This month I’ve been blogging about the essential ingredients in healthy relationships. Some of you have recognized that your relationships are painful and want to know what steps you can take to turn things around.
Last week I emphasized the importance of recognizing that change begins with you. Most of the time we miss this important truth and we spin our wheels trying to change the other person, which will always frustrate us. The only person we have any control over is our own self. However, as you begin to make the changes you need in order to be a more mature person, the difficult or destructive relationships won’t stay the same.
Let me explain. Relationships are a lot like ballroom dancing. You have a partner and, if he or she steps on your toes, you’re not happy. You speak up and say “ouch”. You ask him to be more careful or dance differently. In a normal relationship, the other person will care about your feelings and do something to stop stepping on your toes.
But what if your efforts to speak up fall on deaf ears and nothing changes? Or worse, what if you’re mocked and told you’re being ridiculous (or ungodly) for bringing it up? Then what?
Jesus said, “If another believer sins against you, go privately and point out the offense. If the other person listens and confesses it, you have won that person back. But if you are unsuccessful, take one or two others with you and go back again, so that everything you say may be confirmed by two or three witnesses. If the person still refuses to listen, take your case to the church. Then if he or she won’t accept the church’s decision, treat that person as a pagan or a corrupt tax collector.” (Matthew 18:15-17)
Jesus knows that some relationships fail because one person refuses to stop behaviors or attitudes that are damaging the relationship. All relationships, even good ones, contain elements of sin, conflict, selfishness and difficulty. It’s not our sin, however, that keeps our relationships from healing or changing, but rather our blindness to our sin. It’s our refusal to acknowledge that we have hurt another person, confess it, and change it.
If you’re in this place where you’ve talked and talked and talked and the other person refuses to listen, you have several choices. You can continue the same unhealthy dance you always have, you can withdraw from the relationship, or you can refuse to engage in the same old dance but continue to invite healthy change.
For example, Janice’s husband had a terrible temper. When angry, he would rant and rave, spewing hateful words at Janice. When she disagreed or tried to give her point of view, it was immediately squelched. Janice spoke many times to Tom telling him his reckless words hurt deeply, but Tom never changed.
Janice couldn’t change Tom but she could change what she did when he lost his temper. Instead of trying to calm him down, reason with him or allow herself to become his verbal punching bag, she decided when he lost his temper (or showed signs he was going to lose his temper), she would leave the house. Sometimes for an hour, sometimes for the entire day, sometimes she’d even spend the night at a friend’s house.
Before implementing this plan, she told him, “When you lose your temper, I’m going to leave and give you time and space to get control over yourself. When you have calmed down, I will come home.”
Janice refused to engage with Tom in the same old dance. By changing her steps, the relationship began to change. Tom didn’t like Janice’s new steps, but he began to see she meant business. When refusing to engage in the same destructive pattern what you’re saying is, “My request is not negotiable. I won’t argue with you about it or defend my position. I will not continue to live in fear, or be controlled, or disrespected, or degraded, or cheated on, or ignored (as appropriate to your situation). In other words, I would like to dance with you but I won’t dance with you in the same way anymore.”
Don’t be surprised if you find yourself being accused of being mean, abusive, and controlling when you change the way you handle the same situation. Don’t argue or defend yourself. That only engages the destructive dance again. The other person may even retaliate against your newfound strength and want you to back down by trying to make you feel afraid or guilty. He or she may accuse you of being too sensitive, too selfish, or unrealistic in your expectations. The implication is that you have no right to challenge the way he or she treats you.
That’s not true. If this happens, stay calm but firm in your resolve. If you back down now, you will continue in the same destructive dance you’ve always danced. God calls us to treat others with love, grace, kindness, and truth so remind yourself that you’re taking these strong steps toward creating a new dance in the hopes that in time, your friend or spouse learn new dance steps too.