24 August 2007


Do you know what the basic building block for a healthy relationship is? Communication? Ability to compromise? Having enough money? It is neither of those. The key to having a healthy relationship –whether it is a romantic relationship, parenthood, friendship, or family relationships – is being healthy yourself. It is being emotionally balanced, mentally sound, and spiritually whole. A healthy relationship begins with a healthy you.

Here is an example. I know a woman who constantly complains of being lonely. She can not understand why she can not find a man. When she meets men, they are typically more interested in her friends than they are in her. If she manages to go out on a date, there is usually no second date. And the men who do stick around take advantage of her. This woman often wonders what she is doing wrong, why she cannot seem to find the happiness that other women enjoy. After all, she says, she knows how to cook and clean, dresses well, keeps her hair groomed and nails manicured, and is not interested in men for their money.

Like many men and women, she mistakenly believes that the key to a happy romantic relationship is what one does. So she focuses upon improving her household maintenance skills and keeping up her outward appearance, not realizing that it is her very desperation for a relationship that repels good men and instead attracts men who will mistreat her. Caught up in unresolved pain from her childhood and young adulthood, she is unhappy at her very core. And she wears her misery like a finely tailored suit. She starts every conversation with a complaint and frequently makes self-denigrating comments. She is jealous of other women whom she perceives as having greater success and happiness. Her conversations tend to be one-sided as she has little interest in genuinely listening to the stories of others and primarily uses others for her own emotional catharsis. Her anguish exudes itself in every interaction and in her deportment. Unwilling to accept responsibility for her situation, she blames God and men for her unhappiness.

Now granted, not every single woman is in the same predicament. There are plenty of intelligent, personable, successful, attractive, "got my stuff together" brothers and sisters out there who just haven't found a good match yet. And there are many others who prefer the single life. Yet, unfortunately, there are far too many women and men like my friend - people who remain depressed by their continued inability to be in a healthy relationship and who do not realize that they do not display the qualities that attract healthy mates.

Moreover, this situation is also not limited to romantic relationships. Many people experience problems in their relationships with the children for the same reason. Plagued by loneliness, they rely upon their children, and in some cases even have children, to fill the void in their lives. Desperate to be liked, they behave more like friends than parents and attempt to buy their children’s loyalty through excessive materialism. They become overinvolved in their children’s activities yet underactive in providing structure and discipline. Youth raised in such homes almost inevitably begin to display behavior problems, causing these parents to feel betrayed by having children who do not respect them and who take advantage of their overindulgence.

Alternatively, there are those parents whose internal pain and depression manifests itself through excessive criticism, lack of affection, and harsh punishment for their children. These parents use their children as verbal punching bags to express the hurt of old resentments. Often, these individuals grew up in unloving and abusive households, often marrying and having children early as a source of escape, consequently ending up in another unsatisfying relationship. Their children subsequently become the psychological stand-ins for abusive parents or romantic partners or unfulfilled dreams.

The connection between all of these cases is the absence of a good understanding of love. Many people view relationships and love as a mechanism for filling a void. However, truly loving relationships are only possible when we love ourselves, when we commit ourselves to nurturing our development as beings created in the image of the Divine. It is no coincidence that when asked to name the greatest commandment, Jesus Christ answered "'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'" (Matthew 22:37-29, NIV). Jesus assumed that we would love ourselves!

Genuine health in relationships, then, comes when we are so happy in and of ourselves that, while we would like to experience the sharing of life that is unique to relationships, we also relish our experience of life without them. It comes when we view relationships as an enhancement to happiness, not a requirement. When we love ourselves, we model for others how they should treat us in relationships. We establish a standard of care and attract those who will uphold this standard.

13 August 2007

Advice for a Newly Engaged Family Member

After our wedding ten years ago, my husband and I received all sorts of unsolicited advice from people about how to remain married. Quite ironically, some of that advice came from those who had divorced. I never understood whether their admonitions reflected what they had done or had not done in their own marriages. Regardless, given that a much loved family member has recently gotten engaged, I feel compelled to offer some unasked-for advice as well, especially since I'm supposed to be something of an "expert" in this area.

1. Make your wedding an event that reflects and celebrates the values that you and your beloved hold most dear. Perhaps what has gone wrong in many American marriages is that most weddings are showpieces of capitalist and consumerist culture. Many engaged couples spend more time thinking about decorations than about their vows and choose their guests based on who will give the best gifts rather than who will most support their life together as a couple. Unless you're really bound to the idea of increasing the profits of the bridal industry, I'd suggest keeping the wedding party small and foregoing the guest book and cake cutter (you'll never use them again), expensive invitations (they just get thrown away), and the decorations (really - who needs three candelabras and $1000 worth of flowers?).

2. Be intentional about nurturing your marriage. No one would hold onto a job for long if all they did was to show up. Every now and again, a furniture store near my house holds a big sale and has someone stand on the shoulder of a busy highway, holding a sign advertising the sale. Most of the time, it seems clear that the person holding the sign is not a permanent employee of the store but is rather someone that the owner or manager found on the street and invited to come make a few bucks for the day. Granted, it's not the hardest work - it mainly involves holding a large poster and occasionally walking back and forth. But still, it requires some intentional effort. The person can't just stand there and hope that the sign will hold itself. Marriage is no less. Simply having a wedding ceremony and living in the same house does not make or maintain a marriage. The wedding ceremony is not a magic trick that binds you irrevocably together for life. You've got to nurture a marriage as if it is a living, breathing organism. Like any living thing, if you don't feed it - or you feed it the wrong type of food - it will die. And by the way, watch out for pests - jealous friends, intrusive family members, jobs that sap your joy and energy, disagreements over money.

3. Learn the art of forgiveness. When I first got married, I couldn't understand when long-married couples warned me that there are times in marriage when you won't like your spouse. But it's true. Over time, what you now consider quirky idiosyncracies - or perhaps slightly annoying habits - will become the bane of your existence. Even worse, through the eyes of your beloved you will discover things about yourself that you never wanted to know. As a friend once told me, being married is like having a mirror held up that reflects your negative attributes. So you'll need to learn to forgive not only your beloved, but also yourself. By the way, the mirror's not all bad. When held rightly, it also helps you to recognize strengths about which you were unaware and it affirms the best parts of you.

4. Value the wisdom of others but discover the path that is best for you and your beloved. Several years ago, a colleague came to me and asked for some advice on marriage. Like my husband and I, he and his fiancée were young, black, educated, and had highly demanding careers. And neither of them was interested in being the type of couple where one is subordinate to the other. Yet so far, everyone had given them - actually, her - the same advice: "Remember, he's the head of the household so your job is to support him." Perhaps in desperation, he had turned to me, a person with only five years of marriage experience. There wasn't much I could tell him other than this: "Ultimately, you and your fiancée together will have to decide what kind of marriage you want. If it's a marriage that looks different from those of your elders, then they may not be able to tell you how to achieve it. So you'll have to figure out which of their advice suits the two of you. And you just might have to improvise."

5. Most of all, consider your marriage a journey. Even as someone who studies, counsels, and teaches about marriage, I find that my so-called "expertise" goes out the door when I get home. I'm not sure that anyone ever gets this thing really figured out. Even we professional experts are always personal novices. Life is always changing and new challenges are always just around the corner. What seems stable one minute can be topsy-turvy the next. At times you may have no clue where you are or how you got there. But as long as you consider such things to be ordinary bumps in the journey, you'll have a much greater chance of adapting and making it to the next bit of straight road.

Many blessings on your engagement.