Archive for October, 2012

Signs of Change: Patience with the Impact of Sin

This is the fifteenth post in a seventeen part series on “Marriage with a Chronically Self-Centered Spouse.” In the posts fourteen through seventeen we will examine four key markers of genuine change and in the process discusses who should be involved in the helping relationships that surround this type of marital restoration work.

Patience

If the first fruit of humility is listening well, the second fruit of humility is patience. When a humble person hears the pain their selfishness has caused, they do not rush (a form of demand) a gracious response. So if a spouse who has been chronically self-centered begins to repent, he/she will be patient with your growth in trust.

This is important because rushed trust is like forcing sleep; it doesn’t happen. Trying to measure or accelerate trust is like taking a seed out of its soil to see if it’s sprouted; even if it begins, the measuring stunts its progress. This has implications for both you and your spouse. It is like continually opening an oven when you’re in a hurry to get a cake to bake; each time you open the oven you let the heat (trust) out.

Your spouse must realize what he/she can control (their growth in character and care) and what he/she cannot control (the pace of your growth in trust). For a season, your spouse must find satisfaction in becoming more of the spouse God called them to be without the typical relational affirmations that will accompany these actions in the future.

Patience will reveal itself by how your spouse interprets this season. It is self-centered impatience to begin casting a cynical narrative – “I haven’t gotten out of this marriage what I wanted when I was bad. I’m not getting what I want now that I’m being good. I’ll never get what I want. You’ll always win and be in control.” That is a false narrative.

A true narrative that emanates from patience would see – “I set the emotional tone in our marriage for year. I was in control. I won or everybody lost. You are learning to see me as a safe person and that you can rely on the changes I’m making. It is hard for me to be patient because I want affirmation of my change, but it is harder for you to trust because you want to avoid being crushed by false hope again.”

Those are not easy words to say; even for a person who is comfortable being humble, patient, and other-minded. You can give your spouse grace in his/her struggle to see things this way (sometimes getting it, other times not). But the key is that the true narrative must ultimately prevail over the cynical narrative.

A key to this change in narrative is the social dynamics of change. Narratives do not change in private. If all of your spouse’s friends see him/her as the same person they did before, it will be hard to accept that things need to change this significantly at home. This brings us to the third evidence of genuine change – the willing embrace of external accountability.

But before we examine that, it is important to consider what patience will mean for you. You must relinquish the tendency to self-monitor your level of trust. If you perpetually ask yourself, “Will I ever be able to trust him/her again? Will I ever feel the way I once did? Do I feel more trust than I did yesterday or last week?” chances are the answer will be “no.”

In the same way that your spouse’s pressure and questioning can stifle the growth of your trust, you own measuring and self-monitoring can stifle your growth in trust. The purpose of this final section is to give you tangible evidences of genuine change to divert your attention from reading your internal trust temperature gauge. If you look for humility marked by good listening and patience with the willingness to embrace external accountability give thanks for those things and allow your trust to grow at its own pace.

If this post was beneficial for you, then considering reading other blogs from my “Favorite Posts on Abusive Relationships” post which address other facets of this subject.

Signs of Change: Humility Expressed through Listening

This is the fourteenth post in a seventeen part series on “Marriage with a Chronically Self-Centered Spouse.” In the posts fourteen through seventeen we will examine four key markers of genuine change and in the process discusses who should be involved in the helping relationships that surround this type of marital restoration work.

Humility

How do you know when you are talking to a humble person? You are comfortable talking and they ask good questions. A humble person isn’t worried about getting trapped in his/her words or winning the conversation. If the humble person is wrong, he/she is willing to admit it. Even if his/her “wrongness” is still debatable, the humble person is willing to discuss it.

The foundational character change that needs to occur in the life of a chronically self-centered spouse is to grow in humility. The tell-tale indicator of whether he/she has grown in humility will be whether his/her ability to listen is improving.

When we don’t listen well we are trapped in our own way of thinking about and interpreting life. Bad listeners are by definition self-centered. Consider this description of humility.

“Do not imagine that if you meet a really humble man he will be what most people call ‘humble’ nowadays: he will not be a sort of greasy, smarmy person, who is always telling you that, of course, he is nobody. Probably all you will think about him is that he seemed a cheerful, intelligent chap who took a real interest in what you said to him (p. 128).” Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis

So when you wonder if your spouse is truly changing, you do not need to look for behavioral actions (i.e., being more helpful around the house, being more romantic, spending extra time with the kids, etc…). All of these are good, but they can be done without humility. They can be penance or leverage.

What you should look for first is humility expressed by listening. Can you express fear, hurt, insecurity, differences of opinion, dreams, plans, or thoughts on daily events and these be met with gracious, concerned responses? Gracious concerned responses would include open ended questions, compassion, confession of ways he/she contributed to these experiences if negative, or thoughts on how he/she could expand these experiences if positive.

This gives you an answer to the defensive questions you’ve likely been asked, “What do you want from me? How can I please you?” The largest part of that answer should be simple and clear, “I want you to hear me. I want you to listen with humility and patience so that I feel safe talking with my spouse in my home.” If that request is met with resistance, then there is no reason to make any others at that time.

It is important to realize that if your spouse has been self-centered for an extended period of time, the stability in your ability or willingness trust will be affected. It will likely take some time for you to grow comfortable trusting. This is normal and leads us to the next quality that is evidence of authentic change – patience.

If this post was beneficial for you, then considering reading other blogs from my “Favorite Posts on Abusive Relationships” post which address other facets of this subject.

How to Effectively Talk about Past Hurts and Offenses

This is the thirteenth post in a seventeen part series on “Marriage with a Chronically Self-Centered Spouse.” In the posts ten through thirteen we will examine guidelines for how to live at peace with a self-centered spouse “as far as it depends on you ” (Rom. 12:18). These are not prescriptions with the promise of a better marriage, but wisdom principles that will allow you to inject as much peace  into a situation as your spouse will allow.

Talking About the Past

Discussing the past is a classic Catch-22 with a chronically self-centered spouse. If the past is not brought up, then the self-centered spouse treats each moment as if it had no history (i.e., no reason for you to be afraid, upset, bracing, etc…). If the past is brought up, then you are “being unforgiving and nothing is going to get better as long as you only focus on the negative, especially parts of history we can’t change.”

The book of Proverbs provides excellent guidance for these lose-lose moments in life, “Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself. Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes (26:4-5).” We learn from this passage that there is no one right way to respond to someone who isn’t humble or self-aware enough to receive the truth.

But this passage does not allow this “realism” to result in cynical, hopeless silence. We are directed to speak up (at times) in the face of folly. There are two guiding principles for when we should speak.

  1. Are we in emotional self-control or will we descend into foolish speech (v. 4)?
  2. Is there reason to believe there is a window of humility for our words to be received (v. 5)?

While these principles do not apply specifically to discussing the past, they do provide direction on when it is worth this conversational risk that is necessary for sustainable, long-term improvement in the marriage. In this post, we will assume you are in a moment when the two criteria are met and it is wise for you to speak.

Emphasize the pattern over the event. Events cannot be changed; patterns can. It is easy, especially when we are upset or offended, for our examples to drown out our point. When this happens, accusations of bitterness are harder to refute and you become a distraction from your message.

What does this sound like? Lead with a description of the pattern (i.e., “This is another example of refusing the basic transparency that allows for a healthy marriage.”). If the statement is met with a counter-attack (i.e., “Well, then why don’t you tell me about [blank]?”), then it is unlikely that criteria two is being met.

If a seemingly honest question is asked, then the strongest single example should be given (i.e., “I do not have access to your personal cell phone account even though you used that phone to arrange your affair and said I would have access to your on-line call history.”).  If the conversation cannot stick on that subject, then both criteria one and two will soon be violated.

If the conversation does remain on subject, then don’t get lost in the example. You can get cell phone access and not have a better marriage or peace of mind. The point was transparency emanating from the pursuit of a healthy marriage. If the point is maintained, then express more appreciation for the humility and cooperativeness than access to the ongoing phone records.

Likely in this conversation the subject of forgiveness will arise. Forgiveness for an ongoing, chronic sin does not involve a “clean slate” of trust. That would actually be unloving (not to mention impossible). Willingness to work on restoration is a powerful example of the presence of forgiveness in a chronically self-centered marriage.

However, when this debate begins it is another sign that criteria two has been violated. The time of productive conversation is likely coming to a close. If there seems to be some window of humility remaining, then differentiating forgiveness (relinquishing bitterness) and restoration (working towards making something what it once was or was intended to be) may be advisable.

Regardless, at this point, you need to begin to prepare yourself to disengage the conversation and praying for the next opportunity for a fruitful conversation. Otherwise you will quickly violate criteria one and become a distraction from what you desire to see accomplished.

If this post was beneficial for you, then considering reading other blogs from my “Favorite Posts on Abusive Relationships” post which address other facets of this subject.

