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Happier together: the secrets of authentic relationships

07 Jul 2011 | Sarah Abell

Relationships can be the source of great joy and happiness but as I know from my own life and also from the many letters I have received as an Agony Aunt, they can also bring great stress, hurt and disappointment.

Relating is, after all, a risky business; Every time we reach out to another we risk being rejected, hurt or misunderstood. But, in my opinion, it is a risk worth taking because there is nothing more fulfilling than building strong and authentic relationships with others. It is one of the most rewarding adventures we can undertake.

In terms of relationships, I believe that true happiness comes from forming deep connections, shared memories and from reciprocation - the ability to both give and to receive. It is about investing your time, energy and focus on those people who are most important to you.

I'd like to share ten ways you could invest in your relationships starting from today. Try just one or all ten, and I'm certain that you will see healthy returns from your efforts.

1. Work out your priorities. Do you find yourself spending time on the urgent at the expense of the important? Psychologists reckon that we can only maintain 10-15 close relationships at any one time. Any more and we are in danger of overloading. Why not decide which relationships are the most important to you and make sure that they are getting the attention they need? It may sound contrived, but booking in time in your diary with your favourite people is the only way to make sure that the days or weeks don't pass without you spending quality time together.

2. Increase your amount of 'face-to-face' time. Next time you are tempted to email your work colleague at the next desk or text your friend who lives around the corner, resolve to talk to them in person. And when you do spend time with people, give them your complete focus. That means switching off the phone, turning off the computer or TV and being present in the moment with them.

3. Get emotionally naked. Deep connection with others requires vulnerability. It means allowing someone to get to know what is really going on inside of you - your hopes, dreams, fears, feelings and desires. To do that you will need to find people you can trust but it will also involve a certain amount of risk on your part - the risk of being rejected, hurt or misunderstood. If you want to be truly known and to truly know others then that is a risk worth taking.

4. Practise being a good listener. When you really listen to another person, you offer them a great gift. It demonstrates that you want to understand them better. If someone tells you something important, try to refrain from interrupting, giving advice or bringing the topic back to 'you'.

5. Take responsibility for your actions. When relationships go wrong, it can be tempting to blame the other person and to focus on all the ways that they need to change. The truth is you cannot make another person change, but you can alter your own reactions and behaviour. It only takes one to change the dynamic in a relationship.

6. Be prepared to say, 'I'm sorry' - and mean it. It can be a hard to admit being wrong, but doing so opens the door to healing in relationships and also gives them greater depth.

7. Show appreciation. No ones likes to be taken for granted and most people can't mind-read, so if you are thankful that someone is in your life or for the things they have done for you, tell them. Even better write them a proper letter so that they can keep it and re-read it.

8. Take the initiative. Whatever change you want to see in your relationships, start by taking the initiative. If you want your partner to love you better, then show them love in the way they would like to receive it. If you are single and want to go on a date, ask someone out. If you are lonely, reach out to someone else who also might be feeling lonely. In other words, treat others, as you would like to be treated.

9. Let your 'no' be 'no' and your 'yes' be 'yes'. If you say, 'yes' to something - to helping out, to keeping a confidence or to taking the rubbish out - keep your word. And if you are someone who says 'yes' when you really mean 'no', then don't give an answer under pressure. Tell the person that you'll think about it and then get back to them. Too many relationships suffer and too many people become stressed because they cannot say 'no'.

10. Pick up the golden threads. Every day of your life you have an opportunity to build connections with those around you. Each time you help a friend, stop to play with a child, smile at a stranger, celebrate in someone's success, overlook a grievance, choose to love, make someone laugh, cheer someone up, offer encouragement or extend yourself for the sake of another, you pick up a golden thread. Each of those golden threads is woven into the tapestry that is your life - a tapestry that will hopefully bring you and those you love great happiness and joy.

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Sarah Abell is a freelance writer, broadcaster and relationships coach. She recently worked as the Agony Aunt for The Daily Telegraph and is the author of Inside Out - how to have authentic relationships with everyone in your life (Hodder and Stougton).

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