We have to get on with each other. We are all crammed onto this planet like penguins on a shore, jostling for position and seeking scarce resources.
It is maybe worth looking at some of the main causes of bad relationships, and how we can improve them.
When we lack something, we argue. We can fall short of time, or money, or space, or energy. Each of these resources, when we lack it, tempts us to carp at our neighbours.
There is always a tension between the attention other people want, and the resources available to give that attention. Often we feel guilt, and then anger. This is because we first feel that we fall short; and then, because we can’t bear to be in the wrong, we project that feeling out into blaming other people, and finding ways in which they are in the wrong.
For example, a business owner might run out of money. Initially, she feels guilty that she has let her staff down. In reaction, she may convert that into anger and complaints about how the government, business partners, staff, and suppliers, have let her down.
To keep relationships good, we need to be honest and accepting. If we accept our personal responsibility, then we have no need to blame others. We can still take action, but the blame element is not there, so relationships will stay good.
When we are pushed to choose, we argue. For instance, when the UK was asked to choose independence or membership of the European Union, it divided everybody, and people started to be rude about each other.
Life is full of situations with conflicting interpretations. When we are forced to, we humans are very good at polarising ourselves into in-groups and out-groups, us and them.
To keep relationships good, we need to understand both sides, despite the huge temptation to make ‘our side’ the ‘right side’, and ‘their side’ the ‘wrong side’.
Once scarce resources or controversy have separated us into groups, we humans start the business of stereotyping the enemy, making sure that our minds are clear that ‘they’ are bad, and ‘we’ are good and safe. You can see this in the Middle East, in Israel and Palestine, where, in a context of scarce resource and controversy, groups of ‘us’ and ‘them’ have emerged. Each group develops its own pattern of behaviour, and its own description of what ‘our side’ does, and what ‘their side’ does.
Whatever the right and wrongs of each side, other behaviours creep in which have no place in kind society.
To keep relationships good, we need to refuse to have enemies. This is difficult, because each side fears that, if they let their guard down, the other side will overwhelm them.
But this is the meaning of a saying in Christian scripture: ‘Love your enemy; answer damning comments with blessings; answer hateful behaviour with good actions; wish the best for people who are abusive towards you, and who try to make your life a misery.’ It is also the meaning of the Buddhist saying ‘May I accept the loss upon myself, and offer the victory to others.’
SACRIFICE AND RENUNCIATION
This does not mean that assertive action never happens. If we have to act to protect those who are oppressed, then so be it. And yes, we need to be assertive where a bad relationship affects our ability to help others.
But it does mean that relationships are generally best served with love, blessings, good actions, and wishing the best for the other. It also means that we are well prepared for relationships when we are prepared to set a premium on the other’s welfare.
Relationships can get worse when resources are scarce, and when pressurised choices are forced.
Once that happens, people polarise into sides, and start to think of reasons why the ‘other side’ is their enemy.
We can keep relationships good by being honest, accepting and understanding under pressure. When things get particularly bad, we can help by refusing to descend into hatred, and by putting others first.