A responsive spouse—one who not
only listens and understands but also responds with sympathy and compassion.
Who doesn’t want that kind of spouse? I know I do. And really, who doesn’t want
to be that kind of spouse? After all, I love my wife. She deserves a
Responsiveness validates our spouses. It lets them know we care for them. It reduces anxiety and arousal. It increases a sense of security in the relationship. It comforts. Overall, responsiveness is a powerful way to improve your marriage. And, a 2016 study involving 698 married and cohabitating couples suggests responsiveness does something more. It improves sleep quality. Not surprising, right? We sleep better when we feel safe. We sleep better when we feel less anxious. We sleep better when we know someone cares for us and validates us.
There you have it…another benefit
of a responsive spouse: improved sleep quality. Good sleep quality contributes
to a better rested person. A better rested person is happier, healthier, and
more able to respond to their spouse. Not only…. Oh wait. I hear my wife
calling. Sorry. I have to go. After all, a wife responded to is a happy wife
who sleeps well…and loves her responsive husband.
I remember the advice given to me as
my children approached their teen years. “Whatever you do, maintain open
communications with your teen.” Sure, I thought. Great idea. But, how do
you do that? After some research and trial by fire (both my
“children” are now in their early twenties) I have a few suggestions,
ideas that can help keep those lines of communication open with your teen. I
must admit, these ideas were often in opposition to my first impulse, but, when
I was able to implement them, they really helped keep those lines of
When your children or teens come to
you with a desire to talk about something, give
them your full attention. Put down the paper. Turn off the TV. Don’t check
your messages or respond to a text. Don’t google. Just give your them your
attention. Look at them and listen. Watch their expressions. Listen to the tone
of the voice. Hear what they are saying and understand the emotions behind the
They will say things that make you want to jump out of your skin. Don’t do it.
At some point they will say something that triggers your core fears. They may even
say things that hurt, feel like an attack, or arouse your anger. But, if you
want them to continue talking about it and then listen to your response, stay
calm. Remember, sometimes our teens just need to think out loud. Let them do it
in your earshot. When you overreact, they will shut down. If you stay calm,
they are more likely to continue talking, thinking, processing, and even
Listen. When you
want to give a suggestion, listen instead. When you want to criticize, listen a
little more. When you think you understand, listen to make sure you really do. Don’t “spray” them with questions. Instead, use
your questions wisely and sparingly to gain a greater understanding of what
they are saying, what it means to them, and how they think about it. Listen and
repeat back to them what you think they are saying until they know you
understand. Then you can offer advice. But, even in offering advice, keep your
words to a minimum and then…listen.
Grace is the willingness to put aside our own agenda to become a present
witness to the agenda of our children and teens. Put aside your own fears in
order to create a safe haven in which your teen can express themselves without
judgment. Put aside your own ego and create a secure sanctuary where your teens
can voice their fears and anxieties to someone they know will strive to
understand them. Doing so will build a home environment in which they feel
comfortable talking to us…and they will talk with us in that environment.
To summarize these 4 tips, I want to share a
quote from Kenneth Ginsburg, co-founder of the Center for Parent and Teen
Communication at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, “The parents who
know the most and who have the most influence over their child’s academics and
behaviors aren’t the ones who ask lots of questions. They are often the ones
who are the least reactive and who express warm, unconditional love and
support.” Put these tips into action today. They are not easy, but you’ll
be glad you did.
Nobody wants to fill their marriage with
fear and insecurity. Fear and insecurity will kill a marriage…and nobody wants
to live through a dying marriage. However, I have seen far too many marriages
filled with fear because of the subtle actions of one partner. At first glance,
these actions seem harmless. But, with a second look, you can see the damage
they cause, the fear they build, and the insecurity they create. Let me explain
three of these accidental-fear-building actions so you can erase them from your
life and marriage.
and anger. Of course, we all have moments of
impatience. However, when impatience becomes the modus operandi in your
marriage, fear is the result. The spouse and family of a chronically impatient
person feel the need to “walk on egg shells” to avoid the “next
blow up.” They fear the impatient person’s anger and never know what will
set it off…a spilled drink, a laugh at the “wrong” moment, a
difference of opinion. The whole family lives in fear when they live with an
and pride. Arrogant spouses constantly satisfy
their own desires. They think of themselves first and, although they likely
will not admit it, their spouses second. The spouses of arrogant people take
second place to anything the arrogant spouse deems important…and arrogant
spouses only believe only those things that revolve around them are important.
