How to Find Marriage Counseling That Really Works—and Why You Shouldn’t Wait

Nearly half of all first marriages in the United States end in divorce, yet couples typically wait four to six years from the onset of problems before seeking professional help. That’s too bad, because numerous research studies have shown that marriage counseling can be effective at significantly improving relationship satisfaction and preventing divorce.

Why do couples wait so long to seek professional help? Many couples steer clear of marriage counseling because they are afraid it won’t work, or because they view it as admitting failure. In the meantime, they usually turn to the sources of support that are most conveniently at hand: friends, family, pastors, and so on.

But these sources of help usually fail to address the deeper issues in a troubled relationship. Worse, well-meaning friends can offer advice that actually causes more problems.

“No one sets out to destroy their relationship, but I cannot tell you the number of hours I have had to spend with couples cleaning up messes that were made from bad advice they had received,” Dr. Greg Popcak writes in his book How to Heal Your Marriage & Nurture Lasting Love. “Often, my clients will spend weeks undoing the problems caused by bad advice or poor support before we can even get to the original problem.”

When is it appropriate to lean on friends, family, and faith leaders for support, and when is it time to seek the help of a licensed marriage and family therapist? And how do you find a competent therapist—one who has training and experience in marriage counseling, and who is actually committed to helping you heal your marriage?

Dr. Popcak addresses all of these questions in chapter 11 of How to Heal Your Marriage, but we’ll summarize his advice below.

 

Family, Friends, Faith: The Limits of Common Marital Supports

Couples who encounter problems in their marriage often begin by seeking support from family and friends, and sometimes their pastor or another faith leader. Seeking emotional support and encouragement from family and friends can be a perfectly good first step, Dr. Popcak writes, when those people are able to provide informed peer support.

“The key words here are informed and peer,” he says. Peers are people who are on the same social level as you—not people who are emotionally or materially dependent on you. And an informed peer is someone who has demonstrated maturity, virtue, and good character. This is someone who is capable of lovingly challenging your outlook and assumptions rather than simply affirming everything you say.

While certain friends and family members can provide much-needed support, they are rarely a good source of practical advice for couples experiencing significant marital problems. That’s because friends and family are not usually in the best position to provide objective advice. Moreover, they usually lack the professional training and experience necessary to provide strategies that are research-tested and proven to work. Finally, Dr. Popcak says, in a culture where divorce is common, “most people intuitively know much more about what it takes to end a marriage than how to save it.”

What about your pastor? Your pastor may be able to offer you the spiritual support you need to tackle your marriage problems, but unless he has a professional degree in counseling, he is no more qualified to offer you marriage counseling than he is to treat your medical problems. That is not to say that you shouldn’t reach out to your pastor, but depending on the severity of your problems, most pastors will likely point you in the direction of marriage-friendly counseling.

 

Why Good Marriage Counseling Works

Human relationships, even between two people who love one another, are complicated, and the keys to a healthy relationship are not always obvious or intuitive. This is where a licensed marriage therapist can help. Drawing on decades of research, a competent marriage therapist can help couples learn the habits and practices that make for a happy, fulfilling relationship.

Dr. Popcak, for example, lists eight habits of happy couples:

  1. Regularly connecting through daily rituals of working, playing, praying, and talking together.
  2. Practicing emotional rapport and benevolence.
  3. Practicing emotional self-control, especially during times of stress and conflict.
  4. Practicing a “positive intention frame”—that is, assuming the best about your spouse even when they are at their worst.
  5. Taking care of one another as you work through conflicts.
  6. Practicing mutual respect, accountability, and boundaries.
  7. Learning from mistakes and learning to talk about “perpetual problems.”
  8. Finding good support for their marriage.

Couples who are struggling often think that the key is to solve the conflict between them. In fact, research shows that both happy and unhappy couples have about the same amount of conflict; the difference is that happy couples have the skills to handle those conflicts in ways that draw them together rather than pushing them apart.

A good marriage therapist serves as a sort of coach, helping couples learn these and other skills that will enable them to have a happy marriage. It is this long-term, expert guidance that makes marriage counseling so effective.

But how do you find a good marriage therapist?

 

Choosing a Competent, Marriage-Friendly Therapist

To find a good therapist, start by looking for someone whose training has prepared them to specialize in marriage counseling. Research by Gottman (2011) shows that therapists with specific training in marriage and family therapy have significantly higher success rates with marital therapy clients (over 90%) compared to general practice therapists (as low as 30%).

Ask about the potential therapist’s specific training and supervised experience in marital therapy. A qualified therapist should be able to describe their graduate coursework and practical experience in detail. If a therapist gives vague responses, they might not be the right fit.

Next, ask whether the therapist is marriage friendly. What is a “marriage-friendly” therapist? According to the National Registry of Marriage-Friendly Therapists, this is a therapist who believes it is preferable to help couples restore their marriage to health, if that is possible.

