Five Minute Sherpa

an espresso shot of thoughtful guidance

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On Healing

The way we heal the wounds in our lives is to tell the story. Tell the story of your harm over and over again until you are no longer limited and harmed by what has happened. This is the essence of therapy … to become familiar with our own truths (and lies) and live honest and peaceable lives.

You cannot do this alone. We are not unbiased about our wounds, nor the words we use to describe our experiences. We need others to hear our stories, and to help us to see parts that we’d rather not see. Parts that we hate.

Untold stories (secrets) poison our hope, dreams, and relationships. Yes, there is much pain in these stories but pain is only there because there has been a fracture of relationship. Just like cold is not it’s own created thing, it is the absence of heat, so too is pain. Pain only exists because a relationship (love) has been broken.

If we cannot forgive those we hate the most (and this doesn’t mean that we have to like the person we’re forgiving), we will never be able to accept the forgiveness of others. Telling our secrets—our stories—is the process of grief, of forgiveness.

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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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Making Peace with DMZ’s in Marriage

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I’m sure you’ve seen it in a movie, or on the news. The scene is this: Some country breaks the demilitarized zone with an aircraft or some other object. The other country interprets this as an act of war and promptly opens fire on object, destroying it before it has a chance to hurt them. You don’t step foot into the DMZ unless you’re wanting to die, or start an all-out war.

Unfortunately, many marriages are setup like warring countries. There are tragedies, betrayals, and offenses that have gone unresolved. These stories become the DMZ between the couple. As one woman said in my office last week, “he had an affair 8 years ago, we never talked about it then, and we’re not going to talk about it now.”

The bottom line is this: Marriages will not survive DMZ’s. The moment a story is placed in the “off limits” category, knowingly or unknowingly, the couple has declared war on intimacy, trust, and forgiveness — all components of thriving relationships. When a DMZ is established, the individual parties begin looking out for the best interest of themselves, and only look at the other person from a distance.

So, how do countries stabilize war and DMZ’s? I’m not all that studied on international diplomacy, but ultimately it comes down to one word: Peace. Enemies must make peace with one another for war to end.

Here’s how you start this process in marriage.

– Take your shoes off, literally. The DMZ in your marriage is holy ground. It’s where blood has been spilled, death has been seen, and hope has been lost. We bring silence and respect when entering a place of mourning. Taking your shoes off puts your feet in bare contact with the physical ground, and terrain. You’re more sensitive to what you’re walking on without your shoes.

– Drop your weapons. You don’t walk into a peace treaty meeting with a machine gun. What are the weapons you use in marriage? Contempt? Stonewalling? Name calling? Calling it like you see it? Avoidance? Manipulation? Control? Rage? Regardless of the weapon, leave it at the door.

– Unfold your arms. Our body language tells others everything they need to know to make a judgement about how we’re approaching the situation. By crossing your arms or legs, you’re signaling defensiveness and being closed off. Defensiveness is a support of DMZ’s, not a way to make peace.

– Listen twice, speak once. The reality is most of us do not listen very well. We’re generally more interested in forming our rebuttal than allowing the words, emotions, and energy to get to us. Before you respond with what you want to say, reflect back to the other person the actual words they spoke and ask if you heard everything correctly (ie- “I heard you say you feel like I don’t like you, and that I care more about work than I care about you, is that right?).

– Slow down. Take deep breaths to slow down your heart rate. This decreases the chances of your fight or flight response from taking over. Relax your jaw, your fists, and breath. It may sound hokey, but slowing your heart rate will better allow you to view the other person as a friend, not a foe.

– Listen to your senses. What do you smell, see, and feel (physically)? In fights or places of tension, we are generally being reactive to something from the past (see #4 – fight/flight). Practicing awareness of our senses brings us into the present moment, and helps to bring clarity.

– Practice offering gratitude. If you’re not offering thanks to your spouse for their efforts to bring peace, peace will not come. Be wary of how entitlement cheats gratitude (“she should know better…”, or “I shouldn’t have to tell you this…”). If you can’t find something to be thankful for, the issue is with you, not the other person.

The saying is true: “It takes two to tango,” but it only takes one person to change the way they are dancing to invite the other to do the same. I’ve seen it dozens of times where one person has offered peace to an unwilling and defensive participant, and it changes the relationship. Don’t wait for the other person to change first, they are likely waiting for the same thing.

The above picture is “a view from the Dora Observatory in Korea. The DMZ (and beyond it, North Korea) is visible through the haze. (photo via flickr user Ben Kucinski)

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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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Making Room in Your Family

Earlier this fall I was asked to share some practices and habits our family does that help to make room for relationships. So much of family life is dictated by events and schedules that we often miss out on relationship building with our spouse or kids. Here are a few of the ideas I shared. Disclaimer: by no means does my family have it figured out, rather we are figuring it out as we go. Our kids are all under 12, so I expect these ideas to expand/evolve as our kids grow up.

We think of making room in our family in two sections: Work/school week, and weekend.

During the school week we attempt to eat together as a family as often as possible. We don’t allow technology or other distractions (books, TV, toys, iPods, phones, etc) to be at the table and we try to have conversations about our day. It usually begins with discussing our high and lows. It almost always includes at least one of our four kids trying to sabotage our efforts. I did the same thing as a kid, so I can’t blame them. Conversations are “boring,” as my kids put it.

We, my wife and I, limit our personal technology use. We try not to use technology (tv, phones, etc) while the kids are awake during the “school nights.” It’s really easy to want to come home, turn on the TV and check-out. The “screen” has become the biggest influencers of relationships.

For the kids, there is no tv, no video games, or other technology use on school nights. This helps the kids to focus on the homework but also allows for us as parents to play or relate to them in whatever it is they have going on.

On the weekend:

We don’t police tech use on Saturday. It’s the day to play video games, watch a cartoon in the morning, and let the kids be kids in this modern day and age. Surprisingly, whenever we ask the kids to turn their iPods off on the weekend, they rarely complain. They intuitively know that too much technology is not a good thing.

We have made Sunday until Noon our time of rest. We generally stay in bed and have all the kids with us after they wake up until breakfast. We lounge around together in our pj’s, reading, playing board games, legos, or something else that is open for everyone (Our kids range from 3-11 with one girl and 3 boys).

Sunday mornings are the few hours of the week that Stephanie and I feel the most present and available with our kids. It’s my favorite time of our week because there are no agendas, the kids know we’re not doing anything outside of being together as a family.

Lastly, one of our favorite practices together is sitting by a fire. We have the benefit of a big backyard that allows us to build a great campfire. Usually 2-3 times a month during the spring and fall we are outside sitting around the fire together. It is probably the single most influential relational time that we have together as a family. The fire sparks so many conversations and openness between all of us. The fire is one of those things that unites people. I’m not entirely sure why that’s the case, but it slows us all down.

The main idea we have come up with for our family is the limiting of technology. There are very few places we humans can go where technology is not surrounding us. If you as a parent don’t do anything else with you kids but eat dinner together, and limit their technology use, you’ll be in rare company.

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Relationships Need an Enemy

Most couples come into my office lacking a recognizable enemy they fight together. So instead, they fight each other. We often begin our intimate relationships based on infatuation, attraction, and fairy-tale dreams. Rarely do I interact with a couple that began their relationship because two people came together to fight something they couldn’t do on their own.

We all need an enemy. Not just for our personal lives, but for our relationships, too. When we get hurt and we don’t have an enemy, we often attack the closest person to us: Our spouse. We do this because they get in the way of our lives.They mess up our routines. They disrupt our creature comforts. They put the toilet paper on the wrong way. They don’t do hundreds of things different than we do that we didn’t even know was a personal preference.

These differences become something we hate if we have no other purpose in our life than keeping our lives comfortable and manageable.

It’s the age-old question: If you knew certain death was to hit your entire family in one week, how would you interact with your spouse? I’m willing to bet lots of bananas that you’d change the way you treat your wife, or husband.

The threat of death (the enemy) would become the common focal point for the two of you. You’d want to end your days smiling at each other, not with one of you sleeping on the couch because you got in a fight for reasons neither of you can remember.

If you do not have a common enemy, you will illegitimately make your spouse out to be one. And when that happens, watch out, because contempt is a slippery slope to a lake full of other victims.

Who is your enemy? Your spouse? A cause? What propels your fights in your relationships?

 

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Stop Trying to be Normal

There is no great genius without some touch of madness. ~ Seneca

The more normal you try to be (or the more like others you try to parrot) the less of you we will see. The move away from genius leads to people wanting to be normal, to not have to risk their necks with some dream, idea, or stroke of genius.

Normal is depressing. Normal is just plain vanilla, no toppings. Normal is the path of no resistance. Not least resistance, no resistance. Normal is normal, and more and more people are looking for the supposed feel-good nature of being normal. Let others define what normal is, then jump on the bandwagon to feel accepted, part of the team. But you’re not accepted or connected. You’re a drone that parrots what you think others want to hear, what you think others value as popular or normal.

The problem is, normal doesn’t feel good for long. It’s cheap. Like plastic forks. Good for the occasional use, but rely on it for too long and it’ll break. It’ll let you down. And then you’ll try another version of normal. Wash, rinse, and repeat. Trying to be normal is really about a misguided search for meaning. For purpose. For life.

Normal is death. It’s death to the soul. To the creative part of you that only you know, that only you see, and that only you choose to hide or show. Trying to be normal is self-rejection. It’s death.

