Dual Relationships

One of the books I finished last week was http://www.amazon.com/Emotionally-Healthy-Leader-Transforming-Transform/dp/0310494575/. You can read my review at NetGalley.

Scazzero suggests that one of the practices that helps leaders be more healthy is to minimize “dual relationships.” While the term might not be familiar, the reality likely is. A dual relationship is one where we have two kinds of relationship with the same person. For example, as a pastor, I might also be a friend to a staff member or parishioner. As a neighbor, I might also be a customer of the family next door.

Dual relationships create complexity and sometimes trouble. As the leader of an organization, I might need to take action to end the employment of a friend. And what about a family member? If a member of my family works for me, how do I balance the duties that come with my familial relationship with my duties to the organization I lead? Such conflicts often lead to emotional disturbance and even paralysis. To the degree that we want to minimize emotional disturbance and be free to act in the best interest of our institutions, we’re best off minimizing dual relationships.

Taking dual relationships to be a problem arises in modern society, particularly in more populous settings. In the big city (Scazzero lives and works in New York City, though cities a fraction that size face the same realities), differentiation is the norm. In large population areas we usually relate to people in simple relationships. The people we do business with are only the people we do business with. Otherwise they are strangers.

In small towns and in traditional communities, however, dual – and even multiple – relationships are unavoidable. Networks of relationship, whether kinship, business, church, or school, tie most people together. Conflicts of interest become ineliminable.

If we are best off avoiding dual relationships, then we are also best off keeping everyone at a distance, encouraging others to remain strangers. In some ways that might make Jesus’ command to “love our neighbor as ourselves” easier. Everyone is a stranger to us, so we love each stranger equally (even if fairly minimally). When some are not strangers, but come into the category “friend” or “family” the practice of “equal love” becomes nearly impossible.

But what about our selves? I play many roles. In my family I am husband, father, son, brother, etc. Professionally, I am teacher, pastor, and (now), Director of Church Relations for a college. I am also a Christian, a follower of Jesus. All of these roles – and others – contribute to making me what I am. I bring myself – in all this complexity – into all my relationships. While different relationships my require a different aspect of myself to be at the fore, I cannot, at that time, pretend that these other aspects do not exist. They shape how I live out my relationships with others. I find it emotionally unhealthy to suppress elements of my personality; in the first place, it seems fake, and thus dishonest, in the second, I like who I am. To the degree that I avoid dual relationships, I am also, at least minimally, practicing the fragmentation of my self.

Either way, whether we pursue or avoid dual relationships, there is a cost. Just knowing that there is a cost either way is a helpful starting point.

The reality of dual relationships has another benefit. When I am both boss and friend, for example, then I find myself in a situation where it is harder to treat my employee as a mere object, as a mere means to the ends of my institution or enterprise. This, I believe, is a chief strength in dual relationships. Of course, as we’ve already seen, this strength comes with a price. But most strengths do.

Our dual (or multiple) relationships, then, require management and attention, rather than elimination.

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