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 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 calmed us during the pandemic need be increased.

EUSAw

How can longed-for time together not lead to “Cabin Fever,” before long? (Yes, this is being written during the 2020 Coronavirus pandemic.)  

“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. 

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. 

Empty Nest & Retirement Years as Invitations to Re-Create Shared Meaning

The apex of Dr. John Gottman’s “Sound Relationship House” – the metaphorical distillation of his decades of scientific research on marital success—is Shared Meaning. 

A couple’s Shared Meaning is established and reinforced by intentional habits and patterns of interaction that create and reinforce a couple’s friendship. Friendship is what Dr. Gottman’s research has shown to be the bedrock of a close, passionate, and enduring relationship or marriage. Friendship is comprised of the principles Gottman has named: Love Maps, Turning Toward One Another (connecting), and Nurturing Fondness and Admiration. More could be written on these, but suffice to say that Love Maps is partners having a detailed “map” in their head of their partner’s world; they are familiar with each other’s internal and external world, such that they know how to “be there for” each other.  Turning Toward One Another is the habit that satisfied and long-lasting couples have of connecting often in ways that keep the friendship alive. These are dates, regularized stress-reducing-conversations, weekly checkins, daily rituals around partings and reunions, purposeful celebrations, thoughtful considerations, etc. Nurturing Fondness and Admiration is the mental and verbal rehearsing of what we like, love, respect, admire, and are grateful for, concerning our spouse.  It is feeding a positive sentiment toward our husband or wife; it is spinning in a positive direction what could be spun negatively, but for our refusal to do so. It’s being thankful for who we have rather than making comparisons to the facade we see in others’ spouses. 

The friendship that is formed in dating is unlike the friendship that is re-formed in empty nest and retirement years. And that reformation is different still from the friendship that was honed in the fires of educational pursuits and career development, challenged and defended amid the chaos of raising children, or creatively protected in the lean years of our offspring’s education and career pursuits. At each stage, connection was (ideally) given the priority it deserved, afforded the creativity and resources due something of high priority, and enjoyed by both partners like a refreshing drink enjoyed by a parched traveler. The ways and means of connection was different at each stage, but hopefully valued, prioritized and defended the same. 

The empty nest and retirement years are not parched ground devoid of nutrients now that child-rearing and career-building have been accomplished; quite the opposite. They are another opportunity to redecorate the living space that is our marriage, like we’ve done before. It’s time to pick out new curtains (okay… window coverings), decide where we’ll sit and on what in our new environment, re-purpose the kids’ rooms in a way that makes sense for our life and lifestyle, and replace academic, league, and career-oriented calendar items with mutual and separate passions for which there had not been time, before. 

In short, the empty nest and retirement years are an opportunity to—indeed, a requirement to—redefine our shared meaning. What rituals, roles, goals, symbols, practices, routines, celebrations, and pursuits will define our lives together and individually as supported by one another?  This can even include anticipation of and preparation for medical decline and mutual care-giving. No need for ill health to come upon us as a surprise or morose experience. How can it be part of our “us” just as were the plans made during more active years?  

Before that time comes, are these the years we can finally go dancing, hold hands while walking in beautiful settings, go out to those restaurants that the kids never liked, play cards again if we can find anyone who knows how, invest in the lives of others, serve in altruistic ways once precluded by work and parenting?  

My wife and I have re-written our shared meaning to now include Saturday morning breakfast out. The waitress knows our name and our usual shared order.  Travel is always west… to the homes of one of our three children, where Nana and Poppy take on the cherished role of weekend playmates and caregivers, including giving our kids a night out with their spouses.  It’s one of the things we enjoy most. Also high on the list is leading marriage seminars every few months, whether in our own city or elsewhere, and leading or co-leading a topical or Bible study with a group of friends. We’re invested in the  ministries of our church and strive to correct on our block the cultural tragedy of neighbors not knowing neighbors. These are years in which I can finally write with more regularity and my wife supports me alongside as she pursues her own interest in shared space made warm, comfortable, nurturing, and life-giving to our marriage.  It’s a stage of oneness-building like every stage of marriage affords, but now with new ways to understand, prioritize, value and depend on each other. This time, with less hair. 

Finally, as with any stage of marriage, the measure of the above meaning re-creation and its practice is how we’re making each other feel in the process. The Gottman Institute’s identification of extremely high ratios of positive to negative interactions between Master Couples tells us that satisfying marriages are built in the intangible process more than on the tangible product. Whether it’s sipping coffee together over laptops, navigating cross-country or across-town travel, or managing a messy lunchtime with grandchildren, the invitation is always the same… to be for the other the safest place on earth; the greatest teammate; the most encouraging and affirming friend who is there for our spouse, as he or she is for us. That is both the product and process of shared meaning—at any stage—and the measure of any marriage. 

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 “Self-Transcendence” as the pinnacle of human pursuit rather than Self-Actualization. In pursuit of self-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 self-transcendence—Abraham Maslow’s late reflection on the essence of human needs—it seems to me that this brings the whole illustration full-circle. self-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 self-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 self-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.