Everything listed under: Jeff Pipe

  • The Death Spiral and The Gospel (#2 of 12)

    12 Lessons on Marriage

    Until you come to a point of realizing that the relational/marital expectations you had prior to marriage were distorted by the limmerance buzz, misplaced and impossible, then you are ushered into a building sense of disappointment with your spouse.  They become the scapegoat for your un-fulfilled longings and you must get them to do the loving or romantic or protective things that seemed so natural for them before.  Their failures and weaknesses become the focus of your attention. Frustration, resentment and anger progressively build inside of you and eventually - maybe after a week or maybe after a decade - it begins spilling out.  

    Your ability to trust is immature; it feels like you can’t absorb any more disappointment or hurt and you’ve got to take charge.  Of course, you don’t think of yourself as controlling.  You’re just reasoning with them, or pointing out what they’re not seeing or calling out your own sacrifices and work in the hope that they’ll reciprocate.  You have to get them to do something - help around the house, help with the kids, make more money, plan a date, talk more - anything that shows you that they see you and care.  The tragedy is that anything you get from them in this manner can’t really be received as a reflection of their love for you… they only gave it to you because you threatened them, demanded it, earned it or cajoled it out of them.  Do they love you or are they just scared of you - even worse, obligated to you?  

    If you’ve got a modicum of self-awareness, your eyes turn inward and you see what’s below the surface:  selfishness and a fear that maybe the marriage - maybe you - are just not worth that much to them or, even deeper, that you’re just not worth that much to anyone.  

    Or, perhaps, you find yourself on the receiving end of a spouse’s disappointment and anger.  You say that you’d be fine if they would just relax.  Why can’t they be content with what they have?  It was good enough before you got married.  You scramble to try and please them, but never seem to quite get it right.  It starts to feel like no matter how much you do for them its never quite enough.  

    So, you resign yourself to failure and begin withdrawing and/or avoiding them.  You stay at the office a little longer (you feel adequate there and they seem to love you), get busy with a hobby or numb out in front of the television.   To avoid the inevitable conflict, you stop talking about real things with your spouse; better to keep it light.  Eventually, you build an emotional buffer around yourself.  

    If you look inward, you will come to see that they are threatening to expose your inadequacy.  You haven’t figured out yet that you can’t meet all of their needs and you’re not responsible for doing so.  So, their disappointment and anger is registering as a direct reflection of your adequacy.  Your spouse has become a mirror in which you see your own weaknesses, flaws and shortcomings.   So, you back away from the mirror - emotionally and then physically and then sexually - to avoid the pain and shame.   

    So, one of you is angrily trying to get your spouse to meet your needs and make something happen in the marriage - deal with the conflict, provoke action, facilitate engagement, initiate intimacy - while the other is desperately trying to avoid conflict, exposure and failure.  One of you is over-working and over-responsible, driving things forward for fear of what you would discover if you stopped.  You’re scared of being alone in an empty marriage.  But your increasing desperation and intensity is received by your spouse as criticism and rejection. Although the emotional buffer they have donned leaves them looking indifferent, they are deeply troubled.  Their seeming apathy and lack of emotion is a marker for their self-protective emotional withdrawal.  But they’re not withdrawing because you’re unimportant to them.  They’re withdrawing because disappointing and failing you feels intolerable.  It exposes their failure as a spouse and as a person.  They fear that if you see too much of them - if you see them for who they are - then at some point you’ll reject them.  But, of course, it doesn’t look that way and their withdrawal just confirms your deepest fears, driving you to work all the harder.  

    That pattern - that dance of pursuit and withdrawal, attack and disengagement - becomes a self-perpetuating marital death spiral that progressively escalates conflict and creates growing emotional distance.  And unless you are able to get to the fears undergirding it - find a way to talk vulnerably about those deeper insecurities - your relationship will eventually become what you fear.   

    The irony, of course, is that the Gospel is immediately relevant to those deeper fears and insecurities.  The Good News is that you are inadequate… you really have failed both your spouse and your God.  You are naked in the Garden and God is calling you to come out from behind the bushes.  The gig is up.  You deserve to be rejected and abandoned.  You are not worthy of love or care, not to mention a new car or more help around the house.  You deserve to be left alone.  But God is out there beckoning for you to come out.  His eyes are filled with compassion and forgiveness.  Jesus took care of it.  He knows you’ve failed and He accepts you anyways.  He sees the ugliness inside and still embraces you.  He knows your disappointment and your need; He wants to care for you.  

    If the Gospel is true, then you can risk engaging with your spouse even though you have come up short with them.  You can tolerate their disappointment because you are not responsible for it.  You can empathize with him/her in their disappointment because the God of the Universe has forgiven you and you stand clean before Him.  

    If God truly loves you and cares for you, then you can surrender your efforts to manage your spouse.  You can wait for your spouse to come to you.  You don’t have to get them to take care of you because your very Creator loves you and is close.  He has committed to care for you.  You don’t have to fear the loneliness because He is with you.  And those disappointments are purposeful - they mature hope, shifting your focus away from your spouse and toward the day when you will see Him face-to-face… the day when everything your heart longs for will be yours.  

