by Dr. Sandra Hamilton | Featured Contributor
Have you ever enjoyed spending time with someone, but then walked away feeling unfulfilled or even empty? You had fun, nothing particularly negative happened, but you felt as though something was missing. Looking back, you may not feel the desire to deepen the connection further — or even spend time with them again. There was no excitement when recalling the moments you experienced together, and no sense of loss when you consider that they may not reach out to you in the future.
Socializing can be an emotional gauntlet when discerning the difference between genuine connection and simply enjoying someone’s company. Like the array of wholesome and fast foods available to consume, there are plenty of people to pass the time with us. Some provide nutrition to our emotional growth and well-being; others offer gratification analogous to junk food.
We know one thing for sure when we reach for junk food — we love sweet treats and salty snacks. They’re inexpensive, readily available, and require no preparation. Though appealing and delicious in the moment, junk food affords no lasting value to our physical health.
“Junk food relationships” are likewise enjoyable, convenient, and require little time or energy; and, in small doses, they can make for a fond memory or an engaging story. Like the addictive taste of junk food, these hollow connections can pose a long-term risk if they are used as a substitute for loving relationships or meaningful friendships.
Our culture focuses much energy and time on managing physical health through diet and exercise. Knowing how to differentiate meaningful relationships from the fun, yet less nutritious junk food relationships will help you maintain your emotional well-being.
The difference between a healthy relationship and a junk food relationship:
We all know what a toxic relationship feels like, but identifying a junk food relationship can be less obvious because we like the person and feel good in their company. The difference is simple: the rush of a good time is the only thing you can count on in a junk food relationship. The person that you call at two in the morning when you are feeling down is the relationship that will emotionally sustain you.
Nutritious relationships are enduring, mutual, and interdependent. The investment of time and energy results in trust, loyalty, and deeper awareness of yourself and the other person. Junk food relationships are fleeting, focused on activities instead of connection, and don’t assume dependability or trust.
Not every relationship needs to be nutritious, but a steady diet of junk food relationships will leave you stuffed yet starving for emotional connection. Just as we need to feed our bodies with nutritious food, we need to feed our emotional selves with meaningful contact. Our time and energy should be directed to those who are willing to be there for us at two in the morning — and in kind, we should be there for them.
Be clear about the truth of your relationships:
Taking a hard look at our connection to others is similar to tracking the foods we consume. When observing our intake, we may learn that we are consuming more “junk” than we thought. There is nothing wrong with having junk food relationships if we recognize them for what they are — pleasurable and transient. In isolation, there may be little consequence for an impulsive crush, an indulgent weekend with friends, or a casual sexual experience. But confusing a superficial connection for friendship or love will leave you lonely, empty, and craving for more contact.
A junk food relationship is not a toxic relationship. It is not poisonous to you, and may be just what you need at the time; but just like junk food, it will fill you up with no lasting positive effect. There is no harm when experienced with clarity and moderation, but an overabundance of hanging out and hooking up can lead to emotional malnutrition.
Dr. Sandra Hamilton
While taking pre-med classes at the University of California, Santa Barbara, I became so distracted by psychology courses that I changed my major to pursue a Ph.D. in clinical psychology. My contributions to She Owns It are drawn from the professional perspective of a clinical psychologist, as well as the personal point of view of a single working mother and entrepreneur. I have maintained an independent psychology practice for over 20 years, taught as an adjunct assistant professor for over a decade, and somehow managed to survive raising two spirited daughters.
My expertise is grounded in years of working with individuals, couples, and families who have worked their way through catastrophic experiences as well as the inevitable demands of adult life. I admire their tenacity each time they schedule another session in the face of painful insights and difficult feelings.
Therapy is not a haircut. It’s not a quick fix, and you don’t always feel better when you leave.