Cultivating Healthy Relationships

Most people intuitively know that the quality of their important relationships impacts their health. Who hasn’t heard that famous soap opera line delivered by the maligned spouse to his/her unfaithful, ungrateful, or critical spouse: “I’m sick and tired of your blah, blah, blah!”

Healthy RelationshipsResearchers at UCLA have scientifically confirmed that woman in happy marriages recover more quickly from workday stress than women in unhappy relationships. Other studies have found that married men live longer and recover faster from illness than single men. This phenomenon is true for women too…if their marriages are happy. The research begs an important question: just what is a “happy” marriage? What makes one relationship “good” and another “bad”?

Of course, most of us know when we feel happy. We somehow “just know” a healthy relationship when we are in one. Our so-called emotional intelligence “knows” what a good relationship is and most certainly prefers a good one over a bad one. We even know that good ones are better for our health than bad ones. It really doesn’t take scientific research to confirm this emotional truism.

Why do so many people have so much trouble with relationships?! Are we purposefully choosing to have bad relationships? Do we want to be sick? Or is it that we haven’t learned just how to cultivate a healthy relationship?

The answer is surprising: We do know how to cultivate healthy relationships! Almost all of us learned how to “do this” when we were just kids. Unfortunately, parallel to this important “life knowledge,” there often exists a set of insidious cultural assumptions that often dooms our efforts to create and live in healthy relationships. So what is this magic secret?!

Healthy RelationshipsOkay…it is possible that there are a few tragic souls reading this piece who have never had a friend and know nothing about “the art of friendship.” It is possible…but unlikely. Even evil people seek the company of other evil people.

Quintus Ennius succinctly stated that “Life is nothing without friendship.” Here is the key point of this article: knowing how to be a friend turns out to be the secret essence of just how to cultivate a healthy relationship. But wait…not every human relationship is a friendship…or is it?

Let’s look at the major types of relationships all of us experience…and consider the degree of choice that we are given in each category:

Friend — Friend (always a choice)
Husband — Wife (initially a choice)
Parent — Child (not a choice)
Teacher — Student (not much of a choice)
Boss — Employee (not much of a choice)
Doctor — Patient (not much of a choice)

Not everyone reading this article will have experienced all of these relationship categories. I’m going to assume for the sake of argument that all my readers have experienced basic friendship. This leads to the following question: Are friendships less problematic (and happier) than the other relationships listed above?

If you think, “Yes!” please ask yourself, why?!

Freely Chosen? Problematic?
Friendships Yes Rarely
Other Relationships Often Not Commonly

The above chart asserts that true friendships are freely chosen and rarely problematic. Granted, any relationship—even a friendship—can become problematic…but only when the principle of free choice is violated. How does this element of free choice enter into relationship dynamics?

Healthy relationships are built upon the assumption of the intrinsic freedom of choice. Unhealthy relationships are built on the assumption of external control—a term coined by psychiatrist Dr. William Glasser in his 1998 HarperCollins’ book—Choice Theory. What does Dr. Glasser mean by external control?

External control is a psychological assumption which holds that you can and somehow deserve to control those with whom you are in important relationships (… except friends!) The staggering depth of this assumption commonly obscures our awareness of it. If you find yourself criticizing, blaming, complaining, nagging, threatening, punishing, and/or bribing someone with whom you are in relationship, in order to control their behavior… then external control is your hidden assumption made manifest!

External control violates our intrinsic need to be free. Do you feel nourished when you are with a controlling person? Do you even want to be with them? Or are you trapped by the external circumstances of that particular relationship (child, spouse, boss, insurance doctor, etc.)?

Healthy RelationshipsExternal control is often dictated by the contractual nature of many of our important relationships. Marriage in the legal sense is a contract. Your job is often dictated by a contract. Doctor-patient relationships may be contractual through an insurance program. Many consider responsible parenting an unwritten contract. Contracts necessarily restrict freedom of choice by binding us to specific agreements. When we break those agreements, there are often serious consequences. But even in a contract, we were free to enter into it. The spirit of any good contract is based upon a mutual benefit to both parties. Good contracts are based upon:

Healthy RelationshipsListening
Willingness to negotiate disagreements

These are the “seven caring habits” that Glasser feels are so essential to healthy relationships…even legal ones! In essence, the best contracts are made between friends.

