Relationship Skills pertain to interactions with close friends, family members and romantic partners. While Assertiveness is actually a very important Relationship Skill as well, it is such a large topic that it is covered in a different section.

Frequency of Contact

There is an optimal frequency of contact with every person in your life. If you interact with a person more than that optimal frequency, they irritate you. If you interact with them less than that optimal frequency, you get along. A good example, is my friend Ben. Ben is very hard to get a hold of, he always flakes on me two times, and whenever we hang out he disagrees with everything I say. But, when we do hang out we usually stay up really late, have a great time, and he inspires lots of new ideas (since he disagrees with me so much). When Ben and I used to hang out once a week, he really got on my nerves and I’d think, “How can you flake on me so often?” and “How the hell can you disagree with everything I say?!” Now that I see Ben once or twice a year, he doesn’t seem to bother me. His flaking on me seems “funny” and when he disagrees with everything I say, I’m able to think “Well, that’s just Ben.”

When I was younger, I used to be friends with people until they disappointed me “enough”. Then I would completely write them off and no longer be friends with them at all. But I almost always found cutting people off to be a mistake. It made me feel upset every time I saw, heard, or even thought about them later on. Now a days, when somebody irritates me (especially if they don't change their behavior after I've already been assertive), I don’t write them off. Instead, I think to myself “Ah hah. I must be overdosing on them” and so I decrease the frequency of contact until I like them again.

This issue comes up often when visiting with family or going on a trip with your friends. You go from a lower frequency of interaction to suddenly spending 24/7 with them for an entire weekend. This is classic recipe for tension. You are not used to having that kind of frequency of contact. Whenever I’m spending a lot of time with family or friends, I make sure to take lots of breaks. I take naps, tell them I’m going to go read for a while somewhere else, or go out to lunch or dinner with my wife. I usually also try to stay in a different hotel room so that I can have more control over the frequency of interaction. As a result, I'm able to feel more relaxed and enjoy the company of my family and friends more, even on vacation, because I can have more freedom and take time off.

This issue also comes up when you start living with someone. It’s classic for friendships to end when people become roommates – your best friend can become a casualty to too much contact. Similarly, one of the roughest periods in a romantic relationship can sometimes be the first few weeks that you start living together. Moderating and/or decreasing the frequency of contact can help prevent this from happening.

It’s important to keep in mind that it’s not just frequency of contact, it also frequency of “interaction” that matters. For example, I spend a constant amount of time with my wife everyday (let’s say about 6 hours on the weekdays and 12 hours on the weekends). But, if you look at our frequency of interaction, it’s actually closer to a dating pattern. There are some days when we interact a lot (e.g. go out to dinner, have lot of conversations, watch the same TV shows), whereas there are other days when we don’t interact very much at all (e.g. she reads a book while I’m on my computer, or I’ll play a video game while she talks to a friend on the phone).  

When I first moved in with my wife, I remember feeling a lot of pressure to always be talking to her. I felt like when I was silent, I would bore her and she’d lose interest. As a result, I wouldn’t let myself relax when I was around her. I was forcing the frequency of interaction to be too high. There’s a concept called “playing side-by-side” that was really helpful for me. Playing side-by-side is what preschooler’s do. If you and I are in preschool and we play blocks together, I’ll build my tower and you’ll build your tower and we’ll hardly interact at all. Fast forward to 1st grade, and we would most likely be building the same tower together the whole time. It’s important to learn how to play side-by-side again as adults so that we can periodically have some mental space even when we are together. By periodically playing side-by-side, my wife and I can have time to ourselves even when we are together.

You can also modify the “intensity” of interaction. For example, if you are irritated by your co-worker, but you have to work with her every day, you can decrease the intensity of interaction by having more superficial conversations, avoiding contentious topics, or sharing less about your personal life. When dating, it’s good to decrease intensity periodically by not referencing the relationship and not asking about whenever or not he or she likes you too often. Doing this too frequently can produce too much intensity and actually hurt your ability to relax/enjoy your time together.

