by Juanita Ryan
As we saw in Part I of this article, defensive relating leaves us in the dark about ourselves and about those closest to us. Defensive relating can lead us to feelings of anger, bitterness and hatred—toward ourselves and toward the very ones we most want to love. But God calls us to see what is most deeply true about ourselves and about others. We were created by the God of love to give and receive love. That is who we are. Our fears and defenses are not who we are. Our longing for love, and our need and capacity to love and be loved, are who we are.
In 1 John 2:9–11 we read:
Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates his brother is still in the darkness. Whoever loves his brother lives in the light, and there is nothing in him to make him stumble. But whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks around in the darkness; he does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded him.
When fears have distorted our relationships the healing that we need is a healing of our capacity to see. It is a healing that requires God’s light of love to shine in our hearts and minds so that we can see ourselves and others more clearly.
In the light of love we can begin to see ourselves with new understanding and compassion. In the light of love we can allow ourselves to feel again our deep longing to give and receive love. As this healing takes place over time in our capacity to see and understand ourselves, we will also begin to experience healing in our capacity to see others more clearly. We can begin to see that others are defensive because they also are afraid. And we can remember that hiding behind those defensive walls and fears is a deep longing to love and be loved.
Moving past fears and defenses and into the vulnerability of heart-to-heart relating is a difficult process. But it is possible. As we gain clearer understanding and greater compassion for ourselves and for the other person—and as we learn to see through the darkness of our fears and defenses—we can begin to transform destructive relationship cycles into healthier cycles characterized by intimacy, kindness and joy.
As with any significant change during recovery, changes in our relationships often seem to involve a dance that is two steps forward followed by one step back. And sometimes it feels more like one step forward and two steps back. We may try to reach out from our heart to the other person, only to find ourselves tense and anxious. In spite of our best intentions to be open and trusting, we may be cautious and guarded. The changes we need to make are complex and difficult. Making these changes will take commitment, patience, persistence and as much hope as we can hang on to.
Why It Feels Worse Before It Gets Better
Among the confusing first signs that a relationship is becoming healthier may be an increase in the emotional pain we experience in the relationship and an increase in the volatility of the relationship. This is not too surprising when we think about it. As we start to get rid of our defenses, our fears start to surface. The fears we have been trying so hard to avoid will seem more prominent at first. We are abandoning some of our defenses in the hope of increased intimacy, but what we find at first is increased fear.
All kinds of fears may surface during this process. The first and often the most significant contributor to the fear and volatility is the raw pain that comes when we start to take an honest look at ourselves. A significant part of healthy change involves deeper self-awareness. Unless we take a fearless moral inventory of our lives we will not have the clarity to pursue change. We need to look honestly at the ways we have hurt others. And we need to look honestly at the ways we have been hurt. All this work on honesty and self-assessment is distressing.
Another contributor to the volatility is a number of deep fears about the relationship and about the experience of change. We may fear that we will fail in being all we want to be in a significant relationship. We may fear that we will lose the relationship and that we will be without this person who is so significant to us. We know we are entering unfamiliar territory as we change in the relationship, and we may fear that we will get lost along the way. All these fears add to the potential reactivity and volatility we experience as we pursue change.
Volatility may increase also because we may not be very practiced at relating without our usual defenses in place. We are not practiced at exposing our fears and longings to others. Interactions may feel volatile as we practice new ways of relating, and we can expect to make mistakes in the learning process.
There are three common temptations for any of us during a season of intentional healing in a relationship. First, we may be tempted to focus on the other person’s part of the problem, in an attempt to change that person. Second, we may be tempted to shame ourselves as we look closely at our defenses and fears. And finally, we may be tempted to despair of ever experiencing lasting intimacy. The key to successful change will be to keep these temptations in mind and to do whatever we need to do to resist giving in to them.
What Doesn’t Work: Fixing Others
It is always tempting to focus on other people’s problems. It is so much less painful than focusing on our own. But it leads us nowhere. The antidote to focusing on the other person’s part of the problem is to remind ourselves over and over again that we cannot change anyone but ourselves. We have probably already tried to change the other person, and it has not worked. It is not our job to fix other people, and trying to do so will only lead to more fear, frustration and anger. What we can do is stay as focused as possible on our part of the problem and entrust the other person to the love and care of God.
