What Are You Listening For?

My office sits about 30 yards off of some very busy train tracks. I’ve yet to count out how many different trains pass by each day, but I’d guess it is 15-20. In the Spring and Fall seasons, I enjoy opening the windows in my office to let the fresh air and sounds of nature drift inside.

But there’s a problem with the open windows and trains. It gets really loud when a train comes chugging by (especially the ones with full loads). When I open my windows while I’m with a client, I listen for the train so that I can close the window before it get’s too loud.

Over the years, I have found that trains can be heard well before they become a disruption. Even if they aren’t blowing a horn, they can be felt in the ground and heard in the air.

All of us have trains that rumble through our lives and relationships. They can be incredibly disruptive if we’re not listening and prepared for them. The powerful aspect of listening is that we hear what we want to hear.

Try it sometime.

Go outside and focus only on hearing the birds singing and chirping. How many different birds can you hear?

It’s pretty amazing that our brains have the ability to tune out background noise and hear what is important. Attentive listening takes practice, and most of us are too well practiced in this skill. Is it difficult for you to hear criticisms, slights, or judgements? Especially in your most important relationships?

The more we hear something, the easier it becomes to hear it (and actively listen for it) again. What we hear has more to do with what we are listening for than it does with what’s happening externally.

What are you listening for in your relationships?


Who Is Sex For?

One of the most challenging areas of a marriage is a couples’ sex life. There are a myriad of reasons for this, but in the 15 years I’ve been working with couples, I think it boils down to one core issue: Who is sex for?

No one escapes childhood and adolescences sexually unscathed. There are various degrees to which we are sexually named, but everyone has a story of how their sexuality was used, abused, provoked, seduced, sabotaged, or marked by ill intent. We all bring these stories into our marriages hoping, praying, and expecting them to be rewritten.

These stories of harm, pain, and disappointment all result in feelings of shame about our sexuality. Shame says that something is wrong with us, that we’re flawed, and our desires are bad. Without knowing it, we often engage sexually with an intent to quiet or get rid of our shame. The result? Sex usually serves ourselves, not our spouse. A great sex life takes practice, conversation, and service.

Unfortunately, too few couples address their sex life outside of the bedroom. If this is you, a great place to start a conversation is to think about and answer this question together as a couple: Who and what am I serving in our sex life?


Listen twice

There’s a invaluable rule in construction: Measure twice, cut once. If you’ve ever made the mistake of not following this advice, you understand how important it is. One mis cut piece of material can vastly alter the overall structure and finished product.

It takes a little extra time, focus, and energy to do the same thing repeatedly, but when dealing with a $300 piece of wood, it’s well worth the time.

This idea is true for relationships as well … with a little adaptation: Listen twice, respond once. Our response is like taking a saw out and making a cut. It’s putting action to what is being heard and communicated. Yes, it will take some extra time and energy to listen twice, but this will surely save you unnecessary heartache.

Most of us only listen once, biding our time until we can get a word in edgewise. Listening twice might include asking open-ended questions out of a genuine place of curiosity, not to lead the witness. If you don’t feel this genuineness, take a step back until you can be. The great thing is the universality of this concept. It works in all relationships. Try it at work, with friends, or your kids. You might hear someone’s truth instead of responding based on your assumptions.

Grace & Gratitude

Before I release a pre-marital couple to the wild world of marriage, I challenge them to adopt two words (concepts) as cornerstones for their marriage: Grace and Gratitude. Here’s why.

Showing grace implies forgiveness, acceptance, and a belief that your spouse is a better man/woman than what the offending action shows. It’s easy to get offended or hurt and turn away from them as protection. It’s hard to stay engaged and put hurt feelings aside and believe the best. Next time this happens in your relationship, offer grace by placing your hand on their shoulder or chest near their heart and say, “I don’t believe that you intended to harm me, and that you do love and care for me.” Watch what happens next. 

The second is gratitude. As a whole, we are not that grateful of a people. Instead, we are an entitled people. Sadly, I rarely encounter a couple that genuinely like each other. Most couples remember liking each other, but they’ve long since forgotten that part of their lives. Entitlements will destroy your relationship — Gratitude will repair and heal your relationship. 

Practice giving thanks to your spouse, for even the smallest of items.

