The following article was written by Ms. Cathy Parker and first appeared on pages 5-7 of the March 2016 issue of “God’s Revivalist and Bible Advocate” magazine (Vol. 129, No. 2), a publication printed by the Revivalist Press of God’s Bible School, College and Missionary Training Home, 1810 Young Street, Cincinnati, Ohio 45202. Used with permission.
It is usually the little things that undermine relationships. “Oh, that’s not worth talking about. It will just upset both of us.” “I can handle this…it’s not worth the stress.” “I’m embarrassed to even say that this bothers me, it’s such a little thing.” However, that little thing becomes a “brick” in a wall between you and someone else. And given time, even small bricks can develop into a huge wall.
These thoughts are something to seriously consider…
Verbal extroverts, (1) as maturing adults, often need to go back and un-say or un-do what’s been said or done. It is wise for such people to open the door to conversations, inviting the other person to share just one hurt they may still have in their heart from a previous incident in their relationship. It’s wiser still to continue that practice until nothing is left between them and the other person, no matter how far back into the past they have to reach!
Quiet introverts, (1) as maturing adults, usually need to go back and say or do what’s been unsaid or undone. If you are the introvert, it’s nice if someone else opens the door—but if they don’t, it’s your responsibility to bring up the subject. Take the emotional risks. Face your deepest fears. Don’t let the emotions of fear paralyze you! If you don’t take these risks, you’re robbing yourself—and your family and friends!
As an introvert, I was a “stuffer” of my feelings. Looking back, I see now that the women in my life did not appear to me to feel emotionally safe enough to express their feelings, so, as a young wife, I didn’t either. It wasn’t a choice; I didn’t know how to do otherwise. But what I did learn over the years was how introverts and extroverts can repair their damaged or broken relationships.
Introverts can live a quiet life, not giving expression to their feelings. However, there is no way two people can live together and not have issues they need to work through. But introverts shy away from that. Some stuff their feelings until there is no room left for another feeling. In many cases one of two things happens. Some become like a pressure cooker ready to blow—a real explosion. Others, however, emotionally withdraw from the other, leaving both empty. The thought of “crossing the line” with their spouse can tempt hurting partners to draw their own line and cut themselves off from the other person first to protect themselves emotionally. The fear of rejection by someone we love is one of the most powerful, yet most common, fears we all have. Withdrawal gives an illusion of control in relationships. Neither of these is a viable option.
There is a third way—be open and honest and talk through difficulties. Let me share with you how this might work.
If you are a wise extrovert, you will take the initiative—and the risk—of asking the other person to share a painful memory. You should not be surprised if at first the other person starts out by saying, “Everything’s fine.” But rather than stopping there, you should probe a little bit and give permission to bring up the past. You might say: “If you were to answer, what might be the first thing that comes to your mind…even if it’s from years ago?”
As introverts are not usually very verbal, especially in these situations, a good strategy is to invite them to write down their memory and their feelings about the memory on paper. Promise to think and pray about it before responding. However, it is normally best that your response is delivered in person as that can start meaningful dialog. Otherwise, while you may avoid much of the negative reactive emotion and body language, you will also fall short of being open, honest, and transparent with each other about hurtful actions or attitudes.
Why would introverts hesitate before being honest with an extrovert? For one thing, introverts are testing your reactions. In essence they are saying: “Do you really mean this?” “How safe is it going to be to open up to you?” “Are you going to genuinely listen to me? Or am I just setting myself up to be hurt or disrespected again?” Introverts open up slowly.
Another reason for hesitation is that most people usually move from the least painful to the most painful when working through memories. This will take time. Since they tend to work back to the most painful memories, it’s important not to stop too soon. It is also important to work on one memory at a time. Both parties need time to wait for God’s leadership and to follow His instructions. In obeying, they find out that each obedience has a positive result that gives courage to try again. However, be aware that memories never really get “easy to tackle.” The same depth of emotion is there each time. The same feeling of risk is there. Intellectually you remember that good resulted from risks taken in obedience to God. So ask for courage and pray, “Lord, please help us again!”
