Let Me Ask You… from Marriage Minutes, available on Amazon.com

Marriage Minute # 8 Let Me Ask You…

Anger is not the best way of asking for more. That’s the thought I came away with when I read Harriet Lerner’s book, The Dance of Anger. Asking for more is not illegitimate. It is something we should do at times, yet a poor and all too common method of doing so is arguing; picking a fight. Let me take a Minute to explain. One spouse becomes aware of feelings of need in their life. This need may be from many sources, but usually the other spouse is seen as the cause of the unmet condition. Whether or not that is an accurate assessment, is another question. Let’s suppose that it is. Asking for more time together, asking for feedback about ideas, asking for involvement in a project, or asking for other good things, are all good requests, but many people start asking with anger and accusations. I read an article recently in which a teenager said that her mother seemed to start her conversations in the middle of an argument. This is the problem I am trying to address.
If asking is good, it should be done in a good way. Ever hear something like, “You never ——- any more!” Wouldn’t they get further with a statement like, “I want you to —— again.”
I suspect that in many marriages this angry beginning has become a habit, and it likely started because of an unresponsive spouse. To quote Daniel B. Wile, After the Fight, “People generate symptoms when they think they are not getting their leading edge thoughts and feelings across.” It may seem quite natural to step up the volume when you think you are being ignored. In fact, volume can be used correctly. But, it is not the only way, and abusive volume is never correct. Abusive volume depends on shock, fear, anxiety, name-calling and other such things. It is often called things like “being forthright,” but it is simply impulsive and abusive.
Why don’t we ask? Why do we hesitate? It may be because we have come to believe that we should not be wanting anything. Someone told us that we would sound selfish. It’s time to get over that. Someone might have told us that no one would listen to us unless we sounded mean. Again, it’s time to get over that. Many women have believed the myths that culture tells, such as the myth that they have to play dumb, or that they have to appear unselfish at all costs. A friend of mine, who has small children, recently joked with me that she was in trouble in her neighborhood because she commented to someone that she was tired. The culture on her street says that Mothers aren’t supposed to get tired. Many men believe the myths that are told them; myths like the one that says men are brutes that will always be wrong when it comes to relationships and responding to a wife’s needs. These self-defeating attitudes can doom a relationship. Another myth is that in silence there is power. Too often, in silence there is loneliness.
Harriet Lerner refers to this process in relationship as “underfunctioning.” She says that “it is the underfunctioning of one individual that allows for the overfunctioning of the other.” Further she describes the fighting approach to expressing wants as “Ineffective Blaming versus Assertive Claiming.” She rightly says that this fighting blocks change rather than facilitating change.
Let’s speak up, but speak up assertively.

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Rethinking Anger

Marriage Minute # 7 Rethinking Anger… from my book, Marriage Minutes, available on Amazon.com

Some startling research about anger was published a while ago that has encouraged us to rethink some ideas about anger. Out there in Pop Psychology you hear the pundits say things like, “Anger is healthy, and we have a right to it.” In many cases this is true. Many people have stuffed their anger over the years, and their health and their relationships have suffered for it. Anger can be a good signal to us that our boundaries are being violated. The catch is that we must also be responsible for getting our boundaries right, and respecting the boundaries of others. We do have a right to anger, but we do not have a right to do anything we want with our anger.
The research that I refer to was done by N. S. Jacobson and J. M. Gottman for their book, When Men Batter Women . They studied the physiological changes people undergo when they become angry. As most of us would expect, when most of the subjects became angry their heart rates increased, blood flow increased, and their galvanic skin response showed a defensive mode. But to the astonishment of Jacobson and Gottman, about 20% of the subjects (both men and women) demonstrated the opposite responses. Their physiology relaxed and became calm as their temper rose up. It looked as though they were enjoying the rise in anger and were soothed by it. Jacobson and Gottman called the physiologically aroused group “pit bulls,” and they called the group of people who relaxed when they became angry by the term “cobras.” The cobras were cool, calculating, and ready to strike. Outwardly, you may think they are about to have a stroke due to their angry responses, but inside they are cool and calculating. They tend to be more aggressive than others, and they get angry more quickly than the “pit bulls.” They usually look for dates, and spouses, who become sad and fearful in the face of anger. Conversely, the “pit bull’ builds anger more slowly and experiences the expected anxiety as they attack. Neither is healthy anger, but it looks like the “cobra” is the more dangerous of the two.
Jacobson and Gottman further assert that education, therapy, and rehabilitation can help the majority of “pit bulls” to find more efficient tools for taking care of their own needs while learning to respect others at the same time. They state that “cobras” are not likely to benefit from any of the current treatments. The reason is that while our environment may influence us, and our genetic temperament may also have some effect on our reactions, in the end we discover that the main source of our behavior is our own private logic. The belief system of the “pit bull” is defensive and it can be changed through the personal growth of social responsibility, social interest, and investment in wanting to join the useful side of life. The belief system of the “cobra” is offensive. The “cobra” enjoys anger for anger’s sake, rejects the notion of social interest, and wants to stay on the useless side of life. Rather than being useful to community, they insist that community be useful to them.
Jesus urged us to be “wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.” (Matthew 10:16) It is wise to watch out for the pit bulls and cobras, avoid them, or escape them.

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Violent People

Marriage Minute # 6 Violent People… from the book, Marriage Minutes, available from Amazon.com

The workshop about domestic violence that I mentioned in the previous minute was a great success. I recommend the work of the main presenter at the workshop, Alison Ogden, author of the book titled, When Love Turns to Fear. As we spoke to several other therapists in the workshop and heard them ask their questions, I was reminded again that there is a dark and ugly part to our world that so many of us don’t see. I want to emphasize a few things out of the many we all talked about.
First, there is the fact that so often the person who will abuse their spouse, physically or emotionally, will use the strengths of their spouse against them. The victim is likely to be a person who wants a successful marriage so badly that they will pay a very high price to get it. Knowing this, the abuser will capitalize on the hopes of the victim and will raise the price, and will use guilt to control the victim even more. Suppose the victim is a person who has a habit of hoping for change. Promises mean a lot to them, so why not trust the promises of their spouse. They tell themselves, “Maybe they will change. Perhaps just a little more waiting will pay off.” Sadly, the abuser will take advantage of this patient hope, and will drag things out further. After all, the abuser is the only one in the house who knows when they will change, and they aren’t telling. Victims may be heard saying that children need both parents. If the victim is a woman, she may fear the financial difficulties that her children and she will suffer. For the love of the children and the hope for the relationship the victim may stay, and the abuser knows this, and will use it to their advantage.
Second, the abuser often hides behind the mask of religion. Using a few strategic scriptures, taken out of context, the abuser will quote them to shame their spouse into compliance. In counseling, I ask them if they can quote any scriptures on any other subjects, and they usually can’t. When I suggest that there are more reputable interpretations of the few verses they use, they do not hear much that I say. Find a good Bible handbook or concordance and see what it says against violence. You will be reading for a long time. “For I hate divorcing [putting away], says the Lord… and him who covers his garment with violence, says the Lord… So, take heed to your spirit that you do not deal treacherously.” (Malachi 2:16)
Third, there is a prominent myth out there that sounds like this: “He is mean to me, but he is such a good father to the kids.” No, he isn’t. If he is mean to his wife, he is also not a good parent. If she is mean to her husband, she is not a good parent. Children need to see how spouses should be treated. They also need to learn the right way to treat their future spouse.
Fourth, sometimes the abuser even uses counseling to avoid the consequences of their behavior. So much has been made of Anger Management classes and groups and many do a good job. Groups have the benefit of adding to the accountability needed by the abuser. However, there is a problem to be dealt with. Sometimes anger management only serves to keep attitudes under control, whereas, real change only happens when attitudes change. Selfishness under control is still selfishness, and it won’t stay under control for long. A healthy relationship with God is not a “sin-management program”. It is a life change program.
Fifth, verbal abuse is excused by our argumentative culture. Even though there is no physical abuse in some relationships, when there is manipulation, intimidation, name-calling, rage filled disputes, and the like, it is still an abusive relationship.
“So then we pursue the things which make for peace and the building up of one another.” (Romans 14:19)
If you are in an abusive relationship, it is time for change through professional, social, and legal help.

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Can’t Help Myself

Marriage Minute # 5 Can’t Help Myself? (From my book, Marriage Minutes, available on Amazon.com)

While preparing for a workshop on domestic violence I came across an interesting quote. It is one of those statements I wish I had said, because it is so true, and one of those statements that is simple yet profound. The writer reminded us that one of the frequent excuses for domestic violence goes something like, “I couldn’t help myself, I got angrier and angrier and suddenly lost control of myself.” Truth is, they didn’t lose control at all. They actually began to demand control; the wrong kind of control. The words should be turned around to say, “I saw I was about to lose control, of my spouse, so I got angrier and angrier, and when I saw a chance to defeat them, I helped myself.”
It is the unwillingness to lose control that drives the violence. Once we come to believe that other people, especially those we say we love, have their own rights to think what they think and feel what they feel, we will begin to have more management over our anger. It will happen because we have less anger. Others may try to keep their anger under wraps, only to have it creep out at unfortunate times. The real way to not sound like we are mad at the world is to not be mad at the world. “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger. The tongue of the wise makes knowledge acceptable, but the mouth of fools spouts folly. The eyes of the Lord are in every place, watching the evil and the good. A soothing tongue is a tree of life, but perversion in it crushes the spirit.” Proverbs 15:1-4
You give up on the dream of controlling your spouse and amazing things may happen. They may leave…true. But, they may blossom as a person and be absolutely wonderful to be with. Encourage them in their growth as a person and the qualities they develop will be their own tools of self-control. Work on your own development and you will find yourself busy enough doing your own growth chores. A successful business person, who was also a very happy person, was once heard to say that one of the reasons he was happy was not the money. It was the truth he discovered the day he realized that he didn’t have to be the smartest, the toughest, or the coolest guy in the room. I wonder if we could use that advice in marriage. If we don’t have to be superior or inferior, to be in a relationship, we just may get to enjoy ourselves.
If I see all people as my equals, I will never meet anyone who is better than I am. I will never meet anyone I have to control. If I don’t claim rights that I don’t have, I won’t have to defend them by becoming angry, abusive, or manipulative. Can it be that when someone disagrees with me I might hear them with respect? Can it be that when my wife is her own person (which, thankfully, she always is) I can enjoy her without having to control her?
C. S. Lewis said it well, “The suddenness of the provocation does not make me an ill-tempered man; it only shows me what an ill-tempered man I am.” Hear also from Paul Tournier, “Violence is a way of proving that one exists, when one believes oneself to be insignificant.”

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Check the Instruments

From my book, Marriage Minutes, available from Amazon.com

Marriage Minute # 193 Check the Instruments

Let me tell you about a friend of mine. He is a pilot who flies some of the largest passenger planes in the world. He’s good at it. But during a conversation one day he told me something that gave to me a wonderful analogy for marriage. He said that when he is flying through a cloud bank, he is still quite likely to feel upside-down. He may even have the physical sensation of going in the wrong direction, or being upside-down. What does he do? He trusts the instruments. At this point, he trusts the instruments more than he trusts himself. Then when he comes out of the clouds, he sees that the instruments were right.
In counseling, a lot of people are told to get in touch with their feelings. This may be fine, but I think we should get in touch with our thoughts and feelings and wants, since they really all work together. For all the good of getting in touch with feelings, it is an important lesson to learn, that sometimes our feelings are not properly informed. Feelings come out of thoughts, thoughts which may not be totally correct. Sometimes, it is best to trust the instruments until we can see clearly again.
What are these instruments? They are things like a good understanding of scripture. This good understanding comes from personal search and not from just quoting someone else. These instruments are also the bits of wisdom that are passed on to us by people who have good marriages and good lives. They are the instruments that come out of our own experience and courage. In summary, they come out of our genuine search for the truth, and the courage to apply our findings.
We have a culture around us that has often said to us that what each person believes to be true is true. This culture also says things like whatever makes us feel good must be right. It even says that if we feel it, we can act on it. The first thought that comes to my mind is that I want my friend, and not a representative of the popular culture, to be piloting my next plane flight.
There may be problems within the marriage, or the marriage may be facing problems outside the marriage. One or both partners may feel upside-down. It is time to trust the instruments when this happens.
Here is a suggestion. Pass a journal back and forth between yourself and your spouse. In this journal, carry on a written conversation about what you want from the marriage. Express what you have found, from good instruments, about what a marriage should be. Two rules should be included. First, all statements should be positive ones. Second, these statements should express and explain, not criticize. In this project, you can stop competing against each other for power and mutually work to fill the marriage, and each other, with power, love, and respect.

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To tell the truth…

Just finished reading two excellent books by Justin Holcomb… Know the Creeds and Councils, and Know the Heretics… at the conclusion of the latter, I found a most excellent thought.

“Why…does it even matter if we believe the right things about God as long as we love God and other people? …Two responses… 1) part of loving God is loving him with all our minds, souls, and strength… 2) in order to love God, we have to know who he is… Believing right things about God is part of loving him, in the same way that it matters to you whether someone knows your interests, likes, and dislikes, occupation, and past.”

So, today as I counsel married couples, I want to tell them that they should know each other truthfully, and let themselves be known truthfully.

