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Creating and Maintaining Quality Relationships

Harry Mills, Ph.D., edited by Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.


friends talking over coffeeIn the physical world, boundaries are things that separate one thing from another, like walls that separate the outside of a house from the inside. Though they have no physical substance, personal boundaries act very much like walls, by separating the private parts of people from the public parts. Similarly, your relationships with other people are characterized by boundaries that define the degree of closeness appropriate to each relationship. For example, one such boundary might separate whether someone is a 'friend' or not (friends being 'inside' the boundary, while non-friends (strangers, acquaintances, etc.) are outside it). How a person will react towards you; what they'll be willing to share with you and what they'll expect of you in return will be in large part guided by where you stand with regard to each other's boundaries. You might share details of your personal life with friends, for example, but your decision to share the same information with the checkout clerk at the supermarket (a non-friend) might cause people to look at you funny. It is important to appreciate people's boundaries, and your own boundaries so that you don't do or say the wrong thing and upset an important relationship.

Each person's boundaries are partially drawn from their culture. Because of this, sharing a culture in common with someone you're interacting with makes it easier for you to understand what that person will be comfortable with and what they will be uncomfortable with. Some other portion of a person's boundaries will be personal and you will have to get to know them in order to know what they are. You will have the greatest success in forming and maintaining relationships when you stay within acceptable boundaries (cultural, personal, etc.) for the people you are relating to.

Understanding and respecting cultural boundaries is particularly important when you are dealing with people you don't know very well. For example, it is a good idea to respect established social taboos and to never consider yourself 'above the law' with regard to those you are in relationships with. Telling off-color or 'dirty' jokes in mixed company can be off-putting, for example. Worse, you might think that telling an off-color joke is merely an attempt at humor while someone in your audience might see it as sexual harassment. Do not assume that just because you think a particular behavior is okay that the person or people you are relating to will agree!

Knowing your own personal boundaries is also important. Part of becoming a successful recovering alcoholic, for example, includes learning how to be comfortable refusing alcohol even when it is socially appropriate to have a drink. Recovering alcoholics who do not learn to respect their own boundaries and limitations with regard to alcohol tend not to stay in recovery for very long.


Boundaries tell you how not to behave, but they don't help you get clear about how to behave. Relationship maintenance gets a whole lot easier when you learn how to communicate what it is you want from people in clear and unambiguous language. If you want to become emotionally close to someone, you'll need to share your feelings and thoughts with that person. You sabotage your chances for closeness and intimacy when you remain completely emotionally guarded and only discuss ideas.

The type of communication that is appropriate for any particular relationship is governed by the boundaries that exist (or should exist) between the partners. It is appropriate to share your feelings with your spouse, for instance, but not necessarily with your boss. On the other hand, your boss might be more interested in your intellectual ideas than your spouse.

Once a particular type of conversation gets started, keep in mind that it can be disorienting if one partner abruptly tries to switch to a different sort of conversation. This is exactly what occurs in marriages when one partner tries to communicate about feelings, and the other partner responds by offering 'solutions'; by trying to solve the problem rather than hear the pain. In such situations, the 'feeling' partner doesn't feel heard and leaves the conversation frustrated. It is especially important to take this into account before you speak or respond to your boss or your significant other as you are likely to depend on these people the most.


Being committed to a relationship basically boils down to taking that relationship seriously: showing reciprocity towards the relationship, respecting its boundaries and doing your best to communicate and listen clearly and well. By doing these things over time, you build up a sort of credit with your relationship partners. They come to trust and care for you and to expect that you will support them should they encounter difficulties. It is this credit that motivates others to support you when you need support. The high quality relationships that will sustain you during times of need and which encourage your resiliency will tend to be the ones you have committed yourself to. To the extent you cannot commit to a relationship (romantic or otherwise), you won't be able to depend on that relationship when you may need it.

Creating and Maintaining Quality Relationships

Creating new relationships and nurturing old ones takes time and effort, but is not necessary a difficult thing to accomplish and can be a lot of fun as well. You first have to decide that relationships will be a priority over the other important activities filling your life, such as your career. Next, you have to figure out how to divide up your limited energy and time. Some people will want to focus on creating new relationships (romances, friendships, etc.) while others will want to focus on deepening existing relationships with family members, spouses and significant others and friends.

Having figured out the relationships you want to focus on, your next task is to create opportunities for cultivating your chosen relationships. If you are looking to create a new romance, you will want to see about meeting suitable dating partners. If you are looking for new friends, you will have to place yourself into new social circumstances that will afford you opportunities to meet like-minded people. Community service volunteer activities, civic groups, clubs and hobby groups, religious groups, gyms and exercise groups, and local sporting activities can be excellent places to meet people. Keep in mind that you will have to take the lead in most cases by getting involved in planning and organizing activities and by extending social offers to people you come to like. Do not wait for someone else to make the first move. Instead, reach out in a positive manner to others. While most people welcome the opportunity to make new friends, they are also busy and will not necessarily seek you (or others) out on their own. While opening yourself up to other people involves a certain degree of risk, not having a social network has far greater negative consequences.

Whether relationships are new or old, the process of deepening them so that they increase in quality and vitality is more or less the same. You will need to create opportunities to express your desire for continued or renewed intimacy. Taking the lead in organizing get-togethers and activities is one way to express interest, while open communication about your positive feelings towards the relationship is another. Your taking the time to do spontaneous and thoughtful things that will benefit the people you want to be closer to will often trigger a reciprocity on their part which will strengthen the relationship.

Make the effort to maintain existing relationships even when doing so means going the extra mile. The connections we make throughout our lives continuously change. Children are born and grow up, people's responsibilities and interests change and families move around the country seeking new opportunities. As a consequence of this change, many good relationships end simply because they become inconvenient to nurture. Such unfortunate endings need not occur if both relationship partners take the time to periodically keep in touch. For example, if you move across the country away from family, make it a point to call your family once a week. A little maintenance can go a long way.