|Photo by Debra Courtney|
Boiling Point: When and why a relationship boils over, plus tips for what to do when we get burned
We’ve all probably experienced it at one point or another: We get that call, e-mail, text or personal confrontation. Something that’s been simmering beneath the surface (unbeknownst to us) finally boils over. You’re listening to your friend or family member, and at some point you find yourself thinking (or saying):
“Why didn’t you just tell me that before?!”
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not just pointing the finger here (I’m learning how to communicate better, and sooner). But I’ve recently had it happen to me. Twice. Before, when I’ve been on the receiving end of someone’s “boil-over,” I used take on guilt for it. It can be easy to perceive someone’s reaction as your fault.
It can be especially difficult to not feel unhealthy guilt, if someone tries to blame their lack of better communication, or their reaction, on you (directly or “between the lines”). Or it’s especially difficult if someone has a strong emotional response, to something they say you did (or didn’t do). Even if you weren’t aware you were doing it (or not) in the first place!
Here are some helpful tips from me to you, for how to respond when a friend “boils over” — ask yourself or consider the following:
§ Was it really that you did something “wrong” (according to them)? (If so, and you know you did wrong by them, ask for forgiveness or otherwise try to make amends, if they’re receptive to having that process. Which, they may not be at first, or at all.)
§ What else is going on here that has nothing to do with you? You may have just ended up as the punching bag. It may not be as personal (about you) as you think — or even the other person realizes! If it’s a friend, and you’re familiar with what else is going on in her/his life, especially anything stressful, take that into account.
§ Be sensitive to what this teaches you about the needs of this particular friend. One of my natural inclinations has ALWAYS been, that when someone I care about is struggling, I pour on the support and/or encouragement. What’s wrong with that, right? Well, for some people (for whatever reason), they don’t want more support in those moments — or maybe they just don’t want the kind of support you’re giving. Make note of what your friend is saying, and keep that in mind for the future.
§ Be receptive to what this conflict reveals about you. Maybe you have become co-dependent on a friendship, using your role in the friend’s life to fulfill a deeper unmet need in your own life! Or maybe you do have some unrealistic expectations — either way, invite God to search your heart as well.
§ But don’t internalize their criticism as a condemnation of you as a person, or your gifts and talents! Some people like black coffee; some people want a little cream and sugar; some people want artificial sweeteners. It doesn’t mean black coffee is bad!
And I guarantee you: the very thing they’re complaining about, someone else will thank you for. For example, I know I have a gift for encouraging and empathizing — and in a world where there are so many hurting people who feel isolated and uncared for, that’s priceless. Just make note of it for that particular person (or for that particular set of circumstances in that friendship). And if it means modifying (or even ending) that relationship, let it. Just be careful to not let it wrongly modify who you are.
§ Be respectful — don’t be reactive! I know how much it can hurt. You didn’t have bad intentions. You may not have even been aware. But when someone boils over at or about you, in my experience the best thing you can do is respect where they’re at. And respect what they’re asking for. Believe me, it will be tempting to react.
If you feel misunderstood, you’re going to want to explain.
If you feel hurt, you’re going to consider hurting back.
If you feel hurt, you’re going to consider hurting back.
Really try to reserve a reaction, and just respect. One reason being is that it lets the person know they can come to you — preferably sooner next time! They may have held back from coming forward (when things were simmering, vs. boiling) because they didn’t know how you’d react. Or they thought they knew.
But setting an example of respect in your response can not only help diffuse the discord, but it can also strengthen the relationship in the long run, and create a dynamic of reciprocity. (Hopefully they would be just as receptive, if you had a concern.) The other thing I’ve realized, is rarely (if ever) in that moment of heightened emotion, can you reason someone into feeling something different. Absorbing the blow may just have to be an act of grace (or mercy), as will be patiently waiting for a better opportunity to respond.
At the end of the day — through all my experience — I truly believe 99.9 percent of conflict between friends who do actually care about each other, boils down to one of two things: miscommunication or misunderstanding. And the devil can influence both. That’s why we, if we’re the one boiling over, need to step back and turn ourselves down a couple notches, before we inadvertently burn someone. And if we get burned by a friend, we need to step back, bring our hurt and the situation to God, who can best help heal, intervene, and cool things off.
Note: One resource I’m eager to read, and know is really helping a lot of people in the area of interpersonal conflict resolution, is Shelley Hendrix’s book Why Can’t We Just Get Along?
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