My essays about healthy relationships with God, others, & yourself.

Category: Counseling Topics (Page 2 of 2)

Never say “Forgive me.”

This essay runs parallel with my two previous “never say” posts: Never say “I’m Sorry,” and Never say “Trust me.”

But before I make my case for why not to say “Forgive me” to people, let’s talk about what forgiveness entails.  It happens after an injustice has been committed–physically or relationally.  A debt has been incurred; a crime committed.  Forgiveness occurs when the victim decides to “drop the charges ” or “cancel the debt.”

Forgiveness is necessary for harmony to be restored, yet forgiveness, if it is granted, must be done willingly by the victim.   It cannot be commanded or pressured.  If I’m the perpetrator and I’ve wronged my neighbor, it’s not my place to demand that he drop the charges against me and let me off the hook.  It’s not mine to insist that he cancel the debt I owe him.  So saying, “Forgive me” seems presumptuous and self-serving.  It smacks of entitlement, demanding that the wrong I did be dismissed.

So, even though forgiveness is required to make things right, demanding it is never appropriate, which is why this post discourages using the command, “Forgive me.”   Like love, forgiveness cannot be pressured or forced.

However, when you’re the perpetrator, I’m not telling you to ignore the issue of forgiveness.  It’s actually very good to state your need for forgiveness because it humbles you, shows your heart, and makes you beholden to the other person.  You’re admitting that your inappropriate behavior makes you indebted to the other person–like writing an “IOU.”   Stating your need for forgiveness relinquishes the power you had over the other person and it acknowledges that the other person holds the power to forgive you or not to.

Forgiveness, if granted, often takes time and likely will correspond to your demonstration of true repentance and your making proper amends.

“I hope that someday you’ll be able to forgive me for what I did” is a wonderful way to declare your need for forgiveness without pressuring the person to grant it immediately.  Whether he or she chooses to forgive you is his or her responsibility.

If forgiveness is withheld or delayed, sure, it will negatively affect you.  But remember you negatively affected that person first.

What about saying “Forgive me” to God?

I’ve been talking about asking people for forgiveness, but what about God?  Didn’t Jesus command us in the Lord’s Prayer to say “Forgive us our sins?”  Here are a couple of added reflections:

  • Christianity teaches that Jesus’s death on the cross has already paid for the debt we owe God because of our sins.  He has extended His offer of forgiveness to everyone who believes.  So when we say “Forgive me” to God, we are not commanding Him to do something He doesn’t want to do.  We are not ordering Him around.  We are essentially claiming what He has already promised.  We are taking Him at His word.
  • The Lord’s prayer actually says, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.”   It’s a statement that God ought to forgive us in accordance with how readily we forgive others.  That should give us something to think about when we are the victim.



Never say “Trust me.”

A husband who was kicked out after he had an affair begs his wife to let him back home, saying, “The affair is over.  Trust me.”

A mom whose alcohol misuse embarrasses her kids at their sporting events protests when they don’t want her to attend anymore.  “I won’t embarrass you again, trust me.”

A friend who frequently asks to borrow some money asks once more, promising, “I’ll pay you back, trust me.”

A teenage daughter wants to go with her friends to the all-night “after-prom” party at the hotel.  The parents resist and she adamantly asserts that nothing bad will happen, “Just trust me.”

Each of these scenarios demonstrates a misunderstanding and a misusing of the word trust.   We should never say “Trust me” because that’s simply not the way trust works.

Trust is not a choice.  Love is a choice.  Forgiveness is a choice.   Transparency is a choice.  Compassion is a choice.   Blogging is a choice.  Trust is NOT a choice; it’s something else.  Trust is actually a feeling.

Trust is a feeling.

  • Of safety.
  • Of confidence.
  • Of certainty.
  • Of comfortability.
  • Of a lack of apprehension.
  • Of a lack of worry.
  • Of a lack of skepticism or cynicism.
  • Of a lack of anxiety.

Since trust is a feeling, commanding someone to “Trust me,” is about as senseless as telling someone to “feel nauseous,” “feel sentimental,” or “feel lonely.”  Trust is not something one simply decides to do.  Like all feelings, it’s merely a description of what is.  We don’t change feelings by imploring people to feel otherwise.  Healthy people don’t tell others to feel–or not feel–a certain way.  We shouldn’t minimize feelings or encourage others to stuff their feelings.  Feelings just are.

It’s true that feelings, including trust, can change, but we don’t change them by begging someone to change their feelings.  We change feelings by changing the conditions that caused the feelings.

Here are some tips if you want someone to trust you

1.  Be consistently dependable, principled, wise, honest, and safe–in other words, be trustworthy!   This is the best way to gain and maintain trust.  Since no one is completely consistent, when you do fail –and you will!–be sure to quickly accept responsibility and make things right.  That’ll restore trust promptly.

2.  If someone feels unsafe due to the magnitude or duration of your past hurtful behavior, this is a sad situation. Trust is easy to lose and hard to regain, and it’s entirely possible that trust will never be restored.  But if you care about the relationship, you will do whatever it takes to attempt to restore trust.  And, be assured, it will not be easy.  Here are some thoughts for you…

  • Trust is yours to earn, not the other’s to grant.  The onus is entirely on you to prove you are worth trusting.
  • Restoring trust involves the past, present, and future.  It is possible only after 1.)  owning and repairing the damage already done in the past and 2.) acting significantly differently in the present and 3.) consistently showing safe, changed behavior from here on.
  • How much time will it take?  No one knows how long it will take, not even the distrustful person.  The longer the harmful behavior lasted and the more serious its nature, the longer it will take to restore trust.  Since trust is a feeling, it’s impossible for anyone to predict when that person will feel safe–it could take a week, a month, or more than a year.  We can’t put “Trust will arrive here!” on the calendar.  But, the more aggressively you take responsibility for past mistakes and make noticeable changes from here on out, the better your chances will be.  Focus on showing consistent, improved behavior over time, while waiting, hoping, and praying for trust to someday return.