Frequency vs. Assertiveness

There are several interactions between Frequency of Contact and Assertiveness. The more frequently you interact with someone, the more important it is to be assertive (or else they will disappoint/irritate you too much). The better you are at being assertive, the more frequently you can interact with someone (because you've trained them how to treat you). On the flip side, assertiveness is one of the most intense forms of interaction, so sometimes you’ll need to actually skip being assertive (and let water pass under the bridge) to let the intensity cool off. Being assertive every single day is definitely a mistake for this reason (i.e. too much intensity of contact), so decrease frequency/intensity for a while instead.

People’s reactions to my assertiveness will often determine whether or not I need to decrease my frequency of contact with them. If they are defensive, I don’t really hold it against them (almost everyone gets defensive). But, if they never change their behavior at all (even after I have been assertive several times) or if they hold a grudge against me for several days just because I told them the way their behavior made me feel, then I need to decrease frequency of contact in order to maintain the friendship. If they change, but the annoying behavior returns a few weeks later, I don’t hold that against them either. The annoying behavior almost always returns and it’s up to you to be assertive again when it bothers you. Each time you are assertive, it should take longer and longer for the irritating behavior to return and so you can progressively spend more time with each other and become closer friends.

Choice of Relationships

Anybody who you have high frequency contact with (i.e. talk to more than once a week, see in person more than once a month, or are romantic with at any frequency whatsoever) should be someone who is fun, someone you can open up to, and someone you can count on. Fun, open-up to, count on. Of those three, “count-on” has by far the greatest impact on your happiness.

Fun: High-Frequency contacts should be people you can have fun with. This can mean having the same sense of humor, enjoying talking about the same subjects, or enjoying some of the same activities. Some of my friends are great to joke with. Some of my friends are great to share ideas with. Some of my friends are fun to play video games with. Some of my friends are fun at all of these things, but all of my close friends (and close family members, and romantic partners) have at least one of these areas we can have fun in. Believe it or not, of the three qualities to seek in a close friend, “fun” seems to be the least important in terms of the impact on your happiness. I’ve met some people who are ridiculously fun to hang out with, but are so flaky and unreliable that it’s miserable trying to be friends with them. I’ve also known people who are not necessarily the life of the party but are so stable and easy to open up to that they have made my life much happier all the same.

Open Up To: One of the biggest benefits that good friends provide is the alleviation of suffering. Sharing your problems with friends decreases isolation, loneliness, and the weight of your negative emotions. If you are not comfortable opening up to people and sharing emotions, you should start working on it (for example, by doing "Expressing Emotions" Exposures). There are several things to look for in the friends that you open up to. They should be willing to listen without shifting the topic quickly back to themselves. They should also: validate your emotions, not be judgmental, not use the information against you later, keep your secrets, give good advice, and not be too pushy about their advice. All of these qualities should be present in the people you open up to, or else you are likely to feel worst for sharing. Not every friend needs to be someone you can open up to, but you should have at least one person in your life with whom you can. Additionally, it’s crucial that whoever you are romantic with be someone you can open up to (if they aren't, be assertive about it).

Count-On: This is by far the most important quality that you need in high frequency relationship. If you put someone in your life that you can count on, you will be happier (even if they are not that fun!). If you put someone in your life that you can’t count on, you will be less happy (even if they are super fun and/or you are head over heels in love with them). People you can count on are people who are both reliable and stable. They should be reliable in the sense that they return your calls, show up on time, don’t flake out, and are willing to make plans ahead of time (rather than insisting that plans always be last minute). They should be stable is the sense that they are usually in a good mood and are only sometimes very angry, sad, or anxious.

Evolution rewards us for having reliable and stable people in our lives (i.e. people that would answer the call if there’s a hunt or a battle). Evolution punishes us for having unreliable or unstable close friends by making us feel sad, anxious, or insecure.

It is essential that anyone you date be reliable (if they aren't, then be assertive about they because they WILL make you unhappy, even if you love them). If you have people in your life that you can’t count on, they can still be your friends, but if they don't respond to your assertiveness, you will often find that you will be happier if they become less frequent friends and/or you stop dating them.

More on Friendship Selection: Up until my late twenties, the ultimate goal of my social life was to be with the “cool” people. Even though I was more comfortable with a more nerdy, cerebral crowd, my secret intension was to lower my social anxiety and improve my social skills to the point where I would eventually be with the popular crowd. When I was finally able to do that in my late twenties, I realized that my goal had been wrong all along. A lot of my “cool” friends were people who were unreliable, unstable, and/or judgmental. In addition, a lot of my “cool” friends weren’t even that fun because they liked to go to loud clubs and bars, whereas I preferred quieter lounge-type places so I could have a conversation. Over one summer, I met my sister’s friends and realized my mistake. Her friends were warm, friendly, considerate, and attentive. They were great people whose character and ethics I admired. I immediately switched to focusing on those types of friends. I found it much easier to establish bonds with those kinds of people and it was huge improvement in the quality of my social life. Now, regardless of a personal level of popularity, I emphasize how reliable and stable they are, whether or not we have fun together, and whether or not they are someone I can open up to.

More on Boyfriend/Girlfriend Selection: The way I see it, there’s two possible fights you can have in a relationship: the fight not to go crazy or the fight not to get bored. The fight not to go crazy is what happens when you are dating someone who is unreliable or unstable. The fight not to get bored is what happens when you are dating someone who is both reliable and stable. The boring fight is much better than the crazy fight. You can win the boring fight. You usually can't win the crazy fight. For the boring fight: you can do things outside the house, plan events, do double dates, tease each other more, joke around, and open up more. For the crazy fight: you can and should be assertive about their reliability and their mental stability in terms of how it affects you directly (i.e. less yelling, less complaining, engaging in therapy for any obvious emotional problems). However, these behaviors can be difficult to change because unreliable or unstable people will often run away or yell at you when you give them feedback. If that is the case, you should strongly consider couples counseling or even ending the relationship if they refuse to act on your feedback.

Empathy / Validating Emotions

This relationship skill goes by a lot of names. It can be referred to as empathy, validating emotions, or emotional validation. It is the technique I always use when people are mad at me. It is also one of the techniques (along with reflective listening) that I find to be most effective in consoling and calming people when they are anxious, sad, or angry.

The basic structure of empathy/validating emotions is as follows:

“I can see why X behavior made you feel Y emotion”

This is by far the best way to respond when someone is assertive with you. If you tell me “Dr. K, I’m really mad that you are 30 minutes late for our appointment”, I’ll automatically respond “I can see why me being 30 minutes late would make you mad”. Then I’ll pause before I say anything else. Empathy lets the other person know that you have heard their message (which calm them down). It disarms them in the sense that they no longer have a reason to repeat the angry message. It also helps you alter your own behavior by clarifying what is being communicated to you.

Even when I am falsely accused of something, I’ll use empathy first, before I defend myself. Let’s say you falsely accuse me: “Dr. K, you are always late for our sessions and it really frustrates me.” I will first answer “I can see why me always being late for our session would frustrate you.” (I first want to calm you down and let you know that I’ve heard you). Only then, after a pause, will I reply “But I’m a little confused because I thought that this was the first time I’ve been late for you”.

If my wife is angry at me and I am angry at her. I first try to empathize with her before I am assertive myself. “Lindsay, this is the third time I’ve asked to take out the garbage and I’m really irritated.” “Honey, I can see why me not taking out the garbage would make you feel irritated.” Pause. Wait. Then: “I would like to bring something up though, I have felt kind of bothered that I always have to be the one to take it out and that you don’t sometimes do it as well.”

Validate emotions. Pause. Then apologize, defend yourself, or be assertive as the case may be.

