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The Circle Broken

Why We Cannot Sustain Relationships


Some relationships do, indeed, have expiration dates. And, in attempting to be a grownup, I have frequently labored with some people longer and gone farther than I should have. When a relationship becomes toxic, and you have exhausted avenues of fixing the problem, then, yeah, it's time to pull the plug. The fact is, you can often find yourself being in relationship with someone who is not in relationship with you. Being worried about someone who is never apparently worried about you. Constantly giving to someone who only seems to be taking from you.

These kinds of people are often classified as narcissists. Most of them never realize this is, in fact, what they are doing– taking without giving and draining your good will and your Christian love without giving anything in return. Relationships should, ideally, be a two-way street. Sometimes I pick up the check, sometimes you pick up the check. Relationships should be like Social Security: you pay into the system over the years and it should be there when you need it. Imagine the disappointment, the hurt, we suffer when finally it is our turn to lean on someone we've been propping up for ten years, only to discover they are not there for us. Narcissists are, for the most part, incapable of even seeing how self-absorbed they are, have no concept at all of the damage they routinely inflict on you, or the failing grade they earn as a friend. These are people so wounded, so damaged, so incredibly insecure, apologizing would cause them to burst into flames.

I have friends in my life that I am, frankly, scared to talk to. When I am over their house, I feel uncomfortable in my own skin. For, I know, if I say or do the wrong thing, I could set them off fairly easily. These are people inclined to find fault and who are easily rubbed the wrong way. The best and easiest way to be around them, the way they enjoy me, is for me to agree with them. To be in a Zen Buddhist mode where I am one with their reality and their understanding of the world. What they can't understand is, this diminishes me as a living soul. I cease to exist because, for me to actually exist would be experienced by them as a threat. They experience singularity—opinions and understanding that do not agree with theirs—as violence. They experience me, the Actual Me as opposed to the Their View of Me, as an assault and they go on the defensive, getting their back up. I have friends who go from zero to agitated in a matter of seconds. Whose skin is so desperately brittle they can be mortally wounded by just a wrong look. I don't care to be around these people, because, when I am, I have an enormous knot in my stomach, and I am inclined to simply agree with them, with their reality, to appease them and protect our "relationship."

“It's no fun walking on eggshells,” says Jason Gaulden, director of Denver's Gaulden Group LLC,. “We don't want to talk about it, but a lot of our community's insecurity goes back to the plantation days, where we were made to believe we were nothing and certainly had nothing.

“It goes back to the old analogy about the grass being greener on the other side of the fence. But, you see, that's not the end of that analogy. The complete analogy would suggest that the grass is greener on the other side because the neighbor on the other side of the fence works harder at it. We are looking in from the brown side, without stopping to notice how much work our neighbor is putting into his lawn. We are often quick to blame, quick to envy and slow to forgive– not seeing the larger picture of what it took to get that grass as green as it is.

“The white community's green lawn is built on family tradition and resources going back generations, while the black community is still, in large measure, accruing resources and building their own infrastructure and sense of identity.

“Jim Collin's book, Good To Great [2001, HarperCollins; ISBN: 0066620996], has a chapter called, 'Confronting The Brutal Facts.' Before we as a community can overcome our own shortcomings in the area of relationships, this is what we have to do. “

A Godly Selfishness

To be sure, some relationships should be ended. I mean, the above mentioned “friendship” is no friendship at all. It's just me with this movie running through my head where these people are my friends. But they're not my friends, they're their friends. I don't exist as an individual but only as an extension of their narcissism. Reconciling narcissism and Christianity is a tough task. Christ could hardly be thought of as a narcissist. He was divinely aware of the individual beauty and purpose of each soul within His orbit. He accepted people as He found them. He didn't write anybody off. I have to stop and ask myself what I'm getting out of these relationships, out of expending energy and time going out of my way to make them feel secure, when they seem barely aware of my very existence.

I had this dream once where I was cooking dinner and, as I waited for my friend to arrive, I started tidying up the house. And, as I tidied the house, I suddenly realized– she wasn't coming. I just instinctively knew it. The phone would eventually ring and she'd have some excuse, but she wasn't coming over. And, it was as if I heard God ask me, Why are you cooking dinner for people who are not coming?

We need to stop cooking dinner for people who are not coming. Those of us who can maintain relationships need to stop enabling those who cannot: people who trade us like baseball cards and dismiss us when we no longer serve a useful function in their lives. People who take us, our unique purpose on Earth, and our special-ness, for granted, choosing only to use us as fuel for their chronic self-absorption. PraiseNet contributing editor Joy Banks, who holds a master's degree in Christian Counseling, asked me, “Yeah, but look here: Who's cooking dinner for you? You're so busy cooking for everybody else, but who's looking out for you?”

Jesus teaches us to espouse a kind of godly selflessness and humility, but Joy told me Jesus never intended us to cease to exist, or to exhaust our resources and our lives indulging the whims of narcissists. In fact, our Christian duty is to not enable un-Christ-like behavior. Part of learning how to maintain healthy relationships is the process setting boundaries, of pruning unhealthy or toxic relationships from our lives, as the unhealthy relationships will, certainly, choke out the healthy ones.

Of all the people in the world, we seem to forgive each other the least. We, who should be endowed with the power, the ability to imitate the limitless grace of our Creator, and who should exhibit gifts of the Spirit which include patience and longsuffering, are often the worst examples of human intolerance and, frankly, immaturity. A people of toes perpetually stepped on. We jump from church to church. From friend to friend. From relationship to relationship. From bed to bed. Often, without explanation, we simply stop calling. Stop speaking. There's been some damage, some hurt, but we feel (or know) holding the offending party accountable will mean the end of the relationship, so we just let it go. And then the next hurt, we let that one go, too. And the one after that. And the twelfth one.

Pastor Jim Dotson, of Trinity Missionary Baptist Church, said the reason we have such difficulty sustaining relationships is, “We don't fight enough. We repress our differences and eventually separate, rather than giving those differences a good airing out. Conflict inspires closeness, as in any conflict two or three will group together in one opinion, two or three in another. At the end of it all, at least two of you have strengthened your bond in some way.” Serving overseas in the Air Force, Pastor Dotson, a retired Colonel, said, “We had three common bonds that drew us together overseas: language, food and hair products. It was difficult to get hair products for people of color, and, of course our common language and desire for American food drew us closer together. People who arrived strangers, from different states and different communities, forged bonds that endure to this day.”


Christopher J. Priest
15 November 2002 / 3 May 2009

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