Saturday, May 29, 2010

Are You Just Like Your Family?

I have been reading and thinking about how our family of origin affects us in profound ways and influences so many of our decisions, emotions and as well as our overall level of anxiety.

As much as I would like to believe that I have worked to be free from the negative pulls of my F of O, I can see how it still rears it’s persistent head when I am faced with higher levels of conflict. When an inevitable conflict arises, my internalized family system kicks in and I am reduced to feeling the feelings of my more immature self. The rule here is: ‘Under stress, we regress’. My challenge is not to give in to these feelings but to operate from my fully differentiated adult self.

What this means is managing my anxiety and not becoming reactive to the presenting conflict. This is easier said than done, but quite necessary if I am to operate at the levels of maturity that is required of me as an adult husband, worker, leader and friend.

I found the following excerpt for the book “The Leader’s Journey” by Jim Herrington, R. Robert Creech, and Trisha Taylor to be very helpful when dealing with our families of origin – so I will quote it verbatim.

“To be truthful, most people are less interested in focusing on their own challenges in being a self and are more interested in changing the others in their family. Understanding family interactions becomes just one more set of tools to be used in the effort to exchange the family they have for the family they want. The problem is, families resist even the best efforts of their members to force change, and as the family polarizes, change becomes even less likely.""

"The phrase ‘I’m going to confront my family about….’ is a sure sign that the focus is on changing the family and not on differentiating self. Another tip-off is the question ‘How can I get my family to…?’ Overfocusing on the failings of the family – and there are usually plenty – is another way we keep the spotlight on our desire for our family to change rather than on our ability to change within our family. However much we might want them to, family members almost never change by being confronted, manipulated, or blamed."

"Even as we say ‘I know I can only change myself,’ many of us harbor the slightly irrational belief that if we can only say the right things or do the right things, the people in our families will change for the better. This may occur, but it cannot be the driving energy for our efforts. We have many options as we seek to keep the focus where it belongs, which is on ourselves."

  • We accept the challenge of changing self as we relate to our family, without taking on the impossible task of trying to change the family.
  • We let our own thinking be known in the family without trying to force the family to adopt it.
  • We pay attention to our own past contributions to our family’s situation as well as to our own current choices.
  • We avoid relating to the family as priest or therapist, but only as self.
  • We accept that this is the family we have instead of struggling against this reality.

"These are perhaps the most difficult aspects of differentiation of self to maintain.”

The wisdom in these words is deep reaching and takes time to really absorb – but the results of living them is priceless.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

I Can't Believe You Said That!

From Nan to Women:                                    

    Prov. 18:21 “The tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit.”

            A while back I was sitting in my counseling room, stunned by a woman administering a scathing attack on her normal, reasonably good guy husband. It occurred to me to ask her, “If he said the exact same words to you, what would you do right now?"

            She responded that she would get up and leave him!

Wow! What a self-indictment.Yet she didn’t see it.
The truth is that women are more likely than men to speak encouraging words to their spouse. And, they are much more likely to tear them down with their words when they are displeased.

When I talked further to the gal who cursed her husband, she explained that since he didn’t seem to respond to her ‘normal’ requests, she intensified the attack, so that he would 'do something'. And, of course, the thing he did was to shut down more.

Dr. John Gottman, in his famous ‘Love Lab’ research, noticed an interesting thing when he studied husband and wives in conflict. Both were wired up to monitors to track heart rate, perspiration, breathing rate, etc. What he discovered was that in conflict women were most likely to be emotionally expressive – yet their vital signs remained reasonably stable. However the vital signs of their less expressive husbands were freaking out all over the place forcing them into a fight or flight posture. Rather than risk further escalation, many of these men decided to emotionally shut down instead.

So, what can I do if my partner doesn't respond to a question, or need that I have?  I can ask if this is a bad time to talk and ask for a ‘rain check’, or I can kindly repeat the request, and wait for a response. If I still don’t seem to be getting anywhere and feel myself getting angry, I can back off for a moment and self-soothe until I calm down.  If it’s a perpetual problem, we can seek help.

But, speaking for myself when I was a newlywed, I spoke a lot of hurtful words that accomplished nothing. I found that repair work is a lot more painful than good preparation by studying the wisdom contained in God’s word. 

“For man's anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires.” James 1:20   

Saturday, May 22, 2010

The Words She Wants To Hear

No, it’s not “I love you”, although she wants to hear those words, too. She probably suspects that you do love her. What she really wants to hear is:

“I was wrong. I’m sorry. Will you forgive me?”

Yes, he wants to hear that from her too, but for some reason it often seems harder for him to utter those words. So what gets in the way of being ready to admit wrongdoing? Pride. Ouch!

When I get caught in some misstep, I really want to move past it as fast as possible. But somehow I think that if I ignore it, it will just go away. But it never does. It just hangs there until I’m willing to deal with it. Or worse, it registers as another wound in my wife that goes unhealed. Unhealed wounds can turn into resentments – and those can be really destructive to a relationship over time.

Oftentimes, I am not aware that I have hurt my wife’s feelings, but fortunately for me she will come to me to point it out – nicely. My first reaction, I’m ashamed to admit, is usually defensive. If I am really on top of things, the defensiveness remains in my head and doesn’t come out of my mouth. With effort I am able to listen and respond with apologies for the perceived offense. I say perceived because most of the time I do not intentionally hurt my wife. But that does not mean I did not say something that was hurtful to her, intentional or not.

