I haven’t left the house for over a week as my wife and I stay at home to stop the spread of the COVID-19 virus. We are in the middle of leading a ten week marriage course at our church. Right now, the church is going virtual. The schools, restaurants and unnecessary retail shops are closed. What does this mean? STRESS!
I know that some people have supportive friends and family and they’ll be fine. However, if you are in a stressed relationship, this could be adding more conflict and disconnection.
We need healthy relationships to thrive, yet we’re being told to isolate. That’s not easy. What do we need from our partner, our friends, our family and our marriage mentors?
Dr. John Townsend writes that we all need relationship nutrients to remain healthy. This is like feeding a tree. If some of the nutrients are missing, that tree will be struggle to grow and to produce good fruit.
All of us need these nutrients. We can offer these nutrients to other people. We can both give and receive. This is particularly important in times of stress, like right now!
He organizes these nutrients into four categories.
The best way to demonstrate love to someone is to be present. This is true whether this is your spouse, your friend or your mentee.
This is the skill of listening, validating and acknowledging. The better you can show interest and respond to people, the more it alleviates their stress.
The better you can pick up on their emotions and show that you care and want to treat them with respect, the more they will feel loved.
The other day my wife came home from work. I asked her how her day was. She opened up her mouth and told me all about how angry and frustrated that she was. How this person wasn’t being fair and that person wasn’t helping the situation. I listened to her vent for about 15 minutes. When she got all that out, she turned to me and said, “Thanks for letting me vent.”
Being present means that we can take in another’s negative emotions and live with the discomfort for a while. This is a lot easier when the venting is directed at someone else, but the process is the same. Once people are able to name their emotions, the emotions tend to lose their power. Then, the person can calm themselves.
Taking in someone else’s negative emotions isn’t about the right words. It’s more about being in a strong and stable place yourself.
I know that being present sounds so simple. Yet, much of what we teach couples is this simple truth. Validating and acknowledging what someone thinks and feels is the very best way to show you care.
Convey the Good
Being present is the first step. The second step is to convey the good. What is good about that person?
Everyone needs to know that they have attributes that are positive and valuable. This is called encouragement. We need to have people recognize what we are doing that is positive and beneficial.
Last week, my wife and I stayed at home to stop the spread of Covid-19. I didn’t realize it, but I think I was feeling some of the stress. She made a comment about my wording in an email where I called the virus a flu.
I immediately blew up and said, “You’re criticizing me for calling it a flu?”
Then, I stormed off to sulk.
The next day we talked about it. I told her that I would have preferred that she first recognize that I sent the email out and thank me for doing that.
I wanted encouragement. She apologized and then encouraged me. (By-the-way, she’s right. It is a virus, not the flu).
When we meet with couples, we look for what they are doing well. We even ask them, “What did your partner do that you appreciated this week?” We spend a fair amount of time drawing attention to what is working.
Provide Reality About the Stress
We all need people in our lives that will be present and convey the good. Once that happens, we are far more likely to want that person to provide reality.
We need people that we trust that can provide us some healthy perspective. Are we going off the deep end? Do we see reality? Are there things that we are missing?
David says, “Let a righteous man strike me— that is a kindness; let him rebuke me— that is oil on my head.” (Psalm 141:5).
Personally, I love feedback and perspective. I might not always accept it, but I like to hear it. Although, I’m more likely to take it seriously from people that have demonstrated to me that they are present in my life and they see the good.
Call to Action: Stress Test
If we want to move forward, we need to take action. Taking action means different things in different situations. Often, we need someone to help us to think through steps that we can take to change.
Whenever we meet with a couple, we usually end the meeting by talking through homework. It might be as simple as showing appreciation by noticing one thing each day that you liked. This is a form of advice. We are helping them to figure out a next step.
I would like to point out that we do this after we have already demonstrated that we are present, we’ve conveyed the good and we’ve talked about reality. Are they really ready to go to this step? Have they committed to change?
As I look at these four steps, I recognize that the first two are filled with grace. They are filled with listening and asking good questions. They are about showing love.
The next two steps are filled with truth. They provide reality and, perhaps, challenge. If you move to truth too quickly, it comes across as harsh and it will probably be rejected. Think through how to balance grace with truth.
As I sit here at home during the Covid virus pandemic, I realize that I need people in my life that will provide these four emotional nutrients to me. I also would like to provide these nutrients to others!