As a result, their spouses live with the insecurity of knowing their arrogant
spouse will not “watch out for them.” The arrogant spouse will not
keep them in mind…or serve them…or make small sacrifices for them. They live
with the insecurity of knowing their needs are unimportant to their spouse…and
that creates fear and insecurity in the marriage.
grudge. Minor slights, unintentional wrongdoings,
and interpersonal injuries occur in all relationships. Marriage is no
different. However, when one spouse holds a grudge, the other spouse begins to
fear for their relationship. When one spouse harbors resentment over a slight
they have suffered, the relationship is at risk. The one holding the grudge and
harboring the resentment begins to fear another slight. Their mind becomes
clouded by that fear and they may begin to misinterpret behaviors in a negative
light. Now the other partner experiences the fear and insecurity of being
misunderstood. A downward cycle of fear, resentment, insecurity, and bitterness
has begun. If not addressed through apology and forgiveness, this cycle only
ends in one way, a dying marriage.
These three actions unintentionally build fear and insecurity into a marriage. If you find yourself engaging in any of these three actions, stop and breath. Consider what is more important…your marriage or your impatience? Your marital health or your pride? Your long-term happiness in marriage or the resentment you harbor?
We’ve all heard about the dangers of second-hand smoke. But, have you thought about the dangers of second-hand alcohol abuse? A recent article in BMC Medicine reported three ways in which people suffer consequences of alcohol abuse “second-hand.”
Children born to mothers who drank excessively during pregnancy may suffer from Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. In Germany, where this study was conducted, 41 children of every 10,000 births have Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and another 177 fell on the spectrum for fetal alcohol syndrome without meeting full criteria. Data from the CDC suggests that the statistic in the U.S. appear lower, ranging from 2-15 children of every 10,000 births depending on the area of the United States. That is 2-15 children too many.
Individuals involved in automobile accidents in which the other driver was driving under the influence of alcohol. The authors of the study noted that in Germany, alcohol contributes to 45% of traffic fatalities. In the U.S. alcohol was involved in 26.4% of fatal crashes.
People who experience violence secondary to another person whose aggressive behavior was fueled by alcohol. According to an NIH Alcohol Alert 42 percent of violent crimes reported to the police involved alcohol.
All in all, alcohol seems to have a
huge second-hand effect. These three areas do not even include the emotional
strain and physical pain experienced by children and families, the financial
strain placed on families by one person’s drinking, or the amount of money lost
by employers due to poor work following overdrinking.
All this to say, if you find people complain
about your drinking, your drinking hurts more than just you. It can result in
traffic fatalities, illnesses, and aggression. Excessive drinking can harm your
children and your spouse emotionally as well as physically. It may impact your
children’s future dating life and even their marriages. It will impact the
happiness of your spouse and your children. With all the damage that comes with
excessive drinking, why not give it up? Why not show your family just how much
you love them by giving up the drinking?
It was old, no doubt. Some looked at it and saw holes and frayed sleeves, my wife included. She saw a rag, something to use while cleaning or, better yet, something to simply throw away. But I saw so much more. I saw comfort. I saw years of companionship (we’d been together since college). I saw an old friend. Yes, it was “just a shirt,” but we had been through a lot together. My wife saw an old, raggedy t-shirt that need thrown out and replaced. I saw a faithful companion to be respected and even cherished. Perhaps I saw too much (you be the judge). I don’t know. No matter. The fact remains, you’ve likely had a similar experience in your marriage—you saw one thing and your spouse saw another. Who’s right and who’s wrong? I don’t know. It’s a matter of opinion. You could get into a drag-down, all-out fight about it; but that only leads to frustration and distance in the relationship. Or, you can preserve the relationship by listening to your spouse and understanding their point of view.
Listen intently to understand the basis of their perspective. Strive to understand the validity of their belief. Dig deep to see the meaning it all holds for them. Their perspective may differ from your perspective because it rests on a foundation of different experiences and slightly different values. It may hold a meaning for your spouse that you had not considered…nor would you ever consider. It is no less true, but obviously different. When you listen, understand, and appreciate your spouse’s point of view, you validate them even as you “agree to disagree.” You draw closer together as a couple. You come to know your spouse better and gain greater intimacy with your spouse. All because you took time to realize that sometimes a “shirt is more than a shirt.”
