Guide to Managing Media for Tweens and Teens

GUIDE TO MANAGING MEDIA FOR TWEENS AND TEENS

Jill Murphy

With kids consuming more media than ever before, parents need new rules for how to manage it.

The Common Sense Census: A Day in Teens’ Digital Lives

Today’s kids are immersed in media. More than ever before, tweens and teens are watching, reading, listening, creating, and communicating throughout their entire day. It’s become harder to distinguish between screen time and just … time. The Common Sense Census found that American teens average about nine hours of media per day and tweens about six per day. This doesn’t include time spent doing homework on a computer or tablet or reading books for school.

Beyond the amount of time kids are spending with media, the Common Sense Census identified several patterns, from what boys and girls do differently to their favorite media activities. If you’re wondering how this all affects your kid — well, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer. But what’s clear is that parents, teachers, and supportive adults can help support kids in using media and tech in healthy, productive, and responsible ways. Here are tips for parents:

Parents should feel empowered to set limits on screens of all sizes. Devices are a huge part of screen time, and kids need support in establishing balance and setting limits. Depending on your family, these rules can be as simple as “no phones at the dinner table” or “no texting after 9 p.m.”  

Encourage your kids to be creative, responsible consumers, not just passive users. Media can be incredibly productive, educational, and empowering. Helping younger kids find great content and get access to quality books, complex movies, challenging games, and safe apps and websites fosters a positive relationship with media.  

Help kids understand the effects of multitasking. Our research shows tweens and teens think multitasking has no impact on the quality of their homework. As parents, we know that helping kids stay focused will only strengthen interpersonal skills and school performance. Encourage them to manage one task at a time, shutting down social media while working online for homework or engaging in conversation.  

Talk the talk, walk the walk. Lead by example by putting your own devices away during family time. Parent role-modeling shows kids the behavior and values you want in your home. Kids will be more open and willing participants when the house rules apply to you, too.

How to Set Screen Rules That Stick

HOW TO SET SCREEN RULES THAT STICK

Caroline Knorr

Easy tips for limiting kids’ computer, TV, game, and movie time.

In many homes, getting kids to turn off their cell phones, shut down the video games, or quit YouTube can incite a revolt. And if your kids say they need to be online for schoolwork, you may not know when the research stops and idle activity begins.

When it comes to screen time, every family will have different amounts of time that they think is “enough.” What’s important is giving it some thought, creating age-appropriate limits (with built-in flexibility for special circumstances), making media choices you’re comfortable with, and modeling responsible screen limits for your kids. Try these age-based guidelines to create screen rules that stick.

Preschoolers. There are lots of great TV showsappsgames, and websites geared for this age. But too much time spent in front of a screen can interfere with activities that are essential for growing brains and bodies.

  • Go for quality and age-appropriateness. Not everything for preschoolers needs to be a so-called “brain-builder,” but there’s a difference between mindless and mindfulentertainment. Our reviews can steer you toward titles that help preschoolers work on developmental skills like sharing, cooperation, and emotional intelligence.
  • Sit with them, and enjoy the discovery process. There will always be moments when you need to rely on the TV or an app to distract your preschooler while you get something done. But as much as you can, enjoy media together. Little hands and developing brains really benefit from your company (and guidance!).
  • Begin setting limits when kids are little. Habits get ingrained early, so try to establish clear screen-time rules when your kids are young. For games, apps, and websites, you may need to set a timer. For TV, just say “one show.”

Elementary and Middle Schoolers. At this age, kids love TV shows, games, movies, and online videos. They begin to explore more and hear about new shows and games from friends. Because they can access these things by themselves, it’s crucial to continue to supervise their activities and help them stick to your rules.

  • Start with an endpoint. Use whatever tools you have — your DVR, Netflix, OnDemand — to pre-record shows, cue them up, or plan ahead to watch at a specific time. That way, one show won’t flow into the other, and you can avoid commercials. If your kids are into YouTube, search for age-appropriate videos, and add them to a playlist to watch later. Because most games don’t have built-in endings (and are, in fact, designed to make kids play as long as possible), set a timer or some other cue that says “time to stop.”
  • Help them balance their day. Kids this age need guidance from you on a daily plan that includes a little bit of time for everything. And staying involved works: Kids whose parents make an effort to limit media use spend less time with media than their peers do, according to a 2010 Kaiser Family Foundation study. Use the American Academy of Pediatrics’ worksheets to create a family media plan. 
  • Practice what you preach. It’s tempting to keep reaching for your phone to check email, texts, Facebook, or the news. But your kids will be the first to call you out for not “walking the talk.” Plus, they’ll pick up habits from you. Model the media behavior that you want your kids to emulate.

High Schoolers. You’ll have more success with teens if you explain the reasons why too much screen time is harmful. For example, social media may contribute to anxiety

  • Help them make quality choices. You still have a say in what they see, hear, and play. Put in your two cents about the importance of quality shows, games, and movies.
  • Crack down on multitasking. High school kids who’ve discovered texting, IM, Facebook, and music tend to do them all at once — especially when they’re supposed to be doing mundane tasks like homework. But a University of Michigan study found that humans are terrible multitaskers and that the practice actually reduces the ability to concentrate and focus.
  • Find ways to say “yes.” Look for movies they can watch. Find games you’re OK with. If your teens ask to see something you don’t approve of, help them find alternatives.

Helicopter Parenting: From Good Intentions to Poor Outcomes

HELICOPTER PARENTING: FROM GOOD INTENTIONS TO POOR OUTCOMES

Sandi Schwartz

Do you stand over your child’s shoulder when they do their homework? Do you find yourself directing your kids’ every move? “Pick up this, clean up that, sit up straight, finish your homework, study hard, say thank you.” Do you spend a good chunk of your day obsessing about your children’s success, like will they make the sports team or school play, and will they get into the top-notch college you (yes, you!) always dreamed of?

I hate to break it to you, but you may be a helicopter parent—a term which is commonly used but also has a basis in research on specific parenting behaviors and their effects on children.

