Joy to the world

Hillsong Worship

A common reason people come to counseling is “relationship distress.”  Relationship distress is the grief that accompanies a relationship that doesn’t meet your personal expectations.

The types of relationship can vary, but usually they surround one’s parents, siblings, children, or in-laws; someone through either birth or marriage you did not get to choose. 

Since I am a human, and live on the same planet as my clients, I am not immune to relationship distress.  This is actually helpful because it allows me to empathize, and more importantly, it gives me the opportunity to practice the same skills I give my clients on a daily basis. 

Recently, I encountered a situation in which a relationship was (once again) just not what I hoped it to be.  I spent the day after the encounter completely consumed by the grief of what I wished the relationship would have been.  I was grieving the closeness I desired in that particular relationship. I was jealous of other people who enjoy what I feel I’m missing out on. 

In mulling through this situation, I wanted to share some insight regarding navigating relationship distress.

Practice Acceptance

When a relationship doesn’t meet your expectations, rather than continually becoming upset; practice acceptance.  We have little control over the actions of others.  When a person behaves a way that is consistent with their behavior over a long period of time, it is unreasonable to expect that behavior to change and unfair for you to expect that person’s behavior to change. 

If you do not accept the behavior, then you will find yourself continually grieving the loss of something that will never be, which creates an internal angst that can come to control you.  While it is important to grieve the loss, it is unhealthy to grieve it over and over again. 

Don’t Compare

Through social media, a conversation, or an observation, we often see others enjoying a relationship with a significant person in their life and become jealous or sad. 

When you find yourself comparing your relationship with your mom/dad/in-law/sibling/child:

  • Catch yourself in the act.
  • Acknowledge the futility of the thought.
  • Redirect your thinking. 
  • Lastly, think about the great relationships you do have. And/or say a prayer, and move on. 

Forgiveness doesn’t always mean Reconciliation

Forgiveness is intentionally changing your negative feelings towards a person and not seeking revenge. One common cognitive distortion people carry, especially Christians, is that forgiving someone for their behavior equates with reconciliation.   

Reconciliation is the act of restoring a relationship. As Christians, we are absolutely to practice forgiveness. Two of the ways we can express relational forgiveness are through acceptance and releasing comparisons.

In some cases, reconciliation is viable. But if after 25 years you are still trying to reconcile a relationship, it might be time to stop in order to protect yourself from future hurts.   

Don’t Personalize

Take an inventory. See what role you might have played. Acknowledge when necessary. Apologize if necessary. Move on. 

Allowing anyone to make you feel as though you are not good enough is not OK and can make you vulnerable to manipulation by a person who likely is not concerned for your well-being. 

Most of the time their behavior has nothing to do with you. The behavior causing you relationship distress can be caused by past hurts and insecurities that are beyond your control.  Stepping out of the situation (and your feelings surrounding the situation) will allow you to recognize the behavior isn’t about you. 

Not personalizing also has a side benefit of creating compassion and empathy. It’s hard to be angry at or hurt by a person for whom you feel compassion.

Your Expectations are not their Responsibility 

Up until this point, perhaps you were on board with the steps for eliminating relationship distress. I’m going to lose a lot of people here because this step requires personal accountability. I know all too well how hard that can be. 

Perhaps your expectations are too much. Perhaps your expectations are unrealistic. Perhaps your expectations are impossible to achieve because of how God uniquely created both you and the other person. 

Expecting another person to fulfill your expectations in order to make you happy or content in a relationship is unrealistic and you are setting yourself up for failure. 

Just as it is unrealistic for others to expect more of us than we are capable, it is equally unrealistic for us to do the same to others. 

Will practicing these habits make the hurt completely go away? 

Unfortunately no; it still isn’t fair that the relationship isn’t how it is supposed to be.  However, practicing these habits will over time ease the pain of the hurt and create some empathy and compassion for the other person. 

It is a practice, and with any new behavior it will take time and repetition. 

Accept. Don’t compare. Forgive. Don’t personalize. Then move on with the humility of knowing that you too might not be meeting someone’s expectations and causing them relationship distress.

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