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    Tidying Up Your Life

    Many people are looking to do some cleaning out at the beginning of a new year. Whether it’s a detox body cleanse or binge-watching “Tidying Up with Marie Kondo” on Netflix, people are interested in freeing themselves from toxins in their body and letting go of material things that seem to hold them back from living their best life.

    A relational cleanse could also be helpful. Start by asking yourself, “What did I drag into this new year that is holding me back?” It could be things like:

    • bitterness and resentment
    • a toxic friendship
    • lies you have taken on as truth about yourself
    • childhood experiences that still haunt you
    • a lack of forgiveness of yourself and/or others
    • disappointment that weighs heavily on your heart
    • despair that things will never change
    • an addiction
    • a job you dislike, or something else.

    Are there people who suck the life right out of you every time you are around them? If so, why do you choose to hang with them? How would your life be different if you moved on?

    What purpose does unforgiveness, resentment and bitterness serve? Holding on to emotions may seem powerful in some way or that it is actually impacting the other person, but it’s really killing you instead. Letting go of the poison doesn’t excuse the behavior; It gives you the freedom to live.

    What about disappointment and the complications of life? Spouses walk away, jobs end, unexpected illness hits, children make poor choices, and sometimes the biggest disappointments come from the ones you care about the most. Is collecting and carrying around disappointments helping you move forward? Sometimes you look back and realize that one of your biggest disappointments taught you one of your greatest life lessons. But, if you can’t figure out how holding on to disappointments is helping you be your best you, then it’s time to let them go. Doing this might feel like letting go of a very heavy weight.

    Excessive spending, gambling, alcohol, drugs, food, sex, pornography, video gaming, exercising, work and cutting are just a few of the addictions people often find themselves battling. Acknowledging that any one of these has a stranglehold on your life is the first step toward dealing with it and moving forward. Addictions are often bigger than what we can handle on our own, so don’t be afraid to seek professional help to get you moving in a healthy direction.

    Oftentimes, the hardest part is recognizing that we each make a choice, consciously or not, to continue hauling stuff around that isn’t helpful or healthy for us. Making an intentional decision to stop dragging around unhealthy relational things can give you a completely different perspective on a new year and your life. Opportunity lies ahead.

    This article was originally published in the Chattanooga Times Free Press on January 20, 2019.


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    Marriage, Millennials and the Divorce Rate

    Millennials are causing the U.S. divorce rate to plummet, according to a Bloomberg News report. In fact, divorce is down 18 percent since the Great Recession. On the surface this sounds like great news, but peeling back the layers reveals some good news accompanied by some not-so-good news.

    Young couples are looking at marriage differently. They are marrying later in life, waiting until after they have completed their education and have found a job. They are also being pickier about who they marry.

    Sociologist Brad Wilcox studies marriage and divorce trends as the director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia. He agrees that there is some news worth celebrating, but there is also a downside.

    Based on the data, Wilcox believes marriage is becoming more stable, and the adults who are entering marriage are more intentional about commitment. They don’t want to make the same mistake their parents often made at the height of the divorce revolution. 

    Wilcox says, “The Great Recession is really the first time we have seen the unwed childbearing trend go down. Many young women and young couples have become more cautious about having children outside of marriage.”

    “We will see a stabilization in families for children,” Wilcox says. “We might actually see more children raised in two-parent, married families than in the past decade.”

    Now for the bad news. 

    “Based on the research, we are going to see a decline in marriage for millennials and those coming behind them,” Wilcox says. “They are more cautious. Many of the young men are less accomplished and appealing as potential mates, and both young men and women are more reluctant to commit.” 

    Census figures show the median age of first marriage in America is now around 30 for men and 28 for women. And while millennials may be holding off on marriage, they are not holding off on living together. More Americans under 25 live with a partner than are married to one.

    The second piece of bad news? It's still true that one in two children born to parents without college degrees will experience family instability. By contrast, only about one-fourth of children born to college-educated parents will see their parents break up. The class divide in American family life seems here to stay, according to Wilcox. There is an interesting caveat to note, however. In looking at the data, Wilcox found that religious attendance is as powerful a predictor of marital stability as is a college education.

    “People who regularly attend religious services are more likely to enjoy stable, happy marriages,” Wilcox shares. “This makes me think we need to expand our thinking beyond just the socio-economic factors... One factor that fuels stronger marriage among less educated Americans is an active faith.”

