Back to the Future

(…originally published at StartMarriageRight.com)

Growing up, one of my favorite video games was Zelda. In addition to the combat and puzzles, my favorite part was discovering and conquering unknown levels. As the player, you’d know how much of a particular level you’d discovered based on the map in the lower right corner. However, in beginning each new level, the map resets to black. As you progressed in the new level, it would only illuminate where you’d previously been. The main component missing on the map: Where you were going.

Unknown territory, enemies, and lands all waiting in darkness to be discovered. As in real life, the map is a very crucial part of the game. Without it, the player/character would be doomed to revisit the same board or level over and over again. Our life map looks very similar to that of Zelda: Portions are illuminated because we’ve previously visited, and portions are darkened awaiting our visit. Unfortunately, many rarely visit the darkened portions of maps because of fear.

The known or the unknown? A common phrase that holds people back from getting more out of life is “fear of the unknown.” People are afraid of what might happen in the future if they pursue a public speaking job, start a blog, confront a friend or loved one, ask a girl on a date, or any number of risky vulnerabilities. For some the “fear of the unknown” is what to do with success, and for others it’s what to do with failure. These questions about the future are only powerful because this “fear of the unknown” is quite the opposite: It’s the fear of the known.

I’m afraid of spiders because of what I’ve seen—what I know. What they can do to someone doesn’t bring comforting thoughts or feelings to myself (perhaps watching the movie arachnophobia as a kid didn’t help matters). If I’d never been exposed to the harm of a black widow, brown recluse or other poisonous spiders, I probably wouldn’t be afraid. But I have been exposed to these potential dangers and thus I carry a warranted known fear of spiders.

Ultimately, it’s impossible to fear the unknown. We are afraid of what we know—those things we have previously uncovered or discovered. In playing Zelda, you have a sense what’s located in the undiscovered portions of the map only because you’ve been to previously undiscovered places. But you never know what was there until you’ve experienced it yourself.

As humans, we’re born with fear. Fear is that feeling that alerts your senses to potential danger or potential vulnerabilities. We react out of our fears to keep ourselves safe. It’s our human survival instinct, and is often referred to as Fight, Flight, or Freeze. We do any of these three in reaction to danger, to a fear. My fear of spiders is based on different literature I’ve read, movies I’ve watched, and being personally bitten many times by these minuscule beasts.

Though my encounter with spiders is a tangible example, the far more devastating and dangerous fears are what we do with our dreams and desires. Fear elicits feelings of being out of control, and we humans do not do out of control well. These feelings cause our fears to blind us to what’s present today by diverting our attention into the future; to what we can control. If pursuing one’s dream feels scary or out of control, the easiest way to gain control is to come up with an excuse as to why we cannot. The statement of “fearing the unknown” is an excuse. It’s an easy pass out of the tension of facing reality today.

In college my friends and I would go mountain biking in the Ozark Mountains. It was an exhilarating way to spend an afternoon away from studying and the hard life of a college student. Upon cresting a hill, we’d stop at the top and choose a direction downwards. As we surveyed the impending descent, working up the courage to propel our bodies off the ledge, one or all would say, “no falls, no balls.” And with that, we’d push off and fly down the hill. Sometimes flying down the hill turned into crashing down the hill. After a crash, there’d always be an increase of fear at the next hill.

Conquering fear requires facing it head-on. There is no way to get around it. Shortcuts will only intensify and prolong what you are trying to avoid. The way to conquer supposed “fear of the unknown”, is to face the fears that you do know. Face the fears that are presenting themselves today, and take them one step at a time. Look back to where you’ve been, and you’ll find reasons and stories that illuminate the fears of the future. In a sense, by taking a look where you’ve been, you’ll get to go back to the future.

 

The 15-Minute Date

(Authors note: This article was originally published in September 2012 at StartMarriageRight.com)

Most couples that I see for counseling have not consistently dated in years. It’s an odd phenomenon that usually happens after the wedding; couples stop dating. The most common reasons I hear and see have to do with the physical proximity of living together, having a difficult time transitioning past the “I got what I wanted, so why pursue” mentality, and lastly the change in priorities after marriage. Regardless of the reason, stopping activities that built the relationship will result in a loss of relationship.

