24 October 2016

Share Your Real Marriage, Not Just the Highlight Reel

My little family had pictures taken this past weekend with the talented Mallorie Keck. She assured us she captured some amazing photos of us, and from past experience I know it will be great! I can’t wait to see the final product! I’m sure our outfits will look perfectly coordinated, yet not too matchy-matchy, just like we planned, all of us will be smiling like we don’t have a care in the world, and no one will guess that we just had complete chaos getting ready and a tears-filled car ride there. Our house had an explosion of fresh laundry on every surface since I wasn't quite sure which outfits we should wear. My daughter threw a tantrum wanting her pink boots instead of the brown ones I had set out. My hubby asked if he should just put those on her instead. I told him those do not match her outfit and reminded him (not so nicely unfortunately) that WE are the adults, and bigger than her, so we will put whatever shoes on her that we want. Then the baby pooped through her outfit just as we arrived. Of course. Before we knew it, Mallorie was saying “One, two, three, CHEESE!” and we were capturing a smiling picture that was (thankfully) not at all reflective of the before or after of that moment. Beautiful pictures that I’m so excited and thankful to have of our family! 

This is the reason why you need people that you can be real with about your marriage and family struggles. We all see these pretty pictures on social media and we can’t help but compare our real life to a perfectly curated glimpse of their life. And we think we’re lacking. It's because “we’re comparing our behind the scenes to everyone else’s highlight reel” as Steven Furtick so eloquently explains. 

We see a friend posting a picture of her and her husband all dressed up for a nice steak dinner celebrating their 10th anniversary. We wish we could have a marriage as great as theirs, but we fail to see that they just had the biggest fight of their life the night before. We see a picture of a beautiful one month old baby with the mom smiling lovingly at her. But we fail to see the deep post-partum depression she is struggling with. We see a guy posting about his new promotion and we wistfully look at pictures of the huge new house they bought, but we don’t see their pain that years of struggling with infertility can bring. Or we see a family at church with tons of kids who all look completely put together and happy, while we are struggling with just two kids, one crying, desperately needing a nap, and the other one throwing both of her shoes off and running the opposite direction  (yep, that last one is completely hypothetical, ha).

I’m not saying it’s bad to post beautiful pictures on Facebook. I love capturing photos of my family so I can cherish those memories of how they looked in that moment of time. I love being able to easily share it with our extended family that live all over the country so they can feel involved in our lives. I love celebrating the wins in our marriage (yay for our 5th anniversary!) and milestones in our children’s lives. And through that all, I do try to post a balance of #reallife pictures, more for my own sake to be able to laugh at the craziness. But we also have people who we are close to that we can share our burdens, our struggles, our pain, and our tears. 

It is extremely important to have people in your life with whom you can be authentic. It’s exhausting if you are constantly trying to act like you have the perfect marriage, obedient kids, and always-clean household. Everyone has fights and struggles with their spouse, kids that don’t always listen and want to grow up too fast, and I haven’t met many people who truly have a spotless house at all times (if this is you - please come help me with my house!). 

It’s also great to have a glimpse into another couple’s reality so you see that they too have messy lives and crazy kiddos. There’s something oddly comforting when I see another mom struggle with her toddler. I know that sounds horrible, and I do feel badly for her, but it makes me feel less alone since I know how much I struggle with my kids. It's the same with marriages. When I get to know couples that have made it to the 30+ year mark, they often reveal some pretty dark times in their marriage. Yet they fought to preserve their marriage and they made it through to the other side, not only surviving but thriving more than before. This is incredibly encouraging to me!

This week for Marriage Monday, take a moment to reflect on this with your spouse. Who, if anyone, in your life do you have this type of authentic relationship? Who knows the real you? Who can you and your spouse call up when you are trying to work through an issue and hit an impasse? Who do you text for prayer when you both are struggling? Do you perhaps have an older couple that has been married longer than you that you can ask for wisdom, direction, and encouragement? If the answer is no one, use this time to talk with your spouse about how you can pursue a more authentic relationship with a specific couple. You never know, they could be desperately hoping for this as well! 

For group discussion, what are your tips for others to begin to pursue this type of authentic relationship with others?

