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What Do Our Best and Worst Relationships Teach Us?

When I look back on my life, some of the things that jump out at me the most are the relationships I had at different periods in my life: with my sister when I was really young, with my friends in college, and even with a couple girlfriends. From my mother to my wife, and everything in between, my life has been marked by different relationships.

Some of those relationships are great, and they spark fond feelings. Others? Not so much. 

But there’s one thing that all my relationships—from the best to the worst—have had in common: they’ve all taught me something.

The importance of relationships

It’s almost impossible to overstate the importance of relationships in our lives. After all, strong and loving relationships are connected to things like:

  • Lower anxiety and depression
  • A stronger immune system
  • Longer life
  • Higher self-esteem

Another thing relationships do for us is teach us. And while some of these lessons can be rather “surface-level” (e.g. “I’ve learned that it drives me bonkers when my partner doesn’t fill the car up with gas”), many of them can have a more profound impact on our lives.

What do our best and worst relationships teach us?

Not all relationships will teach us the same things. I’ve noticed that the things I’ve learned from my best, healthiest relationships are quite different from the lessons I’ve taken away from my worst, unhealthy ones. 

Lessons we learn from our best relationships

There are profound lessons to be learned from a healthy, strong relationship. Some of these lessons include:

Humans need connection

All mammals—including humans—are significantly affected by their social environments. The relationships we have with other people play a big role in our mental and physical health.

But “connection” isn’t merely “being around other people.” Connection implies closeness and care. Often, it also implies stability and comfort. More and more, scientists are realizing that connection isn’t just something that is nice to have. Rather, it’s a fundamental human need: one we actually must have in order to thrive.

In our best relationships, we’re able to experience this connection and have experiences that positively reinforce this idea. We see the power that connection has to make us happier, healthier people.

Learning this lesson is going to encourage us to seek out this connection in our other relationships, which is going to lead to more happiness and fulfillment in the future.

Making other people happy makes you happy

In the best relationships, both parties give and receive. Each person does what they can to make the other person happy, and they accept the same service from the other person. When we are part of a healthy relationship, we can recognize that our own contributions and efforts to make someone else happy ultimately lead to our own happiness. And that’s a lesson that will serve us for the rest of our lives.

“We make a living by what we get; we make a life by what we give.”

Winston Churchill

Conflict doesn’t have to mean contention

All relationships experience conflict. One major difference between a healthy and unhealthy relationship is how that conflict is handled.

In strong relationships, couples are able to communicate effectively. They’re less likely to take things personally. They aren’t trying to defend themselves, but to protect and strengthen the relationship. The two people can disagree while still maintaining a sense of mutual respect and admiration for each other. In these relationships, people are willing to find courage, to forgive or take a break, gaining perspective to come back stronger, together.

Unhealthy relationships, however, tend toward contention in conflicts. Disagreements in these relationships turn mean, full of personal attacks and accusations. 

Learning that conflict doesn’t necessarily equal contention is an extremely valuable lesson. Knowing how to disagree in a healthy and productive way can serve you in many different ways throughout your life.

How to trust

As infants and very young children, we are all dependent on caretakers when it comes to having our needs met. This requires us to trust them. However, as we grow older and more independent, it can be easy for the trust we have in others to decline, especially if we have experiences where people have broken our trust.

Our best relationships, however, give us someone that we can trust. This gives us a confidant, a reliable source of help and care, and a sense of security and safety. Without trust, there can’t really be true, magic connection. Learning how to trust someone else, even as bumps and mistakes are made, is vital if we want to have meaningful relationships in our lives.

Healthy relationships are worth the effort

Above all else, our best relationships are a source of joy. They bring us happiness in an often sad world—a priceless benefit.

But even healthy relationships aren’t perfectly easy. There will always be conflict, things to figure out, compromises to make, and hurdles to overcome. But good relationships teach us that those things are worth it. In the end, these relationships help us realize that good things are worth fighting for, a lesson that can benefit each of us throughout our lives. 

Our best relationships teach us that we don’t have to go through life’s hardships alone. We learn what positive interaction with other people can do for our happiness, and we learn how to promote that positivity. Having your best partner running side by side with you is one of the greatest feelings you can have in life.

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Lessons we learn from our worst relationships

Chances are, you’d rather not think too much about your worst relationships. That’s fair, but it’s also important to acknowledge that there are valuable lessons to be learned, even from unhealthy or otherwise strained relationships. 

Communication is key

When communication breaks down, the relationship often breaks down with it. In bad relationships, communication is rarely positive or productive, which leads to misunderstanding and hurt. 

As unfortunate as this is, it’s a valuable lesson that we can learn from our worst relationships. Realizing how much bad communication hurt your relationship might inspire you to figure out what you could do better in the future (because let’s face it: communication is always a two-way street). 

People in difficult relationships deserve empathy

From an outsider’s perspective, an unhealthy relationship is usually easy to spot. But when we’re involved in the relationship ourselves, it’s much more difficult to identify. 

It can be easy to judge people who are in a seemingly obvious “bad” relationship. But if you’ve been there yourself, blinded by whatever extenuating circumstances you thought were there, you’re more likely to have empathy with other people who are in tough relationships, rather than judge them for sticking around in an unhealthy place. 

What traits really matter in a partner

Many of us have pictured our “perfect” partners from a young age. We think we know exactly how they’ll look and behave, what their priorities are, and so on. But once you’ve been in a relationship that turned out badly, you’ll have a clearer picture of the traits that really matter to you in a partner. 

What caused contention in your unhealthy relationship? Why did communication break down? Did this partner do anything that made you particularly happy? When did you feel most loved? Breaking down this relationship, and your old partner’s personality, can help you identify the things you do and don’t want out of your future relationships.

How to move on

Change is hard—even if we believe the change is for the better. When change is thrust upon us, we have to be able to accept it and move on, and that’s something that even our worst relationships can teach us how to do.

The end of any relationship can be painful, even if the relationship was ultimately doomed. But by experiencing the end of a relationship, we teach ourselves that life goes on, that we are capable of surviving through change, and that we might even be happier after the change. Learning this lesson can benefit us in big ways throughout life, as we learn to let go of things that don’t serve us.

You are your best source of happiness

Relationships can bring happiness, but not all of them do. Relying on a relationship with someone else alone to bring you happiness is dangerous, because you can’t control what another person does. Nor should you.

The thing that you do always have control over is yourself and your attitude. That’s why you, yourself, will always be your best source of happiness. 

At Design.org, we talk a lot about designing your life—looking at where you want to go, where you are now, and drawing backwards to connect the dots with a thoughtful, deliberate plan. The truth is, you can do this no matter what your relationship status is. Getting out of a bad relationship can help you learn this, as you start to realize that you can be happy (and probably, even happier) without that relationship in your life.

In short, a bad relationship can point you toward the ultimate source of happiness: yourself.

“The true source of happiness is within each one of us.”

Chris Prentiss

Each of us goes through multiple relationships in our lives: with romantic interests, relatives, and friends. Some of these relationships will go well, and some of them won’t. But no matter where a relationship falls on the scale, it can still teach you something about yourself, about the world, and about how to design happiness for yourself. 

What have you learned from your best and worst relationships? How have your relationships changed you? Acknowledging these lessons could potentially help you make game-changing adjustments to your current relationships.

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