3.  Sometimes the lack of trust isn’t about you directly, but about issues pertaining to the other person (past abuse, assumptions, stereotypes, anxieties, awareness of human nature, etc.).  If this is the case, it would be wise to spend time getting to understand the distrustful person’s hurts, fears, prejudices, or anxieties.  Then you can work together on alleviating those that can be overcome. By showing empathy, sensitivity, and care, you will be increasing the chances that you will overcome the disadvantages and be trusted in spite of them.

Two Final Thoughts

It’s ok to say, “I want you to trust me”  just as it would be ok to say, “I want you to feel safe with me.”  This is a statement about a desired outcome, not a demand for the person to feel a certain way.

Only God can truly say, “Trust Me!”  Because of his faithfulness, holiness, and perfection, he alone has the right to tell us to feel safe with Him!

Never say I’m sorry.

“Love means never having to say you’re sorry.”

Some of my clients and I have recently been pondering the phrase “I’m sorry” and now I want to write some thoughts on that subject.   I’ll share my conclusion before making my case below:  we should try to avoid saying “I’m sorry” as much as possible!

This announcement may come as a surprise to those who know my proclivity toward apologizing so let me explain.

Here are five reasons why I think we should discontinue using “I’m sorry.”

  1. It’s overused.  Some people use the phrase in self-deprecating ways, saying “I’m sorry” about nearly everything they do–they even seem sorry about their very existence.  Of course, when you ask them to stop saying, “I’m sorry” their response is “I’m sorry.”  Such people have a low self-concept and use the phrase either to assume more blame than is warranted or to solicit endless sympathy from others.  Either reason is unhealthy.
  2. It minimizes. “I’m sorry” can be a meaningless concession phrase just to get someone off your back (often followed by “Jeez Louise” or the equivalent).  It’s an easy out that minimally admits error without truly taking responsibility.  We can use it to get off the hook or trivialize the one who is offended.
  3. It provides an easy segue to deflection, blame-shifting, and excuse-making, especially when followed by the word, but.   “I’m sorry…but you gave me no choice…”,   “I’m sorry…but if you weren’t so pushy”, and  “I’m sorry…but if I had a little more support around here…”
  4. The phrase is too vague.  When I say “I’m sorry,” exactly what am I being sorry about?   It’s unclear.  Sorry that I got caught?  (i.e., “worldly sorrow”). That I might suffer consequences?  (i.e., self-pity).  That I tarnished my reputation?  (i.e., pride). That people will disapprove of me?  (i.e., insecurity). Or that I hurt you deeply and am deeply grieved by my actions (actual remorse).  Any of these are possibilities so the phrase lacks usefulness.
  5. The phrase is misused when empathy is needed.  We say “I’m sorry” when someone tells us of their misfortune even though we were not responsible for their pain.  Their predictable response then becomes, “Oh, don’t you feel bad; my pain is not your fault!”  This is detrimental as it shifts the focus of the talk from their hurt to our lack of culpability.  It would be more direct and constructive to simply say “I feel bad about what you’re going through” or “It pains me to hear about what happened to you.”   That would elicit the response, “Thank you,” showing that empathy was felt, not sidestepped.

While I am suggesting we try to avoid this oft-misused phrase, I’m not suggesting we not apologize!   In fact, if we care about healthy relationships, apologizing is one of the most important things we fallen humans must do!  I’m just saying to try apologizing without saying, “I’m sorry.”  So how do we do that?

[Important note: apologizing starts with actually being remorseful.  If you can hurt someone and not feel remorse, there is something deeply wrong with you.  If you are indifferent about hurting others, or even worse, you take pleasure in doing so, something needs healing in your own heart.  This is a spiritual problem; God commands us to love others, not hurt them without regret.  Ignore everything else in this post and get to work on your own soul.   See a counselor, pastor, or spiritual mentor right away.]   But for the rest of you…

After cooling off and calming down, here are the components of a “heartfelt apology.”

  1. Name the crime in direct, first-person language.   Describe what you did in accurate detail. This takes humility.  “I yelled at you unkindly.”  “I came home drunk again.”   “I treated you like crap in front of the kids.”   “I accused you unfairly.”  “I gave you the cold shoulder.”  “I was controlling, demanding you do it my way.”
  2. Don’t minimize what you did or offer explanations.  Take full responsibility for what you did to the other person with no excuses.  Sure, there are reasons for your bad behavior, but talk to your pastor or therapist to figure out those root causes.  For now, only describe to your loved one what you did to him or her that was hurtful.
  3. Recognize how you must have made him or her feel.  Try to see through his or her eyes and think about how your bad behavior must have felt to your loved one.  Describe the wounds you caused in ways that show understanding.  “I frightened you by coming at you like that.”  “It must have crushed your spirit to hear me say such degrading things to you.”  “I insulted your character, which must have been infuriating.”  Try to include likely emotions as you describe the negative impact of your behavior.
  4. Emphasize how he or she didn’t deserve to be treated that way.   Show your loved one that he or she deserved better treatment.  “You didn’t deserve that kind of disrespect.”  “How could I have treated you so unfairly?”  “No one should ever treat you the way I just did.”
  5. Show your remorse.  “I’m embarrassed about how I treated you.”  “I wish I could retract what I said to you.”  “I’ll always regret having treated you that way.”  “I wish I could travel back in time and unhurt you.”
  6. Assure that you intend to learn from this mistake and do better in the future.   Simply confessing what you did wrong is not enough.  You must show genuine repentance by showing that you are serious about changing.  To repent means to turn.  “I can’t undo my past but want you to know that I have learned from my sin and my goal is to treat you properly in the future.  Moving forward, I plan to show you significant improvement in my behavior as I learn from this blunder of mine.  I’m determined to love you more and hurt you less.”  By stating your commitment to an improved future, you instill hope and optimism for a better relationship moving forward.
  7. Make amends if possible.  If there’s any way to make amends do so.  If you’ve treated your loved one with dishonor, compensate by doing something to show him or her extra honor.  If the infraction was in front of others, set things right with all those who witnessed it.  If something was broken, replace it.  If something is threatening, remove it permanently from the relationship.  If you created fear, replace it with safety.
  8. State your need for forgiveness.  Stating your need for forgiveness is about you humbling yourself, expressing that you are indebted to him or her.  Ultimately, whether or not the other person is able to forgive you is out of your control.  You take responsibility for yourself.  I’ll write more about forgiveness in a future essay.

