Being in connection with others can feel so tricky at times. Who hasn’t got into an argument, felt hurt, felt bewildered, or felt down-right lonely? It’s why I write about relationships so much on my blog.
Whether you’re a through-and-through extrovert, who thrives and is energised by contact with others, or the ultimate introvert who agrees with Sartre that “Hell is other people”, it’s hard to get away from our innate wiring and biology.
Because our species is deeply relational. We’ve evolved to need other people in our lives, to engage with others for our very survival. From the moment we’re born until the day we die, we need love and connection to grow and realise our full potential.
Why is being in relationship with others important?
Imagine you’re a new-born baby. You’re tiny, vulnerable and utterly defenceless. To live long enough to make it to the next hour, let alone the next day, you need someone to feed you, protect you, and show you gentleness, warmth and care.
This isn’t just a response to your physical needs, either. Your brain is a tiny sponge, soaking up the stimuli and responses you receive from those who care about you. If you receive “good enough” parenting during early your childhood, hurrah; your brain develops normally.
But what if that emotional care isn’t there? Then the stress of not having it shrinks the executive areas of the brain (which take decisions and exercise impulse control), whilst making “measurable differences in the amygdala, the brain's fear response centre” - both of which have life-time altering consequences.
So, being in a relationship with others where you feel safe, seen, and loved is important if you’re a defenceless newborn or a small child. But you’re all grown-up now. Right?
Not quite. We’ve evolved as a tribal species and, particularly since we’ve started living in settled communities, co-operative traits have given greater benefits over aggressive ones.
(Think of the difference between a wolf and a dog, to get an idea of the shift we’ve made.)
And our brains have evolved, too, in reaction to this emphasis on communal living. In his fascinating book The Science of Storytelling, author Will Storr notes that,
“We’ve been a social species, whose survival has depended upon human cooperation, for hundreds of thousands of years. But over the last 1,000 generations it’s been argued that these social instincts have been rapidly honed and strengthened. This ‘sharp acceleration’ of selection for social traits, writes developmental psychologist Professor Bruce Hood, has left us with brains that are ‘exquisitely engineered to interact with other brains’.”
And why do we want to interact with other brains? So that we can understand them better, and collaborate more easily. Or, if we’re feeling threatened; to understand them better, so we know how we can stay safe around them.
Because it’s not just about our brains. Our nervous systems are incredibly attuned to other people, too. Often this is part of our biological survival response; feeling uncomfortable around someone can alert us to a possible threat.
But the exciting field of polyvagal theory offers another reason why we need to be attuned to others; we can positively influence each other’s nervous systems.
Instead of being stuck in a distressing “fight/flight or freeze” response, which gets ready to protect us, another person can shift us into safety by offering warmth, attentiveness and kindness.
By creating a sense of safety we can gently tune another person’s autonomic nervous system to one of affiliation - often known as the “rest and digest” parasympathetic response. It’s in the “rest and digest” response where we’re more able to think clearly, heal faster, and operate from a place of ease and trust rather than fear.
The ability to co-regulate someone - to share and exchange vulnerability, intimacy, trust and needs, as each person moves through their own internal rhythms of response - is a beautiful and profound part of what makes us human.
This is why acclaimed author and speaker Brené Brown says,
“We are biologically, cognitively, physically, and spiritually wired to love, be loved, and to belong. When those needs are not met, we don’t function as were meant to be. We break. We fall apart. We numb. We ache … The absence of love and belonging will always lead to suffering.”
And this is why our current loneliness epidemic is such a threat to more than our well-being. A lack of meaningful relationship and connection has been associated with a 50% increase in mortality from any cause. This makes it comparable to smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and more dangerous than obesity.
It’s not just babies and little children who can die prematurely from a lack of emotional care.
So what can make relationships difficult?
So many things! The first is the most obvious, but often the most overlooked; people see reality differently to us.
