I Hate to Wait; I'd Rather Act
I've got a Type-A personality, which means I'm driven and a problem solver. I'm also impetuous, so I tend to act first and pray about it later, especially when there's a problem. That's when I want to take action and deal with the issue by immediately confronting it. While I know my confrontations can come across like accusations or attacks, that's really never my intent. I just want to clarify what's happening.
I admire Susan for the qualities she possesses that I don't. She's more amiable and easygoing. And she's faithful to wait out the storm and pray about it before jumping to rash judgments or actions. She's cautious about what she says and slow to enter into conflict. For the most part, our personalities help to balance us. But when we learned our daughter was abusing drugs, our personality differences began to clash.
Everything came to a head one afternoon after I'd had a particularly stressful day thinking about what drugs was doing to our family. I was anxious and overwhelmed, and when I got home that evening, I asked Susan, "Could we take a walk? I need to share some things with you." While we walked together, I talked about everything I'd been thinking. But when I was done, Susan didn't say anything. Her nonresponsive actions made me angry, thinking she wasn't interested in my viewpoint. It seemed as if she just didn't want to deal with the issues with me. Is responding too much to ask of her?
Let's Wait, Then Act
When I face a problem, my tendency is to say, "Let's wait and see how this works out," or, "Let's pray and see how God leads." Because John is more confrontational, I often interpret his bringing up issues or asking me direct questions as accusations. My way of handling anger or conflict is to either back away or become defensive.
When John asked me to take a walk that evening, I'd had a peaceful day. It wasn't that I wasn't concerned about our daughter, it was just that I'd spent time considering the best way to respond and asking God to work in her life because I knew I couldn't do anything to control the situation or force my daughter to stop her destructive behavior. I knew God was ultimately in control and we'd just have to take one day at a time.
That evening John was filled with fears and doubts and needed to vent. But his intensity made me retreat. When he was done talking, I didn't know what to say. Even though I too had experienced many of those same feelings from time to time, I hadn't had any that day and was afraid of getting sucked into them again. So I kept quiet.
That made John more upset because he felt I wasn't sympathetic or understanding. But if I'd said, "I just had this wonderful, peaceful day and haven't worried at all," I would have thrown a wet blanket over him, as if to tell him his feelings were wrong. It just seemed as though he was pushing to take action, and I didn't see a need to at that particular point. Why couldn't we wait before we acted?
What John and Susan Did:
While they'd always worked on their personality differences, dealing with the stress of their daughter's drug abuse magnified their dissimilarities. That tense evening caused them to take a hard look at their differing communication styles. After a break to calm down, they discussed how they could best help each other to be a team. John and Susan realized they needed to learn how to acknowledge each other despite their individual ways of handling things.
"I discovered that when John expresses his intense feelings, he really just needs to connect with me," says Susan. "I need to acknowledge those feelings, even if I don't share them. I can use phrases such as, 'I hear what you're saying,' or, 'I haven't felt that way today, but I understand and I'm sorry you're hurting.'"
John also learned ways to handle Susan's communication style. "The reason I was hurt that evening was because I interpreted Susan's silence to mean she didn't care that I was struggling," John says. "I've learned instead that when she makes nonverbal signs, I can say, 'You're nodding. Are you agreeing with me?' And she'll say yes or no. If she's silent, I'll ask, 'Do you have a response?' I realized I can't change her, but I can work with her personality style. While I know I can be abrasive, I don't want to be unkind or cause her to get defensive or retreat. So I ask Susan, 'Did I offend you?' or, 'Did I come on too strong?' if I sense she's quiet. Sometimes I preface my comments by saying, 'I'm not upset with you. Even though I'm feeling intense right now, it's not toward you.'"
"When things get really tense, we also decided to agree to disagree," says Susan. "Since John's the activist and the fixer, there are times when I'll say to him, 'I don't think now's the right time for us to confront this issue. But if you sense that's what you should do, that's fine. You go ahead.'
"John's good at communicating his feelings," Susan continues. "Because of my temperament and pattern of slowly working through feelings, I realized I still need to share those emotions with him, or share the process of working through those feelings, rather than just dealing with them alone. John wants to know what I'm processing just as much as I want to know about his feelings. So that's something I work on."
John and Susan work hard to respect each other's differences. "That's meant a lot in our marriage," says Susan. And John agrees. "That's true—and I don't have to wait to act on that one."
John and Susan Vawter founded You're Not Alone, www.notalone.org, a ministry for pastors of children with drug addictions.
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