Arelational: To not wear the label, try this exercise

“Arelational” is a new word that keeps popping up. It had to be coined to describe the kind of environments in which Americans, in particular, increasingly live. Such environments  develop individuals who struggle to make and nurture relationships. As a result, labellers can label them: arelational.

It's official: We stare at our phone more than we stare at our TV

It takes relationships to flourish

Since 1938, the Harvard Study of Adult Development has been investigating what makes people flourish. The original participants and their descendants have provided the longest in-depth longitudinal study on human life ever accomplished. The answer to their original question is simple but profound. The way to flourish is to have good relationships. The only thing you have to do is nurture them.

The latest director of the study and his associate recently wrote a book to expand on this simple truth. In a teaser article in The Atlantic they explain why their conclusion is not just painfully obvious.

Turn your mind for a moment to a friend or family member you cherish but don’t spend as much time with as you would like. This needn’t be your most significant relationship, just someone who makes you feel energized when you’re with them, and whom you’d like to see more regularly.

How often do you see that person? Every day? Once a month? Once a year? Do the math and project how many hours annually you spend with them. Write this number down and hang on to it.

For us, Bob and Marc, though we work closely together and meet every week by phone or video call, we see each other in person for only a total of about two days (48 hours) every year.

How does this add up for the coming years? Bob is 71 years old. Marc is 60. Let’s be (very) generous and say we will both be around to celebrate Bob’s 100th birthday. At two days a year for 29 years, that’s 58 days that we have left to spend together in our lifetimes.

Fifty-eight out of 10,585 days.

Their conclusion is: that’s not too many days to commit to such an important relationship.

Did you make a list of your closest relationships and do the math? It may be a little terrifying to get serious about that subject. It can seem a little daunting to make and keep a friend, but it is one of those things about which we say, “No pain, no gain” and, “It’s worth it.”

Our arelational environments

Bringing this subject up feels dangerous to me. I’m afraid it will wound people further where they are hurting the most. Since the pandemic I have heard story after story of broken relationships which have not been recovered. The British government recently, and famously, created the loneliness ministry and sociologists keep writing articles about how loneliness is literally sickening and killing people.

As psychological researchers begin to explore what has happened to therapy clients, a new literature and new words are emerging to describe what is going on. A few weeks ago an acquaintance used a new word his therapist had given him: “arelational.” The therapist was helping him to see the environment in which he grew up and the institutions that he inhabited in a new light. They were filled with important relationships in which people did not fully connect and change each other. The effects of these environments dramatically impacted his marriage, where he was mainly insisting on a transactional relationship based on mutual benefit.

If you Google “arelational” you won’t find too much. Google will just send you to “relational” (and Word is trying to spellcheck me right now). But it seems like a good word to describe how thin our relational ties are these days. Many of us spend weeks in arelationality. Some of us don’t even go to stores for transactions but rely on contactless transactions to keep fed — we are becoming accustomed to arelationality.

Google did take me to the “Relationality Lab,” however. It was founded after the pandemic in response to the “global loneliness crisis,” the threat to democracies, and the failures of justice movements to address climate change and systemic inequity effectively. I like their logo at the left.  In one of their research articles, they use the word “arelational” as if it were in common use. The founder is talking to corporate and governmental settings, where he wants to make the most difference. But I think the word applies to most contexts where we will spend most of our time today. The “Lab” workers say:

Some environments are better at generating and maintaining relationships than others. A community that trusts one another gathering to share a meal is more relational than, say, Twitter. In a relational environment new connections are effortless, conflicts resolve in generative ways, and creative power is unleashed. In an arelational environment all of these things can still happen, but they are a lot harder and a lot less likely.

Creating and maintaining relational environments requires a particular kind of skilled labor. People with this skill can see where powerful relationships could exist and create the conditions to let them emerge. They can see where important relationships are at risk, and provide the care necessary for them to keep them resilient. Relational work might look like planning events and facilitating workshops, or it might look like cooking someone their favorite meal when they are sick. Though relational work often manifests as acts of care, it is the deep understanding behind those acts that makes it effective.

