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The YMCAs and Planet Fitnesses in town and all the other gyms are packed full this week with all those who made New Year’s resolutions to lose some pounds, to better their physiques, and to get healthier. Did you make any New Year’s resolutions? Did you set some goals for this year? I hope they weren’t all about diet and exercise! Did you make some Relationship Resolutions?

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In his book, The Common Rule: Habits of Purpose for an Age of Distraction, Justin Earley shares this quote by Mortimer J. Adler:

“Without communication, there can be no community. … That is why conversation, discussion, or talk is the most important form of speaking and listening.”

FRIENDSHIP MATTERS

We seem to be having fewer and fewer sit-down, face-to-face, real conversations these days. Texting, emojis, messaging on Facebook and emails have replaced some of them. These things may have unintentionally short-circuited our ability to know each other deeply.

News stories abound about the increase in anxiety and depression for all ages, we’ve seen the suicide rate triple for teens, and surveys indicate we as a culture are lonelier than we’ve ever been. In light of that, perhaps the new year should designate a year of intentional conversation with others.

“Everything in the universe has its roots in friendship,” says Earley. “That means that longing to be in right relationship with other people and things is at the heart of every molecule in existence—and most powerfully in our own hearts.”

Earley explains that conversation exposes us in two ways: face-to-face conversation brings risks and truth-telling happens.

HOW WE COMMUNICATE IMPACTS EVERYONE

Massachusetts Institute of Technology psychologist and author of Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, Sherry Turkle believes that replacing face-to-face communication with technology is depleting people’s capacity for empathy toward others. Research shows that the way people are currently seeking to communicate through devices threatens true friendship. Instead of things happening in real-time right in front of us, people are planning and curating the versions of themselves they want to bring to the discussion.

Removing tone of voice, facial expression and body language from communication leaves the conversation lacking in so many ways. How can we bring back real, honest conversation? It’s not as hard as you might think.

  • Make an effort to remove devices from the dinner table whether you’re at home or at a restaurant.
  • Create space for regular conversation and fellowship with family and friends. Instead of the well-meaning, “Let’s get together soon!” pull up your calendar and set a date to catch up on life together.
  • For the sake of your emotional health, connect with a couple of people on a regular basis. These would be the people Earley is describing with whom risky conversations take place, truth-telling occurs and perfection is not expected.
  • When it comes to modeling the art of conversation with your children, create tech-free zones/times in your home where your family can come together for game night or other activities that invite the opportunity for conversations to occur.

REAL CONVERSATION STARTERS

If you feel like you aren’t great at getting conversations going, here are a few questions to get you started:

  • What is something that is popular now that totally annoys you and why?
  • What’s the best/worst thing about your work/school?
  • If you had intro music, what song would it be and why?
  • Where is the most beautiful place you have ever been?
  • If you had to change your name, what would you change it to and why?
  • How should success be measured, and by that measurement, who’s the most successful person you know?
  • If you could learn the answer to one question about your future, what would the question be?
  • What was the best period of your life so far? What do you think will be the best period of your entire life?

People of all ages are dying from the lack of community that currently exists in our culture, but that trend doesn’t have to continue. Every person can have intentional, regular, and meaningful conversations with others. Imagine how different our culture could be if we all committed to working on this.

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You don’t give in to peer pressure, right? That was so Middle School! Surprisingly, adult you is still rather impressionable. Your chances of divorce just went up!

A study from researchers at Brown University, UC-San Diego, and Yale University has found that having a divorced friend can increase your own risk of a breakup by 75%. Similarly, more recent studies have found that being friends with someone who gets divorced makes someone 147% more likely to get divorced themselves. A person who has a sibling who gets divorced is 22% more likely to also split from his or her spouse. Similar findings related to infidelity have been discovered, too. (Infidelity is one of the leading causes of divorce, after all.) What’s going on here?

Let’s try to understand why this happens and then think about how to avoid it. (And maybe even how to use this dynamic for good!)

This is known as “behavioral” or “social contagion.” It’s like an idea or lifestyle virus. The general concept is that one person introduces a new social norm into a group (divorce, infidelity) which reduces the social constraints against it or takes away some of the pressure to avoid it. They even make it seem more normal. The other members of the group then begin to look at themselves and their marriages differently.

They hear the benefits of divorce or infidelity from the person that introduced the “virus” and then reevaluate their own happiness. They look at their spouses and partners in a new, perhaps, unflattering light. Then the next person in the group takes the plunge, reducing social constraints even further and making divorce even more normal, which makes it even easier for the next person, and so on.

I’ve seen it spread in a social group with divorce and infidelity in about a year.

