When a house is sinking into the ground, a wise man doesn’t try to solve the problem by rearranging his furniture. No cosmetic change is going to solve the problem. Add a new coat of paint, some new fixtures in the bathroom, hang a lot of beautiful pictures, and the house will still fall down.
The only way to solve the problem is to attend to the foundation. When the foundation needs to be shored up, nothing else matters. The same is true for relationships. When they fall apart, it’s never because of surface factors. It’s not because you weren’t funny enough or didn’t dress well. Things wouldn’t have been fundamentally different if you’d made better eye contact or avoided making that one dumb comment. All these things are the equivalent of hanging pictures on the wall of a crumbling house.
To keep your relationships from crumbling you must attend to their foundation. The foundation of every sustainable interpersonal relationship is personal character. Relationships flourish or whither depending upon the character of the people within them. The stronger the foundation of character upon which the relationship is built, the more likely the relationship will last.
Cultivating the components of personal character: honesty, openness, compassion, moderation, and a rejection of the victim-mindset, makes it possible to develop trust. If you find yourself in a failing relationship, it’s best, as in all things, to go straight to the root by looking at the core character of the people involved.
Not all relationships that end are failures. Friends drift apart. Interests change. Time demands increase. Sometimes things just run their course. Mature people who’ve been dating sometimes realize they’re headed in different directions and dissolve the relationship amicably. None of these are truly failed relationships. None of these is a sign of a lack of character.
Failed relationships are those that decay against the wishes of the people involved. Situations where people get into repetitive patterns of abuse and anger and can’t get out, those are failed relationships. Families that fall apart and inflict damage on their children, these almost always owe their demise to insufficiently developed character on the part of at least one member.
The typical pattern in these situations, of course, is to focus on the faults of others. We insist they change, look for leverage to use to force them into being what we want. We manipulate. What we never seem to get is that these tactics, though they come naturally to us, don’t work. Flourishing relationships require doing the counter-intuitive.
What is counter-intuitive is examining ourselves. It goes against our nature to think that maybe what is at the root of our relationship failures is us. But, this is what is necessary for establishing relationships that last. At some point, we must surrender all our protests, drop all the smoke screens and look honestly at our shortcomings. This is the beginning of lasting connections.
One person’s willingness to examine his character is no guarantee that a relationship will last. It takes two. The sad rule of life is that while creating sustainable relationships requires mature character on the part of two people, one person can ruin a relationship all by himself. Sometimes working on your character means learning to stand up for yourself, to do what it takes to escape abuse, to hold others accountable. Working on your character makes it increasingly clear whom to let go of and how.
If you are in one of these failing relationships, investing time in your own character: owning up to your part in the destruction, being honest, temperate and modest is your best strategy. Improving you character won’t necessarily save your relationship. However, whether the relationship ends or continues, you’ll be stronger, better suited for the future. With a focus on improving your character, when you move on, you can be confident it will be it will be into a house whose foundation, this time, is secure.
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