Saturday, December 31, 2011

Taking Relational Risks In Dating

One of the frequent complaints I hear from our young women around our church goes something like this:

“Why won’t the guys step forward and ask us girls out on a date. We have some really great ladies around here.”

From the guys I hear something like this:

“With a lot of the girls in our community, I feel like I’m being measured for a suit I’m not sure I want to wear. I’m afraid it will be too tight. I think I would rather date someone from outside our church.”

Something’s wrong here.

The truth is, we have quality single men and women in abundance at our church. But only some of them are connecting. Our pre-married/pre-engaged class catches those that have stepped out. But what about the others?  What is holding them back?

I think part of the problem is that some of our single folks are hesitant to take relational risks.

As a guy, I might find that some girls have a pretty extensive list of expectations. Their ‘Must Have/Can’t Stand’ lists have been well-honed. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to be afraid of them. They might also be the ones that will go the distance in a marriage. Hopefully they are looking for good character. If that’s you, they might be right for you. Of course guys can have these lists, too, and the same advice applies.

What risks might a single girl need to take?

Break out of the pack of women you tend to travel with. It’s easier to approach a girl that is not always in the middle of a group of women. I know you feel safer with them around, but you will have better success if you make room for the more shy guys. And dress to be noticed, with taste, of course. Guys are visual by nature – make sure they don’t overlook you.    

This next part is for both men and women. Would you consider yourself “high maintenance”? Are you highly opinionated and verbal? You may attract the opposite sex, but they will not usually want to continue with you. If you get this reputation, you may be avoided.  

One of the advantages of being an older male is that I tend to see beauty in women that younger men may not see. Guys, take a sharper look around and look for girls that you may have missed at first glance. Their appeal and attractiveness is revealed as the relationship grows. Take a risk and ask them out.  

And ladies, don’t pass by the guys that are more introverted or shy. You may need to encourage them a bit by making it really clear that you are interested. Body language goes a long way here. Your eyes are powerful, and so is a calculated touch on the arm.

I am aware that it is awkward to have to exist in community with an “ex”, post break-up, and that is why some don’t want to date within the church. But it is also painful to have to move from a community that you love to follow someone from another church. There is a risk either way.

How about making a New Year’s resolution about this issue – and follow through.

Any thoughts?

Friday, December 23, 2011

What Men Want

Last night at my men’s group (going for about 17 years now, I think), the question came up about the best things about marriage and the most challenging.  Over the years we have asked this question several times of the married guys. Most of us are veterans of long marriages, but sometimes there are guys who have been married more recently.

What is interesting is that there are always similar answers. You might think that sex might be at the top of the positive list (especially for the newly-marrieds), or perhaps dual income or kids. But the most frequent answer is deep and intimate friendship – someone to do life with, someone to come home to.

For me, in addition to the daily friendship, I count having a shared vision and shared purpose as a really high positive as well. It’s not that we always see things identically, but our general trajectory is mostly the same.

What about the hardest things, the most challenging?

At the top of the list is conflict. For most guys, peace at home is of the highest value. I think that may be a huge reason why some men stay at work long after they need to. Or why they come home and hide out. They just don’t want to risk getting in a skirmish and perhaps feeling disrespected. When home is safe, men are happy.

When asked what the most desirable quality a woman can possess – again, no one talked about physical attributes (important, but not a list topper). What we came up with was this: kindness.  Does that surprise you?

Obviously, I can’t speak for the women – so ladies, what would be on the top of your lists? Do you value the same things that we men do?

Why I think talking about this is important is because the messages we get from popular culture are much different. The focus seems to be on the superficial, and the temporary. Without active dialog, we may make wrong assumptions, only to wonder why our reality doesn’t match up with the things we are being sold. 

It’s a great time of the year to offer the gift of friendliness to the one you love the best.    

Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Short Life

As I was sitting in front of another young squabbling couple the other day I thought to myself, “Life is so short. Do you really want to spend this precious time arguing over relatively minor issues, when you could be enjoying the one and only life you have?”

Then I thought, “I wonder how many people have thought that about me, when I complained about something inconsequential.”

These days Nan and I get through most conflicts in less than five minutes – tops. But, sometimes I forget how long it has taken to get to this point. I can assure you that we started out passionate fighters, full of self-righteousness and indignant with offenses.    

I don’t know exactly when this started to slow down, but I don’t think it had to do with running out of energy for conflict. I think it had more to do with becoming more emotionally and spiritually mature (as a result of lots of hours of counseling). It became harder and harder to reconcile our emotional immaturity with the Word of God.

Maturity is not a result of growing older. It’s a state of the mind and heart. I know people in their 50’s, 60’s and older who are still operating emotionally the way they did in their teen years. It is sad to watch. But I also know young adults who have understanding way beyond their years.

What is the key to achieving this?

I think three things are required, minimum. One is desire, the second is education and the third is humility.

Truly, I must want to grow, see the value in growth, and accept nothing less than growth. We are not going to follow through with anything that we do not believe in. Our actions will always follow our beliefs. My desire to have right beliefs must be intense.

There is usually a point in counseling where the focus shifts from establishing what changes are needed to the question of how to make those changes. I have found that this is often the missing piece, and this is where information and education is necessary. And this is where active learners often have an advantage. They are hungry for insight and will pursue many avenues to gain it.

