You probably don’t need too much convincing that you need other people in your life. After all, our need for connection’s pushed so heavily it’s nearly legendary. This topic might therefore seem like one you’ve got nailed. But how many of us are living within rich and rewarding relationships? Yes, well there’s a very different question. For whilst we nearly all know in a general sense about relationships, how many of us have sought to build specific awareness on them – and how few of those have deliberately set out to ongoingly improve our interactions with people in our worlds?
That’s why we’ve decided to spend this month looking at rich and rewarding relationships. What are they, why do they matter – and how do we get them? In a range of contexts, we want to figure out how this part of life affects both our personal wellbeing and our positive mental health.
Why we need people
At the fall of the Romanian government in the 1990’s we were horrified by a pictures of a whole generation of orphanage children. With their glazed eyes, broken spirits and twisted bodies, they’d been left with limited adult contact their entire lives. This was the moment in time which proved to us humans really do need relationships to even survive.
To develop normally we need contact with people. “Responsive relationships early in life are the most important factor in building sturdy brain architecture,” Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child states. As a baby wriggles or makes noise and an adult responds with eye contact, words or a hug, important relational circuits develop in their brain and positive mental health begins. A lack of response, or unreliable or inappropriate ones trigger a harmful stress response in the baby instead.
Positive development continues from there. “The single most common factor for children and teens who develop the capacity to overcome serious hardship is having at least one stable and committed relationship with a supportive parent, caregiver, or other adult,” the centre continues. Rich and rewarding relationships bring both brain health and life skills along with them. As well as a sense of being important and connected!
People help us to have fun, cause us to grow and take ourselves less seriously. They open up our worlds with different ideas and stand with us when we feel small. And to achieve anything much at all, we need others. This is true at every stage of life.
Two types of relationships
If you’ve never thought much about it, you probably assume every relationship you’re in has the same purpose. That’s not true. Making this assumption will mean you likely harm some relationships by wanting things from them they’re not meant to provide.
There are actually two aspects of relating, one based on doing and one based on being. Each has different ‘rules’ for relating – and different ways to measure success. Knowing the differences between the two and when you’re in each’s critical for living in those rich and rewarding relationships we all desire.
We call the two types of relating either significance relationships or belonging ones. They each meet slightly different needs we have as people walking the planet.
Relationships of Significance
In significance contexts – which we call face to face relationships – our need to have some importance is being met. Another person affirming us by giving us their time, energy and attention makes us feel safe and loved and as though we really matter. And this feeling valued, or loved, enables our self-respect to grow.
At their heart these relationships are conducted one on one, although there’s times they’ll be expressed in a group setting. A birthday or wedding would be an example of a moment when much attention’s given to you by multiple people at one time. But those moments are rare, and only work because there’s a history of private interactions between you and all those individuals leading up to that point.
Significance relationships are the relationships we all know about. These are the love relationships – though that’s a term fraught with so many definitions we try to use it carefully. They form the basis of parent-child and partner-partner interactions. Even close friendships can and should fit into this category. The key idea is that each individual’s cared for in a place of mutual safety and benefit.
The Art of Belonging
The second version of relating we do is based on doing things together. We call them relationships of belonging, because that’s their true focus.
As a picture, belonging relationships are about people standing side by side or shoulder to shoulder with each other. There’s always an outward focus in belonging contexts. It might be to watch a film or it might be to play a game. Or to organise an event. These are the relationships that happen in work and study environments, in sporting teams and whenever groups form.
Belonging’s different from our need to be significant. It has different rules, and ways you should operate. To start with, we ‘win’ by our being involved, by throwing ourselves into the ‘task’ of the group, whether that’s to have fun or to get something done. The more you put in, the more attention and appreciation you should receive, and that in turn will build your self-acceptance. Being part of a group doing something allows you to gain a sense of strength and being on good terms with the world.
People with unmet significance needs often come to these groups trying to force others to make them feel important and give them lots of individual attention. That’s the wrong way to approach these relationships. Although sometimes significant relationships grow out of these contexts, these places aren’t about you. They’re about the ‘us’!
Rich and rewarding relationships
It should be obvious now that strong and healthy, rich and rewarding relationships are possible on two different levels. People with whom you have (and offer) significance relationships will be comparatively few, because they take a good deal of time and energy to cultivate and maintain. Those you hang out with whilst doing something together will be greater in number and can be equally satisfying, so long as you don’t go into them expecting the wrong things. Acknowledgement of your effort and input should be expected; constant personal love and attention shouldn’t!
It should be stated for the record that no relationship’s ever perfect. At least, not if you define perfect as 100% always getting what you want! To start with, every relationship’s comprises two humans, and one of our defining features is we’re not machines! We don’t do the same thing the same way every time – and that makes life interesting as well as sometimes less than the ideal in our heads. Two people with their own life stories will approach nearly everything with different experiences and even slightly different values. Accept it.
A second reality’s that even in significant relationships there’s at least two people who both want that love, attention and affirmation. So, no relationship can ever only be about you. People who expect that are immature and unrealistic. Trying to force another person to be always giving you what you want will either drive them away or end with you crushing them. And we don’t want either!
But he (she/they) hurt me!
This leads us to another distinct human foible – the act of withdrawing from others.
Less than positive experiences can cause us to decide people aren’t worth the effort and shrink back into ourselves. Think the kid who’s been bullied at school, or the young adult whose parents were neglectful. I had a stage in my 20’s where I refused to go out with anyone because I’d been hurt by a previous relationship. It’s not hard to do. One or two disasters and we retire hurt from the people game.
Unfortunately, even thought it hurts, you still need people to help you feel both significant and that you belong. That need we have as babies continues to exist til the day we die. Only mental incapacity can change it.
So, whilst you may draw back a little from harmful people, you should never withdraw from everybody. Unfortunately, you can’t be either a rock or an island, despite what some songs might claim! Self-confidence only ever grows out of previous (and preferably current) rich and caring relationships. Get yourself back into the game, though be wise in who you choose to do that with. We have a free guide for checking potential significance people out to help you this month – check out the pop up to grab it!
Where to from here?
We’re going to spend the whole of this month looking at how to build these various rich and rewarding relationships with others. So keep your eyes peeled for the topics that specially interest you. We’ll be looking at both significant and belonging relationships in more detail, and considering things from both a friendship and a parenting angle and more. To cover everything we’ll be posting a little more regularly, so be warned! Please add your own wisdom, questions and experiences on social media so we can all learn together.
Both relating and achieving are necessary for a healthy self-esteem, which is a key component of your positive mental health. Understanding how to work with people and build strong and supportive relationships ought not just be left to ‘happen.’ Please give some thought and effort to working well with the people round you this week, and in the month to come.
Thanks for dropping by.