Two final thoughts.

  1. Remember that tone and facial expression must correspond to the words.  In fact, these communicate more clearly than the words themselves.  Look the other person in the eyes and show genuine sadness about how you treated him or her and show honest determination about making changes.
  2. We should apologize frequently, not just over big things, but also over little hurts.  This will keep resentment from building up.   Since we will fail each other frequently, we should be quick to heal the wounds.  All of the steps outlined above may not be necessary in each case, but, when in doubt, I suggest erring on the side of over-apologizing rather than under-apologizing!

Love means never having to say you’re sorry.   A heartfelt apology is much better.



The reasonable solution to Perfectionism!

Both in and outside my counseling office I encounter people who are seriously distressed by their own imperfections.  They want to do everything perfectly and are perpetually disappointed in themselves for falling short.  Overwhelmed and under-rested, these people spend much of their lives on the performance treadmill–yet, they seem to get nowhere.  And they often struggle to take pride in the work they do accomplish;  nothing they do is good enough.  Eventually, they become wearied and exhausted.  Some even end up despairing of life itself.

These are the perfectionists.

There are many reasons why people may become perfectionists, but I’m not going to explore that here.   Instead, I want to talk about the root problem of perfectionism and offer a reasonable solution.

The problem of perfectionism is this:  Perfection is an illusion!  Like trying to grasp a hologram, perfectionists are chasing after something that can never be caught.

Here’s why I say perfectionism is an illusion:

We are human.  As I blogged recently, the most loving husband or wife remains notably imperfect!  Truly, all of us fall short because we are fallen people living in fallen bodies in a fallen world.  Our bodies themselves are far from perfect;  our faces are not even perfectly symmetrical!  In heaven, it’s possible we’ll do everything perfectly, but that’s impossible on this side of eternity.

We don’t just have one thing to do.  We have many roles and responsibilities to fulfill in life, not just one.  For my part, I am a disciple of Jesus, a husband, a son, a dad, a grandfather, an uncle, a brother, a nephew, a cousin, a counselor, a neighbor, a friend, a citizen, a church member, a homeowner, a gardener, a runner, a student, a blogger, a janitor, a nursery volunteer, a musician, an occasional preacher, and a board member of two separate non-profit organizations.  Can I be perfect at all of these roles?  Not a chance!  In fact, I can’t be perfect in any of these roles.  [If a person only had one role–such as a professional figure skater–and dedicated their life to that one thing alone, I suppose he or she could approach perfection in that singular area.  But they would be even further from perfect in all other areas!]

Our energy is limited.  We only have so much energy to spend fulfilling the roles just mentioned.  We consume and burn about 2,500 calories a day to fuel our brains and body.  We also need to sleep to recharge our brains and bodies.  God designed our human bodies with physiological limitations and the need for a sabbath rest, so we must live in that reality.  If we don’t slow down, pace ourselves, and practice self-care we will either peter out, burn out, or be taken out.

Our time is limited.  Another reality is that each of us is given exactly 1,440 minutes per day–no more, no less!   We can’t supersize our day or purchase an extension pack to gain more minutes.  We each have a finite amount of time with which to accomplish whatever we can.  [We don’t have the luxury of living like Bill Murray in the movie Groundhog Day.  He could approach perfection because he had a virtually unlimited amount of time to get it right.  He was able to master French poetry, create beautiful ice sculptures, master the piano, plan the perfect robbery, toss cards perfectly into a hat, and know every detail about everyone in his town–only because he had no time restraints!]  If Malcolm Gladwell’s theory is correct in that it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert at any one thing, there’s just not enough time for any of us to become perfect at much of anything!

I hate to break it to you, but you cannot be perfect–and, as I wrote six years ago, you shouldn’t expect your kids to be either!  Perfectionism is an illusion.

Yet, people keep trying anyway.   In this second half of my post, I want to explain how you can get off this perfectionism treadmill.   Just as treadmills have an emergency-stop safety mechanism, I want to show a reasonable way to stop the perfection belt from running you ragged.

The solution to perfectionism is this:  Let’s only do what is REASONABLE instead of trying to do everything perfectly.  

[Before I explain further, let me be clear that in renouncing perfection, I’m not advocating for sloppy or shoddy performance, and I’m not encouraging laziness or mediocrity.  The standard I uphold is doing a reasonably excellent job in each of our various responsibilities.]

If I spend too much time and energy trying to be the perfect employee, working overtime, etc., that will come at the expense of my family obligations.  If I invest too much time being the perfect family member, that will detract from my church responsibilities.  If I spend too much time being the perfect church member, that will keep me from practicing self-care, etc.  Each area competes for my limited time and energy.  Attending to one thing always comes at the expense of something else.  To reduce it even further, every minute spent on one area is a minute not spent on another.

So, considering all the roles and responsibilities I need to fulfill, my aim in life is to be a reasonably effective–not perfectly effective–husband, dad, grandpa, citizen, friend, blogger, runner, etc.  I don’t have unlimited time or energy, so I have to find a reasonable balance between each of these competing roles and responsibilities.

So how do we figure out what is reasonable?