Lastly is humility. Change is hard. Bad habits do not die easily. They must be aggressively squashed. To do that requires a kind of surrender that is not part of my nature. It probably isn’t your nature either. It often means admitting that I am wrong, that I have failed in some areas, and that I am part of the problem (most couples come in for counseling with the goal of changing their partner). It means staying quiet when everything inside of me is screaming to be heard.

So what is the goal?

Maybe, like us, it is getting your conflicts resolved in less than five minutes and returning to joy, because life is short.    

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Safe At Home

It was five o’clock at the Martin house. All of a sudden Mrs. Martin noticed the time.

“Quick, kids. Your dad will be home soon. We have to pick everything up - now.”

The urgency in her voice was unmistakable. If the house didn’t look near perfect when her husband got home she knew they would likely have a bad evening.

This is just one example of an unsafe home. Over the years I have heard many tragic stories of how the atmosphere at home was anything but welcoming and warm. Sometimes the home was downright dangerous.

What makes a home safe?


Peacefulness and calmness

Predictable positive routines

Reasonable standards of cleanliness and tidiness

Patience with each other, even when we are frustrated

What makes a home unsafe?

Violence – physical or emotional

Yelling, screaming, blaming or guilt-producing language

Addictions – alcohol, drugs, hoarding. These behaviors usually produce chaos

Unrealistic expectations of performance

I find that the root cause in many of my clients dealing with anxiety can be traced to the environment of the home in which they grew up. Critical, violent, unpredictable or anxious parents create anxious kids, who become anxious adults. Often these behaviors are passed down generation to generation with disastrous consequences.

What can you do?

If you are an adult living in an unsafe home you must confront it, probably not by yourself. It takes a lot of effort to break old patterns and make significant positive changes. Depending on the situation the resistance may be intense.

If you are the cause of the problem, breaking denial is the first step. You will most likely have to confront the hurts of your past. You will need to examine maladaptive behaviors (coping mechanisms) that are a part of your current life. You may need to deal with entrenched addictions.

What are the benefits?

Emotional health for you and your family

A safe haven from the troubled world

Growth towards spiritual wholeness, and obedience to God    

Do you relate? Please comment on your current or past situation.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Comfort and Joy

By now almost everyone is aware of what is called the “holiday blues” – waves of sadness that overtake people who have: experienced losses in their lives on or around the holidays; or who have become acutely aware of the people, finances, or relationships that have disappeared or never existed.

Our tendency when we encounter these people can be to do one or two things that are not helpful.

The first is to try to fix them or cheer them up. We offer suggestions on how to get rid of the feelings. Or we try to distract them, as if they were children that need to be redirected. Or we offer lame platitudes that only make them feel worse.

The second is to distance ourselves from them as if they carried a contagious disease. And in some ways they do. It is hard to be around people who are sad without us also being infected or affected.  It can be especially difficult during a season that is naturally joyful for us, or where we are having a hard time accessing the spirit for ourselves.

We, as a culture, don’t seem to deal well with grief in ourselves or others. There is a tendency towards denial of our limitations, whether dealing with our or others lifespan, our accomplishments, our capabilities or other forms of personal power. But we are limited, and when we come up against one of these barriers, there is loss involved, and where there is loss there is sadness. We feel our powerlessness and lack of control and we grieve.

So what do we do when we find ourselves with friends and family experiencing the holiday blues?

We come alongside. We just sit with them and listen to them. We offer the warmth of our presence, our smiles and our touch. We offer them a safe haven and let them grieve.

What if we are the one going through the sadness?

We need to not isolate from people. We need to seek community and get involved. We need to let people comfort us when they are willing. And we need to look outward and try to focus on others. Nothing seems to lift our spirit like serving others in some capacity.

One way to change negative associations with the holidays is to build new, positive memories. We can initiate new rituals (like participating in volunteer efforts) and respond affirmatively to invitations to gather.

So where is the joy?

We can turn to God in prayer. We serve a God who understands our pain. Jesus experienced great loss and pain during his time in the world. He knew He could not leave us alone in our suffering and so He sent His Holy Spirit to dwell with us and comfort us. He promised that He would turn our mourning into dancing.   

2 Corinthians 1:    3 All praise to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is our merciful Father and the source of all comfort. 4 He comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others. When they are troubled, we will be able to give them the same comfort God has given us. 

Friday, November 25, 2011

Thanks Again

Every year on the way home from vacation Nan and I ask the same question of each other.

How do we preserve our ‘vacation feeling’ as long as possible?

Of course the reality is usually the same. It fades pretty quickly once we get back into the work day world. But some years we are able to do better than others. One year Nan spent a large part of vacation working through Gordon MacDonald’s book “Ordering Your Private World”, and was able to make a couple of important shifts in her life.

I bring this up now because we just celebrated Thanksgiving and I am wondering how we might keep this feeling of gratitude for as long as possible. I suspect that it is also an inside job just like keeping the vacation spirit. Last year I suggested keeping a ‘gratitude journal’ and an ‘affirmation scrapbook’. 

I would add practicing spiritual disciplines to the recommendations as well. 

Every year during our Thanksgiving celebration we have a family ritual where each member shares two things that they are thankful for that year. It helps us, young and old, to focus on the positive areas of life, even in the midst of struggles. Often I hear expressions of gratefulness for health or longevity. Others will be thankful for relationships, and some for “stuff”.

For me this year I was thankful for: (1) Sleep, and (2) for C.A. (our church) being a safe community.

