The Key To Radically Improving Your Relationships
Love has been one of my favorite things to talk about for as long as I can remember. It probably has something to do with the Disney Princess dreams inundated in the brains of young girls, but nevertheless, it has been endlessly interesting to me. I’ve spent hours discussing relationship issues with guy friends and girl friends at school, over the phone, over wine, and I never seem to tire of it.
In my most recent musings about love, I have come across an especially interesting nuance to the topic: unconditional positive regard. Undoubtedly you’ve heard of “unconditional love” before; a term that is often thrown around when talking about love and relationships. To love someone unconditionally is to love them truly for who they are, without any “conditional” circumstances.
An example of loving someone conditionally would be wanting to break up with a partner because they started to gain weight. Their weight maintenance was a “condition” for the love to persist. Another example would be ending a relationship because a partner lost their job.
These conditions are often times subtle and you may not even recognize them until they come up. In my opinion, if your love for your partner hinges on whether or not they maintain the same body shape or whether or not they make a certain annual salary, you’ve got to question if you truly love the person you’re with, or if you just love how they look, the way they make you feel, or how they provide monetary stability more than who they are as a person.
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Unconditional positive regard
Similar to unconditional love, maybe even a facet of it, unconditional positive regard is giving the people we are in relationships with (not just romantic partners, also brothers/sisters/mothers/fathers/friends, etc.) the space to truly be themselves and loving them ferociously for it. It’s holding them in a radically positive light. It’s looking them in the face and saying, “I see your quirks, your flaws, your insecurities, and your mistakes, and I love you immensely.”
Ever since reading Cheryl Strayed’s book, “Tiny Beautiful Things”, I feel like my life and my idea of love have been transformed. For those who haven’t read this book, it is an amalgamation of letters that Strayed wrote for an advice column on therumpus.net. Her letters are filled with such beauty, love, and achingly honest advice melded with Strayed’s very personal experiences, that she gained a lot of attention for her words, eventually publishing a book of her response letters. This is where Strayed mentions the idea of unconditional positive regard and giving people the space to unapologetically be themselves.
We have all been there. We have friends who have made choices that made us cringe. We have had relationships where we didn’t like or understand the “bad” habits of our partner. We have brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles who have made choices or a series of choices about relationships that we would never have made in a million years because they seemed so glaringly WRONG. Sometimes we feel caught between a rock and a hard place when trying to decide if stepping in and saying something will do more harm than good.
Strayed takes questions from readers wanting to know how they should proceed in certain situations with friends and introduces this radical notion: approach your friend/partner/family member with love, support, and unconditional positive regard. When you feel an urge to interfere with a decision a friend is making that you heartily disagree with, take a step back for a moment and ask yourself a few things:
- Is what I want to say to my friend coming from an honest-to-goodness place of love and if not, how can I be more loving?
- Could I possibly be projecting my own fears/hopes/doubts onto this person who is dear to me that may be influencing how I feel about the situation?
- What is truly in this person’s best interest? Did they ask for my honest opinion/advice? Are they only looking for someone to confide in? Think about what exactly is going on and what this person needs from you because maybe they aren’t looking for advice in the first place.
Is there abuse in any part of the equation? As soon as any form of abuse is a part of the situation it is a whole different ball game. If this person in your life is being harmed mentally, emotionally, physically, verbally, or otherwise, this is definitely a time to step in. See below for resources to abuse hotlines and more information on what to do in situations of abuse.
Application in real life
Recently a good friend of mine got into a new relationship. Typically this would be something that I would be celebrating, but in this particular instance, I had some reservations that stopped me from being excited with her. Throughout the years I have seen this friend with boyfriend after boyfriend without much room in between to breathe. Before getting together with her new beau, she’d only had a few short weeks of singledom and I noticed that this was the same scenario with her previous relationships as well.
When my friend told me about her new relationship I voiced my concerns about it being too soon, about thinking that she was jumping into something again, about thinking that it would be a good thing for her to have some time where she was truly single to reconnect with herself, but in hindsight I wish I wouldn’t have.
There have been numerous times throughout the years when I have wanted to step in and say something to a friend about a mistake I thought they were making. Usually, it involved a romantic relationship they were in, or going back to, or jumping into after a recent breakup. I thought that by voicing my concern I was being a good friend and an honest friend. I thought that I needed to offer my perspective because the best friends are the ones who call you on your shit and point out mistakes they think you’re making.
What I learned from Cheryl Strayed’s infinite wisdom on the “Dear Sugar Radio” podcast, is that this isn’t really the way to be a support system. Truly being a good friend to the people you love means offering love, support, and asking what this person needs from you. Have they actually asked for your advice? If not, save what may come across as condescension. They may only want a kind ear to listen in order to figure things out themselves.
We cannot control the actions of others. We can only control our own as well as our response to other’s actions. Why not make whatever response we have a loving one?
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