Welcome to part two of our series, Flourish: Cultivating Beautiful Growth in Your Life! In this post, we’ll look at growing and strengthening relationships. We all need ideas for improving our relationships, and we can learn much from gardening!
Relationships, Like Gardens, Are Hard Work!
When we talk about relationships, be they friendship, marriage, parent-child, church family, or next-door neighbors, we all want healthy, solid, and flourishing ones. Yet, many of us fall short of what we so deeply long for.
To understand better if the things I struggle with across the spectrum of relationships are similar to what others are experiencing, I decided to ask others what their biggest relationship struggles are. The responses that I received were both thought-provoking and eye-opening. The more I dug into this topic, the more I realized the subject of relationships is far broader and would take much more in-depth research and writing than I can do justice to in just one post.
I’m excited to study and write more about relationships in the future. For now, we will look at a few basic but valuable principles that can help strengthen each of our relationships. First, let’s hear how several people of various ages and life circumstances described their relationship struggles.
What is Your Greatest Relationship Struggle?
I sent this poll to my newsletter readers, friends, and family to better understand common relationship struggles. Take a minute to read through them and think about which description best fits you.
A. I’ve got many okay relationships, but I struggle to find the time I need to devote to deepening them. I must choose which relationship(s) to focus on, and I feel like I’m always giving someone – or everyone – the short end of the stick. (Should I spend time with my husband? Kids? Meet a friend for coffee? Call my mom?)
B. I’m feeling lonely. I’ve got people in my life that I have shallow relationships with, but I struggle to find friends that I really “get” and that “get” me (what Anne Shirley would call “a kindred spirit.”).
C. I’ve got plenty of relationships, and I feel like we understand each other well. Still, I often feel like we are dragging one another down instead of building each other up (for instance, we spend a lot of time gossiping/bickering/complaining and very little time sharing constructive things and encouraging or uplifting each other).
D. I’ve been so hurt by relationships in the past that I tend to keep myself closed, even though I have people in my life who would most likely make great friends. I’m scared to be vulnerable and risk being hurt again.
E. A combination of any or all the above.
F. Other (please specify if possible).
The answers I got back were insightful, and with just one or two exceptions, what people told me confirmed my suspicions: most of us are at least a little lonely, and most of us feel our relationships are not all they could or should be. I asked people to respond with just the letter (or letters) they best identified with, or if they had the time, to elaborate a bit more.
Here are some of the responses:
“A combination of A and B.”
“Probably B and D. My husband and I…have moved many times. We have made friends… but I can say that I don’t have a close friend. There are times when I could use a close friend. I enjoy spending time with my husband, and he is supportive.”
“B and D are areas I battle in relationships.”
“E. Life is complicated with long-distance relationships and life changes.”
“My answer is B. I would say A, but the difference is that I have the time, but others don’t take the time with me. I have okay relationships with many people but nothing deeper”.
“D, but also B in many ways.”
“I suppose I would choose A as I am older and retired. I have much more time than the younger women. I don’t have the deadlines and pressures… I can stop what I’m doing and rest, which is a luxury. (I remember those busy years). I must remind myself of the importance of spending quality time with my spouse, which must be my priority. … I remember the days of getting very involved with the goings on of the children and often forgetting the importance of the bond of my spouse. But now, at our stage in life, there are only the two of us at home. I am thankful for the love and friendship we still have… I am thankful to our Heavenly Father that even in those busy years, we managed to maintain a closeness and respect for one another, which isn’t my doing but His. For this, I am very thankful.”
“A! Life gets so busy, and I often look back and realize it’s been months since I have gotten together with someone or had a date with my husband.”
“My answer would be F, other. The Lord has blessed me with…very close women friends in my life. We are totally real with each other… We’ve shared our lives with each other. …I pray for these women every day, and when I can’t pray for them specifically, I know it’s time to reconnect. I text or call them daily or as close as I can, just sharing the mundane of our lives. Sometimes life gets busy, and I miss some texts, but it’s not offensive as we all have been too busy at one time or other. It’s not easy or in my own strength. It’s all God, and I thank Him for these friendships….My husband and I have a deep relationship/friendship too. Again, by God’s blessing and grace.”
“I would have to say that I have a C relationship with most people…I always seem to match the attitude and words of another person”.
“I would definitely say E.”
