Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Relationships: Ugh!

Making relationships work is simple stuff but also can be maddeningly difficult and confusing. The Apostle Paul outlines a very simple and clear-cut strategy:

• Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. (Ephes. 4:31-32)

When you are determined to treat your mate, friend or boss kindly, compassionately, and forgivingly, just about any basis for conflict is removed. Your mutual interests become the same. They want the best for themselves, and you want the best for them also. From where then can bitterness arise? Why then the conflicts? James claims that

• What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don't they come from your desires that battle within you? You want something but don't get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight. (James 4:1-2)

Conflicts result when our interests do not coincide. When we want something that our friend won’t or can’t give, quarrels develop like tropical downpours. But if relationships are really so simple, why then is there a divorce rate of more than 50%? Well, there are many reasons for this. Unrealistic expectations help to account for this high figure.

• Coleman [a San Francisco psychologist] says that the constant cultural pressure to have it all—a great sex life, a wonderful family—has made people ashamed of their less-than-perfect relationships and question whether such unions are worth hanging on to. Feelings of dissatisfaction or disappointment are natural but they can seem intolerable when standards are sky-high.” (Psychology Today, March/April2004, 38)

Our failures to fathom what constitutes a well-lived life go hand-and-hand with our unrealistic expectations. We mistakenly believe that the good-life is about getting rather than giving. When we fail to get our priorities straight to recognize that we receive more from giving, we necessarily place ourselves in competition with others to get limited resources – respect, money, popularity, power, and position. This is a sure prescription for conflict and alienation.

However, there is another factor – one seldom recognized – that undermines relationships. Oddly, even though there is now so much emphasis placed upon the value of intimate relationships – and so many groups available to connect with like-minded spirits – they seem to be getting scarcer. In one study,

• McPherson found that between 1985 and 2004, the number of people with whom the average American discussed ‘important matters’ dropped from three to two. Even more stunning, the number of people who said that there was no one with whom they discussed important matters tripled: in 2004, individuals without a single confidant now made up nearly a quarter of those surveyed. (The Lonely American, 2)

This is alarming! What can account for this collapse of intimacy? I think that this is a product of our unwillingness to honestly engage ourselves, to be real and transparent. Without these, we are consequently unable to engage others. If the foundation of our lives isn’t solid, nothing can be built upon them.

Intimate relationships require that two people share the same reality. This is the common ground upon which satisfying, bridge-building communication must take place. However, if we have spent our lives devoted to building self-esteem, self-trust, and self-image at the expense of the truth about ourselves, the bases for common ground, especially intimate common ground, shrink.

When I’m transparent with others about my weaknesses and failures – and I often do this to inject some humor and to show the object of my real confidence, Christ – many become uncomfortable. If they haven’t learned to accept their ugly parts, they tend to feel uncomfortable when an associate makes such revelations, even humorously. They instead insist that I have to learn to trust myself.

Besides, self-esteem comes at a high price. If self-esteem has become the trajectory of our lives, we will accentuate the good about ourselves and deny the unpleasant. Consequently, we adopt a very distorted view of ourselves. Shelley Taylor (Positive Illusions) writes,

• Normal people exaggerate how competent and well liked they are. Depressed people do not. Normal people remember their past behavior with a rosy glow. Depressed people are more even-handed…On virtually every point on which normal people show enhanced self-regard, illusions of control, and unrealistic visions of the future, depressed people fail to show the same biases. (p.214)

For instance, in one study of nearly a million high school seniors, 70 percent said they had “above average leadership skills, but only 2 percent felt their leadership skills were below average.” Another study found that 94 percent of college professors think they do above average work. And in another study, “when doctors diagnosed their patients as having pneumonia, predictions made with 88 percent confidence turned out to be right only 20 percent of the time.”

These distortions play havoc with our relationships in other ways. Although we might know that kindness and forgiveness are keys to intimacy, we often justify our lack of kindness and forgiveness, because we have convinced ourselves that we are morally superior to others.

Often, we don’t allow ourselves to acknowledge these types of attitudes, but they manifest themselves in profound ways. I used to catch myself judging my wife: “I’d never do that to her!” I might not have realized it fully at the time, but I had been deeming myself morally superior to my wife. I was a king, and so she had to be a queen! However, when we fill ourselves with these judgments, we also justify withholding kindness and forgiveness. After all, she deserves to not be forgiven! She wasn’t the queen that I required that she be to compliment my kingly status. As the Proverbs say, “Pride only breeds quarrels!”

As my self-esteem has fallen (and my God-esteem has risen), my wife increasingly looks better to me, and also everyone else. Consequently, I’ve learned to respect others more and to extend to them kindness and forgiveness more readily.

John Gottman and his institute have become prominent in the area of marriage. Although not a Christian, he too has come to appreciate the simplicity of certain principles for improving our relationships:

• “The typical conflict-resolution advice (techniques) won’t help. Instead, you need to understand the bottom-line difference that is causing the conflict between you—and learn how to live with it by honoring and respecting each other.” (The Seven Principles for making Marriage Work, 24)

We resonate with being treated with the basic dignity with which we were created (Genesis 1:26-27). We were created in glory; we have to reflect this in our treatment of others. We have to pass on to others what God has given us:

• Therefore, as God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. (Col. 3:12-14)

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