Monday, October 15, 2018

Three Pitfalls to Avoid in an Empty Nest Marriage

When your kids leave the home, you are forced to consider your marriage relationship in a new light.

Excerpted from Barbara and Susan’s Guide to the Empty Nest ©2008 by Barbara Rainey and Susan Yates. Published by FamilyLife Publishing.
Bess and Gary couldn’t wait for the empty nest. Raising their kids had been tough. They’d had different approaches to discipline, they’d struggled on a tight budget, and they’d postponed many of their dreams in order to be with their kids. Now the last one was leaving, and they felt they had done the best they could. Finally, they were about to be free from the daily stresses of parenting. They were excited. They couldn’t wait for it to be “just us” again.

Shelly’s situation was just the opposite. She had poured her life into her kids; they had come first. Now, as the last child got ready to leave, she was scared, really scared. ”I don’t even feel like I know my husband. I haven’t been alone with him since I was 26. Our whole life has revolved around the kids. Now what will we talk about at the dinner table? What will we do on weekends? I don’t even know if I have energy left to put into this relationship. And, I don’t know if I want to.”
When your kids begin leaving the home, empty nest couples are forced to consider marriage in a new light. This can be wonderful or it can be scary. You may be thrilled as you look forward to a second honeymoon season with your spouse. Or you may be asking yourselves, Without the kids, do we have enough to hold us together?
Most likely, you will respond with a mixture of both fear and excitement. Yet at some point you will wonder, What will my marriage look like now? Anticipating the hurdles in the road ahead is essential to a good marriage in the empty nest season.
Three common pitfalls
As Christians we believe there is an enemy of our souls who wants our marriages to fall apart. Part of the problem is we don’t often recognize this enemy or his tactics. Instead, we think the problem is us or, more likely, our spouse.
In order to successfully transition your marriage into the empty nest years, you should watch for three common pitfalls that many marriages face in middle-age.
1. A critical spirit. How many middle-aged couples do you know who are still in love with each other and whose marriages you admire? How many do you know who regularly criticize, condemn, and alienate each other?
Newlyweds seem to have cornered the market on being in love. And why is that? They usually have the time and focus. Empty nest couples have the same two commodities; the challenge is to capitalize on them.
We’ve noticed that, for an empty nest wife, it is all too easy to fill the void left by the kids with criticism of her husband. With the kids gone she tends to focus more on her spouse. It’s easy to find fault with what he has done or left undone, to revisit old wounds, to fret about the way she thinks things should be.
Why do we wives do this?

Partly because we are hurting and sad for our loss, partly because we know our husbands too well, partly because we have been mothering for so long we switch our attention from our kids to our husband without thinking. Unconsciously we become critical and we don’t even realize what we are doing. It’s so subtle.
Once you do recognize what is happening, it’s time to change course. Making changes can sometimes be as simple as deciding: You make the choice to give your husband the benefit of the doubt, to not comment on everything he does or doesn’t do, to focus on the things you appreciate about him, and to verbally express gratitude.
2. Emotional divorce. It is so very common to arrive at the empty nest and feel some level of isolation. This has been true for both of us. During transition we are especially vulnerable to this drift as each spouse processes life’s changes differently.
It might happen like this: He’s hurt me again. It’s the same old thing. There’s no use trying to talk it through. I just can’t go there again. It’s too exhausting, too painful. We’ll live in the same house and carry on, but I can’t keep trying. I can’t share with him at a deep level any more.
Picture a glass patio door. In a sense what you are doing is shutting the glass door on your marriage. You still see your spouse, but there’s a barrier between you.
This is emotional divorce—the road to isolation.
When you are pulled this way, recognize what is happening and make the decision to take a hammer and begin breaking the glass. How do you do this? Refuse to give in to the temptation to pull away from your spouse and, instead, talk through the issues. Ask a wise couple whom you trust to talk with you, or get counseling if needed.
Your marriage is too important to let it fade away. A thick glass panel doesn’t crumble instantaneously. It takes constant chipping away until the barrier finally crumbles. In the same way, you need to be patient and chip away at your issues, knowing that God is for your marriage and He wants to remove the thick glass in order that fresh air might blow in and rejuvenate your marriage.
3. An affair. If you fail to stop the drift toward emotional divorce, you will become increasingly vulnerable to an affair. Infidelity in women rarely takes place on the spur of the moment. Instead these types of relationships usually begin with an emotional affair: He understands me better than my husband does. He appreciates me in ways my husband does not. He finds me attractive. I am drawn to him. When we talk, I feel like he really listens to me.
It’s helpful to ask yourself, Am I believing in a fantasy or seeking the truth? God’s Word says that you are to flee from, not flirt, with temptation. You must run away from those temptations and run toward your spouse instead.
No limits
When driving a car, we are dependent upon road signs that signal speed limits, merging traffic, dangerous curves, and other warnings. These signs are in place for our safety. In a similar way, we share these warnings about the road ahead for the safety of your marriage. We are both strongly for marriages thriving, not just surviving. Knowing what the dangers are is the better part of avoiding them.
Remember: Your spouse is not your enemy. He is your partner.
You’re on the same team, and there is no limit to the new ventures that are available to empty nest couples. In planning for and pursuing these ventures together, your marriage can thrive. Ask God to give you wisdom and watch Him work in ways that will go beyond your plans and even your dreams. “Now to Him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to His power that is at work within us, to Him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever!” (Ephesians 3:20-21 NIV).

