Pre-requisites for a healthy relationship

“It’s me, not you” – this has got to be one of the most cliched sentiments during a breakup. What if it’s true in more ways than we realize? Most subjects we study in school have a bunch of foundational ideas that are essential to understand if we want to become good at them. Are there similar foundational ideas or skills for being a healthy partner in our relationships?

The answer is yes, obviously. What is also obvious, is that it won’t be an easy list that we can check off over a long weekend or even a long year. But it helps to know all the areas to pay attention to so that our likelihood of staying the course improves significantly. The simplest and the most effective framework I know uses 5 core skills to think about it:

This is all about being able to see them the way they see themselves. Not just their personality, abilities or behaviour, but the story of their life as they see it. While it may seem hard, especially if we only know someone for a date or two, it is not all that different from the way we relate to protagonists in a storybook even if they are very different from us. It involves two abilities that we unknowingly make use of when reading a storybook:

  1. Listening without judgment or agenda: Since it is physically impossible for us to jump into a storybook and interact with the actors in the story, we’re forced to continue as a mere audience. This makes us focus on the joy we derive from understanding the characters and their story as an end in itself as opposed to a means to serve our own agendas. The more fleshed out a storybook character is, the harder it becomes to judge them harshly – because we have unwittingly started seeing them the way they see themselves instead of seeing them through the lens of our own life experiences. In most books, the protagonists are the most well-written characters – that’s why we relate to them, even root for them, even if they are the villains in the eyes of other characters within the book. The act of understanding their life becomes a source of pleasure not very dissimilar to the act of travelling to explore a place very different from the one we grew up in. In other words, a rewarding journey in itself and not a means to some other end.
  2. Being able to imagine complex characters: The stories we read as 5 or 6 year-olds tend to have very simplistic characters. Heroes or villains. Good or evil. Angry or calm. We apply the same simplistic models even to the people in our own lives. Mom is angry at me and she hates me OR mom is nice to me and she loves me – the two characters seem incompatible to our child-brain. Slowly, our capacity for complexity develops. We are able to imagine a character who can sometimes do good things and do bad things at other times, without breaking character. It is not inconceivable to us anymore, that a character who we think of as a good person might sometimes do bad things. Or the opposite for that matter. We are able to imagine a mom who loves us AND hates us. Without this ability to imagine complex characters, we’ll never go beyond children’s tales.

I must confess, I don’t know how one would develop these abilities if they haven’t been an avid reader of fiction. Most people probably learn these via deep friendships or familial bonds or shared conversations, but I learnt it via fiction. Cognitively, however, it’s much easier to develop these skills under circumstances where we have a strong incentive to pay attention to someone’s life while being denied the opportunity to interact with them or benefit from them in any way. So, if you’re starting now, I’d strongly recommend starting with a storybook.

This is probably the hardest and the most rewarding skill we can acquire. Most choices we make are based on an understanding of ourselves; our needs, wants and fears. If our understanding of ourselves is wrong for any reason, we’re likely to make choices that end up being bad for us even when we think they’re good for us. That’s worse than making choices that we know are bad for us, simply because we won’t even try to change our choices when we mistakenly think they’re good for us.

We mainly use 3 approaches to develop and improve our self-understanding:

  1. Introspection: This is our ability to examine, evaluate and analyse our own thoughts, actions and feelings. All of us tend to do this – sometimes in a healthy way, other times in ways that bring us anxiety or distress. It might help to understand and avoid the most common reasons why our introspection might turn unhealthy:
    • Lack of self-awareness: Even though it’s hard to realize this, we might not always be aware of everything that’s going on in our own minds. In fact, we rarely are. Practising paying attention to our own thoughts, emotions and feelings in a clear and unambiguous way helps to strengthen this ability. Certain forms of meditation can be very helpful in cultivating this ability – mindfulness, vipassana, mind-wandering and body scanning, to name a few.
    • Cognitive biases: Our minds were shaped by evolution for survival, not for understanding. This results in a number of well-known cognitive biases that mislead our thinking, making it hard for us to understand ourselves in an objective way. Being aware of these biases helps us catch our minds in the act of falling for one of these biases. Here’s a long list of cognitive biases – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_cognitive_biases. Out of these, some are likelier than others to intrude into our journey towards self-understanding:
      1. Confirmation bias: the tendency to cherry-pick observations that match our existing beliefs while ignoring pieces of evidence that prove us wrong. It makes it hard to realize when we’re wrong about ourselves.
      2. Availability bias: the tendency to overvalue recent experiences or observations, even when they are rare in the larger context. It makes us undervalue our traits and skills if they haven’t had a chance to come out in the recent past.
      3. Dunning Kruger effect: the tendency to overestimate our skills in areas where we have a little bit of knowledge or exposure. This happens because we don’t yet know how much more there is to learn and end up thinking we already know a lot.
      4. Dread aversion: the tendency to prioritize escaping bad thoughts or feelings even when we know that dealing with them is advantageous for us in the long run. This is what makes it hard for us to acknowledge our weaknesses even when they may be harming us regularly.
      5. Halo effect: the tendency to see ourselves as being more similar to the people we like than we actually are. This is what makes us temporarily lose ourselves when we like a person.
    • Mental health conditions: Certain mental health conditions like anxiety, trauma response (PTSD, etc), paranoia and stress impair introspection by making us amplify negative things about ourselves. Other conditions like narcissism and mania make us amplify positive things about ourselves. Yet other conditions like borderline, histrionic, sociopathy, schizophrenia and alexithymia impair our ability to perceive ourselves with enough clarity to form a consistent description. Being aware of any such conditions we may be influenced by goes a long way in adjusting our self-understanding to mitigate their impact.
  2. Social feedback: This has got to be the most underrated approach to understanding ourselves. Time and again, research studies have shown that analysing what people in our lives think of us tends to give us a more accurate understanding of ourselves than relying on introspection. Yet, we also have a natural tendency to value our opinion of ourselves more than that of our friends and family. This comes from a myth: more information always leads to better understanding. While it is true in the early stages of information gathering, there is a threshold beyond which more information clouds our understanding by making it harder and harder to separate the relevant information (signal) from the irrelevant (noise). Seen in the light of this insight, our unabridged access to everything that’s happening inside our own mind can easily become a source of confusion instead of clarity. Learning to seek and receive honest feedback from people in our lives can help us better deal with this confusion.
  3. Understanding how minds work in general: This is the method of science – trying to learn about our mind by analysing how other minds work. While this approach has its limitations since every mind is unique, it is useful in providing us with a firm foundation of the general features of a human mind. The frameworks on this site, for example, belong to this category of information.

As you already know, the journey towards self-understanding is a never-ending one. We are always changing and there’s always more of ourselves to discover. This can make the journey as frustrating as it is exciting, but there’s no escaping this journey. The human mind is incapable of giving up its desire to understand itself – we might as well help it in any way we can.

Authentic self-expression is, in an ideal world, a natural extension of self-understanding. It is a way of putting all that self-understanding to use. It’s the ability to share our thoughts, feelings and actions in a way that gets perceived truthfully and accurately. While all forms of inauthenticity in communication often get attributed to dishonesty, it is rarely the case. The reason for this bias is evolutionary. Most present-day humans are incredibly good at intuitively realizing when someone’s not being authentic. All the humans with genes that didn’t allow them to know when someone was lying to them became extinct. We may have learnt to suppress that awareness or any reaction it provokes, but our unconscious mind usually registers even the subtlest of hints that someone’s not being truthful. This makes us trust them less and the most obvious explanation we use to explain this feeling is – “Oh, they must be dishonest in some way.”  This is something that experienced grifters know. Beginners try to hide such hints, but experienced con artists give your mind an alternative explanation for why these hints exist. “I’m nervous”, “I’m anxious” or “I’m scamming someone else, not you” – whatever the alternative explanation might be. They also give your mind a strong emotional reason to side with this alternative explanation by linking them with strong incentives that you care about. Implying, for example, “if you choose to believe I’m lying, then you’re giving up the romance or friendship or money or some other thing you care about getting from me.”

Authentic self-expression is about not fooling anyone, including ourselves, for temporary gain. Richard Feynman once said, “The first principle (of life) is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person (for you) to fool.” Most lies we tell are to ourselves. Once we become good at catching ourselves in the act, our communication with everyone starts becoming more and more authentic. The more authentic our communication is, the fewer reasons we give their subconscious mind to distrust us or to find us creepy.

