Tending The Garden—Practical Tips to Building Healthy Relationships

Do you want more from your relationships? Are you feeling drained in some way by your relationships? It’s easy to fall into patterns that cause us to feel like our relationships are lacking—whether it’s friends, family, or significant others—but thankfully there we don’t have to get stuck in this place. 

The theology of the body reminds us that building the Kingdom of God is mostly about doing everything we can to make our relationships as healthy, holy, and intimate as possible. That means committing to living out the Christian vision of love in all of our relationships. While the world believes that loving someone means putting up with however they decide they want to treat us, the Christian vision of love insists that we have an obligation to always work for the ultimate good of others and to expect others to work for our ultimate good as well.

Because of sin, we often fail in that mission to work for each other’s good. People who say they love each other hurt each other all the time. When this happens, the loving thing to do is to gently call each other on to do better, to repent of the ways we have betrayed our mission to work for the good of those we love, and support each other in cooperating with God’s grace so we don’t commit that offense again.  When someone refuses to do this, we have a moral obligation–rooted in both our basic right to self-defense and the divine call to work for the ultimate good of others–to set limits and boundaries that make it more difficult (if not impossible) for the person who hurt us to hurt us the same way again. Practicing sacrificial love doesn’t mean being a doormat, or allowing others to treat us in a manner that is beneath our dignity as children of God. It means being willing to make the sacrifices necessary to work for each other’s ultimate good, even when it is hard, inconvenient, uncomfortable, or costly–those are the sacrifices that lead to our sanctification and call others to healthier, holier lives.


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Here are three ways to build healthier, holier relationships:

Pull the Relationship Weeds–Healthy relationships allow you to be real and not hide important parts of yourself. Relationships are often a source of stress because we feel like we have to hide important aspects of who we are for the sake of “keeping peace.” That’s backwards. Relationships aren’t an end in themselves, Theology of The Body reminds us that God intends for our relationships to serve the mutual good of the people in those relationships–to help each person in those relationships be more of what God created them to be, not less. To build the kingdom of God in your relationships, be who you are. The people God wants you to create communion with will stick around, support you, and ask for your support. The people that can’t handle the “you” God created you to be will drift away.  Let them go. Pulling the weeds in your relationship garden will allow all your relationships to flourish and bear more fruit as you spend time with the people who are really capable of building you up!

Speak Up Sooner Rather Than Later–When people act in ways we find hurtful or offensive, we often let it go, telling ourselves it isn’t worth the trouble to address these issues and create potential conflict. While there is something to be said for choosing our battles, if you find that an offense continues to gnaw at you, speaking up sooner rather than later is always best. In the words of Pope St Gregory the Great, “Thoughts seethe all the more when corralled by the violent guard of an indiscreet silence.” The best way to address an offense? Don’t assume they intended to offend you and ask a clarifying question. Something simple like, “Hey, when you did thus-and-such, I wasn’t sure what to make of that (or it kind of hurt) what did you mean by that?”  Once the other person explains their intention, you can either decide that it was all just a misunderstanding and let it go, or suggest other, more palatable ways the other person can express themselves in the future. Anyone who is interested in a healthy relationship will not be put off by this at all and, in fact, will be grateful for the opportunity to enjoy smoother sailing in the future!

Good Fences…Good Neighbors–Each person we know is good at offering a different kind of support. The key to less stressful relationships is not trying to make a person give you a kind of support they just aren’t capable of. Some people are great at being kindred spirits. Others are good sources of support or companionship around particular topics or areas of interest. Others still, are fine to hang out with occasionally, but aren’t really capable of offering anything more personal support. Enjoy each relationship for what it is, not for what you think it should be. Base the level of trust and intimacy you expect from a relationship on a person’s behavior, not their title or role in our lives. Sure, we “should” be able to be closer to, and have greater trust in, a parent or sibling or than a friend or a cousin, but in reality people are only capable of giving what they can. Having good relationship fences means knowing what each person in your life is capable of giving–and receiving–from you, and refusing to try to force more than this from them. Focus on enjoying the ways each person can be there for you and you’ll feel less frustrated by the ways they aren’t.


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