Wednesday: Why You're In Toxic Relationships... 9 Essential Skills For Cultivating Healthy Long-Term Relationships

Every relationship changes or evolves. Over time, we grow closer or further apart from various people in our lives and through each “season” of our lives, we find ourselves surrounded by some of the last people we may have imagined. During certain points of your life, the seeds that you plant eventually flourish and individuals are left to reap what they sow.

Relationships that last don’t do so because of fate, God’s grace, or through wishing them to last. We cultivate skills and values during our lives and what we’re left with is a series of relationships — either good quality or bad. We’re either “surrounded by toxic people” and dissatisfied, or contented and stable.

These 7 skills weave the fabric of relationships that last, and most relationships in your life need these ingredients or they will unravel quicker than a cashmere sweater. Most of these skills play off of each other — you often can’t have one without the other and together, they make your relationships an impenetrable force against hard times.

1) Respect For Boundaries

No relationship truly exists without boundaries. A respect for boundaries doesn’t only refer to setting boundaries but respecting others boundaries as well. If you believe that only your boundaries are worthy of respect and you routinely trample over others, disrespect their space or react negatively when confronted, you’re experiencing a breakdown in the most fundamental part of forming relationships. A healthy set of boundaries also influences the pacing of different relationships which enables you to have both friendships and romantic relationships that last longer.

 
“The only people upset when you set boundaries are the ones who benefitted from you having none.”

“The only people upset when you set boundaries are the ones who benefitted from you having none.”

 

2) Support

Boundaries create the foundation of all healthy long-term relationships, but support is the blood that keeps a relationship alive. Supporting other human beings in a social context is one of our biggest drives as social creatures. It’s in our nature to aid those around us and provide support to people within our communities (Kropotkin). Mutual support is what’s critical. If relationships are one-sided, this leads to problems later on and resentments. Of course, different people support each other in different ways and show their love in different ways. What matters is that we find people we are compatible with who understand how to give and receive support the way we need them to.

“Support” doesn’t mean uncritical, blind agreement with every decision another person makes. Sometimes support refers to the way you challenge people and help them grow. In unhealthy relationships, one person does not give genuine support or is unable to receive unpleasant feedback. This ties into having healthy boundaries because if you have healthy boundaries surrounding what actions you will and won’t accept, you will learn to seek supportive relationships that reflect the way you wish to be treated.

 
A relationship is where two people make a deal that they will help the other person become the best version of themselves.

A relationship is where two people make a deal that they will help the other person become the best version of themselves.

 

3) Consideration


Many people want a partner or friend who can “anticipate their needs”. Unfortunately, this way of viewing things is codependent in nature, as it expects an element of mind-reading that most people aren’t capable of. (Hello, Miss Cleo? You there?) Perhaps instead of seeking mind-readers, we need a little more nuance. Consideration covers this general principle and makes far more sense. You don’t need someone to guess what you want to eat for dinner (ladies, we really don’t) but you might want a friend who offers to grab you coffee when you’ve forgotten your wallet at home, or someone who takes your feelings into account when making decisions that affect your life.

Cohabiting with my fiancé forced me to acknowledge how important consideration is. This is one of the actions that adds up slowly over time but if there’s no consideration for another person’s feelings, the results are catastrophic. A lack of consideration is one of the hardest relationship problems to bounce back from because this behavior usually leads to many small frustrations piling up over time until issues and resentments are insurmountable. Consideration can be a form of support and also an expression of healthy boundaries. For example, if you’re armed with good boundaries, you are more likely to consider someone’s feelings and behave in an appropriate manner because you understand and respect that values of another person. People behaving in an inconsiderate manner are less likely to have an appropriate response to boundaries being set and are rarely available to offer support at a time when it isn’t convenient to them.

 
Be mindful of others and their feelings. Loyal, easy going people have their limits too. You never want to push people to a point where they no longer care.

Be mindful of others and their feelings. Loyal, easy going people have their limits too. You never want to push people to a point where they no longer care.