Learning Not to Whither at Your Spouse’s Displeasure

This is the eleventh post in a seventeen part series on “Marriage with a Chronically Self-Centered Spouse.” In the posts ten through thirteen we will examine guidelines for how to live at peace with a self-centered spouse “as far as it depends on you ” (Rom. 12:18). These are not prescriptions with the promise of a better marriage, but wisdom principles that will allow you to inject as much peace  into a situation as your spouse will allow.

You Must Not Whither

In most conversations when you respond well, there is an emotional affirmation that follows – you sense that there is hope. In a conversation with a chronically self-centered spouse, “healthy” is most often met with derision or some other form of displeasure.

There is a cycle that develops. You walk away from a conversation that went badly, reflect, and try to find a healthier way to engage. For a while, you come up with better alternatives that you believe might work. You try to implement your new approach only to get a similar response.

As this cycle continues you feel stupid, defeated, and begin to believe that maybe you really are the central problem. Often the spouse begins to be deeply torn between wanting to know what else he/she could do to help the marriage and feeling cynical / fearful / blamed by any alternatives offered.

The first step out of this relational-emotional storm is to be able to remain calm in the face of your spouse’s displeasure. The common responses are:

  • Fearful – Believing that your spouse’s displeasure means that you’ve done something wrong.
  • Angry – Perceiving the falseness of your spouse’s reaction and wanting to battle for the truth.
  • Callous – Realizing that your response will not be the deciding factor in whether these moments are different.

But “calm” is not fearful, angry, or callous. Calm is unsurprised and unrushed. Calm realizes that an “answer” to an accusation is not the solution. Calm does not feel the pressure to please someone who does not want to be pleased. Calm is waiting to care when and if caring can be received.

Ultimately, calm is a mirror. Whereas fear, anger, and callousness put the focus on you, calm puts the focus on the one who is upset. Fear, anger, and callousness get wrapped up in trying to make a rebuttal or prove the setup. Calm waits and is content not to answer, if doing so only feeds the moment (Prov. 26:4-5). Fear, anger, and callousness cause us to wither – exhausted, hopeless, and numb. Calm remains able to care when it is wise to do so.

The question is, “How do I remain ‘calm’ when my spouse is displeased with me?” The key phrase is “with me.” With a chronically self-centered spouse, you must realize they are not primarily displeased with you. You are merely the most frequent context for their displeasure. They are trapped in themselves and you just happen to be the person who lives nearest to their cage.

This realization should allow for a level of compassion that does not need to become a sense of responsibility. The lock to their self-centered cage is on the inside. While they rail at you for their misery, you do not have access to the latch. In fleeting tender moments, your spouse may have admitted as much. These moments are glimmers of genuine hope.

As you become convinced of this picture of your spouse’s misery, you can – by God’s grace – patiently wait for those moments of clarity. Those are the only moments when speaking into your spouse’s displeasure will do any good. Until those moments come, you rest in the knowledge that God calls you not to cast your pearls before pigs or feed wild dogs.

When the people outside your spouse’s cage quit trying to unlock it, but do not quit caring, then that is the best context for conviction to come. Read I Peter 3:1-6 in light of this picture. Conviction must come before the gospel can bring freedom. Like every other person your spouse must die to self before he/she will know the freedom of true life (Luke 9:23-24). Your role is to rest in these truths and surround yourself with a godly, wise support network while you pray for your spouse to surrender to God.

If this post was beneficial for you, then considering reading other blogs from my “Favorite Posts on Abusive Relationships” post which address other facets of this subject.

Focusing on the Main Thing

This is the twelfth post in a seventeen part series on “Marriage with a Chronically Self-Centered Spouse.” In the posts ten through thirteen we will examine guidelines for how to live at peace with a self-centered spouse “as far as it depends on you ” (Rom. 12:18). These are not prescriptions with the promise of a better marriage, but wisdom principles that will allow you to inject as much peace  into a situation as your spouse will allow.

Focus Your Requests for Change

With a chronically self-centered spouse, it is easy to become a nag. Even the “nice” moments begin to only feel like leverage that will be used against you later. Then there is the barrage of neglect and/or dishonor that could be confronted. You begin to feel like communication is a choice between attack or condone; nag or ignore.

Many people in this situation give into cynicism with intermittent bouts of rage. Sarcasm or doubt becomes the response to anything good (marital or otherwise) until a moment when he/she just wants someone (spouse, child, friend, co-worker, etc…) to “get it.” When this explosion is on someone other than their spouse and its clear the response is disproportionate, the abused/neglected spouse begins to wonder if he/she “really is crazy.”

