Three Fundamentals Boundaries in Marriage

As a counselor, I meet with a lot of couples who are in relationship trouble. Ten minutes into the first session and it’s not too difficult to figure out how they wound up in my office. As personal stories unfurl about adultery, communication breakdowns, reconnecting with old flames, flirting with strangers, and verbal and physical abuse, I am amazed the marriages have lasted to this point. Each of these couples share a common link: they lack boundaries in their marriages. Failure to establish boundaries at the beginning of the union prevents couples from experiencing true intimacy and creates a rift in the relationship.

A boundary is simply a property line that determines who is responsible for what. Boundaries help individuals hold one another accountable in the relationship. Once you boundary_line-300x225are aware of who is responsible for a particular behavior or attitude, the opportunity for change becomes possible. Each party must assume responsibility for their own part in a problem. Assuming responsibility for your feelings, behaviors, attitudes, thoughts and choices empowers you to live an abundant life. Accepting responsibility becomes the change agent for a more loving and satisfying marriage. Boundaries are liberating! I have identified three boundaries that I believe are foundational for successful marriages.

1. Resolve your anger before it controls you- Anger is a powerful emotion, and in certain situations it can be useful, but human anger does not bring forth the righteousness that God desires (James 1:20, NIV). For love to grow, it must be nurtured and pursued; anger unchecked is like metastatic cancer, it spreads to the heart and kills love. Anger is a secondary emotion, it is the result of some other potent primary emotion. To demonstrate this point, I use the following formula in counseling to assist clients in identifying and discussing their true feelings:

fear + hurt + frustration = anger

Understanding this point is crucial in resolving anger for this reason: if I know my anger is the result of another emotion, I can identify and process the real emotion(s) instead of holding on to the toxicity that is eating away at me and killing my marriage. This is more productive than lashing out verbally or physically at your spouse, which only creates emotional distance and may even lead to divorce.

2. Protect your marriage from intruders- Marriage is an exclusive, two person arrangement that requires “forsaking all others.” Marriage is unique among all other human bonds because it symbolizes Christ’s relationship to His bride, the Church. Because third parties threaten the marital union, it must therefore, be guarded with fierce devotion. Couples must sacrificially work to keep love safe, secure and alive. You cannot assume that the passion felt early in the relationship will remain if you invest little effort.

You are a steward of a sacred covenant between yourself, your spouse and God and as a steward, you must guard against intruders that may include: in-laws, work, hobbies, Internet, affairs, friends, addictions, and even church. A marriage is only as strong as what it costs to protect it; You value what you invest in. People will invest in houses, vehicles, boats, the stock market, etc., but they hesitate to invest in their marriage. Americans think nothing of spending $10,000 or more on a wedding, but they scoff at spending a few hundred dollars on counseling that may save a derailed marriage.

3. Establish personal limitations- Boundaries are not something you place on other people, they are set on yourself, to control yourself, because you are the only person you can control. Establishing personal boundaries is a method of serving and protecting the relationship, it says to the world “I value my marriage.” Consider these points when setting your personal limitations:

  • Tell your spouse the truth [in love; in a normal voice…without yelling] if your needs are not getting met. Use “I statements” such as “I don’t want to do that,” or “I like it when…”
  • Don’t reconnect with old flames through social media and texting. Unless you are actually planning to have an affair, no good can come from this action.
  • Refuse to foster secret friendships with the opposite sex, it only promotes jealousy and betrayal and erodes trust.
  • Guard your eyes. Greet the opposite sex eyeball to eyeball; forbid your eyes from roaming all over someone else’s body, regardless of their attractiveness.
  • Refrain from full frontal hugs with the opposite sex. Offer a side hug or better yet, extend a handshake.
  • Compliment your spouse more than you compliment anyone else.
  • Get the log out of your own eye before pointing out the speck.
  • Be the first to offer forgiveness.

 

Two Responses to Valley Experiences

Spring and early summer is typically when local communities gear up for Relay for Life; an organization whose tagline “celebrate, remember, and fight back” inspires its participants to raise money for cancer research for the American Cancer Society (relayforlife.org, 2014). It’s also the time of year that triggers a flood of memories from my own experience with cancer.

