All posts tagged Communication

Keeping Score Equals No Winners

This is not a blog post that endorses the politically correct version of children’s sports. Regardless of how many times I tried to tell my son we were just playing t-ball for fun, he still wanted to know “who won?” after every game. But if I don’t depart from this introduction, I will wind up on my soap box.

This is a blog about a fatal flaw in an approach to motivating your spouse in marriage. Too often we resort to keeping score: how many times we had sex this month, how many more chores I do than you do, how many times we’ve gone on a date recently, how many times you’ve said “I love you” lately, or how few letters you’ve written me.

Marital neglect is a serious issue (not addressed here), but this motivational structure is used in marriages that are far from significant neglect. In this post, I would like to point out one major reason (there are many others) why this approach does not work.

That reason is our self-centeredness (do not read this as selfishness). We experience life from within our own body and consciousness. I am aware of everything I do and all the time, energy, and thought I put into those activities. I notice every unseen thing I do for my wife. I hear every unspoken fond thought I think about my wife.

Simply put, I score a lot of points my wife never knows I score. You can ask the deep philosophical questions “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?” or “If a husband loves his wife in imperceptible ways, does it count?” if you like. But the point is, on MY scoreboard I should be winning. If I’m not winning on my scoreboard, then I am REALLY losing.

But my self-centeredness disrupts the process even further. When I am doing all of my perceptible and imperceptible nice things, I am generally in a good mood which positively influences my memory. However, when I am comparing my score with my wife’s (only perceptible to the degree that I am paying attention) score, I can often be in a disappointed mood which negatively influences my memory. Again, advantage me!

But there is more to my self-centeredness. In the midst of the already inequitable system, I will give more emotional credit to the things I like best. Personally, that means that a creative meal gets more points than an organized kitchen and a kiss-like-you-mean-it gets more points than my lunch being fixed every day.

There is a name for that – arbitrary, unequal scales. These things are merely my personal preference. Do I want my wife to understand my preferences and display love by putting forth effort at the things that are important to me? Sure. Do I have the right to grade my wife, her effort, and our marriage based upon a system that is defined exclusively by my preferences? Not really.

So what is the point of this little rant? The point is that we should be humble as we recognize how self-centeredly we experience and evaluate life. It is not an attack on personal preferences. It is merely a warning against allowing our preferences to become the definition of love. If we do this we will create such a “home field advantage” in our marriage that it will be difficult for us to ever experience contentment with our spouse.

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

Fresh Eyes Marriage Game

Have you ever noticed that you tend to see what you are looking for (unless, of course, you are me looking for my keys – in which case, I can look right at them a dozen times and never see them)? If you go through your day listening for criticism, you’ll probably hear plenty. But if you do through your day listening for gratitude, your likely to hear more “thank you’s” than you expected.

This is particularly true in marriage. We tend to see and hear (not to mention remember) in our spouse what we are looking for. If we are feeling unappreciated, then we will notice everything we do that he/she does not notice. If we want more affection, every moment we are close but don’t touch will show up in neon lights.

Let me offer an exercise designed to give you fresh eyes to look at your marriage. Admittedly, it won’t give you magic eyes to see what is not there. But hopefully it will give you fair eyes to see a reality not distorted by your driving desires.

The game requires mutual participation and has better longevity if other couples are also playing along. Start at the beginning of the month by writing three expressions of love (in any form) that you intend to perform for your spouse. These should be things outside your normal marital routine. Commit to follow through on those intentions during the next month.

Key: Do not tell each other what you have written down.

Side Note: Even if both you only do two for three, then you will still have one intentional expressions of love per week.

Plan a date at the end of the month. During the date try to guess what things your spouse did to show his/her love for you. Most couples find that they guess actions that were not on their spouse’s card and that their spouses already did on a semi-regular basis. The playfulness of the game merely changed what they were looking for during the month. It also causes the couple to set aside some romantic time to talk about what the other is doing right.

As a part of your preparation for the date, prepare a card with a list of three fresh ideas that you intend to enact next month. Enjoy a month of loving your spouse, watching out for how your spouse is loving you, and have another “guessing date” at the end of the month. At that point you can let the cycle continue.

