I grew up surrounded by unhealthy relationships. Up until the age of ten, I thought it was completely normal for dads to sleep on the couch and moms to cry in the closet. So I have spent my whole life trying to figure out what love is.
Disney ruined me early on with its picturesque happily-ever-afters where there’s a handsome prince and a beautiful princess and all they have to do to get together is defeat a dragon or an angry town mob. This is love, I thought: beautiful, perfect people finding each other in a hopeless place.
But in all the friendships and romantic relationships I’ve been in, I’ve found the biggest obstacle to happily ever after isn’t outside of the relationship, it’s within. The hopeless place is inside of me--it’s my mess, it’s the other person’s mess. And when two messy people come together, it doesn’t make for a perfect fit. If anything, two messy people magnify each other’s messiness.
There is nothing like relationships (familial, romantic, platonic) to make you realize just how flawed you are. Finding love can feel like looking for a needle in a haystack with both hands tied behind my back and the wrong contact prescription--I end up getting poked in the eye a lot and nursing a headache the rest of the day. Love is already messy, and I bring into an even bigger mess of my beliefs, insecurities, expectations, desires, and habits that distort how I see others and how I see myself.
So rather than giving you my personal, distorted definition of what love and healthy relationships look like, let’s look elsewhere:
Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins
1 John 4:7-10
This is a pretty audacious claim, that “God is love.” Whether or not you believe that to be true, we can still find two key elements in the passage that help us understand what love looks like.
Commitment (AKA “What we all want but are scared to give.”)
God demonstrates His commitment towards people by initiating even after He had been rejected time and time again. God sent Jesus not because we loved him (in fact we did the very opposite), but because He loved us and was committed to us. And moreover, it was not a one-time decision to commit, but a consistent action. It says that because of what Jesus has done “we might live through him,” implying an ongoing relationship rather than a one-time transaction. God’s grand gesture of dying on the cross isn’t just about a one-time forgiveness of sins or a get-out-of-hell-free card… God’s love comes with an invitation; He doesn’t force His love on anyone but recognizes both parties have a choice. They have to choose to be in this ongoing, committed relationship.
We have so many relationships built on convenience or passion—we became friends because we have five classes together, we fell madly and wildly in love, we’re family because we share DNA. But if you’ve ever moved and seen close friendships disintegrate, or realized that shared DNA doesn’t necessarily make for a good relationship, or had the painful experience of falling out of love, you’ll know these things aren’t enough.
Commitment says, “At the end of the day, I’m still in this. I am choosing to be in this. And even if circumstances change or you gain twenty pounds or have a really bad day or bad month, I’m still going to be here.” And in healthy relationships, both parties are equally committed. Not just once, but day after day, they choose to be dedicated to the relationship.
Commitment is a scary word in our culture, because it isn’t easy and comes at a cost. But I think, deep down, we all desire to know that there is someone at the end of the day who won’t walk away, no matter how hard things get.
Vulnerability (AKA “I want to the ground to open up and swallow me, please.”)
Vulnerability is risky because it means giving someone the ability to hurt you. It is where you let yourself be seen, flaws and all, not knowing how the other person will respond. For me, vulnerability is allowing someone to see the parts of myself that I hate the most—the insecure, the selfish, the ugly--the parts I don’t even have the capacity to love.
Vulnerability is also risky because you are investing--time, emotions, money, effort--without the assurance of a return. It means giving, not to get something in return but out of love for the other. It is putting the well-being of the other person above your own, seeking to honor their needs above your own. The problem with this is I usually only like meeting the needs of others if my needs are met first. But vulnerability means investing and giving and allowing yourself to be seen--no strings attached.
Whether we are aware of it or not, we grow up collecting data about what it takes to be lovable. Be kind. Be beautiful. Be strong. Be independent. Be accommodating. But rather than having to do/say the right things to earn love, the Bible’s definition of love says that it is freely given. While we were huge messes, seeing all of our ugly, Jesus still chose to come and love us and pursue a relationship with us. And not only did he acknowledge and accept our vulnerability, but he brought to the table his own: God allowed us to reject Him, call Him names, to put Him on a cross. And being God, He knew that was going to happen. He chose to love, knowing that he would be rejected--I don’t think there’s anything more vulnerable than that.
Healthy relationships exist when commitment and vulnerability are present in equal measure from both parties. No relationship is perfect. Because we are imperfect and broken people, we are bound to slip up, to be selfish, to make mistakes, to fail each other. That’s why the best relationships, the most rewarding ones, will take a lot of work. But it pays off.
In healthy relationships, two things happen:
1. The best relationships leave you better than before.
This isn’t the “Man, I wish he would stop wearing socks with his flip flops” kind of change, or the long list of things we find annoying about the other party. I believe love does change people for the better, but true change never comes from the other person demanding it. It’s only when we have the security of knowing we are loved in spite of our imperfections--only when you can let go of who you think you need to be for people to love you)--that you start becoming who you actually are.
In a healthy relationship, the best parts of you get magnified, and the rougher edges get smoothed out. You change, not superficially, but in the deepest sense—you become a little less selfish, wiser, kinder, more hopeful, more aware of your passions and purpose and place in this world.
2. Healthy relationships multiply your capacity to love others.
They don’t leave you drained with no energy to give to anyone else or demand all of your focus and attention. They don’t leave you more insecure about who you are and what you have to offer. The healthiest relationships are the ones that give you energy and hope and purpose that you want to share with others around you. They don’t just exist for the pleasure of the people in the relationship, but they are about a shared purpose, vision, or passion. A healthy relationship doesn’t just transform the people in it, but it transforms the world around it, leaving it a place that is a little more hopeful, a little more loving, a little less weary.
I believe the best sorts of love we get to experience—through family, friendships, romantic relationships—are really just echoes of a much greater love that we are invited into. I’ve been in a relationship with God for thirteen years now, and I can truly say that there is nothing like it. And when I’m faced with chaos that is in my own heart and the world around me, God’s commitment and demonstrated love for me in the midst of my mess gives me hope for all the other relationships in my life.