The 5 things you CAN control in a broken relationship

In anticipation of the Restory Conference coming up, I’ve written a post about the helplessness (and need for control) we may feel when navigating a difficult relationship. This year’s conference will deal with your relationships, and I’m SO excited to share some amazing stories of people who have overcome in this area of their lives. If this is something you need, register now to reserve your ticket!

What are the 5 things you can control in a broken relationship?

When things are going sour in a relationship, my tendency is to want to control an outcome. Instead of praying or choosing to gently talk through an issue, I make assumptions about the other person (often wrong), internally judge them, then try to exert control to “change” them. As you may know, this works zero percent of the time. Why do we keep trying to control when we know it really messes things up?

So often we feel helpless when a friend or spouse or relative brings conflict our way. And in that helplessness lies a whole lot of fear, sometimes even panic. That’s when we batten down the hatches, become myopic, and turn to control before we look to Christ.

But what if there were a better way? Where we could focus our time, emotions and energy on tasks that bettered things, at least for us? As I’ve thought about it, I realized there were five concrete things we can do when a relationship blows up.

One. Listen.

You may not be able to control the onslaught of words coming from someone’s mouth, but you can control listening. Instead of defending yourself immediately or forming opinions flippantly, try to take a mental and emotional step back and really listen to what the person is saying. I noticed this recently during a conflict. On the surface, the other person seemed angry. I was tempted to add to that anger. (And truth be told, there were a few spats back and forth). But when I tried to detach a bit and take a global view of what was being said, I realized the anger was a front for hurt.

So I listened. And thought about the response and how it pertained to what I had done wrong. This gave me an opportunity to apologize and see the relationship mend. But if I hadn’t listened to the pain beneath the words, I would have most likely escalated the conflict. In those situations, I tend toward binary thinking. SHE is ALL BAD and I am ALL GOOD.

If there’s something I’ve learned over the years in helping married couples work through conflict (my husband and I have done this a few times), there are always two legitimate sides to a situation. Listening helps bring a fuller understanding of the whole problem.

Active listening by restating what someone said (“What I heard you say was…”) and asking clarifying questions will bring clarity to a conflict. Listening is also a very high form of love. It demonstrates self control and patience. (In fact, we should try for all the fruits of the Spirit when we’re walking through angst with someone. Ask yourself, Am I being loving, joyful, peaceful, patient, kind, gentle, faithful? Am I acting in a self-controlled manner?) This simple walk through Galatians 5 will bring huge blessings to your relationships. Besides, this is something you absolutely CAN control. The other person may or may not to show the fruits of the Spirit, but you can.

Two. Forgive.

Forgiveness isn’t always immediate, and it usually doesn’t happen in the moment (exception: when parents force two of their children to make up with each other and forgive). But it is a necessary oxygen to relationships, and it is VITAL for good ones.

Sometimes people demand forgiveness, but that is not something you should ever feel forced to offer. Forgiveness is best granted in quiet, after you’ve had some time to process the hurt, give it to Jesus, and have gained some perspective. And even if you’ve forgiven, remember that another outburst may make you think you haven’t forgiven because a new offense has poisoned past forgiveness. In that moment, try to tell yourself this: No, I actually have made the choice to forgive. This new conflict just means another layer of forgiveness we need to walk through. It does not negate my past choice to forgive.

Let’s say my friend Joyce (made this up) told me she thought I was insensitive and stingy because I didn’t readily lend my car to her. Then she calls me names. Now let’s say Joyce had a bad day prior to her request and outburst and also demands that I forgive her for saying those words to me.

I could say, “Joyce, thanks for bringing this up. I love being a forgiving person, but I’ve found it’s best for me to spend a little time away processing what you’ve said. Sometimes I need a bit of time to grieve, ask Jesus for help, and move forward. I absolutely value our relationship. Can we circle back to this conversation next week?”

Remember, forgiveness on your part doesn’t always = reconciliation. Romans 12:18 reminds us:  If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. You can forgive on your side, but that doesn’t mean the other person will move toward you in forgiveness. (Sometimes I pray this: Jesus, please help the other person forgive me–not for my sake necessarily, but for theirs.) It doesn’t guarantee you’ll be friends again. But to keep your conscience clear, work through your pain and ask Jesus to help you forgive the other. You do NOT want to live a life of angry bitterness.

Also, for those of you who have been victims of a perpetrator, forgiveness does NOT mean you must re-enter relationship. Most of the time, forgivness is an act you choose for your own soul (with the help of Jesus). If someone perpetrates against you, then demands both forgiveness and immediate relationship or trust, your best response for the sake of your health is to walk away. This is a big world, full of amazing people. You do not need to spend your life interacting with predators or perpetrators.