Most parents want the very best for their children, and so they’ll go to great lengths to be wonderful providers and protectors. The deep love and care that parents have for their children can even push parents to, well, be a bit over-the-top. And helicopter parents are known to be overly protective and involved in their children’s lives.

The term paints a picture of a parent who hovers over their children, always on alert, and who swoops in to rescue them at the first sign of trouble or disappointment. The term was first coined in 1990 by Foster Cline and Jim Fay in their book, Parenting with Love and Logic, and it gained relevance with college admissions staff who noticed how parents of prospective students were inserting themselves in the admissions process.

Helicopter parenting can be defined by three types of behaviors that parents exemplify:

  • First, information seeking behaviors include knowing your children’s daily schedule and where they are at all times, helping them make decisions, and being informed about grades and other accomplishments.
  • Second, direct intervention means jumping into conflicts with kids’ roommates, friends, romantic partners, and even bosses.
  • Third, autonomy limiting is when students think their parents are preventing them from making their own mistakes, controlling their lives for them, and failing to support their decisions.

We all want to love our children as much as possible and protect them from the dangers in our society. We live in an increasingly competitive world and want to give our kids every advantage possible. But if we over-parent and smother them, it can backfire big time. A collection of research in recent years shows a connection between helicopter parenting and mental health issues like anxiety and depression as children get older and try to make it on their own.

The negative impacts of helicopter parenting

In 2010, a study by researcher Neil Montgomery, a psychologist at Keene State College in New Hampshire, found that overprotective parents might have a lasting impact on their child’s personality by prolonging childhood and adolescence. Approximately 300 college freshmen were surveyed about their level of agreement with statements regarding their parents’ involvement in their lives. The results showed that 10 percent of the participants had helicopter parents. The research also revealed that students with helicopter parents tended to be less open to new ideas and actions, and were more vulnerable, anxious, dependent, and self-conscious.

A 2016 study from the National University of Singapore published in the Journal of Personality indicated that children with intrusive parents who had high expectations for academic performance, or who overreacted when they made a mistake, tend to be more self-critical, anxious, or depressed. The researchers termed this as “maladaptive perfectionism,” or a tendency in children of helicopter parents to be afraid of making mistakes and to blame themselves for not being perfect. This happens because the parents are essentially—whether by their words or actions—indicating to their kids that what they do is never good enough.

Another 2016 study evaluated questionnaires about parenting completed by 377 students from a Midwestern university. Students responded to statements about the type of parents they have, how often they communicate with their parents, and how much their parents intrude in their lives. The students also completed a number of tests to discern their decision-making skills, academic performance, and symptoms of anxiety and depression. Results showed that higher overall helicopter parenting scores were associated with stronger symptoms of anxiety and depression.

According to that study, helicopter parenting “was also associated with poorer functioning in emotional functioning, decision making, and academic functioning. Parents’ information-seeking behaviors, when done in absences of other [helicopter parenting] behaviors, were associated with better decision making and academic functioning.”

In addition, the journal Cognitive Therapy and Research published research in 2017 suggesting that helicopter parenting can trigger anxiety in kids who already struggle with some social issues. A group of children and their parents were asked to complete as many puzzles as possible in a 10-minute time period. Parents were allowed to help their children, but not encouraged to do so.

Researchers noted that the parents of children with social issues touched the puzzles more often than the other parents did. Though they were not critical or negative, they stepped in even when their children did not ask for help. Researchers think this indicates that parents of socially anxious children may perceive challenges to be more threatening than the child thinks they are. Over time, this can diminish a child’s ability to succeed on their own and potentially increase anxiety.

So how does all this hovering cause mental health problems in our children?

First of all, helicopter parents are communicating to their children in subtle (or not-so-subtle) ways that they won’t be safe unless mom or dad is there looking out for them. When these children have to go off on their own, they are not prepared to meet daily challenges. This inability to find creative solutions and make decisions on their own can cause a great deal of worry since their protector is no longer around to help them.

Because these children were never taught the skills to function independently, and because they may have been held to unattainable or even “perfectionist” standards, children of helicopter parents can experience anxiety, depression, a lack of confidence, and low self-esteem. Another issue is that if these kids have never experienced failure, they can develop an overwhelming fear of failure and of disappointing others. Finally, if we don’t let our children have the freedom to learn about the world and discover their purpose and what makes them happy, they will struggle to find happiness and live a balanced life—all impacting their mental health.  

What we can do to break the helicopter habit

All parents know that parenting is not easy. Having children and raising them presents innumerable challenges and surprises, but also immense joy and connection. Now that we know that overparenting only leads to more problems for our kids, we can make the following adjustments in our parenting approach:

  • Support your children’s growth and independence by listening to them, and not always pushing your desires on them.
  • Refrain from doing everything for your children (this includes homework!). Take steps to gradually teach them how to accomplish tasks on their own.
  • Don’t try to help your children escape consequences for their actions unless you believe those consequences are unfair or life-altering.
  • Don’t raise your child to expect to be treated differently than other children.
  • Encourage your children to solve their own problems by asking them to come up with creative solutions.
  • Teach your children to speak up for themselves in a respectful manner.
  • Understand and accept your children’s weaknesses and strengths, and help them to use their strengths to achieve their own goals.

Parents should, of course, do the best they can for their kids. Impulses to involve ourselves in our children’s’ lives often come from a sense of duty, and of unconditional love. We can harness those desires to give the most we can to our kids by resisting helicopter parenting, which can lead to poor outcomes in adulthood.

Instead, try letting your children discover themselves—their weaknesses, strengths, their goals and dreams. You can help them succeed, but you should also let them fail. Teach them how to try again. Learning what failure means, how it feels, and how to bounce back is an important part of becoming independent in our world.

Beyond the Talk: Teaching Your Kids About Consent

BEYOND THE TALK: TEACHING YOUR KIDS ABOUT CONSENT

Kateyn Ewen

The talk. The birds and the bees. The awkward conversation with your parents you dreaded as a child. It probably went something like this: “Well, when two people love each other very much…” followed by a vague description of the physical act of sex, contraceptives, pregnancy, and STIs.