Doing these two things does not mean we should close our eyes or pretend about the other person’s fears and defenses. It does mean that we need to bring as much empathy and compassion as possible to listening, observing and understanding what the other person is struggling with. Over time, as we develop an understanding of the other person’s fears and defenses that is based on respect and empathy, our own fears about ourselves will be triggered less frequently. And we will be able to remind ourselves to see past those fears and defenses into the other person’s deepest longings for love.
It is important, however, to remember that developing empathy and understanding about the other person’s fears and defenses does not give us license to point out their fears or defenses, or to be their therapist or sponsor, or to correct them, or to instruct them in how to change. None of those responses are respectful. They will only increase the other person’s sense of not being safe in the relationship. And they will increase our feelings of anger and despair.
A response that is respectful and ultimately healing is to be as clear as we can about our thoughts and feelings and needs and to “let go and let God.” The respectful and healing response is to be honest and open about ourselves and to entrust the other person’s change process (or lack of change process) to the love and care of God.
What Doesn’t Work: Shaming Ourselves A second temptation that can prevent us from growing healthier relationships is to shame ourselves. As we become more aware of our fears and defenses we may be tempted to shame ourselves for having these fears and defenses. Or we may shame ourselves because we are finding the change process to be difficult. Learning to be compassionate toward ourselves will be a challenge as we begin to see more clearly the wounds that have led to our struggles in relationships. We need to remind ourselves that our fears and defenses are not about an irreparable flaw in who we are. Our fears and defenses do not decrease our value as a person. We need to keep in mind that our fears and defenses developed in response to wounds and threats that we have experienced. They are rooted in deep pain. Only compassion for ourselves will allow us to look at them day after day. Only compassion will ultimately bring healing and release from these wounds.
Compassion toward ourselves is important also because of the tendency that some of us have to hold ourselves globally responsible for anything and everything that goes wrong in our lives. Compassion will help us resist this tendency toward global responsibility and complete self-blame. This tendency to hold ourselves responsible for everything is often learned early in life. Children believe they have magical powers. When something goes wrong—a parent becomes ill or depressed, the parents divorce, a parent is angry or abusive—children believe they are somehow the cause. We can carry into our adult lives and relationships this burden of global responsibility for things that happened when we were children. But to remain consciously aware of this burden can be overwhelming. So we push this burden out of our awareness, and then we find ourselves trying hard, trying harder, trying our hardest to single-handedly make our relationships work, without understanding why this cannot bring a real solution. We need to be able to sort out what we are truly responsible for and what we are not responsible for. What we are responsible for we can focus on and work to change. What we are not responsible for we can let go of and entrust to God’s loving care.
Praying the serenity prayer daily or hourly can help us with this focus:
God grant me the serenity
to accept what I cannot change,
the courage to change what I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.
But how do we learn compassion toward ourselves? How do we learn to practice mercy when it comes to the hurtful things we do in relationships? For me the answer to this question was that I needed to begin by realizing how little mercy and compassion I extended toward myself. And then, as much as possible, I have allowed myself to take in God’s compassion and the compassion of others. It is difficult to take a long look at how we protect ourselves by blaming or controlling or withdrawing or deceiving or placating or inappropriately altering our moods. It is painful to recognize that we hurt other people by our defensive behavior. But with God’s gifts of humility and grace we can look at ourselves honestly. And doing so can enable us to change.
What Doesn’t Work: Despair None of the basic requirements for change in a relationship are easy. Giving up trying to change the other person can be an enormous struggle. It requires a deepening trust in God and a developing willingness to acknowledge that we are powerless to change anyone but ourselves.
Learning compassion and mercy toward ourselves so that we can face the painful truth about our fears and defenses and about our resistance to change can also seem nearly impossible. The courage and strength and humility that are required for this work may seem to elude us.
Because of the major challenges we face in the change process, we may be tempted to despair. We may find ourselves feeling hopeless. Hopeless about our own capacity to change. Hopeless about the other person’s willingness or capacity to change. Hopeless about the future of the relationship.