    Next: #3 You Probably Married The Wrong Person

    Previous: #1 Love Is A Rush, But Marriage Is Hard

  • Love Is A Rush, But Marriage Is Hard (#1 of 12)

    12 Lessons on Marriage

    As a marriage therapist, writing something of value that might be helpful for for every couple is hard because every couple is different.  In my office, I know it is critical that I understand each unique relationship and the specific challenges they are facing. I ask questions until I find out what’s going on, how it went wrong and what needs to happen.  If there’s nothing else that 20 years of counseling couples has taught me, it’s that you don’t understand a relationship until you’ve heard from both sides and asked a lot of questions.  And even then, the most important things - the things that eventually make or break the marriage - are often subtle and hidden from awareness.

    So, before I say anything to you about your marriage, I have to confess that I don’t know you or your marriage.  I am painfully aware as I write, that some of the information I feel compelled to share - maybe all of if - will be off-target.  Even worse, in my effort to write in broad strokes that might be applicable to a larger group, I may speak to no one.  If I, thus, assert myself into your marriage or family without adequate understanding for what you have gone through, please forgive me. 

    With that acknowledged, I would like to offer 12 lessons on marriage.  Some are learned through 35 years of marriage to my wife Michele and some arise from the past 20 years of counseling couples.  Most are a merger of both.   These lessons provide little practical guidance or steps - to offer such would feel disrespectful to the complexity of your relationship.  Rather, these lessons provide a framework - some truths and principles - from which you can, perhaps, see your heart, your marriage and your faith more clearly.  Perhaps one or two of them will be helpful.  


    I know that you’ve heard this before, but marriage is not easy.  It only feels like its going to be easy when you’re dating because you’re in a state of limmerance.  What you may not have heard before is that this “honeymoon” period involves a very real physiological and neurological change that accelerates the bonding process.  It lasts as long as 18 months, but more often less than that.  The “high” associated with it is triggered when you think about - or are with - your love.  Although it can become sexual, it is not fundamentally sexual. Rather, the chemical change produces a feeling of euphoria and, to some degree, an immunity to physical or emotional pain.    If you were struggling with anxiety or depression before, you’re probably not feeling much - if any - of it when you are in this stage with your person.  More importantly, the neurological re-configuration associated with the change in chemistry provides you with an illusory experience of oneness with the person to whom you are bonding.  You get the sense that they think and feel in the same way that you do.  So, besides experiencing a massive bump in mood, you feel a deep sense of emotional connection that may be like nothing you’ve experienced before.   

    But, it doesn’t last.  

    And somewhere in the midst of this emotional/relational crack high, you get married.  

    Then it goes away.  Maybe abruptly or maybe progressively, but it goes away.    

    Then you’re confronted with the realities of your shortcomings as individuals and differences as a couple and you feel like you’ve been duped… it was a bait-and-switch.  The “happy” is gone and you’re really not sure that you even like this person to whom you are now married.  During limmerance it really felt like your spouse could meet your emotional/relational needs for a lifetime and now they’re not doing it anymore.  When the party ends and you’re relational super-hero is exposed as being just another human being, you’re confronted with the challenge of some hard relational work.  You’ve got to learn how to navigate conflict and disagreement as you meld two very different personalties and backgrounds into a cohesive one.  You come to see that your spouse is more wounded and reactive than you’d previously perceived them to be.  Further, if you stop blaming them and are honest with yourself, you see that you’re more wounded and selfish and reactive than you’d previously known.  

    When the buzz wears off its a bit of a shock.  You thought you had a good relationship and you’re confused.  The good news is that the ground is razed, “demo day” is done and you are ready to start work.  You have the opportunity to build a real relationship… a real marriage.  It’s going to be harder than you thought and it’s going to take ongoing work to build it and then keep it vital.  But if you put in that work as a couple you can re-claim that passion you had earlier.  It will be a little different - less consuming, but deeper; less fiery hot, but more resilient; sweeter - but no less passionate.  But that reclamation process will take decades, not a few months or years. 

    Next: #2 The Death Spiral and The Gospel

  • It's Time To Get Your Family Outdoors Because… It Is Restorative.


    As a psychologist and therapist, my job is often emotionally taxing and several years ago I found myself confronting burnout and compassion fatigue. I felt like a zombie; empty and depressed. My body, my heart and my mind seemed sluggish and unresponsive. With the help of some key friends, I began re-evaluating my heart and the way I was living my life. I was reminded that it had been well over a year since I’d last spent a night in the woods. So, I resolved to get outdoors at least one weekend each month. I grabbed a friend, loaded my backpack and headed for the mountains. Two days of hiking found us atop a mountain ridge just South of the Smoky Mountain National Park. An evening thunderstorm interrupted the humid afternoon heat - and our dinner - forcing us to temporarily retreat into the tent. Just before sunset, the sky cleared leaving a mist in the valleys unfolding below. As the sun passed below the horizon, the sky filled with color. I found a place to sit on the edge of the ridge as the shadows defining the ridges below me deepened. Transfixed by the beauty of the scene, I found myself unable to move until the sky eventually turned black and the stars began to show themselves. Like one on the brink of starvation, the experience was nurturing my mind, body and soul. Something inside of me loosed its grip and a longstanding tension of which I had lost awareness began to drain from my body. By the end of our trip, I found that I was not only more relaxed, but that my thinking was sharper and more spontaneous again.

