Saturday, May 28, 2022
Wednesday, May 11, 2022
By Terry Gaspard MSW, LICSW is a licensed therapist and author
Your past has a bigger impact on your present than you think
When Deborah, 38, and Scott, 39, (*not their real names) sat on the couch in my office during a couples counseling session, they described their pursuer-distancer pattern. Deborah seeks more connection and affirmation than Scott is comfortable giving. When Deborah makes demands, Scott retreats because he feels criticized and unworthy.
Deborah put it like this, “I feel so lonely in my marriage like I did growing up. I don’t think my parents cared much about me. They were either fighting or threatening to leave. Eventually, my dad moved out when I was ten and never turned back. My therapist says my fear of abandonment is triggered by Scott’s withdrawal and I know she’s right. But it’s hard to give him space when I need reassurance.”
Scott reflects, “When Deborah gets clingy and points out my faults, like not paying attention to her, it makes me feel trapped and discouraged. So, I just walk away.”
What I explained to Deborah and Scott is that we tend to have a composite picture of the people who influenced us in the past—their looks, personality, tone of voice, behavior, and other traits. People often gravitate toward relationships that resemble their parents or the way their parents treated them.
For instance, you might pick someone who is emotionally detached because one of your parents was that way. Psychoanalysts refer to this as “repetition compulsion.” It’s an unconscious tendency to want to fix the past, to recreate it, to make it better.
IMPRECISE CHILDHOOD MEMORIES AND UNREALISTIC EXPECTATIONS
Everyone has assumptions about how relationships work based on their prior experiences. These assumptions, which include how others treat you, can lead to unrealistic expectations, misunderstandings, and disappointment.
“We humans are unique in how much error we pass along to our offspring. This is problematic, since children lack the intellectual or emotional base of experience to know whether their parents’ messages are correct. Thus, a woman who was constantly told that men can’t be trusted complied with this belief by choosing men who couldn’t be trusted or by provoking men to behave in an untrustworthy fashion.”
Joshua Coleman, Ph.D.
Most people enter marriage with unrealistic expectations that their partner will restore wholeness. They have a faint memory of their childhood and attempt to recreate it. Truthfully, even in families where parents did their best to nurture their children and maintain stability, there is a myriad of opportunities for things to go wrong.
In Keeping the Love You Find, Harville Hendrix, Ph.D., writes “We develop defenses against the inadequacies of our childhoods, over which we have no control, and we drag them along with us wherever we go, whomever we’re with. These are coping mechanisms, which, through repetition, harden into character defenses that continue through life to obey the original mandate to ensure our survival. They are the only way we know to protect us in what we perceive as threatening situations.”
For instance, Deborah clings to Scott when he recoils from her. This behavior can be traced back to her childhood when she’d reach for her dad and he’d turn away from her. However, Deborah focuses on the few times her father took her to the beach and bought her ice cream. Since she idealized her father, Scott rarely lives up to her expectations.
Or, Scott withdraws at the first sign that Deborah criticizes him. He reenacts early patterns of experiencing harsh criticism from his demanding father. When Deborah makes critical remarks, he withdraws and pushes her away. He fears being controlled by her, like he was by his dad.
When you get close to someone, it can bring to the surface unresolved issues from the past. In Deborah’s case, she wasn’t aware of her fear of abandonment until after she married to Scott. Due to the inconsistency in her caregivers, she developed an anxious attachment style. It’s difficult to separate from Scott and see him as a person with good qualities and flaws.
Likewise, Scott’s avoidant attachment style developed as a result of having a father who was controlling and insensitive. Scott’s fear of entrapment surfaced after the birth of their son when Deborah started needing more support (she found parenting challenging due to ineffective role models).
Once Deborah and Scott gained awareness about how the differences in their attachment styles contributed to their pursuer-distancer dynamic, they could discuss it and felt less triggered. They learned to empathize and be more understanding.
Most experts believe that the first step in getting out from the shadow of your past is to gain awareness. This means to adopt a more realistic picture of your childhood. Do this by talking to one or both of your parents, siblings, or close friends. Try to maintain an open mind, even if their memories of your childhood differ significantly from your own.
Next, examine the extent that childhood experiences affect the way you experience your partner’s behavior. Pay special attention to the ways your parents dealt with conflict. Did they communicate effectively, argue for extended periods, or sweep things under the rug? If they rarely spent time together discussing issues, this might cause you to overreact to your partner when he or she turns away from you. Then, acknowledge the damage done in your childhood and focus on healing rather than blame. Take ownership of how unhealthy dynamics in your upbringing may color your thinking about your partner. You can develop an accepting perspective by focusing on their strengths rather than flaws. Make a plan to repair any damage done. For instance, attend couples counseling and read books together such Dr. John Gottman’s book Eight Dates: Essential Conversations for a Lifetime of Love.
Thursday, April 7, 2022
Are you a worrier? How about your spouse? Truth be told, even the most carefree individuals find themselves worrying about something from time to time. Whether it’s little day-to-day troubles or big overwhelming concerns, worrying can consume us, if we’re not careful.
Much like stress, the way we manage our worries plays a significant part in the impact they have on our life and our relationship. In addition to learning self-coping strategies, you play an invaluable role in supporting each other when worries take hold. Let’s explore a few ways you can help ease your spouse’s worries, as well as your own.
If being a source of support for each other is the icing on the cake, being proactive in managing your own worries is sort of like the cake itself. It gives you the foundation and insight to better understand, anticipate, and intuit what your spouse might need. Take some time to figure out what things you tend to worry about and when, as well as what helps you cope. Maybe it’s physical activity, journaling, praying or meditating, or talking to another friend or loved one. Whatever helps you get out of your head and eases your anxieties, take note and lean on it when you need to.
Focus on what’s in your control.
There’s that old saying that worrying is like a rocking chair – it gives you something to do, but it never gets you anywhere. And it’s largely true. Worrying about things we have no control over wastes precious time and energy. Let those things go. Instead, focus on the things that are within your control. Worried about the weather ruining you child’s outdoor birthday party? Well, you can’t control the weather. But you can control whether (no pun intended!) you have a backup plan in case it does. This helps you turn unproductive worrying into problem-solving.
When it comes to supporting your partner, sometimes they just need someone to be there with them in their worries. Maybe they need to process verbally, and they just need someone to listen. Perhaps they just need a hug or cuddle if that’s their thing, or you can offer other comforts they enjoy such as making them a cup of tea or their favorite snack. Being fully present and in the moment as they work through their worries reassures them you’re in their corner and they’re not alone.
When you’re really worried about something, one of the least helpful (and maybe most frustrating) things you can hear is that you shouldn’t be worried. The thing is, even when we logically know there’s nothing to be worried about, sometimes our minds and emotions play tricks on us – and we worry anyway. So when your spouse is worried, validate those feelings. Whether you can relate or not, the feelings of worry are real to them. If it feels appropriate and you can offer genuine reassurances to calm their fears, then give it a go. Just try not to dismiss the fact that they’re feeling fretful.
Ask what you can do.
Asking your worrying spouse, “What do you need from me right now?” or “How can I help?” seems pretty straightforward, but it’s also very effective. Instead of guessing at what they need, give them the opportunity to tell you. Maybe they’ll tell you they just need you to listen, or perhaps they’ll even say, “Just tell me everything’s going to be okay.” They might give you an actual task that would help ease their mind. Whatever the case, asking point blank is a proactive approach to supporting each other when you’re feeling unsettled.
Worrying is a normal part of life, but managing it in a healthy and productive way can take intention. As individuals, you can take responsibility for your own mental wellbeing. As partners, you’re in a unique position to provide a shoulder for each other to lean on.
If worrying becomes debilitating or begins to prevent you or our spouse from functioning normally in your daily life, consider seeking help from a professional.
Friday, March 11, 2022
How does a soft start-up work?
How do you use a soft start-up?
Make statements that start with “I” instead of “You”
Describe what is happening, but don’t evaluate or judge
Be polite and appreciative
Don’t store things up
What if a soft start-up doesn’t work?
Wednesday, December 29, 2021
You can be both grateful – and struggling.
You can be both grateful – and know there’s room to improve.
You can be both grateful – and striving for more.
Focus on the and with each other.
Saturday, November 27, 2021
When you think of the way you
express and experience gratitude in your relationship, what comes to mind?
Perhaps it’s kind words, heartfelt gestures, or a loving smile or touch. These
are momentary expressions of the sentiment, but the fact is, the influence of a
grateful mindset has a way of echoing throughout your entire relationship in a
positive way that promotes a sense of harmony. We’re not saying it will prevent
you from ever fighting again (conflict can be healthy, after all) but it can help
you avoid the unnecessary ones that do more damage than good. Not sure what we
mean? Keep reading.
Gratitude prevents you from taking each other for granted.
We’ve learned to live with a lot more uncertainty lately; we don’t know what tomorrow, or next week, or next year will bring. It’s not a given that you or your spouse will be there every day into the future, or what adversity you might go through. It’s not always pleasant to imagine, so instead, focus on how you can best cherish each other every day. Knowing life can change in the blink of an eye makes us less likely to want to spend time fighting about trivial things.
Gratitude sparks a cycle of positive interactions.
Dr. John Gottman’s “magical ratio” posits that in the happiest marriages, there are five positive interactions for every negative one. Regularly expressing genuine gratitude to each other means you’ll likely receive a positive response, evoking a positive response from you and so on. You’ll be less likely to get into a fight over something trivial if it’s sandwiched by kind words or some physical affection.
Gratitude helps you see the bigger picture.
In situations in where annoyance or anger would be the easy response, a lens of gratitude gives you the perspective shift you need to see the full context of the situation. It helps you zoom out to see the whole person, instead of zeroing in just one mistake or flaw. For example, if your spouse has a habit of going over the top with holiday decorations, you might shift your perspective to see their good intentions of wanting to give your family happy memories and a sense of tradition.
Gratitude boosts satisfaction.
Various studies in recent years have found that when partners feel more gratitude toward each other, they also feel more satisfied in their relationship. If you’re feeling more satisfied, you’re going to be less likely to nitpick at your spouse for the little things or let anger or bitterness bubble over the top. If you do have an issue, you’ll be better able to address it in an empathetic way and be more receptive to feedback from each other.
Gratitude counteracts resentment.
Regularly expressing gratitude to each other can temper the little annoyances and resentments that have a way of building up over time. Making an effort to thank each other for the specific things (“Hey, thanks for planning the meals this week, that really lightened my load this week.”) or the more general (“I’m really lucky to have you by my side.”) can help you both let go of irritation that might take root if you rarely show each other appreciation.
Choosing gratitude in the midst of anger, stress, or annoyance isn’t easy. In fact, it often takes conscious effort – maybe even practice. But a grateful mindset has the potential to spark a chain reaction of good vibes in your relationship, making it less likely that you’ll succumb to unnecessary fights that result in hurt feelings or resentment.
Tuesday, October 26, 2021
That Same Stupid Fight: Handling Conflict with Your Spouse
There’s a reason so many of us would rather get a cavity filled with Kenny G in the background than have that same … stupid … fight.
Conflict with your spouse is inevitable for all couples. (Whoever got the idea into our heads that “marriage should be easy” … probably wasn’t married.) How can you deal?
Conflict with your spouse happens when values collide. He wishes she would park straight; she wishes he would apply the same logic to getting his socks 17 inches closer to the hamper.
Conflict with your spouse can be unspoken or overt, tangible or intangible, quiet or quite loud. They can involve clashes within ourselves, with others, with the world at large, and with God Himself.
We all fall on a spectrum, right?
· Escaping: There are the classic “stuffers,” who prefer a false peace. They’re escaping conflict by outright denial, internalizing responses to conflict, perhaps denying.
· Attacking: On the other end of the spectrum are “blowers,” who shoot for a false justice. They might attack with words, physical force, or the withdrawal of privileges, like money or sex.
· Peacemaking: In the middle of these extremes is the true peace and true justice of godly responses: Talking it out. Finding a mediator. Overlooking an offense. Jesus calls us “blessed” when we are peacemakers (Matthew 5:9). Not peace-fakers. Not peace-breakers.
We don’t act as “peacemakers” just because it’s the moral thing to do. It’s because when we enter conflict, we have the opportunity to honor God and replay His actions when He was in conflict with us.
When sin broke our relationship with God, He went the distance to repair that relationship and make peace with us. When we were His enemies, God demonstrated the quality and quantity of His love by making a way for peace (see Romans 5:8). And it’s a job God has passed on to us.
Through Christ [God] reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us.
The way we show forgiveness, peace, and justice in our relationships is a show-and-tell about what God did for us through Jesus.
So, your response to the sniping of your mother-in-law, or your husband’s passivity, or your wife’s nagging?
Those are opportunities to honor God and grow more like Him. (Will I obey God and trust Him? Will I make my desires, my goals, my “rights,” and my agenda serve His will above mine? What is His will?).
Conflict also allows us to serve others and to grow as it gives us new ways of looking at life.
Does that mean conflict with your spouse could actually improve the relationship?!
That’s exactly what I’m saying.
When my kids had learned some basic, conflict-management skills, I was eager to lay down my referee’s jersey and whistle and let them finally work it out on their own: Sit here. Don’t get up till it’s resolved. Do not pass “Go.” Do not collect $200.
Yet even that tended to drag on, sounding like a couple of cats tied up together in a sack. But you know what helped them cut to the chase far quicker.
Asking them to start with the log in their own eye. This comes from Matthew 7:5: “You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.”
I get to the core of the conflict a lot faster when I start with addressing my own heart issues. Which means …
Resolving conflict with your spouse in a healthy way starts with taking 100% responsibility for our contribution—even if we think our contribution is only 5% of the problem. Here’s a tip I heard from author Gary Thomas: We always underestimate the impact our sin has on other people.
Often, our desires have swollen not just from something we want, but into something we must have. So we’re willing to pass judgment and mete out punishment in order to achieve that desire (even in stealthy forms like the silent treatment or emotional withdrawal). We’re not trusting God to meet those desires. They have become demands.
As you’re able, consider how to embrace humility and confess to the other person (you might be surprised how this gets the ball rolling). Admit specifically what you did, as well as admitting the attitude that was in your heart. And don’t forget to acknowledge the hurt you’ve caused.
The PAUSE process
So you’ve decided you’ll intentionally honor God and trust Him with this conflict with your spouse. You’ve spent time searching your heart and repenting from your own sin. How can you move to a place where it’s not “us against each other” but “us against the problem”?
How can this become “Let’s work on the issue of household division of labor” rather than “her vs. him”?
Peacemakers outlines a five-step process to keep in mind:
- Prepare: Seek counsel. Pray. Continue to examine your own heart and reactions.
- Affirm Relationships: Show value for the relationship and hope for the future. Help them feel secure to address the problem and not worry about protecting themselves.
- Understand and Acknowledge Interests: People’s positions are motivated by their spoken and unspoken interests: Concerns. Desires. Needs. Limitations. Fears. Values. It might help to dig below the presenting issue—whose family to visit over the holidays, or how you’re talking to me when you’re exhausted from work, or whose turn it is to cart the kids to school. Look beneath that: What’s the desire of each person, and why is it important to them (even if they’re expressing those in illegitimate, unjust, or downright rude ways)? For example, behind the clipped responses after your long day at work? Maybe your spouse feels like everyone else gets the polite, presentable side of you. Or that ultimately, you don’t appreciate or truly see him or her.
- Search for Creative Solutions: There are almost always more than two options. How can you think creatively about a solution to address both of your interests?
- Evaluate Options: Which of these speak to both of our interests? Is there a way I need to willingly lay down one of my interests?
“How can I know if I’ve really forgiven them? I’m still mad when I think about the issue.”
Forgiveness is one of the most challenging tasks we face as human beings. It’s not a natural response but a supernatural one.
Forgiveness is a choice. It’s a decision modeled after God’s forgiveness of us: a decision not to hold the offense against the offender (if you need a pep talk, check out Matthew 18:21-35).
It releases the person from their sin against us, desiring good and blessing for them. And since forgiveness is a choice we make, it doesn’t even depend on the other person. We can forgive whether the person is sorry or not.
But here’s what forgiveness isn’t. It’s not forgetting or excusing, releasing someone from worldly consequences of sin. (This is different from revenge. It’s accountability for their choices. A forgiven criminal should still go to jail. An embezzler should not be given a position as an accountant.) Forgiveness isn’t a feeling, although feeling might be present.
It’s promising the following….. I will not…
- Keep ruminating negatively on this.
- Seek to hurt my offender as a result of this; I will seek to bless him or her, even if that means establishing accountability and finding justice.
- Gossip about this, speaking to others who are not part of the solution.
Instead, I will continue to pursue a relationship with the offender (unless repentance has not been demonstrated and love dictates I set boundaries to protect both of us).
In all of this, you might even come to a renewed appreciation of the lengths God has gone to forgive us and play out the gospel in your own life and for those you love.
Other healthy habits
Scientists agree that healthy communication and conflict resolution is just one of five habits that directly relates to marital health. Read about the other habits too.
Copyright © 2019 Janel Breitenstein. All rights reserved.
Janel Breitenstein is an author, freelance writer, speaker and frequent contributor for FamilyLife, including Passport2Identity®, Art of Parenting®, and regular articles. After five and a half years in East Africa, her family of six has returned to Colorado, where they continue to work on behalf of the poor with Engineering Ministries International. Her book, on spiritual life skills for messy families (Zondervan), releases March 2021. You can find her—“The Awkward Mom”—having uncomfortable, important conversations at JanelBreitenstein.com, and on Instagram @janelbreit.