by Shachi D. Shantinath, Ph.D.
Originally published at www.HealthandAge.com, 2001.
Relationships are important regardless of age, and contribute towards our health and happiness. Relationships can take many forms from familial, to romantic, to platonic. But too many people are under the mistaken impression that a good relationship either just happens or does not – meaning that there is nothing they can do to bring one about.
While it may be “chemistry” that brings people together, it does take effort to keep the relationship strong and growing. Most of the time, the effort is worthwhile, as it contributes toward a strengthening of bonds between people.
The following suggestions offer ways to improve existing relationships. Think of them as vitamins: when taken on a regular basis they can contribute towards optimal relationship health. Although these suggestions are drawn primarily from the couple’s communication literature, the fundamental ideas are applicable in any situation where you are in contact with people.
The Importance of “I” Statements
Try to state negative comments in the “I” form rather than the “You” form. For example, “I did not hear from you” instead of “You did not call me”. A simple change of pronouns can make a sentence sound less like an accusation and more like a neutral statement. “I” statements are less likely to evoke a negative response on the part of the listener.
Watch out for “Mind Reading”
With familiarity, it is easy to slip into a situation where one person expects the other to know their preferences. Mind reading can take two forms: where one person expects the other to know what they want; and where one person thinks they know what the other wants. The former can lead to disappointment and the latter can lead to a feeling of intrusiveness.
Techniques for effective dealing with differences have been around for some time and have produced results in various areas including politics, business and marital counseling. What is common to all of these settings is a set of skills that can be learned. With practice, they allow people to move forward in a way that leaves all parties feeling satisfied.
While familiarity occurs as intimacy deepens, remember that even the best of friends cannot know exactly what the other is thinking all of the time.
Schedule Times for Fun
Spontaneity is a wonderful concept, but the reality of modern lifestyles is that people often need to plan and schedule things. Just hoping that you will have time to be with a friend, neighbor or grandchild leaves things to chance.
Furthermore, by making the effort to plan the get-together into your schedule, you are also sending the message that the other person is important to you.
The Benefits of Rituals
Rituals can be as simple or complex as we choose to make them, and they can exist between friends, within a couple or family. Typically we think of elaborate holiday get-togethers when we think of rituals, but they can take any form we choose, and be as simple as taking a walk together or meeting for coffee
One colleague of mine has a pizza night each week, where she and her family get together and make pizza from scratch. It is something she has been doing for nearly twenty years and is something her entire family values and looks forward to.
Likewise, one homebound widower I know calls all his relatives on Sunday. This gives him something to look forward to, though he cannot get out too easily. It allows him to keep in touch with people and to feel connected to others. Interestingly, his relatives now also look forward to talking with him on Sundays- and they plan their day to make sure they have time for this.
Mind the “Relationship Savings Account”
This is a very powerful metaphor that has helped many of my clients improve the quality of their relationships. Quite simply, it is a symbolic way of talking about the good will and positive feelings that exist in a relationship. Praise, appreciation, and supportive gestures all serve as deposits in the relationship savings account.
Each time you offer genuine praise, appreciation or any other supportive or loving gesture, you are giving a message to the other person that you value them. This display of positive feelings serves as a “deposit” in the relationship savings account.
Just as we speak of “saving for a rainy day”, these deposits serve as a reserve if disagreements arise. The savings account serves as a reminder that the disagreement alone does not define where things stand between the two people. It helps people remember the goodwill and positive feelings that have accumulated over time.
An important point to bear in mind is that by making a deposit of your own free will, independent of expectations on the part of the other, you are contributing to the health of the relationship.
Watch out for “Zingers”
Zingers are nasty, unfair or otherwise inappropriate remarks, (including sarcasm and derisive humor), which threaten to reduce reserves in the relationship savings account. The problem is that one thoughtless zinger is like a huge withdrawal that takes out many deposits. Too many zingers can render an account empty. The best way to deal with zingers is to avoid them.
Schedule a Time for Problem Solving
Just as people in an office schedule periodic meetings to discuss administrative matters, it is a good idea to do so with your family as well. While it may seem artificial at first, the benefits are tremendous. Having a regular time set aside to discuss things like finances, car repair or home maintenance sets boundaries around the topic, and thereby reduces the risk of “contamination”. In other words, having a set time to discuss serious matters reduces the likelihood of the good times being overshadowed by unpleasant or stressful topics.
Work at Relationship Health Consciously
When thinking about relationships, it is helpful to keep in mind that it is a lot like physical health. Within the parameters of what a situation offers, there are still things that a person can do that either promote or hinder physical health (e.g. a person can choose to exercise or not). Similarly, the suggestions offered here serve to promote relationship health and increase your satisfaction in life. And given the interconnected nature of things, relationships do not stand alone, but have also been shown to have an impact upon physical health. Just one more reason to consider investing in relationship health.
Copyright S.D. Shantinath, Ph.D. All rights reserved.