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Your Family Voyage: Family Rules

SOURCE:  Excerpted from the book by P. Roger Hillerstrom

Rules and More Rules.  No human response is absurd regardless of how ridiculous it appears.  Each person’s behavior, decisions, and reactions emerge from a context of some sort.  This frame of reference, if it is understood can shine a spotlight into a dark area that is otherwise baffling.  In essence, family rules are the way family values are passed on from one generation to another.  Through rules, a family communicates its expectations for family members as well as for those outside the family.  Rules tell us what is acceptable and unacceptable, proper and improper, good and bad.  Family rules communicate expectations about how people are to relate to one another, how the different generations are to interact, and what is expected of each individual.

In the same way that family roles give each member a place to “fit” into the family identity, family rules tell each member how to play his or her part.  Some rules are very clear and understandable; some are extremely clouded and confusing.  Since families have expectations about everything they do, they also have rules about everything they do.

“Written rules” – expectations that have been communicated directly in some way.  Written rules give structure and stability to family life.  They include things such as table manners, curfews and chores.

  • “Finish your dinner or no dessert.”
  • “Do your homework before you go out to play.”
  • “Bedtime is ten o’clock.”

Unwritten rules are quite another story.  These rules consistently influence behavior within the family but have never been directly stated.  These unspoken expectations are not open for discussion or evaluation, generally because no one is consciously aware of them.

Families have unwritten rules about all kinds of things.  The most readily visible rules are those regarding emotional tension.  If the children misbehave or cause distraction whenever the parents argue, they are communicating the rule “Parents can’t fight”.  If parents take over a task or job for a child whenever he or she complains or experiences difficulty, then the rule may be “Children can’t be frustrated”.  If family members act differently around a particular parent, treating them “with kid gloves”, the rule may be “Mom (or Dad) must not get angry.  Because unwritten rules are not verbalized, family members may often be unaware they exist.

Family rules accomplish several purposes.  For one, they serve to regulate tension within the family.  Too much tension or conflict within a home makes family life chaotic, unsettled, and insecure; too little tension results in stagnation and indifference.

Another purpose served by family rules is that of defining the family’s identity.  They give the family a sense of uniqueness.

A third purpose is that rules lend stability and predictability to family life.

The good news about family rules is that they help make family life stable and predictable.  The bad news is that family rules can keep family members from growing, maturing, and changing.  This is especially true for rules that limit communication or emotional closeness.  It is also true for rules that are arbitrary and overly rigid.

Some rules help us prepare for and live in the adult world.  Other unwritten rules apply only to life within the family, and they often distort our perspective of life.  As adults we continue to be loyal to these rules until we consciously change them.

The most influential rules in our families are the unwritten ones – those based on assumptions.  It is usually easier to identify unwritten family rules in someone else’s family than in your own.  Unwritten rules are generally enforced through rejection by parents and family members.  Controlling children through rejection can be done with direct statements:

  • “Mommy doesn’t love you when you act like that.”
  • “You are an awful child when you do that.”
  • “If you act (talk, feel) like that, you’re no child of mine.”

Rejection and control can also be expressed indirectly:

  • “I won’t talk to you when you’re crying (angry, depressed).”
  • “Go to your room if you feel that way.”
  • “I won’t be around you when you’re like that.”

The common factor in both expressions of rejection is the underlying message:  “You will be loved and considered worthy only if you perform properly.”  Behavior is not separated from the individual.  Bad behavior equals a bad person.  The result is a sense of shame and fear of abandonment.

An alternative message would be:  “I love you regardless of what you do, but there are negative consequences for your inappropriate behavior.”  In this case parental love and acceptance are not withheld and consequences for behavior are separated from the child as a person.

To a young child, the threat of rejection or abandonment is a powerful motivator.  Physically dependent on parents and authority figures, children have a strong need to please them.  Something as subtle as a facial gesture, the refusal of a hug, or silence can elicit fear and shame in a young child.  When the threat of rejection is used regularly and consistently in a child’s life, that child becomes sensitized to rejection.  He or she develops a habit of avoiding rejection at all costs, which will carry over into adulthood long after the child becomes independent and no longer needs parents for physical survival.

Expressing Emotions.  For Ken to see his wife cry was an unnerving experience. Whenever she cried he felt a strong need to stop her and smooth things out somehow.  For Catherine, crying was a soothing release of tension.  She felt minimized and patronized when Ken would try to squelch her tears, and she interpreted his lack of observable emotion as apathy.  It was hard for her to feel she was important to him when he expressed no emotion.  It wasn’t until each began to understand the other’s family rules that their reactions began to change.

