I have been discussing relationships a lot lately, working with people on how we can defuse our past.
And when we talk about relationships, we usually talk about what’s wrong with them.
Relationships in the family, relationships with our significant other, with our friends and also our relationships at work and even with our inner voices.
I find people have mostly two types of complaints when they talk about relationships: the lack of one or their poor quality.
It is true that we resent or regret strongly the relationships we never had or the ones we have lost. It could be for example the distant father who traveled a lot, the mother in distress who needed help or this great friend we somehow lost sight of.
Then come the relationships we are not happy with: the difficult boss, the critical spouse, the ungrateful kid, the lazy friend. These relationships are present in our lives but they make us frustrated or unsatisfied. Often we want to change something about those relationships. And when we say change something about them, we mean that we want the other person in the relationship to change.
Just to give you an example, in France there were 231000 marriages in 2015 (which is the lowest number since 1945). And each year there are about 130000 divorces. Which means that these days, about 45% of marriages end up in a divorce.
These statistics are not that relevant if we only look at the numbers. Our society has changed a lot in the last few decades. Our culture, our economy, our spirituality and gender equality all play a huge role in how we approach long term relationships. Fact is, people don’t live the way they did 60 years ago.
What’s more important, are probably the causes of such divorces: in France infidelity accounts for a third of all separations and it seems to be the main reason in most countries. This does not come as a surprise contrary to the next two main causes of divorce: communication problems (25%), and lack of connection (20%).
Infidelity is only the tip of the iceberg, it is the consequence of an ongoing situation, not the cause.
These statistics about divorce are a good example of why relationships fail wether it is in a couple, in business or between friends.
There are three main categories of issues in relationships:
Trust is like a fire
It has to be fed if you don’t want it to die out. First we get it going by trusting people even when there is no trust to begin with. Then, when something happens that makes us lose some of this trust, we have to give it again if we want to gain it back.
For most of us, this is not how we have learned to behave. What normally happens is that someone will do something that makes us lose our trust in them. Next, we will start doubting the other person and we will keep asking them to prove themselves. The result is more mistrust between us and a lot of resentment, which leads to even more mistrust.
If we want to improve the relationship, we have to give it before we receive it. There is no such thing as unconditional trust, so it must go both ways: we give it and we then receive it. But if after a while, we keep giving it without receiving it in return, it will be lost for both people.
Just like a fire, trust needs both fuel and air. If just one person is trusting the other and is actively showing signs of trust, the relationship won’t work.
Doctor John Gottman, an expert in relationships and one of the most influential researcher and therapist of the last 30 years wrote in one of his articles about trust: "On PsychInfo, the database that psychologists use to do a literature review, there were 96,000 references to “trust.” And it turns out that when social psychologists ask people in relationships, “What is the most desirable quality you’re looking for in a partner when you’re dating?”, trustworthiness is number one. It’s not being sexy or attractive. It’s really being able to trust somebody. - To answer this, I looked at focus groups we did around the United States, involving couples at every social class level and from every ethnic and racial group in the country. - What I found was that the number one most important issue that came up to these couples was trust and betrayal."
Communication is essential to relationships, good or bad. Especially the bad.
It’s the lifeline of the relationship. What makes it work.
We sometimes think that if we don’t speak about something, it will go away. We don’t like to face what’s wrong or what’s difficult in a relationship.
My first instinct when I get into an argument with my wife would be to go away and remain silent while thinking about all the things I am right and she’s wrong about (or so I think). This could go on for a long time before anything changes and the situation almost never gets better on its own. But if at some point, I am willing to reengage and talk to her. We usually find a solution very quickly. And if we don’t, we at least talk it out and feel closer than before.
The important thing to remember with communication is that you can never have too much of it. Some of us don’t like to talk and just want to get things done, but communication is not just about being effective or getting results. It’s about interacting with each other and showing your willingness to be open and to work together. When we communicate, we relate to each other, we are actually creating the relationship just by talking to each other.
Without communication, there can be no relationship. Most relationships fail because of a lack of communication or a bad one. You can almost guess how fast a relationship will decline, just by looking at how little people in the relationship communicate with each other. In fact Doctor Leveson and Gottman in long term studies (some of them over 20 years) were able to predict with 90% accuracy which couples would divorce by studying their types of communication and also when. One of their best signs to predict separation was to check if the following four types of communication patterns nicknamed the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in the couple were present: criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling.
Connection is what makes relationships last.
Connection is more than love, friendship or affection. It is how strongly you feel connected to another human being. The stronger that connection, the stronger your bond to the other person is.
From birth we bond with people and we create connections.
Proximity has probably the biggest impact on connection. We bond with the people we come in contact with and with whom we spend time with. Studies show that we are much more likely to form relations with those who are close by. (Check out the Proximity Principle if you haven’t yet).
All these connections are strengthened by the amount of time we spend together. Spending quality time with a partner or a friend is probably the best way to improve your relationship whichever activity you decide to share.
People have different ways to connect with each other. In his book "The Five Love Languages", Gary Chapman gives five ways people experience and express love. They are Gift Giving, Quality Time, Words of Affirmation, Acts of Service and Physical Touch.
The key about these ways of expressing love and connection is that we all have a favourite one that we like to use to express our love and which is also our favorite way of receiving love. For example if I really like to thank people through Words of Affirmation and tell them how great they are. And because this is my favorite way of expressing love, I also appreciate it a lot when people thank me and tell me how great I am.
My love/connection tank will get filled up pretty quickly if I receive this kind of love. Much more so than if someone is hugging me or holding my hand for example.
The problem is that everyone is different, and my spouse or my friend might have a different preferred love language.
If their default love and connection language is doing acts of service for someone or spending time with them, I will probably respond much less to it.
This is why it is important not only to make sure we connect every chance we have in our relationships, but that we also make sure that we are aware of what the best way to connect with this specific person is. Make sure that you speak the same language in your relationships.
Here are a couple steps you can take to improve your relationships right away:
Let me know what you think and if you want to read more about relationships.
Performance coach, world traveler, tribe builder, NLP enthusiast and mnemonist. I am passionate about self-development and life changing coaching tools.
Video in French -