When Life (and Relationships) Aren’t What You Hoped (Part 1)

This is the first part of a three-part series. In this part 1 we’ll tackle one major step to take when something in our life hasn’t turned out the way we wanted it to. In Part 2 we will explore two more steps that build on this one. And in Part 3, we’ll see how it all applies to life and relationships.


I couldn’t help but overhear.  As I was searching the Target aisle for a headache medicine, a woman in the next aisle sounded like she could use it.

“He just had to say it, Shelly, he couldn’t stop himself!” The woman on the other side of the first aid shelf was on a phone call, vocally expressing her displeasure. “He knows my dad doesn’t have a humorous bone in his body, but he said it anyway. And now I have to deal with the fallout. Again.”

She paused to listen.

“No, he doesn’t mean to be insensitive, it’s just the Tigger thing. It’s his personality. Everything is a joke to him. I’ve told him over and over that he can’t be that way around my parents. I keep thinking he’ll calm down now that we have Jacob, but he’s not.”

Her voice faded away as she headed down the aisle. And I was left pondering what we do when something about our lives is not the way we want it. Let’s take a look.

When something is not as we hoped, what can we do?

Maybe something in a relationship drives us crazy. It could be that you’re married to Tigger, and your dad doesn’t get along with him because he is more like Eeyore. (Or you are more like Eeyore!)

Or perhaps a spouse is completely ADD about household tasks – they don’t mean to forget the trash pickup, but they often do. Or an adult daughter is alwaysfifteen minutes late ­­– twenty to things that matter. Or your business partner gets defensive when a suggestion is made. Every. Single. Time.

Regardless of the relationship, most of us probably have a situation that we hoped would change by now.

Or, zooming out to a bigger picture, maybe something about our lives overall isn’t what we’d hoped for. Maybe there’s a chronic health problem that may never change, a constant struggle with finances, or the fact that we have to move every few years because of our spouse’s job.

How do we handle these situations with grace, steadiness, and joy, instead of frustration, chaos, and anguish? How do we live a life marked by true contentment instead of constant dissatisfaction?

These are obviously very big questions ­­– and the answers go far beyond what we can do in this three-part series. But we can rely on science and scripture to at least make a start.

So this week, let’s start by looking at one big-picture action. It’s the hinge everything else turns on. And I’ll be honest, we’re going to need a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down. Next week, in Part 2, we’ll add two more actions that can help us maneuver the life’s challenges with greater joy. And in Part 3, we’ll apply all of this to our relationships.

Ready? Got that spoonful of sugar?

Action #1: Grieve what isn’t how we want it to be

It might sound odd, but this step is the cornerstone of everything else we are going to talk about in this series. We have to literally grieve what isn’t in order to accept what is.

This came to light in a profound way when Jeff and I sat down with Dr. Michael Sytsma, my co-author of Secrets of Sex & Marriage, to begin exploring what would eventually make up our book: the simple steps that help couples have a thriving intimate life. In previous books, Jeff and I have been careful to stay in our lane and avoid topics best handled by a trained clinician. But this time we were working with one!

So, right away Jeff chimed in with this question: “Is there any common denominator that will help struggling couples build a great relationship no matter what their issue is?”

The answer shocked us.

It’s grief.

Dr. Sytsma, a renowned and highly credentialed therapist, answered Jeff’s question this way: “Actually, every experienced counselor already knows what that common denominator is. In the end, all counseling work is grief work …You have to grieve what isn’t and accept what is before you can move forward to enjoy what you have.”

That’s worth repeating:

We have to grieve what isn’t and accept what is before we can move forward to enjoy what we have.

Here’s what that means in practice: You know that expectation we have that something will change? That has to die. We have to come to terms with the fact that it will never be the way we wanted it to be.

Wow.

That truth is so hard – and yet if we want a healthy, vibrant life of contentment and joy, that is the gate we have to go through to get there.

Now just to be clear (and we unpack this in detail in Chapter 9 of Secrets of Sex & Marriage), there are truly toxic situations where this grief/acceptance pattern does not apply – because the situation is not something we should ever “accept.” You should never accept that your spouse is abusive to you and your children, or that your colleague is embezzling money – you get safe, call in help and accountability, and, if needed, bring in authorities. You should not just “accept” that your doctor doesn’t listen to you, or that your boss is a cruel manager – you should find a new doctor or a new job!

But so many things that cause us distress are not in truly toxic categories. Either they are not toxic “deal breakers” (your spouse’s irritating ADD) or they are things we literally cannot change (a medical condition that won’t go away). Maybe we have chronic pain, frustrating relationship issues, or financial realities that mean living in a crowded apartment rather than a big house. We have to truly let go of the longing for that particular something to be different. Because it is only when we honestly and sincerely grieve (for example, that we will probably always have these crowded living quarters) that we can stop wishing for the big house. And it is only once we stop wishing for the big house that we can enjoy the beautiful chaos and benefits that come from a large family in a small space.

What benefits, you ask? Consider the regrets one wealthy mom told me about in an interview a few years ago: “We were so excited when Brian sold his company and we were able to buy a big house. But I wish someone had told us of the downsides. In our small townhouse, with three girls sharing one bedroom, we were always on top of each other and the living room was the only place to hang out. We got irritated over whose turn it was to watch TV, or whatever, but we always knew what was going on with each other. Now, the girls go into their separate bedrooms and shut the doors. I sometimes wish we had the tight quarters back.”

We’ll get to how “grief and acceptance” becomes “hope and joy” over the next two weeks. In the meantime, I’ll give you some space to ponder this initial concept. For some of you, opening the door to grief may in a strange way be a welcome and overdue step. And you may need help to take that step. Perhaps your church offers lay counseling or a class like GriefShare. Or maybe it’s time to do what you’ve been wanting to do for some time now … connect with a pastor or professional counselor. However you move forward, I’m cheering for you.

And I’ll be back next week with two more essential action steps.

And if you are interested in having Shaunti speak on kindness for your workplace, church, school or community group, please contact Nicole Owens at nowens@shaunti.com.

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