Research clearly shows the importance of relationships in having and maintaining healthy lives. People with healthy relationships are fifty percent less likely to die prematurely, are better able to cope with stress, are healthier, and feel better about their lives. Conversely, people without healthy relationships are more likely to struggle with depression, have immune system issues, and have higher blood pressure.
Healthy relationships are those with close connections formed by emotional bonds and interactions which grow from and are strengthened by mutual experiences.
People Need a Variety of Relationships
Just like the spokes in a bicycle tire keep the tire balanced, people need a variety of relationships to have healthy and balanced lives. The three broad categories of relationships are:
Typical characteristics of healthy family relationships are support, mutual trust, regular interactions, shared beliefs and values, security, and a sense of community. Traditionally, family is someone related by birth, marriage or adoption. However, included in these intimate and supportive relationships are non-related people many consider family such as church family or close intimate friends.
A friendship is a close tie between two people built upon mutual experiences, shared interests, proximity and emotional bonding. Friends turn to each other in times of hardship or crisis. Most individuals need between three and six close friendships. Research has shown that online friendships are not nearly as powerful as in-person friendships.
When a close relationship forms between two people built upon affection, trust, intimacy, and romantic love, the relationship transitions from friendship to a romantic relationship. While society has elevated these relationships to the most important types of relationships, research has shown they fill different needs but are not more important.
American culture is consumed with romantic relationships and, as a result, people have a hard time imaging it could be possible to have healthy friendships with people of the opposite sex. Men and women bring different things to relationships, and it is important to have healthy non-sexual male and female relationships.
Strong Communication is Key to Healthy Relationships
Relationships are living, dynamic parts of our lives which require attention, time and energy to build and maintain healthy connections. Attending to the following skills helps create and cultivate healthy relationships:
The safe feeling trust creates enables people to be vulnerable without fearing judgment, abandonment, or betrayal. Trust is cultivated and strengthened by attending well when someone expresses a need for emotional connection or support or is disagreeing with you. By being trustworthy in these moments, you pave the way for both parties to be more open and supportive in the future.
One of the best ways to show someone you care is by listening to them with an open mind and your full attention. This means turning off the television and removing other distractions. Make eye contact and work to understand what the other person is saying without letting your own opinions get in the way.
According to Brene Brown, vulnerability—the process of truly opening up to another person emotionally—is the key to developing strong relationships with others. Until we share our feelings—even when they are uncomfortable—with another person, we are unable to form bonds of trust and intimacy. Ms. Brown says, “Vulnerability is a glue that holds intimate relationships together.”
Clear and open communication, mutual respect, shared exploration, and collaborative working to solve problems are the hallmarks of healthy conflict management. People who successfully manage conflict commit to analyzing situations and developing solutions which meet the needs of everyone involved. To do this, both individuals have to actively listen and speak in a fair and balanced manner.
One of the most accessible positive emotions, gratitude strengthens friendships and intimate relationships in ways felt by both the individual expressing the gratitude and the one receiving it. Expressing gratitude can be as simple as remembering to say “thank you.”
Learn to forgive.
Disagreements are a normal part of relationships. How you choose to handle the hurt created by disagreements is important. Choosing to forgive by letting go of the anger and hurt improves relationships and has a positive impact on you personally.
The willingness to be gentle and nonjudgmental with others when you recognize they are unhappy or have needs being unmet is compassion. You don’t need to take on the suffering of others or absorb their emotions. Rather, compassion is understanding how they are feeling and believing in them even when they may have difficulty believing in themselves.
The benefits of building healthy relationships makes it worth the time and effort it takes.
Jean Holthaus, LISW is a Licensed Independent Social Worker and clinic manager at the Pine Rest Pella Clinic. She earned a BA in Elementary Education from the University of Northern Iowa and a Masters of Social Work from the University of Iowa in 1995.