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A Trip to Frog Level

Travel with me to a place in my imagination, but it is real. After being in ministry for a few years I invented this place to work through some frustrations. We will visit the “Little Hope Baptist Church” in Frog Level, Arkansas.
I have since found out that there actually are churches with that name. Did they not realize how it sounded? And, yes, there are actually several places called Frog Level, but the one I saw for myself is a small community near De Queen, Arkansas. De Queen was the place of my first pastorate, and a difficult one, in the early 1970’s. That was in the day when most young pastors did not have mentors. Thankfully, this is changing. A young pastor is much more likely today to get mentor support from other ministers.
Still, over the years, I have witnessed many sad instances of churches which are not ready for pastors. They are still deeply entrenched in game-playing. One game in particular was the “Best Christian in the Church” contest. Most of us lost this one. It is a game that made appearances more important than reality. While the way we appear to the world is important, the healthy way to produce that “look” is by being real, not by being good at “make-up”. Paul made an impression on his world, yet he also did not seem to see himself as a failure when people called him weak, nor did he use “flattering speech, as you know, nor …a pretext for greed”. (I Thessalonians 2:5) In fact, he said, “we have renounced the things hidden because of shame, not walking in craftiness or adulterating the word of God, but by the manifestation of truth commending ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God.” (II Corinthians 4:2)
If you are not trying to win the Best Christian in the Church contest, you are scorned or pitied at Little Hope. To someone like me, who never figured out the politics of church, it always seemed like a place far from home.
Openness is crucial to good mental health, and I think it is crucial to spiritual health, too. But, openness is still an art, since not everyone at church is a safe enough person, or a mature enough person to trust with our openness. Openness includes being open to others, as well. Vance Havner pointed out, “It is not our job to see through other people, but rather, to see other people through.” When we make our relationships (with God and with others) more important than issues, and when we love and live the truth, appearances will take care of themselves.

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Recently, in a sermon I quoted a brief poetic verse to illustrate Grace, a verse that has been a favorite of mine for many years. It was the last two lines of the poem found below. They express my own amazement about the Grace, that changed my life into an amazing adventure. A church member asked me about the origin and I gladly provided it. It reminded me again that there is a world of treasure in the generations behind us. Years ago, people felt the same thrill you and I can feel, at the very thought of God’s Grace. Ralph Erskine (1685-1752) wrote some of the best thought of all time in his work, Gospel Sonnets. Will you visit the early 1700’s with me? I have edited some of his lines into (mostly) modern English. It is still a bit tough to read, but it is worth it.  Mr. Erskine was writing about Law and Grace.

“The law may rouse me from my sloth, To faith and to repentance both : And though the law commands each, Yet neither of them can it teach.

To what the law by fear may move, To that the gospel leads by love. To run to work, the law commands ; The gospel gives me feet and hands : The one requires that I obey ; The other does the power convey. What in the law has duty’s place, The gospel changes to a grace : Hence legal duties therein named, Are herein gospel-graces framed.

Arise and walk, the Law commands, but gives me neither feet, nor hands.

A better word, the Gospel brings, It bids me fly, but gives me Wings.”

            The faith we are offered is not a recent invention. I find it encouraging and enlightening to read people of all times celebrating the same good news that I celebrate. As I read international news, I see that people from all over the world are committing their lives to this same Christ. The scripture says he is “full of Grace and Truth.” (John 1:14) One reason grace is amazing is that Christ who knows all the truth about us, can still offer all his grace and love to us. Truth and grace meet in him without conflict.


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Marriage Minute # 148 Mirror, Hero, and Twin

From my book, Marriage Minutes… available on Amazon.com


Marriage Minute # 148 Mirror, Hero, and Twin


            We depended on our parents and other caregivers for several things, and hopefully they finished much of their job. But, some patterns of unfinished business rightly continue throughout our life, and we begin to look for similar things in other relationships. Let’s take a look at these things. For a background I am thankful to Ikar Kalogjera and his colleagues at the Milwaukee Group for the advancement of Self-Psychology. (Writing in, The Disordered Couple, edited by Jon Carlson and Len Sperry)

            Many theorists about childhood assert that we need, among other things, some early psychological experience with three “things”, a mirror, a hero, and a twin. First, we need to “see” ourselves in our parents. They need to reflect pride (not just theirs, but our own pride) in our accomplishments, and the ability to accommodate with growth (not shame) when we find that we need to change. This is where we first learn to enjoy physical and mental activities, and pursue goals. Later, we can continue to “mirror” with our own experience, and with selected individuals in friendships and/or mentoring relationships. Without “mirroring”, we may find ourselves feeling empty, inadequate, and in constant need of reassurance.

