Many of us experience struggles at times in our closer relationships — not those with a new colleague or a cashier ringing in our groceries, but those with siblings, long-time friends, parents, children, or even spouses. Someone recently told me her frustration with her sibling’s refusal to share what was bothering him (every time she asked about it, she was met with a cold response).
Another example may be when a parent, concerned with their child’s dropping grades, insists that the child study more often; when this insistence is met with defiance, the parent feels disrespected and is infuriated, fuelling more refusal from the child. Even couples married for years can find that they are unable to have certain conversations, experiencing a roadblock that does not reflect the closeness they desire after years of shared experiences.
When we get along with many other people, why do our closest relationships seem more difficult? Significant relationships have a deep impact on us because we draw our understanding of our identity from them. When we struggle in a close relationship, we often question ourselves; “does anyone care about me?” “What is wrong with me if this is how people close to me feel?” Often the thoughts or feelings we have stem from similar experiences early on in life— that is, a moment when we didn’t experience love or protection from a caregiver, a sibling appearing to be prioritized over us, or a lack of responsiveness from a parent. Current relational struggles can carry the emotional weight of experiences long past. Such deep pain is hard to face, so we may avoid thinking about it under the guise of leaving the past in the past, but then we leave ourselves susceptible to experiencing repetition of similar hurts and unhealthy patterns in our current relationships. Relational reactions happen almost instantaneously, setting off what some authors refer to as a characteristic “dance” that often strays away from the present circumstance.
So, what’s the solution? Here are a few tips that can help us get unstuck:
1. Notice your own dance steps. As you reflect on moments that did not go well, stop for a moment and consider how you may be experienced by others. Perhaps the child who felt disrespected was already feeling inadequate, and the parent’s angry insistence about studying fuelled further feelings of worthlessness that prevented the child from focusing on learning. Maybe the sibling of the person who felt ignored and shut out was worried about being judged or criticized, and the person’s repeated questioning simply escalated the pressure they felt. In both cases, a different approach may have produced different results.
2. Pay attention to the music; that is, identify your self-talk and sensitivities. Like in a slow-motion replay, zoom in on the moment just before you reacted with a big emotion, and ask yourself: what were you thinking and feeling? What other experiences were you reminded you of? What emotions did you have other than those you let show? These questions will help you identify any feelings related to past experiences, so you can put them aside and focus on what’s happening right now instead.
3. Consider taking the lead; change in the people around you may start with you. Have a conversation about your insights from the first two points, and see how different dance steps and new music could break you out of the same old relational routine.
4. Give yourself a break. Allow yourself to make mistakes as you’re learning a new way of relating to this person, just don’t let those mistakes prevent you from continuing to choreograph a new dance for the relationship.