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Relationships Landing Page

"Invisible threads are the strongest ties." 
-Friedrich Nietzsche 

Our relationships with family, friends and significant others are a rewarding part of our lives. While relationships offer us comfort and stability, they are also constantly growing and changing. They are an ongoing effort on both sides. Learning how to maintain healthy relationships and strategically resolve conflict can ease tensions that arise in everyday life, and make all the difference when it comes to managing your stress. 

WHAT IS A HEALTHY RELATIONSHIP? 

Mutual respect is the foundation of any healthy relationship. While there will be diversity between any two people’s values and beliefs, an environment of mutual respect allows for these differences to be expressed freely, without fear of judgment. From there, the relationship can grow through:
  • Trust and support
The atmosphere feels safe and judgment-free. Issues of jealousy or resentment are dealt with. The interests of one another are valued and encouraged. 
  • Compromise
There is willingness to compromise. Assumptions and criticisms are set aside to achieve a resolution. 
  • Separate identities
Friendships, interests and individual identities exist outside of the relationship. Differences are accepted, not discouraged.
  • Good communication
Communication is open and honest. There is a sense of sincerity, understanding and forgiveness toward one another.


MAINTAINING A HEALTHY RELATIONSHIP 

Listen (and Be Heard!)

Communication is, unsurprisingly, often at the forefront of our conflicts. Luckily, it can also be the solution to them. Understanding how you’re communicating is vital to improving communication with others. “It’s not what you say; it’s how you say it.” Has this phrase ever rang true in your life? Psychologist Dr. Albert Mehrabian is known for his work in the field of non-verbal communication. His published findings suggest the actual words you’re saying account for only 7% of what your listener is focused on. The remaining 93% of their reception comes from your body language. This includes 
  • Eye contact
  • Facial expression
  • Body posture
  • Gestures
  • Distance from listener

Your awareness over these factors, as Dr. Mehrabian’s research suggests, can greatly impact the perception your listener. While electronic communication is fast and convenient, the physical factors it lacks may account for those misconstrued texts or emails. How else can you become a strong communicator? Incorporate the ‘golden rules’ of effective communication listed below.

Do
  • Consider the time and setting
  • Be aware of your volume and tone
  • Demonstrate active listening (ie. Really? Yes. Mhmm. Why? Etc.)
  • Carefully consider your word choice
  • Restate what you feel the speaker is saying for affirmation or clarification 
  • Take a break from one another if needed
  • Try to understand what the conflict is really about

Don’t
  • Handle conflict over text, social media or through a third party (ever!)
  • Use universal statements (ie. You always, you never, every time, everyone)
  • Play games or dance around the issue
  • Use insults, mocking or rude body language
  • Speak for the other person or generalize their words (I guess you think I’m stupid/lazy/etc. then)
  • Invalidate feelings (ie. You’re overreacting, I don’t care, etc.)
  • Flat out ignore or refuse communication (unless you are in danger) 
  • Generalize from past behavior
In our louder and louder world, Julian Treasures believes we are “losing are listening.” He suggests how we can re-tune our ears to better hear the world around us. Listen here.

Even when employing all of these communication techniques, we may still find ourselves going in circles with the other person. There are several games people play that makes conflict resolution seemingly impossible.  People play games for various reasons, including attention, sympathy, control and avoidance. For example, maybe a pal is constantly seeking your advice, only to say “Yes, but…” after every suggestion is made. You may know someone who is constantly criticizing others…to direct attention away from themselves. Learning to identify these tactics can help you break the script and keep from enabling them. When we are direct with our communication, we are not playing games. Check out some more of these games people play, originating in the book by psychologist Eric Berne. You just might catch yourself playing one! 

