What is a Relationship?
“It is He who creates human beings from fluid, then makes them kin by blood and marriage: your Lord is all powerful.” Qur’an 25: 54
‘Verily one of the good deeds to be rewarded the fastest is reconciliation with one’s kin.’ Prophet Muhammad (pbuh)
What is a relationship? This may sound like a very simple question, but start to answer it and it may become more complicated than you first thought. Let’s test this idea.
I think that a relationship is ___________________________
Use the statement above as your starting point. This is your general definition of what a relationship is. Now let’s build on this definition. Reflect on the impact that one of your relationships currently has on you. How do you feel as you think about this person? Does it feel good, or bad being in relationship with him or her? Our relationships impact our lives in the most profound ways, don’t they? Some of them may be full of joy, while others are incredibly difficult.
Our experiences within a certain relationship may shape our views about all of our relationships. We may do this without even realizing. Below is a list of some concepts that can be applied to relationships in general. Take a moment to reflect on the following, and choose whichever ones apply to you. Be frank and open with yourself; think about the variety of relationships in your life and then choose from the list below.
A relationship is:
- A bond you choose.
- Destined; not actively chosen.
- A connection with another that allows room for both to grow and be nurtured in one way or another.
- Riddled with obligations; things you have to do.
- Hard work.
- Full of compromise and giving in.
- An opportunity to experience joy and connection.
Now take a moment to think what you believe are the three most important facets of any relationship. In my opinion, the three most important characteristics of any relationship are: x,y and z.
You will have now gotten some conscious awareness of how you’re thinking about relationships in general. As you reflect, feel free to jot down any other important characteristics that come to mind. Each person will have his or her own definition of what a relationship is/should be, because we have all been through unique experiences. Your relationships with parents, siblings, even your community will shape your view of how you think about relationships now.
As you embark on this journey to creating more fulfilling relationships, remind yourself that your attitude about your relationships will directly impact how fulfilled you feel within them. Even though it’s natural for most of us to experience one or two difficult relationships, if you think that relationships, in general, are hard work and full of compromise, they definitely will be. We cannot but manifest what we believe to be true.
Many times, we might tell ourselves that we really wish to change something, but we don’t do anything about it. This essentially means that we like the idea of it, but that goal isn’t really one of our top priorities. This probably sounds harsh, but I’m sure you yourself can look back and notice the things that you really took action on, and the ones you didn’t. The areas where you took action, and still do, are the current priorities.There may be other areas that you would like to improve, but they haven’t made it to the top of the list yet.
Life involves a lot of juggling most of the time. Often, we just let our relationships remain the way they are because we don’t have the time or the energy to invest into shifting them. This might be all right for the short term, but let’s remember that the quality of our lives does depend on the quality of our relationships. Think about that one relationship you just explored earlier. How do you feel each time you think about this person? How do these feelings impact your health, your state of mind, and your overall ability to be productive? If this relationship is an important one, then you might well find yourself suffering along with the relationship.
If a challenging relationship is impacting your life now, chances are it will continue doing so if things don’t change. Ask yourself: “is it ok for me to keep suffering this way?” If you are now able to state that it’s not acceptable for things to stay this way, then you have the motivation to do something about it. Well done to you if you have now reached this point; this motivation will carry you through your journey.
Each relationship in our life has its own unique meaning, obligations, and rewards. That being said, we will still aim to define what a relationship “should be” in general terms. The reason for a definition is to provide us with an overall context to work from. Once you begin to use this definition as an overall foundation, then you can choose to shape a definition for each specific relationship in your life.
In my first book Discover the Best in You we defined a relationship as A bond that is created when people choose to pay attention to, communicate with, or connect with someone else. If you look at how we talk about relationships here, you will notice that we refer to it as a “created” bond. This definition will apply to all ties, including those that we have by birth. We may be tied to people by birth, but that doesn’t mean that we necessarily have a bond with them. We as Muslims know the importance of maintaining ties with blood relations so it brings us back to the very concept that we are referring to here – that all our relationships become “relationships by choice”. A relationship starts taking shape when we choose to connect with another human being with an aim or a goal. That goal could be companionship, sharing, working towards a business, or even creating a family together. Whatever the desired outcome, it’s that choice that keeps us working towards it. So our more complete definition of what a relationship is goes as follows:
The bond that is created between people when they choose to connect with one another in order to achieve a common goal, or to enhance the potential in each other.