First.  Let’s reconsider what roles and responsibilities we should be fulfilling.  Perhaps we are investing our time in too many things or even in the wrong things.  Just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should.  Just because it’s a good thing, doesn’t mean it’s the best thing.  Having worked as a youth pastor for over 30 years, I often observed exhausted, depressed, teenagers who were overinvolved with good activities:  multiple school sports, club sports, show choirs, marching bands, all-state competitions, AP classes, mock trial, speech competitions, theater performances, color guard, etc.   And that’s just at school!   We should step back and think about what propels us to do more things than we reasonably should.  And we should also think about things we ought to be involved with but aren’t.  Honestly, I sometimes felt jealous that the youth group was only given leftovers from some students!  But my judgments don’t matter; the important thing is what God expects.  Ask Him to show you what your reasonable roles and responsibilities should be as you go through the various seasons of your life.

Second.  Once we identify our proper roles and responsibilities, then we need to figure out how to reasonably allocate our limited time and energy between them.  Just as we do in financial budgeting, we need to discern how much of our time and energy we can reasonably apportion to each area of life.   How many hours is reasonable to spend working?  How much time is reasonable to spend on date nights with my wife?  How much energy should be reasonably spent on long-distance racing?  Or marching band?  Or karaoke?  Or video games?  Or Netflix?  Or show choir?     Again, the important thing is to discern what God currently expects of you.  He’s the one who has given you your time and talents, roles, and responsibilities for this season you’re in.  Ask Him to show you how to reasonably allocate your life.

Third.  Be ready to adjust and don’t feel guilty about it.  There will be no perfect allocation because needs constantly change and opportunities constantly arise.  We’ll need to frequently modify how we spend our time and energy.  The plans we had at the beginning of the day might have gone out the window by mid-day.  Your plans to study for the science test fell apart because you helped your neighbor whose basement was flooding.  You didn’t get the dishes done because you had to take the baby to the clinic.  You didn’t get the promotion at work because you wanted weekends with your family.  You got kicked off the team because you chose to go on a missions trip instead of the tournament.  Remember, the goal is no longer perfection–its reasonableness.   Give yourself permission to go to bed saying, “I couldn’t do it all perfectly, but all things considered, I did what was most reasonable!”

Ultimately the question to ask yourself is this: “Given my present circumstances, how is God nudging me to reasonably divvy up my limited amounts of time and energy?” This is something we ought to ask Him continuously!

But hold on a minute!  Doesn’t God demand our perfection?  Spiritually, yes, but the spiritual perfection He demands was satisfied in Jesus and is imputed to believers by justification through faith.  But in all other respects, God doesn’t seem to demand perfection.  He created us and thus understands our physical, emotional, mental, and temporal limitations even better than we do.  He sympathizes with us in our weaknesses.  God knows our frame, that we are dust.  He is a God of mercy and grace, not a cruel taskmaster.  Jesus is gentle and lowly.  His yoke is easy and His burden is light.  It seems clear that our perfect God has very reasonable expectations of us.

At the end of my life, I don’t expect to be judged by the impossible standard of perfection, but rather, by whether or not what I did was reasonable.  People who know me, know that “reasonable” is one of the theme words of my life–I talk about it a lot!   In fact, at the end of my life, I hope I’m remembered as the guy who did what was reasonable…reasonably well!


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If Wedding Vows Were Honest

People love weddings.  I should know because I officiated over 50 of them!  Everything is arranged to make the perfect day.   Everyone cleans up, dresses up, covers up, and gets made up.   Friends and family converge from all over the world and sit expectantly through the prelude.  Then the elegant wedding party glides down the aisle until the real head-turner appears–the radiant bride.  Then we blush with the stunning groom who is grinning from ear to ear as he beholds her approach.   She arrives, the bride is given, he takes her arm, they come forward and, as the ceremony proceeds, they gaze into each other’s eyes transfixed.  Everything is picture perfect!   As Uncle Herman reads 1 Corinthians chapter 13, “the love chapter,” eyes are moist all around.

And then we get to the culmination of the whole event–the exchanging of vows.   A holy hush occurs as everyone strains to listen to what the lovers will pledge to one another.

In a Christian wedding, they’ll traditionally sound something like this.

“I, Ken, pledge my undying love to you, Barbie, as I invite you to share my life. I promise to be kind, unselfish, respectful, and trustworthy, serving you and putting your needs before my own.  I promise to love you with unconditional, agape love, like Christ loved the church.  Barbie, today, before God and these witnesses, I take you to be my wife, to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, remaining faithful to you as long as we both shall live.”

Beautiful words of promise fit for such a beautiful day.  Everyone melts.  Tears flow.  Cameras capture it for posterity.

But is it honest?   Will Ken really love her unconditionally?  Will he really put all of her needs before his own?  Will his love be unwavering when things get worse, or poorer, or in sickness?   No.

The problem is, Barbie is not marrying Jesus, she’s marrying Ken.  And Ken is a fallen human being, just as she is.

As I’ve stated elsewhere, it is a guarantee that all of us will miserably fail at consistently delivering Christian agape love to those we care about.  1 Corinthians, chapter 13 vividly describes God’s perfect love, but only He demonstrates it without fail.   Though hopefully, we are growing in Christlikeness, we will demonstrate it intermittently at best.  This is because we are humans with some serious limitations, which means…

  • we get distracted
  • we forget things
  • we get overloaded
  • life depletes us and wears us down
  • we get tired, hungry, and uncomfortable
  • we run out of energy
  • we sometimes speak before thinking
  • we lack sensitivity
  • we see things from our limited perspective, etc.
  • we don’t know how others interpret things
  • we don’t know what it’s like to be our spouse
  • we are ignorant, not always understanding what is needed in certain situations
  • we lose momentum
  • we lose focus
  • we misprioritize
  • we get lazy
  • we get selfish
  • we think our way is better
  • we can only hold it together for so long
  • we have limits

We can’t keep it together for a single day, let alone ’till death do us part!

