Are the People in Our Lives Here for a Reason or Just Here for the Season?
As the weather warms up and the sun starts peeking out, you are probably engaging in some spring cleaning, putting away the heaviness of the winter to make room for spring and new beginnings.
But have you ever thought of doing that with relationships? Probably not. But as social beings, we are literally wired to connect with others. And yet, we may spend more time contemplating whether or not a sweater works for us than contemplating if certain relationships are working for us.
This spring, you might want to try to add some spring cleaning to your relationships. Read on to learn what this means, how you might do it and why, and the benefit it can have on your mental health.
What Does It Mean to Spring Clean Our Relationships?
If you’re a parent—especially of multiple children—you likely understand all too well how physical clutter can build up. What doesn’t seem like a lot taken individually can start to compound.
“Imagine you have a garbage bag full of stuff from your own room, says therapist Mendi Baron, LCSW. “Then imagine that someone else comes and gives you their bag to carry. Then someone else. Then a third person asks you to carry them, while a fourth tries to trip you.”
Carrying all that emotional clutter can make it hard to breathe. “Many times, the implicit or imagined weight and expectations of these relationships can pull us down, drain us of energy and take our focus off of our own needs and goals,” he says. “We need to clear the space to properly function in life.”
How to Spring Clean Your Relationships
When cleaning a physical space, often you will dump everything out of the area you’re cleaning so you can see what you have to work with. While it’s not quite as easy to dump out our emotional baggage on the floor to see what’s there, there are ways to illuminate what’s been hiding in the dark corners of our relationship closet.
This will, of course, vary by relationship, but some common issues she sees come up in these kind of exercises are:
*Negative communication patterns that partners may fall into such as blaming/shaming
*Not spending enough quality time together
*The time that is spent together is often filled with distractions
Once you’ve figured out what needs to go in your relationship to prevent ruin and overgrowth, then you can figure out what to add to continue to nourish it.
While there may not be a magic fertilizer you can sprinkle over your relationship to help it grow, some of the common things that may help your relationship flourish are:
*More quality time
Spring Cleaning Your Relationships on a Macro Level
When thinking of relationships and relationship inventories, many people jump to applying these types of inventories to a specific relationship, often a romantic one. However, these types of inventories work on the macro level, too.
When embarking on a big project to declutter your physical space, often people will make three piles: toss (/donate), store and keep. This framework can apply to individual relationships, too.
There’s that feeling you get when you see an item; you wonder why you ever had it in the first place—you can’t imagine a version of you that ever needed it.
Sometimes when we spring clean our relationships, says psychiatrist Dr. Timothy Jeider, “there are some people who have to be tossed out completely.” These are people who may have once served a purpose in our lives—or we hoped they might—but they don’t actually serve a purpose for who we are today.
How to Know When It’s Time to Toss
A relationship that you should “toss,” says Baron, “is one that you think any of these things about: ‘This is bringing me down. It’s negative. It’s an energy suck.” The relationships that you should toss are the ones that aren’t bringing anything positive to your life, or you actually feel worse after spending time with that person.
Sometimes we’re just not ready to part with something or someone, and so we send it out to the actual or proverbial garage. While Jerry Seinfeld would argue that nothing that goes out to the garage ever makes the cut and is just purgatory, “storing” a relationship can mean that “it has meaning but it’s not one I can really handle right now,” says Baron. “I have too much on my plate.”
Or, like the papers in the garage, these relationships may need a sturdier container to hold them. “They may need new or specific boundaries to keep the relationship in check,” says Jeider.
Much like storing something as a way to decide whether you really want or need it (although you probably know the answer in both cases), this is a way to take a step back and evaluate relationships you’re not really sure about.
How to Know When to Send a Relationship to Storage
A relationship that you may want to put in “storage,” says Baron, “may be one that feels not entirely reciprocal.” These are the relationships where you may feel like you are giving more than you’re getting, but maybe it hasn’t always been that way.
This should hopefully be an easy one! “These are the people who enrich your life and make you feel better every time you are with them,” says Jeider. “These are the keepers.”
Past relational traumas and insecurity can sometimes cloud our vision and make us feel like a good relationship either isn’t healthy or is “too much” when we may be used to the more chaotic relationships.
How to Know If You Should Keep the Relationship
You’d be thinking things like, “This relationship refreshes me, keeps me motivated, contributes to my life in a positive manner, and is reciprocal,” says Baron.
Spring Cleaning Relationships for Our Mental Health
Physical clutter can lead to all kinds of negative mental health effects, including depression, decreased focus, confusion, and tension—but so can mental or relational clutter.
“We often don’t realize that these relationships actually contribute to and directly impact our self-concept, mood, world concept or outlook, energy, and more,” says Baron.
But, in fact, research shows that strong social relationships can positively predict self-esteem.
These strong relationships can help us shape our self-views by what the person or the relationship reflects back to us, and this is true in all life stages.
“We often don’t realize that these relationships actually contribute to and directly impact our self-concept, mood, world concept or outlook, energy, and more.” — MENDI BARON, LCSW
“By clearing the negative,” says Baron, “you immediately alleviate significant mental health stressors.” In partnered relationships, negative partner interactions are related to poorer mental health outcomes, while those with higher levels of social integration face lower odds of depression.
Healthy relationships can even improve these conditions, so taking care of the relationships in your life is one of the best things you can do for your mental health.
By Theodora Blanchfield, AMFT and Medically reviewed by Sabrina Romanoff, PsyD