Human connection is the next crucial need for well-being after our basic physiological and safety needs are met. We are relational beings and are meant to connect to others. The stronger our relationships are, the safer we feel to be our true selves, open up and build meaningful connections that benefit our mental and emotional health.

For my book, MENTAL HEALTH OVER MATTER, I've consulted nineteen experts on important topics related to mental health. One chapter concerns relationships. Below is an excerpt from my conversation with Dr. Andrea Taylor-Cummings who founded "The 4 Habits of ALL Successful Relationships."

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Could you provide me with a short explanation of the Four Habits?

“Habit one, Be CURIOUS, not critical, is about understanding that we are all wired differently and propose different strengths. We, in theory, recognize that people are different from us. But in practice, we expect their thoughts and behaviors to be similar. When we do something wrong or make a mistake, we forgive ourselves, calling it circumstantial – it just happened, and we aren’t bad people. However, when someone else makes a mistake, we see them as fundamentally flawed. Our natural tendency is to judge and criticize any behavior different from ours. Instead, we should suspend judgment and become curious about others’ strengths. The more people are different from us, the more likely they will have strengths covering our blind spots. We need to develop the habit of respecting and valuing differences.

Habit two, Be CAREFUL, not crushing, is about how we turn up in a conflict situation and conduct ourselves. Conflict will happen, so we must be prepared to do it well. Sadly, many of us have experienced poorly managed conflict and try to avoid it at all costs. Being ill-prepared adds to the emotional distress and damage we cause to relationships when conflict arises. Our egos and intense emotions tend to get involved because of our natural ‘fight or flight’ reactions and tendency to go for self-preservation at all costs. We can come out stronger and with a better understanding when we develop the habit of turning up well to relationships even under pressure, responding to conflict with more empathy, listening better, and treating each other well. Handled well, conflict is an opportunity to create a deeper understanding, find a better solution, and strengthen the relationship.

Habit three, ASK, don't assume, is about recognizing that we all have deep-seated values, beliefs, and assumptions that drive our behaviors and expectations of others. When assumptions aren’t shared on both sides, we break trust. Talking about deep-seated beliefs and values can make us feel vulnerable, but not talking about them creates distance and prevents building trust and respect. Sometimes we are unaware of our values and beliefs until someone does something that makes us feel disrespected to the core. Our response is then often visceral – a strong adverse gut reaction that clarifies something is unacceptable. That is the time to get courageous and ask people what you can do differently to build mutual respect and trust.

Habit four, CONNECT before you correct, is about communicating value and appreciation in ways that matter to each person. We should be as intentional about building warmth and rapport in the relationship as providing constructive feedback. We are inclined to tell people when they’re wrong or could improve. But we don’t spend half as much time on the other side of the equation showing that we treasure, appreciate, and love them. We should first build warmth and connection. People go where they feel welcomed but stay where they feel valued.”

Do the habits differ for divergent relationships?

“They apply to all relationships. The thing about relationships is that when they go wrong, we generally tend to blame the other person, while it takes two to tango. Even if our part was the smaller part, we need to recognize what it was and learn how to manage better how we are impacting the relationship. We can only take responsibility for our part. So, a great place to start is by identifying how we are coming across to people, which could be with friends, at work, or in romantic relationships.

A concept called the emotional bank account helps us understand this. It’s a practical concept we can use to help manage the warmth and quality of your relationships. We each keep a (subconscious) mental record of every interaction with each person we relate to. If we perceive the interaction as positive, it lands as a deposit in our emotional bank account. If we assess the interaction as unfavorable, it lands as a withdrawal. It isn’t about the other person's intention but how we perceive their behavior. The balance across the deposits and withdrawals describes the temperature of the relationship. When the balance is positive, the relationship is in a good place. We feel more warmth and overlook misunderstandings more quickly. When the balance is overdrawn, the relationship is scratchy. Everything can be a problem, and tense arguments can erupt soon.

Once you understand the concept of the emotional bank account, you can use it to help manage all your relationships. You now know that every time you do something that lands badly, even if you do so unintentionally, you’re making withdrawals from people’s emotional bank accounts. And if you aren’t careful, before long, you can find yourself in a situation where their emotional bank account with you drops to zero or into overdraft. You will know that their emotional bank account isn’t in a good place when things you might have done in the past with no response now get a negative response. In that case, you need to work on rebuilding the relationship to get it back to a good place. This is true for every relationship. You can get a sense of the relationship quality with your work colleague, spouse, partner, or child by understanding what is happening in their emotional bank account.”