This scenario requires an intentional plan for how to address the marital situation. If you try to address the “issue of the day” then you will get drawn into a trap where your spouse says, “I’ll never be able to please you. You want to change everything about me,” and you’ll wonder if you really are being too demanding.

Until you get a consistent acknowledgement of the over-arching problem, don’t try to debate the details.

Don’t get drawn into a temporal discussion when there is a chronic problem. If asked, “What’s wrong now?” Don’t allow the word “now” to frame the conversation as if this moment were unique from the general marital pattern.

Acknowledgement of the over-arching problem often sounds like this:

  • I am a selfish person who manipulates you and the kids to get my way.
  • I force situations and conversations to fit in molds I am comfortable with.
  • I pursue my pleasure in a way that puts our family in difficult situations.
  • I intimidate or threaten to leave when I don’t get my way and use fear as a weapon.

When asked “What’s wrong?” or a situation requires confronting, you should tie your confrontation to one of these themes (or one similar that is more relevant). Until this is acknowledged, the two of you will never agree on any of the other details.

Don’t try to have this conversation when your spouse is highly upset or has been drinking. Volatile moments are notoriously ineffective for producing lasting change and often result in great emotional (sometimes physical) harm.

Most chronically self-centered spouses (even the most narcissistic) will have moments when they will acknowledge this reality. When this happens, it is appropriate to affirm this mark of humility. In the next section we will look at what to ask / look for as evidence that this acknowledgement is a step towards lasting change.

However, until this acknowledgement is made your request for change should be (a) highly repetitive and (b) therefore only made during moments when there is reason to believe they will be most receivable.

Repetitive: This does not need to mean “scripted” (the exact same words). But it should be clear that you are not asking for a dozen things. You are asking for one primary change that, if made, will have dozens of implications. But the implications without the core change will be fleeting.

Receivable Moments: The moments when you speak should be marked by one or more of the following qualities (1) there is a clear tie to the pattern of chronic selfishness, (2) you have emotional self-control, (3) substance impairment or social shame are not complicating factors, and (4) your spouse is listening and not stone-walling or asking rhetorical questions. This is not a “recipe for success” – meaning if you do it this way your spouse will respond. But the absence of these factors does mean that your core message will begin to get lost or damaged by the context in which it is raised.

If this post was beneficial for you, then considering reading other blogs from my “Favorite Posts on Abusive Relationships” post which address other facets of this subject.

Overcoming Anger Video 3

Step 3: UNDERSTAND the origin, motive, and history of my sin.

Below is a video from the “Overcoming Anger” seminar of The Summit Church (Durham, NC). For the various counseling options available from this material visit www.summitrdu.com/counseling.

NOTE: Many people have asked how they can get a copy of the seminar notebook referenced in this verbal presentation. You can request a copy from Summit’s admin over counseling at counseling@summitrdu.com (please note this is an administrative account; no individual or family counsel is provided through e-mail).

“I do not know all I need to know about myself or my struggle with anger. I do know that my heart resists being known (Jeremiah 17:9), and that anger reveals the things that are most important to me (Luke 6:45). I am coming to realize that [list] desires lead me to sinful anger, and that [list] experiences have contributed to the strength of those desires. I believe God is more satisfying than those desires could ever be without Him.”

Equip Seminar – Anger Pt3 from The Summit Church on Vimeo.

The PDF anger journal from chapter 3 — Overcoming Anger Journal

Memorize: Proverbs 14:29-30 (ESV), “Whoever is slow to anger has great understanding, but he who has a hasty temper exalts folly. A tranquil heart gives life to the flesh, but envy makes the bones rot.” As you memorize this passage reflect upon these key points:

  • “Whoever” – You are not excluded from this passage. Your anger hasn’t made you unreachable.
  • “Slow to anger” – Anger is a rushed emotion. To gain understanding you must slow down.
  • “Exalts folly” – Anger imposes its false distorted beliefs on others and punishes them for not agreeing.
  • “A tranquil heart” – Godly emotions stem from a heart that is resting and relying upon God.
  • “Bones rot” – Stewing on anger, grumbling, and bitterness is physically unhealthy and miserable.

