How Can You Love Your Spouse? Ask That Important Question!

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Having been a marriage and family therapist for a number of years, people often ask me what needs to happen in order to experience a good marriage. I’m really not a fan of that question because marriages vary between being good and being bad all the time. There are days, months, and years where marriages aren’t “good” and there are days, months, and years where marriages are great. Being happy in a marriage is transitory, it comes and goes and changes based on millions of situations, conditions, and variables. There are no perfect marriages and people who claim to have them are living a grand illusion. Whenever you ask two people to commit to one another for the rest of their lives it’s going to lead to problems because people aren’t perfect. Simple math reminds us that adding 1 imperfect person to another imperfect person only doubles the imperfections in the relationship.

There are a number of great researchers who have provided “best practices” for good marriages. Dr. John Gottman is one of my favorite marriage researchers and a great resource to help people develop solid practices and habits for experiencing a better marriage. However, even if you learn all the techniques, habits, and practices he shares with his readers, there’s no guarantee you’ll have a happy marriage. Happiness tends to be a fleeting experience that comes and goes with the changing seasons. It certainly isn’t a guaranteed state of existence.

I have found the best question to ask yourself in order to improve your marriage is very simple. The best thing to ask yourself is “How can I love my spouse in a way he or she needs to be loved?” Call it what you will, but the forces of the universe have led you to build a shared life with another person and that means life becomes about more than what you want. It means you have to think about what someone else needs from that shared experience the two of you are building. It’s also important to remember people change so to assume you have things figured out within the first two or three years of marriage is misguided. That’s why you need to ask that all-important question again and again while you’re married. You need to ask yourself, “How does my spouse need me to love them? What can I be doing now to give them the love they need?”

There are some general guidelines on how a man and a woman need to be loved. Some of the work I like the most has been provided by Shaunti and Jeff Feldhahn. They have two books, one called “For Women Only” and the other called “For Men Only.” The book called “For Women Only” provides research-backed information on how a man needs to be loved and likewise, the other book helps men know how women need to be loved. For example, when it comes to sex the book “For Women Only” reminds the ladies sex is more than a biological urge for a man. It reminds him that he is loved and desired and it gives him confidence. Sex is very important to men because deep within their psychology, it is an affirming act that words can’t replace. Likewise in the book “For Men Only” the guys are taught that listening is exceptionally important for the ladies. When men listen to their ladies they communicate that you are important and what you have to say matters. Women aren’t looking for men to fix their problems (and often men aren’t very good at fixing things anyway!) A women sharing her problems from the day isn’t asking her husband to fix her situation. Her emotional turmoil isn’t just another item you check off your to-do list. She wants you to focus on how she is feeling, not the problem. When a man realizes a woman feels loved when he is interested and invested in her emotions then things work out well. Men and women need to be loved in different ways.

While all of this is good and interesting, my main point still overrides these very good ideas. In the end, you aren’t just loving “some” man or “some” woman, you’re loving the person who has decided you’re the individual they want to be with until they take their last breath! That’s pretty powerful. So, while all of this general advice is good, what matters most is whether or not you are sincere when you ask yourself “How can I love my spouse in a way he or she needs loved and not in a way I think is best?” In the end that’s what matters. I’m not advocating for abuse or doing things that make you exceptionally uncomfortable, but an honest answer to that question will go a long way in building a relationship grounded in selfless love rather than self-interested speculation.

Extending Compassion to Your Enemy – The Crucial Part of Forgiveness

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In the discussions we’ve been having about forgiveness, I proposed the first two steps in this process involve 1) deciding to forgive the other person and 2) transforming your view of the individual from being a powerful monster to be a simple, broken, human being.  Both seem simple, but as you now know, these are difficult steps that require time, patience, and the willingness to be uncomfortable.  Deciding to forgive someone takes courage.  It’s like deciding to get surgery.  If you broke your arm when you were young and never had it correctly cared for you may have problems with it, but you learn to live with those problems.  As you get older that injury may start impacting your mobility and you may decide to get the arm fixed.  When you speak with the doctor she says, “I’ll have to break your arm again and reset it to correct your problems.”  If you’re like me, you start to think living with that crooked immobile arm might be okay!  Who wants to undergo so much voluntary pain when you’ve learned to live with the limitations of your injury?  When you decide to forgo the forgiveness process and live with the emotional limitations and deficits unforgiving people live with, you’re saying “No!” to the emotional equivalence of fixing a broken arm.  Sure, you don’t have to relive the pain of being hurt or try and see your offender in a more compassionate way, but you will live with limitations and pain.  Your health will suffer, your emotional life will suffer, and most importantly your future relationships will suffer.

