Marriage Minute # 91 What Do You Mean, “Love”?
(From my book, Marriage Minutes, available on Amazon.com)
You go out for a walk in the woods because a friend told you that these woods are full of beautiful songbirds. Because of the unpaved trail, the weather outdoors, the bugs, and other attitudes you walk into the woods while yelling about how awful things are. When the birds don’t show up, you get confused and you get demanding. You scream, “Sing to me.” You soon storm out of the woods, calling your friend some new names. Why did your gentle friend hear the birds, while you do not? This walk in the woods just wasn’t what it was cracked up to be.
Maybe you should hire a birdwatcher.
You go into a marriage because you have always heard how wonderful it is. But soon, you start to wonder why this other person is not cooperating with you, and why they haven’t made you deliriously happy. You decide that marriage doesn’t feel the same as going out with your friends most nights of the week. Maybe you want to be left alone more than you are, or maybe you are left alone, too much. You don’t hear what you want to hear, and you scream, “Sing to me.” Or, maybe it’s the other way around- maybe your spouse talks, and you had not considered this possibility.
Maybe you should interview the fellow who scared the birds away. This is the story of the man or woman who is called, ”not the marrying kind.”
Or, consider Christelle Demichel, a French woman whose fiancé died seventeen months prior to the wedding. Apparently, this is no great problem for the French, in whose country it is legal to marry someone who is deceased. The law went into effect in 1959 so that a fiancé would still be able to inherit from the deceased.
Demichel appeared wearing black, carrying yellow roses, and stood alone. She said the wedding was loads of fun, just like a wedding is supposed to be. (Was it really how she thought it should be?) Most of us want a wedding to have more to it.
I’m not a birdwatcher, but I have been a people-watcher for a long time. It does seem to me that something gets lost in the translation from wedding to marriage, and from expectation to understanding and participation.
Harriet Lerner said it well in her book, The Dance of Connection. She said, “Falling in love tells us absolutely nothing about whether a particular relationship is healthy or good for us.” She points out that it doesn’t matter if we call it “love or sauerkraut”, The main question is not about the intensity of love, but whether or not the relationship is about what is good, and about whether or not we are navigating “our part of it in a solid way.” Does this love increase or inhibit our ability to be authentic and self-disclosing? Are we committed to these two things? If the answer is No, then perhaps several answers should be No.
Marriage Minute # 91 What Do You Mean, “Love”?
Marriage Minute # 83 Skills Aren’t Enough
From my book, Marriage Minutes, available on Amazon.com
I recently heard a friend mention one those wry bits of wisdom that we all ought to know. He pointed out that when it comes to marriage, or parenting, or work, we certainly do need skills, but good skills are never enough by themselves. “After all”, my friend said, “Thelma and Louise were both good drivers.” As you likely remember, Thelma and Louise end it all with a giant but insufficient leap into the canyon.
If you liked the movie, but want a different and satisfying ending, try the movie “Leaving Normal” with Christine Lahti and Meg Tilly. I think both the movie and the ending are better.
Back to my topic, my friend has a point about the many skills available to a couple that often go unused, even though people know about them. I remember an ald joke about the farmer who was asked why he wasn’t going to the Grange Hall to see the new film about how to be a better farmer. He replied that he already knew how to be a better farmer and wasn’t using what he knew. There has to be some “want-to” in most everything we do, or all the skills in the world won’t help.
Good marriage also requires that we want the right things. While there can be many optional preferences that not ever couple needs, there are some things that we all need. (In fact, we need them if we are single.) Qualities of honesty, genuine respect of others, commitment, and certain other “must-haves” are at the core of good relationships. Yet, many marital problems, and many books about improving marriage are more about moral and ethical issues than they are about mental health or skills. One of the troubling things that we deal with after observing marriages for a while is that many troubled, even violent marriages, are in the mess they are in because of “skills”. By this, I mean skills for manipulating, for confusing their partner, for abusing in cunning ways. A “smarter devil” is a devil just the same.
I’m not recommending any of the imposed sets of rules, or phony role lists that many people place on marriage. Bertrand Russell, in his classic article about Morals and Marriage, warned that moralism and legalism in marriage is used to control other people, rather than build good lives together. And, if you study ethics, you find that few things are really written in stone. What I’m recommending is a love that is both objective and passionate; a love that is dedicated to controlling itself and guiding itself in building a nurturing relationship.
