5 Complicated Non-Romantic Relationship Dynamics & How To Handle Each One

Legendary therapist Harville Hendrix, Ph. D. shares solutions for relationships we never expected to cause heartbreak.

Two women in leather jackets looking in a reflective window, serious Eugenio Marongiu / shutterstock 

What happens when you spend four decades working with couples to teach them a different way to talk with one another? Ultimately, they become more connected.

But romantic relationships aren't the only ones that can become complicated.

There are many scenarios in which communication challenges and adult relationship dynamics play out and could use support. This need for support extends beyond marriage and romantic commitments to include non-romantic family dynamics, workplace settings, neighborhoods and friendship circles, as well as politics and activist settings.


All of these relationships can benefit from using better tools to build happier, more connected relationships.

RELATED: 5 Easy Ways To Improve Your Active Listening Skills ( & Build Better Relationships)

Five complicated adult relationship dynamics — and how to handle them

1. An adult you care about makes bad choices (again and again)

Everyone is different; we all have a different inner world and reasons for our decisions that we see as logical.


Human behavior tries to balance the pleasure-pain polarity in us all, and therefore, is in the service of the universal survival instinct. When we think another person is making a bad choice, we need to remind ourselves their choice makes sense to them.

No one purposely makes bad choices, even if it is obvious to others and might even be harmful. We do not choose badly on purpose. We choose what we believe will bring us pleasure and help us survive, even if it hurts us.

This is an issue of boundaries.

When other people’s choices for their own lives don’t make sense to us, the best approach is to engage them in a conversation with warmth and gentleness. Show curiosity about the choices they are making and ask them how they see the choices working in their lives.


If you do not want to activate their defenses, be sure to listen carefully rather than responding judgmentally and reflect back what you heard with accuracy. Also, be willing to see the logic in their thinking, even though you may disagree with their logic. You could say to them “You make sense, and what makes sense is……”

Once you have established a connection so they feel safe with you, you can ask what their goals are. Ask them is the have considered whether their choice will help them reach their goals.

Then listen non-judgmentally, mirror it back, and if you feel you need to, you might ask if they are open to your perspective and to a discussion about choosing more effective options to achieve their goals.

Always ask before you cross a boundary. Otherwise, you may get a reaction you don’t want.


2. A life-long friendship grows apart

To survive, everything needs attention, and to thrive, it needs attention on a regular basis. Like an un-watered plant, a relationship can be revived. The obstacle is the level of desire and the value of the friendship.

If the relationship does not have enough value to activate your desire to attend to it, then perhaps the status quo is appropriate. On the other hand, if the friendship is valued, there are several obvious options. However, before you consider the options, do a little historical memory analysis and assess your present status as regards the friendship.

Was something missing in the friendship that lead to you not tending it? Is it still missing?

If the missing factor no longer applies and your desire is strong enough, do you have enough time for a thriving friendship? If the answer is yes, then obviously, you should initiate reconnection with curiosity about the welfare of your friend, their desire and availability for an active friendship, and whether they still value the atrophied friendship.


If the answer is yes, collaborate with your long ago friend and create a possible future, and then act on it. The key here is to check yourself first before reaching out to them.

RELATED: I Didn't Ruin This Friendship, You Did

3. A friend or adult family member treats you like their unpaid therapist

When the fellow adult in question is not your child, this is another issue of boundaries.

You might be feeling used if someone is always talking to you about their feelings and asking you for advice about what they should do with their life, and they always focus on themselves when you are together. If you feel used, then resentment is a natural response.


You could ask them to help you understand their behavior, but if you don’t want to go any further with your curiosity, you could ask them if they would be available to hear how you feel about when the two of you are together.

If they are willing to hear you, you have two options:

  • One is to share with them that you appreciate their vulnerability but you feel the relationship is sort of one-sided, and you would like to have some time when you are together to talk about yourself. This is a negotiated boundary.
  • On the other hand, unless you highly value the relationship, you can set a firm unilateral boundary.

Tell them you are not available to hear their story anymore, and since they seem to need to talk about themselves, they should find a therapist, and you will help them.

4. A good friend from your single days is still alone when you're happy & settled 

This calls for a lot of empathy, and no judgment about what they are doing wrong or sharing how you are making your relationship work.


Absolutely no advice, either. Saying those things would increase the low self-esteem they are already feeling.

What would be helpful to such a friend is a listening ear.

Explore what type of person they would like to find. Be curious about their ideas of why they are not succeeding. Have they ever had this experience in the past. Ask how they are looking for this person and explore other ways they might meet potential partners.

One thing we have done is offer to be a match-maker and help look for someone.

One of the major things missing for people who have trouble finding a partner is relationship skills. There are courses and books that provide useful information. You might suggest some books or article for your friend to read. The best thing to do is be available whenever they want to talk and always listen with empathy.


Acceptance of your friend will increase their self-esteem and improve their awareness of their relational skills.

5. You're a grown, established adult and your parent treats you like a child

Many parents do not “experience” their child/children becoming an adult/s. They live in their own world, which does not include the reality of their children having different opinions and ideas about their own life.

With all good intentions, these parents want their child to succeed, but only by the parents definition of success. They don't know how they are infantilizing their child and interfering with success.


To be OK and successful, the child has to be “like me”. When the child is in the process of becoming an adult and differentiates from the parent, the parent becomes anxious and attempts to increase control. The exercise of parental control disempowers the child. The child complies only to become depressed or angry and rebellious.

In the best interest of the adult child, the parent should instead take an avid interest in what their child wants. Ask them how they see themselves getting there, and celebrate every small achievement while keeping all the parental advice to themselves. Unless the advice is asked for first.

A final thought from Harville & Helen

To build better more authentic relationships, we need to exercise healthy and compassionate communication with everyone we interact with on a day to day basis.

The helpful tools to support better communication starts with respecting the other person's choices, having good boundaries with yourself about your communication, and taking a moment or two to consider the view from their side.


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Harville Hendrix, Ph. D., is a couples therapist with over 40 years of experience as a counselor, educator, clinical trainer, author, public lecturer and has received many awards for his work with couples. He and his wife, Helen LaKelly Hunt, co-created Imago Relationship Therapy, a therapy for couples now practiced by over 2,200 certified therapists in 30 countries.