If asked for the most important factor in successful relationships, I would hear answers like “communication”, “love”, and “respect”. While they’re all important, I don’t think they’re the most important.
I think the most important factor in all successful relationships is acceptance. Acceptance of who the other person is, who they want to be, and acceptance of where the relationship is right now.
We spend a lot of time trying to make life less of what it is and more of what we want it to be. And though 9 times out of 10 I would recognize growth as a good thing, there is always that one exception.
This exception is about understanding that we can’t change other people. Anyone who has ever tried to get their child to clean up after themselves knows how well that goes. But we can plant seeds that help them change themselves.
Still, before we can even attempt to plant seeds, we first need to accept that we are where we are. Whatever has happened to get a relationship to its current point (good or bad) is in the past. And whatever might happen to it in the future (good or bad) is not here yet.
If the ultimate goal is to improve a relationship, then the first step is acknowledging (and accepting) where it is right now. This isn’t only for troubled relationships, either. Every relationship can improve in some way.
Acceptance is Important in All Types of Relationships
When I hear the word “relationship” I tend to first think of it in the romantic context. The word is most often used that way, so it makes sense.
But relationships are not only romantic. And, as a result, the idea of acceptance in relationships should not only limited to romantic ones.
In fact, most of your relationships throughout life will be non-romantic ones. Unless you’re in various romantic relationships at once (which is NOT advisable).
That’s why it’s crucial to know how to manage, maintain, and improve all kinds of relationships. To do that, it helps to be aware of those different types, and the nuances of each.
Understanding The (Many) Different Types of Relationships
Depending on how granular we get, there could be dozens of different relationship types. To keep this example simple, I’m going to break them down into two major categories: labels and standards.
Two Categories of Relationship Types
For context, “label” is how we define relationships. They often have clear boundaries. “Standards” describes the rules or framework the relationships adhere to.
Most of the time, relationships will align with only one of the labels. But, they can follow multiple standards. Both labels and standards can change over time, but they don’t bounce around very often. There are exceptions, but generally speaking, that’s the case.
For clarity, here are the major buckets I’ve come up with for relationship labels and standards.
These are connections you have with members of your family. Your oldest and closest relationships, they’re also usually the only type you can’t choose. You’re born into a family and, though you can become closer to or drift further from them, there’s not much more any of us can do about it.
Friendships are among the most influential relationships you’ll have. They are often the first relationships we experience outside of our family. When we’re younger, the neighborhood we live in and the school we go to determines who we become friends with. As adults, those relationships develop through common interests and vocation.
Romantic relationships are complex. There’s a reason why there are hundreds of books and life coaches focused on helping people improve them. I can’t solve them in one blog post. But we can acknowledge that they are unlike any other kind of relationship label. They are usually complicated, and often involve many, and sometimes conflicting, emotions.
Friends of friends. People in your church group. The person who reaches out ten years after last hearing from them to let you know about a “once-in-a-lifetime money-making opportunity.” Acquaintances are people you interact with occasionally, but usually not because you’ve gone out of your way to do so.
Colleagues, coworkers, peers. These relationships are with people who are on your level. It could be professionally, financially, or socially, but they are in a similar place in life. This makes it easy to relate to and connect with. Collegial relationships can last for many years. But usually they either evolve into a closer relationship (friends, romantic interests, etc.) or they will devolve into acquaintances. Some may fall out of your circle entirely.
These are bosses, teachers, etc. Their role is not to get along with you or be your friend, but rather to perform a duty. They need to accomplish something and you’ve been chosen to help them do it. Each supervisor will have their own style of getting it done. Like family, it’s one of the few that you have little control over when it comes to choosing who will fill that role.
An equal relationship means all parties have an equal voice in the relationship. It may or may not be one that both choose to be in, but they are both empowered to impact it.
Mutual relationships are ones which all parties involved choose to be part of. They aren’t always equal, though they can be. The primary criteria is that both participants are invested in a successful relationship.
This is a little more one-sided than the others so far, but not in a controlling way. Think of a teacher/student type situation. One person has more knowledge or experience (or both) and is teaching the other.
Similar to an instructive relationship, one individual is in a leadership position. It’s different because instead of teaching, they act as a guide, helping the other person discover the answers on their own.
Authoritative relationships are one-sided. The one in power decides how things are and the other individual acts accordingly. It isn’t necessarily always a toxic relationship, though it often is.
Acceptance As The Foundation of A Healthy Relationship
In his book, The Subtle Art of Not Giving A F***, author Mark Manson writes that it’s up to us to take responsibility for our circumstances. It might not be our fault we’re in that situation, but it’s still our responsibility to figure out how to deal with it.
“Dealing” with it could mean tolerating it. It could mean improving it. It could mean overcoming it.
That’s a powerful concept to grasp. But once you do, you realize you have the power to steer any situation, or in this case any relationship, in whatever direction you choose.
When you accept a relationship for what it is, you take responsibility for it. You admit that you’ve played a role in its evolution. You acknowledge that the other person is a certain type of person. You accept that the relationship is a certain type of relationship.
It’s only after you’ve accepted what is, that you can determine what you want it to become. And then you’re ready to communicate.