Chapter 4: Personal Human Relationships

Becoming and Belonging
by Norman Pittenger

Chapter 4: Personal Human Relationships

Human existence is the enterprise of becoming a created finite lover, in which each person belongs to society. The aim or goal is the increase of good among all the participants. But to put it in that way is to overlook the equally important fact that each of us has his or her own specificity or speciality; it is also to fail to notice that men and women desire most of all that there shall be an other -- a person who can become, in the belonging that is a necessary factor, the ‘dearest and best." This need not exclude other less intimate relationships, for to love an other usually brings about a further readiness for and an openness to other contacts, less intensive but very real, with other persons who are not the chosen other. When such openness and readiness is absent, the relationship between the primary two can very well become jealous and possessive. And if this happens, what is seen is not really love but an expression of self-centeredness and often a hidden wish to control. Love is mutuality, not ownership, and one way it can be achieved is precisely through the wider kind of contacts and concerns.

Human loving in its personal aspect might be seen as the first of a series of concentric circles, whose point of departure (so to say) is the self in its personal identity. We should love ourselves and have self-esteem; there is nothing to be said for rejecting or negating this. Jesus is reported to have taught that we "should love our neighbor as ourselves," and that implies that each of us can have an entirely proper self-concern, which is very different from self-centeredness to the exclusion of others in our general belonging. Then, a second circle is the kind of relationship we have with our family or our immediate friends. A third circle is to be seen in our community or the neighborhood of which we are part. And beyond this, there is still another circle where we are concerned with our fellows in our country or nation (I shall call this, for convenience sake, the "city"), making us English or American or Russian or Chinese. Finally, there is the human race as a whole and the natural setting in which all of us exist. It will not be possible in these chapters to give attention to all of these circles. What we shall do is to speak first in this chapter of what I call "personal human relationships," while in the two following chapters our interest will be centered on "familial relationships" and broader "social relationships" (including neighborhood and the like, with reference also to the significance of the "city"). A final topic will be "the religious community"; this must be discussed because the orientation here adopted includes human existence together with, in, and under God, the primal cause and the final affect.

The reason for this last inclusion ought to be apparent. In and through all the circles, a response is being made, rightly or wrongly, for good or for ill, to the world at large and, beyond that, to the cosmic Love-in-act. Thus, we have to do with what the philosopher Josiah Royce used to call "world loyalty." Hence, there is always a genuine religious response, although this may not necessarily be made in a vividly conscious fashion. In the different religions of the world, however diverse these may be in their ideas of deity and of human fulfillment, or even in their substitution of some other devotion like Buddhist Nirvana, there is just such a "religious" response.

A rightly developing personality is related in differing ways and with differing intensity with the whole range of reality, and humans are becoming what they have in them to become in their response to this whole range, again with differing intensity and with various kinds of awareness. Incidentally, it is worth our noting that the very word response has two meanings. One is precisely this "answering back" or response in the usual sense; another, which in common usage becomes "responsibility," is our human accountability for what we do (or fail to do) in making just such a response. About this more will be said later.

Here we need also to recall our earlier insistence on the body-mind complex, which is our human existence, with its rationality, volition, moral capacity, and (above all, perhaps) aesthetic aspect and with its ability to give and receive in love. To remember this is to bring to mind that we are speaking of a unity of selfhood. This needs to be taken seriously at every level but nowhere so much as in the circle of one-to-one relationships with an other. For we humans love with our body as well as with our mind or "soul," although this does not necessarily or always entail specifically genital contacts.

It will be useful to begin this chapter by giving due consideration to this broad fact about us and to see our human sexuality, in its deepest sense, as having much to do with how we respond. Each of us is a sexual creature like others in the animal kingdom, although our human sexuality is also different from that which we observe in that kingdom. There is a distinctive human kind of sexuality, both in the broader sense and also in the narrower genital sense.

