Isolation

What if we knew our enemy’s tactics, exactly? Would we discern differently, decide otherwise, or use alternate criteria to measure success? Paul tells us we do know the devil’s tactics. In 2 Corinthians 2:11, he says, “…we are not unaware of his schemes” (NIV).

What are they, then? They are many; yet his goal is singular: isolation. This makes perfect sense, given that Scripture reveals a God who exists in a relationship of love between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. So inseparable is God from communal identity that John goes so far as to define God by one word, “God is love” (1 John 4:8b). Thus unfolds the story of God creating a people designed for relationship. God’s first impression of the prototypical human being was, “Not good,” because Adam was alone. The human creation that bore God’s image was not complete until there was a pair (Genesis 1:27). God proceeded to then call persons to himself in covenant relationship; and through them a nation in covenant. He redeemed that people over and over again until the final redemption in Christ, who opened the covenant to all nations in fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant (Genesis 22:18). Then in God’s earthly ministry, the Messiah broke down walls of division, leaving behind a blended Church, the unity of which the apostles repeatedly beseeched congregations to defend. Christ and the early Church also defended the human incubator that is marriage in a culture quick to find sex outside of covenant, and prone to place personal pursuits above mutually protective, familial commitment. In Christ’s high priestly prayer for the disciples and all those who would follow them—ever—Jesus’ final prayer implores, “…that they may be one, even as we are one.” (John 17:11b) Out of all the things Jesus could have asked on behalf of his spiritual progeny, he asks for oneness—for unity in relationship. So, from the genesis of human creation to the very end of Jesus’ life, relational unity is God’s heartbeat. No wonder isolation is the enemy’s preeminent goal. 

With this understanding, the devil’s tactics become obvious. Our ultimate enemy will use anything and nothing, from trivial spats to global warfare to separate us from one another and leave us utterly alone. So, he lauds sex without marriage or children as utopian, not disclosing the lonesome result. He idealizes independence, as technological advances enable us to accomplish nearly anything with the tap of a screen, without any help. We used to need to get people together to get things done; there was a limit to what one person could do, alone. Now, in order to “get something done,” we have to banish ourselves to a lonely place where people won’t interrupt our keyboarding. This is productive if the most important things are accomplished on a computer. But if love is the most important thing (Romans 13:10; 1 Corinthians 13;13; 1 Timothy 1:5; 1 John 4:8), as lived out in Scripture’s “one another” mandates, then to divide and isolate people is a certain way to ensure the Lord’s will will not be done, no matter how busy his people. 

We are people of the frog who’ve woken up in a kettle hot with division and isolation. It is only from movies and old people’s memories that we can imagine nearly communal parenting based on a common ethic, or singing and playing instruments together because it was the only way to have music, or shopkeepers and beat-cops who knew everyone by name, or employers who hired based on reputation, or the un-feared roadside assistance of a stranger, or asking for a hand rather than reaching for a power tool. 

So, yes, we do know our enemy’s tactics. Whatever will divide or thwart relationships and leave us alone. He’ll use anything from false teachers (2 Peter 2:1) to favorite preachers (1 Corinthians 1:10-17), to political division (Acts 23:7), to judgmental pride (Proverbs 16:18), to serial dating, to technological advancements and productivity enhancements. Christ’s goal, on the other hand, is by his Spirit to make us one, even as he and the Father are one (John 17).

Fear

Coronavirus / COVID-19. Scary. 

But what place has fear in our lives? 

The military conducted experiments to see if fear could be eradicated from the human response mechanism. Answer? No. Warranted fear is necessary; it keeps us alive. There are things that can harm or kill us; situations that put us at risk. These should be feared, eliminated, defeated, or protected against. A serious virus deadly to at-risk groups is one of them. 

Unwarranted fear or unrelenting anxiety only keeps us worried. It’s debilitating with no  protective benefit. It fears fear. 

Scripture speaks of fear—both of appropriately targeted fear and of wasteful worry and anxiety. It begins with  the “fear of” (reverence for) God. In Psalm 111:10, Proverbs 14:26,27, and Proverbs 19:23 we are reminded that God is the beginning of  wisdom; the source of life; our shelter; and our peace. 

The difference between fear and reverence is that fear rightly motivates us to run from what can harm us; reverence invites us to take shelter in He who is powerfully for us even in the midst of what is frightening. The biblical figure, Job, who endured bruising hardship and suffering said, “Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him” (Job 13:15). 

 Jesus invites us to take shelter in Him: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is perfectly fitted and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30)  

The Apostle Paul, who endured hostile opposition, false accusation, pursuit, beatings, imprisonment, stoning, and being left for dead, wrote:  “…be anxious about nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:6,7) 

So, yes, we are wise to fear what should be feared; let us protect ourselves and others in the ways God has enabled us to do so. And let us revere and trust in the  Lord who loves and motivates courageous love, for “God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.” (2 Tim 1:7) 

Let us run from what can harm us, and run to Him who  wills to comfort, help, and save us. Then,May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” (Romans 15:13) 

What the Heck is “the Gospel?”

The word “gospel” can conjure up images of a judgmental preacher in a bad suit waving a Bible overhead and hatefully denouncing sinners. Ironically, in contrast to that picture, the literal translation of “gospel” is “good news.”  That good news can be illustrated, in part, by the Venn diagram in the header.

The good news is that God has met in Jesus Christ the spiritual longing that every human feels and may try to fill with things incapable of occupying it. Financial, social, physical, intellectual, relational, emotional, and recreational pursuits—as important and satisfying as they can be (witness Kansas City’s Super Bowl win)— cannot fill the spiritual longing shaped like Christ. The gospel is the answer to that stubborn  emptiness that refuses to be filled by worthy pursuits or worthless distractions. 

To be clear, that interior void is in the shape of Christ, not religion. Religion is man’s  attempt to draw near to God, while the ” gospel” is the good news that in Christ God came to us. Religion properly focused on developing our spiritual closeness to Christ can help, but is itself not the focus, nor was religious practice Christ’s focus while on earth. Listening to and heeding his Father was his focus. 

When people offer reasons for not liking church or religion, I can almost always agree with their reasons. The institutional church has not always represented Christ well, and often does not still, today. But those reasons don’t change who Jesus is. Most people—even people who eschew religion—admire, respect, or even love Jesus. And it is Jesus as he is who fills our spiritual longing. That said, a church focused on him can offer a supportive community essential to growth in mutual relationship with Christ.

So, back to the question, “What the heck is ‘the gospel?'” The gospel is that in Jesus Christ, God entered human form so that people could understand God; the gospel is that Jesus suffered hardship, temptation, and death, just like ourselves, yet was without sin, unlike ourselves. Since he had no sin to separate him from the “godhead” (Father, Son and Holy Spirit), the grave had no hold on him and he took up his life again. (This is why the disciples who abandoned him at his arrest went to their deaths refusing to deny him  as risen Lord and God-incarnate (Immanuel) (Matthew 1:23). Christ then transferred his payment for sin (of which he uniquely had none) to us who need it (1 John 2:2). Acceptance of that free gift of forgiveness secured by Christ’s atonement for sin on our behalf is what it means to be or become a Christian. It is that dependence (faith) on Christ’s forgiveness through no merit of our own that fills that spiritual void and gives us identity and purpose other areas of life cannot. 

As a counselor and pastor, I know this by experience. Therapists, psychologists, doctors and psychiatrists have good things to offer hurting or struggling people. But, therapy, insight, interpersonal skills, and even medication can not bring peace with God. Christ does. The Sinless one meets the sinful and welcomes us into a living relationship that fills our deepest longing. He says, “Come unto me all who are weary and heavily burdened and I will give you rest.” If life seems empty at its center, or its dimensions out of balance, Jesus invites:  “take on my yoke and find a secure fit. Jesus said, “I have come that they might have life, and have it to the full.”  (Matthew 11:28-29; John 10:9-10) 

The gospel is thus an invitation… an invitation from God to come to Jesus to come to life; it is an invitation to satisfy that deep interior longing, not with religion, but with a relationship. The gospel is not about us seeking after God, it is about God seeking after us. The gospel is that in Jesus Christ God came near, in order that we might know closeness with him; that we may know a love we’ve never known and be able to love others in a way more selfless than our own. 

God runs to us in Christ like the father in  Luke 15 ran to the prodigal son who had cut himself off from his father, but later turned back. In his father’s embrace the prodigal found welcome, not punishment; he found love, grace, peace, and life anew. That’s the reception that God gives through the gospel. Jesus Christ came to give us new life; life that completes us at our core. That infilling relationship can be found by accepting Jesus’ invitation, “Come unto me and find rest for your souls.” 

Like the prodigal, this means turning from imbalanced or false pursuits, to him who alone can fill the center of our being. It is trusting in his forgiveness and entrusting our lives to his leadership.

Pray, “Lord, Jesus Christ, take your place in my heart and life; fill that central place reserved for you. Forgive whatever separates me from you and lead me in life anew.” 

____________________ 

(Find videos of celebrities and of less celebrated people who have found their center in Christ at IAmSecond.com.)  

Evicting Christ from our Marriages?

Followers of Christ have an advantage in marriage. We have the gift of knowing universal truths in a relativistic world that thinks people can decide their own truths and that these will work as well as the instructions of our Designer and Maker. 

Followers of Christ have the two-fold guides of Scripture, which gives mandates for the practice of trust-in-Christ in practical behavioral terms (do this; don’t do that), and of the Spirit, who transforms our hearts and minds from within through Christ’s ongoing work of sanctification. By these two powerful forces, followers of Christ conform toward Christlikeness of heart, mind, and behavior. 

Yet, even self-identified followers of Christ can grow relationally weary to the point where circumstances or marital history or stress or negative influencers can lead us to abandon Christian praxis when it comes to the treatment of their spouses. Some husbands and wives might find themselves resorting to unkindness, name-calling, profanity, selfishness, rudeness, impatience, immorality, harshness, unfaithfulness, lying, abandonment, insults, and slander toward the one they profess to love and with whom they want to strengthen their marriage. 

The above—where not born of individual wounds or personality disorders—can be desperate acts of self-defense fueled by feeling unprotected by one’s spouse (whether or not that is actually the case). The tragedy is that when we abandon the practice of our Christian faith in our human relationship that matters most—the one that mirrors our relationship with God (Ephesians 5:21-32)—we leave our marriage without the two most powerful forces toward positive life change. It is making the decision to not apply scriptural truth nor sanctified nature to our most important human relationship. We apply them in other areas of life, but not to our marriage.

Should we be surprised that this does not help? I’ve never heard of, nor seen, a marriage healed by the abandonment of love, respect, kindness, gentleness, service, protection, virtue, and encouragement toward one’s spouse. Christians who act un-christianly toward their spouse have no advantage over those who are not followers of Christ. What good is it to call him, “Lord” and not do as he says? (Luke 6:46) To walk according  to the Spirit in other areas of life (Galatians 5:16-26), but according to the flesh in our marriage, is to make our faith worth less in marriage. It leaves our relationship of oneness at the mercy of the prince of this world (John 14:30), whom Scripture describes as the deceiver, destroyer and father of lies. (Revelation 12:9; John 10:10; John 8:44). That’s tragic, and predictive of tragedy in marriage.

Rather, let us “keep in step with the Spirit” (Galatians 5:25), and “let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. Instead, let us clothe  ourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, making no provision for the desires of the flesh.” (Romans  13:13,14) 

This article runs the risk of sounding preachy, as if the solution were a matter of quoting an entire chapter of Scripture.  Let me meet that risk head-on by quoting the preacher, Paul, and all of chapter 3 of Colossians: 

Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.

Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Because of these, the wrath of God is coming. You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. But now you must also rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices 10 and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. 11 Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.

12 Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. 13 Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. 14 And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.

15 Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. 16 Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. 17 And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” 

Did you win this Christmas? 

So much is going on around Christmas and the holidays, that competition is created. Competition for time, how money gets spent, what gets our attention, who is heard, what influences are yielded to, what activities are engaged in and which are postponed or eliminated altogether. At the end of it all, we wonder if we handled it well, especially as we head into a new year resolute to do better. What’s the measure for determining “success” at crazed times with so many factors in competition? 

Consumerism tells us that success means having gotten the best deal. Productivity measures success by how much we got done. Process orientation measures success by how efficiently we got it done. And a competitive drive measures success by how our purchases and productivity compare that of to others. All of these are objective standards that invite a determination of success by what is measured. 

But, what matters most in life is subjective, resisting measurements by quantifiable data.  At the end of the day, life is about relationships. And relationships are measured by fuzzy criteria like how people feel; whether they feel prioritized and important; to what extent they feel accepted, protected, liked, and enjoyed. Relational success is fueled by laughter, love, smiles, and caring touch. Relationships are about kindness, patience, gentleness, generosity, virtue, integrity, tenderness, grace and mercy. Relationships win when—amid all the competition—people experienced that their needs and feelings were more important than getting a great deal, getting a lot done, or doing things “efficiently.”

In God’s economy, wins are measured in relationships, and relational wins aren’t counted; they’re felt. 

May you have a winning new year. 

BE NICE

Dr. John Gottman’s off-quoted four decades of research on marriage, from which he has compiled reliable predictors of divorce and trustworthy principles for marital success, can be summarized in this advice: “Be nice.” Amazing. Decades of scientific research has discovered that people prefer to be married to someone who is nice to them. Whodathunk?  In fact, his data from observing 4,000 couples shows that satisfied couples make each other feel good twenty times more than they make each other feel bad. Even during conflict, they maintain a ratio of 5:1, making each other feel good five times more than they make each other feel bad during disagreements. Such a mathematical approach invites the simple self-check of identifying one’s planned actions and verbiage as a plus or minus on the “feel good“ scale. That is, is it going to make our partner feel good? If not, then how is unkind look, comment, or act worth it, if the goal is a happy marriage? 

Marriage counselors are often faced with the initial task of getting partners to quit blaming each other for marital problems, and to begin focusing instead on their interactive patterns that have pit them against one another. These uncaring patterns fraught with misunderstanding have not “felt nice,“ and thus have served as a rationalization to each “victim” to not be nice in return. That is, rudeness, inconsideration, and failure  on the part of one’s spouse to “be there“ in a supportive way leaves a person defensive, or self – protective, thus justifying behavior that is not protective of the other. The relationship is thus  cannibalized. As a result, “communication” becomes a toxic swirl of harshness, criticism, blame, and defensiveness. In this toxic swirl, one or both partners is more interested in communicating how they feel than in protecting the other’s feelings by how they communicate.

What need happen is the recognition that instead of being torn asunder by in-fighting, the two can instead be drawn together by mutual protection in pursuit of a mutual mission (“Shared Meaning” in Gottman terminology). This Recognition results in a shift from “me” to “we.” Partners switch from protection of self to protection of other, and protection of “us.”Marriage is a union; the two are one. To wound one’s partner is to wound “us.’  Not worth it. To defend the other with the same level of interest as protecting oneself is vulnerable; it comes without guarantee that the other half of the union will be equally protective. The apostle Paul – ironically a bachelor – summed it up well in Romans 12:18 when he admonished, “As far as it depends upon you, live at peace with others.“ This removes the rationalization for self-protective, self–centered behavior… “Well s/he was mean, first.” That justification might have worked on the playground, but it will destroy a marriage. Adults go first.

This is not easy, of course; no easier than when warring countries call a cease-fire and sit together together at table to work out a peace accord. Nothing about restoring peace can be easy after so many wounds have been inflicted. But it is done. Peace and reconciliation are worth it. Trust between former enemies is thereafter built, safe interaction by safe interaction. One comes to experience a former enemy as one’s present and future friend through now kind, protective words and deeds. 

If a person cannot be nice to the person they profess to love—even with the help of a counselor trained in couples therapy—then there are a couple of things potentially going on. One possibility is that this person has no reason to think that past injuries won’t continue. Perhaps there has been no meaningful conversation where the hurt partner has felt understood, and their wounded emotions validated. Perhaps there has been no apology (one without excuses or rationalizations). Or perhaps that partner needs individual counseling. for, if one can’t love and protect others, then there is a need help and healing. If one can’t stop blaming their partner for all of the marital problems, then intervention is needed. Ideally, the partner will recognize this for themselves. All relationships have interactive patterns that exist on a spectrum of health. Most could be healthier; that means changes on both sides of the patterned equation. Best to begin with oneself. Rarely (never?) does it work well when the victimized partner suggests the other’s need for counseling – or worse – proceeds to diagnose the other as a narcissist or having bipolar or borderline personality traits. That may be the case, but better to hear it from a professional who can offer support  and tools for change. 

Only then will the harsh, critical, blaming, defensive cycle change through humble mutual focus on the interactive patterns. Only then will friendship and mutual protection replace reciprocal volleys of criticism, blame, and defensiveness. Only then will the nice-to-nasty ratio rise, such that the marriage is each partner’s safest place on earth. 

The Bully Spouse

The “bully spouse” is encountered with some regularity in couples counseling. This partner could be male or female. The key characteristic among bullies is that they do not listen to or heed their partner’s feelings, point of view, preferences, or needs. Specifically, bullies interact in a number of ways:

  • Bullies see only their own point of view.
  • Bullies do not reflect fairly their partners’ point of view before stating (or re-stating) their own.
  • Bullies interrupt their partner’s attempt to explain their point of view, feelings, wants, or needs. This, even if the bully had asked their partner, “Help me understand.” 
  • Bullies respond to their partner’s point of view, feelings, wants, wonders or needs   with sarcasm, mockery, minimizing, or diminishing their partner’s feelings or needs  in comparison to their own. 
  • Bullies insist on seeing the worst in their partner, not granting them the benefit of the doubt, judging their hearts and motives, and refusing to hear or believe their partner’s explanation.
  • Bullies put self-protection first, out of balance with protection of their partner (emotionally, physically, through allocation of resources, etc.).
  • Bullies lack empathy.
  • Bullies blame their partner for the couple’s interactive pattern, refusing to take some responsibility or quickly minimizing their own part in comparison to their partner’s more egregious part.
  • Bullies are quick to complain and slow to compliment; noticing what their partner does “wrong,” but rarely what their partner does “right.” (In Gottman terms, this is one example of Negative Sentiment Override).
  • Bullies play the victim, bypassing whatever hurt, inconvenience, disrespect, or injury their partner noted, and turning the conversation back to their own pain, inconvenience, injury, etc., making their own experience the sole issue.  
  • Bullies “blow up” conversations before mutual understanding is achieved, through escalation of harshness, volume, crying, yelling, etc.—for which they blame their partner—followed by hijacking the meeting and bringing conversation to an abrupt end’ perhaps even storming out as they complain they “just can’t take it anymore.”
  • Bullies gaslight. Gaslighting is psychological manipulation that twists another’s   correct observations to make them question their own senses, or even sanity. 
  • Bullies insist upon being granted grace for bad behavior because they’re “not perfect,” but do not grant grace to their partner for the same infractions.
  • Bullies “listen” to their partner’s disappointment over a past incident, but when a similar scenario unfolds, they forget what their partner asked for, and do the same as they’ve done before. 
  • Bullies insist upon their own way. 
  • Bullies build alliances with other family members & friends by painting a one-sided narrative that vilifies their spouse and turns others against their partner, often in contexts where the partner has no voice. 
  • Bullies continue to employ past offenses as weapons, even after understanding has been reached, a sincere apology made and received, and reformations made. 

Bullying exists on a spectrum. To identify with one or more of the above, or to see one or more of the above in our partner, does not a bully make. Some of these are employed as a matter of course as we navigate life as self-interested persons. The key is the ability to balance self-interest with the interests of others.

On an extreme, bullying can be seen in people with low Emotional Intelligence (EQ). The term, “EQ” was coined by Peter Salovey and John D. Mayer, and popularized by Daniel Goleman in his book Emotional Intelligence. Healthy EQ refers to “…a form of social intelligence that involves the ability to monitor one’s own and others’ feelings and emotions, to discriminate among them, and to use this information to guide one’s thinking and action.” (Salovey & Mayer)  On an extreme level, unhealthy—or extremely low EQ—is evidenced in the lives of people who meet the clinical criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder or for Borderline Personality Disorder. While these personality disorders result from abuse or neglect in a person’s past, it is hard to summon compassion for people who suffer from these disorders, since the outward expression of these disorders is experienced as self-centered, or outright selfish behavior. 

But before you label your partner a bully, or selfish, or a Narcissist or as suffering from Borderline characteristics, look in the mirror (or watch yourself on video, critiquing yourself, never your partner). Experience yourself from your partner’s eyes. This is important because projection is the tendency to see (and be irritated by) behaviors that are our own. We see them in others and dislike them; others see them in us and dislike them the same. This is why Dr. John Gottman commends employing the Assumption of Similarity, especially during a conflict with a partner. The Assumption of Similarity is the practice of also seeing in ourselves a negative quality that we are ascribing to our partner, and vice-versa; and of also seeing in our partner a positive quality we are attributing to ourselves. This keeps us from forming an exalted view of ourselves and a contemptuous view of our partner. Jesus even warned of this when he said, “Judge not, lest you be judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you.” (Matthew 7:1-2) 

What does one do with a bully? The solution to the bully dilemma is, first of all, to make sure that we’re not a bully. Make sure you’re not doing what you’re asking your partner to not do. Bullying back is not the path to peace. The Apostle Paul wrote, “As far as it depends upon you, live at peace with everyone.” (Romans 12:18)

The ideal is to model non-bullying behavior for our spouse. Help them understand that you are with them and for them, willing to protect their emotions, preferences and needs in balance with your own. For the Narcissist, reassure them of your respect; for the Borderline, reassure them of your love and loyalty. That is, help them understand that they need not resort to bullying to be protected. 

If your efforts to protect your partner are not reciprocated by their protection of you, then establish self-protective boundaries, even while continuing to love, respect, protect, and care for your partner. Boundaries establish what you will not accept (name-calling, physical abuse, yelling, profanity, etc.). The same Apostle Paul who said, “As far as it depends upon you, live at peace with everyone,” also allowed  himself be lowered in a basket through a window to escape people who were intent on doing him harm. (Acts 9:25) The best way to establish boundaries is to voice in the positive the behavior that you find protective, and that will gain and keep your engagement. For example, instead of “Don’t be such a b****! You’re so mean; no one could live with you,” say, “I want to talk about this with you; I’ll be back when we can talk about it calmly.” Instead of, “You’re so selfish,” say, “What’s important to you is important to me, and I need to know that what’s important to me is important to you.” Instead of “I can’t live with a liar,” say, “I want us to be able to trust each other.”

Finally, the best antidote to poor communication and conflict resolution is good communication and effective conflict management. The Gottman Institute—and likely any counselor specifically trained in couples therapy—will have tools designed to help partners understand each other’s differing points of view, different emotional responses, different pasts, different values beneath a conflict, and one another’s different needs. Specific to the Gottman Institute are its exercises: Talking it Out exercise, Aftermath of a Fight exercise, and Gottman-Rapoport conversation guide. In a nearby blog post, I also offer my 5 Rs for Understanding, which guide communication toward understanding and mutual protection. 

New ways of communicating take practice, of course, and practice is often most effective when we have a coach to walk us through new skills. Don’t hesitate to engage a relationship coach or counselor trained in research-based couples therapy to guide you through healthier patterns of communication. 

Doug Burford, DMin, LPC

Other-centeredness

We can know everything there is to know about marriage—intellectually—and still wind up with a bad marriage, or even divorced. Information about what makes marriage work isn’t enough. Conversely, people relatively ignorant of academic research and intellectual insights into marriage can have mutually endearing and enduring marriages, regardless of their life circumstances. What makes the difference, then, if not knowledge? It comes down to other-centeredness.

Other-centeredness… is that even a thing? (I have to hyphenate it so my spellcheck doesn’t object.) Yes, it must be a thing, because its opposite—self-centeredness—is a thing. And when it comes to marriage—and nearly all relationships—other-centeredness is THE thing. Bad behavior that creates or contributes to bad relationships is not mysterious. Bad behavior is simply self-centeredness in motion. Where it comes from is as individualistic as the individuals involved. But whatever its source, and whatever its more legitimate cousins—self-actualization, self-preservation, and self-protection, for example—its focus is on self, not the other. And self-focus (self interest at least, self centeredness perhaps, or selfishness at worst) usually doesn’t feel good in a relationship. It feels less than loving.

Other-centerdness is actually my definition of love. In scripture, the apostle Paul begins his chapter on love by remarking that a person can fathom all mysteries and have all knowledge, but have not love, and thereby be nothing. (1st Corinthians 13:2)  That’s a strong verdict, especially in our culture that idolizes information. Yet, in the world of relationships, nothingness is what becomes of us if there is not love (other-centeredness). Listen for that term under all the words the apostle Paul uses to describe love: “Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.” (1st Corinthians 13:4-8) You might have noticed that there is not a self-serving word in the entire list. Everything that Paul commends as love would only be done for the benefit of someone else. After all, why be kind; what’s in it for me? Answer: It’s not about me; it’s about blessing someone else. Why be patient if I’m feeling impatient? Answer: for the sake of another. Why not be a braggart or envy others who have what I can’t have? Answer: Because other-centered love can be happy for others who have what I don’t. And we could go through the entire list this way. The point is, everything love does, it does for the benefit of someone else; that’s what makes it love.

Notice, too, that Paul’s list is devoid of feeling-words. Love is not an emotion. Love is a combination of attitudes and behaviors acted on regardless of how we feel. In fact, often, love is about doing the opposite of what we feel like doing. Love summons self-control so that we are not controlled by what our emotions tell us to do or say. It’s how responsible parents love their children. This understanding of love may not sound very romantic, but it is a relationally safe way of love that is the most solid foundation for romance. Romantic relationships are built upon the foundation of a ratio of “feel-good” to “feel bad” interactions. We are drawn to, and remain drawn to, people who make us feel good. Obviously, being affected by another’s self-centeredness feels bad; being gifted by another’s other-centeredness feels good.

Research by Dr. John Gottman has identified seven principles that undergird successful, mutually satisfying, long-enduring loving relationships. The first of these principles he calls “Love Maps.” A  Love Map is detailed knowledge of a partner’s world. It is familiarity with what is important to one’s partner—their likes, dislikes, hopes, dreams, disappointments, fears, anticipations. It is knowing what relaxes our partner, what stresses them, what angers them, what makes them feel supported, etc. It’s good information to know; but, as we noted earlier, knowledge is not enough. Knowing these things about our partner is like knowing French. What good is it, if we don’t use it? To quote Bob Goff’s book title, “Love does.” Love (other-centeredness) takes what we know about our partner (Gottman’s Love Map) and uses that knowledge to make our spouse feels protected, important, remembered, respected, and honored. It takes our partner’s likes and dislikes; preferences and anticipations, and includes them on our shopping lists, personal calendars, and to-do lists. Love looks for opportunities and invents ways to use the Love Map to make our partner feel good. Remember doing this when you were dating? It’s what many couples stop doing once they get married, and maybe start doing with someone who isn’t their spouse—their eventual affair partner. Affair partners learn each other’s preferences and build those into their interactions; they remember what is important to each other; they carefully govern their words and go out of their way to speak kindly; they listen and express understanding, rather than arguing their own point of view. In other words, they practice other-centeredness, like husbands and wives used to do when they were dating.

The hope for marriage is the recognition that both partners do indeed have Love Maps. It is further recognizing that partners’ Love Maps are not going to match. That does not spell incompatibility; it spells opportunity to understand what this entirely-other-human-being needs to feel loved. Hint: it won’t be what comes naturally to us. Our partner is not us; they’re them. Other-centeredness learns what feels good to them; love doesn’t insist that they like what feels good to us. Love is about learning a new map. This education will not come from a book. It will take other-centered focus to notice and remember what makes our spouse feel loved, respected, safe, secure, nurtured, supported, honored, comforted, protected, accepted, and liked. It is on the basis of such feelings that a ratio (feel-good to feel bad interactions) will be built that becomes strong enough to feel like love. Love is about knowing our spouse better than does anyone on the planet, and using that knowledge to make our spouse feel all of the things just listed. And to know how to do so better than anyone else on the planet. When our spouse is also—with other-centered love—meeting those same needs for us (but according to our different Love Map), then there is a solid, safe relationship.

Again, other-centeredness is not natural. Self-centeredness is natural (survival of the fittest). It can be a struggle to get beyond ourselves and empathize with someone else. Ideally, we experienced this kind of love from our parents. If so, it’s easier to replicate. If not, then we need a reparative experience or experiences from which to draw. If those experiences don’t come from safe people in our life, then God offers what people might not. That which we may not have been given to us by humans is available to us by the Holy Spirit. For free. The heart that humbles itself to Christ as Lord, and calls out to the Holy Spirit for help, will be graciously given awareness of God’s loving presence within and alongside it, always. One work of the Holy Spirit is to transform self-centeredness into other-centered love, like the love of God toward us. It was this love that drove him to visit earth, love the unloved, serve like a servant not a king, and die like a criminal so that we wouldn’t have to. That’s other-centeredness. That’s love. It’s what God has in his heart for us, and what he wants to form in our hearts for others. Just ask him for this gift. He will answer and grant you his heart.