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Getting Unstuck in Your Relationships (Part 2 of 2)

Getting Unstuck in Your Relationships (Part 2 of 2)

In a discussion centered on his book UnTrapped: 9 Secrets to Getting Along, Dr. Daniel Nehrbass offers advice for those of us who feel stuck in a relationship in which another person's undesirable or harmful behavior is putting us in a bind. (Part 2 of 2)



Dr. Daniel Nehrbass: I start with the premise that we’re stuck. That we’ve already hurt the relationship. The relationship is already stuck, trapped, not going forward. And so, if we can act in some biblical self-controlled, purposeful manner it’s going to better than where we’re at.

End of Excerpt

John Fuller: Dr. Daniel Nehrbass is with us again today on “Focus on the Family.” I’m John Fuller and your host is Focus president and author, Jim Daly.

Jim Daly: John, last time we started a great conversation about some various methods you can use when you feel stuck in a challenging situation with your spouse, your kids or friends. That is one reason we exist here at Focus, is to provide this kind of information to you, so that it help[s] deepen your relationship with Christ and helps you be that kind of witness for the Lord, as well.

So, I am really intrigued by the content. We covered several examples last time and I’m gonna again ask Dan to describe for us the nine options for relational change. But if you didn’t hear the broadcast last time, get the download. You can get it on your Smartphone. Get the app. But get it so you can hear the earlier discussion. But it was really fascinating. Were you writin’ notes there? I always tell when—

John: I was makin’ notes.

Jim: –you’re [engaged].

John: Yeah, there … there were some really interesting ways to look at relationships that cause frustration or that just aren’t where you want them to be. And Daniel’s book is called UnTrapped. We have copies at And we’re gonna post this list of nine things there, as well. Or call us and we can tell you more, 800-A­-FAMILY.


Jim: Dr. Nehrbass, welcome back to “Focus on the Family.”

Daniel: It’s a pleasure to be here.

Jim: Okay, let’s hit those nine again. Go ahead if you want to run through ‘em and just a brief description behind each one.

Daniel: Sure, the first is to speak the truth about the situation. That’s teach. Next is an emotional appeal. Third is to listen to the other person. Fourth is to sacrifice. Fifth, it’s an option to do nothing. Sixth, there’s an option to leave. Seven, make a boundary. Eight, find a compromise. And nine, repent of your own role or sin.

Jim: Yeah, you can’t repent for the other person’s issue, right?

Daniel: Right.

Jim: This is for your own.

Daniel: Only for yourself.|

Jim: (Laughing) We left off last time wanting to talk about adult children who are living at home. I don’t want to state an age, because some will say, “Well, that’s good; he’s not that age yet.” So, I’m just talking about someone who’s launching a little later than mom and dad may have thought they would launch. And it’s creating some friction. Maybe the rules aren’t the same and they’re in their 20’s and they’re wanting to live pretty independently, but mom and dad are still coverin’ some of the tab. And so, there’s rules that they need to obey, those kinds of things. I’m trying to create the sense of friction here.

Daniel: Yes, yes.

Jim: How do you apply UnTrapped in this situation? What does the parent do? And maybe you want to speak from the adult child, what they should be doing.

Daniel: Well, I think if we look at that “kidult “ that you’re describing—

Jim: “Kidult,” I like that. (Chuckling)

Daniel: –we make an assumption that they’re happy. We make an assumption that they’re more than happy to be in this situation and that might be a false assumption. They may not be joyful in their laziness that we observe or that we assume.

So, it might be an opportunity to start with listening and to say, “How do you feel about how your life is going? How do you feel about living here? What do you see next?” After listening, on another day it might be good to draw some boundaries.

Here are the things that are necessary for you to continue living here for the next year. This is the amount of rent that we expect. These are the number of credits we expect you to be enrolled in, in college.

Now I know a lot of parents who have done exactly that and they’re gonna say that failed. It failed most likely because of failure to follow through by the parents with the consequences.