But were you ever taught about consent? What about affirmative consent? Did your parents and the adults in your life practice consent with each other, and with you? The #MeToo stories about non-consensual interactions, specifically ones that live in the grey area or ones that happen in childhood, are something we should all strive to eliminate from the next generation by educating our kids today.

It is approximated that 63,000 people under the age of 12 are victims of sexual abuse every year. One in six boys and one in four girls are sexually abused before the age of 18. And those are just the ones who report.

If we can teach our kids about consent and show them how to practice it through our actions, through those little teaching moments, then maybe, these stories can be less common.

Here are seven ways to teach your kids, and the kids in your lives, about consent.

Practice consent by example
Before children even learn to speak, they learn by observing and mimicking the world around them. It’s called observational learning. By practicing consent with our partners, friends, and other children, we can begin to model what consent should look like to those ever-watchful eyes.

This also extends to how we practice consent in our relationships with our children. By giving children choices in expressing consent in how they would like to be touched, we teach them how to express it when we’re not around. For example, If you want to kiss your child goodnight, ask them, “May I give you a kiss goodnight?” and respect their answer.

Give them bodily autonomy
Giving children choice is a gateway to giving them the tools to express their consent. You can ask your child “Do you want to wear your blue shoes or your yellow shoes today?” In the same way, it is important to give children options when it comes to their body. For example, if they have a rash and they need ointment you can say, “You need ointment for your rash, do you want to put it on, or can I help you?”

Giving children simple choices every day shows them that they have bodily autonomy so that they can carry that into other interactions. In the same way, it is important to not take that bodily autonomy away from your children. A common way children lose their bodily autonomy is through adults coercing them to hug and/or kiss relatives and friends. It’s important to show children that they have a choice. If they say no, you can give them alternatives, like “How about a fist bump?” but the key is to respect a “no” that may follow.

Teach them to listen to their bodies
Consent isn’t just a verbal interaction, so it’s important that we teach children to listen to their bodies. What feels good and what doesn’t feel good to them? Teaching them what it feels like to be present in their physical self, and what it feels like to have their physical needs honored and met, is key to them being able to appropriately express their needs later.

Teaching children about their physical pleasure is something that Sue Jaye Johnson, a journalist and filmmaker, talks about working through with her daughters. In an interview for the Future of Sex Podcast, she talks about how her daughter will ask her to rub her back and how she then asks “Well, how would you like me to rub your back?” giving her daughter the space to think about her pleasure and express her physical wants in a productive way. In the same way, we also need to teach our children to listen to their gut feelings and instincts. Our bodies are a powerful tool in telling us that something doesn’t feel right. By encouraging children to give credence to these feelings and voice them, we encourage an understanding of their own pleasure and needs and how they might express that to future partners.

Give them the tools to express their physical wants and needs
Once a child has language at their disposal, we can begin to help them express their wants and needs though their words. We can teach them polite ways to decline affection like “No, thank you. I don’t want to hug right now.” But we should also be teaching them that they can just say “no” and that that’s ok, too.

Rather than teaching our girls the narrative that if a boy teases you, he likes you, we should be teaching our kids that if they don’t like something and ask someone to stop, they need to stop. If their words aren’t heeded, that may be the appropriate time to involve an adult or remove themselves from interaction with the offending kid. In the same way, it is important to teach kids to ask permission, with words and gestures. They can offer a hand to hold or hold out their hands for a hug, but they also need to ask, use their words, and know that someone may say no.

Teach them how to handle physical rejection
While we need to teach our kids how to say no, we also need to teach our kids to recognize and accept the rejection of affection. It’s important to encourage them to stop when someone says no, and to step in as adults when we recognize our kids being affection aggressors, holding other kids a little too long or a little too hard.

We can teach kids to accept rejection and redirect them. We can tell them that just because a friend doesn’t want a hug, that that doesn’t mean they don’t love them and we can direct them to show affection in other ways. You can tell your child to use words of affirmation, acts of service, or gifts to express affection. While channeling affection is important, it’s also important to just teach that it’s ok that someone doesn’t want something, in the same way that they may not want things at times. They are in control of their bodies, just as someone else is in control of theirs.

Turn awkward moments into teaching opportunities
Something I’ve talked a lot about with peers is how their parents handled sex scenes in movies and television growing up. As a millennial, the general binary in my generation is parents who fast-forwarded through sex scenes and parents who made you endure the sex scenes in a tense silence. In addition to this binary, there are a lot of movies and shows from my childhood, and from generations prior, that display non-consensual interactions in a way that makes them seem okay.

What if we didn’t let that slide? What if we took media and created a dialogue, especially with older children and teens? If you’re watching a movie with your kid that has a sex scene, use the time that could be spent being awkward to talk about what’s being done right and what the characters should be doing regarding consent in the interaction.

Believe them and advocate for them
Finally, and most importantly, it is essential to believe children and advocate for them. If your child expresses discomfort or unease, ask them about their feelings and validate them. This is a crucial step of Emotion Coaching. When you believe them, it creates an open channel for communication between you. It teaches them them to trust you and trust their own instincts. So in turn, they might also believe the story of someone else.

Ask them if they want or need intervention. It’s then your responsibility to advocate for them with whomever is making them uncomfortable. That might mean talking to a parent, teacher, coach, or other adult. Sometimes we’re the ones that need to step in and have those tough conversations until our children are old enough to have them on their own.

Rather than having “the talk” with your kids, think of teaching consent as an ongoing dialogue—a million little conversations and day-to-day actions that can help them feel comfortable and safe in their own bodies, and respect the sanctity of someone else’s.

School-Year Screen-Time Rules from a Teacher

SCHOOL-YEAR SCREEN-TIME RULES FROM A TEACHER

Rebecca Young

Take it from a middle school teacher and mom: Kids need to manage their online activities — and parents need to help them do it.

This article is part of Common Sense Media’s Parent Voices series, which provides a platform for opinions about parenting in the digital age. All ideas expressed are the writer’s own.

