Dealing with differences in relationships

Holding handsA couple weeks ago, at Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in the Bay Area, John Ortberg and clinical psychologist Rick Blackmon sat down to have a conversation about relationships — marriage in particular.

I found it immensely helpful, not just for marriage but for relationships in general. Pastoring in a church that’s over 70 percent single means that there’s a lot swirling around in the dating/relationship/engaged sphere, and learning how to be in relationship in a healthy way is an important part of … well, being human!

John began by asking, “What’s the biggest obstacle to having a great marriage?” To which, Rick replied:

The biggest obstacle to having a great marriage [and, I’d say, to having a healthy relationship, period – JF], one that continues to be life-giving and close and healthy, is dealing with differences.


I can attest to that with my friends, both in the context of married life as well as in the context of interacting with others in the political realm here in DC. Because it’s not a question of whether we’ll have differences — as my counselor put it, “As long as you’re dealing with someone who isn’t you, you’ll have differences.” Instead, it’s a matter of how we deal with those differences.

“In any relationship,” said John, “sin is always inevitable but grace is always available.

Sin is always inevitable because human beings are sinful, selfish, prideful, self-righteous, unaware, and oblivious, and we hurt one another, both intentionally and unintentionally, even just by assuming that we’re always right and that the other person must therefore be wrong.

But grace is always available — the grace of God, first and foremost, and then as Christians, the grace we are called to show one another. “Forgive us what we owe, just as we have already forgiven what others owe to us,” is a paraphrase of a line from the Lord’s Prayer. We have been shown grace; and so we are called to show grace and empowered to do so by the Spirit of God living within us.

Rick also suggests a helpful tool for dealing with conflict, using the acronym CRAFT. See below for my notes (or listen to the podcast here):

  • Get back to a Conversational level
    • When we get reactive, our response moves from the cortex (calm, rational) to amygdala (bird brain, 100% self-protective, fight or flight, limited capabilities), so we often see either fast, loud, outlandish responses (fight) or complete shut down (flight).
    • Prov 29:11: “A rebel shouts in anger; a wise man holds his temper in and cools it.”
    • It can take anywhere from 20-40 minutes to calm down enough to talk, so make sure you create that space.
  • Recall what happened
    • The goal of this exercise is not to unify views on what took place, but to learn how the other person experienced that, to develop a curiosity for the other’s perspective, to cultivate empathy.
    • James 1:19: “My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to become angry.”
    • The first example of marital discord in the Bible was Genesis, where Adam throws Eve under the bus.
    • The sinful self always wants to blame the other; the redeemed self aims to speak the truth in love (Ephesians).
  • Apologize
    • Say “I’m sorry.” James 5:16 says, “Confess your sins to one another.”
    • “It’s not possible to be in a relationship for a long time and not to wound them and be wounded by them.” – Rick
    • There are two forms of apology:
      • “Oops” or apology for impact: “I can tell that what I did hurt you so I’m sorry for that, but I’m still not sure I did anything wrong.” The more serious the offense, the less appropriate this response is, but this kind of apology is still better than nothing.
      • More heartfelt and genuine: actually owning intent, e.g. “I did this because …”, e.g. the prodigal son.
  • Forgive
    • There are two responses to being hurt and wounded by somebody:
      • Get even (the normal, natural response, certainly a bird brain response).
      • Forgive (asking for forgiveness or extending forgiveness)
        • Look one another in the eye and say, “I forgive you.”
        • Jesus said, “Forgive one another up to seventy times seven times.”
        • Paul also said, “Forgive one another.”
    • It’s actually difficult; it takes practice.
      • Especially with Christians, it can be easier to ask for forgiveness than to extend forgiveness.
      • Understand also that it takes time.
  • Talk
    • Talk about what you wish had happened instead, what you wish you had said or what your spouse/friend had said.

Some final points:

  1. Rick emphasized that conflicts often end on the same note on which they begin; that is, if it begins with a harsh tone, it’ll probably end with a harsh tone, and if it begins with a gentle tone, it’ll probably end with a gentle tone. Be aware of how you approach differences and conflict.
  2. John reminded us that growth is always possible. The alternative is stagnation and to remain trapped in sin. (And that doesn’t sound pleasant or healthy at all, does it?!)
  3. We need wisdom in dealing with conflict, but more foundationally than that, we need Jesus and we need grace. After all, true wisdom is to properly fear and reverence God — to understand who he is, who we are, and how much we need him.

Questions about Christianity


I’ve always been a firm believer that with faith, not all of the questions can yet be answered. I’ve also always believed that a faith that can’t withstand questions isn’t much of a faith at all.

So I’m excited that Rich Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary, made a stop at Menlo Park Presbyterian Church to answer some questions about the faith, hosted by John Ortberg.

You can check out the video here and the audio here(I’ve put the time stamps next to each question, in case you want to skip forward.)

  • What does “evangelical” mean? (2:51)
  • Why did Jesus have to die on the cross? (6:15)
  • Are Mormons Christians? (9:55)
  • Can we trust the Bible? And why? (15:00)
  • How do we as Christians talk about human sexuality–divorce, same-sex attraction, etc.? (21:51)
  • How can we be people of conviction and also people of civility? (24:54)
  • How do Christians talk, especially with non-Christians, about hell? (30:34)
  • How do we think about the passages in the Bible that contain violence? (32:50)
  • What is God waiting for before he comes back? (35:25)
  • What do you see in the world that makes you hopeful? (36:50)

And if you have follow-up questions, I’ll see what I can do to answer them. 🙂

My Valentine’s Day History, a.k.a. A Few Thoughts on Love

For some, Valentine’s Day is a day to treasure, a day to celebrate, a day to spend time and money on a loved one.