In the animal realm, as a simple biological fact, the sexual drive, desire, and equipment are directed toward the reproduction of the race, with a high degree of excitation to promote this -- and perhaps also with some trace of affection on the part of those who engage in sexual activity. At the specifically human level, however, the primary function of the sexual desire, drive, and equipment is not reproductive but conjunctive or unitive. Of course, this does not make procreation unimportant or merely incidental. With persons of differing gender, the possibility of conception is usually present. Where a morally responsible decision has been taken by the partners, this is likely to be a consequence of sexual intercourse, and it is obviously right and desirable.

Part of the distinctively human expression of pervasive sexuality is the bringing of children into the world, at least for those who are not celibate (where such contact does not occur) or homosexual (where procreation is not possible). But it is also the case that the children are, or should be, desired by their parents and not accidentally conceived and also that those children should have care and wise training. This is why, in my conviction, contraception in the sense of "planned parenthood" is a moral duty. To reduce humans in their physical sexual activity to the level of the barnyard is surely wrong, and it is odd that those who ban contraception (save for the "rhythm" method) are, in fact, making just that reduction, certainly with good intentions, but thereby involving themselves in a strangely self-contradictory position. For in humans sexuality is the bodily and psychological basis for the possibility of shared love. This is plainly true for heterosexual persons; it is, I think, equally true for homosexual persons, about whom I shall have something more to say later in this chapter.

The meaning of human sexuality, then, is primarily relational. It is an essential component of human existence. Each of us is a sexual creature, as I have indicated; this is nothing to be ashamed of. It is integral to our nature as human and is part of our total human development in becoming and belonging. We are not with others simply "in our minds." We are with them in the concrete reality of our full humanness. Thus, human sexuality is a "doing," whether explicitly genital or not: it is not merely a "thinking" matter. In all our relationships with others, our sexuality is involved, although we are not consciously aware of this all the time. Even friendship between two persons, without such explicit acts, has its sexual component, and it should be acknowledged honestly. Failure to recognize this has led to much that is warped and twisted in human life. The "spinster" type (more often found among men than among women, I believe), the hypercritical person who is frequently also hypocritical, the nasty-mindedness often seen in persons who seem to be afraid of or to dislike anything remotely sexual, are not happy examples. If I really love another, I love that other with my whole self, not just with a selected portion of that self -- and in that wholeness the sexual component is unquestionably present.

To accept this is very important, especially in Anglo-Saxon lands where it has been thought for a long time that some human relationships can be totally platonic, spiritual, mental, nonphysical. This has led many people to fear such contacts as are found in Latin countries, where touching, kissing, embracing, and the like are taken for granted. We may conclude that in those countries there is a much healthier, because a more total, awareness of how humans function. Perhaps their acceptance of such contacts helps to explain why, as experts have told us, there are fewer serious emotional disturbances of a neurotic or psychotic kind than in our own lands. The sad truth is that many of us entertain, although not always consciously, a Manichean attitude toward the body, as part of a similar negative attitude toward the material world. We are altogether too "spiritual," rejecting or minimizing our embodiedness, which we tend to think to be somehow unfortunate or sometimes even "dirty."

That distaste or fear can be, in itself, a dangerous and damaging matter. What is even worse, it can lead to repressions that turn humans into suspicious and (as I have said) hypercritical or hypocritical creatures whose presence makes others uncomfortable and whose own inner lives can become frustrated and miserable. My point here is simply that the pervasive reality of sexuality is given in our human experience and is an entirely good thing. C.S. Lewis once put this neatly, "God must like sex, he made it." To accept this fact gladly, even joyously, is part of healthy human living. And as Lewis indicated in that brief remark, it is part of our gratitude to God to see that such sexuality is one of God’s good gifts that we are to use responsibly. That responsibility requires a certain human "control," as we shall argue in the sequal -- not control as servile obedience to imposed regulations set by society or even by God, but as useful guidelines to the best ways in which to express this inescapable part of our human existence.

