Dr. Anna Charbonneau

Therapy for people living with stress, depression, and medical conditions

How to build real relationships

by Dr. Anna Charbonneau | Tags: relationships, communication

Today I'm talking about relationships. I probably don't have to tell you this, but relationships can be tough. Do you tend to feel overwhelmed or taken advantage of by other people? Do you push people away, either on purpose or without meaning to? Sometimes, it may feel easier to just isolate yourself and avoid dealing with people at all.

But consider this. Research has shown that social isolation activates the same pathways in the brain as physical pain. People with poor social relationships are about 30% more likely to experience a stroke or heart disease over their lifetime. Social health has a direct impact on physical health. Loneliness and isolation hurt. Literally. 

Three Common Paths to the Same Destination

Hiding, avoiding, or pushing away other people are three paths to the same outcome: isolation and loneliness. For example, shutting down friends and family with a fake answer—saying, “I’m fine” when you’re anything but fine. Or trying to hide behind fake smiles—trying to grin and bear it. Avoiding includes cutting off social relationships withdrawing from social invitations, ignoring phone calls or emails, or not responding to others at all. And pushing away includes lashing out, responding angrily, or actively radiating a "don't come near me" vibe (cold shoulder silent treatment included).

Avoiding other people might provide some short-term relief, but it will catch up with you eventually. Escaping social interaction will lead to isolation and loneliness in the long run. Building (or rebuilding) and maintaining authentic relationships with other people is an important aspect of living and aging well. 

Building real relationships is an enormous topic. Today we’re just going to take a birds-eye view. We’ll start with authentic relationships.  

What’s an authentic relationship?

An authentic relationship is one where both parties are honest with each other. And both parties give and receive to the best of their abilities. Good relationships are a two-way street. No one is perfect, so this isn’t about being a perfect friend or perfect partner, it’s about making the effort. Healthy relationships are built on equality; both people making an effort to connect and work together. 

How to build authentic relationships?

Choose carefully

Be selective with who you let into your inner circle. There are some people who you just will not be able to have a real relationship with. There are going to be gossipy neighbors, unhelpful family members, and self-absorbed people around. Avoid selfishness, manipulative behaviors, and high drama as much as possible. You have enough going on without having your resources drained. Do you already have those types of people in your inner circle? That’s a separate problem I’ll be writing about later. For today, let's focus on what you can control: yourself.  

You don’t have to have real relationships with everyone, nor should you try. For those people, fake responses or avoiding contact is fine. It’s okay and healthy to intentionally decide that you do not want a real relationship with someone. 

But nurturing a handful of authentic relationships can make a huge difference. Look for a least a few people who you connect with, who are kind and trustworthy, who make you smile or laugh. Practice the qualities you want to have in your close relationships. Be accepting, curious, and kind. Look for the same in others. Cultivate real relationships with these people. 

Be honest

You can choose exactly how much to say but try to avoid lies and fake responses. You don’t have to give a run down of every recent symptom. But what to do if you’re feeling sad, ill, or in pain when someone asks those three simple words how are you? If you decide you want to try connecting authentically with them, you can choose a response like, “Well, things have been tough lately, but I am trying to cope.” Find your own words and prepare responses that are real for you. 

It’s okay to start slow. If someone you care for asks you a difficult question like “Are you okay?” You could try responding honestly. “No, but I don’t tell many people that because I’m afraid it might make them feel bad.” What are you really feeling? Try communicating that. See how they respond.

If you want to end the conversation there, just ask “How are things with you?” (Remember, real relationships are a two way street.) And if they push or pry before you’re ready to discuss something, just say “I appreciate your concern, but I’d rather talk about other things right now.” Being honest is key to maintaining real relationships with people. 

Be compassionate

This includes being compassionate towards yourself as well as the other person. If you are feeling low, let yourself feel low. We oftentimes “should” all over ourselves and add to our own distress. I should feel better. I should be able to play with the kids more. I should be a better daughter or son. I should be able to do more work today. I should, I should, I should. And the burden of these shoulds just adds to problems. These shoulds are the feeding grounds for guilt and shame. Practice compassion instead. Try tell yourself something like this: Yes, I should be able to do XYZ, but I can’t right now, so I’ll focus on what I can do and let that be good enough for today. 

If your friend, partner, child, parent, co-worker, nurse, is aggravating you, practice compassion. Listen to them with an open heart. Why are you upset? Should they know better? Should they treat you more kindly? Should they really have already done that two weeks ago? These shoulds are the feeding grounds for anger and resentment. All of them might be true, but what's done is done. Breathe. Make a request, deal with the situation as best you can, and move on. Let it go. 
 

If someone you care for is upset, practice compassion. Listen to them with an open heart. What is the intention behind their words? Is it hard for them to see you ill or in pain? Is something going on in their lives? You might have a swarm of difficult emotions around that, but breathe through it and try to listen to them. Oftentimes, approaching with curiosity and openness (rather than anger or defensiveness) can be enough to diffuse the situation and allow for a real connection with another person.   

Listen

Good listening is about being quiet, getting out of your own head, and paying attention to the other person. Set aside your internal dramas (yeah, we all have them!) of the shoulds, the thinking about what to say next, and all the other stuff running through your head. Focus on the other person. What are they saying? What is their body language like? Be still. Be quiet. Be curious and compassionate. Listen. 

Talk

If you want real relationships, you’re going to have to share some of what’s going on with you. No one can connect with a ghost. You are a real person, with preferences and thoughts and feelings. Share them. What’s been on your mind? What have you been afraid of? What is something you’re happy about? Share!

Share wisely.

It’s healthy to moderate how much you share. For example, with younger children, avoid sharing a full list of health problems and your own anxieties. But you can still share and connect in real ways, just on their level. Likewise with professional colleagues or bosses, you can choose how much or how little to share about your struggles, life problems, or health conditions. Limiting what you share about certain aspects doesn’t preclude authenticity. Be honest with what you decide to share. But with those closest to you, partners, spouses, best friends, allow yourself to share. And listen to them in return. 

Want more?

Well, so do I. I've been looking for good books, articles, and resources on communication and relationships.

Do you have some favorite resources you can recommend? Email me or leave a comment on my Facebook page, and I'll update this article with more resources.