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FaithSpirituality

A Conversation on Growth-Focused Relationships (Part Three)

The final part of the series on growth-focused relationships breaks down the complex dimensions of our relationships with other people.

The final part of the series on growth-focused relationships breaks down the complex dimensions of our relationships with other people.

Samira’s three-part series examines three dimensions of relationships and personal growth. The first part is on our relationship with God and can be found here, and the second part on our relationship with the self can be found here. The articles are taken from different chapters of the book Nur – How to Live a Life Worth  Living!”

Relationship With People

Since creation, humans have been a social and interdependent species. Human relationships typically involve spouses, parents, relatives, siblings, friendships, neighbours, religious/spiritual authorities and teachers, business partners, colleagues, community leaders etc. While some relationships are not of our choosing, such as parents, and siblings, others are, such as friendships, doctors, and spouses. Wholesome, healthy human relationships are a necessity in helping you in your religious/spiritual maturity. In Islam, this stage of mutaminna is to feel a closeness to God, inward peace and calmness, or at least to have moments or experiences of being at one fully present to the Divine reality. This does not need to happen at the exclusion of maintaining healthy human relationships. Finding human connection in a traditional relationship via face-to-face contact should always take precedence. Apart from the value of human touch and non-verbal communication, there is value in the ancient adage that the eyes are receivers and transmitters of truths. Creating a rich social environment with relationships that are real, truthful, joyful, meaningful, authentic, uplifting, and empathic is what we all should aim to attain. 

Relationship norms are essentially changing due to the breakdown of traditional social systems over time, increasing nomadic lifestyle trends, forced displacement, changing technologies, the impact of a global pandemic, etc. Soft skills/people skills or relational intelligence (RI) is gaining attention in the face of a quickly evolving virtual world.  Relational intelligence encompasses both emotional and ethical intelligence and generally implies that highly self-aware and psychologically mature people flourish in building relationships in their personal and professional lives. We are attached to relationships in our physical location and to relationships in the virtual world. Online communities and relationships can be a wonderful thing, but the gains and harms with both traditionally physical and online relationships are well-researched and documented. Online public relationships can cause havoc on the emotional and social development of people, especially teenagers and young adults. Growth means allowing for mistakes and development to be made in the privacy of a relationship without the shame and pressure to conform that occurs on public social media platforms. Conversations online are fraught with increasing intolerance and harm than ever before. Big technology companies and many media outlets are designed to produce an outrage culture where civility is seen as a weakness. Moreover, the over-reliance on emailing and texting in service sectors is showing the ugly face of dehumanization. Physical relationships and communities force you to adjust and learn to communicate and live. Personally, I understand the necessity of this acutely while living in  Algeria for over a decade, a country in many ways lagging in virtual connections. In the past, a whole village or community was invested in raising a child into adulthood and meeting their needs for growth. 

Nowadays, due to changing faces of these social systems, the ongoing impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, emphasis on individualism, and sophisticated technologies, people are seeking connections, psychological and religious/spiritual maturity from different places of their own choosing like the workplace, telemedicine, teletherapy, online platforms like Google,  Facebook or Metaverse, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and etc. The whole artificial intelligence (AI) discussion is very interesting, especially in the realm of human relationships.  Currently, AI is not on par with RI, and so the question of human agency should always be included in future AI endeavours. There is a need for you to seek human relationships as models in the era you are living as well as turn to better understand the type of relationships that existed in the time of our Noble Prophet Muhammad (PBUH).

Nur, these days you are freer for individual pursuits and feel confident in your opinions, but you may struggle with a sense of connection or belonging because of the changing structures of communities and their norms. Loneliness and isolation are prevalent and, in some countries, at epidemic proportions, as are anxiety and uncertainty. In this so-called progressive and free world where personal happiness takes precedence over collective cultural values, the grass is not always greener elsewhere. You will need to learn to straddle or adjust to a world of contradictory needs and realities when it comes to relationships. An agile approach between togetherness and separateness, security and adventure/exploration, stability and change, chaos and rigidity, past and future, dependency and self-reliance (Perel, 2019), and God and nafs/ego will help you in your life pursuits. Ensure you are available and open in a relationship with a view towards collaboration and growth. There are also many well-meaning men who lack emotional intelligence, and so do support to lift them up in your relationships. A renowned couples therapist researcher Howard Markman (2010), describes hidden dimensions interplaying in all interpersonal relationships.  These are

  1. power and control,
  2. care and closeness
  3. respect and recognition.

These three clusters predominately trigger arguments and conflicts in all interpersonal relationships if they are not resolved at an intrapersonal dimension while working on your relationship with the self-being as a precursor. Every physical relationship deals with ambiguity and nuanced experiences. The way you treat people will show you who you are right now, and if there are unresolved, usually from early life experiences, they will play out in adulthood. As you mature physically and emotionally, learn to watch and listen more closely before you arrive quickly at judgments about others and their intentions. Just like the title of this book, a life worth living is when our relationships need to be purposeful, provide fulfilment, opportunities to learn about yourself and the other person/s, and a sounding board for processing uncomfortable emotions and experiences, based on values like trust, honesty, love etc.  Whether you are taking care of your loved ones, or vulnerable people in the community, raising your children, or looking after your local surroundings, nature and animals, all these things provide a deep sense of well-being and joy. Personally, my awareness and healing from past traumas have been important also to ensure my offspring are not impacted negatively. For me, parental protective factors are to ensure my children know how to live and become self-sufficient when I am no longer alive. So, this book is, in a way, an example of a mother-child relationship. My relationship with my daughter has been the rear-view mirror to owning and transforming maladaptive behaviours in my pursuit of better parenting. 