I’ll bet you are saying to yourself: “I already know all this!” Of course you do! This is what you learned when you learned how to make innocent childhood friendships. Unfortunately, adult life is too often peppered with unhealthy, destroyed relationships based upon the assumption of external control. If this is the sad story of your grief-stricken life, then you had better begin to relearn and renegotiate your current relationships based upon the seven caring habits of friendship. Glasser sums it all up with this fundamental question: “How can I figure out how to be free to live my life the way I want to live it and still get along well with the people I need?”

Healthy RelationshipsEach of us must strive to achieve connectedness with others in a way that preserves our individual freedom while still meeting our basic needs to belong and be cared for, to be respected and listened to, to have fun, and to be free to choose. A tall order you say. Is it really possible? Do we have to attend some kind of intensive relationship seminar to learn it? No. We only have to always remember what it is to be a true friend. A friend listens. A friend supports. A friend encourages. A friend is trustworthy. A friend respects. A friend accepts. A friend is always willing to negotiate disagreements without becoming disagreeable. A friend is…well, a friend.

Healthy RelationshipsWhen friendship becomes the basic assumption of all your important relationships, rather than external control, then the spirit of connectedness is alive and well in your life. Your important relationships are allowed to breathe! Mutual need fulfillment, bilateral benefits, and sensitive responsibility through service become the life and soul of friendly relationships.

Choice Theory states that it is solely up to each of us to make that fundamental choice of responsibly creating and maintaining healthy relationships. External control psychology, by contrast, is based on a strange but all-to-common line of thought:

  • I am not responsible for the way I feel.
  • Other people, unhappy events, or abnormal brain chemistry cause my pain.
  • My choices are not the cause of my misery.
  • To feel better, I will punish the people who are doing wrong, so that they will do what I say is right, then reward them, so that they will keep doing what I want them to do.

In essence, external control uses “the blame game” as a means to forcibly meet our basic needs. Blame justifies control. Control does meet our need to be listened to…but at the expense of our need to be loved and to belong. Let’s face it: control is no fun…especially if you are at the other end of being controlled. (Trying to exploit and control others is a sick way to get a false sense of empowerment!) The great lessons of history tell us over and over again that external control never lasts. Our human need and drive for freedom is too great.

Healthy RelationshipsSo why do we do it? Why do we perpetuate unhealthy relationships through the application of external control? We do it because it seems to work short term. You can yell, threaten, criticize, blame, punish, and bribe…and you will get “results.” People will respond and change their behavior…temporarily! But the life of such relationships will almost certainly begin to die a little bit every day. The human connectedness will certainly erode. Agreements will begin to be broken, more and more often. Usually, it is only a matter of time before those relationships will either quietly or dramatically end.

Do we ever learn? Unfortunately, 99% of humankind will choose controlling behaviors over and over. Rarely do we stop to think how much misery these pathologic behaviors cause us and those upon whom we inflict them. This psychology of coercion destroys happiness, health, marriages, families, and quality work. It is often the root cause of the violence, crime, drug abuse, illness, and unloving sex so pervasive in our society.

What small bit of wisdom do I have to contribute to this giant mess? Just this little aphorism: “The smart bird does not poop in its own nest.”

We live in our important relationships. All of our basic needs as humans are met in these relationships. They deserve to be handled with care. Pay attention to the feelings of others as if they were your own. Take time to listen and sort things out. Don’t speak impulsively. Spend some quality time together. Have some fun. Cultivate, cultivate, cultivate. Healthy relationships, like friendships, don’t just happen…they are cultivated!

“Friendship is a plant we must often water” —Shalom Aleichem.

Choice Theory states that the only person I can ever really control is my own self! Since trying to control others typically proves counterproductive, why not ask “What can I do to improve my relationships?” Ironically, the other almost always changes as soon as I stop trying to externally control them. Why not instead, pay greater attention to their basic human needs, i.e., the Golden Rule! Why not ask “What can I do to help my _____________ satisfy his or her basic needs?”

Healthy RelationshipsIn summary, healthy relationships are good for your health. Friendship is the universal basis of healthy relationships. We can cultivate healthy relationships (“connectedness”) by listening, supporting, encouraging, respecting, trusting, accepting and always being willing to negotiate disagreements. These habits of caring are much more effective at building quality relationships than the destructive habits of criticizing, blaming, complaining, nagging, threatening, punishing, bribing (or rewarding in order to control.)

Friendship is a choice you make. In order to have good friendships and healthy relationships, be a good friend first. You’ll increase your chances of greater happiness, and you’ll probably live longer too!