Choosing to Disengage

“The beginning of strife is like letting out water,

so abandon the quarrel before it breaks out”

– Proverbs 17:14

Sometimes the best argument is the one that never happens. I don’t know if it is our competitiveness, selfishness, or the pressure from countless marriage books to resolve conflict, but it seems to be a trend to try to overanalyze even the most minute details in our marriages. I make this point to myself first of all. As a therapist, I spend a great deal of time helping people resolve conflict and I will admit to being hypervigilant to any unresolved conflict in my own marriage.  There comes a point, though, when an issue just needs to be forgiven and dropped.

Some of this can be blamed on an understandable overreaction. The American church has had a history of encouraging superficiality and ignoring issues in the name of peace and “making Jesus look good.” In those cases, conflicts and resentments grew as well-meaning Christians bowed to pressure to appear like they have it all together. There is still a great deal of this in the church today. However, there has been a groundswell in the past several years, of which I have been a part, to emphasize transparency and healthy conflict resolution. This emphasis, though, can lead to an overreaction that puts our marriages under a microscope, analyzing it for any infinitesimal flaw.  There is a time and place for overlooking a matter.

Proverbs 17:14 warns us of the danger of a conflict and I think the metaphor is apt. It portrays the beginning of a disagreement as being similar to water beginning to escape from a dam. What starts as a slight leak  can break out into a torrent. Trying to hold back the water or effectively trickle it out is unwise. The thing to do is run! It is a wise thing in marriage to know when to just drop a conversation that is only going to lead to a damaging and destructive fight. So how do we know when we should and shouldn’t address something?

In my experience, there are two indicators that an issue needs to just be dropped or avoided. Both require insight and a searching into your own heart. First, if you will have forgotten about the issue and no longer be upset about it in the next day or two, it is probably not that important. Important issues linger and grow with silence, developing resentment. The small ones go away. Everybody has pet peeves that are triggered by their spouse. Most of them are trivial things and need to be overlooked or forgiven. Second, if you sense the conflict will inevitably lead to a disproportionate emotional response, it is probably best to step away. In that case, there is obviously another bigger issue looming behind the dam that needs to be addressed first. Step back, calm down and deal with the real problem. Otherwise, you are just going to make  the problem worse and the issue you started with will likely not get resolved anyway.

There can be wisdom in knowing when to avoid something. It takes great restraint to choose not to complain or point out fault, but to forgive and choose to accept our spouse, faults and all. Choose to love. Choose to forgive. Choose to disengage and live to love another day.

Mike Sorenson, LPCMH

The Practice of Rejoicing

“Let your fountain be blessed,

And rejoice in the wife of your youth.”

– Proverbs 5:18

Who doesn’t want to be ridiculously happy in their marriage? We all start off with that in mind. Engaged couples can be annoying to be around because they are just so enamored with each other. Something gets lost, though, for many as the years of living life together take their toll. When the enjoyment of the relationship is gone, most husbands I talk to blame either the circumstances or their wives. When they do this, I think they miss the opportunity that is right in front of their faces and are in danger of justifying destructive choices.

The “father” of the early part of Proverbs warns the “son” of the dangers of falling into the trap of adultery, painting a picture of a life squandered and riddled with regret. His career, marriage and reputation could all be destroyed for the fleeting passion of the “other woman.” How could he avoid this pitfall? The seemingly simple but wise advice is to indulge himself fully in enjoying the wife that he has. He is told to rejoice in her, to be satisfied with her and to be exhilarated or intoxicated by her. If he is able to be this enamored with his own wife, the allure of chasing something else (whether it is a career, lust,  or another “more fulfilling” relationship) is lost.

I can almost hear men reading this and saying, “I would love to enjoy my wife, but (insert wife’s faults here).” You see, we tend to see happiness as a product of external circumstances, rather than cultivating a joyful heart and attitude. In this section of proverbs, the verb translated rejoice is a command. It is assumed, then, that it is something we should be able to do. So, how do you make this a practice in your life when you are living with an imperfect wife? Rather than spending your time lamenting your wife’s faults or regretting the decisions you have made, spend some time meditating on some of her great qualities. There is a reason you fell for her in the first place. Make a list of these qualities and how they have made your life better. Imagine how your life would suffer without them.

It should go without saying, but as you begin to appreciate some of the good qualities you see, take the time to make sure your wife knows how valuable and precious she is to you. The Hebrew word for rejoice could also be translated celebrate. Take the time to celebrate your good fortune in being married to someone so wonderful. As your attitude changes, you will likely find you are a great deal more satisfied with your marriage. In addition, I would be willing to bet your wife’s demeanor would change as well. What woman doesn’t like the idea of being adored, appreciated and celebrated?

