Stronger at the Broken Places

How challenges can strengthen your relationship

The “I” Word

You don't have to be a Buddhist to become enlightened.

(Charlie) I've been thinking a lot lately about the "I" word. Maybe it's because I've been noticing the places in the lives of others and in my own life where it's been out. The 'it' that's out is "integrity." I've been noticing the ways that I make it OK, by rationalizing and justifying lapses of integrity that I am guilty of and how I judge and react to that in others. “Co-incidentally”, there seems to be a relationship between these two phenomena. The Buddhists have a word for it. They call it "karma”. Although an entire religion has been based upon this principle, it can perhaps best be summarized by the commonly known simple five-word phrase: "What goes around comes around." Or to put it even more succinctly, to quote a friend "Nobody gets away with nothing."

There seems to be a pretty direct correlation between the degree to which I live in integrity with my values, commitments, and agreements and the degree to which I find myself in reactivity to those around me whom I assess as failing to do that themselves, particularly those with whom I am in close relationship. It seems that the degree to which I am reactive or disturbed by those who fail to act in ways that are consistent with their words has more to do with how innocent or guilty I am of that offense, and of how forgiving I am of myself for my own (inevitable) lapses of integrity.

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Like the word "karma," there are some concise definitions of "integrity" that you won't find in the dictionary that captures the essence of what the word means, the simplest of which is "walking the talk." A couple of others are "practicing what you preach" and "putting your money where your mouth is." I learned a slightly more elaborate definition of integrity from my friend Angeles Arrien, who sees it as "the integration and alignment of your thoughts, feelings, words and actions." However you define it, integrity is about wholeness. The root of the word is "integer" which refers to a whole number. So integrity has to do with living life in a way that promotes the experience within yourself and in those around you of being whole and complete. It's a great concept, but as anyone who has ever tried it knows, it's easier said than done, particularly in the realm of committed partnerships. While you might think that this is the arena in which we would be LEAST likely to violate our word and fail to keep our commitments, it seems to be the place where these lapses are most likely to show up, perhaps because for many of us it is easy to over-commit in order to accommodate our partner, or to agree to something for the wrong reasons, including the desire to avoid a conflict or a feeling of obligation, that can promote a desire to break our word, or for any number of other reasons that lead to a similar outcome. This is not to suggest that being out of integrity is justifiable or excusable for the right reasons, but merely to put it in context and see it as what is more often than not a relational issue rather than an individual one.

Regardless of the reasons that we’ve done what we’ve done, the consequences to ourselves and to the relationship must be attended to and if it has been damaged, repaired.

The first step in the reparative process is to acknowledge the occurrence of a break in the agreement or understanding that had been in place and for both parties to make an effort to identify any ways in which they may have contributed to the promoting of conditions that have given rise to the occurrence of this breakdown. The first step in the healing of a breach of trust or a broken promise is the acknowledgment of the breakdown and a willingness to listen to the impact that one’s actions have had on their partner. After this has occurred, both partners are more able to listen openly and non-defensively to each other and will accordingly be more able to understand and implement what needs to happen in order to restore integrity back into the relationship.

When it comes to integrity, I’m no saint. And although I’m much more aware of the consequences of my own lapses than I used to be, there are more times than I care to recall or admit to that I'm guilty of not doing things that I said I would do or doing things that I had said I wouldn't. Because I too have committed my share of “offenses," I generally try to keep my judgments of others to myself and speak about my response to their actions rather than condemn them for doing something “wrong”. For example, by saying something like, “When you showed up 30 minutes late for our lunch date, I felt disrespected.” When my friend inevitably responds with their explanation or excuse that is designed to justify their actions, I listen, thank them for their explanation, make sure that they understand that I heard them, and that they heard me as well. At those times I will be honest and respectful in expressing my feelings of disappointment, worry, irritation or whatever else I'm experiencing in response to a broken agreement on someone else's part. I'm getting a little better at doing this without making others wrong or being judgmental. I will also do my best to reassure them that my motivation in communicating my disappointment is to clear our relationship of any residual debris that could interfere with our sharing the best possible connection that we could have.

When I tell the truth in a responsible, respectful and non-blaming way that doesn't make the other person wrong, and acknowledges my part in a breakdown, a remarkable thing often happens. My judgments dissolve, my resentment melts, and I feel closer to and forgiving of the other person and often of myself as well.  Sometimes of course, they aren't particularly happy to hear my feelings and may feel put down regardless of how careful I am to express myself non-judgmentally. I've found that if I can stay true to my own experience and simultaneously be accepting of the feelings that the other person is expressing, that we can, and usually do, after a few go-rounds, come to a place of deeper understanding which leaves us both feeling more connected and respectful of ourselves and each other.

When there is a commitment to integrity there is no circumstance or behavior that can derail us if we're willing to hang in there and keep speaking our truth while listening compassionately and non-judgmentally to the other person. And on those occasions in which the outcome is less agreeable than we might have desired, it's usually at least a step in a direction that ultimately serves the relationship even though the process may be more difficult at those times than we wish for it to be.

I don't tell the truth because I believe I should or because I was told to do so. I do it because it is the perfect antidote to the self- righteousness, anxiety, arrogance, guilt and resentment that I often feel when I don't. The compassion and humility that flows from my honesty gradually deepens my experience of respect that leaves me feeling more connected with others, more self-accepting, and more free to live my life authentically. I try, not always successfully, to live in integrity with the truth of my experience not because I want to be a good person, but because it's the best thing that I can do for myself. It's the most direct path to my own heart and to the hearts of others.

If in doing so others benefit, so much the better. This is called "enlightened self-interest". It's the ultimate win-win game. And by the way, the interest that you receive is compounded on a daily basis. Can you think of a better investment?

Linda Bloom, L.C.S.W., and Charlie Bloom, M.S.W., are the authors of Secrets of Great Marriages: Real Truths from Real Couples About Lasting Love.

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