It’s a fact: Humans are social creatures. Relationships are at the very core of our existence and have a lot to do with how we’ve evolved. Whether you consider yourself an introvert or an extrovert, a steady serotonin type or an adventure-seeking dopamine type, social interactions are the foundation of everything you encounter—family, jobs, political structures, the economy. From an evolutionary perspective, you literally wouldn’t be here without being connected to other humans.

For all of the angst relationships can bring, anthropologists and evolutionary biologists will tell you that relationships came about for a specific reason—to solve adaptive challenges as they like to say. In other words, we needed help—the to do list was long: propagate the species—that one alone involved finding a mate, keeping a mate, raising a family—ward off intruders, find food.

We’ve even made some big sacrifices over the course of history just so we can connect better with other humans: we traded sharper memory skills for language. That’s right, you can’t remember where the heck you put your keys now, but you can ask someone else if they know what you did with them.

So here we are, all tangled up with each other. Our brains are figuratively wired together and literally wired to connect. We feel a rush during social interactions and pain when we’re rejected.

And, all of this connectivity doesn’t happen as automatically as, say breathing. You have to learn how to use this powerful, built-to-withstand-the history-of-time machinery. That’s why we keep our babies around for almost a quarter of their lives. This kind of training takes some serious time and effort. It’s also why friendships are so important. They help us navigate these complexities.

Types of Relationships We Need

As much as we like to think we’ve progressed in the past few thousand years or so, our primal need for connections have been pretty consistent. (Some evolutionary psychologists argue that the reason is that adaption works so slowly. Even after all these years, our brains have not caught up.) You don’t need all of them at the same time, but the idea here is that these people were important to your survival historically, and in part because of that, they’re still important today. Here are the types of connections we crave.

Family

Caregivers, usually your parents (and siblings, if you have them) are your very first teachers of the social world. Babies are born with social cognition. It’s why they find us so fascinating and try to mimic our behavior.

According to Dr. Nichole LaPera, Ph.D., aka “The Holistic Psychologist,” our childhood is where our subconscious mind is formed. “Ideally, our parents are two self-actualized people who allow their children to be seen and heard as the unique individuals they are.”

Dr. Murray Bowen, M.D., a trail blazing psychiatrist was the first to coin the term family theory. His theory, and it’s still accepted today, was that families are so interwoven and interdependent it’s almost like they live under the same ’emotional skin’ as Dr. Bowen puts it. Whether you feel close or not to your family, there’s still interdependence.

Friends

Peers and friends contribute to your psychological development. Even pals predating your preschool days helped create who you are. They teach you about emotional states of other people and competing wants (my toy vs your toy kind of stuff that eventually forms what psychologists call the theory of mind—a fancy way to say you figure out that other people are not exactly the same as you.; they have their own attitudes, motivations, and beliefs.)

Later, in middle school and high school, these relationships teach us about security, trust, and intimacy.  And, well into adulthood relationships with friends have all kinds of benefits from boosting your mood to providing a sounding board when you articulate your own goals and feelings. Studies have shown that just talking about your feelings with a good listener helps not only your mental well-being, but your physical health too.

Sexual Partners & Spouses

The evolutionary reason for the importance of this relationship is obvious. It’s not surprising to find that having sex is pretty much embedded in our brains, but what might be less predictable is that love, that feeling of butterflies and excitement, is too. Scientists have picked it up in brain scans. Among other regions, they’ve seen the angular gyrus and the ventral tegmental light up when people are in love. And, here’s a little tidbit: The ventral tegmental is the same part of your brain that’s in charge of the reward and pleasure center.

The Connection Between Healthy Relationships And Mental Health

Considering how important social interactions are, it’s not surprising that glitches can cause big problems for us. Autism, social anxiety disorder, borderline personality disorder, schizotypal personality disorder all have some aspect of abnormal social functioning.

And, it’s not just how we interact that can have health consequences or benefits. It’s how often. Studies have shown that loneliness can be a predictor for depression. And isolation can change even how we view the world, make memory worse, and alter your cognitive skills.

On the other hand, positive relationships make us feel good. And, it’s not just a fleeting, “that was nice” kind of benefit. They influence our long-term health as much as not smoking or becoming obese. [link to study]. Study after study has shown that people who have strong social support systems have fewer health problems and live longer.

The good news is humans are designed to make communities that are full of love, friendship, cooperation, and learning according to Nicholas A. Christakis, Ph.D. a pioneering sociologist and physician who studies social networks and biosocial science, and author of Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society.

The catch: These relationships all take some kind of work and can be a wild ride. From forming friendships, to parenting, dating, divorce, and beyond, it’s a wild ride. The information you find here will help you with it all.

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Last Updated: Sep 8, 2020