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What Relationships?

When asking humanitarians about the health of their relationships I often get a laugh and the response, ‘What relationships?” I get it. This work is tough on relationships.

Yet a broad and deep social support network is an essential pillar of your ability to survive and thrive in your humanitarian work. Good relationships are a source of meaning and purpose for most people. It was the one dimension that predicted well-being in every one of 132 countries studied. Social support enhances your physical health, emotional positivity, life satisfaction and even your life expectancy.  You could conclude if you want to have a good life, work on your relationships!

The list of relationship challenges in humanitarian work for both ex-pats and national staff is long:

  • Lengthy and frequent separations from loved ones
  • Frequent change and disruptions
  • International deployments, especially to non family postings
  • 24/7 workload and unremitting stress
  • Worry about a partner or family member & inability to help them
  • Exhaustion, energy depletion
  • Experiences that are hard to share, even harder to understand
  • Patchy communication due to time zone differences & technical lapses
  • Intensity of field relationships that may compete with commitments at home
  • Isolation that leads to tunnel vision
  • Intense field work in contrast to more mundane life at home
  • Putting your family at risk because of your work

Yet, despite this, many humanitarians have intimate partner relationships that thrive.  How do they find each other and how do they make it work? In this posting and those to follow, I will be focusing on intimate relationships. Intimacy refers to a close personal relationship, including marriage, housemates, parenting, extended family, and friendships.

Because humanitarian work places such unusual demands on relationships, a high degree of relationship skill and focused attention are necessary in both partners to make the relationship flourish.

Our work at Headington Institute has pointed to attachment style as key to resiliency. It refers to our typical pattern of relating to our partners in intimate relationships.  People differ in the ways in which they approach close relationships. For example, some people are comfortable opening up to others emotionally, but others are reluctant to depend on others. These become patterns in our relationships over time.

Our attachment style is not something we choose.  It is a bit like being an introvert or an extravert. Our attachment style is formed in the rich interplay of our biology and our early experience in our family with our parents and siblings. It is quite difficult to change our attachment style, but we can work toward improving our ability to connect in relationships in a healthier and more productive way.  More about this in the next blog post.

Competencies are the attitudes, knowledge and skills that we have acquired through learning. They can be learned either formally as in education and training, or informally in our families and communities. Relationship competencies include communication, conflict resolution, and intimacy. Intimacy is the ability to give and receive support and affection, tune in to others’ needs and feelings, and share important aspects of yourself with others. People can grow their competencies with practice and discipline. Improving our competencies is something that we can all do something about.

In the next blog post I will focus on attachment style. In the third I will say more about relationship competencies. See if you recognize yourself/partner/former partners in the descriptions!

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