Building strong relationships

By Cara Waudby Tolley | July 5, 2022

Dealing with difficult relationships is an uncomfortable reality all of us face throughout our lives. But, as Lottie Storey discovers, stronger relationships can have tangible benefits to your own health and happiness.

Author Brené Brown’s words sum up the reason why relationships are so important to our happiness – “Connection is why we’re here. We are hardwired to connect with others, it’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives, and without it there is suffering.” But what about our health?

Recent research suggests that people with strong social relationships are 50 per cent less likely to die prematurely than people with weak social relationships. The impact of lacking social connection on reducing life span is equal to the risk of smoking 15 cigarettes a day and greater than the risk associated with excess alcohol consumption or lack of exercise.

Strengthening bonds

Loneliness is associated with a greater risk of coronary heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, dementia, depression and anxiety. Studies also suggest that lonely people are more likely to have lower quality sleep, more immune system dysfunction and more impulsive behaviour and impaired judgement. So if weak social connections can be such a significant danger to our health, how do we build strong relationships with our family, loved ones, friends and colleagues that improve our wellbeing?

Maria Evans (mariateencoach.com) is a coach and mentor who specialises in working with teenagers. She believes that strong parent-child relationships can be tough to maintain for many reasons. “I often see parents projecting their experience of childhood and adolescence onto their children,” she explains.

“They become triggered by and entangled in the choices and decisions their kids make rather than allowing them to make those decisions for themselves. As parents we can tie ourselves up in knots trying to stop our kids from making the same mistakes we made when we were younger. We often forget that making those mistakes and learning from them has shaped who we have become.”

So what’s the solution? “We must let go of our need to protect our children from harm that is sometimes unavoidable, teaching them that we are not always able to solve all their problems for them but that they have everything they need inside of them to navigate their way through.” And what about our romantic relationships, an equally challenging but potentially rewarding area to address? “Healthy relationships nurture us and allow us to relax and be ourselves. They help us to enjoy our lives more as easily and effortlessly as possible without worrying about judgement,” explains Liz Clifton, whose coaching work builds calm and confidence in her clients.

“A really quick way to check on how a relationship makes you feel is to take a moment alone in a calm, stress-free environment. Think about someone with whom you have a healthy and strong relationship and ask yourself ‘How does this relationship make me feel?’. Then, repeat with your romantic partner.” If you’re left feeling sad, angry, confused or scared, it might be time to seek support. Other tell-tale signs that a relationship isn’t healthy for you include feeling exhausted or drained after spending time with someone, constantly feeling like you have to pretend to be something that you’re not and treading on eggshells to avoid upsetting them.

Honesty is key, Liz advises. “But stay away from blame, guilt, shame. We are all doing the best we can so be patient and kind to yourself and the other person.”

It’s good to talk

Friendships, too, can be complicated. What can you do if a friendship is draining you, all one-sided, or full of drama you don’t want or need? Michelle Elman (@scarrednotscared) is a life coach, boundaries expert and critically-acclaimed author of The Joy Of Being Selfish and Am I Ugly. Her advice for difficult friendships?

“The best thing you can do is communicate that to your friend and give them an opportunity to change. Communicate your expectations for friendships and talk about any boundaries that might have been crossed and focus the conversation on what you want instead. We have a tendency to focus on the behaviour we don’t want but by framing the conversation in the positive, you give your friend a roadmap on how to improve the friendship.”

And how can we talk honestly to a friend without hurting their feelings? “It’s very hard to be honest with a friend if you are concerned with their feelings,” Michelle says. “If they are your friend, loving them and caring about them should implicitly mean you will convey the message in the most caring and kind way possible. But even if you do that, they can still have feelings about what you have said. Instead, have confidence in the fact that they are equipped to handle their own emotions and that you both can communicate considerately.”

Connecting with colleagues

And what about the workplace? How can we proactively improve our working environment without causing problems? “Fear can be a factor when navigating workplace relationships,” acknowledges Gemma David (@thequietheart), a former human resources manager, business coach and mental health trainer.

“We might fear for our future and what might happen if we stay and don’t take action. Or that we might lose our job as a result of speaking out. This can be especially difficult if the person creating the toxic work environment is the boss. Every company needs to have a conflict resolution procedure in place or, if not, a line of communication that will help resolve issues. Focus on the specific examples of the toxic environment or the behaviours of the people causing the problems rather than using blanket terms like ‘attitude’ or name-calling. It’s much easier for change to occur when applying as much objectivity as possible.”

And there is a line between not liking a colleague and that colleague impacting your mental health. “The line is crossed when a colleague causes you problems as a direct result of their behaviour,” clarifies Gemma. Her advice? “Write it all down, including examples of actions, behaviours and expectations. Talk it through with someone you trust first, then get advice from Citizens Advice or Acas if you need to. Consider what solutions or changes would work for you and then talk to your manager or HR team.”

Ultimately, whatever type of relationship you’re finding difficult, this is about learning what’s OK for you and finding ways to communicate. It might be difficult, it might be uncomfortable, but the benefits of being more connected are greater than you’d think. Be courageous.

About the author

Lottie Storey is a freelance writer and counsellor who specialises in body image. She lives in Bristol with her husband, five kids and two cats.