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 to Say ‘No’ with Confidence

Listen, before we start this article, would you mind getting up and grabbing me a sandwich? Liverwurst and onion on rye, with a little bit of that fancy mustard…?

If you even thought about saying “yes” to that request—or if you find yourself often saying “yes” to things you later wish you hadn’t—then you need to keep reading, because we’re going to talk about how to say “no” when you need to…without the guilt.

 

How to Know When to Say No

Most of us don’t like telling people “no” when they ask for our help. We humans are wired to cooperate with one another, after all. In general, we want to be helpful!

But the reality is, it’s not always good to say “yes.” For one thing, if we said “yes” to everything that was asked of us, we wouldn’t have time to fulfill our primary responsibilities in life. And sometimes, saying “yes” to someone causes more harm than good. Consider these examples:

  • After taking her kindergartener to his classroom, Sandy gets stopped in the hallway by the president of the PTA, who begs her to help coordinate the fall fundraiser. Sandy feels pressured to agree, despite already having a full plate. As she drives away, she finds herself fuming with resentment and frustration.
  • Jenny doesn’t want to alienate her adult son, so she frequently agrees to his requests for help, even though he has a serious drug addiction. When she refuses his requests, he accuses her of “rejecting” him, so she keeps helping—even though his situation keeps getting worse.

The hard truth is that sometimes it’s more generous and loving to say “no” to someone, even when it makes us feel uncomfortable or makes the other person feel let down.

And that’s the key to knowing when to say “no,” says Dr. Greg Popcak, founder and executive director of the Pastoral Solutions Institute. Instead of basing your response on how we feel (guilty, empathetic, pressured), focus instead on the more objective question of what kind of response will lead to the best outcome for both you and the other person.

“When somebody’s asking something of us, especially when they’re pressuring us, the question to ask ourselves isn’t, ‘Do I feel like doing this or not?’ Or even, ‘Would they be upset with me or not?’” Dr. Popcak said recently on the More2Life radio show. “The question to ask ourselves is, ‘Is there a way to say “yes” to this request that is good both for me and the other person?”

By basing your answer on an objective assessment of what is going to be good for both you and the other person—rather than on the shifting sands of emotion—you set yourself up to resist pressure and shed feelings of guilt.

Even better, your answer is grounded in genuine love for the other person. Prior to becoming Pope John Paul II, Karol Wojtyła wrote a book titled Love and Responsibility. In that book, he argues that Christians are not only called to love, but to love in a way that actually achieves the good of the other person.

Rachael Isaac, a pastoral counselor at the Pastoral Solutions Institute, encourages clients to evaluate decisions by checking three key indicators of well-being: “I always ask my clients, ‘What is going to lead towards greater meaningfulness, intimacy, and virtue in your life?’” she says.

If saying “yes” creates resentment and burnout, it’s not the most generous response: “It doesn’t allow us to work for their good or ours if saying yes breeds resentment or frustration.”

 

Another Option: The Qualified Yes

It’s good to remember that there’s often a third option besides “yes” and “no,” says Lisa Popcak, vice president of the Pastoral Solutions Institute and a certified family life coach. She calls it the “qualified yes.”

A qualified yes involves saying “yes” to the what of the request, but placing conditions on the how and when.

In the example above, Sandy might tell the PTA president, “I’d love to help out, but the only time I have available in my schedule right now is Monday afternoons from 2 to 3:30. Is there another job I could do that would fit in that time slot?”

In the second example, Jenny might say to her son, “I love you and I want to help you, but I can’t help you harm yourself. When you’re ready to enter a treatment program, I’d be happy to pay for it.”

“You’re attempting to meet their need,” Lisa Popcak says, “but it’s within the boundaries of what will work for you without demeaning you, diminishing you, leaving you exhausted, or distracting you from all the other responsibilities that God has given to you.”

 

Let Your Yes Mean Yes…

Christians should remember that even Jesus said “no” sometimes, said Andy Proctor, another pastoral counselor at the Pastoral Solutions Institute.

“Jesus certainly said ‘no,’ sometimes forcibly, sometimes even to those closest to him,” he said. Delivered with prudence and humility, “no” might be what the other person really needs to hear, he added.

And if you need any more encouragement, just remember that Jesus himself calls us to clarity and integrity of heart in the commitments we make to others: “Let your ‘Yes’ mean ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No’ mean ‘No.’ Anything more is from the evil one,” he says (Matthew 5:37).