Of course, I used a somewhat silly example (although I have had to defend a shirt or two during my marriage, have you?). However, the same holds true when it comes to more significant opinions like politics or childrearing practices, the perfect place for vacation or the perfect place to live. In such cases, the stakes are much higher than the stakes inherent in a disagreement over my comfortable and faithful shirt, but the response is similar. You need to listen intently and understand deeply in order to move toward an appreciation of your spouse’s point of view. Only when you understand so well that you can repeat their rationale back to them and they reply by saying, “Yes! Now you understand!” can you begin to find a compromise, a mutual agreement in which both spouses can find satisfaction.
By the way, I gave up my shirt…over time. My wife allowed me a “grieving period” and bought me a new shirt very similar to the old one. I could wear both, one around the house and the other in public until I was ready to let go of my “faithful friend…oh, the sorrow.” But she listened. She understood. I listened. I understood. We grew together…and I got a new shirt out of the deal!
Parenting is full of surprises.
Sometimes the biggest surprises involve catching myself doing the absurd. For
instance, my daughters were having an argument upstairs. They kept getting
louder and louder. Their comments became harsher and harsher. I could just
imagine balled fists and reddened faces. So, I walked to the bottom of the
stairs and yelled, “We don’t yell in this house.” Did I just do what
I think I did? Yes, I did. I yelled at them to stop yelling…and I did it with a
rather harsh tone. Surprise! I surprised myself and learned a lesson that day:
to discipline effectively, don’t yell across the room (or into another room).
Walk over to your children. Let them see your presence next to them. Get down
on their level and talk to them rather than yell across the room. You might
even touch them gently on the shoulder as you remind them of the expectations.
Your presence next to them speaks volumes more than your voice from across the
room. That wasn’t the last time I surprised myself though. There was the Battle
of the Red Jello, too.
We were enjoying a family dinner at a small restaurant. My daughter had eaten her chicken and her broccoli. She had even eaten two helpings of broccoli. We now prepared to order dessert. But my daughter still had a small square of jello on her plate. “Eat your jello.” “I don’t like red jello.” With that short exchange, the stand-off began. I cajoled, demanded, and even offered minor threats. Still, my daughter stood her ground. “I don’t like red jello.” After a short, but epic battle in which I sustained great damage to ego, a realization dawned. I’m arguing with a 7-year-old to eat her jello even though she has already eaten her chicken and two helpings of broccoli. Hmmm…surprise! Lesson learned: make sure the battle really is worth the fight. Make sure it really matches the priority your trying to teach. The Battle of the Red Jello just wasn’t worth the time and energy. Let it go.
One more surprise…I can only embarrass myself three times, so I’ll have to quit after this one. It all happened when I couldn’t find a piece of sheet music. I wanted to play it on the guitar and I knew I had the music somewhere, but I couldn’t find it. I remembered hearing my daughter playing it earlier, so I asked her where it was. “I don’t know.” Convenient, I thought as I began to scold her for being careless and losing things that don’t belong to her. “Why do you always take things? I wish you’d learn to put things back where you got them from!” “Hey Dad,” she politely interrupted. “Didn’t you have it in the kitchen at lunch?” Oh yeah…now I remember. I had put it on the table after showing it to my daughters. Oops. Surprised…and embarrassed. Another lesson learned: Don’t jump to conclusions. Don’t cast blame when you don’t know where blame lies. And, “never” use words like “always” or “never.” You might have to eat them sooner than you think. This incident taught me another lesson, too, and this one was hard to swallow. Sometimes I have to apologize, even to my children. “I’m sorry I accused you and yelled at you.” “It’s OK.” “Thank you for being understanding.” “Why wouldn’t I? You taught us that way.” What? Another surprise?! We taught our daughters to show grace and forgiveness. Forgot about that. Cool. I guess the surprises aren’t all bad after all.
