Friday, December 26, 2014

Dating Advice for the Not-Yet-In-A-Relationship

One of the things that Nan & I do with relationship seekers is to give out a list of “Must Haves” and “Can’t Stands”. It is basically a collection of both character qualities and preferences that can guide a person while “interviewing” potential mates. The instructions are to choose your top 10 in each category. 
These lists serve two purposes. For some, it is necessary to limit the choices to a realistic collection of desired attributes. That is why the choices are capped at 10. For others, they tend to set the bar so low that they need to work on raising their standards to an acceptable level. Which group do you fall into: too picky or too lax? 
There is a catch, too. You must become what you want to attract.
So many people focus on what they want from a relationship, but fail to ask the question “What am I willing to give?” I suggest making out a list of all the things you will bring to the table. Marriage is a partnership of two people willing to contribute equally to a common future. 
Too many times we have seen items on a person’s list that don’t match. 
  • “I want someone physically fit” – but they themselves are not. 
  • “I must have someone who is organized” – but their personal world is a mess. 
  • “I want someone who is ambitious” – but they have no goals in life. 
  • “I desire someone with high moral standards” – but they, well… you get the point. 
Our advice is often to back off of relationship seeking until you have made the necessary adjustments in your thinking, attitude or physicality. You are far more likely to connect with a great partner if you do. 
Are you a workaholic? Relationships require ongoing time investments. You many have to cut back from your job so you can contribute more at home. 
Are you lazy and want to be taken care of? This is a prescription for resentment to grow in your relationship. And resentment will create distance and isolation eventually. Try to match your partner’s energy. 
One other thing comes to mind. For some the quest for a relationship is fear driven. 
“I don’t want to end up alone.” 
Unfortunately, this anxiety is often palpable and obvious and may be the key reason you are not able to connect. You may exude a seriousness that makes others back off. Dating should be fun and easy, full of smiles and laughter and enjoyment – not an intense pursuit toward a goal. That comes later after you have established that the person really is a good candidate for a deeper relationship. Nan suggests a minimum of 12 dates with 12 different people in 12 months so you don’t just get stuck on the first one that comes along. 
You can make up your own “Must Haves” and “Can’t Stands” lists – but remember, you must “be” all the things on your lists.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Get Rich Quick!

One of things that I have realized over my life is that the same truths keep being recycled in each generation. They may be packaged differently, but the basic underlying principles remain.

At first, I thought “How boring. Everyone knows that! There is no need to repeat that.”

But the truth is, everyone doesn’t know that. It takes repeating and remembering for a known truth to be perpetuated. The Bible talks about this repeatedly. It is the foundational premise behind building altars and sustaining markers.

“Repeat them again and again to your children. Talk about them when you are at home and when you are on the road, when you are going to bed and when you are getting up. Tie them to your hands and wear them on your forehead as reminders. Write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” (Deuteronomy 6:7-9)

One of those biblical truths for me has been this: Live on less than you earn.

Let me be clear. This does not include the credit available on charge cards or the minimum payments allowable. It means that if you are not able to pay off the balances each month on a charge card, you are not living on less than you earn.

It also goes for most loans (home mortgage excepted). I have bought beater cars to stay within budget, used and donated furniture to stay within budget and many other strategies so that I did not have to take out a loan. I have not always done this – I have learned by experience, meaning I have made mistakes. I have taken out car and appliance loans (even a boat loan) and not paid off credit card balances – and I really wish I had all that interest in my bank account instead of in the loan company’s coffers.

In this culture you will have many opposing voices to this basic, sound and time-tested advice. You will hear about leveraging this and strategizing that. But each one of those concepts will take away from your peace and freedom. King Solomon gives us his wisdom in the Bible.

  • "Wealth from get-rich-quick schemes quickly disappears; wealth from hard work grows over time." (Proverbs 13:11
  • "The trustworthy person will get a rich reward, but a person who wants quick riches will get into trouble." (Proverbs 28:20
  • "Greedy people try to get rich quick but don’t realize they’re headed for poverty." (Proverbs 28:22
  • "Just as the rich rule the poor, so the borrower is servant to the lender." (Proverbs 22:7

Following the ‘live on less than you earn” strategy will often feel harsh because it means embracing delayed gratification as a way of life, at least for a while. And it is definitely not the message of the greater Western culture. It is not the message of entitlement and “you deserve” thinking. Rather, it is the voice of contentment and stability.

Every new generation needs to hear this message. Smart parents will make sure that they follow this and pass it on.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

10 Things a Woman Can Do To Get and Keep A Man

For this week I am going to post an article from a former colleague of Nan’s that she wrote some time ago for a magazine. I think her observations are spot on.

What Men Want From Women – The Basics
Karen McQuade M.S.

“What do men want?” women often wonder. Although most men do think a lot about sex, and it is very important to them, they so value other things in a relationship, too. Ladies, it’s simpler than you might think.

1) A man wants a woman who is glad that he is in her life. A man wants to feel welcome in the life of the woman he’s involved with. He wants a woman who enjoys his company. He does not want to be continually criticized or corrected. He’d like to feel he pleases her. If you can’t be happy with him as he is now, ask yourself why that is. Men do not want to be your home improvement project.

2) Men want to be valued for their contributions. Men are more action-based than word-based. A man wants to hear that the woman in his life appreciates what he does. He wants his contributions to be thought of as valuable to her and to the family as a whole. Make it a habit to express your appreciation frequently for what he does.

3) Men want their efforts at change to be recognized. Men get very discouraged when they change their behavior and hear angry words like, “Now, why can’t you do that all the time?” Men would prefer, “Thank you, honey, I really appreciate that.” A man wants to know his efforts to change his behavior and to please his partner make a difference in their relationship and that she feels good about him and their relationship when he does change.

4) Men want women who understand women’s words are powerful. Women are verbally adept, and can easily hurt others by what they say. We often see men as tough, but actually men are easily hurt by words. Men want relationships with women who are conscious of the effect their words can have on others. They want caring women who take responsibility for the words and tone they use. Watch your words, and don’t be cruel.

5) Men want an activity companion. Men are doers, not talkers. To men, meaningful interaction is often what they do with others. So men want women who will spend time doing things with them and enjoy it. Men find that meaningful and satisfying, even if the two of you don’t talk much. Learn to appreciate just being together sometimes. Talking isn’t everything.

6) Men usually like their conversations brief and orderly. Men prefer that you tell them one thing at a time in a relatively orderly fashion. Write down long lists of things you want done, and get to the point before they lost or lose interest. Women usually are very verbal and don’t always talk concisely or in a particular order, which is fine when talking with most women, but is very confusing and frustrating to most men. Remember, men are not chatty, so don’t ramble too much. Condense, and get to the point. Save most of the conversational strolls into the recesses of your soul for your female friends.

7) Men want a woman who has a life. A healthy man is attracted by a woman who has a life to share with him, not by a woman who wants him to be her life. Most men get anxious around a woman who expects that merely having him will solve all her problems. To be a woman’s sole source of fulfillment and happiness is too heavy a burden for any man. Relationships require that you have a strong sense of self and varied interests in life.

8) Men want peace. Men want their relationships with women to be a nurturing, peaceful, and loving refuge from the world. Men do not want a contentious home or relationship. They want women who are not easily offended or easily upset, or impossible to please. They want positive, caring interactions to be the norm. Constant anger, discontent, and unhappiness drive men away. If you tend to be negative, discontent, or irritable, seek professional help in overcoming those tendencies. These tendencies do not work well in a relationship.

9) Men want women to know that women’s emotions can be overwhelming to men. Men do not even want to talk at length about their own feelings or to examine them in great detail. They find women stressful who love to have frequent, long conversations about feelings and the state of the relationship. Although some talk of feelings and the state of the relationship is necessary, frequent, intense conversations like this will cause men to get overloaded and shut down emotionally. If you want a companion and not a zombie, let it be a seasoning, not a main dish.

10) Men do not want to be controlled or engulfed. Most men fear losing themselves in relationship. In healthy relationships people discuss important issues, what they are doing, and how it affects the other. Spouses also keep each other informed of their schedules. However, men do not want to feel their wives or girlfriends grant them permission to do things. Healthy men do not mind working out mutual solutions to problems, but men panic and resist if they feel a woman is trying to control their every move. A man can love a woman and still need time away from her. A man needs to feels his own separateness to be in relationship in order to be emotionally intimate with a woman. Respect his separateness and his differences. Be his companion and partner, not his boss or his Siamese twin.

If you can be the woman I’ve described, or can work toward being that woman, healthy men will be very happy with you.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Sex and Guilt

“The great tragedy is not masturbation or fornication or pornography. The tragedy is that Satan uses guilt from these failures to strip you of every radical dream you ever had or might have. In their place, he gives you a happy, safe, secure, American life of superficial pleasures, until you die in your lakeside rocking chair.” John Piper – October 19, 2007 Christianity Today

I was struck by this quote on a week where I have been thinking about sex and guilt and how it is a bigger problem than people might think. I was particularly concerned because of the shame and guilt that many pre-married couples feel as they prepare to join their lives together permanently.

In the privacy of the counseling room both men and women will express regrets at having crossed over boundaries that they knew to be against their values. However, not surprisingly it is women who seem to carry a bigger burden in this area. Premarital sex and extramarital affairs seem to reach deeper into a woman’s heart. I would want this message to be especially heeded by men because they might not understand how significant “casual sex” can be for a woman.

I am not implying that women alone carry this. Many men have expressed deep sadness at the damage they have done to themselves and others. They feel unworthy in relationships and disqualified from taking an active part in ministry and leadership.

It was during our teens, twenties and thirties that the “sexual revolution” flourished (from mid 1960’s to mid 1980’s) until the emergence of AIDS slowed it down considerably. During this time, the availability of new birth control, (the pill especially) changed the sexual landscape forever. With the possibility of pregnancy greatly diminished, the old sexual taboos and restraints were largely abandoned.

I would expect that my generation, being the transitional one, would carry guilt deeper than current ones, but that does not seem to be true. The younger generations may engage in sex outside of marriage at a greater rate because of changed societal values, but the percentages of associated guilt appear to remain steady, at least within the church body.

Is guilt bad? 
  • It isn’t when it becomes a positive change agent in our lives. It motivates us to make course corrections when we are headed in the wrong direction. 
  • It isn’t when it allows us to feel empathy or compassion for others. 
  • It is if it drives us away from God instead of towards Him. 
  • It is if it keeps us stuck in shame patterns that are toxic. 
  • It is if, as the opening quote states, it kills our dreams of doing anything significant because we think we are disqualified as a result of our sexual behavior.

I am always encouraged when a weekend sermon coincides with a blog post I had been working on, like this week’s. It validates the subject for me.

This week's sermon reminded me that God has a plan for us when we have sinned against Him and others with our sexuality. We do not have to carry the guilt, but through confession and repentance can be forgiven and restored. We are then free to move on with our radical dreams.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Are You in a Relationship with a Mean Cat?

Somewhere around third grade I remember visiting a friend from school. He had cats; our family had dogs (and rabbits, guinea pigs, hamsters, birds, fish and turtles). We loved our pets – they were a significant part of our upbringing. But I wasn’t familiar with cats, and so I was shocked when my friend’s cat turned from purring as I stroked it, to sinking its teeth in me. I’m not talking about a friendly nip, but an aggressive chomp. But as surprised and angry as I was, retaliation was not an option that I considered. 
I bring this up because I think kindness to animals is a good indicator of character. 
There are psychological disorders where cruelty to animals can be a symptom – Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD) is one and so is Antisocial Personality Disorder (sociopathy). This disregard for animals may eventually translate into abuse (emotional or physical) towards you or those you love. People with these disorders lack empathy. They are not able to identify with the pain of others and so may inflict it carelessly or even with delight! This might be something that can be overlooked or ignored when evaluating a relationship. I’m not implying that you should be looking for and diagnosing a disorder, but rather being aware of unusual behavior. 
I also have concerns about people who hold the value of an animal above or at the same level as people. I believe somewhere along the way they have picked up hurts that have not been resolved. Although God has given life to both humans and animals, He has given a special position to those who have been made in His image. 
I have always maintained that another good predictor of character is the way a person treats people who serve them, whether a wait person in a restaurant, an employee or a public servant. I watch people in positions of power to see how they care for people. Does the person you are dating have a natural demeanor of humility or do they seem to think of themselves as better than others? It’s possible that they may see you as inferior in time, and will treat you accordingly. 
We can be confused by what we may view as “high standards” in a person, when in reality it is really a critical spirit or an arrogant attitude. Good character displays good values, and good values include kindness and acceptance of others. Harshness is the result of a cold and unforgiving heart. 
I have friends that naturally seek out those who might normally be disregarded by others, and treat them as equals. I really admire that quality in them. I believe they experience life and love at a deeper level. Their hearts are tuned to a different frequency than most people. You might say they are tuned to a “God frequency”. They take the gift of compassion to a whole new level. 
I think this is a good verse to use for these kinds of evaluations: 
Romans 12:3 - For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you.

Friday, November 7, 2014

My Marriage, Your Marriage

As I was archiving old counseling files this week I scanned through the reasons that clients gave for seeking counseling. Most were pretty routine: improve communication or conflict resolution, deal with an affair, etc. But one really struck me.

My wife is unhappy with her marriage, but I am happy with mine.

I think I read it a few times as I considered the response. Can people really see their marriages as separate entities? His marriage? Her marriage? We see marriage as a “oneness” or “us” relationship. I did not dig into the file further (confidentiality), but it did get me thinking about his viewpoint and what might be the reason for the relational disconnect.

  • Spiritual Disunity If two people are not on the same spiritual wavelength it is entirely possible to view the marriage differently. One person could feel very discontented with the lack of intimacy they experience when the spiritual connection is absent. They may be living with an entirely different values framework. We know, because we have lived it.  In Christian parlance we call this being unequally yoked. 
  • Lack of Emotional Connection When a couple does not have good emotional connection, it is hard to feel empathy for the other person. This can leave a spouse feeling very alone in a marriage. One of the partners may not be aware (or care) while the other is deeply wounded by the emotional distance. 
  • One Spouse is a Taker In some relationships there is a husband or wife who always seems to get their way. The relationship becomes very one-sided as he or she comes out on top in every conflict or decision. This person has a high satisfaction in the marriage because things always fall into place for them. However, the other half of the marriage (who may be codependent) is left feeling like they have very little power and always has to give, and never receive in order to keep the marriage stable. 
  • Change or Growth Nan just commented that one other common reason is when one person has gone through a significant change in their life. It could be normal, like pregnancy or menopause, or not so positive, like an illness, a job loss, or a stressful job change. Emotional or spiritual growth also can cause a significant separation in a marriage. When one spouse enters counseling alone, or deals effectively with an addiction it affects the other spouse. They may have just lost their drinking buddy or lost some other aspect of the relationship that was comfortable or predictable. They will often “cry foul” and complain that this isn’t the person they married; they liked it the way it was. However, if the couple enters counseling together this adjustment is usually easier on both of them and may avert potential marital drift. 

Whatever the reason may be, in order to thrive, a marriage must have unity. When one person is distressed, the marriage is distressed. There is no win/lose in relationships – either we both win, or we both lose.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Not Another Post About Conflict!

The question of conflict comes up in nearly every couples or family counseling session in some form or another. It is mostly the reason people seek counseling in the first place. In our premarried class we talk about how to do conflict well, and how to prevent it from turning ugly. In our current class (our 33rd) we added a new PowerPoint slide entitled “How we measure conflict.” This is our quick assessment that we use in sessions to determine progress in a relationship.

There are three criteria that we use: Frequency, Intensity and Duration.

FREQUENCY – How often do you get into conflict? Is it daily, weekly or even less frequently? I am not talking about mild disagreements like what, when or where to eat. I am talking about the kind where it becomes emotional, eliciting feelings of anger, distress or deeper frustration. Are you able to let the little things go so that the rough spots are the exception, not the rule? Are you able to really let them go and not just stuff them until they eventually erupt?

INTENSITY – How angry or upset or forceful do you get? In a conflict do you really lean in hard or wag your finger at the perceived offender? Or do you emotionally melt down into crying or sobbing? Are you able to stay in control of yourself or do you feel like you will burst if you don’t get it all out or if you are not fully understood? Do you increase in intensity as the time goes on? Do you become rageful or hysterical? Self regulation requires staying away from distressful self talk. I have heard experts use the terms “awfulizing” or “catastrophizing for this kind of inner conversation.

DURATION – How long do the conflicts last? Are you able to say what you need to say in a succinct manner or do you go on and on for multiple minutes or even longer? Do you corner people and “make them” listen until you are through or exhausted? I have heard stories of conflict that lasted multi-hours, followed by days or even weeks of withdrawal. That level of immaturity is bound to impact a relationship in a very negative way.

We can usually tell the health of a relationship by assessing these factors. When they are on the decrease the relationship is usually getting better (unless both people have emotionally checked out and the end is near.) Interestingly, some couples will rate these measurements in their relationship differently. The difference in perception is usually the result of their earlier family or relationship history. Volatile or avoidant family of origin systems will often cause a skewed perspective. Both aggressive and passive behavior is immature and destructive.

One of our pastors quoted a recent study about marriages that went the distance: less than 5% of the content of their conversations were complaints (negativity). However, when the complaints rose to 10% or more, the relationship was at a high risk of failure. I think that statistic holds well for Nan & me. 

So how do you see your relationships? Are these key factors on the decrease in most or all of them?

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Xtreme Feelings

One of the things I like working as a counselor is the ongoing learning that I experience. Not just from books and seminars, but from the process itself, discovering things together with clients as the sessions unfold. Anyone who knows me knows how much I like and rely on my whiteboard. The above whiteboard illustration came during one of these sessions.

We were talking about how extreme feelings produce extreme reactions and usually extremely bad results.  

And often those feelings produce an intense sense of urgency – as if something must be done RIGHT NOW. But urgency causes us to overreact instead of proceeding in a more appropriate and godly manner.

When extreme feelings tempt us we must immediately back away. We are in a relational danger zone and only distance will protect us from potential destruction. In the above mentioned session, I suggested the client should look for alternate explanations when the intense feelings hit rather than accept the first and most feared one. A light came on for the client. He said that in the field of systems analysis and critical thinking, it is called looking for a rival hypothesis. And the solution, he said, is to search for confirming or disconfirming evidence before making a decision or taking action. Wow.

What it requires is slowing down the response and knowing that truth will come in time.

When our emotions get hijacked and the feeling of urgency presses on us, we must assess whether there really is an imminent threat or danger that must be dealt with quickly. In most relationships the answer to that question is almost always “No!” Usually it is a miscommunication or a misinterpretation. I never have bad intentions toward Nan and she never has bad intentions towards me.

So what do Nan and I do when we hit one of those intense rough spots? We get away and calm ourselves down first. We never bring heated anger to the table – never. Then, stripped of blame, we spend time clarifying the issue and if needed, we both own and apologize for our part of the conflict. Clarifying means being willing to listen more than talk. If both people will do that the crisis will pass quickly. Most of our conflicts these days last five minutes or so once we come to the table.

I know some of you are saying “But that seems so hard in the moment.”

Yes, it really is difficult. Much of what is worthwhile in life comes with a price. There is no way to sugar coat it. You must act differently than you feel, because of the benefit that will follow. The rewards are relational harmony and spiritual righteousness. 

Ephesians 4:31-32 Get rid of all bitterness, rage, anger, harsh words, and slander, as well as all types of evil behavior. Instead, be kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Is Refusing Sex in Marriage OK?

The young married couple sat across from us, obviously frustrated. The issue: he was refusing her sex – not all the time, but frequently enough that it was turning into a real problem.

“I feel like she is just using me sometimes, you know, to satisfy herself.”

Of course this scenario could have easily been reversed. Women are often the one expressing this kind of complaint. So what do we think?

Yes, sometimes in marriage we are using each other – and it’s quite OK.

The Bible has something to say about this: 
1 Corinthians 7:3-5 (NLT) The husband should fulfill his wife’s sexual needs, and the wife should fulfill her husband’s needs. The wife gives authority over her body to her husband, and the husband gives authority over his body to his wife. Do not deprive each other of sexual relations, unless you both agree to refrain from sexual intimacy for a limited time so you can give yourselves more completely to prayer. Afterward, you should come together again so that Satan won’t be able to tempt you because of your lack of self-control.
This may not seem like a very popular passage with everyone, but it is very practical and very mutual. I wonder how many couples will refuse each other for the purpose of deeper prayer? Oh, and the scripture says it has to be a joint decision.

There are places where we draw the line – like when sex is an addiction. Statistics show that a couple (over the span of a marriage) will have sex an average of from one to three times a week. Younger couples generally more, older couples generally less. And of course the frequency drops during seasons of pregnancy.

One of the reasons a spouse might refuse sex (particularly wives) is because of a lack of physical resources. She has been tending to the needs of their children and is just plain worn out. Or she may experience discomfort because of her monthly menstrual cycle. Or maybe a husband or wife has a very physical or time-consuming job and is exhausted at the end of a day. What can be done?

Give your partner a heads-up so that they can minimize their work load. I know one wife who tells her husband she has enough energy to either prepare a home cooked meal or have sex, but not both. He will gladly bring home pizza. Or how about a husband who offers to forego overtime hours when his wife is feeling romantic?

It is quite true that sometimes we just plain “don’t feel like it”, when our partner does. This is the perfect occasion for a “quickie.” It’s a loving concession we make because we care about our partner. Many experts consider refusing sex a form of emotional abuse when used as a control mechanism in a relationship.

There are times when parents may have to schedule an appointment for sex – a bit unromantic perhaps, but it reduces the anxiety for the spouse who wonders when it will happen again. We call this “planned spontaneity”.

Some couples have extenuating circumstances – physical or medical issues perhaps. We would encourage those couples to find alternate ways of satisfying each other sexually. The key here is finding agreement. But the bonding that occurs is just too precious to ignore forever.

Finally, if you must refuse sex, give a very kind turn-down, and if possible give a rain-check with a potential time in the future.

How about you? Is this an area you will have to give some deep thought to? 

Monday, September 22, 2014

Fear or Pride?

There are times when I am sitting in front of a couple, locked in a power struggle, emotionally stuck, and obviously in pain. And I try to understand what is holding them back – fear or pride. In this context I would define fear as not wanting to make a mistake, and pride as not wanting to surrender and do the right thing. Sometimes I think I am confronted with one of each – pride in one person, vs. fear in the other.

Fear and pride holds us back from taking a reasonable risk, even when it might accomplish the relational goals that God would ask of us. 

Consider these inner dialogs that you might have had.

“What if I ‘turn the other cheek’ and he does the same thing again?”
 “What if I offer an apology and she rejects it and won’t forgive?”
 “What if I admit my part of a conflict and it is used against me?”

It is obvious that pride is a sin against God. What about fear? We are told to fear (God –
be in awe of Him), and we are told not to fear (to be courageous). I guess you could say the context of fear has everything to do with how you answer that question. It would seem that God would want us to take some bold stands, and not to do so would be considered sinful.

I would offer that both pride and fear are understandable. They both share the risk of losing something – a part of self. It is very hard to move in the direction of loss – it is counterintuitive. But sometimes solutions can only be found when we move against our feelings.

What Nan and I recommend to break a relational stalemate is for each person to make a small step towards the other person – called a repair attempt. When we encounter a repair attempt from another person we must acknowledge and accept it as genuine – and not criticize it or minimize it (too little, too late). It is difficult to do when we are emotionally on high alert, but if we can remember to keep the big picture in mind it makes self-soothing and calming ourselves easier.

I believe our personality and temperament may determine which side of the line a person is likely to fall on. Probably anxious people will drift toward the fearful side and stubborn people towards the prideful region. Either area is dangerous in a relationship, because it prevents God from doing a healing or even miraculous work in our lives.

I know that Nan and I have experienced both pride and fear when dealing with each other. Over the years we have probably traded positions depending on the season or the situation. It still shows up time to time. What makes “now” different from “then” is the amount of time we are willing to invest in a power struggle. Age can have its advantages. 

Sunday, September 14, 2014

I’m Just Being Optimistic

I was in a checkout line at a department store behind a woman who had a basket full of clothes and other items. After the clerk rang up the purchases, the woman presented a credit card. Denied! She pulled out a second and then a third card. Both denied. Then she asked the clerk to try the first card again. Was this woman being optimistic?

No, she was in denial of reality and didn’t want to accept it.

I wonder how many times a day this same scenario is repeated? Maybe you have even been there. Or perhaps the issue isn’t financial, but some other refusal to accept the truth that is right before your eyes.

For an addict, breaking denial is the first step towards recovery. This is not news – we all know this. But there are other perhaps more subtle ways in which we deceive ourselves.

  • We keep applying for jobs we are not qualified for hoping someone will hire us anyway.

  • We abuse our automobiles or our bodies and hope they will last forever.

  • We stay in an abusive or violent relationship hoping that this will be the time his sincere apology will really mean a change. (Good luck with that one!)

  • We ignore deadlines and trust that somehow there is a way around the penalties.

  • We hide bills from our spouse and believe everything will turn out OK in the end.

I love optimism. It is a predictor of success in many areas of life. Optimists tend to draw people towards themselves that want to help them reach their goals. (People tend to shy away from perpetual pessimists.) But optimists do not operate outside of reality.

Optimists will:

·         Keep applying for jobs that they are qualified for knowing that one will come through eventually. Or they train for the job they really want.

·         Maintain their health and possessions knowing that it will make a difference in the long run.

·         Leave a bad relationship knowing that a better one is bound to come along.

·         Embrace deadlines as a challenge to get things done and feel satisfied.

·         Share the hard things with their spouse, like bills, and believe that together they will make necessary changes and work things out.

A true optimist sees life with a hopeful perspective. But they do not live with unrealistic expectations. Denial is not their friend, but an obstacle to avoid.

Being in denial of our own mortality is the easiest and most dangerous position of all. However, the reality of the hope we have in Christ Jesus gives us the ultimate reason to be optimistic. If you want to know more about this hope, check out the messages at

Monday, September 8, 2014

Not Another Relationship Thingy!

I was really pleased with the turnout that we got at our last marriage conference (The Art of Marriage). Perhaps what pleased me the most were the longtime marriage veterans that showed up.  These were the people who you might think would have the lowest motivation to attend and the least to learn. But here’s the kicker: Some of the most positive comments came from these people. They were generally folks who had been to various marriage events over the years but still were interested in participating. Why?

People that are lifelong learners are winners.

The comments ranged from “Good seminar” to “I picked up a few new tips” to “I never thought about that before” to “I had low expectations but was pleasantly surprised.”

As you might imagine Nan & I have been through a sufficient amount of marriage and counseling material. It’s what we do. But still there is always more to absorb and there is an excitement that comes with opening a new book or watching a new DVD. We took some of this with this on vacation this year. In front of us was the television with a series on ‘Attachments’ playing and to the left was the pool and the ocean beyond. They both held their allure.

I actually have heard people brag that they haven’t read a book since high school or college. All I can think is “Wow, how sad, you are really missing out.” I must say that this doesn’t describe the bulk of my friends and co-workers – especially at church. Often they are exchanging book lists, looking for something new and interesting. And most of those who we counsel don’t fit into that category either. Usually there is a hunger to grow. Often we joke about “Here comes the homework part of the counseling”.

So how are you when a new relationship class or event or book is announced? Do you groan and hope your wife (or husband) isn’t interested or do you keep an open mind? In the interest of telling the most honest version of my story – I have done both, leaning toward the negative direction more often than I would want to admit in public. But I have rarely been disappointed when I have embraced the learning experience. It’s almost always been my attitude, not the event that was lacking.

Strong marriages put in the time. I have friends that do a yearly marriage retreat of some sort – and you can imagine the condition of their relationship. Nan and I take at least a yearly vacation – and a couple of long weekends away as well.

What have you done lately? What books have you read? Please use the comment section below to share your thoughts.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Moving to WordPress

Moving over to WordPress -- move with us -- just click on the highlighted link. For those who may not know -- WordPress is another blog platform that is a bit more flexible -- we'll see if an old dog can learn new tricks. :) By the way when you open the new page, please leave a comment in the comment box -- I want to make sure it is working -- and I love hearing from you all as well! Again the address is THANKS!

Saturday, August 30, 2014

The Gift of Silence

Somewhere in the first half of our marriage Nan and I took a vacation break and drove up the coast of California for a weekend getaway. You might call it a sanity break. Los Angeles is noisy and busy most of the time. It was on this road trip that I became aware of something for the first time. There was an undeniable intimacy between the two of us. How did I come to this conclusion? We had just spent 2 hours driving in the car without talking. And we weren’t mad at each other, just content with being together.

We did not need constant conversation to reassure ourselves that everything was OK.  

As I sit here by myself on another sanity break, I am up before anyone else, watching the sunrise. I am listening for God’s voice. I realize that the world is never silent. I can hear a cacophony of birds, the crash of waves, the rustling of trees. But this is as silent as the world gets without locking myself in a soundproof studio.

Why is silence a gift?

It’s a gift because it is so rare.  If you have kids you really know what I’m talking about. Kids are not silent except when they are sleeping (or maybe mad). My workplace is never silent and I’ll bet yours isn’t either. But in silence I can really tune in to my thought life, my inner conversation, in a way that I can’t when the world around me is too noisy. Only in silence can I really hear.

