Sculpting Relationships

I’ve been thinking lately about relationships. To be more specific, personal relationships. (As opposed to professional relationships in this case.) How easily we can sometimes allow them to become stale. Or how often we fool ourselves into thinking a good initial rapport with someone is the same as a strong relationship with them. How, when held up to the light some of our top “friendships” are actually rather superficial.

And there isn’t anything wrong with superficial relationships, so long as we know what they are and accept them as such. But we also sometimes need and want strong, solid relationships with those we value. And when we do, I have often thought that it is like sculpting something out of clay. It takes attention, care, passion, and often meticulous effort. But for people we value, it ends up being worth it.

We can’t of course have a strong relationship with everyone. Nobody loves everybody on a personal level. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t explore and evolve relationships with those whom we value, beyond what they are today. For some, we may find the relationship blossoms into deep friendship or love. (Or “love”). For others a new admiration, or merely a better understanding of a person will result. All of these evolutions are worth it most of the time.

And what are some good ways to develop sincerity and depth in relationships? When we have decided to pursue a relationship beyond the superficial, what might we do? After some thought, I have come up with some ideas. In no particular order, here are a few of the big ones.

Ask people to tell you stories. Real stories. Stories of their best moments, their worst moments, or just what they did with their time yesterday. People conceive, fashion, and tell (and re-tell) their personal stories based on that which moved them most, in hopes of reliving, better understanding, healing from, or just plain sharing that which is most influential to them in any given context. By telling those stories we open ourselves up to those around us. By listening to the stories of others, we show them that we care about relating to them on a less superficial level. When we ask them to tell us one of their stories, we are saying “I value you now, and would like to understand you and get to know you even better. Will you give me that opportunity?”

Once we know who we love, be more willing to tell them so. But do so without explanation or clarification. By clarifying we cheapen and dilute the experience both for ourselves and the person we love. And if we are eager to explain what kind of love,  and what the implications of that love are, what we are actually doing is acting more out of fear than we are out of love. Fear of rejection. Fear of intimacy for which we are unprepared from the other person. Fear of being misinterpreted. Love is multi-faceted and complicated to be sure, but if we pay closer attention to how we truly define it, and to when, how, and to whom we say it, we shouldn’t need to explain it. If you still feel you have to, consider that it isn’t love you are feeling at all for the person, but admiration. (Which is fine as well!)

As a last resort, make the mostly false distinction of being “in love” when that is what you are feeling, and let “love” represent all the other kinds of love you can feel. And leave it at that.

Accept and ask for help as often as you offer it yourself. It may seem counter-intuitive in our “independence” based culture, but by asking for and accepting help when we need it, especially for the emotional things, we are showing other people that we trust them, respect their strengths, and that we are secure enough in ourselves to admit, at least to select people, that we cannot do everything.

Plus it makes those who care about you feel as though they are contributing to your well being, even if all they can do is be present when you would rather not be alone. So important is this, that we should be willing to ask our friends and loved ones for help, even if we truly believe that we can manage all by ourselves. Because even if we can, we shouldn’t. And we may find we are not as able to go at it alone as we initially believe, anyway. Let help and support be like an unbounded life force that flies back and forth between you and those you value. Something you sometimes give and sometimes receive.

Check in on people to see how they are doing, even if they don’t appear to be in any pain. Because they might be. And even if they are not, the inquiry means a lot.

Let people that matter to you know when they have hurt you.  Or angered you, or confused you. Always be open with how you are made to feel by someone, even if you cannot share what you think all of the time. (And note the difference.) If they don’t want to hear it, they are not your friend.

Always apologize. ALWAYS ALWAYS ALWAYS tell someone that you are sorry for hurting them. Even, and especially when you don’t see how or why your actions would have hurt the other person. Apologize when you didn’t meant to hurt them. Apologize even if you felt compelled to take the action that they found hurtful, even if you would, as a matter of conscience take that action again. Apologize even if you could not help but take the hurtful action.

To be aware that you have hurt someone, even if you think it is silly, and to not apologize is to dismiss their heart and declare it irrelevant to you. And if their heart is irrelevant to you, how can they matter as a human being in your life, no matter what you claim before or after such a dismissal? Apologies are not rejections of your own morality. Apologies are not a confession of being 100% at fault, nor are they a capitulation to somebody elses will. They are an acknowledgment that human beings can be both very deep, and very diverse, and that in order to truly value someone else, we must honor that which both pleases and pains them. Even if it means a certain subject can never be discussed, or our time with them must eventually be decreased, we should always regret, and say we regret causing pain to someone else.

We must not confuse apologizing for what we did with apologizing for who we are. There is a difference, and not being able to tell the difference prevents us from apologizing when we hurt someone. And that can be twice as hurtful.

Listen to at least some of their favorite music with which you are not already familiar. Borrow the album or download the songs that speak deepest to the person in question. And really listen to them. Even if you don’t like the music enough to listen to it again, put the effort into absorbing the music at least once. Few things are more outwardly indicative of the wavelength of a person’s soul than the music they listen to. Be willing to share some of your music with others as well, for the same reason, should they be open to do so. (And hopefully, they will be.)

Have a meal at someone’s private table. Not munching away on a paper plate at someone’s party, or grabbing something on the go on your way to someplace else. There will be plenty of time for such adventures. But if you have the chance to sit at their table for a regular meal, or have them sit at yours for same, take that chance. If you and they can become comfortable with you in that setting, you are connecting to their home in a way that a simple visit or a party may not allow. (Believe me, this is hard as hell for me to do the first few times.)

