Archive for March 28, 2016

Marital Advice from “Captain Obvious”

It may seem obvious, but simply understanding your partner’s needs, desires, and struggles does not build intimacy. To build intimacy requires you understand AND care! A compassionate response flows from caring and must accompany understanding to build a healthy marriage. Rhett Butler’s statement to Scarlet O’Hara, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn,” marked the end of their relationship. He understood her desire. He understood her need. He just didn’t care…and without a caring response, relationships die. How can you build compassion and caring into your marriage? Try these four action steps.

  1. Senior Couple - Kiss on the CheekBe responsive to your spouse. When you spouse turns to you with a need or desire, turn toward them. Turn away from the TV, your book, your phone, your game, or whatever else holds your attention and turn toward your spouse. Give them your attention so you can carry out the next two actions.
  2. Listen actively and intently. Take the time to ask questions and clarify what your spouse is trying to say. Listen with your heart as well as your head. Hear the emotions and motivations behind your spouse’s words.
  3. Replace snap judgments with possibilities. Rather than dwelling on your first reaction and initial judgement of your spouse’s words or actions, consider possible reasons for their behavior. What may motivate their behavior? What emotions may drive their behavior? Are there past experiences that may spur this behavior?
  4. Give your spouse unanticipated compliments. Compliment your spouse’s appearance. Thank your spouse for tasks completed. Compliment your spouse for an act of kindness or a firm boundary or any other positive, kind, or special action.


Following these four steps can transform mere understanding into compassionate caring…and that will build a healthier, more intimate marriage.  By the way, these four action steps can help you raise compassionate caring children as well. As a bonus, here are three more action steps to raise compassionate caring children and nurture compassionate caring in every family member!

  1. Build an emotional vocabulary. The greater our ability to identify and express emotions, the greater our ability to feel compassion. Nurture a broad, extensive vocabulary for emotional expression by labeling emotional experiences, reading and recognizing the emotions of various characters in novels, discussing the motivating emotions of movie characters, and, most importantly, openly discussing emotions as they arise in your family.
  2. Give clear reasons for the rules. Explain how behaviors impact other people and rules help limit behaviors that negatively impact other people. Quietly and politely point out how your child’s behavior impacts people around them. Discuss how the behaviors of TV or novel characters impact those around them. Perhaps most important, acknowledge how your behavior impacts other people, including your spouse and children.
  3. Provide hands-on opportunities to practice compassionate caring. Share with those in need. Bake a casserole for those who suffer some loss. Get a drink for another family member when you get your own. Practice simple, every day acts of compassionate caring.


Together, these seven action steps will add compassionate caring to understanding in your family. Compassionate caring will nurture intimacy and relational health. Instead of hearing “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn,” you will hear, “Really, my dear, what can I do to help?” “What can I do to help?”…What a wonderful question to hear within the walls of our homes!

The Power of a Father’s Example

I remember watching my father when I was five or six years old. He greeted people as they left the worship service. I watched him closely. I saw the way he shook hands. I listened to how he spoke to people. I observed how he moved and the tone of his voice. I wanted to be just like him.  Several years later, as a teen who wanted only to be myself, I volunteered at Father Daughter Chata nursing home where my father worked as chaplain. One of the residents saw me walking toward her and said, “You’re the chaplain’s son aren’t you?”  “Yes I am. How did you know?” “I could tell by the way you walked,” she replied. “You walk just like him.” I had watched my father closely and become like him, even in actions as subtle as walking.

Fathers play an enormous role in their children’s development. They teach, guide, and discipline their children toward maturity. They also influence their children in subtle ways. Specifically, they teach their children through example. Children watch their father’s closely…very closely. They imitate their fathers. They long to be like their fathers. And, they become like their fathers.  Fathers can respond to that responsibility by carefully considering what behavior they exhibit for their children to imitate.  Strive to exhibit positive behaviors like respect, service, honesty, humility, kindness, and love.

I want to offer one more caveat in this regard. Children not only imitate the good, the trivial, and the bad in their father’s behavior; but, they imitate it without adult constraint. In other words, they will take their father’s behavior “to the next level.” A Jewish story tells of a young man who was caught stealing an apple from the merchant. Upon examination, it became apparent that he did not become a thief “out of the blue.” It began generations ago. His grandfather read from the Torah and related commentaries while exhibiting a false sense of humility. All who saw him praised his pious humility. In effect, he “stole” the admiration of his followers. With his false humility, he became a thief of the people’s praise. His father, following the grandfather’s example, read various commentaries and took credit for the wisdom they offered. He had stolen the ideas of others and passed them off as his own, a thief of intellectual property. The grandson, following the example of his ancestors, stole an apple from the merchant. Each generation followed a downward spiral of imitation.

