The importance of personal connections: A conversation with Dr. Jesse Gill

  • Brett Sholtis, WITF's Transforming Health

Personal connections and meaningful relationships can have a profound impact on mental well-being.

For Dr. Jesse Gill, those relationships are also the core of his counseling practice. Gill is a Hershey-based psychologist and author of Face to Face: Seven Keys to a Secure Marriage. He practices “attachment theory,” focusing on the different ways that people connect with one another. This conversation has been edited for clarity:

Q: Jesse, what’s the value — what happens  when we talk openly with someone else?
There’s power in the spoken word. Just giving voice to what you’re going through, that in itself is comforting and reassuring. At the neurophysiological level, we understand that talk therapy helps to take pent-up emotions, so to speak, and it gives the whole brain access to that material. So sometimes putting it into language gives us power to do something with it.

Q: I know from talking with you that you don’t just mean talking with a psychologist. A big part of your work is to help couples and family communicate. What happens when that communication isn’t working? What’s at risk?
Because we’re designed for attachment, when we’re not experiencing that, it has emotional impact, it has health consequences. When we have people that we can touch base with, people that will appropriately hug us, share our life’s journeys, and especially our sorrows and distress moments, all of that soothes us. If you’re going through a hard time and you don’t have those folks, your anxiety can remain at sort of an elevated level. If it goes on too long, you can actually slide into some depression.

Q: You talk about these three attachment styles: Avoidant, protest and secure, with the goal being to make people understand their attachment style, and maybe get a little closer to being secure. What is an attachment style?
Attachment style is our characteristic way of pursuing closeness and connection as well as learning to be sufficiently independent and explore this amazing world that we’re all a part of. The gold standard is something called secure attachment, and these are folks that had that face to face interaction with their parent that I was explaining earlier. So they had the face-to-face gazing, they had the touch, they had the vulnerable sharing of emotions back and forth, and they come out really well-equipped.

Q: Of course, the people who may need this connection the most may be people who don’t have a lot of the stable family and friends or a partner that you describe. What can they do?
Everybody has some form of interest. If we think about it creatively, there are still places where people gather where people know and be known, places people can go even if you’re disconnected from your family for some reason or another.

Q: What have you learned that you think is your big takeaway for couples working on relationships?
Wherever you are, if you’re young in your relationship, learn about your attachment style. And see if there’s any negative cycles at play. You kind of owe it to yourself to get off on a good start and prevent the cycles of conflict, but also enrich and cultivate a deep and lasting bond for yourself and your partner.

Q: What’s the biggest thing you’ve learned that’s helped you from doing this work?
Try to create those attachment moments. That’s the stuff that’s going to sustain you. That’s the stuff that enriches you. That’s the stuff that, at the end of your life, you’re going to say, I’m glad I did that.

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This story is part of Transforming Health and PA Post’s mental health series Through the Cracks, which seeks to locate problems in Pa. mental health services and break down stigma by sharing personal accounts.

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