Saturday, March 31, 2012

Assume I’m The Good Guy

I was struck by a statistic I heard at a seminar concerning unresolved conflict in marriages. The statistic was this:

            69% of conflict in troubled marriages never gets resolved.

Well, I thought, that makes sense. How can we have a good marriage if we can never resolve conflict? But the surprising statistic I heard was this:

            69% of conflict in happy marriages never gets resolved.

Wow, if it’s exactly the same, what then is the difference?

I thought about it for a while and it occurred to me that it must directly relate to our perception of the conflict. Or probably more accurately it relates to my belief about my spouse, during the time I am in conflict with her. If I believe that she is not for me, or more harshly, that she is against me – I am likely to view the conflict as compounding evidence that the relationship is in trouble. If, on the other hand, I can remember that this person that I love, and loves me in return, is just not in agreement with me at the moment, I am able to see the relationship in a much better light.

It really comes down to assuming positive intent on the part of the other person (innocent until proven guilty). As I like to tell my wife when things get edgy between the two of us:

Assume I’m the good guy!

Just that simple statement sometimes brings enough perspective for us to get through the impasse. Of course, I also have to check my attitude and make sure I have positive intent. And sometimes if my attitude is at a fork in the road, her belief in my positive intent motivates me to take the right road. 
But it is true that many things in our relationship just don’t get resolved. When it comes to money I am a saver by nature. She is less conservative – and that tension will always exist. My wife is always ready to say ‘yes’ to a party, whereas I want to have time to think about it first before making a decision. I could list many other instances where we are not in agreement. But we don’t assume that the other person is trying to make our life difficult. We just have different preferences. So we make compromises and try to work with each other the best that we can.

I think we can apply this same thinking to all sorts of interpersonal relationships as well. How about work relationships between co-workers or employer and employee? How about those going through a relationship break-up or even a divorce? It doesn’t have to be hostile. That is why we really like divorce mediators over divorce lawyers. Mediation assumes cooperation over antagonism, seeking the best possible outcome in a sad process.

So really the only difference between happy and troubled is a core belief. In our relationship our core belief is that we are for each other. How about you? What do you believe about your relationships? 

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Finding Your Place

One of the things I really appreciate about where we live is the relative quiet. Though we are part of one of the largest counties in the world (Los Angeles), our little corner is unusually quiet most of the time. Our house is more than 80 years old and doesn’t have double pane windows, but even so, except for the occasional helicopter overhead or an infrequent chorus of barking dogs, it’s pretty peaceful.

But even more important in some ways is the peacefulness inside our home. There is no television blaring, no telephones screaming at us and about the only thing I hear is the refrigerator cycling every once in a while and the occasional chuckle from Nan as she reads something on her laptop.

I realize this doesn’t describe many homes where kids and pets and interruptions and urban noise is the norm. But perhaps there are things you can do to generate more of an environment that is conducive to contemplative pursuits. Can you create a private space within your home? Sometimes it is as easy as installing a lock on your bedroom door and making it “off-limits” except in an emergency.

For others it might be a second bathroom with a tub and candles.

In our house we are fortunate to have a daylight basement which we now use as a theater & music room. For years it had been my music studio and sanctuary when others were living in the house with us. Even now it feels more “away” than other parts of the house. Do you have an unused or underused space in your home that can be converted to your own private haven, even temporarily?

Can you find an isolated corner of your yard or a small alcove in your apartment complex where you can drag a chair and block out noise with soothing music on an MP3 player? Is there a small park nearby? Can you lock yourself in your car in the garage? How about getting to work a few minutes before everyone else arrives?

Whenever we stay in a hotel with a pool, the “pool hours” are always posted. How about the same thing for the television in your home? Nobody will die. Promise.

I do my best thinking in the shower. I am convinced that if I could keep an endless supply of hot water coming from the showerhead I could easily solve the world’s problems. How about you? Do you have a similar place of refuge where ideas and creativity flow? My problem with the shower scenario is that I can’t write things down (I haven’t found a waterproof journal yet).