For more advice from Dr. Greg and Lisa Popcak, tune in to the More2Life radio show every weekday between 10 and 11:00 a.m. Eastern Time, or catch it on your favorite podcast app. And if you need more help setting healthy boundaries in your life, you can connect with the Catholic counselors at the Pastoral Solutions Institute 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.

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.

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

God Help Me! My Kids Are Driving Me Nuts—Becoming A More Graceful Parent

Parenting is hard work. And more often than not, just when we think we’re starting to figure it out, our kids enter into a new stage and it feels like we have to start figuring it out all over again! But you’re not alone.

The Theology Of The Body reminds us that families are schools of love and virtue where we all learn to live life as a gift, and that parents are the most important teachers in this school of love.  Parenting is hard, and it’s tempting to settle for just  “getting through the day” with our kids. But Catholic parents are called to do so much more.  The Church tells us that parenting is actually one of the most important ministries in the Church because it is the primary way the next generation of Christian disciples is formed. The world needs loving, responsible, godly people. God has commissioned Catholic parents to give the word what it needs.

That’s a big job! But the more we can approach parenting in a prayerful, thoughtful, intentional, graceful manner, the more we are able to fulfill our mission as Catholics–to let God change the world through our families by raising the next generation of faithful, courageous, loving, responsible, and godly men and women. Of course, none of us know how to do this perfectly. No matter how well we think we were raised by our parents none of us are saints and none of us know how to raise a saint–which is exactly what we’re called to do! We all have a lot to learn!  That’s why, everyday, especially when we’re struggling, we need to turn to our Heavenly Father and pray, “Lord, teach me to be the parent you want me to be–in this moment, and all day, everyday. Help me to respond to my children in ways that will glorify you, help me be my best self, and bring out the best in my kids in every situation. Give me your love and your grace, and let my kids experience your love and grace through me.”

Here are three practical ways to be a more grace filled parent!

1. Remember To Lead–When you’re correcting your kids, only 5% of your energy should be focused on what they did wrong. The other 95% should be focused on leading your children to a better place. Before you correct your kids, ask yourself, “What does my child need to handle this situation better next time?” Put your energy into teaching those skills. Punishments don’t work.  Teaching does. Using techniques like do-overs, role-playing, time-in, cool-downs, and other loving guidance approaches to discipline focus on giving your kids the skills they need to succeed next time–instead of shaming them for failing this time. Lead your children to virtue by showing them a better way to express their emotions, communicate their needs, accomplish their goals, get along with others, and manage their stress. The more energy you put into teaching instead of punishing, the quicker your kids’ behavior will improve overall and the less stressed you’ll be!

2.  Celebrate Success–Tell your kids when they handle a situation well by acknowledging the virtue they displayed. You don’t have to throw a parade–in fact, it’s much better if you don’t–but simple comments like, “That was really responsible.”, “You handled that really respectfully.”,  “That was very generous.” “That was a very loving choice.” and similar comments help kids understand that virtues aren’t just a list of words to memorize, but a practical guide for handling life’s ups and downs with grace. Believe it or not, kids want to be good, and they desperately crave your approval. By remarking on all the ways that exhibiting virtues help them manage their emotions, express their needs, negotiate stressful situations, and get along with others, you are showing your kids that they already have what it takes to do the right thing and you’re making them want to get even better at it. Celebrate your kids’ successful efforts to display virtue by letting them know you saw what they did and that you are proud of them for doing it.

3. Fill the Tank–There is a fuel that drives good behavior. Don’t forget to fill the tank. Both research and generations of wise parents will tell you that extravagant affection is the fuel that makes kids want to behave and try harder to please you. Research shows that affection is actually communication. Taking time to hold your kids close all throughout the day actually helps them reset their heart rate, respiration, body temp and other bodily rhythms when they are feeling stressed, frustrated, angry, anxious, or overwhelmed. Affectionate parents literally incline their children’s hearts to them, and make their kids naturally turn to their parents for guidance and comfort. Yes, you will still need to teach your kids what to do but affection is the fuel that makes correction work.

For more parenting resources, a community of Catholic Parent support, and a team of professionals ready to answer your questions, share in your challenges, and celebrate your parenting wins, join us at CatholicHOM! Online or in your app store!

Also, be sure to check out:

Parenting Your Kids With Grace (Birth to 10)

Parenting Your Teens and Tweens with Grace (11-18)

CatholicHOM

I Said I Was Sorry–Three Components to An Effective Apology

Do the apologies you are giving or receiving feel empty? Does it seem like the same things are being apologized for over and over again? This often happens when the apology is just saying the words, “I’m sorry,” rather than actually holding meaning and action.

There are three components that make up an effective apology. These components can be remembered by using the acronym EAR. 