As I said earlier, the game lasts better if you get other couples involved. If you have other couples doing the same thing, you don’t have to be the only one coming up with ideas. You can “cheat” by “stealing” ideas from one another.

In addition, you can serve as positive accountability for one another. When you see one another during the week or at church, you can flash the number of fingers to represent how many of your actions you have already completed.

Too often, marital peer groups are either non-existent or feed the expectation of neglected marriages as “normal.” With only a little intentionality, that can be reversed as you “consider how to stir up one another to love and good works (Heb 10:24)” in your marriages. A healthy marriage is an excellent protection against sin, an example of the Gospel at work to children, as well as testimony to unsaved friends.

Communication with Our Desires “On the Table”

Communication is hard, especially “in the moment.”  It is one thing to be convicted by a sermon on the power of the tongue or the way our words reveal our heart.  It is another thing to be “in the moment” with your spouse (child, sibling, parent, friend, co-worker, enemy, etc…) and to have the awareness, self-control, courage, and humility to acknowledge what is ruling your heart and change the direction of the “discussion.”  That is the purpose of this article, to help you “in the moment.”

The battle begins with awareness.  You must be able to answer the question: what is it that consistently rules your heart?  Do not say, “Nothing.”  Whenever we sin, we are loving something more than God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength.  In addition, we are loving something more than our neighbor—usually self.  It is fair to say that for most people this “something” usually orbits around a particular theme: peace, respect, affirmation, appreciation, fairness, order, predictability, status, power, influence, affection, etc…

If this is a new thought for you, or if you have trouble identifying your “something,” take this opportunity to read Ken Sande’s excellent article “The Heart of Conflict.”

Once you know your heart theme, you are a step closer towards being ready “in the moment.”  The next step is to humbly confess to your spouse that this is the theme of much of your sinful actions during conflict.  If you are unwilling to confess to your spouse when you are calm and “out of the moment,” it is unlikely you will repent and change when this theme has activated your defensiveness and self-justification.  This confession might sound something like this:

“Snoochums [or your preferred pet name], I have recognized that when I sin against you in conflict it is usually because I want appreciation [or your “something”] more than I want to honor you in that moment.  Appreciation is important, but not more important than treating you with love and honor.  When I raise my voice, call you names, give you the silent treatment, distort your words, walk away, change subjects abruptly, make false accusations, and things like that [make statements that reveal your conflict patterns], I am punishing you to try to get appreciation [or your “something”].  That is both wrong and ineffective.  I am committing to trying to see and acknowledge that in the midst of our future disagreements.

Now that you have your “something” (as Ken Sande would say “idol”) identified and acknowledged it to your spouse, you can put your imagination to work.  What object best represents this “something” to you?  There are no right answers here, so long as the object is not offensive or inflammatory.  For our case study moving forward we will say there is a husband (Bill) whose “something is order and is represented by his PDA and a wife (Sue) whose “something” is affection and is represented by a heart-shaped pillow.

Bill and Sue have a conversation that begins to go nowhere fast.  Bill remembers his confession above and asks Sue to sit at the table for the talk.  They acknowledge their thematic idols, commit to honor one another in the conversation, and say a quick prayer for God to give them awareness of their own hearts as they work towards unity and agreement.

Bill goes to get four items to bring to the table: two copies of a picture of them as a couple, his PDA, and a heart-shaped pillow.  Each spouse sits down with a copy of a picture in their hand and their item on the table in front of them.  The rules are simple.  If either begins to communicate with dishonor (raised voice, calling names, silent treatment, distort the other’s words, walking away, changing subjects abruptly, making false accusations, etc…), they must put down the couple picture and pick up their “something.”  This is visualization of their heart at that moment.  In that moment of dishonor, they are discarding the marriage for their desired “something.”

If they pick up their desired object, they are faced with a choice: repent or harden my heart.  Hopefully they will see the sinfulness and foolishness of their choice.  Neither order nor affection will be attained through dishonor.  As they see this, the offending spouse should put down their object, repent to his/her spouse, pick up the picture again, and ask to resume the conversation.

