Over time, we become used to whatever environment we are in, even if it is lacking, problematic, or dissatisfying.
This is even more problematic when we are in close relationship, like a familial or a romantic one, because it is easy to get into a mental state where we feel stuck in this environment.
And when a person feels stuck, sometimes they feel and behave as if they actually are stuck. This quickly becomes complicated when people carry their childhood environments into adulthood. All of this and more make personal relationships toxic, complex, problematic, or dissatisfying.
So what can you do when you find yourself in situations like these?
Four ways to improve your personal relationships:
Stop, take a step back, and clearly redefine what this relationship is and isn’t. You need to thoroughly and honestly define your personal values and relationship aspirations, and also recognize what problems you may personally have or what problems are identifiable in the relationship.
Question your perception of what a healthy relationship is. Ask yourself, what is a satisfying relationship for you? What is acceptable and what isn’t? What are the qualities you value in yourself and others? What in your current relationships do you like? What do you dislike? What about it do you want to change, and how?
Be honest with yourself. This may involve listing what is personally important for you in the relationship and recognizing the more painful aspects of what is going on. You will probably define and set healthier boundaries in the process.
2. Improving your communication
Many people lack communication skills, which may lead to difficulties expressing themselves or even the inability to really understand others.
To improve your communication, then, you have to better understand what is actually going on inside and outside of you. How do you feel? What are these emotions telling you? How much of it is related to the present and how much comes from the past? What do you think is going on? Objectively, what is happening? What would you like to be different? What can you do about it? What do you want to do?
Talk to the other person about what is important to you. If something is unclear, ask genuine questions. Interact more. Become better at relating. Instead of just waiting for your turn to talk, actually listen and listen attentively. Pass the conversation ball back and forth. Respond. Provide feedback. It really helps to know how to discuss things in a mature and reasonable manner. It may take a bit of practice before it feels normal.
If you feel overwhelmed, avoid serious conversations and ask for emotional support if necessary, or calm yourself down. If you feel angry or upset, always remember that there are more productive ways to communicate than yelling or shutting down. Try to become more relaxed first; the conversation will be much more fruitful after you feel better. If necessary, take a break and come back to the conversation later.
Be honest and respectful. Tell the other person what you think and how you feel, but be mindful of what it may mean to them. Don’t feel responsible for the other person’s emotions, but at the same time don’t just blurt out everything that’s on your mind without thinking. Instead of making wild assumptions or blaming everything on the other person, talk about how you feel and what it means to you. Listen to them, and ask about their thoughts and feelings.
Be empathetic. It doesn’t necessarily mean agreeing or complying, but simply understanding where the other person is coming from and what their emotional state and mindset is and why.
Since people are different, there will always be some disagreements, conflicts, or misunderstandings in any relationship. It is common that when a disagreement occurs, both parties see it as a fight or a competition or a power play. Here, there is a winner and a loser. And since nobody wants to be the loser, they do whatever they can “to win.” It usually involves shouting, intimidation, manipulation, controlling behavior, passive aggression, lying, playing a victim, acting narcissistically, and otherwise hurting each other physically, emotionally, socially, or financially.
In such interactions, even if you seem to win, you actually don’t because the process has its cost. And the cost here is ugly, even if you don’t see it at that moment.
An alternative to that is a mature, peaceful, cooperative, potentially win-win approach. Here, you remind yourself that you are not enemies and that you can look at a problem from the same side of the barricade instead of facing off against each other. Here, you look for solutions together, as a team.
It requires cooperation on the other side. Which leads us to the last point….
4. Ending an unfulfilling relationship
It sounds banal, but it indeed takes two to tango.
If the other party doesn’t see something as a problem, then there is nothing you can do to change it. If one of the parties doesn’t want or is unable to work on the first three steps listed here, then there is not much that you can do. In such a scenario, you can either accept that the relationship is as it is and stay in it, or leave it.
You can’t change the other person, and that shouldn’t be your task or hope in the first place. Some relationships or social environments are simply too toxic or too complicated to be salvaged. It’s always unpleasant and messy to end a relationship, but it’s better than the alternative of staying in an unfulfilling, unhappy, or even miserable relationship.
There are problems and disagreements in any relationship, and that’s normal. However, a lot of people are simply unequipped to resolve their unhealthy relationships or choose healthier ones. Besides working on yourself individually and sorting yourself out, there are several things you can do to make your personal relationships better.
You can reevaluate your relationships with the goal of gaining more clarity and being more realistic about yourself, the other person, and what is going on between you.
You can improve your communication and become better at understanding others, expressing yourself, and handling disagreements more efficiently.
You can change your perspective on what a relationship is and instead of fighting with each other seek cooperative solutions as a team.
If none of the above works, or even if some of it works but you are still dissatisfied, consider that it may be time to end your relationship or at least take a serious break from it. This is never fun, but sometimes it’s the only way to be healthier and happier.
For more on these and other topics, check out the author’s books: Human Development and Trauma: How Childhood Shapes Us into Who We Are as Adults and Self-Work Starter Kit.