It’s Time to End Male Spiritual Leadership

Husband Accepting Influence

I stopped attending Christian men’s conferences over ten years ago. The increasing hype, dopamine rush energy, and teaching left me feeling empty. Unfortunately, things have not improved (Read about a recent debacle at a Missouri men’s event here). During events like this, men frequently hear messages about being male spiritual leaders in their homes. My goal in this blog is to explain why it’s time to end male spiritual leadership as a common teaching in Christian communities.

Men’s conferences grew following the Promise Keepers movement of the early 1990s. If you want to read an excellent resource and analysis of how these events became a significant part of evangelical church culture, check out Jesus and John Wayne but Kristen DuMez. Like DuMez, one of my primary concerns with these events is that they do little to promote significant change or discipleship in a man’s Christian faith. Of course, there are good and often anecdotal life-changing impacts, but the overall result is often veneer only.

Like most, I would often walk away from these events with an energy and a passion for “doing good” or “better.” But getting back home to the family, I would quickly run into the wall of real life. The event’s energy is quickly deflated, and there is little staying power to change anything. My wife and I have often lamented that, similarly, going to church marriage conferences does little to help the couple that leaves the event and is right back to fighting as they get into the car. These weekend events’ high energy and adrenaline have minimal staying power to facilitate lasting change in everyday life. In church language, they are highly “attractional” but short on meaningful discipleship. And as I suggest in this blog, some of the teaching might be counterproductive to what we know makes healthy marriages.

Many of these men hear specific teachings that they need to step up and be the male spiritual leaders in their homes. The message is often received as a call to action. If you have not been engaged or active in your marriage or family, you need to “do something.” If you have been “leading,” you need to do more or do it better. Encouraging men to take charge and be decisive suggests that men have some power and authority in their homes. It is then assumed that this God-endorsed authority and power delivered in the pulpit and supposedly endorsed by scripture should result in a “blessing” of your family’s health. That all sounds good until it does not work that well. In my experience, it often leads to men feeling inadequate and women feeling hurt and disappointed. Ultimately, it just disconnects.

High-energy events do little to help the family or marriage face a “dark night of the soul.” All marriages face moments that rattle our sense of security and faith, and we need to ask if these events and the call for men to be male spiritual leaders, truly prepare men for moments of deep uncertainty. Let me offer you a few examples of dark nights that I have heard far too often in my work with families. (See note at bottom).1

  • Having attended so many church events growing up, the young man is now married but not experiencing the blissful union that he thought he should expect. He thought they “did it right.” He and his bride saved themselves for marriage sexually, but on their honeymoon, they struggled sexually. Sex caused her pain, and he became frustrated. And in his ignorance, he has angrily insisted that they continue to have sex despite the pain. Three months into their marriage, they have already grown distant and hopeless.
  • The 30-something-year-old husband whose wife cannot conceive. They decided to adopt. They could not have predicted the behavioral difficulties and stress of their now five-year-old. There are daily phone calls from the school. It negatively impacts their work, and the comparisons to their friends who seem to have perfectly well-adjusted kids are discouraging. This husband’s wife is now saying she wishes they never adopted this child, and she does not even like this child. This man often fights with his wife over coaching her on her parenting.
  • The 40-year-old’s teenage son was the “ideal child” and always made great grades in school, but he is now failing over half of his high school classes. He is at risk of losing his starting position on the football team, and he has come home to report that his girlfriend is pregnant. This husband harbors anger at his wife for not managing their household well while he was the primary income earner.
  • The man in his 50s has worked for his company for over 25 years and was told he is being let go. There is no severance. He is looking for jobs and running into many dead ends. He finds himself yelling at his wife because she is overspending and cannot follow a simple budget.
  • The retiree whose wife died ten years ago from a terrible cancer and whose children have refused to talk to him. He is lonely and angry and experiences many doubts about his faith over his lifetime. He privately stews that his wife made him out to be the bad guy to their children.

There have been and may continue to be many good things said to men in conferences. However, the examples of the men above illustrate how efforts to “lead” and assert “authority” only disconnect in times of challenge and pain when a connection is needed most. Unfortunately, telling men to stand up and be strong male spiritual leaders in their homes falls short and is often responsible for only more conflict and pain. It’s time to end male spiritual leadership.

Revolutionary Marrige Book

In my book, Revolutionary Marriage, I address the topic of male spiritual leadership. I share that in my practice as a marriage therapist for many couples over the years, this idea has not helped. It has done more harm by destabilizing the marriage unit. I’ll explain the problem in detail, but first, I’ll provide some history.

In the mid to late 1980s, conservative Christian leaders began to dialogue about the changes in American culture and politics specifically related to a rise in feminism, called second-wave feminism. Many in these circles viewed this as a threat. What rose out of these conversations was the idea of complementarian marriage. It is the idea that men and women have specific, scripturally defined roles for marriage. A central tenet of this view was that men are hierarchically in charge of the family and serve as “head” of the wife. They argue scripturally that this “authority” was established before the fall of man because Adam was created first, and Eve was created from Adam. You can read a very important historical document related to this view called the Danvers Statement. You can find it here. What is most important to note is that this idea of male spiritual leadership is a modern idea and little connection to the ancient church.

In Revolutionary Marriage, I suggest that these views are flawed. They ignore the creation story of Genesis 1, in which males and females are created together. And I suggest the story of Eve coming from Adams’s rib has less to do with hierarchy and authority (leadership) and far more to do with unity. A brief Google search can help you find many scholars who have written on these ideas and highlighted the problems with positions like the Danvers Statement. I might suggest Philip B. Payne, Beth Allison Barr, Marg Mowczko, Aimee Byrd, and Kristen DuMez.

When men are encouraged and told that they need to be the male spiritual leaders of their homes, it more often than not creates a power imbalance. Someone is in charge. Someone has to have the final say or deciding vote. Any position of power over another is antithetical to the kingdom Jesus established. Readh Marg Mowczko’s analysis of this idea here. Jesus came to turn all systems of power upside down. Consider the above examples about the “dark nights” many face in their married lives. Every example shows growing anger, resentment, and bitterness over their failed attempts to control or manage the situation and even their wives. All this hurt for wives (feeling misunderstood and belittled) and husbands (feeling like they are failing) sounds a lot like the curse from Genesis 3:16b, “You will long for your husband and will rule over you. (NIRV)” Firing men up with adrenaline and dopamine at a conference and sending them back home “to lead” is ripe for fueling these fires of conflict between spouses. When pastors, teachers, and church leaders teach the idea of male spiritual leadership, they are just endorsing the curse of Genesis 3.