So if wedding vows were honest, I think they would sound more like this.

I, Ken, take you, Barbie, to be my wedded wife.  As your husband, God calls me to love you as Christ loved the church, with unconditional, agape love.  With God’s help, I will strive to love you that way, but I know that my love will often fall short of that ideal because I’m human, and because my pursuit of Christ is a work in progress.  I promise that it is my intention to treat you with the kindness, respect, and trust that you deserve, putting your needs before my own.  I also promise that when I fail, and treat you in ways that are not loving, I will admit my sin against you, repent of it, make things right with you, and then learn from my failure how to love you better in the future.  I also promise that when you fail at loving me, I will be quick to forgive you and will do everything I can to restore our relationship and grow from it as well.  Barbie, today, before God and these witnesses, I promise to work on loving you more and more, repairing things with you when I fail, and making our home one that models perpetual grace and forgiveness–through better or worse, for richer or poorer, and in sickness and in health. Whatever God brings our way, I promise to remain faithful to you for as long as we both shall live.

Now please don’t get me wrong.  I’m not suggesting every future bride and groom needs to change their traditional wedding vows to match my honest ones.  In fact, at our own wedding,  Cindy and I shared traditional vows that were very similar to the ones in the first sample above.  If there was ever a day to celebrate idealism, it would be on your wedding day!  I’m not wanting to kill the mood!

But what I am saying is that–regardless of promises made–we should live with the expectation that we will regularly fail to love our loved ones and they will regularly fail to love us.  That’s the real promise!   So let’s adjust our expectations and be prepared for that.  And then when we do hurt each other, let’s be quick to heal the hurts and grow from them so that we might learn to love more and hurt less.


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Relational Temperature, Part 3: Temperature Definitions

In my past two posts, I framed relationships as having temperatures.  Part 1 talked about what factors cause relationships to either warm up or cool down, and Part 2 told what to do if others choose to remain cold despite your attempts at warmth.

In this post, I will define each of the twelve temperature increments on my graphic.  I’ll explain the warmer ones first, followed by the colder ones.  I’ll begin each grouping with the absence of temperature–what I call Complacent.

Here’s how I describe the increasing levels of warmth in relationships.

COMPLACENT   Again, this level is neither warm nor cool.  Indifference or ambivalence characterizes such relationships.  No positive or negative interactions or feelings exist.  This category can describe people with whom we have little or no interaction, such as neighbors we haven’t met.  To move to the next level of warmness often begins with introducing ourselves and learning names.

CORDIAL   This is the level where people are polite and respectful toward each other, but there is still a formality to the interactions.  Cordiality is seen in the pleasant conversations between people who just met–involving an ever-so-slight amount of relational warmth.  Moving to the next level requires viewing the other person as someone to bless.

COURTEOUS  Here, the people show gracious consideration toward one another involving small acts of kindness that have minimal cost.  Shoveling a neighbor’s driveway is an example of being courteous.  Moving to the next level of warmth requires becoming aware of the particular needs of others.

CARING  In this level, people demonstrate a greater level of kindness through costlier actions, empathy, and personalized compliments.   Examples would be bringing over a meal for someone in crisis, helping someone move, offering a listening ear to a neighbor who needs to vent, or building up someone who feels like a failure.  Wouldn’t the world be a better place if people were better at caring!   And think of the influence we would have if we were better at this; people don’t care what you know until they know that you care.  With many of the people in our lives, this level is as warm as we need to get.  But for others, we will have even warmer relationships.

CONNECTED  People in this category find community with others, often through group involvement, shared experiences, geographical proximity, ethnic backgrounds, and shared interests such as sports, hobbies, politics, beliefs, or church involvement.  Such connections offer an antidote for loneliness and provide a sense of belonging.  In connected relationships, it is safe to share opinions, values, and passions.  Here, we enjoy camaraderie and a sense of we, not just me.  People can feel connected with dozens and even hundreds of people; however, the final two levels necessarily involve much smaller numbers of people.

CLOSE  This level describes relationships where there is a much higher level of vulnerability, safety, and trust.  The people within this level find it safe to share difficult experiences, controversial views, emotions, hurts, fears, and dreams in the context of unconditional support and encouragement.   Bible studies, accountability or support groups, support groups, and close teams often provide such close connections.  We usually have only a handful or two of family and friends within this category.

CORE  The most intimate relationships belong in this final category which is characterized by complete vulnerability, transparency, and support.  These are the closest of friends and they enjoy safe, secure, attachment bonds.  A person may have one or two core people in their lives and spouses in the healthiest of marriages relate at this level.  For Christians, our relationship with God should also be at this level of intimacy.

And here’s how I describe the levels of increasing coldness.

COMPLACENT   This level is neither warm nor cool.  Indifference or ambivalence characterizes such relationships.  No positive or negative feelings or interactions exist.  This category can describe people with whom we have little or no interaction, such as neighbors we haven’t met.

COLD  This is the first level where the interactions are chilly.  People here are stand-offish or resort to brief answers to questions without elaboration.  Sarcasm, eye-rolling, and sighs of exasperation may also occur in cold relationships.  When people are cold toward us, it is difficult–but important–not to reciprocate; returning coldness for coldness serves only to propel us toward the next level.

CRITICAL  Relationships at this level contain a lot of criticism, focusing on the other person’s failures.  Harsh words are spoken, flaws are highlighted, complaints are levied, and disparaging words are shared.  It is the opposite of encouragement and there is no granting  any “benefit of the doubt.”   When people are critical of us, it is nearly impossible not to strike back with criticism, but we are wise when we listen to the criticism, looking for kernels of truth that we might learn from.   But, instead, if we deflect their criticisms and turn the attention back to their flaws, we only lead the relationship closer toward the next level of coldness.

CONTEMPTUOUS   Criticism eventually grows into an internal attitude of contempt, which dwells under the surface with feelings of disdain and resentment.  Contempt is sometimes expressed through external cutting remarks and negative generalizations.  According to acclaimed marriage researcher, Dr. John Gottman, contempt between spouses is the number one predictor of divorce.  When we harbor contempt toward another, all compassion is gone.  We would be wise to check our attitudes and look for the image of God in others.  But, instead, if we keep viewing them with contempt, we are heading toward the added coldness of the next level.

CONFLICT-RIDDEN  By this point, the gloves have completely come off–wounding the other is the primary goal.  Relationships in this level are characterized by constant bickering, arguments, shutting down the other, deflection, blame-shifting, avoidance of responsibility, and unforgiveness.   The goal is to defeat them at all costs, opposing every statement, getting the last word in, proving them wrong, and cutting them down.  If we are wise, we will become convicted about the damage we’re causing and will see the importance of standing down.  If we don’t, the only option will be the final level.

CUT OFF COMPLETELY  These relationships are so icy cold that one or both parties have cut the other off completely.  The hurts are so deep that the parties refuse to interact at all.   [Note: in abusive relationships, this level may be the only safe option.  But in all other situations, see my previous post on how to warm things up.]


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Relational Temperature, Part 2: When Others Choose Coldness

In my first post, I introduced the concept of relational temperatures and listed things that will cause relationships to either warm up or cool off.

It’s wonderful when families and friendships are close, but it’s painful when we feel kept at a distance by those we long to be close to.  This post explores ways to respond when others continue to treat us coldly, despite our efforts at warmth.

Grieve.  God created us for warm connections, so when those we care about treat us with coldness, grief is inevitable.  This grief involves not only the distancing of the person, but also the diminished relationship itself.  Additional losses may include accessibility, trust, enjoyment, support, peace, safety, security, harmony, respect, love, and delight.  Such great losses inevitably bring along the various stages of grief:  denial, anger, bartering, and depression.  Working through these is important.

Accept.  The final stage of grief is acceptance.  This does not mean throwing in the towel and giving up on the relationship, but it does mean accepting that the other person has chosen to remain cold toward us.  Acceptance recognizes that we can’t control the choices of others.  We can only take responsibility for ourselves.

Move from Madness to Sadness.  When others choose to relate to us with coldness, criticism, contempt, etc., it is deeply hurtful.  And the more we care about the relationship, the more their coldness hurts.  They have likely treated us in ways that seem unfair, unreasonable, unappreciative, demeaning, and insulting.  Anger is understandable and probably unavoidable.  Yet we can’t stay there.  Harboring bitterness only hurts ourselves, the other person, and whatever remains of the relationship.  In our hearts, we must work toward letting go of our anger and forgiving people for the hurt they caused.  Our goal is to move from Madness to Sadness.  We mustn’t remain mad, but it’s ok to remain sad–in fact, our sadness will be a beautiful testimonial to how much the relationship means to us.

Get Support.  It will be impossible to do any of this on our own—we need support!  We must take it first to Jesus, who understands more than anyone what it feels like to receive iciness in response to His warm love.  He is the one who can bring us comfort in our grief, who can help us accept what we can’t control, who can give us the willingness and ability to forgive, and who can give us the power to change our Madness to Sadness.  We’ll also need peer support.  Let’s lean on others during our time of hurt to receive needed prayer, encouragement, perspective, wisdom, and guidance.  God instructed His Church to practice the “one anothers” for needs such as ours in times such as this.  The warmth offered by Jesus and His Church is sure to offset much of the cold treatment we’ve been receiving.

Keep Our Wants and Needs Straight.  We cause ourselves needless additional pain when we confuse our needs and our wants.  Think of the weight that would be lifted if we viewed getting warmth from others as a want, but not a need.  Consider these scenarios…

  • The mom who needs her daughter to call on Mother’s Day will be shattered when she doesn’t, whereas the mom who merely wants that won’t let her daughter’s negligence define her worth or ruin her day.
  • The son who needs his parents to visit him as often as they visit the other siblings will be infuriated when they don’t, whereas the son who merely wants equal time will have a gentler response to the unfairness.
  • The wife who needs her husband to compliment her will be crushed, whereas the one who only wants his compliments will be hurt, but not let it define her well-being.
  • The sister who needs her brother to enthusiastically help plan their parents’ 50th anniversary will be incensed when he shows disinterest. The one who merely wants that will have a more tempered response to him as she honors her parents without him.
  • The friend who needs her former boyfriend to respond to communications will be absolutely wrecked by his ghosting, but the one who only wants a response will be able to recover.

So let’s be careful about what category we place things into.  Unmet needs seem catastrophic, make us feel desperate, and cause us to panic.  Unmet wants may be unpleasant, but can be overcome far more easily.  (Technically, I believe we don’t need anything from anyone, but that’s beyond today’s topic!)  

Don’t Give Up Hope.  Earlier we talked about accepting the other’s choice to treat us coldly, but that doesn’t mean we can’t hope for a warmer future.  Below are some suggestions for practical things we can do that may increase the chances of the other person warming up to us.

[Disclaimer, it’s important to acknowledge that some relationships are abusive and need boundaries rather than increased warmth.  In extreme cases, remaining cut off completely may be the only healthy response while abusive behavior persists.]   

Pray.  Most “coldness” issues are matters of the heart, so asking God to change the heart of the cold person is essential.  Let’s be sure to pray “for” the person and not “against” him or her.  If our loved ones have cut us off completely or are unsafe to be around, prayer for them may literally be our only option.   Where we do have contact, let’s pray also for ourselves, that we’ll avoid the temptation to return coldness for coldness.  Let’s pray that somehow, in some way, we’ll be able to build a relational bridge to the person’s heart.

