Changing the Way You Relate
About the Guest
Author Laura Taggart, a licensed marriage and family therapist, explains how the wounds and lessons of childhood carry over into our marriages. This often leads us to overreact to situations that might confuse our spouse, and even us. Once we understand our spouse's past, we can extend compassion. Taggart encourages listeners to fully embrace their identity in Christ, and to start seeing themselves, and their mate, through His eyes.
Laura TaggartLaura Taggart has been a licensed marriage and family therapist for nearly thirty years. As director of marriage and family ministry at Community Presbyterian Church in Danville, California, she founded a highly successful marriage mentoring ministry to help young couples develop a solid foundation for their young and often struggling marriages. A popular speaker at conferences and retreats, she has also taught as an adjunct professor at Fuller Theological Seminary.
Laura Taggart explains how the wounds of childhood carry over into our marriages. Taggart encourages listeners to fully embrace their identity in Christ, and to start seeing themselves through His eyes.
Changing the Way You Relate
Bob: Some couples never get to real emotional intimacy in their marriage. The reason is because that’s not a safe place for them to go. Here’s Laura Taggart.
Laura: For us to be able to be emotionally intimate and particular, we need to have a safe place to do that, where we feel like our mate has our back—they’re really committed to our wellbeing—we’re gracious with the weaknesses of the other, and we create this safe space in which we can begin to speak into the other person’s life.
I think that has a lot to do with softening when you start to approach your mate—have a softened startup as you begin to enter into anything you want to say about their life. Start with appreciation and then talk about the things that are concerning to you. I think it helps you to be able to have a voice into their life.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Friday, September 14th. Our host is Dennis Rainey, and I'm Bob Lepine. There are strategies we can employ in a marriage that can help us grow closer to one another, emotionally.
That’s good for any marriage. We’ll talk more about that today. Stay with us.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. You know, I don’t know how much we stop and think about this when we get married, but we are beginning—you’ve said this before—it’s really the elementary school of learning to relate to somebody that we enter into in marriage. It’s not the culmination of—we’re not in graduate school when we get married—we’re starting at the very beginning; aren’t we?
Dennis: Some of us have to repeat the first grade a few times too. [Laughter] I have a feeling that our guest on the broadcast today, Laura Taggart—Laura, welcome, by the way, to the broadcast.
Laura: Thank you.
Dennis: I have a feeling you’d agree with that—that a lot of the couples you see are repeating the first grade or the first year of their marriage over, and over, and over again.
Bob: I’ll just interrupt you here for a second, because we’ve helped a lot of couples avoid some of those early marital pitfalls—
—couples who have come to join us at one of our Weekend to Remember® marriage getaways. In fact, it’s interesting—when I talk to couples, who come to the getaway, and they’ve been married for 20 or 30 years, the most common response I get from couples is: “I wish we’d done this a lot sooner.” The couples who come, as pre-married couples or in the first five to ten years of their marriage—they’re getting a handle on biblical principles that can help them avoid a lot of relational pain that other couples learn the hard way.
Right now, we are offering FamilyLife Today listeners a discount. You can save
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Dennis: We need help/we need training in knowing how to relate to one another; don’t we?
Laura: Oh, we do; we do. It doesn’t come naturally. Oftentimes, I think we have high expectations of ourselves to get it right; but there’s a lot to learn.
Dennis: Where do we start in terms of learning relationships? I think a lot of people are learning to relate in front of a screen. To me, this is a part of why I think a lot of couples—that are starting out their marriage today—started out with some serious lessons to learn because—
Bob: —they were texting each other all the time.
Dennis: —they were texting each other!
Dennis: Yes; exactly. But marriage is a real person with a real relationship, where you don’t take them back home at the end of the day and [you] go back to your place.
Laura: No; you don’t—it’s a 24-hour, every-day-of-the-week experience. I think, if we lived on a desert island, we could fool ourselves that we’re loving; we’re giving; we’re open people; but when you get married and you’re in the trenches, there is a lot to learn. Being open to learning I think is paramount.
Bob: Our patterns of how we relate to one another are really formed long before we get married. This is one of the reasons, when you sit down with couples, you often go back and explore what their family of origin looked like and how they learned—that’s where we learn how to do relationships; isn’t it?
