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Marriage

The Three-Fold Mental Test for Anxious and Depressed Thoughts

Posted on June 5, 2017

If you’ve been in my counseling office for any length of time, you’ve heard me explain the “Three-Fold Test”. For those who haven’t heard it, let me give it to you and then spend the rest of this article explaining its significance.

With any bothersome thought pattern, a three-step test will guide you to determine whether you want to spend any more time considering that thought. This test goes like this. (Note: If the thought pattern fails at any point in the test, you immediately stop and move onto a different focus for your thoughts). These are ranked in order of most common to least common. This means, most people’s bothersome thoughts will fail the first test, the second most will fail the second test, and the third most will fail the third test. Hence, this is the order you consider them.

No more explanation; here is the test.

  1. Do I have any control over this thing I am spending time thinking about? If you don’t have any control over it, change your focus to something else.
  2. If I do have control over this thing I’m thinking about, am I responsible for this thing? If you don’t have any responsibility for it, change your focus to something else.
  3. If I do have control over this, and I am at least partially responsible, do I have time right now to do anything about it? If you don’t, then schedule a time to take care of it, and move on to another focus.

For those who are wondering, I did develop this test about 15 years ago, but the concepts are not original with me. I am sure I borrowed these concepts from many sources, but I can name two very quickly if you want to study more of the background. First, I gleaned the overall concept from Dr. William Glasser, the founder of the Choice Theory/Reality Therapy school. The concept of working this through like a series of filters I got from Dr. Ed Smith, the founder of the Transformation Prayer therapy method. Read any of their books and you’ll see how their models became the basis for this test.

To show the importance of using this test frequently, I must explain some of the underlying presuppositions to strengthen your resolve to use it. There are several of these and I will try to be brief in explaining them.

First, let’s address the overall concept of choice. For roughly 50 years, psychology got mired in the idea that we are simply the product of our biology and that this prevents us from getting rid of anxiety and depression. This Behaviorist model assumed that you were “wired” a particular way and nothing could change that. Even though we describe everything else we do in life as a verb—that is, we learn, we love, we hate, we eat, we watch a movie, we travel, we hit someone, we voice our opinions, etc.—we describe our most troublesome thoughts as a noun. We don’t say “I am depressing myself”, we say “I have depression.” We don’t say “I am anxieting” we say, “I have anxiety”. We find it easier to see our depression and anxiety as things outside of us over which we have little control.

Dr. Glasser proposed in 1968 for the first time that other than a few hormonal situations and traumatic brain injury, most people choose to depress themselves. They do this for the most part to deal with anger. He also noticed people choose to anxiety, for the most part to deal with fear. His assumption was that if we can choose something, we can choose something else.

But he also noted, most of us will not. Depressing and anxieting produce things we want in our lives, even if we don’t want the results that come from depressing and anxieting. We want to worry. Yes we do. We want to anticipate what is coming so we can be ready for it or be prepared in some way. To do this, we anxiety.

Therefore, the focus of anxiety or depression is often on things we cannot control. This comes into play in a moment.

Next, it is important to know what we actually do control in life. Get ready for this list. The only things we control can be boiled down to three things:

  1. We control what we will focus on next.
  2. We control what action we will take next
  3. We control whatever other people allow us to control.

You do not control the past. We cannot change it, so we do not control it. Any time spent looking at the past with a focus on regret, shame, bitterness, revenge, blame, or fear is useless. The only focus on the past which yields results is how it affects the present. If you look back to learn or to process past beliefs, you can find good results.

You do not control the future. That is an illusion. Your planning does not control the future, it simply places you where you think you need to be. But we forget how many thousands of times we planned and we were wrong. Any time spent on worrying or depressing about the future is wasted thought.

You cannot control other people unless they allow you to. And the problem with controlling other people is that you become responsible for them. This is the basis of all co-dependency, but that’s another article.

Most people who depress themselves or anxiety themselves are convinced they cannot really control their own thoughts. But Dr. Glasser and many others in the Brain Plasticity movement (i.e. Daniel Amen, Norman Doidge, etc.) have shown in countless studies this is not true. What is true is we have convinced ourselves we cannot control our thoughts because we don’t really want to. As badly as it feels to depress ourselves, it is our choice and we are doing it for a reason. We think we can control things which we actually can’t control. The same is true with anxiety.

This is where the three-fold test comes in. Here is a short commentary on each step so you can see why they are important questions.

 

  1. “Do I have control over this thing I am spending time thinking about?” If you are thinking about the past or the future, you are putting mental energy into something which you can never change. Even if you believe you can, you cannot. Come to grips with that and leave it behind. Stop telling yourself you have no control over these thoughts. They are actually one of the only things in life you do have control over. For instance, I spent years thinking about how people reacted to some of the things I teach. When I applied this test to that thought pattern I realized I could not control their reactions, nor their attitude toward me, nor their choices for how they would treat me. Therefore, focusing for a second on how they would think about my teaching was useless. What I did control is whether what I taught was accurate and helpful. When I started to focus my thoughts on those things, I started to live more healthy.
  2. “Am I at least partially responsible for what I am spending time thinking about?” In life, there are many actions we can take to work with others. At any given moment, there are millions of things any of us can be doing. But we know deep inside we don’t have the time or energy to do more than a few things each day. Therefore, if we want our lives to matter, then we will do those things which mean the most to us. The healthiest actions we can take are ones which acknowledge and follow commitments we have made. For instance, it is proper for a parent to help a child make their lunch in the morning before school starts. This is especially true if the child doesn’t know how to do it. But as the child gets older, the parent needs to withdraw their help slowly so the child will take responsibility. On the other hand, if you are married to a drug addict, you often feel that need to worry and act in such a way as to prevent them from using. The problem is, their addiction, though it affects you, is their problem not yours. If you spend too much time focused on what you will do for them in it, you are taking responsibility for things both outside of your sphere of responsibility and control.
  3. “Can I take care of this responsibility right now?” Much worrying is done because we want to solve situations which haven’t happened yet. We don’t like to be caught off-guard, so we worry a future situation out until we have solved every possible thing which can go wrong. But we haven’t really solved anything. Think of a basketball team. They can plan how they will play the other team, but all the decisions have to be made at real speed in the game. If you have responsibilities which are coming up but haven’t happened, only focus on the principles, not the actual working out of the responsibility. All other mental effort is wasted.

