Author / Daniel
Marriage is hard.
It is one of the greatest challenges to our own pride. It can be a powerful device for becoming Christ-like. It can also be explosive. If we aren't willing to humble ourselves, to learn and to grow, we may find our marriages fraying at the edges. Sherei and I attended marriage counseling for a bit during a tough season of our relationship, and walked away with a few incredible tools that have been invaluable to keeping this ship afloat on our adventure. The reason I tell you this is not to be overly vulnerable, but rather in hopes to normalize counseling some, coming from someone who isn't crazy, and whose marriage is not trying to be saved from divorce. The truth is, we just needed some help, so we went to an expert to get some.
I fully recommend it to individuals, to couples, and to families, and believe in it so much, that I am getting my Mdiv with a focus on pastoral counseling. Scripture says there is "safety in a multitude of counsellors" (Prov 11:14). My point is, things don't have to be rock bottom before you get help. Let's be more vulnerable about our weaknesses, save a few more bad years, and seek healthy counsel.
That being said, I wanted to share the most valuable tool we picked up from our time in counseling: it's called polarization.
Polarization is when two people in a relationship push one another to the extremes of characteristics they already have. The easiest way to understand this phenomenon is to think of it as "the more of - the more of". For instance: "the more he is messy, the more she cleans. The more she cleans, the more messy he gets." In polarization, one person begins a certain behavior, which activates in the other person a response to counteract it. This action incites the initial behavior to only be worse. It is a vicious cycle of stimulating and exponentially multiplying some habits of ours that can start out as not-so-bad, and perhaps end up hideous.
This revelation has been so insightful for Sherei and I. We will find ourselves picking at one another, or feeling as if things are unfair as one of us is carrying more of a particular load. And right before things get bad in a fight, one of us will have a light bulb go off, and we will realize that we have begun to polarize. This has happened several times with us.
After observing and listening to several couples since, I realize how much polarization is the silent killer of relationships. I have seen the nasty transition from the engagement/honeymoon period of relationships to "I can't believe he/she actually lives this way," once they are under the same roof for a while.
Sound familiar? Not sure if you have symptoms of polarization?
Here are 3 examples of polarizing:
1. The Toilet paper roll
"Does he really leave the toilet roll on top of the holder? How much effort does it take to just put it on there!" Mind you, this is all in her head. She goes behind him everytime she sits down on the toilet and puts the roll on the holder. Where he used to occasionally place it on there, he slowly but surely he has been trained that he has to put forth zero effort, and the toilet roll always ends up on the holder! He will never have to put the toilet roll on the holder again.
2. The alarm
"Wake up, honey. Your running late to work again." Where before they were married, she seemed to have no problem setting an alarm and getting herself up for work, albeit being late far a few between since she isn't a morning person, she now never set an alarm. Now she gets mad at him for waking her up late. How did this happen? He is a type-a early morning riser, and after a time or two of seeing her push the limit on waking up late, he decided to take it upon himself to wake her up. She now believes that he is her alarm.
3. The spanking
"Which parent should I tell that I broke the vase playing hockey inside? Who won't get me in trouble?" We all did it as kids. Who is the more lenient parent? Who tends to not dish out discipline. Or maybe it is polarized all the way: one parent does the spanking, and the other does the consoling. It probably began with one person having a more passive personality, and the other more confrontational. One day your boy pulled his sisters hair, and you had a conversation about how to deal with it, and the confrontational parent decides to speak with and discipline the boy. Slowly you become the go to person for this task. The kid cries to you a few times because of what they said, or how bad the spanking hurt. At first you consol and defend your spouse to the kid. Eventually, you might even feel as though the other spouse is taking things too far, and being too harsh. You become the children's advocate, changing teams, and now your conversations about how to deal with discipline have turned into compromising terms, with you on the understanding side and your spouse on the discipline side. You have polarized, and you now fight against each other, rather than for your child.
How Does This Happen?