For others, Valentine’s Day is a day to forget, a day to despise, “Singles Awareness Day.”

For me, how I reacted to Valentine’s Day used to depend on my relationship status: if I was dating someone, I couldn’t wait for it; if I wasn’t, I’d much rather we jumped from February 13 to 15 and skip the day altogether. One year a long time ago, I actually broke up with someone on Valentine’s Day, which was not only extremely poor form but also combined the two reactions in one.

Since then, Valentine’s Days have included (in no particular order):

  • Going snowboarding for the first time with a bunch of friends.
  • Being sick in bed all day.
  • Babysitting my friends’ adorable kids so my friends could go out for dinner.
  • Going on a phenomenal date.
  • Being in an evening class for grad school.
  • Staying in and watching the primary election results.

Some have been spent with a girl, some have been spent with friends, and some have been spent alone. Some have been awesome; some have been decent; being sick just made the day a non-event.

And over the years, I’ve come to see the day as … well, any other day. What began the shift in my perspective was the realization that my relationship status was not the definitive characteristic of my life. It was then that I was able to let go of the idea that I just needed the right person to come along and make everything better and be the perfect date, and was subsequently able to better embrace life, to take hold of opportunities to love more boldly and more fully. And, I suppose, also to begin to understand the concept of love a little better.

Growing up, my dad used to say that people don’t just “fall in love,” as if they have no choice in the matter; and when I was young, I had no idea what that meant. “But I feel this way about this person; I’m crazy about her; whenever I see her I get goosebumps, and my heart skips a beat, and … and …,” I’d protest. Our culture tells us that love is only a feeling, an emotion, a chemical reaction. As C.S. Lewis writes:

Another notion we get from novels and plays is that “falling in love” is something quite irresistible; something that just happens to one, like measles. And because they believe this, some married people throw up the sponge and give in when they find themselves attracted by a new acquaintance. … But is it not very largely in our own choice whether this love shall, or shall not, turn into what we call “being in love”? No doubt, if our minds are full of novels and plays and sentimental songs, and our bodies full of alcohol, we shall turn any love we feel into that kind of love: just as if you have a rut in your path, all the rainwater will run into that run, and if you wear blue spectacles, everything you see will turn blue. But that will be our own fault. (Mere Christianity, Book III, Chapter 6.)

Love–biblically understood–is something different, something much more. If the two greatest commandments in Scripture are “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength” and “Love your neighbor,” then Tim Keller makes a good point when he observes, “Emotions can’t be commanded, only actions” (The Meaning of Marriage, 103). If God is love, then we know that love involves sacrifice, it involves rescue, it involves putting everything on the line for the good and well-being of the object of your love: “For God loved the world in this way: he gave his only Son so that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16) and “There is no greater love than this: that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).

Love is more than just emotions, more than just chemistry, more than just buying chocolates and flowers, more than just making dinner for a loved one–though it may involve all of those things in the context of a romantic relationship.

For many of us, though, we need to relearn what love is, as defined by God–what love really means, what love really looks like, what love really feels like. Loving God may mean having to let go of something very dear to you that stands between you and God. Loving your neighbor may mean putting their good before your own in a way that is not the culture-prescribed method of doing things. But in doing these things, we learn a better way–maybe not better in the eyes of the world, but better in the eyes of God and better in the way that we were created to be. In doing these things, we behave–and more importantly, become–more like Jesus.

It’s risky and it’s dangerous–in the context of romantic relationships in particular, we all know how hard it is to be vulnerable or to commit to something or to let someone in or to be hurt by someone–but the alternative of not loving is far worse.

Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket–safe, dark, motionless, airless–it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. (C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves, 123.)

Now I just need to find someone who'll settle for me …

A study was conducted on the role physical attractiveness has on marriage:

Physical appearance plays a crucial role in shaping new relationships, but does it continue to affect established relationships, such as marriage? In the current study, the authors examined how observer ratings of each spouse’s facial attractiveness and the difference between those ratings were associated with (a) observations of social support behavior and (b) reports of marital satisfaction. In contrast to the robust and almost universally positive effects of levels of attractiveness on new relationships, the only association between levels of attractiveness and the outcomes of these marriages was that attractive husbands were less satisfied. Further, in contrast to the importance of matched attractiveness to new relationships, similarity in attractiveness was unrelated to spouses’ satisfaction and behavior. Instead, the relative difference between partners’ levels of attractiveness appeared to be most important in predicting marital behavior, such that both spouses behaved more positively in relationships in which wives were more attractive than their husbands, but they behaved more negatively in relationships in which husbands were more attractive than their wives. These results highlight the importance of dyadic examinations of the effects of spouses’ qualities on their marriages. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2009 APA, all rights reserved)

[Source: “Beyond initial attraction: Physical attractiveness in newlywed marriage.” By McNulty, James K.; Neff, Lisa A.; Karney, Benjamin R. Journal of Family Psychology. Vol 22(1), Feb 2008, 135-143.]

Conclusion: according to the study, if the guy’s less attractive, the marriage will be happier.

P.S. I think if the guy is willing to acknowledge or already knows he’s less attractive, you’ve got a keeper.

Originally found here.

How to get Rafa Nadal to smile

By proposing to him, apparently. Thanks to Yahoo! Sports for the news:

During the world No. 2’s second round match at the Aussie Open a woman in the stands yelled, “Hey, Nadal, will you marry me?”, much to the delight of others in the crowd and the Eurosport announcers broadcasting the match. At first Nadal ignored the question, probably wanting to stay focused on returning serve, but as the laughter increased he gave a shy wave of the hand and then burst out into a full smile before the point.