Category: Marriage

When Things Turn Ugly

One evening after the boys were in bed I walked into the kitchen to hear Chris muttering under his breath. When he spotted me he proclaimed in frustration, “If you don’t clear out this cabinet I am going to throw all this junk away!” Wow! Where did this come from? I was caught off guard by my usually mellow husband’s intensity.

I immediately became defensive and angry. I met and raised his intensity with, “You cannot throw away my stuff! And if you do, then I will throw away your junk from the garage!” Wow! Where did that come from? I was quick and pointed in return.

We went back and forth a couple more times with short gunfire bursts of snappiness then we decided it was time to catch our breath. As you can see, this interaction was escalating and going nowhere fast.

I found a quiet place and turned to Jesus feeling very frustrated and angry. I poured out my upset to Jesus and told Him how miserable I was feeling. As I focused on talking with Jesus about how I was feeling (rather than expressing all the things I wanted Him to fix in Chris in that moment) I started to feel peaceful. I also realized I was feeling powerless in my interaction with Chris. My response to feeling powerless had been to make myself feel powerful by threatening to recycle Chris’ stuff in the garage. In truth, this was not an effective technique. Our upset had quickly escalated our misunderstanding which then widened the relational rupture between us. Our emotional brain was amplifying anger back and forth at six cycles per second – which is pretty fast. This means our emotional reactions were driving a Lamborghini sports car while our will power was driving a horse and buggy. We react first, we think second.

Jesus also showed me that Chris’ angry moment was actually a moment of weakness for him. I felt reminded that my goal whenever weakness arises is to stay tender. This thought really caught me off guard because I didn’t feel tender! “You mean, my husband was having a moment of weakness? But he was angry. He seemed powerful – not weak!” I exclaimed to Immanuel.

As I thought about this more, I began to understand that it is not like Chris’ heart to react towards me in anger or with threats. My shepherd husband was having a moment of weakness because he was not living from his heart. He forgot who he was. This realization provoked compassion towards him. My frustration melted.

After calming down we came back together to repair and connect. I apologized for my reaction. Chris also apologized to me. I shared with him the insight Jesus gave me about feeling powerless and I my reactionary attempt to be powerful. Chris also explained that the travel mug had fallen out of the cupboard on top of his head for the third time this week right before I walked into the kitchen. His frustration was a vain attempt to solve that problem.

We both acknowledged we could have handled this interaction so much better. We agreed to work on staying tender toward each other’s weaknesses.

What do you do when you feel powerless and out of control? Have you ever thought of someone’s anger as a moment of weakness? These may be new thoughts for you and I want to encourage you to read more about this in the book, Joy Starts Here. I suspect you, like Chris and I, will have a lot of practice learning how to be tender toward others.

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Flames of Fury

The other day Chris and I had a couple of interactions that did not go smoothly. Ok, this is an understatement. I walked away from them feeling FURIOUS. I felt boiling mad…imagine steam coming out of my ears!

I tried to calm down, but it wasn’t working like usual. Thankfully, the kids were not around at the time so I opted for a little alone time and talked with Jesus about my big feelings. As I interacted with Him, the intensity of my feelings did not lessen like they usually do. However, I began to realize that maybe, just maybe, I was overreacting; a little bit. It occurred to me that Chris and I often have misunderstandings, and usually I feel frustrated and we quickly recover to joy. This time was different. I didn’t feel frustrated, I felt FURIOUS. I wasn’t recovering. I gave my feelings and the situation to Jesus then I asked Him what else He wanted me to know. I realized I was feeling way out of control and like my husband did not care about what was important to me, which, sadly, is a familiar feeling from my past. While the interaction with Chris was upsetting, the intensity I was feeling was out of proportion for the current situation. My past was unapologetically invading my present.

If there is something I have learned over the years, it is this. When I react with out-of-proportion intensity, there is more going on than meets the eye. This is known as being triggered, and our friend Dr. Karl Lehman also identifies this as unprocessed implicit memory, which refers to the feelings that are present without the information or details that go with the feelings. When a situation in present day life unconsciously reminds me of unresolved feelings (or situations) from the past, we call this being “triggered.” The difficulty with being triggered is we usually do not recognize it at the time and the intense feelings from the past spill into the current situation. What should be a minor frustration sky rockets into big and unmanageable emotions that are “off the charts.” In these moments nothing is going to go well until I can can quiet and have Jesus help me turn down the intensity from the past enough to resolve the problem in the present.

