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Redefining the Idea of "Relationship"

Gary Gilles is a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor in private practice for over 20 years. He is also an adjunct faculty member at the University ...Read More

When we use the terms “relationship” we usually refer to it in the generic sense. “I have a good relationship with my wife.” Or, “I have a close relationship with each of my children.”

We read into these statements as being positive, but in reality these statements of relationship tell us nothing about the quality of the relationship: The type of communication that goes on from one person to another, the level of trust that is built and maintained, how or if conflict is resolved, etc.

Preoccupation with relationships

We live in an era where relationships get so much attention through books, seminars, magazines, television, web sites, therapy, among others, and are the focal point of so much conversation. We have an insatiable interest in how to have better relationships. And that is good. We are created to be in relationship with others, feeling most whole when in meaningful relationships.

Yet as preoccupied as we are with how to do relationships better, we seem to be doing rather poorly on the whole.

  • Prevalence marital problems/divorce rate (50%+)
  • Teen-parent problems
  • Manager-employee conflicts
  • The revolving door of dating that is common among young adults that involve casual sex and no commitment.
  • High rates of cohabitation (about 60%) and those who do marry have a higher divorce rate than those who do not cohabitate

So, how is it that we have so many resources (many that are very good) yet those resources and our preoccupation with better relationships don’t seem to be moving us closer toward applying what we know in order to build healthier relationships overall?

Family of origin

Though many factors play a part in the breakdown of relationships, the single most potent reason is that we are far more influenced by our past relationship experiences than we are the knowledge we accumulate about relationships. In other words, we learned most of what we know about relationships from the family we grew up in. We unconsciously draw upon those developmental years in our present-day relationships.

Regardless of whether you had two biological parents, a single parent, multiple parents, or other adults who took on the responsibility of raising you, they “taught” you about relationships. They were your “teachers” of how relationships were to be understood and practiced. You family was the training ground where you learned to talk, listen, fight, resolve, withdraw, empathize, care, apologize, etc. These experiential lessons were “caught” by virtue of growing up in whatever environment you were in.

If those primary teachers conveyed lessons (words, behavior, values) that were healthy, nurturing and consistent, you probably have a reservoir of emotional resources inside you to draw from that sustain you fairly well and most of your present-day relationships are probably satisfying.

If you didn’t have healthy teachers or an abundance of good “lessons” growing up, the relational reservoir that you repeatedly draw from may be low or even completely dry. If this is the case, you are left to guess you way through the pathway to good relationships. It’s like taking a comprehensive exam at the end of the year without having studied. Sometimes you guess correctly, but most of the time you guess wrong.

Assessing your relationships

The good news is that you can do something about the quality of your relationships if you are stuck in a pattern that is not satisfying.

Here are some questions for reflection to help you assess your understanding of relationship and get you started on a new path in the areas that need help:

1. When you look at the family relationships (parents, spouse(s), children, siblings) in your life, how satisfied are you with how they have played out thus far? Rate each relationship with the following scale: very satisfied, satisfied, or very dissatisfied.

2. What is your greatest strength that you bring to your relationships? How does it make the relationship stronger and healthier?

3. What area of relationships do you need to keep working on and how will you intend to do that?

Let’s face it, healthy relationships are hard work. It takes time and deliberate effort to nurture relationships that are important to us. But, if you had difficult or unhelpful relationship teachers growing up, it doesn’t mean you can’t change those patterns. The starting place is to recognize where those changes need to be and start making concrete efforts to break out of those patterns. It isn’t easy, but with time, insight and practice applying new principles to break the old habits, you can see the most important relationships become the satisfying connections you desire.

Keep Reading By Author Gary Gilles, LCPC
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