My wife was mad…at me. She was made
at me and I didn’t even realize she was mad. I said something to comfort her
and she took offense. I really didn’t want to hurt her; I wanted to comfort
her. But she heard what I said differently than I had intended. She was hurt. She
was angry. When she told me she was mad, my first impulse was to explain. I
wanted to clarify the misunderstanding and defend my actions. Unfortunately,
that only made the situation worse because then she thought I was not listening.
As you can imagine, the more I tried to explain and clarify my actions the worse
the situation grew.
Suddenly I realized…it doesn’t
really matter if I’m right or wrong. It doesn’t matter whether I intended to
hurt her or not. She was hurt by what I said. I needed to apologize for hurting
her. With that realization, I started over. “I’m sorry….” No excuses,
no explanations, no defense. Just a simple apology. Then I listened to
understand how she had interpreted my statement as an offense. As I listened, I
understood. With that understanding, I apologized more fully. Amends completed,
we hugged one another; and she enjoyed the comfort I had originally intended to
I learned something important from
this incident…well, I learned a couple of things from this encounter.
Sometimes my wife (or my children for that matter) do not hear what I say in the way I intend. They misunderstand. In their misunderstanding they are offended or hurt. I honor my family when I pay attention to how they might understand what I say and when I say things in as clear and loving a way as possible.
When I say something that hurts a family member, I need to apologize for hurting their feelings, even if it was unintentional. That honors my family. It shows them how much I value them.
My relationship is more important than being justified. I would rather connect with my family than prove myself right and make them angry. I would rather celebrate our connection as a family than celebrate my victory in the argument. Go for the connection and celebrate family.
Sometimes I have selfish reasons for apologizing. I might apologize to end the conflict. Or I might apologize with a “but” attached—an excuse, a defense, a casting of blame. Such an apology lacks sincerity. It is selfish. It refuses to accept responsibility. It denies the need to change. A sincere apology, however, simply expresses regret and a desire to make sure it doesn’t happen again. No excuses. No defense. No casting of blame. Just a simple, sincere apology with a plan to make it different in the future. (Read The Hardest Word for more.)
When we make a sincere apology, we
remove the stain of our mistake. We come clean. We pull down the barriers that
divide us and we grow closer to one another. We enjoy a greater intimacy.
My friend stood at an ATM machine
getting money when someone walked up behind her and began to “grope
her.” She was furious. Being an independent strong woman, she turned
around and hit him with her purse in one smooth movement. He fell to the
ground. She prepared to tell him off when he held up his red and white cane
saying, “Wait…I’m blind. I was trying to find the ATM machine.” Now,
my friend, being a kind and compassionate woman, suddenly felt guilty for
having decked a blind man. She apologized and helped him up. What changed? Her
perspective of the situation changed. She went from thinking someone was trying
to take advantage of her to thinking someone was in need due to physical
challenges. How many times does this happen in marriage (perhaps to a lesser
extent and with no physical attacks I mean)?
You walk into the house and say “hi”
to your spouse. He ignores you. As your irritation swell up and you get ready
to yell, you realize he is on the phone. He looks your direction and smiles as he
mouths, “I love you.” In a moment, your realization meets his smile
and your irritation turns to joy.
You and your spouse are having a
discussion in the kitchen while you cook dinner. As you look at the pan stirring
noodles, you hear your spouse say, “That was stupid.” Thinking you were called “stupid,”
you look up to complain. Your spouse is standing over a jar of spaghetti sauce
with sauce dripping down her shirt. She smiles, “I forgot it was already
opened.” Anger turns to laughter.
You walk into the kitchen to find
the sink full of dishes. Frustrated, you begin to rinse them and slam them into
the dishwasher. When your spouse walks into the room you say sarcastically,
“Thanks for cleaning the kitchen.” Your spouse apologizes and explains
that the children have been sick and throwing up all day. You notice the stain
of vomit on her shirt. Anger becomes compassion as you give her a hug.
In each situation the only thing that changed
was the perspective of the situation. Sometimes we need to take a breath before
reacting. We need to take a sacred pause, to slow down and practice a little
patience before we explode. The sacred pause allows us look to our spouse and
ask a few questions, find out more about the situation, and learn more about
what’s happening from their point of view. That sacred pause, that moment of
patience, can turn anger into compassion or frustration into joy. That sacred
pause can save your marriage.
