Betty W. Phillips, Ph.D., Psychology
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Stress Management III: Relationships


This is the third article in a series on Stress Management. The first article discussed body stress management through breathing and muscle relaxation and the second described coping using positive thinking approaches. When you read through this issue on philanthropy, refer back to my February article describing the importance of appreciation and gratitude. When you approach the world with love and charity, you gain the most of all!

This article focuses on the all important issue of relationships. As you think back over magazine articles or TV spots on healthy living, you will notice that they all describe the importance of social support and good family relationships. Strong social networks improve your quality of life and are protective against life perils. Conversely, when you think about the number one topic of advice columnists or self-help books, you will realize the equally destructive nature of poor relationships. So should we be social butterflies or hermits? The answer of course is that we need to develop good social skills and relationships while keeping our lives in balance.

Relationships are created in two ways: family relationships by birth; other relationships by choice, including friends, dating relationships, partners and spouses. In choice relationships, either person can opt in or out of the relationship. Let's discuss non-family relationships first. An important concept in these relationships is the concept of "match." Relationships are reciprocal, give-and-take. It is important to pay attention to the qualities that you bring to the relationship as well as the qualities of the other person. You need to invest your time, energy, friendship and love into your relationships and to expect a reciprocal return. The relationships should be equally valued and valuable to both people. A good relationship will provide a real match where the interests of both parties are respected. You can adapt to the other person to develop a good relationship but you should not change in any fundamental way just to have a relationship. As a therapist I see a major problem when individuals are too anxious to please others and even think that they need to change their personality so that they will not be rejected. This creates an artificial relationship which ultimately will be destructive. Many people feel personally rejected when a friendship or relationship ends. I always advise taking another look at this concept. If the relationship is not a good match for you, it's actually a benefit to know that information as soon as possible to be able to make a reasoned decision about continuation of the relationship. Your decision about a marriage relationship is obviously complex, and assistance from a therapist or a marriage counselor is advised.

What about parents and children? Even if these relationships are not a good match for you, you certainly cannot abandon them. It still is important to look at the concept of mutual balance and giving in these relationships and do your best to improve them whenever possible. In some relationships, as when parents or families are dysfunctional and hurtful to you, you will need to develop ways to cope and manage the stress. Family relationships can be destructive in many different ways, and the shelves of self-help books reflect many options for dealing with family problems. I recommend "Where to Draw the Line: How to Set Healthy Boundaries Every Day" by Anne Katherine, Simon & Schuster, 2000.

I will describe several concepts important in maintaining good relationships. Respect: there should be mutual goodwill, give-and-take, understanding and support. Honesty: ethics and truth telling are critical components of any relationship. Equality and/or power-sharing: dominance and over-control create misery and resentment. Empathy: you should be able to understand and appreciate the other person's point of view with loving compassion. Security and loyalty: both parties should feel safe and secure in the relationship. Commitment and consistency: these qualities are especially important over the long-term. Trust: you should be able to have faith in the predictability of your relationship partner in specified circumstances. Please note that some people have difficulty with the concept of trust because they believe that trust is an all-or-none quality which should be offered without reservation in a relationship. I find it helpful to think of the concept of trust in terms of honesty and predictability in a given situation rather than a na´ve and global expectation about the other person.

A word to the wise. Be sure that the give and take in a relationship is truly reciprocal. I know some wonderful "givers" whose altruistic and loving personalities are commandeered by "takers" who exploit the good nature and generosity of their friend or partner without giving back in return. Sometimes these giver/taker relationships become destructive and even difficult to end.

As you read through this information, decide whether your relationships are positive and helpful to you. Be sure that you are doing your part to maintain good relationships. If you decide that your relationships need improvement, consider whether counseling will help. There are so many possible pitfalls in relationships that most self-help books are not helpful or even may be misleading. If your relationship partner does not agree to participate in joint counseling, you can derive a lot of benefit from discussing relationship issues yourself with an experienced and supportive therapist. I hope this advice will help you cope this March and in the future!