The Accidental Counselor

Pastor Tim: The Accidental Counselor

Imagine that it is Sunday morning and you have just finished preaching a sermon. You have spent countless hours preparing all week to teach for 30-40 minutes. As you stand at the back of the church and greet people, someone approaches you and thanks you for your teaching. You thank them for saying so and you move on to the next person. The only problem is that the person who just thanked you isn’t moving. They say something like this:

What you taught today was very helpful for me. But I still have so many questions. Can we get together sometime this week so we can talk further?

At that point, you begin to panic on the inside. You are a bit baffled that the sermon did not answer all of the person’s questions but you agree to meet with them. As the meeting draws near, you begin to get a little nervous. You wonder what questions will be asked and you struggle to know what you will say if you don’t have good answers to their questions.

And then the appointed time to meet arrives. In walks your congregant and out come the questions.

Pastor Tim, I really enjoyed your sermon on worry this past Sunday! Thank you for your preparation and careful exegesis. Your sermon caused me to think more carefully about my lifelong struggle with anxiety. Over the past several months, my struggle has intensified and I don’t know what to do. I have recently started having panic attacks and find myself getting very agitated when I am around large groups of people. I have even started avoiding events where I know there will be a large crowd. I wonder if you can help me?

With the questions now on the table, you begin to emphasize your three points from your sermon hoping that a reminder will do the trick. It doesn’t! Your friendly congregant has actually taken notes and can almost preach your sermon for you! They start probing for more detail. I know your points from your sermon but can you help me more with my struggle with anxiety? The issue could be a number of other struggles: depression, anger, addiction, marriage, parenting, being single or single again.

Deer In Headlights

With that one question, you feel like a deer in headlights. You don’t know what to do. You maintain a calm exterior while inside you are struggling with your own anxiety. Once again, you recite the passage you preached hoping that will make things better. Once again, your congregant cuts you off in mid sentence to let you know that they remember the passage but it still seems too difficult to apply to the specifics of their struggle with worry.

Why I Wrote Unstuck: A Nine Step Journey to Change that Lasts

The illustration above was repeated many times in my own life as a pastor. I would preach a sermon that was relatively helpful for someone and they would approach me asking for more guidance. Like you, I would get nervous because I did not know what else to do. This is precisely why I wrote Unstuck: A Nine Step Journey to Change that Lasts. I wanted to provide a pathway for the pastor or a friend to walk down with the person who is struggling.

unstuck diagrams9.jpg

Hope and Direction

In the book, there are 9 steps that are essential for change to take place in your life. The 9 steps take you on a journey towards greater Self-Awareness, Gospel-Awareness and Other-Awareness. Each chapter ends with a practical application. Here you can see the diagram that illustrates the path to change.

Step One—Get Grounded: In Christ

Whenever you are struggling with a temptation or some experience of suffering, the tendency is to make the struggle your fundamental identity. For example; My name is Dave and I am a divorced person. Or, My name is Olivia and I am a depressed or anxious person. If that is your starting point, it will lead to a distorted identity and impact your ability to move forward due to the guilt and shame associated with those issues. Instead, Dave and Olivia are both children of the living God, in Christ, forgiven, loved, empowered by the Spirit, a new creation in Christ…..who struggle with anxiety or have been through the challenging experience of divorce.

Grounding your identity in Christ is the first step on the journey to change. It has been true in my own life and in the lives of those I counsel. As you reflect on this first step along the pathway to change, take a moment to give thanks that your mis-steps, sins, weaknesses, and sufferings do not define who you are, the risen Christ does!

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Tim Lane

Dr. Timothy S. Lane is the President of the Institute for Pastoral Care and has a counseling practice in Fayetteville, GA. He is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), having been ordained in 1991 and a member of Metro-Atlanta Presbytery. Tim has authored Living Without Worry: How to Replace Anxiety with Peace, and co-authored How People Change and Relationships: A Mess Worth Making. He has written several mini-books including PTSD, Forgiving Others, Sex Before Marriage, Family Feuds, Conflict, and Freedom From Guilt.

He has experience in both campus ministry (University of Georgia, 1984-1987) and pastoral ministry where he served as a pastor in Clemson, SC from 1991 until 2001. Beginning in 2001 until 2013, he served as a counselor and faculty at a counseling organization  in Philadelphia, PA. Beginning in 2007, he served as its Executive Director until 2013.