Most families have unwritten rules about the expression of various emotions.  The honest expression of feelings needs to be balanced with courtesy and respect for others.  Typically, the unwritten rules regarding expression revolve around “forbidden” emotions:

  • “It is wrong to make another person uncomfortable.  We do not confront one another.”
  • “We are a positive, joyful family.  No one may express negative emotions such as anger, sadness, fear, or hurt.”
  • “The women in our family are gentle.  They may not be angry, but they may be depressed.”
  • “The men in our family are strong.  They may not be fearful or hurt, but they may be angry.”
  • “We are a loving family.  We do not have conflict or disagree with one another.”

When genuine feelings are minimized, denied, or redefined, a child’s emotional experience becomes distorted.  Believing that anger or sadness is bad does not make it less real.  The child learns to distrust the senses and becomes confused – anger isn’t really anger; hurt isn’t really hurt.  When children experience a forbidden emotion, they feel guilty and ashamed as though they themselves are somehow “bad”.  They then deny the emotion to avoid the shame.

When emotions are denied consistently, as a way of life, they tend to come out “sideways”, in some form that does not violate the family rule.  Rules suppressing emotions often produce adults who may be convinced that they harbor no anger, but their depression, ulcers, or migraine headaches tell another story.

Family members learn to develop emotional distance.  When someone cannot or will not express strong feelings, other people have a hard time getting to know that person very well.  Families with restrictive rules governing honest emotional interaction are often communicating to one another that emotional stability is valued more highly than emotional closeness.

Many families have strict unwritten rules regarding standards of performance by family members.  Examples of these may be:

  • “Whatever you do, it must be done correctly.”
  • “There’s only one way to do things – the right way!”
  • “To fail in any way is a shameful thing.”

These rules are learned clearly and quickly through regular, consistent criticism and minimal affirmation.  Criticism may be communicated directly, through complaints and condemnation of what a child does or how the child acts, or indirectly, through disapproving frowns, silence, or regularly comparing the child to someone or something “better”.

The definition of what is “correct” or “perfect” may vary widely.  One family may define “correct” as being sociable.  Having many friends and no enemies would be correct in this family.  Conflict then would be a measure of failure.  Another family may define “correct” as remaining separate from “the world”.  In this family a very small circle of social contacts would be considered appropriate and positive.

One family might measure “correctness” in financial terms.  A nice home, new cars, and many possessions would spell success.  The absence of these things may be cause for criticism or pity.  Another family may define “correct” behavior as the absence of materialism.

The values behind these rules may be positive and appropriate, but all too often these underlying motivations get lost when conformity becomes more highly valued than individuality.  The performance of family members becomes more important than the people themselves.

Whatever the specifics within the family, the definition of “right”, “correct” or “perfect” is always dependent on a comparison.  To be defined, “perfect” must be contrasted with “imperfect”.  Because there must always be a “wrong” to avoid at all costs, there is a judgmental attitude or a “better than others” aspect to this rule.

Since being “wrong” results in shame and being “right” is merely expected, avoiding being wrong becomes more important than doing what is right.  Defensiveness, blame, justification, and rationalization are typical patterns in families with perfectionistic performance rules.

The long-term effect of these rules is two-fold.  First a child develops a mental image as to what he or she “should be” and strives constantly to achieve it.  Usually this ideal standard cannot be achieved, at least consistently.  As a result of this, the child becomes self-critical, discontent, and defensive – a perfectionist.  Second, the child learns to project expectations and perfectionism onto others.  Since others cannot fulfill the expectations, the child is disappointed and critical.  This child is demanding, condemning, nagging, and rejecting.  He or she feels hurt and in turn hurts others, alienating them and damaging close relationships.

Physical Expression of Affection.  Eric can’t remember ever seeing his parents touch each other.  He certainly felt loved and cared for as a child, but that love wasn’t expressed through hugs.  In his family, affection was expressed through giving gifts and other tangible ways, such as doing special favors.  His wife, Rosa, grew up with constant physical affection from her family.  Touching among family members was a natural part of any conversation.  Early in their marriage Eric and Rosa were each offended by the other’s approach to this dissimilarity.  She felt neglected, and he felt smothered.

The communication of affection is laden with family expectations.  In some families, physical touch is comfortable and somewhat threatening.  In other families, members feel rejected when a greeting isn’t accompanied with an embrace.  Rules regarding physical expression of affection vary widely.

  • “Women may hug one another, men may only shake hands.”
  • “Adults may hug children but never other adults.”
  • “Physical affection is private, never to be shown in public.”
  • “If you care for someone, you touch that person regularly.”

Learning to Disobey.  Jesus demonstrated the result of emotionally leaving his family patterns and replacing them with mature priorities and decisions.  The process of leaving rules learned in childhood behind is difficult and calls for discernment.  Family rules that are dysfunctional and unhealthy can usually be identified by two factors:  They have little or no relationship to life outside the family, and family members are not able to discuss or evaluate them.

