How To Create Meaningful Relationships (even when you’re out of a relationship)
As I sit here pondering what to write about relationships which will be meaningful and helpful, I remember the time when I was single. I had family, friends – including a few responsive BFFs (Best Friends Forever!) – and lovely work colleagues, but I was without that one special intimate relationship, a partner.
I know there are many people out there in the same position. Is it possible, when we don’t have a partner, to still feel fulfilled and to still have the good and necessary things which come from relationships? Is it possible for our deeper relationship needs to be met in ways other than through partnership? Yes. I believe it is, as long we have close ties or bonds in our lives and are willing to spend time and effort nurturing them.
The importance of relationships
We all instinctively know that relationships are vital to human happiness. We are hardwired to form close bonds and we need them to thrive and stay healthy. Many research has shown we gain many health benefit from having close relationships.
Relationships give us many things, including:
• opportunities to love and be loved
• to know we belong
• mutual understanding, mutual caring
• support; close relationships provide a source of direct help in times of trouble
• places where we can celebrate good news
• validation of self-worth
• a diversity of ideas and influences to help us grow and learn
• a sense of 'connectedness' or community
• people to have fun with and good times
People with strong ties to others have been found by researchers to have less stress-related problems, lower risk of mental illness and to recover faster from trauma or illness. Strong bonds increase our sense of purpose, self-confidence and self-worth. They help us deal better with times of difficulty, such as divorce, illness, job loss or bereavement. They can also give us the necessary encouragement to change our lives for the better, a confidence-boost to pursue goals that really matter, and the warnings we need to avoid unhealthy lifestyle habits such as lack of exercise or smoking.
Why do relationships matter so much?
As humans, we have a need to be ‘seen’ to know we exist and therefore that we matter. Being seen like this reminds us of our innate value. Ultimately, it makes us feel that we belong, that we’re part of a network, something larger than ourselves. The importance of this was movingly shown in the movie, ‘Cast Away’, in which the actor, Tom Hanks, stranded on a deserted island, developed a close relationship with a volleyball and called it ‘Wilson’. This relationship, albeit with an inanimate object, was the one thing that kept Hanks’ character going. One of the most memorable scenes in the film is when after a failed suicide attempt, Hanks leaves the island on a raft. Following a storm, Wilson drifts away and Hanks has to let him go if he is to keep his raft. “Wilson come back! I’m sorry, please come back…” he cries.
The relationship with Wilson gives meaning to life on the desert island for Hanks’ character. The relationship makes Hanks feel connected and that he belongs and it is through the act of relating that he remembers who he really is. The relationship gave him purpose to carry on and live. In the same way for all of us, it is in relating to another, that we sense who we are and become fully us. This is because close ties with friends or even colleagues nurture our sense of identity. On the other hand, relationships with others that are less than nurturing, are equally bad for us, and can strip away our sense of well-being and lead us to doubt our self-worth.
Being seen and cherished by others helps us to understand or define ourselves. It also gives us opportunities to work out our priorities in life, to feel secure, to engage positively with the world and ultimately to realise ourselves and to live a successful life in whatever way feels right for us personally.
Blocks to forming relationships
Yet although we may know that close bonds are important, many of us are not as connected as we would like to be, or ignore the importance of fostering close bonds with friends, birth family and colleagues, concentrating instead on finding the Holy Grail, that elusive partner. There are many reasons for this lack of 'connectedness.' Perhaps most important of all is that our modern lives are so hectic. In that busyness we have lost sight of what is really important, failing to give the necessary time and effort to nurturing our relationships with others.
Connecting more deeply to others needs courage, at least at first. It may also mean acting against the grain of the light, superficial way of those around us. A lack of connection with others also reflects a ‘disconnect’ with oneself, because the way we relate/connect with others is similar to the way we relate to ourselves. For example, if we have lots of superficial friends, to some degree, we need to question whether we are relating to ourselves in a similarly superficial manner. Or if we relate to ourselves in a harsh unforgiving way, this could also play out in judgemental, unforgiving attitude in our relationship with others. In short, our relationships with self and others are directly correlated.
How to connect meaningfully
If it’s new friends we need, then there are many ways to meet them, from volunteering to taking up a class or joining a club. But more important for our well-being, is how to take these new or existing relationships to a deeper level.
One key to deepening connection is to listen effectively. This doesn’t mean just waiting for your turn to talk while thinking about what you’re going to say next. It means fully focusing on the other person, showing interest and encouraging them to speak. Just as important as listening is willingness to share yourself honestly, to say meaningful things about who you really are and how you really feel. It also means sharing your time, being reliable, thoughtful and trustworthy, and generally treating people close to you in the same way that you would like to be treated.
You need to invest in the relationship. No relationship flourishes without regular input and attention. This may involve arranging things to do, times to meet, or even simply a regular phone call. It also means not demanding too much of the other and being forgiving when a friend messes up, doesn’t honour their commitment to you or disappears for months when they meet a new partner.
On the other hand, if you are one that tend to 'over invest' in relationships, you may have to look at your sense of personal boundaries. Having appropiate and healthy boundaries is vital in creating meaningful connections. It is your way to 'teach' others how to treat you, how you would like to be treated.
One possible way to connect with others anew, or to deepen existing connections, could be by using the practice of members of the northern Natal tribes of South Africa. They greet each other, on a daily basis, by using the word, “Sawa bona”. ‘Sawa bona’ literally means: “I see you.” The response is “Sikhona” which means: “I am here”. This timeless way of greeting each other is simple but profound. The greeting, ‘I am here’ proclaims our own presence and existence and also lets the other know, ‘I am present here with you’.
This simple exchange points to a way to create more meaningful connections with others. Our usual ways of greeting tend to limit deeper connections. The generic greeting, ‘How are you’ and the commonplace reply, ‘I’m good thanks’, leave little room for further engagement. They are comfortable, ultimately of little meaning and do not require any further effort or engagement on our part. They are greetings designed to demand little of us and to lead no further than superficial pleasantries.
Yet what would happen if we answered the question ‘How are you’ in a meaningful way? Sure, some people might become impatient as they listened to our heartfelt response. But with others our relationship would deepen. When honesty and real listening enter the equation the entire interaction turns up a notch and becomes deeper.
As we go forward into our busy lives, perhaps it’s time to become more fully here and more fully real with each other and to deepen our connection. Who knows where this would lead! In the same way as that South African tribe, let us give our presence to those around us. We can make it our practice to turn towards those around us and giving them our full attention in the moment. In this way we can validate their humanity, and then allow them to do that in turn, validating us.