Happy New Year. Do you ever pick a special word or a phrase to guide you for the year? I’ve done it a few times and it’s been a good anchor to help me remember what I want my focus to be on. It’s easy to lose focus and get distracted. One of the things that I know for sure is that God tells us that we are forgetful creatures. He continually reminds us in the Scripture not to forget him or his benefits, or his blessings. We’re reminded not to forget who we are or what he has done for us. Why? Because we forget. We get lost in the mire of our own negative thinking or painful circumstances or busy life and we forget. Choosing a specific word or a phrase for 2018 might be a helpful discipline that can help you remember the main thing. This year, for 2018 my word is COURAGE.
I’ve just finished reading Brené Brown’s newest book Braving the Wilderness and it’s excellent. I deeply resonate with her findings. At times I have found myself out in the wilderness when talking about abuse among conservative church leaders, especially the more subtle forms of verbal or covert abuse. They often minimize the reality of its impact on a person’s mind, body and spirit and I want to see that changed.
So pray for me in 2018 that I will continue to gain the courage to speak the message God has given me to speak. And as Ezekiel is so wisely reminded by God when he felt overwhelmed by the task, “Whether they listen or refuse to listen” I have done what I’m supposed to do (Ezekiel 2:5).
This week’s question: I have been out of a 15-year destructive marriage for more than 15-years, yet I find patterns from the past still greatly affecting my new marriage. My new husband and I dated for 10-years and last year got married. But I still see my new husband with the old lenses and have some of the same habits I had in my destructive marriage. For example, I fear my new husband’s anger or am always wondering when the ax is going to fall. I know he’s supposed to be allowed to get angry but I just crave peace and want things to go smoothly all the time. I know that’s not realistic yet I feel stuck. We both grew up in alcoholic homes and also have a hard time resolving conflict without causing each other pain. We probably both need some work but how do I change and learn how to deal with people differently?
Answer: This is a great question because it shows that even after you leave a destructive marriage, you are safe, but you still may not be fully sane or healthy. Some of us have had hurts and dysfunctional patterns from childhood that continue to impact how we “see” things, how we deal with our emotions, or how we interact with other people in our present lives. Many of these are outside our conscious awareness and therefore impossible to change until we can see and acknowledge them. I’m so glad that you are becoming more aware that there are things you need to change inside of you in order to grow and get healthier. Hopefully, your new husband is seeing that he needs to make some changes also.
I totally get the fallout growing up in an alcoholic home since I grew up in one myself. When that happens, parents are not adequately attentive to the emotional needs of their children. Sometimes when the parent or parents are incapacitated by alcohol the child become the caretakers of their parents. You grow up having the body of an adult, but often the psyche and skill set of an adolescent or younger. You can feel competent and capable on many levels yet emotionally feel lost and little inside. A classic book that describes the effects on growing up in an alcoholic family is Adult Children of Alcoholics by Janet Wiotitz and a subsequent book she wrote that can help you gain new tools for your relational toolbox is called, Lifeskills for Adult Children.
Not only does growing up in an alcoholic family leaves some deficits but also the trauma of living with an abusive partner for 15-years also takes its toll on you physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually and relationally. Studies have shown that those who experience domestic violence often experience complex traumatic stress disorder (CTSD) and that impacts how you feel, how you handle your emotions, as well as how you interpret what’s happening in the moment.
For example, we have all seen the effects of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) on war veterans. They are often more hyper-vigilant. They are easily startled when they hear loud popping noises and may interpret those noises to mean gunshots, when in fact it might be firecrackers or even tires blowing out. Vets with PTSD need help in learning to calm down their autonomic nervous system so that they don’t “overreact” to normal stimuli as if they were in danger or high alert situations.
In the same way, a woman who has been traumatized by living with an abusive partner may need help in learning to calm herself down when her new partner expresses anger because her body is reacting as if she is about to be victimized again. Another good book that talks about healing from trauma is The Body Keeps the Score by Bassel Von der Kolk.
Your question was, “How do I learn to deal with things differently?” The good news is that it’s never too late to learn, to grow and to change. The very promise of God is that he is all about our transformation from who and where we are, to who he wants us to become. But it does require our cooperation. We are transformed by learning to see and think and respond God’s way. And we learn this by submitting ourselves to intentionally and consistently doing something differently through practice.
This is true whether you are learning to play a new musical instrument, or ice skate for the first time. If you want to learn how to speak up for yourself or consistently have a new perspective on a situation, learning takes an intention and concentrated practice in order for it to become “real.” That’s why so many Christians stay stuck. They read their Bible (God’s instruction manual for life), but they don’t actually practice what he says. In other words, you can listen about learning something or read about changing something, but unless you actually practice it over and over again, it doesn’t become a part of you.
A great example of this is when I took my daughter, Amanda, to piano. She was five years old and she started with the Suzuki method. This approach requires that the parent also “learn” piano so that the parent can reinforce what is learned during practice at home. Therefore, during Amanda’s lessons, I was supposed to pay attention meaning I was not to read or check my cell phone during her lessons.
Over the years of Amanda’s piano lessons I did learn more about music, notes, composition, theory and key signatures than I ever knew before, but after 15-years of piano lessons, my daughter was an accomplished pianist able to play complicated Bach and Chopin. On the other hand, I understood how someone was supposed to play those pieces but I never could actually play them. Why not? Because I never personally took what Amanda and I learned and put it into my own weekly practice playing the piano. We both learned the exact same thing, but she grew as a pianist and played beautifully. I understood the concepts but my fingers could not implement them.
So don’t be too tough on yourself when your change doesn’t come as quickly as you want it to. It doesn’t take a whole lot of time to listen or to read how to do something. But it does take time to actually learn how to do it. And certain skills build upon each other. I’m sure my “cognitive” understanding of all things piano, would make it pretty easy for me to start practicing each day. I know how to read notes. I know where the notes are on the piano and I know how to put my right hand and left hand together to play. And, if I set my mind to practice piano each day, I have full confidence in my ability to grow as a pianist.
I encourage you to get a counselor, coach or mentor, or even an accountability partner. Start learning what you need to learn and then practice what you are learning. For example, if you need to learn to see through new glasses, start by asking yourself what “color” are your current glasses.
For example, if you are wearing green colored glasses you will see things as green that perhaps are really blue, yellow, or even white. But once you understand that green glasses make you “think” things are green that really may not be, now you can press pause and check it out. Is this really true? Is it green or perhaps my glasses are distorting things? What else could this be if it’s not green?
Let’s put this into practice. Your new husband starts getting angry. Your glasses say “Danger, he’s going to be abusive. Anger always ends in abuse and bad things happen when someone is angry with you.” What if you pressed pause and said, “Hmmm maybe that’s not true with this man. Maybe he’s legitimately angry and I’ve known him for 15-years now and he doesn’t abuse when he gets angry. Perhaps my alarm bells are going off because of my distorted glasses and not because of his anger. How can I calm myself down because it’s not true that anger always mean abuse isn’t far away.” If you practice new thought patterns regularly, your body will start to calm down when your husband starts to feel or express his own anger. If you don’t practice it, but you just read it on this blog, it won’t help much. You must practice for this change to become real in your psyche and your body.
There are many women in this blog community who are in their own process of healing and growing from past lies and unhealthy patterns. They are no longer stuck. I’m going to invite them to share some of what they have learned.
Friend, when you realized that even though you were now safe but you were still unhealthy, what steps did you take to change your old habits?