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Athletes — even those such as runners and swimmers, whose pursuits are solitary — tend to benefit from the support of others: fans, teammates and even competitors.

And the effects of human connection and interaction can go far beyond physical health and well-being.

Ann-Marie Sands says that healthy relationships form the very bedrock of wellness. The licensed therapist and clinical director at the Clarity Clinic in Munster explained in a recent conversation just how important it is to pay as much attention to relationships as calorie counts or exercise routines when it comes to living a truly healthful life.

Q: Why are relationships so important to a person’s health and well-being?

A: Being close to somebody and feeling kind of unified is very important to our overall well-being. It comes down to how we’ve evolved as human beings — our relationships have been important to our survival, so our brains have adapted to that.

How we relate to others really starts from childhood. If we have healthy relationships in early childhood, it tends to predict our relationship patterns later in life. Research has shown that people who have close relationships tend to be happier in their lives overall. So it’s important to understand our relationship patterns early on and try to correct some of the dysfunctional ones as we move through life so we can really begin to attach to others in a healthy way.

Q: What are some of the keys to a healthy relationship?

A: The biggest thing is trying to really understand ourselves and other people. It comes down to how we view ourselves and how other people view us — things we may not know about ourselves and things that other people may not know about us. The more open you are and the more you feel that other people understand you — the matching of what they see and what you feel — is usually a pretty good predictor of how healthy a relationship is going to be.

Q: How has the influence of technology and social media affected development of human relationships?

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A: People can use technology adaptively or nonadaptively. We know that we need to be physically present for other people — we have chemicals that are triggered when we feel a connection to other people. So we do need that physical connection at times.

Social media, however, does provide another opportunity to connect — as long as it’s not only social media. If someone is using social media to make plans or have a more in-depth conversation that can be great, but if they communicate only through social media it’s probably not a healthy situation. It’s all about how you use it and how you balance connecting through technology with connecting in person.

Q: What kinds of issues do you see in some of your clients that stem, at least in part, from their relationships?

A: We explore relational therapy quite a bit in our treatment, because things are often rooted in relationships and it trickles back to that. But in many cases, it’s not just a person’s relationships with other people that may be the problem — it’s also the relationship with their self. Other people, however, can allow you that better understanding of yourself — because if you’re only going through things in your mind individually and kind of bouncing ideas off of only yourself, you’re not really learning.

So it’s very important to have those other people to continue to learn and grow and thrive throughout a human lifespan, because as we go through different stages in our lives, we need to learn and grow — no matter how old we are. And if we’re not getting to those developmental milestones through learning both individually and with other people, you’ll definitely see an impact on a person’s overall mental health and well-being.

Q: What advice or guidance do you offer clients who seem to be having difficulty connecting with people or maintaining healthy relationships?

A: A really good component of therapy is relationships. I love when clients invite someone who is meaningful to them along to a session — it shows that they’re really open to listening to others’ concerns and making changes. Those are the type of people who tend to do really well in treatment.

But it’s important that if someone has concerns about their relationships, they should try to address them early on and not let them fester. The biggest problem we see is people coming in, especially for couples’ therapy, when it’s too late and their mindset is already looking to get out; if you’re already at that point, it’s unlikely that treatment is going to be effective. It’s better to come in when you’re starting to feel a little bit of sadness or anxiety and when you think there might be a problem starting to unfold in a relationship. At that point, we have a much better chance to pinpoint the problem and try to do something about it.

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