A husband having any power over his wife was a part of the curse and never God’s intended plan. Please understand that many in the complementarian community would say that a husband’s authority is a “benevolent authority.” This is just trying to put a bow on patriarchy, and patriarchy was NEVER part of God’s plan. Adam and Eve were co-rulers according to Genesis 1:28a, “God blessed them. He said to them, “Have children so that there will be many of you. Fill the earth and bring it under your control… (NIRV)” I honestly fear that men struggle with this idea because they have bought the lie that power is what defines them as a man. I love the line from the Barbie movie, “I’m a man with no power, does that make me a woman?” No, no it does not.

Research from the Gottman Institute has consistently shown that men assuming authority places their marriages at risk. John and Julie Gottman developed a concept in their research called, “accepting influence.” It is defined as creating an atmosphere where you intentionally honor your spouse’s request and find a way to say “yes” whenever possible. It requires empathy and vulnerability to consider the needs and desires of your spouse. This has the effect of decreasing emotional intensity and deescalating conflict. The Gottman’s found that 65% of men were likely to choose a response to their wives that was resistant, or argumentative. This would consistently ratchet up the level of conflict.

Male spiritual leadership puts men in a position to escalate conflict because they often assert some decision-making authority. The assertion of authority is often resistant and argumentative to wives. However, the research by the Gottmans confirms Paul’s direction: “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ,” Ephesians 5:21 (NIV). In our examples above, yielding to their wives’ influence might have looked a bit like this:

  • A young husband empathically listens to understand his wife’s pain. He needed to allow her to express her needs so they could mutually find safe, comfortable, and pain-free sexual activities.
  • A husband who validates the difficulties of parenting and finds ways they can work together to address the challenges.
  • A husband who invites his wife to explore the fears, grief, and anxiety about facing a teenage pregnancy. He asks for her perspective on how they might teach their son to be responsive to his girlfriend as she copes with this pregnancy.
  • The jobless husband who becomes less concerned with budgets, and listens to his wife’s fears and concerns about the finances.
  • The retired widower, who considers all the years his wife pleaded for his reconciliation with the children, decides to invite his children’s forgiveness and work towards rebuilding their trust.

Another quote from the Barbie movie fits here: “To be honest, when I found out the patriarchy wasn’t about horses, I lost interest anyways.” Christian husbands need to lose interest in the dopamine-high motivational speaker experiences of men’s conferences. They need to lose interest in being male spiritual leaders and become determined to accept their wives’ influence. We must find ways to engage with our wives empathically, collaboratively, and, most importantly, sacrificially. This is the type of love and service Jesus calls us to in our vocation of marriage.

  1. Please note that none of the examples given are of actual clients that I have worked with as a therapist. These are general descriptions of circumstances that I have heard in various forms over the years and in no way are meant to represent real persons ↩︎

A Brief Addendum

The debate over this issue is current and continues. On March 18 Christianity Today published and article by pastor and scholar, GORDON P. HUGENBERGER, titled “Complementarian at Home, Egalitarian at Church? Paul would Approve.”

I agree with Beth Felker Jones analysis of this article. Hugenberger does numerous gymnastics to weave an exegetical narrative of various NT verses in an attempt to bring some unity to the warring camps. The problem is he never addresses the problem of power brought by patriarchy and he attempts to preserve the slightest sliver of power for men in the home. Jesus abolished the use of power for all of his followers. This includes the use of power by husbands over wives.

I highly recommend Beth Felker Jones’s overarching discussion of gender and power throughout the Bible. It is a beautiful analysis.

30 Day Gratitude Journal

Gratitude is an essential ingredient for personal mental health and relational stability. This month, Dr. DeYoung wants to offer you a 30-day prompt for gratitude in your marriage. Each prompt is meant to generate a thought or feeling of gratitude. Don’t be too alarmed by the word “Journal” because the writing expectations are minimal. Each day of this activity, you would not be required to write more than one or two sentences. In fact, each prompt is written in a way that you will just need to complete the thought. If you do this journal as a couple, you can discuss them at the end of each week or the end of the month. Directly below you can click to downlad a PDF of the Gratitude Journal and print for easy access.


Day One

There are many qualities that I love or appreciate about my partner. When I think of one of those qualities I am most grateful for it is…

Day Two

There are many qualities that I love or appreciate about my partner. If I were to list a second quality that I am thankful for, it is…

Day Three

Reflecting on the last month, think of a time your partner gave you emotional support. I am grateful for my partner’s emotional support when I was dealing with…

Day Four

You have probably had some trips or vacations with your partner. One memory from our trips together that I am grateful for is…

Day Five

Change happens in marriages. The change can be good. One change that your partner has made is…

Day Six

Change happens in marriages. The change can be good. Another change that your partner has made is…

Day Seven

Conflict happens in marriages. Can you name a quality your partner has that helps you resolve conflicts? The quality you are thankful for is…

Day Eight

Conflict happens in marriages. Can you think of a recent conflict? What is one thing your partner did in that conflict that was helpful…?

Day Nine

Name one thing that you most admire about your partner…

Day Ten

Name the one favorite way your partner expresses love for you…

Day Eleven

Write down one of your dreams that you are most grateful to share with your partner…

Day Twelve

Write down another dream that you are most grateful to share with your partner…

Day Thirteen

Reflect back on your wedding day. What is one memory from that day that you are most thankful for…

Day Fourteen

Reflect back on your first date. What is one memory from that day that is most special…

Day Fifteen

If you are parenting together, what is one quality that your partner displays as a parent that you value…?
If you are not a parent, what quality do you imagine in your partner that would make them a good parent…?

Day Sixteen

What is one thing your partner did this last week that you are thankful for…?

Day Seventeen

What is one thing you and your spouse have accomplished that you feel proud of…?

Day Eighteen

What is another thing you and your spouse accomplished that you feel proud of…?

Day Nineteen

What is one value that you share…?

Day Twenty

What is a second value that you share…?

Day Twenty-one

Your partner has helped you grow and change. What is one change your partner has helped you make…?

Day Twenty-two

What is a second change your partner has helped you make…?

Day Twenty-three

What is one part of your sexual intimacy that you are thankful for…?

Day Twenty-four

Think of the last time you laughed really hard with your partner. What is your memory of this event…?

Day Twenty-five

What is the most attractive characteristic of your partner…?

Day Twenty-six

Do you have a favorite song, movie, TV show? Why are you thankful to share this with your partner…?

Day Twenty-seven

Sitting quietly, what is the first positive thing about your partner that comes to mind…?

Day Twenty-eight

When you have been married 50 years what is one thing you hope to still appreciate about your partner…?

Day Twenty-nine

Name the one thing that makes you want to come home to your partner every day…?

Day Thirty

Reflect over the past 29 days. What is the most surprising/exciting thing from this gratitude list that you are glad to have discovered…?

Breath – The Pause for Connection

In marriage therapy work, one of the listening and connection skills we practice is sharing our feelings/experiences and validating our partner’s experiences. This is a fundamental building block of relationships, and it can lead to significant communication complications when it breaks down. Let me give you some examples of how it can break down. 

Husband (H): I am upset and angry that you spent so much time on the phone with your mother when we had plans to go out with friends. It made us late. I hate being late. I guess you care about your mother more than me. 

Wife (W): I hear that you are angry. You just don’t get it. My mom needed me. You have never liked her anyway. 

H: Now you are just turning this on me. Always blaming me and never apologizing. 

W: I might try to apologize if you were nicer to my mother and me. Don’t you remember how you treated her last Christmas?

(The conflict escalates here as the couple no longer discusses the original problem). 


Here is a second example.

Wife (W): I felt alone and rejected last Tuesday when you got home so late. I had no idea that you planned to watch the game with friends. I had supper ready for us, and honestly, I was planning to watch the game with you after we ate. 

Husband (H): I can see being lonely. But what do you mean rejected? I am home with you every night. I have not been out with friends for over two months. It was Steve’s birthday. Maybe I should have texted you to remind you, but I told you about these plans on Sunday. It makes me angry that you are accusing me of rejecting you.

W: You never told me about these plans on Sunday. I was out with the kids most of the day, so we were never really together on Sunday. You think you communicate, but you don’t. 

H: You never listen to me. We were standing right there in the kitchen. You even told me to have a good time. Honestly, your accusations make me not want to spend any time with you because I can never get it right. 

(You can also imagine how this little exchange only gets worse). 


I want to present a model for how to have these conversations calmly, improve your connections, and reduce the intensity of conflict. In the example above, the couples do an excellent job of starting with sharing their feelings. These are good “I” statements. And the response of their spouses begins well. You might even say they were validating because they at least “parroted” back what their partner said. “I can see being lonely,” or “I hear that you are angry.” 

But each partner quickly switches into a defensive mode of blaming or playing the victim. These words of accusation and victimhood undo any sense of validation between the couple, and it severs their connections. At this point, it becomes a tit-for-tat explosion. 

Validation requires two components:

  1. Make sure your partner feels heard. Use your own words.
  2. Taking ownership of the problem or offense. Admit what you did that caused the offense. 

Let me show you a better validation from each of the examples above. In the first example, it could have sounded like this:

W: I know it made you mad for me to spend so much time on the phone with my mom. Being late has never been your favorite thing and it probably made you embarrassed that all our friends were there waiting on us when we arrived. (The wife has been on the phone for a long time, and she summarizes her partner’s feelings in her own words.)

In the second example, the husband could have started here:

H: I regret that you were lonely and even felt unimportant when I didn’t come home. I want to spend time together, too. I thought I had told you it was Steve’s birthday, but somehow, I failed to make sure you knew about these plans. It might have helped for me to text you during the day to make sure we were on the same page.  (Again, he used his own words but also offers a bit of what he wished he had done differently).

So these modifications are suitable, but often, in any problem, there are two perspectives. The partner who offers validation can end up asking in their mind, “Well, what about me? When does my partner understand me?” 

This is where the often missed step of “Taking a Breath” is omitted. If you look back to the original examples, the spouse who got defensive was using their failed validation as an attempt to present their viewpoint/feelings/perspective. This is a “cart before the horse” scenario. Breathing is the secret to reaching a point where both partners are heard. 

Here is how it works. Imagine that each partner in the examples above gives the improved “edited” validations I offered. After saying those validations, they want to get confirmation from their partner that they feel understood. They might say something like, “Yes, thank you.” Or “I appreciate your understanding.” There might be some nonverbal confirmation of a smile or relaxing sigh. If you are unsure if your partner feels you “get it,” you can always ask, “Do you think I understand?” If you receive confirmation, you can take a breath and offer your feelings/perspective.

Feelings – Breath Cycle

So, let’s rework the above conversations with the Validation-Breathe cycle and see how they improve and how both partners feel heard and respected. 


Example 1

Husband (H): I am upset and angry that you spent so much time on the phone with your mother when we had plans to go out with friends. It made us late. I hate being late. I guess you care about your mother more than me. (This last statement is a criticism and not appropriate. But if the spouse does the validation, it will help settle any anger).

Wife (W): I know it made you mad for me to spend so much time on the phone with my mom. Being late has never been your favorite thing and it probably made you embarrassed that all our friends were there waiting on us when we arrived. (The wife owns being on the phone for so long, and she summarizes her partner’s feelings in her own words).

H: You are right; I was embarrassed. Thank you for understanding.

W: BREATHE

W: I felt trapped that night. I knew we needed to be leaving, but my mom was really struggling with a serious problem. I know my mom is difficult, and I don’t even like dealing with her all the time, but she is my mom, and I am the only support she has right now. 

H: Trapped. Like you were feeling pressure from both me and your mom? 

W: Yes.

H: I can see that. I am not sure how we could have solved that situation better, but from now on I can try to be more understanding of how hard it might be to have to be the only source of support for you mom.

W: Thank you. 


Example 2

Wife (W): Last Tuesday, I felt alone and rejected when you got home so late. I had no idea that you planned to go watch the game with friends. I had supper ready for us, and honestly, I was making plans to watch the game with you after we ate. 

