I want a real relationship

I hear story after story of people who don’t talk to people who used to be friends of theirs or even don’t talk to relatives, like cousins and sisters-in-law.

But one story I heard lately in one of my question-and-answer sessions was slightly different. This woman, let’s call her Cindy, had a cousin she still talked to, but it had deteriorated to exchanging recipes. Why? Because of political differences. But Cindy wants more. She wants an authentic relationship where she and her cousin can be their whole selves, but her cousin put up a wall and isn’t open to anything else. Why did the cousin do that? Perhaps because of all the attempts that Cindy had made to try to convince her cousin that she was wrong. She listed the techniques that she’d tried, even some stuff that I am recommending. Nothing worked and she was frustrated. And her cousin had shut her out — mostly.

Cindy is at her wits end. She wants a “real” relationship and doesn’t feel like exchanging recipes is it.

What can she do?  Here’s what I wish I’d said to her.

First, it sounds like you’ve focused more on trying to convince your cousin of your political beliefs than on the relationship. You’re probably taking the relationship for granted, even as it’s faltering. To mend the relationship, you need to change that. It sounds to me that this relationship needs some TLC. It needs time, and it needs love. Take a break from trying to discuss the issues of the day and accept your cousin for who she is and for what she’s offering. It’s more than many others get in a similar position, as I wrote about in an earlier newsletter. Exchange recipes with her if that’s all she’s offering right now. Reminisce about old times, things you’ve done together. Tell her you love her and appreciate her.

You also might consider an apology. It sounds like maybe one is appropriate, that maybe you’ve been pushing hard without being respectful of what’s important to your cousin. It doesn’t have to be elaborate, merely say something like, “I’m sorry if I’ve been pushing so hard about what I believe that I haven’t been paying attention to our relationship. And our relationship is important to me. I’m sorry for any damage I’ve caused. I want to make amends.”

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If things start to relax, I suggest asking questions about her kids, asking about what activities she participates in. Does she go to church? Does she participate in any community activities? Does she do any crafts? Exhibit genuine curiosity about her life. Don’t push your own views of what she’s doing, just ask real questions and try to learn about her and what’s important to her.

And listen. As the conversation starts to expand, listen for the moral foundations that drive her belief system.   

The more you understand a person, the more you’ll be able to talk to them. That will build a better base for future conversations. This is an investment of time, with no guaranteed payoff, except the value of the relationship.  And that’s part of the fabric of our lives … all of our lives.

Also affirm that it sounds like she built a good life, or affirm that she has challenging problems to deal with. If that’s the case, empathize. Ask what kind of help she needs. Bring her cookies or a spaghetti dinner. Take her and her kids to the movies when they open. Get together as families, once that’s possible.

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You’re trying to rebuild a relationship based on something other than trying to convince her of something she doesn’t agree with.

That may be enough for now. But sometime in the future, there may be an opportunity to reframe. Wait for the right moment, after the relationship starts to relax. How will you know? Pay attention to subtle cues, look for how what she’s offering is changing.  But be careful, the relationship could go backward if you come on too strong.  Remember reframing is using a moral foundation that’s relevant to the other person, so what you say shouldn’t be very challenging to her, now that the relationship is closer.

Remember the ALAR Model: Ask, Listen, Affirm, and Reframe. That’s the key to getting past the barriers, but it may take some time. But that’s all we have, is time.  

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