Archive for Grace

If I Had Only Known Then…

I wish I had written this blog about 10 years ago. I could have used the information. But I suppose late is better than never. And, if you have children or teens in your home right now, you’ll find this information very helpful. I remember my daughter coming home angry from school or coming home upset after an outing with friends. Not every time… but several times. Has that happened to you? If it hasn’t and you have children, it probably will. Anyway, I hate to see my daughters upset so I tried to fix the problem and make them feel better. Impossible. Didn’t help.  I tried using humor a few times, but it usually ended up with them directing their anger at me. Apparently, using dad humor when your children are upset is a bad idea. I reasoned with them. No good. Only made it worse. Eventually, I just threw up my hands in defeat and let them stew in their frustration and anger.

If only I had known what this study out of Ohio State University reveals. It could have saved me a lot of heartache. This study consisted of three experiments that included a total of 307 participants. Each participant spent five minutes writing about an incident that made them “intensely angry.” Then, they verbally described the incident to a researcher. As you can imagine, their anger grew as they completed this exercise.

After listening to the participant describe their anger-provoking incident, the researcher either validated or invalidated their angry feelings. They either responded with validating comments like, “Of course, you’d be angry about that” and “I can understand getting angry about that” or invalidating comments like, “That doesn’t sound like anger,” or “Why would you get angry about that?”

Not surprisingly, participants who heard validating comments recovered their positive emotional states. Those who heard invalidating comments did not. In fact, the “recovered positive mood” of the validated participants either matched or exceeded their positive mood prior to recalling the anger-provoking incident.

If only I had known that 10 years ago. I could have responded to my daughter’s anger about school incidents or conflict with friends with validating comments. You know:

  • “I can understand how that would make you angry.”
  • “Wow, that would really make someone angry.”
  • “I’d be angry about that, too.”

Simple, validating comments that could have helped my daughters regain their positive mood. Validating comments that could have enabled us to have a more enjoyable evening. Oh, but I do have a secret about this idea of validating though. It works with adults, too—adults like my spouse and my adult children. And, it has already saved a few evenings of heartache.  Give it a try. Validate the angry feelings and enjoy an evening of positive moods. (Validating will also help you use the power of empathy in connecting with your family.)

Avoiding the Family Flush of Criticism

Criticism is toxic. It creates a toxic environment that threatens to flush your happy family right down the tubes. It’s true. It never helps and it always hurts. Consider the cycle of criticism. Criticism causes the person criticized to retreat behind walls of protection and toss out bombs of defensiveness against the one criticizing them. Criticism also captures the one criticizing in a cycle that focuses on the negative and, as a result, perceive an unending list of reasons to remain unhappy and angry. Unhappy, angry criticism leads to more unhappy, angry criticism, eliciting and swirling around with a protective distancing and defensiveness, both reinforcing the other as your happy marriage and family are flushed away in the toxic environment of criticism. Criticism never helps. It always hurts.

But what if you have a genuine concern, an unmet need that you must express? How can we offer a concern, even a complaint, without falling into the flushing cycle of criticism? After all, our children, our spouses, even our parents will do things that we will rub us the wrong way, pushing us to criticize their choices or requiring some form of correction. How do we address these legitimate concerns without criticism?

First, become aware of our feelings and take time to understand those feelings. Why does my spouse’s behavior or words arouse my anger? Why do my child’s actions make me feel so helpless? Why do my parents get on my last nerve? What priority are they touching upon? What thoughts are their words and actions arousing in me? Are these thoughts rational or extreme? Answering these questions will help us understand and respond to our feelings more accurately and calmly.

Second, take responsibility for our feelings. Eleanor Roosevelt is credited with saying, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” Our feelings, and how we act on those feelings, are our responsibility. We cannot blame our spouse, our child, or our parent. Instead, we can take ownership of the way we respond to our feelings. Accept your power. Manage your emotions. Don’t give the power away by blaming the other person.

Third, take a “criticism fast” (Much of this information is taken from The Marriage Vaccine, the idea of a “criticism fast” in particular). For the next 30 days, do not criticize. Remember, criticism never helps. It always hurts. Focus on complimenting, encouraging, thanking, and admiring the good you see in the other person and the good in what you see them doing.

Fourth, if you have a genuine concern that you need to address, do it with kindness. (Join the Kindness Challenge with Shaunti Feldhahn.) Here is a process to help you express your concern with kindness rather than criticism.