In 2014, Tim and his family re-located to his home state, Georgia, where he formed the non profit ministry the Institute for Pastoral Care. His primary desire and commitment is to help pastors and leaders create or improve their ability to care for the people who attend their churches. For more information about this aspect of Tim's work, please visit the section of this site for the Institute for Pastoral Care. He continues to write, speak and travel both nationally and internationally. Tim is adjunct professor of practical theology at several seminaries where he teaches about pastoral care in the local church.

The Soul of Shame

You broke the bonds
And you loosed the chains
Carried the cross of my shame
Oh my shame, you know I believe it. But I still haven't found what I'm looking for.

U2 – "I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For"

We all know we need forgiveness. But there is also a deep longing for an existential reality of that forgiveness – to know that we are more than tolerated but welcomed and seen without any hint of not belonging or not measuring up. Is this even possible? Dare we hope that this is true and possible? This problem is called shame.

Christians are quite familiar with passages that provide assurance that when we trust in Christ, “there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). We are also familiar with passages that provide ongoing encouragement as we fight sin on a daily basis. I John 1:9 is a trusted friend as we face failure on a daily basis. “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive our sins…” In our daily lives, guilt seems to be a topic that is discussed quite a bit. We see it on the news everyday. Someone is convicted of a crime because they were found guilty of wrong-doing. We even talk a great deal about guilt within the context of the church. Glance at any typical liturgy and you will find a “Confession of Sin” element followed by an “Assurance of Pardon.”

But what about shame? What do we do with it? Does the Bible speak to the experience of shame?

Recently, I have been reading The Soul of Shame: Retelling the Stories We Tell About Ourselves by Curt Thompson. If you have not read it, you should. It’s a book that doesn’t make you feel ashamed when reading it. That is amazing all by itself. The book begins this way:

From our family at home to the one at church. From the bedroom to the boardroom. From school to work to play. From the art studio to the science and technology lab. It is a primal emotional pigment that colors the images of everything: our bodies, our marriages and our politics; our successes and failures; our friends and enemies, especially the God of the Bible, who may at times feel like both. It starts and (surprisingly) ends wars, only to start them again. It fuels injustice and creates our excuses for doing little if anything about it. It is a featured tool for motivating students, athletes and employees. It enables us to conveniently remain separate from those we disagree with and who make us feel uncomfortable, while keeping to those who will only tell us what we want to hear (Introduction).

Curt Thompson addresses shame from an interesting vantage point. His area of expertise is interpersonal neurobiology. In addition, he is a Christian and wants to understand shame and its cure within the framework of the Christian Gospel. He says this about his intentions:

However, while this book holds shame to be within the context of a grand story, and so takes its place and meaning, within that story’s purpose lie the mechanics of how shame works. Familiarity with those mechanisms, through the lens of interpersonal neurobiology, though now substantiating shames teleology, can open up ways for us to align ourselves with the purpose that God has for a world in which mercy and justice reign, a world teeming with goodness and beauty, and in which joy of true relationship is our destiny (Introduction).

Shame Has a Story to Tell

Before he introduces the interpersonal neurobiological perspective, he helps us see that shame is something that is unique to human beings because we are storytellers. We tell stories to make sense of what we do and why we do those things. Thompson contends that we all have a quiet narrator who interprets the story in which we live. This narrator can tell a true story or a false one. Shame can function as that narrator without us even knowing it. In various places in the introduction, Thompson says this;

I will examine shame in the context of the biblical narrative. And, as I will suggest more directly later, if shame is not understood in this context, it will become a powerful driving force in telling a different story…..This, then, is a book about the story of shame. The one we tell about it, the one it tells about us, and even more so the one God has been telling about all of us from the beginning. Most important, this book also examines how the story of the Bible offers us a way not only to understand shame but also to effectively put it to death, even if that takes a lifetime to accomplish. But putting shame to death is not simply about addressing it as a deeply destructive emotional and relational nuisance. For we cannot speak of shame without speaking of creation and God’s intention for it. From the beginning it has been God’s purpose for this world to be one of emerging goodness, beauty and joy. Evil has wielded shame as a primary weapon to see to it that that world never happens. Consequently, to combat shame is not merely to wrestle against something we detest. It is to do that very thing that provides the necessary space for each of us to live like God, become like Jesus and grow up to be who we were born to be (Introduction).

