Three ways to enhance your marriage without going to counseling

Keeping a marriage healthy isn’t that difficult. Counselors get paid a lot of money to help you do this, but there are many things couples can do for free or very low cost that will make a big difference. Here are my top three.

1. Buy John Gottman’s book, The Seven Principles for Making Your Marriage Work. Gottman is one of the most respected and credible authorities on marriage in the country. This book contains a lot of fun and healthy things you can do together that will deepen your connection. If your spouse is resistant to working through it, you can easily find creative ways to approach the activities. Don’t make it bookish!

2. Spend five minutes together every day talking (gently) about what you each liked and didn’t like in the relationship that day. If you prioritize a brief conversation about the relationship every day it will defuse the bomb that always goes off when one of you tells the other, “We need to talk.”

3. Find at least one way to compliment and one way to serve your partner every day.

If you do these things it will go a long way towards maintaining your positive perceptions of, and feelings about, one another. As long as you feel positive about each other and perceive each other in positive ways, neither of you will be interested in splitting up or engaging in the kinds of behaviors that often make things worse.

Truly transformational counseling, prt. 2

Today I want to give you the last five of ten questions and issues you may end up considering in counseling that is deeply transformational.

6. Where is God in the darkest, nastiest places in your life? We know God is with us, so wherever you are, God is there too. But what is God speaking to you in those places? Certainly those are the places that are rich with opportunity for growth, and for opening up to love and joy. “The people living in darkness have seen a great light!”

7. Where are you standing in your own way? Despite your sincere desire to grow and change, how are you actually preventing yourself from doing so? I promise you this is happening.

8. Hardest of all of these is looking deeply into what got you to where you are today. Usually there is immense grief and a lot of self-loathing associated with those things in people’s lives, and a lot of grieving may need to be done, under the guidance of someone who can keep reminding you that this is deeply spiritual work. Don’t freak it out by demanding that it be couched in a lot of scripture, and don’t be paranoid about it if it doesn’t seem “Christian” enough. Just keep asking yourself if it is leading you toward truth. Jesus, the Christian God, claimed to not only know truth, but to be the truth! Anything that is leading you towards truth is getting you closer to God. Relax and let it happen.

9. How is your relationship with God mirrored in your relationship with your spouse and children? This is useful because it helps to move God from abstract to concrete. We cannot love people differently than we love God, or vice versa.

10. Be assured that the promised land DOES exist, and it HAS been already given to you! But there are chains you will need to have removed if you are ever going to get there. That’s your work. God’s work is providing the land for you, and taking you there if you are willing to fight the battles, learn to listen carefully, and endure the dark days in the desert where you may often feel like going back to the way it was would be easier.

Question: Any stories about counseling that ended up transforming you in some ways that ended up hurting you or people you love? (We can’t assume all therapists are coming from a place that is helpful.)

Dealing with pain

I have a group of fellow pastors I meet with once a month for breakfast.  We socialize and talk shop, but mostly we just hang out.  That’s right.  We hang out.  It’s not usually very “spiritual.”  It’s not usually what a person might expect from a group of pastors hanging out together.  No one brings a Bible.  There’s no “devotional,” and we’re not working our way through some heady book.  We eat breakfast, get caught up on what each of us is doing, and most of us drink too much coffee.  But God is there.

Oops, did you think I lunged into something spiritual?  Because I didn’t.  What I was saying was spiritual all along.  The Christian understanding (and the Jewish, and the Buddhist and that of other religions, for that matter) is that God is everywhere.  We don’t have to baptize our meetings in overtly spiritual purposes for God to be there.  God just IS there. The issue is whether we realize that at every instant we inhabit HIS world.

Working directly with people is incredibly rewarding, but has its share of pain and frustration.  The last few weeks have been full of moments like that for me and so recently I made the difficult decision to reach out to this group of guys and tell them about my pain.  That’s not easy.  It’s far easier to keep stuff to ourselves, not share it with the people God has placed in our lives to love us, and then complain about being isolated and unloved.  In fact that’s the choice most of us usually do make, and the choice I have made most of my life.  But I chose to share this with them.  The responses were amazing — encouraging, insightful, patient — the kind of stuff that helped me know that I really don’t have to bear my burdens alone.  Below is a note I wrote just today to the group that probably sums up a lot of things I’ve been thinking lately about what it means to deal with the pain that inevitably comes into each of our lives.

I have really appreciated hearing from you guys, each in your own way.

Richard Rohr says that only two things, ultimately, lead us up the hill of spiritual growth — great love, and great suffering. I think Paul knew this when he welcomed suffering into his life and was thankful for it.

Dudes, if we can do this — if we can actually learn to be present to our own failures and sufferings, we will accomplish something great. Here’s what I mean.

I’ve been going to counseling for about eighteen months. My counselor is brilliant and he shared with me a little while back that in his 20 years of doing psychotherapy, he has only had a small handful of pastors come in to counseling and actually stick it out. He says most have wanted only to feel better about some specific situation and then once the immediate pain was gone, they bailed out of counseling. So they were not present to it. They sought only freedom from pain, but did not seek to learn from it, to be deepened by it, or to ask the hard questions like Brad was talking about — “where is this my problem? where is it truly not? what can I learn here?”

While it made me glad to be the exception to the rule, it also deeply bothered me. As pastors, we know that we’re working with colleagues who are deeply, deeply wounded (after all, they’re pastors — enough said). Either those wounds are faced squarely, or else they will be passed on to those in our congregations — as if our people aren’t bearing their own share of deep wounds. What’s this thing with pastors so often not being willing to be present to their pain? The answer is that pastors are people too, and people in general don’t want to be present to pain. But deep pain and deep love are the fires that forge deep spiritual understanding. If we are actually to lead our people anyplace worth going, we must be on this journey, because it’s the same journey Jesus took, and it must be the same journey we are teaching others to take as well. That simply IS the narrow gate — and, being fashioned by pain, we can certainly understand why it’s narrow.

Thus we leave an incredible legacy for our people as we determine to be present to our own pain. And I am thankful for how you guys also have been willing to be present to my pain. It was really hard for me to write that note to you because we’re taught to only share our stories of pain in the past tense, once we have knuckled through it and are feeling powerful and victorious again. But when we open up and actually share pain, that’s where others can identify with us and know us — and ultimately love us. And where love is, there is God.

Thanks again, my friends.


Don’t mistake what I’m saying.  I do this wrong the majority of the time.  I usually do not reach out to people who care about me, and I nearly always bear my burdens alone.  But I wanted to share some thoughts on this with you, to encourage both my readers and myself that the only upward path is the path of presence to pain.  It’s a path I plan on taking more and more often in my life.

QUESTION: Who are the people God has placed in your life to help you deal with your pain?  Are you willing to let them carry some of your burdens?  How will you do that?