H: I regret that you were lonely and even felt unimportant when I didn’t come home. I want to spend time together, too. I thought I had told you that it was Steve’s birthday, but somehow, I failed to make sure you knew about these plans. It might have helped for me to text you during the day to make sure we were on the same page.

H: (a bit unsure of what his wife is feeling) Do you think I understand what you are trying to say?

W: Yes. I am sorry. I appreciate you hearing me. 

H: BREATHE

H: I was a bit confused today when you brought this up since I thought I had communicated with you. Again, I may have not give you the message clearly. I appreciate that you wanted to spend time together because I want the same thing. Can we try again and find a time to schedule?

W: I agree we somehow missed each other in communicating plans. Can we just plan for this next game night to be our time to watch the game together?

H: Yes, I cannot wait. 

Pausing and taking a breath are a couple of small ways to enhance validation and connection in your marriage. Those “little things” create a space of safety between the two of you. Pause and breathe, slow down the process, and keep you from rushing into sharing your feelings/experiences. Intimacy requires both partners to feel understood. Love chooses not to rush the process – “It [Love] does not insist on its own way.” (I Corinthians 13:5, NRSV) 

Being a Gift for Your Spouse

Gifts are the language of the holiday season. Meaningful gifts are often unexpected, meet a particular need, and communicate a message of value or importance. We love giving and receiving gifts because they are founded on love and sacrifice. The Christmas season celebrates God, offering himself as a gift in the incarnated Christ. In this gift-giving time, I am reminded of the marital union being bonded through the giving of self. I want to explore that idea in this blog and suggest ways you can be a meaningful gift for your spouse.

Marriage takes hard work. Many modern myths attempt to convince us that if we find the “right one,” marriage should work. But these myths make us lazy about the real work of marriage. Bono, the lead singer of U2, published a memoir titled Surrender in 2022. He reflects on his 41-year marriage to his high school sweetheart, Ali. 

“I’m sure that oneness is the direction of travel for all great loves, but I also accept that it does not happen on cue, at a ceremony, for example, like a wedding. It can happen in all kinds of different circumstances in the middle of the night or the middle of the day, when two lovers decide they want to be part of each other’s lives more than they desire their own independence, and in continuum they pledge their lives to each other…The universe may marvel at such perfectly imperfect love and the stars light your way, but back on earth, if you heed the statistics, it’s as if the world stands in the way of love. I’m sure the essence of romance is defiance, and what is more defiant than two young hearts, twenty-two and twenty-one, deciding to take on the odds, to challenge the dull-thud facts around an ancient ceremony in a modern world…Ali and I were moving in together, and now we were beginning to move together. On paper our marriage started that honeymoon week, but in truth it didn’t feel like that. We’d honored each other, made sacred vows, but the biggest moments in life may not be those we notice at the time. No fireworks, no explosions, no falling even more deeply in love now that we had time together. We were the playwrights and the play, the actors and the critics. Excited and nervous to begin our adventure together. No idea where we’d be in ten years. Twenty. Thirty. I raise you again. Forty years. We’ll eventually figure out what was going on in that moment.Rather than falling in love, we were climbing up toward it. We still are.”

In the memoir, each chapter is represented by one song selected from the U2 library. In this chapter about his wedding and marriage to Ali, the song chosen is “Two Hearts Beat as One.” In this song, Bono sings the lyric, “I said don’t stop the dance, maybe this is our last chance.” All marriages face “last chance” moments; survival depends on each partner staying in the dance, giving and receiving. In those moments, the power of “oneness” can save us if we do the work. The work requires communion between partners where each sacrifices to give themselves as a gift to the other consistently. 

All of this reminds me of Pope John Paul’s words in his book, “A Theology of the Body,” in which he explores the marital union. He conducts a rich examination of the Genesis creation accounts of Adam and Eve. He reminds us of the moments when God parades all the animals of creation in front of Adam to explore whether one of them might be a suitable partner. Of course, none suffice, not even the dog. God had, through love, given the gift of life to Adam, and the Pope asks a poignant question as Adam stands alone in his humanity. “…we must ask ourselves whether this first “man” in his original solitude, “lived” the world truly as a gift, with an attitude that conforms to the actual condition of someone who has received a gift…?”

There has to be an “other” to exchange the gift with. This is what God meant when he said it is “not good for the human to be alone. (Gen 2:18)” Humans need relational companionship to realize their makeup as image bearers of God fully. As Pope John Paul says, “He [Adam] realizes it only by existing ‘With someone’—and put even more deeply and completely, by existing ‘for someone.’” It is through this communion with someone that we can experience the reciprocal giving of self as a gift to another. It is at the heart of God’s identity and was fully realized in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. God wants to live in reciprocal communion with each of us, and he created us to do the same with each other. 

The heart of the communion in marriage is being a gift to your spouse. You gave yourself to each other. But this was not a one-time event. It is an ongoing process of giving yourself continually, consistently. I want to tell you about three ways you can offer yourself as a gift to your spouse. You can give Unexpectedly, Meet their Need, and Communicate their Value.

Unexpected

Most everyone loves a surprise gift. Though I recommend the occasional unexpected gift for your spouse, being an unexpected “gift” for your spouse is much deeper and will require more work. 

The work involves your ongoing decision to offer unearned grace and forgiveness. I speak about this in the chapter called “Safe Marriage” in my book. Marriage is to be a safe place when couples consistently forgive. Forgiveness is the decision not to make your spouse pay for the injuries they cause. This makes marriage safe because it clears the battleground of retaliation. Many of us know when our choices hurt our partner. As humans, we expect punishment or retribution. But the unexpected response of pardon reconciles and restores. 

If you are still thinking that flowers, candy, or a dinner out at the right time is the formula for providing an unexpected gift, then you are missing out. These things are nice, but your partner needs more. They need your unexpected gift of grace. In those moments of peace, restoration, and intimacy explode. 

Meet a Need

There have always been jokes about the husband who gets their wife a vacuum cleaner or some other appliance for their birthday or Christmas. It is a joke because, though the gift meets a need, it falls short of meeting a deeper emotional need for connection and understanding. Intimacy is rarely practical. 

