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As we enter into the festive season our relationships tend to become focused at the forefront of our minds. December is a busy social month - catching up with friends and relatives, attending end of year work functions and Christmas parties, being invited to unexpected events by family and friends, all the while negotiating a busy home-life!
If you’re starting to feel a little worn out by the interactions with those around you, it’s time to put down the tinsel and pick up the photo on the mantelpiece - we’re going to take a look at your relationships…
Research gathered by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, founder of Flow, suggests that one of the two most important factors in determining the quality of our life is the quality of our relationships (see: Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, 1990). Biologically, we are wired to seek connection with other human beings. Grounded in an instinctual tactic for survival, humans are no less dependent on each other now than what we were hundreds of years ago. Although this dependence may be less grounded in extrinsic needs like food and shelter, the need to feel included, accepted and appreciated have remained integral for our emotional, psychological and spiritual wellbeing.
In fact, findings from the longest observational study (75 years!) on adult development conducted by Harvard University, concluded that the quality of our relationships is a powerful predictor of how well we age in terms of our physical and mental health. That is, participants who reported being content in their relationships at age 50 had consistently better health outcomes at 80 years of age than those who reported being unhappy in their relationships (see: Harvard Study of Adult Development and the Grant Study).
However, the problem remains that relationships don’t always work the way we want them to, and have certainly become far more complex than we have ever experienced. Romantic partnerships, parent-child relationships and familial relationships in general, are no longer structured around clearly defined rules set in tradition, religion, societal expectation and hierarchy. Gender roles are malleable and can be negotiated and challenged. As a result, competing ideas and values have become the norm resulting in disagreement and at worst, resentment; blocking us off from the experience of flow.
So how do we set ourselves up for optimal experience in our relationships?
Internationally renowned relationship therapist Esther Perel refers to communication as the “heart” of a relationship (see: Modern Love and Relationships, SXSW 2018). The distribution of roles, responsibilities and tasks unique to your relationship cannot be assumed; they must be discussed and agreed upon together. Csikszentmihalyi adds the importance of developing shared goals (as a partnership or family) that are motivated from within, in order to channel each person’s psychic energy meaningfully and productively. But when things don’t go to plan, you also need a constructive way to talk about it…
In her book ‘Braving the Wilderness’ Dr Brene Brown addresses the concept of generosity when it comes to our relationships. That is, recognising that in any situation there are multiple ‘realities’ and that our go-to interpretation may not necessarily be the correct one. So when something happens that leaves you feeling hurt or disappointed, instead of reaching for blame and accusation as ammunition, try asking, “[Insert name] help me understand what happened here, I thought we had a plan?” By assuming positive intent, you create an opening for conversation and connection with that person, that is grounded in a state of flow and mutual respect.
From there, difficult conversations can be tackled with grace through the introductory words, “The story I am making up about this is…” (see: The Gifts of Imperfection, 2010). By acknowledging that your truth is not the absolute truth, your thoughts and feelings will be better received by the other person as they no longer feel the need to defend themselves in fight/flight mode. The situation is diffused and you can productively work things out together.
Give it a try this Christmas - show your loved ones how much you care by gifting them the benefit of the doubt when things don’t go to plan. You may find yourself pleasantly merrier.