A client and I were talking about their partner recently. Part of the discussion focused on how to effectively build something beautiful together in spite of glaring imperfections, and how they felt inadequate to the task. I’ve spent some time since then thinking about how common a concern this is for people in relation with others. How do we grow relationships out of the soil of life? As it turns out, ol’ Joe Dirt might have known what he was talking about, because life can certainly be like a garden.
First things first - you need to plot out your ground. What type of garden are you hoping to plant? Different kinds of relationships require different things of you. For example, if you’re building a relationship with a romantic partner, you will need to set aside time for shared experiences, both in and out of the bedroom. If your relationship is with your child, your needs change to include learning about them and jointly pursuing age appropriate interests. This necessitates defining how much space you will need to effectively build your garden. The longer lasting a relationship you hope to build, the more you need to make sure you have space suitable to allow it growth. If you don’t know what kind of relationship you want, it can be helpful to at least know the biggest type of garden you’re willing to grow.
Once you have your plot of land staked out, the ground needs softening so that plants can take root and nutrients can reach them. In the real world, this involves taking a tool of some kind to turn the ground over. This part of the process is vital because it uncovers problems with the dirt that would have otherwise remained hidden, including any large rocks that may obstruct the growth of root systems. In relationships, this means trying to make yourself into the type of person you would want to be with.
Remember--this part of the process is continual. Even after you’ve begun a relationship, even after “plants” have sprouted, and even after you’ve been able to taste the fruit of your labors, you need to constantly monitor the health of your soil. In other words, you don’t need to be perfect to build a strong relationship, but your relationship does need constant nourishment. This includes weeding (being aware of what kind of person you want to be), digging (working to be that person), and basic tenderness (giving yourself room to be an imperfect person despite all of your best efforts).
Now that your ground is set aside and softened up, it’s time to actually plant. This is where you come into contact and try to maintain relationships with people outside of you. In a garden, effectively growing plants means poking holes in the ground at even intervals and putting seeds in them. After the seeds are in the ground, you have to cover them back up and water them. For us, this means setting aside time to spend with someone else. This time looks different for everyone, but some examples of this include going to a park together, exploring shared interests, going on dates, or even just sitting down together to watch a TV show. Setting a schedule for spending time together doesn’t mean your relationship isn’t strong enough to make it on its own. Rather, it shows how important it is to you and the person you’re building with.
It is important to note that you cannot plant seeds that don’t want to be planted. Some seeds won’t take root, no matter how much love and attention you give them. This is not an indication of bad ground. Sometimes, relationships don’t grow the way we want them to and end up dying before we’re ready. If you find yourself with a garden that didn’t turn out the way you hoped, it’s time to till the ground, pull out the old plants, and make room for new, different plants. A failed relationship isn’t proof of being incapable of having a successful one.
Now that seeds are in the ground, you need to create pathways around them so they don’t get stepped on. In other words, you need to protect the relationship. It is not enough to merely put in time and effort in the beginning to build a relationship. It needs constant nourishment. Additionally, harsh words can be effectual footsteps on soft dirt, leaving a large imprint and compacting soil, making it difficult for a plant to grow. Growing a relationship means being aware of how your actions affect those around you, and being willing to change your approach to more effectively support the person you love. This is easily applied to romantic relationships, but is equally true for friendships, siblings, parents, and even work relationships.
Another important reminder is that, depending on what you’re trying to grow, you may need further supports to facilitate growth. For some plants, like tomatoes and grapes, a trellis or cage keeps them growing the right way. For people, this self-care can come in many ways, including bowling with your friends, a cooking class, video games, writing, music, exercise, and the list goes on. Some relationships also need help from a professional, either for an individual or the partnership. If you find yourself working to support a relationship but feeling incapable of doing it on your own, ask for help. There is nothing wrong with getting a trellis to help you grow.
Finally, give yourself time! Gardens don’t sprout overnight, and that’s okay. Be patient with yourself as you work to keep your ground soft. If you step on a seed, do what you can to loosen up the soil and try to learn from your mistake. If you see a weed, pull it out. If you need help, get it. As you work to strengthen your relational garden, enjoy the process and know that you are capable of building something beautiful.