3 Essential Questions To Consider For Creating Sustainable Relationships

Photo by Lotte Meijer on Unsplash

I want you to try something for me. Imagine, for a moment, someone in your life that you have contact with a lot. Let’s say at least once a day, for example. Got someone? Awesome.

Now imagine that you had to see them again every single day for the rest of eternity (or at least as long as you can imagine).

Does the thought of spending eternity interacting with that person fill you with dread or peace?

What do you hope those interactions would look like? Knowing you’ll have to see them again and again and again, how would you treat them? How would you want them to treat you?

If the thought of seeing that person forever made you desperately uncomfortable, is there someone else with whom that doesn’t seem like such a bad proposition? What’s different about that relationship?

There is something beautiful that happens when we think long-term like this. It has a way of helping us cut through distractions and unimportant stuff to really get at what matters enough to make last a long, long time.

We can see this happening in the world as environmental sustainability has become a larger part of our social consciousness. It has become increasingly clear that some ways of managing our resources are simply unsustainable, despite the fact that they could potentially last for a good while. This has led to increasing levels of innovation that seek out solutions that could work for the foreseeable future.

Relationships are like that. There are lots of ways we can manage ourselves in our various relationships that are simply not viable long-term. We lie. We assume. We manipulate. We take advantage. We take for granted. We procrastinate. We don’t listen.

The purpose of this post is to pursue the relational equivalent of “going green.” That is, to focus purely on the question of what we can do right now to create relationships of all kinds that are healthy, vibrant and sustainable.

Your beliefs and values matter

There are some key values and beliefs that make or break your ability to have sustainable, healthy relationships. This is an area where lip service and denial will not do. You can’t get by on simply spitting out overly simplified cliche`s and hoping for the best. Digging in and being brutally and totally honest with yourself is the only way to make progress in this area.

With that said, consider the following three questions.

What do you believe is true about your nature and value?

“Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it.”
Brené Brown

What do you really believe is true about you? Are you good? Are you broken? Are you a contributor? Are you a leech? Are you ______ enough? Are you courageous? Are you weak? Are you never ______ enough? Are you a force for good in the world?

Odds are, if you’re like most of us, you probably feel like there are different parts of you that believe all of these kinds of things about yourself. However, according to cognitive psychology, we typically will latch onto two or three of these ideas about ourselves and the world as “core beliefs”.

Core beliefs are powerful things because they influence/filter everything about how we see the world and then respond to it. These core beliefs can be positive or negative. For example, I could have a core belief that, “I am a strong person,” or,“I am broken.” These beliefs will then color the world around me, filter my experiences, and change how I respond to the circumstances in my life.

Believing I’m broken, for example, could lead me to avoid being vulnerable and to feel threatened by even simple acts of kindness. Indeed anytime it feels like I’m getting close to someone a feeling of panic might ensue and I will probably worry how long it can last before I screw it up or the other person sees how screwed up I am. It obviously would make it a lot easier to feel depressed, isolated and lonely.

In her book Daring Greatly, Brené Brown makes the distinction that guilt is the idea that I did something bad, while shame is the idea that I am a bad person.

Most of us are haunted by at least one shame-based core belief. For me, it is the idea/feeling that I am unworthy. It’s an idea that is always there trying to sabotage how I engage in relationships and how I engage with my life. It’s always tempting to hold myself back, self-sabotage, and not really show up for other people. It makes it pretty hard to click “publish” on these blog posts.

The only problem is that it’s a lie. I’m not unworthy. You’re not broken. You’re not a bad person. These are ideas that were forged in the most uncomfortable and painful moments of our early lives. They are immature, overly simplistic, and incomplete.

The bottom line is that we have to be aware of such negative beliefs we hold about ourselves and then be willing to combat them at every turn if we want to have sustainable relationships. Left unchecked, they will undermine everything that matters.

Okay, let’s move on.

What do you believe is true about the nature and value of other people?

What is another person worth to you? When you look at others do you see weakness or potential? Do you see others as beneath you or above you? Are others worthy of your trust, love and hope, or are they simply a source of endless disappointment and pain? Do you believe others are simple, predictable, and easy to understand, or are they complex, mysterious, and incomprehensible?

There are some beliefs about other people that simply cannot sustain healthy relationships. Perhaps the most obvious of these is the belief that people you interact with are beneath you somehow or less worthy. It is the birthplace of abuse, slavery, genocide, dictatorship, maniacal bosses and the like.

It is impossible to create relationships that can last on a foundation of contempt or a superiority complex. Little wonder that we use the phrase, “It’s lonely at the top.” Well, here’s a top tip; stop believing you’re “the top” and you might be less lonely. Just sayin’.

Now, it’s important to recognize that believing others are better than you or more worthy somehow can be just as problematic. Idolizing others is just as separating as despising them. Both are judging. Both are a lie.

The only way to really have sustainable relationships is to see others as our equals. Human equality and equal rights get a lot of air time in politics and the media, but we’re generally less conscientious of it in our interpersonal relationships.

When we really and radically embrace human equality all we should ever see in others is our own potential, not an object to put on our own subjective rating scale or worthiness and value. If our own life had been a little different and we had made some different choices we could be a lot more like the person that we pity, abhor, admire, worship, etc. As the old proverb says, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”

To be honest, there is a part of me that wonders why this is something that needs to be talked about after everything humanity has been through. I guess it really speaks to how emotionally and cognitively convenient it is to do things like draw lines between “us” and “them.” It’s a pretty tantalizing proposition to assume that if you’re better off than someone or better at a specific thing, it’s because you are a higher quality person somehow. Or visa-versa, for that matter.