A psychologically underdeveloped or immature person is capable of functioning in the world, gaining employment, and outwardly appearing to be well. These people really believe they are good law-abiding citizens, but if you look closely, their relationships tell a different story. Our early life histories create vulnerabilities and strengths, but as adults, these negative experiences do not need to define our future relationships. 

So generally, what do growth and maturation in relationships look like? As a simple guide, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Are you finding or creating joyful moments or experiences in the relationship?
  2. Is your reality being validated and respected?
  3. Are you thriving?
  4. Are you learning and accepting each other’s vulnerabilities and strengths
  5. Are you able to observe personal psychological and religious/spiritual growth?
  6. Us your nafs or ego becoming quiet and humble
  7. Are you able to feel love and warmth in your heart when meditating, talking about or worshipping God?
  8. Can you accept there are no guarantees in life?

By and large human beings have the capacity and wish for growth in all three dimensions of relationships: relationship with God, Higher Order; relationship with self; and relationship with people. However, a caveat that cannot be ignored is the growing role of narcissism in relational and religious/spiritual abuse. Just because someone is family and Islam encourages not to sever family ties, it does not give them a license to abuse, control, dismiss,  manipulate, and traumatize family members. Narcissistic abuse can often be seen or clothed in different cultures as matriarchy, patriarchy, sexism, or just how things have always been done. Even outside family relationships, we are constantly being told just to think positively, which is also a form of mental control. Grief, trauma, betrayal, and hurt are emotional experiences that need to be processed. Lack of empathy which is a narcissistic trait, can come from even well-intentioned people. 

Spiritual abusers, whether they are in the form of sheikhs, imams, directors of religious non-profit organizations, social media influencers, performed Hajj repeatedly, spiritual teachers, or charlatans, appear to have an interesting set of behaviors that mimic narcissism that is worthy of further understanding and discussion. Spiritual abusers consider themselves as unique, special, godly, entitled, self-righteous, worthy of adulation and praise, and superior, with a tendency to twist, ignore, and flaunt divine principles to their advantage. A variation of these spiritual abusers pretends to be sincere and empathic to other people’s struggles and suffering. These people may also use the guise of spirituality to shield them from criticism, impress others, and make them feel wise. The trickery of a narcissistic religious/spiritual abuser seems to come from iblis or the devil’s playbook. Leading mankind astray from God was the religious sin from the story of Adam and Eve. It seems these days, iblis or devil has deputised select human beings of authority or influence to continue his work in more evolved and sophisticated ways. From a psychological perspective, it is important to learn the traits of narcissism in order to identify them, whether in your home, school, workplace, mosque, or religious gathering. It is also important to be aware of the enablers or bystanders in these places who justify and rationalize abuse.  

Religious leaders, preachers, religious/spiritual practitioners, psychologists and all mental health practitioners also need to do a better job at being accessible to people and a stronger deliberate cohesiveness between faith leaders/practitioners and psychologists to counteract narcissism and misinformation. Human curiosity is irreplaceable, and faith is internal, mysterious, spiritual, private, and ineffable. When religious/spiritual authority is predicated on the level of Islamic knowledge and geopolitical allegiances, then it fosters a sense of  arrogance and certainty. Certainty is essentially the enemy of faith and spirituality. Look to human role models of religious/spiritual maturity and the work done on their psychological  maturity. The results of these efforts will be apparent in the quality of your relationships with others. Regardless if you are a puritan, religionist, traditionalist, moderate, or liberal, you  must ask yourself sincerely have I matured psychologically, and has my understanding of the world evolved? Make sure your psychological defence mechanisms do not pass for spiritual experiences and connections. One comes from the divine realm; the other comes from the psychological realm. Can mental health practitioners such as psychologists be exemplary teachers and role models? Is the field of mainstream psychology willing to incorporate religious and spiritual maturity in therapeutic settings, which in some respects is a  suspension of evidence-based modalities to inform their work and ensure the client/therapeutic relationship or therapeutic alliance is solidly established? If so, are they willing to work on themselves psychologically and religiously/spiritually? 

Conclusion

To conclude, it is never too late to heal and grow. It is never too late to plant a tree, just the Beloved Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) said, ‘if the Hour (the day of Resurrection) is about to be established and one of you was holding a palm shoot, let him take advantage of even one second before the Hour is established to plant it’. This could be understood as leaving the world better than you found it. A broader and deeper interpretation is to leave your  neighborhood, your workplace, your property, and your relationships better for your children  and future generations. 

Nur, the above conversation is an opportunity and vehicle to remain curious and not an end. I am sure as you mature and live your life, you will face other challenges and circumstances  with your own relationships. This information is an attempt to break down the complexities  and blessings relationships withhold in a relatable and integrated way. Do not always seek  comfort in a relationship; sometimes explore if the discomfort is growth-focused and evolving in a more authentic, deeper place. Similar to the man I met briefly at South Brisbane many years ago, internally, we are also dishevelled and unsteady on our feet. A growth-focused approach to relationships is a way to reach a balanced alignment in our relationships with  God, ourselves, and people. 

Samira’s three-part series examines three dimensions of relationships and personal growth. The first part is on our relationship with God and can be found here, and the second part on our relationship with the self can be found here. The articles are taken from different chapters of the book Nur – How to Live a Life Worth  Living!”

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