Dealing With Troubled Relationships

For the sake of confidentiality, I will summarize a question that was sent in.  One of my readers asked for advice about dealing with the former spouse of their child who left a marriage that involved 5 children.  The reader asked specifically for help about dealing with attitudes and responses toward their child’s former spouse.

Let me begin by saying I cannot fully imagine the challenges of dealing with the pain and disappointment involved.  Not only do you have to manage your individual feelings about your child’s former spouse – you have to manage those feelings and behaviors in ways that allow your child and grandchildren the room they need in order to do the same.  My hat is off to you for managing that tricky balance.

I have just a couple thoughts I would offer based upon my experiences.

The first thing that has helped me when dealing with difficult people is to acknowledge and validate my feelings toward the difficult person.  Too often, we think that being a person of faith means we have to like everyone.  I don’t believe that’s the case.  We can believe that the difficult person is a beloved child of God, that she or he has sacred value and worth – and still believe the person is a thorn in our side.  If we try to deny or suppress our feelings, I don’t believe it is a healthy thing to do.  Our feelings will eventually come out one way or another – so why not truthfully acknowledge how we feel.

Once we do that, it moves us to our area of greatest challenge: separating our feelings ABOUT the difficult person from our behavior TOWARD the difficult person.

How do we do that?

I was lucky in that I had the chance to learn this lesson early in life when I started teaching at a juvenile detention center right out of college.  The school in which I taught was based upon a behavior modification system.  Good behavior was rewarded; bad behavior was punished (or resulted in consequences).

What that behavior modification system taught me was that when it came to my interactions with the students – many of whom had done truly shocking and revolting things – I had to focus on how they (and I) acted in any given moment.  In other words, I had to let go of their past behavior and focus on what they were doing in the moment.

When I shifted the focus away from how I felt about the person and moved it toward a focus on how we were treating each other, it created space for those involved to behave in new ways.  The students began to trust they had a chance to gain (or re-gain) my trust, and their behavior often improved tremendously.

I even found my attitudes toward students sometimes shifted dramatically.  I stopped judging them for what they had done in the past, and started seeing positive new dimensions in the individual.  Over time I actually began to feel more positively about students who I had previously disliked.

The other thing a laser-like focus on current behavior accomplished was that it allowed me to treat people fairly.  Instead of worrying about who the “good” person (or victim) and “bad” person (abuser) was in a situation, I could look more objectively at individuals.  Whereas I had previous cut “good” people slack and frequently excused their bad behavior (while lashing out at “bad” people and ignoring their positive behaviors), I now found myself giving everyone the same chance.

Once again, this helped transform the way I viewed people.  It allowed me to take the “good” people off their pedestals and see their less than stellar behavior as well as give the “bad” people a change to do good things.

My world was changed forever because of those lessons I learned in my early twenties.

Of course it’s easier to apply these principles when dealing with one’s students than it is to apply their to a child’s former spouse (and the parent of one’s grandchildren).  But I believe the principles can be equally effective.

When you focus on the current behavior – and treat all parties fairly – you can accomplish many things simultaneously.  By giving the former spouse a chance to positively interact with you and your loved ones – they might eventually come to understand that you aren’t harboring grudges and might start being more positive around you.  By seeing your child objectively (instead of casting your child in the role of victim), you can help your child identify and address the issues that your child needs to look at.  And by using the principles around your grandchildren, they will see that you are a fair and open presence to both of their parents.  They are less likely to feel as if you are forcing them to take sides and might appreciate you more.  You can accomplish all of these things simply by focusing primarily on the behaviors of those involved – and not just on your feelings about those individuals.

And when your feelings bubble up, I’ve found that screaming into a pillow (or some other way of getting out those negative feelings) can be tremendously helpful as well.

Those are just a couple of thoughts I had based upon my own life experience.  So what about you?  What words of advice would you offer based upon your own experiences?

About Pastor Craig

I'm a 54-year-old who lives in Los Angeles, CA with his black Labrador Retriever named Max. I'm an ordained clergy person in the United Church of Christ. My passions include spirituality, politics, and sports (Go Houston teams, go!). I use my blog to start conversations rather than merely spout my perspectives and opinions. I hope you'll post a question, comment, or observation for me to respond - so we can get the conversation started!
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