Was Your Marriage Made in Heaven or Hell? You Decide.

It’s been said that there’s nothing better than a good marriage, and nothing worse than a bad one. While a bit couple_not_talkingextreme, there is some truth in the statement. Most marriages, however are a mixture of good and bad moments. When we work through the bad moments correctly, we experience more of the joys that a good marriage can offer.

I do a fair amount of marriage counseling. Most couples come in focusing on the negative behaviors of their spouse and convey the belief that everything would be great if the spouse would change.  Each person is less aware of their own contribution to the conflict. Both are left with the feeling that their needs are not being met.

I often share a story that my pastor used years ago in a sermon. I don’t know the original source, but it’s a story worth sharing.

There was a man who died and went to heaven. Saint Peter met him at the pearly gates and told him that he was a strange. He told the man that he was exactly on the borderline of going to heaven or hell. He said that they had decided to show him both and let him decide where he wanted to spend eternity. The man said that sounded fair and they proceeded to each.

Saint Peter took him to a door and said that this was hell. He opened the door and the man immediately saw a huge banquet room as far as the eyes could see. In this room there were rows of banquet tables as far as the eyes could see, and on these tables was a wonderful banquet, all the great foods you could imagine. The tables had white tablecloths, silver and china. It was a true banquet, but the people sitting on both sides of the tables were skin and bone, and just looking longingly at the food.

The man said the Saint Peter, “They look miserable. Why aren’t they eating? The food is right in front of them.”

Saint Peter said, “Look at their arms.”

The man looked more closely at their arms and saw that one arm had been replaced at the elbow with a three-foot-long spoon, and the other arm had been replaced at the elbow with a three-foot-long fork. The man looked confused for a moment, but then exclaimed, “They can’t get it to their mouth. So, they have to sit here for eternity looking at the food, but unable to eat it.”

Saint Peter said, “That’s right, now I’ll show you heaven.”

He took the man to another door and said, “Now I’ll show you heaven.”

He opened the door and the man immediately saw a huge banquet room just like the first. In the room were long rows of banquet tables just like the first, and on these tables was a true banquet, just like the first. But, the people sitting at the tables were obviously well fed and happy. They were talking, singing and having a good time.

The man said to Saint Peter, “These people look a lot happier. I choose heaven.”

Saint Peter replied, “Okay, but look at their arms.”

The man looked more closely and saw that one arm had been replaced at the elbow with a three-foot-long spoon, and the other with a three-foot-long fork. The man looked confused and said, “I don’t understand.”

Saint Peter said, “Well, you see, in heaven, they feed each other.”

A marriage can feel like a marriage made in heaven or a marriage made in hell, depending on whether the people learn to feed each other, or worry about the fact that they are not getting fed.


Question: Have you seen the benefits of “feeding each other” in your marriage, and how did it feel?


The Innocent Victims of Sexual Abuse

Child abuse comes in many forms and all are damaging, but sexual abuse creates a unique self-esteem wound. sad_girlThrough the years, I’ve treated many victims of sexual abuse and seen first hand the impact of that abuse on their lives.

I have found that there are several, almost universal, reactions for the victim of sexual abuse. These reactions seem to be consistent, regardless of the victim’s age when the abuse occurred, the time span of the abuse (e.g. a single incident or multiple incidents over several years), or the particular circumstances where the abuse occurred. These reactions form the self-esteem wound. Sexual abuse makes the victim conclude that they are bad, damaged or tainted.

Here are the common reactions of the sexual abuse victim:

  1. “There was something about me that made the abuser choose me. I must have done or said something wrong to cause the abuse to occur. I’m bad”.
  2. “Now that I have been abused, I am defective, dirty, and damaged. Others wouldn’t want to spend time with me if they knew what I had done. They wouldn’t like me or love me. I’m bad”.
  3. “I should have been able to stop the abuse or stop it earlier than I did. I should have done something to make it stop. I’m bad”. (Interestingly, this belief is held, even when the victim was five years old or younger and the perpetrator was an adult.) When a person is being sexually abused, the mind often goes into a type of trance state. The victim doesn’t think clearly. Her thinking and decision making is often temporarily impaired. She will ask herself later why she didn’t do some behavior to prevent or stop the abuse, but during the abuse she couldn’t think clearly.
  4. The victim perceives her sexuality differently. She may gravitate toward sex, even when she would rather say no. The victim will often feel that sex is the only thing that anyone would want from her, or that she might as well give in because she is already broken. Because of her increased sexual activity, she concludes, “I’m bad.” On the other hand, the victim may experience anxiety or repulsion in association with sex. She may not enjoy sex or avoid it altogether, even when it occurs in acceptable circumstances.
  5. There is another reaction to sexual abuse that is rarely discussed, yet it can be the greatest contributor to the victim’s feelings of shame and self-blame. This is the fact that abuse victims will sometimes feel sexual arousal during the abuse. The victim reasons that he or she must have wanted it in some way or they wouldn’t have responded, thus “I’m Bad.” Nothing could be further from the truth. The body is like a machine in many ways. When the knee is tapped with a rubber hammer, the foot will jerk. You can’t avoid it. In the same way, when the body is touched in certain ways, an arousal response may occur. You didn’t want it. You couldn’t avoid it. It means nothing, except the fact that you are a human being.

The reality is that a sexual abuse victim is a totally innocent victim. Think of it this way. Imagine that you found out today that your child had been abused in the same way that you were. The exact same acts were done to your child that were done to you. Your child was the same age that you were when it happened. How angry would you be? Would you be angry at your child? Of course not. You would be angry at the perpetrator for hurting your child, but not angry at your child. Would you love your child any less? Of course not. Would you perceive your child as damaged, defective or dirty? Of course not.

You see, you were just as innocent as your child would be. You were no different. You were just as helpless to resist it. You may have felt older or more powerful at the time, but you weren’t. We often perceive ourselves as older than we actually are during childhood.

You would not want your child to feel shame. You shouldn’t feel shame either. If you were sexually abused, it’s time to recognize the truth. It wasn’t your fault. You were a totally innocent victim of the abuse. Realizing this is the first step toward healing.


Question: What resources have you found to be helpful in helping yourself or someone else who has experienced abuse?

You Can Achieve Inner Calm Through Mindfulness Practice

We live most of our lives mindlessly. We may be doing one thing, but our minds tend to be on other things. We live Mindfulnessin the present moment, but our minds are on the past or the future.

I first learned about the technique of “mindfulness” on a PBS television program, called “Healing and the Mind.” The host was the excellent reporter, Bill Moyers, and each episode featured a clinic somewhere in the world, that specialized in mind/body medicine.

On this particular episode, he featured a clinic at Massachusetts Medical Center, a major teaching hospital where many Harvard medical students do their rotations and internships. People come there from all over the world for assessment and treatment of serious medical disorders.

In that hospital, is a clinic that was originally called “The Center for Catastrophic Illness,” and was founded by a psychologist, named Jon Kabit-Zinn, Ph.D.. Patients are referred to this clinic who have any illness that has proven to be a catastrophe in their lives. The clinic has been enormously effective in helping these patients deal with their various illnesses.

The clinic teaches the technique of mindfulness. The technique has been practiced in Asia for about four thousand years, but has only been applied to healthcare in the US for about twenty years. While mindfulness practice cannot directly cure many physical illnesses, it can help patients deal with their difficulties with much less distress and discomfort. It has even been shown to cure some stress-related illnesses.

The technique involves three components, (a) noticing, (b) without judging, (c) in the present moment. To notice means to truly experience, to really be in the moment. Focus your attention on that event. Experience it with your five senses. If you are somewhere, really be there. Focus your mind on what you are doing, rather than something in the past or the future.

For example, if you are driving, notice the experience of driving. What do you see? What do you feel? Notice the unconscious movement of your hand on the steering wheel. Notice the subtle rumble of the road noise. Do the same with any experience. If you are interacting with a loved one, really focus your attention on that person and the interaction. If you are washing dishes, notice the various aspects of the experience, the feel of the water, the feel of the soap or the movements of your hands.

Now, try to recall some of the favorite moments of your life. Your memories of these moments may be like a series of snapshots. I bet that you experienced each of these favorite moments mindfully. You were focused on what you were doing at the time. If you had experienced the moment mindlessly, you wouldn’t have recalled it as a favorite moment. I wonder how many other moments could have been favorites, if you had experienced them mindfully rather than mindlessly.

