Relationships as Covenants

Professor Jameson said very clearly that his church, evangelical and puritanical, was at the center of his family.  You could only understand them by understanding their faith in Jesus and their deep commitment to Christian doctrine.  His wife nodded.  His teenage daughters nodded.  Even his 15 year old son seemed to agree.

The occasion was an interview that I was conducting for a television pilot.  We wanted to explore—and celebrate, I thought—the great variety of American families.  As I began to explore Professor Jameson’s opening, there was a knock on the one way window that separated us from the camera man and the producer.  The producer was already bored.  The pilot needed something juicy in order to win over his audience.  He wanted to know how the parents dealt with the girls so-far-unexpressed dating desires.  I did too, I said.  Let’s see how a deeply Christian family deals with it.  He wanted to watch them negotiate or argue, which I already knew wouldn’t happen in public, if ever.

Over the next hour, the producer interrupted several times and I never got as deeply as I wanted into the specific covenant that bonded the family together.  That was about twenty-five years ago but I remember it perfectly because it spoke to an idea that has become thematic to me: marriages, families, organizations, and communities who are united by a belief in something beyond themselves, are more securely bonded than those who come together simply on the basis of mutual or negotiated agreement.

The origin of the covenantal idea is biblical.  For example, when Abimelech and Isaac decided to settle their land dispute, they made a binding agreement, a covenant, to live in peace.  When Moses brought the Ten Commandments to the Jewish people, their relationship to the Commandments was said to be covenantal, which I think means that the relationship with God sealed and strengthened the relationship between Moses, the secular leader, and his community.  Thus the Jews were said to be people of the covenant.

The best way to describe covenantal relationships may be by comparing them to what might be called transactional relationships.  In the law, these are written agreements or promises between two or more parties, generally “under seal” and concerning some performance or action.  Transactional contracts are quid pro quo arrangements.  I agree to do this if you do that.  If one of us fails, the other is no longer obligated to fulfill his part of the contract.  There is no assumed relationship, no necessary loyalty, and it can end when either chooses.

Free agency in sports is a good example of how this works.  The dramatic change in employer-employee relations, once a lifetime affair, ensured by loyalty to an almost family-style relationship, and now a matter of financial calculation, also illustrates the transactional style.

There can, of course, be common ground between the two types of agreements.  If, for example, both parties believe that the law, itself, is sacred, if the agreement is thought to be not only formal but also solemn and binding, then the agreement might be considered covenantal.  But in most cases this is not so.

The covenantal relationship is more like a three legged stool.  Two people or groups come to an agreement but another force is present.  It could be God.  It could be a shared sense of mission, a shared set of values—something larger, more important than the two people and the particular agreement.  If this is so, any breach in the agreement is a transgression, not just against the other party but also against God or sacred values.  In that case, you don’t violate the terms of the agreement very readily; nor do you leave the relationship with ease.

There is, however, a complicating factor in covenantal relationships: the assumption of free will.  As in a transactional agreement, a covenantal relationship must be elected.  You have to make a decision and, once made, you have to be all in.

The combination of a binding yet freely elected relationship has a paradoxical quality.  If you opt in why can’t you opt out?  How do you sustain the experience of permanence when you have free will?  I believe that solving this paradox is at the heart of virtually all spiritual and religious experience.  At the risk of extending myself way beyond my own understanding, let me propose a few keys to such a solution.

The first is a willing suspension of disbelief.  You simply insist, internally and externally, that the compact is forever—or, as they say, until death do us part.  During the marriage ceremony, for example, we are aware, cognitively, that divorce is a possibility, but we will ourselves to deny it.  The marriage is forever—and we believe it.

This brings me to the second key to sealing a covenantal relationship: ritual.  Over and again, rituals like anniversary celebrations and yearly religious celebrations of Easter,  Passover, and Ramadan consolidate our connection to past, present, and future.  They remind us emotionally, more than cognitively, that the covenant is eternal and sacred.

The third key is to hold both sides of the apparent contradiction—freedom of choice and permanence—together, in one hand, one breath, hold them so close that they touch and inform one another and no longer seem in conflict.

There is one last quality of covenantal relationships that I want to name.  In Hebrew, it is called hessed, which means loving kindness.  This speaks to the day by day quality of relationships, when discipline and spontaneity combine to bring generosity to one another.  By contrast, the binding power of relationships that lack hessed feels obligatory, tolerable, necessary, reasonable.  But not enhancing.  The very nature of obligatory relationships is that they are often bothersome and, in fact, unreasonable.  When that is so, the parties resist.  The thought of leaving can seem practical and relieving.  Leaving becomes easier.  Short of leaving, checking out, living within the relationship but without strong feelings becomes the norm.

When you combine the sacred quality of a covenantal relationship with free will and loving kindness, relationships become strong and life giving.  This is an idea—an image and a feeling—that has come to me late in life.  I could not be more grateful.

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How to Change Relationships

Sometimes I marvel at how little I let what I know interfere with what I want to achieve.  There are two small areas where the gap is most pronounced: relationships and politics.  For instance, I know that you can’t convince people to do what they don’t want to do, no matter how ‘right’ you are; but I have spent over forty years trying to convince my wife of certain obvious truths about her nature and mine with absolutely no noticeable effect—and no let up in my efforts.  If only the liberal world would put me in charge of persuading coal miners that their interests really rest in voting for progressive Democrats, I’m sure that my much ballyhooed run would continue unabated.

