How to Manage Difficult Relationships {Printable}

Illness and grief can make relationships difficult. Part 4 of the Fruitful Series explores passive, aggressive and assertive responses. It ends with an encouraging poem about God’s deep compassion for us despite our relational failures.

An unhelpful pep-talk

When you’re already feeling painfully low and grief-stricken, people’s “helpful” comments can feel like a slap in the face, can’t they? Even well-meaning advice can hurt.

I remember a long conversation with a friend called Rob*, in the early days of my illness. This dearly loved family friend has known me since I was a baby and is like an uncle to me. Understandably, he was very upset to learn about my diagnosis.

One day, as we watched my preschooler and toddler play, Rob made it his personal mission to coach me out of my illness. His words stung.

“But God doesn’t want you to be sick! You’ve got two small children to care for!… You need to practice positive thinking… Imagine if you were in Iraq and an army was coming to attack you. Would you lay down and let them defeat you, or would you get up and fight?… You’ve got to fight this illness!”

I was too gobsmacked to know how to respond, so I just let him talk and talk along these lines for quite some time.

Afterwards, I was bewildered. It felt like I was to blame for my illness: if only I could think differently, it would be gone — and then I’d be able to be a proper mother to my kids again… Ouch!

How do you naturally respond to tension in relationships?

Perhaps you’ve had similar encounters with friends, family members, or people at church.

You probably already know how you should respond; it’s just really hard to actually do it! (Or am I the only one who finds it hard to reflect God’s love when someone has offended me?)

We’re about to look at three ways that we naturally respond when someone offends us.

1. Are you passive, aggressive or assertive in difficult relationships?

Are you a retreater or retaliator — or both?

It’s completely natural to either emotionally retreat or to retaliate when you feel offended. Sometimes these responses are called passive and aggressive. Try to work out how you usually respond:

  • Retreat: A passive response would be to avoid a person who’s upset you. Or, if you can’t avoid the person, you shut yourself off from them emotionally. You’re not a fan of confrontation, so you just try to pretend the conversation never happened.
  • Retaliate: An aggressive response? Well, that one’s pretty obvious! You bite back. You don’t mind giving them a piece of your mind!
  • Both: A passive-aggressive response is a back-door way of fighting back. You might not openly confront a person about their hurtful words, but you’ll find other ways of making their life miserable! You might become nit-picky or snarky, or give them the silent treatment.

Would you believe, it was actually while reading through my son’s preschool social skills program (called PALS) that I was reminded about these things?! We parents were asked to coach our children in becoming assertive, rather than passive or aggressive, when dealing with friendship issues. Oops! I thought. I’d better learn how to do this myself first! 

If you, too, struggle to speak up in a way that’s calm, constructive, confident and kind, I’ve included some resources at the end of Part 1 to help you.

2. Are you easily offended in difficult relationships?

Another natural reaction to rude, insensitive comments is to get offended. We replay the hurtful words, over and over, in our minds. Then resentment slowly trickles into our hearts.

I’m a French speaker, and when I see the word resentment its French cognate comes to mind. Sentiment in French means “feeling”. Ressentiment, from which we get our word resentment, literally means “re-feeling”!

Doesn’t that just sum up what we do when we get offended? Instead of letting something slide, we feel it again and again.

I once heard Joyce Meyer speaking on 1 Corinthians 13:4-7. She made a really interesting observation on verse 5, which says love is not “easily angered” (or “irritable”, as some translations put it) and “keeps no record of being wronged”. She paraphrased the verse, saying, in her emphatic way, “Love is NOT. EASILY. OFFENDED!”

This struck a chord with me because I am a very sensitive person. I feel things deeply. It doesn’t take much to move me to tears. Butterfly Kisses gets the waterworks flowing every time, without fail, and I don’t even like the song! Paralympics? I’m a mess! I’ve even been known to blubber during certain TV commercials. 🙄

This sensitive streak has its benefits. It makes me empathetic and intuitive. It makes me creative and thoughtful. It helps me to connect well with kids (I used to work as a teacher, and now I have two kids of my own, so this last one has been central to my adult life!). On the flip-side, this sensitive streak also leads me to be easily offended. Even by small things.