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Raising Exceptional Families with Special Needs Children

By Lisa Pinhorn, M.Ed. // September 19, 2018, The Gottman Institute
It’s a given: parenting is hard work. But when you’re raising a child with special needs, the level of care and stress is not just higher—it shifts the foundations of families and adds unimaginable complexities for everyone involved.
Physical disabilities, learning disabilities, illness, Autism, ADHD, Anxiety, OCD, and Developmental Trauma are parenting game changers. At Feeding Futures, we work in the world of exceptional families, so we know all too well how chaotic things can become when you’re caring for a child with special needs. It sounds stressful because it is, and words don’t even begin to do it justice. I know because I’ve lived it.
When my daughter’s Autism diagnosis came, I was new to being a single parent. My emotional reaction was neither pretty nor graceful. Not long after came the news that she also had extreme anxiety and debilitating OCD. The grief that came with each doctor visit was very real. During the slow process of adjusting to a new normal, I became a warrior. And after six years of fighting, I needed a new way forward.
Nobody can prepare you for the emotions that come with parenting special needs children, especially as a single parent. It is full of questions, self-doubt, and eventual acceptance of your situation—a path that should never be seen as a straight line. Each new challenge for my child can trigger old emotions that send me back into the grief cycle, which is full of negative thoughts and less than ideal coping strategies.
What I eventually learned is that I had to make a plan, because at the end of the day, I had a very special child who needed me.

A New Normal for Special Needs

In my work with families, I see special needs parents scrambling to adjust to their new and unexpected role as a healthcare manager for their child. They are prepared to be the catalyst needed to provide an overall positive quality of life for their family, but many are never told how.
Sadly, families receive little instruction on how to best meet the needs of their children without feeding the already toxic levels of extreme family stress. The stress within special needs households is a topic we can no longer ignore.
Here is what I know to be missing in our special needs world: parental self-care. And not normal self-care. We need deep, even radical, self-compassion practices. We are all so concerned about the deficits of our children that no one is looking at the emotional crisis happening in the lives of the parents and overall family.
As parents of special needs children, we need to add ourselves back to the family care list. We actually need to be number one on the list, but I know that’s not always possible for special needs parents. So, if your self-care needs can’t sit at the head of the family care table, you at least need a seat.
Think back to the day the diagnosis came. Were you told to prepare for the grief, recognize your personal stress levels, and strengthen your family relationships as part of your child’s care? Or did you immediately start driving your child to one specialist after another and line up for pharmaceuticals?
These are two very different approaches on many levels. One is void of parental self-care while the other puts parental self-compassion as a necessary part of family-focused care. Sounds radical, even though it shouldn’t be. At Feeding Futures we want parental self-care to be part of the new normal that comes with the special needs diagnosis, and here’s why.

Caregiver Stress Impacts Children

Dr. Stuart Shanker, child psychologist and Founder of The MEHRIT Centre, explains that we’re parenting in an age of toxic stress levels. We are stressed and our kids are stressed. Our bodies and brains are in overdrive all day, every day, and it all flows down into the lives of our children.
In his book Self-Reg: How to Help Your Child (and You) Break the Stress Cycle and Successfully Engage with Life, Dr. Shanker describes a body of research on emotional co-regulation that shows the prefrontal cortex of a child’s brain is not fully developed, so it co-regulates with the prefrontal cortex of significant adults. When an adult is in a stress cycle, the “inter-brain” connection with the child is also full of that stress. Dr. Shanker describes this brain sync up like a “bluetooth” or wireless connection between children and adults. When the inter-brain connection is calm and regulated, stress behaviors are reduced.
There is also polyvagal research from Dr. Stephen Porges and other neuroscientists that’s found when stress is high, we all tip into fight, flight, and freeze more often. This state has substantial long-term health impacts on kids, both typical and with special needs.  
Here comes the missing piece that will turn your world upside down, but in a good way. Our children are our mirrors. They show us our stress levels. Each stressful adult day seeps into the nervous system of our children, and they reflect it back to us. Whenever we see a rise in anxiety and stress behaviors in our children, we need to take a good look at our day-to-day lives and our own stress levels. It’s hard to see ourselves as contributing to our children’s challenging behaviors, but the good thing is that it’s never too late to make changes and adopt a softer, more compassionate approach.

The 10% Self-Compassion Promise

Parents of children with special needs require more than just run of the mill self-care practice. They need supercharged, exceptional, and radical self-compassion. I tell parents to imagine they won the “self-care lottery” and they have to use the money on taking better care of themselves or they will lose the prize. Everything about our lives is filled with exceptionalities, and this part of our lives needs to be, too.
I ask families to think how their lives would change if they took 10% of the love and energy they donated each day to their child and gave it back to themselves. Many say they can’t, that it would be selfish, that there is no time. It’s natural that special needs parents are super focused on their children. They have to be. But they also need to care for themselves to avoid the downhill flow of anxiety into their already compromised children. When I remind them of how interconnected stress is within families, they begin to think a little more about a yoga class or going for that swim.
Here are a few things special needs parents can try as they step into the world of exceptional self-care and compassion.
Become a Peaceful WarriorSpecial need parenting requires us to fight, so we go at it from a position of a warrior. But what if we come at this type of parenting from a different direction? One where instead of burning through our energy supply like an aggressive warrior, we pause each day and fill our tanks with exceptional compassion towards ourselves. Tell yourself each day that you are doing the job of a giant and that you are doing it well. This I know to be true because I have lived it. You can only be a warrior for so long, then you crash, and no one wins.
“Self-Care Light” Just Doesn’t Cut It
I love spas. I love the music, the muted colors on the walls, the water everywhere, and the services are wonderful. It is a delightful experience, but in my opinion, it is “self-care light.” Like all powerful experiences, we have to go deeper to see changes in our thinking, feeling, and behavior. Sadly, it has taken years for me to figure out this basic fact—leaving the spa and going back into the beehive of a stressful house or busy job is not what I call wise. These days I will keep my hundred dollars of spa money and instead opt for meditation. 
Learn More About Self-Compassion
Recently, I have taken on a more significant and more in-depth practice of self-compassion.  Self-compassion goes deeper than thinking it is nice to buy yourself that expensive thing because you deserve it. It is a deeper daily practice where you learn how necessary it is to cultivate a kind voice in your head. This voice will get you through the dark days, the medical appointments, the IEP meetings, and whatever your exceptional life will toss at you.  Self-compassion lives within a soft spot within yourself. It provides you with much needed kind attention, and it is the balance to all the attention you have to give to others.
Know That Compassion Has Two Necessary Parts
I remind parents of a concept I learned though buddhist meditation teacher and author Sharon Salzberg. Compassion has two equally important parts: the part you give to others and the part you must give back to yourself. Parents have no issue with the first part. It’s the second part they can’t get their head around. They have never been taught how to care for themselves or even think it is necessary. But it is, and this is the foundation of helping our children with special needs feel better, too.
Consciously Invite Positives Into Your LifeA wise yoga teacher once taught me the power of inviting positives and joys into our lives, and the reason to do it is more profound than you think. This practice teaches us that when our lives become more positive and balanced, we can reflect and observe that negatives have drifted away or at least don’t take up as much space in our lives. The work of Barbara Frederickson suggests we broaden and build positive states such as gratitude, kindness, compassion, joy, and peace. Try it for a month, see how your life changes, and how the behavior of your children will change, too. Positive begets positive, and joy generates joy, so pause to celebrate the positives, no matter how small they might appear.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Young and Married: Five Things we Learned from a Weekend to Remember

There’s a secret that nobody likes to tell dating or engaged couples: Marriage is really hard.

5 Things No One Told Me About Marriage

We like to shower engaged couples with gifts, words of advice, and best wishes, but in doing so we fail to adequately prepare them for the most difficult, life-changing, soul-exposing relationship they will ever have in their life. And so when couples get married and marriage turns out to be a lot trickier than they thought, the result is newlyweds who feel isolated, as if something is wrong with them.
Sometimes it takes a weekend getaway to remember that you are not alone in this often difficult journey of marriage. My husband and I recently attended FamilyLife’s Weekend to Remember marriage getaway, where we were reminded of some fundamental points about the covenant of marriage and how difficult it is to blend two very different sexes into one flesh.
Nobody told me marriage would be hard. I got married at 22 with the na├»ve belief that marriage was the “end” of my journey that resulted in a lifetime of happiness with my husband. But when the wedding ended and everyone went home, real life began. When my husband and I began to fight over things that had never come up in our dating relationship, I began to feel like I had made a mistake. Why else would this be so hard? After all, everyone told me that if you married the right person, marriage would come easily.
But the Weekend to Remember reminded me to step back and reflect on the fact that marriage is indeed hard. And that’s not a bad thing. Here are five things that we learned during our Weekend to Remember.

1. Men and women are different. Period.

It’s truly a miracle that God can take two individuals who are wired very differently and mold them into one. Beyond the differences between the sexes, people in general are all very different with unique personalities. And we’re expected to choose just one person with their unique personality to walk alongside through life’s joys and challenges. It’s not easy, but it’s one of the most sanctifying processes we will ever experience.

2. Marriage is hard at every age.

When we walked into the Weekend to Remember, we marveled at the many different age groups that were represented. As young 20-somethings, we expected to see more middle-aged couples that might be struggling in their marriage. Instead, we saw elderly couples, young parents, newlyweds, and people just like us. It was a beautiful reminder that no matter how experienced you think you are in marriage, you can always use some extra wisdom and words of encouragement on how to strengthen it It reminded us to remain humble and invest in our marriage, no matter how healthy we think our marriage is in a particular season of life.

3. You can’t do it alone.

You can attend all of the marriage retreats you want, but if Jesus is not at the center of your life, you are relying on the wrong strength to sustain your marriage. Your spouse will never be perfect and they will most likely fail you at some point. But Jesus won’t. If you make Jesus the center of your marriage, you will find a foundation sturdier than any self-help book or marriage conference. A Weekend to Remember had great advice, but they always pointed us back to God.

4. Communication is possible.

Since men and women are so different, you can expect to have trouble communicating in a marriage. The Weekend to Remember equipped us with the tools to communicate, and even disagree, well. Disagreement is inevitable, but we decide how we communicate that disagreement to our spouse. My husband and I thought the communication sessions at the Weekend to Remember were great because they took very abstract concepts and offered incredibly practical advice.

5. You need to get away.

When life becomes hectic, we often forget to invest time in our spouse. Even if you schedule a weekly date night, sometimes life still gets in the way. Taking the weekend to focus only on our marriage allowed us to pull back from our busy lives and remember what is most important. I encourage you to get away with your spouse every once in a while to reflect on the joys, hardships, and dreams for your marriage.
Marrying my husband changed my life. It made me accountable to another human being. It unified us in one flesh. But it has also introduced new struggles that I never anticipated. After spending our first couple of years feeling alone in the intensity of marriage, I began to realize that we were not an anomaly.
Our challenges might not be the same, but we all experience life’s difficulties and curve balls, especially when we walk through life with another, entirely different person. My husband is my greatest love and I can’t imagine a life without him. But no one is immune to challenges. I only wish someone had taught me these lessons before we walked down the aisle.
I encourage you to take some time to remember these truths. The Weekend to Remember is a great start.

Copyright © 2018 by FamilyLife. All rights reserved.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Win-Win Communications

 From PREPARE/Enrich Blog.... March 10, 2015

What is your communication style? Generally, there are four common styles:

  1. Passive
    Passive communicators are often unwilling to share thoughts, feelings, or desires in an honest way. This tendency may stem from low self-esteem, but it is also used to avoid criticism or hurting others’ feelings. Being the recipient of passive communicators tend to leave their partner feeling angry, confused, and mistrustful.
  1. Aggressive
    On the other end of the spectrum is the aggressive communicator, often blaming and making accusations, as well as making over-generalizations such as “You always put me down in front of our friends!” or “You never want to spend time with me!” This style is generally used when one person is feeling threatened or having negative thoughts/feelings; it often focuses on the negative characteristics of the person, rather than the situation.
  1. Passive-Aggressive
    Passive-aggressive communicators will often behave passively to a person’s face, but display aggression when that person is not around. On the surface the communicator’s goal is to avoid conflict (like passive communicators), but they will often convey anger or seek vengeance later. An example of this would be a stay-at-home-dad who feels resentful of his spouse for always working late and not helping out with any of the housework. Instead of actually talking to his partner about his feelings, he complains to his parents and brothers that she is underachieving as a wife and mother; meanwhile, his wife has no idea that there is any issue at all!
  1. Assertive
    Assertive communicators are able to express themselves in a healthy, non-defensive, and non-insistent way. They can ask for what they want while remaining positive and respectful. Exercising assertive communication encourages the other person to respond assertively as well, creating a positive cycle in relationships.
Any combination of the passive and aggressive communication styles can be detrimental to a relationship over time, as they result in lower levels of intimacy. If only one person is assertive and the other is passive or aggressive, the relationship may still suffer. The chart below shows that there is really only one “win-win” combination:
No one is perfect, and there will likely be times when you or your partner succumb to using passive or aggressive communication. Notice when this happens, make amends and vow to make this the exception rather than the norm, and your will relationship grow!
Source: The Couple Checkup Book ©2008

Monday, August 20, 2018

4 Ways to Prioritize Your Spouse Above Your Schedule … And Your Kids

Prioritize time with your spouse
By Samantha Krieger, Family
In our crazy, fast-paced lives, it’s easy to be distracted from what is most important.
A few years ago, a woman in my discipleship group at church pulled me aside after our time together and shared some wisdom I’ll never forget.
She had two teenagers and was on the brink of a divorce. Her family was falling apart and she blamed the dissolved relationship on her own choices. In our group time I told how my husband and I were getting away for the weekend to focus on our marriage, but I was nervous about leaving the kids behind. She encouraged me not to worry about it.
“Samantha, get away with him. Don’t put the kids’ schedules first,” she said. “I did that all our marriage with sports and all they had going on. I kept myself busy at the cost of my marriage. I wish we’d taken time for each other, but we didn’t. I eventually had an affair. I regret all of it.”
My eyes grew wide thinking about my kids still in diapers. Tears welled up in her eyes as she brushed her strawberry blonde hair away from her face.
I could sense the ache and pain in her heart. I prayed for her, that God would restore their family.

What’s really at stake

Years have passed since that evening, and I still ponder her words. I’ve felt the pressure and pull of life—with four kids under age 9—upon my marriage to Jeremiah. Some days you could call it the family circus. The noise and commotion are so loud I can’t hear myself talk, and my mind is never focused on one thing. Some days are so exhausting and overwhelming that I want to quit.
It’s crazy how my husband and I can go days with only talking “business”—who’s going where, who’s doing what at what time, who’s picking up who, what’s in the bank account, who paid what bill and when.
I’ve seen how easy it is to be distracted from what’s most important. We need to understand what is really at stake when we’re running full speed ahead, making no time for the person we love most and to whom we have pledged our life.
We don’t have to live in a constant state of not-together-ness with our spouse. We can choose oneness, unity, and satisfaction. It all begins with our choices. Here are four ways to begin loving your spouse above your schedule:
1. Find a time to connect each day with your spouse.
Whether it’s in the morning, afternoon, or evening, designate undivided time with your spouse. Unplug from distractions and be fully engaged. Ask questions like: How are you doing? What can I do to serve you more? What was your greatest encouragement/discouragement from today?
Connecting with your spouse requires intentionality in the midst of life’s demands. It won’t magically happen—you have to carve out the time. In our marriage, our best connecting is when the kids are in bed and the house is quiet in the evening. Whatever time is best for you, protect and guard it like your precious newborn baby.
2. Say “No” often.
There are a lot of good things in our lives to commit to, but not all are the best things. Practicing the art of saying no could be one of the best things for your relationship.
You may need to say no to the things you love like Facebook, ESPN, Netflix, late nights at work when the work can be done the next day, an unhealthy habit, or other distractions keeping you from intimacy. When you instead say yes to the best things, it gets easier to distinguish between good and best and eventually you won’t be satisfied with good.
3. Abandon annually.
I learned this phrase from one of my pastors who practiced what he preached with his wife. Find a time once a year to get away—just you and your spouse. It doesn’t have to break the bank, but get creative and make it fun.
Book the plane tickets, mark it on your calendar, and commit to it like it’s your wedding day. Arrange childcare in advance so it’s not a huge stressor the week before. Sometimes just getting away from the familiar does wonders in reconnecting and remembering why you really do love each other.
4. Pursue your passions together.
It’s not always easy to get excited about your spouse’s passions. I don’t understand my husband’s enthusiastic drive for camping in the wild, but I’m learning to appreciate our differences.
Seek ways to be involved simply because your spouse loves it. You may not prefer sleeping with him in a tent, but you could go with him to the Bass Pro store to shop for supplies and watch him try on his gear (you may have some good laughs, too). Watch a football game together, tackle a DIY project, explore in nature, read books and hang out at a coffee shop, and more. Allow your passions to bring you closer, not apart.
An overloaded, overwhelmed schedule will always cost you something in the end. Don’t let it be your marriage. None of us are beyond temptation. Evaluate where you need to make changes and adjustments.
Remember, we all have to make U-turns along the way, and we all go through challenging seasons. Your spouse will appreciate that you made time to do all that you could to make your marriage thrive as you ultimately lean on God’s grace and strength, side by side on your journey.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

An Intimate Conversation is Like Traveling the World

Every intimate conversation is an adventure into a person’s inner world – their needs, passions, hardships, and unique view of the world.
The problem is many of us, myself included, can be terrible travelers. We don’t listen well, don’t ask questions, and sometimes wander off on our own adventure in our head, abandoning our talking partners.
We act like tourists in a foreign land. We visit someplace new but only associate with the components most similar to the familiar world we know by staying in an “all inclusive” resort. 1

Traveling into Your Partner’s Heart

“Before the development of tourism, travel was conceived to be like a study.” – Paul Fussel
When couples start dating, they ask questions and intimately explore each other’s personal values, worldviews, and interests. They study each other and remember what they learned.
Danny and Sam share how they couldn’t stop talking the first three months of their relationship. “There were many nights were we just lay in bed till 3 a.m. asking each other questions like, ‘If you could have a secret talent, what would it be and why would you want that talent?’” As they describe their dating years, it’s clear this couple playfully explored each other on an intimate level.
Unfortunately, like most of us, Danny and Sam forgot to continue this as the years turned into decades. Now 22 years after first meeting, they say, “I feel disconnected from him. He never cares about my feelings,” and, “She never asks me about the things I care about. Everything that comes out of her mouth is about what I have to do around the house.”
“Few dating couples would get married if they had as little focused conversation as most married couples do.” – William Doherty, Ph.D.
Many couples who are disconnected have lost the art of traveling into each other’s hearts. Sometimes this is because they don’t prioritize the relationship and neglect to make time for talking and learning more about each other. Another reason is they believe they already know everything there is to know about each other.
The famous couples therapist Esther Perel reminds us that “[m]ystery is not about traveling to new places, it is about looking with new eyes.”
The truth is that your partner is constantly changing and will forever be a mystery. Psychologist Dan Gilbert states in his TED talk that “the only constant in life is change.”
The problem then isn’t so much our partners, but rather our own attitudes and limited knowledge on how to explore our partner’s inner world with the same spontaneity and fun that caused us to fall in love in the first place.
Maintaining that passion requires intentionally making an effort to take time to talk and explore each other’s inner world with curiosity.

Barriers to an Intimate Conversation

intimate conversation
Your ability to have an intimately connecting conversation is a reflection of your own experiences of other people exploring your inner world. I’ve had people like Danny tell me “I don’t do empathy.”
Which really tells me they’ve rarely experienced someone being empathic. They likely grew up in a family that discounted feelings and focused on action, blocking them from developing the emotional intelligence to understand their inner emotional world and the inner emotional worlds of the people around them.
In particular, hypermasculine attitudes are built on the idea of fixing things. This mindset blocks the person (man or woman) from seeking to understanding feelings first. Often these individuals fail to recognize and accept feelings of fear and helplessness in themselves and may therefore have difficulty recognizing them in others.
So the moment they feel their difficult feelings, they numb and go into “fix it” mode, or get angry and try to control their partner. They become colonialists who conquer the land and try to instill their cultural values on its inhabitants instead of understanding the beauty of the native culture that was already there.

You Are Responsible for Your Emotional Development

If you are the emotionally unavailable partner, you may have a nagging partner who is pushing you to be more emotional, and you’re frustrated because it’s a foreign language to you. Like Danny, you have to reach a point where you take on the responsibility for your emotional development. 2

The Art of Intimate Listening

intimate conversation
Below are the seven listening skills to have an emotionally intimate conversation. Consider it your passport into your partner’s inner world.
Skill One: The Body Language of Intimate Listening
Having an intimate conversation is having an intentional conversation. Being completely present with your lover implies total immersion in what they are sharing. This means no multitasking by checking your cell phone, watching TV, etc. Essentially, your body language is saying, “You are the most important person in the world right now and I want to truly hear what you have to say.”
Skill Two: Enjoy the Journey and Truly Listen
When you’re listening to your partner, you’re going to have thoughts come into your mind. You need to let them come and go like clouds in the sky. Stay with the conversation. If you ask a question about something from three minutes ago, it’s a sign you’re not truly listening. Don’t listen just to reply. Listen to understand.
One reason we don’t listen is because most of us would rather talk. Another reason is we become distracted. Our brains can listen at a speed of 500 words per minute, but most people only talk about 225 words per minute, leaving space for our mind to fill in the blanks.3 Being completely present during the intimate conversation requires intentionality and energy to be attentive. If you’re not understanding each other, you’re just two people talking over each other.
Skill Three: Immerse Yourself on the Journey
Demonstrate that you are listening and following the guide by using minimal encouragements, such as nodding your head and making sounds like “mmm,” “mhm,” or “uh-huh.” Doing this tells the speaker that you are listening to them and are tracking what they are sharing, thus encouraging them to share more.
If you want to be advanced, immerse yourself in the conversation by reflecting the feelings of the story in your face and words. Such as expressing excitement when your partner is sharing something exciting or expressing a surprise when your partner shares something surprising, such as by exclaiming, “That’s crazy!”
Skill Four: Ask Exploring Questions That Deepen Emotional Connection
You stop exploring when you ask closed-ended questions that lead to “yes” or “no” answers.
Instead, you want to ask questions that continue exploring your partner’s thoughts and feelings. These exploratory questions help your partner open up. 4 Here are some examples:
  • How does this impact you?
  • What are you seeking here?
  • How are you feeling about this?
  • What is so meaningful about this event?
  • What do you wish you could do?
Skill Five: Reflect to Clarify You Understand
It’s easy to misinterpret what your partner said, or to assume what your partner feels. Reflecting is a great way to make sure you understand exactly what your partner is expressing and feeling. It also leads to greater exploration because the speaker (your guide) feels like you are next to them on their inner journey.
Reflecting is a way of summarizing what your partner said. Here are some examples:
  • “If I’m hearing you correctly, your boss rejected your proposal and you feel disappointed because you put a lot of effort into that proposal.”
  • “You are excited because you get to spend time with your best friends from college.”
  • “You feel annoyed because you value being organized and sometimes our child is rather messy.”
If you do this correctly, your partner will say, “YES!” and then continue expressing more.
Skill Six: Express Empathy and Validate Feelings
Empathy is attempting to step into your partner’s inner world and validate how they feel about something. Empathy is saying,
  • “Understanding things from your perspective, it makes sense why you’re so upset about this.”
  • “That is terrible. This must be really hard for you to deal with.”
  • “Wow. You must be so proud of getting that promotion. I know I’m proud of you!”
Empathy requires being with your partner in their feelings. This is deeply intimate. We all want to feel like our feelings are valid, even if we think they may be irrational. It’s often when we feel validated that we then go on to solve our own problems. The biggest obstacle to partners doing this is a result of not being raised to accept all their feelings. To work on this read this article.
Skill Seven: Pausing the Guide When Lost
Since the guide is more familiar with their inner world than you are, it’s very easy for them to miss sharing something. If you feel confused, listen for a little longer (10-30 seconds) and if you’re still lost, kindly interrupt your partner and reflect what they’ve shared, “Hey. I want to make sure I’m understanding you. You said, [summarize], am I understanding that correctly?”

Speaking Skills

intimate conversation
As a speaker, you have a responsibility to be a guide through your inner world in such a way that your partner can follow you. Below are three skills to help you speak in a way that encourages your partner to listen.
Skill One: Share Your Feelings and Perspective
Focus on sharing your feelings and speaking from your experience.
  • “I felt excited when John offered me the promotion at work.”
  • “I feel alone in taking care of my father. Everyone else is so far away.”
  • “I have mixed feelings about what to do.”
Skill Two: Be Brief
Avoid offering play-by-play enactments of your experience unless the story warrants it. Going on and on about the details for 20 minutes will lose the listener. They care less about the details and more about how the situation impacted you. So focus on your feelings and what your experiences meant to you.
Moreover, going on and on and on doesn’t allow your partner the space to be a part of the conversation, to ask questions, or to engage. Eventually they disengage and stop listening. As the sharer of your intimate world, you have to be aware of your audience.
“A good conversation is like a miniskirt; short enough to retain interest, but long enough to cover the subject.” – Celeste Headlee
Skill Three: Check in, Don’t Repeat
People who don’t feel understood will often repeat themselves to try to get the point across. This can come across as contemptuous and disrespectful. Rather than repeat yourself, check in with the listener.
Professional guides often do this. They share a story and then ask, “Do you have any questions about this?” Or “Is that clear?” They want to make sure the listener completely understands them before they share more.

The Challenge of Improving Emotional Intelligence

Like improving your ability to read and write, one does not simply become emotionally intelligent overnight. You may read this article and think I need to get all this down right away. But trying to do so will be overwhelming and will cause you to give up.
Recognizing and normalizing where you are at this moment—whether an emotionally experience journeyman or novice—can help you focus on becoming good at one skill at a time, alleviating some of this self-criticism and enabling you to swiftly ascend to higher levels of emotional intelligence.

Over-practice These Intimate Skills

After practicing these skills for 15 minutes every other day for three weeks, Sammy feels more connected to Danny and Danny feels more open emotionally. Danny has also noticed that it has improved his ability to build better work relationships as a marine biologist. In fact, he is closer to getting one of his major projects funded because he listens in order to understand his funders’ concerns, rather than listening solely to prepare for rebuttal.
Emotionally connecting conversations during the grind of daily life is a vaccine for the virus of emotional disconnection.
With love,
Kyle Benson