Why are relationships so important?
Mum would often tell us about how she met my father as teenagers at the Sandgate pool and what a show-off he was on the diving board. They went separate ways as adults, married other people, but reconnected later in their lives.
Mum often spoke about Dad’s great sense of fun and silliness, what she called his ‘ratbaggery’. I recall stories of Dad chasing his building apprentices around with a full ‘dunny’ can from the onsite toilet. He would also have water fights with mum where the garden hose would come into the house. He was still a bit of a show-off, singing ‘Danny Boy’ whenever requested. And he loved his family. I remember fondly his wrestling games, how hard he worked for us, and how well he kept in touch with his extended family as well.
The nine years that Bob and Ethel had together wasn't very long. But they were happy ones. I have some lovely memories of our holidays at Cotton Tree Caravan Park, not far from where I currently live.
When dad died at the age of 42, he was way too young. His loss had a profound effect on my family. Poor mum developed facial palsy and depression. For a number of years, she found it hard to keep on living. She said the only thing that kept her going was her children. Dad also had a huge impact on my life. In some ways, he still does. At times, I wonder whether I inherited his and Mum’s strong need for connection. Some would say I have definitely inherited his ratbaggery and show-off tendencies.
There is nothing quite like suffering to produce empathy for others. No doubt his loss had something to do with me spending much of my life as a relationship counsellor. His loss also gave me a great appreciation of the importance of relationships and how life is too short to be consumed by ongoing difficulties with others.
So, why are relationships so important?
- Relationships serve our survival: There is no doubt that human beings are social animals. Our ability to support and provide for each other has ensured our survival as a species. And in families that function well, they protect and help children become the best they can be, and provide and support for each other.
Apparently, relationships are even more important for men’s survival. Men who are in a committed relationship tend to have a longer life. My wife, Christy, would say she has extended my life by at least ten years through ensuring that I eat better.
Even at the friendship level, we tend to look out for each other. As a road cyclist, I can vouch for how my cycling mates look out for each other when dealing with dangers on the road.
- Relationships meet a basic human need: Psychiatrist, William Glasser, says that all human beings have a psychological need for connection – for closeness with family and friends, to be heard and understood, for touch, and to fit in and belong.
Glasser says that while all human beings have this need, some people have a very strong need for connection. When this need is well-met, we tend to be happier. There are other needs, of course, but this need for connection is fundamental to being human.
Christy, being an Early-childhood Educator, says she can tell the difference between children who are well-loved and those whose needs for nurturing and attention are not being well-met.
- Relationships enhance our resilience: Our ability to deal with adversity is certainly enhanced when we have supportive relationships around us. No one is made to suffer alone. People dealing with challenges in their personal or work life will often say that it was supportive relationships with their colleagues that got them through their challenges.
People who are more engaged with others in their community through a common faith, interest in their community, or shared interest in sport, for example, not only have fewer mental health problems, but cope better with major losses, natural disasters, and other adversities.
- Positive relationships improve our well-being: I often think that one of the smart things I have done in my life is surround myself with good people, who think that I am wonderful, despite my flaws. The more we connect with people who love us, who make us laugh, or help us to feel good about ourselves, the better our well-being.
Even people who are happy in quite stressful workplaces will say it is not so much the absence of the challenges that contribute to their well-being, but good relationships with their manager and colleagues.
And, of course, when we have ongoing conflicted relationships, either at home or work, this is a sure-fire recipe for misery. Although relationships are the primary source of our well-being, they are also the primary cause of our misery.
- Good relationships help teams to function well: The better the relationship with your manager and colleagues, the easier it tends to become to fit in to their way of working, raise concerns and work through difficulties, and cooperate with changes that need to be made. Good relationships + high trust = greater cooperation with change.
In high-performing teams, people will often say they also feel genuinely cared for by their colleagues or that they have a very good friendship with someone at work. You can’t be friends with everyone, of course, but we can at least learn how to work in more easily with the different personalities on our team.
- Relationships help us to learn: We know that people learn in different ways. For some, their primary learning mode is visual or tactile. Others learn through relationships - the example that others set through their behaviour or conversations that give them new insights. Many people learn well through mentoring or being aligned with colleagues with complementary strengths.
For many people, learning is best caught, than taught. It is one thing for management to talk about embracing change. But it is much more powerful when they are setting the example with their behaviour.
- Relationships give us a sense of meaning: Why do you do the work that you do? What motivates you to get up and deal with the challenges of each day?
I don’t think my mum was alone in keeping on going for the sake of her children. Others say that what drives them is to help others in some way.
I remember an old manager of mine saying to me that there is no such thing as altruism. That when we help others we get a greater sense of fulfillment and purpose in our life.
Sometimes we act as if our work is the most important thing in our life. Or that material possessions are what makes us happy. Or that connecting with our smart phone is more important then connecting with our family and friends.
Jobs change or careers end. Material possessions wear out or lose their novelty. We move our focus from one obsession to the next.
My mum used to say that a life well-lived is shown by the amount of love that is left behind.
Ultimately, it all comes down to relationships.
All we really have is each other.