Archive for the ‘Relational dynamics’ Tag

Killing Me Softly   1 comment

This afternoon Kimberly and I were listening to an NPR Fresh Air interview of musician Sam Baker.  He was the victim of a bombing in Peru by the communist group Shining Path, which prompted one of his striking lyrics: ‘Everyone is at the mercy of another one’s dream.’  Yes, we daydream of weddings and families, homes and careers, but our plans collide:  mother and daughter over weddings, husband and wife over child-rearing, homeowner and banker over late mortgage payments.  If we can’t agree over a music station driving to Walmart or where to hang wet towels, how can we compromise our deepest, longest held dreams.  Must I abandon my dreams to fulfill yours or do we each halve our hopes?  Does relationship shrivel potential?

Group goals differ from personal goals, and each has advantages and disadvantages over the other.  Choosing relationship changes dreams, but if we are innately social beings, then purely individual plans are misguided and incomplete.  We can only be our true, whole selves and fulfill our potential within the context of relationship.  It is in togetherness that our richest dreams are shaped.  With God’s help even difficult relationships can enhance our journey; we can turn the barricades thrown up by our enemies into stairsteps to the stars, just as Sam’s devastating injuries gave him a new and better purpose, to write songs on albums titled Mercy and Say Grace.  I want to live in such a way that those who cross my path, even briefly, find help on their way rather than hindrance, encouragement rather than pain.

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After the interview I told Kimberly I like NPR anchors.  They are nice people.  Even when they disagree with their guests, they are polite and respectful.  On his website, Sam reflected about his interaction with (NPR’s) Terry Gross, “I talked to her last week in Philadelphia at WHYY.  I am a long time listener and a fan and was nervous (and a bit intimidated) to talk with her.  She is gracious and charming and I am deeply grateful.”  Kimberly replied to me, “Those gentle people are the only ones I want as friends.”  I said, “That’s funny because you didn’t marry one!”   Mind you, I try to be gentle.  I’m just not very good at it, like a lumberjack with a bone china teacup, and I often feel deeply flawed as a human being for not being nicer.  So why would Kimberly choose me?

We’ve had this discussion many times.  In spite of warming up to nice, she keeps choosing real instead, because (as it turns out) you can’t really have both–no one can always be sweet and still genuine.  When we let our insides out, the shadows appear.  Kimberly was raised on nice, and didn’t discover her anger until she met me.  She fearfully buried that part deep inside from everyone, even herself, and it was killing her.  The folks who keep the ugly locked inside not only hurt themselves, but short-circuit their relationships.  If I trust you only with what’s admirable, then you don’t know me and can’t love me for who I am.  To truly connect at the heart level, we have to share more than happiness.  As it turns out, I’m very good at real, both in being vulnerable and accepting others in their vulnerabilities, and that is what Kimberly needs most deeply.  When she committed to our relationship, she gave up on her safe, carefully crafted dream and woke up to a reality far better.

Some dreams are in fatal conflict, and pursuing them tears everyone down.  Surprisingly, fairytale endings often fit this mold because they are unrealistic, delusive, and usually selfish, and they depend on everyone involved having precisely the same unchanging vision.  Trust me, after the credits roll, the sheen of Prince Charming dulls quickly as he wipes his mouth on the kitchen towel and forgets to replace the TP roll, and if Cinderella enforces her Hollywood dream, everyone else is going to be living a nightmare pasted over with smiles.  May we all learn to dream together, to find the richest, fullest expression of ourselves in the symphony of relationship.

Go in peace, go in kindness,
go in love, go in faith.
Leave the day, the day behind us. Day is done.
Go in grace. Let us go into the dark, not afraid, not alone.
Let us hope by some good pleasure, safely to arrive at home.

