relationship

Raising a Superhero

by: Andy Gear, PLPC

“Since teaching college I’ve been amazed at two things: (1) how deeply young adults want their parents to be proud of them, and (2) just how deeply parents communicate, directly or indirectly, that their kids are not good enough. . . . I may invest in a dry/wet vac for my office. They believe their parents love them but don’t believe their parents are proud of them.” –Dr. Anthony Bradley

My wife and I are having our first child in less than a month, and we are very excited to meet her! Awaiting her birth has stirred up all sorts of emotions in me. I have so many hopes, so many fears, and so many desires for this little person.

I want to have a happy and healthy baby, as all parents do. But I have other hopes and desires as well. My wife and I often lie in bed at night and dream about what our little girl will one day be. We dream of her being a special person: smart, funny, sensitive, doing something we think important (becoming a doctor, a professor, or the President of the United States).

But where do these desires come from and are they good for our developing child? We think she should do special things because she is special to us but also because of our own unfulfilled desires. If we are disappointed with how our life turned out we might desire that our child do what we were unable to accomplish or be the person we wish we were.

The problem is that this completely ignores the humanity and uniqueness of our child. Shouldn’t she have a say in this? This may not be who our child is. She is a little person, not a vessel through which to meet all our unfulfilled desires. It is normal to have dreams, but it can be harmful to have goals or expectations for another human being.

The professor (quoted at the beginning) made the point that well-meaning parents place too much weight on their child’s performance. We put subtle pressure on our children to be an academic, spiritual, athletic, social, or financial success. We make our child’s performance part of our own identity. So we send subtle messages to our children about the conditions for their acceptability.

Our children begin to sense that we are only proud of them when they meet the expectations or goals that we have for them. So they often try to become what we want them to be—to varying degrees of success. But this is done at the expense their own identity and happiness. When they don’t fit the mold we set for them, they feel as though they are failures and are not free to pursue who they truly are.

Just because our child is special to us, doesn’t mean that it is not acceptable for them to be ‘ordinary.’ Not everyone has to be a doctor, a CEO, or the President of the United States. It is enough for them to be themselves. Of course we want to nurture them and provide an environment where they can flourish. But we must be ok with them being who they are. If we are not, they probably won’t be either. They will go through life believing that they are not good enough, don’t have what it takes, or are defective. They may suffer from low self-esteem or anxiety about their performance. Our expectations may rob them of the joy of enjoying who they are.

The messages we send our children, as parents, are extremely powerful. Our words and actions can send the message that they are acceptable because of who they are, not what they do. Or we can subtly poison them with the message that they are only acceptable if their performance matches our expectations. 

Though I may not dream of my daughter being an emotionally reserved janitor, what if that is who she is and chooses to be? Would I celebrate who she is? Or would I subtly communicate that she needs to change in order to make me proud? When I expect her to be someone else I am doing violence against her own unique humanity. She is her own person, and I want to help that person flourish.

I don’t want to create an environment for my daughter that leads to her crying in her professor’s office because she doesn’t think she is living up to my expectations. Though I have hopes and dreams, it is unfair for me to have expectations or goals for another human. She gets to decide who she wants to be, and I have the privilege of helping foster her unique self. I want her to flourish, but I don’t get to decide how she flourishes. She doesn’t have to be the best at anything to make me proud. She will make me proud by just being who she is.  

7 tips for a healthier marriage

by: Andy Gear, PLPC
1. Avoid blaming

In our consumer culture it is tempting to look for ways to change the other person. We often look at the people in our relationships as we would products and want them to perform to our liking (Doherty). However, it is ineffective and destructive to try to change someone else. Instead it is much more effective to initiate change in your own behavior. In most cases changing how you approach the relationship will have a positive effect on the marriage, regardless of your partner’s intention to change. This is a countercultural way of living, but one that will improve relationships immensely if lived consistently.

2. Take time to reflect

Changing the way you act in relationships requires a great deal of self-reflection. We must think about who we truly are and how we want to live. It is vital to see beyond our surface frustrations to the softer emotions that are driving our fears and longings. If we do not reflect, we will see our marriage issues as merely frustrations with the other person’s behavior. In order to communicate with your spouse effectively you must know what is going on inside you.

