Maintaining Messy Relationships

Why friendships—even difficult ones—are vitally important.

There's no question about it: Relationships are messy. Marriage is messy and parenting is messy—but I think friendships are especially messy. With friendships there is little structure, unspoken expectations and minimum commitment. That's a hotbed for drama. But friendship can also be a breeding ground for truth and grace.

It’s time to have an honest conversation about when to fight for a friendship and when to let some distance enter in. Undoubtedly, you’ve faced circumstances—betrayal, distance, differences of belief—that made you question the value of a bond and how much you should work to protect it. The answers aren’t the same for everyone, and are rarely clear, but here are a few thoughts to keep in mind as you maintain the relationships in your life.

Respect and give weight to your friends with sacred history.

In Sacred Marriage, Gary Thomas discusses respecting the "sacred history" you have with your spouse. Likewise, friends can have sacred histories, too. Not all friendships do, but if a friend walked with you through an especially joyful, sorrowful or memorable time of life, you probably have some sacred history with that friend.

I talked to my childhood best friend, Lauren, for an hour the other day. Very few people, usually only siblings, understand what it was like for you to grow up where you did, when you did, with the family you did. But Lauren knows these things about me, and I about her, so our sacred history keeps us bonded as friends. She has probably been in every circle of intimacy possible at some point during my life, and that is OK. Despite our transitions in friendship, we share a commitment to one another because of this sacred history.

Committing to a friend despite frustration or geographical distance is character-building.

God-honoring friendships don't come naturally to most of us—not like sin does. Just like in marriage and parenting, intimacy in friendship is built upon commitment. You don't have to vow to your friend that you'll be available to her forever, but you can speak commitment through your actions: show up at his party; answer her call when you want to screen it; give him permission to speak into your life. In friendship, it's often easy to cut bait and find new seas to fish in. It takes patience, persistence and selflessness to keep some friendships healthy.

If most of your friendships are falling apart or rife with tension, perhaps it's time to look in the mirror. As someone who can come off as cold, especially if I feel pressured in a relationship, I have to continually learn to be a better friend by thinking about what I am nonverbally communicating. Friendships are often God's tool for conviction, but many of us distance ourselves from the reality checks that true friendships bring. If a friendship has suddenly become more difficult, I challenge you to press deeper into the friendship, at least for a season.

Decreasing intimacy in a friendship can be indicative of a shaky foundation.

Sometimes obstacles to intimacy reveal that a relationship was a friendship of convenience, not of communion. True friendships are built on shared values and visions: faith, an idea for your community or a cause, deep convictions about politics or a certain lifestyle, etc. A once-close friendship of convenience might evolve into a more distant friendship at a speed bump, and that might be OK if the friendship is built on little else. For instance, if you move to a new city or start a new job or have a baby around the same time as someone else, you are likely to bond quickly with someone in the same boat. But as time passes, you might realize the friendship was fairly one-dimensional. In those situations, perhaps it's OK to let distance enter in.

However, if one person in the friendship is distressed by a change in the friendship, things might not be so clear. Perhaps God brought that person into your life intentionally, not just to provide you with comfort. Giving sacrificially of your love, support and time despite a lack of shared values might be what God is calling you to do.

Resist distance rooted in self-protection or insecurity.

Fight the urge to pull away. One of my current best friends is about 10 weeks pregnant. She has been my main confidant during my own efforts to have a child this year, including my welcome pregnancy and unwelcome miscarriage. Because I am now not pregnant and walking with her through her own pregnancy, I sometimes feel the urge to pull away simply because it can be hard to be around other pregnant women. But I know the urge to pull away is merely an attempt to protect myself from pain; a move that might seem respectable but is fundamentally selfish. Our friendship is not about my comfort or happiness, so I fight through those urges to distance myself.

I have found that distance in a friendship can grow because of any of a number of fulfilled or unfulfilled dreams being lived out by one person in the friendship. When a friendship crosses natural boundaries created by money, love, popularity or hardship, we are quietly living out the peace Jesus bled and died for us to have.

Every friend helps—or hinders—your efforts to love the Lord and love your neighbor.

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It’s tough to admit, but some of your friends are probably not good for you. This doesn't mean you should cut these people out of your life altogether, but it does mean you need to take a fresh look at the purpose of the friendship. Often when a friendship isn't good for you, the friendship isn't good for anyone. If this situation is occurring, seek help as friends from an outside source (pastor or therapist). If time, prayer and counsel cannot help, it may be time to dissolve the friendship.

For desirable friendships that are hard to maintain, create some sort of structure or regular commitment.

Many of us will always be close with high school buddies or college roommates because we saw them hundreds of days a year. When you do not have an inherent structure to a friendship, sometimes you just have to create one. Talk as friends about the things you would love to do side-by-side. Even if you are busy, you might be surprised at what you can do with someone: grocery shop, get your hair cut, go for weekly walks, pray on Skype, vacation together. Building in a little structure might be exactly what is needed to keep a friendship strong.

