We all aspire to have healthy relationships. But these can be more elusive than we often think. We typically assume if we are getting along with someone, that the relationship must be healthy. But that may not always be the case.
In fact, sometimes the smoother a relationship is, the more unhealthy it can be, namely because one person has dictated it on his or her own terms, and the other has capitulated to always give them his/her way—most often to “keep the peace.” The test of the quality of a relationship is disagreement. Timothy Keller has said that relationship implies the power to contradict. It is there in the friction of disagreement were listening, discernment, respect, and intimacy grow.
DISCERNING RELATIONSHIP HEALTH
How might we even evaluate how healthy our relationships are? Truth be told, most of us lack a set of criteria. One thing is for sure; the more healthy and mature an individual is emotional, the more intuitively she or he is able to discern and evaluate a relationship.
The following are some criteria that can be helpful in discerning how another person relates to us, and how we need to change to relate to them better. But be wary, these criteria listed below are not tools by which to “judge” other people. They will certainly help you see things in others you never noticed before. Nevertheless, they let you also see into yourself. That is the part that is more useful. Focusing on the other person’s relational dysfunction does little more than to cause fights. You know what I am talking about—”why do you always do ___________?” The goal is to discern how you relate to those in your life and thoughtfully improve.
- The Ability to Listen and Learn Without Judgment
A healthy relationship has the ability to listen—to listen without judgment. This is not as easy as it sounds. It is hard to not react and cut someone off midsentence when they say what we do not wish to hear.
Listening builds rapport; it tells the other person that who they are is valuable. For Christians, listening is the primary lost discipline of evangelism. We need not agree with the person sitting across from us. What is more important is that we are able to listen, think, and understand the person before us. This creates, connection, intimacy, and above all opportunity.
- The Ability to Disagree Graciously
The ability to hear without judgment does not imply we do not have an opinion. No, in fact, we should. There is nothing healthy or courageous about compromising your principles or adapting to what you find morally objectionably “just to keep the peace.”
Nevertheless, we do not need to disagree in anger or violence. When I say violence, I include simply verbal violence like yelling, name-calling, sarcasm, slander, and gossip. To disagree graciously is to keep that person’s humanity and dignity before our eyes as we kindly take issue. This exemplifies the best of Christian virtue. We do not just love our neighbor, but also our enemy.
- Ability to Have Relationship That is Not On One Person’s Terms
Relationship implies expectations. There are natural and appropriate expectations that any healthy relationship must abide by to flourish. Boundaries are essential along with a sense of rights, and a dedication to honor one another.
But there are also unhealthy and inappropriate expectations. Today, young women constantly face the unspoken but culturally forceful expectation that they should have sex with a man before marriage. These unmet expectations can cause conflict and the end of the relationship. This serves as an example of an inappropriate expectation. Young women who stand their ground are better served because the process forces a test of motives, especially revealing if he is interested in the short term or longterm. In fact, taking that stand with the right guy often garners new respect for the young woman making him far more interested in the longterm.
Inappropriate expectations can lead to a one-sided relationship where one person, in a sense, controls the relationship. Here is the key point: it is an unhealthy situation when you cannot maintain a peaceful relationship unless you meet the demands of the other. This is not the healthy expectations of normal relationship we just listed above but unnecessarily demands that one party makes necessary for continued fellowship.
This can take on a plethora of forms. Parents can place heavy demands on children (especially adult children) for them to make decisions the way they think one should. One spouse may pressure the other to see issues or do things his or her way.
Evangelistic Witness & Expectations
This has a great deal of importance regarding the Church’s evangelistic witness. It is often assumed that when we evangelize that we must lead with our beliefs. It is not uncommon, especially for those of the Fundamentalist spectrum, to quickly end relationships with non-Christians who do not see the world the way they do.
We must not compromise our moral and theological standards. Nevertheless, wherever the Church has greatly succeeded in converting a culture, they began with an unconditional relationship of service. The early Church never compromised their message of Jesus as Lord and Savior—especially in a world that called Cesar “lord and savior.” In fact, they zealously died for it. But they did not stop the conversation when a person did not immediately convert. On the contrary, they built a robust relationship and a process of relational dialogue that came to be known as catechesis. This was an ongoing conversation in a relationship where seekers could gradually explore the claims of Christ.
- The Ability to Stay in Relationship
A healthy relationship requires a healthy sense of self. Emotions are like bumps in the road that threatens to push us off the road in our relationships. This is why healthy relationships do not succeed through emotions; they succeed through the prefrontal cortex.
The human brain is unique in that it is the only one made of three parts. It has an amygdala, where the fear and the fight or flight instincts live; this can also be called the lizard brain because that’s all lizards essentially have. Next is the cortex, unique to mammals and primates. This is a thinking and relational portion. Lastly, is the Prefrontal cortex, found only in humans. This is the most intellectual part of the brain.
Here is why this matters, when emotions or anxiety is high, the amygdala can completely override the rest of the brain. To survive a head-on collision, this process is critical. But unfortunately, this same process can take over in our relationships. When it does, we stop thinking clearly and relationships turn to conflict. The “fight or flight” instinct is not for our relationships.
It takes a thoughtful and cool head to intentionally live in the prefrontal cortex. It is here we sustain relationships by overriding our fight or flight responses, and pursue reconciliation when things get uptight.
In fact, all four of these points for healthy relationships require the very non-emotional process of calming the self during the relational conflict, moving toward that person, and working for reconciliation.
Endeavoring to be an Emotionally Healthy Self
It is your responsibility alone to be an emotionally and relationally healthy self. You cannot make others do the same. You cannot make people stay in the relationship, reconcile, or do the right thing. All you can do is practice unity through the Gospel. This means maintaining an open posture that invites reconciliation.
The Gospel is the message of God for mankind. It is a call to repent. That means it requires a life of decisions that take place in the uniquely human part of the brain—the prefrontal cortex. Animals cannot do this. The call of the Gospel to repent, believe, love neighbor, and even love our enemies is something we do against the survival instincts of the lower parts of the brain. This is our calling to live fully as human citizens of the world—of whom Jesus says, Blessed are the peacemakers.
The Gospel calls us to a contra-instinctual lifestyle of repentance and reconciliation as our normative order of life. But beware—this flies in the face of every impulse and passion in us. To live in the manner if Jesus, it the highest and most difficult undertaking to which any man can aspire.
Is someone angry or cutting off? That is when you reach out to them, invite them to the table for conversation, and seek fellowship. They may decline. If they do, that is on them—not you. Your job is to not pass judgment but to remind them you would like to work things out and are committed to seeing reconciliation through. As the Apostle tells us, and without naive idealism: “If possible, so far as it depends upon you, live peaceably with all.” (Rom. 12:18 )