Are you approaching your relationships with openness and enthusiasm, with reluctance and anxiety, or in some other way? The way in which you approach your relationships impacts on the behavior you exhibit while attending to the relationships and the perceptions you may give off to the person you are directly relating to.

I have numerous patients come to see me because they are feeling stuck or unfulfilled in their relationships. We spend time on evaluating how they see themselves in context to their relationships. We review how they think, feel, and behave in their relationships, how they communicate and express themselves, what their body language conveys, and how they cope and manage relationship dissatisfaction and conflict. Additionally, we assess whether they get their needs met and what may be getting in the way of that getting facilitated.

Sometimes people have good self-awareness and are on the mark, yet at other times, what they articulate is in contradiction with what I hear and whom I see before me. It’s sometimes clear that there are rigid demands on others regarding how they “should” think, feel, and behave. Getting in touch with our personal triggers, our biases, and our needs, helps to facilitate our growth and connection in relationships.

Consider Approaching Your Relationships With:

(1) An awareness of your relationship history and know your preexisting challenges. You have a relationship history — whether it is with your immediate family, friends or others. It is an imprint as to how you approach your world. It directly impacts how you approach your relationships and the way you trust, connect, and allow intimacy into your life. From the onset, you have “expectations” about how your relationships will evolve.

The only way to shift those notions is to accept challenges in the present day, exercise flexibility in your thinking and behavior, and allow and facilitate change to occur. You must also be open to looking at yourself introspectively and seeing your part in what has not or is not working. Re-learning new behaviors and formulating relationships is a concerted commitment of time and effort. Putting in purposeful effort until change occurs is critical.

(2) An openness to getting in touch with the plethora of feelings a relationship brings up and the behavior it is prompting. While engaging in relationships, there is bound to be an array of feelings that will be evoked including fear, sadness, rejection, neglect, sadness, frustration, etc. The key is to accept any and all feelings because they may be part of the process that facilitates change. For example, I always share with my patients, “if you are not in the business of feeling rejection, don’t bother being in relationships. It’s part of the deal.” We all feel rejection at one time or another such as when our friend wasn’t as supportive as he/she “could” have been, or our intimate partner asks for some space or to break up. It is something you need to be accepting of if you want to invest in relationships.

(3) Being aware and letting go of labels/notions/assertions. Notice that these labels, notions and assertions are typically charged with emotional reactivity from yourself and the person you are interacting with. That makes sense because the label becomes central and you lose tenderness for the human being that you are interacting with. The label is not the issue, it is more about what it is loaded with. Having an assertion about someone makes it impossible to truly “see” them. The perception comes along with the risk of seeing behaviors in absolutes. You may tell yourself that they “always” and “never” behave that way and that it is counter to the way in which they “should” or you “want” or “expect” them to behave.

You get to decide how you want to act based on this reactivity. There is no better example than when you meet someone new and you instantly have negative feelings toward them. Often it is even before they open their mouth to speak to you. There is something about their mannerisms or the way they are presenting themselves to you that evokes strong negative emotions. The natural explanation is you have already sized them up as having certain qualities or characteristics that you dislike or do not approve of. This is true for all of us and an example we collectively can relate to.

(4) Curiosity. Approach relationships with curiosity and inquisitiveness. This way, you will most likely investigate and ask questions rather than pre-judge the behavior of others. You will take the time and patience to entertain a different way of viewing and relating that is more flexible and in the realm of who you want to be. Generally, that includes being accepting, non-judgmental, and kind, the very values that are meaningful to you and the ones you prescribe to.

(5) A core series of values. Being aware of your core values will drive your behavior in interpersonal relationships. If you approach all your relationships with your set of values (e.g., thoughtfulness, respect, etc.), it will be irrespective of who you are relating to and what they evoke in you. For example, even if a random stranger approached you with aggressive behavior, you will react to them the same as you do to everyone else. Instead of hyper-focusing on their irritability, you will concentrate on your ability to be non-judgmental and kind even when facing a person’s aggression and acting-out behavior.

(6) An understanding about what intimacy brings up in you. Some of us can openly welcome deep connection and emotionality, while for others it evokes discomfort and a propensity toward avoidance, guardedness, and self-protection. Sometimes feeling “good” can also be frightening, off putting, and uncomfortable.

You may subconsciously or consciously think that if you allow for intimacy or connection that you are concurrently making yourself vulnerable for hurt, rejection, and disappointment. Your mind may induce self-doubt and create “what-ifs” to ensure that you are hyperalert and hypervigilant. It may convince you that at some point the other shoe will drop and you may not want to bother getting too invested. It may also decide that it is better to spontaneously vacate the relationship to avoid inevitable “disaster” and heartbreak. The way you intellectually and emotionally process and experience intimacy will directly impact on your relationships.

(7) The sense that it is a gift to work through your old pre-existing triggers, labels, habits and finding new space and openness. It is committing to walking through life with curiosity and fluidity rather than with rigidity and becoming fixated and stagnant. It allows for contemplation and greater room for empathy, understanding and care. If you allow for your automatic response (i.e., frustration, anger, irritability, etc.) to be evoked by these triggers, labels and habits, it just strengthens your preexisting propensity and perpetuates your behavior (i.e., yelling, avoiding, withholding, etc.).

(8) An evaluation of your needs and considering whether they’re getting met. As you mature and develop, your needs evolve and change. You must recurrently assess whether due to these changes, that you are accommodating yourself and getting your needs met socially, emotionally, and in other ways.

Through your evaluation, for example, you may choose to be more selective regarding who you spend time with, decide that you want to become and communicate more assertively, set boundaries or distance yourself from people who are toxic or are not directly aligned with your core values, or work directly on your anger or your other go to familiar emotions.

You may also need to consider how the changes will affect your current relationships — that although you decided to invest in and experience personal growth, that it doesn’t automatically mean that those you surround yourself with are interested in being on that same path, and that others will instinctively know how to accommodate your growth and changes. It requires that you continually go through a process whereby you are teaching people how to treat you so that you’re giving yourself the chance to get your needs met.

You and Your Relationships Evolve

You are evolving as you age. Your emotions, thoughts and actions are continually in flux throughout your maturation in the context of your relationships. According to a study conducted at MIT in 2005, the adult brain cells or neurons change structures in response to new experiences.

There is a need for curiosity so that you are always growing and learning throughout your changes and transitions. You do not know what will arise due to the uncertainties of life. If you create space and openness for learning, growing, and transitions in your relationships then changes can be embraced and not dreaded. It provides you with the opportunity to cultivate new fulfilling experiences and rework and shift your former perceptions and relationship template.

Relationships can be challenging but are also extremely nurturing. They require effort, maintenance and continual care. Giving of yourself with openness and curiosity enhances your ability to connect to others. It is well worth the experience of being and feeling accepted, heard, and truly gotten.