    More people are getting married are staying married, but there is a very significant issue going on that cannot be ignored. A large portion of the population is not experiencing the benefits of marriage, and it doesn’t only impact the couples who aren’t marrying; it affects the children and society as a whole.  

    Click here to read the entire article, which was originally published in the Chattanooga Times Free Press on December 2, 2018.

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    8 Warning Signs of Unhealthy Dating Relationships

    Jessica was a junior in college when she started dating Jason. She had her eye on him for a while, thinking he was cute. When he finally asked her out, she was very excited.

    Within a month of their first date, Jessica’s girlfriends complained that she never spent time with them anymore. Her whole world seemed to revolve around Jason. Initially Jessica made excuses, but she finally told them that Jason got jealous and angry when she spent time with them.

    Rather than make him angry, she was willing to give up her time with friends for the sake of the relationship. She loved him.

    Jessica's friends thought Jason was controlling, possessive and had an anger problem. On more than one occasion after one of Jason’s outbursts, friends warned her that the relationship was not healthy and that she needed to end it. She ignored them.

    When she finally broke up with Jason six months later, her friends had moved on and she found herself alone, heartbroken and face to face with the reality that her friends had been right all along.

    Why hadn’t she listened to her friends?

    This common scenario plays out on many high school and college campuses, more so for girls than guys.

    Key findings from a College Dating and Abuse poll conducted in 2011 by Fifth and Pacific Companies (formerly Liz Claiborne) indicated that a significant number of college women are victims of violence and abuse.

    • 52 percent of college women report knowing a friend who has experienced violent and abusive dating behaviors including physical, sexual, tech, verbal or controlling abuse.

    • 43 percent of dating college women report experiencing some violent and abusive dating behaviors including physical, sexual, tech, verbal or controlling abuse.

    A 2009 study by the same company among dating high school students found that American teens are experiencing alarmingly high levels of abuse. Furthermore, the economy appears to have made it worse.

    Findings also showed that parents are disturbingly out of touch with the level of teen dating violence and abuse among teens. The large majority of abused teens are not informing parents, and even when they do, most stay in abusive relationships.

    People need to know the red flags of an unhealthy relationship and they need to know how to get out.

    The warning signs include:

    • Checking the other person’s cell phone or email without permission.

    • Constant put-downs.

    • Extreme jealousy, insecurity or anger.

    • Isolation from family or friends.

    • Making false accusations.

    • Physical violence.

    • Possessiveness.

    • Controlling behavior.

    Breaking it off can be complicated, but putting a plan together will help. Asking for help from a trusted person is a sign of strength.

    To make a clean break, move on to a different group of friends; otherwise it might be tempting to fall back into the unhealthiness. Remember, this is a dating relationship, not a marriage. If it isn’t good while you are dating, it won’t get better over time.

    There’s nothing wrong with having great expectations for a relationship. However, if you have to change and sacrifice your friends to make it work, it’s time to move on.

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    A Single's Guide to Valentine's Day

    Singles everywhere are bracing themselves for the holiday they dread the most – Valentine’s Day. This week there will be an onslaught of commercials advertising amazing packages couples can take to celebrate their love. If you don’t have a special someone in your life and wish that you did, it can be really painful. Some have even dubbed the day, S.A.D.— Singles Awareness Day.

    There are certainly options for ways to handle Valentine’s Day and the weeks surrounding it. Some choose to ignore the day altogether, claiming it is nothing more than a made-up holiday to generate revenue. This could be true since people will spend more than approximately $650 million on food, candy, flowers and other Valentine’s Day gifts. Others sit at home, lamenting the fact that they don’t have someone special in their life.

    One group of singles decided they were done being irritated and sad about the day. They came up with a plan for an annual dessert party and contest. The guys had to come up with a dessert recipe and make it with no help. The desserts would be judged on presentation, creativity and taste.

    Each year the ladies in the group developed a different theme and gave awards based on the theme. The theme of the party was not announced until the night of the party. Past themes have included the Olympics, Reality Shows, current events and news headlines.

    There have been some pretty amazing entries such as volcano cakes, replicas of landmarks, Krispy Kreme Bread Pudding and jalapeno brownies. There have also been some epic failures. For instance, one guy tried to make something kind of healthy thing that turned out to be totally disgusting.

