All Posts by E.J. Smith

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Apr 27

Tending the Garden: A Springtime Analogy for Making Marriage Work

By E.J. Smith | Help

8a6fc4d0-d3f5-4f23-a8ef-5cb11818ad05_zpsvbqub9bvAs the weather gets more temperate and lovely here in Texas, my husband and I have been spending more time outside tending to the landscaping of our home.  It all started two weeks ago because I had a “vision” of how I wanted our flower beds to look.

However when we went outside to start plotting, it quickly became apparent that we needed to do some heavy weeding and clearing out of old brush and debris before the ‘fun’ could begin. 

And after the surface weeding was done, we started trying to remove some of the plants from the previous owners.

What we discovered was that seemingly lithe green stems were attached to tangled, gnarly masses that took most of what was left of the daylight to remove.  And by the end of that first weekend— we didn’t have renovated flower beds.  We had giant gaping holes of dirt and a huge pile of debris for our bulk pickup the following Thursday.

Was I disappointed?  Sure thing.  I also felt a little silly.  See, I hadn’t really paid that much care to our flower beds up until that point, because I knew I wanted to make a change.  So I just didn’t bother with them.  And in my zeal to create something pretty and new, I completely neglected to see what was already there.  Thus completely miscalculating the amount of time it would take to address, and also probably creating more work for both my husband and I by not maintaining the beds— even if I didn’t particularly love them.

Your Marriage Is a Garden Bed

Sometimes I think we have a tendency to view marriage the same way.  We know there’s something about our current situation that we don’t like.  So, we read a book.  We search the internet.  We attend a marriage retreat.  We get great new ideas and set out to make a changes:

“We are now going to do date night once a week.”

or

“We’re going to have sex every day this week.” 

The problem is that often these plans, much like my own for our garden beds, do not take into account the weeds and underlying issues that haven’t been addressed, and that we’ve been trying not to look at because… well, they’re ugly. 

Sharing more physical intimacy, or going out on dates regularly are great ideas.  However, it might be difficult to be naked and intimate with someone when old hurts keep you feeling on guard. And setting high expectations for a romantic night out when you have barely spoken in months might be a recipe for disaster as well. 

In the Weeds

I know a lot of marriage and dating websites, EngagedMarriage.com included, try to make working on your marriage relationships look like fun.  And that’s a really great thing because proactively working on your marriage absolutely can be fun!  But sometimes, it’s not going to be fun.  Or, more accurately— sometimes in order to get to the fun part— you need to go through the not-so-fun part and have the difficult conversation so that you can get to the fun part and actually be able to enjoy the experience when you get there.

Pulling weeds out of my garden bed when I’d had something else entirely in mind that Saturday is not what I call a “good time”.  And when the weekend came to a close, by some accounts, our beds look worse than when they started.  The weeds weren’t aesthetic by any means, but the bare dirt and the gaping holes that you could see all the way from the street were worse.

Just the Weeds

Difficult conversations while dating, engaged, or married can be much the same.  From personal experience, I can say that I’ve left many a difficult conversation feeling raw, exhausted and completely humbled.  But there’s also something pretty amazing that seems to occur in the days  following those periods of rawness— our relationship flourishes.

I believe this largely has to do with the way in which these difficult conversations occur.  Difficult conversations about relationships need to be limited in scope to the specific issue(s) at hand. When possible, I like to recommend tackling one thing at a time— be that spending habits, cleaning up around the house, extended family, sex life, career concerns, or whatever.  The same way I didn’t pull out every single plant in my garden beds, but rather targeted the weeds— difficult conversations in marriage need to stay focused on the issue at hand and avoid the defensive tendency to go eye-for-eye with grievances.

Sometimes, it is going to be your fault.  Sometimes, you are going to be in the wrong.  Other times it will be a dual problem that needs both parties on board.  Instead of slinging mud back across the battle line of your relationship, sometimes its better to have it hit you square in the face.  Own your slice of the humble pie. 

Planting Flowers

Hopefully I haven’t beaten this flower bed analogy to absolute death just yet, because there is more to the story… 

This past weekend, I finally had the opportunity to plant my flowers & herbs.  Even just thinking about them makes me so happy.  As much as I didn’t enjoy the experience of delaying my plans by a whole week in order to clean out the beds, I realized this past weekend that without the extra cleanup and prep work, there would’ve been no room for these little plants to grow.  And now instead of fighting through debris, they’re able to flourish.

This is a similar reward to what couples can experience when they’re willing and able to work through the not-so-fun stuff as well.  Working on your marriage should be about more than just damage control!  And the way to break the perpetual band-aid cycle is to have those tough conversations. 

Your Turn

Do you find you and your spouse avoid conflict at all costs?

Is there a time when you had a difficult conversation with your spouse, and found that in the long run it paid off?

Did you try to have a difficult conversation that when horribly wrong?  And you’d do just about anything to avoid a similar experience going forward?

I want to know!  Next month we’ll be talking about more ways to approach those difficult conversations and some
specific techniques for navigating rough waters. 

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Mar 23

Love & Utility:  Balancing Service & Self-Worth

By E.J. Smith | Help

daa15027-4b17-438b-9a11-1f7473eea84a_zpsn2qapt6cAs much as I try to keep my topics of discussion broad enough for the general masses, this month I need to talk to a group that is quite dear to my heart.  Would all the people pleasers on the internet raise your hands?

When you think of your spouse, what image comes to mind? In that snap shot, what are they doing?  Are they doing anything?  More importantly, are they doing something that serves you in this image? How do you feel right now, as you observe that image in your mind’s eye?

Now I want you to think of you.  If you had to take a picture that accurately represented yourself to me, what does it look like?  In this snap shot, what are you doing? Are you doing anything? More importantly, who are your actions serving— yourself? Your kids? Some one else?  While there may be a handful of self-identified people pleasers out there who’s ‘snap shot’ included no one but themselves, I’m going to trust that a majority of you pulled up an image that had you acting in service to someone else. 

“But That’s Just Who I Am!”

Well, great!  I mean, being a people pleaser isn’t a bad thing necessarily.  In my experience, people pleasers are very nice, warm and often nurturing folks.  They care about people! Who doesn’t like that? Can you imagine what this world would look like if our caring professions — teachers, nurses, mental health techs, child development workers, veterinarians & vet. assistants, & stay at home parents— didn’t include natural nurturers?  Its a scary thought.

Caring & Self Worth

So clearly I’m not out to tell you that being a nice, caring person is an inherently a bad thing.  But something I’ve noticed that I would like to invite you to consider is to what degree is your self-worth wrapped up in your care-giving for others? A true people pleaser goes beyond simply caring for others.  Caring and acts of service can often become identity and currency.

