Want to build a stronger family? Of course you do. We all do. We want a stronger, more intimate family. A healthy family. A connected family. Sometimes it sounds like hard work to “build” a strong, healthy family. But you can do it in three words or less…as long as you use those words often. Let me share some examples.
- You see your spouse washing dishes. Now is your chance. Build a stronger relationship with these 3 little words: “Can I help?” Then follow through when she says “yes.”
- Your parent is washing the car or raking leaves. “Can I help?” are the perfect 3 words to strengthen your connection with your parent.
- Your child is frustrated with their homework. Now is not the time to lecture about waiting until the last minute. Instead, strengthen your bond with these 3 simple words: “Can I help?”
- Your spouse asks for help cooking dinner or putting the summer porch furniture away. They ask for your help. I know. You’re busy. You have your chores too. But they’ve asked for your help; and you want to build intimacy, strengthen your connection. So, three simple words will help: “I’d love to.”
You can strengthen your relationship in less than three words too. Take these examples.
- You ask someone in your family to pass the salt at dinnertime and they do. Reply with a simple “Thank you.” Two words, that’s all. But those two simple words strengthen the bond in your relationship.
- You just finished putting away the clean dishes. You do it almost every day so it’s no big deal. But your spouse thanks you. You could minimize their gratitude; but then you would miss the opportunity to build the relationship. Instead, you say “My pleasure” –two words that deepen your spouse’s appreciation even further.
- You said something mean in the midst of an argument. It just slipped out. You know it was wrong and you don’t really mean it. Nonetheless, it hurt the other person and erected a barrier between you and them. “I’m sorry” begins to repair the breach. “I’m sorry” accepts responsibility and opens the door to restore the intimacy lost.
These are only 2-3 word phrases. But, when shared generously, graciously, and authentically in our family, they will strengthen your family, increase the intimacy in your relationships, and bring greater health to your family relationships. What other simple 2-3 word phrases can you think of that will strengthen your family?
My wife asked me a question, a simple question. “Where’s the cinnamon?” But there was an edge of irritation in her voice that sent “my mind a wandering.” Why does she sound irritated? Does she think I stole it? Why would I steal cinnamon? She is probably accusing me of putting things in the wrong place or not even putting them away at all. What’s the big deal with cinnamon anyway? Why does she always think the worst of me? On my mind ran, escalating my fears and defensiveness. You can imagine my response was less than ideal.
Have you ever had a similar experience? Your spouse asks a simple question and sounds slightly agitated. The agitation strikes a fear within you. You jump to a conclusion and assume the agitation is pointed toward you. You personalize it and think it’s all about you. It’s a common response, but not the best response.
When we take our spouse’s agitation personally, it almost always makes the interaction go south. When we personalize their agitation, we tend to respond with defensiveness. They hear our defensiveness and feel misunderstood. And so begins a downward spiral of communication that began when we personalized our spouse’s mood and thought it was all about us.
But I have a secret for you…and for me. It’s not all about you…or me. Most of the time it’s about something totally unrelated to you…or me.
What can we do instead of personalizing and getting defensive? How can we nurture a better response and interaction? Good question. Here are some suggestions (given in no particular order).
- First, take a deep breath. Let the breath out slowly as you start talking to yourself. Begin with statements of curiosity: “Hmmm. I wonder what’s going on here.” Then offer yourself soothing internal thoughts in a calm tone using calm words. Remind yourself of the love you and your spouse share.
- Second, believe the best about your spouse. Practicing a calming internal dialogue, leaves space for alternative meanings to your spouse’s behaviors and words. It allows room for a compassionate interpretation of what your spouse said or did. Look for those compassionate, loving interpretations and let your mind dwell on them.
- Third, acknowledge your spouse’s feelings in a calm, non-defensive way. Simply reflect back the emotion you perceived in what they said. This opens the door for clarification and communication. It provides space for your spouse to clarify what’s going on for them and for the two of you to come together in a common understanding.