 

Most people don’t think the test will work because they have chosen anxieting and depressing as solutions to their unsolvable problems. But, as I tell all my clients, if you apply this test each and every time in place of anxieting and depressing, you will take control of your thoughts again, and you will accomplish what you are setting out in life to achieve.

Layered Communication

My friend Charlie and I used all our geek abilities and finally got the turntable to make sounds as we played the LP backwards. It was the Beatles album “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”. We had heard through a reliable source there were hidden messages in some of the songs. We played it for an hour and then we found one. At the end of “Strawberry Fields Forever” there was some funky background music and then a creepy voice made an announcement.

Charlie was sure the voice said “I BURIED PAUL”. I believed the ghastly voice said “CRANBERRY SAUCE”. Stephen King I’m not.

Whatever it was they put on the album (John Lennon claimed it was “Cranberry Sauce”…I feel vindicated…), they masked some of their messages deep in the midst of their music. I know they probably did it to create buzz about the album, but that is ludicrous to me. They were one of the greatest rock bands of their day. They didn’t need the gimmicks. Apparently, someone in their decision-making circle felt they did.

This is the picture I lead with to help you understand Layered Communication.  Layered Communication is one reason there are so many misunderstandings in human interaction.

If we committed ourselves to single-layered communication as often as possible, we would eliminate most of our fighting.

Why do we hide so many messages within simple statements? There are probably many reasons for doing this, but I find five categories for these reasons.

1. Fear: We fear saying some things so we hide them among the words of another piece of information. This motivation sits at the heart of most passive-aggressive communication. One person is angry and wants the other person to know it. But they don’t want to be seen as angry. Or maybe there are afraid of retribution. Or perhaps they believe the person will reject them when they express their anger. So instead of letting the other person see their anger clearly, they let it color otherwise simple communication. If you’ve ever had a friend say something innocent to you and it didn’t feel innocent at all, you know this practice. Fear drives more layered communication than any other factor.

2. Revenge: We hide some of our communication so we can get even with other people for recent occasions when they have not communicated properly with us. If you won’t be straight with me, I won’t be straight with you. This game can go on for years.

3. Intimidation: People sometimes cloak the information they want to share so that those close to them will feel less confident. For instance, a husband may want his wife to appreciate him more, so he tells her all about the pretty women at work, hoping she will feel like he is a great catch without him having to say it. Unfortunately, this approach often backfires.

4. Calculation: Often, when one person wants to win an argument with another person, they will say things in order to get certain reactions. Then, they have a plan how they want to respond to those reactions. In this way, the layered communication is calculated to bring a certain result.

5. Ignorance: Many times we layer our communication because we are not aware, or have not acknowledged, that those layers are even there. Nothing surprises us more than someone who asks “What do you mean by that?” when we really thought we were being straightforward.

With those motivations in mind, let’s define each of the 8 possible layers that can be added to simple communication:

Emotions: Even those people who are in touch with their feelings often do not know how to express them. So they combine them with other pieces of information. This can be confusing. A person who says their day was fine, but the voice and body language speak “frustration”, can put the conversation on the wrong footing.

Bitterness or Resentment: I won’t seek to define either of these, and though they are different, they look the same as a sub-layer. If you are bitter or resentful, even simple information comes across as complex. Resentment is very hard to talk about, especially with the person we resent. Resentment is a decision where we have decided we cannot change a situation but we will not let go of the hurt. This hurt often bleeds over into many other things we want to communicate. When resentment has been in residence for a long time, it evolves into bitterness. The Bible tells us that bitterness then becomes ” a root which grows up to harm many people.

Sarcasm: This is often the front layer in a conversation. Sarcasm is masked anger. But it is a more societally acceptable way of expressing anger without having to admit you’re angry. This layer shows up to disguise the anger underneath. In this way, it creates a smoke screen and prevents two people from getting further into the truth of their relationship.

Body Language: Social Scientists have studied this layer for decades and still cannot come up with a definitive way to tell how to read the body language of another person. But when a person says one thing and their body seems to say another, it confuses the issue and negates much of what is being said.

False Beliefs: This layer is numerous and often the person who has these is blind to them until they make it to the top layer. For instance, a wife may be frustrated for months that her husband spends little time with her. But because he seems to be working hard, she feels like she can’t bring it up. In a conversation, she blurts out “You hate spending time with me, don’t you.” Then she feels embarrassed she said it this way.

She may be revealing a false belief. Perhaps she believes that everyone will find her to be boring, or unimportant, or that her significant friends are always going to find something better than her. Any of these “universal” beliefs can form a layer underneath what we’re trying to say.

Distraction: We often say one thing while our mind is on another thing. Or, in this distracted world, we have too many things we want to say to other people and we make the mistake of trying to say them all in one statement. This is overwhelming to both parties.

Hatred: After years of not properly dealing with anger and frustration, a person can decide they hate another person. Every time they try to communicate with this other person, the hatred layer is transmitted. This layer will often poison every piece of communication. With hatred, we hurt other people and do not even feel badly for doing so.

Making Sense of Glennon Doyle Melton and Elizabeth Gilbert

melton-and-gilbertI prefer to be late to an opinion party. Rather than reacting when something newsworthy happens, I savor ideas and questions for a long time. When I get to writing, most ideas have already been launched by other writers and perhaps forgotten. Sometimes out of the ashes of burned ideas come deeper  questions. Hopefully this article contains a few of them. I’m sure it doesn’t contain any answers.

Earlier this year, Elizabeth Gilbert, bestselling author of “Eat, Pray, Love”, announced she was divorcing her husband because she was in love with a woman. Her husband is the man who appears at the end of “Eat, Pray, Love” and then is featured in the next memoir, “Committed: A Love Story.” She realized she loved her long-time best friend Rayya Elias, an artist and recovering cancer patient.

