How To Have Good Human Relationships



Christopher Ebbe, Ph.D.     8-17

ABSTRACT:  The basic causes of human conflict and troubled relationships are set out, and human attitudes and skills that can make human relationships positive and productive are described.

KEY WORDS:  good relationships, human relations, relationships

Human relationships are plagued with interpersonal conflicts, so much so that often people despair of ever being relaxed and comfortable with others, since it seems that others never understand or are always trying to take advantage of one.  People vie for status and position, they steal from and murder each other, they frequently try to take advantage of each other, they try to force each other to feel or act differently, and they require that their lives be made “fair” by others.  Our daily lives as well as our movies are full of efforts to manipulate each other to get what we want, whether that is position, power, material possessions, love, revenge, peace of mind, or simply “what we want.”   We are often ready to engage not just in manipulation but in open conflict, violence, and even war to get our way.

Human beings, by our very separateness and due to our individually unique genetics and experience, will always differ in attitudes and in what we believe is necessary for survival and for having some degree of satisfaction and enjoyment in life.  Nonetheless, it is quite possible to live together amicably and positively with most others, if we understand why conflicts arise and if we cultivate attitudes and skills that keep conflicts to a minimum.  We are wired up biologically to truly need other people, for survival and for our sanity.  We truly can’t live without relationships!

It is not difficult to understand the sources of relationship conflict, since common human characteristics lead directly to this state of affairs unless they are moderated by socialization or individual effort.  Human beings are trapped within their own skins, have only their own needs, naturally see things their own way, and understandably think that their needs are more important than those of others.  We have evolved to use violence to protect ourselves and to get what we want.  We are all capable of violence, and the only question is when we might engage in it.  If we lived alone and each had our own territory, there would be fewer interactional problems (except over boundaries and richness of territories), but in order to live well materially and stay sane, we need the contributions of many people, each working at his or her little tasks, so we need each other, choose to be together, and must deal with the interactional consequences of our evolved characteristics.  Fortunately, we also have positive potentials as human beings, and our capacities for love, empathy, appreciation, bonding, and loyalty give us the possibility of human interactions that are on balance positive, if we believe that these are more rewarding to ourselves than the satisfactions that result from exercising our less positive capacities.  The seven attitudes and behaviors described below erode and destroy relationships, and if we can avoid those attitudes and behaviors, then we can make most of our relationships genuinely positive.

At every moment each of us has desires and goals (get home after work, find an item we wish to buy, have supper, have sex, etc.).  Human conflict arises when (1) we perceive our goals to be incompatible with the goals of others and (2) we treat each other poorly in the course of pursuing our own goals.  This can occur in several contexts:  (1) person A is pursuing his goals alone and views person B as “being in the way” (someone owns land we wish to possess); (2) person A tries to get person B to do something that will aid person A in her pursuit of her own goals (“will you please move your car?”); or (3) person A involves others in cooperating in his efforts to reach his own goals (“let’s pool our money and buy that land”).

We may treat others poorly while pursuing our goals by (1) causing them harm so that we can get what we want (pushing them down so we can get there first; selling them a product that we know is defective without telling them; insulting them on purpose to get them to give in); (2) lying to them or not honoring our promises or obligations to them (“I love you;” “If you lend me money, I’ll pay you back in one month”); (3) ignoring their needs and goals in favor of our own (“Help me now, and maybe I’ll help you later;” “I need this done right now, so you don’t really need to eat lunch”); (4) treating them unfairly (“If you give me $100, I’ll give you something worth $90”–isn’t that great?”); and (5) treating them meanly or disrespectfully in the course of our interactions, usually to manipulate them into giving us what we want or to “work off” our anger that should really be directed at someone else (“Why can’t you do that right?”; “Since I’m better than you, I deserve more of the proceeds;” “Sorry you lost your retirement fund, but we had to save the business”).


There are seven major attitudes and actions that result in interpersonal conflict and may result in harm.  These all involve harming others, either materially or emotionally in terms of their self-esteem or sense of security.

1. Ignorance.

Some conflicts arise due to simple ignorance, usually with respect to customs and expectations.  If you do not know which hand Muslims consider to be unclean (right or left), then you may well cause insult by attempting to use that hand to shake hands with a Muslim.  (This is much more true, of course, in more traditional Muslim societies than it is with regard to Muslims in the U.S.)  Those Muslims who feel insulted may feel that way partly because they do not “understand” that those in Western cultures do not make any assumption about the relevant uncleanness.  If we are unwilling to learn about those who are different from us (different in ethnicity, different in sexual orientation, different in regional origin, etc.), then we are doomed to make these mistakes. 

2. Unwillingness To Deal With Difference

Sometimes people sense that these differences exist but insist that the other person conform to his or her ways of understanding and doing things, rather than seeking to minimize conflict by conforming to the other person’s ways of understanding and doing things when that is possible without too much strain or cognitive dissonance.  We are all fearful of those who are different from us, and it takes some energy to be flexible enough to alter one’s behavior when possible in order to allow people who are different to “fit together” with us sufficiently to enable comfort and cooperation in the relationship.  One solution is to never be around people who are different, but in the modern world, this is becoming increasingly confining as a strategy.