I want this for Nan, not just for me. I need her to hear from God, to sort out her thoughts in order to make good decisions for us. She can’t do that effectively in a constantly noisy environment. That is one of the reasons we gave up television a number of years back. It was hard for us to control its pull on us, so we got rid of it. (OK, we have Netflix)

Silence in counseling is powerful. I ask a question and wait – and wait – and wait some more. It feels awkward for the untrained, but for a seasoned counselor it is an important tool. It allows a client to search deeper and more comprehensively. I compare it to a search on my computer’s hard drive – sometimes it takes a while to come up with the information I am seeking.

Does your anxiety or insecurity keep you talking? Is this a habit that needs to be broken or are you already good at this? Being a good listener requires the ability to endure silence.   

If this is a struggle for you, try this exercise with someone you care about. Agree to be together in silence for a period of time. You choose the amount of time – 10 minutes, a half hour, whatever. Be aware of how you are feeling, and then discuss it with the other person. Ask the person how it was for them.

Silence is powerful when it is not used to punish, or avoid or shut out another person, but rather to offer a precious gift. 

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Busy or Hurried?

I was reading this morning in Soul Keeping (John Ortberg) about the difference between busyness and hurriedness. He described the difference as one is external (busyness) and the other is internal (hurriedness).

How true that is. All of us have lives that are busy. It is almost unavoidable in today’s western culture. We cannot escape all the things that are required of us to function in this way of life. Even if we decided that we wanted to be a hermit, there is still the need to procure food to feed ourselves, the resultant work that is required at some level, and the personal care for our physical, emotional and spiritual circumstances. But the moment we step into marriage, family, community and a robust work life, we complicate our daily existence and multiply our busyness.

But, as Ortberg writes, hurriedness is a product of our mindset or the condition of our soul. It is an internal pace that we have control over. 

Either we allow it to rule us, or we intentionally manage it.    

At this moment I am not busy. I have an abundance of time available. But internally I have a feeling of drivenness, or hurry if you will. What it does to me is to steal away the present, to be fully “in the moment”.  

As I write I find myself being distracted. I get up and walk around although there is nothing that requires my attention. It is not a pressure from the outside in, but rather from the inside out. A couple of little yellow birds catch my eye – I get up and throw some bread crumbs to them. I am present for a few seconds, and then I focus elsewhere.

How do I control this internal pressure? I must cultivate it intentionally – practice it by taking my thoughts captive. 2 Cor. 10:5 says making them obedient to Christ. Obedient in what way? Perhaps it implies obedience to rest, to pursue peace, to be available to God and to others.

In counseling we often talk about changing our thoughts, our inner conversations. All of our outward behaviors begin with our inner thoughts. My reactivity in relationships begins with my inner conversations. When that inner dialog is not hurried, I have time to process and make good decisions. But when my anxious mind tells me that I must make a quick decision, I can really blow it. It has nothing to do with being busy, but everything to do with the state of my soul.

The apostle Paul was probably plenty busy warding off trouble and being involved with the business of evangelism. But I suspect he was in control of his inner life. Otherwise he couldn’t have written the following:
2 Cor. 4:8-9 We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.
 I think there is a message in there for us as well.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Running With Persons of Quality

When you think of the word ‘quality’, what comes to mind for you? I think of concepts like value, excellence, worth, weightiness and the like. These words all describe positive or desirable characteristics. I easily apply the concept of quality to the things in my life that I want to acquire. What I am really saying is that I desire ‘high or good’ quality in the things that surround me.

It is the same for the people in my life. I want to be in healthy relationships with people of substance that can help me reach my goals in life. It is far more difficult to push through life’s issues when the preponderance of my acquaintances are always self-destructing from bad choices. I am not advocating avoiding all these people. God often appoints us to enter into the lives of hurting people to be salt and light. But I must be careful when choosing my closest friends.

When it comes to choosing a life partner I want to be particularly diligent. No other decision will affect me as completely as the person I marry (at least in this life). That is why Nan & I encourage dating people to take their time and do the critical preliminary work before making a permanent commitment.  

So how do I locate these quality people?

I must attract them. And the way I attract them is by being the kind of person that I desire to have in my life. After all, birds of a feather do flock together. Over the years I have had to eliminate people from my life that were not good for me. It is never easy, often painful to leave these relationships. But I will be identified by the people that I choose to associate with.    

Few of us would probably think that we are not a person of quality, yet it’s probable that all of us could use a good “housecleaning” time to time.  Some of us might even need a full remodel – but one from the inside out, not just patching and painting the exterior.

Of course what we are talking about is character.

I really struggle to tell the “most honest version” at times. I love to dress up my flaws in such a way as to present myself in the best light. But I am really messing with my character. I love comfort, but often preserving my character means being uncomfortable, taking the hits.

What are the qualities that you most value in a person? Are they those deep characterological traits that are enduring, or are you more concerned with superficialities and “window dressing”? As a youngster I was much more apt to chase outward beauty, the trappings of success, and things with temporary value. Now, not so much.

As John Ortberg says in a book of the same title; (referring to our life) “When the game is over, it all goes back in the box.”

The question is – will we cheat our way through the game with partners of the same mindset, or play with integrity, no matter the outcome.

 Hebrews 12:1-2 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, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

I Am Better Than You

As I listened to our pastor talk about feeling superior this morning (and why it is a sin) it triggered a thought about counseling and one misunderstanding that can occur. We often dig through a client’s personal history in an attempt to find root causes of certain behaviors. It is very helpful in making sense of why we do the things we do. But there is a danger, particularly when it comes to issues relating to our family of origin. What is that danger? It is possible that we can use this discovery to excuse our bad behavior and/or not make necessary changes. After all, it’s not our fault that we act the way we do. We were victims of a bad childhood, bad parenting, etc. Right?

And we can use psychological posturing to act superior to people in our past and present.  

