Relationships and Love

Our relationships are fundamental to how we experience life and cope with challenges.

But sometimes it can be hard to connect and interact with others successfully without feeling “irked.”

While we have limited influence over others, we can learn ideas and tools that lead to solid, healthy, fulfilling relationships with family members, co-workers, mates, and friends.


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Practical Skills for More Fulfilling, Peaceful, and Effective Relationships

Our relationships are fundamental to how we experience life and cope with challenges. Get down-to-earth practical help for important relationships, with a focus on effective ways to handle issues, grounded in the combination of strength and heart.

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50 Simple, Powerful Practices for Solving Conflicts, Building Connection, and Fostering Love

Frequently Asked Questions

Psychologist and Author Dr. Rick Hanson answers questions about

Relationships and Love

I notice that you have a lot of offerings on how people can improve their relationships. Can I suggest that you consider offerings for people who don’t have family or fulfilling friendships, who are alone and perhaps lonely?

I appreciate you raising these issues of isolation and loneliness, in the larger context of the disruption of social bonds in America (i.e. the pandemic). I totally agree with you about their realness and impacts, including on the brain.

In The Strong Heart program, the emphasis is on skills for any kind of important relationship (not necessarily family or intimate partner). Though still, if one does not have many relationships at all, there is little in that program that would be relevant.

In Hardwiring Happiness, Resilient, and related online programs, there is quite a lot of material about doing whatever is possible in a relatively isolated life to build up a genuine sense of connection, and internalize these experiences. This of course does not change tough conditions, but it does address what we can do ourselves in those conditions. More broadly, most of the content I offer is about internal practice of one kind or another that is not connected to any kind of relationship.

Loneliness and isolation are tough, truly tough to deal with, and a sadly widespread issue.

When talking with others I’m very focused and mindful of the topic, but not of my conversation partner’s experience. Any recommendations?

Traditionally, mindfulness is defined essentially as sustained present moment awareness of everything in the field of experience. You are present rather than absent, recollective rather than forgetful.

In this light, we can be in flow while also being mindful, but the metacognitive aspects of mindfulness – a little bit of paying attention to attention, aware of awareness, to remain mindful – do tend to pull people out of flow unless they develop the capacity to integrate flow and mindfulness.

In your case, you might explore what it is like to be really passionate and engaged, including intellectually, while also continuing to keep a bit of awareness for the overall situation, including the reactions of other people.

Can you use the HEAL process to heal attachment issues?

You can use the HEAL process to internalize any beneficial experience, growing more of the good inside. So for attachment issues, you could use it with experiences that originate in actual here-and-now interactions or relationships with others. And you could also use it with experiences that you create by recalling past interactions and relationships, as well as with experiences of your own caring, kindness, respect, support, friendship, and love flowing out from you, since love is love whether it is flowing in or flowing out. Personally, I like the many options that this approach gives one, especially if the actual relationships in one’s life today are not that conducive to having key experiences targeted at old wounds.

You write: “Is it painful to feel love because it stirs up old frustrated longings…so that you dial down the love to suppress the longings?” Where can I find answers to this enigma?

We can have desires for love (in many forms, including simple decent treatment of us by others) that reach all the way back to infancy.  Sometimes these desires – wishes, hopes, needs, wants, longings – are tended well by others even if not perfectly. And sometimes they are not – perhaps traumatically, though more often by lots of little disappointments and mistreatments that accumulate over time in emotional memory. Naturally, the brain associates the longing for love to the pain we feel when it is not given appropriately to us.

So then when today that longing is stirred up, even in simple ways like meeting someone who might become a friend, the brain/mind quickly associates that desire to the (understandable) expectation of pain…so then we withdraw in one way or another – unless we are conscious of this process, and with self-compassion and insight can “step in” inside our own mind to remind ourselves that this is now not then, and that we can indeed open a bit and see what happens and if it goes well, keep opening a little more, step by clear seeing step.

Does mindfulness mean being submissive? What is the difference between allowing someone or something to take advantage of you vs. letting go?

When we sustain a mindful awareness of outer events or inner experience, we are actually doing the opposite of submitting to them, in the sense you mean. We are recognizing them as facts – like them or not, they exist – perhaps with a sense of acceptance or serenity, but not letting them control us.

