This quarantine can be particularly stressful on relationships. Maybe you’re living in close quarters with others. Or you’re only relating to people at a distance — or it’s the stress of these crazy times. It’s always important to relate to others as skillfully as possible, but that’s become even more important right now.
Relationship guidance from David J. Leiberman, Ph.D.
Lieberman has nine great suggestions for how to drastically improve any kind of relationship. They’re from his book, Make Peace with Anyone. Specifically, they’re from the chapter called, “The 9 Rules to Drastically Improve Any Relationship of Any Kind.”
These pointers will help you to improve your relationships — whether romantic, familial, platonic, professional, or any other type. None of them should come as a surprise, but it’s nice to have them laid out in a list like this. I’m not just going to tell you about these suggestions though. I’m going share what they look like in my life so you can see them applied.
I prefer to think of his “rules” as suggestions. After listing each of them, I’ll give examples of the way they play out in my relationship with my sweetheart. It’s one thing to read a list of rules, it’s another thing entirely to hear what they look like in someone’s life! Mind you, I didn’t even know I was following these suggestions in my relationship until I read Leiberman’s book. It helps me understand some of the reasons why my romantic relationship is so close, loving, fulfilling and joyful.
A tiny bit about my relationship.
For the first time in my life (at age 57) I’m in a very healthy, loving, committed relationship with someone I absolutely adore. And who absolutely adores me. We both really like and love each other. We really enjoy each other’s company and very much look forward to being with each other. We have true intimacy and share deeply with each other.
Neither of us have never felt this close to another human being. Honestly, I didn’t even know this was possible! We’ve been together over two years and it keeps getting better! I credit my 12 step recovery with my ability to be in such a healthy relationship. After reading Leiberman’s book, I can see that recovery gave me the ability follow Leiberman’s rules for relationships. As much as I may have wanted to previously, I just wasn’t capable of doing so.
The Nine Suggestions.
1. Show genuine enthusiasm when you greet them.
2. Show respect.
3. Be supportive.
4. Give them the benefit of the doubt.
5. Let them know you appreciate them.
6. Give them the chance to contribute to your life.
7. Wait 24 hours if the person does something that angers you.
8. Talk about what is bothering you.
9. Share yourself and open up a bit with this person.
Now I’ll go through them individually to share how they play out in my life.
#1. Show genuine enthusiasm when you greet them.
This is exactly how my sweetheart and I greet each other. We typically greet each other as “Romeo” and “Juliet.” When I arrive at his place I’ll say (in a sing-songy voice), “Ro — me — o! I’m here!” and he responds, “Juliet!” This started when we began dating because he referred to our romance as “Romeo-and-Juliet-ing.”
This is just one little way that we remind ourselves (and each other) that we’re lovers and we’re really excited to see each other. He breaks into a huge smile the moment he sees me. When I see his genuine smile, of course I smile back! Who doesn’t want to be smiled at?! I also bust into a huge grin when I see him because I still can’t believe I get to have this man in my life! This is true even if I wasn’t in a great mood before he arrived.
When you greet someone with genuine enthusiasm, they’re going to have an enormous amount of appreciation. This is especially true if they’re in a bad mood because it’s going to make them feel better.
# 2. Show respect.
This can mean a lot of different things, including “don’t criticize people harshly.” That’s especially important not to do in front of other people! In fact, try to show reverence when you’re talking about the person when they’re not in your presence. That’s also a sign of respect.
My past relationships were such that I would sit around with friends and bitch about our partners. Every once in a while, I’d have a friend who didn’t do that. I always wondered how she was able to keep all that stuff to herself. It never occurred to me that she might have good boundaries or was being respectful of her partner. It also never occurred to me that she might have nothing to bitch about because she brought all her concerns to her partner! Who knew that was an option?!!
Prior to 12 step recovery, I didn’t communicate directly with my partners and tell them what was bothering me. That means I had pent up frustrations that I felt the need to get it out by complaining to other people. That was also a way for me to blame them for my problems. Now, I communicate directly with my partner when something bothers me.
Another way that you can show respect to somebody is by giving them your full attention when they’re talking to you. If I’m not able to give my sweetheart my full attention I acknowledge that. I say things like, “I really want to hear what you have to say, but I’m feeling distracted right now. Can you come back in X minutes? I’ll be able to give you my full attention.” Or, “I’m sorry, I was distracted and didn’t really follow you. Can you repeat that please?”
I was told long ago, “It’s not what you say, but how you say it that matters.” Language matters, and respect is conveyed in the language we use. Your choice of words is an indicator of how you feel about the other person. Try keeping the focus on yourself when you’re having a disagreement with the other person. Using, “I” language is much more respectful than using “you” language and telling the other person about them. The above example shows how I keep the focus on myself by saying, “I’m feeling distracted.”