What does your spouse need right now? Just think about that. What have you heard them say that is on their heart or they are concerned about? If you could do one thing for them right now, what would help them? If you can answer that question clearly, then stop reading and go do what came to mind. Serve your partner and meet their need. 

If nothing is coming to mind, then you should listen and engage with them a bit more. In my chapter, “Stable Marriage,” I share a concept called “I am Present.” This is the willful act of being available, listening, and understanding my spouse through engagement and empathy. We are a gift for our spouse when we have taken the time to listen and truly hear their needs. Meeting those needs consistently builds stability in your marriage. It is those sacrifices of service (not your pocketbook) that ultimately strengthen your bond.

Communicate Value

Expensive gifts are nice. At their heart, they give a message of value to the recipient. Car companies with commercials of cars with bows on top are abundant in the holiday season. Many car companies would love to sell you a car in December to help their year-end bottom line and help you have a momentary romantic vision of the bow on the car in the snow-covered driveway (though the snow is unlikely in Texas, where I live). 

But again, giving your spouse an expensive gift is not the best way to communicate their true value. The best way to be a gift to your spouse is to see their value and share that value in the ways you speak to them, build them up, encourage and support them. Your words are powerful, and they have the very power of life for your spouse. I share thoughts about this idea in my chapter, “Successful Marriage.” Your marriage has the opportunity to participate in the life-giving resurrection work of God’s kingdom. This is done in the gift of your words to your spouse. 

When you speak kindness, encouragement, or value to your spouse, they are made alive. This world and the life we must live in is full of discouragement and death. Your marriage can be a restorative space. You are a gift when you speak healing to your partner’s hurts. You are a gift when you speak the truth about your spouse’s character. You are a gift when you encourage and support them to use their gift and talents.

These are the ways to be a gift. Unexpected grace, Meeting Needs, and Communicating Value. As you unwrap presents this holiday season, you can offer yourself as a gift in these ways. I pray God blesses your efforts. 

Marriage Therapy Outcomes

Dr. DeYoung did an analysis of all his work with couples for the past 10 years. It includes work with over 250 couples and just under 4000 hours of therapy with couples in that time. 

Couples who commit to therapy beyond three meetings with Dr. DeYoung have an 88% success rate for therapy. On average those couples participated in 18 hours of therapy. 

A common reason for marriage therapy is affairs. Dr. DeYoung has worked with numerous couples attempting to overcome the challenges of betrayal from affairs. 78% of couples that have worked with Dr. DeYoung accomplish their therapy goals. This subset of couples participated in 21 hours of therapy on average. 

Couples can also be affected by problems from substance abuse. Dr. DeYoung has worked with numerous couples attempting to cope with problems caused by substance use. 74% of couples that have worked with Dr. DeYoung and also been dealing with substance abuse accomplish their therapy goals. 

This subset of couples participated in 21 hours of therapy on average. ​

Therapy in Bare Feet

We have developed a significant comfort level with telehealth options for our medical and mental health care. My private practice has shifted from providing in-home therapy to meeting with clients solely via encrypted and secure video. Following the pandemic, I found this method highly effective, convenient, safe, and practical for couples and families. 

Doing so much by video has changed many things. And one of those things is what we wear while conducting business by video. Since we only see each other from the chest up, this has lent itself to greater freedom in clothing options from the waist down. This may have created some rather embarrassing moments for some, but I can guarantee that I have consistently maintained a must-be-wearing “jeans” policy for all therapy sessions. But I do have a confession. I am barefoot for nearly 100% of therapy sessions. I even have a small heater for my feet in winter because cold toes can significantly distract me. 

Walking barefoot has many benefits. So many nerve endings in the bottom of the foot are stimulated when freed from shoes. Before you read any further, go outside and stand in the grass while you finish this blog. Imagine walking on the beach, splashing in the water, and enjoying the sand between your toes. When I walk outside to get the mail, my feet on the grass or pavement causes feelings to move up my entire body. If you are in the grass, notice that now. Those nerve endings activate and cause all manner of emotions. New sensations move from the bottom of our feet through our entire body. Feeling new phenomena in the grass, sand, or concrete often brings unique, heightened awareness. We might be more careful with our steps or slow down and experience the sensations deeply. The effect of the new feelings and heightened awareness is that we are more effectively attuned to our environment.

Another benefit to walking barefoot is loosening constraints. Taking your shoes off after a long day can feel so freeing. There is a bit of tension relief. Having your feet free can even be soothing. There is freedom in being barefoot. Now, I am confident the ladies understand this more than we guys do. You ladies have shoes that press and contort your feet in all manner of uncomfortable ways. We do many things for style and having the right image. We often want to “put the best foot forward” (sorry, I couldn’t help it). But all this foot dressing is also limiting. Something we need freedom from. Being barefoot frees us from the superficial coverings that bind and create discomfort.   

I never set out to do therapy in bare feet intentionally. The context of using a home office has made the choice a natural one. And the experience of doing therapy in bare feet has helped connect me with some important values for treatment. 

Heightened awareness of self and our other relationships is necessary for change in therapy. We have to learn to slow down and listen more. We tune into our feelings and reactions to understand their source better. Just as walking barefoot helps us feel new feelings and possibly feel them more deeply, participating in therapy can do the same. Feeling deep and connecting with our inside selves is a part of the therapeutic process. We call this process insight or gaining self-awareness. It requires us to observe, reflect, and draw inferences about our experiences, feelings, and emotions. When working with a couple, individual, or family, I find success in peeling past immediate problem-solving solutions and helping make insightful connections to our inner experiences and feelings. This process is not always comfortable, and it can even be painful. It is like stepping on an unexpected sharp stone when walking through the yard (or a Lego in a dark house). But it is often in these new spaces of awareness we can see, understand, and experience our problems in a way that can facilitate change. 

Just like removing our shoes loosens constraints, we must do similar things in therapy. We must push our boundaries, nudge outside our comfort zones, and challenge our conventional thinking. When we experience problems in life, they are often supported by assumptions, beliefs, and values that can bind us. We may feel compelled to live behind a mask or project a particular identity.  Change is at the center of therapy. Change means many things, including seeing, thinking, feeling, and behaving differently. To experience change, we have to get unstuck; successful therapy helps us to do that. Hopefully, working together in therapy creates a type of freedom. In this space, we can test, challenge, and change those constraints in our lives that have us trapped or stuck.

