By Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.
– Reinhold Niebhur
Although you may know this best as the Serenity Prayer associated with Alcoholics Anonymous, it was originally written by the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. It can be applied effectively to many aspects of our lives; one of which is in our relationships.
Think about it: You love someone – a partner, friend, or family member. This love connects you to the person and makes you committed to wanting good things for them. You are happy for them when life goes well. And you try to help when they struggle. But your deep caring can sometimes overpower you when you see them in pain or project that they might be doing something that will eventually cause them problems. So, when making life better for them is not in your power, you might find it difficult to restrain yourself from trying. I’ve seen people struggle with this, for instance, when their spouses have abused drugs and when their friends have spiraled into a deep depression. To accept that they cannot make it better can feel like giving up. But trying to force the other person to change against their will almost inevitably backfires. At these time, it can be very helpful to have a support system for yourself; and to repeat to yourself, “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.”
Sometimes, you really can help your loved one or your relationship with them. For instance, you can choose to tell that person what they need to hear from someone who loves them. You might gently point out how another relationship is harming them, or that they are showing early signs of relapse in a problem they’ve battled, such as emotional eating or alcoholism. You might also help your relationship by finding the strength to honestly tell them how something they did hurt, angered, or upset you. This way you can close the growing distance in your relationship. At these times, you may need to wish or pray for “the courage to change the things I can.”
Of course, our lives are often chaotic and confusing. It can be difficult to determine what the best course of action is. Should you tell your sister again that you think she needs to confront her husband’s drinking or adultery or just be there to listen and support her as she works it through in her own head? Should you express your frustration with your partner’s disorganization, work on accepting that he is this way, or try to help him organize? Or, perhaps a little of all of the above? Life is filled with these kinds of dilemmas, and sometimes we need “the wisdom to know the difference.”
In life’s trials and tribulations, you can get confused and lose your bearings. And you need something to help ground you and give you direction. When this happens, try reciting – and re-reciting—the Serenity Prayer. It can help you find the inner strength you seek.
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The Art of Relationship blog posts are for general educational purposes only. They may or may not be relevant for your particular situation; and they should not be relied upon as a substitute for individual professional advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you need help for an emotional or behavioral problem, please seek the assistance of a psychologist or other qualified mental health professional.