I don’t know when I first came to this conclusion, but it was many years ago that I came to think of a relationship between two human beings as being analogous to a tree. This metaphor has worked quite well for me and it has been productive as of late for a number of other thoughts.
Backing up a bit, however, I should elaborate a bit more of what I mean here. In essence, when two people start any kind of relationship, it is like they are planting a tree. At first, this tree is rather small and often quite fragile. It is also true that the surrounding environment can play a very critical role in the survival of these “relationship trees.” If the surroundings are too harsh or if there isn’t enough attention paid to the tree, it will often fail to grow and then die. This is just as true for relationships, which take a good amount of work at first and can easily go awry before people get to know each other well.
If the relationship survives the initial phases, it tends to get stronger and more complex. New features appear and it becomes ramified in many different directions and it takes on its own individual character–just as a tree would develop in response to its genetics and environmental factors.
All of this is pretty obvious, of course. The metaphor becomes important to me in the context of things that are done that can damage a relationship. Now I know there seem to be a number of people who have relationships that have a certain amount of built-in fighting in them and that seem to remain more or less successful or at least I’ve been told that such things exist even if I’ve never seen this situation occur first hand. However, for me, a fight within a relationship has always been an extremely negative thing and was always destructive. To me, a fight is like ripping off leaves (little sniping or insults), cutting off branches (more intense screaming fights), or hacking off major limbs (existential relationship threats–affairs, betrayals, physical abuse, etc.).
Obviously, if these fights get too bad or extreme, they kill the relationship outright, but there are other outcomes that I’ve also seen that are not all that great. Continuous low level fighting, in my experience, may not be enough to kill a relationship, but it will often lead to enough physical damage and warping (like continuously ripping off leaves and branches from a plant) that you create an unhealthy and obviously twisted relationship that just lingers on without ever really living or growing.
Thus, it has always been the case that I try to resolve any relationship issues that come up without resorting to fighting whenever possible. I’ve never experienced any “good fights” that cleared the air–rather, they just caused damage. Sometimes one is able to heal this damage–the tree lives on–but it always leaves scars (branches never grow back the same as before… ).
The second way that this metaphor has been useful to me came about a lot more recently–actually within the last month. Specifically, I’ve come to realize that my metaphor can be extended in a broader fashion to incorporate the totality of social relationships that one builds. Thus, just as a relationship is like a tree, the sum of our relationships can be thought of as a forest.
Now, personally, I’ve always been a pretty big introvert. I’ve learned to be social and I have a good-sized number of acquaintances, because I’m a pretty nice guy overall, but I do not have a large number of close friends. In fact, for much of my life, I’ve usually tended to have just one–or maybe two at most–pretty close friends. Most of the time, my best friend–once I started having serious relationships–was whoever my girlfriend was. I was never the type of person who thought that you had to separate off your “best friend” from the person you were involved with–that always seemed rather ludicrous to me..
Thus, in retrospect, my “forest” has often tended to not really be one. Rather, it was usually just one large tree with a few mid-sized ones scattered here and there, and a large number of, shall we say, bushes spread about. Instead of an overall picture of a forest, however, my social landscape would have been more like a prairie (fitting since I was born in Illinois!) with one little grove and a few trees and bushes thrown about on it.
Importantly, I’ve come to see that this is not what I want anymore. Perhaps it is because I’m getting older, but my sense for community has been growing stronger as of late and I’ve begun to take constructive steps to try and thicken my “forest” a bit more. This does not mean that I’m willing to take shortcuts and just start planting trees willy-nilly, but it does mean that I’m spending more of my effort on constructing richer relationships with a larger number of people than I’ve had before.
In essence, I’m trying to create a healthier, richer, and more diverse social “forest” than before, because such traits are inherently more robust and strong when confronting the inevitable trials that we all must face from time to time. Such places are also more interesting and the complexity of the relationships–as well as the potential for mutually-beneficial relationships–is also higher.
Perhaps this was all obvious for the more socially-oriented people out there, but for this INTJ, it is a more novel idea and I intend to execute it and make it work with ruthless and all-encompassing drive.
Wish me luck.