3. Determine true needs

Reject the consumer mentality that your partner must meet your each and every desire. Spouses cannot meet every one of our needs and that is ok. We can distinguish between our needs and desires. We all have hopes and desires, but it is unfair to establish goals for another person. Determine what you truly need from your spouse, and what are simply desires or qualities that can be met by a friend.

4. Communicate your needs directly

Communicate to your spouse what you truly need in the relationship honestly and directly. Though it may be terrifying, we must have the courage to communicate our honest feelings to our spouse instead of someone else. If we do not communicate what we most long for in the relationship, our partner is unable to respond to our deepest needs.  But if we communicate our deepest feelings we open ourselves up to the possibility of closer intimacy.

5. Respond to each other’s needs

Respond to your partner’s feelings, reassuring them that you are there for them (Johnson). Be emotionally responsive to each other’s deepest fears and needs. It is not about agreeing with the other person’s view but trying to understand where the other person is coming from. Our problems often have more to do with the hurt and the disconnection than about the disagreements. Seeing one’s partner respond empathetically to their deepest needs has a deeply bonding effect. This does not imply that we solve them, but that we show that we understand. Showing your partner that they matter to you helps create a safe and secure relationship where one can be less defensive (Johnson).

6. Clarify your commitment

Knowing that you are both committed to the marriage can help lower the emotional intensity of your conflict. It helps to understand that the frustrations you are pointing out in your partner are not deal breakers. Agree that you do not want divorce to be a part of the conversation (Doherty). With this commitment, you can take the time to improve the marriage at its root, rather than frantically trying to rescue the marriage from the brink. Of course not all couples will be able to tell each other that divorce is not an option, but for those who can, this can reduce tension and improve your ability to work on your marriage.

7. Fight for the relationship

Relationships naturally weaken when they are neglected. Resist the urge to simply fight for your own needs, instead fight for the needs of the relationship (Doherty). Take responsibility for the relationship and be intentional about it.  Work together to look for creative and practical ways to continue to connect in your daily lives. Make it a priority. Staying together even through a difficult marriage (except in extreme cases) is rewarding, both for you and for your entire family. But keeping that close connection requires work, commitment, and making the relationship a priority.  


Why can’t I handle it on my own?

By: Andy Gear

When I think about life before the Fall, I don’t think of people going around lonely. But that thought comforted me because I realized loneliness in my own life doesn’t mean I am a complete screwup, rather God made me this way. You always picture the perfect human being as somebody who doesn’t need anybody, like a guy on a horse in Colorado or whatever. But here is Adam, the only perfect guy in the world, and he is going around wanting to be with somebody else, needing another person to fulfill a certain emptiness in his life . . . I wondered at how beautiful it is that you and I were created to need each other. The romantic need is just the beginning, because we need our families and we need our friends. In this way, we are made in God’s image. Certainly God does not need people in the way you and I do, but He feels a joy at being loved, and He feels a joy at delivering love. It is a striking thought to realize that, in paradise, a human is incomplete without a host of other people. We are relational indeed
Searching for God Knows What by Donald Miller
I often feel like I should be able to handle all my problems on my own. Images of John Wayne and Bruce Willis float through my mind as I suck up my pain and try unsuccessfully to pull myself back up by my bootstraps. If only I just relied on God more, all my loneliness would just melt away. But as I read the first chapters of Genesis, I begin to question this assumption. Adam walked in the garden in perfect fellowship with God, and even then God said that Adam needed other people. He didn’t create us to be lone wolves. He created us to need each other, and He doesn’t call this weakness. He calls it being made in the image of God. We are relational, like our Father.

Growth in maturity doesn’t mean learning to solve all our problems on our own. Seeking caring, empathetic, and authentic relationship is not a concession for the weak. It is the wisdom that comes from realizing who we were made to be. We were not made to ‘stick it out’ on our own. In the Old Testament God called a family and a nation. In the New Testament He called His church to do life as a community of brothers and sisters. He wanted us to understand our need for help in this journey. Why can’t I handle it on my own? It’s not because there is something wrong with me. I was never meant to do it alone.  

Fiction, Hollywood, and Real Relationship

by Jonathan Hart, LPC

SPOILER ALERT:  for those who haven’t read the Harry Potter or Hunger Games series, there may be plot spoilers in the following paragraphs, though I will try hard not to reveal too much.

