by Rev. Tres Adames, MDiv, BCPC
A friend you've known for years comes to you for help. They are desperate, emotional, and ask you to intervene. Maybe it's a problem with their partner, a habit they are trying to kick, or a struggle with anxiety or depression. You care about your friend, so of course you want to help. But before you jump in, it might be time to step on the brakes.
There is nothing wrong with wanting to support your friend, but make sure you don't get in over your head. There is a difference between helping your friend versus taking on their problem. This is hard especially for empathetic people. We want to pitch in and help out. Yet it creates more problems if we don't approach it the right way.
Aren't We Supposed to Help Others?
Those I work with in counseling will point to the Bible, mentioning that we should help other people. This is true—we are supposed to care about others and help them, but only when they cannot help themselves. The Bible not only stresses the importance of helping others, but also emphasizes the importance of taking personal responsibility. According to the words of the Apostle Paul:
Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted. Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. If anyone thinks they are something when they are not, they deceive themselves. Each one should test their own actions. Then they can take pride in themselves alone, without comparing themselves to someone else, for each one should carry their own load" (Galatians 6:1-5, NIV).
What is Paul saying here? He encourages the Galatians to "carry each others's burdens" but also that "each one should carry their own load." How is this possible? Aren't they the same thing? Not necessarily. In their book, Boundaries, Henry Cloud and John Townsend shed some light on the difference between a load and a burden:
"The Greek word for burden means 'excess burdens,' or burdens that are so heavy that they weigh us down. These burdens are like boulders. They can crush us. We shouldn’t be expected to carry a boulder by ourselves! It would break our backs. We need help with the boulders — those times of crisis and tragedy in our lives. In contrast, the Greek word for load means 'cargo,' or 'the burden of daily toil.' This word describes the everyday things we all need to do. These loads are like knapsacks. Knapsacks are possible to carry. We are expected to carry our own" (Cloud & Townsend, 2017).
We can help and be supportive, but we are not called to fix other people's problems or take responsibility for them. Paul is emphasizing the need for love and personal responsibility. In order to learn how to do this, let's dive deeper and explore this from the world of family systems theory.
Don't Get Triangled!
One of the most impactful books on relationships in the field of pastoral counseling is Generation to Generation by Edwin Friedman. In the book, Friedman describes what is known as an emotional triangle. According to Friedman:
“The basic law of emotional triangles is that when any two parts of a system [this could be a family, a work environment, or a circle of friends] become uncomfortable with one another, they will ‘triangle in’ or focus upon a third person, or issue, as a way of stabilizing their own relationship with one another” (Friedman, 1985).
Often, a third person is pulled into a triangle when two people in a relationship are in conflict with one another. To stabilize the relationship, another person is asked to help or may even be pulled into the situation by one or both people in the relationship. Sometimes the third person may intervene or “triangle” themselves into the unstable relationship out of desire to help.
An example of an emotional triangle would be: 1) An adult man who is estranged from his adult brother 2) The brother 3) The parent who is asked to intervene or communicate on behalf of both. A part of an emotional triangle can also be a problem, such as an addictive habit or dysfunction. An example of a triangle involving a problem would be: 1) A person struggling with substance abuse 2) The substance abuse itself 3) An enabling partner. Let's take a look at this visually:
Here you see the relationship between you and your friend indicated by a straight line. Your friend's struggling relationship with the other person (or problem) is represented by a jagged line. Notice that a broken line connects the third side of the triangle. Why? This is to indicate that there typically exists no control or real influence between you and the other person's relationship or problem.
When any relationship is stuck, it is likely because a third person or issue has been interjected into the relationship. If you are the third wheel being introduced, the fact of the matter is that you have very little control over the outcome. If you try to fix the problem, you will only absorb the anxiety and stress from the whole situation. Sometimes, interfering can even produce the opposite effect. Attempting to reconcile two sparring partners may make them more distant or hostile.
So what's the takeaway? Don't get triangled! Don't allow yourself to be put in the middle of the situation. So how can you help your friend who comes to you for support? Let's talk about a few healthy and more effective ways to influence change.
