Relationship by Intention

The idea of placing the people in my life on imaginary concentric circles representing tiers of intimacy, trust, and connection came slowly into my consciousness over a number of years. Much like a pair of binoculars, I adjusted the circular knob, bringing a blurry scene into crisp clear focus. 

A recent conversation with Susan, a new friend of ours, prompted me to think more deeply about how I came to be intentional about the people I let into my life, and the degree to which I invite them into my intimate physical and emotional space.  It started off as conversations do, talking about what we had done over the weekend.  In her case, a passion for music led her back to her hometown to listen to a duo playing acoustic blues. We quickly moved to the topic of our life philosophies.    

Susan shared with me what she called her life credo:

  • Choose  joy – life is full of unexpected wondrous moments if you choose to see them.  
  • Others can have only as much power as you are willing to give them – you are in charge of your happiness and even if people do not like you or treat you poorly, you can choose to be bitter or better. 
  • Don’t throw pearls to pigs – don’t share precious things with people who don’t realize the value, or your value.

I was immediately drawn to her idea of formulating a life credo.  What better way to treat yourself with significance than being very thoughtful about the principles that govern your assumptions, beliefs, responses and behaviors?

I loved Susan’s “straight up” expression of the biblical admonishment,  “Do not cast your pearls before swine.”  The full English translation of that verse from Matthew says, “Don’t give that which is holy to the dogs, neither throw your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet and tear you to pieces.”  While it is obvious that people who demonstrate the behavioral equivalent of trampling your pearls or tearing you to pieces need to be shown the exit door from your life, the more common, difficult and nuanced choices are about people who are decent human beings but may not fit into your life in terms of what is important to you and your well being.

My first memory of grappling with the subtle gradations of relationship health occurred when I was in graduate school.  It was there that I met a friend whose qualities of wit, creativity, and smarts I greatly appreciated.  Further, I valued her supportive nature. When the chips were down (e.g. struggling with statistics, concerned over finances, relationship frictions) there was no truer friend than she. Unfortunately, I began to notice a pattern toward myself and others in our circle of friends when things were going especially well for any of us. The reverse seemed to be true. When enjoying life’s victories (e.g. a plumb job offer, accolades on a team project, a new relationship), this friend’s energy, warmth, and support were noticeably lacking.

While my graduate school friend continued to pursue a friendship with me, I made a conscious decision not to continue the relationship.  I decided that an important criteria for the relationships in my life was mutual support in times of trouble and joyous celebration when good things happen.

Though my friend met the former criteria, she completely missed the boat on the latter.  On the flip side, I have also observed people who value others only for their successes.

Neither of the one-dimension type of friendships will make it through my screen. They will not exist on any friendship tier in my life.  This filter and ones I have added over time such as loyalty and trusting one another’s intentions have served me well in terms of valuing my own worth and bringing genuine pearls into my life. So, why think any more about it?  That pesky nudge to self-examine pierced my sense of satisfaction with what for all intent purposes is an approach which has served me well.

In her recent book, “Living Revisions” Elizabeth Jarret Andrew, author, writing teacher and coach says, “Writing is a revision, not just the text but the self; first the self.”  She goes on to say an open willing heart is necessary to move the reader.  So with an open heart and a spirit of self revision, I challenged myself to consider how my relationship filters may not be serving me or the people I encounter in my life as well as they might.

I have found when I am open and put a question out in the universe, answers emerge from many sources.  I no sooner posed the above question when my friend Ian, sent me a New York Times article by one of my favorite writers, David Brooks. In an article about the philosophy of “Personalism,”  Brooks gave me the fodder for the revision that I had opened myself up to. 

Brooks explains the foundational belief underpinning the philosophy of “Personalism” as recognizing the infinite and inherent uniqueness and depth of each person. He goes on to share three responsibilities associated with this philosophy. The first is the expectation that you see each person in their full depth, which includes their past and emerging stories versus the function they serve in your life. The second obligation is called self-gifting.  Given people are viewed as open wholes, they find their perfection in communion with other whole persons. Giving yourself as a gift to other people causes you to love and to also receive such gifts from others.  The final responsibility is availability: to be open for this type of giving and friendship. He acknowledged how tough all of these responsibilities are given our busy lives.  Being available for people takes time and intentionality.  Further, I would add that connecting with another person as a whole and giving of yourself, demands vulnerability and trust. 