 Teaching Notes

“Understanding ourselves doesn’t simply mean getting in touch with our feelings. It also involves becoming aware of the thoughts behind the feelings and recognizing the lies we tell ourselves that feel so true (p. 87).” Leslie Vernick in The Emotionally Destructive Relationship

“Our desire battles for control until it becomes a demand. The demand is then expressed (and usually experienced) as a need. My sense of need sets up my expectation. Expectation when unfulfilled leads to disappointment. Disappointment leads to some kind of punishment (p. 59).” Paul Tripp in War of Words

“Good desires easily become bad masters (p. 104)… To receive God’s forgiving grace, you must own your anger. God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble. We must not blame past or present circumstances (p. 70).” Robert Jones in Uprooting Anger

“Talk is not cheap because interpretation is not cheap. The way we interpret life determines how we will respond to it (p. 15)… You and I do not respond to people or circumstances of our lives on the basis of facts. Our responses are based upon the way we interpret those facts (p. 21)… What is wrong is not just vocabulary and tone of voice, but a way of looking at life that does not agree with what God says is right and true (p. 22).” Paul Tripp in War of Words

Abuse Is Not a Marital Issue

This is the tenth post in a seventeen part series on “Marriage with a Chronically Self-Centered Spouse.” In the posts ten through thirteen we will examine guidelines for how to live at peace with a self-centered spouse “as far as it depends on you ” (Rom. 12:18). These are not prescriptions with the promise of a better marriage, but wisdom principles that will allow you to inject as much peace  into a situation as your spouse will allow.

Finding the Starting Point

This point has already been alluded to several times in this series of posts. But it is essential to thinking clearly and communicating effectively in a marriage to a self-centered spouse. This point represents a watershed distinction in the focal point of change. What is written here only applies when the relationship has moved past the first two stages described in Matthew 7:1-5 and reached the Matthew 7:6 level of destructiveness.

Once these levels of aggressive or passive destructiveness have been reached they must be acknowledged and addressed before any other type of marital intervention will have a lasting impact. Yet by the time this level of dysfunction is reached it will be such the “normal” for the marriage that the situationally unique events can easily become the focus of counseling. The passively self-centered spouse will predominantly use self-pity to move counseling in that direction. The actively self-centered spouse will use various forms of manipulation.

But both spouses must come to realize what it means to say that, “Abuse is not a marital issue.”

When one person is willing to jeopardize the physical or emotional safety of another, then no marital issue is of greater importance than the self-centeredness of the offending spouse. To address “marital issues” in this context is a drastic form of minimizing the offenses that have occurred. To believe that refining situational variables is going to cease the self-centeredness is like giving money to an alcoholic believing it will help them get sober by alleviating financial pressure.

For this reason, counseling in a self-centered marriage should not be marriage counseling. Both spouses should be counseled separately until they can consistently acknowledge that the abusive (or chronically neglectful) actions are the predominant issue and discuss their day-to-day challenges in light of this reality. To do otherwise is to confuse marital enrichment (refining a marriage within the bounds of “healthy” to become increasingly enjoyable) with marital restoration (focused attention at changing a problem that is a threat to the marriage).

It is common for the self-centered spouse to resist this approach to counseling saying, “It can’t be entirely my fault we are where we are. I thought marriage problems were 50-50 issues.” This is an attempt to reframe the problem as a “marital issue.” By the time we get to Matthew 7:6 there has been a persistent unwillingness to address the marital issues that have resulted in a significant marital deterioration and a major shift in the power dynamics of the relationship. Until this is humbly acknowledged, efforts at restoring the marriage would only reinforce, or at best leave in place, this imbalance.

“How long do you expect me to pay for my sins? How long am I expected to grovel for what I’ve done? I thought Christians were supposed to forgive.” Each of these statements is a form of evasion. They imply unforgiveness for a sin that is being minimized. They are an attempt to use God and guilt to turn the tables and make themselves the victim of their own offenses.

“Well, I know I can’t talk about anything my wife did wrong… I’m not sure if I’m allowed to talk about what happened this week… Do you want to hear my side of the story?” Each of these statements attempts to make the counselors firmness in requiring acknowledgement of the abuse as being more restrictive than the self-centered spouse’s actions in his home. They are an attempt to portray that nothing he says can be right and make the restoration process seem futile.

These questioning games played by the self-centered spouse are an attempt to force the clean up of his sin-mess to be neater than the mess allows. Until these blame-shifting, self-pity questions cease and the self-centered pattern of living is focused on as the main issue, the counselor will serve as referee or prosecuting attorney if he/she tries to counsel the couple together.

The self-centered spouse is acknowledging the abuse as the main issue when he can consistently say things like, “Here is how I see what happened this week, can you help me see what I’m missing? I realize how much I emphasize my emotions and minimize others. I saw it again this week, when… My wife and I had a bad argument this week and each time I replay it I still think she’s totally wrong, but I’m learning not to trust myself that way. Can I tell you how I remember it?” And then receive instruction and correction without becoming defensive.

If this post was beneficial for you, then considering reading other blogs from my “Favorite Posts on Abusive Relationships” post which address other facets of this subject.

The Intentionally Manipulative Self-Centered Spouse

This is the ninth post in a sixteen part series on “Marriage with a Chronically Self-Centered Spouse.” In the posts six through eight we will examine four broad types of self-centeredness: (a) low relational intelligence, (b) lazy or apathetic, (c) situational explosiveness, and (d) intentional manipulation. This order is chosen to follow the Matthew 7:1-6 pattern of giving grace even in how we address level three marriage problems.

Feeling Scared, Crazy, and Stupid

When living with an intentionally-manipulative, self-centered spouse you feel scared, crazy, and stupid. It is clear that he understands what he is doing, unlike the low relational intelligence, self-centered spouse. During the times of “peace” it feels like information is harvested to be used against you during conflict.

A key trait with the intentionally manipulative spouse is the lack of remorse after being clearly wrong. The argument or incident is inevitably turned back on you, even seeming apologies are accusatory. This creates a sense of being “crazy” (giving him the upper hand in any conversation) and “scared” (his ability to rest combined with you’re being always on-edge adds to the sense of feeling crazy).

There are several danger signs of an intentionally-manipulative, self-centered spouse. The first is that he isolates you from family and friends unless he is present. A big part of manipulation is defining the world of your victim. This requires being aware of what other people are saying so he is able to counter what does not align with his agenda.

Often family and friends are vilified for not adhering to positions the self-centered spouse claims are essential. The abused spouse is shamed for wanting to associate with people who would not agree with his standards. Combining shame with isolation makes it more likely that the abused spouse will not step out of his control.

The second danger sign is set up scenarios. “You can [blank] if you want to,” but if the abused spouse takes him up on this offer, there will be hell to pay. Or it may come in the form of a question that leads one direction, but the “right” answer is the opposite.

The effect of outbursts (anger or shame) to these set up scenarios is that the abused spouse questions her judgment about everything.  Questions and choices are associated as social land mines. What can you do that doesn’t require answering a question or making a choice? Isolation is reinforced by fear-based paralysis.

The third danger sign is answering questions with questions. When given time to think without being rattled, the abused spouse can put what is happening into reasonable, non-threatening questions. These moments of clarity bring flashes of hope that they will be heard because they have something worth saying. But in order to avoid the only logical response (which would require admission of abuse) the self-centered spouse counters with a question.

The return question either changes the subject (“But you’re missing the point, what about…?”) or is condemning (“How could you think…?”). The abused spouse is placed in a dangerous position at this point – rebuttal and risk of being attacked, or acquiesce and surrender to his version of reality.

The fourth danger sign is the consistent tone of condescension towards those with whom he disagrees. It takes great emotional and relational strength to stand up to a tone of condescension in conversation. Imagine the strength and skill necessary to politely respond to someone asking, “Do you really think…?” or “What good will it do to…?” and giving a simplistic, caricature of what you just said.

The intentionally-manipulative, self-centered spouse will not remain in a relationship with anyone who can answer his condescending tone. To be able to answer his question is to show a level of authority, competency, and comfort which does not allow him to rule in the way he desires.

In a counseling case like this, it is important to realize that the self-centered spouse will quickly seek to undermine counseling. For this reason the initial counseling objectives have to do with protecting the abused spouse from being drawn back into isolation.

  1. If the abused spouse comes alone to the first appointment (most likely), then patiently do a thorough assessment of the type of abuse before inviting or alerting the spouse to counseling. Once an “outsider” has been identified, counseling is likely to be shut down.
  2. If a separation is needed for safety, then strongly reinforce to the abused spouse that she should expect intense pressure (anger, shaming, promises, etc…) to return to work on things. The answer to “How can we work on our marriage if we’re not in the same home?” is a manipulative question. It dodges the fact that the primary problem is abuse, not some relational dynamic. This is a form of the third danger sign that seeks to get the abused spouse to begin taking partial responsibility (which will become total) for the abuse.
  3. When talking with the self-centered spouse, the primary point to be emphasized is that he has created an unsafe environment for his family to live in. Even if physical abuse is present, it is not enough for him to admit this is wrong. Before any “progress” can be said to have been made, he must consistently (over a number of sessions) see that how he has handled emotions, conflicts, and relationships has been manipulative and unsafe. It is important for the counselor not to get drawn into a debate about this point or become exasperated about his failure to see this. Those responses will be used against the counselor. The counselor must maintain the posture of presenting facts that are essential to any “progress” and accept no other starting points that would not require acknowledging and addressing the manipulative patterns first.

If this post was beneficial for you, then considering reading other blogs from my “Favorite Posts on Abusive Relationships” post which address other facets of this subject.

The Situationally Explosive Self-Centered Spouse

This is the eighth post in a seventeen part series on “Marriage with a Chronically Self-Centered Spouse.” In the posts six through nine we will examine four broad types of self-centeredness: (a) low relational intelligence, (b) lazy or apathetic, (c) situational explosiveness, and (d) intentional manipulation. This order is chosen to follow the Matthew 7:1-6 pattern of giving grace even in how we address level three marriage problems.

“I’m Not Always Like This”

It is relatively common for both spouses to say that the volatile spouse is “not always like this.” When this is the case they usually want to understand the communication or situational triggers that cause these bouts of explosiveness. The problem is spoken of in “us” language.

But it should be remembered and clearly articulated – abuse is a matter of personal responsibility, not a relational culpability. It results from a lack of self-control. When one person is willing to harm another to get his way, then no amount of working on “us” will remedy the problem and is a distraction from what needs to change first and most.

One of the marks of this type of self-centeredness is that when the aggressive spouse “comes to his senses” he is usually highly remorseful for what was said or done. An abuser who lacks this kind of remorse either lacks relational awareness (type one) or is intentionally manipulative (type three).

Getting to this remorse has a general pattern, but can have many variations. First, there is some period of “normal.” Because of the volatility this is usually a braced-normal as the spouse and kids are uncertain of what will end it. The durations of these periods are usually later used as evidence by the self-centered spouse that there is not a problem.

Then something goes awry to the self-centered spouse’s expectations or preferences. Later this event will be blamed for all that follows. But in reality the explosive spouse is so committed to his definition of what “ought” to be that no one can be heard. Any alternative explanation or even an admission of weakness / forgetting is called an excuse and viewed as deserving a punishment as intense as the spouse’s displeasure.

This is where we see the key feature of self-centeredness. He will not consider an explanation other than his own or give grace to anyone who violates his sovereignty (right to have things as he pleases). In his growing anger, he listens to himself more and more and feeds on his own displeasure, insecurity, or dominance.

As this happens, his logic and responses become increasingly irrational to everyone else. He is defining his own world and it becomes highly uncomfortable for anyone who does not agree with him to live in it or understand him.

After a cooling off period, the self-centered spouse’s idiosyncratic interpretations subside, at least to some degree and he realizes his actions were wrong and offensive. This results in strong remorse, at least for a while. With time, if the problem is not addressed he will either grow numb to post-rage conviction (his wife commonly calls this being “cold”) or become increasingly committed to his idiosyncratic interpretations (which leads to a type of intentional manipulation).

For as long as the remorse lasts, the couple typically views this sorrow as repentance and goes back into a braced-normal style of living. They talk about the “triggering events” more than the self-centered response and come up with a plan to organize their lives more to the self-centered spouse’s preferences, usually referred to as “needs.”

In a counseling case like this it is essential to get the couple to see the personal response (self-centered interpretation without self-control) as more important than the triggering event. Once the couple can see this, the counselor has several objectives:

  1. Help the self-centered spouse consistently resist the blame-shifting pattern of focusing on the situation. Until he can, across several sessions/weeks, interpret the same event and even new events as his lack of self-control, this objective has not been achieved. Short-term realizations are enough to build upon in these situationally sparked aggressions.
  2. Identify the common themes of his idiosyncratic interpretations. The self-centered spouse must see that his rants are built upon seeing common events in ways that are unique to him and forced upon these moments when life does not go his way. Until this happens, times of braced-normal should not be mislabeled as “safe” or as evidence of significant progress.
  3. The self-centered spouse must agree to talk with mutually shared friends about what has been occurring and to grant his wife a “time out” if she fears he is escalating. He treats his wife this way, because he believes he is alone and can get away with it. Adding a social dynamic inhibits this belief. The wife’s fears may not always be correct, but an important part of her learning to trust is seeing that her words matter even when he is upset and will be honored.

If this post was beneficial for you, then considering reading other blogs from my “Favorite Posts on Abusive Relationships” post which address other facets of this subject.

The Lazy or Apathetic Self-Centered Spouse

This is the seventh post in a seventeen part series on “Marriage with a Chronically Self-Centered Spouse.” In the posts six through nine we will examine four broad types of self-centeredness: (a) low relational intelligence, (b) lazy or apathetic, (c) situational explosiveness, and (d) intentional manipulation. This order is chosen to follow the Matthew 7:1-6 pattern of giving grace even in how we address level three marriage problems.

Lazy or Apathetic

Because we are all self-centered people (by virtue of being body bound and more aware of our thoughts than anyone else’s) it takes effort to be other-minded. Understanding why someone else is offended, excited, or slow to understand requires a sacrifice of self-preoccupation.

One of the marks of lazy or apathetic self-centeredness is complaining that too much is being asked of him/her, or the on the flipside, labeling their spouse as being demanding with overly high expectations. Discussions about what is reasonable (especially during an argument) can begin to feel absurd. The lazy or apathetic spouse makes every request seem like a big deal and their areas of neglect seem normal.

In these cases, the offended spouse begins to be forced into the role of a parent more than a spouse. If the home is going to function, they must be “the responsible spouse.” The lazy or apathetic spouse enjoys being cared for (though rarely expresses gratitude) but resents when this caretaking causes him/her to feel juvenile.

The responsible spouse feels caught in a Catch-22: (a) treat their spouse like an adult and see significant areas of marital, family, and home life deteriorate, or (b) treat their spouse like a child and contribute to the problem while facing the anger that comes with being “parental.”

Finances, hobbies, and time with friends are frequent points of conflict when the laziness is rooted in immaturity. Inactivity, poor hygiene, and lack of enthusiasm about any area of life can reveal an apathetic self-centeredness rooted in depression. Demanding tone, whiny attitude, or exaggerated responses to disappointment reveal lazy self-centeredness that is rooted in a sense of entitlement.

In some cases, the indifference extends beyond the home to an unwillingness to maintain employment. Regardless, friends and family usually begin to notice the inequality in the marriage. If the passive spouse has maintained a social network, this results in a strong tension between “his friends” and “her friends.” This social pull further increases the strain on the marriage.

As these strains become more pronounced, the marriage problems seem more insurmountable. This only confirms the “what good would it do to try” attitude in the passive spouse. When things hit a severe crisis, he/she may put forth effort for a short time, but the lack of “perseverance muscles” result in falling back into old habits quickly.

When this is brought up it is usually turned back on the offended spouse (“I’m sorry I can’t be who you want me to be. I tried. What more can I do?”) or swallowed up in self-pity (“I don’t know why you put up with my crap. You deserve someone better. I’m such a loser.”).

In a counseling case like this, it is easy to get drawn into prescribing the particular actions that should happen instead of focusing the attention on the overarching pattern of laziness or apathy. As a “voice for responsibility” the counselor will quickly seem to “take sides.” Each session will reveal many more “easy fixes” that will quickly pile up and become overwhelming to the passively self-centered spouse. For this reason the early counseling objectives should focus upon:

  1. Screening for depression. If the passive spouse has an interest he/she enjoys and engages, there a low likelihood the self-centeredness is rooted in depression. The effort put into other pleasures should be used as a standard and model for the effort put into the marriage. If the passive spouse lacks the ability to enjoy his/her previous pleasures, then depression is likely a strong contributing factor and should be dealt with as a primary issue.
  2. Creating “half way” criteria. If one spouse has become a pseudo-parent, then many marital systems will be unhealthy. Turning them immediately over to the passive spouse is rarely effective. The counselor should help the couple define what a healthy marriage would look like (based upon biblical gender roles and individual competencies). Then the passive spouse needs to be taught what it looks like to meet his/her spouse “half way.” This should be directed by the counselor so that “the responsible spouse” is not placed back into the parental role. Once consistent effort is established at “half way,” the couple can be directed to complete the journey towards a healthy marriage.
  3. Expecting effort fatigue. The previously lazy or apathetic spouse will get emotionally and relationally fatigued many times. The counselors needs to anticipate this and prepare the couple for it (both spouses may despair when it happens). Managing these moments is vital for getting from sincere sorrow or passivity to longevity of effort in marriage.

If this post was beneficial for you, then considering reading other blogs from my “Favorite Posts on Abusive Relationships” post which address other facets of this subject.