The idea that empathy or emotion validation is the best way to calm someone down was something I learned from the book Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. My wife and I were listening to the audio version of this book on a drive up to northern California to visit her family. I was rolling my eyes the whole time. The basic premise of the book was “Women want empathy, whereas men like to give advice. When your wife is upset about something in her life, don’t give her advice. Instead just say, "Honey, I can see why that made you upset”. After the audio book was done, I proceeded to tell my wife how lame it was and how I thought it would never work. Literally 20 minutes later, my wife told me about something her friend did that upset her and, as a joke, I said, “Oh honey, I can see why that upset you”. She replied, “Honey, I love you so much! Thanks for understanding.” And I thought to myself, “What!? This stuff actually works!”

When friends or family members are angry, worried, or sad I find that validating their emotions is helpful. It has a calming effect because it demonstrates that I am listening, that they are not alone, and that they are not “crazy” for having their feelings. Only after that, when they are calmer, do I help them problem solve, give advice, reality test, share a similar experience of my own, or help them take their mind off the subject. It’s a mistake to first start with problem solving, or telling them how they “should” feel. They will usually just defend their emotion more vigorously and actually feel more upset.

Pacing of Contact

Although I am going to provide specific rules, you should in fact take this advice with a huge grain of salt. These rules have, generally speaking, worked great for me. But, I treat them as rules of thumb rather than absolutes. You will need to use some trial and error in your own life to get this right.

With dating, I recommend seeing a person just once a week for the first 2-3 months. This helps prevent either of you from overdosing on each other and the relationship from flaming out. I used to run afoul of this rule and it caused me lots of problems. I would meet a girl that I liked. Then I’d see her as often as possible for the first few weeks (like maybe 3-4 times a week). Then after a month or two, I would feel “stifled” and I’d call her and tell her we need to slow it down. It was always very confusing because they’d be like “What? But you’re the one that kept asking me to hang out so much!” What I eventually realized was that I was overdosing myself and that I needed to take it slowly. With commitment phobia (as with all phobia), gradual low intensity exposures work the best. I was rushing it and ending up producing too much commitment anxiety in myself (i.e. the exposure was too intense for me to handle). Once I figured this out, I purposely dated girls just once a week for the first 3 months. I did this with my wife. I called and texted her as much as I wanted, but when it came to actually seeing her I would say to myself “Lindsay, don’t blow this like you have in the past. Take it slow and just see her once a week so you don’t scare yourself off.” Needless to say, it worked. I was also quick to explain to her why I was doing it. In the second or third month of dating, when I sensed that she wanted to see me more frequently I told her “Liz, I hope you don’t mind if I take it slow, but I want to give us the best chance possible. I’ve had commitment issues in the past because I moved too quickly. I care about you and I don’t want to ruin this relationship.” This open communication regarding frequency of contact is much better (and less confusing) than just claiming you are “busy” all the time or not returning their calls with no explanation.

It’s fascinating that for platonic relationships very similar rules apply. I remember calling friends over and over again to hang out and wondered why they would become stand-offish. I’d be like “Why do I have to treat you like we’re dating or something? I’m just trying to be friends!” But what I eventually realized is, it’s not that my friends were acting like dates, it’s that my dates were acting like humans. Everyone has some commitment anxiety. Everyone values their space and prefers to take things slow. If things move too fast, even in a friendship, people start to feel forced and constricted. With my platonic friends, I have found that hanging out less than once a week as we’re getting to know each other works well. If I have been initiating contact too many times in a row, I pause and wait for them to invite me to do something. If I have left more than two messages in a row, I again pause until they reply.

I try to see new friends at least once a month if I want to form a closer relationship. Generally speaking, if you meet with someone about 5 times, you will both feel like friends (rather than just acquaintance). At a once a month rate, this means it takes about 5-6 months to become close to someone. I use this as a rule of thumb. Exceptions would be when you are naturally seeing each other very often (i.e. work, the military, summer camp, college, teammates). In these situations, you can have contact several times a week and form a close friendship very quickly, without either person really needing to “invite” the other all the time and thereby possibly triggering each other's commitment phobia.