How to Build Resilient Relationships that Pull Us Through Tough Times

When the going gets tough, the tough get going is a popular phrase. But for the most successful people on the planet, the saying takes on a twist: “when the going gets tough, don’t go at it alone.”

Everyone who embarks on a quest to fulfill their One Thing is going to experience their fair share of setbacks. During this period of growth, you’re going to get dirty and scrape your knees. You won’t just fall off your horse, you’ll lose a horse or two. Overcoming the obstacles takes an incredible amount of persistence.

You might be surprised to find that a big piece of that “don’t give up” attitude isn’t an attitude at all. It’s a skill and a mindset called “resilience.” And like we’ve talked about recently, it’s a reflex that anyone can build and strengthen. Possibly the biggest part of the equation of resilience can be found in the supportive relationships we build and surround ourselves with.

As we like to say, no one succeeds alone. Here we’re going to explore some of the key strategies people use to build the kind of relationships that are strong, supportive, and mutually beneficial.

Building Bridges

Ideally, parental figures are the relationships that help us become resilient in our early years. Be it a grandparent, an older sibling, or a teacher – children who have a stable, competent, nurturing figure in their lives are significantly more likely to flourish. In fact, psychiatrist Saul Levine lists a strong “primary attachment” as the single most important factor in a child’s life. That’s because those people allow us to grow, learn and expand our horizons while giving us a firm place to call home. They’re the person who teaches us how to interpret the world, makes us feel safe, meets our needs and protects us.

As we age, who fills that roll and how it functions changes. Instead of a teacher or parent, we look toward mentors and partners to fill in that role. (And vice versa.) Each resilient relationship connects us to a larger social network.  According to Levine, this growing sense of “social belonging” is a key ingredient for resilience.

He defines social belonging as follows:

“This refers to a sense of being an integral, accepted, appreciated part of a community. It is more than merely being with like-minded people; support and nurturance are de rigeur. It encompasses the sharing of noteworthy personal (pain and pleasure) experiences, mutual empathy, common goals, and a sense of being affiliated and “connected” in a basic, meaningful way.”

Not only does the feeling of belonging to a group give our lives a greater sense of meaning and purpose, but it also provides us with a support system. We need this support. Without it, we’re left without the perspective and strengths of others that in turn, shape what we view is possible and manageable. Without that aid, obstacles can feel exponentially larger—literally.

We’ve written about this study before, but it’s worth repeating. In 2008, a group of researchers set up an experiment to see how the way we view obstacles is impacted by relationships. Students were given a heavy backpack and asked to stand in front of a hill alone or with a friend by their side and then measure the degree of the slope they faced. What they found was that those who stood with a friend were more likely to view the slope as less steep than those who stood alone.

A complimentary study took things a step further, and instead of standing next to a friend, students were asked to think of a positive, neutral, or negative relationship and judge the slope while again wearing a heavy backpack. The study produced similar results and found that just thinking about a warm relationship made the obstacle they stood in front of seem smaller.

We need help, we need friendship, we need support, and we need to be smart about who we let into our lives. When looking to build a resilient relationship in our life, look for the following 5 things:

  1. Emotional Support

Everyone goes through ups and downs. That’s why resilient relationships are reciprocated. Sometimes we’re the ones in turmoil and other times, they are. While it’s normal to sometimes fall apart during tough times, it’s important to remember that people who are constantly in a state of emotional turmoil aren’t always the healthiest for us to be around.

It sounds harsh, but relationships of any kind require a give-and-take. That means being able to lean on someone, and then having an opportunity for them to lean on you as well. While it might seem odd, it’s important. Having the opportunity to give might actually be a matter of life and death. One study found the more emotional support we provide to our spouses, the lower our risk of mortality. So, if you find yourself in a one-way relationship, it might be time to make some changes!

  1. A Respect for Boundaries

From childhood and onward, boundaries are important. When draw a line and establish consequences for taking a step over that line, we establish with clearly define expectations.

It some ways, it’s like writing a paper for school. (Remember those? Good riddance.) You start a new class, you have a new teacher who has specific requirements for what constitutes a “good paper”, but what are they? If you had a good teacher, they would give you a rubric: something that very specifically laid out what their expectations were. If you didn’t, you’d have to fly blind, hoping that what you did was what they wanted.

These expectations aren’t limiting—they’re freeing. They allow us to take meaningful action. Furthermore, by understanding our intentions and purposes within a relationship, we can welcome the support and tough love they bring.  It’s a key to creating strong, lasting, healthy relationships that are built on mutual understanding, communication, and mutual compromise.

  1. Shared Accountability

We all have that friend who encourages us to cut class, leave the office early, or shirk our responsibilities. While playing  , we’re our healthiest, most resilient selves when we have people who we’ve given full authority to call us out on our crap.

Those who hold us accountable, are the ones that keeps us growing.

As children, being held responsible helps prepare us for the realities of adulthood – everyone has responsibilities, and we are all accountable for something or someone. Being resilient relies on a sense of responsibility. And responsibility stems from accountability. As we grow, that expanding sense of responsibility for ourselves and our actions helps build opportunity and awareness.

When it comes to looking for people in your life, make sure they’re not only responsible themselves, but that you both hold a shared sense of responsibility for each other. That way, you know that you can rely on them, and they will hold you to a higher standard, so you remain reliable, too.

  1. A Set of Core Values

Values, a moral compass, a raison d’être – whatever you’d like to call it, it’s essential to make connections with people who have a guiding internal principle. Ideological beliefs are a key part of creating a strong, moral sense of who we are, and more than that, they create a sense of consistency.

People with a strong sense of values, like boundaries, have clear definitions of who they are, what they’re about, and how the interact with the world. Those values dictate how they make decisions, set goals, and deal with difficulties. For people who have selfish values, or lack any sense of morality, it’s unlikely they’ll be there to help you when the going gets tough. Their relationships are, instead, defined by their own ego, materialism, and competition.

If you’re the type to look for warning signs: avoid people who always have to be right, refuse to look at different perspectives, are only concerned with their needs, only show up when it is easy or convenient for them, and don’t offer reciprocation (be it for emotional support, hanging out, mentorship, or beyond).

Instead, try looking for people who have a strong moral compass that you either identify with or deeply respect. This is key to building deeper, more meaningful relationships. You’ll both be on the same wavelength, make decisions you can mutually respect, and rely on one another for support.

  1. Reliability

No one likes a fair-weather friend. When you’re looking for someone to include in your inner circle, you want to make sure that they’ll, ya know, actually be there. King Arthur’s round table wouldn’t have been very impressive if half of his knights weren’t around. And your life will be equally lacking if the people you rely on, well, aren’t there.

Keep an eye on the people you know – do they show up when you need them? Do they tell you what you want to hear or what you need to hear? Do they hold themselves responsible for their own feelings or do their feelings hinge on the actions of others? The reality is, we aren’t always fun. Relationships aren’t always fun. People who really care aren’t just in it for the good times, they’re in it for the hard ones as well. Knowing that someone will be there for you consistently is a key part of resilience. It helps build and establish trust, respect, and a sense of emotional safety. Likewise, make sure you’re the kind of person who is consistently there for those people in return.

***

When it comes to our lives, the day to day can be stressful enough without having to wonder who we can or can’t depend on. But surrounding ourselves with steadfast, reliable people   can make any bad day seem significantly less taxing. Likewise, we’ll learn to love, respect, and (hopefully) emulate the people in our lives who embody these qualities so we can be better partners/friends/mentors ourselves.

 

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