Five Minute Sherpa

an espresso shot of thoughtful guidance

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Nine Powerful Words for Preventing Relationship Wars

via Flickr user Moisuer J. https://www.flickr.com/photos/jblndl/283365812/in/photolist-r3jMs-5sRGHP-njCh3-eSUGjE-eKBfkL-9smjfA-8SMsiN-pRN6Bw-9UJ6Gp-7XNfeC-9RVMBg-8QSCVZ-fu57be-9UMcSy-9ULPDW-eDmWUC-9UJ6qZ-7T2DaQ-9ULYm5-pVfPwB-tYaGp-7LVXb1-qSc5uH-dsY76X-4hxSUV-7sX1tC-9ULL8u-8a6MDw-8SJot4-4XMkHt-e4yzyQ-6RfEbc-cZdHk1-8SJo4n-dEk6VG-9QvyW5-9UM94S-fKkBA3-8QgxKx-9ULY79-hKs6LB-9UMd6Q-9ULNxS-7keA6j-9UHZVB-bbud8c-9UHWfX-e7TneH-9UJaga-7enP1m

A couple recently asked me a question about fighting: “We’ve been together for almost 2 years and have not had a fight. What do you think about this?” My response was two-fold. First, what is your definition of a fight? Some of us think of a fight as yelling, screaming, throwing things, etc. A fight for others might be stonewalling, silent punishment, or ignoring the other person. The second part of my answer is that someone, most likely both of them, is lying. Maybe not overtly lying about something, but not fully telling the truth about where they’ve been hurt in the relationship. You can’t be in relationships for any extended period of time without hurting them, or without being hurt.

We can’t avoid hurting people, but we can prevent these hurts from turning into harms, and relationship wars. Want to know how to avoid war? Say these 9 words to the people that matter the most to you:

“I was wrong. How can I make this right?”

That’s it.

Don’t text it. Say it out loud. (As a side note, don’t text anything of substance — texting is too easy, impersonal, and non-vulnerable to say something important)

Don’t try to substitute those 9 words with the generic phrase: “I’m sorry” (which is usually not an apology, but a request for the offended party to be quiet. The word “sorry” means to be “sorrowful.” When we say “I’m sorry,” if it’s true, it needs to mean that “I am full of sorrow for my actions.”). Sorry is a watered down word that rarely means much in intimate relationships.

Don’t judge or shame the offended party’s hurt by telling them what you did wasn’t that big of a deal, or that they shouldn’t feel hurt.

Don’t defend your actions. Let me say that again with emphasis: DO NOT DEFEND. The moment you enter into a defense about why what you said/did wasn’t intended to hurt/be interpreted/etc, you begin the process of declaring war on the other party. The war becomes about figuring out who’s right, and who’s wrong. Defending is the quickest way to escalate a potentially peaceable situation into an all out battle.

Sometimes we people do things that are so hurtful, or harmful, that there isn’t anything we can do to make it right. Those are the situations that need patience, time, grace, and many many conversations. For example, an affair in a marriage cannot be made right in any short amount of time. But over an extended period of time, forgiveness can occur and then reconciliation happens. It is never the offender’s prerogative to dictate the amount of time forgiveness takes.

As with anything in life, if our intention (known or unknown) is control, manipulation, or self-protection, we can abuse the goodness of a phrase like “I was wrong, how can I make it right” and turn it into a way to get something we want.

Admitting you’re wrong is humbling, but it is endearing to the person your have wronged. Asking how you can, if possible, make right the wrong makes you an ally of the person you’ve hurt, not an enemy.

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Myth #5: People Change and Grow to Want Different Things

This post is part of a series in response to an article about reasons not to be afraid of a divorce. The bolded first sentence/statement are the words from the author in the linked article. The following comments are my opinions in response. Read the introduction to this series of posts here first.

Previous Posts in this Series:
Myth #1: Divorce Pain is Temporary
Myth #2: Society Says Divorce is Bad
Myth #3: Miserable and Married
Myth #4: Forever is a Long Freaking Time


 

Myth #5: People change and grow, they want different things.

What exactly is the purpose of marriage? If the purpose of marriage is happiness and pleasure, then the growth people find will be oriented towards other things that make them happy or fill them with pleasure. If it’s to grow the goodness of each other, regardless of the circumstance, then this growth will be found together, not apart.