I frequently refer to my encounter as “the valley of the shadow of death” because those were some of the darkest hours of my life. It was an emotionally charged journey, filled with questions and uncertainty about my tomorrows. “Will I live?” “Will I die?” “Will I always feel this miserable?” These represent just a few of the questions that reverberated through my mind at any given moment. During periods of tribulation our faith is often tested and we learn what we are made of. People usually respond to valley experiences in one of two ways:

1. Grow closer to Jesus – These folks make an intentional decision to grow closer to Jesus; it doesn’t happen by chance. Although their suffering seems unbearable, they cry out to God in raw pain and He answers in tangible ways resulting in growth and greater intimacy.

2. Move further away from Him – Moving away from the Lord in times of tribulation is also a choice, although it may not always be a conscious one. Sometimes, people simply drift from God; usually because He did not answer them in the way that was hoped for.

After some deep soul searching, I chose to grow closer to Jesus. So I sought Him with my whole heart and in the midst of my suffering, I found Him walking with me, holding me, wiping away my tears and equipping me with promises I could hold on to. The most tangible promise God gave me came from 2 Chronicles 20:15-17:

15 “…This is what the Lord says to you: ‘Do not be afraid or discouraged because of this vast army. For the battle is not yours, but God’s. 16 Tomorrow march down against them. They will be climbing up by the Pass of Ziz, and you will find them at the end of the gorge in the Desert of Jeruel. 17 You will not have to fight this battle. Take up your positions; stand firm and see the deliverance the Lord will give you, Judah and Jerusalem. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged. Go out to face them tomorrow, and the Lord will be with you’” (italics added for emphasis).

Are you currently walking through your own “valley of the shadow of death?” Perhaps your valley isn’t cancer, but the death of a loved one, job loss, financial woes, a wayward child, infidelity, divorce, you fill in the _____________. Choose your response to your valley experience wisely my friend. Refuse to waver in your faith, even in the face of uncertainty. Go out and face whatever mighty army is coming against you and commit this truth to your heart…when God fights, God wins!

6 Reasons to Seek Therapy

Everyone experiences periods of stress, sadness and loss. Successfully navigating through those seasons in life is challenging enough, but what if you are not successful in working through negative or even positive life events? You might find the quality of your mental health compromised.

Psychotherapy can be a potent tool for resolving many of life’s problems, but you shouldn’t see your shrink for every little problem life throws your way either. You don’t have to be “crazy” or on the verge of a nervous breakdown to go to therapy. So how do you know when it’s time to call a professional? How bad do things need to get before you seek help? When you’re dealing with debilitating depression or you get stuck in the grief cycle,  the signs might be obvious, but at other times, it might not be so cut and dry so you shuffle through life until things become unbearable.

Most people don’t go to counseling until things reach the “unbearable” point, prolonging their misery and angst. The obvious truth here; however, is the sooner you seek help, the quicker you will be on the road to recovery and feeling better. In fact, it might actually make the problem worse by avoiding professional help so, before things get to the point of being unmanageable, here are six reasons to seek counseling now:

1. The problem is causing significant distress

Deeply intense emotions such as explosive anger, overwhelming sadness, fluctuating moods, complicated grief, or anxiety that impairs your ability to function may be signs that counseling is needed. If you are having thoughts of suicide, thoughts of harming someone else or if you are participating in self-injurious behaviors (i.e. cutting, burning or choking), seek help from a professional immediately. Disturbances in your normal sleep patterns such as sleeping too much, trouble falling or staying asleep, withdrawing from family and friends, and appetite changes, can also be telling signs that its time to talk with someone. Therapy can also help with strained relationships and marital conflict.

2. You’re self-medicating in order to cope

It is easier to numb the pain by self-medicating than to deal with the issues that are causing the problems in the first place. However, not dealing effectively with your problems creates new ones and makes a bad situation worse. If you are self-medicating with alcohol, drugs, sex, shopping, or food [to name a few] and you need one of these substances to get through the day in order to deal with life stressors, it is a sign that you are trying to numb feelings that need to be addressed in counseling.

3. Something traumatic has happened

If you have a history of sexual trauma, emotional, physical or spiritual abuse, neglect or some other traumatic event that you have not fully dealt with, counseling could be a powerful tool in bringing necessary healing.

