Deeper Dimensions of Relational Intimacy: An Interview with Kelly Flanagan

By Chris Castaldo

As a pastor, I commonly encounter individuals and couples who desire deeper relationships, particularly with those who are closest to them. There are, of course, many challenges that stand in the way of such closeness, not least of which are our own selfish tendencies. Identifying and dealing with those tendencies is necessary if we are to ever approach the intimacy that our souls crave.

That is why I’m excited to highlight a recently published book by my friend, Dr. Kelly Flanagan: True Companions: A Book for Everyone About the Relationships That See Us Through. More than a book on marriage and relationships, it’s concerned with the heart of relational solidarity. As Kelly writes, it’s for anyone—man or woman, young or old, married or unattached—who desires a deeper dimension of relational intimacy. Kelly has also written the book. Loveable. Following, in Q&A format, are some insights from Kelly about relationships that nourish and sustain us, which are excerpts from his book.

Loveable was a book about rooting our sense of identity in the unconditional love of God—agape in the Greek language. Is True Companions also about agape in relationships?

One time a fight with my wife started because she had not loved me unconditionally. There were limitations to what she would put up with. Things I do she’d like to see stop. Things I don’t do she’d like to see begin. Expectations for how I will act and live and love. Conditions, if you will, for her approval. I had called her out on her conditionality, and she had called me out on defending myself with high-minded ideas arising less from my desire to be perfectly loved than from my desire to be loved as if I am perfect. Sometimes, I’ll fight a whole war before admitting she is right.

Of course, aspiring to unconditional love is a noble thing. Sitting in that parking lot on his wedding day, I’d want my younger self to know I’m not trying to undo anything he’s learned in church or anywhere else about unconditional love. I firmly believe unconditional love is that from which we came and that to which we will return. What I’m suggesting is, noble things in human hands can quickly become not so noble. What I’m saying is, we don’t need anyone to undo what we’ve been taught about unconditional love, because we undo it ourselves, oftentimes while we are being taught it. When our pastor or priest or whoever has the pulpit in our life begins talking about unconditional love, we often begin tweaking the ideas in favor of our justification rather than our transformation. We often use it to make love easier instead of truer.

For instance, we often hide our failures, flaws, and foibles behind it, demanding to be loved unconditionally under conditions no one should be expected to tolerate, let alone love. Or, in the name of loving someone unconditionally, we tend to forgive and forget things that should be confronted and condemned. We circumvent conflict and cut corners on the hardest parts of cultivating companionship because conflict scares us and corners cost us, and then we call those shortcuts unconditional love. Or, rather than engaging in the hard work of loving hard people, we steer clear of them, piously “accept” them, pat ourselves on the back for being tolerant, and congratulate ourselves for loving unconditionally. The thing about unconditional love—the thing that makes it something less than the cure-all we often want it to be—is that it can happen from very, very far away. From somewhere up in the heavens even.

Yet, not even God acted as if that kind of love was sufficient for true relationship. Even God decided unconditional love lacked something a little more proximal, something like skin, something like a body and a heartbeat and a pulse, something like a voice to bless with and a voice to berate with, something like arms for embracing each other and fingers for pointing ateach other. Even God knew he had to come closer to us than unconditional love would require of him. So, on a silent night in a little town called Bethlehem, he did. In a manger, love came close.

True Companions is about the deeply transformational, up-close-and-personal kind of love that the Greeks called philia. In the English language, we call it companionship.

Can you say more about that, especially from a Christian perspective? What do we know from Scripture about how Jesus viewed agape versus philia?

As I stood there in the doorway with my wife, recalling our fight, I wondered if one of the subtle but fatal flaws in modern marriage is that we keep demanding from it the perfectness of agape, when what it has always demanded from us is the tenderness of philia. What if God has got agape covered and he gave us each other to bring a little more philia into the world? It made me think about that breakfast scene in the Bible, sometime shortly after Jesus disappeared from His tomb. It’s early morning and the disciples have been fishing. They’re catching nothing, when this man they fail to recognize as Jesus shows up on the distant shore and tells them to cast their nets on the other side of the boat. Instantly, their nets are full. This has happened before, and now they recognize the man who gave the order. They return to shore and enjoy a bountiful breakfast together. As the meal is concluding, Jesus asks Peter three times if Peter loves him. The first two times Jesus uses the word agape. Peter says yes, but his answer does not satisfy Jesus. The third time Jesus asks the question—the time he is satisfied by Peter’s answer—he uses the word philia. Am I your companion, Peter?

What if marriage specifically—and companionship in general—is asking us to love each other, but it’s asking in the language of philia?

Is this a book for married couples?

When I began writing this book, I thought it was about saving this ancient institution called marriage. Seriously. I planned to right this sinking ship we call matrimony by convincing a whole generation of young people to quit jumping ship, to head to the courthouse, and to set sail upon the kind of life-changing journey marriage can become. Plus, marriage books sell like hotcakes. It all seemed like a very good idea.

Then, one day, a friend pushed back.

