The struggle from a year ago still pervaded our marriage. We thought we were able to identify it and simply knowing would make it solve itself, right? (Wrong)
We struggled big time recently.
The disagreements had recurring themes, recurring takeaways, and recurring cycles back into it all over again. Fighting sucks. Not feeling deeply connected to your spouse sucks. Hurting each other sucks. Nothing good came from this and we were two broken people clinging to our marriage.
We needed help. Like hardcore marriage counseling that dug really deep into the makeup of who we were as people. We were able to find that with Ken Howard.
We spent 4-hours with Ken in which he imparted wisdom, revelation, and insight into us as individuals and in our marriage. He took familiar concepts and uncovered greater depth, psychology, neuroscience, metaphors, and spirituality than we’ve ever heard. There were even the occasional choice words 😉
We hope in sharing this that you found the information to be as helpful to your relationship as it was to ours.
Pursuer and Distancer
This was discussed on the call before we actually met with Ken, but he nailed this on the head.
In any given relationship, there is typically a “pursuer” and a “distancer”. One of us was constantly pursuing the other person, but often met with a distancing response.
When this occurs enough times, the “pursuer” realizes that they will likely be turned down so then they began to retreat. They start to turn to other sources of meeting their need that weren’t being met by the “distancer” in the relationship. Ken said this was breeding grounds for an affair. (Don’t worry, that didn’t happen to us)
The “distancer” recognizing that they were no longer being pursued, tries to pursue the original “pursuer” but is awkward in their effort- misstepping and fumbling along the way.
What I got from this analogy was that we both needed to be mindful of our needs and constantly be in pursuit of one another. In some areas of our marriage, I was probably the “pursuer” and in other areas, I was the “distancer”. We both needed to be pursuers.
The term “reconciliation” is an accounting term and when applied to 2 Corinthians 5:8, we have a God that models reconciliation. The debt or weight that we hold over each other should not be there. In fact, in Matthew 5:24 the Lord was explicit about “leaving our gifts at the altar to first reconcile” in order that we may serve him well.
We can’t fully serve God if there is an imbalance in the scales. The same way, we can’t carry these relational debts against each other (especially our spouse) when we’re purposed to work with them to serve Him.
In the story of the prodigal son, the father forgave the son even before he asked for it because he ran to the son. Much in the same way, God died for us while we were still sinners and forgave us on the front end because He knew that it would change our heart on the back end.
Volcanoes form in our marriages. Whenever we have unresolved issues, they’re making deposits into our volcanoes. These minor deposits over time start to weave together and are no longer isolated issues, they’re fused.
So what should have been a “2” issue (on a 10-scale) quickly becomes a 10 issue, leaving the other person dumbfounded and deeply hurt by the response.
Alternatively, when we’re given tools to address each issue before they deposited in this volcano, we’re building the foundations of healthy conflict resolution. As we’re able to fully resolve each issue, it forms a stronger bond between us. We feel more connected, trusted, and safe within this relationship.
Ken encouraged us both to take time to have meaningful discussions to figure out what we harbored in each of our volcanoes and one-by-one, began to diffuse them.
Pain is Your First Line of Defense
In both the physical and emotion sense, pain is your first line of defense. It’s the thing that tells you “this hurts, I want to avoid this.” The analogy Ken used for this was raking.
If you continue to rake and ignore the pain on your palm, your body’s natural response is to blister. The blister’s purpose is to create some margin between the direct source of pain and your flesh. Over time, continued raking will produce a callous. A callous numbs any pain, while also preventing feeling in that area.
Now take that analogy and compare it with our own hearts. Do we have calloused hearts that have grown hard, unattended, and lack sensation? When we can’t feel the pain, we simultaneously also can’t experience other feelings such as joy.
Combat Vs. Conflict (+ Neuroscience Stuff)
Though similar in appearance, these two methods of confrontation are distinctly different. The end goal of combat is winning. The end goal of conflict is re-establishing intimacy. Far too often we engage in combat with our spouse.
When you come into conflict with a combat mindset, you are fully clothed in armor. Ready for defense and definitely ready for offense. Start by removing your armor.
As the conflict begins, sometimes stress or tension can cause our amygdala (the fight/flight/freeze function of our brain) to hijack our frontal lobe- the logical, sensible part of our brain. This function is really great when you’re in a situation of imminent danger. This function is disastrous when you’re talking with your spouse.
Ken told us that we had to recognize our physical triggers when we could feel our amygdala take over. So whether it was puffing up of the chest, clenching our teeth, ears turning hot, face turning hot, etc.
Then he told us that we had to come up with a phrase that we could both identify as “My amygdala has taken oven and I need to go talk myself down.” For instance, “Sweetheart, I need a minute.” If you’re the person that needed to step away, he suggested maybe doing some activity (physical or otherwise) to work yourself down.
This only works when the person who uses this phrase returns to address the issue- they have to re-initiate the conversation (when their frontal lobe has regained control.)
Because otherwise, if you’re talking out of your “amygdala takeover”, the words that will come out of your mouth will likely be destructive. You will cause more damage to the situation and end up saying things that are combative and likely regrettable.
To have healthy conflict, you need to be in your right mind.
Lenses by Which We See Others
We have these lenses that we see people through that is made up of our experience and interaction with them. If we have a smeared perspective of someone, the good things that they do are demoted. If we have a positive lens towards someone, the good things that they do are elevated.
Let’s pretend you see me putting my dishes in the sink. Depending on how you see me, you might respond with one of the following:
- She’s so helpful for doing that, that’s one less thing I have to worry about!
- Of course she should do that, why wouldn’t someone carry their dirty dishes to the sink?
- Just like I expected. She would go through the trouble of putting her dishes in the sink, but stop short of putting it in the dishwasher.
We have so many lenses by which we view others and being aware of our biases will allow us to address them. If we want intimacy in a marriage, we can’t see our spouse through tainted lenses. We must begin to figure out what clouds our perceptions.
What an icky word.
Before we met with Ken, we had consulted with him to learn more about his counseling approach to see if it would be a good fit. In that call, he could sense shame over our relationship, specifically in the area of resolving conflicts. He mentioned that it would be good for us to listen to “The Power of Vulnerability” by Brene Brown before meeting with him. This audible along has been largely instrumental in reversing/changing the trajectory of our relationship.
I literally feel that right when we started listening to that, the repair in our marriage immediately began to take shape by simply understanding what was grappling our own hearts.
When we’re in pain or shame, it is extremely difficult to care for others. If you have a physical pain (say broken arm) then it’s hard to see past yourself to empathize with those around you. I absolutely believe people experiencing pain have the capacity to help others, however, unaddressed pain proves to be a chokehold.
Confronting the shame we hold in our hearts is gut wrenchingly hard, but absolutely necessary to create vulnerability and intimacy in marriage. Oddly, leading up to confronting vulnerability is much harder than actually confronting it. As someone who’s lived it, I can promise you there is freedom on the other side.
Communication and Apologies
Yuck. Another one of those things we don’t like to talk about.
Ken said that it was important that when we go to our spouse with something (specifically a problem), it was important to know beforehand what we needed. Did we need them to empathize? Listen? “Heart with us”? Intellectual input? Or did we need them to actually fix it?
Frustrations happen in communication when we don’t identify our true need and our spouse completely misses the mark. It’s good to know what you need before coming with a problem (Most of the time, it’s “hearting”) and it’s also good to verbally communicate that to your spouse beforehand.
We also needed to listen to understand, not listen to respond. Oftentimes we give our spouse the floor to speak but we’re standing nearby with a loaded shotgun.
When it came to confessing and apologizing, he said “True apologies never explain, they just admit.” We both had to get better at that and we needed to be “masters of repair.”
Before I explain what a genogram is, I need to explain another concept. Latent learning is learning that you did not set out to learn and no one set to teach you. Remember this.
A Genogram is essentially a family tree created for the purpose of understanding permeating themes and dynamics in a family. You denote addiction, abuse, and various types of connection points. With each family member, you are presented with 4 options when confronted with conflict:
- Disconnect– When you and I disagree or have an issue, we don’t talk.
- Distance– When you and I disagree or have an issue, we withdraw (to the point that conversation becomes very shallow and surface-y)
- Fusion– For you and I to be good, we need to agree. Or as Ken explained, “even if you don’t like meatloaf, you need to eat the meatloaf I made in order for us to be on good terms.”
- Connect– When you and I disagree or have an issue, we can still be good and it doesn’t tarnish our relationship.
When you start to piece your genogram together, you can quickly find trends within your own family dynamic. As such, latent learning comes into play because you realize the things you were modeled and have essentially learned when it comes to relationships/conflict.
As we looked and observed both of our genograms, Ken pointed to the 3 circles beneath Tommy and I denoting our 3 daughters. Ken looked us square in the eyes and said “You can’t give them what you don’t have.”
We needed to work and mend our relationship not just for ourselves, but also for 3 very impressionable daughters that would look to our marriage as the model they would someday hold for their own. We had to put in the hard work now.
Ironically, the same armor that we use to protect ourselves aids to our demise. We feel more isolated and began to truly believe the problems we have are unique to us. These issues weren’t unique to us.
As I started sharing our own marriage struggles with close group of friends, many chimed in acknowledging the same brokenness in their own relationships. The characters would change, but the plot was eerily similar.
We hope in sharing this that it was helpful to your own marriage and de-stigmatize counseling. If nothing else, at least providing more context to struggles you’ve had.
This upcoming Fall, Tommy and I hope to do a marriage group in our home inviting a small number of couples to look and work through these hard issues.
We have no idea what this will look like yet, but if you have any interest drop me a line!