When I push my pride aside and am able to respond with care (empathy) for her, I am fulfilling the role that Christ has given to me, to lay my life down for her (Eph. 5:25.) I am being her spiritual covering – not allowing resentments to build up in her, which can lead to sin.

The Bible is clear that if anyone has an offense against us, we are to go to him or her and try to make it right (Matt. 5:23-24.) It’s a gift, when my wife will come to me to help me set things right – even if it doesn’t feel like it at the moment.

Couples that are good at giving and receiving forgiveness usually have resilience in their relationship that sustains them through all kinds of storms of life. It’s not easy, but the rewards are great.

Eph4:32  Be gentle with one another, sensitive. Forgive one another as quickly and thoroughly as God in Christ forgave you.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Assume I’m The Good Guy

I was struck by a statistic I heard at a seminar recently concerning unresolved conflict in marriages. The statistic was this:

            Couples who judge their marriage as unhappy are not in agreement 69% of the time.

Well, I thought, that makes sense. How can we have a good marriage if we can't agree with one another? But the surprising statistic I heard was this:

           Couples who judge their marriage as happy are not in agreement 69% of the time.

Wow, if it’s exactly the same, what then is the difference?

I thought about it for a while and it occurred to me that it must directly relate to our perception in a conflict. Or probably more accurately it relates to my belief about my spouse, during the time I am in conflict with her.

If I believe that she is not for me, or more harshly, that she is against me – I am likely to view the lack of agreement as compounding evidence that the relationship is in trouble. 

If, on the other hand, I can remember that this person that I love, and loves me in return, is just not in agreement with me on whatever the current issue, I am able to see the relationship in a much better light.

It really comes down to assuming positive intent on the part of the other person (innocent until proven guilty). As I like to tell my wife Nan when things get edgy between the two of us:

            Assume I’m the good guy!

Just that simple statement sometimes brings enough perspective for us to get through the impasse. Of course, I also have to check my attitude and make sure I have positive intent.
But it is true that many things in our relationship just don’t get resolved. When it comes to money I am a saver by nature. She is less conservative – and that tension will always exist. Nan is always ready to say ‘yes’ to a party, whereas I want to have time to think about it first before making a decision. I could list many other instances where we are not in agreement. But we don’t assume that the other person is trying to make our life difficult. We just have different preferences. 

In the Bible, Paul admonishes us to come to agreement, and I believe the best way is to make compromises and try to work with each other the best that we can.

Philippians 2:2 (NLT) Then make me truly happy by agreeing wholeheartedly with each other, loving one another, and working together with one mind and purpose.

So really the only difference between happy and troubled is a core belief. In our relationship our core belief is that we are for each other.

How about you?            

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Adding Points - How Reactive Are You?

Have you ever been in the midst of a conflict and wondered why it got so heated? If you were to stop for a moment and think about it, the issue isn't all that big of a deal, really. So why does it feel so emotionally tense?

It is very likely that you are adding (or subtracting) points. Let me explain.

Let's say that the issue is a rather mild one. You left some clothes on the floor (again). On a scale of one to ten, it's about a two or three. But when you walk in the door that evening your spouse hits you with a scathing appraisal of your character. Wow! Where did that come from? We could say that your spouse was reacting at an eight or nine on the scale. The difference between the three-point issue and the eight-point response is five points. Where did those added points come from?

We call those historical (not hysterical) points. They are points added from our past history. Maybe growing up no one ever listened to us. Maybe the clothes on the floor are just one more request that has been totally ignored. Whatever the reason, the response was not equal to the offence.

Conversely, we can subtract points. A real emergency arises that we might consider an eight on the scale. Someone gets hurt and needs medical attention. Instead of responding quickly and taking action, you take your time and minimize the situation. You express soothing comments, but fail to address the real gravity of the problem. You respond at a three. Those subtracted points are also historical. Perhaps every issue in your family of origin was met by over reactivity. Like those folks around the boy who cried 'wolf' one too many times, you became immune to intense emotional pleas, real or not.

So what do you do?

  • If you are over reacting, you must go into a self-soothing mode and remind yourself that your spouse is not the enemy. You ask yourself 'What do I feel, and what do I need?' When you ask yourself what you feel, you can often connect with the historical hurt and realize that those extra points that you are adding belong to someone else (your mom, dad, abuser, etc.) 

  • Then you can ask for what you need or would like (as opposed to what you don't want or don't like.) That's a lot harder to do in the heat of the moment than it may sound. You might need to detach from the conflict for a while, and pray and seek God's counsel. If the pattern continues and you cannot seem to respond with the correct amount of intensity equal to the offense, you might need more help such as counseling or recovery classes.

  • If you are under reacting, you also need to have a conversation with yourself and make a determined effort to assess the situation accurately. Are you subtracting points because of your family of origin issues? Are you minimizing the situation and needing to respond more aggressively (even if you don't feel the circumstances as deeply as those around you)? The same advice about seeking additional help from God and others applies to you as well.

Don't let the past control your present and your future – let the Holy Spirit be in control of your emotions.