Relationship Currency

Thinking about relationships in terms of currency is built on the notion that interactions with others can be viewed as transactions of sorts— no different than when you go to the grocery store and exchange money for a bag of apples. You give the clerk your money swipe your debit card, and the people at the store let you walk out of the store with the apples.  In relationships, people will throw out what Dr. Gottman calls a “bid for connection”.  These are verbal and nonverbal invitations to connect with one’s partner. 

To put it as simple as possible: 

Partner 1:  “Pay attention to me!” 

Partner 2: “Okay! Hi, how’s it going?”  or “No.”

Obviously I don’t imagine many people go around literally shouting, “Pay attention to me,” but you might consider giving it a try just to see what happens.  I did it to my husband recently.  The look on his face was priceless.

Caring as Currency

Often, I’ve found that individuals learn (usually in childhood) that people generally respond pleasantly to one’s bids for attention when that bid includes something directly beneficial to them.  We’ll call this a service bid.  This “truth” can become problematic and create a personality trait of people pleasing.   When service-related bids become the primary or the only way in which folks receive positive attention, they may learn to believe, “I am lovable when I am useful” or worse, “I am only lovable when I am useful.”  It becomes incredibly difficult to have a healthy sense of self-worth when one places a such heavy emphasis on external service.

Some common phrases you might hear when someone’s self-worth is tied to their “utility” are:

“S/He’ll call when s/he needs something… I know this, yet I can’t stop.  I miss her/him too much.”

“I’m so lucky s/he puts up with me.  It’s the least I can do to ______ for him/her.”

“Its no trouble at all.” (When actually, it’s a giant amount of trouble for you).

Of course perfectly healthy people, who also happen to be nice people will find themselves saying these phrases or similar from time to time.  But I’ve met so many people whose entire identities were tied to sacrifice of the self in service to another.

What About Moms!?

But what about mothers?  What about professional caregivers? 

Again and again, I say the difference between unhealthy and healthy service to others is that the unhealthy version can leave a person feeling empty, drained, exhausted.  I’ve often heard it likened to drowning or feeling invisible.  The healthy or balanced version often creates the exact opposite feeling.  People report feeling energized, rejuvenated or peaceful. 

Healthy Individuals Create Healthy Marriages

As I think I’ve mentioned before, I haven’t been doing a whole lot of couples counseling lately.  But that’s not say I haven’t been working with clients on their relationships.  I truly believe that people need to be healthy individuals first and foremost in order to be healthy partners involved in healthy marriages.

If you’ve read this article and think that your self-worth may be wrapped up a little too tightly in service towards others, maybe its time to work on shifting that belief a little. If your relationship is healthy enough, ask your partner to help you see that they love you for being part of their life— not solely for what you do for them.    

And lastly, if you’re interested in learning more about the types of ‘bids for connection’ you tend to use, I stumbled across this free “quiz” from The University of San Diego that utilizes the Gottman research.   

Are you or your spouse a people pleaser?

Feb 23

My Deep Dark Secret that I Have to Share

By E.J. Smith | Help

In the year and a half or so that I’ve been writing for EM, I feel like there’s been this secret I’ve been keeping from you all.  

And simply, it’s got to go.  It’s not something that I particularly intended to keep from you all, but rather, I didn’t quite know how to address this particular topic on this particular website.  The more I thought about it, however, I recognized that the shame I was carrying regarding this thing— is tied wholly to my faith-based upbringing. 

I am trusting that some folks will be able to relate, and I hope the rest will hear me out.

I’m divorced.

And there you have it.  My scarlet letter. 

Actually, that’s not entirely true.  I am currently married to Greg and we have an amazing, loving, wonderful marriage.  He is truly my partner in life, and in love.  Our home and our marriage are testaments to the endless effort and attention we give to them.

But before Greg, there was someone else.  We’ll call him Mark. (Judas, would be a little over-dramatic, don’t ya think?)

As paradoxical as it may seem, I feel like part of the reason my current marriage is so healthy and happy is due in large part to how much of an epic catastrophe #1 turned out to be.

And please don’t think I’m going to spend the next 500+ words bashing Mark.  The marriage was short (only 18 months).  Despite that short timeline, we were able to make a ton of mistakes— very hurtful and sometimes permanent ones.    

4  Things I Learned by Getting Divorced

1) Hiding your problems doesn’t make them go away.  It just befuddles everyone in your support network (friends, family, coworkers even) when the pieces finally come crashing down.

Raised in a family where loyalty was king, I felt very alone and isolated when things weren’t seeming quite right.  But everyone was so happy for me.  I couldn’t let them down!  And I also didn’t want to air my dirty laundry.  When I reached out to a few select folks, I got a lot of “the first year is the hardest…” or “Well, it’s a done deal now— make it work.” 

2) Just because you can’t see bruises, doesn’t make it not abusive.

Mark was not physically abusive.  He never hit me.  True, I can’t hear as well in my left ear as in my right because he screamed into it one time— apparently loud enough to cause permanent hearing loss— but that is not the type of thing that would get me a Lifetime movie.  But there were other types of abusive patterns on both our parts that I don’t think anyone should tolerate. 

  • Verbal Abuse — Name calling, Labeling, Non-constructive criticisms and other personal attacks are the most common forms.  Sometimes the abuse is more subtle, “You know a good wife would _________.”
  • Financial Abuse — Does one person have complete and total control over the finances? Is one partner “barred” or “banned” from working— even if s/he really wants to? Does one partner verbally abuse the other for spending money? (I’m not talking about racking up $30k in credit card debt, but say— buying a new pair of jeans?)
  • Emotional Abuse — Withholding love or affection from your partner as “punishment”, allowing others to verbally or otherwise attack your partner unfairly without seeming to care, expressing indifference towards your partner.
  • Sexual Abuse – Despite long held beliefs to the contrary, spousal rape is a real thing.  This wasn’t something I experienced in my marriage, but I want to put it in here because it’s such a widely held myth that vows some how give complete ownership over one’s body do another.  That’s not marriage. That’s slavery.

3) Pre-Marriage Counseling is Worthless…

Got your attention, didn’t I?

So hear me out— I have been through pre-marriage counseling twice now.  Once through my local Catholic church’s Pre-Canaa and once with a chaplain (Christian). I much preferred the Pre-Cana program to the other.  I loved the topics the couples who facilitated each session brought up for the most part — I’m still slightly scarred from the word viscosity being used with respect to intercourse. 

The problem is that I feel like the whole experience was framed as some necessary “check in the box”.  Other than a “You need to be honest.” at the beginning, there really wasn’t an emphasis on why that honesty was so important for this process.

And at least in my group, there was no real attention to the fact that some people who go through Pre-Cana correctly will (and should) actually come to realization that they should not get married. And then, there was nothing there to support people who would come to that decision— how to handle calling up a reception venue and inform them you’re canceling.  How to have the conversation with your mother or maid of honor.  What to do with this person that was going to be your spouse, but now isn’t even your boyfriend. 

4) The miracle of Life is more precious than the Sacrament of Marriage.

After what felt like an eternity, but was actually less than 3 years between moving to Maryland and our separation— the emotional, verbal, and financial abuse had worn me down to a state where I was almost completely unrecognizable — even to myself. 

I became severely depressed.

A former social butterfly and lover of people, I was isolated, withdrawn and even developed a fear of other people.  I became paranoid that they were judging me— ashamed for them to see the terrible, awful, failure of a person I’d  become. 

Mark, although I can empathize with some of his frustration, was all too willing to reinforce these beliefs.  He reminded me time and time again that this (me) was not the wife he signed up for.  Friends constantly posted on Facebook how much they loved being married— whereas I couldn’t understand why people would willingly do this to themselves.     

An Honest Question

One day, Mark walked up to me— I was sitting curled up in an overstuffed chair (one of the few things I still miss from that time in my life) — and asked me if I was going to kill myself.  Just like that.  I swear I heard the tiniest bit of hope in his voice.

I looked at him, and I said what was true for me in that moment:  “Why bother, I’m already dead.”  I was serious.  I never thought of killing myself.  Too much effort.  Not worth the end result.

Several months later, I started experiencing odd symptoms that started out as food allergies and the progressed into what I can only describe as biological chaos.  They thought I had celiac, lupus or rheumatoid arthritis— possibly M.S.  After having a panic attack in the specialist’s office—the doctor finally said to me, “I think this is all due to chronic stress.  Whatever it is that is causing this stress— it needs to go.  Because it’s actually destroying your body.  If you don’t get rid of it, you’re looking at a future of autoimmune disease.

And that was my permission slip— my sign, if you will — to get out. 

Choosing Life

I have tears in my eyes as I write this because I remember thinking, “I know God loves marriage… but He loves me too.” And so within a few weeks— the separation papers were signed.

I know I wasn’t perfect in my marriage and that my lack of ownership for my thoughts, feelings and beliefs at the beginning of our relationship allowed certain circumstances to fester— whereas now, I doubt I would stick around long enough from the beginning. 

I have experienced judgement and harsh criticism from fellow Catholics and other Believers.   But the truth is — I know God created me for some Purpose— and being sick, depressed and isolated was not it.  I believe that the current health and the current life, and the current relationships that I enjoy with both God and my husband, Greg,  are directly related to the fact that divorce is part of my history.

So while I don’t want to sounds like I’m advocating for divorce,  I do want readers to understand that getting divorced is not some horrible death sentence in every single case.

Sound Off — Can you connect? Does this relate?  I look forward to hearing your thoughts in the comments. 

Jan 26

Do You Like Your Spouse?

By E.J. Smith | Help

ID-10034280A few years ago, I had the opportunity to attend a conference where Mary Ellen O’Toole, a former criminal investigator and FBI agent from the Behavioral Analysis Unit (BAU), was the keynote speaker.  Yes, fellow Criminal Minds fans, the BAU is a real unit.  Although she was there to speak about criminals and the personalities that often accompany those who would seek to do us harm, she offered an anecdote about marriage that stuck with me.

Essentially, she said that by our early 30’s, the personality was solidly formed.  While there are some who would argue that change is always possible, Mary Ellen shared that in her experience, unless dire circumstances presented themselves, the personality of a person remained consistent from that point onward. 

Stuck Like Glue

Breaking from her discussion of psychopathy and criminology, she shared that this solidifying of the personality was why when couples complained of how their spouse had “changed” over the years — thus leading them to have an unsatisfied marriage– she was rarely convinced.  Rather than the personality changing, O’Toole suggested that the personality remained consistent (truly for better or for worse) and that it was life stages and contexts around the couple that shifted instead.

Simply put, she warned us that we’d better really LIKE the person we were married to— Because they probably weren’t changing: 

The person who showers us with attention while we’re dating, years later may be spoken of as “clingy” when they insist on accompanying us even in the most inane activities. 

The person who gives attention to every little detail of the wedding, might years down the road be called “nit-picky” when she insists on organizing the home in a certain manner. 

Admiration as a Marriage Preserver

In keeping with the FBI Profiler’s insights as to personality, John M. Gottman (of the world famous Gottman Institute) in his NY Times Bestseller The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work wrote simply that couples who like and admire each other’s transcendent qualities— such as the aforementioned devotion to family, or attention to detail— will tend to have a happier, longer marriages. 

Yes, I do realize this statement is far from earth shattering.    

But consider the following:  If the above statement is so mind numbingly simple, then why— WHY— do couples flow through the doors of counselors’ offices across the country insisting they want to save their marriages, but at the same time project such profound contempt for the person they are trying to stay married to?

Please note that I’m not talking about being angry with someone because they hurt your feelings, or feeling betrayed and needing time to heal.  That’s injury.  It’s also (hopefully) temporary. 

I’m talking about are hand-wringing levels of disgust, deep-seated resentment, or maybe even pervasive numbness that poison or skew the lens through which one even begins to consider their spouse.

How can love for another thrive in the presence of intolerance and contempt for that same person? As far as I know it can’t. 

Do You Like Your Spouse?

Recently, I’ve been seeing more couples and families for sessions.  When a patient discharges from the hospital, we like to bring in some significant members of their support networks. Typically, these are parents/guardians or spouses.

Considering the acuity of the work at the facility, this is a time when we frequently see people (patients and family) at their most emotionally vulnerable.  And it can be both inspiring, and heart-shattering to see the reactions of family members to their loved ones— especially spouses.

What I’ve learned is that there are an abundance of married folks walking around who say they love their husbands or their wives, but they don’t particularly like them.

So ask yourself right now— even if there are parts of my marriage that I’m not happy with— in general, do I like my spouse?

Would I like my spouse if I weren’t married to him/her?

Like Over Love

I think part of the problem is that we’ve sold ourselves on the idea that love is the ultimate end of human emotion.  And maybe it is.  However, when it comes to marriage and building a relationship that will span decades or even a lifetime— even the ultimate in human emotion— just simply isn’t enough because emotions change. 

As one of my Theology professors so eloquently put it, “50-year marriages aren’t built on emotion.”  He went on to say that they were built 25% on emotion and 75% on choice.  Maybe that’s true, but I also see a lot of people choosing to be 75% miserable.

Sometimes, and especially during rough patches in relationships, I think it’s helpful to take a step back and think of your spouse not so much as a spouse or lover, but like anyone else with whom you share time.

There’s a tendency to fall into the trap of thinking of our spouse as “someone who does stuff for me,” and we forget that our spouse is a person.  And while I understand that remembering all the reasons you liked your spouse in the first place during an argument might be really REALLY difficult, I’m going to assume there was something about them that you liked.  And maybe just trying to remember that is enough.

