Healthy Relationships—In Three Parts
Updated: Jul 29
Truth in Relationships Honesty is the best policy in human relationships. It is the foundation of trust, without which there is insecurity, pain, and ultimately, death of a relationship. Martin Buber wrote, “What is real is you and what is real is me, but what is really real is we.” For this to be so, people must shed their masks and pretenses and be their true selves. True love loves truth.1
There are two kinds of truth—value-free and value-full. With value-free truth, people say and do what they believe to be true without regard for the consequences. So to speak, they let the chips fall where they may. By itself, this type of truth is good, but it can be harmful in human relationships. Far better is value-full truth. This is truth combined with kindness and consideration. With value-full truth, the welfare of others is as important as truth itself.
The prescription is to be both honest and kind. Since this is not always easy and there are no simple formulas that apply in every situation, dealing with people requires patience and understanding. This also explains why so much stress can be traced to interpersonal relationships.
Your True Personality If “Who are you?” and “Where are you going?” are the two most important questions in your life, then “Who will go with you?” is the third. Problems occur if these questions are answered in the wrong order. This is the case for many people who love each other but are incompatible. To prevent this from happening, the solution is to follow Socrates’ dictum to know thyself and Shakespeare’s advice to be true to yourself, and you will be false to no other. This brings us to the subject of personality and what you bring to a relationship.
The term personality comes from the Latin word persona, meaning mask. Actors in the plays of ancient Greece and Rome wore masks to indicate whether they were happy or sad. Unlike a mask that one can put on or take off, the term personality implies something stable. Personality consists of all the ways in which the behavior of one person differs from that of others.
Years ago, Gordon Allport of Harvard University analyzed the English language and found 18,000 trait-like terms used to designate distinctive patterns of behavior. Allport believed this rich collection of words provided a way to capture the uniqueness of each individual, and this uniqueness could be described in terms of personality. He identified three levels of strength or dominance of personality: cardinal dispositions, central tendencies, and secondary traits.
When an individual has a cardinal disposition, almost every aspect of his or her life is influenced by it. The person’s entire identity is shaped by this powerful disposition. People who have a cardinal disposition are often labeled with names or adjectives derived from historical or fictional characters, such as Christlike, Machiavellian, Quixotic, Scrooge, or Don Juan.
Few people have one cardinal disposition. Ordinarily, the personality develops around several outstanding central tendencies. These central tendencies form the basic characteristics of the person. Allport believed that the central tendencies of a personality were likely to be those traits you would mention in writing a letter of recommendation—dependable, intelligent, kindhearted, and resourceful are examples. Examples of negative central tendencies are lazy, incompetent, dishonest, and cowardly.
A third level of personality is that of secondary traits. Secondary traits function more on the periphery of the personality. They are less significant, less conspicuous, and less consistent than cardinal dispositions or central tendencies, but they still are important in understanding why people do what they do. “Likes sports,” “likes to travel,” and “likes books” are examples of secondary traits.2
To personalize the subject of personality, complete the following exercise.
Cardinal, Central, and Secondary Traits
Going From Me to We On what basis do people get together in the first place—how do couples become couples? Research
shows there are six key factors: first impressions, physical attraction, reputations, perceived similarity, propinquity, and nonverbal signals. Regardless of how people come together, the quality of the relationship can have life-defining consequences.3
Nothing is more stressful than a miserable relationship. Ask anyone who has one. On the other hand, nothing is more satisfying than a loving relationship. Fully one third of the stressful events experienced by young adults are caused by relationships. Interpersonal conflicts account for as much as 80% of the stress experienced by married couples.4
An unhappy relationship is double trouble. You lose a major source of support and replace it with a major source of stress. When couples fight, they activate the general adaptation syndrome (GAS) that can suppress their immune systems. The result is that both unhappy people may become ill.
Occasional arguments are usually not the problem. It is chronic disagreement that overstimulates the physical system and can lead to negative stress effects. Studies show that people in troubled relationships have poorer health than people in satisfying relationships. A prescription for good health is to keep relationships happy.
More than 50 years ago, psychologist Carl Rogers identified the characteristics of a healthy relationship. To some degree, these characteristics are present in all successful relationships.
Honesty. Even though it is difficult to achieve, the strongest bond between people is a large component of self-disclosure. We are able to say with honesty what we want and those emotions we feel, such as fear, guilt, resentment, and anger, without worrying about the impression we are making. We are willing to be ourselves.
Sensitivity. A satisfying relationship depends on the willingness of each party to understand the other’s emotions and experiences. This takes time, energy, and most importantly, the desire to know how the other person feels and to understand that person’s needs.
Open Communication. Thoughts and feelings, including negative ones, are expressed, so they do not block closeness. This allows each person an opportunity to decide whether he or she wishes to change.