In Western culture, couples don’t end up on the marriage alter without having spent some amount of time getting to know each other. There is usually a progression of attraction, pursuit and acceptance that leads to couples spending time together playing, eating, laughing and living life. These are the experiences that lead to connection which develops into trust and intimacy.

It comes as no surprise to hear a couple in distress mention they haven’t been on a date in many months, perhaps even years. It’s not that distress will be avoided by dating after marriage but the likelihood is reduced.

Some of the most fulfilled marriages I know today are where they are because the couple has made spending intentional time together (dating) a top priority.”

These couples spend time together, away from the normalcy of life, to rest, play and connect.

I’ve seen plenty of couples who’ve lived on both sides of the dating-after-marriage fence. In my own story, once we married I felt like every night was a date, as it was just the two of us at home alone. Why go on dates when we’re essentially doing the same thing at home? The other justification, or excuse, I used was that I had no idea how to be her husband. It was a bit of a personal crisis. I knew what the books and experts said about being a husband, but early on living into that role felt impossible. Prior to marriage, our entire relationship had been about spending as much time with each other as possible. Then we planned a wedding. We hadn’t really spent much time engaging and mapping out what we wanted life to look like after we’d married.

So much planning and work goes into the wedding celebration and honeymoon that couples often return home to the surprise of newly formed roles. They’re no longer living in a “me” or “my” world, but rather in a “us” and “our” world. This is a shock to our natural “me first” belief system.

When couples explain to me that they don’t date, part of their marriage therapy (therapy is rehabilitating something strained, broken or misaligned) is re-learning the process of dating. One of the first tools I use to help them re-learn dating is The 15-Minute Date. It’s a simple yet difficult task where each person gets the opportunity to speak and listen, in alternating roles.

There are two things to note here. First, on average, men typically speak about 10,000 words per day whereas women speak around 25,000. That’s a significant difference. Secondly, and this is more behavioral than gender focused, what I’ve found with most couples is a tendency for one person to be more pursuant than the other. This isn’t always the one who talks more, rather it’s the one who pursues connections in the relationship. The 15-minute date helps to eliminate the spoken-word gap that exists in the gender differences. It also brings equality to the pursuer/pursued dynamic.

How does the 15-minute date work?
Each evening of the work-week, I ask couples to set aside 15 minutes for a date. This needs to be done in a setting that is uninterrupted, especially for those couples with kids. The couple is to choose one person who will speak first, and this is rotated the following evening (allowing both equal opportunities to speak first).

The first person is to speak for 7 and a half minutes about whatever it is they would like to speak about. The other person is to remain silent for the entire time, practicing active listening. The speaker must use first person language (I, me, my), to avoid attacking or jabs at the spouse, and they must do their best to use the entire time to speak

Once the 7 and a half minutes are up, the roles reverse to complete the 15 minutes. The second person is allowed to respond to the first person if he/she wishes, but must use first person language. For example, if the first talker says something to the effect of, “I felt hurt this morning after breakfast because I had to do the dishes on my own.” The second speaker could respond to this, but only with “I” statements (try not to use you, your, or 2nd person language). Using second person language will be felt as an attack to the other person, regardless of intent. These 15 minutes are not for stirring up fights, but to give each person equal time to talk and listen to the other person.

The goal of this date is two fold.
Firstly, it promotes initiative for the speaker and active listening for the listener. These are both vital components of relationships that do not normally develop without intention. It’s amazing how difficult it is to be an active participant in a conversation when the conversation isn’t about you and your thoughts. This is why active listening is a learned concept; it doesn’t come naturally to us.

Active listening means that we suspend our judgements, counter-arguments, attacks, defenses and active thought responses so as to hear, to listen to what the other person is saying.”