If you, too, are a highly sensitive person, I encourage you to enjoy the benefits of this God-given gift in your life. Don’t feel ashamed of your sensitivity! It helps you to serve God and love others in unique ways. Can you paint, or compose music, or write, or sing? Do them with all your heart! Use them to enrich others’ lives! Are you good at listening? Do you care deeply when people are hurting? These gifts of mercy are a true blessing to others!

I also encourage you to learn, through prayer and lots of practice, how to manage this trait. Because, on the flip-side, both you and I know that our sensitivity can lead us to be easily offended. (Don’t you just wish you could switch off the “sensitive” button sometimes?!)

Think about it this way: How can we live a life of generous, Christ-like love if people are walking on eggshells around us, afraid of upsetting us by accidentally saying the “wrong” thing? Food for thought…

3. What attitudes fill your heart in difficult relationships?

All sorts of feelings can flood our hearts after a tense encounter. Some of these flow away; others linger and set up residence there. It’s these “permanent resident” feelings that I’m focusing on below.

In particular, I’m homing in on self-pity because it can so quickly set up camp in our hearts when we’re grieving, chronically ill, and/or depressed.

I don’t know about you, but I really struggle with self-pity. Sometimes, in my isolation, I get overwhelmed by sadness. When people who are supposed to love me don’t care for me the way (I believe) they should, I feel bitterly disappointed and confused. It can be quite devastating, can’t it, when we feel rejected or mistreated or judged or neglected?

Well, I was challenged a few years ago, while reading a Christian parenting book, about my attitude of self-pity. The author pointed out something I’d never realised before: Self-pity is selfish… (Cringe!!!)

I recoiled when I read this. Me? Selfish?! But I’m the one who’s been wronged! It’s only natural that I should feel upset!

As I continued to read, the Holy Spirit opened my eyes to an unsettling reality: I was so wrapped up in my hurts, in how others had wronged me, in how I had been mistreated… that, basically, I was full of my “self”!!! I was self-absorbed, to the point that I had no room in my mind to think about others; I had very little room in my heart for generosity of spirit, or mercy.

If you struggle with self-pity as much as I do, this post might help: Groaning: How to Take your Grief to Jesus.

I don’t think the antidote to self-pity is to stomp your feelings into submission or to ignore your emotional pain altogether. Instead, I encourage you to channel your self-pity towards God. He cares! He wants to hear about your hurts more than anyone else does! And the best news is: He can take it — he never grows weary. (1 Peter 5:7, Isa 40:28)

Two glasses of water: Which one is in your hands?

To finish off, let me tell you about a wonderful role-play I saw years ago at church. The preacher was on stage with two glasses of water. One glass was full to the brim; the other glass was almost empty.

He selected a volunteer from the congregation, to whom he whispered some instructions once she arrived on stage. The lady then promptly walked away, holding the almost-empty glass of water.

As the pastor continued to preach, he held on to the glass that was full to the brim. The lady walked towards him and didn’t stop; before too long she had bumped straight into him! Of course, the water in the preacher’s glass spilt all over the place, whereas the water in the lady’s glass got swished around a bit but remained inside the glass.

The same incident caused two different reactions. The person whose heart was filled with things like bitterness, resentment, envy and self-pity was triggered by this small bump. The contents of this person’s heart splashed about at even the slightest contact with another person.

In contrast, the person whose heart was emptied of bitterness, resentment, envy and self-pity was able to withstand the shock of the bump. Sure, the water got stirred up a bit, but it didn’t spill all over the other person. She was able to contain herself, so to speak.

If you can relate to the person whose glass is full to the brim, try not to freak out! I think most of us, if we’re honest with ourselves, will relate to that full-to-the-brim glass, particularly when we’ve been pushed beyond our limits by grief and/or chronic illness. Feelings like bitterness, resentment, envy and self-pity can so naturally become “permanent residents” in our hearts, can’t they?

Good news: the gospel of grace

What reassuring news the gospel of grace is, when we see the sorry state of our hearts!

