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Family Dysfunction Series: What about my spouse?

In the last post, Family Dysfunction Series: Unhealthy Parents, I ended by explaining how important it is to take rests from our trials. Even our family trials. Because the God we serve is not a God of chaos, but a God of peace.

That's because sometimes it is necessary to find physical, emotional, and psychological peace in order to gain godly perspective. Finding this rest when dealing with dysfunctional cycles in marriage is just as important. It does, however, look different from finding rest when dealing with other dysfunctional family relationships. When we're dealing with our spouse, it's not healthy to just pick up and leave whenever we're feeling overwhelmed. Taking time out from a fight or an unhealthy cycle of fighting needs to be clearly communicated so as not to cause damage in the trust and commitment department.

Boundaries with Love in Mind

Our in-house pastoral counselor, Francis O'Donnell, links creating clear and healthy boundaries in marriage with Colossians 3:12-17,

“So, chosen by God for this new life of love, dress in the wardrobe God picked out for you: compassion, kindness, humility, quiet strength, discipline. Be even-tempered, content with second place, quick to forgive an offense. Forgive as quickly and completely as the Master forgave you. And regardless of what else you put on, wear love. It’s your basic, all-purpose garment. Never be without it."

My favorite image from this section of Colossians is "the all purpose garment". Personally, I think of blue jeans. So the same way you can wear blue jeans for just about any occasion, you can wear love wherever you go. Paul also goes on to instruct that we should let the peace of Christ "keep you in tune" and "cultivate thankfulness" with one another. All of these are perfect for constructing healthy boundaries in a dysfunctional marriage. And I'm going to give you three practical ways to do this. But before I do, do not forget. Put your love jeans on, and remember to stay in tune with your spouse, and be thankful for what you do have, even though things aren't where you want them to be quite yet.

3 Steps to Creating Healthy Boundaries with Your Spouse

The first practical step is something I like to call "Pause and Promise". It's very simple. You pause the conversation or fight, and you promise to come back to it. There are two types of personality in any conflict. The fighter and the fleer. One person who wants to fight through a conflict and bring resolution through solving the problem. And one person who wants to flee the conflict and bring resolution by avoiding the problem. Because this is a marriage, you need to account for both styles. Hence, the pause and promise technique. Pausing the conversation brings anxiety down for the fleer. While promising to come back to it brings anxiety down for the fighter.

The Caveat: Don't just pause for 5 minutes and come back. Give yourself a break of 20 minutes or more for smaller conflicts, and at least 2 days for larger conflicts.

The second step is a Gottman exercise called Aftermath of a Fight. You can listen to Dr. Julie Gottman explain the exercise here. In short, the exercise has 5 steps. Describe Your Emotions, Tell Your Version of the Events, Talk About Your Triggers in the Event, Take Responsibility for Your Part in the Event, and Creative a Constructive Plan to Avoid Similar Events in the Future.

This is one of my absolute favorites in marriage therapy. I use it every day, multiple times a day. Because it works, and it's simple for couples to apply. That being said, my last step is this. Go to marriage counseling.

On average, couples go to counseling 6 years too late. Don't be a statistic. If you're fighting in your marriage and not making the appropriate repairs afterwards, you need help. The repair after a conflict is so important. And it does not come naturally to any of us. Counselors included.

When Your Spouse Suffers from Trauma or Mental Illness

Last, but certainly not least. I want to address the very important subject of mental illness in marriage. There are times in marriage when none of the above steps will work. In these cases, it is possible that you or your spouse is suffering from trauma or some form of mental illness. Now more than ever, you need the guidance and care of a professional who knows what they are doing. At this stage, you've probably had a bad experience with one or two counselors. Don't let that dissuade you. Keep looking for a good counselor that is a good fit for your marriage. They are out there. We've got some of the best marriage counselors on LFT staff right here in Kansas City.

More importantly, apply the suggestions of your counselor. If they suggest medication for anxiety, depression, or mood regulation. Don't overlook it. Talk to your general care physician or a trusted psychiatrist. And if you have trauma, or think you may. Find a trusted therapist who can help you walk through it. Some of the best techniques available are EMDR and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.

When things get rough. Don't lose hope. Your marriage is worth saving, and it is possible to have the joy and the peace you envisioned when you first walked down that aisle.

About the Author:

Dr. Corley is a Licensed Professional Counselor Supervisor (LPC-S) in Missouri and Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor (LCPC) in Kansas. He specializes in marriage counseling and trauma recovery.

If you think you might need some help in this area. Click the image below and give us a call. We are professional Christian counselors, bringing healing to the family, giving hope for the future.

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