With Valentine’s Day right around the corner, we often find ourselves thinking more about the quality of the relationships in our lives. This may relate to romantic partners, family members, close friends and acquaintances, coworkers, or anybody else in our lives. While people’s desires for social connections may vary based on their unique preferences, humans evolved as social animals and we all benefit from meaningful relationships in some capacity. Healthy social connections provide us with validation, respect, a sense of safety and belonging, and we can even notice reductions in symptoms related to stress, anxiety, and depression.

So where to we begin when strengthening social connections? Naturally, there are countless ways to try and develop opportunities for intimacy, with some approaches being more or less appropriate depending on your pre-existing relationship with the other person. If you’re unsure where to start, then the following two strategies may be useful – whether you’re building new relationships or strengthening ones already established.

Create love maps
When you’re lost and need to better understand your whereabouts, you use a map. Love maps take that concept and apply it to ones’ inner world. The more personal information we learn about someone – ranging in intimacy levels from a list of their favourite hobbies to their greatest sources of inspiration – the closer and more connected we typically feel toward them. Our map of their world becomes a little more detailed. Coined by couples therapist and researcher Dr. John Gottman, love maps encourage the building of intimate connections based on genuine understanding of who we are as complex beings. Given that we grow and change in new ways on a daily basis, there are always new things to learn about one another.

A simple guide on creating love maps: https://www.gottman.com/blog/the-sound-relationship-house-build-love-maps/

Ask open-ended questions
Building on the idea of love maps, take a look at the following two questions:

  • “Are you happy?”
  • “What makes you happy?”

While these questions both address happiness, they create opportunities for drastically different answers. The first question is a closed-ended question, as it sets up the other person to answer with a fact or a short response: “Yes,” “No,” “Mostly,” or something along those lines. The second question, however, allows the responder to provide their own interpretation and meaning in their answer. As an open-ended question, the person asking the question opens up the opportunity for more sharing. Often, the answers will be more personal and meaningful. Asking more open-ended questions allows conversations to go beyond shallow answers in favour of meaningful discussions and connection-building. While closed-ended questions can be useful for learning facts (“Did you enjoy the movie?”), open-ended questions allow you to understand someone else’s perspective on a more personal level (“Why did you enjoy the movie?”).

An easy tip for introducing open-ended questions: simply ask, “why?”

If you are in need of some inspiration, check out the Gottman Card Decks app for both Apple and Android – it’s free

Ultimately, all relationships are unique. That’s part of what makes it so satisfying to explore the more personal aspects of relationships and determine what makes them so meaningful. While this sometimes requires us to put in a little extra effort, the result of a stronger and more personal connection is likely more than enough reward.

Submitted by: Brandon Langrock, Mental Health Practitioner

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