There isn't one of us who doesn't possess enough pride to introduce poison into our relationships, especially into those that carry the highest value. Relationships that we cherish the most require vulnerability the most, and nothing produces a poison more toxic than the mixing of vulnerability and pride. Intimacy is scary even when solid expressions of love define our life experience, and it can be especially frightening when emotional, physical or sexual abuse is part of our story. We are hardwired for survival, and the will to live comes with a firm grip on control.
When that grip on control is excessively tight, it releases deadly poison that is toxic enough to numb the heart and neutralize the spirit of even the most loyal lovers of our soul. Superficial relationships are able to thrive without a loosening of this grip because they don't call for a level of intimacy that leaves us vulnerable. But that same grip can strangle the life out of meaningful relationships that operate out of authentic transparency and honest exchange.
The 3 deadly poisons released by our grip on control are:
1. The Poison of Retreat
"Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves." Rom 12:10
Battling through the pain of differing opinions, perspectives and expectations is a part of every relationship that consists of communication running deeper than shallow musings of faith, family and fitness. Resolving conflict is a healthy part of enjoying connection running deeper than superficial ties to work and ventures into the world. When this inevitable messiness of relationship threatens to loosen our grip on control, the increasing fear kicks our fight and flight response into high gear. If the darkness of this fear isn't overwhelmed by the light of love, we'll take flight even if our initial response is to fight. Fear will have us on the run.
Nothing harms a relationship more than disengagement because it triggers the greatest fear of our heart which is the fear of being unwanted. Rejection is the darkest and most painful emotion of the soul. In most relationships, the poison of retreat is first introduced in the form of emotional retreat. Unlike physical retreat, emotional retreat is not something we see keenly rather something we feel deeply. It's a poison that causes a slow and painful death, one that can leave the person left behind with little or no ability to cry for help in a way that is heard or that doesn't draw accusation of being too sensitive, too needy and paranoid.
Whether watching Julia Roberts leave Richard Gere at the altar in Runaway Bride elicits our disbelief or our discomfort, most of us can at least relate in some measure to her fear of commitment. As Maggie Carpenter stands in the departing Fed Ex truck staring expressionlessly at Ike Graham shamelessly and desperately running after her, we are reminded how a white-knuckled grip on control can drive us to run in retreat with a selfish cruelty that's cold enough to freeze us in our tracks.
On rare occaisions there are legitimate reasons to retreat in a relationship, but it's important that we honestly evaluate whether it's a retreat driven by humble love or prideful fear, and whether it's motivated by desire to serve or to be served. And if we retreat, it should be accompanied by an honest explanation that honors the relationship investment justly. The ending of a relationship should always be met with more, not less, attention than what it was offered at the beginning. We trifle far too carelessly with hearts. Love should always have us advancing toward greater care of each other even if it requires physically retreating.
2. The Poison of Resistance
"Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others." Phil 2:3
Even when we don't retreat from intimacy, pride can easily find us standing at a distance inappropriate to the value and investment of a relationship. It's a resistance to leaning in. Like the poison of retreat, it's driven by fear and pride, not humility and love. It creates space that doesn't allow for the offering of warm and kind affection, and distance that doesn't allow for the hearing of need. It erects needless walls of protection that don't speak prudence and propriety as much as they shout pride and prejudice.
Vulnerability involves both the confessing and hearing of need, and resistance to that need is a tool of protection in our arsenal of control. The closer we get to someone, the more we are met with wounds that cry for attention, insecurities that call for affirmation, and flaws that crave acceptance. These calls and cravings are a part of every person's soul, and because they require the opening of our hand to reach out in love they represent a threat to our control. They require the opening of our heart to humbly confess that we not only desire to meet these needs, but that we need help in knowing how to meet them. One of the best ways to detect that the poison of resistance is slowly killing a relationship is by the questions that never get asked:
How can I respond to you in a way that lets you know I care? What are the things I'm saying that make you feel devalued? When is the best time for us to talk about this? Can you explain to me why you are hurting? Will you help me to understand what's going on in your heart?
Everybody has a story, and sometimes that story is marked by survival that includes a death grip on the only power that hasn't been stripped away by abuse. It's unloving to underestimate the courage that's required for some people to embrace vulnerability. The poison an overly tight grip on control can introduce into a relationship is real, but it only causes more hurt when we try to nullify its painful effects with poison of our own. This excellent article offers helpful insight into those who infuse strong resistance into a relationship, a poison that cries at high volume for the antidote of humble love.
3. The Poison of Refusal
"Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed." James 5:16
Every healthy relationship involves an ongoing cycle of both asking for forgiveness and offering forgiveness. Whenever there is a refusal to enter fully into this cycle, deadly poison is injected into the relationship. This cycle of confession and forgiveness demands a humility that is impossible to grasp when we're clinging to prideful protection. Our grip on control will not only have us refusing to apologize, it will also have us strategizing how to satiate guilt and shift blame. It will turn us into a masterful gamer whose power plays ensure we always maintain the upper hand. Our disdain for vulnerability will turn us into a skilled marksman who fires attack with precision and into a sophisticated litigator with defense skills that make Robert Shapiro look lame.
The inevitable dysfunction that this poison of refusal creates is impossible to avoid, especially if the relationship is comprised of two people who both have their hand firmly gripped on control. Instead of addressing the relational dysfunction, most will find it easier to simply change the relational dynamic. In a marriage that may involve waiving true intimacy in exchange for peaceful co-existence, and in a friendship it may involve abandoning the significant in exchange for the superficial. But without both parties willingly entering into a cycle of humble confession and forgiveness, the dysfunction will continue even if the dynamic is changed.
When addressing relational breaches, I don't concern myself with who is guilty and who is innocent. Both bring their own vials of poison to the table. What I try to discern is where poison is being introduced without genuine repentance and without the antidote of humble love. In some highly toxic marriages, the poison of refusal has so saturated the relationship that the spiritual health of the individuals is what's at stake most. We can do grave harm when we fail to recognize when a situation is far too complex to be met with the singular goal of keeping a marriage intact with simplistic injunctions to love and submit.
It takes grace beyond measure to counteract the deadly poison of pride with the antidote of humble love, an antidote that has power to bring healing to even the most bruised and broken relationship. I'm as skilled at poisoning as I am at making war. I've demonstrated my desperation for grace in ways that I'm ashamed to admit, grace that thankfully proves again and again to be greater than our sin and more potent than our poison!