This is a re-print of a series of two articles on false beliefs in marriage. They rank #8 on the most viewed articles on this blog.
Jenny dragged Lawrence into my office. They had been married for 14 months and I was dismayed they were already having marriage problems. Granted, Jenny had been married twice before and Lawrence once, but they had changed a lot since their previous marriages; and I was sure all the premarital counseling we had done would preempt future crises. Of course, I was wrong.
Jenny had grown up with a father who was physically violent and cruel. Twice, he broke her arm and once gave her a skull fracture. She left home at seventeen and never regretted it. She became quite successful as a flight attendant and married a pilot. After ten years of marriage, he also became violent and at one point hit her so hard he knocked her unconscious. She eventually divorced him and remained single for several years. When she did marry again, it was to a very gentle, kind man (her words). After five years of marriage, however, he also became abusive. She immediately filed for divorce and moved. She ended up in our fellowship of Christians where she met Lawrence. He was also a gentle man, something I could readily affirm. By his own account, he had never hit anyone in his life. He abhorred violence and he came across to Jenny as loving and stable.
But here is why she brought him into my office. She had begun noticing a change in attitude over the previous few months. She couldn’t quite identify what had changed, but she was frantically worried he would hurt her. I can imagine you reading this thinking “I can see why she would think that. Every man in her life had done this”. But I suspected something deeper and more sinister was afoot. I asked Jenny to leave my office and asked Lawrence to stay. I looked him square in the eye and said, “Lawrence, do you ever feel like hitting Jenny?” He looked everywhere else but in my eyes. As he studied his feet, I asked the question again.
“Mike, I have never hit anyone in my life” he said.
“I know Lawrence. You’ve told me. Answer my question”
“Sometimes, I have this overwhelming urge to hit her. I don’t know where it’s coming from, but it worries me.”
I brought Jenny back in the room and immediately asked Lawrence to tell her what he had admitted to me. Reluctantly, he faced up to her and admitted the truth about his thoughts. She exploded and ran out of my office. What happened in the next hour was one of the greatest revelations I have ever received in 30 years of counseling. But before I get to the rest of her story, I want to build a framework for the solution we found.
In a previous blog post, I noted several beliefs that could ruin a marriage. All of our emotions and actions stem from things we believe. Therefore, when emotions and behavior are ruining a relationship, you can be sure that some kind of warped belief system is at the root. Root beliefs (also known as “core beliefs”) are not thrust upon us. We always choose what we will believe. There are some behavioral psychologists who teach the inevitability of some beliefs. For instance, they may claim that all abuse victims grow up with a belief that power has been taken away from them. That certainly is true of many people, but not even most abuse victims feel the loss of personal control. There are abuse victims who feel guilty; others feel fear; still others focus on shame. As we grow (especially between the ages of 5–10), we are presented with thousands of choices about what we will believe about life, other people and ourselves. Any number of these beliefs may doggedly hang on into adulthood, severely affecting our relationships and marriages.
What is the solution? There are four steps to any process of solving the problems caused by false beliefs. These steps may take anywhere from a few minutes to a few weeks to enact, but there is no way to bypass any of them.
1. Acknowledge that your emotional reactions and negative behavior are always the result of something you believe. Too often, we want to maintain our emotions are simple reactions to simple causes. But many times, our reactions do not line up with the force of our reality. We often react too strongly to minor causes, or, in some cases, react weakly to major causes. We then try to blame our behavior on our partner. What we do with this is take responsibility away from our own belief system. For instance, I know a woman who, when she learned of her husband’s affair, went out and had a one-night stand. Then she came home and told him about it. When we were in counseling, she steadfastly held to the position that her actions were justified. Months later, we came to the conclusion her actions were based on a belief that she needed to take revenge when people hurt her or they would continue to hurt her.
2. Identify the belief at the source of the action or emotion. How do you do that? If you recall the incidents leading up to your behavior, ask yourself what you were feeling. As you focus on the feeling, note what thoughts go through your mind. In those thoughts you will identify some beliefs. Those beliefs, in their basic form, are what you need to focus on next. The woman who had the one-night stand had anger. But with the anger was a sense of fear. As she followed the fear in her mind, she had a thought that if she let her husband get away with his behavior, he would keep doing things to her like that. Her belief was that only revenge will stop the pain.
3. Follow the Belief to its Source. We do not usually come to false beliefs as adults. Generally, they have lodged themselves somewhere in our childhood memories. As you focus on the belief and the emotions surrounding that belief,recall a time when you felt and thought the same way as a child. It shouldn’t take too long if you’re being honest. When a memory comes (even if it isn’t all that clear how it connects with the present) walk through it again. Note the things you were feeling and believing in that memory.
4. Ask God to come and show you the truth in the memory. When we allow a false belief to take root in our souls, we cannot destroy it by outthinking it. We must get external input to help us make a decision. Our one-night-stand woman followed her belief back to a time when her brother bullied her constantly. After one time, he pulled her hair so hard she fell down and chipped a tooth. That night, she got a tennis racket and went into his room while he was sleeping and started to beat on him. All she remembers is that he never bullied her again. From that day on, she vowed she would never allow another person to hurt her without paying them back. As she walked through this memory, she invited God to speak truth. God showed her that revenge is not going to work. He showed her that her brother and her were never really close after that. God pointed out that she traded revenge for reconciliation and she was doing that in her marriage also. She chose to let go of the revenge belief and it helped to put her relationship back together with her husband.
As I worked in counseling with Jenny, I also explained that our inner beliefs do have an effect on our deepest relationships. Her personal belief was all men will hurt her. She lived this out in such a way that it affected the men around her. Don’t get me wrong; the men in her life who had hurt her were completely to blame for their actions. But she also had to come to grips with the reality that her belief made their actions easier. She and I walked through the four steps mentioned above and she heard from God that not all men will hurt her – and she forgave her dad and the other men for what they had done. Since that time, Lawrence has reported absolutely no recurrence of the inner prompting to hit her. And from that day, her fear of being hurt has vanished.
This can apply to any false belief. Though it won’t change your partner all the time, it will change you; and if you are changed, then that will change the core nature of the relationship.