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Communicating to Maintain Healthy Relationships

Updated on September 9, 2020
drmiddlebrook profile image

A former university communications professor, Sallie, an independent publisher, also writes romantic fiction novels and short stories.

 Couple practices communication skills in relationship education class.
Couple practices communication skills in relationship education class. | Source

All relationships have challenges. It doesn’t matter whether it is a romantic relationship, a parent-child, sibling-sibling, or a platonic friendship. The truth is there are often many challenges to staying on good terms with people, even those we think of as loved ones, family, and/or good friends.

There is a saying that “opposites attract,” but the truth is that we’re much more likely to be drawn to people based on things we share in common with them. Knowing this, I must ask: Is it our differences or is it those things we have in common that sometimes put us at odds with one another? Why is it so hard to “agree to disagree” and still get along with little or no friction in the relationship?

The old Jack Sprat Food Store, now Ed's Museum, in the Historic Gold Street Commercial District in Wykoff, Fillmore County, Minnesota.
The old Jack Sprat Food Store, now Ed's Museum, in the Historic Gold Street Commercial District in Wykoff, Fillmore County, Minnesota. | Source

The Jack Sprat Relationship Solution

Thankfully, even though we’re all different in many ways, as human beings we’re also similar in many more ways. Sometimes, however, it can seem as though we’re all sort of like Jack Sprat and his wife. Remember that old nursery rhyme? It went something like: Jack Sprat could eat no fat, and his wife could eat no lean. And so, between them both, you see, they left the platter clean! Jack and Mrs. Sprat found a way to make the best of a bad situation. They found a way that worked for both of them, and they worked things out.

But is Jack Sprat a rhyme is about food and eating? Or is it really instructional poetry about the rewards of compromise? Isn't it about relationships and how people must come to them ready and willing to engage in give and take? Isn't it saying to us that when you truly value a relationship, you will find a way to give everything you can to nourish it? And isn't it saying, finally, that once you learn how to do that the relationship will give back by rewarding you in some way? Based on what you give to it—how you nourish it, the relationship becomes poised (or not) to grow strong and thrive. But it can thrive only when both participants are giving their special and unique all to what they are trying to have together.

Because we don’t see eye to eye on everything with those we love and/or care for, it seems we’re constantly challenged to search for and to discover ways to just get along. But does life have to be about giving up or giving in just to get along? Or is there a simple way to make relationships work better, naturally, that we are overlooking because it is so simple?

Two Special Relationship Challenges

  • Relationship Challenge Number One

First, I would like you to consider what you would do if someone you once had an “unfriendly” relationship with, years later, wanted to become your friend. This story is about someone I know who went to high school with someone else we both know. These two people hated each other in high school, and belonged to two different cliques. You know the kind. Like the “smart girls” one, or the “cool girls” one, or the cliques for girls that didn’t have a clique?

Years after high school—somehow, some way, these two women ended up in a situation where they had to learn to accept and get along with each other. Two who never even spoke to one another back in high school became coworkers, first, and then the former enemy started dating someone in the other woman's family.The point is, neither ever thought she'd have to deal with the other, ever, and then many years after leaving high school and childhood behind, they're having to actually face and see each other often. Do you think it's possible for the two of them to mend fences now and become friends?

I believe the answer is three-pronged: “Yes,” “no,” and “maybe,” because it all depends. It depends because while enemies can become friends, both parties must be willing to put aside differences and both must be committed to working hard to connect at similarities, i.e., their common interests. Each woman must be willing to keep the lines of communication open between them, and they must be willing to forgive each other for what happened in the past. They must be adults, and they must be "moved on" from high school. Their past history is of two people who not only avoided and didn’t talk to each other, their actions toward each other were designed to keep friendship from happening between them. Now, the opposite has to be undertaken if they both want to give friendship a fighting chance.

  • Relationship Challenge Number Two

Here's the second relationship challenge I would like you to ponder. A fifty-something widow generously allowed her grown son, 27, to come back home to live, mainly due to the tough economy we’re all facing. You may have read or heard that a lot of adult children are moving back home these days. In fact, according to the U.S. Census Bureau (, as of 2018, nearly 55% of young adults age 18 to 24 still live at home with their parents, and around 16% of those 25 to 34 still live at home. Furthermore, the unemployment rate among people in the 20-24 age group, as of July 2020, is 18.3%, in general, and 17.8% among men.

This young man, after he'd been living back home for nearly a year, to the mother's surprise one day offered unsolicited commentary on her social life and who she'd decided to spend it with. The mother didn't get upset when the comments were offered, but she did when she realized her son expected her to act based on what he wanted her to do. He didn't like the man she had been dating for two years, and he expected her to stop seeing him.

What would you do if you were in this woman's place? Her child will likely always be an integral part of her life, forever, so isn’t it critical to her future happiness that her son like and get along with her man? Perhaps. Or, is it possible for the mother to love and maintain a long-term relationship with someone that her child does not like?

I think the answer lies in the conversation the mother needs to have with her adult son, a conversation that should go far beyond the obvious talk about “boundaries” that must be established. Just as her son grew up and desired his independence, his mother needs to communicate to him that she also desires independence—something she has earned. She should talk to her son, thanking him for caring but establishing firmly that she is not willing to simply defer to him when it comes to making decisions about how she will live her life. She needs her child to understand that she plans to have the last word on decisions about who she should or should not be dating.

Communication: The Primary Key to Great Relationships

What do you do when faced with special relationship challenges? It may sound overly simplistic, but the answer, I think, is to “be real.” Look inside, find the real you, and discover how you really feel about the challenge you're faced with. Then, take the real you to the real person you’re trying to be friends with. If there is something that is bothering you that keeps you from being able to communicate with this person honestly, then you have to find a way to talk about it.

The best thing you can do is to find a way to broach, tactfully, the topic of what you see as the problem, and then talk about it. There’s always a diplomatic way to talk about anything you need to talk about with someone you're close to, especially f it is something that is coming between you and them; something that is interfering with your relationship. In the two scenarios above, the relationships are all likely to be long-term ones. Therefore, like the relationships you cherish, they deserve all the time that's needed to work on challenges that are keeping them from being all they could be.

© 2013 Sallie B Middlebrook PhD


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