Right, Wrong, or Rude

Marriage Minute # 12 Right or Wrong or Rude

These articles come from my collection of 200 such articles found in my book, Marriage Minutes, available at Amazon.com

It was back in the sixties, in a college classroom, that I heard a great statement about becoming a young adult. There was a dispute going on among the students around the campus, and some strong things were being said. The issue was crucial, after all, so didn’t it deserve a winning presentation, and didn’t the end justify the means? Our professor, an interesting but quiet gentleman, had a heart to heart talk with us one day and told us something I will always remember. He said, “It doesn’t matter if you are right or wrong, if you are rude, you are wrong.” Word of this advice spread around the campus, and I suppose he had the same discussion with other classes. Soon, the tenor of the discussion began to change. Other cooler heads began to speak up, and the truth didn’t suffer at the hands of its own advocates.
Deborah Tannen talks about this lesson in her book, The Argument Culture. She suggests that our culture is presented with arguing more now than it was in previous generations. Because of television and the quest for ratings, we watch news programs and documentaries and “talk” shows in which people talk over each other, scream, accuse, and malign, with the blessing of the show’s producers. Tannen tells of an experience where she and another psychologist were invited to participate in a show about some prominent issues. The producer assumed that they disagreed on the issues, but it turned out that they didn’t, and even if they had disagreed, they were not going to argue about it. The show was almost cancelled. The people running the show were aghast. How could they have a show without a big fight?
I have observed a mutually destructive philosophy in many marriages. One or both spouses may believe that they have to attack the other in order to establish their point of view, even if their spouse doesn’t disagree. If their spouse isn’t as angry and as loud as they are, then their spouse “just doesn’t understand.” Like the proverbial hunter who goes squirrel hunting with an elephant gun, this person goes for the jugular of their spouse almost every time.
Roy Masters said, “Loving what is right, is not the same thing as hating what someone thinks is wrong, and feeling right about it.” Well said.
A recent study has suggested that the relationship mothers and fathers have between each other may have more influence over how the child turns out than the relationship each parent has had with the child. It also suggests that a verbally abusive parent will have more influence than the non-abusive parent, because the child may see the abusive parent as more powerful. The child may like the kindness of one parent, but they may be more likely to adopt the lifestyle they think to be strongest, and reject the kindness of the other, thinking that kindness is weakness.
So, thank you, Dr. Norman Fromm, for the class discussion one day that was not about the course material. It taught us something about human relationships. It doesn’t matter if you are right or wrong, if you are rude, you are wrong.

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Marriage Minute # 11 “FOUL…!” (From Marriage Minutes… available from Amazon.com)

Here’s the plan. I am going to stop by the sports equipment store and buy a referee’s flag, like the one used in football games. I am going to try something new. When my next clients begin to argue with each other, I am going to throw the flag (I guess I need a whistle, too) and call any foul what it is.
Most people think they win an argument when their spouse gives up. They believe this even though spouses seldom give up during an argument. They may give up on the marriage, after they decide they don’t want to live like this anymore, but they don’t usually “give up” on the argument. If they become quiet, it may only be because they are intimidated. When this person gets quiet, the person who has been screaming thinks they have won. Pity…
During arguments that people engage in during counseling, I hear scores of examples of unfair fighting and poor communication. Bear in mind that I don’t invite the argument. I don’t think they help, even in counseling, and I don’t believe that “letting it all out” is any excuse for rage and the damage it does. But, people often choose to fight in unfair ways, and they often think they win, just because they have made their spouse quiet.
Here is my proposal. Let me call the fouls. Let me penalize the behaviors that hurt, like the name-calling, the exaggerating, the globalizing, the interrupting, the issue stacking, the manipulating, and all the others. Let me deduct points for poor behaviors. Let me give points for accurate reporting, for valid assertions, for reasonable claims, etc.
Like judging a debate on points, I could say which person really had the best presentation, and the win. I could give the trophy to the one who really made the best case, not to the one who had the volume, the threatening words, the intimidations, and so forth. Study the best debaters, the ones who consistently win their debates— they don’t use anger, slander, or impatience. The one with the best case could relax and just make their case. The one with the communication abuse would lose every time. That would be great.
The only problem is that it won’t work. It won’t work because people will only engage in fair and proper conflict, fair fighting, when they want to do so. They will avoid the ugly things, only when they love the beautiful things about good relationships. When you give up on the false ideas about arguments, and stop them, then you might win. You will win on points, when the points favor the relationship, when they are based on truth and honesty, and when they are unselfish.
If I buy a yellow flag, it will only be to make some points of my own. You can win a fight and lose a relationship. You can’t make someone appreciate you by volume, any more than you can make someone like music by making them sit next to the loud-speaker.
The answer is not having a therapist with a whistle and yellow flag. The answer is having your on internal referee. Go have a good “real life”, and not just a game.

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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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