How to repair frayed relationships

How to Change Your Life: Communication key, whether with friends, family or partner

“When it comes to relationships with family members that are causing stress, addressing difficulties within family ties can help change your life.” Illustration: Getty Images

“When it comes to relationships with family members that are causing stress, addressing difficulties within family ties can help change your life.” Illustration: Getty Images

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Our relationships with family, partners and friends provide the support, love, care and empathy we need. But when they aren’t working, or have broken down, it’s creates a stress that has massive implications for our emotional wellbeing. In this instalment of How to Change Your Life, having examined purpose, work and state of mind, we’re going to tackle how to mend, improve and negotiate relationships with your friends, your family members and your intimate partners in order to change your life for the better.

Conversations with friends

For Sarah Gilligan, the psychotherapist we met in the first instalment of this series, a positive relationship is “one that will support you, maybe challenge you sometimes in a way to grow, and one that is is mutual. It’s a two-way street.”

Gilligan says that sometimes we can feel compromised by the idea of hanging out with a friend, feel tentative about being in their presence, or are emotionally drained when we walk away from them. The first step in addressing this is identifying why we feel we are reacting to someone in that way. “We need to be able to ask ourselves first and foremost what is happening. What is it that I’m feeling? Do I know what behaviour I have with this person? What expectations do I have of this person? What is it that person does that really drains me or irritates me or makes me feel less than?”

The second step is then communicating. For many people, the idea of communication is wrapped up in conflict, and even the thought of addressing an issue head on can cause stress, nervousness and avoidance. “Some people hate conflict, some people thrive on conflict, but across the board, if we want to establish healthy relationships we need to say: ‘Can we have a conversation, can I talk it out?,’” Gilligan says. “Sometimes people cut and run and lose the connection rather than talk it out, but we have to be a little bit accountable to ourselves. If we’re not going to do it, how can we expect another person to do it?”

Family ties

Trish Murphy is a psychotherapist and writes the ‘Tell Me About It’ column in this newspaper. “It’s not okay to suffer in silence,” Murphy says about strained relationships with family members, “The difficulty is, we often have hardened views about what’s wrong with a person and how they should behave. We can be defensive and critical, and then we get the same back.” 

Murphy says addressing relationships with family members is initially about timing. “Pick a time, or let the other person pick a time to talk to you when they’re ready and able. Don’t pick a time when they’re tired or busy. We often have conversations when issues spark,” Murphy says, meaning the conversation is already happening in a heightened atmosphere when it’s difficult to achieve any kind of resolution.

After choosing the right time, the second step is to lay out the parameters of the conversation, and manage how you may normally react. “A really good idea is to say: ‘Look, I know I often cry or shout in these situations, so I’m not going to do that today.’” After that, try asking questions rather than laying down statements. And the final aspect of these conversations is patience. Repairing relationships takes time.

After an initial conversation, Murphy suggests asking the person to think about what has been said, and then reconvene a few days later. “We have very entrenched patterns with our family. You’re not going to change things overnight. The main thing is not to keep reacting. We don’t have to react to everything put in front of us. We can choose not to react. I know it’s hard, but most things like this are hard to change.”

Coupledom 

A relationship with a partner can be the most important and essential relationship in our lives. But these relationships are complex and require communication, maintenance and a sense of realism that things aren’t going to be fabulous all the time. Gilligan says that comparing one’s relationship to others can be damaging. She also identifies the urge for constant gratification, or idealised concepts of relationships, as reasons why people feel that their relationship isn’t working, “There’s itchy feet syndrome – this isn’t giving me what I need right away – and people people who aren’t willing to stick around . . . People are spending a massive amount of time scrolling and swiping. There’s an air of ‘the next person will be better’. People expect things to fall into place really quickly, but we don’t stick around long enough to figure out the complicated parts in between.”

Fi Connors is a registered general nurse with a masters in narrative therapy, and member of the Irish Society of Homeopaths, who works as a clinical homeopath in the United States, working in conjunction with psychotherapists in the area of emotional well-being and health with people in recovery from intimacy trauma and sex and love addiction. “What I see in my practice is something that’s nebulous – ‘There’s something not working, but what is it?’ You can’t put your finger on it. That usually takes somebody sitting down and identifying what is going on.”

Connors says a major issue is people not speaking up in relationships when they’re not working. Again, communication, honesty and seeking support is key. “People think that relationships, unlike anything else, should work automatically, and if they don’t there’s something profoundly wrong. A lot of people exit relationships without exploring what’s not working and without speaking up, or without having the guts to seek help.

“There’s a big element of shame around speaking up, it’s as if we speak about it it’s the death knell. People think they can work it out within the walls of the relationship, which isn’t always the case. Identify with oneself, then with our partner, then to get support, even if we feel ashamed. A lot of the time, people feel that if there’s something wrong, the relationship isn’t worth salvaging, where in actual fact it could be something minor.”

Tips for mending relationships

1 Examine your own role in a relationship, what part are you playing that may be feeding a negative aspect of it?
2 Don’t start conversations at emotionally heightened moments.
3 But you have to talk. Everything starts with communication. You might be scared of conflict, so lay down useful markers within which the conversation can take place. 
Be kind. We develop hardened opinions and expectations that sometimes don’t serve the situation well.
Don’t compare your relationships with someone else’s.

Next week, in the final part of this series, how to change your life by examining your future

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