Ten Commandments for Better Relationships

I am often asked how to fix or improve or start relationships.

People who are shy often have trouble with small talk and have trouble starting relationships when they are in a new situation. People who have conflictual family or friend relationships will sometimes seek my advice on how to change a negative interaction to a positive one, or how to avoid a similar pitfall in the future. Sometimes there is a boss who is hard to work with and, of course, there are always those clients who have marital (or significant other) relationship issues. We want better relationships because we want to feel closer to the people we care about or those who have a significant impact on our lives.

girlfriends of 3Relationships can be wonderful or they can be challenging. But the one thing I know is that you can never change the other person. You cannot put words in someone’s mouth, you cannot make them like what you like, and you cannot always be in a relationship in which every single aspect of it meets your needs. So what can you do? I have put together what I think of as the 10 Commandments of Better Relationships.

1. Don’t feel you have to be right all the time. It is off-putting to others and creates distance between you and those you care about. We know that one of the things that people like in others is their vulnerability. And admitting you were wrong can be healing – to you and your friend – and can even bring you closer.

2. Don’t expect others to be perfect. Your friends and family are not mind-readers. They do not always know what you want, and they can also make mistakes in how they deal with you. If you are really upset about something, speak up in an assertive, but not angry, way. But remember to pick your battles. Unless you are terribly hurt, or it is something that happens all the time, maybe you can let it go. When you focus on the flaws in others, you don’t feel close to them. When you focus on the ways in which people enrich your life, that comes across and creates intimacy.

3. Don’t just squeeze your friends and family in between other obligations, because then you are treating them as an obligation and not someone to be valued. One client used to complain that the only time her sister called her was when she was commuting from work, and no matter what she was saying, her sister would cut her off with “OK, I’m home now.” My client felt like she was nothing more important than a good radio station. Consider whether you have your focus on the important person in your life when you are with him or her…or are you thinking about work, paying bills, or glancing continually at your email. Think about the other person…what they are saying, how they look. Make eye contact if you are physically in the same place. In other words, show up emotionally and you will get closeness back.

4. Let go of old history. If you have a grudge you have been nursing for years you will never have true closeness. And if you have rigid ideas of what a relationship should be, you are likely to be disappointed. If the other person is doing the same thing over and over again, and it is hurting or bothering you, speak up. If it can’t be fixed, consider moving on. But sometimes we stay in relationships even when they are not perfect because we still feel a valuable connection (see #2 above.)

5. Work on your relationships all the time – don’t’ wait for a crisis. Some people only try to make things better when something goes wrong. They have a fight, or there is an illness or an affair. A relationship is a living entity and needs attention on a regular basis. You wouldn’t ignore your children until they were sick, would you? Ask yourself if you have been present in the relationship and given enough time and attention to someone you care about. When is the last time you really took time to talk and not just send brief texts? When you nurture your relationships, you are more likely to get nurturance back.

6. Talk, talk, talk – about your differences, about what you like about one another, about what you can do for one another. Even if you are, in these fraught political times, on the opposite sides of the aisle, you can talk about it respectfully. Sweeping things under the rug is never the answer, all you end up with is a bumpy rug. And even if you think you are doing your best, ask if your friend sees it that way. Ask your partner if he or she feels they are getting enough attention. So often, I work with couples who will proudly show me their cell phones and point to a fight they had via text. Electronics leave out a valuable part of communication – body language, expression, tone of voice – the all-important context. You cannot hug and make up electronically.

7. Even adults need play dates. Try to do things with the people you care about – either something you both enjoy or something neither of you has ever tried. If you are a reader, share about a book you both read, go for a walk, take a class or go to a lecture. Try a sport together. Carving out time to do something is good for you and it tells the other person that they are important.

8. If you are trying to create closeness with new people in your life, think about the things you enjoy and try to find venues where you will meet people with similar interests. Whether it is a local tennis club or a political campaign, you are more likely to achieve closeness when there are some similarities. Try volunteering and helping others, not just for the fulfillment but for the opportunity to meet people who may not be part of your everyday life.

9. Practice small talk by putting yourself in new situations. People often make fun of small talk, but it is a valuable way to explore things about another person when you first meet them. Focus on the other person, comment on something they said, something they are wearing, some fact they have just shared. To further the conversation, look for clues in what they share with you.

10. Be honest with yourself. One of the key aspects of good emotional intelligence is something called accurate self-awareness. What it means is seeing ourselves as we really are, knowing our strengths and weaknesses. Some of my clients have many “friends” and some have only a few. I sometimes wonder how much attention the former can pay to 50 or 100 friends. Ask yourself how much you give in a relationship. Ask yourself how much you take. If you are always giving, you are not taking care of yourself, and if you are always taking, you are not taking care of others. You have a better chance for closeness if, over time, things balance out.

Relationships are rarely perfect, but neither should they be a constant source of stress. Remember to take some time for yourself, and try to have balance in your own life. It will make you happier and more fulfilled, and more able to give to others.