Relational Disaster: The Five Losing Strategies

You want a guaranteed way to injure your relationships whether they be friends, family, a partner, children or in the workplace?  Here are five sure-fire-never-fail ways to do just that:

1. The Need to Be Right.
As my mentor Terry Real states, “You can be right or you can be in relationship.  Pick one.”  There is no such thing as THE truth.  There is my truth and there is your truth, but there is not THE truth .  Endless objectivity battles are just power struggles for the temporary feeding of one’s ego. In other words, kudos for me if I can convince you that I am “right.”  But in gaining a point for me, the team of the “we” – the relationship – loses the battle and takes the wounding.  Relational living means that I care to understand the truth of my partner, even if it vastly differs from my own.  Self-righteous indignation is nothing more than psychological violence.

2.  Control. 
Any act that is direct or manipulative that attempts to make me the “boss” in an egalitarian relationship is an act of control.  Not only is controlling another person an illusion, but payback is inevitable.  People do not like to be controlled.  We can invite and we can request, but we cannot control someone –  if living relationally is a value we hold.

3.  Unbridled Self-Expression.
No one has the right to open their mouths and say what they want to say when they want to say it.  We are no longer two-years old.  We are adults and adults need to be grown-up enough to have a filter.  If what I am about to say does not respect the other person and the relationship, then don’t say it … or find a way to say it in a relational fashion. 

4.  Retaliation.

Any act that is explicit or covert (passive aggressive) which seeks to even the score or make the other person feel what you feel. Often, offending the other person can feel “justified,” particularly if I was made victim first by your injury toward me. Retaliation is a perverse form of communication which leads to the destructive dynamic of “the more, the more.”  

5.   Withdrawal. 

Any act of distancing in the relationship that is motivated by resignation, retaliation or a fear of closeness.  This losing strategy differs from responsible distance-taking which I may chose to do temporarily so that I can repair and reconnect.  Withdrawal can masquerade as mature acceptance or even nobility – such as using work and child-rearing as a means to avoid my partner.   

Which of these behaviors can you identify with? 

A Monthly Moment

At this moment, my heart is filled with gratitude.  I just completed my fourth year of teaching at Montgomery College.  At the beginning of the each quarter, twenty strangers walk into my classroom.  If I did not know better, I would think I was holding a meeting at  the United Nations.  My students are from every continent on the globe and range in age from 18 to 60.  Eight weeks later, I am always amazed at the community my class of twenty has built.  And each and every time, after revealing their thoughts, feelings and the diverse snapshots of their life stories, I know undoubtedly that they have taught me much more than I could ever teach them.   

Life works that way, I guess.  Just when we think we have risen to a level of smug satisfaction, it reminds us that we are never above the humbling reality that we too have something to learn, something to receive.  

No Stopping Now

As a good friend of mine would put it so descriptively, I went from “dirt to concrete.”  Born in the hills of Tennessee, I ventured north to the bright lights and taller buildings as soon as legal age allowed.  Without knowing it (and certainly never admitting it!), my father raised me a feminist.  He did not shy once in his belief – demonstrated in both word and action – that I could do whatever it was that I set my mind to.  His respect of both my academic and athletic prowess never flinched despite the fact that a was a girl –  a girl born in the South nonetheless.

And so, I left … for a bigger world … a world which could provide me an oxygen mask for my too restricted and slowly dying spirit. I was in need of an environment that fostered the encouragement and opportunity for my emotional, intellectual and vocational wings to sprout.  Once gone, I never looked back. 

The world that I found and have created north of the Mason-Dixon Line is quite different than the one I was raised in.  So different, that sometimes I don’t even recognize the roots from which I was created.  But then there is that one taste of fried chicken and a flaky buttered biscuit, the sound of katydids at summer’s dusk, the sweet smell of a magnolia bloom or Johnny Cash’s twang on the CD and I am cast back to whence I came.  Lost in the unexpected yet certain wave of cultural and familial legacy.

One value from my Southern childhood was learning to “rough it.”  Nature was the ultimate force to be reckoned with and we Sullivans ne’er to back down.  Grit and determination were part of the backbone.  We camped through the Smokies and the Rockies.  We hiked Mt. Lacont despite the warnings of bear sightings.  We flipped a canoe sideways over a 12 foot waterfall.  We pitched tents in the pouring rain.  We ran over rattlesnakes in the driveway.  And yes, we even shot BB guns at innocent squirrels.   Something was not considered broken unless it was beyond the hope of a roll of duck tape and a can of WD40.   It was a true Southern reality TV series long before the creation of “Duck Dynasty.”  

So, when I got the bright idea last summer to give my kids a bit of Southern culture (before they were totally lost to the world of prestine Washington), my lovely neighbor and friend, Patty, from Philadelphia decided that she and her daughter were game.  They were coming too.

It was a good idea – or so I thought.  A twelve-mile canoe trip down the Shanandoah River.  The sun was cooperating.  The water temperature like bathwater.  The coolers packed to the brim with junk food fit for the outing.  Hell, this was going to be great fun.  I could teach my son to steer a canoe and my daughter to get her feet dirty.  Wouldn’t Dad be proud?!   

We were off.   The excitement was palpable.  “Mom, can we do this every summer?” the kids yelled across the water, echoing through the riverbed canyons. I was feeling a moment of serenity … I was giving my kids a small taste of my Southern childhood and they were actually happy to be out in nature, away from city-living.    

After we stopped for lunch, I noticed a shift in mood.  In her usual demure way, Patty asks … “So, how much longer do we have to go?”   When I told her that we were only halfway through, her face dropped to the bottom of the river.  “You’ve got to be kidding me!” she mumbled under her breath.  She sat there stunned, frozen in place, clearly mulling over her options.  Finally, she says, “Well … there’s no going back.  I’ve come this far.  I guess I have no choice but to keep going forward.”  And going on is what she did.  For six more river miles, my friend paddled … one painful stroke after another … using strength that she forgot she had.

Of course, we now laugh about our big canoe venture.  We even talk about how representing of life it really is.  That once you get on the river, there is no stopping.  It’s a one-way journey that demands your all.  You have no choice but to keep paddling –  even when your body and your spirit refuse to go on.  You dig deep and pull one more stroke just because you are not done.  You have yet to arrive at the endpoint.  There are six more miles to go and you are only halfway there.    

Patty makes me promise that if we go again this summer, that we are signing up for the shorter canoe trip.  Hell, after last summer’s outing, anything less would be a cakewalk.  But she may be right … our lives require that we run plenty of marathons.  A walk in the park might be a welcome relief.