    Certainly, the conversations with my friend had played a role in the restoration I was beginning to find, but I am also convinced that the sounds, scents and sights of creation – the realigning of my own body’s rhythms to the rhythms of the natural world – had also played a significant role. When I spend time outdoors, I am often reminded that for all of my knowledge and skill as a psychologist, I have no healing balm that compares with the power of God’s creation. Immersion in His natural world reboots the mind and body, restoring energy, heightening senses and bringing greater clarity of thought. I know this and, yet, prioritizing time outdoors is neither intuitive nor easy. Culture and technology offer a convenience and comfort which too often insulate me from the natural world.

    Author and Journalist Richard Louv coined the term “Nature Deficit Disorder” to explain the array of emotional, cognitive and social difficulties that develop when one is over-exposed to electronic devices and under-exposed to the natural world. Although elements of human culture are rich and modern technology offers great conveniences, there is something deep within our psyche that is nurtured when we are exposed to the beauty and expanse of the natural world. When we give ourselves away to a day in the woods, structured schedules are replaced with the rhythms of the natural world. Intentional and mentally demanding efforts to direct our attention toward the tasks and problems of daily life are replaced by the fascination of a natural world that captures the mind’s attention, restoring – rather than depleting – mental energy. Research suggests that children and adults who live in proximity to green space and involve themselves in outdoor activities are more physically and emotionally healthy; they have greater emotional intelligence, higher self-esteem, spend less time with electronic devices, have lower blood pressure and are less likely to be obese.

    And you don’t have to move your family to a rural or remote location to gain these benefits. Research suggests that even small doses of “Vitamin N” – 30 – 60 minutes outdoors a day – can foster significant benefits to cognitive, emotional and relational functioning. We’ve now confirmed what artists have long known, being outdoors fosters inspiration and creativity. For years I avoided local parks like the Chattahoochee River Parks and Kennesaw Mountain because I did not consider them to be wild enough. More recently, I have discovered how wrong I was. I’ve made weekly hikes in these smaller, but no less natural, areas a part of my weekly routine and it makes a difference to my mental, physical and spiritual health. Even sitting out on the back deck of my suburban home – where the sound of the birds is diminished by the drone of passing cars, lawnmowers and the HVAC unit – is now a fundamental part of my personal maintenance program. So, get yourself and your children outside; allow His creation opportunity to bring you the healing and nurturance it offers.

    The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing. He makes me lie down in green pastures, He leads me beside quiet waters, he refreshes my soul – Psalm 23

  • It's Time To Get Your Family Outdoors Because…

    It Realigns The Soul To God

    The sun has dropped below the horizon and the startling array of orange and red hues draping the sky deepen. The growing shadows heighten the contrast between the ridges unfolding before us. We are sitting on a bluff at over 6,000 feet of elevation in the middle of the Smoky Mountains; the landscape ripples out for what seems like an eternity. The chill in the wind is sharp, but only heightens the beauty of the landscape and the moment. Slowly, the twenty or so hikers who have joined us atop Cliff Tops on Mt. Leconte begin trickling off the bluff and back down the trail. Their chatter and their headlamps are quickly swallowed by the pines and myrtles behind us. My wife snuggles into me as we readjust our position on the rock. She knows I’m not ready to leave yet – we’ll be the last to walk back down. The light slowly fades and our view of the landscape goes with it. Far in the distance below, scattered lights blink on. Above, stars flicker into view and the expanse opens. Blinking - tears brim over my eyelids. Is it the cold wind? Something within shifts. A welcome gift. I am small again.

    In Psalm 8, David expresses a similar sentiment. When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them… Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth.

    Yet our propensity is to exchange awe and beauty for comfort and safety as we retreat into our environmentally regulated homes. Well-intentioned, we protect our children at the expense of crippling them – introducing the illusion that with enough caution and prudence security can be purchased. A friend was recently surprised to find a neighbor had called the police to her home… because she’d allowed her boys to play in the rain.

    Street lights shroud our view of the stars; buildings block our view of the horizon. The buzz of traffic drowns out the noise of the local wildlife while an array of electronics clamor for the attention of our eyes. In the din and hum of suburban and urban life, it’s all too easy to lose the awe of God that is so readily evoked upon entering the natural world. Busy schedules, social pressures and the stress of daily life leave us feeling as if the world were upon our shoulders. In such a state, it is easy to lose an honest assessment of one’s own size and influence… of His size and power.

    “There is a way that nature speaks, that land speaks. Most of the time we are simply not patient enough, quiet enough, to pay attention to the story.” - Linda Hogan

    So take the hand of your spouse and your children. Go outdoors and then go a little further – a little deeper - until you are beyond that which you can regulate – beyond yourself. Step out from under the awning and into the storm as it unloads its furious burden of water and light and sound. Go and stand in the surf, at the ocean’s edge… withdraw from the lights and gaze up into the unending sky… step to the edge of the bluff, releasing your eye to travel out and over the unfolding ridges. Pull your loves close – squeezing them tight as you surrender your silly little small to His overwhelming Big.


  • It's Time To Get Your Family Outdoors Because...

    Once we’d settled in at the base of the two large oaks and turned off our headlamps, it was utterly black. Sunrise was still an hour away and the clouds blocked whatever light the moon and stars might otherwise have offered. No more than 20 minutes later, adrenaline jolted my heart into action as the sound of approaching footsteps became distinct. Black bears commonly passed down the game trail we had chosen to sit near. So close were the footsteps now that I could almost feel the weight of them moving the mossy ground beneath me. And then, abruptly, they halted. Seconds seemed like minutes before a loud snort followed by a stomp and, then, retreating footsteps, let my daughter and I know that it was a deer and not a bear that had almost walked over us. Leaning close and in a whisper that carried the emotional tenor of a scream, my daughter said, “That was a deer, right?!?”

    Thirty minutes later, as light from the approaching sunrise was beginning to fill the sky, movement in the brush caught our eye. No more than 20 feet away, a bobcat meandered into the opening in front of us. Unaware of our presence, he trotted by, eventually disappearing into the brush. Awe-struck and hesitant to say anything that might compromise the beauty of the moment, my daughter and I stared at each other, wide-eyed.

    Four more deer passed by us that morning, but offered no shot.

    Later in the day, as the setting sun cast the sky a vivid orange, we watched a small gaggle of turkeys wander across the valley below and roost in the pines atop a nearby ridge. Senses alive; hearts full; for a moment, all was right with the world. “We should probably go ahead and pack it in.” I suggested. “No.” My daughter replied. “Not yet. Can’t we sit for 10 more minutes?”

    Later this season, I would shoot a good-sized buck and, then, a doe to fill our freezer. But it is that day with my daughter – and not the “successful” hunts - that remains most vivid in my memory. Even as I write this from the comfort of my favorite leather chair, I can feel the ground of those woods beneath me; I feel the morning chill and smell the dank woods – even the musky scent of a deer that got a little too close is present for me. To have shared the magic of those moments with my daughter is an invaluable and irreplaceable gift that touches almost every facet of who I am as a man.

    But the blinking cursor on the electronic screen in front of me brings me back to the reality of the task at hand and the day’s chores before me. I’m distracted, ideas are ill-formed and words come slowly as I struggle to finish this blog; it’s taken far longer than it should have. I’m aware that I am mentally tired – the emotional, cognitive and spiritual demands of the past week have depleted me. Although I had last night to myself and indulged in a mindless evening of television and internet surfing, I’m still somewhat ill-at-ease. I need to get outside I tell myself. Then I am reminded that this afternoon I’m shooting and fishing with a friend; its not a great time of the year for bass fishing, but it’ll get me outside. And tomorrow I’ll hike Kennesaw Mountain at sunrise with my wife. I love those moments with her. And, reflecting on this, something inside of me relaxes.

    There’s nothing I could sell you with greater confidence than the outdoors. As a father, a husband, a psychologist and an educator, I have found no more meaningful or valuable place to be - or share with those I love - than the outdoors. It is not only a place of rest and recreation, but a place of profound learning, healing, bonding and growth - a place of restoration.

    In the short series of blogs to follow, I'll offer 5 reasons why its time to get your family outdoors.  My hope is to encourage, challenge and resource you to take yourself and your family outdoors more often and with more purpose.


  • Personally Responsible vs. Blaming

    Epic Love
    Setting:  The Six Elements That Determine the Tone of Your Love Story
    Element #6:  Personally Responsible versus Blaming.

    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 i-phone 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 i-phone 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… Oops.

    Photo Credit: Flickr @Kenny Louie

    When you a reach a place n your marriage where you find yourself more focused on your spouse’s bad behavior than your own, you’re in trouble.  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.  Its there.  And if you haven’t found it there, it’s because you’re not looking hard enough.

    Let me give you some bad (or, perhaps, good) news.  Its unlikely that you are any more emotionally or relationally mature than your spouse.  As best as we shrinks can tell, people tend to marry people possessing a personal, relational and emotional maturity level comparable to their own.  Your spouse’s “issues” – their relational strengths and weaknesses – may be very different from your's, but when you add it all together they are usually equally problematic.  As I recently heard a divorce attorney say, “Crazy marries crazy.”  Furthermore, as you’ll learn later in this book, when a marriage is in distress it is almost always created and sustained by both partners equally.

    Even if you are in a marriage where your spouse has failed you in a more visible or dramatic manner – as with infidelity, substance abuse or domestic violence – there is mutual responsibility for the relational context surrounding the breach in the relationship.  While you are certainly not responsible for your spouse’s bad behavior, you are mutually responsible for the relational context in which their bad behavior occurs.

    In an uncharacteristically vulnerable moment, Donald turned to his wife and said, “I feel lonely in our relationship.  It seems that the kids and the house are more important to you than I am.”  Deanne looked surprised and then, a little perturbed as she turned toward me.  “I’ll tell you what Donald’s problem is.  He just doesn't know how to express his feelings.  I've been waiting for 20 years to see him feel anything; I'm not even sure he's human anymore.  His father was cold and his mother was just mean; its no wonder he doesn't feel.  I honestly feel sad for him.  Its just who he is.  But, then, he thinks that I’m going to have sex with him?”  “Deanne”, I interrupted, “It seems that you have some pretty good theories about Donald.  You’re a smart woman and I suspect that some of them are right on target.  But I’m wondering what happens in you when Donald told you he was lonely.  You looked surprised, but then you got angry.  What happened there?”  Not yet willing to look at her own fear - and particularly her fear of facing rejection - Deanne continued her diatribe on Donald's issues.

