Saturday, April 30, 2011

Break-ups. Success or Failure?

Recently we shifted the emphasis on the marriage prep class we teach at our church from pre-marrieds to pre-engaged couples. Often couples were coming to our class at the very last stage of their engagement just prior to marriage (some couples even missed a class because their wedding fell on one of the class dates). Although we welcome everyone, we feel that serious couples should attend prior to making an engagement decision – and the sooner the better.

With the high rate of divorce in our country, it makes sense to examine all aspects of the marriage process. Our belief, along with many other educators, is that up front work on the relationship will pay substantial dividends.

When a couple enters into a relationship, they both have a picture in their heads of what a marriage is supposed to look like. The trouble is, that picture is never the same – and sometimes it is so different that there is most likely real pain ahead if the couple decides to marry.

In this case, a break-up is a real success. The expectations are too different and there will likely be disappointment after disappointment. Both will feel unheard and unloved. The best solution for this couple is to have a good good-bye.

There are other couples, however, that are well suited for each other, but have a difficult time moving forward. Perhaps there is a fear of marriage because of divorced parents or friends. There might be a lot of negative advice from well-meaning friends. Perhaps they are having trouble letting go of an imaginary fantasy mate they have conjured up over the years. It is sad when these couples abandon the relationship without trying to work through the resistance. Often success is within their reach.

Once married, all break-ups are painful and might be called failures, even when unavoidable. Often there are children involved, finances are complicated to separate (or insufficient) and close family members and friends are emotionally wounded as well. The list goes on.

Having a successful God-honoring marriage begins with choosing the right person. That means really knowing the person before you make a commitment. Sometimes that means breaking up and continuing to look for Mr. or Mrs. Right. It takes courage and a willingness to suffer the resulting grief.     

Letting go of the wrong relationship is a success. 

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Primary Hurts Produce Maladaptive Coping Behaviors

Influenced by a mini seminar that Nan & I took, I have been concentrating on primary hurts and the resulting wounds that drive our fears, which in turn drives our coping mechanisms.

What are you afraid of? Being alone (physically or emotionally)? Being controlled? Losing your identity (sense of self)? Being taken advantage of in relationships? Being unsafe?

All of these fears will determine the kind of behaviors you may adopt in order to cope with life. Unfortunately, many of these protective actions are relationally harmful – and ultimately work against the very things you are trying to achieve.

You may become angry, controlling, hostile, or manipulative – or clingy, needy and self-pitying.  

You may resort to blaming or shaming (yourself or others), withdraw to isolate or pout, surrender to depression, anxiety or addictions such as drinking, drugging, shopping, eating or entertainment.

If you were to trace backwards from these behaviors, you would probably become aware of the primary hurts that you are reacting to.  Did you feel rejected as a child (unheard, unimportant)? Was there abuse or abandonment in your past? Were you shamed or harshly criticized and made to feel inadequate, ugly, stupid – never measuring up to some unreasonable or unknowable standard?

Whatever the wound might be¸ there is usually a coping behavior that resulted (stimulus-response). So what can you do about it?

The first thing is to acknowledge the hurts. You may have to search for them or pray for God to reveal them to you before you have a full inventory. Some of the hurts are obvious, but some might be more subtle. Were there movies or art or music that triggered a feeling that surprised you? Was there ever a release of tears that caught you unaware and didn’t seem to make logical sense? What was happening at that moment? What might you be remembering at a feeling level?

Once the hurts are known you must grieve the losses. You most likely will have already felt the pain of the losses, but you may have not fully accepted them. Accepting the losses means you will give up your expectation of anyone having to make up for the deficits whether they are the source of your pain or someone else (like a mate). It means forgiving, letting go and moving on. I find that it is especially hard when it is unrepentant parents, ex-spouses, siblings and the like who are still around. If you hold reconciliation, repentance, restitution or sometimes even their acknowledgement of your hurt as your goal, you may become stuck.

Lastly, you must invite God into the painful memories and ask Him to comfort you. This can be done alone, but often it helps to do this with a caring friend or perhaps your life group (if you are in a safe one).

Forgiveness as the end product of grief is a spiritual and supernatural process. It is done on faith, with the hope of growth that produces maturity and joy.

Psalm 147:3 (NLT) He heals the brokenhearted and bandages their wounds.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

In Defense Of Marriage

Inspired by a friend’s post, I thought I better say some positive words about marriage. In my day, getting married was a no-brainer. It was just part of the natural progression of life. It was accepted as a good thing and most everyone expected to get there sooner rather than later.

What followed was an era of radical social upheaval that has left a lot of people confused about marriage, its value, its risks and its benefits. Attitudes about sex, cohabitation, children outside of marriage and what constitutes parents are constantly shifting. As a result, what used to be unquestioned in the general culture is now a muddled issue.

As counselors we were more worried that people would go into marriage unprepared, and therefore they would become less likely to sustain a marriage when challenges hit. So I think to some degree we have talked more about the potential pitfalls than the inherent benefits. Perhaps we have made some people more cautious about marriage than excited. As I stated earlier, it used to be that the benefits were assumed.

