Use the ‘Fortress and Communion’ Prayer to Heal Past Hurts and Protect Your Heart

Have you ever felt deeply hurt or attacked, only to find yourself struggling to forgive and move forward? Christians are told to love their enemies and pray for those who persecute them— but how do you do this when you are hurting?

This dilemma is what prompted Dave McClow, M.Div., LCSW, LMFT, a therapist at the Pastoral Solutions Institute, to develop a process of healing and forgiveness that he calls the “Fortress and Communion” prayer. This approach helps you protect your heart and transfer negative emotions, ultimately leading to genuine healing and forgiveness.

Understanding the Fortress and Communion Prayer

Dave explained the prayer process in a recent interview with CatholicCounselors.com. When we are hurt, he said, our feelings become dysregulated, and we often turn the people who hurt us into enemies. Moreover, emotional hurt often shows up with physical symptoms.

“When emotions get activated, we get a feeling in our body—it could be in our stomach, chest, shoulders, neck, jaw, eyes, head,” he said. “These physical sensations signal that it’s time to address the underlying emotional pain.”

The Fortress and Communion prayer provides a structured way to begin the healing process and restore a sense of peace and balance, emotionally and physically.

 

Step 1: Building Your Fortress

The first part of the process is about protecting your heart, which McClow describes as creating a “fortress.” He likens it to the walled city of Jerusalem, with your heart being the Holy of Holies at the center of the Temple that must be protected. Visualize this fortress (like the walls around the city) and imagine placing those who have hurt you outside its walls.

McClow suggests that clients use vivid imagery, such as catapulting people out of the fortress, to create a physical and emotional boundary.

“When you get them outside, you want to feel a physiological shift,” he said. This shift might be felt in areas like your stomach or chest, where tension is stored. If the initial boundary doesn’t create enough relief, mentally push them farther away (a tropical island, the moon, Mars, etc.) until you feel a noticeable difference.

Step 2: Transferring Negative Emotions

Once the fortress is established and the hurtful individuals are outside, the next step is to transfer the negative emotions to Jesus. This is where the “communion” aspect comes in. Imagine Jesus on the cross outside your fortress, absorbing all the anger, hurt, and negative energy from the person who hurt you.

“Let all the anger, all the rage, all the hurt from that person go into Jesus,” Dave advised.

This step is about visualizing the transfer of these emotions, allowing Jesus to “take the hit” for you. It’s a deeply spiritual and healing process, McClow said: “Jesus is kind of our emotional sanitation department: he picks up our garbage, processes our sewage, and takes care of it for us.”

Step 3: The Resurrection and Transformation

After transferring the negative emotions to Jesus, ask him to take them through the resurrection. This step involves transforming the negative energy into something positive.

“In physics, you can’t destroy energy; you can only transfer or transform it,” McClow said. “We’ve transferred it; now we’re going to transform it.”

Visualize this transformation as an explosion of love and light, turning the negative into something beautiful. This step can be deeply felt, with some people imagining fireworks or other vivid images.

Step 4: Spiritual Communion

The final step is to ask Jesus to offer spiritual communion to everyone involved. This includes not only yourself and the person who hurt you but also extends to intergenerational healing.

“Ask Jesus to give communion—his infinite love—to everybody involved,” McClow said. “This includes your ancestors, any souls in purgatory connected to the event, and your descendants, ensuring that the healing permeates through generations.”

Sometimes, his clients are still reluctant to ask Jesus to give their enemy or persecutor communion. “If you’re still mad at the bully, you can visualize infinite love knocking him on his butt,” McClow said. “Because infinite love coming into a finite suffering is impactful. So if you need to do that, that’s fine.”

“In the Depths of the Heart’

The Fortress and Communion prayer draws on many sources in the Catholic tradition, but it takes particular inspiration from the Catechism of the Catholic Church’s reflection on the lines about forgiveness in the Lord’s prayer:

“It is there, in fact, ‘in the depths of the heart,’ that everything is bound and loosed. It is not in our power not to feel or to forget an offense; but the heart that offers itself to the Holy Spirit turns injury into compassion and purifies the memory in transforming the hurt into intercession” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2843).

That quote is the entire process in a nutshell, McClow said: “You can have the memory without the feelings. That’s purifying the memory by transforming hurt into intercession.”

