A few months ago I participated at a training about vegan activism led by Melanie Joy. It was the first time Melanie came to Budapest to do a training and I was very excited about it. During this training she said a few words about her new book called Getting Relationships Right: How to Build Resilience and Thrive in Life, Love, and Work.
Her training was so inspirational and I loved that she approached the topic in a calm, competent, and understanding way. I felt that if I took someone’s advice about relationships, it’d be definitely her’s. So I decided to read the book and I think I can say that it changed the way I approach every relationship in my life. Today I want to share a few things I learned from Getting Relationships Right.
Why is it important to learn about relationships?
Relationships take a huge part of our lives whether they are with romantic partners, family, leaders, and even ourselves. In our personal life, most joy and suffering come from relationships. So obviously it is very important to learn to manage our relationships well.
I shared these thoughts before reading the book, but Melanie went beyond them. While reading, I realized that all of the problems in our world come from how we relate. That is why it is so important to learn healthy ways of relating if we want to change our world and our lives. She highlighted that learning to relate in a healthy way can be deeply transformative not only personally, but socially and ecologically too.
Given the importance of learning about relationships, it makes sense that these things should be taught at schools. But instead, what we know about relationships we have mostly learned from our parents, our culture, and idealized romantic movies. To be honest, none of these is an especially healthy model. In fact, just the contrary is true; much of what we are taught is dysfunctional. By following these models, our personal relationships also become dysfunctional and unhealthy.
But it is never too late to learn about relationships and try to improve the way we relate to others.
“We can choose at any moment to change the way we relate and improve the direction in which our relationship is heading.” —Melanie Joy
What is a healthy interaction?
I had already read a lot about how to interact with others in a healthy way but for me, it was best described in Getting Relationships Right. Most books are only about good communication—which is of course very important—but Melanie talks about healthy interactions in a more comprehensive way. According to her, a healthy interaction is the one that reflects integrity, honors dignity, and leads to a sense of connection.
So let’s break these down a little bit. Reflecting integrity means you treat the other in a way you want to be treated. You are honoring someone’s dignity if you show that the other person is worthy to be treated with respect. According to Joy, when contempt or shame is present in our relationships we have a problem with honoring dignity. If we are feeling contempt. it means we’ve placed ourselves in a position of moral superiority. On the other side, if we are feeling shame, we’ve placed ourselves in a position of moral inferiority. If our relationship reflects integrity and honors dignity it will lead to a sense of connection. However, if it violates integrity and harms dignity, it will lead to disconnection.
“Connection is the experience of feeling understood, valued and nourished. Whether we are aware of it or not, most of us are always striving to feel connected and to avoid the pain of disconnection.” —Melanie Joy
While reading the book I realized that all of my interactions with others that led to disconnection didn’t reflect integrity and honor dignity. Sometimes these were with people whom I didn’t know well, but often they were with people close to me. Personally I felt that my dignity was harmed in many times at workplaces in the past. Maybe at work it is especially harder to honor dignity because at most places there is a hierarchical system between workers. In many past conversations with my superiors, I didn’t feel I was treated with respect. This often led to disconnection, and once I even left my job because of it.
I also experienced this problem being in the other side. My ex and I couldn’t always manage communication well. Looking back, I think I didn’t express my thoughts and feelings in a way I would do today. When I am in a relationship with someone, it is very hard to tell whether my interactions show integrity and dignity. But I think I can easily notice feeling contempt or shame, and that’s a sign to make some changes. I will look at them as red flags.
What is relationship resilience?
Joy also uses a very interesting metaphor to describe relationships. She says that stressors can attack our relationships just like germs attack immune systems. If the immune system is weaker than the germs, the relationship “gets sick” and develops problems. On the other hand, a resilient relationship is the one that has a strong immune system.
She also talks about how to build relationship resilience. She explains that a relational immune system consists of two components: security and connection. A relationship is more resilient when we feel more secure and more connected with each other.
“A relationship takes effort—daily, committed effort to create the sense of security and connection necessary for it to thrive.” —Melanie Joy
This was something I already knew but the parts about the germs or stressors gave me new food for thought. Relationship germs can be visible and invisible. Visible germs are quite obvious, like an illness or a loss of a job. But there are some invisible germs too, such as dysfunctional social systems, systems of oppression, racism, sexism, etc.
When I looked back to my past relationships, I noticed that all of them ended because our immune system wasn’t strong enough to handle some invisible germs. For example, one invisible germ that affected my relationships was gender inequality, or the social expectation that women are less entitled to have their needs met than men are. So often, I neglected my needs in order to fulfill my partner’s needs. When we decided to go out, I always let him decide where to go and what to do. Even if I felt like doing something else, I just agreed to his plans and stayed silent.
These are little things, but after a while they caused me frustration and made me unsatisfied. Now I know that it was neither my nor my partner’s fault, it was just a germ that we needed to face together. I hope being able to identify these germs will help me with my current relationship.
What did I learn as a vegan?
This book wasn’t written only for vegans but to everyone who wants to learn more about relationships. However, I could apply many things I learned to the vegan movement too. I think I can try to increase the resilience not only of my personal relationships but of the vegan movement. As an animal right activist, I learned how to communicate more effectively about veganism. For example, instead of trying to win an argument I could focus on creating connection. I think I will also recommend this book to my non-vegan friends. I find it a great tool to develop self-awareness and critical thinking and to question these systems that we are all part of.
Photo: Priscilla Du Preez via Unsplash