Laura: It is exactly where we learn how to do relationships. For better or for worse, our experience has given us some wounds. I don’t think any of us come out of childhood unscathed in that way—it’s not that we had bad parents. The reality is—we, as children, and when we’re born—I don’t think I’ve met anyone for whom this isn’t true—we’re born with this deep longing to feel unconditionally loved and to be impactful—to make a difference / to be valued.
When we experience pain, as a child, because we don’t have that from a parent—and as I say, all of us are imperfect parents / our parents were imperfect parents; it’s just the reality—we have this wound/we have pain, and we don’t know what to do with that pain as children. What happens is—we learn ways of making that pain less; we develop ways of protecting ourselves—
—I call these “protectors” that we begin to take on to help us navigate.
For instance, if you grew up in a home—where feelings were dismissed and
discounted / our parents were uncomfortable with their own feelings—so when something happened, they just said: “Get over it. Get on with it. Don’t bother me with that,” we might learn to be dismissive of our own feelings and become more of an avoider of our feelings rather than someone who can actually articulate our feelings.
Or if we grew up in a highly critical environment, or an environment with high expectations, we may learn to hide our feelings and try to avoid the disapproval of our parents. We become a pleaser and try to accommodate them. We are more focused on pleasing them and what they need from us than we are on our own feelings as well.
Or maybe we grew up in an environment that was more chaotic and was perhaps an alcoholic home or a home where a mom or a dad was in and out.
We developed ways of managing that by, perhaps, becoming more controlling or analytical to try to manage a more unpredictable environment.
We develop these ways of protecting ourselves. We hardly know they’re there, but they’re there. Though they developed as children, we take these into our adult relationships—they don’t just go away. They may be stowaways for a while under the hold of the boat; but when we get married, they pop out and get triggered; because we’re in this intimate relationship of marriage. What we do, then, is we get hijacked by these protectors.
I don’t know—you’ve probably had the experience of, in a conflict with your mate, all of a sudden, you’ve reacted in a way that: “Wow! Where did that come from?”—you know, it’s surprising to you. I know I have—I’ve reacted kind of in a big way: “What was that all about? There was a lot of feeling right there.” That is evidence of these protectors, inside, that come in and kind of take us out.
I think it’s really important to understand that these are just parts of ourselves; they don’t define us. What defines us is that we are in Christ—we have a self in Christ.
Bob: I was talking with a couple recently, and there had been some conflict in their marriage. The husband had been, I think, disproportionate to the event—he had been angry and critical and had lashed out toward his wife. She was kind of reeling from that. I was able to sit down with her and say, “You know, that was really not primarily about you or about that event.”
Bob: What had happened was—something had gotten triggered from the past/ from childhood. We got close enough to a pain point that the trigger went off; and the husband was reacting, now, to a lot of what he’d experienced earlier in life. He was just putting up protective walls to try and say, “I’m not going to get hurt like this again.”
When the wife understood, “Oh, that’s not about me; and that’s not about that event as much as it is about his pain from the past,” now, she could move from being angry and defensive to being compassionate; and that’s transformational.
Laura: Totally transformational. I think that’s the beauty of being able to see the wound in our mate. Gary and I got in this tiff one day; and as we broke it down afterward, I was needing something from him—to bring a chair in. He was frustrated; because he had been helping me, and he didn’t think I was being appreciative by asking for one more thing. So his trigger went off, which is, “My voice isn’t heard.” He grew up in a family, where his voice—he had a lot of siblings and wasn’t heard.
My little voice—I grew up in a family, where there was one right way to do things. My dad was in the Navy, and there was one right way; so I wanted it my way, and he wasn’t feeling his voice was heard.
When we finally got over—we didn’t talk the rest of the night—but when we were finally able to come to it the next day, we saw that my young wound was: “I needed to get it right,” and his young wound was, “I need to have a voice.”
I could have compassion for his; he could have compassion for mine—it helped to diffuse the problem.
Sometimes, we’re ashamed to go to what the wound is—we don’t like to think we have a wound. We like to think whatever our anger is, in the moment, is justified.