The antidote to all this potential despair is, of course, hope. Where does such hope come from? It can come, in part, from reminding ourselves frequently that the complex change process between two people who have been relating defensively, but who want to establish greater closeness, will always involve one or more seasons of volatile relating. Knowing this can help us have realistic expectations of ourselves and of the relationship. Knowing this can help us to stay hopeful when we are experiencing a difficult time in the relationship.
Another way to nurture our hope is to remember that hope comes from God. God is a God of hope. So receiving hope from God means that we are letting God be God. We can take our despair to God. We can ask God for gifts of hope in the midst of the struggle to change.
Hope is also nurtured when we get the help and support we need from others. This may mean therapy or a support group or the counsel of a minister or sponsor. Isolation increases our despair, but the caring help and counsel of others can increase our hope.
How do we know if it is realistic to hold out hope for a relationship? This question is often of great concern. We do not know whether we can make the changes we need to make, and—an even harder question—whether the other person will make the changes necessary for the relationship to become a place of true safety and trust and love. We do not know the outcome. Nor do we have control over the outcome.
What we do have control over is our own willingness to open ourselves to the changes we need to make. All we can do is to stay with our part. If sometime in the future we have let go of our defensiveness and experienced healing from our fears, and the other person has not done much changing, we will have gained a great deal nonetheless. We will have gained deeper peace within ourselves, and we will have gained a deeper capacity for love and grace toward others. What the outcome will be for the relationship at that point, we cannot know ahead of time. But we can leave the outcome in God’s loving care.
What Works Scripture offers us guidance as we face the challenging task of finding our way out of our defenses and fears.
Each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbor . . . . Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. . . . Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us . . . . (Ephesians 4:25, 29, 31, 5:2)
I want to suggest ten basic guidelines that are either explicitly stated or implied in this text. These guidelines can help to decrease our own defensiveness, decrease the other person’s sense of threat or danger in the relationship, increase our capacity to see ourselves and the other person in the light of love and increase our capacity for heart-to-heart relating.
1. We can observe ourselves with compassion. We can observe our defenses, our fears and our longings for love while being compassionate toward ourselves. As we see our defenses we can begin to “put off” the falsehood that these defenses have created in our relationships. As we observe our fears we are better able to understand why we become defensive. And as we observe our longings to love and be loved we can open our hearts to give and receive love more directly.
2. We can speak truthfully about ourselves. We can acknowledge our own defenses and fears. When we are anxious or defensive we can acknowledge that we are anxious or defensive. We can acknowledge that our anxiety and defensiveness are coming from inside us and are not the other person’s responsibility.
3. We can step out of our fears and defenses and work to hear the other person with a compassionate heart and mind. We can struggle to see past their defenses. We can remind ourselves that their defenses are in place because of fears. And we can remind ourselves of their longing for love. With these things in mind we can commit ourselves to listen with compassion and respect, working to hear accurately and fully what the other person is communicating about their feelings and thoughts and desires.
4. We can notice when the things we say or do seem to increase the other person’s fears and defensiveness. We can do what we can to use a different approach or to change our behavior, so that we are communicating respectfully in a way that the other person can receive. This does not mean we are in charge of, or responsible for, their reactions to us. It does mean we are working to hear and respond to their perceived needs as much as we honestly can.
5. We can be thoughtful in expressing ourselves. We can take full responsibility for our words and our silences and our nonverbal communications. Before we speak we can do whatever is necessary to calm ourselves and to clarify and simplify what we want to share later with the other person about our thoughts and feelings. For example, we can go for a walk, journal, or pray before we express ourselves to the other person.
6. We can refrain from making judgments about the other person’s character. The text reminds us to say what is helpful, with awareness and concern for the other person’s needs. The other person needs to feel respected and valued, just as we do. Whatever we share, we can do so with this in mind. Whatever we share can be with the goal of healing, rather than of causing further damage to the relationship. For example, it can be helpful to say what we observe of the other person’s behavior that leaves us feeling more anxious or defensive (“When you don’t call to tell me you will be late, I feel anxious and I start thinking maybe I don’t matter to you”). But it is harmful to make judgments about the other person’s character based on our observations (“You don’t call when you are going to be late because you are irresponsible and uncaring”).
