Communication is important for good relationships, and it can sometimes feel complex. Yet, you might still be left wondering, how do I improve my relationships? What’s the #1 thing that sustains relationships?
Change is constant because learning is constant
No one is able to purposely not learn. Though we resist it, we change. We outgrow things. We learn, and we change our minds. Our environments (the people we’re with and places we’re in) also shape us, often unknowingly.
Our needs are constantly shifting. We don’t stay the same. Even at the biological level, cells in your body replaces itself at regular intervals along your entire lifespan. And along with this ‘hardware’, our software – the mind – gets updated, with everything we observe and experience. This is what we call learning, and it goes on whether we like it or not. When we learn, we change.
Constant work required to keep up with constant change
That’s why, maintaining relationships requires work. It takes deliberate work to keep up with how another human being is changing. Even if you are twins, or you live together in the same place, eat the same food, have the same job, there is no guarantee that you will change the same way.
Constant work is required to keep up with constant change. Which is why, like all things in our fallen, physical world, a relationship will eventually fall apart when it is not worked on. Maintaining a relationship takes intentional work, and this work is done in conversations.
Only for meaningful relationships
Of course, there are varying degrees of “relationships”, some of which require less work than others to maintain. But if you want fulfilling, meaningful relationships, the work is real. The work has to be intentional.
And do you realise this: as human beings, the only way we are able to do the work of maintaining relationships is through conversations? It might be spoken or written or otherwise, but it is conversational in nature. Telling each other what we think, what we feel and what we want.
In fact, the roots of the word ‘conversation’ means “to turn (or bend) with”. ‘With’ expresses clearly that conversation is not a solo activity. There needs to be a bi-directional flow of ideas between two parties. This is the core of what we allude to, when we ask how well we are communicating!
Case in point: are there people with whom you share physical space and activities with, but the flow of conversations is limited? How meaningful do you feel these relationships to be?
What is the flow of a meaningful relationship
Where there is life, there is flow. In a functional organism, there is blood flow. In a lush forest, we can find water flowing through it. We naturally feel more comfortable in environments where there is good air flow. In a healthy business, there is a steady cash flow.
Likewise, there is a specific type of flow that occurs in a meaningful relationship. And this flow is conversational in nature: a flow of requests, offers and promises.
This is perhaps the #1 thing that sustains relationships.
Here’s a quick way of understanding this: which relationship in your life feel meaningless to you? As in, it doesn’t make a difference whether that party is in your life or not.
When was the last request, offer or promise that occurred between the two of you? Chances are, it was quite a long time ago… Or maybe, you can’t even remember when. I bet these are the same people whom you text maybe once or twice a year, perhaps to exchange a birthday or festive greeting.
Nothing else happens. Nobody asks anyone for anything. Nobody gives anything. No promises are fulfilled. You and the other party are like parallel lines, never meeting or crossing each other.
Does this sound like the relationships in your life that feel meaningless? If you want to help your romantic relationship or your marriage, pay attention to this.
Promises make it fulfilling
Promises may be a big hint at why we describe a meaningful relationship as being fulfilling. Etymologically, fulfillment means “a sense of completion”. The act of fulfilling promises – which come from requests and offers – completes a relationship.
Now, think of any relationship that you deem meaningful in your life. A family member. A friend. A person from work. Or maybe even a person who provides you goods or services, so long as you feel this relationship to be meaningful. Would it be reasonable to say that your life would be somewhat incomplete without these relationships? And notice how requests, offers and promises flow frequently between you and this person… compared to the ones in your meaningless relationships.
So yes, the ‘talking’ part of communication is important, but it is ultimately a means to coordinate the actions that will take care of both parties, and improve their experience of life.
Sentimentalism & loyalty
Of course, there are people in our lives with whom we share treasured memories (sentimentalism), or maybe even blood ties (loyalty). They hold very significant places in our hearts, and we’ll probably feel that way about them till we die.
Sentimentalism and loyalty can motivate requests, offers and promises to be made, from time to time. But at its core, sentimentalism is essentially a focus on the past. The present is the only place where any real work can be done, so sentimentalism alone cannot sustain a relationship. A living, growing relationship is orientated towards the future. Here, loyalty can be useful, in how it creates promises, because promises take care of the future. However, blind or ‘obligation’ loyalty can breed resentment over time. For it to be sustainable, loyalty needs to be rooted in passionate choice.