In an age where most people have hundreds, if not thousands, of “friends” on social media, it’s a wonder that we have so few meaningful relationships that truly fulfill our social needs. In recent years, social isolation has become such a big problem that health experts now recognize loneliness as the number one risk factor for disease.
It takes work to turn casual friendships into fulfilling relationships. Here are some tips that can help you get there.
1. Spend quality time alone.
While this might sound counterintuitive, you need to have a good relationship with yourself before you can connect with other people. Make time daily to introspect and get in touch with your feelings. Meditation and journaling can help with this. A simple practice like writing a note at the end of every day putting words to your feelings and exploring what happened to cause them can do wonders for your self-awareness. When you do this regularly, you won’t feel so desperate to rant to someone about your stressful day. Instead, you’ll feel more grounded and open to hearing out a friend or connecting over things that really matter.
2. Live in the moment.
You already know that it’s rude to use your phone while spending time with friends, but you probably do it anyway when you run out of things to talk about. Challenge yourself to resist that urge and enjoy the moment of silence. It won’t be awkward until you make it. Use the pause to reflect on the other person’s experience and ask them about their current life situation or their feelings about the future.
Even when we are engaged in conversation, it’s easy to let our minds run away and start comparing this person to that other friend who’s so much more interesting and doesn’t smack their lips together when they talk. When you notice this happening, gently bring your mind back to the present moment and pay attention to the details, listen for the inflection in their voice, look for the gaps they’re leaving in the story because they don’t think you care.
3. Figure out how they work.
It’s fascinating to discover how much we all have in common, but it’s just as important to understand what makes people different. I’m constantly surprised by the ways other people describe the worlds inside their head. Make an effort to ask good questions so you can figure out what motivates them, what they’re struggling with, and what influences that shaped them. The Enneagram of Personality is an amazing tool for understanding the fears and motivations of close friends and revealing how they differ from your own.
4. Don’t try to change them.
Can you remember a time when a friend or family member tried to pressure you into doing something they knew would be good for you? Maybe they sent you articles about why you need to start meditating, or bought you a book about how to quit smoking. Chances are, it didn’t work. You probably felt some resentment towards them. That’s because when someone pressures us so strongly, we get the feeling that they need us to change. That they can’t accept us the way we are. Even if it’s something as obviously beneficial as eating healthy or quitting smoking, it feels like they don’t really care about our best interest.
You never want to be that person. Maybe you’re embarrassed that your partner is overweight, so you subtly suggest going on a diet. The problem here is that your own happiness depends on the actions of another person. It’s absurd to expect your partner to change themselves just to make you happy, all the while pretending that they need it for their own good.
The only way to sustain a fulfilling relationship is to accept them as they are. If that’s not good enough for you, then you don’t have to be friends. If they’re engaging in a behavior that seems unhealthy, the first step is to recognize that they have their reasons for doing it. Once you’ve established respect for their decision, you should ask them with genuine curiosity why they are doing it. Maybe they’ll tell you they’ve evaluated the costs and benefits and decided that they prefer the pleasure they gain from smoking. Or maybe they’ll admit that this is something they struggle with, and they would love if you could provide accountability while they’re quitting. Whenever they do give up bad habits and improve their lives, you can share their joy without attaching it to your identity.
5. Don’t rely on one relationship to fulfill your needs.
So many monogamous relationships fail when the partners isolate themselves from all their friends and expect each other to fulfill their entire range of social needs–from intimacy to adventure to emotional support and intellectual stimulation. There’s no one human being who can connect with you on every single level like that. Those unrealistic expectations will put a strain on any friendship or romantic relationship. That’s why we need multiple close friends who we can connect with in different ways. If there’s someone who loves to go rock climbing with you but can’t hold a conversation about your favorite books, that’s okay—go make friends with another book nerd. Focus on the ways you do connect and make the most of those.
6. Be vulnerable.
Vulnerability can be terrifying. You’ve been wounded in the past, so you’ve built up defenses to protect yourself. But those same walls that keep you safe will shield you from the love and intimacy you crave. You can be cautious about it, but you have to let them down if you want to truly connect.
When you reveal your fears, struggles, and weaknesses to someone you trust, you will feel a sense of belonging, knowing that they accept you for who you are. It encourages them to reciprocate and unveil their own secrets that they’ve kept inside.
It takes incredible courage to be this authentic. There are no guarantees that you won’t get hurt. But you will open yourself up to the most fulfilling source of love and closeness.