Listening

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Remedies for lousy listening habits

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mental Health and Gun Violence

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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. 
  4. 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.
  5. 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. 

Forgiveness in a Flash

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teen Mental Health Crisis

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 shocking report 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?

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Connect with a young person. Love them. Please support them. Encourage them. Listen to them. Don’t worry about correcting or fixing it.
  4. 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.”
  5. I did a podcast for The Hills Children and Youth Next Gen program on Mind Body connection and mental health. You can find that on this link.

Data from
*Naval Postgraduate School Center for Homeland Defense and Security, https://www.chds.us/sssc/charts-graphs/

Therapy vs. Coaching

​Professional Life Coaching is considered one of the fastest growing industries in North America. According to the International Coaching Federation (ICF) there are more than 26,000 professional coaches in North America. Revenue in the coaching industry during 2022 was approximately 1.5 billion dollars and is expected to grow to be 2.1 billion in 2030. According to Zip Recruiter the average salary for a Life Coach is $62,000 per year. The top 2% of Life coaches can make between 180K-240K per year. At current growth rates published by the ICF there are likely to be an additional 12,000 professional coaches in the next 10 years. 

In comparison there are approximately 110,000 licensed Master’s level therapist’s in the United States. Revenue in the mental health market for 2022 was 76 billion in 2021 and is expected to exceed 100 billion in 2029. The average licensed mental health counselor/therapist makes $72,000 a year. The top 2% of licensed therapist can make 135K or more.  In the next ten years there are expected to be 13,000 more licensed mental health counselor jobs added to the job market. 

Though the share of the market is much larger for mental health providers, at the individual provider level there is little difference. A Life Coach and a Therapist can make a similar income. But is the service they are providing the community the same? As a licensed professional I have grown concerned with a number of clients who have sought service with a professional life coach and as a result of a bad experience were shocked to learn of the vast differences between the two types of provider. 

I do believe that Life Coaching serves a place in our communities. As a service to individuals it can provide tools and supports that are extremely beneficial. But the consumer of Life Coaching services needs to be aware of what they are purchasing. Information is power to help the consumer make the best choices. 

Let’s look at some Key differences between Life Coaches and Therapist/Counselors. 

Education
There are significant education differences between Life Coaches and Therapists. To be a licensed Therapist/Counselor in any state in the United States you must have the minimum of a Master’s Degree from an accredited University. According to the ICF there are no minimum education requirements to be a Life Coach. It appears that an individual can work towards and complete a Life Coach credentialing process with a high school diploma or GED. 

This means a Therapist/Counselor has completed at least 6 years of college work — their four year undergraduate degree and a two years Master’s degree program. This means that therapist/counselors have far exceeded the education of many Life Coaches before ever beginning a certification/license process. Most coaching programs are approximately 60 hours of online course work as a one time class. A typical 3 hour college class meets 48 hours not counting all the outside reading and assignments. So one college class exceeds the one course for coaching certification. 

The type of education is also critical. Life coaches do not necessarily have a background in mental health. They may have a degree in finance, or interior design, but may be offering coaching for parenting or mental health issues. 

Many life coaches may have advanced degrees, but it would benefit the consumer to inquire about the actual training and education a life coach has received. 

Training/Certification
Most counselor training programs in graduate school have rigorous training components. They will require several hundred hours of client therapy services (mine required 500) as necessary for graduation. Graduate counseling students are also required to meet with a clinical supervisor and review their work with clients. This usually is dozens of hours during the two years of course work. My graduate program required 100 hours of meetings with supervisors. Once graduated a therapist cannot practice independently. They must also complete hundreds more hours of therapy (my license required 2000 hours) and dozens more hours of supervised evaluation of their work (mine required 200 hours) before being fully licensed. 

As a comparison, the most basic coaching certification requires only 100 hours of coaching experience and 10 hours meeting with a supervisor.  For the ICF to give you their highest certification you must have 200 hours of coaching education, 2500 hours of coaching experience and meet with a mentor coach for 10 hours. 

There are significant differences here, specifically in the level of supervision of a providers early work. Life coaches only need to meet with a mentor for 10 hours (per ICF website). But therapist/counselors must meet with a supervisor for over 300 hours prior to being licensed. The experiences gained from a relationship with a trusted supervisor are invaluable and the licensure process for counselors is set up to honor that important relationship.

Regulation
All mental health providers are licensed in their state of residence. This includes Psychologists, LPC, LMFT, and LMSW. In Texas, these licenses are regulated by the Behavioral Health Executive Council (BHEC) and that council functions under the state laws of Texas. All mental health providers must meet rigorous licensure requirements and ongoing continuing education as mandated by law. The public is able to file complaints with the BHEC. The BHEC has the right by law to sanction and punish licensed practitioners in Texas. Texas (and any other state) has a strict codes of ethics that guide a counselors practice and if a therapist/counselor breaks that code they can be disciplined, including losing their license to practice. This level of ethics and regulation helps keep therapist/counselors accountable to the community that they serve. 

Life coaches are not regulated by state law. The public has no recourse if a coach behaves inappropriately or unethically. There is no state board to file a complaint. The ICF does have a code of ethics for coaches, but the code is not enforceable. There is no ICF board to file a complaint against a member coach. This means there is no accountability for the coach to anyone other than to themselves. As a therapist this is my biggest concern for the community regarding Life Coaching – there is no accountability to protect the consumer and public trust. 

For the consumer seeking support services or mental health services, it is important to understand what they are getting. Most therapists are prepared to answer questions about their education, training, and licensure. It is important to ask questions of both life coaches or therapists. Certifications can seem very significant, but don’t be shy to ask a therapist or coach to explain what went into achieving a certain designation.  Therapy and Life Coaching both have important purposes and the more informed you are as a consumer, the better choices you can make regarding what services you plan to utilize.