In a discussion centered on his book UnTrapped: 9 Secrets to Getting Along, Dr. Daniel Nehrbass offers advice for those of us who feel stuck in a relationship in which another person's undesirable or harmful behavior is putting us in a bind. (Part 1 of 2)
Dr. Daniel Nehrbass: We need to plow ahead with what we believe is best for the relationship regardless of the response that we get - whether it’s an angry response or no change in the relationship. We’re doing it because it’s right.
End of Excerpt
John Fuller: That’s Dr. Daniel Nehrbass and he’s with us today on “Focus on the Family.” Your host is Focus president and author, Jim Daly, and I’m John Fuller.
Jim Daly: John, today we’re gonna help you and others, maybe me, too, come up with a game plan on how to respond to relational situations that make you feel stuck. And I can think of several different kind of categories of that. You can feel stuck with a friend you just don’t want to spend that much time with, but you feel guilty saying no.
Maybe you’re stuck in your marital relationship where you don’t feel you’re making the progress you want to be making as a couple together. Maybe stuck with some in-law issues, you know, where habits are being repeated. Why are we goin’ around this again and again and again? We’re gonna touch on many of these today, because stuck is not a place where God wants you to be. God wants you to feel liberated in this life that He’s given you. And we’re gonna learn how to feel that today on “Focus on the Family.”
John: Well, yeah, Jim, I think God has made us for relationship and there are times when those relationships just are not goin’ anywhere. I’m thinking of a lot of parenting situations that fit that category. We’ve got a lot of helps for you. We have articles, downloads, other resources, caring Christian counselors. We’re a phone call away. Our number is 800-A-FAMILY or stop by www.focusonthefamily.com/radio.
John: Dr. Daniel Nehrbass is a counselor and is the president of Christian Nightlight Adoptions. And he’s the author of a handful of books including UnTrapped, and that’s the subject of today’s conversation.
Jim: Dr. Nehrbass, thank you for coming to “Focus on the Family.”
Daniel: Thank you very much for having me. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Jim: And what gives you this idea that human beings are trapped at times? (Laughing) What in your observations said, “Hey, there’s something going on here that seems like a pattern, a cycle?”
Daniel: I’ve often heard people use that very word. They say, “I feel trapped. I’ve been trying to make a change in a certain relationship,” whether it’s with a co-worker or a child or a spouse. And what they’ve been trying to do for years hasn’t worked and now they feel trapped and don’t know what to do.
Jim: In fact, in your book, you’ve identified nine options for relational change where you want to make it. I don’t know if it’s nine ways that a person feels trapped. How would you describe the concept?
Daniel: These are nine options for relational change. This arose out of a question that a friend brought to me. Her name’s Marie. She said her mom is a hoarder and we’re talking about a certifiable hoarder, someone beyond help.
Jim: Describe hoarder for those that may not [know].
Daniel: Someone who has an anxiety disorder and collects things, sometimes not of value, and—
Jim: Newspapers and all kinds of things.
Daniel: --yes, and it fills their house to the point that they really can’t carry on a normal daily life. It affects their life greatly. So, Marie said to me, “I feel trapped. I don’t know what to do.” And she said, “What can I do to get my mom to stop hoarding?”
And what I said to her, “I don’t think I could come up with one thing you could do today to get your mom to stop hoarding. But I bet we could brainstorm several things you could do to change this relationship.” So, we went to the white board and we actually spent about a week. We came back a week later after thinking about this and we came up with these nine different things she could do. None of ‘em is right or wrong. None of ‘em is in isolation going to solve the problem, but they would change the relationship.
Jim: Let’s hit the nine. Why don’t you quickly describe ‘em and then we’ll come back and talk about a couple of them.
Daniel: Sure, I’ll do that in relation to Marie’s question.
Daniel: For instance, we could start with teaching. She could say to her mom, “This hoarding has become out of hand. It is affecting your ability to carry on a normal life and it makes it difficult for people to come into our home or to live here.” So, that would be a simple one line teaching about the present situation.
Jim: So, teach, got it.
Daniel: No. 2 would be appeal. She could say, “I feel uncomfortable here. I feel crazy living here. I feel out of control.” And it could make an emotional appeal to her mom.
No. 3 would be listen. She could take an opportunity to sit down with her mom and say, “I’m not going to respond. I’m just gonna listen to you. Tell me what these things mean to you. Tell me what you’re anxious about. How do you feel about having these things around the home?
She could sacrifice. She could say, “My act of love to my mom, as long as I’m living in this home, is to make a sacrifice that I will make the house livable for us or at least for me. I’ll clean up the things that she leaves behind and I’ll make a path to my room and to my bathroom. And I won’t complain about it and I’ll do it joyfully. It only counts if it’s joyful.
Jim: Well I was gonna ask you, and we’re only three or four in now, but what is the God factor here. How do these nine elements relate to God?
Daniel: That’s a good question. I do think all of them are found in Scripture and in the book I do show Scripture examples. And fortunately, they’re not just examples of what people did, but the way God deals with us. Obviously, God sacrificed Himself for us.
In Proverbs 18:13, we’re told to answer before listening. That is folly and shame, so Scripture tells us to listen. We think of Esther in the book of Esther, chapter 8, where she pleas again and again emotionally with the king, falling at his feet and weeping. So, I think each of these are found in Scripture.
Jim: Yeah, okay, so we’ve gone through teach, appeal, listen and I think you said leave or--
Daniel: And sacrifice.
Daniel: And the next one is quite liberating, even though it may not sound very encouraging when someone hears it, but you could do nothing. It is possible to simply not address the situation. Now I’m not saying that that’s acceptable for the rest of her life, but today she could do nothing. Tomorrow she could do nothing. So, some people find that very liberating to realize that God doesn’t address every sin of ours every time. Sometimes …
John: Good thing, too.
Daniel: Right (Laughing), it’s a good thing. So, we don’t need to address every time someone makes us frustrated. There are plenty of opportunities tomorrow.
Daniel: Today we could do nothing. It’s an option to leave and that’s what Marie actually decided to do. She decided eventually to leave the home. She was an adult and there are other opportunities or other relationships where that might be the best option for relational change.
Jim: Sure, okay.
Daniel: You could draw a boundary. What she tried, before leaving was, she was responsible to pay her mom’s rent while she was living with her mom. She was responsible for $350 a month and she decided to try the boundary. She said, “I’ll give you $300 a month or $250 a month instead of the 350 and part of this will be withdrawn as a penalty for me not being able to get to my bathroom or have my bathroom clean or my bedroom clean. So, it’s possible to draw boundaries in relationships.
Daniel: There’s compromise, which is an option. You could draw a line in the house and say, “This is my side; this is your side.” And then finally …
John: Something tells me her mom would not necessarily respect that boundary or that kind of compromise though.
Daniel: That’s true. You know, one thing to keep in mind, is we don’t make the decision of which of these options, based on what is going to get our way. Instead we have to decide what is best for the other person. And there’s a slightly different way of evaluating.
When I look at my nine options for relational change, if the question is how am I gonna get the other person to do what I want them to do, this is the wrong book. These are the wrong nine approaches. If the question is, what can I do that is in the best interest of the other person, what can I do that’s in the best interest of this relationship—
Daniel: --that’s a very different criteria.
John: So, what was the ninth one then.
Daniel: The last one is to repent. Sometimes we are stuck in our relationships because it’s our fault. Now it may not always be completely our fault, but we can always identify something we did that we can repent of. We can apologize and tell the other person, “I have made it hard for you to live with me. I have done nothing but complain about the hoarding and I’ve obviously not made any progress on this, because all I do is complain about it. So, I apologize for my approach that I’ve taken about this.”
Jim: Let me back up a minute, because what you’re saying, even in your illustration of the daughter living at home as an adult child with her mom who is a hoarder and how to draw those boundaries, what really caught my attention, you were saying in essence, when you’re trapped in somebody else’s trap—
Jim: And you feel frustrated you can’t control that environment; how do you break free of it? Or what should be your ultimate purpose there? Is it your health? Their health? Or what the Lord wants out of this situation?
