How to Thaw Frozen Family Relationships
We all have them. They might poke up in our immediate family, or maybe they only lurk within extended family. Frosty, even frozen, relationships result in painful confrontations and strained conversations.
Most of the time, we don’t know how to approach the person causing the difficulty. But sometimes they bring out the worst in us and we spew words we know don’t honor God.
What should we do? What kinds of things should we say? Should we avoid the person, or treat him the way he treats us? How can we attain the mind of Christ about him and then act (and speak) in a Christ-like manner? Several things must be considered. But there are specific steps we can take that will lead to the possibility of reconciliation.
Can You Identify the Root Cause of the Problem?
The relationship may have been difficult for a very long time. Many ugly scenarios might have played out over the years. So, it could be a challenge to peel back the layers and uncover what lies at the core.
Sometimes there is no discernible cause. The person may have been hurt by a situation or comment that they’ve allowed to fester for so long they can’t even remember what it was. And sometimes you will suspect you know, but never be able to get confirmation.
This was our case when my mother-in-law began verbal assaults against me. She also suddenly cut us out of annual extended family get-togethers. We could pin-point the time it all started, but never were sure about the real cause. It seemed to be a combination of random factors during our son’s wedding weekend that she took personally.
Even though we could not identify the actual root cause, because we could get close, it did give us some insight to the situation. This didn’t excuse her actions, or remove her responsibility for them, or even lessen their painful effects. But it did help us as we worked to handle our own feelings.
Often, if we can just answer the question why, we can begin the healing process. Sometimes, though, we can’t answer the why. This leads us to rely on God all the more.
Does the Basic Issue Involve You?
When you are directly involved—when the frozen relationship is between you and another family member—you can take steps toward reconciliation that are not possible for anyone else. After determining the underlying reason, it will be easier to see whether you own any responsibility for it. Even a misunderstanding on your part needs to be acknowledged. Of course, there may have been many times when the two of you got crosswise after the initial incident, and those need to be honestly evaluated as well.
If the beginning of the problem did not have to do with you, can you identify how you became involved? Was it through being the spouse, sibling, or parent of the person(s) involved?
Many years ago, my father had an extra-marital affair. While I wasn’t the spurned wife, I was angry that he would treat my mother this way. All their issues were not really my business, but this situation had a profound effect on my life. And it ultimately destroyed my relationship with him. I’ll discuss later in this article how I came to terms with his actions and their fall-out.
This heart-searching is best done alone. Before approaching the other person, take time to pray and read the Bible. The goal is to be right with God in your heart concerning the matter. Tears will likely be part of this process, so be prepared. Afterward, you’ll find yourself more able to move forward.
I discovered some steps that helped me—and others who have come to me for advice when trying to handle their own difficult relationships. The three following questions are our guide:
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1. Are You Willing to Separate the Behavior from the Person?
It’s easy to let their behavior take over your mind. If every time you see that person, all you can think about is the list of things he’s said or done to you, then you can be sure you have a little black book in your head with his name on it. You probably add a page with every encounter.
And sometimes you open it up just to read over all the pages and rehearse the pain. But that book is not a complete biography. He is much more than this. He is likely a nice person most of the time. And he is somebody Jesus loves and for whom He died.
2. What Are the Elements of Christ’s Attitude That You Need to Adopt?
We can pray and ask the Lord to help us gain His “mind” about our situation (1 Corinthians 2:16). We not only have His Spirit living in us, we have access to His mind concerning every aspect of our lives.
What are some things the Bible tells us about the mind of Christ? He used His mind to create the world and everything in it—including your “frosty” person (John 1:3-4). He loves everyone and wants them to be with Him in heaven (John 3:16). He spends His time interceding for us (Romans 8:34). And He wants us to live in unity and harmony with each other (John 17:11, 21-23).
These types of thoughts are not natural for human beings to think on our own. We simply can’t do it without God’s help. Recognizing this, and then asking for His intervention in our own minds and hearts, will enable us to have the right attitude about our frozen relationships.
3. What is Your Responsibility before God toward This Person?
We have established that God loves the other person. But how does this affect you? You must love her too. You might think I can’t! Let’s see what the Bible says about it.
Romans 8:10-11 tells us we have the Holy Spirit—the Spirit of Christ—living in us if we are Christians. Romans 5:5 says God has given us the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with His love. To further help understand the work of the Holy Spirit inside us, take a look at Galatians 5:22-23. One of the fruits of the Holy Spirit is love. It’s even the first fruit on the list.
We have the power of the Holy Spirit to love people. It isn’t our own power. We can’t dredge it up on our own. We must rely on Jesus Christ to provide His love and then get out of His way as He acts.
