Good relationships don’t just happen. Whether it's a relationship between partners, parent and child, siblings, colleagues, and / or extended family and friends, positive relationships need ongoing maintenance - check ins and tune ups - requiring tools such as patience, flexibility, and moments of undivided attention. Good relationships grow when people make the conscious decision to listen, compromise, and support one another. This isn’t always easy, and some days it feels harder than others. The good news is that there are a few simple things we can all do to build, nurture, and maintain healthy relationships in our lives.
Tips for building healthy relationships
- Spend quality time together. Set aside time each week to do something enjoyable together. Schedule this in your calendar and make a commitment to not talk about life stressors or other issues during this time.
- Be thankful. Make an effort to practice gratitude and show appreciation for your relationships. What’s one thing about your friend or loved one that you appreciate every day? Let them know!
- Build your emotional bank account. This could be doing things as small as reading a book with your child; listening to your friend talk about their day; noticing a new haircut/outfit/shoes; spending time in the garden with a grandparent; watching a movie with your sibling; cooking with a parent. Letting your friend and/or loved one know that you value them puts 'currency' into the ‘relationship bank’, building a buffer for stressful or difficult times that may occur in the future.
- Spend some time apart. Do the things that you enjoy doing - yoga; surfing; painting; museums; wellbeing retreats; football; swimming; hiking; knitting; live theatre - the list is endless. A little bit of distance in a relationship can help to build desire. When you spend time apart you have space to appreciate and value things about your loved one that might be lost in the mundane of everyday-life routines.
- Support each other’s goals. No matter whether it seems like something small such as exercising weekly, or significant like quitting smoking, ask your friend or loved one, “What do you need from me?” to support success in achieving the nominated goal. When your friend or loved one reaches their goal, celebrate together.
- Treat each other with respect. Healthy relationships happen when there is shared respect and equality; talk through decisions together and be prepared to compromise.
- Ask for what you need from a relationship. Don’t wait for others to guess. You can skip a lot of pain and misunderstanding if you communication within your relationships a bit about what you are going through.
- You are responsible for your actions and feelings. No matter how much your partner, a child, your parents, siblings, friends or colleagues press your buttons, you are responsible for how you respond. You are in control of your own actions and behaviour. Any relationship is a series of seemingly small decisions about how to behave that will ultimately either strengthen or damage the health of the relationship and how you feel about one another.
If you are in a close relationship with someone, you are not going to always agree on everything. There are countless things you might disagree on and it’s different within each relationship. Conflict can help to clarify things, settle issues or provide momentum for action. It’s not about whether you argue or not, but about how you resolve your disagreements.
These are some ideas about how to keep conflict productive and fair:
- Stay calm. Conflict is emotionally demanding. If you need to take a break, take one. Just let the other person know when you will come back so they don’t think you are avoiding the issue.
- Try to use ‘I’ statements,“I feel…” rather than “you make me feel …”. Owning your feelings is likely to lead to a more open and calm discussion.
- Deal with one issue at a time. ‘Stockpiling’ issues often results in the other person feeling overwhelmed and under attack. Trying to resolve something you’ve been hanging on to for five years is not only difficult, but also unhealthy.
- Keep it respectful. If you find yourselves calling one another derogatory names or being disrespectful through threatening or dismissive body language, you are no longer being calm and rational. Take a break.
- Try not to generalise. When you start making statements such as, ‘you always’ and/or ‘you never’ there’s a good chance that the other person will become defensive. Give a specific example, i.e., state the facts and focus on the current situation.
- Avoid ‘make believe’ and hypotheticals. Talk about real, observable behaviours, not what you suspect or imagine might be happening.
- Be mindful of where and when you have an argument. It’s alright to have a calm, rational discussion in front of your children. In fact, this can be a positive opportunity to model respectful relationships and conflict resolution (depending on the age of the child and the topic of the discussion). Family barbecues, social gatherings or times when either of you has been drinking alcohol are not appropriate or productive times to discuss private issues publicly.
When you’re arguing, ask yourself what you could say or do right now to be constructive. Don’t lose sight of the fact that your friend or loved one is a person you care about. Try to put yourself in their shoes.