Last year Fortnite invaded my middle school classroom — as I believe it did to middle school classrooms across the country. Students who were usually on task and high-performing were nodding off and “forgetting” to do their homework. The morning conversations about how late they stayed up or who was the last man standing became part of our early morning check-ins. Then the phone calls with parents started: Over several months, I had numerous telephone and after-school meetings with parents concerned about their kids’ performance. When I brought up screen time, there were a range of reactions. Some parents seemed oblivious as to what their children were doing after hours, some didn’t know how to rein in screen time, and some thought they had it all under control — but clearly did not.

I get it. I’m not just a teacher: I’m a mom who struggles with screen time, too. I spent last summer trying to keep my own middle school daughter unplugged in the rural English countryside. After the first week, when the iPad started appearing little by little, I tried to use my own advice — “However much you read is how much screen time you get” — and reasoning, “Make sure you balance your learning games with your other games.” But then I’d hear my daughter yelling at a friend who’d just left her online game, and I’d feel like I’d lost the battle.

The thing is, I’m not anti-screen. I’ve seen technology bring some amazing teaching momentsto my classroom — and to my own life. One student, whom I could never get to write a complete sentence on paper, wrote the most heartfelt poem about how he “nearly won” in Fortnite. It became his breakthrough, and he hasn’t stopped writing since. Other kids made parallels to the dystopian books they were reading and wrote very poignant compare-and-contrast papers to prove their points. And, far away from her friends in the United States, my daughter was able to stay in touch with her friends online, keep herself occupied with Roblox, and feel a part of pop culture by watching every Miranda Sings video ever made.

Those breakthrough moments of connection, creativity, and critical thinking are what I strive for as a teacher and a mother. What it tells me is that however parents handle the management of their kids’ screen time, it really does have to be a balance. And knowing middle school kids as well as I do, I know that they aren’t always able to shut down Fortnite or YouTube without the guidance and support of their parents. I’ve also discovered that tech is never going to be a one-size-fits-all thing. What works for some kids will not work for others. Finding what is best for your family can involve a bit of trial and error.

These are the strategies that worked for many of my parents last year and that I’m sure I will be trying with my middle schooler this year:

Be present. Know what your child is playing and when. That seems simple, but it is so important. So many of my parents last year had no idea that their child was staying up until all hours in the morning playing games. I heard more than once, “I have never had to worry about their screen use. They have been so good up until now.” I remind them that this is middle school, they are not bad kids, and they are just testing the boundaries — so set them!

Control the Wi-Fi. I touched base with some of my parents after their children made improvements in class, and I found that they had put in place simple household internet controls. The kids had passwords to access the internet, and the parents put a time limit on when the password could be used. Please note that a few of my tech-savvy kids confided that they were able to “override” this function.

Remove the temptation. Some families took all screens out of the children’s bedrooms and stored cellphones in a locked charging box until morning. This might seem extreme, but I know for at least one of my students this worked. He was struggling socially and trying so hard to fit in with a certain crowd. He later acknowledged that he needed help — beyond the gaming community.

Parental-control apps. I’ve had students tell their parents that they have online homework to do and then end up playing a game instead. Parental-control apps can help, but it takes some research to find the right one for your needs. Making the homework space at the dining room table or another central location can make it easier to keep an eye on kids, too.

Balance. Kids need downtime. I have these hormonal, opinionated, stressed-out middle schoolers for two hours a day, and I push them. I know that the other teachers at my school also carry high expectations. Finding time to completely unplug is important. One parent told me today that they have a hard rule of no screen time except for homework on weekdays, and the way to lose weekend play time is by breaking that rule. I personally allow weekday screen time, but I reserve the right to change my mind.

John Gottman and Brené Brown on Running Headlong Into Heartbreak

JOHN GOTTMAN AND BRENÉ BROWN ON RUNNING HEADLONG INTO HEARTBREAK

Kerry Lusignan

To a seasoned couples therapist, the telltale signs of a relationship in crisis are universal. While every marriage is unique, with distinct memories and stories that capture its essence, how it looks at its core, the anatomy so-to-speak, adheres to certain truths. The bones of love, what builds trust (and breaks it), what fosters connection (and disconnection) we have widely come to understand through the work of Dr. John Gottman.

Gottman, renowned for his research on marital stability and demise, and recognized as one of the ten most influential psychotherapists of the past quarter-century, has at this stage of his career amassed over 40 years of research with 3,000 participants. The quality and breadth of his studies are recognized as some of the finest and most exemplary data we have to date, and serve as an underpinning for how we understand what makes love work.

Enter Brené Brown, a self-described researcher, storyteller, and Texan. She’s gritty and funny, and like Gottman, a formidable researcher. Over the past two decades, Brown has studied shame, vulnerability, courage, and empathy. She’s published five New York Times #1 bestsellers, and over 40 million people have viewed her TED Talk on vulnerability. Her passion for living a wholehearted life is contagious and convincing. Her research has confirmed a core human need to belong and connect, and at a time when many of us are feeling the absence of such, she’s tapping a deep well—inspiring a tribe of the wholehearted, people committed to practicing shame-resilience, Daring Greatly, and embracing vulnerability.

Gottman coined the term “Masters of marriage” to describe the couples in his research whose relationships not only endure, but thrive. These are people who cultivate trust, commitment, responsiveness, and an ability to cherish their partner’s feelings throughout a lifetime. Brown speaks of the “wholehearted” individuals who engage their lives from a place of worthiness. They cultivate courage, compassion, and connection. Both groups, the masters of marriage and the wholehearted, display a host of traits that we now know are associated with health and thriving.

Having had the good fortune to train in both the Gottman Method and The Daring Way® (an experiential methodology based on the research of Brené Brown), I cannot help but wonder, what life would be like if we could take our cues from the masters of marriage and the wholehearted? How might this shape who we are as individuals in a partnership? What might the ripple effects be to our children and society at large if we aspire to love as Gottman and Brown are suggesting?