Some of the unwritten rules from your family of origin are undoubtedly positive and helpful to you today.  As you begin to break away from inappropriate rules from your childhood, remember that the family is a system or a mobile.  Change in one person causes changes in others.  In one way or another people around you will be forced to adjust in response to your new reactions.

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10 Habits to Shape a Kind, Well-Adjusted Child

SOURCE:  Rebecca Eanes/ The Gottman Institute

Parenting is complicated. If we’re not careful, we become too focused on one aspect and let the others fall by the wayside.

Many times, I see parents who are intently focused on discipline, and I’m talking about the traditional use of the word here with regard to modifying behavior. Sometimes we get very caught up in “What do I do when…” or “How do I get my kid to…” and we lose sight of the bigger picture.

The truth is that there are many things that are more important in shaping our children than the methods and techniques we use to modify their behavior.

Below are 10 things that are more important than any parenting method you choose, in no particular order.

1. Your relationship with your child

The relationship that you have with your child is the single biggest influence on them. Your relationship sets an example for how relationships should be throughout the rest of their lives.

If you have a healthy relationship based on respect, empathy, and compassion, you’ve set a standard. They will grow to expect that this is what a relationship looks like and will likely not settle for less.

If, however, your relationship is based on control, coercion, and manipulation, well you see where I’m going with this.

In addition to that, your influence comes from a good relationship. Children are more likely to listen to and cooperate with an adult who they are connected to.

In other words, if you build trust and open communication when they are small, they will come to you when they are not so small. Your attachment helps wire healthy brains, and your responses set the tone for how they respond to you (they’re little mirrors).

2. Your perspective

When you look at your child, who do you see?

Do you see the positives or the negatives?

The way you think about them influences the way you treat them. Your thoughts also influence the way you feel emotionally and physically throughout the day. “He is in the terrible twos” will cause you to look for terrible things, to focus on them, and therefore try to correct them, constantly.

Try to turn these negative thoughts into positive thoughts, like, “He is inquisitive and fun!” Try to see misbehavior as a call for help rather than something that needs squashed immediately. Correction is not needed nearly as often as you might think.

Also watch your tone and language. Lori Petro of TEACH Through Love says, “Be mindful of the language you use to describe your children. They will come to see themselves through that filter you design.” Be careful not to place labels such as “naughty” or “clumsy” on your child. They will come to see themselves the way you see them.

3. Your relationship with your significant other

Your kids are watching and learning. The way you and your partner treat each other sets a standard. Happy parents make happy kids. Read How Your Marriage Affects Your Kids

“The foundation of a happy family is a strong, loving relationship between the two of you. The single, most important thing that you can do for your children is to do everything in your power to have the best possible relationship with your spouse. If they see the two of you getting along and supporting each other, they will mirror you and will likely get along with each other and their friends. Every single ounce of energy that you put into your relationship will come back to you tenfold through your children.”

4. The atmosphere of your home

All of the things mentioned above come together to create the atmosphere of your home.

If you have loving and connected relationships, you likely have a warm atmosphere in your home. If there is discord between you and your spouse, or you and your child, or your child and your other child, then the overall atmosphere will suffer. Have you ever gone to someone’s home and could just feel a negative atmosphere?

You want your home to be a haven, a safe, warm, inviting, and loving place for all family members. Dorothy Parker said, “The best way to keep children home is to make the home atmosphere pleasant—and let the air out of the tires.” You don’t have to let the air out until they’re 16 though.

5. How you relate to others

How do you treat the bank teller, the store clerk, the telemarketer? What about your parents and your in-laws? They are watching your example.

Albert Einstein once said, “Setting an example is not the main means of influencing another, it is the only means.”

6. Your community

Are you involved in your community? Aside from setting an example, there are valuable lessons to be learned from volunteering, supporting a local cause, attending church, or donating items. Seeing a bigger picture, how their acts can influence many lives, will give them a sense of responsibility and reinforce good values.

7. Their school

Whether you choose private school, public school, homeschooling, or unschooling, your choice will have an impact on your child. Choose with care. Peers have a big influence on children, but if our relationship is where it should be, our influence will still be stronger.

8. Your cup

How full is it? You have to take care of you so you can take care of them. If your cup is full, you are more patient, more empathetic, and have more energy.

Not only that, but a child who sees his parents respect themselves learns to have self-respect. Put yourself back on your list.

9. Television, video games, and social media

They are always sending messages to your kids. Now, I let my kids watch TV and play computer games, so I’m not taking a big anti-media stance here, but just be aware of what your kids are getting from what they’re watching.

My son said something out of character for him a while back that came directly from a cartoon character. I knew where he’d gotten it and we had a talk about the differences between cartoon land and the real world. I’m just glad they don’t have a Facebook account yet!

10. Their basic needs

Adequate nutrition, sleep, and exercise are not only essential for the well-being of your child but also influence behavior. Dr. Sears addresses nutrition here. Also read this article, Sleep Better for Better Behavior. Finally, exercise helps children learn to focus their attention, limit anger outburst and improve motor skills.

“If I had my child to raise all over again, I’d build self-esteem first, and the house later. I’d finger-paint more, and point the finger less. I would do less correcting and more connecting. I’d take my eyes off my watch, and watch with my eyes. I’d take more hikes and fly more kites. I’d stop playing serious, and seriously play. I would run through more fields and gaze at more stars. I’d do more hugging and less tugging.” – Diane Loomans

Self-Interest is Not Selfish in Relationships

SOURCE:  Alli Hoff Kosik/The Gottman Institute

It’s hard to fault someone for being selfless.

We’re taught to put a high premium on kindness, generosity, and the needs of others. Sharing is one of the first lessons that many of us can remember learning as toddlers.

Making a decision based on our partner’s preference or going out of our way for a significant other — even when we’ve had a difficult day ourselves — is sort of the adult equivalent of letting a classmate borrow the crayon that we really wanted to use, no? At any age, these selfless acts are considered fundamentally good.

But that doesn’t mean that being in a relationship with a supremely selfless person is fundamentally easy.

What happens when a spouse’s unflinchingly self-sacrificing behavior is built, brick by brick, into a wall so airtight that it’s no longer possible to understand the interests and desires that they hold near and dear?

Maybe it’s as simple as your partner constantly deferring to you to choose the movie or restaurant, or perhaps they are always willing to talk through the challenges of your day, while never quite opening up about their own. Maybe you feel they are always telling you just what you want to hear.

These selfless acts may feel good in the moment, but over time, they’ll limit your ability to authentically connect in your relationship. You may never learn whether they really like Mexican food and comedies best, and you may always wonder if their political views could actually be so similar to yours.

Finding yourself in a constant state of agreement may grow frustrating — and you’ll likely find yourself questioning if your partner’s selfless behavior is too good to be true. (For your sake, we hope it’s not… but your concerns are perfectly valid!)

In extreme cases, you may even feel as if you are being stonewalled, which, according to Dr. John Gottman, happens when a listener withdraws from an interaction. Have you ever felt as if your partner’s conversational generosity was simply a tool to shut down the discussion and avoid becoming more fully engaged?

Jackie: Where should we go this weekend?

Jim: I’m happy to go wherever you want to go!

Jackie: That’s great, but I want us to decide together. What would be your perfect getaway?

Jim: I will go anywhere you want. Just say the word!

Even if this conversation is sealed with a kiss and plans for an amazing weekend trip, the fact remains that Jim’s selflessness comes with a side of disengagement — and there’s no way that this goes unnoticed for Jackie.

If you’re struggling to find a healthy balance of authenticity and honesty with your selfless partner, perhaps you need to consider working toward deeper, more intimate conversations with them — drawing out their core opinions, setting a standard for more intentional, open, engaged, and reciprocal communication. Dr. Gottman has three basic rules for intimate conversations:

1. Put your feelings into words
2. Ask open-ended questions
3. Express empathy

In order to draw your partner further into more connected conversations, I suggest focusing on the latter two tips. Practicing these skills in your day-to-day interactions may help your spouse to communicate more genuinely — dare we say selfishly? — with you. Here’s how you can apply these principles more specifically with your self-sacrificing special someone.

Ask open-ended questions

Start paying closer attention to the way you engage your partner in conversation. If they are more selfless than most, you may need to be especially careful to avoid the use of yes or no questions. After all, what selfless spouse wants to say “no” when their favorite person wants to hear “yes?”

Maximize your partner’s ability to assert their opinions and preferences — in their entirety — by keeping your questions to them wide open. You may need to do it more often than feels natural. Ask “What would you like to have for dinner tonight?” instead of “Should we go out for Mexican for dinner tonight?”

The results may not be immediate, but as you establish a more consistent pattern of open-ended questioning — about everything from restaurant choices to the best way to manage your finances — we’re willing to bet that your partner will begin to realize that you expect them to engage with you at a deeper level.

Reestablishing the ground rules for conversations in your relationship may take time, but it will pay off in the long run in the form of a deeper connection with your partner.

Express empathy

Perhaps your partner struggles with authentic self-expression because their innermost opinions have never been validated with any sort of intentionality. Assuming you’ve started asking your spouse more open-ended questions, they may have begun opening up about their true preferences and desires. The trick now is to turn toward them (as Dr. Gottman always says) by engaging more fully in the conversation.