I have seen this attitude when one spouse has had more counseling than the other. There is a smugness that emerges that communicates “I know better than you do because of my past experience with this process”. These clients will often try to form an alliance with the counselor in order to get the upper hand. Certainly familiarity with counseling can be helpful when it is not used as a way to gain power or advantage, when it is understood that we are all broken and in need of healing.

Understand that I am talking to myself as well. I can assume this stance too easily since I wade in deep psychological and emotional water during many of my days. If I am not careful I might not allow enough time for clients to fully express themselves before I start forming my opinions. That arrogance leaves me vulnerable to errors and perhaps a lack of accurate empathy – and that’s the last thing I desire as a counselor.  

It is not easy to call someone out on their sin. It is much easier to talk about psychological issues resulting from someone else’s behavior. The risk is joining in a blame-shifting party which is not helpful for a client or a friend. It’s also easier to blame a disorder for everything toxic in a person’s life. I am not minimizing the effect that a disorder has on someone’s life, but it does not usually cover everything. There is still a degree of choice involved with most people – free will, if you will. The condition of my heart will affect the way I deal with situations and people.

We are made up of mind, spirit and body – and they interact to make up who we are as a whole person. To ignore one aspect is to forego an essential element of our being. Each part helps keep the other parts in balance. That is why I must allow my spirit to inform my mind, my emotions, and my behaviors. Integrity means integrating all the pieces of me into one cohesive self. When I submit myself to God, He instead becomes superior in my life and I do not assume that posture, but rather one of humility before Him and others. And at that point I am free.

Saturday, August 2, 2014


I am usually pretty good at empathy in the counseling room. I am focused and listening at a deep level. But when it comes to Nan, well, I could use some help. The “man gene” kicks in and I begin leaning toward the “analysis and fixing” mode. Nan is not impressed with my skills in those moments.

Worse yet, there are times when I offer criticism or judgment instead of empathy. Now I have entered the relational danger zone.

The ability to understand another person’s experience and feelings is what creates a bond between two people. When we feel empathy in the small and large sufferings we go through in life, somehow we feel less alone, and therefore more resilient to the painful stuff life dishes out.

This is a generalization, but often when couples try to communicate awkward or emotionally painful feelings, they miss each other. Men will often show understanding for each other by joking, or giving advice, while women will express feelings of support and concern. If she is met with humor, or advice, she can feel unheard or uncared for, even as he is attempting to connect. And for a guy, too much empathy might make him feel uncomfortable, but too little will communicate disinterest in his concerns. It’s an intricate dance that has to be learned.

So, how can couples connect at a deeper level? How can they show understanding to one another in a way that is meaningful to their partner?  The first thing is to ask your partner if he/she wants to talk about this issue, then to let them know what you need.  Both people need to be open to change for the sake of their partner.  All change feels awkward and out of character at first. If you see your partner making an effort to be more empathetic, encourage him/her; the behavior will become more natural with time and understanding.

Often people will confuse sympathy, with empathy. The former will create distance, while the latter will produce closeness and emotional connection. Brene Brown has a wonderful illustration of the difference on YouTube. It is a short animated clip – and if you haven’t seen it, I would recommend you watch it now.

After watching the video it occurred to me that we should change an entire classification of greeting cards from “sympathy cards” to “empathy cards”.  Does that sound weird or a great idea?

So how do you respond when faced with someone else’s pain – with sympathy or empathy?

Bear one another’s burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ. Galatians 6:2.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Mean People

Watching a video series this weekend I was reminded of a tragic condition that pops up every once in a while. Most of the time Nan & I are faced with good willed people that really do want to find peace in their relationship. These sessions are not necessarily easy, but usually they are redemptive in nature. But when we experience meanness from a client, our hope fades a bit, especially when the meanness is seen as normative or acceptable.

Then we do not have a simple behavioral issue, but rather a heart issue – or more specifically a deep brokenness or sin issue.

I would define meanness as the act of exacting revenge or punishing another person. It is often intentional, but it doesn’t have to be. Sometimes it flows from disordered thinking that cannot be brought under control. The person can’t imagine an alternative way to react to circumstances. Unrestrained blaming and anger and withholding are common tactics.   

Mean people are often lonely people. Others will eventually steer clear of them and they become isolated and feel abandoned. Their attempts to connect will be met with resistance and it isn’t long before deep resentment sets in. It is truly a sad scenario.

What is it like to be in a relationship with a mean person? Hurtful. Wounding. Frustrating. Does this person really love me? Are they my friend? Do they like me? They seem so disappointed with me. How long should I put up with this?

Sometimes the root cause is depression or anxiety that has become an unwelcome companion – perhaps for years. For others the core issue is plain selfishness and sin. I want what I want and nobody is going to get in the way of my goals. I refuse to be spiritually surrendered to God, even when I know it is the right thing to do. Either you bend to my will and wants or there will be hell to pay.    

What can you do if you are in a relationship with a mean person?

The Bible says to speak the truth in love. If it is safe to do so, lovingly, but firmly confronting the behavior is the first thing that needs to be done. With some people this works wonders. However, often this is not enough. It might take talk and drug therapy to draw the person from the destructive pattern. You may need to pull back from the relationship until the person becomes more self-controlled.

The good news is that God is in the heart changing business. He is also in the forgiveness business as well. When we are able to recognize and repent of the damage we have been inflicting on those around us, He is right there to catch us and restore us. And when we have been on the receiving end of mean people, He is also there to comfort us in our distress.

Monday, July 21, 2014


There are times when Nan and I tussle over the contents of this blog. I always give her editorial privilege, meaning she can critique my first draft. She will often say that my delivery is too stringent (or too vague). I just think I am speaking the truth in love. She thinks the love part is a bit too obscure. But she knows my heart and I know hers, so I only register a slight disappointment that she didn't send up fireworks the first time around.

How we deal with disappointment is a sure sign of our emotional maturity level.

If we can take disappointing news in stride, we are probably operating at a pretty high level of maturity. If on the other hand we pitch a fit like a four-year-old when we encounter an obstacle, well, we are probably operating at that emotional level. And no one wants to be in a relationship with an immature partner. It gets old really fast. High drama = low maturity. 

