The Relationship Frame

One interesting frame shared in the book The Courage to Be Disliked is: All problems are interpersonal relationship problems.

That isn’t necessarily a true statement, but you can think of it as a lens for viewing problems. Personally I think it’s a bit exaggerated as far as lenses go. I prefer a similar but more flexible one: All problems, challenges, and situations can be framed as relationships.

Not everything translates well to an interpersonal relationship, but you can translate any situation to some type of relationship. This can include your relationships with:

  • yourself
  • other people
  • reality
  • life
  • your work
  • money
  • skills
  • your body
  • and more

Moreover, when working on your goals and habits, it’s helpful to translate your goals and habits into growth experiences for one or more of your relationships with different parts of life. This helps goals feel more personal and meaningful, so they aren’t just the mental “stuck in your head” types of goals that don’t really get accomplished.

For example, I could frame my daily exercise as a discipline-based habit that I have to push myself to do each day, but that’s a lame approach that isn’t very sustainable. That mindset looks especially weak when viewed through the relationship lens. Who wants to maintain a habit if the relationship is based on force and struggle against some kind of resistance? That kind of relationship is headed for a breakup sooner or later.

Instead of pushing myself to exercise more or exercise harder, I focused on improving my relationship with exercise. I asked questions like these:

  • What would make this relationship better?
  • What could I do to increase the enjoyment of exercise, so I naturally want to do it without having to force myself?
  • Where is there friction in the relationship, and how can I reduce or eliminate that resistance?
  • How could I keep improving this relationship over time, so it keeps getting better year after year?

This approach worked nicely. I have a very positive relationship with exercise, and it’s improved even more this year. Here are some aspects of the relationship that I focused on improving:

  • Running different routes for variety and different levels of challenge, so it doesn’t feel too routine or stale
  • Continuing to develop new routes that I’ve never run before, so I feel a sense of abundance in having different routes to pick from
  • Tuning into my body and mind to decide which route to run based on what kind of experience I want (a run with more people, a more solitary run, a run where I’ll see the sunrise, a run where I can expect to see plenty of rabbits, a run with more parks, running near the baseball stadium, running along the western edge of the city, etc)
  • Listening to really good audiobooks while I run, on topics that appeal to me, including sometimes listening to audiobooks about running from runners who love to run
  • Enjoying the views while running through the hills that overlook the whole Vegas Valley
  • Investing in quality running shoes and testing different kinds of shoes to discover my personal favorites
  • Heading out before dawn and being greeted by the rising sun
  • Sometimes picking out planets like Venus or Jupiter when I look up at the dark sky while first starting out
  • Using an Apple Watch to track my progress as I go (time, distance, pacing, heart rate, etc) – and getting a new one each year, so I always have the latest version
  • Mostly running for the enjoyment of it but occasionally setting interesting goals for distance or speed
  • Feeling a sense of accomplishment for sometimes running to spots farther out than I’ve run to before
  • Waving or nodding to other runners and cyclists I pass along the way, which gives a little feeling of social connection with the people in the neighborhood (it’s encouraging to see people exercising)
  • Feeling good when I finish running and switch to a cool down walking pace
  • Enjoying the alone time, which feels more like being than doing
  • Reminding myself to feel grateful that my body can do this (seeing it as a beautiful gift, not to be taken for granted)

Lately I’ve been running 60-70 minutes most mornings. Interestingly it feels more motivating to run for an hour or more than it used to feel to run for 30-45 minutes. One reason is that as I increased the duration, I focused more on the relationship with running rather than the discipline or habit of running. Another reason could be that these longer runs do an even better job of rebalancing hormones and neurotransmitters, so I feel even happier.

Instead of pushing myself to run farther, which I’ve done many times before but which didn’t lead to sustainably longer runs, I sought to connect more deeply with the love and beauty of running. I focused on improving my relationship with running. I leaned towards the principle of love more than the principle of power here. This worked very nicely.

There are so many other ways to apply the relationship frame to create and maintain improvements in different areas of your life. Instead of pushing yourself to work harder or with more discipline, you can focus instead on improving your relationship with your work. Same goes for your relationships with any other kinds of tasks.

More than two decades ago, this type of framing helped me a lot with improving the flow of money through my life. Instead of trying to make more money in ways that were only semi-aligned, I worked on fixing my alignment problems with money. I invested in improving my personal relationship with money. That relationship was weak – I saw money as something annoying that I shouldn’t have to deal with. But I learned to appreciate its role in life and to enjoy earning and spending it. These days I think of money as fun and playful – it feels lighter and less stressful than it used to. Having a better relationship with money makes it easier to earn it, and it’s more fun to spend it as well.

Look at an area where you tend to struggle or have a hard time accomplishing your goals. What do you see when you use the relationship frame on that area? Is your relationship based on trying to force yourself to push through resistance? If so, how could you improve the relationship over time, so you naturally enjoy engaging with this area of life? This simple reframe can generate powerful insights that can radically transform your results.