The root word for relationship is 'relate' which means "to narrate." Pause and think about that for a moment.
I can almost guarantee you that you have never considered the basis for any relationship to be narration or "story." Yet every relationship you have is built on narrative; your story and another person's story. I'll go even further down this road. The measure of your love for another person is seen by your interest in their story. Disconnected people are self-absorbed people. Connected people are more interested in another person's story than they are their own.
Rob Bell says, "It’s easy to take off your clothes and have sex. People do it all the time. But opening up your soul to someone (i.e. narrating your story), letting them into your spirit, thoughts, fears, future, hopes, dreams… that is being naked.” Rob Bell is right, but I propose that in our culture of selfies, self absorption, and self-adulation there is a greater shortage of people who accept another person's narrative without demanding acceptance of their own.
The number one reason relationships fall apart is due to disagreement over narratives. There arises a refusal to accept another person's story. To put it simply: Relationships fracture because the 'relate' in relationship is rejected.
When you learn the importance of narrative in relationship, you can then implement certain practices that communicate love to those relating to you. Let me explain.
Recently, a woman in our church narrated to me her offense. Ten years ago her son was being released from federal prison. Near the time of his release, she handed to me a letter from her son requesting that I help him by recommending to him a church similar to Emmanuel in the metropolitan city where he would be living. She told me, "You never responded to my son. He never heard back from you." I asked if she brought the letter to my office, and she said, "No, I handed it to you as you greeted people before the service, and I saw you slip it into your Bible." I could tell she was deeply hurt.
I had no recollection of ever receiving the letter. As any pastor knows, things handed to you prior to a worship service have a way of being misplaced or accidentally thrown away. It's my usual custom to respond immediately to specific requests for information, knowing that a delay in response risks me forgetting to respond. However, that's my narrative, not hers. Her story was one of hurt. How do you mend hurts that arise in relationship?
(1). Listen with compassion to the narrator.
When someone is narrating a story (i.e. putting the 'relate' in relationship), the worst thing you can do is interrupt, correct, defend, or shut down. Why is that the 'worst' thing you can do? Because you are saying to the person, "I don't care about your story!" Or, to be more blunt, "I don't want relate-ion-ship with you."
(2). Affirm and accept the feelings of the narrator.
Phrases like, "I hear you," or "If I were in your shoes, I would feel the same way," or "Thank you for telling me how much you are hurting. I know that wasn't easy" are ways you communicate love. When we affirm and accept the feelings of the narrator, we are loving a person the way Jesus loves us. God doesn't love us when we 'feel' right. He loves us because we feel.
(3). Own your part in the narrative and seek forgiveness.
Take ownership of what the narrator says you have done. In my case, I said, "I have wronged both you and your son. I ask you to forgive me." When someone is telling their story, there is no need to defend yourself or articulate your story. What another person thinks becomes their reality. In this woman's mind, I did not function well as a pastor. That's her reality. That's truth as she sees it. I own her story because my life is never defined by another person's truth or reality. This is important. I find that those who are insecure in who God has made them in Christ find it difficult to apologize and seek forgiveness. Performance oriented people can never acknowledge failure. People who know their true identity and that all the blessings, approval and favor of God are independent of personal performance can freely acknowledge personal failure.
(4). Feel free to express what you feel within and gently resist the crossing of internal boundaries.
There is a very subtle difference between healthy relationships and unhealthy ones. In healthy relationships nobody presumes to know what the other person thinks or feels. In dysfunctional or unhealthy relationships, people assume they know the feelings within others, frequently assign motives for the actions of others, and intentionally cross the internal boundaries of others.
It is appropriate in healthy relationships to communicate what you are actually thinking and feeling, and gently resist allowing another person to cross internal boundaries by speaking for you because they don't know what is going inside you. I said to the woman offended, "I normally am diligent in responding to requests, and my non-response to you and your son was not intentional. However, the pain I've caused you both by my actions is very real."
The woman expressed her forgiveness of me, and the next Sunday she came with her husband and greeted me with a big smile. Relationship had been restored because her 'relating' (narrative) was accepted. I think this story illustrates how the word 'relate' in relationship is so powerful.
Though I've given you an illustration from a relationship that is not as close as a marital, familial or intimate friendship relationship, the same principles would apply to those forms of relationship as well. In fact, implementing these principles might very well save a very important relationship teetering on the verge of collapse.