How wonderful that God calls us — yes, us, who are so imperfect and inconsistent — his dearly loved children!

How astounding that when God looks at you and me, he sees Jesus’ perfection and obedience. (2 Cor 5:21, Jude 24)

How reassuring that we can come to his throne of grace boldly and confidently in our time of need! (Hebrews 4:16) Wow…

The poem below is based on some of my all-time favourite Bible verses — ones that have kept me going through seasons of grief and isolation: Hebrews 4:14-16, Isaiah 53:3-6, Psalm 62:8, John 15:5, Eph 5:1-2 and Rom 12:2.

May God fill you with comfort as you meditate on the beauty of who Jesus is and what he has done for you…

Poem: My Glass Slowly Drains

Heart full to the brim,
I come to his throne
and pour it all out to him:
The sense of injustice.
Self-pity and fears.
Anger, resentment.
Grief and pain.
I come in tears
again and again
to the One who always hears.

And God takes it all.
My glass slowly drains.
Empty, depleted,
there I remain
at God’s great throne
of grace.

And God gives me his all.
In response to my sorrows,
he points me to Jesus,
sitting at his right hand and
exalted to the highest place:
Once lowly, once meek
and familiar with grief,
but now risen
from the grave.
In Jesus I get
what my heart craves:
Immanuel — God with us,
my comforter, my peace.
In his presence
my joy is complete.

Like branches
suck up life from the vine,
I soak up
the Father’s great love.
Then slowly,
very slowly,
God’s own heart
starts to transform mine.

©️ Kristy Johnston @FruitfulToday, 2017

How can I help you grow?

1. Printable resource: Passive, Aggressive and Assertive

This communication worksheet is a great tool if you find it hard to be assertive — whether you’re a retreater, a retaliator, or both.

  • If you have a counsellor, how about you discuss the worksheet together?
  • If you don’t have a counsellor, I highly recommend that you find one to discuss these ideas with. My blog posts and resources are here to support you, but they can’t replace face-to-face help that’s tailored to your specific situation.
  • Search for a Christian counsellor in your area on this site (USA and Canada) or here (Australia). If you’re in another country, try a Google search, e.g. Christian counsellors South Africa. (NB If you already see a counsellor whom you’re happy with, don’t feel you need to leave them in search of a Christian one!)

2. Video message

You might be wondering, But what about people who keep hurting me? How does God want me to respond to them?

If you really struggle to forgive people who have wronged you, this super practical and engaging talk on Matthew 18 might be helpful. It makes a really helpful distinction between:

  • People who have hurt you unwittingly. He outlines some clear steps to follow, from our Lord Jesus’ teachings, in order to resolve conflict and, ultimately, seek reconciliation.
  • People who have harmed you repeatedly and callously. He stresses the importance of protecting yourself from harm.

As someone who’s witnessed abusive behaviour firsthand, I found this talk super helpful. It reminded me that forgiveness and trust are not the same thing. Similarly, forgiveness does not always go hand-in-hand with reconciliation. Anyway, I don’t want to spoil it for you. Just watch it! Honestly, I can’t recommend it highly enough!

Want to continue?

Go to Fruitful Series #5: How to Deal With Judgy Advice


* Rob is not my friend’s real name. In order to protect his privacy I have changed his name.


  1. Kathy says:

    This is wonderful! Haven’t checked out all the links yet, or part 2, but I plan to. I especially love the poem…bless you for posting this!

  2. Julie says:

    Thank you for this post, Kristy! We definitely need the reminder that we can forgive because of the Gospel of grace. It isn’t any easy thing to do, but we can do all things in Christ! Thank you for sharing such practical advice, too!

  3. What wonderful words of grace and truth! I definitely identified with the retreater role as well as the sensitive person. Almost daily, my prayer is to become less offended after I had the conviction of reading through 1 Corinthians 13 myself years ago and feeling like out of all the areas I was lacking in the love definition, that was the primary area. Thank you again for this thoughtful post! Pinned. 🙂
    Sarah-inkblotsofhope recently posted…An Honest Review of In Bloom by Kayla AimeeMy Profile

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