5 Effective Ways to be Supportive
1. Improve your relationship with both sides--Friedman notes that “We can only change the relationship to which we belong. Therefore, the way to bring change to the relationship of two others (and no one said it is easy) is to try to maintain a well-defined relationship with each, and to avoid the responsibility for their relationship with one another” (Friedman, 1985). Seek to be mature and get along with both sides. This might mean giving the benefit of the doubt to both persons in a conflicted relationship. If it concerns a friend struggling with addiction, work on your relationship with your friend and also work on your relationship with addiction itself—that is, learn more about addiction and how it works so you are more educated on how to respond.
2. Focus on the person, not the problem—Rather than getting caught up in solving the problem, encourage your friend's ability to take responsibility for it on their own. When the conversation drifts toward venting about the other person or problem, bring the focus of the discussion back to your friend. Ask how they are feeling and what's going on inside.
3. Ask questions, don't give answers—If your friend is insistent on talking about the problem, don't offer any solutions. Simply ask questions about how they plan to tackle the issue. This encourages them to strategize on their own rather than depending on you to solve their problem.
4. Be kind, but firm—Set boundaries with your friend as needed. If they keep calling or texting you, let them gently know that you aren't always available. Suggest other sources of support. Consider referring them to a local Christian counselor who specializes in the issue they are facing.
5. Remain self differentiated—Take care of yourself and acknowledge that this is not your problem—thankfully! Remain grounded, present, and non-anxious while still remaining connected as appropriate. Encourage them to seek God for wisdom. Offer to pray for them instead of being the only one they vent to. Besides, God wants us to talk to Him. May this be the situation that draws them closer to Him.
Dealing with Loneliness
Feeling Alone is Normal
Many people don’t want to remain single because they fear being alone. This is fairly normal, yet even those in committed relationships and marriages can feel lonely. A romantic relationship is not a cure-all or guarantee against loneliness. Part of being an adult means accepting and even embracing our aloneness.
We are Relational Beings
Humans have an inherent need to connect. That is a good thing. But unhealthy connection occurs when we become overly dependent on others. We can let our neediness take over, clinging to our partners like a child to their parent.
Codependency is a term referring to a relationship dysfunction where one partner is continually providing for and enabling the neediness of the other partner. These types of relationships are unstable and filled with emotional highs and lows. This dynamic can continue for years and eventually will crash and burn under the weight of all the pressure to provide. We can easily set our partners up like an idol that will eventually fail us.
In order to grow out of this immaturity, we have to grow up. Our significant others are not our parents, and we are no longer children. It’s time to be adults.
Being Alone with God
Rather than depending on others to escape loneliness, let's consider what it means to be alone with God. There is a difference between loneliness and solitude. Spending time with God can mean praying, writing, reading Scripture, sitting in silence, and reflecting on where we are in life. These can be healing activities that are life-giving.
Christ knows what it feels like to be alone: “He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.” (Isaiah 53:3). Yet Jesus cherished his alone time with God throughout the gospels: "But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed" (Luke 5:16).
Taking responsibility for our spiritual and emotional needs by connecting with God is a mark of maturity. This doesn’t mean we don’t depend on others at all, but our inner sense of security is grounded in Christ. Only He gives us a solid identity and self-worth. With this foundation, we are free to truly love others without demanding anything in return. This is perfect love—the love that makes life worth living.
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Falling in Love is Overrated
It’s no secret that we live in a sex-obsessed culture. This is obvious and is often blamed as the source of many relationship problems. Temptation to lust is everywhere. Yet we live in a romance-obsessed culture as well.
You need more than one person.
Romance is often thought of as sweet and endearing, and desiring it doesn’t seem that insidious, so what harm can it do? Many times, expectations are set too high. Pouring too much relational energy into a romantic relationship can neglect investment in other relationships as well—close friendships and more authentic connections with family. A lot of pressure is put on one person. He or she can't be your all-in-all. This is setting the other person up as an idol, and an idol will always disappoint.
Falling in love isn't all bad either.
Romance is still an essential part of bonding. Those first several months in a relationship are thrilling. This initial stage is important because that is where bonding begins. However, the feelings will fade and more mature dynamics must emerge for the relationship to deepen and continue.
