Couple’s Threat Narrative or What Happens in a Fight

A reason I write these blogs is to stay in touch with former clients and provide some kind of ongoing support. I need to be more faithful about that so here is a reminder for every couple I have seen about what arguments, conflicts, or fights are: Your partner is not “the enemy” or the problem, the threat cycle is, and the narrative in your head that goes along with it.

One of the more powerful insights from EFT (Emotionally Focused Therapy) for couples to understand is the threat narrative, that voice in our head telling us what is happening is not good. When we are threatened, either emotionally or physically, our brain and body go into reactive, self protective mode. Our perspective narrows as our fight/flight center in the brain ( the amygdala) takes over in a split second and our thinking, reasoning part of the brain (the prefrontal cortex) goes offline. We are geared up and ready for action and the threat is our loved one. This is the genesis of our fights. And this little voice in our head is creating a narrative, a story that we tell ourselves about our spouse or loved one, and maybe even about ourselves, that is based on a narrowed, limited threat perspective. In other words it does not represent the whole picture of who your spouse/lover is and you cannot trust it as the truth. If we are to stop our fights with one another we must learn to recognize this commentary in our head and stop listening to it. This is what couples therapy helps us do. This is the first issue we address in couples therapy and it changes relationships.

No doubt it is challenging to slow down this adrenaline driven threat response, it is probably the most challenging hurdle to overcome in repairing your relationship. Everything in your body and brain is screaming “danger, danger” and it’s difficult to listen to the new voice of attachment saying “your partner is not the real enemy”. Well, your partner is not the real enemy, so listen to the voice of attachment and work with each other to get out of the threat, attack-defend cycle that may spiral out of control into a very ugly place. Then we couples can create a new, more safely connected narrative together.

Blessings and may peace reign in your hearts.

Powerful Presence, Improbable Survival

In my last post I told the story of my miraculous survival of a sudden cardiac arrest. My experience of that event once I regained consciousness is another story of experiencing the powerful presence of God. ( I know not all who read this believe in the Judeo-Christian narrative found in the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. I invite you to just “listen” to my experience, as I am likewise willing to listen and respect yours.)

As I came to at some point coming down the trail and while being moved to a stretcher and then loaded onto an ambulance, I knew where I was and that something significant had happened. I felt terrible, like a truck had run over me, and while I was able to answer the paramedic’s questions, it was a struggle to focus. I kept trying to shake the cobwebs loose but they would not go away.

I do not know how long it took the ambulance to arrive at the hospital, but they apparently made a wrong turn coming out of the entrance to the property where we were camping, losing about four minutes. This is according to my friend, Lynn Buckles, who was riding in the front seat of the ambulance. Another factor that likely added to the confusion, is that a truck was on fire on the road near the entrance. This all seems so bizarre, unreal, like something out of a movie: collapsing on a trail, burning truck, wrong turn, riding in an ambulance?

Even the ambulance making it to the property is an amazing story of grace, as the property has no physical address. Earlier in the week someone associated with Crossroads Man Camp figured out how to fool Google Maps into dropping a GPS location pin. Only four people at the Camp knew the “address” and Bryan Carter was one of the four.

Bryan is the Crossroads Community Pastor for the Lexington campus and had a central role in hosting Man Camp. He was a busy man helping shepherd a thousand men through registration and on to their campsites. If he had not been listening to the Spirit he never would have come to the commotion surrounding my collapse. While he heard the cries for a Medic, he assumed someone had turned an ankle or something similar hiking up the trail. So he felt no urgency to investigate until he felt an inner prompting of the Spirit to do so. If he had not been there to take the phone from Basilo Harley who had dialed 911 the ambulance would not have known how to find our location.
And the same goes for Basilo having a cell phone. All of “the campers” had been strongly encouraged to leave our cell phones in our cars and “unplug” for the weekend. According to Basilo, when he saw one of his camping mates leaving his phone in the glove compartment, he had the thought, was prompted?, “maybe I should keep my phone with me in case of an emergency”. I do not know Basilo, he reached out to me through Facebook to tell me his story. I know he is from out of town, likely Ohio, but he had 911 on his phone to give to Bryan who knew the fake address of our location. Crazy, bizarre stuff; God stuff.

