Dealing with Difficult Relationships: Building Strength and Setting Boundaries

By: Dwight Bain, Nationally Certified Counselor and Life Coach

Do the closest people to you bring great joy or deep pain? The answer may reveal the level of relationship connection you have with them, as well as indicate if your future together will be blessed with contentment or broken up by conflict. If you are confused about your relationships or spend too much time wondering what to do next, then you need to learn how to respond directly to the problems instead of stuffing your doubts and fears inside. There is a verse in the Bible that teaches the importance of developing a clear plan of action to achieve a positive result, “Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed.” (Proverbs 15:22, NIV). This principle applies to all of life and is a reminder of the importance of allowing others to come into our life to help guide us to a path of greater success. It is my hope that you will sit down and prayerfully face the relationship issues that may need to change today and that these counseling ideas will open up new doors for you to experience a better way of life.

This resource guide was designed to give you insight to move forward past whatever relationship barriers may have slowed you down in the past so that you can build a stronger and more meaningful connection in your marriage, family and friendships in the future. You begin this process by identifying the relationship level and then by implementing a reasonable response when dealing with complicated or confusing relationship issues. This new method of improving results, while decreasing stress is called ‘Relationship Response’ and it works with anyone, in any situation. It was developed to allow you to quickly address issues that need attention, without attacking or ignoring problems that often can make things worse.

Face it, relationships take work. That is a fact of life no matter how long you have been with someone, or how good it may have been in the past. Everyone faces challenges to peacefully connecting with others at times because things are always changing based on life circumstances as well as the agendas and choices of others. This is true with close family members, or even with people from your past. Consider that you might have been very close to someone because of growing up in the same neighborhood, church or school district with them, yet notice that things changed dramatically once they graduated and moved out on their own. They made changes and as they did the relationship changed with it. People tend to forget that these changes are a normal part of life and that each new stage will require some degree of effort to regain the level of relationship connection that may have existed previously.

Breaking out of unhealthy patterns is not an easy process, but it is essential if you want to grow stronger and find greater peace and contentment. Growth is not an automatic process, that’s why reading, studying and implementing new strategies to change and improve will be necessary to live the level of relationship that you have dreamed of living. Strong people have the power to address difficult issues because they have taken bold action to deal with the insecurities and doubts in their own life first. This process allows you to know where you stand with people so you can know what to do and say to draw closer to them if they are healthy or how to set and enforce tough boundaries with them if they are unhealthy. Here’s how it works.


Relationship Response:

  • Identify the Character Level based on behavior, not words.
  • Identify the Connection Level based on behavior, not promises.





Relationship Character is revealed through seven levels:

  1. Dream- fulfilled goals, every day is better than the last
  2. Delight- healthy and fun relationship, make and share memories
  3. Disciplined- responsible & right choices leading to a strong relationship
  4. Duty- obligation over issues keeps the relationship moving forward
  5. Distance- maintain respect for my surrounds and monitor who is safe
  6. Dysfunctional-chaotic with no limits on out of control or impulsive choices
  7. Dangerous- Escape if possible, or call for law enforcement protection

Relationship Connection is defined on seven levels:

  1. Inner Circle - You and God
  2. Closest - Your marriage partner, parents or children
  3. Caring - Your closest level of friends or extended family
  4. Committed - Tightly connected people in your faith/work area who encourage and take the time to learn how to connect to you
  5. Companion - Comfortable relationship that has evolved over the time
  6. Casual - Acquaintance level of connection. You hardly know them
  7. Disconnected - Complete stranger with no interest in you or your life issues

Building Relationship Connection

Are built stronger by a combination of TRUST, TIME, TALK, & TONE


Trust - is the foundational element to any human relationship, without it the relationship begins to fade away.

Time - is often how children spell ‘love’ to their parents, since honoring someone with your time reveals your commitment to them.

Talk - is about asking questions and really listening. To slow things down and listen with your ears as well as with your heart and never use silence as a way to attempt to control the situation.

Tone - is about your mannerisms, tone of voice, eye contact and other non-verbal methods that allow you to quickly connect with others.

No matter how close the person may have been to you in the past, maintaining the same level of relational connection will take work. However, it is well worth the effort to stay connected to healthy and growing people so the relationship can continue to change and grow stronger. These types of relationships are rewarding and fulfilling, but it’s perhaps even more important to set and enforce boundaries with those who are unhealthy and irresponsible. That’s how you can stay safe and protected from a difficult situation being made worse by someone else’s attempts to control or manipulate the situation to fit their agenda. To break out of an unhealthy relationship pattern consider the following possibilities and life application principles.

  • Determine your response to the situations and circumstances of the day based on the relationship level, instead of relying solely on your involvement with the person as you consider how to respond wisely instead of impulsively.
  • Respond based on behavior, and not last name, legal connection, physical chemistry, religious or political belief opinions, cultural background or family ties. Any factor that could be used to manipulate the situation should be measured against known behavior to prevent lying and hold accountable to the truth so that trust can be rebuilt, even in complex situations.
  • Talk is cheap with some people, so watch their behavior, instead of just looking around and casually believing their words and promises.
    Determine the agenda of the people you are dealing with to quickly identify which relationship level they fit on, as well as what course of action to take in dealing with them from a position of strength instead of weakness.
  • Trust is developed mostly through responsible and dependable behavior. With it, all things are possible; without the relationship will drift to further and further levels of distance, until eventually the relationship will end because of the distrust and resentment.
  • Being ‘nice’ probably means that you are ‘needy’ and can tend to over connect to people who may take advantage of you. Solve this with growing stronger on the inside before trying to make changes on the outside with others.
  • Close relationships fill you up; while dysfunctional ones just suck you dry.
  • Connected relationships are about open hearts, since trust creates safety. Disconnected relationships are about protected and guarded hearts, since the past difficult experiences may still be limiting the joy that God meant for your salvation to bring.
  • You inner circle will determine your success, since you cannot rise above the level of the people closest to you. However, if a person has no one in their inner circle then they will allow just about any one access to their heart because they are so very lonely.
  • The level of relationship determines how you can send forth a measured response. For instance. If a total stranger yells an insult at you while driving, their relationship connection is so weak that you don’t need to do anything at all. It’s a non issue in the relationship response method.

If you want to move from hostile conflict to a healthier connection you need to keep learning and growing to gain new skills and insights. When you take this positive action I believe that God will open up new doors of opportunity to allow you to enjoy the best times of your life with the people you love. A better life with happier relationships is one of the driving forces behind our counseling website, www.lifeworksgroup.org so pass along this information to your friends, coworkers and family members since it may be a useful resource to others in building stronger relationships. Life is too short to miss out on really loving others as you build your personal relationship time into being the very best part of every day.

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