Everything listed under: Marriage

  • 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

  • When Relationships Hurt

    Today Daniel Peeks and Bev Elliott join us for a conversation about relational traumas. In an intimate relationship, there are certain critical events which – although not necessarily recognized as damaging or traumatic at the time – a failure to heal that compromises trust and intimacy eventually exposes them to be relationally traumatic. An affair would be an obvious form of relational trauma. However, harsh or threatening words are spoken in the heat of anger, a failure to be physically or emotionally present for your spouse at a time of medical or emotional jeopardy or a sexual interaction occurring early in the relationship which one spouse experiences as coercive or forced could all be traumatic. And what one person or one couple experiences as traumatic may be very different from those experienced by another. On some level, both spouses may minimize the significance of these events, but they continue to come to the surface years and decades later. The wounding has gone deep and basic trust is broken. If you find yourself “stuck” on one of these events years after it happened or if you recognize some obstacle or wall blocking the level of trust and intimacy between you and your spouse, then I think you’re going to find today’s show to be very helpful.


  • How NOT To Read Your Spouse's Mind

    Today Daniel Peeks and Stace Huff join me for a conversation about mind-reading in marriage. We know how much you hate it when your spouse presumes to know what you’re thinking and feeling during an argument… and sometimes they may be right… but more often they’re wrong. So, in today’s show Daniel and Stace offer some insights into how that happens, why its almost always destructive and how you can learn NOT to read your spouse’s mind. If you’re married and you’re human, I know that you’re going to find today’s conversation helpful.


  • Communication in Marriage

    Today Daniel Peeks hosts a conversation with Bev Elliott about communication in marriage. They’re going to probe into those issues that precede communication breakdown and then provide some practical thoughts on how to improve the communication in your marriage.


  • 10 Ideas for Dating Your Spouse


    How often do you break out of your normal routine and enjoy activities that are new and out of the ordinary with your spouse? Do it more often and it could be good for your marriage! Research conducted by the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia has found that couples who enjoy regular date nights have stronger and happier marriages. This makes it less likely that couples will take each other – and their time together – for granted.  While there’s nothing wrong with the standard dinner and a movie, novelty and creativity are important components of memorable dates.  To help you plan your own, here are some ideas of things you might do on your next date night.


    1.  Head out on the water.  Rent a couple tubes (or rafts, canoes, or kayaks) and bring along a picnic basket for a romantic river float down the Chattahoochee.  Set aside a few hours to float and then enjoy a sunset picnic out on the water.  

    2.  Fine dining.  There are a lot of great restaurants right near the square.  Favorites of Tapestry counselors include, Taqueria Tsunami, La Famiglia, and The Butcher The Baker.  For dessert, you may want to stop in Sugar Cakes or Sara Jean’s for ice cream or head over to Cool Beans for a cup of in-house roasted coffee.

    3.  Check out the local music scene.  If you’re music lovers, you’ll enjoy the concerts in Glover Park (there’s still one more concert left this season!) or the bluegrass jam outside the Australian Bakery.  Also, several of the restaurants and pubs around the square feature live music on the weekends.  You may want to check out The Strand’s rooftop terrace, a popular spot to hear good music and enjoy the downtown view.

    4.  Go for a hike.  Lace up your boots and hit the trails up and around Kennesaw Mountain.  With miles of trails to choose from, you can hike a different section each time you visit.  Consider having a picnic here, too, and keep your eyes open for deer!  For a more leisurely option, take a romantic and relaxing stroll through the beautiful Smith Gilbert Gardens in Kennesaw.

    5.  Take in a show.  Whether you’re there for a play, musical, concert, or a classic movie, you’ll really enjoy the historic Strand Theatre. 

    6.  Visit a museum.  Take in the exhibitions at the Marietta/Cobb Museum of Art.  You may even decide to take one of the art classes they offer.  Instead of art, you may be interested in spending some time at the Marietta Museum of History or the Southern Museum of Civil War and Locomotive History.

    7.  Play games.  Go out for a round of miniature golf (and kiss each hole-in-one).  You could also visit a driving range and split a bucket of balls.  Shoot hoops, toss a Frisbee, have a catch, go bowling, go climbing, whatever! Just have fun together.

    8.  Hop on your bikes and take off on the Cochran Shoals trail that runs along the Chattahoochee River or, for a longer ride, head out on the Silver Comet Trail.

     9.  Visit the Marietta Square Farmer's Market, open year round on Saturday mornings. Pick a recipe for lunch ahead of time, and shop for the ingredients together while taking in the sights and sounds. Go ahead and try something new, you never know what you might discover together!

    10. Wander through the antique shops around the Square. If you and your spouse are competitive, turn it into a scavenger hunt! Google "antique store scavenger hunt" and you'll see lots of options, free to print out and fill out together, or make it a race. Pick something small out as gift for each other as a keepsake from your day. 

    Whatever you choose to do, keep thinking outside the box and your marriage will reap the benefits for years to come. 

  • 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.