Loyalty: What It Really Is–and What It Absolutely Isn’t

December 12, 2014 Updated: April 23, 2016

Growing up, I was taught that loyalty, like love and respect, was something that you gave unconditionally to your family–and good friends–without question; it was understood to be an integral part of just being a good relative or friend. For instance, if someone bad-mouthed your brother, or treated your best friend with disrespect, you stood up for them–regardless of the situation, and regardless of who was actually in the wrong. 

However, I noticed inconsistencies with this understanding as I got older and as I eventually realized how dysfunctional my family really was.

Consequently, I’ve had to re-define a lot of terms, like loyalty, that I found I had been given a warped impression of over the years. 

For instance, my mother demanded my brothers’ and my complete loyalty, no matter what she did or said–even if it was immoral, illegal, or even things that she said or did against her own family members. We had to be loyal to her, even as she was being disloyal to her own siblings, and we still had to be around them and pretend a certain loyalty to them when we were. Needless to say, this was very uncomfortable, and alienating as well.

It became very difficult to have any kind of real relationship with any of her siblings–our aunts and uncles, and even their children, who were our cousins–not to mention having one with her. Eventually, it became obvious that she was also the same way towards her own children; making it impossible for us to trust each other completely as she deliberately divided and compromised our loyalties to each other. 

What I have come to understand is this:  Loyalty, being an aspect of relationships based on the virtues of honesty, trust, and respect, is the foundation for any successful relationship; if there is no loyalty, no real relationship can ever exist. If there is no honesty, there can be no trust; if there is no trust, there can be no respect, and if there is no respect, there can be no loyalty.

Loyalty is not, in my opinion, standing up for someone who consistently goes against the virtues of honesty, trust, and respect just because you’re related or call each other “friend.” If you do something wrong, I may still be loyal to you, as everyone makes mistakes–including me. However, I will not lie for you, nor will I take the blame for you, and I certainly won’t allow someone else to do so either. And, if you consistently behave poorly, my loyalty for you will eventually disappear. 

In order to deserve someone’s loyalty, I believe that you have to give them a reason to be loyal to you. If you are honest and respectful and trustworthy when dealing with others, you will be more likely to be reciprocated. This person may be your brother, sister, child, husband, teacher, boss, employee, co-worker, or friend–loyalty can be shown to anyone who deserves it. 

However, if you try to find these qualities in someone who does not understand what honesty, trust, and respect are, no matter how honest, loyal, and respectful you are, you will never truly receive those things back from them.

If a business wants your loyalty, they will need to offer you fair pricing and good customer service; if a government wants your loyalty, they will have to help you understand the necessity of their policies; if any organization wants your loyalty, they should be able to show you behavior deserving of it–including the ability to admit their mistakes–and make serious attempts to make amends and improve themselves.

It’s possible that loyalty could sometimes come gradually, but if you’re dealing with someone who is just not capable of it, you’re only wasting your time. And, if that person has harmed others, you’re giving your loyalty to someone who doesn’t really deserve it, and you may be denying it to those who really do–those that were harmed by that person in the first place. As long as you continue to give your loyalty to that person, those who’ve been hurt will not feel that they can ever trust you–or be loyal to you. In the end, you may have made it impossible for those truly deserving people to give you their loyalty, as well.