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What dreams do you have for your life? How long have you had them? In The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, John Gottman tells us: “Often our deepest dreams are rooted in childhood. You may long to re-create some of your warmest memories of family life from your youth – such as having dinner together every night without interruptions from the TV or telephone. Or, you may feel the psychological need to distance yourself from painful childhood memories by not duplicating the same activities.” (p 218)
Sometimes these dreams are crystal clear, but often they remain hidden deep within the core of our identities, buried under layers of who we want to be or who we think we are. Interestingly, it is conflict with those who know us and love us that seems to draw those dreams to the surface where they can be observed and attended to.
So what if your job as a spouse is to help your partner wrestle out her dream because she doesn’t know what it is? Could it be possible that your spouse only discovers his deepest values, the things that most deeply reflect his core identity, through conflict with someone who loves him, because otherwise that dream stays un-formed?
Is it possible that an argument about who is responsible for managing dinner preparation isn’t really about food at all? Rather what’s at stake is role expectations and what it means to be female or what it means to be male. And is it possible that an argument about housework has nothing to do with dusting or vacuuming, but is really about the meaning of home? For one a neat and clean home means safety and security, but for the other a neat and clean home feels rigid and constricting. What do you think is at the core of your arguments? What would happen if you studied your disagreements for clues to your deepest dreams? What would happen if you noticed what gets your children really upset, then wondered about the value associated with that certain behavior? What could happen in our relationships if we didn’t avoid arguments, rather studied them for the treasure of information they provide? Try it. Let us know how it goes.
Re-framing problems as opportunities, being diligent about determining who owns the problem, and allowing for flexibility in solving problems are important in any relationship if our hope is to know each other more deeply. And these skills are absolutely essential for adult children who face the possibility of caring for their aging parents. A great example of this aired in a special about caring for aging parents on ABC in 2011. http://abcnews.go.com/Health/ElderCare/sibling-situation-caring-elderly-ailing-parents/story?id=11592489
This story demonstrates that by being attentive to unique strengths and limitations among the siblings, they allowed for flexibility in solving the problem, which led to an overall better solution if for no other reason than the siblings were growing closer to each other rather than letting their anger and frustration win the day. Sometime our conflicts really do provide the opportunity for us to grow in intimacy with God and to grow in deep, loving relationships with our family regardless of how that family is structured or what crisis that family might be facing.
So what if the emotion with which you do things in a family actually matters? What if anger produces one kind of outcome and love produces a different kind of outcome? That would be a torah of family to ponder by day and by night. If the energy we bring to our problems is anger, lust, or fear, it won’t work; but if the energy is loving, then it will work. The energy in families needs to be genuinely warm, kind, gentle, joyful, playful, and easygoing. And those things can be the hardest to do inside the family.
Consider that the next time a problem comes up in your family, you might think of it as an opportunity, figure out who owns the problem, consider that person’s developmental readiness for solving the problem, and if they’re ready – let them solve it. Your job will be to enjoy watching someone you love learn and grow and change and become all that God has created them to be. That sounds like a pretty fun job!
Educators and researchers are also interested in what it means to cause thriving. In one particular study, “Peterson identified a set of strengths that were, according to his research, especially likely to predict life satisfaction and high achievement. After a few small adjustments, they settled on a final seven: grit, self-control, zest, social intelligence, gratitude, optimism, and curiosity.”
As qualities that contribute to life satisfaction and high achievement, how can we encourage and foster these qualities in our homes and family relationships?
Part of that answer can be found in how we approach the problems/opportunities that we face in our families. Do we approach them as opportunities? As obstacles to be worked around? Or as roadblocks impeding our path?
Sometimes a problem is actually an opportunity to learn about responsibility, to gain confidence in problem-solving skills, decide on a solution, learn from mistakes, try another solution, and see it through to completion. What seems like a problem can really be an opportunity to develop grit, practice gratitude, engage in curiosity about how things work, increase the odds of having optimism about ability to handle life, and be a timely learning experience in the value of self-control. When put that way, it doesn’t really sound like a problem does it?
To read more about these character traits and how they influence life satisfaction and achievement, check out “How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character” by Paul Tough. The New York Times book review of this book is available here: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/26/books/review/how-children-succeed-by-paul-tough.html.
Never waste a crisis. No matter how uncomfortable crisis can be, there is always something that we can learn and a way that we can grow if we simply pay attention to the reality of the crisis, listen to what our emotions are telling us, and respond with truth and love.
It turns out that we also have tremendous opportunities to connect with those we love through the way that we approach our problems. The first step is to re-frame the problem as an opportunity.
