I work with a lot of people who have experienced toxic, negative, hurtful relationships. Often they’ve been through an entire history of them. Whether these were romances or friendships, eventually a person who is getting healthier will ask the question “How can I have a healthy relationship in the future? or “How can I keep this from happening again?”
I’ve given my stock advice. Things like “learn to value and care about yourself. know what is important to you. don’t put up with people who treat you badly, even in small ways. know your own limits and insist that others respect them. do things you enjoy for their own sake, and be friends with the people you meet there.” I do think all of that is pretty good advice, but I recognize that it hasn’t been completely satisfactory for many people. So I was pretty excited recently, while reading the book Simplify by Bill Hybels, to find a chapter (chapter 7, if you’re interested) on friendship. He outlined some common sense things to look for and some others to watch out for and some ways to go about making friends. I liked his list, but since he is a Christian writer and a pastor, his was very spiritually focused. I wanted something that was more general that I could share with people I’m working with. So, inspired by Mr. Hybels, here are some thoughts about forming healthy relationships.
First of all, for any of these characteristics, look for patterns. Anyone can have a good day or a bad day, but try to keep the overall pattern of a person’s behavior in mind. And look not just at how the person is treating you but at how they interact with everyone around them. Look at the small details that can be very telling. Many people can be charming when they are trying to win a new friend or romantic partner. How they treat the people they aren’t trying to impress can be much more revealing. How they behave when they don’t know anyone is watching is most likely to reflect the core of who they are.
Characteristics to look for include having a positive attitude. Look for someone who appreciates the good in his own life and isn’t complaining all the time; someone who when faced with challenges says “ok, we can do this.” It’s also good to look for someone who is truthful and trustworthy. Honesty in small things, like admitting small faults or letting the cashier know he gave too much change is a great sign that a person will be honest in larger things. A person who is patient and kind, who doesn’t get upset or angry easily and who shows consideration for people around her, will likely be patient and kind with you as well. A self-disciplined person, who can say “no thanks, that’s not good for me” about an extra piece of cake, a late night, a drink, or an impulse purchase will encourage you to be healthy as well. A person who can respect his own limits is much more likely to respect yours. A person who keeps small promises, like showing up when she says she will, is more likely to come through on the big promises.
On the other hand, watch out for a person who is arrogant or entitled, someone who views themselves as better than other people. In particular, watch out for someone who is perfectly nice to you but is rude to people who she is categorizing as “not important” or “just there to serve me.” Sooner or later the person who berates the waitress, the bus driver, or the clerk is going to see you as an object as well. When you fail to meet her needs you’ll be in for the same treatment. Don’t get too close to someone who rants, trantrums, whines, sulks or pouts when things don’t go his way. Being able to handle disappointment and even adversity with grace and class is the mark of a true grown-up, and relationships with people who are emotional children in adult bodies are often exhausting and painful. Someone who is habitually dishonest in small things is not likely to be honest in large things like faithfulness and commitment keeping. Someone who is constantly gossiping about others is probably going to gossip about you when you aren’t around. A person who complains about someone else’s behavior to you is probably not going to be able to work out problems with you in a healthy and relationship building way. A person who is mean and hurtful, who breaks the confidences of others, or causes trouble between other people is showing that they are toxic. Don’t put up with unkindness disguised as humor, no matter who the target is. That’s a form of bullying. And stay away from careless friends, people who are inconsiderate or thoughtless about other people’s time, energy, and feelings.
Finally, step into new relationships slowly. I hate to be a buzz-kill, but relationships that seem too good to be true probably are. I recommend being very wary of anyone who appears to completely understand, love and connect with you on the first meeting. Romantic ideas of soul mates or love at first sight aside, usually that kind of intense initial connection is much more about the holes and wounds inside each person and the fantasy of rescue than any kind of honest, adult connection. Relationships aren’t and can’t be a short cut to avoid doing hard emotional work. Instead of dumping your entire history and all of your emotional pain on someone at the first meeting, take it slow. Give it time. Developing a relationship is a dance of small, mutual steps, a process of growing give and take. Confide a little piece of information, something you don’t tell everyone, and see how she handles that. Try out trusting him with a little vulnerability and see if he is able to reciprocate. See how the two of you are able to navigate an area of disagreement or difference. Make sure you can talk about the tough, important topics (money, sex, politics, religion, families) bit by bit, and that you can do so with respect even when you don’t agree.
This can be a tough list to follow. Often the people who give you a thrill are the people who have more of the negative characteristics than the positive. They can seem sophisticated, funny, and exciting. The people who are honest, kind, patient, self-disciplined and positive can seem hopelessly dull. I get it. But I have to ask you this. If you’ve been chasing thrills for years and you’re now at the tail end of a string of painful relationships, how’s that working out for you? Is it time to try something else yet?