A month later, renowned Christian blogger Glennon Doyle Melton (known affectionately to her readers as “G”) announced she was divorcing her husband. G’s announcement came just days before she was about to release her long-anticipated book “Love Warrior” which chronicles the four-year struggle she and her family went through to recover from her husband’s infidelity. G’s life has always been lived on the outside as she used her blog Momastery to show the world how God helped her recover from substance abuse and many other problems.

Though the timing of her announcement was inconvenient, coming days before she took her first victory lap for the publishing of this book about her marriage success, she realized she needed to tell the world about her divorce online.  She informed the world she had come to grips with not wanting to be married to her husband any longer.

They now live just a few houses down from each other. They make meals together and share the parenting duties. Other than a change of location, many things have stayed the same.
Except something has changed. A couple of weeks ago, G announced she is dating soccer star Abby Wombach and has fallen in love. She announced it on Facebook and then answered a few questions. Here is one of the quotes from that announcement:

Remember in Love Warrior how hard I struggled to understand what being in love meant?
I get it now.
I get it.
I am in love.
And I’m really, deeply happy.

Here are two seemingly straight women who have opted for a love relationship with another woman. Both of them are authors who have focused on their marriage relationships both in writing and speaking.
Both of them refused to identify if they are lesbian or bisexual, and have said the distinction is unimportant.

But is it? Oh, certainly they have a right to believe it is unimportant, and for them it is. They have the right to love whom they will. They also have the right not to over-analyze it. But I have the right to ask some questions about this trend. It is a trend for seemingly straight women to come out, admitting to being in love with a woman.

This is a trend you seldom see with men. Yes, there have been men who adopted women as “beards” (i.e. taking a straight partner so you appear straight yourself) in the days when homosexuality in the public eye was not contemplated or accepted.

But look at the roster of women who have been straight and then became bisexual: Katy Perry, Angelina Jolie, Drew Barrymore, Megan Fox, Anna Paquin, Megan Mulally, Evan Rachel Wood and many more. Most male celebrities who are bisexual have never been married, but almost all of these women have. So why are women seemingly more inclined to identify as bisexual than men?

There are many qualities which constitute some level of attraction in a woman’s sexual identity.  Respect, compassion, acceptance, safety, security, humor, kindness, and showing attention are all factors which help women feel more attraction. Some women endure marriages where these things are not given or shown. Is it possible some women eventually see beyond natural sexual barriers and desire some of these other qualities even if it is a woman who brings them?

On a physical level, women appreciate the beauty seen in other women. Observe when a woman posts a cute selfie on social media. All her female friends gush over it. I cannot imagine men doing that with another man. Is it possible women can be attracted to other women on a non-sexual level, and that given the right conditions this will translate to passion?

I wonder also how many women go through seasons of bisexuality after having years of difficult marriage relationships? There are no studies done to identify these, but several of my counseling clients who practice bisexuality certainly endured difficult marriages?

And how much do examples like Melton and Gilbert affect women who may be considering bisexuality?

These are trends to note and ponder. I am sure some of you will see spiritual forces at work here as well, and perhaps that is correct. Perhaps the spirit of this age is a “try new kinds of love out” type of spirit. I don’t know. Time will tell, but I wanted to pose a few questions. I’m not really looking for the definitive answer to all of this.

One final question. Gilbert and Melton have received a mostly warm reception to their announcements. I wonder if that would still be the case if they had left their husbands for men?

Phantom Affairs

Posted on June 10, 2016

phantomAuggie and Tami felt the emotional distance between them. They fought, made up, fought some more, made up less often, fought more vigorously, didn’t make up any more. They didn’t know what the other was angry about, but constantly replayed their own story of hurt in case anyone asked. No one did.

Tami filed for divorce first, but Auggie was willing too. They settled their legal differences amiably and spared the world the bother of having to listen to their public complaints. A year later and they legally didn’t have to contact each other for any reason.

Yet for some reason, they kept in close touch. They met for lunch and endlessly dissected the reasons why their marriage fell into the toilet. That’s when and why they came for counseling. They didn’t desire to resurrect their relationship, but they wanted me to do a post-mortem with them on the corpse that was their marriage.

After meeting three times, I discerned the basic reason for their marriage failure and I shared it with them. At first, they were both confused. Then they denied it was true. It was almost a year later Tami came back and admitted I was right. I don’t know if Auggie ever agreed with me.

Here was their problem. They both had someone else. They both had chosen another person over their partner.

Yet neither of them had a physical affair. Neither of them had met in clandestine circumstances to give their love to another person. But they had still chosen someone else. Once they began doing that, it was inevitable it would ruin their relationship.

We wrongly assume that affairs have to actually involve knowing and interacting with the other member of the tryst. Today, there are multiple warnings about emotional affairs, relationships between married people that do not result in sex. These can be devastating of course. As Laura Berman observes,

Emotional cheating (with an “office husband,” a chat room lover, or a newly appealing ex) steers clear of physical intimacy, but it does involve secrecy, deception, and therefore betrayal. People enmeshed in nonsexual affairs preserve their “deniability,” convincing themselves they don’t have to change anything. That’s where they’re wrong. If you think about it, it’s the breach of trust, more than the sex, that’s the most painful aspect of an affair and, I can tell you from my work as a psychiatrist, the most difficult to recover from.

However, neither Auggie nor Tami were enmeshed in emotional affairs. They did practice some of the alternative ways one can tie themselves to another person anonymously. Let me outline the most common ways this is done:

Old Flames: A healthy person continues to process their memories long after they have experienced the original event. This must be done to remain emotionally grounded. We need to understand what has taken place in our lives so we don’t develop the wrong ideas about our history. But when we spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about past romances–and especially when we do this to replace time spent thinking about our spouse–we conclude that those days were better than these. The current troubles always pale in comparison with these idealistic memories.

Romantic Novels and Movies: One wouldn’t think you could form attachments with fictional characters, but psychology has proven that this is not only possible, but widespread. Yes, there are women who imagine themselves in the arena with Peeta, or men who see themselves as Danaerys’ companion. This explains the almost fanatical appeal of some fan-bases. This practice intrudes on a marriage when the spouse replaces their affection and admiration for their partner with the character they have obsessed upon. People can also imagine celebrities and read every article about them, taking time and mental energy away from their spouse and pouring it into a famous person.

