There have been a few times over the past few weeks that I’ve experienced thoughts or conversations that, in essence, revolved around the thought “gee I wish my relationship with [INSERT NAME OR RELATIONSHIP HERE] could be different!” How familiar is that to you? Is it a conversation that you engage in with others (or yourself) fairly frequently?
We engage in many relationships every day. If you’re like me, when we consider the relationship, we often quickly move to what we want the other person to do differently. We are silently playing with the sentiment, “Look, I’d be happier if you would change!”
It sounds flippant but it’s a common approach! When we think about relationships that aren’t what we want we really have three choices on how to approach the issue.
- Ask for what we want. I would suggest that this is always a good starting point for any interpersonal matter. In this case there are three outcomes we might encounter (or combinations of them). First, we might just get what we want – our partner in the relationship might realize that they want the relationship as well, the difficulties are with them to deal with and are willing to invest to make things better. Second, we may get asked for something in return – our counterpart might put this right back on us as something we need to change to accommodate them. Finally, it is possible that our partner will not or cannot give us what we want. So we’ll need to try another approach.
- Leave the relationship. If we can’t get what we want out of the other party then we have to decide whether we want to be in the relationship. In some cases this might be fairly easy. Think of a newer acquaintance / friend that starts to be come demanding or highly critical that doesn’t respond to our request for change. It is relatively easy to just abandon that relationship as unhealthy. But what happens when the relationship is important to us, such as a family member or a superior at work? We now have to decide whether the problems in the relationship are serious enough for us to disconnect or whether we want to take our third possible approach.
- Accept it for what it is. When we can’t get what we want out of a relationship yet it is too important to walk away from, our only real option is for us to accept what is offered. In order for that to happen we now need to shift the sentiment I offered earlier to “if I want to be happier I have to change”. This sounds logical but in reality can be quite a challenge, given our starting point was dissatisfaction with the current situation.
When we decide to accept a relationship for what it is, we need some tools to make that happen. Here are a few questions we can ask ourselves that will help us understand the shift in how we engage with the other party.
- Why am I still in this relationship? This goes back to our decision not to leave the relationship. If we decided to stay, then it must be that there is some value to that relationship. For instance, if the relationship in question is a colleague that you must work with, you might have chosen to stay in relationship because it allows you to continue to do a job you love. By answering this question, we set a positive stage on which to start to build a new relationship.
- What qualities do I admire about this person? Again we use this question to emphasize the positive. By doing so, we reduce our focus on the elements this person brings to the relationship that don’t work for us. It also gives us an inventory of traits that we can openly voice our appreciation for, thereby helping build connection.
- What mutual purpose do we have? Instead of focusing on differences, ask yourself what common interests you both serve. Any lasting progress you make with the relationship will depend on both parties knowing that they want t least one common outcome. The trick is figuring out what that is. Doing so can create movement and momentum as there is a goal to pursue together.
- What do I need to cut out of this relationship? Sometimes at the end of the process you realize that as much as you want to stay in the relationship, and you try to accept it for what it is, you realize that there are parts of the relationship that just aren’t healthy for you and you need to walk away from them. That doesn’t mean leaving the relationship entirely, just scaling back on the parts that cause most of the discomfort. Using a colleague as an example again, you may find a mutual purpose in pursuing work tasks together, but you find you can’t tolerate having lunch with them because they are always negative. You might want to find something else to do on your lunch hour that will take you away from that more toxic part of the relationship.
Humans are a relational species, and relationships are the realm of emotions. That makes managing relationships difficult as our emotions live in a different part of our brain than our intellect. So the process described above isn’t as simple as deciding to follow it. We need to practice elevating our emotions surrounding individual relationships to our logical brain and then quelling them for a sufficient amount of time to apply this logical approach to determine our desired outcome. Once we know that, we have more practicing to do in order to apply the new approach we design for ourselves.
What relationships do you have that you would like to change? How might you apply these processes? Who can you reach out to that can be a resource to support you?