5 Ways to Nurture Your Relationships When You’re Hurting
by Elizabeth Laing Thompson
Relationships are tricky when we are hurting. Whatever pain we are suffering—loss, illness, delay—that pain is draining. It affects our faith, our mood and the people closest to us. As much as people want to support and help, they won’t always know what to do, what to say or how to help.
How can we preserve, nurture and strengthen our relationships when we are going through a difficult time?
1. Go to God first.
During a time of intense frustration in my career, I hit an impasse in my walk with God. I felt like a broken record: always begging for relief, praying the same prayer a thousand different ways. It was tough to keep praying when God seemed silent on the other end. The temptation was to abandon prayer and seek comfort entirely from people: People could give an immediate verbal response. People could sit across the table from me, sipping coffee and offering sympathetic words. People could respond instantly on social media, providing quick-fix sympathy. People’s support was not inherently bad, of course, but I soon realized: People can never take the place of God. Try as they might, people cannot provide the kind of soul-healing comfort that only God can give. Without a close connection to God, we will remain unsatisfied, unfulfilled and still lonely.
During times of heartache or hardship, I have learned to turn first to God and then to people. I’ve learned to pray through psalms of lament. The psalms remind us that God sees, God hears and God cares. They remind us that where people fail, God never does. When people grow tired, God never does. Where people have limits, God has none.
Even if God does not “fix” our problem right away, praying during hard times keeps us connected and reminds us where to seek true answers, true relief, true comfort. Prayer keeps us from putting unhealthy pressure on other people to fill the God-shaped hole in our hearts.
2. Let people love and serve you.
When we moved to North Carolina, we had just suffered significant loss: In one month, we had unexpectedly put our dream home up for sale, moved away from family and friends, said goodbye to the church we adored—all while suffering a miscarriage. When we limped into our new town—heartbroken, reeling—it was tempting to hide at home, nursing our wounds. Who would want to become friends with grieving people like us? But when we joined our new church, we had a choice to make: keep our pain private or open up and let people in. We took a deep breath and took a risk. Told new friends what we were going through. Invited them into our real world—our messy, imperfect and (for the time being) unhappy world. Instead of shrinking away from our problems, people leaned in. Our church showed us tremendous compassion: One day meals started showing up at our house, and our new friends did not let me cook for a month! We have never forgotten their kindness or the lesson we learned: Vulnerability breeds connection.
It can be uncomfortable being served. Humbling. Embarrassing. We hate feeling weak, needy and helpless. We resist feeling like a burden. When friends and family offer encouragement or acts of service—all they have to give—pride makes us push them away.
Our experience in North Carolina taught us that people show love by giving, and when we deprive people of the opportunity to give to us and serve us, we actually hurt the relationship. A disconnect is born. If we push people’s help away long enough, they may become discouraged and give up, leaving us feeling more alone than ever—isolated on an island of our own design.
If you are hurting, don’t be afraid to accept comfort and kindness from others. The experience will forge forever bonds. You won’t be needy forever; in time, you will turn and give to others in need. In fact, you can receive and give at the same time—and this leads to our next point. . .
3. Remember to keep giving.
When John the Baptist died, Jesus tried to go off by Himself to mourn and pray. He got into a boat with His closest friends, the Twelve, but when the boat docked, a hungry crowd was waiting for Him. Needing Him. Jesus set aside His own sadness for a time to teach and feed them all. Later that night, after He had dismissed the crowd, He spent the time He needed with the Father—praying, mourning, receiving God’s comfort—but first He gave. What a lesson! (You can read the story in Matthew 14:1–23.) Losing our lives—giving to others, asking about their needs, listening to their stories, giving whatever encouragement we have to share—will save us, too. As Jesus said in Luke 9:24, “If you lose your life, you’ll save it.”
Making a conscious choice to give even during times of difficulty protects and strengthens our close relationships. It keeps them from becoming one-sided. Giving prevents relationship burnout. Giving is godly. Giving grants a healing all its own. Giving reminds us that no matter how hard life gets, we always have something to share.
When we are hurting, we may not be able to give to the extent we normally would, but we can still do simple things: Ask about others’ lives. Listen to their concerns (because even as we hurt, others are going through challenges of their own). We can offer kind words, a Scripture, a prayer. Our gifts may be small, but they make a difference.
4. Share the load.
During a long and painful season of infertility, I noticed that my constant sadness was wearing on my husband, Kevin. I had been dumping all of my feelings and struggles—grief, confusion, anger, frustration, envy—on Kevin all day every day. He was generous with his concern, eager to help, desperate to “fix” the problem, but of course he himself was hurting too. Over time, his cheerful whistling around the house grew quiet; his silly jokes all but disappeared. I realized that if we were going to make it through this difficult season, I needed to find some other friends and family to share the emotional load. I began opening up about my feelings to a few new people, and what a difference this made in our marriage! Kevin no longer felt solely responsible for my emotional wellbeing; he knew that I was inviting God and other people to step in and share the load. Kevin and I were still sad, still hurting, still waiting, but Kevin’s smile made its return, and our home became a happier place. I am still thankful for the friends who helped shoulder part of our pain during that time—they helped to save my sanity, my happiness and my marriage.
If you’re in pain, who is sharing your load? Is it time to open up and trust a few new people? Time to invite a few more confidants in to your life, your struggles? It may be a little scary at first, but the risk is worthwhile.
5. Keep a sense of humor.
I love the scene in Genesis where Sarah hides in her tent, eavesdropping on her husband, Abraham, as he speaks with messengers from God (Genesis 18). When the messengers promise Abraham a son within the next year, what does ninety-year-old Sarah do? She laughs! I bet she was trying to picture her hundred-year-old husband’s arthritic fingers fumbling to swaddle an infant—what an image! But when God’s promise comes true, Sarah shares another laugh with God. She says, “God has brought me laughter,” and she names her son “Isaac,” meaning, “he laughs” (Genesis 21:6). I have always pictured God sitting in heaven laughing along with Sarah, sharing her joy.
Even when we are sad or hurting or waiting, we can choose to find humor in heartache. To savor small joys. If we can keep laughing and keep an eternal perspective, we can make it through painful times with our sanity and sense of humor intact. One day, when our wait for relief has ended, we may look back from the other side like Sarah did, and share a laugh with God.
Hope is delayed. Pain persists. Injustice reigns. We all endure seasons of suffering, loss and delay. But difficult times need not destroy our relationships. If we fight to remain close to God and to protect and nurture our closest relationships, we can come through painful times with our relationships stronger than ever. On the other side of the pain, we will celebrate with the ones we love, the ones who have willingly shared our mourning, and now gladly share our joy (Romans 12:15).
Elizabeth Laing Thompson is the author of When God Says “Wait”: Navigating Life’s Detours and Delays Without Losing Your Faith, Your Friends, or Your Mind. Elizabeth writes at LizzyLife.com about clinging to Christ through the chaos of daily life. As a minister, speaker and novelist, she loves finding humor in holiness and hope in heartache. She lives in North Carolina with her preacher husband and four spunky kids, and they were totally worth the wait. Connect with Elizabeth on Facebook and Instagram
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