Nova has been a popular addition to the blogs. Her first offering was so well received that over 95% said they wanted her to write a regular contribution. So, after a restful holiday season, Nova has told me she has some new insights to share. She even said she was willing to talk about a bit of her trauma history.
Holidays are a time for giving and receiving gifts. But sometimes the best gifts are in the unexpected surprises of any celebration. Jumping in and out of a gift bag brings joy and surprise to everyone. Nova wants to encourage everyone to try and find joy in the unexpected.
After all the holiday celebrations, when all the decorations are put away and the house is cleaned, rest is important. Nova wants to remind everyone that scheduling in a good period of rest is healthy.
Nova became an orphan early in her life. She was born at a car dealership sales lot, and her mom was hit by a car only a few weeks into her life. She was quickly whisked away into an adoptive home. Nova still has periods of sadness when she thinks about her loss. But she wants to remind everyone that waves of grief are a normal part of coping with loss.
Hiding might be either good or bad. If we hide to bring surprise, that joy might be good. Of course, our impulsive leaps might scare someone and prompt an unexpected yell. This might cause the second type of hiding: covering up from shame. But if we hide out of shame, we must work on our vulnerability. Nova likes the work of Brene Brown, who suggests one of our tools for healing our shame is reaching out, “Are you owning and sharing your story? We cannot experience empathy if we are not connecting.”
Nova asks, “Do you have a safe place?” Where do you go to process your experiences and feelings? Do you have a space, like a comfy bed, or do you go to a place in your mind? Nova recommends having a safe space. Nova’s is a comfy bed by the window, which is especially nice when the warm sun moves across it in the morning.
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.
Nova, the #TherapyCat Nova is the current pet resident (therapist) in our home. We have had many pets in our home through the years, but none have been more interested in the therapeutic happenings of our home than Nova. For many of you who have been in therapy sessions with Dr. DeYoung, you have sometimes witnessed her joining me for our sessions. Please know you have no worries about her breaking any confidence, and she is entirely HIPAA compliant. She has received all the necessary training and certifications to ensure the trustworthy handling of your stories.
Nova is relatively young. As of this writing, she is only 18 months old, but she is a fast learner and has developed quite a few therapeutic insights that might be a bit wiser than her years. She asked if she could offer some occasional tidbits of wisdom about mental health on this blog, and I agreed to give her a shot. She is on a bit of a “short leash” (cats don’t like leashes), so if this first effort goes well, we might let her come back with a few more things to say.
So here she is, Nova, the #TherapyCat.
Here is Nova observing her world from a perch high above. Nova says you sometimes need to rise above the chaos to see things more clearly. She also recommends waiting patiently in this new space before reacting. We all need time outs.
Nova is a firm believer in getting her rest. There is nothing wrong with finding the most comfortable spot while you recharge.
Nova is a trauma survivor. She is not quite ready to share the details of her early life traumas; she has learned something about threats. Sometimes, when assessing a threat, it is essential to change your perspective, seek a new vantage point, and recognize from your new viewpoint that the danger is not so threatening.
Though Nova is an indoor cat only, she highly recommends the outdoors and getting exercise for your mental well-being. She soaks up the rays from the outdoors every chance she gets. Nova says being in the sun and getting some Vitamin D is good for your emotional well-being.
Lastly, Nova recalls the work of the renowned psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. She says play increases her experience of Flow. She encourages us to play more because it is good for our bodies and minds.
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 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.
In May 2023, there was another horrific act of evil in Allen, TX, when a gunman opened fire in a crowded mall parking lot. This was nearly one year after the shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, TX. In Allen, eight were killed, including three young children; in Uvalde, 19 children, and two teachers were killed. Two evil men committed these acts of violence. The result has been too many destroyed lives.
Following these events, Texas Governor Abbott spoke to the communities involved and said similar things in both cases. Here are his words: In Uvalde, Governor Abbott said the shooter had “a mental health challenge.” “Anybody who shoots somebody else has a mental health challenge…We as a state, we as a society, need to do a better job with mental health.” In Frisco, he echoed a similar refrain. “What Texas is doing in a big-time way, we are working to address that anger and violence but going to its root cause, which is addressing the mental health problems behind it…People want a quick solution. The long-term solution here is to address the mental health issue.”
