The Importance of Supportive Relationships

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Light We Carry" by Michelle Obama. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Why are supportive relationships important? How can you build a strong support network you can rely on in times of need?

We all need support, care, and companionship to remain mentally healthy. This need stems from our evolutionary roots: Belonging to a group was essential for survival when humans were primarily hunter-gatherers, so the desire for companionship is genetically wired into our brains.

Keep reading to learn about the importance of supportive relationships and how to develop a strong support network.

Create a Support System

Supportive relationships reduce stress, increase happiness, and can provide a source of motivation to live a healthy lifestyle. It’s especially important to build a whole system of supportive relationships. Many people rely on their spouses to provide the care, companionship, and support they need. While your spouse is an important source of support, forcing them to hold all the responsibility is unfair and could damage both of your mental health by increasing their stress and exhaustion, leaving you unsupported. Having a wide support system spreads this responsibility among many people while also increasing the odds that someone will be available to help you whenever you need support.

(Shortform note: Relying on a single person (such as your spouse) for support likely increases stress by using much of their time and energy, making it difficult for them to relax. Ironically, this stress can actually decrease their ability to recognize when you need support. As Michelle Obama says, having a variety of people for support alleviates this stress. In addition, people need different kinds of support, from a friend’s empathy to a therapist’s advice. The more people in your support system, the more likely it is that someone can meet your specific needs.)

Michelle Obama says a support system requires two main things: intentionality and acceptance. (Shortform note: Obama discusses both friendships and spousal relationships in her book. Her advice for both is largely the same, so we’ve consolidated the information into a single section.)

Practice Intentionality

Intentionality is vital to creating a support system and maintaining relationships. Obama says relationships are a process of building trust, reaching out, supporting each other, and celebrating each other’s personhood. You must commit to creating relationships and must care enough to put in effort. This includes interacting with strangers, getting people’s contact information, and scheduling time to interact with and learn about others.

(Shortform note: In Emotional Intelligence 2.0, Travis Bradberry and Jean Greaves agree that intentionality is an essential element in creating and maintaining relationships. They add a few specific areas to be intentional about: 1) Be open about yourself. 2) Be clear about your actions and intentions, and be mindful of your communication style. 3) Be respectful by treating others well and showing appreciation for them. Being intentional about these areas increases trust, reduces misunderstandings, and makes people feel more comfortable around you.)

Practice Acceptance

Obama notes that acceptance helps you overcome conflict, an essential part of maintaining relationships and celebrating other people’s personhood. No two people are the same, so conflict will appear in all relationships. Whether it’s as minor as different methods of folding laundry or as major as conflicting worldviews, you must support the other person despite your disagreements.

Acceptance is important because the core of a person doesn’t change, Obama explains.  People are molded by their personal history. The way they were raised, their life experiences, and the examples of intimacy and relationships they’ve had all affect the way they behave and approach relationships. Since people’s personalities and worldviews solidify through these decades of experiences, they’re not going to change just because they entered a relationship with you and added one new experience. They may adjust their behavior and compromise, but entering a relationship expecting them to change fundamentally will lead to heartache and further conflict.

Obama says learning about other people’s pasts can help you practice acceptance and celebrate their personhood. If you recognize how the other person’s history affects their actions, you’ll understand them better and be better suited to adapt and compromise in a healthy way.

Understanding and Balancing Conflicting Rules of Engagement

Obama describes the way that we’re molded and influenced by our experiences growing up. The customs and worldviews that we develop from childhood are called rules of engagement. These are unspoken familial rules that dictate how we’re allowed to behave. We learn these rules through trial and error: When we engage in a certain behavior and receive negative reactions, the brain prohibits the behavior. Common family rules include discouraging talk about feelings or difficult topics, requiring members to act in certain ways because of their age or sex, and enforcing that worth comes from success.

Every family has different rules of engagement, and it causes interpersonal conflict when people’s rules clash. For example, if you grew up not talking about difficult situations, your husband wanting to discuss them feels threatening. If you grew up with a healthy communication dynamic, your friend might seem cold and standoffish because she doesn’t open up emotionally. Expecting people to change their rules of engagement entirely will only result in more conflict, as these rules are so deeply ingrained that they can’t easily change. Thus, it’s important to accept and understand both your own and other people’s rules to reduce conflict.

While Obama stresses that people can’t change the core of who they are, she also points out that they can learn to compromise or adjust their behavior. This applies to people’s rules of engagement as well. Once you’ve identified the ways your and another person’s rules conflict, you can foster a stronger relationship and practice better communication. Be open with your loved ones about your experiences and why you behave the way you do. At the same time, push yourself to go beyond your comfort zone—for example, be open even when it’s uncomfortable, or remain calm even when you’re upset. Over time, you can become comfortable with healthier rules of engagement that better serve your relationship.
The Importance of Supportive Relationships

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Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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