LOVE. AN AGE-OLD OBSESSION, AN EVER-PRESENT NEED.
THE THING WHICH WE DESPERATELY SEEK BUT CAN EASILY DISCARD. IT’S THE CONUNDRUM OF OUR CENTURY AND EVERY OTHER BEFORE.
IT’S A TOPIC MORE TALKED ABOUT THAN ANY OTHER, BUT OFTEN SOMETHING WE GET COMPLETELY WRONG
We live in a world where everything differs – people, cultures, preferences, opinions, careers, choices, beliefs and many things in between. But more often than not, the differences that should celebrate our individuality, end up disrupting our unity. Offence, bitterness, blame, criticism – they said this, they said that, he said this, she said that. Relationships – whether professional, or between friends, in a marriage or in the space of dating – are falling short of longevity because of a lack of understanding of why it is good to be different and how to honour those differences – however they may look.
To tackle the question of why we are different and how to love, not in spite of our differences but because of them, we sat down with Matt and Jacinth Whittaker to talk all things love, individuality, emotions and vulnerability.
Where better to start than at the beginning? Men and women are different, not just physically, but emotionally too. What are some of the ways in which we differ and why are these differences so important to have?
Jacinth- Our differences are crucial because they are how God created us to be. I love that He designed women and men differently and for different reasons. Naturally, women are emotional beings meaning we usually show our emotions more than men but this can also be influenced by how we grew up.
Matt- I agree, I grew up with a household full of boys meaning that I didn’t really have to deal with emotions too much whilst growing up. I think for men; our natural default is to lock our emotions away – sometimes that’s to protect ourselves and often it’s what’s been modelled to us from a young age. But one thing I’ve learned to be extremely important is that it is necessary for us to be emotionally stable.
For me, I had a really good role model in my dad in terms of what it looks like to control your emotions. How we process things is a huge element of our emotional stability; however, openly processing emotions is not a natural default for most men. Figuring out how to process emotions in a healthy and normal way takes time and understanding. If we don’t process things, they often get bottled up and as life plays out it can disrupt our emotional health and if we have no outlet, we will eventually explode. Most men never learn how to process their emotions properly and many of these men don’t feel they have the place to do so.
Jacinth- It’s not just men though, a lot of women don’t have that either. If we are emotional beings, we need emotional stability. However, this takes time, practice and effort and if we want to navigate life-changing events, arguments or even just daily pressures, we have to learn the practice of emotional stability and we need to recognise when that practice is falling short.
But so often we are unable to cultivate emotional and relational stability because of a lacking foundational stability built over time. How then, when there is emotional weight or baggage, do we enter into relationships?
Jacinth- Emotional baggage can’t magically be eliminated, but I think you would feel the presence of baggage in any relationship if it’s had a significant presence in your life. You’ll know that you have things you need to deal with if it feels like a weight you’re having to carry around with you. And by doing so, you may find yourself constantly thinking about and giving attention to whatever is in that metaphorical baggage you’re holding. Often the past context of that baggage can lead to present feelings of anger or hurt or bitterness. But this is why the role of people we trust to share our hearts with is so crucial. It begins to lessen the weights that can really break us down and it can bring so much freedom to you in whatever you’re facing.
Matt- I think another key thing that contributes to carrying baggage into our relationships nowadays, is the fact that there is a huge lack of self-awareness. People speed through life at 100 miles an hour and fill every single moment with something that will cause some kind of mental stimulation – a prime example is our obsession with social media. We constantly fill our minds with voices and noise from everyone and everything around us, causing us to run from thing to thing, rarely allowing ourselves a moment to stop and process. This is something that we really need to learn how to take responsibility for and can be done through something as simple as a daily decision to reflect on what’s going on in our minds, what will go on in the detail of our days and what’s going on in the broader spectrum of our lives. If people allowed themselves to quieten their minds and their spirits, they would see significant changes in how they cope with their emotions, their struggles and life in general. We cannot contribute positively towards relationships, work places, teams, friendships etc. if we haven’t first learned how to level our emotions.
So, what would you say to someone who is struggling to let go of the things that prevent the stability you are talking about?
Jacinth- We can’t hold on to things, as this only perpetuates the root issue, causing us to carry our struggles into every relationship. However, we need to desire freedom from these issues because if we keep choosing to not let go, we will continually isolate ourselves and find reasons that validate our hurt in almost every circumstance that presents conflict of any sort. This occurs when you don’t deal with the things going on with you within yourself but it’s so important to realise that when we are stuck in a rut of holding on to things of the past, we don’t need to be there and we can get out of it.
One of the best ways to get to a place where you can deal with your issues internally, is to speak about it externally with the people around who you can trust.
Matt- I’d also just encourage them by urging them to remember that we are individuals and we feel things individually. As the day goes, life happens and again we experience things individually. But that individuality is so connected to context. To have secure relationships, it’s so important to understand the context that others are coming from. Equally, it’s really key to understand our own context because that often explains why we are the way we are, why we think the way we think and act the way we act.
You mentioned conflict – it’s interesting that this is often something that many relationships cannot bear the weight of. How do we approach conflict when it arises and what are the best ways to resolve the issue before bitterness, grudges and offence can creep in?