It might seem that most marriage and family therapists would hold this belief, but according to one national survey of 1,000 therapists, more than 60% said they are “neutral” on marriage versus divorce for their clients, according to the Registry.

For many Catholic couples, finding a therapist who understands and supports their faith tradition is also crucial. Research indicates that faithful Catholics prefer therapists with competencies in moral theology and other areas specific to their faith. Different faith traditions have unique perspectives on marriage, and working with a therapist unfamiliar with or unsupportive of these views can make counseling challenging.

 

The Path to a Happier Marriage

So, while many couples delay seeking professional help for their marriage because of fears or misperceptions about what it involves, the reality is that good marriage counseling is no different from the sort of help you would get from a coach, financial advisor, or a medical professional.

Throughout the Bible and two thousand years of tradition, the Christian faith acknowledges that good relationships don’t come naturally to us humans. We all need the help of God—and one another—to nurture happy, healthy relationships. Marriage counseling that respects clients’ faith and works from research-proven methods can provide the support couples need to fulfill God’s plan for their marriage.

For more advice about finding professional help for your marriage, see chapter 11 of How to Heal Your Marriage & Nurture Lasting Love by Dr. Greg Popcak. The National Registry of Marriage-Friendly Therapists can direct you to marriage-friendly therapists in your area. And you can always get tele-counseling marriage therapy from the many Catholic therapists right here at CatholicCounselors.com.

How to Turn Your Anger Into Healthy, Holy Action

Should Christians get angry? And when they do, how should they handle it?

Attempting to answer those questions on a recent episode of the More2Life radio show, Bill Donaghy, senior lecturer at the Theology of the Body Institute, pointed to a scene near the climax of the Star Wars movie, The Phantom Menace.

Two Jedi knights are battling the evil Sith Lord, Darth Maul. Their lightsaber battle rages through a power plant until a “laser gate” suddenly closes, separating the two sides. As they wait for the gate to open, the Sith warrior paces back and forth like a caged animal, twirling his double-bladed lightsaber and glaring angrily at the Jedi. One of the Jedi reacts very differently, though: he falls to his knees and closes his eyes in a kind of prayer.

The scene illustrates two very different ways of handling anger, Donaghy told Dr. Greg and Lisa Popcak, and points to a key Christian insight about anger. Feeling anger isn’t sinful: “Be angry, but do not sin,” St. Paul told the early Christians (Ephesians 4:26).

Instead, it is what we do with our anger that matters.

Anger vs. Wrath

“Anger is meant to be a gift that calls our attention to an injustice and motivates us to act in proportionate, appropriate, and productive ways so that we can heal whatever that injustice might be,” Dr. Popcak said.

Anger that is appropriately channeled into setting things right—“righteous anger”—is better than unreasonable patience with evil, St. John Chrysostom, a doctor of the Church, once said: “He who is not angry when he has good reason to be, sins. Unreasonable patience is the hotbed of many vices.”

Wrath, on the other hand, is sinful. Wrath is “anger that is inappropriate, disproportionate, and unproductive,” Dr. Popcak said. While righteous anger aims to restore and heal, wrath seeks to destroy.

If anger is a gift from God—a signal that something is wrong that needs to be put right—then how do we handle this powerful emotion in a way that serves the good? Here are a few tips.

 

Don’t React; Instead, Step Back

The key to handling anger well is to avoid being reactive. Instead of launching into a hasty response fueled by the chemicals flooding your brain, pause, step back, and consider what is really driving your anger.

Is it really the thing in front of you that is provoking your anger, or is the thing in front of you stirring up old wounds? Is your child’s whining the real problem—or is the deeper problem that you are hungry and exhausted?

Understanding the real source of your anger is critical to addressing it in a proportionate, productive way.

 

Sublimate Your Anger to God

As you are collecting your thoughts, pray for the grace you need to handle the situation well.

“Anger isn’t so much a call to action as a call to prayer,” Dr. Popcak said. “Without prayer, anger can cause us to feel stuck, powerless, and perpetually outraged with no solution in sight.”

“We have to stop and say to the Lord: ‘Lord, I’m a mess,’” Lisa Popcak added. “’Everything is dysregulated inside of me because I feel like there’s an injustice happening. You went through the worst injustice possible. Show me what to do with this.’”

In the language of the Theology of the Body, your goal should be to sublimate your anger to God. Sublimation is not about repressing or denying your anger, Donaghy said; it is about “lifting it up to God, giving it to God and asking God to come into it.”

 

Learn to Express Anger Constructively

Righteous anger focuses on setting things right and finding solutions. In other words, it has a constructive purpose.

Setting boundaries for a respectful discussion can help. In a conflict with your spouse, for example, you might agree that each of you has a right to express their thoughts and feelings, but that it is not acceptable to express those thoughts and feelings in a disrespectful or destructive way.