Therapy in bare feet is a good idea. I encourage you to do the same. Take your shoes off and walk in the grass. Feel new things. Feel them more deeply. Find the freedom to explore new feelings, test your assumptions, and challenge yourself to growth and change. Show your therapist your bare feet on the screen or take your shoes off in their office. Tell them you want to do therapy in your bare feet. I don’t think they will mind.

Listening

Listening is an essential skill in marriage, but it is also challenging. When we listen well to our spouse, we enhance the connection and overall well-being of the marriage. Unfortunately, we will likely need help with some bad habits in our listening. I want to identify six bad habits and offer you some antidotes to the bad habits.

Interrupting
This habit is self-explanatory. We cut off the statement or thought of our partner to share our thoughts or feelings. This makes our partner feel we don’t care what they say. We place more importance on our position.

Story-Topping
Story-topping is the choice to connect what your partner is saying with something about you. It often comes with the message that what you have experienced or think is more important than what your spouse says. It can create a one-up environment where you compete for importance.

Bright-Siding
When you are “bright-side,” you are trying to get your partner to move off the negative and focus on the good parts of their story. You might think this optimism is encouraging. But the truth is it can be invalidating of your spouse. It can make them feel like they are exaggerating their negative response and their feelings are unimportant.

Being Right
You can quickly escalate conflict when you must point out your position on a problem. This is a confrontation with what your spouse is saying and implies there is one correct position or perspective.

Being All-Knowing
The popular term for this tactic is “mansplaining.” This attitude of having an answer for everything can be off-putting. It can make a spouse feel like you think they are stupid or incapable.

Advice-Giving
Giving advice is another way to invalidate your partner. This behavior wraps up being right and all-knowing into one. It is an almost guaranteed way to create conflict. I think it is best to offer advice when directly asked.

Remedies for lousy listening habits

Patience
Listening cannot be done with speed. It takes time. The agenda needs to be set by your partner and their story. When you interrupt, you often rush a process that takes time. Before you respond or interrupt what your partner is saying – pause and take a breath. Could you slow the process down?

Prioritize your Partner
When your partner shares something with you, whether small or very significant, they are the most critical thing. They are your priority. Connecting their story to something about yourself elevates you when they should be the focus.  Don’t be Penelope from SNL.

Presence over positivity
This is probably the biggest struggle for someone like myself who sees the world in a “glass half-full” way. What our partners need is our presence. They need us to be with them and validate their feelings and concerns rather than just trying to put a positive spin on the situation. Sometimes, our response is unnecessary; they need us to say I am here and will stay with you.

Permit their perspective
Listening to our spouse often involves discussing a problem or potential conflict. We need to permit their perspective rather than engaging in a point-counterpoint debate. This usually means we must take ownership of our contribution to the problem.  Once we have validated their experience and taken ownership, we can share our perspective on the problem more successfully.

Practice Humility
Whether we are “mansplaining” or need an ego boost by trying to show how much we know, these behaviors are unnecessary in marriage. We should all know that we don’t “know it all.” And even if we are very knowledgeable about a topic, we need to have the humility to recognize that sharing our supposed wisdom negates the benefits of our spouse feeling heard.

Promote their needs
The most important result of good listening must be meeting our partner’s needs. Sometimes, they will directly state their needs, but we might have to infer their need by listening well. We should always check and promote whatever our spouse needs. Giving advice does not meet their need. It is rather dismissive and can make a person feel as if you are blowing them off. When our spouse is hurting, they don’t need advice. Your spouse needs your ear, understanding, and intentional actions to meet their needs in the moment.

How Comparison Damages Marriage

The digital information age has its upsides, but like most anything, it creates some problems. We are constantly bombarded with information. This comes through our televisions, streaming services, social media, email inboxes, etc. Imagine 100 years ago, before television, when your sources of information were limited to the newspaper and the stories from your neighbors, family, or friends. Go even further back another 100 years. You may be working the family farm, and your information is limited to those in your household, the occasional letter/telegram, or a visit from a friend or family member.

The rapid rise of the flow of information has bombarded us with details, insights, facts, figures, and probably too much misinformation. It becomes hard to sort and retain the information and separate truth from fiction.

This information onslaught impacts our marriages. We are offered any number of blogs (this being one), articles, and videos to help. There is no limit to the tabloid offerings to tell us the latest about celebrity and royal marriages. Our social media feeds let us know what our family, friends, and acquaintances are doing in their marital bliss (or blues). All this data on all these marriages can lead us into the dangerous territory of comparison.

  • Why do they get to go to the Bahamas?
  • How did their kid make the varsity team?
  • At least we are not struggling, fighting, or having their problems.
  • One expert gives this advice, while another shares the exact opposite opinion. Which one is right?

You get the idea. Whether we say these comparisons out loud or speak them in our minds, the large amounts of data we have about others opens this door too quickly. Can you imagine 200 years ago knowing nothing about the royals or your 500 friends on Facebook? All you would have known is those in your immediate circle. In terms of marriage, you may have had a significant awareness of the goings on in your marriage and one to two other marriages. This would have severely limited the data pool for comparison.

So what is it about the comparison to other marriages that would damage my own? It erodes commitment and can lead to broken trust.

Bluma Zeigarnik was a young psychologist in 1922. One day she was eating in a Vienna cafe when she observed an interesting phenomenon. Wait staff had excellent memory recall for the orders of various tables they served. Still, once the orders to any table were fulfilled, they could no longer accurately recall the information about the orders. These observations and future studies led to the concept named after her – Zeigarnik Effect. It is that we have better recall for uncompleted tasks/events than those tasks/events that we have finished or processed. Our memory recall can be up to 90% higher for unfinished business.
When you are overloaded with too much information or tidbits of information you cannot process, you tend to hold onto those things. And Dr. Gottman, in his research with couples, found it was the negative tidbits that we kept in the front of our minds. This is how comparison erodes the connections and commitments in your marriage.

