Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Practical Advice on Interpersonal Relationships

In the past, I have addressed interpersonal relationships from a theoretical standpoint. While I consider the theory of relationships to be extremely important, yet the practice of relationships is equally as important. Theoretical understanding of relationships is not complete without a practical approach that allows the theory to become reality.

This entry is part of the general theme of posts addressing open-relationships. However, the advice applies just as well for closed-relationships as it applies to open-relationships. The reason that open-relationships are not common is because people find it difficult to handle relationships effectively, and the open nature of open-relationships would put lots of stress on any shortcomings in the way relationships are being handled. Closed-relationships avoid the types of situations that would bring problems in a relationship to the surface, and downplays the significance of trust, communication, honesty, and openness. On the other hand, open-relationships require lots of trust, communication, honesty, and openness, and any shortcomings in those areas would quickly cause problems and stress in the relationship. And if those issues were not handled promptly and skillfully, the relationship would deteriorate. It is for this reason I am writing this entry to share my insights about handling such issues in practice.

The basic guidelines to the survival of relationships includes five important tenets: 1- Being realistic and grounded 2- Being attentive and appreciative 3- Openness 4- Verbal communication 5- Honesty

Allow me to elaborate on those five general guidelines:

1- Being realistic and grounded:
It is important to be in touch with reality and being able to do reality checks. Having unrealistic expectations in a relationship can cause lots of problems and stress in a relationship. Any demands or expectations should be reasonable, otherwise your partner might feel overwhelmed or unappreciated. Another aspect of this advice is being able to translate what is "intangible" into something "tangible". Relationships deal with intangible issues, and being able to translate something that is intangible into something tangible would make handling such issues much easier, and allows you to make realistic claims.

For example, how do you know that someone is interested in you? They would talk to you, pay attention to what you are saying, ask questions that allows them to know you better, return your calls. How do you know that someone misses you? They would call if some time passed without seeing you. What makes a friendship? Investing time and effort in the continuity of the relationship and making it progress and develop over time.

The point being, those associations between behaviors and what those behaviors imply create a solid foundation on which intangible claims can be verifiable. This is the foundation on which trust is established. If those associations are available to you, then next time someone makes a claim you have something to indicate whether that claim is true or not. If someone says something like: I missed you, I am your friend, I love you, ...etc you have something to refer to, and attempt to qualify the claim. You don't need to take the person's word for what they claim, but rather have an apparatus to gauge how much the claim is real. And when those claims are revealed to be backed up by behaviors that support those claims, trust can start to grow.

So what every person needs to do is to think hard and deep about reliable indicators of people's intentions, and create a mental apparatus that allows them to reliably associate behaviors with intentions, feelings, attitudes, and all of the intangible values that are important in a relationship. The person needs to have this powerful tool present in their mind so that they can use it when needed.

2- Being attentive and appreciative:
Once a person has the mental apparatus mentioned above available to them, they need to use it. They need to pay attention to the different behaviors that their partner exhibits, and try to make educated guesses about their partner. They also need to be responsive to those behaviors. For example, if someone's behavior indicates that they are interested in you, do something that shows them that you noticed their interest in you, and let them know you are interested as well. If someone's behavior indicates that they want to become good friends, acknowledge them and try to engage in friendship building activities.

In other words, be aware of what is going on in the relationship, and let the person know that you are aware of the efforts that they put in the relationship. You also need to use the behavioral association technique in both directions. That is to say, not only should you use it to attempt to interpret your partner's intentions, but also use it to show your partner your intentions towards them. If, for example, you want to show your partner that you want to establish a friendship, use the same behavioral patterns to give your partner tangible indicators about your intentions.

3,4- Openness and Verbal Communication:
When you notice an indicative behavior it is not enough to respond in a behavioral manner, a verbal response is also important. So when you see any behavior that resonate in your mind, it is a good practice to verbally let your partner know that you noticed their behavior and appreciate its significance. It is also important to let your partner know how their tangible actions translate into intangible intentionality. For example, when your partner calls after having not seen him/her in a while, it is good to say something like: "Thank you for calling because this lets me know that you are thinking of me!" This form of communication shows that you appreciate the action, and also explains why the action is significant. Moreover, it shows your partner the mental process using which you interpret their behaviors. This allows your partner to make a mental note of the behavioral associations that exist in your mind, and gives them an idea of how you interpret them and their behaviors.

It is important to let your partner know the behavioral connotations that you have. Both positive and negative connotations. So, if your partner behaves in a way that has positive connotations to you, let them know about it. Same applies when your partner behaves in a way that you perceive to have negative connotations. For example, if your partner makes an important decision without consulting you, it is a good idea to say something like: "I feel that being excluded in the decision making process on this issue indicates that you put your needs ahead of mine! This is why your behavior makes me feel neglected!" Or, if your partner doesn't spend as much time with you as they used to, you can say something like: "The time we spend together is the most important resource for the continuity of the relationship. I feel that if we don't spend more time together the relationship would deteriorate."

