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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. 

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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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Cheating. Pretty much universally denounced as the worst thing you could do in a relationship (maybe just a tiny bit behind murdering your partner). We can all agree that cheating is wrong and definitely nobody wants someone to cheat on them, but…

“But what?” you ask. But let’s be honest, so much of the media we consume glorifies cheating and we sing along or sit and watch and munch our popcorn. And who among us isn’t fascinated by the latest celebrity scandal of who’s “steppin’ out” on who? Let’s get even more honest. Who hasn’t clicked on one of those, “6 Ways To Know If They’re Cheating” articles, you know, just to be sure…

Cheating simultaneously repulses and fascinates us. It’s one of the ultimate taboos, so we want to know all the details when it happens to our friends, but we really, really don’t want it to happen to us. Oh, but tons of people cheat. Tons and tons.

Statistically, it’s very likely that it has or will happen to you.

Sorry. (I’m going to assume that you want me to just skip the research-y parts here and just get to the parts that help you avoid being cheated on. I hear you.)

So you want to avoid having your partner cheat on you? You want to remain faithful to your partner and you expect them to remain faithful to you. Here’s where I encourage you to start: Make sure you both agree on what constitutes “cheating” in the first place. Confusion and poor communication cause a lot of what passes for “infidelity,” not a lack of character.

Yes, yes, there’s the obvious stuff. I’m not talking about that. But what about not being honest about where you spend your time? Porn? Friending an ex on social media? Not being honest about how you spent money? Talking about problems in your relationship with an opposite-sex co-worker? Anonymous internet “stuff?” Texting with an opposite-sex friend or getting emotional support from one? Business lunches and gym partners you conveniently don’t tell your spouse about? All of this shows up on surveys as to what counts as cheating. You and your spouse need to define together what “cheating” is to you.

So, yeah, you guys need to talk.

Framing The Conversation

So, you want to blurt out, “Hey, we need to talk about boundaries and what counts as cheating in our relationship!” But I’m begging you not to do that. Please. Just don’t. They’ll most likely hit you with a response like: “What? Don’t you trust me?” [And then in their head] “Wait! Why are you asking? Should I trust YOU?

My advice?

The conversation about cheating doesn’t have to be about cheating. There are so many other ways to frame this conversation that won’t set off alarm bells and rattle trust issues. How do you have a meaningful, productive conversation about all the nebulous grey stuff in a way that draws you closer together instead of driving you apart by creating static and mistrust? 

Can you have this conversation without using words like infidelity, cheating, betrayal, or even trust? It’s something to think about…

Shift: From What You Don’t Want To Happen, To What You Do Want To Happen

You want to talk about growing deeper in real intimacy, cultivating mutual respect, making sure that you are meeting each other’s needs, making sure you are healthy individuals and a healthy couple, protecting your beautiful relationship, and building a lasting legacy together.

So, yes, at some point you have to cover, communicate, reach agreements on, and honor each other in the following areas: (Note: This is not an exhaustive list. You don’t have to talk about them all at one time, for all-time. This is a dynamic, ongoing conversation.)

Opposite-Sex Friendships  
Phones, Tablets, and Technology
Honesty About Time
Emotional Bonds-Relationships Time With The Opposite Sex, Gym, Etc.
Pornography  
Texting and Social Media
Honesty About Money
Opposite-Sex Co-Workers – Meetings, Trips
Keeping Relationship Problems Private

Remember how you’re framing these conversations. All of the above-listed issues and areas can keep you from being the individuals and couple that you both want to be. You have to address them—not because you don’t trust your spouse or partner—but because of the way they impede growth, intimacy, vulnerability, mutual respect, and the legacy you want to cultivate as a couple. Be ready to disagree but respect each other’s needs, and, above all, respect the relationship you are building together.

***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.***

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AFTER I DO | THE COMPLETE GUIDE TO NEWLYWED LIFE

SEX. CONFLICT. IN-LAWS. OH MY.

Tired of no one talking about how hard those first years can be? Well, buckle your seatbelt. We’re here to embrace the awkward (sex!), talk through the hard stuff (in-laws!), and give you everything you need to ace your newlywed years and beyond.

After I Do is a COMPLETE guide for those first 5 years of marriage, when everything is new and sweet… and freaking difficult. Even if you’ve dated for years, going from ME to WE is a huge transition and sometimes you just need a little (or a lot) of sage wisdom so that you don’t completely go off on your spouse. (But if you already have, no judgment. We’re here to help.)

