Unsurprisingly, it’s people who bear the blame for relationship issues. It’s not time, your budget, or a prudish fairy that is responsible for your problems regarding emotional connection, money, power, and sex. At base, relational problems usually stem from decisions – from what you and your partner have done or not done.Dr. David Schnarch, a psychologist and sex therapist, terms the culprit “emotional fusion.” Emotional fusion is using your partner to produce feelings of validation self-esteem, rather than maturely self-generating them. For example, a husband who criticizes his wife to feel superior or a wife who needs her husband to praise every minor accomplishment would be emotionally fused. They may not even like each other much, but each partner symbiotically feeds off of what the other offers them emotionally.
Dr. Schnarch proposes “Four Points of Balance” to help couples with emotional fusion issues. These are four qualities of people who have developed the tools of emotional maturity to constructively handle problems.
Four Points of Balance for Relationship Issues
1. Possessing a Solid, Flexible Self vs. Needing your Partner to be Wrong
To have a solid, flexible self you must know who you are. Rather than needing your partner to be wrong (so they always need to ask for forgiveness), a solid, flexible self means both that you are strong but also flexible. You can support your point of view, but not dogmatically; you have integrity, but needn’t be always right.
This calls to mind the passage of Scripture in Romans 5 and 6 where Paul asks if we should continue in sin so grace would abound. Paul emphatically answers no! When we exploit God’s forgiveness to get away with sin, we evidence our lack of integrity. To have a solid self, we must do what’s right no matter the consequences.Acting with integrity is challenging. As Christians, we know we have the Holy Spirit in us to grow us and help us overcome temptation. We must work to mature our integrity, while we also know we cannot be righteous without the movement of God in our lives. Psalm 41:12 reminds us, “As for me, you uphold me in my integrity, and you set me in your presence forever.”
Emotionally fused couples instead depend on their spouse’s behavior for their self-perception. These are the type of people who find singleness hard; they use a relationship to feel seen and important. Schnarch acknowledges it isn’t wrong to desire to be wanted – but for a partner who is emotionally fused, there will never be another partner who will meet all their desires. Their behavior is insecure and needy, and conversations hinge on ideas of safety and vulnerability.
Rather than seeing another person as the answer to our soul’s needs, the Christian partner ought to build his or her identity on Jesus. God alone will not change or waver. His infinite self can actually fill and satisfy our insatiable longings that we use relationships to satisfy. In Ephesians 3:18-19, Paul writes, “how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge – that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.”
Here’s an example to help us understand this situation: Scott and Amy are in marriage counseling and Scott seems to be growing more. Amy isn’t working to change her part in the negative cycles of behavior that she perpetuates. Scott, in contrast, is identifying his own sin patterns and working to change the dynamic of the relationship. He wants to ask her to do nice things or ask her to change the things that bug him, but now realizes he has gone about it horribly (by comparing his wife to other women he’s been with).
Scott wants to do better; he doesn’t want to be a husband who hurts his wife. So rather than blaming Amy for her tendencies, he takes ownership of his own actions. Rather than being controlled by the dynamics of the relationship, Scott is learning how to control himself. He is on the path to develop a solid, flexible self.
2. Having a Quiet Mind and Calm Heart vs. Blaming Your Partner for Emotional Wounds
When you have a quiet and calm heart and mind, you don’t allow feelings to control your life. Conversely, if a partner is controlled by feelings, they tend to internalize the wounds of others and stew on them to maintain a constant state of emotional frenzy. Through this process, this spouse maintains their status as the victim, while their partner is painted as the villain. This makes it impossible for growth because they can’t forgive their partner’s sin. As they open old wounds, healing won’t develop.We want to grow in our ability to not allow our thoughts or emotions to control us. Schnarch writes that we must grow increasingly aware of our body’s physical reactions to thoughts and feelings. We can then learn how to calm ourselves before bringing everyone down with us into a tailspin. Indeed, relational problems would likely decrease if spouses realized how their emotions dictate their behavior. Rather than being overwhelmed, we need to learn how to step back and calm down.
Specifically, one way to “cool down” is to stop for a moment of prayer. John Wesley’s mother, Susanna, would pull her apron up over her head when she needed a moment to be alone with God. Her children knew not to disturb her for a few minutes when she did so. May you, too, use similar apron moments; pray that God would strengthen you to control your emotions and forgive old wounds.
Like Psalm 27 reminds us, God creates and gives peace: “When besieged, I’m calm as a baby. When all hell breaks loose, I’m collected and cool. I’m asking God for one thing, only one thing: To live with him in his house my whole life long. I’ll contemplate his beauty; I’ll study at his feet. That’s the only quiet, secure place in a noisy world; the perfect getaway, far from the buzz of traffic” (Psalm 27:3-5, The Message).
Here’s an example: Let’s say Adam, who is in his early 20’s with a tendency towards melancholy, is driving back to college on a gray day. Adam has always been single. He’s content, yet can also feel pretty lonely. He turns on some great (but also sad) music. When that album is done, he changes it to another melancholy album. After an hour, those “alone forever” feelings rise to the surface, as he sings along to songs about heartbreak and drinking alone on Friday nights. Adam is throwing a pity party for himself, but then realizes, “Wait! I’ve created these feelings for myself. Wallowing in this bummer fest is only making it worse.” So he changes the music and after a bit, most of those feelings disappear.
