Tensile Strength

Maybe it’s just me, but I think a lot of people have a fear of abandonment. I tend to say what’s on my mind…and sometimes as the words come out of my mouth I want to pull them back in. Perhaps they weren’t careful. Perhaps they were hurtful. Perhaps you will judge me for what I did or said or think or believe. And perhaps this will be the thing that makes our relationship break apart.

This fear makes me think of spiders. Not because I’m afraid of them too (even though I am). It’s their webs that intrigue me. It’s the beautiful geometry. The graceful dance the spider does, seemingly overnight, with a diagram of every step of choreography.

A spider’s web is stunning and strong. Scientists have several means by which to measure the strength of a material. The one that’s most interesting to me is tensile strength. This measures the capacity of something to withstand tension without pulling apart. If you reduced steel to a string the same size as a spider‘s silk, the tensile strength of some species of spider’s silk is about 5 times stronger. Spider-Man’s ability to stop a train in motion with a giant web is apparently not just a Hollywood stunt.

Withstanding tension is not easy. And knowing where the breaking point is, or where things will pull apart can be even harder…especially in relationships.

I believe that all relationships have a certain tensile strength. That is, they each have the capability of bearing different loads before both parties pull apart from each other. For example, the tensile strength of the relationships you have with the majority of your Facebook friends or Twitter followers is most likely very low.

I have paid the price of not recognizing the tensile strength of a relationship before I spoke what I believed to be truth into it. Most of the time, the truth on my heart was indeed true. And for a moment, speaking that truth felt really good. It felt vindicating and bold and righteous. But that righteousness was probably, actually self-righteousness. I think it was a truth that was to be between me and God. It was a truth to inform how I should pray, or love, or serve the person in front of me. The relationship could not yet hold the weight of the truth. What I seemingly did out of love, actually did damage. This person with whom I was trying to love, reconcile, and make peace…was actually further away…because of my words.

When the Bible talks about speaking the truth in love in Ephesians 4:15, I think we often misunderstand the love that Paul is talking about. I know that I have convinced myself that if I love this person, I’ll speak the truth. But I think the love is to be reflective of God’s love for us. His love was bold and sacrificial. It was strong and gentle. The same God who leaves the 99 to pursue the one, also waited for the prodigal to come home. He knows what the relationships can bear.

I try to be more careful now. I try to wait with my words. I still have a long way to go.

For me the tensile strength of that relationship…mine with God…is like the spider’s silk. It has tremendous ductility. (I’ll save you from looking that up… ductility is often referred to when talking about metal and it means it can be hammered thin without breaking.) I have hammered my relationship with God thin at several points in my life. But it hasn’t broken. He has never left. No matter how far I run, or how much I yell, or how badly I behave…He stays.

I am thankful that my marriage can bear a lot too. There have been seasons where it also has been hammered thin. We have been through lean times, and waiting for pregnancy, and hard parent/teacher meetings, and counselors’ couches, and hurt feelings, and burying a parent, and accident scenes of teenage drivers, and hospital waiting rooms, and desperate calls to 911… It has stood the test of 26 years of life. I don’t really worry about how much it can bear, and yet we are probably even more careful with our words now than we were in our first years together.

And maybe that’s where the real tensile strength of a relationship lies. Maybe it lies in the respect I have for the person on the other side. I think love comes from that place of respecting the person (or God) so much that I want to be careful with my words. I care more about their heart than being right. Not because I’m afraid they’ll leave…but because I believe they’ll stay.

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Jennifer Chetelat

I am a potter, gallery curator, wife, and mother of two adultish people. I write about life and faith and learning.

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