Is this hitting a note with you? If so, let me take you to the roots of where this all starts. We fall in love and everything "other" about this other person we find amazing, exotic and intriguing. Their outlook on life. The way they spend money. What they spend money on. What they want to do with their lives. How they solve problems. What they do for fun. How they communicate. What their hobbies are. And all this seems so interesting. Like exploring a museum of a foreign land, with foreign customs and traditions. And then those come and live under your roof. With you. With your customs and traditions. Everyday. And one day, those exotic differences don't seem that interesting anymore, because you wouldn't do things that way. They are cute or intriguing; they are wrong.
The root cause of polarization is the idea in someone's mind that their way of doing things is better than the other. And therefore action must be taken. We will communicate that outlook, and if nothing is done, we take matters into our own hands. And yet here is where we see the come apart spiritually. We are called to "Count others as more valuable than yourself." And "look not only to your interests, but also to the interests of others." The truth is, most polarization doesn't happen over sin issues, they are minor character flaws or nuances. Messiness. Laziness. Money management. Eating. Sleeping. Hobbies. These are things we need to learn to have "long suffering " for. We are broken people being redeemed into the likeness of Christ, and it is a process. There are areas where we need to have extended grace for those we are in relationship with, and I don't mean just months, I mean sometimes years! We are told to "bear with the failings of the weak", not make them feel so bad about their problem they finally change (Eph 4:2, Rom 15:1). Some things we may need to just write off as issues that they need to work out with the Lord. They are minuscule enough that we can allow for some error and faulty characteristics. If they ask for our help, great! We will offer our best hand. But let's not forget that we did not walk into this relationship to change them. We are here rather to partner with them, to be a helpmate. An encourager. a listener. An understanding friend. A passionate lover of their soul. Their biggest fan.
So how do you get out of it once your in it? Here are 5 simple (yet difficult) steps.
5 Steps to Stop Polarizing:
1. Empathy. As Atticus so wisely told little Scout when trying to reason with her why not to be mad at her teacher, " sometimes you have to put in someone else's skin and walk around in it awhile. Walk in their shoes, look through their eyes, and see what they're going through. Empathy is the first step of love, and is the heart of god( it basically summarizes the question: why Jesus?) when we understand where they are coming from it will help us have patience and understanding, to reevaluate how you see them.
2. Remember your old lens. Look back on how you used to view that person. Those things that frustrate and stress you out used to be charming and "make them who they are". Put those lenses back on and take a look at your old love. Relish in the difference. Begin to believe that maybe your way isn't necessarily the "right way".
3. Realize that your are polarizing. Both of you. This needs to come at a time when you are not neck deep in a fight. Rather, come at a peaceable time, apologize for your side of the issue, and leave it up to the other to accept that polarization truly is occurring. Let me input here that I think it is a great idea for a counselor, pastor or mentor to join you for this and the last few steps. The more he/she leaves the room messy, the more you clean it up for them. The more you clean it up for them, the more they leave it messy.
4. Recognize your triggers. What is it that sets off each of your polarizing behavior? Identify them for both of you so you can be aware when they show up. Detach from those triggers so they you aren't sucked into polarizaion when the cue comes. Messy room. Ding!
5. Do the exact opposite of whatever you were doing. This will most likely produce the result that you want. When the room is messy...don't clean it up. Let the room become atrocious! A pig sty! But realize, this is not a sin. This does not mean they don't love you (it probably just means their mom loved them too much - side note polarizing can happen in ANY relationship dynamic, parent/kid too). Evaluate if this is a big enough issue that you would like for them to work on since you live together. Pick your battles wisely, we can only change so much. Then, if you decide that this is something that you would really appreciate some change in, calmly and gracefully communicate that. Then wait and let them do it. It may take weeks, months, even years. Encourage them toward this aim sparingly as to not exacerbate them. Then watch. If kids sit in their own crap long enough with nobody to help them, they will realize they stink and clean themselves up. The same goes for grown ups.
Polarizing in Any Relationship
Let me make an addendum here to say that polarization, as I mentioned briefly earlier, can happen in any relationship between two people. The requirement is that they be close and up in each other's business. It could be siblings, parent and child, friends, or even grandparent and grandchild. Keep your eyes open in just your family and I bet you will see it. Let's fight to communicate and make each other aware of this dangerous and damaging cause of so much division in our lives as we strive for unity to be "one in love, even as (they) are one" (John 17:21).