Guest blogger Nate Bagley and Relationship Alphabet columnist Zach Brittle joined us last week to discuss the roles integrity and judgment play in healthy, supportive relationships. Getting a firm grip on integrity and judgment in the course of a single blog post can be a tricky operation, so this week we dig a little deeper!

As we burrow our way under these heavy concepts, we hope to hollow out a channel of understanding that you may follow to achieve long-lasting health and happiness. Spoiler alert: “[It] is a road, no simple highway — that path is for your steps alone!” Listening tothe tune may help.

So let’s begin with the familiar: Judgment of others usually comes from self-judgment. After all, who do we judge most often? Ourselves!

Led astray by a bombardment of misleading media messages, we often plummet down a crazy rabbit hole in which self-worth is based on external markers of achievement. We’re taught to appraise ourselves and others based on recognizable status markers (degrees, promotions, fancy titles) and material possessions (classy clothes, cars, cosmetics, coffee-table books, castanets, capybaras, whatever). 

It’s too easy to be caught up, and we toil away endlessly, unquestioningly, jumping through hoops so that we may someday pass someone’s examination and be judged worthy. For a tender and insightful treatment of the topic, see Yann Dall’Aglio’s brilliant TED Talk, “Love – You’re Doing It Wrong.”

We are made to feel that we are what we own. Instead of turning towards each other for fulfillment, we turn towards comparisons, measurements, and scores.

We fear that we’ll never be enough — strong enough, smart enough, pretty enough, thin enough, rich enough. We practice restriction and self control, suffering over and coveting stuff and status. We collect material proof of our worth, straining towards the perfect moment when we have enough to be adequate. In this moment, amid our dazzling array of beautiful things, our fantasy will be realized, we will finally be complete, and we will breathe easy.

The truth, as we know deep down, is that none of this lets anyone breathe easy — not even supermodels, geniuses, or the millionaires and billionaires with their gazillions of pounds of stuff. These are counterproductive distractions. Until we can find another way to see ourselves, we will be weighed down, and we will never be free.

Here’s the thing, though — we can be free. We know what freedom feels like.

Let’s do a simple mental exercise:

Take a moment now and think of the person — perhaps a sibling, a friend, or your significant other — that makes you feel deeply happy, someone in whose presence you feel most uninhibited, most able to truly be yourself. 

Now think about the way you see yourself on a daily basis. What does your self-talk (inner dialogue) sound like? Is it different from the way this person talks to you? If they could hear the inside of your head, how would they respond? What would you say to a friend if you could hear them talking to themselves in this way?

Getting tripped up in the world of relationships can be a nasty side-effect of our skewed perspective. In a culture where possession of symbols and objects is used avoid pain, we are perversely taught to desire ownership of people: our partners. We want to own and be owned by them. “But come on, isn’t this just a harmless romantic fantasy?” Not really. By viewing ourselves and others as property, we walk straight into one of the oldest and most dangerous traps in history. See Toni Morrison’s artful depiction of it below, using the common case of the unhappy lover:

“You think because he doesn’t love you that you are worthless. You think that because he doesn’t want you anymore that he is right — that his judgment and opinion of you are correct. If he throws you out, then you are garbage. You think he belongs to you because you want to belong to him. Don’t. It’s a bad word, ‘belong.’ Especially when you put it with somebody you love. Love shouldn’t be like that. Did you ever see the way the clouds love a mountain? They circle all around it; sometimes you can’t even see the mountain for the clouds. But you know what? You go up top and what do you see? His head. The clouds never cover the head. His head pokes through, because the clouds let him; they don’t wrap him up. They let him keep his head up high, free, with nothing to hide him or bind him. You can’t own a human being. You can’t lose what you don’t own. Suppose you did own him. Could you really love somebody who was absolutely nobody without you? You really want somebody like that? Somebody who falls apart when you walk out the door? You don’t, do you? And neither does he. You’re turning over your whole life to him. Your whole life, girl. And if it means so little to you that you can just give it away, hand it to him, then why should it mean any more to him? He can’t value you more than you value yourself.”

Wow. Sound familiar? Interested in an alternative? You’ve probably figured it out by now…

Freedom comes in admitting what matters, and acting accordingly (that is to say, with integrity). It comes in admitting that self-satisfaction and connection are achieved not in the passionate accumulation of stuff but in seeing the world clearly: loving yourself and sharing love with those around you — not owning them, not being owned by them, not devoting every last bit of energy to self-assessment and the judgment of others — simply enjoying the joy of a shared existence.

Of course, in marriages and long-term relationships, we hope to be able to rely on each other! This is where trust comes in, and working through our enduring vulnerabilities. It’s also where we’ll pick up next time on The Gottman Relationship Blog!

More in The Archives
Avoiding The Trap: How To Stop Judging Yourself

Ellie Lisitsa is a staff writer at The Gottman Institute and a regular contributor to The Gottman Relationship Blog. Ellie is pursuing her B.A. in Psychology with an emphasis on Cognitive Dissonance at Reed College in Portland, Oregon.