It is said that relationships are the source of our greatest happiness and of our deepest pains. They are a vehicle for our successes but a source of our greatest anxiety. When robust, they are of great value, but destructive when they crumble. As a society, our primary goal, and perhaps our greatest challenge, is to promote strong and healthy relationships.

Valentine’s Day is a celebration of relationships and whatever one feels about the event, refocussing on those relationships that are important to us is a good thing.

Relationships are so important to the functioning of society – achievements are rarely solely those of the individual; we love to share the outcomes of our triumphs if nothing else – in reality we owe much of what we accomplish to the nexus of connections around us. We are defined by them. In southern African tradition, the word used to embody this sentiment is that of “Ubuntu” (or “I am, because you are”); it stresses the interconnectedness of humanity and has been described as the ‘very essence of being human’ for, ‘we can’t exist as a human being in isolation…you can’t be human all by yourself’ (Tutu, 2008).

Dr Pamela Stephenson-Connolly, vice-president of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, invites us, this Valentine’s day to evaluate the quality of our relationships and understand how we might improve them.

Well I took the test! Dr Stephenson-Connolly had some advice for me:

Within most relationships there is an unspoken contract, an agreement about important aspects such as fairness, reliability, truthfulness, children, fidelity and the division of labour. To improve your relationship, it is important for partners to sit down and discuss exact parameters. Without spelling them out, all these “grey areas” are open to misinterpretation and can eventually lead to serious fights and misunderstandings. Sometimes people spend their whole adult lives harbouring secret resentment about such issues as child-rearing styles, or a lack of boundaries for in-laws, and this deep anger can affect the entire relationship, as well as one’s health and quality of life.

It can be useful to have a regular relationship “tune-up” at least once a month – where a couple sits down specifically to discuss how things are going between them – even if they doubt they need it. This is an opportunity to air and fix any small or mounting issues before they become major problems. Amid busy lives, it’s not easy to stay on top of relationship problems, but this is essential, well-spent time for any couple. As Valentine’s Day approaches, make a point of sorting out underlying issues.

A MORE SIMPLE DIAGNOSTIC:

One doesn’t need to take waiting-room magazine tests to understand the fundamental principles of strong, healthy relationships. To improve the strength of your relationship, there is a need to understand five simple dimensions today:

  1. Directness: Whilst technology has seemingly made the world smaller, direct, face-to-face communication remains the “gold standard” for relating. Direct communication promotes openness and disclosure including the skill of listening.
  2. Multiplexity: Relationships are built through the sharing of information in different contexts. Relationships suffer when we think we don’t know someone or break down when there are misunderstandings. Multiplexity speaks of the breadth of knowledge in a relationship. It helps to spend time with a person in different contexts to develop our understand of who they are.
  3. Continuity: How strong is the relationship over time? A strong relationship is one in which the participants can look back down a timeline and identify a shared story. Stephenson-Connolly points out that, “relationships can become a place where we burden each other too much with our stresses and worries, and so being able to laugh and play together, and share in pleasurable activities can help bring the fun back into a relationship.” This is partly an issue of multiplexity, especially if a couple tries doing new things, or go to new places, which they haven’t done together before.  But there is also a value of continuity in doing the same chores if the way you do them expresses your values.
  4. Parity: Strong relationships are about fairness, equality of value and dignity; one might come to all sorts of “arrangements” to achieve this but ultimately true parity in a relationship creates balance of advantage. One is far more like to participate when there is trust. If there are underlying concerns of being hurt, the result is disconnection. But fairness and honesty are also an indirect consequence of directness of communication.
  5. Commonality: Stephenson-Connolly advises that, “It is possible to have a healthy relationship even when each person has very different interests. What matters is that you share common values and goals to work towards them“. Building a sense of shared purpose, having common values and goals to work towards, brings us together  in the very best of ways.

There is little agreement behind the myth of St Valentine: whatever your view, let it be a spur to get closer to those we love today.

Happy Valentine’s!

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