Monday, April 14, 2014

The Radical Mending of a Relationship Ending

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.


Kristen said...

I hope many people read this and follow your example, Wade-- and I pray I will have the grace to remember and follow it, too.

Eagle said...

Thanks for writing this Wade. I am hoping and praying for resolution one day to that situation I contacted you about a couple of months back. I appreciate your wisdom. But I am continuing to pray. After repairing and restoring so many relationships I can't help but wonder if in time if this can be restored also. Time will tell....

Kay said...

Wow. How absolutely courageous of her to speak with you! I find that that is often the biggest barrier to relationship: actually hearing from someone who is offended by my actions. Kudos to her for speaking up! Kudos to you on being so approachable! God bless.

Victorious said...

Wade, I'm confused again. I was confused after your message about “Crooked Sticks.” You graciously spent time clarifying your point and I finally saw it. Here's what you said in that post:

There is a test. A good one. Ask yourself this question: "Am I attempting to control the perceptions and opinions that people have of me?" (A Message of Hope for all us Crooked Sticks)

I asked for clarification, “So based on the truth that someone's perception is their reality, are we saying it's controlling to try to defend yourself or change their perception if you know it's wrong?”

You responded: What I'm saying is people who get their acceptance from Christ don't even worry about what other people think of them.


Strong, secure people with a firm identity in Christ find no need to defend themselves; they follow the example of their Lord quite naturally---Jesus was silent before His accusers because He had no need to prove them wrong about Him.

In this current post, after the woman narrated her offense to you, you responded to the woman: "I normally am diligent in responding to requests, and my non-response to you and your son was not intentional.

How is your response to that woman different than my question about an effort to change an erroneous perception someone had of me.

The woman you mentioned had her perception and that was her reality. Was your response a defense of yourself? Was it an effort to change her perception of you from careless and negligent to diligent and innocent of her perceived characterization of you?

You concluded the radical relationship post by saying: “Relationship had been restored because her 'relating' (narrative) was accepted”

Yes, you accepted her narrative, but wasn't it restored in part by your correcting her erroneous perception by your explanation?

Am I seeing contradictory advice or am I even more confused than I was after reading your post about Crooked Sticks. I'm trying to learn some valuable interpersonal skills, but I must be missing something. Could the answer be as simple as two different situations requiring two different effective solutions/responses?

Wade Burleson said...


Once again, superb question.

My response, "I normally am non-response to you... was not intentional" was not intended to defend myself, but to assure her that she and her family were truly important people to me. I was not trying to convince her that I was not a bad pastor, but that she was a valuable person.

Wade Burleson said...

Kristen, Eagle, Kay,

Thx one and all for your excellent comments. Continue to pray for you Eagle.

Victorious said...

OK, thanks Wade. So if I understand, it's a matter of empathizing and focusing on the what's being narrated rather than on myself. In other words, I'm not the center of attention...

Am I almost there?

Wade Burleson said...


Bull's eye!


Anonymous said...

Thank you for another valuable/helpful post, Wade.

My 2 cents regarding your statement in the crooked sticks post: "Strong, secure people with a firm identity in Christ find no need to defend themselves; they follow the example of their Lord quite naturally---Jesus was silent before His accusers because He had no need to prove them wrong about Him."

There is a fine line between defending yourself and explaining the details of circumstances or motives that were part of your narrative involving another party's misunderstanding, particularly brothers or sisters in Christ.

Yes, Christ didn't offer a defense of himself to the angry mob void of the Spirit of God, but his example in that context, imo, wouldn't circumvent an explanation of what was going on in our heart/head that might help bring light towards a mutual understanding/reconciliation of an offense, especially when both parties are indwelt by the Spirit.

I agree that we often do defend ourselves to salvage *our* reputation, and not necessarily the reputation of Christ.


Wade Burleson said...

Good point, Ken.

