“I’ve just learned to not trust people. They always let me down.” My client lamented as she explained why she doesn’t have any close relationships. She didn’t understand that she had created the problems that led her to a life of isolation. Over the course of several visits, she began to realize how her own behaviors had caused the breakdown of several key relationships.
Having strong and healthy relationships brings strength and well-roundedness to our lives. Whether with a spouse, an ex, family members, or friends, relationships help us better ourselves. Relationships require reciprocity, sacrifice, and healthy boundaries. Here are 4 questions to ask yourself if you are struggling in any of your relationships.
1. Am I a taker?
Something beautiful happens when two people reciprocate equally in a relationship. But when one person does all the giving and the other only takes, the relationship becomes unbalanced. One person gets used up by the other. These relationships typically end when the receiver no longer needs the giver or when the giver feels used and walks away. I’ve heard these stories over and over in the counseling chair.
The cycle repeats itself over and over. Isolation is common after many cycles of this dynamic. A person closes him or herself off from the world or feels abandoned by everyone. What’s actually happened is years’ worth of one-sided relationships and codependency. I recommend the book Boundaries by Cloud and Townsend to learn about tools to use that prevent this.
2. Am I expecting others to fulfill me?
We all have been blamed in some relationships for someone else’s anger, lack of peace, or choices. But people aren’t powerless to someone else unless they are held against their will. Every person is capable of choosing his or her own emotional responses to another person’s behavior. Before I learned that principle, I constantly felt powerless to someone else. In some of my previous close relationships, I was told I was the reason the other person was furious. I started to believe that anytime someone was angry, it was my fault.
Now that I know I am responsible for my emotions and other people are responsible for their own, it’s easier not to feel like a victim to other people or to feel responsible for their outbursts. I’m only responsible to be a considerate person who expresses my needs with respect and to be open to respectful feedback about how another person is experiencing me.
3. Am I bad at conflict?
Most of us have a natural tendency to self-protect when someone disagrees with us or gives us even respectful feedback. No one likes to be corrected. But when I self-protect, I stop listening to the other person and I make the conversation all about me. Even if I disagree with what I’m being told, it’s important to listen, consider the person’s point of view, and make a decision as to what is in the best interest of the relationship. Sometimes I may need to stand up for myself and sometimes being right just isn’t that important. Believing the best of other people and of their motives is key in healthy relationships.
Believing the best of other people and of their motives is key in healthy relationships.
4. Am I always the devil’s advocate?
When people are sharing about their lives or about problems they are facing, resist trying to solve it for them. Unless the other person is looking to you to guide them, your input isn’t necessary. As a counselor, this is difficult for me in my personal relationships. It’s my job to help people with problems, but I have to keep in mind that my friends and family are not my clients. Unless they ask me for help, my job in relationships is to listen to them share, acknowledge what they are feeling, and champion them as a person who can and will figure it out.
I don’t play devil’s advocate. I don’t tell them, “You should…” or “Well, the other person probably didn’t mean it that way.” Instead, I use statements like, “That must be really frustrating, embarrassing, painful. I know you always land on your feet. You’ve got this! You probably already know what you need to do.” You can even say, “Would you like my input or are you just needing to vent?”
What are some other hallmarks of mutually-satisfying, healthy relationships?