Imagine an elder who is part of a multi-general community that provides meaningful care and support. Now imagine the same elder in a corporate chain of senior homes which provide care based on a uniform set of policies. Both provide care, the care in the senior home may be better resourced and more technologically sophisticated, but the community is providing significantly more relational work.

Effective relational work requires a deep understanding of the local environment and a mind capable of seeing how relationships might change within it. A software platform, even one with the most sophisticated machine learning tools, cannot perform this work (though it might support those performing it), nor can one person perform it meaningfully for a community of thousands. Relational work requires many humans working at a human scale who are accountable to the communities they serve.

When I resigned my last pastoral assignment in August of 2020, one of my exhortations to the staff for which I worked was something like this: “If you love one another, you have a chance to survive. If you don’t, the church will fall apart.” Unfortunately, a small group of leaders took over the system and installed justice in place of love (maybe unwittingly, since I doubt they thought the two did not go together). A relational system had been holding the church together for decades. An arelational system quickly reduced it to nothing. The “deep understanding” went missing. Such stories are not unusual these days.

An exercise to help nurture relationships

Are you still thinking about your own deepest relationships and how you are nurturing them? Your personal health and the health of the systems we inhabit depends on them. If we teach our children the “deep understanding,” they will also be able to see how strong relationships are the glue of everything.

The kids might be hearing more about dissociation from TikTok, or societal meltdown from a news source, or broken relationships from Olivia Rodrigo. Or they might hear more about keeping a safe distance from germ carriers, or avoiding sexual predators and malignant  narcissists, or hiding from gun-toting radicals or anyone who takes more than they give. If we demonstrate a relational way to see the world, they might learn not to be arelational.

The Holy Spirit will probably teach you to be relational, in line with who you were created to be: a person born and reborn in love. That’s the deepest understanding.

But in honor of the researchers who are discovering  deep understanding by crunching numbers and seeing what helps people flourish and what helps people groups cohere and change, lets makes that list.

Be generous when you list the people who you love, or who give you life, or to whom you feel closest (not necessarily the ideal relationships you want). Spouses and families count, but stretch out beyond them. Try to get beyond twenty people. To do that you will be including acquaintances with whom you have some sense of mutual care, or even acquaintances you would like to see develop into caregivers. Your list might get to 50 or more!

Then rank them in terms of closeness. You could make four columns.

  • Close: The closest few (you can decide what defines close).
  • Near: The friends and neighbors on whom you could rely in some way, large or small. “Your people.”
  • Acquainted: The acquaintances for whom you have affection for or affinity with but have limited interaction with (likely from work or church or other groups)
  • Known: The acquaintances with whom you feel some connection but who are not “in” relationship with you.

If you follow Jesus, you’ll see how he could have made this list. Ask him to walk you through yours and show you what it means and what you might do about it with his help.

Even if you don’t have the help of Jesus, you can nurture relationships, increase your well-being, and keep your society from falling apart. Like the Harvard studies keep proving, it will take nurturing, which requires effort. Relationships often start like they just “happened.” But they don’t last if you expect them to just keep happening to you. They have to be built and maintained. You may not have the tools to do that work, so you will need to acquire them. There is substantial opposition to relationships these days (screens, capitalism, hedge funds, addiction, you name it) so you’ll have to be stubborn about nurturing and hold on to your deep understanding.

I’m going to avoid thinking about effecting a glorious endpoint full of great relationships and concentrate on taking the next step. I’m going to try making a chart and tracking how much contact I am making with all those people on my list. I am not going to track how much effort they are making with me (unless I am being weirdly and harmfully codependent). I am just going to make sure I am doing what I can to keep from sliding into arelationality.

One thought on “Arelational: To not wear the label, try this exercise

  1. Rod, as always, I am grateful you center in truth as you share wisdom for walking in the world!

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