5 tips for cultivating relationships that promote resilience.
By Jeff Jennings, Ph.D.
Perhaps more than any other year in most of our lifespans, 2020 taxed our collective and individual resilience resources in unprecedented ways. While many may have found refuge in their marriage or love relationships, the pandemic took a greater toll on this invaluable resource for many others.
The challenges of balancing work with additional parenting responsibilities, socially distancing from others, unemployment or job insecurity, and being together more will put strain on any relationship. However, if a person’s relationship already had some cracks in it before 2020, it was more likely to break than bend with the added pressure.
We now know from decades of research that too few or poor quality social connections are associated with a great many physical and mental health concerns, including cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, slower wound healing, impaired immune function, increased depression and suicide risk, and accelerated cognitive decline.
We also know that good relationships can be protective and serve as a buffer against stress and disease. Good quality connections are associated with better cardiovascular functioning, lower stress levels, and can even mitigate the damaging effects of stress on the body. The key word here, of course, is quality.
According to the results of the Harvard Study on Adult Development, the longest study in existence on human happiness, while positive, quality relationships are good for your health, living in a high-conflict relationship can be bad for it. Given the psychological, physical, and social benefits of being in committed, close relationships, the question becomes how can we build the type of relationship that actually promotes resilience in the face of challenges like we’ve experienced this year with COVID-19?
Social psychologists Brooke Feeney and Nancy Collins detail in a 2015 seminal article how relationships can not only be a resource in challenging times that buffers against stress, but relationships can actually help us to thrive in adversity.
They define thriving in terms of physical, social, and psychological well-being components, and posit that thriving in adversity extends beyond just successfully coping with negative events, but involves actually growing stronger and wiser as a result of the experience.
“In this sense, relationships can provide strength, in addition to refuge, in adverse circumstances” (Feeney and Collins, 2015, p. 116). Building on the attachment theory idea of relationships being a safe haven, they expand this thought to describing relationships as Source of Strength (SOS) support in the face of adversity.
According to their model, SOS support involves not only buffering against stress but also enabling individuals to flourish during stressful times through four key processes:
- Providing a safe haven in which emotions can be explored, expressed, and validated;
- Providing fortification through affirming, promoting, or helping to build requisite strengths for the challenge at hand;
- Assisting in the reconstruction process by helping motivate one’s partner to engage in positive, active coping strategies; and
- Assisting in reframing/redefining adversity as a potential path growth and development.
While poor support can certainly have detrimental effects when couples are faced with adversity either individually or collectively, with a little intention and effort, couples can help to fortify each other and promote growth in one another even when times are hard.
So what might that look like in the midst of an ongoing pandemic? Here are some practical suggestions.
Set aside time to really talk. While you and your partner may be spending more time together than ever before, quantity does not equal quality. In fact, spending more time together actually increases the opportunity for disagreements to arise, hurting one another’s feelings, and taking each other for granted.
This makes it all the more important to set aside intentional time to really communicate how you are doing with one another. It doesn’t have to be long; even 15 minutes of truly connecting without other distractions can be very meaningful. You might try getting up a little earlier before the kids and sharing a cup of coffee or your favorite morning drink and just communicate about the challenges and stressors you are facing on a day-to-day basis.
Work as a team. It’s helpful when facing challenges to remember that you are on the same team. In relationships, it can be easy to slip into the mentality that you are fighting against each other, especially when differences arise in how to approach a problem. Times of adversity can further exacerbate this dynamic. This is when it’s important to remind yourselves of the unique strengths that you each bring to the relationship and discuss ways you can use your combined strengths to work together on solutions.
Practice gratitude. Practicing gratitude has received a lot of attention in the last several years, and for good reason. Research has shown it may be one of the simplest and most effective ways to improve mental well-being and happiness. Research has also shown it to be good for relationships as it can help improve connection and relationship satisfaction. Make it a weekly practice to think about three things you have appreciated about your partner in the past week and be sure to communicate those to them.
Create meaningful rituals. Create a daily bonding ritual — something simple, yet meaningful. A ritual is simply something that you do repeatedly usually at a specific time, place, or in response to a specific cue. You likely already have one, if not several, or perhaps you previously had a daily, meaningful ritual you stopped doing over time. As life gets busy and stressful, we oftentimes just forget to do the things that once kept us closely connected. For example, at night you might take a moment to be close and express your love for one another before falling asleep.
Do something novel. It may be a little more challenging right now given the restrictions with COVID-19, but it’s even more important to do something novel together because of it. Monotony is a relationship killer. Research has shown that couples who engage in novel and exciting activities together report feeling closer to one another and greater satisfaction with their relationship. So, do something fun, different, and even a little challenging which encourages you to work together. The couple that plays together, stays together.
Challenges like we experienced this past year can either strengthen a relationship or tear it apart. The good news is that with a little intention, you can help one another and your relationship grow stronger even in adverse times.
Jeff Jennings is a clinical psychologist whose expertise and interests are interpersonal forgiveness, resilience, and the neurobiology of relationships. As co-founder of Relationship Remastery, he and his wife help couples transform their marriage or love relationship using a unique integration of neuroscience, attachment research, and positive psychology. His insights and research have been published in numerous psychology journals and APA books.