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Working at relationships so that relationships work

Healthy relationships, intimate and otherwise, are the antidote to loneliness and contribute to our overall sense of health, happiness and effectiveness in our personal lives and at work. But you can’t leave them to chance! Psychologist Judith Ancer shares key insights here into how to build better relationships to boost our health and success from a recent Henley family-friendly networking and learning session hosted on our Joburg campus.

‘Right now, as a species, we are lonelier than we’ve ever been,’ says clinical psychologist Judith Ancer. Speaking at a family-friendly networking and learning morning at Henley Business School Africa’s Johannesburg campus. ‘Long before Covid, changes in work circumstances such as the gig economy and remote working – despite its amazing benefits – have exacerbated our lack of connectedness.’

In a 2010 study researchers found that 40% of adults and more than 80% of under-18s report feeling lonely at least sometimes. Of course, everyone feels lonely from time to time. It’s perfectly normal and signals to the brain that it’s time to go out and connect with others. Persistent loneliness, however, says Ancer, is a public health and social problem that demands a response from us.

A universal need for connection

Most of us turn to our friends and family to alleviate our potential loneliness, although not all relationships are created equal. Ancer says that there are many significant relationships in our lives that feed our needs and contribute to our overall sense of well-being. ‘When we think about relationships the first thing that springs to mind is your relationship with a partner. But there are many other significant relationships,’ she comments.

It's perfectly normal to live a life where family, friends or community are your significant others, and we need to move away from the normative idea that all good relationships pertain to a couple. Friends are the family we get to choose, and we can live fulfilling lives with friendships at the centre.

It's not the type of relationship that is important, but the quality of that relationship, she adds. In 1938, a powerful longitudinal study was started by Robert Waldinger, a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital and professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. The study has tracked hundreds of men, and later their partners and offspring, in an attempt to find out what makes people live healthy and happy lives. Researchers have amassed vast amounts of data and deduced that one of the most powerful influencers of happiness is the quality of your relationships. Human beings need these connections to be solid in order to thrive.

A little bit of give-and-take

Regardless of what kind of relationships are at the centre of our lives, all of them require commitment, hard work, and a dose of honesty and self-awareness for them to work well.

‘Most of the time, relationships falter because one or both individuals have not owned their shortcomings and imperfections,’ says Ancer. No one person – be it a friend or an intimate partner – can give you everything you need, and we need to be realistic enough to understand that all relationships involve compromise, and we need to keep investing in them.

On a personal level compromise is a strength, not a failure, says Ancer. Deep, authentic relationships are created when we give what we can and take only what we need. It’s about bringing different skills to your relationships to make them whole.

We often make the mistake of believing that the ones we love are exactly the same as we are. That they have the same wants and needs, that they like the same things, when in fact we are all different and separate. We need to be cognisant of this and accommodate the differences.

A conscious choice to commit to those we love

Making time for friends, family and loved ones, regardless of work or study pressures, is essential for maintaining strong relationships. It’s one of the reasons that Henley Business School Africa has spent so much time working on how to reduce the impact of studying on partners and families.

‘Working and studying full-time can be extremely disruptive,’ acknowledges Henley Business School Africa dean and director, Jon Foster-Pedley. ‘It’s been over a decade since we pioneered our family-friendly MBA to ensure that our programme broke the MBA’s notorious global “divorce course” stereotype,’ he says. ‘At Henley, we believe that responsible educators must be considerate of, and integrative with, families.’

In the end it comes down to making a conscious choice to prioritise the people we love, adds Ancer. Love is a conscious choice that we make daily. It’s a verb. But we need to acknowledge that different people experience love in different ways. We have to ask for what we want and let our loved ones know they can do the same.

‘If you can work out how you experience feeling loved, and how your partner or friend experiences feeling loved, and together set about intentionally meeting those needs, you have a better chance of having a successful relationship,’ she says.

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