Pornography: Most people assume porn is all about taking affection away from a spouse. Actually, that reason is not  as common as with the first two examples. Most men use porn as a mechanism to deal with relational pain, especially when they use porn to stimulate themselves.

But there are indeed some men and women who picture themselves with the people in the videos. This causes them to make constant mental comparisons between the porn stars and their partners. As I said, this is not the most common use of porn–it is most likely a pain manager–but it does exist. When a person uses porn to mentally replace their spouse, it can destroy a marriage.

Co-workers, neighbors and professional acquaintances: Throughout life, there are people who treat others well, affirm their value through words and deeds, and give  comfort to the emotionally distraught. A neglected or mistreated spouse will place great value on the person who is willing to give them these things.  Doctors, nurses, teachers, pastors,  therapists etc. all have to set careful and obvious boundaries so clients do not expect to have inappropriate relationships. But just because there are boundaries, the person receiving help can fantasize about how wonderful it would be to have a deep intimate relationship with their help-giver. Perhaps neither party acts upon this and the two of them maintain a professional relationship. But the one person still wishes for a deeper bond. This also can be done with people at work, neighbors we have come to know more than casually, and family friends.

Horror stories are told of people who assumed someone else felt as strongly as they did in the relationship, only to find out the affection was completely one-sided. The mind has the ability to fill in both sides of the relationship, assuming the kind words and actions are proof of an intimate connection.

Auggie and Tami both had these phantom affairs and had maintained them for a long time. The upshot of this error is that every mistake their spouse made was compared to these phantom ideal people. In their minds, the phantoms would never have treated them this way.

In Auggie’s case, he obsessed about old girlfriends. Tami focused on a man who lived across the street who appeared to treat her with the respect she had always longed for from her husband. Neither of them sought out a romantic partner outside of their marriage, but the phantom partners provided the manure for all of their resentments to grow.

Strangely enough, a year after divorcing, Tami dated the man across the street. After the second date, she realized he was a jerk. Coming home that night, she cried over her lost marriage. She began to see how great a mistake she and Auggie had made.

 

Saving Money on Your Wedding

Posted on April 27, 2015

Last time, we wrote about why an expensive wedding can be harmful to your marriage and is really unnecessary. I’m going to assume if you are reading this article it is because you at least see some of the advantages to simplifying your wedding. Though you may have “drunk the kool-aid” of this culture which says you are substandard if you don’t go all out for your nuptials, resist the Dark Side and see that this can be an amazing opportunity to start further ahead than most of your friends.

Here are ideas that  have worked for couples I have married.

1. Choose a church as your venue. By far, and by a long shot, churches are less expensive than other venues. Of course, someone’s back yard is cheaper still, but a church has some advantages. First, you often have people in the church who can help you with wedding planning for next to nothing. Second, they usually have all the equipment you might want to jazz up the look. Third, there may be someone who is a pastor at that church who could officiate. There, you have solved three other problems. If you do it in a back yard, all those things have to be rented or brought in. Also, many churches have halls that could be used for the reception, killing another expensive bird.

2. Buy simple plain wedding bands. As you no doubt have read many times lately on Facebook and other sites, diamonds used to be worthless until DeBeers started a massive advertising campaign in the 1930s. Before then, people didn’t have diamonds in their rings. The expensive stones were rubies, emeralds and sapphires. Now, you could get a ring with those stones for a quarter of the price of a diamond ring. I prefer white or yellow gold with no stone. A nice ring with no diamond costs about $200.

3. Have  your friends and family plan the reception and bring the food. Every time I have seen couples do this, it works out so well. If you have no family or friends who are coming, then why are you bothering to have a large meal? One of my kids went to a club that he helped to manage and we had food brought in. It did not cost very much and we all enjoyed it.

4. Skip the wedding dresses, tuxedos. Buy wedding clothes you will wear again…like a nice suit and a beautiful dress. Don’t bother with matching bridesmaid dresses. Let them pick out the ones they want and give them a color pallette to work from. That way, they also will be able to wear their dresses afterward.

5. Ask for cash instead of gifts if you have been single for a longer time. When you get married after age 30,  you don’t need most of the stuff they give you, but the money will be well appreciated.

6. If you have a friend who is halfway decent at photography, ask them to do it. It will be incredibly cheaper. But, if you do that, also give out disposable digital cameras to all the guests and ask them to fill them up with pictures. You may find some of these are the most memorable moments.

7. Engage the services of a pastor instead of a wedding coordinator. They have usually done enough weddings to know all the variations that can be done and they are not very expensive.

8. Have big tables at the reception. With more people at the same table, they can sit beside someone they want to be with. Assign their tables, not their seats for that reason. This way, with bigger tables, you need less centerpieces and save money that way.

9. Have it earlier in the day rather than at night. The earlier the reception, the cheaper the cost of food and entertainment. Plus if you have a midday reception, you will be more rested for your honeymoon.

10. Stay away from roses. Go to wholesale florists and pick out daisies, peonies and mums. They are so much cheaper than roses.

 

 

Advocating a Cheaper Wedding

Posted on April 22, 2015

weddingThis may step all over the ideals of the wedding shows and the whispers of your friends, but I believe there is something wrong–bordering on lunacy–with having an expensive wedding. I speak as one who has officiated at 378 weddings (yes, I have kept track) and because I notice patterns, I have seen the real nature of an expensive wedding.

To give perspective, I can declare that the most expensive wedding I was ever part of was also in the top three greatest wedding disasters I know. This wedding took place in 1984 and cost $70,000. This woman, who had been planning the wedding since she was a little girl, had live swans, trumpeters, silk aisle runners, a rented church which was an historical landmark, three limos, 18 bridesmaids, 12 flower girls, 4 candle lighters, a $10,000 wedding dress (in today’s money it would be $30,000) designed exclusively for her. I could go on, but you get the picture.

The ceremony had over 50 parts to it and the rehearsal took us 4.5 hours. None of us had any idea that the smallest detail would derail the entire thing. But it did.

At one point, one of the groomsmen was supposed to signal the first limo to bring the bridesmaids up to the door. He forgot to do this, but all of us assumed he had done it. So the limo sat there, thus delaying the start of the ceremony–for 3/4s of an hour. Because the finely honed details of the wedding ceremony could not proceed until the bridesmaids arrived, we were stuck–in an old church with no air conditioning. It was over 100 degrees inside. At one point, the groom passed out, the bride broke down in tears–twice–and all was chaos at the end when four of the flower girls got into a fight.

From that day, I began formulating some ideas and reasons why elaborate “royal” weddings are both unhealthy and unnecessary. During the 1990s, I actually convinced a number of couples to jettison their plans and go simple. But the advent of wedding shows on television has buried my good advice.

So I turn once again to my blog in order to put a monkey wrench into the Wedding Industry. And it is a lucrative business. According to the International Business Times, Americans spend 55 BILLION DOLLARS every year on weddings. This is a ceremony to commemorate wedding vows. And it is the third largest industry in America after computers and cars.

Here are five reasons why couples are better off not spending much on a wedding:

1. Stress Level:  Almost every couple who spends inordinate amounts of money and time getting ready for a wedding ceremony is so stressed out that the first few months of their marriage they are emotionally worn out. At the same time, this is actually one of the hardest seasons of a newly married couple’s life, even if they did have the energy to care. I believe that the greatest contributor to early divorces (under three years of marriage) is the elaborate wedding ceremony.

2. Taking Focus Away from the Vows: The more elements you have to plan and execute in a wedding, the less important the vows become. And to be fair, there are only two critical elements in a wedding ceremony: The presence of friends and loved ones, and the vows. Couples who spend their time planning their vows instead of calling photographers and venues, say they can remember every idea they expressed to each other. I just talked to a couple I married last Fall and they cannot remember one element about their vows. They spent their emotional load on the planning and not enough on the real meaning of the wedding.

3. Venues: The more elaborate and larger the wedding the less options you have. Therefore, instead of planning a wedding when most of the people can come, it is often at times when many important people are not available or have to juggle many things to make the time. And the more you spend on the ceremony, the less likely you are to adjust it to realities like illness, job changes and last minute decisions. Which leads to #4…

4. Second Thoughts: The more  you spend on a wedding, the more committed  you are to going through with it. Maybe to some of you this sounds like a great reason to spend more. It is not. There are many couples who have had second thoughts leading up to the wedding who would have pulled out except for the $30,000 they have spent. And don’t believe this silly idea that everyone has second thoughts. Most couples don’t. But the ones who do reconsider getting married, really ought to put it off until they’re sure. I believe the marriage vows are to be taken seriously, and if you aren’t entirely sure this relationship will last, don’t go through with it. A simple, inexpensive wedding affords that opportunity.

5. Big Weddings Lack Real Intimacy. The more you spend on a wedding, the less that individual guests participate in it. The more elaborate the reception, the less time the bride and groom really spend relaxing with friends. By contrast,  in most older cultures, a wedding was hosted and planned by the family and friends. The bride and groom didn’t have to do much (think of the movie “Fiddler on the Roof” minus the part where the Russian soldiers came in). When you have a wedding that focuses on simple things, the guests are close friends and family. Everyone pitches in. I remember one wedding where we decorated the hall between the wedding and the reception. And everyone pitched in. I used to go to wedding receptions all the time which were potlucks. Better that a couple spend very little for the wedding and more on the honeymoon and first year of marriage. Better that parents give them a check for $10,000 to help them through the first year than spend that much on a venue. Better you buy a gorgeous dress that  you can wear many times than a fortune on a dress you will wear once. Why is it that brides who do it for the second or third time never bother buying a wedding dress? Because they saw that silly dress hanging there every day after the first wedding like a mocker saying “you will never wear me again”. And let’s not even get started with engagement rings. A simple gold band or an understated diamond that costs $200 is fine. It will last just as long. It is a symbol after all, not proof of anything.

Next article, I will give several ideas about how to make a great wedding much more affordable.

Stripping Down the Layers of Communication

Posted on May 14, 2014

layersDr. William Glasser developed the principles of Choice Theory, which in my opinion is the most workable model of modern counseling. He taught that there were five potential motivations for any of our behaviors:

1. Survival (food, clothing, shelter, breathing, personal safety and others)
and four fundamental psychological needs:

2. Belonging/connecting/love

3. Power/significance/competence

4. Freedom/autonomy, and

5. Fun/learning

With so many things motivating us, often we are affected by more than one motivation at a time.

For instance, consider a dating couple. He likes to attend hockey games and invites her to join him. She seems eager and yells loudly with all the fans at the game. What he does not know is that she is only mildly interested in hockey. So why is she getting so excited about the game?

First, he is excited about the game and she enjoys being around him when he’s thrilled about something. Second, she likes that feeling of being part of his inner circle that she gets when he invites her to a hockey game. Third–and she probably is unaware of this one–she feels like she now has the upper hand in the relationship since she has accompanied him to one of his fun exercises. So she has fulfilled three of her basic motivations: Fun, Belonging and Power.

But assume one day that she gets lost in the arena coming back from the snack bar and can’t find her seat. When she calls him on her cell phone, the noise of the crowd prevents him from hearing her call. She panics, and for fifteen minutes she lives in fear and anger. Finally, she goes out to the car and waits for him there.

When the hockey game ends, he goes out to the car, baffled as to why she didn’t return. She immediately gives him some multi-layered communication. Instead of telling him the story, she says this:

I hope you and your friends enjoyed your little game while I waited out here all alone”. Let’s break down what she is trying to say.

First, her need for safety has engendered fear and anger. She blames him for this, even though she is the one who was lost. She wants him to know how she is feeling.

Second, she no longer feels like she is in his favored circle since he didn’t come looking for her. Actually, she doesn’t really know if he did–all she knows is he didn’t find her. She wants to let him know she feels left out.

Third, she wants to regain her sense of control by making him feel demeaned.

Fourth, she needs to know she still matters to him.

The unfortunate thing is that there is no way he can understand all of this from the one thing she said. So instead of asking questions to find out what she’s talking about, he primarily hears her anger and responds to that. He feels defensive–after all, he didn’t really do anything wrong. He wrongly assumes that because she is angry, it is his responsibility to deal with that. It isn’t. People have a right to be angry with us and we are not required to respond in kind.

He asks her “What’s wrong with you?” He says this because he cannot understand why she is so angry at him. He doesn’t know about her fear, loss of control and sense of not belonging. So his question “What’s wrong with you?” makes matters worse. She is so devastated because she now feels the “not belonging” part more acutely. She refuses to speak to him on the way home. He is baffled by all of this because he didn’t understand the many layers involved with this process.

Several weeks later, they came to me for counseling. I normally don’t do counseling with both members of the couple at the same time. But after hearing their story, I decided a little teaching was in order. I explained the five different motivations that we all have. Then I had her tell me what she was trying to accomplish by going to the hockey game. After a few minutes she was able to accurately identify why this was important to her. Then came the crucial part: I had her analyze what was bothering her about getting lost. We all decided together that it was the sense of having failed her boyfriend and looking foolish in front of his friends.

I looked over at him as she came to this realization. As she explained this, I could see compassion on his face. He was concerned for her. This is what she wanted in the first place, but just didn’t know it. So I asked her how she could have expressed what was going on inside of her to make it easier for him to understand.

Like most people, she didn’t know.

So I walked her through it. First, she needed to understand what was bothering her. Most of our negative reactions come from the separation between our Ideal World and the Real World. The Ideal world is where all our motivations/needs are satisfied (Note: When has that ever happened?). The Real World is the place where only some of our needs/motivations are met. This is what engenders our reactions. So she needed to understand what she was feeling. If she wanted him to understand, she needed to express things in single layers. She needed to make sure he understood each layer. She would know she had accomplished this when the inner turmoil began to subside.

Here is what she came up with. She identified three single layered statements she needed to make that night:

“Honey, I was afraid because I was lost.”

“I hate feeling like an idiot, especially in front of your friends. I am afraid that I have slipped in your opinion of me”

“I was angry because I assumed you didn’t come look for me”.

When she expressed these three things to him, he understood. Because she saw his understanding, it ended all the difficulty between them.

When you feel these negative emotions, always ask yourself, “Which of my needs are not getting met?” and then, “Do I need to tell someone about this?”

Often, for God-followers, it is best to talk to God about these things first. After all, the Bible does say in Philippians 4:6-7:

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.  And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

More about these verses in the next article.

The Real Problem with Sin

Posted on April 15, 2014

businesswoman-and-man-on-train-with-tabletStefan takes the 6:00 a.m. train out of Sacramento every weekday morning to travel to the Bay Area. He sits in the same car, reviews the same kind of work files, and thinks about the same subjects. He also shares that car with relatively the same people. They have come to know each other as work partners, even though each of them has different employers.

They laugh together and commiserate over the common problems of cubicle workers. They agree, as the train pulls into the station, to remember all the juicy bits of gossip from the day’s events for the ride home. It’s a harmless bonding of people. Nothing to see here. Move along.

Except this ride has become anything but innocent for Stefan. He has developed feelings for one of the ladies in the train car. At home, he fantasizes about her and dreams of how he will approach her with his desire to know her more intimately.

This is a problem, for Stefan is married and is a Christian. He knows adultery is wrong but is going along with the fantasy with great enthusiasm.

Once he began to think about her, she was all he could think about on the daily commute. His adrenaline increased when she entered “their” car. He experienced profound disappointment when she occasionally called in sick. He wanted her; and it occupied all his thinking.

Eventually, he started to single her out for conversation and often moved in conspiratorially to say things much more quietly. These were not sinful things he spoke about, but they were intended for her ears only. After a few weeks of giving her special attention, she began to indicate through words and body language that she was attracted to him. Because of this, he became bolder in his approach.

This conversation took several turns after that initial flush of discovery. More and more, they held little private talks with each other instead of the group as a whole. They exchanged social media addresses: Linked-In, Facebook, email and finally phone numbers. One day, she suggested they book another car once a week so the curious ears of the others wouldn’t be listening in.

The conversation now focused on their sex life. Each of them complained about how they weren’t getting their needs met. They shared details of what they considered the “perfect” intimate life, if only their spouses would cooperate.  

Eventually, they decided to take the 5:40 train instead, figuring it would be better if no one knew they were getting closer to each other.

They sent sexy messages to each other on Facebook. This was the point Stefan realized his fantasies could actually come true, and it bothered him. At the same time, every week, the pastor’s sermon seemed to center in on the consequences of sin. This was strange, since the pastor had rarely talked about sin with judgmental overtones. But he felt convicted and ashamed every time he left church.

Stefan began to have little fights with his wife and their finances were not doing well.

Here is where the real problem with sin came out. He assumed the fights, his uncomfortable feelings at church, and the financial problems were all the result of this emotional adultery he was playing with. He knew his actions were sinful. And he was convinced that it was about to bring devastation upon his life. The longer Stefan and this woman extended out their flirting, the more insecure he felt. Areas in his life he normally handled with confidence, he floundered in uncertainty.

One morning, the woman proposed they stay in the city overnight and make it appear to be work-related. Their plan was to do dinner together and then spend the night at a local hotel. As they went on the train that morning, she was giddy with anticipation. Stefan had a knot in his stomach that would not leave. When they walked off the train, she pulled him into a little alcove before he left and gave him a long, lingering kiss. Then she walked away humming a tune.

He was miserable all day at work. The closer he came to fulfilling his fantasy, the less appealing it appeared. He was now certain the judgment of God was going to rain down upon him. At the coffee break, he had to go into the bathroom and vomit. He knew with every part of his being he couldn’t go through with this. He called her several times during the day to let her know he wouldn’t be coming, but each time he chickened out and simply told her how excited he was they would finally be together.

