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One of the best things about writing this column is the comments I get from readers. Since the beginning of this year, I’ve heard from many of you. Some of you have shared stories of heartache. Other have commented on things you liked or things that you disagreed with.
But one of my most fervent commenters — I’ll call him Larry — has brought up a couple of critiques that I think are important to address.
Larry once told me that I am “a terrible journalist.” I asked my wife, a former journalist for this publication, if she too thought I was a bad journalist. She agreed with Larry.
Why I am I a bad journalist? Well, because I’m not a journalist. I’m a therapist, researcher and educator — jobs I see as very different from journalism.
Larry also brought up a great point about my last column. In it, I argued that the idea of rugged individualism was damaging to relationships. I suggested that connection was key to living a healthy and full life. In an email about the column, Larry astutely pointed out that, “the terms personal responsibility, honesty and accountability are noticeably missing from your discussion.”
Personal responsibility, honesty and accountability, I would argue, are not rugged individualism. Rather, they are traits of people who create and form lasting relationships.
Happy, healthy relationships are created when we and those we love can be honest and open about our feelings and our boundaries. Connection is sustainable when we hold ourselves accountable to respect the boundaries of those we love, and when we have a misstep, we take personal responsibility.
For me responsibility, honesty and accountability are part of connection — not the absence of it.
While there isn’t room in relationships — at least the healthy ones — for rugged individualism, healthy relationships need individuality.
Individuality is also different from rugged individualism. We learn about ourselves in the relationships we are in. We even tend to describe part of our identities — mother, aunt, grandfather, spouse — in terms of our relationships.
A fellow family therapist, Jared Anderson, wrote about this idea a few years back. He argued those with a strong sense of individuality in relationships are “more open, less defensive, and engage in healthier communication strategies. They are more responsive and encouraging and less intrusive with their partner.”
In other words, if we know who we are, act in accordance, but don’t expect others to do the same, our relationships will not get better.
When we have a strong, interdependent sense of individuality, we can be honest — with ourselves and those we love. When we own our individuality, we are personally responsible and accountable. We know what boundaries we need to set, and we don’t fear setting them.
So, Larry, I agree with you. Relationships need personal responsibility, honesty, and accountability — they generate connection and individuality. Maybe we just disagree as to why they are important?
If we can’t come to total agreement on this area, at least we can both agree on one thing: Yes, I am a terrible journalist.
Jacob Priest is a licensed marriage and family therapist and University of Iowa professor. He co-hosts the Attached Podcast. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org