Very few of us need worry about how we read the Torah and related commentaries. However,…

  • Do your children hear you speak badly about other people? They will likely learn to do the same, but without adult restraint and caution.
  • Do you children see you get tipsy at a party? Perhaps they will see nothing wrong with smoking marijuana or popping a few pills as they enter the teen years.
  • Do your children hear you lie and so breach trust with your employer by saying you are sick so you can miss work? They may learn to lie to cover a breach of trust with their spouse.
  • Do you speak harshly to your wife? Your child will learn to disrespect her as well. Your child will learn to ignore her requests, disregard her rules, and speak to her rudely.
  • Do you come home from work to sit around the house and watch TV rather than remain active in maintaining the household? Your children will learn that helping around the house is not important. In fact, it is useless, not their job. They will come to believe that housework and maintaining a household is their mother’s work. In response, they will become couch potatoes avoiding all housework and playing video games.

You get the idea. Your children are watching…and learning. They will imitate your behavior without adult constraint, taking it to the next level. So, make sure you leave a positive example for your children to imitate. Let them imitate your respect, service, helpfulness, and honesty without constraint. Your home will be a happier place.

A Communication Decoder Ring for You

Family communication is not the simple process I once thought. I’ve decided I need a communication decoder ring. I say something to my spouse or children and think they’ll understand it…but they don’t. What I want to say gets filtered before I speak. Then, what the listener hears gets filtered before they understand. The whole process might look something like this (adapted from Thomas Gordon’s model):




As you can see, communication is much more complicated than I once thought. Briefly look at each of the filters involved in our communication attempts.

  • Past Experience. When my daughters were preschoolers, my wife would say, “I’m going to put the girls down now.” The first time I heard her make this statement I felt the need to run to my daughters and protect them. My past experience included working in a dog cemetery and “putting the girls down” meant something different than getting them ready for a nap! Perhaps you or your spouse has a history of feeling neglected and ignored, misunderstood or blamed. This history may impact how you hear and understand simple statements.
  • Situation. Recently my wife told my daughter she was “going to have to sell yourself.” Wait, before you think we are going to extremes trying to pay for college, let me explain the situation. We were discussing how my daughter could get more babysitting jobs or a position as nanny for the summer. She needed to get her name out there. Let people know she was available to help with children…she needed to “sell herself.” The situational context of a statement or question can really impact how it is understood.
  • Emotional Context. Did you ever come home exhausted from work and, as soon as you enter the door, your spouse asks about the one project you have not yet completed? Any other time you would simply answer the questions. But in your emotional state of exhaustion and fatigue, you hear the question as an accusation. The emotional desire for rest is squelched by the question and you snap back with a response that underscores an implicit message of “leave me alone!” The emotional context, your emotional state, impacted how you received the message. On the other hand, your spouse’s emotional state may have impacted the tone with which the message was given as well.
  • Beliefs and Fears. If you believe your spouse will answer negatively, you may word your question differently. For instance, you might say, “You don’t want to sit with me, do you?” rather than “Do you have time to sit with me?” If you fear being misunderstood, your simple explanation may expand into a lecture that no one will listen to. Beliefs about emotion offer another example of the power of belief filters to impact communication. Those who avoid emotions will less likely express them. Those who believe emotions reveal weakness may look down on or dismiss emotional expression.
  • Values and Desires. We all desire respect. We have a need for acceptance. The level of that need at any given moment may filter our communication.

With these filters operating on both the speaker and the listener, it’s a wonder we’re ever understood. We really do need a decoder ring to get through the maze of filters to communicate effectively. Fortunately, I know a simple decoder ring that I can describe to you right here. A simple one act process: get curious and ask for clarification. “What can I do for you?” “What do you need?” “Do you mean to say…?” A little bit of curiosity and a simple question can decode the communication maze and bring a new level of intimacy into your family relationships. It sounds too simple, too good to be true. Nonetheless, you will find this decoder ring very effective. Ask for clarification. Give it a try over the next week and observe how your communications improve.

