This is part five of a current series on marriage. The writer of the book of Hebrews declared: “God deals with you as with his sons; for what son is there whom a father does not chasten… Now no chastening seems to be joyful for the present, but painful; nevertheless, afterward it yields the peaceable fruit of righteousness, to those who have been trained by it, (Hebrews 12:7-11).” If you’ve been following this series you know by now that I’ve been “trained by it”!
I’ve realized that God speaks to us through his word, through His Spirit, through circumstances and through other people. This week I’m writing about God speaking to me through my wife, Susie, to teach me a thing or two. My hope is that some of you will learn from my mistakes and for God’s sake, “… mothers tell your children not to do what I have done, (The House of the Rising Sun).”
Several years ago my father-in-law, at the young age of sixty-one, suffered his first of five strokes. My wife, Susie, is an only child and her father and mother depended heavily upon her, as did our three daughters, ages one, three and nine at the time. At the age of thirty-six, Susie and I were catapulted into the “sandwich generation” (Dorothy Miller, 1981); those people who are “sandwiched” between simultaneously caring for minor children and aging parents.
Members of the “sandwich generation” are like the circus performer who tries to keep ten plates spinning on the end of poles at the same time. They are pulled in a thousand different directions and are at risk for emotional burnout and fractured relationships. They are simply “spread too thin”; and patience is one of the things that can wear thin, as the incident below illustrates.
It was about twenty-five years ago and we were several years into our thirteen years of care giving. I came home to find Susie sitting at the kitchen table with her elbows on the table and her forehead resting in the palms of her hands. She was obviously upset so I asked, “What’s wrong?” and she replied, “I’ve been down at mom and dads.” As she vented her frustration, you guessed it, I gave her my unsolicited advice, “What you need to do is…You just need to tell your mom that…” Susie summarily and uncharacteristically fired back, “Did I ask you for your advice? Did I ask you to solve my problems? I was hoping that just this once you would just put your arms around me and hold me, that you would just understand.” How could I respond any other way but to say, “I’m sorry?” And I’ve been sorry for it ever since.
When I told Susie that I was writing about husbands giving their wives unsolicited advice, she suggested, “Men aren’t the only ones that do it. Women do it too. We all do it.” When I told Susie I was going to quote her she said, “I take it back. I was just joking.” I told her, “Too late! I’m running with it.” I was thinking the same thing but I wasn’t going to be the one to point it out.
But I should have known better; after all, I’m a Social Worker! I’ve studied principles of effective communication. One of my favorite books by Hepworth and Larsen, given to me by my good friend and former coworker, Mike, describes “barriers to effective communication” one of which is “Advising or giving suggestions or solutions prematurely”. The authors suggest, “Generally advice should be offered sparingly only after thoroughly exploring a problem and the person’s ideas regarding possible solutions… Assuming a position of superiority and quickly providing solutions for problems without encouraging clients to formulate possible courses of action fosters dependence and stifles creative thinking. Freely dispensing advice also minimizes or ignores client strengths and potentials, (Direct Social Work Practice).” Ouch! Boy I wish I’d followed the advice of Hepworth and Larsen that day. Apparently some of us have to be “chastened” a time or two before we are “trained by it”.
Paul Tournier, Swiss physician, wrote: “There as some emotions pent up and unexpressed, which block the flow of life… it is rare for people to open up their hearts to each other… even in the case of married couples, or close friends. When I question the person who has just told me something he has never dared to admit to anyone else, he replies, ‘I was afraid of not being understood’. That is it; he has felt understood. The feeling that he is understood is what helps him to live, to face any problem, however difficult, without being false to himself, (The Listening Ear).”
So, the next time someone opens up their heart to us, let’s think twice before giving them our unsolicited advice. Let’s just put our arm around them and try to understand. And if we do give advice, let’s offer it sparingly and only after thoroughly exploring the problem and the person’s ideas regarding possible solutions. For in the words of my friend and retired pastor, Charlie, “Sometimes advice is about as welcome as a hair in a biscuit.”
“The purpose in a man’s heart is like deep water, but a man of understanding will draw it out, (Proverbs 20:5, ESV).”
Loren Hardin is a social worker with Southern Ohio Medical Center-Hospice, and can be reached at 740-356-2525 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can order Loren’s new book, “Straight Paths,” online at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.