Western culture tells us that relationships matter. Romantic relationships, relational intelligence with bosses and co-workers, good friendships, and casual acquaintances – they all matter. But at the same time we are also told that we need to be independent, self-actualized, make it on our own, not to trust others, and the ultimate goal – financial independence!
My wife and I certainly feel the challenge of having healthy relationships in a driven, hurried city during a naturally busy season of life. Both of us work, we have young children at home, and we wear multiple hats. It often feels like friendships get the short end of the stick…and sometimes our own relationship does as well.
Friendliness vs Friendship
The reality is that our culture is pretty relationally unhealthy. We might have 2,000+ “friends” on Facebook, but do we have actual friendships with people that are deep, consistent, vulnerable, and meaningful?
Adele Calhoun says that there is a difference between friendliness and friendship:
Friendliness is common currency today. We are told to ‘Fly the friendly skies.’ User-friendly software always helps. Seeker-friendly churches make everyone feel welcome… Friendliness doesn’t require loyalties or major investments of time and energy. Friendliness may grease the wheels of human interaction, but it is not the same thing as friendship. Friends are not a dime a dozen. They are not the same thing as allies, colleagues, neighbors, relatives, and acquaintances. Friends require a degree of intentionality and self-donating love that goes beyond friendliness and supporting each other in some act or enterprise. Friends know our being as well as our doing.
Healthy relationships are a central aspect of what it means to be human, and pursuing relational health is a key soul care practice.
The loneliness epidemic in the Western world has generated a lot of attention in recent years. People are more isolated from one another than ever before and the relational implications are beginning to show. Cigna Health has conducted massive studies on loneliness and its effects in the United States over the years and the results are deeply troubling.
In the 2018 loneliness study, Cigna determined:
- 54% of Americans say they always or sometimes feel that no one knows them well.
- 56% of Americans feel that the people around them “are not necessarily with them.”
- 59% of Americans say that they always or sometimes feel that their interests and ideas are not shared by those around them.
- 43% of Americans feel that their relationships are not meaningful and that they are isolated from others.
- Generation Z (age 18-22) recorded the highest scores for loneliness of any other generation (48%).
Loneliness is now considered a public health crisis in the United States because of the physical, psychological, and emotional effects it has on human beings. A hospital in Miami published a blog a few years ago titled “Loneliness May Be Deadlier Than Obesity.” Our relational health is deeply connected to every other aspect of our lives.
In other words, you don’t have a soul. You are a soul.
What is Relational Health?
Western culture resists relational health. But the wider culture cannot take all the blame for the relational malaise we are experiencing. We each have a part to play in our own relational unhealth. We resist moving towards relational health when we act “resilient” but are crumbling internally. We resist moving towards relational health when we only spend time with people who look like us, think like us, and vote like us. We resist moving towards relational health when we remain only visible to others, rather than becoming available and vulnerable. We resist moving towards relational health when we refuse to engage in restorative conflict.
Relational health is a learned ability and skill. Every person has to intentionally and repeatedly choose to grow into a relationally healthy adult over the course of their life. This is my working definition for relational health:
Relational health is the ability to start and sustain meaningful relationships, engage in appropriate social vulnerability, and practice skills that encourage on-going, supportive relationships.
There are three main elements to this understanding of relational health that needs to be unpacked a bit more:
- Ability to start and sustain meaningful relationships – Relationally healthy people grow in their ability to initiate relationships and sustain them over time. This requires having clarity on what makes a relationship “meaningful” and the confidence to begin new relationships. Placing value and importance on meaningful relationships is crucial for relational health.
- Ability to engage in appropriate social vulnerability – Relationally healthy people grow in their ability to practice vulnerability in ways that nurture connection, rather than stifle it. This includes finding authentic ways to share life with others, having a few significant relationships with people who have access to your whole life, and avoiding “emotional dumping” with new relationships. Relational growth will not occur without vulnerability.
- Ability to practice skills that encourage on-going, supportive relationships – Relationally healthy people grow in their ability to to learn and practice new skills that deepen their closest relationships. This includes conflict resolution skills, communication around expectations, diagnosing defense mechanisms, and empathetic listening. When it comes to relational health, there are no masters, just novices.