What can we learn about kindness from 36 studies and 1,150 fMRIs gathered over a 10-year period from people making kind decisions? Psychologists at the University of Sussex can answer that question. They analyzed the research of those 36 studies and split the acts of kindness into two categories: strategic kindness (kindness in which the person giving kindness gained a personal benefit) and altruistic kindness (kindness in which the person giving kindness did not gain a personal benefit in return). The research revealed that reward areas of the brain became more active when a person engaged in strategic kindness, kindness with the opportunity for the recipient to “return the favor.” But wait. The same areas became activated when the person engaged in acts of kindness with no hope of a “return favor.” There was no hope for personal benefit in the act of altruistic kindness, but the reward centers of the brain still became more active. So, whether one engaged in strategic kindness or altruistic kindness, the reward centers of the brain became more active. It appears that engaging in deeds of kindness may be its own reward.
But wait. There’s more. (No, it’s not a ‘Chop-o-Matic.’) Activating the brain’s reward center represents the similarity between the two types of kindness. The research revealed a difference as well. In altruistic kindness even more areas of the brain became active. In other words, altruistic kindness did more than activate the reward centers of the brain; altruistic kindness activated even broader regions of the brain. Want to get your children’s brains active? Give them opportunities to engage in acts of kindness.
I realize we can activate the reward
centers and other areas of our brain by engaging in any number of activities; but,
might I suggest we engage the brains of our children and families by presenting
opportunities to engage in kindness as a family. Maybe if we engage the reward
centers of our family members’ brains with kindness and relationship, they will
be less likely to engage them in harmful ways (like drug use). And, engaging in kindness sounds like so much
more fun! So, engage your brains and the brains of your children. Activate your
reward centers. Enjoy the stimulation of your brain’s reward system. Engage in
acts of kindness.
I remember it well. Days of rolling easy
as a parent would suddenly come crashing down as our children took a sudden, sharp
turn into Crazy Land (I hope they’re not reading this). To make matters worse,
we could rarely identify any reason for the sudden shift in behavior…but shift
it did! Our kind, caring, well-behaved children suddenly became emotional
quagmires of tears, irritability, and demands. Minor acts of defiance often
followed. Entitlement and selfish expectations increased. The change was mysterious, a painstaking step
off a cliff into an abyss of emotional turmoil. Even though they would push us
away at these times, we knew they needed us to pull them closer. Although they
would push against the limits, we knew they needed us to reinforce the limits
with kind firmness. In other words, they needed us to give them a S.E.A.T.
Set the limits. Restate the limits with kind firmness. Remain polite, but don’t cave. Don’t give in. Children need limits, especially when they seem to be melting down. Give them the gift of security by restating and maintaining firm limits in a manner that reveals your own self-control and confidence as a parent (even if you don’t feel it at the moment). They need the strength of your confidence and self-control, the power of your composure during the chaos of limit setting to help them learn how to manage their own emotions as they mature.
Empathize with your children. You can empathize with your children’s frustration over the limit (“You’re really upset that I told you to turn off your game and set the table. It’s hard to stop playing sometimes but I’d like you to help get the table ready for dinner.”). You can empathize with your children by acknowledging their tears, their frustration, and even their anger. Empathizing is not allowing behaviors. It is simply accepting and understanding the pain they feel. Empathizing with your children allows you to connect with them. Even if they don’t acknowledge the connection, know you have connected through empathy…and that connection increases your credibility in their eyes.
Accept their emotions. They may get angry. They may break down in tears. They may simply shut down. No matter what, accept their emotion. Emotions in and of themselves are a sign of our shared humanity. They help reveal our priorities. You can set limits with the emotions such as “You can be angry with me, but we don’t hit” or “It’s alright to be upset with me, but you can’t call people names.” Even as you set the limit, accept the emotion and remain present. Let your presence communicate that you are stronger than their emotion. Your children will learn this important lesson: even in the face of scary emotions that make them feel out of control, you are in control. You are a safe haven. You are more powerful than their worst emotions and you will keep them safe.
Team up. As you children begin to calm down, reconnect. Hug them. Make sure they know you still love them. Talk about what happened and how they might avoid a similar problem in the future. This may include changes the parent can make, changes the children can make, and changes in communication. In other words, problem solve together.
As you go through this process with
your children you will have given them a S.E.A.T.
and the confidence they need to manage their emotions and behaviors better in