Silver Linings: How to build & maintain healthy relationships
This week, my husband and I celebrated our Silver Wedding anniversary, and the funny thing is, it doesn’t feel like we tied the knot 25 years ago. I say, ‘tied the knot’, but in our first six years together prior to marriage, I had imagined that being married meant less freedom, and was akin to feeling rather too tied to someone. As it turns out, making a commitment to each other, meant the reverse to me. Saying ‘I do’ created a freedom for us both. Instead of the ‘should we/shouldn’t we’ debate that we each had been playing in our heads, that quandary just evaporated once we dived in. It meant that in the new-found comfort of our commitment, we could actually be bolder and more adventurous, individually and as a couple.
Our friends and family might say we took that approach quite literally, when we quit our jobs, sold up and went to live in Costa Rica (where we got married). There we enjoyed an amazing adventure, built a home on a farm, made great friends, and had some wild times. But after 18 months, my now husband, was ready to head back to the UK, whereas I felt I was only just beginning my journey. And here’s the thing, what he suggested then was that I continue with my voyage of personal growth, whilst he would head back to England giving me all the space I needed…and that generosity of spirit and understanding just made me love him all the more.
And so, for the next ten or so years, I would spend between 3-5 months a year in Costa Rica, and he would join me for a month or so – sometimes longer – and then we’d come together again in the UK, where I’d freelance and coach. Then in 2009, after his month-long Christmas visit, I got pregnant, and we made the decision to be back in the UK permanently.
So, this week, as I reflect on our relationship, I’ve been pondering on the idea of what good, healthy relationships are about. Whether we are in an intimate relationship, or more broadly, reflecting on the other key relationships in our lives, we know these connections are an important part of our lives. We need to engage and share time with people. In fact, just this week, a report came out saying that loneliness was worse than smoking. According to US Surgeon General Dr Vivek Murphy, social isolation is as bad as smoking 15 cigarettes per day and should be treated with same urgency as 'tobacco use, obesity and the addiction crisis'.
It’s no surprise to learn that our relationships are essential. They help us feel loved, appreciated, and supported, and can have a significant impact on our mental and emotional well-being. However, building and maintaining healthy relationships can be a challenge, especially when communication breaks down, conflicts arise, or when our priorities and values differ from those of our loved ones.
How can we build and maintain those relationships then, so that we can enjoy the much-needed comfort of connection and communication in a way that nourishes and fulfils us?
1: Work on your Active Listening
Active listening is a vital aspect of effective communication. It involves fully concentrating on what the other person is saying and seeking to understand their perspective. It means avoiding distractions and giving your full attention to the person talking. By doing this, you can show that you respect their opinions, and this will help to build trust and strengthen your relationship. This takes some practice! Particularly when emotions are running high, so sometimes you have to set aside some specific time and space to hold this kind of conversation.
2: Walk in their shoes
Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person. It involves putting yourself in the other person's shoes and seeing things from their perspective. By practicing empathy, you can develop a deeper understanding of the other person's feelings and thoughts. This can help you to respond to them in a way that shows that you care about their well-being and that you want to support them. It’s not always easy to do this in the heat of the moment, but if you take time-out after an argument for example, this empathic reflection can help shift your perspective. You’ll find it easier to say sorry and build some bridges again.
3: Communicate Openly and Honestly
Open and honest communication is the foundation of healthy relationships. It involves expressing your thoughts and feelings in a clear and respectful manner. It means being truthful and avoiding hiding things from your loved ones. When you communicate openly and honestly, you can build trust and create a safe space where you can share your feelings without fear of judgment.
“To be fully seen by somebody, then, and be loved anyhow — this is a human offering that can border on miraculous.” — Elizabeth Gilbert
4: Show Your Appreciation
Demonstrating appreciation is a simple yet effective way to strengthen your relationship. It involves acknowledging the things that your loved ones do and expressing gratitude for them. That includes the little things, whether that’s bringing you a cuppa in the morning, cooking a meal, getting the hoover out or giving you a lift…Right the way through to the bigger stuff, like caring for you when you’re unwell, giving you the space you need or treating you to something nice. By showing your appreciation, you can make them feel valued, which can help to strengthen your bond. Familiarity can breed contempt so be mindful to keep saying thank-you, and not take what you have for granted.