Similarly, constructive anger focuses on finding solutions that address the concerns of all parties involved. The priority ought to be healing, restoring, and strengthening relationships, not “winning,” which only fosters resentment and fuels the cycle of angry conflict.

 

Don’t Be Afraid to Seek Help

Sometimes, dealing with anger —yours or someone else’s— requires some extra help. You can find Dr. Greg and Lisa Popcak’s advice about handling anger in many of their books, particularly Parenting with Grace (for handling kids’ anger), Broken Gods: Hope, Healing, and the Seven Longings of the Human Heart (for anger as a gift from God), How to Heal Your Marriage & Nurture Lasting Love (for handling anger in a marriage), and God Help Me! These People Are Driving Me Nuts! Making Peace With Difficult People (self-explanatory, really).

And for more in-depth, one-on-one help, reach out to one of the many pastoral counselors at CatholicCounselors.com.

Boost Your Spiritual Growth: Try the Eulogy Accountability Challenge in Your Marriage or Friendship

When you go on a long trip, do you prefer to travel solo or with a friend?

Regardless of your usual travel preferences, when it comes to our spiritual journey, it’s good to have a companion who can help us find our “true north,” overcome obstacles, and get us back on track when we get lost. In fact, the Catholic Church insists that none of us comes to faith alone or is saved alone; we need one another, because our three-in-one God made us for relationship.

We can work for one another’s good in lots of different ways, of course: providing emotional support, lending a helping hand, worshiping together, and so on. But here’s a way that Christian couples (or close friends) can be more intentional about working for one another’s good—and strengthening their relationship at the same time.

This exercise from chapter 2 of Dr. Greg Popcak’s book, God Help Me! These People Are Driving Me Nuts! Making Peace With Difficult People can help us do just that. Dr. Popcak didn’t give this exercise a name, but let’s call it the “Eulogy Accountability Challenge.” The name is appropriate because this exercise is anchored in your idea about who you want to be at the end of your life. To put it another way, what personal characteristics or qualities do you want to be mentioned by whoever delivers the eulogy at your funeral?

“The key to working for your own or others’ good is discovering the kind of person you want to be at the end of your life and supporting each other as you struggle to become that person­,” Dr. Popcak writes in the book.

Together with your friend or spouse, work through the following steps. You’ll each need at least one sheet of paper.

 

1. Envision Your Ideal Self

Begin by prayerfully considering the qualities you wish to be known for at the end of your life. Be specific. For example, you might aspire to be:

  •  Loving
  • Wise
  • Understanding
  • Empathetic
  • Truthful
  • Responsible

List these qualities on a sheet of paper. Invite your spouse or close friend to do the same.

This list may change over time, but it should represent your best sense right now of what it means for you to become most “fully yourself”—that is, most fully the person that God calls you to be.

 

2. Identify Challenges

Now think of a situation that causes you to act or feel toward one another in a way that doesn’t align with your desired qualities. For example:

  • Maybe you are unpleasantly snippy and curt first thing in the morning.
  • Maybe you always shoot down your friend’s or your spouse’s suggestions.
  • Maybe you lose your temper when you get into a disagreement.
  • Maybe you don’t follow through on responsibilities, leaving them for the other person to take care of.

Whatever the challenge is, write it down.

 

3. Apply Your Ideal Qualities to the Challenge

Next, reflect on how you might act differently if you were to more fully embody the positive qualities you listed in the first step.

Be specific. How might your words, tone of voice, or actions change? For instance, would you be more patient or understanding? Focus on your own behavior and how you can align it more closely with your spiritual ideals.

Don’t offer your partner suggestions about how to complete this step!

 

4. Share Your Aspirations

Share your reflections with your spouse or friend. Make a commitment to help one another practice the positive qualities that each of you listed—not just in the particular challenge you named, but in other aspects of daily life, too.

 

5. Respectful Accountability

When you notice your partner or friend acting in a way that seems inconsistent with their stated spiritual ideals, gently remind them of their goals. For example, you might say, “You mentioned wanting to be more patient. Can you help me understand how your actions help you become a more patient person?”

Obviously, the key here is to be as respectful to the other person as you would want him or her to be toward you. After all, this is a two-way street: you’re each helping the other, so at some point, your partner will be giving you a gentle nudge toward your best self, too.

Done right, this exercise should help each of you along the path to becoming the person God calls you to be—and deepen the intimacy of your relationship.

For in-depth, one-on-one help strengthening your marriage or other relationships, reach out to a Pastoral Counselor at CatholicCounselors.com.

 

How Happy Couples Find Time to Connect

If you want a happy marriage, one of the simplest, most effective ways to get there is to spend time connecting with your spouse every day.

It’s such a simple marriage hack that many couples who come to the Pastoral Solutions Institute are initially skeptical of the recommendation, according to Dr. Greg Popcak.

