New year, new relationships
The holiday season at the end of each calendar year is a time of connection and renewal of family bonds, often over too much food and old films we could easily recite from memory. As we emerge annually from that period into the busy January workplace, often overwhelmed by emails and deliverables that have been piling up in our absence, it’s easy for family and close friends to take a backseat in our list of priorities. What’s more, the winter months – in the Northern Hemisphere at least – are often cold and dreary: a time to stay indoors without much socializing as many of us ease (and work) off the physical and emotional hangover of New Year’s Eve. Those of us with health concerns also stay in for the sake of health and safety, as winter tends to be a time when viruses circulate more easily due to weakened immune systems. And with the Omicron wave making its way around the world as I write, this will be the case for an exceptionally high number of people in the winter of 2022.
Social Wellbeing is harder to come by in those months of isolation, whether voluntary or enforced. But we can view this as an occasion to re-evaluate our priorities in the way of socializing and relationships: which really matter to us, and why? Such clarity can be hard to find in a flourishing social life where we never have the chance to pause and think about the worth and merits of a friendship, or even a romance.
Striving for precisely this kind of clarity, I was recently introduced to the invaluable insights of Terry Real, an internationally-recognized family therapist, speaker, and the bestselling author of I Don’t Want to Talk About It: Overcoming the Secret Legacy of Male Depression (1997), as well as The New Rules of Marriage: What You Need to Make Love Work (2007). Although he mainly focuses on couples, his teachings can be applied to all close relationships. What are these relational tools that can benefit us all?
The first is called relational mindfulness. As a well-known meditation teacher, Deborah Eden Tull, explains that “relational mindfulness is based on the understanding that the subtlest form of love is attention”. We often think of mindfulness as something that happens when we close our eyes, in a setting like our own room, or in bed. But it need not be so; real mindfulness should be there to aid and guide us every second of the day.
Imagine that your child misbehaves: they do something that they were not supposed to do, break your favorite dish, or shout something rude in the supermarket. One way of approaching it would be to show how upset you are. This would, however, trigger your child’s defensiveness. Another way would be to approach it with relational mindfulness: think about the reasons for your child’s behavior first. What could have influenced it? It helps to always start from a point of compassion and sympathy.
Another tool that Terry Real speaks about is the so-called “golden rule of relational empowerment”. The golden rule is “help them win”. What does it mean, exactly? It means that in any close relationship, you should work as a team. There are no individual winners or individual losers. You can only win or lose together. Therefore, if any arguments arise, the question to ask ourselves is: “how can I help you to give me what I want?”, rather than starting with accusatory statements that will add nothing to the discussion or the quality of your home life. This is a difficult skill to master, as our capitalist environment invites us to view everything (in the workplace and beyond) as a competition. But we need to remember that the home is a different place, with its own set of rules, if we are to achieve Social Wellbeing.
Terry Real’s wise words on relational mindfulness and empowerment have invited me to reevaluate how I approach my closest relationships; with my children, neighbors, mentors, etc. As I seek to make 2022 the year of Wholistic Wellbeing, optimizing the bonds of mutual empathy and love between family members and close friends seems the best way to start nurturing one of its most vital pillars: that of Social Wellbeing.