Relationships can be the most rewarding parts of our lives. They can also be the most trying. A healthy and successful relationship with another human being has a myriad of benefits, including scientifically proven mental and even physical health improvements. An unhealthy relationship results in stress, anxiety, heartbreak, and even potential abuse.
In this article I attempt to distill what I believe to be the four main pillars of any relationship.
While no expert myself, I have recently experienced both the highs and lows of a deep and meaningful relationship. Unfortunately for me, it wasn’t until after it ended that I was able to fully grasp my role in its demise. Through deep reflection and meditation, I am now able to understand what the important components are to a healthy relationship.
You can apply these principles to relationships with strangers, coworkers, friends, family, and significant others.
You’ve heard this one before. We have all been told at some point or another that communication is the key to any healthy relationship. This is definitely true, but we are not told much else besides that the communication should be “honest” and “open”.
While the risk of under communicating seems obvious, quite a few people (myself included) can fall into the trap of over communicating.
There were many times I would make (what I thought to be) a casual remark. It could have been about anything from an attractive actress to a book selection. At the time, I thought I was just making innocent and honest remarks. Because that is what you’re supposed to do.
Well, I was wrong.
This does not mean that people should censure themselves. Instead, take a moment to observe the comment you want to make. Is it necessary? How could it be interpreted? Why do I even want to share this? Looking back, I can see how my “innocent” comments actually came across as judgmental and even controlling.
I read somewhere that one of the greatest acts of love you can provide to someone is the withholding of judgement.
When there is something important to discuss, make sure that you are fully aware of your tone, emotions, and facial expressions. This can be difficult depending on the topic and the natural emotions it could invoke. I am not saying you should act like a robot. Instead, be mindful. Have clear intentions of what you want from the conversation and be both generous and understanding of the other person’s reactions and comments.
Communication encompasses both giving and receiving. For the most part, I think we are all good at talking to the other person in our relationship. But we don’t want to “talk to” we want to “speak with”. It is a joint effort and that includes listening.
We can all be terrible listeners. We think that because we hear the words that we are listening. This is not true because I guarantee that when you are “listening” you are also thinking of the next one or two things you want to say! We can not truly process the words, emotions, and energies of someone else if we are living inside our own heads coming up with the next sentence we want to share. Say what you need to say in a mindful way, and then truly listen to the other person. Go beyond the ears, and feel inside what they are trying to tell you. Are they excited about some news they want to share with you? Are they upset at something you did or didn’t do? You will not truly be able to communicate until you are able to feel what they are saying.
Feeling what someone else is saying or experiencing is, to me, the definition of understanding. I used to think I was good at understanding. The mistake I now see that I was making was that I was good at conceptualizing the idea of what they were trying to say or what they were experiencing. But when you conceptualize, it lives only in your mind. The human mind is a strange and often times demented place.
If your idea of their experience goes against what you believe they should be thinking or feeling, then your mind ends up attacking their position. True understanding comes from being able to internalize and feel the other person’s experience. If someone you care about is sad or excited, you can feel those emotions for them too. If they are hurt by something you did, you don’t care as much about “why they shouldn’t feel that way” but instead are able to focus on the fact that a human being you care about is experiencing hurt. You can then go on to discuss why they are in their current state and how you can collectively make it better in a way that makes them feel heard and appreciated.
I believe it was Oprah who said that a true act of love is making another person feel heard. You are incapable of doing that until you are able to understand others on a deeper level.
One way to ease yourself into this is the realization that we are all the same. We are all built of the same molecules, we are born, we experience the highs and lows of life, and we all die. We are also all the same in that we each experience the world in totally unique ways that are governed by when and where we are born, who raised us, the sorrows and joys of our history, and our hopes and dreams. To realize that we are all truly the same but also experience the world differently is a great way to really start understanding the people around you. With that understanding will also come the greatest gift of all, forgiveness.