“Somewhere, there is something I liked about this person enough to marry him/her.  I can’t feel it right now.  Heck, I can’t even remember what it IS right now.  And, I know it’s there.  So I’m going to trust that for now.”

The Weirdest Person in the Room

Sound absurd?  I get “accused” (lovingly) of saying “weird stuff” a lot.  One client comes to mind, “Seriously, who walks around saying this stuff… besides you.”

One reason is because I don’t think a whole lot of people have trained their ears, heart, mind and mouth to identify and speak their truth on a regular basis.  And secondly, a mentor friend from when I was teaching once advised me to “be the weirdest person in the room” when working with my students at the beginning of a school year.  She said, “It’ll show them that being unique is safe.  And it’ll really take the pressure off.”

So there it is.  Come up with your own version of this stuff, and you won’t sound nearly as weird as me!  (haha!)  The truth is that Marriage itself, working on your marriage, and especially working through the grit that sometimes leaves us chaffed or chapped from time to time in our marriages doesn’t have to sound smooth, or pretty, or worthy of a Hallmark card. It just needs to be real.

Try this:

Think about the people that you genuinely enjoy being around who you don’t necessarily love in a romantic way?  Do you appreciate friends who are interesting, funny, charitable, maybe even a little bit of a hot mess from time to time?  Do you have someone that you respect or admire for their professionalism or thoughtful advice?

Who are these people?  Does your husband/wife share any of those likable attributes?

Again, I know this seems simple.  And yet, it’s important. 

When we focus too much on simply loving our spouses because they’re our spouses and forget to LIKE them as people, we miss huge opportunities to see them for the dynamic, imperfect, beings that the rest of the world gets to enjoy. 

Furthermore, when we can create, safe accepting space for our spouses to be truly their quirky selves, we get to witness a level of authenticity that the outside world can’t even begin to imagine.

Your Turn

What are some of the attributes your spouse/partner possesses that you absolutely admire, value or like about them?

Let me know in the comments— and even more importantly— let your spouse know what you like about them, what you appreciate about them and what you value in them.

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Dec 22

The Gift of Hope: A Message of Possibility for Marriages

By E.J. Smith | Help

ID-10040285_zps2ca9762dDear Reader,

Last night I found myself strolling the familiar aisles of my local Barnes & Noble.  The Christmas season is my absolute favorite time to peruse the shelves, as so many of the items on display offer beautiful snow-scape covers, and themes of warmth, of miracles and of togetherness. I was thinking— half meditation and half prayer— of what I would say to all of you this month. 

I recalled my article from last December which, as per usual with this column, dealt with some pretty hefty doses of reality. 

This year, I would like to do something different.

This year, I want to bring you a message of Hope.

The truth is that I have no idea what the unique challenges are that you and your spouse are facing in this moment, have faced in the past or will face down the road.  I have no idea if your biggest marital concern this holiday season is the size of your gift-giving budget, or how to keep the lights on.  I don’t even know if you or your spouse have been faithful to each other in thought, word or deed. 

What I do know is that Christmas is a time of miracles, and miracles are manifested out of hope. 

Hope.  Isn’t that what this season is all about? 

Now “hope” might sound like a really fluffy term… And yet I will argue it is not.  Hope is so important, in fact, that I will say that the absence of hope isn’t merely hopelessness— but death. 

Day in and day out, I work with people who have been at the edges of their sanity— often contemplating ending their own lives.  I’ve working with individuals coping with physical death and loss of loved ones.  And I’ve worked with people who thought their marriage and life as they knew it were coming to a close. 

All of these cases shared a common theme:  Hope was no where to be found.

The Miracle of Hope

In my work, I have found this to be true:

If you want to save your marriage, your faith, your livelihood and even your life— you must— MUST have Hope. 

Hope is the acknowledgement of possibility

Christmas is a time of Hope because Christians believe that Jesus came to bring salvation to God’s people.  His birth, His life, and eventually His death all served to open up for us the possibility of Heaven. 

The possibility of something beyond death.

Of course the choice remains largely our own to make use of the possibilities that lay before us: 

To believe, or not. 

To accept, or not. 

To be faithful, or not. 

To fight for things you think are worth fighting for… or not.

Back when I first started writing for EngagedMarriage.com, I shared the story of a couple who asked if they were beyond help.  I think today, if someone asked me that question, my response would be, “Well, you tell me— Are you beyond Hope?”

I Said Possibility, Not a Guarantee

“But EJ—“ I can already hear someone saying, “I can have all the hope in the world and things might not work out!”

Yes.  That is true.  Hope is the gateway of possibility.  It is not a guarantee of any outcome. 

Hopelessness, however, almost assuredly is a guarantee. 

Because if you’re truly hopeless, you’ve already given up.  You’ve already resigned yourself to the death of whatever.

Having hope means that despite the possibility that things might not work out, it might be worth it to another try.  It acknowledges that, even in some pretty troublesome times there remains an alternative possibility. 

It Takes Two

Of course the complicated part with marriages is that both parties need to get on board— and that might not happen right away, or ever.

Even the best marriages are tough from time to time. 

But being in a healthy marriage with someone who truly does not want to be married to you?  Well, I don’t even know if that’s possible! 

As my mother, who is currently visiting, so aptly stated, “There’s more to marriage than not getting divorced.”  (Isn’t she great?

At the same time, sometimes one person needs to hold that hope for a while, until the other person can see.  Even better if you’re in the kind of relationship where you’re still able to communicate and show the other person why there’s still Hope to be had! 

Christmas Wish

So wherever you are this Christmas and Holiday Season, my wish for you is that you and your spouse will rediscover the will to consider endless possibilities for your relationship, and not just focus on the possible end.

Have Hope.  Do the work. And remember that the love that is supposed to exist between couples is supposed to be a reflection of God’s love for us, and at work within us. 

Nov 24

9 Thinking Styles that Will NOT Help Your Marriage

By E.J. Smith | Help

ID-10041556_zps814fd474

I’m always amused by where and how I find inspiration.

Does the same happen to you?

I was all prepared this month to write what I hoped would be a brilliant, insightful look at how to survive the upcoming holiday season.

But as I did my research, mediated, prayed and pondered on the topic—everything seemed to fall short of what I was looking for.

Then in a true twist of happenstance (if you believe that sort of thing), I came across a book on my shelf that I’d forgotten I had bought about marriages and relationships. Flipping it through, I stumbled across this quote,

“Looking for the gifts is an invaluable skill in a world in which we can’t control other people’s behavior.” — Arielle Ford, Wabi Sabi Love.

Invariably true. However, it seems to me that over time, couples who fight get so good at finding the flaws and the faults, that they get out of practice in finding or at least not casually dismissing the good.

