There are a lot of things that threaten a relationship. Challenging circumstances. Outside temptations. But the most dangerous thing in your relationship might surprise you. It is a bigger threat than circumstance or temptation, anger or addiction. In fact, it is the undercurrent of all other dangers.
We are made for community. Yet, we are each valuable individuals. The beauty of relationship is the merger of these two realities: being who we are in the context of community. The most dangerous threat to your relationship is an internal one. It is a specific mistake we often make as we try to navigate the balance of unique identity in relationship with others.
Who is the Antagonist?
There is nothing more powerful than a story. We are all living a unique story. Heroes and villains, obstacles and triumphs. Our lives are an epic journey.
An important question in the story of any human is who is the antagonist? Who is the enemy? Our story needs an antagonist. We need someone, some thing, that we are defeating, rising above, conquering. We need it in our greater story and in the story of our day. It might be complacency or fear. Satan or a rival at work. This is why we love sports and politics, reality TV and gossip. We need something we are coming up against to make us feel alive, to give our story meaning and weight.
Unfortunately, the people closest to us are the easiest people to cast as the antagonist in our story. They are with us every day. They have their own unique ideas. Their own story. And we can so easily start to compete with the people we love the most. This is what turns loving couples into bitter divorcees. It is what causes Jerry Springer to never run out of guests.
The biggest threat to your relationship is the temptation to cast your partner as the antagonist in your story. This happens all the time in relationships. It occurs in small ways every day.
When I am telling a story to friends, I need an antagonist. I am obviously going to be the hero, so I need some obstacle to overcome, something to rise above. My wife is often the antagonist. I start a story by putting her on blast: “She is pretty bad with directions” (luckily she has me to show her the way); “She takes a nap every day!” (luckily, I am here to work hard and earn the money); “She hates [fill in the blank]” (as opposed to me, who is much more cultured and open-minded). The safest way for us to build ourselves up is to tear down the people around us.
The people closest to us are the easiest punching bags. We knew them well, we know their quirks and their preferences and their imperfections. And we love to use these as fodder for our own stories of triumph. We protect them when they make a mistake. We know something when they are oblivious or foolish. We use our partners to make ourselves look better. We are always protecting our image in front of others, much more sensitive to how we might look bad than how what we are saying might make our partner look.
The results are a subtle poison in our relationships. We are always trying to one-up the people we love most. Always talking about how we are the peacemakers in an otherwise turbulent family, how we are the providers or the planners, the ones who know what is best or the ones who have their life together. We are the heroes of our families, the saints and saviors of the relationship. We love them in spite of their foolishness and imperfection.
It will break your heart if you start looking for this. How often couples say something (just casual, just for fun) that tears the other down, cast them in a bad light, makes fun of them.
The reason this is so dangerous is because it undermines the vision of a relationship. Relationships are about unity, togetherness. You are on the same team! Striving for a unified goal, partners in pursuing that end. Without a stated, intentional vision for our relationship, we devolve into fighting over who is the hero and who is the antagonist. We tell our stories and our relationships die by a thousand little cuts.
A unified relationship can withstand any circumstance. People who know and accept that they are on the same team cannot be breached by outside temptations. What drives us to the other dangers of relationship is the subtle belief that our partner is the antagonist in our story.