3. Your Self
The popular idea about relationships, particularly those related to love, is that you find the rest of yourself in another person. Books, TV, movies, music, all these mediums support the mythology that we are incomplete as individuals and need another individual (who is also incomplete) to join us in life so we can be a whole. This is a delusion.
The more accurate saying is to the effect of “you can’t love someone else until you love yourself”. Humans are on a lifelong search for happiness and meaning and so we use our relationships as a vehicle, or even final destination, for that goal. What I have come to learn as the truth of the matter is that you must be able to fully accept, validate, and love yourself first and foremost if you want any chance of living a life of abundance, and that includes having healthy relationships.
It is this pillar that might be the most difficult to fully grasp and apply. It certainly has been for me. In fact, you could easily argue that the difficulties one experiences in communication and understanding can be directly linked to a lack of self love and self worth.
Basically what happens is that you end up, whether it be consciously or unconsciously, projecting all your own insecurities and biases onto your partner. This can result in you becoming frustrated or even angry over small mistakes and habits they do. This is what also leads to arguments were you fiercely argue your point as if it was a matter of life and death. Jealousy, clinginess, the feeling of superiority and more are also all symptoms of not being at peace with your self.
I could write a whole other article on the differences between the ego and the self. Eckhart Tolle is widely recognized as the go-to for this topic with his book “The Power of Now”, which I highly recommend.
To make a long, but important, story short, we are often times ruled by our minds instead of the other way around. We allow emotions and perceptions that are generally based on our own negative experiences and insecurities to govern how we interact with and treat others.
Until you are able to fully accept your self, realize that all you actually need is within, you will not be able to fully accept another person. There is no external love or validation that will ever be worth more than the validation and love you give to yourself. Your significant other may think you are the most amazing creature on the planet, but until you realize it yourself, you will never truly feel it. Happiness is found in ourselves and not in others.
How? Look within. Look at your reflection in the mirror. Tell yourself you are worthy, you are wonderful, you are loved and lovable. Raise the bar for how you treat and talk to yourself. From my own personal experience, I realized that I had such a low standard for how I thought of and spoke to myself, that it automatically lowered (without me even realizing it) how I thought of and spoke to others.
Treat yourself the way you wished your favorite person on the planet could be treated, and you will be amazed at the difference in your life and the lives of those around you.
I really believe this to be the most important of the four pillars, so I urge you to take some extra time to think about your own insecurities, how you might be projecting them onto others, and how you can go about recovering the relationship you have, first and foremost, with yourself and also the relationships you have with those close to you.
For a functional relationship, you need at least one of the two people involved to be actively working on the above mentioned.
For a successful relationship, you need both individuals actively working together on all the pillars discussed thus far.
It might seem obvious, but many people fall into the trap of wanting to make something work so badly that they’ll shoulder all the burden. That is neither healthy nor fair. In terms of love, it is not true romantic love unless it is a feeling shared by two individuals. Otherwise, it is just attachment and delusion.
Have a discussion with your coworker, friend, family member, or significant other if you feel like there is not enough equality. Likewise, if you realize you are not pulling your own weight, voice that as well. In either situation, it is important to communicate this without emotion and without judgement. Instead of saying “you aren’t doing this” or “I feel like I’m doing everything”, say something to the effect of “I sometimes feel a bit stressed and I was hoping you could help me”. Be honest, respectful, understanding, and mindful.
Relationships between humans are complicated matters. Because of this, I am sure there are elements of interaction and connection that were not explained in enough detail or were missed entirely. I, like all of us, am learning as I go.
My hope is that sharing my own personal and hard-learned lessons, I can somehow help others who are curious or struggling in their own relationships.
The overall message is to make sure you are doing your best to not project any insecurities you have onto others, communicate with respect and mindfulness, truly try to understand others on a deeper level, and make sure you are already in or are working towards an equal relationship.
Please feel free to comment with your own lessons and experiences that you think could further the conversation!