Creating Positive Relationships

Developing and enjoying positive relationships is an important part of well-being — one of the 5 core concepts identified by Martin Seligman in his PERMA model of well-being theory. [Seligman] Positive relationships can even help us live longer, as shown by the evidence in the “Blue Zones”, areas of the world with the longest-lived peoples. [Kotifani]

The Fable Of The Porcupines

It was a frigid cold winter. The earth was frozen and many animals died from the cold. And so a group of porcupines agreed to huddle together that they might keep warm.

But as they lay up close to one another, the quills of each porcupine pricked and injured the ones they were closest to. After a while, the porcupines decided they couldn’t take this anymore, so they moved apart. And one by one, they began freezing to death.

The remaining porcupines realized that the only way they could survive was to move back together and put up with the pain of their neighbors’ quills. And this they did.

Thus the porcupines learned to endure the little hurts caused by their close relationships. Even more importantly, they learned the life-giving practice of being together. [1]

Many Types Of Relationships

You can find me on most Thursday mornings at United Ministries in downtown Greenville, SC, teaching a class on financial fundamentals to a group of new acquaintances – people who are either looking for a job or looking for a better job. Most of them I never see again. But for 3 hours, we have a mutually beneficial relationship, one that I enjoy and which I hope they enjoy and learn from as well.

I have friends who I see two or three times in a year. Yet when we get together, it’s as if we’ve seen each other just the other day. We pick up our relationship right where we left off.

My wife, Rebecca, and I have been together for nearly 40 years. We have been married longer than we were single. The depth of our relationship is a well-spring of peace and strength and love for which I am deeply grateful.

As you see, relationships come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Some last only a few hours or even a few minutes. Some last months while some last years. And some last decades.

Two Characteristics

Developing positive relationships is an important aspect of well-being. So important that Dr. Martin Seligman identifies this as one of the components of PERMA [2], the acronym for the parts of his well-being theory. [Seligman]

Positive relationships, regardless of their length, have two characteristics: what do we bring to the relationship to build it in positive ways, and what good do we take from the relationship? [Soots] Let’s examine some ideas for ways we can create positive relationships.

Responding To Good News And Bad News

Most of us assume that being a supportive partner means lending a shoulder to cry on in times of disappointment and heartache. And in general, we are pretty good at providing that support when it’s needed.

But surprisingly, the closest and most trusting relationships are defined by how partners respond to each other’s good news. [Desmond]

As we’ve discussed before, there are 4 distinct ways to respond to good news: active constructive, passive constructive, active destructive, and passive destructive. And although it doesn’t come naturally to most of us, we can improve our relationships by learning to respond to good news actively and constructively.

As a rule, we share good news with friends and loved ones more times than we share bad news. To create positive relationships, we must learn to receive good news well.

Disagree Agreeably

All long-term, committed relationships have times of disagreement. This is inevitable. Therefore for a relationship to thrive, partners must learn to disagree agreeably.

John and Julie Gottman are “the preeminent psychologists of marriage in the United States today” [Seligman]. The Gottman’s research shows that when couples quickly become antagonistic and aggressive in disagreements, they are much more likely to break up. [Desmond]

Making an effort to stay calmer for longer during a disagreement usually allows one to stay in full control. Making that decision activates the pre-frontal cortex, and “this ‘human’ part of the brain inhibits the more primitive midbrain.” [Desmond]

Psychologist and author, Dr. Susan Heitler, tells us to “fill the home with peace, not anger or fighting.” [Heitler] When disagreements and differences arise, these guidelines can help us disagree agreeably.

  • Treasure differences of opinion
  • Listen for what’s right in both perspectives
  • Build a consensus of understanding based on the input from both
  • Create an action plan that is responsive to the concerns of both people

Be Kind

Relationships thrive on acts of kindness. In fact, research shows that performing an act of kindness or even observing someone else perform a kind act boosts our positive feelings. [Seligman] And you already know how good you feel when someone you love does something kind for you.