Daniel: That’s a really good question. I remember grappling with that very question when I felt most trapped, was when I had a son 12-years-old who lied to me. And I can’t think of any instance where a parent feels more powerless, because you can’t make a child tell the truth. You can’t make them admit that they lied.
And so, my son lied to me and I left the house. I went on a bike ride. And he’s adopted. It plays into the story slightly. I said to God, “It would’ve been easier if You didn’t give me a liar.”
Daniel: Now I didn’t mean if You hadn’t - it wasn’t about adoption when I said that. I wasn’t saying I wish I’d adopted someone else. It was more like the phrase you’d say, “I’m just sayin’.” Yeah, it would’ve been easier if I didn’t have liar.
Jim: I could hear the Lord saying, “Well, then it wouldn’t have been human.” (Laughter)
Daniel: That’s true, but this was one of t hose rare moments where I really heard God’s voice speak clearly to me and He said, “Easier for whom?”
Daniel: And what that taught me is, that I have been asking what would be easier for me as a dad? How could my job be easier? But what I heard the Lord saying to me is that He has a task of raising His child and conforming His child into His image. And He has loaned that son into my home so that I could join Him in His work of discipling His child.
So, your question was, what’s our criteria? What should be our concern in these relationships? I think it’s, how can we join God in his work of discipling His people--my own discipleship and the people around me, their discipleship.
Jim: How do you approach this issue of truth? I think one of the options for relational change is speaking truth. I think it’s an interesting exchange between the Lord and Pontius Pilate, that He said He came to testify to the truth.
Jim: What does truth play in this whole relationship?
Daniel: We can’t ever underestimate the power of being the echo of the voice of the Holy Spirit in someone else’s life. I think especially as parents, but also as spouses and co-workers, we feel trapped because we can’t convince people. But that’s not our job. The Holy Spirit is speaking to them. As surely as God exists and cares about the people around you, He is speaking to them. And it’s our job to be the echo of the voice of the Holy Spirit.
Jim: What does the echo sound like?
Daniel: Well, my wife is a second grade teacher and she had a student who lied to her. And this is at a public school. The student lied to her. Imagine how trapped a teacher is. What are your options as a teacher to do when a student lies? You can’t make him admit it. You can’t put him in time-out. You can’t put him on restriction.
So, she opted for teaching the truth to the student. She said to him, “You’ve lied to me. That’s a sin. That means it’s wrong. The right thing for you to do is to apologize and to tell me that you lied. That’s called ‘repenting.’ You can do it tomorrow. You can do it next week. You can come back when you’re 15-years-old, but you will feel better when you tell me that you lied.”
And two days later this student came up to her and said, “I’m sorry; I lied.” We can only attribute that to the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit was speaking to that student and my wife was merely the echo of the voice of the Holy Spirit.
John: Well, and along those lines, Daniel, didn’t you experience that same kind of revelation from your son after you took your bike ride and talked to the Lord about that lying incident?
Daniel: Absolutely. What I heard God saying is that my job is to be the voice of the Holy Spirit in his life.
Daniel: And so, the same thing, when he lies to me, I have many options. I’m not trapped. I could do any of these nine things. And I chose to be the voice of the Holy Spirit and say, “You’ve lied and the right thing to do is repent.”
John: And did he respond?
Daniel: You know, for him it was slower, but we took the long haul and I think that’s relationship advice, a good relationship advice is, I realized when I got married early on that I had a lifetime to worry about anything that bothered me about my wife. I had 50 years ahead of us in order to worry about these things. I didn’t have to address it today.
So, we would tell our son that he lied and that it was right to repent. And that wouldn’t be the only approach we took. It would be the approach we took on some days. And several years later we really sensed the cracking of his heart and listening to the Holy Spirit and he also would come to us and freely admit things that he’d done wrong and repent.