    As a marriage counselor, I find it amusing how well-versed most people are in their spouse’s problems and issues.  We are all “armchair psychologists” when it comes to understanding our spouse.  Unaware of her own culpability, Deanne continued to rant about Donald’s behavior.  However, what she couldn't see was the role that her own behavior played in their marital distress.  Her assessment of David’s emotionally closed and distant manner was fair.  However, what she couldn't see was that her own fear of intimacy and rejection fueled an anger that reinforced Donald’s emotional distance.  It communicated a lack of safety and placed all the blame for the couple’s marital distress at Donald’s feet.  Until she took personal responsibility for her own fears and the blaming which arose out of them, it was unlikely her relationship would change or grow.   In fact, her refusal to do so would eventually contribute to the demise of the relationship.

    - Jeff Pipe

    If you want to learn more about this topic or how you can make your marriage into an Epic Love, consider participating in an Epic Love retreat. Registration is currently open for the weekend of June 6-7. 

  • Commitment vs. Conditionality

    Epic Love

    Setting:  The Six Elements That Determine the Tone of Your Love Story
    Element #5:  Commitment versus Conditionality.

    Most people understand the importance of unconditional love in a marriage and few people marry with much consideration to the possibility of divorce.  Certainly, most believers recognize that marriage is meant to last a lifetime and that, even in the face of betrayal and infidelity, God’s ideal is a relationship that reflects His gracious, sacrificial and committed love.  A good marriage, like a good love story, allows room for mistakes and healing, weakness and growth.  A good marriage, like a good story, unfolds and matures across time.  In order for this to happen, a commitment to permanence and unconditional giving are critical.

    The courtship phase of a romantic relationship is typically marked by a level of euphoria and oneness that allows a young couple to believe that maintaining a lifetime of closeness and passion is easy.  However, this very real bio-chemical change is not permanent and burns off within 18 months.  At that point, couples are often left confused and uncertain.  As the neurochemical high of courtship dissipates, they begin seeing their spouse more clearly as their spouse begins seeing them more clearly.  Fear of disappointment emerges as your spouse’s weaknesses and flaws become more evident.  Simultaneously, the disappointment you observe in the eyes of your spouse provides a painfully clear reflection of your own weaknesses and shortcomings.  Disappointment leads to doubt as you begin to question not only your spouse’s ability to care for you, but your own ability to please them.  The trust and willingness to risk which were so prominent during the courtship phase begin to erode.  You pull back, measuring more carefully what you say and what you do.  Unconditional giving devolves into conditional relating as you tell yourself, “If he doesn’t… then I’m certainly not going to…”  “If she won’t….  then I’m…”

    The first time that John forgot to pay the water bill, Alicia was amused and, perhaps, a little annoyed.  When she discovered that he had bounced a check six months later, she was angry.  Unsure as to whether he was really looking out for their financial welfare, she began watching the bank account more closely.  If he’s not going to look out for me, then maybe I need to start a separate checking account Alicia mused out loud.  John was embarrassed by his mistake and irritated at Alicia’s mistrust.  The disappointment he saw on her face cut him deep.  In an effort to patch things up later that week, he surprised her with a night out at a nice restaurant.  However, when Alicia sarcastically questioned whether they had enough money in the bank to cover the meal, John’s shame erupted into anger and he almost walked out of the restaurant.  Though Alicia apologized a few moments later, the damage was done.  John’s sense of adequacy was wounded and until Alicia learned to relax and manage her anger better, he wasn’t going to risk doing anything special for her.  Conditionality had begun to creep into the relationship.

    Although John and Alicia wouldn’t recognize it for several years, their willingness to give care and reach for care had begun to shift away from the unconditional regard that characterized their dating toward the conditional quid pro quo that too often marks marriages.  A good marriage is not a 50/50 exchange; it is a 100% commitment that is conditioned on your own love for your spouse, not their ability to reciprocate in some manner.

    Once expressions of caregiving or vulnerability become conditioned on behavior, it is not long before the commitment to permanence becomes conditioned as well.  Even though the first allusions to divorce are more likely to be expressions of frustration, helplessness and pain than a meaningful consideration of divorce, they are no less destructive.  “I’m over it.”  “I’m done with this.”  “I’m outta here.”  “I can’t – I won’t – live like this.”  Such statements are received as rejection and they foreshadow abandonment.  They escalate fear and undermine security, provoking an array of self-protective and self-serving reactions in a relationship.

    If you’ve never watched the show American Ninja Warrior, let me recommend it to you.  Its an exciting reality TV show that follows the quest of athletes striving to complete a legendary obstacle course in Japan.  The challenge of the course – and the qualifying event that precedes it – is that there is no room for mistakes.  One fall from any element of the course and you are out of the competition for the year.  For some athletes, this means that years of training become meaningless in the blink of an eye.  Although I would love to try my hand at the American Ninja Warrior obstacles courses, I’m really more of a Wipeout kind of guy.  On the more user-friendly TV show Wipeout there is much more room for the average person to compete.  Not only are you layered in gear designed to protect you from the inevitable falls and blows you will suffer, but if you get knocked off an element you simply go back to the beginning of it and start again.  In other words, there’s room for mistakes and learning as you go.  Whether fast or slow, most contestants are eventually able to master the obstacles placed in their path and successfully complete the course.

    Writing an Epic Love out of your marriage will require grace, time and a stubborn resolve to offer your spouse unconditional regard.  In a relationship where acceptance is not conditioned on behavior, there is room for you and your spouse to learn from mistakes and grow.  In a relationship where permanence is certain, both you and your spouse can relax, allowing trust, passion and intimacy to grow across a lifetime.