In other words, shame is used by the Evil One to break Shalom…Peace...Wholeness. It disintegrates us from God, our brain’s many parts, ourselves, others and God’s calling over our lives to advance his good and gracious redemption of this broken world.

Personal Reflection

As I read this book, I came to see what Thompson says is true of all of us. We all live with shame and we all shame others. We learn at an early age how to leverage shame for our own survival. And when we do, we become active players in disintegration. It shows up in casual interactions, the way we treat our spouses and children and how we seek to convince ourselves that we count, as Thompson says, “that we are enough.” It is with this backdrop that he spends nine chapters helping the reader confront shame and find ways to wage war against the Evil One who leverages shame. It is within this context that the Christian story of grace, mercy, and inclusion in Christ, shines most brightly.

Copyright © 2016 Timothy S. Lane

Comment

Tim Lane

Dr. Timothy S. Lane is the President of the Institute for Pastoral Care and has a counseling practice in Fayetteville, GA. He is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), having been ordained in 1991 and a member of Metro-Atlanta Presbytery. Tim has authored Living Without Worry: How to Replace Anxiety with Peace, and co-authored How People Change and Relationships: A Mess Worth Making. He has written several mini-books including PTSD, Forgiving Others, Sex Before Marriage, Family Feuds, Conflict, and Freedom From Guilt.

He has experience in both campus ministry (University of Georgia, 1984-1987) and pastoral ministry where he served as a pastor in Clemson, SC from 1991 until 2001. Beginning in 2001 until 2013, he served as a counselor and faculty at a counseling organization  in Philadelphia, PA. Beginning in 2007, he served as its Executive Director until 2013.

In 2014, Tim and his family re-located to his home state, Georgia, where he formed the non profit ministry the Institute for Pastoral Care. His primary desire and commitment is to help pastors and leaders create or improve their ability to care for the people who attend their churches. For more information about this aspect of Tim's work, please visit the section of this site for the Institute for Pastoral Care. He continues to write, speak and travel both nationally and internationally. Tim is adjunct professor of practical theology at several seminaries where he teaches about pastoral care in the local church.

Four Pillars for a Lasting Marriage

How do you keep the song in your relationship? It seems as if most couples drift apart over time. They get married, build careers, raise the children and then wake up one morning and wonder who the other is. While each person in a marriage is an individual, once you are married you become a team. How you keep the team together is everything. Marriage expert, John Gottman puts it this way:

Marriage isn’t just about raising kids, splitting chores, and making love. It can also have a spiritual dimension that has to do with creating an inner life together--a culture rich with symbols and rituals, and an appreciation for your roles and goals that link you and that lead you to understand who you are as a family (p. 261)

This is Gottman’s seventh principle. He calls it Create Shared Meaning. Before we look at the last of the seven principles, let’s remember the first six with a brief paraphrase in parentheses:

  1. Enhance Your Love Maps (never stop getting to know each other)
  2. Nurture Your Fondness and Admiration (stay positive)
  3. Turn Toward Each Other Instead of Away (seek re-connection)
  4. Let Your Partner Influence You (appreciate one another’s strengths)
  5. Solve Your Solvable Problems (fix what you can fix)
  6. Overcome Gridlock (learn to live with lifelong differences)

Create Shared Meaning

In this seventh principle, Gottman is moving in the direction of a deeper spiritual foundation that all marriages need to thrive. Marriage can’t just be limited to two human beings forming a deep friendship. As important as that is, there must be something transcendent. Something bigger than the marriage that gives it meaning outside of the relationship. He calls this the “Four Pillars of Shared Meaning.”

Pillar One: Rituals of Connection

Gottman says that “creating rituals in your marriage (and with your children) can be a powerful antidote to the tendency to disconnect” (p. 263). What does he mean by ritual?

A ritual is a structured event or routine that you each enjoy and depend on and that both reflects and reinforces your sense of togetherness. Most of us are familiar with rituals from childhood, whether going to Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, lighting Kwanzaa candles or the menorah, sharing pumpkin pie at Grandma’s Thanksgiving, attending family reunions, etc. However, it’s common for people not to discuss what these traditions symbolize to them. In his book The Intentional Family, sociologist William Doherty highlighted the importance of couples creating rituals that are intentional and meaningful. By recognizing the ongoing value and significance of the rituals you each bring to your relationship, and the new ones you create together, you further your identity as a family. (p. 264)

Pillar Two: Support For Each Other’s Roles

The more a couple shares a similar vision of the role they play in the marriage, the deeper the connection. This is not only connected to how husband and wife view their roles with each other, it also is connected to what they value in terms of parenting and what they want to pass along to their children. Gottman is clear to say that this does not mean complete agreement on every matter. Instead, he emphasizes that there should be enough cohesion between husband and wife that they work alongside one another as a team.

