10 ways to get your social support sorted and be in a healthy place for dating

Feb 27, 2024
Adults having dinner together

One of my mentors, Professor Robin Dunbar is an evolutionary psychologist and biologist and he and his team at the University of Oxford have been studying friendships and social networks for the last couple of decades. He published a review of his work a few years ago and it began with this heading:

“Friendship is the single most important factor influencing our health, well-being, and happiness”

That is quite a statement isn’t it? Not only are our social relationships absolutely crucial for our health and longevity – they are also the single biggest contributor to our mental well-being and happiness.

Our relationships are incredibly important to us. We’ve evolved to rely on them and if we don’t have them we’re bereft.

That said it’s become fashionable in recent years to suggest that we shouldn’t rely on others for our wellbeing, and that happiness should come from within – we should love ourselves and be happy on our own.

But that’s really not how we’re built. We’ve evolved to need others because having other people to depend on has increased our chances of survival.

Happiness can come from within for people who are socially connected; people who know they have others to turn to if they need to.

But sadly, loneliness and lack of social engagement is so common nowadays. It’s like a modern plague. It’s a massive problem for people of all ages, but especially so as people get older.

So you may well be wondering, why am I going on about this in the context of helping women who are looking for a partner relationship?

It’s because of the fact that we all need close relationships – it’s how we humans are made. But many of us who are single and perhaps living alone can often face loneliness – not necessarily of course. We might have close friends or family around – but that’s the point, we need to make sure we DO have this.

We can’t afford to go into the dating arena with that horrible hollow feeling of loneliness because that makes us feel desperate to find someone simply to relieve the loneliness. There’s a real danger that if we’re in that situation we’re going to settle for the wrong guy just because he makes us feel a bit less lonely for a while.

Or we might stay in a bad relationship because we’re worried we won’t find someone else and be on our own – and lonely. I’ve definitely been in that situation myself.

So if we’re going to find a healthy relationship then it’s absolutely vital that we currently have our social needs being met, and that means having good quality close relationships with people we know have our back, and also we need to feel socially integrated in a community as much as possible.

So the question is: do we all need to get more friends then?

Trouble is, creating and maintaining friendships takes a lot of time and effort. They don’t just materialise out of thin air. We need time to maintain our friendships and our intimate relationships, and in our busy lives we often don’t give them the priority they deserve.

So let’s see, how many friends do you have? How many really close friends?

So what I mean here are people with whom we have a strong emotional bond, people we make an effort to keep in contact with and we know and care about their lives. Think about who you could phone in the middle of the night to ask to help you in an emergency, or someone you’d ask for a loan if you were really stuck.

Now when I’m saying close friendships here – this can include platonic friends, partner relationships, and it also includes close family relationships – again if we are actually friends – not all family relationships are very friendly, but say you have a really great relationship with your mum, or with your sister, where you’re in touch a lot and tell each other things that are going on – they would count as one of your very close friendships.

So have you got a number in your head of very close friends?

It turns out that there’s an upper limit on the number of close friendships we can have and for most people it’s up to five. This comes down to the fact that in order to maintain close friendships you have to spend time on them and we all have a limited amount of time.

The quality of a relationship depends on the time invested in it.

The number of relationships we have is also limited by our brain power.

There’s a lot of brain work to be done around relationships. Keeping track of who’s done what, who can be trusted, what favours are owed to whom and we need to have the ability to inhibit selfish acts by ourselves, so we don’t endanger our relationships – all this takes brain power, so that limits the number of close friends we can have.

And we have to trade-off relationships – if we want to spend more time with one person, we’ll have to lose another from our close relationship circle.

So, for example when we fall in love with a new person and bring them into our circle of five, we’re spending a lot of time on that person obviously and we typically lose one close friend and one close family member out of our inner circle – so that we end up with only 4 in our close circle for the time that we’re really infatuated. We might bring at least one of them back in when things start to become a bit less exciting with the new man…

This is clearly something to be mindful of when you do start a new relationship. It would be a good idea obviously to make sure your relationship is on the right tracks before letting any of your close friendships slide…

We need to find ways to make sure we spend enough time and effort on our closest relationships and we also need to find ways of building social interaction in to our everyday activities to strengthen our social integration and social embeddedness – because that’s what makes us feel content, and safe, and looked-after.

Here are my 10 suggestions for how to do that:

1. Make time for your good friends.

Our family members will let us off with not being in touch for a while, and it’s not likely to make us feel less close to them – but friends who aren’t genetically related to us need attention to keep the friendship going. We need to recognise that these relationships are valuable and need our time. Yes, I know everything needs our time – but spending time on nurturing friendships is probably more important than most people realise.

2. Get Face to Face
Face to face interaction seems to be vitally important for our happiness and for the health benefits of relationships.It’s hard to “get” each other if you don’t have the body language signals and facial expression. If you can’t actually get together face to face in person, use a video app to get together like Zoom or Skype.

3. Eat together with other people

Research shows that eating together is key in making us feel good and socially integrated. Brush up on your culinary skills if need be, and invite friends and family round for dinner. They’ll love you for it, and will hopefully invite you back! Win-win situation.