Jesus would often get away alone to a quiet place. He needed it and so do we. In this city environment we just have to be a bit more creative in finding it.     

Friday, March 16, 2012

Reducing Stress

No one contests that we live in stressful times. When we talk about “the news”, it’s almost always about bad news. When we talk about finances, it’s usually not about a “windfall” we have received. When the subject of jobs or parenting or close relationships comes up, it frequently is about the difficulties in maintaining a good attitude in the midst of the struggles. All of this produces stress, or more accurately, distress.

So much of what challenges us cannot be eliminated, but sometimes its toxic effects on our emotions can be reduced. The secret is to control what is in our power to control, and to release the rest to God in prayer. Wisdom lets us know what is controllable and what is not.

One powerful tool is developing protective filters.

I can decide what enters my consciousness to a great degree by intentionally limiting the input of stressful data that I have little or no control over. I have the ability to choose what I want to read, watch, and listen to on a regular basis. I can control the telephone; I don’t have to let it control me. I can regulate the noise level in my environment whenever possible. I can manage my time commitments by learning to say “no”. I can intentionally feed myself uplifting media and positive self-talk.

The second powerful tool is using relaxation exercises. The following is borrowed from Dr. Siang-Yang Tan.

Four Muscle Group Relaxation Exercise (Tan)

This relaxation technique involves the alternate tensing and then relaxing or letting go of various muscle parts of your body. First, sit in a comfortable chair or recliner, in a room and at a time when you will not be disturbed. Give yourself at least 15-20 minutes of uninterrupted “relaxation time” to practice the relaxation exercises, beginning with the leg muscles and ending with the arm muscles. It helps to close your eyes.

            Leg muscles. You can tense your thigh and calf muscles by pointing you toes toward you face and tensing these muscles hard. Hold the tension for 7-10 seconds by counting slowly up to 5. Then let go and allow the muscles to go limp. Now use self-talk: tell yourself to “just relax, let go of all the tension….allow the muscles to smooth out….take it easy….just unwind and relax more and more….” Continue with this relaxation patter for 20 seconds or so before proceeding to repeat this exercise. Do this exercise a total of 4 times. Then proceed to the next one.

            Upper-body muscles. After completing the exercise for the leg muscles, focus your attention on the muscles of your upper body --- your chest, stomach, shoulders, and back. Tense them by taking in a a slow, deep breath, holding it for a count up to 5 (about 7-10 seconds), pulling your stomach in, and arching your back (unless you have a back injury or back pain, in which case you should not arch your back). When you reach a count of 5, slowly exhale and let go of all the muscle tension, again telling yourself mentally to relax and take it easy, using the relaxations patter or self-talk for about 20 seconds or so before repeating the exercise. Do it a total of 4 times.

            Face and neck muscles. Focus your attention on the muscles of your face and neck regions. Tense these muscles by closing your eyes tightly, biting you teeth, smiling back, pushing your chin down as if to touch your chest, but not allowing it to touch your chest. Hold the tension for a count up to 5 (7-10 seconds), and then relax and let go of these muscles, again using the relaxation patter for up to 20 seconds or so. Repeat this exercise for a total of 4 times before proceeding to the final exercise.

            Arm muscles. Now focus your attention on the muscles of your arms. Tense them by clenching your fists and flexing you biceps…..Hold the tension for a count up to 5 (7-10 seconds), and then relax and let your arms flop down limp by your sides. Again, engage in the relaxation patter for 20 seconds or so before repeating the exercise, doing it a total of 4 times.

            At the end you should give yourself a couple more minutes to just sit quietly and enjoy the feelings of deeper and more complete muscle relaxation that you are experiencing by this time. Then, count from 1 to 5 as you slowly move your muscles, and eventually open your eyes at the count of 5, feeling very relaxed and refreshed.

            In addition, if you wish, once your have done the above exercise you can remain seated quietly, eyes closed, and then breathe through your nose and then say a word such as “peace” or “shhhhhhh” (as in quiet) as you slowly exhale through your mouth while envisioning a beautiful safe place. Maintain a quiet and passive attitude throughout for a total time of about twenty minutes, even if you have distracting thoughts at times.

Try this exercise and let me know how it worked for you.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Process And Purpose

Nan and I both agree that some weeks in counseling there seems to be a theme that emerges as the appointments march by.  

For me this week what stuck out is our tendency to focus on outcomes, rather than staying in the present moment. Most of my anxiety comes from doing just that. I become so concerned with end results (which I may have little control over) that I can miss out on the satisfactions of my incremental accomplishments as they occur.

What I am really talking about is focusing on the process and the purpose instead.

From a spiritual standpoint, am I willing to leave the outcome to God, or am I afraid He is ultimately not trustworthy?

When I focus on the process I do the things that keep me moving forward. For me that usually means breaking down projects into manageable pieces so that I can feel success at the end of the day. When I look at everything that needs to be done (focusing on the outcome) I can easily become overwhelmed. When I take things one at a time I am more able to relax.

When I look at purpose, I can often connect with the transcendent aspects of my actions. For example: doing domestic chores and housework (which is usually less than joyful) can lead to a more peaceful and organized environment for my family; or writing a worship song because I want to express my praise for God, rather than worrying whether people will like it or not.

What I am doing is creating the possibility of joy in the journey, rather than joy only in the destination (which is often uncertain).   

Today is tax day for me. It can be anxiety producing because I often end up on the wrong side of the balance sheet. But as I just take each piece of paper and deal with it, I get closer to the finish line. I know the process and I understand the purpose. Even though I would rather be doing something else, I take satisfaction in staying on task.

How about you? How are you at identifying the purpose and focusing on the process rather than the outcome? Are there things in your life that need to be broken down into smaller increments so that you can proceed and get unstuck? Do you need help with it?

Psalms 46:1 God is our refuge and strength, always ready to help in times of trouble.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Reactive, Active, Proactive Finances

According to statistics, about 70% of working Americans live paycheck to paycheck.

That means that over two thirds of us are one paycheck away from financial instability. I fully realize that this is beyond the control of many, who are simply surviving these hard economic times.

But for many others it is a choice, failing to do the work that is required to establish and maintain good financial practices. I see this as a spiritual issue as well as a practical one. We limit our life choices when our finances are in disarray. We feel destabilized and anxious, and so do the people that depend on us.

I see three possible ways to handle a budget (spending plan): reactive, active, and proactive.

The reactive budget is one based on figuring out where you’ve been, rather than where you are going. It is like planning your day after it has already happened. At the end of the month you add up everything and hope that you haven’t overspent. I suppose this works if you have gobs of money in reserve or always have a surplus at the end of the month. But it is not a financial plan.

The second possibility is the one that we are most familiar with in concept. It is making a plan and sticking to it during the month so that we end up in an expected place. This plan works particularly well when we have a relatively dependable income. The truth is that we only make choices on about 20% of our income. Most of our finances are already committed to fixed expenses like food, rent/mortgage, utilities, etc. Yes, there is flexibility even within these categories, but usually not a whole lot. It is often this last 20% that couples fight over.

What does a proactive budget look like? I only spend the money in April that I earned in March. I always operate a month ahead. At the end of the month, I allocate money based on what I have already earned. In other words, I don’t spend money that I don’t already have in my account. This is particularly wise for those who have fluctuating income. I see this method, along with maintaining an emergency fund and building  savings and retirement accounts as being the most sound.

Items that don’t make it into a regular budget are often the ones that sink us: gifts for Christmas, birthdays, weddings and showers, regular car maintenance items like tires and brakes, licenses, taxes that must be paid, and co-pays on doctor visits or medications. All those must be included in a monthly budget.

I use a software program to maintain our budget (Quicken).

For a software program using a proactive model check out:

There are many others as well. Do you use a software or other program? Which one and how is it working for you?

For great financial resources see Dave Ramsey’s website: