Marriage Counseling, The Demon Dialogues

marriage counselingMarriage counseling is the process of recognizing and reshaping the relational dance between two partners. In a previous post (linked here) I discussed this process as presented by Susan Johnson the developer of Emotion Focused Couples Therapy. Susan describes emotion as the music that drives the interaction (dance steps) of the marriage relationship. In her book Created For Connection she discusses the three most common “dances” of a distressed marriage and calls them the “demon dialogues”. According to Johnson, these dialogues are rooted in the couple’s deep need for connection with one another rather than conflict, communication deficits, or skill deficits.

The demon dialogues emerge when a couple that has lost their sense of connectedness encounters a moment of stress or conflict.  When the partners feel disconnected from one another the normal stressors of marriage tend to get sidetracked by one of the three demon dialogues. However, when both partners in the marriage feel safely connected to one another managing the stress of parenting or financial concern can be navigated in a way that creates more connection.  The demon dialogues spin out of control leading to more stress, hurt feelings, and increased disconnection.

Marriage Dialogue 1: Find the Bad Guy

This dance occurs when both partners are stuck using attack as a way to protect ones self from feeling vulnerable, alone, or unsafe. Each partner blames the other for the problem because disconnection has made it unsafe to vulnerably acknowledge ones own responsibility in the situation. John blames the family’s financial issues on Mary’s irresponsible spending habits, while Mary blames John for not working hard enough to provide for the family. The pattern is cyclical in that the more one is blamed the more disconnected and unsafe they feel. The lack of safety puts each partner “on guard” for the attack of the other. A hypersensitive stance may cause the partners to see threat where there is none. This leads to more frequent attacks and ever increasing difficulty in resolving conflict.

Marriage Dialogue 2: Protest Polka

The most common pattern encountered in marriage counseling is the pursuer-distancer dynamic.  Susan Johnson calls it the protest polka. One partner protests against the growing disconnection in the marriage by pursuing the other. Many times this pursuit feels more like demanding or criticism to the partner causing them to withdraw. The more the distancer withdraws the more the pursuer criticizes or protests. The pursuer is looking for reassurance about questions such as “do you care about me?”, “do I matter to you?”, “am I important” while the distancer is attempting to protect ones self from feelings of inadequacy, not being good enough, and failure.

Marriage Dialogue 3: Freeze and Flee

The final dialogue is one of silence. Both partners hunker down in their respective fox holes and hope is nearly gone. The pursuer has no more energy to protest and therefore shuts down to protect ones self from hurt and loneliness. The distancer is finally enjoying some peace but remains disconnected as a way to protect against a sneak attack. Each partner has tried everything they know to fix the problem but nothing has worked. They feel frozen, stuck in a dance that brings deeper and deeper hurt; therefore they flee by either leaving the marriage or resigning themselves to a lonely loveless relationship.

Restoring Connection:

The solution to the three demon dialogues is connection. When couples feel safely connected to one another they are able to navigate stress and conflict in more flexible, vulnerable, and adaptive ways. Connection creates the secure sense that your partner will be there for you, will notice you, will respond to you, and is reliable for you no matter the circumstance. Restoration is possible even in the most difficult of situations. It takes incredibly hard work, it takes time, and it takes risk.

If you would like to start this journey toward restoring connection with your spouse call me at 217-231-1413.

Reference:

Johnson, S. & Sanderfer, K (2016). Created for connection: The “hold me tight” guide for Christian couples. New York, NY: Little Brown and Company.

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Sharing Faith With Your Children

Faith: Proverbs 22:6I have had the wonderful privilege of working with many Christians struggling to parent their child through the difficult teenage years. Most of these families are like any other family that enters counseling. They are struggling with conflict, rebellion, communication difficulties, trust issues, and emotional challenges. One unique concern for Christian parents, however, is the desire to pass their faith in Jesus to the next generation.

Some parents fear that their ability to pass the faith on to their children has decreased due to a perceived reduction in the influence of family. Others fear technological advances and social changes that seem to have eroded their ability to influence their child’s value system.

Recent statistical reports noting the significant rise in the number of “nones” (adults with no religious affiliation) in the United States seem to confirm the challenges facing parents when seeking to pass their Christian faith to their children. In his book “Faith and Families: How Religion is Passed Down Across Generations Vern L. Bengston  gives five suggestions for parents hoping to pass the Christian faith to their children.

Bengston conducted a 35-year study of how religious families from a wide variety of faiths; pass their beliefs and practices to the next generation. He suggests that parents….

Have more religious influence than they think

Despite the popular opinions downplaying the influence that parents have on the religious beliefs of their children Bengston found parents to be the most important factor in the transmission of faith to the next generation. He also cited researchers Christian Smith and Melinda Denton as noting,

“Contrary to popular misguided cultural stereotypes and frequent parental mis-perceptions, we believe that the evidence clearly shows that the single most important social influence on the religious and spiritual lives of adolescents is their parents”

Bengston also described the importance of a close and warm relationship between parent and child when determining the level of influence afforded a parent.

Fervent faith cannot compensate for a distant dad

The fervency with which parents teach or adhere to their faith does not outweigh the power of a warm and close relationship in the transmission of the faith. Bengston found that children who felt a warm and close connection to their parents were more likely to share their parent’s religious affiliation than those with a cold or distant relationship. Not only that, this association was especially strong for the relationship between children and their fathers. (Go HERE to read more about how to connect with your children)

Allowing children religious choice can encourage religious continuity

Those children that are allowed to experience religious choice were more likely to share their parent’s religious beliefs. This one can be especially difficult for parents to put into practice.  The strong desire for our children to share our faith may cause us to become overbearing and rigid.  Remember that ultimately the Holy Spirit does the work of regeneration. It is not possible to “parent” our children to faith in Christ. Allowing for honest questions, open dialogue, and “belief exploration” may create the space needed for the Spirit to do his work.

Don’t forget the grandparents

Bengston found that for many families, grandparents have become the moral and religious compass. Grandparents offer important support to exhausted and over worked parents that encourage the continuation of religious practices and beliefs.

Don’t give up on Prodigals, because many do return

One of the most painful experiences for Christian parents may be a child who rejects the faith they have shared. Bengston found that those parents that waited, were open and accepting, and did not push were most likely to have their children return to the faith. Additionally, he found acceptance and affirmation as opposed to judgment and preaching as important factors.

What have we learned?

Ultimately parents cannot control whether or not their children come to faith in Jesus Christ. That is the domain of the Holy Spirit. It does appear however that a close and warm relationship with parents, particularly dad, belief exploration, support from grandparents, and patience can be important factors when seeking to disciple your children in faith.

 

What do you think? Do these points fit with your experience? What do you find helpful when raising your children in faith?