In fact, when we fight with them – like getting angry at having certain thoughts – they are controlling us. And, with the perspective and wisdom that come from awareness and investigation, we can be strong, forceful, even passionate in speaking truth to power – both out there, and (often more importantly) inside our own heads.

What we let go of mainly are our unhelpful, unhappy reactions to things. We don’t let go of recognizing and standing up against injustice, or let go of our legitimate interests.

The main things that take advantage of us are our fearful, angry, self-doubting reactions to things.

Check out my chapter on kindness and assertiveness in Buddha’s Brain and see what you think.

How do I relate to colleagues when they are not meeting my expectations?

Compassion can live alongside discernment, performance expectations, and assertiveness. You can have compassion – the basic wish that they not suffer, usually with feelings of sympathetic concern – for your colleagues, and you can restrain and release any ill will toward them (including any righteousness or disdain), while also making skillful choices about what you might say and how you might say it.

Does the brain develop primarily due to the influence of relationships?

While the social dimension to life is profoundly important, it is just one of several major influences on the developing brain, especially past the first birthday. For example, the brain is incredibly shaped by a young child’s interior sensations, their engagement with sensorimotor experiences, and by their interior reflections (largely nonverbal) about their world and their self.

When going through the “Link” stage of your HEAL process, should my positive thought be one of love from others, even those I feel betrayed by?

It is natural to continue to be bothered by negative thoughts and feelings long after a loss and psychological injury that’s as large as the one you experienced. In my model of the three ways to engage the mind – let be, let go, let in – sometimes it take many months, or even several years, to get through the first two of these. Try not be overwhelmed by the pain.

Then, on the basis of truly letting be and letting go, you can now let in most effectively, such as internalizing positive experiences of feeling cared about by others (e.g., friends, children), and feeling worthy and good in your own being. Then the linking step of holding both positive and negative in your mind will be most effective.

More generally, it helps me get free of my own suffering in relationships when I can see the suffering in others and have compassion for them. This does not mean I approve or let them off the moral hook, just that I also recognize their own pain and difficulties. Besides being benevolent, this seeing of the suffering of others paradoxically helps me feel less upset.

What can I do to help someone who doesn’t want to be helped or can’t accept what is offered?

I find myself thinking about the wisdom of people I know who have much more experience than I have with this territory. They stay centered and kind while also establishing clear boundaries, understanding that they can speak truth as they see it from their heart but ultimately cannot make anyone do anything. They also do what’s possible to bring in more resources, such as competent professionals.

You say that the brain has powerful, natural capacities toward intimacy. What, then, do you believe causes some of us to isolate ourselves or feel alone?

Many reasons. Sometimes the longing for closeness led to pain in the past, or we saw this happen to others, or we simply worried that it could happen to us.

The trick now is to risk the dreaded experiences related to intimacy in thoughtful, appropriate ways that are likely to succeed. Then, when things go well (as they usually do), really take in the good of this experience, to help your brain gradually learn that it is OK to get closer to others.

Can “Taking In The Good” help in relationships?

Yes, studies show that for most people most of the time – each day, week, month, year, and lifetime – they are having many more positive experiences than negative ones. Of course, there are important and sometimes tragic exceptions that need to be acknowledged, too, such as people at home and abroad living in terrible poverty, or with chronic pain or depression. The problem is that the brain has a feature that worked great for survival in the wild, but today functions as a kind of design flaw in terms of quality of life and long-term health: the brain generally lets positive experiences flow through while capturing all the negative ones.

This is why “taking in the good” is so important: by staying with positive experiences for a dozen or more seconds in a row, we can capture them and weave them into the fabric of the brain and the self.

The noteworthy researcher on marriage, John Gottman, found that happy, lasting couples had at least a 5:1 ratio of positive to negative interactions (and often an even higher ratio), and found that falling below this 5:1 ratio was a major risk factor for eventual divorce. Without getting into numbers, which could be misleading, the key takeaway point is that much research shows that negative experiences are generally more memorable, more reactive to the body, and more consequential in how we feel and see the world. This is true in all time frames, whether a day or a lifetime.

Therefore, the practical steps are: (A) bear negative experiences when they happen without getting all negative about them (which just adds negative to negative), (B) help yourself get through a negative experience as gracefully and as a soon as you can, and (C) really cultivate positive experiences, and when you are having them, really focus on them to take them in.

Will you speak to the process of dealing with a relationship loss?

It is natural for the mind to revisit again and again material related to a loss (e.g., images, longings, thoughts, I-wish-I’d-said). That’s part of the normal grieving process. In meditation and in general, what’s usually wise is to allow the material to be there, take some seconds or minutes to know it for what it is, hold it in a larger space of awareness and interest, and try not to identify with it as “me” or “mine”: it is there in the mind but it is content like any other, such as a sound, sensation, memory, etc. And also for sure bring gentle compassion and kindness to yourself.

In addition to this fundamental mindfulness approach, it can also often be helpful to gently but actively let the loss-related material go, such as focusing on exhaling, reminding yourself that partings are widely common and inevitable ultimately for all of us, bowing to reality as it is whether you like it or not, or mentally saying goodbye to the person.

And helpful to take in, to receive, positive feelings and thoughts of being cared about by others.

You write that one survival strategy is creating separations. Why? How do humans benefit from the brain creating this separation?

At a physical level, any living organism needs to create lots of boundaries, both between itself and the world, and inside itself in terms of distinguishing between itself and germs, or distinguishing among different bodily systems and processes. Mentally, organisms – especially the smarter they get, like us – have to distinguish between one thought and another one, one perception and another one, past and present and future, etc. These distinctions are separations. They help us survive. But they also make us suffer since everything is actually highly connected. So this separation-making is tense, stressful, confused in some sense, and cuts us off from wholeness and oneness. Thus suffering. Practice is seeing through these separations, releasing unnecessary ones, and not taking the necessary ones too seriously.

What is emotional blackmail?

For me, “emotional blackmail” has to do with the fuzzy but real line between normal-range efforts to persuade, cajole, influence, warn of consequences, and so on and more manipulative efforts to make someone do one’s bidding. Normal efforts may be unwanted by other people, and could be annoying, weird, or unskillful (the usual messy human stuff) but are otherwise not meant with any kind of evil intent. Contrast this with creepy, intimidating, way-too-pushy, violent, threatening, bizarre, cruel, sadistic, etc. efforts that are simply way out of line. It is the latter that I think of as true emotional blackmail.

How can you take the high ground and "stay right when you are wronged" when dealing with an abusive partner? That high ground to them only signals weakness.

This is a deep and natural question, one that I’ve mulled a lot over the years.

My two cents is that the more abusive the partner, the more important it is to take the high ground, wrapping oneself in a mantle of dignity, strength, and self-respect. Plus the high road may well include very powerful, even fiery words and deeds. And if this just increases their attacks, well, that seems like pretty unmistakable information that it could be good to change the relationship.

Also, the approach I suggest is not very entwined with what goes on in the mind of the other person. If they want to interpret me taking the high road as weakness, that’s their interpretation, not mine. Also, there are many examples of people taking the high road in face of very, very abusive people and governments – and generally that high road is seen as a very strong move by both abusers and onlookers.

I was recently invited to join a social club but I am concerned that I won't fit in. I have difficult psychological disorder and I am afraid of being myself. How can I get over this fear?

The whole notion of “fitting in” is interesting. Here are a few personal reflections on the matter:

  • With others, I try to keep it concrete and specific, not conceptual: Are they treating me civilly? Is there warmth and inclusion? Are they listening? Do I feel bigger or smaller around them?
  • If I am living by my own code – ethical, right speech, not evil, not a jerk, warm, compassionate – then what other people do is up to them. I may need to shrink the relationship if they mistreat me, but not because there is something wrong with me.
  • I find that slowing things down, asking questions, and staying grounded simple and real are very helpful.

Bottom line, you are a good person. Myself included, everyone is weird. Really! We are all quirky. You may have a few more features to your psyche than some people, but so what? Your extra features have brought you much growth and helped you develop much virtue. If another person is intolerant, that’s on them not you. It could be a practical issue to deal with, but there is no blame for you.

