Recently I heard an interview with an author who’s written books about love. I enjoy the radio show On Being with Krista Tippett, on NPR. And the interview was with Alain de Botton, a British writer who has analyzed the way people love each other–healthy and unhealthy, short-term and long-lasting, picture perfect and down-to-earth reality. Despite being an atheist himself, his discoveries about the human condition and how people practice love were quite thought-provoking.
It’s no surprise to anyone who’s been in a long-term relationship that not every minute of every day is filled with happiness between you and your significant other. Some minutes and days can be full of hurt or disappointment. Times when you think, “What’s wrong with them? Why don’t they get it?”
On those days, if we’re angry, we try to get the point across about what’s “wrong” with our partner. So we yell. We go negative out of instinct. It’s hard not to. But unfortunately, in moments of anger, when you blast your partner for their inadequacies, rarely if ever do they say, “You know, when you put it so eloquently, I really see your point. You’ve opened my eyes to a new understanding. Thank you so much for enlightening me!”
Just think, if your partner did that after you yelled at them, you’d be so shocked you couldn’t speak. That’s because people don’t work like that. As much as we’d like to shout out the cold hard “truth” and tell them how terrible they were, we have to ask ourselves, “Do I want to improve things, or just yell my angry guts out for spite?” (And sure, sometimes you just want to choose the second option. I get it.)
So let’s say we do want to help our partner understand better. Well here’s what that love author said: “The only conditions under which anyone learns are conditions of incredible sweetness, tenderness, patience–that’s how we learn. But the problem is that the failures of our relationships have made us so anxious that we can’t be the teachers we should be. And therefore often some genuine legitimate things that we want to get across just come across as insults and attempts to wound, and are therefore rejected.” Yep, I think we’re all guilty of that. Keep it in mind as you work on your relationship.
But it’s not just spouses who are in relationships; it’s all of us with all of us. Every person we know, we have some kind of relationship with, however small. Our neighbors, the mail carrier, the grocery cashier, our coworkers, that weird cousin you haven’t seen in years, everybody.
Even if someone’s not talking to a spouse, you’re still talking to somebody who you hope will listen to you. So ask yourself: do you want them to hear and understand you, or not? If you want them to understand, then remember what kind of conditions are necessary for someone to learn something (tenderness, patience), and what hinders us from teaching them (our anxiety). Do you want them to walk away feeling insulted and wounded? Or do you want them to walk away thinking, “I guess I see where they’re coming from”?
This doesn’t just apply to personal relationships, but hopefully it can guide our society’s relationships too. It’s no secret that more and more of our country’s national dialogue has regressed into shouting matches. Insults intended only to hurt and demean, instead of trying to really talk and listen.
Remember that in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus called us to be “the salt of the earth” and “the light of the world” (Matt. 5:13-16). He also told us to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:44). Spite is easy; love is hard. So as you talk or listen to people, if they say things that are spiteful, mean-spirited, or immature, remember that we’re called to pray for them. If someone speaks out of ignorance and judgment, remember that we are called to shine God’s light. Yes, it might be tempting to return anger with anger, but we are called instead to raise ourselves above that, and “overcome evil with good” (Rom. 12:14-21)–whether it’s to a frustrating stranger, or even a frustrating spouse.