Okay, so you need to decide to forgive someone and you need to start seeing them in a more compassionate way.  What’s the best way to do that? You start by making a commitment to stop ruminating on the hurt the individual caused you.  Plenty of evidence indicates a continued focus on how you’ve been hurt only perpetuates your anger and keeps you in a cycle of pain.  You have to say to yourself, “I will no longer focus on my hurt feelings, I will attempt to understand the person who hurt me in a more compassionate way.”  You’re not agreeing with what was done to you by being more compassionate nor are you trying to reconcile or befriend your offender.  You’re committing to the fact that you will no longer ruminate repeatedly about the pain you feel.  You’re committing to the fact that you will not be triggered into a painful cycle of hurt every time something reminds you of your offender or what happened to you.  You must commit to this process otherwise your subconscious will draw you into that negative cycle or rumination over and over again.

Once you commit yourself to the process you need to make a habit of extending compassion to yourself and the offender.  Give yourself time each day to reflect compassionately on your situation.  First, have compassion for yourself.  Know that your pain is real and it’s okay to be hurt by what was done.  There is no shame in it, you’re not weak, and it doesn’t mean you’re less of a person for struggling with being hurt.  Give yourself a healthy dose of compassion.  Then, recall the individual and the incident that caused you pain.  If there are multiple instances where this person hurt you the process needs repeating for each instance.  However, start with the first one that comes to mind.  Rate the amount of pain you feel with a number from 1 to 10.  Does the pain feel like an 8 or a 6?  Try and gauge the pain you feel as a result of what was done as best as you can.  Keep that number handy, it will be a good measure for determining if things are getting better later in the process.  It may go up at some point in the future, that’s not uncommon, or it may go down as you walk through the process.  The goal is that after a significant amount of time of practicing forgiveness you’ll feel less pain when you recall what was done.

Now the hard part.  Ask yourself why the person who hurt you did what they did.  Sure, your first responses are going to be that the individual is a monster with superpowers intent on inflicting pain on everyone they know, but you’ll get past that pretty quickly.  Now think about what causes people to be hurtful.  Think about how you’ve hurt other people and why you might have done that.  Did you feel pain from something and unintentionally strike out at others because of it?  Do people hurt others because deep down they’re insecure about something and maybe you unintentionally raised those insecurities to a new level of consciousness in them?  Were they abused as children, treated poorly in a bad marriage, or stepped on and mowed over by arrogant individuals at work?  Have they been made to feel powerless?  Spend time looking at the brokenness this individual might be experiencing.  You need the time to develop a compassionate view of the individual that doesn’t excuse their behavior but allows you to see them as they truly are, another broken person.

I want you to spend some time with this part of the process.  We haven’t forgiven them yet, but we have started to move in that direction when we reduce our negative rumination about our pain and see the offender as nothing more than a broken person.  You will slowly start to see the burden lift from your shoulders as you get closer to this view of them.  Give it time because you will probably slide back into that negative rumination over your own pain.  Your desire for justice is deeply rooted in who you are and will always be there.  The goal is to find a way to temper it with mercy.  No one says this is easy, but it is the key to the freedom you deserve.

We’ll look at the next steps in the following posts that allow you to complete the forgiveness process.  However, my experience finds this is the most difficult part of the process and the one that challenges people the most.  Think of it as climbing the summit of what might be the psychological mountain of Mount Everest.  If you can get here, you can finish strong.  Let me help you get there.

The Monster Who Hurt You – How to Start Forgiving Them

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When we’re ready to forgive someone for some past affliction, we need to start by seeing them for who they really are and not the individual living in our minds.  More than likely you’ve created a larger than life version of this individual and given them powers they never had.  We do this because the offending party is still impacting our relationships, our self-esteem, and the places we go.   Even if we cut them out of our lives, they control us.  The person who hurt you is no longer a person at all in your mind.   They’re an incarnate source of misery, fear, anger, depression, and numerous other negative experiences plaguing you because of the hurt they inflicted on you.

Besides making up your mind about how powerful a monster this individual is, you’ve also decided you know why they hurt you.  Our psychological mechanisms need to make meaning out of tragedy and the pain we’re feeling.  We do whatever it takes to find some meaning for our suffering.  In psychology, we often talk about making “attributions” which are simply characteristics we ascribe to other people to explain behaviors they exhibit.  When someone behaves in a negative way, we believe we know why.  A psychological concept known as the “fundamental attribution error” plagues our ability to accurately determine why someone behaved one way over another.  We often believe a person’s negative behaviors are due to the fact they’re bad people yet if we perform the same behaviors, we decide we’ve done so for good and righteous reasons.  If someone is speeding, we immediately say they’re a destructive, dangerous, irresponsible person.  However, if we’re speeding its most likely because we need to help someone, take care of important business, or perform some righteous task superseding the speed limit making us a better person than all the other people speeding that day.  We always believe other people are behaving badly because they are bad people and when we perform the same behavior it’s because of some higher good.

