A myriad of philosophies describe how to promote healthy relationships in life. This article explores just two of the factors that research has shown to promote healthy interpersonal relationships. How we interact with other people affects many aspects of our life. Interpersonal skills relate not only to romantic relationships but also to factors that can enhance all types of relationships, including friends, parent-child, siblings, co-workers, classmates, neighbors, acquaintances, etc. All relationships have differences, but certain behaviors can enhance most types of interpersonal relationships.
Before identifying a few ways that any relationship can be improved, it is important to note how vital relationships are for human flourishing. In over a hundred years of psychological research, one of the primary findings about human beings is that as positive relational connections increase, so does holistic health, and as positive relational connections decrease, the holistic health of an individual diminishes. The benefits of establishing healthy relationships are numerous and include decreased occurrences of adverse health conditions such as heart disease, high blood pressure, and cancer, reduced impact of stress, higher levels of happiness, fewer mental health problems, and longer life expectancy. Research studies also show that relationships involving abuse, boundary violations, poor communication, intense conflict, and a lack of respect can weaken mental and physical health. If an individual forms unhealthy relationships, some of the increases in adverse health conditions are an increase in obesity, high blood pressure, and heart disease, higher levels of stress, diminishing physical health, increase in depression and anxiety, and a decrease in self-esteem.
Here are two ways of improving relationships to maximize the benefits of interpersonal connections:
Boundaries are guidelines, rules, or limits that a person creates to identify for themselves what are reasonable, safe and permissible ways for other people to behave around them and how they will respond when someone steps outside those limits. A person’s relationship boundaries are what they will and will not
allow in their lives. For example, a person who does not have a healthy boundary about what they allow others to say to them, would continue to be friends with an individual that constantly made negative comments about them. A healthy boundary would be distancing yourself from that person to protect your own emotional well-being. These are some ways to develop healthy boundaries:
Name your limits: It is easier to set good boundaries if we are confident of where we stand. Identifying our physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual limits is helpful. Consider what you can tolerate and accept and what makes you feel uncomfortable or stressed – those feelings help us identify what our limits are.
Be assertive: It is not enough to create boundaries; we actually have to follow through. It is essential to assertively communicate with the other person when they have crossed a boundary. Respectfully let the other person know what in particular is bothersome to you and that you can work together to address it.
Make self-care a priority: Permit yourself to value your own health. Self-care also means recognizing the importance of our feelings and honoring them. These feelings serve as important cues about our well-being and about what makes us happy and unhappy. Taking care of our own health gives us the energy, peace of mind, and positive outlook to be more present with others and be there for them. When we are in a better place, we can be a better spouse, family member, co-worker, or friend.
Give yourself permission: Fear, guilt, and self-doubt are potential pitfalls. We might fear the other person’s response if we set and enforce our boundaries. We might feel guilty for speaking up or saying no to a family member. Many believe they should be able to cope with a situation or say yes because they are a good daughter or son, even though they often feel drained or taken advantage of. Boundaries are not just a sign of a healthy relationship; they are a sign of self-respect. Giving ourselves permission to set boundaries and work to preserve them is healthy.
These are some indicators that an unhealthy boundary exists in a relationship:
Loss of Identity: A sign of an inappropriate boundary is when an individual ceases to be themselves and makes decisions they are not comfortable with for the sake of others.
Feeling Responsible: When a person feels guilty or distressed about another person’s behavior, they have taken on unhelpful responsibility.
Lack of Autonomy: Not being able to make decisions for one’s own life can be a signal of an unhealthy boundary.
Continual Negativity: Continually being exposed to negative verbal comments and behaviors is emotionally and psychologically unhealthy.
Egalitarianism is the view that two individuals are to be engaged in relationships that are equal in nature. The notion of an egalitarian relationship is often applied in romantic relationships, but also applies to any dyadic relationship, such as friend, sibling, or co-worker. These are a few keys to developing more egalitarian relationships with others:
Power: One person does not have all of the control of another person in egalitarian relationships, whether it be friends, co-workers, classmates, or romantic partners. Both people have a say in decisions that are made. Commitment: It is helpful when the commitment level in the relationship is fairly equal. For example, a friendship where only one person reaches out to contact the other continually is not a balanced commitment level.
Sharing interests: When individuals share interests, it can produce a deeper connection. When individuals have different interests, each person can enhance the relationship by learning about and understanding the other’s interests.
Equal intimacy: This does not refer to physical closeness, but emotional closeness. An equal exchange of sharing intimate and personal information creates a healthier relationship dynamic.
These are some indicators that the balance in the relationship is unequal:
Only your needs: If the relationship is mainly about our needs, then the other individual may feel drained by the relationship.
Only the other’s needs: If the relationship is mainly about meeting the other person’s needs, then we can begin to feel taken advantage of and exhausted in the relationship.
One person makes all of the decisions without input: The person without any power to make decisions can begin to lose their sense of autonomy.
Double standards: Equality may be absent when one person is allowed to engage in a specific behavior in the relationship, but the other person is not allowed. For example, one person challenges another, but becomes enraged when that same person challenges them.
Healthy boundaries and egalitarian relationships are just two ways to improve interpersonal relationships. This topic will be explored further in a future article with many more ways to improve interpersonal relationships.