3. Trying To Have Our Own Way

This is perhaps the most prevalent cause of interpersonal conflict.  We naturally would like to have things the way we want them, including wanting that everyone else would give in to our wishes (which show to see, which vacation to take, having the person we love always love us back, which side of the bed to sleep on, etc., etc.).  Some people struggle with others over this every day of their lives, rather than finding other ways of being together that avoid this type of conflict.  Insisting on having our way demeans the other person, since it says to them that their wishes count less in the world than ours, which make them inferior to us, and no one likes that.  Trying to have our own way ignores the options of taking turns and sharing.

4. Trying To Take Advantage of Others

Some people try to get their way and to make it in the world by taking advantage of others whenever possible (finding a weakness in the other person and playing on it to induce submission; stealing; blackmailing; deceiving or lying in order to get something from the other person; playing sick; loafing on the job; etc.).  This, of course, makes the other person mad and usually leads to him trying to get back at you or take advantage of you in turn.  Child sexual abuse is an extreme example of taking advantage of someone else.

5. Trying To Be Superior

Human status hierarchies seem to serve the purpose of minimizing conflicts over distribution of resources—i.e., to establish a pecking order that everyone accepts so there will not be a fight to the death over those in higher status getting more of the pie than those of lower status.  Some people try to arrogate to themselves the trappings of symbols of status so that others will accept them as being of higher status.  A person who buys an expensive or status car may want others to then defer to them or envy them and see them as being of higher status, even though as persons there is no reason to accord them higher status.  Many other behaviors may be used this way—contributing to the opera, big diamond rings, always dressing nicely, boasting about accomplishments, only going to the better restaurants, etc.).

6. Using Others As Means of Expressing Our Feelings

Some conflicts arise because a person uses others as targets to express frustration or other feelings that have little or nothing to do with that other person.  A man may come home angry about being demeaned by the boss, and he blows up at someone at home over something trivial.  A woman tells her child she wishes he had never been born, in response to her husband insulting and beating her.  A man in a bar gets into a fight with a stranger because of his despair about never getting ahead in life or because his wife withholds sex in order to manipulate him.  A person justifies harming another by claiming that life must be fair and that this allows him to hurt someone else in order to make up for harm he has received or for the dashing of his hopes and expectations in life.

7. Blaming Others For Our Feelings Or Situation

It is common for human beings to push responsibility for their feelings or situation off onto others, which exerts some pressure on those others to do something about our feelings or situation and distances ourselves from any guilt or shame we might feel about our feelings or situation.  We can invent an infinite number of reasons to justify this.  You coughed just before my golf shot, and that’s why it went astray [whether or not there was a cough].  I didn’t choose to be born, so my life is my parents’ responsibility and always will be.  This air conditioner doesn’t work right, and that’s why my report is confused.  You’re dumping me, so the least you could do right now is be supportive while I grieve.  My sister made me do it, Mom; it wasn’t my idea. 

In trying to make others responsible for us, we must pretend to be either incapable or unfairly treated.  If the latter, the people we inappropriately accuse of treating us unfairly will resent it and wish to distance themselves from us (or, in some more unhealthy relationships, that person pretends to take the responsibility in order to manipulate us for his own advantage).  If we portray ourselves as incapable, we become a burden on others, which they will inevitably resent.  Since human beings have very little in the way of built-in morality, who is responsible for something becomes a matter of convention.  In general, we all agree that adults are responsible for themselves unless there is a special reason why not, such as disability. 


These seven attitudes and actions are responsible for almost all instances of relationships going sour or becoming conflicted, so if we want positive, healthy relationships, with a minimum of conflict, we must learn and adopt certain attitudes and behaviors, which are explained in the remainder of the essay.  This explanation depends, however, on a definition of positive, healthy relationships that has more substance than just the absence of conflict. 

It is suggested that a “good” or “positive” interaction is one in which both parties feel comfortable and safe (as a result of understanding each other and feeling treated appropriately by the other person) and in which the interaction enhances the welfare of both parties.  These interactions succeed through understanding and cooperation and result in minimum amounts of conflict and violence between people.  The agreed-upon goals of both parties are not always achieved, but if both parties have acted appropriately and responsibly and have treated the other person decently, with dignity and respect and taking the other person’s goals seriously, both parties can feel positive about the interaction. 

People who believe that they will get more for themselves by harming or threatening others than by cooperating and treating others decently will disagree about what is a successful interaction, but many if not most people would agree that we can actually get more by cooperating and treating others decently.


The support within ourselves for mistreating others is the hope that we can be treated reasonably well by others while we continue to mistreat them (having one’s cake and eating it, too; getting something for nothing; a free lunch; etc.).  In the real world, this expectation is doomed to failure, since the only way it could be sustained would be to keep on meeting new people who did not yet know that you were going to mistreat them, or hold those you are mistreating captive so that they can neither escape nor overcome you.  These ways of life would be abhorrent to most people.

