Somehow we have been sold a “bill of goods” that relationships should be natural, always fun and make our life easier. We have been conditioned by watching artificial relationships on TV and Movies that depict intense love and an idealistic romantic experiences that set unrealistic expectations we can never meet. Please don’t get me wrong – I believe that relationships are the most rewarding and deeply satisfying experience a human is capable of having. But a rich and rewarding relationship is NEVER easy. That is because it requires each party to be willing to set aside their own preoccupation with comfort and convenience and think what is best for the other person. Good relationships do not thrive in an atmosphere of personal self-interest and individualism.
There was a time in my life when I was single for seven years. Was I lonely? Occasionally. But mostly I was content because I could eat what I wanted, go where I wanted and pretty much lived my life without having to think of anyone else’s feelings, desires, wants or needs. It was not that I was isolated, I still had friends, but I always knew that when I was done visiting my friends I could go home and live exactly the way I wanted to. I owed no one an explanation for my tastes or preferences.
What I didn’t realize is that I also was stunting my growth as a person. “Why?” you ask, “it sounds pretty much like you had an ideal life”
Yes, it was ideal if I wanted to become an emotional and relational pygmy but if I wanted to expand beyond my own boundaries and effect change in my life then I was greatly limited. Let me explain by identifying the fundamental character qualities that make for truly great individuals.
Love: How do you grow in love? I don’t mean the romantic, touchy-feely kind of love that is depicted in our media. (Though there is definitely a place for that) I mean the kind of love that seeks the best for another no matter what the cost is to us personally. This kind of love does not grow in the soft, fertile soil of the lazy valleys but in the lofty mountain peaks that take exertion to reach. Love grows where it is hard to love and sacrifice is needed. True love blossoms in the light of self-sacrifice and a willingness to take the higher, steeper road of self-denial. Love means that I place you before me and seek your best even if at a high cost. This character quality cannot be found in isolation but requires intimate relationships. In my seven years of being alone, my heart was growing cold because I was not challenged to love like this and I knew it.
Forgiveness: Now we have all experienced times when we have been hurt, lied to, and treated unjustly. But nowhere is this experienced more than in intimate relationships. I often say that relationships are the place where we are most wounded and relationships are the place where we are most healed. Becoming a person who can forgive means that we must go where we can be hurt. The deeper and more intimate the relationship the more vulnerable we are to being wounded. I found that I was becoming a person who was neither hurting others nor was I being hurt and therefore my growth in this area was being restricted. No one needed to forgive me and I was not required to forgive anyone else.
Kindness: Where do we most grow in kindness? Well, ask yourself where is it hardest to be kind? That’s easy, when we are faced with someone who is repulsive. I don’t mean that we should go out and find the most abhorrent person available and marry them. What I am saying is that in every intimate relationship there will come a time when something is said or done that is deeply offensive and intensely painful. How are we to respond? If we want to grow in this beautiful character quality then we will choose kindness. Kindness flourishes in the presence of transgressions just as light is more brilliant in the presence of darkness. Want to learn to be kind? Find yourself another human to love and kindness in you will be refined as through fire.
Peace: Here again someone might say, “James, when you lived alone you had ultimate peace, right?” To this, I say it depends on what kind of peace you are asking about. If you are speaking of peace as an absence of conflict then you would be right. Isolation offers a certain kind of peace that is beautiful but unsustainable unless we choose to live a hermit existence. If you are speaking of the kind of peace that is present in conflict then you would be greatly mistaken. The kind of peace that really matters is the internal peace that can bring calm to your soul even in the most stressful situations. This is the peace that Jesus spoke of:
This kind of peace is more powerful than hate and overcomes conflict. In order to have this kind of peace, you must be exposed to places where personalities clash and dreams are in conflict. This means being in relationships. It was too easy for me to just walk away from people who bugged me or those with whom I disagreed. But when you are in a committed relationship that is not possible so this deeper type of peace is essential.
Patience: We develop patience in places where we are tempted to be impatient? A muscle will never grow strong unless it is tested and patience will never grow unless we have opportunities where our expectations are not met and our plans are thwarted. Do I really need to explain how being in a relationship leads to times of growth in this area? Relationship thy name is patience!
This is the bottom line. If I wanted to be a better man I must commit to being in a relationship that demanded I be a better man. I know, it is possible to be in a relationship and still not develop these qualities. I witness it all the time in my profession as a Marriage Counselor. But that attitude can’t continue if they want to find a more satisfying marriage. At some point, they need to realize that the person they are married to is not there to thwart their dreams and make their life miserable but rather they are an instrument of personal transformation so that they can become a better version of themselves.
I love the movie “As Good as it Gets” Starring Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt. Jack plays the part of a neurotic, OCD, paranoid, anxiety-filled man (yes, this is therapist candy) who falls in love with a beautiful, kind and normal woman. In this scene, he has just said something hurtful to her (again!) and she has made a demand, “compliment me or I am leaving”. So this is what he said.
And so it is with me and one of the main reasons I reached out and opened my heart to marriage. I knew that I needed Cheri to become a man who truly loved, who was learning to be kind, who could find peace in the presence of conflict and learn what it meant to forgive and let go. I’ve got to say that she needs to do a better job at making me do all these things because it’s way too easy to be with her. But even so, I’m sure God knew that I needed someone as truly good and kind as she because I’m a pretty slow learner.
How about you? Do you see your relationships as opportunities for personal growth? Or are you longing for times when you can go into isolation? Nothing good grows in the darkness (unless you are fond of bacteria) so get out into the light and realize that relationships are the school where your character is developed.