If there's one thing that's been under strain since the start of the pandemic, it's our relationships. Spending hours together in a limited number of rooms is surely enough to put even the strongest relationship to the test. Throw in home-schooling, whilst also trying to work from home, and you may have the perfect storm!
But this article is not just about relationships with a partner or significant other. It also concerns the relationships you have with your children, parents, siblings, and friends, and your wider social network of colleagues and neighbours.
In fact, supportive social bonds have been proven to act as a protective factor against stress and depression. Feelings of connectedness and kinship with colleagues can be a greater motivator than money in the workplace; and in schools, a sense of belonging due to positive relationships with peers and especially teachers, contributes to academic achievement and motivation.
What do we mean by belonging? Well, various dictionaries define belonging as 'a secure, close, familiar or intimate relationship' with synonyms including 'familiarity', 'closeness', 'inseparability', 'nearness' and my personal fave, 'chumminess'.
But to me, true belonging provides support, care, understanding, shared experiences and perhaps most importantly, a safe space in which people can allow themselves to be vulnerable. It is, however, a highly subjective, complex process that is unique to each person.
Healthy social relationships have been linked to improved health, with belongingness support being associated with lower levels of arthritis, diabetes and hypertension.
In contrast to this, living alone or social isolation is predictive of increased heart disease, depression and even shorter life expectancy.
An absence of belonging can have deeply negative psychological and physical effects and isolation, social rejection and exclusion from groups is painful.
Neuroscientific research into social belonging suggests that social pain, such as that caused by rejection or ostracism, is not that different from physical pain. Therefore, when someone describes feelings of heartbreak when falling out with a friend or social group, they are not necessarily being dramatic.
A decline in a relationship is often the result of a breakdown in communication. This is usually caused by repetitive negative behaviours such as poorly responding to stress caused by daily pressure or chores, ineffective or negative communication styles, frequent arguments, physical and emotional exhaustion caused by previous incidents, continual criticism or put-downs, blame, and a lack of forgiveness, understanding or empathy.
The best strategy for rebuilding and maintaining a healthy relationship, involves an honest assessment of the relationship, alongside both parties acknowledgement of the negative behaviours and thoughts sabotaging it. When coupled with a commitment to change one's actions and thinking, and a willingness to embrace positive communication behaviours you can enhance your connection to others and strengthen your commitment to the relationship.
What can you do?
1. Develop Empathic Listening Skills
The most important change you can make in any relationship is to acquire empathic listening skills. This involves giving the other person your entire focus and listening attentively to the words they say (and what they don't say), what their tone of their voice or body language says about how they are feeling and show genuine curiosity as to what they have to say.
Follow this up by reflecting your partner's/child's/friend's words back to clarify thoughts or feelings and understand the specific message being communicated. Accept what they have to say and resist the impulse to blame, judge, criticise, negate or analyse, even if you disagree with what's being said.
Be patient through periods of silence and consider which questions will help you clarify the situation.
2. Communicate Your Feelings Clearly
Think about how you communicate your feelings or needs. Are you open-minded, flexible, calm and rational, explaining things clearly without blaming/attacking the other person or defending yourself?
It is possible to communicate anger or frustration without hurting or insulting the other person. Try explaining how it makes you feel when your partner does (or doesn't) do something and explain what you would like them to do instead.
3. Become Aware of Your Conflict Triggers
Together, explore what things you both say or do that provoke conflict. Do they occur at specific times or because of a certain thing? Are there patterns? Are there any expectations of each other that trigger conflict?
Think about what you each do/say that helps resolve the conflict through positive communication. What more could you do? This will require acceptance and repeated effort from both parties and is something that needs to be worked on. Don't expect an improvement overnight, but with patience and time you will see a huge reduction in these incidents.
4. Positive Encouragement
Over a week, consider how often you encourage or affirm each other. How do you show care and respect? What positive things do you say?
If this is something that has slipped due to anger or frustration caused by the triggers identified above, talk about how you can rebuild this aspect of your relationship.
Communicating positive regard and respect for your partner, either through actions or words helps generate positive emotion in you both and can be a starting step on the way to rebuilding your relationship.
If you are looking for more guidance on a range of relationship issues, PositivePsychology.com has a great selection of helpful activities and information booklets designed to help you foster healthy relationships. Coaching can also help build communication and overcome barriers so get in touch if you would like to find out more.
Finally, if you're feeling frustrated, stressed or fed up with life? Get my FREE DOWNLOAD, answer my 5 key coaching questions and find out why (and what to do about it!)
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