Relationships are the foundation of a meaningful life. We are surrounded by others, and we largely define ourselves by our relationships. Although life is a single player game, we are not solitary beings. We depend on others for our survival, both physical and spiritual, and life is simply better when we share our successes and failures. In large part, the quality of our relationships determines the quality of our life, but for many of us, our relationships are more or less completely arbitrary.
Happiness comes from within us, generated by the interactions of our thoughts with the state we find our bodies in, but our external environment heavily influences our internal state. Through meditation and other mindfulness practices we can learn to lessen this external influence, but sometimes this takes a level of commitment that we are not willing to make. Some of us do not possess the combination of desire, motivation and skill required to radically transform our internal landscape.
For those of us who struggle to alter our internal state, perhaps it is best to start with the external. Change the environment. Physical decluttering is an example. By purging things that are not bringing us joy or adding value to our life, our attention is drawn to the things that do. By changing our environment, we bring the positive things into focus and subsequently change our internal state.
I noticed this phenomenon while decluttering my closet of all things. A couple years ago I donated over half of my clothes to local charities, and afterwards I noticed a curious thing. Although I had fewer clothes, it seemed like I had more. Half as much felt like twice as many. I marveled at this odd feeling.
The items that were left brought me joy. Standing in my closet and looking at my wardrobe made me a bit more content. My external environment changed my internal state.
But these are just clothes.
Clothes are not a big part of my consciousness. If changing a closet can have this effect imagine what happens when we turn our sights on something much more important and impactful.
Most of our relationships are by accident. You probably met most of your friends and maybe even your spouse at school or work. This is where we spend most of our waking hours. Our relationships are based primarily on proximity.
It is convenient to form relationships with people that are around us much of the day. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with this, but realize we are not being intentional when this happens. We are leaving our fate to an arbitrary decision of where we happen to live, work, attend school, or whatever. Some of us may even spend more time and energy choosing our clothes than our friends.
We form these relationships because they are easy and comfortable, but they are not always in our best interest. Jim Rohn famously noted we are the average of the five people we spend the most time with. I don’t know if this is true or not, but I do know relationships matter. Intentionality matters.
Look at your relationships right now and ask yourself:
- Does this relationship make me happy?
- Does this relationship give to me more than it takes from me?
- Does this relationship bring me joy?
- Does this relationship serve me anymore?
I’m guessing there are a few people in your life are solid no’s for the above questions. For the same reason getting rid of clothes that no longer fit makes us happier, getting rid of relationships that no longer make sense will make us happier.
Many of our relationships are, in actuality, clutter. We keep them because they are convenient, or we don’t want to do the hard emotional work of letting go. Just like the out of style acid washed jeans that no longer fit, they served a purpose at some point. They probably made us happy once. We keep them because of what they represented in the past and we are too lazy to purge them, even though we know deep down they will not bring us happiness in the future.
No matter how decluttered and minimalist our life is from a physical standpoint, the real freedom comes from decluttering the nonphysical. Letting go of emotional baggage, unhealthy attachments, and relationships that take more from us than they give is the real essence of living a life of contentment. I’ve said many times that removing the negative from our lives is more important than adding the positive, and nowhere does this have a bigger impact than our relationships.
It may seem cruel to cull our relationships with ruthless surgical precision, but in fact both parties will be better off. The ONLY relationships worth continuing (with few exceptions) are those that are a net positive for BOTH participants. Durable relationships are ones that benefit everyone involved.
Sometimes we will stay in a relationship that is temporarily negative, but if there is no long term expectation of it becoming positive, we should eliminate it. Do not fall into the trap of investing endless energy in something that will probably never succeed. Declutter now, and add it back at a later time if it makes sense.
Someone who is taking more from a relationship than giving is trying to fulfill a need inside of them that will never be met by us. Eventually we will become dissatisfied with this situation. By consuming our energy and making us less happy they are asking us to be someone we are not. They are taking us away from our natural state of contentment.
By strategically disengaging we are forcing them to make a decision. They can either change so that the relationship becomes positive for both of us, or they can end it. Either way they will grow and become closer to their true self.
The clothes in our closet don’t change, but people do. Relationships are much more complex than physical items; they evolve. Clothes are hardware; relationships are software. Sometimes a minor update can turn an unusable operating system into something beautiful.
Just because we choose to disengage from a relationship doesn’t mean the situation is permanent. Unlike your AC/DC concert tee shirt from 1981 that you donated to Goodwill, now gone forever, the beauty of our relationships is that we can bring people back into our life when the time is right.
We should feel freedom to reengage as conditions change. What is clutter today may bring us a great deal of happiness tomorrow. This works in both directions though. Some relationships become a beautiful symphony, or a fine wine. Others become nothing but noise and vinegar.
It is tempting to try and change a person you are in a relationship with. We cling to relationships thinking ‘if only this person would change in this way things would be great’. This rarely works; at least it never has for me. When we ask people to change for us, we are asking them to be someone they are not. Demanding change leads to resentment. It is selfish. When we do this, we become the problem.
Don’t take this as meaning people can’t change. They certainly do, but they must change because they want to in order for it be durable. It is not unreasonable to set expectations and to be honest with people about what we expect from our relationship with them, but we must be ready to eliminate them and let go when needed.
Use this framework to evaluate ALL relationships in your life. Many people are scared to apply this filter to close friends, family, or a lover, but these should come under the most scrutiny. Our spouse and best friends will have more impact to our happiness than Jane from accounting that we bump into occasionally in the break room (assuming Jane is not a raving sociopath who has made it her mission to make your life a living Hell).
I’ve found that if I am the best version of myself, people will either change because they want to be a part of my life or they leave. I’ve not lost any good friends or family members using this filter, but my interactions with some of them have changed. Some have drifted away and others have become much closer. Most have become much more positive. The ones that drifted away I do not miss.
By keeping mediocre or negative relationships we are holding ourselves back. We do not achieve our full potential. Bad relationships keep us from cultivating the good and great ones. When we pull the weeds from our garden the flowers can grow.
Calibrate your life for happiness by choosing relationships instead of letting them choose you. Sometimes less is more. Be intentional.