Although social norms may have changed, people have not. We still all have basic longings for love, security, significance, sexuality, and companionship. All of these things are best achieved in a committed relationship. For thousands of years we have called this marriage.

I think myths hold people back from marriage or even relationship.

“Women are only interested in a guy’s earning potential – their money.”

“Men are only interested in sex, not love”

These fears of being taken advantage of or being unloved or inadequate are usually just that – fears. Men also want love and women also want sex. And they both need money to live. Two people of good character and intentions will work those things out in a marriage. Sex and financial stability are actually two advantages in marriage for both men and women. Married couples overwhelmingly have higher success in both those areas. (And married men live longer than single men.)

Anyone who has been alone for any length of time knows the pain that often accompanies singleness. It becomes more acute during holidays and other social events. Some people might like having the freedom (control) of making all life’s decisions without having to factor in another’s opinion, but others just feel the burden. It’s harder to dream alone, go on vacations alone, and get older alone. Community is helpful, even essential, but not the same.

I was talking to a friend this week, and she was saying how life was so much simpler without children (her oldest just became an adolescent). But she said it was not better, just easier – she could not imagine doing life without her kids. The same can be said about marriage.

Ecclesiastes 4:  9 Two people are better off than one, for they can help each other succeed. 10 If one person falls, the other can reach out and help. But someone who falls alone is in real trouble.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Married and Not Dating?

One of the things that seems to fade away in some marriages is the fun. It’s what we may have most looked forward to when we first met – the expectation of time together engaged in pleasurable pursuit.  But as the years go by and life gets busier and more complicated (and kids enter the picture), those times seem to be fewer and get farther apart. And some of the benefit of marriage begins to fade. As a result, we may start to see our marriage as mostly work with little payoff – and when this happens the relationship may become vulnerable to affairs.

One of the things that we try to put in place with couples that we counsel is a regular date night. It’s interesting how some couples who come in with a lot of conflict report that the fighting decreases after making time for dates.  And that those times spent on a date are enjoyable and conflict free. It’s like they forgot how much they actually like being with each other.  

When was the last time you got away overnight as a couple, without the children? One relationship expert recommends that couples take a weekend away every quarter.

How about vacations? Do you take one each year and make it fun for everyone involved? It doesn’t have to be complicated and expensive. Our best vacations as a family were spent locally – camping out at the beach, sometimes with friends.

What gets in the way of spending fun time with your spouse? Are you overly invested in your work? Do you allow the kids to take up all of your free time? Perhaps you have taken up a hobby or sport that your spouse has no interest in – and it gets all your free time.

One of my suggestions is to sit down with your spouse and come up with a list of things that you both like to do. Sometimes we find that one spouse likes cozy evenings in (minus kids) with a video and the other prefers dinners out or some form of physical activity. Is there a compromise that is possible (dinner out & movie in) or can you take turns planning a date?

The important thing here is that it is something that both people look forward to.
So, talk about your ideas for a fun date. Then ask her/him out and put it on the calendar on a regular basis! And make a date to plan that yearly vacation. It’s marriage insurance. 

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Married & Dating?

There are few situations that cause as much pain as the break-up of a marriage. So many factors are involved, especially if there are children. Often the individuals feel like failures, even when holding their partner at fault (a whole other subject). The feelings are confusing, the process is confusing, and the future is uncertain. And there can be a lot of moral confusion as well. This question often comes up:

“When am I really free?”

Usually this question means “When am I free to date again.”

For many, there has already been a long period of emotional disconnection. They have felt alone and separated from their spouse for years and their desire to be close to someone is intense. For some, their spouse may have been involved in an affair, which contributed to the break-up. The rings may have already come off their fingers (prematurely). And then I deliver the painful answer:

“You are not free to date until the divorce is final. Up until that point you are still married.”

This time period between deciding to divorce, filing for divorce, and waiting for the divorce to be final is very unsettling. Often people are still living together, sharing finances, operating as parents together and still engaged in uneasy conflict. Others are separated and adjusting to dramatic changes in their daily routine. 
This is the time that they are probably the most vulnerable emotionally.  

One of the things I tell married people is never to have a secret “back burner” person. That is a person that you might want to pursue in case the current relationship fails – someone for whom you keep a tiny flame burning (just in case). This always impedes counseling and reconciliation, or in the case of divorce, readjustment.

Attaching to a new person too soon prevents us from going through a normal and healthy grieving process. It does not allow us to face our own shortcomings and to make corrections where necessary. As a result we then bring the same problems into the new relationship. Like it or not, we are always a part of the problem (even it is only that we have a blind spot for choosing a good partner).

For most married couples sex has been a regular part of their life and the thought of waiting until re-marriage seems nearly impossible. I feel for them. That is real suffering. I can only pray for God to give them the strength and grace to endure. And I remind them that this is the struggle that all single people are faced with.  

Our goal is always to keep marriages together unless there is a seriously compelling reason to the contrary. Usually this is possible when surrender occurs, hearts soften and forgiveness flows. In other words, when we are able to embrace a level of maturity we do not feel.

Matthew 19:6-8 (NIV)
6 So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate. 7 “Why then,” they asked, “did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?” 8 Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning."