Building Healthy Relationships in Adulthood
Human beings are relational. We are social creatures, and we need to be connected to others throughout our lives. This is easily understood in infancy and childhood, when we know that having reliable, safe, and emotionally nurturing adult caregivers is essential for healthy child development. However, this need for reliable relationships does not end as we become older. In adulthood, loneliness and disconnection are linked to profound negative mental and physical health. Through every stage of life, we do best if we are connected and bonded to others.
We are built to be in connection, and the need to build strong relationships is not only built into our instincts for survival, it also greatly contributes to our social and emotional well-being. For many adults, the most profound connection can be found in the couple relationship. When healthy and secure, these key relationships tell us we are not alone, that we are lovable and worthy, and that we can turn to others when we are in need of help or support.
Although we can be very diverse in our preferences and choices around how to shape our adult relationships, there are some key components that tend to make up the structure of our core adult relationships.
1. Create and allow emotional safety
For a healthy relationship, safety must be felt on the inside regardless of external conditions. This requires meaningful attention – we feel seen and understood when our partner listens to us and gives us their focus. You can both ask for and offer more attuned attention in your significant relationships by really noticing and listening to others. Being fully present and available to your partner is the foundation of a secure attachment.
A sense of safety also requires the ability to let the other person know when we need their presence. In adulthood, this is often overshadowed by defensiveness or stoic independence. Many of us feel we should be able to “Deal with it on our own.” Sue Johnson, the developer of emotionally focused therapy for couples, sums this up with the acronym A.R.E., or the question, “Are you there for me?” To check out the quality of this aspect in your relationship, consider this to get you started.
2. Actively engage with your partner
If presence is the foundation of creating secure attachment relationships, then active engagement is the frame of the structure. John Gottman, a couples researcher who has studied thousands of relationships, calls this the skill of turning toward and allowing the other to influence you. We build a sense of connection by regularly recognizing when our partner is sending a signal that they want to connect. This may be as simple as musing together about the weather, laughing at their joke, or acknowledging when they tell a story about their day. It turns out that the small, day-to-day interactions tend to have a more profound effect on the long-term health of a relationship, as illustrated in this from the Gottman institute.
3. Embrace interdependence
After the frame of active engagement is in place, finishing the relationship structure with all the rich texture and fabric of a meaningful, connected relationship requires the dynamic balancing of differences between people. As much as we all have in common as human beings, we also thrive in the friction of our diversity. This brings novelty, conflict, excitement, and risk.
To be a truly safe and engaged partner, we need to be able to look after ourselves, hold onto our own steadiness when the other needs to fall apart, and vice versa. Finding a balance among staying connected and true authenticity, while also allowing some separateness and difference can feel scary at times. However, when an equilibrium between connection and separateness is found, it can give us the best of both worlds – a solid sense of self that is rooted in strong community and belonging.
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