Mike Sorenson, LPCMH

Embracing Limitations

“We all move uneasily within our restraints.”

– Kay Redfield Jamison

Limitation is not a popular word in American lingo. We are surrounded by motivational sayings, urging us to believe that “anything is possible,” “we can do anything we set our mind to” and so on. We are a people who love to dream big and encourage others to do the same. While confidence is important and success often does not come without a level of faith and determination, there is also a belief in oneself that can border on delusion. That kind of “self-confidence” is destructive and possibly debilitating.

Americans do not like to be told ‘no.’ Our success as a nation has come at a price: a sense of entitlement. Who doesn’t grow up wishing they could be a rock star or professional athlete? Few of us are blessed with the talent to do so, however. Yet, so many chase after a dream that is unrealistic for them, believing what they are told, that they can do it if they believe in themselves. When it doesn’t happen they end up greatly discouraged and wondering why God didn’t allow them to have what they most wanted. One only has to watch the tryouts for American Idol to see hosts of these unrealistic dreams being crushed. Is it a loving thing to encourage someone on a path toward the music business when they have no discernible talent? Is a life without limits really attainable?

Humility, as it is understood in the Bible, is not the antithesis of success. It actually redefines success. Many success stories will not be highly publicized or even be acknowledged by those it helps. Many are gifted to perform roles that may seem menial to some of us, yet are vital to the growth of God’s kingdom. He has given each of us gifts and a purpose, and every role is important (1Cor 12:12-26). God gifted some to serve food to widows, freeing up the apostles to teach and ending a dispute that could have fractured the early church (Acts 6:1-7). He has asked others to suffer in order that He might use their example.

The truth is that what we may view as a limitation could be the source of our greatest triumph and purpose. Recognizing the limitations of our life is often one of the keys to finding our purpose. Joni Eareckson Tada was paralyzed in a diving accident when she was 17. Hers is not a story of success because through grit and determination she was able to heal herself and walk again. Her success came in embracing her struggle and using her greatest area of weakness to glorify God and help others. Had she not been a paraplegic, there would be no Joni and Friends camps for special needs children. The power of her ministry is in her weakness. That is what gives her credibility when she talks of how to suffer well.

Sometimes a limitation is something we need to account for and accept before we are really able to showcase our strengths. Tons of people every day refuse to take medication, refuse to go to counseling, refuse to work on their marriage, or refuse to delegate responsibilities because they don’t want to acknowledge that they have a problem. If those obstacles were removed or accounted for it would likely be the catalyst to tremendous growth or great success.

The key to finding our purpose and direction in life is embracing both our strengths and our weaknesses. Both have valuable information to share with us and we are unwise to ignore either one. God does not put obstacles or limitations in our path unnecessarily. There is no benefit from living in a delusional fantasy world where we don’t have any weaknesses. In humility, embrace your own brokenness as an opportunity to glorify God and you just might see Him work in ways you’ve never seen before.

Mike Sorenson, LPCMH

How Do I Know I’ve Tried?

Like many counselors who do a great deal of marital therapy, I get a large number of couples who are facing the prospect of divorce. The most common expression I hear from couples in this situation is, “I just want to know that I tried.” I will admit to feeling a bit discouraged whenever I hear this, because it is usually code for “I want to ease my guilt about filing for divorce.” Many people think that by merely showing up a number of times in a counselor’s office they have given their marriage a legitimate opportunity to turn around. When this effort inevitably fails, they feel more justified in giving up on their vows. In many of these scenarios, the truth is that neither spouse has really tried at anything except pinning the blame on the other and reducing their own feelings of guilt.

I am a perpetual optimist and I am all for last chances. It is just that my standard for trying in a difficult marriage is a bit different. Showing up for a counseling appointment is a good first step, but that is the equivalent of showing up for your job in the morning. The fact that you were in the building doesn’t make you a hard-working and effective employee. Fixing a marriage that is near divorce requires a great deal of work and showing up is just the beginning. So, what kind of work really counts if you are going to be able to say you tried?

Divorce can sometimes be inevitable if one spouse is determined to move on from the marriage, but that does not mean that there is no work to do, even for the other spouse. As I see it, the primary responsibility for each spouse going into a round of marital counseling is to identify his or her contribution to the relationship breakdown and to work on the character issues that contribution reveals. Every spouse comes in knowing their partner’s problems. Very few are able to identify their own, and these people have a much higher success rate.