“My answer is B. Yes, I have lots of people in my life, but I am tired of talking about the weather, their grandchildren, their aches and pains, and their retirement. As Christians, we have so much deeper topics to address, and each day is one less to reach those who do not know the Lord.”
“I think A fits me the most. Responsibilities and never-ending to-do lists often stand in the way of making/taking/having time for relationship building. It makes life a bit lonely. And I also worry how that will impact my future relationships with my immediate family members.”
“Definitely A….We live on a 163acre farm.. 3 children. Now my children are grown with families; all settled right here around me with my dad tucked in the middle of us… so many responsibilities… I am 65… not young, energetic … I feel like I am always running to keep up…”.
“F. Other. My biggest challenge is finding the physical energy/mental abilities to build and maintain relationships. I have very deep, long-lasting stable relationships that I value highly and wish I could give more to… Not many people ask themselves how their relationships would survive if they couldn’t give everything to the relationships that they would want to, but in my case I have the privilege of seeing how faithful my friends and family are.”
So, where do you fit? I’ve been in each of these spots at various times. Right now, I land squarely in A. I often feel that I am shortchanging someone (or, more accurately, lots of someones) because there are just not enough hours in a day to spend the time I wish I could with the people that I already know and love. Add to that cultivating friendship with new people, and I am at a loss to know where to begin!
Tending our relationships is a lot like managing a garden. Let’s look at some lessons a garden can teach us about how to flourish in every relationship!
3 Lessons Gardens Teach Us About Strengthening Relationships
“Flourish: To grow with vigor and health towards one’s peak condition and highest excellence; to thrive and blossom with beauty.”
Strengthening Relationships Lesson One: Learn from the Master Gardener
When it comes to relationships, many of us are floundering. One reason may be that we are seeking complete satisfaction in human relationships – something that will never happen because only God can do that. Another reason may be that we rely on our human wisdom to figure out how to do relationships, ignoring the essential wisdom God will give us if only we ask (see Jeremiah 2:13 and James 1:5).
In part one of this Flourish series, we explored several ways to grow in our relationship with Christ. There is an important reason that we started there. Often, even as Christians, we look everywhere but to our Creator to meet the deepest longings of our hearts. We forget that the very God who made us and designed us for relationships longs for a relationship with us, His creation.
In her book, Glimpses of God, Author Debbie Pryde says this: “The Christian life… is a deeply personal relationship with the Creator of the universe and the Savior of all mankind. It is a relationship like no other, for it satisfies our human longing to be known, understood, and loved. Best of all, it is a relationship in which we are invited to intimately know, understand, and love our God. God wants us to know Him! He is immensely pleased when we take an interest in knowing and understanding Him!”
The health of our human relationships will grow or wither in proportion to the health of our relationship with God (Luke 10:27). No human connection can ever fill the void in our lives. If we expect complete satisfaction from anyone but Christ, we will find ourselves disappointed and unfairly demanding of others. On the other hand, as our love for Christ increases, a natural outgrowth of that is that our genuine, unselfish love of others will also increase.
As we grow closer to Christ, we will grow in our trust for Him to provide for all our needs, great and small, including our need for human companionship. Remember what Jesus taught about the lilies of the field, which he clothes with beauty? (Matthew 6: 28-33). Have you ever seen a breathtaking field of brightly colored wildflowers? I’ve seen some that outshine even the loveliest of cultivated gardens. Who takes care of those wildflower “gardens”? God does, and he does a fantastic job of it!
Jesus is the Master Gardener, and he said, “If I take such good care of the flowers of the field, don’t you think I will take good care of you?” Don’t be afraid to ask God to provide you with some good, true friends and then give you the wisdom to grow those relationships for His glory.
Strengthening Relationships Lesson Two: Thoughtfully Consider How Much Garden You Can Maintain
This summer, we planted way too much garden. I already had a large flower garden that wraps around the front and one side of my house and a small raised-bed kitchen garden in my backyard. That was hard enough for me to maintain.
But this year, my sister-in-law, husband, and I decided to plow up a rather big plot of land out back and turn it into a vegetable garden. We bit off more than we can chew (or, should I say, more than we can weed). It would take a tremendous amount of time to give each of these gardens the full care they need to thrive. I’ve got to prioritize what is most important and be okay that one or more of the gardens won’t be all I would like them to be this year.