4. Make a point of talking to people during day to day activities

Say hello to the postie, to the cashier in the supermarket, the shopkeeper at your local corner shop – ask them how they are. Just having that small interaction will raise your endorphin levels and make you feel good. And it’ll do the same for the person you’re talking to, so it’s great all-round!

Get to know the people you see again and again – it’ll give you the feeling of being part of the community.

5. Go to clubs.

Get involved in clubs and help organise stuff. You get so much more out of a club as an organiser – you get to know everyone, feel much more part of the group, and members will come to you with suggestions and questions. They’ll see you as an important member of the group and that’ll make you feel like an important member of the group.

Clubs and classes and societies and such-like have another advantage of bringing together people who have similar interests and perhaps world views.

We’re much more likely to have successful friendships with people that are more like us, and have similar interests and values, so we need to hang out in places where we’re likely to meet such people. It’s not rocket science.

6. Sing and Laugh

Singing and laughing with others gets your endorphins going and gives you that feeling of bondedness – it’s so powerful and so important.

Why not join a choir and enjoy singing together in a group – enjoy that feeling of being at one with the others singing with you. Gather some friends together and go to a comedy club and have a really good laugh – you’ll feel fabulous and well connected afterwards with all those endorphins surging around your body.

Be silly and have a laugh – as much as possible!

Dancing is another human activity that has this endorphin bonding effect – so get out and dance with other people.

One form of this I’d highly recommend is a ceilidh – we’re well into ceilidhs up here in Scotland and it’s pretty impossible not to have a good time and a good laugh.

7. Integrate your social network

Find ways to introduce your friends to each other.

Often we have lots of individual relationships where we meet up with one or two people at a time. I know this has happened to me over the years, where I’ve met people in different contexts so I have one or two friends here and one or two friends there, who I see in very different situations.

So maybe you’ve got a couple of work friends, and then maybe a couple of friends who are mums of your kids’ school friends, some others you’ve known since school or uni – whatever.

It can be really nice to let your different friends get to know each other too so that you can create a social network that you’re in the middle of and feel embedded in.
So for example… if you wanted to go all-in you could organise a party, although you might not feel that’s possible right now because of virus considerations, but smaller events are great too where you can gradually introduce different friends to each other. A bbq in the park, or simply getting together for a coffee and explicitly saying you want to introduce one friend to another because you think they’ll get on.

8. Get to know your neighbours

Research shows that if we have friends living close by, that’s great for our sense of wellbeing, so that means it’s a good idea to make an effort to get to know your neighbours.

Invite your favourite ones round for dinner – that eating together thing again.

I’ve done things like inviting neighbours round for mince piece and mulled wine at Christmas, or a coffee in the garden. I go for walks with a couple of my neighbours first thing in the morning before work which is really nice.

If you get on well with those living around you and know they’re looking out for you, you’ll be amazed at how supported you feel.

9. Make time and space for chats with your co-workers.

We can do it in a work context too. It’s good for our sense of well-being and it’s also where the best ideas come from, those discussions over coffee or at the water cooler or whatever.

You could take it a bit further and get your co-workers out for a walk together at lunchtime – walking and talking is a great combination and healthy on different levels.

10. Give your social relationships the priority they deserve.

Yes I know you’ve got LOTS of important things to prioritise, but looking after your social network helps you do the other stuff. Remember, being happy and mentally healthy means that we’re more likely to be physically healthy and be more creative and energetic: If you look after your relationships and social networks they’ll look after you, in all realms of life – so it is absolutely not an optional luxury. It’s an essential part of your life.

Going out to the choir to sing with your friends, or having your family round for dinner, it’s even more important than getting your exercise or having a healthy diet in terms of the overall effects.

And although it’s easy to slip into thinking that you should always prioritise getting your work done – doing that bit of overtime and impressing your colleagues – remember that it’s your social relationships that are keeping you healthy and allow you to get your work done at all.

Don’t take them for granted.

So these are some ways to strengthen you social network and integration so that you’ll feel healthier and happier, and crucially you’ll be in a great place to start a new relationship because you won’t be desperate to find someone to fill the void of loneliness you may be feeling. Then you’ll be in a much better position to pick a relationship that’s right for you rather than falling into the arms of the first guy who comes along.

I for one have had that experience of staying in a relationship that wasn’t working for me and was actually making me unhappy, just because I was scared to be on my own. It was only when I finally extricated myself from that and got ok with relying on my friends for social support that I was able to find the fantastic relationship I’m now in.

We all want to be happy, and sometimes that feeling eludes us when we don’t have the partner we want to share our lives with. But ironically, the happier we can be in ourselves – and that partly comes down to being embedded in a high-quality social network - the more likely we are to attract that partner.

That’s because happiness itself is attractive – just think how much more you are attracted to happy, positive people compared to someone who is negative and downbeat. This preference has evolved because happiness is an honest indicator of quality.

So coming across as a happy person – it’s attractive and it rubs off. And when it helps you to meet your main man, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy ☺

Mairi Macleod PhD