Vulnerability Ceiling

Safety is overrated. Or, it might be over valued. I work with a lot of couples doing the hard work of counseling that are waiting until they feel safe enough to take risks in emotional vulnerability. Trouble is, both of the spouses are waiting. And waiting and waiting. Neither is taking any kind of new vulnerable emotional risk while they wait for their sense of safety to increase.

I have a theory. Couples hit a vulnerability ceiling as their relationship develops. What I mean is that we get to a point with our spouses where we have made all the vulnerable steps in relationship that we feel comfortable or safe to make and then we stop taking risks. Perhaps we stop because of hurt or unrepaired wounds in the relationship. Perhaps we stop because of boredom or blocks that come from our families of origin. But whatever the reason, when we stop taking emotional risks in our marriages, they stagnate.

  • Someone has to take a vulnerability risk in a marriage where initiating sex has become a place of rejection rather than reception.
  • Someone has to take a vulnerability risk to share fears around parenting teens when the two have blamed each other for dropping the ball.
  • Someone has to move beyond “if, then” clauses….example: “I’ll sit and share with him about my feelings if I know he will understand.”

Couples can unwittingly hit a vulnerability ceiling and stay stuck for years, all the while thinking that the problem is that the other person isn’t safe. While hurts in the relationship may be very, very real, if both spouses think the other isn’t safe, then it is easy to see how vulnerability ceilings can be constructed. “It’s only safe up to this point. Beyond that, no way!” And there the developmental progress of the relationship halts.

What does it take to shatter the vulnerability ceiling? A great deal of courage. It is far easier to be stuck and protective than to risk hurt, especially when we feel beat up. But how else might a breakthrough happen? Someone has to make the first move.

Next time: how can you make the first move?

Only Kindness Matters…..










I came across a really interesting article about how marriages succeed or fail. “Research…has show that kindness (along with emotional stability) is the most important predictor of satisfaction and stability in a marriage.” (p.7) Kindness. Kindness is something that almost everyone is capable of, so how does it become so difficult in relationships?

One thing that researchers analyzed was how people responded to “bids” for connection in their relationship. A bid for connection can be as simple as, “Hey, did you see that they cut down that tree at the corner?” It is a question seemingly unrelated to the relationship, but the person is making an attempt to connect. If the comment is met with openness and interest, a connection is made. If the comment is met with silence, disinterest, or contempt, then the relationship is harmed. Bids for connection might be more directly related to the relationship as well, like “hey, that comment stung, can we talk about it?” The same rules apply. The partner’s response will either build or harm the relationship. So at the bottom line, if bids for connection are met with kindness, the potential that the relationship will succeed soar!

After a long, cruddy day last week, my husband followed up on a problem I’d told him about at work. He asked me something simple, like “how’d that thing unfold today?” My response was pretty abrupt, “Ug! I talked about it so much at work today I’m just done talking about it.” Add to this comment a pretty impatient, fed-up tone. While my response had nothing to do with our relationship directly, I was saying no to my husband’s bid for connection, and it showed on his face. He was a bit hurt! I had turned away rather than turning towards the bid.

And here is the reality: “Couples who had divorced after a six-year follow up had ‘turn-toward bids’ 33% of the time. Only 3 in 10 of their bids for emotional connection were met with intimacy. The couples that were still together after six years had ‘turn-toward bids’ 87% of the time. Nine times out of ten, they were meeting their partner’s emotional needs.” (p. 5)

This evidence makes me so passionate about how important is to get help if you are having trouble with basic kindness in your marriage or relationship. Get help! See what’s getting in the way. Dig into the problem so that you can figure out how to apply the basic skills of kindness and responsiveness in relationship. So many marriages out there can change. Why not give it a chance?

The article sited is from The Atlantic: Masters of Love.

Know What You Know

If you are in therapy with me very long, you will probably hear one of my mantras: KNOW WHAT YOU KNOW. We humans are often very uncomfortable with the truths we perceive and we would rather deny them than live with the implications of knowing them. What do I mean? How many times have you allowed yourself to be annoyed and surprised that your spouse isn’t ready when he said he’d be even though this happens every time you try to go somewhere? If you really allowed yourself to know and accept that your spouse runs late, you would plan accordingly or work out a system to accommodate that truth. Or, have you ever insisted that you are confused about your mother-in-law saying she doesn’t get to see your kids enough while simultaneously declining all of your requests for help with them? If you allowed yourself to know what you already know on some level—that your mother in law is either unwilling or intimidated by the idea of watching your kids—that would hurt and you’d have to deal with that pain.

Punting to bewilderment and bafflement are tempting because they keep you in a victim state. If you don’t understand something, you can stay in the posture of powerlessness and zero responsibility. And honestly, sometimes that victim stance feels pretty nice. 1–Other people are to blame or are messing up, 2—you can’t understand it or weren’t expecting it, 3—you are blameless and victimized. What’s not to like?

Frankly, it’s easier to seethe with resentment than to know what you know. It’s easier to blame than to know what you know. Knowing what you know requires emotional courage and excruciating honesty. Knowing what you know moves you from being a victim to being responsible. When you put yourself in that responsible place, you have a much harder time letting yourself get away with blame and resentment.

How can you get started?

  1. Notice an area where you feel helpless or baffled or confused (preferably a repeating experience).
  2. Ask yourself, “What do I think I don’t know?”
  3. Then ask yourself, “If I’m really honest, what do I know?”
    • Example: “Wow, my mother-in-law doesn’t want to watch my kids” or “I shouldn’t expect my husband to be ready to leave on time if he hasn’t ever done it in the past.”
  4. Then do the emotional work of radical acceptance. It might be grief or disappointment or hurt and it may be a relatively straightforward shift or it could be a more complicated process. Whatever it is, invite God into it and allow the work to go as deep as it needs to go.
  5. Incorporate what you know into your future plans and interactions.


Take responsibility for what you know. That’s when you can do some real work in your relationships and face your world with eyes wide open.

Parenting Honestly

One of the most important skills that our kids need to learn while growing up is to accurately assess themselves. Sadly, we parents often wind up thwarting our kids’ ability to do this with well-meaning, yet inaccurate encouragements. Consider what happens for the child who is told they had a great piano recital after having to restart their piece three times. Or the kid whose parent says they were MVP of the playoff game after dropping two fly balls and striking out three times.

More helpful responses to disappointing situations are either to talk honestly about how the experience went or to ask your child how they think it went. Listen carefully to your child’s ability to accurately self-assess. Do they inflate their performance? Do they rate it lower than they ought? Helping our kids learn to assess is a great gift to them and prepares them for life. Here are some examples of not so helpful and helpful things to say to kids from Gist: The Essence of Raising Life-Ready Kids.

Not so helpful (p. 171):

  • “Everyone likes you.”
  • “Our divorce won’t change the holidays.”
  • “You can be anything you want!”

Helpful (p. 174)

  • “Yes, your sister is better than you at playing the piano.”
  • “Fourth chair clarinet seems pretty accurate for your playing ability right now.”
  • “At church you seem less confident with your friends….how do you see it?”

Parents want so much for their kids to feel good about themselves that they say things that confuse their child’s understanding of their own skills and talents. And, on a deeper level, parents often miss how much their own anxiety is driving them to falsely prop up their kids. Parents fear that their children cannot handle being average or sad about a performance because they aren’t sure they can handle seeing their child suffer. After making the season-ending last out during playoff game, my son said, “I made a couple of the best plays of my season this game and then I made some bad plays, including the last out.” I was sorely tempted to pump him up about all of the good plays and ignore or diminish how painful making the last out was. But when I looked at the evidence, he was actually right. He’d had some highs and lows that game and he saw it clearly. He wasn’t overly down on himself and he wasn’t denying anything. I had to do the work of soothing myself so that he could have the experience of unhindered accurate self-assessment.

The work we parents must do to allow our kids to grow in this type of wisdom really is a deep work of faith and trust. Will our kids be ok if they are disappointed, average, or downright bad at some things? My husband’s spiritual director once challenged him with the question, “is Jesus enough for your kids?” What will help you allow your kids to know the truth about themselves?


To read my review of Gist, click here.

Why Kids Need to Suffer










Happiness = Reality – Expectations

What do you think of this? I saw it in an article about the unhappiness of Generation Y in the Huffington Post. One of the points that I’m chewing on relates to how resistant parents can be to allow anything negative to happen to their children. We are living in an era of teaching our children how special they are and shielding them from experiences of failure. We may be seeing some very different trends with Generation Z, but now we have young adults with big expectations for their lives intersecting with huge doses of reality. The result? A good deal of unhappiness.

I can relate with the challenge of parenting! When my kids have been hurt and disappointed, I have distracted, minimized, and softened with the rest of them. But in my more grounded moments, I have held on to myself and allowed my children to hurt and cry while knowing this is exactly what they need to be ready for life as adults. My kids and your kids all need to understand reality. They aren’t all gifted in every way and they can’t do anything they set their mind to do. Think about it, no matter how diligently I set my mind to it, no matter how hard I worked, I could not have been an Olympic Gymnast. I just don’t have the right body or aptitude for it.

I client introduced me to a book I’ve been reading called Gist: The Essence of Raising Life-Ready Kids. In it, authors Anderson and Johanson have a list of essential experiences kids need to have in order to have a properly shaped view of reality. Here are some of the experiences on their list:

  • Not being invited to a birthday party
  • Working hard on a paper and still getting a bad grade
  • Having a car break down far from home
  • Being told that a class or a camp is full
  • Getting detention
  • Having an event be cancelled because someone misbehaved
  • Being fired from a job
  • Not making the varsity team
  • Being hit by another kid

If Anderson and Johanson are right, when we fight our kids’ painful experiences, we sometimes unwittingly thwart their maturing process! And then our kids grow up with a distorted sense of reality, which ultimately hurts our kids’ chances at happiness. What is required for parents then is growing our tolerance for our children’s suffering. I have seen in parenting that trusting God through my own trials feels different than trusting God through my kids’ trials. And yet, isn’t the personal work the same?

For the Huffington Post article, click here. For the book, Gist, click here.

I’ll be recharging my batteries for a while. I’ll be blogging again in the fall.

The Rules of Resentment

It starts with a pinprick of disappointment but it never stays there. Our ride to a party is late picking us up, the instructions for the project weren’t clear, our spouse forgot to put the bill in the mail…..we find ourselves feeling resentment; brooding, ruminating, often seething resentment. Resentment tricks us into thinking that someone else has to do something for us to feel better. My ride has to be on time and this feeling will subside. I need sufficient instructions and then I can let my boss off the hook. After my spouse puts the payment in the mail I’ll calm down. While the wrongs done to us are indeed painful and difficult to handle, our resulting resentment is no one’s responsibility but our own. Yes, I meant that. It is not anyone else’s job to take care of your resentment. It is yours.

You are the one having a ruined party, a horrible attitude at work, or a miserable marriage. Often, the person we blame for our resentment is oblivious or just confused by our sullen behavior. The unfortunate temptation that resentment brings is to mentally massacre another person. Doing the real work requires laying down our mind’s machetes and turning our attention to ourselves. So what do you do?

1—Ask yourself, “What are you so angry about?” Get very clear on it. Sometimes behind the anger with someone else, there is some anger with you. I counted on them to arrive on time even though I know them to be unreliable. I had a feeling the instructions wouldn’t be sufficient and I didn’t say anything….

2—Offer yourself some compassion for your part in it and consider offering some compassion for the person you resent.

3—There are two healthy paths from here.  ACCEPTANCE and/or ASSERTIVENESS.

Acceptance often begins with a painful wrestling with reality and human weakness, brokenness, and imperfection. And then….a willingness to embrace life, people, and the complications that come with both on a deeper level. Acceptance defuses resentment and enables us to tolerate being late, allow for the inadequacy in the instructions, or loosen our grip on the idea of an ideal spouse who remembers details. This doesn’t necessarily mean that someone else doesn’t owe you an apology. What it does mean is that you can take responsibility for yourself in the midst of accepting that things aren’t going to go the way you wish.

Assertiveness empowers you take responsibility for crafting a response to the situation that led to you feeling resentment. Assertiveness, simply put, is being direct in voicing one’s views.  With assertiveness, you resist temptations like manipulation, withdrawal, or aggression and you make clean requests and say the difficult things. That’s OK, I’ll drive myself. I’m a stickler for being on time so it usually works best for me not to depend on someone else for a ride. or Would you be willing to go over the instructions with me?  I have a feeling that I will need more detail for a portion of the work.

Acceptance with assertiveness might look something like this: I know my wife isn’t great with details and I can live with that. I will ask her if we can switch responsibilities or if she is willing to create a system that will help her remember the important things I can’t do.

The feeling of resentment can be a very effective alert system if we allow it to be. It tells us that we have a reaction to something that needs our attention. Doing the work resentment invites is at once liberating and courageous.

Finding Milk in a Hardware Store

One of the most difficult things in relationship is when others fail to give us the love that we want or need. I see so much pain when parents aren’t sympathetic, when siblings aren’t thoughtful, when spouses aren’t affirming, or when bosses aren’t responsive. For myself and several of my clients, the following analogy has been very helpful;

           What would happen if you went looking for milk in a hardware store?

            That would be pretty frustrating.

            What if you tried really, really hard to find milk in the hardware store?

            I’d get even more frustrated.  

            What if you went to the manager and requested milk?

            The manager would tell me that it wasn’t going to happen.

            And what if you insisted?

            The manager would tell me to go down the street to the grocery store where they carry milk and stop trying to get it at the hardware store.

The analogy forces an uncomfortable grappling to take place. Are we trying to get milk in a hardware store when we try to get affirmation from a spouse who is not capable of giving it? Are we attempting to get a type of love that our loved one just does not carry? Some people may not be capable of the kind of love that we desire—perhaps their own wounding has blocked their capacity for it, either permanently or temporarily. Others may be consciously or unconsciously withholding the type of love we want out of their own hurt or defensiveness.

Some of the most poignant and productive tears I have witnessed in my office are when my clients really face their futile attempts to get certain responses from people who are not delivering them. The grieving process can begin in a new way when this level of acceptance takes place. And then something profound can happen; people can start to see what love their loved ones are capable of sharing. (After all, light fixtures and lumber have their place in our lives too.) And they also take a new responsibility for getting the milk they need from sources that actually provide it. Grief and radical acceptance unleash a new adult maturity that can be surprisingly freeing.

There is nothing wrong with wanting or even needing love and it is legitimately painful when it doesn’t come from our beloveds. But we can cause ourselves untold suffering when we try to get love from sources that we think ought to provide it but who just don’t. This is where our own relational and spiritual resources come in. Who are the milk providers in your life? Do you have access to God in a way that allows you to receive what you most need directly?

Twentysomethings: To Marry or Not

My mother married at 19 and I married at 23. Compared with many of my peers, I was fairly young. If you look at today’s twentysomethings, I was very young! What is the ideal age to get married? As we watch the age of marriage rise, there are mixed feelings about the results. As I’ve been reading about 20somethings, delayed marriage could be more evidence of folks failing to take seriously their young adulthood as an important time to establish themselves towards the lives they intend to have in the future.

This lack of intentionality can lead people into presumably casual relationships or hook ups that just don’t end. A type of inertia grows that can some couples into long-term relationships with people they never intended to marry. “Moving from dating to sleeping over to sleeping over a lot to cohabitation can be a gradual slope, one not marked by rings or ceremonies or sometimes even a conversation. Couples often bypass talking about why they want to live together and what it will mean.” (p. 92) The lack of intention and deliberate choosing of a partner can lead people to prolonged, lackluster relationships that slide into unsuccessful marriages.

Meg Jay suggests that sliding, not deciding (p. 92) leads many people to decide to marry their romantic partners when they reach about 30 because they realize that they really do want to be married in their 30’s and the “switching costs” feel so high that they cannot stomach the idea of breaking up. So, rather than choosing their spouse out of a sense of confidence and joy, they slide into marriage because they have spent so much time with someone they are not sure about that they feel they need to start on marriage or risk getting started far later than they ever intended. The mistakes feel clearer in hindsight as divorcing couples realize that they were not taking their dating choices seriously in their twenties out of a false sense of having all the time in the world.

All of this is interesting to ponder in light of the values that we honor in our society and media today. Romanticizing singleness in young adulthood may be a way that we are duping ourselves into foolishness. “A study that tracked men and women from their early twenties to their later twenties found that of those who remained single—who dated or hooked up but avoided commitments—80% were dissatisfied with their dating lives and only 10% didn’t wish they had a partner. Being chronically uncoupled may be especially detrimental to men, as those who remained single throughout their twenties experienced a significant dip in their self-esteem near thirty.” (p. 172)

Interesting, isn’t it? What should the implications be? There is something to be said for motivation to marry and I think we would all benefit from talking about it.

The quotes are from Meg Jay’s book, The Defining Decade. I recommend her book and her Ted Talk on twentysomethings.

What you think of marriage….

….will shape how you approach marriage. What is a metaphor that comes to mind for marriage?  A unity candle? A battleground? Iron Sharpening Iron? Peas and Carrots? Peanut Butter and Jelly? Oil and Water? And when you think of these metaphors, whose marriage are you imagining? Your own or someone else’s?  One of my favorite spiritual writers from the Catholic tradition suggests these images for a good marriage:

  • A good marriage is a warm fireplace. The love that a good marriage produces is felt by the two in the marriage but also by those who come near it. A good marriage warms beyond itself.
  • A good marriage is a big table, loaded with lots of food and drink. A good marriage feeds more than just the two in the marriage. It is a banquet that has an abundance that overflows to others.
  • A good marriage is a container that holds suffering. Having a partner in life helps each in the marriage bear suffering. But not only that, the good marriage helps others bear their suffering as well.
  • A good marriage is an image of Christ’s body or God’s presence among us. This image goes deep into Christian theology of the incarnation. Just as Christ was on earth to bless the world, a good marriage “is a constant source of moral, psychological, religious, and humorous nourishment” (Rolheiser, p.89).

What Rolheiser does in this reflection is challenge us to understand marriage as a blessing both for the individuals and into the greater community and world. Marriage is a covenant meant to be a blessing! We rarely contemplate this. In fact, with the individualistic pulls in our culture, we tend to ignore the invitation to a greater purpose. What would it be like if this were the dialogue around the meaning of marriage in our society today?

How does this understanding of marriage line up with your own conscious and unconscious metaphors? And how to Rolheiser’s images challenge you personally? Is your marriage or your contact with others’ marriages a place(s) where warmth is felt and radiated? Where blessing is feasted upon and shared? Where suffering is born and held for others? Where others are loved and nourished as if by Christ/God? I hope so! If not, let’s work to internalize these images into our hearts and relationships.

Ron Rolheiser’s book that I’m referencing and quoting is Against and Infinite Horizon: The Finger of God in our Everyday Lives.

For a challenge to those whose marriages lack some of the above, check out my colleague, Elise Rittler’s, blog this week; Predicting Divorce.

Parenting Through the Mistakes

This weekend I forgot to give my son a permission slip for an outing his Sunday school class was taking. I was off site speaking to our church’s High School seniors about transitioning to college, so he couldn’t find me to remedy the problem. At virtually the same time my husband realized he had the wrong time for my daughter’s indoor soccer game. They arrived, very frazzled, in time for the second half of the game, and my husband is the coach!

It’s one thing to mess up my own life, but messing up my kid’s life with silly mistakes….whew, that’s different. It’s a stark tangle of shame, regret, and embarrassment. And I don’t know about you, but it is uniquely difficult to sit in my mistakes that impact my kids. Everything in me wants to think and wants them to think that I’m a great mom! My investment is so high that it takes a lot for me to settle down, get grounded, and apologize without excessive explaining or defending myself.

I have learned so much from apologizing to my children. And there are probably no two people, save my husband, to whom I’ve needed to apologize more. They endure the day-in-and-day-out reality of the true, hopelessly flawed me. And when they are able to forgive me, they become the truest window of God’s grace in my life.

One of my mentors taught me that saying “I’m sorry” is essentially saying that you feel bad. It doesn’t communicate the deeper acknowledgement that you have really harmed another person. Saying, “Will you forgive me?” takes the conversation to an interactive level. It is a question that both admits a wrong and asks for a response. On Sunday, I looked my son in his eyes, admitted my wrong, and asked him to forgive me. And guess what he said? “Mommy, I forgive you.” With his eyes full of both love and an aching remnant of disappointment over his missed activity. Receiving his forgiveness was the dearest, most tender part of my weekend. I felt myself settling uncomfortably in that vulnerable layer of love.

What are your memories of your parents asking your forgiveness? How about asking your own kids’ forgiveness? What makes it hard for you to do?

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