 

4) Coöperation

Coöperation and support are similar, complementary traits, but cooperation requires a little more depth than support. Coöperation refers to hands-on problem solving in a given moment. You may need support from your friends when you’re going into a job interview, but when it’s time to clean up your apartment after a huge rager, you don’t only need support, but coöperation.

In all relationships, problems arise. Shutting down or behaving in an unproductive manner is uncooperative behavior that eventually degrades relationships over time. Problem solving in relationships requires both parties to have a vested interest in building up healthy boundaries, solving issues that arise, and maintaining peace and harmony. A toxic person will refuse to cooperate to find a solution that works for everyone and maintains a “my way or the highway” kind of attitude. This goes beyond stubbornness and refers to someone whose overall attitude towards relationships means they would rather lose a relationship than cooperate to find a productive solution that works for everyone.

Cooperation is the antithesis to “compromise” and far more important to healthy relationships than compromise as cooperation implies both parties get their needs met without one person sacrificing.

 
Cooperation is the thorough conviction that no one else can get there unless everyone gets there. — Virginia Burden

Cooperation is the thorough conviction that no one else can get there unless everyone gets there. — Virginia Burden

 

5) Assertiveness

Assertiveness empowers individuals to bring up problems as they occur and involves direct and honest communication. So many people rely on passive aggressive communication to get their needs met in interpersonal relationships. Tactics such as the silent treatment, avoiding confrontation at all costs, allowing too much time to pass before addressing conflicts, and avoiding honesty, are all examples of common passive communication that’s completely ineffective at maintaining long term healthy relationships.

Assertiveness is not the same as rudeness and I’ve written on this blog a bit about how you can cultivate assertiveness in your life. Assertive communication at its core is honest. Without honest communication, it’s nearly impossible to have a relationship at all, much less a good one. If you avoid assertive communication, this will definitely create problems. Assertiveness can be cultivated through practice, and is the only way you can truly get your needs met in any relationship, friendship or otherwise. We need assertiveness to set boundaries and to ensure we are co-operating rather than compromising. Assertiveness can also encompass offering support as sometimes offering support means bringing up honest and unpleasant truths. Assertiveness never violates the rights and needs of others, one of the many ways its distinguished from being “mean” or “harsh”.

 
Assertive people communicate honestly and directly; they express feelings needs and ideas and stand up for their rights, but do so in ways that don't violate the rights and needs of others.  -- LINDA ADAMS

Assertive people communicate honestly and directly; they express feelings needs and ideas and stand up for their rights, but do so in ways that don't violate the rights and needs of others.

-- LINDA ADAMS

 

6) Integrity

Integrity is ultimately the glue holding any individual together and a person without integrity is liable for relationships around them to fail and they will make no changes to their behavior, doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over again — likely to blame everyone around them for it too. This Brené Brown quote on integrity summarizes this value perfectly, “Integrity is choosing courage over comfort; choosing what is right over what is fun, fast or easy; and choosing to practice our values rather than simply professing them.”

This quote encompasses all the facets of integrity but most important is the aspect of practicing our values. We can’t wake up one day and exist as perfect people. When you have integrity, you acknowledge this. You acknowledge that anyone is capable of screwing up, even if you think you’re a good person and try to do the right thing. Someone with integrity doesn’t fear getting called out or critiqued for their behavior. Someone with integrity practices what they preach when it comes to their values and practices in the traditional sense too — getting better with each iteration over time.

 
Integrity is choosing courage over comfort; choosing what is right over what is fun, fast or easy; and choosing to practice our values rather than simply professing them  -- Brené Brown

Integrity is choosing courage over comfort; choosing what is right over what is fun, fast or easy; and choosing to practice our values rather than simply professing them

-- Brené Brown

 

7) Accountability

Accountability and integrity can’t exist without each other. Accountability is a bit more specific because it refers to not just maintaining our values, but taking responsibility for your actions. Accountability doesn’t mean taking the blame for everything and it’s dangerous to see accountability as the equivalent to blame. Accountability allows us to humble ourselves when we’ve done wrong and take action to make amends to people we’ve hurt. Accountability reminds us that there are others outside of ourselves and that our actions affect them.

