Let’s be real… No one is the most proficient at this whole relationship thing. I mean, you might be, and if you are, perhaps you should be writing this series. But whether you are an amazing friend or a sociopath, none of us are doing this perfectly. Cool pep talk, right?
My main problem is that I’m a bit of a perfectionist. Understatement of the century, I know. If I were reading this blog series, I might be tempted to make a mental list of all the topics and tips, then strive to do every single one of them one hundred percent of the time. And when I inevitably fail, I would most likely wallow in despair, dramatically hurling myself onto my couch saying, “I suppose I will just be alone forever.” Because I am a rational adult.
This last post in this series is as much a reminder for myself as it is a bit of advice for you. I’m learning that a large part of being a living, breathing person is about embracing the things I cannot do. And this knowledge actually enriches my friendships, because it allows me to accept the limits of my friends as well.
In my relationships, I have a tendency to conflate admiration and love. The two look similar, but they are actually polar opposites. Admiration is based solely on performance, on what one person can offer the other. And so worth and affection become tied up in a set of skills, or “…qualities, functions, and achievements that can suddenly fail” (Miller, 36). Relationships of any kind that are based on admiration are, therefore, tenuous. If the attachments are based on performance, we will always be insecure. I am attracted to admiration because it reinforces my perfectionism. Admiration doesn’t allow for mistakes, or rather, if mistakes are made, admiration keeps score and uses that mistake as leverage or to add to the power dynamic.
Love operates entirely differently. In her article “This Can’t Be Love: Why Affection, Attachment, Respect—Even Passion—Are Not Love,“ Polly Young-Eisendrath, Ph.D. describes love as follows:
Contrary to popular opinion, love is neither a feeling, an instinctive or hormonal response, nor even primarily a joy. In fact, a moment’s reflection will convince you that we expect love to abide as feelings like these come and go. Rather than an emotion or temporary attraction, love is a constant practice–a discipline that requires learning, development, commitment and sacrifice, but when consummated, leads to transformation of the universal human experience of feeling alone and un-known.
She is primarily referring to romantic love in this definition, but she later describes that this applies to all types of love, including the love between friends. The beautiful thing about this definition is that it allows for the complexity of being an actual human filled with both strengths and flaws. One of my favorite quotes from Anne Lamott is, “Earth is forgiveness school.” Our relationships depend on an ability to wade into each other’s lives with grace.
You will not be able to do this with everyone, nor should you. But we were created with limits; we are insufficient to meet all of the relational needs of another person. And if we are all committed to learning this love thing, we set our relationships up with the resiliency to withstand mistakes, because mistakes are an inherent part of the learning process.
Our ability to love also depends on our ability to receive love and grace. This is how we will be able to distinguish between love and admiration, between genuine care and toxic manipulation. In 1 Thessalonians 4:9-10, Paul writes,
Now concerning brotherly love you have no need for anyone to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another, for that indeed is what you are doing to all the brothers throughout Macedonia. But we urge you, brothers, to do this more and more…
For me, this process hasn’t meant memorizing a hard and fast list of behaviors to approximate, but developing the grace to learn as I go and the wisdom to adapt to individual situations.
I have these friends, they’re sisters, who I have known for most of my life. During my fraught middle school years and until my most recent trip to North Carolina. At the end of high school, I was in an unhealthy relationship and I became a pretty miserable person to be around. I was judgmental and bitter and could be generally unpleasant. And then that relationship ended while we were away at college, and I was left to put myself back together and reconnect with those friends. And life has gone on and we see each other when we’re able.
In spite of all of our ups and downs, we still value each other as human beings. They have been there through it all. We have chosen to abide, to stay. They know me, and my context, and in turn I know theirs. Every time I see them, I know that I’m in for honest, nourishing, soul-level conversation. I know that they are not in it for what they can take from me or for what I can do for them, but because they have each continually decided to care for me as a person.
At the end of the day, we were made to give and receive real love from God and each other. And even as we stumble and fall and get up and fall again, our lovability is built in. We get to live out of that reality every day, learning to believe it and show it more and more in all of our glorious weakness and insufficiency (2 Corinthians 12:9).