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7 ways to improve your relationships
Will this be your "Year of the Relationship"? Here's hoping! Whether it's learning to love and accept yourself, meeting your soul mate, connecting with elders or reaching out to children, relationships are the measure of a life well spent. How do yours measure up?
All in the family
Relationship rules change as kids grow up and parents age. Responsibility falls to adult children to reach out to their siblings and to parents. "For so much of life, parents learn how to let go of their children. At some point the children need to reach back out to their parents," to check their well-being, reassure and just talk, said Joyce Gallagher, commissioner of the city's Department on Aging. "One of the greatest things I learned, and it was through personal experience later in life -- my dad had a problem with memory -- was not to correct. It wasn't important to try to get the date right or circumstance. It was important to just listen. [By] breaking into the conversation, you ruin the connection.
Seniors have so much to share and so much information that can be useful if people just take the time to listen." Gallagher is the mother of 10 children who have all been in each other's weddings and are godparents to each other's children. One key to harmony among siblings? "We don't talk about another person unless they are in the room," Gallagher said.
For the love of children
"I love these girls with every part of my being. I didn't know you could feel this way about other people's children," Oprah Winfrey said this week at the dedication of her new school in South Africa. Her comment reminds us that there are many ways to be a caring adult in the life of a child: through volunteering, working in careers such as teaching, day care or pediatric medicine -- even foster parenting. Single men and women who yearn for kids have more options than any previous generation. This may be the year to seriously consider adoption or begin lining up the finances and support network for single parenthood. Gillian McNamee, professor and director of teacher education at Chicago's Erikson Institute, says when it comes to strengthening relationships with children, there is no substitute for spending time together. As children get older and more independent, that age-old wisdom becomes more of a challenge. "I've heard parents lament that their child is upstairs e-mailing," McNamee said. "So e-mail your kid, say, 'I'm making a great supper for you. Hope you'll be down soon.' Or leave a voice mail on the cell phone when a child is at school. A message that says I'm thinking of you, I really like something you're doing right now, is a wonderful thing to do. It takes one minute of time." McNamee "willingly" drives her child's car pool (and brings a bag of cookies.) "That's always a total hit," she says.
There's nothing wrong with developing a healthy relationship with yourself. After all, who spends more time with you than YOU? Besides, it's pretty tough to establish a positive bond with anyone else if you don't love and cherish yourself, idiosyncrasies and all. Maybe the fictional Carrie Bradshaw said it best on the final episode of "Sex and the City": "Later that day I got to thinking about relationships. There are those that open you up to something new and exotic, those that are old and familiar, those that bring up lots of questions, those that bring you somewhere unexpected, those that bring you far from where you started, and those that bring you back. But the most exciting, challenging and significant relationship of all is the one you have with yourself. And if you find someone to love the you you love, well, that's just fabulous."
To have and hold onto
Love is the ultimate human experience. A solid relationship with your spouse or lover is your heart and your foundation, your comfort and joy. Marriage counselors constantly remind couples, whether newlyweds or long-term partners, to take time and care to nurture this central relationship. If this one falters, the repercussions will touch all your other important relationships, from children to extended family and even into the workplace. Too often, our love partner is the very person we most take for granted. Sun-Times relationship columnist Laura Berman (right) says, "Make it a priority to give your partner five genuine thank yous and five genuine compliments every day, and at least one 10-second kiss." She urges couples -- especially those with children -- to make "date night" a priority. For those looking for love, Berman recommends dating coach Nancy Slotnick's book Turn Your Cablight On (Gotham, ). "You have to put the message out there that you're available," Berman says, "in terms of how you feel about yourself, carry yourself and go about your day-to-day life. That includes mixing up your routine, putting yourself out there in environments where you might meet a new person. Practice smiling and engaging with people so someone will see you as approachable. Lately I observed that the dog park is a great way for singles to meet."
Make new friends but keep the old
Friends forever? Gotta work at it. You may have been joined at the hip since childhood or college, but don't fall into the trap of taking longtime friends for granted. Sadly, it's easy to do with the hectic lives we all lead. "I think it's smart to plan not to," says Debra White Smith, a Texas-based speaker, radio personality and author of Friends For Keeps: Building Relationships That Last a Lifetime (Beacon Hill Press, .99). "Ask yourself, 'Who in my life do I value?' Maybe you haven't connected in a while, but you have really fond memories. Set aside one day a month to call or send a card or e-mail." Even if you're a communication-challenged friend (the one who can't stand chatting on the phone after work or hates answering e-mail), you can do better. If your long-winded old bud phones at a time when you can't talk, send a text message back at least acknowledging the call. The author of 44 published nonfiction and Christian fiction books, White Smith offers this advice: "Make a list of what you consider a 'golden friend,' somebody who's a cut above, true blue, all the way there for you. Then live that list in giving to others. You'll find it's reciprocated."
Tap into a higher power
You may not be a regular at anyone's church, synagogue, temple or mosque, but that doesn't mean you aren't longing for a relationship with a power larger than yourself. Jean L. Kristeller, psychology professor and director of the Center for the Study of Health, Religion and Spirituality at Indiana State University, says "spiritual intelligence" seems to be a fundamental part of a person's makeup. ... Regardless of how we understand it, there seems to be in every culture [and] every community a pull toward finding what this means." For those who belong to a defined faith, that might express itself in prayer. For others, perhaps contemplative silence or meditation. Why does a connection with something or someone we can't see matter? "We can identify with a relationship to something outside of ourselves as something to learn from and cultivate experiences of compassion and empathy, and moving out of our own self-preoccupation," Kristeller says."It's very strong, very powerful and very important."
Get real about relationships
Some people spend so much time "interacting" with a computer, cell phone or their car that they seem to have a relationship with these objects. The same is often true with pets. Yes, these tools and furry friends enhance our lives and, at times, fuel our emotions. But these are not real relationships. They can't take you to the emergency room and they won't be at your wake. They cannot sustain you. Incidental relationships -- personal trainer, hairdresser, therapist, banker, colleagues - fill our days and our calendars. But rarely our hearts. A true friend -- an authentic bond -- is a gift. Treasure every one! If circumstances find you temporarily friendless or missing friends far away, make new friends by extending invitations and expanding your circles. All best friends were strangers at some point. Today's acquaintance may be tomorrow's best friend!
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