You’ve heard it before: Going through hard times is one of the things that can create bonds between people. In fact, the more difficult the experience, the more bonding that may occur. And a global pandemic certainly qualifies as a condition for strengthening bonds. The good news is you can look forward to greater connections and new levels of closeness with your people—in all aspects of life and work.
But why is bonding so significant during hard times? What it is about shared experiences of pain, that links us so powerfully with others? And how is bonding so critical to our fulfillment and happiness? Understanding these can help you build bonds, leverage bonds and maintain them over time.
Bonding Is Based On Shared Experiences
By definition, we have deeper engagement when we go through tough experiences. We have to consider the conditions we’re in, think through our response, consider impacts on others, solve problems and improvise. All of this causes a significant involvement of multiple thinking processes from gaining awareness to building understanding and fostering empathy.
This deeper mental engagement tends to make hard times more memorable—and our memory is linked with the people with whom we went through difficulty. We remember the friend who stayed in touch. We hold close the colleague who needed our support when she was struggling. Pain is a shared experience and it is the combination of deeper processing and more memorable circumstances which tend to link us with others.
Bonding Is Based on Solidarity
Research at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology shows going through crisis causes us to release greater amounts of oxytocin. The brain chemical has an interesting effect on groups and relationships as it tends to make us feel good, connected and concerned for others. Research at the University of Amsterdam shows a lesser-known aspect of oxytocin is that it can cause aggression toward those who aren’t part of our group. With the release of oxytocin, the bonds within the group are strengthened causing a protective response, including the desire for our people to be happy and prosperous—and the desire to ensure that no one from the outside causes a threat to this positivity.
Oxytocin can also motivate action—to protect and support group members. This feeling of closeness and protectiveness with your people is part of what creates strong bonds. Researchers at the University of New South Wales believe it creates a ‘social glue’ where we want the best for the group and will take action to try and get it. Consider the example of team members who band together to solve a tough problem threatening to derail a project or the example of heroes in Texas who were working together to obtain vaccines for elderly members of their group struggling to navigate the online registration and appointment processes.
Bonding is Based on Reciprocity
A fundamental part of being human is the dynamic of reciprocity. When people help us or give us something, it is natural to want to give back—returning the favor or doing something good after someone has done for us. Going through difficult times causes greater levels of need and this sets up for the human dynamic of reciprocity. We could use support from our friend when we’re feeling down, or we want a colleague to do the presentation for us when we’re sick. We need a neighbor to pick up groceries because we’re so busy facilitating our children’s at-home learning. When we open ourselves to help from others, we build the relationship because the conditions motivate reciprocity. Others have helped us, and we want to help them next.
Openness and vulnerability also tend to build relationships. When people see that we’re in need, they have the sense that we’ve opened ourselves up to them, and have been authentic and vulnerable. This too, tends to foster bonding. When we are vulnerable to others, it shows we trust them. And when someone helps us, it is proof they care enough to pay attention and take action. We—and they—obtain “affinity proof”—a signal of trust and evidence the relationship matters.
Bonding is Based on Post Traumatic Growth
We’ve all heard about post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but a lesser known circumstance is post traumatic growth in which difficulty creates the conditions for people to grow, stretch, learn and become even better. Post traumatic growth says that going through hard times can have benefits.
- First, it can help us clarify our priorities. Many people report going through really tough times made less significant issues recede, and created a laser-focus on what really mattered most.
- Another element of post traumatic growth is that we can learn about our own capabilities. People report when they go through very difficult times, they tap into reserves they didn’t know they had—and their ability to survive is evidence of a new set of competencies or coping strategies.
- A third benefit of difficulty—and a condition of post traumatic growth—is knowing who your friends are. You learn whom you can count on and who is willing to go out of their way to help. You discover who you can call in the middle of the night if you’ve hit rock bottom. This too creates strong bonds. When you’re in real need or pain, the person who came when you really needed help is a relationship you’ll cherish for the long term.
Supporting Each Other
Bonds are strengthened through difficult times—and we can learn how to support each other through it all.
Lessons from the dynamics of bonding suggest we can strengthen relationships by seeking shared experiences, banding together with our people to help and support them, opening ourselves authentically to others and focusing on the learning that can result from challenges.
Overall, the pandemic has provided new intimacies with others, new appreciation for our people and deeper-than-ever bonds with our friends and colleagues. Strong relationships are fuel for our own growth and the health of our communities—and this bodes well for the future. We’ll survive the pandemic and we will thrive—with a little help from our friends.
- Tracy Brower, PhD, author of The Secrets to Happiness at Work
*This article was originally published on Forbes.com April 4, 2021.