Repairing Relationships Strained by the COVID-19 Pandemic (Ephesians 4:32)
For some people, the COVID-19 lock down has resulted in a welcome benefit: more time with family members. Parents accustomed to packing their children off to school and then dashing off to work have had time to get reacquainted with the strangers who share their home. This has been a serendipitous aspect of the Coronavirus pandemic. On the other hand, in a few cases, the enforced time together has put a strain on family relationships.
If you find yourself struggling with relationships because of the COVID-19 lock down or for any other reason, don’t despair. Strained and even broken relationships can be repaired. The first step is to understand why relationships go awry. Here is a hint: you aren’t struggling because of the extra time spent together during the COVID-19 lock down. The additional time you have had with family members might be the factor that precipitated your relationship problems, but it’s not the cause. If spending more time than usual with family members or friends leads to problems, something much deeper than the COVID-19 lock down is at fault. Understanding those deeper issues is the key to repairing and restoring strained relationships.
Human relationships are like houses. First, they must be built and thereafter maintained. Further, if not properly maintained, they will eventually have to be repaired. Relationship building/maintenance is a labor-intensive endeavor. Like any worthwhile undertaking, it requires effort. Both parties in a relationship must be willing to put in the necessary time and work. When this doesn’t happen, relationships fall into disrepair in the same way neglected houses do.
Just as time away from a neglected house allows you to ignore maintenance and repair problems, time away from each other allows you to ignore relationship problems. But when you are forced to remain in your home for an extended period of time, maintenance and repair issues become apparent. The same is true of relationships. Time together can reveal relationship problems. This is what has happened with some families as a result of the COVID-19 lock down.
It is important to understand that relationships require work because repair costs exceed maintenance costs. This principle applies to relationships in the same way it applies to houses. It takes more work to repair a broken relationship than it does to maintain it in the first place. Worse yet, the emotional costs associated with broken relationships are always high and repairs can be difficult. Like houses, if neglected long enough relationships can be damaged beyond repair. Relationships that supposedly went awry because of the COVID-19 lock down were already damaged. Being forced to spend more time together just tore the scab off of an existing wound.
REASONS RELATIONSHIPS GO WRONG
If additional time together puts a strain on personal relationships, problems existed before the extra time occurred. There is Scriptural guidance for dealing with those problems. For example, Ephesians 4:32 admonishes us to “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God Forgave you.” This is good advice for building, maintaining, and repairing relationships. Those who ignore Ephesians 4:32 in their relationships often experience problems. Here are my top ten reasons why relationships go awry:
Reason 1: Lack of Real Love
We live in a society in which romance novels, the entertainment industry, and on-line match-making sites promote a false understanding of what love actually is. The so-called love popularized by television, movies, books, and the Internet rests on a foundation of self-centeredness. It’s all about what one partner can do for the other or how one partner makes the other one feel. I call this self-centered view of love ice-cream love.
People claim to “love” ice cream, but they really don’t. Rather, they love the way it looks, tastes, and makes them feel. They love the way it satisfies the sinful lure of self-indulgence. Their so-called love of ice cream is a manifestation of self-centeredness. People don’t love ice cream; they love how it makes them feel. They “love” ice-cream from the perspective of self-gratification. This is not real love. When you love someone, your chief concern is for their best interests, not what they can do for you or how they make you feel.
Reason 2: Dishonesty and Broken Trust
“Lying about it hurt me even more than what he did.” “If she had just admitted what she did instead of lying, I could have forgiven her.” I hear these kinds of comments all the time. When you trust people, it means you consider them reliable, honest, and protective of your confidences and best interests. Because you trust them, you are willing to reveal your deepest thoughts, secrets, ambitions, desires, feelings, and fears to them. In doing so, you place your emotional security in their hands. You feel safe doing so because you trust them.
This is why it is so emotionally devastating when someone you believe in betrays your trust. Whether the person is a spouse, sibling, parent, child, relative, friend, coworker, team mate, or business partner, when someone betrays your trust the bottom falls out of the relationship. In the aftermath of the broken relationship, you are left wounded and rudderless. People who are betrayed by someone they trust often become jaded skeptics unable to ever trust again. Remember this about trust: it is like money—difficult to earn but easy to lose.
Reason 3: Poor Communication
“He never wants to talk with me and won’t listen when I want to talk.” “Talk, talk, talk. That’s all she ever does. She would rather talk than eat.” I have heard variations of these comments many times. In fact, these kinds of comments are made so frequently I have come to believe poor communication is at least a contributing factor in almost all relationship problems. Even when it is not the main factor causing problems in a relationship, it can magnify other factors.
Effective communication is an important tool for building and maintaining relationships. It is even more important in repairing them. In relationships, it is important that both parties be willing participants who are committed to using the communication process for the good of each other and the relationship. This is where things often break down in relationships; one party or the other is simply not interested in putting forth the effort to achieve effective communication. The message disinterest sends can be devastating to the relationship. It says the relationship is not worth the effort to me.
Reason 4: Impatience and Boredom
In long-term relationships the partners sometimes get into a rut and become bored. The more bored they become the less patient they are with each other. A friend told me that when he and his wife first married, everything was new and exciting, but after ten years of marriage things had become stale; they were both bored. As a result of the boredom, they had also become grouchy and impatient with each other. Boredom-induced impatience is common in long-term relationships.
Patience is a willingness to forebear with equanimity the inconveniences, nuisances, vexations, irritations, annoyances, and discomforts of life. An unwillingness to forebear these things with equanimity is a sign of selfishness. That’s right—impatience grows out of selfishness. We are impatient because we want what we want when we want it and how we want it. People in relationships who feel they are in a rut often respond to their boredom by becoming impatient with others. The friend mentioned earlier told me when he and his wife were first married, she patiently overlooked his idiosyncrasies, but now she bites his head off ten times a day, and he responds in-kind.
Reason 5: Unkindness
Kindness in a relationship means being friendly, generous, considerate, caring, and encouraging. It also means being sincerely concerned for the best interests of the other person. Unkindness is a common complaint made by people in troubled relationships. You would think that people who care enough to form a relationship would treat each other kindly. Unfortunately, this is not always the case.
Unkindness manifests itself in relationships in a variety of ways including verbal, physical, financial, or sexual abuse; betrayal of trust; mind games; using children as pawns in disagreements; abasement; social isolation; domination; aggressiveness (physical and verbal); neglect; and power games to name just a few examples. People who are unkind to their spouses or children have problems that go beyond relationship issues.
Reason 6: Selfishness
Selfishness means being so concerned for yourself that you have little or no regard for others. The unspoken motto of people who approach relationships from the perspective of selfishness is it’s all about me. Several of the reasons given herein for why relationships go wrong including ice-cream love, impatience, unkindness, and faithlessness can be attributed at least in part to selfishness. Selfishness is like poor communication in that even when it isn’t the main factor in broken relationships it is often a contributing factor. Healthy, Godly relationships are characterized by selflessness not selfishness.
Reason 7: Faithlessness
One of the most devastating causes of broken relationships is faithlessness, often referred to as infidelity or cheating. Infidelity in a relationship is a betrayal of trust on steroids. Relationships broken by infidelity leave the deepest scars and, as a result, can be the most difficult to repair. We typically think of infidelity as one spouse or partner in a relationship engaging in an adulterous affair. While physically cheating is certainly the ultimate form of infidelity, it’s not the only form.
The fastest growing, most pernicious form of infidelity is cyber-cheating: people indulging in pornography on the Internet. Pornography and cyber-sex have become huge problems among Christians and unbelievers alike. Internet pornography is now a $15 billion industry that is wreaking havoc on relationships, and this is a conservative estimate of its size. Because it is difficult to detect, people watch pornography in the workplace, on home computers, and even on cell phones. I once had to fire a faculty member for watching pornography on his lap-top computer during classes he was supposed to be teaching.
Another form of unfaithfulness in relationships is emotional infidelity. This manifestation of infidelity involves sharing your most intimate thoughts, dreams, ambitions, fears, desires, and needs with someone other than your spouse or closest partner. We are typically reluctant to pull the curtain back on our inner selves with anyone but the person we trust most. Consequently, emotional infidelity is a betrayal of that person. To the person betrayed, emotional infidelity says, “You aren’t the most important person in my life.”
Regardless of the form it takes, infidelity in relationships is devastating to the partner who is betrayed. Men who are the victims of infidelity feel emasculated; women feel unloved. Some people who are the victims of infidelity never recover and, as a result, are unable to repair and resume the relationship.
Reason 8: Lack of humility
A missing ingredient in a lot of troubled relationships is humility. One of the reasons it is missing is that we have been conditioned by a self-aggrandizing culture to define humility as viewing ourselves as lowly and unworthy. This misguided view of humility often leads people to become self-promoting braggarts. Being humble does not mean you are lowly or unworthy, nor does it require engaging in self-flagellation or self-denunciation. While we are certainly lowly and unworthy when compared to God, we are not when compared with each other.
Humility means you are confident enough in yourself as a child of God you don’t have to indulge in self-aggrandizing behaviors. Because you have the confidence that comes with being a child of God, you are able to put others before yourself. This is why a lack of humility is often the fly in the ointment when it comes to relationship problems. People who lack humility aren’t likely to put the needs of others ahead of their own. This leaves their spouses or friends feeling marginalized, unimportant, and insecure.
Reason 9: Lack of commitment
Commitment is a steadfast determination to make something succeed. Being committed in a relationship means you are determined to put forth the effort necessary to make the relationship work, to persevere in good times and bad. People who are committed to a relationship don’t give up on it at the first sign of trouble. When you are committed to a relationship, it is a top priority in your life.
People who lack commitment always seem to have one foot in the door and one foot out when it comes to relationships. Their attitude toward the relationship is the opposite of the words most couples include in their marriage vows: “I promise to love and cherish you in good times and bad, in sickness and in health.” Those who lack commitment, if truthful, should have changed their marriage vows to, “I promise to love and cherish you as long as times are good, as long as you stay healthy, and as long as I don’t become bored with you.” People who lack commitment but proceed with marriage anyway should be required to use the following wedding vows: “Forgive us Father for we know not what we do.” Few things can make one more insecure in a relationship than a partner who lacks commitment.
Reason 10: Lack of forgiveness
Here are some of the most important words ever uttered in a relationship: “I am sorry” and “You are forgiven.” Often, the missing ingredient in a troubled relationship is forgiveness. This is unfortunate because forgiveness can be the most important factor in getting derailed relationships back on track. In fact, a broken relationship cannot be repaired and restored without forgiveness. In my experience, forgiveness is an essential ingredient in maintaining happy, fulfilling relationships. I have certainly needed forgiveness myself more times than it is comfortable to admit.
One of the reasons people in relationships struggle with forgiveness is they don’t understand what it means. Many people view forgiveness as granting a pardon to those who have wronged them. They think forgiving them is the same as saying “You are not guilty.” Viewing forgiveness in this way is not just misguided, it is wrong. If the party in question were not guilty of some transgression, he or she wouldn’t need forgiveness. Consequently, forgiving someone who wronged you does not mean telling them they did nothing wrong.
Your forgiveness does not absolve wrong-doers of guilt or excuse their behavior. Nor does it mean condoning what they did. Rather, it means responding to their repentance and remorse by intentionally and consciously deciding to put aside feelings of resentment; something many people have trouble doing. Nevertheless, you can no more repair a fractured relationship without forgiveness than you can repair a fractured bone without a cast. If you struggle with forgiving others, it is important to remember two things: 1) Christ forgives you in spite of the fact you don’t deserve it, and 2) The time will come when you need forgiveness; those who refuse to forgive aren’t likely to be forgiven.
This is a long blog containing a lot to remember, so I will summarize. If you are struggling with a relationship, the best way to maintain or repair it is to follow the admonition in Ephesians 4:32 to “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ Forgave you.”
Dr. Goetsch is the author of Veterans’ Lament: Is This the America Our Heroes Fought For? Fidelis Books, an imprint of Post Hill Press, (Release date: October,2020) and Christian Women on the Job: Excelling at Work without Compromising Your Faith, Fidelis Books, an imprint of Post Hill Press, 2020.