If it is not an obviously private or personal affair, invite the people you value to events or activities you are attending, even if you don’t think they would enjoy them. Firstly, there is value in the invitation, even if it is declined. And secondly, they may surprise you and choose to show up, either to be with you, or to enjoy something new. (Or maybe you were wrong, and they enjoy such things after all!)

Get back to all messages someone sends you, eventually.  And if life will not allow a prompt response, simply let people know you may not get back to them for a while. Most people can understand being busy, but it is hard to not take it personally when someone never, ever manages to get back to you.

Do not ask people for their opinions on vital personal matters unless you are prepared to hear the view you would find the least pleasing. And when/if they share said view, do not judge your friendship on the opinion they give, but on the honesty with which they gave the opinion, and the courage it required. On the other side, offer an unsolicited opinion to someone on a sensitive subject only if after much consideration you believe in your heart of hearts that the person you value is making a destructive choice, or is otherwise not approaching something from a mentally healthy frame of mind, and if you believe you are the only person that can point this out to them.

Give sincere, restrained compliments to people when you can. This shows you value their traits, and their personality, but are not moved to gushing about same. It’s better at first to compliment things over which they have control or choice, like styles, decisions, or creations, as opposed to things over which they have little control. (Such as looks.) If you can, include in the compliment how the trait makes you feel. (“You’r persistence in matters of morality inspires me in my own.”)

Even more importantly perhaps, accept compliments from other people. Even if they are sloppy, or awkward, or not well worded, or just plain no big deal to you. Don’t deflect them with false modesty. People appreciate different things in us. Some people appreciate things we do not even see in ourselves. To reject compliments is not so much modest, as it is a reflection that we do not believe the other person is sincere. (Or that we do not believe we are good enough to be worthy of anyone’s compliment.) There are times when history has taught us someone is not being sincere, but until that is well established, accept with grace the compliments people have offered you.

Laugh with each other a lot. Cry with each other sometimes.

No elaboration needed here.

So those are some of the big ones I have been thinking about lately. It is of course not an exhaustive list, but it covers a lot of the big things to me. Exceptions always exist, of course. But I humbly submit that if we all did more of these sort of things with more of our friends, our relationships would be far more sincere and thus more rewarding.

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6 Comments

  1. So many resonant points you've thoughtfully composed, Ty. One I'd like to highlight is to give sincere, restrained compliments. Particularly in this social media lovefest, the gushy generic comments are almost disrespectful to a writer's time when you consider they merely want to draw attention to their own sites. In real life, I tend to withdraw from the geyser-type talkers, too.

  2. Jen

    Relationships are complex, and I think some ppl are great at doing some of the points you made, but then might be terrible with the rest. I know myself I'm terrible at asking for help or allowing myself to be vulnerable and intimate with someone. Perhaps our “deficiencies” allow us to learn from our friends who might be better at it so we can forge stronger relationships with others.

  3. First, I’m the QUEEN of naivete when it comes to relationships. Because I genuinely enjoy people, I build rapport very quickly and let people in even more quickly. This typically leads to a world of hurt. So I’ve learned; and the few true, deep relationships I have are based on everything you’ve described. I think your ideas are perfect – and just to add / comment on two in the beginning.
    1. You said, “ask about stories”. I agree – but also “tell stories”. I remember in one of my social psych classes we learned that the more you open yourself up to someone, the more they will open up to you and it is a signal of trust when you start telling people about “real” stories.
    2. I love what you say in reference to “love” and how not to dilute that. I’m a firm believer in “actions speak louder than words”, so instead of telling someone I love them; I try to be creative, thoughtful, and do things like send a random hand written card, flowers, a thoughtful quote, etc. to show my appreciation and love for them as a friend.
    Fantastic post – I will save this and re-read.

  4. Thanks everyone for the comments, and I am glad you enjoyed the post. I have had a busy and mostly away from the computer sort of weekend, so I am just now getting around to responding to these comments.

    Scrollwork– Good point about how often people tend to go over board on a social media platform when it comes to compliments and such. The gushing indeed does often seem to be oriented towards reciprocation. “I will pretend to adore what you are doing on your blog, so you will come and visit, and spread the world about mine.”

    I tend to only compliment, or even comment on a post, when I feel moved in a particular way. I'd rather people hear less from me, but know what they hear is real, than hear a lot of half-assed things from me.

    Jen–That is very true, and as I read I realize that I do not in the post specifically mention that a person need not do ALL of these things. I think that each suggestion I make here, if taken seriously, can in it's own way lead to stronger relationships, even if we are unable to, as you said, master any of the other suggestions.

    I would also speculate however, that becoming good at one, and meeting with success because of it may eventually lead to a person being more comfortable with trying the other ideas. Do you think that is possible?

    Jamie– Certainly, we should tell out own stories as well. Stories being the operative word for that suggestion. We musn't be ashamed to share our stories with other people. But many people are in fact afraid to open up about their own stories, and my thought was, if we are kind enough to invite people to tell us a story, we they will feel more at ease about doing so, and hence more gets shared. I myself am more likely to share is asked.

  5. Really appreciate this post. It is refreshing to have someone ruminate intelligently about the quality of our interactions as opposed to the 'wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am' approach which is so common now. Thank you.

  6. Thank you, Up, for your kind comments.

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