Do Some of Your Connections Bring You More Satisfaction Than Others?

Friends hanging out at lunch

If you learned from the UCLA Loneliness Scale that you do indeed feel there is room for improvement in your connections to others, let’s find out more details about why you feel that way.  We can accomplish this quite efficiently thanks to the groundbreaking work of psychiatrist Amy Banks, M.D., Associate Professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.  Dr. Banks, and the Jean Baker Miller Training Institute at the Wellesley Center for Women which she heads up, specialize in therapy for people who suffer from chronic disconnection.   

Dr. Banks has developed a “Relational Assessment” test which is explained in detail in her recent book. Fortunately, you don’t need to become a student of “relational therapy” to learn a great deal about the depth and assuredness of the relationships that make up the interpersonal networks of your life.  The theory behind the assessment tool is straightforward: when we are involved with another person in a secure, rewarding relationship, our brain secretes biochemical feel-good agents that reward us for having found calm, acceptance, resonance and energy in our friend’s presence.  These constitute the four categories the questionnaire explores by asking you to respond to about five questions for each of the categories.  To answer the questions, please draw columns down a slip of paper, one column for each personal relationship you are going to assess.  Here is the list of possible answers for each of the questions; for each question give a numerical score for each relationship you are assessing:

            1 = None or Never

            2 = Rarely or Minimal

            3 = Sometimes

            4 = More Often than Not, or Medium

            5 = Usually or Very High

And here, by category, are the questions to answer for each relationship you decide to assess:

Questions About How Calm You Feel:

  1. I trust this person with my feelings.
  2. This person trusts me with his or her feelings.
  3. I feel safe being in conflict with this person.
  4. This person treats me with respect.
  5. In this relationship I feel calm.
  6. I can count on this person to help me out in an emergency.

Questions About How Accepted You Feel:

  • In this relationship it‘s safe to acknowledge our differences.
  • When I am with this person, I feel a sense of belonging.
  • Despite our different roles, we treat each other as equals.
  • I feel valued in this relationship.
  • There is give and take in this relationship.

Questions About How Resonant You Feel:

  1. This person is able to sense how I feel.
  2. I am able to sense how this person feels.
  3. With this person I have more clarity about who I am.
  4. I feel that we “get” each other.
  5. I am able to see that my feelings impact this person.

Questions About How Energized You Feel:

  1. This relationship helps me to be more productive in my life.
  2. I enjoy the time I spend with this person
  3. Laughter is part of this relationship.
  4. In this relationship I feel more energetic.

So, when you can be alone and are in the right frame of mind to allow yourself to calmly think and feel what your answers are to the twenty questions, review five of your current relationships.  While you can assess the relationship you have (or had) with any other person, perhaps you might try starting with the five people with whom you currently spend the most time, since the point of this series of essays is to guide you in performing a relational assessment of your current connective networks.

Reviewing the Outcome of Your Relational Assessments: Who Makes You Feel Safe and Nurtured, and Who Doesn’t?

Time for a little math. For each of the relationships you’ve scored, please add the twenty numbers you have written down in each person’s column.  Dr. Banks opines that any relationship that totals roughly 75, is a treasure to be vigilantly cared for.  So, consider yourself quite relationally competent if you scored one or more relationships at this level.  Moderate scores of 60 through 74 are more common, in significant part because many of us have important relationships that are situation-specific –- say a close colleague at work with whom we share some things about our personal life, but far from all.

Your responses encode and will signal you about both the strong points and the weak points of each of the relationships you’ve analyzed. (I will later make suggestions about how you can approach the problem areas you have identified in one or more of your relationships.) And, by the way, if you are currently seeing a mental health professional, think about sharing this exercise with your clinician.

How Are You Doing in General in Your Key Relationships?

If you have filled out and scored a relational assessment for five of your current key relationships in separate columns– you can look across the columns to see how you’re doing overall in different aspects of your relationships. This exercise will provide you with a snapshot of your current relational skills.  But there are a great many more ascertainable details if we review your answers in the four categories suggested by Dr. Banks’ analytical model.

How Much Calm Do You Derive from Your Relationships?

There were seven questions designed to elicit whether you derive a sense of calm from your relationships. Assuming you assessed five relationships, the maximum you could have scored (if all your answers were 5’s) would be 7 x 5 x 5 = 175.  Again, working from Dr. Banks’ findings, if you had a score in this category of 135 or higher, you have a set of principal relationships that should be giving you great comfort and reliable support as you deal with the stress of modern life. If your score is between 100 and 134, you probably experience some degree of anxiety about your support network, and it well might be a good idea to address the issue. The nearer your score is to 100, and certainly, if it is below 100, you presumably often feel unsafe in your relationships, and it is probable that you experience an unmediated, and unhealthy, level of stress in your everyday life.

How Accepted Do You Feel in Your Network of Relationships?

There were also seven questions (because of two questions that overlap in  these two categories) aimed at understanding whether you experience life as an “insider” who is accepted as a full-fledged member of the friendships and social groupings you participate in, or, in contrast, if you often feel like an “outsider.” Again, assuming you answered these seven questions for five relationships, the maximum you could have scored (if all your answers were 5’s) would be 7 x 5 x 5 = 175. If you had a score in this category of 135 or higher, you presumably feel included and sheltered among those you associate with. If your score falls between 100 and 134, you may at times experience a sensation of being excluded, and the closer your score is to 100, the more dangerous this becomes to both your psychological and physical health. Remember, constantly feeling like an outsider is one of the two principal pathways to chronic loneliness, and has been documented to be as deleterious to your health as morbid obesity or multi-pack-a-day cigarette smoking– so it would seem wise to pay attention to what you have learned here, and seek help.

How Competent Do You Feel About Discerning Other Peoples’ Intentions and Feelings Towards You?

There were five questions meant to probe your capacity to intuit what others feel about you and what their intentions are with respect to including and valuing your involvement in their lives. This capacity is called the “mirroring system,” and it has been an important part of animal awareness long before the development of mammals. You see it, for instance, when you come across a feral animal like a startled squirrel or a deer-in-the-headlights.  They look you straight in the eyes, attempting to intuit what you intend to do next. When we deal with other humans, of course, our (and their) mirroring systems are able to discern far more subtle intentions than whether we are active predators.  The maximum score in this category, assuming you have assessed five relationships, is 5 x 5 x 5, or 125. If your total is at least 95, you have a well-functioning mirroring system, and you presumably feel at ease among the significant others in your life, confident about how they feel about you. You feel like your friends “get you,” and that they are confident about what your intentions are towards them. In contrast, as your score nears 70, you likely find the intentions and motives of other people more confusing and sometimes difficult to fathom, and you may find that at times you misread how others actually do feel about you. Similarly, those with a poorly functioning capacity to mirror, often misinterpret what others expect from them, or whether others are– or are not– attracted to them.

How Invigorated and Positively Energized Do You Feel in the Presence of the Significant Others in Your Life?

The final four questions in the relational assessment exercise are intended to delve into whether your important relationships fill you with energy, enthusiasm, laughter, and joy– or, at the other extreme, whether they leave you feeling drained and listless. In this category, for those of you who have assessed five connections, the maximum score is 4 x 5 x 5 = 100, and any score above 75 indicates that your key relationships are hooked firmly into your biochemical feel-good chemistry. Scores below 75 indicate that when you are around those you have analyzed, your interactions with them at times leave you feeling unsatisfied and unstimulated.  It is not rare for some individuals with this relational malfunction to turn to substance abuse, overeating, shopping compulsively, and a sometimes-frenzied search for similar addictions to obtain a substitute biochemical “high” to fill the void of what their relationships do not supply.

If you have indeed answered the two questionnaires and gathered data on the status of your interpersonal relationships, please make certain to read the next and final installment in this series of articles where we will deal with how to use this information to monitor and improve your linkages to others.