Respect for Autonomy. While the relationship is characterized by openness on both sides, there is acceptance of the rights of each individual to believe and behave according to his or her own standards. We do not require that the other person, in order to be valued, must meet our conditions for thoughts, feelings, and actions. In this sense, positive regard is unconditional.
Rhythm. Relationships have rhythmic variation to them, an ebb and flow. There is openness and sharing of feelings and then a period of assimilation of these experiences. Intense discussion and change are followed by a time of no change and quiet. There is risk and anxiety, and then security.5
Think of a relationship that is important to you and ask, “Are you doing all you can to demonstrate sensitivity, are you open in communication, are you honest with your feelings, do you show respect for the other person, is there rhythm in the relationship?” People grow within a healthy relationship. In a true sense, they develop into better human beings.
To have a healthy relationship, you have to follow the law of nature. Just as the farmer sows seed to reap a harvest, you must be loving to be loved, and you must be respectful to be respected. Some people live their entire lives without applying this simple message, and they suffer. It isn’t a case of not growing up. The smallest child can love and respect. Rather, it is a case of not growing out.
In developing a relationship, it is important to know what makes a person easy to live with. The following are ten basic rules:
Seek to Love, Not to Change. Care about your partner and his or her activities, but never let interest become interference. Letting people be free to be themselves is a healthy tonic that nurtures and enhances the relationship.
Avoid Being Judgmental and Fault-Finding. Instead, praise your partner for his or her good qualities. This is pleasing and makes a long and happy relationship. As Benjamin Franklin said, regarding a good marriage: Keep your eyes wide open before you marry, and half shut afterward.
Lighten Up and Let it Be. When minor disagreements occur, keep things in perspective. Realize that most matters are minor in the big picture of life. Don’t get angry, and don’t hold a grudge. Let it go. Choose to laugh and build a future together.
Make Peace, Not War. By all means, have opinions and express your ideas readily. But keep the emphasis on sharing, not winning. If life is a struggle and a contest, don’t let it be with your partner.
Seek Never to Harm. Be pure of heart. This builds trust and creates a sense of security that is the foundation for happiness.
Help Your Partner. Try to solve problems, not make problems. This is a basic ingredient of being a helpmate and a basic requirement for a productive relationship.
Tell Truth with Kindness. This is a core characteristic of a healthy relationship. Be honest and considerate in all matters.
Love on All Planes. Show love emotionally and physically.Make love the single most descriptive word for your relationship.
Stamp Out Jealousy. In Othello, Shakespeare writes, “Beware of jealousy; it is the green-ey’d monster.” Jealousy is a destructive emotion that ruins relationships and harms personal health. Refuse to participate.
Communicate. Be open to discuss all subjects, from dollars to dogs. Don’t blow up, and don’t shut down. Just talk fairly and frankly. Say what you think, and listen to understand. Communication is the heart of a healthy relationship and the primary cause of its success or failure. When it comes to communication, there are three key principles: be attentive, don’t be judgmental, and share responsibility for results.6
Dealing With Difficult People
Human relationships are not always easy. When someone is being difficult, remember the acronym HALT. People often behave badly when they are hurt, angry, lonely, or tired. Usually they will respond positively if you are patient and understanding. Think of yourself and times when you may have been difficult; think of your own needs for patience and understanding.
Difficult behavior is ingrained in some people, and the best answer may be to avoid them. If this is not possible, or desirable, there is only one alternative, and that is to endure with grace just as you would the weather. Sometimes it can help if you reframe the situation. Instead of focusing on the negative aspects of the person, find the good. Consider the positive qualities the person possesses.
Most difficult behavior is situational, which means that something can be done about it. The solutions are to (1) change the situation, (2) help the person change, (3) change yourself, or (4) leave. Every effect has a cause. If the cause can be discovered, the problem behavior can often be corrected. Specific causes of difficult behavior are (a) bad habits developed from bad role models, (b) feelings of insecurity and inadequacy, (c) feelings of being unappreciated and unloved, (d) a lack of learning to be nice or considerate of others, and (e) displacement of personal frustrations onto safe and convenient targets.7
In Coping with Difficult People, Robert Bramson has identified types of people who can be highly stressful:
Hostile-Aggressive: These are people who bully and overwhelm others by making cutting remarks or throwing tantrums when things don’t go their way.
Complainers: These are people who never try to improve what they complain about, either because they feel powerless to do so or because they refuse to bear the responsibility.
Silent-Unresponsives: These are people who respond to every question or request with a yep, a hmmm, a no, or a grunt.
Super Agreeables: These are personable individuals who are supportive in your presence but don’t produce what they say they will.
Negativists: These are pessimists who respond to every idea with “It won’t work” or “It’s impossible.” They deflate and depress other people.
Know-It-Alls: These are people who act like they know everything there is to know about anything worth knowing. They are condescending toward others and strive to inflate their own importance.
