Relationships are a vital part of mental health. Our romantic, friendship, and familial relationships offer us support during times of stress and joy even on difficult days. However, movies, books, and TV shows often depict romantic relationships as the end goal- we struggle, have misunderstandings, run through crowded airports to get the person of our dreams and then our lives are fixed! With these depictions, it is hard to imagine the main characters of our favorite romcoms struggling with anxiety, depression, or relationship conflict after the credits roll, but in real life important relationships (including non-romantic friendships and familial relationships) take time and continuous effort to maintain. If you find yourself wondering about how to cultivate and maintain healthy relationships in your life, keep reading this blog to learn three approaches that you can use to build the relationships you want!
To start, let’s look at why maintaining healthy relationships is important in the first place. Aside from the obvious answer- because a healthy relationship feels better than an unhealthy one!- current research suggests that positive marital relationships are tied to better health outcomes and mental health outcomes, including lower rates of anxiety and depression and increased life satisfaction . The present research reflects what many people know from experience, highly conflictual or unsupportive relationships can contribute to us feeling more anxious, stressed, or depressed and can negatively impact our long-term health. The recent COVID-19 pandemic has shed even more light on the importance of social connections. It is unsurprising that during a time of unprecedented feelings of loneliness and isolation from others, rates of reported depression, anxiety, and sleep issues rose for adults across the nation . With both personal experience and facts on the ground telling us about how important relationships are for our mental health, let’s look together at three important practices that help to support healthy relationships:
Reach Out and Make Time
Especially as the world transitions back to in-office work and the bustle of the spring, it can be easy to be caught up in to-do lists for work, school, and day-to-day necessities. When we get so busy it can be easy to neglect not only our own mental health needs but our social relationships that help to make us feel happy and supported.
One key to creating and cultivating healthy relationships is to be purposeful about reaching out and making time for the relationships that matter to you. You may find yourself saying “wait! I’m already busy and you’re asking me to add relationships to my to-do list?!” Yes and no! Making time for your important relationships can be as simple as making sure to take the 45 minutes that you usually use to eat dinner with your partner or your family and making that a time for connection. Perhaps you can institute a no-phone or no work at the table rule, or maybe breakfast is an easier time to connect than dinner. It can also mean blocking off an afternoon or an evening to spend time with a close friend or family member, or planning for a weekly lunch date with someone you love. While this extra time may feel like it’s cutting into your to-do list, you will likely find yourself leaving this time feeling more refreshed and less stressed as you embark on the rest of your day. Whatever it may be, being purposeful with the time when you are already with your important social relationships can help to support your mental health and increase your feelings of connectedness to your loved one.
Carving out specific time to connect with your loved ones creates room for important social support, like sharing feelings of anxiety or depression, which help us not to feel alone during times of stress. However, you do not have to have a deep or emotional conversation every time you spend time with an important social relationship. Reaching out and making time for your friends, family, or romantic partner can also be as simple as sending a funny text or goofy Tiktok video to someone you love. Even sending a quick message like “I heard a song on the radio that made me think of you” can help to cultivate your important relationships. Small moments of fun are just as important for your relationships as the big moments of emotional support. Both work together to build a foundation of love, trust, and connectedness, and help to remind you of what is important about the relationship even during times of conflict.
Disagree with Empathy
Speaking of conflict, another key to cultivating healthy relationships is learning how to disagree with empathy.** Conflict in relationships is often stressful, and for some it may feel easier to ignore disagreements rather than talk about them. However uncomfortable conflict may be, they are also important parts of relationships, and learning how to approach a disagreement with empathy can actually help to make your relationship stronger.
First, it is important to know your approach to conflict. You may find that you hate disagreements and may begin to feel distressed seeing your partner get upset or even feeling anger within yourself. Or you may find that once a disagreement arises you want to work through it without stopping until it feels resolved, and you feel frustrated if the other person is done discussing before you are. You may even find yourself getting so overwhelmed in conflicts that you say things that you later regret but find it hard to stop yourself in the heat of the moment. Whichever approach you may use, it is helpful to know how you typically tackle disagreements with loved ones, so you can learn how to resolve conflicts most effectively with the people you love. To figure out your approach, reflect on the most recent disagreement you had with an important social relationship. Did you agree with them even if internally you felt differently? Did you keep the conversation going even when the other person asked for a break? Did you make a global criticism of the other person like “you are always making me mad!” even when you know you don’t always feel that way?