Jim: Which means?

Daniel: What did you say was going to be the consequence if they didn’t work full-time, if they didn’t enroll in school, if they didn’t pay their rent? And I know very few parents who have the guts after very clearly saying what the boundary is and what the results or the consequence will be, to follow through, because they just don’t have the heart to do it.

The more clear we make what the boundary is, what the expectations are and what the results will be, the easier it will be for us to follow through, because we’ll know that we’re doing what’s right for the relationship. And this is the last thing I’d say about it. The goal is not to get your kids out of the house, right? That’s the wrong relational goal. The goal is to do what is best for them.

Jim: Huh.

Daniel: And the goal is to be the voice of the Holy Spirit in their life and to disciple God’s children. They’re the children that He put in your home and that He left there. Years later beyond what you thought He would, right, they’re still there. So, your role is not to do what’s convenient for you or to react to what ticks you off and makes you upset. It’s to disciple your children and if discipling them means to have boundaries even when they’re adults, then that’s what we need to do, because it’s right for them.

Jim: Do we, as parents, have a propensity to overstate our consequence? You know, that if you don’t do this—

Daniel: That’s the problem we—

Jim: –you’re never gonna see daylight again.

Daniel: –yes, it starts in the grocery store when they’re 3 and you say that we’re gonna leave right now, when you’re not gonna leave right now is they don’t change their behavior. Or “I’m gonna make you go back to the car,” but you’re not gonna make ‘em go back to the car. So, we start this very young where they learn, we’re not gonna follow through. And by the time they’re 25, they’ve learned the drill.

Jim: Right and that it means nothing.

Daniel: Right.

Jim: Yeah, let me ask you this one again from our counselors. We’ve pulled a couple of these questions last time. But our counselors just compiled, not a specific scenario, but ones that are examples of the kind of questions we receive here at Focus on the Family. One was, “My child is angry all the time and very disrespectful and doesn’t seem to care about consequences. Where do I turn? How can I get through to him?

Daniel: Hm. I think about God in Numbers 14:30, where He talks about the Promised Land. And He tells the Israelites as they were wandering in the desert, “None of you will enter the land I swore with uplifted hand to make your home, except Caleb, son of Jephunneh and Joshua, son of Nun.” There’s this boundary that God said, you will the commandments and the law and none of you will enter except those who kept His law.

So, God was able to keep a boundary with His people that He promised. And He gives us that example in our relationships with our children, that the right discipleship for them is to draw the boundaries and to keep them. In the Psalm 119, it says that, “By Your boundaries I am free.” So, you think of the lanes on a freeway that keep you free within those boundaries.

John: Uh-hm.

Daniel: So, what I would suggest to that child who’s disrespectful is to make very clear boundaries about their behavior and start with theology. What you’re doing is wrong and it’s a sin. The appropriate thing for you to do now is repent.” We stop with that verse and say, I’ve spoken the truth. Now I’m not expecting them to do it. I’m not expecting an apology today, because I can’t there’s so many things we can’t make children do.

Jim: Right.

Daniel: You can’t make a child eat. You can’t make a child speak. You can’t make a child repent. You can’t make a child tell the truth. But you can teach and clearly state the theology of what has happened.

But the second point that I’d say is, don’t ask for anything that can’t be enforced, ‘cause if you can’t enforce it, you’re going to lose. And this is also a theological point. If we continually lose in our parenting, then what we’re hurting our children’s hearts by showing them that their rebellion is acceptable. So, instead, only ask for things that are important to God and that can be enforced. Otherwise, we’re teaching them to continually disobey.

John: Hm. Dan do you see any propensity, any kind of reliance on the teaching aspect within the Christian community? It seems to me that many of us are pretty heavy on that.

Daniel: That’s true. I do think we have to, like one of the nine options of doing nothing, there are times where we may be able to look over. There was a time where my son said something very disrespectful to me and I heard my voice saying it to my dad. And I was overcome with compassion and I simply said to him, “I said that to my dad one time.” And I just left it at that.

