The Tapestry Blog

  • 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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