When communicating with your partner, it is important to address feelings, emotions, desires, and perceptions. This is because those intangibles are the heart of the relationship, and they are what matters the most. However, those discussions need to be grounded, tangible, and accessible in order to be effective. Otherwise, frustration, disappointment, and even resentment might enter the equation. For example, if one partner says to the other: "I feel that you don't love me anymore!" This statement describes some feelings, however, it does not provide justification for those feelings, nor does it provide any indication of how the situation can be resolved. In this case, the accused partner will feel frustration because they would think: "How the hell am I supposed to show or prove that I still love him/her?!" This is because emotions are intangible, and in the absence of a method to ground those emotions to something tangible the situation would be difficult to resolve. Another possibility is that the accused partner would feel unappreciated because they might think: "I did 1,2,3... I cannot believe he/she does not acknowledge my contribution to the relationship!" And those feelings of being unappreciated might escalate to feelings of resentment. A third possibility is that the accused partner would address the issue and modify his/her behavior. However, this third possibility runs the risk that the behavioral changes do not match what the accuser had in mind, leading to disappointment to be experienced by both partners because they could not resolve the situation.

People do not always agree on the significance of actions, and what those actions indicate. Other times people are not aware of their behaviors and how others interpret and react to their actions. It is for those reasons that it is important for partners discuss in an open and clear manner their expectations and perceptions and voice out their concerns. They also need to discuss the why and how those behavioral associations came to be, because when partners don't agree on what actions translate to, they need to address the mental process using which the translation is justified.

5- Honesty:
Honesty is the basis of intimacy and trust. Sharing information about oneself is how intimacy is cultivated. Getting to know one another creates familiarity and understanding. It is also the process through which trust is founded. Being honest all the time is a difficult task, and requires lots of practice until you can master this essential skill. However, as long as the people in the relationship do not engage in this practice, the relationship cannot grow and will get stuck at some level without any possibility of improvement.

The most difficult part of honesty is knowing the truth. If you do not know the truth, you cannot possibly tell anyone the truth, simply because you cannot speak of what does not exist in your mind. It is for this reason, the first step of honesty is being self-aware. Ask yourself difficult questions, and don't feel threatened by your own thoughts. After all, your thoughts are private and no one can read your thoughts. So, the first step is being honest with oneself. After you understand the truth, you should be aware of your lies. It is difficult to be honest right away, but it is important that you be aware of the information that you reveal about yourself and the accuracy of those information. The third step is to devise proper circumstances to disclose the truth. Understand why you feel the need to lie about yourself to others, then make sure that you are comfortable with who you are, then disclose information about yourself to people you feel comfortable with in non-threatening situations. Finally, after having practiced disclosing information about yourself in comfortable circumstances, you should be able to move to the final stage of disclosing the truth under all circumstances.

Honesty can dramatically improve the quality of relationships, so it would payoff to establish honesty as a norm in all of your intimate relationships. It is important to note that honesty does not only imply telling the truth, but also volunteering the truth. Lies of omission or simply not stating something because nobody asked about it is a form of dishonesty. Honesty involves desire to disclose information, not only truthfulness of disclosed information.


Haitham Seelawi said...

I rarely think about my relations in theoretical terms. I mostly operate in a somewhat hazy state of mind with a special someone and I find myself screwing up when I am being conscious about what I am doing.

However, I do make it clear that there is no official verbal commitment from my side and I do encourage the other side to do the same. “Official verbal” is a keyword term here. It just lowers the attractiveness of both sides to each others.

I also care about one quality only; “Trust”. Not honesty or anything you mentioned here. This does not mean I promote the opposite of what you are preaching, on the contrary, I think what you wrote is very valid. But it is only that I think if trust is mutual then everything will be fine.

The quality of trust is so important to me, because even when someone is being discreet or dishonest, I find it important to trust they are being so for a good reason, and vice versa.

This might sound very irrational. But anyways it should be used sparsely and only in relations that you want to make robust.

Will I think I was not clear enough here! I will try to elaborate more if I could, but the thing is, I don’t think that much about it, and so I can’t find the proper words to convey what goes inside my mind when this very particular subject crosses it.

Anonymous said...

r u participating in code jam 2011??

Devil's Mind said...

Mutual trust between partners is a very important aspect of the relationship. However, trust is an outcome of a successful relationship and once established can surely enhance the longevity and success of the relationship.

However, what I am discussing in this post is not the qualities of a successful relationship, but rather a methodology to get there.

In regards to honesty versus trust, I have to agree that each person has a right to privacy. And I totally agree that people should be given the autonomy to decide on what information they reveal or keep. This is why I consider honesty to be voluntary, not an expectation. In other words, my advice is to cultivate a desire to reveal information about oneself. Not demand information from others about themselves. Being honest to others, not demanding honesty from others.

And anonymous, no I have no intention to join code jam 2011.

Devil's Mind said...

Also can you elaborate on the "no official verbal commitment" policy that you mention?!

Haitham Seelawi said...

It is weird I know, but what I mean is not saying you are a couple or any of that. Once you take somebody for granted they become much less attractive.