The Fortress and Communion prayer is versatile and can be used in various situations, from dealing with past traumas to handling daily annoyances. Like many forms of contemplative or meditative prayer, it gets easier with practice. At first, you may want to set aside 15 to 30 minutes to walk through the process thoroughly. Once it becomes habitual, you will be able to do it in a few minutes—say, when you’re sitting in a frustrating work meeting or trying to be patient about a crying baby on the plane.

You can see a video walkthrough of the Fortress and Communion Prayer on YouTube.

If you’d like McClow to guide you through the process, or if you’d like to work with another Catholic counselor on healing and forgiveness, reach out 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.

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.

“I Can’t Believe You Said That!”  How To Respond When Words Hurt

Sharp words can cut deep. Sometimes when others say hurtful things to us, we can feel so hurt or be so caught off guard in the moment that we don’t know how to respond. Why are words so powerful and how do we respond effectively in these difficult moments?

The Theology of The Body reminds us of the power of words by pointing us back to Genesis and how God created the world. Specifically, God spoke the world into being. Words have creative power, and God shares that power with us in the hopes that we will use it to build each other up and be co-creators with him as we work to cooperate with his grace and encourage each other to be the whole, healed, godly, grace-filled people we were created to be. But we can also use those words to destroy each other and we often do.

As Christians, we are called to use words carefully; to have a well-trained tongue. That involves both making sure we are using words to build others up and setting appropriate boundaries when someone we are in relationship with is using words destructively. Good boundaries begin trying to explain what are and what aren’t healthy ways to engage you. But if that fails, setting good boundaries means trimming back the relationship to the point where you can still feel safe if the other person is going to continue to act as they have been. Sometimes figuring out what that looks like can be difficult, and we need to seek to figure out what that looks like in practice. But as long as our goal is to work for our good, the other person’s good, and the good of our relationships, it is never wrong to set a boundary to encourage healthier and holier interactions.

Although setting boundaries is healthy, it can certainly be difficult. Here are a few practical steps to setting effective boundaries:

1.  Be Confident And Be Clear–No one ever deserves to be spoken to disrespectfully or hurtfully. Even if the other person accuses you of doing something that they found hurtful or offensive, no matter what you may or may not have said or done, you don’t deserve to be spoken to cruelly or disrespectfully. Be clear about this and be confident in your right to insist that, while you are willing to listen to anything the other person wants to say, you cannot listen to anything that is said in a cruel or hurtful manner. Being clear about this doesn’t only benefit you, it benefits the other person and your ability to address whatever the problem might be. If there is a problem that needs to be discussed, it deserves to be discussed respectfully and effectively. Be confident and clear about the need to insist that “respect is the price of admission” to any conversation a person may want to have with you.

2.  Use Do-Over’s--If you feel attacked in a conversation, resist the temptation to just lash out or shut the conversation down completely. Instead, assume that, given the chance, the other person will be able to say what they are trying to say respectfully.  Give them that chance by asking for a do-over. Say something like, “I’m feeling really attacked right now. I want to hear what you’re trying to say, but I need you to be less aggressive about it. Tell me again what you’re trying to say.” Often, when we hold up a mirror like this, the other person will appreciate the opportunity to see how they are coming across and adjust their behavior. Do-overs allow you to reset the conversation and move forward in a more respectful and productive way.

3. Don’t Feed the Troll–If someone is saying cruel or disrespectful things to you, don’t defend yourself. Don’t try to talk them out of it. Don’t argue back. Any attempt to argue someone out of their unkind view of you will inevitably backfire as the conversation will begin going in circles with new accusations being hurled and as the previous defenses are overcome. The best thing to do in this situation? Don’t feed the troll. As before, stop the conversation and give the person as chance to do a do-over. If that fails, simply say, “I’m really sorry you feel that way. I hope you can get past it. If there’s something you’d like to talk through when you’re feeling a little less angry I’m happy to hear whatever you have to say, but I can’t talk about this with you this way.” Then be done. If you have to say anything, simply repeat that formula, “I’m sorry you feel that way. I hope you can get past it. I’d love to talk to you when you’re in a different place, but I can’t do it like this.” Trolls don’t like to eat broken records. If that’s all you serve them, they’ll look for other places to feed.

Explore more resources for setting healthy boundaries at CatholicCounselors.com

 

Quick Links and Resources:

God Help Me! These People Are Driving Me Nuts!

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

How to Heal Your Marriage & Nurture Lasting Love

Pastoral Tele-Counseling Services

Spiritual Life Coaching

Ash Wednesday and Our Journey To Forgiveness

“Repent and believe in the Gospel.” Ash Wednesday is a reminder of our need for reconciliation with God and marks the beginning of our Lenten journey. 