  1. Nurture your compassion toward them before you speak. Consider how the action or words you want to address may impact that person in a negative way. When you can feel some level of compassion for the other person (the person you want to criticize) move on to step two.
  2. When you address the concern, begin with a gentle start up. Remember, your discussion will end like it begins [blog]. Use a neutral tone. Avoid “you-statements” as they
    are easily interpreted as blaming. Objectively describe a specific situation that epitomizes your complaint [Turn your Argument Into the Best…].
  3. Offer a simple, positive action the other person can take in the future to remedy any similar situation. Offering this type of solution invites your partner to relate in a new way, a way that can build deeper intimacy. It invites your spouse into a deeper relationship.

These four tips can help you avoid the flush of criticism that will send your happy family swirling down the tubes and, instead, develop a more intimate, loving family.

Marriage in a Box: Nasty, Neutral, or Nice?

Every marital interaction falls into a box according to Dr. John Gottman. One box is the nasty box. Even happy couples find themselves in the nasty box sometimes. We’ve all been there—frustrated, critical, defensive, blaming, and even contemptuous. But unhappy couples get stuck in the nasty box. They live and die in the nasty box. Couples who get stuck in the nasty box have about 4 positive interactions for every 5 negative interactions. Read that sentence again. They have more negative than positive interactions. This ratio contributes to a lack of emotional connection. (For more on how to use this ratio to strengthen your marriage and family read Family Bank of Honor and Making Deposits in a Topsy-Turvy Bank.) Couples in the nasty box are not only emotionally disconnected, but they are also afraid of to express the vulnerability needed to “open up” emotionally. And they lack the skills needed to resolve conflict. No one wants to live in the nasty box. It’s…well, nasty and miserable. We all want to live in the nice box.

The nice box is filled with mutual respect, affection, cherishing, and trust. Unfortunately, no one lives in the nice box 100% of the time. But healthy couples offer expressions of repair when they step out of the nice box into the nasty box. These expressions of repair help decrease the tension during conflict and confirm their affection for one another. Repairs are made possible because each spouse is aware of the other spouse’s inner world. They respect their spouse’s inner world and respond to it in a loving way. Expressions of repair can include a smile, an open-ended question, an inside joke, a touch, a gesture…anything that communicates love and commitment.

Still, happy couples only spend part of their time in the nice box. Surprisingly, happy couples spend most of their time in the neutral box, even when having a disagreement. In fact, Dr. Gottman’s research suggests that happy couples spend 65% to 70% of their time in the neutral box. Unhappy couples spend only 47% of their time in the neutral box, leaving much more time for the nasty box. The ability of a married couple to sit with one another in the neutral box reveals a trust nurtured by engagement and responsiveness. It is the byproduct of work done in the past to proactively grow a healthy relationship.

In which box does your marriage reside? You can learn to live in neutral and nice box by learning about one another’s lives, expressing adoration toward one another on a daily basis, turning toward one another to overcome life’s obstacles and celebrate life’s joys, and planning a future of celebration together.

Don’t Let Defensiveness Ruin Your Marriage, Take The Antidote Instead

I don’t know about you, but I often find myself making defensive maneuvers when my wife and I get into an argument. I hate being wrong. I want her to understand. So, I start defensive maneuvers. Maybe you recognize some of these:

  • “Well, I wouldn’t have done that if you hadn’t….”
  • “But you need to understand….”
  • “Yeah, well you did the same thing last week….”
  • “You misunderstand what I’m saying… You always misunderstand me.”
  • “You always think the worst about me….”

The list goes on, but they all have one thing in common. While defending me, they put the blame squarely on my wife.

As you can imagine, defensiveness does not help end the argument. Nor does it resolve the problem or restore the relationship. In fact, defensiveness generally makes everything worse. It escalates the argument. It compounds the frustration. It increases feelings of anger. And it pushes the possibility of resolution further into the distant future.

John Gottman calls defensiveness one of the four horseman. I think that is a good category for it. It is one of the “four horsemen of the apocalypse” striving to conquer the opponent (your spouse in this case) while escalating the emotional war, intensifying relational famine, and hastening a marital death. Not a great strategy for a healthy marriage.

But I have good news. There is an antidote. Accept responsibility. I know, like so many other medicines, the antidote goes down hard. Nobody likes to admit their contribution to a marital problem. But, if you want to move past the problem and restore the joyful experience of an intimate relationship, you have to bite the bullet and accept responsibility for your part in the current situation. Because it is difficult to do, let me offer a couple tips.