One way of getting at the point is by considering the celibate man or woman whose specific vocation is not to act genitally but to redirect the sexual drive, desire, and equipment for other ends that are taken as good for that particular person. It may seem surprising to introduce such people at this place, but it is a great mistake to assume that monks and nuns in Catholic circles, or the members of the similar Taizé community among Protestants, have killed their sexuality. Doubtless, in the past many sought to do just that, but nowadays few if any monks or nuns would be willing to say that he or she has done this or wishes to do this. Sometimes, to be sure, men and women in an earlier age became celibate because of their fear of sexuality or because there was no other available place for them in society. They were expected in such instances "to put their sexuality to death," as the saying went. Not today, however. I think here of an Oxford monk who indignantly denied that he had done any such thing; what he had done, he said, was to seek a re-channeling of his sexual nature so that instead of having genital contacts he could express this human drive by serving others, by teaching, and by prayer. I think also of a nun whom I once knew well. In her presence one felt that one was with a person who used her inescapable sexuality to help other persons in a lovely, attractive, and entirely nongenital way.

There is a distinction, then, but not a separation, to be made between the deep, pervasive sexuality that is integral to our human nature, on the one hand, and the various ways (some genital, some in self giving without genital contact) of expression of that sexuality, on the other.

I have mentioned homosexuality, and a few words should be said about that sort of sexual expression, to which (we have been informed) perhaps 10 percent of the human family are oriented. In the past, people who were homosexually inclined, and especially those who were active in that respect, were regarded as sinful, corrupt, or criminal. Today they are seen by understanding people to be different but not deviant. They are the way they are through no choice of their own. What they should be given is assistance, when this is wanted, to live their lives happily and well, following their own orientation without condemnation or contempt. Happily, today those who are not blinded by uncriticized religious prejudice (including misuse of certain biblical passages) or conventional ideas of proper sexual behavior (as if morals were a matter of counting noses or following some social pattern without question) are ready to accept the fact of the homosexual orientation, and many religious groups are now prepared to adopt this positive attitude.

But if for homosexual people intimate relationships are more readily found with someone of their own gender, it is obviously true that the great majority of men and women find their fulfillment with people of the other gender. For most of these, the way for this expression is through the estate of marriage or some similar sharing of life together. This will include familial life, to which we turn in the next chapter. Here our concern is simply with the intimate relationship with an other, without necessarily involving such family life, the care of children, and whatever else has become part of the common manifestation of personal relationship. Certainly a one-to-one relationship deepens and develops human existence. At the same time, however, there is a possible distortion in that kind of belonging, which then produces unlovely results. In that case, there can be tragic twistings, jealousy, possessiveness, and other damaging consequences. I shall now say something about some aspects of this distortion, all of them of course related to the basic sexuality of humankind.

Before I do that, however, there is another point that should be made. I suppose some might think that the result of such a discussion as this would be to set up, as a sort of ideal, what is nowadays called "the well-adjusted person. I can only say, "God forbid!" if that is taken to mean the type often commended by certain followers of the "mental health" school, with no idiosyncrasies, no distinctive qualities, no particular marks of speciality. People like that are so well-adjusted to the expectations of conventional society that they become boring and dull. Anybody who is perfectly adjusted to contemporary conventional society is really very badly adjusted to the basic reality of things in the cosmos! Hence, far from urging any such model, I should urge that each person, in his or her specificity, is intended to become what he or she has the potential for becoming -- and that will mean great variety, many differing types of fulfillment and self-realization, each with its value and importance. The common principle here is only that each human should be moving toward actualization, with others, in and under the divine Love -- a Love, one may be sure, that prefers variety, novelty, and even oddity (if I may say so!) to the sheer uniformity that is to be found in products of a machine.