I have struggled for years with getting adequate sleep, but lately I have been doing better. What a gift sleep is, but often we don’t fully appreciate it until it is in short supply. My bedtime prayers have often been for sleep – it’s nice to know they do get answered.

What I mean by ‘safe community’ is this: I am free to be myself without fear of condemnation, with confidence that if I mess up I will still be accepted. This atmosphere of grace is precious to me because I haven’t always felt it during other times in my life. Church hasn’t always been a place where I wanted to be, but Christian Assembly is – and a place I can invite people with no hesitation.

I would love to hear two things that you are grateful for this year. Perhaps it will suggest more things to add to my list.

Oh, by the way – I am grateful for all my blog readers. 

Friday, November 11, 2011

What's My Nature?

I was thinking today about all the political debates already in full swing, how they often produce a lot of emotional interactions among people. Some people really enjoy the discourse, while others are offended or become negatively reactive. The same thing can happen in other areas of relationship as well.

I would ask a question of you. How easily offended are you, or how argumentative are you? Perhaps you are both.   

I have seen argumentative people damage relationships defending their positions on issues they really don’t care one way or another about. I have also seen people playing the victim, willing to end relationships for petty or imagined hurts.  

Often I have seen these two types paired, with painful results. 

In the instance of offense, have old hurts been triggered and unfairly attributed to the current situation? (See earlier post “Adding Points” 5/08/2010) Have I failed to develop a thick enough skin to weather the ups and downs of life? People can be insensitive at times without being hostile or intentionally hurtful. Can I make room for them? Am I able to forgive?

If I have an argumentative nature is it because I felt my opinions were discounted or ignored growing up? Or is my contrary posture a character defect that I need to work on so that I get along with people better. Being in a relationship with an argumentative person can be a real challenge.

I know I have been unnecessarily quarrelsome and self-righteous and it has stressed out our relationship at times. Fortunately time and God has softened this part of me. I still feel passionately about certain things, but I have learned to filter my responses and even hold my opinion at times.

Rarely do people come around to our way of thinking as a result of a cantankerous attitude. Neither do they have much compassion for, or want to get too close to someone who is always having their feelings hurt.

So in which area might you improve?  Challenge yourself with a spirit of humility.

Isaiah 57:15 The high and lofty one who lives in eternity, the Holy One, says this: “I live in the high and holy place with those whose spirits are contrite and humble. I restore the crushed spirit of the humble and revive the courage of those with repentant hearts.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Ineffective Habits In Relationships

I think most everyone has heard of Stephen Covey's “Seven Habits Of Highly Effective People” - a huge bestseller, especially in the business world. In the preface of a more current book “Principle Centered Leadership”, he notes his brother John's (a master teacher) list of seven habits of highly ineffective people. Although the list is generally intended to be applied to business situations, I thought they were worth mentioning and commenting on in the context of relationships.

If you do any of the following you are at risk.

  1. Be reactive: doubt yourself and blame others.
Reactivity is a killer in relationships. It makes couples angry or afraid, leading to defensiveness
and distancing. Emotions under control lead to understanding and empathy.

  1. Work without any clear end in mind.
So many relationships go nowhere for years. I hear all the time of people dating for five, six or seven years with no clear idea if they are right for each other and should get married or break it off. They may get married eventually as a default rather than a choice, or get back into the dating pool at an age when it is more difficult to connect.

  1. Do the urgent thing first.
This habit usually leads to relationship neglect. When I have my priorities out of whack I will probably sacrifice my closest relationships first, expecting them to understand. The goal here is to discern urgent from important. Many things are urgent but not important. I must give priority to the important things in life.

  1. Think win/lose.
If this is my habit, I will eventually alienate the one I love. I will find myself winning skirmishes and losing intimacy in the relationship. Instead I must develop the habit of thinking “If we as a couple win, I win.”

  1. Seek first to be understood.
If this is my goal I will probably wonder why my mate is tuning me out. I am more interested in a monologue than I am in a dialogue. It is said that God gave us two ears but only one mouth for a reason.

     6.  If you can’t win, compromise (your integrity).

Compromise is the only good solution in relationships unless it is your integrity, your values, or your good character qualities that are on the line. Then you will certainly lose what is most important. However we must be very careful that we do not operate in a self-righteous way when defending these aspects.

    7.  Fear change and put off improvement.

Most growth is difficult and often anxiety-producing. What if I change, but my mate does not? Will my position become weaker in this relationship? A better question is what are the risks of not changing when necessary. What would God want from me in this area? Change is inevitable. It becomes our friend when we embrace it and our enemy when we resist it.

I'm sure that we could come up with a much bigger list if we thought about it, but I think this is a great beginning. Which ones seem hardest for you to accept? Which ones do you want to work on?

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Emotionally Available

Have you ever spent a good deal of time with someone and then left feeling like you have no deeper knowledge of them? Or have you shared a vulnerable moment with someone and afterwards you have no clue as to what they are thinking or feeling, and that your story did not “move” them in any way?

You may be with someone who is emotionally unavailable.

Or perhaps I may be describing you.

Emotional availability is the ability to monitor your own feelings and then communicate them to another person. It is also the ability to read other people’s verbal and non-verbal cues accurately, and then respond appropriately (emotional intelligence).

