Making relationships work for you

As submitted for publication in the Recorder Community Newspapers, September 14, 2006

Your life is busy.  Too busy, right?  You probably feel like you could not include one more thing in it.   Hopefully, your overstuffed life includes meaningful relationships with family and friends.  However, if people are more like occasional touchstones than islands in your life, you are missing out.

Perhaps you know that your personal relationships are limited but think it’s okay. After all, there is a lot that needs to get done. If you’re a stay-at-home mother (or a stay-at-home father), you have children to care for— and you are more than willing to sacrifice your personal gratification for them. If you work, you need to pour yourself into it to get ahead or even maintain. And, for those of you who care for your children and work, your lack of time for a personal life is evident. So, clearly, you might reason, personal relationships just have to be kept on hold for now.

But, be honest with yourself, if no one else.  When you lose touch with people, don’t you feel a bit lonely? Maybe not while you are rushing around, but in those quiet moments. It most often attacks at night as you—and your guard—begin to relax.  You also feel it any time when you have good or bad news and realize there is no one to share it with. Those are the times when loneliness grows large, breaks out of the box you keep it in, and lands right on your chest.

Paradoxically, the absence of fulfilling relationships weighs heavy. Without meaningful relationships, you are missing much of what is uplifting in life. Relationships are a source of fun and support.  They allow you to bond and be part of a community.  And, they give you the chance to be giving, which can help you feel good about yourself.  Scientific studies have even shown that relationships increase your chances of surviving major diseases and may increase your longevity.

To reap such wonderful benefits from relationships, you must invest yourself in them.  This takes focused attention and action. You must:

Make time for relationships.  It’s really quite simple.  If you don’t have time for friends and family, you are isolated from them and your relationships will weaken.

Choosing priorities can be difficult because everything takes time. Maintaining your home takes time. Working at your job takes time. Eating healthy and exercising take time. It ALL takes time. And, ALL of it is important. Nonetheless, we are choosing every minute of every day how we spend our time.

Use some of your time to appreciate important friends and family. When life is hectic, still reach out, but keep it brief. For example, you might connect with a quick “just want to tell you I’m thinking of you” note or phone call. When life slows down, make it a point to spend more time with them. If life never slows down or doesn’t do it frequently enough, then evaluate the importance of all that activity and the importance of each relationship. Perhaps you are better off not joining that committee so you have more time with your spouse, or your friends.

Know what you want from each relationship.  Unless you define a relationship by being a giver (mothering an infant or regularly visiting a lonely nursing home resident), expect to get more from your relationships than the joy of giving.

Every relationship is different and has something unique to offer.  Focus on enjoying the “gifts” while accepting the limits of each relationship. For example, your exercise buddy who helps you remain committed to exercise might not be the most sympathetic friend during difficult times.

When you are unhappy in a relationship, ask yourself: What are my expectations? Are they realistic? You might be happier if you change your expectations. Or, you might prefer to address the problem directly with the other person.

Assert your needs and wants.  You can express what you want by talking through some issues or acting differently in the relationship.

Talking through issues means having the courage to tell the other person what is bothering you. For this to work, you need to be clear and assertive, without being aggressive.

Acting differently in relationships requires you to act on your convictions. Again, for this to be constructive, you need to respond without being aggressive. For example, if a friend consistently cancels on you last minute, call her earlier in the day to confirm. If she fails to return your call, consider doing something else, being sure to let he know you are canceling your plans together. In situations such as this, it would also be helpful talk with your friend about your concerns.

If talking about problems and acting differently do not change the other person’s behavior, you need to re-evaluate that relationship.  Again, do you need to change your expectations? Or, do you need to move one?

Know what you have to offer others and give freely.  Be realistic with yourself about what you have to offer in ability, time, and energy.  When you have it to give, giving feels good.

However, repeatedly offering to give when you do not have the resources will cause problems. If you fail to fulfill promises despite the best intentions, the other person might feel disappointed or become angry. If you are as good as your word in helping out, you will feel depleted. As a consequence, you might distance yourself from those you’ve offered to help, or you might fail to care well for yourself.  Poor self-care can happen in small ways, such as not getting enough sleep, or in bigger ways, such as not following your dream to go to school. None of these possibilities bodes well for your relationships or your happiness.

However you decide to divide your time, remember that relationships are essential to a happy life. They provide a safe haven when life feels overwhelming. And, they also provide meaning when life is going smoothly.  So, be sure to make them frequently visited islands in your life.

The Recorder Newspapers has over 250,000 readers and publishes weekly editions in 19 newspapers, which cover Morris, Somerset, Essex and Hunterdon counties of New Jersey.

Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD
Basking Ridge, NJ