These 3 simple steps can help save an interaction from the downward spiral of personalizing, defensiveness, and feeling misunderstood. They will help you create a calm interaction of clarification and support instead. That will go a long way toward building a more intimate, loving relationship. And it all begins with realizing that “it’s not all about you.”
I really like this quote from Simone Signoret, a French actress: “Chains do not hold marriages together. It is threads, hundreds of tiny threads, which sew people together through the years.”
This quote expresses a great truth. First, “chains do not hold marriages together.” Marriages are not supported and given life through demands and obligations. And yes, there are many demands and obligations that enchain our marriages.
- Our identity as a couple enchains us. As our relationship grows (even before we are married) our friends begin to think of us as a “couple.” When one is absent from the “couple,” our friends ask about the “missing piece.” Our identity as a “couple” binds us together. To separate means breaking the chains of our identity as a couple.
- Shared possessions. Buying a house together. Renting under both our names. Getting a pet together. Purchasing a car in both our names. These shared possessions and others like them become chains that bind us together. They make separating more costly as well as more complex and difficult.
- Having a child together binds us to one another. When a couple has a child, they share the responsibility, the joys, and the struggles of raising a new life. They both feel love for their child. And the love each of them feels for their child makes separating much more complex and difficult.
As you can see, these chains are not necessarily negative. An identity as a couple, owning possessions together, and having a child are wonderful, joyous experiences. But they also make ending the relationship more costly, more complex, and more difficult. In that sense, they bind us together. They represent the “chains” that hold our marriages together.
But chains, in and of themselves, are not enough to create a healthy, lifelong marriage. In fact, these “chains” can either nurture a stronger marriage or further weaken a struggling marriage. We need something more. We need “threads, hundreds of tiny threads,” to sew us together into a healthy, lifelong marriage. What are those threads?
- Admiration and adoration. Healthy marriages grow stronger when each person voices their admiration and adoration of the other on a daily basis. Healthy couples express their admiration through words of encouragement, compliments, praises, and more. Each time you recognize and comment on your wife’s beauty, your husband’s work ethic, your wife’s unending work, or your spouse’s contribution to the house becomes a thread sewing us more tightly together. Each compliment and praise, each recognition of a task completed, and each vocalization of admiration for your spouse’s character or appearance will become a thread that sew us together into a healthy, lifelong marriage. (Here’s a math equation you love to help you do this on a daily basis.)
- Gratitude. Every expression of gratitude becomes another thread sewing a marriage together for a lifetime. Daily expressions of gratitude for cooking, cleaning, working, mowing lawns, picking up groceries, passing the salt, taking out the garbage…the list goes on… become tiny threads sewing us together into a healthy marriage.
- Acts of service become threads sewing us together. Service does not have to be extravagant. Simply pouring your spouse a drink, running the bathwater, completing a chore to make their day easier, warming up the car…they all become the tiny threads of a strong intimacy.
- Responding. Each time our spouse speaks offers us an opportunity to sew another tiny thread in place to strengthen our marital bond. Simply responding in awareness and love, being responsive, sews our marriages together. To sew the thread of responsiveness demands sewing another thread, the thread of listening.
- Physical affection. I’m not talking about sexual affection, just simple nonsexual physical affection. Holding hands, walking arm in arm, a loving hug goodnight, a gentle caress of the back, a little kiss goodbye for the day…they all become tiny threads holding our marriages together.
- Apologies. Every couple will experience disagreements and misunderstandings. Every person will do something they wish they hadn’t done in their marriage. Mistakes will be made. However, the thread of apology will repair the breach created by that misunderstanding or mistake. The thread of apology will strengthen your marriage.
As you can see, the tiny threads that sew us together in a healthy marriage are the daily actions of love. They are often small but, taking together, they sew together a bond that will last a lifetime.
