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  • Writer's pictureJohn Ikerd

The Challenge of Personal Relationships

Updated: Jun 9, 2019

The greatest challenge facing society today is the art, science, and actualization of human relationships. Virtually every ecological, social, political, or economic problem I can think of is rooted in our increasingly dysfunctional relationships with each other. I have written before about the importance of our relationships with the earth and each other. I focus here on the importance of purely personal relationships.

As our economy has become more complex, we have come to rely almost exclusively on impersonal market transactions, rather than personal relationships—not just to meet our basic needs but also to express our personality. If we need or want something we buy it, with little thought as to who made or produced it. As our society has become more complex, we have come to rely on the impersonal governments, rather than personal relationships—not just to ensure our basic rights but to define how we should and shouldn’t treat each other. We vote for representatives we don’t know personally to define our relationships with other people we don’t know personally, through the impersonal processes of governance.

Impersonal markets and governments are essential to the functioning of complex societies. However, we have allowed our reliance on economic and political transactions to denigrate or demean the intrinsic value of purely personal relationships. We seem to have forgotten that the societal values essential for effective governance and efficient economies are rooted ultimately in personal relationships. We develop our sense of what’s right or wrong and good or bad from relationships with our parents, family, friends—people we have known personally. We develop our sense of self-discipline, including how to moderate our economic self-interests, from relationships with people we know and care about—personally.

As personal relationships have become less important in meeting our basic needs, we have allowed our individual self-interests to dominate both our political and economic decisions. Neither markets nor governments can function very effectively for very long with the decisions of sellers, buyers, and voters dominated by selfishness and greed rather than an understanding of the need to temper individual freedoms with equity and justice for all. We have become a nation preoccupied with liberty at the expense of justice. There must be liberty and justice for all of us if there is to be liberty and justice for any of us. Ultimately, we must make both governments and markets work effectively by honoring the essential values of positive personal relationships.

Honesty, fairness, responsibility, compassion, and respect.  “These five core ethical values of positive human relationships are common to many cultures, regardless of race, age, religious affiliation, gender, or nationality,” according to the Institute for Global Ethics. I first heard this list of values in a radio interview while driving. I didn’t need to write them down, as these values immediately stuck in my mind as revealed truth. It is just plain common sense that if we are to sustain positive relationships with other people we must be honest, fair, responsible, compassionate, and respectful.

We are fallible human beings; we all make mistakes. But, does anyone really believe he or she can routinely or consistently be dishonest, unfair, irresponsible, uncaring, or disrespectful and still have personal friends? Yet we see these common sense values of positive relationships violated routinely in our personal relationships and consequently in our impersonal economic and political relationships. We no longer prioritize purely personal relationships, and we are suffering the inevitable political and economic consequence.

Let me make clear, I am not holding myself up as an example of someone who has mastered the art and science of human relationships. In fact, I learned the value of personal relationships the hard way, by spending too much of my life ignoring or neglecting them. I was once told by a professional colleague: “John, you have one big problem, you p—s people off.” He was right. I said and did whatever it took to make my point or get my way—and it worked. However, my individual success was achieved at the expense of my personal relationship—with family, friends, and even professional colleagues.

Eventually, I was brought to a place of repentance. The mental and physical stress of failed personal relationships coupled with a growing realization of basic problems in our economy and society eventually awakened me to the necessity for fundamental change. However, I was starting a lifetime learning process with less than half-a-life left. I have been trying catch up, but I still have a long way to go. I still occasionally p—s people off. Whenever I realize I am lagging in my journey, I return to the core values of honesty, fairness, responsibility, compassion, and respect.

The hardest tests involve apparent conflicts among different core values? How can we be honest and still be compassionate when we know the “truth will hurt?” How can we speak or act responsibly and still be respectful of people with whom we disagree? Such questions can be resolved by finding answers that preserve personal integrity—that reflect the essence of the values as a whole rather than giving one priority over another. It’s not compassionate to allow someone to continue believing a lie. We can be truthful without being “brutally honesty.” Respect does not require agreement on particular issues, just agreement with the other person’s right to disagree. I have found apparent conflicts can generally be resolved by putting ourselves in the place of others and acting accordingly—the ubiquitous, timeless Golden Rule.

It hurts me when I see people, particularly younger people, making the same mistakes in their relationships that I have made in mine. In my relations with such people, I try to be honest without being hurtful, but don’t always succeed. I try to be respectful even when I disagree, but am not always convincing. I am simply trying to treat others as I wish others had treated me.  The art and science of positive personal relationships is not easy to learn or to practice successfully. However, I remain convinced that we simply can’t afford not to try.

John Ikerd

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