Saturday, October 30, 2010

It's The Little Things That Matter

The reason I post every weekend is the same reason I do my best as a salesman (these days called account representatives) to show up on the same day at nearly the same time week after week, month after month, year after year. It is based on my well-known axiom (at least to my clients).

Consistency over time = Trust

I want you, as a reader, to trust that if you visit this page there will be a new post every week.

How much more true this is for relationships, whether personal or business.

Do you know someone who seems to be consistently late? Do you feel anxious, doubtful or frustrated when having to depend on their promptness? It may seem like a little thing most of the time – but these little breaks in trust translate to uncertainty in other areas of a person’s life.

“If I can’t trust her in the little things, how can I trust her in the big things?”

As I have referenced in a previous post, this becomes especially critical when there has been a major rift in a relationship. The only way to repair a serious trust break is to become rigorously consistent in all areas of life.

I would like to pass these smaller inconsistencies off as nothing more than personality quirks or eccentricities – but in reality they are character traits. We say:

People who keep their word have good character.

Sometimes big decisions are made on this issue alone. When deciding which employees to promote, managers look at many factors – but high on the list are consistency in attendance, promptness and the ability to regularly come through for the company. All these factors add up to trust. The same is true for an employer. Are promises made to workers that are not kept? Do paychecks come on time and as agreed upon?

The word the Bible uses for this concept is “faithful”.

Luke 16:10 "If you are faithful in little things, you will be faithful in large ones. But if you are dishonest in little things, you won't be honest with greater responsibilities."

Just something to think about when making ‘little’ decisions. 

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Who’s In Charge?

There is this cat that has been coming around our house recently that we have semi-adopted. Well, actually, the most honest version of this story is that the cat is training us to feed him. The cat will now come and jump on my lap and “allow” me to pet him in anticipation of a food reward.

Why a cat story in this posting? Glad you asked.

There are two things that make this cat uncomfortable: when I hug too tightly, or (for a full freak-out) if I try to pick him up. As long as the cat does not feel controlled he is happy to remain in relationship with me. You can see where this is going.

Can we actually control someone? Well, yes and no. I can physically restrain someone, and I can coerce or manipulate someone emotionally to do what I want them to – but I cannot make him or her desire to cooperate with me. That is a choice that belongs solely to the person.  

So what about the illusion of control? I think this one is even more insidious. I attempt to control things that ultimately cannot be controlled in order to curb my anxiousness. It feels impossible to trust that things may go my way if I do not directly control the outcome. But in reality, some things are not controllable and to just accept this truth would cause me to feel empty, lonely and scared. So instead I may become clingy or angry until the full weight of my powerlessness hits and then I become empty, lonely and scared. But by that time I may have lost something.

So what can I control? 

My attitude. My emotions. My actions. My expectations. There’s a theme here. I can control me.

Back to the cat. The result of picking up that cat left me with claw marks on my upper torso and some snagged clothing – and the cat got away. He eventually came back, but I think he was more cautious – and may have even given me the stink-eye for a while.

Seeking the truth helps me to give up my illusions and embrace reality, even when I much prefer my fantasies. But I guess that’s what emotional maturity is all about.

It’s something to consider. There is always help available.  

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Relational Tyranny

I think much of the new technology is marvelous – cell phones, text messages, gps, and so much more. But I am convinced that all technological advances must be examined and evaluated for the impact it will have on our lives. The goal, of course, is to add value to our lives – to facilitate positive changes and/or free us up from negative ones.

What I have seen increasingly in people’s lives, and particularly in couples’s relationships is a kind of soft tyranny. Tyranny can be defined as: a rigorous condition imposed by some outside force.

It is easy to recognize the condition as negative when imposed by an employer or parent or some other authority – as in having to be available 24/7 for the convenience of a boss or manager. But how about when it is your spouse or boyfriend/girlfriend that holds that expectation of anytime availability?

I have seen this kind of pressure being placed on relationships with the inevitable negative results. This is a scenario I have seen more than a few times:

One person texts or calls another with the expectation of an immediate response even though there is no emergency or need for a timely reply. When a response does not come, the initiator becomes angry or offended. As difficult as this might be for some to hear – this is an unreasonable expectation to hold, and a relationship killer.

And this expectation is held even during working hours. 

Statistics show that it takes the average person about 15 minutes to fully get back on track with a task after an interruption. Employers and managers are cautioned to hold interruptions to a minimum for optimum performance -- and we should heed the same advice. 

What I think is most destructive to a relationship is the stress that is imposed on both parties, particularly when there is the aforementioned slow response or inability to answer. For the initiator, the result could be feelings of insecurity – and for the responder feelings of being controlled (or concerned that their partner is too needy).

As I think back over our almost forty years of marriage I can count on one hand the times we have made contact more than once a day during working hours when we were both working separate jobs. Sometimes we would not make contact during the entire week. I think that is probably the result of two things. We are emotionally secure in our relationship and we both have respect for each other’s work-life and need for autonomy.

One exception I see is this: When there has been a break in trust – as in an affair or condition of chronic lying – it may be necessary to be available in order rebuild the ruptured relationship.

I would suggest that all couples/friends make this a topic of discussion to head off relational troubles.  

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Unconscious Secondary Gains

One of the places where we can get emotionally or relationally stuck is when we are unaware of what we call secondary gains. These are benefits that are derived from remaining trapped in a particular situation or mindset.

For example: A relationship has long ended, but we continue to talk about it every chance we get, or we continue to pursue the relationship with telephone calls & emails well past the break-up. What is the gain? It feels like the relationship is still alive at some level, and shields us from having to face the full weight of grief.

Another example: A person who has a fixable problem refuses to deal with it, but continually talks about it. Or someone with a chronic problem (maybe physical or medical) doesn’t come to grips with it and also must persistently make it a topic of conversation. What is the secondary gain here? It is the attention and sympathy that the person may receive by delaying action in the first scenario or not making peace with the reality in the second. I am not being callous of legitimate pain and suffering and our need for support. I am talking about excesses that produce negative results.

Ultimately, secondary gains delay the grief process that we must go through. 

How about this one: We provoke someone into a conflict and although it is unpleasant and maybe even destructive it produces a secondary gain. What is the gain? The person has to interact with us. They can’t ignore us and so we feel closer to them in a weird sort of way.

The reason why secondary gains can be toxic is because people tend to distance themselves from us after a while – and as a result we have less access to resources to meet our legitimate needs for comfort and support. 

I am sure that you can come up with other examples of secondary gain: acting helpless so you can be rescued, etc. But the result will be the same – risking relational disharmony.

Are you living with any unconscious secondary gains? If you need aid recognizing or eliminating them – there is always help.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Fighting About Fighting

Have you ever been in the middle of a fight (or argument) and after awhile forgotten what you were fighting about? I know we have. We've gotten so wrapped up in wanting to be heard that the issue became secondary. And so we really were fighting about the way we were fighting.

This is such a common occurrence that people often end up in counseling precisely for this issue. They cannot even see what is going on and they label it “lack of communication.” And in a sense they are correct in that primary messages are not being acknowledged. But really what is going on is that there is a lack of agreement – and this is what is being labeled a communication problem.

So what can we do about it? 

Have some rules and principles that we adhere to in a conflict.

  • Listen first! Make sure that you understand the other person completely. This does not mean that you are giving tacit approval. You do not have to agree. But you do need to hear them out. Then you can acknowledge their point of view and let them know that you do not agree (assuming that you don’t).

  • Calm yourself. You may fear that you are losing power by listening, but you are not. Tell yourself that you are just listening and that you will have a turn. Losing your temper will only prolong the problem and escalate the drama.

  • Stay on task. Even though the other person might try to take the conversation in multiple directions, stay with the original issue and try to be as brief as possible.   

  • Take a break if necessary. But come back to the issue in a timely manner. The goal is to resolve the problem or come to a good compromise (or make peace with it).

  • Above all, do not hurt the people you care about. Don’t use language or make statements that you will later regret.

Job 19:2  “How long will you torment me and crush me with words?”