John: Well, our guest today on “Focus on the Family” is Dr. Daniel Nehrbass and he’s written a great new book called UnTrapped and I so appreciate a toolbox like this, because so many of us feel stuck and trapped in relationships. Some really good content here. Look for it at www.focusonthefamily.com/radio. While you’re there, get the CD or download of our conversation, as well, or our mobile app, so you can listen on the go. Call us if you have any questions. Our number is 800-232-6459.
Jim: And John, let’s quickly recap those and we’ll post the nine online.
John: Great idea.
Jim: I think that’d be a good way for people to see them again, but this is for the person feelin’ trapped in any relationship. And Dan has suggested you can teach. You can appeal. You can listen. You can sacrifice. You could do nothing. You can leave. You could create a boundary. You can compromise or you can repent. And those are the applications.
Let me ask you a couple [questions]. Our counselors here at Focus, I asked them to pull some things together to give us kind of the common things that people feel trapped by. Let me put this out there and you can apply your approach to this situation. So, the first one: My husband promises he would stop viewing pornography, but promise after promise only leads to me finding it again three, four and five years later after the first revelation of usage.
So, here’s a spouse feeling trapped by dishonesty. And cheating I would think. What do the two spouses … how do they interact on this, using your nine approach.
Daniel: Well, let’s assume that they’ve already tried a couple of these. I’m gonna assume the emotional appeal has already been done.
Daniel: That she’s already said, “I feel insecure. I feel disgusted. I feel hurt.” We’re gonna assume she’s already tried teaching this is wrong. This separates you from God. This separates you from me.”
So, if we assume those two have already been tried, then there might be a couple others I would suggest. One might be listen. Now I know that this could sound really offensive, as if now the wife has to listen, even though the husband’s clearly in the wrong. But I actually have experienced on this issue, dealing with couples on this very issue, that it’s not the only one thing the wife should try next, but it is one thing among many that ought to be tried, which is to listen, to say …
John: What’s that like?
Daniel: What triggers you to look at pornography? What void is this filling in your life? Why do you think the other strategies haven’t worked so far that we’ve put into place? So, listening for me has to be all out, 100 percent, today I’m only listening. Tomorrow I’ll try … I’ll teach. Tomorrow I’ll draw a boundary, but today I’m just going to listen and find out what is happening for you.
Daniel: The other would be drawing a boundary and it’s possible that this issue has gone on for several years because it’s still being kept secret. So, sometimes drawing a boundary could be for the spouse to say—
Daniel: --I’m going to talk to our pastor. We’re going to go to marriage counseling. I need you to be involved in a small group. If the small group doesn’t hold you accountable if you’re still dealing with this after [a] time, then we’ll look at further boundaries. So, I think some very clear boundaries that you stick to, that you tell in advance could be helpful in creating relational change.
Jim: When you look at the marital question again and I’m gonna put you on the spot a little bit if I can. I know your wife’s sitting out in the audience there, so where’s a personal experience for you, where you and your wife were, you know, approaching this honesty and this truth in your relationship? Can you give us a story or two that describes how this has worked for you, where maybe you had a blind spot? It’d be my suggestion—
Jim: --you talk about your blind spot, not your wife’s. (Laughter) But (Laughter) …
Daniel: I could think of many, of course. (Laughter) One that comes to mind is, we have several pets in our home and she loves the pets more than I do.
Jim: Okay, now this is close to home. (Laughter) That’s my wife, too.
John: I’m trackin’ with you.
Daniel: And I have allergies to them, but I made it a point to point out every time pets got on my nerves. If my allergies were particularly bothering me, I would complain about it. If they made a mess with their food or if they ruined something or tore something up or made too much noise at night, I would complain about these things.
John: Can we just be honest. We’re talkin’ about cats right?
Daniel: Yeah, there’s cats …
Daniel: --there’s a dog--
John: We’ll get that out on the table.
Daniel: --in there, as well. (Laughter) And now there’s a couple hens. (Laughter)
Daniel: So, I kind of complained about these things with impunity, without worrying about the consequences, because I thought I was making my point. And one has to then ask, well, what point was I trying to make, right?
Daniel: And my wife tried emotional appeal. She said, “I feel crazy when you complain about the cats.” And the craziness was clear in her voice. You know, she was trembling. That this was really very hard for her that I complained.