The implications of following in the footsteps of the masters and the wholehearted are huge. The Harvard Study of Adult Development, the most extensive study of its kind, has taught us three things. First, that loneliness can kill as surely as smoking or alcoholism, and that when we are connected, we live longer and healthier lives. Second, the quality of our relationships matter. It’s not the number of friends we have, or whether or not we are in a committed relationship that predicts thriving. Being in a high-conflict marriage is bad for one’s health. It is worse than divorce. Third, good relationships don’t just protect our health. They protect our mind. Memory loss and cognitive decline are more prevalent in lives permeated by conflict and disconnection.

And if that is not compelling enough, Brown’s research on the implications of shame paints a similarly grim picture, depicting shame as correlated with loneliness, depression, suicidality, abuse, trauma, bullying, addiction, and anxiety.

So while love may not heal all wounds, it is undoubtedly a panacea for preventing them.

Gottman and Brown give us a map—a macro perspective of the wilderness of our hearts, and the wildness of love. It’s a rocky path, fraught with challenges and risk. But vulnerability is inherent in any stance that places courage above comfort. And should we decide to follow it, the destination it promises to take us to is nothing short of awe-inspiring.

The paradox of trust 

Gottman, in his book The Science of Trust, astutely asserts that loneliness is (in part) the inability to trust. And sadly, the failure to trust tends to perpetuate itself. For when we don’t trust, over time, we become less able to read other people and deficient in empathy. He states, “Lonely people are caught in a spiral that keeps them away from others, partly because they withdraw to avoid the potential hurt that could occur from trusting the wrong person. So they trust nobody, even the trustworthy.” 

According to both researchers, it’s the small interactions rather than grand gestures that build trust and break it. “Sliding door moments,” as Gottman calls them, are the seemingly inconsequential day-to-day interactions we have over breakfast, while riding in the car, or standing in the kitchen at 9 p.m. Within each act of communication, there is an opportunity to build a connection. And when we don’t seize it, an insidious erosion of trust ensues, slowly overtime.

Our relationships do not die from one swift blow. They die from the thousand tiny cuts that precede it.

But choosing to trust is all about tolerance for risk, and our histories (both in childhood and with our partners) can inform how much we are willing to gamble. Brown speaks to the paradox of trust: we must risk vulnerability in order to build trust, and simultaneously, it is the building of trust that inspires vulnerability. And she recommends cultivating a delicate balance, one where we are generous in our assumptions of others and simultaneously able to set firm boundaries as a means to afford such generosity—being soft and tough at the same time, no small feat. 

When our stories write us

According to Gottman, the final harbinger of a relationship ending is in how couples recall memories and the stories they tell. Memories, it turns out, are not static. They evolve, change, and are a living work-in-progress. When a relationship is nearing its end, at least one person is likely to carry a story inside themselves that no longer recollects the warm feelings they once had for their partner. 

Instead, a new narrative evolves, maximizing their partner’s negative traits, and quite likely, minimizing their own. “Self-righteous indignation” as Gottman aptly refers to it is a subtle form of contempt and is sulfuric acid for love. This story, laced with blame and bad memories, is the strongest indicator of an impending breakup or divorce.

But, as Brown cautions, “We are meaning-making machines wired for survival. Anytime something bad happens, we scramble to make up a story, and our brain does not care if the story is right or wrong, and most likely, it is wrong.” She points out that in research when a story has limited data points, it is a conspiracy, and a lie told honestly is a confabulation. 

In social psychology, this pre-wired bias is referred to as the fundamental attribution error (FAE). The FAE speaks to our tendency to believe that others do bad things because they are bad people, and to ignore evidence to the contrary while simultaneously having a blind spot that allows us to minimize or overlook what our behaviors say about our character. In short, we are partial to giving ourselves a pass while not extending the same generosity to others.

When our minds trick us into believing we know what our partner’s intentions, feelings, and motives are we enter a very dark wood—one where we truly can no longer see the forest for the trees. The ramifications of this are significant because the stories we tell ourselves dictate how we treat people.  

In portraying ourselves as a hero or victim, we no longer ally with the relationship, but rather, armor up and see our partner as the enemy. And if memory is malleable, and we’re prone to spinning conspiracies and confabulations, there is a strong likelihood that we run the risk of hurting ourselves and those we love in assuming this stance.

Acknowledging our tendencies towards mishaps and misperceptions is not easy. It requires a certain humility, grace, and intentionality. But as Stan Tatkin points out in his TED talk, Relationships are Hard, “We are mostly misunderstanding each other much of the time, and if we assume our communication, memory, and perception is the real truth, that is hubris.”

The wholehearted and masters of marriage bypass such hubris and navigate the terrain of relationships differently than those who get lost in the wood. If we want our relationships and quality of life to thrive, it’s essential we take our cues from them and cultivate new habits.

Embracing emotions (and the suck)

To do so, we must first expand our emotional repertoire to include a wide range of feelings, not just our go-to ones. “Emotion-embracing,” as Gottman calls it, is a central building block for healthy relationships. We are aiming for what Pixar’s Inside Out so brilliantly depicts: inviting sadness, joy, anger, disgust, and fear all to the table. 

Put simply, Brown suggests we “embrace the suck,” stating that the wholehearted demonstrate a capacity to recognize when they’re emotionally ensnared and get curious about their feelings and perceptions. 

Both Gottman and Brown draw on the Stone Center’s Strategies of Disconnection, which propose that people respond in one of three ways when hurt: by moving away, moving toward, or moving against that which feels painful. And what I find interesting is that while Gottman advocates for turning toward your partner when injured, and Brown speaks more to leaning into (and getting curious about) our own uncomfortable emotions, both are emotion-embracing and courageous stances that emphasize mutuality over individualism.

Unfortunately, most of us are not taught as children to embrace painful feelings. It’s counterintuitive and goes against our neurobiological wiring. If we have a traumatic history, all the more so. And our society by-and-large is an emotion-dismissing culture. But as Brown cautions, there’s a price to pay when we selectively numb emotions: when we numb our painful feelings, we also numb our positive ones. So, if we want the good things in life (and I think most of us want the good things), then it’s a package deal. 