My wife and I were discussing some of our thoughts about how the books The Deathly Hallows and Mockingjay ended, and how they served to wrap up their respective series.  We were thoroughly disappointed in each and for similar reasons.  The core of our disappointment was the principle of “putting a bow on ugly”.

The Harry Potter series ended with an epilogue titled “19 years later”, that (we felt) too neatly and agreeably attempted to wrap up all the threads from the series.  The fact that Harry named a child after the person who most utterly despised him and treated him viciously even behind closed doors was just too much.  I can see coming to respect him, but one simply does not name a child after an abuser of this magnitude.  All the ugliness seemed to have inexplicably vanished.

The Hunger Games series tried to do the same thing, though the attempt at closure was somewhat better.  The author at least attempted to acknowledge that ugly existed in the post-story world, but it was still resolved too simplistically and without the flesh to make it believable for me.

Hollywood and fiction train us to expect that all the loose ends can be resolved, that resolution equals “happily ever after” or at least a reasonable facsimile thereof.  They train us to need things to work out that way.  This is most plainly true in the (despicable and utterly useless) genre known as “Romantic Comedy”.  I cannot say more without using profanity.

Think of the sense of disappointment or unease when you watch a movie in which resolution is not clean or neat. We recently watched the movie Moneyball, which does not conclude with a “Hollywood Ending”.  I can only say that the events depicted happened within the recent lifetimes of many, and as such could not be modified to fit the pattern described above.  I feel that if they were more ancient history they would likely have been changed into something completely victorious.

This is fine, and even necessary (to a degree) for celluloid.  The unfortunate side effect is that because reality is very much different, many people are left with a sense of disappointment and even despair when real life does not work that way.  The truth is that human beings are generally a broken, selfish lot that is capable of both great goodness and great evil, often within a single breath.

The fact is that intimacy, real relationship, and engaging responsibly with another human being is often like a wrestling match.  The very best relationship in the world experiences conflict and disagreement, hurt and offense, misunderstanding and tension on an ongoing basis.  The couple who tells you that “never a harsh word is spoken” is either whitewashing, outright lying, or they are not experiencing real, deep intimacy.

If you are going to really do deep, intimate relationship with another person, you’d better know how to fight.  I don’t mean knowing how to eviscerate your opponent in the shortest period of time.  I mean knowing how to hold in tension the following two truths: 1. This other person and I are on the same side,  and 2. There is pain and friction between us.

When I talk about knowing how to fight, I mean knowing how to understand and express my own feelings and thoughts in a way that does not accuse or attack the other, even when it is plainly and wholly their fault.  I mean learning how to uphold their honor and dignity while feeling the painfully powerful desire to rip their eyes out.  I mean knowing how to view conflict as a necessary part of doing relationship, and not as a threat to relationship.

It is often one of the hardest lessons to learn in relationship that resolution is not about coming to agreement, but rather it is about coming to a deeper understanding of the other person, and thereby learning how to craft a unique relationship between the two of you.  No part of that process is clean, neat, or simple.  It is ugly, and to expect or demand otherwise only leads to disappointment.  You can put a bow on it if you like, but that doesn’t make it easier to look at.  It takes patience, forgiveness, grace, mercy, and love.  When you’ve come to the other side of it, it will still be ugly, but there is a beauty in what has been created by moving through it that will last a lifetime.

The Prayer from the Darkest Hour

by Jonathan Hart, LPC

God.
    I’m not really sure you’re even listening right now.  It certainly doesn’t seem like it.  I’m done.  I can’t do this any more.  If you want it done, you have to do it.  Whatever you are doing with me, get it over with because this hurts too much.
    I’m angry, and I’m pretty sure I’m angry with you.  I don’t understand.  I feel like you’ve turned your head and you don’t see me anymore, you’re not listening, and you don’t care.  Everything I’ve ever learned about you says you are kind and loving and you want the best for me, and I’d like to believe that, but I can’t seem to bring myself to risk it.  If I believe that, then it means that the hell I am living through right now is somehow for my good.  I want something else.  Not this.
    So if you are who and what you say you are, and if you really do care about me and you really do hear me, then … I don’t know … do something.  Show up.  Give me something to work with.  I’m tired of hurting, and I am utterly helpless.  You’re all I really have, and I’m scared you’re not there.  Amen.

