The Fruit of a Healthy Relationship
- Tuesday, August 31, 2004
Every time you smile at someone, it is an action of love, a gift to that person, a beautiful thing. – Mother Teresa
With an understanding of how to find and read your social barometer, an exploration of social competency, and a study of the fine art of empathy, we want to leave you with a bit of inspiration. We believe that inspiration goes a long way in helping you use your social barometer to engender self-giving love.
You’ll remember that we’ve said who you are is more important than what you do. This is particularly true in your relationships. Tips and techniques can be helpful, but a relationship ultimately rests on the psychological health of two people. In fact, your relationships can only be as healthy as the least healthy in them.
So we will say it again: If you want a healthy relationship, the most important thing you can do is get yourself healthy. And we know, because you are reading this, that’s exactly what you are doing. So with that in mind, we want to highlight the payoff for your efforts. By recounting these payoffs to yourself on occasion, you will increase the likelihood of a more self-giving lifestyle.
When two healthy people (both tuned in to their social barometer) get together, it’s like drinking lemonade in the desert. They breathe a collective sigh. They relax. They can be who they are, and they know that just being together will restore their spirits.
Why? Because some things – what we call the fruit of a healthy relationship – are certain. In a healthy relationship, you can count on, at the very least, these four qualities: confidentiality, honesty, personal space (when needed), and almost always a good laugh.
The best portion of a good man’s life – his little, nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and love. – William Wordsworth
Fruit #1: Confidentiality
A Jewish publication ran an advertisement dominated by a drawing of a very stern-looking, bearded rabbi of the nineteenth century, the Chofetz Chaim, who wrote a book about gossip called Guard Your Tongue. At the bottom of the page was a “hot-line” number to call anonymously if you have information about someone’s potential marriage, business dealings, or whatever. A rabbi at the other end will tell you whether your gossip is important enough to pass along. If not, you are counseled to guard your tongue.
Interesting, isn’t it? The advertisement reveals as much about the state of our relationships as it does about our propensity for gossip. Who among us hasn’t been hurt by a broken confidence? It usually begins when your friend says to someone: “You have to promise you won’t tell Brenda I told you this because she made me swear not to tell anyone…” It sounds very confidential. But then why are they telling you the secret? They appear to be keeping a secret but aren’t.
Jesus understood this when he said, “Therefore whatever you have spoken in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have spoken in the ear in inner rooms will be proclaimed on the housetops.”
We’ve all shared private and personal information with a trusted friend, only to learn later that our friend has blabbed it to the world. But does this mean we can’t expect anyone to keep their mouth closed? No. Not if they’re healthy.
We need to tell secrets our secrets. It helps us explore what’s troubling us and sometimes leads to helpful feedback. Sharing our secrets lets us test the reaction to what we’ve been holding in our heart. Not only that, it’s a relief not to be the only person who has experienced a certain temptation or tragedy. It makes us feel less alone when we unburden our soul and a friend says “me too” or “I understand.”
Sharing a secret can bring us closer together and deepen our relationship – but only if the relationship is healthy. Healthy people consider it a privilege to hear what’s on our mind, and they leave it at that. When it comes to keeping a confidence, healthy people are a human vault.
Fruit # 2: Honesty
"Genuine relationships cannot exist where one of the parties is unwilling to hear the truth," said Cicero, "and the other is equally indisposed to speak it." As painful as the truth might be, a healthy relationship cannot survive without it. As the well-known proverb says, "A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity."
Now this does not mean that honesty gives license to be insulting, offensive or badgering. Healthy relationships call for speaking the truth in love and respect. Without these ingredients, honesty is a lethal weapon. Perhaps that’s what caused Cicero to add, "Remove respect from friendship and you have taken away the most splendid ornament it possesses."
People deserve the respect of knowing the truth. They deserve to know if they are hurting someone’s feelings, being too aggressive, too lazy, too anything. And healthy people know they can’t live without this kind of feedback. For without it, they cannot achieve unswerving authenticity, or understand themselves well enough to be able to empathize with others and extend self-giving love freely, without conditions or restraints.
Some time ago I (Les) was counseling a twenty-something student named Lisa who came to my office in hopes of resolving a problem with a close friend. Lisa wasted no time in telling me the problem concerned her friend’s stinginess.
“Jenny is so tight, she squeaks when she walks,” Lisa confessed.
“Is this a new problem?” I asked.
“Oh no, it’s been going on for years. But it’s really wearing thin, and I find myself wanting to avoid being with Jenny whenever money is involved.”