Jacinth- Unfortunately, we go into relationships thinking that everything’s going to be amazing or that nothing is ever going to go wrong… but then, as soon as it does (and it will), we freak out. Conflict is uncomfortable and it’s normal to want our relationships to ‘feel’ good, but we have to realise that people are people and as people we mess up – it’s natural. We have to allow people the room to make mistakes, otherwise we create an expectation that everything has to be perfect which it’s never going to be. That’s when we lose friendships or want to get out of relationships. Realising that someone isn’t the perfect person we thought they were can cause deep disappointment. We have to remember that at the end of the day, neither one of us is, or ever will be, perfect.
Understanding the fragile nature of people should then cause us exercise forgiveness, but this isn’t as simple as it may sound. How do we cultivate forgiveness even when forgiveness is the most difficult thing to do?
Matt- Unforgiveness will only create a wedge between you. There is a distinct beauty in the act of forgiving someone and in the same way that forgiveness has been afforded to us, by choosing to forgive those that have hurt us, we gain a greater clarity of the forgiveness that exudes from grace. Human nature inevitably leads to disappointment. People let you down and sometimes they may even stab you in the back. The reality is, we’re probably going to fail more than once in our lives. And in all honesty, a lot of the things that we have to give or receive forgiveness for are pretty small – they’re usually manageable and definitely repairable. Cultivating a spirit of forgiveness always starts in the small.
Jacinth- Something I’ve learned is that forgiveness is also a skill. It’s something that you have to work on and it doesn’t usually come naturally. Natural would be anger and bitterness or holding a grudge. And that’s usually the easy thing to do. Forgiveness; however, is not so easy and it’s something you have to work on and do so constantly. But it’s essential and without it, relationships do not move forward. Holding a grudge will hold you back. Forgiveness has a way where it not only sets you free and releases you to step forward, it also sets free the person on the other side of the hurt you feel.
In addition to forgiveness, another thing that has become difficult, if not seemingly impossible for a lot of people, is the practice of vulnerability. Now, more than ever, vulnerability is replaced by a belief that life is simpler when done alone. But vulnerability is an essential aspect to our mental, emotional, spiritual and even physical health. Why is vulnerability so valuable in our relationships?
Matt- Vulnerability takes a great deal of bravery and courage. It’s neither easy nor comfortable but it is so worth it. That’s why it is usually such a hard thing to do. However, it’s important to note that vulnerability also takes an element of security. What I mean by this is that we are most able to exercise vulnerability when we feel secure with who we are being vulnerable with. A lot of people see vulnerability as airing dirty laundry but vulnerability is actually showing someone a very special and guarded piece of your soul.
Having to share something so personal with the knowledge that whatever we share will warrant a reaction that we have no control over. Vulnerability takes faith, a lot of it, and it’s always a risk. But when we’re vulnerable with the right people, people who have your best interests at heart, trust is established. Trust is something that is afforded and it should never be something that we abuse but when we afford someone our trust, we give them access to our messiness, our brokenness and the pieces of our hearts that hurt the most. However, by doing this, we also open ourselves up to life, love and hope. It’s a process, it won’t fix things overnight. But, it’s so worth it.
What would you say about the misconception that men who are vulnerable are in turn weak? Why is vulnerability a strength and not a weakness as many seem to believe?
Matt- I don’t think for one second it makes them weak. I think a lot of guys are definitely afraid of vulnerability and a lot of that fear is linked to an intrinsic nature of being afraid of judgment or exposure; however, I think a large part of the issue lies within the fact that for many men, they simply don’t have people around them who can stand with them wherever they’re at. This emphasises the importance of the church today. It models the power of a community of like-minded, like-hearted individuals. It affords people access to meaningful connection and it allows them to do life with others.
There is something profound about a man who shows vulnerability. It will usually start off small but it’s that little bit more of trust and vulnerability which hopefully ends up in a really beautiful friendship or relationship or marriage. But we have to create the space for vulnerability and for a lot of guys they need that assurance poured into them. If it’s not modelled to them, it can be difficult for them to step into.
Jacinth- However, you also have to be selective with who you choose to be vulnerable with. Like Matt mentioned, vulnerability is exposing a very special part of your soul. So you have to know who is fighting for the best version of you and who is holding back the best version of you. You do not want to befriend people who will only speak negativity into your life. It’s not helpful and it’s not wise.
Are there particular ways in which we can assess whether someone will positively or negatively impact the best version of ourselves?
Matt- I tend to pick friends based on their fruit. If I like what they stand for or admire the way they live, then they become the people I want to be friends with because they make me a better man, a better husband, a better dad, friend, colleague – they make me better by championing me to become that man. We want our friends to be the ones who are championing us both individually and as a family. There was a time when I didn’t have that and the people I did have around me would cause me to make decisions that I was not strong enough in my faith or strong enough in myself as a man, to challenge. So not only did they speak foolishness into my life, they had a negative impact too. However, down the line I had a friend say something very profound to me. He said, “Eventually you are going to have to make a decision about what life you are going to choose.” That meant that there were some people I had to choose to cut off because they were not healthy for me. That can be anyone – a boyfriend, girlfriend, mate, business partner – that pruning will be a very tough decision but you will see so much fruit from that. We often stay in toxic relationships out of obligation but if you live your life out of obligation, you will go nowhere.