A relationship is the way in which two or more concepts, objects, or people are connected – it is the state of being connected. Relationships are one of the 7 Core Areas of Health, and studies show that when we have loving and respectful relationships we live longer, happier, healthier lives. We are social creatures and we are hardwired for connection; no one is an island, and being in relation is essential for our wellbeing.
“The human condition is one of belonging. We simply cannot thrive unless we are in relationship.” john powell
Connection is Why We’re Here
Brené Brown believes that connection is why we are here; that connection is what brings meaning and purpose to our lives, and in the absence of relationship there is suffering. As humans, we are a social species, a fact you can understand by looking at how we transform from infants to adults: we make it to adulthood through the care of others. John Cacioppo says, “To grow into adulthood for a social species, including humans, is not to become autonomous and solitary, it’s to become the one on whom others can depend. Whether we know it or not, our brain and biology have been shaped to favor this outcome.” Our goal in adulthood is interdependence through connection in which we find meaning and purpose.
“Through relationships we become.” Michael Gervais
Respectful Interaction with Ourselves
Being in meaningful relationships with others requires first being in that kind of relationship with ourselves; we can only meet others as deeply as we have met ourselves. In other words, healthy and vibrant relationships begin with self-care.
As we navigate contrast in our experiences, we gain wisdom. Parker Palmer is a teacher who has learned from his experiences of depression. Specifically, he has learned, “Self-care is never a selfish act. it is simply good stewardship of the only gift I have, the gift I was put on earth to offer to others.”
Self-care is simply good stewardship of the gifts you have, the very same aliveness you were meant to offer to yourself and the world. Listening and attending to your gifts is how you cultivate your authenticity. Nicole LePera writes, “To experience authentic relationships, you need to work on being one with your own authenticity.” Having a respectful relationship with yourself is how you are able to interact respectfully with others.
“The way we are with ourselves informs the way we are to others and the reverse. It’s all interconnected.” Nicole LePera
Love & Community
When we are in a state of connection with ourselves, we are able to join the web of connection with others authentically. Parker Palmer writes, “The Quaker teacher Douglas Steere was fond of saying that the ancient human question “Who am I?” leads inevitably to the equally important question “Whose am I?” – for there is no selfhood outside of relationship.” As you are able to answer the question of “who am I” you are also able to understand the ecosystem to which you belong – understanding yourself and your world with even more depth. Authentic connection is the birthplace of belonging, a condition that asks you to be who you are rather than alter yourself to fit in. Many indigenous thought systems have the concept of “all of our relations,” which holds this idea of a network of communal relations, including yourself, other people, the plants, the animals, and the elements. You understand who you are through conversation and relationship with all of your relations, and it is here that love grows.
Brené Brown writes, “We cultivate love when we allow our most vulnerable and powerful selves to be deeply seen and known, and when we honor the spiritual connection that grows from that offering with trust, respect, kindness, and affection.” Love isn’t something transactional (something we give or get), it is something that grows from connection, and it is an irreducible need of every human being. It is relational. To be well and healthy, we need to have a deep sense of love and belonging – biologically, cognitively, physically, and spiritually.
“As I learn more about the seed of true self that was planted when I was born, I also learn more about the ecosystem in which I was planted–the network of communal relations in which I am called to live responsively, accountably, and joyfully with beings of every sort. Only when I know both seed and system, self and community, can I embody the great commandment to love both my neighbor and myself.” Parker Palmer
Navigating Connection & Disconnection
We have to understand the near enemies of love and belonging and be able to navigate disconnection in order to meet our needs. Brené defines connection as: “the energy that is created between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgement.” Disconnection shares neural pathways with physical pain, and is a painful experience of feeling detached or isolated. Judith Jordan says, “[Disconnections] occur when one person misunderstands, invalidates, excludes, humiliates, or injures the other person in some way. Acute disconnection occurs frequently in all relationships. If they can be addressed and reworked, they are not problematic; in fact, they become places of enormous growth.” Navigating disconnection is an incredibly helpful skill for cultivating love and belonging.
A near enemy of love is attachment. Jack Kornfield writes, “Attachment masquerades as love. It says, ‘I will love this person (because I need something from them).’ … This isn’t the fullness of love. Instead, there is attachment – there is clinging and fear. True love allows, honors, and appreciates; attachment grasps, demands, needs, and aims to possess.” Attachment is transactional, while love is relational. Attachment pushes fitting in, love pushes belonging. We have to be clear about when we are connecting with people through love or through attachment.
Theory of Meaningful Connection
The question then become, how do we navigate disconnection and cultivate love and belonging? Brené Brown has mapped this answer in her Theory of Meaningful Connection. According to her research, we can cultivate meaningful connection through practicing grounded confidence, the courage to walk alongside, and story stewardship. Grounded confidence is the ability to connect with yourself and to bring this presence to your interactions. The courage to walk alongside is the attending to the spaces between us in respectful and supportive ways. Story stewardship is respecting the value of story and realizing that the only way to understand what someone is experiencing is to listen to what they tell you.
You can learn more about each of these skills and how to cultivate them in this article: Building Our Capacity for Connection
A foundational element of authentic relationships is boundaries: the limits that separate your thoughts, beliefs, needs, emotions, and physical and emotional spaces from others. Boundaries are the mechanism we use to feel safe in our bodies and our relationships – they are how we belong first to ourselves and then to others in meaningful ways. They keep us connected to who we are to that we can show up as ourselves and be in authentic relationships. They keep us connected to our intuitive voice and insight. Clear boundaries allow us to be as we really are with others as they really are.
There are three types of boundaries (Physical, Resource, and Mental/Emotional) and there are three steps to implementing them. You can learn more about boundaries and how to set them in this article.
“Boundaries are a prerequisite for compassion and empathy. We can’t connect with someone unless we’re clear about where we end and they begin. If there’s no autonomy between people, then there’s no compassion or empathy, just enmeshment.” Brené Brown
Being In Relation
We are here to connect; relationships are the state of being in connection/being connected. As such, relationships are a fundamental need for every human being. The goal is to interact respectfully with ourselves and with others, growing authenticity, belonging, love, and connection. Relationships begin with self-care, with good stewardship of the gifts you have, the aliveness you were meant to offer to yourself and the world. As you live into “who am I?” you also understand “whose am I?” We understand ourselves through our relationships, our connections, the spaces of love and belonging.