#3 Be supportive.
This is particularly important when the person is feeling down or when they make a mistake. Everybody makes mistakes, it’s just part of being human, so reassure them that they’re not alone in making a mistake. If they’re beating themselves up, help them be less harsh on themselves. You might say supportive things like, “Please don’t be so hard on yourself.” I tell my sweetheart, “Don’t talk to my sweetheart like that!” on the rare occasion when he says something self-deprecating. I want to make sure to let him know I’m on his side.
If he shares something that’s difficult for him, I affirm what he’s said. I might say things like, “that sounds uncomfortable” or “that doesn’t sound good!” In my misguided efforts in past relationships, I tried to rationalize why things were happening the way they were to my partners. This resulted in my partners not feeling supported by me — feeling like I was trying to talk them out of feeling the way they did.
I know that my sweetheart and I make a good team. We’re on the same side. The first time I noticed that was when we went away together for the first time (two years ago today, btw!). We travel well together, and I told him that by saying, “You’re a fantastic traveling companion! We work well together and make a great team!”
Then I started seeing it in other places and I made sure to let him know that I recognize that we’re a good team. We’ve got each other’s backs. He does things for me and I do things for him. I don’t try to fix his problems when he shares them with me. Instead, I ask him if he wants my help if I feel like I can be helpful. Saying these kinds of things out loud shows both support and appreciation.
#4 Give them the benefit of the doubt.
The way that I think about this is — “Assume the best of intentions on the part of the other person.” If you don’t know why they did something, don’t go making up a story in your head! This is something I’m still guilty of doing, and I’m always wrong when I make up such stories! I’ve learned to ask the other person why they did the thing. I might say something to my sweetheart like, “I’m not sure what to make of that” or “What did you mean by that?” or “I’m having a hard time understanding why you did that. Can you fill me in on what was happening?”
These kinds of statements don’t come off as being accusatory. That means he’s not defensive. When you respond with curiosity, it leaves room for the other person to respond openly. It may turn out that they did something that wasn’t with the best of intentions. If so, the way you handle it is going to shape the way they act toward you in the future. If you give them the benefit of the doubt and act maturely with them, they’ll remember that. They’ll be a bit more mindful the next time that something like this comes up.
There’s a concept I learned from recovery that’s helped me greatly in giving my sweetheart (and everyone else!) the benefit of the doubt. The concept is that we’re all “flawesome.” That is, we’re both flawed and awesome. I used to feel like I had to hide my flaws from others. Once I got more accepting of my own flaws, it helped me be more accepting of others’ flaws too. Just because he might make a mistake, it doesn’t mean he’s not still awesome!
#5 Let them know you appreciate them.
As Leiberman says, “One nice word in the bank is worth 100 afterward.” My sweetheart does all kinds of little things for me. For example, he’ll make me a cup of tea (exactly the way I like it!) and bring it to me in bed. He created and maintains a three garden beds at my condo for me. He’ll build a fire if I’m cold. I say to him all the time when he does such things, “You’re so good to me!”
Reinforcing someone for doing something nice is infinitely more powerful than criticizing them for doing something wrong. Even if it’s the tiniest little thing (and you think they should be doing it anyway!) make sure to show your appreciation. This shows that you’ve noticed and that you’re not taking them for granted.
Say, “Thank you.” I think this is especially true with people we’ve known for a long time. We might think, “They know I appreciate them” but when you say it, they’ll know for sure! I’m reminded of a Japanese proverb I love: “One kind word can warm three winters.”
# 6 Give them a chance to contribute to your life.
I was terrible at this before recovery. I acted like I had no needs and was extremely self-reliant. Don’t do this! Let people invest in you. Ask for advice, ask for input. If we allow others to give to us, it makes them feel like they matter. Who doesn’t want to feel like they matter??
I ask for my sweetheart’s input regularly. He thinks differently than I do and I like to get other perspectives. That doesn’t mean I always going to go by what he says, but I regularly seek his input. If it’s something that affects him or our relationship, I definitely seek his perspective. He sometimes comes up with things I would never have thought of that are just brilliant! Sometimes he’s got nothing to suggest. Either way, asking for his input lets him know that he matters to me, and that his opinion matters to me.
# 7 Wait 24 hours when you’re angered by them.
There’s a piece of recovery literature that says, “Pause when agitated.” You’ve probably also heard, “Count to 10 when you get angry.” This notion of pausing is my #1 tool of recovery. When I first learned in recovery that pausing was a thing, I wasn’t able to do it
I couldn’t remember to pause because I was so used to being reactionary. It took time to remember to pause. I was finally able to pause because I’d reflect on situations and think, “Oh, pausing would have been helpful there.” This kept happening. But, the time between a situation occurring where I could have paused and the time when I realized I could have paused began to close. I got excited! “Pretty soon I’ll be able to pause while the thing is happening!!” And that’s eventually what happened.