Indecisives: These are people who put off decisions until the decisions are finally made for them. Indecisives can be immobilized by fear, perfectionism, and procrastination.8
A difficult person may need help from others to correct the problem. Heavy doses of education, encouragement, and patience can be helpful as the individual attempts to replace negative patterns of behavior with healthy and effective ways of living.
An important point to remember is that the difficult person must want to change. If not, the problem behavior will continue. As an old adage goes, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” Of course, all behavior has consequences, as the difficult person will learn.
You can tell if you are dealing with a difficult person if:
You think about him or her often.
You tense up at the mention of his or her name.
Ordinary coping techniques have failed.
Your emotional health is deteriorating.
Your job or personal performance is suffering.
You are entertaining bizarre thoughts about the person.
So how do you deal with difficult people? There are 10 steps or principles to follow.9
Be Sure The Best Person Available Addresses The Problem. Difficult people won’t listen to everyone, and you may not be able to help them. Someone else may have more influence.
Choose Your Battles Carefully. People have just so much accommodation and flexibility in their makeup. Be sure the desired behavior change will be worth your effort.
Pick The Right Place. Address problems in private so that all parties can share thoughts and feelings in an uncensored way. Only when people are fully honest can problems be truly solved.
Pick The Right Time. Deal with problem behavior as soon as possible. Otherwise memories fade, and the impact of actions will be filtered by time. One note: Balance timeliness with being calm. Overly emotional people can give and receive the wrong message.
Be Constructive with Your Feedback. Focus on the behavior, not the person. Discuss what the person has done and the impact as you see it. Be specific, but nonthreatening.
Tell and Show How You Feel. If the person knows you care, your criticism will get a better hearing. Think of a time when you have been corrected. You really listened when you knew the other person truly cared.
Manage Your Emotions. If you find yourself losing control, try biting your lip, counting to 10, taking time out, or imagining yourself in a pleasant environment. Keeping a sense of humor will be an asset in managing your emotions.
Stop Talking. Let the person vent. It is only natural to want to respond when someone gives criticism. There may be good reasons for the person’s behavior, and these can be learned only when you listen. By listening carefully, you can understand underlying causes and feelings behind the facts.
Take The Time to Talk Things Over Until There Is Agreement on Appropriate Future Behavior. It is important to focus on creating a better future instead of reliving a negative past. In reaching agreement, be sure the person knows that, although the behavior may have been unacceptable, the person as an individual is valued. There are two important corollaries to gaining agreement on future behavior: (a) don’t block all exits, allow face-saving behavior; (b) ask for changes that are possible to achieve.
When The Person Takes Steps to Change or Improve, Reinforce This With Honest Appreciation and Sincere Encouragement. Even small steps in the right direction should be recognized.
People can change by following this 10-point plan, both at home and in the work setting. As a last important point, remember that difficult behavior is in the eye of the beholder. Unless a person understands how his behavior harms others, he will not change happily or wholeheartedly. Any change will be accompanied by resentment that, at some point and in some way, may present a problem.
Three Faces of Love The Greeks distinguished the various aspects of love with different words: Eros is romance, philia is friendship, lude is playfulness, mania is passion, and agape is altruism. Yale psychologist Robert Sternberg has developed a contemporary model of love based on three components: intimacy, passion, and commitment.10
Intimacy is the emotional aspect of love and includes closeness, sharing, and understanding.
Passion involves physical attraction and intense longing to be united.
Commitment involves unwavering loyalty and personal sacrifice for the partner or the relationship.
These three components are the emotional, physical, and mental sides of a love triangle. Alone and in combination, they translate into eight possible kinds of relationships that have consequences in the subject of stress. See Figure 1 below.
Figure 1. Eight Kinds of Relationships
This model describes eight variations of love, each of which is defined in terms of balance of passion (physical attraction), intimacy (affection and sharing), and commitment (conscious decision to stay together).
Below are the eight kinds of relationships:
Nonlove. When none of the three components is present, there is no love. This describes the majority of personal relationships, which are simply casual interactions.
Friendship. Intimacy is present, but passion and commitment are not. People share experiences, feel closeness, and like each other. Warmth and consideration characterize the relationship.
Infatuation. Passion is present, but intimacy and commitment are not. This involves a high degree of physical arousal and the desire for sexual contact.
Mental Love. Commitment is present, but intimacy and passion are not. Intimacy is absent because partners do not share things. Passion may have been present, but it is now dormant.
Romantic Love. Both passion and intimacy are present, but there is no long-term commitment. This describes many new relationships and short-term affairs.
Fatuous Love. Commitment and passion are present, but there is no true intimacy. This describes stormy relationships that lack emotional support to make them comfortable.