Lisa went in to tell me how meticulous Jenny can be when trying to figure out a shared bill at a restaurant. She told me about the time it took an extra 10 minutes to pay for parking at a downtown garage because she wanted to make change for splitting the bill.
“How does Jenny respond when you talk to her about being so stingy?”
“Talk to her?!” she exclaimed. “I’ve never brought the subject up. I don’t want to hurt her feelings.”
Lisa and I spent the next several minutes exploring how much she valued her relationship with Jenny. Turns out, they were “best friends.” But here she was, on the brink of tossing away an eight-year friendship because she didn’t want to hurt Jenny’s feelings.
In other words, the one friendship she cared more about than any other was about to go under because she couldn’t speak the truth.
Fortunately, with a little advice and coaching, Lisa mustered up the courage to confront Jenny on this annoying habit and the problem began to slowly reverse itself. The point to be learned here is that friends who do not care enough to confront may save themselves a little awkwardness in the present, but they will end up losing their friendships in the future. A healthy relationship is built on honesty.
Healthy people aren’t afraid to be honest, and they aren’t afraid to be themselves. They follow Emerson’s advice: “Better be a nettle in the side of your friend than his echo.” Translation: Speak the truth, because if you are afraid of making enemies, you’ll never have good friends.
Fruit #3: Personal space
Emotionally needy people don’t understand the meaning of space. They mother and smother us with their very presence. Their constant connecting becomes oppressive – if not possessive. This kind of person has no appreciation for what C.S. Lewis meant when he said: “"In each of my friends there is something that only some other friend can fully bring out."
In other words, Lewis recognized the need for space in a healthy relationship. He saw the need for multifaceted relationships that help us shine where another friend, even a close one, simply is not able. This is one of the marks of a space-free relationship: Each person relinquishes a possessive hold to enable the cultivation of other relationships.
Along this same line, a healthy relationship respects serenity. It recognizes the value of a thoughtful silence and a private retreat. Philosopher and author Henry David Thoreau once said, “I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.”
Let’s face it: There are times in everyone’s life when we need to be alone – times when we need to gather our wits and allow our soul to catch up. Healthy people understand this. Part of self-giving love means we provide space, when needed, for the companion of solitude to enter a relationship. Of course, we also know when to return, when to break the silence and rejoin the other person’s journey.
All of us need space for the companion of solitude but, even more, we need to be in relationship. After all, it is this very space and separation provided by a healthy relationship that draws us back to a full appreciation of the relationship.
Fruit #4: Humor
Humor is always risky. What is appealing to some is appalling to others. In a survey of over 14,000 Psychology Today readers who rated 30 jokes, the findings were unequivocal. "Every single joke," it was reported, "had a substantial number of fans who rated it 'very funny,' while another group dismissed it as 'not at all funny.'"
Apparently, our funny bones are located in different places. Some laugh uproariously at the slapstick of Larry, Moe, and Curly, while others enjoy the more cerebral humor of Woody Allen.
Despite its risk, healthy people are willing to take it. Humor is like a litmus test for mutual understanding between two people. Sometimes it fails miserably, but it can also reveal the possibility of a deeper connection. Perhaps more importantly, laughter is the fuel that keeps healthy relationships going once they are born. It’s what enables friends to help each other cope in the midst of crisis. After all, where would we be without someone who could make us laugh?
Viktor Frankl is a profound example of how humor can empower a person to contend with horrendous circumstances. In his classic book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl speaks of using humor to survive imprisonment during World War II. Frankl and another inmate would invent at least one amusing story daily to help them cope with their horrors.
"If you can find humor in anything," according to comedian Bill Cosby, "you can survive it." Researchers agree. Studies reveal that individuals who have a strong sense of humor – who can laugh easily with at least one other person – are less likely to experience depression and other forms of mood disturbance. Scientists hypothesize that humor helps us cope because it offers a fresh perspective.
When the naturalist William Beebe used to visit his friend President Theodore Roosevelt at Sagamore Hill, both would take an evening stroll after dinner. Then one of the other would go through a customary ritual. He would look up at the stars and say, "That is the spiral galaxy of Andromeda. It is as large as our Milky Way. It is one of a hundred million galaxies. It is 750,000 light-years away. It consists of 100 billion suns, each larger than our sun." Then silence would follow. Finally, one of them would say, "Now I think our problems seem small enough."
Every healthy relationship knows that humor lends a fresh eye to our troubles and gives us a new perspective.
So long as we serve; so long as we are loved by others, I would almost say that we are indispensable; and no man is useless while he has a friend. – Robert Louis Stevenson
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