The tighter-knit the group is, the easier and quicker the virus can be passed around. It doesn’t take someone saying, “You know, you should really consider divorce, sweetie…” and applying what we would call direct peer pressure. It can all happen on a level that we are not even directly conscious of.

The study, “Breaking Up is Hard to Do, Unless Everyone Else is Doing it Too: Social Network Effects on Divorce in a Longitudinal Sample” did discover something extremely hopeful.Interestingly, only outside support from friends and family predicted marital success in the time period examined.” Did you catch that?

Even as they proved the validity of the “social virus,” they also discovered the cure. Being tightly connected and supported by friends and family that are FOR your marriage “inoculates” you against the “social virus” and reduces your susceptibility.

To carry the analogy further, having friends and family that believe in and are committed to their marriages and faithfulness helps build up our “immunities” to divorce and infidelity. The same social dynamic can work in a positive way, too!

None of this is to say you should run away shrieking in terror from anyone who gets a divorce. Maybe they were the victim of domestic violence and need your support. On the other hand, it is a great reminder that none of us are above being influenced. Keeping toxic, negative people that don’t share our family values close to us may influence us much more than we care to acknowledge.

***If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, contact the National Hotline for Domestic Abuse. At this link, you can access a private chat with someone who can help you 24/7. If you fear your computer or device is being monitored, call the hotline 24/7 at: 1−800−799−7233. For a clear understanding of what defines an abusive relationship, click here.***

Looking for more resources for your marriage? Click here!

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Shasta Nelson has spent more than a decade studying loneliness and deep friendships. Nelson is a healthy relationship expert and author of Frientimacy: How to Deepen Friendships for Lifelong Health and Happiness and Friendships Don’t Just Happen! The Guide to Creating a Meaningful Circle of Girlfriends. She is currently working on her next book, “The Business of Friendship: Making the Most of the Relationships Where We Spend Most of Our Time,” to be published by HarperCollins Leadership.

Nelson surveyed people to find out how fulfilling their friendships felt from one to 10, with 10 being the most meaningful satisfaction. About 60-70 percent respondents rated their relationships five or below.

Nelson realized that while people might be in friend relationships or marriage relationships, there was a gap between the kind of relationships people want to have and the kind they actually have. In fact, 80 percent of the complaints about friendships centered around wanting more and deeper connection. She found that people know more people than ever before and are supposedly more connected, yet they are lonelier than ever.

A 2018 CIGNA study of 20,000 people found that nearly half of Americans report sometimes or always feeling alone. Additionally, 1 in 4 rarely or never feels as though people really understand them, and 2 in 5 Americans sometimes or always feel that their relationships are not meaningful.

According to Nelson, modern day loneliness is not because we need to interact more with people; It is due to lack of intimacy. Frientimacy is a relationship where both people feel seen in a safe and satisfying way.

When people say they are lonely, Nelson doesn’t believe that answer is to go out and make more friends, but to deepen current relationships.

“I ask people this question: ‘Do you feel as loved and supported as you need at this point in your life?’” Nelson says. “If the answer is yes, that’s fabulous, but often the answer is no. When that is the case, I encourage them to consider who in their life they would want to build a more meaningful or closer relationship with and then make a list. Start prioritizing those relationships. 

“Some people say they have no names to put on their list. For these folks, their journey right now is to get out and meet people who have the potential to be future friends. There are a couple of ways you can do this. Going to places you already frequent like school, work, faith-based or civic organizations – proximity and geography matters. Then be intentional about getting to know them better. The second way is to reach out to people you know and ask them if there are people they think you should know. Take advantage of opportunities for introductions to meet new people at their party, book club, discussion group, etc.” 

Nelson says the more insane your life is, the more you need meaningful friendships. 

“Often when I am speaking to moms’ groups, I ask them to write what they remember about their mom and her friends,” Nelson says. “A good 70 percent of women have a hard time completing that assignment. I suspect it happens partly because so many moms try to nurture their friendships at a time that doesn’t inconvenience their kids. However, 30 years down the road, your daughters can’t tell me who your friends are. Friendships need to be modeled. Don’t downplay that part of your life. Deep, meaningful friendships make us better.”

Once you have identified people on your list, Nelson says to then practice the three things. These are the basis of every healthy relationship: positivity, consistency and vulnerability, also known as “the frientimacy triangle.” 

  1. Positivity is about feeling supported, kindness, acts of service, affirmation – all the things that make us feel good. 
  2. Consistency is the hours logged, the history built, interactions and knowing there is consistent behavior in the relationship. This is where trust occurs. 
  3. Vulnerability is where we share, reveal, let people beyond the formal living room. We talk about what is going well and not so well, history, and dreams. It’s where you feel safe to ask for what you need.