Accountability is more meaningful than a simple verbal apology because it is connected to taking responsibility for the way our actions impact others. A lack of accountability in relationships can be extremely damaging because it involves one person either not taking responsibility for their actions, or the inverse, assuming that their actions and emotions are caused by someone else’s behavior. If someone never takes responsibility for their behavior and always blames other people, this person will not be able to co-operate.

Without accountability, you cannot have integrity because choosing to be accountable to someone else is not always easy or fun. Someone may avoid this “inconvenience” and destroy relationships along the way. Accountability can take you far in problem solving and lends itself to healthy assertive communication in a way that blame does not.

 
Accountability feels like an attack when you aren’t ready to acknowledge the way your behavior harms others.

Accountability feels like an attack when you aren’t ready to acknowledge the way your behavior harms others.

 

8) Interdependence instead of codependence

I grappled with not putting this on, but avoiding codependent behavior is so important that I added it despite the similarity to earlier points of cooperation and assertiveness. This point isn’t simply about cooperating or asserting yourself and your boundaries when occasions arise for you to do so. Interdependence refers to the entire culture of an interpersonal relationship. Is this a relationship where it is acceptable to address problems? Is this a relationship where individuals can maintain their real identities? Can you have different thoughts and different beliefs from the other person? Are there appropriate boundaries within this relationship in the first place?

A relationship built on a foundation of codependency will have poor boundaries, poor respect for boundaries, and the underpinning belief that enmeshment is equivalent to intimacy and closeness. Codependent people often cannot see the difference between codependence and interdependence, which is why it is so important to establish these boundaries early on. It’s easier to create good habits than to break bad ones.

 
A good relationship has "interdependence" not "codependence" where two independent individuals have mutually agreed upon standards of behavior and hold themselves and each other accountable for that behavior.

A good relationship has "interdependence" not "codependence" where two independent individuals have mutually agreed upon standards of behavior and hold themselves and each other accountable for that behavior.

 

9) Self-reliance

Interdependent relationships require two individuals with a healthy set of separate identities from each other. Self-reliance made it to my list because it’s so essential to bringing a fully formed person into a relationship. When you’re self-reliant, this doesn’t mean that you do everything on your own or you do not allow friends, family, or other people to help you. Self-reliance means taking responsibility for your life choices, your actions, and ultimately your happiness.

Self-reliance is a philosophy defined by not needing another person’s behavior to change in order for you to be happy. Self-reliant people don’t think that they need a man or woman in their lives to find happiness. Self-reliant people recognize that their choices have consequences and they are responsible enough to face these consequences. Like many traits, self-reliance can have a shadow side where some people intentionally misinterpret this to mean that they should neither help others or receive help. This is fundamentally against other principles that make relationships healthy like cooperation and support.

 
self reliance.png
 

These skills are not innate and fixed. Neither are these skills independent of each other. You cannot be self-reliant, yet never cooperate with others and consider yourself a healthy person. Well, you can, but you might still have some work to do. When we participate in toxic relationships, and continue to wonder why we are not happy, or why we always seem to find ourselves repeating the same mistakes, often times we could refer to some of these skills and improve our ability to have healthy relationships.

Which of these skills is the hardest for you to maintain? I tend to struggle with assertiveness and also fear some types of boundary setting due to my fear of being considered “a bitch”. I have also been less than self-reliant at various points in my life. If we are honest with ourselves and face these unpleasant truths, we’ll have a chance in hell of improving our relationships and sucking toxicity from our lives.

This isn’t simply about accusing others of being “toxic”, but identifying our own troubling behavior, and having the bravery to hold ourselves accountable for the outcome of our lives.

If you like any of these quotes, I invite you to pin them to your favorite board for motivation and relationship advice!