Made any New Year's resolutions yet? Here's an idea: Focus on the state of your relationships instead of the state of your abs.
Increasingly, experts have been telling us how important social bonds are to well-being, affecting everything from how our brains process information to how our bodies respond to stress. People with strong connections to others may live longer. The quality of our relationships is the single biggest predictor of our happiness.
With personal bonds this important, it would seem prudent to put a little work into improving them, especially if they are struggling or even just a little lackluster. And it might not hurt to forge some new ones, too.
I talked with couples and individuals who felt they'd been neglecting their relationships and who vowed last year to pay more attention. Many of them undertook the effort after going through some type of hardship. All learned lessons they were eager to share.
Open Up. Jim Hayden had a tough 2010. Last Christmas, the 56-year-old executive at a Seattle mobile applications company lost a good friend to ovarian cancer; several months later both his father and father-in-law died. His income fell sharply, his retirement account plummeted 60% and he lost $500,000 selling an investment property in a short sale.
The events were a wake-up call. 'We don't appreciate someone or something until it is lost,' he says. He decided to focus more on his family members -- and to communicate better.
In the past, he says, he behaved 'like a control freak,' someone who had to be right. He refused to talk about anything in his life that wasn't going well. He was critical of those who didn't live up to his standards.
As a result, he often argued with his wife and two daughters, ages 21 and 25, he says. Sometimes, he would get so angry that he'd throw his cellphone on the ground.
This year, Mr. Hayden worked hard to change. He spent more time with his wife and daughters and listened to their points of view. More importantly, he says, he tried showing them his vulnerable side, talking about things in his life whether good or bad, sharing emotional pain. At times, he has cried in front of them.
'They really embraced me because I am more of a real person,' Mr. Hayden says. They share more with him, as well. His wife of 29 years, Signy Hayden, 52, says, 'I feel he really cares about what I have to say now, and he won't blow up if it's bad news.'
Set a Time -- and a Limit. Earlier this year, Sally Palaian, 52, a psychologist in Royal Oaks, Mich., began feeling disconnected from her partner of seven years, Gary Haelewyn. She was getting home from work at 8 or 9 p.m., just when Mr. Haelewyn, 62, a computer programmer, was winding down for the night. The difference in their conversational styles complicated matters. 'I am looking for contact and connection,' Dr. Palaian says. 'He would say, 'We already talked on the phone during the day. Didn't we cover that?' '
After attending a conference on personal communication, Dr. Palaian hit on a solution: an oven timer. Now she and Mr. Haelewyn sit down at night to chat -- for five minutes each. They relate the highlights of the day; if one person raises a potential conflict, they agree to talk about it later. And if they want to speak longer, they do, but mostly they stick to the time limit.
Ms. Palaian says the timer has helped by forcing her to condense and to avoid tangents that can bore or frustrate her partner. 'You can't believe how much you can get out in five minutes,' she says. 'You think everything has to be talked to death and it doesn't.' Mr. Haelewyn likes the timer, too, because it forces him to share more details of his life to fill his allotted time. 'I can talk a little more and know that it's just five minutes,' he says. 'I won't have to talk all night.'
Take It Outside. Two years ago, Rebecca Cohen became concerned that her family wasn't spending enough time together. Her young sons often were absorbed with TV or electronic toys and she was busy checking email or doing housework. She made a rule: Every day, everyone has to spend some time together outside.
'I noticed when I was with my family outside how much more we got along,' says Ms. Cohen, 38, a gardening consultant in Gainesville, Va.
And if they are outside, they can't scatter to their separate devices, whether TV, computer screen or iPhone. Now, she walks her sons, 6 and 8, to school and back each day. She and her husband take a walk with the boys and the dog after dinner most nights. They go biking or hiking on weekends.
Time outdoors helps alleviate stress and encourages everyone to talk, Ms. Cohen says. She has learned more about her children's interests and how they think, and she and her husband find it easier to say things more openly outside. 'There is probably something about not physically facing each other,' she says. 'The outdoors gives everyone space to be themselves.'