In Parenting the Love & Logic Way, Dr. Charles Fay tells the story of how he re-framed the problem of a hole in the garage wall as an opportunity for his 4 year-old son Cody to gain some valuable drywall skills, learn how to talk to other adults, learn the value of a dollar, have some fun with his dad, and learn that taking your frustrations out on the garage wall does have consequences. Charles did not waste a crisis, and because of the way he helped Cody solve the problem, their relationship became closer, deeper, and more loving in response to the crisis. To hear more about problem solving the Love and Logic way, check out this YouTube video from Jim Fay: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t6mo8m8oyjM&index=7&list=PLOJH-VLmqVWToa59tAOIA2Tw94shLolpt
And the downloadable handout for Love and Logic’s Five Step Approach to Solving Problems can be found here: https://www.loveandlogic.com/articles-advice/guiding-children-to-solve-their-own-problems
The next time one of your kids causes a problem, pause for a minute and consider ways you might be able to re-frame the problem as an opportunity. What character skills could your child develop through this opportunity? What long-term strengths might emerge from a short-term inconvenience? Pay attention to how your child responds to being responsible for solving his/her own problem… celebrate the triumphs, and offer genuine empathy in the struggles.
We walk the good path that leads to intimacy with God and deep, healthy relationships with those whom we love when we listen with curiosity, speak with vulnerability, and act with humility. There is a liturgy to our rituals, a liturgy that is flexible and adaptive to the changing seasons of our family life.
The liturgy that characterized my grandmother’s marriage and her family in the 1930’s is very different than the liturgy necessary for modern marriages and families. Our liturgies need to grow and change as we grow and change and as our families grow and change. In the Baby Boomer generation, frequently the place to be seen, safe, soothed, and secure was around the family table where reliability was built around sharing meals together. That’s a little harder to pull off in today’s family with kids involved in after-school activities and athletics.
But no matter how busy our lives get, we have to remember: every human being (including the human beings who live in our houses) needs reliable trustworthy access to the people who care about them and whom they care about, a safe place to really listen and really talk about things that are important, and warm affection. These needs haven’t changed just because our world has become more complex. These needs remain part of the reality of our relational life. Yet anything that is ritual or routine or reliable can be difficult to maintain in a complex world. But there is no complexity in life that changes God’s love for us. And if we want to model that love, sometimes we need to stop what we’re doing to really listen to our children. Sometimes we need to close the computer and really listen to our spouses.
If you can’t imagine carving out 30 minutes for a stress-reducing conversation (see Wednesday’s Connecting through Conversation and Thursday’s Connecting through Listening), then maybe you could find a way to make hello/goodbye really special for everyone in your family – have a special ritual for walking your toddler into preschool and saying goodbye until later, then putting your phone away when you return to say hello so that you can fully listen to his/her experience while you were apart; make sure everyone in the family gets a hug and a kiss before they leave the house and an attentive ear when they return; be creative and make hello/goodbye something special. To learn more about rituals of connection and why they are so important, check out the Gottman blog http://www.gottmanblog.com/sound-relationship-house/2014/10/28/create-shared-meaning-examining-your-rituals.
And while you’re making these small changes, remember that there is no place in life out of which the good path cannot be chosen.
For really young children who might not be ready for the stress reducing conversation, we can be interested in the things that interest them. Instead of leading them to participate in structured activities all the time, maybe spend some time just watching what they like to do. What gets their attention? While noticing what gets their attention, practice asking really open-ended questions to learn WHO your child is. These are questions like “what is it about the butterfly that makes you want to watch it?” rather than “you like the butterfly because it’s colorful don’t you?”
As your children get older this means exploring their world with curiosity – being open to where they might be taking you rather than assuming you know where they are headed. This means doing a lot of listening and wondering and exploring and being OPEN to what you are hearing.
Dr. Tina Payne Bryson is the co-author (with Dan Siegel) of THE WHOLE-BRAIN CHILD (Random House Delacorte, 2011) and NO-DRAMA DISCIPLINE (Random House Bantam, 2014). In this short YouTube video, Tina reminds us that the activity isn’t really the big thing when it comes to our kids, it’s our presence with them in their world that matters https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eQ6SPIW64w4 .
The Stress Reducing Conversation doesn’t have to be limited to the context of marriage. The practice of active listening and empathetically connecting is incredibly valuable to our children who also need a reliable place to be seen, safe, soothed, and secure. We can build this time into our daily routines for the children living in our homes, or our visitation routines for shared parenting situations, or even weekly phone conversations with our adult children living outside of our homes. Regardless of the age of our children, it is important that they have the opportunity to share who they are, what they’re afraid of, what brings them joy, their hopes and their dreams…without being corrected or judged or silenced. John Gottman calls this connection to our inner world, our “love map.” Everyone has one, including our kids.