Saint John Paul II saw mercy and the Theology of The Body as going hand in hand. The Theology of the Body recognizes that God has incredibly high expectations for us and our relationships, but he knows that we will inevitably stumble and fall along the way. The only way we can hope to achieve the heights we’re destined for is by leaning into God’s abundant mercy and forgiveness–and by sharing that same mercy and forgiveness with each other.

At the same time, forgiveness doesn’t require us to pretend that an offense didn’t occur or that things are better than they actually are. In fact, the Catechism (2043) says, “​​ It is not in our power not to feel or to forget an offense.” The Theology of The Body reminds us that we are created for communion with others, which means that we have to be willing to work to face the offenses we commit against each other honestly and courageously and then willingly work together to actually heal the damage that’s been done to the body of Christ. True communion can’t be built if we aren’t honest with each other about the damage our hurtful actions have caused and honest about the work that needs to be done to actually heal those wounds. The work involved in forgiveness and reconciliation is good work, but it’s also hard and complicated work. It’s ok to take the time that is necessary to do it right.

Let’s look at three stepping stones on the path to forgiveness:

1. Know What Forgiveness Is–St. Augustine said that forgiveness is surrendering our desire for revenge. It doesn’t mean pretending everything is ok. It doesn’t mean you aren’t allowed to discuss the situation further. It doesn’t mean you can’t hold the other person accountable for what they did. It just means that you are refusing to hurt them for having hurt you. We forgive to make reconciliation possible. If a person says, “I’m sorry” without being willing to do the work of healing the hurts they caused, they are lying. Despite what some of us have been taught, “I’m sorry” are not “magic words” that make the pain go away. “I’m sorry” isn’t the end of the process. It’s just another way of saying, “I’m ready to begin the work of reconciling with you.”

2. Know What Letting Go Means–Sometimes we say we’ve forgiven someone, but we have a hard time letting go of the hurt. Many times we think that means we haven’t really forgiven.  More likely, it means that the injury hasn’t been fully attended to. Bring your pain to God in prayer and ask him to help you figure out what you still need from the other person to heal. Then go to the person who hurt you and, respectfully, tell them what you need. Don’t get caught up in thinking that the past is the past.  If you’re hurting in the present, the injury needs to be dealt with in the present. “Letting go” is what happens when you and the other person have done what God needs you both to do to heal the wound. Until then, stay committed to the process of healing.

3. When It’s Complicated–Sometimes a wound doesn’t heal on its own and you need to seek a doctor’s help. In the same way, while most emotional wounds will heal with time, some can’t.  These can become infected with bitterness. Bitterness is the infection that results when an emotional wound is not properly attended to. If you are having a hard time healing an emotional wound either on your own or with the person who hurt you, don’t let bitterness grow in you.  Seek professional help from a faithful counselor who can help you discern the best ways to heal your hurt and restore peace to your heart.

If you would like to seek professional support on your journey to facilitating forgiveness, we’re here to help. Reach out to us at CatholicCounselors.com

Calming Conflict—Effective Ways to Avoid Escalation

Are you struggling in your communications with others—or at least one particular person? Tired of these conversations escalating and never actually going anywhere? In order to calm conflict and cultivate effective communication, there are a few things we need to keep in mind.

Theology of The Body reminds us that we are called to live in communion. Ironically, because we live in a fallen world, building that communion requires us to learn to deal gracefully with conflict. Our natural human tendency is to either try to avoid conflict as much as possible–even when we shouldn’t–or to get caught up in it and fan the flames, but neither of these choices are options for the Christian. In fact, both are sinful. Avoiding problems we could do something about is the sin of sloth. Escalating conflict needless is the sin of wrath. Fortunately, when it comes to dealing with conflict, Christians have a third option: to be peacemakers. 

 To be a peacemaker is to work to restore the right order that God desires in a situation.  When conflicts arise, being a peacemaker doesn’t mean just keeping a lid on things any more than it means unnecessarily escalating the tension. It means starting disagreements by seeking God’s wisdom and grace, entering conflicts with the intention of working for the good of everyone involved (including ourselves), and doing what we can to both encourage everyone involved in the conflict through the tension and toward godly solutions. The peacemaker doesn’t run from conflict or fan the flames of conflict. Rather, the peacemaker is someone who knows many different ways to actively engage and extinguish the fire so that new life can spring up from the ashes.

