Editor's Note: Do you need sound, Biblically-based advice on an issue in your marriage or family? Dr. David will address two questions from Crosswalk readers in each weekly column. Submit your question to him at TheRelationshipDoctor@gmail.com.
Dear Dr. David,
My husband and I have slipped into some very destructive habits and I hope you can help. It seems that whenever my husband comes home from work at night, and at other times too, he slips into being critical. Before I know it, I’m defending and explaining my actions, but resenting him the whole time. He doesn’t even know he’s doing it and says he doesn’t want to keep making the mistake of being critical. But, he defends himself, telling me that if I didn’t do some of the things I did, he wouldn’t be upset. But, doctor, I’m tired of being treated like a ten year old for mistakes I make. I don’t treat him like a child when he does something wrong. How can I get him to see that this kind of bickering is killing my love for him? -- Feeling Small
Your note reflects a growing problem in many relationships, and thankfully, there are some straightforward answers.
First, notice how often you use the words “slip” and “before I know it.” You add, “He doesn’t’ even know he’s doing it.” This suggests a major problem in relationships—a lack of awareness and an incredible passivity. Couples keep treating each other the same ways, “slipping into” the same patterns of interacting, and of course, finding the same results.
The first time couples notice destructive patterns, they can call it a mistake. But, when they make the same mistakes again and again, that’s called neglect and avoidance of real issues. Your passivity, poor boundaries and lack of awareness must end. You both must develop what I call mindful relating. I’ll explain.
Mindful relating is the developing the ability to watch how you are talking to each other, noticing body language, tone, and even critical content. Mindful relating requires always being on guard for destructive habits, such as insidious critical spirits.
Second, you participate in this destructive pattern as well, when you “slip into” defending yourself. Generally, when we defend or explain ourselves it means we are feeling defensive, often to real or perceived criticism. It is easy to “slip into” an attack-defend-counter-attack cycle without awareness. Some simple rules, healthier boundaries and mindfulness will help you break out of this destructive pattern.
Third, I also recommend a powerful technique called pattern interruption. Yes, it’s that simple—notice the pattern and create a new recipe of behaviors ready to replace the old patterns. In my book, Saying It So He’ll Listen, I share extensively about the importance of not defending yourself. This mistakes leads to more defending, increased criticism, and an erosion of positive feelings. Instead say, “I’m feeling criticized, and I’d like you to ask for what you want in a different way,” or, “I’m feeling defensive and need to call a brief time out to consider how I want to respond.”
Fourth, how about injecting another pattern interruption: agree to ask for what you need from one another in a positive way. Remember the old rule, “Never offer criticism without offering a possible solution.” Agree to tell each other what you’d like differently, being ready to assist your mate with the solution. When restoration and correction are needed, do it gently. (Galatians 6: 1) The Scriptures insist that we maintain three attitudes for healthy living: mercy, justice and humility. (Micah 6: 8) It is impossible to embrace this injunction and be a critical person.
Finally, yet another pattern interruption—add positivity to the relationship. A powerful rule for your relationship might be: you must have at least two positive comments in the relationship before you can add a negative one. No exceptions. This rule douses even the most dour, critical spirit with a strong dose of humility, humor and lightness.
Dear Dr. David,
My wife and I have been married for twenty years and we are both tired of the conflict. We are strong Christians, but our faith seems to have little effect on how we relate to one another. We share our faith together on Sundays, and everyone thinks we’re a happy couple with our three wonderful kids. What they don’t know is that there has been domestic violence, hostility, depression and other problems. We’ve been to counseling several times, but my husband finds something wrong with each counselor and so we quit going. Before long we’re back to living with his angry outbursts, irritability and occasional name-calling.
I am confused as to why our faith doesn’t make us change our destructive ways? Why is it not enough to love the Lord, worship Him and yet bicker and fight? I feel abused and wonder if I’m supposed to keep living like this. Are other couples struggling like us, or are we alone in this battle? Help. -- Exhausted
Your first mistake is assuming that since you’re Christians you won’t have problems. One of the mistakes we in the church often make is to hide our dirty laundry, making us feel alone with our struggles. Too often we pretend that life is fine, when behind the scenes we struggle with the same issues as those outside the church. However, there are answers. Let’s consider some of your concerns.
In spite of appearances, Scriptures make it clear that we will have trials and tribulations, and in fact those trials are meant to make us stronger. So, it’s not the presence of troubles that should concern us—in fact, we should expect them. But, we must respond to them appropriately.
There is an error many Christians make regarding problems. We erringly believe that since we’re Christians, we will instantly be relationally mature. This, as we all know, is simply not true. Just as we are to grow and mature in our relationship to Christ, we are to mature in our ability to solve problems, and to love one another in mature ways. A thorough reading of I Corinthians 13 should make us shudder and put our noses to the grindstone.
What does this mean practically? It means you and your husband need to find a qualified psychologist or counselor and get to work—and stick with it. Character issues are not easy to change. I suspect you two have many destructive habits that must be addressed.
Additionally, you mention his violence—this needs strategic, specific treatment for a positive outcome. You need to insist he get domestic violence treatment; no shortcuts, no end runs—specific treatment for a specific problem. Do you part by letting him no that nothing short of intense treatment will suffice. Talk together to your pastor and let him/ her hold you accountable for these changes.
In a recent Marriage Intensive I conducted, we detailed out the destructive patterns a couple had developed and learned specific tools and techniques to end their troubled patterns. Too many look for in-depth change with superficial effort. While we as Christians will never be free from problems, we have God on our side to assist us with the courage and strength needed to overcome. Develop a plan that fits the problem and stick with it to the end goal.
David Hawkins, Pd.D., has worked with couples and families to improve the quality of their lives by resolving personal issues for the last 30 years. He is the author of over 18 books, including Love Lost: Living Beyond a Broken Marriage, Saying It So He'll Listen, and When Pleasing Others Is Hurting You. His newest books are titled The Relationship Doctor's Prescription for Healing a Hurting Relationship and The Relationship Doctor's Prescription for Living Beyond Guilt. Dr. Hawkins grew up in the beautiful Pacific Northwest and lives with his wife on the South Puget Sound where he enjoys sailing, biking, and skiing. He has active practices in two Washington cities.
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