As kids, it never occurred to us to "work" on any of our relationships. They just happened. And if for any reason they didn't, we jumped ship. No fuss, no muss.
But somewhere along the line, each of us entered the fray of mature relationships—and things got dicey. We learned that some people were more difficult, if not impossible, to get along with. We learned that trusted friends could betray us. Authority figures we admired could snub us. A colleague's constant criticism could hurt us. And even family members with important information could leave us out of the loop. But we also learned that, unless we wanted to be hermits, we couldn't abandon every relationship that hits a snag. That's the rub with difficult people—we sink or swim together.
A pioneering band of researchers has studied the age-old mystery of what makes people happy, in a general sense. Their answer is not what you might expect. What comes up consistently at the top of the charts is not success, good looks, or any of those enviable assets. The clear winner is relationships. Close ones.
But such research raises an interesting question: If relationships make us so happy, why do so many of them make life so difficult? And more importantly, what can we do to keep our cool, stand our ground, and reach positive solutions when we find ourselves in a group with high-maintenance relationships?
Defining the Issue
About 40 years ago, William Schutz was requested by the U. S. Navy to construct an instrument that would help them assemble compatible submarine crews—groups of men who could live together, elbow to elbow, for extended periods of time with minimum conflict. Schutz determined that compatible behavior was determined primarily by "natural fit." In other words, people who get along well with each other do so without much effort. Their relationship doesn't require much work; you could say it is low-maintenance.
Hopefully, you have a few low-maintenance relationships—people with whom you naturally fit. Sure, you may hit temporary turbulence together from time to time, but it's periodic and the relationship stays on course. If you are like most people, however, you also have some relationships that aren't so easy. These are the impossible people who beef, bite, and bellyache. They give you the cold shoulder, require special attention, play the victim, dominate, or trample other people's feelings.
So, you may wonder, are we simply left to wallow in the misery they create? Hardly.
It is possible to make most high-maintenance relationships much better—in many cases, better than you could even imagine. Scripture not only says, "If it be possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone" (Romans 12:18), it also promises that when we work at turning from our self-centered ways to building up our relationships, we "flourish like a palm tree … like a cedar of Lebanon" (Psalm 92:12). The effort you exert to improve a difficult relationship is almost always rewarded. I offer the following key suggestions.
Don't Let a Difficult Person Determine Your Mood
When Thomas Jefferson included "the pursuit of happiness" among our inalienable rights, he pinpointed an idea that is important for all of us wanting to live with inward joy: people will interfere with our inalienable right to be happy if we allow them to.
I participated in a small group some time ago, and my friend who was leading it gave some materials to a very sullen group member. As he did so, he politely thanked the man with a sour disposition for being there. The man, however, did not even acknowledge it. Afterwards, I asked my friend about it. "A sullen fellow, isn't he?" I commented as we walked away. "Oh, he's that way every time we meet," shrugged my friend. "Then why do you continue being so polite to him?" I asked. My friend replied, "Why should I let him determine how I'm going to act?"