The Science Behind How Close Relationships Change Your Life: Elizabeth Gillespie (Transcript)

Full text of family therapist Elizabeth Gillespie’s talk: The Science Behind How Close Relationships Change Your Life atTEDxCU conference.

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Elizabeth Gillespie – Family therapist

I’m going to start with the assumption that all of the people sitting in this room want to have close relationships. For some of us, it’s a felt need; for others a practicality. But for all of us, close relationships are a biological necessity.

Finding and maintaining strong relationships has been the hardest and most important struggle of my life. And as a therapist specializing in couples, I’ll make an educated guess: I am not alone.

We desperately want and need relationships but we don’t know how to do them well. Alongside my own struggle, my training and experience in the therapy room has taught me that our very survival depends on finding someone close.

I know this, because we’ve been accumulating research since the 1970s on close, or to use a more clinical term, secure relationships. Secure relationships are best described as effective dependents based on a deep knowing that we can count on our person to be there for us.

According to Sue Johnson, relational expert and personal hero of mine, the markers of secure relationships are: accessibility, responsiveness, and emotional engagement.

Ideally we start with a close relationship with a caregiver as an infant. And as we age, we grow to depend more on romantic relationships or friendships. Hundreds of research studies in neuroscience, medicine, and psychology have a lot to tell us about the positive impact of close relationships.

We know that close relationships help us live longer, lower inflammation levels in our bodies, make us more socially competent, allow us to take more positive risks.

We know that secure relationships drastically improve mental and physical health, including the reduction of anxiety, depression, and even heart attacks. Even holding the hand of a loved one lowers our body’s stress response to a threat.

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There’s no getting around it. Relationships make us healthier and happier people. Tonight I’m going to examine relationships from two perspectives: as a human, and as a therapist.

I invite you to join me, bringing all of yourself to the table, not just your mind but also your relational history, bodily sensations, and emotional experiencing.

As a human, I want one of those rom-com relationships where we stare into each other’s eyes, finish each other’s sentences, and can read each other’s minds without effort.

I want my husband to know what I want at all times, so that I never have to ask him for anything. I know I’m not alone here.

How many of you have found yourself irate when your partner failed to buy the perfect birthday present? Or didn’t have the response you needed at the end of a hard day?

Because that moment of asking for what we need and waiting for the response is excruciating. It allows us to feel our vulnerability and our need; it’s such a risk and to make matters worse, our culture tells us, to be this dependent and this vulnerable makes us codependent and weak.

But as a therapist, I know that you cannot have close relationships without risk and awkwardness. The most beautiful and connected moments in the therapy room are also filled with deep fear and awkwardness. Picture red faces, stuttering speech, a struggle to make an eye contact, the temperature of my room goes up 10 degrees, and my clients say the most incredibly brave things, like my entire life, I have been afraid of taking up too much space in relationships.

I’m afraid that I’m too much for you and eventually you will grow tired of me and leave. Can you reassure me, can you reassure me that I’m not too much for you?

Imagine saying this to the person you love the most in the world. Notice how it feels, if you’re honest you’re probably squirming.

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