About a year ago, she was skipping along, busy as a bee, marching to the beat of getting things done and getting ahead. She believed the new year held possibility and promise like every other year.Why wouldn’t it?It was the start of not only a year, but a whole new decade.She was excited.
But right after her big party in her new house with all her friends, an ugly monster came.It came and gobbled up all her normal, all the rhythms that held her and rocked her and told her that everything was okay.
Days went by. MUNCH. Weeks went by.MUNCH MUNCH. Months went by. MUNCH MUNCH MUNCH MUNCH MUNCH.
The monster kept devouring her normal. But not just hers. The normal of everyone around her.It ate up bank accounts and dreams and businesses and celebrations and hugs and peace-of-mind and worst of all, it gulped down lives.
She tried really hard to stay upbeat and hopeful and to “look on the bright side,” but it didn’t really work very long.
She was sad.
One day, she figured out that she had to do something about it.But what?What should she do about her sadness?
She could take Vitamin D. She could binge watch TV. She could eat a cookie. She could work in her garden. She could pretend the monster wasn’t there. She could make a grateful journal.
If that helped, maybe then she could tell all her friends and family to do the same.
After making her “what-should-she-do-about-her-sadness” list and checking it twice, she tried hard for a really long time.
Guess what happened?She was still really sad.
Oh no!What should she do?
One morning as she was swallowing her Vitamin D for the 282nd time, she thought of a great idea!
She was going to STOP doing some things. They weren’t working anyway, no matter how hard she tried.
So she STOPPED making the monster smaller than it was. She actually said the word “monster” out loud. She told her friends and her family that it was scary and horrible and that she wanted it to go away.
That was really hard for her. She liked talking about rainbows and butterflies and happy things.
But it was really good for her too. She felt like she was finally telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help her God.
She also STOPPED trying to rush really fast to “happy,” even though Joy was her middle name and she had been told her whole life it wasn’t good to be sad.
She looked right in the mirror and said, “You are allowed to be sad right now. That’s the best thing to be when you lose a bunch of stuff that’s really great.”
And then she took a shower and cried for a long time.
That helped a bunch and she figured out that now she could START doing some things too. She had time and space (like more than ever before).
She STARTED to talk, talk, talk. To her friends. To her husband. To Jesus. To a counselor. To her journal. She got her sadness outside of the inside of her. She gave it really carefully to those who loved her and who she trusted to hold her all safe, like inside-her-heart safe.
She also STARTED to listen, listen, listen. To her friends. To her husband. To Jesus. To her kids. And guess what she found out. They were all sad too. Just like her. She was not all by herself. How about that?
The story is not over yet (even after 324 days) and sometimes, the woman still eats cookies, binge watches TV, and pretends the monster isn’t there.
But more often, she cries.And prays.And talks.And listens.
Inner Critic: “You cannot stay on a workout regimen save your life.”
Inner Cheerleader: “Start with 15 minutes again tomorrow. You’ve done it before . You can do it again. ”
Inner Critic: “Your friends are probably so angry with you because you are not checking in with them as much as you used to. It’s your fault if they don’t stick around.”
Inner Cheerleader: “You have had to narrow down how much you are pouring out into people for your own well-being. You’ve done that so that you can be a better friend.”
Inner Critic: “You should NOT spend so much at the grocery store. You need to stick to a list.”
Inner Cheerleader: “It costs just a bit more to eat healthy, which has been a goal for you and your family. Keep up the good work!”
Inner Critic: “I can’t believe you are so racist?”
Inner Cheerleader: “You are learning to listen to those who are not like you. You will grow and change. You always have.”
Inner Critic: “Why do you tell people you have a good marriage? You just had another fight with your husband.”
Inner Cheerleader: “Look how far you have come from the early days. You’ve seen how sometimes conflict brings closeness. You have helped so many other couples because you can admit you struggle too.”
Inner Critic: “You will never get to those boxes in the basement that need to be organized.”
Inner Cheerleader: “You have been sorting through many things in your life, not all of them visible to the outside world. You will get to it when you are ready.”
Inner Critic: “You know that cookie you ate? You blew it again.”
Inner Cheerleader: “You know that cookie you ate? Good for you for showing yourself it’s not about perfection, but about grace.”
Inner Critic: “You didn’t set good boundaries again with your kids. When will you get this right?”
