There is a simple explanation for the hundreds of relationships that define our lives: We cannot make it alone. The occasional hermit notwithstanding, our ancestors discovered long ago that we had no chance of success without the help of others. Hence, we marry, join clubs, play team sports, work in teams, have parents and friends, and so forth. Given the centrality of relationships to our lives, it’s odd that we spend so much time talking about things like commitment, and so little time understanding its source in thriving relationships. Relationships 101 – How to Build a Thriving Relationship – is not part of our training as people or leaders. And before you “what about…?” with a bunch of team building course citations at me, let me say this: They are not the same thing, even though both can be defined by the level of commitment they engender.
WHAT MAKES A THRIVING RELATIONSHIP?
Think about the people and relationships in your life, whether family, coworkers, or friends, that make your life livable and you a better person. The best of them thrive in that you accomplish more than you thought possible, feel joyous, and are more committed to the good things in life. You probably agree that thriving relationships are one of the most energizing of all the good things in life, and something that we all crave.
So, why don’t we spend more time understanding what makes a relationship thrive? Or even more importantly – how to create one. After all, this skill is a recipe for success. As Leo Tolstoy noted in Anna Karenina, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” That’s true of thriving relationships too. While Tolstoy leaves us largely in the dark as to what makes a happy family as such, that is not the case for what make a thriving relationship thrive. There is a sameness and rhythm to a thriving relationship that makes it possible to understand what makes it tick.
A THRIVING RELATIONSHIP: A RECIPE FOR COMMITMENT
Before diving into the cornerstones upon which all thriving relationships are built, let’s review what thriving looks like. The defining characteristics of a thriving relationship are shown below.
A thriving relationship allows us to share our true feelings and opinions without fear that such transparency will end the relationship. As will become clear from the discussion of the cornerstones, this means that we sometimes must let some things that bug us slide. The benefits of the five characteristics seem so obvious that they beg the question of why so many relationships go south, and never achieve the relational nirvana of thriving. While the divorce rate in the United States has been declining since 2000 and now averages between 42% and 45%, it still seems high, given the starting point of marriage in love, wanting to be together, and other good things. What’s more, the majority of us feel left out or isolated, while more than two-thirds of us lack a commitment to and enthusiasm for our employment or vocation.
When researchers examine this lack of commitment empirically, the majority of our discontent, and decision to leave an employer, comes from a dissatisfying relationship with our supervisor. It appears that for two of the most important relationships in our lives – family and work – we are surprisingly inept at making them function, let alone thrive. When we look back on our failed relationships, we are often struck by the regret expressed by “shoulda-coulda” and the sadness of “If only…” Life is too short to be unhappy in our relationships.
CORNERSTONES AND FAIRY DUST
Thriving relationships are a source of nourishment fed by a shared sense of purpose, trust, and positivity. So, why are we so bad at building something that can take us from surviving to thriving? How can we get better? A long time ago, I was reading something by Willard Gaylin, M.D., where he mentioned in passing that the cornerstones (my word, not his) of human relationships boiled down to respect, understanding, caring, and fairness. This is a profound insight and one I have never been able to dispute, despite my best efforts to do so.
As a test of their importance to building thriving relationships, think back to a relationship that you were in that went bad. Picture it, and then ask yourself why it went bad and your answers will almost inevitably include one or more of the cornerstones: “I felt disrespected.” “I felt misunderstood.” “He or she did not care about me.” “Things were so out of balance that it was unfair to me.” I have tried this question dozens of times with different audiences and have yet to have anyone come up with another explanation that did not nicely fit into one of the four cornerstones.
That raises the real question of what it means to treat someone with respect, to be understanding and caring, or to be fair. My take on the meaning of each of the cornerstones is captured below.
When you think about the meaning of the cornerstones, it’s easy to see how they could result in a thriving relationship. And even easier to see how thriving relationships are absolutely essential for important things like a good marriage or friendship and committed employees. Put them in the context of your most important relationships at work or with your friends and family and ask what can be done to strengthen them. One of the things that has occurred to me as I rehash a lifetime of thriving relationships is that any opportunity for improvement tied back to me accepting responsibility to strengthen one or more of the cornerstones. In addition, I would add another ingredient to the mix – it does not reach the level of being a cornerstone – it’s more like fairy dust. That ingredient is fun. Fun energizes a relationship, including one that is already thriving.
Interested in learning more? Check out our blog: Kindness is Contagious - And Good For Business