A Psychologist’s Guide To Having Better Relationships

25 Jan ‘22
7 min
Editorial Board OpenUp
illustratie van twee mensen in een relatie

Our lives are shaped by our relationships – both the ones we have and those we don’t. By the good, the bad, the near, the far, the weird, the difficult, the short, the passionate, the surprising, the ‘I just can’t shake you off’, the informal, the intense, the lifelong, the uncomfortable, the special, and the necessary relationships.

 

Everybody has relationships, but that doesn’t mean that we all know how best to navigate them. In this guide, OpenUp psychologists Irene Bakker and Mirte Verkuijlen are going to help you on your journey to forming better relationships.

 

Our relationships make us happy

 

Relationships are important to us because they make us happy. Study after study shows that our relationships are our primary source of happiness. Additionally, having meaningful relationships is associated with other benefits, such as a stronger immune system, a higher pain threshold, and less likelihood of depression. Happy and healthy people make sure to spend enough time with the people they love.

 

Simultaneously, our relationships can also make things difficult for us sometimes. We experience all kinds of challenges in our lives and most of them can be traced back to our relationships with others. Friendships, partners, colleagues, family, and neighbors are all sources of happiness, but also sources of struggle. How do you – despite the highs and lows – maintain a lasting relationship with another person?

 

“It is an absolute human certainty that no one can know his own beauty or perceive a sense of his own worth until it has been reflected back to him in the mirror of another loving, caring human being.” – John Joseph Powell.

 

Fun fact: The word relationship comes from the verb ‘to relate’, which means to ‘make or show a connection between’.

 

6 types of relationships

 

Any contact you have with another person can be described as a relationship. In general, relationships can be divided into six different types:

 

  • Romantic relationships
  • Family
  • Friendship
  • Professional relationships
  • Casual or fleeting relationships
  • Your relationship with yourself

 

It’s important to remember that each relationship is different. Each of our relationships give us certain things and no relationship can give us everything we want.

 

Exercise: Relationship circles

 

Let’s start by mapping out your various relationships. Draw a dot in the middle of a piece of paper and then draw three increasingly large circles around it, just like in the image below.

cirkel van relaties

You are at the center of the circle. Now, in the circle closest to you, write down all your most treasured relationships. In the next circle, write down the relationships that are a little more distant. Finally, in the outer circle, write down relationships that you still have in your life right now, but are a little more distant or maybe need some attention.

 

You’ll now have a good overview of your relationships. Next, take a close look at your circles and, with an open mind, try to determine what it all means. What is the quality of all the relationships you see before you? Are your relationships working well for you in the form they’re currently in? Or are there things you’d like to change about your relationships? And does the other person feel the same about the relationship (and do you know for sure that this is the case)?

 

“The core of a relational problem is the fear that the other isn’t there for you anymore.”

 

Why are good relationships so important?

 

Almost everyone knows that good relationships are really important. But it also helps to be aware that good (or bad) relationships have an effect on your environment. For example, if two people in a family stop speaking to each other, then this will have an effect on the rest of the family. Or if two colleagues don’t get along, then the whole team will feel the impact of this.

 

Of course, the same is also true in reverse. A good and positive team spirit means that people feel comfortable within the team and that they perform well.

 

“Relationships are a laboratory for self-understanding.”

 

Unfortunately, there’s no universal formula for maintaining positive and successful relationships (articles like this wouldn’t be necessary if that were the case). You need to approach each relationship differently, given that each person is different. But one thing is for sure: every relationship helps you to get to know yourself a little better.

 

Emotionally focused therapy

 

Even though there is no universal formula, you can still do your best to work towards strong and meaningful relationships. If you want to get a better understanding of what happens in relationships, how to communicate, and how to deepen or improve your relationship, we’d be happy to take you through this in our guide to EFT. Or in full: emotionally focused therapy.

 

EFT is a popular, short-term form of therapy used in psychology and couples therapy to improve attachment and bonding in adult relationships. By gaining a better understanding of each other’s needs and attachment styles, you’re in a better position to understand where certain behaviors come from, both in yourself and the other person.

