The other evening my wife had been working in the kitchen preparing food for a trip. As I began to put things away and wash the dishes, she expressed her appreciation: “Thanks for cleaning up my mess,” to which I replied, “It’s not just your mess, it’s our mess.”
A relationship is more than the sum of the personalities and behaviors of two people. Their interaction creates something new that goes beyond just adding up each individual’s contributions.
This makes it possible for two seemingly well-adjusted people to form a dysfunctional relationship. It allows for larger groups to develop an unhealthy culture, even when it seems the members separately appear to “have it together.” It also means that when we try to heal relationships or change the culture of an organization, finding a solution goes beyond “fixing” each of the individual parties.
At first glance, the added complexity might discourage us. Would this not mean, for example, that if a couple had a troubled marriage, then they would not only have to correct their personal issues but also need to work on their mutual relationship? Would this not further imply that a community of disciples must pursue both personal renewal and a reformation of their local culture if they want to transform their church?
The short answer is, “Yes.” But there’s reason for hope, too.
If we look at relational problems only as a manifestation of the other person’s brokenness, then the prospect for improvement can indeed seem dismal, for we cannot expect to change others. Even when we’re motivated, it can take years—and perhaps a lifetime—for us to progress through our own issues. But if two or more people in a relationship decide to work together on the relationship itself, they have a much better chance of making a difference in how they interact than in expecting the other “I” to make all the needed changes. Not only that, the energy and synergy of the relationship can sometimes empower us to make changes in ourselves that we otherwise would have thought impossible under our volition.
God does this through our relationship with Jesus. He takes us as we are—sinful, wounded, and dysfunctional. Our relationship with Christ then becomes a source of ongoing conversion and healing.
The Holy Trinity is a relationship of Three Persons. Unlike men, however, God does not demonstrate the finitude or fragmentation we do. God is not only the sum of three Persons, but He makes a seamless and unified whole. We are called to a relationship with one another and with God, with the Trinity serving as a model of perfect unity. (Catechism of the Catholic Church 253-255)
God made marriage to last a lifetime. If you reduce that union to a contract between two consenting adults, then when the relationship gets into trouble, the couple lacks the commitment and vitality to work through their relational problems. (Matthew 19:1-5)
God’s people form one Body in Christ and the Family of God. When one hurts, all suffer. When one rejoices, so do all. If the relationship between its members becomes strained, as will happen within a group of broken and sinful people, then its members must also commit to healing and growing in those relationships if it is to realize its potential. (I Corinthians 12:25-26)
Take some time to reflect on one or more of your relationships. You might consider the following questions:
- What are some characteristics that make each of you unique? What are your respective strengths and weaknesses?
- How do you respond to these qualities? Do ignore them? Do they irritate you? Do you try to encourage your friend to grow toward godliness?
- What are some of the unique qualities of your relationship? How has your friendship created something new?
- Without changing your friend’s personality or fixing his faults, can you imagine a way your relationship can grow to a new level?
- What is God asking of you in this relationship? What is He asking of you in your relationship with Him?
When is 1 + 1 > 2? is the first of a new series on the Christian faith and forming healthy relationships.