An important aspect of feeling secure in a family is wrapped up in the answer to this question: “Are you available to me?” Most of the time, this question is not explicitly spoken, and the answer is given without saying a word. Instead, the answer is seen in our actions. A study published in the November 2021 edition of the journal Brain, Behavior and Immunity involved 1,054 healthy adults and showed the critical importance of how we answer this question. Specifically, the study explored whether giving social support played an important role in health. The researchers utilized measures of interleukin-6 (IL-6, which is a marker of systemic inflammation in the body and associated with increased risk of diseases like cardiovascular disease and cancer) to assess the relationship between giving social support and personal health.
At the start of this two-year study, participants completed a questionnaire measuring their social integration and how much they believed they could rely on family and friends when needed. Two years later, participants returned to the lab for blood tests measuring for IL-6. Careful reviews and assessments of the questionnaires and the completed blood work revealed that being available to give support was associated with lower levels of IL-6. In fact, the researchers only found this association in those who believed they could give support in their relationships. Did you catch that? It wasn’t the receiving of support that proved beneficial to health. Health was associated with being available to provide social support to family and friends, not just receive social support. It seems that our health is bound up in our willingness to be available to give social support to family and friends. This was especially true for women.
Back to our question: “Are you available to me?” According to this study, an individual’s answer to this question effects their health. When I am available to support my family and friends today, I experience greater health tomorrow. Now imagine if each family member made themselves available to support other family members. Each person’s relationships would become more rewarding and stress-relieving. The healing power of mutually supportive relationships would enhance the whole family’s health and well-being. In other words, being available to your family today means having a healthier family tomorrow. So put your family on the schedule. Set the example for your family by making yourself available to support them. Here are some great ways to make sure you are available to your family.
- Schedule family meals several times a week. You can meet as a whole family or with individual members of your family.
- Schedule a family fun night.
- When you have an errand to run, invite a family member along. When your family member has an errand to run, ask to go along.
- Do chores together and enjoy other mundane opportunities for quality time together.
- Go for a walk.
- Have a date. Whether it be a family outing date, a date with your spouse, or a parent-child outing, enjoy time together.
- When a family member celebrates, celebrate with them. When they look down, ask them what’s going on. When they need comfort, comfort them. Take time from your schedule to be available to the profoundly important things in your life—like your family.
- When a family member asks you for help, make the time to help them. Sure, there may be times you cannot help. But you can often set aside some less important activities (watching a TV show, reading a book, playing a game on your phone, etc.) for a short time in order to be available to help your family. Do your best to remain available to support and help your family.
Everyone wants their spouse to grow into their best self. Unfortunately (or, maybe fortunately) you cannot make them grow into their best self. But you can nurture and support their dreams. You can help them grow into their dreams and their best self by keeping these four practices in mind.
- Be your spouse’s dream champion not their dream blocker. Show interest in your spouse’s dreams and goals. Talk about their dreams. Learn what that dream means to them and how they need to do to move toward that dream. If there are ways in which you can help them achieve their dream, do it. Celebrate their successes with each step they make toward their dream. Your support will nurture your spouse’s self-confidence to take wise steps toward achieving their goals and their dream.
- Be your spouse’s encourager not their controller. If there are ways you might help your spouse move toward their dream, do it. However, do not intrude and take over their dream. Do not push them toward their dream or act as though you know how to best achieve their dream. Don’t take control of their dream by telling them what they need to do in order to achieve it. It is their dream. Let them have it. Encourage them when they feel discouraged. Encourage them when they feel overwhelmed. Be your spouse’s encourager…not their controller.
- Be your spouse’s wise sounding board not their micromanager. You may have insights into how your spouse can move toward their dream. As you and your spouse talk about the dream, offer your insights. But don’t micromanage. Don’t interfere with their exploration of their dream and the pathway to it. Let them own their successes and their failures.
