Everything listed under: Epic Love

  • 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.

  • Criticism vs. Disagreement

    Epic Love
    Setting:  The Six Elements That Determine the Tone of Your Love Story  
    Element #1:  Critical vs. Disagreeing

    In the same way that the setting for a movie puts limitations on – or creates the potential for - a certain set of outcomes in a story, the setting or tone of a marriage creates the potential for longevity and joy or frustration and divorce. While forecasting the quality or depth of a marriage is challenging, the research of John Gottman and others has shown us that the presence or absence of six relational variables can predict with a high level of certainty whether a couple will end in divorce. In the same way that the dramatic bass in the movie, Jaws, foretells of a shark attack, the presence of contempt, criticism, defensiveness, stonewalling, conditionality and externalized responsibility cast a dark tone over a relationship, foreshadowing conflict, distance and, eventually, the death of the relationship. In contrast, disagreeing, vulnerability, validation, empathy, commitment and personal responsibility create a relational tone of safety, minimizing the likelihood of tragedy and fostering intimacy. The next six Epic Love blogs will focus on these six critical elements which create the setting or tone for your marriage.

    Whenever you merge two different personalities with two different backgrounds into a shared life, disagreement is inevitable. Expressing disagreement is a natural and healthy facet of an intimate relationship. The differences of perspective, preference and opinion facilitate growth and bring a richness of experience. However, when expressing disagreement devolves into a verbal assault on your spouse’s person or character, criticism has emerged. The dividing line between criticism and disagreement is talking about what your spouse does as opposed to who they are. To express disagreement with my wife’s decision to put plates on the top rack of the dishwasher is legitimate. To suggest that she is silly, lazy or thoughtless person for doing so is critical. The contemporary research of John Gottman – who refers to criticism as one of the four riders of the apocalypse to a marriage - validates the age old wisdom of Solomon, “Reckless words pierce like a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.” The following examples illustrate the difference between criticism and disagreement.

    • Disagreement: I don’t think it was a good idea to spend that much money on a new guitar when our savings account is as low as it is.
    • Criticism: You’re selfish and reckless with money. You’re just like your Dad.
    • Disagreement: When I’m trying to share a story with you and you pick up your phone to send a text, it hurts.
    • Criticism: You’re just rude.
    • Disagreement: I don’t like it when you yell at the kids like that. It scares me for them.
    • Criticism: You’re mean. You’re just like your mother.
    • Disagreement: When you leave your clothes out on the floor like this it makes me feel like you don’t appreciate the work I do to keep the house clean.
    • Criticism: You’re such a slob!

    “I have to tell him how to do things because his family was so backward that he just doesn’t know any better”, a well-intentioned wife recently told me. As she expressed her frustration with her husband’s seeming inability to lead their young family, she subsequently ticked through a list of those things he simply did not understand about being a husband or a father. Each bullet point on her list reflected another weakness in his person, another reason why he was unacceptable to her. As she continued, I could see him drawing further and further within himself as the shame mounted.

    Criticism implies rejection and inflames a sense of inadequacy. Women are more prone to criticism and men are particularly sensitive to criticism. For some men, just seeing disappointment, hurt or anger on their spouse’s face evokes a sense of failure and feelings of inadequacy. When those emotions are subsequently expressed with critical words, the message received is one of rejection. Who you are is wrong. Who you are is not enough. Criticism can be temporarily effective, evoking immediate efforts to change behavior or fix a problem; but across time it leads to withdrawal and disengagement. As a spouse feels increasingly inadequate, they begin losing hope. “It will never be enough for her. I’ll never be enough for her.” “I just can’t please her.” Long after the initial sting of rejection is past, the shame of inadequacy lingers. I heard one man tell me that with each critical word he received from his wife, he placed a chink of armor on his heart to protect himself. Then one day – about a decade into the marriage – he realized that the suit of armor was complete. Any affection for his wife had been closed off behind the same armor that protected him from absorbing her criticism.

    Of course, expressing healthy disagreement can also evoke strong feelings and conflict. However, the conflict inherent to such arguments is organized around the matter at hand and not one’s standing in the relationship. If I want to schedule a fishing weekend with some friends and my wife tells me that my idea is ridiculous or that I’m selfish for even thinking about a fishing trip right now, I'll experience that as criticism and react strongly. The ensuing argument won't be about fishing, but about defending my judgment and worth as a man and a husband. To accept such a criticism as valid, would seemingly invalidate me as an equal in the relationship and render me as nothing more than an employee to my wife. When I’m fighting for that, watch out; the argument is liable to get ugly and destructive. However, if my wife expresses concern about our budget for the month and suggests that this may not be a good time for me to charter a boat, I get irritated and frustrated. I really like fishing and my views around money are more liberal than hers. I’ll argue my case – I need a break and I think we do have enough money in savings. However, at the end of the argument – whether we decide for or against the fishing trip – all I was ever fighting for was a fishing trip. I never lose sight of the fact that she loves me and is looking out for my best interest. Most importantly, out of the disagreement between us - the confluence of our differing perspectives, experiences and opinions - emerges a wisdom and balance that enriches our life together.

    -Jeff Pipe