By Charles McKay
“No man is an island,” poet John Donne told us in his poem of the same name. “Every man is a piece of the continent.” It’s true, life is dominated by relationships. Whether you’re in love, in lust, just hoping to hang out with friends this weekend, feeling lonely, or trying to avoid people altogether, the concept and/or reality of human interactions tends to dominate our attention.
Generally speaking, this is healthy. It’s how things are supposed to be. In fact, most mental health professionals will tell you that supportive relationships can be a key factor in determining how well somebody does when they are in treatment.
Knowing how to feel connected to others can do wonders for one’s mental health and overall success. But it’s an area that’s largely ignored in academia. We’re supposed to somehow learn relationships through osmosis, or by mimicking our elders and peers.
You can see the results: lots of lonely people walking around our campus. I’m not just talking about awkward people with inadequate hygiene and big goofy glasses held together with masking tape. There are many people who seem gregarious, the “life of the party,” but don’t know how to foster any kind of intimacy, or to let anyone get close enough to really understand them. Social posturing tends to dominate. We like to put people — even “close” friends, sometimes — into neat categories and stereotypes, rarely exploring what is meaningful to them.
We are the most “connected” generation in history, but no less lonely. Probably more so.
Even if we’re pretty happy with all our relationships, there are always rough patches: arguments, misunderstandings, awkward anxiety, etc. How can we handle these situations in ways that make the relationship stronger rather than undermining it?
One key is to have clear intentions about what you want out of a relationship. Does the other person want the same thing? Do you have the same commitment level? Have you even talked about any of that stuff?
That leads to another important concept: understanding how to advocate for what you want or need in a relationship, without being overly aggressive or sounding like a spoiled jerk. If you are uncomfortable with conflict, or perhaps overly comfortable with conflict, this can become an especially difficult challenge.
And what happens when you or someone you love winds up in a relationship that seems unhealthy or abusive? How do you find support or offer help without condescending?
The University of Maine Counseling Center and Touchstone Resources is offering a free seminar that tackles these very issues, and more. This is a fantastic opportunity for students to learn keys to success in relating to people, whether it’s an intimate partner, family member, roommate, or co-worker. Even if you feel successful in all your relationships, exposing yourself to new perspectives on what makes people tick is always a good thing.
If you would like more information on how to take part in this opportunity, go to umaine.edu/counseling, then click on “Touchstone Relationship Skills.”
And tell your friends to do the same. This is the type of program we all need to support if we want a healthier, more truly connected campus community. We all stand to gain when individual members of our community thrive, or to lose when those around us suffer.
Or, as John Donne put it: “Send not for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee.”
Chuck McKay is a clinical intern and Graduate Student at the UMaine Counseling Center & Touchstone Resources.