Building an unbreakable bond in 2019: How to make the most of your relationships in the new year

Better Living: Forget extreme diets and crazy exercise regimes, your priority for the year ahead should be making the most of your relationship with yourself and others, writes Regina Lavelle

Partners need to make time for each other

Regina Lavelle

It's not an accident that New Year's resolutions follow the festive season like a hungover apology follows a wild night out.

We need to make amends for the sibling rows, the "just one more" at the local while pissed off babysitters check their watches, and the reproachful liver pains of Stephen's Day morning.

But what if this year you bonded over the mince pies, nurtured your nearest and dearest, and made sure the only mess to clear up the next day is the dishes? It may be possible…

Psychologists believe the first step to improving your relationships is ensuring that you aren't the problem.

"If you don't have a good relationship with yourself, then it's almost impossible to have a good relationship with anybody else," says Anne Colgan, Chair of the Irish Council for Psychotherapy.

"We're raised to consider others first, it's in our psyche, so we don't tend to prioritise ourselves, but this is important so we can build on our relationship with others."

Texting someone is fine but a voice call means a lot more

If the first lesson in enhancing relationships with those closest to us is to learn how to put ourselves first occasionally, how then do we attend to the other friendships in our lives?

Partners - Beware the complacency trap and carve out time for each other

Often the person with whom you spend the most time can be the one most neglected. Parents can end up as little more than workmates toiling for uniquely uncompromising bosses.

Those without children immerse themselves in careers only to discover that no relationship remains when they finally resurface.

"Taking care of someone is not about material things," says Terri Morrissey, CEO, Psychological Society of Ireland.

"It's about showing the other person you value them. If your partner has drifted away then it's a wake-up call you haven't been paying attention. Partners should check in on each other every day - and really listen. Put yourself in the other's shoes."

Colgan says that partners need to make time for each other. "A date night is crucial - time for each other on your own. This doesn't need to be a night out necessarily - it's about carving out the time. Getting this time has always been difficult. Going back 20 or 30 years ago, mother did everything in the house; fathers, everything outside. They often didn't do things 'together'.

"Parents who feel guilty about children should remember that parents spending time together brings security for children as they see their parents interacting. It also teaches boundaries and how to respect them."

Siblings - Give but don't expect to receive

Ah, the brutal zero sum game of a sibling relationship, the one where you're always keeping score. Even if you aren't engaged in open warfare, most sibling relationships involve some degree of guerrilla fighting with skirmishes flaring up in the disputed territory of the family home. But if we're honest, most of us are open to peace terms.

Colgan says: "If there's a tense row, explain your actions without reheating the argument. The tendency is to be defensive rather than admitting, 'I felt hurt'.

"Ask yourself if you've been in the wrong or if you're actually trying to change the other person. With siblings, you need to make a gesture, but don't expect anything in return."

There will always be differing dynamics between siblings - Morrissey says this is normal. "I'm the eldest with three brothers so I'll always be 'Sis', because I forged a path for the rest of them.

"Every family has rows and maybe relationships break down, but it's important not to let them fester if you can. Reconnecting isn't easy but work on your similar interests to find a way."

Children - Don't baby the kids

Having a better relationship with your child helps them transition into young adults, which is not always easy - for either party.

"Make space to listen to the child," advises Morrissey. "It's not about the amount of time you spend with them, it's about the quality of time you're spending and respecting them during that time."

Colgan also says that engaging with children - especially making space for play time - is pivotal. She also advocates encouraging children gradually into greater responsibility.

"Idle threats are not good, particularly with young people - eight, nine, 10 and up. So if you're entrusting them to get themselves up to their own alarm clock and then if they fail to do so, they learn the consequences. When children get to a certain age, they can make their own lunch. When you do too much, you lose respect for yourself, so setting some simple chores around the house teaches the children that everyone contributes. This helps develop a sense of independence and they will respect you more for it."

Parents - Underpromise and over-deliver

Much has been made of the Facebook grannies who keep in touch with their grandchildren online, but both psychologists advocate phone communication, rather than expecting them to be grateful for the odd update.

"Contact with the voice is really important, social media and text isn't quite the same," says Morrissey. "Again it's about making time for people and making them feel valued. People are busy, yes, but when you think about the amount of time people spend on devices, a portion of that can be devoted to getting out and meeting people."

Colgan says that honesty is key and what is often framed as family 'commitments' should be better explained.

"This can be a relationship laden with obligation - on both sides. Maybe it's the family lunch you have to attend every Sunday. Instead of saying, 'We must have lunch every week', they should say, 'We really miss you and we want to see more of you'."

She also advises that children - especially adult children - take responsibility and tell parents when arrangements don't suit them, rather than committing to plans only to cancel, thereby disappointing everyone.

Friends - Texts are no substitute for a call

Once, no minutiae was too insignificant to warrant a call, no snubbing too imagined not to merit retelling; now you're reduced to exchanging bimonthly greetings in a WhatsApp group, and yet, many such friendships seem to endure.

Morrissey says to remember not to take each other for granted, in spite of such endurance.

"Relationships have to be two-way. The word here is reciprocity. Some people drift away and then wonder why the other person isn't making an effort. These mistakes lead to estrangement and it's important people learn to acknowledge their mistakes."

But where some friendships can endure long absences even without talking, others fail apparently at a whim. Calibrating the different needs of various friends is a skill we need to learn, Colgan advises.

"Sometimes you have friends you might not speak to for six months and it's as if you've never been apart. Other friends need more connection. The difficulty now is that we're all living far apart - different cities, different countries, and it's not always possible to see them. The best connection is hearing someone's voice, there's no substitute for that. So pick up the phone. Let them know you're thinking about them."