–Sam Baker–

No Easy Way To Love   6 comments

I was a 45-year-old bachelor when I started dating Kimberly, and my friends, assuming I was girl-dumb, insisted I romance her with flowers, fancy chocolates, and fru-fru gifts…  take her to see a chick-flick…  say “I love you.”  I smiled and nodded to placate their eagerness, but I knew they were wrong.  For starters, Berly prefers cheap chocolate and is ambivalent about gifts.  They might have known “women,” but I knew Berly.  The problem with our romance pop-culture, and much of the marriage enrichment industry, even many Christian seminars and books, are the notions that all women are alike, that men cannot understand them, and therefore that husbands should simply learn some basic rules for marriage maintenance.  Men regularly come home from a weekend retreat with a checklist to follow: kiss your wife goodbye when you leave for work, tell her you love her, have a weekly date night, and for goodness sake drop the toilet seat after peeing.  And those are the better men, the ones who are really trying.

It’s a deep sadness that our most intimate relationships are held together with stock routines because we’re convinced we can’t understand each other.  The gender gap might as well be an intergalactic separation, after all, women are from Venus and men are from Mars… and we’re apparently lost in space.  It’s certainly a nice gesture to take a quiz on our five love languages and task oneself (say) with giving three daily encouragements to a spouse, but how much does that help in understanding one another deeply and thoroughly, which is what the relationship truly needs.  It is almost as though we’ve given up on real relationship (vulnerable sharing, open listening, trusting, understanding, accepting, valuing, empathizing) and reduced love to what we do for one another.

Mutual understanding between the sexes is not easy or quick.  It takes a lot of time and energy, not to mention fear and pain, and perhaps for that reason our culture has largely abandoned the effort as hopeless.  “It has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried” (as Chesterton said of true Christianity). But nice words and kind behavior can never substitute for the gritty, real work of heart connection.  The first is comfortable and functional, like a pair of old shoes, the last is revolutionary.

Posted February 23, 2014 by janathangrace in Personal, thoughts

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Frictionless Marriage   3 comments

DSC01639By this afternoon the snow had mostly melted at our house, and it didn’t feel that cold, so I pulled on my tattered loafers sans socks and drove to the park with Mazie to walk.  The asphalt path was mostly free of snow, but by the time I reached the end, my toes were stinging.  When I turned onto the wooded dirt trail, I found half an inch of unmelted snow, and I started waddling with my feet splayed to keep from scooping snow into the gaping holes on the out-sides of my shoes.  As I walked, something strange happened–my toes began to warm.  I was surprised enough to pull out one foot and check that it wasn’t just going numb.  It was cool to the touch, but not icy, in spite of the snow that was clinging to the edge of the open splits.  Even on cold days my bare feet in loose shoes rub themselves warm against the leather as I walk, and now the broken trail made my feet slide around even more, increasing the friction.  There is an upside to friction… even in relationships.

Berly uses her lunch break to stretch her legs, and since I walk Mazie at the same time, we phone-walk together.  Today we chatted about yesterday’s blog post and how grace plays such a big role in our relationship.  My sketch was true in its broad strokes, but don’t suppose that Berly is always trusting and I am never selfish.  We screw up regularly.  But we make room for that in our relationship.  Our family values are framed by grace–we structure our lives to make space for one another’s weaknesses, fears, needs and the like.  Grace designs the principles by which we live but also the manner in which we live these principles, or rather fail to live these principles.  In other words, we give ourselves grace for failing to live by grace.

In my last post I said Berly trusts “that I am doing all that I can within the sphere of my emotional strength.”  But sometimes I shortchange Kimberly by doing less than I can, intentionally or not (that is, sometimes I am lazy and at other times I simply underestimate my own energy level).  We are deeply committed to one another, to mutual understanding, acceptance, and support and we live this consistently, but not perfectly.  We have expectations… our expectations are that we will fall short of our ideals on a fairly regular basis.  We trust one another not because we live flawlessly, but because we live in grace towards one another’s flaws.

In other words, we live with friction, and we think that’s good.  It’s possible to smooth over all interactions, but the cost of such a tightly controlled “peace” is shallow and inauthentic relationships.  Nothing is more lonely than a friendship where we cannot be ourselves.  If we are unique individuals with our own histories, views, personalities, and preferences, then doing real life together at any depth is going to bring tension.  Real life and growth comes from rubbing up against the rough grain of those we love and discovering that our flaws are the basis for our bonding.  It is not fixing faults but embracing grace that strengthens relationships and deepens trust.