If you want to have better relationships (positive relationships) with others, you MUST treat others reasonably well, mostly by overcoming your inclinations to try to get something positive from others while you give them nothing or something negative.  There is no other way.  You cannot fool others for very long into thinking that you are giving them something positive when you are actually mistreating them.  It’s up to you to assess yourself with regard to the behaviors that harm relationships above and improve your willingness and abilities in the following areas.

(The following sections are here to arouse your interest and are not complete treatments of the topics.  If you are motivated to seek improvement, you will want to read the website sections provided.)


In order to treat others better (and ourselves, too), we must first see how we are harming others. People tend to ignore this about themselves, because whenever we harm others, we have some rationalization or justification for it (I don’t have as much as others, so I should be able to take from others; She hurt me so I’m justified in hurting her back double).  It is essential that we see clearly what we do and how it affects others.  This can be painful, of course, and humbling, but this is necessary if we are to improve our behavior.  We must also sense accurately the pain that we cause others, so that we can understand why there is a problem and can have the potential to make our lives better by decreasing the amount of pain that we cause others.  (For more on this topic, see


In order to understand others, so that we know what they want and enjoy and can use this knowledge to make their relationships with us gratifying for them, we need to employ our considerable capacity for empathy.  Empathy is the skill and capacity to know, relatively accurately, what another person is thinking and feeling, which we do by observing all of the other person’s behavior and by resonating with that other person’s emotional state as a result of our observing. 

Empathically gained information about others is not always accurate, so we must act on it tentatively, but the more you practice, the better at it you will become.  The common objections to developing greater empathy are (1) it’s too much trouble, because I don’t really care about others that much and (2) I don’t want to feel others’ feelings because feelings are difficult and because I might get overwhelmed by their feelings or my own.  Only you can remedy the first objection, if you wish, but for the second objection, you can develop greater confidence in your emotional stability and in feeling your own feelings fully just by gradually, over time, allowing yourself to feel more and to feel more deeply.  (For more about empathy, see my essay “Empathy” at


If we are willing, we can be aware of in ourselves and empathically appreciate for others the difficulties of coping with life, the inner struggles that we are each engaged in, and the imperfections of us all.  Understanding these inevitable aspects of ourselves and life itself leads us to be more compassionate and accepting toward both ourselves and others, and this, added to the hope that we must have each day that our efforts will be sufficient for our survival and possibly for having some positive emotion during the day, leads us to having a basically positive attitude toward ourselves and others.  The useful aspects of this positive attitude are (1) hopefulness regarding our sufficiency (that if we try adequately to use our capacities, we will be OK), (2) a hope of positive relating with all others, (3) openness to positive relations with others, (4) approaching others in a manner that encourages positive relating, (5) interest in others’ lives and methods of coping, (6) treating others in ways that promote positive relating (honesty, responsibility for one’s emotions and behavior, acceptance, fairness, equality, compassion, self-control, autonomy), and (7) willingness to engage in cooperative, mutually beneficial projects and to be helpful to others, as possible.  “Positive relations” refers to the affective quality of the relating—i.e., that the relating is pleasant, comfortable, accepting, and encouraging, and it does not require any other specific success or benefits.

(1) We are born with desire and hope, which are both crucial to survival, since desire moves us to action and hope overcomes the fears of failure that can immobilize us.

(2) Positive relations with others are based most fundamentally in a desire for those relations to be positive.  We will benefit from having positive relations with others, especially because there will be greater trust, greater comfort, and better cooperation.  Relations can be positive without involving specific, mutually beneficial projects or contracts, but an attitude that clearly hopes for positive relating is essential.  Most positive relating gives both parties significant psychological benefits, regardless of any concrete, external benefits.

(3) Relations will not be sincerely and openly positive unless both parties are open to positive relations.  This means being genuinely open to relating, without fears and other barriers blocking the way and showing to others in our speech and facial expressions.  Many people develop habitual suspicion of others, various “relationship testing” procedures (like being nasty to see if the other person is nasty back, at which point the relationship can be abandoned), and other barriers that are used to ward off the harm that they expect from relating (based on past negative experiences).  Many of these people cannot ever let those barriers down, even if the other person proves trustworthy, and this makes positive relations impossible.  The keys to better relating for those who are fearful are (usually with the help and encouragement of certain others) (a) to take the risk of openness and discover that at least with one other person relating can be relaxed and positive and (b) to appreciate fully the good feelings that come from full and deep contact with another, so that these good feelings come to justify continued openness to positive relations.

(4)  Our positive attitude must be conveyed to others.  Think of people who make you feel positive and comfortable when they approach you, and imitate what they do.  Smile and courteously recognize the presence of others.  (This is the underlying function of the usually otherwise meaningless greeting “How’s it going?”)  Use a look or a few words to put others at their ease around you.  Express interest in the other person.  Show that you are comfortable with your imperfectness.  Don’t wait for others to do these things; do them yourself proactively.  Most people will respond positively and appreciatively to these signals of possible positive relating, and you will feel effective and good about yourself for your efforts.  Approaching others with a neutral or negative attitude (neutrally waiting for them to show or prove themselves, or expecting negative relating and therefore giving nothing away or subtly warning others not to relate) kills most chances for positive relating and also “proves” what you feared–that it is too dangerous to relate.