This means putting a stop to any negative thoughts—we have to close our little black book. And we need to eliminate any push-back against whatever the Spirit might lead us to do or say. We are the only hands and feet Jesus has. He chooses to use people to accomplish His purposes—you and me. And He does have a good purpose in mind for everyone (Jeremiah 29:11).
What might Jesus want you to do? We can find out in 2 Corinthians 2:5-11:
If anyone has caused grief, he has not so much grieved me as he has grieved all of you to some extent—not to put it too severely. The punishment inflicted on him by the majority is sufficient. Now instead, you ought to forgive and comfort him, so that he will not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. I urge you, therefore, to reaffirm your love for him. Another reason I wrote you was to see if you would stand the test and be obedient in everything. Anyone you forgive, I also forgive. And what I have forgiven—if there was anything to forgive—I have forgiven in the sight of Christ for your sake, in order that Satan might not outwit us. For we are not unaware of his schemes.
First pay particular attention to verses seven and eight. Note the words comfort and forgive in verse seven and the phrase reaffirm your love (NLT) in verse eight. These are not optional ideas lightly tossed out by the apostle Paul to the church members at Corinth.
He is urging them to do these things for a reason. Look at verse nine. It’s a test. And the reason for it is found in verse eleven: we don’t want Satan to outsmart us—broken relationships are part of his evil scheme. When we understand the bigger picture it helps us let go of our pain.
In the case of my relationship with my father, I felt prompted to write a letter to him telling him I forgave him and wanted to be part of his life again. Because we had limited conversations, he never came to see me, and visiting him was not an option, a letter made the most sense. I also began to pray for his salvation.
With my mother-in-law, my husband and I decided the best course was to continue relating to her as if nothing had happened. The only things that changed after the incident—on our end—were that we no longer went to visit because we were not welcome, and I no longer called her because she refused to talk to me.
We included her in our prayers. We sent her Christmas cards and presents, and birthday gifts. He called her sometimes just to chat. Our relationship before the wedding incident had never been very close for a variety of reasons. We had been what I would describe as casual friends, and that is what we tried to maintain.
Sometimes the frosty relationship concerns someone with whom you have more regular contact. This might be the case in a divorce when working out custody arrangements or sitting near each other at dance recitals or little league ballgames.
Whatever the case, as the Lord leads you through the questions and steps we’ve discussed, you can trust He’ll guide you in your interactions.
What If the Person Rejects All Your Efforts?
Unfortunately, my dad never allowed himself a normal relationship with me. We managed to talk on occasion, but that was all. I never heard whether he received my letter, or if he did that he read it. He died suddenly just a few months after I sent it. I don’t know if he ever would have accepted my forgiveness or forgiven me for my attitude toward him. But I can be at peace because I did what I sensed the Lord leading me to do.
My mother-in-law refused to soften her stance against me for years. During all that time, we kept treating her the way we knew Jesus would. Finally, one Christmas she invited our whole family—including me—to come for a visit. She didn’t apologize for, or even mention, the distance of the past. We interpreted her overture as a type of olive branch, and made the trip.
She welcomed us and we enjoyed our time together. We noticed her health seemed fragile and wondered if she knew something she wasn’t saying. It turned out she did. Three months later she called from the hospital to say she had cancer and a few weeks later she passed away. I will always cherish that last holiday together.
It is not up to us to make the other person like us or treat us with kindness. It is only our responsibly to treat them the way the Bible teaches us we should. When we’ve made the effort to follow biblical instruction, we’ve prayed for God’s help, and sought His attitude and love toward him or her, we’ve done our part. And that is all we’re responsible for—besides continued prayer.
Just because you don’t see any progress right away, don’t give up hope. While it might take years, reconciliation is still possible. And even if it never comes, you can live with the knowledge that you are right with God and have attempted to be right with the other person.
Kathryn Graves, author of the book Fashioned by God, is a style expert, fashion coach, and Premier Designs jewelry consultant. She is also a pastor’s wife, Bible teacher, and holds a degree in Psychology. Kathryn helps women discover the source of real beauty in Jesus, freeing them to gain confidence in their personal styles. She is Mimi to three grandsons, and loves to play with color, both in fashion and interior design, and painting with pastels. You can learn more at KathrynGraves.com or find her on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
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Kathryn Graves, author of Woven: Discovering Your Beautiful Tapestry of Confidence, Rest, and Focus, and Fashioned by God, holds a BA in Psychology, is a pastor’s wife and Bible teacher, and spent 15 years in the fashion industry. Kathryn is Mimi to four grandsons, and loves to play with color—including interior design, clothing, and painting with pastels. Find her on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.