Several years ago I wrote about marriage being like a garden. That’s the image I want to draw from as we talk about changing and growing. When we change and grow, we increase our abilities to enjoy and withstand whatever life throws at us. The same is true for a plant in a garden. We have to take special care of it once planted, and over the course of it’s early life, we water, weed, and feed the plant to ensure it’s growth. In doing so, the gardener grows in knowledge and experience as the plant grows.

Marriage is not intended to be another green house for personal growth that leads to a second transplanting in yet another garden. This has already happened once in life in our childhood homes. We are raised, grown, and matured and then we leave home to go make a life for ourselves. Too often couples mistakenly relate to the marriage in the same way they did to their childhood home. The narrative is pretty common: I feel limited by him/her; They don’t love me the way I need/want to be loved; and I’m not the person I want to be in this home. There are many other statements that I could list, but hopefully you get the gist of what I’m saying.

When our marriages begin to fail, it is entirely too easy to revert back to adolescent tendencies that lead us towards wanting to get out. The problem is that these tendencies we felt as teenagers are legit responses to a natural relational patter in our childhood homes. We are not meant to live at home under our parents care forever (nor would most parents want this). We are meant to be raised until we are ready to leave home and go make a life for ourselves.

People do change and grow after they leave home, and if they are not growing, something else is wrong. But in the context of changing and growing in marriage to the point of “wanting different things” as the myth states, it again raises the issue of what we think the purpose of marriage is. Every couple needs to define what their purposes are together. Companionship is often stated when I poll couples about their purpose, but I think marriage needs a more transcendent purpose than this. Marriage offers the possibility of safety, growth, and a place to return when all other aspects of life seem to be going all wrong.

We have a pretty large vegitable and fruit garden in our back yard. It’s fenced and has raised beds to promote growth. I want you to think about that fence and garden beds as the structure of marriage. The fence isn’t intended to be there to limit the growth of what’s inside, rather it’s there to prevent the dangers of what is outside.

Growth happens in the context of love, and in this instance, the fence is a symbol of love to the tomato, squash, strawberry, and green bean plants that reside inside. If I were to take a green bean plant outside the fence, and plant it in the middle of the yard a couple things would happen. If the rabbits didn’t eat it first, the deer would. And if those two didn’t find it before Saturday, my lawn mower would end it’s story. Be mindful of where you are finding life outside your marriage that does not seed growth inside your marriage.

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Myth #4: Forever is a Long Freaking Time

This post is part of a series in response to an article about reasons not to be afraid of a divorce. The bolded first sentence/statement are the words from the author in the linked article. The following comments are my opinions in response. Read the introduction to this series of posts here first.

Previous Posts in this Series:
Myth #1: Divorce Pain is Temporary
Myth #2: Society Says Divorce is Bad
Myth #3: Miserable and Married


 

Myth #4: “Forever is a long freaking time.”

Depending on your perspective, forever can be an excruciatingly long time. No one wants to live forever in misery. Although, I would suggest that for most relationships, the very notion of “forever” was originally seen as “not long enough.” Most romanticized spending their lives together, forever. And let’s face it, the euphoria of young love is intoxicating. Staying in that place forever sounds pretty awesome.

People often marry thinking that the love they share will outlast time, and that this love will conquer the greatest of challenges. We marry under the auspice that time will not assail the relationship. Until unresolved conflict begins to grow the weeds of resentment, couples can continue with the fantasy that time is their ally.

Several years ago a couple sat on my couch to talk through some issues that threatened their relationship. They were to be married in 9 months when they came to see me. The woman was extremely anxious about their upcoming marriage. The man sat next to her convinced that the issues they faced were no big deal. He kept telling his finance’ not to worry, that everything would be ok. His responses had the opposite impact on her that he wanted. She actually got more afraid of marrying him. At one point in the session I interrupted him and said, “I’m sorry, you can’t tell her not to worry. That is not the reality of the culture we live in.”

I told him that because divorce ends over half of all marriages, telling his finance’ not to worry was like telling someone that sharks are swimming near the beach but it’s ok to get into the water. Sharks are dangerous and telling someone not to worry about a clear and imminent threat would be foolish and unloving. Yes they loved each other, but love won’t save someone from an attack in shark infested waters.

