Why We’re Relationally Dumb

Part 2 – Respect, Trust and Loyalty

Tangles of Reciprocal Harm

In my previous post I suggested that even though we have advanced technologically we are going backwards when it comes to managing our relationships. As Dallas Willard says, our “most intimate relations are tangles of reciprocal harm, coldness, and resentment.” In a number of ways we are in a relational mess. Relationships characterized by warmth, security and endurance are increasingly rare. We lack the competence and character to sustain such relationships.

I’m not primarily arguing that everything in the past was ideal or if we could only return to the good ‘ole days everything would be fine. There is much to criticize about how relationships were conducted generations ago, and yet, in some things, they had common sense wisdom about relationships that we can’t seem to grasp today. It’s this practical insight I want to explore.

Respect, Trust and Loyalty

What makes for a good relationship? Simply, it’s three things: respect, trust and loyalty. These relational traits are what make up the practical insight we’ve lost. Again, I’m not making a past over present argument, but trying to show what kind of knowledge we apparently lack, which is so basic that, at the risk of sounding censorious, it makes us relationally dumb.

Respect, at its basic level, means recognizing and treating another person as an equal, affording them all the dignity and consideration we expect from others. It can also include honoring someone for their role or accomplishments. It’s refusing to try to control, use or manipulate them. Respect acknowledges the sovereignty of a person and their legitimate right to direct their own life and choose to whom they entrust themselves.

Relationships also depend upon trust to function well. Trust allows us to rely on another to will our good without needing coercion. It enables us to let down our guard and even share the more sensitive parts of our lives with someone. In other words, it allows us to be intimate. When we talk about warm relationships, we mean there is good will in those relationships. Both parties wish each other blessing and goodness and do what is in their power to realize the other’s happiness. Trust creates friendship and it’s friendship, in one form or another, that makes us relationally whole.

Loyalty, our third relational virtue, means that one will continue in a commitment of good will. Loyalty says I will be good to you today and tomorrow. This is what adds the endurance quality to a healthy relationship. Favoring long-term values and priorities over short-term ones is what loyalty is all about.

The Risk of Doing Good

It is important to understand that commitment to your good can include doing things that you may not immediately recognize as being good, for example, pushing you out of the way of an oncoming car. I am so committed to your good that I would even risk you initially thinking I’m harming you. If I failed to push you out of the way because I was afraid of your disapproval, that would show my commitment to your good is limited and not important enough to risk being misunderstood. Of course, this is an extreme case, and after my inaction you might not be around for it to matter, but you get my idea.

Certain assumptions our culture makes today undermine these values of respect, trust and loyalty. Additionally, certain practices that have gained cultural legitimacy actively corrode them. In future posts I’ll explain why this is so and demonstrate how they stunt our relational skills.