And we talked more about why was I making her crazy? And I think it goes back to what was the point I was trying to make? Are we supposed to get rid of the animals because of the problems that I’m experiencing? And is that too much to ask? And if it’s too much to ask, then maybe I should find another way to deal with it besides complaining.
Jim: So, you were trying to persuade. This is so where Jean and I were at. This is amazing, ‘cause I would say something like that in the hopes that she would make the decision to, you know, give a couple of the pets away.
Daniel: Well, I wasn’t trying to get rid of the pets. This is the crazy thing. I was venting and if you look at the book, you look at the nine options, venting isn’t on there. Venting isn’t biblical. Venting isn’t helpful. I have in the book for each of these nine options what I call a “negative cousin.” There’s sarcasm; there’s ridicule. There’s the silent treatment.
Daniel: Venting is not a positive option for relational change. I don’t know what I was trying to do. All I was doing was complaining. I thought it would be asking too much to actually get rid of the animals. My wife has this phrase, “prior disclosure.” I met her when we were 13. (Laughter) We got married when we were 20. She’s the only girlfriend I ever had. I knew we were gonna have pets, that they were very dear to her. So, trying to get rid of them was not what I was trying to accomplish. I just was complaining.
So, now that I’ve written this book and spoken about it a few times, if I practice any of those negative cousins—
Daniel: -- there’s a danger in writing a book like this (Laughter), because my wife will say, “Now tell me which of those nine you’re using right now.”
Jim: Right, exactly.
Daniel: “Which of these nine options for relational change was that?
John: So, where did you land on this thing? I mean, what did actually happen after you started unpacking that we have to change something in this equation?
Daniel: Yeah, well, there was a variety of things. I found a medicine that works better for my allergies. We also made a compromise that we’re going to have our pets use a balcony upstairs in our bedroom where they can go out on the balcony for the whole day if they want to. So, she’ll try to get them to spend less time in the house, yet still is a safe place for them. So, we tried a little compromise and a little sacrifice on my part.
John: But you decided that leaving was not one of the relational options.
Daniel: That’s not one of the options over the cats. (Laughter)
Jim: Well, let’s ask this, ‘cause appeal is one of the things, one of the nine, what is a healthier way? If you could wind the clock back, what would’ve been a better way for your appeal or your comment?
Daniel: I feel uncomfortable with the addition of new pets into our home, because it seems like you’re not sensitive to the difficulty it raises for me. So, whenever it sounds like there’s discussion—with six kids, there often is—about adding a pet to the home, I feel a little unloved because it seems like my allergies are being disregarded.
Daniel: From there it can go into a conversation of, you know, where to go next? But certainly would be more productive than complaining.
Jim: At least you feel heard.
Daniel: I feel heard.
Jim: Now if they said, “That’s great, dad, but we’re still gonna get the guinea pig,” is that sufficient?
Daniel: Well, like I said, there could be a compromise—
Daniel: --about how and where that pet is going to be and who’s going to tend to it and how much use of the house that pet gets.
John: You know, there’s something real key here and that is with this disclosure that I am feeling, you know, X, Y or Z, this is something that children - you’ve got six kids - it’s something that kids don’t always do so well. They just act or they react. Do you have a toolbox of emotional words to use?
Daniel: We do and I’ve heard our 3-year-old say, “I feel ‘trustrated.’” (Laughter)
Daniel: So, they’ll pick up on what we’re saying.
Daniel: They will imitate it. We have some friends who kind of ridiculed us for using the “I feel blank, because it seems like blank” with our kids. They thought they’re too young to understand it and they kind of thought that it was a silly approach to take with children. Children can do it. They can hear it. They can practice it.
Jim: Say it again, the “I feel, I …”
Daniel: “I feel blank.” So, it could be “I feel hurt.”
Daniel: “I feel unloved, because it seems.” Then you finish the sentence. “It seems like you’re not taking into account my allergies or—
Daniel: --whatever it is. So, we’re not telling the person the way it is or the way they’re trying to be or what they’re trying to do. We’re saying the way it seems.