“You’d be surprised by how many couples are downright disappointed to think that something as simple as having dinner together four times a week and instituting a weekly date could change so much,” he writes in his book, How to Heal Your Marriage: And Nurture Lasting Love. Just as strong bones support a healthy body, he says, regular “rituals of connection” are essential for supporting a healthy relationship.

The importance of regular rituals of connection for strengthening a relationship is well documented in more than six decades of research. Couples who find time to regularly work, talk, play, and pray together report much higher levels of satisfaction across every aspect of their lives than those who do not. They are much less likely to run into problems with their relationship, too.

That research has been backed up time and time again by the experience of the counselors at the Pastoral Solutions Institute.

“I had a couple that started counseling due to a number of communication struggles,” says Robert Taylor, MS, MSW, LCSW. “When I asked them to start small with the rituals of connection, they began with a simple, quick morning prayer ritual that eventually expanded to some brief talk time to check in with each other on the needs of the day.”

Over time, this practice helped the couple to be more in tune with one another and greatly reduced the resentment that had built up due to their lack of connection, he said.

Happy Couples Prioritize Time Together

The main reason many couples object to these rituals of connection is their perception that they don’t have the time to fit them in, said Dave McClow, M.Div., LCSW, LMFT: “Usually, the big objection or complaint is: ‘We’re too busy!’”

These couples are often trying to find “extra” time to connect in their busy schedules. But happy couples do just the opposite: they prioritize their time together, and then work out the rest of their schedule.

It doesn’t need to be complicated, McClow said. “I ask couples to break it down into a five- or ten-minute activity and tie it to something they are already doing, like meals or bedtime,” he said. “That makes it more doable, and they don’t have to create another space in the schedule.”

Don’t Divide Up the Day’s Work; Do It Together

Working on things together rather than dividing up the day’s work is often a good way for couples to spend more time together, said Judi Phillips, MS, LMHC.

She once counseled a busy couple with high-powered jobs and three small children.

“When I first suggested rituals of connection to them, they said, ‘Judi, you’re crazy, there is no way!’” she recalled. “So, I talked with them about how they could use the ways in which they were already together to be more intentional in their connections.”

Instead of taking their usual approach of dividing and conquering the work of putting the kids to bed, for instance, they did it together. Then, after the children were in bed, they made sure to have meaningful conversations not related to the logistics of the day. They shared something interesting they had seen or read during the day and shared their thoughts about it.

Those simple commitments had an almost magical effect on their relationship.

“They came back and reported to me that they felt more connected to one another than ever,” Phillips said. Instead of seeing these times of connection as one more thing to do, they actually began looking forward to them. Plus, they found themselves giving one another more leeway when one of them was irritable or defensive.

In the end, the couple became really committed to these regular opportunities to connect, Phillips said: “They said there was no way they would ever let it go because they found how it so significantly and positively influenced their relationship.”

You can learn more about marital rituals of connection in How to Heal Your Marriage: And Nurture Lasting Love. Or, if you need more one-on-one relationship counseling, reach out to the Catholic counselors of the Pastoral Solutions Institute.

How to Give Helpful Advice Without Overstepping

We’ve all been there, watching someone struggle with a problem without making any progress: the spouse who is perpetually late, the friend who won’t leave a dead-end relationship, the college graduate whose job search has stalled out.

Meanwhile, we can see exactly what they need to do to fix their problem…if only they would just listen!

It’s one thing to yell advice at the television as we watch our favorite team fall apart on the field. But when the person in question is someone close to us, our “helpful advice” will probably be ignored—or worse, met with annoyance.

There’s a better way to help the people closest to us, though, as Dr. Greg Popcak discusses in his book, God Help Me! These People Are Driving Me Nuts! Making Peace With Difficult People. Here’s a summary of the process he outlines in chapter 2 of the book.

 

What’s Your Motivation?

Before offering your advice, take a moment to ask, “Why am I so eager to jump in with my two cents?”

Let’s face it: sometimes, it’s less about them and more about us looking for some kind of personal ego boost.

If we’re living a Christ-centered life, though, our main motivation should be to love the person in the way God loves them. The Christian definition of love is wanting the other’s good. Our aim, then, should be to help our friend or family member become more fully the person God intends for them to be.

Aligning our desire for the person we’re trying to help with God’s desire for them is absolutely critical. If we’re not on board with God’s plan for them, then we’re at risk of simply trying to impose our own wishes, desires, and preferences on the person we’re trying to help. Rather than helping the person become the unique and wonderful reflection of God’s image that they were made to be, we’re really trying to remake them in our own image.

The reality is, playing God is way above our pay grade.

 

Are You Invited to the Party?

Unless you’re in a formal mentoring or supervising relationship (as the parent of a child, for example), steer clear of offering advice that hasn’t been asked for.

“The rule of thumb when helping others is wait to be invited to the party before you offer to bring the potato salad,” Dr. Popcak writes.