This phenomenon of negative thinking isn’t limited to just marriage or personal relationships, though. In fact some people use negative thinking styles to filter some, most or even ALL of their interactions. As you can imagine, that doesn’t make for a very happy individual, and it certainly doesn’t help in maintaining the warmth of a marriage.

Combating negative or false thinking styles is the primary goal of one of the most researched, supportive and popular forms of therapy today— Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT).

Simply stated, the idea behind CBT is that if we can change the way we think about ourselves and the world, we can change our behavior to better serve us.

In marriage, if we change change the lens through which we view our relationship, ourselves as one-half of that relationship and our spouses, we might be able to better advocate for those aspects as well.

So what I’ve prepared for you today are 9 Common Unhelpful Thinking Styles, put in the context of marriage.

Now, while the examples relating to marriage are of my own devise (unless otherwise stated), the Thinking Styles themselves are far from E.J. originals— in fact they’re so widely accepted that they’re on worksheets all over the internet for download and further study.

Of course, like so many other concepts in mental health and therapy, these thinking styles are not necessary distinct in real life— and often you’ll see behavior and communication that reflects several of these unhelpful thinking styles converging.

Put It To Work

The list is pretty lengthy, so before you dive in, I want you to be thinking about the following before you even start:

1. After you read the explanations below, take stock of some of your recent negative interactions or thoughts about your spouse and/or your relationship.

2. Which negative thinking styles do you find yourself using more often than others?

3. What do you think would change in your relationship if your were able to shift the way you viewed your spouse and your marriage to see the “gifts” (as Arielle Ford put it)?

Okay now you’re ready—-

9 Unhelpful Thinking Styles in Marriage and Relationships

Negative Mental Filter

You can spot a negative mental filter in a relationship when it becomes abundantly clear that no matter what the person tries to do or say, the other person takes offense or find something negative in it. Even compliments or intended helpful gestures can turn into grounds for icy verbal exchanges.

“You did the laundry? Why? So you could rub it in my face how awful a homemaker I am?!”

Jumping to Conclusions

Jumping to conclusions can be similar to the negative mental filter, as the conclusions we jump to in relationship are often negative. Sometimes, however, we can set ourselves up for disappointment by jumping to lofty “fantasy-like” conclusions as well. Since the holidays are right around the corner, the first example that comes to mind of these lofty conclusions that can lead to disappointment may revolve around gift giving.

Gifting giving can be a very stressful activity for the couple experiencing a rough patch because the quality or the “fit” of the gift might carry some extra weight.

Buying the perfect gift might be seen as “He/She feels guilty about something and is trying to cover it up.”

Buying a not-so-perfect gift may be received as , “She/He doesn’t love me enough to even try.”

All-or-Nothing Thinking

I’m sure it’s fairly easy to see why rigid black-or-white/all-or-nothing thinking could be an issue when relationships inevitably are composed of a thousand shades of grey and perpetually moving targets. The idea of “You’re either with me or against me” is at best juvenile and at worst, toxic to the health of a relationship.

I’ve personally witnessed encounters where folks were so committed to this type of thinking that the conversation sounded something like, “Unless s/he agrees to all of these terms, our relationship is over.” Thank God this didn’t occur in the context of a therapy session because I’m pretty sure the floor vibrated when my jaw it hit. Relationships are about partnership, and partnership inherently comes with an element of compromise.

This is your spouse, not your servant.

This is your spouse, not your master.

Personalization

You know what I love? When people “own” their personal baggage. Personal responsibility is a beautiful thing. You know what I don’t love? When people take personal ownership over baggage that isn’t theirs.

But of course you want to help the people you love, right? I get that. And I even value that. But there’s a big difference between helping someone work on their stuff, and taking it on as your own personal project.

What’s the difference?

Simply stated, if you feel like you’re working harder at someone’s goals than the actual person with the problem, then you’re doing it wrong… and you’re potentially enabling them to continue. Why should they work on their stuff when you’re so willing to do it for them? But that’s a whole separate article.

Catastrophizing

Quick and easy: On the crisis scale of your life, everything is a 10. Everything. There is no little misunderstanding or mistake. Nope. In your world and in your marriage, each bump in the road looks and feels like Mount Everest.

Over-generalization

With overgeneralization, much like All-or-Nothing thinking… phrases like, “Always” and “Never” make liberal appearances— often in our descriptions of our partners’ not-so-fantastic qualities.

“I do everything myself around here…”

“He never pays the bills on time.”

Granted there are certain things that I’m sure our respective spouses may never do, or may always do… however, when you find yourself using such “absolutes” in marriage— it’s prudent to take a moment or two to actually assess the situation and see if it really is as consistent a pattern as it feels.

Speaking of feelings…

Emotional Reasoning

Just because it FEELS true, doesn’t mean it actually IS true. Feelings are fantastic. And helping clients tap into their feelings is one of my favorite therapeutic endeavors. Feelings tell us a great deal about ourselves and the way we view and experience the world around us. What feelings do not do is tell us about objective reality.

Just because I feel like my husband doesn’t love me (for example), doesn’t actually mean that he does not love me. All it means is that in that particular moment, what is authentic and true for me is that I’m feeling unloved.

Labeling

And before we stray too far from Overgeneralizing, let’s talk about an insidious byproduct that often comes from over-generalization: Labeling.

Labeling is the quintessential over-generalization because it seeks to “categorize” someone’s behaviors or characteristics in a short, meaningful word or phrase. I will let you use your imagination for the labels, because often they’re not suitable for polite conversation. You can start with your general cuss words, and use your imagination for the rest…

And just the same as with negative self-talk, the phrases we repeat over and over again about our partners/spouses, can take on ‘legitimacy’ in our minds so that we come to view them in terms of those labels. Call your spouse a worthless loser long enough, and you’ll start to believe it (see 1. Negative Mental Filter)

Should-ing and Must-ing

Remember when you thought they “Honey-Do” List was a cute idea? Honey, can you do this? Honey, can you take care of that? Lets face it, having a second pair of hands running a household or a life for that matter can be really convenient. However, I hate the idea that having a honey-do list means that my husband (as is the case in my world) would have a never ending list of demands flowing from my lips, or onto a list.

I remember when I was younger being in a relationship where my partner/boyfriend at the time believed that I should make dinner, or it was my duty to clean and fold laundry. Duty?

Now that’s not to say that we can’t ask our spouses for help, or that we can’t have expectations— but again… lets include our spouses in that decision-making and prioritizing, no?

Oct 27

Supporting Your Spouse’s Interests (Even the Ones that Bug You)

By E.J. Smith | Help

ID-100224538Do you consider yourself a supportive spouse to your husband or wife’s interests and aspirations? Do you value and support activities that are meaningful to them?

I think in general, people like to consider themselves supportive of their loved ones. I have found— and truly this is just plain old common sense— that people are much more apt to enthusiastically support their partner’s hobbies and interests if they themselves can find personal value in the pursuit as well.

