Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Riding the relationship struggle bus

There was a period in high school when I didn't go to youth group. It was kind of a subtle trend, I don't think anyone really noticed that I wasn't around. I had the great excuse of tournaments: if we were away for the weekend at a speech and debate event, usually I was too wiped to show up to Sunday school the next morning. There were a few Wednesday nights where I plead homework or a head cold, and stayed at home curled up on the couch. I had countless bouts of the post-tournament blues, facing the desert of isolation after the oasis of relational affection with my NCFCA friends. I didn't look for friendship in my youth group, because I already had it in my speech and debate community.

I mention this to illustrate something I'm learning in my communication theory class. We just wrapped up a lecture on the social exchange theory of relationship development where, basically, people initiate relationships with others on basis of profit, if they perceive that their costs (i.e. social investment, risk) will exceed their rewards (i.e. fulfillment of their needs to be accepted, influential, and liked.) "Profit" is evaluated by an individual's comparison level, that is, the threshold above which an outcome seems attractive. Satisfaction depends on expectation, which is shaped by prior experience. So if a person has had a string of positive, fulfilling relationships, their comparison level and expectations for new relationships will be high. Thus, according to the social exchange theory, people will develop relationships with those whom they think will meet or exceed the benefit they've received from previous relationships. 

So theoretically, I didn't go to youth group for a while because I didn't think investing there would maximize my relational profits. And while I shook off the mindset after tournament season ended, I'm finding it's crept back in to my collegiate mindset.

When I started college I was so blessed by the new experiences that befell me. Previously insulated in a Christian homeschool bubble, I finally had open access to myriad individuals of different backgrounds, and God gave me countless opportunities for wonderful conversations on truth. I met lots of cool people! And it was awesome! I was so thankful. But then, what happened? I started avoiding my new acquaintances in the halls. I made awkward, stifled small talk with my classmates. I chose the convenience of being alone over the effort of engagement. I closed myself off potential relationships so subtly, I didn't even see it happening. Even while the distance grieved me, I continued. Each semester I told myself I would be less busy, would branch out more, but it never happened. And here I am, one semester of college left, full of regret at the opportunity I blatantly squandered.

For me, all relationships involve a very high cost. I am clumsy at loving, I am awkward and insecure. I guard my time jealously and I am too lazy to love like I should. This is part sin, part introversion, but I have not been proactive in compensating for my weaknesses. As an obnoxious teenager, I longed for a circle of close friends with whom I could rest, and in His generosity He gave them to me. And they loved me so much more than I deserved. ("I know you have felt much more love than you've shown.") So I wonder, if in my warped self-centeredness, I neglected the potential for other friendships where I was because the "profit" wasn't worth it. Why invest the cost and risk when my need to be accepted and loved was already being filled?

It's remarkable that a paragraph in a textbook describing social exchange theory could so succinctly cut to my heart.

But oh how gracious my God is. How gently He's been pulling my hands off my eyes, how tenderly He's been needling my heart, how faithfully He's been lighting the path for me to walk in. I love the people I work with, so I went to the movies with them. I want to grow something with the girls from Intervarsity, so I went to trivia night with them. I want to reach out of the kids in student senate, so I haven't quit yet. And ugh. I don't like being out late at night. I don't like putting myself in unfamiliar situations with high levels of uncertainty. I like comfortable. I like predictable. I like safe. I feel pathetic that these tiny baby steps are so hard for me! But there is His grace for my selfishness, and His power for my weakness. And I'm terrified that I don't fully "get" it, that I don't yet grasp the depths of my neglect and selfishness, but He is beside me, slowly unstopping the dams until His love flows to others freely through me.

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