Pillar Three: Shared Goals

A common vision for accomplishing deep and meaningful goals creates a deep bond between husband and wife. Raising children with specific beliefs and convictions, giving generously of time and money to special projects that serve the community, or caring for extended family as they age are all examples of significant shared goals.

Pillar Four: Shared Values and Symbols

These values and symbols are often associated with fundamental beliefs that arise out of one’s religious beliefs and commitments.

Values and beliefs form the final pillar of shared meaning in a marriage. These are philosophical tenets that guide how you wish to conduct your lives. For some people, values are deeply rooted in religious conviction. (p. 270)

In his book, Gottman provides helpful questions for a couple to determine where they need to grow according to each of these four pillars. What is most helpful is how practical the questions and exercises are. Most couples can grasp the big concepts, it's knowing how to specifically implement them that is the challenge.

Gottman and The Gospel

In this final section, Gottman is attempting to tether couples to something transcendent; something bigger than their own marriage. I find this immensely important because this is exactly what Scripture does with much greater clarity. The Apostle Paul connects the covenant of marriage to the bigger covenant relationship that each spouse has with the true and living God. He also says that marriage is a picture of Christ’s relationship with his people. Hear Paul’s familiar words in Ephesians 5:31-33:

“For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” This is a profound mystery--but I am talking about Christ and the church. However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.

Notice how Paul goes back and forth between the marriage between spouses and God’s relationship to his people. Paul understands the priorities of the vertical and horizontal dimensions in a lasting marriage.

The overall strength of John Gottman’s work is the insight he has gained through hours of observation, research and reflection. He has picked up on the contours for what makes relationships work. The micro-moments of interaction between spouses is critical to the health and well-being of a marriage. This insight alone is worth pondering and acting upon.

This is where we can most learn from Gottman. It may be tempting to casually dismiss his findings and argue that the Bible has already captured what Gottman has observed. But what I have found in my own marriage and in those whom I have helped, is how easy it is to overlook the obvious. We can articulate the grand themes of Scripture and talk about a I Corinthians 13 kind of love, but most of us don’t know what that looks like in our daily interactions.

Any thoughtful Christian can see where the good news of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection intersect and add beautiful and substantive depth to what Gottman observes and offers at the level of attitudes, emotions and behaviors. We can also thank God for John Gottman for his research, insights and commitment to marriage.

Copyright © 2016 Timothy S. Lane

Comment

Tim Lane

Dr. Timothy S. Lane is the President of the Institute for Pastoral Care and has a counseling practice in Fayetteville, GA. He is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), having been ordained in 1991 and a member of Metro-Atlanta Presbytery. Tim has authored Living Without Worry: How to Replace Anxiety with Peace, and co-authored How People Change and Relationships: A Mess Worth Making. He has written several mini-books including PTSD, Forgiving Others, Sex Before Marriage, Family Feuds, Conflict, and Freedom From Guilt.

He has experience in both campus ministry (University of Georgia, 1984-1987) and pastoral ministry where he served as a pastor in Clemson, SC from 1991 until 2001. Beginning in 2001 until 2013, he served as a counselor and faculty at a counseling organization  in Philadelphia, PA. Beginning in 2007, he served as its Executive Director until 2013.

In 2014, Tim and his family re-located to his home state, Georgia, where he formed the non profit ministry the Institute for Pastoral Care. His primary desire and commitment is to help pastors and leaders create or improve their ability to care for the people who attend their churches. For more information about this aspect of Tim's work, please visit the section of this site for the Institute for Pastoral Care. He continues to write, speak and travel both nationally and internationally. Tim is adjunct professor of practical theology at several seminaries where he teaches about pastoral care in the local church.

Four Things to Help Overcome Gridlock in Your Marriage

Have you ever found yourself in a place in your marriage where you and your spouse disagree and it seems like there is no way forward? At some point, in any marriage, this is a possibility. It happens when you can’t learn to live with your perpetual problems. According to John Gottman every couple has two kinds of problems; perpetual (70%) and solvable (30%). How a couple handles the perpetual problems is critical to avoiding gridlock.