 I want to emphasize the word “appropriately” here. There can be a tendency to overshare in an attempt to connect with someone, or to withhold out of fear or anxiety. Oversharing may drive a person away because they might interpret it as neediness on your part, whereas holding on too tight to your feelings may lead them to believe you are emotionally cold.

I suggest a layered approach where you reveal your deeper feelings a little at a time, testing to see how they respond. With each new “layer” you should risk a little more and then see if they are also willing to risk in return. If they cannot, then stop there. If you continue to share after that point with nothing in return you will eventually become hurt and resentful.

I have observed that there is a tendency in some people to consider oversharing a virtue in the name of authenticity and transparency. They want to let a potential candidate for a relationship know all the emotional baggage that they carry, even before that person has a chance to discover all the positive benefits of being in a relationship with them. If this happens on a first encounter, I would be very apprehensive.

But on the other hand, people that are unable to share their deeper feelings (both positive and negative) will probably not be able to sustain a relationship because their partner will feel alone. This is where guessing and mind-reading may enter the picture, often with disastrous results. It takes a lot of frustrating work to pull feelings from an emotionally withholding partner. And you may never know if they are really being honest or just placating you.

So would I advise you to run from an emotionally unavailable person? It depends.

In a dating relationship I would suggest proceeding cautiously and not attempt to take them on as a project. If fear is holding them back and they open up as they relax, there might be potential.

In a marriage, it will probably be necessary to enter counseling as soon as possible to prevent further damage.

How about the person who tends to overshare and parade their emotional damage to you?

Again, in a dating relationship I would be careful not to engage in “rescuing” and take them on as a project. Are they engaged in counseling and recovery and being successful in healing the hurt places in their life, or are they stuck or unwilling to get help? Are they growing in maturity both spiritually and emotionally?

You will probably know when you are with an emotionally available and healthy person, because you will feel connected, but not smothered. You will feel relaxed around them, but not bored. You will feel energized, but not find yourself frequently in the middle of a drama, walking on eggshells.

Any thoughts or comments?  

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Being Right or Being in a Relationship?

J was the mother of two good children and the wife of a decent guy. From the outside everything looked like a happy family. But behind closed doors it was anything but. J’s overpowering need for everything to be right (according to her standards) was driving everyone away. And the worst thing about it was that she couldn't see it. Her interpretation was that she was saddled with a lazy and ungrateful family. But the truth was that her overly high standards and the rigid way in which she kept them were crushing her family.

And so she went around feeling bitter and disappointed and often isolated and alone, because her family tried to steer clear of her and her minefield of unrealistic expectations.

At work she got accolades from her boss for her high level of performance, but her co-workers felt that she was not a safe person, that anger was just below the surface, and so they did not engage with her like with other fellow employees. She just thought they were jealous and beneath her. But still, she was alone.

Diagnostically, we could come up with a whole list of possible pathologies¸ but the Bible would probably label J as hard-hearted or un-yielded or stiff-necked. And that would be true. Her own personal emotional and spiritual journey needs to include recovery from this un-loving attitude towards others.  

But as much as I feel for J’s family and co-workers, I also feel deep compassion for J. Her life is not easy. As hard as she may drive others, she feels intense pressure to drive herself even more. She is constantly seeking validation that she is worthy, but never feeling completely at peace about it.     

What do you do if you are J’s family?

You speak the truth in love – a lot of love, not backing away in anger or frustration. J’s husband, who has, but often does not feel power in the relationship, must especially hold loving boundaries.

What if you are J?

There is probably a complex spiritual and emotional battle going on inside of you. It is a jumble of issues related to your family of origin, temperament, and experiences of loss. The results are a foundation of fear and anxiety with its attendant coping mechanisms, one of which is not to acknowledge the fear and anxiety, but to externalize the problem.

This is where understanding God’s unconditional acceptance of you is crucial. When you feel His acceptance, you will begin to accept yourself and others. Grace, rather than critical judgment will flow from you, which will attract others to you like moths to a flame.

This is a journey you cannot attempt alone. It requires spending time in a healing community as well as spending time in solitude with God.  It means surrendering your belief that you have a right to share your opinion or be heard above all others. And that will feel like sacrificing and suffering – because it is.    

You can be right, or you can be in relationship. But you can’t have both. 

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Word Pictures

I was just thinking how Jesus talked in parables – stories, in order to communicate at a deeper and perhaps more memorable level. Often these parables were able to trigger more intense emotions, like the workers who got paid the same whether they worked one hour or all day.

He also used symbols, like water (drink of THIS living water and you will never thirst again). 

In a similar way we can also communicate with each other by using word pictures to get our point across in a more emotionally connectable way.

What is a word picture? It is a figure of speech used to compare two things, basically a simile, so that there might be greater clarity. It is very useful particularly between men and women, who as we all know tend to speak different languages.

Here is an example of one word picture I heard in counseling (from a woman):

“When you hug me often and hold my hand I feel like a well-watered plant. But when you forget, I start shriveling up and dying.”

I can tell you that this was much more effective than the criticism. “You’re not affectionate enough!”
Another example comes from a man with a nagging wife:

“I feel like a child who is constantly being scolded by his mom for being ignorant of what he is supposed to do. I feel small and inadequate.”

He could have responded in a contemptuous manner “You’re a nag and have always been a nag” but I can tell you that his word picture was much more effective. His wife was able to feel some empathy for him and was able to come alongside him rather than become defensive or combative.