And I think that was good, because the goal, as I said, is what is best for the relationship. Did my son need to be taught at that moment? Or could he also have been shown some compassion and mercy from me?

John: Now how about in marriage relationships where one spouse feels like, “I can’t speak the truth here to my spouse because I’ll get decimated. They’re the arguer and I’m not.”

Daniel: Uh-hm, I think that we have to have a realistic view of what we can accomplish. And so, we leave it at one sentence without an expectation of a response. So, yes it’s possible the other person will go into a tirade after you begin, but if you have fully determined that speaking the truth is right, that it’s good for them to hear it and good for you to say it. Then you give that one sentence of truth and then you let it percolate and you let God do it. And I have experienced, both my wife and I have launched into making our own case—

John: Uh-hm.

Daniel: –you know, our own tirades–

John: Yeah, you get wound up.

Daniel: — We have given each other enough reason to give up on teaching one another. You know, we’ve certainly not rewarded each other. But I think we have to assume it’s not going to go well. It would be extraordinary for you to say to the most mature person that you know, “What you did was wrong” and to expect them to say, “You know, you’re right.” That would exceed the maturity of almost anyone I know.

We go into this assuming it’s not going to go well from the perspective that we’re not gonna get a thank you. Instead we change what “go well” means. Did it go well because I correctly spoke the truth about the situation and I was self-controlled afterward? That means it went well.

I observed and determined when I was young, observing my mom’s behavior, her happiness was anchored in the things she did, rather than the things that people around her did. And that’s kind of the anchor of this book, as well. That we’re going to determine whether it was a good day based on what I did and what I said, rather than how the other person responded.

Jim: How do we move toward patching this up, as well, when we make these statements in truth and wanting to deepen the relationship, further the relationship? How do we make sure that we’re not damaging the relationship? Or should we be that concerned about it?

Daniel: I do think that we are suggesting in this book to open some wounds, right? That you’re going to plow ahead and speak truth. You’re going to draw boundaries. You might even leave for a period of time. So, this is definitely opening wounds.

I guess I start with the premise that we’re stuck, that we’ve already hurt the relationship. The relationship is already stuck, trapped, not going forward. And so, if we can act in some biblical, self-controlled, purposeful manner, it’s going to be better than where we’re at.

Jim: Dan, let me pick up on this issue then, empathy. I mean, that’s an important component to human relationship, feeling empathy for the other person.

Daniel: Uh-hm.

Jim: What is healthy empathy and what’s unhealthy empathy and how can we develop stronger empathy in our relationships?

Daniel: Empathy is certainly developed through listening. One of the best pieces of advice I got in my counseling training is that empathy is not innate. We’re not born with it and it’s hard work. And the hard work is through listening.

And I’m reminded of an example where my son as a teenager, wanted to go to a concert. He told us the name of the band and we pulled up the band on YouTube and we were pretty horrified at what we heard. It was speed metal, you know, heavy rock metal and sounded ridiculous. I mean, we … we laughed and were disturbed.

Our first though as parents was to say, “Absolutely not, you’re definitely not going.” The second reaction we wanted was to ridicule and say, “How could you possibly ask to go to this?” My wife decided to listen to our 16-year-old son and she realized it may be that she has completely got him wrong and she said, “How did you feel when you watched that YouTube video? And what makes you want to go to the concert?” And he said, “I think the band is ridiculous and I think that it’s silly and I don’t particularly want to go, but I want to be with my friends.”

That completely changes your approach towards your son, if you had previously assumed, we could’ve have totally overreacted and though we have raised a child who likes horrible music.

Jim: Right.

Daniel: That would’ve been a wrong reaction. That would’ve lacked empathy. The question is, what is he thinking when he’s asking to go this concert and why does he want to go? And that only comes through the hard work and determination of asking the questions and listening.

