Leo Tolstoy opened his famous story Anna Karenina with one of the most quoted lines in literature: Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
Let’s think a little about that. Is it true? Are all happy families alike?
And if it is true (Tolstoy was, after all, one of the most astute students of human nature who ever lived), then does that mean every healthy relationship of any kind is the same as any other of that same kind? Does it mean that a healthy relationship between any particular father and son is substantially the same as any other between a father and son? Are the dynamics inherent in a healthy relationship between a husband and wife essentially equal to the same sort experienced between any other happily married couple?
Is love really the same, wherever it manifests?
I think it is. As individual people, we can make a mess of our lives and relationships in ways so unique to us personally that no one could possibly imitate or duplicate. I can manipulate my child, or undermine my wife’s confidence, in a way that is inimitable.
No one can insult me like my own father; no one can hurt me like my own mother. No one can get under one’s skin like her sibling. No one can disappoint a parent like his or her child.
We dysfunction as we live—as separate, distinct individuals.
And yet, we can rejoice! For we love as God loves us. Filled with the love of the Lord, we love others in the only way love ever acts.
Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. It does not demand its own way. It is not irritable, and it keeps no record of being wronged. It does not rejoice about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out. Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance. (1 Corinthians 13:4–7)
That is true for every kind of love, between every kind of person. And that prompts us to look at the universal signs of a healthy relationship.
I am particularly fond of amateur theater. There’s just something I find touching about people coming together in their community to mount a play. After one such play, I experienced a display of affection that to this day moves me to remember.
I was backstage after a community matinee performance that featured a dear friend of mine. I was sitting off in a corner, watching everyone connected with the play interact in that happy, lively, pumped-up fashion folks do after the curtain has dropped.
Then, into the room came the family of a young man who’d had a relatively small but important role. They were a shy group-—until they spotted the object of their affection.
A young girl—the boy’s sister, I supposed—squealed, held out her arms, and ran to him.
The young actor’s mother beamed and followed her daughter.
The father smiled broadly and embraced his son in a hug that threatened to cut off his oxygen.
A teen near to the actor’s age—a brother or cousin—shyly offered his hand, then, too excited for such a modest display of affection, also hugged his compadre.
A little girl clung to the man’s leg. Another little girl—maybe ten—bounced on her tippy toes and rapidly clapped her hands together.
I was fascinated and deeply touched by this show of affection. It was so spontaneous, so real, so deeply felt.
Affection is love shown. You can always tell when one person loves another; they can’t help but in one way or another show it through body language, gestures, words. It’s loves very nature to express itself.
One of the most charming things in the world is to be around two people who respect each other. It shows in the gleam in their eyes when they look at one another, the readiness with which they laugh at each other’s jokes, the supportive tones in which they speak. There’s no mistaking respect for any other personal quality because no other quality looks and acts the same way.
Respect is crucial to relational health. But you can’t respect others unless you respect yourself. You can admire someone if you don’t respect yourself. You can envy them. You can crave their attention. But you can never truly respect them.
The reason? The degree to which you don’t respect yourself is the degree to which you will be unable to transmit to anyone else something as pure and steady as respect. It’s that painful, that simple, that true.
So, how do you learn to respect yourself? You see yourself the way God sees you. God created you and loves you; he’s proud of you. He sent his one any only Son to die for your sins; that means he forgives you. And Jesus has promised us everlasting life; that means he’s excited about all the good he knows is in your future.
Let God love you, and then make sure to extend to others the same respect God has given you. Respect others for who they are and for whom, God knows, they might yet become.
If you want to establish a good and healthy relationship with others, find out what values you share and then build upon those. Maybe it’s the job where you both work. Maybe it’s common family members. Maybe (hopefully) it’s God. But whatever it is, find it, claim it—and then start to build your relationship upon it.
You’ll never connect with anyone by osmosis—simply by being in the same room, attending the same class, or even living in the same house. That’s like expecting to get light out of a lamp that isn’t even plugged into the wall. You need to enter that person’s space, let them know who you are, and ask about them. Then, talk about everything. Your thoughts, feelings, joys, fears, hopes, disappointments, and so on. Healthy relationships exhibit strongly shared hopes and values.
I suppose if there was one quality I would wish defined every relationship in the world, it would be honesty. If two people are honest with each other, there’s no kind of woe they can’t survive. Hard and difficult passages come to everybody, but it’s those who are honest with themselves and their loved one who always weather them best.
Have you ever been in a relationship in which you can tell the other person isn’t being completely honest with you? There’s hardly anything else you can discover about your spouse, child, friend, or parent that hurts more than that they’re lying to you.
Dishonesty is poison in a relationship. That’s because lies never really go away. If you lie, you always know you lied—and that becomes a reality that does nothing but corrode everything it touches. As you hide the lie in your heart, it corrodes everything your heart touches—which means it corrodes everything in your life.
Be honest in everything you do, and insist on honesty from anyone with whom you share a relationship. This cannot be compromised or worked around. Honesty is to a relationship what mortar is to a brick house; without it, you simply can’t build. With it? The sky’s the limit.
Trust is an assurance of love. The people I trust in my life are the people I know love me.
It’s important to know that for someone to have my absolute and unswerving trust I have to know that they really love me. They can’t just like me. They can’t just be pretty fond of me. They can’t just think I look good in a particular suit or spoke well at a particular conference. No. They have to love me. Deeply. Sincerely. Honestly. Truly.
If you’re in a relationship with someone whom you should trust but don’t, think about why it is you perceive that person doesn’t love you. Have you done something to make it so they can’t? Has there been some misunderstanding that has reasonably led them not to love? Talk with them about it. Tell them you want to be close to them—that you want to share a real and solid love, so that your relationship can be everything that, at heart, you both want it to be.
Grow love. Trust will follow.
Freedom to Be
If you’re in a relationship where you don’t feel free to be and explore every possible dimension of yourself, stop and question why. Is it because you aren’t comfortable fully exploring yourself, or is it because you feel the other person would not be comfortable with you being yourself. If it’s the former, trust that God will always love and support you—especially if you’re seeking to make more of yourself or to more creatively or fully express yourself. If the reason you hesitate to be free expressing and being yourself is that you sense doing so would in some way upset the person with whom you’re in relationship, talk to that person about it. Share with them.
Chances are, you’ll be surprised by how open the person is to your being open with them. Sharing your uniqueness is one of the best ways to show that person how much you care about and trust them. It’s a very tangible way of putting your love into action.
Don’t be afraid to be you. And invite the people in your life to be the persons God created them to be.
Steve Arterburn is the founder and chairman of New Life Ministries and host of the #1 nationally syndicated Christian counseling talk show, New Life Live! heard and watched by 2 million people each week on radio and TV. Steve is the founder of Women of Faith conferences and serves as a teaching pastor at Heartland Church in Indianapolis, Indiana. Steve is a bestselling author of books such as Every Man’s Battle and Healing is a Choice. Steve resides with his family in Fishers, Indiana.