5 Ways towards Better Human Relationships

By Po Lin Lim

During conversation one evening, a friend remarked that Asian women have the habit of taking emotional stress onto themselves, “and we just let it tear us apart”. She had observed, in her line of work as a doctor, that many of her cancer patients presented with underlying relationship issues. 

But cancer or not, really, don’t we all have relationship issues? Be it with our spouse, children, siblings, parents, colleagues or even friends? 

The more years in life we live, the less likely we Asian women speak of our heartaches. Are we too afraid to be judged by others? Or embarrassed at what the brokenness of our relationships might reflect? 

The bruising cracks from human relationships lead some of us to withdraw, while others confront them head on. Some turn to prayer, others to meditation. Therapy, counselling and journaling are also popular items on the menu. 

It leads to the question of whether there is hope for navigating through our human relationships, with all their fragmented elements? And if so, how? 

1. Speak up! No person is a mind-reader 

Typically as Asian women, we skirt away from openly expressing our expectations or feelings across our various relationships. We expect our family and friends to already know what we feel or how we are affected by their behaviour (or lack thereof). 

Here’s the shattering truth: they do not

The ‘Asian’ in us means we almost never spell out to others how we want them to love us. Simply by virtue of them having a relationship with us, we expect them to magically know how we feel at any given point in time. Or what it is that we want from them. When they ‘don’t get us’, we feel disappointed. 

Returning from my walk this morning, I entered the kitchen to the sight of my husband’s coffee cup emptied. I’d always love coffee but could never stomach a full shot. So I’d usually nip a few sips from his cup. Feeling annoyed looking at his empty cup, my tongue was about to let loose when it dawned on me that I hadn’t asked him today to leave me any of his coffee. Instead, I had expected him to know. Sixteen years of marriage wasn’t enough to fill in even a small gap of communication.

On matters trivial or significant, the people around you are often oblivious to your  pain unless you communicate. To be loved, speak up!  Or text. Or email. Try whatever you think will work best for you and your recipient!  

2. Say it better! (even if it requires extra effort)

The start to effective communication is to appreciate the importance of actual words used

Global brands spend huge sums of money from marketing budgets just to perfect the selection of words applied in their advertisements. They understand the vital role that words play in persuading target audiences. Yet in our personal lives, we put way less effort in choosing the words we use with our family, friends and others we have relationships with. 

When angry, sad or feeling attacked, it becomes all too easy as Daniel Kahneman writes in his bestseller Thinking, Fast and Slow to simply think fast and to fail to think slow. With that, we unleash our urge to rant defensively, raise our voices in frustration or even string out unkind accusatory words when we hurt. 

Instant messaging apps like Whatsapp encourage our fingers to speak before our mind can properly process thoughts. Ever sent a text message, only to realise later what you said would have been better received if phrased differently?

The golden rule for communicating is saying more with less. Instead of blustering about the other person’s behaviour, simply focus your communication on how you are affected. If they care for you, they will respond. 

When doing so, get as prescriptive as you can. Try this:

I am feeling <identify your own feelings e.g. sad, hurt, disappointed>, when you <describe the person’s behaviour> because <insert explanation to give the other person context>.

If apt, gently spell the course of action you hope from them (to avoid futile second guessing on their part). 

What you say really does matter. 

3. Time it right! (even if you feel like exploding!)

When communicating, there’s also the element of when. It’s never a good time to say anything in the middle of an intense argument when the other person is boiling. 

But isn’t that downright unfair, you’d probably retort. Why should you say nothing while the other party is verbally exploding? Well, the alternative leads the both of you nowhere at best. Worse, there is a real likelihood for full blown tantrums all around! 

Choosing to not talk it out there and then, is not to say you should bury the matter. It simply means parking the matter to be revisited later when the both of you are calmer and emotions are not as raw. Learn to create better moments to communicate, hard as it may be. 

4. Get comfortable! With their imperfections 

There is the stereotype of the Asian tiger mom, wanting to mould her children into perfect versions of themselves. Young wives who enthusiastically try to change their husbands for the better. Employees who yearn for better bosses. And on an individual level, many of us who think our friends could be more thoughtful or responsive to our needs.

But what if we shifted the lens a little. What if, just what if… we experimented living one entire week accepting our family and friends just the way they are?

What I’m about to say next isn’t for everyone. It definitely is not for you if you are in a relationship (whatever form it may be) where you’re being abused in any way. 