4. You’re stuck in the grieving process

Not everyone who has experienced loss (even major loss) needs counseling, but if you find yourself stuck in the grieving process and you’re unable to move forward, you might find therapy helpful. Grief can get complicated and doesn’t always resolve on its own. Some people respond to grief by withdrawing from family, friends and activities while others over engage and throw themselves into relationship after relationship. Counseling can be effective in working through the grieving process and help you to unpack suppressed emotions.

5. You no longer participate in activities or with friends

You avoid the things that used to bring enjoyment, including family and friends. Perhaps you feel you’ve lost direction or no longer find purpose or meaning in activities that you once could not live without. Many people pull back in seasons of painful emotions. This could be a sign that something isn’t right. Seeing a counselor might help bring clarity or assist you with a new start.

6. There’s no medical cause for your physical symptoms

Mood disturbances can cause a host of bodily aches and pains such as recurrent headaches, neck and muscle pain, gastrointestinal problems, general fatigue, frequent colds and a diminished sex drive. If your doctor has been unable to find a cause for your physical symptoms, it might be time to call a counselor. It just makes sense that when we are emotionally sick, our bodies are negatively affected.

If you do decide to give counseling a try, it doesn’t mean you’ll be in therapy forever. Many people feel better after one session and a lot of problems can be resolved in under ten sessions. Talking about your thoughts and feelings with an empathic, supportive person can not only make you feel better, it can be life changing by bringing about the emotional healing you desperately need.

Therapy can provide you with the tools for transformation. You can learn new coping skills, improve relationships, and build the life you’ve always envisioned for yourself. What are you waiting for? Lets get started!

Why Not Me?

Have you spent any time contemplating what your family, friends and the world will remember about you after you leave this life? I had that opportunity in the fall of 2005. I had been dealing with some annoying symptoms for several months when I finally wised up and got them checked out.

After performing a standard biopsy, a two week follow-up appointment was scheduled to discuss what was expected to be, benign results. Four days later; however, I received an urgent call from a staff nurse advising the appointment needed to be moved to that afternoon. “Will you be bringing your husband?” she inquired before ending the call. “Well that doesn’t sound very good” I responded with a nervous laugh.

Three hours later, I drove the familiar route to the North Raleigh medical park. My husband and I were promptly ushered to an exam room where we anxiously awaited an explanation for this urgent appointment. Moments later, my doctor entered the room donned in her typical white coat and serious expression, took a seat and wasted no time getting to the point “You have well differentiated adenocarcinoma.” Whoa… I had no idea what that meant. I guess the bewildered look on my face gave it away because clarification quickly followed her initial pronouncement, “You have cancer.” Well, I certainly understood those three words! A wave of shock swept over my entire being; I struggled to maintain composure as a team of nurses sprung into action scheduling more appointments for MRIs, CAT Scans and mammograms.

I went home that afternoon still in shock, not knowing what to think or feel. That evening I stretched across my bed and prayed to God for strength and wisdom. I did not yet know if the cancer had spread, what stage it was in or whether I would live or die. What I knew for certain was my desire to leave a legacy of value for my children. Oh sure, I could leave treasured heirlooms and insurance money to pay for college, but I wanted to leave something indestructible that would never break or run out. Something like…a strong faith, and a solid attitude of trust. In that moment, I decided I would not be angry with God, after all- God did not give me cancer! And I refused to take the attitude “why me?” as if to imply I didn’t deserve it and someone else should have this disease.

After surgery and six weeks of chemotherapy and radiation, I was pronounced cancer free. Although cancer doesn’t define who I am, it did change me because I walked through the valley of the shadow of death. My body forever bears scars from the scalpel and I still have ink marks on my abdomen to remind me of radiation. More importantly, I am a survivor of a disease that claims millions of lives each year! I grew closer to the Lord and I learned a vital truth: the same God of the mountain top is the same God of the valley! In the end, God rescued me from the grave and breathed new life into my lungs. I have been given a second chance so, “why not me?”

Why Forgive?

Almost everyone has been hurt by the words or actions of another person, either intentionally or unintentionally. Smaller offenses such as snapping at someone due to stress or forgetting a lunch date with one’s spouse can usually be forgiven rather easily and can even be forgotten after a little time has passed. More serious; however, are offenses such as abuse (physical, emotional and sexual), infidelity and lying to name a few. These violations can actually leave soul wounds; such an imprint can carry life-long implications.

Considering the emotional suffering associated with soul wounds, it seems only natural to react in anger and desire revenge. The mere suggestion of forgiveness, seems not only unfair, but ludicrous. Yet forgiveness is the exact healing agent needed in order to move forward and live freely. I can identify three foundational reasons to forgive.

1. Forgiveness breaks the bondage of hatred and pain and sets the captives free. Retaliation is a typical response when one has been hurt, it’s human to want to make the offender suffer in similar ways. Left unchecked, bitterness grows like cancer and infiltrates an already calloused heart. Before long the injured person has unintentionally created an emotional prison filled with anger, hatred and pain. This leaves the guilty party in a position of control as they continue to yield power and influence as events of the transgression are replayed over and over in the theater of the mind.

Remaining in unforgiveness is like picking a scab from a wound before it has a chance to heal. Clearly, the benefits of forgiving far exceed the alternative…remaining in unforgiveness. The greatest benefit is often experienced by the person extending forgiveness because it offers release from a self-created emotional prison. The act itself is contrary to the flesh and a near impossible task without Jesus.

2. Forgiveness is both, an act of grace and a gift. Forigiveness is not to be confused with a “pardon” which is letting the perpetrator go free without punishment, it’s not letting them off the hook and it’s not pretending the transgression never happened. Forgiveness is a conscious choice to cut the cords of an oppressive burden and let it roll away. Forgiveness is an act of grace [the giving of something that is unearned and undeserved] and leaving room for God “Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘VENGEANCE IS MINE, I WILL REPAY,’ says the Lord” (Romans 12:19, NASB).

3. Offering forgiveness improves the quality of one’s relationship with others, allows for spiritual growth and may lead to better health. Dwelling on past hurts robs precious time from those who matter the most (family and friends). Choosing forgiveness frees up the mind and emotions to be present here and now and opens the door to enjoy greater intimacy with God while experiencing inner peace and compassion for others.

Releasing the strangle hold of unforgiveness and choosing forgiveness makes room for emotional health and can lead to lower blood pressure, fewer symptoms of depression, and a lower risk of alcohol and substance abuse (Mayoclinic.org, 2011).

After two people have so seriously injured one another, even after apologies have been exchanged, regaining spontaneity and carefree affections doesn’t happen overnight. Some relationships may even be irreparable, but you can walk in peace knowing you did the right thing.

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Love One Another

Although many Christians may have the best intentions, they all too often judge and reject others without even realizing it. In doing so, they push people further away from Jesus rather than bringing them closer. Most non-Christians say Jesus stood for love more than anything else and they are right. Jesus said the world will recognize Christians as His disciples by their love for one another (John 13:35). But there doesn’t seem to be much love going on when those who claim to be Christian speak with judgment or in disparaging ways towards others.

A careful reading of the Gospels, reveals that Jesus didn’t get angry with sinners and he never turned them away. Jesus actually drew them to himself…by the multitude. He even made them feel at ease and was known as the “friend of sinners” (Matthew 11:19). Jesus had harsher things to say to the religious folk of the day because they were judgmental hypocrites who failed to extend any measure of grace or love. They believed God was about regulatory compliance (i.e. rule keeping). Jesus taught the people that God’s greatest “rule” was to love the Lord with all your heart, soul and mind and to love others as yourself (Matthew 22:36-40). God didn’t send Jesus to condemn sinners, He sent Jesus to save sinners (John 3:17).

The Pharisees loved rules and laws and were devoted to keeping them and they thought everyone else should be “rule keepers” too. Oddly, the greatest opposition Jesus faced came from the Pharisees, because they missed a crucial point, God wasn’t concerned with all their rule keeping, He was concerned with people. So while the Pharisees were busy crushing people with their unbearable religious demands while never lifting a finger to ease the burden, Jesus was drawing crowds and teaching about the kingdom of God. Jesus’ teachings were a radical departure from what ordinary men and women were used to hearing from their pious leaders. Grace, love, mercy, forgiveness…all wonderful new concepts and these teachings were turning people away from organized religion. The Pharisees should have celebrated this renewed interest in God because the citizens were coming in droves to hear Jesus preach. Instead, they were disgusted that Jesus was so willing to associate with lowly sinners. In response, Jesus had some intense things to say to the religious leaders. Jesus used names like hypocrites, blind guides, filthy and full of greed, whitewashed tombs, snakes and sons of vipers (Matthew 23) to describe these leaders.

The religious leaders didn’t love God, perhaps they thought they did, but they weren’t fooling anyone, certainly not Jesus! Oh, they loved the Scriptures and searched them diligently because they believed eternal life was found in the written word, but the Scriptures they so loved, pointed straight to Jesus (John 5:39). In short, the Pharisees and other religious leaders were really just putting on an act; they weren’t authentic lovers of God. Truth be known, we too are sometimes guilty of faking our affections for Christ. We fake our affections when we just go through the motions at church or when we judge someone because they don’t share “our values” or when we intentionally fail to extend love and grace. When we deceive others and lie about the motives in our heart or when we think we are superior to other people because we are more “mature in our walk with Christ,” we are faking our affections.

Jesus warned his followers numerous times about such hypocrisy and judging others in four broad expressions.

1. The Motives of a Person’s Heart

You can really tell the motive of a person’s heart if after doing a good deed for someone, it is kept in confidence or broadcasted to the universe on Facebook or some other media outlet: “I helped buy groceries for a needy person today!” “I sponsored an orphan in Africa!” “My family adopted a huge family at Christmas and donated 10 Operation Christmas Child boxes!” Such a person is really using God rather than allowing God to use them and stands in stark contrast to the way Jesus told his followers to give when helping the needy, “So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full” (Matthew 6:2).

2. Judging the Sin of Others

Believe it or not, there are plenty of “Super” Christians who go around judging the sins of other Christians as well as non-believers. These “Super” Christians see themselves as the standard for everyone else to follow. They believe they should be emulated in word, deed and action. This is nothing more than spiritual pride and they are practicing “a more sinister and deadly sin than the sins of those they are denouncing” (Hamilton, 2010, p. 15).  Jesus said if you are going to judge the speck of dust in your brother’s eye to first get the log out of your own (Matthew 7:1-5).

3. Getting Sidetracked

In their quest for rule following and keeping the details of every law, the Pharisees forgot how to love people. Sometimes, God’s children do the same when we argue, divide and split over matters such as female preachers, who can partake in the elements of communion, forms of baptism, speaking in tongues, homosexuality, science, politics, other religions, and interpreting the Scriptures. When we get sidetracked on these issues, we are pushing would be believers away from Jesus rather than drawing them closer. Jesus said our love for one another is how the world will know we are his followers (John 13:35).

4. Backstabbing Other People

Have you ever met someone who presented as a warm, kind and loving soul, but the more you got to know them, you realized they were the antithesis of who you first believed they were? Jesus knew a few people like that too and he had this to say, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup, so that the outside also may become clean” (Matthew 23:25-26). You would think Jesus was speaking to the unchurched, the sinners, but he was speaking to the religious people and his message still applies to some Christians today. They are adept in “religious” talk, they raise their hands in worship and go around talking about “God’s will be done” and they’re always “praying” for someone. However, their religion doesn’t change their values or how they live their lives. As an example, these are the folks who are gossiping about other people’s business, or slandering another sister’s name behind her back while hugging her on Sunday morning, or sharing confidential details that were sworn to secrecy. Their religion is for show- it’s an act.

We need to clean the inside of our cup to  match the outside as Jesus commanded the Pharisees and live out our faith and beliefs caring about what God cares for: people, grace, mercy and justice. Most people including atheists struggle with hypocrisy and judging. It’s all too easy to do the right things for the wrong reasons and it’s easy to point out the sins of others while neglecting to see our own. Most of us has pretended to be someone we are not, but it is only when we recognize our penchant to be as Pharisees that we have any hope of getting it right.

When Christians act in ways that are hypocritical, compassionless, hurtful, and cold hearted, we are behaving in ways that are unchristian. Paul used these words when describing how Christians should behave: loving, joyful, peaceful, patient, kind, generous, faithful, gentle and self-controlled (Galatians 5:22-23).  When Christians get it right, love is the motive. We are most like Jesus when we are building friendships with those who are outside the church rather than condemning them and preaching sermonettes on all the things they are doing wrong. As Christians, we should remember that it isn’t our job to offend others- that’s the job of the Holy Spirit (John 16:8). When Christians get it right, people are drawn to rather than repulsed by our faith. They want what we have and they want to serve the God we serve.

Reference: Hamilton, A. (2010) When Christians Get It Wrong. Abington Press: Nashville.