    Bottom line, it didn’t really matter whether it was a winner or a serious dud, it was a great way to spend time together, celebrate and laugh, which made it a fun way to spend Valentine’s Day.

    Through the years some of the original members of the group have married, but they still participate in the annual contest.

    If you are single and dreading Valentine’s Day, here are a few tips from other singles for making the day fun.

    • Gather with friends. Have dinner and make Valentine’s cards to send to people who probably won’t receive a Valentine, like an elderly neighbor who has no family.
    • Make a batch of Valentine cards and send them to some single friends without a signature.
    • Invite friends over for a special dinner instead of going out to eat.
    • Offer to babysit for some married friends so they can go on a date.
    • Send yourself some flowers.
    • Throw your own dessert theme party or come up with your own creative party idea.

    Valentine’s Day is not just for romantic couples; it’s a celebration of the love we feel for others. Take time out to acknowledge those who have made a difference in your life through their affection and support.

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    Why People Stay in Abusive Relationships

    In 2014, there was enormous outcry over video footage of pro football player Ray Rice knocking his wife Janay unconscious, then dragging her off an elevator. In the midst of the coverage, the Rices appeared together at a press conference, and she clearly seemed to have no intention of leaving him. This set off a whole new barrage on social media asking why in the world she would stay.

    In the U.S., it is estimated that every nine seconds a woman is beaten. Moreover, research indicates that 85 percent of reported cases of domestic violence are by men against women. These relationships usually involve intense jealousy, controlling behavior, denial and blame, intimidation, coercion and threats, and isolation.

    • Approximately 50 percent of men who assault their partners also assault their children.
    • As many as 10 million children witness domestic violence annually.
    • Men and women engage in comparable levels of abuse and control, though women are more likely to use emotional manipulation. In contrast, men are more likely to use sexual coercion and physical dominance. (Statistics from Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network)

    Dr. David M. Allen, Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, says it's important to realize that not all abusers were abused as children. And, that many - if not most - people who are abused do not become abusers. However, child abuse is most likely the single largest risk factor – biological, psychological or sociocultural – for later adult abusive behavior.

    According to Allen, significant family dysfunction is almost always present in a repetitive abuser's background. Unfortunately, these dysfunctional patterns rarely stop when abused children grow up.

    Why do people stay?

    Fear, reliance on the abusive partner, pressure and conflicting emotions are all reasons why someone would stay in an abusive relationship.

    “The reason many of these victims stay is because they are brainwashed to believe that the violence is their fault. They may think they cannot survive without their abuser and that they are too stupid, too ugly or too unfit to be a good employee, wife, friend or mother,” says Dr. Charlotte Boatwright, President of the Chattanooga Area Domestic Violence Coalition.

    So, what can you do if you have a friend who is in an abusive situation?

    • Recognize the abuse. Help your friend see that what is happening is not normal. Healthy relationships revolve around mutual respect, trust and consideration for the other person. Intense jealousy and controlling behavior, which could include physical, emotional or sexual abuse are all indicative of an unhealthy relationship.
    • Support your friend’s strength. Acknowledge the things she does to take care of herself.
    • Help your friend with a safety plan. There are resources available in our community to help victims of domestic violence. Express your concern for your friend’s safety and the safety of her children. Encourage her to get help as soon as possible. Give her the phone number to the domestic violence hotline: 423-755-2700. Assure her that when she is ready to leave, you will be there for her.
    • Be a good listener. Empower her through listening. Be nonjudgmental.

    “Never underestimate the power and encouragement of a friend,” Boatwright says. “Sometimes all a victim needs is permission to seek help.”

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    How to Handle Grief

    It’s been 10 years since Ron and Nan Deal unexpectedly said goodbye to their middle son, Connor.

    “You never expect to outlive your children,” says Ron Deal. “We actually joked about the fact that Connor, who was 12 at the time, was the healthiest of our three boys. The other two could come down with the flu and Connor kept on trucking. One day, he got a headache. We gave him ibuprofen and sent him to bed early. Ten days later he was gone.”

    The Deals have no idea how Connor contracted MRSA, an infection that is very difficult to treat.

    “I love talking about Connor and at the same time, I hate talking about him because it is so incredibly painful,” Deal says. “I now talk about life before Connor died and life after Connor left us, and I long for the innocence of before. I am keenly aware now that life can turn on a dime and you will never be the same.”

    When talking about the grieving process, Deal shares that early on, it felt as if they were buried up to their necks in mud.

    “You can’t walk and can’t move,” Deal says. “In the beginning, I think my wife and I grieved similarly, but as time moved on, we have grieved differently, which has meant we have to pay really close attention. After Connor’s death, I went for years literally not able to experience joy of any kind. My wife didn’t smile or laugh for a year. The grief just consumes you and you feel like a shell of a person. 

    “My sister saved us,” Deal says. “We really went numb for a couple of years. She would show up once a month for an entire year just to be with us. The kids were thrilled because she would cook for them.

    “Once we got to the 3-year, 5-year marks, I found that I could compartmentalize my grief to some degree, but then out of nowhere a song or a smell would take me right back to that place,” Deal shares. “Nan has carried it with her 24/7 like a parka you never take off.”

    The Deals learned they had to be intentional about talking and engaging with each other. Through the grieving process, Deal says they learned many other lessons, too.

    Tear Soup: A Recipe for Healing after Loss is a must-read for anyone entering into a hard space with someone who is grieving. If you haven’t walked this road, just show up. Step into the living room and be present. You can’t fix it.” 

    When you lose somebody, studies show that about a third of people in your life are helpful. Deal learned it was his job to seek out the therapeutic third and hang around them.

    He found that sometimes even extended family members weren’t part of their third when their grief was big. During the early years, the Deals were never at home for the holidays or on Connor’s birthday, but they made it a point to go be with safe people or get involved with an activity where the day passes quickly.  

    Deal maintains that in any loss in our lives, we need to find an expression of that loss equal to the magnitude of the loss. You have to find some radical way of blessing other people.

    “Give expression to your grief and sadness, especially those you share it with,” encourages Deal. “You will be tempted to isolate yourself. Don’t do that. You have to get outside yourself.

    “Through a crazy series of events, we ended up going to Ghana, West Africa, working with a ministry that rescues trafficked children,” Deal says. “They raise and educate them. We decided to build an art center in Connor’s name that provides therapeutic, emotional and psychological support for them in the healing process. We get to go once a year and be with the children. Connor would love it! He was artsy and musical. There is a lot there that is him. My grief is alive when I am there. I can’t get Connor back, but I can bless others. These are children who have been sold into slavery. To be a small part of rescuing them and helping them heal is such a joy.

    “Serving others is not denying your own sadness; if anything, it’s saying I know what I am going through and I need to do something with this energy. You do that with tears and you do that with action.

    “We had a counselor to help guide us through this,” Deal says. “The seasons change and with it comes a new little hurdle. It’s helpful to have a professional to walk with you over the course of time.

    “The grieving process is not a sprint or even a half-marathon. It’s a full-on marathon and you have to stay after it. There are lots of ripples from the grieving. Some are beautiful and some are painful. It is a long road. Over the last 10 years we have seen beauty out of the ashes, but it doesn’t get rid of the ashes.”

    This article was originally published in the Chattanooga Times Free Press on February 17, 2019.

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    8 Must-Have Conversations for Couples

    How do you know if love will last? Some say you don’t, that it’s just luck of the draw if your love lasts over time. Many believe that the more a couple has in common, the more likely they are to be compatible over time. Others say, not so fast. 

    With more than 40 years of love and relationship research under their belt, The Gottman Institute says that whether love will last is more about how couples address their differences and support one another’s needs and dreams. 

    In studying successful couple relationships and couples whose relationships fail to thrive over time, The Gottman Institute found that people connect and fall in love by talking. John and Julie Gottman and their co-authors, Doug Abrams and Rachel Carlton Abrams, MD, discovered eight crucial conversations that couples need to have. These conversations can either help couples know that love will last or help rekindle love that has become lukewarm. The authors made the crucial conversations for couples into dates in the book, Eight Dates: Essential Conversations for a Lifetime of Love.

    These conversation-based dates have the potential to help couples increase understanding and commitment regardless of how long they have been together. The topics for discussion include:

    • Trust and Commitment. Trust is cherishing each other and showing your partner you are reliable. Choosing commitment means accepting your partner exactly as he or she is, despite their flaws.
    • Conflict. Conflict is a part of every healthy relationship. There is purpose behind it and it is an opportunity to take your relationship to a deeper level. 
    • Sex and Intimacy. Romantic, intimate rituals of connection keep a relationship happy and passionate. Couples who talk about sex have more sex. 
    • Work and Money. Money issues usually aren’t about money at all. Instead, they are about what money means to each person. Learning what money means to each person can help take your relationship to a totally different place. 
    • Family. It is not unusual for relationship satisfaction to decrease after the birth of a child. The decrease often continues with each subsequent child. Couples who maintain their sexual relationship and learn how to manage conflict in a way that builds up their relationship can avoid this drop in relationship happiness.
    • Fun and Adventure. People are often so busy “adulting” that they underestimate the importance of play and adventure in their relationship. They actually are vital components to a successful and joyful relationship. While couples may not necessarily agree on what constitutes play and adventure, learning more about the one you love can be part of the fun. 
    • Growth and Spirituality. The only constant in a relationship is change, and how each person in the relationship accommodates the growth of the other partner is key. Relationships can be more than just two individuals coming together; they can be stories of transformation and great contribution and meaning to the world.
    • Dreams. Honoring each other’s dreams is the secret ingredient to creating love for a lifetime. When dreams are honored, everything else in the relationship gets easier.

    The Gottmans contend that every strong relationship is a result of a never-ending conversation between partners. This book will guide you through how to talk and how to listen in a way that will benefit you as an individual and as a couple.

    This article was originally published in the Chattanooga Times Free Press on February 10, 2019.

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    Life Lessons from Drew Brees

    Thousands of Saints fans have been very vocal about the Saints’ loss in the playoffs. They say they were robbed of an opportunity to play in the Super Bowl due to a game-changing missed call by a referee.

    Football fans around the world have seen the response from players who were impacted by such a huge loss: sullen faces, tears and a painful press conference where the magnitude of the loss got drilled down even further.

    So after Drew Brees’ loss to the Rams in the playoff game, one might expect him to be off somewhere alone, licking his wounds; that is, if you don’t know Drew Brees.

    Facebook user John McGovern, who was actually at the game, posted the following statement, along with a picture.

    “This has been on my mind all day... I don’t know who took this picture but I am in the group of people up against the wall to the right of the goal post. A couple hours after the game was over and the cameras were all gone, I stood and watched a man who was without a doubt THE most affected by the inexcusably ignored event that changed an entire season put everything aside and take care of what is most important. Most people would have wanted to go home and not even speak to anyone. Instead, he laughed and played with his kids and as seen here even held a football for his son to kick a field goal. If kids are looking for a professional athlete to look up to, they can find no one better than this man. Drew Brees makes me very proud to be a New Orleans Saints fan.”

    Perhaps his children knew how big this loss was for their father, but it’s quite possible they had no clue because of how Brees handled the situation. In fact, Brees has been quoted before reminding people that at the end of the day, it’s a game.

    The true character of a man reveals itself in the most challenging and difficult moments. Children young and old pay attention and take Dad’s lead.

    Sometimes it’s hard to separate one’s identity from these situations or to not take it personally, but what we do in the face of adversity teaches children important lessons like how to deal with disappointment, placing value on what matters and how to handle failure. 

    Here are three takeaways from watching Drew Brees interact with his kids after the controversial ending to the football game.

    • Deal with extreme disappointment in a healthy way. Disappointment is inevitable. When dads model how to walk through disappointment, talk about it, work through it and move forward, they are showing their children how to encounter and deal with hard situations.
    • Place value on the things that really matter. How Dad deals with his relationships when he experiences disappointment sends a powerful message about what he values most. The fact that Brees was out on the field playing and laughing with his children after such a huge loss lets his kids know they are more important than a game. Whether they innately understand that today or figure it out a few years from now, it is a powerful play for sure.
    • Don’t allow failure (real or imagined) to define you. Sometimes it’s really tempting to allow failure to invade your DNA and define who you are as a person. The most important lesson about failure is that it is not final. It is a moment in time where one has an opportunity to glean important and helpful life lessons for the future.

    Whether it’s a disagreement with their spouse, a toxic work situation, a car that breaks down, a financial setback or the loss of a championship game that was seemingly stripped right out of his hands, how Dad responds sends a powerful message to his children about what matters most in life.

    Photo Credit: Heather Cohen

    This article was originally published in the Chattanooga Times Free Press on February 3, 2019.