The governor has it entirely backward. His words conflate evil with mental illness. This sends all the wrong messages. Mental illness is not evil. Mental illness is not the primary cause of violence. Numerous complex systemic factors contribute to violent acts, and to singularly blame mental illness and blindly ignore all the other potential contributors to violence is dismissive, neglectful, and irresponsible.
This makes the governor’s response backward because I believe the rise in gun violence contributes to a surge in mental health challenges. It is not the other way around. This is because mental illness has been with us since the dawn of time. It ebbs and flows with the impacts of life stresses and traumas. We know that mass events like famines, pandemics, wars, and other tragedies can have far-reaching implications for the mental health of nations. In other words, our mental health suffers as external stresses pile up. And these impacts can last for years. Gun violence is no exception, and it is one of those stresses.
With the advent of the Information Age in the later 1900s, we have increasingly faster access to information. We have gone from the 24-hour news cycle of newspapers to instant news at any second we want to access. This has led to living in a culture of fear. With a world of information in our hands, we have no time to process or digest all the information that floods our minds. As a result, our mental health suffers.
And with the threat of constant gun violence in our faces, our fear escalates. We avoid public spaces, including what should be one of our safest public spaces–church. So isolation increases along with our fear. And to think our children have remained unaffected is naive. Our children are intensely aware of the dangers in their world and schools. As I wrote in the May 2023 blog, “Teenage Mental Health Crisis,” regular lockdown drills in our schools are practiced trauma. We should make mental health resources available and eliminate stigma from seeking mental health support. We need to increase mental health support to help us cope with the threats of violence in our neighborhoods. But, more importantly, we need to restore a sense of order and peace in our communities.
Here are a few suggestions for accomplishing some of those goals.
Set limits on the amount of information you consume. None of us needs a constant feed of news from our phones or televisions. We also need to limit how much we scroll on social media. We know that higher levels of information input only increase our anxiety and distract us from what is most important right in front of us — our family, friends, and neighbors, which leads me to my second suggestion.
Focus on those closest to you. Spend conversation and face-to-face contact with your immediate family and friends. Notice their needs and work to meet those needs. Provide service and support. None of us can solve the world’s big problems, but we can do something about the people right before us. Love those close to you.
Please do what you can to stop supporting our violent subculture. Examine your life and world. Do you do things or say things that explicitly or implicitly support violence? Do you use violent language when you talk about topics? When talking about political adversaries or those you disagree with, you use fighting-oriented language, like “going to battle” or “we are at war.” Do you need to advertise guns on your bumper stickers, flags, or living room wall if you own guns? Do you play violent video games? Maybe we could all curb our connections to these words, images, or activities.
We need to stop responding to gun violence as if it is a zero-sum game. If we keep responding like the goal is to beat the “bad guys,” then disagreement, conflict, and violence will only increase. Our goal should be to find ways to create safer, more peaceful communities for all of us, including the “bad guys.” If we do that, they may not be bad guys anymore. The focus is then on helping the community flourish and feel safe. Church leaders have many opportunities to implement programs, messages, and collaboration in this area, leading to my last point.
We must make more significant strides in unifying with those different from us. Sadly, we often won’t share a meal or resources with the church down the street, let alone another community of faith. All faith communities can rally together around a message of peace and cooperation. We need to passionately pursue cooperative efforts with every faith community to find solutions for reducing violence in our streets and neighborhoods.
May is mental health awareness month. And to contribute to our collective awareness of mental health, I want to discuss a current crisis. I honestly don’t use those words flippantly. The mental health of our preadolescent and teenage students in our country is in severe decline. I want to share with you some statistics that show this drastic decline and challenge us to rise as a community to support our most fragile groups.
In February 2023, the CDC released a shockingreport about teenage suicide in America. Suicide rates reached an all-time high in 2018, and though there was a slight decline in the next couple of years, in 2021, rates jumped again to reach an all-time high. Of particular concern is the level of hopelessness among our younger generations. Just a few statistics from that report:
60% of teenage girls reported feeling persistently hopeless in 2021
1 in 3 teen girls had seriously considered suicide
1 in 5 teen girls had experienced sexual violence in the past year.
14% reported being forced to have sex. Please stop and ponder that number. Over 1 in 10 girls reported being sexually assaulted. Remember, the vast majority of sexual assaults go unreported. Also, boys are the perpetrators of these assaults. What is going on with our young men that this seems to be more of normal behavior and expectation for them?
