relationships

Start at the Bottom… And Stay There.

By Jonathan Hart, LPC

I work with a lot of couples, and one thing I notice a lot of is Expectations.  I think this is a simple fact of being human.  We place a lot of expectations in the people around us.  The closer they are, the more we expect of them.  Most of the arguments I hear (and honestly, most of the arguments I start myself) begin the same way:  “You always…” or “You never…”.  Loosely translated, what this usually works out to is something like this: “You don’t do what I want/hope/expect you to do.   I have the right to expect that you will do this. My expectations are disappointed.”

Naturally when someone hears a statement like this, the human response is a defensive counterattack.  “Oh Yeah?  Well, YOU always…” and it only goes down hill from there.   A good rule of thumb is to listen for the words “Always” and “Never”.  Often, those words are code for the expectations that we have, and that we feel our partner is not meeting.

It is a natural pattern to look at everything our partner is supposed to be doing and highlight where they are dropping the ball. But what if we turned this pattern on its head?  What if we were able to shift our focus away from the places our partner is disappointing us and look instead at how we can help them be everything they were made to be?  To organize our efforts at encouraging and building them up instead of encouraging them to build us up?

I am not suggesting that we should simply try to do everything our partner tells us to do.  That would be about as much fun as boot camp.  That only feeds the conflict monster.  I am suggesting that we work toward helping them be more emphatically themselves, rather than trying to shape them into who we want them to be.  

This requires listening to and learning about who they are, who they want to be, their hopes and dreams, desires and fears.  It requires starting at the bottom, working to understand what makes them tick and why they do things the way they do rather than trying to convince them that the way they are doing it is wrong. It requires placing yourself in the position of learner rather than expert.  We are asking the question, “How can I help you reach your dreams and goals?” rather than “What have you done for me lately?”

This is not mindless subservience.  Sometimes helping someone be better at being themselves can include challenge. It can include confronting hurtful and destructive patterns. It can include stretching and pushing someone we care about outside their customary limits.  And again, these things must be done in a spirit, not of reshaping them into our own image of what they should be, but of helping them sharpen and explore their own potential.  I am talking about placing yourself at the service of your partner.

There is a lot more to this idea than there is space to explore it here.  Consider this a teaser, food for thought. I am asking you to simply consider what it might be like to “through love, serve one another”.

Guilt or Shame?

by Jonathan Hart, LPC

Guilt and shame are powerful feelings.  Many people experience them on a daily basis.  For some, they are feelings to be avoided as “inappropriate” in our current society. For some, they are tools or weapons used consciously or unconsciously to get children or adults to behave the way we want them to. For some, they are  ever-present and smothering.

I distinguish between guilt and shame.  Guilt, when internally experienced and heeded, is a productive emotion that leads to a change in negative behavior patterns. It is the “Godly grief” that 2 Corinthians 7:10 describes as leading to the genuine understanding that I have done wrong and hurt myself and others, and that I need to behave differently. Guilt says, “I have done wrong.”

Shame is a feeling that says, “Something is wrong with me”.  It is a statement describing identity rather than behavior.  It cannot lead to a change in behavior because the problem is “all of me”, as the character Hiccup says in the wonderful movie, “How to Train Your Dragon”.  The language of shame says, “What’s wrong with me?”, “Why can’t I …”, “I’m always/never…”, “I am (a screw up, a goof ball, a fool, fill in the blank…)”.

Shame speaks with the language of identity (“I am…”) rather than the language of deeds (“I did…”). As such, it makes change nearly impossible to conceive, much less execute. If the problem is who I am rather than what I did, there is no hope for change.

Think about the language you use on yourself.  Think about the language you use on others, or on your kids.  If you say things like “What’s the matter with you?!”, or “You are such a …” as you correct your child, you are very likely shaming them rather than reproving them productively.  Rather speak to their deeds: “That was inappropriate to do.”, or “You hurt your sister. That was wrong.”  In this way, you help train the child’s moral compass and help them to learn how to define right and wrong accurately.  You also make the problem a fixable one rather than a permanent one; the problem is outside the individual rather than the individual themselves.

We can do this for ourselves as well.  When you hear, “Agh!  Why can’t I ever get this done?”, or “I don’t know what’s wrong with me that I …”, you are using shame language.  Try shifting from statements of identity to statements of action: “I made a mess of that situation.  I will try to do it differently next time.”, or “I’m sorry I hurt you.”, or  “I see what I did, and I don’t want to do it again.”

Shift your language into language of hope rather than hopelessness.  When you describe genuine wrongdoing, make sure you use the language that describes it as wrong-doing, not wrong-being. It can take work to set the oppressive and impossible weight of shame aside, but it is worth the effort.

Microwave Restoration

Relationships and the Culture of Instant Gratification

by Jonathan Hart, LPC
As I write this, I have leftovers from last night’s dinner warming in the oven.  I am doing this because our microwave blew up a few days ago, and we have yet to replace it.  I am struck by how dependent we have become on the speed and convenience of the microwave.  This is going to take half an hour rather than two minutes.

Even trying to figure out how to do something as simple as warming leftovers feels like rubbing two sticks together to make a fire. I can’t put the plastic container in the oven, so what do I use?  Oh, yeah, that shiny metal paper stuff that we used to use all the time forever ago before microwaves!  It takes more planning and foresight this way as well.  I have to start thinking about making lunch earlier in order to have food ready when I am hungry.

As I stood pacing by the stove, I was struck by how this principle of having it done now invades everything from our kitchens to our relationships.  In life and relationships we want problems to be resolved, and quickly.  I see this frequently when I sit with a couple when there has been a breach of trust between the partners; anything from an exposed lie to an affair.  The offending partner, though they are often very sorry and working hard to rebuild trust, can become impatient when that trust is not rebuilt within a few weeks.  Because they are working hard, they begin to take offense when their mate has “bad days” when the hurt flashes back into their minds and the distrust resurfaces.

Our culture, and I think our human nature in general, has little patience for long-haul relationship maintenance. We have a tendency not to allow for the fact that we are all in process.  We expect that when we communicate to someone that they have hurt us, they should immediately be able to rectify their behavior.  We do not often leave room for the idea that the other person may need time to grow into a new way of being.  When they fail, as most people will when they are attempting to change significantly, we brand them as incapable or unwilling, and keep them at a distance.

We especially need this patience when we are helping our children grow up.  The way they learn how to be patient, responsible people is by seeing and living with patient and responsible adults.  They will of course demonstrate poor behavior.  Most often this is not because they are defiant or rebellious, but rather because they are trying to figure out how to manage in that circumstance.  They need a good model to learn a better way than what they can come up with as a child. And they need to see that good model over and over and over again before they can understand and implement it themselves.

Every relationship takes time and effort in order to maintain and grow it, whether with adults or children.  To get a tiny glimpse of what is required, try unplugging the microwave for a week.

Really?

By:  Lianne Johnson, LPC

I have had the privilege to read and listen to Diane Langberg, Ph.D., on many occasions and have always enjoyed her words.  Diane has been a Psychologist for over 35 years working with trauma survivors and clergy.  Personally, I think she is amazing.

During one of the times I heard her speak she said, “we learn about relationships IN relationships.”  This struck me.  Not because of its simplicity, but because of its truth.  If this statement is true, then why are so many of us looking for a book, seminar, or conference to teach us how to have relationships?  Even more so, why do we tend to remove ourselves from relationships when they become hard or tiring?

What if, even in the midst of the unknowns, hardships, and tiring times, we chose to remain?  I suppose if Diane is correct in saying that, “we learn about relationships IN relationships” then as we remain we will learn, grow, and possibly even enjoy.