When we review two of the most popular and well researched psychological theories about forgiveness, we find both believe an important step in the process is reframing our view of the offending party.  Robert Enright believes we need to see the offender from a different perspective.  In the “working phase” of his forgiveness process, Enright prompts his clients to see how the individual who hurt them may be impacted by his or her childhood, the stress in their lives, and the numerous factors that lead people to be hurtful to others.  He isn’t asking you to make excuses for their behavior nor is he attempting to justify what was done, he simply wants you to see the individual you’ve given so much power to as just another broken human being.  Enright believes starting to develop empathy for the offender takes some of the imagined power you’ve given them away.  Likewise, Everett Worthington’s model proposes it’s important to develop empathy for the offender as a means of understanding why they may have hurt you.

I want to be clear about this step in the forgiveness process.  No one is saying the individual who hurt you was right to do so.  This step is most important because it allows you to see that the person who hurt you is just another person.  They really aren’t some powerful force you cannot overcome, they’re merely broken people perpetuating that brokenness on others.  If you can empathize with the person who hurt you, then the power they have over you will disappear.  Forgiveness starts with recognizing the offender is just another person and they really have no control over your life.

I know this sounds counterintuitive, but it’s a very important part of your ability to heal.  Most people hurt other people because they’re carrying around a significant amount of hurt and pain themselves.  In his book, The Science of Evil Simon Baron-Cohen describes how excessive abuse of a child can cause them to become sociopaths of the most wicked kind because that abuse destroys the neurological empathy path in the brain.  The most vicious serial killers are broken people and for some that brokenness is caused by the brokenness and hurt in other people.

So, I leave you with this: Can you transform your understanding of the person who hurt you to be less of a powerful monster and more like the broken person they are?  If you can get to that place, you are on the path to forgiving them and reclaiming your life and the parts their hurt has taken from you.

The Choice to Experience Anger – Step 1 of the Forgiveness Process

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If you’ve decided you want to be more forgiving you need to be patient with yourself.  forgiveness is a process and one that requires several steps, stages, and tasks to complete.  It’s important to remember forgiveness does not come naturally, it’s something we grow into.  We struggle to be forgiving because of that deep sense of justice I described in my previous post.  However, like other virtues, you can practice numerous behaviors and thought processes that help you become more forgiving.  Forgiveness is like love, it’s not just a feeling we have, it’s a decision we make.  Love is a choice and sometimes we choose to love difficult people.  Forgiveness is a choice and sometimes we choose to forgive someone who seems unforgivable for treating us in an unforgivable way.

If you look at the numerous studies and theories published on forgiveness in psychology journals you find most identify three primary components as part of the process.  These components are 1) changing your perspective of the offending party to be more balanced and realistic, 2) decreasing the negative feelings toward the offending party and attempting to increase some level of empathy/compassion for them, and 3) letting go of the idea the person who hurt you should pay you back for what was done or receive the justice they deserve.  I’m going to address all three of these components at some point, but in this post, I want to start with the fact you need to decide if you’re ready to exercise forgiveness in the first place.  I’ve said forgiveness is a choice, and you need to really ask yourself if you’re ready to make that choice.  One way to come to that conclusion is by assessing how not being a forgiving person is impacting your life.  Simply put, how is your unwillingness to forgive a particular hurt and pain you experienced keeping you from being the loving person you could be?

The basic consequence of not forgiving someone who hurt you is living with anger.  Anger is a natural response to being treated unjustly and when someone hurts you anger emerges as a response to that unjust act.  Maybe you were treated as if you didn’t matter, you were never listened to in your family, or you were treated as the family servant and everyone walked all over you.  These actions are unjust and when you realize how you’ve been treated, you get angry.  However, recognizing anger in ourselves is often a very painful experience.  So, instead of acknowledging we’re angry because we’re hurt (Some people don’t like to do this because they believe it makes them weak or a “bad” person) we find other ways to express that anger.  No one likes pain.  Emotional pain, like physical pain, is something we will do almost anything to avoid.  Robert Enright writes in his book, “Forgiveness is a Choice” the following regarding acknowledging anger:

“Realizing that you are angry can be very painful, but forgiveness is not about pretending that nothing happened or hiding from the pain.  You have suffered and need to be honest with yourself about that suffering.”

