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Attitudes Set The Stage For
Healthy Relationships

Adult relationships have many goals. Those include sharing companionship, support, similar interests, productivity, understanding, and, depending o the nature of that relationship, different degrees of intimacy. The bond between the individuals is strengthened and enriched when both persons have several capabilities. Some of those strengths include the capacity for autonomous functioning, honest and authentic communication, a sharing of energy and enthusiasm, a tolerance for the uniqueness of both parties, and the ability for conflict resolution.

Superimposed on those strengths is an attitude. It is a posture or framework that views oneself and others with compassion. This attitude is like a prism or eyeglass structure for viewing how to relate. When both individuals carry an attitude that is compassionate, the relationship has a good chance of being healthy.

When we are compassionate toward ourselves and others, we assume that we and those to whom we relate deserve respect, caring, consideration, and, in the simplest sense, love.

Various professionals and religious denominations have espoused this principle. For example, psychiatrist Theodore Rubin, in his book Compassion and Self Hate (1975), believes it is the most critical question that we must face in our lives (i.e., whether to live hating ourselves and/or others or to live in love and nurturance for ourselves and others). Christians similarly talk about loving our neighbors as we love ourselves, and Buddhists talk about the attitude of compassion for self and others as being the most critical component of spiritual live. These are lofty ideals but difficult to implement in everyday life. If only there were a way to inject compassion into each and every one of us.

Without such an injection, I believe that behind the lack of compassion and almost combative nature of a relationship that doesn't work is an attitude that sets individuals in competition with one another. Sydney Harris, a newspaper columnist in Chicago in the mid twentieth century, said that all of us are at risk for conflict and combative relationships because when we are not conscious of the need to be compassionate, we fall into a way of relating that Harris calls "pulley-system" thinking. In this process, you and I are at odds, and if you do something well (like play the guitar, hit a home run, get a new car, etc.) then somehow your success lessens me and reduces my value. On the other hank, if I put you down, criticize you, or win an argument with you, then because you are lessened, I am strengthened. In pulley-system thinking, only you or I can be okay, not you and I. Yet, when your success lessens me or my success lessens you, it is hard to believe we can have a healthy relationship.

It is easy to see why this attitude leads to combativeness, but perhaps it is this kind of thinking that leads to a posture of "missing person." In missing persons, people ask questions when they need to make statements, i.e., they neglect themselves for the benefit of others. If they hold on to the notion that either you or I are valuable or important, or need to have our needs met, then the only unselfish thing to do is to ask you "What you would like to do?" or "What movie you would like to see?" which encourages me to give up my needs in order to meet your needs. It is the fallacy of believing that only one of us can be satisfied and that the other one of us must sacrifice our needs or wishes if we are to be kind or unselfish. In many instances, this is the underlying posture that leads to "missing persons."

In health relationships, no one needs to abe missing. The conjunction and, not or, is critical. you and I matter. Your needs and my needs are important. Your views and my views deserve consideration. Consideration by all parties is critical in order for people to understand each other and help each other. If one person continuously sacrifices their own values, needs, or wishes to the needs of the other, then they are "missing" in that relationship. In time, that same missing person may turn combative because of the lack of respect and caring they give themselves.

Factors for building healthy relationships are depleted when adults engage in questioning when statements are important. Statements of self-expression affirm the value of an individual. They carry the notion that you and I are worthy of compassion. Questions, when personal expression is important, create instead an atmosphere where enmeshment, conflict, resentment, dependency, and frustration are likely to result for one or both parties. They impact the relationship negatively because the authority, energy, decision-making capacity, and personal expression of one or both parties is not present. The notion that you and I are both worthy of respect and compassion is gone. Intimacy is reduced or denied altogether. The friendship or couple become less than two people sharing themselves. One or both parties is missing, and the relationship for both suffers.

About the author: Eric Dlugokinski is a Licensed Psychologist and Professor Emeritus at the University of Oklahoma. During the early years in Oklahoma he was mentored by Povl Toussieng, M.D., who sparked his career-long interest in the destructive emotional impact of inappropriate questions. Eric has authored over 25 books in Mental Health Education and has served as a columnist for the Daily Oklahoman and Woman's World. Currently he has a private practice of psychotherapy in Oklahoma City and teaches courses in Human Emotions and Communications at military bases around the world. He is married to Lesley, who is also a Licensed Psychologist, and has two sons and five grandchildren.

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