That doesn’t mean you need to sit by biting your tongue. You can offer your help, respectfully: “I know you’re struggling with your job search. I think I might be able to help, if you want.”

Whether the person is open to hearing your advice or not, this approach strengthens your relationship because you’re showing up as a respectful ally, not a boss ready to take charge of their life.

 

Start with Listening

Listening is an act of love, the saying goes, and it’s a critical part of giving good advice.

“If you really are interested in helping a person become what God created him to be, your first step should be to ask him who he thinks that is, and then you should be quiet and listen,” Dr. Popcak says.

If “who does God want you to become?” is a little too abstract, break the question down. Ask them what qualities they want to be known for at the end of their life. Do they want to be known as a strong person? A loving person? Wise, prudent, patient, creative?

Next, ask a follow-up question: If the person were to live out those qualities in the situation that is causing the problem, how would he or she act differently? In other words, if they approached the problem in a way that lined up with their aspirations, how would the situation change?

Often, this question helps a solution to “snap into place,” Dr. Popcak says. Better yet, because the solution comes from inside the person and lines up with their own stated values, they are more likely to act on it.

 

For more ideas about how to help the people in your life, check out God Help Me! These People Are Driving Me Nuts! Making Peace With Difficult People. Or, if you want more one-on-one advice, connect with one of more than a dozen Catholic counselors at CatholicCounselors.com.

Does Jesus Want Us to be ‘Nice’ to the Difficult People in Our Lives?


“But I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who mistreat you” (Luke 6:27-28).

Jesus couldn’t have been more clear that following him means imitating the Father’s radically generous, unconditional love. He didn’t just preach this love; he embodied it through his death on the cross, and he expected his disciples to “take up their cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24).

Over the centuries, those words have inspired countless Christians to heroic acts of love, sometimes to the point of sacrificing their lives.

Unfortunately, too many Christians also take Jesus’ teaching to mean that they ought to patiently put up with bad behavior from difficult—or even abusive—people.

But as Dr. Greg and Lisa Popcak frequently point out to callers on their More2Life radio show, that’s a serious misunderstanding of Jesus’ call to radical love. In fact, such an approach may not be loving at all.

 

Jesus Wasn’t Always ‘Nice’

To see why Christian love sometimes calls for us to stand up for ourselves, set healthy boundaries, and in some cases, even end a relationship, we need to get a fuller picture of who Jesus really was.

Jesus dealt with “difficult” people all the time. Sometimes, those difficult people were even his closest friends! Other times, they were religious authorities who had it out for him.

Did Jesus quietly tolerate problematic behavior in the interest of “being nice”? He certainly stood up to the religious leaders who opposed him, often in forceful terms that left no question about their need for a change of heart.

Nor did he let his friends off the hook when they went astray. He famously rebuked Peter just moments after Peter confessed that Jesus was the Son of God (Matthew 16:23).

At the same time, Jesus met known sinners with tenderness and mercy: think of his encounter with Zacchaeus or the woman caught in adultery, for example.

 

Real Love Works for the Good of the Other

Each of these very different approaches had a common motivation: Jesus’ genuine love for the person, tuned to achieve the good of the person he was encountering. As St. Thomas Aquinas would later put it, Christ-like love “wills the good of the other.” Christian love cooperates with God to help the other person become fully the person God desires them to be.

At the heart of our love for anybody, then, is the question: “What do I need to do to help this person achieve the good that God wants for him or her?”

In a healthy relationship, the answer would begin with the needs and desires of the other person. But in the case of someone whose problematic behavior is causing real, ongoing harm to us or other people, the bar is a lot lower. In these cases, really loving the person begins with not letting them mistreat you or other people. Instead, it begins with helping them become a better person.

Usually, the first step is to engage the person in a respectful, cooperative conversation about how to change the problem behavior. In God Help Me! These People Are Driving Me Nuts! Making Peace with Difficult People, Dr. Popcak outlines a five-step process for doing that.

If a person isn’t open to cooperatively working on the problem, then the next step might be setting limits or boundaries on the relationship. Ideally, these boundaries are targeted at the problem behavior and don’t cut off the relationship completely.

Sometimes, though, it is necessary to end the relationship entirely, especially if your life or health are in danger. As the Church teaches, we have a duty to care for our own life (Catechism of the Catholic Church #2264).

 

The Love of the Cross

At this point, you may wonder how Jesus’ call for his disciples to “take up their cross and follow me” fits into the picture of Christian life. After all, plenty of saints have suffered, and even given their life, for the sake of Christ.

What distinguishes the sacrifice of the cross, though, is that it served a higher purpose; Jesus sacrificed his life to save all humanity. The sacrifices of the saints and martyrs participated in that sacrifice. For instance, saints such as Maximilian Kolbe, Gianna Beretta Molla, Oscar Romero, and Maria Goretti sacrificed their lives in order to save another life, or to stand up for truth and justice.