Here are three ways to be a peacemaker in the midst of conflict:

1.  Make Breaks Count–When you “take a break” in an argument, don’t just step away and distract yourself by not thinking about the disagreement. That just sets you up to pick up the fight where you left off the next time you start addressing the issue.  Taking a break is an opportunity to think differently about the disagreement; to take some time to see the other person in a more sympathetic light so you can come back to the topic with a more caring heart.  When you take a break from a disagreement, spend some time in prayer reflecting on questions like, “What needs does the other person have that they are afraid I’m not willing to meet?”  “Why might the other person think I’m not interested in them or their concerns?” and “How can I show them that they are important to me–even though we’re disagreeing?”  Taking some time to ask questions like this helps you make breaks from conflict count and allows you to go back to the person, confident that you can approach each other again in a more compassionate and productive way

2. Look For the Positive Intention–If you’re struggling to feel sympathy for a person you’re disagreeing with, make sure to look for the need or the positive intention behind their words or actions.  Doing this doesn’t excuse any bad behavior. Rather, it gives you a way to address it respectfully. For instance, you might say something like, “When you do this or say that, can you help me understand what you’re trying to do?” Then, when the other person explains their intention, you can brainstorm together about ways to meet that intention more respectfully and efficiently in the future. Looking for the positive intention behind offensive words and actions gives you a way to be sympathetic without being a doormat. It lets you work for change, respectfully.

3.  Give It To God–When you’re disagreeing with someone, don’t forget to pray for them. Not, “God, please make them see that I’m right and they’re wrong!” But rather, “God, help me know how to express my concerns in a way they will hear and to really hear what they are saying so that we can both get our needs met and draw closer because of this disagreement we’re having.”   Giving your disagreement to God doesn’t mean giving up your needs or, for that matter, trusting that God will sort it out while you ignore the elephant in the room. It means asking God to guide you in the steps of having more compassionate conflict, where the tension between you and the person you care about can lead to even greater closeness. Don’t try to pray away your needs or your feelings. Instead, ask God to help you find ways to meet those needs and express those feelings in a manner that reflects God’s grace, honors your concerns, and respects the dignity of the other person as well. Let God show you how to master conflict instead of just avoiding it.

For more resources on conflict management, visit us online at CatholicCounselors.com!

Family Feud! 3 Keys to Managing Family Conflict

Is your family caught in conflict? Are you struggling to know how to navigate those tricky disagreements? Family conflict can be especially difficult if each person has a different approach to communicating their hurts, needs, or frustrations. This is why it is important to turn to God to teach us His universal language to manage those challenging times.

Theology of The Body reminds us the families are supposed to be schools of love and virtue.  One of the lessons we all need to learn in the family school of love is how to manage conflict, tension, and differences of opinion gracefully.  As Catholic families, especially, we need to make sure that we’re not just “doing what comes naturally” when it comes to family conflict, but instead, inviting God to be the mediator of our disagreements, being intentional about asking what virtues we need to practice in conflict to have more productive discussions, and working hard to listen to each other rather than react to each other.  We need to remember that, as Catholic families, we are not called to just be loving when things are going well, but to be loving–and accept the mutual growth God is calling us to–in the face of disagreements.

So how do you manage family conflict in the ways that God calls us to?

1. Let God Be Your Mediator–It often doesn’t occur to us, but it’s tremendously helpful to ask God to mediate our family conflicts.  Anytime you feel your temperature rising, you notice your kids fighting or not listening to you, or you see that family members are starting to butt heads, say, “STOP!” bring the kids to you, and invite God in with a prayer that goes something like, “Lord, help us to really listen to each other and find ways to take care of each other through our disagreement and find solutions that glorify you.”  Then, take a breath, and solve the problem.  Remember, you are a Christian family. That means we invite Christ into all we do.  Don’t handle conflicts on your own.  Let God be your help and let him lead your family to find peaceful, loving, mutually-satisfying solutions to family problems.

2. Practice Conflict Virtues–When you have family conflict, remind yourself to ask, “What virtues do I need to handle this well?” Patience? Understanding? Consideration? Self-Control?  Assertiveness?  Take a brief moment to identify the virtues or qualities that would help you handle the present disagreement well.  If you’re working with kids, stop and ask them what virtues they need to handle the situation well before you start and discussion.  If that sounds a little pie-in-the-sky, it isn’t. In fact a recent study found that people who naturally practice what researchers called “virtue based problem solving” do a better job of keeping their cool in conflict, finding effective, objective solutions to conflict, and recovering more quickly from conflict. Faith and science agree. Not only is it possible to be more intentional about bringing Christian virtue into family disagreements, it’s the key to family peace.

