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Interpersonal Relationships

In the beginning

At the beginning of time, God made the world and declared it “good.” He then created Adam, and declared His creation “very good.”  But then He declared that something was not good:  “that man should be alone.”  God designed people to be connected – to be joined together with other human beings in friendships and in intimacy.

Research on Relationships

Research into human relationships over the past several decades has brought significant insights into the need for companionship and intimacy, and the health risks when close connections are absent.

One author noted: “If humankind is to realise its created intention, humankind must then be understood as social kind.  . . . . To be human is to be in relationship with another” (Gunton).

Dr Arch Hart, well known Christian psychologist, stated: “Research confirms the importance of human bonds.  Without relationships humans wither and die, both emotionally and physically.  The quality of our life diminishes when there is no one to share it with – family, friends, or spouse. . . . Everything about us was designed to live in close community and interaction with others.  We certainly were not designed to go through life emotionally disconnected.”

Some years back, twins were born prematurely in a US hospital and were placed in separate humidi-cribs.  One of the twins wasn’t doing so well.  Against hospital policy, a nurse lifted her out and placed her beside her sister.  Her temperature rose to normal, she settled down and improved to the place where both could go home together!

Why Relationships are Important

Susan Johnson, the founder of Emotion-Focused Therapy has said: “We are not equipped to face life alone, especially difficult aspects of life; we are not equipped for it nor designed for it.” 

In 1978, Dr James Lynch wrote a book based on his research as a doctor, entitled “The Broken Heart: The Medical Consequences of Loneliness.”

Here are just a few selections from the book:

This book is about life and death--love, companionship, and health--and loneliness that can break the human heart.  This book touches on complex themes that are in some ways as old as mankind itself, but its purpose is simple:  to document the fact that reflected in our hearts there is a biological basis for our need to form loving human relationships.  If we fail to fulfil that need, our health is in peril.

Social isolation, the lack of human companionship, death or absence of parents in early childhood, sudden loss of love, and chronic human loneliness are significant contributors to premature death.  Almost every cause of death is significantly influenced by human companionship.

An entire generation has been raised to believe that dieting, exercise, inoculations, and other forms of preventive care are the means to avoid disease and premature death. The idea that another crucial element influencing well-being is the ability to live together -- to maintain human relationships--seems strangely “unscientific” to our age. Yet that is the thesis this book will try to document: loneliness and isolation can literally “break your heart.”

Lack of Relationships are a Major Health Risk

In 1988, a study was published in the Science Journal that said:

“Social relationships, or the relative lack thereof, constitute a major risk factor for health—rivaling the effect of well-established health risk factors such as cigarette smoking, blood pressure, blood lipids, obesity and physical activity.” (House, Landis, and Umberson; Science 1988 )

In 2009, a research study was written up under the title, Loneliness is a Social Disease, by Zosia Bielski.  The article states:

“Loneliness is contagious and expressing it can make us even more isolated. . . . Social species do not fare well when forced to live solitary lives.” The authors compare loneliness to hunger, thirst and pain.

An intriguing study was carried out in the US in 2010 by Lunstad, Smith and Layton.  They state:

Current evidence indicates that the quantity and/or quality of social relationships in industrialized societies are decreasing. . . . Despite increases in technology and globalization that would presumably foster social connections, people are becoming increasingly more socially isolated. 

Reviewing about 148 studies that link death with social relationships, with participants totalling over 300,000 followed for an average of a little over seven years, the study found that people who have good social relationships are 50 percent likelier to survive than those who do not. Not only that, they compared “loneliness” with other death risk factors such as cigarette-smoking, high blood pressure, alcoholism, and it turns out that being lonely inches you toward death as much as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

The study also showed that the effect of social relationships on our health is the same, regardless of age, gender, initial health status or cause of death. “It would seem that we are social beings and if we are not able to express that, for reasons within our control or not, we start to die a little.”

The Human Brain and Personal Relationships

A significant study was published some years ago called, Hardwired to Connect: The New Scientific Case for Authoritative Communities, prepared by the Commission on Children at Risk.  They make a number of key assertions regarding the role that close relationships play in the health and well-being of young people:

“In the midst of unprecedented material affluence, large and growing numbers of U.S. children and adolescents are failing to flourish…more and more young people are suffering from mental illness, emotional distress, and behavioural problems.”

The study refers to statistics that highlight the high and rising rates of depression, anxiety, attention deficit, conduct disorders, and thoughts of suicide.

The Commission was also concerned over the way their US society currently cares for these issues.  “We are using medications and psychotherapies. We are designing more and more special programs for ‘at risk’ children. These approaches are necessary but they are not enough.”

The Commission then raises the question, “What’s causing the crisis?”

Their answer is direct and specific: “In large measure, what’s causing this crisis of American childhood is a lack of connectedness. We mean two kinds of connectedness—close connections to other people, and deep connections to moral and spiritual meaning.”

The members of the Commission make reference to a growing amount of research in biology, neuroscience, and a range of other disciplines that is shedding important new light on our biological systems that, in a very real sense, “hardwire in human beings the need for enduring and nurturing relationships.”

Allan N. Shore of the UCLA, School of Medicine states: “The idea is that we are born to form attachments, that our brains are physically wired to develop in tandem with another’s through emotional communication, beginning before words are spoken.” 
The study makes it very clear: men and women are biologically primed to form and sustain intimate relationships.  It also means that when, for whatever reasons, these connections become dislocated, or not sustained, we are at high risk for emotional, psychological and physical crisis.

Relationships: the key to the problem

Charles Warren said, “For too long, young people have been told that their greatest problems are drugs, sex, alcohol, etc . . . . These are, in fact, only symptoms of a much greater disease.  The disease of youth is that their key relationships are in disarray, their relationships with God, self,parents, friends, and the world.” (Charles P Warren – Building Your Family to Last).