Strengthening relationships

By MAS Team | 17 April 2019

Dr Esther Sternberg, an expert in the science of physical and psychological resilience, writes that our “social world can activate the stress response, or it can tone it down. The effects of these personal connections can be more soothing than an hour of meditation. They can also be as stressful, and more long-lived, as running at top speed for twenty minutes on a treadmill. In fact, of all the sensory signals that impinge on us from moment to moment throughout the day, it is the ones connected in some way to another person that can trigger our emotions most intensely.” (For more see Dr Sternberg’s book The Balance Within).

Dr Sternberg’s comments underscore the absolute human need to feel connected to others, and to have supportive relationships. Social psychologists call this connection “embeddedness”. Holding a strong sense of embeddedness is highly protective when we are coping with difficult experiences or facing significant changes in life.

Your university years are full of change, and there can be a lot of change to your social relationships. Experiences like moving away from home and family, leaving established peer groups from school and developing new peer groups at university, influence our relationships. Changes experienced to friendships as you move from halls of residence to flats, to who and how often you see certain friends as people change courses and majors, move to different locations for jobs or work placements, impact our sense of embeddedness.  

In order to continue feeling connected, it’s important to look after both our old and new relationships.

For existing relationships

Use FaceTime if you can’t have face to face time

Research indicates that a 30-second conversation with a stranger is more powerful for our connectedness than online communication – texts, email, messenger, WhatsApp messages, etc. So, if you want the strongest sense of connection with friends and family you cannot see regularly in person, opt for a video call over text-based messaging.

Make the most of the time you do have together

Plan for the time you will spend with each other, scheduling things you like to do, and spending time doing things where you can talk and connect (i.e., not just playing video games or watching TV/movies). Spending time together in this way doesn’t mean that you must sit looking each other in the eye and talk endlessly. If you’re talking about something difficult, many people find it much easier to open up when not looking each other in the eye, for example talking while going for a walk together.

Notice the positive

Practise noticing what you appreciate about the other person and your relationship together. Tell them or show them how you appreciate them, express your thanks and pay attention to anything they do differently that you like.

Turn towards

From both lab and real time research, relationship researcher John Gottman identified “masters” in intimate relationships were those who would both initiate, and respond to, their partner’s “bids” for connection. An example of a bid could be saying, “I’m enjoying this book ….”, or “I’m making tea, would you like some?” The actual topic is not important. Rather, it is the connection process that matters – the initiator thinks it’s important enough to bring up in conversation, and the bid is whether the person’s partner recognises and respects that. “Tell me about it”, or “I’m glad you are enjoying it” reflects “turning toward”, whereas “Don’t interrupt me, I’m watching this” or “Uh huh” (showing disinterest) reflects “turning away”.

While this research initially focused on the success of intimate relationships, the logic holds for our friendships too. Think about the last time you spoke with a friend or family member and they were really engaging with you and ‘turning towards’. Now think about the last time you experienced ‘turning away’ from a friend. How did those two experiences make you feel? When did you feel more connected? Who are you more likely to open up to or seek out time with in future?

Express your emotions

If you are uncomfortable expressing emotions to others, start by expressing them to yourself. Spend some time identifying how you feel when you notice your feelings change. Especially for men, ‘pop culture’ often presents a picture of the ‘strong silent type’, but expressing our emotions helps to enhance the quality of our relationships. Try to go beyond feelings of ‘pissed off’ or ‘gutted’. You’ll probably also find hurt, sad, anxious, stressed, embarrassed, ashamed, lonely, disappointed, etc. We all have these emotions as a natural part of being human.

For new relationships

Embrace novelty

Doing something new together is shown to be beneficial for the quality of our relationships. Let your new friend teach you about something they like, or if you’re both new to a place try exploring together. Novelty can be as simple as taking a new gym class together, or both reading a book you wouldn’t typically read, then discussing it.

Familiarity helps

The more time we spend, or even the more times we see someone, the more we come to like them. In her book “Friendship Processes” Beverly Fehr suggests sticking to a simple routine — whether it’s going to the same coffee shop at the same time every day, or attending the same gym class routinely— can help turn strangers into friends.

Go deep

Research by Stony Brook University professor Arthur Aron, showed that gradually increasing the depth of questions and answers between strangers can spawn friendships in just 45 minutes (Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 1997). Beverly Fehr and her team are building on this model by directing a couple of college buddies first to ask each other neutral questions, such as, “When did you last go to the zoo?” and slowly build up to more intimate questions such as, “If you knew someone close to you was going to die tomorrow, what would you tell them today — and why haven’t you told them yet?” So far, she’s seeing friendships getting stronger, especially for men. “When they do open up to each other, they feel closer to each other and they feel more satisfaction with the relationship,” she says.

Get out of your head

Loneliness often results in us turning inward, fearing rejection more, and therefore we can come across as cold, unfriendly, or socially awkward. Next time you are in a social situation and notice your attention turning inward, wondering what they are thinking of you – try casting your attention out in to the interaction with the other person. Try noticing the expressions on their face, and really listening to the things they are saying and the tone of their voice.

Hold eye contact

Eye contact stimulates the social-network circuits in your brain, decreases the stress hormone cortisol, and increases oxytocin, a hormone that enhances connection. Looking at the person’s face will also help you notice expressions and emotions even though they may last only briefly.

Finally, try not to compare yourself to others too often. Young adults have an even greater tendency than older adults to compare themselves to others. One impact of this comparison is on the perceived quality of our relationships. Research indicates that the number of people in our support network is less important than our perception of having enough support. So, for some people 3 or 4 very close connections may be as good as someone else’s 10 less close connections. The tendency to compare ourselves might actually undermine our perception of what is an adequate support network if we constantly think “other people have more friends than me”, or “I might have good friends, but I don’t have a partner”. Rather than comparing yourself to others, try to think specifically about how well supported you feel.

Want to know more? See this article for a more detailed review of the research base on the importance of strong connections.

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