(5)  The chances of having positive relations are increased significantly if we are interested in others’ lives and ways of coping, so that all of our encounters automatically have something of interest to us, even without the necessity of finding common interests, joint projects, or similarity connections.  Some people are naturally “psychologically minded” in this way, but the rest of us can at least to some extent develop this curiosity about others if we are willing.  Since human beings around the world all cope with the same feelings, the same bodily abilities, limitations, and infirmities, and basically the same environmental challenges, we can always potentially learn useful things from how others deal with life and its problems, if we are willing to look at what they know and how they cope, psychologically, physically, and culturally.  The solutions are varied across the world to such problems as how to institutionalize mating and childrearing, how to augment or supplement vision (cameras, television), and how to shape wood and metals into shapes that are useful to us, and we can learn much from others, as long as we can overcome our inherent tendency to overvalue what we are familiar with and to denigrate everything else.

(6) In order both to create and to nurture positive relating, it is necessary to treat others in ways that promote positive relating.  Being honest with others and being responsible in your relating to them makes it possible for others to trust you and be comfortable being with you.  This includes being responsible for managing your emotions, rather than expecting others to change so that you won’t have to feel any unpleasant feelings.  Demonstrating empathy shows them that there is at least a chance that you can understand their experience and situation, and demonstrating appropriate self-control shows them that you may be able to manage your behavior so as not to hurt them.  Accepting others as they are allows them to relax with you and to feel welcome and valued.  Treating others fairly tells them that you will apply the same rules to yourself that you apply to them, so that they don’t have to worry so much that you will take advantage of them.  Treating them basically as equals tells them that you understand that they have the same basic value in the world and the same rights as you do, which once again underscores that you recognize their basic value.  Treating others with compassion tells them that you understand their struggles and that you place a high value on their welfare.  Taking care of yourself happily and effectively shows them that you are not likely to seek to be dependent on them.

(7) Positive relations are nurtured by your willingness to engage in cooperative, mutually beneficial projects and to be helpful to others, as possible.  Whether it is simply helping to raise a stuck window, organizing a benefit dinner-dance, or fighting side by side in a war, working together for mutually desired goals is naturally (evolutionarily) rewarding to human beings and can transform positive relating into friendship.  Your empathy and compassion make helping a natural and enjoyable thing to do and even “justifies” some personal sacrifices for the sake of others’ welfare.  Of course, sharing your wisdom with others in ways that can benefit them is another possible cooperative, mutually beneficial project.


A key positive attitude toward others is compassion, which is noticing and appreciating another’s suffering and hoping that that suffering will be reduced.  It requires the positive attitude in the previous section, sufficient empathy to feel for another person, and enough selflessness to hope that his or her suffering will be reduced (instead of secretly liking the other person’s suffering, because we ourselves are suffering, too).  People appreciate and gravitate to people who are understanding and compassionate.  (See also


Relationships are much more positive if we basically accept the other person (since the opposite of acceptance is rejection!).  This means being completely accepting of his/her right to be alive and to seek good feelings in life and relatively accepting of his/her quirks (e.g., needing to have a light on in the room while sleeping) and minor dysfunctions (e.g., not being good at expressing love).  Acceptance is basically “letting be,” and accepting another person is letting that person be his/her self without wanting to change him/her, through criticism, manipulation, or rejection.  (For more on this topic, see


It is much easier to accept others if we first accept ourselves, so that we are not bothered by always comparing ourselves to others and judging ourselves.  If we don’t accept ourselves, we will be envious of any acceptance that another person has.  Trying to be perfect is the most harmful form of judging yourself.  Let yourself be, without judging or comparing.  (See also How To Feel Good About Yourself:  Twelve Key Steps To Positive Self-Esteem:  Christopher Ebbe, Ph.D., 2003.) and


In order to be in a consistent positive emotional space with another, we must deal with how the other person is different from us.  Differences are always disturbing to some degree, but we can get used to the idea that there are differences (even with the people we feel closest to), and we can take a realistic stance about the consequences of those differences, asking ourselves if the differences really pose a threat to us and if they really interfere with our own lives and goals so much that we must either ask for change or distance ourselves from the other person.

Some activities that we can choose for ourselves that help us to be more comfortable with differences in general are education, travel, and purposely exposing ourselves to those who are different.  Learning about the background reasons why people are different (culture, geography, history, etc.) helps us to see differences in a larger context.  Travel shows us that other people who are different have solutions to life’s problems that may be different from ours but work adequately for them—i.e., that there is no good reason to believe that our ways of doing things are the only legitimate ways.  Being around others who are different, as in social or goal-directed groups, helps us to see those who are different as real people instead of abstract figures in our heads.  (For more on this topic, see


In general, when people feel good about themselves, they are more likely to treat others well.  Self-esteem is the feeling that one has every time one is aware of oneself, and it can be either positive or negative.  Key elements of self-esteem are loving, respecting, and accepting oneself.  While much of the self-esteem movement of past decades was superficial in promoting such things as a victory cup for every child who played in a game, true self-esteem is one of an individual’s most treasured possessions and is the element of emotions that has the greatest impact on the quality of one’s life.  (For more on this topic, see  and my book How To Feel Good About Yourself:  Twelve Key Steps To Positive Self-Esteem:  Christopher Ebbe, Ph.D., 2003.)