    - Jeff Pipe

    If you want to learn more about this topic or how you can make your marriage into an Epic Love, consider participating in an Epic Love retreat

  • Stonewalling vs. Empathy

    Epic Love
    Setting:  The Six Elements That Determine the Tone of Your Love Story  
    Element #4:  Stonewalling vs. Empathy

    When defensiveness fails to protect from recurrent confrontations of contempt and criticism, stonewalling is the next layer of self-protection that finds its way into a marriage relationship.  Stonewalling is, in short, emotional disengagement.  As one man recently told me, “When she gets upset like that, I just push in the clutch and ease on out.”  When someone is stonewalling, they will typically stop responding to their spouse in any meaningful way.  They may offer short, one word responses or they may simply remain silent.  However, stonewalling is not defined by the lack of any verbal reaction, but by the emotional disengagement.  Because one spouse has emotionally removed themselves from the interaction, their posture, tone of voice and facial expressions remain flat.  They wear a “thousand mile stare”; though their body is present, their heart and mind have left the building. 

    Men are more likely to stonewall and by the time that a guy is stonewalling on a regular basis, a relationship is in trouble.  Men who stonewall are likely to do so because they feel themselves being flooded by emotion and stress.  They feel helpless to alter the course of an interaction and on some level they have begun to lose hope.  Unable to cope with their negative feelings or meaningfully confront the situation, they give up, flip an internal switch and emotionally disengage.

    Budweiser aired a very funny commercial illustrating stonewalling several years ago.  The ad opens with the picture of an infuriated football coach yelling directly into the ear of a referee standing on the sideline.  As the referee maintains a level gaze, seemingly unaffected by the coach’s rage, the game’s commentators marvel, “Coach Ferguson is beating the ref like a rented mule and the ref’s just tuning him out.”  They muse, “Boy, where do you train to take a beating like that” as the ad transitions to a scene in the referee’s home where we find his enraged wife yelling at him as he stares blankly at the television across the room.  “And you didn’t take out the trash yesterday like you said you would!  And you haven’t asked me out on a date in years!  And it wouldn’t hurt if once in a while you told me that you loved me!  And to think that I could have married Donald Hoffman!”

    Sally’s anger flashed so quickly that it startled even me.  “Don’t try to act like you don’t know what’s going on Ed!  I saw you look at that woman in the lobby of that restaurant!  I’m not crazy Ed!  You’re not going to play me for the fool again!”  Twice Ed opened his mouth as if to speak and each time Sally cut him off, voicing her hurt and anger with increasing intensity.  I watched as Ed gave up and then “left the building”.  He stopped trying to speak.  His eyes shifted slightly to the side of Sally’s head – far enough to the side so that he did not have to see or absorb the full intensity of her anger, but not so far as to make his disengagement obvious.  I allowed Sally to continue for another minute, noting that her anger was increasing as Ed disengaged.  “Sally.  What is it like for you right now as you’re talking to Ed?”  I queried.  “I’m just wasting my breath!  I don’t think he’s even listening to me!”  She was right. 
    In relationships, stonewalling is the emotional equivalent to cutting off someone’s oxygen.  The emotional detachment inherent to stonewalling is a form of abandonment and the effect that it has on a spouse is dramatic.  The initial feelings of terror – which are usually below the water line of awareness - are typically followed by secondary feelings of anger and, then, aggressive efforts to get some emotional reaction - any emotional reaction - even a negative one.  And when these efforts fail, the internal response for your spouse is predictable.  He doesn't care.  He doesn't love me.  He's left me. 

    Where stonewalling marks disengagement, empathy marks engagement.  Empathy is indicative of care and connection.  Genesis 2 records for us the power of the union between a husband and a wife.  Adam refers to Eve as “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.”  The passage goes on to clarify that for the sake of the marriage, “a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.”  This union is more than sexual in nature.  Contemporary research highlights the substantial change that occurs to the structure of the mind when you establish an emotionally intimate and secure bond with your spouse.  Mirror neurons allow you to feel what your spouse feels, think like your spouse thinks and anticipate what your spouse might do next.  Internal, mental maps are dedicated to tracking the emotional, cognitive and even physical whereabouts of your spouse. Empathy - any emotional expression that shows your spouse that you are feeling what they feel - demonstrates connection.  While empathy may not necessarily ease your spouse's negative feelings, it lets them know that they are not alone in them. 

    My wife’s eyes begin to fill with tears and, even before I understand what is happening, my own eyes begin to water.  The reality that her emotional experience has become my own is unpleasant; I don't like to feel pain and I don't like to see her in pain.  I want to stop it - to fix it or make it go away - but I know that what she needs is to know that I am feeling it with her.  My empathy – my emotional response to her – tells her that I have not abandoned her, I am with her.  Romans 12:15 says, “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.”

    - Jeff Pipe

     If you want to learn more about this topic or how you can make your marriage into an Epic Love, consider participating in an Epic Love retreat.