Running toward heartbreak

If the most significant indicator that a relationship has reached a tipping point is a rewritten story devoid of fond memories, then it stands to reason that a narrative free from blame, interwoven with curiosity and even goodwill is indicative of love that will last. Therefore, one of the central tasks of any healthy relationship is to co-create stories from a lens of “we” versus “me.”

It involves little (and big) reckonings as Brown calls them, sliding door moments where we pause long enough to reflect and ask ourselves (and each other), “What is going on right now?” Together, we cultivate a broader understanding of a disagreement or hurt feelings, one not possible when left alone in our heads to spin narratives that defend our most vulnerable parts and simultaneously ensure that we will go to our grave more swiftly, lonely, and armored.

When I reflect on the lessons of Gottman and Brown, one concept stands out: we must run headlong into heartbreak because there are things far worse than having our hearts broken. Such as the harm we inflict on our loved ones when we disown pain and transmit it onto them. And the legacy of trauma that ripples into our children’s hearts and the generations to come—veiling us in a seemingly impermeable barrier to vulnerability and all the fruits that go with it.

And let us not forget the Harvard Study of Adult Development and the toll that a conflict-laden life combined with emotion-dismissing has on our health.

Yes, running headlong into heartbreak is running directly into vulnerability. It involves uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. But, as Brown reminds us, vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity. 

Should we choose this path, there will be moments (likely many) where we find ourselves facedown in the dirt because the road to wholeheartedness guarantees we will get our hearts broken—again and again. But, in choosing to embrace heartbreak, we empower ourselves to experience the myriad of ways love manifests itself and the beauty life affords us. In the end, it’s not a question of if we will experience heartbreak but of how.

What will you choose?

Can Words Really Hurt Me?

CAN WORDS REALLY HURT ME?

Shantel Patu

Emotional abuse is real. In my line of work, I’ve watched women of all different backgrounds live through the pain it can cause, and I’ve seen it haunt them. I’ve seen them suffer the trauma of someone dominating, berating, criticizing, and chastising them. 

It brings unanswered questions. Questions like whether the very act of breathing is allowed. I’ve witnessed their agony of hoping that someone, anyone, will finally notice their torment.

Although emotional abuse has many forms, it’s still wildly taboo and often considered something people should just get over or simply live through. It can leave victims completely unaware that they’re even being oppressed. 

They feel that it’s not as nearly as “bad” as physical violence or that they aren’t in the same situation. And in some cases, they feel they simply aren’t worthy enough to call themselves violated.

Whether pain from abuse stems psychologically, verbally, physically, emotionally, or sexually—abuse is abuse. And it needs to be stopped before another person has to suffer in silence. 

I’m reminded of the old adage, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” But in all truth, words do hurt.

How emotional abuse feels

I stop short of the door and hold my hand against the frame. I just want to leave so bad. I know somewhere inside that I don’t have to take this. I am free to simply walk out of the door. But I am frozen. Transfixed by the threshold, unsure of how to cross while keenly aware of how many steps there are toward freedom. Gripped by courage, I take a step forward.

“Where do you think you’re going?” I freeze again, feeling the hairs stand up on my neck.

Hearing his voice so close, I want to scream. Subliminally I bolt, not physically but emotionally, running freely. I watch my imaginary self run away, stationary. I stare ahead, watching, oh how I envy her. 

Psychologically, I can feel my overwhelming desire to just get away—to run and find a way to completely disappear. He speaks again and the echo of his hate hangs in the air, unsettled, like a rancid stench. I feel smothered by the scent and I grapple with the meaning of words that he speaks at me. The ruthless force of his weapon of words, aimed at my jugular, he wields indifferently. It is dehumanizing.

I wonder how many times I would let the effects of such an attack be a part of my life. How long would I stay put and continue to just endure? How long would I allow the steady stream of vulgarities and disparities to fill space in the vulnerable recesses of my self-esteem, or what was left of it? I can’t explain away why this hurts so badly, why the memories stay etched in the fibers of my muscles as if I were being physically struck every single time he opens his mouth.

I bruise in the form of a blush as my cheeks fill with heat from the harassment and embarrassment of the steady barrage of animosity that spews from his mouth when he directs his anger at me. I flinch and attempt to speak up. Raising my voice, I pretend to find courage. 

Every time he is triggered, I fleetingly try to defend myself. I imagine standing my ground while weakly defending my principles as I am annihilated by the sheer brute force of his words. He speaks and his power shuts off my reasoning and takes seize of my oration. In stunned silence, his assault leaves me inundated with fear and has literally forced my words to recoil back into my throat, extinguishing the very air from my chest.  

Defenseless and silent, I again attempt to summon my deserted courage, finding none. So many times, tears spill from once dry places, saturating my hot cheeks. And I take it. All of it. The full force of his revulsion, saying nothing in return.  

How often I just take every verbal blow, every strike against the temple of my ego. I find myself listening hungrily, gobbling up every detail of what is wrong with my person. My sullied thoughts can no longer comprehend my ability to try and defend myself. I recognize that I don’t have any of the ammunition needed for this battle. 

I wait, pitiful and exhausted, as his abusive tirade doesn’t show signs of ending.  My attacker screams poison and I’m paralyzed as his vitriol intensifies, relentlessly pointing out fallacy after fallacy. I find that I cannot stand, so I finally sit down.

This only seems to reinforce my vulnerability and inferiority. Now he is standing over me, conquering me. His spittle flies from the hate-filled spaces in his mouth as he covers me in his blatant and unforgiving verbal attack. His speech never falters. He’s dramatic and animated, as if giving an audition to an unseen crowd. Forced to listen to his words, as he calls me a “slut and a whore,” I try to drive the unyielding impressions from my mind. Nevertheless, I can feel myself recording him, pervasively, into the deep and unprotected crevices of my hearing, defining me.  

He waits only for silent applause from his own spirit. Enjoying his speech, he smiles at my deprivation as he goes for the kill. “Your stupidity knows no bounds,” he yells, “your incompetence is at an all-time high.” He screams more hate, “You’re fat, ugly, and useless. No one wants you, you’re unlovable, undeserving, undesirable,” and he ends with the booming, “You’re nothing.”

