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Human beings are social creatures, wired to love and relate with others. Being in healthy relationships is invigorating to both the body and soul. It brings happiness, reduces stress, improves health, provides a sense of peace and direction. Some people have argued that it also prolongs life. Unhealthy relationships on the hand do the very opposite, chief of which is to increase stress levels that in turn take their toll on human health.
Human nature craves great relationships that bring fulfilment and meaning to life. But relationships do not make themselves great. Neither do they become great because people have shared interests and a good dose of physical attraction or what some might call ‘chemistry’. Building and maintaining great relationships requires conscious effort, some of which may be outright inconvenient.
Here are some of the things I consider to be the most important traits of a great relationship.
- Managing Perspectives: We often assume that the way we see things is the way they really are, or the way they ought to be, but this is not always the case. Take the popular example of the five blind men who tried to describe an elephant after touching a part of its body. Each man would consider his own assessment of the elephant the most accurate and the other person’s assessment flawed. In building and maintaining great relationships, it is important to not act like the blind men in the story. You must understand that forcing your ideas and perceptions on your partner stifles the relationship and can create friction and conflict. Respect the rights of the other person to hold an opinion that may be quite contrary to yours and understand that having different perspectives on issues does not make any party better or lesser than the other. It is just what it is – a difference of opinions.
- Learning Empathy: Empathy comes from seeking first to understand your partner, before being understood yourself. It is what allows you to pay unreserved attention to your partner’s concerns, fears and frustrations and it does not always have to mean attempting to fix the other person’s problems. Men sometimes run into trouble with this, because the average man is wired to solve problems, not just listen to them; unlike the average woman who probably knows the solutions to her problems but just wants to be heard and understood.
- Communication: Communication must be unambiguous, open and consistent. It is about talking as well as listening. We sometimes assume that our partners should know what we are thinking or feeling, especially in relationships that have endured for long. This is an unfair assumption that can easily degenerate into conflict. Communication should aim to help each party understand the other’s perspectives and should inspire empathy.
- The willingness to hear and change: To achieve a great relationship, partners must be willing to hear their faults spoken out loud. I use the word ‘hear’ as opposed to “listen” because it is possible to listen to another person without actually ‘hearing’ them. What you hear enters your heart and inspires actions that bring change.
- Trust: Trust is built when partners are honest and open with each other. Trust is believing that the actions and decisions of the other party is in your best interest, even when it doesn’t seem like it. It is believing the words of the other person, even in the face of contrary evidence. It is a difficult, time-consuming trait to develop and one that must be guarded jealously because once it is destroyed, getting it back may not be possible.
- Kindness and understanding: How would you manage a spouse who likes loud music with volume turned up to 80 when you prefer soft music with volume at 12? Or a child who constantly throws tantrums because he or she is autistic? Or a business partner who seems to always be on overdrive? Great relationships subsist when partners show kindness and understanding to one another. This is especially so when partners are the complete opposite of one another.
- Commitment to the relationship: Great relationships can only be achieved when both parties are committed to making it great. This means not throwing in the towel when there is conflict or giving up on the other person.
- Forgiveness: There is an African proverb that says: unless two people are sleeping very close to each other, there would be no opportunity for one to complain that the other’s body is rubbing against his. The closeness that relationships bring also makes conflict and misunderstandings very likely. People who want to build great relationships must be willing to forgive one another’s offences, without bringing them up during future conflicts.
- Respect and validation: To respect your partner is to value them, their opinions and contributions. No one likes to be belittled. Our basic human nature makes us want to feel important and appreciated, especially by the people we love.
- Love: I have deliberately saved this point for the last, because it is the foundation of all the other points you have read in this article. Love is the reason why we do all these other things to make a relationship work. Real love is beyond feelings. It is a choice to accept the other person for who they are, flaws and all.