  • Defensiveness vs. Validation

    Epic Love
    Setting:  The Six Elements That Determine the Tone of Your Love Story  
    Element #3:  Defensiveness vs Validation

    Defensiveness is the counterpart to criticism and contempt in a marriage.  This self-protective strategy manifests as an effort to explain, rationalize or minimize the significance of your behavior in the eyes of your spouse.  Defensiveness is any reaction to your spouse that disrupts their expression and/or constrains the process of you coming to an understanding of your spouse's position.  It is typically a self-protective reaction to an expression from your spouse (nonverbal or verbal) that you experience as attacking, blaming or criticizing.  Although defensiveness is a fairly predictable reaction to criticism and contempt, in a relationship that’s struggling even disagreement can evoke a defensive reaction. This highly destructive coping strategy is more common among men than women and usually precedes some form of withdrawal from an interaction.  Most defensive spouses don’t recognize what they’re doing.  More often than not, they feel that they are simply explaining their behavior or perspective.  However, explaining is only one of many forms of defensiveness.  Blame-shifting, counter-attacking, minimizing, yes-butting and justifying are other common manifestations.

    Before his wife spoke a word, Mark could see that he was “in trouble”.  As the words came out of her mouth, “You’re late!”, he readied his response.  “You’re right. I said I’d be home by 5:30 and I’m not, but I got waylaid on the way out of the office by Joe and you know how he can be (yes-but).  Then traffic on 75 was bad and it took longer getting out of town than it usually does (blame-shifting).”  “You could’ve called.”  Ellen quickly retorted.  “I’m only 30 minutes late and I don’t understand why this is such a big deal (minimizing),” Joe countered.   

    Elaine saw what was coming before she even heard the garage door go up.  It had been a challenging day with the kids and the pile of dirty clothes in the laundry room was no smaller now than when Jim had left for work that morning.  “So, what did you do today?”  Jim said as he greeted her in the living room.  She knew where this was going.  “No.  I didn’t get any laundry done today.  The kids were tired and cranky all day.  If you gave me a little more help at night and we got them down on time, I could probably get more done during the day(blame-shifting).”  “Aw, c’mon!” Jim countered.  “I’m the one working all day to pay for this house! Is it really too much to expect that you’d keep it clean.”  Elaine responded, “And why didn’t you get the oil changed in my van yesterday like you said that you would!  I’m not the only that’s dropping the ball here (counter-attack)”

    Proverbs 18 says, He who answers before listening – that is his folly and his shame.  The problem with defensiveness is that it precludes understanding and derails dialogue.  When one person is upset within a relationship, what they need first and foremost is to be understood.  In some instances, this is all that is needed.  In others, it is a critical starting point to resolution, healing or growth.  However, for the individual who is inclined to become defensive, allowing one’s spouse to be disappointed or angry – for even a moment – often feels intolerable.  It is not unusual for men, in particular, to experience any negative emotion which their spouse displays as an indictment of their performance or behavior as a husband.  “When I see her tears, it feels like I’ve failed”, more than one husband has told me. 

    At such times, the impulse to defend yourself feels like the only way of retaining any sense of adequacy or worth in the eyes of your spouse.  Defensive statements are offered in the hope that they will redeem your standing.  Predictably, though, a defensive reaction shuts down communication and blocks one’s spouse from finding the understanding, validation and reassurance they need.  Defensiveness suggests that your spouse is wrong in their understanding, perception or experience of an event or interaction.  The more persuasive a defendant is in presenting their case, the more likely their spouse is to feel “crazy” for their own reactions.  In response, it is common for your spouse to argue all the harder to express their original feelings.  Hurt, fear and anger only escalate in the face of defensiveness, thus provoking further defensiveness.  This quickly escalates to an attack, defend mode that is not only destructive to intimacy, but frustrating for all involved. 

    The alternative to defensiveness is understanding and validation.  You may not always agree with your spouse’s position on an issue and it is very likely that you will not react to particular situations in the same way they do; however, you are still quite capable of understanding why your spouse might feel, think and react in the way that they do.  Unless your spouse is floridly psychotic, there is a sensibility to their reactions and with a modest investment of energy and time, you can understand them.  At those times when you find yourself feeling a need to defend yourself, stop and listen.  Hear them all the way out, asking clarifying questions along the way.  Keep listening until their position makes sense to you and until they feel like you get it.  Then, and only then, should you begin sharing your own perspective.  However, in most instances what you’ll find is that by the time that your spouse feels understood and validated, they will have so softened their position that no further dialogue is needed.

    My wife is a rule follower and it upsets her when I speed.  When I have sensed her irritation with me in the past, I have been quick to defend myself.  “Stop trying to tell me how to drive!” (counter-attack)  “You just need to relax!”  (blame-shifting) “You’re such a legalist!” (counter-attack) “I feel safer when I’m driving a little faster than everyone else.” (rationalization)  “Relax!  I’m barely going 10 over!” (minimizing)   However, as I have grown less defensive across the years and been able to hear her out, I’ve been surprised by what I’ve learned about her.  In contrast to my suspicions, she doesn’t really believe that I’m a bad driver who needs reproof and remediation.  She isn’t judging me nor is she trying to control me.  Rather, she’s concerned that I’ll get an expensive speeding ticket.  And, given that I’ve gotten about 15 speeding tickets across our three decades together, that’s a reasonable concern to maintain.  Further, when I remember that she grew up as a Missionary Kid whose family had to keep a tight budget, I don’t have a hard time understanding why frugality is a strong value for her.  So, even though I am not personally frugal and I still prefer to drive on the fast side, I can certainly understand why she feels and reacts the same way that she does.  So, I make a point of expressing my understanding of her concerns as I validate the anxiety and frustration she is experiencing.  “Yup.  I get it.  Your tense because you don’t want me to get a ticket and there’s no sense in handing any more of our money over to the government.”  My understanding and validation, in turn, defuse her frustration and preempt any tension or conflict in the relationship.  Further, as I have laid my defensiveness aside and come to understand her better, I’ve found myself motivated to find solutions to our dilemma.  At one point, we adopted a friend’s rather creative recommendation that we build a speeding ticket line item into our budget (in ticket-free years, the saved money was designated to fireworks!) and more recently I’ve simply been moderating my speeds.  In either case, its not that my wife’s position on the speeding debate has persuaded me to change (although some would suggest that it should have); rather, because I love her and want her to feel relaxed with me, I’m moved to do things differently

    - Jeff Pipe

     If you want to learn more about this topic or how you can make your marriage into an Epic Love, consider participating in an Epic Love retreat.