 

Needs and attachment in relationships

 

There are a number of basic needs that people have in a relationship, for example autonomy, connection, acceptance, being understood, feeling important, being heard, being seen, being loved, and being treated with affection.

 

Additionally, in relationships we also fear certain things, such as being rejected or abandoned, being controlled, or not being accepted, appreciated and loved.

 

In any relationship, we have our own wants and needs and we’re constantly trying to balance them with those of the other person. No single relationship can give us everything and that’s okay, but it becomes more of a challenge when an imbalance occurs; when we lose sight of who we are and what are values are because we want to connect with the other person.

 

“When we’re working really hard to be seen, we lose the sense that we’re accepted just as we are.”

 

For example, maybe you’re trying to connect with your partner. To do this, you give up some of your autonomy and stop living according to your own values. The result is that an imbalance occurs.

 

An explanation of the EFT model

 

If you want to gain a better understanding of another person, it’s important to know what their wants and needs are. In psychology, the EFT model is used to grant insight into certain situations or behaviors.

 

This gives you a better understanding of what’s happening in a particular situation. As a result of this understanding, you can change the way you behave and communicate, which will improve and deepen your relationship.

eft in relaties

Above the dashed line are the emotions and behaviors that we see in ourselves or the other person (what’s going on above the surface). For example, during an argument we might see one person get angry and the other person walk away and withdraw.

 

Below the dashed line are the underlying emotions that we often don’t see and that correlate to our fears (what’s going on beneath the surface). For instance, that could be the fear of doing something wrong or the fear of losing someone.

 

Example: Matthew blames Achmed for something that happened. Beneath the surface, this triggers Achmed’s fear of failure; of not being accepted. In response to Matthew, Achmed withdraws. For Matthew, who is seeking connection, this triggers his fear of abandonment.

 

At the end of the day, we’re all looking to connect with other people, but we often get angry with each other, which has the reverse effect. We want to be appreciated, but withdrawing only makes this more difficult.

 

Full in the lemniscate for yourself

 

Often, we only see and react to the things that are going on above the surface, which creates more distance from one another. Try looking at your own patterns. What are you afraid of? What does that trigger in you? And what do you need right now? If you know this, you can discuss it together and it will create more clarity within your relationship.

 

Do this by filling in your own lemniscate. Think of a situation where your response was more extreme than you would have liked. Maybe it was a situation at work or at home, or simply something that happened between you and a friend or family member.

 

Check in with yourself: What is it that objectively happened? What behavior and visible emotion did you detect in the other person and how did you respond to that? Then ask yourself what was beneath the surface. How did it stir up attachment anxiety? Which needs were not being met? Maybe you didn’t feel loved or seen? Could you have communicated that to the other person?

 

Tip: In this masterclass, psychologist Mirte Verkuijlen will walk you through how to fill out the lemniscate.

Once you are aware of your own patterns and what is happening at the different levels (both above and beneath the surface), you’ll be able to form a deeper connection with the other person and communicate as your authentic self. This will help the two of you to bond.

 

But, how do you communicate like this?

 

Once you’ve used the EFT model to gain a better understanding of what somebody else wants and needs, it’s essential to communicate this. Make sure you’re always speaking from your own perspective (I feel…) and focus on the underlying emotions. State what you’ve noticed and what you need.

 

These phrases might help you:

 

  • I’ve noticed that I’m starting to blame you (behavior)
  • I feel angry (emotion) and
  • I think that my behavior is causing you to withdraw from the situation because you feel hurt. Is that true?
  • I’ve realized that I’m angry because I actually feel afraid and rejected.
  • What I need is to feel connected to you
  • Do you think you could give me a hug? (Connection)

 

Try to shift the narrative away from what is going on above the surface and towards what is going on beneath the surface. Explain your behavior and what you’re observing, as well as how that’s making you feel and what you need from the other person.

 

By having productive conversations about each other’s wants and needs, you’ll ensure that your relationship remains balanced. But this process often takes time. Don’t have the expectation that you’ll fully understand each other after just one conversation and that all your challenges will melt away like snow in the sunshine.

 

Need help? Our psychologists are happy to provide further support. Book a no-obligation introductory session.

 

Want to dive deeper into the psychology behind relationships?

 

Our psychologists recommend the following books and resources: