Relationships and your mental health
31 Aug 2022

Relationships and your mental health

Written by: Adam W.

Let’s look into how we can strengthen our relationships.

I want us to think about the idea of having a relationship bank account with each significant person in our lives. Like with a regular bank account you make deposits or withdrawals. If you make too many withdrawals and not enough deposits, you’re likely to be in a negative balance. 

I want us to think about our relationships in this same way. A deposit represents any kind of positive interaction with that person. Whereas a withdrawal represents a negative interaction. Let’s look at some examples of both:

A withdrawal might be:

Complaining to your partner because he hasn’t taken out the bins

Disagreement with your colleague & friend about the outcome of a project

Forgetting your sister’s birthday

A deposit might be:

Remembering to text your partner ‘good luck’ before an important meeting at work

Offering to help your colleague with a project as he looks overwhelmed

Baking your sister her favourite cake out of the blue

With each relationship you’ll have an account. So keep asking yourself, what do you currently have in the bank with that person? Is there a healthy bank balance there? Have you made lots of deposits? Or is the bank balance in the red? Have you made too many withdrawals? 

If you feel like there’ve been too many withdrawals recently, what can you do to create some more deposits? A compliment to someone? Telling them how much you care about them? Doing something nice for them unprompted? These little acts go a long way to building up your relationships. 

Something that will really help us strengthen our relationships is developing empathy and compassion. Empathy is the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within their frame of reference. It’s another key emotional intelligence skill and will make a big difference to how we relate to others. 

If you’re struggling to relate to someone or understand them it’s worth being curious about what that person’s story is. Remembering everyone is shaped by their life experiences. People may have gone through something that you don’t know about and this could be impacting their behaviour. 

We can also practice acceptance here. There may be aspects of people’s personalities that we don’t like or get on with, but remembering back to the idea of how futile giving feedback is, it’s much easier to learn to accept the parts of people that we don’t like rather than trying to change them.

Dispositional or situational

When creating a deeper understanding of other people, it’s really useful to look at how we judge the behaviour of others vs. how we judge our own behaviour. 

There are two classes of explanation for why people do what they do:

Dispositional or situational

Dispositional is the idea that we all have a set of traits that are more or less stable throughout our lifetimes and we act in accordance to those traits. 

Situational is the idea that momentary circumstances contribute in a large way to any situation.

Research shows that we’re more likely to decide that other people are acting in a way because that’s just who they are – so dispositional. Whereas we tend to explain our own behaviour more according to the situation. 

This is because for our own behaviour we have access to not just what people see on the outside but the thought processes behind our actions. We see ourselves as complex beings whose actions are influenced by the rich inner-workings of our minds. 

For others, we only see the outcome of their behaviour or actions. 

An example of this is if we were going through the ticket gates in the tube station and the person behind us tuts because for some reason our card isn’t working, we would probably label that person in our head as impatient. 

But if we reverse the situation and imagine you were late for a very important interview and someone in front of you seemed to be taking ages at the gate, you might tut yourself. You probably wouldn’t think of yourself as impatient because of that one incident, because you have the background information to your situation, but we rarely have that for others around us. 

In a famous study which illustrated this, two groups of students were asked to travel from one campus to another for the second part of their lecture. The first group were told to hurry as the other professor was expecting them a few minutes ago. The second group were told they weren’t expected for a few minutes but they may as well start heading over.

Between the two campuses the researchers had placed a person slumped over on the side of the road who looked like they were injured and in need of medical attention. When each student passed by the person coughed and groaned. Which group do you think were more likely to stop and help the injured person?

We all like to think that we would stop to help them regardless of which group we were in. But the results showed that the people who were in a hurry were six times as likely to pass by the visibly injured person without helping them. This is really to demonstrate how quick we are to judge others on their behaviour, but we rarely have all the facts about why they are behaving that way. Situational factors are often much more influential than we might think and we should bear this in mind when trying to understand others.

Another fascinating psychological model is the drama triangle (which was first described by Stephen Karpman in 1961). It is used in psychology to describe the roles we often fall into during times of conflict. You can imagine a triangle and at each point is a different role. These roles are the persecutor, the victim and the rescuer. These are not roles we take on for life, but roles that we sometimes fall into in times of conflict. We can move interchangeably between different roles.

So to expand on each one. 

The persecutor is often the person that tends to be quite angry, critical and often condescending and superior. They may feel like if someone is wrong, they need to be told and they should be the one to do this.

The victim is often the person on the other end of the persecutors anger or criticism. This is someone who tends to feel oppressed, powerless and helpless. They often feel like the world is against them and that they are suffering at the hands of others.

Lastly we have the rescuer who is the person that needs to save the victim and keep them dependent. This is often what we might describe as enabling behaviour – they enable the victim to stay in the victim role but being their rescuer. This is someone who seems to be striving to solve a victim’s problems but in fact does so in ways that result in the victim having less power, with the rescuer benefiting more than the victim.

Although all three are 'roles' and none may be true to who we really are, we can all get caught in a cycle that is hard to escape. We tend to fall into particular roles in different relationship dynamics. So within our family, it might be one role, in our friendship group another and in our romantic relationship another role entirely. 

The drama triangle creates a toxic dynamic and one we want to step out of. This can be particularly hard to do if we’ve been playing a certain role for a long time. 

But the first step is simply to be aware of the game, how it works, and what roles you play most frequently. What role did you play as a child? Can you identify the roles that others in your family played? Are they still playing them?

The only way to win in this equation is not to play. We can choose to disengage from these roles. Notice when we start playing the victim, or playing the rescuer and see if we can break that cycle. Only then can we start to build healthier relationships.