Jim: Dan, so often relationships in the workplace can be complicated. One of our questions raised by our counselor, situations I should say, was this. My wife has a close relationship with a male coworker and this makes me very uncomfortable, but she tells me I need to just get over it. I could understand a guy feeling trapped that my wife’s not listening to my concerns about her friendship, relationship with this male coworker. What does the spouse do?
Daniel: Well, let’s again assume that the emotional appeal has already been tried, because they say, “I feel uncomfortable.” So, let’s assume that the husband has said, “I feel uncomfortable with your relationship here.”
I think this is an opportunity to teach and let me give an example of what that would sound like. It is unwise for you to be as close as you are to this person. It would be unusual for you to be able to be as close to this person without sending mixed signals. It is not healthy for our marriage to be as close as you are to this person.
Or I believe if something doesn’t change, it’s going to drive a wedge in our relationship. Each of these is a very short, one sentence teaching about the situation. And what’s important here is, we’re not making any demands. There’s no demand that the person change what they’re doing. That would be different. That would be a boundary.
Teaching today, boundary tomorrow. If we’re gonna teach today, we’re simply going to tell the truth about the situation. It would be unusual to have a relationship this close without sending a mixed message. Or this relationship will drive a wedge between you and me.
Jim: You know, so often, Dan, as these things are being addressed, the offending party can get really uncomfortable. This can be you start to flee the light. I mean, spiritually is what I think happens, because all of a sudden, it’s throwing light onto what you truly believe in your heart. And that can be really uncomfortable for everybody.
Jim: How does the person shedding the light on the situation, maintain that ability to not get emotional—
Jim: --to not overreach?
Daniel: Before we step into any of these nine options, we need to be fully committed to the principle that the other person’s response is not why we’re doing it. I am not teaching. I’m not listening. I’m not appealing so that I can get you to respond a certain way.
Instead, we’re fully committed to doing what the relationship needs. So, even if someone gets angry, storms out, starts to ridicule you, teaching might be the right thing for the relationship. It’s what the relationship needs.
So, we need to plow ahead with what we believe is best for the relationship, regardless of the response that we get, whether it’s an angry response or a “no-change” in the relationship. We’re doing it because it’s right.
Jim: Well, this has been interesting and I think we’ve covered only a couple of these. It’d be good to come back and uncover some of these other nine attributes and uh … tools to use in relationship. Let’s come back and continue the discussion. Can we do that?
Daniel: Very good, thank you.
John: And meantime, you can find Daniel’s book,Untrapped, and other resources and helps at www.focusonthefamily.com/radio. Or call us and maybe connect with our counseling team if you have a need. Our number is 800, the letter A and the word FAMILY; 800-232-6459.
And by the way, when you contribute to Focus on the Family you’re making it possible for us to provide initial counseling consultations to over 4,000 callers every month. These are folks who are at a great point of personal need and your generous support enables us to be there for them. Please, make a generous financial contribution today. And when you donate a gift of any amount we’ll send a copy of UnTrapped as our way of saying thank you for your generosity.
Jim: Dan, in fact, here’s one I want to start with next time and that is our relationship with our adult children who are struggling to launch. I would think a lot of parents feel trapped in that situation. So, let’s kick the program off next time with that. Can we do it?
Daniel: I look forward to it.
John: And that’s next time. And on behalf of Jim Daly and the entire team, thanks for listening. I’m John Fuller, inviting you back then as we once again help you and your family thrive.
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Dr. Daniel NehrbassView Bio
Daniel Nehrbass is the president of Nightlight Christian Adoptions, home of the Snowflakes Embryo Adoption program. He has worked as a pastor, a professional counselor, and an adjunct professor of biblical studies at Biola University and Fuller Seminary. Daniel is also a published author of four books and numerous articles in religious and adoption-related magazines. He earned a Ph.D. in pastoral counseling at Fuller Seminary, in addition to three master's degrees in theology, ministry and divinity. Daniel and his wife, Kristina, are adoptive parents and have six children. Learn more about Daniel at his website.