- Be your spouse’s comforter not their sergeant. When your spouse experiences a setback or a temporary failure, comfort them. Don’t brush off the doubts that arise because of the setback. Don’t push the stress aside as common to everyone chasing a dream. Don’t motivate them with threats or powerful motivational speeches. Instead, remain emotionally available to share that time of disappointment and sorrow with them. Sit with them. Comfort them. Then, become their encourager again…their dream champion.
Our spouses help us become our best selves (I know my wife is My Michelangelo) …and we can help our spouses become their best selves. However, we must act wisely for that to happen. Encourage but don’t take over. Be a wise sounding board, not a micromanager. When necessary, comfort rather than motivate. When you do these things, you will become your spouse’s dream champion and they will become their best self.
Toddlers have tantrum. Teens will sulk. In between…well, it could be almost anything. Children respond to emotions in ways that frustrate their parents and even make them feel helpless at times. But if we, as parents and adults in their lives, learn these important facts about our children’s emotions we don’t have to feel frustrated and helpless. In fact, learning these important facts will empower us to parent more effectively. What facts am I talking about?
- Children experience the world differently than adults experience the world. They hear more and different sounds. They see things from a different vantage point, literally. For instance, since their eyes are two to three feet below most adults, a crowd becomes a sea of legs blocking their vision…and that could be frightening. Our children also experience many sights and sounds as new and unknown, even though we consider them familiar and even mundane. So, a child may get upset by a sight or sound that an adult has not even noticed.
- Children also have a different sense of time than adults. Time moves more slowly with less rush for children. They get bored more easily as “time drags on” while we, as adults, feel pressured by too little time. What an adult may experience as a passing moment can seem like an unbearable eternity to a child whom we admonish to “sit still. It will only be a minute.” Remember how long those minutes seemed as a child…as the second hand on the clocked ticked…slowly…along? Overall, it may seem as though children get upset about the “silliest,” most mundane things. But when we begin to realize how different a child’s experience of the world is from our adult experience, their responses seem much more reasonable and even understandable.
- Children’s distress quickly goes from zero to sixty and spills over into everything. Their emotions often result in a meltdown that takes over the moment and everyone present. In fact, children experience difficulty managing strong emotions. Their emotional management skills are underdeveloped compared to adults. They have not learned and internalized the coping skills necessary to deal with the emotional struggles they encounter—like the fear of abandonment, frustrated desires, bullying, loss [even death], disappointment. They need us—the strong, healthy adults in their lives—to help them regulate their emotions in the moment and to teach them how to regulate their emotions in the future.
- Children engage in emotional outbursts and meltdowns at the worst possible moments. They meltdown when getting ready to leave the house or when preparing for bed; they become attention-seeking when you’re on the phone; they have the screaming match with their sister when you have a headache. It’s true, children have emotional outbursts at the most inconvenient times. And, in all reality, that makes sense. Children have a need for security and the adults who care for them provide that security. When we, as caregivers, exhibit stress of some kind (trying to get everyone out the door on time, feeling exhausted yet trying to get our children ready for bed, irritated because we didn’t sleep well last night, etc.), our children feel our stress and become stressed themselves. Our stress creates a question in their lives about our availability to them and, as a result, their safety. When we, as caregivers, begin to focus elsewhere (like on our telephone or the meal we are preparing for dinner), our children want to make sure we are available to them. When we, as caregivers are tired, distracted, stressed, or rushed, our children respond with emotional outbursts that implicitly express their fear and need for security. In essence, their emotional outburst often implicitly asks, “Are you available to care for me? Or are you too tired, distracted, stressed, or busy to make sure I’m safe?”
These four factors about our children and their emotions opens the door for us to respond to difficult emotions with greater effectiveness. Watch for next week’s blog in which we will explore some ways we can help our children and teens manage their emotions and have fewer outbursts in the process.