Here are some possible issues that can be the source of gridlock:

  • She wants another child, he doesn’t
  • He wants to adopt, she doesn’t
  • She wants to attend this church, he wants to attend another
  • He wants to go out and enjoy friends, she would rather stay at home
  • She doesn’t mind clutter, he can’t stand the site of dust
  • He wants a dog, she wants a cat
  • She wants him to lead family devotions, he wants her to
  • He wants a mini-SUV, she wants a mini-van
  • She wants to decorate the house, he wants to increase their giving to charity
  • He hates being late, she doesn’t mind being late

If you take a good look at the various types of issues that can lead to gridlock, you will notice that it can be anything! It can be something as significant as having children or a spiritual conviction to something as minor as how clean and orderly you prefer your house to be. Gottman says this:

Whether they seem important or petty to outsiders, all gridlocked disagreements share four characteristics. You’ll know you’ve reached gridlock if:
1. You’ve had the same argument again and again with no resolution.
2. Neither of you can address the issue with humor, empathy, or affection.
3. The issue is becoming increasingly polarizing as time goes on.
4. Compromise seems impossible because it would mean selling out–giving up something important and core to your beliefs, values, or sense of self.

Does that sound familiar? Do you and your spouse or another couple you know describe an issue in their marriage in this way? If so, what can you do? Here are four things, according to John Gottman:

1. Become a Dream Detective

According to Gottman, gridlock reveals that there are core values and beliefs underneath gridlock. So while the issue may look simple on the surface, there is much more going on underneath.

To navigate your way out of gridlock, you have to first understand that no matter how seemingly insignificant the issue, gridlock is a sign that you each have dreams for your life that the other isn’t aware of, hasn’t acknowledged, or doesn’t respect. By dreams I mean the hopes, aspirations, and wishes that are part of your identity and give purpose and meaning to your life (p.238).

In order to avoid gridlock, you must become aware of the dreams that are underneath the conflict, begin to respect your spouse’s dreams and learn to incorporate their dreams into the relationship. When you have reached an impasse, there is a loss of respect, fondness and admiration. You must reclaim that. The way you do that is by asking your spouse what the area of gridlock means to them. What dream is it attached to?

As you listen, you may begin to see the deeper logic and start to reconnect with your spouse. This may seem simplistic, but it isn’t. It is never simplistic to make attempts to understand your spouse and listen to them as they share their deeper dreams and aspirations.

2. Remain Calm

Discussing issues that involve gridlock can be very emotional because it has become a source of tension that has remained in the marriage for a long time. To bring it up again will require wisdom. Gottman suggests that if either spouse begins to feel overwhelmed, it is important to stop the discussion and take a 20 minute break. During that 20 minute break, do something that is calming (read, go for a walk, listen to some music, pray).

3. Reach a Temporary Compromise

Gottman says that this next step will allow you to continue to discuss the issue. It will likely never go away but you are seeking to “defang” the issue that is causing gridlock. You do this by separating the issue in two ways and drawing two circles:

“Nonnegotiable areas” circle: These are the aspects of the conflict that you absolutely cannot give on without violating your basic needs or core values.

“Areas of flexibility” circle: This category includes all parts of the issue where you can be flexible, because they are not so “hot” for you.

Gottman encourages the couple to make the nonnegotiable circle as small as they can and the flexibility circle as big as possible. The couple should make an attempt over the next two months and then come back to the table and evaluate how they are doing. This will not solve the problem but it will help a couple live more peacefully with one another.

Here is an example of reaching a temporary compromise from Gottman’s book:

Kyle and Nicole

Gridlocked problem: Very different comfort levels with expressing emotions.

1. Detect and Discuss the Dreams Within the Conflict
Nicole’s Dream: Being emotional is part of her self-identity and part of what gives meaning to her life.
Kyle’s Dream: He sees being emotional as a weakness.

2. Remain Calm
They both agree that if either starts to feel overwhelmed in the discussing that it is okay to take a break and come back to discuss more.

3. Reach Temporary Compromise (Two-Circled Method)

Nonnegotiable areas:
Nicole’s: She cannot stop reacting with great passion to life.
Kyle’s: He cannot become a highly emotional person just to please her.

Areas of flexibility: They both accept that their spouse cannot change a basic personality trait.

Temporary Compromise: They will be respectful of their differences in this area. He will be receptive to her need to talk about and share feelings. She will accept when he cannot do this.