Our relationship experts will guide you and your spouse through 12 modules covering all the hot topics like communication, conflict, sex, in-laws, money, etc. Get practical solutions you can put into practice! So if you wanna turn up the passion and connect with your spouse on a whole new level, get this marriage course, stat.

Forgive and forget,” right? That’s what they say. But what happens when you can’t forget and you certainly aren’t ready to forgive? Have you ever felt like something was wrong with you because forgiveness didn’t come quickly, easily, or at all?

You are definitely not alone and there is certainly nothing wrong with you.

These struggles are common and normal. What we don’t want is for unforgiveness to turn into bitterness, resentment, or worse. (Which can happen so easily, so quickly.)

When it comes to marriage and forgiving our spouse, we often unconsciously resort to some cold, hard math. We add and multiply and divide these factors of what our spouse did and see how the equation works out.

Then we keep the totals in our Relationship Ledger.

  1. Is it their “first offense” or have they been doing this for years?
  2. How serious is what they have done? Lied to you or like, left clothes on the floor?
  3. How hurt are you over what they did? Disappointed to brokenhearted?
  4. Did they apologize and ask for your forgiveness? Did they seem sincere?

The Hurt Spouse then takes all of the above information into account and “calculates” how mad they will be, for how long, if retribution is in order, and finally, if and when they will forgive the Offending Spouse. This is Cold Forgiveness Calculus.

We do this math almost instantly in our minds subconsciously. We do this math with our kids, friends, co-workers – everyone really. It can be extremely difficult to get the numbers to ever add up to forgiveness.

Forgiveness is one of those things that we desperately want for ourselves, but we are often absolutely stingy when it comes to giving it out to others. 

I get it. All the “calculations” are a function of self-preservation. We don’t want to keep getting hurt. We certainly don’t want to be taken advantage of by our spouse. Honestly, we don’t want to feel stupid because the same dysfunctional stuff keeps happening to us, so we keep that Relationship Ledger handy and it dictates how vulnerable we will be. (What is forgiveness if it isn’t being vulnerable?)

Could there be another way? What if we dropped the Cold Forgiveness Calculus that constantly keeps our spouse in the red? If we saw forgiveness as part of the self-sacrificial love that we pledged to our spouse? What if we forgave them the way that we hope they will forgive us when we need it?

Does all this sound crazy? Too exposed? Risky? Naive? I hear you. I feel it too.

Let me make it simple: The math will never add up. There will always be a remainder. This is how we love and forgive our spouse- we forgive the remainder.

Some practical things to think about…

  • You should forgive when it is real and you mean it. Take as long as it takes to be sincere. (It is ok and healthy to tell your spouse, “I am having a hard time forgiving you for _____. I am working on it. I’m trying to get there.”)
  • You might need to practice on yourself. If you can’t forgive yourself, let go, and move on. Forgiving others will always be a struggle for you.
  • Forgiving DOES NOT mean forgetting. If it did, we would set ourselves up to continually be hurt and even abused. “Forgetting” means NOT bringing up a past, dealt with, healed-over situation and using it as a weapon against our spouse.
  • You don’t have to wait to be asked for forgiveness to forgive your spouse.

Forgiving your spouse is also FOR YOU so that you remain healthy and don’t become bitter and resentful. (Treating them as forgiven might be the thing that causes them to realize how they hurt you. Even if it doesn’t – forgive anyway so YOU can move forward!)

  • Forgiveness can be a way that we take back control of our life from a spouse’s failings, from a past hurt, an unresolved issue, or even an ongoing situation. What we won’t forgive controls us.
  • Forgiveness DOES NOT mean that we don’t work with our spouse to understand what went wrong and work together to avoid it happening in the future.
  • Forgiveness is made tangible by the relationship being restored and going back to normal as if your spouse had never messed up in the first place. But…
  • Forgiveness DOES NOT mean all consequences are automatically erased. If your spouse betrayed your trust, you might truly forgive them, but there will still be things they need to do to rebuild trust over time. This DOES NOT mean they are not forgiven.

Forgiveness takes us to the very core of what it means to love someone. It isn’t easy. Do we sacrifice ourselves or do we protect ourselves? That’s a hard question that we live out day by day in our marriage. I do know that there is no formula or equation and that Love realizes the ledger will never be balanced, but forgives anyway.

