The Formula for Healthy Relating
Improve any relationship, interaction, or communication.
Posted Sep 11, 2020
In Relational Literacy 101, I pointed out how most of us never get a single formal lesson in how to relate in a way that’s healthy, so, not surprisingly, our relationships, societies, and planet suffer accordingly. I also noted that some of the most pressing problems in our lives and in our world—such as interpersonal abuse, war, poverty, sexism, racism, animal exploitation, and climate change—all share a common denominator: relational dysfunction. In other words, all these problems reflect a dysfunctional way of relating—between social groups, to other individuals, to other animals and the environment, and even to ourselves. I concluded that building relational literacy, the understanding of and ability to practice healthy ways of relating, is fundamental for personal and social transformation.
Relational literacy incorporates many principles and tools. But it’s based on a single formula. This formula applies to all levels and kinds of relationships. It applies on the collective level (how social groups relate), the interpersonal level (how two or several individuals relate), and the intrapersonal level (how we relate to ourselves). It also applies to how we relate to other animals and the environment. The formula applies equally to long-term relationships and to brief interactions (relationships are, after all, a series of interactions). And, of course, it applies to how we communicate, since communication is the primary way we relate.
So here’s the simple formula: A healthy relationship (or interaction) reflects integrity, honors dignity, and leads to a sense of mutual connection.
practice integrity + honor dignity = connection
Integrity is the integration of our core moral values of compassion and justice* and our behaviors; we practice integrity when we act in alignment with these values. Put simply, when we practice integrity, we treat others how we would want to be treated if we were in their position; we treat them with respect.
Dignity is our sense of inherent worth. When we honor someone’s dignity, we perceive and treat them as no less worthy of respect than anyone else.
Healthy relating, like most things in life, is not an either-or phenomenon. It exists on a spectrum. Rarely is an interaction or relationship fully healthy or dysfunctional. Rather, it is more or less so.
On the healthy side of the spectrum are relational attitudes and behaviors. On the dysfunctional side are nonrelational attitudes and behaviors, which reflect the opposite of the formula for healthy relating. Nonrelational attitudes and behaviors violate integrity, harm dignity, and lead to a sense of disconnection.
violate integrity + harm dignity = disconnection
So our communication, advocacy, and so forth can be more or less relational, as can the systems of which we are a part, such as our families, partnerships, workplaces, and broader social systems. For example, oppressive systems, such as racism, patriarchy, and carnism (which I refer to as powerarchies), are nonrelational systems; they condition us to think and act in ways that violate integrity, harm dignity and lead to disconnection—and, of course, they cause harm more broadly.
The good news is that relational behaviors are “all-win,” in that they lead to mutually beneficial outcomes. When we practice integrity and honor dignity, we increase our own integrity, the integrity of the other individual(s) with whom we’re relating, and that of the relationship or system as a whole.
For example, a person who avoids conflict may be dishonest with themselves and their partner about concerns they have regarding their relationship, in order to avoid the discomfort of discord.** To practice greater integrity, this person would instead share their concerns honestly and compassionately; they would thus be treating their partner with more respect. In so doing, they would help create an environment that increases the chances that their partner would also act respectfully: It’s easier to be respectful when you trust that you won’t be shamed or otherwise attacked or disrespected. And the relationship itself would grow in integrity; the more integrity is practiced in a relationship, the more the norm of the relationship becomes respectful.
Or, for example, if you’re in a relationship with a partner who’s not practicing integrity toward you—despite sufficient attempts to change the pattern—the choice of integrity may well be for you to end that relationship. In so doing, you’re protecting yourself from continuing to be treated disrespectfully; you’re preventing your partner from continuing to violate their own integrity by acting disrespectfully toward you; and you’re protecting the relationship from further devolving in integrity.
There are myriad strategies to build relational literacy, but this formula underpins them all. A simple yet powerful way to improve the health of any relationship or interaction is to pause and ask yourself to what degree the relationship or interaction reflects integrity and honors dignity. Then ask yourself how you might increase each of these qualities. Try to note what obstacles may stand in the way of doing so, as well as what you might do to mitigate these obstacles. The answers you come up with can lead you down the path of relational growth and greatly enhanced connections.
My new book, Getting Relationships Right, is a one-stop guide to building relational literacy. Download the first chapter for free here.
*Research suggests that compassion (caring) and justice (fairness) are the most widely espoused core moral values across cultures. See Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion (New York: Vintage Books, 2013).
**This example refers to an individual in a nonabusive relationship; conflict avoidance may be an important self-preservation strategy in relationships where abuse or even the threat of abuse is present.