In the last 36 hours I’ve been really caught on a concept… or perhaps the concept is caught on me. Like a song that keeps repeating in your brain. Or when you see blue cars everywhere. It’s the idea of “relational integrity”.
It’s the idea of a workable relationship, friendship, or bond. It’s the idea that a relationship exists and is functional. And it is so functional that if the relationship is meant to thrive, it THRIVES. And if it is meant to dissolve, it peacefully dissolves. But you decide that together, not just one person deciding for the both of you. Let me break this down.
First off, can we agree that relationships can be the most awesome thing ever?? Instantly I remember as a little girl, I was over at my neighbor’s house who was another little girl, and we were laughing so hard that milk literally spewed out of my mouth all over the kitchen table. Instead of cleaning it up, we laughed even harder. Then I time travel to my college Cartography professor who spelled out map projections so profoundly, clearly, and beautifully, my butt literally felt glued to the chair and I couldn’t blink for one second lest I miss any of it, any of him. Then I swoosh to 7 years later, where I got to work with someone who basically completed my sentences, and it was so exciting to work with them, I JUMPED out of bed in the morning just to prepare for work.
AND… we can agree that relationships can be the most awful thing ever. My brother for example was my closest friend when we were growing up one minute (when it was just he and I in the room), and then a minute later, when his friends were around, I was the laughing stock of the town. I’m sure he/they meant it in some kind of no harm, but I felt so embarrassed that I didn’t have any male friends until I was 20 years old. Another example is I had a super close friend at work, and then suddenly it was like she hated me. No explanation, no discussion. It was devastating and baffling. Another example is a friendship that was so sweet, but when I moved away, she tried to keep in touch and I didn’t really know how to do that. And even as I felt her heart break that I didn’t seem to care, again I didn’t really know what to do and so it was easier to just ignore her.
So it’s like these relationships have the potential to be magic and sometimes that magic happens whether we do anything or not, and other times these relationships seem to actually take something more than just passively having them. That they require something extra or different to establish them, to maintain them, and to deepen them. They also take something to end them without one or both persons feeling terrible.
So what is that something extra? Tell me, Gen! TELL ME.
THIS is where “relational integrity” comes in, are you excited? I believe that relationships take 2 things. The first thing is more important than the second thing, but the second thing honors the first thing. And if both things are present, I believe you have relational integrity.
1. Understanding a Commitment is Present
When you have a relationship (this can be a friendship, work partnership, love relationship, or whatever it is), you have a commitment to the other person and to the relationship (regardless if that was stated or not). You have an agreement to be together. Like, “you’re my person” and “we’re a thing”. A relationship means, “there is something that is happening between us here” and you are both responsible for it. I.e. There is some type of connection present and is establishing itself here. And whether we like it or not, or it was said out loud or not, a relationship is like a contract and there are terms of that contract called expectations. Some relationships have more terms than others. And some terms are more explicit than others (like a partnership agreement, rules of a gym membership or getting married). Other terms are implicit (like what being a good “friend” “neighbor” “teammate” “girlfriend” “spouse” means). Also in a relationship, you affect and influence each other. Your actions and behavior with them, towards them, around them, or away from them but about them (<-- important one) have an affect on them and on the relationship.
This reality isn’t meant to be argued against — it’s like the “nature” or “physics” of relationships. A relationship is a tie to each other whether you like it or not or whether you are aware to it yet or not. Even if you hide in a closet (believe me, I’ve tried), I bet you still have relationships like a mother out there or some long-lost friend and there are probably still terms and agreements in play.
2. Cleaning up the Commitment if it Goes Wonky
So WHEN things happen that affect the relationship or WHEN you do something that affects the other person in a possibly negative way (it’s not an “if”, it’s a “when” because we’re messy humans), it is your responsibility to check in with the person to see how they are and how the relationship is. Yes, I know, this sounds crazy in our hyper-individualist society. Having relational integrity actually means that we need to try to explain ourselves for any harmful, confusing, or inconsiderate actions we may have done (intentionally or not) and wait to receive any verbal or emotional feedback that is there from our actions. It doesn’t matter as much why you did those behaviors (though you could ask if the other person wants to hear this information), it more matters that you acknowledge you affected the other person and are open to seeing what that means for the other person and for the relationship.
This is the crucial note –> all you must do is:
admit to the truth of what YOUR actions were (you had negative thoughts about the other person and talked about them behind their back, you felt jealous and turned spiteful towards them, you believed they didn’t care about you and made up a story or judgement about them, you forgot about their birthday, you canceled plans last minute, you didn’t do what you said you were going to do, on and on),
- (Common question — but wait, I was super justified to doing those actions, shouldn’t that be stated anywhere? Shouldn’t they need to apologize too?? That’s not the focus. The focus is that you get clear on what YOUR part was and own that. Now, usually, when you sincerely own your part, it softens their heart and then they feel inclined to own theirs… but this isn’t the goal. The goal is for you to make amends for your side of the street.)
- admit to the affect that might of had on the other person (they might have felt sad or lonely that you were suddenly distant and unavailable, they might have felt hurt and angry you disrespected their time by canceling last minute, etc.),
- be open to any feedback from them on how your actions affected them,
- and finally, be clear on what your intentions, commitment, or feelings are about the relationship currently (maybe open to change, but nice to mention for them to know so they can make an accurate response to how they feel now).
AND THEN WAIT (like literally wait, pause, stop talking). BECAUSE HERE’S THE KICKER — at this point in the conversation, you discover TOGETHER where the relationship stands. What?? I get that maybe you have differing viewpoints about where the relationship stands, but then go ahead and explore the difference in viewpoints! I promise, when you get clear (and are honest) about your connection TOGETHER, it’ll be clear what is meant to happen going forward to ensure the least amount of harm (or maybe the most amount of joy) for all parties and decide that TOGETHER.
// end instructions
Why should I do this, Gen? This sounds heavy and a lot and blah. Because going towards conflict for the sake of your relationship will either strengthen your relationship tremendously or it will end it as it should be ended for the growth and betterment of both. Going towards conflict involves BOTH people to be part of that conversation. You deciding what it’s like and how the relationship is, isn’t actually mutual and doesn’t make for functional relationships. Maybe it makes for a functional you… and that’s cool. But doesn’t make for a functional We.
(Also I promise making this ritual more of a normal habit than an onerous chore, will limit the amount of times you actually have to do this in your relationships. It’s pretty cool that way.)