Never-Ending Problems: Like Dandelions in the Grass

I like solving problems – always have. I like to think triangularly, question appreciatively, figure out what has not worked before and suggest something that I think is brilliant, create a plan for real change, and measure the anticipated success. I was taught all this in grad school, some of my female friends tell me that this is such a “man thing,” but I have lived this as far back as I can remember – when I was 8 years old I tried marriage counselling with my folks! I think I did pretty good.

Now John Gottman comes along as a marital researcher and says that about two-thirds of relational problems are perpetual, like dandelions in the grass. Some troubles are unsolvable he says, and lots of arguments never accomplish a thing other than rehearsing for the next squabble. Never-ending — sounds discouraging.

Carole and I have a bunch of unsolvable problems, mostly the same ones we had when we were first married. No matter what I do to “persuade” (coerce) her to do what I want (or she me), the problems keep flowering. The solvable ones delude us into thinking that we are pretty good at conflict solving, and it’s true that we’ve had some dramatic successes. It is the unsolvable ones that really bug me.

Here are some perpetual problems that you are probably familiar with:

Personality or “your way in the world”: Who is the most introverted in the dyad and who is the most extroverted? (See previous blog.) This probably doesn’t change much. Neither does the tension between the one that is most emotionally intuitive with the one that is perseveringly logical. And some people are emotional stuffers (always have been) while their devoted other is pretty much a feeling gusher (always has been).

History: You can’t change a person’s history. The times in which you were born, and the ways in which you were raised, or dynamics in your family of origin – this is set in history. The goodness of your connection has a lot to do with how winsomely you accept each other’s life before you met.

Sensitivities: How do you react to failure, or criticism, or loneliness, or unpredictability, or being excluded from a group? This is well-wired by the time a child becomes an early teen.

Some things change really slowly. Things like your view of what success or failure means in life, or what a worldview might be. Our relationship to money, emotions, work, conflict are hard to change, but change they do.

Habits change slowly as well. If you are an early-to-bed kind of person and you are married to a late night email addict, this too can change. Savers always seem to marry spenders – at least in my practice. Maybe that is why they come to therapy. Habits change – slowly.

I have discovered that unsolvable problems require different strategies than solvable ones. First off, you need to be willing to distinguish solvable from unsolvable problems. Make two lists of your problems. What can be negotiated (solvable) and what cannot (unsolvable)? What is most important to you (grade this 1-3)? What can you let go?

Secondly, focus 80% of your resources towards the good things that you already do well. Show a little “benevolent disinterest” (differentiation) towards the problem areas. It is not a moral failure to take a break from working on faults while you celebrate the good stuff you do now. Over-focusing on problems (many of which you can’t solve anyway) is a serious waste of good humour and friendly faith.

Renewing Our Energies: Introversion — Extroversion Continuum

Some of us are natural introverts in an extroverted world. Pastors are often like this. Sometimes extroverts find themselves trapped in an introverted family. The tensions they both experience are palpable.

Introverts get energy from spending time alone, especially if tired, stressed or upset. Socializing is not for renewing their emotional selves. In fact, being with people, especially having to be “social,” tends to drain their energy. “People = pain” for many introverts, especially if they cannot control the social world. They look forward to the enjoyment of the company of a few people, usually not more than 6 or 12, or a newcomer who is intriguing, or people of a like mind. Introverts are people who need to know the rules of engagement in social settings and are anxious without visible structure. Large gatherings, like weddings or receptions, feel awkward and anxious, especially with lots of strangers. In these events, introverts find a company of a few who are like them, where they can connect and coalesce. They are often anxious when they are made the focus of attention. They tend to have depth in their relationships rather than breadth. They usually prefer to work by themselves. Extroverts may see them as antisocial, withdrawn, inhibited, elitist and uninterested.

Extroverts are vibrant people who enjoy the company of lots of others, so they generally shine at parties and rediscover themselves in crowds where there is a bit of chaos. They may be afraid of aloneness and silence – at least that is what their more introverted spouse or friend might say. A silent spiritual retreat can be torture for an extrovert. They thrive on meeting new people and they tend to develop their ideas mainly by talking it out with others. Some extroverts require an audience to have their thoughts make sense. They are inclusive and welcoming and are great at eliminating barriers and boundaries. They tend to have lots of connections (not so many “relationships”) – more breadth than depth. They can feel anxious when they are not with other people and they often find it draining when having to be on their own. While enthusiastic and winsome, to an introvert they can seem overwhelming, intrusive or “a bit much.” Extroverts can become self-pitying, agitated and withdrawn when not engaged in activities and action. Extroverts are stimulus hungry, needing activity and change as well as interaction. They look for events to be experienced and can become stimulus junkies, unsettling their family and friends.

No one is a “pure” introvert or extrovert; think of it as a continuum. Jack, as an example, is a sales associate with a VW dealership where he consistently wins the plaudits and awards of management. He knows how to make friends with shoppers who intuitively trust that he is not trying to sell them a vehicle that they don’t want. As a sales leader, he is less technique-focused than he is people-responsive. In fact, he resists sales courses with lots of hoopla, where he has to be “bigger than he really is.” His boss thinks he must be an extrovert but he is most energized at home playing board games with his teenaged kids and walking with his wife on the seawall, coffee in hand. He has learned to apply his natural introversion in an extroversion market.

John Gottman, the marital researcher, argues that 69% of relational / marriage difficulties are essentially unsolvable, conflicts that we learn to live with and, perhaps, prosper because of. The tension around introversion-extroversion is one of these unsolvables, binaries that are not readily reconciled but can be appreciatively accepted.

Can I Trust You? (Trust Rebuilding Questions)

One of the privileges of listening is that you get to learn. And I get to learn lots.

The other day a client told me about 4 levels of trust rebuilding when trauma has undermined a love relationship. Here are 4 questions that she uses to figure out if trust in her relationship can be rebuilt.

Do I trust that you are growing for you? Some people change just to appease the other and not because they have any interest in growing. You can only trust the change that is motivated by inner desire.

Do I trust that you are capable of the change that you want? Lots of people have good intent but this might not be enough to restore confidence in the relationship.

Do I trust that you are honest in what you say? Of course, there are levels of deceit and we all lie to ourselves. But do I see an honest attempt to be truthful in words and ways?

Do I trust that you will do what you say? Follow through is the big thing. Unless the person’s behaviour changes, it is hard to trust again.

I find these helpful questions when a friendship is violated by gossip, or when a partner promises to be clean and sober, or when a teenager needs to be bailed out from jail. Can I trust you?

My 3 Lives

I think of myself as having 3 lives.

There is my “family life;” marriage to Carole, organizing and participating in the household, that kind of thing. Plus, I am a new grandfather, which totally delights me. I anticipate weekly stroller-walks with Jasper Patrick McLaren on the West Van seawall, coffee cup in hand (my hand).

There is my “professional life” or how I earn money. I work as a psychologist in private practice – that is how many of the subscribers to my blog know me. This is where I listen more than I talk. Plus, I am a professor at Carey Theological College in marriage and family studies where I talk more than I listen. I don’t think my students know that I listen (see previous blog entitled “Intent Listening is Indistinguishable from Love”) but they do know that I like to be listened to.

And there is my “life life.” This is where I usually find myself — in my head and in my heart. I think of this introversion as my “rumblings,” my unsaid ideas, angsts and hopes. Not many know my “life life” and perhaps not many know yours. (I think of my university extroversion as “ramblings.”)

My “life life” is where my faith sits. It used to be that faith was propositional to me – do this and God will do that. My faith is more organic now. It morphs. Today’s faith is different than tomorrow’s faith.

It also sits. My faith doesn’t run as much anymore. Sometimes it walks but often it sits.

My faith wobbles at times. This seems to me the risk of anything organic. Sometimes something is dying and something else is coming along. I don’t try to convince myself of faith anymore, and I have no need of convincing you of it either. I do less ritualistic reassurances: less study, more wondering; less being a cleric, more being a citizen; less exclusion, more welcome; less leadership, more looking.

I still maintain my coffee and chocolate sacraments. And I do church (CapChurch) where you can find me most Sundays morphing, wondering, sitting and drinking coffee.

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