Show your partner that what they’re saying makes sense to you. If your partner is only taking baby steps away from constant selflessness, take baby steps with them. You can even show empathy for something as simple as your typically deferential spouse’s admission that they prefer Italian food to Mexican food (bear with us, we know this sounds a little crazy).

“Oh, I totally understand that,” you can say. “I feel like we always get more for our money when we go out to that Italian place down the street. And they have a great bread basket! What’s the best Italian food you’ve ever had?”

Engaging with your partner in this way shows them that you are paying attention to theirneeds, and that you may be in agreement with them as often as they are in agreement with you! Start small by validating their restaurant preferences, and watch them become more comfortable asserting their input in more consequential situations.

Are You Helping or Enabling Your Spouse?

SOURCE:  Mark Merrill

Does your spouse want or need to change something in their life? If so, it’s critical to know the difference between helping and enabling them through that change.

The change they want or need could be something serious like an addiction to prescription drugs, alcohol, food, or pornography. Or it could be something simpler like eating healthier, exercising more, or changing an annoying habit. They may talk about it, they may whine about it, they may pretend it doesn’t exist, but being their spouse, you see it better than most anyone.

In general, helping your spouse is doing something right and healthy for them that they cannot do for themselves. Enabling is doing for them what they can and need to do for themselves, allowing them to live an irresponsible life.

A recent reality show my friend was watching about a severely obese person illustrates both helping and enabling. A woman needed to lose hundreds of pounds or she would die. Her relatives had been going to the store for her every day (since she couldn’t go herself), but they bought only the unhealthy food that was killing her. That was not helping; that was enabling her obesity. Later, the relatives saw the reality of what they were doing, moved in with her, and helped her change her eating and cooking habits by cooking only healthy foods for her for several months. That was helping. She learned to choose healthier options, and successfully lived alone again, with a radically different lifestyle and weight loss that gave her hope.

Here’s what enabling looks like:

  • You do for your spouse the things they can and should do for themselves.
  • You cover up for your spouse when their issues create problems for them and others.
  • You make excuses for their behavior with others.
  • You lie to them, to yourself, and to others about the extent and eventual consequences of their issue.
  • You protect your spouse from the normal consequences of their problem.
  • You ignore your spouse or their issue altogether. Ignoring is enabling.
  • You blame others or indulge your spouse blaming others, for their issue.
  • You make empty threats related to the consequences of their choices and don’t follow through.
  • You avoid being around your spouse. Sometimes, this is necessary for a dangerous situation but usually, it only allows the spouse to wallow in the problem.
  • You repeatedly get your spouse out of the trouble their issue creates, usually at a high cost to yourself.

Here’s what helping looks like:

  • You do for your spouse the things that they cannot do for themselves.
  • You are honest with them about the consequences of inaction.
  • You don’t lie for them, and you don’t lie to them.
  • You don’t create excuses to others to cover up for their problems or issues.
  • You don’t clean up the messes their struggles or issues create.
  • You love them unconditionally, just as they are, yet you also love them enough to hope they choose to change.
  • You help them focus on the goal, without dwelling on any missteps or failures along the way.
  • You cheer them on and celebrate even small steps towards their goals.
  • You accept that you cannot change them, that they will not change unless they want to change. This may feel like giving up, but accepting this truth gives them freedom to own the change.
  • You refuse to take responsibility for their bad choices.

These are just some of the ways you can check yourself to see if you are truly helping them or enabling their destructive choices. But these are not exhaustive checklists. Don’t delay to seek out professional counsel for yourself if you have a serious situation. Don’t give up hope, but don’t give in to the temptation to indulge them in keeping the peace. And remember, your spouse can only experience true change when they want true change.

Blended Families: 10 Things to Know Before You Remarry

SOURCE:  Ron Deal/Family Life

Challenges every single parent should consider before deciding to remarry.

Specializing in stepfamily therapy and education has taught me one thing: Couples should be highly educated about remarriage and the process of becoming a stepfamily before they ever walk down the aisle.  Remarriage—particularly when children are involved—is much more challenging than dating seems to imply. Be sure to open your eyes well before a decision to marry has been made.

The following list represents key challenges every single parent (or those dating a single parent) should know before deciding to remarry. Open your eyes wide now and you—and your children—will be grateful later.

1. Wait two to three years following a divorce or the death of your spouse before seriously dating. No, I’m not kidding. Most people need a few years to fully heal from the ending of a previous relationship. Moving into a new relationship short-circuits the healing process, so do yourself a favor and grieve the pain, don’t run from it. In addition, your children will need at least this much time to heal and find stability in their visitation schedule. Slow down.

2. Date two years before deciding to marry; then date your future spouse’s children before the wedding. Dating two years gives you time to really get to know one another. Too many relationships are formed on the rebound when both people lack godly discernment about their fit with a new person. Give yourself plenty of time to get to know each other thoroughly. Keep in mind—and this is very important—that dating is inconsistent with remarried life.