Ultimately, if we want to have lasting, healthy relationships we have to let go of such casual and poorly thought out assumptions. We have to embrace the fact that others are just as worthy as we are and we are just as worthy as they are.

Another problematic belief we can hold about others is that we have them “figured out.” French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas wisely pointed out that others are infinite and unknowable. This is because we never really can get to know everything about someone else in the first place and once we have spent enough time to get to know a lot about them they have gone and changed on us.

Levinas was so emphatic about the importance of this concept that he called the tendency to assume we really know someone “totalizing violence.” Violence is a strong word, but I believe it is fitting. Think of how painful it has been for you when someone has put you in a box (parents, teachers, peers, employers, etc.) and then treated you like you where someone or something you knew you really weren’t. That pain happened because they didn’t really see you. Instead, they saw their own made up version of what they wanted you to be.

Don’t be the one putting others in boxes. Don’t assume you know what’s going on for other people. Don’t spread that pain. Explore. Gather information. You won’t regret it.

What do you believe is the point of having relationships?

Why do you even engage in relationships? Is it because you want to get something from people? Is it because you feel like you have something to offer? Is it because think you can’t handle life on your own? Or is it simply because you enjoy other people? Do you believe relationships can be a source of happiness and contentment or a source of pain and discomfort? Are relationships a distraction from your own pain? Do relationships fill you with fear or confidence? Do your relationships define you?

It’s probably not very hard for you to imagine how some of these ideas are incompatible with have healthy relationships. For example, if you view relationships as a inherently painful, it’s going to be pretty hard to engage in open and healthy ways with other people.

You may have realized that this question about the point of relationships really overlaps a lot with the two previous questions. For example, if you you believe you are broken it would be really easy to also believe that you need other people to “fix” you. Or, if you see others as somehow beneath you, it becomes easier to see relationships as simply a way of getting what you need or want from others.

So, what do things look like when we have a healthy view of ourselves and others? Well, it’s called interdependence. It’s when we see others as worthy and valuable. We see how much others have to teach us and how they can help us with our weaknesses. But we also see our own gifts and what we have to offer them back. In short, we engage in relationships because we want to. We value them for their own sake, not just as a means to our own ends.

Such relationships are the only place where real vulnerability and intimacy are possible. They are the only kinds of relationships that can stand the test of time.

Okay, now what?

So we’ve established that some our beliefs and assumptions can really cut the legs out from under our relationships. Maybe you’ve identified some of these problematic beliefs within yourself that you want to work on and/or you’re feeling kind of discouraged. So what do you do now?

Well, the good news is that nothing about how you think and feel is set in stone. I don’t care how long you’ve been carrying your beliefs and assumptions around, it’s never to late to change them.

Here are a few tips for how to start shifting how you think about your relationships.

Take the time to write down what your beliefs about yourself, others, and relationships.

“Reality denied comes back to haunt.”
Philip K. Dick

This step is critical because if you don’t nail things down in writing it’s too easy for things to stay ambiguous, unexamined, and emotionally driven.

As a primer, review the three questions addressed above and write down your thoughts. In my experience with these kinds of things it might take a few iterations before you feel you’ve really nailed it, so just let it simmer on the back burner and come back to it from time to time and things will really start to take shape.

Writing things down can also be helpful for you to have some moments of thinking, “Huh, now that I see that on paper it actually seems kind of stupid.” Despite the sense of sheepishness, this is a good thing as it can help rob old assumptions of their emotional power.

Talk about this stuff with people you trust.

Now that you have a clearer picture of what you really believe, talk with close friends about what you’ve been learning about yourself and your beliefs. Ask them what they believe about relationships. Try asking them for their impressions of what you’ve come up with. This will probably feel both a little weird and pretty scary, but the effort is worth it. (Feel free to blame me and this blog post if people think it’s weird that you’re bringing this stuff up.)

Other people will offer you new insight and perspective that you can’t access any other way.

If engaged with openness and humility, these kinds of conversations will continue to open up new possibilities and ways of thinking.

You might also be surprised how how you will feel more connected with people when you have these kinds of talks.

Be on the lookout for exceptions/unique outcomes.

The thing about having beliefs and narratives about how we are and how the world works is that they are typically poor/insufficient descriptions of what is really going on. Often, we have to ignore or explain away a lot of what we see in order to maintain our current belief system.

So, the challenge is to notice these exceptions to our rules, or what narrative therapists call “unique outcomes.” These are things that just don’t fit with our current narrative.

For example, let’s say I believe that I’m unlovable. As a result I will tend to cherry-pick evidence in my life to reinforce this belief. So anytime anyone does anything that could be seen as uncaring I say to myself, “See! No one cares about me.” On the other hand, I’ll be quick to ignore or forget the times people are kind and thoughtful, etc.

My job would become to pay extra close attention to any instances where people show love or caring for me. As I do so, I will eventually have a growing base of evidence that directly challenges my old, less than helpful beliefs and it will be easier to shift my thinking in new directions.

You’ll know you’re on the right track when the things that you identify as exceptions are triggering and make you feel kind of defensive. Your brain will kick into overdrive trying to explain these things away or will want to shut down. This is normal. Be patient with this process and stay open and your life and relationships will be changed for the better.