Destructive relationships are increasingly common in our times. Unbridled egoism and hedonism are largely responsible for this. Now, I wish to be clear on something: It’s perfectly natural to want to feel important and to seek pleasure in life. However, too many folks these days pursue these ends too rabidly, and without sufficient ethical mindfulness. They aggressively “chase highs,” feeling that life owes them nothing but a good time. (For more on this topic see: Hedonistic Thinking.) And they too often build themselves up at the expense of others. These behaviors play key roles in character dysfunction.
Now, we are inherently social creatures. So, most of what we do takes place in the context of relationship. Accordingly, nothing reveals our nature of our character more than the quality of the relationships we form. And these days, too many folks find themselves in destructive relationships.
Disturbed characters wantonly take what pleases them and too easily discard what causes them any distress. And they make themselves feel important and powerful by manipulating and dominating others. So, they typically form exploitative, abusive relationships.
I mentioned before that fighting is a big part of being human. But what largely bespeaks our character is how we fight. Disturbed characters are dirty fighters. They’ll do anything to win, so they often don’t fight fairly. They fight underhandedly, too. (Learn more about this in In Sheep’s Clothing.) And when caught, they’re quick to deny it. They’ll also do anything to build themselves up, including tearing down others. They fight for the things we all fight for (e.g., to survive, prosper, get ahead, feel important, etc.). But they do it in unprincipled and strictly self-serving ways. This is what characterizes destructive relationships.
Fighting for nothing but purely personal gain is quite maladaptive. As mentioned before, we’re inherently social creatures. No person is an island. Whether we know it or not, or appreciate it or not, we’re all connected. Accordingly, how we treat each other is what really matters. And ultimately, true success in life largely depends on how we’ve learned to relate to others.
Some things are well worth fighting for. Personal freedom, fairness, justice, wellness, are only a few of these things. But there’s a way to go about this enterprise that builds as opposed to destroys. There’s a famous quote that’s been attributed to several political leaders. It goes something like: “It’s amazing what can be accomplished when no one cares who gets the credit.” When you take ego out of the equation, and you serve only a higher principle or ideal, you can build something both beautiful and enduring.
In our age of narcissism and hedonism, building a better world is more challenging than ever. But the real building blocks of any great society are the relationships within that society. That’s why it matters how we conduct ourselves – in every relationship. Whether it’s our relationships at home, work, or in the community, how we treat each other matters. It matters a lot, and always has. And when fight hard for what is right and just and do so with mindful, principled concern, we necessarily create instead as opposed to destroy.
The Heart of Assertiveness
In Character Disturbance (and in all my workshops) I outline the difference between aggression and assertiveness:
Folks in healthy relationships seek to build something good and enduring. That takes patience, devotion, commitment, and especially, mindfulness. (For more on this see: Self-Mastery Requires Mindfulness.) Forging a constructive relationship has always been challenging but these days it’s particularly so. That’s why embracing and mastering the “commandments” I’ve been talking about is so important.
In the coming weeks I’ll be illustrating through several examples how unscrupulous fighting produced some truly destructive relationships. But I’ll also be sharing some stories of how folks embracing the principles I’ve been talking about were able to build something lasting and beautiful in their relationships.