Laura: But when we can slow down and begin to look at that wound, we can have compassion for ourselves; and when I can begin to do that, I can begin to have compassion for the other. No longer do I need to be defensive; I can kind of own what’s mine, because that part doesn’t define me. I am defined by my heavenly Father; so I can be okay, even though I was snarky, or I was demanding, or whatever. I don’t have to feel shame about that and hide it anymore. I can acknowledge: “This is just a part of me. It’s a part that hijacks me often,” and “I can notice it and ask it to step back.”
You know, I think about the verse in Psalm 139:24-25—
—it says, “Search me, O God, and know my heart…see my anxious thoughts. See if there be any hurtful way in me and lead me in the way everlasting.” This is an invitation to invite God to begin to search inside of us and begin to notice those reactive ways of being that are hurtful to others.
Bob: What you’re describing, when we identify—those triggers, or those patterns, or those things that are true about us—we’re not dismissing or excusing sin and saying, “Well, that’s just who I am.”
Bob: We can deal with them differently if we’re dealing with them from a position of understanding that God loves us and God’s accepted us than if we’re living in fear; right?
Laura: Exactly. And when we can say: “This is my identity: My identity is in Christ; I’m a loved child. I have these ways of being that came onboard a long time ago, and I can begin to look at them now. I have the freedom now, because I’m so solid in my lovability. I can look at these parts of me that take me out—and I can begin to notice it, get curious about it, appreciate that they were there for a reason—
—but now, I think I want to begin to step away from them.”
Bob: Put off—
Laura: Put off!
Bob: —and put on—
Laura: Clothe yourself.
Bob: That’s right; that’s the biblical language there.
Dennis: Yes; you’re talking about the spiritual reality of Jesus Christ taking up Lordship of your heart. This is where I don’t know how any marriage goes the distance without knowing Him—walking with Him—
Dennis: —yielding to Him/confessing to Him. Any marriage can handle the romance—that’s how they start.
Laura: Yes; yes.
Dennis: They start with two people hopelessly and helplessly in love with each other, and then you run into reality. What you’re talking about is how we need to confront who we are and grow up; because if not, you’re destined to repeat that first grade.
Laura: Yes; and the method is really about curiosity, in a way. Let yourself notice these things. You don’t need to defend them anymore. Because you’re in Christ, you can begin to have maybe an openhearted look at the way that you’ve harmed people or hurt people, and own it, and not justify it anymore.
Bob: Back, probably 20 years ago, I remember being in Seattle. Dennis and I were there to speak at one of our Weekend to Remember marriage getaways together. I was driving around on the day of the getaway. I was in Bellevue, and I was listening to Focus on the Family®. They had Gary Smalley on that day. Gary Smalley—I’ll never forget—he said [imitating Gary’s voice], “There’s this one thing,”—this was how Gary Smalley used to talk—“There’s this one thing. If couples can learn this one thing, it can revolutionize their marriage.”
I thought: “Well, I better know what this is. I’m about to speak at a marriage conference.” He said this one thing is the best predictor of whether a couple can go the distance in marriage or not. He got to the answer/the punch line, which was, “A couple’s ability to resolve conflict in a healthy way is the best predictor of the long-term success of their marriage.” I thought: “Well, that makes sense, because we’re going to have conflict. If we can’t resolve it, then we’re going to be in bad shape; if we can resolve it, then we can move on.”
You’ve found, as you work with young couples, a lot of couples have never learned basic conflict resolution skills; and as a result, they’ve just stored up hurt and don’t know what to do with it; right?
Laura: Well, that is true; yes. They don’t have basic resolution skills. I think, to be able to do conflict well, you have to have some self-awareness—it’s not just about a skill set. It’s about really having a deep level of self-awareness, so that you can begin to be honest with yourself about what it is you feel. You know, a lot of us are kind of cut off from our feelings. We really don’t pay much attention to what we feel—we just act out.
If you can pay attention to what you feel—and learn to articulate what you feel in a non-accusing/non-blaming way—now, you’re opening the door to some vulnerability in your relationship/some transparency that will create that deep level of intimacy. I love—again, Proverbs 20:5—it says, “The purposes of a person’s heart are deep waters, but one who has insight draws it out,”—
—so taking time to draw out: “What is it that goes on inside of me?” “What are my feelings?” “What’s my reactivity—what’s that all about?” “Where’s the wound there?” If we can do that self-exploration, our capacity to do conflict well is greatly increased.
Dennis: I think one of the keys to that self-discovery that you’re talking about is a small group of married couples.