When Conflict Arises

 Conflict is to be expected in any relationship. At some point, you and another person will have differing objectives. Conflict can arise from personal differences, misunderstandings and even your environment. Conflict also commonly arises due to unresolved prior conflicts. There are a variety of strategies to reconcile these differences in a constructive, healthy way. One such way is through assertive communication http://stress.about.com/od/relationships/ht/howtoassert.htm . Assertive communication means expressing your thoughts and feelings in a clear, respectful way. One of the central concepts entails using “I…” statements over “You...” statements. “I” statements directly tell the other person what you are feeling, and are non-threatening as opposed to the alternative “You” statement. What would you rather hear from someone, “You are so irritating,” or “I feel agitated?” The first will provoke defensiveness, while the second offers perspective. To craft the ideal “I” statement:
  • Be specific
  • Include both your thoughts and feelings (WHAT upset you, HOW it made you feel)
  • Avoid labels,  generalizations or accusatory statements
  • Avoid disguising a “You” statement (Ex. I feel like you are blank….)

It’s very difficult to continue an argument when both people are using “I” statements, as they quickly transition the argument into a discussion. It is very difficult to end an argument when all dialogue comes from “You” statements- they only escalate the madness. Click here for detailed examples of “I” vs. “You” statements, as well as further explanation of how to use them in communication. 


THE PSYCHOLOGY OF RELATIONSHIPS 

A relationship is, in a practical sense, an exchange. Our emotions, words, ideas, and expectations are all a part of this exchange. Every relationship, be it familial, romantic or otherwise, also has a contract. This contract, written at the beginning of the relationship, outlines a set of unspoken rules and expectations that will ultimately define these exchanges. Psychologists refer to this occurrence as Transactional Analysis. An understanding of your ‘transactions’ with an individual, as well as the unspoken contract you are writing with them, will help you successfully maintain the relationship and address its weaknesses. 
Our relationships are often strained by outside factors. Work, school, extracurricular commitments and other people will enter our relationships, shifting the dynamic to a triangle. This third element is oftentimes a healthy activity shared between the two people. It might be a productive outlet for one of the individuals to channel their energy. It may even remain neutral, without much impact. Problems arise when this third factor causes upset or is used as an escape or a distraction from the relationship. While it is oftentimes easier to simply coast through our interactions with one another, we need to stay off ‘autopilot’ and evaluate our exchanges. As you grow and change, your relationships also evolve. Monitor the pressures in your various relationships.  Learn to
  • Balance time together and apart
  • Set realistic expectations and continuously reevaluate them
  • Understand how your fears, reactions and behaviors impact the relationship
  • Openly communicate and discuss change 
  • Develop self-awareness  
You can find further explanation on the triangle dynamic here. For a list of common relationship biases and pit-falls, check out Your Mind on Relationships.
 
GETTING CONNECTED

Cyber relationships are often formed through online gaming, social media or the internet, such as virtual worlds or various blogging platforms. We tweet our lack of sleep, Instagram our lunch and spend the evening on Xbox Live. While these are quick, fun ways to interact, face-to-face contact is oftentimes neglected in their wake. With phones and tablets to keep us occupied, casual conversation with strangers is becoming a thing of the past. It is not that these devices are bad, but rather, the fact that we can easily misuse them. When you’re scrolling through your news feed or updating a status, you make yourself unavailable for in-person interactions. These missed opportunities happen more often than we think; we just aren’t looking up to recognize them. 

A spoken word poem for an online generation- who did you not meet today?

Next time you’re out with a friend, ditch the side-texting and talk to them instead! Leave your phone in your room during dinner with family. Set aside an hour each night to simply disconnect. The notifications and replies can surely wait; let them take a back-seat to your connection with present friends and family. On-campus organizations, all of which can be found on GrizzOrgs, are also a bridge to new relationships. Consider volunteering in your community, as well. These activities can lead you to lasting friendships, exciting opportunities and a greater sense of empathy for those around you.


The Takeaway 

All relationships take work; healthy ones are built on mutual respect. Your body language has a large impact on communication. Assertive communication and self-awareness can help you effectively manage conflict. Don’t let online or mobile interactions impair healthy relationships. On-campus organizations and volunteerism are all great ways to form in-person connections and develop empathy. There is something to learn from every relationship. Manage your expectations and accept the differences of others to have healthy, fulfilling relationships.

Unhealthy relationships involve: 
  • Isolation and/or excessive control
  • Threats and/or intimidation
  • Physical and/or emotional abuse
If you recognize these characteristics within any relationship, know that there are safe and confidential resources available to you, including the Oakland University Counseling Center