I know a lot of people who would be scared to pray a prayer like this.  It doesn’t feel respectful.  It feels like asking for a lightning strike.  “I can’t be angry with God!  I can’t tell him I’m hopeless… Faith is always trusting him, and this isn’t trusting at all!”  Yet I think there is more faith in a prayer like this than in many that are said on Sunday morning.
    The thing that makes a prayer like this a prayer of faith is the fact that it is a prayer: it is addressed to God.  It may be said through clenched teeth, but it is a prayer, and prayer is an act of faith, especially when it expresses doubt, fear, and pain.
    God is big enough and real enough to handle our doubts.  He can handle our anger and fearful lashing out.  He is the kind father who absorbs the tearful, angry pummeling of his small child, lovingly contains the flailing fists, and soaks up the tears with his shirt. He is still present, he is still mindful, and he still loves his child.
    So when you feel your darkest hours upon you, turn to him.  Shout at the heavens if need be.  He loves you  as you are, especially when you are angry and doubtful.  He desires relationship with you: he wants to hear your heart in whatever state it happens to be at the moment.  

Do not be afraid.

Burn Notice and the 130 MPH Perspective

by Jonathan Hart, LPC
My wife and I were watching a recent episode of Burn Notice (#502: “Bloodlines”, if you’re interested), where the character of Fiona tries to keep a philandering scientist out of trouble.

**While I am trying not to give too much away, there may be spoilers in the next sentence.**
The two of them ended up in a fast car on the highway, with Fiona driving 130 mph with her eyes closed, while the panicking scientist shouted at her when she needed to turn.

I have, in my reckless youth, driven almost that fast, and I can tell you with all sincerity, DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME. When you’re driving 25 or 30 miles an hour, you can look around and enjoy the surroundings a bit. At 130 miles an hour, you must keep your eyes glued intently on the road in front of you, or you will die.  You don’t really even have time to check the next lane before you have to move into it because what is coming at you is coming hard and fast. (Did I mention it yet? Do NOT try this at home!)

I am realizing that in a lot of ways, the difficulties and challenges that arise in life are a lot like traveling at excessive speed on the highway.  Trouble is not an enjoyable thing.  It can be draining and often fearful to look at the road that life has you taking, and it seems like trouble loves to stomp on the gas.  The feeling and fear of losing control, spinning, and flipping end-over-end is *not* exhilarating when it comes in the form of a crashing relationship or the brick wall of a crushing diagnosis.

When our lives are relatively trouble-free, we can look around and enjoy the scenery.  We can get distracted by things that are relatively insignificant in the grand scheme of things. How green (or brown) the lawn is, what critters are eating the veggies in the garden, that Tommy got a “C” in algebra, who said what and what did they mean by it, all become larger issues and demand more attention than they really deserve.

But trouble demands more of our resources in order to cope.  When the doctor says, “Cancer”, the lawn doesn’t seem to matter as much anymore.  The word “Divorce” tends to reduce the importance of how many tomatoes we are going to have this year.  We need more of our energy to pay attention to the things that matter.  Communication, study, emotional and mental effort are put toward dealing with the crisis, and the less important things fall by the wayside in a blur.  Trouble has a way of re-setting our priorities, and this can be a good thing.

Another effect of trouble is to force us to realize that, no matter what we have come to believe, we are not in control of our lives. Oh, we can choose our socks and our favorite potato chips and a few other things, but circumstances change regardless of our precautions.  Losing a job or a home or a loved one to disease is not something we generally have a say in.  Our scientist friend in the story above was not driving, he was along for the ride, and the ride was terrifying.  He could shout directions all he wanted, but he was utterly dependent on the skills of the driver.

The wonderful part is that for the believer in Jesus, losing control (or recognizing that control was not ours to begin with) can actually be *comforting*. We can find comfort when we learn that Trouble is not driving, God is.  Paul writes in Philippians that he has learned that the secret to contentment lies in dependence on Jesus:   “I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need.  I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” Philippians 4:12-13 (ESV)  


No matter what it feels like, God is not a reckless driver who closes his eyes and waits for us to shout directions. He is, and has been, in charge of our lives and direction from the beginning, and (to push the illustration to its breaking point) he is the best driver there is.