In a global survey of over 400,000 teens, only 22% reported being close to their family.
When we see statistics like that, many want to jump to conclusions about the cause. Please don’t be too quick to blame COVID or social media. Most experts in this area say COVID was a stressor that split open cracks already well formed in our society. However, some fair blame can be directed toward smartphones, screens, and social media.
Jonothan Haidt, a psychologist, has begun publishing data that strongly implicates social media with the rise of anxiety and depression in teenagers, specifically teen girls. His work is extensive, and I would point you to this website for a deeper review. But, the most significant conclusion from his work is a definitive turn in mental health among our teenagers with the introduction of the front-facing camera on smartphones (we can now take endless selfies) and the rise of Instagram. These both happened around 2012. The data is obvious, and though Dr. Haidt has faced pushback on his data analysis (this is part of science), the skeptics need more stable ground in their arguments. So, we can put some blame on screens and social media. But from my perspective as a therapist, we continue to mishandle this problem. Our first mistake has been that we adults have drowned ourselves in social media as adults. We could have been better examples. Our kids witness us scrolling, posting, and commenting as frequently or even more than they are engaged with their social media apps. Children learn from watching their parents. No child development expert would disagree with that statement. And we need to be honest. We have been bad examples. We should work on setting better boundaries with our use of social media. I would love for such a cultural movement to abandon social media so dramatically that the billions these companies are raking in from selling us as a product dries up. It is a bit of a pipe dream, but I can dream, can’t I?
Secondly, as parents, we have attempted to manage the phone, screen time, and social media through a punishment/reward system. My bias is that punishments/rewards as a primary form of parenting are ineffective. They can have short-term value, but there are far more effective ways to parent. We need to stop taking phones or relying on router parental controls as the sole means to manage our child’s screen time. Instead, we need to be having conversations about screen time. It starts with a relationship. Why does your kid like TikTok? What videos do they enjoy on social media? Do you watch them together? Do you have a relationship with your child outside of TV and other screens? Do you go on walks or eat meals without screens? Do you play games (not video games) together? If you want to read a classic about this kind of relational parenting, read Dr. Haim Ginott’s Between Parent and Child.
Let me suggest a bit more controversial source of this mental health crisis. GUNS. School shootings have significantly increased.* In the 1970s, there were approximately 60s deaths nationwide from school-related shooting incidents. We are currently on track to have over 400 school-related shooting deaths this decade. These numbers have only increased since the 1970s. Lockdown drills are common practice for all ages in public schools. Young elementary children know that lockdown drills are designed to keep them safe from an active shooter on their campus. Many express significant fears and anxiety, knowing this is a constant reality.
My wife is a public school teacher. If I had the time and space to explain the procedures, rules, and expectations they must keep in mind for these lockdown drills, it would overwhelm all of us. Teachers are evaluated in their handling of lockdown drills. During drills, people go around wiggling locked doors. Children hear what it will sound like if a gunman is walking the halls. This is practiced stress and trauma. Now look, we used to have fire drills in school. The fire alarm would go off, and we would celebrate a break from our work while we walked outside. But during those drills, we were not walking through simulated smoke, seeing fire trucks, or feeling the heat of an actual fire. But in gunman lockdown drills, children are pressed to “remain silent” so they are not heard, and then in the silence, a door is wiggled, attempted to open. For all children, this is stressful, but for a sensitive child, this repeated lived-out terror.
As I write this blog, I feel inclined to write a much longer blog about guns and mental health. That will come in July 2023. But let me say for this post that our cultural obsession with firearms harms us. The late game theorist Anatol Rapoport illustrated that conflict will always escalate in games where there must be a winner and loser (we call them zero-sum games). We are witnessing this before our very eyes. Exercising your right of gun ownership to keep an arsenal of weapons in your home only contributes to the cultural escalation of violence. Weaponry reduction and inviting whole communities into conversations for creating safe and peaceful spaces in our cities is the right direction.
Our children witness this escalation. They genuinely fear that their school is next. I fear that the school down the street is next. This is not a far-off problem we can dismiss as “their problem.” Our children see it, and their mental health is suffering.
So what do we need to do?
