Relationships are arguably the most important part of our lives. Along with health and safety, they make up some of the most basic needs it takes to live happily. We spend a lot of time reading about money, careers, sports, celebrities, or skills that will help us in the marketplace. And we spend a lot of time cultivating success (or attempting to) in those areas as well. But often, we discount the importance of relationships to our overall well-being. In fact, we frequently spend our time doing things that directly harm, or indirectly make it difficult to successfully manage quality relationships.
Relationships are interesting to study. We all have some combination of relationships that exist in our lives. They normally start with family but involve friends, coworkers, neighbors, and casual acquaintances. Although some people would argue that relationships extend to pets, celebrities, or collectible cars, we’ll limit the scope of this article to fellow humans. Intuitively, we all have a basic understanding of how relationships work. We have good ones and probably some that could use some attention. Relationships are constantly evolving and mean different things as we move through different stages of life. We must learn to cultivate relationships or they will atrophy over time.
Success in relationships can mean a lot of different things. For some, it may be being able to make it through a dinner or holiday without a fight. It might mean talking on the phone regularly with family. It may mean having someone to call when life presents difficult challenges. It may be having contacts to get a job or create opportunities. Finally, it may be the ability to spend quality time with your young children, adult children, or grand kids. It is difficult to quantify success in relationships. It is easy to tell when they are bad but it can be tough to say if they are improving and by how much. It is much easier to measure income, weight, strength, or material possessions.
We tend to measure, focus, and concentrate on the objects in our lives that we can compare to others. It is easy to see if you make less than your neighbor, but it is hard to tell if you have a better relationship with your spouse. We don’t have to compare our relationships to others, but at times it can be helpful to measure progress within ourselves. We all want to have stronger relationships.
We can’t manufacture relationships, but we can cultivate opportunities to aid in their development. Most of us want great friends, awesome families, successful children, and relaxing quality time with others. It takes work to make our relationships healthy. They don’t grow and get better without any effort. You can’t instantly create deep, satisfying relationships. They are difficult to manufacture. It is hard to make a 10 step process of to-dos and end up with a best friend a week from now. But what we can do is begin the process of cultivation. For example, you can’t turn a seed into a plant over night. It takes time, prep, and maintenance to develop a plant into a fruit bearing object. It takes time to put together the right environment and attention for successful growth.
Although relationships are one of the, if not the most, important parts of our lives, we rarely take the time to actively plan, develop, and cultivate positive ones in our lives. Even if we don’t make any effort, we will still end up with relationships. They may not be the best, or even good for us, but people will inevitably interact with our lives.
Here are just a few ways to get the process started. A few ways to begin thinking through the process of cultivating relationships. This is not meant to be a ‘how-to’ guide but more of an inspiration to get the process started. Begin with dreaming out loud about ideals. What types of relationships would be most meaningful in your life? Here are some examples of healthy ideal relationships:
A family that communicates regularly and is there for each other
Friends to do activities with who are available and reliable
Someone trustworthy to help out when you have an issue or concern
A moral leader that understands and gives good advice
Coworkers who are supportive and collaborative
Removing Toxic Relationships
Have you ever had that friend, coworker, or acquaintance that always seemed to bring you down? That significant other or individual who seems to suck the life out of you? We have all had someone like that in our life. Sometimes they are on the periphery and sometimes they seem unavoidable. But we all know that toxic relationships can be harmful over time. It may not always be complete toxicity- it may be people who are just subtlety going in different directions than you are. It may be someone with an unhealthy lifestyle, or a completely different set of moral standards. So the process starts with identifying individuals who are not contributing positively to your life. It may simply be identifying individuals who situationally cause you to get in trouble (the one during guys night who always wants shots). Removing those individuals can be really hard. Especially if most of your friends fall into that category. I’ve been in a place where removing all the negative influences would have left me incredibly lonely. The identification process was eye-opening.
Cultivating Positive Relationships
Positive people can have a profound impact on your life. Just think about a few people who have influenced your life in a positive way. We often get into relationships by default. We keep up with the people who keep up with us. We spend time with the people who invite us out. We do activities with the people who live close by. Our lives are lived by default. The great news is that with just a little bit of intentionality we can begin the process of cultivating positive relationships. Again, begin by simply thinking about what you want out of your existing relationships. What is ideal? Next, start the process of looking internally. Think about what we could do ourselves to be a better friend, spouse, parent, or child. Are we holding up our end of the relationship bargain? Are we providing positive value? Next, think through ways to spend more time with the people who are most important. This can be tough. We need time. It helps to have margin. Long term, think about occupations that are conducive to healthy interactions. Develop efficient systems of communication with the friends you already have. Often a quick email or a simple lunch invitation is often enough to begin a new relationship. Even busy people need to take breaks and are willing to chat over a quick meal. Little steps help break through the inertia.
Overall, this article is simply about kick starting the process. We are still a work in progress. We have lots of healthy relationships but many that could be better.
We all understand at some level the importance of quality relationships. And most of us understand that they will atrophy over time unless we cultivate them. It is important to take some time to think through ways we can develop new relationships and make the ones we currently have even better. No matter how much success, money, fame, or power comes your way, it will all be meaningless without happy, healthy relationships.