Jump directly to the Content

Start a Contructive Cycle

Counselor John Trent explains the changes that will keep your future from looking like your past

John Trent knows about childhood pain. His father deserted the family before John was three months old.

John was a teenager when he finally met his dad—but not before enduring more heartache. John and his twin brother, Jeff, were expecting their father to watch them play in a high school football game. "We played our hearts out thinking he was going to be there, and then he got busy and never came," John says. He eventually got to know his dad, but he never was able to break through the elder Trent's emotional detachment.

In his book Life Mapping (WaterBrook), John talks about the lingering effects of childhood neglect, abandonment or abuse. He had to confront the consequences of his fatherless childhood after he and Cindy got married in 1979. Today, John is a writer and speaker and president of Encouraging Words, a counseling and training organization based in Phoenix. We asked him how couples can avoid repeating their parents' mistakes.

Why is it so difficult to escape destructive patterns from the past?

We have to recognize a problem before we can seek a solution. And we like to believe our childhood experience doesn't affect us. We think, "I'll never be as angry as my dad was. I'll never be as manipulative as my mom was." Then we wake up one morning and realize we're living out the patterns we grew up with.

You confronted the effects of your upbringing after you got married. Why does marriage bring these things to a head?

Living close to someone who had a different family experience helps us recognize the effects of our own upbringing. I had to admit that Cindy saw things in my life that I didn't see. It was uncomfortable, but that's part of the process.

Is a spouse's involvement an essential element in breaking destructive patterns?

Your spouse really does need to be involved. Cindy speaks the truth to me, even when I don't want to hear it. One time, when we'd been married just a year, we were driving home from a marriage conference with two other couples. I was an assistant pastor at the time, and I said, "Hey, let's go from person to person and rate our marriages from one to ten."
Cindy said, "Let's not." But I insisted, and finally she said, "We're about a four." I tried to make light of it, but after we dropped off the other couples, I went crazy: "I can't believe you said that. Our friends are calling the senior pastor to tell him what a failure I am!"
Cindy just looked at me and said, "The next time, if you don't want me to answer, don't ask." Then she said, "By the way, I gave you an extra point because there were people in the car." We'd only been married a year, and already I had dropped to a three.

What did Cindy feel was lacking?

I was working full-time, and I was taking a full load of courses in a doctoral program. Plus I was in two softball leagues. She'd say, "Let's talk," and I'd say, "Well, come to my game. We can talk on the way." For some reason that didn't thrill her.
One night we stayed up late talking. Cindy said, "I feel like I'm a book that you had in a course. For a semester you spent tons of time studying me, but now you're doing other things."

Had she put her finger on a problem that was related to your childhood?

Absolutely. I remembered how noncommunicative my dad had been. One time he had a heart attack and spent six weeks in my mom's home. I thought at last I'd get to know him. But after six weeks of me asking questions, I still couldn't get him to open up.
Now I was guilty of the same thing—I was talking to everybody but my wife. So I decided even if Cindy wanted to talk for an hour starting at 11:30 p.m. on a weeknight, we'd talk. That's when things began to change.

A current trend in counseling emphasizes moving forward rather than getting bogged down in the past. Which is more helpful, understanding the effects of your past or working on the future?

We need to do both—look back and then move forward. The Christians at Ephesus, after a strong start, had lost some spiritual vitality (Rev. 2:4). To correct that, the Lord called them to do three things in verse 5. First, they needed to look back and remember their strengths. Second, they needed to repent, a Greek word meaning "to turn around." The third step was to practice the deeds they did at first—the things that reflected their love of God.

My wife's ability to ask questions slows me down and provides a wonderful protection.

In marriage we need to recognize the problem, decide to change our direction and then seek God's help in developing a plan that will take us back to the things that please him.

How did this process work in your marriage?

I looked back and realized what contributed to some of my wrong behavior. My dad was an extremely angry individual. Since I didn't grow up with him, I didn't think I'd struggle with anger. After Cindy and I got married, I started exhibiting a lot of frustration. Somebody cutting me off in traffic should have been a 2.3 on the emotional Richter scale, but for me it was an 8.7.

Was there something about being married that brought your anger into the open?

Being married shifts us into patterns that come naturally. Cindy grew up with an alcoholic father. When her home life got chaotic, she found peace in her room. So she kept her room orderly and immaculate.
Well, we'd been married three days and we were watching TV. I threw my shoes and socks in the middle of the room and Cindy exploded: "Pick those up!" She was trying to guard against chaos by maintaining order, which has its place. But her reaction should have been a 2.3 on the emotional Richter scale, not an 8.7. Any time you get an exaggerated emotional response, whether it's fear, anxiety or anger, there's a context. You need to look backward to identify it.

What was behind your anger?

It was coming from a past with lots of hurt and frustration. Proverbs 13:12 says hope deferred makes the heart sick. I spent years waiting to meet my father, and when I did, he was an angry alcoholic. So my hope of finally getting to connect with him was crushed.
But anger also comes from fear, and Cindy's desire to get beneath the surface made me fearful. She used to say, "Can't we talk more? Is this as deep as you get?" and I'd say, "This is pretty much it." She wanted me to go deeper, and it made me fearful. So I responded with anger in other areas.

Once you identified the sources of the problem, what did you do about it?

I asked God to help me turn things around, but I needed a clear plan. Cindy and I had failed to step back and say, "Six months from now, a year from now, what do we want our marriage to look like?"
Since then, we have worked out a clear plan of action in a few basic areas. We review it once a year and say, "This is what we talked about last year. We were going to pray more together. We were going to communicate better in this area. Where are we really?" This has made a tremendous difference.

How can a couple stay on track in achieving their shared goals?

It takes a trusted, godly third party who will hold you accountable. You can get that through a small group of couples or a close friend. You approach marriage differently when you know that someone is going to ask you the hard questions about how you're fulfilling your role as husband or wife.

How about accountability between spouses? Does it work when spouses are checking on each other?

You need that as well. Cindy's ability to think things through and ask questions slows me down and provides a wonderful protection for me. I tend to be pretty spontaneous, and pushed to an extreme that can become impulsivity.

Have you helped Cindy break any patterns from her childhood?

I've helped her bloom a little bit. We used to talk hour upon hour as she processed past hurts. She grew up with so much heartache, she needed to know she was loved. I spent a lot of time telling Cindy, "Boy, that was tough. But you're special, and you're beautiful, and you're talented, and I love you."
I will never forget the night she put her hands on my arms and said, "You really do love me, don't you?" We'd been married about seven years, and finally she felt deeply loved. Sometimes it's a long, difficult process. But ask God to show you what you need to change, then come up with a plan and don't give up.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

Free CT Women Newsletter

Sign up for our Weekly newsletter: CT's weekly newsletter to help you make sense of how faith and family intersect with the world.

Learning; Marriage; Past
Today's Christian Woman, Fall, 1999
Posted September 30, 2008

Read These Next


Join in the conversation on Facebook or Twitter

Follow Us

More Newsletters