Nothing makes the grinding trouble of this life less terrifying for us, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise: most often, you are perfectly normal when you are afraid of the unknown future.  Jesus tells us not to worry about tomorrow precisely because he knew we would be worried about it.  Knowing that God is driving and that he knows what he is doing gives us a place to go in our fear, a place to be afraid and most importantly, a place to find comfort.

Lest this entire post come off sounding fluffy and trite, please know that dealing with crises in life is not simple, straightforward or easy.  There is no one “answer” or belief that will “fix” the problem or make the hurt and fear go away for good.  This is one piece of what can often be a complex puzzle.  When life accelerates and you feel it in the seat of your pants, find a friend or a counselor who can come along side you, who can help you make sense of your fear, and who can walk with you into the arms of Jesus.  The fear will come and go.  When it comes, keep on taking it to Jesus.  He knows what to do with it.

The Characteristics of Abuse and Control

by Jonathan Hart, LPC
I recently spoke at the Women’s Safe House on the subject of identifying and avoiding potentially abusive relationships.  The presentation was called “How Not to Go Back:  Finding a Different Kind of Mate”.   What follows are a few of the ideas presented at that meeting.
Very often, as people move from relationship to relationship, they find themselves attracted to the same kind of person.  They leave one relationship for whatever reason, and find themselves in a relationship with another person who looks, acts, thinks, and speaks in similar ways. The problems of the previous relationship happen all over again in the current one.  This is especially troublesome when the other person is abusive or controlling. 
Often “number one” on the list of criteria used to judge the suitability of a mate is their appearance, but what needs to be considered most carefully is what is on the inside.  Charming behavior and kinds words all too often give way to harshness, belittling, demands, and even physical altercations. 
While there is no single characteristic that guarantees that a person is an abuser, I have assembled a list of characteristics that are common among abusive or controlling partners.  What follows is not exhaustive: I have tried to assemble a representative list of suggestions on how to see into a person’s character regarding how they will likely view and relate to a mate or partner.  
I use the male pronoun because unfortunately, the vast majority of abusers are male.  I do not in any way seek to suggest that “all men behave this way”. There are indeed men “out there” who are good, honorable, respectful, kind, and loving. 
Warning signs:
  • Easy frustration or quick temper
  • Jealousy or possessiveness (indicates a sense of ownership rather than partnership)
  • Getting “carried away”, even in little or positive things (lack of control over impulses)
  • Lies, excuses, cover-ups: “I didn’t mean it! I was drunk: it wasn’t me! It was the alcohol.”
  • What happens when you say “No.”?  If it is disregarded or discounted, take warning!
  • Parent/Child relationship (you have rules and consequences for breaking them)
  • History: Has he abused before?  Does he use force to solve his problems?
  • Pushing blame/lack of responsibility:  “I wouldn’t have had to do that if you hadn’t…” “You brought this on yourself. You made me mad.”
  • Giving orders/making demands versus making requests or seeking your opinion. 
  • “I’m sorry, but…”  The “but” undoes whatever came before it!
Areas to look at:
  • Church/Faith/Religion: how is the language of  “headship & submission” used? If being the “head” means “I get my way over yours” there is a potential problem!
  • Family Patterns: What is his parents’ relationship like?  How do his siblings relate to their significant others and children?  How does he treat his mother?
  • F.O.G.: Does he use Fear, Obligation, or Guilt to get his way? (‘You owe me! Look at all I do/provide for you!”)
  • H.A.L.T.: Who is he when he is Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired?  These are not valid excuses for lashing out!

Two Laws of Relationship:

  1. You ALWAYS have the right to say what happens to your body. Nobody can tell you that “You have to take it”.
  2. You are ALWAYS responsible for how you use your body. “You made me do it” is a lie.
I hope some of these ideas are useful as you think about your relationships or as you consider new ones.  As I said before, no single characteristic or idea listed above guarantees that a person is abusive or controlling (or not so!).  These are ideas to help you see what is on the inside of the person you are attracted to, and to hopefully help you choose someone who will treat you with the dignity and honor that every human being deserves.
Some reading this post may come to understand for the first time that you have experienced a relationship like that which is described above.  Some already know it and feel it deeply.  Some may realize that these are ways in which you habitually relate.  Please understand that hope is real and change is possible.  If you would like to discuss this post with me in a confidential manner, please contact me at [email protected] so we can arrange a time to talk.