The Seven Principles of Good Relationships
Relationships are hard work. Also, it is not always obvious how to make them healthy and good. These seven principles can help in you in all your relationships.
Have a common value system
We have opinions and preferences for everything in life. Some we hold strongly, others could be easily changed. Each of these things holds some level of value to us. Let us take them as a whole, and call them our value system.
Our values are the basis of our personal identity. They are our morality, and what we hold to be important on vocation, leisure, family, politics, food, humor, goals, dreams, etc.
Values are also the basis of our identity with others. When we find common ground with someone else, what we have in common is something we both value. The more we value in common, the better will be the relationship. All relationships are built on a common value system.
Recognize that all relationship conflicts are conflicts over values
In our relationships, we have varying degrees of conflict. In every case, these conflicts can be traced back to a conflict of values. We decide everything in life based on what we value, so when two people have different values, their decisions come into conflict.
These conflicts can be over either moral or non-moral issues. For example, the way the toothpaste tube should be squeezed (top or bottom?) is not a moral issue. However, non-moral issues can become moral ones when there is unresolved conflict over them.
The solution to relationship conflict is to come to a common value system. This can be very difficult to do because we prefer to choose values for ourselves. Regardless, the place of conflicts will always be where your values are different.
Notice that your desires always line up with your values
What we desire generally falls into three categories: satisfying body appetites, getting adoration from others, or enhancing our own empire of power, wealth & control. Because we always desire what we value, our desires flow directly out of our values.
Desiring things is not wrong. Is is not categorically wrong for us to tend to the needs of our bodies, for people to like us, or for us to have power and control. It is normal to have these desires, and there are healthy and good ways to satisfy these desires. But there are also destructive and wrong ways to satisfy them.
Surprisingly, it is not easy for us to clearly understand our desires and the values on which they are based. We think we desire a thing, but we find ourselves acting counter-productive to it. We may think we desire to get into physical shape, but we make no change to our diet or how we exercise. We may say we love someone, but then allow the relationship to become stale. The reason for this is that we have competing desires. We value something else more highly, and our real desires always follow our values.
Use your emotions to help you understand your desires
Our emotions are the tool to understanding ourselves. Our desires come out of our values, and our emotions reveal whether we are getting our desires. We experience positive, pleasant emotions when we are getting what we desire, and negative, unpleasant emotions when what happens is against our desires.
Emotions only indicate whether we are getting our desires. They never indicate if a desire is good or bad. We know this because at some time in our life we have all experienced pleasant emotions over a wrong thing, and also painful emotions about some event even when we know we did right. In those cases, the pleasant emotion simply revealed that we got our desire about a wrong thing, and the painful emotion revealed we didn't desire the other happening even though we knew we had not done wrong. The strength of the emotion also revealed to us the level of importance of the desire.
Attempting to directly change emotions is usually counterproductive. Emotions are simply an indicator of our desires, and our desires come out of our values. Suppressing the indicator won't solve any problems. The effective way to change emotions is to change the values out of which they are based.
Note that emotions are sometimes painful even when coming out of the best of value systems! This is because doing the right thing is sometimes difficult. However, when we know why emotions come, and have confidence in the value system that brings them, it can become less difficult to go through the experience.
We desire the things that we value. Unfortunately, it is difficult to accurately know our own value system, and therefore to know our true desires. Emotions help us understand ourselves by indicating if we are receiving our desires.
The most effective values are outside yourself
Consider some activities you might become involved in: playing soccer on a local recreational team, mentoring kids in a youth club, or working in a neighborhood safety initiative. Each of these has a purpose outside of you. The activity involves other people and provides opportunities for camaraderie with them. You share some common values with them.
The significant point is that some of what you are valuing is outside of just your self. Because of this, the common value makes us attractive to others, there is an immediate bond over it, and trust is developed very quickly within the shared context - the context of what is being valued. This makes the value particularly effective for developing relationships with other people. And the reason is because the context for the value is external to any one individual.
These outside values can also be associated with my personal desires: my body feels good as I use it while playing soccer; I feel appreciated as I teach life skills through mentoring; my own family will benefit from a neighborhood that is made more safe (more controlled). So values outside ourselves can also be intrinsically interesting to us.
However, by nature everybody is filled with self-interested values. Our natural values are not very good for developing relationships because they are proprietary and not shared by others. The process of socialization helps this by training us to have some values in common with others (often cultural values). Relationships are based on common value systems, and we need relationships to be successful in society. However, values we gain from socialization often provide only a minimum acceptable common set of values. They won't bring high levels of success because to be truly successful in relationships we need more.
Values outside yourself can bring this success in relationships. Because the value is external to you, it can be shared with others. When others can see you acting together with them in things that they value, your relationship with them grows strong.
The most powerful values are deeply held morals
Many of the things we like in life change through time. I may loose interest in some activity if I find I have done enough of it to be satisfied. And I may find new things that interest me in life. However, these are relatively shallow values on which to base relationships. If these sorts of things are all I have in common with others, I may find that I am drifting in and out of shallow friendships as my interests change.
Moral values can be different because they often are deeply embedded inside us. Since they go deep into our person, they can be the basis for a deep relationship. They are the most powerful values because they affect us deeply in how we act, and in how we relate with other people.
We learn our moral values largely by example from our culture, our family and from our faith. We generally prefer to choose values that benefit ourselves. However, if we chose values that were only selfish, we would not be able to get along with anybody. So we need learned morals for success in life.
Deep relationships bring the greatest satisfactions in life, so it is important to consider our choice of moral values. Morals are about principles of right and wrong - as it applies to our character, and in how we treat other people. So, the moral values we hold are the most powerful factor for us in strong, lasting relationships.
Get a common value system by adopting one
If we could have a value system that was both moral and external, and then share that system in common with others, we would have the best foundation for relationships. This value system already exists: it is beneficial love for the others, and it is God's value system.
This value system is not only an effective and a powerful value system; it the best value system. If beneficial love for others was everyone's value system, there would be no exploitation, we would always take care of our environment, and there would be no wars. There is no value system that is better than this one.
God lives and breathes his own value system. He showed it to people through Jesus Christ. Jesus lived and died on the earth to demonstrate his value system to us so that we could learn it. This value system is God's very character, so he can't change it to any other so as to relate to us. Since God has no other value system, the only way we can relate to God is by changing our thinking, and adopting his value system.
God wants us to all adopt his value system. All those who do, will have a common external and moral value system. They will have the same primary example from which to learn this value system. And with it they will not only gain relationship with God, but they will also have the best opportunity to have good relationships with each other.
Putting the seven principles into practice
Putting a new value system into practice is difficult. It is a process of learning, which means periods of frustration, and of great effort. It is a process that takes time and thinking. We can learn from the record of how Jesus lived, but it is also important to find people who are living examples that we can observe. So, look for a community of people that are working to live out this value system.
Successful relationships come from our investment in them by beneficial living for others. Success also comes from repairing broken relationships. When a relationship has been bad, there are consequences that bring pain between the individuals. The way to restoration is by the forgiveness process that is a key expression of this same value system. A relationship is hurt when an individual acts opposite to God's value system by exploiting someone else. Note that their wrong actions may cause liability consequences as well as the relationship consequences. This process handles the relationship consequences.
When the wronging individual looks to restore relationship, they can do it only by a) acknowledging that their value system had been wrong, and by b) letting the wronged person know that they have corrected their values. In the same character, the wronged person then c) forgives them, sacrificially absorbing the relationship cost of the of the wrong that had been done under their old value system, and by d) immediately relating to or treating the person being forgiven according to their new value system. There are two steps for each person, and both are expressions of growth into the same value system that builds relationship. Finally, they must both work afterward to extend, and not discard their relationship.
Adopting and living this value system of beneficial love for others is very hard. Without help from God, it is impossible. However, God gives this help to those that ask it of him. As we work at living this adopted value system, he transforms us internally so that it genuinely becomes our own value system. The result will be good relationships with God, and with those who have adopted his value system. And, it usually benefits relationships with everybody else as well.
For more on this topic, read this discussion, and other materials.
The value system concepts and perspective on the gospel that are on this page are based on ideas from the work of Darren Twa, pastor at Life Fellowship and author of several books including God's Value System.