Relationships go most smoothly when people feel that they are all basically equals and that no one is either superior or inferior to others.  Striving to be superior always involves putting others down, and those who feel that they are in inferior positions always resent those who are trying to be superior.  This does not imply that there should be no differences between people but simply that those differences should not be used in striving for superiority.  For example, equality implies that people have equal opportunity but not necessarily equal outcomes.  (For more on this topic, see the section on equality in


From a very young age, we are sensitive to issues of fairness, which translate most saliently into the desire for equal treatment (the basic equality discussed above).  This is a challenge for us because we have an innate tendency to favor our allies and those we love over those more distant, which makes for positive relations with some but negative relations with most of the people in the world.  If we want positive relations with minimum conflict, then we must treat all fairly and equally, even when it is to our short-term disadvantage, because the benefits of others treating us fairly in response to our fair treatment of them are much greater than the immediate benefit of mistreating others.  In this global world, this includes treating everyone else on the planet fairly!  If you want to be treated fairly by others, you must treat them fairly as well.  (Those who try to get what they want by treating others unfairly have no doubt flocked to the internet because of the anonymity possible there.)

Life sometimes seems unfair when we encounter disadvantages that cannot be avoided, but perhaps we should admit that fairness is a human activity and is not guaranteed by fate or by God.  The concept applies only to how we treat each other.  Life itself is neither fair nor unfair.  Being born into a bad situation is not unfair, much as we wish it didn’t happen.  We can bemoan our fates, but no one is going to make anything up to us.  Our hope and energy exerted toward making our lives better are the only thing that can improve our lives.  (For more on this topic, see the section on fairness in


Human beings hate to feel vulnerable to things beyond their control, including drought, earthquake, fire, and the feelings of others toward them.  We will do many things to avoid this and to feel in control (including establishing our control over those around us and making pre-emptive military strikes against those we fear).  The proof that we are not really in control of much lies in simply noticing every day how many times you have to alter your plans, since you were unable to control what you thought you could control or things happened that you hadn’t anticipated that forced a change in plans.  Human existence is built around changing plans and trying again after we fail.

One unfortunate result of our desire to control is tension and anxiety.  We know that things may well not go as we hope and plan, and we wait anxiously for whatever it is that’s going to upset our plan.  Even if we eventually succeed, it will only be at the end of a trail of mistakes and changes of plan.  The advantage of accepting our essential vulnerability and our lack of control is that we can relax and stop hoping that our plans will go without a hitch.  We know that they will be disrupted, so we can simply be ready to re-plan or try something else whenever needed.  We know that if our goals are not too high, we can usually achieve them, eventually, and we also know that some things are just not likely to be possible for us human beings (living forever, quick changes of direction for a democratic society).

Accepting our vulnerability can also help us in relationships, since others are equally vulnerable and do not like it any more than we do, and our acceptance and comfort with our vulnerability helps others to feel more comfortable with theirs.  The reality is that other people can always and whenever they like change their feelings toward us and take away some things that we like.  It is sad that many (most?) love relationships end in breaking up, but that is our reality (especially given our freedoms and our greater options than years ago), and we might as well accept it and enjoy what we can while we can.  This does not mean giving up on commitment and trust, but acknowledging that as human beings, we are somewhat fickle and that we respond to changes in the environment (changes in the other person?) that are affecting us, sometimes by withdrawing ourselves from a relationship.  If we have that power and freedom, then so do they.  Again, the benefit of accepting this is that it reduces our ongoing anxiety, and it allows us to focus more on the present and on the benefits that we are getting from a relationship right now.  (For more on this topic, see


Human beings need each other to survive and to have the kind of life that is possible when we work together.  If we are not good at cooperating, we will have more negative relationships and will achieve less of what we want in life.  The cooperation needed to accomplish things that we cannot do alone is based on the principle of reciprocity—that each of us does something for the other (rather than one person doing all the giving) and that this trade is acceptably fair to all parties.  Other forms of reciprocity are sharing and taking turns—things that most of us learn as children.  We want things to be fair, though that does not necessarily mean equal.  Relationships work best when both parties are able to readily share, take turns, and cooperate in a manner with which both are satisfied.

The behaviors that disrupt reciprocity and lead to conflict are trying to get something without giving anything and trying to get an unfair amount in comparison to the other party.  These behaviors are usually rooted in feeling unfairly deprived oneself, and they are enabled by a lack of empathy for how others feel when we take advantage of them.  If you are to improve your sharing, taking turns, and cooperating, you will have to recognize the benefits of conflict-free cooperation (liking the other person, being valued by the other person, the possibility of a deeper relationship than simply cooperating) and accept that these are greater than the short-term benefits from taking advantage of others.  When you share and take turns, be willing to share equally.  When you cooperate, make sure that everyone benefits in a manner with which he or she is satisfied.

