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?