Did you know that there is a formula to all happy relationships, whether you are talking about your relationship with your dog or your relationship with your partner? In this podcast (episode #220) and blog, I speak with Harvard-trained psychologist, relationship and communications expert, and award winning author Dr. Melanie Joy about the formula for getting relationships right, common psychological dynamics that underpin all kinds of relationships, how to strengthen our relationship “immune system”, how to apologize, common mistakes people make in relationships and how to fix them, and so much more!
As Melanie points out in her new book, Getting Relationships Right, if we want to improve any relationship, we need to understand the relationship dynamics for ALL our relationships, including our unhealthy relationships. The common denominator for all our relational issues, from climate change and factory farming (that is how we relate to the world around us) to poor self-esteem and broken romances (how we relate to ourselves and others), is relationship dysfunction.
We are hardwired to empathize with others. Empathy is our natural state. The social systems we are born into can condition us to disconnect from our natural empathy when it comes to certain individuals or groups. This disconnection, in turn, distorts our perceptions and affects how we think, speak and act. It makes us think that certain individuals or groups are less deserving of our empathy, which results in global issues like systematic racism or environmental pollution. All these distorted systems are founded on a belief in the hierarchy of moral worth. (The same can be said for abusive relationships.) These are non-relational systems—they create disconnection rather than fostering greater connection.
The good news is that when we learn the formula for what a healthy relationship looks like, we can apply this to ALL our relationships: companion animals, our life partner, our children, the clerk at the grocery store, whoever we encounter as we go about our day—the possibilities are endless. A healthy relationship reflects (1) integrity, honors the (2) dignity of the other life, and results in deep and meaningful (3) connection. A dysfunctional relationship, on the other hand, violates integrity, harms dignity and leads to disconnection. These relationships exist on a spectrum: at any given time, a relationship can be more or less healthy or dysfunctional. A relationship that is basically healthy will generally stay within the healthy end of this spectrum.
As Melanie points out, most people get into trouble in relationships because they haven’t been taught essential relationship skills, such as how to communicate with each other—the primary way we relate to others. When it comes to any relationship, we should focus on:
1. Both how and what we communicate. We need to recognize the basic elements of communication: the content and the process. The content is the subject, or what we are talking about, and the process is how we are communicating. Most people tend to focus on the content, but the process (the how) is more important. The process typically determines how you feel. When your communication process is healthy, you can, in genera, talk about anything without arguing, and when your communication process in not healthy, then you can’t, in general, talk about anything without arguing!
2. Mutual understanding. The goal of a healthy communication process is mutual understanding. Communication is the way we share what is on our minds and in our hearts. In a healthy relationship, we want to share our thoughts and feelings with the other person. When our communication process is not healthy, then we have various other goals or agendas, like to win or to be right, rather than establishing a level of understanding. Always ask yourself when entering a conversation: what is my goal here? What do I want to get from this conversation?
Yes, when things get heated in a relationships, it is easy to fall into a bad way of communicating. If you notice that you are starting to feel stressed in a conversation and you are going into debate mode, pause and ask yourself, “What is my agenda here? Am I trying to communicate something and understand the other person, or am I trying to prove a point and ‘win’?”. Take a few moments, breathe deeply, and question your motives.
3. Not confusing assumptions with the truth. We need to be aware that, as humans, we are constantly making assumptions—we are always creating stories and narratives in our minds and these are often not accurate because they are subjective. Don’t just enter a conversation with negative assumptions about the other person. A lot of the disconnection we experience in our relationships (with ourselves and others) is based on the subjective assumptions and stories we tell ourselves, which are often wrong.
Remember that the story that you tell yourself about a situation determines how you feel about it, and how you feel about it determines what you do or say. So, be aware of how you come into a conversation and the assumptions you are making before you start talking to the other person. Share your narratives with the other person in a calm way, saying something like: “This is what I observed, and it makes me feel this way…am I wrong?”. Own your story as your own—don’t think that your story is the ultimate truth. Never make yourself the expert on the other person’s experience!
4. How you communicate with yourself. Our primary relationship we have is with ourselve We are relating to ourselves every minute of every day. We relate to ourselves through our self-talk—that voice in our head, as well as the choices we make, which impact our future selves.
Most of us communicate with ourselves in a way that we would never tolerate coming from anybody else. Watch your self-talk: how does that voice in your head communicate with you? How does it treat you? Is your self-talk healthy, or harmful?