But like other positivity boosters, acts of kindness are subject to the “hedonic treadmill” . . . we quickly get used to them. To keep kindness fresh, we need to mix it up a bit.

Blend in some novelty and spontaneity. Try different things, some big and some small. And occasionally, suprise your partner with a “kindness ambush”. [Desmond]

Perform different acts of kindness and mix them up. Keep your partner guessing. The element of surprise keeps this practice fresh and adds positivity to your relationships.

Enough About Me, Let’s Talk About You – What Do You Think About Me?

This seems like a small thing – and maybe it is – but it struck me as (1) important and (2) something we probably don’t think much about. The idea here is to make your “thank you’s” about the person you are thanking, not about yourself.

For example, let’s say you get a gift . . . not unusual since Christmas is just around the corner. You likely respond something like this: “Thank you so much for my present. I love it. It is the perfect thing for >whatever it is perfect for<.”

Instead, put the focus back on the other person. “Thank you so much for my present. You really put a lot of thought into this and how it is the perfect thing for >whatever it is perfect for<.” [Nicholls]

So when someone gives you a gift, or a compliment, or does something nice for you, thank them of course. But make your thanks about them instead of about you.

Make Deposits Into The Emotional Bank Account

In The 7 Habits Of Highly Effective People, Dr. Stephen Covey describes the Emotional Bank Account. [Covey] We have an emotional bank account with those people we are in relationship with.   Just as we make deposits and take withdrawals in a financial bank account, we can make deposits and take withdrawals from our emotional bank accounts, too.

We have discussed a few ways to make deposits in the the emotional bank accounts of those we love. Responding to good news actively and constructively. Making the effort to stay calm during disagreements. Showing kindness to our partner. Putting the focus on them when things go well. Open, honest, loving communication is one of the biggest deposits we can make.

If the balance in our account is high, we can make withdrawals without damaging the relationship. But if we become overdrawn – making too many withdrawals and few deposits – the relationship is in trouble.

A Ratio For Fluorishing

“You need a 5:1 ratio to predict a strong and loving marriage,” says psychologist Barbara Fredrickson, “five positive statements for every critical statement you make of your spouse.” [Seligman] In fact, you could use this ratio to keep any relationship healthy.

Create positive relationships. It is one of the ingredients for creating a life of flourishing and well-being. And that is embracing the Excelerated Life™!

Developing Excelerated Relationships™ — nurturing ties to other people — is one step in creating your Excelerated Life™, a life of flourishing, of well-being, meaning, and purpose.

Read more about the Excelerated Life™.


[1] Adapted from “The Fable of the Porcupines” by Kay Strom. [See Resources]

[2] The components of PERMA are: Positive emotion, Engagement, positive Relationships, Meaning and Accomplishment.


Covey, Stephen R. The Seven Habits Of Highly Effective People. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1989

Desmond, Msc., Brad. “The Positive Psychology Of Successful Relationships.”, 14 February 2017. Web. 23 November 2019.

Heitler, Ph.D, Susan. “Marriage: 6 Guidelines from Ancient Wisdom Texts.” Psychology Today. Sussex Publishers, LLC, 23 April 2013. Web. 23 November 2019.

Kotifani, Aislinn. “One in Two Americans Feels Isolated and Alone — 5 Habits to Combat Loneliness.” Blue Zones. Blue Zones, LLC., . Web. 25 November 2019

Nicholls, Kat. “Happy Together: A Look At Positive Psychology Within Relationships.” Happiful Magazine. Memiah Ltd, 16 July 2018. Web. 23 November 2019.

Seligman, Ph.D., Martin E. P. Flourish. New York: Free Press, 2011

Soots, Lynn. “PERMA – R is for Positive Relationships.” The Positive Psychology People. The Positive Psychology People, 9 June 2015. Web. 23 November 2019.

Strom, Kay. “The Fable of the Porcupines.” Kay Strom’s Blog. Kay Strom, 31 October 2011. Web. 25 November 2019.

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