A related issue in cooperation is delay of gratification.  In the short term, whenever we take turns, we have to wait for our turn again while the other person gets her turn.  In the long term, when we take turns or cooperate in larger tasks, we usually have to wait for the hoped for benefits, so we must be able to tolerate the frustration of not having what we want right now and maintain our hope that we will get what we want later on (similar to the trust, when we take turns, that we will actually get our next turn).  The trust that is built through fair cooperation helps us with this delay and hope, while the distrust that is built through treating others unfairly and taking advantage of them moves us to stop cooperating and sharing, thus eliminating the benefits of the project for everyone.  (For more on this topic, see the section on cooperation in


In order to have good relationships with others we must regulate how our behavior affects them.  Obviously, if we frequently harm them, even inadvertently, we will not have good relations.  Knowing how we impact others requires (1) being concerned enough about this to attend constantly to how we are affecting others and (2) using our empathy as we assess how we are affecting them.  Practicing this as we grow up allows us to learn to anticipate reasonably accurately how our next behavior is likely to affect others.  Having an expectation of how we are likely to affect others allows us to decide, before we act, just how we want to behave so as to accomplish our goals and at the same time nurture good relations with others. 

As we grow up, most of us are motivated to refrain from certain actions out of fear of punishment or parental disapproval, and many people continue as adults to have only fear as a motivator for self-control.  As adults, though, we can broaden our motivation to include empathic concern for the consequences to others of our various behavioral choices.  Thus, the anticipation of pain that we might cause to others can become a more important motive for self-control (and for doing what is best and what is right) than our fear of what they might do to us in response.

Learning to do what is truly best for ourselves is a third and perhaps most advanced motivator for self-control.  Doing what you believe is best for yourself turns self-control into simply another method of getting what you want, which minimizes the frustrations of controlling your behavior.  As noted frequently above, if you integrate all of the consequences of your actions (both short-term and long-term) and the impact of your actions on others (and their resultant actions toward you) into your decision-making process, then these factors, together with your various desires, will make a good basis for choosing an action.  Self-control then becomes primarily a method for taking the most effective action at the right time, rather than a struggle between what you want to do and what you think you should do.

In actually controlling our behavior, we utilize our ability to inhibit behavior—i.e., to hold back from acting, so that we can decide whether that behavior is what we really want to do.  All mammals have some capacity for inhibiting behavior, which is the most fundamental form of self-control, often motivated subjectively by fear or by the wish to be invisible to predators.    Many times what we first want to do will accomplish some of our goals but not all of them—in this case, we may get what we want but harm others in the process and thereby worsen our relations with them.  If we choose to search for a behavior that will both get us what we want concretely and maintain good relations with others, we utilize inhibition to delay acting until we can decide on our best course of action.  This is the purpose of the injunction to “count to ten” before responding to a frustration or to something others have done.  Good judgment and acting responsibly often require not acting, delaying action, and/or not doing what we would most like to do at the moment.

The harm to self and others from acting in impulsive, erratic, or out-of-control ways exceeds any cost of being self-controlling.  The wise person recognizes the value to everyone of acting in the best interest of those around her as well as in her own best interest, and she knows that acting with appropriate self-control induces those around her to do so as well.  Practice pausing to reflect in your decision-making process before acting, and think about the appropriateness of your various choices and their impact on everyone involved.


Observant people reach the conclusion that honesty leads to more comfortable relationships and more productive joint actions, while lying or distorting the truth lead to conflicts and roadblocks to good relations and to effective action.  We can be honest with ourselves and with those around us, if we are strong enough to tolerate unpleasant truths, and when the content is unpleasant or hurtful to others, we can exercise discretion while not losing sight of what is true.  In order to make good decisions and choices in life, people need to have an accurate view of reality, and if we have concern about others, then we will wish to help them to have an accurate view of reality, too.

We distort reality when we believe or present to someone else a description of reality that we know or should know (could readily know) is not the description of reality that is most likely to be trueWe “tell the truth” when we present to someone else a description of reality that we believe to be the most accurate description of reality that has been achieved up to this time.  In distorting, we ignore certain contrary information so that we can believe what we want to believe, we present a description to someone else that is what we want to believe rather than what we know to be more true, or we present a description to someone else that we know to be incomplete or erroneous (and that we usually hope will be misleading to that other person) so that we can benefit.  The latter is commonly known as lying.  Ignoring or purposely distorting information to oneself to ensure a certain outcome or belief for oneself is “lying” to oneself.

Being honest with yourself is fully admitting to awareness everything that you know about reality.  Being honest with others is answering their questions truthfully and letting others know all of the information that you know to be true that could affect their welfare.  Telling the truth is accurately conveying (and appropriately qualifying) what you believe to be reality (what actually happened or the current state of something), even though you may not know the truth or the reality of things correctly.

