Feelings or Thoughts? Thoughts or Feelings?

 “Which is more important… feelings or thoughts?” That was the first question asked by my professor on the first day of the first class in my masters in counseling program. The silence of the class was telling. Which is more important? How does one choose? They’re both present. All the time. Can they be separated; is one really subordinate; possibly even dispensable? They both vie for attention; they both want recognition. And both want to lead. If the answer to the question, “Which is more important?” is “The one that gets to lead,” then the answer becomes clear. “It depends.”

Romance is arguably more about feelings than thoughts; engineering had better be more about thoughts than feelings. But then there are everyday choices and everyday relationships where both feelings and thoughts are at our feet like twin toddlers, both demanding to be picked up and have their way. In such everyday moments that are not matters of structural integrity nor mate selection, which gets to rule—thoughts or feelings? I’m tempted to again say, “It depends,” but I think you’d  stop reading.

It would be nice if science helped, but it doesn’t, because science is objective and “important” is subjective. Science can tell us which comes first, but “first” is different from “most important.” First just tells us which toddler is quicker. Just as we would not disregard one twin because the other was quicker, neither do we go with one part of the brain’s activity to the exclusion of the other because it fired first. To exclusively choose one over the other would require removal of either the prefrontal cortex (thinking center) or of the amygdala (feeling center). This would make things easier by eliminating the competition, but it would make us less complete as humans. Still, it’s helpful that we know which will get our attention before the other, every time. Feelings. Feelings come first, with one clarification—the “feeling” that comes first is somatic—or bodily. 

The cerebellum is the first to react to anything, and does so with a somatic response. Our physical bodies respond first to stimuli; then the limbic system—of which the amygdala is a part—kicks in with an emotion. Then the cortex kicks in, thinking about what to make of the stimulus. Knowing that the brain fires in this order is helpful in sorting out our reactions. The Enneagram (of which there are nine personality, or temperament, types) differentiates those personalities that are led by head, heart, or gut. The ancient temperament analysis correctly distinguishes the brain’s processing – somatic, emotional, and cognitive. But knowing our temperament type, and that our brains fire in that order, does not mean that we are led only by our head, heart or gut. It merely tells us which influence will be the strongest, and thus need to be regulated by the other two. 

Balancing feelings and thoughts is easier for some temperaments than  others. Personality assessments all sort people according to their primary tendency to process things cognitively or emotionally—head or heart. It’s not that feelers don’t think or that thinkers don’t feel; it’s a matter of which part of one’s brain tends to grab the steering wheel and which is relegated to the backseat. Regardless of tendency, it is wise on a long journey to switch drivers according to conditions and weariness. Life is a long journey. Thinkers and feelers must trade off and work together as circumstances dictate. Too much time in the driver’s seat can exhaust a person’s capacity; too much dependence on one part of the brain can exhaust its aptitude. Wise traveling companions know who is better suited for which driving conditions, and switch off accordingly. Feelers thus learn to let thinking drive decisions at times, and thinkers thus learn that feelings should at times overrule what is “logical” (due respect to Mr. Spock). Family pets serve as an example. Unless one is getting an animal for security, hunting, handicap support, or rodent control, the decision to get a family pet is likely emotionally driven. Despite this, parents put thinking in the driver’s seat for a while. They reason with children about the responsibilities of pet ownership, securing agreement to feed, walk, water, and clean up after the animal. Feeling and thinking both get a turn at the wheel. Both are important. Both should be drivers in those areas for which they’re best suited. If this brain balance applies to pet selection and maintenance, how much more to mate selection and human relationships. 

Truth is, a healthy human life can’t be lived on emotions alone, nor can it be lived on intellect alone. The engineer must let thinking rule over feelings, to be sure. But even engineers often take into consideration things like aesthetics and intuitiveness – things barely cognitive, but real and relevant. Romantic relationships in our modern, less pragmatic culture are typically feelings driven. We tend to laugh at, or feel sorry for, those in past ages who married for political  alliance, or by parental arrangement, or because one had cattle and the other had land. Few of us would be excited about a marriage that is logical, but devoid of love. At the other extreme, becoming romantically involved with an addict who is abusive and serially unemployed is to dismiss reason from the mix and operate solely on emotion. When everyone around us is telling us that a particular relationship is a bad idea, it may reveal that the amygdala has staged a coup and locked the cortex in the closet. The romantic whirlwind may be exhilarating, but the end result is not likely to be a satisfying relationship for both partners. 

Maturity is about learning to acknowledge the emotions, while making a wise choice. This is the difference between a child and an adult… at least a mature adult. Infants are all amygdala. They feel. They feel deeply. They laugh freely when amused or feeling joyful; they cry freely when hungry or uncomfortable or sad or if demanding what they want. There is no check and balance to whether expressing the feeling is appropriate under the circumstances, or likely to produce a desired result. Feelings come first, so feelings get to lead, and whatever impulse a feeling dictates is that which gets expressed. Of course, we don’t remain infants. The apostle Paul said, “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became an adult, I put childish ways behind me.“ (1 Corinthians 13:11) To be childlike is to live impulsively—by the gut alone, or making important decisions based on emotion alone. We worry for people who live this way, or pity them, or get angry with them if we have to clean up their mess (be their parent). Reliable adults don’t make important decisions based on feelings without intellectual restraint. Life after preschool is all about acknowledging our feelings, deciphering what needs they are pointing out, and subjecting to intellectual scrutiny how to meet legitimate needs wisely. This is maturity; responsibility. This is how life works. No one gets to live by feelings alone; that can literally be life-threatening. On the other hand, no one wants to be married to someone for logical reasons alone; a house soundly constructed does not make a home—homes need love, and love involves emotion. Balance is learned through the maturing process.

How do we sort this out in important human relationships, friendships, dating, marriage and parenting? Answers emerge from many realms, often converging. We’ve noted how understanding our temperament can reveal our tendencies, and clue us in to what needs to be reigned in. In the psychological world Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) offers tools for balance. And from the spiritual world Scripture provides sound principles to guide our thoughts and the Holy Spirit speaks a silent but clear voice to guide our feelings.

Dialectical Behavioral Therapy is targeted at the very dilemma we are addressing—dialectical, or opposed, interests—such as thoughts and feelings; self-interest and the interests of others; saying or doing what we want versus saying or doing what is wise in the long run. In fact, a “wise mind” is the goal of DBT… a mind able to wrestle with strong urges from opposite directions and make a decision that is effective in interpersonal relationships. To get there, DBT strengthens four skills: Mindfulness, Distress Tolerance, Emotion Regulation, and Interpersonal Effectiveness. 

• Mindfulness is about having our mind in the “here and now.” It includes focusing our senses on what we are hearing, seeing, touching, thinking, and feeling. It includes voicing in our heads or out-loud what is going on within us and around us. Mindfulness keeps our minds, emotions, and somatic feelings from carrying us away. We train ourselves to notice what is happening in and around us, without yet making decisions nor acting on impulses. This postpones our response until we can make effective decisions based on more information. 

• Distress Tolerance is about learning to tolerate frustration. It’s being able to recognize, allow, tolerate, and endure stress, distress, frustrations, disappointments, pain, crises, loss, and drama. It is holding it together rather than coming unglued; it is getting through a bad day rather than quitting our job; it is managing ourselves in unpleasant circumstances, rather than those circumstances managing us. 

• Emotion Regulation is learning that the limbic system has both a brake and an accelerator. We are in control of how much fuel we give our feelings; we get to regulate how fast we let them take us. Just because the amygdala says “Floor it,” doesn’t mean we have to. We can even respond by pressing the brake. In fact, there is a DBT Skill called, “Opposite Action;” it is choosing to do exactly opposite what our emotions tell us to do. Yes, the emotional toddler screams loudly and is most likely to shove its way into the driver’s seat, but there is a parent in the brain and you’re it! Emotion regulation is about parenting the emotions; driving with wise control of the accelerator and the brake.

• Interpersonal Effectiveness is about being effective in relationships. This is the skill of balancing self-protection with the protection of others with whom we are in relationship. It replaces reactions based on assumptions with effective communication based on mutual listening and confirmation of understanding. It is the skill of choosing behaviors that effectively balance our own interests and the interests of others. 

Moving on to the spiritual world, it is arguably unequaled in its power to bring change. Larry Crabb, who authored Connecting and many other titles, recognized after years of counseling that people who got better under his therapeutic care were disproportionately those people who were also cooperating with the Holy Spirit and yielding to Scriptures in God’s ongoing transformative work. That says something. Not that people can’t get better without Christ, but that cooperating with His Word and Spirit is consistent with mental health. (Yes, this spiritual work may be different from, and even in contrast to, what some teachers, leaders, and religious institutions impose upon people. But Jesus himself does good work.) 

I love the fact that self-control is mentioned over and over again in the New Testament as a manifestation of the Spirit (Galatians 5:23), a mandate to believers (Titus 2:6,12), and a mark of the follower of Christ (1 Timothy 3:2, Titus 1:8, 2 Peter 1:6). Self-control is exactly what’s needed as we parent the two toddlers at our knees. What a relief that we don’t have to muster self-control out of thin air; it is given to us as a gift from the limitless empowerment of the Holy Spirit. We can let Him do in us what we don’t have the strength or patience to do ourselves. Face hardship? He’s enabled it. Withstand persecution? He’s enabled it. Endure the cross? He’s enabled it. Keep our cool at work, or in traffic, or in those most difficult of relationships? Yes, He can enable that, too. Not by magic; we are still human. Hunger, anger, loneliness and weariness call for relief in the the Christian just as they do for anyone else, and self-control will be difficult without such relief. But the Power that created us and all things invites us to let Him help us regulate dialectical dilemmas. Why wouldn’t we? 

Scripture tells us secrets one can only expect to find in a manual written by the Designer of our souls. It’s instructions rightly understood are dependable guides. I’d never work on a modern car or appliance without a manual; too many things are solved in non-intuitive ways. “Turn the ignition key to accessory while simultaneously pressing the power button on the radio and the sliding door will reset.” Right. I’d have disassembled the door five times and never have come up with that solution. The reliable guidance in Scripture as Life Manual is often non-intuitive; we’re not likely to come up with such wisdom on our own. And we’re not likely to hear it from someone who is not reading the Word and listening to the Spirit. Its mandates sound odd; yet, oddly, they work. Things like, “it is to a man’s glory to overlook an offense” (Proverbs 19:11); “Humble yourself before the Lord and he will lift you up” (James 4:10); “Love is patient, love is kind, it does not envy, it does not boast, it is not prideful, it is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. Love always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” (1 Corinthians 13:4-7) 

Many books have been written on the process of sanctification that is our maturing in Christ as enabled by the Holy Spirit and guided by the wisdom of Scripture. Suffice to say that in the matter of sorting out thoughts and feelings, discerning the important needs our emotions are screaming about, and deciding how to act wisely in nuanced self-protection that is also protective of others, the scriptures give us reliable principles to guide our thinking and the Spirit speaks to our heart a calming voice to guide our feelings.

So, what is the answer to the question, “Which is more important… feelings or thoughts?” It depends. If the question is, “Which comes first?” then the answer is feelings. Somatic feelings, then emotional. If the question is, “Which gets to drive?” the answer is, both are important. Both are needed. Both should be allowed rule in different circumstances. Both get to drive. It depends on the context and terrain and which is best suited. Some decisions are simply right or wrong, smart of dumb. Emotions must then be told to get in the back seat; we’re going to do what is wise, regardless of how the emotional toddler feels about it.  At other times, love means telling logic to get in the backseat. My wife and I decided to get married within days of crunching the numbers and figuring out we couldn’t afford it on our incomes. Emotions ruled, not logic. It was love! We also had to let the thinking toddler drive after that decision. Bills don’t get paid on love. 

We’re human. Thoughts and feelings will be with us always. Together. Both toddlers will scream at the same time for attention and want to drive. But you’re the parent in the car. You get to decide. The loudest toddler doesn’t get to decide. Circumstances don’t get to decide. Your gut, heart, or head doesn’t get to decide. You are in control. With your understanding of your temperament, the help of DBT skills, the principles of God’s Word, and the voice and power of the Holy you can have what you need to accelerate, steer, and brake wisely.

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.” 

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. 

Marriage is a Tango

Dr. Sue Johnson, the pioneer of Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy, compares a couple’s relationship to a tango. A tango can be a beautiful dance or an awful spectacle dependent on whether partners are attuned to each other and there for each other.  A tango is two people becoming one, gliding and stretching across the ballroom floor; at times pulling away from each other, but never apart, holding onto each other in a supportive way that allows a safe return to the other’s arms. There is independent singularity and interdependent duality at work in a complementary way that produces a beauty neither could produce alone. Two “me’s” become a “we.” It’s not a push and pull competition wherein one will win and the other lose, but a game of catch and release where both win. Daring turns to beauty as each protects the other; individual creative expression is enabled by interdependent steadfast devotion.

Why married couples stop talking to each other

In restaurants, you can tell the dating couples from the married couples. The dating couples are talking to one another; the married couples frequently are not. Why is this?

As with most marriage-unfriendly behavior, the reason for silence is self-defense. Defense against what? For women, it is often defensiveness against feeling unloved when not heard by their husbands. For men, it is often defensiveness against feeling disrespected when he hears what he interprets as criticism and control. Neither partner sets out to make the other feel these things; each is simply doing what comes naturally to their own gender, who would not take offense. 

Research from the Gottman Institute identifies a principal underlying happy, long-lasting marriages; it is that of “accepting influence.“ Decades of data shows greater marital satisfaction among couples where men accept influence from their wives. This corresponds to the tendency of women to have their “heart heard” by husbands in order to feel loved, honored, and respected. The chapter in Dr. Gottman’s Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work that elucidates this principle seems imbalanced in favor of women, compared to the parity of the other principles. As such, it runs the risk of fomenting as many relationship problems as it solves. It is certainly true that marriages are happier when men accept the influence of their wives more than might be a man’s natural tendency; however, the chapter is very light on whether women need adjust their own natural tendencies, as men are called to do. The truth is, couples are more likely to talk to one another if both genders adjust their natural tendencies, making it easier to accept influence from one another.

There is another noteworthy book that commends this balanced acceptance of influence; it precedes Dr. Gottman‘s book by about two millennia. I like to call it the New Testament. In it, Paul pens:  “…submit to one another out of reverence for Christ”(Ephesians 5:21) and “…husbands love your wives; wives respect your husbands.“ (Ephesians 5:25). Here, both husbands and wives are called to equally adjust their natural tendencies. It was for good reason that Paul did not say, “…husbands respect your wives; wives love your husbands.“ He was asking men and women to do the opposite of what comes naturally to them, in order to meet the relational need of their spouse. This prescription recognizes that women tend naturally to extend love; while men tend naturally to bestow respect. It is the language each knows best; it is how they communicate with their own. But it doesn’t work as well in inter-gender relationships. What seems perfectly clear is a foreign language to one’s spouse. Women long for love; men long for respect. Scripture calls men and women to yield to how the other gender typically feels valued in relationship. Marriage is a journey of discovery into exactly what the alien gender means by these words, and how these are felt. 

Typically, a woman feels cared for, honored, and loved when her husband patiently listens to her. She is more likely to engage in conversation over the dinner table if she has a husband willing to hear what she has to say, without finding fault in what she says, or impatiently offering fixes in order to be done with the subject. And for the man? Is there anything a woman can do to help him be more conversational? Yes. The most common complaint I hear from men in unsatisfied marriages is that their wives are “critical and controlling.“ Women want to offer ideas, make suggestions, ask devil’s advocate questions, and generally have influence in decision-making which he, longing for respect, hears as a lack of confidence in his intelligence, competence, strength, or ability to handle things on his own (i.e., without her help). Obviously, these are directly in conflict with one another at all times, and quickly become conversational barriers. What we have here is a perpetual problem, and thus a couple’s learning opportunity. Men want to competently make decisions that will heroically fix things, and protect and serve their wives and families. Women want to participate in issues at hand, not because they doubt their husband’s competence, but because problems are opportunities to draw close; to connect; to practice mutual dependence and thus foster togetherness.

What this looks like in everyday conversation is that a woman will bring up some thought or idea, and the man—instead of hearing her heart—will key in on an error in syntax, some logical inconsistency in what she said, or some financial, philosophical, mechanical, or scheduling problem inherent in her idea. He will point out to her these problems. In a woman’s world, this is highly unloving. A woman would disregard a syntax problem and affirm the heart of her sister’s idea, using kind, emotional words. Her focus would be on connecting, and discussing the challenge-at-hand together as a bonding experience. Only incidentally and later might she ask about problems with the ideas. When a man fails to do this, it feels to her like a lack of support and a failed emotional connection. So, she shuts down. Then there is the opposing scenario common to the male experience. When he brings up an idea, his wife—in an effort to come alongside—will ask questions of his plans, pose devil’s advocate scenarios, and wonder out loud about things that might hinder the success of his idea. She may suggest modifications or alternatives that bear little resemblance to his original proposal or decision. To a man, her effort to connect feels to him like criticism and control. The male mind interprets her input as questioning his intelligence, doubting his competence, and overtaking his idea with her own. When a man feels this way, he misunderstands the advice to “allow his wife to have influence” and hears instead the call to abdicate his authority, give her her way, and let her “wear the pants” in the marriage. 

What is at issue here is the different meaning men and women ascribe to the sharing of ideas. Dr. John Gray says that women share ideas in order to connect; men share ideas in order to compete. To women, the sharing of ideas and the asking of questions is a way to show caring. To men, to share ideas and ask questions is a to challenge whether another man knows what he is doing. It is questioning his intelligence and competence. Men, of course, don’t see their comments as a rejection of connection; and women do not regard their input as critical or controlling, or demanding their way. But such is the interpretation of their partner; it is one reason that married couples sit in silence. The woman fears that whatever she says will be met with some “ridiculous” objection or demeaning comment. The man fears that what he says will be met with questions and competing ideas, resulting in a hostile takeover. Neither has the energy for that conversation, so communication ends before it starts.

What is the answer to this stalemate? Step one is simply to recognize it. Women and men cannot expect their spouses to communicate in the same manner as members of their own gender. Translation is necessary. Pausing and considering the needs of the other is always necessary in relationship, and especially true when relating to a gender with which we have no direct internal experience. We need to adjust our natural tendencies. Men need to hear their wives, allowing women to “think out loud“ more than men typically do. He needs to come alongside and listen to her like a friend. This is not debate class. Surrender the grammar police badge. Let her share her thoughts and be with her, not against her. Likewise, wives can respect their husbands by scaling back the devil’s advocate questions, alternate ideas, and voiced doubts, instead granting him—at least first of all—what a man yearns for from his girlfriend – confidence, admiration, and encouragement. Neither men nor women want critics or managers; both want a cheerleader and a romantic lover, but to different degrees. 

This understanding and mutual yieldedness will get us through most days. But how do we handle marital gridlock, where yielding to the other’s need for love or respect doesn’t get us past self-canceling desires, such as one spouse wanting another child and the other not. Or one spouse wanting to move to another state upon retirement and the other wanting to stay put. What then? Even in gridlock—perhaps especially in gridlock—a woman needs to feel heard and protected; and a man needs to feel respected, not controlled. In addition, three other things enter in when gridlock threatens a united decision. 

The first, Dr. Gottman identifies as “becoming a dream detective.” Rather than spouses rehearsing their own viewpoints back and forth until exhaustion sets in, the wisdom here is to stop, identify, and articulate the other’s hope, value, dream, and desired outcome. This can stop a conflict in its tracks as the tone changes from self-defense to other-defense. One reason fights persist is that parties have not felt understood by each other. That’s why they keep explaining their point of view and desires over and over again. The way out of this gridlock is to articulate to the other’s satisfaction what we understand is important to them in the matter at hand. Identify and concentrate on the larger areas in which you agree, rather than upon the isolated areas in which you disagree. 

Secondly, remember that relationships live on the level of attachment needs and primary emotions. In partnerships, the bottom line (attachment needs) includes feeling accepted, secure, safe, respected, affirmed, love, nurtured, comforted, and protected. When these attachment needs are met, we are at peace in the relationship, even when in conflict. When these needs are not securely met, negative primary emotions surface, such as fear, hurt, sadness, and shame. Our view of our spouse becomes negative and that negativity overrides our sentiment toward and interpretation of everything he or she says or does. So, in other-centeredness, step one is to understand the source of primary emotions (hurt, sadness, fear, shame, joy and peace) that are being masked as secondary emotions (anger, frustration, irritation, jealousy, etc.). What attachment need is its source, and how can that attachment need be met by me as spouse to my partner? If I can defend that, then my partner may be able to let go of self-defensiveness. 

This brings us to the third point with respect to gridlocked issues. Ask yourself, “Is this issue important enough to divide us as a couple?” Maybe it is, but hopefully such issues are few and far between. If we can take our eyes off of winning the argument, or getting our way, and focus instead on protecting one another and on the relationship as victor, then we can relax on most issues. Can we pause and switch sides – defending our partner’s position for a moment, rather than our own?  If we are protecting each other as diligently as we would protect ourselves, then we have a safe relationship in which conversations happen  more easily. What if a couple spent their time vying for what was important to the other rather than to oneself? Wouldn’t that be a refreshing fight? This is Dr. Gottman’s approach to overcoming gridlock when he suggests the afore-mentioned “becoming a dream detective.” When each partner is intent on discovering what is important to the other, and defending that, then we trade other-defensiveness for self-defensiveness and a vast array of new options open up to us. We become focused not on “my way,” but on “our future” that incorporates both our dreams.

The invitation here is for couples to change their view of what constitutes a “win” in marital discussion. If discussion is a debate or a contest wherein one partner walks away the “winner” by having the last word, or emerging superior in debate skills, or getting his or her way while the other feels defeated, then the relationship has lost. We do well to change our view of the “win“ such that is is measured by whether the conversation drew us closer. Was it a tool for connection? Did it make “deposits” into the relationship, rather than withdrawals? Did it improve the overall ratio in the marriage of feel-good to feel-bad interactions? Did positive emotions outnumber negative emotions? Were the attachment needs of both spouses recognized and protected, no matter the topic of discussion? Did other-centeredness prevail rather than self-centeredness? These are the things that make conversation safe. These are the things likely occurring at the table where the dating couple sits. These are things that can be practiced by the married couple, as well. 

Other-centeredness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Heart Bone’s Connected to the Brain Bone: an exposé on Phenethylamine, Dopamine, and Oxytocin

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.

Real Relationships

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.