So how can we connect through listening if our kids only speak to us in 1-word phrases? Would you believe there’s an app for that? The Gottman Your Child’s Love Maps app includes 100 questions for the significant people in a child’s life to test their knowledge of the child’s inner world. And if we’re stumped, we can always ask our child. Most of the 100 questions cannot be answered in 1-word. How do you think you would you do? Can you name two of your child’s heroes and heroines? What about your child’s ideal vacation getaway? Can you name one thing your child would want to change about you? For this, and more apps from the Gottman Institute, check out http://www.gottman.com/iphone-apps-2/.
And if you’d like to read more about why building love maps is such an important part of being married, check this out: http://www.gottmanblog.com/new-construction/2015/3/11/build-love-maps.
As you begin to explore the inner world of the people you love the most, remember to have some fun. This isn’t about being “right” or being “wrong”. This is about getting to know each other in deeply meaningful and affirming ways.
So if I choose what I think is the good path that leads to intimacy with God and deep, healthy relationships with others, how can I be sure that I’m on it?
In Galatians 5, Paul describes the fruit of the good path as: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” In the world of science, researchers refer to the good path as “secure attachment”. Secure attachment is a bit of a dance…”lending support while supporting separation.” It turns out that secure attachment provides what every mammal (we can substitute human) needs: reliable trustworthy access to the people who care about us and whom we care about, a safe place to really listen and really talk about things that are important to us, and warm affection that honors our personal temperament and boundaries. We thrive when we are seen, safe, soothed, and secure in our close relationships. These are markers of the good path.
So if we are looking to walk this good path, what are some things we can do to create places to be seen, safe, soothed, and secure in our close relationships? John Gottman, who has studied marriage for over 40 years, encourages a practice referred to as the Stress Reducing Conversation. The practice and its benefits are described in this entry from the Gottman Blog:
Maybe try it for a week and see what happens. Comment on this post to let us know how the experiment goes.
Pay attention to the way that Psalm 1:6 reads in your translation of the Bible. Some translations choose “watching over” while others choose “know”. The Common English Bible reads “intimately acquainted” which makes sense to me given that this is the same Hebrew word that we find in Genesis 4:1 “Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain.”
God is intimately acquainted with the good path. This is not cognitive knowing, like reading a book and learning about stuff. This is knowing like the way a new mother knows her newborn child – every contour, every noise, every dimple, each cry, each touch, the bond. When we read Psalm 1 this way, we can talk about how God KNOWS us deeply, the good and the bad (because none of us is all one OR all the other), AND God LOVES us deeply, and there’s never a time that God doesn’t love us. The moment we face that feels the most difficult, the most overwhelming…at THAT moment, God knows us and loves us deeply.
When we find ourselves in THAT moment and can become aware of the reality of our current location, remembering that God KNOWS us deeply and LOVES us deeply reminds us that there is a good path from here – wherever “here” is. Our next word or next action can be part of the good path that leads to intimacy with God and deep, healthy relationships with those whom we love.
How can we help our children and grandchildren tell and embrace their stories? We can start by co-narrating their life events. When kids are small, begin the story of what’s happening in the day-to-day and give them the opportunity to fill in the gaps, add details, and incorporate emotion. Their level of detail might be maddening at times. Their timing will be off. The included facts might have zero relevance to the overall story (from your perspective). But be patient. The only way to improve as a storyteller is to tell stories. Be curious. Ask questions. Resist correcting or finishing the story. Model clear, concise, coherent storytelling by telling your own stories. And hope to receive the same level of patience from your kids if you are new to this practice.
As children move toward middle and high school, they begin to make an intentional move toward adulthood, which means finding a way to shift and re-shape the meanings embedded in the stories of family, school, and community to make them their own (paraphrased from Dr. Dan Siegel, “Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain).
By the time that kids enter their teen years, our co-narration has given way to their narration of their own stories, and it’s probably time to do more listening than talking. Letting them tell their own stories and being attentive to how the family themes live out in their story and adapt within their changing world can be an incredibly affirming part of parenting. It can also be a little challenging if they seem to be moving away from themes we find important. This is when it can be helpful to meditate and pray over the idea that every life is a holy journey and the story of that life is a part of God’s work in the world. As we pray, ask God to reveal God’s self through the unfolding of your teen’s story.