Minimal Requirements to be in Relationships
My guess is we could state a whole lot of minimal conditions for people to be able to form successful relationships, any kind of relationship. It may sound simple on the face of it. But the more I’ve thought about it, I realize that relationships are as complex as the people who form them. But maybe we can think about this in a way that is helpful.
First, let’s think about this. Lots of people throughout society have difficulty with relationships. I guess all of us do from time to time. But certain people seem to have relationships that usually work well, whereas others struggle with relationships and can’t seem to make them work well at all.
This is not to separate people into two classes, those that can have successful relationships, and those that can’t. That’s way too simplistic. The ability to relate is a continuum, theoretically beginning with those who have absolutely no ability to relate (if there ever were such people) and those who relate perfectly always (which would only include Jesus, I suspect).
Let’s begin with those who have the most difficulty. Think about what is called the Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), or autism. This is a complex neurological and developmental disorder that affects how a person acts, communicates, learns, and interacts with others. You may be familiar with some of the classic manifestations:
• Doesn’t smile when smiled at
• Has poor eye contact
• Seems to prefer to play alone
• Is very independent for his/her age
• Seems to tune people out
It is these people who are going to have the most difficulty forming and maintaining relationships. Move along the spectrum to those who are higher functioning, what is called Aspergers syndrome, a milder form of autism. Here we have the following manifestations:
• Problems making or maintaining friendships
• Isolation or minimal interaction in social situations
• Poor eye contact or the tendency to stare at others
• Trouble interpreting gestures
• Inability to recognize humor, irony, and sarcasm
Though the autism spectrum is on the one extreme of relationship building, people have varying degrees of ability when it comes to forming and maintaining close, fulfilling relationships. Can people on the spectrum get married? Many have. And these marriages can be lifelong and fulfilling, even though they face challenges that those who are more adept at intimacy don’t necessarily face.
When it comes to successful marriage, I would argue that there are several very important characteristics for each partner to possess:
• Ability to Commit. Marriage requires commitment, the ability to make and keep promises. The marriage ceremony itself is a formal promise or covenant made within the community. The closer I am to another person, the more dangerous that person potentially can become. Therefore I need the promise “to have and to hold, from this day forward, till death parts us.” And that promise is to be maintained for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and health – all the ups and downs that couples face throughout their lives.
• Ability to enter into covenant relationship. When you have two partners saying, “You are more important than me, and the relationship is more important than my needs. I will be committed to your needs before my needs. I will be committed to the relationship even if it’s not meeting my needs at the moment. I give you my independence, a part of my freedom as a gift of my love.” If both parties are saying this, this is a far more deep, lasting, and fulfilling relationship than the consumer relationship that says, “I’ll meet your needs as long as you’re meeting mine.”
• Ability to maintain romantic and sexual exclusivity. This is an extension of the promise. Each of us who are married are surrounded at various times by other people who we find attractive, maybe more attractive than our mates. But the promise we made binds us to our marital partner.
• Ability to hold few if any secrets or deceptions. It is best to begin a marriage relationship with the expectation that each partner will be honest and open with the other. There can be mitigating circumstances, such as one partner working for the CIA where secrecy, even from spouses, is mandatory. But this is very much the exception. Marriage couples are a unity, and as such, need to be open with one another.
• Ability to practice fairness, safety, and care. This is probably better understood as a mindset: I want to be fair with you (my spouse), to keep you safe physically, emotionally, and spiritually, and to care for you in any way possible so that you experience life to the fullest extent.
• Ability to be respectful. My wife and I have been married well over 50 years now. I can say that we’ve had our ups and downs through those years, first trying to come to terms with each other, then introducing children into the mix, and then seeing those children launch into life and start their own families. But through all those ups and downs, I can truthfully say we have maintained respect for one another, for who each of us is as persons, for our talents and abilities and yes, even our shortcomings.
• Ability to meet each other’s needs. Some people have a great deal of difficulty understanding what they need. Others understand what they need, but have trouble articulating those needs. Still others can articulate their needs, but have trouble receiving from their partners the help offered. Truly successful couples articulate needs to one another, and give and take the help offered.
• Ability to be grateful. This may be the most important quality of all. Our culture encourages us to compare. If we do this, we look around and see how much better everyone else is doing, and we become resentful (Interestingly we almost always compare up, not down. We look at those who we think are doing better). But St. Paul encourages us that whatever state we’re in, to be content. Not that we shouldn’t seek better circumstances. But God has placed us here, now. And we need to thank Him for this.
We could go on with this list:
• Delayed need gratification vs. immediate gratification..
• Value of hard work vs. laziness.
• Generosity vs. hording.
• Holiness vs. happiness.
• Courage vs. cowardice.
Sufficient to say, successful marriages (and friendships for that matter) require a great deal of care and nurturing. To do this, we must spend time taking inventory of our relationships, followed by spending time to shore up those areas that require attention. And to do that, we must see how critical relationships are. As someone once said, in the end, when all else is gone, what remains is God’s word and relationships.