5: Spend Quality Time Together
Spending quality time together is another essential part of building and maintaining healthy relationships. It involves setting aside time to do things that you both enjoy and creating memories together. This one requires a little effort and time, and I for one know how easy it is to fall into the ‘hanging on the sofa watching Netflix’ trap. If you can make time to plan a few things, or even surprise each other, or do some activity spontaneously, you can strengthen your relationship and deepen your connection with each other.
“We've got this gift of love, but love is like a precious plant. You can't just accept it and leave it in the cupboard or just think it's going to get on by itself. You've got to keep watering it. You've got to really look after it and nurture it.” — John Lennon
6: Practice Forgiveness & know when to say sorry
Forgiveness is an essential aspect of healthy relationships. This means letting go of anger and resentment and choosing to move forward. By practicing forgiveness, you can build and develop a safe space where you can communicate openly and honestly without fear of being judged or criticized. And when you get it wrong, which we all do, it’s so valuable to be able to say you’re sorry.
"There is no love without forgiveness, and there is no forgiveness without love." — Bryant H. McGill
7: Set Boundaries
Setting clear boundaries is crucial for maintaining healthy relationships. Here you communicate your needs and expectations clearly and set limits on what you are willing to tolerate. The sooner you do this – especially in new relationships – the better. (I remember telling my hubby I’d not be doing his ironing when he first moved in; he said he wouldn’t want me to, as his years in the RAF meant he was probably better at it than me anyway!) Expressing your needs and boundaries, and requesting that your partner, friends or family respect those needs builds your own sense of worth too.
8: Focus on Solutions, Not Blame
When conflicts arise, it's much healthier to focus on finding solutions rather than placing blame. Blaming each other can create resentment and damage your relationship. Instead, focus on finding a way to resolve the conflict that works for both of you. Sometimes you have to let go of something or accept something to be able to move forward.
9: Have a little Patience
Patience is a useful virtue in maintaining healthy relationships. It might mean that you need to be understanding and tolerant of your loved ones' feelings and behaviours, It doesn’t mean you have to put up with rubbish behaviour (see ‘boundaries above) but it can mean that taking a bit of time to take a breath, and having a more gentle and caring approach will ultimately help maintain a smoother relationship.
“When you stop expecting people to be perfect, you can like them for who they are.” ― Donald Miller
10: Keep a Positive Attitude
It’s not surprising that having a positive outlook is generally better for you. There are probably many traits or behaviours that partners, friends and families exhibit that drive you crazy. You might be able to address some of them, but it’s unlikely you’ll get people to change without them wanting that change themselves. So, you have a choice – keep focusing on what is driving you mad and the resentment builds, or bring your attention to what you love and enjoy about that relationship.
11. Be realistic
One of our wedding vows was: “I promise to aggravate you at least once a day.” That got a little chuckle from our wedding audience 25 years ago. But what that did was give us permission to be realistic about what it takes to be in a long-term relationship. It won’t be perfect, and you’ll have problems and challenges along the way. And, yes, you’ll drive each other mad on many occasions, but with a loving heart, an open mind and willingness to grow and support each other, you’ll be amazed how each hurdle you overcome just makes you stronger together.
“I love being married. It’s so great to find one special person you want to annoy for the rest of your life.” — Rita Rudner
12. Trust your intuition
If you wake up most mornings feeling happy, or at least OK with your relationship, and you are prepared to put the work in – which may also mean seeking professional help if necessary – then trust that the journey with each other will ebb and flow. However, if you can see those red flags, if your gut is telling you that it feels wrong, and you are more unhappy that not, it’s time to make a choice that’s right for you and your wellbeing. And that might be that it’s time to let go of a relationship that does not nourish you.
Thankfully, I’m happy to say that most days I wake up happy and feel content and grateful for my relationships. They’re not always easy, but it’s often the challenges and struggles that help me grow and learn about myself as much as anything. When you reflect on your relationships, what guides you? What has keeps you enjoying and maintaining your relationships in a way that nourishes you?