Invest in what matters – good relationships

Feeling stressed? The evidence is clear. Invest in the good relationships in your life to boost your wellbeing.

The engaging Professor Robin Dunbar, Emeritus Professor of Evolutionary Psychology at Oxford University, this week told us on Radio 4’s Today programme friendships fade quietly away if we don’t see the person. If we don’t invest time and energy in the relationships, the quality of the emotional connection will deteriorate and disappear from our life.

He gave me a wake-up call! I have good friends I haven’t seen for a long time, well before lock down.
I don’t want them to become nothing more than people I once knew. We’ve got history. I care about them, get pleasure from their company and want them to stay in my life.

As Professor Dunbar said, the body of evidence showing the number and quality of our relationships is incredibly influential when it comes to our physical and psychological wellbeing. The connection to our physical wellbeing might sound surprising but it’s true. The benefits include lower blood pressure, a strong immune system and even a longer life.

In the world of psychotherapy, the power of relationships has been clear for a long time. Psychotherapists and psychologists can be very wedded to their modality, their therapeutic approach. A Person-Centred therapist can be just as certain as a Clinical Psychologist or Cognitive Behavioural therapist that their approach is the only way to achieve change, that it’s their techniques that make the difference. I’m an Integrative Psychotherapist. It means I integrate early developmental and relational theories, adapting the way I apply them to suit the person I am working with. But for all my commitment to the theories, the evidence is clear. It’s the relationship that counts.

Analysing an extensive research base, in 1992 Michael Lambert proposed four factors as affecting positive outcomes in therapy: extratherapeutic; placebo effect; techniques; and common factors. Extratherapeutic factors are the client’s own resources, the connections they have and the environment in which they live. These account for 40% of the outcome. Placebo affects, which comes from the client’s and therapist’s belief in the restorative power of the process, account for 15%. Techniques, which stem the therapist’s modality, account for 15%. The fourth, common factors, is all about the relationship. It covers empathy, caring, warmth, acceptance, mutual affirmation and encouragement. These common factors account for 30% of positive outcomes. The relationship matters much more than what we do!

I’m a working mother. I went back to work full time when my daughter was only a few weeks old. It’s not a choice I would recommend and if I could go back I would do things differently, but at the time I felt I had no option. According to Bowlby’s Attachment Theory, securely attached infants trust their parent to be there when they need them and, as a result can go out into the world to explore. Being physically absent for much of the day will have impacted my daughter’s sense of security. I was lucky for two reasons. The woman who took care of her at nursery was brilliant and a constant in her life for years. The second, is that secure attachment depends on the quality not quantity of relationship. When I was with my daughter, I tried to be psychologically present. The best summer of my life was her first. After collecting her from nursery we’d sit on the rug in the garden and play.

Moving forward into adulthood, with a history of secure attachment it’s easier to build and hold on to the good quality relationships we need for our wellbeing. If we feel secure, we are happy to admit we need a few important people and to depend on them when life throws challenges our way. Professor Dunbar says there are about five of these very key relationships and calls them ‘shoulders to cry on relationships’. If our attachment type is insecure it’s much harder, if not impossible to establish and lean into these relationships. As John Bowlby said, it means our internal resources maybe overstretched. It’s then we can get overwhelmed and struggle.

So, this weekend, take a little time to think about the people who really get you, with whom you feel able to share your fears and vulnerabilities, who don’t shame you, and the connect. The boost you’ll get will permeate every area of your life.

Photo by Matt Gross on Unsplash

By Cathy Connan

I'm an integrative psychotherapist. I help people invest in their wellbeing and live the life they want.