Laura Ziesel is a seminary student at Azusa Pacific University and a
freelance writer and editor living in sunny California with her
husband. She blogs on matters of faith, gender, church culture and more
at She is also a contributing writer for The Redemptive Pursuit, a weekly devotional for women.
You can find her on Twitter @lziesel. This article was reprinted from her blog with permission.

What characteristics do you look for in potential friends before investing deeply in the relationship? When do you find it hardest to maintain your friendships?


James Bonzo


James Bonzo commented…


First, I just want to thank you for your candid expression.

I don't have advice that will blow you away, nor can I presume to have any first-hand experience in just the same way that you do for this matter, but I just wanted to specifically comment on the last question of the middle paragraph:

"Doesn't God end relationships sometimes when they've finished their course?"

I have struggled with this question in recent months, since my ex-girlfriend and I mutually decided that it was time to break up so that we could both pursue God without becoming idols to one another. For it was months before the break-up that I had begun to pray to God that He would do whatever it takes - be it to give to or take away from me - to bring me closer to Him. And I had a nagging feeling, even then, that I was idolizing my girlfriend, placing her on a pedestal on par and even above God's place in my life. And so, with a bit of hesitation still (for I am not wholly decided on the matter which you have so succinctly inquired about), I believe that God did move both of our hearts to end the relationship because it had "finished (its) course"; I say this, too, in conjunction with my firmly decided belief that God did bring us together to bring us closer to Him in the first place.

I hope this is useful for you. If nothing else, I hope it generates more discussion and response to your questions; part of my reason in responding to you specifically is because I noted that no one else had in two days, lol.

God bless, Brother. Jesus loves you.

- Kevin.


No commented…

Wow, this article is surrounded by drama, and certainly promotes it. I'm going to stick to cutting folks out of my life that drag me down, so I can go forward.

It's worked well so far! :)

Folks, friendships are only messy if you choose for them to be. Grow up.


Jen commented…

Well, I hope that when your life becomes messy, you have friends that stick by you.



PhillipHuempfner commented…

Jess and Kevin,
You guys are great! Thank you for being so open and honest. It's good to let the truth air out.My experience over the summer has been a phenomenal one. God has blessed me with learning the hard, real truth behind forgiveness. During the coarse of this summer, I have seen and experienced many failed relationships and friendships because of taking a step back. I've seen two best friends who were together all the time become alienated to the point that they don't speak anymore. It hurts to see two of my great friends become distant to one another over foolish and childish things that shouldn't have happened. But you know what? They had God in common, and honestly, that's all you need to keep a friendship together.And as to Kevin's point, I agree. I have also seen this summer (in the case of dating relationships), people distance themselves from one another so clarity can take it's rightful coarse; so they can first be reconciled to God, then to one another. And this worked! It worked so well, that in one case, the couple is about to become engaged (but keep that quiet; I'm not suppose to know, yet)!However, I think that there is a balance between when to take a step in, or when to take a step out, because when a friendship is tested, there usually is not another choice. However, the story that took the greatest toll is my own. My best friend and I have a similar story to yours. His idea of what a friendship was changed dramatically. He took such a huge step back that I thought he considered our friendship worthless, and that he wanted to end it. But, being able to do nothing about his choice, Christ blessed me with a huge revelation. No matter how I word this, it will never do Christ's work in me justice. Christ showed me: 1) You cannot try to make sense of others using your own mind. This never works because we are so different! Its a beautiful thing when you have minimum similarities because there is beauty in diversity, especially when you get together and ignore them, functioning as one. 2) No matter how many times your brother sins against you, show them forgiveness and steadfast love anyways. Rejoice in the fact that you can suffer as Christ did, and practice grace! The sins really cut deep? Think about how often you sin against Christ every day, yet He doesnt hold it against you. And we find it difficult to forgive! By the way, Christ has a lot more reason to be wrathful than you.So in conclusion, dont consider how your friend has hurt you. If you do, youre dwelling on wrongs against you, which is unloving, therefore a sin. Revolutionize the way you think. Look at the wrongs you have done and fix them; so you are blameless in front of your friend. Display grace. Do everything out of love and do not judge. You cannot judge for it is Gods to judge. Be rational and consider their point of view. And if you must speak to her about how she has sinned against you, do so out of love, as to not offend them.Thanks for reading this far. I pray that this helps, and Im praying for you.-Phil



Samantha commented…

Thanks for this! I think this advice is particularly applicable to people who tend to shy away from intimacy/vulnerability. "Sacred histories" put into words what I've been feeling towards a couple of my friends recently and affirmed my decision to keep on trying :)

Henri Michaux: "Surround yourself with an unsatisfying circle of friends.. Never a perfect circle, if you need stimulation. Better to live surrounded by annoyance than to doze inside what satisfies."

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