not so hard to understand and apply.

Where it starts to get more complicated here is the issue of attraction, and then things like resentment.

With attraction, the thing to watch out for is that you are attracted to the other person for who they are, and not what you think they can do for you.  It's lovely to feel loved, and know that someone else is attracted to you, but the whys can be tricky here too.  You could both be doing the same thing.  Setting up what seems like mutual attraction when it's more like mutual ego propping.

You must first feel attractive, worthwhile and happy in yourself, respect yourself, like yourself and so on, before you will be capable of any healthy attraction developing with another person.

When relationships fail, it is often because resentment has built up to a point where it seems overwhelmingly too far to get back from.  So where does resentment in a relationship stem from?

I suspect one major source of it, is when the initial attraction stage was not on a solid basis to start with.  If you are interested in someone because of what you think they can do for you, because you think they can overcome or compensate for something you feel is lacking within yourself, it's eventually going to become apparent that this is not possible.  So you start blaming, resenting, projecting, judging and so on.

Resentment also builds up because of simple communication issues.  Healthy communication is hugely important and can prevent resentment like magic.  I know too, that projection is linked with resentment - we resent the other because of something we see in ourselves that is uncomfortable.

Of course so much of this kind of thing goes on beneath our awareness, it often goes un-noticed.  It seems all very complicated and difficult and scary, but happily, I think the ways of avoiding these pitfalls come back to the same simple principals.

Which are about taking responsibility for ourselves, our own feelings, our own actions, our own thoughts, our own lives.  Because really, that's the only thing we have full control over.  What you don't do, is read articles like this, and then go around telling everybody around you that they're doing this stuff.  It's not about them, it's about you.

If we approach all our relationships from this viewpoint, only good can come of it.  We teach other people how to treat us (was it Wayne Dyer who said that?), and it's easy to see how that is logical.  Other people can't help but see how we treat ourselves, and how we treat others is a reflection of how we see ourselves.  "Do unto others" need not be interpreted as a self-sacrificing piece of advice; I see it as a very practical and logical one.  Treating others with respect shows self respect, it demonstrates an absence of destructive behaviour.  Sure it might be faked, but it's still worth doing.  It's reinforcing habitual behaviour.  Nothing wrong with learning by rote.

Falling off the wagon

We all stuff up.  It's easy to fall back into habitual behaviours, especially as we're surrounded by them, not just in the people who are part of our lives or who we come across in our lives, but in the media.  Politics and news in particular, is so full of infantile, immature, and negative communication patterns, it's hard to avoid absorbing it.  Again, it's pointless blaming or complaining about it.  We have to change it from within, within ourselves, and we have to do it over and over again, all day, every day.  It's never done!

But like anything we want to learn or change, if we just keep going back to it, not being put off by our slip ups, it gets easier.



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