Because of divorce, our culture believes forever might be too long, so let’s hedge our bets. Relationships formed in this culture are disadvantaged because of the ease at which it can be dissolved. A couple, or individual like the one I mentioned above, can think they are above getting divorced but this does not save them from the pervasive gravity of what the culture says is ok. Culture’s message is pretty clear: “When you stop being satisfied in marriage, get out.” This is an impossible message to escape in our current day and age. Couples that think they are immune to this message are living in a fairy tale.

We pledge forever to our spouse because we imagine “forever” being as easy and pleasurable as it was to fall in love. Unfortunately that is not true, and never will be true. Building love and commitment with another person doesn’t stop once the ring is placed on the finger. In fact, it’s the beginning of that building process.

Our culture sees marriage as an all-you-can-eat buffet. You go to these because you’re hungry and want a limitless supply of food, not because the food has been carefully prepared and/or is all that high in quality. It’s easy to go to marriage because we’re hungry and want to be fed. But let’s think about this for a moment, can you imagine being stuck at an all-you-can-eat buffet for … forever? That would be awful (unless it were sushi!).

On the other hand, what would it be like to be united as a co-participant (i.e. non-consumer) in a great building project where all the materials, blueprints, and resources were made available to you? Would that feel like an interminable prison? That is the picture that needs to be imagined as couples stand on the stage and pledge forever to one another. Furthermore, it’s the picture that needs to be reimagined by couples currently facing seemingly impossible hardships.

This is the picture of two willing participants coming together to build something that neither one of them could build on their own. This is the strange but hopeful phenomenon that the whole (the couple) is greater than the sum of it’s parts. Maybe it’s time to for you and your spouse to redefine what the goal of marriage is instead of trying to fit a god-like fantasy into a human-sized relationship.

As I mentioned in my last post in this series, being miserable in marriage is not an enviable position. No one wants to be miserable, much less miserable forever. If I can pull back for a moment, my whole motivation for writing these articles is to provide thoughts and counterpoints to the pervasive cultural belief that if a marriage is headed downhill, it’s time to bail. We can’t expect others, ourselves included, to be immune to the idea that bailing is the best option. Because we are all susceptible to these messages, no marriage is inherently safe. It takes work to create a safe marriage. Assuming your marriage (or anyone else’s) is “doing ok” is a major blindspot. This assumption is usually shattered with the discovery of an affair, divorce papers, or an intervention for substance abuse.

If you’re afraid that forever is too long, keep heart. It is too long to do forever in it’s current situation, but you can do it for one day. The 12-step process is fantastic at helping addicts approach life one day, one hour, one situation at a time. Seek help, find ways to remind yourself and your spouse of the reason you married in the first place. Find a good counselor. Begin to take care of each other again, it’s what likely happened at the beginning of your relationship. Be intentional with the time and energy you give and take from one another. Move away from the all-you-can-eat buffet. Forever is a long freaking time to sit next to one another in silence as you watch yet another rerun on HGTV or the History Channel.

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Myth #3: Miserable and Married

This post is part of a series in response to an article about reasons not to be afraid of a divorce. The bolded first sentence/statement are the words from the author in the linked article. The following comments are my opinions in response. Read the introduction to this series of posts here first.

Previous Posts in This Series: 
Myth #1: Divorce Pain is Temporary
Myth#2: Society Says Divorce is Bad


Myth #3. “The same people judging you for getting divorced are probably part of the Miserable & Married crowd.”

The Author’s point is pretty clear: Don’t stay married just because people will judge you out of their own jealousy. If it were as simple of an explanation as this, I would agree with her. Staying married just so you don’t get judged isn’t all that great of a great idea. However, staying married doesn’t mean you have to be a card carrying member of the “miserable and married” club.

There are a lot of members in this club, mainly because it’s an easy club to join. To do marriage well is beyond hard. Saying that it takes work is an understatement, and it’s easy to dismiss this work in favor of expectations that the spouse should meet. The misery people experience in marriage is usually about these unmet expectations.

My clients that are lonely in their relationships tend to experience more difficulty than someone who is single and lonely. The main reason for this is the expectations. Having a ring on your finger is a constant reminder of “what could be” in your life. In some seasons of life, this feeling can be incredibly hopeful. For other seasons, this same expectation can be incredibly hopeless because of what’s lacking.