Listening means that we don’t assume or “hear what we want to hear” but that we listen to the whole of the other.

Secondly, the 15-minute date promotes honesty and forthright communication. This is by far the most disruptive missing ingredient to relationships in distress. When truth is not being spoken (by truth I am referring to beliefs, opinions, thoughts, insights about me, feelings or actions), there is no grounds for connection or vulnerabilities. In taking 7 1/2 minutes, the speaker is having time to illuminate ideas, thoughts, feelings or anything else that has happened during the day or week they want to talk about. It’s an incredibly selfish act to only talk about me if there is no room for the other person to do the same, which is why taking turns and limiting it to equal time prevents this from focusing on one person.

This activity is simple in it’s concept but takes a lot of time and hard work to master. After the wedding day, it becomes an easy pattern to assume things about the other person. These 15 minutes a day could very well be the difference between a love-filled lifetime relationship and one that ends much like the majority of marriages.

Q&A About Marriage

Last week I participated as a virtual panelist on a Facebook page for an organization where I’m a contributing writer. This discussion was posted as a Question (below) and then was commented on by myself and the “fans” of the Facebook page. It was a really good discussion, and I wanted to share my responses (which were separate comments, so they don’t necessarily read as a article would) to the questions asked of me. Here they are in no particular order. Chime in if you have additions to these questions.

 

What does it mean to be “one flesh” in marriage?

– For one, it means to put aside living life for oneself for the sake of the other. You cannot thrive in your marriage if you are in it for you. It just won’t work. Becoming one flesh is a lifelong process that will cost you your life, which is why not many marriages make it “till death.” The death of the relationship is far easier than the death of oneself.

– Another way is that it means that together, we create new life. A relationship is the first child of a marriage. It’s birthed the day you meet, and takes the same care and attention that a baby would need. Becoming one flesh means that I bring all of myself and combine it with all of you, creating a wholly new life, a relationship.

– A word of caution about this idea of “one flesh.” When we marry, it’s very easy to “lose oneself” in the context of an intimate relationship. It’s somewhat of a paradox, but it takes two people being fully who God created them to be for a marriage to thrive. By becoming one flesh, we are doing away with selfish ideas, and replacing them with “soul-fish” ideas. Our soul is the place God resides, and that place needs to be protected and offered to the marriage as a gift.

– Sex, the sexual embrace, is far more encompassing than just the physical act. The act of being “one flesh” is celebrated, not created, by the sexual union.

 

What if I get annoyed with my spouse and don’t want to be around him/her?

– There are a couple of ways to look at this. One, to be annoyed could mean that you wouldn’t do “x” the way your spouse does “x”. This might mean that you’re not annoyed, rather you don’t like being out of control or that someone does something different than you. Another way to look at it is that your spouse’s behavior is a coverup for you feeling cramped, trapped, or “shut in.”

– What does the word “annoyed” mean to you? Does it stir up a stronger emotion? My wife has many “isms” about her that have been annoying to me in the past. Most of the time though, I’m not annoyed, I’m feeling something else: Resentment, anger, hurt, lonely, etc. Annoyed, frustrated, disappointed, and some other commonly used words are often vague cover-ups for what’s really going on inside us.

– Also, It’s not uncommon to feel trapped early in marriage, and if we’re not being honest about this, we will find ways to express this trapped feeling. Enter things that annoy us about the other person. It’s not really that they annoy us, but that they are in our space and we don’t know how to live in that space with them.

– If the way you address the annoyance is with an angry or spiteful, sarcastic, or critical spirit, more than likely you were feeling anger and not annoyed.

 

What do we do if family and friends don’t agree with our engagement? 

– Assuming that your family and friends are looking out for your best interest (they love you) then I’d encourage you to give serious consideration to what they have to say. Ask them questions and explore why they don’t agree with your engagement. Is it a moral issue, an opinion, a “sixth sense”? Again, assuming that they love you, ask them to let you know if there are red flags, or just yellow ones. Some other questions to consider: Do they see something in him/her they don’t like, is it a matter of how you’re being treated by your fiance, and what is their solution to their concerns?

– I agree that prayer is a much needed part of this process. And, I would say that the insight your friends and family have to you is unique and needs to be considered. Obviously this is a difficult thing to do when you’re clearly wanting to marry someone, and your family/friends are opposed.

– There are plenty of family systems that do not want their children to “fly the coop.” If this is your family, kindly thank them for their concern and advice, and move along.

Love Your Faults

Deficiencies, blemishes, and faults are what make us lovable, yet we’re constantly told by ads and media that blemishes need to be covered up, eradicated, and hidden. The reality is the bumps, oddities, and faults in each of us is why we’re able to form bonds and relationships.

Think of it in terms of painting or wood finishing. Before paint can adhere to a surface, the surface needs to be roughed up. WIthout the grooves and crevasses created by the sand paper, the paint would fall off the surface. It’s why painting a finished piece of glass can be easily scraped off. Glass is smooth, finished, and lacking dimensional depth.

Relationally, this is an odd paradox. Most of us strive to be without the need for others, yet cannot last very long on our own outside of relationships. The difficulty is that some of the rough spots and patches in our lives that make us lovable are very tender, swollen, and in lots of pain. You can love me all you want, but don’t touch too long or hard on these spots or I’m going to react accordingly.

So why are we afraid to be deficient? Because perfectionism, performance, and having it together are celebrated as tenants of successful people. Rarely will you see a rock star, public figure, pastor, or other famous person exposing their bumps and bruises authentically. It’s just not what we naturally do as humans. Yet all great stories are great because they contain rocky sections, failures, or deaths.

The great “success stories” aren’t great because of the end, but because of the process and journey taken. If you want to love and be loved, you’ll have to get cozy with your faults, and others’. If you’re perfect, you don’t need me and I don’t have anything for you. Blemishes don’t work well to sell magazines, but they show us that we people are indeed human. When people can see that you’re human just like they are, friendships are born.

So, You Think You Can Dance?

(article originally published at Start Marriage Right)


I move left, she moves right.
I go forward, she goes backwards.
I dip, she bends.
I swing, she flies.
We move closer and embrace.
Butterflies.

I’m a horrible dancer. The term “two left feet” has new meaning when applied to my dancing machismo. In the kitchen after work, I’m constantly getting in the way of Stephanie. Part of this is my inability to do two things at once, the other part is my lack of physical fluidity.

Interesting though, our relationship took off on a dance floor. It was New Years eve, and a planned group gathering with friends turned into a quadruple-date that ended up at a swing dance party to ring in the new year. I’d always hated to dance but there was this girl that quickly moved me out of my self-consciousness. My desire to be wherever she was made me the supporter of any and all things swing dancing. This ought to come at no surprise but she loved (and still does) to dance. Me being on the dance floor with her that night created some serious mojo between the two of us. Less than 6 months later, we were honeymooning in Nova Scotia learning a whole new kind of dance.

A friend of mine teaches marriage classes with a ballroom dance instructor. For an hour they sit in a room conversing about sex, fighting, communication and other marital pitfalls. Following the hour of marriage work, they begin the real work: Learning to dance. From what he’s said, the ballroom dancing part is more beneficial for the couples than is the workshop. The reason? Until we actually get up and start acting our parts, no amount of reading, listening, analyzing or planning will create connection.

When you stand on the dance floor with your partner, you have to communicate, someone has to lead, and someone has to follow. It’s amazing to watch a couple’s relationship tendencies come out as they struggle to make the moves on the floor. The woman resists the leadership of the man, she stumbles and they end up apart. The man resists leading, the woman leads and he wilts with shame and sadness. The couple holds each other like they are in Jr. High, neither looking at each other or wanting to be near each other and they end up dancing monotone.