That night he went to dinner, fully intending to tell her he wouldn’t go through with their adulterous plans. But he couldn’t break her heart. He said nothing and pasted on a smile.

After they were done eating, they carried through on their plans and spent the night together. By 2 a.m., Stefan realized he had never felt this miserable in his entire life. He had destroyed his wedding vows and brought misery and judgment onto his soul. After spending the night awake and despondent, Stefan went out for a walk. When he came back, he did what he wanted to do the night before. He told her he had made a mistake and this wouldn’t be happening again. She cried. He apologized and cried as well.

I could tell you a lot more details of their relationship, but it wouldn’t be necessary. I shared this much so you could see the pattern Stefan followed, a pattern that many people have also lived. As a follower of Christ, he didn’t want to sin. As a man attracted to a woman, he wanted intimacy with her. The two forces do not co-exist. He was miserable because he tried to appease both desires. You cannot do that.

But the real revelation came a month after his tryst. His daughter was swinging on the monkey bars at school and fell off. She broke her arm, her pelvis and suffered severe hemorrhaging in the brain. They had to keep her sedated so the swelling could recede.

The entire time Stefan sat by his small daughter’s bed, he endured three agonies. First, of course, he feared for his daughter’s life and future. Second, he worried for his wife and the trauma she was facing. Third, and heaviest, he believed deep in his heart that his affair was the reason his daughter had been injured. With that came guilt, pain, anger, bitterness, resentment, self-loathing and suicidal thoughts.

Preachers and writers often teach a false idea that God hides his face from us when we sin. This has no biblical basis and actually defiles the character of God. After all, when Adam and Eve sinned, they hid from God and God came looking for them. In Isaiah 59:2, we read:

But your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you, so that he will not hear. (Isaiah 59:2 NIV)

It is we who are separated from God. It is our sins which have blinded us from seeing God and experiencing his presence. God has not done any of this and rather yearns that we be reunited with Him. Jesus told the parable about the Prodigal Son, where the son spends his inheritance on wild living. At one point–penniless and destitute–the son realizes his father would forgive him and take him back in. So he resolves to head on home.

But a long way off, his father spies him and comes running toward him. This is only possible if his father had been waiting for him, watching for his return. This is a picture of God that is much more accurate than the petulant, wounded Law-Giver who is looking to reject and annihilate us.

Stefan and I spent many hours praying together in one of the waiting rooms at the hospital. I explained that his insecurity was the direct result of his sin. The Accuser was having a heyday bringing shame and self-loathing into his mind. It was easy for Stefan to grab hold of these things and to wrongly assume God also felt that way.

I convinced him to admit to his wife what he had done and ask her forgiveness. Then to ask God to cleanse him from the self-loathing. He actually found the God part harder than the confession part. It took several sessions of counseling before he accepted God’s intimacy again.

This is why sin is so awful. It leaves us guilty, shamed, cut off, insecure, lonely and assuming that all disasters are aimed at us. His daughter took months to recover from her fall, but it took dad almost as long to recover from his mistakes. Fortunately, his wife forgave and they are working toward a better relationship between them.

He now drives his car to work. Nothing to see here now. Move along.

 

Dissecting Layered Communication

Posted on April 2, 2014

My friend Charlie and I had to utilize all our geek abilities, but we finally got the turntable to make sounds as we played the LP slowly. It was the Beatles album “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”. We had heard through a reliable source there were hidden messages in some of the songs. We played it for an hour and then we found one. At the end of “Strawberry Fields Forever” there was some funky background music and then a creepy voice made an announcement.

Charlie was sure the voice said “I BURIED PAUL”. I believed the ghastly voice said “CRANBERRY SAUCE”. Stephen King I’m not.

Whatever it was they put on the album (John Lennon claimed it was “Cranberry Sauce”…I feel vindicated…), they masked some of their messages deep in the midst of their music. I know they probably did it to create buzz about the album, but that is ludicrous to me. They were one of the greatest rock bands of their day. They didn’t need the gimmicks. Apparently, someone in their decision-making circle felt they did.

This is the picture I lead with to help you understand Layered Communication. As I said in the previous article, Layered Communication is one reason there are so many misunderstandings in human interaction.

If we committed ourselves to single-layered communication as often as possible, we would eliminate most of our fighting.

Why do we hide so many messages within simple statements? There are probably many reasons for doing this, but I find five categories for these reasons.

1. Fear: We fear saying some things so we hide them among the words of another piece of information. This motivation sits at the heart of most passive-aggressive communication. One person is angry and wants the other person to know it. But they don’t want to be seen as angry. Or maybe there are afraid of retribution. Or perhaps they believe the person will reject them when they express their anger. So instead of letting the other person see their anger clearly, they let it color otherwise simple communication. If you’ve ever had a friend say something innocent to you and it didn’t feel innocent at all, you know this practice. Fear drives more layered communication than any other factor.

2. Revenge: We hide some of our communication so we can get even with other people for recent occasions when they have not communicated properly with us. If you won’t be straight with me, I won’t be straight with you. This game can go on for years.

3. Intimidation: People sometimes cloak the information they want to share so that those close to them will feel less confident. For instance, a husband may want his wife to appreciate him more, so he tells her all about the pretty women at work, hoping she will feel like he is a great catch without him having to say it. Unfortunately, this approach often backfires.

4. Calculation: Often, when one person wants to win an argument with another person, they will say things in order to get certain reactions. Then, they have a plan how they want to respond to those reactions. In this way, the layered communication is calculated to bring a certain result.

5. Ignorance: Many times we layer our communication because we are not aware, or have not acknowledged, that those layers are even there. Nothing surprises us more than someone who asks “What do you mean by that?”when we really thought we were being straightforward.

With those motivations in mind, let’s define each of the 8 possible layers that can be added to simple communication:

Emotions: Even those people who are in touch with their feelings often do not know how to express them. So they combine them with other pieces of information. This can be confusing. A person who says their day was fine, but the voice and body language speak “frustration”, can put the conversation on the wrong footing.

