We are social creatures, and relating to other people in a solid and respectful way is not just how we learn about them — it’s also how we learn about ourselves.
Perhaps nothing impacts our personal growth more than the quality of our relationships. As inherently social creatures, our emotional, psychological, and spiritual development can only occur within the context of relationship. So, just how reverently we approach our relationships and how deeply we’re able to connect with an intimate relationship partner says a lot about where we are on our particular character development path.
Some years ago there was a movie titled Shallow Hal. It was a comedy about a man and his friend who approached all their relationships in a most superficial manner. The main character, portrayed by Jack Black, was so focused on a woman’s exterior physical attributes that he never even cared to glimpse the beauty that might define a person on the inside. Meanwhile, his buddy struggled with a huge self-image problem because of a birth deformity that he did his best to keep hidden; his superficiality in relationships served as protection from exposure and vulnerability. Both of these guys seemed happy-go-lucky characters on the outside, but they were actually quite miserable underneath it all. When Hal gets unexpectedly and unknowingly hypnotized into seeing only a person’s inner beauty, it begins in him a process of great personal transformation.
Like Hal, we all have to get beyond the superficial in our relationships and learn how to connect with others at deeper levels in order to develop solid character. (See “Connection: At the Heart of any Good Relationship”.) Relating to others in a solid and respectful way is not just how we learn about another person — it’s also how we learn about ourselves. Relating at deeper levels is both instructive and transformative. It is not generally an easy or a pain-free process. In fact, it can be really arduous at times. And, of course, you have to have already developed certain minimum character attributes to give such an undertaking a real go. Chief among these attributes are empathy and selflessness.
In Character Disturbance [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK], I talk about those individuals who are so lacking in their capacity for empathy and who are so egocentric in their thinking and focus that they simply can’t get deep in their relationships. Such folks tend to be disturbingly casual about their relations with others, caring mostly about what they can get from another that pleases or flatters them. For these reasons, they also tend to be abusive and exploitative, taking what they want out of a relationship and simply tossing it aside when they’re done. They never give depth a chance because they lack both the incentive to pursue it and any appreciation for what it could do for them. Such folks can be quite charming on the front end of a relationship, however, and the kind-hearted people they sometimes hook up with can get seduced by all the charm and attention they’re paid. It usually doesn’t take too long for them to realize how shallow their relationship really is, but sometimes they succumb to the erroneous belief that enough love, sincerity, and depth on their part alone can make things different.
So how does a person find depth in a relationship? You first have to be sure the right ingredients are there. You have to have rightly judged enough about a person and their character to know what their capacity is for genuine caring. Then you can both set about the business of nurturing and cultivating depth. In all love, there are levels of caring and mutual regard, and in the strongest of relationships there is not only a depth of caring but also a depth of knowing. Truly intimate partners know each other well — the good, bad, and the ugly — and in that knowing they also find beauty. Relating heart-to-heart and soul-to-soul is what deeper level connecting is all about. Such connection is itself beautiful. It’s also quite powerful. It takes work — consistent effort — but it has tremendous payoffs. It has the ability to make of an already fairly decent person an even better person. We always grow within the context of a relationship. When we have the courage to go below the surface and explore the depths, we provide ourselves with the opportunity of a lifetime: knowing true love.
All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on July 10, 2017.
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