3. Treat Resistance as a Message–We have a tendency to treat resistance–especially on the part of our kids–as stubbornness that has to be overcome with a show of force. Avoid this. Learn to see resistance as communication. When the other person (especially kids) are resistant or reluctant to your ideas or commands, what they are really saying is, “But if I do what you’re asking, how will I get to do this thing that is also important to me?” Of course, kids aren’t mature enough to articulate this, so they need us to help. Work hard not to react to resistance or disobedience. As St. John Bosco counseled parents, “work hard to maintain your countenance.” In the face of that kind of push-back, stop and say, “Obviously, I need you to take what I’ve said seriously, but what are you trying to tell me that you need?” Then make a plan for meeting that need.  You’ll be amazed how often this causes resistance or even disobedience to evaporate without the power struggle.  Treat resistance as a message. Identify the need. Create a solution, and move on.

For more resources and support on working through family conflict, visit us online at CatholicCounselors.com!

Conquer Conflict–How Empathy Can Help Us Be Communication Warriors

When caught in a conflict, the last thing we want to do is be empathetic. Our natural response is often to become defensive, offensive, or to flee from the scene. While these reactions can be effective in getting us away from the original problem, they don’t really help us solve the problem.

So how do we overcome these natural reactions and work through conflict effectively?

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Theology of The Body reminds us that, at all times, we need to treat other people–even people we disagree with or find offensive, obnoxious, or upsetting–as persons.  When we are in conflict, our natural, fallen response is to stop treating our opponent as a person and, instead, see them as an enemy, an idiot, a nuisance, an irritant, or an aggressor.  As soon as we start thinking of someone that way, we indulge our sinful tendency to depersonalize the other–treating them as a thing to be ignored, overpowered, dismissed, or shouted down.  None of these responses are consistent with our call to create communities of love and to treat others as unique and unrepeatable persons deserving of dignity and respect.  So what do we do?  We empathize. Empathy is the quality that allows us to accept that people do things for reasons that make sense to them and that we are obliged to do what we can to understand those reasons.  Empathy does not require us to agree with what the other person thinks, approve of what they are doing, or excuse any offenses.  It simply requires us to assume that–whatever they are doing–there is at least a positive intention or need that is driving their thoughts, words, or actions.  Empathy gives us a starting point for respectful change.  It reminds us that the best defense is not a good offense but rather compassion.  Empathy allows us to be strong enough to encounter someone we disagree with and say, “Help me understand what you are trying to do and then let’s work together to find a respectful way to meet that need.”

Although empathy in conflict is important, it can often be difficult. Here are three steps to effectively cultivating empathy in difficult situations:

1. Let God Be Your Mediator–It often doesn’t occur to us, but it’s tremendously helpful to ask God to mediate our conflicts.  Anytime you feel your temperature rising, remind yourself to “STOP!” Then invite God in with a prayer that goes something like, “Lord, help us to really listen to each other and find ways to take care of each other through our disagreement and find solutions that glorify you.”  Then, take a breath, and solve the problem.  Remember, you are a Christian. That means we invite Christ into all we do.  Don’t handle conflicts on your own.  Ask God for the grace to find peaceful, loving, mutually-satisfying solutions to all the disagreements with the people in your life.

2. Practice Conflict Virtues–When you are dealing with conflict, remind yourself to ask, “What virtues do I need to handle this well?” Patience? Understanding? Consideration? Self-Control?  Assertiveness?  Take a brief moment to identify the virtues or qualities that would help you handle the present disagreement well. If that sounds a little pie-in-the-sky, it isn’t. In fact a recent study found that people who naturally practice what researchers called “virtue based problem solving” do a better job of keeping their cool in conflict, finding effective, objective solutions to conflict, and recovering more quickly from conflict.  Faith and science agree.  Not only is it possible to be more intentional about bringing Christian virtue into disagreements, it’s the key to peace.

3. Treat Resistance as a Message–We have a tendency to treat resistance as stubbornness that has to be overcome by talking even louder..  Avoid this.  Learn to see resistance as communication. When the other person is resistant or reluctant to your ideas or commands, what they are really saying is, “But if I do what you’re asking, how will I get to do this thing that is also important to me?”  If you are getting resistance about your needs or concerns from someone else, don’t get defensive. Instead, stop and say, “Obviously, I need you to take what I’ve said seriously, but what are you trying to tell me that you need?” Then make a plan for meeting that need.  You’ll be amazed how often this causes resistance or even disobedience to evaporate without the power struggle.  Treat resistance as a message.  Identify the need.  Create a solution, and move on.