  • Contemptuous vs. Vulnerable

    Epic Love
    Setting:  The Six Elements That Determine the Tone of Your Love Story  
    Element #2:  Contemptuous vs. Vulnerable

    Jim felt backed into a corner.  Seven years into the marriage, it didn’t seem to matter how hard he tried to please Esther, she kept upping the ante.  Desperate to get her attention, he tried to tell her that a new car was not in the budget.  Esther seemed unaffected – even bored – by Jim’s plea.  Looking away from him, she used the palm of her hand to press out a wrinkle in her skirt as she waited for him to finish his budgetary diatribe.  A sneer flashed across her face as she drew breath for her response.  “Maybe if you spent less time out playing with your little toys and got a real job, we would drive something that wasn’t such an embarrassment!”  Furious and emasculated, Jim stormed out of the room.  He’d buy the car alright, but he would never let himself be so close to her that her opinion of him hurt him again.

    Contempt is a cousin to criticism and once criticism has established itself in a relationship, contempt is not far behind.  Of the six factors that determine the tone of a marriage, the presence of contempt is the most toxic.  It is also the single best predictor for whether a couple will remain married or get divorced (John Gottman).  Contempt is a mix of anger, judgment and condemnation and it can cut straight into the heart of your spouse.  Contempt often, but not always, arises from an intent to insult or hurt.  Contempt suggests to your spouse that they are beneath consideration, worthless and deserving of disdain, disrespect or scorn.  Name-calling, sarcasm, insults, cutting statements and mockery are all expressions of contempt.  However, contempt is not limited to verbal expression and because it reflects an attitude or an internal stance, it is most clearly evidenced and expressed through nonverbal displays.  Subtle – and not so subtle – facial gestures, body posture and tone communicate an attitude that says, “You – your opinions, your feelings and your perspectives – are not worthy of my time.”  An eye roll, a slight raising of the chin, a crossing of the arms or a slight curling of the upper lip expose the presence of contempt more powerfully than any words.  A woman who’s mastered the eye roll can more effectively emasculate her husband with one simple gesture than with a thousand words.  No less significantly, a husband who raises his chin to look down on his wife’s emotional display can crush her heart with a glance.

    Because contempt, like criticism, implies disrespect, condemnation and rejection, it creates an insecure and unsafe tone in a relationship.  If criticism erodes a sense of safety, contempt explodes it.  Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ (an Aramaic term of contempt) is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.”  In a marriage, each expression of contempt cuts deep into the heart of one’s spouse, causing immediate hurt and shame.  Contempt pushes a spouse away, creating increasing distance in a relationship.  Eventually, your spouse will become convinced that their ability to please you is utterly insufficient and they will shut their heart down.  

    Vulnerability is the risky alternative to contempt.  Contempt and the anger that accompanies it are not primary emotions.  In almost every instance, contempt arises out of a deeper fear, disappointment or hurt present in the relationship.  In later blogs, we’ll talk in detail about how contempt ultimately arises out of a deep fear of abandonment.  As your self-awareness grows, you will come to see how both criticism and contempt are misguided ploys to provoke loving behaviors from your spouse or draw them closer.  For now, though, it will suffice to say that the alternative to expressing contempt is expressing the deeper fears and hurts that preceded it.  Your spouse is a fallen person and they will inevitably disappoint you; it is legitimate to be disappointed or hurt by your spouse.  It is also legitimate to fear that you will not be adequately cared for or considered in the relationship.  Expressing these fears and desires in an open and vulnerable way is healthy and critical to growth in a relationship.  Whereas contempt provokes distance, vulnerability pulls for closeness and care from your spouse. 

     “I called you twice!” Anne shared, the intensity of her anger evident to both myself and her husband.  “You said that we don’t get enough time together so I called you to see if you could do dinner before you left for the weekend.”  “I’m sorry” Jim offered.  “I had my phone on silent and didn’t know.”  “You didn’t even call me back when you did see it!  What kind of a man does that!”  The tone and nonverbal expressions were clear evidence to Anne’s contempt.   I interrupted her, hoping my tone and pace would slow her down as well.  “Anne can you tell me what was going on for you when you called Jim the second time and he didn’t answer?”  “I was just mad.  Well, maybe it hurt.”  “That makes sense.”  I offered.  “I was excited because my afternoon meetings got cancelled and I really thought that he’d be excited to do an early dinner with me.  And when he didn’t answer it scared me and it hurt.  It’s like, why isn’t he answering?  I felt foolish for being excited.  Why did I even think he’d want to do dinner with me?”  And as the tears began to fill Anne’s eyes, her vulnerability drew Jim in; leaning toward her, he reached for her hand.