Happiness is an elusive topic that has been studied and contemplated by many throughout history. While there are many theories and ideas of what it means to be happy, I decided to focus on the relational aspect of happiness in this blog. As an Imago relationship therapist and someone who specializes in helping my clients achieve happy and healthy relationships I have come to view much of happiness through a relational lens.
It is no coincidence that online dating and the wedding industry are extremely successful businesses. Human beings seek and crave close and intimate relationships. When we feel loved and connected we feel “whole.” However, romantic relationships are not the only or even primary source of relational happiness. Friendships and family relationships can be just as (if not more) important. When someone in therapy is going through a difficult time a psychotherapist may often ask, “Who is your support network?” This is an important question because the stronger the support network, the easier the recovery. Feeling loved and supported by a “tribe” is often essential to how happy we are. In fact, research even shows the mental and physical benefits of friendship.
Of course on the opposite end of the spectrum, relationships also have the power to make us extremely unhappy. Being in the wrong relationship or being surrounded by people who don’t make us feel good or take advantage of us can feel awful and drain us emotionally. Positive relationships enhance our happiness but negative relationships have the power to make us unhappy.
Because relationships are so powerful it is important to know how to cultivate fulfilling relationships. Throughout our lives no one teaches us how to be in relationships. There are no classes in school that tell us how to have healthy and happy relationships. We are often just navigating them on our own and learning as we go.
Given that we are often uneducated on healthy relationships, what are some things one can do to cultivate better relationships with others? Here are a few tips:
The most successful relationship dynamics are when each person involved in the relationship has a strong sense of empathy. Empathy basically means that you are consciously thinking about how another person might feel and acting respectfully and thoughtfully accordingly. I’ve seen a lot of relationships end because of the narcissism, selfishness or entitlement of one person. If you want to develop a real sense of intimacy and closeness with another person you have to be able to put yourself in their shoes. I believe that empathy is the foundation and core of any successful relationship.
2. Thoughtfulness and Generosity
When I use the word “generosity” I don’t mean that you should be buying your friends and family expensive gifts (or gifts at all). Generosity is emotional generosity. My grandfather died recently and some friends of mine wrote me really thoughtful cards which meant the world to me and made me feel really lucky. Even just checking in with someone on a regular basis to show you care is a sign of thoughtfulness and generosity. Showing appreciation through words, gift giving, verbal appreciation or any thoughtful gesture that shows someone you are thinking of them is also a form of thoughtfulness and generosity.
3. Consistency and Follow Through
I was raised with the mantra: “If you tell someone you’re going to do something, you do it” (thanks, dad!). Nobody likes someone who constantly bails, doesn’t follow through, or makes empty promises. You can only get away with flaky behavior for so long before people stop putting up with it.
4. Compromise and Fairness
All relationships should have some feeling of reciprocity. This doesn’t mean tit for tat but it means both parties in the relationship do not feel like the relationship is one sided or uneven. All strong relationships require a degree of compromise and fairness. People who take and take and just expect people to give and bend over backwards for them without lifting a finger are people who don’t have many friends or any friendships of real substance. They are users.
5. Don’t Ask People For Things Only When You Need Something
This was another childhood message I received that I am incredibly grateful for. Isn’t it the most infuriating thing when someone calls you only when they need something from you? All positive and healthy relationships should stem from something beyond just selfish needs. People are more inclined to want to do nice things for you when they feel like you really like them for who they are and not what you can do for them.
If you find yourself in a friendship/relationship with someone who has little or no empathy, is not thoughtful or emotionally generous, is flaky, does not compromise or only asks for things of you when they need something from you (or if any one of these things bothers you a great deal) put up a boundary and either distance yourself from the person or end the relationship entirely. There is no point in having relationships that make you feel bad, drain you and leave you resentful.
First published in the Imago Center blog Mar. 21, 2014. Lena Aburdene Derhally is a psychotherapist who works with individuals and couples in their 20s and 30s in downtown Washington DC. She specializes in anxiety and relationship issues and is a certified Imago relationship therapist.
Lena also runs a group for professional women in their 20s and 30s called “Quarter Life Crisis plus Ten” and is the founder of the blog, Type Z Moms, which addresses issues related to “mom guilt” and anxiety. She lives in Washington DC with her husband, a rambunctious toddler and a 14 year-old cat.