If these past 18 months have forced us to evaluate anything, it’s the importance of connection. Be it through new technologies, outdoor activities, or the little pods we’ve packed into to stay safe, we’ve all had to find creative ways to make connection work in a world of social distancing. Nurturing our relationships is one of the most fulfilling pursuits in life. Here’s why it’s so important, and here are some suggestions for how to do it.
Research has linked people with strong social relationships to many aspects of health, from stronger immune responses to a cold to longevity itself. “People who feel more connected to others have lower levels of anxiety and depression… higher self-esteem, greater empathy for others, are more trusting and cooperative and, as a consequence, others are more open to trusting and cooperating with them,” according to a summation by Stanford Medicine. “Social connectedness generates a positive feedback loop of social, emotional and physical well-being.”
There is no magic number when it comes to connection. We don’t need to have a million friends or be an extrovert. Rather, it’s the closeness of the connections we have and our ways of maintaining those connections that make such a difference to the quality of our lives. To foster more enriching and enlivening relationships, we also have to get to know the barriers within ourselves that limit us or keep us from getting too close to others. Here are some things we can work on to help build and maintain stronger connections.
1. Consider Your Attachment Patterns
Attachment theory shows how, from a very young age, having a secure attachment is like having a safe platform from which we can venture out and explore the world. A secure attachment teaches us that we can trust and depend on others, while feeling secure within ourselves. It also creates a model of how we expect others to behave throughout our lives.
Human beings have a natural yearning to connect. We are born seeking what Dr. Daniel Siegel has called the four S’s of attachment: to feel safe, seen, soothed, and secure. Yet, in childhood when we were first developing our patterns of attachment, hurtful events in which we didn’t experience one or more of these four elements may have led to insecure attachment patterns. In turn, we likely developed adaptations and defenses within us that left us more guarded when it comes to getting close to someone else. In order to remain in a vulnerable and open state, we have to stay alert to when these defenses are operating and actively work to stay connected. Understanding our early attachment patterns and adaptations can have a huge impact on how we feel and behave in our relationships.
2. Notice an Inner Critic Luring You to Be Alone
Think about all the times we isolate ourselves. Sometimes, it’s because we need rest, respite, or time to reflect. Other times, a more destructive force is at play. Most of us have a “critical inner voice” that coaches us and lures us into self-limiting behavior. This “voice” is often its loudest when we’re alone, so that’s where it likes us to be.
It can sound like a sadistic bully, chiming in with thoughts like, “Just keep to yourself. That person doesn’t really want to see you.” Other times, it may even sound soothing, feeding us thoughts like, “Why don’t you just be alone? You can have a drink and relax. You don’t need anyone anyway.” The problem is, once our inner critic has us alone, it can once again, become cruel, putting us down and keeping us from our feeling connected to others.
3. Be Generous With Yourself
To counter the directives of our inner critic, we can try to take actions that are in our best interest. This includes stepping outside ourselves and being generous with our time. Reaching out to friends, especially during this difficult period in all of our lives, asking questions, and showing an active interest in what someone’s going through are not just offerings to the other person but to ourselves. This helps us create deeper, more trusting bonds as well as to step outside ourselves and gain perspective on things going on in our own lives.
4. Give Connections the Time and Attention They Need
It’s easy to get lost in everything from our jobs and immediate responsibilities to our devices and endless streams of online entertainment. These things can certainly take up part of our days, but it’s important to carve out actual space for the people who matter to us. Any effort we make to be fully present for any amount of time is rich with rewards, whether it’s with our partner, our child, an old friend, or a new one. Being present brings out parts of us from which we can easily disconnect, or even feel as if we’ve lost, if they aren’t ignited by spending time with specific people. We should make the act of connecting a priority rather than regarding it as unimportant or a chore.
5. Repair Ruptures
Things inevitably happen in every relationship that cause ruptures. Miscommunications with our partner, arguments with our kids, times we “lose it” with a friend, all of these things will ultimately occur, because we are human. We come to any relationship armed with a tough inner critic and a complex attachment history, so there are bound to be ways we act in moments that we regret. The best thing we can do in these cases is to repair. This means owning our behavior, being open and direct, acknowledging what happened, and validating the other person’s experience (not necessarily by agreeing with everything they say, but by regarding their feelings and hearing them out with empathy). The reverse is true as well; when we have felt hurt by someone we are connected to, we can also attempt repair by reaching out, acknowledging our hurt, and trying to reach a shared understanding of what occurred between us.