So, let’s don’t put Thelma and Louise in the driver’s seat.
Marriage Minute # 82 Bird in a Gilded Cage …from my book, Marriage Minutes, available on Amazon.com
Let’s lighten up a bit in this article, with a story from history. My wife, who is a historian, always shares stories from her research and writing, and she is a great story teller, but some of the most interesting stories come from her own family history. Meet Haslem Marshall, who was a young Sea Captain when he came ashore at Galveston in the 1840’s to build a house, near Morgan’s Point. He had decided he wanted to leave the isolation of the sea, marry, and settle down, so his search for the ideal wife began. He designed and built a wonderful house. Thinking of the ideal wife, he built a home-place that all the neighbors could admire. He had it all planned out, except for the obvious. His search for the ideal wife came to an end when the one he had chosen, turned him down. (i.e. dropped him, kicked him to the curb, cancelled his passport, quenched his ardor, gave him the “no, John” letter) He had described the elegance of his house, over the months of building it, as the gilded cage, but he lamented that he could find no canary. Devastated over this rejection, he set fire to the place, burned it to the ground, and returned to the sea. (“Good as I’ve been to you.”)
Life went on for a while and a somewhat older and much wiser Haslem Marshall came ashore, again. This time he had no elaborate expectations and he met a real person, Melinda Millsaps, a daughter of Isaac Millsaps who died at the Alamo. Her brother, Ephraim, is my wife’s ancestor. This time Haslem started with the relationship, and made the plans with her, rather than for her. They lived happily ever after, raised a family, and a farm, together. (Key word)
Now, what are the lessons of Haslem and Melinda? 1) Smart women, and smart men, don’t want to be squeezed into someone’s mold. And, it’s actually a good thing, since a person without their own personality can get really boring over time. 2) You are better off starting marriage with real people, not projects. Ever see the movie, Citizen Kane? At the end of the movie, Kane has all the characters in his life just where he wants them, but sadly, they are all statues, not people. 3) You build the home to suit the family, not the other way around. Maybe your spouse, or your child, doesn’t want to be a trophy-person. 4) It’s all right to dream, but honor each other’s dreams, share them, and dream together.
Here are two more articles about Assertiveness in the Collaborative Relationship… from my book, Marriage Minutes, available at Amazon.com
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Marriage Minute # 28 Humanity is a Partnership
Someone commented to me that they had never heard me talk about co-dependency. They supposed that I didn’t really believe in it. That is not exactly true, because I have recommended Melody Beattie’s book, Codependency No More, many times. Also, I recognize the original meaning of the term as used by people in chemical dependency treatment. The term referred to the people in the life of the alcoholic or drug user who would lie, and excuse, and cover up for them when the usage would otherwise get them in trouble. It has come to mean anyone who puts aside the development of their own life and identity for the sake of keeping a relationship; a relationship that grows ever more one-sided. One of the humorous lines about co-dependency is the one about the co-dependent person who was on a falling elevator- and someone else’s life passed in front of their eyes. It is sort of like being the personal assistant for someone else’s personality.
But, my friend was right about my not using the term, and here is why I don’t. First, from the academic side, I don’t find the term defined very well in the literature. It doesn’t have a good basis in research. Since it can mean too many things I hesitate to talk about it with people. Second, since it can mean so many things, it is too easily placed as a label on almost everything. It is the answer that doesn’t answer anything.
But, here is the main reason. I fear that our popular culture with its popular psychology has done “Too Good” a job at treating this supposed disorder. The sacrifice has been replaced with selfishness. Here’s what I mean.
A person asks their spouse’s opinion, but their spouse refuses to give it, fearing that giving this information will keep their spouse from making their own decision. “But I am only asking for your thoughts as input.”, this person says. Then they hear, “You’re just being co-dependent.” What have we done with our ability to pass ideas back and forth?