Please know, there are legitimate mental health issues such as depression – but we also can have tendencies towards dwelling in unpleasant emotions that build until they create a hole of self-pity that’s hard to climb out of. Schnarch’s “quiet mind and calm heart” is how we become aware, like Adam, when your feelings and thoughts are getting out of hand.
3. Grounded Responding vs. Attacking When Your Sins are Pointed Out
To respond in a grounded way, we need to have a calm mind and quiet heart. When a situation is emotionally charged, we need to remain calm to respond as objectively as possible. Whereas the previous point focused on learning calm to not hurt yourself, this third point focuses on keeping you from hurting others.
Schnarch points out, “Marriage is improved by the two or three things not said each day.” If the goal is connection and meaningful communication, then we must avoid personal attacks or blowing up emotionally. On his website, Schnarch offers a useful chart to help us understand that those who have trouble with grounded responses are often people:
- with explosive tempers with ‘short fuses’
- who say cutting things in difficult conversations
- who break collaborative alliances whenever they get hurt
- who are always yelling at their kids
- who go to pieces over little things
The Bible is full of passages about wise people who don’t say everything they think, contrary to fools. For example, in Psalm 15, David asks what sort of person the Lord allows on his “holy hill.” The answer is: “He who walks with integrity, and works righteousness, and speaks truth in his heart. He does not slander with his tongue, nor does evil to his neighbor, nor takes up a reproach against his friend” (Psalm 15:2-3 NASB). This comes up again a few psalms later: “Keep your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking deceit” (Psalm 34:13 NSAB). Obviously with such injunctions all throughout Scripture, we know God understands the dangers of wounding others with our words.
If some have a tendency towards explosive hurtfulness, others withdraw and avoid conflict. Although this looks like the high road because it’s less volatile, it is not closer to grounded responses. Schnarch gives us examples of this type of response, too:
- When your kids need discipline and you just don’t feel like doing it.
- You’re concerned your child is showing signs of learning disabilities, but you don’t seek help.
- You know your partner is having an affair, but you say nothing because you don’t want to upset the status quo.
For example, Josh adores his wife, Stephanie – but when they fight, Josh takes a bazooka to the relationship by saying the most hurtful thing he can think of. Last week when they fought about him helping the kids after school, he shouted, “You’re always nagging me! No wonder your first husband left you.” But when he cools down, he’s eaten up by guilt about how he’s hurt his wife. When we respond in a grounded way, it prevents ugly, unproductive screaming matches. Had Josh controlled himself and tried first to understand Stephanie’s point of view, it’s likely the argument would have ended much better.
4. Meaningful Endurance vs. Holding Grudges
This point emphasizes that change is hard, but that it’s possible to become increasingly comfortable both with the need to change and the ability to work on it. Schnarch talks about “tolerating discomfort for growth” as a way to develop a mental toughness necessary for change. When we learn meaningful endurance, we can push through difficult situations to achieve a greater good on the other end.
Schnarch writes that “meaningful endurance is not blind perseverance, stubbornness, or refusal to face facts. It is not stupid pain-for-no-purpose. It is not simply high pain tolerance, or accepting a lousy relationship. Meaningful endurance is about tolerating pain for growth. If there’s no growth, it’s not meaningful.”
Here are several areas where Schnarch suggests you can practice meaningful endurance:
- Sticking with things so you can accomplish your goals
- Making yourself do what needs to be done, even when you don’t want to do it
- Absorbing hardship and disappointment; bouncing back after defeat
- Withstanding stress
For most people, going through marriage counseling is going to be painful. Schnarch’s goal is to take a painful experience and to grow and learn from it. To leave a painful marriage in its current state is still painful; likewise, working at making it better is also painful. But, the second course leads to growth. Realizing all options are painful allows you to grow in mental resilience and endurance as you work towards change.
The Bible talks about this in Hebrews 12. This passage starts with urging believers to remember Christ’s struggles while they also experience hardships. This chapter reminds us that God disciplines his children because He loves them. Pain can help us grow.
“It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12:7-11 ESV).
Here’s an example to see this in action: Julia doesn’t like it when conversations turn to feelings or commitment to a relationship. She loves her boyfriend and is committed, it’s just that she doesn’t like to be dependent on other people. Even though these conversations are uncomfortable, they’re needed for a relationship to grow. She decides to walk and talk with her boyfriend about their plans for after graduation. Will they take their relationship to the next step? She chooses to walk shoulder to shoulder while having such an intimate and feelings-oriented conversation, knowing that it’s hard to have. She plunges through the awkwardness so the relationship can grow.
Christian Counseling for Personal and Relationship Growth
We generally know our weaknesses well, but sometimes we’re blinded by our hurtful behaviors. If you’re interested in applying Schnarch’s Four Points of Balance in your own life, it can be helpful to speak with a Christian counselor in spokane. Your counselor can help you discuss struggles and how to deal with them. Additionally, if your behavior or your partner’s behavior is damaging your marriage relationship, seek out a professional Christian marriage counselor. They can give you tools to grow your relationship and improve communication.
Intimacy and Desire by Dr. David Schnarch
“Balance,” courtesy of Deniz Altindas, unsplash.com, Public Domain License; “Train Tracks,” courtesy of Jonathan Pendleton, unsplash.com, Public Domain License; “Reflect,” courtesy of Chris Montgomery, unsplash.com, Public Domain License; “At Rest,” courtesy of Brandon Couch, unsplash.com, Public Domain License