Feelings don't keep a marriage together.
Marriage is centered on commitment. The idea of romantic feelings being the deciding factor for marriage is a truly modern and very American formula. Centuries before, marriage was important for economic survival and social integration. There was also the biblical reason for marriage: uniting spiritually. These historic factors are fading away in society, so culture has nothing much left to do with marriage other than celebrate romance and the excitement of hosting a lavish ceremony.
It's still possible to keep romance alive in marriage.
So many call it quits after the high simmers to a low. Hence the unfortunate divorce rate in our country. But when the rush dies down, romance does not have to completely extinguish, it just takes more effort. It takes sacrifice and thinking of the other person first. It means doing things even if you don't feel like it. At times, it takes the Spirit of God to empower godly spouses to love one another.
For a marriage to last, the relationship has to mature through commitment and a deepening friendship—this is where true love blossoms.
If you are looking for more on marriage, I suggest the book: The Meaning of Marriage by Tim Keller. Also, be sure to subscribe to my newsletter.
7 Tools for Fighting Lust
Lust is something that every man (and woman) must contend with. The struggle with lust doesn't end with marriage. In dealing with the lust issue, I've found that a combination of various approaches works synergistically in the battle. These are seven tools to implement in your life if you are having trouble with sexual temptation.
1. Set Up Boundaries
If you are struggling with pornography, set up a filter on your computer. If you are tempted to talk to others inappropriately, delete their numbers off your phone. Set up boundaries to help you think twice when you are at your weakest point. This one strategy is not enough to prevent you from acting out. Implementing these other tools will help you get to the emotional-spiritual root of your addiction.
2. Foster Accountable Friendships
How many other people really know you? Do you have friends that are like brothers (or sisters if you’re a woman) that you can turn to? A man needs more than just his wife for support. Your wife is primary, but you also need other godly men to open up to and be real with. The same is true for women. You need other sisters in Christ you can open up to. You can keep each other accountable and build one another up. If you don't have friends like this, ask God to help you find godly friends, and be willing to be the first one to reach out.
3. Spend Time with God
Yes, I know this one is touted over and over again. But we are so bombarded with work, internet, and cellphones, how often do you sit down to intentionally read scripture, pray, and meditate? I tell others to pray in a way that is honest, open and real. God is not afraid of your emotions. Much catharsis can be found in expressing how you feel to God and resting in his presence. Try doing absolutely nothing for ten minutes every day and simply listen and wait for God to speak. You may be surprised at what you hear. Spending time with God builds up your mind so that you can think positively and redemptively.
4. Engage Your Thoughts
Ignoring sexual thoughts works sometimes, but other times such thoughts can return with a vengeance. Just telling yourself 'no' can make your sinful nature fight back even harder. Try engaging with what you are tempted to think about. This doesn't mean indulging in your temptation, but ask yourself why you are thinking that way. A good way to process your thoughts is to start a journal. Make a practice of viewing others as daughters and sons of God. Also take note if there are parts of you that are afraid or resentful toward those of the opposite sex. Such unresolved issues may be the root of your addiction.
5. Notice Your Triggers
Recognizing a woman's beauty is unavoidable. But turning acknowledgment into ardent desire is lust. Notice when you are feeling B.L.A.S.T.'ed (Bored, Lonely, Angry, Stressed or Tired). Your physical wellbeing has more effect on your spiritual-emotional wellbeing than you realize. Maybe it's time to eat healthier, exercise or be intentional about getting enough rest at night.
6. Build Self-Esteem
Many who turn to pornography or other forms of sexual temptation have issues with their own self esteem. As a man, finding an attractive woman to validate your feelings of inferiority will only work temporarily. A woman cannot validate or affirm a man, only God can. Learning to accept yourself and finding your identity in Christ is key.
7. Embrace Intimacy
Your sexuality was not meant to be used irresponsibly or ignored all together. All that energy was intended by God to be funneled into a one-on-one intimate relationship with one other person. If you are married and struggling with sexual temptation, there is likely a part of you that is avoiding intimacy. Such parts can find healing through all the other tools mentioned above and can also be addressed in counseling.
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