Again, I take it all in, memorizing every detail from the jarring baritone of his voice to the sadistic way he crafts his words. Every time I survive this experience, I still die, just a little, on the inside.  I can’t help but seek the sweet and silent solace of death, feeling like this has to be the only way out.

Emotional abuse is just as damaging

This is just one example of how emotional abuse is experienced. It makes the recipient think there’s no way out, and no way to overcome all that they have gone through. The unhealthy tethers to their abuser are simply a coping mechanism and make it so much easier to believe the lies—like verbal abuse isn’t “real” abuse. 

Most people don’t recognize that emotional abuse is just as damaging and traumatizing as physical abuse, sometimes even more so. While physical bruises will fade over time, emotional bruising leaves an invisible disfigurement that materializes as soon as the wound is reopened.  

So many people suffer in an unacceptable silence, dealing with the emotional scars as if they were never there. No amount of makeup can cover the unseen evidence and as a result, many women try to pretend it never happened.

The heartless onslaught of pain that is created by verbal manipulation and abuse takes the battered to a place of hopelessness and introduces them to a type of emotional suicide. They never know how to accept what they are surviving. People around them tend to admonish them or minimalize their trauma.  

“All he does is yell at you. You got it easy.” 

These statements make abused women feel like they shouldn’t even try to escape. That they should be accepting and even appreciative that their abuser doesn’t physically assault them. No one sees the patterns of self-defeat and destruction that come from these types of assault.

I want women, and men, to recognize their worthiness. Everyone is worthy of being treated with respect. Your opinions and your desire to have autonomy over your life does not give someone the right to hurt you or your feelings. You deserve to find someone who truly loves you for who you are. Someone who understands what you need and doesn’t feel threatened by you offering your opinion.  

Real freedom means “free at heart and free in mind.” You have to begin to realize that you are worthy and to remind yourself of this every day. You have to rebuild the positive levels of self-preservation that your self-esteem needs to heal. 

You can do this. You deserve this and you have to see it first for yourself. You have to un-believe the lies and trust that there is hope for you.  

It’s this way of thinking that will lead you towards the path of healing, and in the process, you’ll recognize that you don’t have to pretend not to hurt, you can recognize that your pain is real and that your voice deserves to be heard. 

So speak up and acknowledge that words hurt, too.

Behind Every Woman’s Body Is a Woman

BEHIND EVERY WOMAN’S BODY IS A WOMAN

Noah Filipiak

When you look at pornography, what you end up seeing is a long line of naked bodies. When you look at pornography for years, you end up seeing years and years’ worth of long lines of naked bodies.

I do a lot of work with guys who, in their past, looked at porn for years. They don’t look at porn anymore, but they have a very hard time controlling where their eyes go when real-life women approach them. While it seems natural that we should be able to control the physical movements of our eyes, the connection between exposure to pornography and how it conditions us should not be such a surprise. It is, in fact, one of the greatest tragedies caused by porn.

Porn teaches men that women are bodies. I’m using a broad definition of the word “porn” here. I’m referring to any seductive display of a woman’s naked body, whether that’s a pornographic video, a Playboy image, or a scene from Game of Thrones. I’d even throw in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition, the gateway to porn for scores of men, as its seductive photos have created the same conditioned response: women are bodies.

We know this message isn’t true, and we’ve seen its tragic consequences in our culture, yet it continues every time a pornographic image is consumed.

A Hyperbolic Example

Let’s look at a hyperbolic example. A baby boy is born on an island separated from the human population. All he sees his entire life are videos and images of nude women either having sex, desiring sex, or posing seductively.

Then, at age 25, he is placed into the general human population. How is he going to view the women that he meets and interacts with every day?

That’s a scary thought, but it shouldn’t be surprising. He’s going to see women as two-dimensional sets of body parts whose only purpose for existing is his own sexual gratification. This has nothing to do with how a woman is dressed, for this will happen regardless of the style or fashion. Throughout his entire life his eyes have darted straight to her body parts, so that’s what they will continue to do, because he thinks that’s what a woman is.

I say some of this because I’m still shocked at how secular culture can embrace pornography in all its forms, yet somehow not see the connection between it and the sexual objectification and abuse of women in the real world.

But I also say it to set the table for the real men who are now caught in the trap they have built for themselves over years of being conditioned by porn. Most of us are at a point where we aren’t condemning the man who is looking at porn, or who has looked at it in his past, but are extending a hand of grace and help. But now this man’s physiological responses to women have been trained to see them as sexual objects and to subconsciously glance at their body parts as a now-instinctive act of consumption and gratification.

Can this conditioned response be stopped?

The good news is, it can be. But not without some intentionality and hard work. For most men it will take more than a sermon or a lecture to get their eyes to do what their mind and heart want.

The Problem with the Porn Mindset

The foundation of this rewiring process begins with our approach to how and why we are avoiding pornography in the first place. If you’ve been told to not look at pornography because it’s bad and sinful to do it, you might be able to cut out porn from your life, but your porn mindset is likely to remain. Porn did something to your mind, something that has to be undone. More than just training yourself to avoid pornography, you have to rewire your mind from the porn mindset.

The problem with the porn mindset is it doesn’t see all of a woman (or man), it only sees their body parts. We all know we are more than body parts. We all know our mothers, daughters, sisters, and wives are more than body parts. We know that we are all complex beings. We know that what makes relationships both rewarding and challenging is that we are complex beings. Every woman, just like every man, has strengths, weaknesses, stressors, anxieties, pain, joy, personality, values, and a long list of other attributes that separate humans from the animals.

Yet porn has trained men that women are just bodies. You can consume them and move on.

God’s design for sex doesn’t allow for this. His design for sex is that all of someone is embraced in a lifetime commitment. When you deal with all of someone, conflict is sure to come! But the bond of commitment is there to sustain it. All requires selflessness, which is the definition of love. Sex and body parts are only one ingredient inside of this recipe, not something that was designed to be indulged in on their own.