7. We can let go of any rage, bitterness and malice that we feel toward the other person. Another way of saying this is that we can do whatever work we need to do to let go of resentments. We can let go of rehearsing over and over again how the other person hurt us. Resentments feed our addictions and our walls of defensiveness. Resentments are poison to our hearts and minds and to our relationships.
8. We can be kind, compassionate, tenderhearted and forgiving toward ourselves and toward the other person. Relationships are places where we are learning about ourselves and about what it means to love and be loved. Sometimes we will get caught in our fears and defenses. And so will other people. Kindness, compassion and tenderhearted forgiveness are necessary ingredients in developing any safe, nurturing relationship.
9. We can practice, practice and keep practicing speaking from our heart. We live in a culture that overexpresses anger and underexpresses love, care and need for others. If we are angry, it is probably because we long to be close to the other person but for some reason we feel afraid. We can talk about our longing for closeness. We can talk about our desire to build a respectful, loving relationship with the other person.
10. We can pray for ourselves and for the other person and for our relationship. We can pray for the knowledge of God’s loving will and the strength to carry it out. We can pray for healing and release from fears and defenses in ourselves and in the other person. We can pray that God will open our eyes to see the other person with eyes of love, and open our hearts to give and receive love.
Intimate Relating: Keeping Our Hearts Open Safe. At ease. Joyful. Playful. Respectful. Empathic. Alive. Able to navigate and learn from conflict. Trusting. Kind. These are the words I would use to describe a relationship where defenses and fears have been minimized and hearts are open to give and receive love.
Is it possible? Yes. Can we do it perfectly? No. The last thing we need is to be perfectionistic about our relationships. The experience of intimacy in a relationship does not mean that the relationship has fully arrived. There will be bumps. Conflicts will surface. Fears and defenses will get triggered. But when our hearts have grown tender toward ourselves and toward each other, it is possible to share our fears and defenses with each other and to work through conflicts in ways that produce greater understanding of ourselves and each other.
It is essential to remember that we are creatures. To be a creature is to be limited. As creatures we can work within our limitations and leave the rest to God. This is a critical point. We are not the only ones who are working on this relationship. God is not a distant and disinterested observer of our struggle. God is actively involved in doing what God does best. God is the one who can free us from our attachments to fear. God is the one who can find a way for grace to thrive in a seemingly hostile environment. God never forgets who we are. God sees our defenses. God sees our fears. But God never loses sight of who we really are—his beloved creatures, created to love and be loved.
Many times when struggling in relationships I have sensed God saying, “Do not forget that both of you are humans, limited in knowledge and understanding. Be compassionate when either of you feels afraid or defensive. Bring your struggles to me. Let my grace transform them into gifts of humility and tenderness. Keep coming to me with each fear and each defense. Let me continue to set you free.”
Scripture calls us over and over again to live a life of love—to love God and to love each other. These are the two great commandments, Jesus said. God calls us, in love, to love. This is what life is about. This is who we were created to be. How can we respond to this call to love when we are limited human beings? Imperfectly. And with help. We can ask for help from God and from others. We can continue to pursue whatever healing we need, so that we can open our hearts more fully to receive love from God. So that, more and more, God can live in us. So that, more and more, love can live in us.
We can pray with Paul for ourselves and others:
That you, being rooted and established in love, may have power . . . to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. (Eph. 3:17–19)
This is the goal of our efforts when we bring our recovery into our relationships: to be filled with the fullness of God. To be filled with God. To be filled with love. Not all relationships can become safe, close and loving. Some relationships will fail. Some will never heal. Some may be, at best, one-sided in awareness and compassion. But some relationships can be rescued from the distance and destruction created by fears and defenses. Some relationships can, by God’s grace, become places where we are free to be our truest, most loving selves, and where the other person is free in this way as well. But whatever may become of our relationships, we can grow in our capacity to experience the love and grace of God.
May we be filled today with a deep sense of God’s love for us. May God open our eyes to see others with eyes of love. May God open our hearts in tenderness and joy to live a life of love, just as Christ loved us.
Juanita Ryan is a therapist in private practice. She is also the co-author of Rooted in God’s Love as well as numerous Bible study guides published by InterVarsity Press some of which are available in the NACR store. She is also the author of the NACR Audio Meditation Series . For more information about Juanita visit juanitaryan.com.