When someone crosses the boundary and 'assumes' or 'presumes' what you are 'thinking,' 'feeling,' or assigns motive, it is very appropriate and healthy to say, "Listen, I want a healthy and meaningful relationship with you, which means I will not presume to know your motives, or your thoughts, or what you feel. I will accept what you tell me. Likewise, I am going to ask you not to do the same. You have assigned to me a motive, which is impossible for you to know. Let me tell you what I REALLY desire."

Good word.

Victorious said...

Just a note to express my appreciation for this post as I, coincidently?) had an opportunity to reply using these principles when a family member confronted me with her assumptions about me through an email. Though I was surprised, I had time to reflect and review this post and think I responded appropriately to her narrative. Thanks again, Wade, I'll get better as I will, no doubt, have future opportunities to "practice."

Curious Thinker said...

I understand what your saying, however it is a very natural and human reaction to defend yourself when your feel you are being wrongfully and unfairly accused or attack especially it threatens your reputation and all of us will be guilty of this at one time or another and don't believe this itself to be wrong. Yet I do agree with the previous posters about the differences between explaining the circumstances or setting the record strait and defending yourself. But I do get the idea of not always making it about yourself rather than about the other person and their feelings. Great post.

Anonymous said...

Well, I'm wondering what you do in the case of those who make accusations that are not so clear cut. This woman brought to you an actual example of failing on your part, though unintentional. What if what they are bringing to you isn't so clear cut? For instance someone says you made me feel like a charity case when you invited me over to your house. They took offense at something that you saw as a kindness. Or someone says you should have done X but you did Y. Y in this case is not a sin, not even a failure, but a choice that you made at the time based the situation. But the person, because they didn't like it, finds fault with you.

Wade Burleson said...


"(What happens when) someone says you made me feel like a charity case when you invited me over to your house. They took offense at something that you saw as a kindness. Or someone says you should have done X but you did Y. Y in this case is not a sin, not even a failure, but a choice that you made at the time based the situation. But the person, because they didn't like it, finds fault with you."

Great questions.

Some relationships can never be mended.

In the situations you address, the other person is finding fault with you, and is basically saying, "I will not be friends with you until you admit you did something wrong" but you know that what you did was good, not wrong (invite them to your house, choice X, etc...). In situations like the ones you describe you respond:

"I accept that you did not like what I did, but I want you to know that I did what I did intentionally and with good in mind. If you don't see it that way, then we just disagree. I really enjoy having friendships with people who disagree with me. Do you? If so, I'd love to be your friend."

Someone has said, "You can only build your half of the bridge of friendship." If someone wishes not to build their half, then you can't be friends or have relationship. And, IF YOU TRULY LOVE SOMEONE, then you will let them make their choice of not being your friend and be okay with it, because that is what they desire.

Victorious said...

Some relationships can never be mended.

I'm so glad you posted that, Wade. It's sad, but true. Some people almost keep lists of things they hold against you and retrieve it randomly with the intent to widen the friendship gap.

I see this as a time to "shake the dust off your feed" knowing you've done all you can do to repair the relationship and it won't be accepted. So far as it depends on you, be at peace with all. But at the same time know that we are not in control of how others choose to see us.

Victorious said...

"feet" that is. :)

Living Liminal said...

I would like to know your thoughts on the need to make reparation.

Sometimes, all people need is to hear you acknowledge their pain, and own that you were the one who inflicted it. But what about when your actions (or lack of action) caused real harm and loss to another? Do you have a responsibility to go beyond just saying sorry?

Wade Burleson said...

Living Liminal,

I would say, "Yes" - with a condition.

When Zacchaeus made 'restitution' he paid back FOUR TIMES what he stole.

I love that! To make right a wrong by restitution is a very, very good thing - when you feel led by the Spirit to make restitution for wrongs you've done.

When others demand you make restitution, I would say one should pause---for a long time --- and ask the Spirit His will in the matter!

Real restitution sourced in grace and exceeds the offense, can never be demanded.