Pretty obvious, right?

Let’s Talk Attraction

When we talk about attraction and the things that bring people together in the first place, shared values and common interests rank pretty darn high on the list of positive attraction factors. Even in cases where couples seem to be the perfect examples of the old phrase “opposites attract,” a brief interview will more than likely reveal that those seemingly “opposite” individuals recognize value in the traits of their loved one.

Not too long ago, I read a great article on Psychology Today that described this very phenomenon with a good amount of depth. This article spoke to me particularly because so many people who know Greg and I marvel at the fact that two people with such seemingly different personalities could stand to live under one roof. And yet, here we are! He’s the macro to my micro. I’m the early bird to his night owl.

The truth is that while outward appearances and modus operandi might vary greatly, in many ways— our values align quite well. For example, my husband I both value fitness and physical health a great deal, so the time he spends apart from me while training (and vice versa) are not (generally) points of contention. Sometimes we’ll even train together. And thank God for that! Sharing a life with someone who values the things that you do eliminates a lot of potential headaches.

But there are those things…

Those interests, those quirks, those “Hey-doesn’t this look fun?” moments that can leave a person looking (and feeling) ashen or disgusted at the mere thought. Greg and I recently encountered one of those moments. And while it might sound silly to you— I promise that it was something I had to personally struggle with.

Bugs.

He likes bugs. A lot.

Yup. Greg has an unbelievable (and as far as I’m concerned— incomprehensible) fascination with entomology. For those of you who might not know, entomology is the study of insects. Ick. I don’t get it. I really don’t. And truthfully, I don’t really want to understand it. I want no part in it. And just to help you understand his level of interest— it’s pretty much proportional to my level of disgust.

So assuming I’m not the only one who has raised an eyebrow, felt entirely befuddled (or managed a full grossed-out seizure) at their spouses interests— I thought I would share some of my process that has allowed me to come to find some piece, and strengthen my respect for the man I am lucky enough to call my husband (weird, gross, oh-my-gosh-what-is-that-in-my-freezer interests included).

While I don’t expect a multitude of martial issues revolve around insects, I think teaching yourself how to logically explore a problem before confronting your spouse is a universally valuable lesson.

EJ’s Process for DeBugging the Process of Supporting Your Spouse

1) Gain some perspective: By this I mean, I had to ask myself, “Outside of your personal preferences is the matter at hand something with objectively negative implications? Is it illegal or putting our family at serious risk?”

Okay, so he likes bugs and is studying them… and is currently putting together a collection of local specimens, that sometimes occupy my freezer and the desk in our home office. But no— I don’t think he’s doing anything illegal or putting our family at risk. He’s not taking career tips from Walter White by cooking meth, or you know— planning to knock off a bank. If any of those were true, we’d be having a different conversation.

2) If not that, then what? (Note: “I don’t know, it just bothers me” is not an acceptable answer.)

So if “the thing” in question isn’t inherently bad or evil, and it bothers you, there must be something behind it. Don’t be afraid to dig or look for the why. And don’t judge your why either. It is what it is.

For me—this part took the longest.

After some careful thought, I figured out that for me — bugs are “dirty”. Even dead ones. My mother kept an immaculate home. The standard was set high.

The other part of the issue was that my fear coupled with the delicate work of this particular hobby created a lot of separation from each other.  As silly as it sounds, I felt slightly 2nd tier to a bunch of bugs! Not cool! Interesting to note that I never felt this way when he started up 2 different martial arts classes that take up WAY more time. See what happens when you value something as opposed to not?

3) Look for points of compromise. The major reason why Step 2 is so important is because it creates the foundation to figure out points of compromise.

Is there a way we can make this work? Compromise, in case you haven’t heard is a huge part of creating a healthy marriage. And in this particular case, since the issue largely existed between my two ears— the solutions were relatively simple.

4) Approach your spouse and consider trying the following formula.

Using “I” statements:

  • Identify the problem
  • Briefly explain your rationale.
  • Offer some solutions or compromises and see where the conversation leads.

For us, we were able to reach a meaningful compromise. The bugs now reside in a designated area of the house that I don’t typically use. (The home office is dead to me.) Out of sight, out of mind. At some point, I plan to overcome my ‘issue’ so that I can appreciate the work he’s currently doing— but for now— this will have to do.  On his end, Greg has agreed to be a little more mindful of our home time together.

Sound Off
Does your spouse have any interests or hobbies that take up a decent amount of time that you just can’t understand? How have you worked through this?

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Sep 29

Dealing with ‘The Mistress’: 4 Considerations for Balancing Work and Home

By E.J. Smith | Help

ID-100138621For the last couple of months, we’ve been focusing on the various relationships that can have a negative affect on marriages and send them into the Danger Zone.

We discussed what the “fun” of fielding unsolicited (albeit well intentioned) advice from loved ones, and also how to spot the signs that a friendship might be inching towards fulfilling needs for intimacy rather than platonic connection.

This month, I’d like to about something that impacts my family—and a lot of others out there too–

I’d like to talk to you about mistresses. The truth is that my husband has had one for years now.  And actually, so do I.

They call in the middle of the night—sometimes requiring us to drop everything and attend to them.

They cause us to sometimes stay out well past when we thought we’d be getting home—and even when we are home, sometimes they STILL need our attention.

They’re constantly emailing, texting, calling… putting us up in hotels away from home—and even have the gall to pull us away on birthdays, anniversaries and even holidays!

I hope by now you’ve figured out that I’m not talking about another woman—I’m talking about our careers.

Doctors, nurses, counselors, teachers, a lot of business folks… we just go go go all the time, it seems! And at that break-neck pace, it’s no surprise that often one of the casualties such a consuming professional life is our family life.

How and Why does our Work-related Stress Impact our Relationships?

Families in counseling are sometimes referred to as family systems. The family system is much like any other—it’s a series of parts that interact and relate to one another. More importantly, the health and well-being of each individual part, as well as the health and well-being of the relationship between the parts impact the system as a whole.

Ever notice that when work is particularly stressful, your libido all but goes into hiding? And how many times has that helped your marriage?

Is Your Work Place or Career Toxic to Your Relationship?

This is such a difficult topic to navigate. I mean, what if you say “Yes?”

What do we do? Do we quit our jobs and change careers in favor of more family friendly options? I have to admit, I know a lot of families where at least one partner did just that. And for some it really has seemed to work.

However, I’ve also seen situations where the spouse who made the change ended up resenting his/her spouse and family—having felt forced to make the change– and that created a whole other dilemma.

And let’s be honest—for some people (myself, my husband and many of our friends, included)—a simple and immediate change of careers isn’t particularly realistic or desirable. I love my job as a counselor, and I would be extremely upset if I was asked to give it up.

