Relationships can be Messy

messy relationshipsRelationships are stressful. Yeah, Hollywood makes them look all nice and pretty. Two people who are attracted to one another, walking hand in hand along the beach toward the setting sun to live happily ever after. Umm…not in this lifetime. The reality is relationships are messy and complex.

Two people sitting at a table in some bar or café see each other and smile. There’s a song playing that both of them like and they mouth the words together. One of them gets up and introductions are made. Close up, they look into one another’s eyes and a kind smile reinforces the feelings that are growing in intensity. Small chit chat. Maybe a drink or latte. An exchange of contact information. What really seals the deal, however, is if I feel that this person really likes me! Being accepted by another person is the glue that binds the hearts together.

The new couple can’t wait to spend time together. There’s so much to learn about each other. Besides, there are those tingles! You know the ones. They make you giddy with expectation. When you hear her voice butterflies flit around somewhere deep inside. It’s exciting to explore someone’s life. Especially, this person who makes us feel sooo good. We get to know what they like and don’t like. What kinds of foods are good. Music, clothes, theater…all reflecting the personality of that person who is becoming a significant part of our life. We ask each other about home and family. “Where were you born? Do you have any siblings?” We want to know as much about this person as we possibly can. Why? Because we’re genuinely interested. And, we really want them to know that we are interested!

As time goes on, though, some folks find that something’s not quite right. The mutual admiration society that was shared at the beginning becomes a tad deflated. The spots of dirt begin to appear. Disagreements arise over things that at one time enamored us. You know, that quirky little laugh of hers? It grates on us now. She used to love it when you touched her. Now, you feel her tense up and pull away. We begin to feel that we give more than we receive. (At least in our own mind.) Finances become a contentious topic. She actually wants to know your credit rating! Dirty dishes and laundry create frustration and anger. The other person never seems to be ready on time. The bedroom becomes a desert where only a few scorpions and cacti live. Messy.

As stress builds, so does anxiety and fear. Anxiety over the possibility of the relationship’s failure. Fear over being stuck in a bad relationship…for-freakin’-ever! This is when that part of our brain called the amygdala kicks into high gear. The amygdala is an ancient part of the brain that many believe “processes information regarding threats and fear.” It is important in the ‘fight, flee, or freeze’ reaction we experience when some threat or stress is present. (Brian McClaren notes that some experts add a fourth ‘f’ to the list. For them the list is ‘fight, flee, freeze, or…copulate.’) It is here that some relationships are pushed to the breaking point.

What started out so fresh and exciting has become a source of pain and struggle. Acceptance and affirmation have long since gone the way of the dinosaur. Rejection and dismissal have taken their place. In a way, trust has been broken. Disappointment and disillusionment seem to fill every moment; every crack and crevice of our consciousness. Choices need to be made…and quickly.

If one person in the relationship does not share the frustrations of the other, she/he may be able to withstand the pressure and tough it out. However, that will not guarantee that the other person will. There is a chance that the more satisfied partner may encourage some kind of counseling or intervention. Reconciliation may be possible. (Calling in the outside cleaning service to help with the mess.) Even with these measures, there’s a good possibility that the relationship will end. We humans have proven ourselves quite ready and adept at breaking relationships. For many, however, this is the only viable option that can allow each individual to maintain their own integrity as a person. Both reconciliation and separation have their limitations. Neither is perfect.

Another possibility is to stay in the relationship even though there is no longer any real personal connection. This was once encouraged by some conservative religious leaders in cases where children were involved. One such leader stated that staying together for the sake of the children is the only correct and proper action to take. I disagree with him on many levels. Not the least of which is raising children in an unloving, adversarial environment cannot be good.

Still one more option is to start the process all over again…with someone else. This path is taken by those who are afraid to lose their current, seemingly, secure relationship. Or, they truly don’t want to hurt the other person. They feel, however, there is no other way to experience love and acceptance. This is how infidelity begins and lives are destroyed. This is McClaren’s fourth ‘f’. Yeah, there’s the hope of something fresh and new. Excitement over being accepted by another bubbles to the surface. The person may actually believe that the object of their affection feels the same toward them. But, this path goes nowhere. Eventually, the other person is not going to want to play the game and will demand that this new relationship move on to greater commitment. Out of the possibilities stated here, this is the most hurtful and destructive. In its wake are only anger, frustration and shame.

Why has God formed humans in such a way that we struggle with intimate, committed relationships? Why can’t it be easy? Honestly, I have no answer for these questions. And, spoiler alert, no one else does, either. If anyone says that they do they’re either deluded or lying.

There are some things to consider, though. Throughout history there have been conflicts. Two people, or two nations, become dissatisfied with their current relationship. Maybe there is some breach of treaty or other provocation. Some of these conflicts are large, like wars and ethnic violence. Some small, like fights and arguments on the playground. God has revealed God’s self as loving and caring…unconditionally. God displayed that love by wholly identifying with the Good Creation, including humanity, through the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus. Selflessness. In our messy relationships we have the opportunity to emulate God. The apostle Paul wrote to the folks living in Philippi,

Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped,but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men.Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

We can share in the suffering of Jesus and offer our pride and our desires and, yes, ourselves to the person who has chosen us as a partner to walk through life with. Is this a guarantee that a relationship will be successful? No. In fact, I think that there are some relationships that should have never been established in the first place. These are very likely to fail no matter what the partners try. What this can do, however, is provide perspective for our desires. It can shift the focus away from what I want to what my partner wants. That may be the spark that keeps love’s light shining.

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