Companionate Love. Both intimacy and commitment are present, but there is no passion. This describes many long-term relationships in which physical attraction is absent or passion has waned.
Consummate Love. When all three sides of the triangle are present, there is consummate or complete love. It is not automatic or permanent, but takes attention to develop and sustain. Consummate love describes the highest and most satisfying type of relationship.
There is a pattern to the development of many relationships. Two individuals may begin with nonlove—no passion, commitment, or intimacy. In time, intimacy may grow and a friendship may develop. Then, passion may be added, and romantic love may result. Eventually, consummate love may evolve as commitments are made. The end result may be marriage or some other long-term relationship. Such a relationship can be a great asset in managing stress, resulting in optimum health and happiness for both partners. It usually takes time for consummate love to develop. High divorce rates can be the result of rushing events. Just as it takes time to grow a garden or make a good stew, it takes time for two people to get to know each other fully and care about each other with all of their hearts.
Many people have the desire for love, but few are determined. This is why good relationships are rare. Determination requires effort and commitment. Both partners must have these. When these elements are present and seasoned with honesty, consideration, and patience, the result is true love. A basic principle for a happy life is: don’t settle. If you do, you will be doomed to be unhappy. Even if you hide the truth from others, you cannot hide it from yourself. Why do people settle for less when the result is so bad? They do so because, like children, they lack self-discipline to postpone gratification; or they do so because they feel unworthy of anything better; or they do so because they lack commitment to live at the level or standard of conduct of a more developed person. Some people rush the selection of a partner because they fear losing out. They will accept almost anyone rather than risk being alone. Some people rush because they feel a void within themselves. Both of these reasons are prescriptions for disaster because they are basically selfish.
Poor Choices It is amazing to see how otherwise intelligent people spend more time shopping for a house or a car than they do for a partner for life. If a car isn’t safe or a house isn’t sound, they continue their search until they find one that is. But when it comes to a mate, they hurry the choice.11
We should apply the pinch test we use when shopping for shoes: If they pinch your toes, try another pair. When a person pinches your life and you know it’s not right for you, move on for the betterment of both parties.
Partners are right only when they are loved for themselves and not for oneself. This is the distinction between mature and immature love. The mature person marries his or her ideal partner, even if they have to wait to meet them.
While you wait, the answer is to be or become the person you yourself would love. This may involve reading, travel, education, service to others, and a myriad of other developmental activities. In doing so, you will be love-worthy rather than love-needy, and you will be ready to fulfill your part in a healthy relationship based on truth, trust, respect, and devotion to each other.
Recommended Books The Art of Loving by Erich Fromm
Soul Pancake by Rainn Wilson
On Becoming a Person by Carl Rogers
Coping With Difficult People by Robert Bramson
Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
Related YouTube Videos No Arms, No Legs, No Worries! by Nick Vujicic
The Incredible Love Story of Nick Vujicic and His New Wife by Nick Vujicic
Buber, M. (1958). I and thou, trans. Gregory Smith. New York, NY: Scribner.
Allport, G. (1937) Personality: A Psychological Interpretation. New York, NY: Henry Holt; and Allport, G. (1961). Patterns and growth in personality. New York, NY: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.
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Ptacek, J.T., Smith, R.E., & Zanas, J. (1992). Gender, appraisal, and coping: A longitudinal analysis. Journal of Personality, 60, 747-770; and Bolger, N., DeLongis, A., Kessler, R.C. & Schilling, E.A. (1989). Effects of daily stress on negative mood. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 57, 808-818.
Rogers, C. (1980). A way of being. Boston, MA: Houghton-Mifflin; and Rogers, C. (1961) On becoming a person. Boston, MA: Houghton-Mifflin.
Leebov, W. (1990). Positive co-worker relationships in health care. Chicago, IL: American Hospital Publishing; and Gottman, J. (1994). Why marriages succeed or fail. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.
Tucker, R.K. (1987). Fighting It out with difficult—if not impossible—people. Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt; Minkler, M. (1986, Fall). The social component of health. American Journal of Health Promotion, 1(2), 33-38; and Pilisuk, M. & Parks, S.H. (1986). The healing web. Hanover, NH: The University Press of New England.
Bramson, R.M. (1988). Coping with difficult people. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.
Tucker, R.K. (1987). Fighting it out with difficult—if not impossible—people. Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt.
Sternberg, R.J. & Grajek, S. (1984). The nature of love. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 47(1), 115-26; Sternberg, R.J. & Barnes, J.L. (Eds.). (1988). The psychology of love. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press; and Sternberg R. (1988). The triangle of love: Intimacy, passion, commitment. New York, NY: Basic Books.
Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking fast and slow. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.
George Manning, Author and Editor Professor of Psychology and Business at Northern Kentucky University LinkedIn
Jennifer Zimmerman, Author and Editor
Freelance editor, writer, and consultant