Besides, isn’t a major career change as a one-sized solution kind of like throwing the baby out with the bath water? Before we get there, let’s consider a few items that might help clarify the issue, and perhaps identify some paths to resolution.

 

Consideration #1: Examine the Health of Your Workplace

Fellow EM.com columnist Kim Hall just wrote a fantastic article on 5 Workplace Lessons for a Healthier Marriage. If you think your work place could be at cause for some undue stress in your marriage, I’ll invite you to read Kim’s article through two lenses.

1) First, read it for what it is—a great lesson on marriage.

2) Go back and read it considering how closely your workplace resembles the one that Kim describes.

The truth is, there are precious few (if any) career fields where there is only one option for where you will work and with whom you will work.   So often the people, rather than the job itself can make or break a work environment.

 

Consideration #2: Consider what “Work” means for You and for your Spouse

(…And Recognize the Two may be Different.) 

ID-100191175Did you know that work doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone? For some, working is a means to fulfill what one considers to be his or her life purpose. Others are driven by the need for achievement. And there’s a whole other group who strive for affiliation. Finally, there are those who simply see work as a means to an end of some sort.

You can place me firmly in the first category. Counseling, and working with others through trauma, is solidly part of my personal identity.

For the second category, of people who become doctors, lawyers and CEO’s—they constantly strive to meet certain “benchmarks”—and often report satisfaction from the chase more so than the catch.

Third, those who strive for affiliation might be those folks who seek to fulfill a “legacy.”  Although there are many examples from which to choose, I always think of how many young people choose to attend certain colleges, join certain fraternities or even certain branches of the military because someone in the family had done so.

Lastly, there are always those people who don’t fall so neatly into those neat little boxes…

The point is, understanding how and why you or your spouse’s career is so important to them can help re-frame the sacrifices both you and they are willing to make.

 

Consideration #3: Your Spouse is Not Trying to “Ruin Your Career” by Expressing Concern.

This type of statement is just begging for someone to come in with a personal story that points to the contrary. And while I do not doubt the existence of some uniquely vindictive people out there, if that is truly the case, then “the problem” really isn’t about you career or work environment being toxic.

If your spouse it taking the time to voice some concern, try to take the time to listen to them. Afterall, you’re in this together, right? So if one of you has a problem with something, then essentially, you both do.

 

Consideration #4: Define Your Version of “Full.”

Earlier this summer, I had the opportunity to attend a presentation by a fellow counselor, Anne Stonebraker. (Anne specializes in working with women, and more specifically—people pleasers!) During her presentation, Anne challenged each attendee to look at our respective ‘plates’ and find what full meant to us. She gently chided us that full meant satisfying—not completely-at-capacity-and-about-to-overflow.

Was that working 40 hours/week or something else? Was that time spent solely doing one particular thing really well? Or were there a few different tasks or roles we enjoyed?

Of course, she was mainly focused on counselors in private practice looking at how many clients or other ventures we’d take on—but as I listened, I starting thinking about what “full” meant in other areas of my life.

How many outside hobbies, interests, or social events could I take on and still enjoy them rather than feeling pressured and even more exhausted?

How much time did I need with my spouse, or family in order to feel fully connected to them?

Finally, what were my priorities? And what was I willing or able to do to modify accordingly?

The Take Away

So what’s the take away from all of this? The take away is that while it’s perhaps normal to feel second-string to our spouses careers every now and then, that doesn’t mean it should be passively tolerated. It also doesn’t mean that all hope is lost.

The best way I can think to navigate a career or work related stressor that is impacting your marriage is to:

a) Come together as a team

b) Examine the facts

c) Get creative when possible

d) And start setting goals. Even if the resolution isn’t immediate, just knowing there’s a game plan in place and a united home front can make a world of difference.

 

Sound off! Let Me Hear You!

What’s been your biggest marriage challenge with respect to work?

Which of my “Considerations” do you think you’ll be pondering?

SHARE your tips and suggestions for future articles. Hands down, my best articles (and some of the best tips) have come from when you—the amazing wonderful readers—have shared your needs.

Relationships are so unique—if these articles aren’t speaking to you, tell me what will! I promise I’m listening!

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Aug 25

Just Friends: 5 Red Flags to Help You Steer Clear of an Emotional Affair

By E.J. Smith | Help

ID-100237782_zpsdc3e4a28A few weeks ago, I asked a question on my Facebook page:

Once you’re married—What are your thoughts on having friends of the opposite sex? Yay or Nay?

Much to my delight, the responses came rolling in—each with equally unique perspectives and degrees of passion.

One contributor offered a simple “Absolutely not. Completely inappropriate”.

Other’s created some wiggle room by way of caveats for prior existing friendships (“He’s like a brother to me!”), or evolutions of friendships (aka: Jack and Jill may have started off as friends, but then Jack married Jane, and Jill married John. Now all four of them are friends and hang out together, but not 1 on 1 across the genders).

Nature vs. Nurture

At the time, I questioned whether my readers, followers and friends (really, I feel like I surveyed just about EVERYONE) felt that males and females were just biologically hardwired for romance, or if it was the way people were raised to socialize with the opposite sex influenced their thoughts and feelings.

For example, young men and women whose only interaction with each other past puberty was in a romantic setting (i.e. dating, dances) might feel differently than those who experienced more casual platonic interactions, such as working on projects together for class or co-chairing committees.

As always, the responses I received were a lively mixed bag.

Facebook Folly or Social Psychology? 

Some folks might be tempted to shrug this discussion off as social media fueled fluff, but believe or not, cross-gender friendship is actually something that has been revisited over and over again by social scientists. Just the other day, I read an article on Psychology Today that extolled men and women, could in fact be friends and outlined four different types of heterosexual attraction.

And a few years back a study was conducted (you can read it here if you like that sort of thing) that looked at the perceived benefits and costs of cross-gender friendship. Turns out that men and women shared many of the same thoughts for why having a friend of the opposite sex was a good and useful thing! It’s probably worth noting here that none of these participants were categorized as being married.

But don’t worry—for every study that argues for the legitimacy of platonic friendships, there are just as many offer the other side of the debate as well.

Apparently in this instance, social science is no less confused than the rest of us.

So what does this have to do with YOUR marriage?

5 MAJOR Red Flags that You’re Crossing the Line from Platonic Friendship to Emotional Affair

1) You Change Your Appearance.

Our friends are the people who are supposed to enjoy our company regardless of a good or bad hair day, right? But when we’re invested in attracting someone to us in a not-so-platonic way, a common change we make is to our appearance. And please don’t think this is only for females. Women may tend to do it with clothing, and men seem to do it through physical transformations. If you’re trying to look more attractive for your spouse and coworkers/friends happen to notice, that’s one thing. But if you’re trying to catch some side-eye across the cubicle—look out!

2) Electronic Communication Habits Change.