Apologize.  When in doubt, let’s apologize!  Let’s take responsibility for anything we perceive we may have done to contribute to the coldness between us, and offer a heartfelt apology.  Let’s also ask them if there’s anything else we missed–other things we need to make right.  Let’s listen carefully and take full responsibility for every hurt we caused without resorting to defensiveness, blame-shifting, deflection, or excuse-making.

Hide Our Hurt.   Even though we have certainly been wounded by those who treat us coldly, let’s not share this with them unless they ask.  Let’s be especially careful not to complain, pout, sulk, act wounded, play the victim, or call them out.  Scolding willfully-cold people for treating us coldly will surely result in further coldness.  This is an occasion when honesty is not the best policy.  No, I am not suggesting we stuff our feelings.  The hurts do need to be expressed, but that’s why we have a support team in place!

Express Our Desire.  Sometimes, it can help just to state what we’d like.  We can describe to them what we liked when things were warmer between us, sharing cherished memories of former times.  We can express how we long to get back to that place of warmth again if possible.  Let’s paint a picture of an improved future and express our commitment to doing whatever we can to get there if possible.  But if we do so, let’s be careful to avoid shaming, pressuring, sermonizing, and manipulating.  Let’s allow them the freedom to disagree.

Continue to Act Warmly Even to Those Who Remain Cold.  Jesus loved us when we were still his enemies, so when we act warmly to those who continue to treat us coldly, we are being like Him.  We all give account for ourselves, not for anyone else.  They will answer for their actions and so will we.  When others are cold to us, let’s always choose to be the warmer person, the bigger person, the godlier person.  It’s the right thing to do.

In Part 3 on this topic, I will define my chart’s various temperature levels and suggest practical ways to make warm relationships even warmer.



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Thoughts about Relational Temperature, Part 1

To varying degrees, relationships can feel warm and intimate or they can feel chilly and estranged.   I’ve created this graphic to illustrate the wide range of “relational temperatures” that we might experience.

Healthy relationships involve warm connections with others; these are represented by the six “yellow zones” of my illustration.  We engage intimately in the center zones with just a few people; there are more people–with less intimacy– in each subsequent circle.    Regardless of the amount of closeness, intimacy, and warmth, all of these yellow-zone relationships are healthy.

Unfortunately, we are sinful people who don’t always get relationships right.  Our brokenness affects all areas of life, including how we interact with others.

Unhealthiness exists when relationships operate in the blue zones.   A relationship that includes cold-shouldering, hostility, or shunning can be crushing, especially when it involves family and friends.   The biblical story of Jacob and Esau and the account of Joseph and his brothers illustrate the pain that comes from living in these circles.  Such pain can sometimes last for generations!

The pain caused by blue-zone relationships keeps us counselors in business.

Almost all of us would prefer to relate with others in the yellow zones; only the seriously dysfunctional would want their relationships devoid of warmth.

All relationships have a temperature, but as with the weather, temperatures can either warm up or cool off.  So let’s look at some things that might cause variations in relational temperatures.

List 1.  What may help relationships Warm Up?

  • Listening for understanding
  • Pursuing clarity
  • Seeking reconciliation
  • Assuming goodwill
  • Heartfelt apologies
  • Forgiveness
  • Humility
  • An “others orientation”
  • Expressions of love and care
  • Being fully present, staying engaged
  • Mutual respect
  • Making others feel safe
  • Acts of kindness
  • Choosing to be unoffendable

List 2.  What may cause relationships to Cool Off?

  • Poor communication
  • Withholding the benefit of the doubt
  • Assuming ill-will
  • Making assumptions
  • Judging motives
  • Stereotyping
  • Victim mentalities
  • Resentment, bitterness, and unforgiveness
  • Seeking revenge or retribution
  • Prejudice, condescension, judgmentalism, –any of the “isms”
  • Selfishness, greed, and pride
  • Withdrawing or stonewalling
  • Inattentiveness
  • Anger, out-of-control emotions
  • Exaggerations using “always” and “never”
  • Fear, intimidation

Doing more of the things on list 1 above and doing less of the things on list 2 ought to warm up any relationship.   It’s worth noting that all of the “one another” passages in Scripture would fall under list 1.  The church is to be a place of exceptional warmth!

But even so, there is no guarantee that things will always be warm with our families, friends, and churches.  Some things remain out of our control.   In Part 2 on this topic, I will talk about how to handle it when coldness remains in a relationship even after doing your part.

Honesty is not the best policy

I don’t want you being honest with me — and I promise not to be honest with you either.    I want us to withhold the truth, avoid transparency, and be pretenders.  In fact, I don’t want anyone in the world being honest with each other.  Honesty is not the best policy.

My friends may be surprised at me saying such an outlandish thing.  As a God-fearing person who often speaks about truthfulness, integrity, and accountability, this doesn’t sound congruent.

Here’s what I mean.

We don’t need to disclose everything we’re thinking.  Just because it’s in my head doesn’t mean it needs to be spoken.   Before talking, I need to consider whether speaking my thoughts would be beneficial.

Ephesians 4:29 says, “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.”

Here, Paul tells the Ephesians not to let everything in your head come out of your mouth.  In other words, “Put a filter on it!”   Prior to opening up your mouth, make sure your words suit the occasion, build up, and give grace to the hearer.  Less is more.

James, in 1:19, agrees, telling us to be quick to listen and slow to speak. Our culture today completely fails in this area.  People are slow to listen, quick to speak, and filterless — particularly in our online communications!

Less is more.  We don’t need to share all of our opinions or always get in the last word.  Why do we feel it so necessary to tell others all the things that displease us about them?  How about putting a stop to our constant critiques and obeying Philippians 2:3 instead, which tells us to treat others better than ourselves!