Harmful self-talk is often characterized by two dominant emotions:
- Shame: This is not the same as guilt, which is how we feel about a behavior. Shame is how we feel about ourselves; we think “I am bad, or less than.” It attacks our sense of dignity and worth. Unfortunately, we all have tendency to feel shame, particularly due to our social conditioning and the belief in hierarchies of moral worth. We need to notice the red flags of shame in our communication, whether we are talking to ourselves or others. Shame can be very debilitating; it is the voice in our head telling us that we are not good enough, comparing ourselves to the idealized version of ourselves or others, which can make us lose our sense of power, control and dignity. Never forget that shame is an illusion—it only exists in comparison. It is perception-based, and can quickly change, even if your circumstances stay the same. It only exists in the stories we tell about ourselves.
- Contempt: Contempt means you have placed yourself in a position of moral superiority. When you feel contempt, you are perceiving yourself (your inner-critic) or others as less worthy. This is not the same as anger, which is an emotion. Anger can be healthy if we relate to it in a healthy way. Contempt, on the other hand, makes us shame others or ourselves because we feel superior.
The antidote to contempt and shame is empathy. It is impossible to look down on someone or yourself if you have genuine understanding or compassion.
5. Self-awareness. Self-awareness is fundamental to healthy relationships. We can only communicate effectively if we know ourselves. The more self-aware you are, the more you will be aware of ways you can improve your communication with yourself and others. One way to do this is to pause throughout the day and just be aware of what you are thinking and feeling in the moment. Become aware of your rich, inner world!
You can also check out my app SWITCH, which is a great tool for helping you learn how to develop your self-awareness and self-regulate your thoughts in order to overcome thought patterns and behaviors that impact your mental and physical wellbeing and relationships through the mental process of reconceptualization.
Relationships can actually become the training around where we can cultivate create self-awareness and self-regulation. We don’t learn, grow or develop in isolation. We are fundamentally relational beings. Love motivates us to pay attention and change. But don’t think you can’t love others if you can’t love yourself. Many people may not know what love is until they are loved and feel love for others. Love can change us in ways we never knew possible!
6. Apologizing better. When someone feels that they have not been treated fairly or right, they will disconnect to protect themselves. To feel connected in a relationship, you need to create an environment where the other person feels safe with you. This means that the other person can trust that you will try to do your best no matter what happens, and one of the best ways you can demonstrate this is to apologize when you make a mistake or do something wrong.
If you caused harm in a relationship, your apology should be at the emotional intensity of the hurt. When apologizing, express your empathy to the degree that the other person is expressing their emotion (within reason and to the best of your ability without making the situation worse). Be authentic and honest!
It is important to feel guilty, or we will never change problematic behaviors. But be careful of falling into the shame trap! To avoid shame when apologizing:
- Be aware that behaviors and worth are not the same thing.
- Put yourself in the shoes of the other person. How can you make them feel safe again?
- Understand the hurt you have caused. Don’t just say something like “look it was just a mistake!”, “I am sorry you feel that way, but…” or “stop overreacting”. Express your understanding and remorse.
- Take responsibility. Admit that you did what you did. Give explanations, not excuses.
- Reassure the other person that you will do your best to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
But remember to also cut yourself lot of slack: we have been born into a deeply dysfunctional society, so don’t become a perfectionist about how you relate to others, because this is very toxic. We are still living in the relational “dark ages”. Healthy relationships have room for people to be their messy, flawed selves and still be cherished.
For more on relationships, empathy, apologizing and mental health, listen to my podcast with Melanie (episode #220), and check out her website and books. If you enjoy listening to my podcast, please consider leaving a 5-star review and subscribing! And keep sharing episodes with friends and family and on social media (don’t forget to tag me so I can see your posts!).
For more mental self-care tips to improve your relationships, pre-order my new book 101 Ways to be Less Stressed, which is now on sale at 20% off!
To learn more about how to communicate better in relationships and improve your self-awareness and self-regulation, register for my Virtual Mental Health Summit this December 3-6! For more see drleafconference.com. CME and CEU credits are available for PAs, NPs, RNs, MDs, DOs, and other medical professionals, and certificates of attendance will be given for physical therapists, occupational therapists and social workers!
2:37 Why we need to look at relationships holistically
6:35 How to get relationships right
9:32 How our relationships become dysfunctional, and what we can do to fix them
16:41 The formula for healthy relationships
20:14 How to communicate better in relationships
30:42 How the stories we tell about ourselves can affect our identity and mental wellbeing
32:00 The danger of contempt and shame, and how it impacts our relational and mental health
38:00 How to strengthen your relational “immune system”
47:55 How to apologize better in a relationship
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