My Facebook followers and friends are so brilliant. Nearly everyone mentioned the issue of electronic communication as a good measuring stick for whether or not a friendship was problematic. Simply stated: If you wouldn’t want your spouse reading your texts or messages between a person and yourself—that’s probably not a great sign.

One time a coworker (male) asked my husband if I knew the password to his phone. When my husband answered that I did, the man asked, “Why would you do that?!” Greg’s response? Because I’m not trying to keep her out of my phone, I’m trying to keep you out of it. (Sometimes he really makes me proud!)

3) You’re Comparing Them to Your Spouse…

Ideally, your spouse and your friends shouldn’t even be on the same level for comparison. That being said, some people seem to view the world through the lens of compare and contrast. The problems only really seem to emerge when the comparisons start, and your spouse starts coming up short.

He’s so much more fun than…

She listens to me more, and understands me better than…

I’d much rather spend time with…

If you find yourself thinking these types of thoughts—resist the temptation to allow yourself to be carried away by the fantasy of someone who is exponentially more fun, more understanding and better to be with. Instead, talk to your spouse about what you’re missing and how to infuse more of those things into your lives.

4) You’re Lying… Yes, Even White Lies

It’s fairly obvious why lying to your spouse is a bad idea. However, I always find it equally interesting and frustrating to hear about the messy calculus people try to contrive to make lies seem like something other than what they are.

For example, “I had to work late…” when in reality, you chose to work late because working late meant you could see a certain person.

Or “The team grabbed some food after the game…” when really, only 2 of you went out get something to eat after the game.

If it were as innocent as you claim, you wouldn’t have to lie about it, would you?

5) You Light Up Like a Christmas Tree When They’re Around (and you shut down just as quickly when they’re not).

I’m not sure this one requires a whole lot of explanation beyond the obvious. When the state of your emotions is directly tied to any person, it’s probably not healthiest of habits. However, it’s easy to understand why when your spouse is having a rough day, your emotions might dampen as well.

But when that person isn’t your spouse?

Or if your entire mood for the day is based on whether or not you’ve seen, spoken with or texted this “friend”?

Watch out! That’s a sign of some serious emotional investment.

Your Turn!

I want to know what you think! Can men and women just be friends? Are there any other red flags that you would add to the list?

 

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Jul 28

Advice from Friends: Why You Might NOT Want to Ask or Listen!

By E.J. Smith | Help

ID-10055079Have you ever asked your friends and family what they think of your spouse? Have they ever offered up an opinion regardless of you asking for it? Should you listen to what they say? And if so, how seriously should you take their opinions to heart?

Is there any benefit to hearing feedback about your relationship?

Relationships in general – let alone marriages— do not exist in a vacuum. They are intricate tapestries woven from not just two lives becoming intertwined, but rather two complete lifetimes full of families, friends, and all of those individual and shared histories.

Given the amount of moving parts involved, is it any wonder relationships are often complicated?

Don’t get me wrong; it’s a good thing to have people in your corner cheering you on as you face life’s challenges! However, it gets a little bit tricky when those challenges include your romantic relationships and marriage.

Learn the WHEN’s and WHEN NOT’s of feedback:

When should you ask for feedback?

There are times when asking for feedback is not only appropriate, but also very helpful.

One of the major benefits of asking for feedback about a situation or dynamic in your relationship is that it provides the opportunity to hear a different perspective. Especially when we believe strongly or passionately about something, it can be really difficult to shift our lens to another viewpoint.

Asking for feedback may help you to see things from your partner’s perspective, gain empathy and even bring you closer together.

When should you not ask for feedback?

Can I take off the professional hat for a second here? As someone who was her friends’ go to ‘feedback giver’ long before I ever decided (or learned how) to do it professionally, I feel like I need to advocate for all the dear glorious friends and family members out there who so patiently lend an ear when needed:

Please do not ask for honest feedback if you’re not ready to receive it. No one likes the experience of feeling baited. (Am I right?!)

Do not ask for feedback when what you want is a box of tissues, your best friend nodding along and a cheesecake a la The Golden Girls.

On a more serious note, asking for advice about something to a friend or family member that involves very intimate, personal details about your partner could really backfire—especially if it was something that person shared with you in the strictest of confidence.

If that person breaks confidentiality—even by accident… ugh! By going that route you’re taking a tremendous risk with your partner’s faith and trust in you.

If you absolutely need to speak to someone about something your partner has disclosed in the strictest of confidence, then I highly suggest you seek out a professional or clergy member.

Sometimes you ask for it, and sometimes you don’t.  

Folks may offer feedback under a variety of reasons and circumstances—but when should you actually listen to it?

ID-10024387When should you listen to feedback?

It’s important to listen to feedback—even if you don’t like it—as it comes. It’s whether or not you choose to see it as a valid point, throw it away like junk mail, or file it away as something to revisit.

My best advice? Listen for patterns.   Patterned feedback is feedback that has a similar theme or message and comes from several sources.

For example: If one person expresses concern over how your spouse speaks to you in front of others, it might be easy, and perhaps even reasonable to dismiss their concern as ‘just a bad moment’ or something ‘caught out of context’.

However, if your mother, your best friend, a coworker and your running partner express concern over how your spouse talks to you in front of others at different intervals, you might want to consider whether this behavior is a pattern.

You should also take note of positive feedback. Listening to positive feedback from others about your spouse or your relationship can help you rediscover aspects of them that you’ve grown accustomed to and therefore, kind of take for granted.

“Your husband is such an attentive father.”

“I really respect your [spouse] as a professional/colleague/coworker.”

One time, my mother-in-law (who is a woman of few flowery words) told me, “You are very good for my son. He is happy. I can see it.” Receiving that reaffirmation of our relationship felt awesome!

When should you not listen to feedback?

For all the times that feedback is great, it’s also important to acknowledge the times when you should take someone’s feedback with a grain shaker of salt.

I’m sure we all know at least one person who wouldn’t recognize a healthy relationship if they got smacked over the head with one. Ask yourself: Does this person have relationships I admire, even if they’re not currently in one? Are they honest and forthright, or do they play games?

Another issue to consider is whether or not someone has anything to gain from drawing attention to negative aspects of your relationship.

Truly toxic people will place a negative spin on almost anything.  For example, when someone’s feedback focuses on a truly superficial issue—like someone’s appearance or how his or her job/profession stacks up against perceived “social status.”

Feedback can be a really great tool to have in your marriage toolbox, if you know how to ask for it and when to listen to it.

Feedback can add valuable perspective when it is offered from a place of integrity, love, and concern.

Chime in!

Now it’s your turn!

Who do you think would be good sources of feedback? Who would you NOT ask for advice? Tell me in comments below or on social media!

On Twitter?  Remember to include @EngagedMarriage@SimplyEJS in your tweets! 

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