Ready, Set… Resist Re-setting

Funny what a pandemic can teach us: 

  Outdoors is restorative. 

 Screen-time will consume all time if we let it.

 Relationships give meaning to life.   

 Togetherness requires yielded-ness. 

 Electronic entertainment isn’t, after a while.  

 Face-to-face, not FaceTime or FaceBook. 

 We can live by computer alone, but who wants to?  

 Variety really is the spice of life. 

 We can get almost anything we want online, except what we want most.  

 We need each other. 

 Touch is irreplaceable.

 There is a spiritual void filled only by the Spirit.

 If we don’t move, we won’t move. 

 What stressed us before the pandemic need be reduced. 

✚ What de-stressed us during the pandemic need be increased.

Cabin Fever

How can longed-for time together not lead to “Cabin Fever,” before long?  

“Cabin fever” originally referred to typhus, but came to describe “the need to get out and about” after days of being trapped in a cabin by harsh elements. 

There are so many things that could be focused upon, from the need for time together and time apart, to the need for sunlight, exercise, nature, restorative music, reduced screen-time, good nutrition, solid sleep, and fasting from news and social media. But this article will assume that one shares a cabin—and thus a fever—with other humans, and will treat a key component to interpersonal communication. 

The main thing that challenges relationships in close quarters is that we lose autonomy. Things that we used to decide ourselves, without debate—even automatically—suddenly become agenda items for a cabin committee that is  always in session. Pre-lockdown, we’d worked out our routine of home-to-work, work-to-home, time with others and time alone. We knew our place and others knew theirs. Such routines and fairly independent patterns are a fading memory as a new routine is worked out, not independently, but with perpetual consideration for our cabin-mates. Those quick autonomous decisions—when to shower, what to eat, where to work or study, what is playing on what screen or speakers and how loud, what rooms to be in and when, who to be around, when to take breaks and where—all become dyadic discussions, group debates or hostile negotiations. It can be stressful for everyone as something so simple as turning a dial becomes a turf battle. So, what makes the  difference between a home filled with peaceful vacationers and a cabin filled with fever-ridden adversaries? 

The first thing is a mind-shift—we’re not in this alone. Autonomy is easier; relationships are harder. Relationships require consideration, empathy, understanding, and mutual support (unless you’re an adult whose cabin-mates have still-forming brains; then your expectations must be checked against developmental reality). This takes doses of patient listening, self-control, gentleness, servant-heartedness, sacrifice, yielding and love. It takes conforming to one another rather than trying to transform one another into ourself…. “Do things the way I do; have the same preferences I have; want what I want, feel what I feel, think what I think, and share my opinion on everything.” That’s not gonna work; better pitch a tent in the back yard.  

Relationships are about adjusting to each other, and adjusting peacefully means listening more than talking and wanting to understand as much as wanting to be understood. Preferably more (see separate blog on Dynamic Tension). The following illustration may help. 

EUSAw

EUSAw – You won’t find it in a dictionary, and I wish it meant something from a borrowed language, but it doesn’t. It is, however,  an acronym for what is very useful to keep minor differences from becoming major battles. 

  • Empathize
  • Understand
  • Support
  • Affirm
  • wonder

The first thing we must do if we want connection, not contention, is to recognize what emotion is in the driver’s seat of the other’s brain at the moment (see the movie, Inside Out). Note whether the other is feeling excited, irritated, sad, hurt, prioritized, scared, put down, important, overwhelmed, unloved, appreciated, liked, etc. Notice it. Name it. Empathize. That is, get in the passenger seat alongside them. “How frustrating.” “I’m sorry.” “How exciting!” “That must have been disappointing.” “That had to be painful.” Empathy connects us; don’t skip it. Especially don’t minimize someone’s feelings or try to talk them out of what they’re feeling. Especially, especially don’t skip empathy in favor of fixes, criticisms, or repeating over and again your different point of view. Any of those will bring contention, not connection. Empathize first. 

