Research shows that if you had to choose one variable that influences the quality of your life the most, it would be relationships. It’s not money or fame or good looks, it’s relationships.
People who are deeply connected to their friends, family, co-workers and even the local community live longer, are healthier, happier, more fulfilled and live a better life in general. The good life.
And it’s not the number of friends on social networks or the marital status; it’s the quality of relationships that counts the most. You can be married but completely lonely, you can have many acquaintances but no deep connections.
Although please keep in mind that having quality relationships doesn’t mean a complete absence of fights and disagreements. A perfect relationship doesn’t exist.
The idea of a quality relationship is more in building strong codependent bonds, being on a shared life mission, following common values and goals, cultivating a sense of trust, knowing that you can count on others and that they can count on you.
It’s about doing things together that lead to joyful moments. It’s about being fully accepted the way you are with all your positives and negatives.
If we all intuitively know that relationships are that important, then why don’t we invest more effort into building quality bonds with other people? The answer is quite simple: because it’s hard.
It’s as hard as following a healthy diet or regularly saving money. Relationships do bring color to life, but they are also fluid, messy and complicated. They are hard.
It takes courage, dedication and consistency to build a quality relationship. There are no shortcuts or pauses. The moment you stop investing in a relationship, it starts to wither.
On top of that, you must first build a great capacity for love, meaning that you must first love yourself before you can build deep relationships.
The reasons why you must first love yourself are at least the following:
- The more you truly accept yourself, the more you can accept other people
- The more you love yourself, the more forgiving you can be towards other people
- The better you understand emotions, the more constructively you can express them
- The stronger you are emotionally, the easier you can deal with disappointments and people’s imperfections
A balance between quality and quantity
When it comes to the quantity of relationships, we know the approximate limit. Dunbar’s number states that we have a biological limit of maintaining around 150 social interactions at the same time.
Among these 150, all six fundamental types (six pillars) of relationships should be included:
- Primary family – mother, father, siblings
- Secondary family – spouse, kids
All the pillars are important in maximizing the value that comes from relationships. It’s hard to understand your roots if you don’t have a good relationship at least with some members of your primary family.
Choosing the right spouse is one of the most important decisions in your life. Kids are the most important legacy you leave behind, and friends are the people you want to share your interests with.
On the other hand, it’s hard to live a happy life if you hate your job and don’t enjoy the company of your coworkers. One very important indicator of how well you feel at your job is whether you have a few good friends there. And if you do some kind of meaningful work.
The math is pretty simple. You spend at least 1/3 of your life at work – work is basically your second home.
That’s why the following career directions are very important: don’t choose a job, but a boss. A boss from whom you can learn, whom you respect and who knows how to bring out the best in you.
Surround yourself with people who are smarter than you. And finding a good mentor or a coach can fast‑track your progress in any area of life. All these directions tackle business relationships.
Now let’s jump from quantity to quality.
The road to quality lies in a proactive approach to relationships
As with everything in life, being proactive pays dividends. Relationships are no exception to that.
In general terms, being proactive means that you don’t just react to whatever is happening in your life, but you systematically, deliberately and assertively respond and find the most constructive way to meet your goals and needs.
Being reactive in relationships means that you don’t put any conscious effort into relationships or interactions. You put your relationships and communication on autopilot.
You let a “greater force” dictate who you meet, you let every relationship run its course, and when a disagreement occurs, you react in kind – you let your feelings dictate the outcome of a disagreement.
On the other hand, if you’re proactive in relationships, you consciously decide who new you want to meet, with whom you want to spend more time, into which relationships you will put more effort and so on.
In communication, you don’t only react (bluntly express your feelings), rather you express your feelings in a constructive manner, which can only be done when you’re feeling and thinking at the same time. In other words, you’re being proactive.
A very good start to relationship proactivity is to map all the people who are present in your life.
List all the 150 or so people that interact with on a regular basis and then arrange them in four categories; actually, in four different types of circles, based on how close they are to you:
- The circle of intimacy – These are the people you can’t imagine your life without. They know your private self quite well, you spend a lot of time interacting with them – you usually live with them and you trust them the most.
- The circle of friendship – These are the people who are also close to you, but there is less intimacy involved. They don’t physically live with you, share a bathroom with you or support you financially. But you do share your dreams, good news and troubles with them.
