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The Year of Change

Even if you're glad to see 2020 go, you probably learned a few things.

If 2020 were a movie, the storylines would make your head spin. Murder hornets, politics, a pandemic, and quarantine. Racial unrest, job loss, and Zoom. Economic roller coasters, working and learning from home, professional from the waist up, and more.

Add in crazy and unpredictable twists, turns, drama, pain, loss, even unexpected joy, and you have quite the Drama-Sci-Fi-Action-Thriller-Documentary.

We may have been taking some things for granted (until 2020).

Thank goodness 2020 is almost in the rearview mirror. Goodbye and good riddance! It’s pretty unlikely anybody will be sad to see it go. 

But, like a lot of other life experiences, while nobody would wish to go through some of what 2020 brought us, there might be a few folks who wouldn’t trade what they learned about things we often take for granted. For example: 

  • the value of spending time with people we love and care about face to face (not over Zoom or FaceTime);
  • the privilege of being by someone’s bedside when they’re sick;
  • your presence at your family member or friend’s wedding;
  • getting to go to work;
  • going out to dinner and a movie for a date night;
  • being live and in person at a sporting event; 
  • attending a faith-based service; 
  • throwing a party for friends;
  • being able to attend the funeral of a loved one;
  • children being able to go to school and the teachers who pour into them; 
  • the amazing truckers, first responders, grocery store workers, team members in the food processing industry; and
  • just being able to go outside and be around others. 

We could add way more to this list, I’m sure.

The point is, major disruption offers the opportunity for growth. Even when things normalize a bit, we (hopefully) won’t forget that all the things we thought were just a way of life aren’t necessarily so.

Embracing Change

Life can change in an instant, and we saw that during this year of change. The things we thought were so important took a back seat. Caring for our existing relationships and building new ones with people who aren’t “just like us” took on greater importance. The pandemic actually showed what can happen when we all come together to help meet others’ needs. 

There were monumental accomplishments, too. 

Individuals figured out how to help farmers get food from their fields and into the hands of hungry people. Right in the middle of the quarantine, people helped those who lost their homes in the tornadoes. We figured out how to host drive-in concerts and worship services. And we celebrated milestones through technology, drive-by parades, and window visitation at nursing homes. 

In so many instances, people said for years, “We could never do that,” or “That would never work.” The pandemic helped us see we could make it work, and it probably won’t return to the way things were before after it’s over. Maybe the pandemic helped discover a better way forward. Wouldn’t that be a shocker?!

Speaking of moving forward and embracing change this year, this is my final column here as I seek to strengthen marriages across the globe in my new role at the WinShape Foundation. 

Over the last 21 years, it’s been an incredible privilege to journey with you through life. Hopefully, the research and insights I’ve shared helped us all build strong relationships in every season and get through tough times (like 2020) together.

Mitchell Qualls, Operations Director for First Things First, will step in to continue bringing you relevant and relatable family-strengthening information. He is very passionate about helping people strengthen their relationships through writing content and facilitating events (when we’re able to do that again).

Mitchell married his high school sweetheart, Dalet, in 2004, and they have two children, Yadi and Bella. He is an avid baseball fan and loves running and hiking with his family.

Wishing you all the best in 2021!

Whew! What a year it has been. We’ve all been through the wringer and it looks like this will be our reality for a while. How do we handle such hard stuff and not let circumstances steal our joy, especially around the holidays?

I grew up with a brother who had many special needs. Every single day posed some kind of challenge to him. While he was never supposed to live past 30, he passed away at 56. Because of his life circumstances, he had every reason not to be joyful, yet he was one of the most joyful, funny people I’ve ever known. I’m thinking I could take a cue or two from him about navigating hard times without letting them steal my joy. As we approach the holidays, here are some things Lee taught me about finding joy when life is hard that may be helpful for you, too.

1. Don’t let circumstances dictate your mindset.

Even in the worst situations, it is possible to have joy because you can choose it. What amazed me about Lee was although he had bad days, they were always the exception to the rule. I don’t remember my mom saying to him, “You are going to be happy,” and that wouldn’t have worked anyway. Somehow, he was able to look past all of his daily challenges and experience joy. Boy, do I want that! The holidays may not go like we want or plan for, but they’re going to happen and we get to choose to make the best of them!

