In observing and working with people for decades now, I’ve seen how the biggest determinant of a person’s sense of wellbeing is the quality of their closest personal relationships. And regardless of your marital status, the biggest single thing you can do to improve your physical, emotional, and even spiritual health is to develop better personal relationships.
So, how’s that going for you? Do you feel nurtured, connected, and lifted up by the people in your life? Perhaps you feel deep loneliness and isolation. Or the relationships you have with family and friends might be full of drama, conflict, and struggle, even toxicity.
You learned ways of dealing with people very early in life. You learned that people are basically safe and good, or unpredictable and dangerous, or aloof and inaccessible. Addiction, trauma, loss, or other “big rocks” in your family of origin colored your mental templates around relationships. So has your personality.
But none of that means things can’t get better. You can’t change other people; stop trying! But there’s a lot you can do that can result in better personal relationships. There’s no better place to invest your efforts than doing just that. Here’s how.
Choose to Invest the Effort
A common complaint I hear is some variation of, “I have no friends. My relatives don’t treat me well. My church isn’t interested.” The loneliness epidemic is real, and it has deep consequences for our physical, emotional, and spiritual wellbeing.
Christian psychiatrist Dr. Curt Thompson and I were talking about the need for personal relationships and their impact on us. He strongly encourages each person to be part of what he calls a “confessional community” – a small group where you intentionally come to see and know each other deeply. I asked him what someone should do who doesn’t have any such community available to them. “You make one!” he replied.
Yes, it’s hard work to develop better personal relationships. It feels risky – and it is. Jesus knows what that’s like; He needed people, He invested in relationships, and it cost Him everything. But He did it anyway. Like Jesus, you have been hurt in relationship, and you will also be healed in relationship.
I know how hard it is to do this; I don’t do it naturally. For you, investing in this way might look like texting someone you know to schedule a phone call or meetup for coffee. It could be noticing someone you know who’s hurting and offering them a listening ear. You might gather a few friends for a Bible study – or for a fishing trip, or a group walk, or an evening just to be together.
The point is, it takes effort. Just do it!
Choose Who YOU Will Be
Some people are jerks, but you don’t have to be. When others give you the cold shoulder, make a prickly remark, or stir up some drama, your anxiety or anger might be triggered. Feeling triggered is understandable, but you can choose how you respond. That might mean limiting contact with some people (see the next point).
But in the relationships you choose to work on, you get to decide who you will be. That might look like:
- Proactively reaching out even if that person doesn’t reciprocate and reach out back
- Accepting someone’s love and care when you might naturally isolate
- Listening when someone needs to talk, being kindly curious
- Being truly present when you’re with someone, instead of checking your phone
- Risking sharing something vulnerable to someone who might be reasonably safe
- Asking a challenging question when someone is not behaving well
Jesus did all those things at various times with the people around Him.
A good question to prayerfully consider is, “Lord, who do You want me to be to this person” (or people)? Sometimes God needs you to keep your hands off! Sometimes He needs you to risk having a hard conversation, or to show some unexpected grace, to go out of your way to help, or even to set some hard boundaries.
“A man that hath friends must shew himself friendly” (Proverbs 18:24, KJV). What kind of a person are you going to be in your personal relationships?
Choose Your People Wisely
Relationships might be easy if it wasn’t for people.
God loves everyone equally, no matter what. But He doesn’t interact with everyone the same. When Jesus was here on earth He was intentional about who He invested of Himself with. He spent the most time and energy with those who could receive what He had to offer or those who could offer Him connection and care. It was a small group; He was incredibly generous, but not everyone had equal access to Jesus.
You too can choose who has access to you. Sometimes family are especially contentious, and you need to limit the time or energy you give them. (Jesus experienced that too, remember.) Some people lift you up by being around them, and some people drag you down in their presence; you can choose what part of your life you allow each kind of person into. Some especially toxic people may need to not be in your life any longer.
As Dr. John Townsend talks about in People Fuel, most people’s relationships are weighted too heavily toward those who drain them. It’s likely you need to intentionally grow your investment in those who bring you life. And when some relationships (such as with spouse or children) are troubled, it’s even more important you find and nurture friendships that can nourish your soul.
It’s in relationship that you develop emotional maturity, resilience, grace, and empathy. It’s where the fruit of the Spirit grows. At the end of your life, you won’t look back and wish you had spent more time at work, watching TV, or scrolling social media; you’ll treasure most the relationships you invest most deeply in.
Who would make your life richer by being connected with them? Put most of your energy in that direction.
Better personal relationships take energy; it’s worth it.
Your Turn: Do you need better personal relationships in your life? What are you going to do to nurture them? Leave a comment below.
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