Couple standing close as example of significant others

Significant others – how to relate well!

We’ve focused this month on living within rich and rewarding relationships. Why, in a training company encouraging positive mental health, would we do that? Because relationships make us human, and although we assume we relate well, we rarely think about how we’re doing at it. Besides, living and relating well with the significant others in our lives makes a substantial difference to our personal wellbeing.

What’s a significant other?

Some of us have heard spouse introductions such as, “This is my significant other, _____.” Being identified as a significant other indicates someone plays a big role in our lives. Though, we can have relationships of significance with more than just our boy/girlfriends and partners! Your child or parent, or sibling, or even a close friend can equally be significant others to you.

Relationships of significance are one of the two ways we categorise people interactions at Head.Set.Go! (the other being belonging ones -we wrote about them here). They’re critical to both our sense of wellbeing and a healthy self-esteem. The best way to start life is with at least one carer offering and modelling this significance to us, as our sense of self-worth and value grows from there.

What it mostly takes for these relationships to thrive is the two of you – whoever you are – each deciding to take an interest in the wellbeing of the other, and making or finding ways to signal that care to them.

Why we need them

People require four key needs met to feel whole, complete and happy. The first of those is to feel significant, or as though we matter, to other people. When we’re affirmed for having inherent value, we feel loved and worthwhile. To be cared for, enjoyed and valued for being ourselves rather than because we’re rich, beautiful or clever (yeah right!), is a priceless gift.

Over time, receiving this affirmation grows our own self-respect and results in us seeing ourselves as people of worth too. From there we learn to speak and act in ways which signal that belief we’re worth it to the world. You almost never gain self-respect by building yourself up –  though it’s possible to ‘pull yourself up by the bootstraps’ you tend to look brassy and harsh. Self-respect is much better gained as a flow-on from other people’s care.

The lowdown on significant relationships

Though you’ve probably had at least a few of these significant relationships in your life, you may not have thought much about how they work. Here’s three ideas we reckon you’d benefit from keeping in mind:

  1. They’re voluntary, opt in relationships. Despite the fact we all need others to offer significance to us to feel safe and loved, you can’t force another person to gift this to you. When you’re feeling low, this is a truly miserable reality. But it also means every offer of love another person makes you is ever so valuable!
  2. No one person can ever provide enough significance for you to feel stable. What that means is you really need several of these people in your life. Yes, there should be multiple significant others for you. Not hundreds – a handful only – as these relationships are fairly intense things to sustain – but certainly more than one.
  3. These relationships are a two way experience. Although you can’t force care from someone, as you reach out and affirm a person, that should be returned in some way you appreciate. Even babies give back to their parents in a give and get kind of way – although obviously they don’t crawl over and ask how you are! But relationships which, long term, are all you giving to them or them to you are dangerously unhealthy.

What does healthy look like?

Let’s reiterate, healthy significant relationships aren’t always about you. They can’t be, because every person on the planet wants to be loved and feel special. This has several implications when it comes to measuring healthy relationships. First off, throw out the expectations of perfection you dream of. Significant relationships contain two flawed humans – you and them – so there’s gonna be disappointments, arguments and unhappy moments. None of these necessarily signal failure.

A healthy relationship with every significant person in your life will also be full of constant shifts and changes. Depending on who’s feeling up and who’s struggling, sometimes the attention will be more focused on you – and sometimes it won’t. As long as the balance evens out long term, that’s not necessarily a problem either.

What you’re looking for is a sense of enough. Enough good care, enough good affirmation from this relationship to validate you as a human being. It’s a pass-fail measure. People looking to receive all the time (or even the majority of it) will be perpetually unhappy and risk missing the good in what they do have. Are they showing you enough attention to move your dial towards the positive?

This can be hard to work out. Because we’re inherently self-biased, we process everything casting ourselves in the best light, even when we don’t mean to. We cut more slack for our own shortcomings, see things from our own angle – and we feel like we’re contributing more than we possibly are. So in your relationships you can believe you’re giving out heaps when the other person thinks you’re hardly doing any. And vica versa.

Also, if you have a ‘one and only’ you rely on and no one else with whom you have a significance relationship, deciding they’re not cutting it might be unfair. Remember, you need significance from a range of people. Nobody’s gonna meet all your needs, no matter how amazing they are.

Building great relationships of significance

To build and maintain rich and rewarding relationships of any kind, you need a number of elements. First you need to understand how these things work – hence the hints we’ve covered so far. Then you need to have helpful expectations, or attitudes. And finally you need to put some actions alongside your goodwill and intentions.

Start by being deliberate. Choose to find a way to express your care for your other person in a way they like and can appreciate. There are two ideas which may help you. Firstly, you can offer bids. These are little bits of attention, such as a smile or a hug, a question or a comment, directed at your other. If you like, they’re a little signal of goodwill. What you want is for that person to accept your bid and (hopefully) raise the stakes. Not only do they respond, but they offer you something in return. And you then send another one back.

It’s easy to be so distracted we fail to notice this ‘bidding,’ so teach yourself not to mind too much if it goes unnoticed. And, when somebody offers a bid in your direction, pay attention and appreciate it!

The second thing which may be helpful is to think through and learn the particular expressions of affirmation (bids) your other people appreciate. You’ve probably noticed they’re not the same as what you want! Work out whether they’d prefer a hug or a compliment, for you to tidy the kitchen or give them a box of chocolates. Here’s a link to a love languages post I did, if you’d like to ponder more on this.

You also need to give your relationship time. Apparently, it’ll take about 200 hours to build even a close friendship, so don’t expect happy and healthy significant others to appear with the wave of a magic wand! (Though hormones will help you when it comes to finding a mate – for a while!)

Unfortunately, if the person you’d like to have one of these relationships with opts out, there’s not much you can do. It’ll hurt (probably a great deal, for which I’m sorry), but let them walk away. There are others in the world who’ll do a better job of affirming you than they in their unwillingness will.

It’s a wrap!

If all this talk about significant others has you thinking ho-hum, you knew this – fantastic! You’re well placed to be a major contributor of significance to others in a healthy way. If you’re struggling to manage or establish these in your life, over at Head.Set.Go! we’re offering a 30 minute online training session packed with tips and ideas for how you can live them better. You’re welcome to check it out – it’ll be going up in the next week or so.

Regardless of the relationships you have elsewhere, we think you’re a valuable person of worth with amazing potential. Hang round and pick up our positive vibes, and even send some back to us! Leave a comment and tell us how we can help.

Have a good week.

Sharon