I read a horrific story yesterday about a gang murder in Asia. A member of the gang (apparently on the run for assassinating a government leader) stole money from the gang. His fellow members beat him to death with a hammer for his betrayal, then cannibalized him. Stories like this remind me how many people are dying in ghastly ways around the world while I drive my air-conditioned minivan to the gym. They also remind me how people lose all perspective and allow little dramas to take over their lives.

I had hoped that the drama-mongering would stop when my friends and I graduated high school. That hasn’t happened. My friends and I have all found our lives flooded by relationship crises at one time or another. Some even seem to enjoy it, chasing drama like a hound tracking a fox.

woman with bruises being forced by a manI’ve lost myself within relationships, finding my identity in a job or a position. After the wrenching agony that inevitably follows such surrender, I’ve kept everyone at arm’s length and sworn never to go down with a sinking ship again, only to suffer loneliness and isolation. We need to find a middle ground between these two extremes. I’m seeking that sweet spot in which I maintain my identity as an individual while also cultivating deep fulfilling mutually-beneficial relationships.

Here are four tips I’ve learned along the way. A little discernment could save your life.

  1. Give relationships the “What if I leave?” or “What if it’s taken away?” test.
    While it can seem impractical, I think it is important to consider this question seriously. The more visceral your response, the more you have cause for concern. Ask yourself why you cannot imagine leaving or life without it. What would you lose? What would you gain? Is the other party holding something over your head, blackmailing you, or threatening you with dire repercussions? What part does jealousy play, if any? Are others allowed to enter and leave the circle too? Every relationship should be voluntary or have terms clearly stated up front so you know what you’re getting into (such as a lending relationship with a bank). Anything else is abusive and manipulative. It is slavery.
  2. Diversify.
    Be purposeful about making friends and developing relationships in a variety of circles. If everyone you spend time with is a coworker, your job gains unhealthy control over your life. If every friend is in your church, you have nowhere to turn if corruption destroys it or the leadership turns on you. We need relationships in our neighborhood, at work, at church, at school, and in hobbies or volunteer groups. Keep in mind as you diversify, that many of your friendships will be circumstantial, based on proximity, and will ebb and flow with your life changes. While these changes are difficult, this is normal and expected. It is very important to identify and develop at least one independent friendship that will remain through cross-country moves, church/faith and job changes, and different stages of life (single, married, divorced, parenthood, empty-nester). Update: Frank Viola posted today on what makes a good friendship today. His list is an excellent elaboration on types of friendships.
  3. Step back and look at the big picture.
    What kind of relationships do you have? How much time have you invested in them?
How does each relationship influence you? Is it mutually-beneficial or one-way? (This isn’t necessarily bad — we should all be willing to invest in someone who is in a very needy stage, but neither should this monopolize us.) Does it drag you through crisis after crisis? What effect does it have on your credibility and reputation? Answering  these questions should help you allot each relationship an appropriate level of influence, or remove unhealthy ones altogether.
  4. Take a break when relationships get out of balance.
    This is a way to help you answer the “What if I leave?” question. We’re all replaceable, and it’s good for everyone to recognize that. If you have to, you really can drop everything and walk out. If the other person or group actually falls apart without you, you were an unhealthy relationship for them, too, and it was bound to fall apart anyway (you’re going to die one day, right?). You may be able to return later, you may not. I’ve taken breaks and stepped back, and the end result was different each time.

What would you add to this list? How do you keep any one relationship from taking control of your life? How much control over your well-being do you allow any person or group to have?