***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 your computer or device is being monitored, call the hotline 24/7 at: 1−800−799−7233. For a clear understanding of what defines an abusive relationship, click here.***

Looking for more marriage resources? Click here!

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Thanksgiving is right around the corner. Maybe you just aren’t feeling thankful this year. Maybe you haven’t felt thankful for a long, long time. Let’s face it, in a lot of ways, we live in some dark times. I’m with you. There is a reason that suicides go up during the holidays. There is a reason that this is the season for infidelity and divorce. So, what do you do if, honestly, you just don’t feel very thankful on Thanksgiving?

Don’t beat yourself up for not “feeling it” this year.

It won’t help. You already know that you don’t live in a Third World country without clean drinking water and basic infrastructure. I’m not hitting you with all that stuff. Things can be hard no matter what tax bracket you’re in. Sometimes being more affluent makes it harder to be thankful. Mo’ money, mo’ problems. You don’t have to feel bad for feeling bad. You don’t have to feel bad for not feeling thankful, either.

It might be time to take a hard look at your Thanksgiving Game Plan.

Does it involve a lot of family and travel? Tons of cooking or hosting? Seeing people that might be family, but are difficult to be around? Traditions that come with all kinds of expectations?

This might be the year to start some new Thanksgiving traditions. This might be the year that parents, in-laws, and extended family are all informed that your family will be doing something different this Thanksgiving. (Translation: We won’t be piling kids into a car, fighting traffic for hours, and showing up stressed out with a casserole.)  

Try this: This year, we are taking advantage of the Thanksgiving holiday to stay at home and rest and focus on our family. We wish all of you a wonderful, Happy Thanksgiving!

There is nothing wrong with that! Your family should get it. Hey, they might be relieved.

Be honest.

Is what you’re referring to as “not feeling thankful” really masking a deeper issue? Is it more accurate to say that you are “unhappy?” Maybe even depressed? Anxious? Lonely? Angry? Bitter? Think of your feelings as an iceberg. Not feeling thankful might be what is showing above the surface, but the deeper issues that need to be dealt with are below the surface.

Sometimes we slap a bandaid on a superficial issue, put on our brave face, go through the motions, and never address what’s really wrong. (We might even be able to fool those close to us for a while.) This isn’t a long-term solution. What we think we are hiding below the surface eventually will “bubble up” in ways that hurt us and even cause pain to those we care about. It’s probably already happening…

Take care of yourself. Hear that? Go get the help you need. This might be the Thanksgiving that you will always be thankful for because you took your mental and emotional health seriously and made self-care a priority in your life.

Okay, you aren’t feeling thankful this Thanksgiving. Often, we look at thankfulness as a feeling and it totally can be something you feel. But sometimes thankfulness is a practice or a discipline or a habit. Thankfulness can be something we do or something we cultivate, not just something we feel. (We get into this habit of letting our feelings drive our actions– I mean we’ve all tried to explain our choices by saying, “Because I felt like it,” right?)

Catch this last thing. This is really cool and it isn’t some Yoda or Mr. Miyagi stuff, but sometimes the actions come first and then the feelings follow. Read that again.

Cultivate thankfulness even though you don’t feel it. Yet.

1. Sit down and list everything you are (or should be) thankful for. Think of different areas of your life, include all the big and all the little things. Start really basic: “I’m alive.”

2. Write a “thank you” card to someone who impacted your life and explain how they influenced you. Try to avoid electronic communication if at all possible. A handwritten note gives you more time to ponder as you write and will mean so much to whoever receives it. Write a few cards if you can. They still make stamps, right?

3. Find a way to make someone else happy this Thanksgiving. It doesn’t have to be big or showy. Often, the smaller the act of kindness, the better. It can be totally anonymous.

Listen, this might sound heartless, but you don’t feel thankful on Thanksgiving this year. So what? How can you make someone else thankful? Make it your mission. Get creative. Get a little crazy. What is a need someone has that you can meet?

Hold on, hold on. Wait a second!  What is that you’re feeling? Thankful…

Looking for relationship resources? Click here!

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Will Counseling Work For Me? Will beekeeping? Homeopathic remedies? Fixing your own transmission? Doing the same thing over and over again work for you? I dunno.

