By MICHAEL SHAPIRO, PhD
A quick peek at my calendar reveals that it’s February. Ah, February…the month that hosts the most famous holiday that isn’t really a holiday: Valentine’s Day. As of the time of this writing, we’re now about a week past this annual high-pressure reminder to do some nice stuff for (or to) someone you love. I believe I’ve dodged marital suicide for one more year by making sure I took my wife out for an extravagant and lavish dinner. Fortunately, Applebee’s never disappoints.
As the number of Valentine’s Days that are left to me slowly dwindles, it has caused me to contemplate the value and importance of relationships (not just romantic ones). According to Harvard Health Publishing, positive connections with others yield benefits for both physical and emotional health. Numerous studies have shown that people who have social support from family, friends, and the community have fewer health problems and actually live longer than people who are solitary or socially withdrawn. Evidently, this is because positive relationships reduce stress; and stress is known to interfere with cardiac functioning, the immune system, and even the health of your gut. Engaging in “caring behaviors” has even been found to trigger stress-reducing hormones (and, it’s far cheaper than a spa day)!
This all makes sense if consider the fact that humans are extremely social animals. We depend on each other. We have to. We’ve always had to. Think about it from the standpoint of evolution: unlike lions and wooly mammoths and alligators and such, primitive man was not blessed with tremendous strength or speed or stealth. However, we “aced” it in the brain department. Man quickly figured out that if we worked together, we had a better chance of survival and reproduction (especially the reproduction part, which doesn’t work particularly well when you’re alone). As a result, in order to encourage mutual survival, man developed a highly social brain that actually allows us to feel good when we experience social interactions, and to feel a kind of pain when we are socially rejected or marginalized. Even the emotion of sympathy (feeling sorrow or pity over someone else’s misfortune) served an evolutionary function by making sure that we were motivated to work cooperatively to help each other survive.
I once read a study that was conducted by the Gallup organization, which (as you may know) is an analytics company based in Washington, DC. In this study, when people were asked why they became homeless, why their marriage failed, or why they overeat; they often attributed these problems to the poor quality (or complete lack) of friendships. A subsequent study on friendship yielded some surprising findings. For example, a majority of married people indicated that friendship is more than five times as important to them as physical intimacy within the marriage (okay, I presume these weren’t newlyweds). Similarly, it was found that if you have a “best friend” at work, you are seven times more likely to feel engaged in your job! If this is true, your office should sink some money into a nice water cooler (which is the traditional hub of gossiping, lollygagging, and other “friendship at work” activities).
So, now that we know how important it is to have close relationships (both family and friends), why doesn’t everyone have them? Because, like a high-performance sports car, they are often difficult (and expensive, both economically and emotionally) to maintain. They require work, time, commitment, and even money. If such a high level of effort seems repulsive or exhausting to you…just look around you. This may be why you’re alone right now, sitting alone in your grandmother’s basement, eating Cheetos and playing World of Warcraft (is that still a thing?). In contrast, if you’re willing to make the effort in the interest of enriching your life with positive relationships, here are some steps to take:
Be intentional. I’m no farmer (in fact, I’m notorious for my “brown thumb”), but from what I understand, a domesticated plant is unlikely to grow on its own. It has to be made secure in the soil and then nurtured, pruned, fed, and watered. Like growing a plant, one must be intentional about cultivating a friendship. Don’t wait for it to happen; take the initiative. Call a friend and make that appointment for a cup of coffee, or to go to that movie you’ve both wanted to see. However, remember this: friendships are built around common interests. Just because you’ve been dying to see that Monster Truck Jam, it’s entirely possible that your companion may find all that noise and mechanical mayhem to be a little, shall we say, “off-putting.” Also, as I mentioned in a previous blog, men and women tend to cultivate friendships differently: men bond “side by side” (i.e., by participating in a common activity, like playing golf or fixing a car); while women value “face to face” activities (like talking over a cup of tea). Make a plan, then take some initiative!