Reality isn’t a thing “out there”; it’s a thing we create “in here”, in our minds. Due to our mental filters we notice certain things, connect certain things, create stories or attach meaning to certain things - all of which another person may not even register.
Therefore everyone’s “in here” is subtly (or not so subtly) different from the “in here” we have. And we forget this, and wonder why people don’t act the way we want/expect them to - or, worse, fail to act in ways that we do (which are the right ways, OBVIOUSLY).
Cue much confusion, frustration and resentment if there isn’t the proper communication in place to cut through all the misunderstandings.
This is because we create the reality we experience through our brain’s interpretation of the data it receives.
(For a staggering scientific explanation of how this happens, read the chapter Creating a World in Will Storr’s book above. For a hilarious exploration of why the mind isn’t a camera, it’s a projector, check out Michael Neill’s TEDx talk Why Aren’t We Awesomer.)
Plus, remember when we were defenceless little babies and children? We learned how to be in relationship with others through our earliest relationships with those who cared for us. And this can imprint on us a certain “blueprint” for how we relate to others.
If we felt safe and secure in having our needs met as a child, it’s likely that we have a healthy sense of expectation that they’ll be met in an adult relationship. But if we struggle with either wanting to be closer to loved ones or more distant from them, or feel the difficult push-and-pull between wanting closeness but fearing it, it’s likely that our attachment style is somehow insecure.
And this is completely normal! We’re all on a spectrum between feeling secure and insecure, with different people and circumstances bringing out different responses. If you want to develop a more stable attachment style, it’s possible to do so - either with a therapist, a stable partner, or even on your own. You always have the power to choose something different.
How can we improve our relationships with others?
The first thing to remember is that we CAN improve our relationships! And the biggest change starts with us, and our level of thinking about them.
In his quietly revolutionary book The Relationship Handbook, therapist George Pransky explains how our mood is a reflection of our state of mind, and not the state of our relationship. And what has the biggest impact on our mood, and thus our relationships? Our own insecurity. As he puts it;
"If you want to understand why people do as they do and feel the way they feel, you need only understand the role of insecurity in life. Insecurity is the source of distress and all counterproductive behaviour.
Thoughts of insecurity periodically pass through our minds. If we dismiss these thoughts, we will remain secure, our ideal selves: easygoing, joyful, compassionate and wise. If we harbour our thoughts of insecurity, we end up in a state of distress.”
He also points out that what we dwell on magnifies. So if you’re focused on someone’s faults, failings and differences, you’re likely to approach them with frustration, irritation and disdain. No wonder they’ll feel judged and defensive!
But if you focus on someone’s good qualities, and see their struggles with compassion, understanding and good-will, guess what? You’ll enjoy being with them more, and that enjoyment allows them to relax, feel accepted, and grow through their own volition.
Of course, it feels normal to focus on the negative qualities. Why? We’re wired to have a negativity bias for survival, and to overlook the good things in life or to take them for granted.
But George Pransky’s “Goodwill scale” shows that;
If you are in a state of angry indignation, others will fight you tooth and nail
If you are in a state of annoyance and irritation, others will drag their feet
If you are in a state of contentment, others will join you
If you are in a state of appreciation, others will put themselves out for you
If you are in a state of deep gratitude, others will pull out all the stops to help you
This is another reason why gratitude and appreciation is such a powerful force for well-being!
So, by attending to our own happiness before engaging with someone (through things like play, being in nature and gratitude), we feel more secure. When we feel more secure we naturally offer more hope, compassion and goodwill to others in our life - and we quit sweating the small stuff which we focus on when we’re unhappy.
It soon becomes clear that when we’re in a good mood rather than a bad one, it’s far easier to approach someone about a sensitive subject as gently as possible . And we can bond over our common vulnerability when we learn simple communication skills, such as starting sentences with “I feel…” rather than the more adversarial “You never/you make me”
Because the foundation of all good relationships is understanding each other, despite any apparent differences. As Buddhist Zen Master and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh says in his book Peace Is Every Step,
“We really have to understand the person we want to love.
