Tag Archives: Christian counseling

Making Marriage Work

By Dan Blair, a marriage counselor and family counselor.

Conflict between man and woman standing on either side of a door

As a marriage and family therapist I have learned techniques to help marriages and family relationships work. The one that works best by far is the unconditional love of Christ. How that works out in the marriage is my next question.

One thing I’ve noticed is that when I would have an argument with my wife, we would have spirited discussions about the same old topics. Often for us, it was about the use of time. We have lots of kids and a lot of work falls on her. We also have lots of bills and that weight falls on me. For you, you might argue about something that happened that you are having a hard time forgiving.

So what does unconditional love do? I turn to Paul’s description of marital love in Ephesians 5:21-33:

21Out of respect for Christ, be courteously reverent to one another.

22-24 Wives, understand and support your husbands in ways that show your support for Christ. The husband provides leadership to his wife the way Christ does to his church, not by domineering but by cherishing. So just as the church submits to Christ as he exercises such leadership, wives should likewise submit to their husbands.

25-28 Husbands, go all out in your love for your wives, exactly as Christ did for the church—a love marked by giving, not getting. Christ’s love makes the church whole. His words evoke her beauty. Everything he does and says is designed to bring the best out of her, dressing her in dazzling white silk, radiant with holiness. And that is how husbands ought to love their wives. They’re really doing themselves a favor—since they’re already “one” in marriage.

29-33 No one abuses his own body, does he? No, he feeds and pampers it. That’s how Christ treats us, the church, since we are part of his body. And this is why a man leaves father and mother and cherishes his wife. No longer two, they become “one flesh.” This is a huge mystery, and I don’t pretend to understand it all. What is clearest to me is the way Christ treats the church. And this provides a good picture of how each husband is to treat his wife, loving himself in loving her, and how each wife is to honor her husband.

This approach would be consistent with the humility Jesus called being “poor in spirit” (Matthew 5:3). Philippians 2:13 says, “Don’t be selfish; don’t try to impress others. Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves.” My relationship with my wife started by being selfish, thinking about how the qualities of my wife would benefit me. Then I gained my wife’s love by impressing her. However, this is not unconditional love. I cannot depend on a love that depends on my ability to impress. Certainly, it is not the kind of love that can last.

Turning toward our own ability to humbly and unconditionally love someone, have you felt, as I have, that there are moments where you just do not feel like you have love to give? Often when I feel this way I criticize my wife and defend myself, or I act like a victim and run away. Then I dwell on what is right and wrong in order to think of a way to get my needs met. Then I present my argument to my wife, but it seems to have the same impact as if I am saying to her, “I don’t love you.” I am not saying that, but I wonder how if this is what she feels when I argue with her.

I remember the time my wife was telling me about the frustrations of her day and I was tired but attempting to be empathetic. I recall an instant turn in my emotions when she unexpectedly added, “And if you were around, this would not have happened.” It ignited an anger in me, so I retorted, “Do you really want this to blow up?” Luckily I came to my senses enough to walk away. “Empty” is the word that came to mind as I retreated. “I’ve got nothing more to give.”

Greg Baer in his book Real Love compares arguments to feeling attacked while drowning. When someone is drowning they lash out. In fear, someone drowning may hit you or grab onto you and pull you under, resulting in two victims. When we are arguing, we are drowning and lashing out. Research shows that similar events are occurring in our brain when we argue as when we are drowning.

When I realize that I feel like I am drowning when I do not feel loved, and I am feeling empty and alone, how can I respond with unconditional love?

First, I remember that my wife may also be drowning, feeling empty and alone. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 2:7-8 that when someone is drowning, we are urged to reaffirm our love. If I view my wife who at times lashes out at me as drowning, my anger at her is reduced. I feel less interested in criticizing her and defending myself, but I still feel like a victim and want to run away. I am drowning and need to get back on solid ground myself.

To get back on solid ground I remember that love as described in 1 Corinthians 13:6 rejoices with the truth. I recall how David was fleeing for his life when he wrote that Psalms 139 asking God to search is own heart so that he can admit his own faults. I also remember that 1 John 4:18 says that love casts out fear. If I speak the truth about myself, my struggle, and my weaknesses, what does unconditional love do? The Bible says that love embraces the truth and is accepting. When we confess, love offers help and hope. Jesus did not confess his sins, but in the garden before the cross he did confess that he was crushed in sorrow.

My wife nor I may be able to unconditionally love at any moment. If someone was overwhelmed and upset, or stressed, or maybe has had a lifetime of not feeling loved, there will be times that person will not be able to love. So it falls on me to search myself and speak the truth about myself to God, and to someone that He provides to love me. I would never recommend that this be a person of the opposite sex.

So I reflected on my own emptiness and thought about ways I can restore my energy for unconditional love. This may involve self-care, for which we are responsible, and seeking care from others. I thought of this acronym, “ACES” to remind me of ways to restore energy for unconditional love.

“A” stands for a sense of accomplishment, which I see as God working in and through me.

“C” stands for the connection I have to God, family, and friends, that I need to seek out to feel loved enough to love my spouse.

“E” stands for God-given enjoyment, the “small” parts of life, often overlooked, that I need to remember in gratitude to God.

“S” stands for self-care, sleep, diet, exercise and other needs for which I am responsible to meet.

Most importantly, I needed to confess to someone my struggle and feel their acceptance. If I am loved for what I do for others, what is that? That is a performance-based love. That is how we got married in the first place. But I need the kind of love the Bible describes as “agape love,” or “grace:” someone who sees me for who I am and then accepts me. I need this kind of love in order to love others.

I may have seek this out on a regular basis. It takes courage. Who wants to talk about their struggles and faults? I would rather talk to someone and they tell me I am in the right. But that is back to performance-based love. So I turned to my “ACES,” and turned to a friend to whom I can admit my faults. He still liked me, and accepted me as I am. With time I was ready to understand and give to my wife.

What are some ways I can unconditionally love my spouse? Here are common needs for men and women, as highlighted in Shaunti and Jeff Feldhahn’s research-based books on relationships, For Men Only and For Women Only.

Women need to be pursued. They are wired for relationship. Women feel it when something is missing here. They write, “Pursuit is likely to make you a great husband in her eyes.” Relationships need energy like anything else of value. A little time can yield big dividends. Perhaps consider “The Five Love Languages” by Gary Chapman.

In the movie, Parent Trap, Nick asks his ex-wife. Elizabeth, how their relationship died. He said, “It ended so fast. So about the day you packed, why’d you do it?” She replied, “Oh, Nick. We were so young. We both had tempers, we said stupid things, and so I packed. Got on my first 747, and . . . you didn’t come after me.” After a period of dead silence, Nick admitted, “I didn’t know that you wanted me to.”

A common need for a man is to feel their spouses’ respect. They are wired for accomplishment. Men feel it when something is missing here. The authors write, “What is at stake isn’t his pride as much as his secret feelings of inadequacy as a man.” Many unmarried men described feeling inadequate as a major barrier to getting married in the first place. They do not want to feel inadequate the rest of their lives.

Let me conclude by asking if love is the goal in marriage, and unconditional love is what makes marriage work, then what is unconditional love look like for you? Everybody may have a different definition. For some, unconditional love may mean that they set boundaries so that sin does not continue. Proverbs 10:10 says to not “wink” at sin. For others, love is characterized as giving without getting. Immediately, when I hear this definition, I think, “But what about me? What about my needs?” I guess the better question is, what is the best way to meet my needs? If I am angry or disappointed in my partner, I am thinking of myself and my needs. I may be feeling empty, overwhelmed or drowning. The Bible offers a lifeline: confession. It is speaking truth to someone who accepts and loves us as we are, faults and all. I think that is better than finding someone who agrees with you that you are in the right. I do not know about you, but being right has not inspired me to be more loving. Feeling loved has inspired me to be more loving. This is how I see the unconditional love of Christ fuel our love for our spouse.

“We, though, are going to love—love and be loved. First we were loved, now we love. He loved us first” (1 John 4:19).

Real Love in Marriage by Greg Baer explains the principles that will make dramatic changes in your marriage.

In their groundbreaking classic, For Men Only, Jeff and Shaunti Feldhahn reveal the eye-opening truths and simple acts that will radically improve your relationship with the woman you love.

The man in your life carries important feelings so deep inside he barely knows they’re there, much less how to talk about them. Yet your man genuinely wants you to “get” him—to understand his inner life, to know his fears and needs, to hear what he wishes he could tell you. In her landmark bestseller, For Women Only, Shaunti Feldhahn reveals what every woman—single or married—needs to know.

Falling in love is easy, but maintaining healthy relationships is a lifelong pursuit. Once you understand “love languages,” you’ll be able to nurture not only a romantic relationship, but also casual, business, and familial relationships effectually. With more 8 million copies sold, Dr. Gary Chapman’s The 5 Love Languages will help you succeed in having joyful, enduring relationships.

Christian Mindfulness

By Dan Blair, a marriage counselor and family counselor.

Christian Mindfulness“More than 100 million American adults who describe themselves as Christian contend . . . they are still searching for clarity regarding their purpose in life (George Barna, Maximum Faith).” Is there a connection between awareness of God and self-awareness? As one form of awareness goes up, does the other go down? Or does awareness of God and self-awareness work together? John Calvin writes, “The knowledge of God and that of ourselves are connected. Without knowledge of self there is no knowledge of God. Without knowledge of God there is no knowledge of self.” Continue reading Christian Mindfulness

Support for Pastors at No Cost

By Dan Blair, a Christian marriage counselor and family counselor.

The burdens that pastors carry are many. Dr. Greg Smalley reports that 80 percent of pastors leave the ministry within five years of graduating seminary. He adds that 1500 pastors a month leave due to burnout or moral failure. According to a Barna Group study released in 2017, 26% of pastors have faced significant marital problems. And 48% agree their current ministry is difficult on their families. Pastors give so much to others, but the pressures are heavy enough to hamper their availability to their families, or self-care.

  1. Role conflicts. Pastors get asked to do many things above and beyond the job description.
  2. Proliferation of activities. New endeavors are started without adequate support for the programs already in place.
  3. Administrative duties. Pastors are not necessarily trained in spread sheets.
  4. Spiritual dryness. People face deserts in life, but pastors are not expected to be “people.”
  5. Perfectionism or inadequacy. Pastors can hold unrealistic standards for themselves.
  6. Unrelenting standards. Others can hold unrelenting standards for the pastor.
  7. No time to be alone, while feeling alone or lonely. Both can be true.
  8. Intrusions on time. The unexpected often occurs at inopportune times.
  9. Failure of dreams. Often visions don’t occur as planned.
  10. Blocked goals. Attempts at accomplishment are meant with resistance.

In addition, pastors most often use an intrapersonal coping style versus interpersonal coping. Balancing coping strategies means pastors need their own support system. Blair Counseling and Mediation offers wellness checks and personal support for the unique stressors that pastors face at no cost as part of our commitment to the local church. Feel free to call at anytime.

No Pain, No Gain?

By Dan Blair, a marriage counselor and family counselor.

The anguish we encounter in life is immeasurable at times. It’s big. Too big. What do you do with anger and the impulse to express it without a satisfying outcome? What do you do with fear/shame that reveals our vulnerability at its core and that our worst fears can come true? What do you do with sadness so profound, so far-reaching that it drains our ability to cope?

Some things you will never get over in this life. Some things you will never get back.

No wonder numbness takes over and leaves one unable to think. Definitely, for a period of time nothing will help. Don’t try to make the feelings go away during this time and do not try to help others in this way. Grief is so varied that no one knows what it is like for another person.

This psalmist describes his experience this way: “My heart is sick, withered like grass, and I have lost my appetite. I lie awake, lonely as a solitary bird on the roof. My tears run down into my drink because of your anger and wrath. For you have picked me up and thrown me out. My life passes as swiftly as the evening shadows. I am withering away like grass” (Psalms 102: 4, 7, 10, 11). “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me? Why are you so far away when I groan for help? Every day I call to you, my God, but you do not answer. Every night you hear my voice, but I find no relief” (Psalms 22:1-2). The psalmist then turns to his faith in God for comfort. Instead of seeing God as an absent or passive Deity, he relies on God to be transformed. Nothing is more transforming than pain, for better or for worse.

Is this how God works, complicit with evil, working to make good come out of it? God as portrayed in the Bible is about his thwarted intentions for mankind bestowed with free will and then God’s redemptive purposes. The culmination of God’s love and pain is the sacrifice of his Son, and the Son’s experience of abandonment by the Father. Yet the son chose “not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 22:42).

God’s view of evil is not that it is required to accomplish his purposes. He is truly moved, angered and grieved by evil throughout the Bible. There is no remedy, other than “some day.” What He offers now, through his Spirit and the Church, is his Presence. Will the Church provide solidarity for those who suffer?

More on Grief.

Using Grace to Change

By Dan Blair, a marriage counselor and family counselor. What if instead of judging yourself, you fully accepted yourself as does God? The Christian concept of grace is based on the finished work of Jesus as a completely effective mediator between God and man. Depression, anxiety, and addictions all depend on a negative cycle and sense of inadequacy that is fed by stress, fear, and shame.

Grace puts hope back in the equation when feeling totally accepted increases personal response-ability to make personal changes, without meeting performance demands. What difference would it make in daily decisions and struggles if you knew you were okay versus believing you were not? The challenge comes in the form of one’s personal faith in the means of God’s acceptance. Can you believe?

  • Sin is strengthened by law (1 Cor. 15:56)
  • The gift of righteousness (Rom. 5:17)
  • No condemnation (Rom. 8:1)
  • Sin loses its hold (Rom. 6:14)
  • Jesus is the mediator (1 John 2:1)
  • Those struggling have forgotten their sins are gone (1 Peter 1:9)

Time and again Jesus expressed anger toward religious people who focused on their own works. (One example is depicted in Grace over Judgment). Jesus also pointed out the inadequacy of justification by human effort when the rich young ruler asked him what else he can do (Luke 18:18-23). The rich young ruler walked away. In the next chapter, Jesus responded to Zacchaeus with grace, and Zacchaeus changed his life. Grace is not only meant to save, it is meant to empower. Paul is consistent with this definition when he wrote to the Galatians, who were also focused on their own works,” Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?” (Gal. 3:3). In contrast, Paul wrote to the Corinthians, who were stuck in their sin, “Therefore you do not lack any spiritual gift as you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed. He will keep you strong to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God, who has called you into fellowship with his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, is faithful” (1 Cor. 1:7-8).

Viewing oneself as righteous is not self-righteousness; that is evident. Viewing oneself as recipients of grace also does not justify behavior.  But viewing oneself as righteous does change the way one thinks, and thus changes behavior. Jesus said, “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly” (Matthew 11:28-30). “No one who takes refuge in him will be condemned” (Psalms 34:22b).

Arresting Anxiety

By Dan Blair, a marriage counselor and family counselor.

“Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10a).

The same emotion can either be positive or negative in the Bible. The Bible may command an emotion in one place and prohibit it in another depending on the context. For example, “In your anger do not sin: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry.” (Ephesians 4:26). Sorrow has its place but also has limits. Likewise, fear is appropriate in particular circumstances but a state of prolonged fear becomes problematic.

The direction to not fear is one of the most common proscriptions in the Bible. You could read one reference a day for over a year!

Emotions are signals and send messages that are sometimes misread. In that case the signal gets stuck and the emotion is prolonged excessively. If warning signals on the dashboard continue to light up one may develop anxiety about “driving,” especially if the signals represent danger. Some may cover the dashboard, avoid feeling, and make some reckless decisions. Others may learn to devalue the signals. Still others may overanalyze the signal.

Signals to be properly interpreted need to be felt without fear. God provides a healthy option otherwise not available: “Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7). Christ has come to “bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners.” Like a parent who grabs a child from falling, Christ is saying, “I got you!” Even when we can’t see light at the end of the tunnel, Christ is saying, “I got you!” “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you (Isaiah 43:2).

Christian Mindfulness

Forgiving Versus Reconciling

By Dan Blair, a marriage counselor and family counselor.

Many choose to forgive because forgiveness has benefits for the forgiver. Forgiveness is a canceling of a “debt”. One can choose to forgive so that anger doesn’t destroy one’s own sense of well-being, though this may require a grieving process. To forgive is to release oneself from an expectation that another person has to fulfill some requirement or redeem the relationship. It is no longer holding in hostility. Restoring the relationship, though, is a step further. A Biblical example of reconciliation, the restoring of proper relationship, is forgiveness and repentance. Repentance is a u-turn involving a realization of the impact of a wrong, full remorse, a commitment to change, and actual behavioral changes over time.

Seeing the impact of your behavior on another when there has been hurt is difficult. We are called to have a clear view of our actions (1 John 1:8). The Bible describes repentance as a knowledge of truth (2 Timothy 2:25-26). Understanding the full impact of one’s actions requires compassion and patient excavation of the hurt person’s experience and emotion. Only that person can say when he or she feels understood.

Healthy frustration and sorrow over one’s actions sets the stage for legitimate change. The Bible distinguishes between sorrow that leads to valuable change and sorrow that destroys. Paul writes, “For you became sorrowful as God intended and so were not harmed in any way by us. Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death” (1 Corinthians 7:9-10). Sorrow without change leads to depression, anxiety and addictions.

The first fruit of change is planning change. “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matthew 3:8). What internal changes are needed to make long-lasting external change? Producing fruit requires growth and learning to fully understand the emotions that drive unhealthy outcomes. An honest look at these “unacceptable” feelings requires a relationship that can accept those feelings and one’s failures so that the usual patterns of avoidance are disrupted. This is called grace, and is the only way to grow. Otherwise, instead of pruning and growing, one cuts down the tree. (The Bible uses this metaphor for judgment).

Finally, repentance is proven by change (Acts 26:20). It is making agreements and building trust by keeping those agreements. The Bible says let your “yes” be “yes” and “no” be “no” so that honest agreements will be kept (Matthew 5:37). A covenant represents honest intentions for a renewed relationship. “Come now, let’s make a covenant, you and I, and let it serve as a witness between us” (Genesis 31:44).

While humans continue to fail, remorse and grace can lead to reconciliation by caring about the impact of one’s behavior, making personal changes that lead to lasting changes, and re-working honest agreements for the future. “Though the mountains be shaken, and the hills be removed, yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken nor my covenant of peace be removed,” says the Lord, who has compassion on you (Isaiah 54:10). God is able to forgive and reconcile based on repentance simultaneously, while we may have to separate the two processes.

Connection Before Correction

Connection Before Correction

By Dan Blair, a marriage counselor and family counselor.

While doing right leads to healthy relationships, the Bible also promotes the opposite: healthy relationships lead to doing right. Healthy relationships start between human and the divine, and then between humans. Here’s an example of the importance of relationships: “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23-24).

What are some ways to maintain healthy relationships? These approaches can work when addressing difficult subjects. A positive start, humility, listening and understanding teamed with honesty is summed up by “speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15).

Whatever is a good place to start? “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things” (Philippians 4:8). Starting on a negative note can automatically trigger resistance and defensiveness – a product of the “fight or flight response”. Paul said, “Don’t use foul or abusive language. Let everything you say be good  and helpful, so that your words will be an encourage­ment to those who hear them” (Eph. 4:29). Avoiding such negativity will mean overlooking some offenses. “Sensible people control their temper; they earn respect by overlooking wrongs” (Proverbs 19:11). “Reckless words pierce like a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing” (Proverbs 12:18). Other times a negative cycle must be stopped. “Do everything without complaining or arguing” (Philippians 2:14).

Next, comes the humble part. People are more receptive to hearing about their “human side” if they see a willingness to admit weaknesses. “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. ‘Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye” (Matthew 7:1-5). One who thinks he has done nothing wrong may have trouble accepting the human side. “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). “For in his own eyes he flatters himself too much to detect or hate his sin” (Psalms 36:2).

Listening to others conveys that one understands and cares, regardless of agreement. On that basis of respect, a foundation allows a connection to be built. “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry” (James 1:19). “A man of knowledge uses words with restraint, and a man of understanding is even-tempered. A fool finds no pleasure in understanding but delights in airing his own opinions” (Proverbs 17:27, 18:2). Once the other feels understood, one has an ability to connect.

Speaking the truth about one’s own interests balanced by another’s forges the relationship. A one-sided relationship is lop-sided. “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” (Philippians 2:3-4). Creatively looking for options breathes life into a relationship as opposed to one side flourishing at the expense of another.

God finds a way to confront us with truth but not without grace. Holding in the truth can result in passivity and resentment. But expressing the truth aggressively can leave you with the same feelings. “Picking your battles,” a positive or understanding start, quick admittance to your own faults, and leaving the other feeling understood, connecting before correcting can bolster any relationship. “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Ephesians 5:29-32).

Next Steps to Forgiveness