Each of us has everyday opportunities to practice this sort of sacrificial love: quietly putting up with a spouse’s annoying but harmless habit, getting up with the baby so your spouse can get some much-needed rest, ignoring a stranger’s rudeness out of charity.

But if you’re dealing with someone whose behavior is causing real problems, then ask yourself: Is putting up with this behavior really the best way to love this person? Does it serve Christ and the Kingdom of God?

If the answer is “no,” then it might be time to imitate Jesus’ other ways of loving difficult people.

For much more on this topic, check out God Help Me! These People Are Driving Me Nuts! And if you need professional, one-on-one help navigating a difficult relationship, reach out to one of the Catholic counselors at CatholicCounselors.com.

Want to Handle Conflict Better? Take Your Emotional Temperature

Hurricanes are measured on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale, and earthquakes are rated on the Modified Mercalli intensity scale.

Human stress can be measured, too, using the Stress Temperature Scale (sometimes known as an Emotional Temperature Scale). Unlike hurricanes and earthquakes, though, keeping track of your emotional temperature can be really useful for avoiding conflict with other people—and handling it better when it’s unavoidable.

By regularly monitoring your emotional temperature, you can take steps to lower it before it gets too hot. This is useful because when our emotional temperature gets too high, the problem-solving part of our brain tends to go “offline” and the reactive, “fight or flight” part of our brain takes over.

That’s not a problem if we’re facing an imminent physical threat, but in the context of human relationships, the reactive brain almost always makes things worse.

Over a period of days or weeks, keep a notebook where you track your emotional temperature several times a day. You can also jot down “triggers” that make your emotional temperature spike, and how you tend to react when that happens.

Here’s the Stress Temperature Scale as outlined in Dr. Greg Popcak’s book How to Heal Your Marriage: And Nurture Lasting Love. You can find another version of this tool geared toward kids in the books Parenting Your Kids with Grace and Parenting Your Teens and Tweens with Grace, both by Dr. Greg and Lisa Popcak.

 

The Emotional Temperature Scale

1–2: Relaxed. At this level, you’re pretty “chill.” You’re not really focused on any problems or challenges; your heart and respiration rate are in the low to normal range. You’re mainly warm and affectionate toward others.

3–4: Relaxed but alert. You’re engaged with and alert to your surroundings and getting along well with others. Whatever challenges you may be facing feel manageable.

5: Alert and focused. At this level, you’re still working well with others, but you may feel a little distracted by problems or concerns that are taking more of your attention. You’re working a little harder to meet challenges, but they still feel manageable.

6: Alert and stressed. Stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline begin to be released. On the surface, you seem to be in control of your reactions, although some people might comment that you “seem a little off.” You’re distracted, and it may be difficult for others to get your attention. You need to make a conscious effort to be polite and pleasant in interactions with others. It feels like you’re struggling to stay on top of things.

7: Irritable. As stress hormones continue to flood your bloodstream, the part of your brain that filters nonverbal signs of disgust and irritation begins to go offline. You may sigh, roll your eyes, fidget, or otherwise show your irritation. At the higher end of 7, you may avoid eye contact with others. The problem-solving part of your brain is still engaged, but just barely.

At this point, people who are attuned to their emotional temperature will know to take a break or find another way to lower their stress level.

8: Angry. Now your nonverbal filters are definitely not working, and your verbal filters have begun to collapse: your tone of voice and choice of words definitely betrays your anger, although you aren’t yet raising your voice or using insults. Different personalities express anger in different ways. Some people withdraw, becoming quiet or sullen and pouty. Others may “tantrum,” engaging in emotional manipulation and finger-pointing. Still others may take a superior attitude, offering lengthy explanations of why they’re right and others are wrong.

Emotionally savvy people know to walk away from the conversation once they hit this point, taking a long break to cool down, pray, reflect, and otherwise regain control.

9: Very angry and feeling like a victim. Now your verbal filters have completely collapsed. If you tend towards pouting or withdrawing, you will probably be shut down for the rest of the day. This is when the name-calling, insults, and raised voices begin, all of which will seem perfectly justified by the circumstances or the other person’s behavior.

10: Outraged and out of control. Now your brain’s physical filters have shut down; doors are slammed, tables pounded, random objects thrown or kicked. At this point, people may physically hurt one another.

 

Keep It Under 7 or 8

Tracking your emotional temperature in a notebook over the course of a week will help you identify strategies for keeping your stress level below an 8, the point at which your brain stops being able to solve problems effectively, and the point at which the primitive fight-or-flight part of your brain takes over. Record your stress responses, and write down ideas for how you’d prefer to handle things in the future.

For strategies to help you lower your emotional temperature, check out Dr. Popcak’s book, God Help Me! This Stress Is Driving Me Crazy! along with other titles such as How to Heal Your Marriage: And Nurture Lasting Love and Parenting Your Teens and Tweens with Grace. And if you need professional help managing your anger, reach out to a Catholic counselor at CatholicCounselors.com.

