When Life (and Relationships) Aren’t What You Hoped (Part 3)

This is Part 3 of a three-part series on what to do when life or relationships aren’t what you wanted them to be. In part 1 and part 2 we outlined three important steps that can help us move from frustration and anguish to acceptance and appreciation. This week, we’ll apply those steps specifically to relationships.

We’ve spent the last two weeks exploring three critical (but oh so hard) steps that can help change our focus from ongoing frustration, discontent, or disappointment when life isn’t going the way we hoped or planned. In a nutshell, they are:

  1. Grief
  2. Acceptance
  3. Appreciation

Before you go further, read Part 1 and Part 2 so you understand how these three steps work when life or relationship disappointments loom large (and, just as important, when they don’t apply, such as in an abusive relationship).

Today, we’ll tread carefully into the how these can be applied in our everyday relationships.

Remember the woman in Part 1, who I overheard at Target? It was clear that there was real angst that the man in her life wouldn’t (or couldn’t) rein in his “Tigger-like” personality around her reserved, disapproving father. 

So what do we do when someone close to us has a trait – which can be anything from an always-on Tigger personality to an unwillingness to stop a habit that’s harmful to their health – that hasn’t changed, despite our best efforts? What happens if that trait starts to loom large in our minds? As pretty much every breathing human has discovered, this can create a real issue for the relationship if it becomes an ongoing source of discontent.

Of course, as I’ve emphasized in the earlier parts of this series, some problems and solutions will go beyond the scope of what we can discuss in three blogs. Relationships can enter a challenging zone, with real and legitimate pain caused – likely on both sides. If this describes you, I’m really sorry. I know it’s hard.

In a generally applicable sense, and with a heart only to help you find a possible and productive way forward, this week’s blog looks at four shifts that might help when our relationships aren’t what we want them to be.

Shift #1: Realize you cannot change the other person – and if it is a spouse, that you chose this person!

We know this, but we constantly forget it: we cannot change the other person, we can only change ourselves. That sounds cliché but it is TRUE.

We also have to own that this is the person we chose! After all, many things that drive us nuts about someone are the very things that drew us to them – and that we still love about them in a different context. The woman at Target chose a man who was a Tigger personality, and chose to start a family with him. Presumably, she loved that he had a great sense of humor!

Shift #2: Realize change is up to YOU

This is the other half of the statement above.  If we want to enjoy our relationships we have to focus on what WE can change.

Perhaps our phone-talking Target friend could step back and grapple with the hard truth that her husband and father have their own relationship and it’s their job to work that out. She can help her husband understand how much his relationship with her father matters to her. But if he isn’t willing to or capable of changing the Tigger personality that annoys her father, the only thing she can do is adjust her response.

And there might be upsides of that. Since her husband apparently has long known that she wanted him to change his personality around her dad, he’s probably also been walking on eggshells for a long time.  Or feeling like a failure when he gets it wrong. What if she decides to stop giving him the disapproving glare after every family visit and says, instead, “I’ve told you how I feel, but I do so love your sense of humor. You are so fun to be around. Yes, I still want you to dial it back a bit, but it’s also up to my dad to lighten up. It shouldn’t all be on you.”

Perhaps she can also stop venting about his ways to her friends, since venting usually makes annoyance worse.

By focusing on herself, she’d be demonstrating self-control, honoring both her husband and her dad as the grown men they are, and probably turning her own frustration dial down a few numbers.

Shift #3: Realize, you have annoying traits (and bad habits) too – and extend grace.

I recently heard Laurie Davies, my senior editor and an amazing women’s speaker, ask an audience how well they forgive other people, zero being not well (they hold grudges) and 10 being they forgive very easily. Some eager beavers could be heard excitedly calling out “6” or “7.”

Then she asked the audience what number they would like to be forgiven at.

An audible groan rippled through the crowd.

You can see where this is going. Our spouse, kids, parents or friends aren’t the only ones with annoying and possibly even detrimental habits. We have bad patterns, too.

Jesus tells us to do to others as we would have them do to us (Matthew 7:12). So, in times of contention, what do we most want from our spouse? (Or adult child, or best friend?) I can almost guarantee it is grace. Forgiveness level 10. Getting the benefit of the doubt. (I’m not talking about life-endangering, illegal, or abusive patterns here. Those don’t require grace. They require professional help.)

If there is angst and frustration, and you don’t want that angst and frustration, perhaps it is time to try a different strategy and be willing to have grace with those day-to-day things.

Shift #4: Honor what is, rather than fixating on what isn’t   

Years ago, I worked with a high-level colleague who had the ability to hit the “drive me nuts” button quicker than almost anyone else. When discussing something about a particular project that, in my judgment, definitely needed to change, this person would condescendingly say things like, “Why don’t you let the professionals do their job?”

Picture steam coming out of my ears.

I tried respectfully addressing the issue multiple times, to no avail. This person had a view of what their role was, and what my role was, and nothing was going to change it.

In the end, though, a curious thing happened. I worked with this person for almost five years, and when they left their job for other things, I was so bummed.

What changed between year one and year five?

I did.

I realized that this person was actually a huge champion for me and my research in some areas that really mattered. Despite how it sounded at times (!) this person respected me and fought for things that would help me do what I felt called to do. I started being so grateful for what this person brought to the table, that I stopped being triggered by the other things as much.

We ended up having a great working relationship. Once I accepted that this person probably would not change (which they didn’t!) I was able to appreciate what was. I would have completely missed years of great opportunity if I had been fixated on what wasn’t.

This step is what allows us to move forward with a good attitude and even enjoyment, in the face of something that not too long ago would have driven us crazy.

Final thoughts

Whew. Okay. How is everyone?

This series has taken us into grief and acceptance – two of the tallest orders there are. We’ve explored the importance of looking for what we do have rather than what we don’t. I’m sure you’ve thought of your own personal examples along the way.

If you’re grappling with this content in real time with a very real relationship or life disappointment, I have to just say it: I’m proud of you. This is a really hard series. I know your situation has nuance – and probably pain – that I could never understand. So, thanks for hearing the heart behind this, and pondering what it might mean for you. And, again, if you need someone to help you on the journey, please reach out to your pastor or a Christian counselor.

My hope is that you’ve found permission to grieve, seen opportunities for acceptance, and captured a vision for how you can appreciate and find joy in what you do have. Because even in the heartache and losses in this life, we all have so much.

And we’ve got one chance to steward it.

Let’s do it well.

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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