Ever since hunter-gatherer days, social connectedness has played an important role in helping people cope with life’s challenges. The findings of an 80-year long Harvard study indicate that the quality of our relationships is the single most important determinant of wellbeing. So it is fair to say that tending to our relationships (friendships, romantic, or family) is a form of self-care, as is taking care of our body or our minds. 

So how do we build fulfilling relationships? Try some or all of the following suggestions:

  1. Accept that long-term, satisfying relationships require effort
    Many of our beliefs have elements of movie or fairy-tale ideas, such as being “soul-mates”. Sometimes we look at other friendships or marriages that seem wonderful, and we might think, “They are lucky to be so happy and so close”. Yet fulfilling relationships have less to do with luck and more to do with a willingness to make the relationship a priority.

  2. Focus on each other’s strengths more than on faults
    Try to actively focus on your partner’s positive qualities and strengths (e.g. list 2 things each day that you appreciate in your partner), rather than on their faults or how you want them to change.

  3. Communicate – This is a big topic and can be very difficult to do well. I will just mention two of the many facets of good communication:

    a) Don’t assume the other person knows how you feel, why you feel that way, or what you need at any given time. It is both untrue and unhelpful to think, “If they loved me or really knew me, they would know what I want and what I’m thinking – I shouldn’t have to tell them”. In most cases we need to teach others how we want to be loved and treated.

    b) When raising an issue or expressing a dissatisfaction, use “I” statements, which are less attacking and are less likely to make your partner defensive. For example, “I feel like you aren’t interested in my day when you come home and watch TV straight away – I’d like you to spend some time talking to me first” is preferable to, “You are so selfish the way you come home and sit in front of the TV.”
  1. Find a balance by spending some time together and some time alone
  1. Make “I care about you”, “I’m sorry” and “Thank you” part of your vocabulary

Sometimes, only one person is invested in making improvements to the relationship. Positive change is certainly still possible in this scenario (albeit more challenging), but it is not a given. The mismatch between personalities or values may be too great, or one person may be unable or unwilling to change their behaviour at all. Abuse in any form is never acceptable; professional assistance can help work out a way forward in this situation.

Feeling connected to people in our everyday world is a valuable opportunity to contribute to our wellbeing. It is one of the most worthwhile investments we can ever make.

An edited version of this article was published in Hello Neighbours magazine.