As we head into the holidays and look forward to (or dread) spending time with friends and family, it’s a good idea to reassess our relationships so we’re able to communicate in ways that fill us up and not drain us out.
Dr. Jennie Rosier, Associate Professor of Communication Studies at James Madison University, says that our relationships, especially our close ones, are a reflection of our attachment style. The kind of relationship we had with our primary caregiver(s) will be a key determinant of our relational dynamics in adulthood.
Enemies and Frenemies
Think of a family member or friend you’re not excited to meet this holiday season. Someone who triggers you, or drains you. Someone who rarely leaves you feeling content and full inside. Could one of these dynamics be at play?
Dynamic # 1: I’m inferior, you’re superior
When interacting with this person, do you feel you don’t measure up to them? Is there a need to gain their approval, or to appease them if there’s been a disagreement? This is a sign of an clingy attachment style where you fear they’ll leave you if you didn’t please them almost all the time.
Dynamic # 2: I’m superior, you’re inferior
Or, do you feel a sense of superiority over this person? Do you judge them for how they look or what they say and do? Is it hard for you to feel empathy for them, even if you understand their situation? This is a sign of a distant relationship where you’ll be hard pressed to acknowledge, much less appreciate the good in them.
Dynamic # 3: We’re both inferior
This would be a relationship where you don’t value yourself much, and nor do you value the other person’s ideas and opinions. This can result from early experiences of shaming and blaming, and shows up as a need to be close to the other person while also wanting to distance yourself from them.
These are extreme forms and you’ll likely have milder tendencies which may vary with different people. Even healthy relationship can begin to exhibit them in times of stress (like the holiday season)!
Building Real Connection
To nurture relationships that stand the test of time (and stress), we need to embed them in a container of trust. The holidays bring us many excellent opportunities to do so, because Dr. John Gottman’s research on intimate relationships has found that trust is built in small and consistent moments. Here’s how:
Speak with Integrity
Before you speak, take a few seconds to think of your intention, your “why” that underpins the conversation. Consciously, or unconsciously, you may be putting the other person down, showing you’re better in some way, or trying to gain approval or sympathy. How will you communicate in a way that’s aligned with your values? What will you say that builds both you and the other person?
Set Clear Boundaries
In her book Braving the Wilderness, Dr. Brene Brown talks about the importance of boundaries in trust-building. This is particularly important in the holiday season, when emotions can run high. Be clear on the behaviors that are ok, and those that are not. And remember, it’s your responsibility to convey these boundaries, and respect them yourself. Similarly, you have to know and respect other people’s boundaries — and you’ll be surprised how often we don’t.
Be Generous in Your Assumptions
It’s all too easy to judge others harshly for what they do, or the way they behave because it fits with our mental stories. Not only does this damage our relationship, it also blinds us to the good in them. If you’re triggered by someone who chews too loud or drinks too much, expand your story by thinking of the good in them. It’s far easier to forgive human weaknesses when we do so. And while you’re at it, do the same for yourself, because yes, we can be our harshest judges!
Have a wonderful holiday season and all the best for 2020!