Starting with an appreciative approach, I reflected on times when I practiced the responsibilities associated with “Personalism”.  In my first blog, “I See You,”  I shared an experience where, after many years of seeing a man in a cafeteria as synonymous with his function, I  saw him for the first time as a whole person.  In my second blog “I Hear You,”  I described an encounter with a young man where I followed my instincts and made myself available to listen to his story of heartbreak.  In both of these encounters I chose to be present, “self-gifting” if you will.  If I look at these examples through the lens of my relationship circles or tiers, I invited virtual strangers into my emotional space, if only for a time.  I believe in each case the other person was nourished by our moment together and I know for certain that I received a gift, the meaningful gift of connection with another human being.

Looking back, it troubles me to think that my search for the most profound experiences I could think of to illustrate treating others with significance, resulted in the choice of two experiences which happened years ago.  With a sense of uncomfortable curiosity, I wonder if my years of intense work focus or perhaps an overly tightly focused relationship filter may have caused me, and those I interact with, to miss moments like those described in my previous blogs. 

So circling back to my thoughtful value-based criteria for who gains admittance into my life and the relationship tiers which define the degree of closeness for those who do, I am committed to harnessing my uncomfortable curiosity, and revising my approach to relationships by being more present and open with others ranging from casual interactions to potential friendships. Like Susan, I will continue to honor myself by being thoughtful about who I share my pearls with, while taking more time to see what is fine and rare in others. 


Honoring Your Pearls

  • When you consider who you spend time with and who you share your deepest self with, to what degree are you treating yourself as having worth and value?
  • In an effort to treat yourself with significance, are there relationships you feel called to exit, invest in more deeply, or change or adapt in some way?
  • Make a commitment this week to act on relationship changes as you feel called to do so.

Relationship Sonar (Measure of Depth)

  • Read David Brooks’ article “Personalism: The Philosophy We Need”.
  • Reflect on the content of the article and consider the degree to which you live the three responsibilities he describes in his article:
    • Seeing others as whole persons
    • Giving of yourself to others
    • Making yourself available to others
  • Journal and or share with another person, the insights you gained from reading the article and reflecting on your thinking and behavior relative to the three responsibilities.

 Intention Inquiry

  • Inquiry within yourself and/or in dialogue with another person is a valuable method to gain clarity about your own aspirations and intentions.  Reflect on the following questions in an effort to hone your relationship intentions:
    • What values or criteria are important to you in your relationships? How do those values guide your decisions and actions about relationships?
    • Does every encounter you have deserve the same level of awareness and intention? Why or why not?
    • If another person shares aspects of their life with you, does that mean you need to share at the same level as that person? How do you decide?
    • Does being a good friend mean you need to know one another  equally?
    • What if you have enough friends already or simply feel you do not have the time or energy to nurture new relationships?
    • What are the advantages of having criteria for relationships, and for the degree of intimacy in that relationship?
    • What are the risks or costs of having relationship criteria?
    • Under what conditions do you give someone a second chance?
    • What are the implications of different types of friendships (e.g. for a season, reason or lifetime)? How do you invest in or show up in each?
    • What about people who do not reciprocate when you invest yourself in seeing them, being present, and sharing yourself with them?

Living Revision

  • Consider your insights from reading the articles, the inquiry questions, and concepts around your pearls. 
  • After reflecting on your insights with an open and willing heart, what calls you revise some aspect of your way of being in relationship to others?

2 thoughts on “Relationship by Intention”

  1. I enjoyed reading Relationship by Intention. It definitely hit a few cords with me. I have a group of women friends that we meet all together occasionally and I tend not to share anything too personal. I worry that one of the women will trample on my pearls. So I keep guarded and therefore the group encounter doesn’t blossom for me. I still enjoy the company but it stays at a certain level. I find that the encounters with strangers can be more rewarding for me than the people I call my friend groups. I work at a department store and the interactions with random customers can be more freeing than my friend interactions. So I am not sure I want to develop a relationship by intent. I have my family for that. My pearls are close to my heart and they don’t come off. Am I missing out? I am not sure. I am very social and appreciate all the people I encounter in my life. I just like to orbit around them.

  2. Hi Rae. As your friend, you have treated me with significance many, many times–largely–and most valuably–through the gift of your time and wise counsel, but also by making time to just enjoy one another (whether laying on the dock on Mad I or co-creating our cook group together). You also treated me with significance when we worked together–trusting in me, offering me amazing development opportunities, listening to my own counsel to you–I flourished at Cargill under your leadership and your treatment of me was a HUGE factor in that. It may have been “your job” and professional responsibility to do that, but let’s face it, most leaders and managers just don’t do this well, or at all sometimes. As for me, so much of what you describe above are things I am still working on and learning. The foundation of this truly is learning to treat yourself with significance (as you wrote about earlier) and believing you are worthy and enough just as you are. Thank you for making this space for important reflection.

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