When our children are born, none of us get an operation manual. How amazing would it be, on the day of a child’s birth, to get a document telling us the best way to nurture, discipline, grow, and in all other ways develop them into the very person they were meant to be from the beginning? Of course it doesn’t work that way, but when it comes to relationship issues, there are some general rules of engagement that, with a little adjustment, can help just about anyone move toward better interaction.
How to Work on Relationship Problems as a Team
Ask for Guidance
You may have heard that God created families as His structure on Earth for growing children into functioning adults. Ask the Creator for wisdom on how to work on relationship problems. It’s good to remember that while we have the divine in us, we are not the final authority. Invite God the Father, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit into your thinking, conversation, and actions early and often. This may be the very reason we don’t get a manual – to drive us to God’s presence for help.
Don’t Try to Fix
Many of us, especially men, approach problems with the mindset that we have to fix it. The problem with trying to fix another person in relationship is that it reclassifies them as a thing to be corrected. Trying to fix someone is dehumanizing to the object of our intent. When we try to fix a loved one, we make them into an “it,” and that always feels lousy for everyone involved. The person made into an “it” feels devalued, and usually the perpetrator feels irritated, superior, and impatient.
You may come from a long line of fixers. You may have majored in fixing in many walks of life. Here’s the good news: you can undo it pretty easily. The solution to fixing people in your life is to ask permission. Imagine your spouse comes in from the garage frustrated by the amount of trash in the car you use. He or she says you need to stop being so messy. The underlying message is not, “You made a mess,” but, “You are a messy person.” Because of your emotional grid, you may also hear, “You have always been a messy person. You will always be a messy person.” Now you feel shame and are likely either to respond in anger, or withdraw.
Now reset the story – your spouse comes in from the garage frustrated by the trash in the car and rather than insulting your character, instead says, “I’m frustrated by the trash in the car. Would you be willing to take care of that?” Instead of an ultimatum, he or she has asked permission – would you be willing –and in doing so, honored your inherent freedom of choice as an adult.
So many conversations carry implicit assumptions that undermine mutuality in communication. When you walk in the room and jump into a discussion about what’s bothering you, you assume the person is in a frame of mind to hear what you have to say, oblivious to their actual state. If you pause just long enough to ask, “Is this a good time to talk about something that’s bothering me?” you honor the other person’s frame of mind and invite them to participate in a conversation, rather than forcing them to be on the receiving end of your current frustration. If you ask permission and the person says, “It’s not a good time,” it is incumbent on the person to reschedule, “but I can do it in 5 minutes (or 10 or whatever, but usually not more than 30 minutes).”
The difficulty with codependency is that it looks like compassion. Someone drops something on the floor and we reflexively pick it up, or see someone reading in (what we think is) inadequate light, and turn on a lamp or open a curtain. If you do this compulsively often enough, you may have been labeled a control freak or meddlesome by your loved ones.
In my family, we called it “futzing,” as in, “Dad, you’re futzing again.” It usually comes out of a loving place, but by not asking permission you take away the other person’s choice. Again, the fix is simple. Someone drops something in front of you and you say, “Would you like me to pick that up for you?” or with the reading, “Would you like me to turn on a light?” Then we have to be willing to hear “no,” and move on.
A great tool for healthy conversations is to begin to employ framing, that is, using inquiry to invite the person into a conversation. It’s strange at first, but can help greatly with clear communication.
Here’s an example, first without the tools, with the tools:
“The trash needs to go out.”
“I’ll get it later.”
“You need to do it now.”
“Don’t nag me.”
“I’m not nagging you.”
“You’re always nagging me!”
“Is this a good time to ask you something?”
“Would you mind taking the trash out?”
“Happy to, but I’m kind of busy right now.”
“When would be a good time?”
“I can do it in fifteen minutes.”
The first conversation feels like the requester is trying to inflict a chore on the target, and the target responds accordingly. The second conversation honors the personhood by asking permission, making allowance for the other person’s state of mind, and the issue is resolved without an argument.
Remember, as I’ve said before, when anger or anxiety goes up, we lose our capacity to think. If you’re having a conversation and something is said that triggers your anxiety (or anger), it’s helpful to pause and announce it, “Wow, when you said that, my anxiety just ramped up. I wonder what that’s about?”
Pause the conversation and comment on what’s going on. “I’m experiencing you as pretty anxious right now,” or “My anxiety is up and I’d like to pause the conversation long enough to calm down so we don’t have an argument.”
