What Makes A Good Relationship

Our relationships are very important to us. They have a big effect on our happiness. But what makes for a good relationship? I give you my ideas (based on those of Carl Rogers) and ask for yours.

In our lives there is probably nothing more important than the quality of our relationships. Our relationships influence the major decisions we make and are a large part of our happiness.

In the comments I would like to hear what you think makes for a good relationship. To get you thinking I’ll start by quoting the best description I know of the personal qualities that make for a good relationship.

These ideas don’t originate with me. They come from Carl Rogers — one of the originators of the movement of “Third Force Psychotherapy” which began post-World War Two and which is roughly described as ‘counseling’ or ‘psychotherapy’ rather than psychiatry. The way Carl Rogers practised therapy was by listening (this isn’t just going “oh yeah”: my best way to explain what is meant by listening is to say that it is the active attempt to feel your way into the other person’s world). I think he has been unfairly ignored for the last decade or two — partly because his therapy is easily satirized as just saying, “Uh-huh”. This is unfair, as he was very committed to research and his definition of the personal qualities needed for a good relationship is still unsurpassed in my view. It was developed in the context of psychotherapy, rather than everyday life, but I think it is valid for our usual relationships; let me know what you think.

Carl Rogers believed that there were three qualities required for a good relationship. Carl Rogers had a long life and practice and so there were various formulations. I think this is a fairly commonly accepted one:

  • Congruency
  • Empathy
  • Unconditional Positive Regard

This seems an excellent summary to me. The following is my understanding of what these terms mean.

Congruency
By this he means that the person isn’t ‘all over the place’. That the person has a sense of who they are. This doesn’t mean that they are not confused but that they express their confusion when they are. That the person is in some sense ‘all of a piece’. It is awfully hard to relate well to someone who is scattered. This doesn’t mean that being scattered isn’t good or the best place to be, just that it is hard for a good relationship to exist while someone is scattered.
Empathy
This isn’t quite what we mean when we say that, “I now how you feel” and similar things. My best way of explaining empathy is to say that you can feel why the other person sees the world the way they do. It has both an emotional (you feel) and mental (seeing the world) component.
Unconditional Positive Regard
This I think of as something of a combination of respect and love. It means that the other person and oneself are regarded as being worthy. That they are actively involved in creating their life — however difficult this may be. It means that people are regarded as being able to change.

I think this is a pretty good description of what makes for a good relationship. Let me know what you think in the comments.

For more on Carl Rogers’ Person Centred Counselling see this post by Greg Mulhauser called “An Introduction to Person Centred Counselling“.

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