E-Empathy: The offender needs to show that they understand the depth of pain they caused.

A-Accountability: The offender needs to acknowledge that the offended party had a right to expect more from them (i.e., not “I’m sorry you’re so thin-skinned/can’t take a joke/ etc).

R-Restitution: The offender needs to demonstrate that they don’t just want to heal the damage done, but actually make the situation better than it was before by working to find ways and create a plan to prevent the offense from happening again.

Do you need help giving or getting a good apology? Are there people in your life who seem like they can’t follow these steps? Check out these resources:

Pastoral Tele-Counseling

God Help Me! These People Are Driving Me Nuts!

How To Heal Your Marriage & Nurture Lasting Love

Can You Hear Me Now? Cultivating Greater Understanding in Communication

“Where did you get that idea from?!” Sound familiar? Often we feel like we go in circles with our conversations or we try to explain ourselves in a million different ways and the other person still doesn’t get the point. 

Theology of The Body reminds us that the primary work of building the Kingdom of God involves building real communities of love between us and the people that share our life. Seeking to understand another person–especially when it’s difficult–is what allows communication to become communion. Really listening to each other is hard, but if loving another person means helping them become everything God created them to be, then we need to take the time to really listen to each other so that we know what each person needs to grow and flourish.

The more difficult a conversation is and the more important we feel it is to get our point across, the more important it is to listen to the other person’s needs, their concerns, their perception of what we’re saying, and the reasons they are having a hard time hearing us. Of course, all of this requires us to grow in virtue, such as self-control, respect, compassion, and love. That’s why cultivating a spirit of understanding isn’t just good for our relationships, it is a spiritual exercise that allows us to love each other as we love ourselves.

1.  Say Less–The biggest mistake we make in trying to communicate with another person is that we say too much. This is especially true when we aren’t getting the response we were expecting from another person. We tend to think that if we just explain ourselves again, or offer more examples, or say it one more time, they’ll finally get where we’re coming from. In fact, in these situations, it’s better to say less. Instead of throwing more words at the other person in the hopes of being clearer, ask this simple question, “Can you tell me what you’re hearing me say?”  Asking the other person to tell you what they are hearing you say will quickly clarify any confusion and help you and the other person get on the same page. People tend to run the things they hear through their own internal filters that end up distorting or confusing what we say.  Don’t assume that your words are sinking in. Ask them to tell you what is coming across so that you can make sure that the message you are trying to send is the message that’s being received.

2.  Make a Plan–Sometimes we think that if we’ve complained about something or vented our feelings about something that we’ve done a good job letting another person what we need.  Complaining and venting is sometimes necessary to help us sort out all the noise in our heads, but it does nothing to solve a problem.  Remember, the point of most important conversations should be figuring out what to do about a particular situation.  Make sure you don’t leave a discussion until you have a pretty good idea of what you’re going to do about the problem you’ve been discussing, who is going to do it, and when you’ll be getting back together to discuss what else might need to be done.  If you do end a conversation after you’re done venting  or complaining, you should assume that the problem will come back because you haven’t done anything to actually solve the problem. Complaining isn’t problem-solving. If something is worth talking about, it’s worth taking the time to make an actual plan for solving it. Don’t end a conversation until you know what you’re going to do differently moving forward, who is going to be responsible for what, and when you’re going to check back in to see how things are going.

3.  Make Them A Partner–When you feel like another person is having a hard time hearing what you are saying, or doesn’t really want to listen, see if you can make them a partner and get them to buy-in by proposing their own solutions. Tell them, “Look, I’m just trying to do X.  Obviously, you’re not crazy about the ideas I’m suggesting to make X happen. What ideas do you have for making X happen?” Don’t let the other person avoid addressing your actual need. If they propose something that falls short, acknowledge what’s good about their idea, but then explain why it doesn’t completely fit the bill. Then ask them again for an idea that actually would address the actual concern you’ve stated.  If the conversation gets stuck or bogged down at this point, or if they keep trying to convince you that your concern is silly or not worth addressing, that’s a good indication that you probably need to get other people involved to help you solve the problem effectively. Invite another family member, a mentor, or a professional counselor to help you break through the impasse and develop solutions that will work for all concerned. Don’t be afraid to reach out to others to get the help you need to create deeper connection and understanding.

Would you like more support in being heard or cultivating understanding in communication?

Check out these resources: 

Pastoral Tele-Counseling

How To Heal Your Marriage & Nurture Lasting Love

Having Meaningful (Sometimes Difficult) Conversations With Your Adult Sons & Daughters