Even if everything feels right, dramatic psychological and emotional shifts often take place for children, parents, and stepparents right after the wedding. What seems like smooth sailing can become a rocky storm in a hurry. Don’t be fooled into thinking you won’t experience difficulties. As one parent said, “Falling in love is not enough when it comes to remarriage; there’s just more required than that.”

When you do become serious about marriage, date with the intention of deepening the stepparent/stepchild relationships. Young children can attach themselves to a future stepparent rather quickly, so make sure you’re serious before spending lots of time together. Older children will need more time (research suggests that the best time to remarry is before a child’s tenth birthday or after his/her sixteenth; couples who marry between those years collide with the teen’s developmental needs).

3. Know how to “cook” a stepfamily. Most people think the way to cook a stepfamily is with a blender, microwave, pressure cooker, or food processor. Nothing could be further from the truth. All of these “cooking styles” attempt to combine the family ingredients in a rapid fashion. Unfortunately, resentment and frustration are the only results.

The way to cook a stepfamily is with a crockpot. Once thrown into the pot, it will take time and low heat to bring ingredients together, requiring that adults step into a new marriage with determination and patience. The average stepfamily takes five to seven years to combine; some take longer. There are no quick recipes.  (Read more about how to cook a stepfamily here.)

4. Realize that the “honeymoon” comes at the end of the journey for remarried couples, not the beginning. Ingredients thrown into a crockpot that have not had sufficient time to cook don’t taste good—and might make you sick. Couples need to understand that the rewards of stepfamily life (security, family identity, and gratitude for one another) come at the end of the journey. Just as the Israelites traveled a long time before entering the Promise Land, so will it be for your stepfamily.

5. Think about the kids. Children experience numerous losses before entering a stepfamily. In fact, your remarriage is another. It sabotages their fantasy that Mom and Dad can reconcile, or that a deceased parent will always hold his or her place in the home. Seriously consider your children’s losses before deciding to remarry. If waiting till your children leave home before you remarry is not an option, work to be sensitive to your children’s loss issues. Don’t rush them and don’t take their grief away.

6. Manage and be sensitive to loyalties. Even in the best of circumstances, children feel torn between their biological parents and likely feel that enjoying your dating partner will please you but betray the other parent. Don’t force children to make choices, and examine the binds they feel. Give them your permission to love and respect new people in the other home and let them warm up to your new spouse in their own time.

7. Don’t expect your new spouse to feel the same about your children as you do. It’s a good fantasy, but stepparents won’t care for your children to the same degree that you do. This is not to say that stepparents and stepchildren can’t have close bonds; they can. But it won’t be the same. When looking at your daughter, you will see a 16-year-old who brought you mud pies when she was 4 and showered you with hugs each night after work. Your spouse will see a self-centered brat who won’t abide by the house rules. Expect to have different opinions and to disagree on parenting decisions.

8. Realize that remarriage has unique barriers. Are you more committed to your children or your marriage? If you aren’t willing to risk losing your child to the other home, for example, don’t make the commitment of marriage. Making a covenant does not mean neglecting your kids, but it does mean that they are taught which relationship is your ultimate priority. A marriage that is not the priority will be mediocre at best.

Another unique barrier involves the “ghost of marriage past.” Individuals can be haunted by the negative experiences of previous relationships and not even recognize how it is impacting the new marriage. Work to not interpret the present in light of the past, or you might be destined to repeat it.

9. Parent as a team; get your plan ready. No single challenge is more predictive of stepfamily success than the ability of the couple to parent as a team. Stepparents must find their role, know their limits in authority, and borrow power from the biological parent in order to contribute to parental leadership. Biological parents must keep alive their role as primary disciplinarian and nurturer while supporting the stepparent’s developing role (read this series of articles for more on stepparenting). Managing these roles will not be easy; get a plan and stick together.

10. Know what to tell the kids. Tell them:

  • It’s okay to be confused about the new people in your life.
  • It’s okay to be sad about our divorce (or parent’s death).
  • You need to find someone safe to talk to about all this.
  • You don’t have to love my new spouse, but you do need to treat him or her with the same respect you would give a coach or teacher at school.
  • You don’t have to take sides. When you feel caught in the middle between our home and your other home, please tell me and we’ll stop.
  • You belong to two homes with different rules, routines, and relationships. Find your place and contribute good things in each.
  • The stress of our new home will reduce—eventually.
  • I love you and will always have enough room in my heart for you. I know it’s hard sharing me with someone else. I love you.

Work smarter, not harder

For stepfamilies, accidentally finding their way through the wilderness to the promised land is a rarity. Successful navigation requires a map. You’ve got to work smarter, not harder. Before you remarry, be sure to educate yourself on the options and challenges that lie ahead.