When anxiety goes up, we lose our capacity to think and it can make us want to rush through the conversation to get it out before we lose it completely. This is exactly the opposite of what needs to happen. Slow down. Pause. Be curious about the emotional content behind your reaction to the words you are hearing or saying.
There are Scriptures that talk quite plainly about loving each other, being considerate, and not needlessly aggravating each other. This seems like common sense, but if we don’t have it in mind before entering a conversation, things can get messy very fast. A balance must be found and held between the competing needs of any two people in a family relationship, and this balance will be profoundly affected by the distribution of power in the family system.
There’s a saying, “If mama ain’t happy, ain’t no one happy,” but I would expand that to include any member of a family whose members genuinely care for each other. A depressed child can lay waste to the harmony of a household as surely as a verbally abusive father.
There are no guarantees, but many marital issues can be resolved through open and healthy communication, establishment of good, permeable boundaries, and understanding your own selfishness. We’ve already talked about framing and useful phrases like, “Can I tell you how that landed on me?” and “I’m experiencing you as (frustrated, angry, etc.)” and “I wonder what that’s about.”
Boundaries are the places where we get to hold up a hand and say “no” to our spouse. A wedding ring is not a license to treat our spouse however we want, or vice versa. We get to ask for better treatment when we are unhappy. Permeable boundaries allow both people to adjust depending on the needs of a situation.
For example, suppose you’ve agreed with your spouse that you aren’t going to discuss emotional issues at bedtime. This is a good boundary, and when a spouse violates it, the other can reasonably say, “You agreed not to do that.” What makes it permeable is if you need to discuss it and think you can do it without an argument, you can frame it, “I know we agreed not to talk about emotional things at bedtime, but I’d really like to talk about this, just so I know we’re on the same page.”
A rigid boundary would make this impossible, but a permeable boundary allows you to proceed with caution. At the point someone realizes the conversation is going in circles or ramping up, they get to put up a hand and announce that. The conversation can be tabled until the light of day, at least.
When children are in the mix, the rules of good communication are the same, but the power differential is different, and one of the most important rules for couples is to be engaged and show a united front. Children learn at an early age to be brilliant manipulators. I remember a comic who told the story of finding his little daughter on a stack of chairs with her hand in the cookie jar. When he said, “What are you doing?” without missing a beat the little girl answered, “Getting a cookie for you!”
You can’t teach this. It is innate, and if you wanted to say it was a result of sin entering the world, I wouldn’t deny it. We train our children to be stronger, more functional adults by setting and holding boundaries with them. Usually, this means reasonable consequences for failure to perform, which are carried out unfailingly, despite the wails and complaints of our offspring. It may seem kind of harsh, but not unlike the gangsters in some movies, you find out what they love, and squeeze.
Many a parent has told their child if they don’t clean their room, or do the dishes, they lose their Internet privileges. Discomfort can be a great motivator. The process breaks down if either parent folds and does not have the emotional fortitude to carry out the restriction. “You live under my roof and eat my food,” trumps, “But I have a raid! My friends are counting on me!” every time.
You cannot give into your internal arguments, “Well, he doesn’t have a lot of friends, and I do want him to socialize.” If you give in, you undercut your spouse, and actually do damage to your child by not forcing them to structure upward and carry their own weight. Here again, the good news is you can turn this around immediately. Set a reasonable boundary and hold it no matter how much they whine and fuss, and you are on the better path right away. We are not on Earth to be friends with our children, we are here to guide and structure them upward as their parents. Friendship may be a wonderful part of it, but we must have steely resolve to hold our boundaries with our kids or they will walk all over us, and not live up to their potential.
Navigating family relationships can be a dauntingly complex task, made more so by whatever emotional damage is brought into the system by the parents. When we remember that whoever we are dealing with, spouse, child, or sibling, they are a three-dimensional person, a child of God, with feelings and intentions, we can use this knowledge as a reminder to tread softly, to be perhaps a little more cautious than our current emotional state might direct, and pause long enough to use our tools.
If we remember to identify our needs and ask for them while being able to hear “no,” if we can set good, permeable boundaries and hold them with both firmness and kindness, and if we use our conversational tools to ask permission, announce and inquire about emotional content while conversing, we have a much better chance of growing healthy families who know how to work on relationship problems as a team.
“Mr. Fix-It,” courtesy of Clark Young, unsplash.com, Public Domain License; “Garbage can,” courtesy of fujifan, pixabay.com, CC0 Public Domain License; “Hug,” courtesy of markzfilter, pixabay.com, CC0 Public Domain; “Sunset,” courtesy of Alexas_Photos, pixabay.com, CC0 Public Domain License