Tuesday, December 17, 2013
Learning Respect in Relationships
I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid myself.” (Gen 3:10)
There is a sense in which we are born with certain personality traits. I have observed this in my four grandchildren. Each one is uniquely individual from birth. Within days and weeks you can see that each one has a distinctive way in which they relate to the world around them. This is why individuals raised in the same household, by the same parents can be so different from one another. This is true even with identical twins. I know because Estela and I have identical twin girls. They share the exact same physical DNA but they are totally different in personality.
Though this truth is obvious about each individual there is one thing that is constant in every human being. From birth we all are undoubtedly totally self-absorbed. Infants are concerned with one thing – getting their needs met by others. They are totally and completely dependent on others to get their needs met. It does not matter to them whether those others are tired, hungry, sick, or anything else as long as they meet their needs. Infants have two basic needs – physical and emotional. Babies want to be fed, changed when wet or dirty, warm, health, and loved.
In the beginning crying is the stimulus we use to get our physical needs met. Babies cry when they are hungry, wet/soiled, cold, or sick in an attempt to persuade someone to meet their physical needs. It is the only way they have to motivate others to meet their physical needs. However, how their emotional need is met or, rather, how they perceive their emotional need for love is met, will begin the process of developing the personality they are born with. Every one of us develops traits within our personality that are built on how we can manipulate or control our environment so as to get our need for love met by others.
These traits have one purpose – self-preservation. So, the two things that drive us from birth are self-absorption and self-preservation. The problem comes when we understand that one, the people we are attempting to get our needs met by have been driven by the two things that drives us, and two, our need for love becomes translated into how we feel lovable. The people we need love from are faulty love givers and we always interpret love as conditional. Our feeling of being lovable is reinforced in a trial and error of behavior. Thus begins the self-absorbed journey of developing self-preserving traits. These traits become our relational styles and dictate how we relate to others. How we try to get our needs met by others.
As we grow in childhood and the teenage years we are conditionally convinced that there are things about us that are not lovable. This is reinforced with feedback from behavior that incites disapproval. “Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child; The rod of discipline will remove it far from him.” (Pro 22:15) The concept of foolishness is in the idea of being morally deficient. At birth we are totally self-centered, selfish, self-absorbed, dependent on others to meet all our needs and discipline (from family, faith, and society) is used to remove that foolishness far from us and teach us to be selfless, self-sufficient, responsible to meet our own needs. Abraham Maslow calls the desired stage self-actualization. Paul stated it this way, “When I was a child, I used to speak like a child, think like a child, reason like a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things.” (1 Co 13:11) A fool is someone who goes through life being totally self-absorbed, selfish, narcissistic, and therefore useless to contribute constructively to society. Discipline teaches us to be ashamed of certain behavior that is born out of selfishness. Though this reinforcement is absolutely necessary in order to live in relationships within society, we ultimately interpret the disapproval as something being intricately wrong with us. That at our core there is something about us that is unlovable.
What Adam expressed in his first encounter with the Lord after sinfulness had entered the human race identifies the problem we have in the emotional development process. We have a basic need to be loved but as we grow up we see there are things about us that are not lovable. Out of fear that we won’t be loved we start hiding behind learned traits so that people won’t see our unlovability. We become ashamed, not only of certain behavior but of who we are. Thus, we all, to some degree, relate to others out of these shame based traits that we develop within our personality. It may manifest itself in arrogance, debasement, or anything in-between but at its root we are hiding in shame, fearful that someone may see the true me, my nakedness, and not give me love. We hide behind relational style barriers to protect us from the shame of being discovered unlovable.
The personality traits we learn become the things we use to protect us from feeling rejected. We may feel rejection in different ways, thus, causing us to behave in different ways. Some of us may become more overtly people pleasers losing ourselves in trying to be everything that we think others want us to be in order to be accepted by them. Others of us may try to soften the sense of rejection by doing the very things that we think will deserve rejection. We act out what we project others will do if they truly knew our unlovability. Sometimes it is expressed in anger or other destructive ways. It may cause us to become co-dependent, domineering, or passive-aggressive. Regardless of how it is manifested there are shame-based, shame-driven motivation behind it. We’ve learned how to stimulate those around us in order to get what we think we need from them. We’ve developed the traits through which we try to manipulate or control the desired results.