Like all marriages, yours deals with conflicts and disconnections. And if no consistent repair is made to those ruptures, you are open to the impacts of comparison. In all the flow of information in your world, you start to notice what you don’t have, how your marriage feels distant and disappointing compared to others. You wish you had their trips, their money, their happiness. You have no space to process these feelings of discontent or grief properly. The people you use for comparison are not readily available to process, and talking to them about these feelings would be inappropriate. Isolation and disconnection increase, and the list of irritations and hurts in the marriage grows. This only makes the gap between the reality of the marriage and the greener grass outside the marriage grow. At this point, the real danger exists in considering alternatives outside the marriage.

  • Maybe my spouse is not my “true love.”
  • I could be happier on my own.
  • My friend/coworker cares about me more than my spouse.
  • I feel more attracted to my neighbor than my spouse.

The list could go on, but if we start to act on any of these thoughts, we open the door to broken trust in the marriage. The foundations of commitment become shaky, and our choices to act cut deep wounds of betrayal. This all starts with comparison.

The solution to comparison is proactive prevention. All marriages deal with injuries and disconnections, but healthy couples consistently repair those hurts. The diligent effort to minimize the impacts of minor injuries offers a protective safe space to process hurts before the dangers of comparison can enter the marriage. These preventative efforts help maintain a strong commitment and trust in the union. So as information enters our world that could be used for comparison, it can be easily dismissed or processed with our spouse because there is confidence and safety in the marriage. Here are a few ideas to help consistently repair and avoid the dangers of comparison.​

  1. Cherish your partner – It is essential to validate, compliment, and honor the best parts of your spouse. Though it can be easy to fall into noticing and remembering the things that annoy you, you must be consistently focused on what you value. Share those compliments. There needs to be a 5 to 1 ratio of compliments to complaints in your marriage. We can all do better in this area. 
  2. Choose gratitude – Make a list of things to be thankful for each day in your marriage. Share at least one thing you are grateful for daily with your spouse.
  3. Listen with empathy and understanding – When your spouse shares strong feelings or complaints, it can often be upsetting and escalating. Maintain a space of calm to truly hear your spouse and choose to validate their experience and feelings before offering any advice or suggestions. Haim Ginott, a psychologist, once said, “…advice is always more effective when words of understanding precede words of advice.” And often, words of advice are unnecessary. 
  4. Limit your intake of information – The information age is here to stay. But we can set boundaries on media and technology to limit the flow of information into our minds. 

These are a few strategies to help avoid the dangers of comparison and hopefully protect the essential ingredients of commitment and trust in your marriage.

Forgiveness in a Flash

My work with couples involves frequent discussions of forgiveness. Forgiveness is the “decision not to make the offender pay for the offense.” It is a decision made in a moment but lived out over time by treating the offender as having no debt. There are volumes of books written on this topic, and this little blog cannot address all the facets of this challenging choice. But I want to focus on a little moment in the forgiveness process. I want to look at the initial moment of the decision. I want to zoom in microscopically on the brief microseconds in which the decision is made.

There are a few assumptions I am making when writing about this process.

  1. There are two types of forgiveness: one where reconciliation is impossible and one where we work toward reconciliation. Reconciliation is the restoration of the relationship and the granting of mutual trust. When this cannot happen, the decision to forgive is personal and only for the benefit of the person experiencing the injury. Therefore, we will focus on scenarios where reconciliation is the goal, which can only occur where…
  2. The offender has taken complete responsibility for the offense. We cannot offer trust where the offender has not accepted ownership for the injury or betrayal.
  3. Both parties commit to making sacrifices to make the relationship work and function in new ways—protecting the relationship from future injury. 

Now I want to zoom into the brief microsecond time in which the injured person decides to forgive and move into the stages of reconnection and reconciliation. It is a moment of birth and new life being given to something approaching death.

I want to use a relatively minor injury as an example. I use this example because it occurs in most relationships. So we can all easily understand, I am also using gender-neutral language in the model so we don’t get distracted by our gender biases.

The forgotten commitment.
The weekend is approaching, and this married couple is discussing their schedules and expectations for the weekend on a Thursday evening. Unfortunately, this Saturday is not looking to be very restful for either of them. One agrees to take the children to their soccer games in the morning, while the other plans to run shopping errands after mowing the grass early. One of the kiddos has a friend’s birthday party that afternoon while the other younger child needs to nap. The parent who agreed to stay home needed the parent to pick up an essential gift for their evening plans. This spouse  (staying home) was responsible for organizing the retirement gift for their boss, who was retiring after 20 years. The gift was ready for pickup this Saturday, and the partner out at the party agreed to pick up the gift. As the couple was getting ready to leave for the retirement party that evening, they both realized the gift pickup had been forgotten. A massive argument ensued.
“You are always forgetting…you never seem to care about what is important to me.”
“You never reminded me…I never wanted to go to this stupid party because I hate your boss and coworkers.”
Feelings of hurt and betrayal lingered through the night and into the next day.

Imagine being a fly on the wall as this couple attempts to process the argument from the night before. In an ideal world, the hurt spouse would share their feelings and experiences. The offending spouse would validate and take ownership of the injury and offer a corrective action plan for future events. But these discussions could be better, and I want us to recognize that it is most likely related to what happens in a fraction of a second decision. In those twinkling moments, we need to decide–what will we do with POWER?

In the case of our story above, the spouse whose important gift was forgotten has gained the leverage of power. Their partner needed to remember. This created a debt that needed to be repaid. Obligations create power differences. This spouse holds power over their partner and now must decide what to do. There are many ways to make the perpetrator pay–Rejection, criticism, shaming, reminding them of this, and past failures. The list could go on. But the decision in the blink of an eye is whether to sentence the offender or surrender the right. Forgiveness is a surrender that takes the tension out of the room. Power becomes peace.

In my book, Revolutionary Marriage, I share how experiencing moments of forgiveness is like staring into the vastness of eternity. Living in the burdens of this world and time constraints, we often feel pressured. There is tension. Forgiveness releases these weights for even a moment, and we can experience the breath of an eternal, truly free reality. There is no freedom when power is applied. Obligations pile on top of each other, and we keep score.

So when the offended spouse says, “I forgive you. It is all right that you forgot, and we will solve this problem.” They sacrifice their power, offering freedom to their partner. Freedom breeds new life.

