Especially now, during the COVID pandemic, it's easy to feel isolated. Many of us are intentionally self-isolating to reduce the risk of spreading the virus, so it is much harder to spend quality time with our loved ones, especially if we have to travel far to visit them. One thing isolation has brought up for me is the realization: “oh wow, I really need my people.” Close, loving, relationships can be tricky, and they are also incredibly important. Supportive relationships help us feel safe; they help our nervous systems relax, and on a spiritual level, they help us grow into a better version of ourselves. They can also inspire us to want to give more to the world, and to the people in our lives. I don’t have all the answers for how to work through difficult relationship dynamics, though I do want to inspire you to work through challenges and grow more supportive and loving connections in your life.
Biological Significance of Close Relationships
Although it seems a bit cold, I want to talk about the biological significance of close relationships. If you look at our evolutionary history, homo sapiens were thought to be frequently found in groups of around 50 to 100. Humans maintained close contact with family, friends, mates, and others on a daily basis: physically within visible site and earshot most of the time. Over a few million years, early humans evolved a more advanced branch of the nervous system - the vagus nerve - which arose partly to help humans coexist within intricate social networks.
The vagus nerve evolved to be the largest nerve in our body; the tenth cranial nerve that runs from the brain, down to the heart, lungs, and digestive tract. One of its essential functions is to create a neural reward and punishment system for perceived social cues. Once this nerve developed, if we did something that was socially positive not only did our peers reward us but also our brain released a cocktail of neurotransmitters that made us feel happy. If we did something that was not approved by others, then the vagus nerve likewise signaled the brain and our sympathetic nervous system to activate a stress response. When we were away from the group, our brain registered a threat and signaled the activation of a stress response, which gave us the energy we needed to get back to the safety of the group. It makes sense that emotions such as guilt and shame are so deeply ingrained in our psyche, as they helped us survive. If you are feeling guilty because you forgot to respond to your friend's text message, remind yourself that you might be getting high-jacked by a several million-year-old survival instinct, and reply when you can.
Stay Connected to Loved Ones
In her book, Wired to Connect, Amy Banks concludes that in order to thrive we need relationships that make us feel C.A.R.E.: Calm, Accepted, Resonant (harmonious), and Energetic. People tend to foster different numbers of relationships; some people are okay with a handful of close relationships, and others want to maintain as many as possible. Dr. Robin Dunbar famously stated that the human mind can typically only hold up to about 148 relationships. I feel that as long as I have a few very close (core) relationships, and a dozen or more good relationships, then all the rest are icing on the cake. I believe that we need at least a couple people who are ride or die, and are there for you when you need them, no questions asked. When we maintain relationships that are consistently loving (calm, accepted, resonant, and energetic), then we feel supported and encouraged enough to live our best life: to take chances, to have fun.
Add some structure
If you feel like you are not connecting enough with the people you love, try asking them if they would be on board to setup a regular / ongoing time to connect. Some people don't like this kind of structure, and if that’s the case, you can still mark your calendar to reach out to them at a time interval that works for you. In core relationships you might want to ask the person to commit to at least a weekly phone call, video call, or in-person social-distance hangout. In other relationships, you might try coordinating a monthly call or social distance meet up: perhaps a full moon circle, a karaoke night, or movie night. Brainstorm some ideas and make them happen.
Speak Your Truth
I think any positive relationship is one where you can be yourself and speak your mind. As we grow and change as individuals, it’s important for us to continue expressing our opinions, sharing our feelings, and stating our needs. Seek to find balance and a compromise that feels equal and fair for both parties. When conflict arises, which it always will in meaningful relationships, do we still speak what is true for us or do we just limit our truth as to ensure that the relationship won’t break apart?
Have the hard conversations, try not to let things slide that don't feel right. Also, make sure to tell them how it made you feel. If something they did hurt, then tell them that what they did or said hurt and explain why. If you need to you can also set a clear boundary so that they know what they did cannot happen again. If you were hurt because someone stopped communicating with you, tell them "It hurt when you stopped communicating for three months without telling me what you needed or what you've been going through. Are you okay? Do you still need space?" Sometimes we need to have patience and remember that they might be going through something hard. Then at some point, once you've spoken your truth and whether or not the relationship is going to continue, the next step is always to forgive. They are probably doing the best they can as a human, and if you are meant to reconnect with them in the future then you will.
All this being said, remember to also have fun, relationships need good times and laughter. Close relationships help us make meaning out of life: to not take things too seriously, and to look to the bright side. I challenge you to reach out to an old friend and see if they want to connect.