People who are in a relationship sometimes have their judgment clouded by the intense feelings that surround every relationship dynamic. For instance, recently a girl friend started dating a boy who does not treat her with the respect and kindness I think she deserves. When I pointed it out to her, she says to me,
“But he tells me he loves me all the time!” She describes how he plans elaborate romantic gestures, singing her love songs, cooking abundant feasts, and lavishes his appreciation of her often. She rushes her words out—her tone eager and defensive.
I notice that she seems to look exhausted all the time.
“My boyfriend wants me to spend every waking moment with him. He loves me so much and even though I am tired after work, I try to spend my evenings and weekends with him. It’s a way of proving my devotion.”
This friend trusts and confides in me some of her deepest views of life—issues, opinions, and how she has changed her mind on some important values.
“Have you talked to your boyfriend about these ideas?” I ask. No, she shakes her head in resignation,
“I know he doesn’t agree with me, and I don’t want to cause conflict between us, so I just keep quiet. I mean, our relationship is going so well thus far, I don’t want to ruin it.”
At this point, I am fairly certain this relationship is not indeed going that well, but I don’t say as much. Instead, I gently suggest she ought to be able to bring her true and authentic self into this relationship. I insist her boyfriend ought to love her for who she is.
“He isn’t perfect, nobody is. This is a test of my commitment and character. How much am I willing to sacrifice for the sake of a greater good. Everyone I know loves him and sees good in him. I just need to stay positive and look at the bright side. Besides, if I leave, I will be alone.”
I hope you see, as I do, that there are several red flags in this relationship. If you feel, as I do, a knot in your stomach, feeling sick for this girl and want to know whether or not she did in fact walk away from this relationship, well, I couldn’t tell you because she isn’t real.
As in, she is fictional. I made her up.
But if I really did have a friend who I cared for even a little bit, I’d be telling her to run. I’d assure her she would never be alone because I and other friends would surround her in support, and I’d encourage her to find someone who would love her for who she is. A healthy relationship doesn’t look like that. Hard times in a relationship looks like mutual wrestling as whole persons, it is not an abuse of power from one over another.
Although this is a fictional account, I created this scenario from actual conversations with people who are in spiritually unhealthy communities. I have been a part of churches where pastors preach love from the pulpit, their wives bustle around coordinating potlucks, and every Sunday they display elaborate demonstrations of praise and worship on stage. But behind the veneer of love, they quietly make phone calls alienating members who are deemed “sinners.” In a profoundly twisted manner, they don’t see the disconnect between their words of love and their acts of hate.
I see friends running themselves ragged out of obligations to perform programs for the sake of the gospel.
Perhaps most devastating of all, is the story after story of people (myself included), who feel like we are not allowed to present dissenting ideas in Christian communities. We minimize ourselves in order to keep peace and because we simply know we won’t be understood.
This is not a healthy place and certainly not conducive to a healthy relationship. We counsel others to leave and yet we stay.
Friends, I know it is more complicated than this. I know participation in a Christian community is different than individual relationships. I know my metaphor isn’t perfect.
But I say enough. I’m not talking about inciting a revolution. I am saying it is time to dare to be yourself. To engage dynamically with our communities with all of who we are, with our truest ideas, identities, and our evolution of faith. To demand to be loved for our realest self and ask that the love preached from the pulpit be transformed into action that is meaningful to us. To sacrifice wholeheartedly in mutual commitment with our churches, and not allow our souls to be sucked dry, giving constantly without self-care.
And if you’ve tried all these things and he still acts like a jerk? Walk away and never look back. You can do better.
We need you whole.