The Other Heart Health:
Examining Your Relationships
By H. Wallace Goddard, PhD, CLFE, & James P. Marshall, PhD
University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension, Department of Family Life
We all want to have good relationships with the people in our lives; for one thing, it makes us better parents. But sometimes this can be difficult. Relationships are packed with problems like misunderstandings, hurt feelings and painful conflicts. Sometimes we become frustrated or disappointed with people — even the most important people in our lives.
We might think that the answer to having a better relationship is simply to learn better relationship skills. Relationship skills are important, but the source of many of our relationship problems is not merely a lack of knowledge or skills. In many cases, we simply lack the commitment or motivation to do what we know we should do.
For example, most of us know we should eat more fruits and vegetables to have a good diet. We have the skills to prepare them. But many of us still don't eat well in spite of our knowledge and skills.
This is also true in relationships.
• We know how to say kind and helpful things. We have all the skills required. But many times we choose to criticize, complain or hurt others instead of being kind.
• We know how to listen to others. But many times we choose to continue talking or arguing instead of listening and trying to better understand the other person's feelings.
We may think that our behavior is justified. We tell ourselves that we have good reasons for the way we are acting. Yet we may be destroying a relationship.
Relationship Heart Disease
A major obstacle to healthy relationships – in general and as we parent – is something that is called bias. It is the tendency to see people in negative ways. When our hearts and minds are filled with negative views, our relationships suffer.
Below are some of the most common forms of bias that afflict our relationships:
• We excuse ourselves for our mistakes while judging and blaming others for their mistakes.
• We give people who agree with us too much credit while giving people who disagree with us too little credit.
• We assume we are right in the way we see things while others are misguided.
• We are only open to those ideas that support our current views.
• We jump to conclusions based on gut reactions.
• We remember things the way we want to, rather than the way they actually were.
In other words, we think we are fair and sensible while actually being very biased or unfair in our assessments of the people and situations around us. By being aware of our biases, we can resist them. We can also cultivate three qualities of heart that help us avoid bias.
The Relationship Cure
1. Humility prepares our hearts.
Humility reminds us that we don't always see things clearly. Humility prepares our hearts to understand the stories, needs, pains and struggles of the people in our lives. When we are humble, we can better resolve relationship challenges.
When our hearts are biased, one response to conflict might be: "You don't know what you're talking about!" When we are humble, we might say: "Help me understand why you feel that way."
Humility helps us admit that we don't know the full story, and we aren't always right.
2. Compassion opens our hearts.
Often we feel that we can't possibly be compassionate with someone who is so ignorant/selfish/vain/wrong/demanding/critical! We think we cannot help but resent them. Yet compassion is a choice. We can choose to manage our feelings. Instead of being
absorbed in our own irritation or pain, we can choose to open our hearts to the needs and pains of others.
The difference between a hard heart and a compassionate heart can be seen in the different ways we react when someone irritates us. When our hearts are hard, common thoughts might be: "This is all her fault!" or "He is such a pain!" A more compassionate response might be: "Maybe she is having a really bad day," or "Maybe he didn't mean that the way it sounded to me."
3. Positivity expands our hearts.
A negative heart accuses. It finds fault and itemizes complaints. A positive heart does the opposite. It looks for, focuses on and celebrates the good! A positive outlook expands our hearts and helps us to see the good in others.
In strong relationships people have about five positive thoughts and actions towards the other person for each negative one. When our hearts are negative, a common thought might be: "You really disappoint and irritate me."
In contrast, a more positive way of thinking about a relationship might include something like: "I'm grateful for the nice things you do for me."
Getting Our Hearts Right
Although our knowledge and skills are an important part of healthy relationships, they alone are not enough. We also need a willingness to recognize and treat the heart disease of bias within each of us. We can do this by using the remedies of humility, compassion and positivity to improve our relationships and strengthen our hearts. We can choose to get our hearts right.
A free workbook to help you overcome bias and strengthen relationships is now available from your University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension county office. Go to arfamilies.org for more programs and information.