It’s crazy to enter into and commit oneself to another person for life… It’s even crazier to become parents. Yet we put aside stats, conventional wisdom, and follow our hearts into some of the scariest, most dangerous, and land-mine-filled area called marriage. Over 50% of marriages fail today. Yet people still get married. Why? Because they’re in love. Because their heart believes that they cannot go on without the other person. That, my friends, is madness. Ignoring logic and going with you’re heart is madness.

And it’s genius. Pure creative genius. Picasso wasn’t a genius because of what he painted, he was a genius for when and how he painted.

The same is true for you. You’re not a genius for what idea you come up with, or what decision you make. You’re a genius for taking the risk to fulfill your dream. In putting your neck on the line and risk being called a fool. And trust me, those who will call you a fool are envious, because they’re normal and you’re not.

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Secret Decoder Rings

e7b3_secret_decoder_ringMy siblings and I would always fight over who got the toy out of the cereal box. It even became a sly game of determining where the toy was inside the bag without pulling the bag out of the box or in digging around inside. There were rules our parents setup to keep things fair (which in a family with 6 kids is next to impossible). There was sheer joy when you’d be the one to pour the toy into your bowl, which was supposed to be the only legit way of gaining possession (It will come as no surprise to hear that we found ways around that idea).

Most of the time, marriages start out like the pursuit of that toy. We find ways to be together. We spend time crafting ideas and ways to be creative in our pursuit of the prize. We get euphoric and that incredible rush when we finally get what we’ve been pursuing. Once we’ve gotten what we want, we often don’t really know what to do with it. So much of life is about anticipation, the pursuit, and the chase; and marriage is no different.

A couple I was recently counseling highlighted this dynamic. They explained how much coasting they had done in their relationship, that 18 years later they woke up to realize how much distance there was. The husband explained that his wife needed a secret decoder ring to interpret all of his jumbled communication. She, of course, did not have that ring and thus their communication was stagnant.

It was true for them, and will be for many other marriages: Without persistent work, couples will eventually lead separate lives losing valuable insights and connection with their spouse. In the 10+ years I’ve been working with couples, I’ve seen that it doesn’t take much to throw off the equilibrium of a relationship.

It’s easy to see that a disabled family member, death of a child, or the loss of work could be highly disruptive to a relationship, but those are not the real cancers of relationships. The real cancers are the unspoken everyday fouls made with one another that do not get the attention they need.

Effort is something we reserve for what is most valuable and precious in our lives. My guess is that if someone were to visit the homes of a stale or cancerous relationship, they would see television, social media, work, and kids as the main areas that the majority of effort is spent.

Rarely do I interact with couples where I hear of regular consistent time spent together away from the easy distractions of life. This is true at my office, but also in my own social circles. The sad truth is that couples just don’t spend the time together needed to sustain their relationship.

Sure, it’d be lovely to have a secret decoder ring to find out what the other person is really saying. Unfortunately, this ring would make the relationship worse. No one wants to be in a relationship with someone who’s always right, or who knows all the answers. This would feel more akin to a relationship between a child and parent than that of a marriage. The old adage is true: We get out of life what we put into it. If you put nothing into marriage, you’ll likely get nothing in return.

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On Being Needy

I think most people would agree that no one wants to be a needy person. We usually distance ourselves from those who have little to no ability (as adults) to help themselves. The problem is, that we are all people of need, and this is a very uncomfortable position. If I admit to needing something (which is different than wanting), this means I don’t have the ability to self-produce everything for my life.

My inability to self-produce all that I need for my life is evident at every moment of the day. I need oxygen to survive and there is no way for my body to get oxygen without breathing … which is an involuntary action. I can only tell my body to stop breathing for so long, and then it takes over and starts breathing again. I am not in complete control over my body, nor anything else in life.

Our needing help from others is like breathing. If you stop breathing as much, you will become a burden to others. This is the same with our relational and emotional needs—if you stop needing relationship with others, you’ll become a burden. No one wants to be in a relationship with an overly needy or needless person. Sure, we often complain about how needy others are around us, but the reality is some of these needs are exactly what draws us to people. (It used to be that we needed others to tell us what our faces looked like because we had no ability to see ourselves — technology has removed that need, among other things)

I feel useful, which is a sense of self-worth, when I am able to give something that I can do to someone who doesn’t have that ability. Certainly we can get caught up in becoming addicted to helping others (codependency), but at the heart we all need to give away that which is a natural resource within us. Our resources are there not to keep to ourselves, but to share with others. When I’m able to share my natural abilities with others, it’s a gift from them.

I don’t feel all that useful when I’m asking for help. It’s hard and vulnerable to ask for help, but it’s also a gift. If I don’t ask for help, I’m preventing someone else from the ability to share their resources with me. Not asking for help is incredibly prideful and selfish. Relationships won’t last long if you withhold needs.