Besides ignorance, three factors interfere with our telling of the truth.  We are tempted to distort the truth when we think that doing so will help us (1) to avoid punishments (“I didn’t do it”), (2) to get what we want (“He had two pieces of candy, and I only got one” when in fact the speaker had already had three), or (3) to ease and avoid emotional pain (e.g., when a person could know from the evidence that her husband is unfaithful, but she avoids thinking about it at all in order to avoid the pain).  We all experiment with these lies as children, and many of us continue to distort reality whenever we think it could help us to avoid pain or give us other advantages.  Sometimes people lie on purpose to cause pain.  Lying by omission (what we don’t say) can be just as harmful to others as lying by what we say.  If asked “How is the road ahead?” we can cause considerable harm by saying only “The road is fine” (meaning the road itself is fine) and not mentioning that the road ahead has no gas stations for 100 miles.

In order to be honest with ourselves and others, we must believe that knowing the truth and seeing reality clearly will lead to a better life than ignorance and self-deception.  The arguments supporting this belief are that knowing the truth and seeing reality clearly allow us to make better choices and decisions, which will lead to more effective goal-attainment efforts and to minimization of suffering and pain in life, and that telling the truth will result in greater trust and comfortableness between people.  In order to tell the truth (and know reality as accurately as possible), we must be willing to accept the pain of knowing and sometimes the pain of others in finding out the truth in return for its benefits, and this can only be done if one believes that the benefits will outweigh the pain, at least over time.  (For more on this topic, see the section on honesty in and


Good observers have reason to conclude that acting responsibly (acting always as promised, as could be reasonably expected, and/or as appropriate) causes others to trust them and therefore to cooperate with them and relate more closely.  (We are focusing here on the “dependable” aspect of responsibility, rather than the “accountable” aspect.)   The mature person takes care of responsibilities on her own volition, without complaining or doing it only to avoid the criticism of others.  She truly sees them as responsibilities rather than as unfair and excessive demands.  She is also willing to tolerate considerable discomfort, pain, or disadvantage in order to be responsible. 

If you have concern for others, you can benefit them significantly by being responsible.  This means (1) doing what you have promised, what you said that you would do, and what you are assigned to do, and (2) acting appropriately for the circumstances.  If you tell someone you will do something, then you do it without fail, even if you have not formally promised, and if you are appropriately assigned a task, you carry it out in such a way as to meet appropriate expectations for your task.  In addition, you act “responsibly” in all circumstances—driving safely, doing your homework, not taking money from your mother’s purse, paying your debts on time, actually watching the child you are babysitting rather than the TV, etc., etc.  This aspect of responsibility encompasses doing “the right thing” and acting in accord with the reasonable expectations that other have for you.

You minimize trouble and difficulties for others and for yourself by keeping your promises and carrying out your responsibilities, because others have based their expectations and actions on what you have promised or been assigned, and if you fail to do what you have said or what you have been assigned, you will make things more confusing and difficult for them (and for yourself, as you struggle to find excuses or otherwise “blow off” the other person’s unhappiness).

The argument for being responsible and acting responsibly is the same as that presented above for being honest and truthful.  Over the long haul, you will get more from others, get more out of life, and be happier if you are responsible, even though that means that you will do things when promised, even if you don’t feel like it or have to stay up late to do it, and even though being responsible means that you will give up opportunities to take advantage of others by acting irresponsibly.  Children have the illusion that they need to get all they can right now, but as adults we can see the bigger picture and realize that we benefit more over time from treating people well than we benefit from taking advantage of them whenever we can.  (For more on this topic, see the section on responsibility in


Being trustworthy is a particular aspect of being responsible that highlights your behavior toward others.  (One can be responsible simply in order to conform to one’s own ideals for behavior, without anyone else evaluating it or knowing about it, but we would not use the word “trustworthy” except in relation to one’s responsibilities toward others.)  If you are entrusted with the money or materials of others, you safeguard those things carefully, and if you contract to administer a joint ownership or agreement, you ensure that the rights of all parties are honored as appropriate.

The mature person acts in trustworthy ways because he likes for others to be trustworthy with him and because he has concluded that the subjective as well as the real-world consequences of being trustworthy are more beneficial over the long term than whatever consequences there are to being untrustworthy.  The mature person chooses to act in trustworthy ways, since that promotes cooperation with others, induces others to be more trustworthy themselves, and fulfills explicit promises made as well as implicit elements of the general social contract.

In justifying being untrustworthy and irresponsible, it is common for people to try to believe that they can gain the advantages of being untrustworthy and irresponsible (immediate gain for oneself by taking advantage of others) without paying the price of losing the trust, approval, and cooperation of others in the future, but this is not true in the real world.  There are always prices to be paid for mistreating others.


Ensuring that group members (family, society, etc.) feel reasonable degrees of safety and security and ensuring a reasonable amount of order actually contribute significantly to the willingness of members to behave in accordance with the ideals of the group (e.g., being trustworthy, being honest, etc.).  When people feel like things are falling apart or feel constant insecurity, they are much more likely to seek their own immediate advantage by breaking the rules and taking advantage of others.  The main societal institutions (government, churches, schools) should attend to providing this sense of order, safety, and security.  Individual group members can contribute to this by being honest, responsible, and trustworthy.


