Chapter 24 Learning Objectives
Upon reading this chapter, the student should be able to:
- Explain what makes a relationship or an experience ‘meaningful’ as opposed to simply being a good or a love relationship.
Watch this video or scan the QR code to see how you can create more meaningful relationships in the age of technology.
In the 1960’s and ’70’s in particular, many people were looking for what they called “meaningful” relationships. I even began writing this book as a short paper trying to analyze “meaningful personal relationships” as the subject, but I think that is a different and perhaps narrower notion than what needs to be covered in talking about love or personal relationships in general. I have come to suspect that people call a relationship a meaningful one when they believe, at the time it occurs, that it is making a somewhat profound and felt difference in their lives by satisfying a felt need or by making some change for the better in a way that is important to them.
The relationship, in order to be meaningful then, does not have to actually make the change; it only has to be believed that it does. And it would not be considered a meaningful relationship, no matter how much change it brought for the better or for more satisfaction, if it were not perceived as doing so. There is in the notion of meaningfulness, both in regard to relationships and to events (that is, we speak of meaningful events as well as of meaningful relationships) the implication of psychological awareness or belief that something valuable is going on.
It seems a relationship or an event is called meaningful only when it is believed to be for the good. Even the terrible experiences of combat or of being ill or starving or of being shot or of being fired may be called meaningful, but only when it is felt that some greater good (involving, say, greater self-awareness, greater awareness of the good of health, greater appreciation for others less fortunate, greater understanding of personal responsibility or potential, etc.) accrues from the experience. I do not believe I have ever heard anyone describe as meaningful what they perceived as an altogether bad and totally unredeeming experience. And indeed, when someone else describes an experience or relationship as meaningful, the question seems to come to mind immediately as to what (good) they got, or get, out of it. If they could think of no good at all, I think we would be puzzled why they considered it meaningful then.
With regard to the point that the goodness or satisfying features must actually be felt as such at the time, that is because there are many good relationships people have, but at the time, they are not aware how good or just how satisfying they are and thus do not ever refer to them as meaningful. A child may take for granted or even be unaware of the many benefits a parent or teacher, say, provides. As a grown person, he may look back at the benefits and realize that the relationship was good or important but just not apply the term “meaningful” since he or she did not attach to the experience any particularly profound importance at the time. Similarly, a teenager or adult may not appreciate how important a particular relationship is for him at the time he or she has it, but only later. Thus, he or she would not call it meaningful at either time, and only call it important at the later time.
Experiences and relationships can be good or beneficial in themselves, but they are not meaningful in themselves; to be meaningful, they have to be felt as important at the time to the person having them. Something could happen to one person, at a time he or she is not receptive to it, and not be particularly meaningful; at another time, or to another person, that experience could be very meaningful. Similarly [in] relationships, talking to a stranger may be very meaningful if at that time a person “needs” to talk to an understanding person or needs to feel he or she can make a friend, etc. Otherwise it may not. Becoming romantically attracted to another is much more meaningful, felt to be much more important, at some times and for some people than at other times or for other people. For example, if one has begun to despair of ever finding a(nother) love, it can be much more meaningful to meet one then if one is not particularly concerned or looking. Likewise, finding a chess partner or someone who loves opera or speaks Italian or gives great backrubs, if those are qualities you really would like to find in someone and have not been able to.
In cases where an awareness of importance is present, but later the experience or relationship is felt to have been less good or less significant or less satisfying than thought at the time, we still tend to speak of the relationship or experience, because of the felt significance or change in our lives or attitudes at the time, as having been meaningful, but simply not as good or important as we thought it was at the time.
- Experiences and relationships can be good or beneficial in themselves, but they are not meaningful in themselves; to be meaningful, they have to be felt as important at the time to the person having them.
- Meaningful applies to experiences or relationships perceived as profoundly important to one at the time by meeting a felt need or by making a felt difference for the better in a way that is important to the person at that time.
Chapter Review Questions
- Question: What is one way to understand what people are referring to when they speak about “meaningful relationships”?