The Rigid Relational System

Posted on September 11, 2013 | 13 comments

What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? – James 4:1

All of us have experienced an incident or season in which we had a short fuse or reacted because “that’s the last straw.” There are a variety of reasons for such interactions and they are ‘normal’ parts of most relationships.

But what if rather than the exception in a relationship, that sort of reactivity was the rule?

That is the experience of the rigid relational system.

It is the relational system in which every little thing quickly becomes a big thing. Lacking acceptance (see Being Open to Acceptance) or grace for another, but instead quickly finding an offense.

There is not a lack of communication, but rather an over communication predominated by “you never…”, “I always…”, or other expressions of universal disappointment.

Anxious energy permeates the system due to fear and insecurity. Trying to achieve a standard that is a moving target. Something unexpected or some change in dynamic or role is tough for the rigid system because at least one of the participants will experience it as loss.

Rigidity refers to the situation in which rather than absorbing hurt, the relationship quickly breaks into fights, disappointment, threats, reactivity and defensiveness and it can characterize any relationship from marriage to friendship to parent/child to boss/worker.

A rigid system is a non-differentiated system. It is…

  • controlling rather than accepting
  • shaming rather than encouraging
  • self-focused rather than other-focused
  • reactive rather than forgiving
  • explosive rather than passionate
  • enmeshed rather than intimate

The source of rigidity, by either one or both members, is the need to have a sense of self – a definition of who one is – reflected through the relationship. (see The Reflected Sense of Self)

In other words, one’s value is seen in what the other person is reflecting back. It is an identity based on the foundation of the relationship.

As the basis of identity, there is an expectation – a fundamental need – to get something out of the relationship. Getting something out of the relationship. That is how the false self operates in any relationship.

When that need is not fed, when value is not added to the Self, when the identity is not sustained and shame is experienced, then James 4:1 is fulfilled.

Learning to differentiate will create a more flexible, less anxious system.

Saying that is easy. Practicing differentiation is hard.

It requires developing an identity on something secure and unchanging outside of the relationship.

It necessitates replacing the lies we have formed in us with truth. Renewing our minds and taking captive our thoughts.

It is a process and allows us to truly love another.

More on differentiation in the next post. Until then, how have you experienced a rigid relational system?

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  1. My husband and I have found ourselves in this pattern before. It’s a very uncomfortable and harmful place to be. I think one thing the Lord is continually trying to teach us is that identity and unconditional love has to come from Him. I cannot be “completed” in my spouse, but I can in my Lord. That’s what makes the difference in our relationship. If we ware both allowing Him to “complete” us, then our marriage is heavenly! As you stated at the end, though, putting this knowledge into practice isn’t always easy. It’s a work in progress for us. 🙂 Thanks for sharing at the Grace for the Home link-up.

  2. Very interesting! Thanks for sharing at Thrive @ Home!

  3. I totally agree with your post, here! Especially where you said “developing an identity on something secure and unchanging outside of the relationship.”. Of course I believe our identity should be based on Jesus Christ’s life and teachings. I have had to deal with family members who have struggled with addictions. I started attending Alanon meetings for awhile and have learned the importance of NOT making it our job to change others or let their behavior affect our lives in a negative/unproductive way. If we ware too rigid, it only breaks down relationships, if they are struggling in the first place. Thanks for sharing.
    Ann @ Christ in the Clouds

  4. Great post on relationship dynamics 🙂

  5. I can definitely relate to having seasons of this in my marriage. I am thankful though that God has taught me more about grace.

    Thanks for linking up at Essential Fridays.
    Mel from Essential Thing Devotions

  6. thank you so much for linking with imperfect prose! e.

  7. Good article. Stopping by from Our Everyday Harvest!

  8. I think differentiation is key really – we need to be more mindful of our emotions and not use situations to justify overreactions.

    I think I read this quote “Life is 10% what happens to us and 90% how we react to it.” Genius quote.

    Thanks for linking up!

    Sarah @ A Cat-Like Curiosity

  9. Ignoring harmful patterns in our marital relationships can be very destructive. Thanks a lot for sharing. Visiting from Living Proverbs, do have a super blessed day!

  10. Some great information. I’m sure most couples, myself included have found themselves in this kind of a pattern before. The hard part is making sure you both get out of it unscathed.

    Thank you for linking to Raising Imperfection.
    Please come back Friday to see if you were featured. 🙂

    (¸¤ Lanaya | xoxo

  11. My husband has shown me, by example, how to have grace. He is a wonderfully patient person and his behavior has begun to teach me to grow grace for myself and others.

  12. Thanks you very much for this interesting post. Good for me to read this!

  13. One a rare occasion or a regular habit? Those opposites can mean health or disease. Attitudes of anger can actually make you sick. Thank you for sharing this worderful information with us here at “Tell Me a Story.”

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