Why should we deliberately bring up the past? The different parties see this differently. Introverts need to understand that when extroverts are stressed or bothered, they say what they’re thinking, and then it’s over. They likely will never think of it again. But the bricks are left in the relationship, although extroverts may have no clue they are there. The person who knows the brick is there needs to bring up the subject. Even the smallest brick! Start with what’s current and work your way back. You don’t have to worry about “picking out” what needs to be worked on. A hurt or an issue will naturally float to the surface of your mind when it’s time to be healed. God, the Holy Spirit, will lead you step by step as you ask for grace.
Extroverts need to understand that introverts will get more and more depressed if they stuff feelings and avoid truth in their relationship. The more disconnected they feel, the less motivation there is to make the effort to understand. This often leads to a greater risk of separation and divorce. It is better to do the hard work of discussing the details of hurts.
But why do all this painful work? Because when the details are taken care of, the big picture tends to take care of itself. Every memory you work through sends you up the emotional spiral one more step. It releases the internal pressure just a little more. The day will come when you know in your heart there is nothing left between the two of you. That is a wonderful feeling!
It took a serious level of pain to motivate me to tackle my relationship habits. This is a prayer I wrote down and have read over many times. “Lord, if this is the only way to change me, please let the pain become greater than my fears. Help me to care! I want you to make my stony heart flesh!” (Referring to Ezekiel 36:26)
I’m saying all this because I can testify that it worked for me. But each day I have to make the right decisions. I realize there will always be that temptation—it is my nature to hide feelings. If I give in to what comes naturally to me and withdraw, then I start down the spiral in my relationships again. If, by asking for God’s grace and by trusting and obeying, I decide to be open and honest, I reverse that and start back up the spiral.
Now I’m not saying that my relationship with my spouse is always “peace like a river.” Sometimes it feels like we are entering the wild “white water rapids.” Emotionally we might have feared we were going to go under. We came up, caught our breath, and then may have been hit again with some of those stuffed feelings from years ago. But as we kept on plowing through the rapids, we always came back out into the calm. And with the calm came the rewards—closer connectedness, emotional intimacy, a deeper trust in one another, and the sure knowledge that “this issue” was forever behind us. We’d talked it out until there was nothing left to discuss or feel. We knew when there was nothing between us anymore.
Be aware that this is not necessarily a one-time event. Depending on your past, it could be a much longer process. Good counseling and intentional reading and learning can cut down that time quite a bit. But it does take time to process emotion. It takes time to take care of the details.
Neither can you do this on your own. You need God’s help and leadership. You need your Christian friends’ involvement. You need good instruction from counselors. If you are an adult child of alcohol/drug-using parents or an adult survivor of abuse, you almost always need professional Christian counseling by someone who specializes in that area. But it starts with you. Good things are waiting for you!
It’s true I’ve been talking primarily of marriage relationships, but I believe these principles are also true for parent/older child relationships, adult siblings, friendships, church relationships, office relationships, etc.
I also know that most of us are not 100% “verbal extroverts” or 100% “quiet introverts” the way it seems my husband and I are. All of us are unique, our relationships are different, but we can still learn from each other and apply truth to our situation.
For younger ones coming behind me, start practicing honesty and openness in your relationships now. Intentionally and consistently learn what is true about relationships. Keep the little foxes out of your vineyard! The more both of you practice this, the easier it is to recognize the bricks for what they are, and to do what it takes to remove them.
(1) The terms “verbal extrovert” and “quiet introvert” are the author’s own words to describe her husband and herself.
Cathy Parker (BRE ’78) is a speaker, writer, and pastor’s wife in Westfield, IN. She blogs at www.ajournalofthejourney.wordpress.com. This article was adapted with permission from a series of emails she sent out in 2010.