Bitterness or Resentment: I won’t seek to define either of these, and though they are different, they look the same as a sub-layer. If you are bitter or resentful, even simple information comes across as complex. Resentment is very hard to talk about, especially with the person we resent. Resentment is a decision where we have decided we cannot change a situation but we will not let go of the hurt. This hurt often bleeds over into many other things we want to communicate. When resentment has been in residence for a long time, it evolves into bitterness. The Bible tells us that bitterness then becomes ” a root which grows up to harm many people.

Sarcasm: This is often the front layer in a conversation. Sarcasm is masked anger. But it is a more societally acceptable way of expressing anger without having to admit you’re angry. This layer shows up to disguise the anger underneath. In this way, it creates a smoke screen and prevents two people from getting further into the truth of their relationship.

Body Language: Social Scientists have studied this layer for decades and still cannot come up with a definitive way to tell how to read the body language of another person. But when a person says one thing and their body seems to say another, it confuses the issue and negates much of what is being said.

False Beliefs: This layer is numerous and often the person who has these is blind to them until they make it to the top layer. For instance, a wife may be frustrated for months that her husband spends little time with her. But because he seems to be working hard, she feels like she can’t bring it up. In a conversation, she blurts out “You hate spending time with me, don’t you.”Then she feels embarrassed she said it this way.

She may be revealing a false belief. Perhaps she believes that everyone will find her to be boring, or unimportant, or that her significant friends are always going to find something better than her. Any of these “universal” beliefs can form a layer underneath what we’re trying to say.

Distraction: We often say one thing while our mind is on another thing. Or, in this distracted world, we have too many things we want to say to other people and we make the mistake of trying to say them all in one statement. This is overwhelming to both parties.

Hatred: After years of not properly dealing with anger and frustration, a person can decide they hate another person. Every time they try to communicate with this other person, the hatred layer is transmitted. This layer will often poison every piece of communication. With hatred, we hurt other people and do not even feel badly for doing so.

After looking at this list, you may wonder if there is any such thing as a simple single-layered communication. In fact, there are many ways we can communicate in single layers and the next article we will discuss how to talk to other people in this manner.

Understanding Layered Communication

Posted on April 2, 2014

Years ago, a man who had been married many more years than I told me some advice about wives.

He said: “If she says ‘Go ahead’ in response to something you want to do–and you notice she isn’t smiling and her arms are crossed in front of her–it isn’t permission, it’s a dare”.

Funny. Wise. Layered.

I owe much of my understanding of the dynamics of interpersonal communication to one of the greatest psychoanalysts of the 20th Century: Dr. William Glasser. What made Dr. Glasser so helpful to our society is he could take complicated subjects and make them so obvious and simple to understand.

Perhaps he is best known for his definition of communication. He defined all communication between two people as this: “It is only information. If you think it is more than that, you are self-deceived.”

Since marriage represents the most intimate dynamics of communication, they are also the most dangerous. If I misunderstand something a stranger says to me, it doesn’t matter that much. But if I make the same error with my life partner, it can be devastating. And after 30-plus years of doing counseling, I can attest that most marriage problems are communication difficulties.

We need to understand three things in order to make all communication easier.

First, what you are hearing is just information.
Second, if you believe otherwise, it is your problem, not the other person
Third, the main difficulty we have with what we hear other people say is that they have layered their communication and we often do not know it.

Let’s look at a standard marital conflict that illustrates all three parts.

Let’s say Jim has had a hard day at work. He was given an impossible task by his boss and it wasn’t going well. He is tired, frustrated, feeling abused and disrespected, and needing to rest and recuperate.

However, as soon as he comes through the door, his wife tells him all about how bad their two boys behaved at the grocery store after work. She never asks about his day, never notices the look of exasperation on his face.

Jim honestly can see that his wife is frustrated. At the same time, he needs support and rest. So, he tries to communicate all of this to Tonya his wife and says, “I don’t want to talk about this right now.” She is hurt by this and storms off to make dinner, slamming cupboards and huffing.

She assumed something Jim was communicating. She assumed wrongly. He was giving information about his desire to avoid more drama and the need to rest. She assumed he was communicating something about their relationship and his lack of caring for her. He gave her information. The rest of what happened was hers.

Taken at face value, his statement is fairly simple. He doesn’t want to talk about the kids at that moment. He didn’t say he would never talk about it. He didn’t say that he couldn’t care less about her feelings. His communication was a case of simple information. Tonya did not understand this or accept it.

This leads us to the second truth about communication. Her emotional reaction was her problem. Any time we react to information being given to us we are responsible completely for our reaction. The other person is only responsible for the information they gave us. In Tonya’s case, she carried the frustration of being the only care-giver that day in the household. She was angry that Jim seemed to be reticent to help her. She assumed his motivations. All of these assumptions and reactions are her responsibility. If she had been wise–and we will talk about how to use this approach with any other person–she would have asked Jim why he didn’t want to talk about it at that moment. She chose to be hurt and that was her choice. Jim did not make her do that.

Now for the most complicated part of this scenario: Tonya reacted to Jim’s dual layers of information with a multi-layered communication response. I define multi-layered communication as any information which is layered with one or more of the following:

1. Emotions
2. Bitterness or resentment
3. Sarcasm
4. Physical body language instead of words
5. Unspoken assumptions
6. False beliefs
7. Distraction
8. Revenge or hatred

Let’s analyze Jim and Tonya.

Jim had two distinct layers of information:

1. He didn’t want to talk about the current situation at that moment
2. He was angry and tired and did not state this up front.

Jim made the situation a degree harder by not giving the second piece of information before the first one.

Tonya had several layers of communication which she put across using passive-aggressive behavior:

1. Anger at the boys
2. Frustration that she was the primary care-giver and Jim did not seem to be interested
3. A desire to hurt Jim for the perceived hurt Jim had laid on her.
4. Perhaps a deep-seated belief that people would not assist her when she needed it.

Tonya only expressed the first layer and let Jim assume the existence of the other layers. Because neither of them had carefully dissected their own layers before communicating, they could not connect with each other mentally or emotionally. This is the type of fight that can linger for weeks, months or even years if not corrected.

In the next article, we’ll dissect the 8 layers and examine how to attempt to give other people information about each one.

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