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The 3-Card System: A Tool for Meaningful Relationships

I often see clients who come to me because they don’t seem to be able to find long-lasting intimate, meaningful relationships. 

I wanted to create something practical that clients could use in their day-to-day experience to make visible changes in their lives.  I had a look around and couldn’t really find anything that fit the bill, so decided I’d have to develop something instead.

I tested the approach in my own life, and it’s helped me develop much better, more fulfilling relationships.

And as I’ve increasingly introduced the idea, the more I’ve realised it can apply to all our relationships, not just our romantic partner.

Two champagne flutes half-filled with champagne; image for tool for meaningful relationships post

Losing ourselves

Sometimes we can “lose” ourselves in relationship.  What I mean by this is that we behave in ways and feel things that don’t seem to match with who we are deep down.

Why this happens is related to our upbringing, the relationships we witness throughout our lives, the ideas and opinions of friends and family, and the societal messages we hear. 

It’s incredibly helpful to spend time understanding our history and influences, and why we’re the way we are.  That’s important work to do if relationships are tricky for you.  This article is about taking that understanding, breaking out of your recurring patterns, and coming up with a way of changing the outcome.

“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, expecting different results” (Anon.)

Who’s it for?

My “Card System” tool can be helpful for those who perhaps make excuses for poor behaviour, are kind and forgive easily, tend to lose themselves in relationships, or struggle to hear the internal anxiety as it tries to raise alarm signals.  It may also be helpful if you tend to run away from intimacy, reject anyone who seems to make demands on you, and read any anxiety as a reason to distance yourself in relationships.  You might go through a cycle of “we’re on, we’re off”, which could be due to over-reaction or you may be unable to make a clean break.

Quite simply, anyone who struggles to understand what an unhealthy (or healthy!) relationship looks and feels like.

The Card System: Intro

The “Card System” tool for meaningful relationships is an adaptation of the idea of “red flags”, drawing on the yellow / red card system in football, with a nod to the UK system of green-amber-red traffic lights. 

Red Flags

“Red flags” is often used to mean warning signals, behaviours or actions that in hindsight, if we’d paid more attention to them, would have led to us ending the relationships or at least putting some distance between ourselves and the other person.

It could also be that you notice one small thing and say “red flag, I’m out”, which looking back might be something that could be negotiated, resolved, or perhaps is a one-off and not a true reflection of who that person is.

Often I hear talk of “the red flags were there but I ignored them”.  I began to wonder if that’s just the power of hindsight, or is there a way to notice and examine our relationships in a healthy way whilst they’re happening.

Yellow / Red Cards in Football

In Football, a red card means the player has committed a foul or offence so severe that they’re off the field immediately, no second chances.

A yellow card on the other hand is a warning, a foul or other offence that the referee makes note of, the player is given a warning, but they are allowed to continue playing.  However, if that same player commits a second yellow card offence, those 2 yellows become a red and the player is sent off.

Football referee holding up yellow card and football under arm

Traffic Lights

In the UK, on our roads traffic lights have red, amber and green lights.  Green means go, red means stop, and amber is something in the middle.  (Check out the highway code website for a more accurate description!).

So what’s the Card System?

The Card System Tool for Meaningful Relationships classifies particular actions and behaviours into 3 categories: 1) great (“green card”), 2) questionable (“yellow card”), and 3) require immediate ending (“red card”).

What fits into each category is up to you, rather than a list I’m giving you, but the definitions for each category are as follows:

  • a “green card” item …
    … is something that is a really positive thing for you. For example they might have a similar hobby to you, are a great listener, can be relied on for spontaneous adventures. 
  • a “yellow card” item …
    … is something that raises your eyebrow, but could be a one-off, or is something you could have a conversation about. For example they may have cancelled last minute, not called you when they said they would, or said something you didn’t like.  These are the things that are ok as a one-off, but if they re-occurred would not be acceptable.
  • a “red card” item …
    … is something where you would immediately end a relationship. For example any form of violence, substance abuse, or values fundamentally different from your own
    Also, multiple or repeated yellow cards become a red card i.e. the relationship ends (more of multiples yellow cards later).