It may seem like it, but divorce is not the only option for a marriage that is miserable. One of my suggestions for an individual or couple who are miserable and married is to engage in a therapeutic separation. I usually suggest taking 3 to 6 months to therapeutically slow the quickening decline of the marriage.

This idea is often scary because it feels like divorce is the only logical resolution to the separation. Quite the opposite is true. In my experience, if a couple is trending towards divorce and they don’t separate, they are more likely to end up divorced than those who do a separation. Sometimes the stress of an intimate relationship is too much to deal with without intentional space to allow for changes in habits, relational patterns, and assumptions about the other person.

A therapeutic separation provides a set time and space that allows for the destructive patterns of the relationship to slow down. When this slow-down happens, a new dialogue and pattern of relating can emerge that gives hope to an otherwise hopeless relationship.

A final word about separations. Don’t do this on your own. Find a counselor who can help guide you through this process. There are lots of issues that need to be agreed upon (money, dating, time together, length, kids/schedules, communication, etc), and trying to do so on your own without help will likely be too much. Something to consider: Perhaps the fear of external judgement is actually a hopeful part of you that wants out of the pain, not necessarily out of the marriage.

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Myth #2: It Takes a Village

This post is part of a series in response to an article about reasons not to be afraid of a divorce. The bolded first sentence/statement below are the words from the author in the linked article. The following comments are my opinions in response. Read the introduction to this series of posts here first.

Previous posts in series:
Myth #1 — Divorce Pain is Temporary


 

Myth #2 —  “Society says divorce is bad, that may not be true.”

The above quote links divorce to caffeine where the author states, “society used to think caffeine was bad, now it says it might help prevent cancer.” I’m in agreement that there are a host of issues society has gotten wrong. I don’t think anyone can argue that point. But, have we gotten the issue of divorce wrong? A question I had after reading this was: ‘Is divorce harmful to the body like caffeine was once thought to be?’

I don’t think the author intended for this connection to be taken literally, but I went on a search anyway and here is what I found. In 2009 the Journal of Health and Social Behavior published a study that linked divorce and widowhood to a decrease in physical health. In fact, there was a more significant toll on the physical health than on the mental health of those who’d divorced or widowed. I think some of this decline in physical health is linked to the need for companionship, because in this study those that remarried reported physical health issues getting better.

Not surprisingly, our society has drastically changed over the past 50 years. In the summer of 2013 I, and my extended family, buried the patriarch of our family, my grandfather. He was a man rigorous in his commitment to family, responsibility, and hard work. He grew up as the country exited the great depression, fought on the front lines in France, and stayed at his job for the entirety of his career. His work ethic was remarkable. I don’t think he would consider himself all that special amongst his peers, or others from his era. They did what they had to do, regardless of how hard it was.

The society he helped create said divorce was bad because (the following are my words), there was a cultural understanding that marriage was hard work, just like the rest of life. The culture supported hard work in every facet of life, and marriage was no different. Doing what feels good was not something my grandfathers’ culture promoted, or advertised. That is not the case today. We are constantly bombarded with advertisements promoting pleasure. The culture’s message is clear: Do what feels good. This is not a helpful message for those facing hardships in their relationship.

Last week I wrote about marriage being one of the main pillars that creates culture. If you take marriage away, what is left? Doing what feels good often does not take into account the effect upon those around us. If our society is more bent towards encouraging choices that feel good, which I firmly believe to be the case, then there is tons of support for divorce being a acceptable (and desirable) decision. But did my grandfather’s generation, his society, get it wrong? On the issue of marriage, I think they got it right.

Usually doing what’s right comes at the expense of our own individual freedoms and desires. This is a difficult reality: The good of the whole doesn’t make all the individuals happy. In fact, the good of the whole often time comes at the cost of individual pleasure. There has to be a bigger story, a more compelling story, that causes people to lay down their rights, freedoms, and preferences for the good of the whole. Divorce is not that compelling story for a society because it promotes a me-first, “every man/woman for themselves” attitude. This is a dangerous and slippery slope. The history books do not reflect well upon those who take it upon themselves to act on desires for personal glory, or pleasure.

At present, our society is losing clarity on why marriage is important. The conversations are about civil rights and freedoms, not about what it actually takes to build a sustainable marriage. This is problematic, regardless of who you married. Our culture has deemed divorce acceptable thus we have lost a vital support system for marriages to thrive. I’m sure the saying is familiar: It takes a village to raise a child … well, it also takes a village to raise a marriage.

Next Up — Myth #3: The same people judging you for getting divorced are probably part of the Miserable & Married crowd.

_____

Sources:
Hughes, M. and Waite, L. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, September 2009; vol 50

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Myth #1: Divorce Pain is Temporary

This post is part of a series in response to an article about reasons not to be afraid of a divorce. The bolded first sentence/statement are the words from the author in the linked article. The following comments are my opinions in response. Read the introduction to this series of posts here first.

Myth #1 – ”Divorce pain is temporary.

Temporary pain means that whatever causes the pain wasn’t that significant to begin with. We make pain temporary by escaping and numbing ourselves. Ultimately the pain resulting from a divorce does not just affect the couple, it affects an entire community.

Marriages are an essential building block of how our communities were formed. Yet we are increasingly viewing marriage like it’s shopping mall. When we don’t get the desired product, we return it, go to another store and get different one. Disposable relationships cannot hold love for long, thus they cannot hold pain for long either. Find me someone who has lost a child that says the pain is no longer there. It’s just not true. Marriage has been reduced to a pursuit of happiness, which creates an untenable position: ‘If you don’t make me happy, someone else will.’

Marriage is an unseen fabric that binds our homes, restaurants, businesses, and community together. Without the marriage fabric there would be a chaotic “free-for-all,” making every man, woman, and child available for whatever pursuit the moment called for. Marriage provides the safety and protection for a community. By staying, loving, and committing to my marriage, I am allowing and asking for you to do the same.


Typically, a marriage happens before friends and family allowing for new friendships to be forged. If that marriage ends, it fractures these relationships. It’s like two cities that have been connected by a bridge. When that bridge is destroyed, so too are the comings and goings of those cities. My people stay my people, and the same for you and your people.

Unfortunately, as divorce has become more common, the strength of our communities has deteriorated, thus leading to more divorce. I rarely hear a couple talk about what is best for “us”, instead most talk about what is best for me, and what I’m not getting. The pervasive idea is this: “I deserve to be happy. I want what I want when I want it. To hell with anyone, including my spouse, who stands in my way.”

The pain in life is temporary because we want it to be. Divorce is no different. We humans are pretty adept at finding ways to escape from our pain. Very few people actually travel the road of healing by facing the pain they feel. This reality is true for all aspects of life, not just marriage. It’s why relapse rates for addictions are so high. The more we escape pain the more entrenched we become in our habits.

Like a piece of candy, pleasure is short lived and always leaves the consumer desiring more. If the pain of a divorce is short lived, it’s because the orientation of the marriage was towards immediate gratification. We wouldn’t marry if self-gratification delivered the goodness of life we all desire.

Marriages will never thrive if happiness is the sole purpose of the relationship. The hope of marriage is that my spouse will be as oriented towards love as I am. If we can join together in that love, the pain of ending that hope would deter pursuits of divorce, not encourage it.

Next Up — Myth #2: “Society says divorce is bad, that may not be true.”

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Debunking the Myths of Divorce

Several weeks ago I ran across this article from Cherilynn Veland, a clinical social worker, giving women 15 reasons why not to be afraid of divorce. The author takes what she considers cultural myths, and debunks them to give women support in their divorce process. In some ways, I understand where she’s coming from. Historically women have not been treated as equals to men, and this has caused much pain, especially in the context of marriage.

This much is true: Our culture, and we’re not the first, objectifies women. Turn on the TV and within a couple of minutes the message is loud and clear: Women are sex objects. This creates an incredible tension to speak up and have a voice because boobs, legs, and vaginas don’t have voices. Seeing women as subjects, not objects, is not something we men are very good at doing. We tend to try and fix (often times fixing is relational violence), which presupposes that we have the answers, and that she, the woman, is broken and needs our fixing.

The institution of marriage is a subset of the larger culture. Great harm has been done to women in the name of religion, gender norms, and cultural values. These realities are not spoken to in Ms. Veland’s article, which I think is a massive oversight. Advice is often easy to give when we give little to no consideration to the cultural contexts.