In the relationship poll I sent out, many people responded with A’s – they’ve got many relationships, but it is hard to devote the time needed to each of them. Especially in our modern world, where social media allows us to connect with everyone from our great-aunt to a childhood friend and even our dental hygienist if we want to, the result is that we risk shortchanging the relationships that matter most.
I don’t have all the answers: this is an area of struggle for me, too. But here are a few ideas that have helped me as I work towards maintaining a healthier balance in my relationships:
- Prioritize what relationships should get most of your attention and consider writing them down in order. You don’t need to show anyone this list, but it can be helpful to visually process how much “garden” you have. Realize this list may look very different from your current priorities. If you are married, your spouse must be at the top of your list, even above your children. I know this is easier said than done, but it is vital. I sincerely appreciate the older ladies who answered my survey and shared what they’ve learned through the years about the importance of keeping their relationships with their husbands their top priority. As you consider your other relationships, be they your children (whether little or grown), relatives, church family, or neighbors, ask God for wisdom to know how you should order each one. Then, stay flexible about how the list may need reordering from time to time.
- Be ruthless with pruning social media. If even the thought of cutting off some or all of social media is painful to you, that’s a sure sign that it is time to do just that. Facebook, Instagram, and other social media can be a nice way to keep in touch with people who are dear to you that you don’t get to see often. But it can also be a sneaky thief stealing your time and attention from the people in your home and community. It can also give a false sense of connection as you “heart” people’s posts and shares while keeping you from actually using that phone to call someone and have a heart-to-heart chat. If you need to take an app off your phone, do that. At a minimum, set limits. Use the handy time limit feature built into your phone, unfollow people whose feeds fill your time but not your soul, and ask God to graciously open your eyes to see if you are sacrificing your real-life relationships for virtual ones.
- Be gracious towards others and towards yourself. Are you in a season of life where you’ve got time but few people to share it with? Realize that others who are “just too busy” may be in a season where it is all they can do to keep their heads above the water of daily demands. They may never have time to go out for coffee, but it would mean the world if you showed up with coffees and offered to fold piles of laundry with them while you chat together. Maybe you’re the one in that demanding season, and you feel so much guilt because you don’t have time to devote to people you genuinely care about. Ask God to show you if there is something specific that you need to shuffle around in your priorities, and if so, do it. Otherwise, let the guilt go. Just like gardens go through seasons of both vibrant growth and quiet dormancy, relationship seasons change, and all God asks of you is to be faithful one day at a time with what He has entrusted to your care.
For more on this topic, check out the book Friend-ish, by Kelly Needham
Strengthening Relationships Lesson Three: Be Willing to Put in the Hard Work of Planting, Weeding, and Nurturing
No matter what type of relationships we are discussing, each one will take the maintenance of planting, weeding, and nurturing. Let’s look briefly at a few ideas to get started. This list is not exhaustive but gives us plenty to start on as we build stronger relationships.
Beautiful Things to Plant
- Time: We already talked some about this above, but the whole reason that we need to prioritize our relationships is that there is a finite number of hours in each day, and yet relationships with people take time! Your time is the most valuable gift you could ever give another person. It’s a precious resource, so gift it with wise generosity.
- Intention: One of my friends answered the survey this way: “A! Life gets so busy, and I often look back and realize it’s been months since I have gotten together with someone or had a date with my husband.” Can you relate to that statement? I sure can! I’ve found that I must be very intentional about scheduling times to call my sisters, go on a date (even an at-home date!) with my husband, or meet a friend at a park with our kids. Maybe that seems cold and forced, but if I don’t make a plan, it won’t happen. I know I need to plan for when I will water my flowers before they are dry and drooping, and I also need a plan for keeping my relationships well cared for.
- Thoughtfulness: Never underestimate the power of a simple deed that says, “You matter to me.” For those in your own home, it can be as small as putting your phone aside and making eye contact while you talk or giving a gentle touch on their shoulder as you pass. For friends or family within driving distance, taking a meal or offering to manage some other necessary tasks when they are going through a difficult season is worth its weight in gold. For those farther away, sending a text to let them know you prayed for them today, or even better, dropping a note in the mail, is a beautiful way to brighten someone’s day. (Keep pretty note cards and forever stamps on hand, so you are always ready!). Setting alerts on your phone will help you remember important days.
