IVP - Online Pulpit - May 2012 Archives

May 29, 2012

The Three Fires

Counseling is a time-consuming and often troubling task all pastors face. After-hours meetings and confidentiality can be tiresome, and the study of methods and programs can stretch the pastor too thin.

James Sells and Mark Yarhouse have recently published Counseling Couples in Conflict with the hope of creating a new model, one based on the roots of conflict, to provide a well-rounded approach to counseling.

First, the authors emphasize the importance of indentifying the “conflict theme”:

The conflict theme is usually easy to identify. If you are to ask either partner, “Hey, what’s the problem?” it is what you would get as a response. Commonly the conflict theme has two versions—his side of the story and her side of the story. But it is still the same story. The conflict, then, is what they are yelling about right now.

It is the fight about the bounced check, childcare, dirty laundry and why they are not stopping to ask directions. These themes can be about little aggravations; they also can involve large and significant differences or violations. The conflict theme usually rests between people—counselors must integrate “his problem” with “her problem” to form “their problem.” (pp. 30-31)

Second, Sells and Yarhouse recognize it’s unlikely that this is the first time the conflict has occurred; thus they help us understand the couple’s “history with the conflict theme”:

Pain has a memory. Usually there is more to a couple’s conflict than the actual argument topic such as schedules and arriving home on time. Spouses have a history of causing injury to one another. That repetition builds expectations and a response pattern within each partner.

In athletics, the term muscle memory refers to a set of movements that are learned then practiced over and over, like shooting a free throw in basketball. The brain habituates the body to the movements that have been rehearsed. So a basketball player can line up at the free throw line and shoot a basket with his or her eyes closed. Since the movements are memorized, one doesn’t even have to look.

Conflicts in marriage are similar. Once they have been repeated multiple times, our brains learn to recognize the cues previously experienced and react to the other person out of anticipation. In these situations, it’s like couples can “fight with their eyes closed.” (pp. 32-33)

Finally, Sells and Yarhouse recognize the “family of origin conflict tradition”: a family history that has origins beyond the couple’s. A couple’s understanding of how they have been taught to communicate and to handle conflict can go a long way to healing:

From their respective families each learned a pattern of acting, reacting and interacting with events, circumstances and people. Early in life we all learn a set of rules about how to respond to situations. Included in those instructions are implied ideas about how others are to act and how we can all best get along together.

Neither partner was privy to how their partner was instructed, mentored and graded by their respective teachers. And their curriculums were different, often drastically. We can observe the lessons learned by the way they responded to their pain and the pain of their partner. (p. 34)

James N. Sells and Mark A. Yarhouse, Counseling Couples in Conflict (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2011).

Posted by Nate Baker-Lutz at 10:25 AM

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