We’ve all experienced it. A relationship shows great promise. But somewhere it makes a wrong turn and goes south. We anticipated so many good things, but later found the relationship marked by misunderstanding and disappointment.
King David spoke of this relational disappointment: “If an enemy were insulting me, I could endure it; If a foe were rising against me, I could hide. But it is you, a man like myself, my companion, my close friend, with whom I once enjoyed sweet fellowship at the house of God, as we walked about among the worshipers.” (Psalm 55:12-14 NIV)
So what part do we play in a relationship going bad? Can we prevent, or at least diminish, the probability of it happening to us?
It Starts With Expectations
We’ve all been guilty of expecting too much of others. This is particularly true when we are in a meaningful relationship—from those we love much, we often expect much.
Our expectations in relationships can be unreasonable or even unrealistic. When this happens, our Christian ‘community experience’ can become a ghetto of unfulfilled aspirations. It may be time to reevaluate our expectations of others.
Psychologist Martin Seligman, in his book Learned Optimism, proposes that our ability to deal with relational setback and decline is largely determined by the three P’s: personalization, pervasiveness, and permanence.
The first ‘p’ takes place when we tend to personalize things said to us and circumstances we encounter. Personalization is what happens when we fail to realize the valuable lesson that not everything that happens to us happens because of us.
In my counseling office, Pastor Jason was expressing the agitation and annoyance he was experiencing with a particular board member. After 30 minutes of listening to Jason’s cynical complaint I asked, “Do you think it is this person’s goal to be annoying to you? Does he wake up in the morning saying, ‘So how can I annoy our pastor today?’” The board member probably wasn’t thinking about his pastor at all. His capacity to annoy wasn’t intentional—it just came naturally.
The problem was that Pastor Jason tended to personalize his experiences with the board. He personalized the words and actions directed toward him.
Even if it is ‘personal’ we can still choose to exercise our God-given prerogative to not take offense at the foolishness of others.
Once personalization takes a firm grip on our heart, it can easily erode into pervasiveness. This takes place when we think a specific bad situation applies to all areas of our life—instead of it being confined to one area. For Jason, a small perceived offense of one board member had spread like a virus in his thinking. Even before he was fully aware of it, Jason found himself feeling annoyed at the entire church board. This infected thinking then spread to the entire congregation.
Finally, we can eventually experience a sense of permanence. This is when we begin to think the bad situation will last forever. In Pastor Jason’s experience, the entire board became hopelessly annoying and it would never change. Jason was thinking about finding a different ministry.
Guard Your Heart
The Bible says the heart is the control center for life. Our reaction to others is a reflection of our own heart. Proverbs 4:23 says it like this: “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it,” (NIV).
Once we’re aware of the issue, we can guard our heart by keeping our tendency toward personalization, pervasiveness, and permanence in check with the help of God’s Spirit and by consulting with a trusted-advisor.