We need to stop doubling down on solutions of the past. Stop saying this worked for me in my family or growing up. The world has fundamentally changed. It is time for new and creative solutions, even if they make us uncomfortable.
Stop pointing fingers of blame. Instead, engage in dialogue with those in your community. Talk to people who look different from you, are in another generation than you, vote differently, and go to another church of faith. We are better united than divided.
Connect with a young person. Love them. Please support them. Encourage them. Listen to them. Don’t worry about correcting or fixing it.
If you want a Christian faith view of mental health. Check out this YouTube channel from The Hills Church. Pastor Rick Atchley is doing a multi-week series on mental health. It started a few weeks back, but all the messages are titled “Let’s Talk about Mental Health.”
The statistics are quite staggering. The rapid rise in depression, anxiety and suicide are evident when we look at changes of mental heaIth in the past 20 years.
Between 2009 and 2017 rates of depression among 14 to 17 year olds increase 60%
The suicide rate per 100,000 people has risen steadily from 11.75 in 2009 to 14.2 in 2018.
Suicide is now the 2nd leading cause of death for individuals aged 10-34
The suicide rate has increased 35% since 1999.
Nearly one-third of adolescents will meet the criteria for anxiety disorder before the age of 18.
Teens today are twice as likely to see a mental health professional than in the 1980s.
We need to respond to these changes with careful evaluation and realistic adjustments. Technology is here to stay. We can’t throw out our iPhones and return to simpler forms of communication. We need to learn to adapt and help our youth develop adaptive skills. There is even some evidence that younger generations are already adapting and demonstrating better boundaries with technology that those much older. There is hope.
There seems to be two significant factors that contribute to increased mood disorders when it comes to technology.
1. Increased information and therefore social comparison.
Social media and the internet gives us access to vast amounts of information with easy access. This information can come so quickly that we struggle with processing and testing it truthfulness. This is an obvious problem with conspiracy theories that abound on the internet, but it is also a problem when we read of our neighbor’s party down the street. Seeing pictures of neighbors gathered together at an event that we were not invited to can lead to all manner of assumptions and reactions. Without social media we would not have even been aware of the gathering other than maybe seeing a few cars. Now we see their smiling faces and can’t help but think everybody has more fun and is more likable than ourselves. There is some information that it is better not to have.
2. False sense of connection/relationship and limited use of social graces in expression.
Engaging in comments on a social media post gives us a false sense of having a true dialogue. We have to infer tone of voice and meaning of certain words without the facial expression behind them. Research shows that all of us are far more prone to type things that we would never say to someone’s face. These two limits on social interaction just lead to escalating conflicts. Rather than being more connected, we feel increasingly polarized.
We can improve our management of technology and eventually our personal mental health if we learn to set some limits and change our use of technology. Here are just a few recommendations that might offer some help.
Recommendations Set time limits on your use of social media and devices. All of the social media companies have admitted that they are designed to get and keep your attention so that you will keep scrolling and clicking. Take back your power over the app by setting clear time limits for your use. Notice your emotions as your scroll. The moment your shift into a negative space, stop. Leave the app. Allow yourself time to recover. Never reply to someone’s post in anger. Keep that off the internet.
Intentionally create opportunities for meaningful face to face contact. Remove technology from those spaces. Be present. Listen. Be vulnerable. Real face to face engagement is necessary for our overall health.
Intentionally have times to quiet your mind. Meditate. Allow your mind to process all the information you are having to manage. Don’t feel pressured to make immediate decisions. You need at least 15 minutes of quiet a day. That is a minimum.
Set boundaries around the people you engage on social media. You have the option to “hide” or even block certain individuals. Boundaries on social media apps can help you filter the type of information that is presented to you. Don’t let the social media companies be the filter. You take charge of filtering your own exposure. That being said, engage with people that are diverse and different from you. If at all possible make those engagements personal and face to face. Don’t block or set limits to the point that you are only hearing and seeing a narrow part of the world. Social media has a way of funneling us that direction. The world is a beautiful place that you can only discover if you open yourself to its diversity of humanity. Do not engage across a distant screen where assumptions are easily made. Engage someone different from you in a real face-to-face relationship.
