The Tapestry Blog

  • Safety

    Last Summer I was reminded why tubing behind a ski boat is for people much younger than myself. After watching my friend Phil throw a couple of young guys off of a tube tethered behind his boat, I told him that I was ready for a ride. As I climbed out of the boat and onto the tube I was overcome by what I must now assume was some form of brief psychosis; temporarily separated from any cognitive awareness of my age, strength and weight at the time, I taunted the power of Phil’s boat and questioned his ability to dismount me from the tube.

    Sixty seconds later, with whitened knuckles clenched to a pair of canvas straps and my heart struggling to circulate blood to gelatinized muscles, my insanity remitted and I became aware of my imminent death. The water that had looked so soft and inviting earlier, now felt like concrete as my feet – flailing behind the tube – skipped across it’s surface. Struggling to retain some appearance of masculine adequacy before the family and friends watching me, I forced my face into a smile as I contemplated whether my impending mutilation would require a closed casket. Each skip of the accelerating tube dislodged exhilaration and replaced it with terror. With the boat exceeding 100 mph (I was later told it was only 15mph but I know better), I decided that the most honorable thing to do would be to release the tube volitionally and, thus, relieve Phil of the guilt he would most certainly feel for killing me himself. After a brief skim across the water, my terror came to an end as the water that threatened me only seconds earlier, now enclosed me in its soft warmth. Upright, conscious and still possessing all limbs, I was successfully able to stop crying before the boat circled back around to pick me up.

    Safety in a marriage – a sense that your spouse is invested in your well-being - is fragile. When you have it, you can risk things once feared and explore terrain previously avoided. When you lose it, even simple daily interactions feel tentative, uncomfortable and frightening. Blaming, name-calling, non-verbal expressions of contempt, criticism, defensiveness and even silence can quickly compromise a sense of safety in a marriage. And if you don’t have safety in your marriage, you don’t have anything. Without safety, establishing any meaningful communication, agreement or intimacy is impossible. Research indicates that once your spouse feels unsafe – and their heart-rate rises above 90 bpm – they are no longer capable of accurately hearing or interpreting what you are saying to them. Rather - if they “hear” anything - it is not what you’re saying, but what they expect to hear you say (which is typically not good news!). You can tell when it happens… their face hardens or they shut down… and on some level you recognize that they are no longer hearing what you have to say. Unfortunately, such a reaction probably triggers your anger and – if you are like most couples – this quickly escalates into what feels like the same old fight yet again. Without safety, even simple conversations deteriorate into destructive and hurtful interactions.

    What have you done to help your spouse feel safe with you recently? In Psalm 32 David says of our God, “You are my hiding place; you will protect me from trouble and surround me with songs of deliverance.” If this is true, then even during difficult times in your marriage your safety is insured – and you, in turn, can offer safety to your spouse. If you have not recently made an intentional effort to offer your spouse safety, let me encourage you to do so with the following.

    • Express a commitment to take criticism and contemptuous actions or words out of your marriage
    • Once a day – for the next three days - affirm one positive character trait you genuinely respect in your spouse
    • Once a day for the next 10 days, express appreciation for something – big or small - which your spouse does for you and/or your family
    • Remind your spouse that you are committed to them and that you will not leave them
    • The next time you get into a disagreement with your spouse, set your agenda aside and strive to understand and affirm their position on the matter; the benefit of surrendering your agenda for the sake of understanding your spouse will usually far outweigh the loss of any individual debate or decision
    • Ask your spouse to tell you about things which you do that leave them feeling more or less safe/secure in the relationship
  • The Magic Wand

    If you had a magic wand and could change one thing about the way your spouse relates to you, what would you change? Perhaps you’d like your wife to quite nagging you or to be less critical. Perhaps you’d like your husband to spend more time at home or you wish he'd be more open about what’s going on in his life. For myself, I think that I would like for my wife to be a better listener. I feel like she tends to draw conclusions about what I’m saying before I’ve finished saying what’s on my mind.

    So, let me ask, if you could change one thing about the way that your spouse relates to you, what would it be? Once you've answered the question, read on.

    Before you get lost in the rant that’s beginning to build momentum inside of you, let me suggest that your answer to my “magic wand” question says more about you than it does about your spouse. Because every husband and every wife is flawed… finite… fallen… the potential for spousal disappointment and discontent is endless. In other words, the list of weaknesses, failures and inadequacies from which you could answer my “magic wand” question is virtually infinite. Nevertheless, when presented with the question, I would bet that you – like most persons - quickly screen through the endless possibilities and gravitate to one or two primary areas of spousal discontent. And, whether you recognize it or not, the criteria by which you embrace or discard complaints and discontents is not some inherent knowledge of what is fair, right or appropriate to expect of a spouse, but your own personal longings and fears.

    Last week I sat down with a husband who was socially awkward as a boy; he was often teased, bullied and rejected by his peers. When asked the magic wand question, he said that he wanted his wife to be more affectionate – to tell him that she loved him more often. When pressed, he acknowledged that in the absence of her affection, he quickly begins to feel rejected by her. Whether his wife is unaffectionate is irrelevant. She’s probably about as affectionate as the woman next door; at the same time, she could certainly give him more hugs, kisses and kind words. However, what is critically relevant is that this man expects rejection (and don’t we all!) and longs for a level of affection that will put his fears to rest.

    In my own case, I have to concede that it’s important to me that my wife understands me – that she listens to me before she judges me – because I never felt understood by my parents as a teenager. My parents loved me and cared for me, but had no idea what to do with my adventurous and creative side. It scared them and they tried to quash it rather than re-direct it. And so I launched into adulthood with a strong need to be affirmed in my uniqueness and a fear being misunderstood and pressed into a mold in which I didn’t fit. Again, my frustration with my wife’s finite ability to understand me before she responds or reacts, says little about her, but a great deal about me.

    If you look deeply into your most consistent complaints about your spouse – your discontent - your frustrations – you will see your own deepest fears and longings reflected there. And if you can see them, then you can own them. Own them as a part of you and not an indicator of your spouse’s inadequacies. Rather than pointing a finger at your spouse, you can invite them to help you in addressing them. So, now, when I have a big idea or some new insight that I think will save the world or bring me fame and fortune, I know that I need to be careful as I share it with my wife. I know what’s at stake for me and I understand my hot button. And, because my wife loves me and wants to both understand and support me, she works especially hard as we talk. So, instead of our conversation devolving into an argument over her inadequacies or my unreasonable expectations, we partner together to allay my fears and – where God should permit – pursue fulfillment of my longings. So, if you had a magic wand...

  • The Stupid Pill

    It’s been suggested that you can learn what someone really thinks of you when they’re angry. However, research on brain functioning suggests that this simply isn’t true. As you become emotionally charged and your physiological arousal escalates, parts of your brain actually goes off-line. As activity in your brain’s emotional centers increases, activity in your cortex (the part of your brain that sets you apart from your dog or pet rabbit) decreases. As a result, your ability to access certain cognitive processes (reasoning, intuition, empathy and self-awareness to name a few) is restricted while your inclination to “react” increases. By the time your heart-rate is above 90 beats per minute (which happens pretty quickly – especially for men!), you’re barely able to hear what your spouse is saying to you, no less understand it and respond to it thoughtfully or honestly.

    In effect, getting angry is like taking a stupid pill. So, if you want to find out what someone thinks of you when half of their brain is turned off, then seeing what comes out when they are angry is a pretty good idea. But if you want to know what someone really thinks of you – or perhaps more importantly – if you want to make sure that what you say is an honest expression of who you are, then it's probably a good idea to calm down before you open your mouth.

  • Pursuit and Withdrawal.

    God tagged Adam pretty hard for his refusal to engage with his wife and her seducer in the Garden. With no less zeal, he slapped a heavy sentence on Eve for her presumptuous initiative.

    In every marriage there is a pursuer and a withdrawer. The pursuer tends to initiate engagement, discussion, conflict and problem-solving. The withdrawer tends to defer or even avoid potentially conflictual discussions; they enjoy contact and discussion, but don’t typically initiate it. In a healthy marriage, one spouse tends to pursue or withdraw more often, but – like a pendulum swinging from side-to-side – each partner moves back and forth between pursuit and withdrawal. When a relationship gets into trouble, partners become increasingly entrenched in their pursuit or withdrawal. The pursuer locks into their role and - with escalating fear, need or anger - seeks to engage their spouse in emotionally meaningful contact. Fearing the intensity of their spouse, the withdrawer actively avoids contact, retreating behind an emotional detachment. Feeling shut-out, the pursuer escalates their efforts and intensity, reinforcing the withdrawer’s disengagement and retreat. As this death spiral cycles downward, the withdrawer feels increasingly inadequate to please their spouse, manage their emotional intensity or meet their growing emotional need. Concurrently, a pursuer’s fear that they will be abandoned and uncared for exposes a growing conviction that they are unmanageable or unworthy of their spouse’s love.

    I once watched my dog chase and catch a squirrel by the tail in my back yard. Once caught, the squirrel lunged at him. I guess that’s not quite what the dog was expecting because he jumped back and then let the squirrel go his way. I’m pretty sure that the same squirrel was back in the yard again the next day. I’d like to think that he and the dog are friends now.


  • The Phone is in Your Hand

    I gave my wife a call to check-in and let her know that I was on my way home from the office the other day. We were chatting as I walked across the parking lot when it dawned on me that something was wrong. You know, that vague feeling you get when something isn’t quite right… something is missing. In a flash, I scanned myself and my immediate surroundings and realized that my front pocket was lighter than it should have been… that the i-phone that usually rests in this pocket was not there. And, because I rarely leave my phone behind or misplace it, I knew that someone else must have taken it from my office or used it and misplaced it.

    Thinking out loud with my wife, I reflected on all of those persons who had come through my office that day. And, because she had been in my office earlier… and because she often uses my iPhone to check the weather or get on-line… and because she doesn’t always put my things back where she finds them… she quickly moved to the top of my list of suspects.

    Without hesitating, I turned my questioning toward her. And, when she remained silent and didn’t respond – offering no confession of guilt, no defense of her innocence, I thought it odd. Until, in that rather awkward moment, I realized what she already knew… that my iPhone wasn’t missing… that it hadn’t been stolen, lost or misplaced… that it was not in my pocket because it was in my hand… being used to speak to her… the woman I was suspecting of wrong-doing.

    And, so, if you want to improve your marriage; if something seems wrong or missing; if you find yourself thinking about what your spouse does and doesn’t bring to the table; if you find yourself saying that things would be better if only he would…. If only she was… Stop it. The phone is in your hand. Really. Trust me. It's there. And if you haven’t found it there, it’s because you’re not looking hard enough.

  • Communication Doesn't Work

    “That’s not what I said!” Though his eyes were pleading for something more, the frustration and anger in his voice was clear. “That’s exactly what you said!” his wife countered, digging in her heels. What followed was the standard argument.

    While she unpacked her convictions regarding the incident and its implications for the marriage, he retreated into himself; his eyes rested on the wall behind her – far enough to the left of her eyes so as to protect him from actually absorbing what was being said, while not so far away as to break the brittle illusion that he was listening. Her eyes burned deep into his, unaware of his detachment; indifferent to anything beyond her own satisfaction of expression, she forced her words into him like a bent key into a lock. I allowed this to go on for several minutes before asking, “Do you think that he is hearing you?” After a long pause… she found herself unable to answer.

    Two days later, sitting with friends, I watch as a kinder and gentler version of the same is played out. My friend Billy is sharing the pain he has experienced since his divorce and the healing which God has – after five years – begun providing him only recently. His voice quivers with emotion and I am impressed by his courage, but aware of his vulnerability. Out of the corner of my eye I can see that my friend Sue has inched slightly forward in her chair. My stomach sinks as I recognize that she’s prepared her response to Billy’s situation. She’s no longer listening; she’s eagerly waiting for him to pause. When he does, she jumps in, offering her experience and opinion. They’re not bad thoughts – she’s a bright woman – but its clear that she is more invested in speaking her mind than pursuing Billy; in response, I see the subtle shift on Billy’s face as he retreats to safer emotional ground.

    After 15 years in the therapist’s chair, I am acutely aware of the value of listening. A man recovering from depression recently paid me a great kindness when he said, “I really feel like you get me… most of the time I feel like I’m living alone on the Island of Weird and no one understands me at all… but you keep asking questions until you get it. I don’t feel so alone.” While these words are encouraging to me, they also highlight the unfathomable emotional divide which characterizes most relationships and, more poignantly, most marriages.

    Ironically, research on communication in marriage indicates that it doesn’t work. More specifically, teaching couples in distant or conflictual relationships how to use concrete communication skills isn’t effective for fostering change. Within hours, days or – at best – weeks, these techniques are forgotten and unused at critical moments. However, that same research indicates that couples who establish emotional intimacy – a mutual emotional understanding and warm affection - easily adopt healthy communication strategies. Communication is, thus, only a tool - a means to establish intimacy; but if that shared emotional connection is not established then the tool is useless. Intellectual understanding is of little value. If you are not willing to set aside your agenda – your desires, goals and self-protection - for the sake of genuinely seeking to understand and respond your spouse, no amount of communication will make the difference. The question thus becomes, are you willing to strive for that understanding of your spouse? On behalf of your spouse, let me ask…

    • Do you hear who I am or do you hear who you expected me to be?
    • Do you hear my heart or do you only hear my words?
    • Do you listen to understand me or do you listen to appease me?
    • Are you listening for my needs and desires or are you listening for opportunities to forward your own agenda?
    • Will you dare to emotionally engage with me and hear all that I am saying - risking disappointment to listen beyond my words for the beating of my heart and the whirring of my mind?
    • Will you be curious enough to engage your mind and heart with me, asking questions until I make sense to you… until you recognize that I am not so different from you (and that I am so very different from you)… until you and I are a little less alone than before we started talking?
    • Will you recognize that words fail and understanding is hard earned, taking the time to tell me what you hear – insuring that you got it right… and I said it right - before you respond to me?
    • Will you listen and, in so doing, dare to acknowledge and bridge the frightening gap of emptiness that stands between us… the gap that leaves us both safe, but alone.

    Let me recommend a simple tool that provides an opportunity for you to better understand your spouse and begin to foster emotional intimacy in your relationship. Try making “90 Meetings in 90 Days” happen with your spouse. Once a day for the next 90 days, take 10 minutes to exchange the following information with your spouse: 1) What was your high for the day? 2) What was your low for the day? 3) What was something interesting or curious that happened to you today? Reflect back your spouse’s thoughts to them and seek to establish a new or deeper understanding of their experience. Once you’ve established understanding, you’ll find that you feel with them and then for them.

  • My Hair May Be On Fire

    I must confess that at 45 years of age I am still deeply fascinated by the same things which captured my attention at 13 years of age. In spite of the social and professional status which I have attained, I am still quickly reduced to adolescent silliness when confronted with burping, farting, big bugs, fire, things-that-go-boom and things-that-go-fast.

    However, out of respect for my wife and daughter, I have become more sensitive to the means by which I indulge in these fascinations. So, when I recently decided that I would burn the brush pile in my backyard, I had a little talk with myself about the importance of adult responsibility, the proximity of the neighbor’s homes and the potential humiliation associated with having to call 911. Resolved to live out this new-found discretion, I retrieved a can of gasoline from the shed and committed to use only a minimal amount of accelerant to prime the fire. …but when I walked over to the brush pile I found that the ground was a little wet and so I was afraid that it might take a more generous allotment of gas to get things going… and then, I thought, perhaps it would be a good idea to leave a trail of gas leading away from the fire so I didn’t have to fling a match in there… and, anyways, I had the garden hose right by me… and it was the middle of the day so none of the neighbors were probably home… So, curious to learn how long it would take a flame to travel up a 15 foot trail of gas, I sparked my lighter and passed it over the tiny puddle of gas at my feet.

    I promptly learned that it takes approximately one nano-second for a flame to travel 15 feet up a trail of gas - or about the same amount of time that it takes a middle-aged man to blink his eyes shut. So, while I wasn’t blinded by the explosion, I did share an intimate moment with a warm percussion that pushed me off balance and onto my butt. And before I could definitively discern that I was still alive – and not on fire – I saw that my wife and daughter had fled the house and were now running toward me. Suddenly aware of how foolish that I certainly looked, I briefly considered whether I could successfully hide myself behind a nearby bush. Recognizing the futility of any effort to hide at this point and, thus, lacking a fig leaf with which to cover my shame, I turned to face my loved ones… to tell them that I was OK… to tell them that I was, in fact, aware of how loud that boom was… and to tell them that I felt it was an exaggeration on their part to say that it shook the entire house. And, in spite of the fact that I was sprawled on my butt in front of a small inferno, I found myself ready to fight - ready to defend my actions and challenge the drama displayed by these two daughters of Eve. Fortunately, the knowledge that I was not ablaze was enough to satisfy my wife; sharing a snicker with my daughter, she graciously retreated back into the house before I had opportunity to expel my defense. Left alone to ponder my embarrassment, I was reminded of the power of shame and the extent to which I would go to escape its grasp. Like Adam – caught with apple juice dribbling from the corner of his mouth – I was prepared to hide myself, conceal my shame or, if needed, direct the attention toward someone else’s failure.

    Shame is the emotion alerting us to a risk of exposure: it is the fear of being revealed as flawed, inadequate, unacceptable… unlovable. Like a splinter under your fingernail, it demands a response. Because the intimacy of marriage exposes us more fully than any other human relationship, a marriage founded on anything other than love and grace is quickly compromised by shame. In marriage, shame is an insidious cancer that readily metastasizes into every interaction. It is the source of the conflict that crushes young marriages and the cause of the distance that dissolves those couples moving into the empty nest. Contemporary research on marriage1 indicates that four solid predictors for divorce are criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling. Reflection reveals that shame undergirds each of these “four riders of the apocalypse”. Shame precedes a wife’s critical and contemptuous efforts to conceal her own fears of inadequacy by directing attention toward the failures, inadequacies and weaknesses of her husband. Similarly, it is shame that compels a man to defend himself from even innocuous threats to his adequacy, refusing to understand his wife’s experience and hiding himself behind the safety of emotional detachment (stonewalling).

    However, shame, as well as the conflict and distance it creates, need not dominate one’s marriage. Shame is like a fungus which flourishes in the dark, but quickly withers and dies when exposed to the light. When Adam went into hiding – struggling to conceal his own nakedness behind a fig leaf – God flushed him out. And in the light of God’s love and grace – ultimately consummated in Christ’s sacrifice – Adam and Eve found the grace needed to re-establish the connection with God which they had lost. However, as C.S. Lewis observes, shame is like a hot cup of coffee2; if you spill it on your skin it scalds, but if you drink it down fully, you are able to digest and process it. When shame is acknowledged and one’s failures, weaknesses and inadequacies are laid on the altar of love and grace, shame’s power is broken. When a spouse is willing to expose their fears, failures and weaknesses – leaving themselves dependent upon the grace of their spouse – they break the power of shame, reach beyond the demands of performance and create an opportunity for love.

    And so, as my wife giggles, leaving me to manage the inferno I’ve created, my awareness of my own foolishness is muted by the generosity of her love.

    1Gottman, John, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, 1999, Three Rivers Press
    2Lewis, C.S., The Great Divorce, Harper-Collins, 1946


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