Christopher Knippers, Ph.D.
Relationships can be healing or harmful. It is often up to you how they will go, no matter who you are dealing with.
There are some simple principles of success to remember in your relationships with family, friends, colleagues, your spouse, your children, strangers with whom you interact; and most importantly in your relationship with yourself. Following these principles will change your life dynamically.
Respect is the foundation of successful relationships. We are all so different in our genetics, our perspectives, our experiences, our strengths, our weaknesses. We cannot possibly understand everyone in our lives. We don’t have to understand everyone; even our closest relationships. We can respect and actually appreciate the differences.
Respect is simply remembering that everyone needs to be treated with caring, nonjudgmental attitudes and responses. Caring applies even when the person is being disrespectful towards you. Reacting to disrespect with defensiveness, outrage or counter-attack is simply not effective unless you want to appear intimidating and you want them to fear you. Then, out of fear, they might be more careful how they treat you, but they sure won’t actually respect you.
Treat your attacker with respect. They won’t be expecting it. I have applied this principle numerous times when I am being treated disrespectfully and it stuns the attacker. They always end up listening to me as I respond to their disrespect by explaining to them that they have so many wonderful qualities within themselves that I can see. Then I name the qualities I believe are in them. It halts people in their tracks when you respond with kindness and respect to their attack.
Express respect to the close relationships in your life, especially your romantic partner and children. Daily reminders of the things you admire about them is such a boost to their feelings about themselves and about life, they can begin to fulfill their potentials. They will eventually abandon their defensive behaviors, and your relationship with them can flow in positive directions.
Respecting yourself involves standing up for your own needs and desires. You can do this with respect for others even if you think that someone is not meeting your needs or is standing in the way of your goals. There is never a need to tear someone else down in the process of being assertive about what you want. Come from a place of confidence and strength at all times.
Never, ever, ever criticize. It is totally counter-productive, and in the long run exacerbates the other person’s problem behavior. If they are acting like an idiot, it is because they need you to build them up, not put them down.
Relate to people’s human struggles rather than judging them for having problems. When someone is having a problem, the last thing they need to hear is, “You can create your own success or failure in life. Just pick yourself up and have a better attitude.” Various versions of this philosophy reigned supreme in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Many success books were written about creating your own destiny. Males were particularly vulnerable to this misguided philosophy. Later, female CEO’s picked it up and started convincing women that they should be super-stars at work, have an immaculate house, and be the best Mom in the world, all at the same time. It all sounded so good; but we found that while the basic idea of having a more positive attitude was good, it was exactly not what a person who is in the midst of a struggle needs to hear. It makes matters worse. While a person is in the midst of crisis, hearing, “You can do better,” makes them feel shame and inadequacy, not encouragement. What is being said is that you should be super-human. A totally unrealistic and unhealthy expectation. I am especially infuriated when I hear someone who happened to be blessed with perfect genetics say that everyone can achieve the perfect health that they have.
This philosophy may even be one factor in the continuing rise of suicides in our culture, especially in middle age and older males who were over-exposed to this “be strong and fearless” philosophy. Being strong and fearless is great in theory, but it doesn’t address the human condition, and the human need to be validated for having human doubts, fears and inner conflicts.
Emotions, even the so-called “negative” ones are meant to be a guide to us. We are meant to have them, meant to feel them, and meant to listen to the messages that they are giving us. When we allow ourselves to feel our feelings, and occasionally have a “dark” time in life, we will emerge from that place with new vitality. But if you try to instantly change the emotion, you get stuck and never learn wha that emotion came along to teach you. You will evolve from any difficult emotional state. The analogy I like is, “ride the wave” of that emotion. It will lead you to a calm shore. Journal about your feelings. Volumes of research indicate significant personal growth from journaling.
You can help a person going through a difficult time by relating in any way you can to what they are going through. A person going through life’s challenges can benefit from someone who can relate to the struggle and be present with them while they work it out.
Relating to people’s humanness requires that you face your own inner conflicts and be open about them to the right people. Some of the world’s greatest leaders displayed both an inner strength and a vulnerability to which people could relate. Abraham Lincoln is one example of a great strong leader who could also admit his vulnerability.
There are answers to life’s struggles, but finding the answers is born out of caring human relationships with someone who can come along side you and be present with you while you seek answers.
Restraint involves recognizing that all of us have strengths and weaknesses; even you! When we recognize our own strengths and weaknesses we are much less likely to make a big deal out of other’s weaknesses (or, strengths, for that matter). It is less likely that you will give into the human tendency to want to “fix” someone else’s dysfunctional behavior. Restrain yourself from trying to fix someone else. Instead, be supportive.
Often when we are facing other people’s bad behavior, especially when it affects or impedes our goals or self-image, we can become outraged. We might want to really let someone have it or at least teach them a lesson in a kind or unkind way. Many relationships are destroyed by this. We can become so focussed on a shortcoming someone has, until we no longer see their strengths. When this happens a relationship can become a real struggle, and the person we love can become built up in our minds as a bad person, depriving yourself and the other person of a happier life and the invaluable support that you can give each other.
The reality is, no one is perfect. You are blind to many of your own imperfections. That is human nature. In this blinded state you can become convinced that you have evolved far beyond most people, including the person you loved most.
Many people buy into a narrative that says every relationship in life needs to be happy and supportive at all times. That is simply not the reality. The best relationships have challenges a small part of the time.
Let things go that are not life and death matters. Of course never stay in an abusive relationship; but just be careful what you are calling “abusive.” Unless someone habitually tries to control or intimidate you, you are likely just dealing with someone’s annoying character flaw which may or may not change.
When you are ready to give up on a relationship, it is time to do a careful analysis of the person’s strengths and see if they are worth you putting up with some of their weaknesses as well. Also, do a careful self-analysis. You have been overlooking your own weaknesses while focusing on theirs.
However you decide to deal with a relationship conflict speak to the person and treat them as if it was the last time you will ever interact with them again. It might well be.
Relationships are the only way we truly learn about ourselves and about our world. Have a variety of relationships, even with people who disagree with you, or who are not the kind of people with whom you would want to be close. Embrace the challenges inherent in any relationship. You can learn a great deal about yourself and life from some of the most unlikely sources.
Remember to show respect to everyone, including yourself. Relate to others rather than judging them. Use restraint in dealing with other’s shortcomings. Relationships will heal and guide you in some unexpected and marvelous ways.
Christopher Knippers, Ph.D., March 19, 2020