Jim: You also had an example in the book about the classic father-daughter problem—

Daniel: Yes.

Jim: –of outfit battles.

Daniel: Yes.

Jim: And what was that with your daughter, Rebekah.

Daniel: Daughter Rebekah, this went on for a long period of time when she was in kindergarten and first grade.

Jim: Kindergarten and first grade?

Daniel: Very young. We asked her to get dressed for school and it was a struggle. So, the next step was to lay the clothes out the night before and say, “These are the clothes you’re going to wear in the morning.” And when I say “struggle,” this was kind of beyond most of what I’ve experienced as a parent. It was the point where it felt like something deeply troubling was occurring for her when she put on the clothes.

John: Just over puttin’ on—

Daniel: Just over—

John: –regular school clothes.

Daniel: –putting on clothes. This was a pretty extreme reaction. We tried spanking her a couple times. We tried putting her in time-out. She just wouldn’t get dressed for school. And at some point you have to realize boundary isn’t working. You know, if that’s the route you were going down, trying to discipline isn’t working. We were trapped.

So, we asked her how she felt when we asked her to get dressed and she said in her own words, that she felt terrified of the clothes because they made her feel uncomfortable. They were itchy. And we said, “What would work for you?” And so, for about two years, she found two outfits that she liked that she wore to school. Now as a parent you can be extremely embarrassed. My child has two outfits.

Jim: Right.

Daniel: What are people gonna think? What is the teacher gonna think? You can’t go to school with those two outfits because it’ll make me look bad. But that’s not biblical, right? We’re not instructed by God to parent based on how we look or what’s embarrassing or what people are gonna say. The question is, where does she stand with God.

And we finally were able to get her to wear some of the other clothing on the outside of these two outfits.

Jim: Oh.

Daniel: So, we could get her to wear a new shirt on top of one of the two shirts that she liked. But this came through listening after the realization that drawing a boundary and discipline was not getting us anywhere.

John: Hm, yeah, it sounds like she had some sensory issues goin’ on.

Daniel: Right.

Jim: Yeah and she’s okay today.

Daniel: She’s great today. She loves her clothes.

Jim: She’s wearin’ all different kinds of outfits.

Daniel: Yes, she is.

Jim: I’m sure. (Laughing)

Daniel: I think we sometimes parent based on what if you turn out like this all the time for the rest of your life. And we approach our spouse that way, too, that this issue is something I’m gonna deal with for the rest of our life.

Jim: You know what I like, Daniel, what you’ve talked about is how this is rooted, these Untrapped options, the nine options are all rooted in theology. I like that parenting approach, that ability to teach your kids what the theological rootedness of the issue is, whether you didn’t tell the truth. You don’t need to be emotional about it. I think for most of us as parents, we tend to lean into emotion so often and we’re frustrated that little Johnny is not telling the truth.

Daniel: Yeah.

Jim: And we flare up at them and then that’s not getting the point across in a healthy way either. And to be able to root this in a theological kind of construct for them I think is really helpful for them to understand their developing worldview–

Daniel: Absolutely.

Jim: –and the consistency of that. What I want to cover here is the repentance aspect of it. How many of us as parents emphasize that?

Daniel: Right.

Jim: It’s probably even a word that’s losing in its understanding.

Daniel: I’m sure.

Jim: But the beauty of it. Describe the importance of it and how you go about applying that with your kids.

Daniel: Well, I’m gonna start with a client who I was counseling. He said that he makes his daughter “pinky promise” every day to be good. To me that … that immediately struck me as rather unbiblical desire, hope or expectation. It’s not gonna happen, nor is that even what God has asked parents to do for their children. And I said to him, “You are robbing your family of the magnificent display of acting out the repentance and forgiveness that God has. Instead of asking her to pinky promise every day to be good, instead you could promise to her and with her that when we sin against each other today, we will apologize and we will forgive one another. That would be a much more magnificent display of what God has put us on this earth for, rather than the futile desire to promise to be good every day.

