Swimming in the Deep End, available at: ForYourMarriage.org


Happily Even After

Swimming in the Deep End


August 9, 2010

by Josh Noem

On our recent road trip home to South Dakota for my grandfather’s funeral, we stopped at a hotel in Missoula, Montana. We picked a hotel (I won’t say which one) that a franchise guidebook indicated had a pool. After driving for 10 hours with three small children, we arrived at 9 p.m. to find it did not.

The kids were disappointed, but we filled the tub and let Simon and Lucy splash and play a bit. Oscar got to watch some TV. After voicing our complaint, the staff discounted our room, which we appreciated. The next morning, Stacey and I noticed that the hotel next door had a small outdoor pool. We could see it from the window in our room.

Before packing everyone in the car for another 10-hour drive, I decided to take the kids next door to the pool and let them burn some energy and have some fun. On the way over, Oscar noted the sign that said that the pool was for that hotel’s guests only. I told him that we’ll be okay and will only be there for a little while.

We were the only ones in the pool, but after about 30 minutes, an employee came out and asked us if we were staying with them. I said we were staying at the hotel next door and she told us we had to leave. We got out, gathered our things and went back to our room and began our long drive.

Stacey and I and Oscar had a long conversation in the car about what happened. Our conversation made me realize that Oscar closely observes my decisions, and the rationale I use and give for my decisions. He is at a stage in his development where he is discerning his moral compass. It is a gift for a parent to have influence on this stage of development. Knowing that Oscar is watching closer than ever, this gift is calling me to greater integrity and intentionality in how I live.

I realized that my own decision for using the pool was based on muddled thinking. I gave myself several half-hearted excuses to do something that I wanted for our family: we weren’t hurting anyone; we were going to use it for less than an hour; we weren’t costing the hotel anything; the kids needed some playtime before a long day in the car; we had stopped there expecting to be able to swim; etc. I found there to be a lot of grey in this situation, and in the grey areas I saw an opportunity for our kids and I took it.

When Oscar asked why we were asked to leave, and why we had decided to go in the first place (given that it was the pool of a different hotel), I stepped back and found all of my reasons disingenuous. I imagined Oscar in any number of “grey” situations as a teen and applied all of the rationales above and panicked. For example, there are things I don’t want him to do, even if he’s not hurting anyone else. Any one of these rationales used by itself would lead to a problematic moral compass.

At the bottom of it all, I decided to use the pool because after evaluating the risk, the worst thing that could happen is that we would be asked to leave. I could bear the risk of a small amount of embarrassment in return for kid time in the pool with 10 hours in the car ahead of us. This rationale is still not one I would like Oscar to use exclusively, and I also realize that strictly speaking, there is no good rationale for breaking a perfectly fair rule.

We shared all this with Oscar and asked him what he thought we should have done. He wasn’t sure. I’m still not sure myself what was the right thing to do. There were good reasons to use the pool and there would be good reasons to not use the pool. There are poor reasons to use the pool and poor reasons to not use the pool.

One thing I did learn, though: I’ll be much more careful in how I make similar decisions in the future, and I will strive for greater personal integrity and honesty, knowing that God isn’t the only one watching me.

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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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