One evening in a counseling session, I asked a couple who was struggling with financial differences to create a budget together. I gave them an outline of a budget and told them they had 15 minutes to work it out while I left the room.
When I returned to my office, I asked them if they had completed the budget, and they said yes. As they handed me their budget, I briefly reviewed it and then set it aside. I told them the exercise had very little to do with creating a budget and more to do with how safe they had kept each other while working through a difficult situation.
I asked, “As you worked on the budget, did you listen respectfully to each other? Did you validate each other’s ideas? Were you patient with each other? Did you try to find win-win solutions to the problems instead of just promoting your own agendas?” I then asked them to grade each other (A, B, C, D, or F) with regard to how safe the other person made them feel while working on the budget together. Sadly, they gave each other a D.
The Dangers of “Winning” Conversations
Often it is not a particular issue in our lives like creating a budget that creates anxiety and worry or ruins our relationships. It is the process that we use that creates feelings of fear, distrust, anxiety, and contempt for one another. Most of the processes we’ve been taught consciously or subconsciously—especially if we come from high-conflict homes or have been in high-conflict marriages—are ones that teach us to “win” conversations or conflicts by promoting our own ideas rather than “win” the situation by keeping ourselves and the people we value emotionally and physically safe.
Resolving any difficult issue in a marriage, friendship, or other type of relationship is possible if we can remember to keep each other feeling safe and loved or appreciated in the process. It is hard to expect two people to want to stay around each other if one or both people regularly feel unsafe because of the words, actions, and attitudes of the other. Unless we can learn how to love each other and keep each other emotionally safe, we will not experience one of the greatest human feelings of being connected with another person.
Learning Safe Vulnerability from Our Father
Our Father in Heaven understands the importance of keeping us safe in our most vulnerable moments. As we bring Him the offering of a broken heart and contrite spirit and demonstrate our ability to be honest about our weaknesses, He in return promises us the comfort of His Holy Spirit. Can you imagine if we didn’t have the promise of that comfort? The exposed feelings that come along with weakness, mistakes, sin, and repentance might be unbearable for us and discourage us from returning to ask for help to improve.
So how can we apply this same heavenly kindness in our own interactions with each other? Everything Jesus Christ and Heavenly Father does for us is done out of love—a love that when understood can leave no place for fear. Just like perfect love can cast out fear, it can also cast out stress and distrust, but in order for us to have that kind of love in our lives we need to be able to connect to the sources of love in our lives. Unfortunately, many of us today cannot or don’t know how to make those connections of love. I would say that is, perhaps, the primary reason people end up in my office—they have lost the ability to connect to who matters most in their lives.
Why Connection Is a Basic Human Need
This couple I mentioned in the beginning is not unique. Our modern lives and attitudes often set us up to be disconnected from the things and people that matter most. The problem with this is that connection is a basic human need. Without connections to the world around us, we fall apart psychologically and physically. Many of us are familiar with tales of orphans in Eastern European countries having severe emotional troubles and, in some cases, even dying from a lack of love. While many of these stories have been exaggerated, manipulated, or misquoted over the years, in their book Born for Love psychiatrists Bruce D. Perry and Maria Szalavitz explain that a lack of affection can actually cause death: “When an infant falls below the threshold of physical affection needed to stimulate the production of growth hormone and the immune system, his body starts shutting down.”
Most of us may not run the risk of physically dying from a lack of love, but we do run the risk of suffering severe negative impacts our health. There is a very real tie between the quality of our relationships and our health.
One way psychologists have studied connection over the years is through what is known as attachment theory. Basically, this looks at how safe people feel in their connection to the most important people in their lives. Most attachment theory focuses on babies and their parents, but the patterns that emerge during those early years are proven to affect us as adults also.
Basically what they’ve found is that people tend to form four types of connections: secure, avoidant, ambivalent, or disorganized. If you are avoidant, ambivalent, or disorganized in your attachment style, you are more likely to struggle since avoiding relationships, not caring about relationships, or not prioritizing your relationships properly, the belief that relationships are fundamentally unsafe is confirmed and the conviction that our needs will never be met through relationships is solidified. Shallow connections and isolation are the result, which can even lead to anxiety, depression, and other health problems.