  • “Thank you for smiling at me this morning.” 
  • “Thank you for sitting next to me on the couch.” 
  • “Thank you for turning off the TV and listening to my tough day.” 
  • “Thank you for marrying me.” 
  • “Thank you for smiling at me when I came home.”
  • “Thank you … <fill in the blank>”

It doesn’t take a lot to change the tune of your day, or your spouse’s day. Show them grace, and gratitude, and see how quickly you begin to like them again. 


Relationship is Conflict

If you want to be in relationships, you have to learn how to do conflict. One of my mentors, Dan Allender, says it well: “All good communication leads to conflict.” Most of us believe that good communication will lead to consensus, not conflict.

The word “communicate” comes from the Latin word communicatus. This word has two parts: Communi (to inform, impart, or share.” and Catus (which means “care”). The heart of the word (and act) communication is to give care. 

Some experts estimate that over 70% of communication is non-verbal. This means that it’s nearly impossible to not communicate. We may not be communicating well, but we’re always communicating. Even if we’ve left the presence of a relationship, we are still communicating something in our leaving.

Conflict is the result of good “transmitting” (communication) of differing messages. The word “conflict” comes from the Latin word confligere which means “to strike together.” Notice this doesn’t say “to strike against each other.” The reason a lot of people, myself included, are afraid of conflict is because it usually feels like a “strike against” not a “strike together.” Unfortunately, avoiding conflict is only going to make it stronger the next time we face it.

Good communication that leads to conflict and then reconciliation is the foundation of a strong relationships. Communication that leads to unresolved conflict after unresolved conflict is what weakens relationships. This idea applies to all relationships: friends, spouse, family, work, professional, doctor, etc. 

If you want better relationships, you have to become better at striking together, not against. Start with how you communicate. Instead of communicating to receive something, try communicating to give something of care to someone you love. That might be the conflict that turns things around.


The Fifteen Minute Date

Yesterday I wrote about why couples need to keep dating after they marry. Sometimes it’s been so long since a couple has had a meaningful conversation, they’ve forgotten how to do so.

When I say “forgotten” I don’t mean that they (or you, if this describes your relationship) don’t know how to talk together. It’s that they don’t have the memory together of a conversation going well. Perhaps conversations lead to the fights, and thus they avoid talking to keep from fighting. 

Regardless of the need, The 15-minute date is a great solution to kick-start a quiet relationship, guide a difficult conflict, or promote healthy boundaries in conversation.

This short-and-sweet fifteen minutes is structured so that both husband and wife get a chance to talk and listen. (The biggest problem in most marriages is not about communicating, it’s about listening). Both need to talk, and both need to listen

So here’s how the date works. It’s broken up into three 5-minute segments: 

  • Speaking
  • Reflecting
  • Responding

The person who asks for the date get’s to speak first. They get the floor to speak about whatever they need to for 5 minutes. Set a timer and hold to the boundary of this time. The listener is to listen only, no talking. 

At the end of the 5 minutes, restart the clock and the listener is allowed to ask follow up questions, and reflect back what they heard (not the interpretation) the speaker say. This is space is still about the speaker, and their needs.

For the final 5 minutes, the listener gets a chance to respond to what has been said, what has not been said, and to offer any feedback or conciliatory ideas to the original speaker.

At the end of the fifteen minutes, stop the dialogue and let it rest. Take at least 15 minutes to let what has been said and what has been heard to metabolize. If you’re in a good place to revisit the topic, ask to see if the other is open to revisiting. 

Guidelines for the date: 

  • The best time and place for this date is when distractions are at a minimum. 
  • No screens, kids, books, or music. 
  • Try to do it in a private setting. 
  • Use caution if either is Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired (Acronym for HALT).
  • Start with something positive about the other person, or the relationship. 
  • Seek to end the date with peace and kindness.


When in Conflict: Take Your Shoes Off

The next time you find yourself in conflict with your spouse, take your shoes off. Seriously.

Conflict in your marriage is holy ground. It’s where our life story shows up at a primal, non-verbal level. Our bodies remember things our words can’t describe. We offer silence and respect when entering a place of reverence. Conflict is this place of reverence.

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. You will walk slower, with more caution. If you are aware of it, this practice will help you to be more sensitive to what you’re wading into emotionally with yourself, and your spouse.


Day 5: Marriage & Thanksgiving

In light of this being the American week of Thanksgiving, I’ll be writing about the power of gratitude in marriage, and the encouragement it gives to relationships.
Day 1: The Gratitude Jar
Day 2: Gratitude Prayer
Day 3: Gratitude Letter
Day 4: A Touch of Gratitude

The Lifestyle of Gratitude

Step 12 in the Big Book of AA says this: “Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.”

Too often we look at marriage as the “thing” that will bring us the peace and happiness that we’ve always longed for. This need is not wrong, but our passivity and relationship to marriage as though it’s a vending machine is what gets us in trouble.

Great stuff starts happening when we move from looking at marriage as a transaction to a relationship we have to grow. 

The 12-step process is a lifestyle, not a short term event. 

It’s the same is true for gratitude and marriage. 

We must surrender and practice gratitude in order to grow even more gratitude. We must also give it away to others. I’ve seen a surrender to the gratitude process create a spiritual and relational awakening in a lot of people. They then carry that message to their children, friends, and communities. 

The gratitude jar, letter, prayer, and touch that I’ve written about this week are just a few ideas to begin of a gratitude lifestyle. Take these ideas and make them your own. Create new ones. Share them with me, and with others.

Who else in your life needs the blessing of gratitude?


Day 4: Marriage & Thanksgiving

In light of this being the American week of Thanksgiving, I’ll be writing about the power of gratitude in marriage, and the encouragement it gives to relationships. 
Day 1: The Gratitude Jar
Day 2: Gratitude Prayer
Day 3: Gratitude Letter

A Touch of Gratitude

Often the way our brain works can get in the way of receiving verbal thanks from someone we are close to. Our emotions aren’t processed with words, they are more closely processed with non-verbal intuitions. Something akin to describing the color “red” to a blind person. 

Sometimes the disconnect in our relationships is beyond what words can heal. We can say a hundred times what we’re thankful for about the other person, but they might not cognitively be able (from a brain functioning standpoint) to metabolize what those words mean. Enter touch. 

I’m not just talking about physical touch, I’m also talking about the touch of kindness. 

Yes, touch is primarily associated with our skin, but we most often touch people first with our eyes. Proverbs 30:17 says “The eyes are the window to the soul.” Our eyes tell the story before our bodies or words ever start following suit.

Think about it: What would your wife/husband say is the story of your first touch in the morning? Evening?

Touching with gratitude through our eyes involves delight, curiosity, kindness, warmth, openness, vulnerability, and invitation. The touch of invitation will break down the barriers of coldness, resentment, and hurt more so than any “I’m sorry” (or worse, “get over it”) will ever be able to do.

Offer gratitude to your wife/husband today with your eyes. And if it doesn’t “work,” stop trying to get it to work, and just offer the gift of gratitude with your eyes … and then watch what happens. 


Day 3: Marriage & Thanksgiving

In light of this being the American week of Thanksgiving, I’ll be writing about the power of gratitude in marriage, and the encouragement it gives to relationships. 
Day 1: The Gratitude Jar
Day 2: Gratitude Prayer

Gratitude Letter

John Gottman says that it takes five positive interactions to counteract every one negative interaction a couple has. Yes, you read that right. 5 to 1.

This five-to-one ration takes work! You actually have to intentionally pay attention to how you can make positive deposits, because the negative withdrawals are so easy and commonplace for us selfish humans. 

Your wife/husband needs to hear from you what you like about them. 
Without technology (cameras, mirrors, etc) it is impossible for us to accurately see two parts on our bodies: Our face, and our backside.

God created us in his image (our face), and our rebellion keeps us from seeing (or wanting to see) our backside. It’s too easy in marriage to point out “the backside” of our spouse. We need to offer a loving balance of what we see in them. (Use the 5:1 ratio as a “loving balance”).

When was the last time you put pen to paper to express gratitude and thanksgiving for your spouse? I find that this act rarely happens after a couple says “I do.” 

It doesn’t have to be a 4-page letter with hearts and roses attached to it. Grab a piece of paper, and write 5-7 sentences about your wife/husband.

Be specific.

Tell them what you admire about them. Tell them something glorious about themselves that they struggle to believe.

Shower them with praise. 

Tell them why you’re thankful for them.