Relationships are an essential component of a healthy, fulfilling life, but they can take a heck of a lot of work. As 2022 winds down, Well is looking back at some of the relationship-building strategies we covered over the past year to help you deepen your friendships or romantic partnerships going forward.
1. Assume people like you.
Making friends in adulthood takes initiative, and it can be daunting to put yourself out there. Remind yourself that the people you meet are more apt to like you than you presume, said Marisa Franco, a psychologist who studies friendship and who wrote the 2022 book “Platonic: How the Science of Attachment Can Help You Make — and Keep — Friends.”
“That is based on research into the ‘liking gap,’” Dr. Franco explained, or the idea that we tend to underestimate how well-liked we are. There is also a separate but related theory known as the “acceptance prophecy,” which says that when people assume others like them, they tend to be friendlier and more open. If you’re looking to make friends, your mind-set really matters, Dr. Franco said.
2. Don’t underestimate small acts of kindness.
A study that tasked participants with doing kind things for others found that the participants underestimated how appreciated those gestures were. That held true whether they did something for someone they knew (like baking cookies for a friend or giving a classmate a ride home) or for a stranger (like giving someone a free cup of hot chocolate on a frigid day).
“People tend to think that what they are giving is kind of little, maybe it’s relatively inconsequential,” said Amit Kumar, an assistant professor of marketing and psychology at the University of Texas, Austin, and an author of the study, published in August. “But recipients are less likely to think along those lines. They consider the gesture to be significantly more meaningful because they are also thinking about the fact that someone did something nice for them.”
If you’re not one for baking, or you just cannot see yourself buying hot drinks for strangers, don’t force it. Instead, consider your skills and talents, and ask yourself: How can I turn those into offerings for others?
3. Embrace the power of the casual check-in.
Calling, texting or emailing a friend just to say “hello” tends to mean more than we realize, according to a 2022 study that included 13 small experiments. In some, participants contacted someone they considered a friend; in others, they got in touch with someone they were friendly with but considered a weak tie. Across the board, those reaching out underestimated how much doing so meant to the person on the receiving end.
To demonstrate how little it takes to lift someone’s spirits, the researchers intentionally kept the bar low for what constituted “getting in touch.” “Even sending a brief message reaching out to check in on someone — just to say ‘Hi,’ that you are thinking of them, and to ask how they’re doing — can be appreciated more than people think,” said Peggy Liu, Ben L. Fryrear Chair in Marketing, an associate professor of business administration at the University of Pittsburgh’s Katz Graduate School of Business and an author of that study.
4. ‘Turn toward’ your partner throughout the day.
John and Julie Gottman, who are married psychologists, have spent decades studying what makes marriage tick, and in their 2022 book, “The Love Prescription: 7 Days to More Intimacy, Connection and Joy,” they argue that much of it boils down to “turning toward” your spouse.
As the Gottmans, who co-founded the Gottman Institute, point out, partners make repeated bids for each others’ attention throughout the day. In response, the other partner can react in several different ways: ignore the outreach (turning away); respond negatively (turning against); or acknowledge the bid positively with something as simple as a nod or touch (turning toward).
“Let’s say I say to John, ‘Wow, look at that beautiful bird out the window!’” Julie explained. “John can totally ignore me. He can say, ‘Would you stop trying to interrupt me? I’m reading.’ Or he can say, ‘Wow, yeah!’” In one of the Gottmans’ best-known experiments, they watched couples over the course of a day and found that those who stayed married for years “turned toward” each other more than 80 percent of the time. Those who went on to divorce did so only about 30 percent of the time.
5. Acknowledge the ‘normal marital hatred,’ too.
Terrence Real, a family therapist and author of the 2022 book “Us: Getting Past You and Me to Build a More Loving Relationship,” believes that in most partnerships, there are three phases of love: harmony, disharmony and repair. Yet our culture does not equip people to talk about — or deal with — that expected second stage of disharmony or disillusionment. Simply acknowledging it to yourself and your partner can help.
“I’ve run around the country for 20 years, talking about what I call ‘normal marital hatred,’ and not one person has ever come backstage to ask what I meant by that,” Mr. Real said.
6. Cultivate ‘freudenfreude.’
Unlike schadenfreude, when we take pleasure in others’ misfortunes, “freudenfreude” describes the bliss we feel when someone else succeeds — even if it doesn’t involve us. There are benefits to sharing in someone else’s joy. It can foster resilience and improve life satisfaction.
One easy way to experience more freudenfreude is to check in with your friends and loved ones about their small victories or the bright spots in their day. Doing so turns you into a “joy spectator” — and gives you an opportunity to see the people around you at their best.