Saturday, May 31, 2014

Fillers & Drainers

A while ago I sat down and wrote out a list of things that fill me up or drain me emotionally. I wrote it on a 3x5 card – fills on one side and drains on the other. I’m not sure if it was an exercise that was suggested by something I read, or just another one of those random things I do every once in a while. But I found the card in a pile of papers and looked it over again. I’ll share a bit later.

How about you? Have you ever thought about fillers and drainers?

I have been reading a book by John Ortberg about his relationship with Dallas Willard, the great philosopher-theologian. (Soul Keeping: Caring For the Most Important Part of You) I thought how timely my little list was as I thought about caring for my soul. One of the passages in the book stuck out.

“People in churches — including pastors — have been crushed with guilt over their failure at having a regular quiet time or daily devotions. And then, even when they do, they find it does not actually lead to a healthy soul. Your problem is not the first fifteen minutes of the day. It’s the next twenty-three hours and forty-five minutes. You must arrange your days so that you are experiencing total contentment, joy, and confidence in your everyday life with God.”

As I looked at my list of draining items, I realized that I couldn’t control all of them. Some just were. Some I could control a little and a couple others I could probably control more significantly. But Dallas said we should experience total contentment, etc. Puzzling, isn’t it? We can only eliminate a certain degree of negativity from our lives.

But another one of his quotes helped me to get closer.

“Hurry is the great enemy of spiritual life in our day. You must ruthlessly eliminate hurry from your life.”

I noticed that this wasn’t on my lists. But I realized that it was a key concept. Hurrying through life often means missing the joy of life, the “being present” of living. But he also said a key was “arranging your days” – and that implies that you have some control. If I can arrange my days so that I add in good things and try to limit the negative aspects when possible, perhaps it will be more likely that I can be present with God throughout the day. Of course, I must first desire to be with God – and bend my thoughts in that direction.

So on to my lists.

  • Music
  • Solitude
  • Beauty – ocean, mountains, etc
  • Reading
  • Counseling/Mentoring
  • Teaching
  • Hanging out with Nan
  • Dinners out 

  • Family Problems
  • Excessive Work
  • Anxiety about Health, Aging
  • Traffic
  • Pessimistic or Resistant People
  • Politics
  • Having to Manage People
  • Monotony
  • Noise 

So how about you – do you have your own lists? Can you add to mine? 

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Giving Up on a Relationship

I have been asked several times recently to write about the topic of when it is time to give up on a relationship. I have had to reevaluate my response over the years because I have perhaps held a position that has been too naively optimistic. Perhaps I have relied too heavily on Philippines 4:13 which states “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” The problem with this line of thinking is confusing “can do” with “should do”. I know that my more recent position may seem harsh to some folks, but I assure you that there is little that is more painful than a bad relationship.

It is important to factor in which stage of a relationship a couple is in. If a couple is married, and particularly if they have children, we do everything we can to keep the couple together, barring physical or serious emotional abuse. In that case we recommend separation until the relationship has dealt with the root issues and the threat of abuse has passed.

But there have been other times when we have labored too long with a couple who had not yet made a decision to get married or move forward from engagement. One of our pastors says “If they are struggling that much before marriage, they should not consider moving forward, especially until they deal with their individual problems.” In further conversations we have agreed that the dating and engagement process should be delightful and hopeful. No relationship is trouble free, but the overall level of positivity should exceed 80%.

So when should you separate from a relationship, perhaps permanently?

If you are not married:

  • If there is physical abuse, even once, it is over. It only gets worse with time.
  • If there is serious unresolved conflict (emotional, spiritual, financial, etc.)
  • If there are multiple break-ups
  • If you feel like you have to walk on eggshells a lot of the time
  • If you have trust issues within the relationship (not because of your past)
  • If your partner has serious moral or characterological issues 

If you are married (or perhaps unmarried and share a child): 

  • If there is a refusal to deal with and permanently end physical or emotional abuse involving you or your children 
  • If there are infidelity issues that a spouse is unwilling to end and/or properly deal with. There must be a process of restoration undertaken after the damaging behaviors have passed. 
  • If there is a refusal to give support to the marriage either financially or domestically based on the roles you have agreed to fulfill. This, of course, is more complicated if there are extenuating circumstances like mental or physical illnesses, which would necessitate a deeper look into the problems. 

Obviously, we recommend premarital counseling as a positive step towards a possible permanent relationship. All relationships have some rough edges. And we also believe in counseling for the restoration of distressed marriages and the acquiring of skills for relational growth.

Sometimes hearts will change, or God will intervene as a person becomes willing to be submitted to Him in humility. But oftentimes it is just best to embrace reality and begin the grieving process of letting go of a troubled relationship.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Choosing a Mate

Since Nan & I teach the pre-married/pre-engagement class at church, we spend a good deal of our time with couples in that stage of a relationship. It is undeniable that most have found each other because of an attraction that they felt. Yes, some have been matched through an online service, which goes much further than attraction alone. We believe that a decision for marriage should be based on a balance of attraction and suitability.

In other words, the head and the heart must be in sync.

What makes a potential mate suitable? When I first saw Nan that thought never entered my mind. (OK, I was young and maturity helps a bit with the concept). Blind attraction from a chemical wash of the brain makes everything seem possible within a relationship. We believe we can make a relationship with a person who lives in another country with 2 kids from a former marriage work. Right.

Here are some factors that must be considered.

  • Are we of the same spiritual mind? The Christian term is “equally yoked”. 
  • If we are of different ethnicities, will our families accept our potential mate? 
  • Are we in agreement about children? 
  • Do we come from similar socio-economic backgrounds? 
  • Does my partner have great character – free from addictions? Are they honest, trustworthy, hard working, kind, dependable, teachable, humble, gentle, not given to fits of anger or rage, etc.? This is foremost in our opinion. 
  • Do we communicate well? Is my partner a listener as well as a talker? 
  • Can we resolve conflict, or do we give up and go away mad or discouraged? 
  • Do we have a financial plan based on reality? Are we both committed to working to make it happen? 
  • Is my partner a happy person or do they seem to be critical, complaining, cynical or pessimistic? It is hard to live with a depressed person. 

One of the reasons I think premarital sex is a bad idea, apart from the biblical reasons, is that once we have crossed that boundary our minds are clouded by the closeness we feel. It becomes very difficult to have a balanced perspective. If we also live together we add one more entanglement as well – that of being economically entwined. It is very difficult to extricate ourselves from an unsuitable relationship when we are emotionally, physically and economically connected.

What would you add to my list? What has caused you pain or confusion? Have you had repeated bad break-ups or have you found yourself in a difficult marriage because you ignored the above factors? Are you stuck right now? Or have you chosen well and you are rejoicing with the satisfaction of your relational success? With strength and courage and maybe some help from others there is always hope.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Girls: He’s Not Going to Change

There is an old saying that a girl marries a guy hoping to change him and a guy marries a girl hoping she’ll never change. The punch line? They are both wrong.  

This is one of the reasons that there is a condition called post-nuptial blues.

We hold high expectations for what we hope will happen after the wedding. But when reality turns out to be different we can become sad and disappointed. That is why we tell pre-marrieds over and over that they should only marry a person if they can accept them as they are – not for their potential. If they never change, can you live with that?

Most guys will change to a degree over the course of a marriage, but they don’t always change in the direction that you want them to. I know that no guy wants to be seen as “a project” and neither does a woman. So if you find yourself thinking in that direction, think again. You both will be happier if you don’t hold that agenda.

Do you have an unspoken list in your head? He will become more spiritual after we marry. She will become more secure and less angry. His work ethic will change. Her work ethic won’t change. I could go on and on – but you get the point. 

I have seen another reason for post-nuptial blues as well, this one particularly for the girls. So much of their focus has been put on “The Wedding” and “The Honeymoon” that marriage seems like a let down. It is as if this is the single defining event of their life and now that it is over there is nothing more to look forward to. Instead of being seen as a beginning, it is seen more like an ending.

This is why Nan & I strongly suggest that weddings are better when they are more modest (apart from financial reasons). Somehow when weddings are not overblown there is more focus placed on the relationship rather than on the ultimate party for friends and family. It is often difficult to convince girls of this when they have held a fantasy wedding in their mind for decades. This might be the first major test of the ability of a couple to come to a reasonable compromise.

Then there is sex. It is wonderful when couples have about the same libido after they get married. But this might be a more difficult adjustment than anticipated. And it may be another reason for post-nuptial blues. Fortunately, most couples that truly love each other will work on doing their best to find ways to please one another in the bedroom. Sometimes it takes intentionality to connect or hold back more often than we would like.

The solution for a lot of these issues is often to lower your expectations if you are in a relationship with a partner who has high standards, flexibility and good character. If not, it may be time to move on.   

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Embracing Confusion

Right now I am going through a major transition in my life – and it’s a good thing. Everyone around me is happy for me. It’s one of the goals I have had my heart set on for quite a while. But in the midst of this seemingly joyous time, I have some really perplexing feelings: loss, aloneness, anxiety and sadness along with relief, excitement and awareness of the expanded opportunities.

What in the world in going on in my head?

The word “confused” shows up so often in counseling. Although it may mean “I don’t understand”, more often it means I am in a dilemma and I don’t know what to choose. I must take a position but I am afraid to make the wrong decision. It can also mean that there are two seemingly opposite beliefs in play.

“He says he loves me but he keeps saying or doing stupid things that hurt me. What’s up with that?”

“She says she wants to support me, but all she does is criticize or blame me and I feel anything besides supported. Which one is it?”

The truth is probably that in both cases there is no intentional ill will. He does love you, but he fails to see how unloving some of his behavior can be. She does want to support you, but old habits die hard. It’s probably a family of origin issue. From a spiritual standpoint, the flesh can be pretty strong and difficult to manage.  

Confusion often gets us stuck. There does not seem to be a “right” answer. Am I happy or am I sad? Can I be both at the same time? How can I be a friend of God in my spiritual self, but an enemy of God in my sinfulness?

The truth is that peace may only come as we are able to hold both positions at the same time, knowing that we are complicated beings and capable of dealing with complexity. I am feeling a loss of a former career even as I am excited about what lies ahead. What do I need to let go of in order to not be held back? Are there things I have missed that are important, or am I worrying too much? The truth is that I probably have missed things along the way, and I am too anxious about it too.

What really helps is to take myself out of the center of all these issues. Frustration and confusion makes it all about me and I need to shift my perspective and try to see things differently. Do I consider other people? Can I rejoice and be grateful in all things, not for the pain but because I am loved by God?