Jim: Yeah, I mean, for me, that’s just a wonderful and important issue to teach our children, about the power of repentance.

Daniel: And if we go first and we practice it, … you can’t make someone else do it and it might sometimes be inappropriate to even ask. But if we go first and we model it and say, “I’m sorry; I sinned against you. This is what I did wrong. Please forgive me.” If we leave it at that today, I think in time, we’re going to see our children practice the same thing.

Jim: Let me ask you another one from the counseling department. My spouse will not help around the house at all. John, you didn’t put this in, did you?

John: This … no; this is a friend of mine. (Laughter)

Jim: I work a full-time job and take care of the kids and have to come home to filth. And I find him lying on the couch, watching television or playing video games. Now it may have just described about 50 percent of the households in America. I don’t know, but–

Daniel: Yeah.

Jim: –She’s frustrated. What is she gonna do? She feels trapped.

Daniel: When I first wrote this book and completed the first draft, there were only eight options for relational change. And I asked a friend of mine, could you read this over and tell me if I’m missing any? And he said, “What about compromise?” And my first thought was, I don’t like compromise as a strategy for relationships because it usually results in a lose-lose. And my wife and I don’t put much faith or hope in compromise.

This seems like a pretty good example where a compromise would work. So, I think we should keep compromise on our tool box. This might be an opportunity for the wife to say, here are some things that I am willing to do and not ask you to do. Could you make a list? Next week could we sit down and take a half hour and look at a list of things that you could do that I won’t have to do and that I won’t have to ask you to do? And we’ll compromise and make a list of things for each of us.

Jim: Yeah and that’s a good approach. You know, it’s so funny, ‘cause this is a little opposite. Remember Gary Chapman was talking about [it] in a broadcast we did with him, he said, “Here’s somethin’ I’d suggest: “Jim, go home and ask your spouse what’s one thing I can do differently in the marriage—

Daniel: Uh-hm.

Jim: –to make it better.” He said, “Now be careful. I didn’t say go home and say here’s one thing you can do.”

Daniel: Right.

Jim: And we all laughed and thought that was funny. In many ways, it is kinda what you’re suggesting, is you find one of the tools in the toolbox to teach or to listen or to sacrifice and you’re opening up a discussion with your spouse to really dig a little deeper. And I think most of us just want to live at peace and we don’t want to dig in and try to make things better. If we can live with it, we’re okay.

Daniel: And we often resort to the same tactic or strategy over and over without being aware that there are other options. And we often have the wrong view in mind that, oh, it didn’t work. You’re telling me to try something, but it didn’t work. So, we need to kind of reset. Are there more options for us and a different way to—

John: Yeah.

Daniel: –determine?

John: So the wife says to this husband, “Listen, I come home, you’re not helping. There’s still a bunch of stuff I have to do” and here’s a compromise situation, but he’s not willing to work with her. What’s another relational change step for her?

Daniel: Well, let’s go back to the emotional appeal and see whether it has been done well. Some people, I have found in my counseling experience, that many people think they know how to make an emotional appeal, but they don’t. And so, they think that they made it clear because they screamed and yelled or because they …

John: I’m really upset about this.

Daniel: Yeah, but did you use a word picture in some way to describe, in a self-controlled manner, without expecting anything else from the other person, that I feel exhausted when I come home. I feel overwhelmed when I walk through the door at the amount of work that’s in front of me and I feel alone, because it seems like I’m gonna have to do it all myself.

So, there’s I’m sure plenty of room to add to the emotional appeals that have already been done. And although it may be you should expect some defensiveness from the other person when you do this. We’ve already talked about that, right? Defensiveness is okay and to be expected. But were you able to communicate clearly that emotional appear in a self-controlled way.

John: And I think it was last time you said, we use these tools for change, not because the other person is going to change, but really more to change our own perspective and our own situation. Is that right?

