Relationships. If it’s not already obvious to you that relationships are a constant source of conversation and the subject of endless inquiry, do a little searching. Google returns 130,000,000 pages on human relationships. A search for relationships on Amazon results in 217,000 books.
After such a vast amount of thought and observation, have we actually answered these questions: Why are relationships so important to us? What makes relationships succeed or fail?
I don’t think we have. Why? I believe the answers are indefinable outside the context of individual relationships. These questions are ultimately intimate, answerable only within our own relationships.
The photo at the top of this story is of two of my dearest friends, Shawna and Carolyn. We (along with our close friend Michael) were sitting in the Little Rock airport, waiting for our flights to take us back home after spending a few days at an event in Arkansas. We’d spent the morning walking around downtown Little Rock, thoroughly enjoying each other’s company and conversation. The minutes we had left in the airport were equal parts pure bliss and impending heartbreak, knowing we should cherish the moments but fully aware that life was soon to separate us without a guaranteed promise of reunion.
I’ve included this photo and story, because that morning changed me. Mine was the first flight to leave. I glanced back through glassy eyes at my three friends as I walked toward the jet way. I was emotional from our goodbye, but buoyed by our new connection. I was a different person, carrying the gift of their friendship — our relationship — within me.
Looking out the scratched window of the plane as it climbed away from Little Rock, I started to answer those two evasive questions for myself. Why are relationships so important to me? What makes my relationships succeed or fail?
It has taken me nearly a year to comprehend my answers in a way that I can put into words.
I had it all backwards before, thinking that I was simply bringing myself — something distinct and quantifiable to offer — into relationships. Yes, I bring a set of characteristics into a relationship, but to focus on this is missing the point. The individual that I bring into my relationships is a temporary creation of every relationship I’ve had in the past — soon to be refined (and hopefully improved) by relationships tomorrow. To modify a phrase from a famous philosopher, I relate therefore I am.
If this is true for me, then the success of my relationships is critical to my personal success. They are one and the same. I’ve taken a very long, concentrated look at how I’ve approached relationships in the past, the good and the bad. Relationships are much like plants in a garden, each with its own unique needs to flourish. However, common ground emerged as I looked at my successful relationships.
- They are supportive and uplifting. We are working together to help each other create the person we strive to be. There is no room for jealousy and spite. We crave each other’s success, because we share in it.
- They are honest and open. Honesty doesn’t mean we dump every thought in our heads into a confused heap of emotion. It means we are authentic, not catering to what we think the other wants to hear. It means we are willing to respectfully engage when our beliefs and emotions diverge. It means we use criticism constructively, not as a tool of control.
- They are without agenda. In the past, I often found myself asking, “What am I getting out of this relationship?” I’d do that with every relationship, applying economic principles to something that defies them. Today, if I start to ask that question, I know to walk away because I already know that the relationship is changing me into something I don’t want to be.
- They are vulnerable. Vulnerability and trust grow slowly symbiotically, but the end result is a comfort zone where true sharing of self lives. It is a place that says, “You are safe, I trust you. I will show you myself without fear.”
- They are full of laughter. Laughter born of joy and camaraderie — from others and from within — is involuntary and the purest form of catharsis.
The thoughts that seeded themselves as I left Little Rock have grown into a clarity unlike any I’ve ever known. When my relationships are healthy, I am healthy.
I am created through connection, and I’m quite content with the result.