With this clear, let us now proceed to speak of the five aspects of human defection that seem to be the most serious manifestations of distortion in relationship. First of all, such a relationship can be consciously or unconsciously centered upon oneself, without due regard for the other person in it. Here there is a denial of the belonging side of human experience. One person may be so centered on himself or herself that the two cannot really share life, excepting in the most superficial fashion. Second, there can be the treatment of the other as if he or she were a thing, not a person. To be a person is to be a particular routing of experiences toward goals that satisfy latent potentialities special to each of us. But it is tragically possible to neglect or overlook this and to act with and toward another as if the other’s importance lay simply in providing a means toward one’s own satisfaction. Third, there can be cruel or hateful manifestations, either directly or in subtle psychological fashion; in either case, this is damaging to self-esteem in the other and turns that other into an object to be compelled and coerced. Fourth, in denial of such self-esteem or in disregarding it there can be the assumption of a wrong kind of responsibility, with a callous disregard of deepest opportunities for sharing life. As a young woman once said to me, "When somebody tells me that he will be responsible for me, I feel that he’s denying that I’m a real person and looks upon me as merely instrumental to his own desires!" -- this is nothing less than a subtle variety of rape. Fifth, there can be such a focus upon one particular aspect of the relationship (in specifically sexual matters, this may be an interest only in the physical side) that the total human personality is not taken into account, in all its richness and promise. In effect, each of these is basically a failure in genuine loving, as we shall see at the end of this chapter.

If we now turn to the first, or to wrong self-centeredness, it is obvious that we have here a denial of genuine reciprocity or mutuality. It is focused on what can be "got" from the other. Here there may seem to be some sort of giving, but it is a giving that is interested only in "the main chance" or in what the other may be persuaded to do or be. There may be some sort of response to the other, but this can be grudging and thoughtless, because it is only a way of using the other to secure what is wanted for the self. Of course, I am not here condemning the self-assertion that is proper if each of us is to have personal integrity and identity. Nobody need make himself or herself a doormat for others to trample under foot. That would be an inverted form of the pride that goes with total self-concern. But anybody who is arrogant, contemptuous of others, and thus wholly centered in self can never enter into deeply fruitful relationships. That sort of person is a fraud. The becoming that is so essential can only be had when the other’s becoming is recognized and valued for itself and not simply as adjectival to self.

A second and related sort of distortion is the depersonalization of the relationship. The other may be treated as something to be used, not as one who is accepted in his or her own becoming. This can happen in subtle ways, not always obvious to an observer. The truth is that genuine love always personalizes; in doing so it respects and values the personal integrity and identity of the other. In any sort of human contact, it is possible to be moving in this direction. Casual contacts with others, even on such limited occasions as dealing with those who serve one in a shop, can do that. They can have the possibility, however slight, of personalization, or alternatively someone can regard the other as a thing that is there only for her or his own benefit. In that latter case the other is reduced to a mere object -- for instance, in one’s casual contact with a shop assistant, where there could be no close relationship but where at best there might be friendliness and courtesy, the other could just as well be a vending machine. In more intimate relationships with the other, something of this sort can also happen. One uses the other for one’s own pleasure or satisfaction. And genuine love can never do that.

A third aspect of distortion is cruelty or actual damage to the partner. This sadistic attitude and pattern of behavior is plainly seen in certain kinds of physical sexuality. But it is also present in carelessness and indifference that are not explicitly sexual in the genital sense. In civilized society and among civilized persons, this sadism may be somewhat tempered, yet in person-to-person relationships it can be dreadfully apparent. The cutting comment, the unkind phrase, or the inconsiderate act may inflict frightful pain. Often this is not actually intended, but its avoidance demands from each one attention to the other and to the other’s feelings. It is also to be remembered that the person who acts sadistically is himself or herself a victim, quite as much, if less obviously, as is the actual object of the word or act. Fullness of human self-realization is denied to both, and this contradicts the love that is intended or desired.

A fourth aspect of distortion has to do with responsibility. I have noted that in our being thus responsible we should never fail to entertain a genuine esteem for the other. That other is to be accepted in and for himself or herself and never left to assume that her or his value is simply in being "available." Above all, the other cannot be made to feel that he or she is not worth very much. In giving help to the other in some problem or difficulty, the giving can be done in a way that puts the recipient at a disadvantage so that he or she is made to feel less of a person. But this need not be so; it is always possible to assist without condescension and without allowing the recipient to sense, somehow or other, that the donor is deigning to act kindly and helpfully.

