When people get in touch with me, the most common reason they give for asking for help is problems with relationships. There is nothing more important in our lives than the relationships we have with the people who matter to us, and because we are all developing and changing throughout our lives it is inevitable that our relationships are affected. We don’t always see eye to eye with those close to us. And wouldn’t life be boring if we did?
This article aims to look in general terms at issues which can get in the way of healthy relationships. It does not have all the answers – after all, there are as many solutions as there are problems. It does aim to be relevant to a variety of different relationships: parent – child; partner – partner; sibling – sibling; employer – employee; colleague – colleague; neighbour – neighbour; doctor – patient; even counsellor – client. All of these relationships have significance in our lives, and their relative importance will vary at different stages in our lives, even at different times of the day. We hope that the comments which follow will be a starting point if you want things to improve but feel stuck in a blind alley.
Does your important relationship have a communication problem? Have you stopped talking to each other / started to misunderstand each other? It is worth remembering that a relatively small percentage of communication happens in words. We do need to talk, but if the person we need to talk to is sitting frowning, arms folded, not meeting our gaze, we might well assume that that person does not want to hear us. The body language is making us feel excluded – it is saying “Keep Off!” Beware! At this point we have made an assumption, that the message is aimed exclusively at us, and our instinctive response is to draw back, to widen the gap. Unspoken assumptions are potentially very destructive, as we build on them to create situations which might exist only in our minds, so we do need to check things out. This is where we need words. What we say and how we act will vary depending on our relationship with the other person: our words and behaviour will be very different if we are speaking to a child, a partner, a boss, or a friend. What matters is that we say something, perhaps a gentle enquiry about when we could come back to have a conversation, or to find out whether there is a problem we could help with. If there is a rule here, it could be summed up as “Be tactful and honest”, which does not mean “Become a door mat”, while you are communicating.
Feeling unloved, unappreciated, ignored, unseen will have an impact on our behaviour. Again, a space develops between us and the other which we can fill with our fears, imaginings and assumptions. We can then act and speak as if this internally created world is real, and run the danger of making it real. And again, it is important to check things out. Remember to speak from your heart and your own position: “I feel . . . ” rather than “You always make me feel . . .”. Try to be assertive rather than to attack the other person, and try to find the patience to wait for a reply – you are much more likely to get a reasonable response. It is worth reminding yourself that a difficult place in a relationship is very often reached as a result of words/actions/assumptions by both people – the term used by counsellors is “co-created”. It is all too easy to find ourselves thinking “If I said/did that it would be because . . . therefore it must mean that for him/her.” Very often it doesn’t mean that, and we will never know if we don’t check it out. It is also worth asking ourselves, “What have I said/done that s/he might have misunderstood?” Again, this does not mean shouldering all the responsibility and blame for a relationship breakdown, but it is the very useful activity of trying to see things from a different angle, from the other person’s point of view. We don’t have to change our own view in order to understand someone else’s.
In many situations in life we see ourselves in competition with others/another individual. This might be at work with an ambitious colleague, in the family with sibling rivalry carrying over into adult life, at home when we find ourselves wondering just who does come first with our partner. Entering the competition (real or imagined) is rarely productive, unless we are genuinely all chasing the same promotion. It is worth taking a deep breath and a step back, and trying to separate the real from the feared. Are we carrying forward into this relationship or situation something we experienced in the past, expecting another bad outcome because of a previous one? Are we blaming someone in our present life for events in the past? It is very easy to make the assumption that because one person behaved in a certain way everyone else will do the same. You might realize that this has happened to you.
Getting to grips with problems in a relationship is not easy. Real communication is very important and can be difficult to achieve, as it demands commitment on both sides – to speak the truth in as non-threatening way as possible and to really listen and hear what is being said, with both people doing their utmost not to confuse this situation with others they might have encountered in the past. It can take time and skill to unravel what is really going on. This is why many people decide to use professional help, either to talk things through on their own before involving the second person, or to come together to talk to each other in front of a witness (some people see a referee).