Excerpt from our new book “For Better for Worse”
Removing the Log from Our Eye
The more we nonjudgmentally observe, the less we cut off in our marriage. Most of us, as Jesus taught, have a log in our eye that blinds us from seeing the obvious. Jesus challenged us to remove the log from our own eye before we try to take the splinter out of another person’s eye. Such blindness is rooted in the difficulty of seeing things that do not fit one’s theoretical frame of reference. We underestimate how difficult it can be to perceive things that we do not want to see. One has to become an observer before it is possible to see. The less we see, the more we disconnect from each other. The more we see, the greater our neutrality. Conversely the greater the neutrality, the more we see in our marriage.
Ed and Janice lacked this neutrality for many years. Janice liked to spend money, buying pretty things and clothes. Ed didn’t want to spend money, wanting only to save it. Janice would get upset if Ed tried to slow down her spending. The things were on sale, just for that week. When the bills came in, there would be tension over how to juggle the finances. In more recent years, we have developed more neutrality around our spending and saving habits and are more able to objectively discuss finances without blaming or cutting off.
The ideal neutrality, said Daniel Papero, is like quietly watching the ripples of a mountain pond. Gilbert and Bowen likened such neutral observing to putting on a lab coat like a scientist or watching from a space craft. Bowen compared this to moving from a playing field to the top of a stadium to watch a football game. This observational discipline is like making use of a personal trainer at a gym. Many people turn up at the gym in January, hoping for the post-Christmas quick fix. By February, discouragement and dropout set in for many. It is too easy to lose heart and give up. Learning to become an observational scientist in one’s marriage is just as challenging. It takes time to retrain and develop the power of observation. This is, in fact, a lifetime project till death do us part. Through developing our observational biceps, we still have feelings but they don’t have us. They don’t control our life decisions or define our core self. This is not about being a 21st-century unfeeling Dr. Spock of Star Trek fame. As Richardson commented,
Being differentiated does not mean becoming unfeeling. Well-differentiated people never lose touch with their feelings, and they can experience and express feelings when necessary. They recognize feelings as one source of information about what is going on in their lives. They can also be passionate in their feelings if they choose. The critical element in a well-differentiated person is this choice. They can decide whether or not to act on feelings.
It was encouraging to see how many of the Strengthening Marriage Workshop participants embraced this new way of seeing. Thinking like a scientist, which reduces observational blindness, holds great promise for bridging marital cutoff. Reducing emotional cutoff through increasing one’s objectivity is very demanding. Are we willing to own our part? Owning our part is very challenging because we are often so remarkably blind and defensive. How willing are you to accept influence from your spouse? As Jeremiah 17:9 painfully reminds us, our hearts are deceitful above all things. Reducing cutoff requires a radically objective assessment of one’s self, not just one’s spouse. In the Strengthening Marriage Workshop, we taught several times over the four weeks on the concept of objectivity:
“Objectivity means for each of us in our marriage to become almost like a scientist or a space astronaut observing ourselves and our own marriage. We need that little bit of detachment, but that is hard because we tend to become swallowed in the intensity of our emotions. If we can become objective, it does something remarkable…. What if we didn’t blame ourselves either? What if we became an observer, a scientist, someone who is looking for understanding rather than blaming? … What if we said: “I’m going to watch this. I can feel my blaming coming on. I am going to slow down, have a coffee and watch what is happening”? … You have to, at some point, be neutral about the very marriage that you are committed to, not that you cease to be committed but that you have a degree of detachment. You begin to watch yourself and your marriage like a scientist.”
How objective is your thinking about your marriage?