There is nothing wrong with a specific approach to conflict, but each can have their pitfalls. Once you know your conflict style, notice the ways that it has helped you to get what you need out of a disagreement and the ways that it hasn’t helped. For example, maybe avoiding the conflict helped you to avoid experiencing your friend’s frustration or expressing frustration yourself, but maybe you are holding onto resentment or anger that keeps coming up whenever you are with your friend.
Next, reflect on what your friend, family member, or romantic partner’s conflict style is. Maybe you both avoid, so there is a sea of undiscussed conflict that comes up whenever a new disagreement arises. Or maybe you want to talk things through and your loved one avoids, which can result in you following them from room to room trying to discuss a disagreement without them responding. As you begin to get a clearer picture of your conflict style and theirs, you can begin to find a compromise between the two. If you notice that you tend to make global criticisms, when disagreements get too hot and once you do your partner shuts down, try instituting a 15-minute break policy for disagreements. This will give you time to cool down and collect your thoughts and perhaps help your partner to feel more comfortable and ready to listen too.
Learning your and your loved one’s conflict approaches can open up routes to listening to one another more clearly and with an open mind. Working through disagreements, even though it can be stressful and emotionally draining, can create new levels of trust and closeness that help to make your relationship stronger.
Relationships can take many different forms. Your work friend who makes you laugh uncontrollably but who doesn’t even know how many siblings you have and your best friend who knows your biggest secrets both play an important role in helping to support your mental health. However, for many people, vulnerability in relationships can be scary or intimidating. Especially during times of increased stress, it may become increasingly easier to keep relationships at a surface level while keeping feelings of anxiety, depression, or distress out of view.
While it may feel overwhelming or scary, practicing vulnerability in your important relationships is key to cultivating and maintaining healthy closeness and is a vital way to access the mental health benefits of social supports that we discussed at the start of this blog post. This may look like reaching out to your social supports when you notice changes in their mood or demeanor. Messages such as “I noticed that you seemed more quiet lately” or “I’m here for you if you need someone to talk to” can help to create safety for vulnerability in your relationships. Additionally, after an important person in your life shares vulnerable feelings such as feelings of sadness, anxiety, or worry, saying things like “It means a lot to me that you shared this with me” or “I appreciate how vulnerable you were with me” can help to cultivate ongoing safety in your relationships.
Just as important as listening to vulnerability from friends, families, and romantic partners, is practicing sharing your feelings too. Especially if you notice yourself always holding a caregiving role in your relationships, it may feel hard to share any feelings of anxiety, depression, or distress that you may be experiencing. However, holding back on sharing your true feelings with important others may get in the way of closeness and may contribute to others in your life feeling disconnected from you. This certainly does not mean that you have to pour your heart out to your favorite co-worker (but you definitely can if you want this person to be a closer part of your life!), but it may mean practicing sharing feelings that may be scary or overwhelming to you with a loved one.
In order to begin this practice, you may plan to meet with your loved one in a safe space, such as your house or a quiet park, and you may even start by sharing how scary it feels to talk about vulnerable topics. You can also start small, perhaps by sharing that you have noticed that you feel more sad than usual which may feel easier or safer to share than “I think I am experiencing depression.” Importantly, if you do start small, it is important to keep building toward sharing more as you learn to trust being vulnerable more. Although this may be difficult at first, each time you practice vulnerability will help to make it a little easier to reach out the next time you need support from your loved ones. Creating space for vulnerability in your relationships can help to deepen your feeling of connectedness and lessen feelings of isolation, loneliness, and depression even during times of stress.
These three approaches to cultivating and maintaining relationships, while not exhaustive, can be helpful steps toward creating the relationships you want and need. Particularly during difficult times, important relationships offer support and joy. If you find yourself reading through this list and looking for more support on how to implement these practices, please reach out to me, Dr. Grace Waite, or any of the other clinicians at the Integrated Care Clinic. A mental health professional can help you to explore your conflict style, understand why vulnerability may be difficult for you, and even help you to learn how to build social relationships if you are feeling isolated or alone. If this sounds like you, or if you have other relationship concerns that you would like to explore, reach out today!
**Important Note: Conflict in this article refers to normative disagreements that arise in every relationship and does not refer to instances of domestic violence or safety issues in relationships. If you are experiencing safety concerns in your important relationships, please visit https://www.thehotline.org/ or call 800.799.SAFE (7233) for immediate support around issues related to domestic violence.
- Braithwaite, S., & Holt-Lunstad, J. (2017). Romantic relationships and mental health. Current Opinion in Psychology, 13, 120-125.
- Umberson, D., & Karas Montez, J. (2010). Social relationships and health: A flashpoint for health policy. Journal of health and social behavior, 51(1_suppl), S54-S66.