Unassigned: On Letting Go of Relationships

A few years ago, I let go of something.

A relationship, a friendship that had lasted 17 years.

But instead of feeling bitter about it, I’m grateful for what that relationship was in my life.

To everything, there is a season.

But why is it so hard for us to let go of relationships that once meant something to us but no longer do?

We often hold on to them when we should let them go.

All of us have been wounded in relationship. We’ve been wounded in childhood, as adolescents, and as adults. We’ve been wounded by relatives, classmates, teachers, and friends. Despite these wounds, sometimes we have trouble letting go of or releasing relationships, even if they are no longer serving us. We allow our fear of disappointing people to override our desire to release relationships that are no longer healthy.

But letting go is difficult.

Being connected is core to our very nature and necessary for our survival. Maybe that’s why the thought of disconnection, of letting go is so frightening and painful.  I love what Brene Brown has to say about the power of connection:

I longed to feel connected from the time I was a young girl, but I struggled. My parents were going through a rough patch in their marriage when I was at the highly malleable age of five. They separated briefly. It affected me. I feared rejection and being a burden or disappointment to people.

As a kid, I was content to spend time alone and loved to read, write and make up my own activities. I did have friends, but I was never one to have a “group” of friends until I was in high school. I was excluded by and emotionally wounded by several of my peers, especially throughout grade school, and those wounds further reinforced my fear of rejection.

Although I didn’t really have groups of friends, I can remember at each point in my life who my “best” friend was, and that really mattered to me; it made me feel special and wanted.

I chose to let go of one of those friendships a few years ago.

The turning point for me happened on my wedding day when a member of the bridal party gave a speech that felt more like a roast than a tribute. I was mortified, humiliated, angry, and sad. I didn’t know what to do but smile through it, masking how I was truly feeling in the moment. Afterwards, the wife of one of our groomsmen said, “If that happened at my wedding, I would have taken the microphone out of her hand.” 

Ouch.

I carried the pain of that moment with me for months but knew that I had to forgive her, so I could move on with my life. We ended up talking a few months later and exchanged tears in the process. She apologized and said she never intended to hurt me. I believed her, but the conversation made me realize how far apart we’d grown and how little we knew each other. Though we tried to resolve what happened, I ultimately made the decision to move on from the friendship.

The truth is, we’d been drifting apart since starting college. We were friends with the history of our friendship but didn’t really know each other as adults. We had taken different paths. Ever since that time, I’ve wrestled with losing that friendship and still think about it from time to time.

About a year ago, I was reading the book A Return to Love by Marianne Williamson and landed on these words:

Relationships are assignments.

Hmmm…assignments?

Yes, relationships are meant to teach us something.

We come together in relationship to teach and learn lessons that will help us grow and become more of who we are meant to be.

Maybe my relationship with that friend was over, and it wasn’t something to mourn but something to celebrate.

The Three Levels of Relationship

Williamson writes that relationships have varying levels of duration – brief, sustained, and life-long.

Some are chance encounters, brief interactions with people we do or don’t know. Think of two strangers who meet in line at the store or on an elevator; your interaction with a waiter at a restaurant; the cashier at Target. How we treat people in those brief encounters matters and is often an indication of how we will treat people in more intense relationships. If we treat strangers with unkindness or impatience, it’s likely that those negative behaviors will be magnified in more long-term relationships. The second level of teaching is where we’re going to camp out today, so I’ll come back to it in just a moment.

The third level of teaching is characterized by life-long relationships. The presence of these people in our lives forces us to grow, but “just because someone has a lot to teach us, doesn’t mean we like them.” We can learn more about our own capacity to love in the midst of discomfort or in the face of seemingly irreconcilable differences than we do when we are comfortable and go unchallenged. Think about relationships that may be a thorn in your side but have taught you lessons about life, growth, other people and yourself.

Williamson describes the second level of teaching as:

A more sustained relationship in which, for a time, two people enter into a fairly intense teaching-learning relationship situation and then appear to separate.

Think of the friendships from different points in your life. Bring to mind the people you have called friends or partners, even family members, who are no longer part of your life. Sometimes we struggle with how to talk about those relationships without bitterness. If we can come to see them as an assignment, perhaps we can appreciate them for what they were, even if they are no longer part of our lives. And, who knows? Maybe they are meant to return to our lives at some point.