What’s the first thing that you reacted to in this statement? Was it that a relationship could be about enhancing potential, or that a relationship is a choice? The word “relationship” is so commonly used that we don’t really reflect on whether they are by choice or not. It has become a generic word for all our ties. Any relationship that’s suffering hardly feels like a choice, and it can cloud how we experience all our other relationships, where no relationship feels like a choice. You are justified in feeling this way. A relationship that is suffering will not feel like a choice. As painful as it is, think about it as a connection of birth or circumstance right now, but keep the intention that you will work towards transforming it into a fulfilling relationship.
It may seem like a lot of work to transform a relationship, and it may well be. But remember, leaving it as it is will have a negative impact on your life in the long run. Maintain the hope that things will get better and indeed this will be a fulfilling journey. You may well experience the transformation of this relationship. How is that possible? By transforming your own thought and behaviour: the chapters in this book are aimed at supporting you in doing just that, Insha’ Allah.
Setting the foundation for fulfilling relationships
How might we improve a suffering “relationship”? We have talked about any relationship being a connection of choice, but it is important to remember that each tie will have its own unique requirements. However, there are some general principles pertaining to all ties and relationships as a whole. When we apply these principles, they can help us enhance how we experience all our connections. These principles may also support us, as individuals, to feel more fulfilled within.
Think of these principles as setting a foundation for each relationship that’s already in our life, or yet to come. Understand each principle so that it becomes easier to understand and apply it. Of course, you can choose the ones you wish to apply (or not). Note that these are general principles that will apply to most of our relationships. At times, there may be exceptions where a person may be suffering in an abusive relationship, or in a relationship with someone suffering from mental illness. These principles may not apply then. The idea here is to use these principles as a general guideline that will help us to shift our paradigm so we can enhance our relationships. That being said, now let’s look at what they are:
- Each person does his or her best given the circumstances
You know you are giving things your best shot, remember that the other person is doing the same. He or she is working with the resources they have and doing the best they can.
Example: Your spouse has become unemployed. He or she is at home practically all the time. It seems that s/he isn’t doing much to change the situation. Remember that it may appear like this on the outside, but consider the idea that this person is doing their very best, given the challenges that they have been dealt.
- Each human being has the same inherent need for being loved, cherished and respected
As you appreciate being shown respect or love, the other person does too. Give it wholeheartedly before you expect to receive it.
- We need to deal with conflicts in a respectful manner
Conflicts will happen and there will be disagreement. This however, does not excuse anger, sarcasm, or putting another person down. Speak with them as you wish to be spoken to.
Example: Think of the last time when you either had an angry outburst or used sarcasm during a conflict. Ask the other person (even if it’s your child) how it felt to be on the receiving end. Getting some feedback on how it feels to the other person will be the awareness required for change. Remember, if you speak in this manner, you might well get a similar type of response. Model how you wish to be spoken to and you are more likely to get a similar response.
- Each behaviour, even if it impacts others in a negative way, meets an important need for the person carrying out that behaviour
When someone you are close to does something that annoys or hurts you, remember that is not their intent to do so. They are merely aiming to meet a need, they have even though they may not be doing it in the best or even most considerate way. Keeping this in mind may prevent you from taking their behaviour personally and will make finding a solution much easier.
Example: Someone in your family is a smoker and the smoke is extremely uncomfortable and annoying for you. Keep in mind that thei ntention of this person is not to annoy you; instead it is to meet the need of the addiction. The smoking habit will also have a deeper, more fundamental need underneath.
- Accept that disappointments will happen
Each human being has some flaws. Remember that there may be times when your loved ones may not meet your expectations. This is just their humanity. Remember the times when you didn’t meet theirs?
Example: Think back to a time when someone asked you for a favour and you agreed to do it. You even gave it a good go, but things didn’t work out. Sometimes we end up disappointing those we love despite our best intentions. The next time a loved one disappoints you, think about it from a different perspective. Remember their humanity, and yours! This way you’ll be able to forgive more easily and maintain the relationship.
- Have conversations, not confrontations
Confronting someone with an issue will only make the other person defensive. Bring the problem up with empathy and respect; they are more likely to listen and work with you.