She asked about my next book, and when I told her what it was about, her face fell. “I love your writing,” she explained, “but I can’t pick up any book with marriage on the cover.” She is a single woman. Men have been cruel to her. A disinterested father. A boyfriend who abandoned her in the middle of a pregnancy. A husband who drank their marriage to death. Now, she has the courage to stand alone, while raising her young daughter on her own. She still hopes to marry again, but she has become less willing to settle for more of the same from the men in her life. In other words, for now, she doesn’t have a ticket for the marriage cruise, and she isn’t interested in reading about the poolside piña coladas.

I can’t blame her. So, I wrote this book for her and for everyone like her. It’s a book about a cruise we are, all of us, already on. This is a book about marriage that is also about something bigger than marriage. In her Pulitzer Prize–winning novel, Gilead, Marilynne Robinson writes, “The moon looks wonderful in this warm evening light, just as a candle flame looks beautiful in the light of morning. Light within light. . . . It seems to me to be a metaphor for the human soul, the singular light within the great general light of existence. Or it seems like poetry within language. Perhaps wisdom within experience. Or marriage within friendship and love.” What if marriage is a singular light within the great general light of companionship, but we keep trying to turn it into the big light itself? What if uncovering the secrets to a stellar marriage isn’t as important as finding our way to the truths at the heart of true companionship? This book is about the great general light of companionship, inside which marriage flickers and flames.

In Loveable, you focused on overcoming the experience of shame in order to embrace the image of God within us. How does the experience of shame factor into True Companions?

Our minds are meaning-making machines. They want an explanation. They want to know why we’ve been abandoned or mistreated or misunderstood. Our minds ask, “Why do I feel so lonely?”

Shame is happy to provide the answer.

The voice of shame within us—and perhaps even the voices of shame around us—tell us we are feeling lonely because we deserve to be alone. Shame tells us no one can hear us shouting for help because we aren’t shouting loudly enough or pleasingly enough or articulately enough, or simply that we aren’t worth saving. Shame tells us we got slapped because our sense of justice is wrong or weird or bad. Here’s a simple way to expose the difference between your loneliness and your shame. Complete the following sentence: “I feel lonely because . . .” Shame is often everything that comes after the word “because.” Shame is believing your loneliness is a consequence for how badly or strangely you were made.

Shame is weaponized loneliness….

You and I, we may never totally get rid of our shame, but we can tell it to keep its hands off our loneliness, thank you very much. Don’t let your shame write the story about why your loneliness has surfaced. Try not to add a “because” to any moment in which you become aware of your loneliness. Your shame may pipe up within you, but recognize it for what it is. Don’t let it ramble on for too long. Tell it you’re not looking for explanations. Tell it you already trust the only real explanation: you are lonely because . . . you are human. Then, your shame will shrink a little more and, finally, you can be a little more alone with your loneliness. It’s so much quieter that way.

It’s the kind of quiet that can transform you.

What does True Companions have to say to us about why loving someone in close company and close quarters is so hard?

Part Two, “Grow Strong: Embracing Your Struggle,” challenges our assumption about the core struggle in every companionship. It is not primarily between two people but within each person. Every butterfly’s life is defined not by a struggle with another butterfly but by a struggle with its own protection. When it is ready to join its companions, it must push its way out of its once protective but now imprisoning chrysalis. It’s a challenging struggle, but only through this process does a butterfly strengthen its wings enough to fly. Similarly, in true companionship, we are in an ongoing struggle to push our way out of our own protections. Gradually, in the midst of this struggle, we grow strong enough to love. That’s how companionship forms us into flying things.…

We come into the world with a true self, created for us and gifted to us, and it is absolutely worthy of love and belonging.

However, at some point, usually very early in life, we experience shame, which is the message communicated through words and silence, through action and inaction, by friends and family, by peers and pastors, that we are not good enough to be loved the way we are. Consequently, as children, we all do the wise thing and begin to build a false self in order to protect us from more shame while earning us the love we so deeply desire. Our false self is constructed like a castle, with walls to hide us, cannons to defend us, and thrones to elevate us. Like any castle, though, our false self also has a drawbridge—a point of vulnerability—through which our true self can exit so we can love and be loved authentically.

  A couple of years ago, I was keynoting a men’s retreat, and I told all of this to the guys in attendance. As I described the drawbridge, the group leader remarked humorously that, when you leave your false self behind, your true self gets to go running naked through the countryside. We all laughed and had fun with the concept. However, after returning from the retreat, the idea nagged at me, because companionship rarely feels that way, does it?

Rather, true companionship feels much more like an in-between place in which we are increasingly embodying our true self, while also struggling to free ourselves from our false self. In other words, the true-self-versus-false-self duality ignores most of the most important loving going on in our lives. Those of us who have chosen to enter into the preciousness and peril of philia are much more likely to be inhabiting a third self, neither true nor false but some amalgam of both—a struggling self, a transitioning self, a becoming self—our emerging self. As a butterfly emerges from its cocoon, its wings grow strong enough to finally fly.

Likewise, in this struggle with our false self, our hearts grow strong enough to truly love.

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