I feel very isolated and unconnected to the world. How can one find strength to face challenges without loving relationships and family support?

First, I would suggesting pushing yourself into situations in which you can form new good relationships of various kinds. Some of the best settings are low-key classes such as introductory ceramics and service projects in which good people come together in common cause. I’m a shy person myself and I get what is hard about actually taking this advice, but there is no replacement for it.

Second, there are many sources of resilient well-being that do not depend on relationships. My programs and writings get at this in depth, and I suggest you check out Hardwiring Happiness in particular.

Third, even with limitations in human relationships and relative isolation, you can feel related to the natural world, and you can feel and focus on your own naturally warm and caring heart. Even if love is not flowing in, you can be fed by love flowing out.

Why do humans crave affection and companionship?

The key distinction is between “craving” – as problematic forms of desire – and “attaching” in the ordinary healthy sense of companionship, friendship, love, and parent-child bonding. In the sense of the words I am using here, in a nutshell, attaching is beneficial and craving is harmful.

Humans evolved a highly social brain that naturally attaches in healthy ways. Check out “attachment theory” and “social brain theory” in general and my chapters on “Intimacy” and “Courage” in my book Resilient in particular. And, sometimes healthy forms of attachment go awry, as in jealousy, over-reactions to rejection, or vicious us-against-them conflicts.

What is the role of the heart in our experiences?

To begin with, I think it’s easy to make category errors in confusing the metaphorical and the physical heart. The heart sounds warm and fuzzy while the brain sounds gushy or “head-y.” So it’s tempting to ascribe heartfelt feelings/inclinations to the physical heart even though it’s actually the brain that (still somewhat mysteriously) constructs those feelings and inclinations as experiences in our field of awareness.

As to the physical heart and the brain, there is interesting research on heart rate variability from Dacher Keltner, Heartmath, and other sources. I think sometimes there is an overemphasis on the heart’s influence on the brain and thus our experience of things like warm and loving feelings. Still, clearly there are feedback loops in which cardio-pulmonary processes regulate neural and thus mental activity. In effect, through Heartmath or related methods (e.g., metta practice in Buddhism, devotional practices in Hinduism), one can use the mind to affect the brain to affect the physical heart, which in turn affects the brain, which causes the mind to feel more peaceful/loving/happy. I have not seen research to this effect, but it is certainly plausible that changes in a person’s mental state – such as becoming more loving – involve functional and structural changes in the neuro-fabric of the heart.

Polyvagal theory is also a tremendous resource that indicates linkages between the heart and lungs and the “social engagement system.”

When you say to think of someone who loves you, I think it can be quite painful for people who actually can’t think of anyone. Not everyone has someone who truly loves them!

I really hear you about the risks in trying to think of someone who loves you. That’s why I try to always speak in broader terms of looking for ways to feel cared about, and usually list five aspects of being cared about: being included, seen, appreciated, liked, or loved. I stress that it is important to look for mild, everyday moments of being cared about in one of these ways, such as your dog wanting to go for a walk with you, coworkers appreciating your idea in a meeting, or a moment of friendliness with someone.

In other words, even if someone has not been loved or has been but can’t feel it, there are still many other ways to feel cared about – which is indeed very important to us as the most social species on the planet. We need to feel cared about in the psychological sphere as much as we need water in the physiological sphere.

I also suggest that people open to feeling caring, since caring is caring whether it is flowing in or flowing out.

In my quest to improve and become the best version of myself, I have the need to want to share it with people I think could grow from it or learn from it. Is there any wisdom in this ?
Overall what has helped me in these situations is to focus on “where I’m coming from,” in other words the qualities and expressions that matter to me, such as presence of mind, goodheartedness, effort, and learning. All that is, in a sense, flowing outward and others move through that field, which is not conditioned on what they do.
Deep listening to others, especially when the ice seems thin, really helps! Then more specifically, hopefully judiciously and skillfully, I may offer an observation, question, personal lesson that’s relevant, information, and occasionally name an option for a person they might want to consider. 
Meanwhile, they do what they do.

Additional Resources on Relationships and Love