Are relationships the key to health and well-being?
We all need relationships; partners, family, friends, colleagues and neighbours for emotional and physical well-being. Facing difficult times in our lives seems so much more manageable when we have the support and love of those around us.
In my experience I have found that difficulties with relationships are a regular and recurrent theme in the counselling room, even if the reason for coming to counselling may have been something else altogether. It seems that we may underestimate the power and importance of our relationships for our emotional and physical well-being, sometimes when it is too late.
Bonnie Ware, a palliative care nurse found that when patients were questioned about regrets, losing touch with family and friends was cited as one of the top five; furthermore social isolation is deeply problematic, a recent study has shown loneliness to be as harmful to health as obesity, cigarette smoking and high blood pressure.
A team of researchers including Santosh Kumar PhD and Lisa Berkman PhD analysed data from a 2012 Gallup poll and found: “people who are socially isolated tend to have more physiological stress, poorer immune function and a host of biological risk factors’
Supportive and meaningful relationships are also considered one of the most important factors in measuring levels of happiness. Richard Laylard in 2005 argued that “in just about every study, family relationships and our close private life are more important than any other single factor affecting our happiness.”
Relationships that become difficult, complicated or conflicted can cause individuals much pain, anxiety and distress.
Our experience of early life relationships will often determine the quality of our relationships in later life.
Children who grow up within a secure, consistent and reliable environment, trusting their relationships will take that experience into adult life and use it as a template for their adult relationships. Through positive experience individuals are more likely to develop the skills and resources required to build healthy and supportive relationships, feel entitled to having their needs met and develop empathy for others.
“Securely attached children develop a positive working model of themselves and have mental representations of others as being helpful while viewing themselves as worthy of respect” (Jacobsen, & Hoffman, 1997).
Unfortunately children who grow up in an environment of difficult relationships, which can range from anger and violence to more subtle issues such as lack of expressed emotion or frequent critical communication, will take their experience into adult life, often repeating painful patterns without realising why.
The foundations on which we build strong relationships are laid in our earlier lives; if we start off on shaky ground our ability to maintain healthy relationships becomes compromised. It can be very helpful to address the underlying causes of difficult relationships, loneliness and social withdrawal.
Building or rebuilding stronger foundations could be the answer to improving the quality of current relationships and to making new, positive ones.
Counselling can help by exploring the nature of early relationships and recognise patterns of relating. Then by using the therapeutic relationship as a secure base from which to build on a different experience, you can start to take risks and change the way you communicate and behave within your relationships.
Good communication is the single most important feature of a healthy relationship as it demonstrates commitment, trust and intimacy. We communicate on many different levels making emotional, intellectual, spiritual, and physical connections. Disagreements and conflict are inevitable but how we manage them is crucial. Following the tips below can help prevent disagreements spiralling out of control and causing damage to the relationship.
- Listen - try not to interrupt.
- Be as open as possible about how you feel, using ‘I feel’ instead of you ‘make me’.
- Empathise - try and put yourself in the others shoes.
- Try not to use critical language.
- Admit when you’re wrong.
- Search for a compromise.
- Take time out if things are getting too heated.
- Ask for help if you need it.
- Don’t give up.
If you are experiencing relationship difficulties that are affecting your life, talking to a counsellor might help.
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