How do we go about it? By addressing the main reasons why our mind tends to choose inauthenticity in communication:

  1. Lack of self-understanding: When we ourselves aren’t sure how we’re feeling or what our thoughts are about a topic, we’re more likely to guess. When we’re guessing, it’s easy to go with the flow because our brain considers guessing as a less serious activity than knowing or believing – so it doesn’t apply any rigorous truth-filters on our guesses as it does on our beliefs or knowledge. Practising being mindful of when we’re guessing vs when we know is a good first step towards improving our authenticity.
  2. Lack of confidence in our communication abilities: When we aren’t confident in communicating the complexity of our thoughts, feelings or actions, we tend to oversimplify. When we oversimplify, we are expressing something in a way that’s likely to get perceived inaccurately just because it’s easier to communicate than the truthful version. Practising communicating the most complex thoughts and feelings in our mind when we are in safe settings – with trusted friends or even via journaling, is a good way to improve our confidence.
  3. Fear of rejection: Sometimes, we don’t tell the truth because we’re afraid of the consequences – “what if they don’t like the real me?” This is a very widespread fear and it is usually really hard to overcome. Evolutionarily, being liked by the people around us has always had a huge advantage on our survival. This makes it a difficult drive to edit – it’s like rewiring our survival instincts. To make things worse, we’re living in an age of social ostracization. It’s the only form of punishment that’s violent enough to coerce people effectively, yet woke enough to uphold our righteousness. Witnessing this all around us all the time, maybe even participating in it at times, makes it hard for us to forget how dire the consequences of rejection can get. How then can we escape it? As far as I know, there are only two ways that are reasonably effective and both are very hard to achieve. The first focuses on becoming powerful – the way of Kings and Queens – to become so powerful that the consequences of rejection don’t matter anymore. That’s what we’re trying to do when we are chasing money (to become rich) or people (to become a public leader) or knowledge and skills (to become indispensable). The second focuses on becoming detached – the way of the monks – escaping our fears, even our own survival instincts in the end, by becoming detached. We don’t fear losing something we aren’t attached to. Interestingly, there’s a popular tale in Buddhism –  when Buddha was born, an oracle predicted that the child would grow up to become either the greatest king or the greatest monk the world has ever seen. His dad, who was a King himself, tried everything he could to make sure his son wouldn’t become a monk. We all know how that ended. But the “either-or” part of this story seems valid even for us. By virtue of being on the opposite ends of a spectrum, it is almost impossible to make progress on both paths at the same time. That requires us to pick one path and start making progress. Our own either-or.
  4. Lack of trust: We won’t bare ourselves to someone who we suspect might take advantage of our vulnerabilities. When it comes to strangers, our readiness to trust them is almost completely shaped by our past experiences of trusting people, especially during childhood and adolescence. If bad experiences in the past have made us distrust new people by default, this bias can only be fixed by a much larger number of good experiences of trusting people. Much larger, because our brain is a lot more sensitive to negative experiences than positive ones. After the first 6 years of adolescence, we learn from new experiences a lot lesser than before unless we consciously pay attention to them. As a result, even a thousand good experiences as an adult might not be sufficient to erase the impact of a handful of negative experiences as a child or a teenager – unless we consciously pay attention to these good experiences. That’s why we’re often stuck with behaviours that we fail to unlearn even after realizing they’re bad for us. Luckily, there’s a simple way to fix this – practice noticing whenever a good experience happens to you and write them down each time, even if it’s only a word or two. If you don’t like writing, register it by means of some other physical action as opposed to mere thought. Say it aloud or do a gesture of happiness or gratitude or something else that’s easy for you. This is the simplest and the fastest way to unlearn inaccurate biases about the world from our childhood.
  5. Conflict avoidance: Just because we’re communicating truthfully doesn’t mean it’ll always have the desired impact. When we feel truthful communication will result in an unfavourable disagreement or a conflict, we might choose to hide or sugar-coat our true thoughts and feelings. While it does make sense to avoid conflicts whenever possible, it’s disadvantageous to avoid them at the cost of unfair suffering. What’s more, it might even embolden others to take advantage of us by introducing the threat of a confrontation whenever they want us to do something we dislike or disagree with. How can we learn to deal with conflicts when it’s disadvantageous to avoid them? There are a number of techniques, but they broadly focus on 4 strategies:
    • Assertiveness: Mustering the courage to stick by our choice or decision in the face of conflict. This might look like saying no, setting healthy boundaries or insisting that the other person change their opinion, decision or behaviour.
    • Involving others: Sometimes, assertiveness isn’t the best way forward, especially if it’s likely to worsen our situation instead of resolving it. At such times, it’s a good idea to involve others who may be able to de-escalate tensions or provide expert or neutral inputs that will be respected by everyone involved.
    • Making it a negotiation: When it looks like we might have to give in no matter what we do, try to convert the conflict into a negotiation by shifting the focus on how they think you can benefit by agreeing with them.
    • Buying time: If things aren’t going your way because of heated emotions or bad timing, try to buy time and wait it out.
  6. It’s genuinely the best response: Sometimes, being inauthentic is the best response. When you’re forced to deal with toxic people who are likely to take advantage of you, for example. In such situations, go ahead and be inauthentic. Don’t let your authenticity become your weakness.

