An adventurer who sailed with his wife and five children across the Atlantic, Sergio Milandri is now an explorer of the risks of relationship. Originally an engineer, he went on to work at the Institute for Christian Spirituality with Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, and now runs courses at Harmony Addiction Clinic. Sergio and his wife Elizabeth also run the Sans Pareil Retreat Centre in Cape Town’s Hout Bay. Here, he pinpoints some crucial points about relationships…

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Why is relating so important?

We’re the sum total of all our relationships. We don’t exist outside the relationship we have with ourselves, others and God.

Why is there so much difficulty around relationships?

We don’t get taught how to relate properly, it’s just assumed that we’ll be able to do it. Crazy, really, as our essential purpose is to learn to relate, to love, and to become people of character, substance and beauty. Most of us have learnt to relate in a lopsided way, comparing ourselves with and competing against others.

Many people are scared to be ‘real’ with other people as they’ve been hurt before. How do you manage that?

We all encounter fear and pain, but we can use pain to become more sensitive to ourselves and each other. We go to a doctor when we have physical pain, yet emotional pain we often deny and avoid. Relational or emotional pain is a distress call and needs attention. I counselled a woman, an elder daughter, whose mother had died eight months earlier. She hadn’t grieved as she felt she had to look after those around her. When I met her, she’d become dysfunctional. She began a belated grieving process, and went through a significant transformation as a result.

When we don’t admit pain, we also don’t allow growth: we tend to blame others for our pain and become angry or depressed. Remember that feelings are like the gauges in a car: they show you what’s really going on. Pay attention to them. For example, we may feel uncomfortable in someone’s company and assume we don’t like them, instead of realising we’ve a deeper, repeated discomfort with people. This may stem from feeling inadequate: the real cause for this is low self-esteem and deep disbelief in being loved, especially by God. Release your pain by acknowledging it. Then do something about it. Grieve and mourn the loss, but don’t wallow in it!

People are often most deeply hurt through relationship, yet ironically, the deepest healing comes through relationship. I counselled a son who was angry with his father because he’d believed his mother’s stories about him. Years later, son and father were able to talk and reconcile and develop a deep bond in place of the judgement. Relationships are the context for healing and restoration, and for the joy in our lives.

How do we begin to relate really well to people?

Get to know the real you. Read, study, take a course in personal formation, speak to a counsellor. We tend to misunderstand love, to believe that thinking about ourselves is selfish, but when we accept and love ourselves, we can relax, forget ourselves and think about others. Understand that love is essentially a balance of being and doing: be emotionally available, and act to affirm the other person.

Last important points?

Don’t entrust yourself to just anyone, this can get you hurt repeatedly. Jesus was emotionally mature and could sense who he could trust, and who he should rather not. Get to know yourself first and you’ll start to discern who you can trust.

‘When we accept ourselves, we can relax and think about others’

As you become aware of who you really are, not the person you are trying to be to please others or society, you become aware of who others really are, too. It’s a risk to accept and love ourselves and others just as we/they are (which is what God does), but it’s worth it. CELEBRATE YOUR LIFE!

5 tips for good relationships

  1. Learn to be present. Don’t let distractions and concerns reduce your attention when you’re with someone
  2. Take the risk of including your emotions in your interactions
  3. Avoid drifting into the past or the future in your focus
  4. Practise acceptance, avoid judgement or criticism
  5. Listen well. Besides words, our tone and body language speak volumes
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