Inner Cheerleader: “Being a mom is a hard job, no matter how old your kids are. Boundaries are tricky and complicated and you are really doing what you think is right in each different situation. Also, you are really good at saying you are sorry when you blow it.”
Inner Critic: “Why do you even bother to give advice? To share your heart? To try to make a difference?”
Inner Cheerleader: “You don’t do it because you have it all together. You do it because you are broken too and it’s in this broken place that we all heal each other.”
WHICH VOICE HEAPS SHAME AND DESTROYS? WHICH VOICE WHISPERS GRACE AND BRINGS HEALING?
“Conflict creates the fire of affects and emotions; and like every fire it has two aspects: that of burning and that of giving light.” (Carl Jung)
Allen and I have our fair share of FIGHTS (the seventh F in the series). We are certainly NOT the couple who can say, “We never argue. We agree on everything.” Nor do we want to be (well, Allen wants to be secretly).
Allen is kind and gracious. I am sarcastic and I like to say, discerning (others may call me a bit judgmental). Allen is a hard-worker, quiet and reserved. I am quick-witted and loud. He is methodical and analytical. I am passionate and decisive. Allen is a supporter and a peacemaker. I am a leader and aggressive. As you can see, blending our personalities lends itself to conflict. It is inevitable.
We bicker about (super important things like) how to pack the car, load the dishwasher, and fold the laundry. I hear myself saying just last night, “I’ve told you not to fold my dresses. They just go on a hanger. You are wasting your time.” (I know, ladies. The man was folding the laundry and I still had something to say about it.)
We argue about more serious things like where to spend our money, how to handle the latest “children issue” and what to fill our calendars with, the things of life that have big implications. There’s just no way around it.
We also have more tender “discussions” about how we’ve been hurt, misunderstood, and disrespected by the other. These stem from places of abandonment and shame, and our lack of the ability to “stay with the uncomfortable” parts of ourselves. Allen has an especially hard time with this, deeply desiring the absence of conflict. It does not make him feel safe inside or out. On the other hand, I love exposing all our shadowy parts (or maybe just his if I’m truthful) and bringing them out into the open for the gaping wound to sometimes fester and other times heal. Allen tends to be the avoider. I am the chaser. I fight and he flees when we feel threatened.
For many years, we had no idea that all this conflict CAN actually lead to intimacy (being fully-known and fully-loved). But it CAN also lead to disconnection. The trick is knowing HOW to argue, how to fight fair. Allen’s calm and quiet during our times of conflict appears like marital harmony, but without resolution, the problem just brews beneath the surface. My love of “getting it out into the open” many times degenerates into insults and harm. This breeds the perfect environment for disconnection.
Dr. Gottman, the expert marriage researcher, says that how a couple handles conflict is directly related to how likely they are to have a happy marriage. There are four disastrous ways of interacting that will cripple attempts to resolve conflict, one feeding into the next (he calls them the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse): criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling. They are the FIRE that destroys.
Complaining (not to be confused with endless nagging – Allen likes the idea of challenging the status quo) is a healthy marital activity. It’s not pleasant, but it brings things into the light. Many times, and this is where I personally struggle, it crosses the line to CRITICISM. Criticism involves attacking someone’s person, rather than their behavior. Complaints usually start with the word “I” and criticism with the word “you.” For example, “I wish we spent more time together” is a complaint. “You never spend time with me” is a criticism. Criticism produces blame and multiplies shame, never resulting in closeness.
CONTEMPT brings criticism to a whole new level. Many times, criticism, as bad as it is, is born from a place of frustration. It tends to be a “crime” of passion. Contempt is a clear “premeditated” attempt to harm your partner. Its aim is to cause pain. No matter if you have been married for four days or forty years, this monster sucks away every positive feeling spouses have for one another. It appears in the form of name-calling, hostile humor (sarcasm) and straight up mockery. I always associate it with the “rolling of the eyes.” This is the most dangerous “horseman.”
Once contempt has entered the picture, each of us has a natural inclination to defend ourselves. In fact, DEFENSIVENESS can result even from proper forms of communication like complaining, especially if there is unresolved shame in either party. However, it is completely natural to resort to this place when there is CRITICISM and especially when CONTEMPT has taken hold. This being said, defensiveness only escalates a conflict instead of resolving it. Denying responsibility and making excuses only separates a couple further.
The last horseman is STONEWALLING. Allen struggles with this. Overwhelmed by emotions, his natural inclination is to withdraw, protect himself. Even though it might look on the surface like “peace-making,” it actually is a very powerful act, conveying disapproval. The example that comes to mind is when one of us “stops talking” to the other. When this happens, the ability to connect is seriously thwarted and intimacy is beyond reach.
