The Simplicity Series: Fostering Relationships

17. December 2016

Developing relationships – I claim this to be a core value of mine. Along with growing as a person, contributing to a greater good, and minding my health, developing relationships is something I feel ought to be at or near the forefront of my existence. I invest a significant amount of time, energy, and mental bandwidth into the likes of personal finance, early retirement, and fantasy football, but I’m very aware that these are just stepping stones – mere vehicles whose services I’m soliciting in route to a well-curated life.

In my mind, although my actions may not always reflect it, a well-curated life cannot be considered as such if relationships aren’t prioritized. A bit in Tom Schulman’s Dead Poets Society comes to mind as I consider the role that relationships play in life. John Keating (Robyn Williams) says “And medicine, law, business, engineering these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance love, these are what we stay alive for.” This is a top-five movie quote for me and I wouldn’t dare alter it, but I find it valuable to use as a template for putting things into perspective. What’s that, you want an example? Here goes: “Being financially responsible, reducing clutter, meditating, these are worthy pursuits and necessary to live a balanced life. But engaging in deep relationships, this is what we stay alive for.” I don’t want to say that mine is better than Schuman’s, but its definitely not worse.

In recent years, I’ve become more aware of the ebbs-and-flows that my relationships go through. It seems that with each passing day there is more and more calling for my attention and thus it becomes increasingly easier to push relationship-maintenance to another day. This is a slippery slope. With each day that the relationship is ignored, the more comfortable it is to continue to ignore it. Before you know it you’re in the middle of a full-blown “falling out”. This is a technical term which refers to the situation in which two individuals who were friends, companions, family-members, or lovers in the past pissed on their relationship for a sufficiently long period of time to justify the termination of said relationship.

I’m not good enough at doing relations to offer any kind of advice on what works for others, but I can speak to what works on me. That is, the things that individuals I have relationships with do or say that make me feel like our relationship is being strengthened.

The first idea is something that I’ve probably always known, but was never truly aware of until it was presented like this: “They had only their secrets to give one another. Confessions were currency, and divulgences were a form of intimacy. Withholding details of your life from your friends was considered first a sort of mystery and then a kind of stinginess, one that it was understood would preclude true friendship.” That piece of literary brilliance is from Hanya Yanagihara in A Little Life and its transformed the way I perceive openness in a relationship. I still struggle with this but prior to reading this book I was of the mindset that sharing too much about oneself would come off as selfish. Of course, there is a time and a place for everything, and there is a stark difference between spilling your guts to someone you’ve just met and opening up to someone you’ve established the foundations of a relationship with.

(Almost) needless to say, the content of the divulgences is important as well. Sharing that you’re secretly an Olympic athlete who regularly hooks up with all the Victoria’s Secret Angels and has a five-trillion dollar net worth is not going to foster the recipient’s trust or comfort – two criteria that every strong relationship I consider myself a part of has. It’s not necessary that you self-deprecate in order to fortify a friendship, but humanizing oneself will often lend itself well to making others feel at ease in the relationship.

One profound way of humanizing yourself is to demonstrate vulnerability. Let your guard down. Ask for help. Admit that you’re struggling. Proudly share something that doesn’t come off as prestigious, impressive, or sexy. The person who only ever sees you at your best is missing out on who you really are. And by revealing only your best puts pressure on the other person to always be at his/her best. This act is something to be performed between acquaintances or colleagues – not friends.

Sharing secrets and demonstrating vulnerability will surely deepen the connection between two people. However, if genuine interest and compassion is not present in the relationship, these concepts are hollow. I’m in the process of re-watching Parks and Recreation (I swear I’m so busy I don’t have time for anything) and during a particularly memorable episode I paused the show and told my viewing-partner/fiancé to pay attention to a specific dialogue. After a brief series of name-calling, she abided. The main character (Leslie Knope) is trying to explain to her boss (Ron Swanson) why she’s frustrated with the guy she’s dating (Justin). Rob, who is discretely aware of the all the goings-on in his friends’ lives offers a brilliant dissection of Justin’s shortcomings: “He’s a tourist. He vacations in people’s lives, takes pictures, puts them in scrapbook, and moves on. All he’s interested in are stories.”

I treat everything that Ron Swanson says as scripture, but this is some next-level shit. You see, Justin is a super charismatic dude who wins over most people he spends time with. He’s an expert conversationalist who has incredible stories of travel and work. But there’s something off-putting about him. And Ron nailed it. Justin is a tourist. He doesn’t care about developing relationships for the intrinsic benefit of developing relationships. Instead, his interest lies in the extrinsic benefits – the connections, the stories, the parties, the diversity. At his core, he’s more interested in what he can get out of a relationship than what he can put into it.

Like everything I’ve written about in The Simplicity Series, I’m far from an expert on this topic. I’m guilty of bringing unnecessary complications to the relationships in my life – mostly due to over-analysis and under-action. However, I’ve made an effort to be aware of when I feel a particular relationship is going well and what myself or the other party is doing to contribute to this flourishment. The strategies I’ve shared are the nuggets that I’ve found. Divulging intimate information, demonstrating vulnerability, and doing so with genuine passion are the elements that have enriched the relationships in my life. This is not a comprehensive list of ingredients to create and maintain healthy, sustainable relationship, but I’m confident that adopting these will yield satisfying results.

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