- The circle of participation – Most coworkers, local community, acquaintances and other people that you interact with on a frequent basis (but are not your friends) fall into this category. All the friends you start neglecting can be quickly outcast into this circle.
- The circle of exchange – The last circle contains people with whom you do transactions. They can be your doctors, a hairdresser, home cleaner, maybe even a customer, and so on.
You can use two different colors for business and personal relationships.
In the next step, draw an arrow to each person. Indicate if you want to move them more inwards (build a closer relationship) or if you want to create more distance, maybe even cutting them off (if a person is an energy vampire).
The intimate relationships circle – the most important people in your life
It’s a fun exercise to draw the four relationship circles (intimacy, friendship, participation, exchange) and map all the people in your life into circles. Adding arrows next to each person can give you a very good insight into where to invest more effort and where less.
But you can even take the exercise a step further, drawing a new diagram. In the second diagram, you can zoom into the intimate relationship circle and analyze which people are really the closest to you in your life.
It’s not an easy exercise to do, but it is a very valuable one. Take a piece of paper and draw a dot in the center. You can write “me” above the dot. As you have probably figured out, the dot represents you.
Then around the dot, start drawing circles. The circle closest to the dot is the person who is closest to you in your life. The second circle represents the second closest person, and so on.
You can write a name for each circle. There can’t be two people equally close to you and that can lead to a few hard choices to make.
Nevertheless, you can get a really good overview of the people who contribute to the quality of your life the most. Try to draw up to 7 – 10 circles, and you will have a very good overview of which relationships have the greatest influence on your life.
You can add another dimension to the diagram – do not make the space between the circles equally wide. Draw a circle further from the dot if there is a greater distance involved in a relationship. Look at the graph below, representing five people with different levels of closeness to a person:
After drawing the intimate circles, you can analyze at least three things:
- How close did you draw the first circle? Is it too close to the dot, too far away, or just the right distance, illustrating secure attachment?
- If you draw such a diagram every year, you can observe how much closer you get with some people and more distant with others. That’s pretty normal, since relationships are a very fluid thing.
- Most importantly, you can be very proactive about which relationships you wish to put more effort in and bring closer to your center. You can draw an arrow of how close you want to move a certain relationship.
Narrowing the relationship gap based on the relationship circles analysis
Now that you’ve mapped all the relationships, including arrows pointing to the people with whom you want to build a better connection, another question comes to mind – how can you narrow the relationship gap between you and the chosen people? There are many ways how you can undertake this challenge.
Here are a few ideas:
1. Build multidimensional relationships
We tend to do the same things and open the same topics with the same people. To build new relationship dimensions, you must do new things and open new conversation topics with the same people.
Bring new touching points into a relationship and the bond will become stronger. It's called building multidimensional relationships.
2. Replace screen time with people time
The best move you can make to improve your relationships is to turn off the TV and your mobile phone. Dedicate your full attention to people in your presence.
Eliminate all the distractions and dedicate your full heart to the person who sits next to you.
3. Make online communication an add-on to real communication
Interestingly, if you have only an online relationship with somebody, the connection can never be as good as in real life. But if you have a real-life relationship, opening new communication channels can deepen your relationship.
So, first meet people in real life often enough, and then make the online communication an add-on to personal interaction.
4. Do things together with people
People who do things together, stay together. Invite people on adventures, have hobbies and goals in common, do sports with people, offer them support, make time together meaningful and active.
Only gossiping over a cup of coffee is far from enough to build a good relationship.
5. Learn to properly regulate your emotions
How well you regulate your emotions is the greatest predictor of keeping a quality relationship in the long term. Expressing emotions in an unhealthy way (or stifling them, for that matter) builds tension that can quickly escalate and permanently damage a relationship.
Thus, learning to express negative emotions in a healthy way is one of the best relationship skills one can possess.
Relationships are too important to leave to chance. For sure, there must be spontaneity involved, but only if you combine it with proactivity can you truly build meaningful and quality relationships.
Stop neglecting your friends. Find a way through family disputes. Reach out to people you haven’t spoken to in years. Put real effort into relationships. Aim for new relationship depths that will lead to the most memorable moments of your life. It’s the best investment you can make.