Daniel: That’s right.

Jim: Dan, what I love about these counseling questions, this is real life. This is where people are living. Let’s end today with this last one. My spouse often gives me the silent treatment. They won’t talk to me and won’t tell me what I did wrong. That’s probably a very common attribute in today’s families. What again, does that trapped spouse do to begin to right the ship?

Daniel: Yeah, that’s good. Well, let’s start with listening. Someone may say, “I already tried listening. That’s why they’re giving me the silent treatment”

Jim: Right.

Daniel: “They can’t listen.” But the questions we ask when we’re listening, there’s a lot of questions that can be interrogating or can be putting someone in a corner or can be retributive questions.

Jim: Right.

Daniel: Did you really think that was a good idea? That’s not listening, right? So, if we can start with listening and asking questions that are very disarming. How are you feeling right now? Let’s assume that we’ve already tried the listening.

The next step would be I think, to teach. It’s not healthy for us to not talk about this. Just leave it at that. You hear the person’s giving the silent treatment, rather than yell or walk away or slam the door, you say, “It’s not healthy for us to not talk about this.” Or “It would be good for us to talk about this, so please let me know when you’re ready.” I have family member–

Jim: And then … and then leave it.

Daniel: And you leave it at that. I have a family member who does give the silent treatment sometimes and I’ve said that to them. It’s not good for us to not talk about it. Let me know when you’re ready. Well, a few hours later they might be ready, but I left the relationship in a good spot by doing that, rather than demanding to hear an answer.

Again, for each of these options for relational change, we’re not demanding anything from the other person. We’re offering to listen. We’re offering the truth. We’re offering a compromise whatever it is.

And lastly, I think perhaps to repent, to say, “I can see that I’ve made it difficult for you to talk to me about this. Maybe because of the way that I’ve responded in the past when you have opened up to me or maybe because of something I just said. And I’m sorry that I have created a relationship where you feel like your only option is to be silent.”

Jim: Yeah… Boy, these are good words. Dr. Daniel Nehrbass, author of UnTrapped, you have brought so much insight into the discussion about relationships from your … your own counseling practice, your experience and most importantly, from God’s Word. And I’ve loved this concept and what I’m taking away today, this concept of being theologically rooted in our relationships with our spouse, with our kids, with our friendship. Start there. That’s a good place to start and it teaches along the way.

Let me say to you the listener, if you feel trapped in some relationship, we’re here for you at Focus on the Family. I’ve never thought of it in that way, but we’re kinda like your relational fix-it spot, you know. And this is what we want to do, is equip you with the tools to do the best job you can do to honor the Lord and to honor those around you and to honor your own self in how you are relating to other people

We have a counseling department that can help. We have tools and other things that we believe will put you in a better place. So, just call us. Don’t feel that you have to be perfect. Don’t feel that you have to have it all together. We’ve heard many, many things over the last 40 years and you’re not gonna surprise us. So, take a risk. Call us and get started improving you relationships today.


John: And the number is 800-A-FAMILY; 800-232-6459. Or you’ll find helps and even a counselor referral tool on our website

And let me just take a moment and thank those of you who invest financially in Focus on the Family.

Because of your help, we have trained counselors here who can talk to folks at their point of need and offer some initial thoughts about how to set relationships right. We hear from over 4,000 people a month. And if you’d like to support our effort to being there in that counseling effort, let us know by making a generous contribution today. No donation is too small.

And for any amount, we’ll send a copy of UnTrapped. It’s a great resource. It will help you or someone you know. And again, our number is 800-the letter A- and the word FAMILY, 800-232-6459.

Well, join us next time. We’ll hear from financial expert Chris Hogan about the importance of dreaming for the future and then developing a plan to get out of debt and save for that dream.


Chris Hogan: Everyone wants to make progress. Everyone wants better for their kids or their grandkids. And the only way to get better is if you work smarter and you work a plan that actually works.

End of Excerpt

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