Even more dramatically I have heard clients use metaphor to get a point across. One woman declared “That was a knife to my heart, cutting it out, and then stomping on it.” Wow! But he got the point.

I must admit that it is not easy to do in the heat of a conflict. Often, it requires a good measure of that ugly word “maturity” to stop and think before responding.

I suspect that the right-brain, creative types have an easier time with this kind of communication, but wouldn’t it be worth developing this kind of tool if it could get your point across in a more receivable and kinder way?

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Notes From 30,000 Feet

These last four days Nan and I have spent at a Christian counseling conference in Nashville, Tennessee. In some ways it was overwhelming: travel stressors, change of sleeping conditions, meals caught when practical, unfamiliar surroundings, etc. And then there was the sheer quantity of input of information, sound, crowds, and the size and scope of the venue.

But on the flip side were expected and unexpected gifts: new and useful information, spiritual uplifting, connecting with old friends, and chance conversations with people we came into contact with. I think it is that last item that is particularly dear to me as well as troubling. I wonder how many times over the years I have been too self-focused to take advantage of the “human resources” that were right around me. 

I have always blamed introversion and anxiety over making connection with strangers for this failing. It has made me really admire those that did not suffer as I did. But still, I lament the missed opportunities to get to know people that are precious to God.

I wonder if you are like me. Have you let fear hold you back from reaching out and being salt and light in a dark world?

I kept telling Nan this trip that I was practicing extroversion. I was intentionally noticing people. I was smiling at people every chance I got. I was deliberately engaging people in conversation. I was not going to fail to grow in an area of weakness and challenge.

But maybe your fears are different from mine. Maybe you are afraid of being known. Or possibly you are afraid of being ignored or unremarkable. Perhaps you think you are too much for people, that you will overwhelm them with your emotions. Maybe you don’t even like the direction of this conversation.

In our men’s group at the end of each year we talk about the potential tragedy that we are facing once again: that of remaining stagnant spiritually, intellectually, emotionally, or relationally. Wouldn’t it be a shame if we got to the end of the coming year and no growth had taken place?

But risk and discomfort always seems to accompany growth – and no one likes pain, especially if avoidable. And so we tend to shy away from it, even when we know it is the right thing to desire.

Whatever your fears might be, would you be willing to join me and take some chances? And then, would you be willing to tell me about it? I would love to applaud you.

Saturday, September 24, 2011


I remember a time halfway through our process of being counseled when I reached a point where I was ready to give up. We were about a year into it, and it seemed that no matter what I did or how diligent I was, it was not going to be enough for Nan. She seemed like a bottomless pit of needs and wants from me. As a man who had a high need to feel adequate (like all men), I was becoming discouraged and doubtful whether this counseling thing and this marriage thing was actually going to work over the long haul.

On the flip side of this, Nan was thinking “Isn’t he ever going to get it? I keep telling him and coaching him and encouraging him and being vulnerable with my feelings. Why doesn’t he completely ‘get me’ yet?”

These were the negative dialogs going on in our heads. But the truth was somewhat different. I was starting to understand and was responding much more appropriately, and she was becoming much more kind and yielded towards me. But we were both scared.

Subsequently, I discovered that there was a place of “enough” for her. She became trusting that our new way of dealing with each other was more than just temporary. Our anxiety in the relationship went down and our contentment went up.

Up until that point we both felt blamed by the other person, and alone in our self-righteousness. We were stuck. Both of us were impatient for change and did not like having to suffer. We really did believe that if only the other person would change, everything would be fine. The turning point came when we both acknowledged our part in the difficulties.

The element that was needed to reach this place was endurance.

It took a lot longer than we had hoped. But the damage was significant and the deficits were large. Just like a house that had been neglected for a long time, the rehabilitation took patience and effort. But our endurance produced results that continue to pay dividends.

So for all of you who are struggling and discouraged, do not give up hope. Roll up your sleeves and get to work. Stop talking about change and do something toward that goal. Make a plan, commit the time, and be prepared to endure the process until you are satisfied with the results. Often the only thing blocking the way is our own pride.   

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Turning Down The Noise

One of the things I most appreciate about our vacations is the space it provides for tuning out the extraneous noise of life and tuning in to what is more important. On our last three vacations not once did we turn on a television, even for a moment.  Instead, we talked to each other, read books together and spent time dreaming together.

Now, in all fairness, we have also “cut the cable” at home, relying on our Internet connection for news and entertainment. So for us this elimination of television is not a spiritual fast, but a significant lifestyle change. One thing I have noticed by this change in habit is that we are much more interruptable. There is none of that shushing each other so we don’t miss what is happening on the tube.

Perhaps there are other ways to achieve a level of peace and contentment as well. Here are some of the things we do.

  • We do not allow the telephone to rule our life. Often we check Caller I.D. for telemarketers before picking up the phone. Amazing how those folks never leave a voice message. I apply the same rule to my cellular phone – I have not developed the habit of texting, which I believe creates a false sense of urgency. I do understand the value, but it becomes one more intrusion into my inner world.

  • We also carefully consider outside commitments. So many things look appealing and interesting when you are part of a wonderful church community like Christian Assembly. Learning what to say “yes” to becomes a challenge. But if we are to have space for solitude and other spiritual disciplines we need to be mindful of our choices. Work, kids, spouses and friends will all contend for our time. Too many parents are tyrannized by kids’ outside activities. A good parent helps a child make choices and set good boundaries.

