In a famous 13th century prayer, a monk known as Francis of Assisi wrote, “Grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console, to be understood as to understand, to be loved as to love.” As a Christian, a husband, a father, a friend and a therapist, I aspire to such grace.
The call to be “an instrument of peace” has echoed throughout generations, inspiring bird baths in quaint courtyards where there is momentary solace before plunging through doors leading to children and spouses erupting with intermingled needs for affection and independence.
In the beginning, we were much more volatile in our arguing. Early in our marriage, my wife, Karla, would always ask, “Are you OK?” and I’d get really frustrated at her. It’s funny to us now, but one night when I lay on “her” side of the bed, she said, “No, I’m not going to sleep on this side of the bed.” I wanted to make some kind of point about being flexible about the way we did things. But she liked how we each had our own side of the bed. She got really frustrated, I refused to budge, thinking she’d give in, and so she slept on the floor.
Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Who you are speaks so loudly, I can’t hear a word you’re saying.” Unfortunately, who we are together in moments of difference and duress is often more a caricature of reflex and mood than that which was “beautifully and wonderfully made.”
When we react to underlying insecurity, panic, anger or despair by attacking or retreating, a primal “fight or flight” instinct trumps our capacity for empathy and negotiation. Our impulses have the power to paralyze character and relationship In Batman Begins, Rachel Dawes told Bruce Wayne: “It’s not who you are underneath. It’s what you do that defines you.”
How do we act in spite of such anxiety rather than at its whim? To the extent that we fail to go toe-to-toe with our own reflex and mood, our reflex and mood will go toe-to-toe with the ones we love. We will find ourselves acting in ways that sabotage our own efforts to get more of what we want, whether it be understanding, connection or behavior change.
On another night early in our marriage, she sensed an odd vibe from me, I didn’t like her asking and it grew from there. We both got mad, and she went up to the bedroom and shut the door. After a little while, I went up, wrote a note about how much I loved her, and slid it under the door. Before too long, the tension lifted.
That volatility is not there anymore. We’ve learned to read and respond to each other better. Now, we don’t argue all that often, but we argued a lot in our first years of marriage.
As spouses or parents, our quick surges from anxiety to embattlement lead us nowhere good when we become stuck in dynamics revolving around momentary self-interest. Zig Ziglar said it best, “Be careful not to compromise what you want most for what you want now.”
As a parent and partner, we must maintain our position as advocates for the ultimate maturity of our children and our marriages rather than demanding to be heard or understood now.
There is an old saying, “If you give what you’ve always given, you’ll get what you’ve always gotten.” In families, we must address that pink elephant in our homes, the differences in perception and the either prideful or fearful distance that acts as a wedge between us. In the space between that distance we find ourselves stumbling in a dance, not so much with the one we love, as with a personification of our own anxieties and desires.
Even before the girls were born, we prayed God would prepare us to be a good dad and mom. Our pastor says, “The things that are of God, let them be remembered from this sermon, and the things that are not, let us not remember them.” We have learned things from our own experiences that are helpful and other things that are not correct and even harmful.
When we seek Him, and when we also seek community, we are open to grow and change. We lean more on God and recognize that we don’t have all the tools, and, in community with friends, we also have each other to sharpen us in our experience, and God is over all of that.
With vulnerability, the apostle Paul admitted: “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do. … For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing” (NIV, Romans 7:15, 19).
When we demand, criticize, belittle and detach, we find ourselves going round and round in a dreadful dance. Where there is hatred, injury, doubt, despair, darkness or sadness, may we learn to steady our anxiety, present our requests to God, share our burdens with friends and know better when and how to lay off of or lean into one other. Lord, make us, against all impulse to the contrary, an instrument of your peace in our families.
Blake Edwards is a marriage and family therapist in Plano, Texas, where he lives with his wife, twin daughters and Great Dane. Visit Blake’s website at EdwardsFamilyTherapy.com.