There is no meaningful definition of a human, interpersonal relationship that does not include accountability. If what I want is a meaningful, interdependent, mutually beneficial communion with you, then that must include a more or less perpetual willingness on my part to account when an accounting is called for. It is my obligation. I owe you that. It is good and right for you to expect it.
And you can be sure that I will expect the same from you.
Each of us must be willing to look at ourselves. To “own” our respective feelings, our attitudes, our words and our actions. Yes, that was me. I did that. I said that. I’m the one, and no one else. It is right that I take radical responsibility for the self that I am when I’m related and relating to you. And for you to do the same as you relate to me.
Are you a husband? A wife? A mate? Are you a mother or father? A son or a daughter? Are you a friend, participating in a great friendship? Are you a neighbor? A citizen, who believes in citizenship? In any and all of these relationships, we must bring a willingness to account. Accountability is the very heartbeat of credibility and meaning in relationship.
I listen to the young man, married now for two years, complain with great personal offense about his wife’s questions. “Why should I have to tell her where I’m going, what I’m doing, and when I’ll be back,” he demands. “That’s my business!” And it’s all I can do not to fall into my shtick of Bob Newhart stuttering incredulity, eyes wide, lips pursing and say: “Uh … cuz you’re married? And, because you’re married, there is no longer, strictly speaking, any such thing as your own business?”
I listen to the angry adolescent, bitterly resisting her parents’ authority: “Why do I need to tell (my parents) where I am and when I’ll be home?” And, in this case, I don’t resist the ironic rebuttal: “Have you ever noticed that, when you come home, it’s never the case that no one is there, all the furniture is gone, and there’s a note on the door that says: ‘Hi honey, your dad and I have moved to Oregon. Stay in touch!’” Nope. That’s because parents are accountable to their children. And children to their parents. No family can function as a family without accountability.
In meaningful relationships, we account for our whereabouts. Our comings and goings. The way we spend our time and energy. How we construct the hierarchy of what does and does not get our attention.
We account for our words and our behavior. My youngest son is 5 when, for the first and so far only time, he said to me, “I hate you!” He storms into his room and slams the door. Does it hurt me? Well, maybe a little, but he’s 5, so it’s difficult to take it too seriously. I wait. And, typical of someone with the attention span of a hamster, he is back out in about eight minutes, all bright-eyed, asking if I want to play a game. I look at him, letting him see my face mildly curious. I pose this simple, unemotional question: “Why would you want to play a game with someone you hate?”
His eyes open wider, and his mouth males an “O” shape. He’s only 5, and he gets it. My question asks for his accountability. To wit: The words that come out of your pie-hole matter. And you’ll have to own those words. Every time.
He backpedals: “Uh … I don’t think I meant I hate you. I think I was really mad.” And now I let him see the relief and happiness in my face. I don’t punish him. I encourage him. “I’m so glad. So, maybe next time you’re mad at me, you could just say you’re mad at me. You can even say it loud if you want. Because ‘mad’ is OK. Sometimes I get mad at you.”
“OK,” he says. And we play.
My sons’ father is, uh, 51 when he has a meltdown while driving home from vacation. I bellow. Shout. Total Toddler Temper Tantrum. Not even a gross caricature of anything remotely resembling an adult. We pull into the driveway in steely silence.
Family meeting. I take a deep breath. “No one deserves to be treated the way I treated you in the car. I have no excuse. I’m very sorry.”
“I think you’re tired, Pop,” says my eldest. “No worries, Pop,” says Number Two. “Can I have ice cream?” asks the youngest.
Children are ridiculously forgiving. All they need is your accountability.
(Steven Kalas is an Episcopal priest, a therapist and the author of the book “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing.” You may reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.)