“Navigating Difficulties in Relationships,” Liahona, Jan. 2023.
Navigating challenges in our family relationships can test us to our emotional limits. As a therapist, I saw many heart-wrenching situations. But I also witnessed blessings in the lives of those who faced their family trials by seeking the Lord’s help to improve their communication, increase their love and understanding, and work together on making important changes. With the Lord’s help, they found strength to grow through their problems.
Tom and Joan (names have been changed) had both lost their spouses. Tom’s wife had passed away from cancer, and Joan’s husband, because of addiction, had left for other relationships. Tom and Joan met at a singles conference and were looking forward to marriage.
Each of them had children, age 15 and under. Their families had been on several outings together, and both Tom and Joan could see potential problems in blending the families. They came to counseling for some ideas on how to communicate in healthy ways to navigate this new chapter of their lives.
I suggested they review the message on family councils by President M. Russell Ballard, Acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. “Children desperately need parents willing to listen to them,” he taught, “and the family council can provide a time during which family members can learn to understand and love one another.”1
For their family councils, they decided on the following agenda:
Define the problem.
Choose a plan.
Put it into action.
Evaluate the success of the plan the next week and renegotiate the plan if necessary.
In addition to counseling together as a family, Tom and Joan learned that when relationship stress is high, there can be a need to learn how to improve one-on-one communication as well.
Tom and Joan learned several techniques that helped them improve their communication and their relationships with their children.
The parents stood together in finding solutions to problems with the children.
If a child had difficulty completing their daily tasks, one of the parents would spend time with them, discussing the day while they worked to complete the tasks.
They spent time each week deepening their relationship with every child.
They established ahead of time that they would take time-outs when the “emotional” brain (yelling) took over from the “rational,” solution-focused brain (discussion).
Whenever there was a power struggle between parent and child, the parent, when impressed to do so, withdrew and came back later to brainstorm a new solution.
As the family did their best to approach challenging relationship issues in faithful, healthy ways—communicating about their challenges and working through them together—Tom and Joan recognized important growth in their children as well as themselves.
As children become adults, they don’t always make the choices we wish they would. How do we handle such situations? How can we maintain or even strengthen our relationships so that we can continue to be a supportive, righteous influence in their lives?
Terry and Bruce came into my office shortly after Terry and their son, Seth, had a fight on the phone. Seth had been away at school for three years. He’d had a serious illness and had not yet been released from the doctor’s care. Because of his illness, he hadn’t served a mission. Terry and Bruce didn’t know where his testimony was or even if he attended church. They were worried that Jolyn, Seth’s new girlfriend, was not the kind of influence they wished for in Seth’s life. Both parents were distraught about the path he was following.
As we talked about what they could do, we discussed the parable of the lost sheep. The shepherd probably listened for the bleating of the lamb before he found it, loved it, and brought it back to the fold (see Luke 15:6). Terry and Bruce recognized that they couldn’t change Seth, but they decided to try listening to him, loving him, and inviting him home. They couldn’t choose his wife or his life path for him, but they could remind him of their family’s love for him and for the gospel.
Terry called Seth and apologized for the argument. She just listened as he told her he was embarrassed because he hadn’t served a mission. He wondered how he could date a girl from church. They invited Seth and Jolyn home during a school break.
Seth and Jolyn came. Seth’s sisters enveloped the couple. Both parents loved having Seth back home and told him so. Terry and Bruce connected more often with Seth. Terry texted several times a week. The family had a video conference each Sunday. Seth’s dad spent time golfing and fishing with him. It happened slowly, but Seth reassimilated into the family. Eventually, Seth decided Jolyn’s chosen path wasn’t right for him. He later married a wonderful woman whom he baptized.
Terry and Bruce found their lost lamb by listening, loving, and inviting him back into the fold.
Marie and her husband, David, had been married many years and were respected members of their community. But then one day Marie learned, unbeknownst to David, that he had become involved in a relationship with another woman.
Marie came into my office, feeling a mix of anger, grief, and sadness. As she sobbed through her story, she knew she needed to tell David how she felt but not in an angry way, so that the Spirit would be with them.
After prayerful preparation, she told David she loved him but that she was devastated to learn of his relationship with another woman. They would need to meet with the bishop and consider the fate of their marriage. David didn’t want to lose his wife or his family. With help from the bishop, he began the process of repentance.
Marie knew there were things each of them would need to do to find healing individually and as a couple. Marie asked David to stay at his parents for a time while she sorted her feelings out. She spent time in the temple, asking the Lord for help. She remained in therapy, strengthening her communication skills and learning to set appropriate boundaries.
Together, Marie and David:
Read scriptures each night.
Shared the happenings of each day.
Had a date night once a week.
They communicated more openly. Marie said what she thought, and David listened. They began to talk with each other as they had when they were first married.
Marie reported that it wasn’t just David who changed; she changed also. She felt stronger and more confident in herself. David remained repentant and came home.
Including the Lord in their daily lives brought greater trust and love to their relationship. Both felt that the effort to overcome this challenge with the Lord’s help had strengthened them.
As we negotiate difficult family relationships, may we all remember to sit in council with the Lord. Sometimes He will tell us what to do. Sometimes we can choose. “It is not meet that I should command in all things” (Doctrine and Covenants 58:26). But there are other times when we must turn ourselves over to the Lord. If we keep an eternal perspective, the riches of eternity will be ours, “and all things shall work together for [our] good” (Doctrine and Covenants 90:24).