What kinds of disappointments might we face in marriage? 

  • When a spouse doesn’t want us to spend money 

  • When a spouse turns us down for sex 

  • When a spouse doesn’t meet our emotional expectations 

  • When a spouse doesn’t remember times, dates, and promises 

  • When a spouse doesn’t want to be as social as we do 

  • When a spouse doesn’t hold the same priorities 

  • And so many other instances that frustrate and challenge our emotional balance 

There is another side to this as well. How are you at accepting other people’s disappointments? I often ask a counselee if they are able to let their partner be disappointed and not try to fix everything, especially if their partner needs to adjust to reality of some sort. Nan is always disappointed when I don’t go along with everything that she desires. But that doesn’t mean that I am necessarily wrong and need to fix it. Sometimes I just have to let her have time to accept my decision. And the same goes for me, too. 

I've noticed that many people will act much better when faced with disappointments at their jobs. They hold it together probably because creating a scene in public is humiliating. But those same people might not show restraint at home where the stakes are arguably higher and longer lasting.

I have empathy for people’s disappointments (most of the time), especially when they are being denied good things that have been earned or are reasonable, or having to suffer for bad situations that they did not cause. That is why we need a close, connected relationship with God. So we have a place to turn to in those tough moments.

 Psalm 34:18 (NLT) The Lord is close to the brokenhearted; he rescues those whose spirits are crushed.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

One Big Obstacle to Counseling Success

It was another really hard session – tempers were up and hope was down. Nan and I had tried for months to get this couple on track. They were both devout Christians and really good willed people. It seemed like every positive move was sabotaged by another destructive one. Although we had our suspicions, we couldn’t definitively pinpoint the problem person in the relationship. Was one spouse just too passive or was the other too aggressive? Did we have a well concealed addict and a co-dependent unwilling to speak up?

As it turned out, it was neither. We had an undiagnosed disorder that was unpredictable. You might think figuring this out would be a big victory, but it wasn’t at first. Now we had the task of convincing both spouses that it needed treatment beyond talk – to us and God. It required medication for any real change to take place. But there was resistance. Why? It was a twofold problem. The couple came from a religious tradition that believed that taking medication meant that one lacked faith in God’s power to heal. And the second reason was that to seek a medical solution meant having to humble oneself and admit that they were the problem or at least a large part of it and not their spouse.

What finally happened?  As I said earlier, these people were good willed people who were truly committed to following Christ. Humility paved the way to surrender, and we were able to get them to make an appointment with a psychiatrist, who accurately treated the disorder. After that we were able to make real progress in counseling. Grace reigned as they dealt with issues of resentments and the subsequent forgiveness. Yes, both people did have a part in the problem, but the disorder prevented them from making progress. Instead they got stuck in an endless cycle of blame and defend. The medication changed the entire atmosphere of the counseling sessions. They got unstuck.

What ultimately is needed in these situations? 

  • Humility – a willingness to investigate the possibility that you might need additional medical help. Sometimes it is not a belief that holds a person back, but just plain stubbornness (sin). We have actually identified the problem, understand that the most effective solution would be medication, but the person wants other people to accommodate their dysfunctional behaviors rather than have to take a step that feels distasteful to them.
  • Kindness – anger will never move a couple or individual forward. 
  • Courage – it is difficult to move beyond our fears and closely held beliefs. 
  • Embracing Grief – It may require embracing the loss that comes with surrender. What loss? The feeling of loss of control or power, the loss of my belief that I am right and you are wrong or something else similar 

2 Cautions 

Medication alone is not sufficient to deal with the problem -- it takes a combination of medication and counseling to deal effectively with the issue. The second caution is never go off the medication without a doctor's approval. There is a tendency to start feeling much better after a while and then believe that everything is great. You are feeling better because you are taking the medication. Listen to the doctor's instructions carefully and follow his/her advice.

I really love this talk from Pastor Tommy Nelson on his fight with depression. He embodies the things I have been talking about.

 Click the link and enjoy! 
Proverbs 15:22 (ESV) Without counsel plans fail, but with many advisers they succeed.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Your Relational House

There are times when I leave the counseling room with a lot of sadness. Sometimes it’s because of sitting with someone in their grief, when the only encouragement I can give them is to hang on in any way that they can.

Other times I am sad because a person is unable to make necessary changes and is headed for unavoidable destruction. Things have been set in motion that cannot be stopped, whether self-inflicted or otherwise.

Then there is a third situation that might be the saddest of them all. And that is when a client sees the problem, understands the problem, and knows the solution but is unwilling to do what is required. This is where disaster is chosen or allowed because of pride or arrogance or stubbornness.

God would call this last one sin.

I have seen marriages break up for exactly this reason – where a sincere apology would have opened the door to reconciliation. But the person refused. How sad and needless. I have seen relationships fall apart and families wounded because one or both of the marriage partners would not control their tongue and contain their toxic emotions. Instead, they let it rip and damage the people that they claim to love. 
Proverbs 14:1 (NLT) A wise woman builds her home, but a foolish woman tears it down with her own hands. 
Of course the scripture could apply to men or women, but the message is the same: you have a choice to build or destroy. And it really is a choice. No one can credibly say “I couldn’t help it.” Sorry, it just isn’t true.

But every once in a while I leave the counseling room rejoicing, because a client has made the courageous decision to embrace humility, powering down rather than powering up. They go to tears instead of anger, kindness instead of meanness, maturity rather than childishness and faithfulness over a cheating heart. They understand God’s concept of wisdom vs. foolishness. 
Proverbs 22:3 (CEV) When you see trouble coming, don’t be stupid and walk right into it — be smart and hide. 
I love that verse and translation. Again, it implies choice. I must tell you that I have spoken foolish words many times knowing full well that there would be trouble ahead. I could have hidden my tongue in my mouth instead – or better yet removed myself from the room. These days I am much more prudent. Sometimes words slip out unintentionally, but I try to be quick to apologize when they do.

So how are you doing? Are you building up your relational house or is there some repair work needed -- or perhaps even a full renovation?