Laura: That does help.
Dennis: You go stand in front of a mirror; and you might discover some of your flaws, standing in front of a mirror; but, relationally-speaking, getting together with another group of couples and watching them relate and having them watch you—and after relationships are built around the circle with a half a dozen couples, perhaps having them point out and call you out.
Laura: Yes; yes.
Bob: You’re talking about a level of relationality that’s beyond just small talk; right?—where you’re really getting to know one another pretty well.
Dennis: Oh, yes. Like the Art of Marriage™ small group study, where you’re playing a video and you’re learning some truth; but then, you’re applying it in the small group study time, where you do end up relating to one another and to your spouse.
If you have contempt, other people will see that contempt; and they’ll call you out on it.
Laura: And if there’s that invitation—I think, for us to receive feedback from others, we have to have a heart that invites it.
Laura: You know, a lot of times, if it gets too confrontational, you know, you’ll trigger defensiveness; and it won’t be productive—but if you can create this culture, as you’re describing, Dennis, where there is a deep care for one another that’s already established—then you can move in and have the credibility to begin to speak into each other’s lives in a way that is receivable.
Dennis: When we started out our marriage, if I’d have tried to depend on Barbara to expose my weaknesses and to tell me who I am, I don’t think I would have been able to choke down the truth all that easily; but when it came from friends—who I trusted / who were outside the marriage and were making good observations about my life—
—there were certain lessons that were learned that I wish I could have learned in my marriage; but they came to me by friends outside the marriage, to say: “Don’t you realize that you may have left your wife out here a little bit?—you may have gone past her as you’re running to the objective?”
Bob: In our church, we borrowed a phrase from Paul David Tripp that I really love. He talks about relationships in the church being grace-based, Christ-centered, intentionally intrusive, redemptive relationships. I love all of those descriptors. Everybody’s good with “grace-based”; everybody’s good with “Christ-centered.” When we get to “intentionally intrusive,” people kind of go: “Hang on just a second! What am I signing up for here?” But intentionally intrusive and redemptive—
Dennis: —that’s where the growth occurs.
Bob: Exactly. And I think about a marriage relationship—and if our relationship with one another can be grace-based, where we say: “Look, I’m just as much of a messed-up person as you are. I have just as many issues as you have.
“I’m just as much in need of God’s grace as you are,”—if we can be Christ-centered, where our focus is on Him, not on us—then the permission to be intentionally-intrusive, with grace underlining all of that, and to be redemptive, where our goal in being intrusive is not just to gossip or to get the dirt on somebody but to do the ongoing work of transformation that the Holy Spirit is at work in us—that is the kind of relationship that God intends for us to have in marriage and with one another in the body of Christ.
Dennis: I’m thinking of how that was applied in our marriage/ in our lives. Laura, I’m thinking back to some of the words you’ve used here about self-discovery. How it occurred in our marriage was—I realized that our conflicts were occurring at a certain time / at a certain spot—over, and over, and over again. It wasn’t just one spot, by the way—it was by the island in the kitchen, when I came home from work, strung out a little bit because of the day.
I’d been surrounded by six children, as I walked in the door, and wasn’t quite ready to engage life like that.
But if you keep getting mugged, walking into the same alley—over, and over, and over again—you have to stop and ask the question: “What’s my contribution there? Where am I taking the missteps?” and “How can I do a better job of relating to my spouse during that time?”
Laura: And I think, too, creating that kind of culture in your marriage—this takes time and it takes intentionality—is creating a safety. I think for us to be able to be emotionally intimate and particular, we need to have a safe place to do that, where we feel like our mate has our back—they’re really committed to our wellbeing—we’re gracious with the weaknesses of the other, and we create this safe space in which we can begin to speak into the other person’s life.
I think that has a lot to do with softening when you start to approach your mate—have a softened startup as you begin to enter into anything you want to say about their life.
Start with appreciation and then talk about the things that are concerning to you. I think it helps you to be able to have a voice into their life.
Dennis: What if a listener’s married to somebody who’s just mean/ just not nice? She’s listening right now—or he’s listening right now—to how you’re describing this; and they’re going: “I’ve been sweet for a long time. It’s been returned with a lack of respect and a chipping away at my dignity.”
