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For Your Marriage

Josh and Stacey Noem have been married for almost 20 years and have three children in middle school and high school. They blog about parenting and their adventures as a family.

Core Sin Reprised

A few weeks ago Joshua came across an inventory of sorts circulating around Facebook, primarily among parents. Basically it offered a set of questions that parents could give to their children to fill out about them (the parents): What is something I say a lot? What makes me happy? How tall am I? How old am I? What makes you proud of me? What is my favorite food? What is my favorite thing to drink? and How do I annoy you?

Unbeknownst to me, Josh printed off two sets of these questions for each of our children so that they could reflect on each of us. He gave them to the children and when I came up to bed that night I had a little stack of completed questionnaires waiting for me.

Reading the results was a fascinating experience. My mother always said that your children hold a mirror up to you. I know that this is true—it is just rarely THIS explicit. We do not often have anyone tell us about ourselves, let alone in written form, let alone our children.

Beyond the humor of all of my children thinking I am 1-3 years older than I am and their disagreement on my height, their reflections did offer some valuable insight. Two insights in particular have stayed with me.

First, our quietest, most reserved, and seemingly least attentive child knew me best. He responded most accurately to the highest number of questions about me by far. He did not offer NEW insight, but his answers illustrated how much he notices. He is perceptive.

Second, in response to the question, “How do I annoy you?” one of the children responded as follows: “No offense intended, but it seems that when you are stressed or something angers you, you blame and take it out on someone else, thinking it couldn’t be your own fault.”


Yes, one of them wrote that. I was immediately struck by the accuracy of the statement. After sharing this response anecdotally with others, the truth of this insight was solidly confirmed. I told a former supervisor of mine, who is now a peer and colleague, about the inventories and what my child wrote. He went silent and then said, “Zing! He got you.” Then I told a very close friend, and he just started giggling. I take both of these reactions as affirmation that my child nailed this diagnosis of my personality.

I receive this new insight as a real gift. It unlocked two really important realizations, one individual and one marital.

As an individual, I started reflecting back on my “core sin”. Previously, I had named it as “control.” While I do not think this is entirely erroneous, my tendency to “blame” is far greater and more damaging to myself and those around me. It means I do not take full responsibility for a given situation or my reaction to it. It also means that I can demonize those in relationship with me when things do not go as I would have expected or hoped.

When I named this new insight and how it had landed with me to Joshua, it looked like a light bulb went on for him. Not because he was unaware that I have this tendency. Likely he has been very aware of it. He simply has not had occasion to explicitly name it to himself or to me. The light bulb was a recognition of where this tendency comes from. That is to say, it is a family trait.

In my family of origin, we look for root causes. Whether it be of a situation gone awry or behavior we think inappropriate, we aim to name what is “off” and why we think it is off. This is not done with an eye to demonize folks, but to ameliorate situations—to hopefully name where things went wrong and make sure we (or others) do not make the same sort of misstep in the future.

Joshua’s family does not do this. On any level. Ever. They do not find fault or blame. They do not look for what is off and name why it is off.

Now I would not name either of these dispositions as ideal. They both have their strengths and their shortcomings. (After living with both dynamics for multiple decades, I GUARANTEE you that they both have strengths and shortcomings.)

Our families of origin shape us, almost like pre-programming. Under stress we default to those settings. It happens in marriage all the time. This is why is it so important to talk about families of origin in marriage preparation and during the lifelong marital journey. This knowledge can help us become better for each other.

It is a big deal for Joshua and me to realize this massive discrepancy in our families of origin. Just when we think we have sorted out all the differences in our respective families, we can still be surprised. Marriage, like the spiritual life, is inexhaustible in its capacity to draw us deeper in relationship and closer to God.