What is a “resilient relationship?”
It’s easy to feel confident and secure in a relationship that rarely experiences conflict.
Resilience, however, is forged in difficult times.
As a conflict and communication specialist, I define resilient relationships as relationships that can “hold the weight of conflict, and not break.” In other words, resilient relationships are secure enough to grapple with the hard stuff. Instead of walking on eggshells, resilient relationships are stretchy like a rubber band. Rather than crumbling under tension, they are able to stretch, then spring back together.
Times are tough right now
In our current landscape of deep social and political polarization, many of us find that our bonds with our friends, family, co-workers, and neighbors have been strained by differences of belief around things like politics and religion. Over time, without intentionality and the right skills, these bonds can erode or break entirely. When we lack resilience in the ways we relate to each other, we often have:
- Fragile communities and tense relationships, where we don’t know if we are supported and accepted. This can cause…
- Insecurity and anxiety, because we don’t know how to act or what to say. We might feel like we are at risk of exploding or imploding at any moment. This can have a…
- Negative impact on our mental health, because our social relationships play a crucial role in whether we struggle or thrive as humans.
A quick disclaimer
This article presumes you are pursuing a stronger relationship with someone who is relatively safe to be in a relationship with, someone who has your interests at heart. If that’s not the case, or if you’re unsure about your safety, please consult a helping professional.
Five Practices of Resilient Relationships
People who build resilient relationships know that these relationships don’t happen by accident, and they don’t happen overnight. Resilient relationships may look different across the board, but they all have commonalities at their core. While we can pursue many positive ways of treating each other that keep relationships healthy, there are five distinct practices that help us create bonds that can withstand the strain of conflict:
- Showing up for each other
- Seeing and being seen
- Sharing power
- Disagreeing well
- Taking a break
If some or all of these practices are absent, the relationship will erode over time. All five are needed to build longevity. These practices don’t have to be practiced perfectly, but they do need to be practiced in order for resilience to exist.
1) Showing up for each other
In our media bubble, algorithm-driven digital world, it’s quite easy to surround ourselves with only people we agree with (and demonize everyone else). But if we want strong communities, families, and friend groups, we need to exchange and interact and brush shoulders with people from different walks of life. It might sound straightforward, but we can’t have resilient relationships — or relationships at all — if we don’t make time for each other. Showing up means being intentional about these interactions.
Are you showing up? Ask yourself:
- Am I being there for this person, even when it’s inconvenient?
- Am I logging time with them, even when I’m busy?
- Am I being intentional, even when it would be easier to ignore them?
- Am I showing leadership and initiating plans, even when it’s awkward?
- Am I making them a priority, or am I keeping my distance?
Send a text, call, make plans, get to know, offer to help, give kind words. Because when we practice showing up, we not only make community happen, but we strengthen our own health within it.
2) Seeing and being seen
Seeing someone means making an honest, open, curiosity-driven inquiry into the center of who they are and what makes them tick. Seeing means pausing judgment and trying to first explore the ideas, values, and beliefs that our conversation partners hold — trying to understand how those things connect for them, even if we don’t agree. It is possible to see someone without letting go of the strength of our convictions or opinions, without abandoning our boundaries. When we choose to see others, we are inviting them into a stronger relationship by honoring their humanity.
Are you really seeing someone? Ask yourself:
- Am I trying to give this person the benefit of the doubt, or am I demonizing them?
- Am I trying to really understand their world— their fears, their beliefs, their dreams?
- Am I truly listening, or am I assuming I can read their mind?
- Am I looking for ways this person can teach me things, or am I assuming everything they think is bad?
- Am I honoring their humanity, just as I honor my own?
Being seen is the other side of the coin. As we do the work of seeing someone, we in turn invite them to see us. Being seen means letting someone into our world and letting them see what makes us tick. This means passionately and ethically articulating our stance while remaining open to the fact that our conversation partner may still disagree with us. Being seen is an act of vulnerability and trust; it means letting someone pick up our opinions and test them, letting someone get to know us in the truth of who we are and what we have experienced.
Are you letting yourself be seen? Ask yourself:
- Am I letting someone into my fears, dreams, and beliefs, or am I being unnecessarily defensive and confrontational?
- Am I carefully and clearly articulating what I believe, and giving them space to listen? Or am I just getting mad that they don’t know things I know?
- Assuming healthy boundaries are in place, am I being vulnerable and speaking from my own experience, or am I trying to speak for everyone in the world?
- Am I looking for ways to be a teacher, or am I being condescending?
- Am I working in a spirit of collaboration, or antagonism?
Through seeing and being seen, we can cultivate the deep understanding that can lead to greater resilience, even if we struggle to see eye to eye on issues.
3) Sharing power
Sharing power means practicing equality and refraining from domination or control. In sharing power, we make space for each other. When everyone has space, when everyone has a voice, we build a solid foundation of resilience when conflict arises. When someone feels they don’t have a voice or that power has been taken from them, it’s like adding gasoline to a fire.
Especially when we believe we are right, it can be hard to think about the consequences of the ways we use power. Saying true things without care for the person or concern for the relationship is not the true spirit of sharing power. If being “right” and feeling morally superior in the moment are more important than long-term consequences to the person, we are not building resilient relationships. Forcing our view on someone regardless of the impact not only is harmful, but also it can be utterly ineffective, often pushing people in the entirely opposite direction from where we wish they would go. In failing to share power, we risk our credibility and trust. Sharing power means inspiring, not controlling; persuading, not punishing.
