Saturday, February 26, 2011

The Silent Killer

No, I’m not talking about high blood pressure. That’s physical and not the focus of this blog. I’m talking about a relationship killer.  Dr. John Gottman calls it ‘stonewalling’ – I call it an emotional freeze-out.

When a conflict has gotten out of hand and has escalated to the point of intense anger and no progress, a withdrawal and cool down is a wise move. It can help prevent a relationship from moving to feelings of powerlessness and futility. But when the withdrawal is prolonged, it may do just the opposite: validate the feelings of hopelessness. Even if the motivation behind these freeze-outs is protective in nature, they can be interpreted as intentionally manipulative, and an ultimate form of passive-aggressive behavior.

The freeze-out is a very powerful move. It communicates contempt for the other person – and it almost always promotes intense anxiety in your partner. We might say that it is the opposite of loving with the kind of patience that God requires.

Ephesians 4:26 says: And “don’t sin by letting anger control you. Don’t let the sun go down while you are still angry.”

Does this mean that we must resolve conflicts before retiring for the night? Absolutely not! Some conflicts are unresolvable. What it means is that we must deal with our anger and make peace in a timely manner. Sometimes that means learning how to lovingly detach. When a spouse is operating in an addiction, it may be impossible to get close, but we can refrain from hostile or punishing behavior.

I have known couples that will go days or weeks without communicating with each other – staying mad at each other. This is a classic power struggle taken to the extreme. But often it is only one person who is maximally defended inside an ice castle of their own building.   

What to do? 

  • First, both people need to practice self-soothing. Most of the time our feelings are out of proportion to the size of the offense.  We can reassure ourselves that things are not as bad as they feel. We can remember that we love this person, even if we don’t like them at the moment. 
  • We can refrain from indulging in extreme or stress-inducing thinking (“this is terrible, awful, meaningless, hopeless, abusive, etc.”)
  • We can intentionally stay connected by making small repair attempts. Repair attempts are things like a meaningful touch, or a silly smile that breaks the ice or a light-hearted phrase that lets the other person know that it is safe to connect (carefully).

Nan & I have got our conflicts down to under five minutes – rarely longer. And it is not because we always agree. It is because we value the integrity of our relationship above winning an argument.  Even though it always feels like a sacrifice at that moment – well, that’s the goal of maturity.   

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Cognitive Dissonance - I'm Fighting Inside

Years ago I remember a struggle taking place within me – a battle for my heart, mind and soul. In a nutshell, it was the pull between two worldviews. Which would win: the secular or the sacred? If I followed my feelings, I would go with the secular. However, if I followed my values I would have to side with my Christian upbringing.

Psychologists call this condition “cognitive dissonance”.

It is where the mind is in pain because it cannot hold two opposite beliefs at the same time. One must triumph over the other before there is internal peace.

This situation often occurs in relationships when there is a high level of conflict. What I feel like doing never aligns with my values. Whether my nature is to want to fight or run, staying and remaining calm and suffering for the sake of the relationship is not my first inclination.

This same kind of struggle happens with unmarried couples trying to follow a path of purity. The pull towards sexual activity does not align with their Christian beliefs. So they either abandon their values, or they modify their behavior (if they are acting out their feelings). And that choice is a hard one because of the cultural normalization of sexual activity as well as the internal drive to connect.  

We can also deceive ourselves by rationalizing and modifying beliefs (“it’s not really all that wrong” or “God really didn’t mean that” or “I married the wrong person – this person over here is my real soul mate”). Ultimately, though, we return back to cognitive dissonance if we become honest with ourselves and break denial.      

What are we to do when we hit these impasses? 

We honor our integrity by grieving the loss of the way we wish things were, but align our behavior to fit a level of maturity that values character qualities over immediate gratification. 

By the way, I hate that part, too. We all do.

However, the benefits are far-reaching – often beyond what we can see at the moment. The result is that we bring stability to relationships, marriages, families and communities – and hopefully peace to ourselves.  

Saturday, February 12, 2011


One of the most common and insidious issues that counselors deal with is that of depression. Sometimes it is really hard to recognize and at other times obvious but challenging to treat. There are times when it is very deep, but temporary as opposed to less significant, but pervasive.

Here are some myths and truths about depression that can help you to navigate through the muddy waters, largely borrowed from Web MD.

Myths about depression:
  1.  Hard work beats depression. Overwork is often a sign of depression, rather than a cure – especially in men.
  2.  It’s not a real illness.  Depression affects nearly one in six people and can be a serious illness. It is the leading cause of disability in the U.S.
  3. Depression is just self-pity. People that suffer from clinical depression are not lazy or weak. It is a medical condition that affects the brain.
  4. Help means drugs for life. Some studies have shown that “talk therapy” can be as effective for mild to moderate depression, however moving through the depression can often be accelerated by medications. It may only be needed temporarily – a bridge across. For deeper depression medications are necessary, but still may not be a lifelong need.
  5. Depressed people cry a lot. That is not always true. Some depressed people do not seem sad. They may just emotionally withdraw or suffer feelings of worthlessness or act out in anger.
  6. Depression is part of aging. Most older people actually do quite fine, but depression can be overlooked because the symptoms are somewhat different. Aches and pains increase, food is not so appealing, interest in activities is diminished.    
  7. Talking makes things worse. Actually it is just the opposite. Sharing the burden is part of the solution. That is why therapy works.
  8. Teens are unhappy by nature. Teens often are moody, irritable and argumentative – but not depressed. If moods of sadness last over two weeks it might be good to check it out. Statistically, one in eleven teens develops depression.
  9. Depression is hard to treat.  Occasionally depression is treatment resistant, but over 70% of people treated with medications alone eventually became symptom free -- and an even higher percentage when combined with therapy.

Facts about depression:

1.    Men fly under the radar. Men don’t tend to talk about their feelings and are often more difficult to diagnose. They are more likely to act out depression in anger, irritability, or restlessness -- and “self- medicate” by drinking, and other reckless behaviors.
2.    Anyone can get depressed. Women are twice as likely to be diagnosed with depression – but that is because they are most likely to seek help and to admit feelings.
3.   It can sneak up slowly. Depression can be progressive – an increase in symptoms over a long period of time. It can also be a chronic low-level malaise that sucks the life out of your work and relationships.
4.   Family history is not destiny. You may have an elevated risk based on family history, but it is not a sentence for life. Managing life stressors and getting counseling when needed will often hold it at bay.
5.  Depression imitates dementia. In older adults confusion, memory problems and occasionally even delusions can be the result of depression and can often be misdiagnosed as dementia.
6.   Positive thinking may help. Getting a hold of our negative self-talk and taking our thoughts captive in prayer and meditation may have a very positive effect. See Philippians 4:8
7.   Exercise is good medicine. Moderately intense exercise, especially in community or with friends is very helpful to combat the symptoms of mild to moderate depression.
8.  It’s not always depression. Sometimes it really is just grief, sadness and disappointment from negative life events. If the sadness from these events does not eventually lift but becomes chronic in nature, then it is time to check for depression.
9.   Hope for better days is real. Remember that it is hard to feel hopeful when caught in the clutches of depression. But depression is treatable and coping skills can be acquired.

If you or a loved one is either suffering from depression or unsure if you are – please get help. Better days are yet to come.

You might want to check this out: