Challenges every single parent should consider before deciding to remarry.
By Ron L. Deal, FamilyLife 2014
Specializing in stepfamily therapy and education has taught me one thing: Couples should be highly educated about remarriage and the process of becoming a stepfamily before they ever walk down the aisle. Remarriage—particularly when children are involved—is much more challenging than dating seems to imply. Be sure to open your eyes well before a decision to marry has been made.
The following list represents key challenges every single parent (or those dating a single parent) should know before deciding to remarry. Open your eyes wide now and you—and your children—will be grateful later.
1. Wait two to three years following a divorce or the death of your spouse before seriously dating. No, I’m not kidding. Most people need a few years to fully heal from the ending of a previous relationship. Moving into a new relationship short-circuits the healing process, so do yourself a favor and grieve the pain, don’t run from it. In addition, your children will need at least this much time to heal and find stability in their visitation schedule. Slow down.
2. Date two years before deciding to marry; then date your future spouse's children before the wedding. Dating two years gives you time to really get to know one another. Too many relationships are formed on the rebound when both people lack godly discernment about their fit with a new person. Give yourself plenty of time to get to know each other thoroughly. Keep in mind—and this is very important—that dating is inconsistent with remarried life.
Even if everything feels right, dramatic psychological and emotional shifts often take place for children, parents, and stepparents right after the wedding. What seems like smooth sailing can become a rocky storm in a hurry. Don’t be fooled into thinking you won’t experience difficulties. As one parent said, "Falling in love is not enough when it comes to remarriage; there’s just more required than that."
When you do become serious about marriage, date with the intention of deepening the stepparent/stepchild relationships. Young children can attach themselves to a future stepparent rather quickly, so make sure you’re serious before spending lots of time together. Older children will need more time (research suggests that the best time to remarry is before a child’s tenth birthday or after his/her sixteenth; couples who marry between those years collide with the teen's developmental needs).
3. Know how to "cook" a stepfamily. Most people think the way to cook a stepfamily is with a blender, microwave, pressure cooker, or food processor. Nothing could be further from the truth. All of these "cooking styles" attempt to combine the family ingredients in a rapid fashion. Unfortunately, resentment and frustration are the only results.
The way to cook a stepfamily is with a crockpot. Once thrown into the pot, it will take time and low heat to bring ingredients together, requiring that adults step into a new marriage with determination and patience. The average stepfamily takes five to seven years to combine; some take longer. There are no quick recipes. (Read more about how to cook a stepfamily here.)
4. Realize that the "honeymoon" comes at the end of the journey for remarried couples, not the beginning. Ingredients thrown into a crockpot that have not had sufficient time to cook don’t taste good—and might make you sick. Couples need to understand that the rewards of stepfamily life (security, family identity, and gratitude for one another) come at the end of the journey. Just as the Israelites traveled a long time before entering the Promise Land, so will it be for your stepfamily.
5. Think about the kids. Children experience numerous losses before entering a stepfamily. In fact, your remarriage is another. It sabotages their fantasy that Mom and Dad can reconcile, or that a deceased parent will always hold his or her place in the home. Seriously consider your children’s losses before deciding to remarry. If waiting till your children leave home before you remarry is not an option, work to be sensitive to your children’s loss issues. Don’t rush them and don’t take their grief away.
6. Manage and be sensitive to loyalties. Even in the best of circumstances, children feel torn between their biological parents and likely feel that enjoying your dating partner will please you but betray the other parent. Don’t force children to make choices, and examine the binds they feel. Give them your permission to love and respect new people in the other home and let them warm up to your new spouse in their own time.
7. Don’t expect your new spouse to feel the same about your children as you do. It’s a good fantasy, but stepparents won’t care for your children to the same degree that you do. This is not to say that stepparents and stepchildren can’t have close bonds; they can. But it won’t be the same. When looking at your daughter, you will see a 16-year-old who brought you mud pies when she was 4 and showered you with hugs each night after work. Your spouse will see a self-centered brat who won’t abide by the house rules. Expect to have different opinions and to disagree on parenting decisions.
8. Realize that remarriage has unique barriers. Are you more committed to your children or your marriage? If you aren’t willing to risk losing your child to the other home, for example, don’t make the commitment of marriage. Making a covenant does not mean neglecting your kids, but it does mean that they are taught which relationship is your ultimate priority. A marriage that is not the priority will be mediocre at best.
Another unique barrier involves the "ghost of marriage past." Individuals can be haunted by the negative experiences of previous relationships and not even recognize how it is impacting the new marriage. Work to not interpret the present in light of the past, or you might be destined to repeat it.
9. Parent as a team; get your plan ready. No single challenge is more predictive of stepfamily success than the ability of the couple to parent as a team. Stepparents must find their role, know their limits in authority, and borrow power from the biological parent in order to contribute to parental leadership. Biological parents must keep alive their role as primary disciplinarian and nurturer while supporting the stepparent’s developing role (read this series of articles for more on stepparenting). Managing these roles will not be easy; get a plan and stick together.
10. Know what to tell the kids. Tell them:
It’s okay to be confused about the new people in your life.
It’s okay to be sad about our divorce (or parent’s death).
You need to find someone safe to talk to about all this.
You don’t have to love my new spouse, but you do need to treat him or her with the same respect you would give a coach or teacher at school.
You don’t have to take sides. When you feel caught in the middle between our home and your other home, please tell me and we’ll stop.
You belong to two homes with different rules, routines, and relationships. Find your place and contribute good things in each.
The stress of our new home will reduce—eventually.
I love you and will always have enough room in my heart for you. I know it’s hard sharing me with someone else. I love you.
Work smarter, not harder
For stepfamilies, accidentally finding their way through the wilderness to the promised land is a rarity. Successful navigation requires a map. You’ve got to work smarter, not harder. Before you remarry, be sure to educate yourself on the options and challenges that lie ahead.
The beauty of a strong marriage is in the details. If you look closely, you’ll notice that the most successful marriage relationships have something major in common: in the big adventures as well as the day-to-day grind, the happiest, healthiest couples do life together as a team.
We love this quote about how the best marriages have teamwork as their foundation:
“The greatest marriages are built on teamwork. A mutual respect, a healthy dose of admiration, and a never-ending portion of love and grace.” – Fawn Weaver
Today we’re going to dig into the three major components of teamwork outlined in the above quote: respect, admiration, and grace. These are all critical ingredients to any winning team, so let’s break them down!
Respect is an essential ingredient to any team’s success, whether on the sports field or in a marriage. Merriam-Webster Online defines respect as “an act of giving particular attention; a high or special regard.”
When a team’s players respect one another, they:
Value each other
Support one another
Cheer each other on
Are considerate of one another
Treat each other with kindness and patience
A team built on respect has a much higher chance of winning the game because they’re not tearing one another down. Instead, each member appreciates his or her teammates for their strengths, and lifts their teammates up in moments of weakness. Team members share an end game: win, and keep winning until the very end.
In a marriage, it’s important to work together toward your end game. Root for your spouse. Support them in times of weakness. Help them keep running the race until you reach the finish line together. It’s a lifelong journey, but a worthwhile one when you stick together.
Admiration builds on respect and takes it to a whole new level. Merriam-Webster defines admiration as “a feeling of respect and approval; an object of esteem.” In other words, without respect, you can’t have admiration.
To admire another is to hold them in very high regard, or to find them compelling, fascinating, or amazing. The best teams are made up of players who are constantly “wowed” by their teammates’ abilities, instead of players who are in competition with one another or striving to the the star of the team.
In marriage, the concept is the same. Husbands and wives should cultivate that same “wow” factor with one another. And to take that a step farther, be vocal with each other–and with the outside world–about the characteristics and talents you admire. Let your spouse know what it is about him or her that fascinates you.
When teammates have a healthy dose of grace for one another, the unit as a whole can continue moving toward their collective goal with little hindrance. But if a team falls apart over a player’s mistake, a bad play, or a lost game, it’s going to be that much harder to pick up the pieces and continue pressing forward as a unit. Feelings will be hurt, respect and admiration may be damaged, and morale will be crushed.
Every great team understands that sometimes, things won’t go as planned. Sometimes, you’ll lose a game. One of you might make a mistake or face failure. That impacts the team in the short term, but it doesn’t have to destroy what you’ve built together.
In the same way, husbands and wives must have plenty of grace for one another. There are going to be times in life that get you down: failures, disappointments, missteps, tragic events, illness, and more. Some of these things might be direct results of actions that either you or your spouse takes. And when that happens, it’s important to always have a healthy dose of grace ready.
One effective way to cultivate grace is to put yourself in your spouse’s shoes. Creating a sense of empathy within yourself will help you extend grace to your spouse when it’s due. And if you’re willing to do that for your spouse, they’ll be more willing to offer the same to you.
