Saving Relationships

In the midst of enormous cultural, political and economic change, how do we stay sane? By staying connected to each other.

The “times that try men’s souls” also try the ties between us and others—just when we need them most.

We need them because we are a social species. Relationships sustain us, not just psychologically but also physically. Friendships, love and family reduce stress and help us live longer.

They widen our perspective and set us free from a narrow “bunker mentality.” They help us see possibilities and take constructive action—helping ourselves, helping others and contributing to the greater good.

In contrast, we are lonely, our stress hormones rise. Lonely people are more likely to develop dementia, and to die young.1

Reactivity and relationships. But in times of upheaval and high anxiety, we tend to become more reactive. You can think of reactivity as a strong psychological craving—one that can become epidemic.

In upheaval, it’s only human to crave a different reality: one that’s aligned with our hopes, dreams and values.

When this craving for “how things should be” can’t be satisfied, we worry, fret and obsess. We fantasize about the worst that can happen. We can find ourselves dwelling in dystopia and despair (neither healthy nor helpful places to be).

We can develop “hair triggers” responses to things we fear. We may judge others harshly, express ourselves cruelly, and press our viewpoints relentlessly.

Not surprisingly, judgmentalism and cruelty push others away. But something similar happens when we’re just too relentless or pushy in our opinions. People instinctively recoil from this kind of intensity. (In fact, even babies as young as two months turn their faces away from too-intense faces and voices. Scientists call this “gaze aversion.”)

When our human connections are damaged, we seek new ones, especially with others who share our views. These new connections can satisfy our craving, but they can also reinforce our despair, anger and fear.

Connecting without caving in. That’s not to say you have to pretend to agree with everyone. You have the right to express your deeply held beliefs.

And it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t make new friends, either.

It’s how you speak up and how you make friends that makes all the difference. The key is to respond to others respectfully, rather than reacting impulsively.

Of course, that means you have to nurture respect for others. One proven way to do that is through mindfulness strategies, such as this audio meditation.

How does mindfulness help? By helping us deal calmly with unpleasant emotions, it builds self-respect, which is necessary to respect others. It gives us the strength and confidence to deal constructively with difficult encounters.

Besides protecting relationships, mindfulness has other benefits, too. It encourages us to stay grounded in the here and now, interrupting the “worst case” stories we tell ourselves. It helps us stay calmly alert, instead of anxiously hypervigilant. It clears our minds to solve problems and think creatively.

You can “be the change.” As Gandhi and other great leaders have taught us, the surest way to promote your values is to live them. If you believe in respect for others, you must show them genuine respect. The same goes for genuine courage, calm, compassion and thoughtfulness—or whatever your values are.

But if your actions don’t match your values—if you react fearfully instead of courageous, judgmentally instead of compassionately, dismissively instead of respectfully—you won’t change anything (at least not for the better!).

Perhaps even more notably, acting at odds with your values is profoundly upsetting, increasing inner turmoil that breeds even more reactivity.

I believe we all want to make the world better—as we nurture and keep caring, healthy relationships. We do that by holding human dignity in the highest regard and by treating each other, regardless of our different beliefs, as partners on this life journey.

I wish you all inner calm, positive interactions and respectful connections. And as ever, I’d like to hear how things go for you.

1“Why You Should Treat Loneliness as a Chronic Illness,” Sanja Guptay, MD, Everyday Health: