Building Belonging to Endure the Challenges of Life

An interview with Kelly Flanagan on growth and resilience in relationships.

Posted Jan 22, 2021

In the world of the pandemic, limited interaction from social distancing can create many feelings of isolation and loneliness. In this interview, Kelly Flanagan shares insight on how to build healthy and resilient relationships from his book, True Companions.

Kelly Flanagan, used with permission
Source: Kelly Flanagan, used with permission

Kelly Flanagan is a clinical psychologist and is the founder of Artisan Clinical Associates, a private practice in Naperville, Illinois, offering services to teens, adults, couples, and families. The author of The Marriage Manifesto, Loveable, and the forthcoming title True Companions (February 2021), he has also written for publications such as Christianity Today, Reader's Digest, and Huffington Post. Flanagan is a popular blogger and speaks regularly on topics related to marriage, parenting, and spiritual formation.

Jamie Aten: Why did you set out to write your book?

Kelly Flanagan: The health of relationships has always been central to who I am as a person, a psychologist, and a creative person, going all the way back to my undergraduate research at the University of Illinois and my graduate studies at Penn State. (My wife might dispute this. Thank goodness you didn’t ask her. Ha!)

My first book, Loveable, explored how the strongest foundation for our relationships is a deep and abiding sense of our own worthiness. In this way, instead of turning our relationships into a search for a healthy sense of self, they can become an expression of it.

This is how we find places of belonging in the world: We authentically and gladly reveal who we are and we wait to see who celebrates that revelation. However, there is a big difference between finding belonging and building belonging into something that can endure through the many challenges of life. I wanted to write a book about building that kind of belonging, and True Companions became that book.

JA: What is the primary takeaway you hope readers will learn from reading your book?

KF: This might sound shocking at first, but I want readers to give up on unconditional love. Do I have your attention now? Good!

I find that many companions spend most of their relationships demanding unconditional love from each other. Most of the energy and the struggle in the relationship is around this issue. However, when you scratch the surface of their demands, what you discover is that they aren’t asking to be loved perfectly, they are asking to be loved as if they are perfect. But no one is perfect! So, the demands for unconditional love are really a thinly-disguised way to avoid the gritty and graceful work of growing together.

What if, instead, in our closest relationships, we made a mutual commitment to take personal responsibility for our own growth? What if we said to each other: Lend me your eyes, lovingly let me know the ways you’d like me to show up differently in our relationship, and I will love you in return by growing as much as I possibly can? I hope readers will take away from True Companions this sense of mutual ownership for growth in themselves and in their relationships.

JA: What are some lessons from your book that can help people live more resiliently?

KF: Many people think they need to somehow transcend some basic human realities before their relationships can thrive. In True Companions, however, I argue that the three ordinary human experiences which plague most relationships can actually be turned into the foundation of true companionship. Those experiences are loneliness, defensiveness, and fragility.

Let’s focus on loneliness, for instance. Most of us think of loneliness as a bad thing, because we confuse our loneliness with our experiences of abandonment, shame, and isolation. However, once we disentangle it from those painful experiences, we discover our loneliness is simply the shadow side of our uniqueness. It’s what happens when you’re human and you have three million variations on your genetic strand that no other human being shares. It’s what happens when you have a place within you that no one else can get to. It’s what happens when it’s impossible to be completely understood by another human being. As we befriend our loneliness in this way, our capacity to be peacefully and resiliently alone expands, which paves the way for healthier relationships: Instead of demanding that our companions fix our loneliness, we have opportunities to share our loneliness with each other and, in the process, to feel a little less alone. 

JA: What are some insights from your book that help readers support a friend or loved one?

KF: I think the key to supporting a friend or a loved one is deep and abiding presence, and many of us have good intentions about being present to our people in this way.

However, there is a body of research conducted by psychologist Laura Carstensen at Stanford University which suggests that no matter how good our intentions are, if we don’t hold a particular perspective on life, it will be difficult to prioritize our companions in this way.

Specifically, her research shows that the young tend to focus on accumulating stuff, meeting new people, and expanding their footprint in the world, whereas the elderly tend to focus on enjoying everyday pleasures and deepening connection with their existing companions.

These priorities, though, are not primarily due to age but to perspective. Her work shows that regardless of age, when the end of life seems far off, you tend to exhibit more expansive priorities, but when, in her words, you are living with your fragility primed, you tend to exhibit more focused priorities.

In other words, if we want to be consistently focused on supporting our companions, we need to maintain an awareness of our fragility and our mortality, rather than ignoring or denying these human realities. The last third of True Companions is about how to do so in a way that is not sad or scary but beautiful. 

JA: What are you currently working on these days? 

KF: I own a therapy practice in Naperville, IL, called Artisan Clinical Associates. I’m looking forward to what 2021 has in store for us, as we are getting clearer and clearer about our mission to attract people to therapy with the promise of discovering their true self and then actually equipping them to live and love from that true self. We just added a new therapist, which is always an exciting time for a therapy practice.

With regard to my writing, I’m currently in the middle of proposing my next book to Intervarsity Press. I envision it as a book about that critical juncture in every human life when what has worked up to that point is beginning to fall apart and we are faced with the sometimes scary and always challenging passage into a deeper and more meaningful life. Some of us turn away and keep retreading the same ground—the same coping, the same relationships, the same ambitions—while others of us make that passage and discover the joy, grace, and freedom that lies on the other side of it. Whether the book will be another non-fiction book or a fiction project, I’m not quite sure. What I do know is it involves a terrible nightmare and a bunch of good and graceful ghosts. How’s that for a teaser?

JA: Anything else you would like to share? 

KF: Humanity has been getting some not-so-great press recently. I want people to know that as a therapist, working every day with real people and no reporters around, humanity is pretty darn amazing. We are resilient and adaptive. We long for good, true, and beautiful experiences and relationships. We get turned around in our pursuit of those things. We get confused. We get sidetracked. We get distracted. We get lost. We get hurt. We get frustrated. And yet. We seek reorientation through good stories, helpful books, good guides, healing relationships. My encouragement to anyone reading this is to know that it’s okay for life to disorient you for a while. We don’t build resilience when life goes well; we discover it within us when life doesn’t. And once we’ve discovered it, no one can take it away from us.