If you are trying to control, belittle, humiliate, retaliate or punish your partner to win a fight, then you need to check yourself. This behaviour is never acceptable. It’s your responsibility to maintain respect and compassion for your partner and yourself, even in the heat of the moment.
These are difficult, but achievable skills for all of us to learn. Everyone can benefit from an outside perspective at times. Relationship counselling can be a great way to learn strategies to build stronger relationships.
Ending a relationship
When a relationship ends you can experience many different thoughts and feelings. If you are the person ending the relationship, you may have had time to think about what you need, and prepare yourself for moving forward.
If you have not made the decision to leave, you are starting from a different point of understanding and acceptance. Either way, you may feel sadness, anger, uncertainty, relief, shock or hope. It’s normal to experience all these emotions and more.
Following a relationship breakup, you may experience lots of short-term changes, including:
- under-eating or over-eating
- difficulty sleeping, changes in your sleep routine, vivid dreams and nightmares
- dramatic swings from feeling ok to feeling awful
- feeling preoccupied with the breakup, idealising the relationship or focusing on all of the negative things
- drinking more alcohol than usual
- feeling unable to accept what’s happening
These things show decrease over time as you grieve and heal. It's important to seek professional help if your mood remains low, if your behaviour is becoming erratic and unpredictable, or if you are thinking about hurting yourself or other people.
Tips for self-care
- Accept that your usual sleep and eating routine might be disrupted for a while; try to keep things as close to your normal routine as possible during this period.
- If you’ve lost your appetite, try eating smaller meals or grazing on healthy snacks in place of large meals.
- Talk to the people close to you. If you don’t feel comfortable doing this, make contact with a mental health professional so there is someone you can talk to.
- Express what you’re thinking and feeling in a healthy way. Sometimes you might need to cry, lift some weights, punch a punching bag, or write your thoughts down. Allow yourself to feel emotions in a way that doesn’t hurt yourself or others.
- Avoid using alcohol or drugs as a way to cope. These substances will suppress and ultimately prolong the painful feelings.
- Try not to follow an ex-partner on social media, as this may feed unhelpful emotions and thoughts about the relationship and prevent you from moving forward.
- Do the things that give you pleasure or make you feel strong. This might be walking the dog, playing golf, going to the movies, learning to play an instrument - whatever brightens your day and is not harmful to you or others. Try to do at least one of these activities daily.
- If you find yourself preoccupied with thoughts of past relationships or ex-partners, redirect your attention and focus back to taking care of yourself.
Tips for interacting with your ex-partner
When a relationship ends it’s easy for emotions to take over. People can end up saying and doing things they might not usually do, especially if the breakup is unexpected or unwanted. Reflect on what your values are and what kind of person you want to be as you navigate your way through a breakup.
Some other tips for coping with relationship loss:
- give yourself some time to adjust to the change in your relationship, and give your partner space to do the same. Don’t jump straight into problem solving if you’re both feeling highly reactive. Let things settle a little bit before you make any important decisions.
- listen to each other. There may be questions about the relationship that need to be answered before you can both move forward. Stay respectful and try not to blame or attack.
- relationship counselling can help people come to terms with why the breakup has happened. This can help with the healing and moving on process.
Things you might need to discuss together
There may be a number of considerations to talk through, including:
- how you’ll coordinate care of children, including how to talk to children about the separation
- who will care for pets?
- how will the assets be divided?
- financial responsibilities
- is legal representation needed?
- setting up separate places to live
- how much contact will you have with each other? Will you aim to stay friends, work together for the care of the children, or is it better and healthier to have as little contact as possible only communicating with one another when necessary?
It's important during this time that you both have a safe space and opportunity to articulate your needs during this period. Relationship counselling can help with this.
Relationships Australia provides support and information on services available to assist in relationship break downs, break ups and separation, including custody arrangements, dispute resolution options, and links to legal advice.
Your reactions to the situation are your own responsibility. Verbal or physical abuse towards an (ex) partner, elderly parents or children is never ok and can be a criminal offence. There is never any excuse that justifies family violence. See tips above on 'Fighting Fair' for ways to manage relationship conflict in a fair and respectful manner.
If you are experiencing domestic violence, contact The Domestic Violence Resource Centre using the contact details below.