a little r & r

With Valentine’s Day just around the corner, our thoughts turn to the importance of relationships, especially those we love.

I’ve done a lot of pre-marital counseling over the years, including administering the PREPARE-ENRICH Inventory that many pastors and professional counselors use. I won’t go into details here, but I’ve found its various categories in examining relationships very helpful. It registers both strengths and weaknesses (we all have both no matter how briefly or long we’ve known someone) for couples so they can affirm their positives while identifying areas they need to work on. PREPARE-ENRICH also helps couples learn what they already know, but didn’t know they knew, about their relationship. It draws on their best intuitions.

And yet, the strange thing I’ve discovered is how unprepared we all are in understanding relationships. Many couples and families only talk about their relationship to each other in times of trouble, if then. Often those conversations only pass along misguided wives’ tales, which turn out to be little or no help at all. Or they’ll pass their child’s question on: “Talk to your mother about that!” because their question hits a nerve.

One common mistake I’ve often seen with couples and have fallen into myself is when I think of my own marriage as a zero-sum game; in other words, where there always has to be a winner and a loser. If René gets her way, maybe I won’t get my way or vice-versa. It’s easy to thoughtlessly operate like this in a competitive, sports-oriented society like ours. We see in politics too, where neither side wants to budge, when bipartisanship would best serve both sides.

Yet, couples and families get it right when they replace zero-sum thinking and behaving with a “Win-Win” approach to their relationship. Yeah, this often means that each party or partner may have to compromise a little, but the outcome is far more satisfying.

And this is true not only for couples but for all relationships. For us men it often means we may have to be more flexible and not so rigid in our thinking. For women it often means not storing every mistake their husband makes in a gunnysack to club them with later. And this isn’t just true of cis-gendered relationships but in gay and lesbian relationships too. Conflict can happen in every kind of relationship, including at work or with an adversary. Life wins when everyone wins, even if everybody has to eat some crow and lose a little too.

Much too much is made of winning at others’ expense. Losing also has its benefits! In fact, I have found the scriptures more engaging and easier to preach when I identify not with the heroes, the winners in a story, but with the chumps, the losers, the sinners.

I’ll never forget the first time I beat my father in chess. I was recently out of Divinity School; but with all that education I still couldn’t beat my dad at chess, and we had played chess for most of my life. He had learned the game from the Iowa State Champion when he was young and was really good; I mean really, really good. He didn’t feel he was doing me any favor by “letting me win” as some false triumph.

But you know what happened after I beat him the first time? I discovered I didn’t want to play him anymore because it was too painful for me to realize I’d caught up with him. He was such a hero to me I just couldn’t accept the idea of beating him. I found in that moment how glorious it is not to always have to be successful, always have to win. Ironically, I came to appreciate him even more as a fellow human being, a fellow life traveler of mine in this all-too-short life.

The apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13:5, “Love keeps no record of wrongs.” Unlike Santa we aren’t to keep a naughty list against those who irk us or even hurt us. Yet, this is often only possible when we own those things we’ve done to hurt others, especially those we most love.

So, may we mark this Sunday’s Valentine’s Day with the understanding that our destinies are tied together and that when our loved ones win, we also win and when they lose we also lose. It’s the only workable solution to finding the love we give requited and peace in our heart; unless of course, we only care about ourselves and have a special affection for nastiness and chaos.

Love conquers all!