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January 7, 2014 |

Relational Repair for “The Difficult”

BY Jen Hatmaker

I know I’ve let on that I’m perfect, like how I’m a meticulous gardener and fantastic house-seller and poised guest on TV shows. It appears to the ordinary reader that I am one smooth operator. I realize that seems clear to you. But may I let you in on a little something?

I am hard core struggling in the parenting department right now.

Particularly with one child.

This one child o’ mine, who is precious and beloved and a darling little thing, well, she is freaking wearing me out right now. She hasn’t a negative bone in her body, and I don’t believe she has ever said a disrespectful word to me. It’s just…she is relentless and obsessive and inquisitive beyond comprehension and never, ever, ever stops asking questions and never, ever, ever lets anything just be and this is every second of every day on all the days and sometimes I want to rip the ears off my head with my bare hands.

Because my readers failed to diagnose me as an introvert all these years (I’m somehow making this your fault), I realize that my need for quiet, non-talky space is exactly the parenting match for an extroverted, sensory-seeking, emotionally needy 2nd grader, except the opposite of that, like this conversation the other night:

Brandon: Do you just want to be by yourself?

Me: Yes. Or you can come in, but I don’t want to talk or think thoughts. I want no words, no questions. I am suffering from Needy Child Fatigue. I am on the verge of homicide. You’ve been warned.

Brandon: Noted.


Consequently, because of the NCF, I’ve been a jerky, irritated, short-tempered, impatient Icky Mom to this child for a few weeks. I’ve been my worst self. Where loving attention was called for, I gave short answers. When a simple answer was required, I sighed. When the last dregs of daily parenting just needed a short book and a few (more) minutes of conversation, I said we didn’t have to read on Christmas break and hollered in a six-second prayer from the other room.

It’s like I can’t dig deep enough for the requirements of this relationship lately. Whether the well is just dry or my selfishness is simply unbridled or this child really would shatter the patience of Job, it doesn’t matter. Because she is unhappy and I am unhappy and apparently I am the grown up and something has to give.

I wonder about you today, dear reader. Do you have a relationship that is bringing out your worst self? Does the patience and gentleness you manage for others evaporate at the sound of a certain person’s voice? Do you catch yourself responding to someone in a way that would make your Mama snatch you baldheaded? Maybe it’s a spouse, or a certain child, coworker, boss, neighbor, family member…you know what? This list could go on forever, because PEOPLE ARE DIFFICULT. I mean, we’re not. Other people, I’m saying. These difficult people are making us act bad against our will.

So I’m going to share with you my attack plan on getting this relationship back on the rails, and maybe one of two of these ideas might work for you. And if not, ripping our ears off with our bare hands is still an option. (For the record, I am not talking about an abusive relationship. That is an entirely different conversation. The following does not apply to people who are abusive or destructive or violent…just difficult.)

1.) Every morning, absolutely every morning, before my feet hit the floor, I will pray for two things in regard to this child: love and selflessness. Dear God, give me a heart overflowing with love and banish my selfishness with your awesome magic powers. One of the greatest tricks to prayer is that it miraculously brings us in line with God’s feelings. The longer we pray for an enemy, the less of an enemy he becomes. The longer we ask for courage, the less terrifying a situation seems. The longer we ask for love and selflessness toward someone, the sooner we see that person as God does: beloved and worth all this work. He changes us in a sneaky way. We often don’t end up with what we wanted, but we somehow end up with a different heart.

What do you need to ask for every single morning for your person? Patience? Forgiveness? Empathy? Dig deep and figure out what you have the least of and need the most, then storm the gates of heaven for it every morning. Help me today, Lord. We’ll worry about tomorrow tomorrow.

2.) I will settle something: This cannot be about making her change; this is entirely on me. If I’m waiting for my awesome prayer vigil to slow down the hourly interrogation tsunami, I’ve missed the point. This isn’t about behavior modification, because the second she regresses or holds me hostage in her bizarro time-clock-calendar-countdown-schedule lair, I’ll despair. The only person I can change here is me. I cannot pin my emotional burden on her behavior; that is unfair.

Are you tormented waiting for your person to change? That is a fool’s errand. Imagine your person is never going to change. Not one bit. That thing you hate? It’s forever. Those habits and attitudes you can’t stand? Make your peace. NOW, you can deal with you. Take someone else’s reform entirely off the table. Do you want to live angry or frustrated or naggy for the rest of your life? Because the fact is, we cannot change anyone else. We are only in control of our reactions, our emotions, and our perspectives. The ball is in our court, and the only one keeping us in Emotional Prison is ourselves.

3.) Meet her neediest need intentionally once a day. For my girl, it is undivided attention and time. The opposite of me, she would prefer constant conversation, engagement, and interpersonal activity from morning till night. There would never be a break, a need for space, the urge to be alone. NEVER. I cannot meet this insatiable need, because OHMUHGAH, but it is shocking what 30 minutes of undivided attention accomplishes. It fills her tank to the absolute brim. I can do this. I can play Candyland or gymnastics or whatever sort of mind-numbing super fun activity she loves in addition to the regular attention I give all the live long day.

And you? What fills your person’s tank? Attention? Specific praise? Sex? Some habit? We can do these things once a day, and we may be shocked when they start coming easier and more frequent. So what if these affections are forced at first? Who wants to play freaking Candyland? This is part of that pesky “putting others first,” and there is no other way to do it but to do it.

4.) In the last two weeks, I’ve told my closest friends how badly I’m struggling. (I just pulled up our text thread, but I can’t post it. It is too raw and horrid, but just trust me, I was HONEST. And also, if private texts ever become public, I will need to move to Istanbul.) Friends help everything. The only thing worse than struggling is struggling in secrecy. Every emotion and failure becomes worse when hidden.

Why do we think we’re the only one who has struggled in marriage? In parenting? The only one who doesn’t like a kid right now? Who is acting horribly toward someone and can’t pull out? Please. Asking friends to advise and pray is so healing; we are not alone anymore. Do you need to invite someone in to your relational struggle? I have never one time regretted confessing to my friends about anything. On the contrary, they make me stronger, healthier, kinder, better. Every time.


When it comes down to it, I’d rather work hard on a difficult relationship than flounder in frustration over it, waiting for it to miraculously improve. Inertia is no friend of healthy relationships. We must press in, refusing to accept “toleration” as our best option.

The careful attention we give can absolutely change a challenging dynamic between two people, inserting patience and grace and love where there was once apathy and anger and irritation. But even if the relationship remains unchanged, we are still better when we aren’t behaving like our worst selves. That release alone is worth the work, mitigating the shame of Being Icky to Someone.

Hopefully you’ll find me in a few weeks patiently answering questions and smiling easily and not clenching my teeth with my wee one. And maybe if I stay the course, God can even work a miracle, like transforming me into a person who wants to mete out all the weeks, hours, and minutes of my next six months on my daughter’s Days Until app while patiently explaining Daylight Savings Time (again) and discussing the difference between real people, cartoon people, and TV people (again) and thinking to myself: THIS IS THE LIFE.

It could happen. You don’t know.

Do you have a difficult person? Aren’t you tired of just “enduring” it all? What are some of your tools for getting a relationship back on the rails?