Are there any toxic relational habits that many perceive as healthy?

“One of the first things that come to mind is ‘one-upmanship.’ You destroy relationships if you always try to put the other person down and show that you are better. One-upmanship is embedded in our culture, but it makes a withdrawal in the emotional bank account every time. Not taking responsibility for your impact on others is another withdrawal. It’s unhelpful if people are unwilling to hold themselves accountable for their behavior and instead blame it on their personality, for example, saying, ‘That is just the way I’m, and that is just how I deal with anger.’ We can work on self-development and change behaviors that damage relationships. We can choose how we want to be experienced in relationships, especially with our dear people.
Another fallacy is not being proactive about building solid relationships and assuming they will happen naturally. We seem to think we can turn up, do whatever, expect the relationship to flourish, and then only start paying attention to the relationship when things break down. I can’t speak for every society, but that is the norm that undoubtedly destroys relationships in much of the Western world. Relationship breakdown, especially between couples, is sky-high. People only spend money and invest in relationship skills when it’s too late.

But every relationship will face hurdles. When you have two thinking, breathing, opinionated individuals in a room, an exchange of words or difference of opinion is bound to occur at some stage. So, we should become more proactive in building relational intelligence upfront as a natural part of personal and professional development. We teach people to drive before they get in a car. Why don’t we equip people upfront with tools for doing relationships well?”

What is the link between relationships and mental health?

“There is a strong link. Mental health is embedded in quality relationships. Relationships are a vital source of resilience, self-esteem, a sense of self-worth, and belonging. High-quality relationships are tied closely to a sense of well-being, the strength to deal with challenges, living longer, and getting over illnesses faster. Human connection is the next crucial need for well-being after our basic physiological and safety needs are met. We are relational beings and are meant to connect to others. The stronger our relationships are, the safer we feel to be our true selves, open up and build meaningful connections that benefit our mental and emotional health.
Every year for #MentalHealthAwarenessDay, the UK Mental Health Foundation develops its campaign around a theme. In 2016, the theme was relationships. One of the key findings was that relationship breakdown is killing us as fast as smoking and alcoholism and faster than obesity and lack of exercise. They concluded that we must make every effort to do relationships well and eliminate obstacles to succeeding. I can’t overemphasize the importance of being more proactive about developing strong, lasting, quality relationships. In our society, we reduce relationships to, for example, the quality of our sex life, emotional attraction, or physical desirability. We have reality TV shows that promote sexual attraction above building trust, commitment, and emotional health for individuals, families, and society.”

What were some of the more surprising lessons you came across?

“Things can be simple but not necessarily easy. Many of the principles and insights we discuss aren’t rocket science, but they take deliberate effort and practice to change our behaviors. When a relationship is under pressure, we need to be intentional about our actions and know the specific behaviors that will leave the relationship in a better place.
Managing emotions is fundamental, as humans are emotional beings. We feel things and make decisions emotionally but try to justify them logically because we struggle to talk about feelings. We must learn to pay attention to our relational intelligence and not respond immaturely. Our relational intelligence helps us make better choices about our behaviors and enables better conversations, even when our insides scream like a child to throw a tantrum.”

Many people are aware of their emotional responses but find it challenging to take a step back and react more maturely. What would you advise them?

“Everyone has their default approach to conflict, an automatic response that kicks in under pressure in an attempt to protect ourselves. Some people try to dominate the situation and win at all costs. Others run away, give in, or argue for hours, trying to convince the other. These approaches are very ‘me-centered.’ The focus is on getting our way, so we feel protected, safe, and justified, regardless of the impact on the other person or the relationship. The problem is that when everyone is only looking out for themselves, the relationship suffers, and people often get stuck in emotional distress. Instead, we need to develop a ‘we-centered’ approach that focuses on what is best for the relationship. One way to do that is to think big picture – what do you want long-term for the relationship? Your actions now impact the outcome long term.
Another factor is to learn to listen well. Generally, we only listen long enough to formulate our argument and fire back. Instead of listening, we spend time re-loading. But if we take the time to understand the issue, we often realize that it was just a misunderstanding, and the other person never meant it that way. So, pause, breathe, and be in control of what comes out of your mouth. One more tip is to try not to use accusatory language. Instead of saying, ‘you did this or that,’ say something like, ‘I felt disrespected when.’ Expressing your honest feelings is a vulnerable thing to do. But it takes vulnerability to build a genuine and meaningful relationship.”

Can you be “too vulnerable” in a relationship?