            Secondly, we need a hero. The hero of our childhood is often one, or hopefully both, parents. Idealizing gives us a sense of consistency, security, and a sort of optimism about values and purpose. We learn to regulate ourselves, soothe and calm ourselves, and pursue ideals with commitment. (This is not the same as being driven by guilt or fear of a “giant”. It is the drawing power of a hero.) Later, we find heroes in our adult life. Healthy relationships with God, and with other people, provide more idealizing influence. A marriage needs the mutual admiration, the wonder, the curiosity, and the security of this experience.

            Third, the child needs a twin. This isn’t about whether or not we ought to be our child’s friend. This is about whether we encourage our children, and help them see that they can also become the “hero” they have seen demonstrated. Will we be heirs of the good giants who raised us? Can we be heirs of God? Will we be able to be a “hero” to others and live as a contributing person in the world? Can we successfully become a person with “empathy, creativeness, humor, wisdom, and acceptance of one’s transience”? (p. 218) After all, a hero that I cannot become “like” is a useless hero in the long run. Marriage, similarly, should be a relationship where we support each other’s growth, and thereby our own. Sadly, many marriages are places where people try to make themselves superior by making the other inferior. Personhood, realized, needs twinship.

            In fact, personhood needs all three of these things, the mirror, the hero, and the twin. To be able to say, “I am loved and worth love, I can value and understand love, and I can love and be lovable.” These three needs may also be understood as the needs to be seen, valued, and joined with in building the relationship.

            A warning is in order. The Narcissistic person will horribly abuse this whole issue. They will demand a mirror, but they won’t be one for others. They will claim to be a giant, but will do all they can to deny any peerage, nor will they have any heroes but themselves. They will refuse twinship, because that would mean their personhood might depend upon relationship, and upon growth, cure, change, and mutuality.

            The one who chooses to love, finds personhood, and makes it available.



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The Complaint Department (Excerpt from Marriage Minutes, available on Amazon.com)

Marriage Minute #   1 The Complaint Department


            “Where is your Complaint Department?” Before you figure that some business person dreads hearing this question, think again. Long ago, I attended a marketing class and heard some interesting data about this. It seems that for every customer that addresses a problem, there are about ten who don’t complain, they just don’t come back. To the wise business owner, the customer who complains is the customer who can help improve the business, and is the customer who is more likely to come back. The store without a Complaint Department is soon out of business. As an example, it was said that J.W. Marriott, himself, responded personally to many of the feedback cards that were placed in his hotel rooms. (It’s not the devil that is in the details. Success is in the details.)

            Marriages can benefit from this business concept. Every married person needs a way of hearing and responding to complaints. And, they need a way to voice their complaints, constructively. When issues float, or get consistently negative responses, the “customer” may not come back.

            First, a few caveats. Complaints should not be confused with criticism. As researcher John Gottman says in, Seven Principles for Making Your Marriage Work,[1] criticism and ridicule invite defensiveness and resentment. Criticism becomes denigrating. Sarcasm does this, too. These are not what I mean by giving and receiving complaints. [Another warning is that complaints need to be handled one at a time, and with more care, not less than we give to happier topics. If anger is our most frequently used emotion, for example, the care necessary for a gracious complaint will decrease. One more thing; the complaint should not be over-used, and it should not be the only tool, or even the major one, used to improve the relationship. Unless a particular complaint is consistently disregarded, a major conflict is not necessary.]

            Complaints, given and received well, are good for both business and relationships. If you haven’t heard a complaint lately, there may be something wrong. Does your spouse have the confidence that you will hear and respect them if they speak up about an issue? Is your spouse invested in personal and relational growth? Do you, or your spouse see complaints as a one-way street, or a dead-end? Does only one of you have a Complaint Department, while the other is only set up to deliver complaints?

            How it is done well, begins with motive, and then it involves skill. And, both people need this motive and skill. The motive is loving improvement and growth of the relationship. Criticism and ridicule, on the other hand, often have the motive of revenge. Healthy problem solving, expressing empathy, and mutually committing to the building of relationship will allow you to give and receive complaints as growth projects.

            The listening skills (and motives) necessary for hearing a complaint are just as important as the speaking skills (and motives) in giving them.

[1] From The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, by John M. Gottman, Ph.D. and Nan Silver, copyright © 1999 by John M. Gottman, Ph.D. and Nan Silver, Used by Permission of Crown Publishers, a division of Random House, Inc.


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