Oh, the number of online articles and videos about the merits of kindness! Yet, it remains a scarce virtue. Why? Because we’re still monkeys deep down and “monkey-see, monkey-do.” It’s hard to cultivate kindness unless we are surrounded by kind people. Surround yourself with kind people or at the very least, don’t spend too much time around unkind people. Kindness and unkindness, both are contagious. Be mindful of which one you’re catching from the people in your life.

If kindness, like I mentioned above, is scarcer than unkindness and both are contagious, isn’t it inevitable for us to end up an unkind person? Not quite. Kindness is addictive in a way that unkindness isn’t. Both kindness and unkindness usually start with the way in which we treat others, but inevitably extend to the way we treat ourselves. It’s hard to be kind to everyone else, but unkind to ourselves for too long and vice versa. That’s when kindness starts becoming powerful. Experiencing kindness, even from ourselves, is extremely rewarding. While there are only so many times we interact with others, we interact with ourselves a million times every day. Once our kindness starts influencing our interactions with ourselves, it’s like giving ourselves a million rewards every day. We all know that frequent rewards often lead to addiction. The secret is to practice kindness long enough for it to start influencing how we treat ourselves. After that, it’s extremely hard to get rid of it. You are likely to remain kind even if you often hang out with unkind people. Of course, even the strongest addictions can be reversed. So, it still pays to be mindful of who we hang out with.

We finally enter the mysterious domain of emotions. It’s easy to think of emotions as the root of all our problems in life. However, they’re also the root of all our rewards in life. Don’t worry, I’m not gonna stray into some profound-sounding philosophy about how our greatest strengths are also our greatest weaknesses. Such statements are rarely true, but they seem true because they’re usually very close to the real truth. Like in this case, it is not emotions that are the root of our problems, but our emotional regulation skill or the lack of it.

Emotional regulation is the ability to control our emotions just like we control so many other parts of us – like our hands and legs. All of us have this ability to some extent. It goes up and down during various phases of life. It goes down during the first 6 years of our adolescence, for example, when the emotional regions of our brain start becoming stronger while its analytical regions remain the same as before. Or during certain phases of the menstrual cycle for women, as another example. It goes up during other phases – like the second 6 years of our adolescence when our analytical regions catch up to our emotional regions.

Many mental health conditions, in one way or another, are the result of a weakened, dysregulated or hijacked emotional regulation. A lot of new age mental well-being practices, whether from psychology or spirituality, focus on strengthening emotional regulation. I say all this only to emphasize how valuable this single ability is for our mental wellbeing. Naturally, it plays a huge role in how good a partner we can be in all our relationships with the people in our lives.