Someone says, “Can you help me with this?” They hear something like, “No, I am learning not to be co-dependent.” This is further justified by a remark like, “It is time I looked out for myself.” Why do we have to be doing one or the other? Why not care for others and for ourselves, as well? Why not develop the social skill of being able to say either “yes” or “no” when appropriate, without having to be entrenched in self-protection.
Another person becomes a chronically angry spouse, using rage to gain illegitimate power and control. When their spouse doesn’t take on the same rage, this rational spouse is accused of being co-dependent. Then, if a wise friend tells the raging person that their rage isn’t getting them anywhere, and that they should stop the tantrum, the rage-aholic defends themselves by saying that they don’t want to be co-dependent.
In our self-centered age, kindness and caring for others have been relegated to the categories of “low self-image” and co-dependency. Personally, I want a humanity that is not what author Joyce Milton calls, “a one-man show.” While there is a sense of dependency to be avoided in life, there is also a sense of selfishness that may be even more dangerous.
Marriage Minute # 29 Taking Care of Myself
Ever hear someone in a marriage speak those famous words, “It’s time I took care of myself for a change. . . ”, and wonder what they meant? I have heard it from several clients over the years and when I ask what they mean, I have heard several different answers. This goes to show that you have to ask or you may never know what they mean. Now, before I talk about what they may mean by these words I have to ask another question. Why do we suppose that marriage means that we have to choose one way or another? How do we get to the point of lopsided marriages? Do we start out being lopsided when we believe some of the cultural myths of our day? These cultural myths start us out unbalanced when they say things like, “You have to really take care of your husband/wife and make them happy.” The myths are furthered by such words as, “take care of the male ego”, or “women are funny like that.” These myths reflect the reluctance in our culture to treat ourselves, and others, as individuals. These myths provide ways to avoid the good work of learning about who we really are.
Have you ever read about the top ten intimacy needs? David Ferguson, a great theorist in this field, has said that in his research there are ten needs that keep showing up. And, they show up in all people, male or female. Here is his list. These needs are: Acceptance, Security, Appreciation, Encouragement, Respect, Affection, Attention, Approval, Comfort, and Support. All people have most of these needs They will rank them differently from person to person, but they are the same needs. We won’t know unless we ask, and understand.
When a newly married couple starts out with an understanding of each other’s needs and has the commitment and skills to work toward fulfilling them, the lopsided relationship is avoided. (Of course, balance requires regular maintenance throughout the marriage.) Most marriages start without this preparation and find that adjustments must be made later. It is within this kind of marriage that we most often hear the words regarding “taking care of myself.” But, marriage doesn’t have to be lopsided.
Sometimes when a person says they need to take care of themselves, they are learning that their marriage has been lopsided, and are starting to express their own needs. Some people panic when they hear this because they believe that now someone else is going to be neglected. Some people fear that the family is going to suffer at the hands of a “new sheriff in town.” If the power is going to shift, everyone grabs for a more secure hold. The truth is that none of this power struggle has to happen. When “expression” is valued, and “understanding” is sought, then a loving family can learn a great lesson. With skill and commitment they can see that each person has the right to their legitimate needs, as well as the obligation to the needs of others. They can say, “I will reveal my needs and expect others to respect them, and I will understand your needs and will respect them.” This does not mean we can meet all expectations, especially those that go beyond reason. This does mean I care about me, I care about you, and I care about us.
The bride is not selfish, and neither is the groom, when they want to be in the wedding pictures. In like manner, the wife is not selfish, neither is the husband when they both want to be in the marriage picture.
Marriage Minute # 31 From the book, Marriage Minutes, available on Amazon.com
“Let your speech always be with grace, as though seasoned with salt, so that you will know how you should respond to each person.”
This verse is about assertiveness. It is about strength, because Grace is strong, and not weak. The Assertive person is not trying to do something to someone else in order to get their point across, but rather they are doing something to themselves in order to deliver their thoughts, feelings, wants, etc.
This Assertive person invites others to see their perspective, but they are not trying to force the other to change their mind. (Force being the key word…) Neither are they going to let their own mind be driven into silence.
Grace seasons our speech, makes it flavorful, shows the passion we have for not only our ideas but also for the relationship. Grace preserves, like salt does, preserves the good will of our love, preserves the goodness of the relationship, and preserves the bond we say we want in our relationships, especially our most treasured relationships.
“Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree bad and its fruit bad; for the tree is known by its fruit. “You brood of vipers, how can you, being evil, speak what is good? For the mouth speaks out of that which fills the heart. “The good man brings out of [his] good treasure what is good; and the evil man brings out of [his] evil treasure what is evil. “But I tell you that every careless word that people speak, they shall give an accounting for it in the day of judgment. “For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”
These words of Jesus describe Assertive speech… truthful, direct, from a good heart
From James, chapter 3 (NASB)
1Let not many [of you] become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment. 2For we all stumble in many [ways]. If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body as well. 3Now if we put the bits into the horses’ mouths so that they will obey us, we direct their entire body as well. 4Look at the ships also, though they are so great and are driven by strong winds, are still directed by a very small rudder wherever the inclination of the pilot desires. 5So also the tongue is a small part of the body, and [yet] it boasts of great things. See how great a forest is set aflame by such a small fire! 6And the tongue is a fire, the [very] world of iniquity; the tongue is set among our members as that which defiles the entire body, and sets on fire the course of [our] life, and is set on fire by hell. 7For every species of beasts and birds, of reptiles and creatures of the sea, is tamed and has been tamed by the human race. 8But no one can tame the tongue; [it is] a restless evil [and] full of deadly poison. 9With it we bless [our] Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the likeness of God; 10from the same mouth come [both] blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be this way. 11Does a fountain send out from the same opening [both] fresh and bitter [water]? 12Can a fig tree, my brethren, produce olives, or a vine produce figs? Nor [can] salt water produce fresh. 13Who among you is wise and understanding? Let him show by his good behavior his deeds in the gentleness of wisdom. 14But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your heart, do not be arrogant and [so] lie against the truth. 15This wisdom is not that which comes down from above, but is earthly, natural, demonic. 16For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every evil thing. 17But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, unwavering, without hypocrisy. 18And the seed whose fruit is righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.
This “Marriage Minute” is from my book, Marriage Minutes, available from Amazon.com This book is a collection of 200 articles from years of marriage counseling and ministry. This “minute” begins the section on Assertiveness.
Marriage Minute # 27 Whose Problem Is This?
If I am standing in a crowded elevator and am aware that someone is standing on my foot, who has the problem? Or, if I am wondering about whose fault this moment might be, I suppose I can say that it is the fault of the person who is stepping on my foot. But it won’t be long before the responsibility changes. If I don’t say something, the perpetuation of the suffering becomes my doing as well. At first I may ask myself why this other person doesn’t notice that his or her feet are uneven. Don’t they notice that they are standing on something? Don’t they have responsibility for being careful in a crowd? Sure, they have responsibility. But the question is about who has the problem. There comes a point at which this suffering becomes my fault if I don’t speak up for myself. I shouldn’t stand in a crowded elevator waiting for this insensitive person to become aware. I have a problem, and I have some responsibility to myself. You see, having a problem doesn’t mean that I am guilty of anything. Neither does it mean that I am relieving the other person of responsibility. Far from it, I am adding responsibility since I am adding awareness by speaking up for myself. (And, my self appreciates me for it, too.)
When I ask people about why they don’t speak up about their problems I hear a number of responses. Let’s take a look at a few.
One person says something like, “If I say anything, I won’t be taken seriously.” Well, this person has a problem all right, but silence is not the cure. The underlying fear may be the fear that if they see that they are not taken seriously and continue to protest, then the next step is to grow further apart and eventually divorce. A person may secretly decide to put up with “having their foot stepped on” since rejection will raise the stakes and may lead to the end of the relationship. But, if I can carefully say it, I should. While I am in favor of relationship, there is not a good future for the relationship in which one person is required to be a silent martyr.
Another person says something like, “If I say anything, I’m going to make them angry.” No, you won’t. If they believe they have the right to step on your foot, and not be responsible for how they relate, it is not you that makes them angry. It is their own selfishness that makes them angry. You really have very little influence on the emotions of others, and you have more power than you may realize over your own emotions. Good relationships, and especially those excellent relationships, are not dependent upon what Murray Bowen called “de-selfing” by either person.
