As I look back on previous Healthy Relationships columns for the month of February, I find that nearly all of them focus on healthy romantic relationships. I’ve discussed how to teach our kids to have healthy romantic relationships, what healthy romantic relationships look like and the damage that unhealthy relationships can do. All of that is important, to be sure, and I will, no doubt, write about it again. But right now I feel called to think a bit more broadly, to explore a wider issue that affects all of us, whether we are in romantic relationships or not.
Now more than ever, I’ve been thinking about what it means to have a healthy relationship with people who are different than me. How do we build those bridges? How do we move from suspicion to friendship? What does a healthy relationship mean when it is between people who are very different from one another?
These are not unimportant questions. It seems clear that we are in a time of significant division in our country and in our world. And if I learned nothing else from the last presidential election, I learned that our view of the world becomes skewed and narrowed and, frankly, not very accurate, if we only talk to people who see the world the way we see it. But if we are committed to building bridges — to moving from suspicion to friendship — then we have to be open to others, whether the differences are of ethnicity or political belief.
I think the first step has to be the willingness to leave your comfort zone. We all like what is familiar, what we know. We are comfortable when we know the customs and norms, the rules to follow, the social and cultural hierarchies. We feel in control. But learning from others, really learning to see the world from a different perspective requires that we give up that comfort and control. It means that we have to develop a willingness to be a bit off-balance, to not always know the right answer, to sometimes make a mistake. Taking that step outside our comfort zone often means going to new and different places; not other countries necessarily, though that is a great way to learn. But sometimes it simply means going to lectures or exhibits or meetings that we usually skip, thinking that they have no relevance to our lives. If we want to move from suspicion to friendship, we need to learn what friendship looks like to others, which means we must spend time with them.
Part of leaving our comfort zone is being willing to hear things that may challenge us. And to do that, we have to listen. Listening to those who are different from us means paying attention to what they are saying rather than composing a response in our heads before they have finished speaking. It means working, sometimes working really hard, not to be defensive. It does not mean abandoning one’s principles or beliefs. But it does mean working to find common ground rather than working to win the argument. It means recognizing that we are all part of a larger puzzle, each piece critical to the whole. As Sen. Cory Booker reminds us, “We don’t always have to agree, but we must empower each other, we must find the common ground, we must build bridges across our differences to pursue the common good.” I think our country and our world depend on it.