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.
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:
Make sure your partner feels heard. Use your own words.
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.
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.
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: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?
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.
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: 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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.”