Then another person says something like, “If I say anything, I will be taking responsibility for the other person. They ought to figure it out themselves.” Yes, maybe they should. But after a while, if they don’t, it’s time to speak up. Speaking up helps to define the relationship. Speaking up helps to define you, which is actually something that needs to happen even before the relationship gets defined. Not taking responsibility for both sides of the relationship is a healthy idea, but we must also realize that by not defining ourselves, and our expectations for the relationship, we are simply giving the other person responsibility for both sides of the relationship.
Be careful in the elevator today.
“He only hit her once…”
… came across some startling statistics recently. After reading a small reference, I went to the original research done with participants in a court-ordered spousal abuse group. The subject of the article is,
“He only hit her, once in 20 years of marriage.”
But, according to the research, he also…
blocked her exit 40 times,
pouted about sex 1040 times,
slammed a door 2080 times,
mocked her 7300 times,
gave her dirty looks 14,600 times,
and called her names 18,360 times…
…for an estimated total of 43,421 abusive incidents.
This is not to mention financial dishonesty, slander to the children, teachers, friends, and church leaders, and the immeasurable times of neglect.
Physical abuse is such a small part of the bigger picture…the rest of it is what makes a woman feel so bad about herself that by the time he hits her, she really believes she deserves it. So sad, and yet so pervasive…
Marriage Minute # 25 Options and Rejections from my book, Marriage Minutes, available on Amazon.com
Warren Farrell makes a good observation in his book, Women Can’t Hear What Men Don’t Say, when he says that one spouse may gain the job of generating all the options and the other spouse may gain the job of generating all the rejections. It makes for a lot of dead-end conversations, and one of the sad things about it is that so many people get into this rut by default. One person becomes the idea person, perhaps because they start out as the one best at doing the job. Their spouse may be content to let them do all the option generating, but may resent it later on in the marriage. Sometimes the idea person is the one who becomes resentful and they go on strike. They tell their spouse that they are tired of having to come up with all the solutions and they aren’t going to do it anymore. At this point, the other person may panic inwardly over this new responsibility. They may even balk at the job and create an impasse.
The untenable situation that Farrell talks about is one of the more insidious problems of married life. One person generates all the options and the other person generates all the rejections. The results can range from gentle competition to a cruel cat and mouse game. It is an act of love when a couple recognizes they are doing this, and they stop.
A certain skill is needed to do this. Each person needs to stop being obsessed with safety, and be able to step out of the conversation and monitor “how” they are talking. This skill comes with willingness, love, and practice.
Look with me at just how unsafe this game really is. The one who generates all the options has to always be right. (Nice work if you can get it…) Come to think of it, the one who generates all the objections also has to always be right. If these people aren’t always right, then how can they justify the exclusivity of their “role”? Thus it becomes a role fitted only for the arrogant, and, for all others, it becomes a dangerous role, ripe for criticism and failure.
This brings up another insight about how people deal with options. There isn’t just one “right” thing for most of life’s activities. If you are doing a crossword puzzle, then there is only one right answer to each prompt. Thankfully, life isn’t like this. There are some wrong answers, but there are also several right answers to many questions. Besides, who says every option has to be perfect? Getting to a goal can be half the fun of reaching it, and exploring some fun ways of getting there makes it that much more rewarding.
Both people become powerless in the game Farrell describes. In fact, the final result may be that the one generating all the options is always wrong, and the one generating all the rejections is always wrong. (All this “always” stuff can really hurt your marriage.) It may feel dangerous to be creative, open to new ideas, and to share in the process of problem solving, but it isn’t dangerous at all, when you are both committed to the relationship.
Marriage Minute #24 Express or Bottle? from my book, Marriage Minutes, available on Amazon.com
Do you remember hearing those encouragements to “let it all out”? And, do you remember hearing people tell you that it is healthier to express your emotions than to bottle them up? Well, the latest research and theory seems to suggest that the first suggestion is seldom true. The second is only true some of the time.
The most psychologically healthy people may well be those who know how and when to express, and how and when to suppress. Or, as the famous marriage counselor, Kenny Rogers, said, “know when to hold ‘em, and know when to fold ’em.”