Growing into relationally mature people takes time. Start by becoming familiar with the Relational Ropes.Relational health is a learned ability and skill. Every person has to intentionally and repeatedly choose to grow into a relationally healthy adult over the course of their life. ~ Matt Alexander Click To Tweet
One of the best tools that helps us examine our relational health is the Relational Rope. When you go rock climbing, it is really important to carefully check your ropes. If a rope is weak, frayed, or thinning then your life is at risk because that rope will not be able to hold your weight. In a similar way, there are different “ropes” in close relationships that need to be regularly assessed, cared for, and strengthened if that relationship is going to stay healthy.
If our relational ropes are consistently thin, then it is difficult for the relationship to be healthy and withstand inevitable challenges. But if the ropes are thick, then that relationship is deepening in health and is able to navigate relational complexities. Three significant relational ropes include trust-building, peace-making, and truth-telling.
- Trust-building – we build trust by developing habits that foster stability rather than suspicion. Trust is not a given – it has to be built and earned over time.
- Peace-making – we make a way for peace with one another through habits that foster dialogue rather than division. Conflict is inevitable in relationships, so it is crucial that we work towards reconciling dialogue.
- Truth-telling – speaking truth involves growing habits that foster honesty instead of hiding. Truth-telling relationships seek to be honest, direct, and respectful about who we are and what we are feeling.
Our relationships, especially the closest ones, can get into unhealthy ruts that are hard to move out of unless we work towards deepening in the basics of relational health.
An Integrated Interior House
One of my favorite exercises to facilitate when I do a workshop on soul care is an exercise of imagination. I invite people to dream about what life would look like in six months if they had grown towards health in their soul ecosystem (emotional, relational, spiritual, physical, mental, vocational). Maybe they are not “perfect” in any of these areas, but there has been concrete movement in each towards health. What will have changed? And I invite people to create some kind of drawing of what this future looks like. Some people draw a literal representation of future soul health that involves stick figures and others create something that is a bit more symbolic.
During a recent workshop, a young woman shared her drawing with the group at the end, and it was a picture of a house with six rooms. But this was no ordinary house because the rooms did not have any walls or doors! This picture symbolized a future where more of her interior life was integrated and the “walls” she had put up to bring a sense of security would come down.
A Compelling Dream
A compelling dream and hope for the future is really important when we are attempting to move towards health. Moving towards relational health is hard work and most of us avoid it at all costs! Without a vision of what life could be like we are unlikely to attempt this challenging path. If we pursue relational health, it will mean facing our own insecurities and fears, naming how we have been hurt by others in the past, exploring our communication style, and confronting how we tend to use other people. If we go on this journey, what will life look like on the other side? Will it have been worth it?
Growing into a relationally healthy person is not for the faint of heart, but there is tremendous fruit on the other side. Healthy trees grow fruit and as we grow in relational health there will be “fruit” that grows in our lives. Here are a few examples of “fruit” that will grow as we pursue relational health:
- Humility that comes from journeying with others through the joys and sorrows of life.
- Freedom, empathy, and grace through giving and receiving forgiveness.
- The ability to communicate our expectations and assumptions clearly, honestly, and respectfully in the midst of conflict.
- Healing that occurs through “taking off the mask” and allowing ourselves to be fully known.
A life of wholeness, humility, and hope is available for those who seek to grow in relational health.
This post is part of the You Are a Soul Series:
- Part 1: You Are a Soul
- Part 2: Emotional Health
- Part 3: Relational Health
- Part 4: Spiritual Health
- Part 5: Physical Health
- Part 6: Mental Health
- Part 7: Vocational Health
Join a Fall 2020 Learning Cohort
 Adele Calhoun, Spiritual Disciplines Handbook, p. 152.
 One prominent example of this is the United Kingdom’s appointment of a Minister for Loneliness in 2017. “U.K. Appoints a Minister for Loneliness” https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/17/world/europe/uk-britain-loneliness.html
 2018, U.S. Cigna Loneliness Index. https://www.multivu.com/players/English/8294451-cigna-us-loneliness-survey/docs/IndexReport_1524069371598-173525450.pdf
 Dan White, Jr., Subterranean: Why the Future of the Church is Rootedness, p. 154-160.
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