Parenting Lessons From A Washtub Bass

I’ve always loved music. In my teen years I found the instructions for constructing a washtub bass—very cool. So, I got my family’s old wash tub and drilled a hole in the bottom of it. I turned the tub upside-down and attached an eye bolt into the hole. Next, I cut the handle off an old broom and notched it to so it could rest on the edge of the washtub. washtub bassFinally, I attached a rope from the eye bolt to the top of the broom handle. Voila! I had a washtub bass. I began to play around with it when my parents, hearing the sound, came in to see what was going on. With great pride I revealed my washtub bass. My parents were less than impressed. In fact, they were upset. I had, without their knowledge, ruined the family’s washtub.

I look back on this experience and realize something about adolescence. Adolescence is a time of increased abstract reasoning and emerging conceptual thinking. Teens experience an expanding awareness and a burgeoning of ideas. As a result, they see the world through a new lens, question the status quo, and offer innovative ideas and creative solutions. This creates a wonderful opportunity to cultivate a lifestyle of learning and growing. Daniel Siegel calls this aspect of an adolescent’s ESSENCE their desire for Creative Exploration (Learn more about the ESSENCE of adolescence in The ESSENCE of Adolescence). Unfortunately, teens lack the experience to recognize all the potential dangers and pitfalls of these creative ideas (thus the loss of one broom and one washtub in my teen home).  As parents, we can honor our teens by nurturing their creative exploration and guiding it in a healthy direction. Here are four ideas to help:

  1. Be an example. We are never too old to learn something new, apply creative solutions to old problems, or enjoy a novel adventure. As you learn and grow, share what you learn with your teen. Let your teen witness you living a lifestyle of creative exploration filled with a love of learning and adventure.
  2. Share excitement for your teen’s creative exploration. When your teen bursts with excitement over some new bit of knowledge or experience, share that excitement. Ask questions. Let them teach you about the source of their excitement. Learn from your teen. All of this will encourage them to continue learning.
  3. Take conversation with your teen to a deeper level. Become curious about the inner world of your teen. For instance, ask them what the source of their excitement motivates them to do. Explore how it inspires them and why it creates such passion. Find out what specific aspects they find most exciting. In the process, allow your teen to think and respond differently than you. Let them become passionate and even angry about things that do not create strong emotion in you. In fact, encourage that passion and explore it with them. Make your home a safe space in which you and your teen can really dig into, uncover, and explore ideas, fears, concerns, passions, and joys.
  4. Allow your teen to impact and influence you. Whenever your teen expresses a need, either verbally or nonverbally, respond to that need. If they need a hug, give them a hug. When they need space, give them space. When they need encouragement, encourage. When they express excitement, get excited with them. If they express outrage, allow the outrage and empathize with that outrage. When your teen makes a valid point, acknowledge it. Go a step further and allow your teen’s valid point to change your opinion when appropriate. When your teen makes a good suggestion, follow it. Allow your teen to witness his or her influence on you.

Practice these four ideas to nurture and encourage your teen’s creative exploration to become a lifestyle that will add joy and vitality to your teen’s life for years to come.   As an added bonus, you will add joy to your life. Even better, you will cultivate a deeper relationship with your teen.

Do You Rob Your Teen of Victory?

Do you rob your teen? Many parents do even though they don’t even know it. Parents rob their teens by “getting in the ring” with them instead of “staying in their corner.” For instance:

  • Father and son smiling for the cameraParents “get in the ring” to protect their teen from the consequences of poor choices. In the process they rob their teen of the opportunity to learn from the consequences of those poor choices.
  • Parents “get in the ring” and stand between their teen and his peers by getting involved in their teen’s Twitter skirmishes or Instagram battles. When parents become over-involved in their teen’s social media ring, they rob him of the chance to learn how to set limits or negotiate relationship stress.
  • Parents “get in the ring” by fixing each and every problem that arises in their teen’s lives, robbing her of the opportunity to learn creative problem solving and time management skills.
  • When their teen doesn’t get the play time she desires, parents “jump in the ring” to fight for their teen’s right to play…and rob her of the right to learn the hard work necessary to earn a spot or how to advocate for themselves.

In each of these instances, parents jump into the ring and rob their teen of the opportunity to become more independent. Their actions steal their teen’s self-confidence by silently shouting an implicit message of their teens’ inadequacy to “fight their own fights” and achieve their own goals. Parents pilfer their teen’s opportunity to learn from mistakes and improve their abilities. They even embezzle their teens’ opportunity to celebrate success and so rob them of even more self-confidence. Getting in the ring is an act of thievery on a parent’s part.

Parents can avoid robbing their teen by staying out of the ring and remaining in their corner instead. Parents who stay in their teens’ corner play a crucial role in their teens’ life, even their life in the ring. Parents in their teens’ corner do four things that provide and empower rather than rob and steal.

  • First, parents in their teen’s corner listen. When teens talk about problems, frustrations, or difficulties, a parent in their corner will listen intently to understand how the situation impacts their teen. They remain present, not to fix and solve but to support and relate. In this way, teens feel heard and understand, accepted and valued.
  • Second, parents in their teen’s corner validate their teens’ experiences. They help their teens label emotions and more clearly define the problem. Understanding the nuances of a problem situation empowers teens. It allows for a deeper understanding of the people involved and the impact of the context. It opens up possibilities for responding.
  • Third, parents in their teens’ corner encourage their teen by acknowledging strengths and resources available. They identify their teens’ internal strengths and abilities as well as external resources which their teens can access. Knowing a parent acknowledges and believes in their abilities empowers teens. It will build their self-confidence to know their parents believe them adequate and resourceful enough to “meet the challenge.”
  • Fourth, parents in their teen’s corner will problem-solve with their teen. Rather than lecture and advise, parents in the corner offer words of wisdom based on years of experience, wise words of guidance. Rather than direct and command, they will ask questions or tell a story based on their own experience that will stimulate their teen to think of a unique response to the current situation.

If you want your teen to mature and grow more independent, get out of the ring. Let them fight their own battles. At the same time, stay firmly entrenched in their corner. Listen, validate, encourage, and problem-solve. You can do it all in the corner and watch them grow in the ring!

The Killer Wall in Your Marriage

Defensiveness can kill a marriage. Think about it. One spouse, feeling attacked by the other, begins to defend himself and his actions. He builds a wall of defense between him Pointing fingers at each otherand his spouse rather than around him and his spouse. He thinks of protecting himself, not his marriage.  By establishing a wall of protection between him and his wife, he sends an implicit message that he will not accept her influence. The wall between them grows taller and thicker with each defensive experience. The couple grows more divided. Trust is breached. Overtime, this stance of defensiveness will build a wall strong enough to kill a marriage.

We want to tear down the wall of defensiveness between spouses and build a wall of protection around their marriage. Both spouses generally play a role in creating defensiveness; and both spouses need to play a role in ending that defensiveness. Here are 5 ways to decrease defensiveness in your marriage and assure a wall of protection is built around you and your spouse rather than between you and your spouse.

  • Cherish your spouse. Do something to let your spouse know you cherish her every day. Thank her for what she does to maintain your home. Acknowledge her wisdom and care in parenting and caring for you. Recognize and voice your respect for the work she accomplishes on the job, in your home, and in the community. Let your daily words and actions reflect how much you cherish your spouse.
  • Build trust with your spouse. The kisses when you part and the hugs when you reunite build trust. Completing the chores you said you would to complete and keeping the promises (large and small) you made build trust. Spending time laughing, playing, working, and just being with your spouse and children every day builds trust. Trust is built on the little things done throughout the day every day.
  • Each spouse can decrease defensiveness by taking responsibility for his or her actions. Listen for the kernel of truth in what you perceive as an accusation. It may be small, but accept even the smallest role you played in creating the situation. Acknowledge your part. Take responsibility. Apologize.
  • Accept your spouse’s influence by committing to change your part in the situation. As you do, your spouse will feel heard and understood. Feeling heard increases the desire for intimacy…and isn’t that what you really want in your marriage?
  • Complain instead of criticize. (Read For a Healthy Marriage Complain, Don’t Criticize). A criticism accuses, blames, and defames. A complaint focuses on the behavior you want to change. Focus on the behavior, not the person, when you bring up a concern.

Practice these five actions and you will build a wall of protection around your marriage rather than a wall of defense.