In the July 2004 edition of Psychological Science, experimenter George Bonanno reports some beginning research on college students experiencing high stress. The group was at first too small to qualify as valid research, but as numbers have continued to come in, it seems that some patterns are emerging. Bonanno reports that students who were able to alter their emotional responses were better able to manage stress, and adjust to the demands of their life, while students who had a limited range of expression were less able to adjust.
In this and other research about grief, he has said that neither expressing nor suppressing grief will lessen or weaken the grief. Rather, letting the process of grief do its work, understanding, resolving, and making internal peace with the grief is a healing process.
He states that it is more accurate to see emotions as reactions, and not internal forces. “An emotion is really a response, and that response can be either appropriate or inappropriate.” Anger can be used to scare off a threat, and sadness can be used to attract nurture. But over-doing it, or using only one or two emotions for everything, or using emotions to manipulate others can send confusing signals.
The “let it all out” fallacy is often practiced by someone who is angry, and they are quick to express their right to be angry. That’s all well and good, but you won’t force someone into appreciating music by making them sit next to the loud speaker at the concert. Expressing emotions doesn’t have to cancel all the rules of good communication. If by “all” you mean everything you have ever been angry about, or if you mean you want to express anger until you are tired (rather than understood), or if you mean you want to shout your way into feeling better, then don’t let it “all” out.
Expressing vs. bottling up emotions should be decided around the question of whether or not we are ready to express in an honest and redemptive way, and whether the person hearing us is really hearing us, and ready to respond with mutual respect. I am not recommending silence, but I am recommending that expressing emotions can be thoughtful, and it need not be careless. When emotions are believed to be “forces” for controlling the listener, the possibility of choices is disbelieved. When emotions are seen as “responses” but not controlling tools, the possibility of choices is magnified.
[Taken from article, “Emotions and Mental Health”, by Garry Cooper in Psychotherapy Networker, March/April 2005… Used by Permission]
Trust is risk that you feel good about. I don’t remember if I read someone saying this, or if I simply realized it while observing people. I have noticed that it is a murky area for many of us, and in the story of our lives we may be reading too quickly to catch some things. (The first thing we may miss is the fact that we should be doing so much of the writing, rather than letting other events and other people do it for us.) But, about trusting again… I have observed that there is an intermediate step between not trusting, and trusting again. That intermediate step is crucial for us to get beyond the stalemate in getting over past hurts.
A little bit about the stalemate might help our thoughts about trust. We can get stuck not knowing how to re-develop trust. Perhaps we have seen too many false starts which led only to being hurt again. Perhaps we have grasped one of those easy ways out; such as, “I’ll just never trust that person, or maybe any person, again.” The problem with that for a default setting is that we are created for community, and we don’t really do so well without it, even if it may be difficult to build it. I see people sadly content to be continually angry, doubtful of others, suspicious of their spouse or friends, quick to accuse, all in the name of not being ready to trust again. So, let me ask about that intermediate step. Are you ready to risk again? Are you ready to be unsure of that other person, but at the same time, not be cynical and accusatory toward them? Can we embrace the discomfort of not knowing for sure, just yet?
Peter asked Jesus, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” (Matthew 18:21) Was Peter asking if there would be a point at which he could give up and not feel like a Cad? Was he asking if it wasn’t supposed to feel better than it did? Jesus’ response to Peter tells him to keep on forgiving, many, many times. Forgiveness is about giving Grace and about not seeking retaliation/revenge. It is about possibly rebuilding relationship, but not about being taken advantage of, or being trapped in foolish hope.
We can trust again, but we need to be clear about our expectations, freely expressing what we need in order to feel good about the risk. We can risk again if we are both accountable again. Communication must once again be free, and honest, and safe, and clear. Communication that is effective is about understanding, and not about controlling each other. Perhaps we don’t trust again because the other person is still not trustworthy. But let’s be careful to make sure that we are not withholding forgiveness because we are in it for the revenge, or because we just are too tired and resentful to do the work of rebuilding and taking the new risk, the new risk that we will feel good about some day. We need to be carving out the space needed for our partner and our relationship to heal and to be healed.
And, to the offender, I say, we can risk again if we are committed once again to showing that we can be trusted, and spending the time and the humility needed for trust to be restored.