Ugly Weeds to Pull:
- Unrealistic Expectations are sneaky weeds that threaten to creep into any relationship, and they will choke out the life of anywhere they are allowed to enter. There’s a proper place for expectations, but they must be reasonable, and unless you’re friends with a mind reader (which none of us are!), they need to be clearly communicated.
- Unforgiveness is a snarly weed that shoots down a stubborn root system as it swiftly spreads its bitter poison into every life it touches. Sadly, many of us would rather hang on to hurt than do the hard work of reconciliation. Deal swiftly with this weed: if something is big enough to cause you distress, it’s big enough to work through graciously with the person who offended. If it’s too small to bring up, then by God’s grace, choose to release the offense as you remember how much you have been forgiven.
For an in-depth look at the vital subject of forgiveness, I recommend the excellent book Choosing Forgiveness by Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth
- Score Keeping. None of us keep a paper list with a tally of all the lovely things we’ve done in a relationship compared with all the nice things the other person has done for us, yet many of us keep precisely that type of list running in our heads. “I’ve brought my friend dinner twice when her family’s been sick, and she’s never brought me dinner.” “I put so much thought into my husband’s gift again this year, and I don’t think he spent five minutes thinking about mine.” “I’ve called her three times in a row; she’s never the one to call me first!” Listen to how Jesus says we are supposed to treat even our enemies: “But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, hoping for nothing again; and your reward shall be great, and ye shall be the children of the Highest: for he is kind unto the unthankful and to the evil.” (Luke 6:35, italics mine). Tear up that list, throw it out, and refuse to start a new one!
Nurture Flourishing Growth
- Choose to Believe the Best Instead of Assuming the Worst. “And above all things have fervent charity [benevolent love] among yourselves: for charity shall cover the multitude of sins. Use hospitality one to another without grudging.” (1 Peter 4:8-9). Grudging here means “a secret debate or displeasure not openly admitted.” The farther we invite others into our lives and hearts, the more quickly we will see their flaws and sins, the parts of their lives that are still under the reconstructing work of sanctification. As this happens, we have two choices: we can begin to harbor a quiet but growing displeasure with that person and start assigning poor motives to even the smallest of their perceived infractions. Or we can cover the multitude of sins with fervent, charitable love and choose to believe the best about them. Doing the latter will keep the relationship in a place of healthy growth.
- Gracious Words. Proverbs 18:21 tells us that “death and life are in the power of the tongue.” What would we hear if you or I were to listen to a playback recording of our conversations throughout an average day? What fills our speech? Thanksgiving or complaining? Encouragement or belittling? God’s truth or the latest gossip? If one or more of your relationships are looking a little sickly, check to see if your words are giving life or thwarting it.
- Faithful Prayer. There’s a fascinating story that Jesus told when he was teaching his disciples about prayer. A man had an out-of-town guest arrive late at night. The guest was hungry after their journey, but the man had nothing to feed them. So at midnight, he runs to his neighborhood friend and asks him to share some bread with him so that he can provide for his guests. What is so interesting is that this man is not asking for his own need but on behalf of his hungry guest. His guest needs something that he does not have resources for, but he knows where to go to find the resources. What better way do we have to bless and strengthen our relationships than to go to our Heavenly Father on behalf of others? I love how one person responded to my poll: “When I can’t pray for my friends specifically, I know it is time to reconnect.” Pray for your husband, children, family, friends, and neighbors, and tell them that you remember them in prayer. If you have no idea what they need prayer for, ask them! This might feel super awkward initially, but it’ll be worth it for the beauty it brings to your friendships. Go ahead and give it a try!
Now It’s Time to Get to Work Strengthening Your Relationships!
In this article on growing and strengthening relationships, we’ve covered a lot of ground (yes, that pun was intentional!). If you feel overwhelmed and unsure where to start, I encourage you to ask God to show you one relationship that needs a little TLC and ask Him to show you one area to focus on first. Maybe it’s unrealistic expectations that need to be let go of, maybe it’s some thoughtful deeds that you’ll start doing, or perhaps it’s that you’ll begin knocking on heaven’s door on behalf of that friend in need.
Whatever area you begin work in, remember to stay close to the Master Gardener, learn His ways, and watch in wonder as He does His beautiful work in your life and the lives of those He has given you to love. Relationships, like gardens, are hard work, but you don’t have to do the work alone.
Thank you for reading! Please share this post with a friend you love.