One time my sweetheart said something that was really disturbing to me. Rather than lash out at him for it I paused. A while later I was still distressed to I called my sponsor. She said, “Well, maybe he meant _.” As soon as I realized that there was another possible meaning behind his words, I relaxed. That led me to realize that there were probably 20 other possible meanings to his words so I opted not to say anything to him at all. I let it go. I’m so glad I decided to pause!
Pausing is my #1 tool for maintaining my peace and serenity. I don’t always pause 24 hours, but if somebody that you care about has done something distressing, waiting will change your perspective. It will also give you time to cool down so you can think more clearly. After 24 hours, if you still decide you want to say something, whatever you say is going to be much more balanced. It’s not going come out all heated if you’ve paused.
# 8 Talk about what’s bothering you.
This has been huge for me! In my previous relationships I didn’t talk about what was bothering me. This was whether it was about the relationship or something else. With romantic partners, I’d bury things. It was as if I was putting something (like a wedge) between me and the other person. I kept doing it and doing it, which built a wall that got thicker and taller. Eventually, there was a giant wall between us.
It’s so much better to talk about something right when it happens, or as soon as possible afterward. If you’re in public, it’s not a good idea to talk about it right then. But as soon afterwards as possible is best.
I used to always wait for the “right moment.” Well, it never came. So don’t do what I did and try to wait for the right moment to “come along.” That’s reactive. Be proactive — make the moment, don’t wait for it. Talk about it as soon as possible so that it doesn’t fester and cause more serious problems. Talking about it right away allows you to move past the issue instead of dragging it along (and piling it up, like I used to do!).
At the same time, make sure you’re only bringing up things that are truly troubling. Don’t nitpick the person by continually bringing up things that bother you.
My partner doesn’t have to ask me if something is bothering me. He knows that when something bothers me I bring it up. I feel the same way about him — I know he’s going to tell me if something’s bothering him, I don’t have to guess. And I also know he’s going be gentle with me. This is one of the things that attracted me the most when I met him — he has good boundaries.
One time I asked him to come early to help me set up for a party and he agreed. When he wasn’t there at the agreed upon time, I texted him to find out when he’d arrive. He texted a while later that he was on the way. Right after we greeted each other I told him I was upset that he didn’t let me know he’d changed his mind about helping me set up. I’d had offers from others to help set up that I’d refused since he was going to be there. Getting that off my chest immediately allowed me to feel close to him and enjoy the entire evening. If I hadn’t said anything, there would not only have been something between he and I that night, but it would have affected the entire party!
# 9 Share yourself and open up.
This is something I was terrible at in the past. I’d give too much information about stuff that people didn’t want to hear about, but when it came to what was really going on with me I wasn’t able to share that. What I mean is that I wasn’t able to share what was going on for me emotionally or what my fears were. I wasn’t able to be vulnerable with others.
If you want a healthy, satisfying and close relationship, you’ll have to learn to become vulnerable and let people in. If you never let them in, they’re not going to stick around. At least people who want authentic and emotionally close relationships won’t stick around.
You don’t want to open up immediately, but over time. Once people get to know you better, and they know how you tick, they’re much more likely to be able to empathize with you. They’re also more likely to let stuff slide if you do act like jerk because they really know you and they’ll give you the benefit of the doubt.
This has helped me tremendously in my relationship with my sweetheart. One time I got upset on the drive to his place because of some things I saw on the drive there. As soon as I got there I told him I’d been having a great day, but then I saw these things that really upset me. Sharing my upset feelings with him meant I could let go of those feelings because I had expressed them. He was there for me, which made him feel important and cared for. He enjoys being a safe harbor for me. And I feel important when I can be a safe harbor for him.
If you want to improve your relationships with others, no matter what kind of relationship it is, try these nine guidelines as suggested by Leiberman. They work!
Barb Nangle is the Founder of Higher Power Coaching and Consulting. She coaches adults who want to change their behavior patterns but don’t know how. Her ideal clients often have dissatisfying relationships, self-sabotage and bend over backward for others. She helps them improve their relationships (starting with their relationship with themselves), so they feel comfortable in their own skin. She helps people change their entrenched patterns so they can have stable, peaceful and satisfying lives.
Her newsletter, “Happy, Joyous and Free” shares examples of how to change deeply entrenched patterns of dysfunctional behavior. Sign up here. She’s also the creator of the podcast, “Fragmented to Whole: Life Lessons from 12 Step Recovery.”