As I was reading the article, I was struck by two things. First, nestled right next to the article is a visual advertisement for a TV show titled: “A Girlfriends Guide to a Divorce.” It pictures a woman, clearly happy and/or excited, holding up her left hand ring finger (clearly a middle-finger to marriage) with the caption, “go find yourself.” The message is clear: Marriage is holding you back from being who you’re supposed to be, so “screw” (PG version) marriage.

The second thing I noticed was how shallow the advice was from the author. I began working on counterpoints to her 15 reasons of why divorce doesn’t have to be scary. I work with a lot of people struggling to make a decision on their marriage. I am unabashedly pro-marriage (which will clearly come through over the forthcoming dozen-plus posts), but of equal importance I am am pro-growth.

Ultimately I believe the the greatest opportunity for growth in our lives comes through the conflicts we share with our spouse. Most marriages work really hard to avoid conflicts, which inevitably leads to failure because couples develop no strength to handle difficulties together. I see so many men and women doubling down on follow-up relationships after a divorce only to find out that their problems have followed them.

My hope in writing these rebuttals to the above article is to promote opportunities for growth in the context of marriage, especially if there are children involved. Even with an in depth understanding of the effects from divorce on children and society, people will still choose to divorce. Perhaps something written over the next several weeks might provide a glimmer of hope to a marriage in crisis. These are my opinions largely formed and influenced over the past 10+ years in my work with individuals and couples surrounding issues like marriage, sexuality, addictions, and divorce.

Myth #1 – Divorce pain is temporary.
Myth #2 – 
Society says divorce is bad, that may not be true.
Myth #3 – Miserable and Married
Myth #4 – Forever is a Long Freaking Time

Note: This series will be published regularly over the next several months, so if you want to follow, make sure you subscribe (top right side of page) to receive notification when the next article is posted. 

 

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Are you Hopeless in Marriage?

Most people who have not done significant spiritual or relational work do not know how to do conflict well. Invariably, we will unconsciously adapt our conflict styles to what we were exposed to in our childhood homes. The saying “the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree” is true here, how are we to know a different way of being without the help of someone else to show us another place?

Marriage provides the context for taking another person to another place. It offers hope that I can live alongside someone who will help me to become a better person, and I can do the same for them. The reality is that once the newness wears off (which happens at different rates of time for different people), couples often lose sight of the purpose of marriage.

I often hear, “I just want to be happy and live in peace” when asking people what they desire in their marriages. Generally this is in reaction to the growing disconnect and conflict that exists between husband and wife. However, when you don’t do the necessary maintenance and work, It decays and begins to break down. This is true of the material world just as it is for relationships.

Cleaning up and fixing something that has been neglected for a long time takes more energy and effort than the time it would have taken to maintain. In relationships, if you do not spend the time proactively working and engaging the faulty issues in your marriage, when it comes time to “fix it” or “buy a new one”, it’s going to feel overwhelming.

This overwhelming feeling coupled with the already everyday needs and demands of life make it even more difficult to find the courage, energy, and hope to dig out of the mess. If you’re at this place of hopelessness in your marriage, seek out a counselor. If you’re afraid you’re on the road to hopelessness, here are some suggestions to work on:

Do go on regular dates with your spouse.
Do monthly budget meetings to review and plan financial concerns and needs
Do yearly/bi-yearly marriage enrichment activities (counseling, retreats, books, etc)
Do not turn on the ’screen’ (tv, phone, computer/tablet) at least 2 nights per week
Do not blame your spouse for anything, ever. Take responsibility for your actions.
Do not use the word divorce unless you are filing.
Do not have an affair with work, alcohol, Facebook, video games, food, or the TV.
Do practice non-sexual touch without it leading to sex.
Do not hide behind your kids activities to avoid conflict.
Do not use your kids to fulfill your loneliness.

No relationship is beyond repair. I have seen couples dealing with multiple layers of betrayal, lies, and brokenness work diligently on repairing their relationship. When you married your spouse, they became the right one, don’t buy into the lie that there is someone better out there for you. If you’re willing to do the hard work, your hopelessness can be healed.

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The Invitation of Advent

I don’t know all of what Mary feared, but I can guess she had plenty. An unwed pregnant woman was not what it is today. She had good reasons to be afraid, as did Joseph, Zechariah, and the Shepherds. The Angels spoke directly to them, saying the same thing regarding the coming of Jesus: “be not afraid.” They were afraid, with good reason, and so are we.

