Friday, March 29, 2013

Is Marital Happiness A Myth?

As a teenager I had a belief that marriage was a downhill road. The happiest a couple would ever be would be at the time of the wedding and the honeymoon. My parents didn't seem all that thrilled to be raising three children. Oh, we felt loved and all, but life as a married couple didn't look like a joyful experience for them.

Little did I know that I was only half right.

As you can see from the chart above, we do start out at a high point of satisfaction. So far, so good. But then the decline begins, just as I imagined. But there is a bounce that happens somewhere around 25 years into the marriage. So what is going on?

Back then I was right about my parents’ relationship. The interaction between me and my siblings and our parents was often stressing them out. All of the things that kids require cost time and money, and often end up in endless conflicts of one sort or another. We were no different. If you look back on your teenage years, you will probably agree with me. It was not a particularly easy time.

But kids don’t stay around forever (hopefully) and when the emotional and financial burden eases up, things start to get better for the marriage. If you haven’t damaged your relationship beyond repair, have stayed connected, and have prepared for the future, life together becomes much more satisfying. In fact, the last years together are often even better than the first. 

Recently I overheard a conversation my Dad was having with the pastor at my Mom's memorial. He said "The best thing we ever did was produce and raise our three children. That's what I am proud of." So don't get discouraged. 

The important thing to note here is the normalcy and predictability of the curve.

People have often told us that our relational happiness is due to the fact that we did not get blessed with children. They are partly right, and statistics validate that point of view. The other part is the intentional work that we have put into the marriage to stay emotionally and spiritually connected. In truth, we have been blessed with many children through the counseling and teaching work that we do at church. God has not abandoned us.

For some, the curve will not be their normal. Unforeseen occurrences can change things, such as children with special needs that do not fit the regular developmental timelines. Early medical issues may crop up or disastrous financial situations. They can have a significant impact on us. That is when relying on God becomes especially crucial. I have found that many that have faced tough circumstances still manage to find joy and satisfaction in their marriage when they embrace each other in spiritual unity.

And for others the sailing is much smoother than the curve shows -- there is not the financial stress, or the kids you have produced have very easygoing temperaments. And then there are the grandchildren as rewards. 

Does the chart look hopeful to you? Are you at the beginning of the journey or ready to get started? Are you at the bottom of the curve and ready for the upswing? Or are you smiling because it is behind you and you know that it is true?

So, to answer the question -- no, marriage happiness is not a myth -- not if you take the full ride.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

I Can’t Breathe - Constrictive Relationships

Have you ever had one of those nightmares where you wake up in a cold sweat, heart pounding, gasping for air, like something heavy is pressing on your chest? It’s a really unpleasant experience. I have had several of those in recent memory, but I’m not going to go into dream analysis here. I just want you to connect with the feeling.

Sometimes relationships can feel a bit like my dream.

One of the more pleasant tasks of counseling is helping couples decide whether they should move forward towards engagement and marriage. We use assessments and other materials to evaluate the relationship, but often the feedback we give a couple is based on our intuition or perception.

With many couples the exchanges between them are easy and lighthearted. They listen well and respond appropriately. You can feel the love and respect. They act as cheerleaders for each other. These are the couples where it is easy for us to recommend going ahead with marriage.

But for some couples the atmosphere feels more like my nightmares – constricted and difficult. In marriage it usually only intensifies. What I mostly find at the root of the problem is a lack of trust resulting in attempts to control everything possible in the relationship. You may put pressure on your partner to account for their whereabouts at all times. You may require your partner to think like you, and never disagree. Your conversations feel more like interrogations to your partner. Your partner walks on eggshells around you or around certain subjects. In short, they want to run away.

Why might you lack trust?

·         Earlier abandonment – you have experienced emotional or physical withdrawal from people who should have remained steady and supportive for you. As a result you feel unsafe.

·         Your partner really isn’t trustworthy – they have proved time and again that their promises can’t be relied upon. Or perhaps they have been unfaithful and you have not fully dealt with the issue.

·         Anxiety and fear – often the byproduct of abandonment is insecurity and a heightened anxiety in relationships. Even when there are no indicators that you should mistrust your partner, fear drives you to try to control them. This usually results in your partner trying to pull away to get some breathing room.

·         Disorders – when you suffer from a more extreme form of anxiety such as OCD, or a personality disorder such as OCPD or Narcissistic Personality Disorder you may have a particularly tough time restraining your need to control. These are issues that must be dealt with professionally.

·         You have not been trustworthy and are projecting your feelings onto your partner. You have not confessed and repented of the sin in your life and been forgiven. Perhaps you haven’t forgiven yourself, either.

The solution is to work on your issues before you destroy a relationship that you care about. Optimally this should be done before entering into marriage. But some things crop up during marriage and the quicker you recognize and deal with them the sooner you will experience health and happiness.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

My Account is Overdrawn

This week Nan had a purchase declined on our credit card because of suspected fraudulent use of our account. Because we used our credit account to pay for funeral expenses we were also dangerously close to our credit limit. It was frustrating and annoying – and maybe a bit embarrassing because this had never happened to her before. (It turned out the bank was being overly cautious.)

As usual we will pay off the balance on our credit card at the end of the month. If we don’t there will be nothing to draw on when we want to use it again. In like manner we must invest in our relational resources as well and build up our line of emotional credit by paying into the account as well as drawing from it.

Have you ever had a relational transaction declined by your partner because you had exceeded your limit of grace and goodwill with them?  

Unfortunately, just like irresponsible spenders, you may be tempted to try to raise your credit limit with your partner rather than do the hard work of caring for the relationship. We often do this by trying to convince, control or manipulate the feelings of our beloved. We may use shame or guilt, or playing the victim or martyr to achieve results. Are you always making excuses and apologizing? Eventually you will hit the absolute limit and your relationship will be in chaos.

So how do you build up your relational creditworthiness?

The key may be in knowing your partner’s love language (Gary Chapman). Which one is it?

·         Quality time spent?

·         Affection and physical touch?

·         Words of affirmation?

·         Gifts that show you know what they like?

·         Acts of service?

You get a lot more mileage out of your efforts when you know what is important to your mate. Gifts don’t go as far with Nan as some of the others on the list. If you really don’t know then I suggest you ask them.

Also, being a person who keeps their word, maintains high integrity, can make sacrifices when necessary and shows kindness and responsibility will go a long way to replenishing your account. You might be late coming home one night, but if you do it frequently you will become overdrawn very quickly. You might lose your temper occasionally, but if you are an angry person you will soon find yourself alone.

Can you think of things easily that your partner will delight in? Do you follow through with acts of kindness? Do you believe it is better to give than receive? I have found that just like money, relational investments come back with interest when you invest with care. And just like monetary investments, you must continue adding on a regular basis if you want your relational wealth to grow substantially. 

So, are you overdrawn? Go make a significant deposit into your "love bank" as soon as you can. And change your spending habits as well.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Kicked Into the Friend Zone

Back in my late teens I was hired to accompany a singer on piano for private auditions. She was beautiful, talented and roughly my age. I was magnetized. And it seemed to me that she felt the same way. She paid lots of attention to me and we stole time from our rehearsal schedule to talk about other things. I did everything I could to accommodate her schedule and desires and spend more time with her. But as time went on she started talking about us as “a team”. She remarked how “nice” I was. Uh, oh.

I found myself kicked into the friend zone.

Perhaps you have experienced the same thing and wondered why it happened. You thought things were going well with him or her and then all of a sudden you became the observer of a romantic relationship rather than a participant when someone new entered the picture.

What do we do that gets us sidelined?

The relationship that never was.  

Sometimes the relationship starts out and remains one-sided. We misjudge it from the beginning. We are romantically interested, but the feelings are not mutual. We may be mismatched, “out of our league” and in denial. Couples that go the distance are usually pretty well matched physically, socio-economically, intellectually and spiritually. Have a realistic assessment of yourself. Face it - you were always in the friend zone. 

What if you pass that first round? What are things that can get you kicked into the friend zone?

  • Too nice or too sweet. I’m sorry to say but overly nice or sweet screams “good friend”. There is no intrigue, no mystery, no edginess and as a result no interest in the romance department. I am not advocating disagreeable or abrasive, just balanced.
  •  Too available or accommodating. Like the above, this one comes across as desperate. When you make the other person’s feelings and desires more important than yours you may be perceived as needy. A sure romance buster.      
  •  Asexual. Do you try to hide or downplay your attractiveness? Do you come off like someone’s kid brother or sister? How you dress and present yourself is important. Look in the mirror. Do you look like you could be someone’s object of desire? I’m not talking trashy or inappropriate – just prepped to attract. Sexuality should be subtle, but if it’s totally missing, so will a romantic relationship.
  •  Don’t take on the roles of his or her same sex friends. The conversations that same sex friends have and the topics discussed are different from the ones that occur between dating couples. The activities are usually different, too. Don’t shoot hoops with him and his friends in place of a date. Don’t go shopping for clothes and beauty products with her. If you do you might just find yourself helping her pick out an outfit for a date – with someone else. 
  • Indiscriminate physical touch. There is a difference in the kind of affection that is shared between friends and the kind that is reserved for romantic relationships. Think “high-fives” and pats on the back versus a gentle touch on the arm or cheek. Use physical touch with intentionality. It is a powerful tool.

Although I have heard this complaint more often from guys, it is by no means one-sided. Women can just as easily be relabeled as a friend. If this happens to you, don’t waste your emotional energy on trying to make something happen. Grieve the loss and move on. Make any needed strategic changes and then make yourself available to new possibilities.

Monday, March 4, 2013

5 Mistakes Women Make When Dating

Guest Post by Melissa Mills 

I’m a recovering serial monogamist, which basically means that I’ve been in several relationships in my life, beginning at 15. As part of this, I’ve dated a variety of guys and have learned quite a bit about what to do and what to avoid. That said, the most interesting part of my dating journey has been moving from never thinking that I would want to date a Christian (mostly out of fear, if I’m honest) to wanting to date someone who not only goes to church but who loves Jesus with both his words and his actions.
Having navigated the dating world before and after deciding to follow Jesus, I think that dating as a Christian can be more confusing than dating outside of the church. That’s why I have a passion for talking about relationships, dating, and helping women navigate the process.
When Dave asked me to write a blog about common mistakes that I think women make, I was excited to share my thoughts. This is by no means a complete list, but just some of my thoughts as I’ve been both a participant in and an observer of the Christian dating scene.
5 Mistakes Women Make When Attempting To Date:
1)   Avoiding Dating Out Of Fear.
I’ve talked to many a woman who “just isn’t looking for a guy right now.” Let’s be honest, if we’re single and in our mid to late 20s or 30s, we’re almost always looking. We just say that we aren’t because we’re afraid of rejection and disappointment. I know because I did it. And then my roommate told me to stop pretending that I wanted to be single for the rest of my life and told me to take an active role in my own dating life. She told me I needed to try online dating again. I did and, a month later, I met my boyfriend. Don’t let fear be a factor. Get to the bottom of why you’re afraid to date, get rid of that outdated stigma that online dating is taboo, and join a site.
2)   Writing Him Off Too Soon OR Assuming He’s “The One” Before The First Date.
First of all, where in the Bible does it talk about the concept of “The One”?  Second, you don’t have to know if you’re going to marry a guy in order to go to coffee with him and if you do already know, the rest of us want access to your crystal ball. That kind of knowledge only comes with time. On the flip side, you never know what you’re going to learn about yourself, your preferences, or a guy unless you go out on a date with him. It may even take 2, 4 or many dates before you know if there’s a possibility of something more than friendship. Give it a chance if you’re being too closed and if you have the opposite problem, get grounded quick. Otherwise you may end up in Disappointmentville, population: you.
2)   Dating Outside Of Community
You know that girl. The one who disappears when she starts dating? I could have been the president of that club. The problem with dating in a bubble is that you may not be yourself in your relationship, but you’re so emotionally involved in the relationship that you can’t see it for what it is. I have this friend who was in a relationship and every time she was around this guy, her voice got several octaves higher. She had no idea. I tried to tell her that she wasn’t herself around him but until she let me and other friends into her bubble, she couldn’t see it. Ultimately, they broke up. Lesson is: date in community. Bring a few trusted Christians into your process and they will help you with wise counsel as you make decisions about your future.
4) Moving Too Quickly Across Emotional, Physical, and Spiritual Boundaries.
I don’t really need to tell you why this is a bad idea, right? Get accountability with a friend who can help give you an objective perspective about your relationship. Moving too fast means disaster all around. Don’t learn this one the hard way. 
5)  Neglecting Your Character Formation While Dating
I recently read that the majority of Christian marriages break up because of “irreconcilable differences” which could also mean selfishness. Many of us don’t want to submit to another when we’ve gotten so used to the independent life. Take time during your dating process to seek God at every turn. Bring Him into it.
Nothing brings up character issues like trying to communicate and understand another person. Because we’re human, messy, and flawed, our issues will come to the surface. Take this chance to work on any unhealthy patterns. Seek counseling. Pray about it. Journal your thoughts and feelings. You’ll thank yourself later. Promise. :)
These are just five things that I’ve noticed in my own life, although I’m sure you have more. What are other mistakes you’ve observed or experienced with regard to women and dating?
*A lot more of these tips are found in Dr. Henry Cloud’s book “How To Get A Date Worth Keeping. “ It’s basically become a dating manifesto for many of my now dating friends. Give it a read. 

Melissa's Blog: Where My Heart Wants To Go