Truth About Relationship Formulas

And sometimes you meet yourself back where you started,
but stronger.
— Yrsa Daley-Ward


One important aspect of growth that I believe in is that …

Screen Shot 2016-03-08 at 3.44.28 PMLearning exists as a spiral.

We are forever circling back to the same growth points that we had already integrated, but now need to approach again at a new and deeper level.

I had already learned a lot about black-and-white thinking. This or that. Either or. Right or wrong. True or false. Healthy or unhealthy. All other dichotomies.

Recently, I circled around to the same spot, but deeper. As it turns out, I’d still been applying a lot of rigid formulas to some particular aspects of one of my favorite subjects: relationships.

Screen Shot 2016-03-08 at 3.42.22 PMI wanted to believe there was an objective truth when it comes to a healthy relationship. That a healthy relationship entails facing conflict head-on and being able to talk freely about emotions. That a healthy relationship means words of encouragement flow like fountains and help is always there when you need it.

Now I’ve realized that a lot of the “difficult” relationships I’m in are difficult because of … me. Because I’ve been applying a one-size-fits-all standard to how to ‘do relationship.’

I’d been wrongfully assuming that everyone wants the same thing from relationships. I’d been presumptuously and pretentiously concluding that when someone doesn’t reach my standards, they, too, know that they’re dismally failing (just how do they live with themselves?!).

Instead, I need to apply the simple (and very challenging) maxim of


Screen Shot 2016-03-08 at 4.26.04 PM different is
…just different.


One thing that had historically bothered me was the feeling that people who were ‘falling short’ of what I wanted were indeed providing those very tokens of friendship to others — just not to me.This hurt me for as long as I thought it said something about my own worth. It made me bitter and haughty for as long as I thought it said something about theirs.

Now, I’m coming more to terms with the simple truth that not everyone will be my best friend. There’s a reason (or, rather, many) why people make it into our inner circle, right? We all have our own preferences of what we’re looking for in an inner-circle confidante and bestie. I have these people in my life, thankfully; but where I was tripping myself up was by not being able to easily accept it when not everyone who I was interested in making part of my inner circle was themselves interested in the position.

I was also causing myself a wealth of grief by clinging too tightly to all my various preferences and taking them from that level of mere preference and morphing them into inviolable standards. No one is going to be there for you all the time in every way — the question is simply if it’s enough.

So, maybe the real ticket is to not lump people into various friend rankings to begin with — at least, not in the sense of Sally is my best friend, Sue is my 2nd best friend, etc. I’ve written before about the virtues of ‘grading’ friends really for just one reason: because if I went off of my feelings alone, I would almost invariably treat someone like a closer friend than was warranted based on their actions. I’d spend sometimes years justifying what felt like a one-way street relationship by convincing myself that once XYZ happened, that person would finally be in a position to reciprocate how I wanted.

Have you also noticed that applying formulas to people doesn’t work very well?

I identified my problematic black-and-white beliefs to be these:


1. That whatever side of ourselves we consistently display is ‘who we are’.

2. ‘Who we are’ is the same regardless of with whom we are interacting.

3. ‘Healthy’ (and therefore ‘worthy’) relationships abide by objective standards that everyone is aware of and agrees with (even when they might fall short of them).


Oh boy.

So, let’s tackle these points.

1. I’ve come to realize on a new level how all of us are sometimes any given characteristic and are never just one side of the coin and not the other. This taken together to form a whole makes us all terribly contradictory. We’re all honest and dishonest, thoughtful and rude, kind and cruel, selfless and egocentric, etc.

Screen Shot 2016-03-08 at 4.24.51 PM

I still want to believe there are overarching patterns — that one is hopefully much more often honest than dishonest, kind vs. cruel, etc. But, if this is the case, it brings home to me the idea of how very important it is to know someone for quite a while (a couple years?) before even attempting to reach a conclusion on who that person is most the time.

Or, perhaps it’s not so much a matter of the sheer quantity of time we know someone, but in how many different contexts. Have we seen this person interact only with us? Or just within a circle of friends? Or also with their families, their bosses, and people they don’t like? Have we seen this person deal with only good times? Only bad? Or a mixture of both? During times of stress, times of success, times of plenty, and times of loss?

This is so important because what aspects of ourselves we display in a given moment is very situational. It depends — at least in part — on how comfortable and safe we feel, what’s at stake in the interaction, how secure in our own worth we are, and to whom we are relating. This means that …

2. ‘Who we are’ is not always the same with all people. We divulge different sides of ourselves with different people for a whole host of reasons — we like some people more and others less; we feel more and less comfortable with different people; it’s somehow practically easier to be certain ways with some people (e.g. those we see regularly vs. those who live cross-country); etc.

Furthermore, regardless of how consistent or inconsistent we may be in our interactions with others, all people will interpret us differently anyway! To one person, we might seem soft-spoken, to another aggressive. Someone might think us rude, someone else might think we’re the paragon of well-mannered. It’s all relative to how they view themselves.