Laura: In those situations, I think it’s really imperative to create some boundaries with the person who is mean. If your mate is hurling contemptuous things at you or is demeaning you in certain ways, I think it’s important to say: “Hey, I want to hear what your concern is, and I’ll be there for you when you do; but the way you’re doing it is not okay with me. If you can learn to be more respectful in the way you talk to me and treat me, I will listen.” Then, to withdraw the presence—to say that one time.
If they continue to be contemptuous, to withdraw or step away until—
—and if there are abusive relationships, I think sometimes the setting of the boundary needs to be even more dramatic. There may need to be a temporary separation to create safety—I think safety is huge. In trying to repair anything, there needs to be a safe space. It may be there needs to be some kind of separation to allow that person to do the work that they need to do to move out of getting so hijacked by their anger and contemptuous behavior that it falls on the spouse and is abusive in its content.
But for things that aren’t that severe—but it’s just a continuous stream of negativity—then, I think a boundary needs to be set to ensure that respect is valued and insisted upon in the way that they relate.
Dennis: I wouldn’t suggest writing an email to your spouse; but I might suggest writing a handwritten letter to get your thoughts, and your feelings, and what you’re looking for, and maybe the establishment of some boundaries, in writing. Maybe before you give it to your spouse, you have a good friend, who knows you both, read it.
Bob: —who reads it; yes. And you don’t give it right away. You, maybe, sit on it for a day and make sure your thoughts are filtered / that the emotion has not overtaken your wisdom here.
Dennis: Yes; because emotion can fuel a letter like that. You come back, 24 hours later, and you go: “Ouch!
Dennis: “I could have said that a little more diplomatically.”
Bob: Okay; here’s what I want to do—and we don’t have to do this; it wouldn’t be fair to try to squeeze it in here—so we’re going to do a little lightning round on the big issues that couples are facing that are leading to conflict today: finances, how they’re spending their time, and then sex—and we’ll do that online. If folks want to hear the lightning round with Laura about these issues that couples are facing, you can go to FamilyLifeToday.com and listen to that. We’ll just take—I don’t know—eight or nine minutes and just the high points—your best advice in those three areas.
Dennis: We’ve been talking about conflict today. Chapter 6 in her book, Making Love Last, would be worth its price, right here, to read this aloud to your spouse, and then stop and talk about it. The chapter begins about tackling conflict with a quote by Red Skelton—he says, “All men make mistakes, but married men find out about them much sooner.” [Laughter] I like that; that is really true.
I think we do need to be in a state of good health about our conflict. That means you have to grow—you have to learn from the past and not be destined to repeat them in the future.
Thanks for being on the broadcast. I really appreciate your work, Laura; and hope you’ll come back and join us again sometime.
Laura: Thank you, Dennis and Bob. It’s been great to be here.
Bob: Well, and again, the book is called Making Love Last: Divorce-Proofing Your Young Marriage. That’s a book we have in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center. You can order a copy of the book from us, online, at FamilyLifeToday.com; or call 1-800-FL-TODAY to get your copy of Making Love Last:
Divorce-Proofing Your Young Marriage, by Laura Taggart. Again, the website: FamilyLifeToday.com; or call 1-800-FL-TODAY to get a copy.
And don’t forget—next week is the last opportunity you have to register for an upcoming FamilyLife®Weekend to Remember marriage getaway and save 50 percent off the regular registration fee. Some of these getaways are starting to sell out, so don’t hesitate. Go online at FamilyLifeToday.com—find out when there’s going to be a getaway in a city near where you live.
You can register, online, at FamilyLifeToday.com and save the 50 percent; or you can call 1-800-FL-TODAY and we’ll answer any questions you have about the getaway / get you registered over the phone. But we want you to join us this fall, and we’d love for you to save a little money in the process. Again, go to FamilyLifeToday.com to find out more about the Weekend to Remember, or call 1-800-FL-TODAY with any questions you have.
And with that, we’ve got to wrap things up for this week. Thanks for being with us. Hope you and your family are able to worship together in your local church this weekend. And I hope you can join us back on Monday. We’re going to talk to a young wife who thought her marriage was over when she learned that her husband was being unfaithful. We’ll hear how their marriage almost collapsed and then experienced a resurrection. I hope you can tune in for that.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, with some special help from Mark Ramey. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I'm Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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