“There are several levels of vulnerability. One class of vulnerability is about feeling free to be your authentic, true self rather than having to pretend. Another type of vulnerability is opening up and speaking honestly about deeply held secrets, dreams, and fears. Depending on the quality of the relationship, you don’t want to go too deep into vulnerability before you build trust. Sometimes we reach a level of openness and vulnerability that the quality of the relationship can’t sustain. Building trust and being vulnerable go hand in hand.”

What misconception about romantic relationships would you like to resolve?

“One misconception is that physical attraction is enough to sustain a long-term romantic relationship. Those are just physical and chemical reactions, while the foundations of a healthy relationship are trust, vulnerability, and commitment. Relationships can’t last without these aspects because emotions come and go. Some assume that immediately getting physical creates a strong relationship, while there is no foundation. We get into intense relationships too quickly without the relationship quality to sustain them. Choose better, take more time, and allow the relationship to grow. Don’t just get to know the person but also the people around them. Observe the individuals and things that influence them. You will understand their values, their thoughts, and whether there is true synergy. You can discover some of these things before you’re emotionally entrenched and go through a painful breakup.”

What role should boundaries play in a healthy relationship?

“Some people believe that a good relationship doesn’t involve any arguments. I have yet to observe a healthy relationship without disputes. The key is to argue well and recover quickly. Clear boundaries help create a healthy space for a good old argument that strengthens the relationship. Boundaries on how you expect others to treat you should be firm and well-maintained. Those are ground rules that create safety in a relationship. You don’t allow yourself or others to cross those boundaries, no matter how angry you get. For example, my husband and I have the ground rules of never hitting each other, never walking out of the house in anger, and never threatening divorce to be spiteful.
Discover what makes you feel safe and respected as an individual, and establish ground rules on how you connect, interact, and respect each other, even when tempers flare. Other contextual boundaries need to be discussed and negotiated with others to keep relationships healthy. For example, setting boundaries and managing expectations with colleagues around when you are available for work is essential. You re-establish these boundaries based on where you are and what is going on in each season of life.”

Imagine we have tried everything, and nothing has worked. How can we gracefully let go of someone we have cared about for a long time?

“That is a challenging question. The problem is that people often don’t seek help until they have inflicted such emotional damage on each other that they have drained their emotional bank accounts and lost the will to work on the relationship. In an ideal world, we would start with better relational intelligence and never get to the stage where such emotional damage occurs. People would understand differences more, show more patience, hear each other better, and build more substantial respect and trust. Part of me always hopes there is a way to restore the relationship and move forward. But if you have exhausted all options, find a way to part well that doesn’t cause any more damage in the process. There is always pain involved, so think of the most honoring, respectful, and healing way to part for all concerned. Of course, if there is ever any abuse involved and your life or health is at risk, get help and go to a safe place as soon as possible.”

What topics within relationships deserve more attention?

“We don’t talk enough about relational intelligence. We must educate people on how to do relationships well and take personal responsibility for showing up to their relationships. We will have better relationships if we intentionally develop our relationship skills. Experiences for children will improve as their mental health is closely tied to the quality of the relationship between their parents.
Quality relationships are fundamental to mental health, emotional health, and resilience. To reverse the trends around family breakdown, mental ill-health, and suicide levels, we need to become better at the fundamentals of relationships. That helps reduce mental health concerns for teens and young adults and enables tighter homes, families, workplaces, and teams. The future of society hinges on our ability to do relationships well. As we move into a global, hybrid environment, we must stimulate well-being by strengthening the relationships that support us and influence how we turn up to life.”

What books have influenced your ideas about relationships the most?

“The Two Sides of Love, by Dr. John Trent and Gary Smalley (2019), is the revised edition of the book that transformed how we related to each other and got us started on this relationship education journey almost 30 years ago. It changed how we understood and respected our different strengths and empowered us to work more effectively together. We learned to divide work and roles based on our strengths and to cover for, rather than criticize, each other’s weaknesses.
The Five Love Languages, by Gary Chapman, also greatly influenced us. The book explains how everyone feels loved, valued, and appreciated most powerfully in one or more of five different Love Languages. Many misunderstandings occur in relationships because we try to show love and appreciation in a way that matters to us but doesn’t land as powerfully for the people around us. We leave people feeling unloved and unappreciated simply because we don’t know the language that speaks most strongly to them, and all our efforts fall flat. Learning to speak each other’s Love Language is a compelling way to make people feel loved, valued, and appreciated on purpose.”