Whose Problem is This?

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.

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He only hit her, once…

“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…

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Options and Rejections

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.

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Express It or Bottle It??? OR….

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]

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Trust Is Risk…

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.

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A True Alarm (as opposed to a false alarm)

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

If these posts are helpful, please share them with others and help me reach a larger audience… Thanks

Marriage Minute # 22 A True Alarm

I heard an amazing story, recently. It seems a landlord heard a smoke alarm going off in one of the rooms of the Boarding House he owned, so he went upstairs to see what the alarm was all about. He stood outside the door as he knocked, heard the renter
inside ranting and cursing about the noise of the smoke alarm, and when he could not get the man to the door, he entered on his own. What he saw was amazing. The renter (who was also the ranter) was standing up in the middle of a burning mattress, complaining about the noise of the smoke alarm, trying to remove the battery from the alarm, oblivious to the fact that this was not a “false alarm.”
You’ve heard of the “finest product of the brewer’s art?” This was obviously the “finished product of the brewer’s art.” He was about to drink himself to death and didn’t know it.
But this article is about marriage, isn’t it? Do some marriages die for this same reason? Do some people make the mistake of believing that all alarms are false? Well, how often do we hear someone say, “I didn’t think they really meant they were going to leave.” Or, how often do we hear, “I know I threatened divorce, but I didn’t really mean it.” Both of these are examples of not knowing what an alarm is really all about.
Sometimes, in working with married couples, I feel like the Veterinarian I once knew in Arkansas. He said that one of the saddest parts of his job was working
with the animal that had been neglected for weeks, or months, whose owner would expect the Doctor to restore to health overnight. He would say, rather bluntly, to the owner, “Here you are, you have done just about everything you could do to kill the animal, and now you want me to make it healthy in a moment?”
Alarms are meant to be taken seriously. It is tragic when someone has tried to send the alarm for years, not getting much response, and they finally leave the
marriage in despair.
Alarms are also meant to be given carefully and accurately. Don’t make threats that you don’t intend to carry out. To throw around the word, “divorce”, when you are really only wanting to scare your spouse is dangerous. Idle threats will eventually lead to
intentional responses.
If your spouse is giving alarms to you, whether true or false, they are serious. The true alarm that goes unheeded can be regretted later, but it can’t be responded to when it is too late. The false alarm will backfire on the sender, and it, too, cannot be reversed when it is too late. The next noise you hear may be a true alarm.
The couple that doesn’t need alarms, and doesn’t abuse them, is the couple that will last the longest. This couple communicates clearly, and listens fully, and does the mutual perspective-taking that is needed to promote the health of the relationship.

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Two Articles about the Impossible

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

Marriage Minute # 20 The Impossible Triangle

More dangerous than the Bermuda Triangle is another treacherous triangle. It is a danger to both individuals and families, drags marriages down, and puts each family member in a no-win situation.
It is the Impossible Triangle, and here is what it looks like. One family member, usually a parent, says to another member, usually the other parent, “I don’t think you are being tough enough on …”, some other member of the family, usually one of the children. While it sounds at first like a discussion on parenting skills and approaches, it is actually a trap. Like in the Bermuda Triangle, things are not as they seem to be. Before they know it, these three people are caught in the Impossible Triangle.
At one point of the triangle is the strong advocate of power. They say that you’ve got to be tough on kids or they will run over you. The problem is that they mean that literally. They want “you”, the other parent, to be tough on the child. In our society, the parent that is calling for the strongest approach to parenting is often erroneously considered to be the “correct” one. But, this person is in an impossible spot because they do not have the relationship with the child that enables them to negotiate their own respect, mutual respect, with the child. Pulling your spouse into the bedroom, telling them they just aren’t running a tight ship, then saying, “Now you get back out there and fight!”, puts you in the Impossible Triangle. You meant well, but things weren’t as they seemed.
Another point of the triangle is the parent that wants to take a different approach. They may have more of a relationship, especially in the case of the step-family where the biological parent has the advantage of the bonding experiences that occurred from birth, or before. This parent feels caught in the middle. They want to please their spouse, but yet they don’t feel comfortable “tightening the screws” on their child, especially on an issue that they haven’t bought into. Sometimes out of fear, sometimes out of a sense of obligation or guilt, this person tries to carry out their spouse’s directives, but soon they find themselves in an Impossible Triangle. Their child is not happy with what seems to be an unwarranted shift in power, and the spouse is not happy with what seems to be a half-hearted effort by this parent, who meant well, but things weren’t as they seemed.
The third point of the triangle is the child. They come in all varieties, but in the Impossible Triangle they feel squeezed into a mold. One parent isn’t who they used to be, and the other parent is a distant voice, giving orders from elsewhere. Power seems to have shifted, and it is the normal human response to grab for power when we think power has shifted. For reasons, whether fine or poor, the child joins in the power struggle. The child, just like their parents, isn’t always seeing things clearly in the Impossible Triangle.
Get out of the Impossible Triangle, by building healthy one-to-one relationships. Have family meetings to build good communication. Do the good and long work of building a family. Outside the Triangle it’s harder than it looks, but it’s also better than it looks.
Next article, we will look at how to get out of the Impossible Triangle.

Marriage Minute # 21 Bad Trigonometry

Last article, I wrote about the “Impossible Triangle”. The dangerous triangle happens when two people experience conflict over a third person, and a jostling match begins between them over how to relate to this third person. They begin to play a game known as, “Let’s You and Him Fight”. The one with the seemingly highest scruples will pull their partner into the bedroom and insist that they both get tough, and that they both must present themselves exactly alike. This triangle is one that often happens in the work of child-raising, so I will give a moment’s attention to that.
Getting out of the Triangle requires knowledge of a few facts that are often missed in the Triangle. First, relationships need to be straight (dual) and not triangular. The relationship between any two people belongs to the two of them and not to a third person. Instead of telling your spouse, “Let’s you and him fight!”, just get out of the bedroom and go build your own relationship with the child in question. Yes, that may take a long, long time, but that is the way relationship is built. When someone says that you must treat a third person in exactly the same way that they treat them, don’t play the game.
Second, the principle of good behavior is not the question. To carefully choose the best approach, or vehicle, for guiding the child, is not weakness or poor parenting. Finding the right vehicle for bringing out good behavior from your child doesn’t mean that you are going “too easy” on the child. It may only mean that you are looking for a good match with the temperament and personality of the child. This “caught in the middle parent” should step out of the triangle.
Third, when “everything becomes a test”, it is time for the family to remember that being a family is not like being an experiment. Pavlov had his dogs, and Skinner had his rats in the box. But, people don’t thrive in such an environment. Yes, you will hear a lot about these theories in books about parenting, but I fear that many theorists have tried to create parenting in the image of dogs and rats, when people have been created in a very different image (Genesis 1:26; Colossians 3:10), and parenting must be created in the image of the person the child is, and will be. If you don’t want your house to be a Circus, then it will be necessary to shed the idea that we are “training” children like we train seals.
Fourth, see human dignity as an equal right. While there are a lot of privileges in adulthood that children don’t have, there are some rights that we are all born with. One of these is the right to human dignity. A child has the right to be spoken to with respectful words, not cursed at, not belittled, and so on. This is true whether they are young or old, have good grades or bad, and even regardless of how well they have performed. Parents deserve human dignity, too, by the way. Take this attitude to the family meeting, and quality relationships can be built.

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Why we cannot forget women in ministry and concentrate on the gospel instead

An excellent article I found recently…

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Abuse Traps

Marriage Minute # 18 Abuse Traps
From the book, Marriage Minutes, available on Amazon.com
Patricia Evans has become one of the major voices speaking out against verbally abusive relationships. People have written to her, telling their story, and she has put some of these stories in her book, Verbal Abuse Survivors Speak Out. In one section she warns of a few traps that abusers use to keep their spouses under their control. Let’s take a minute and look at these.
First, one writer tells of “The Explaining Trap.” This person wrote, “I’ve tried for a long time to get my abuser to understand my good intentions.” In this statement is one key to the problem. Abusive people aren’t waiting until someone sells them on a good idea. Supportive and kind people, on the other hand, don’t need to be convinced of anything before they decide to be supportive and kind.
Second, as another writer says, there is The “If you feel pain, you are a victim” trap. If you pretend it’s O.K. in order to look tough, then the abuser will pretend it’s O.K. in order to do it again. Sometimes you realize that when you are patient, the abuser will give you more to be patient about.
Third, watch out for the “He/She doesn’t really mean it, so it shouldn’t hurt” trap. The phrase, “Don’t take it personally”, shows up often in this trap. The truth is that all behavior is purposeful, and we are obligated to “mean” the right thing, and to be honest about it.
Fourth, there is the “I should be able to take it” trap. No, you should be able to be in a relationship where no one has to take it from anyone; where both persons feel supported and respected.
Fifth, there is the “If I say I’m hurting, I’m blaming” trap. Only the dead never hurt. It is possible that you are wrong, but it shouldn’t take an argument to find out. Where there is pain, both people in a good relationship can explore the cause together.
Sixth, avoid the trap of “setting the good example.” There is nothing wrong with being a good example, but just “setting” sounds too much like pretending. If you believe that if you are “good enough” that the abuser will eventually start acting like you, then you will eventually be disappointed. You may have to be the good example of the person who says NO to abuse.
Then seventh, there is the cruelest trap, the “I must be responsible” trap. Let’s be clear. Abusive behavior starts within the abuser. It doesn’t start within the victim. Both people will bring human stress to a marriage. But abuse can be, and usually is, the doing of one person. There may be two abusers, but in this case it is still the doing (or undoing) of each individual.
Abuse is not inevitable. It is not a natural thing among humans. It exists only in the world of humans who choose to not love. People who choose to love, and learn how, can build a relationship that blesses, and does not abuse.

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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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