To add to the problem we live amongst people (parents, spouses, family, society, etc.) who are faulty love givers. Even at our best, most self-actualized, we have a tendency to give conditional love and motivate desired behavior through the power of shame. After all, it is what we see ourselves as being. We use shame in marriages, families, religion, schools, sports, business, etc. to motivate others to a desired result. The traits we’ve spent a lifetime developing don’t ever go away. We may discover them and purposely correct them to the best of our ability but they are a part of us until ‘death do we part.’ They become our default settings that are reset to default by certain relational triggers. Not even faith in Jesus Christ can automatically erase these traits. In fact, many times the Christian life is just another field where we plant, cultivate, and harvest these traits. For example, like an alcoholic who beats his addiction to alcohol only to become addicted to performance-based religion. The more our parents, caregivers, teachers, etc., those who have the most influence on us as we grow up, have related to us from a position of shame and conditional love the more difficult it is for us to break the patterns in our own lives. If we have something like religion that continues to reinforce the shame and conditional love into our adult lives then these relational traits become even more entrenched in us.
There is a scene in the 1997 movie “Fools Rush In” that exemplifies how this can play out in a relationship. The conversation is between one of the main characters, Isabel, and her wise great-grandmother. The setting is the pregnant Isabel had lied to her husband about losing the baby, pushed him away, and filed for divorce. Then she ran away to Mexico where her Nanita (great-grandmother) lived. While in Mexico she was feeling disheartened, bolted out of church in tears, and ran to the great-grandmother’s house. Here is script of the scene as her Nanita approaches her with an expression of compassion and inquisitiveness:
Isabel: Nanita, it was the right thing to do.
Great Grandmother: It is not your faith that has betrayed you. It is your fear.
Isabel: I got lost...that's all. But now I make my own decisions.
Great Grandmother: How selfish you are. To presume you know better than love.
Isabel: He never would have left if he knew I was still pregnant. He wanted to go. I let him off the hook.
Great Grandmother: No. You let yourself off the hook. You denied your heart and lied to the man you love. Why?
Isabel: Because I had to. If I didn't leave him, he would have left me. And I really don't think I could've handled that.
Great Grandmother: You will never know love unless you surrender to it.
Isabel wanted to be loved but her fear that her husband would first reject her led her to first reject him so she wouldn’t feel the pain of being rejected. She feared that if she stayed with him he would ultimately see here unlovability and leave her. As she played out, in the theater of her mind, what she thought would happen she called upon learned relational traits to protect her emotional psyche. She hid behind a lie in fear.
The Lord through Paul says, I “implore you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called… to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ. As a result, we are no longer to be children.” (Eph 4:1, 13-14) As a Christ follower, maybe one of the hardest things Christ ask of us is to look into the proverbial mirror of our being and see ourselves as we truly are. Not the way we want to be seen. Not the way we hope we are. Not the way we think others see us. But to tear away the layers of self, like an onion, until we find those things in our lives that drive us in shame to hid in fear like children. The maturing process is to struggle through the pain, the tears, the ugliness, the dysfunction, and allow Him to reveal to us the truth of our childlikeness. The truth about how we continue to try to get our love need met by others. A need Christ alone can truly meet. As long as we are trying to get our love need met from others we will never fully grasp “His great love with which He loved us.” (Eph 2:4)
“Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others.” (Phil 2:3-4)
As long as we continue to relate to others from the origin of our first birth we will never be set free in our re-birth to be all that He created us to be. In our physical birth we develop relationally from a basis of shame and fear. In our spiritual birth we are to develop relationally from the basis of grace and acceptance. In our physical birth we are motivated by selfishness to get from others. In our spiritual birth we are motivated to serve and give to others. In our physical birth we hide from others. In our spiritual birth we are to learn to be open to others. In our physical birth we learn to relate out of emptiness. In our spiritual birth we learn to relate from fullness. In our physical birth we are self-absorbed, self-indulged, self-protecting, self-centered, and self-preserving. In our new birth we are to become self-sufficient, self-sustaining, self-reliant, self-governing, and self-sacrificing.
In our new birth we learn to see ourselves absolutely forgiven being totally and completely fulfilled in His love in spite of our unlovability. Christ gives us a healthy perspective of self-respect teaching each of us self-discipline: “not to think more highly of himself than he ought to think; but to think so as to have sound judgment.” (Rom 12:3) When we learn to relate to others from our spiritual birth we can accept people as they are because we aren’t trying to get anything from them. Because we learn self-respect in Christ we can offer respect to others. Respecting others is releasing them from conditional love, acceptance, and forgiveness. It is relating to them from a position of grace rather than from a position of shame.