The COVID virus has shaken our world. The levels of uncertainty we have experienced during this pandemic have been stunning. Economic, Social, Physical, and clearly Political. Our daily lives are flooded with constant change and uncertainty. An invisible virus wields power to create panic and titanic shifts in nearly every aspect of our lives. We don’t go to movies. We wear masks. Churches worship digitally. Schools have become distance learning laboratories. There have been unexplainable shortages for toilet paper.
This change was completely unexpected. We never saw this coming. During December 2019 as we celebrated Christmas, there were rumors of a virus in China, but the tidal wave of change coming in the next few months was unseen. The result of such change is the virus has raised our threat radar. And for good reason. It has the potential to cause real harm to the point of death. As a result – of both uncertainty and threat – we often feel out of control. We have had to admit how little control we really have. We feel powerless.
Then right in the middle of this pandemic mess something else unexpected happened. We have had a surprise cosmic visitor. Newly discovered in March 2020, a small (3 miles wide) comet named NEOWISE. A chunk of rock and ice, on a 7000 year parabolic journey around the sun brightens in our skies during the middle of a chaotic pandemic. What timing. It didn’t show up 6 months ago when we might not have noticed or cared as much to notice. It has been a small glowing jewel of beauty in the middle of great stress and trial.
Our scientific knowledge of astronomical events makes a comet appearance like this something we can readily understand. But go back 2000 years in the middle of some catastrophe, and a celestial visitor would likely have been considered “a sign”. We do that as humans. We try to connect the dots. Signs in the sky must be trying to send us a message. Pandemics mush be trying to get our attention. What are they trying to say? We search for some meaning or explanation. We want to understand the why – especially in times of chaos and uncertainty.
I don’t know about COVID or the comet NEOWISE being signs. I am not prophet nor am I the son of a prophet. But such a monumental event can get our attention. They can remind of things that are important and refocus our attention on what is most valuable.
For me as a marriage therapist, the collision of these two unexpected cosmic realities has reminded me of some very important things about marriage.
The truth about sharing life with a partner in marriage is that the unexpected is bound to happen. Sometimes this is as simple as an unexplained mood shift in our spouse, or as traumatic as a diagnosis of a serious disease. Sometimes a surprise can come from external causes such as being fired from a job or they can be the result of our own choices such as the revelation of an ongoing affair. Regardless of magnitude, from small to overwhelming what they shared in common is being unexpected and creating uncertainty. As a result we often feel fear, and insecurity.
We are wired up as humans to respond to threats like these using our fight – flight system. We are created to respond in these ways because we need some form of protection. It is a good system that God gave us. But what can be good, can also become a problem for close relationships like marriage. The fear response can lead to increased conflict and distance. Fighting can cause injury and fleeing can cause distance.
In my book, Revolutionary Marriage,I suggest a response for these unexpected moments of chaos and change. We have to keep our focus on commitment. Commitment brings stability to the unpredictable. Much like the pandemic has cause isolation, withdrawal, and increased conflict – stress in marriage can lead disconnection. When we return to our commitments in marriage the focus becomes on what we know rather than the unknown. Affirming our commitments to our marriage partner establishes predictability and stability rather than chaos.
I am not going anywhere. That’s what our partner needs to hear.
This becomes an anchor point in the storms of life. The storms pass but the anchors provide stability and security. I think this is what God had in mind when the idea of “one flesh” is expressed in Genesis 2:24. That phrase is all about unity. It means to cling or hold tightly because life is going to batter you so you need something to hold on to.
So in what practical ways do I reaffirm my commitments? You live by the principles of “I am here” and “I am present’
I am here means that you live out your commitment by making time for your spouse. Dedicated time. Sacred space reserved just for them. This is all about physical availability. I am present means that you live out your commitment to your spouse by communicating an open invitation to empathic connection. You choose to be responsive and aware of your partners hopes, needs, fears and concerns. This is all about emotional availability.
Some have done these things in the middle of a pandemic and they have been blessed with moments of deeper connection and intimacy. They have shared in conversations that have increased understanding and provided meaning.
And this is what a comet has to do with marriage. If we anchor with commitment and are open enough to intimacy in the storm we will find some beautiful surprising jewels. People were able to step outside their homes or sit in the yard with the neighbors and catch glimpses of this astronomical wonder. Making time and space for each other, affirming your commitments can result in you seeing something new and beautiful in your spouse.
