Rubbing Elbows, Linking Arms, & Holding Hands: The Art of Healthy Relationships
Knowing your sphere of influence and understanding your boundaries within that sphere is critical to having successful and healthy relationships.
Jesus Christ is a great example. He had a throng of followers, but only twelve disciples. Within those chosen twelve, only three were part of His inner circle: Peter, James and John. And within those three John was the most intimate of any. Jesus loved them all, but related to each differently, and at different levels.
Loving others well does not equate with intimacy, nor does it obligate us toward it. Learning to define our boundaries with others teaches them how to treat us and how to relate to us. Jesus taught us exactly what love is and how to walk in it. He demonstrated this effectively in every relationship He had.
• He accepted people for who they were, and their God-given free will. (He never forced anyone to follow Him or believe in Him)
• He was genuine with every person (He did not change for people. He remained true to who He was).
• He established boundaries with others–often verbally. He spoke, acted or refrained accordingly.
• He gave invitation toward intimacy with those He chose.
• He always showed kindness. He did not shun others or make them feel unloved or disrespected.
We often define those we know in simple categories such as family, friends, or acquaintances. It’s when these roles overlap that things can often become complicated. Establishing healthy boundaries in our lives allows relationships to easily fall into place. We teach others how to treat us by how we interact with them, and at what level. Sometimes, other people who do not have these boundaries clearly defined in their own lives can often cross over ours, putting us in a position that is uncomfortable or even inappropriate.
I love people. I am a very social person, and by nature I’m given to transparency. I love to share my heart, my thoughts, and become intimately acquainted. Therefore, I’ve had to establish my boundaries with people carefully. Throughout my adult life, God has had to teach me clearly defined boundaries for different types of relationships, how to apply them effectively, and with whom. He’s taught me how to love and what that really means in a practical way. If our definition or understanding of love is skewed, we can often feel obligated to others in ways that are inappropriate.
Early on in life, during my late teens (when I was beginning to discover my purpose and identity), I didn’t have a strong grasp on these unspoken territories. I was still learning, and I was still being introduced to people from every walk of life. Sometimes, you just haven’t lived long enough to know how to interact with certain types of people. So, I treated everyone the same by default. Erroneously, I concluded that I was ‘loving others’ as Jesus commanded. As a result, I did not understand why people might not reciprocate, or why they chose to put me out of their inner circle. Rejection, even when it is not overt but rather implied, hurts. I had to learn what love really was, and how to establish boundaries for many different types of relationships. Loving other people effectively does not always obligate us to intimacy. When Christ taught us to love others, He’s talking about following these basics (see 1 Corinthians 13).
• Showing them kindness (we are not rude and we do them no harm; we do right by them)
• Demonstrating patience (we are long-suffering; we bear long with them)
• Respecting them for who they are and what they believe (even when we disagree)
• Accepting them for who they are (meaning we do not try to change them)
Loving well means we treat people as we want to be treated: with kindness, respect, and acceptance at the most base levels. Loving well does NOT mean we are obligated to share the intimacies of our personal lives, nor are we obligated to trust them with personal things or issues, or enter into a close relationship with them. We interact with them according to the boundaries we have established for ourselves, and in this way we teach them how we want to be treated and where they stand with us. People who are mature will pick up on these signals or cues. Others who do not understand these boundaries, often have few for themselves, and will many times attempt to cross boundaries or make inappropriate advances. When people do not respect our boundaries (for whatever reason), they are showing us that they are not trustworthy.
Always respect the boundaries of others. And learn to develop your own, demanding that same respect.
Have you ever met someone who unveils themselves all at once? They go from complete stranger to ‘best friend’ in a matter of minutes. They share inappropriate things with you that you wish you didn’t know, putting you in a very uncomfortable position that demands a response–one you are not obligated to give. I call it ‘getting naked’. They literally undress their soul in front of you. Their life story unfolds rapidly. Suddenly, this person is someone you wish you didn’t know, and cannot relate to. Subconsciously you begin to conclude things about this person such as their lack of judgment and discretion, how trustworthy they are with private information, whether or not they are emotionally stable, and whether or not investing in a relationship with them is worthy of your time and energy. Such people are often high maintenance, and if you choose to tag along with them, you may not get out easily.
We quickly discern such matters about people in a few seconds. Those conclusions come by how people treat us, their nonverbal and verbal languages, and the information they share in any given context. Knowing how to deal constructively with individuals who cross boundaries indiscriminately can be difficult. Insecure people often overstep boundaries in an attempt to make vital connections with others. They are desperate for love and acceptance. However, loving these people well does not mean you have to reciprocate in kind. Instead, you have to know the boundaries you’ve established yourself, and apply them–often forcefully. By adhering to these boundaries, you will teach people who you are, where you stand, and how they should relate to you appropriately.
