Don’t Make Things Worse

Sigh. I reread the quote again for the third time that morning:

If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. — Romans 12:18

Sigh. To be honest, on that particular morning, I didn’t feel like living at peace with a certain individual.

This quote is one I had memorized as a college student, back when I was still an atheist but curious about spiritual things. Since then, these words have had a profound influence on my relational decisions. But even if you’re not that interested in spiritual things, this quote, found in Romans 12:18 in the Bible, holds as much wisdom for you as it does for me.

One of the central themes of this book is how important it is for us to gain clarity on what we have control over and what we don’t. We can only change that which we can control, and one thing is certain: we have full control over how we respond to others. Owning our responsibility for words and behaviors toward the people in our lives is a central task of living in healthy relationships.

When we’re disappointed with someone, we must choose how we’ll respond.

We have the opportunity and power to keep from throwing gas on the fire and fueling the problem. Our response might not make everyone happy, but we can choose to respond in a way that doesn’t make things worse. We can choose words and behaviors that are productive, healing, and helpful. And we can refrain from words or behaviors that don’t help or that increase the disharmony and widen the gap.

Identify Your Own Destructive Responses

I recently had a chance to hear the story of a young couple who faced relational disappointments with a parent. Their situation provides a great example of what it looks like to commit yourself to avoiding destructive responses.

Amy and Dave met on a blind date at a James Taylor concert. They dated for a couple of years, got married, and moved from the Midwest to Los Angeles for Amy’s job. Two years after their marriage, their first son, Andy, was born, and they welcomed a second son, Matt, on their fifth wedding anniversary.

When Matt was born, Amy’s parents, Howard and Wanda, offered to fly from Cleveland to help them with the challenge of having a newborn and a three-year-old in the house. Keenly aware of her mother’s tendency to control and criticize, Amy was hesitant. But Dave thought it would be a great family-building time, so they said yes.

The first day went well, but by day two, the foundation beneath the family-building time started to crack. Wanda began her well-established pattern of picking on her daughter, both directly and indirectly. Here’s a recap of their evolving dialogue:

Wanda: Where’s your Windex?

Amy: Under the sink. Why?

Wanda: Because every window in this house is completely disgusting.

Amy: Mom, you’re here to enjoy your grandkids. Go play outside with Andy. He’s playing with the model plane you brought him. We can deal with the windows some other time.

Wanda: I would feel much better if I could actually see Andy out there, through these filthy windows.

Amy began to burn inside. This exchange was typical of how her mother has controlled and hurt her all her life. She directed Wanda to the Windex and paper towels, then disappeared into her bedroom with the baby and closed the door. She spent much of the next day with her infant son in her bedroom, avoiding contact with her mother.

By day four, the relational tension hit a boiling point when little Andy started crying because he couldn’t get his model plane to fly.

Wanda: Amy, if your children ever received any discipline, they would be less likely to melt down like this.

Amy: Mom! I’m sick of listening to you describe my deficiencies as a parent. And while I’m at it, I don’t want any more comments about my housekeeping, either!

Wanda: Well, I am sorry to disappoint you, dear, but I really can’t be comfortable in a house with windows and floors in this condition.

Amy: I’ve had it! All you ever do is criticize me! Sure, you got an A+ for keeping your house clean when I was little, but that came at a cost, didn’t it?! If you can’t say something nice, then, please, say nothing.

Wanda: So I’m the problem here?! I didn’t make your house a pigpen. I modeled a very different way of managing the house when you were little. If you weren’t so focused on your career and hadn’t moved clear across the country, your house would be clean, and we’d all get along!

Amy: Look, if you don’t like the condition of my house or how I parent my children, there are some very nice hotels nearby! Stay there!

With this exchange, all the unspoken hurts came pouring out. This was new territory. Amy had never crossed her mom before. An icy tension filled the room, just as Amy’s husband and father entered. The room stayed eerily silent for a minute or so, and then all parties went their separate ways. Amy took the baby to her bedroom to nurse, Dave suddenly remembered some important work he needed to do in the garage, and Howard went to the kitchen, where he poured himself a tall scotch. Soon after, Wanda and Howard cut their visit short and headed back to Ohio. Everyone was disappointed, and they each tell a different story of how they were victimized during the visit.

Let’s look at this exchange through the lens of the A/P spectrum:

Wanda’s passive-aggressive critiques land her squarely on the right-hand side of the A/P spectrum; she is controlling and critical. She shows signs of over-protecting in her self-righteous, self-absorbed responses and her “honest assessment” of Amy’s housekeeping.

Amy initially responded to Wanda with her lifelong pattern of over-accepting: complacency, capitulation, and passivity. Then ultimately, she hit a wall and jumped from over-accepting to over-protecting; she became aggressive, contentious, and abandoning.

When we experience relational disappointment, it takes a lot of self-discipline to remember that we have a choice in how we respond.

Will we respond in a constructive way or a destructive way? When we get hurt, scared, or angry, our primitive emotional brain takes over, and our fight-or-flight response kicks in. The problem with primitive, protective reactions is that they are designed to bring quick relief from “danger,” which often comes at the expense of the relationship. When we’re in the heat of battle, it takes a rugged commitment not to respond destructively to those who are disappointing or hurting us. In our triggered state, we actually believe that we’ll feel better and safer if we choose a destructive response. We fool ourselves into feeling we’re more in control.

We’re easily tempted to succumb to these fight-or-flight reactions because, when we feel wronged, we’re quick to believe we deserve a “pass” on the whole bridge-building business and are released to react in a retaliatory manner. In these heated moments, we give our- selves permission to lash out or to withdraw because we feel we’re “just defending ourselves.” And defending ourselves is a reasonable thing, right?

Destructive responses don’t protect us. When the dust settles and our ability to think rationally reengages, we discover we were fooled again by our skittish brains, and now we’ve made the situation worse. Resorting to a destructive response when disappointed always results in a wider gap in the relationship. Always.

Excerpted with permission from Renovate Your Relationships by Scott Vaudrey, copyright Scott Vaudrey.

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Your Turn

No matter what is going on in your relationships, don’t make it worse! This is probably the chief mistake I’ve made in relationships in the past. Can you relate? Against all odds, though, we can choose to respond in a way that honors God and the one you love with whom you’re in a challenging spot. We can do this, sisters! Come share your thoughts on relating constructively on our blog. We want to hear from you! ~ Laurie McClure, Faith.Full

Scott Vaudrey

Scott Vaudrey is a retired emergency department doctor and pastor. He received his MD from the University of Washington in 1988, and a Master’s in Transformational Leadership from Bethel University in 2005. After transitioning from medicine to ministry, he served as a pastor for sixteen years, helping thousands of people navigate their relational challenges. Today he splits his time between executive coaching and speaking to staff teams, nonprofits, churches, and organizations around the country about how to improve relationships and create thriving team cultures. Scott and his wife, September, live in the northwest suburbs of Chicago. They raised five children and have three grandkids—and counting. To learn more about Scott’s credentials or to contact him about coaching or speaking, go to scottvaudrey.com.

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