Whether we like it or not and whether we even acknowledge it or not, our relationships are always ebbing and flowing, growing or diminishing. Sometimes the movement of our relationships is so subtle, they are almost imperceptible at first. Just as small daily acts can incrementally move us toward mutual love, respect, support and kindness, they can also take us away from those things. This applies to our marriages, our children, our friends and our acquaintances. Sometimes we do things that we don’t even recognize are driving away the people we love most.
7 little acts that sabotage our relationships:
1. Give ultimatums: “Shape up or you’re going to live with your dad!” “If you do that again you’re grounded for a month!” “If you don’t get the dishes done in 30 minutes you have dish duty all week long!” “If you move in with your Mom you’re not welcome back in this house!” An ultimatum is a statement of terms that demand a specific response. It’s a “My way or the highway” statement. This kind of statement, is by its very nature, a relationship buster rather than a builder.
When I was in college I had a friend that wanted to be “more than” friends. One day, out of the blue sky she offered me an ultimatum. In essence she said, “It’s me or nothing!” My response was not what she hoped for. We parted ways. She contacted me several days later regretting her ultimatum, but our relationship was never the same.
Ultimatums can serve as an appropriate boundary setting tool at times, but should be used sparingly and with discretion. Ultimatums should never be used in an attempt to manipulate the other person, but rather to make a definite statement of personal boundaries. If an ultimatum is delivered we have to be ready to accept the other person’s response and keep our word. In essence, we have to be ready for the highway option.
2. Keep Score: Serving those we love and doing loving acts of kindness for and to them is so important to building strong relationships with our kids, our spouse or anyone for that matter. However, if we keep an ongoing scoreboard and use our kindness points against our friends and family, our acts of kindness have a way of cancelling themselves out and destroying our relationships. I recently heard a young girl complain, “my mom is only being nice because she wants something in return, it’s not genuine.”
Sometimes it’s easy to feel like a martyr when we give with the intention of getting rather than genuine giving. It’s easy to trick ourselves into feeling justified in our negative feelings and demands because, “after all we have done for them they can’t do this one thing.” The trick to building our relationships is to focus on the privilege it is to show our love and benevolence to the special ones in our lives. Expectation of reciprocation sours the relationship and creates walls and conditions that never help.
3. Don’t set clear limits: While ultimatums can act as inappropriate, exaggerated boundaries, the other end of the spectrum can be just as dangerous. A lack of limits and boundaries can leave us vulnerable to severe and unnecessary resentment. All too often I’ve heard a mother resenting that,” her husband doesn’t help, her children expect her to do everything for them, the neighbor takes advantage of her by asking her to babysit too often, and that she is always busy because everyone asks her to volunteer at church or school.” Rather than enjoying the most important relationships in her life she resents the fact that those closest to her don’t respect her unspoken limits and boundaries. We can’t assume that people share our feelings and expectations, or that they even recognize our unspoken offense. Healthy limits and boundary setting is not about making demands or telling others what to do, but rather about clearly declaring what we will or will not do or allow.
4. Give the “screens” in your life the undivided attention they deserve: It doesn’t matter whether it is my kids, my wife or someone I am talking to in the grocery store, when I am looking at my phone while they are talking to me, they feel like they play second fiddle. I am an advocate of the value of technology, but I also recognize that when eye contact is diverted or our attention is split, the real human being in front of us feels that they have lost to a technological device. Think about it for a minute. I’m sure each and every one of us has felt the sentiment that we are not as important as the TV show, video game, text conversation, etc. etc. etc. No one wants to feel that way. So designate a time to put down the phone, the remote, the tablet and whatever gadget is stealing you away from the most important people in your life.
5. Focus on how selfish THEY are: I’m always intrigued by the accusation of selfishness. Consider the following scenario.
I once had a couple come into my office for marriage counseling and one of the primary complaints on the part of the husband was that his wife was selfish. He used an example from the previous night. They had decided to go out to eat. They were talking about where they should go to eat and neither would offer where they really wanted to go at first. They each wanted the other to choose. Finally, the husband said, “let’s go to the local steakhouse.” His wife was not in the mood for that restaurant and offered another selection. They started arguing and neither would budge on where they would go to eat. They ended up driving around, arguing for 45 minutes and finally returned home and each made food for themselves. The next day in my office, the husband suggested that this was a perfect illustration of how selfish his wife was and how she is always only thinking of herself. He said, “ She wouldn’t even budge on something so ridiculous as a restaurant.” All the while, he was completely oblivious to the fact that he had acted in the exact same way as his wife.
When we focus on the selfishness of the other, we are declaring our own selfishness and driving a wedge of mutual selfishness between us and the other person.
6. Yell at them: Not only is yelling an effective way to incite the fight or flight response, but it expresses the sentiment, “What I have to say is far more important than what you have to say.” These are both highly efficient ways to tear down any relationship. Both what we say and how we say it are important parts of communicating and solving problems. It’s essential that we learn to calm ourselves and respond to conflict and problems with kindness and gentleness. Especially with the closest relationships in our lives, those of our family. Minding our tone of voice and acting more deliberately will save us a lot of regret. If you struggle with losing your cool and yelling, check out the Quick Calm Toolkit and the TRU Calm Meditation Series to give you an edge to build your relationships into something greater.
7. Focus on other’s worst traits and flaws: We’ve all got flaws. To destroy a perfectly good relationship in no time takes little more than focusing on and pointing out those flaws. When things don’t go perfectly, it’s easy to see why you are right and they are wrong. It’s easy to recognize their poor actions while only seeing our own good intentions. Ultimately if we focus on the negative points of our relationship they will get worse and if we focus on the positive parts of our relationships they will get better. I’m not suggesting that we ignore everything negative, but that should not be our central focus. It’s only part of the picture. When we take a more realistic whole picture view of others, our relationship with them and the problem at hand, we can take an “us vs. the problem” approach that always beats the pessimistic “you vs. me” approach.
Little daily acts we do without thinking can slowly push away those most dear to us, but there are a million ways to grow and build a relationship. If we do small daily actions on purpose to strengthen our relationships, we will experience the opposite affect. Those closest to us will feel appreciated and loved over time. It starts with something as simple as a smile, a kind note, undivided attention, spontaneous words of kindness and genuine playfulness. Quit sabotaging your relationships with animosity and hurt and choose to solidify positive relationships that will stand the test of time and will overcome conflict.