2. Focus on others.

Lee was always thinking of others. Once, on a trip, he bought so many t-shirts for friends and co-workers, he didn’t have room for his own clothes when it was time to pack. If my mom hadn’t made him pack his clothes, I guarantee you he would have left them behind. He loved people and genuinely cared for them. Spending time loving on others and letting them care for us can help us experience joy.

3. Wishing away your current set of circumstances can steal joy, and it’s a waste of time.

No doubt, all of us are over COVID-19 and ready to get on with life. But, the more we talk about and focus on that, the more joyless we become. My brother was on dialysis for the last 10 years of his life. Three times a week he would sit in the chair for hours while the machines worked. He didn’t like it, but I never really heard him complain. He took that opportunity to meet a whole bunch of people he never would have known otherwise. Lee chose to see the opportunity in his current set of circumstances instead of focusing on wishing them away. We can do that, too. 

4. Make a list of all the things that bring you joy.

Sweets, football, holidays and people, for example. My brother never met a sweet he didn’t like, but he especially liked sugar-coated orange slices. Give him a container of those and his face lit up like you had given him gold. While he couldn’t add numbers, he knew football better than most and was an avid fan. He loved every holiday, but Christmas was his favorite. Being around people made him happy. What brings you joy? How can you bring joy to others during the holidays?

5. Avoid information overload.

Lee was aware when tough things were happening in our world and he took in the information, but he didn’t go looking for more. News and talking heads are available 24/7, so it’s easy to get drawn into the same news over and over again. I’m not even going to go there with social media, but…you know. Talk about joy-stealing on steroids—that’ll do it for you. We have to learn to turn it off. I haven’t spoken to anybody yet who regretted limiting it. This is a great time to take a break from technology and spend that time doing activities that bring you and others joy.

I’ve learned it is exhausting to focus on the negative and it for sure doesn’t help me work my way through the hard times. During times when we are really put to the test, just doing one thing differently can help begin the process of flipping the script. Circumstances will only steal our joy if we allow them to this holiday season.

How to Stay Motivated During Marriage Challenges

Remember these things when you want to give up.

There are days you wake up and have no motivation to go to work. Times when you don’t feel like seeing your in-laws and weekends and there’s no desire to get out of the bed anytime between Friday evening and Monday morning. However, when the lack of motivation creeps into marriage and you begin struggling to even want to work through marital challenges, it’s time to sound the alarm.

Incessant arguing. Constantly feeling hurt and empty. Money issues. The never-ending feeling of being lonely. It can feel like the easy answer is to stop trying

Is it unusual to get to a place in your marriage where you want to give up? 

marriage challenges

I would’ve answered this question with a loud “NO WAY” when I first got married, but then I talked to a couple who’d been married for over 40 years. I asked a simple question: “Did you ever want to give up on your marriage?

They looked at me like I was crazy and said “Are you kidding me? Yes!” Then, they shared some dark moments in their marriage. Moments of betrayal of trust and times of extreme disconnect. They admitted there were times when they just weren’t sure. But, they also said, “We’re glad we stuck in there because we wouldn’t trade these 40 years for anything.”

How’d they do it? How did they stay motivated when they were experiencing difficult marital challenges? The couple told me their secret: “You just have to remember.”

Remember what exactly?

Remember your why.

Why’d you get married in the first place? People marry for several different reasons: love, kids, a passion for another, to have companionship. Your why doesn’t have to match anyone else’s why. The neverending nature of your why can help you outlast the temporary challenges you face in marriage.

Remember your story.

Pictures. Videos. Experiences. Memories mean little without the story attached to them. You look at them to remember the story. It connects you with the positive energy captured during the moment that’s worth remembering. Let that energy motivate you to keep going. Your story helps you remember what you’ve built together. 

It isn’t just about reliving your past. It’s about guiding and maintaining your perception of your spouse and your marriage. It is about truly seeing the person you’re with. It’s about being reminded of who you are and even how you’ve evolved over the years. 