The labels our children acquire have a life cycle of their own…and that life cycle has a tremendous impact on their identity. Unfortunately, labels are often conceived without thought. They might be conceived in anger or in jest, but they are conceived, nonetheless. You’ve seen it happen. A parent tells their child to quit being “stupid” or accuses them of being “lazy…” and a label is conceived. Or an infant gets a nickname that sticks, and a chubby baby acquires the label “Chubby” that sticks even into adolescence.
As the child develops, the label develops as well…and gives birth to their own thoughts about themselves. The labels give birth to the DNA of their self-image. “Stupid” and “lazy” are no longer simple statements conceived in anger or frustration but an integral part of the child’s thoughts about themselves. The label conceived gives birth to a self-identity of “stupid” or “lazy.” “Chubby” matures into an enduring belief about “who I am,” even as the child physically grows into a healthy young adult. The label has grown. It has taken on a life of its own, a life that our children (and ourselves) struggle with as adults. The labels of “stupid” and “lazy” battle with the hardworking achievement of an intelligent adult for that person’s primary self-image.
Of course, not all labels are the same. Some might give birth to a more positive self-image. But labels conceived in anger or in jest end up giving birth to hurt and self-deprecating inner thoughts. I once knew a young man named Sterling. His family called him “Sterile” for short, never realizing how disempowering this nickname could be. However, one day while I was visiting a church with Sterling, an older man asked his name. He replied, “Sterling.” The man smiled and said, “Like silver. You are as precious as Sterling silver.” The young man’s face lit up with a smile like I had never seen on his face before. Perhaps a more encouraging nickname would have been Silver.
All of this begs the question: what labels do you conceive in your children and the children around you? How might those labels impact your child’s self-image as they grow into adulthood with that label embedded in their thoughts? Think carefully…and act wisely.
Every marriage faces challenges. I only want to discuss two of those challenges in this blog. Both challenges naturally arise as a couple moves along their marital journey.
The first challenge involves busy-ness. Each person in the couple becomes busier at work, in the home, and in the community. Each one takes on more responsibilities and gets involved in more activities. Work promotions increase work demands. A bigger house requires more time in upkeep and maintenance. Children demand more time due to childcare needs and increased activities. Involvement in community groups often means more participation in meetings, planning, and activities. Even church involvement can result in more responsibilities and busy-ness. This busy-ness can begin to interfere with couple time. It can start to pull each person in a different direction, straining the intimacy of the couple.
The second challenge occurs as each person becomes more comfortable with their spouse. They may begin to take less notice of their spouse’s contributions to their home and their marriage. What used to come across as important contributions becomes mere expectations that go unnoticed unless they’re not complete. In addition, each person often fails to spend as much time trying to “impress” their spouse once they have been married for a while. They might wear sweats more often than attractive outfits. Socks get left on the floor and dirty dishes are scattered throughout the living areas. The house gets slightly more unkempt as the schedules get busier. Niceties and politeness begin to slip while expectations and demands begin to rise. In other words, we begin to take one another for granted.
A third challenge that exacerbates the first two challenges involves our growing “affection” for our cell phones. On average, adults spend about 4 hours a day on their phone. This is 4 hours taken away from dedicated time with our spouse.
These challenges, though, present opportunities for strengthening your marriage if responded to wisely and intentionally. Here are 3 ways to respond to these challenges and strengthen your marriage.
- Intentionally set aside time together as a couple. John Gottman suggests the “magic 5 hours” to create time together with your spouse (you can learn about the “magic 5 hours” here). I want to emphasize three daily times to create space for togetherness with your spouse. One, give your spouse a hug and a kiss each morning. Then spend a few minutes talking about your plans for the day. Two, give your spouse a hug and a kiss each night before bed. Tell them you love them. Spend a few minutes talking about your days. Three, set aside 20 minutes each day for uninterrupted conversation with your spouse. Use this conversation to talk about things that will nurture the intimacy in your marriage, not daily plans but dreams and things you admire about one another.
