Sunday, August 21, 2011

Do you have to like my shoes?

August 21, 2011

Dear friends,

The concept of relationship as obligation is so widely assumed in our culture that questioning the idea seems at best semantic quibbling, and a worst a piece of pedantic foolishness. Nevertheless, the issue is one of serious importance. Does relationship obligate?

The answer is, of course, yes, no, and it depends.

One of the factors that determines the answer is our understanding of obligation itself. If by obligation we mean that relationship entails mutual responsibilities for all parties in the relationship, then relationship does indeed obligate. But if by obligation we mean that relationship compels a given response as a duty-driven debt, then the answer is for the most part no, with limited exceptions that must be clearly agreed to by all parties involved. In such instances, the duty-driven requirements rest not upon the relationship itself, but upon the boundaries and requirements participants have stipulated in the contract of the relationship.

It is at this point that high levels of conflict and confusion occur, particularly when communication skills are limited.

A conversation I overheard on a bus illustrates my point.

Young man (somewhat anxiously): “How come you’re mad at me?”
Young woman (clearly outraged by the question): “You know—don’t
play games.”
Young man (beginning to sound irritated): “I don’t know and I can’t read your mind. What did I do?”
Young woman (close to tears): “You said my shoes looked ridiculous. If you loved me, you’d never say something like that.”
Young man (clearly exasperated): “I DO love you and the shoes ARE ridiculous. Why shouldn’t I say so? That’s my opinion.”

Why indeed was the young man in hot water relationally because he expressed his opinion of his companion’s shoes? Was it a matter of tactlessness? As an uninvited anonymous eavesdropper, I thought it was much more than that. The pain I thought I heard in the young woman’s response caused me to wonder if without conscious awareness she believed that the relationship between her and the young man obligated him always under all circumstances to respond in ways that bolstered what appeared to be a fragile, easily threatened sense of self-esteem. It appeared that the young woman had assigned the young man the duty to serve her need for reassurance, framing this obligation as a duty compelled by “love.” If at some level this was the case, then the issue was not a difference of opinion about fashion in shoes, but a betrayal by a significant other whom she believed obligated by the relationship to meet her need.

Guarding our hearts from self-sabotage in relationships requires us to inspect consciously and consistently the expectations we place on others.

I think the course of that relationship might have been changed had the young woman laughed and said, “Well, they may be ridiculous to you, but I like them and I’m going to have a lot of fun wearing them.”

Thinking with you about the crucial difference an assigned obligation can make in a relationship, and seeking, as Paul reminded the Christians at Galatia, to carry my own load. [Gal. 6:5.]

See you next week.


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