Two Relationship Structures

Photo by Ed Gregory.

Almost all of our relationships today are contractual. They’re based on performance.

Take the relationship we’re in right now. As the content-provider, I will give you mind-blowing sentences that will entice you to read on. If I perform, you will provide me with a stat, perhaps a higher read-to-view percentage, that will activate the pleasure centers of my brain. If I don’t perform . . . well, you have lots of posts to choose from.

That structure might work for entertainment or business.

But other relationships have become contractual too. Friendship, marriage, even parent-child relationships have all shifted to a performance basis. The divorce rate is just one indicator of this shift. The more important indicator I see as a pastor is people’s level of anxiety.

Let’s consider the language of contracts: compliance, non-performance, customer service. If we take this language into our intimate relationships, we are saying that the most significant people in our lives are there for us as long as we perform for them. We have to bring our A-game to please our kids, our parents, our friends. And we’d better perform in bed.

The anxiety I hear from people is built into the structure of their lives because their closest relationships are contractual.

If we ask what words are associated over the centuries in every culture with friendship, you do not find a contractual vocabulary. You find words like loyalty, fidelity, and honor.

These words come from another structure — covenants.

A covenant is not founded on performance, but on identity. Husband, wife, father, mother, brother, sister, friend. These identities summon a word that troubles us deeply: bonds.

Our trouble with bonds is deeper than “commitment issues.” We refuse to acknowledge claims on our lives that are larger than our desires. We have moved almost all of our relationships to a contractual basis to avoid the shame of committing infidelity.

Now we’re shameless and anxious.

In this light, consider Proverbs 3.3–4, a precept from the world of covenants: “Let not steadfast love and faithfulness forsake you; bind them around your neck; write them on the tablet of your heart. So you will find favor and good success in the sight of God and man.”

There’s a life bigger than customer service.