All this sounds so horrible and hard and probably completely relatable. Even writing this is making me a little discouraged. I need a little good news, how about you?
There is great HOPE! All of those horseman come into every marriage, even happy ones at some point or another, especially when there is intense marital conflict. But they don’t have to be the norm. Just like fires can bring harm and destruction, they can also produce light and warmth.
Conflict in marriage can be the fire that produces light and warmth. It can bring life and vitality into a relationship. It is the price you pay to have deeper intimacy. WE CAN FIGHT FIRE WITH FIRE! Here are basic “rules” (not a huge fan of that word) that govern how to move from harm to healing:
Bottling things up and burying them just makes the “cork pop” at some point. The problem hasn’t gone away. Instead, take some time away if you need to with the promise that you will come back together when cooler heads prevail over heated emotions. This has been huge for us. When Allen says “Let’s come back later,” I am able to “let things go for now” knowing there will be resolution.
CHOOSE YOUR BATTLES
This goes back to probably 85% of our arguments about how to squeeze the toothpaste tube, mow the lawn, etc. Allen and I have wasted a lot of time and energy here.
GET TO THE HEART OF THE MATTER
Drs. Les and Leslie Parrot, marriage counselors, teach couples the X, Y, Z formula to help them state their true feelings, “In situation X, when you do Y, I feel Z.” This gives room for you to state how your partner’s behavior affects your feelings. This is when “I” statements, instead of “you” statements, come into play. This helps to diffuse defensiveness and provide a place of safety.
Never “throw back in their face” something your spouse has shared with you in a place of vulnerability and confidentiality. In the heat of an argument, this is a quick “go-to,” but will break trust and humiliate the other. Nothing enhances feelings of shame more than this.
IS IT THE RIGHT TIME?
This is especially helpful when working through the bigger things that may need to be sorted out over the long-haul. I have had to learn this the hard way. I want to rush through and fix things right away (like the minute it pops into my head). Allen has taught me to be patient and gracious here. Instead of my normal MO (mode of operation), I ask instead, “I have something bothering me. When is a good time to talk about it?”
Be careful to believe the best about the other’s intentions and be open to learning whether or not you are right or wrong. Mind-reading assumes the worst about someone and can be a strategy of self-protection. If I have Allen “all figured out” (and I’m not usually thinking the best), what room is there for him to share his heart? This shuts down communication and blocks intimacy.
STAY ON TOPIC
Stick to the relevant issue that you are discussing. Don’t veer off course, bringing up everything the person has done wrong in the last five years. Refocus when things get off course. Be careful of this slippery slope.
TWO EARS, ONE MOUTH
Listen. Plain and simple. But not that easy. Have the goal of understanding where the other person is coming from. This is so hard. I’m not sure why. We want so desperately to be understood. Give the gift you long for to the other. Hear with your heart. Be careful not to fix. Sometimes, silence is your spouse’s best friend (something super hard for this chatterbox). “I hear you” have been three of the most powerful words I’ve ever said or heard.
ADMIT YOUR PART
I have a huge barrier when it comes to saying I am wrong. I can see so clearly how Allen is “completely in the wrong about everything” (note sarcastic tone here). This comes for me from a place of pride (“I’m better than you”). For Allen, it comes from a place of shame (“You’re better than me”). We both struggle here for different reasons, neither one of them good. Understanding the back story of our own reactions is HUGE here. When we understand that we both have infinite value and worth, “I’m sorry” becomes much easier because we can take responsibility for our actions without blame and shame.
Feeding off the compassion we now have for ourselves (and our spouses) that comes straight from God’s heart for us provides real room for forgiveness, “giving up my right to hurt you for hurting me.” We all fail. We all need forgiveness. Giving to the other what we will eventually need brings true healing. (This is a huge topic, one to be talked about at a later date.)
I keep coming back to the image of fire. “Keep the fires burning” and “Keep the flame alive” are mantras for good marriage. Fire destroys or gives light. Conflict is the same. Fighting harms or heals, brings intimacy or disconnection. I’m sure another “discussion” is right around the corner for Allen and me. May we fight the FIRES of destruction and harm with the FIRES that bring light and healing!
If you’ve made it this far, can you go back to Social Media and “like” it (but only if you do like it…LOL)!