What if I could view the relationship I had with that friend differently and appreciate it for all that it taught me and all that it meant to me? As I reflect back on my friend, here’s what I want to remember:

  • She loved my family. She thought my little sister, Jane, was the coolest and funniest kid and appreciated my brother in ways I didn’t. She went on vacations with us and bought my sister her very first Halloween costume. She was one of my few friends who spent time at my house and actually got to know my family.
  • She gave me permission to be playful and to not take myself so seriously. She laughed a lot and loved to make people laugh, and so did her family. We would sometimes tape improv skits at her house, and we played lots of games. Very few people in my life invited me to let loose and have fun the way she and her family did.
  • She welcomed me into her family as one of her own. I felt at home at her house. I got hugs and kisses from her aunts, uncles, siblings and cousins and was invited to family parties and other big events. Her younger cousin had a crush on me and got me a plastic, blue heart-shaped ring as a sign of his affection. He gave me the nickname, “Blue Girl” and that is how my first AOL screen name, Bluegrl834, came to be.
  • She was with me for special moments. She was there for my high school ring day, graduation and birthday parties, and for the not so happy times. She was there the day I found out mom’s mom died and the day my parents called me to tell me that my favorite pet, a guinea pig named Wendy, had passed away. I so vividly remember both of those moments and how she was there.
  • She shared my love of all things sentimental. She would give me homemade gifts, heartfelt letters, and those books from the Hallmark store that most people flip through but never buy. I still have them in my bookcase. She knew that personalized gifts meant a lot to me, and she honored that. I’ve held onto many of those gifts, letters, cards and books.

Shifting my perspective about our friendship from one of bitterness and anger to one of acceptance and appreciation has given me a sense of peace about it.

Williamson closes out her insights about these “level two” relationships in A Return to Love:

During their time together, they will go through whatever experiences provide them with their next lessons to be learned […] what then appears to be the end of the relationship however, is not really an end.

Relationships are eternal.

What a hopeful perspective.

As I sit here and write this, I’m even thinking I may end up reaching out to her to see how she is doing. I’m not sure what will happen, but it’s possible. We may not talk anymore or even see each other again, but the impact of that relationship on my life is eternal regardless of what happens in the future.

Shifting Our Perspective

Here’s my question for you.

What if you were to view your relationships as assignments?

What if the people in our lives are “assigned” to be with us for a certain period of time until we learn what we are meant to learn from them before we can release them for their next assignment?

Are you holding on to a relationship, a person whose assignment is over, but you are refusing to let them go?

Have you considered that, in order for this person to be freed up for their next assignment and for YOU to be freed up to receive future assignments, you may have to release the relationship?

IT’S NOT EASY, but neither is being a relationship that is bringing you down, triggering anxiety or wounding you.

Here are some steps to take to begin this process:

  1. Think of a relationship in your life that you’d like to release, a person whose assignment in your life you think has ended. Some signs of this are: when this person calls, I cringe because all they do is talk about themselves; they’ve hurt you in the past and have refused to ask for forgiveness and just make excuses when you tell them how they hurt you; they make you feel less about yourself; you find yourself making excuses to avoid spending time with them; they constantly one up you out of their own insecurities, and you’re exhausted by it.
  2. Reflect back on the challenges that relationship has presented and consider any lessons learned or gifts it has given you. Make a list of both. A little prayer I like to think to myself in this moment is, “God, help me to see what I’m not seeing. Help me see this person as you do.”
  3. Forgive the person for any wrongdoing. THIS IS THE HARDEST PART. Forgiving them means releasing yourself from the desire to see any harm or ill will come to them. It doesn’t mean you trust or want to talk to or see them again, but it does mean that you have the choice to release yourself from bitterness and resentment.

If this person is still a part of your life, I’d suggest doing a few things. Give it to God and wait for wisdom. “God, I’m not sure what is going in this relationship, but I trust that you do. Show me the next step to take and give me the courage to take action.” You can let the drifting apart continue and not initiate any further conversations or get togethers. If the person does call you and you want to make a move, let them know you’ve spent time reflecting on your relationship and its future. Share with them what you appreciate about the relationship and any lessons you’ve learned but that you see the two of you moving in different directions and wish them well. You can’t control how they respond, and it will likely feel pretty awkward, but for your own well-being and sanity, you may need to take a step like this.

Consider that your fear of how the conversation will go will likely be more dramatic than how it actually does go.

Consider that this person may still have lessons to teach you and “goodbye” may not be forever…or maybe it will be.

Remember, for life-long assignments, you may not like the person but may need to remain open to whatever lessons you may still need to learn from the relationship. We might classify some of these people as EGRs – Extra Grace Required – and part of our growth might come from staying in it with them even when it is uncomfortable.

Relationships are complex, but quality relationships are at the core of a healthy, happy life. The people who are happiest, healthiest and live the longest are the ones with the best quality relationships rooted in vulnerability, honesty, love, care, and kindness.

My hope is that this reflection gives you the courage to take a necessary step in a relationship in your life that has been troubling you. At the very least, I hope it gives you pause to consider that you are worthy of relationships that lift you up, lovingly challenge you to grow and learn, and invite you to become more of who you are meant to be rather than holding you back.

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1 Comment

  1. Bless you, Rachel. Your tender words come at just the right time for me.

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