Remember to never stop connecting.

Keep searching for better ways to communicate, be playful, and spend quality time with one another. Regardless of how challenging marriage gets, to stop communicating is never the answer. Connecting in hard conversations, through disappointments, and in the midst of hurt is better than not communicating at all. Anytime you stop talking, you’ll slowly feel the wedge between the two of you grow bigger. 

Remember you’re not alone.

Hearing a couple who had been married for 40 years share some of their darkest moments was motivational for my own marriage. They were proud to have made it 40 years, and I could sense they felt their life was better for it. Since then, I’ve learned many couples, if not most couples, have gone through difficult moments where they felt like giving up was really the best option on the table. So, when you find yourself hurting and questioning if it’s worth it to hang on, reach out to other couples who have walked the road before you and made it to the other side in one piece. Connecting with other healthy couples who are willing to be honest and real can inspire you to stay focused on your marriage when it appears hopeless. Also, a good marriage counselor can help you work through some of the toughest marriage challenges.

Remember yourself.

Sometimes we get so focused on what our spouse is or isn’t doing we lose sight of ourselves. Research shows when a person has a negative perception of work, family, themselves, and just life in general, they are more likely to be unhappy in their relationships. Continue to grow and practice good self-care. It may help you to get a fresh perspective that can help you thrive in the midst of some of the most difficult times.

When you remember these things, you’ll realize no matter how big the problems may seem, your commitment to each other is bigger. The urge to stop trying is real. But, you have everything you need in your memory bank to fight the urge to quit and help your brain to keep moving forward. The darkest part of a cave is right before you see the light. Focus on using the tools you have to get to the light and stop the darkness from making you a permanent resident.

***If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, contact the National Hotline for Domestic Abuse. At this link, you can access a private chat with someone who can help you 24/7. If you fear someone is monitoring your computer or device, call the hotline 24/7 at 1−800−799−7233. For a clear understanding of what defines an abusive relationship, click here.***

Married. You and your spouse talk every day and you sleep in the same bed. You share bills and responsibilities. Of course, you have sex. You do all the things married couples do. Yet you so often feel unheard and unknown by your spouse.

You don’t feel like your spouse knows your hurts and pains. They’re unaware of what causes you to be fearful or insecure. When the two of you talk about personal or intimate matters, you don’t feel like your spouse gets you even though you shared exactly what you were thinking and feeling. 

You’ve made comments to express your feelings that they didn’t get. Your conversations are not fulfilling. It’s made your sex life one-sided because you don’t feel known or heard so you’re not as into giving yourself to your spouse in that way. And you’re not sure if they notice or even care.

How does this happen?

One possible explanation is your spouse isn’t curious about you anymore. Curiosity pushes someone to want to know all the complexities of their spouse’s thoughts, personality, dreams, and feelings. It drives you to understand how past experiences affect your spouse in the present. 

Curiosity can stop for several reasons: 

  1. Your spouse believes they know all the important things there are to know about you. 
  2. The busyness of life has subconsciously shifted the priorities. 
  3. Your spouse has become more focused on themself.
  4. Complacency in the relationship and in their own personal growth.

As a result, spouses often don’t hear their partner’s cries to be heard. They miss the snarky comments, make assumptions about the marital silence, and overlook opportunities presented to show they hear and know you. You may be evolving or even changing, but your spouse still speaks to you based on how you thought when the two of you first got together.

What can you do about it?

Yes, you have to talk about it. The struggle of letting your partner know you’re feeling unheard and unknown is getting them to hear from you. Ironic, right? This is a conversation that my wife and I had for years before I finally heard her. Did I think I’d heard her before? Of course, I did! I’d listened to what she said and tried to treat her based on the words she said. However, she knew I didn’t hear her because I didn’t become genuinely curious about her. I was still interacting with her as if she hadn’t grown or evolved since we first met. Consequently, I was missing out on getting to really know her and her new ideas, dreams, and desires.

You’ve probably tried many times to get your spouse to really hear and know you. All to no avail.

Here are the keys to being truly heard by your spouse. 