Communicate. Those of us who are married know that unspoken feelings and hidden secrets are like flesh-eating bacteria to a long-term relationship. Unspoken feelings burrow, fester, and eventually begin to erode the framework of the relationship that you’ve taken so much time and effort to build. If you harbor unresolved anger over a past offense but don’t want to undergo the aggravation and effort of “fighting it out” until it’s resolved, it will grow and become distorted. What actually happened will soon become your perception of what happened…which, with so many feelings behind it, gets magnified and ends up looking very little like the truth. So, before things get out of hand, voice your feelings in a non-confrontational way. Marriage therapists are big on the “I message.” This is a technique wherein you express a complaint from the perspective of how you feel, rather than accusing or blaming the other person. For example, instead of, “You’re always late! You’re never on time!”, you might try, “When you’re late, I feel like I’m low on your priority list.” Another good prelude is, “Help me understand.” Using this helpful technique, “You went out motorcycle riding with your buddies instead of taking me out for Valentine’s Day?” becomes “Help me understand how you thought that going out with your friends would be a good idea” (just a random example, of course. Not like this has ever happened to me). As I tell my patients, when it comes to having an emotional discussion with someone, it’s all about paving the road first (in case the metaphor eludes you, I’m talking about carefully choosing your words to smooth out the bumpy hazards ahead).
Forgive. The way I see it, each offense that hasn’t been talked-through or forgiven becomes like a nuclear warhead, waiting to explode. Over the years, each of these armed missiles gets “stockpiled” in the back of your mind. If you know anything about nuclear physics (and I sure don’t), you know that there is only a limited amount of fissionable material that can be stored together before the whole pile reaches critical mass, resulting in an explosion of tremendous magnitude. I’ve seen this happen with couples who have been married for many years. Rather than putting the work into dealing with resentments, they amass these nuclear weapons until they’re finally ignited by something that, on the front end, seems very trivial (like leaving your underwear on the floor. Once again, not a personal example). The spouse is left to wonder, “What the heck brought that on?”
Believe it or not, there is a significant amount of scientific literature that cites the actual health benefits of forgiveness. Research from Stanford University’s Forgiveness Project and Clinic (yeah, there’s really such a thing!) has shown that forgiveness not only benefits the other person, but it’s critical for our own physical and mental health. Studies have revealed that people who are more “forgiving” have fewer health problems, less depression, and fewer symptoms of emotional stress. In contrast, failure to forgive increases the risk of a number of illnesses, including cardiovascular disease and even certain forms of cancer. Even the risk of injury by accident is higher in people who do not forgive! In the laboratory, people who were merely asked to imagine not forgiving someone showed unhealthy changes in blood pressure, muscle tension, and immune response. The exact opposite happened when people were asked to imagine a “forgiveness” scenario.
So, it’s important to forgive when we believe we’ve been mistreated or misunderstood. Of course, easier said than done, right? In an effort to forgive someone, it might first help to understand what forgiveness is not. It does not mean what we condone hurtful actions (like abuse). It does not mean that we forget what happened (“forgive AND forget” is a poetic but often impossible standard). Most importantly, it does not always mean that we completely repair the relationship or reconcile with the offender (especially when the offender has no interest in fixing things). Instead, forgiveness is a choice; an action that we decide to take, regardless of how the other person feels or responds. It’s a decision—often difficult to make and subsequently stick to—to not hold the other person’s offence against them. It often takes time, and it’s often a decision that has to be renewed every day! It will become easier over time, although everyone’s timeline is different.
So there it is. If you understand the importance of relationships and want to help them thrive, you can be intentional, communicate, and forgive. Takes some work? Yes. Sometimes confusing? Certainly. However, here in the 21st century, when relationships are becoming progressively more remote and toxic (thanks again, social media!), there is no single more valuable pursuit when it comes to ensuring our own health and survival! Now…it’s almost March. Where did I store those chocolate Easter eggs from last year?