We’ve all got them, or had them; relationships that started out well and have somehow ended up in a toxic stinking pile in the corner.
Relationships with parents, siblings, children, partners, friends, colleagues – people that we once liked and loved but can now barely bring ourselves to talk to.
And the guilt! In most of those cases we avoid contact with the other person partly because we want to avoid what we see as inevitable conflict, but also partly from guilt.
These are people we feel that we SHOULD love and like and spend time with.
What kind of a person am I, we ask ourselves, what kind of a daughter/wife/mother/friend am I that I can’t spend time with this person?
Or if the guilt is too much to bear we turn things round the other way and stoke up the fires of anger and resentment against the other person – it’s all their fault, if they weren’t so mean/rude/argumentative/stupid they’d see that it’s all their fault and they’d change and then things would be all right.
But we know that won’t happen, and so the easiest thing to do is to let it slide until years go by and you find yourself divorced or estranged or embittered or any one of the other unhappy circumstances that come about when we don’t take care of our relationships.
People often say that a marriage needs to be worked at if it’s to be a happy one. It’s good advice but it misses the point that actually ALL relationships need to be worked at for them to be happy.
It also fails to explain what “working at a relationship” actually means – so I’ve decided to do it myself.
All of these tips are techniques that good coaches use. If you adopt them as part of the way you go about interacting with the people in your life you’ll be AMAZED at the positive difference it makes to your relationships.
You will change how you think about, talk to and behave with the people in your life and as a result their behaviour and thoughts will change too.
You will find that you are working on your relationships without even really being aware that you’re doing it, and things will change for the better.
There’s no age limit for any of this and in fact if you teach by example your children will grow up with a really good intuitive sense of the best way to treat people and an innate sense of respect for others.
So here are my top tips – go for it!
Start to listen properly to what is said to you.
In day-to-day conversation we don’t really listen to other people because we’re so busy thinking about what we’re going to say next.
In problematic relationships we add on another layer of complexity by not wanting to listen and sometimes assuming we know what’s going to be said.
In order to break that habit, here’s what you do.
- Give your full, undivided attention to the other person – look at them directly and get rid of other distractions
- Don’t interrupt
- Make it clear that you’re listening by nodding and making “I’m listening” sounds
- Use the “You said/I heard” technique. After they have finished speaking, say to them something along the lines of “You said x“(summarise their words back to them), “and what I heard was y” (which is your understanding of what they meant including any subtext you think was going on). Finish off with “is that right?” This forces you to listen and to examine your own understanding, and ensures that you check out what the speaker ACTUALLY meant. Which brings us on to my next tip:
Check out your assumptions
We all make assumptions – it’s one of the ways we make sense of the world around us. But when things start to go wrong between people our assumptions start to go wrong as well and we can end up constantly assuming the worst about people. What then happens is that we start to look for evidence that our assumptions are correct, and we tend to see that evidence whether it’s there or not. Here’s an example:
Mum: “Hello darling, welcome home, how was school?”
Teenager: “God Mum, you’re ALWAYS on my back, why can’t you stop NAGGING and PRYING and just LEAVE ME ALONE?!” <slam>
(All characters and incidents portrayed are fictitious and in no way meant to represent any incidents in the writer’s own experiences)
Allow yourself the opportunity to be really honest about the assumptions you’ve been making about this individual.
Write them all down – you may find it difficult to get started but once you get going you’ll probably find that the floodgates have opened.
If you find it difficult, try finishing off these sentences in as many different ways as possible:
Person x always…
Person x won’t…
Person x can’t…
Person x thinks…
Change the way you think about them
Uncovering your assumptions gives you a very clear picture of the patterns you’ve fallen into when thinking about this person. You may well be able to spot your over-riding emotions about them as well from what you’ve uncovered, and it’s important to take note of that.
If your assumptions show that you think someone is useless or stupid or cruel or uncaring or whatever else, then you will have been behaving in a way that makes that obvious.
They may not know exactly what you think about them, but they will definitely know that you have a problem with them, and guess what? Their behaviour will have been affected by it.
So to change their behaviour, you first need to find a way to change your behaviour.
And to do that, you need to change the way you think about them.
So take the list of assumptions you made about them and replace them with a set of assumptions written as if you had unconditional love for that person.
So instead of “she always thinks she knows best“, you could write “she tries her best to give me good advice because she cares about me“.
Instead of “he’s always interfering“, you could put “he’s always finding ways to be helpful“.
Now it may be that you don’t want the advice or the help, but it makes it MUCH easier to cope with the behaviour if you have a charitable explanation for what might be causing it…
My final tip for now is:
Remember what it was like at the start of the relationship
Once upon a time you were 2 people who had just fallen in love, or you were a new parent with a beloved, miraculous new-born baby in your arms, or you were a tiny child who thought your parents were infallible gods.
Allow yourself to remember how that felt and to immerse yourself in those feelings.
Allow yourself to acknowledge the things you loved unconditionally about that other person at that time, and the unconditional promises you made to them:
“I’ll always love and look after you”
“I’ll keep you safe”
“I’ll buy a great big house for us all to live in when you’re old so I can look after you” (I haven’t forgotten, kids…)
And now allow yourself to remember the times when you enjoyed each other’s company and had shared interests. Start to look for opportunities, however small, to regain some of those feelings.
Time changes us all, inevitably, and it changes our feelings, but it is possible to remind ourselves of the lovelinesses that have got lost along the way.
Some relationships come to a natural end and some die or are killed by neglect or cruelty. But where there’s the possibility of life or a need for the relationship to be brought back to life, there’s a lot you can do to bring about a recovery.