Be the Change You Wish to See in Your Relationship

SOURCE:  Terry Gaspard/Gottman Institute

Ben and Alicia are both waiting for the other person to change. I see it all the time in my private practice.

“I’ve been miserable for years,” complains Ben. “I’ve asked Alicia to give me space, but things don’t appear to be changing. It feels like I can’t breathe.”

“Ben has his friends over every weekend,” Alicia reflects. “He doesn’t consider my needs and I feel so alone.”

If you want your partner to change, start by accepting them for who they are. In The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, Dr. John Gottman says, “People can change only if they feel that they are basically liked and accepted the way they are. When people feel criticized, disliked, and unappreciated they are unable to change. Instead, they feel under siege and dig in to protect themselves.”

Instead of criticizing your partner, remind yourself of all of the things you appreciate about them, and share those things with them. Be genuinely interested in learning about why they see or do something differently than you, and be open to respecting and even celebrating what makes each of you unique.

Of course, there are some things that should never be tolerated in a relationship, like abuse, addiction, or infidelity. These behaviors should be addressed in a loving and direct way with the help of a professional. Even in those cases, it is possible to accept the person even if you do not accept their behavior.

Vulnerability and intimacy go hand in hand

What Ben and Alicia don’t realize is that they aren’t really arguing about the amount of time they spend together. The underlying issue in their marriage is that neither partner is able to express their needs in a non-blameful way.

They had never discussed what alone time and time together meant to each of them. By talking about this in my office, Ben finally understood Alicia’s fear of being alone. His understanding led him to carve out time to spend together on the weekends.

Couples seeking a deeper emotional connection need to understand that vulnerability and intimacy go hand in hand. In other words, intimacy can only occur when partners are vulnerable enough to share their deepest hopes, fears, and dreams without judgement.

Change starts with you

Do you spend more time questioning your partner’s words or actions than examining your own? Blaming your partner can feel good in the moment, but it’s dangerous because it can lead to anger and resentment.

Conflict is not a bad thing in relationships. After watching thousands of couples in his lab for over 40 years, Dr. Gottman discovered a simple truth: all couples argue. The difference between the couples that stay together and the ones who divorce is the way they repair after conflict. The Masters of relationships take responsibility for their role in the issue and change their own behavior.

Dr. Gottman explains, “The couples that don’t repair those hurts end up with festering wounds that grow bigger day by day, the month, and the year until they finally break the couple apart. Repair is absolutely crucial in any kind of relationship, particularly intimate relationships.”

Here are four things you can do instead of trying to change your partner that can change your relationship for the better.

1. Be a better partner
Many people stay in bad relationships with the desire to change their partner. In Marriage Rules, Dr. Harriet Lerner writes, “If you don’t change your part in a stuck pattern, no change will occur. Change comes from the bottom up: that is from the person who is in the most pain, or who has the least power, or who has lost or compromised too much in the relationship.”

2. Focus on the issues at hand
When you focus on changing your partner, you miss the opportunity to work together to come up with a solution. You’re no longer on the same team. Instead, focus on the issues at hand to meet both of your needs.

Anger is usually a symptom of underlying hurt, fear, and frustration, so speak in I statements and focus on expressing your feelings in a vulnerable way that invites your partner to understand your pain, rather than pushes them away.

3. Take responsibility
We are responsible for how our words and actions make our partner feel. Apologize to your partner by taking responsibility for the problem, even just a small piece, and this will validate their feelings, promote forgiveness, and allow you both to move on.

4. Complain without blame
In Why Marriages Succeed or Fail, Dr. Gottman explains that criticizing your partner is one of The Four Horsemen that predicts divorce. It is different from offering a critique or voicing a complaint. A criticism attacks the core of a person’s character while a complaint focuses on a specific behavior.

Successful couples remember to give each other the benefit of the doubt and consider that they are both doing the best they can. In The Science of Trust, Dr. Gottman advices couples to talk about their feelings in terms of a positive need, instead of what they do not need. By being good friends, you can build a healthy bond that will help you repair and navigate challenging moments together.

There is a saying to be the change you wish to see in the world. Gandhi advises us, “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him.” I believe this to be true in relationships as well.

Instead of trying to change your partner, be the change you wish to see in your relationship.

5 Biggest Little Ways to Improve Your Marriage

SOURCE:  Shaunti Feldhahn/Family Life

A few small actions carry surprising power in building a lasting relationship.

Not long ago, the marriage of some close friends—I’ll call them Daniel and Jessica—suddenly imploded. We did everything we could to stand with them in their crisis to speak hope for their future together. Unfortunately, their marriage didn’t survive.