Building the Connections God Intended Us to
One famous study looked at over 900 centenarians in Okinawa for more than 30 years and found that one of the best indicators of good health and disease survivability was how many social connections an individual had. If a person had few social connections they were more likely to die before old age. If they felt they had a solid social safety net, they were not only more likely to live longer lives but they also had better disease survivability and experienced a higher quality of life with lower rates or dementia and depression.
To put it more simply: we were designed as humans to be safely connected to the people around us. This doesn’t mean that we all have to have enough friends to win a popularity contest, but it does mean that we need to spend time and energy building secure and safe connections with those around us.
Think about when you feel the safest—the most physically and emotionally secure. Is it when you are wrapped up in a blanket reading a good book or watching a movie, giving you the feeling others are present with you? Is it when you are with your spouse, children, or your family? Think about the last time you got a hug from someone you trusted. That relaxed feeling that washed through your body? That’s attachment at work.
Of course, we are not just physical beings. As members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we are fond of saying we are spiritual beings having a mortal journey. That is nowhere truer than it is in the context of connection. God designed this life to revolve around connections. He means for us to interact with, rely on, and relate to the people around us.
Connecting with Christ by Connecting with Others in His Earthly Ministry
Christ himself emphasized that human relationships and connections with each other are equal in value to our relationship with Him, saying “Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me” (Matthew 25:45). On another occasion He taught, “Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee; Leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift” (Matthew 5:23-24). These correlations between our relationships to others and our relationship with our Lord are direct ones. The better we are connecting with others in Christlike ways, the better we will be at connecting with Christ, and the better we are at connecting with Christ, the better we will be at connecting with others.
One reason this is true is that it is through experiencing loving relationships with each other that we are able to understand His love for us. Christ was and is aware that we cannot have a connection with Him while we are in conflict with our fellow man. Not only is it contrary to the gospel He taught, but it also makes it impossible to build the kingdom of God on earth if there is enmity between people. Christ makes it very clear, “If you are not one, you are not mine” (Doctrine and Covenants 38:27).
The sins with the worst consequences are those that harm the connections between our spirit brothers and sisters and ourselves. The worst thing that can happen to a spiritual being is what happened to Satan in premortality: being cast out. By insisting on rebelling against Father, Lucifer set himself up to be forever separate and alone. Our Latter-day Saint theology teaches us that hell is not a never-ending ring of flames. Rather, it is an outer darkness, an eternal loneliness that forever severs the sinner from their families and their Lord.
Think about all the ways our Father in Heaven organizes His work on earth. We are set up in wards and stakes and assigned to minister to each other. We are commanded to gather together every seven days to worship and, at least once a month, share our deepest convictions and experiences. We are told over and over that the most basic unit of heaven is the family. Everywhere you look, Father is pushing us to connect with the people around us. It is the single best way to help us become more like Him. After all, He is the ultimate connection: a loving parent who has known us and will love us for eternity.
3 Simple Ways to Improve Our Relationships
If connection is so important that a lack of it can harm our health and kill our spirits, then what do we do when we find ourselves struggling with our connections? If relationships are of paramount importance, how do we build stronger ones? Over the years, I’ve found that it is easiest for people to break down their connections into three basic groups and pick one way to shore up those connections.
Connection happens on three dependent levels: Connection with yourself, connection with God, and connection with others. Without the first, you cannot have the second or the third. Think about the types of connections you have or want to have in your life and begin brainstorming ways that you can improve your connection with yourself through self-reflection, journaling, meditation, or other things that can help you learn about you. Then move on to finding ways to improve your connection with God, and so on. This doesn’t mean you have to perfect each level of connection before you move on to the next. None of us will ever be perfect—what is most important is that you build a bit on each level continuously. As we become more self-aware in honest and growing ways, as we begin to see ourselves through God’s eyes and understand our eternal value, and as we begin to unify with our brothers and sisters in the building of God’s kingdom, we will begin to experience the joy that comes from being connected.