17 October 2016

Listening Skills Required: Venting vs. Troubleshooting

I used to think I would be an amazing therapist. I loved giving advice to friends and reading "Dear Abby" type columns. Turns out counseling is not supposed to be simply handing out advice, especially not your personal opinion, as it does not help instill confidence in their own problem solving abilities. Nor is it always wanted or needed. Instead of giving advice filled with my own biases and values, I need to listen and ask questions to help them explore alternatives and come up with their own solutions. It takes major listening skills to hear and correctly understand exactly what is going on in someone's life. Unfortunately, this is not a natural strength of mine. 

It sounds so easy in theory. How could there possibly be more than one step? 

Step 1: "Listen." 

Maybe a step 2 could be added: "Keep Listening."

But something so seemingly easy can be surprisingly hard and complex. 

In a marriage, lack of listening skills can result in many problems, some of which we will discuss in subsequent posts. 
My personal struggle that I mentioned already is that is that I often find myself getting lost in my own thoughts trying to figure out what advice to give instead of truly listening. I sometimes completely miss what the actual problem is. Or fail to see that advice is not actually wanted.

I've read several books on this topic and have learned some great ways to practice listening skills. The good news is that, although listening may not be something that comes naturally to you, it is a learned skill that can be strengthened over time!

Today we will discuss a listening issue that has a very easy solution. I'm easing us in! This specific problem arises when you give advice or offer solutions when your spouse really only needs a sympathetic ear to safely vent some frustrations. You may think you don't have this problem, but just humor me and ask your spouse anyway. You may be surprised!

This problem is stereotypically where the husband is the primary offender. Men are often valued for fixing things around the house and troubleshooting at the workplace. So it's hard to shift gears and not offer immediate and hard solutions to a wife describing a problem. It's good for the other spouse to understand that it's a valued skill and gift of theirs that just isn't quite appreciated in this instance. Hopefully we can extend some grace in this area while it is being worked on.

The stereotypical mold doesn't always fit, though. I am very solution-oriented, which can often be a great trait to have. But it can wreak havoc in two ways when I try to offer a seemingly quick-fix for my husband:

1) It brushes past his feelings and disregards how the situation is weighing on him. Thus, it implies I don't care. I may not even have the details of the full story yet and somehow think I know what is best. It shows that I want to move on from the conversation quickly by applying a fast band-aid. It can also imply that I think I am smarter, assuming he couldn't brainstorm a solution on his own (totally not true!). I don't want him to think any of this! But I need to be aware of what I am communicating in these instances.

2) I miss out on understanding my husband on a deeper, intimate level. If I simply ask more questions, I can get the opportunity to hear my husband's heart. If it is your wife that is the one opening up, you can use this time to show that you care about her struggles. If you try to squash the conversation with a quick fix, a husband may realize he can't be vulnerable with you anymore and a wife may shut down that line of communication and only talk to her friends about her struggles in the future. Don't let this happen. Embrace the chance for this true intimacy.

On the other side of the equation, since I like solutions, I get annoyed if I bare my soul to my husband about a tough problem and he just nods and listens. For whatever reason, to me that communicates that he doesn't care enough to help me troubleshoot, and it's my burden to bear alone and figure out. A few months into marriage, I finally told him this, and he was shocked. He thought all women want a man that would sit there and listen to them vent. Well, yes, but not for everything!

After discussing it for some time, we came to this solution. You may want a pad of paper and pen to write it down. Tell your spouse upfront when you only want to vent. And if you want solutions, ask for it. I know. It sounds way too simplistic but it needs to happen. And it works. Your spouse cannot read your mind, despite how much you think she or he should be able to have that skill. If you think you might be the offending spouse, ask what is needed at that time. And yes, this needs to happen every time unless you know your spouse only wants one or the other. 

If your spouse says he or she just wants you to listen, do it. Close your mouth. Literally bite your tongue if needed. Embarrassingly enough, I've had to do that on multiple ocassions before. After listening, it's okay to ask clarifying questions. Try to understand the situation from your spouse's perspective and be sympathetic. That is all. 

Sometimes I've had a hard day with the kids and I don't want my husband suggesting I should read more parenting books. That would not go over too well! I really just need him to be sympathetic and say, "You have such a tough job!" or I may even want him to give me the world's biggest bear hug so I can cry without judgment. But more often than not, I'm usually struggling with something specific like trying to figure out a discipline technique that would actually work on our toddler. In those times,  I truly need advice and to troubleshoot with him. I may need him to sit down and pray with me. If I tell him what I need, he is there - ready and willing. Your spouse most likely will be as well as long as you spell it out for him or her! 

Which one do you usually need? A listening ear to vent to or do you want solutions to be suggested as a default? Ask your spouse this week as well and see if you are surprised by their answer!

03 October 2016

Looking Back to Move Your Marriage Forward

My husband and I celebrated our five year anniversary on Saturday.

Either you are thinking "Congrats! Wow, five years!" or you have been married much longer than that and are suddenly freaked out about taking marriage advice from someone that has "only" been married for five years. Just remember, I have nowhere claimed to have this marriage thing all figured out. I'm simply inviting you along on my journey. But if it makes you feel slightly better, I do have an undergrad degree in Psychology and Family Studies, an almost-completed masters in Marriage & Family Therapy counseling, and still love reading and learning about marriage on an almost daily basis. But back to my anniversary...

Although I usually love being the one to plan dates (is that weird?), I gave up the reigns this year and asked my husband to surprise me. He ended up taking me to Old Town Alexandria. For non-DC folks, that's a cute town on the waterfront of the Potomac River on the Virginia side just across from Washington, DC. We got all dolled up and went to a fancy dinner at one restaurant and then off to another fun restaurant for dessert. I loved it!

While at dinner, waiting on our food to arrive, we did something that we always do on our anniversary. We took turns talking about why we love being married to each other. My hubby told me some qualities that he saw in me that brought tears to my eyes. He seemed blown away and genuinely surprised/touched by what I told him as well.

We also reminisced about some amazing moments in our marriage. We didn't shy away from tough times, though.

We've had financial difficulties that seemed impossible to get through. We also worked together through Financial Peace University and made some crazy-sounding sacrifices to successfully get out of debt.

We transitioned from two salaries down to one as I made the switch to become a stay-at-home mom. As any other SAHM knows, this comes with many blessings combined with lots of difficulties trying to navigate finding a balance and a new normal in that complicated role. It's still a work in progress.

We've lived in three different places in five years, including drastically downgrading into one dumpy place (as in, we had cockroaches for roommates) while we saved money to buy a place that we've made into our comfy little nest.

We brought two beautiful girls into this world and will have to wait until heaven to meet two more twin girls that were miscarried.

We made it through Whole30 to change our relationship with food, pushed each other at the gym, and worked on becoming healthier versions of ourselves. We've also both had some pretty difficult health issues that have driven us to our knees in prayer.

We've had some parenting wins and a LOT of parenting fail moments.

The list could go on. The good with the bad. For better, for worse. For richer, for poorer. Through sickness and health. We've been through it all, and so have you. Okay, well maybe you are still waiting on the "for richer" part like we are! But taking the time to look back, even at the hard times, shows us we successfully made it through as a team even if we have some war wounds. We can now see how those struggles brought us even closer together and also caused us to cling more tightly to God because that's all we could manage in the moment.

When you have those tough days - when the laundry is piling up, the kids are fussy and clingy all at the same time (how do they know to do that?!), and your spouse has reached "hangry" status because neither of you can figure out how to make the random contents of the fridge magically combine into a dinner, reminisce on the good times.

Remind yourself of how excited you were about your first date or how nervous you were before your first kiss. Talk to your spouse about your memories of the proposal. Discuss how you felt during your first dance as man and wife. Tell your husband your top 1 (or 5!) reasons why you absolutely love being married to him. Tell your wife the top reasons why she makes an amazing wife and mom.

This isn't just to make your spouse feel good, although it certainly does that as well as fosters lovey-dovey feelings. But telling your spouse these things reminds you that the flawed, imperfect person you are standing beside in life has some pretty amazing qualities as well. Enough to make you want to marry him or her in the first place! And there's most likely been some amazing moments in your marriage that can so easily get buried in the craziness of life, but you will instead dig those out and celebrate them.

You don't need to wait until your next anniversary to do this - there's no time like the present! But you can also use it to start a new tradition on that date.

Let those happy feelings of nostalgia bring you back to those good times and carry you forward to create some amazing new memories. Ones that can be brought up and discussed at your next anniversary date over great food, fine wine, delicious desserts, and perhaps some well-earned happy tears.

Feel free to share some of your own memories below in the comments. And don't forget to share with your spouse!

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