The second part of mindfulness is to notice “without judging.” This means to not analyze our experience in our minds, but to just experience it. We don’t focus on whether the experience is good or bad. It just is. You try to experience the moment without the chatter in your head, no internal comments, no judgments, just the experience.

For example, in clinical settings patients are actually taught to be mindful of their pain. This may seem strange, but we find that, when patients notice pain, without thinking of it as good or bad, the pain lessons, or at least becomes less distressful. We usually try to escape from our pain, and in doing so make ourselves more tense. This tension actually worsens the discomfort.

The last part of mindfulness is “in the present moment.” This means to focus your attention on the present moment, rather than experiencing the present moment with your mind thinking about something in the past or something in the future.

Let’s think about time for a moment. All time can be divided into three parts; the past, the future, and the present. Everything prior to this moment in time is the past. Nothing in the past actually exists, except in our memories. Everything after this moment is the future, and nothing in the future actually exists except in our imaginations. The only thing that actually exists at any moment is that thin slice of time we call the present.

Yet, we live most of our present moments thinking about something in the past or something in the future. We don’t really experience the present moment, because we are analyzing, reminiscing or regretting past events or anticipating, dreading or worrying about future events. We thus miss the experience of the present moment.

Take the time now to be mindful of the present moment. Notice what your five senses are experiencing. Notice what you see, the colors, the shapes, the quality of the light. Notice what you hear, both the louder sounds and the subtle sounds. Notice what your skin feels, the temperature of the air, the clothes you are wearing. Notice how your body feels.

In particular, notice your breathing. The act of noticing the breath can always bring you back to the present moment. Your breath is always with you. Let yourself simply be in the present moment now and experiencing this moment fully. If your mind wanders to the past or the future, it’s okay. Just gently bring your attention back to your breath and the present moment.

Practice this for a few moments at a time. If you can stay in the present moment for a few seconds, that’s good enough at first. After being mindful of your present moment experience for a little while, notice what you feel. Most people report that they feel a sense of calm or peace.

Practice mindfulness several times per day. You don’t have to take time out of your day at first. Just be mindful of whatever you’re doing. Then, if you like, take a few moments out of your day to get in a more extended time of present moment awareness. Give it a try!

Question: If you have tried present-moment mindfulness, what did you experience? Also, report any difficulties you experienced in trying the technique.

The Power of Humility

It seems to be a bit confusing to say that you can improve your self-esteem by practicing humility, but I believe that itHumility is true. I began thinking about this topic after reading Dr. John Dickson’s book titled Humilitas. I heard Dr. Dickson speak at a conference I attended in South Korea last month and followed-up by reading his book. He presents a compelling argument for the benefits of practicing humility in our day-to-day interactions.

Dr. Dickson’s field of expertise is ancient history, and he explores the changes in the perception of humility in different eras and societies. He notes that society didn’t seem to value humility until Christ’s teachings began to spread. Prior to that time, ancient writings were filled with bragging and self-elevation that most of us today would find quite offensive.

True humility is a deliberate choice. The person voluntarily lowers himself or herself and behaves in a modest, gentle or serving manner toward the other person. Consider the act of Jesus washing his disciple’s feet.

This type of humility is very different from the times where one is put down or humiliated by others. The later act wounds the self-esteem. The former is a reflection of a healthy self-esteem. One needs to have a healthy self-esteem to be able to voluntarily humble him or herself.

This is also different from the person with a damaged or wounded self-esteem, who behaves in a self-critical and self-depreciating manner. This person’s behaviors are simply a reflection of their negative beliefs about self. This person sees him or herself as inferior to others or defective and so acts that way.

When you practice deliberate humility, you recognize that you have value, ability or knowledge, but you refrain from flaunting it. You listen earnestly to the other individual, recognizing that you can learn from everyone. You treat the other person with honor, respect and kindness.

I believe that you walk away from such interactions feeling better about yourself, and that your self-esteem grows. It’s not that you walk away proud of your actions. Rather, I believe you lose any sense of yourself, as you serve others.

True humility is learned through deliberate practice or conscious effort. But, the practice fosters an attitude that becomes an unconscious way of living. Try it. I believe your self-esteem or self-worth will benefit from the effort.

Question: Think about someone you know who seems to practice true humility. How do they make you feel when you are around them? Think about times when you have practiced humility by putting another person above yourself. How did it make you feel?