March 13

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When Relationships Change

By Jessica Allen

March 13, 2018

boundaries, friendship, relationships

G burst in the door sobbing one afternoon last week. She had been playing with the neighborhood girls and BAM. The mean girls took over in the 2 minutes I had come inside to check on dinner. Something about four square, cheating the rules, someone called someone a so-and-so, and now no one wanted to play with her. These were real tears, a true heartache, and she wanted to give up and come inside. After getting to the bottom of it I wanted to help her understand she had a part in the scuffle too and that you can’t just walk away from relationships when they get hard.

Me: Baby, of course we can stay inside and read together. But first, can I ask you a favor? Let’s go make it right with the girls so it won’t feel yucky the next time you see them.

G (with a sudden huge smile and magically evaporating tears): Um… I… that’s okay Mommy, I’LL talk to the girls! You can talk to Ms. Christy! {our neighbor and friend}

And she bolted out the door with absolutely no intent of her mother getting anywhere near those girls.  I’m sure it was fear of my finding out she was just as guilty as they were in the matter.

I walked out with my mom face on and my arms crossed and they all had their tails between their legs, including my own innocent cherub. Girl drama starts EARLY dear ones.  And you can bet we had another conversation about that before bedtime.

Whether it’s 2nd grade ball games or adult friendships, there is something to be gleaned from every spat. Circumstances change and people move in and out of our lives. Some circumstances are beyond our control, and sometimes we make choices to move in a different direction. I think some people navigate these shifts easily and with grace and some people need a bit more time and patience to “turn the ship.”

I am the latter and it takes awhile to really process and make peace with change. The more emotionally invested I am, the harder it is, and as an emotional creature, that makes pretty much every change a challenge. Girl drama that starts when we’re young just gets heavier when we’re grownups. We know more words and we’ve found more creative and subtle ways to hurt one another.

Watching people move in and out of my life is the most challenging of changes for me. Redefined relationships, sometimes severed relationships, are tough to understand. It takes forgiveness and grace for others and for myself. Often there’s no closure at all, and I have to create it myself.

Here are some simple questions that have helped me get to the bottom of my own heartache:  What can I learn here? What can I model for those involved?  And what can I release in order to move forward?

What can I LEARN from my relationships?

When the shock of a changed relationship wears off and I can view it more objectively, I can begin to gather what I was supposed to learn. Sometimes it’s something as simple as “this relationship has run its course.” Sometimes it’s more complex, “this relationship is suffering because of my own selfishness.” In the more simple instance, I can chalk it up to a learning experience, apologize and make it right, and move forward. In the more complex situation, the only way I’m ever going to truly move forward is by doing a little personal work to understand why I behaved the way I did and how my choices hurt someone else.

The lesson I often find myself having to learn over and over (because God is patient and persistent like that) is to choose my words more carefully. If it was something judgmental, hurtful, or destructive, you cannot unsay it, and others can’t unhear it. And while the hurt will certainly subside with time, some damage with some people won’t be undone and the relationship won’t look the same.

A harder responsibility to learn is that I cannot possibly love someone (or learn anything) when I am judging. So if at any point I find myself leveraging my own status or superiority against another person, I know there is zero percent chance I can learn through the situation. And then the opportunity to grow through the change or repair the relationship is completely lost. (For me, this happens when my defenses kick in. I would rather point the finger at someone else than own my own stuff. Big red flag.) This step takes every ounce of my willingness to be self aware and admittedly, it’s not my easiest or best skill yet. But I’m learning.

What can I MODEL in my relationships?

We are all a reflection of our heavenly Father. So what kind of God is someone experiencing through me, even at my worst? A God who is gracious, firm, loving, and forgiving, or a God who is harsh, destructive, unreliable, and unkind? We are all learning – mostly through our relationships with other people. People are wonderful and infuriating heavenly mirrors, held up to show us our own flaws.  So in a shift, or conflict, someone else is likely learning something from my mirror too.

When I’m not in the hot seat or completely worked up in emotion, I can say with certainty my desire is to model compassion and kindness. I am also learning in my adult life that it’s critical to firmly model that repeated hurtful behavior is not okay, and that it cannot continue. This is where boundaries come in and they are much easier for some to establish than others.

We are only at the mercy of a hurtful person if we continue to allow their behavior. A wise mentor once shared: if someone hits you with a 2×4, choose to forgive them, but you don’t have to go into a lumberyard with them ever again.

What can I RELEASE in my relationships?

It is my responsibility to release anything that does not serve God’s calling over my life: hurtful words, harmful actions, untrue speech, or any relationship that leads me to believe I am less than who I really am. No one person or situation has the power to make me smaller or unequipped. (This is why affirmations, great reading, and staying plugged into scripture are such critical parts of my daily routine. They keep me rooted in truth instead of preoccupied with the chatter of other people.  They also help me stand firm in my own identity rather than seeking identity in my relationships.)

That being said, not everything can or should be shrugged off so simply.

Many mentors along the way have encouraged me to grow thicker skin. Yes, my bleeding heart agrees this is probably true. But what I misunderstood for many years is that “thick skin” does not mean permitting people to mistreat you. It simply means letting hurtful comments or actions roll off more easily without affecting your own view of yourself. One of my favorite Super Women Eleanor Roosevelt stated it beautifully.  “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”

As a more passive personality, it’s easy to shrug off stinging comments or embarrassing situations without addressing the problem with the other person. I convince myself that I’m being noble, selfless, and the bigger person, when in actuality I’m harboring that hurt I prided myself on releasing. But that isn’t having thick skin. It’s being a doormat. And it’s unfair to myself and to anyone else who has no idea their behavior continues to add to a festering wound in the relationship.

The more I understand this lesson, the better I see that having thick skin simply means not allowing those things to pierce your heart quite as deeply, along with having the confidence and self-respect to speak the truth in love in your relationships when it’s necessary.

A final thought on the responsibility to release – sometimes it is necessary to release people from your life. Get honest with yourself about the kind of people you desire to have in your inner circle and evaluate your relationships. Sometimes they truly have run their course. That evaluation (and subsequent redefining of boundaries) is hard but your spirit is worth it.

A Note on the Idea of “Toxic People”

This isn’t about cutting toxic people from your life. This is a popular idea in our culture, with good reason, but I think it’s a setup for frustration. First, people are only toxic to us if we label them so and give them that power.  Secondly, sometimes it’s just flat impractical. There are relationships that shift but remain in your life for any number of reasons, such as work, family, or perhaps you are connected in a complicated way.

While it’s maddening to be unable to cut those ties, there is always something to learn.  And what an opportunity to better yourself in the process. The challenge is to honor the other person who gets under your skin while maintaining your own self-respect and healthy boundaries. That even feels hard to write. We’ll practice it together because I’m not good at it yet. But in doing so we’ll take steps towards becoming versions of ourselves we can be proud of, and maybe even learn from too.

HP,

J

Reading List

Just so you know!  These are affiliate links.  If you choose to purchase a book through one of these links, you won’t pay a penny more, but I’ll receive a small commission which helps keep our little community up and running.  Thanks!

Boundaries by Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend
Who Moved My Cheese? by Dr. Spencer Johnson
The Energy Bus by Jon Gordon

Jessica Allen

About the author

Jessica is a writer, musician, entrepreneur, wife, and mom. Jessica's mission is to write "real" - shining light into the dark places of the tough stuff we all experience. She and her husband Jack live in Houston, Texas and have weathered the storms of grief, infant loss, adoption, and a marriage that almost fell apart. Jessica and Jack have four children: LJ in heaven, Grace, Jackson, and Elisha.

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