Shedding a Relational Pattern that no longer serves you
Like many couples in full-time ministry, we spent the bulk of our 30’s completely maxed out. Alex was leading a care team for 400 missionaries; I was overseeing a women’s leadership initiative for our organization. He traveled. I traveled. We had three small kids, led a home church, participated in small group Bible studies, drove monthly for a leadership mentoring group, and dealt with the grid-lock of Southern California traffic every time we drove to the office.
We were massive over-committers for multiple reasons: a) we are high capacity people, b) everything sounds fun, c) ministry was a deeply fulfilling, d) the needs were great everywhere we turned. Not to mention, we are both highly persuasive people – we could talk each other into pretty much anything.
Our decision making had somehow evolved into something dysfunctional. The truth was, we found it hardest to set boundaries with each other.
Relationships, just like our bodies, go through growth patterns.
Over time we can develop patterns of relating to the key people in our lives. Sometimes you can name the pattern— I’m the glue that keeps my extended family together. I’m the peacemaker between my co-workers. I’m the initiator in my friendships. I’m the only one who can calm my child down. I’m the buffer between my husband and my kids.
Usually, some part of our gifting or even noble motives are wrapped up in these roles— but at some point, we realize that our gifting has over-extended its intended purpose, and is no longer serving you or others well. In fact, it may be keeping everyone from moving into healthy patterns.
Think of it like a snake (creepy analogy, I know). Like all other mammals (including humans), snakes regularly shed their dead skin. The difference is that when a snake sheds its skin, it usually comes off all in one piece. First, his skin begins to grow dull and his eyes grow milky. Soon he finds a hard object to rub against to begin the tearing process. Once the skin is cut, he slips out, leaving the shell of his old skin, inside out, yet all in one piece.
Likewise, normal, healthy relational growth is going to involve a periodical shedding of the old to make room for our “new” skin.
Sometimes we shed a pattern as a part of NORMAL life growth. Not all patterns are dysfunctional, but what served us well in one season, won’t necessarily serve us well in the next.
We see this often in parenting because children move so quickly through development stages. One moment, you are relating to them like children, but suddenly you realize, that child needs more adult information and more responsibility.
Often when women begin to emerge from the child-rearing years (see my post on Blooming in a Season of Hiddenness), shifts will need to be made in marriage, family, and work in order for them to move into the next season of their lives.
One of my dear friends has had a thriving ministry caring for Latino missionaries, housing, counseling, training, and encouraging them from their home. And they’ve raised three dynamic young people as well. But as she approaches empty nest, other passions and gifting have arisen to the surface. She wants to write and teach more. In order for her to do that, she will need to do less hospitality. She will be shedding some of her support roles to make space for a new calling.
Sometimes we need to to shed a DYSFUNCTIONAL pattern. Unhealthy patterns don’t usually involve just one person— it takes two people to create a pattern of relating. But it’s not as simple as just “stopping” it. Getting to the heart of why that pattern is operating means you will have to dig deeper into your junk: people pleasing, fear of rejection, control issues, fear of abandonment, passivity, depression, distorted views of love.
In our broken patterns of decision making, we had to address what was muddying the water of discernment. We found we were often saying yes to each other half-heartedly. We were swayed easily by outward need and longings to release each other from the intensity of our stage of life. Mixed into our discernment was guilt, frustration, desire for adventure, and longings to serve God. Not a simple thing to tease apart.
Sometimes we need to shed a pattern forged in SURVIVAL MODE. Survival mode is real. Patterns are formed as you do whatever it takes to keep from going under (and usually keeping several other people afloat too) in crisis. Maybe one person carries way more than his/her load. Maybe you are so maxed out, you don’t have the strength necessary to stand up to someone or something. Maybe you max out your credit cards because it’s too hard to figure out how to restructure your budget. In crisis, healthy relational patterns aren’t really at the forefront of your mind.
Growing up in a family with mental illness, my sisters, mom, and I became extremely close. The lines were blurred at times— my oldest sister ended up carrying adult size burdens from a young age and as sisters, we took too much responsibility for caring for each other. Our tight connection created the stability we needed to weather the unpredictability.
But we eventually outgrew survival mode. As we each married, the enmeshment started to become a problem. One of the greatest sources of conflict in our early marriage was my inappropriate sharing about the nitty gritty of our married life with my mom and sisters. We didn’t need those tight emotional ties anymore.
Remember that patterns forged in survival mode will almost always need to be reevaluated. Those patterns served their purpose – you survived! But now, take a deep breath, and start forging a new path of post-crisis health. There are no patterns that cannot be undone, but it’s going to take courage and effort.
As you are shedding a relational pattern, remember:
Expect some friction. Like a snake rubbing up against a rock to tear the old skin, our relationship usually experiences some friction in order to shed the old patterns. We are creatures of habit, someone will usually need to force the conversation or changes in order to jump start a new pattern. YOU may have to be the person of courage to start the shedding. Not once but multiple times in order to birth a new way of relating.
Bring in someone from the outside. Very rarely will you be able to see how to ‘undo’ these patterns yourself. Frankly, we usually see how the other person is the problem, and not how we are participating.
We pulled in our supervisor, Paul, to help hold us accountable and figure out why we were overcommitting. He wisely discerned all the places we were saying half-hearted yes’s; we were talking each other into things all over the place. We discovered actually God was frequently giving each of us internal checks but we just didn’t like the information. Saying ‘no’ was much harder. We had to face disappointing others, embrace the limitations of young family life, and speak hard truths to each other about the impact of our overcommitment.
Expect it to take some time. Patterns take time to ‘unlearn’. You will need to figure out what drives you to do that behavior in the first place. And you will need time to explore different ways of responding. All of these take time. The overhaul of our dysfunctional decision making took several years until we were discerning from a more free place.
Expect to have to operate differently than how you usually act. We gravitate towards certain patterns because they are easier or second nature to us. In order to break out of those patterns, you sometimes may have to do the opposite of what you usually do. If you are laid back, you may have to be more assertive. If you are constantly bailing your child out, you may need to let them fail. If you are in a pattern of arguing, you may need to say less. Instead of being a ‘good listener’ when your friend is gossiping/complaining, stop listening– get busy doing something else or get up and leave.
Even if the other person refuses to address the dysfunctional pattern, you can still move towards health. Your actions will speak. By virtue of you refusing to participate in an old pattern, the system has to change.
The good news is, just like the snake who sheds his old skin has a vibrant new color, your relationship will have a new season of vibrancy and health as well. On the other side of the hard work of forging a new pattern, you will experience a freedom and beauty in your relationship that would not be known without the friction and work of shedding your old patterns. All that friction will be worth it!