Why Are We So Bad At Relationships?
I was talking to a friend of mine the other day. She was telling me that she was driving down the street and saw the scariest guy walking. He had a tattoo of a swastika on his forehead and his eyes were filled with hatred. She said he, “Just looked so mean.” I told her, “Don’t be afraid of him, at least you know who he is.”
I don’t fear a man described as such, I fear the man who doesn’t have a swastika tattoo and who dresses like a sheep, yet has all the same hatred inside as the wolf. That’s the man to fear because you will never know him.
How many times have we thought we truly knew who someone was – a spouse, friend, lover, acquaintance – all to find out they were someone completely different, someone much scarier inside than our preconceived thoughts? It is the wolf who dresses like and comingles with the sheep that pose the greatest threat to our well-being.
In a world of quick fixes – shortcuts, fast food, microwaves, social media and online dating – we have lost our ability to create strong social bonds with the people around us. This lack of engagement is having a detrimental effect on our social relationships and we are failing to know and understand the people in our lives. And somehow we are surprised when the sheep sheds their skin and the wolf lies down next to us in the bed one night.
Today we are surrounded by cell phones, social media and technological advances and we have learned to be efficient in all that we do. We can now run our business from home, never seeing a client ever. We can manage all of our contacts and communications through e-mail, never directly speaking to anyone. And we keep up with all our Facebook friend’s lives by liking their superficial posts.
This efficiency has allowed us to completely disengage from people and life in general. This unfortunately carries over into all aspects of our lives including our interpersonal relationships. We have become horrible at knowing the people around us – knowing who they are or what they are. Our relationships are suffering.
I often sit in restaurants and watch people. I’m always discouraged to look across the room and see a family of four sitting at the table; husband, wife and two teenage kids. Every single person is on their cell phone for the majority of the outing. No communication between them, everyone in their own little world, completely disengaged from the people they are siting with. This denigrates the quality of our personal relationships at home and creates habits we carry throughout our lives when interacting with others.
I have sat in coffee shops and watched couples at a table, each on their phone, and not saying one word to one another for thirty minutes. How do you maintain a romantic relationship or connect with someone on an intimate level when you are not even with them? You might as well be sitting alone. Being engaged on social media does not make you social, and it does nothing to nurture or create quality social relationships. If you allow that type of disengaged mindset (behavior), it will take over your entire life. The problem then perpetuates itself – you will approach everything in life with the same distracted, superficial and un-engaged mind.
We must break free from this pattern of behavior. We must take time to cultivate quality relationships and spend time with the people in our lives. Here are five key points:
1) Build Connections in person. Online communication (phones or computers), including dating, is not a legitimate way to develop relationships with people. People can be anyone behind the keystrokes of a keyboard. Meet people and talk to people face to face. Building relationships with people requires more than just black and white words on a phone or computer screen. We build connections with people through our voices, inflection of words, our eye contact, non-verbal communication, spatial proximity, and our touch. This has to be done in person, face to face – this is how we build connections.
2) Employ the law of reciprocity. One of the key principles in the social exchange of emotion is that we as humans expect reciprocity. In other words, when we contribute emotionally (or physically) we expect to receive like emotions in equal amounts from the person we have shared with. This is a basic principle in the social exchange process. If we don’t have an equal exchange, it disrupts the balance of the exchange and affects the relationship. When there’s an equal exchange this produces positive emotions in the relationship, whereas an inequality will likely produce negative emotions. This inequality of emotional exchange is what causes problems in intimate relationships. In these cases, one person puts more into the relationship (physical work, communication, effort, money, intimacy) and when they don’t receive the same in return, it causes feelings of resentment or causes the person putting more in to withdraw. If you think about it, most all marriages/relationships fail because of an inequality of exchange – no matter what you label the issue as; infidelity, violence, lack of communication, lack of attention, lack of respect, one person falls out of love – it’s one person contributing more (or less) than the other. This is true of not only intimate relationships, but all social relationships.
3) Go to lunch – and leave your phones in the car. Be active and social in your relationships. Go to lunch, dinner, or anything where the environment and mood is happy and social. Engage one another. Be a good listener and communicator. Look at each other, touch, laugh and joke. Build connections through social bonding activities. These types of connections tend to be deep rooted and not superficial. Building these social bonds also makes us feel better about ourselves because it produces a host of positive neural chemicals in the brain. In fact, psychologists have known for years, one of the strongest antidotes to depression is a strong network of close friends.
4) Put the phones down. Have a conversation (not about Facebook) with the person sitting directly across the table from you – whether it’s a friend, co-worker, lover or even boss. Ask questions of them. Take an active interest in who they are. Take time to learn something new about them. One of the problems we face today is we are all so self-absorbed and egocentric. The only person we think about is us – which is fine is you’re going to spend your entire life alone and with no friends. Remember the law of reciprocity? As much as you want someone to be interested in you, you must take an equal interest in them. Get to know the person who is sitting there inside the sheep exterior. When you’re playing on your phone, you are not listening or engaging the person across from you – it’s more than just rude. How does it make you feel if you are talking to someone and they pick up their phone mid-conversation and start scrolling through Facebook? Give others the same respect and level of interest that you want to receive.
5) Know the difference between a friend and an acquaintance. People have a hard time discerning the difference between these two and often mistake them as one in the same – they are not. I have always said, I can count the number of friend’s I have on one hand. I know a lot of people, but they are acquaintances. What’s the difference? Who can you call at 2 o’clock in the morning when you are in need of help or need to talk to someone? That’s a friend. Who shows up to your house on moving day to help? Of the ten people who said they would show up, but then became unexpectedly busy on move day, you will likely get two or three people. Those are your friends. These are the relationships you need to concentrate on nurturing. It doesn’t mean you have to ignore everyone else, but just take care of your friends, and they will take care of you. My relationships with my friends are very deep and important to me and I approach them in that way.