My guess is that your fears are similar to mine. Fears of being seen or unseen: The reality that I can bear neither the pain of your rejection, nor the intimacy of your staying with me. Fears of being enough, of my value: Good enough for love, acceptance, forgiveness, or even something as simple as a hug from someone I have hurt. Fears about safety, stability, and self-control. Regardless of the fears, it’s a shining star illuminating the need for something greater.

The Angels command to not be afraid foreshadowed the coming of Peace. We are reminded in 1 John 4 that perfect love casts out all fear. Advent is the birthplace of perfect love, of God’s peace.

Advent is an opportunity to allow God’s peace to enter into our lives. But just like any other physical container, we have to remove the current contents before we can fill it up with something new. I don’t have to look too far into my life to see that I’ve filled much of my space with things like some of the fears I mentioned earlier. To allow for peace, I have to have space.

Advent’s invitation is about space. This season, the question is: Will you make room?

There was no space for Jesus’ birth in the hotels, B&B’s, or even the dilapidated truck-stop motels. There was only room in the stable, the barn. This is the place in the Advent story for us to consider what areas of our lives are too full for Jesus. The hotels and other establishments are too sensible and upscale for an unwed mother in childbirth. I imagine the innkeepers felt similar to the way I do during a church service with my kids are doing somersaults on the chairs during the doxology. The message is clear: “Go away, you’re not welcome here.”

Not all the rooms of our life need to be occupied. We need to leave space, to allow emptiness. I can’t think of a more difficult challenge than to intentionally let there be places of emptiness in my life. The innkeeper in me says, “why would I ever want to leave a room empty?” Actually trying to leave room so that you feel some emptiness might be the craziest challenge you’ve ever heard. The sensible thing to do is to fill everything up so as to not feel empty.

The Advent season is not about our sensibilities. It’s about allowing space for peace to enter. For peace to reside, take shelter, and begin to grow. This is the language of hope, and hope is not sensible. Hope is a bit crazy, kind of like giving birth to a child in a barn.

Here is the great thing about Advent. Even if we’re too full and don’t have room, Advent will still happen. The invitation will still be there when we are ready. So, keep heart, make room, and let Peace fill your emptiness. May the Peace of the Lord be with you.

(postscript: This piece was written for my graduate school, The Seattle School, for an Advent series they have created. To subscribe to the entire series of articles, poems, and other Advent reflections, click here: https://theseattleschool.edu/forms/advent2014/)

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Thriving the Holidays

Raise your hand if you don’t feel some twinge of anxiety about the family dynamics during the holidays.

If you’re honest, you feel pretty conflicted about having your parents or siblings over for Thanksgiving dinner, much less visiting your childhood home. And you likely feel somewhat reluctant about going to your in-laws or some other place than what is normal.

Surviving the holiday season is all about eating more food, drinking more wine, and watching more football. Basically, if you want to just make it through the holidays without rocking the boat, spend as little time sober around your family as possible. And by sober, I don’t mean alcohol and food inebriation, rather I mean that you not engage with what you really think and feel. Alcohol and Food provide great buffers to numb out the pain that so many of our family situations trigger. Surviving is about just getting by, Thriving is about being present and not letting the old patterns and behaviors become the go-to actions.

Here’s some ideas on thriving this holiday season:

1. Don’t expect changes to have occurred in any of your family of origin relationships. This isn’t to say that you need to expect them to have not changed, but be available for surprise if that has happened. You’ll build resentments if you have unrealistic expectations.

2. Practice not saying all that you have to say. It’s easy to get triggered and have a flood of old emotions come sweeping in during time with family. Use caution about what you say, and who you say it to.

3. Plan your exit strategy ahead of time. Set boundaries for how much time you will spend, and where. Don’t let big decisions be made on the spot, make those proactively.

4. Be mindful of eating and drinking indulgently. There is always copious amounts of food and drink during holiday celebrations, and it’s easy to numb out to excessive caloric intake or alcohol.

5. Don’t completely deviate from your normal routine. Take some of your normal non-vacation habits with you. Bedtime, morning, mealtime, etc. The more familiar you are with what the day holds the healthier you will be able to respond to challenging situations.

Above all, be honest with yourself and those that are committed to truth and vulnerability. The holidays can provide some great contexts for healing, but that doesn’t mean that everyone has to be involved in that process.