One of the most astonishing experiences for me was who showed up along the way. At almost every juncture, beginning in the ER, there was someone I knew taking care of me, all of them former clients of mine. These are people that knew me and that I knew. I did not always immediately recognize them but they let me know and of course I remembered. In the interest of confidentiality I cannot give specifics but it was stunning how often in the course of my treatment, five specific instances, former clients were taking care of me or associated with someone caring for me. It was incredibly humbling. It was like God was saying to me “Don, you are known and loved.”

I know some might dismiss this as incredulous, but I received comfort and encouragement seeing these folks, reinforcing to me the intimate connection there is in the body of Christ. It was as if the Spirit was saying to me “your life matters, and the work you do matters”, not as an ego thing, but as comforting, encouraging, and reassuring.

This experience, from the moment I collapsed and my heart stopped and all through treatment and open heart surgery manifested as a deep experience of connection that runs through everything and everyone, that there really is no separation, just connection. Separation is the illusion, connection is reality. “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?” Romans 8:35.

I can only assume that God wants me to know this in an intimate and powerful way that only experience can impart. This is not an idea or an insight; it is a lived experience that has made a huge impression on me and one that I am trying to sort through its meaning. How do I now live in a world where there is no separation but everything and everyone is connected? Maybe this is what the mystics call union with God.

One of the things that almost without exception people comment on, those who have seen me in the hospital and out, either medical personnel or friends and family, is how well I seem and look. And my experience is the same. Somehow “I came back to myself” in the ER at St. Joe East after my heart catheterization. It is as if everything cleared up and I felt like myself, no worse for the wear. Maybe the sedation from the heart catheterization relaxed me, helped my anxiety, I really don’t know. I just know I felt fully present and not worried, even though my diagnosis was serious coronary artery disease requiring open heart bypass surgery. Holy cow, where did that come from? I have asymptomatic coronary heart disease meaning I did not present with symptoms commonly associated with heard disease. No one saw this coming.

How quickly life can change. I went from putting a pack on my back to being transported to St. Joe Main for open heart bypass surgery, and yet I felt nothing but peace and energy. There was such an experience of the presence of God that were it not for the sober realization that I was going to have my chest split open, my heart stopped for about four hours, my body put on life support, and then my heart started again, it was an exhilarating spiritual experience. And really it was both, overwhelming loss of control and exhilarating sense of the presence of God.

I want to make it clear that I have also had experiences, and still do, where I felt the absence of God, periods of confusion and doubt, where prayers were not answered. I have experienced suffering and pain with struggles that could not be overcome and that taught me as much, and maybe more, about God than have overcoming experiences. Learning to trust God in the dark, when you can’t see a way forward, grows faith in ways that miracles or other experiences of the power of God never can. Hebrews 5:8: “Although He was a Son, He learned obedience from the things which He suffered.”

One of my favorite passages in Scripture is 2 Corinthians 1, specifically verses 3-11. Whether you are a believer in Jesus or not, this is beautiful literature that will speak to a deep place in your soul. And these words seem especially pertinent to my recent experience of an improbable survival. Paul speaks of a deep and abiding connection with the life of Christ and our life, with His sufferings, my sufferings, and your sufferings; with His comfort, my comfort, and your comfort. This is the passage from the New American Standard Bible:

3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, 4 who comforts us in all our affliction so that we will be able to comfort those who are in [b]any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. 5 For just as the sufferings of Christ are [c]ours in abundance, so also our comfort is abundant through Christ. 6 But if we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; or if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which is effective in the patient enduring of the same sufferings which we also suffer; 7 and our hope for you is firmly grounded, knowing that as you are sharers of our sufferings, so also you are sharers of our comfort.
And Paul then references specific afflictions they experienced in Asia in verses 8-11, as well as the deliverance from those afflictions that God provided:
8 For we do not want you to be unaware, brethren, of our affliction which came to us in [d]Asia, that we were burdened excessively, beyond our strength, so that we despaired even of life; 9 [e]indeed, we had the sentence of death within ourselves so that we would not trust in ourselves, but in God who raises the dead; 10 who delivered us from so great a peril of death, and will deliver us, [f]He on whom we have set our hope. And He will yet deliver us, 11 you also joining in helping us through your prayers, so that thanks may be given by many persons on our behalf for the favor bestowed on us through the prayers of many.
When I listen to the stories of the men who were around me on that trail in Madison County, who jumped into action and saved my life with CPR and prayer, it is a similar story to Paul’s. The sentence of death (verse 9) was within me, my heart had stopped and they all saw it and felt it, this sentence of death. They felt the despair and fear that comes with death. And they experienced the joy and relief that comes from life arising in the face of death, “so that we would not trust in ourselves, but in God who raises the dead.”