Six-year-old Warner Cohen has seen a benefit, too. 'I notice when my mom goes outside, her feelings get really calm,' he says.
Discuss Finances. When Gary Zaremba, 53, and his wife, Laura Jackson-Zaremba, 52, got married almost three years ago, they decided to keep separate bank accounts. Before long, though, money became a bit of a problem. Mr. Zaremba, a Manhattan real-estate developer, makes 70% more than his wife, a publicist. He says splitting bills and restaurant meals became awkward. Then he purchased a Lexus SUV without telling his wife, and this upset her.
'It was creating some secrecy,' he says. 'We weren't talking about money, even as we were talking about other things.'
The couple decided to sit down and discuss their personal approaches to money, how much each would contribute to their common expenses and investments and who will handle the record-keeping. They pay their bills from a joint account, to which they each contribute -- Mr. Zaremba puts in 75%, Ms. Jackson-Zaremba 25%.
'The fact that we were talking about money more openly created a trust,' Mr. Zaremba says.
His wife agrees: 'Money doesn't feel like an issue anymore,' she says.
Reach Out. Mary Lou Quinlan and Valerie Sherman have lived across the hall from each other in a Manhattan apartment building for 16 years. But other than the occasional chat or glass of wine, the two women and their husbands didn't socialize much, until about a year ago.
Ms. Quinlan, 57, chief executive of a marketing company focused on women, was diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer. She shared this news with Ms. Sherman and told her she had taken up yoga to help cope with the radiation treatment. She invited Ms. Sherman to join her.
Now, on Tuesday and Thursday mornings, the two women meet in the hall at 7:05 and walk down the block to the yoga studio. At first, they chatted about neighborhood gossip or vacation plans. But over time, their conversations ranged to more personal matters. They have discussed illness, work, how to care for aging parents, the death of Ms. Quinlan's father. The two couples now often have dinner together.
'We have discovered how much we both have in common,' says Ms. Sherman, 54, a vice president at an international realty firm.
Says Ms. Quinlan: 'To know that behind the door across the hall is someone who knows what I love, what I worry about, what I hope to do next, makes home more like home to me.'
定好时间——以及时限。52岁的萨莉•帕莱恩（Sally Palaian）是密歇根州皇家橡树市（Royal Oaks）的一位心理学家。今年早些时候，她开始感到与结识7年的伴侣、62岁的电脑程式师加里•黑勒温（Gary Haelewyn）有些疏远。她晚上8、9点钟才下班回家，而这正是黑勒温准备晚上继续开工的时候。他们之间谈话方式的差异使事情更加麻烦。帕莱恩说，我想要接触和交流。但他会说：我们白天已经在电话里聊过了。难道我们没有说到这件事吗？
讨论财务问题。53岁的加里•扎伦巴（Gary Zaremba）和他52岁的妻子萝拉•杰克逊-扎伦巴（Laura Jackson-Zaremba）结婚快三年了，结婚时他们决定保持独立的银行帐户。但不久以后，财务便出了点小问题。扎伦巴先生是曼哈顿（Manhattan）的一位房地产开发商，他赚的钱比当公关人员的妻子多70%。他说，分开付账单和餐费变得很尴尬。后来，他没和妻子打招呼就买了一辆雷克萨斯（Lexus）越野车，这让她很不高兴。
主动结交。玛丽•洛乌•昆兰（Mary Lou Quinlan）和瓦莱丽•舍曼（Valerie Sherman）在曼哈顿的一幢公寓住了16年对门。57岁的昆兰是一家以女性为主要对象的市场行销公司的执行总裁，54岁的舍曼是一家国际物业公司的副总裁。除了偶尔聊聊天，喝杯酒以外，这两个女人以及她们的丈夫相互之间并不太来往，直到大约一年前。