Skip main navigation

Difficult relationships

Watch Richard discuss how we can bring mindfulness to difficult relationships and how that can lead to different outcomes in our life.
RICHARD CHAMBERS: Unfortunately, difficult relationships are just a part of life, whether at home, with our family, or at work, or with our friends. It’s just something that we have to deal with from time to time. As they say, you can’t choose your family, but you can choose how you respond to them. And that’s really where mindfulness comes in. If we bring mindfulness to our difficult relationships, we can start to notice all the ways that we ourselves hold on, maybe to resentments about things that have happened in the past, or expectations that people should be a certain way or shouldn’t be a certain way, or just holding grudges. Quite often we hold onto things.
That creates a lot of stress and tension for us and often leads to conflict in our relationships. So if we can start to notice that we’re holding onto these things, there’s the possibility of letting go. Maybe we let go of that grudge. And just next time we see that person, we meet them as if for the first time, just actually being open to what’s possible. So yeah, maybe every time over the last three months, one of our family members or a colleague might have been a particular way, but are they always going to be that way? And what would happen if we actually just let go of that, approached them in an open way, in a friendly way?
Maybe we’re curious about what’s going on for them, what they need, how we can support them. That might actually lead to some different outcomes. And if we do notice that we start reacting– and, of course, that’s likely to happen. We might start to just tense up, or just get annoyed, or once again be holding onto that grudge. We can start to notice that. Paying attention to the body and the breathing is an excellent thing to do throughout the day. We just notice that little bit of tension. And what’s that about? Oh, OK, I’m holding onto some expectation again that you shouldn’t be doing that. And that’s causing stress for me.
So if we can notice that that’s happening again, we just let go. Maybe we breathe around ourselves back in the body, and then focus our attention back on the interaction that we’re having. And, of course, if we start to listen mindfully, really pay attention to what’s being said, really be curious about what the deeper message is that the person is trying to communicate, if we let go of our own judgments and ideas about what’s being said, don’t just wait for our turn to speak, but actually really listen to what’s being said, that can improve our relationships quite a lot and can even resolve conflict.
And probably one of the final ways that mindfulness can really help us with difficult relationships is to focus on what’s healthiest about the relationship, because with everybody in our life, there are usually ways that they’ve hurt us or disappointed us. But there’s also often friendship and love and respect and good memories. And so if we focus our attention on those things, that’s just going to shape the kind of interactions that we have and can be very helpful. And this can make us very resilient at work, for instance, or at home.
If colleagues aren’t doing something that they’ve agreed to do, what we can do is rather than just judging them and thinking, oh god, why do I have to work with this person, perhaps what we could do is let go of all of that. Maybe sit down with them and let them know, look, if we remove any sense of right or wrong or good and bad and just look at what’s happening, what’s actually going on here between us? Is there something that you need, something that I could help you with?
Or is there something that you’re not getting from someone else that if you were to get it might actually help you to do the job that you’re supposed to be doing, and therefore help me? And so just bringing that attitude of curiosity and interest can be very helpful. And, of course, there might be situations where it’s just too difficult and we can’t resolve the conflict. And in those situations, what we can do is we can establish a clear boundary. We might choose to limit our contact with that particular person. And, of course, sometimes there’s nothing that we can do, at least not in that moment.
So we might need to just walk away for a moment, just bite our tongue, walk away, put some distance between us, maybe come back later on. If it’s a family member, if it’s somebody that you can’t avoid forever, perhaps you just wait till things cool down and then come back later on when the emotions die down a little bit and perhaps revisit what’s happened and try to work through it. Or if it is somebody who’s an acquaintance or a friend, and things are too difficult with them, sometimes we can just set very clear boundaries and decide to end the relationship or just not spend any more time with them.
But we can do that in a mindful way, in a much less reactive, angry way, where we’re just being very clear about what’s OK with us, what’s not, and what it is that we need. And on a related note, mindfulness helps us, of course, to have a better relationship with ourselves, especially when that relationship’s a little bit difficult. And so if we have a setback or we fail at something or we’re disappointed by something, we can notice if we get caught up in self-criticism or resentment or judgement about ourselves. And again, we can let go of that. We can tune into what it is that we need.
And we can start to take much better care of our needs, which of course can make us much more resilient, much more effective at what we’re doing, whether that’s at work or at home or in our personal life.

Watch Richard discuss how we can bring mindfulness to difficult relationships and how that can lead to different outcomes in our personal or professional life.

Privacy, confidentiality and your mental health

This course is not designed to be therapeutic for any particular health condition.

So if you, as a course participant, have any significant mental or physical health concerns we suggest that it would be better not to discuss those concerns on a public forum such as this and encourage you to please seek professional advice and support.

An excerpt from ‘Mindful Relationships’ by Dr Richard Chambers and Margie Ulbrick

If you’d like to find out how you can apply mindfulness to challenges in relationships, consider reading ‘Chapter 9: When things go wrong’, an excerpt from ‘Mindful Relationships’ by Dr Richard Chambers and Margie Ulbrick.

Please note, this excerpt is also available from the Downloads section of this step.

This article is from the free online

Maintaining a Mindful Life

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Our purpose is to transform access to education.

We offer a diverse selection of courses from leading universities and cultural institutions from around the world. These are delivered one step at a time, and are accessible on mobile, tablet and desktop, so you can fit learning around your life.

We believe learning should be an enjoyable, social experience, so our courses offer the opportunity to discuss what you’re learning with others as you go, helping you make fresh discoveries and form new ideas.
You can unlock new opportunities with unlimited access to hundreds of online short courses for a year by subscribing to our Unlimited package. Build your knowledge with top universities and organisations.

Learn more about how FutureLearn is transforming access to education