We all have mental models . . . that drive our responses to everything we experience. Being aware of your mental models is key to being objective – Elizabeth Thornton
As newlyweds, June and Brad often feel like they’re “brailing their way through each day.” Having been raised by dysfunctional single parents, they’re struggling to find relational models that inspire the kind of connection they long for. Their blindness, like most of ours, results in part from the scars their parents engraved in their memories – scars that make it hard to see the way back to the romance they once knew.
When Rich and I (Marty) counsel couples like June and Brad, we try to help them see that the same unyielding love that held Jesus to the cross can pull their hearts together again – that no lovers have to remain prisoners of their pasts.
It’s All in Your Mind, Really?
Several years ago, my (Rich’s) wife, LouAnna, began experiencing severe abdominal pain. After an hour of misery, it was apparent that something unnatural was happening. As soon as we arrived in the emergency room, the medical staff began a battery of tests. They drew blood, scanned her abdomen, and palpitated the sore area. No one could figure out what was happening! She did not have an abnormal temperature. Her white blood cell count and the associated differential that should have indicated an infection were normal.
After six hours in the emergency room, one of the doctors made a strange request. He asked LouAnna to raise her right leg slowly. The pain was so intense she nearly fainted. They rushed her to surgery and removed a diseased appendix that was moments from rupturing. No one could explain why her lab work, scan, and temperature were fine. When we asked the doctor what caused him to dismiss the test results, he said, “Those results only provide an image of what’s normal for most people; in this case, the experience provided a better image of the real cause of her pain.” Choosing the right mental image is one of the goals of medical education, but who trains us to do this in our marriages?
Any of us can have a bad day. When a bad day becomes a bad week, a pattern begins to emerge. Too often we dismiss these patterns, assuming our spouses are “just working through something.” Our inclination to “give them space” often only creates more space between us. We need to ask about perceived patterns, without making our spouse feel judged, and we need to listen for answers that help us understand what normal, in our relationship, should look like. For June and Brad, this involved agreeing on a way to communicate about patterns. They decided to begin their future conversations this way:
Brad: “June, I need to ask you about a pattern I think might be developing in our friendship. Is this a good time?”
Every time they need to discuss a negative pattern, they begin this way. This wording keeps them from taking a parental-role and it neutralizes some of the negative emotions that come with confrontation.
Re-envision a Process
When we agree on a way to discuss how we’ll handle negative patterns, we add an important process to our new “mental model” for marriage. This new process of re-envisioning becomes part of who we are as a couple, and when that happens, positive conversations not only increase, so does intimacy. Working toward new processes promotes deeper conversations than “How was your day?” Every time we ask probing questions like, “Is this an OK time to ask about a pattern?” or “How do you feel about our conversations lately?” we see more deeply into our spouse’s soul. This is what counselors mean when they define conversational intimacy as “into-me-see.”
Choose a New Normal
Because we’re often convinced that the current “normal” is all we have, we give up looking for a new “normal.” When I (Rich) was in health care, a new test for cholesterol was developed. In order for our lab to offer the test to the medical community, we had to first establish “normal” cholesterol levels. We asked thousands of patients to submit blood samples. After a month of testing, we determined that the “normal” cholesterol levels for this Northern California community were 250 – 350 mg. Later we discovered that this level was normal only because of this community’s extravagant lifestyle. We soon determined that a healthy normal was below 200 and that the “normal” in our community was unhealthy!
Our marriages are similar. Without a trustworthy normal with which to compare our marital satisfaction levels, we tend to choose mental models based on the least communicative marriages around us. Instead, we should compare our relationship to ones that inspire us. This will help us create a new normal that draws us closer.
God has set the type of marriage everywhere throughout the creation. Every creature seeks its perfection in another. The very heavens and earth picture it to us. – Martin Luther
Although the wisdom literature of the Old Testament and the letters of the New illustrate the marriage model God intended for us to enjoy, we need more than paper illustrations. June and Brad discovered this the hard way. Without a successful, flesh and blood partnership, it’s difficult to develop a new mind for marriage.
Join together in following my example, brothers and sisters, and just as you have us as a model, keep your eyes on those who live as we do. – Philippians 3:17
As part of our pre-marital discipleship, Rich and I require couples to observe older couples in their church. We ask them to look for couples who still laugh together and hold hands. Connecting with such a couple, helps younger couples build mental models based on the “normal” described by God and exemplified by couples who’ve lived and loved well.
As pastors, we have met with many couples who, after separating, confess they never gave each other permission, to be honest about the relationship and they never gave an older couple permission to ask questions. Giving permission is an act of respect that communicates commitment and compassion, an act that can promote wisdom and intimacy.
So much of marriage is in the mind – fleshed out from the pictures we created in the past. When God’s picture of a happy, fulfilling marriage begins to replace the conditioned images in our minds, we can begin to enjoy the security and satisfaction He intended.