We must look deeply in order to see and understand the needs, aspirations, and suffering of the person we love. This is the grounds of real love. You cannot resist loving another person when you really understand him or her.
From time to time, sit close to the one you love, hold his or her hand, and ask, “Darling, do I understand you enough? Or am I making you suffer? Please tell me so that I can learn to love you properly. I don’t want to make you suffer, and if I do so because of my ignorance, please tell me so that I can love you better, so that you can be happy.”
If you say this in a voice that communicates your real openness to understand, the other person may cry. This is a good sign, because it means the door of understanding is opening and everything will be possible again.
Maybe a father does not have time or is not brave enough to ask his son such a question. Then the love between them will not be as full as it could be.
We need courage to ask these questions, but if we don’t ask, the more we love, the more we may destroy the people we are trying to love. True love needs understanding. With understanding, the one we love will certainly flower.”
But for many of us, it can be hard to say how another can show us love and care. Which is where knowing our “love languages” can be so helpful.
More than 25 years ago, marriage counsellor Gary Chapman noticed that the same complaints came up for the couples he guided. In particular: that their spouse didn’t love them, despite their partner’s protestations.
After pouring through his session notes, he discovered five different ways that people tend to show and receive love. And soon, the Five Love Languages were born.
Very often, someone cares for us in a way we may not understand; for example, if we crave Words of Affirmation (hearing someone say “I love you”) but a partner shows their love through Acts of Service, their way of saying “I love you” is to make our life easier by picking up our dry cleaning or cooking our favourite meal.
Finding out your preferred ways of receiving and giving love - be they Words of Affirmation or Acts of Service, or through Receiving Gifts, Quality Time or Physical Touch - can stop a lot of confusion and resentment. And learning the languages of those closest to you, and becoming bilingual, can ensure others feel as cherished and respected, too!
Action for September; Prioritise your relationships!
Whether the relationship is with a partner, family member, friend or colleague, it’s easy to prioritise it with just a few tweaks to your existing routine.
Here are a couple of ideas, and remember; it’s easier to keep habits if they’re obvious, attractive, easy and satisfying.
How can you make prioritising your relationships really obvious to you? Can you set a reminder on your phone to reach out to someone every day for a week, just to see how they are? Can you put someone’s name in your schedule - perhaps a friend, family member or partner - so that you’re reminded to make time for them?
How can you make this priority attractive? Is there something you’d love to share with someone? Can you bring out the best in both of you - perhaps by taking a walk or sharing a fun activity? Can you find a new common ground, or geek out on a shared interest?
How can you make it easy? Is there an existing habit you can attach a new activity to? Perhaps you can share three things you’re grateful for with a friend each night, after you’ve brushed your teeth. Or invite someone to join you when you’re going for lunch.
How can you make it satisfying? What difference would having stronger, happier and more supportive relationships make to your life? How would it feel to be closer to those you live, love and work with? How can you create more depth in your relationships - perhaps by asking thoughtful questions - so that you really know the people in your life, and allow others to know you deeply, too?
Remember, you’re not alone in finding relationships challenging at times. Our brains are tricky things, wired to remember the bad stuff (like someone hurting your feelings) rather than remember the good stuff (like all the ways they’ve been there for you in the past).
You’re only human, and we all make mistakes. And the other people in your life are only human, too.
The Four Noble Truths of Love: Buddhist Wisdom for Modern Relationships by Susan Piver (for wise and loving counsel on romantic relationships)
The Relationship Handbook by George Pransky (proof, if ever it was needed, to NEVER judge a book by its cover! The contents may change your life, not just all the different relationships in your life)
Perfect Love, Imperfect Relationships: Healing the Wound of the Heart by John Welwood (to understand how perfectly imperfect relationships are)