Once the conversation is culminated the couple is ready to see the Gospel in their marriage (Ephesians 5:32).  However, culminated does not mean resolved.  The conversation may have only reached a stopping point or a point of agreed mutual reflection.  But it did so with honor.

Here is the Gospel in this moment:

And he [Jesus] said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.  For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.  For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself?”  (Luke 9:23-25 ESV)

Bill and Sue have denied themselves and been willing to lose their life (or at least that “something” they had centered their life upon).  At this point, Bill can pick up that heart-shaped pillow, hand it to his wife with a hug and a kiss, and affirm to her that he has loved her as himself.  Sue can pick up Bill’s PDA, hand it to her husband, and affirm to her husband that their marriage is moving towards a place of sustainable order.  In their willingness to die to self and lose their life they have saved what is most precious.  In effect, this process of conflict resolution can be as much a picture of the Gospel as baptism or the Lord’s Supper.  We can see the Gospel enacted and participate in the drama (that is what an “ordinance” is) in our homes with each conflict.

This is hard!  But it is worth it!  It is the battle between our flesh and the Spirit (Galatians 5: 19-26).  But this methodology gives us tools to allow biblical insight to bear fruit “in the moment” of conflict.  Acknowledge your heart to your spouse.  Place your heart on the table in the midst of the conflict.  As the conflict unfolds, maintain honor so that the two of you can encourage one another with the Gospel truth “whoever would loses his life for my sake will save it.”

Biblical Whining

I cannot tell you how many folks come in and start a counseling session by saying, “I don’t want to come in and just be a whiner,” or “I feel like I am just whining about my circumstances.”  Then they begin to talk about legitimately challenging situations in an awkward tone of embarrassment. When they are finished they apologize again.

This strikes me as odd. First, why would people schedule a counseling appointment and then apologize for discussing their struggles? I don’t think I apologize to my doctor when I am sick. Although I did when  I got a bad case of poison ivy while doing something stupid, but that’s another story for another post and I should have apologized to my wife not my doctor.

I fear that the answer to this first question is rooted in how disinterested and detached our culture and (too often) our churches have become. This leads me to my second question.

Second, why do we feel like discussing our struggles is whining? By this definition of whining large portions of the Bible would have never been written.

  • Job would have been gutted
  • Psalms, which discusses suffering, would be omitted
  • Proverbs would not contain many verses on getting counsel or listening to others
  • Ecclesiastes would be unnecessary
  • Lamentations would be unbearable
  • Paul would have had little information to trigger the writing of his letters
  • James would have never known of the suffering of the dispersed Christians
  • I Peter would also be missing

Consider Galatians 6:2, “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” The implication of this verse is that if we are not bearing one another’s burdens, then we are not fulfilling the law of Christ (strong charge!). This requires knowing each other’s struggles.

A quick definition of true (negative) whining – sharing a problem, not wanting another perspective on the issue, with no intention of doing anything differently, hoping the other person will fix it for you or just be miserable with you.

My burden is that this is NOT what the people in my office are doing, but they still feel like they have to apologize for sharing their burden. This is wrong! Many of our struggles become so intense because we do not share them with others while those struggles are more manageable. By the point of sharing, they may be so overwhelmed that they either only feel like whining or need the help of a well-trained counselor.

THE POINT: The Bible does not expect change to occur in isolation or privately. Actually, the Bible seems to assume that the more private we keep our struggles (both sin and suffering) the more intense our struggles will become. Therefore, let us “whine” like the Bible models. Let us discuss our struggles within our community of faith seeking hope, encouragement, and direction from those God has given us to share life with.

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

NCAA Tourney, Fundamentals, and Counsleing

I thought it would be timely to do a blog post in light of the NCAA tournament. No, it’s not a grief post for Duke or Missouri fans. It’s not even a stress-idolatry post for those who get way too intense about their bracket. It is a post about fundamentals.

What usually happens to the losing team in a big game? They get out of their comfort zone. They get rattled. And, they lose their fundamentals. Players start taking bad shots, forcing passes, forgetting their defensive assignments, and commit silly fouls. No, I’m not talking about your favorite team; try to focus and stay with me.

The same is true for counselors (or anyone in a helping role). When we get uncomfortable, we tend to forget our fundamentals.

We try to force a situation to fit a scenario we’re familiar with, instead of continuing to ask good questions.

We begin to view the counselee with suspicion because they make us feel uncomfortable and our doubt becomes contagious instead of our hope.

We classify people and explain people by the group they belong to (i.e., male, female, race, age, socio-economic status, etc…) instead of getting to know them as a person.

We become preoccupied with our own confusion and uncertainty instead of remaining engaged in the conversation.

We offer generic advice and clichés because we don’t know what else to say instead of being a good friend during perplexing time.

The problem is we scream at the television, but we excuse ourselves. We can see the college kids choke, but we are blind to the changes that go on within us.

We begin to write historical fiction in our minds to make the situation fit our assessment.

Our negative view (i.e., sick, liar, etc…) of the other person becomes solidified.

We reinforce our stereotypes and prejudices.

Continued self-preoccupation and insecurity makes us a less effective listener with other people.

We replay in our mind the reasons why we think what we said was best.

So what is our take away? The most fundamentally sound team usually wins. The same is true in counseling (or any helping relationship). When we stick to the fundamentals of helping, God is honored and people are helped.

Listen

Ask good questions

Avoid stereotyping

View people as more like you than different from you

Don’t get lost in your own insecurities

Wait to speak until your words can be situation-specific

If we stay fundamentally sound, our brackets may still be busted, but our relationships won’t be broken.

How to Respond to Things We Don’t Understand

This post is meant to offer guidance to common “What now?” questions that could emerge from Pastor J.D.’s sermon on Jesus and the Holy Spirit from Luke/Acts preached at The Summit Church Saturday/Sunday March 10-11, 2012.

This sermon is an excellent case study in a vital life skill – responding to things we don’t understand and/or make us uncomfortable. It is hard to preach on the Holy Spirit in a way that will make everyone comfortable – strange since one of His titles is “the Comforter.”

Stranger still is the strong human tendency to listen poorly and react quickly when we don’t understand something. When we don’t understand our fears become the filter for what we hear and preemptively start trying to take the conversation back to where we’re comfortable before we know where it’s starting.

Think about your last several conflicts or times you felt misunderstood. What were your fears and how did they become the filter for what the other person was saying? How did you try harder to move the conversation to your comfort zone than understand what the other person was saying?

Think about the last several times you heard someone debate politics. Can you find those same themes of listening through a fear-filter and moving the conversation to home turf?

Now, think about having a conversation about the role of the Holy Spirit in the life of a Christian. Think about having that conversation with someone who may not agree with you. Think about worshipping in the same church or being in the same small group.

What are your fears? How do they shape the way that you see this person (who right now only exists in your imagination)? What caricatures have you already placed on them? What emotional responses or demeanors do you “know” they are going to have?

You have just articulated your fear filter.

What is your home turf? Do you seek to change the subject because you don’t know what you believe? What phrases start the conversation or get repeated most frequently in your mental dialogue? What passages of Scripture are defining and which ones get explained away? When do you realize you don’t care what the other person says?

You have just defined your home turf or comfort zone.

Are you still talking to a “friend” or have they become an opponent in your imagination?

What is my point? One of the roles of the Holy Spirit is to bring unity (Eph 4:3). Another role is to calm fear and give the love/self-control necessary to listen well (2 Tim 1:7). The place where we should most effectively learn this vital life skill is when we are studying the One who enables us to learn it.

My encouragement to you is to begin to learn to listen well to things that you don’t understand and make you uncomfortable. Use this sermon as an opportunity to learn this skill by the Spirit, in the Spirit, and about the Spirit.

After that demonstrate the fruit of the Spirit by blessing your family, friends, and co-workers with what God is doing in your life. Begin to be like the Holy Spirit as you listen to people well enough to translate their hearts to the Father in prayer (Rom 8:26).

As you do this, I believe you will find that your relationships and emotions begin to be marked by the kind of peace that Scripture repeatedly says is a mark of the presence and activity of the Holy Spirit (Acts 9:31, Rom 8:6, Gal 5:22).

The Myth of Compatibility

Too often we treat compatibility as it were a noun (something two people share – like a cupcake or eye color) instead of a verb (something two people do – like synchronized swimming or conversation). There is a big, often overlooked, difference between compatibility as a noun and a verb.

When I hear commercials for dating sites or listen to marriage seminars talk about compatibility, I often get the impression that these tests are like the blood work done before an organ (i.e., lung, kidney) donation. They allege to tell a couple if they are compatible with one another in some absolute or scientific sense. That is good advertising but not reality.

Think for a moment. Over the course of human history every combination of husband personality traits and wife personality traits have combined to make excellent marriages. Equally true, every combination of personality traits has ended in painful, bitter divorces.

Simply put – compatibility is not the make or break issue for marriage. It may not even exist in the way that the concept is popularly presented.

Are these tests bad? No. They usually do a good job in letting couple’s know what common challenges they will face based upon their values and preferences (less mystical words for “personality types”). From my experience, rarely is a couple surprised by what they find and any of their friends could have given them a similar assessment.

Should couples take these tests? Sure. They’re fun and usually provide a neutral language to discuss differences that would normally come out during an argument (a time when couple’s assign moral language – “good” and “bad”—to their differences).

So what’s my concern? My first concern is that a heavy emphasis on “compatibility” during the dating process opens the door to an “irreconcilable differences” excuse for divorce. The fact is we change over time. Who we are when we are dating is not who we will be on our 10th, 20th, 30th, 40th, or if we are lucky 50th anniversary.

What happens to the marriage covenant when “compatibility” fades? What happens when the timid young professional becomes a confident leader in his/her field? What happens when the confidant young athlete ages out of being dominant with physical prowess and becomes insecure? What happens when we scored 23 out of 27 on our eHarmony test in our 20’s and only 13 out of 27 in our 40’s?

My second concern is that “compatibility” emphasizes personality matches over growing in godly character as the foundation of a good marriage. When we think we have what it takes, most people coast or look for new challenges.

Let me offer a contrast to the fact that every combination of personalities has made for both great and disastrous marriages. There has never been a good marriage between two prideful, selfish, lazy people. There has never been a bad marriage between two humble, other-minded, servant-hearted people.

I know those two categories don’t exist in absolutes. We are each a combination of prideful-selfish-lazy and humble-other-minded-servant-hearted. But hopefully you get my point. Character is the better predictor of marital success than personality.

Does this mean any high character person can marry any other high character person and have a great marriage? I would say no. “Spark” and “chemistry” are important to marriage and should not be neglected. But I would say that two high character people without “spark” would have a better marriage than two people who ignore the importance of character with “spark.”

So what is the take away? Learn all you can about your spouse, fiancé, or dating partner. Use personality tests to get to know one another if you like. Be able to predict every foreseeable difference you may have. But do not begin to think that “compatibility” is something you have (noun). Remember compatibility, if the word is to be redeemed, comes from pursuing the same thing of eternal value together – Christ, His character, and His glory.

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

Sacred “Silly” Moments of Marriage

What goes through your mind when you hear a couple giving compliments to each other? Some people melt; others snicker; a few roll their eyes. But I want to contend that what is said during moments of marital affirmation has a powerful effect upon the character of each spouse and the future of the marriage.

Too often these kinds of discussions do little more than scratch the surface of these profound marital interactions. When this happens we only think about what makes each other feel good (which is something we ought to consider) and usually how that helps us get what we want in return. But we miss the character shaping influence of compliments.

Compliments Teach and Motivate

When I compliment my wife I am teaching her what is important to me. My compliments show her what aspects of her person cause a reflex of praise to spill out of my mouth. If I have protected our relationship and speak with honor, her heart will be motivated to increase or enhance those things I affirm.

With that said, my words hold great power to encourage or discourage; to move her towards godliness or merely towards my preferences. Do I only praise features of beauty tied to her youth (Prov. 31:30) or do my words of affirmation point her towards her “imperishable beauty” found in Christ expressed through her unique life and gifts (I Pet. 3:4)? Do my compliments cause her to fear “Father Time” or restfully pursue those things that are timeless?

If I am to stir her up towards godliness (Heb. 10:24), then as her husband, my compliments are a primary way I should carry out this calling. In order to realize the full effect of affirmation I describe in this post, I will recommend two types of compliments. However, I want to affirm all types of honoring compliments that spouses might exchange.

First, compliment the full character of Christ in your spouse. For help in this, take several key passages that capture Christ’s character and make index cards of key attributes: Galatians 5:22-23, I Corinthians 13, Philippians 2:1-11, and Proverbs 31 (for wives). Use these index cards as a scavenger hunt and to ensure that you are teaching and motivating your spouse to pursue the full character of Christ in your compliments. Pay attention to which attributes you tend to compliment least and grow your appreciation for this facet of Christ by learning to praise it in your spouse.

Second, compliment your spouse most frequently and emphatically for those qualities and interactions that are most unique to your marriage. What are the ways that your spouse cares for you that no one else does? What are the aspects of your spouse’s character that you get to see and few others see? What is special about your marriage that is not shared with anyone else? Compliment those things frequently. Focusing your attention on these things helps you not to view your marriage as ordinary.

Compliments Reinforce a Narrative

Compliments do more than teach and motivate; they write a story. In a fast-paced, now-oriented culture we don’t reflect very much. Journaling or nostalgic conversations are becoming increasingly rare exercises. But that does not mean that we have become people who live without a story. We just tell our story in sound bites.

The marital sound bites that we use to tell our “marriage story” (most often without realizing it) are our compliments and our grumblings. Intentional affirmation does more than make your spouse feel good; it is a discipline to protect the way you think about your marriage.

If you are hunting for full breadth of Christ’s character in your believing spouse, thinking on those attributes, and verbally bringing them into conversation; then it is harder for a negative marital story line to emerge. However, when we begin to fixate on all the things that are not the way we prefer, then any marriage can begin to feel lousy and the door is opened to many marital difficulties.

Compliments Affect Competition

Complimenting your spouse in the ways described above serves to protect both partners from a sense of competition. First, the spouse being complimented is protected from performance anxiety. Beauty, intelligence, humor, earning power and the like are not verbalized as the primary things that make the marriage good. Because of this, these things can be the blessing God intended them to be. As C.S. Lewis famously said (paraphrased), “When we put first things first [Christ’s character in our spouse] second things are increased, not decreased.”

Second, the spouse giving compliments is protected from thoughts of straying. When you are complimenting those things that are uniquely good about your spouse and marriage, then outsiders cannot compete in that “scoring system.” Complimenting those things that are uniquely good about your spouse has a way of “setting apart” (the biblical behind the words “to make holy”) things like your spouse’s beauty, intelligence, humor, etc…

My prayer for you as you’ve read this post is that you no longer view compliments as a “silly” nicety of marriage; something that you are “supposed to do” like you’re supposed to floss your teeth (for good “marital hygiene”). I hope you see the compliments you give your spouse as an incredibly powerful shaping influence on your spouse and marriage which is only surpassed by each partner’s personal relationship with Christ and conversations with Him (personal prayer and Bible study).

This post was originally published at the “Grace and Truth” blog of the Biblical Counseling Coalition. I highly recommend the BCC as a place to find excellent resources for counseling and discipleship.

Overcoming Giving Up

I was recently counseling a couple who were really struggling. Their effort at counseling had been quite low; very little of what had been discussed or assigned was being implemented. Oddly, both of them seemed more committed to counseling than the marriage. There was a sincere desperation that marked the conversations.

As we talked about the key dynamics that needed to change, there was agreement on most every point. It was bizarre. They would both admit was they needed to change to each other and did not get defensive when their spouse agreed with them.

The problem was that this was our third session like this. We were like a football team. Everyone was lined up and knew their assignment. We read the defense accurately and were confidant that the play call would be effective. Each of the players had rehearsed his or her function and could execute the play. What was wrong?!

After a little conversation about the repetitive nature of our sessions, we concluded they had given up. They were not leaving the marriage (not yet anyway); they had just given up on it. There was no sense of hope that anything (even if seemingly well suited to their situation) would do any lasting good.

The question became, “How do you overcome giving up?” Every answer seemed to begin with try harder and that was just redundantly restating the problem a second time all over again. It was like the comic book villain whose special power was feeding off of energy. Everything the good guys did to attack him made him stronger.

Here was the solution we reached – gratitude. I began to highlight the difference by telling a story (slight historical fiction) about my son. He comes home from school and is very frustrated by his math homework. The problems don’t make any sense and the longer he tries the more daunting the few pages become. Eventually he looks at me and says, “Papa, I just can’t do it.”

Seeing the sincere despair on his face (and getting the opportunity to respond to a story I authored) I said, “Bud, I’m proud of you. It would be easy to quit and go to your room to play with your toys. But I admire you. You’re the kind of kid who stays at the table. That’s impressive. And that’s why I know you’re going to do great things. You have a character that is stronger than a math problem is hard.” Then we hugged and figured out the math problem (at least when I get to make up the story).

The point to the couple was this. Don’t do anything you are not already doing. Just say “thank you” for the things that are already happening. Any time you see something that your spouse could have left undone or unsaid, affirm them. Any time they are in the room when they could have stayed away, express appreciation. Any time they ask a question when they could have let silence stand, say thank you and then respond.

Why this homework? I believe there is a link between gratitude and hope. Without hope, effort is lifeless. It’s like eating celery; the act of chewing takes more calories than the vegetable contains so the digestion results in a net loss of calories. Gratitude was an attempt to create jumper cables for hope in an attempt to put life back into their most basic efforts.

What do we take away from this case study reflection? First, counseling is about more than giving the right answer. Second, counseling requires flexibility when “the right answer” isn’t working. Third, gratitude can be more effective at overcoming giving up than a new technique.

How to Start a Difficult Conversation

I frequently counsel couples who have a hard time starting difficult conversations. It is not always because they have a track record of doing these conversations poorly. Frequently, these couples (or at least one member of the couple) are just painfully adverse to conflict.

This post is going to assume that a couple has a decent history of resolving difficult conversations well once they are initiated.

The question becomes, “How do we overcome this obstacle so that emotions do not build, while we wrestle with whether to say something, to the point that potentially good conversations don’t go bad? How can we save ourselves the emotional turmoil of waiting even when the end product is a good conversation? How do we get started?”

What I will offer is a highly practical answer. There is a problem with highly practical answers. They come across as cookie-cutter solutions and cause people to believe the remedy is in following the recipe. Such solutions can also come across a bit cheesy and have a propensity to be relatively personality-dependant.

With all that said I will still offer a highly practical answer and simply ask that you not turn it into a rule to follow. Be creative with it. Make it your own. Find a way to express the principle in your personality and as fits your marriage.

Here is my proposal. Give your spouse paper on which to write his/her concern. At the top of the page write (in your own words):

If you have picked up this piece of paper,
then I want you to know I love you and want to hear you.
I pray regularly for you to have the courage to come to me when you are hurt,
and I pray I will listen well and hear your concerns.
I trust you to bring things to me you believe are important,
and want you to know they are important to me if they are to you.

Sign under your note, but leave the rest of the page blank for your spouse to write his/her concerns. Once this piece of paper is received the spouse would know it is a time to listen well and would be less likely to interpret the subject as an attack or treat the subject as trivial.

Now you might say, “That is helpful, but where is the Bible or the Gospel in this type of exercise?” That would be a very good and worthwhile question. I believe in this type of exchange the first spouse is to love his/her spouse as Christ loved the church (Eph. 5:25).

This is a model of the invitation God gives to all his people in prayer. We have an open invitation to come to Him with any concern at any time with no fear of being turned away or dismissed. Too often we miss the fact that communication in marriage should resemble (be modeled after) prayer. We often say that prayer is simply “talking with God” but we fail to learn from this connection when it comes to communication in the relationship that our prayer life is to exemplify.

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

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