A number of things help me when I am triggered. Sometimes the simple act of quieting is enough. Since this is the easiest, I usually start there. If I need more, I talk with Jesus about how I am feeling and invite Him to help me calm down or show me what He wants me to know about the situation. This helps me feel seen, validated and understood so that I am not so alone in my feelings. I find that practicing appreciation warms up my brain and greatly increases the chances that I will be able to sense Jesus’ presence – even in the midst of my distress. When I have quieted and can clearly see where my past feelings are active, I can see the present problem and take responsibility for my part in the current situation.

After calming down I was able to follow-up with Chris on our earlier interactions. I could now own that the intensity of my reaction from earlier was not justified by the situation. I was able to express to him how I felt hurt by our interaction. My patient husband heard me and was apologetic. We discussed how the situation could be handled differently next time around. We were able to come up with a plan that felt good to both of us and we felt like we were again on the same team. Peace and joy was restored.

It is amazing how quickly things can spiral downward when triggered feelings go unrecognized. In most cases, our spouse has the response, “You are overreacting!” We may be overreacting but when our past pain includes feeling invalidated or minimized,things will be more explosive. Once we are able to calm down, recognize where the past is sneaking into the present and turn down the volume on the big feelings, the interaction has a much higher chance of resolving in a more satisfying way for everyone.

To learn more about triggers and implicit memory, I highly encourage you to read Outsmarting Yourself by Dr. Karl Lehman here or attend one of our Joy Rekindled Marriage Retreats to practice useful skills.

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Sick and snappy

We have had another crazy round of sickness these last two weeks including two rounds of the stomach flu. With being sick during the holiday season I have found myself falling into a bit of a funk. Feeling discouraged and even a little depressed with the ongoing sickness, low energy levels and endless to do lists leaves me in a place of more to do that I have time or energy to accomplish. When I get overwhelmed I have a tendency to get snappy with my husband and kids. I don’t like this about myself and work hard to get back in a relational state of mind so I am not taking things out on them. These last few weeks reminded me of a couple of years ago when life was very overwhelming. At the time our boys were two and four, and Chris injured his back. He could only work a couple hours a day and the rest of the time he was laying down on ice—unable to function. It was a low point for both of us. The added strain of caring for the boys and the house by myself, and picking up some of his responsibilities with the ministry had me in a constant state of overwhelm. He was unable to care for the kids (on a no lifting/no bending restriction) and I was unable to leave the kids with him for any length of time. Talk about a difficult season! At times I struggled with resentment that he wasn’t helping, even though it was something beyond his control. Today I was reminded of what got me through and helped keep the life in my marriage and in our family during that lifeless season.

Each morning and evening I would take several minutes to focus on things I was grateful for, the people and moments that brought me appreciation. It was only about five minutes a few times a day, but feeling appreciation made such a difference in my ability to cope with the emotionally and physically overwhelming season. This was a time of remembering things that brought me joy and letting myself feel the warmth of the moment all over again. This can be a beautiful sunset, laughing with a friend, cuddling with your spouse, giggling with your child, a day at the beach, a hike in the mountains or any joyful memory that you can recollect. I found that usually the warm feeling from a joyful memory would wear off after a moment or so, and in order to finish the full five minutes I needed to think of a series of moments. I started a list in my journal of the appreciation memories to help jumpstart my time. I also noticed that pictures on my phone or having a photo album nearby could quickly get my mind going in the right direction. It always amazed me how just five minutes could drastically change my mood and often shift the course of the day.

I also spent a lot of time with Jesus. I would take 10 or 15 minutes whenever I could find a window in my day (often during the kids naptime or when they were in bed for the night) and spend time talking with Him about the things weighing me down. I took some focused time to listen for any encouragement He would bring. I found that after our interactions, I felt a deep sense of peace, even though nothing about my circumstances had changed. I also noticed a renewed sense of patience with Chris and the kids and my resentment about all that was on my plate would shift into a desire to serve them. My favorite method of journaling and interacting with Jesus is based on the Immanuel Journaling exercise we use at our trainings, written by my friends John and Sungshim Loppnow, Anna Kang and Dr. Jim Wilder. If you are interested to see the list of questions written out, you can find a downloadable copy here and order this amazing resource here.

These moments of appreciation and times of interacting with Jesus provided the much needed fuel to get me through long, hard days. They also refreshed me in a dry season of our marriage when Chris was largely unavailable, both physically and emotionally. I feel refreshed and restored practicing these skills again in recent weeks. While I don’t like the feeling of living in a constant state of overwhelm, these intentional practices gave me the daily bread I needed to sustain me and allow me to be physically and emotionally available for my family.