A strong, fulfilling sense of connection with others helps us be happier and healthier. Research shows that life satisfaction improves and we live longer when we are connected to others in meaningful ways.
However, we learn little about connection in school, and our families don’t always set the best example of how to develop trusted bonds. It turns out that connection is mediated by certain aspects of relationships, and the brain is involved in measuring safety and security. We want to know that we matter and can rely on others, which opens up the other dimensions of relationships.
During this Valentine’s Day season, whether single or partnered, these tips will help you develop deeper, more rewarding relationships.
While we seek connection, we often thwart it by undermining the sense of security in our relationships, even when we don’t mean to. We try to connect through complex conversations, debates of ideas and discussions of responsibilities but neglect to nurture what relationships need most — understanding, empathy and emotional connection.
The brain needs a baseline level of trust and security to apply goodwill to shared areas of life, and that sense of security can be intentionally developed. You can create more emotional security by listening for feelings in conversation and showing interest in others’ experiences in the relationship and in life. Use touch, facing toward others and empathic responses to show that you care.
A partner or romantic relationship is not the only type of relationship that needs our focus. We can deepen connections with friends, family and community members. Make a brief list of the people with whom you would like to grow closer and then dedicate time to make an investment in them.
Single individuals sometimes feel left out of holiday and Valentine’s Day rituals, but the truth is, everyone needs and wants more love. If you don’t have friends with whom you connect well, find community organizations that attract like-minded people and get involved!
The brain establishes connection primarily via primitive cues such as physical closeness, touch, eye contact, tone of voice and body language. If you focus on these and add in simple, verbal affirmations of your relationship, the connection will strengthen.
By sitting close, using appropriate touch, speaking in a soothing tone, making more eye contact and using attentive body language (not multitasking), you’ll notice your relationships deepen. Mix in some brief affirming statements such as, “You mean a lot to me,” “I’m so glad we’re spending time together” and “I really appreciate you,” to make your connecting intentions more obvious.
We all have default ways in which we subtly make others feel emotionally uneasy, stressed or distrusting of us. These default habits can be changed. It takes some practice but, over time, our default habits can become more connecting.
The first step is to acknowledge that there are things you do that negatively impact your relationships and to set an intention to turn those habits around. Having the humility to identify growth areas and cultivating the energy to improve signals to yourself and others that your relationships are important to you and opens a space for feedback for others to help illuminate your blind spots.
When you focus on the present moment, you will notice opportunities to connect that you may otherwise miss. We are often distracted by our phones, news, social media and the things around us. Our analytic minds get pulled into planning, logistics and chores, and we fail to nurture the love and sweetness available to us in each moment.
Try to still your mind and body, look more deeply at the people around you and slow down. Seize the opportunity to create connection in the present by saying something appreciative, eye gazing a little longer than usual, touching someone’s arm and letting them sink into their time being with you.
Most of us need support retraining our relationship habits to be more connecting. The most effective approaches are practicing new behaviors with loved ones, group or couples therapy, or finding a relationship coach with whom you can work as an individual. Therapy and coaching can challenge you in ways that are difficult to do yourself and can help accelerate the development of connecting habits.
Trying new, more connecting behaviors might seem awkward and uncomfortable at first, but it becomes easier and, eventually, enjoyable as your improved relationships reward you. Life is better when we feel connected, and all people, regardless of relationship status, can deepen the sense of love they share with others.
About the Author
John Howard, LMFT is the author of the newly released More than Words: The Science of Deepening Love and Connection in Any Relationship, available at local and online retailers. You can get a bonus chapter on attachment from the author on the book website.