What Is a Relationship?


For a while I really wanted to know. I even invited people, if they had any ideas, please tell me. Most people -- including those who responded -- don't have a clue. It's a warm fuzzy for them, like religion.

I looked the word up in a dictionary, and found that a relationship is "the state or fact of being related," which (after dereferencing a couple more links) comes down to "a connection between or among things."

The trouble is, nobody ever uses the word in any context where that definition makes any sense. In their usage, "relationship" means something different than what my dictionary says it means.

So I wanted to know, what does it mean?

Here's what makes sense, based on usage:

Jesus

All my life I have attended churches where they say that "Christianity is a relationship, not a religion." But they never define what they mean by "relationship" and the word does not occur in the Bible. It obviously is not about a connection. God has a connection with the whole universe and everything in it, but the Christians who repeat this line are careful to exclude that kind of connection in their "relationship."

As near as I can tell, the word used in this context seems to be some sort of feel-good mantra, like "Jesus saves" or "It's a free country," which phrases most people seem to think need no definition.

The religion that they say Christianity is not, it easier to understand, because it's defined in the Bible: "Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world." [Jas.1:27] So the relationship that makes one a Christian (according to these people) does not involve visiting or helping widows and orphans, nor does it involve holy living. An awful lot of the Bible seems to teach rather the opposite.

Sex

Another use of "relationship" in the English language I saw defined implicitly. I was in a weekly Bible study attended by several Christians and one regular unbeliever. He kept throwing up these excuses why he couldn't believe, and one evening I asked him, "If I answer this one, will you become a Christian?"

He said "No."

"Why not?"

"Because I have this relationship."

Everybody in the room understood immediately that he was sexually involved with a woman, and he knew that he would have to give that up as a Christian.

I don't think the church people want us to believe they are sexually involved with Jesus or God.

Affirming

Sometimes I see the word "relationship" used in a context where I can see what is meant. This is easiest when somebody tells me that I have failed to meet the requirements of a relationship with them as a consequence of something I have done, and there is no indication of that failure in exactly the same circumstance but for the one thing I did. This tends to be repeatable, and the one thing that triggers this distinction is disaffirmation, saying something negative about the person to him (or her).

For the first half of my life my highest value was honesty, "telling it like it is" -- including the negatives. I do this with myself, too. Then I had one of those environmentally-triggered insights, an event that precipitated a new way of looking at things, and I resolved to never say anything negative about anybody to anyone, not even behind their back. This had a curious impact on my (ahem) relationship with my sister. Before that turning point, she didn't like me very much; afterwards, she tells me I'm her best friend, and it has lasted for 27 years now. The only change was to stop any form of disaffirmation. The people who seem to value "relationships" (as they use the word), when I unconditionally affirm them, they seem to feel like we have a good relationship; if I ever slip in a little honesty (criticism), BAM! It's over. The effect is often very sudden and very clearly tied to that criticism.

The founding pastor of a church where I was a member for several years put it quite bluntly: "Don't criticize." I can see that.

It would seem that these people do not have the dictionary sense of "connection" in mind when they say "relationship", but rather a particular quality of connection, namely one of unconditional affirmation. Any other kind of connection, and my consistent experience is that these same people who claim to value "relationships" will intentionally and actively take steps to destroy the connection.

So it appears that "relationship" is code for "don't ever criticize for any reason." There is no support for this policy in the Bible, but the folks who want this kind of "relationship" don't seem to know that. They see God as unconditionally "loving" them regardless how badly they behave. They believe and say it's in the Bible, but they never actually cite any particular supporting texts. I have read through the entire Bible several times looking for such supporting texts and never found them.

The problem I have with this definition is that these people most into "relationships" can't live what they teach. They criticize all the time -- just never to your face. The church is full of these hypocrites, and most of them admit it. And the Bible is full of holy men (and women) who were very willing to criticize (honestly). Jesus himself did it.

It is possible to affirm people without lying to them. I do that with my sister and everybody at church. But withholding truth is not always exactly honest. They forbid you to do that in a court of law, and God Himself is more honest than that.

Revenge

The never-criticizers seem to allow themselves one special occasion of honesty, when they are angry. Anger is one of the Seven Deadly Sins, so of course few will ever admit to being angry, and accusing anybody of anger is completely out of the question. Except when they are in one of those moments of honesty. Then you get a whole boatload of criticisms.

One person described it to me as a "gunny sack" that you carry around and stuff all your resentments and frustrations into, so you can smile hypocritically and politely affirm the jerk who is annoying you. All that hostility sits there in the gunny sack festering and rotting, and when the sack gets full, it just comes spilling out all over everything. After the bag is empty again, you can go back to being nice.

On further analysis, it appears to me that the honesty these people allow themselves is generally triggered by and in response to excessive honesty from others. In other words, it is a form of revenge. They even explain God's criticisms of the wicked as the same kind of vengeance. Of course God is allowed to do that, but we are forbidden. Unless we are "not" angry (only seems like anger to anybody watching what's going on), then it's payback time.

Jesus Again

So now I wonder. Is this policy of unconditional or semi-unconditional affirmation what people really mean by "relationship"? Or is there something else?

Sometimes people seem to want me to believe that "relationship" involves multi-dimensional interaction on many levels and in many colors, but they never use the word in any other way except where it can be understood as a synonym for unconditional affirmation. Is their "relationship" with Jesus nothing more than the imagined supposition that Jesus will never criticize them?

I guess Jesus won't be seen to criticize if they don't read their Bibles too carefully -- most people hardly read the Bible at all -- or if they see all the affirmations in the Bible as directed at themselves and all the criticisms as directed at other people. That might be a nice post-modern hermeneutic, but it cannot be sustained from the Bible itself.

So I wonder. Is this policy of unconditional affirmation what people really mean by "relationship"?

I really want to know.
 

Day Star

Fred Heeren writes and edits a quarterly magazine Cosmic Pursuit aimed at addressing ultimate questions from a scientific perspective. After writing the above analysis, I happened across his defense of Christianity, titled "Does Christianity Offer the Best Reasons for a Moral and Meaningful Life? -- Yes!" He identifies three different kinds of interpersonal interaction, which he calls:
1. Manipulative relationship, exemplified by the slave/master relationship,
2. Contractual relationship, in which each party agrees to the deal in order to get something from the other, as when an employer gets a service performed and an employee gets a wage, and
3. The highest relationship, where each serves the interests of the other.
His "highest relationship" certainly fits the Christian love described in the Bible. Perhaps that's what people would like to mean by their use of the word. I would find this definition more convincing if they actually acted like that's what they meant. The trouble is, everybody who uses the word "relationship" in such a context seems quite reluctant to be considerate of the other person's interests; they break it off when their own perceived interests are not being served, which is at best Heeren's level 2.

Perhaps Heeren's level 3 is only a Platonic ideal, practiced by God and almost nobody else. I think I met somebody like that once or twice. They never talked about "relationship".

Mary Cooper offered a particularly insightful comment on this essay, which I share with her permission:

In my žrelationshipÓ with my husband I know what he likes and dislikes, what grieves him and what makes him happy and those are the things that I try to do or not do.
Another of of my readers mounted a heroic but sentimental defense of the warm-fuzzy-not-quite-dictionary definition (which I already showed here to be inaccurate and misleading) as a Christian value. I call such efforts as his "Relationshipism" because scant Scriptural support might be found for many of his ideas and none at all for the most crucial of them. I refined my own thinking in a different direction, with quantitative Scriptural support, in The God of Truth.

Continued verbal combat with this fellow brought into focus the contrast between his Relationshipism and one of the central teachings of the Bible, the First and Second Great Commandments (1+2C). Relationshipism (the fixation on "relationship", nevermind what definition you give it) is inherently selfish. Like Heeren's level 2, it is concerned with personal benefit, not the benefit of the other party (1+2C). Relationship is inherently and necessarily reciprocal; 1+2C is unilateral. God can righteously command 1+2C because you alone are responsible for obeying it. If God were to command "relationship" (any definition of it), then your moral culpability is contingent on the other party; if they chose not to obey -- we are all sinners, we all fail one time or another to obey 100% of God's commands -- then God has commanded what you cannot obey, which makes God Himself immoral. Some people have that kind of religion, but I can't find it in my Bible.

Killing It

One thing I have noticed about these people who talk about "relationship" is that when they decide to end it, their value system does not seem to allow them to take responsibility for their decision. The "relationship" is already over, but they want to pin the blame on the other party. So the criticisms start to escalate. Yes, criticisms. Maybe they hope the other person will get angry at the abuse and do something antisocial (like responding in kind), which they can then blame for the termination. Or maybe they are already so not-angry themselves, that they are operating in revenge mode, not even thinking about their irrational actions. I cannot tell which, nor if there might be some other mechanism at work. My guess is that they cannot even allow themselves to admit honestly to themselves what they are doing, because it violates their own ethics.

Another person in the same situation, more honest but with a different ethical value system would simply say, "It was fun while it lasted, but you are no longer useful to me, so I'm out of here." I suspect the "relationship" people feel that way too, but are forbidden to admit it. However, if they can shift the blame to the other party, by whatever tortured logic or fabricated cause, that presumably absolves them of any guilt for violating their own ethics. Me, I prefer the honest person's direct method.

In any case, I have seen this happen several times. It's not fun being on the receiving end.
 

Tom Pittman
Revised 2007 August 8
Revised again 09 April 24