Example: If you have ever had a shouting match with someone, then that is a confrontation, not a conversation. Think about how the “conversation” ended. Was anything resolved in a positive way, or did it leave you both feeling upset? Confrontations will leave each person with a bitter taste in their mouth. The next time an issue arises where things are starting to escalate, move away immediately. Respectfully get some space, take a deep breath. Use the time to make some notes about the concern, and aim towards a calm and collected conversation later on.
- Aim to fix the situation, NOT the person
Talk about the situation or behaviour that bothers you. Keep the person’s identity out of it; after all, they are in your life for good reason. Keep the big picture in mind…
- Be prepared to be vulnerable
Sharing how we truly feel may be the scariest thing ever, but that’s the one thing that brings us closer together than any other.
Tip: Be open to saying “I love you” but only when you mean it. Remember there’s always the fear that someone might hurt you, but more often than not, the ones who are close to you really want to know what you feel and what’s going on for you. Share, and experience the connection!
- Know the difference between a request and a demand
A request is asking someone to do something when they have a choice to say no. A demand is when there’s no choice given. Know the difference. Demands are best used sparingly.
- Be eager to forgive, and open to apology
If you have done something to hurt the other person, apologize sincerely, and be eager to forgive if you’ve been asked. Forgiveness is a gift you give yourself.
Example: Ever heard someone apologize, but in a snide or sarcastic tone? You knew that it wasn’t an apology it was just a ploy to end the conversation. Apologize only when you sincerely mean it. If you do not in the moment, then take a break. Go back and do so once you genuinely feel that you’re ready to.
These are general principles that are meant to shape how we think about our own behaviours and attitudes in our relationships in general. Focus in on one or two that resound with you and work towards adopting them in your life. Once you do, then you can choose a couple more. One method for doing so would be to write the key concept down and put it somewhere you can see it every single day. Look at the words, notice how they feel, and reflect on them regularly. Begin to notice what changes are showing up in your relationships. Insha’Allah you will notice more compassion and empathy emerging.
Behaviours that damage* relationships
- Putting the other person down
- Holding resentments
- Playing the “blame” game
- “Constructive” criticism
- Being vague about your expectations
- Mind reading
What you resist, persists!
The list of behaviours that we just talked about is aimed to raise awareness towards some of the things that we might be doing, unintentionally, that can really ruin our relationships. If you look closer, you might notice that they are all behaviours that one might impose on another person whereas the best relationships are built in harmony with someone else. These behaviours also stem from certain attitudes, or even certain fears. For example, we might be afraid to say what we truly expect, and that’s why we can’t voice our needs. The aim here is to raise awareness so that we might begin to notice where we need to make changes. Having said that, you may feel that you don’t need to make any changes. Perhaps you’ve done everything right, but the relationship (the one you identified earlier in the chapter) still isn’t working.
The entire conversation that we have been having not about assigning blame at all; instead, it is about raising awareness. Okay so let’s assume for a moment that you have been doing everything the correct way. You don’t see yourself doing anything corrosive; instead, you have been adopting the principles already. So what’s the reason why things aren’t working? Is it that the other person is just beyond help, or might it be that there may still be something that you could do differently?
Shifting a relationship is one of the most challenging tasks a human being can take on because it requires a very candid look at one’s own attitudes and behaviours. So I invite you keep an open mind here. Remember that whatever we resist tends to stay the same. This is because my own resistance will create a loop. For example, if I resist the fact that I am critical of my child or spouse, then I will continue speaking to him or her in a critical way and the other’s person’s reaction will be negative.
The longer I continue to be critical, the longer the pattern will continue and the relationship will continue to deteriorate. Unless I become aware of my own critical behaviour, the loop will most likely continue as its been set up. Awareness is the key to any lasting change! Once we have awareness, we cannot ignore what’s happening, and that is the biggest motivation to make lasting changes. I invite you to go back through this chapter and explore it further. Think about one or two things that may be minor, but if they were changed, might make a significant difference to that one relationship you want to improve. The most wonderful result of all will be that it will shift how you relate to yourself!
Let’s summarise the main points:
- We defined what a “relationship” is.
- We explored your own motivation to change a relationship that might not be working.
- We looked at some general principles that apply to all relationships.
- We talked about some behaviours to avoid because they can be corrosive.
Excerpt is from Discover the best in your Relationships by Sayeda Habib
* Factors that damage relationships are expanded upon in the book.