Mending Fences

Healthy relationships during the holidays

What first comes to mind when thinking about the Christmas holidays? For those with Christian faith, a celebration of Jesus’ birthday is foremost. But, probably the most popular idea in western culture is that Christmas is a time to be together with family and friends. While the stories, movies, advertising and general conversations about the holidays are focused on family, for many, this just isn’t a reality. Instead, many will go through the holidays experiencing the loss, sadness and frustration of broken or dysfunctional relationships.

While this may sound odd, nevertheless it is true that healthy relationships with others do not come automatically. Instead, they are a product of effort on both parts and an attempt to live by healthy principles. When relationships are difficult or challenging, people tend to make one of two major mistakes. 

The first mistake is what I would call peace at all costs. In this situation, one or both parties ignore unhealthy actions and patterns in the relationship. At its worst, it can involve tolerating irresponsibility, abuse and addiction problems. Relationships such as these can coast along for a period of time, but the unresolved problems will surface and at the most inopportune times. The stress of the holidays can often be a trigger. 

The second mistake is what I would call cut off. In an effort to avoid the anxiety and other negative feelings that the relationship dysfunction produces, contact is avoided. This is a cut off relationship. Cut off can be complete with no contact at all. Or, it can be partial with only minimal or very surface level interaction. While the problems are avoided, the pain of them is just below the surface.

There is a saying in the Bible that is pertinent here. “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” 

When followed, relationships tend to run fairly smooth, although not perfectly. Most relationships get into trouble when one or both parties relate in a “reactive” way. Simply put, relating in a reactive way occurs when the manner in which one person relates to another is a reaction to what they said or did or the feelings that were triggered by what they said or did. In reactivity, the way one is relating is not coming out of any healthy relationship principles. Reactivity in relationships furthers relationship problems. Since healthy relationships flow from relating based upon principles, let us explore some of those healthy relationship principles.

I believe that the most helpful relationship principles flow out of the concept of boundaries, made popular in the writings of Henry Cloud and John Townsend. A boundary in a relationship is a dividing line much like a fence between two pieces of property. The boundary defines what belongs to self and what belongs to the other. Examples of things that belong to self and not to another include my thoughts, feelings, choices, behaviors, attitudes, beliefs, needs and desires. These same things in another belong to that person and not to me. Hence, I am only responsible for myself and the things that belong to me, and I am not responsible for what belongs to another. Healthy relationships occur when both parties manage themselves well.

At first glance, this could appear to be a self-centered approach to relationships. In reality it is not. I am responsible to be the best person I can be. That means being kind, patient, considerate, giving, loving, forgiving and much more. This really is all that I can do. When I live in such a way, it will have a positive impact and influence on those I am in a relationship with. This gets to another healthy relationship principle: I really am powerless over others. At most I have influence. Love and consideration for others requires me to respect that they have a choice. I truly love when I give people the respect to choose to be who they believe they ought to be. 

Consistent with this view of relationships is the concept of setting limits. I have the right and responsibility to set limits on what behaviors and choices of another that I will participate in. While another has the right to choose what he believes and does, I also have the right and responsibility to choose my response. Again, this does not imply selfishness. Rather, it says, “I want to be engaged in a relationship with you and will continue to do so as long as your actions are not harmful to me.” Setting limits is always based upon humility, patience and respect. 

In humility and respect, acknowledge that others, like yourself, are works in progress. I will be patient with you as we both try to live from a place of healthy relationship principles. It is only when you are not willing to have a relationship based upon such principles that I will pull back. Humility and respect are helped by the principle of gratitude. When I am grateful for the opportunity to be in relationship with you, it will lead to greater levels of patience, respect and love.

As I mentioned earlier, not all relationships are lived from a place of healthy relationship principles. At times one or both parties have lived reactively and/or selfishly. What happens when you find yourself in the middle of an unhealthy, reactive or broken relationship? For many, the holidays are a time when such relationships are brought to the forefront.

The first question to consider is whether the relationship can be restored. Not all unhealthy or broken relationships can be restored. Restoration requires humility, repentance, personal responsibility and forgiveness. I can only move toward restoration in a relationship when I am operating out of healthy relationship principles verses reactively out of hurt and anger.

Associated with this question is the difference between forgiveness and reconciliation. Forgiveness is an individual act, it is internal and it is a choice to not hold the person’s wrong against them. A willingness to cancel the debt the other owes you. It does not imply the removal of the legitimate consequences one may be experiencing as a result of his own choices. Forgiveness is done whether the other asks for it or not. It may or may not be communicated to the other based upon that person’s level of relationship health and reactivity.

Reconciliation occurs in a relationship when both are willing to acknowledge their own wrong doing, take full responsibility to change whatever led to the wrong, and to forgive the other for his part in it. It requires an honest conversation about what has occurred, and it is one’s individual responsibility to be willing to offer reconciliation. It takes both to choose to make it happen. When one chooses not to engage in a process of reconciliation, it might mean that there will be some period of relationship disconnection. 

I understand that some of you reading this are in a relationship that is already broken to some extent. You might be wondering; “Where do I start to repair things?” As you are approaching the holidays and are thinking about your relationships, allow me to make some suggestions.

1. Begin with an inventory of your relationships. Are there any that need attention? Be willing to move toward relationship growth and health.

2. Recognize that relationship change and growth is a process. It often involves several conversations and interactions. Don’t try to fix everything at once. The first step is willingness to address these relationships.

3. Start with yourself. Do a personal inventory. Are you living out of a place of healthy principles? Are you using the boundaries principles in your relationships? 

4. Show up in your relationships from a place of healthy relationship principles. Be willing to say what you want, and what you are willing and not willing to do. Recognize that making changes in yourself will impact the other and will change the relationship dynamics. 

5. Stay the course. Sometimes healthy changes in relationship interactions can make the other uncomfortable. This can result in some pressure to “change back.” It is important to weather this pressure and stay the course of healthy relating. In worst cases, it may be necessary to set limits in a relationship until the other person is willing to live and relate in a healthy manner.

6. Make use of good resources. Read good books on relationship health. Access support in the form of healthier friends, support groups and counseling when needed.

Ultimately Christmas is a holiday that is based upon a message of reconciliation. The same God that sent His Son into the world to reconcile it to Himself is still helping us to reconcile relationships with each other. The greatest gift that you can give to those in your life is that of healthy relationships.


Dr. Thomas Barbian is the executive director for the Christian Counseling Center of First Presbyterian Church in Columbia. He received his doctorate in clinical psychology from the Cambridge Graduate School of Psychology and Counseling in Los Angeles. He also holds a master’s degree in marriage, family and child counseling and a bachelor’s degree in Biblical studies.