Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Build a Short Fence in Your Tough Relationship

Some relationships are tricky. You ride up and down, in and out, and still you hang on as best you can, even when the going gets tough. If you have problems with somebody you love – your spouse, son, aunt, friend, or whomever – you know how exhausting and scary this roller coaster ride can be.

Relationships like this are described well in these lines from the song, “Put Some Love into It,” by
The Laws, a married duo from Seeleys Bay, Ontario, Canada:

Life can be a bed of roses,
Sometimes it’s just a bed of nails.
You’re up one day, down the next, it never fails.

People want their relationships to bring love, companionship, fun, support, and happiness. But if you're in a relationship that brings the opposite -- chaos, worry, sadness, frustration, hurt -- you might be feeling very discouraged. So what can you do to smooth out the ups and downs of your difficult relationship? How can you feel more peaceful and less worn out?
...By changing your approach and your thinking. You can consider new ideas, learn new skills, and change your actions. Take a look at this:
Imagine that you have next-door neighbours whose messy yard really bugs you and even messes up your yard. Their weeds broadcast seeds that take hold in your lawn. Their overflowing garbage can smells awful, and their dog drags the refuse onto your porch. They never cut their grass. Rusting cars and old appliances fight for space in the front yard. But as much as their stuff bothers you, are you going to go over there and weed the garden, haul the junk to the dump, and cut the grass? Not likely. Why not? Because it's their mess, not yours.
The same is true for your troublesome loved one's life. It's his mess, not yours -- even though it sometimes messes up your life and even though you love him. So since the mess is not yours, and you didn't cause it, and you can't control it, how about trying something different?
Here's a useful tool to help you do that. Picture a short fence, about knee height, standing up between you and your problematic loved one (between your yard and his messy yard). Now, each time your relative or friend gets drunk or yells at his kids or gets fired, picture yourself walking right up to that short fence. But you do not step over the fence, even though it's low enough for you to do so. You stop at the fence because whatever is on the other side belongs to your loved one, not to you. Picture yourself feeling love for that person, and then turn around and walk away. Find something to do that pleases you. Get a hug from somebody else. Watch a movie. Go for a walk. Do something that helps you stay on your side of the short fence and respect that your loved one's life (messy yard) is theirs to fix, not yours.
Here are two examples of how to stay on your side of the short fence:
  • If your sister comes over when she's drunk and wants to drink your booze, don't try to convince her to stop drinking. You could tell her you'll talk with her when she's sober or when she decides to get help, but you won't help her drink. Your short fence reminds you that you cannot control her drinking, and her drinking problem isn't yours to fix.
  • When your husband gives you the silent treatment because he's angry with you, remember that how he reacts to you is not yours to fix. You did not make him choose that reaction, and you can't make him change it. Even though the silent treatment can feel painful and confusing, you can choose to stay on your side of the short fence by getting on with your daily activities. You might calmly tell your husband that you're prepared to talk when he's ready and that you're not allowing his anger to make you feel punished. You have things to do, and you're going to enjoy your life with or without his silence or his participation.
An important key to the short fence is that you stay "in your own yard" without pointing your finger at your loved one. The short fence is not an excuse to hurl insults or blame from a safe distance; it's an opportunity to let go of anger and blame and to make positive choices for yourself. It gives you the energy to live your life and, if he decides to change, to be ready to move forward together.
The short fence can help you remember that each of us has his or her own life to live. We are each responsible for our own choices. We cannot change or control anyone but ourselves. With troublesome loved ones (TLOs for short), life and love can certainly feel more like a bed of nails than a bed of roses. However, by living your own life as well as you can (by staying on your side of that short fence), you can start to grow some roses and offer your TLO a healthier form of love. And then, as the Laws’ song goes on to say:

Love can help you climb a mountain,
Take you where you want to go.
No need to be afraid,
So have a little faith, in something we already know...
Don’t hold nothin’ back,
Remember what we’re living for,
And you’ll get so much more.

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