When we have high levels of each part of the “frientimacy triangle,” we feel seen. We also safe and satisfied, which is what people want and need. We then have the ability to take existing relationships to a completely different level.

Our bodies are craving this and are literally dying without connections. World-renowned physician Dean Ornish states, “I am not aware of any other factor in medicine (than intimacy and love) – not diet, not smoking, not exercising, not stress, not genetics, not drugs, not surgery – that has a greater impact on our quality of life, incidence of illness and premature death from all causes.” 

According to Nelson, loneliness is as damaging to our bodies as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, the equivalent of being a lifelong alcoholic, more harmful than not exercising, and twice as harmful as obesity.

“How you answer the question, ‘How loved and supported do you feel?’ will tell us more about your health 15-20 years down the road than any other factor,” she says.

If your relationships aren’t where you want them to be, Nelson encourages you to take action and do something different. Not only do we have the opportunity to make our own lives richer, we can enrich others’ lives with our positivity, consistency and vulnerability.

This article originally published in the Chattanooga Times Free Press on April 7, 2019.

Looking for relationship resources? Click here!

How many friends do you have? As I started the new year, I chose a different kind of resolution. Instead of adding a new activity or giving up something, I decided to work on two skills: having balance throughout life and being intentional in my friendships. It’s so easy to let the business of life takeover, but I’ve decided to be intentional with the people in mine. If someone crosses my mind, I contact them just to let them know I’m thinking of them.

Yesterday, a friend came to mind so I decided to give her a call. My intention was just to touch base with her so she would know that I was in her corner no matter what! After we talked, I started to think about the word “friendship” and what friendship looks like now that we have social media…

I thought about my childhood, how I saw my mother and my aunts sitting around the table talking about life, parents, work, husbands… kids. There was an understanding that this was a “safe zone” – and what was said at the table stayed there.

I think about my life now and how I have a table that no one talks at. Instead, I sit with my computer, connecting with my friends on Facebook. I see their pictures, watch their Facebook Live videos and celebrate their personal wins by clicking like or sending them a message.

Do I acknowledge my jealousy and envy when I see the fancy date night pictures, the brand new cars or the spectacular couple trips to beaches and exotic countries? How do I figure out if I am being a friend to them or if I’m only being a fan of their life? And what is the difference? Where is the personal connection? How are we engaging our hearts and hands aside from pressing letters on a keyboard? Physical presence is irreplaceable, even by an online relationship.

A friend seeks and wants joy and success, no matter what is going on in life. They walk beside, and supports when times are tough. A friend tells the truth even when you are afraid it might hurt. A friend spends time – in real time.

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Vice President Pence has been the subject of many conversations lately regarding his rule about not dining alone with a woman other than his wife. People have varying opinions on the matter. Some think it is a good rule; others say it is archaic.

Regardless of your opinion, plenty of research indicates that it’s worthy of our attention. Noted relationship experts – including psychologist and author, Dr. Shirley Glass, psychiatrist and author Dr. Scott Haltzman, and Dr. Thomas Bradbury, psychologist and principal investigator of the UCLA Marriage and Family Development Study – raise a red flag of warning regarding marriage and opposite-sex friendships.

In her book, NOT “Just Friends”, Glass says that most people don’t plan to have an affair. And, it’s faulty thinking to believe that attraction to someone else means that something is wrong at home. It IS possible to think someone else is attractive, even if you have a good marriage.

The single most important protector against an affair is appropriate boundaries. In a culture where men and women work so closely, it’s important to make sure you are not creating opportunities for an affair to occur. This is especially true when you might be vulnerable – like right after a fight with your spouse.

Many relationship experts understand that one of the most common pathways to an affair is when a man and woman who are “just friends” innocently begin to discuss their marriage problems. In other words, they are doing their marriage work with someone who might not be a friend to their marriage.

Can opposite-sex friendships exist in marriage? It depends. Many enter marriage with opposite-sex friendships where they describe the person as “like a sister/brother,” yet their spouse seems uncomfortable with the relationship. What do you do with that? This is a question each couple must answer.