So, before you go through any of those three previously mentioned components in the forgiving process, ask yourself if you’re ready to acknowledge your anger and experience the pain it has produced in its most raw form.  Instead of shoving it deep down inside, ignoring it, transferring it to other people, and letting it destroy your relationships, ask yourself if you’re brave enough to acknowledge how avoiding anger has negatively impacted your life?  If you are ready, ask yourself these questions to assess how much anger has spread into the physical, emotional, mental, relational, and transcendent aspects of your life.  Enright lists these questions as tools to explore your anger:

  • How have you avoided dealing with anger?
  • Have you faced your anger?
  • Are you afraid to expose your shame or guilt about a situation?
  • Has your anger affected your health?
  • Have you been obsessed about the injury or with thoughts about the person who hurt you?
  • Do you compare your situation with that of the offender?
  • Has the injury caused a permanent change in your life?
  • Has the injury changed how you view the world?

This is where I want you to start.  Take a week or so and think about these questions, journal about them, meditate on them, and ponder them.  Do whatever works for you but assess as best as you can how anger, caused by your unwillingness to forgive a past hurt in your life, has spread through your world like cancer and negatively impacted your potential to live well.  Once you do that, you may feel more motivated to start the forgiveness process.

Freedom Through Forgiveness – You Can Find Peace

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Psychologists have done significant research on forgiveness, and while there are some peripheral studies cautioning against forgiveness in specific situations, overall it is believed to be a very good and helpful practice allowing you to live a better life.  In fact, hanging on to anger, hatred, and intense emotions associated with unforgiveness can significantly impact your wellbeing. According to Dr. Karen Swartz director of the Mood Disorders Adult Consultation Clinic at The Johns Hopkins Hospital, the practice of forgiveness is quite helpful for living a healthy happy life.  Everything from lower blood pressure, lower risk of heart disease, lower levels of bad cholesterol, decreases in depression, anxiety, and numerous other health factors are experienced when practicing the exercise of forgiveness. Much of this is because when we are unforgiving we experience a chronic sense of anger which puts us into “fight or flight” mode thus constantly pumping us full of the hormones and physical factors necessary for survival.  This constant “stress state”, even if experienced as normal because of its permanent part of our life, is not good for our physical health. You were not designed to have a constant experience of stress delivered to your body. Forgiveness is one way in which we can counteract this stress state in order to experience peace on all levels of our being. Forgiveness doesn’t just positively impact our emotional wellbeing, it impacts our physical, mental, and relational life as well.

An important point to keep in mind when considering how to exercise forgiveness is that it’s something very different from reconciliation.  Too often people think if they forgive someone for what they’ve done then they have to reenter a relationship with them. Somehow we have linked forgiveness with the reestablishment of a relationship which is absolutely not the same thing.  Forgiveness is a way to give yourself peace with a situation not a way to reestablish an abusive or dysfunctional relationship.

Another factor stopping people from exercising forgiveness is their sense of justice.  When someone hurts us we want justice for what they’ve done. We believe if we’ve been hurt, then it’s only right for the other person to hurt as badly as we do.  Our sense of justice emerging from the virtue of justice is important for living in a civilized world. Without justice, the world would be a free for all in which the strong take what they want and the weak have no recourse to get what is rightly theirs.  I’m not advocating for the elimination of justice. I am however merely stating that if your desire for justice is so strong that it traps you in a world of anger and emotional turmoil, you may want to reconsider your options. In fact, for someone to be a forgiving person they have to be willing to give up what is rightly theirs (recompense for what was done to them or taken from them) in order to gain something better, personal peace.

I want to walk with you over the next few posts and help you consider whether or not being a more forgiving person is something you’re ready to embrace.  It’s not easy, and it takes real work, but I believe all of us can have a more fulfilling life if we can learn to be forgiving and embrace the peace it brings.  Just to encourage you to consider exploring this difficult topic, I want you to read what happened one warm Wednesday night in June in Charleston South Carolina and the response one person gave to the man who took something very special away from her.  

Dylann Roof entered Mother Emmanual African Methodist Episcopal Church with one thing in mind.  He was intent on killing people he disliked because of the color of their skin. After spending time listening to the bible study he drew his gun and slaughtered nine unarmed people.  One of his victims was Ethel Lance, a wonderful 70-year-old woman who raised five children and had seven grandchildren, as well as four great-grandchildren. She was a pillar of that faith community and was gunned down like her life meant nothing.  At the trial of Dylann Roof Nadine Collier, Ethel’s daughter said this:

“I forgive you.  You took something very precious away from me.  I will never get to talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again, but I forgive you, and have mercy on your soul… You hurt me.  You hurt a lot of people. If God forgives you, I forgive you.”

Nadine would not let her anger, hatred, and distress trap her in a world that had no future joy or love. Does she want justice? Of course, but she is not willing to let anger trap her so that whatever time she has left in this life is spent in a pure stress state, negatively impacting her emotions, thoughts, relationships, and physical well being. If she can do that, don’t you think it’s worth taking some time to consider how you can be a forgiving person? Let me help you over the next few weeks and we will journey together into the practice of forgiveness.