Ongoing Conflict: They will continue to have very different approaches to expressing emotion. (p.257)

4. Say “Thank You”

Dealing with gridlock is never easy. That is why it is so important to end the discussion on a positive note. This will be a process that won’t be “fixed” quickly. You will know that progress is being made when the issue feels less loaded and scary.

Gottman and the Gospel

What are we to make of this approach to gridlock? First, Gottman will tell you that he has seen this work for many couples. That, by itself, ought to get our attention. Why would we not want to utilize some basic skills to help couples who are in the midst of gridlock? But can we offer couples something more than helpful skills? Better, can we offer them something that strengthens their ability to face gridlock in their marriages? I think so.

Listen carefully to the Apostle Paul in Philippians 2:

If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, in any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.

Pondering the self-sacrificial work of Christ in our behalf and praying to Father, Son and Spirit for grace will certainly enable a couple to move forward with humility, thinking more carefully about their spouse. This does not mean that it will not be a process or that it will be easy. It does mean that there is something unique about tapping into a power and resource outside of ourselves.

Remember, listening to another person’s dreams, remaining calm, seeking compromise and expressing appreciation do not come naturally. Thankfully, we have Someone who has redeemed us and is “purifying for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good” (Titus 2:14).

Copyright © 2016 Timothy S. Lane

Comment

Tim Lane

Dr. Timothy S. Lane is the President of the Institute for Pastoral Care and has a counseling practice in Fayetteville, GA. He is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), having been ordained in 1991 and a member of Metro-Atlanta Presbytery. Tim has authored Living Without Worry: How to Replace Anxiety with Peace, and co-authored How People Change and Relationships: A Mess Worth Making. He has written several mini-books including PTSD, Forgiving Others, Sex Before Marriage, Family Feuds, Conflict, and Freedom From Guilt.

He has experience in both campus ministry (University of Georgia, 1984-1987) and pastoral ministry where he served as a pastor in Clemson, SC from 1991 until 2001. Beginning in 2001 until 2013, he served as a counselor and faculty at a counseling organization  in Philadelphia, PA. Beginning in 2007, he served as its Executive Director until 2013.

In 2014, Tim and his family re-located to his home state, Georgia, where he formed the non profit ministry the Institute for Pastoral Care. His primary desire and commitment is to help pastors and leaders create or improve their ability to care for the people who attend their churches. For more information about this aspect of Tim's work, please visit the section of this site for the Institute for Pastoral Care. He continues to write, speak and travel both nationally and internationally. Tim is adjunct professor of practical theology at several seminaries where he teaches about pastoral care in the local church.

Two Things You Need When You Disagree With Your Spouse

Do you and your spouse seem to argue about the same issues that never get resolved? You are not alone. Even good marriages have these kinds of disagreements. In reality, all marriages have challenges. You can’t live in close proximity with another human being and not struggle to love them; and it’s the same with them as they relate to you.

John Gottman has spent a lifetime helping couples grow in their ability to love one another. In his most popular book, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, he focuses on very practical ways we can love our spouses and enjoy our marriages through what he calls Positive Sentiment Override, or PSO. The first three aspects of PSO are:

  • Enhance Your Love Maps: never stop learning who your spouse is.
  • Nurture Your Fondness and Admiration: make sure you focus on the positive more than the negative.
  • Turn Toward Each Other Instead of Away: always try to tune into your spouse.

These first three enable a couple to build a solid friendship. Gottman has found that couples who have more positive than negative interactions and thoughts about their spouses are better able to deal with conflicts when they emerge.

Our research confirms the central role that bids play in a relationship. In our six-year follow-up of newlyweds, we found that couples who remained married had turned toward their partner’s bids an average of 86 percent of the time in the Love Lab, while those who ended up divorced had averaged only 33 percent (p.88)

With that foundation, Gottman says that you will more likely be able to navigate the challenges of marriage. He then proposes four things that are necessary for doing just that. Here are the first two:

Let Your Partner Influence You

In every relationship, there are power issues that must be acknowledged. In Genesis, immediately after the Fall, Adam and Eve entered into what some have described as the battle of the sexes. Genesis 3:16 says, “Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” This is describing sinful power plays between husband and wife as a result of the fall.

