Humans are social creatures. While we all differ in the amount of social contact we seek and the amount of “alone time” we prefer, all humans exist in a network of relationships. When these relationships are positive and supportive, they contribute to wellbeing; however, people in relationships which make them feel judged, criticised and wounded, or in relationships where they are treated abusively, controlled, or physically hurt, tend to struggle across many areas of their lives.
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We exist in a web of relationships. Some are close, life long, or incredibly intense, while others are more transient, measured and distant. Most of us have felt the gut-deep unease that comes when an important relationship has a problem; or the nagging feeling that things are better on the days when you don’t see that one person; if we’re lucky, we’ve felt the comfort and acceptance that comes from being with someone who knows you well, and loves you anyway. I often joke that, without the phrase “Have you tried talking with him/her about it?”, most psychologists would be out of a job, but the joke really highlights just how important relationships are in most of our lives.
So what does it mean to be in a positive relationship? It seems to come down to a few factors: what do you invest to build the strength of the relationship? What do you get as a result of being in the relationship? What is the balance between the two? And then at a deeper level: Does the relationship encourage you to grow and develop as a person? Does interacting with the other person bring you positive emotions more often than it brings you negative emotions? Do the two of you share similar ideas about what is important in life?
This is not to say that only relationships which are totally and completely positive are worthwhile. Obviously all relationships go through ups and downs, and in many cases, it is worth working through problems in a relationship in order to get past challenges and difficulties. But in general, the more positive relationships a person has, the better they will be doing across the board. Similarly, if there are significant problems in your important relationships, or significant relationships in your life that are toxic, it’s going to be hard to improve your wellbeing without addressing ways of improving the relationship, or reducing its impact on your life.
Building better relationships
Let’s look now at ways to deepen and strengthen your relationships with others. Here are a few suggestions that will benefit most relationships that you want to be stronger.
Show up, and stay present – there’s a tendency these days for people to overcommit to events, and widespread agreement that Facebook event RSVPs aren’t a good guide to who will actually attend on the day. Be selective with your commitments, as your time and health constraints allow, but say “yes” wholeheartedly to attending events organised by people who are really important to you, and then once you are there, try to stay engaged face to face with the people there rather than allowing yourself to be distracted by texts, calls, or social media. Humans evolved in an environment where building trust required time spent face-to-face. While we are constantly pushing the limits of social engagement via electronic means, if you want to strengthen a relationship, there’s nothing like being present with the person to allow you to do so.
Communicate about things that really matter – Relationships that flourish often feed on more than just a common interest or shared habit. Being able to talk about your hopes and dreams, to share difficult parts of your life, to share the things that make you come alive and to enter deeply into the experience of another person, is part of the fabric of building a strong relationship. Talking about the weather can only get you so far!
Trust and vulnerability – all relationships are fundamentally about trust. And the difficult thing about trust is that it comes along with vulnerability – when you trust someone, they gain the ability to hurt you. And likewise, to build a positive relationship, you must be trustworthy – the other person must know they can rely on you to do the things you both agree are part of the friendship. For a person coming from a previous experience of hurtful relationships, this can be one of the biggest obstacles to positive engagement with others; gaining the courage to trust again can take a long time. And for most of us, trust builds slowly over time. We tend to try people out with little things, see if we can trust them, and only then offer bigger confidences, or rely on them for more important things.
Assume the best of those you are in relationship with – once trust has been established, in most cases, it is worth assuming that problems and lapses are exceptions to a good relationship, rather than the rule. Of course, if a repeating pattern of bad behaviour is seen, it’s necessary to take action to either repair the relationship, or sometimes end it. But most of us are trying our best, most of the time, and when things go wrong it’s more likely to be because of a misunderstanding, or colliding bad days, or something unusual, than because your relationship partner deliberately set out to hurt you.
Build a “sound relationship house” – For intimate romantic relationships, there is a wealth of research-backed and therapist-tested wisdom in the work of the Drs Gottman – I have summarised their findings on what builds strong partner relationships here.
Positive relationships are true multipliers for wellbeing – it is worth investing in keeping your key relationships strong and flourishing.
Sometimes, relationships need a little help. A psychologist can provide support for improving the quality of relationships between couples and within families, and help you get closer to the people you care about.