Oct 19, 2010

A Survey: What Makes For Good and Bad Relationships?

What Makes For Good and Bad Relationships?

A few years ago Rob Koegel, a professor at the State University of New York at Farmingdale, asked students to respond to a questionnaire about their best and worst relationships. Some of the questions were about relationships between the students and people of more or less equal status such as friends, partners, siblings and the like. Others were about themselves and people with greater status like bosses, teachers, professors, parents, etc. The students were asked to describe what these relationships were like and the results were illuminating. They named respect, caring, trust, honesty, support and good communication as characteristics of their best relationships and went on to say these relationships cultivated empathy, compassion, understanding and respect for differences. They said when others exhibited these characteristics relationships with them were good regardless of status differences

Dr. Koegel said students told him their best relationships were fulfilling and uplifting, made them happier, stronger and more complete. He summed up; “Our best relationships make us feel appreciated, valued and worthy. They also make us feel more connected to and trusting of others. Unlike most other relationships, this reciprocal connection nourishes, supports and empowers both parties”.

On the other hand, relationships students labeled “worst” were described as manipulative, dominating, unjust, and unequal. They said the manipulative; dominating people viewed differences in an either/or fashion, good or bad, right or wrong, better or worse with their positions put forth as the correct ones. The self-righteous attitude of the dominators resulted in the survey respondents tending to feel incompetent and inadequate. Those who used their status to win, to get what they wanted at others’ expense, generated feelings of insecurity and shame in the losers who became distrusting of themselves and others. The students used terms like “one-sided”, “taken advantage of”, “dominated” to describe how they felt about these damaging relationships.

Respondents agreed that these unequal relationships are always unfair. They characterized their dynamics as win-lose and said dominators win by using their personal and institutional power as parents, teachers, bosses and the like to coerce and abuse. Those on the losing end are forced to accept one-sided relationships like these because they have less status, are overpowered, dependent and needy.

Koegel’s survey pointed out what I think everyone knows from experience: the most critical barriers to a healthy, happy relationships are power differentials between partners or groups. If one person (or group) can force another to do something she, he or the group doesn’t want to do the relationship is in trouble. Its unfair relationships like those that Dr. Koegel’s subjects labeled as win-lose and agreed that losing left them feeling powerless, taken advantage of and dominated.*

*Excerpt from Dr. Thomas Gordon writings


  1. So, do you have a suggestion for a child who is a win-lose situation, not with a parent, but another authority figure that they have to deal directly with on a constant basis. When the child loses, the adult wins, and the child now feels fear, unsafe, distrust, what should the parent do to facilitate a better environment. Talking with the adult seems obvious, but if the adult in question is authoritarian and has no plans to change that stance what are a parents obligations and rights?

  2. Hello Alecia:

    Thank you for your comment. Are you speaking of your own child that has to deal with someone that is the authority figure? If it's not your child, is the child being listened to by their parents? And when I mean "listen", I mean Active Listening.


Thanks for commenting! - P.E.T.