Saturday, August 28, 2010

Have Your Feelings Caught Up With Your Reality?

No, I am not going to start out by discounting feelings. That would mean I would lose at least half of you from the start (both men and women, in case you thought this was a sexist remark). And I would be placing myself at odds with God. The Bible talks about how God also feels (joy, anger, love, etc.). What I am talking about is somewhat different.

Often I ask this question of a client: “Have your feelings caught up with your reality?”

In essence, are the feelings that you are currently experiencing left over from a different time period in your life? Do you need to bring these feelings ‘up to date’?

Trauma can have a profound effect on our ability to regulate feelings – especially fear. It becomes very natural for those of us who have experienced very negative situations to operate on ‘high alert’ even when the danger has passed. The trauma can come from either abandonment or abuse (not getting what you need, or getting what you did not need).

Often the result is what I call “scanning behavior”. I am either looking for threats in my environment, trying to determine if I am safe or I am looking for reassurance of my worth and lovability. Either of these behaviors may make me a relational risk. I could become either emotionally detached or emotionally needy.

The solution? Facing the wounds of the past and letting God and others be part of the healing. You might not even be aware of what those hurts are – or have minimized them to make them manageable. But they are still there waiting to be triggered, often at a most unfortunate moment.

If you feel stuck because of runaway (or seemingly non-existent) feelings – it’s time to get to work. Get involved with a caring community.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Real Change – Real Hard

As anyone who has ever tried to break a habit knows, permanent change is not easy. As much as I would want to stop a particular behavior – the pull towards the familiar habit is strong. As Paul said in Romans:

“I have discovered this principle of life—that when I want to do what is right, I inevitably do what is wrong.”

Does this mean that change is not possible? No, not at all, but it does mean that it takes a lot of effort and patience.

One of the first things that we as counselors try to get new couples in our counseling room to understand is how counter-productive it is to hold their partner’s change as their primary goal. We may well agree that their partner needs to change, but we are all powerless to effect that change. A spouse can influence, plead, cajole and try to manipulate or motivate their mate, but ultimately the transformation must come from within the other person.   

That does not mean that you are powerless. It just means that you are incapable of changing them. What you are able to do, however, is change yourself in relation to the other person. When you do this, your partner will have to deal with the ‘new you’ in this relationship.

For example, if one of your bad habits as a couple is getting into shouting arguments and hurling hurtful words at each other, then you can make a personal commitment to stop shouting back and retaliating. It will not be easy – but the interactions will be different. It’s hard to have a one-way fight.

Jesus said it well: "Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?”

Even if the situation is reversed and you are only 20% of the problem, you can still clean up your side of the street.

It is somewhat uncommon that one person in a relationship will change while the other remains the same. It is also risky for the person not willing to grow. They will remain emotionally stuck while their partner continues to mature and the gulf between them will increase, putting the relationship in further jeopardy.

But because change is difficult, you must have patience and consideration for both your partner and yourself. Encouragement and forgiveness must accompany the setting and keeping of healthy boundaries.  

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Fear Driven Relationships

Fear is a very powerful motivator. It can prompt us to react like almost nothing else can. It can be a life saver or a life killer. When real danger exists, it gives us the adrenaline boost necessary to get out of harms way. But when the danger is only perceived, it can cause us to do things that might actually put us in riskier situations.

Depending on the situation and our temperament, our response to fear will be to fight, run or freeze.

This is particularly true in relationships:

  • My fear of being alone keeps me in a bad relationship.
  • My fear of not being able to support myself keeps me in an abusive relationship
  • My fear of being rejected causes me to not speak up when necessary.
  • My fear of being ignored causes me to start conflicts to get noticed. 
  • My fear of being controlled keeps me from being emotionally close to my spouse and experiencing mutual love.

Why do I say the danger is only perceived in the above examples? In all the scenarios, the fear is probably untested. It is entirely possible I might find another relationship, job, get a good result from speaking up or asking for what I need, or be loved without feeling trapped by it.

This last scenario is particularly evident in many relationships. My fear of being emotionally abandoned may cause me to try to exert control over my partner, who then reacts by moving farther away from me in an attempt to maintain some kind of autonomy. This of course only amplifies my fear, causing me to try to exert more control by pursuing with more intensity.

My fear of being controlled or engulfed may cause me to interpret legitimate needs or requests from my partner as an attempt to control or manage me and I resist, leaving my partner feeling alone and not cared for. Their repeated attempts to get the need met will only reinforce my belief that I must be very vigilant to maintain distance.

The solution? I must take a good look backwards, particularly toward my family of origin, and assess whether I am acting out insecurities from my past. If I can identify where these fears came from, I will have a better shot at managing them rationally.

2 Timothy 1:7 -- For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Do We Match?

I have always loved the game “Concentration”. Matched pairs of cards are shuffled and then individually placed face down on a table. The goal is to turn over pairs of cards and see if they match. If they do, then you keep them, if not, you turn them back over and continue turning over pairs of cards. The game is won when all the pairs have been matched.

Sometimes people will come to me and ask if I believe the person they are dating is a good match for them. What they are asking sounds simple, but really is much more complicated.

“I am attracted to you and you are attracted to me.” Match.

But just like the game, a successful relationship is only achieved if all the pairs match.

“My family accepts you and your family accepts me.” Match
“I want to live in So. California and you want to live in So. California.” Match
“I deeply believe in God and you deeply believe in God” Match
“I want to have kids and you don’t want to have kids.” Uh, oh. No match.

Did we just run into a non-negotiable, a ‘deal-breaker’? Or is this an area of potential compromise?

“You are willing to have kids if I am willing to support you as a stay-at-home mom, even though I want a working wife.”  Negotiated match.

We both go into marriage with a picture of marriage in our mind, and a ‘job description’ for the other person. These pictures and job descriptions often don’t match up very well, yet we aren’t aware of the differences because we fail to fully discuss all the issues. Often we don’t even know that we have ‘rules and roles’ for the other person until they break a rule or don’t accept ‘their’ role. And frequently we don’t find this out until we are already married and having difficulties.

This is why entering into a comprehensive process before getting married (or even afterwards) is so helpful. We can often identify potential problems by asking the right questions and determining whether there are any ‘deal-breakers’, or places of compromise that can be worked out in advance so that the relationship can progress without a lot of drama.

All it takes is concentration.