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100. How to Improve a Relationship

This is the one hundredth email that I have sent out and what better subject for a centenary than relationships, the thing that, above all else, makes life worth living, and causes us the most difficulty? Notwithstanding that having a relationship is about the most challenging and complex endeavour that a human being will ever attempt, a simple approach to improving a relationship can sometimes be refreshingly effective. Picture Jo, she goes, from her city job and busy life, to see her mother and step-father once a month. She gets on well with her step-father but has always had a loving but testy relationship with her mother. With her step-father she happily talks about work, his garden, their last/next holiday and they also have some companionable silences. She actually has more in common with her mother - they like the same television programmes, laugh at the same things, share political views - but more often than not they fall out after the first couple of hours. Regular themes include:- Jo's wish to use Skype to talk to each other, and her mother's refusal to use it - her mother's disapproval of her partner - her mother's wish to talk about problems with her step-father, and Jo's reluctance to listen - Disagreements about what to do with the weekend. Jo likes to chill out and watch TV but her mother always wants to be out doing something. With depressing regularity the two of them end up at each other's throats at some point during the weekend. Sometimes Jo decides to have another go at her mother about Skype. Her mother gets irritated and defensive, Jo says 'yes but' a few dozen times and hey presto, a scene. Or her mother drops in a snide remark about her partner, Jo gets defensive and her mother tells her not to be so sensitive, she was only saying.... Or they have the usual set-to about what to do. As Harriet Lerner says in her superb book, The Dance of Anger, even laboratory rats learn not to keep going down the same corridor! But we humans just keep going... But there is another way. The quality of a relationship could reasonably be represented by this equation: Quality of a relationship = interactions that improve it - interactions that damage it Every relationship is different, of course, but there are a few general rules about what improves and damages relationships. A relationship will reliably be damaged, if only temporarily, by: Insisting that the other person agree with you Insisting that you are right and they are wrong Criticizing them Shutting yourself off from them Intruding on their privacy or need to be alone Not talking about underlying problems between you Talking about things you know upset or anger them Shouting at them Manipulating them (eg by making them feel guilty) Trying to control them Reasoning with them when they're angry or drunk or tired On the other hand, you can often improve a relationship by: Avoiding conversations that reliably cause arguments Talking problems through when you're both calm Respecting their opinions even though you disagree Small kindnesses Listening Asking what they think/feel and really wanting to know And perhaps most important of all (and most difficult)..... Letting them be exactly who and what they are, their preferences, their feelings, their opinions... without judging. The logic is that if you do more of the things that work and less of the things that don't, the relationship will improve. In Jo's case, the next weekend she visits her parents she decides to stop talking about Skype, listen kindly to her mother talk about her stepfather, but without allowing herself to be drawn in, let go of any remarks her mother makes about her partner (planning to talk to her about it when they're both calm) and to go with the flow more in terms of what they do at the weekend. She also decides to plan a trip to the theatre, something they always enjoy, help her mother with her PC (without mentioning Skype), and buy a Sunday newspaper to stimulate conversation about current affairs. Result? A whole weekend without a row, and instead some very enjoyable times. Easy? No, says Jo, but worth the effort. Try this: 1. Think of a relationship you would like to improve 2. What kinds of things enhance your relationship? 3. What kinds of things create tension or trouble between you? 4. What things work in your relationship that you could you do more of? 5. What things cause trouble that could you do less of? 6. Execute! Do let me know how you get on.