My birthday present to myself this year was a membership to Curves. I love their approach — 30 minutes (twice around a preset circuit), three times a week, in an environment where there are no oglers or “Barbie” types, decent music, and very little spandex. Last week for the first time since high school I rode a bike 10 miles around Mackinac Island with my family, and didn’t have to stop for breath!
Today at my workout, the women were discussing daughters-in-law. One in particular was unhappy with her son’s wife; she claimed that she had “done everything” to mend fences between the two of them. “I have a Masters in Social Work,” she lamented. “And yet, I can’t get this girl to like me.” This was a terrific disappointment to her, since she had been eagerly looking forward to having a girl in the family after raising four sons.
Hoping to add another perspective, I shared how difficult it had been for me to build relationships with various family members related by marriage. Part of it was my fault. In my own mind I had high expectations for those new relationships: easy familiarity, casual dinners, decorating tips, and periodic sleepover invitations for the grandkids. The reality was much different. For example, at 83, Craig’s parents still work full-time, and spend winters in Florida — with very little energy left for my high-energy tykes. I explained to the Curves girls, “I finally had to accept the situation as it was, and find things to appreciate about his family as they were.”
After I finished my circuit, I took the unhappy woman aside and asked her if she had any idea how the relationship between her DIL (and the girl’s parents) had gone off-track. A long rationalization followed — how she was always direct and her son’s wife only said what she wanted to hear, how her other daughters-in-law all sided with her, how unhappy her son was, yadda-yadda-yadda. Finally, the real issue came out: The girl and her parents had asked the groom’s family to contribute toward the wedding, and when refused interpreted this as a sign they were against the wedding.
Mrs. MIL admitted that the two families had been very close before all this happened. So I suggested an olive branch. “Have you considered apologizing for the inadvertent offense, and offering a token amount to mend fences with her parents?”
“Of course not! I’m not going to buy them off!”
“Some might see a token good-will gesture as an indication that you cared more about the relationship than about the money.” She said nothing to this, and I tried a different approach. “Your son’s wife sounds a bit insecure. Have you thought about inviting her to spend time with you alone, perhaps asking her to help you with something? She may be intimidated by your plain-speaking approach, and letting yourself be vulnerable in this way might have long-term benefits.”
The woman had a dozen reasons why this wouldn’t work, and repeated over and over how she had tried “everything” without success. (Although she admitted she only invited the daughter over when the son was already coming to the house.)
It was abundantly clear that she didn’t really want the relationship to get better … she just wanted to be “right” — or, more specifically, to portray herself as the “wronged” party.
When relationships are strained — whether between family or friends, co-workers or neighbors — the temptation can be to bolster our own sense of “rightness” by getting those on the sidelines to take our side against our opponent’s. The thing is, this approach doesn’t resolve the issue; it merely widens the breach. Only when we are willing to “own” with humility our own part in the conflict, however small, can the healing begin.
When we reach an impasse, how much better it can be if we follow three simple steps:
- Forgive. If we’ve been offended, we need to admit our feelings to God and verbalize our need to forgive that person (even if we don’t feel like forgiving him or her). If the offense is so egregious that no further contact is desirable or wise, asking God to give you the grace to want to forgive may be an important initial step in the process.
If we’ve been the offender, we must acknowledge before God — ideally in the Sacrament of Reconciliation — our need to make things right. Then, as far as possible, do it.
- Free. Liberation takes two forms, and can be compared with cleaning out a wound so infection doesn’t set in. First, we ask Jesus to release us from the bonds of resentment and anger, and to release the other person as well from anything in the past that keeps him or her from taking responsibility for his or her actions. The blood of Jesus is a powerful antidote to the wiles of the devil.
It’s also important to “liberate” people from our own unreasonable expectations by distinguishing carefully between genuine moral issues and issues of preference. For example, by releasing my husband’s parents from my personal, arbitrary standards of what in-laws should be like, I became free to cultivate a relationship based on mutual acceptance and even genuine affection.
Of course, there are one or two (on both sides) whose company I don’t seek out. But by releasing them from further judgment, I find family dinners much more pleasant.
- Fix. Finally, ask Jesus to “bind up” the wound that the broken relationship has produced in your life. Ask Him to bring healing to the other person as well. This is especially important when the other person deflects or denies the breach, or when the underlying issues are too volatile for a civil discussion. The Holy Spirit can work powerfully in the lives of others when we give them a bit of prayerful space.
These three steps can go a long way to reach and maintain “spiritual fitness” in our relationships with others. If you have a particularly challenging family relationship, I highly recommend Greg and Lisa Popcak’s God Help Me! These People Are Driving Me Nuts!