I can be in a relationship with you. Or I can manage a relationship with you.
I much prefer to be in relationships. I enjoy relationships of many kinds — each with its own orbit, velocity and valence number. Some collegial. Some for pastimes. Some profound. Some airy, amusing and most entertaining. Some seen rarely. Some seen often.
A few in my inner circle. And only one one-and-only.
I like being in relationships. Forging, nurturing and growing trust, regard, advocacy, listening and sharing, loyalty, respect, and of course love. I like the teetering paradox of knowing and being known, yet also acknowledging the mystery of self and other which will always elude the “knowing.” No human being can ever be fully possessed by another’s head or heart.
For what other reason were we created than to be in relationship? Enjoying and respecting the intimacies, the delights, the dangers, the costs and benefits of being connected authentically to others!
I can be in a relationship with you. Or I can manage a relationship with you. I prefer to be in the relationship. But, if, over time, evidence suggests it unwise to be in relationship with you, and if our work, social circles or blood lines require us to sometimes or regularly be related (or at least in the same room) … then I will manage the relationship.
With a vengeance. I’m really good at it.
Now, let’s admit that, even in thriving, healthy, happy relationships, each of us learns over time some “management techniques.” Some artful politic that helps deflect, de-escalate, catch and redirect or duck and ignore that draining, maddening, never-gonna-change idiosyncrasy of your friend, relative or mate. I think of this as part of the work of love.
But, in some cases, we might have to consider the either/or. We might be faced with enough history of betrayal, inexplicable antipathy, ingratitude, selfishness, passive-aggression, disloyalty, envy, spite, etc., that we can no longer dodge the conclusion: This person isn’t my friend. Isn’t good for me. Messes with my serenity. Uses me. Belittles me.
You have a lot in common with Casper/ You both are really well-drawn cartoons/ Your animation is complete illusion/ Each frame is still, you only seem to move/ Neither of you is content with graveyards/ You both insist on always haunting me/ But one thing does distinguish you from Casper/ The difference is that Casper is friendly.
But we can’t just walk away. This person is a colleague. A boss. A relative. A co-worker. A member of your religious community. What to do?
We learn to manage the relationship, rather than be in the relationship. It’s merciful. To both parties. Quality relationship management shapes an insulating layer between you and your antagonist.
First, we surrender the expectation of thriving, mutual, reciprocal, respectful warm relationship. We lower the bar. We give up. We surrender. But we never announce this to the other party.
Second, we practice impeccable manners with this person. We initiate. We make eye contact. We make artful, inquiring small talk. Always take the high road.
Next, we greatly reduce or categorically stop revealing or sharing anything that really matters to us. We become opaque, but draped in such a well-mannered professionalism that we are experienced as warm, solicitous and engaging. But we stop asking for what we need, interpersonally speaking. We don’t initiate grievance procedures or reconciling dialogues.
We have learned that trying to talk about the difficulties in this relationship actually provoke those same difficulties.
Said another way, we have learned that “being authentic” in this relationship is contraindicated; it just makes it worse. So we shift our focus to being “authentically inauthentic.” Makes things more peaceful.
And, honestly, it helps me to ventilate my sadness. My resentment. When I have to manage a relationship, it always feels like a loss.
“But … but … that would make me phony! I’ve got to be honest in those relationships,” some might protest or insist.
Go ahead. Knock yourself out. But at least admit there is a cost/benefit equation here. What exactly do you expect to “make right” in the universe by confronting a doofwad with the fact that he/she is a doofwad? One of the diagnostic criterion for “doofwad” is “doesn’t take kindly to feedback about doofwadedness.”
Never use power you don’t have. Initiate difficult grievances and reconciling efforts only in relationships that you judge to have real potential, depth.
In other words, relationships that are really worth the effort.
Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Las Vegas Psychiatry and the author of “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing” (Stephens Press). His columns appear on Sundays. Contact him at 702-227-4165 or email@example.com.