You are unique. Going to a professional counselor might not work for you, but there are some very compelling reasons to give it a try. The better question might be, “Will you work at counseling?

Why Don’t We Go?

Some people feel like going to counseling is like waving a “white flag” on their life and represents quitting. “I should be able to handle this! It is, after all, my life! Why do I need someone else poking around in it?

Going to counseling is not “giving up.“ Far from it, it can be an incredibly courageous step and can help you regain control of your life. But it does involve surrender.

You are surrendering the idea that you have all the answers. (And surrendering the idea that you have all the questions!)

You are “giving up” on the notion that you’ve got this, you are managing this, this is under control, the idea that what you are currently doing is getting you the results you want in your life and relationships. It might be time to “give up.”

Some people won’t go because they are embarrassed or they think there is a stigma attached to seeing a counselor or therapist. Some think that they will be paying someone to just listen to them, and hey, they have friends that will do that for free.

This is tragic because more and more people are going to counseling or have gone at some point and benefited from it.

According to one recent study, 4 in 10 American adults (42%) have seen a counselor at some point in their lives. Another 36% reported that they are open to going. (The numbers are about the same for men and women.)

You are probably surrounded by people who have talked to a mental health professional at some point. They are people you admire, people you think “have it together.” Yup, they have probably seen a counselor or therapist. You just didn’t know because they didn’t have a sign over their head that read, “I Am Seeing  A Counselor.” Don’t worry. You won’t have a sign over your head either.

Quick Question: Would you be “embarrassed” to take your car in to be seen by a mechanic? If you were diabetic, would you be “embarrassed” to go to a doctor for insulin? Nope. Not at all.

When it comes to mental and emotional health, when it comes to relating to ourselves or to others, the least “embarrassing” thing we can do is see the pros.

[Word to the Fellas: Sometimes going to counseling or seeing a therapist is a bigger step for us. Some of it is just male ego, but some of it is very legitimate. 

Generally, guys don’t bond by expressing themselves to strangers. They have to have a bond in place before they can express themselves, so it can be extra difficult to find the right counselor and take time to build that bond.

Generally, guys don’t process thoughts and emotions by talking them out as easily as women do. That’s just not how we are wired. Don’t let these things keep you from counseling. I’ve connected with great counselors who not only gave great advice and had awesome insights, but they turned me on to movies, music, and books that applied to my situation and that’s what we talked about at my next visit. Very cool.

Ladies, your man struggling a bit with counseling does not mean he isn’t invested in the relationship. Be patient. We’re different.]

Why Give It A Try?

Blindspots.

Sometimes we have blind spots and are just not in a position to see ourselves or a situation clearly. An outside, objective perspective is just what we need to shed some light on certain areas of our lives and relationships.

Pattern Recognition.

Even though our lives and our relationships are unique, a counselor may recognize patterns we don’t see, patterns that keep us from being our best selves or having healthy relationships.

Maintenance.

Car maintenance always costs less than repair. When it’s our lives, the costs can be devastating. Counseling can be looked at as a check-up or letting a mechanic “pop the hood” and make sure everything sounds good and is running smoothly so we don’t wreck down the road and hurt ourselves and others. You don’t have to have “problems” to see a counselor; you can go to avoid them.

Professionals.

Things like addiction, anger, depression, anxiety, relational problems, issues that “run in the family,” traits that were inherited or go back to our childhood are often just flat out bigger than us and require a professional trained to help us handle them. Get that help!

Decisions.

Sometimes we are on the cusp of making very big life decisions or changes and it is totally helpful and healthy to talk to someone about it first. They might just give you the clarity and confidence you need.

Mediation.

Whether it is a spouse, partner, teenager, or the entire family, sometimes it really helps to have a mediator, or go-between, to handle difficult conversations or situations. The counselor can keep things from escalating, ask the right questions, maybe even say the things that are too hard for you to say. Their office just might be a “safe” place to talk things out.

Listen, I’ve gone to individual counseling and marriage counseling during different seasons of my life. Two of my children went to counseling as teens.

It took some phone calls, even some trial and error to make the right connection, but the benefits were enormous and I have no regrets. Counseling, for me at least, was way better than beekeeping.

***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 your computer or device is being monitored, call the hotline 24/7 at: 1−800−799−7233. For a clear understanding of what defines an abusive relationship, click here.***

Looking for relationship resources? Click here!

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Being a parent makes life better. Let me tell you why.

I’m currently writing this while sitting at a coffee shop on a rainy afternoon, and there is a table of three very chatty, obnoxious, silly, giggly 12-year-old girls directly hovering over cinnamon rolls and muffins directly in my line of sight. 

One of them – the slender redhead with clear blue eyes – is my oldest daughter. The other two, her friends, will be coming over later for a sleepover that I’m sure will be much of the same behavior. 

As I peer over toward them from time to time (trying to remain undetected), I can’t help but think quickly through a play-by-play of my daughter’s life, starting with our first introduction to her in the hospital: sleeping in my arms, the tiniest, most vulnerable thing. And I remember thinking,Does life get any better than this?

Fast forward not too many weeks: middle of the night, trying my best to change a diaper in less-than-optimal lighting, taking on a less-than-optimal aroma as she fights through her cries and tears because all she really wants to do is go back to sleep. And I remember thinking, Doesn’t life get better than this?” 

Then there’s the memory of coming alongside her as she served a Thanksgiving dinner to the visitors of our community’s homeless shelter: watching her smile and bright blue eyes brighten the day for some folks who desperately need a bright day. And I thought, Man, life just doesn’t get any better than this.” 

Of course, growing up is hard and learning lessons can be even harder.

Like the time I caught her in a lie about what she was looking at on her cell phone: That was a tough discussion, and my heart and my brain were at odds with what exactly to do. Tough love won out in the end and she was grounded from her phone for a time as well as from attending the big school rivalry football game the next night. She went to bed distraught and in tears; I went to bed with my own tears, thinking, Surely life is going to get better than this.” 

And back to today: I look on that blue-eyed redhead as she talks and laughs with her friends (still trying not to be detected), seeing the joy on her face, and I think, Wow – I don’t think life can get better than this.” 

A friend of a friend of mine was once asked what parenthood was like for him, and I think his response is the best description I’ve ever heard: “It’s just… more. It’s more ups, more downs. It’s more joys, more tears. More money spent, more stuff on the floor, more to plan for birthdays and holidays and weekends and vacations. It’s more laughter, more struggles, more trying to just figure things out, more seeing great things happen despite us. More pride as a parent, more hard lessons learned, more hope for the future. 

If you are a parent and you’re in one of these (or other) phases of “more,” know that you’re not alone. All us parents are in the “more,” but one thing is for certain – when life as a parent doesn’t seem like it could be much better, days are still to come when life just can’t get any better. 

Take notice of the times when you see your kids showing signs of growth. This is hard for a parent sometimes because a part of us doesn’t want to see our kids grow up. You have to intentionally experience joy when we see the little milestones of maturity – like when they’re enjoying time with friends at a coffee shop over cinnamon rolls. It means they’re one more step closer to being the adults we are working so hard for them to become. 

Life is good in the “more” – even when more is a lot more than we thought it would be. As a matter of fact, it can’t get any better – until maybe tomorrow. 

Looking for more parenting resources? Click here!

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Tamara’s second child was six months old when her best friend invited her to read How Not to Hate Your Husband After You Have Kids by Jancee Dunn.

“I was in the thick of raising two children. Both my husband and I worked full-time jobs and the biggest thing I was struggling with was feeling like I was doing everything,” Tamara said. “I was frustrated because I couldn’t figure out how to get my husband to jump in and just do stuff without me having to ask. He was very willing to help, but he just wanted me to tell him what to do.”

After reading the book, Tamara felt like she was armed with some tangible ways to engage with her husband differently.

“We actually sat down and divided up chores,” Tamara said. “Clarity around responsibilities was huge for us. He does the dishes and puts them in the dishwasher. I unload the dishwasher. This used to be a huge point of tension for us. I don’t mind letting dishes pile up in the sink and he can’t stand that. Now we’ve got our dance going.”

They realized that the chore one of them liked the least, the other one didn’t really mind doing. Clarity around who was going to be responsible for doing what removed a lot of frustration from their relationship.

Another huge takeaway for Tamara was to stop correcting her husband every time he did something.

“I used to go behind him as he was doing things and either redo them or point out that’s not the correct way to do whatever,” Tamara said. “Like the time he took initiative to sweep our hardwood floors… but his sweeping technique was subpar in my opinion, so I waited until he was finished and then swept after him and took a picture of the huge pile of dirt and hair that he had left behind to show him that if he’s going to do something, he needs to do it all the way, not half-heartedly… (I’m not proud of myself.) Talk about creating tension between the two of us. I totally did not stop to think about how it would make him feel. He just basically started backing off because what’s the point in trying to help when the person comes right behind you and does it their way? Letting go of that was big!

“Probably the most valuable takeaway from this read was understanding that we needed to learn how to actively listen to each other instead of allowing our conversations to get hijacked by our emotions,” Tamara shared. “I think everybody could benefit from learning this.”

Tamara said she was reminded of her high school anatomy and physiology class discussions about the brain being the center of logic and emotions and the limbic system, more specifically, the amygdala, processes emotions such as fear, anger and the “fight or flight” reflex. The prefrontal cortex controls judgment, logic and thinking.

Guess what happens when our amygdala is firing on all cylinders?

The prefrontal cortex stops working at optimum levels. Stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol rush through our body, causing us to turn into something close to The Incredible Hulk. Our body is physically preparing for “fight or flight” from the perceived threat. This makes us hyper-focused on our goal of survival, which makes it next to impossible to actually understand or even hear what other people are saying. Think of a child’s teeter-totter on the playground with emotions on one side and rational thinking on the other side: When emotions go up, rational thinking goes down.

“Maybe the biggest takeaway for me from the book was learning how to deal with my anger differently,” Tamara said. “When things went south with us, both of us could ramp up very quickly. Harsh tones and hurtful words resulted in even more tension. The book talked about exactly what is happening in our brains when we are so angry with each other and it said I needed to handle the situation as if I were an FBI hostage negotiator. Say what?”

What would an FBI hostage negotiator do? They would use the Behavioral Change Stairway Model. It involves five tried-and-true steps to get someone to be able to understand your perspective and change what they’re doing. These steps are:

  1. Active Listening – Listen to their side and let them know they have been heard.
  2. Empathy – You understand where they’re coming from and what they are feeling.
  3. Rapport – What they feel in return from your empathy; they start trusting you.
  4. Influence – Work on problem-solving and come up with an action plan.
  5. Behavioral Change – One or both of you does something different.

Many couples immediately jump to number four before they do the first three steps which can and usually does sabotage the process of coming to a resolution. Hostage negotiators will tell you, active listening is the most important step in getting someone to calm down.

Here are six techniques to actively listen like a boss:

  1. Ask open-ended questions – You want them to open up, so avoid yes/no questions. A good example would be, “You seem upset. Can you help me understand what exactly is bothering you?” If something is bothering you and someone asks this question, seek to avoid responding with, “Nothing is wrong.”
  2. Effective Pause – Try remaining silent at appropriate times for emphasis or to defuse a one-sided emotional conversation (since most angry people are looking for a dialogue.)
  3. Minimal Encouragers – Let them know you’re listening with brief statements like, “Yeah” or “I see.” If you show a lot of emotion in your facial expressions, seek to keep those to a minimum.
  4. Mirroring – Repeat the last word or phrase they said. This shows you are trying to understand them and encourages them to continue. (Note: Don’t overdo it… mirroring could become really annoying, really fast.)
  5. Paraphrasing – Repeat what the other person is saying back to them in your own words. Not only does this show you are truly seeking to understand, it gives them an opportunity to clarify if you don’t quite have the whole picture.
  6. Emotional Labeling – Give their feelings validation by naming them. Identify with how they feel. It’s not about whether they are right or wrong or completely crazy; it’s about showing them you understand and hear them.

“Reading this book made me more aware on so many levels,” Tamara said.

“Even recognizing that it is important for me to do things that refuel my tank, but also actually telling my husband I need reassurance from him that he is good with me doing things with friends or going to work out because I can let “mom guilt” get the best of me. He actually told me not very long ago, ‘Taking time for yourself made you a happier person, happier mom and wife. I can see the change in you.’ That made my heart happy for sure.”

Tamara’s advice to new moms? Read the book, but recognize that implementing the strategies takes time and intentionality.

“I think both of us would say we have seen significant improvement in the way we engage each other and that has been a really good thing for us and for our children,” Tamara said.

This article originally published in the Chattanooga Times Free Press on October 18, 2019.

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