… continue reading at Start Marriage Right

First Half Reading

One of my goals this year is to read more books. Of the dozen-plus books I’ve read so far, here are four that I suggest everyone read:

Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Addiction

A dad reflects on his son’s addiction to drugs (meth). As a parent, this is a terrifying read as I consider what is out there for my kids to face. But it’s a good kind of terrifying. It has forced me to face this possibility and begin conversations with my kids about addictions. Conversations won’t keep kids off of drugs, but my hope is that our relationships will give them what they need through the tumultuous years of adolescence and young adulthood.

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption

I’m sure you’ve heard of this book, or story, and rightfully so. It’s one of the best stories that I’ve ever read. It’s a story of survival, pain, suffering, tragedy, and the will of the human spirit. All stories have loss, and all stories have redemption. The story of Zamperini has loss and redemption over and over again. Read this book and ask yourself: “Where is the parallel in my story?”

The Anatomy of Peace: Resolving the Heart of Conflict

Written in a conversational format, characters discuss the nature of how war and peace interact, where does peace come from, and how do we engage it with the people around us. It’s got some powerful illustrations that help to bring the read to see that we often focus on what’s wrong with other people, but ignore the majority of what they do right. Furthermore, we often treat others more so as objects than as people and that we expect them to fully trust us even if we don’t fully trust them. This is a great book for anyone who is in any form of leadership (parents, business, marriage, church volunteers, etc — essentially anyone who deals with people in any organized fashion).

The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles

Probably my favorite book so far of 2012. The first half of this book, if you let it, will call you out and challenge every part of your fear. Resistance is the main culprit to our boredom and lack of pursuit to what we want to create in life. It carries a number of little nuggets that can apply to anyone. This is a book that I will read again, and again.

 

On the Money

(originally published at Start Marriage Right)

The American Dream has altered over the years but still fuels our culture. Its message permeates the airwaves, social media and modern advertising. We’re promised a better body, popularity and sexier hair all promising a happy life. In the place of the white picket fence and 2.2 kids is the good looking, popular and rich homestead.

A big motivation (whether known or not) for people to make a lot of money is to buffer the realities of a life that doesn’t work. A friend shared a great line with me the other day. He said,

If we can buy our way out of a problem, it’s not really a problem.”

I hadn’t considered it that way but believe it’s true. You can’t buy happiness but you can put some margin between you and life. (Despite the studies that show you can indeed buy happiness up to making around $80,000 per year, I think money delays and buffers disappointment).

Marriages contend with this struggle for happiness and financial freedom on a daily basis.Gone are the days that your paycheck is yours and yours alone. Instead of being able to easily decide the impact of a purchase, the married person now has to consider, engage and discuss the impact of a purchase on the other person. Watching the issues of money erode marital relationships is what we have all thought about the Titanic sinking: Just slow down and heed the warning of those before you.

… continue reading over at Start Marriage Right

Making Black and White, Grey

 

Over the past few months, I’ve heard and read a lot about the bestselling book series “50 Shades of Grey.” This series is permeating so many different levels of cultural conversations: From sports talk radio, to morning talk shows, to social conversations, to “Shades of Grey” themed parties. One point is salient with all this: America are depressed. Due to our depression, we are not easily aroused from this numbed state of being. It’s taking more and more to wake us up, and 50 Shades of Grey is doing just that to a lot of people.

I have not read the book(s), but I get why they are popular. Twenty years ago, Fabio graced the covers of many romantic novels, which presented the fantasy of a man so tender, soft, and loving, yet beautiful, strong, and safe. He was the symbol of comfort, safety, and the lush fantasy of how to please a woman. Today, Fabio is dead and in his place is the hard, chiseled, and dominant fantasy of Christian Grey (the male character in the trilogy). In discussing this book with those that have read it, I get the sense that what’s so erotic about the series is the BDSM nature of the books sexual encounters (for those unfamiliar, BDSM stands for Bondage, Domination, Sadism, Masochism).

Gone is the day that Fabio rules the bedroom with his long flowing hair, and emotionally charged conversations and walks with the maiden. The prevailing notion behind these books is that women ultimately want to be dominated and controlled. Taken into the bedroom, a world of overt sexual fantasies is constructed and exploited to the nth degree. The author has taken the nature and need of safety in relationships and turned it into sexual dominance.

The problem with this book (which represents an entire genre of literature) is that it’s mentally and emotionally pornographic. The main audience is women, which is normally the case for erotic/romantic based literature. And as is the case with so many other books/stories like this (The Twilight series being another example, though less erotically driven), the heroine is a shell of a person. She typically has little to no personality, an absence of curiosity or uniqueness, and is represented as the ‘flatlined’ character. All of these traits allow the reader to project themselves into the character as though they are the main character. This is not a new insight, or original thought, but the reader gets to feel what the character feels. The reader imprints their unique story into a story that’s written, and let the fantasy take them away.

It’s a brilliant way to write because it hooks the reader in so quickly, and immerses them so deeply into the story.Porn and fantasy are both hollow and shallow in nature and require more and more exposure to satisfy. One book isn’t enough, there must be three. After experiencing so many highs (emotionally and physically) in the reading of a book like this, the reader wants more. The next logical step is to take the fantasy into real life.

The main consumer of pornography is men, and the main consumer of emotionally driven romance novels (emotional porn) is women. The convergence of these two realities are happening in our neighborhoods, and are having a devastating effect on marriages and families. There is no risk, no fear, and no rejection in pornographic material.

My advice to anyone considering reading these novels: Don’t. It might provide a brief respite from the doldrums of life, but eventually the fantasy will wear off and will result in a deeper pain that will now include one’s sexuality. You can’t unlearn fantasy scenes. Research has shown that sexual experiences produce oxytocin, a naturally produced chemical in your body which works to emotionally bond two people together. When these experiences are had in the context of visual or emotional porn, your bonding chemicals get released to fictitious people and characters. It’s difficult to detach from those images and ideals when facing real-life issues.

If you’re feeling depressed about life, sexual issues, or your marriage or relationship, a fantasy novel won’t help.  Americans are quite adept at numbing our feelings through substances, entertainment, or relationships. These novels provide a secret way to escape the trappings of reality, but ultimately will end up leading the reader into a deeper and more desperate way of life.

 

Turn Off the Screen

(article originally published by startmarriageright.com)

There are a number of articles that have been published digging into how the social fabric of our culture is changing based on social media. The Atlantic published an article called “Is Facebook Making us Lonely?,” which is a long read but very challenging to our understanding about the impact of technology and social media.

Smart phones, tablets, and laptops have met and created a demand for instant communication, postings, and status updates. A friend mentioned to me the other day that he felt naked without his iPhone in his pocket (he’d left it at home earlier in the day). It was a joke, but it was truth. We don’t know what to do with ourselves when we are all alone. If we have technology and have a few moments to kill it’s really easy to check twitter, Facebook, or our favorite news site.

Is using technology stealing time from your relationships?
We all have a need to connect with others, and smartphones fill in that need really well. But in reality, they don’t. When we shut off the screen, we’re right back to where we started—alone.

I fall victim to this as well. I’ve been a smartphone owner for 6+ years now, and there are days that I wish these little boxes had never been created. Sure, they’re great for keeping tons of information in one place, replacing our need to carry a calendar, camera, address book, and more. But they’re an every present distraction.

I’ve noticed that my own tendency to use my iPhone comes when I’m need to escape. Most of the time I notice this at home. After a long day at work, I get to go home and work some more. The demands of relationships at home are ever present. Some days I do not want to engage because of the constant pull from my family. Sometimes I resent them for this and will steal 5-10 minutes with my iPhone or iPad. These devices are always on, available, and ready for me when I need them. They’ve taken the place of the dog as man’s best friend.

Continue Reading at – Start Marriage Right

New Writing Venture

It’s been a couple of weeks since I last posted here, and I wanted to give a link to a new writing venture that I’ve undertaken. I’ll still be posting here, but I will be focusing my writing on relationships at Start Marriage Right. Thanks for stopping by.