Doing Life Together

argueA couple came to marital counseling, determined to divorce. Both felt they could not work through their differences. They said there was too much hurtful history, too many issues of trust and too much damage.

I admit, they both had suffered greatly at the hand of the other and the work to shape up this relationship would be major. But I could clearly see that if they didn’t make changes now, they would face these same problems down the road. Their problems weren’t going away. Divorce would not solve their issues. In fact, I predicted they would carry their issues to the next relationship.

I asked for eight weeks to identify their problems and start making changes. If I could show them why they were so miserable and help them begin to change things in a positive direction, they could see the hope of reconciliation.

From my 25 years of experience, most divorcing couples are so busy blaming the other person, they haven’t clearly identified their part in the problems. When they admit to their part in the problem, change begins to happen. And if they are willing to work through difficult issues, forgive and change negative patterns, the marriage can be saved.

This couple declined my offer and divorced.

Five years later and married to new people, the original couple contacted me again individually. They remembered my prediction and admitted the same problems were resurfacing in their new relationships. The original wife was on her third marriage and jokingly said, “I guess on the third strike, I’m out so let’s start dealing with my baggage.”

The husband, brought to therapy by his second wife, reported his wife to say, “I’m starting to realize why his first wife left him. I was pretty naïve to think he wouldn’t act the same with me. Nothing has really changed. Yet I thought it was all her.” Bingo! It was time to tackle the issues. Both regretted not doing this earlier with their first spouses. Now their lives were complicated, entangled with children in the throws of new turmoil. They had not escaped their baggage or negative relationship patterns. Instead, their baggage followed them and was delivered to the new relationships.

During our separate sessions, both ex spouses admitted they might have been able to save their first marriage had they been willing to try. But the hurt was so big, the unforgiveness so strong, pride drove their decision to divorce. The pain was screaming, get out! And they admitted, it was easier to leave then face that pain.

The message they wanted to convey: Deal with your marital problems now or they surface later. They don’t magically disappear with divorce. And when you don’t even try to tackle your problems, they carry over to the next relationship. Do what you can to make changes the first time around. It will save you years of grief and might even bring reconciliation.

girl in mirrorRenee is like most teen girls. She struggles to accept her body. Obsessed with concerns about weight, beauty and comparing herself to others, she regularly finds ways to disparage her body.  But her most recent issue takes body acceptance to a whole new level. And I will warn you, this is R rated.

Renee is considering plastic surgery–on her genitals. According to the America Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, Renee is not alone. This group has witnessed an 80% increase in the number of girls under the age of 18 receiving genital plastic surgery. The numbers have been so concerning that the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) has issued new guidelines for doctors performing this and breast surgery. One of those guidelines is to screen for body dysmorphic disorder, a psychiatric disorder in which a person obsesses on a perceived body flaw and feels distress. In this case, the flaw is imperfect or ugly and disgusting genitals.

You may wonder, why would a young woman feel ashamed of her genitals? The answer has to do with shame. And the source of that shame has to do with the impact of porn on the thinking of young women and men. With porn so available and watched by so many, girls and boys are able see what the “perfect” or “desirable” gentitalia is supposed to look like, at least according to porn stars. Then when they compare their bodies to those of porn stars, they feel they don’t measure up. Thus, we have women who think they must correct their defect through plastic surgery, and men evaluating women against this “ideal.”

It’s all quite disturbing-too much information and objectification of women. This sets the stage. Women want  to please men by correcting some distorted image they have of their bodies. And men, whose ideas of beauty and desirability are shaped by viewing pornography, react to the what they see and desire.   You can imagine what this does to intimacy.

Obviously, body acceptance doesn’t get better with surgery. Rather, we need a surgery of the heart in which women see themselves in the image of God and stop comparing themselves to others, especially porn stars. Here again, we see the fall out of the impact of pornography and the destruction it brings to people’s lives-shame, feeling ugly, not good enough–so much so that young women are willing to surgically change their most private parts!

sorry-1356580_1920John and Mary had a fight. It was intense and neither is speaking to each other. Their relationship is suffering. Can they fix this? Both said some awful things and now feelings are hurt. They aren’t talking.

But, they can fix this if they practice a skill that healthy couples use–relationship repair. Relationship repair is important because it says, this relationship is more important than winning an argument. Relationship repair means you are willing to do something to make things better. A repair is a fix!

A repair begins by acknowledging your part of the problem. You take ownership of your emotions, thoughts and actions. This is the part you control. For example, did you bring the issue up in a respectful manner–not blaming or name calling? Did you stay calm and try to listen? In John’s case, he was accusing and blaming his wife for something he thought she did. This accusation shut her down and she stopped listening.

John wanted to fix their fight so he took the lead. When a fight or argument happens, don’t wait to see who goes first. You go first and make the repair.

When you contribute to a fight with unhealthy responses like John did (blame, criticism, defensiveness, silent treatment, etc.), apologize and ask for forgiveness. This is a step of repair. Acknowledging that you were wrong to talk or behave a certain way, begins the healing. Hopefully, the other person will accept your apology. There are times when people do not. Then, there is little you can do. Most times, however, an apology and plea for forgiveness opens the door to talk. Once John apologized, so did Mary. They were ready to re-engage.

After the apology,pray together. This usually calms the atmosphere. It distracts from the emotional upset and focuses your attention on God’s help in order to engage differently. It’s hard to stay mad at each other when you pray together!

Then try to revisit the issue with the knowledge of correcting what caused the fight (tone, anger, disrespect, etc.). Work on solutions, compromises or different ways to think about the problem. Use the word “we” rather than “I.” This communicates that you are in this together and want to have a solution.

You may not solve the issue, but you will repair the relationship. And that is the point. Couples don’t always agree and solve problems, but the way they treat each other in the process matters. And relationship repairs send the message that you are more important than me being right!


security-856168_1920Controlling? No. He is jealous and loves me. 

Yes, he wants to know where I go all the time but it’s just because he cares. 

She doesn’t want me spending time with my friends but it’s because she wants to be with me. 

Do any of these comments raise a red flag? They should! These are the actions of a controlling person. And your tendency might be to justify controlling actions rather than see them as a relationship problem.

A sign of over control is someone who is constantly jealous of your other relationships. The person tries to control who you see, how often you see them and then tries to guilt you into spending time with him or her rather than others. And to top it off, the reason given is because they care and want you all to themselves. This is not healthy.

Run from this type of relationship if you can. Controlling people don’t become less controlling when they become more intimate in their relationships. They usually escalate to more control. Control builds over time if you don’t address it when it begins.

If you confront a controlling person and he or she refuses to acknowledge what you see and feel, this is a bad sign. If, on the other hand, there is some awareness about the behavior, suggest getting help. A person can work on this, especially if they understand what is driving the behavior. Change takes time, but if the person is willing to improve the relationship, there is hope.

When bringing up an issue, stay calm and don’t accuse. Be specific as to what the behavior was and how it made you feel. Then ask what motivated this behavior. Is there a way to reassure or get a need met that doesn’t require this type of control? Try to stay confident that you want to work this out, but won’t allow this type of treatment. Sometimes it helps to reverse the situation and ask how that person would feel.

Avoid being manipulated with well intended behavior. You need to see change in the action. Controlling behavior may not be intentional and born out of deep insecurity. When that is the case, the person needs help feeling more secure or coping in a better way.

Always assess your safety when dealing with a controlling person. Most often, counseling is needed to work through the underlying issues and make change.


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