I’ll never forget a conversation I had with Jessica one day. Through her sobs, she said, “He worked so hard for a year to take us on that amazing vacation to Hawaii. But all I really wanted was for him to put his arm around me at church!”

Huh? Do you think in the midst of all her pain that she was thinking clearly? Actually, I do.

I could fill in lots of other details, but ultimately the pattern is a sadly common one. You may have seen it too. Daniel was a godly, well-intentioned husband who showed his love in several ways, including working long hours to provide for his family and to do nice things for them. You see, for him, providing is love.

Unfortunately, he didn’t realize that what he was working so hard for wasn’t what Jessica most needed—and in some ways was actually robbing her of the closeness she needed the most. (And of course there were ways she didn’t know she was hurting him.) What she needed most, more than all the expensive vacations in the world, were a few simple, specific day-to-day actions.

But as simple as loving gestures in public? you wonder.

Yes! My research on happy couples showed that an extraordinarily high percentage of them were (often without realizing it!) doing a few little specific actions that were making their spouses feel deeply cared for. Jessica, as it turns out, is like nearly all other men and women in her deep rooted desire for these surprisingly meaningful gestures.

Day-to-day actions

Clearly, a few small actions won’t fix deep relationship problems. But for most of us, a handful of simple day-to-day actions increase the likelihood that our spouse feels that we care deeply about them, instead of feeling that we don’t. There’s just enormous power in that!

For nearly every man or woman, the same few small, gender-specific actions not only matter but have a huge impact on a couple’s level of happiness. But these little actions take on even more power when accompanied by those that matter to your spouse individually.

Let’s begin with the few small actions that the surveys indicate matter a lot to almost every man or woman—what we might call the Fantastic Five.

When individuals were asked on the survey if a particular action made them happy, the affirmative response numbers were staggeringly high for five specific actions for each gender, even among the struggling couples. Close to 100 percent of all husbands and wives said these actions mattered, with between 65 and 90 percent of all husbands and wives saying these actions would deeply please them.

In other words, you are very likely to make your spouse feel deeply cared for if you make a habit of doing the same five things consistently.

The Fantastic Five for him

A wife will have a big impact on her husband’s happiness when she does the following:

1. Notices his effort and sincerely thanks him for it. (For example, she says, “Thank you for mowing the lawn even though it was so hot outside.” Or, “Thanks for playing with the kids, even when you were so tired from work.”) This deeply pleases 72 percent of all men.

2. Says “You did a great job at __________.” This deeply pleases 69 percent of all men.

3. Mentions in front of others something he did well. This deeply pleases 72 percent of all men.

4. Shows that she desires him sexually and that he pleases her sexually. This deeply pleases 85 percent of all men.

5. Makes it clear to him that he makes her happy. (For example, she expresses appreciation for something he did for her with a smile, words, a big hug, etc.) This deeply pleases 88 percent of all men.

The Fantastic Five for her

On his side, a husband will have a big impact on his wife when he does the following:

1. Takes her hand. (For example, when walking through a parking lot or sitting together at the movies.) This deeply pleases 82 percent of all women.

2. Leaves her a message by voice mail, e-mail, or text during the day to say he loves and is thinking about her. This deeply pleases 75 percent of all women.

3. Puts his arm around her or lays his hand on her knee when they are sitting next to each other in public (at church, at a restaurant with friends, etc.). This deeply pleases 74 percent of all women.

4. Tells her sincerely, “You are beautiful.” This deeply pleases 76 percent of all women.

5. Pulls himself out of a funk when he’s morose, grumpy, or upset about something, instead of withdrawing. (This doesn’t mean he doesn’t get angry or need space; it means he tries to pull himself out of it.) This deeply pleases 72 percent of all women.

Keys that unlock any door

Did you notice that all these happiness-inducing actions are simple, learnable, and doable by any wife or any husband? If you put each of the five biggest little things to work every day, I’m betting your marriage will improve—in some cases, radically.

And here’s more great news: All these small but powerful actions matter regardless of what the person’s love language is. For example, most wives (82 percent) are affected when her husband reaches out and takes her hand, regardless of whether physical touch is her thing.

There’s no looking back for our friends Jessica and Daniel. But I’m so thankful that God is good. He is always at work to redeem our broken hearts—and I know He’ll do it for our friends. Still, a corner of my heart mourns the heartbreak that might have been prevented if they had truly understood the power of doing these best little things.

We all know that small, thoughtful acts are not a magic cure-all for every marriage problem. But having talked to so many who nurtured much happiness with simple but powerful actions, I know all of us can build that all-important foundation that helps us believe that our mate notices and cares.

Because as it turns out, believing that the other person cares is far more important to building a happy marriage than most of us ever realized.

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Adapted from The Surprising Secrets of Highly Happy Marriages, by Shaunti Feldhahn

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