Days of Fragmentation and Wholeness, available at: ForYourMarriage.org


Happily Even After

Days of Fragmentation and Wholeness


July 21, 2010

by Josh Noem

One of the constant challenges of family life with small children is trying to get a word in edge-wise.

It is routine to carry on two or three conversations at one time. Stacey and I can be in the middle of discussing a recurring issue, trying to dig in and get to the bottom of something personal and important, when suddenly one child needs help with the toilet, one needs help with homework, and the other needs help with tying a shoe. It is stressful to simply try to keep track of who is saying what to whom.

For me, in particular, it is difficult to stay engaged with the process, when such a conversation requires me to both think and identify how I might be feeling. I think it is like this for many other men—speaking, thinking and feeling seem to be three separate functions, all requiring focus in their own right. (Stacey, like many women, seems to be able to function in all three areas instantaneously.)

Last night, I was bemoaning the challenge of this aspect of family life. This morning and throughout today, I discovered the other side of that equation.

In the span of half an hour this morning, I had a significant exchange with Stacey and with each one of the kids. I went upstairs to retrieve something from my room and side-stepped into the boys’ room to sit next to Oscar for a few minutes. I observed him playing with his Legos and stepped into his shoes for a moment. (How does one create water with square and rectangular shaped Legos?) I gave him some affirmation and we exchanged a hug.

I then joined Stacey on the front porch—she was finishing the chocolate-chip pancakes I had just made her—and watched her joke with Lucy, who was asking for piggy tails to match her mommy. Simon, meanwhile, plopped down in the small rocking chair next to me and explained he was taking a halftime break from an imaginary football game. All of this transpired in the span of 15 miutes in the middle of the first sunny, clear, bright morning we’ve had in several weeks.

A busy, ever-moving, dynamic family life can often make my days feel fragmented. But the other side is that a busy, ever-moving, dynamic family life can make my days feel richly integrated. I am at my best when I can recognize this harmony and take a deep breath to offer God my gratitude.

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Invalidation or, Guess Who is Less than Perfect?

Invalidation or, Guess Who is Less than Perfect?

Many years ago, Joshua and I were trained by the excellent folks at Northwest Family Services in Portland to offer relationship communication workshops. One of the wonderful bits of information that the workshops offered was called the Four Communication Danger Signs. The four signs of impending communication danger are: escalation, invalidation, negative interpretations, and avoidance/withdrawal.

One of the things we have always appreciated about working with couples is that it provides the opportunity for us to reflect and take a new look at our own relationship. So too with these workshops. As we were learning the material, it was abundantly clear to us which danger signs were particular pitfalls in our own relationship: escalation and avoidance/withdrawal.

Having identified those danger signs all those years ago, we have paid particular attention to them in our communication patterns with one another. We try not to fall victim to them and when we do, we try to name them as soon as possible. The effort to avoid them is so much a part of our marital communication that we have even written about them here more than once. Needless to say we feel aware and cautious of them.

Sadly, just because some of the other signs were not present years ago does not mean that we are immune to them.

Recently, as we prepared to meet with a local couple, I came across the list of the four danger signs again. Truthfully, up until then, I had actually forgotten about the invalidation and negative interpretations dangers. After refreshing my memory with the description of each of them, I quickly realized that while Joshua and I are vigilant about not falling prey to escalation or avoidance/withdrawal, we are actually increasingly bad at invalidation!

Invalidation is when one person subtly or overtly puts down the thoughts, feelings, or character of the other. It could include interrupting, eye rolling, sighing, sarcasm, name-calling, insults, and other such interactions.

Now on some level this makes sense. I think it is a simple product of the length, and therefore complexity, of our relationship with one another. Joshua and I do not get so far as using the most overt or extreme examples of invalidation like name-calling or insults. But the other subtle examples creep into our communication more and more.

So while our old tried and true patterns of communication are still present, we have gotten quite excellent at improvising in new and creative ways. When we are not at our best, this “creativity” quickly morphs into laziness. And in our experience, laziness in marital communication can easily lead to stepping all over each other’s human dignity. In the midst of conflict, we have even gone so far as commenting upon how good one of us (Josh) is getting at eye rolling; or how heavily one of us (Stacey) sighs. Interrupting is just a foregone conclusion (and I am the worst at it).

It’s ugly stuff to be sure.

The other night on our way home from our conversation with the local couple, I mentioned this whole realization to Joshua. I told him that while I think we are getting better at escalation and avoidance/withdrawal, I am increasingly aware of how badly we do with invalidation. At which point he paused and then agreed by saying, “Yes, you are very bad at that.”

Which is hysterical and awesome on a couple levels: first, his response is the opposite of invalidating – it is affirming of my position and I love being affirmed, even if it is pointing out my weaknesses. Second, it was a light-hearted way of responding to a pretty heavy realization which indicates that we are in a good place and able to talk about this without too much guilt.

I immediately responded, “I know!” and we shared a laugh and had a very good exchange about our mutual susceptibility to invalidation.

So here we go again with learning new things about ourselves and the nature of our self-emptying, loving commitment. On the one hand, the personal lesson is consistently the same: somehow, I am not perfect. But the multifarious ways in which we fall short of perfection are always new and abundant. As are the opportunities to grow in holiness through our life with one another.


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