Five Ways Happy Couples Fight Differently

Conflict is an inevitable part of human relationships; even the happiest of couples experience it sooner or later.

But surprisingly, research shows that happily married couples “fight” differently than others. While many couples fall into an adversarial, combative mindset, happy couples tend to take more of a team approach. Their priority isn’t winning the argument. Instead, it’s solving the problem in a way that respects their spouse and strengthens their marriage.

Just as great sports teams support one another even in tough situations, couples with a team mindset go out of their way to make sure that their spouse feels loved and cared for. In fact, research finds that happily married couples have five positive interactions for every negative interaction—even during conflicts.

What does this look like in practice? In his book How to Heal Your Marriage and Nurture Lasting Love, Dr. Greg Popcak describes some of the strategies couples can use to navigate conflicts in a more loving, caring way. Here are five to try the next time you find things heating up between you and your spouse (or other conversation partner).

 

1. Give a Heads Up Before Difficult Conversations

If you know you need to tackle a tough conversation, try scheduling the conversation with your partner for a later time—and do it in a way that sets the tone for a cooperative, problem-focused conversation. For example: “Hey, I feel like we need to talk about (topic). Could we make some time to do that tonight? I know this isn’t a conversation either of us really enjoys, but let’s think about how we want to handle it between now and then. I’m interested in hearing your ideas.”

 

2. Turn to God for Help

Christian couples have an extra resource to help them manage conflict: the power of prayer. Praying before, during, and after a hard conversation grounds your relationship in the larger reality of God’s love for both of you, opening you to receive God’s help.

You can maximize the power of prayer by praying together, out loud: “Lord, you know how difficult this conversation is for us. Give us the grace to be both loving and truthful with one another, and help us be open to your will for us. Amen.”

 

3. Complain, but Don’t Criticize

At a minimum, couples who take a teamwork approach to conflict focus on solving the problem, not attacking one another. It’s all right to complain. But when that complaint becomes a personal criticism—when you name your partner as the problem—you’re headed for a contentious, unproductive argument.

Here’s a personal criticism: “You obviously have no money management skills; I can’t trust you with a debit card.” And here’s the same issue framed as a complaint: “When you go over the budget we agreed on, it makes me feel frustrated and anxious.” The first statement locates the problem in the partner; the second states two facts (the state of the budget and your feelings about it) that pose a problem to be solved.

 

4. Offering Encouragement and Affirmation

High-functioning teams offer one another words and gestures of support even when they’re in a tough spot. The same goes for happy couples during hard conversations.

You can reaffirm your bond and create a supportive atmosphere with a simple gesture—reaching out to hold your spouse’s hand, for instance, or offering them a tissue or glass of water. A few well-chosen words of affirmation can work magic, too: “Hey, it’s going to be okay. We’ve gotten through worse.”

 

5. Take Mini-Breaks When Things Get Too Hot

Another way couples can care for one another when a conflict starts getting too contentious is to take a short break. The point of the break isn’t to avoid the situation; rather, it’s to give yourselves a chance to calm down and refocus the conversation.

During your mini-break (five or ten minutes may be enough), work on empathizing with your partner and his or her position (even if you don’t agree with it). Then, ask yourself what you can do to shift the conversation to a more solution-focused mindset.

 

For couples who handle conflict in this way, it doesn’t drive them apart—instead, it results in a stronger, happier relationship. And that makes sense: After all, what better testament to true love is there than caring for your partner even when they’re driving you a little crazy?

You can learn much more about this topic in the “Caretaking in Conflict” chapter of Dr. Popcak’s book, How to Heal Your Marriage and Nurture Lasting Love. And if you could use some professional help with your marriage or other relationships, reach out to one of the Catholic counselors at CatholicCounselors.com.

But I don’t want to spoil them!–How to Have a Healthy and Positive Relationship With Your Child

I want to have a good relationship with my kids but I don’t want to spoil them!”

Does this statement feel familiar?

Attachment does not mean that you have to give your children everything they want, when they want it, and how they want it. It means listening to them, taking the time to understand why they want the things they want, and—if you can’t let them—brainstorming more godly and efficient ways that you could help them meet at least some of those needs in the here and now.

Alternatively, if you have to say no, as parents often must, it is always for a good and objective reason (for instance, your child’s safety or well-being) and not just because you don’t feel like it or because you reactively tend to say no to things out of stress and irritability.

In infancy and toddlerhood, fostering healthy attachment means responding promptly, generously, and consistently to cries. It means trusting the schedule God has built into your child for sleeping, feeding, and comforting and not making your child “cry it out” at night, or cry for long periods as a matter of habit during the day. Crying is never good for a child. It always means he needs help in regulating some system in his body (Sunderland, 2008). God gives parents the responsibility to attend to those cries promptly, just as he tells us He does in Psalm 34:4. “I sought the Lord, and he answered me, and delivered me from all my fears.”

As your child matures through childhood and adolescence, his needs become more complicated to meet. Parents should, as much as possible, use the “qualified-yes” technique in responding to these needs unless the request is for something that is truly contrary to the child’s well-being. For instance, if a child asked for something the parent couldn’t afford, the qualified-yes technique would have the parent say, “I can afford to contribute only X toward that, but let’s talk about ways you might be able to earn the difference if it is that important to you. Otherwise, this is what I can do. What do you think?” This would be as opposed to saying, for instance, “You want me to spend $250 on a pair of sneakers? Are you crazy?”

With the qualified-yes technique, the child learns that the parent is always someone to whom he can turn to get help in meeting his needs or making a plan by which those needs could be met. Because of this, even when the parent can’t supply what the child wants or needs, the child still feels attached because he has been heard and helped to come up with a plan. And, if the child decides that having that thing really isn’t worth the effort after all, it is he who makes that decision, and not the parent who makes himself an obstacle to achieving that need or want.

For more on how to use the qualified-yes technique as a way of fostering attachment through childhood and adolescence, check out our books Parenting Your Kids With Grace and Parenting Your Teens and Tweens With Grace!

 

Quick Links and Resources:

Parenting Your Kids With Grace

Parenting Your Teens and Tweens With Grace

Discovering God Together

This Is My Circus And These Are My Monkeys! — How To Gracefully Deal With Drama and Stress

Does the world around you feel chaotic? Are you having a hard time knowing how to handle certain challenges that are coming up in your life? Often when situations are escalated, we can quickly become overwhelmed and feel as though we don’t know where to start or what to handle.

This is because drama pulls us out of the receptive spirit God calls us to live in. It makes it difficult to hear God’s voice and cooperate with his will. We’re so busy living in reaction to the drama-causing events and people that it sometimes doesn’t even occur to us to ask God what to do.  The Theology of The Body reminds us of the importance of resisting the impulse to get caught up in our drama: that, even in the middle of the drama, it’s important to cultivate receptivity, the ability to step out of the craziness that’s happening around us, center ourselves in God’s grace and respond (rather than react) to what’s happening in a loving, responsible way that glorifies God, works for our good and the good of the people around us.

Here are a few ways to ensure we are responding with a receptive spirit:

1. Take a Dramatic Pause–When the drama is mounting, we’re often tempted to try to get control of what’s going on around us, and that’s what pulls us in. Don’t jump into the drama.  Instead, take a dramatic pause.  Mentally take a step back and look inside yourself.  Offer up a quick prayer.  Ask God to give you peace and perspective.  Ask for the grace to respond to this situation rather than reacting to it.  Then think, “Where do I want this situation to go?  What do I need to do to move it in that direction? What do I need to do to protect myself and the people I care about from the drama?”  THEN and only then are you ready to act.  When drama strikes, the best way to get control of the situation, is to reclaim your sense of self control.

2.  Get the Other Person Back “On Book”–When actors forget their lines, they are said to be “off book.” When people are creating drama, they’ve forgotten how to be their best selves.   After reclaiming control of ourselves, the next thing to do get them back “on book”  that is, remind them of healthier ways to deal with the situation they are creating drama about.   Don’t criticize their behavior.  Instead, help them refocus on solutions rather than their reactions.   Don’t say, “Calm down.” or “You’re really overreacting”  Say, “Listen, I really want to help but you’re just lashing out right now.  Can you focus on what we can do to make this better?  What’s the next step you can take to make this better?”   Try to help the person creating the drama refocus on solutions and reminding them that you’re here to help.

3. End the SceneRemember, it is not your job to save other people from their own drama.  You should do what you can to be helpful, but if they resist your efforts, get worse, or lash out, the best thing you can do is end the scene.  When a person is too seriously caught up in their own drama, anything you say or do can and will be used against you.  Although it might feel like you’re being insensitive, the best thing to do is to say something like, “I want to help, but the most important thing you can do right now is take some time to pray about this and think about what you want to do to try to make this situation a little better.  Let me know when you’re ready to do that and I promise I’ll be here.”  Then, find a way to make a graceful–or if necessary, abrupt–exit.  If you can’t redirect someone who is in drama, the most loving thing to do is to refuse to contribute to it, even if that means withdrawing. If the person continues to try to draw you back in, suggest places they can turn for more professional support, and encourage them to turn to those resources.  If they are serious about seeking help, they will be grateful for the suggestions. But if they are just interested in creating more drama, it would be better for you to step out as gracefully as you can.

Find more resources at CatholicCounselors.com!

 

Quick Links and Resources:

Unworried—A Life Without Anxiety

God Help Me! These People Are Driving Me Nuts!

Pastoral Tele-Counseling

St Sebastian Center for Performance Excellence