When Sarah went through a time of deep pain, her friends and family members rallied around. They were eager to listen and to sympathize. Friends tried to involve her in activities to distract her from the difficulties she was facing. Family members told her she needed the support of fellow believers and urged her not to neglect church attendance or skip small group.
Sarah appreciated their desire to help. But all she wanted was to be left alone.
Sarah is a retreater.
It’s easy to understand the friend who needs to talk for hours over coffee or the family member who throws herself into the details of life to avoid unnecessarily dwelling on issues.
The actions of retreaters can be much more difficult to understand, especially for those who are non-retreaters. Retreaters want to deal with their emotions in peace. The greater their pain, the further they are likely to retreat. They function normally, going to work and taking care of their families and themselves. But what they want most of all is to be left alone to work through whatever is troubling them.
Retreaters may talk to a select few people about their pain, but they generally pull back from their wider circle of friends and family members. They may skip church some weeks because the thought of being around so many people is overwhelming. They may opt out of extended family activities. They may miss Bible study because they don’t have the emotional or mental energy to participate, and they don’t want to discuss their situation. This can be confusing to the people around them, especially those whose natural bent is to think that if a person is hurting, they need their friends and, more specifically, the church.
Elizabeth experienced this situation with her friend Jane. Jane had abruptly stopped communicating with Elizabeth and then, years later, wrote her a letter out of the blue. Jane told Elizabeth that she had been going through some tough circumstances and needed to take some time away from their friendship. The withdrawal had nothing to do with Elizabeth at all, she explained. Although Jane still valued Elizabeth’s friendship, she had gone through a period of retreating to cope with her situation.
So how can we minister to a friend who retreats?
First, accept her need to retreat. Even if you don’t completely understand her way of coping with difficulties, you can still love and accept her. Realize that you cannot talk her out of it or pressure her into talking to you. This is simply who God created her to be.
Second, don’t try to shame your friend into engaging in her usual activities. This only adds to her emotional distress. Don’t take it personally when she declines your invitation to dinner or a night out. Be patient and give her the time and space she needs. Remember that this isn’t about your desire to keep up the friendship. It is about her deep need to heal.
Third, encourage your friend in ways that let her know you care about her, but don’t pressure her. Send her a card or a note that says you are praying for her and that you aren’t expecting a reply. Tell her you miss her and value her friendship, but respect her need for personal space. Offer to drop off dinner or mind her kids. Be there when she is ready to reconnect again.
Fourth—and most important—pray for her. People who retreat only are going through substantial emotional and/or spiritual turmoil. Pray that the Lord will comfort her during this time and heal her in the midst of the situation.