We are all different. And despite our differences, whether we are gregarious or introverted, there are certain universal social boundaries that we all learn to embrace. Few of them are overtly taught. Rather we are taught by those we encounter throughout life. They are our teachers. I call it rubbing elbows, linking arms, and holding hands.
We all rub elbows with people everyday. Our sphere of influence is often larger than we realize. The number of people you come into contact with on a daily basis is truly astounding, and many times indirect. These individuals are those we influence nonverbally with our gestures, body language, and cues. Verbal conversation is often minimal or nonexistent. We might make small talk. Depending on their gender, their professional position, or level of familiarity, we engage with them at different levels. We choose to either share or withhold information. Rubbing elbows happens all day long, every single day, with people of all races, ages, and walks of life. We meet them at the places we frequent in gas stations, grocery stores, and in the Starbucks. We may not know them, but we see them regularly. They are the frantic mother in the check out line, the guy who crosses our path at the street corner, and the lady who scans our items at the local grocer. Some we may see once and never again. Others are a familiar face. These are people we are polite toward. We are congenial. We smile, we say hello, and small talk is engaged. We enjoy their company for that moment, and we move on.
Linking arms is when a relationship brings about natural acquaintance. The word “with” is key here. It indicates that you’re doing life “with” this person. You’re walking side by side with them and there is a mutual agreement or need afforded. You see them almost everyday or at least once a week. You work with them, you go to church with them, you’re in the book club with them, and you’re in meetings together. Whether you like them or not, they’re not going away. Therefore, you are obligated to get to know them, learn how to effectively interact with them, and respect their boundaries. To what level will often depend on the context of the situation, making the option of close friendship either available or inappropriate. These are people we can begin to disclose ourselves toward in ways that bring invitation. We often show them interest and begin to engage. If that is reciprocated, things can progress toward friendship, which often takes place over time. We may know these people well and enjoy lunch dates at work. But they are not necessarily individuals who know the privacy of our personal lives, or our most intimate secrets.
Holding hands is when we do the intimate friendship thing. The word “in” is key here. We are “in” relationship with these people. These are our best buddies. We do life together on a whole different level. We know where they live, their alternate phone number, their favorite foods, and how they like their tea. We may have the key to their house, the code to their alarm, and sitting privileges with the kids and family pet. We know exactly what gift would send them over the moon, and we can call them anytime day or night. We become privileged to information no one else knows. They are the first person we tell when we have great news or a bad day. We share the most intimate details of our lives, and in them we find acceptance, love, and close companionship that is reserved only for them. The trust and intimacy in these relationships is earned, and it comes with time and mutual investment. Relationships like these are precious and rare. And because of these investments they are very expensive. So, don’t lose them. Fight for them. Treat them with the respect and honor they deserve.
What breaks my heart is to see the desperate individual racing the speedway toward holding hands when they just rubbed an elbow. This turns people off, and they don’t understand why. It puts others in a position to reciprocate what they do not want to share. Uncomfortable is putting it mildly. Loving these people well means being polite, kind, and respectful–without leading them on. And it also means respectfully disengaging. At times you may have to spell it out for them in very clear plain language, which may be hard for them to hear. Yet, in reality, you’re doing them a favor by teaching them. Doing this with respect and sensitivity is often the key, which sadly, can only be learned by encountering them.
Learning Others = Loving Others
Relationships are hard. They often overlap. Your co-worker might be your best friend. Your boss might be your father or mother. Your pastor might be your dad. Mixing such roles is tricky for anyone, even when healthy boundaries are established.
Know who you are, and establish healthy boundaries for yourself.
Know who others are, and learn their boundaries as well.
Our goal in any relationship should be to love others well within the boundaries established by both parties. If you show someone interest and it is not reciprocated, respect that. Love does not equate with intimacy. If we can give others the simple kindness, respect and acceptance they deserve, we are loving well.
The love Christ commands is the love Christ demonstrated. He keeps it simple.
We all grow, and we all need relationships at every level to do so. You have a great sphere of influence with people you don’t even know. Meeting new people will teach you new things. Some are more challenging than others. Be willing to learn, showing patience and respect.
Regardless of who we encounter, whether we see that individual once or daily, we are called to love well in rubbing elbows, linking arms, and holding hands.
Whatever the case, may all your relationships be healthy.
Cheers & Shalom,