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.
Relationships live in the constant dynamic tension between wanting our own way in pursuit of a self-actualized life, and yielding to others from other-centered love. Imbalance in either direction brings problems for oneself and for those with whom we are in relationship. The key is a balance of protection of self and protection of other(s). The ideal relationship is one of mutual giving, so that neither is forced to take from the other. Abraham Maslow even came around to a perspective similar to this idea when late in life he began to identify an alternative apex to his famed Hierarchy of Needs. Near the end of his life, Maslow began to identify “Transcendence” as the pinnacle of human pursuit rather than Self-Actualization. In pursuit of Transcendence, we invest our lives in a way that transcends our own self-interest. This is the essence of love, which is other-centeredness.
To further explain the above illustration, our tendency is to pursue what we want and need; this is survival. Out of balance, however, such self-development and self-preservation can resort to taking what we need at the expense of others with whom we are in relationship; even becoming defensive (self-protective) against them. This self-protection, of course, is the opposite of protecting the other. In extreme imbalance, the risk here is selfishness. At the other end of the spectrum is love, centered upon and protective of the wants and needs of others with whom we are in relationship. This is the kind of love we see demonstrated in the love of a parent toward a child; it is selflessness that sacrifices sleep, the use of time and space, dietary choices, the layout of the home, and many other things for the sake of the child’s needs and development. Such other-preferential love is vulnerable because there is no guarantee of reciprocation. Indeed, children should not be expected to sacrificially protect parents in reciprocal ways; this payoff may come only with advanced age and inverted dependence. But in the case of a relationship on par, such as marriage, other-centered love is vulnerable because, in protecting the other’s needs, we do so without a net; there is no guarantee the other will lovingly protect our needs and interest.
Ideally, there is mutual love; mutual protection of one another, wherein the feelings, needs, wants and wishes of each partner are understood and protected by the other, alleviating both from having to act selfishly by taking what they need at the expense of the other. Instead, both give to each other what the other needs to have a life that is safe, secure, happy, self-actualized, and satisfying. Not that partners are the complete source of all these things for each other; that would suggest a god-complex, or the imposition of the same on the other. But such mutual, sacrificial giving is the essence of love, and even of solid friendship, which is the number one predictor of marital success, according to decades of research by The Gottman Institute.
The risk of other-centered love and a focus upon sacrificially giving to the other what they need is codependence, one aspect of which is losing oneself. Co-dependents lose their voice and even their identity in the life and needs of the other—to an extreme. That last caveat is important because one should not expect to enter into a relationship of marital oneness without adjustments. To live however we wish, making whatever decisions we like without any consultation or yielding, saying whatever we want to say in whatever way we want to say it, whenever we want to say it, and doing as we please regardless of its effect on others—that’s called living alone. In marriage, we adjust for the sake of the other and are thus changed for the better by other-centeredness; this in contrast to trying to change the other (presumably into a version of ourself). That’s a topic for another article.
Boundaries must be erected when our partner is not acting in other-centered, protective love. An extreme example of this would be domestic violence, where other-protective love is wholly absent. In this case, the abused spouse must erect boundaries of self-protection against violence and disrespect, making clear in words and actions what will not be tolerated. In less extreme cases, boundaries are best articulated as positive requests that cast a vision for what is wanted, rather than criticisms of what was disappointing. For example, “I love getting all the house chores done before Sunday, so we have the whole day just to rest and play.”
Lastly, returning to Transcendence—Abraham Maslow’s late reflection on the essence of human needs—it seems to me that this brings the whole illustration full-circle. Transcendence is a paradox. It is the pursuit of something meaningful that is beyond our self. Yet, investing in it brings self-fulfillment. Examples are patriotism, altruism, parenting, and giving of ourselves and our means—even perhaps to the point of sacrificing our very lives—for something we so believe in that it is worth it. My father exemplified that transcendence in his dedication to fighting Communism in Vietnam, as explained in his letter to then-five-year-old-me, written one week before he was killed in action. He was self-actualized in his self-endangering role as an infantry officer and—as he wrote—fully expected “…to be serving in the world’s actions spots when you are my present age.” Missionaries and organ donors and teachers and others who give of themselves in ways that bring no fame or riches will testify to the same intangible sense of meaning derived from such altruism. So, we’ve come full circle. To reach transcendence—the apex of our needs—is paradoxically achieved by selflessness… sacrificing ourselves for something more important than self. Our goal in marriage is a relationship where we can love vulnerably without having to erect self-protective boundaries, nor lose ourselves to the self-centeredness of the other, because both are living sacrificially in other-centered, protective love.