Posted January 23, 2014 by janathangrace in Personal, thoughts

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Ambiance of Grace   4 comments

Forgiveness part 6: Grace-infused relationships

(I found my flash drive with my notes on forgiveness, so I’ll continue sharing my thoughts.  So far I discussed the need for mutual understanding and self-support in relational conflicts.)

Forgiveness seems like such a wonderful resolution to any conflict… until you forgive me for a lie I did not tell or a missing wallet I did not steal.  Here is the downside of forgiveness–it starts with blame.  I was raised in a family that believed every conflict or pain in relationship was someone’s fault.  If I feel hurt, it’s your fault or if you’re innocent, then I’m wrong to feel hurt.  Someone’s always guilty.  Every conflict was resolved by making the wrongdoer confess and apologize, a power struggle with a winner and loser (really no one wins, and the relationship suffers).  Forced apologies are a stipend of American families: “Tell your brother you’re sorry!”

scapegoat

Genuine forgiveness is only one part of a whole gracious worldview with which I perceive others and relate to them.  What others consider an issue of forgiveness is often simply an issue of acceptance for Kimberly and me.  We offer grace to one another (patience, understanding, benefit of the doubt) without making it a question of someone being right and someone being wrong–we are both flawed and we want to create an environment where we are accepted with our shortcomings.  We do this all the time in facing mild irritations—when she slams kitchen cupboards or I forget to empty the vacuum cleaner canister.  But even with big issues, I have learned from Kimberly that the path of blame and forgiveness is usually a misguided diversion from sorting out our problems with grace.

rumi

Using my family’s approach, I tried in our first few years of marriage to help her see her faults and correct them (shame her into goodness), but she would have none of it–it was not her deeds but my perceptions that were faulty.  She was right, we needed better understanding and acceptance, not better behavior.  Love certainly inspires us to change for one another, but it is the result of acceptance, not the basis for it.  She and I have unique personalities and values, fears and pleasures, histories and perspectives, so we experience the same things quite differently.  This does not make one of us right and the other wrong, one better and one worse. We are learning to appreciate our differences.

JUST 'CAUSE WE'RE DIFFERENT DOESN'T MEAN ME CAN'T GET ALONG

JUST ‘CAUSE WE’RE DIFFER’NT DON’T MEAN WE CAN’T GET ALONG

It’s true that Kimberly doesn’t tell me lies or steal my wallet, but neither do my colleagues or neighbors usually… not even most strangers I meet.  Certainly there is plenty of real wrong in the world, evil that needs to be identified, confronted, and forgiven. But to me, that is the relational ER.  For most of my daily interactions I want to foster a spirit of humble and loving acceptance and understanding.  Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy, and Lord knows I need a lot of it.

grace

Posted June 17, 2013 by janathangrace in thoughts

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Love Shaped Questions   2 comments

Forgiveness 4: Seeking Understanding

love question

When I get whacked by the blunt end of a relationship, I first need to assess the bruising and salve it with compassion.  From this haven of acceptance and support, I can draw enough grace to respond in a healthier way to the bruiser.  But before forgiveness is even an option, I need to piece the story together: why did he act that way?   Easy forgiveness brushes aside this opportunity of better understanding.  What are his heart sores and life hurdles?  How did he see and experience our social fumble?  We also need a better grasp of the relationship.  Every interpersonal dynamic is involved here: truth-seeking, communication, perception, relational history, roles, expectations, and a hundred other facets.  Forgiveness is only part of this complex relational feng shui, so if it is my only consideration, I turn a vivid social mosaic into a black/white toggle switch of blame.

blame block

shortcut

Quick forgiveness looks so gracious, and long discussion seems so dramatic.  Both of us may want a quick fix, and perhaps it’s the right choice for now, but we should remember that this tables the issue, it doesn’t resolve it.  The same conflict will pop up again and again until we sort it out.  Deferring until later may feel better in the short run, and may be a necessary strategic move, but it does not enrich our bond.  And slowly over time little resentments will build up like barnacles on a boat or relational callouses will form to deaden the pain and with it the vibrant connection.

