Our lives are all about relationships — work relationships, romantic partnerships, family relationships and friendships. Especially during these times of increased social distancing and less social activity, how do we make those relationships closer and more meaningful? Our brains appreciate many kinds of intimacy, from romantic, to emotional, to shared activities and intellectual stimulation. Modern neuroscience gives us some very effective tips that can help heal and deepen our relationships in all those areas. Below are some top tips you can implement that make a difference!
One of the things that the brain seeks most from our close relationships is a greater sense of safety and security. By orienting your interactions around feeling secure, you can earn trust more quickly and put others’ subconscious at ease. Be aware of your body language, tone of voice, and facial expressions and try to send friendly signals through all three. Since those cues tend to come from the automatic part of us, we are sometimes unaware of what they’re communicating, but with a little practice, we can harness them in the service of more secure connection.
Whether it’s work or home relationships or with friends, people in relationships with us want to know that they’re a priority, that we’re paying attention and that we care. Sometimes, our way of giving attention is not quite obvious enough to elicit those feelings. The modern world keeps us busy and sometimes distracted from connecting with others. To balance the scales, turn your attention to others immediately when they seek it by turning your body and face toward them, looking up from what you’re doing, and engaging with your full attention. It makes others feel awesome and feeds your relationships.
We’ve been taught that honesty is good for relationships, but authenticity is even better. Honesty is being true and accurate to what you think, or about a situation, but it doesn’t always explain the context of communication. Honesty is, “I think the shirt you’re wearing is ugly.” Is that helpful? Authenticity captures the context and intent of your words, which we often need to make clearer in our communications with others. If you’re interacting to feel closer, say so! You might say, “Want to chat? I just feel like being close with you today.” Or, if there’s an issue, you might say, “I really love you and am so glad we’re together. Would you help me with something? I’ve been struggling a little with….” When the brain can clearly perceive the context of communication as being one of connection, it assigns a more generous interpretation to the same words. By making our heart’s intent clearer, communication becomes a better means of connecting.
Our impression of our relationships often comes down to memory. Do we have positive impressions and memories with someone, or negative ones? The brain acts like a hard drive with both short and long-term storage. When we think of a person in our life, the brain pulls up the file and much of the information we get comes from stored memories. To create positive impressions, it’s helpful to know how memory works.
Memories are more likely to form when there is intensity and duration in an experience. To create a positive memory that will go into both short and long-term memory in the brain, do something fun together that gets you excited (intensity) and sustain it long enough to encode it to memory (not just 2 seconds). Add in a healthy dose of frequency (doing it more than once), which helps the brain develop neural pathways, and you have a powerful recipe to encode yourself positively in someone’s memory!
These tips help you focus on connecting, which makes relationships more meaningful and fulfilling. Connection typically results from doing simple things really well rather than doing fancy, complicated things. Too much nuanced verbal communication can be more tiring than inspiring. Being present, helping others feel safe around us, speaking from our hearts, and creating opportunities for positive moments that stand out in memory, are all ways to deepen connection in your relationships. Relationships sustain us through hard times and make life richer and more fun. This is a great time to focus on deepening yours!
John Howard and the Presence team are therapists and physicians at PRESENCE, an integrative wellness center helping you to optimize your mental, physical and relationship health so you can heal, grow, and thrive in life through science-based psychotherapy and medicine.