How to Not Suck at Relationships
(Baby Step #1: Know the People You Love)
I’ve been reading a book called Relationships Are Everything: How to Not Suck at Relationships & Make a Dent in This World. If you’d asked me before starting this book what was most important to me, I would have said my relationships. I’m less than a third of the way through the book now, and I’m starting to change my mind.
My relationships have felt a lot trickier lately (say, over the last few years). There was a time when it seemed (at least from my perspective) that I was the glue holding certain relationships together. There came a point when I just didn’t feel like doing that anymore, so I stopped. And then things changed. Relationships ended. Others stagnated.
Either way, it could never have worked — my being the glue. A relationship is a two-way street, and it takes both people showing up and doing the work to keep it strong and hold it together.
Still, even the best relationships (with the best of people) take deliberate effort. We have to try, which is where I started realizing, I might actually suck at relationships.
An exercise from the book:
“Write down the names of 7–10 people currently in your life and scale how much you value them, with 1 being ‘I barely value the person or relationship’ and 10 being ‘I focus totally on this person, his/her needs and investing in him/her constantly.’”
By this measure, I’m not making real effort with any of my relationships.
Take one end of the spectrum: I barely value the person or relationship.
I know there are relationships in my life that I don’t value as much as others. There are people I absolutely love (and love thinking about), but there are others who are more difficult. Maybe our personalities are different or we don’t have a lot in common. Maybe our history is strained. Maybe we don’t see eye to eye about a lot of things. Whatever the case, of those relationships, some of them have taken a backseat over the years and, if I’m honest, don’t matter to me all that much anymore. There are a few, however, that actually do matter to me, but I treat them like they don’t. (That stings a little, knowing there are people in my life who mean a lot to me, but who I treat as if they don’t matter at all.)
Let’s take the other end of the spectrum: I focus totally on this person, his/her needs and investing in him/her constantly.
I do that exactly … never. Granted, it’s at the Perfect-10 end of the spectrum, but still, never? I don’t think I’m a narcissist. I know a lot about the people who are closest to me in my life. I know their interests. I know (fairly well) what they’re doing in a given week (I’m talking about those who don’t live with me). Still, is that enough? What constitutes knowing someone? (Just because you know a lot about someone doesn’t mean you actually know him/her.)
So where do we begin?
For starters, I know I could stand to learn more about the dreams of the people I value. In our constantly-preoccupied, media-obsessed culture, rarely do we take the time to get to know what’s in a person’s heart — what matters to them, what keeps them awake at night, who they aspire to be.
Maybe it’s hard to talk about these kinds of things.
If I think about approaching the relationships in my life with that kind of conversation, I’m immediately intimidated, but if I think about one of them approaching me with that kind of conversation, I immediately feel valued. (And isn’t that exactly how we hope to make them feel?)
So what would that conversation look like?
I guess it’s a rocky and awkward start, but maybe something like:
I’ve been thinking a lot about my relationships lately and about how I’d like to make them stronger. I thought a good place to start might be knowing a little more about the people I love and value — really knowing them, not just surface-level things, but who they are and who they hope to be.
Then maybe (depending on the person and how much you know already) you could fill in with a question that feels right for the situation:
- I was just wondering what’s new with you?
- What’s on your radar lately?
- What projects are you working on?
- What books have you been reading?
- What has your attention lately?
- Do you have any big plans that you’re working on?
(Note: Personalities differ. Some people will be more future-focused in nature, while others prefer to live more off memory or in the present. Follow their lead.)
It’ll probably feel awkward at first, but at least it’s a start. From there, you’ll know just where to begin your next conversation, with that thing they said mattered to them.
And that’s exactly how to let them know they matter to you.