For the rest of us, the experiment of taking on a different perspective could be liberating. Chat with wives married for some years and you’ll find the common theme of accepting the imperfections of their spouse. Acceptance dissolves expectations. 

Letting go of that urge you have for the other party to conform to your way of thinking or to fulfil certain needs you may have, lessens disappointments and frustrations. Try accepting the imperfections of those around you, and you’re likely to reclaim a greater sense of peace in the face of whatever challenging situation you are in. 

In saying that, accepting a person’s imperfections isn’t quite the same as foolishly accepting how the person treats you. Which brings us to the next point. 

5. Own it! Recognise your worth 💓 

Too many of us Asian women kowtow to one-sided relationships. 

It begins from our Asian homes where mothers typically save the chicken drumsticks at mealtimes for their children. It continues when annual vacations are planned around child centric activities. When children repeatedly receive love growing up, but are never taught to offer love, who really is to be blamed when in adulthood they show little concern for others (parents included)?

The story of one-sided love also finds its way into relationships between romantic partners, friends and even in a work context. 

When you care enough about someone to invest in a relationship where you spell out your needs or communicate how their behaviour affects you, then they too must care enough to hear what you have to say and to respond to your pain. If they make an effort to make your life a little brighter, this person is a keeper! 

Healthy relationships are a good two-way tango. When a person is indifferent as to how their behaviour affects you, it’s usually a reflection of how little you matter to them. In which case, is a relationship with such a person worth your investment? Why put yourself through stress and pain for someone to whom your happiness matters so little? You deserve better!

When it isn’t meant to be…

People often mistakenly assume relationships grow organically. The fact is, relationships in all forms require hard work from both parties. 

With only 24 hours in a day and a finite emotional tank, it becomes necessary to choose the relationships in which we sow that extra effort. Whatever form of relationship it may be, when the energy isn’t correspondingly equal between two individuals, you’re likely to feel a sense of grief of what could have been. Or a feeling of foolishness for solo-ing the relationship in the first place. 

But when you have already tried your best and it just isn’t working out, know that it is alright to let go

A colleague recently cited incompatibility as the reason for moving on from our workplace. Frustrations along the way were openly communicated by all, with everyone actively taking steps to satisfy each other. Effort notwithstanding, there is sometimes no answer to incompatibility. Parting ways amicably can be healthy. 

Which brings me to an email I woke up to one weekend morning not long ago. A childhood friend had written to say she is at the crossroads of separating from her husband after years of marriage. If you’ve visited this juncture at least once yourself, you’ll know exactly the mental web of considerations she was navigating at that very moment, particularly with a child in the picture. 

In any relationship, how does one know when to press on and when to let go? As with most of life’s big questions, there are almost never clear-cut answers. 

If you’re still reading…  

… be assured that all human relationships are complex! 

It could be said that many Asian women construct layered circles of relationships, careful to protect their inner sanctum for different reasons. Bruce Springsteen sings in the movie Jerry Maguire, “she’ll let you in her heart if you got a hammer and a vise, but into her secret garden, don’t think twice”. Secret garden. 

To be fair, the number of layers probably varies for each woman. For some, their secret garden may be partially public, while others guard their inner sanctum with a great wall. 

This experience is true even for us as parents. At the start of our children’s lives, we’re instantly placed at the centre of their inner sanctum. Yet over the years, we find ourselves slowly moving further out from their secret garden, as they gradually make room for friends and later yet, their own nucleus family. 

Relationships can be confusing. With different persons, and at different seasons of life, come about varying depths of interaction and connection. The more intimate a relationship, the greater the risk of pain. But with that, also the opportunity for joy and a more enriching life. 

I had the good fortune of befriending a lovely lady who goes the extra mile of sowing into the relationships that come her way. A successful businesswoman with two daughters, her days are busy enough, yet she makes time to get personal with others. Why risk heartache, I asked. 

What she said got me thinking, even to today, months afterwards…
“In life I have a fair share of heart breaks. What makes life worth living is the people we encounter. Some give us a ride to hell, others give us memorable rides. I love every bit of it!” 

Po Lin is a host on TAW Real Chats.

If you enjoyed this article, watch Po Lin on #TAWrealchats: Making Marriage Work as she chats with Hannah Yeoh (Malaysia’s former Deputy Minister of Women, Family and Community Development) married for 13 years, and Jane Ng (a family lawyer with extensive experience in handling divorce cases) married for 15 years, for their candid insights on marriage. 

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