Secondly, understand—and voice your understanding—of the other’s perspective. Voicing  does not mean agreement, it means you listened; you heard. That’s love. That’s caring. That’s being there for someone. That’s friendship. That’s marriage, and family. If it helps, pretend you are writing someone’s biography for them and you’ve sought to get their perspective on something. After listening, you read it back to them: “So, you’d rather participate in planning something fun than be surprised, even if the surprise is fun. Is that right?” Ideally, the other will affirm what you got right, and maybe modify what you said a bit, if there was something missing. Now we’re in a position to argue them out of their perspective and into ours, right? Wrong! Perspectives will differ; that’s relationships. Why would two people with differing temperaments, different upbringings, maybe different genders, different life experiences, different tastes, different paces, different ideas about what’s recreational and what’s restful, have the same point of view on anything!?! Our goal isn’t to talk someone out of their point of view into ours; it’s to understand their different point of view so that we can be of support to one-another; yielding to one another as we share life, space, food, time, and decisions. 

Support is best achieved through mutual yielding. If both are yielding to the other, then neither has to be fighting the other for right of way. It’s like an uncontrolled intersection in the country where two roads meet amid nothing but fields. No stop sign. No yield sign. It’s just understood that the two drivers approaching the intersection at the same time will seek to understand each other and yield to each other. They will read and gauge each other’s speed, given one another’s distance  from the intersection and—understanding what space and time the other needs to pass through the intersection safely—will yield to one another so that everyone in both vehicles ends up alive and unhurt. That’s the win. It’s not a contest; it’s consideration. For the driver further from the intersection to gun their engine in a challenge to overcome his greater distance and pass through the intersection first would be a pitiful display of immaturity. Mature drivers yield to one another. So it is in relationships. If you like arguing, competing, and winning, go find a job or recreation where that is a skill; in marriage and families, it is not. In marriage, spouses are there for each other, not against each other; they are the best of friends. In families, too, the idea is of a unit there for one another, not pitted against each other. The goal of marriage and of family is to be safe for one other. Empathic. Understanding. Supportive. 

And affirming. People like being around people who make them feel good. In fact, research shows that good relationships have a very high ratio of feel-good to feel-bad interactions. People like being built up rather than being torn down. People like being celebrated for what they did well, rather than criticized for what they did wrong.” Instead of criticizing what someone did “wrong” according to your subjective opinion (it didn’t meet your standard, match your preference, accord with you style or pace or something else), can you instead affirm when they did it “right?” That is, can you paint the picture of what success looks like, rather than run the game film of their “mistake?”  Can you affirm what the other has done in the past, or on a regular basis, or affirm something about their character trait that you appreciate; something that meets your preference of the moment? For instance, instead of  criticizing with a statement like, “Why can’t you ever pick up your own stuff!?! What am I, your cleaning staff?” Instead, notice when things are clean and picked up and affirm it. Thank the other; tell them how nice it looks, or how peaceful the house feels when it’s in order. Be grateful, not critical. If that’s not your style, learn it. We know how. We do this with people we regard as important. 

Lastly—and this is where your own perspective and needs come in—wonder out loud about options and ideas that might be a mutual win. You’ve already listened first to understand one another, including  the feelings that are driving the moment; now wonder aloud about ideas for supporting one another. “What would you think if I worked in the kitchen and you took the dining room, or vice-versa? Do you have a preference?”  Or, “Yes, I’d love to unwind after dinner; I wonder—instead of a movie, what would you think about watching something short?” The idea is a soft volley, not a hard edict. It’s an irenic idea brought to the table. It’s negotiation by offering what the other needs, not demanding what I need. It’s considerate and protective of the other. It’s voicing our consideration in an other-centered proposal. It’s friendship. 

So, EUSAw… a prescription for fever reduction when brought about by chronic human interaction. 

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.)  

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. 

Relationships Live in a Dynamic Tension

Safe Giving Cycle - Vulnerability cf Boundaries

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

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