Relationships provide us with context for our lives. Every single external action we take is done in terms of a relationship. Relationships with hot water and tea leaves, potassium and oxygen, or wood and heat. But physical relationships are the obvious ones that don’t always have a significant lasting effect on us. The intangible interpersonal relationships are the ones that drastically shape who and what we are to become. Interaction between people is the only way the context of your situation can change. Those skilled in learning from the relationships of others can use that information to find the most effective ways to interact with those around them. When looking for a job or a promotion, we have to know the ways to create an appropriate relationship with someone who is in the position to give us what we seek. When finding a romantic partner, we need to have the experience to know what to say and the ways to say it to get a positive response. When buying groceries, we need to know the right ways to behave to not get kicked out of the store. The range of situations where a good understanding of the ways relationships work is infinite.
Seeing and understanding relationships is great for consciously shaping where we want to fit in the world, but also influences the world in ways not always intended. What we do to others and in front of others changes the ways others behave. The parent-child relationship may be the best example of the manner in which our behavior affects others. Very young children are exposed to the greatest extent to their parents, and parents being in a role of caregivers are generally looked up to as heroes who can lift heavy objects, provide escape from scary situations, get food, and expand opportunities for enjoyment through toys and activities. Children develop their behavior based on this hero that the child is exposed to each day at home. When a small child is exposed to vicious criticisms from parents, the child may modify behaviors in ways that are not productive outside the home, and indeed, that perception and instinct to modify behavior may persist through adulthood.
Another way relationships form us is by showing us roles. When we are exposed to others in situations where that person’s role functions a certain way in a relationship, we learn ways to behave that may put us into a similar relationship, or behaviors to avoid if we feel the relationship is negative. When we go to a mechanic or hair salon, we learn that yelling and swearing lead to reduced quality of service. Without learning about relationships and how to mimic them for the best results, we get situations like in The Use of Force, a story by William Carlos Williams. “I held the child’s head with my left hand and tried to get the wooden tongue depressor between her teeth” (155, Williams). A doctor is the ultimate nurturer, but only in the right context. When a doctor’s ability to quickly assess and prescribe is compromised by a patient who has no concept of appropriate behavior for that role, strong emotions can result. The change in relationship can abruptly shift from doctor-patient to torturer-victim because of the patient’s behavior. “The damned little brat must be protected against her own idiocy” (156, Williams). The doctor’s behavior is changed by the child’s. This is not unsurprising, but is disappointing. As adults, we should be well enough experienced in the ways relationships work to be able to maintain the one we want to have despite outside influences. The child has the excuse of only being a young child and not knowing the best way to respond to a doctor’s ministrations, but the doctor does not. His behavior changes the child’s perception of proper behavior for a doctor, and reinforces her wild and violent persona as the correct role for the doctor-patient relationship.
Perhaps the most fixated on and distorted relationship by media is the intimate relationship. We find intimate relationships are shown as productive, time-saving, convenient and passionate relationships where the goal is money, good sex, a better way of life, or more prestige. Sometimes a relationship according to popular media is about just being with someone we look up to. Intimate relationships can include some of the elements just noted, but a fulfilling intimate relationship comes from being made to feel good about who we are. The most important thing we can gain from a relationship from a romantic partner is validation of our worth. A relationship that does nothing for our ongoing wellbeing can be found in any stranger we meet on the street, but an individual in the role of an intimate partner should be able to offer more. In successful relationships, these feelings are mutual. Both sides of the arrangement should know what behaviors in relationships work, and the best methods to maintain their role of a supportive counterpart. Viewing relationships on television rarely shows this validation on both sides. Without learning about the intimate relationship, we can still find a positive and fulfilling relationship, but we can’t provide one.
Cultural stereotypes are the most persistent influence in the contemporary world. Advertisements, entertainment, role models, and prominent members of our society all teach us by example about roles we are meant to fill. Family roles are particularly strongly affected by cultural stereotypes. Cultural stereotypes are equivalent to a Best Practices standard for society. The issue here is that there is no best fit for a single individual. In terms of the larger picture, a single ethnic culture is the most peaceful and has the lowest depression rate, like Sweden. In the larger picture, cultures where men are exclusively put into controlling roles and women into submissive or sexual roles like in Rome have been shown as the most powerful (at least for a while). This does not mean that on the individual scale these methods of creating a perceived optimal culture are healthy, ethical, or even sane. Cultural stereotypes are formed from these larger-picture observations that make no consideration for fulfillment of each individual. “The real trouble about women is that they must always go on trying to adapt themselves to men’s theories of women” (226, Lawrence). Culture, generally more powerfully influenced by men, pigeonholes women. It creates an expectation that limits what a woman should do and sometimes what they legally can do. Women, expected to be passionless and moral, are expected to maintain the behavior in every aspect of life. Culture expects women not only to keep passions to themselves, but to explicitly maintain that women do not even have the kinds of passions men do. A false reality for that rationally benefits nobody, but which culture as defined by men has decided is a Best Practice. Women are encouraged to keep up the appearance of those who were so instrumental in creating one of the most powerful cultures in the world, the women of Rome. They are told to be “pedestals moving pedestals moving to the motions of men” (260, Swenson). Women are to be considered as something like pieces of art kept for appearance and convenience, not for their true value as a human.
When appearance is more important than truth, a culture is corrupt. Regarding the battle against sexism and destroying the forced facade hiding a woman’s true potential, Woolf says, “we are doing battle with these formidable obstacles” (234, Woolf). This same rebellion against appearance in favor of truth was the momentum behind the feminist movement, the settlers who created our country, even Assange’s exposed war documents. It is not solely the woman’s fight, but an ongoing fight of every individual against the obstacles that are difficult to define, placed by those who embrace and enforce oppressive cultural roles. When culture’s influence of individuals is put into focus, we can learn how to resist those influences. When picked apart, appearances can be revolting. For the sake of truth, appearances should be picked apart and resisted. Resisting them is the only way we can find the true value of the individual, and by the individual I mean both you and me.
Lives without context would be nearly meaningless. As humans, relationships with others are what give us fulfillment. The vague and constant interplay between our minds and the minds of others gives value to the world and to our self. When we look at the relationships around us, we can start to identify the elements of our lives that are working, and the parts that are not functioning the way they should. Analysis of relationships gives us the drive to go out each day and improve our situation. We all have notions of how the world works and how others in specific roles behave, but how often do we look at our notions in depth to verify that they are correct? Wisdom is one of the most often iterated admirable characteristics in an individual, and I contend that it is by analysis of relationships that the trait can be best developed.