A Model for Relationships
We need to allow ourselves to experience the other person as they are.
Relationships are funny things. Now, I am referring to relationship in the broad sense of the word. I simply mean the connection between two people who share life together. This means friendships, dating relationships, marriages, familial bonds, etc. Whatever the case may be, our lives are full of relationships. And unless we are numb to the world and ourselves, we may have noticed that they aren’t always the easiest things to navigate. A book I have been reading recently shed some light on how to approach relating with others in our lives. So, with this author’s help, I’d like to look at the importance of communication and the presence of God in every relationship.
Stress and Misunderstanding
First, let’s examine what oftentimes goes awry when we try relating to people. And for the sake of simplicity, we will look at a dynamic between friends, but remember that this can be applied to all relationships where human persons are concerned. Stress can play a significant factor when friends talk about their lives with any sort of depth. Why? Well, when we share a part of our lives with someone, we want to know that they are hearing us and understanding us. We want to feel safe and secure. Yet, there are times when the other person does not respond, or we perceive them not to respond, in the right way. We begin to feel misunderstood, which our brains interpret as a threat, and our minds narrow. We grasp onto this one interpretation and ignore the full reality of what our friend may really be saying. Then, as a result, we tune out what they are saying and start coming up with refutations, issues with their response, past examples of how they always misunderstand us, etc. At the heart of this, is a preoccupation with our side. We want to be the one giving because that’s where the control is, and again, we want to feel secure. When we do this, when we shut out the other for our own interests, we cease to be in relationship.
The question then becomes: How do we come back into relationship? To answer this, we must look at God, the Holy Trinity. God is a communion of love between three divine Persons, all in relationship with one another. They are in relationship because each is present to the Other as an Other. This means that at each moment, the roles of giver and receiver are fully occupied. And each Person of the Trinity fulfills His role perfectly. Now, obviously we are not God, and we do not do this perfectly. Even still, we as human persons, male and female, image God in ourselves, and more still when we relate to other men and women in a loving friendship. Thus, every encounter in relationship with a person is a sharing in the life of God.
Accepting the Roles
To share in the life of God means to share the roles as well. And roles require lots of practice to get into, trust me, I was an actor for 7 years. It requires serious effort, and a great deal of patience with ourselves and the other person because the more we practice, the more we will become aware of where we slip out of the role. The goal is to be present, as God is present, to the other person with whom we relate. We need to know when we are the giver, when it is time to talk and to share our hearts and minds with our friend. But then, we also need to know when to enter into the role of the receiver. We need to seek to set ourselves aside, trust in the security of the relationship, and listen so as to understand. When we act in these roles at the proper times, we alleviate the stress, and the narrowness of mind and heart that comes with it. An image that helps to illustrate this is the sky. Imagine you are trying to look at and behold the blueness and fullness of the sky. You are taking it all in. Then some clouds roll into your field of vision and you fixate on them and shift your head and body to follow them. These clouds are like our thoughts when we feel stressed and threatened. We narrow in on them and lose sight of the sky, i.e. the other person. But we can choose to let them pass by instead, and keep our attention on the sky.
We need to allow ourselves to experience the other person as they are. Pope St. John Paull II calls this dynamic of giving and receiving “tenderness”, which is “the ability to feel with and for the whole person...a feeling of not being alone...that reinforces their sense of unity”. Tenderness, as it leads to unity between persons, is a participation in God’s life of relationship. Practicing these roles and living tenderness when we relate and communicate is how we enter into relationship as we are made to by God.