  • We do not shop as a form of entertainment. I often joke about how many people are at the “Church of the Holy Mall” every Sunday. It is a sad joke, though. As part of our commitment to simplicity, we try to limit our shopping mostly to essentials for life (books are essential, right?). It both helps us keep a budget as well as focus on what is more important to us.

  • We do not have any solo, all-consuming hobbies. This can become almost an obsession for some folks. We joke about “sports widows”, but often it is not funny to the lonely spouse. When does exercise become a narcissistic pursuit rather than a healthy one? Does our time at the gym squeeze out our time with God?

Perhaps you can add to my list. I would love for others to post ways in which you preserve sanity in your life and reduce the noise of living in this complex society.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Off The Table - Extreme Danger Ahead

“You’re just like your mother!”

“You’re just like your father!”

How many times have these phrases been hurled, not as a compliment, but as an expression of contempt?

In every relationship there are certain things that should be “off the table”. These are oHOHHsubjects or phrases or actions that are simply too inflammatory or hurtful. If I cross the line on these, I may do irreparable damage to the relationship, or at least break trust to an extent that it may be a long time before my partner is willing to let me get emotionally or physically close again.

Often, we toss out these remarks as reminders of past sins or failures with the intention to engender shame. But why would we do this to someone we supposedly care about?

I believe it is one way we try to control other people. When I am angry or upset, I am feeling a loss of control and my response is to try to gain it back. In my attempt to feel secure again, I may use maladaptive methods to manage my anxiety over this loss of power.

Every couple should talk about the issues in their lives that fall into this category and should agree to never tread on those tender places. To do so intentionally is simply unacceptable, sometimes even cruel, and may place the relationship in grave danger. I believe this can be especially helpful for those who are not yet married and desire to minimize potential hurt and conflict.

What are common things that should be 'off the table' for couples?
  • Threatening divorce
  • Foul or abusive language, cussing, insults
  • Rage (as opposed to anger)
  • Threatening abuse: physical, financial
  • Withholding affection for an extended time

If you have already crossed these boundaries in a relationship, intentionally or otherwise, it would be wise to humbly address your errors. It may be an opportunity for sincere repentance and apologies which opens the way for forgiveness and restoration. In some relationships these hurts might be so deep or the relationship so fragile that you may require the assistance of a pastor or counselor.

Psalm 139
23 Search me, O God, and know my heart;
      test me and know my anxious thoughts.
 24 Point out anything in me that offends you,
      and lead me along the path of everlasting life.    

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Emotional Triangles

Anxiety may be the most common byproduct of living in this fast-paced and complicated culture. I am sure that every generation has had to deal with its particular set of stressors back to the dawn of man. But what might set apart our more current generations is the intangible quality of many of the fears and threats that we have to face. There just seems to be more and more things that we cannot control or affect. And the result is increased anxiety.

So what does this have to do with triangles?

In relationships, a dyad (two people or two factions) is considered to be unstable. As long as a dyad is free of anxiety, it will function well. But introduce some stress into the relationship and it will become unstable.

One way we try to bring stability to the relationship is to form an emotional triangle. We look around to find a third party to absorb some of the anxiety the dyad is feeling. Parents do this with kids. They over invest emotional energy into an acting out child, which takes the focus off their own troubled relationship. The child can then be blamed for the stress in the marriage.

We can also reduce our anxiety by bringing in a third party as an advocate to our position. If I can convince a friend or family member that my spouse is the problem in our relationship, then I feel some relief. The problem is that it creates more distance between me and my spouse. And as an added bonus, when I eventually make up with my spouse I may have to deal with a damaged relationship I created between my spouse and the third party.

We not only can form emotional triangles, we can also be drawn into them. Other people will often try to bring us in as the third side of a triangle. It happens in families, it happens at our workplace and it happens in churches. It can occur through gossip (“Did you hear what so and so said about Judy? Can you believe that?”)

Every time we form an emotional triangle we will compound the problem.

The only solution is to be very vigilant to recognize when a triangle is about to be formed and resist it. It is important for problems to be dealt with directly between two parties.

Am I saying that it is always wrong to bring in a third party to a problem?

No, of course not. Sometimes it is the only solution. But the third party must be as unbiased as possible. The Bible has already outlined this process.    

Matt 18: 15-16 “If another believer sins against you, go privately and point out the offense. If the other person listens and confesses it, you have won that person back. But if you are unsuccessful, take one or two others with you and go back again, so that everything you say may be confirmed by two or three witnesses.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Embracing Our Challenges

I think one of the hardest things to do is admit the areas of our life that are flawed and in need of rehabilitation. There are parts of my personality that I was either born with or developed over my lifetime that I wish weren’t there. There are two ways to deal with them – one works and the other doesn’t.

The first way is the path of blame; to see my issues as other people’s problems.

“It’s not me, it’s them. I don’t have to change; they need to change to accommodate my behavior.”

This attitude can be particularly evident with certain disorders. (Narcissistic Personality Disorder, Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder, Borderline Personality Disorder, Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder, etc.)

The problem with taking this tack is that people will eventually keep you at an arm’s length or farther. There is a limit to what most people are willing to put up with. Interactions will be frustrating and unsatisfying as you seek to be loved and accepted.

The other way is the path of humility. This way is harder at first, because it requires changes to many of our habits and coping methods. But eventually it leads us into deeper relationships with others who will embrace us and help us with our struggles.