It’s very interesting to me to consider to what extent we project our own characteristics on to others — whether ones we deem ‘good’ or ‘bad’ and whether they are the ones we most often consistently exhibit or if we display them only spottily. Do I tend to think of others as intelligent because I think of myself as intelligent? Or do I think of others as unintelligent as a means of boosting my own self-perception of my intelligence (which needs to feel contrasted with the ‘other’)?

Screen Shot 2016-03-08 at 5.27.16 PMI wonder to what extent we mirror what we perceive in others. If I’m around people I think of as ‘coarse’, do I also then act more crudely or say more vulgar things? On the flipside, if I spend time with compassionate people, does that highlight and grow the compassion within me? Do others ‘bring out the best/worst’ in us?

If we are all composed of every characteristic to some degree and if we experience others based on how we perceive ourselves (which is going to be in part due to how we perceive others perceive us … so, this gets complicated! Everything is interconnected and feeds back into itself), might not the health — or lack thereof — of a given relationship be very subjective, too?

3. It seems to me now that a ‘healthy’ vs. ‘unhealthy’ relationship has everything to do with whether the parties involved are happy. What makes me happy will not necessarily make you happy and vice versa. What I think might make all of us happy, though, is being around those people who bring out the aspects of ourselves that we want to feel and show to others.

Of course, what sides of ourselves we feel most comfortable with and connected to also changes in the different phases of our lives! We might have a hippie stage, or a theater kid stage, or a straight-A-student phase, a workaholic phase, a stay-at-home-mom phase, a religious phase, a political phase … Any or all of these (and more) might come at any time, last for any length of time, or co-exist. The longer (and/or stronger) a phase is, the more ‘true’ it’s going to feel and the more deeply we’ll adopt it into our self-image.

Screen Shot 2016-03-08 at 6.40.00 PMWhen you pay attention to how you feel around various people and how you feel immediately after being near them, which characteristics seem most attractive or unattractive to you? Which people thus bring out the sides of you you (currently) consider your best? Which highlight your self-perceived worst?

Could it be the the relationships that frustrate or drain us the most have a lot to teach us about our own dark underbellies? [Now, that doesn’t mean we have to continually subject ourselves to the aggravation, pain, or exhaustion of that relationship. For instance, if we’re talking about an abusive relationship, get out!!!] But, whatever type and level of boundaries we employ to create safe distance for ourselves — whether literal physical distance or figurative, say, in an emotional sense — we can then still consider what we have to learn from that relationship.


These what-are-revelations-for-me are really changing how I look at my relationships — especially the ones I had considered ‘difficult’ or ‘troubled.’

I have a new set of principles and practices I’m applying to my relationships. These have been brewing and developing for years and yet feel very ‘new’ in that cyclic, spiral-learning sort of sense.

1. Know Thyself.

What are my preferences and priorities for close friendship? How about for friendship, period?
 Are there any changes I need to make to the level of intimacy in any relationships? Or do I merely need to change my perception of those relationships? Or some of both?

2. Be the person you want to have mirrored back to you.

Be kind. Be patient. Be compassionate. Be all the things you think are good. Encourage those around you to then also focus on those noble sides of themselves. Together we can create positive feedback loops that keep giving and giving!

3. Notice how others routine make me feel / encourage me to act.

Do I like the person I am when I’m around him or her? I want to invest the most in the people who help me shine my brightest sides and in whom I also bring out the best (in their own self-perception!)

Note: in conjunction with point #2: we will find that there are some people who sometimes tend to bring out the worst in us — maybe we do the same to them. Know when to call it quits and draw a different boundary … there is no formula for this!

4. Assess your friends.

This is not to figure out in what ways people in my life are ‘lacking’, but to identify the specific, fabulous things they offer me so that I can better practice gratitude.

Furthermore, clearly seeing what others consistently offer you is often a good clue to what sort of tokens of friendship from you they’d most appreciate — we tend to give what we’d like to ourselves receive.

5. Different is just different.

If someone doesn’t want to be my close friend, that doesn’t say anything ‘bad’ about her or me. Our preferences and priorities just don’t line up …  and that’s OK. Be honest and kind about it, and move on.

6. Time is your friend.

Rather than jumping too fast into relationships (so, so guilty of this in times past), I now intentionally pace myself. I give time & space to finding out what that other person is like most of the time in most circumstances — and show them who I am, too. That way, we can both make a more informed decision about the level of involvement we want to have.

7. Hold all people loosely.

If I (or the other person) is entering/exiting a phase of life, it will likely have some effects on our relationship. If our priorities and preferences don’t line up anymore, let’s not force the same previous closeness of interaction. Yet, at the same time, let’s not cut off completely either — one never knows when our paths may realign.


Agree / Disagree? Have your experiences been different? What do you think about my principles/ practices? Would/do you use them? What would you change? Comment on our Facebook page.

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Laura Bennett

Laura Bennett

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