- Intentionally look for aspects of your spouse that you admire and adore. Then intentionally take the time to tell them what you admire about them. Intentionally seek out opportunities to thank your spouse and compliment your spouse. Make it a habit to do this every day, multiple times a day.
- Intentionally set aside your phone at times to spend quality time with your spouse. Create “tech-free” zones and “tech-free” times in which you focus on your spouse and your relationship. (Learn more in Smartphones, Priorities, & Terrible Outcomes Even for Parents, My Cell Phone Is Ripping Me Off, and Take Charge of Your Smartphone Before It Takes Charge of You.)
These challenges naturally arise in any marriage. Don’t let them sap your marriage of love and intimacy. Use them to intentionally nurture love and intimacy with your spouse. You’ll both be glad you did.
Let’s face it, guys. Most of us want our wives to feel less stressed. And, chances are, we’d do almost anything to help alleviate our wives’ stress. It makes for a calmer home. After all, “happy wife, happy life,” right?
You can imagine, then, how pleased I was to discover this simple, enjoyable way to reduce my wife’s stress. Researchers from Ruhr University, Bochum, Germany confirmed the efficacy of this stress reducing activity in a study involving 76 people in romantic relationships. All the participants engaged in a stress-inducing test by keeping one hand in a bath of ice water for 3-minutes while maintaining “eye contact with a camera.” Half the couples were instructed to embrace one another before the ice water hand soaking. The other half did not embrace one another.
Lo and behold, women who embraced their romantic partner prior to the “stress-inducing experience” had a lower biological stress response than those couples who did not embrace. They had a lower cortisol stress response. Ironically, this did not happen for the men, only for women.
I thought perhaps this was a fluke. So I looked around a little more and found another study that involved women anticipating a “small electric shock.” (I know, who volunteers to receive a “small electric shock”?) Anyway, this study found similar results. When a women held the hand of her husband, she perceived less stress while anticipating the shock than one who held the hand of a stranger. And the happier the marriage, the more stress relief the women felt while holding their husband’s hands. The more love, the happier the marriage, the less stress…a good reason to build a strong, loving marriage. There you have it—less of a biological stress response and less perceived stress. If you want a wife with less stress, a happier wife contributing to a happier family life, give her a hug. Even better give her multiple hugs a day. Hold her hand. Show her physical affection often. It’s simple. It’s enjoyable. And it will lead to a more stress-free wife. What a wonderful expression of love and a wonderful gift to give your wife.
Kindness is powerful. Even more powerful because it appears so meek, wrapped in the common, unassuming actions that even a child can perform. A polite response. A genuine show of gratitude. An offer to help.
The simplicity of the act tempts us to disregard its power. After all, anyone could do it. Hold a door open for someone. Pass the vegetables. Pour a glass of tea for someone.
Still, however unassuming and inconsequential an act of kindness might appear, it remains a powerful force. Simple acts of kindness reveal the giver’s humility and willingness to give of their time and energy graciously and humbly in service to another. Who doesn’t like a humble person who graciously offers an act of kindness like taking out the trash or helping to carry the groceries?
Kindness also communicates the inherent value of the recipient. It acknowledges the recipient as worthy of the time and energy sacrificed to offer them a kindness. Sharing a cup of water or a meal. Letting the other guy have the parking space.
Kindness unveils the beauty of both the giver and the receiver. The giver in their benevolence and generosity. The receiver in their kind response of gratitude and appreciation. A simple “thank you” or a smile with a friendly wink of the eye.
Yes, kindness is powerful. Kind acts lift the spirits of both the giver and the receiver. These mighty little deeds promote connection between people. They inspire us to act in kindness to the next person we meet. They restore our faith in humankind.
These mighty little deeds of kindness can build a stronger marriage, a safer community, a healthier world. In recognizing the power of those mighty little deeds of kindness, I have to ask you a question. What mighty little deeds of kindness will you give your family today?