 

Jean Vanier's Jesus

This past Lent session I worked through John Vanier’s The Gospel of John The Gospel of Relationship. It was and is a transformative experience. He presented a vision of Jesus that my soul longed for and literally gave me a way forward with faith. “Who do you say I am?”, Who is Jesus? The short answer is He is the Son of God, the Messiah, and Savior. John Vanier unpacked that answer with a kind of spirituality of attachment, that Jesus is joined with the human race in love: “The Word of God, who is God, who is one with God, becomes one of us: a fragile, vulnerable human being.”

This morning I read about a promising UK golfer who has been diagnosed with a rare form of bone cancer. His coach said this: “Cullan (Brown) has always been full of faith, and hope and enthusiasm with everything in his life. He and God are going to whip this thing over the next year and it is going to be one sweet victory.” I am praying that is so for this young man, what a battle he is facing to overcome and it appears he has the full support of the UK community and its resources, medical and otherwise. We all want to see Cullan victorious, having the opportunity to live a long, full life where he can realize his potential. Dear Jesus, I pray that you heal Cullan.

This would be the kind of story many love to tell to encourage the faithful and spur the seeker to accept Jesus. It is the kind of story I needed to hear at one time in my life, to believe in the overcoming power of Jesus. And yet, Jesus became one of us, fragile and vulnerable. Who do you say we are? Mostly we say that we are strong and powerful, or want to be. But Jesus joined us in our fragility and vulnerability, and Jean Vanier’s life experiences and studies taught him that it is in our fragility and vulnerability that we know and meet Jesus, and each other.

Jean Vanier reminded me that believing in Jesus is not always about victory and overcoming, a theme many of the evangelical churches and groups I have been associated with promote. I don’t think they mean to do this, but it risks setting up an individualistic perspective that Jesus is like a kind of religious Me Too movement that leaves us empowered but not fully connected and whole. And then when Jesus doesn’t deliver the victory we pray for, all hell of confusion breaks out and we’re doing theological contortions to explain it, or just ignore it, passing it over as some kind of aberration. And some just give up believing.

Jean Vanier, Saint Francis and others, provide an alternative. Stop self protecting; enter into relationships and embrace situations where you are powerless; accept your fragility and vulnerability; that is where you find Jesus.

Self Protection, Not Better Communication, Is the Problem

The primary struggles that most couples have who come for marriage counseling are caused by fear and self protection. Most couples think they are having a communication problem and if they could only learn how to better express themselves to each other their relationship would get better. On the surface this is hard to argue with except that research demonstrates that teaching better communication skills to married couples who are struggling rarely helps. What helps is marriage counseling that focuses on creating a better, closer emotional connection. The struggle that couples have is because they do not feel emotionally safe with one another, there is a fear factor that causes them to self protect. Marriage counselors who understand this dance of disconnection can help couples repair and restore it.

Most couples I see for marriage counseling do not think of being “afraid” of their partner yet during therapy they become aware of how often they self protect and how they self protect. When men lose safe emotional connection with their spouse they typically self protect by withdrawing, creating emotional distance. Women are most often pursuers when this connection is lost, pushing for a different and more engaged emotional response from their husband. When a couple is dancing out of emotional sync with one another, it triggers this self protective response and a couple loses safe emotional connection. Marriage counselors who understand this dance of disconnection can help couples repair and restore it. Once a couple is dancing in emotional sync with one another they are no longer missing the emotional cues their partner is sending for understanding, comfort and acceptance and there is no “fear”, no need to self protect, then a couple has to opportunity to draw closer to one another.

Created for Connection

Created for Connection
The “Hold Me Tight” Guide for Christian Couples
Leader: Don Sizemore, LCSW

Join us for an 8 week journey to learn the skills and experience the joy of a connected love relationship. We are created in the image of God to love and to be one with God and one another. This is especially true for our marriages and when you feel distant or separate from your spouse, or just desire greater intimacy, you need to know how to form a secure, safe, loving connection.

Crossroads Andover, Lexington, Ky.
Wednesday Evenings 6:30-8:30 pm
September 6th-October 25th, 2017

Call Crossroads Andover at 859-263-4633 or Don Sizemore at 859-224-0265 for more information.http://www.drsuejohnson.com/books/created-for-connection-the-hold-me-tight-guide-for-christian-couples/

Our Story

I recently read John Steinbeck’s East of Eden where a beautiful and powerful exegesis of the Cain and Abel story in Genesis 4 is found. East of Eden is based on this pivotal story in the Old Testament and Steinbeck presents a deep and thoughtful presentation of the human condition, specifically as an archetypal story of the human soul. He presents the murder of Abel as an act of rejection, jealousy, revenge, and guilt. “I think this is the best-known story in the world because it is everybody’s story. I think it is the symbol story of the human soul. I’m feeling my way now—don’t jump on me if I’m not clear. The greatest terror a child can have is that he is not loved, and rejection is the hell he fears. I think everyone in the world to a large or small extent has felt rejection. And with rejection comes anger, and with anger some kind of crime in revenge for the rejection, and with the crime guilt—and there is the story of mankind. I think that if rejection could be amputated, the human would not be what he is. Maybe there would be fewer crazy people. I am sure in myself there would not be many jails. It is all there—the start, the beginning. One child, refused the love he craves, kicks the cat and hides his secret guilt; and another steals so that money will make him loved; and a third conquers the world—and always the guilt and revenge and more guilt. The human is the only guilty animal…Therefore I think this old and terrible story is important because it is a chart of the soul—the secret, rejected, guilty soul.”

Steinbeck makes the brilliant point that in the story God did not condemn Cain for his unacceptable offering but simply that God preferred or liked Abel’s offering better. What Cain did not see, did not understand was that God was simply asking for a different offering, make another attempt, “If you do what is right will you not be accepted?” This hurt Cain and he felt rejected, and when we get hurt by rejection we almost always get angry and when we get angry we do violence of some kind, whether emotional or physical, and we feel bad for it, guilty for our actions which traps and ensnares us by a guilt that needs atonement, expiation of our guilt. This is a pattern that gets played out again and again in relationships, with couples, between parents and children, with friends and others that we deem important. It is an old story that resonates with truth; rejection is the hell we all fear. So please, love one another.

Common Misconceptions of Couple Therapy

Maintaining a positive, supportive relationship with one’s partner in the face of expected and unusual life stress is one of the biggest challenges many couples face. Not uncommonly, instead of pulling together to face life’s difficulties, partners become disengaged or even hostile. The person you expect to always have your back begins to feel like the enemy. And sometimes it feels like the harder you try to fix the problem, the worse things get. The good news is that a well-trained couples therapist can help most relationships that have hit a rough patch. According to recent studies, 90% of couples who see a well-trained Emotionally Focused Couples Therapist experience improvement and 70% report full repair of their relationship. But here’s the bad news: many couples that could benefit from this therapy are reluctant to get help. Unfounded beliefs and misconceptions get in the way. Here is the truth about six common misconceptions: 1. The therapist will take sides. With some therapists, this in fact may happen. But an Emotionally Focused Couples (EFT) Therapist is trained to recognize how both partners contribute to their dance of anger or disconnection. Successful therapy invariably requires each partner to understand his or her role in the couple’s distress. 2. The therapist will tell us we should break up. Again, there are probably some therapists who would make this judgment, but the role of an EFT Therapist is to help couples understand how their relationship has gone wrong and to guide them – for as long as they are willing to try – in how to repair it. The decision of whether to stay in a relationship always belongs to the couple. 3. We are too far gone; the situation is hopeless. Many couples worry that their problems have gone on so long, there is no hope of improving their relationship. But even long-standing problems can be resolved with EFT therapy. The intensity of anger also does not necessarily indicate that a relationship can’t be improved. The only clear sign that EFT therapy won’t help is if one or both partners have become so disengaged they are no longer willing to try. 4. Talking about our problems will make things worse. Many couples have experienced that their own attempts to talk about their problems have made things worse, so this concern is understandable. They may even have had previous experiences in therapy where talking did make things worse. However, an EFT Therapist is trained to create a safe space where problems can be discussed productively. In many cases, the therapist will be able to help partners see each other’s struggles in new ways that open the door to healing and reconciliation. 5. Couples therapy is a waste of time and does not work. Many therapists who see couples aren’t trained in an effective model of couples therapy, and there is probably a significant risk that these therapists will not be helpful. However, EFT has years of research demonstrating its effectiveness in helping couples improve their relationships, and follow-up studies show these improvements are long lasting. EFT is one of a handful of couples therapies designated as empirically supported by the American Psychological Association. A therapist trained in EFT is guided by a roadmap that has one of the strongest track records in helping distressed couples. 6. We (or he or she) need individual therapy first. A growing body of evidence suggests that successful couples therapy can actually reduce an individual’s symptoms of depression, anxiety, posttraumatic stress, and other psychological disorders. At the very least, a stronger, more supportive relationship will reduce the suffering both partners experience when one partner is struggling with a psychological disorder. Couples therapy may not be the only treatment needed when a partner has significant psychological symptoms, but when the relationship has suffered, it is often the best place to start. By Ruth Jampol Ph.D.|July 6th, 2015

The Miracle of Love

I am repeatedly amazed by the power of adult human attachment. There is something spiritual and divine about it, the way that two human beings have this drive to be intimate, vulnerable, and dependent upon each other. We can lose sight of this in the grind of everyday life taking each other for granted. But when I sit with couples who are struggling and feel distant from each other and have maybe given up hope that there is anything left to their relationship, I see how much they both want their relationship to work. This is almost always the case. When I scratch beneath the surface, the hurt and sadness over loss of their intimate connection comes rolling out; and when their partner sees this and is moved by it, you know there is hope for this relationship. This is true for men as it is for women.

This hope stays alive like a dormant seed waiting to sprout even in the most arid and hostile conditions of betrayal and abandonment. This deep longing and need for relational connection is able to look past obvious failings when there is visceral evidence of facial expressions and body language that says, “You affect me, I am moved by your pain, or your joy,” or any other genuine emotional expression of “I need you and I love you”.

Our capacity to forgive and reconcile and reunite is astonishing and miraculous. What a glorious creation we are!

The Force Field of Resurrection

Thoughts for meditation from Richard Rohr "Once you know you are sharing in the force field of resurrection, you can always draw on it, live within it, and move out from it."2 Living within the "force field of resurrection" comes from the necessary suffering, or bearing witness to another's suffering, of the life and death pattern that Jesus embodied. When we step into the tomb and suffer the consequences of a "death," we exit the tomb with a new sense of self. This is the journey of the risen Jesus. This is the map of human transformation that gets lived out through the unique participation of those willing to enter the tomb. "The Holy Spirit is God desiring in you and through you—until it becomes your desiring too."3 God is already in you. Whether you are in the tomb or walking down the street, God is always drawing you closer to Divine Reality. This can be the hardest truth to integrate into your life, to recognize that sense of separation as false and to trust that God is working in and through you even when life feels like a battle. Take these following words from Fr. Richard and let them soak into your being. "The Crucified One is God's standing solidarity with the suffering, the tragedy, and the disaster of all time, and God's promise that it will not have the final word. The Risen One is God's final word about the universe and what God plans to do with all suffering."4 1Richard Rohr, Immortal Diamond, Jossey-Bass, p. 143. 2Ibid., p. 144. 3Ibid., p. 147. 4Ibid., p. 148.

The Path of Transformation

There is an oft used phrase in EFT, an attachment based approach to healing marital distress, “catching bullets”. I use this phrase in my counseling sessions with couples to help them (and ourselves) work on not being reactive to their partners negative comments. This helps couples learn to stay out of, stop or slow down getting into a fight cycle. This takes an amazing amount of restraint and self control and one most distressed couples find very difficult to do. It is very challenging to manage our impulse to self protect when we are being criticized, attacked or generally on the receptive end of someone’s fear and hate. The reason it is especially difficult in marital or love relationships is because this is the person we expect to love us, to be there for us, to understand us, cherish us, and certainly not criticize or attack us. We feel betrayed by the one we have trusted the most.

A powerful example of “catching bullets” is seeing the work of Jesus on the Cross. Richard Rohr says this:

“The significance of Jesus’ wounded body is his deliberate and conscious holding of the pain of the world and refusing to send it elsewhere. The wounds were not necessary to convince God that we were lovable; the wounds are to convince us of the path and the price of transformation. They are what will happen to you if you face and hold sin in compassion instead of projecting it in hatred. Jesus’ wounded body is an icon for what we are all doing to one another and to the world.”

This is a powerful image (what an icon is) of love, one that will change marriages, and the world. I hope you will ponder and reflect on this, that Jesus shows us a way to follow, a way to be, by “holding one another’s pain” and “face and hold sin in compassion instead of projecting it in hatred”. This changes everything in human relationships. I see it everyday in couples who are learning to see that their partner’s angry or rejecting comments are more than bullets being fired to hurt and wound and by refusing to send it back, the door is opened to reconciliation.