Love Your Teen’s Risky Behavior

Teens love the thrill of taking risks. They seek out experiences that will stimulate their senses, emotions, and thinking in new and challenging ways. Daniel Siegel describes this novelty seeking as part of the adolescent’s E.S.S.E.N.C.E. (read The Essence of Silhouette of hiking man jumping over the mountains at sunsetAdolescence for more information). Like our teens’ Emotional Spark (read more about the Emotional Spark of Your Adolescent’s ESSENCE), their Novelty (N) seeking stems from brain changes that produce an increased drive for reward. Novelty seeking plays an important role in teen development. It helps them try out emerging abilities. It prompts them to leave the familiar comforts of home and venture into an unknown world. Their Emotional Spark contributes to seeking Novel experiences with passion and gusto, enabling our teens to seek out and establish their identity in the adult world outside their childhood home. As beneficial as this is, it does carry risk, some healthy and some dangerous. At least four actions can help parents work with their teens’ desire for Novelty and adventure while buffering the potential dangers.

  1. Get to know your teens. Become a student of their interests, ideas, activities, friends… their life. I know you have known them all their lives, but they are changing. You see their bodies changing. Now get to know how their inner world is changing as well—their thoughts and emotions, ideas and values. Learn about their insecurities and fears. Explore their interests and ideas. Listen to their emerging dreams and their developing sense of self. You will find it exciting to learn about your developing teen.
  2. As you learn about your teens, provide adventures based on their interests and values. Create opportunities of healthy risk for your teen. These can include anything from BMX riding, mission trips, hunting, rock climbing, or video production. The possibilities are as limitless as your teens’ potential interests. The important thing is to shape the adventure around your teens’ interests.
  3. Communicate with your teen. When you communicate with your teen listen more than you talk. Show genuine curiosity in what they have to say rather than lecture, advise, or direct. Listen attentively. Show genuine interest in what they think. Be curious enough to understand them deeply.

To accomplish the three steps above, you need to spend time with your teen…as much time as you can. Find creative ways to spend time with your teen. Make the most of every opportunity to interact with them, whether while driving them to and from activities or hiking the Appalachians. The time you invest will yield great dividends of enjoyable conversation and intimate relationship.

Your teens’ desire for novelty can provide wonderful opportunities for you to connect with your teen. It may also spark new life into your middle aged lifestyle. Why not enjoy the benefits of your teens’ E.S.S.E.N.C.E for your sake and theirs?

For a Healthy Marriage Complain

Let’s face it. No matter how much you love your spouse, he will drive you crazy. At other times, she will do things that frustrate you. Somehow these moments need to be addressed in order to maintain a healthy marriage. If not addressed, these frustrations will erode your Pointing fingers at each othermarriage. People in healthy marriages address these frustrations and concerns with complaints, not criticism. It’s true. They complain. They do not criticize. There’s a big difference. A complaint addresses a specific unmet need. It identifies a specific action or statement that irritates you and leaves the need to feel loved and connected unmet. A criticism, on the other hand, attacks character. It makes a global statement about the other person’s shortcomings, demeaning or belittling them. When a discussion begins with a criticism, it is sure to end poorly. The one criticized is tempted to rise up in defense, which perpetuates a cycle of decline and disconnection unless repairs are made. So, if you want a healthy, happy marriage, state your concerns as complaints, not criticisms. Here is a format for offering a complaint rather than a criticism.

  1. Realize that your frustration or irritation speaks more about you than anyone else. Other people may see the same action and not be bothered. They may simply let it “roll off their backs.” The fact that it bothers you reveals that you have a specific need. You want to get help with this specific need, not attack your spouse.
  2. With a calm voice, state your observation of a specific action or behavior that creates a need. “When I came home from work the last two days, dishes were piled up in the sink.”
  3. State the impact this behavior has on you, but do so without placing blame. The impact will identify your emotions in response to this behavior and a need created by this behavior. “I get really frustrated when I’m tired and see all those dishes. I think about how much I have to do and I get angry.”
  4. Offer a positive way your spouse could help meet your need. “If we could all put our dishes in the dishwasher when we use them it would really help me feel better.”
  5. Ask for your spouse’s input about other ways you could work together to meet the need. “Would you be willing to do that or do you have another idea for how we could work together to keep the sink clear?”

Remember, you are approaching this situation to get a positive need met, not to attack your spouse. When you voice a concern with a complaint rather than a criticism, you are limiting the chance of a defensive response and increasing the chance of getting your need met. You also open the door to work together. You increase intimacy and trust in your marriage. So, when problems arise in your marriage, don’t criticize. Complain instead.