  1. Remember the K.I.S.S. principle—Keep It Short and Simple. During an argument, our spouses will not hear a long explanation. Also, the longer we talk the more likely we slip into the familiar defensive maneuvers. So, keep it short and simple, clear and concise. “I was wrong.” “I’m sorry.” “I forgot.” The exact wording will depend on the situation; but you can always keep it short and simple.
  2. Sit in the vulnerability of responsibility. Accepting responsibility (even partial responsibility) for a problem situation or an argument leaves us vulnerable. It is an admission of at least partial fault that places us at the mercy of your spouse and their response. So, when you keep it short and simple, do not add a complaint. Just remain vulnerable. Don’t add a “but” that precedes an excuse. Just sit in the vulnerability of responsibility. Simply state an acceptance of responsibility and a willingness to accept the consequences.
  3. Don’t minimize your admission of responsibility with statements like: “So I made a mistake. I’m only human” or “Ok. One time I did that….” Simply accept responsibility and sit with the admission of responsibility. Don’t minimize.

Like most medicine, this antidote tastes terrible going down. But it has a wonderful effect. When we accept responsibility without excuse or complaint and without minimizing our mistake, we elicit empathy. We also communicate our vulnerability and elicit compassion. Moreover, we open the door for greater intimacy. Once your spouse sees you sitting with the vulnerability of admitting responsibility, they are more likely to accept responsibility for their contribution as well. Suddenly, the argument has taken a turn. You can now talk and work toward a healthy solution you can both be happy about.  

Give it a try. You will be pleasantly surprised with the beneficial results of accepting responsibility instead of getting defensive. I mean, who doesn’t want empathy, compassion, and greater intimacy?

Do Expectations Help or Hinder Your Marriage?

I heard an interesting quote the other day: “Expectation is premeditated resentment.” Consider the truth of that statement for a moment. When our spouses do not meet our expectations, we become angry. That anger, if left unresolved, combines with continued unmet expectations to grow into resentment. That resentment will destroy our marriages.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that we have no expectations in marriage. After all, not all expectations are unreasonable or negative. At the very least we all generally hold the expectation that our spouse will remain faithful and committed to us. But even positive expectations, when not handled wisely, can lead to resentment. So how do we make sure our expectations are not “premeditated resentments”? Here are 3 steps.

  • Make sure your expectations are reasonable. Sometimes we enter marriage with unreasonable expectations learned from past dating relationships, our family of origin, or even movies we enjoyed as children. A few examples of unreasonable expectations include:
    • “My spouse will make me happy all the time.”
    • “Marriage means I can have sex anytime I want it.”
    • “My spouse thinks about money the same way I do.”
    • “My spouse will always do the activities I like.”
    • Things I Wish I’d Known Before We Got Married by Gary Chapman can help you explore some potentially unrealistic expectations. Even if you are married, you can find this book a great discussion starter.
  • Make your expectations known to your spouse. Talk about your expectations with one another. This can help assure they are reasonable as well as making sure you & your spouse understand one another’s expectations. Use the information in Expectations, Skills, and a Happy Marriage to start the conversation of expectations in your marriage.
  • Negotiate and compromise to reach an agreement regarding expectations. You and your spouse will agree on many expectations.  Sometimes, however, you and your spouse may disagree about an expectation. When this disagreement becomes known, talk about it. Ask: What makes this expectation important to you or your spouse? What does my spouse not agree with? Negotiate and compromise. Remember, part of an effective compromise is keeping in mind your desire to add joy to your spouse’s life. Come to an agreement you can both live with.

When you follow these three steps, expectations are not “premeditated resentment.” Instead, expectations are an opportunity to grow more intimate with your spouse by knowing him or her more deeply. They become an opportunity to express the depth of your love for your spouse by meeting their expectations.

Compromise: My Way or The Highway?

If you’re married, you have probably had this experience. You know…the one that occurs when you want one thing and your spouse wants another. You disagree on the best course of action, but you need to reach an agreement. And reaching an agreement will require compromise. And so, the discussion (or should I say debate?) begins. You and your spouse state your cases. You persuade. You list off the benefits of your side.