These experiences are like likely going to surprise us. We can’t manufacture those moments, but just as glowing tail of dust and gas pops into view in the fading twilight, beautiful moments will be experienced in marriage when we make a space and wait for them to happen. We must commit to the process and wait for the treasure.
The mental health arena is rich with references to the stages of grief that Elisabeth Kübler-Ross introduced us to way back in 1969. The final phase of her model is acceptance. When bad stuff happens, we deny, get angry, bargain, become depressed, and according to the model ideally reach a point of acceptance. Yet increasingly much of our culture refuses to accept grief and pain. We choose to alleviate our pain-loss-disappointment with various strategies. Acceptance (as defined by Kubler-Ross) is unfortunately an important emotional skill our culture seems to have abandoned. We have become addicted to making ourselves feel better. We don’t like hurts, and in fact we do our very best to avoid it.
Why has this happened? Can we really do anything about it? How do we develop a culture of Acceptance versus the need to alleviate or avoid pain? Attachment theory and its perspective on early childhood development might offer some insights.
In attachment theory we talk about how an infant protests and tantrums to express a need. Things don’t feel right, and the child is uncomfortable with their circumstances (hungry, tired, hurting, gassy, etc.). Their expression of discomfort is a cue that the parent needs to respond. In an ideal world this happens almost perfectly, but the world is not really ideal. As much as parents (even the best parents) diligently attempts to understand their child’s needs they sometimes fail. When this happens in the context of a healthy parent child relationship, the child actually learns to develop a sense of acceptance (grace, benefit of the doubt) of their parent’s failure. Though they may not feel great about the parent’s lack of responsiveness and they may actually be disappointed, they accept it. They even develop a resilience and tolerance for waiting the next time there is a need. Ultimately leading to an ability to recall times past when the parent was responsive and met their needs and so the occasional failure can be endured.
The problem comes in our culture’s obsession with alleviating pain. We want so bad to be free of discomfort that when frustrations, losses, or disappointments occur we scramble as quick as possible to respond and escape the pain. We don’t want for ourselves or for others to hurt, so we rush in to fix.
Parents overprotect their kids. Legislators curry favor with disadvantaged groups. Therapists entitle rather than empower. Corporations peddle pleasure to solve your woes.
The results are people who take wide swaths to avoid challenge and engage in tirades rather than tolerance.
If we don’t like something we protest, we boycott, or we belittle.
If we see something upsetting, we post about it on Facebook or write a blog – we passionately believe the lie that the world is really going to hear our voice if we put it on a public forum.
If an employee of a company treats us disrespectfully we quickly fire off an often contemptuous email to corporate headquarters.
We soothe our hurts with all manner of drugs, bad habits, and sugary carbohydrates. We spend more money than we have. We gorge our stomachs. We inject our bodies with toxins.
We use social media to self-promote our “best life” so we can convince ourselves that things are not that bad. We obsess with “likes” and emojis believing the falsity that the more “thumbs up” we acquire, the more consensus we have from our online friends.
Using attachment thinking, if the parent were perfectly responsive the child would never develop perseverance. So our culture, refuses to accept that a better day is coming. We cry out and hope our outburst will alleviate our suffering and disappointment. The child survives the parent’s slight by recognizing and accepting that circumstances will improve. The secondary benefit is that the child might come to empathize with the parent’s failure. The parent never intended harm by their oversight. The child can develop a sense of grace in their misfortune.
Maybe there is value to a quiet reserved acceptance of our stance in life. Look – bad stuff happens. No one has the ability to escape all difficulty. There seems to be a value to suffering. Seems like our culture needs a little toughening up, rather than persistently tantruming like two-year olds. We could shoulder the weight of some discomfort, and possible help ourselves become stronger. Acceptance does not make the pain go away, but it clarifies what is important and helps us develop empathy for others. So grow your tolerance muscle. Accept your sorrow. It is likely your next door neighbor knows something about what you are dealing with. Note: Severe failure by a parent is neglect and we would identify such a mismatch in the parent child relationship as abusive and for the sake of this discussion, it is not a type of failure I am referencing. Rather I would suggest that a normal part of relationships means there are going to be mismatches and disappointments in the meeting of needs. Please remember I am not referencing overt situations of assault or abuse that cause pain. Those are completely different circumstances that require swift and clear boundaries to protect the innocent parties from any injury.