How Relationships Heal Us: Connection, Health, & Energy

My husband calms me. Joe and I entertain ourselves with art and home improvement projects. We brainstorm tile mosaics on long car rides. We consult about family therapy (he too is a psychologist). We talk about good books and he gives me ideas for topics and language. We laugh really hard at things we both understand on a level of deep bodily knowing.

After a few hours with Joe, I burst forth into my writing or collaging – or repaint a room or finish a redecorating project I’d started months before. I calm down, feel more focused and comfortable in my skin, breathe deeper, sleep better, think more clearly, drive more safely, exercise more consistently, and experience improved digestion and elimination. Yes, I said elimination. And it’s true.

It’s all about relationship. There’s a blue paperback I require all my students to read called, “How Connections Heal: Stories from Relational Cultural Therapy,” edited by Maureen Walker and Wendy Rosen. I discovered it quite by accident in a textbook pamphlet I received in the mail. In this blue book, I RE-discovered a treasure box of ideas from graduate school – and learned them again in a whole new way. Here’s the essence of Relational Cultural Theory.

  1. We all crave human connection. This is universally true. We need genuine, emotional connection so much that we’ll do just about anything to get it.
  2. We try so much to “belong” or “fit in” that we compromise our own values, comfort, and boundaries to do so (think of high heels and cosmetic surgery here).
  3. We even hide our true selves from the very relationships we most want to preserve – because we fear that revealing our inner feelings will jeopardize what connections we have (e.g., “I don’t want to start a fight with him.”).
  4. As we contort our true selves to maintain even a shallow version of these needed connections, we’re more likely to become depressed, abuse alcohol, eat too much, or get sick in some other way.
  5. On the other hand . . . when we feel understood by someone and feel we can share our true feelings, we stop twisting ourselves into images of perfection. We relax. We relate. We get energy. We get ideas. We do our best work. And our bodies respond with all sorts of happy neurobiological benefits.

How does this work? Through a number of channels. From one angle, evidence shows we pay less proactive attention to our bodies and health when we feel rejected – while people who feel accepted by others tend to regulate their eating and other self-focused behaviors. From another angle, the vagus nerve plays a huge role in lowering heart rate and blood pressure when we feel connected, loved, and understood. In fact, researchers call it the “smart vagus” because of how well it works to inform the whole brain/body of our relationship safety, or lack thereof.

When Joe and I are at odds with each other, I get stomach aches. I feel distracted. I sleep fitfully. When I feel disconnected from him, I lose track of why I was going to the store. I get stuck in my writing projects and stare gloomily at the computer screen. Unused paintbrushes stand up in a jar and call to me while blank canvases lean against a wall and collect dust.

I think the body perceives safety and deep connection as conditions for creativity and release. When we feel understood, we get free to imagine the possibilities in everyday life. When we feel accepted for who we are (instead of who we pretend to be), we have more energy available for digestion and metabolism, exercise, self-nurturing, and learning.

When our bodies tell us we are known and loved, we are free to know and love our bodies. We are free to learn and grow and create.