So I begin to unfold the map of who he is.  I’m not looking for evidence to accuse him.  I simply want to understand him, see things from his perspective.  Since resolution requires mutuality, I share with him in turn my struggles, without implying fault.  Just as my own heart hides when I am gruff and suspicious with it, he cannot be honest and forthcoming about his genuine feelings and thoughts if I don’t invite him with gentleness and love.  I can accept him without approving of or excusing his behavior.  He is precious regardless of what he does or doesn’t do.  I want to know what he feels about our scrape and why he feels this way.  If he is dismissive or defensive as I probe, then he’s not at a safe place with me. He may not even feel safe with himself because of the shaming voices in his head.  When he closes the gate on this part of our relationship, I must honor it—I cannot force him to share.  In response, I may also need to stake down a boundary marker to protect my heart.  Perhaps a better time will come if I stay open and gracious.

DO YOU SPEAK RABBIT?

DO YOU SPEAK RABBIT?

If we can break through into deeper mutual insight, we will then want to reflect also on our relationship.  This will spark memories of past conflicts, a rich resource to ponder if we don’t use it as ammunition but as sutures.  Why do we react to one another in this way in these situations?   What are we feeling and thinking?  Do we respond to others in similar ways?  Why or why not?  What patterns does this reveal about our interactions?  Since honesty and openness depend on our sense of safety, the one issue we overlook at this point is blame.  It may be that neither of us is guilty or both are guilty or that the problem lies in a completely different direction.  But once we are sharing, the issue of fault and forgiveness often becomes moot.

Posted March 22, 2013 by janathangrace in thoughts

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Care for the Wounded Self   5 comments

pain-and-shots

Forgiveness 3: Postponing Blame

“Why can’t we learn our spiritual lessons over a box of chocolates instead of through suffering?” a friend once asked me.  Unfortunately this fallen world is thick with pain, especially relational pain, but there’s a flower in the nettles: it’s the hard stuff that grows me personally in patience and courage, and it’s the tough stuff that deepens and strengthens my friendships.  When we brush up against others, our tender nerves jangle us alert to something in our interaction that needs tending.

If I feel the arrows, I snatch up my shield to defend myself, which is natural and healthy—self-protection by flight or fight—but it hurts me if I use that to dodge rather than pursue growth in myself and my relationships.  My emotions yelp when some wound needs my compassionate attention, a wound that may be decades old.  My friend (or enemy) may be the occasion for my pain without being the cause of it.  Her soft words may strike against a sharp emotional edge in my past.  On the other hand, her innocence does not invalidate my pain.  My feelings are what they are regardless of her role.  They carry within them their own legitimacy and don’t need outside validation.  They speak the truth, not about her but about me, about the cuts and bruises on my soul.

crab

When I am hurt in some interaction, I need to slow down and pay attention to the ache, and I need to provide enough emotional space to tend to my injury.  Sometimes, at least initially, this may get messy for the relationship.  I may withdraw for a time or push back, but the goal in padding my emotions is not to avoid, but to embrace this opportunity of self-discovery.  So when I have cleared enough emotional room, I slowly disentangle my pain from her actions and take ownership of my pain.  I do not mean that I blame myself for my pain! If I barge accusingly into my soul, it will duck for cover.  The wounded need compassion, not condemnation.  By taking ownership I mean identifying the agitating source inside me and not outside me (so I can take charge of the healing process).  The diagnosis starts with a caring “Why?”  Why do I feel bad, especially if my feelings are more intense than others would be in this situation.  If I try to fix the relationship before I understand my own heart, things are apt to get more twisted.

blame-her

I am slowly learning, but I still habitually jump past this necessary groundwork when I feel stung.  I quickly assume blame—either he’s at fault for hurting me or I’m at fault for feeling hurt.  But if I blacken the other guy in order to justify my feelings or in order to get him to take responsibility, I overlook what my wincing heart is telling me about my own wounds and need for support, compassion, and healing.  I’m not suggesting that we should deny our feelings about the other person.  That anger, doubt, and fear is the very emotion I must identify, feel, and discern, but I make sense of my feelings by listening to them with gentle care, not by blaming the other fellow.

