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Improve Your Relationships

Dr. Linda Wagener
Senior Consulting Psychologist, Headington Institute


Positive relationships are core to our well-being and ability to bounce back after a crisis. They help us to cope with stress, provide us with meaning, and are a source of enjoyment and pleasure. In fact, people who fail to list positive relationships as a source of meaning in their life are more likely to be depressed and anxious. Solid social support networks are vital to building resiliency. They help to offset the unusually high levels of chronic stress, vicarious and acute trauma experienced by humanitarian workers. Yet the nature of humanitarian work often makes it difficult to sustain relationships over time. The many challenges require that humanitarians and their partners devote time and attention to developing their relationship skills.

Positive relationships are characterized by security and connectedness. Partners know each other well. They are confident that their partner will use their intimate knowledge for good, not to compete or gain advantage. They enjoy their time together, but they are also comfortable with independence. Their security allows them to explore the world and engage creatively in their work, knowing their partner supports them. Relationship competencies increase the security and connectedness in relationships.

Competencies are the attitudes, knowledge and skills that we have acquired through learning. Relationship competencies include communication and intimacy. People can grow their competencies with practice and discipline. Improving our competencies is something that we can all do something about.

Communication is a process that includes both expressing and listening. Most people can improve their skills in both areas! Expressiveness includes verbal and non-verbal communication. Facial expressions, eye contact, posture, gestures, touch are as important as the words we use. Listening involves tuning in to all of these dimensions. Two aspects of communication are particularly important to intimate relationships: positivity and conflict resolution.

  • Positive communication. Because people are more sensitive to negative communication than they are to positive, it is vital that both partners get in the habit of communicating affection, acceptance and respect freely. It has been shown that successful relationships, whether at home or work have positive interactions that outnumber their negative interactions by a ratio of greater than 3:1. In other words, we need to be sure that we balance every negative communication with more than three positives. One of the signs that a relationship is in real trouble is the presence of frequent criticism, nagging, and contempt.
  • Conflict resolution. Good conflict resolution involves paying attention to the relationship as well as to solving the problem. People vary in the degree to which they focus on one dimension or the other. Successful resolution pays attention to both and looks for a cooperative or win/win outcome. In positive conflict resolution both partners will:
    •  Clearly articulate their own position
    •  Listen carefully to the position of the other
    •  Invite other views & welcome differences
    •  Participate non-defensively in evaluating strengths & weaknesses of all positions
    •  Seek additional information & look for alternative creative solutions
    •  At times agree to “split the difference”
    •  Inhibit destructive tendencies to nag, complain, lash out or be hurt in order to engage in healthy problem solving and conflict resolution.
    • Practice forgiveness

Intimacy is the ability to give and receive support and affection, tune in to others’ needs and feelings, and share important aspects of yourself with others. Self-awareness and curiosity about the other contribute to good intimacy.

  • Both partners are invested in knowing one another deeply. Each discloses true thoughts, feelings, wishes, and fears. They don’t let go of this process even after knowing each other for years, recognizing that people grow and change. This knowledge is used positively rather than as a ‘weapon’ for criticism.
  • When there are problems and challenges, they rely on their partner for care and emotional support. They don’t avoid telling each other about difficulties. On the contrary, they go to each other in those tough times. In these challenging times they provide comfort to each other. They respond positively to the need for support and closeness. They assist as they are able by listening, providing information, or solving problems.
  • They are confident that they play a unique role in the life of the other. No one else can replace them.

What can help?

It is very difficult to work on these relationship competencies if you are pressured for quality time together. Take your leave time and plan fun times together. When you are home, process what you need to with your partner, but let go of doing your work. Don’t check your email constantly!  Be fully present for your loved ones. When you are at work, be sure to stay connected to home in whatever ways you can. While relationships can be hard work, a loving and secure connection is a true source of joy and meaning.


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