On a rare leisurely Saturday morning, Rob was moody. Ann prepared her husband’s favorite pancakes and brewed coffee, but at the breakfast table, Rob disconnectedly pushed the pancake around his plate and let the coffee get cold.
Though Ann initiated conversation, Rob’s silence magnified their lack of communication.
Clearly, she thought, he would rather be fishing or on the golf course with his buddies.
Feeling rejected, Ann felt tempted to dish back negativity by giving Rob the silent treatment. After all, if he didn’t want to communicate with her, she wouldn’t talk to him. If he didn’t want to look at her, she wouldn’t look at him.
Still simmering internally, eventually she unloaded her hurt with a barbed jab. “When are you going to clean the garage? It would be nice to park my car inside.”
Glancing up, Rob saw the disapproving look on his wife’s face, picked up his plate and took it to the kitchen. Ann’s heart broke as she heard him give her lovingly prepared breakfast to the dog. It was still morning and already the long-anticipated weekend was ruined.
“If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all,” Paul instructed in Romans 12:18 (ESV). Yet the most common complaint among married couples is a lack of communication. Too much conflict is among the top five reasons people divorce. If we’re doing our best to live peaceably, why do conflict and communication issues continue to escalate between spouses?
The Root of Conflict and Communication Issues
As husbands and wives, families, and fellow inhabitants of planet Earth, we have gotten really, really good at being in the 5 Rs. The process goes like this:
- Something happens or is said, done, not said, or not done that results in me feeling rejected. In this scenario, Ann’s creative efforts to cheer her husband were ignored.
- Rejection is a lousy feeling, so I become resentful about feeling rejected. Ann made up a story about why Rob was withdrawn.
- Feeling resentment, I resist relationship with the person I feel resentful toward. This showed up when Ann gave the silent treatment.
- Resistance turns to action when it leads to revenge. Revenge is the desire that another feel the same pain I feel so they know what it feels like. Ann’s verbal attack about the condition of the garage was aimed for Rob to feel hurt in the same way Ann felt he had hurt her.
- Repeat. Unresolved, this cycle is automatically repeated over and over until a relationship is damaged beyond repair. Rob did not engage with Ann, so Ann disengaged from Rob, so Rob distanced himself from her barbs, and Ann kept a wall between them, and so the pattern continued.
These are the 5 Rs that spell destruction to relationships: rejection, resentment, resistance, revenge, repeat.
The more this cycle is repeated in a relationship, the cycle becomes completely automatic, even expected, and people unthinkingly play out their parts. She says something in that tone of voice. He doesn’t pick up when she phones. She is perpetually offended. He pouts when he doesn’t get his way. This conflict is the foundation for couples who look at the framed wedding photo and wonder what happened to their happily ever after.
Practice Makes Permanent
Becoming aware of the active presence of the 5 Rs in our relationship is the first step to interrupt this destructive pattern. When you find yourself in one of the 5 Rs, thankfully there are actions that can immediately place the relationship back on positive footing.
Resentment is any negative emotional reaction to what you think was said or done, or not said or not done. A signal that you are in resentment is the presence of drama words in your vocabulary: need, perfect, should. Think along the lines of statements that start with, “He needs…”, “I’m not perfect, but…”, or “She should…”
The solution: Shift to gratitude. Change your statements to, “I’m grateful he…”, “What fun to…”, or “I’m thankful she…”
Resistance is putting up walls and cutting off communication and relationship. Resistance is being shut down emotionally and relationally to someone. If you have given or received the silent treatment, you’ve experienced resistance.
The solution: Engage. What emotions are you avoiding? Make eye contact, have conversations. Consider getting clear by saying, “The story I’m making up in my head about ________ is _______________.”
Revenge is the attempt to get even. Revenge is taking advantage of a situation or setting up an opportunity so another can feel the rejection you felt. A signal that you are in revenge is wanting another to feel hurt. If you are saying something like, “Now he will know how it feels”, “Serves her right”, or “He had it coming”, you are in the revenge phase.
The solution: Practice generosity. When you extend generosity to the person you are feeling revenge toward, that action breaks the conflict cycle. Does the person deserve generosity? Probably not. That’s why it’s called grace. And it’s worth practicing grace generously to have healthy relationships.
A toxic pattern is to believe that because you are hurt, you have the right to be unkind and hurtful. Then you hurt someone, and they hurt you, and you are offended, and they are offended, and in that offense both parties deeply dive into the 5 Rs.
The solution: Release others from your expectations of how they should act or behave.
“Fools show their annoyance at once, but the prudent overlook an insult,” Proverbs 12:16.
The communication issues and conflict begin when something happens or is said, done, not said, or not done that results in you feeling rejected. The moment when you feel rejected is your most powerful opportunity step off the familiar yet painful cycle of the 5 Rs and choose grace and joy and health.
Fact Versus Fiction
Rejection is based on understanding what is fact and what is fiction.
- The fact is that Rob was moody and refused to be cheered up.
- The fact is Ann said it would be helpful to be able to park in the garage.
- The fact is Rob didn’t eat his pancake.
Those are facts. Yet most of us are practiced storytellers. We take the facts and instantly make up a fantastic story in our mind about what those facts mean. Add some time, and the story can grow way beyond any semblance of truth.
Using the three facts above, the story Ann and Rob made up in their head is:
- Rob would rather spend Saturday morning with his friends than with his wife.
- Ann is disappointed in me about the garage.
- Rob doesn’t appreciate my cooking or me.
The relationship-destroying problem with making up stories is that the story in our head becomes our reality. Then we act and react based on the made-up story as if it were truth. For instance:
- Based on the fact that Rob is moody and refused to be cheered up, Ann can feel rejected by her husband and shut down, initiate her own silent treatment, or become highly critical of her husband.
- Based on the fact that Ann complained about the garage, Rob can feel rejected and leave the breakfast table so she “knows what it feels like.”
- Based on the fact Rob gave Ann’s carefully prepared breakfast to the dog, she can feel unappreciated and be pouty and ruin the weekend.
In all three scenarios, no one wins but plenty of negative drama is launched and, short of a miracle of maturity and grace, can spin out of control for days, weeks, years, decades, and even generations.
The life-giving, life-changing solution comes by sticking to the facts and letting the facts stand for themselves. Because Ann and Rob had been learning about the 5 Rs, Ann realized they were deep into this destructive cycle.
To her husband, Ann said, “The story I’m making up in my head right now is that you would rather be anywhere on a Saturday morning than here with me.”
Rob responded with a completely baffled expression. “I just learned my coworker has leukemia.”
“People do what they do for their own reasons and it rarely has anything to do with you.” – Steve Binkley , Pastor and counselor
The truth is that most things people say or do, don’t say, don’t do, and accidentally do or don’t do hardly ever has anything to do with us. We’re all doing our best to live our lives as well as we can. And the best we can do has everything to do with:
- Sticking to the facts.
- Being graciously generous.
- Practicing gratitude.
- Not taking ourselves or others too seriously.
And yes, occasionally those closest do reject us. Rejection, like pain, is not a favorite. But if we are breathing, rejection is part of life. There is something to be learned from both pain and rejection. The vital aspect is how we respond, and the 5 Rs is the antithesis of maturity, healthy relationships, or good adulting.
Without the 5 Rs, marriage relationships have less conflict and communication issues, and more opportunities to leave our defenses down and navigate life together.
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… (Ephesians 4:31–32 NIV)
For more tips on building family relationships, see What to Do When You Don’t Know What To Say to Your Own Family by Mary Ann Froehlich and PeggySue Wells.