When I make the other person’s behavior the focus of my attention, I undermine my own self-support, even when he is clearly at fault.  He has leveraged power against me by his hurtful acts, but if I continue to focus on what he’s done, I keep myself his prisoner.  Even if I induce him to apologize and make amends so that I feel better, I will be worse off for it because my good feelings are still dependent on his response, and so I am still under his power.  Whenever I make someone else responsible for my feelings, I lose control of my own emotional life.

I don’t mean to suggest that I have to sort out my own stuff by myself.  We often need the help of a friend who knows us well and accepts us as we are… not someone to “side” with us against the other, but someone who helps us understand ourselves better.  If the issue is not a powder keg, then I may be able to talk it through with the person who upset me, but the focus should really be on discerning my own wounds and needs, not on venting or “correcting” the other person.  The apology I want so much to hear may dull the sting but will not heal the lesions in my heart.  My heart needs comfort, acceptance, embrace—love that is enduring, unquenchable, unconditional, inescapable, unbridled, and passionate.

Mother-Hugging-Child

Thanks for Hurting Me   Leave a comment

Forgiveness II: Other options

My friendships are sprinkled with boredom and surprise, tinged with ambivalence and enthusiasm, stuffed with doubts and hopes, fears and triumphs.  They wander through gardening and coffee and politics, with rants and laughs and confusion.  Relationships are so rich and complex and rewarding.  And they are painful.  That’s the part we’d like to cut out like a tumor.  We commonly assume that pain in friendship is a bad thing, a sign that something has gone wrong, a malignancy.  It certainly feels bad, and so we naturally want to avoid it or resolve it as quickly as possible.  I know I do.  Berly quietly mentions my lateness or messiness and it feels like a bee sting.  My emotions jump, swatting and dodging to protect the softer parts of my soul, sometimes with clenched words, sometimes in the silent safety of my mind, working out feverishly a plan to escape future critiques.

bee sting
In spite of my fears and doubts, I’ve come to realize that the hard patches in our togetherness are quite often the most vital for our well-being and richest for our relationship.  They uncover something important about me, about her, and about us.  They open the way to deeper understanding, connection, and love, greater trust and security with one another.  But this path requires the courage to face into the storm and work through the feelings together, not find ways to side-step the mess or slap up quick fixes.
Pain in relationships can come from so many sources–differences of perspective, personality, priorities, or preferences, unavoidable circumstances and pressures, misunderstandings, bad timing, sensitivity, stupidity.  Notice that none of these things are culpable offenses, not even stupidity, so forgiveness is not the answer.  Close neighbors to forgiveness come into play—patience, humility, acceptance, and benefit of the doubt when the behavior is irritating or problematic or inconvenient to us.  But I think forgiveness uniquely addresses the issue of wrongdoing.  There is a big difference between excusing or making room for someone’s behavior and forgiving them.

patience
Forgiveness is only relevant when someone is to blame, and such a turn must be taken with care since that exit for dealing with relational pain bypasses other options, perhaps better options.  For instance, if the major problem is miscommunication, we prefer seeking clarity rather than blame, at least in our calmer moments.
When one of us feels hurt, it’s best to slow down, breathe, get some emotional space, and try to sort through the feelings, seeking mutual understanding.  This is far easier if we can leave aside blame for the moment.  A rush to judgment sets one against the other, obscures the truth, and slows progress personally and relationally.  I know how hard it is for me to move in a healthy direction when I feel defensive.  In the end, if one of us needs to choose a better course of action (repent), why not start from a place of insight and love rather than coercion and shame?  In our marriage, when seeking understanding is the goal instead of deciding fault, we find that forgiveness plays a much smaller role.

couple

Posted March 11, 2013 by janathangrace in thoughts

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