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 as 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). 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 in a persons’ pasts, 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 tendencies, 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 other’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
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.
My journey has wound from social work to seminary; from traditional churches with buildings to a tent-making pastorate that doesn’t even own a tent. Professionally, I’m a therapist and, at times, a chaplain. But one constant on my journey has been photography. And not surprisingly—since God owns all Truth—I’ve noticed an intersection at which theology, therapy and photography meet.
Photography, like most things, has changed dramatically over the past 50 years. Digital cameras have replaced film, and dark rooms have yielded to color printers, but the art of photo composition has remained much the same. Life, too, has changed dramatically over the past 50 years, yet the art of composing a life remains subject to some timeless principles. The intersection of the two can be seen in the application of the rules of photo composition to the compositon of a life.
Focus cf. Field Of View:
Every photograph has a focus. Even if many things are present in the picture, something is the subject; the object of focus (even if out of focus). It is “the point” of the picture. Other things are in the field of view or confines of the frame, as well. But some of those things, whether “zoomed” out at the time of the shot or cropped out later in editing, are eliminated from the field of view. Not that they’re unworthy of being photographed; they’re just not the photographer’s focus. Having too many subjects in a field of view does not enhance a photograph, but clutters it. Rather than a piece of richly focused art, a picture with too many subjects is like a snapshot from a moving car.
Life is like that. No one can do everything. The confines of a twenty-four hour day and of a limited lifespan force us to eliminate some things from our “fields of view” – whether by accident or by choice (focus). In the realm of therapy, the niche of career counseling is devoted to helping people find their “sweet spot” – that area of career focus that will mostly likely give them personal satisfaction and “success” (however measured). Spiritually speaking, scripture tells us to focus on one master to the exclusion of others: “Choose you this day whom you will serve…” (Joshua 24:15). Jesus said (shamelessly paraphrased), “Seek first the kingdom of God, and all other things will come into proper focus.” Likewise, Paul commends Christians to humbly take up their gifting in the Body of Christ and not try to serve with gifts that are not theirs (1 Corinthians 12).
The movie, City Slickers had it right when hardened cowboy “Curly” looked at Billy Crystal and said that the secret to life is “one thing.” Billy Crystal asked, “What’s the one thing?” Curly responded “That’s what you’ve got to figure out.” Smart cowboy. Focus. Decide what is the focus—whether of a life or of a photograph—then decide what to reduce or eliminate. Decide what enriches, and what merely clutters.
If there is one focus to life that is found in both theology and therapy, it is relationships… relationship with God and relationships with people. No matter what else is might be our focus, relationships are everyone’s essence of life. Life began in relationship with God, continues utterly dependent upon a parent or caregiver, is influenced and enriched along the way by those who shape us (and we them), and will likely end dependent again upon someone’s care. Relationships… by design they are the ultimate focus of life. Whatever else is in our field of view, those things must not be allowed to eliminate relationships. If they do, then we wind up trading the essence of life for something less; possibly even only clutter.
The open space in a photograph corresponds to where the action is headed. Given the direction the subject is “facing” or moving toward, the well-composed photograph leaves open space in that direction. So it is with life. Space is having margin that allows us to move in the direction of our focus. An enjoyable life has space to grow in the ways that interest us; space in the direction of our “calling.”
Sometimes, photographs include “lines” that lead the eye, much like architects and landscape artists place elements in their design to draw the eye to some areas and away from others. In life, the trick is to realize that there are lines. We are always being drawn to some areas of focus and away from others; the question is whether we want to be drawn in the direction the lines are leading us. Who placed the lines there? Why? Can they be trusted? Did they have an ulterior motive in creating those lines and drawing our attention? What is at the end result of the lines suggested, versus other lines we could follow? Are there other lines to consider, that are more trustworthy? Which lines go in the direction that our face is set (our focus)?
Lighting can make the difference between a piece of art photography and a throwaway snapshot. Professional photographers will wait for hours for just the right lighting, often choosing sunrise or sunset to capture the dramatic shadows naturally illuminating subjects that would otherwise appear dull. The light cast on a subject changes the subject’s appearance. And the difference between artificial light and natural light creates two totally different pictures of the same subject, even if taken seconds apart. A good photographer recognizes the importance of light to his or her subject and is intentional about its illumination.
In the same way, life is illuminated. Similar to noticing the lines in photo composition, it is wise to notice the “light” in which a subject is cast. Is it “true light” or “artificial light?” Has an artificial light made something more attractive than it really is? Or less attractive? Has natural light brought out beauty that was hidden before, or hidden flaws in the shadows—perhaps where they should be? Jesus said, “I am the Light of the world” (John 8:12) and Paul said that Satan “…masquerades as an angel of light.” (2 Corinthians 11:14) Scripture, itself, can be illuminated by different kinds of light – historical light, linguistic, spiritual, critical, prayerful, volitional. The kind of light we shine on the Bible influences what we see. When reading scripture—or about scripture—pay attention to the light being applied. In counseling, likewise, therapists shine light on clients’ areas of concern, but they don’t necessarily use the same light. There are many theoretical schools from which counselors practice; the “light” they use to illuminate problems and solutions will vary, depending on the light that is applied. What is “seen” will determine treatment.
A “striking” picture is likely one that features contrasts. Hard/Soft. Dark/Light. Young/Old. Strong/Weak. Formal/Casual. Clean/Dirty. Serious/Playful.
Sometimes in life, we know best what something is, in contrast to what it is not. The value of life itself is most apparent in the face of death; we most appreciate warmth when we come in from the bitter cold; health is taken for granted until we experience illness or disability; and peace is sweetest on the day that war ends. The scriptures often describe what “is” by contrast to what is not. Jesus said that he came “not to judge the world, but to save it,” (John 3) and the Bible contrasts the light of Christ with the darkness of the world; the way of the Spirit to the nature of the flesh. Ironically, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V), which guides the world of mental health, contains numerous mental disorders, yet offers no definition of mental health. This lack of contrast leaves practitioners guessing—or making up—what is “normal.” Thus, to have Christ as an example of what God intended for human life is a great gift to mental health.
When someone just loves a picture or other work of art, it is because the image has evoked an emotion. Art carries with it a feeling. Art that connects with us affects our mood. It may bring us peace or sorrow, joy or anger, a sense of danger, or a respect for freedom. Whatever it is, we are drawn to the emotion evoked by the work. Likewise in life, even the most stoic person is motivated by emotion.
On the first day of class in my Masters in Counseling program, the professor asked, “What is more important… thoughts or feelings?” I was stumped. I wanted to say, “Both.” The answer, from a counseling perspective, is feelings. Why? Because they happen first in the brain. Emotions lead. They point. They point to important needs within us. Often, those needs are relational, such as acceptance, nurture, love, respect, safety, security, and belonging. When those attachment needs are met, we have a sense of peace, joy, and well-being. When those needs are not met—or are threatened—we experience fear, sadness, shame, or hurt… the negative primary emotions. These latter emotions are clues to what is amiss in our relationships. Ultimately, all of our attachment needs are met in relationship with God through Jesus Christ. As it turns out, he is the ultimate Attachment Figure.
Another reason emotions are more important than thoughts is that we have all known “what we should do” and not done it. Why? Because we didn’t “feel” like it. We did (or didn’t do) as we did because “we felt like it.” This is especially true when we’re hungry, angry, lonely, or tired (HALT). Yes, we’re intelligent, but emotions lead, and sometimes we just let them lead, despite knowing better. Even so great a Christian leader as the Apostle Paul knew this dilemma. In writing about the power of our corrupted human nature (the “flesh”), he said, “I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do is what I keep on doing.” (Romans 7:18,19). Even Paul at times found himself led by the flesh instead of by the Spirit; he did what he felt like doing, rather than what he knew he should do and even wanted to do. Emotions “lead” not only in the brain, but sometimes in life. The key is to recognize our feelings, whence they come, their power, and where they will lead us, if we let them.
So, photography has changed; and life has changed. But, the composition of a photograph—and of a life—have not changed. They are both still subject to the timeless principles of:
- FOCUS – deciding what is important
- FIELD OF VIEW – eliminating clutter
- SPACE – leaving room in the direction we’re going
- LEADING LINES – recognizing where we’re being drawn
- ILLUMINATION – being intentional about the light we use
- CONTRAST – clarifying by way of the opposite
- EMOTION – noticing a human need
Phenethylamine (fiːnaɪlˌɛθɪlˌəˈmiːn). You may not have heard of it, but you’ve drunk it. At least, your brain has. It goes by the nickname,“the infatuation drug.” It was secreted into your brain in Middle School when that one girl or guy walked into class, took a seat two rows down and to your left, and you didn’t hear another word the teacher said. You were in love. This person was perfect. Life with this person by your side would be the definition of bliss every day; that was clear. The only thing unclear was how to get from “two rows down and to the left” to “down the aisle and into your cool loft apartment with your two perfect kids.” Remember her or him? You may not remember their name, but now you know their nickname: “Phenethylamine.” Or more accurately—their real name.
Phenethylamine is an hallucinogen. And a nomadic one (not romantic… nomadic). It distorts reality, such that what you see is not real. Don’t get me wrong; that person in seventh grade was cute; real cute! But you’re now old enough to know they also had flaws. (Every person has flaws because our strengths are our weaknesses; a person with no weaknesses is a person with no strengths.) But you didn’t see those flaws; there wasn’t a weakness within fifty rows of that seventh grade chair. That is, until Phenethylamine moved on; and it always does. It has a shelf-life of a few weeks to a maximum of two years. If your dream-date’s facade is terribly misleading, your Phenethylamine “high” might last only as long as your first conversation.
But there’s good news. In fact, much better news. The promiscuity of Phenethylamine is trumped by the faithful permanence of the bond of Oxytocin. If Phenethylamine is the chemical reaction behind “puppy Love,” Oxytocin is the chemical reaction behind real love. It’s the feel-good chemical that washes over the brain when we connect with another human being in a way that feels secure, safe, comforting, loving, nurturing, and accepting. It says, “I want to be with this person” not because one has fallen in love with a hallucination, but because one has experienced authentic, safe, caring human connection. In that sense, it is a much more reliable guide to a good mate. After all, how we make one another feel will go a lot further in a relationship than pretty eyes and skin-tight jeans. Oxytocin also trumps—in the area of worthy criteria on which to build a relationship—another brain chemical that can lead us into trouble: Dopamine. Dopamine is released when we get what we want. It is a motivator. It is an adrenaline junkie that loves pursuit; it’s a fan of the hunt—whether the reward of the hunt is “to get the girl” (or guy), or win the tournament, or seal the business deal, or even find the next high (all addictions are ultimately Dopamine addictions; the pleasureful reward of getting what one craves rides in on a wave of Dopamine). But there could be volumes written on the woes of following Dopamine into a relationship. That’s why sex is a terrible way to start a relationship. A relationship motivated by and rewarded by a cerebral Dopamine bath is a shallow and uncertain relationship. In fact, speaking of books on Dopamine disasters, there is a chapter of that “book” as old as the Bible. This relational-Dopamine-letdown is behind the tragic story in chapter thirteen of 2nd Samuel, of the rape of Tamar by her half-brother, Amnon. He had long nurtured an obsession with “having her.” Once he “had her” (by force), “he despised her.” His Dopamine satisfied, he was not interested in a loving relationship; he was off to the next conquest. And for Tamar? What chemical washed over her brain? Certainly not Oxytocin; not even Dopamine—but Cortisol—released by the hypothalamus in response to threat, fear, and danger. Thus, the Dopamine-fueled dream of the sexual conquerer was the Cortisol-fueled living nightmare of the conquered.
But I said there was good news, didn’t I? Back to Oxytocin. Oxytocin is relationship superglue. It is the brain’s bonding chemical. It is that which creates bonding between mother and newborn, as the infant is placed on the mother’s bare belly and suckles for the first time. This becomes the child’s first experience outside the womb of caring, comfort, safety, acceptance, belonging and love… the first building block of a chemically-reinforced association of relationships with safe reliability. The more positive, pure, safe connections a person has throughout life—especially in early life—the more capacity one will have for secure attachments, or safe, trusting relationships. Oxytocin is released in moments ranging from plutonic to romantic. It shows up when we’ve been “tended or befriended.” It is secreted when a human interaction has felt good—safe, accepting, nurturing, and comforting. It’s in the cradled lullaby; the nonsexual touch of a friend; a good massage; a hug when we’re sobbing; holding someone’s hand when afraid; snuggling with a parent or spouse; the empathy we see in the tear-rimmed eyes of someone who has listened—really listened—to our story; it’s as public and low-level as holding candles in a Christmas Eve service, and as private and intense as front-to-front sexual orgasm in a relationship of committed love. And that committed love is, again, the difference between the secretion of shallow and short-lived Dopamine, or a Phenethylamine hallucination.
So, the heart bone is indeed connected to the brain bone, in both adaptive and maladaptive ways; ways that help, heal and protect us, and ways that hinder, wound, and damage us. And that’s the gift—and curse—of relationships. Our hearts are vulnerable; our brains are vulnerable; relationships are vulnerable. Love, trust, and commitment are vulnerable. But where would we be without that relational vulnerability? Alone. We’d be alone. And that is the most wounding existence of all. The alternative is to be for others a safe, accepting, respectful, comforting, loving, protective presence and—if we choose wisely—experiencing the same from someone else.
I have people-centric jobs, yet fight to spend time with people. I am a counselor, pastor, chaplain, and teacher chained to a computer much of the day. And it’s not optional. There are daily, weekly and monthly reports to be filed, emails to be read and sent, social media to update, websites to maintain, documents to produce, mandated electronic records to keep, resources to create, and even blogs—of all things—to write! There would be bulletins to produce and monthly newsletters, as well, but our church does not use them; I refuse to spend time on them, given their poor return on investment.
The investment that does pays off—in strengthened lives, empowered people, healed wounds, and functional families—is in real relationships with people. Yet, with many households being characterized by two working spouses, sports commitments nearly every night and weekend, smart phones that allow us to work all the time, and nearly everything requiring us to go online, except for gassing up the car… who can be away from a little screen long enough to talk with a flesh-and-blood person? Even people who go to coffee shops “to be around people” sit staring into little screens instead of engaging with the people around them. I even see kids at bus stops staring off into space with earbuds in their ears, intentionally walled off from each other by personal playlists. It’s like a disturbing sci-fi movie.
Jesus’ last prayer on earth surprised me. In John 17, he prayed for his disciples and all those who would follow them in faith. Given the myriad things Jesus could have prayed, what did he pray? He prayed, “…that they be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.” (v.21) He prayed that people be united; that they be one as he and the father are one. In other words, he prayed for bonded human relationships. If that’s the case, then what are going to be top priorities of the liar/enemy/deceiver/destroyer? Isolate and divide. And hasn’t he done a marvelous job of it!?! Not only has he walled us off from one another as in the above examples and many more, our enemy has taken even the most intimate, connectional experience imaginable—that physical intimacy capable of producing a human life—and turned that into a disconnected “hookup,” or worse by way of even less connected online counterfeit experiences.
Brain scans have shown us a great deal, including the neurological and chemical responses that are created in response to varying human interactions, such as looking into the eyes of another human being, having a conversation, working as a team, receiving a smile, experiencing nonsexual touch, or engaging in caring sexuality. Brain scans reveal that God made us with a need for human relationships, and that these cannot be fulfilled by cyber connections. Thus, our adversary—in the name of convenience and productivity (measured in time, currency, inanimate objects, and other factors unrelated to human well-being)—has isolated us into boxes. We live in insulated boxes; drive in mobile boxes; sit in work cubicles, and constantly hold hands with an omnipresent mobile box. Exit human relationships; enter isolation, loneliness, and neurological lack of familiarity with attachment and real intimacy.
It wasn’t meant to be this way. We were made for relationships… real human relationships. It was what Jesus prayed for when he prayed his last prayer on earth.