For example, if I struggle with compulsive neatness, instead of demanding that others maintain my standards I might say:

“Clutter really causes me anxiety. I know it’s my issue, but anything you could do to help me keep things picked up would really be appreciated.”   

Or perhaps you have the opposite problem as with Attention Deficit Disorder. You might say:

“I have a hard time remembering to turn off lights, close doors and drawers, and put things away after I use them. I would appreciate it if you would remind me nicely if you see me forgetting to do these things.”

It really is hard to break denial and take responsibility for our shortcomings. The people who make little progress in counseling are the ones who fail to do so. They may resist because of fear, or arrogance, or contempt, or stubbornness, or just plain blindness.

But those who are able to surrender in humility will more likely find themselves laboring along with friendly travelers.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Traveling Lightly

In keeping with the theme of “simplicity”, Nan and I are foregoing checked baggage on our vacation this year and flying with only what we are permitted to carry on with us. We have pared down our list of clothes and things to the essentials, the necessary.

I thought: “What a great metaphor for entering into marriage!”

What if we could begin our married life taking with us only the things that are essential to a good marriage and leave behind the heavy baggage? How wonderful that would be. So I thought about the things that are best left behind.

  • ANGER – our pastor Mark Pickerill says that it is impossible to be in a relationship with an angry person. They will eventually kill all the love and safety. Romans 12:18 “Do everything possible on your part to live in peace with everybody.”
  • DEBT – It is a relationship stressor like no other. Romans 13:8 “Owe nothing to anyone—except for your obligation to love one another.”
  • RESENTMENT & UNFORGIVENESS – Leftovers from old relationships, especially family, will damage your marriage.   Colossians 3:13 “Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.”
  • ADDICTIONS – No matter what kind they are (alcohol, drugs, shopping, pornography, entertainment) they will negatively impact your marriage. Deal with them before you say “I do”.
  • UNNECESSARY POSSESSIONS – Wouldn’t it be nice not to burden your new spouse with all kinds of collected “treasures”. And wouldn’t it be nice to have a clutter-free home.

So what do we want to take with us? How about:

  • A GREAT ATTITUDE – It makes it easy to be around us
  • WARMTH – Others will feel valuable and wanted
  • KINDNESS – You will be a person who is safe to share pain and failures with
  • PATIENCE – People will not feel anxious around you
  • FRIENDLINESS – You are approachable
  • THE ABILITY TO LAUGH AT YOURSELF – People will relate to you

For all you married folks out there it is not too late to shed the negative out of your relationship and work the positive attributes in. 

It may take some real effort to reverse old behaviors and develop new skills. But like Paul’s admonishment for our faith journey, the same may apply to our marriage. 

Hebrews 12:1 Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.

I am sure that you can add to both my lists. Some of these items have been mentioned in previous blog posts. So how do you rate yourself?

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Money and Sobriety

Not all drunkenness comes from overindulgence in substances (drugs, alcohol). Everyone has heard the term “drunk with power”, but there are many other ways to lose our sobriety as well.

The dictionary defines sober this way:

“marked by sedate or gravely or earnestly thoughtful character or demeanor: unhurried, calm: marked by temperance, moderation, or seriousness: subdued in tone or color: showing no excessive or extreme qualities of fancy, emotion, or prejudice”

In our culture one of the most insidious addictions is the craving for money and the pursuit of “more”. The resulting fallout is the root of a lot of pain and the break-up of marriages, businesses and friendships.

A drunk does not make good decisions. Actions are not well thought out. They do not adequately consider others’ feelings or see the “big picture”, but rather live for the moment.  

I am not just talking about the obvious results of spending addictions (stuff-lust), but also the loss of relationship that comes when money and the pursuit of it becomes an all-consuming idol.

Why do I call it an idol? It is because we are constantly making sacrifices to it. I sacrifice time with my family and friends. I sacrifice my need for sleep. I sacrifice recreation time. I may sacrifice my integrity through compromise. And I sacrifice my time spent with God.

I think it is also possible to sacrifice our Christian worldview.
Matthew 16:26 (NLT) And what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul? Is anything worth more than your soul?
I wonder how many well-intentioned parents have spent huge amounts of money to send their children to secular universities only to have them return as atheists and skeptics. The intended purpose was to prepare their sons and daughters to succeed in life financially (to have more). And so education also becomes an idol with its attendant sacrifices.

Sociologists have claimed that we have created a generation of narcissists, drunk with entitlement, many of whom cannot do much of anything useful, but believe they deserve everything. When everything does not come, they may become angry or depressed.

How can we correct this?

It is not easy. We must very thoughtfully consider whether our behavior is consistent with our values. We must become restrained in our pursuit of more. We must consider what we are modeling for our children. And yes, we must have a budget and make our wants obedient to it.   

And more importantly we must consider whether our values are consistent with God’s values and a Christian life.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Emotional Detachment vs. Relational Cutoff

I was reading through a list of acronyms Alcoholics Anonymous uses to remember concepts and was most struck by one in particular.

DETACH – Don’t Even Think About Changing Him/Her.

Sometimes during counseling, a client will ask for clarification on what “loving detachment” looks like (a solution CODA suggests). Explanation is needed because it is often inaccurately interpreted as “emotional cutoff”. Emotional cutoff is an extreme measure not to be used except in the most toxic of circumstances.