I spent my entire adult life laboring in the change business.  I worked with individuals, couples, families, organizations, and communities.  Not always, but often, I helped them succeed. Emboldened by my success, I gathered students and taught them about the mysteries of change, then garnished my hubris by writing books and articles on the subject.  That did not in the slightest alter my approach to political conversation: announcing the right approach, developing convincing arguments to prove I was right, and trying to pound opponents into submission.

At the ripe old age of (almost) seventy-five, I would like to offer a mea culpa and try to articulate some of the lessons I learned as a therapist.  Normally, I hate when psychotherapists grossly oversimplify the challenges of political change, but like the fool who goes where angels fear to tread, I’m going to try to defy the odds. Hence, Seven Principles to improve your chances of changing others.  If you follow them faithfully, you may well succeed.

(In the following, I will focus on changing individuals and trust my readers to apply the principles to families, organizations, and politics.)

Principle one: Meet people where they are.  Begin an encounter by understanding how the other person thinks and feels.  If people don’t feel understood—in a respectful way—they will close off any attempt you have to share new, no less uncomfortable information and ideas.  If they do feel understood, the sharing of ideas can begin.

By way of example, the only two people who really met working class White constituents where they were during the recent presidential campaign were Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.  They met anger with anger.  Candidates and constituents were hurt and furious at what they felt—not just thought—were the snobby, dismissive, and corrupt people who were running the country.  Because of this initial meeting of minds, Sanders and Trump gained credibility and had room to articulate their visions.

Principle two: Do not repeat the same old, failed solution.  We all do this.  When we are unsuccessful in solving a problem, we try again in pretty much the same way.  We may try a slightly new angle, use new words, but the “new” approaches are variations on the same damn theme we began with.  The people we’re trying to “help” or to change know what we’re doing.  By the fourth or fifth time, they have developed powerful defenses against any brilliant new variations we might try.  We are closed out.

At that point, the solution becomes the problem.  You say “here’s a better way to look at things” and they hear “you’re a dope” or “you’re bad” or “I want to control you.”  They don’t hear the actual words you say.  They hear the subtext—what they take to be your real intentions.  Now your ability to change them activates strong opposition—what we experience as closed minds.

Ask yourself: is your solution working.  If your honest answer is no, then get off that train.  Even when you feel yourself tempted to try another variation on a theme, like an addict yearning for a fix, don’t do it.  That leads to the next, radical principle.

Principle three: Give up.  Stop trying to change the other.  Once you have entered a control struggle of the sort that usually emerges when one person tries to change another, the only way out is to give up—really give up.  This will confuse your “opponent,” make him suspicious.  He will respond as if you had continued your normal argument, which generally brings you back into the fray.  Don’t take the bait.

Say the truth aloud: it’s clear that I can’t convince you.  You will have to say this a few times.  Then: “May I try to say what I think you believe?  Just to see if I understand you?”  If the answer is yes, then you articulate the other’s point of view and—here’s the key—ask the person to elaborate, so that you really understand, and so the other person feels in control of herself.  After his first tentative beginning, literally say “Say more.”  “I’m not sure I understand.”  “What do you mean by…”  Learning more and ending the control struggle is essential.

Inevitably, you will find inconsistencies and confusion in the other person’s perspective.  Have the good grace not to point them out.  Just ask about them.  Sincerely ask how he works out his confusion, because, lord knows, you have your own.  If he does explain, you know that you have met him at his home base and a real conversation can begin.

Principle four:  Identify the other person’s own efforts to change.  Every one of us tries to change all of the time.  Smokers swear off cigarettes almost every day.  Husbands and wives promise themselves to be kinder, more attentive, or more patient and try for a while—until they fail.  It is a truth of nature that all beings must adapt to changes in their environment—often in the service of staying the same.  Even though these change efforts are frequently unsuccessful, they do represent genuine purpose.  They do represent an internal imperative, every bit as much as a response to outside pressure.

Trying to change a person who hasn’t agreed to it is like trying to push over a sumo wrestler who set in his stance.  When people lack an expected stimulus, something new must replace it.  Joining the new thought or action in a person’s repertoire gives it greater weight.  Now you are encouraging change.

Principle five: Support the other person’s change efforts.  Once you have learned to identify a persons own, authentic efforts to change, support them. Say things like: I see; that’s great; may I elaborate your point.  Here’s an example:  some people almost always says no to suggestions but rarely (not never) offer alternatives.  We think of them as oppositional.   Suppose that person happens to say “Let’s go to the movies” or “Let’s talk.”  Such initiatives are out of character in the relationship.  Your job is to say yes.  Not “yes but”.  There should be no attempt to “improve” the proposal.

Just support what is new and see where it goes.  This is partly a matter of letting go, not being in charge each moment.  It may not improve your relationship right away but it will get you out of the rut, out of your ritual fights.  It will be different. Now, you are on the way to genuine change.

Principle six: Build on the change.  Once you are on your way, you need to be alert: don’t return to old behavior; carefully observe differences in the other—and in yourself; continue to support both.  Each new behavior is likely to give rise to yet another.  The reactive person who awakens to initiating, for example, might become bolder, more outgoing.  The person who is seemingly addicted to controlling the action, might grow more vulnerable.  In each case, it is up to you to recognize and embrace these changes.

Principle seven: Change yourself.  Here’s the irony: the only way to really change others is to change yourself.  As new behaviors multiply, and as you keep pace by changing yourself in response, you will find that a very new relationship has emerged.  Still not perfect but at least free from the struggle that had limited your ability to come together. Your are still the same people but with other parts of yourself in the foreground; and that transforms the relationship.  As the Vietnamese people like to say, “Same, same, but different,” and it’s the difference that counts.