Important points

  • A green item mustn’t be the opposite of a red or yellow item (or vice versa)
  • Your cards are individual to you; the examples I’ve given are to help explain the kind of thing that might be in there but may not apply to you
  • Make sure your entries aren’t “not doing …” e.g. “they don’t let me down all the time” isn’t a green card, instead “they let me down all the time” belongs in yellow or red
  • How many yellow make a red is subjective

The Card System Process

  • Step 1: values exercise
  • Step 2: define the green, yellow and red cards
  • Step 3: make notes
  • Step 4: discuss

Step 1: values exercise

This helps us to understand what’s important to us, as well as identify the values we appreciate in others.

There’s a great exercise that Brené Brown has developed to consider, work out and ponder on our values.  The link below takes you to a page where you can download her “Living Into Our Values” worksheet, which includes a list of suggested values, she invites (challenges?!) us to select just 2, with a few questions for reflection.  There’s also a link to her podcast where she talks through the exercise, step by step, along with a discussion on the topic:

When I did it, I was so surprised at things that can be considered Values, and the ones I initially thought would be mine were replaced, and I learned something new about myself.

Step 2: define the green, yellow and red cards

Reflect on your past experience, the values exercise, work you’ve done in therapy, and other research to determine what you put in each category.  There may only be 2 or 3 in each – that’s ok – go for quality over quantity.  Have a think about why they’re important to you in a meaningful relationship. You can download the following table too.













Step 3: make notes

This could be via your journal, an App like Class Dojo (developed for teachers and pupils but can be adapted), the attached worksheet (see link below), or just a note on your phone – whatever works for you.

For the person in question, note down their green, yellow, and red card items.  Notice how you feel when you’re doing it, and any resistance you might have to being honest.

This isn’t a one-off exercise.  How and when you do it is down to you, but each time you meet in a new relationship, perhaps less often when things are established, or increased when things become challenging.

You might also want to reflect on your own behaviours – what’s ok and what’s not?  Discussing with those you love, or your therapist can help you examine these deeply, to understand what thoughts and feelings are about your own insecurities, and what is ok to expect / demand.

Step 4: discuss

Finding ways to talk to each other, especially when things are difficult or we disagree, is one of the most important things we do in a relationship.  It can be tricky, especially for those of us that prefer to avoid conflict, or struggle to regulate when we hear something challenging. 

The approach I use for my couples therapy clients (and with some adult family groups) to help foster those meaningful relationships, is a process to improve communication for the long-term. Remember there are 2 people in any relationship and it’s important to learn how to both speak out and listen to others in ways that promote deep mutual understanding.

Head over to my article “learn to listen, really listen” for more tips on how to improve your listening skills.

Converting Yellow to Red

So how many yellow make a red?  This is really subjective, but I imagine it’s somewhere between 2 and 10.  And of course the yellow cards could be the same item repeated, or multiple different things.  If you are both making real efforts, rather than just words, to change how things are, then you may have a higher threshold.  And remember we’re not talking about trivialities, or some model of perfection, but things that are significant to you.

However, if the other person tries to suggest it’s you with the problem with no room for discussion, or if they say they’ll make adjustments but don’t take any action, it might be time to get out.

What about you?

And whilst we’re here, I really encourage you to apply the process to yourself – what are your Green and Amber items? Are there any potential red flags? What helps or prevents you forming meaningful relationships? How might you work on those?

Making Sense of It

If you’re trying to change how you approach meaningful relationships, having someone to talk to as you work through it can be really important.  Someone non-judgmental, who’s on your side, is what helps make a difference.  Often you’ll want the conversation to be confidential.  This might be your accredited therapist, a close family member or good friend, that you feel safe with and know will listen carefully, with empathy, and help you work through it.

I hope you found my tool for meaningful relationships helpful.  If you’d like to have a conversation with me to learn more about it and how it might be useful for you, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

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