For more resources for dealing with conflict effectively, visit us online at CatholicCounselors.com.

Four Ways to Keep Your Relationship Afloat In Tough Times

Husbands and wives pledge to love each other through good times and bad, sickness and health, wealth and poverty. On the day of the wedding, these promises feel comforting. But when bad times come through the door, love often flies out the window.  How can a couple stick together even when the going gets tough?

Decades of research have revealed the following four habits to be essential for staying close through difficult times. They are like four pontoons that keep your relationship afloat (see what I did there?), especially when the storms of life lead you into choppy waters.

1.Meaningful Couple Prayer—Turns out, the Venerable Patrick Peyton, CSC. was right. The couple that prays together really does stay together.  Research by Baylor University found that couples who engage in meaningful couple-prayer are significantly more likely to think positively about each other and feel closer to each other, especially through hard times.

Meaningful couple prayer isn’t just about “saying words at God.”  It requires you and your spouse to take a little time every day—even just five minutes—to talk to God about your life, your fears, your hopes, your dreams, and your feelings.  Sit down together and speak to God as if he were the person who knew you best and loved you most.  In addition to the graces we receive from prayer, couple-prayer “works” on a human level because it gives couples a safe, quasi-indirect way to reveal our hearts to one another.  We talk to God while our spouse listens in.  Then, as our spouse prays, we ask God to help us really hear what our spouse is trying to say.  What are their needs, their fears, their wants and concerns?  How do these fit with our own needs, fears, wants and concerns?  By listening to each other in prayer, the Holy Spirit can guide you toward graceful solutions.

2.Talk Together—Create a daily talk ritual; a time where you intentionally discuss topics that don’t natually come up.  Specifically, focus on three questions.  1) How are each of you holding up?  Be honest.  What do you feel like you’re handling well?  Where do you feel like you’re struggling?  When were you at your best today?  When were you at your worst?  2)  When did you feel closest to your spouse/most grateful for your spouse’s support today?  First of all, discussing this question daily makes you more conscious of the need to do things to support each other.  Second, acknowledging the ways you have shown up for each other throughout the day reminds you that you aren’t alone. You have a friend who really wants to be there for you. 3) What could you do to help make each other’s day a little easier/more pleasant?  Is there a project you need some help with?  Is there something you need prayer for?  Are there little things that your spouse sometimes does that mean a lot?  Take this time to ask each other to do those little things that say, “Even when life is falling apart, you can count on me to be here and to take care of you.”

3.Work Together—Your household chores aren’t just something to get through.  They’re actually opportunities to build a sense of solidarity and team spirit.  It’s a funny thing.  You might not know how to weather the latest crisis, but doing something as simple as making the bed together, or cleaning up the kitchen after dinner together, or picking up the family room together before you turn in sends a powerful unconscious message that says, “I’m not just here for the fun.  I’m here for the hard stuff and the boring stuff too.  Somehow, we can get through this. Together.”

Research shows that couples who make a daily habit of cultivating simple caretaking behaviors like doing chores side-by-side develop better cooperation, communication and problem-solving skills. It turns out that the way you work together to avoid bumping into each other and stepping on each other’s toes while you clean up the kitchen becomes the unconscious template for how you work together to handle that health crisis, financial problem, or other unexpected challenge.

4. Play Together—When you’re going through tough times, you don’t want to play.  We just want to isolate and hide.  Resist that temptation as best you can. Make a little time every day to do something pleasant together. Think about the simple pleasures you enjoy in happier times and make yourselves do them–even if you’re not really feeling it.  It might not be all laughs and giggles, but worst case scenario?  You might help each other remember that life isn’t completely horrible and you’ll have each other to thank for that little moment of joy.  Psychology reminds us that humor and play are two the most sophisticated defense mechanisms.  They help us stubbornly resolve to make beautiful moments even when life is anything but.  The couple that learns how to gently play together even the face of trials are true masters at life and love.

Life can be hard, but cultivating a love that “endures all things” (1Cor 13:7), isn’t complicated. By remembering to Pray, Talk, Work, and Play together, you can build a relationship that can stand up to whatever life throws at you.

Dr. Greg Popcak is the author of many books including Just Married. Learn more at CatholicCounselors.com