Most people want to have good, significant, and lasting relationships.  The issues discussed above are the nuts and bolts of how to achieve this, but in closing, let us step back and look at the larger picture and a few of the themes that we can see under the surface always ready to interfere with our good relationships.

1. Stop wanting others to change so that you can be more comfortable or get what you want.  This works miracles in relationships.  Stop wanting people who are different from you to be more like you (even though we acknowledge that some degree of sameness is essential for comfort in societal interactions).  Trying to get others to change for your benefit is usually a losing proposition, since they are just as attached to their ways of doing things as you are to yours, and it is quite difficult for any of us to believe that changing our ways will benefit us (unless our backs are “against the wall”).  It would be convenient and more comfortable if everyone’s ways of doing things were the same, but you will accomplish more by adapting to differences than you will by trying to convince or force others to change.  (The lone exception to this rule is when you propose a change that will benefit both you and the other people involved, and you can cultivate the ability to envision and propose such jointly beneficial changes.)

If you have troublesome marital conflicts, reflect on how your fights involve each person trying to get the other to be different (have different feelings, see something a different way, react differently to something, behave differently).  It is easier to try to force the other person to change than it is to face up to what we are willing to give up in order to keep the relationship, which is the main reason we keep trying to change the other person.  It should be clear that if both people stopped trying to get the other person to be different, most of the fighting would stop.  What you would be left with, of course, would be the other person just the way he or she is, and you would have to decide whether you want to live with that or not.  If you decide you won’t live with the way things are, you can tell the other person what you need to be different in order for you to stay in the relationship, and the other person would have the option of changing or not (and also saying how he or she needs you to change if he or she is to stay in the relationship).  Each party takes responsibility for who he or she is and how he or she acts, and each party decides how to be and how to change, not in response to force, manipulation or lies from the other, but in order to have the pleasure of the other’s company. 

What is difficult for us in this scenario is letting the other person decide whether we will get what we want.  We are so used to trying to “get” people to do what we want (talking them into it, making them feel guilty, punishing them, etc.) that we feel vulnerable and frightened if we state our needs and then wait to find out if the other person cares enough to give us what we want (assuming, of course, that they are even capable of giving the things we want).  If they are not capable of giving what we want, then we are trying to get “blood from a stone,” and we would be better off facing reality and either accepting things as they are or looking elsewhere.  We hate feeling vulnerable to others (recognizing that we can be hurt by them), but finding out if the relationship is workable (and ending it if it is not workable) is less painful in the long run than beating your head for years against a wall of unwillingness or inability. 

Of course, the best arrangement is making it worth the other person’s while to give what we want by giving the other person what he or she wants first (or at least at the same time).  Any stable and mutually satisfying relationship must seem worthwhile and worth preserving to both parties.

2. Allow others to be who they are, within reason.  Approach all relationships with the assumption that it is good for people to be who they are and who they want to be.  Don’t take on relationships that can only be good for you if you are able to change the other person.  Instead seek out people with whom you fit well already, and approach them with the expectation that they will allow you to be who you are as well.  (This may suggest that you leave relationships that are abusive or harmful to you, even if they are close family relationships.)

3. Stop trying to gain advantage over others.  Make it a rule for yourself that in all of your transactions with others you will attend to their benefit as well as your own.  Completely give up trying to get things from others without giving back, as well as trying to get things from others in circumstances where others will be harmed by giving you what you want (like selling someone a defective car without telling them).  You don’t have to ensure that you and others get equal benefit, but it will improve future relations with them if you don’t leave them with the impression, either now or later, that you have treated them badly.  In order to stop trying to gain advantage over others, you will have to become comfortable with being basically equal to others (rather than seeking to be better than others), you will have to feel good about yourself for things other than winning and besting others, and you will have to stop relying on competition and superiority for your self-esteem.

4. Always act in accord with the Golden Rule (treat others as you would like to be treated by them).  Use this maxim to guide your interactions so that you always take others’ needs into account and always make your transactions with others equitable.


The primary causes of poor (negative) human relationships are–

ignorance (of others’ feelings and/or of what makes for good relationships)                                                                       

unwillingness to deal with difference                       

trying to have our own way                                                 

trying to take advantage of others                            

trying to be superior to others                                   

using others (inappropriately) as a means of expressing our emotions                                                             

blaming others for our feelings and situation         

The adaptive attitudes and behaviors that counteract the enemies of good relationships and also build good relationships are—

self-awareness and awareness of others    


a positive attitude toward others                  




acceptance of difference, within reason                       


treating others as basic equals                                       

being fair and accepting that life is sometimes unfair
accepting our ultimate lack of control and our vulnerability                                                    

cooperation and reciprocity                                            

controlling your behavior

being honest

being responsible

being trustworthy

providing order, safety, and security for the group

no longer trying to change others so that you can be more comfortable and get what you want

allowing others to be who they are, within reason

not trying to gain advantage over others

always acting in accord with the Golden Rule (treat others as you would like to be treated by them)