Underlying the whole discussion, however, is a small, nagging fear that if I stand firm, you might consider me selfish and become resentful. But, if I give in to meet your needs or comply with your ideas, you might take advantage of my kindness… and I will grow to resent. Plus, the whole issue of fairness flows like a riptide under these fears, threatening to pull us into frustration and anger. All in all, our effort at compromising becomes a lesson in political antagonism. But (and this is a big but) it does not have to be this way.

The whole tone of compromise can change when we shift our paradigm and stop thinking in terms of my needs and desires versus your needs and desires. The tone of compromise changes when we shift to recognize that the true struggle begins within each me and within you. It is not the struggle of “me versus thee” but the struggle within myself  to honor two needs I harbor in my heart that are of equal importance:

  • One, to satisfy my personal need or desire and
  • Two, to make my spouse happy.  After all, we all want our spouses to experience happiness in their relationship to us. Our love for our spouse pushes us to grow, to think beyond our own desires and consider another person’s desires.

By recognizing this internal struggle, we become better prepared to listen, to understand, and to discover a mutually satisfying solution. In other words, compromise is an opportunity to stand up for ourselves and our spouse rather than give in or persuade.

Gottman developed an exercise to aid couples in this process–the two ovals exercise. First, draw an oval on a piece of paper. Write what you must have in order to be true to your identity within this oval. What you write will vary depending on the topic at hand. However, one value you can always write in this first oval is the desire to bring your spouse happiness.

Next, draw a second oval around the first one. In this outer oval, write things related to the topic of discussion that you are flexible about. With these two ovals complete, you can approach the conversation with a deeper sharing of priorities, a clearer understanding of issues related to each one’s identity and security, and an explicit expression and recognition of each one’s desire to make the other happy. Compromise becomes an opportunity to know one another better and to seek a way to make one another happy. Instead of “my way or the highway” undergirding the talk of compromise, “how can we make one another happy while we meet our individual needs” becomes the foundation of the discussion. Now that is a compromise we can invest in!

In Marital Conflict, “What” Is In Charge

When it comes to conflict with your spouse, “what” is in charge. Not who, “what.” If left to its own devices, the “what” in charge of your marital conflict will leave no “who” in charge. Let me explain.

In many marital arguments, anger and fear represent the “what” that takes charge. Anger and fear shape our reactions and our words. When anger takes charge, it may lead us to blame our spouse or our parents or our boss…anybody but ourselves. Anger may also direct us to belittle our spouse, maybe even call our spouse a few names. When anger is the “what” in charge of conflict, the result in disaster.

Fear is “what” takes charge of marital conflict even more often than anger. Fear, in fact, is often the true commanding officer of the conflict and anger merely fear’s emissary. Fear, if it does not turn to its emissary anger, will lead us to become defensive, distant, or avoidant during the marital conflict.

When anger or fear take charge of a conflict, there is no “who” in charge. Anger and fear have formed a coup and taken charge…and the results are disastrous: blaming, defending, belittling, feeling rejected, emotional distance, more anger, and more fear. The hurt caused by anger and fear puts us on guard, ever vigilant for the next slight, the next provocation. There is no security and no winner when anger and fear are the “what” in charge of your marital disagreement.

None of us want fear and anger to run our martial conflict. So, “what” do we want to take charge of our marital conflicts? Empathy. Empathy commands us to listen and intentionally work to understand. Empathy directs us to seek connection and intimacy above “winning” or “being right.” Empathy calms the fear and resolves the anger. “What”—anger, fear, or empathy—may take charge of your marital conflict, but “WHO” determines which “what” will take charge. “Who” will make that decision? You. Only you can choose how you will engage in the conflict. Only you can choose which “what” will take charge of the marital conflict—anger, fear, or empathy. You, only you, can choose your response. Be the “who” that takes charge of the “what” that shapes your response during marital conflict.

Step back. Take a breath. Choose “empathy” as the “what” to direct your conflict. You will be so glad you did. And do you know “who” else will be glad? Your spouse.

Those Aren’t Fightin’ Words

Every couple has their disagreements. Parents and teens have disagreements as well. Sometimes those disagreements escalate. Emotions flair. Words fly. We say things we wish we had never said. Rather than letting the escalation go that far, try doing or saying something different, something to calm emotions and deescalate the situation. Here are some words to try. Believe me, “these aren’t fightin’ words.”

Even if you disagree:

  • “Good point.”
  • “I’m glad you explained that to me.” “
  • “So, you’re saying that….”