Are you sharing power? Ask yourself:
- Am I actively looking for ways to share power, or am I trying to keep all the power for myself?
- Am I valuing freedom of conscience, or am I using control or force against others?
- Am I thinking about the impact of my words when I articulate my beliefs, or am I being cruel to those who disagree with me?
- Am I making sure everyone in the room has space to speak, or am I acting like my voice and experience are the only ones that matter?
- Am I wielding power in such a way that builds up the relationship or erodes the relationship?
Sharing power is extremely hard, especially for those of us who have been granted a lot of privilege and we have been taught that we should automatically have more power than others. But resilient relationships can only happen if everyone has an equal seat at the table.
4) Disagreeing Well
Relationships are resilient when they can hold the weight of conflict and impasse. Instead of running away from disagreement, we must learn the art of healthy disagreement.
What is “disagreeing well?” It means — after showing up, seeing and being seen, and after sharing power — that we engage each other on tough issues in ways that make us stronger, together. Disagreeing well means:
- Suspending the desire to resolve. Sometimes it’s not possible to come to an agreement or consensus on an issue. People have different visions of the way the world ought to be. Putting pressure on ourselves to make everyone agree will only result in headaches. Of course we want people we care about to agree with us, but when we stop forcing everyone to agree, we make space for healthy disagreement and great conversations. We also make space for making sure the relationship is stable before anything else.
- Asking great questions. People who forge resilient relationships understand the value of asking great questions. Work like archeologists, carefully digging up meaning and nuance, handling anything they find with great care. This ensures they are understanding the complexity of someone’s view, so that when they disagree, they can speak accurately. This not only makes them more effective communicators, but allows them to show the person they are disagreeing with that they matter.
- Banishing shame. When we let ourselves make mistakes and change our minds without shame, we further reduce anxiety and animosity. No one likes to operate in a gotcha! environment; no one likes to be policed or hear “I told you so.” Except for extreme circumstances, consider that it’s much more effective to leave shame at the door. Focus on calling in (educating), not calling out (shaming or embarrassing).
- Tell the truth. Resilient relationships give us the confidence to tell the truth, because we know the relationship is sturdy enough to handle honesty. Truth-telling is one of the highest and important values of true friendship, and it’s imperative when we are disagreeing with someone that we can say what we really think and feel. Consider the courage and leadership it takes to tell the truth. Honor it when it happens.
- Inviting others to sharpen us. A great conversation partner can disagree with us on just about anything under the sun, but they will challenge us and sharpen us in positive ways. When we seek to challenge those around us, and when we allow others to challenge us, we open the door to seeing, learning, and teaching things that we would otherwise miss out on.
- Saying “thank you.” When someone takes the time to disagree with us well, they are giving us a gift. They could have called us names, or walked away, but here they are: sticking it out with us, even if the conversation is hard or uncomfortable. Express gratitude for those who disagree with us in healthy ways, because healthy disagreement is a mark of resilience.
Are you disagreeing well? Ask yourself:
- Am I focusing on healthy persuasion, or could my words and actions be seen as manipulative?
- Am I humanizing those around me, or shaming people for having a different conviction?
- Am I fixated on making sure everyone agrees, or am I willing to accept the uncomfortable fact that different people see the world differently?
- Am I asking great questions, or am I glossing over nuance?
- Am I honoring truth-telling, or am I letting myself get defensive?
- Am I inviting people to sharpen me, or am I only operating on the defensive?
- Am I showing gratitude for those who take the time to disagree well, or am I getting caught up in fear?
Disagreeing well is one of the most important skills we can learn in the pursuit of resilient relationships. It’s not realistic to expect everyone to always agree, but it is realistic to protect our relationships when we disagree.
5) Taking a Break
Dealing with conflict and impasse requires a lot of resources. We expend time, energy, emotions, and resources to navigate tough situations.
This work can be exhausting, especially if it is prolonged.
If we go too long without taking a break, it might start to seem like we spend all our time talking about the relationship instead of having one. Sometimes it might seem like the only thing that keeps us in community is our disagreement. So how do we replenish our reserves and care for ourselves—especially when we’ve spent a lot of time driving each other up the wall?
Just like a rubber band snaps back after being stretched, resilient relationships must also bounce back. At a point, we need to take a break from conflict—at the very least, we need to take a break from talking about the conflict. The relationship just needs to be a relationship. This is how we make the memories together that forge our identities, how we remind ourselves who we are. Creating memories reminds us of the positive things we stand for, even across differences.
Are you taking a break? Ask yourself:
- Am I able to compartmentalize, or am I letting this one issue eclipse the entire relationship?
- Am I making sure to tell the person they matter, and letting them know that I value the relationship outside of conflict?
- Am I creating time to make memories and celebrate the good things that are present, to remember the common ground I do have with this person, even if we can’t agree?
- Am I showing leadership in creating a relationship and community I can be proud of?
No one is obligated to try to build a resilient relationship. We can stay in our bubbles and refuse to speak to anyone who disagrees with us. We are even allowed to cut people off we don’t like.
But consider that something is lost in this polarization. Community matters, and our personal health and the health of our society is dependent on the strength of these bonds. When we work together to practice the art of resilient relationships — to show up for each other, see and be seen, share power, disagree well, and take breaks — there are few conflicts that can break us.
Are you ready to do the work?
This article contains excerpts from Melody’s book, Brave Talk: Building Resilient Relationships in the Face of Conflict (Broadleaf Books, 2020).