Group of friends walking arm in arm

From our self-esteem to our sense of contentment, our happiness is influenced significantly by our relationships with family, friends or partners. Psychotherapist Jennifer Cawley shares five simple ways we can all maintain successful relationships…

The human brain is built for relationships. When we’re born, we’re prewired to create bonds with others to help us survive. We learn about the world and ourselves through being in relationships and that doesn’t stop when we become adults. According to an 80-year study by Harvard Medical School, good relationships keep us both happier and healthier.

“The surprising finding is that our relationships and how happy we are in them has a powerful influence on our health,” says Robert Waldinger, director of the study. “Taking care of our body is important, but tending to your relationships is a form of self-care too.”

So, whether it’s your best friend, partner, family member or work colleague, here are five expert-backed ways to help you have better, healthier relationships.

1. Be kind to yourself

Before you think about improving your relationships with others, first tend to the relationship you have with yourself. The better you treat yourself, the better equipped you’ll be to treat others well. That means making friends with your inner critic. Whether your body positivity is low or you’re not feeling very confident at work – consciously being kinder to yourself will prep you for supporting those around you.

[Tip] Try countering negative thoughts (“I should have done better”) with something positive (“I’ve done enough”). Try writing down five positive affirmations to keep with you. Every time you hear that negative voice, repeat these affirmations to yourself, aiming for at least 10 times a day until you feel a difference.

2. Put the work in

“A lot of the time we think that if we love each other, we don’t need to work at the relationship. But we all need to work at relationships to keep them alive,” says relationship psychotherapist for the College of Sexual and Relationship Therapists Duncan Branley. Communication is key for any relationship, but a little extra empathy goes a long way. “When we feel overwhelmed, self-protective or defensive about what others are saying to us, we get stressed. It affects our brain and makes it harder to think and listen rationally.” This is what causes us to snap and say things we don’t mean.

[Tip] “For some, face-to-face confrontation can be stressful,” Branley explains. “Writing things down to summarise your main points before you chat. Or take a pause when tensions rise to help reduce those stress hormones.”

3. Remember the good

If you’re not openly communicating with your friends or partner, your imagination can go into overdrive and insecurities can lead you to assume the worst. “Often, people don’t realise when they’re making assumptions about their loved one or friend,” says Branley. We can make connections between conversations or actions that aren’t there and many of us tend to overanalyse.

“We’ve evolved to be threat-sensitive and this can be exacerbated by previous experiences in that relationship or perhaps during childhood,” he says – for example, the assumption that people always let us down.

[Tip] “The brain is like Velcro for negative experiences, but Teflon for positive ones,” says psychologist Dr Rick Hanson. He suggests rebalancing your perspective, by catching yourself every time you make a negative assumption about your loved one. Then, thinking about three positive experiences you’ve had with them.

4. Let go of expectation

Unrealistic expectations can make a relationship come unstuck. “As soon as we realise that a relationship is not unconditional and put expectations to one side, we open the door to other opportunities,” explains Lead Couples Psychotherapist at the Priory Wellbeing Clinic, Salma Rashid. Unlike family bonds, an adult relationship is a chosen investment, not a given.

[Tip] “Negotiation and compromise make relationships,” Rashid advises. List the things you expect from your loved one and ask yourself if they’re reasonable. If you couldn’t live up to these yourself, then it may be unrealistic and lead to disappointment.

5. Know your limits

In all relationships, it’s important to understand what is and isn’t ok with you and communicate those boundaries. “Relationships are about connecting, feeling understood, sparking joy, laughing, and empathising,” says Head of Psychotherapy at The School of Life, Charlotte Fox Weber. “A relationship is worth investing in when it’s life-enhancing,” adds Fox Weber. “It’s time to cut ties if it becomes draining.”

For couples in particular, she says: “Each person may feel like they’re going around in circles – no matter what they’re arguing about, they end up in the same place.” The next step is to ask for support. “You wouldn’t try to fix your own broken arm. The same applies to treating a relationship,” says Rashid.

[Tip] You may find a relationship psychotherapist helpful. According to relationship counselling initiative Relate (which focuses on talking therapy), 80% of clients found counselling strengthened their relationship. Talking therapies like CBT and counselling are available on the NHS, and VitalityHealth members can get up to eight sessions of self-referred CBT or counselling treatment through Talking Therapies.

 

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