We’ve drifted a long way from Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s famous Sonnet 43.  “How do I love thee?  Let me count the ways.”  If written today it would read, “How have you offended me?  Let me count the ways.”  People are quick to point out their dissatisfactions, grievances, and disappointments in brutally honest, hate-filled attacks.  Let’s be different;  let’s never insult others by our honesty.

But what if the honesty of others insults us?  What then?

I recently read a book about apologizing, where the author contends that we must honestly tell people whenever they hurt us.  I completely disagree.  As I’ve blogged elsewhere, we can forgive someone who has hurt us without needing to inform them of the hurt they caused.  Let me take my hurts to Jesus, who understands mistreatment better than anyone, and then let me treat the offender with undeserved, unconditional mercy, grace, and love.  Only if it would benefit the other person do I suggest telling them what they did to me.

Is honesty ever a good policy?  Certainly.  Here are occasions where I think honesty is vitally important:

  1.  We need to be honest with God, ourselves, and others about our own weaknesses.  To hide our fatal flaws is foolish.  That’s why one of my personal Life Resolutions is to “keep no personal secrets of any kind, but rather disclose any areas of weakness to trusted friends that they may hold me accountable…”
  2. If I become aware that I’ve hurt someone, I should confess my sin honestly, express my need for forgiveness, and seek to restore harmony.  Matthew 5:23-24 says, “…if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”
  3. When a person has hurt me AND it would also benefit him or her to understand the effects of that hurt, my honesty would actually be a kindness.  But make sure our motive involves his benefit, not our vindication or comeuppance.  The goal of such honesty must be to help him learn the ways others may be adversely affected by his actions.  The focus should be on educating more than confronting.
  4. When someone’s performance is sub-standard, a supervisor’s honest feedback and possible discipline are necessary.
  5. When someone exhibits behavior that is unethical, self-destructive, or harmful to you or others, honest, constructive criticism is essential.  Such honest communication may help reveal the person’s blind spots and prevent further harm or abuse.  But be sure the motive behind such honest feedback is protection and reformation and not judgment or condescension. Galatians 6 admonishes us to restore a straying person gently, something that takes great sensitivity, courage, and honesty.

The Importance of Showing Affection in Marriage

This past week, my daughter Lexi randomly discovered “The Brady Bunch” on YouTube. She’s quickly become addicted to it–but this is one of the better addictions; it offers wonderfully clean, and wholesome entertainment compared to what is so often dished out by Hollywood today.

Watching the Bradys is like traveling in time back to my childhood — in fact, I was about my girls’ age when I used to watch it every day after school. (I admit, I was crushing on Marcia.)  It’s been a delight to revisit these shows, laughing with my girls and talking about the relative simplicity of life in the 70s.  Yes, corded phones used to be attached to the wall!  

One thing that stands out about the the Brady Bunch is the level of affection shown by Mike and Carol. It’s obvious that they are in love, nuzzling and flirting all the time — even in front of the kids. But nobody blushes — in fact, the kids relish their parents’ mutual delight nearly as much as Mike and Carol do. The affection of their parents seems to add to the well-being and security of their home.

Which is exactly the point I wish to make.

Today, we live in a world where marriage is breaking down before our eyes. We might blame the secular culture for devaluing and redefining marriage, but perhaps the greatest hindrance is the lack of healthy marriages being modeled.  Our kids are subtly being taught something about marriage every day.

Think of the messages they get from television and movies: sensual delight is found primarily outside of marriage and marriage will limit your options — almost like going to prison. Married people have to “settle down” and stop having fun. Bachelor parties have become like the Mardi Gras before the dreaded season of Lent. No wonder kids today don’t value marriage!

Christian parents are not exempt.   Do we who are married show our kids that marriage is a delight or do they see it as more of a contractual arrangement where the parents simply co-exist?

Why might Christian parents neglect to show affection in front of their kids?   I can think of three reasons.

First. Is it in hopes that our kids won’t think about sex? Too late, they already do! God has given them massive amounts of hormones and they’re trying to figure out what they’re for. We’ve got to show them that the proper context for drives, affections, and sensuality is in marriage — otherwise they’ll begin to seek the fulfillment of these things in all the wrong places.

Second. Is it because showing affection is out of our comfort zone? I realize that your background, personality, ethnicity, circumstances etc. affect your comfortability with showing affection, but I suggest that nevertheless it must be shown. It may take getting used to and you may observe some eye-rolling at first, but it will impact your family for the better. My kids have gotten used to us snuggling on the couch; they see us holding hands; they catch my cheesy pickup lines some nights before bedtime, and they hear me tease about wanting a “transparent shower curtain” in our bathroom for my birthday. They groan at this last one of course, but through it all, they learn that their parents’ affection is genuine and secure, which makes the whole family feel secure. And in the process, they learn what marriage is meant to be, hopefully wanting that for themselves one day.

Third. Is it because we honestly don’t have any affection for our spouse? If this is the case then the best thing you can do for your kids is to sprint directly into marriage counseling. Affection isn’t negotiable. It’s not the icing on the cake of marriage it is the cake itself. Marriage is ALL about the quality of the relationship. As far as it depends on you, do whatever is possible to get help with your marriage. I would be glad to chat with any of you about how to get help in this area.

Guilt. Lastly, I fear some of you will read this and simply feel guilty because you’re not able to model a healthy, affectionate marriage to your kids. Perhaps you’re a single parent or you’re stuck in a marriage where — due to circumstances beyond your control — affection is simply not going to be a reality. I want you to know that God is big enough to overcome your situation! He’s so good at working in spite of us. Trust Him. Pray that your kids will see healthy marriages modeled in the lives of other mentors. (That’s why I require my youth group volunteer couples to show PDA in youth group.) Perhaps your unfortunate situation will be used positively to give your kids a thirst for what you yourself long for. God’s not limited by anything. Trust Him.

And for some of you perhaps the first step would be to watch a couple reruns of the Brady Bunch!


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