According to Robin Dunbar, a professor of evolutionary psychology at Oxford University, the average human can maintain relationships with up to around 150 people. Sure this number varies for each person, but it’s made us think about the relationships we value. Wanting to understand the three most important relationships in our lives – romantic relationships, relationships at work and relationships with friends – we dove into some pretty interesting research. Here’s what we’ve learned on strengthening relationships and how it can help improve our overall wellbeing and happiness.
What the Chicago Sex Survey Taught Us
Besides having an attention-getting name, the Chicago Sex Survey is full of interesting information. The national survey of health and social life questioned almost 3,500 people between 18 and 59, and is considered one of the most accurate and complete studies about romantic and sexual behavior in the United States.
One of the most surprising findings from this study was that 68% of all romantic encounters – all the way from one-night stands to marriages – happen because those two lovebirds were introduced by someone they knew.
As much as Hollywood movies romanticize this idea of wandering up to a stranger and hitting it off, most of us are going to be introduced to our significant other/spouse by a family member, a few cases of coworkers, classmates or neighbors, but typically, it’s going to be through our social network. Only 32% of those encounters happened through self-introduction.
A lot of popular dating apps are designed around this point of trying to match people who are just a few degrees separated. However, a word of caution here. These apps have evolved beyond dating tools to another form of social media. So many people seem addicted to the “Swipe Life” that even at a party or event filled with attractive potential mates, many are still glued to their phones.
How Emotional Bids Improve Relationships
When it comes to strengthening most important relationships of all kinds – romantic, friend, co-worker – we turned to Dr. John Gottman, one of the world’s leading experts on relationships. He introduced to us this concept of emotional bids.
An emotional bid is nothing more than one person’s attempt to establish an emotional connection.
These can be very deliberate and overt or very subtle. Something as simple as, “you’ll never guess what my boss told me today” or “I’m really stressed about this project at work” or even as simple as “I like this cup of coffee” is one person’s attempt to get a response and get some validation from the other person.
Dr. John Gottman’s research conclusively shows that our ability to react positively to emotional bids is a solid indicator of a healthy relationship. To make a relationship stronger, all we need to be able to do is validate another’s emotional bids. Validation doesn’t mean agreeing with what they’re saying. It’s just simply letting them know we understand where that emotion is coming from.
It sounds easy, but it requires being fully present and listening so we can pick up on these bids. Given the distractions of Swipe Life and other busyness, it can be hard to do. And when we don’t respond to emotional bids, that builds resentment. This resentment can build overtime and disrupt the entire relationship.
According to Dr. Gottman, married couples that have been in happy relationships for 40 to 50 years, they turned towards each other’s emotional bids 20 times more than unhappy couples. When he studied the same behavior in newlyweds throughout conversations that they had in his laboratory, he found that those who are married six years later turned towards their partner’s emotional bids 86% of the time. Those that ended up getting divorced six years later, it only turned towards their partner’s emotional bids 32% of the time. Although this research focuses on romantic love, these lessons can be applied to friend and even co-worker relationships.
Why Glue Guys and Girls Are Important
Of course, we realize that work relationships are very different from friend and romantic relationships, although there is sometimes an overlap in all of these areas. We spend a tremendous amount of our lives with co-workers, it’s important that these relationships are strong and healthy. In addition to the amount of time we spend with co-workers, these are among our most important relationships because they can have a huge impact on career opportunities and income. Also, for many people, work and purpose are interlinked. It makes sense that the workplace is where we’re going to find some or all of our purpose, and those meaningful connections are also going to influence this.
The science behind this really introduces a fascinating concept of a glue guy or a glue girl. It’s a funny term, but it makes sense when you dig a bit deeper. When it comes to teammates, the glue guys or girls are typically the behind the scenes co-workers. They’re the ones who are actively investing in relationships. They’re curious about how their colleagues are doing. They’re checking in, they’re looking to support, they have that friendly smile on at work.
Psychologists have found that very often, the success of a winning team cannot only be traced back to the key players or the coach, but to these players they’ve named the glue guys or glue girls.
They’re the ones who are going to be the most resilient, the least influenced by positive or negative emotions, the most willing to step up in that support role.
In a 2009 study, Beyond Reciprocity: Gratitude and Relationships in Everyday Life, Sarah Algoe and team showed that gratitude creates a self-perpetuating cycle that fosters relationship growth between individuals and the team as a whole. When we start showing gratitude to our team members, we’re leading from the seat that we’re in. We can become that glue guy or glue girl in our work organization.
We All Need Real Human Connection
Above all this insight, the most important thing when we’re looking for that loving partner or for stronger relationships at work or with friends, is self-love. It’s cliché but true, we’ve got to start caring about ourselves, and putting ourselves first. Thinking a lot about how we can be a better person and how we can show up for our most important relationships. When we build on ourselves, all these other things fall into place.