Stay in the game! No matter what happens, remember you’re on the same team.
A few small actions carry surprising power in building a lasting relationship.
Not long ago, the marriage of some close friends—I'll call them Daniel and Jessica—suddenly imploded. We did everything we could to stand with them in their crisis to speak hope for their future together. Unfortunately, their marriage didn't survive.
I'll never forget a conversation I had with Jessica one day. Through her sobs, she said, "He worked so hard for a year to take us on that amazing vacation to Hawaii. But all I really wanted was for him to put his arm around me at church!"
Huh? Do you think in the midst of all her pain that she was thinking clearly? Actually, I do.
I could fill in lots of other details, but ultimately the pattern is a sadly common one. You may have seen it too. Daniel was a godly, well-intentioned husband who showed his love in several ways, including working long hours to provide for his family and to do nice things for them. You see, for him, providing is love.
Unfortunately, he didn't realize that what he was working so hard for wasn't what Jessica most needed—and in some ways was actually robbing her of the closeness she needed the most. (And of course there were ways she didn't know she was hurting him.) What she needed most, more than all the expensive vacations in the world, were a few simple, specific day-to-day actions.
But as simple as loving gestures in public? you wonder.
Yes! My research on happy couples showed that an extraordinarily high percentage of them were (often without realizing it!) doing a few little specific actions that were making their spouses feel deeply cared for. Jessica, as it turns out, is like nearly all other men and women in her deep rooted desire for these surprisingly meaningful gestures.
Clearly, a few small actions won't fix deep relationship problems. But for most of us, a handful of simple day-to-day actions increase the likelihood that our spouse feels that we care deeply about them, instead of feeling that we don't. There's just enormous power in that!
For nearly every man or woman, the same few small, gender-specific actions not only matter but have a huge impact on a couple’s level of happiness. But these little actions take on even more power when accompanied by those that matter to your spouse individually.
Let’s begin with the few small actions that the surveys indicate matter a lot to almost every man or woman—what we might call the Fantastic Five.
When individuals were asked on the survey if a particular action made them happy, the affirmative response numbers were staggeringly high for five specific actions for each gender, even among the struggling couples. Close to 100 percent of all husbands and wives said these actions mattered, with between 65 and 90 percent of all husbands and wives saying these actions would deeply please them.
In other words, you are very likely to make your spouse feel deeply cared for if you make a habit of doing the same five things consistently.
The Fantastic Five for him
A wife will have a big impact on her husband’s happiness when she does the following:
1. Notices his effort and sincerely thanks him for it. (For example, she says, “Thank you for mowing the lawn even though it was so hot outside.” Or, “Thanks for playing with the kids, even when you were so tired from work.”) This deeply pleases 72 percent of all men.
2. Says “You did a great job at __________.” This deeply pleases 69 percent of all men.
3. Mentions in front of others something he did well. This deeply pleases 72 percent of all men.
4. Shows that she desires him sexually and that he pleases her sexually. This deeply pleases 85 percent of all men.
5. Makes it clear to him that he makes her happy. (For example, she expresses appreciation for something he did for her with a smile, words, a big hug, etc.) This deeply pleases 88 percent of all men.
The Fantastic Five for her
On his side, a husband will have a big impact on his wife when he does the following:
1. Takes her hand. (For example, when walking through a parking lot or sitting together at the movies.) This deeply pleases 82 percent of all women.
2. Leaves her a message by voice mail, e-mail, or text during the day to say he loves and is thinking about her. This deeply pleases 75 percent of all women.
3. Puts his arm around her or lays his hand on her knee when they are sitting next to each other in public (at church, at a restaurant with friends, etc.). This deeply pleases 74 percent of all women.
4. Tells her sincerely, “You are beautiful.” This deeply pleases 76 percent of all women.
5. Pulls himself out of a funk when he’s morose, grumpy, or upset about something, instead of withdrawing. (This doesn’t mean he doesn’t get angry or need space; it means he tries to pull himself out of it.) This deeply pleases 72 percent of all women.
Keys that unlock any door
Did you notice that all these happiness-inducing actions are simple, learnable, and doable by any wife or any husband? If you put each of the five biggest little things to work every day, I’m betting your marriage will improve—in some cases, radically.
And here’s more great news: All these small but powerful actions matter regardless of what the person’s love language is. For example, most wives (82 percent) are affected when her husband reaches out and takes her hand, regardless of whether physical touch is her thing.