To move into a conversation:

  • “Explain that to me one more time. I want to make sure I understand.”
  • “I’m not sure I really understand. Can you explain it more?”
  • “I understand why you would want that.”
  • “I see. That makes sense now. Have you thought about…?
  • “I hadn’t thought about that before.”

If it starts to escalate:

  • “You’re really passionate about this aren’t you?
  • “I can tell this means a lot to you.”
  • “You sound angry/upset/ frustrated.”
  • “I have trouble listening when you speak that way. Could you speak more calmly (or ‘change your tone’ or ‘lower your voice please’?”
  • “I’m feeling overwhelmed, can we take a break and finish this conversation at (note a time)?”

Good to say at any time…and all the time:

  • “I love you.”
  • “Even if we disagree, we’ll figure it out together.”
  • “I’m glad we’re together.”
  • “We make good team.”
  • “I love you.”

These phrases are what John Gottman calls “repair statements.” They can help calm emotions during a disagreement and keep you on track for a positive resolution. Give them a try. You’ll be pleasantly surprised.

Get the Happiness of One Week’s Extra Salary

Imagine the happiness of receiving a bonus equal to one week’s salary. You can give your family that same amount of happiness just by doing this one thing together. A study involving 70,000 participants over a 2-year period confirmed that volunteering increases happiness. Specifically, people who volunteer are more satisfied with their lives. They also rated their overall health as better. And the more time a person spent volunteering, the greater their life satisfaction and perception of health.

This study also showed that anyone who starts to volunteer became happier over time. This held true whether the volunteers were happy or not when they began volunteering. In fact, volunteers experienced about the same increase in happiness that a person feels when receiving an extra week’s pay!

I’d love to let my family experience that kind of increase in happiness. Wouldn’t you? Good news. You can make it happen. Simply gather the family. Talk about places where your family can volunteer. Choose one and start volunteering. Give it away for family fun. Then, get ready for an increase in happiness that your whole family will enjoy.

Your Actions…Your Marriage

Your actions impact your marriage. No surprise there, right? It’s like hearing wisdom from Captain Obvious. But let’s look a little closer at two kinds of actions.

Some actions express power. Your spouse may perceive these actions as a threat to their shared control, power, or status. As a result, these actions will increase your spouse’s anxiety. Such actions include accusations, blame, contempt, or angry withdrawal. They can also include stating requests in a harsh, demanding manner or expressing your disappointments in an accusatory manner. In response to these perceived threats, your spouse will likely respond with emotionally protective behavior like defensiveness, counterattacks, or withdrawal. A vicious cycle is started.

Other actions are perceived as expressing vulnerability. These behaviors include, among others, expressing remorse, sharing empathy, expressing personal need, and accepting personal responsibility for misunderstandings or mistakes. Interestingly, when your spouse perceives a decrease in actions expressing vulnerability, they may feel emotionally neglected. Emotional neglect results in feeling threatened…and that may lead to increased anger, blame, or withdrawal as noted above. The cycle begins and goes on…and on…and on…unless we stop it.

How can we stop this cycle? Decrease behaviors that express power and increase behaviors that express vulnerability. Sounds obvious doesn’t it? But it is easier said than done. It initially feels safer to use powers that express power. But the long-term consequences of expressing power to maintain a sense of safety results in separation, pain, and the death of intimacy.

On the other hand, it’s frightening to become vulnerable. Vulnerability is scary. It makes us feel…well, vulnerable, exposed, at risk of hurt. But expressing vulnerability leads to deeper intimacy and greater satisfaction in marriages. How do we increase vulnerability and decrease power?

  • Share emotions with your spouse. Talk about your fears and your sorrows as well as your joys and dreams. Weep with your spouse and rejoice with your spouse. After all, the number one goal in most marital arguments is about emotional connection. Start connecting now.
  • Show empathy for your spouse’s concerns and fears.
  • When you have a concern, express it in kindness.
  • Accept responsibility for your actions and behaviors. When you say something hurtful, apologize. When you say something your spouse misunderstands, respond with a more careful explanation rather than anger and sarcasm.
  • Offer forgiveness when your spouse does something hurtful.  
  • Share your personal needs with your spouse and allow them to help meet those needs.

Yes, actions have consequences even in marriage. Decrease actions that express power in the relationship and increase actions that communicate vulnerability before your spouse. You might be pleasantly surprised with the increased intimacy and love.

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