If you haven’t talked as a couple about how you can protect your marriage, these guidelines can help inform your discussion:

  • Establish clear boundaries. It creates great guardrails and shows respect for your marriage. Discuss expectations and boundaries in your marriage. You probably believe you would never be weak enough to fall prey to a relationship outside of your marriage. The reality is, few who found themselves there say they were looking for it. A marriage where people believe they are not susceptible is perhaps the most vulnerable.
  • Keep the lines of communication open. Talk with your spouse about how you can avoid creating walls of secrecy between you. How will you make sure you do your marriage work with your spouse? How can you avoid creating unhealthy attachment or dependency on someone else?
  • Be aware, and value your mate’s opinion. For example, a couple attended a party where the wife observed another woman flirting with her husband. When they left, the wife told her husband the woman was being flirtatious. With big eyes, he emphatically denied it. But after encountering the woman again, he agreed that she was indeed flirting. He thanked his wife for bringing it to his attention.
  • Recognize the danger zones. Sometimes people can be oblivious to tempting situations. Being on guard in social and business settings where alcohol is present (and spouses are not) may prevent unnecessary drama in your marriage. It’s common knowledge that drinking can impair judgment.
  • Intentionally protect and nurture your marriage. Have an open conversation about how behavior impacts your marital health. For example, images of Prince William drinking and dancing with another woman went viral. We don’t know what was really happening, but it left room for questions. Avoiding behaviors that could create suspicion can’t hurt your marriage.

So, we all know what Mike Pence has chosen to do in an attempt to safeguard his marriage. Perhaps the best thing we can do is focus on what is best for our own marriage. And let’s cheer others on to do the same.

***If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, contact the National Hotline for Domestic Abuse. At this link, you can access a private chat with someone who can help you 24/7. If you fear that someone is monitoring your computer or device, call the hotline 24/7 at: 1−800−799−7233. For a clear understanding of what defines an abusive relationship, click here.***

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As people marry later in life, many are bringing long-term opposite-sex friendships into their marriage relationship. While the friendships were great during singlehood, in marriage, it can be hard to know if these opposite-sex friends are ok.

“I think it is OK for married people to have opposite-sex friends,” says Lisa Stewart. “However, I believe out of respect for your spouse that even if you were close friends before the marriage, there ought to be strong boundaries around that relationship.

“For example, I would not be comfortable with my husband meeting a woman for coffee on a regular basis to talk about what is going on in his life. That is a conversation he ought to be having with me.”

“It is possible for married people to have healthy opposite-sex friendships,” says Dr. Todd E. Linaman, founder of Relational Advantage. “However, give special consideration to a number of factors that, if ignored, can potentially threaten your marriage.”

Wondering whether or not a close friendship with someone of the opposite-sex poses a threat to your marriage? If so, Linaman offers 20 questions for you to answer. Here are a few of them:

  • Is your mate unaware of your opposite-sex friendship?
  • Would you behave differently around your friend if your partner were present?
  • Would you feel uncomfortable if your fiancé or spouse had the same quality of friendship with someone of the opposite sex?
  • Do you have a physical and/or emotional attraction to your friend?
  • Do you ever compare your mate to your friend?
  • Have you ever entertained romantic fantasies about your friend?
  • Do you and your friend ever exchange highly personal details about your lives or complain about your relationships to each other?

“If you answered ‘yes’ to one or more of the questions above, your opposite-sex friendship may be a real threat to the quality of your marriage,” Linaman says. “It may even be in the best interest of your marriage to either significantly limit or actually end your close friendship.”

An informal survey shows that both married men and women were uncomfortable with their spouse having close friendships with the opposite sex. Not all opposite-sex friendships are dangerous, but it is important to err on the side of caution. It is helpful to discuss the nature of your friendship on a regular basis with your spouse. If not kept in check, a totally innocent relationship could end up causing unnecessary harm to your marriage.

“I think it is OK to have friendships with the opposite sex. But I don’t share with other women what I haven’t shared with my wife,” says Will Honeycutt. “I think sometimes it is healthy to get input from another female. But on a regular basis I should not be sharing intimate issues with a woman who is not my wife.”

Here are Linaman’s tips to help you manage opposite-sex friendships so they don’t threaten your marriage relationship:

  • Develop and consistently nurture a “best friend” relationship with your mate.
  • Develop and consistently nurture close same-sex friendships.
  • Make sure your spouse knows your friend. Also, be certain your mate is completely comfortable with the type and level of interaction you have with him/her.
  • Honor your spouse’s wishes concerning your friendship – even if it means ending it.
  • Avoid establishing close friendships with opposite-sex singles.
  • Avoid close opposite-sex friendships if you are struggling in your marriage relationship.
  • Address unmet needs and unresolved anger in your marriage with your spouse in an open, honest and timely fashion.

While opposite-sex friendships do have the potential to create problems in a marriage, these friendships can enhance your relationship with your spouse if appropriate boundaries are in place. 

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***If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, contact the National Hotline for Domestic Abuse. At this link, you can access a private chat with someone who can help you 24/7. If you fear that someone is monitoring your computer or device, call the hotline 24/7 at: 1−800−799−7233. For a clear understanding of what defines an abusive relationship, click here.***