As 2013 comes to a close, many of us are taking stock of the important things in our lives. Am I doing well at work? Am I healthy? Do I have enough money and am I saving as much as I can? Did I keep any of my New Year’s resolutions from last year?
I’d like to suggest that all mental reviews of 2013 also consider your relationships. There’s good scientific evidence that having meaningful and fulfilling high quality relationships is among the best predictors of happiness. I am not talking about simply having a great boyfriend or wife, I am talking about the whole enchilada of your relationship experiences—with your parents, your friends, your kids and your lovers.
All these relationships count toward your happiness. I’ve said this before in my columns, but it’s worth repeating: One of the best things you can do for your health and happiness is cultivate great relationships.With this fact in mind and as the year comes to an end, it makes perfect sense to see if there are ways to improve your relationships for 2014. Great idea, but how should you go about this type of review? And, more importantly, what should you do if you need to make some changes?
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Green Means Go:
You can think of the review I am describing as an effort to “take the temperature” of your relationships—that is, do an assessment to get a read of what’s going well and what could be, or needs to be, changed. At the risk of mixing my metaphors, you can do this “temperature taking” by thinking about the three colors of a traffic stoplight.Here’s the system:1. Think about the relationships listed below:
- Your partner
- Your parents
- Your kids
- Your best friends
- Your other friends
- Your work friends (if they don’t count above)
- Your siblings
- Your in-laws and other relatives
- Your co-workers that you don’t consider friends
- Other people in your life
- People you hate and/or think hate you
2. For each person in a given type of relationship, ask yourself how you feel—take your emotional temperature for that specific relationship. Ask yourself:
- Overall, do I feel satisfied with this relationship? Does this relationship make me happy?
- Is this relationship fun and exciting?
- Is there too much conflict or stress in this relationship? Too much jealously? Is it too competitive? Is there a lot of other bad stuff?
- Am I being taken advantage of in this relationship? Is this person too needy and not giving enough? (For example, Jane tells me every stupid detail of her life but never once in the past year asked about me. Not once!)
- Do I feel lonely and/or bored in this relationship?
- With partners, is the physical intimacy good enough?
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3. Next, make your final assessment and classify the relationships into one of the three categories below. This final assessment is a summary read out—a balance sheet, if you will—of your answers to all of the questions above.Green: Things are going well to very well. No major changes needed. Stay the course. Build on the positive experiences with this person.Yellow: Something is amiss. Corrective action is needed. The relationship is repairable but action is needed. You may need to initiate more contact, less contact or even a direct conversation about the nature of your interactions.Red: Big changes are needed—a breakup, a divorce, or, in cases where you can’t get out (say, with your parents or your boss), a definition transition or major evolution in the nature of the relationship.
Your Action Plan:
This red-light/green-light assessment is just your first step. All assessments—be they of relationships, a problem with the brakes in your car or a clogged artery—must end with a good action plan.In a prior column, I wrote extensively about how to improve a relationship problem, and I’ve also written about when and why (and to some extent, how) to end a relationship. This advice will help you for dealing with relationships that fall into the Red Zone.For relationships in the Yellow Zone, I suggest you ask yourself two additional questions: What, specifically, do I want? And: Is what I want achievable? If the answer to the second question is “No,” then you need to reconsider whether the relationship can be improved in any real way. You either have to accept it as it is (i.e., move the person to the Green Zone), or, if you can’t live with it, think about making a much bigger change (i.e., move the person to the Red Zone).
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Let’s assume, however, that you can articulate (to yourself) what you want and need, and you also think it’s achievable. Now you can go about setting this plan in motion. Sometimes, doing so is easy and it’s a matter of simply changing the frequency of visits to your sister’s house, or loosening expectations that your mom be more involved with your kids. Other times, you’ll need to speak with the person directly about what has to change, and the hardest part here is often building up the courage to have that conversation.
I recently had a client in therapy, Peter, who wanted to be closer with his wife. She always seemed angry with him and whenever he approached her about it she would say something like, “Don’t you have a therapist? Why don’t you go talk to him about all this mushy stuff?” Peter believed that if he could somehow find a way to reach her and tell her how he felt, then good things would happen.
I helped him with his red-light/green-light assessment, and he converted his ideas about what was wrong into a plan for making things better. Peter resolved that his wife could not dismiss a letter. This was his action plan. So he built up the courage to write to his wife how he felt. He poured his heart out to her about wanting to be closer, wondering why she pushed him away, and innumerated all the ways he would change for her. Within a week, Peter was back in the Green Zone with his wife.
If you really want to have good relationships, you must tend to them. You must maintain them regularly, just as you would your car or anything else you wanted to keep in good shape for a while. This fact seems like such a no brainer, but probably for the same reasons we delay and delay getting the oil changed, we often neglect our relationships.
As 2014 arrives, I hope my assessment plan gets you thinking about ways to improve and invigorate your relationships. Happy New Year!