I’d like to ask you a question. What gives your life meaning?
Go ahead, give yourself a moment.
What are you coming up with? Your work. Enjoying art. Good food. Music. Being original. That thing you love to do on the weekends. Being outside. Making a hard earned income. Being creative.
If you said any of those, I can totally relate. And I’d love to hear about the one you thought of that hasn’t been mentioned.
Consider for a moment that there’s actually something deeper than all of this that gives your life meaning. Without this something, none of what just got mentioned has meaning anymore.
That something is relationships. Because if you were completely alone in the world, having any or all of those things we thought of earlier would suddenly be meaningless. You’d have no one to share them with.
(Photo: It started out as a kiss… by Tonya Wicht)
But, if you lost all of those things and still had solid relationships, life would continue to have meaning. Sure, it would probably be a major bummer for a while to be without that job/hobby/ability. But you’d get together with a friend or family member for support, and eventually figure out a way through it.
So, this of course leads me to thinking about how to build the kind of relationships that give our lives meaning. And this reflection leads me to something singular (yet again).
It’s something that has really been highlighted for me by an 84 year old whom I’ve known my whole life. My grandfather. He is someone that I feel very connected to. And if he’s one thing, it’s consistent. Consistent about his schedule. What he wears. Does for fun. Eats for lunch (peanut butter and jelly sandwich with a slice of American cheese.)
Most importantly from where I’m sitting, he’s consistent about getting back to me every time I reach out to him. If I call, he picks up. If I text, he texts back. When I suggested we go to India for three weeks, he got right back to me to say, “Let me think about it.” Then a few days later he called with, “Let’s do it!”
I share this idea of consistency to point to that one thing that builds strong, meaningful relationships.
It’s responsiveness. Essentially, when we reach out to someone, they reach back. By doing this over and over again, we build strong capital in the “relationship investment account” that we have with this person.
So what does responsiveness look like in practice? Let’s break it down.
Texting: when someone texts you, be sure to text them back within a few minutes or hours. Yes, even if they just sent you a silly cat video or an article that’s going to take forever to read. If you’re feeling lazy it can be “thanks!” or whichever emoji you’re keen on this week. And if you can’t get back to them within a few hours say, “Sorry to not get back quicker, out with friends. I’ll check this video/article/etc. out!” Lastly, if you find yourself doing a ton of texting or feeling somewhat agitated, give them a call and have a conversation.
Calling: when someone calls you, give them a call back. Simply texting back in response to a phone call can feel distant and disconnected. If you can’t talk right then, answer the phone and let them know when you can call back. Or text them back with “Thanks for the call! In a meeting right now, can I call you at 9pm?” Then put a reminder in your phone to do exactly that.
Time together: when someone reaches out to set up plans with you, reach back out to make it happen. Try to be flexible with your schedule, as this will make them feel important (which they are). And if you haven’t heard from them in a few weeks, go ahead and initiate spending time with them. You will always get more mileage out of setting up plans ahead of time rather than last minute, because it let’s them know they are important enough for you to set aside your valuable time.
A few traps to avoid:
– Canceling on them. This is probably the most important one. Each contact with this person is an investment into your relationship account, and flaking out takes several withdrawals out of that account. If you absolutely cannot make it to something you committed to, let them know as soon as you can. Include the very important reason why you cannot make it. And in that same call/message, try to offer another specific time that works to hang out together.
– Not reaching out because they haven’t reached out to you in awhile. Falling into this trap means you both lose. You lose because you’re left thinking they don’t care about you or are upset with you, they lose because they might be thinking something similar, and you both lose because you don’t get to spend quality time together.
– Waiting for something “better” to do to come up. It often doesn’t, and now you don’t have anything fun going on this evening. Plus, you have missed an opportunity to invest in the friendship account by committing to plans with them earlier.
Lastly, if a relationship is really important to you, double down on all of the above. If you tend to forget to respond to calls or messages, put reminders in your phone. (“Hey Siri, remind me to call Gramps today at 7pm.”) Also, check your messages and calls at the end of the day to make sure you didn’t forget to get back to one.
(Photo: Pragser Wildsee by Elena Morelli)
Responsiveness will build the kind of relationships that withstand the hard times and give your life meaning. Enjoy reaping the future rewards of your current relational investments, be it lunch with your grandfather, happy hour with your work colleague, or that weekend hike with your friend.
Jeremi McManus is a Relationship Therapist, Couples Therapist, and Author who works with people who want more fulfilling and satisfying relationships. His own ups and downs in dating and relating were instrumental in leading him into this field. If you feel like you could use some perspective, he looks forward to hearing from you. Jeremi is a Licensed Psychotherapist, and lives with his wife in the San Francisco Bay Area.