How can we improve it? This is where it gets tricky. Normally, neither emotions nor emotional regulation is under our conscious control. This is what makes it different from all the other skills I’ve mentioned so far. In people with healthy emotional regulation, their mind somehow automatically seems to do what needs to be done to regulate an excess of any emotions – positive or negative, especially negative. Unfortunately, this automatic system isn’t designed by evolution to care about our wellbeing. It is designed to increase our chances of survival and propagation. Uncontrolled emotions are more likely to result in uninhibited sex, which would have produced a lot of babies in the condom-less world that shaped our genes through natural selection. Bad for you, but good for your DNA to spread itself. How do we become better at something our own genes don’t want us to improve in?

There are many semi-effective solutions, but humanity is yet to master this skill beyond rudimentary levels. The best I can do is to share these solutions and invite you to explore new ways yourself, on behalf of humanity. That’s why I felt compelled to provide you with such a long context at the start of this section, to help you set sail on this journey. That said, here are the semi-effective solutions I promised:

  1. Build a strong emotional support system: Emotion is a global process within the brain – it affects your entire brain as opposed to limited centres. That’s why your brain literally works differently when you’re emotional when compared with the way it usually works. Problems that’d be so easy to solve when we aren’t emotional suddenly seem incredibly confusing when we’re emotional. This is also why we’re often much better at advising our friends on emotional matters than dealing with the same situations in our own life. One simple way to address this problem is by seeking help from other people who might be able to think about our problems without the baggage of our emotions. They’re useful not because they’re better than you at solving emotional problems, but only because they’re not you; they’re not the one having the problem.
  2. Practise gaining control over simpler unconscious processes: Another distinctive feature of our emotions is that they influence many of our involuntary processes – heartbeat, breathing, perspiration, even digestion and circulation. This influence seems to be a two-way process. If for any reason, these bodily processes were to be counter-influenced, then the emotions that caused them to change also get countered. This is how many methods from yoga, breath-work and meditation work. Stress increases your breathing rate? Consciously lower it and hope that it’ll also result in reduced stress. Anxiety increases your likelihood of thinking of bad possibilities? Consciously think of happy moments in your life and hope that they’ll also reduce your anxiety. Nervousness makes your attention turn inward? Consciously force it to pay attention to the outside world by listing down colours, sounds and smells in your surrounding… and so on. It seems to work in many cases, but not always.
  3. Reframe your triggers in a non-emotional way: This technique, often called reappraisal, involves reframing the thought or experience that’s triggering our emotions instead of dealing with the emotions themselves. Because of my passion for science, my favourite way of reappraisal is reinterpreting personal experiences as scientific experiments. For example, when I’m feeling stressed, I start thinking about the exact electrical and chemical processes that might be happening in my brain to cause my stress or as a result of my stress. The exact same technique works to reappraise any other emotion as well. Some people try to reframe their trigger in an optimistic way – either by focusing on any benefits it may bring, however small or by thinking about how it’s gonna make them stronger or better in the long run. Other people try to ask themselves – “what would you tell your friend if they were going through the same problem?” as a way of reinterpreting the situation in a less emotional way. There are several other techniques that have become popular in recent years under the umbrella of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), Dialectical Behavioural Therapy (DBT), etc. You’ll find them easily on google.
  4. Change your emotional pathways when you’re not emotional: This approach focuses on strengthening our positive emotions by doing things when we’re not in any kind of emotional crisis. i.e. when our brain is working normally. The logic is – because we can’t consciously control what our brain chooses to do when we’re emotional, let us fill our brain with positive options when we’re not emotional so that the likelihood of our brain choosing a negative option goes down even when it’s drowned in emotions. Gratitude journaling, meditations that focus on reliving happy memories or creating happy places – all of these are based on this logic.

I must remind you once again that emotional regulation is one of the least understood skills in terms of how we can voluntarily strengthen it. So I strongly urge you to think of new techniques you want to try as a way of discovering what works best for you. If something new works for you, you might end up helping a lot of people like yourselves.

That’s it! These are the 5 foundational skills that affect how good a role we can play in our relationships. You might have already realized that these skills are also important to lead a better life, even by ourselves. This shouldn’t be surprising since it’s much harder to be a good partner to another person if we haven’t learnt how to be a good partner to ourselves. The stronger we develop ourselves in these areas, the better our chances are of a healthy relationship and a good life. So the next time you find yourself in an “It’s me, not you” situation, try to identify how these 5 skills played out in your relationship and what you can do to improve.

Good luck! 🙂

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