Finally, there is the danger of denying proper proportion or patterning, in such a way that one particular element or aspect of the relationship is made so central that its wholeness or totality is denied or at least called into question. In the Middle Ages, this lack of proportion or patterning was known as inordination. For example, physical relations are good in themselves, as expressions of genuine love and mutuality; when they are all that matters in the relationship, they become patently inordinate and no longer can symbolize and augment mutuality or the sharing of total life. Similarly, a certain shared interest may originally draw people together, but if that is all they have in common, then wholeness is denied or minimized. Wider sharing provides a healthy setting for particular shared interests. Love is concerned to establish just that wider sharing.

In all these kinds of possible distortion, then, there is a rejection of real loving, although often, perhaps usually, this is not intended. Love moves toward a fulfillment in which each partner genuinely shares. Its contradiction can be found in each of the concentric circles and perhaps nowhere so obviously as in person-to-person relationships. Needless to say, this is not a matter of sentimentality; it is not mere emotionalism; it is not easy toleration. On the contrary, it can be adamant, difficult, demanding; yet it is always gracious, generous, and helpful. In our intimate one-to-one relations, with an other, there is much more intense caring: but even in ordinary day-to-day contacts there can be something of that same quality.

For the majority of members of the human race, as I have urged, this most intimate relationship is found in the estate of marriage, although in close friendships and in homosexual orientation it can also be present. Here I wish to speak very briefly about the way in which marriage may provide an occasion for distortion and damage. Even in the best of human institutions, of which marriage can serve as a supreme example, there can be damage when somehow the intention to share life fully is absent. Here is a one-to-one relationship par excellence. But it is not to be achieved without effort, although it is at its best when there is also real spontaneity in the expression of love together. And it may break down. Its preservation requires effort, and it is worth the trouble it takes to ensure its continuance. On the other hand, when there is an utter collapse of mutuality, it is surely better to recognize the fact and to separate. To paraphrase a saying of Jesus, "Marriage was made for man, not man for marriage." This enormously valuable and valued estate is not a straitjacket nor is it a Procrustean bed in which human capacities and talents are to be lopped off to accommodate men and women to an imposed condition of miserable union. If that is recognized, we must also admit that divorce may be the right thing under such tragic circumstances.

What it comes down to, then, is our understanding that human existence, in its becoming and in its belonging, is a direction for creative advance. By their very nature, humans are intended to be moving toward fulfillment in love, in mutuality and sharing, so that those who participate in any relationship, and above all in the intimate one that can be enjoyed with an other, may be given the opportunity to find satisfaction and realization of potentiality in and with this other and with others. Such a direction of life is open. to newness, with a greater future sharing, while in the present moment there is delight and happiness. What is more, such love can overflow; of this possibility, the child or children in a marriage stand as a symbol. The two can create with their offspring a little cell of creative loving.

The human enterprise is a great adventure, as we move from the relatively settled world of our past, through decisions and actions in the present, toward the unexplored but alluring world of the future. This forward movement gives zest to life, as Whitehead rightly saw and said. In no area is this adventure so promising as in the one-to-one, person-to-person, relationships where two human lives are glad to share and work together, for the best good of each and with love as the motivation and resource as well as the result of that sharing.

I conclude with one final point. Such genuine love is marked by a joy that rises above duty; it can be "fun." Why is this? The answer surely is that right functioning is always characterized by a deep sense of well-being. We know this about our bodies. When they are functioning rightly there is a basic contentment. So also for the whole range of our existence. When we are moving in the direction proper to us as humans we enjoy a feeling of satisfaction. This does not imply unimaginative, stolid, or dully repetitive existence. On the contrary, there may be and there should be something of a "divine discontent" in all human life, since none of us is fully and entirely what we have in us to become. There will be a striving toward as well as a desire for more and better things. At the same time there can be a wonderful happiness and a deep sense of joy in our relationship one with an other.