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We Feel Like Phonies

Q. My parents invited us to attend a marriage seminar with them when we first got married, and we were surprised by how much we enjoyed it. One of the things we learned was to reflect each other's feeling in our conversations, but when we do this, it often feels phony, like we're robots or something. Is there any way to do this without feeling like we are just using a technique?

A. We hear this question a lot. Sometimes in one of our seminars we will teach this technique of reflecting each other's feelings and then have couples practice it right then and there. Invariably someone will raise his or her hand and echo your same frustration, and our answer is always the same: Reflecting your partner's feelings will remain an empty technique and fall flat on its face unless you are genuinely interested in understanding your partner.

As long as you are sincere about your desire to know your partner's heart, reflecting his or her feelings will work like a charm. You may feel awkward at first. Yes, you may even feel like a robot programmed to say, "It sounds like you are feeling … " But if you practice this routinely for a week or so, and if you are genuinely wanting to make a deep connection with your spouse, you will see just how natural it can become.

By the way, you don't have to always begin your reflection with "It sounds like … " Here are some additional leads that may be helpful:

"It seems as if … "

"What I hear you saying is … "

"It must have been … "

"Could it be that you are feeling … "

"You must feel … "

"I wonder if you are feeling … "

Even when using a variety of leads to reflect your partner's feelings, you may still feel a bit phony, but don't give up. It's natural to feel awkward anytime you try something new. Keep at it. In a relatively brief amount of time, with enough practice, you will begin to reflect feeling with a natural ease that becomes part of your daily conversations.

One more thing: You don't have to be a "feelings" expert to decipher your partner's emotions. The good news is that when you are genuinely interested in understanding his heart, you can reflect back a feeling that isn't really on target and still succeed with this practice. Your partner may be feeling frustrated and you say, from a genuine heart, "It sounds as if you're feeling pretty angry." Well, he may not be feeling angry at all, but because you are genuinely interested in understanding him, he will not shut down. He will say something like, "Well, I'm not really angry as much as I am just plain frustrated." Do you see how that works? Even when you are wrong, this technique is still helpful—as long as your are genuine.

So if you listen carefully to your partner, you will hear many different feelings. You will "hear" in her eyes, in his fidgeting, even in her silence. Think of this kind of listening as mining for feelings. Once you think you have identified a potential feeling, check it out with your partner. You'll be surprised how understood he feels.

My Guilt Drives Him Crazy

Q. I have a problem with guilt. It's not that I have some secret skeleton in my closet that my husband doesn't know about; I just seem to be prone to guilt. The littlest things—burning the toast, being late, whatever—set off my guilt alarm, and I know this is driving my new husband crazy. Can you help?

A. In a survey assessing "who makes you feel most guilty," the majority of respondents confessed they were the key perpetrators of their own guilt. But next on the list was "my spouse." Thirty-seven percent of married people reported that their spouses control them through guilt.

Guilt is that thud-in-the-gut feeling that occurs when a great gap separates who we are from who we think we ought to be—and you are right about this disconcerting feeling impacting your marriage.

A fundamental distinction can keep guilt from sabotaging your marriage: There is a difference between real guilt and false guilt, or as some say, good guilt and bad guilt. Being guilty differs from feeling guilty. Guilt is the state of having done a wrong or committed an offense. This is guilt as defined by theologians. But guilt also is the painful feeling of self-reproach resulting from doing wrong—guilt as defined by psychologists. Real guilt feelings results when we have done wrong. False guilt, however, seizes us when we believe we have done something wrong when, in fact, we have done nothing wrong.

True guilt keeps people in line by acting as an internal alarm that warns us of danger. False guilt, however, keeps the alarm ringing even after we've been notified of the problem or even when there is no danger.

The point is that we do not need to give in indiscriminately to all of our feelings of guilt. If our guilt alarm is false, we need to turn it off and go on with life. But many of us run into trouble when we try to dismantle our false guilt. Like a car alarm triggered when the owner is away, false alarms go on and on and on. In fact, the ring is so persistent that it often makes people behave as though the guilt were real. That can be especially harmful to a marriage.

After a decade of research on the emotion of guilt, I (Les) discovered that feeling guilty sabotages our ability to empathize. And empathy is critical to the health of a marriage; it's the ability to understand objectively your mate's perspective and see the world from his point of view. But when guilt enters the picture, it clouds our vision. We become self-absorbed and can't put ourselves in our partner's shoes. Guilt is a self-centered emotion that seeps into the crevices of our marriage and does its work in ways we aren't even aware of. I call it "love's unseen enemy."

So if you find that guilt has wormed its way into your relationship, ask yourself if it is real or false. If is it real, ask for and receive forgiveness. Don't grovel in self-punishment to somehow prove your innocence. Accept your human frailty and do whatever you can to make it right. Then rely on God's strength to help you regain respect and move on. If your guilt is false, recognize it as such and disregard your unhealthy feelings. Look at the situation objectively and face the future with hope.

Don't allow the poison of guilt to ruin your marriage. Don't allow it to gain a foothold and keep you from empathizing with each other. Instead, remember that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Romans 8).

He Excludes Me from His Career

Q. I work part-time to help with the bills, but I'm mostly a traditional stay-at-home wife and I like it that way. However, my husband, who is just beginning his career, seems to think his work shouldn't concern me and as a result I feel left out. I'm not a control monger, but I'd like to be included in his career plans. Do you think that's wrong?

A. "What do you want to be when you grow up?" is tough enough to answer when you are three years old. But then at age eighteen, or sometimes earlier, there comes another one: "Have you decided what you are going to do with your life?" Then comes the inquiry heard over and over before retirement: "What do you do for a living?" It sometimes seems our society is obsessed with occupations and careers. In turn, our identity is linked to our career choice. And, in a very real sense, so is our marriage.

The decisions you or your husband will be making during your work life hold the potential to influence your marriage dramatically. Career decisions are not isolated in a compartment totally separate from your home life. Your husband may leave work at the office, but work won't leave him (remember, it's part of our identity). Since work plays such a dominant role in our lives, it cannot help but impact our marriage. That's why charting a career path together is critically important to the health of your marriage.

Just as you couldn't plan a trip without knowing the desired destination, you and your spouse are unwise to map out a career track unless you know your objective. This decision doesn't have to be made immediately, but chances are that you and your spouse are already on a trajectory that is taking you someplace. The question remains, however, is it the place that you and your partner want to go together?

Talking about where each of you will be ten, twenty, thirty years from now can help you gain control and chart the course each of you feels good about. Many overlook the need to integrate career with marriage, but since work lives hold the potential to interfere with marriage on the negative side or augment one's married life on the positive side, we feel strongly that it is time well spent.

So we encourage you to set aside some serious time to establish career goals together. Consider everything from relocation possibilities, business travel, promotions, income, and flexibility. Ask yourselves how each aspect could impact your marriage. Also, consider the kinds of work-related issues that you would expect to have influence on together. The more you talk about these matters, the closer you will come to building a career path that is in sync with your marriage.

Leslie Parrott, Ed.D., and Les Parrott, Ph.D., are co-directors of the Center for Relationship Development at Seattle Pacific University and the authors of Saving Your Marriage Before It Starts, Becoming Soul Mates, and When Bad Things Happen to Good Marriages (all Zondervan). Visit Les and Leslie at www.RealRelationships.com.

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

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