Gottman has observed and sees the importance of each partner sharing strengths and allowing each to influence the other:

In our long-term study of 130 newlywed couples, whom we followed for nine years, we found that, even in the first few months of marriage, men who allowed their wives to influence them had happier relationships and were less likely to eventually divorce than men who resisted their wives’ influence. Statistically speaking, when a man is not willing to share power with his partner there is an 81 percent chance that his marriage will self-destruct (p. 116).

Gottman goes on to say that no matter what your religious views are, mutual respect and learning from each other are necessary for a strong marriage. This is consistent with the appropriately understood meaning of Ephesians 5:22-33, which emphasizes serving one another within the context of marriage. The bottom line is mutual respect and a willingness to learn from one another is critical for a couple to enjoy their relationship.

Tim and Kathy Keller put it this way in their book, The Meaning of Marriage,

Whether we are husband or wife, we are not to live for ourselves but for the other. And that is the hardest yet single most important function of being a husband or a wife in marriage (p.50).

Solve Your Solvable Problems

At this point, he begins to address conflict. This comes on the heels of the first four principles. He isn’t avoiding the issue, he is saying that a couple’s ability to navigate conflict is equal to their friendship. But once he gets here, he spends four chapters providing some of the most practical advice and counsel I have read.

He first distinguishes between two types of conflict in a marriage,

Although you may feel your situation is unique, we have found that all marital conflicts, ranging from mundane annoyances to all-out wars, really fall into one of two categories: either they can be resolved, or they are perpetual, which means they will be a part of your lives forever in some form or another. Once you are able to identify and define your various disagreements, you’ll be able to customize your coping strategies, depending on which of these two types of conflict you’re having (p. 137).

Perpetual problems: make up about 69% of happy couples’ conflict (having kids, sex, money, housework, raising and disciplining kids to name a few). What happy couples are able to do is live with these differences and approach it with a sense of humor. In unstable marriages, these same problems eventually kill the relationship. Gottman calls this “gridlock.”

Solvable problems: make up the remaining 31% of conflict in a marriage. If not addressed in helpful ways, they can have a negative impact on the relationship, creating space for the four horsemen of the apocalypse (criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling). Here are the basic skills all couples need to deal with their solvable problems:

  • Distinguishing between perpetual and solvable problems
  • Soften your start-up
  • Learn to make and receive repair attempts
  • Soothe yourself and each other
  • Compromise
  • Process any grievances so that they don’t linger

In each of these items, you will find some practical skills that are easy to learn. He covers typical problems such as relations with in-laws, money, chores around the house, sex and becoming new parents.

I can’t stress enough how helpful these three chapters are!

Gottman and the Gospel

John Gottman’s research will serve you and your spouse well. If you are a helper/counselor, his material will serve well those you seek to help. I continue to find that true in my own marriage and those I minister to. Scripture confirms Gottman’s research and his astute observations. But the Christian has an additional perspective that is truly humbling, comforting and liberating. We have deeper themes of grace, mercy and forgiveness that are available to us in Christ. While skills are important, building skillful living on the foundation of the Gospel is transformational. While happy marriages are good, happy marriages where each spouse is being conformed into the likeness of Christ is much better.

Copyright © 2016 Timothy S. Lane

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Tim Lane

Dr. Timothy S. Lane is the President of the Institute for Pastoral Care and has a counseling practice in Fayetteville, GA. He is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), having been ordained in 1991 and a member of Metro-Atlanta Presbytery. Tim has authored Living Without Worry: How to Replace Anxiety with Peace, and co-authored How People Change and Relationships: A Mess Worth Making. He has written several mini-books including PTSD, Forgiving Others, Sex Before Marriage, Family Feuds, Conflict, and Freedom From Guilt.

He has experience in both campus ministry (University of Georgia, 1984-1987) and pastoral ministry where he served as a pastor in Clemson, SC from 1991 until 2001. Beginning in 2001 until 2013, he served as a counselor and faculty at a counseling organization  in Philadelphia, PA. Beginning in 2007, he served as its Executive Director until 2013.

In 2014, Tim and his family re-located to his home state, Georgia, where he formed the non profit ministry the Institute for Pastoral Care. His primary desire and commitment is to help pastors and leaders create or improve their ability to care for the people who attend their churches. For more information about this aspect of Tim's work, please visit the section of this site for the Institute for Pastoral Care. He continues to write, speak and travel both nationally and internationally. Tim is adjunct professor of practical theology at several seminaries where he teaches about pastoral care in the local church.