How does respect look in practice? It is easier to fake respect with others than it is to live in the reality of respect with the ones we are closest to. In Ephesians 5:18 and following we find the description of marriage from the position of fullness rather than emptiness, submission rather than superiority, new-birth love (giving) rather than first-birth love (getting), and respect rather than shame. Husbands and wives as individuals are to be filled with the Holy Spirit. Out of fullness they are to develop a relationship that is alike in mutual submission, mutual love, and mutual respect. So, how is respect expressed in our most intimate relationship – marriage?
Husband and wife learn to be two unique individuals. As distinct individuals they learn to respect each other and their individuality. They learn to celebrate their independences. Nowhere in scripture does it say that in marriage they become one. What it says is they become one flesh (Gen 2:24). It describes the intimate physical act of marriage and procreation. In a respectful marriage there are two individuals who are equal in their uniqueness. One’s personality is not greater than the other. One’s opinions are not less important. One’s wants are not more important. Marriage is the unity of two equal individuals. It is not the uniformity of a lesser into a greater and does not demand conformity.
Rather than being narcissistic people who are takers respectful people are givers. Instead of trying to get love from the other they learn to give love to each other. Respect substitutes trying to get its needs met by the other with giving out of the overflow of the love it has in Christ. Self-centered spouses are scorekeepers in a marriage. They are controlling, cynical, faultfinders, critically competitive, more concerned with who is right and wrong, sees the relationship in terms of winners and losers. Self-sufficient spouses are the opposite of scorekeepers. They are more constructively critical of themselves than of their spouse, more interested in the long-term health and heart of the relationship than who’s at fault in the immediate problem, and they are more focused on empowering their spouse than being the power-player in the relationship.
Rather than being jealous toward the other respectful spouses learn to be trusting of each other. Jealousy is birthed out of want. Trust is birthed out of satisfaction. Jealousy is the desire to get something. Trust is giving what is due. Unless otherwise proven untrustworthy, respect assumes trustworthiness. Jealousy is constantly suspicious, the root of victim mentality and unforgiving. Jealousy comes from a place of inferiority and weakness. Trust is extending a belief in a spouse’s integrity, truthfulness, and faithfulness. There cannot be trust without forgiveness. And because one spouse can trust that there will be forgiveness they are set free to honest disclosure. Respectful trust can only come from a place of personal strength and, personal strength comes from a humble satisfaction of one’s personhood. “But by the grace of God I am what I am” (1 Cor 15:10)
Rather than trying to rule over the other respectful spouses learn to release each other from personal expectations. The reason we try to control our spouse’s behavior is because we somehow think that what they do or do not do reflects on us. Instead of trying to manipulate through conditional love, acceptance, and forgiveness respect does not assume reflection of another’s actions. Respect places responsibility for one’s own actions on the one who is doing the action. Respect allows failure without condemnation yet still upholds personal consequences. What one spouse does says absolutely nothing about the other spouse. Respect doesn’t try to blame one’s action on their spouse. A respectful spouse doesn’t say, “I am the way I am or I do what I do because you are this way or you do that.” Respectful spouses own their own behavior.
Rather than trying to ‘fix’ the other, respect accepts the other without expectations of change. Respect doesn’t try to change the other but instead honors each other’s differences. Respect allows those differences without demanding the other to participate in those differences. We each have different likes and dislikes. We like to do different things. Involvement in those different things is extended with an invitation without expectation to accept the invitation. Respect allows individual involvements separate from the other, if so desired. Respect does not see these differences and diversities as something that needs to be ‘fixed’. Respect may make suggestions when asked but it is not demanding.
Rather than being selfish, respect learns to be serving. Selfishness comes from a mindset that says, “How may I get you to do what I want you to do?” It spends it time manipulating. Respectful spouses come from a mindset that says, “How may I serve you?” They spend their time learning how to magnify their spouse. A selfish spouse tries to figure out what they can DO to exploit their spouse to get them to DO what they want them to DO. Respect tries to figure out how it can best BE what their spouse needs them to BE. Selfishness is all about performance. Respect is all about grace.
I have yet to do pre-martial counseling, perform weddings, or do marital counseling with people who do not have a love for one another. Yet, even among believers in Christ, that love alone is not enough to have a loving and lasting marriage. Most of the time, the things addressed in this article would explain why marriages fail. Some marriages fail and the result is a legal divorce while others fail and the result is an emotional divorce. Either way, in God’s assessment, the mark or goal of marriage has been missed. In these marriages where people hide in fear and shame from one another God has empowered them to redeem their relationship and live in a loving, lasting, and truly happy marriage. If you can learn to live in the reality of respect with your spouse you are on your way to being a relational healthy person.