There’s no looking back for our friends Jessica and Daniel. But I’m so thankful that God is good. He is always at work to redeem our broken hearts—and I know He’ll do it for our friends. Still, a corner of my heart mourns the heartbreak that might have been prevented if they had truly understood the power of doing these best little things.
We all know that small, thoughtful acts are not a magic cure-all for every marriage problem. But having talked to so many who nurtured much happiness with simple but powerful actions, I know all of us can build that all-important foundation that helps us believe that our mate notices and cares.
Because as it turns out, believing that the other person cares is far more important to building a happy marriage than most of us ever realized.
We all have hobbies and interests that we’re passionate about; the trick is finding a way to integrate them into our marriages. Some couples do this with ease. Others, however, struggle to find a good middle ground–or even new activities to share.
Today, we’re talking about how to create opportunities for shared activities in your marriage to skyrocket your intimacy and make your relationship happier.
THE VALUE OF SHARED HOBBIES
Sharing activities or hobbies as a couple is incredibly important to the health of your marriage. Enjoying hobbies, recreational activities, and downtime together allows intimacy to flourish in your relationship.
For wives, spending time together in shared activities fulfills their longing for intimacy. It also draws husbands into that sense of intimate connection, creating a mutually beneficial situation for both partners. It’s a gift that keeps on giving, as long as you put the time and energy into spending time together.
When you spend time with your spouse, you’re creating memories and good feelings together that will spill over into other areas of your marriage. No matter what’s going on in your life, you have these times set aside, when you and your spouse will simply be doing an activity you enjoy together. And when the going gets rough, you’ll have those good times to lean on and look forward to.
You’ll also be setting a great example for your children of what a healthy marriage looks like. One of the best things you can do for your kids is to let them see the two of you loving each other well. And when they’re grown, they can emulate that in their marriages.
HOW TO FIND ACTIVITIES TO SHARE
If you two already have many common interests, then agreeing on what to do together should be a cinch. You’ll have a ton of options to choose from! If you both enjoy physical activities like biking or tennis, hit the trail or the court together once a week (or alternate, if you like both!). If the two of you are music buffs or love theatre, choose a show or performance to attend together every month (and in the meantime, kick back and listen to records together for a relaxing date night at home).
It gets a bit tricker to find things to do together when you don’t share many interests, so you’ll really have to put your heads together to figure something out. The good news is that it’s not about what you have in common–it’s how you work with one another to find that common ground, or create something new in the process.
First, make a list of each of your favorite hobbies, and sit down together to talk through each of them to gauge each other’s level of interest in the items on the list. Create a new list for the solutions you land on, and write those down. After that, talk through each item again until you’ve landed on one or two activities that you’d like to participate in together.
Another way to approach this could be to ask each other, “If you could only do one thing in your free time from now on, what would it be?” Then, make the effort to get involved (as much as possible–even just a little) in one another’s top choice.
If you find yourselves coming up short on ideas, we’ve created a free cheat sheet that will help jump-start your search for some activities that both of you feel interested in. You might both find an activity to engage in that you’ve never tried before, and who knows? It may end up becoming your favorite.
REMEMBER TO KEEP IT FUN
If finding shared activities has proven to be a challenge, don’t look at it as being mismatched with your spouse. Instead, view it as an opportunity to experience life on a deeper level with your partner and best friend. Exploring new activities and hobbies together can enrich your life and your marriage, and that in itself is a huge payoff.
Addiction is an overwhelming illness whose hallmark symptoms are the physiological craving of, and emotional attachment to, a legal or illegal substance or practice. Most often, we see addictions in the form of substances like alcohol, prescription drugs, and illicit drugs.
Substance abuse is devastating to marriages, families, and relationships. It can result in career loss, financial ruin, divorce, estrangement, and even death. Today, we’ll focus on six landmines that substance abuse plants in your marriage when you’re struggling with addiction.
For all of these issues, we strongly encourage that you and your spouse seek outside professional help. Consult your local minister or physician for reliable recovery resources, like a 12-step system that understands your unique struggle. Addiction is not something you can overcome on your own, but with the right help, you will be able to move past this and rebuild your lives.
Denial is risky business when it comes to facing a life-altering issue like addiction. For the addicted spouse, denial comes in the form of the idea that they’re in control of their addiction–they can stop any time they want. This is frustrating for the non-addicted spouse, who can often (eventually) see the problem for what it is, but finds it difficult to impossible to interact with the addicted spouse who is so strongly rooted in denial.
But many times, especially at first, the non-addicted spouse is also in denial. While the other person may display a host of red flags that point to substance abuse, it can feel easier in the moment for the non-addicted spouse to come up with alternate explanations or write off the signs as coincidence. Denial on the part of the non-addicted spouse is dangerous because it delays the possibility of seeking necessary professional help…even if that help only comes in the form of support for the non-addicted person in the marriage.
Whether it’s you or your spouse who is struggling with an addiction, helplessness takes root quickly. After a period of denial has passed, an addicted spouse may feel helpless to control what is happening to them; they find themselves at the mercy of the drug. The non-addicted spouse is likely to feel helpless when it comes to their spouse’s addictive behavior because they can’t do anything to stop it or make the situation better.
Feeling totally out of control of any situation–but especially a situation like this–is terrifying, stressful, and unsettling. Both spouses are at risk of seeking out behavior patterns that make them feel more in control of their lives, which can create a volatile situation in the relationship.
Addiction breeds dishonesty. It’s nearly an inevitable byproduct of substance abuse. The addicted spouse inherently knows that the substance that’s controlling their life shouldn’t be playing a role in it at all. Yet, because the physiological need for it is very real, they find themselves lying to cover up the problem.
However painful it may be, the non-addicted spouse must keep track of their spouse’s dishonesty. It’s essential to learn the telltale signs that the addicted spouse is lying; he or she may fall into a pattern that is easy to recognize. During and after recovery, the non-addicted spouse may still find it difficult to trust their husband or wife, but if they’ve become familiar with his or her patterns during dishonesty, it could become a framework they can use to evaluate the recovering spouse.
Addictive substances tend to steal an addicted spouse’s entire focus (perhaps not at first, but eventually, this tends to be the case). This can lead to the spouse neglecting the needs of their family, plus their responsibilities at home and at work. As a result, the addicted spouse may eventually find themselves jobless and even in the throes of financial ruin.
For the non-addicted spouse, experiencing neglect is detrimental to their health and wellbeing, the health and wellbeing of their children, and the financial stability of the family. Over time, they find themselves shouldering the burden of the addicted spouse’s responsibilities, plus their own. This can lead to anger, resentment, and contempt, which can be difficult to overcome even after the couple has received professional help to overcome the addiction itself.
PHYSICAL AND PSYCHOLOGICAL ILLNESS & PAIN
Substance abuse often begins when a person is trying to escape pain of some kind. What addicted individuals often don’t realize is that the substance will eventually cause them physical and psychological pain. Addiction also leads to varying types of illness, brought on by the years of self-harm.
For a non-addicted spouse, psychological pain and illness may occur as a result of the tremendous stress brought on by the addiction. Practice radical self-care and talk to your physician or counselor if your family is facing an addiction that has caused your health to deteriorate. Your recovering spouse and any children you may have will need you to be healthy in the coming months as you face this down.
Unfortunately, addiction is capable of creating an abusive environment in your home–be it verbal, physical, emotional, or otherwise. A person who has become addicted to a substance is susceptible to personality changes that include aggression and violence.
If you are a non-addicted spouse and your husband or wife has become abusive, creating a dangerous environment in your home, get yourself and any children you may have to safety. Consult your counselor for the safest way to communicate to your spouse that you have left the home, and you won’t be able to come back until it is safe for you to be there. Encourage them to seek the help they need to get well so that your family can be together again in a healthy environment.
Learning that your spouse has had an affair is a jarring, traumatic emotional experience. For the foreseeable future after the discovery (or your spouse’s confession), you’ll go through a deeply painful mourning period. Everything you believed about your life before this knowledge may be shattered, and you may wonder if you’ll ever be able to trust your spouse again.
Picking up the pieces after infidelity is incredibly difficult, but it can be done. The question is, can it be done if your spouse isn’t willing to dig into the why behind his or her actions?
WHY WE WANT TO KNOW
If you’ve been betrayed by your spouse, you’re most likely trying to figure out why they made the choice to have an affair. You’re probably asking yourself questions like:
Why did my spouse want to cheat?
Was I not good enough
What does the other person have that I don’t?
Was it something I said or did? Or something I didn’t do?
Did my spouse feel their needs weren’t being met?
What could we have done differently?
How can I be sure it won’t happen again?
It might feel tempting to try to answer all these questions (and more) at once. After all, infidelity will rock your marriage to the core, and if you’ve recently learned of an affair, you’re probably trying to decide what the future has in store. Will you be able to work it out? Will you need to end the marriage? What’s going to happen?
It’s normal to want to know what to expect going forward, as much as possible. For this reason, you might be inclined to question your spouse to get to the bottom of the issue. If you can learn the reasons behind the affair, you believe, perhaps that will help you determine your next steps–especially if the two of you want to work toward saving your marriage.
Learning the reasons behind an affair can also be a powerful form of closure. Perhaps you feel like you can’t forgive completely or move forward unless you’ve gotten all the answers from your spouse. But often, spouses who have been unfaithful don’t want to dwell on details of an affair, much less get to the bottom of the reasons why it happened.
If your spouse is holding back or avoiding conversation about the affair, it can create tremendous anxiety for you. Shouldn’t your spouse be willing to open up and answer all your questions? After all, he or she is the one who’s in the wrong…right?
WHY YOUR SPOUSE WON’T DIG DEEPER
When infidelity has occurred, spouses who have committed adultery often aren’t very articulate about what has happened, and don’t have a deep sense of understanding about the internal factors that drove their decisions to engage in the affair. If your spouse is avoiding these conversations, it’s likely he or she lacks insight into the “whys.”
Another motivation he or she might have is shame regarding the series of decisions that led up to this situation. Your spouse isn’t proud of what has happened, and it’s not something they want to repeat. At this point, they’re so bogged down by the shame of what they’ve done that they have a deep desire to move forward rather than wallowing in the past. Answering questions dredges up emotions, mental images, and more questions that your spouse probably doesn’t want to deal with over and over again.
The future seems very, very bright compared to what you’re going through right now. Your spouse is craving that brighter future, away from the dark season you’re in.
All these factors can compel your spouse not to look deeper into the situation at all; they just want to move forward and put all this behind you. The problem is, you might be left feeling like you’re in the dark.
MOVING FORWARD TOGETHER
Can you and your husband or wife move forward without dissecting the reasons behind an affair? Absolutely. But only the two of you can determine whether this path is the best for you. Healing from infidelity is very tough, no matter how you and your spouse choose to approach it.
What matters most is where you’re headed as a couple, not necessarily understanding everything about the past. You can choose to put it behind you and move forward without digging into the details, but it won’t be easy. (Bear in mind that, after an affair, every path to recovery is difficult in its own way–and the answers are different for each couple.)
While it may be possible to heal and move forward without delving into all the reasons behind an affair, keep in mind that lack of open communication can make it more difficult to reestablish trust. If you feel that your spouse’s avoidance of the topic indicates a desire to hide the truth (whether that’s their motivation or not), that’s likely to raise your suspicions and feed resentment.
If you don’t have an open license to discuss how you’re feeling with your spouse or ask him or her questions about what has happened–and have them honestly answer–trust may not be reestablished in your relationship. Infidelity wreaks havoc on the emotions of the injured spouse, and one important avenue to healing is the ability to freely express how you’re feeling and ask questions. This is not to drag your spouse through the mud over what he or she has done, but rather to reach forgiveness and the closure we talked about earlier.
Agreeing together on a commitment to openness will allow your communication to flow more freely. This is key to healing from the affair that has hurt your marriage so deeply. If you are unable to reach this agreement at first, take heart in knowing that it is possible to move forward regardless. But we strongly recommend finding a way to open those lines of communication between the two of you (seeking out a professional counselor can help you to do this).
In the mere contemplation of love, we are humbled. For who among us could ever claim to have “figured it out?” The mysteries of love and how to make it work baffle even the most well-intentioned. In many contexts, from parenting to marriage, friendship to business relationships, we find that our best efforts often fail and disappointment finds its way into our most valued sphere of life.
Why is this? There are many reasons, but they all come down to a basic orientation in ourselves towards ourselves. In other words, ever since Adam, we have been basically looking out for number one, and that is the surest way to destroy a relationship. We have a tendency to think of ourselves first instead of the relationship itself. We are trying to get what we want instead of seeing also the needs of others. And as a result of this self-orientation we destroy all chances of getting what we want and need, which in the final analysis is always love.
So, in an edition dedicated to love we thought it appropriate to look at some of the things that we do that get in the way of love. In some ways, it is also a look at maturity, for it is only the mature person who loves well. We will be taking a look at the ways of functioning that prevent love from growing in almost any context, whether it be , friendship, marriage, parenting, work or church relationships.
And before we get into looking at these traits, one sober word of warning: In looking for the problems in any relationship we are in, we always do well to point the finger back at ourselves. At least as Jesus said, it is a good place to begin to look! There is no doubt that others cause some of the pain and failure of relationships in our lives. But the reality is that we are probably adding to the problem or if we are not, we probably could be doing some things better that would give us a better chance of working it out, even if you find yourself in a relationship with a “problem person.” Sometimes, the most immature people can grow when in the presence of an integrating relationship. So, in looking at some of the dynamics of what the blocks are to good relationships, keep yourself in mind. The more that you can take ownership of these tendencies in yourself, the more likely you are to make relationships work and to pick people who are able to make them work as well. Mature people tend to pick mature people. Now, join me in a look at the things that poison love.
The Love Killers-Poisons To Avoid
Self-centeredness or Ego-centricity
Many people think of selfish people as being difficult. But “self-centeredness” comes closer to the real description of what a truly selfish person is. What it means is that someone basically experiences life mostly in terms of him or herself. Someone has said, “To interpret any event only in terms of how it affects oneself is to live on the doorstep of Hell.” And that is true.
When one is self-centered, he guarantees the failure of love, for love is an attachment between two people, and the self-centered person denies the reality of the “other.” He only sees others as extensions of himself. They exist to make him happy, serve his needs, regulate his feelings or drives in life. And whey they fail to do that by having an existence of their own, he has some sort of negative reaction, such as anger, withdrawal of love, controlling behavior or rejection. This orientation to another person being more of an object for self-gratification than a person makes a true attachment impossible. Love requires two people, not one person and an “object.”
We could write about this dynamic for a long time, but one quick way to understand it is to look at it in terms of the quote above. “Only me” involves not ever adapting to someone else’s wishes or needs, or sacrificing something that I want for another person or a purpose or group larger than myself. Or to think of the significance of events or people only as I am benefited or denied.
Lack of Observing Oneself
Psalm 36 says the following: “For in his own eyes he flatters himself too much to detect or hate his sin.” And 1 John says the same thing in another way: “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.”
The idea is this and is one of the most frustrating qualities that anyone can have in a relationship: The inability to see one’s own behavior, especially when one is wrong. Have you ever had that experience, to be in a relationship with someone who could not see when they were wrong? There is such little hope to get past any conflict that you might be having.
No relationship or person is perfect. And we can work out any kind of conflict with anyone as long as the two people involved are able and willing to look at their own behavior and own it. The act of ownership of our wrongs makes moving past the conflict and getting to a deeper connection possible, and when someone cannot see their wrong, the relationship gets stuck.
The injured party feels hopeless, and there is little chance for comforting them by the one who hurt them, because no apology is forthcoming. The conflict cannot be solved. This is why God is so into our confession. It lets us get to a better place. Let yourself always look first to yourself in any conflict to see where you might be wrong. That will enable you to see the truth of the situation more clearly. (Matt. 7:3-5)
Inability to Validate Another’s Experience
Being understood is one of our deepest needs. We don’t really need to know that we are “right,” as much as we need to know that someone understands how we feel and what our “reality” is. Making this connection with each other is called “empathy.” When we feel a certain way, we need to know that others validate our experience, meaning that they understand how it is for us.
Proverbs 18:13 says, “He who answers before listening– that is his folly and his shame.” We need to be listened to and understood, not quickly negated for how we feel and what we think. Research has shown that some of the most serious emotional disorders come from having ones emotions misunderstood. For instance, how do you feel when someone says, “Oh, come on, that didn’t hurt!” or “Oh, that wasn’t so bad.” We immediately go further away inside our hearts, and feel a breach with the person. On the other hand, when someone says something that shows their understanding, we are more open to input about our reality.
“Sounds like that was very difficult for you,” is an example of an empathic statement that draws people closer together.
Understanding how someone feels or thinks, or how an experience was for them is something that builds bonds and connections between people. The inability to do that destroys connection and alienates the parties.
This one sounds weird, for it seems that playing fair would be a good thing. The problem is that fair is what the Bible calls “the Law.” In other words, it means returning an “eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.” It means that we treat others as they treat us If they are kind, then we are kind. If they hurt us, then we hurt them back. If they are immature, then we are immature as well.
Listen to what Jesus says, “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even ‘sinners’ love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even ‘sinners’ do that.” (Luke 6:32,33) It is easy for us to be good to those who earn it. The problem is that no one earns it all the time, and every relationship has problem behavior. This is why simple “fairness” cannot work, for then the worst behavior in the relationship becomes the common denominator.
To transcend a pattern in a relationship, we cannot play fair and return evil for evil. (Rom.12:17) The only way for any relationship to overcome our imperfections is for the receiving party to be “bigger than that,” and return grace and truth instead of the injury. Simple fairness will kill any relationship.
“The lights are on but nobody is home.” To be emotionally detached is to be out of touch with one’s feelings and unable to be emotionally present in a relationship. It can be a killer to intimacy, because it feels to the other party that they are alone, even though someone is there.
The Bible says that to love God involves the heart as well as the mind. When we are out of touch with our feelings and cannot express them to one another, then intimacy is blocked, and our experience is one of the person’s heart being “far away.”
To feel close, we need to be present emotionally. Our needs, vulnerabilities, fears, pain, tender feelings, and the like must be communicated and expressed. When someone is detached from feelings, and the ability to express them, the other person cannot feel the kind of connection that we think of as “intimacy,” or “being known.” Intimacy involves the heart, as well as the mind. As David said, God desires truth in the “innermost being.” (Ps. 51:6) If someone is out of touch with their deep feelings and innermost parts, then shallow relationships are what follows.
Control and Denial of Separateness
Paul tells us that freedom is so important, that Jesus died for it. (Gal. 5:1) We are not to be under any kind of slavery ever again. But the reality is that many people do not honor freedom in their relationships. They do not see the other person as a free person from them, able to make their own decisions and have their own desires. Instead, they see the other as an extension of themselves, and have strong attempts to control the freedom of the one they “love.”
Love can only exist where there is freedom. Our attempts to control what another person thinks, feels, wants, does, values, believes, etc. are destined to drive them away, and ultimately destroy love. Love only exists as we see another person in their own right as a separate individual, who as Jesus said is free to do what they want to with what is their own. (see Matt. 20:15) When someone says “no,” we are to respect it. When they have choices and wishes that are different from ours, we are to respect them as well.
Wish For Eden
There was a time when everything was perfect. It was called paradise, and the Bible refers to it as the Garden of Eden. In that place, everything was “good.” But, as the rest of the Bible tells us, and history confirms, Eden has been lost, and we live in an imperfect world. What that translates to in the world of relationships is that we will always be in relationships with people who have imperfections.
To the extent that someone has come to grip with this reality, they have satisfactory relationships. They can accept others for who they are and solve problems. But if they still have a wish to be in the Garden where things are perfect, they are always frustrated with the people they find themselves connected to. They always want more, they judge and protest the reality of who the person is and there is very little safety for love to grow.
Narcissism and perfectionism are killers to real relationship. Real love can only grow where someone’s “real self” can be known and accepted by the other person. If there are demands for perfection and the “ideal person,” then love is blocked.
“I Know Better” and other “Parental Dynamics”
Adults who are in significant relationships are meant to be equals and share the reality of who they are in a spirit of mutuality. Some people, however, want not to be equals, but one-up on the other person. They want to be in more of a parent-child type of connection where they are in charge. They have expectations for the other to be in subjection to them in some strange way, and are dominating in their style.
This type of “I know better” stance blocks love in a horrible way, as the person who is “under” feels belittled, controlled, dominated and disrespected. In the best scenario’s, the so-called “benevolent dictator,” the one on the bottom rung fails to grow up and develop into who they were meant to be.
Typical of this type of stance are a lot of “you should’s,” that dominate the person’s thinking, as they freely tell the other person how to think, live, be and what to do. The biggest problems to love in this type of connection come from the resentment in the one-down person, and their drive to become independent from the dominating one. As Jesus said, we are to all be equals and put no one on a parental pedestal. (Matt. 23:8)
Lack of Boundaries
The last block to love that we will consider is the lack of boundaries. What this means is someone’s inability to take a stance of self-control and to have a proper relation to the word “no.” Boundary problems are usually seen in someone’s inability to either say “no,” or hear “no” from others. When we have these kinds of disturbances, we either allow people to walk all over us in a way that destroys respect, or we walk all over them and “trespass” against them, destroying love in the process. True love respects each other’s boundaries, saying “no” when we need to, and respecting it when we hear it.
Another aspect of boundaries has to do with requiring responsible behavior from each other in a relationship and taking a stance against evil when it occurs. True love cannot grow when evil is allowed to triumph. When we have the boundaries to “abhor what is evil,” and take a stance against it, we preserve the good in a relationship and help it to grow by solving problems.