Loving detachment can be most easily described as the emotional distance required to keep from being negatively triggered by another person. When I have found that degree of separation, I can remain nonreactive to their behavior and as a result not build up resentments towards them. I am protecting both of us – me, from their maladaptive actions or manipulations, and them from my angry or inappropriate responses. When I find that “right distance” I can love them despite their harmful behaviors.

Emotional cutoff, as opposed to distancing, is a total shutout of connection with the person. Dr. John Gottman calls this “stonewalling” – not allowing anything said by a person to have any effect on me whatsoever. (All your words are thrown against a stone wall – an impenetrable barrier.)

I could describe loving detachment as an effective filter, letting through only the useful content to maintain a healthy relationship, whereas emotional cutoff filters out all incoming information of a feeling nature.

Jesus called for us to love our enemies, not to hate them. (Matthew 5:44) When we are locked in an emotional struggle with a person, even someone we care for deeply, they can feel like an enemy. It makes it very hard for us to love them. But we are still required to do so.    

I know that I am at the right distance when I no longer feel the need to try to control them. At that distance I can accept them (not their behavior) and I give up my false belief that I have the power to change them. At that place, I have freedom in a new way. I am no longer slave to the relationship, and I will not sit down to breakfast with a bowl of resentment and regret.

So when that urge comes to try to change someone, you are too close. DETACH!

Saturday, July 23, 2011

A Great Friend

As I study to improve my skills and understanding as a counselor, it always leads me into a place of self-examination. If I cannot allow the things I learn to affect my own life, how can I expect it of others? It would be kind of like listening to a sermon in church and constantly elbowing the person next to you.

There is a passage in the Bible that is generally considered to be one of the core instructions for being a counselor, but I think it also could describe the qualities of a great friend.

The passage is from 1 Thessalonians 5.

14 Brothers and sisters, we urge you to warn those who are lazy. Encourage those who are timid. Take tender care of those who are weak. Be patient with everyone. 15 See that no one pays back evil for evil, but always try to do good to each other and to all people. 16 Always be joyful. 17 Never stop praying. 18 Be thankful in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you who belong to Christ Jesus.

The skill set required to be a good counselor can also apply to being a good spouse (although I strongly suggest that you not try to be your spouse’s therapist).

Attending – Provide undivided attention when your spouse/friend is speaking. Maintain eye contact without staring, keep an open posture, lean forward and give small gestures to assure the person you are present.

Empathic response – Respond to the speaker in a way that assures them that you are connecting with the emotional content of their story (not just the informational content).

The interpersonal qualities of a good counselor are the same as a good friend.

Genuineness – You need to be the kind of person that you would want your friend/spouse to be. For example we cannot ask for kindness from them, while treating them in a harsh or demanding way.

Warmth – This is an essential quality for a therapist. Without it there is little chance that a trust-bond can be formed. The same can be said in other relationships. Without warmth there can be no relaxing.

Positive regard – This is treating the person with respect and care as a person made in the image of God. This does not mean that you always agree with them, or that you do not see a need for change.

Supportive and challenging – As a friend I must be able to give strong support to the person even though I may not be able to support their behavior at times. Knowing how to hold that delicate balance means I must be in communion with God.

As I strive to be a better counselor, I also want to endeavor to be a better person, friend, and spouse.

Can you agree?    

Saturday, July 16, 2011


A friend this week asked me to write about accountability. It’s a word that is thrown around a lot in both Christian and recovery circles. What is implied and how should one respond if asked to be in an accountability relationship?

In recovery terms, it is a more formal relationship, where a person volunteers to be a ‘sponsor’ to a less recovered individual. In moments of weakness, the sponsor is the ‘go to’ person to talk them through the temptation to slip back into destructive behavior.

In the church community it is usually a voluntary relationship between two or more individuals to help support a desired behavior, such as purity or some other form of self-discipline. It can be a ‘one way’ relationship, but it is often mutual. Sometimes accountability is a required relationship as part of a restoration process, imposed by an authority, such as a church board.

I would suggest a few things be considered if asked to enter into an accountability relationship.

First, are you entering into this relationship voluntarily or do you feel compelled or obligated to participate? You must have the right motivation and attitude to be authentically helped or helpful. You must feel free to say ‘no’ if asked.   

Second, do you have the time? It will require being available on a regular basis for the process to be effective, whether you set up a scheduled time of connection, or on an ‘as needed’ basis. It is necessary to set the parameters of the relationship up front so that there are no unspoken expectations.

Third, are you inadvertently setting up an unwanted parent-child relationship? Peers should remain as such. Is there a risk that a dependent bond will be formed and you are opening yourselves up to potential resentments because of the imbalance?  You must ask yourself “Is this the right accountability partner?”

Fourth, if the relationship is to be one of mutual accountability, do you trust the person? Will you feel safe? If not, you will not be completely honest and the arrangement will suffer. In our men’s group we put confidentiality and safety as the highest value. It is an area that cannot be compromised.

Accountability can be a good tool in our desire to be formed into the image of Christ. It can be part of our process to develop self-disciplines such as prayer, fasting, simplicity, celebration, service, solitude, study, meditation, submission, confession, worship, and guidance (from Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster).

Some friendships need to remain just that, with no added burdens. In others, a deeper intimacy can be achieved by opening ourselves up to examination and correction.

Proverbs 27:6 (NIV) Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses.