Tag Archives: Relationships

Being the warden


I was sent a new book to review (which I am not planning to do). Since it has to do with pastoral ministry to couples involved in a particular sexual crisis I thought I’d give it the 5 minute skim. In doing so I got a great image: The warden in the relationship. This is the person who was wronged in some terrible way and is now the warden who determines the accountability of the offending party.

When one has broken trust and is now trying to regain that trust, they must become entirely transparent. Their can be no hint of deceit, no unaccountability in any area of life. Not only must the person allow for accountability but they must show evidence they actually desire it and do not chafe at their limitations in life. But what of the other partner? The author says this:

It is not OK for one, considered to be the initial perpetrator, to live totally accountable in his life of genuine repentance, while the other partner never moves off being the warden of the relationship.

How does one fall into this position? The author says “just going with the flow of feelings about the injustice and harmfulness of things is all that is necessary to become the warden, and to never really forgive.” This, I must say, is in the larger context where he also says forgiveness does not require trusting the other or repatriating the other.

In much of Christian counseling, wardens get a raw deal. It is so obvious that they are demanding of a standard of perfectionism, judgmental, unwilling to be vulnerable, etc. It is easy to see this and to go after the hardness of heart that is evident in the warden while accepting the “repentance” of the offender at face value.

It is true that the warden must relinquish the position of judge if the relationship is going to survive long-term in any healthy manner. This does not mean the person stops taking stock of the offender’s actions and attitudes. Nor does it mean that they can forego self-examination.

Here’s my questions:

  1. How do you know the line between careful evaluation of the fact and warden mentality?
  2. What helps might be most helpful to let go of the warden mentality?
  3. How could the church be more supportive of the warden?

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Filed under adultery, christian counseling, christian psychology, Christianity, counseling, counseling skills

Intractable conflict in marriage


The latest American Psychologist (65:4, 2010) has an interesting article on the topic of intractable conflicts. These can be seen in families, communities or whole country disputes like found recently in Rwanda and the Congo.

The authors make this point at the outset of the article,

Conflict resolution should be easy. Conventional wisdom…has it that conflict arises when people feel their respective interests or needs are incompatible….A conflict that has become intractable should be especially easy to resolve….After all, a conflict with no ed in sight serves the interests of very few people, drains both parties’ resources, wastes energy, and diminishes human capital in service of a futile endeavor. Even a compromise solution that only partially addresses the salient needs and interests of the parties should be embraced when they realize that such a compromise represents a far better deal than pursuing a self-defeating pattern of behavior that offers them nothing but aversive outcomes with a highly uncertain prospect of goal attainment.  (p. 262)

True, but since when does logic ever beat conflict? It doesn’t and these authors know it.

As a conflict becomes a primary focus of each party’s thoughts, feelings, and actions, even factors that are irrelevant to the conflict become framed in a way that intensifies or maintains the conflict. It is as though the conflict acts like a gravity well into which the surrounding mental, behavioral, and social-structural landscape begins to slide. Once parties are trapped in such a well, escape requires tremendous will and energy and thus feels impossible. (ibid, my emphasis)

This is EXACTLY why marriage counseling is so difficult. Everything is read through the lens of “He is so controlling,” or “She won’t respect me.”

Why does this happen? On the surface, an intractable conflict might seem to be about land (e.g., Palestinians vs. Israelis) or about ideological solidarity (republicans vs. democrats) or about bald desire for power. In marriage conflict may appear to be about respect, money, or power. But these authors suggest that conflict becomes intractable because the larger system is supported by the conflict and would more or less collapse if peace were to overtake it. Attractors, they say help maintain a coherent view of the world, a way of promoting unequivocal action without hesitation. Truth be told. We like living in a black/white world where our actions are always clear to us and the bad guys are always bad. A word about power. In conflict, we use power to get what we want (via direct use or manipulation). But there are always power differences between parties. Someone always has more power. In couples, one spouse will always want more sex than the other. This isn’t a bad thing. It only becomes bad when either party refuses to accept the differences or show any capacity to be influenced by the other.

When peaceful resolutions take place, it is because a new system has been developed; a new set of values and definers of reality.

How do you implement such a change? You cannot go directly after the thing that maintains the conflict. In other words, don’t say, “You, wife, stop believing your husband doesn’t love you”; or “You, husband, start loving your wife by…” Built into the maintainers of conflict is a strain of resistance. “I know you just did something nice for me but you really are just trying to get on my good side so you can [fill in the blank], but I’m on to you!”

The authors say, and I agree, that, “Attempts to challenge directly the validity or practicality of an attractor for intractable conflict are therefore often doomed to fail and in fact are likely to intensify people’s beliefs and energize their response tendencies.” (p. 273)

Again, how do we deal with these longstanding conflicts? How do we stop seeing the problem as a simple equation (you stink and I’m great) to something more complex (we’re both broken and here’s what I can do to make things better)?

1. Force self to step back to see the complexity of the situation. This sometimes happens when something blows our mind (we act in a way we THOUGHT we never would). To do this we have to believe that the simple answer is easy but ALWAYS wrong and desire to have a more nuanced view of self and other

2. Go back to see previous unity. So, a couple might go back to remember their first love. What affinities did they once have? Can they recover them? Some couples can. From here, they may find the power to fix problems that seem just a wee bit smaller because of a more powerful unifying narrative that was forgotten.

3. Focus on who we want to be in the midst of trials and tribulations. What kind of person do I want to be (that God empowers me to be) come what may?

Notice that only #2 has to work towards maintaining the marriage and living in close quarters. One can develop a more complex and realistic view of the problem (#1) or focus on character development (#3) and still choose to end a violent or destructive relationship. Both also require that we value something greater than self-interest. From a Christian point of view, love must be the reason for all three options–a love given to us by God alone.

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Filed under christian counseling, Cognitive biases, conflicts, counseling skills, Desires, marriage, Psychology, Relationships, Uncategorized

The burden of a secret


I once ran across a website posting short video clips of individuals revealing some deep secret. Some of these secrets were funny (developing a fake friend on a social networking site to make an ex girlfriend jealous), some were eye-brow raising (eating contents of nose), and some were downright painful (revealing affairs, addictions, sexual abuse and the like).

Keeping a secret (your own or someone else’s) requires that you carry a burden. You know something and can’t share it. You can’t talk about it. You might like to, but the consequences seem dire if you share it. You might lose a friend. You might lose your reputation. You might lose your security.

As someone who listens to secrets for a living I’ve a few observations about the secrets people hold:

1. Even in the confidential setting of counseling, it is near impossible to lay down the burden of some secrets. These secrets are covered in shame. Sexual abuse; Unwanted sexual thoughts and feelings; addictions.

2. Secrets shape our identity in some powerful ways–maybe even more than known truths.

3. The longer a secret is kept, the harder it is to tell, or the harder it is to tell truthfully. Time has a way of distorting facts and feelings in some cases. Similarly, we make lots of excuses for why we keep secrets. Some excuses are cover for shame (e.g., “It would hurt her to know that I…”).

4. When someone has a guilty secret (e.g., an affair), they often tell it to finally throw off the burden of guilt. So, when they tell their spouse, they often feel better right away. Unfortunately, the spouse does NOT feel better. In these cases I find the guilty spouse has a hard time relating to the new burden they’ve just loaded on to their mate. They feel free and wish their spouse would now also feel free too. It is always good for the guilty spouse to question why they wish to confess. Is it to promote truth and long-term possibility of healing? Then, they should tell (carefully). If it is to just be relieved of their guilt, then such a confession may not lead to repentance and healing.

5. Even little secrets kept from a loved one can hurt when revealed. If you lie to me about how many Easter eggs you ate on Sunday, maybe you are lying to me about more weighty matters.

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Filed under counseling, deception, Psychology, self-deception

Follow-up on expressing vulnerable feelings to a loved one


Yesterday I commented on a series of studies indicating that expressing insecurities to a romantic partner might lead to perpetuating them (because of our impressions of our vulnerabilities, what we think they think of us, and our suspicions that they don’t really care). Today, I want to list the major findings of the 5 studies. See what you think of these interpretations of the data:

  • “Study 1 demonstrated that people believe expressions of regard toward interpersonally insecure and vulnerable others are relatively inauthentic.” (p. 436).
  • “Studies 2A, 2B, and 4 suggest that, when people believe they have expressed vulnerabilities to a romantic partner or friend, they believe they are viewed especially vulnerable, which in turn predicts their suspicion regarding the authenticity of the other’s expressions of positive regard and acceptance.” (ibid)
  • “Study 4 suggests that this process can operate independently of the partner’s appraisals of vulnerability and reported authenticity.” (ibid)
  • Study 5 seems to show that when subjects appraise themselves as vulnerable they doubt a new acquaintance’s expressions of pleasure (even though the new person didn’t see the subject as vulnerable.
  • Studies 3 and 4 seem to indicate that when you have doubts about your partner’s authentic expression of love, you then perceive acts of caring in a more pessimistic manner. “In particular, authenticity doubts may result in a downward estimation of the partner’s true regard and acceptance, as expressions of positive are presumed to be exaggerated and clandestine rejection can be inferred from the partner’s presumed cautious orientation.” (ibid)

SO, do you think those who express vulnerabilities then are only placated and thus receive inauthentic expressions of kindness? Have you experienced yourself devaluing objective kind acts by re-interpreting them through a lens of pessimism? “He’s only doing that because he wants me to let him have his way.” Now, that could be true, but if you find yourself regularly dismissing acts of caring then you might want to explore where your assumptions are coming from.

What should we do? We should express our insecurities and then seek to listen to our loved one with the best possible interpretation and seek to be specific and concrete in pointing out how their actions/attitudes impact us. If we are the one listening to a loved one tell us that they are not feeling secure, then we ought to express warmth, concern, etc. Put off the defensiveness and put yourself in their shoes. If you were worried, you would want another to comfort and care for you–not call you an idiot for thinking that way.

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Filed under counseling science, Psychology, Relationships

Perpetuating vulnerable feelings?


Feel unsure of your mate’s love for you? Should you tell them that you are not feeling safe or secure in the relationship? When you tell them (accuse them of not caring?) and they profess their love for you, what will tell you that you can believe their promises? What will tell you to doubt their words?

Two Yale University psychologists (E. Lemay, Jr and M. Clark) explore this problem in 2008 in their “Walking on Eggshells: How Expressing Relationship Insecurities Perpetuates Them” (Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, v95, 420-441).

Their study is fairly long (5 studies in fact). But here are some key points.

When people feel insecure about a partner’s regard and acceptance, they often judge their own prior behavior as having communicated insecurity and emotional vulnerability to the partner. Consequently, they come to believe that they are viewed as especially insecure and vulnerable. Then, due to shared beliefs that people walk on eggshells around insecure, vulnerable others, such reflected appraisals of vulnerability elicit doubts about the authenticity of the partner’s expressions of regard and acceptance. Once authenticity is doubted, positive expressions are discounted, negative expressions are augmented, and hidden negative regard is inferred even when partners are accepting and actually hold positive regard. (p. 436)

What they are saying is that our own anxiety fuels are belief that they know we are vulnerable and are tiptoeing around us and that we doubt they love us and then we read their actions through a lens that denies the evidence of love and declares their love to be inauthentic. Which of course, we then share with them. Repeat this action and sooner or later they don’t want to be declared a liar anymore and distance from us thereby proving our deepest fears of abandonment.

In short, anticipated rejection leads to presumption that it has happened and that any activity countering that presumption is rejected and re-read through the lens of rejection. Because that is what we believe happens to weak people–they are abandoned.

So, should we keep our fears to ourself? No say the researchers. Then what should be done? The researchers say only a little on this (since it is not the focus of their research here). But, challenging cognitive distortions are at the top their list? What distortions in particular? Believing that others see you as weak as you feel; challenging the interpretations of another’s motivation. Also in their suggestions is practicing reading the commitment of the mate to the relationship by re-appraising and collecting the evidence of authentic responses from that mate.

The next time you feel the need to express your fears that your mate doesn’t really love you check to see whether your insecurity isn’t already telling you the answer you fear and rejecting evidence to the contrary. Dig a little and you may be able to find evidence that shows they love you. Then, be specific and tell them one concrete thing you would like to see changed, something that bothers you. Do it in love so as to not trigger their fears that you do not love them. Be wary of listening too much to your fears!

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Filed under Anxiety, counseling science, Psychology

Accepting our part of the problem


Notice how hard it is to own our own stuff? Especially when the other person is the bigger problem? Consider the following conversation:

Speaker A: He’s such a jerk! I never want to talk to him again.

Speaker B: What happened?

Speaker A: He never told me that the assignment was due today or that it had to be done up professional. He just yelled at me when I asked him a question and told me I was going to get written up and reported to _____.

Speaker B: Wow that was so unlike him. He must have had something that was bothering him. Aren’t your assignments listed for you ahead of time?

Speaker A: Yeah, they are listed, but I wasn’t there when they put them up and because I have so much to do I couldn’t check what was listed and anyway he should tell me or at least cut me some slack since I work my butt off for him.

Without considering the wrongs or the mistakes of leader (which may be numerous!), notice that speaker A doesn’t tell you that he/she has a habit of forgetting to look at the assignment list nor that when the unnamed “he” called speaker A on messing up, speaker A then spoke in sarcastic and demeaning and defensive tones.

This is a fictional account. And yet we all struggle with saying, “I didn’t like how he treated me but to be fair, I keep forgetting to do what he asked.” “I wish he didn’t yell at me in front of everyone, but I have to admit I was goofing off and talking when I shouldn’t.” If I yell at my kids it is because I was tired or they deserved it. If I speed, it was because I was late. If I’m late it was because of bad traffic. If I didn’t finish my writing assignment it was because of some last-minute crisis. Notice how we take truths and turn them into defenses and thus avoid any blame at all.

What if you are only 10% of the blame for a conflict and your child/spouse/coworker/parent is to blame for the other 90%? Do you find it hard to say, “You know, when we were fighting yesterday, I said _________ and that was hurtful and wrong. Will you forgive me?” Do you find it hard to stop at the end of the sentence without adding, “but you….”

I do. So do my clients and my kids. We seem to think that if we acknowledge our part we let the other party off the hook. In fact, most frequently, when we own our part, the other party is MORE likely to own their stuff too.

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Filed under conflicts, deception, Relationships, Repentance

Of foxholes and diners


Men in foxholes and diners change.

Old men hobble to the diner this morning tapping their knotty canes along the walk; their faces tired and haggard. No joy.

But at their table they become young boys, teenagers really, but with deeper laughs, knowing looks, wise insights and experience lines on their faces. They eat their toast and jive ’bout “II” and “Korea.”

White and Black, brothers all. Foxholes will make men brothers and differences recede. Diners keep them together and inject vitality.

Crazy stories: showers once a week, using teletype, warming food on a truck engine.

“Remember when…we fooled that teacher…his sister got killed…we hung out on the corner…we could buy a whole bag of candy with a quarter…we hopped the train…”

Sprinkled between these stories are remembrances of friends no longer with him,”He’s dead, she’s sick, he’s lost his mind.”

The coffee’s drunk, the bill paid. On the street now they’re just some old forgotten men, a retiree, a social security check, a grandfather making due with a fixed income. But at the diner they are brothers, men of wisdom and power–a generation of courage who gave for our freedoms.

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Parents as…?


Having had fun with the marriage metaphors a few days ago, I thought about a similar question about the best descriptive words about the role of parent. What triggered my thinking was a public radio interview with the authors of Too Close for Comfort, a book about mother/daughter relationships. In the interview they discussed problem parent labels: helicopter parents, parents as personal concierge, as guarantor of happiness for their child, etc.

What words do you think describe a better metaphor as parent and why? Guide? Mentor? Coach? In some ways, parents are more connected to their kids than in past generations. And yet, this connection may cause kids to depend more on their parents rather than getting out there and being responsible for their life. Can you think of ways to describe parenting that allows for emotional closeness without the over-dependency.

Here’s one I would like not to have as a title: Parent as homework tutor.

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Filed under Cultural Anthropology, parenting, Relationships

Hooking up less difficult than admitting love?


Listened this am to NPR’s Morning edition and a story on “hooking up.” Definitely worth your listening for the 8 minute story. Here’s a couple of amazing thoughts (not quotes) from female interviewees:

1. The hook-up is all about the tension, build-up, and the sex.

2. Dating actually costs too much money; hook-ups are much cheaper

3. Talking about being in love is more embarrassing than talking about one’s sex life (hooking up) on the radio.

4. Dating a guy means bringing him into your circle of close friends and the preference is to have the hook-up but do nothing that could harm real friendships

5. It is vulnerable to be needy of love. Not so of sex.

Scary stuff here. Think about it. Taking your clothes off and sharing genital sexual activity with an acquaintance puts you in a less vulnerable position than asking someone out for a formal date?  Can someone explain that one to me?

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Filed under Cultural Anthropology, news, Psychology, Relationships, Sex, sexuality

Why texting is hazardous to your life


We already know that texting while driving endangers lives. No surprise there. But have you considered the danger of texting while angry? Texting while avoiding?

Consider the following situation. You have a set-to with a loved one while each are at work. Finding yourself hurt and angry, the thought crosses your mind to text that person to say something mature like,

“fine. u go rite ahed and do it. c if i care.”

Of course, you don’t really mean “fine.” Nor do you  want them to “go ahead”. You do care, otherwise you wouldn’t be texting while angry.

Notice the dangers here:

1. Texting give us the illusion of connection. We can send a message to communicate with another but don’t really call it a connection.
2. Texting provides an opportunity to jab each other when angry but avoid (for a few moments anyway) seeing the impact of that jab. Sure, we could say these silly and immature things to the other’s face, but with the advent of texting we don’t have to admit to ourselves that our words have impact.
3. Texting allows another to keep a record of our wrongs; to read it again and again and maintain the hurts. Yes, we can remember words spoken in anger, but keeping a copy would be tempting and very dangerous.

For those of you who text, maybe a few rules should apply.

  • If you are tempted to text someone so you can avoid them, don’t.
  • Don’t text or email when angry.
  • Ask yourself about impact: Does it truly meet the constructive requirement of Ephesians? And if it does, why not say it face to face?

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Filed under anger, christian psychology, Christianity, conflicts, Relationships