Have you neglected your marriage because you are consumed with your job? Have you been overbearing and controlling? Have you failed to say ‘no’ or truly express your feelings to your spouse? Have you been selfish or failed to show any appreciation to your partner? We all contribute something to a broken relationship and if we are not looking for it, we are not allowing counseling to do the job it is designed to do. Even a really bad marriage has the potential to show you difficult things about yourself and help you to change. Don’t pass up this opportunity God has provided for you. Whether your marriage survives or not, use this as a chance to face the depths of your heart and embrace deep change. That will definitely give your marriage the best chance of turning around. At least you are getting out of your own way. At the very least, the system cannot stay the same if one of its members changes their role. Things will change, and if that means you end up divorced, you will do so with no regrets.

Your marriage may seem hopeless, and there may seem like no other option but pursuing a divorce, blowing things up and starting over. If you are at that point and caught between the desperate pain of your marriage and the guilt-ridden sense of failure that divorce would bring, stop looking for a chance to say you tried. Ask yourself whether you have changed. Once you can affirm that, you will move forward with no regrets no matter the outcome.

Mike Sorenson, LPCMH

A Jesus That Feels

“And He took with Him Peter and James and John, and began to be very distressed and troubled. And He said to them, ‘My soul is deeply grieved to the point of death; remain here and keep watch.'” (Mark 14:33-34)

When a grieving, troubled or distressed Christian is told by others in his or her church that they should “count it all joy…”, the implicit message to them is that a person with true faith is emotionally unaffected by their circumstances. This unwritten rule is prevalent in church culture. It seems we have elevated stoicism to the status of virtue. This idea is certainly not Biblical, nor is it even practical or realistic. To a person who is grieving or hurting, it is at best frustrating or insulting. At worst, it can be discouraging, demoralizing, or alienating. The logical conclusion from such a line of thinking is that anyone who is emotionally distraught must be somehow caught in sin or lacking in faith. If that is the message we are sending to those who are hurting in our churches, then we are drastically misrepresenting our Savior.

If we look closely at the Jesus the Bible describes, we see that He experienced the fullness of life as a man, with a rich and varied emotional life. He at various times showed joy, compassion, anger, love and grief. No place shows his emotional reactions more vividly than the description of his night in the Garden of Gethsemene. After the Last Supper with His disciples, on the night He was to be arrested, Jesus entered one last time into the Garden to pray in preparation for the suffering He was to endure. It was no surprise to Jesus that the Father was going to ask Him to suffer on the cross. Jesus had been telling people for some time about it. Still, it seems that it was at that moment when the reality of what He was about to go through hit Him in full force. You know that moment when a difficult step goes from being something you will have to do sometime to something you have to do right now? That is what the Garden of Gethsemene was to Jesus.

The adjective translated as “very distressed” is actually translated elsewhere as “amazed.” It is the same word used to describe the female disciples’ reaction to seeing an angel in Jesus’ empty tomb (Mark 16:5). Jesus, the man who was also fully God and without sin, was actually in awe of the suffering He was about to endure. He felt the depths of anxiety and grief to the point that He already felt as if He was near death. He was far from being cool, calm and collected as we like to imagine Him. None of us can claim to have experienced the depths of despair He faced as He took the burden of the sin of mankind on His back, but we can learn an important lesson from His response. The unspoken truth of this account is that Jesus did not sin in His reaction because He never deviated from His commitment to do the Father’s will. He suffered deeply and willingly walked right into a depth of despair we could never imagine. His faithfulness was not measured by a stoic, steel-faced response to the nightmare lying ahead, but by a willingness to suffer whatever the Father laid out for Him.

We will all at times taste of the suffering this world brings. It is unrealistic for us to think that we should be able to face that suffering without any form of negative emotion. If Jesus is our model, we can be anxious, grieving or overwhelmed and yet still remain faithful to our Father. There is no reason to feel guilty for grieving the loss of  a loved one or fearing unemployment. We are not expected to enjoy an abusive relationship or take pleasure in the manipulations of an intrusive parent. The faith that Jesus displayed in the Garden of Gethsemene is something entirely different. It is found in His heart of obedience, His unflinching trust in His Father, and His determination to do what was right no matter the consequences. As we face whatever difficulty the Father has allowed, He is looking for those same qualities in us: not a lack of feeling, but a faithfulness that trumps our feelings.

Mike Sorenson, LPCMH