  • Gentleness. Getting louder, forceful, or playing the blame game is not the way to get heard. Marriage therapist and researcher John Gottman has coined the phrase, “Gentle Start-Up.” You can attack your spouse with insults or approach your spouse with gentleness. It hurts to be married and feel unknown, but to approach your spouse with anger and rage is more likely to cause defensiveness than to birth helpful conversation. 
  • Be Direct. Don’t Hide Your Emotion. Your spouse does need to see your emotions in a healthy way. Nothing violent, abusive, or manipulative. Hurt, neglect, sadness, and loneliness are all real emotions that can help your partner understand the gravity of the problem.
  • Perception. Approaching your spouse from the perspective that they do want to make you happy. They love you and want your marriage to work. Battling the tension between feeling like your spouse is not interested in you and knowing they love you and want you happy can be tough, but it is doable. 
  • Clarity. What makes you feel heard and known? When do you feel lonely within your marriage? It may take several conversations to communicate all that’s on your heart and even more for your spouse to get it. Repetition from a gentle spirit is helpful.

Don’t Give Up.

If the two of you are both well-intentioned and you both want the marriage to work, then keep pressing forward. Talking to other couples who have experienced similar struggles can be encouraging. Talking to a marriage counselor may be empowering. I’ve heard many spouses say that after so many years, “My spouse finally gets me!” When that happens, you go from the feeling of being unnoticed and unknown to experiencing levels of connectedness and intimacy that’s very difficult to find outside of a committed relationship. A marriage where you both feel heard and known is a relationship that offers the security and comfort which brings peace to the soul.

***If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, contact the National Hotline for Domestic Abuse. At this link, you can access a private chat with someone who can help you 24/7. If you fear that someone is monitoring your computer or device, call the hotline 24/7 at: 1−800−799−7233. For a clear understanding of what defines an abusive relationship, click here.***

Summer is here! Normally, everybody would be cheering loudly saying, “Bring it on!” This year, however, plenty of folks feel like summer has been here for the last two months. Now that summer is really here, all of the plans parents thought they had for their kids have likely been thrown out the window because of COVID-19.

With few or no summer camp options, social distancing at pools, many attractions not opening until mid-summer and limited access to child care options, parents definitely have a challenge on their hands if they’re trying to make summer plans. You may be wondering what in the world your family can do in the middle of all that. If so, here are some helpful hints for creating a summer to remember forever for your kids!

Hold a family meeting. Straight out of the gates, hold a family meeting to brainstorm what’s possible within the framework parents have established. Have a little fun with this. No idea is too crazy when you are brainstorming. And who knows? A crazy idea might lead to something that is totally doable.

Come up with a schedule. Sheer exhaustion from shifting to online-everything may tempt you to let summer be a free-for-all with no schedule. However, while having no structure may sound like a blessing to you and your kids, ultimately it can be a real curse. Making a schedule helps keep everybody grounded and in the know about what’s coming next.

Be intentional about creating opportunities for connection. Hanging out in the same house or even the same room isn’t the same as actually doing something to connect with your children. If that sounds like just one more thing to put on your already overwhelming “to-do list,” one easy option is to use First Things First’s 30-Day Family Challenge. Each day has a different fun, quick and easy activity for you and your children to do together.

Get active. Since everybody has probably had their fill of screen time, try going old school! Do some of these things for fun: puzzles, Nerf gun battles, water gun fight, riding bikes, let your kids create a scavenger hunt for the entire family to do, investigate how to make your own Slip ‘N Slide, play board games, Spoons, Charades, make a house of cards, go fishing, learn how to play chess or checkers, camp in the backyard and make s’mores, build a fort or treehouse, play marbles or jacks.

Encourage learning. During your family brainstorm meeting, ask your kids what they would like to learn over the summer. They may want to learn how to cook, change the oil in a car, repair a bike, make a piñata, or find out more about your family history. They may want to take a virtual vacation to an exotic location and learn about the culture, geography and things that are unique to it. Take it a step further and plan your meals, clothing or other activities around that location for the week. Study photography. Read a book together like “Cheaper by the Dozen.” You may even want to invest in some grade-level activity books just to keep your kids sharp.

Plant a garden outside or play around with growing food indoors. There are plenty of free tutorials available if you are new to gardening. Another option is to ask an experienced neighbor for a hand. You can also experiment with different things such as rooting the bottom of a celery stalk and then planting it. You could also cut a pepper in half, then scrape and plant the seeds to see if they will sprout. (Spoiler alert, they should!)

Not all of these activities would require hands-on supervision from parents at all times. In fact, some of them could be child-led or done independently. That would not only give parents a break, but it would help to build self-confidence and independence in your child.

One thing is for sure, one way or the other, this summer will be one for the books. It will either go down in history as the most boring summer on record or the summer our plans got turned upside down so we decided to make lemonade out of the lemons tossed our way. It may not be the easiest summer you’ve ever had, but it could become one of your best summers yet.

Image from Unsplash.com

“Am I happy?” Some questions have their answer firmly embedded in them. It’s kinda like, Well, if you even have to ask… This can be super convenient if we don’t stumble over the simplicity of it, but sometimes the most obvious things in life are the ones we miss.

When I’ve been happy, I don’t ask myself if I’m happy- I’m busy just enjoying being happy. If I’ve had to pause and ask myself if I’m happy, if that question has somehow bubbled up to the surface, if it continually pops up in my quieter moments, well, if you even have to ask…

I don’t even know how to define “happy.” You’ve never wondered if you were happy and reached for a dictionary. You’ve got your own lived definition. I think the best I can do is that, for me, it typically is the absence of other negative feelings- it’s when I don’t feel anxious, stressed, sad, angry, lonely, bitter, or jealous.

That’s actually a huge disservice to happiness. (Sorry, but as I said, when I’m happy, I don’t think about being happy.) How do you define it? Like most people, I kinda know it when I feel it. But I really know it when I don’t.

Oddly enough, we’ve formally studied depression, anger, loneliness – basically, the absence of happiness – for centuries. Plot twist! It has been relatively recently, only in the past couple of decades, that we have turned a scientific eye toward studying happiness itself. Turns out that happiness isn’t just the absence of other, negative feelings, but happiness actually is a thing in and of itself! Best of all – happiness is a HABIT!

If you’ve ever tried to break a bad habit, you know the power that habits can have over us. But that power can also be used for GOOD! Below are some research-tested ways to make a habit out of happiness.

Cultivate the habits of…

  • Sleeping Well. Most adults need between 7-8 hours. (I know, I laughed, too.) We are so busy, we believe we can’t afford to get 7-8 hours of sleep. The reality is that sleeping is when our brain does important stuff and we can’t afford to NOT get good sleep.
  • Eating Right. This can be a tough one because eating is one of many people’s Unhappy Coping Mechanisms. Remember, we are a walking chemistry set. Our brains need GOOD food to help it make Happy Chemicals. Junk food makes us feel good for a bit but then we crash. Go with complex carbs like veggies, beans, and whole grains. Foods high in protein boost our dopamine and norepinephrine levels and give us energy, help us concentrate, and help us feel happy. Highly-processed foods, deep-fried foods, and especially skipping meals, make us feel blue.
  • Being Grateful. A two-part study showed that taking time to quiet yourself each day and rehearse just five things you are grateful for will boost the Happy Chemicals in your brain.
  • Helping Others. Another study of happiness showed that helping someone else feels good! More Happy Chemicals! (And it helps us from fixating on our own problems for a bit.)
  • Exercising. Don’t let this one intimidate you! According to research, it can be as simple as a walk around the block during your lunch break or after dinner. Regular exercise has been shown to reduce stress, anxiety, and many symptoms of depression.
  • Getting Outside. You can combine this with exercise or literally just sit outside a while. Fresh air, sunlight, and getting into nature have all been shown to boost our Happy Chemicals.
  • Acknowledging Unhappiness. Nobody expects you to plaster a big fake stupid grin on your face when you find out that you didn’t get the promotion you wanted. There is a big difference between acknowledging an unhappy feeling and choosing to camp out thereChoose to lean into Life’s setbacks and turn them into motivation for something positive.
  • Calling in the Professionals. You’ve just read a lot about Happy Chemicals in your brain. One happiness researcher claims that happiness can be up to 50% genetic. If you are cultivating happy habits but still not feeling it, that might be a signal to call in the pros. Talk to your doctor about your overall health and don’t be afraid to set up a counseling appointment to explore other approaches.

Happiness isn’t just something that happens to some people and it is way more than just the absence of negative feelings. Happiness is a habit, one you can start TODAY! Am I happy? Glad you asked!

Image from Pexels.com

As a mom of two young girls, I struggle with the idea of being present vs. perfect. But I had this idea. A fun, whimsical baking sesh with my uber-helpful daughter, Jackie, baking a beautiful, homemade, delicious, vegan Frozen-themed cake for her 4th birthday party. I was determined to make it happen. I was going for “super mom” status as I prepared for a small family get together that became an elaborate Frozen-themed birthday extravaganza. I’d already sent out the FB event invite. This was Jackie’s “un-FOUR-gettable” birthday. It was too late. I had to make it unforgettable.

So the pressure was on. The ingredients splayed on the counter, complete with sifter and spatula. We went to work. Now, I have to admit, I’ve tried baking before. With okay results. Nothing too horrible. But when you’re a mom and you’re working with a limited time frame, and multiple kids running around, constantly needing something (water, milk, snack, attention!!) an easy recipe to follow suddenly becomes a daunting, time-consuming luxury you just don’t have. Or is that just me? 

Either way, I welcomed Jackie’s help in combining the cake ingredients.

She helped sift the flour, held the measuring cups and poured the contents in the mixing bowl. It was a slow, imperfect process, full of spills and extra time allowing a 3 (almost 4) year-old to “do it all by my own.” There were so many moments where I had to remind myself that the time we spent together baking this cake was more important than the mess we’d have to clean up or the extra time it took with more cooks in the kitchen. Present vs. perfect.

I even had to re-envision my idea of a “fun, whimsical baking sesh.” The truth is, life is MESSY. And kids require A LOT of patience. To think we could bake a cake together in 30 minutes was downright laughable… it took roughly an hour and a half to finally pop that pan into the oven. By then my patience proved tested over and over. I revised my idea of a mother-daughter bonding time multiple times. I modified my expectations of perfection greatly.

Perfection…

It’s this elusive idea that parents know is actually impossible, yet continually strive for and are sorely disappointed when any factor detracts from their path to it (i.e. a crying child who wanted to use the small spatula, NOT the big spatula). We snap photos of a perfect smile, hoping we can mask the reality of tears, emotion, frustration, and impatience with a clever #unfourgettablebakingsesh! But the truth is, it doesn’t matter if it took more time to bake the cake, and it doesn’t matter that the cake didn’t even… ahem… turn out good (more on that later*).

What matters is that I took the time to include my daughter in helping to make her own birthday cake. It was special mother-daughter time, even if it didn’t go exactly how I wanted it to go in my head. Even though it wasn’t perfect. I was present. She was present.

The time we spent together is what made it unforgettable. 

*I’ve come to accept that I’m clearly NOT a baker. I’ll gladly pay $45 for a delicious bakery cake. I’ve learned that I don’t enjoy it and I’m not good at it. And I don’t have the time, or energy, or desire to improve my baking skills. Although I followed the directions to a T… somehow the cake didn’t bake evenly and the middle ended up being a sunken pile of goo, albeit tasty goo. 

Although I felt embarrassed and slightly ashamed to serve the cake at Jackie’s birthday party, I did it anyway. I warned people that the middle miiiight not have baked fully and that it wouldn’t offend me if they didn’t eat it. And while the adults all took some bites and shook their heads with a sympathetic “Mmmm hmmm” as they reached the goo-filled middle, I’m happy to report that all the kids loved it. 

Image from Pexels.com

The YMCAs and Planet Fitnesses in town and all the other gyms are packed full this week with all those who made New Year’s resolutions to lose some pounds, to better their physiques, and to get healthier. Did you make any New Year’s resolutions? Did you set some goals for this year? I hope they weren’t all about diet and exercise! Did you make some Relationship Resolutions?

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