But what does the offender do with that freedom? They also have a decision to make in a flash. Do they use their new life to usurp power and continue to take advantage? Should the perpetrator use this gift to their advantage? Maybe they feel entitled, “You need to forgive me because of all the things you have done recently.” Perhaps they feel defensive, “You need to forgive me because you are always making too big a deal of things.” Freedom creates the opportunity to have power over others. But just like their offended partner, they must sacrifice their power. They must submit.

So the offender says, “I am thankful for your forgiveness. You are my priority, and I should not have forgotten. Next time you need me to remember, I will write myself a reminder to help ensure I don’t forget.”

By abandoning power, both partners take a significant risk. The offended spouse risks future injury. Forgiveness loosens the chains of control and contempt, and by offering freedom, their partner may hurt or fail them again—the perpetrator of the injury risks failing in the future. Through submission, they make themselves accountable for change.

It is in freedom and change that new life is born. In a flash of forgiveness, a breath of life-sustaining air is given to the marriage.

Postscript — This reminds us of our assumptions earlier in this blog post. This risk of forgiveness and submission only works in the context of a marriage where there is a commitment by both partners to maintain trust and reconcile their commitments to each other. There have to have been patterns of reciprocal sacrifice. Suppose there is long-standing contempt, threats of divorce, substance abuse, violence, ongoing affairs, and any other significant betrayal. In that case, getting those addressed in a safe therapeutic environment is essential. Seek counsel with a qualified mental health professional. Allow the hard work in that context to create fertile soil for healthier practices like the one described above.

Blossoming New Life Into Your Marriage

April is spring and more importantly it is the season of Easter. This is the time we celebrate new life and the new life given through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. We see grass, plants, and trees blossoming as they waken from their sleep. And as part of this season of resurrection, I want to share some connections with marriage. 

One of the most “revolutionary” ideas in my book, Revolutionary Marriage, was the idea that resurrection is part of marriage. 

Marriages unfortunately experience death. Not only do partners die, we grow apart. We injure each other and even kill the marriage through divorce. 

But I suggested a primary goal for marriage was to bring new life – resurrection. The most obvious way this occurs is through conception and childbirth. But spouses also bring new life to each other by our actions and how we live together. In this blog I am wanting to identify some specific ways you can bring resurrected new life to your spouse. 

In my book I wrote the following: 
I have often struggled with those marriage retreat weekends that seem to offer quick fixes for marriages. Their recommended solutions present often illusory experiences that offer emotional highs but don’t resolve the underlying disconnection and relationship decay. They too often feed the myth that excitement and joy are signposts of a successful and vibrant marriage. For example, most retreats suggest the importance of regular date nights. I support that idea, but too often they are superficial acts that cover over a lack of grace and goodwill in the marriage. Date nights are nice, but the small and ordinary acts of grace will keep love alive.
The veneer of financial success, great vacations, and well-behaved children can be very thin. It does not help the husband and wife who are celebrating their 25th anniversary, but haven’t slept in the same room for 10 years. Wives promote the success of their children, but secretly resent their husband and his work. Husbands earn sales awards and build huge retirement funds, while having no desire to share retirement years with their wives.

Those examples are marriages where the interior of the relationship is rotten and dying. Our goal in marriage needs to develop a rich, fertile and vibrant interior of the relationship. It is from that space each partner can grow and flourish. 

Today I want to recommend four ways to bring new life into your marriage and your spouse. 

  • Speak words of life.

I address this topic in Revolutionary Marriage. The wisdom of Proverbs tells us that “the tongue can bring life or death”, Proverbs 18:21. Or in Proverbs 15:4a, “The words of the godly are a life giving fountain.” Your words either brings life to your spouse or in the worst of circumstances your can speak death. Our words are powerful and we should be careful with them. Above all we should avoid criticism. Let’s spend far less time correcting each other pointing out what we did wrong. We should validate. We should compliment, and speak words of admiration to our spouse. We need to express our gratitude for our spouse’s gifts (skills). Our spoken thankfulness is like watering the garden of our spouses spirit. 

  • Listen in ways that makes your spouse feel understood.

Listening empathically is a core ingredient of intimacy and connection in relationships. From a mechanical standpoint this means being able to parrot or repeat what our spouse says. This is a good start but it will never be enough. Listening must be a matter of our heart where we give ourselves over to hearing what our partner is saying. It means putting aside your own personal agenda. It means hearing and accepting your spouse’s feelings even if you don’t agree. It means asking them questions so you can expand your understanding. You should have a heart of curiosity. It means hearing what is not being said and reading between the lines. It means connecting with something in your own experience that shows you can identify with what they are describing. There are so many tools and ideas for being a more empathic listener. Google “empathic listening” and find a few articles. They will all be of help. This is the fertilizer that sustains healthy growth.

  • Serve them in small sacrifices.

We want to do the big stuff in marriage that makes the big splash. Fancy dates, big vacations, and extravagant gifts. But a happy marriage is not built on these things. If you are hoping for more of these things to make you happy, your are setting yourself up for disappointment. Because the thrill will be so short lived and it will never be enough. You need to find joy in providing and receiving the small sacrifices. What little chores can you do to help around the house? Can you take care of bath time? Can you be the one to get up and do night time feedings? Can you fix that broken appliance that you promised to take care of six months ago? It is doing these little things, without looking for rewards that brings life to marriage. These things are the seeds of new growth.

  • Eliminate contempt from your marriage.

I mention this idea in Revolutionary Marriage. But I speak at length about this topic in my marriage conference for couples (It is available online here). Contempt according to Dr.’s John and Julie Gottman, is “fueled by long-simmering negative thoughts about one’s partner, and it arises in the form of an attack on someone’s sense of self. Contempt, simply put, says, ‘I’m better than you. And you are lesser than me.'” Contempt is fatal assault on the identity of your spouse. Contempt has no place in marriage. Expressing contempt is committing an evil against your partner. Why? Because you are denying their image bearing goodness. Love builds up – it never tears down. You will bring life to your spouse when you help them be their best image representation of Christ. Encourage and support them in this endeavor. This is the process of pruning for fruitful growth. It must be done with tenderness and love. Contempt condemns the plant as worthless. Love prunes the plant to produce its life-giving best.