by Seth Eisenberg
“Why Sisterly Chats Make People Happier,” has been the most e-mailed New York Time’s article for nearly a week. That shouldn’t be surprising considering the author’s original book, You Just Don’t Understand Me, remained #1 on the New York Times Bestseller list for eight months and on the charts for nearly four years.
Relationships with sisters have a lot to do with happiness. I’ve often wondered what life would be like if my mother’s 20-year estrangement with my only sister could have been healed. Deborah Tannen’s research on the difference sisters make in our lives is good encouragement.
In her essay, Tannen says people with sisters are happier because it means they have someone to talk to. “So the key to why having sisters makes people happier — men as well as women — may lie not in the kind of talk they exchange but in the fact of talk.”
For soldiers returning home from combat, researchers have also found a link between having a confidant and well-being. Those who returned from deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan to someone they could confide in did much better handling stress.
Tannen’s research busts the myth that to be nurturing, conversations have to focus on emotions. While sisters may often talk about feelings with each other, she says it’s the regular conversations themselves that are most vital.
“That’s another kind of conversation that many women engage in which baffles many men: talk about details of their daily lives, like the sweater they found on sale — details, you might say, as insignificant as those about last night’s ballgame which can baffle women when they overhear men talking. These seemingly pointless conversations are as comforting to some women as ‘troubles talk’ conversations are to others,” Tannen writes.
Tannen’s continued exploration of the impact of communication within families adds insight and facts to the work of relationship building. While she convincingly highlights the benefits, the emotional maturity required for adults to surrender childhood jealousies and competition for parental affection on behalf of the tangible benefits of nurturing connections remains a challenge profoundly influenced by family history.
Left to themselves, children often grow up to build adult relationships with their siblings much like the connections they saw modeled by their parents, as Dr. Rita DeMaria explores in her extensive work on genograms. For adults whose early models of family disconnection, jealousies, and cut-offs left them with unhealthy examples, skills training to learn to build healthy relationships can contribute to greater happiness.
Couples and singles who participate in PAIRS Essentials marriage education classes regularly report lasting benefits the training brought to extended family relationships, proving time and again that intimacy is a skill that can be learned.
Mustering the good will and maturity to be open to learning, forgiving, and connecting, Tannen shows, is a worthwhile endeavor.
Seth Eisenberg is President of the nonprofit PAIRS Foundation, an industry leader in relationship and marriage education.
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