Three. Apologize.

If, in the conflict, you realize you’ve done or said something wrong, even if it’s hard to do, own up to it. Humble yourself and apologize.

One caveat: you might be like me and have an overactive conscience. You may be one of those people who over-apologizes for everything just to keep the peace. This is not the same as a healthy apology. Sometimes over-apologizers need to consult with a wise friend to see if they need to apologize because their script in their head is over-critical.

Over apologizing lets people who hurt others get away with it and justify their behavior. See? He apologized! My anger was justified. Now I don’t have to look at my own issues! So just be careful as you approach apology.

Remember, conviction from God (not from others’ accusations per se) is what matters, and God’s conviction always always come from HOPE. It’s about your specific words or actions, but is never pervasive.

God’s specific conviction: Losing your temper in this argument did not represent the fruits of the Spirit. An apology is in order to restore the relationship.
Pervasive script: You’re an angry loser who doesn’t deserve good relationships. Best grovel back in hopes someone, anyone, will befriend you.

See the difference in the tone?

Four. Choose your attitude.

Be careful not to allow someone else’s anger or pain dictate your mood. You have the right and the will to choose to rise above. I know it’s hard. And I’ve spent many years letting other people’s issues taint my days. In other words, their actions led to my depression.

In times like that, I realize that if I allow one person’s angst to create angst in me, I have allowed the enemy of my soul a secondary victory.

An example: let’s say you have a wayward child who has decided that prodigal living is the focus of his/her life. You can imagine the reports and phone calls that may come your way. Of course, in the moment you can grieve and be worried and sad about their choices. That’s natural. (We don’t want to be robots after all). But you also can control how you respond and how you allow the news to affect your day, week, month.

If you live in the muck with your prodigal, feeling all the feelings, and practically taking the journey with them, you’ll miss out on other opportunities to love others (who want you in their lives). Don’t let Satan’s seeming victories in one loved one’s life to steal your daily joy. He gets two victories out of that, takes down two instead of one.

This type of practice, I believe, is a spiritual discipline. It’s not a “Just choose joy” mantra that you use to deny pain or reality. It’s an active choice to run to Jesus in the midst of your pain, asking for His help in finding joy in difficult circumstances. Which leads to the last “control” task…

Five. Pray.

When someone hurts you, you can’t control what the person will do or say (or whether they’ll threaten or abandon), but you always, always have access to God. Remember, God IS a relationship. He is Father, Son and Spirit in one person. He created humankind because of the beauty and glory of relationship. Who better to come alongside us when our relationships sour than the One who perfected relationship in Himself?

This throne we approach is a throne of grace, not condemnation. If you’re particularly hurt by a condescending friend, you can run to the One who understands and offers affectionate grace. You have complete access to God, and you have the power to pray at any moment, even quietly under your breath during an argument. Here are some of the prayers I’ve prayed in the past month:

Jesus, help me listen better and not react with a mean spirit. Keep me from retaliating in kind.
Jesus, I need to know You see me in the midst of this conflict. Am I going crazy?
Jesus, I choose to forgive again. Empower me.
Jesus, show me whether I should pull away or pursue reconciliation right now.
Jesus, I’m hurting. Can you bring new bits of healing to my heart?
Jesus, I don’t know what to say. Give the words I can say that will bring the most understanding.
Jesus, I’m confused. Bring clarity.
Jesus, help me to see the long view of this.
Jesus, help me to hold my tongue.
Jesus, help me to hear what is being said behind my friend’s emotion.

Praying rightly puts the burden onto God’s capable shoulders. Your heart and mind aren’t meant to carry all that heartache around. I worry that many folks reading this are carrying something God never intended them to carry. Let go. Place your broken relationship in the hands of Jesus. This you CAN control.

Mind if I pray for you?

Jesus, I pray for my friend reading this that You would bring peace in a broken relationship today–and if not from both sides, at least from their side. Help them to forgive for their sake, to be set free from bitterness. Give them a listening heart and a willingness to own their own actions. Give them an appropriate apology muscle–not to over-apologize but to rightly acknowledge their own sin. Would You help them to find joy today, in this moment, reading this prayer, even when a relationship threatens to usurp that joy? Give them a holy gumption to do the work You have for them, even if heartache stings the background and foreground of their life. I pray that You would show them how to be a person of the fruits. May love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness and self control be the oxygen of their relationships. We choose right now to give You our grief associated with a broken relationships. We cannot carry the pain any more. We cannot keep living joylessly because the action or inaction of others. Take the burden, please. Heal our hearts. Heal our hurts. Restore and restory our relationships today, Jesus. We need You. Amen.