When tempted to lust, the only way to get beyond the body-part-mindset is to understand that behind every woman’s body is a full, whole, complex woman. She is a soul. There is a depth and sacredness to this that I can’t put into words.

If you’re married, you know what I’m saying is true because you see it every day in your own wife. There may have been a day when you first met that you only saw her physical attributes, but you now know she is a much more complex equation than that (praise God). The same is true for every woman on the planet.

Let the Rewiring Begin

Porn has taught you to see: BODY. You have to be rewired to see: WOMAN. And to apply what this means. You look into her eyes because that’s where she is. She is a she, not a thatShe’s not an object to be consumed.

Body parts separated from the person are only things. God didn’t call you to consume people, taking life away from them, he called you to bring life to people. This is the foundational calling of all Christians.

We live on a planet full of human beings. Full, whole, complex human beings. Porn has taught us that women aren’t fully human and we’ve been conditioned into believing that lie whenever we consume them for our selfish gratification.

The path of rewiring means taking the truths of Scripture and letting them renew our minds (Romans 12:1-2) away from the lies porn has taught us.

  • Every woman is created in God’s image (Genesis 1:27), full of his dignity, honor, and complexity.
  • Every woman is fearfully and wonderfully made, knit together by God himself (Psalm 139:13-16).
  • Every woman has a soul.
  • Every woman is God’s.

Repeat these truths to yourself daily when you spend time praying and reading your Bible. Repeat them in prayer all throughout your day.

The next time your eyes want to go toward a woman’s body, remind yourself of the truth that she is a whole person and all that means. Look her in the eyes and see her that way.

10 Phrases You Should Never Say to Someone Experiencing Betrayal Trauma

10 PHRASES YOU SHOULD NEVER SAY TO SOMEONE EXPERIENCING BETRAYAL TRAUMA

Beth Denison

Discovering the sexual betrayal of a spouse is one of the most traumatic experiences anyone can suffer. There are so few people with whom the wounded spouse can confide. Imagine this devastated individual mustering the courage to share the story with a close friend or family member only to receive comments or advice that inflict further damage. How tragic!

Knowing what to say to someone who has experienced a loss is difficult for most people. I believe there are many well-meaning, loving individuals who truly want to be helpful to a wounded spouse but are simply ill-equipped in that situation. What should be said at such a time?

The Bible tells the story of a man of God named Job. His life was filled with prestige and possessions, but God allowed him to be tested and he lost his ten children, all of his livestock, and even his health. In the midst of his misery and devastation, he had three friends who came to comfort him. The Bible says,

“When they saw him from a distance, they could hardly recognize him; they began to weep aloud, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads. They sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was” (Job 2:12-13).

Wow! What great friends. Unfortunately, whatever comfort Job felt by their presence quickly ended when they opened their mouths and began to speak.

If you have an acquaintance, friend, or loved one who has experienced sexual betrayal, one of the greatest things you can do for him or her is just show up. Most people going through such trauma feel alone and isolated. Your presence, at that time, can be a gift. Silence is okay.

If you do speak, here are ten things best left unsaid.

1. “Things will get better.”

This person’s life has been shattered. How can you possibly know things will get better? Unfortunately, things may get a lot worse. Certainly, the wounded spouse can pursue and achieve healing, but that does not mean the circumstances will get better.

2. “You just need to forgive.”

Such a comment is callous to the pain this person is feeling. There are many things someone who has been betrayed may need, such as testing for STDs, counseling, self-care, safety, a support group, and healthy boundaries.

While forgiveness will eventually be in this individual’s best interest, to suggest this initially may imply that there should be no consequences for the offending party, regardless of current behavior. This, in turn, may pressure the wounded spouse into granting a false forgiveness before adequately processing the devastating emotions that naturally accompany betrayal. This can lead to confusion and delayed healing.

3. “It could be worse. At least he didn’t                  .”

Any comment that minimizes the behavior or the pain is hurtful. Betrayal is betrayal, regardless of the method. Period. To say such a thing is as insensitive as saying to someone who lost a child, “At least you didn’t lose both of your children,” or saying to an amputee, “At least you still have your hands.” The fact that someone else may have it worse does not lessen this person’s pain.

4. “If I were you, I would leave and get a divorce.”

You’re not. Job’s friend made the same mistake. Eliphaz said, “But if it were I, I would… (Job 5:8). The reality is that you cannot know what you would do if you were that person. You only have a perspective based on your own experiences.

5. “Have you been meeting his physical needs?”

Any comment or question that implies fault on the part of the wounded spouse is not helpful. Most are already feeling some sense of guilt and shame. Job’s friends also made that mistake. They assumed that he must somehow be responsible for the suffering he was experiencing. There are no perfect spouses because there are no perfect people. Nothing justifies a partner sexually acting outside of the marriage covenant. There is always a choice.

6. “You deserve better than this.”

This kind of statement usually comes as a result of strong feelings for the individual, which may cloud the judgment of what is actually best. In the Book of Acts, the apostle Paul was told by a prophet that he would suffer and be imprisoned if he went to Jerusalem. “When we heard this, we and the people there pleaded with Paul not to go up to Jerusalem” (Acts 21:12). Paul went anyway because he knew God had a greater plan that would result in furthering the gospel.

It is unsettling to see someone you love suffering. But, it is important to remember that you may not be able to see the big picture and all that God can accomplish through the difficulties.

7. “Everything happens for a reason.”

Is this really true? Does God have a grand design that only allows for what he wills? If my husband repeatedly cheats on me, is that God’s will? No. It is not God’s will for us to sin. He knows how destructive that is for us. But he has created us with free will. We are not created as robots with no power to choose. When a person is overwhelmed with grief due to the sexual betrayal of a spouse, God grieves, too. We live in an imperfect, fallen world.

The good news is that what God allows, he redeems.

“And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).

8. “I know how you feel.”

Though you might have lived through a similar experience, you can never know exactly how someone else feels. No two situations are exactly alike. We all have our own unique experiences and perspectives.

9. “Just let it go.”

This is akin to “get over it,” or “just move on.” This is easily said by someone who is neither married to the individual nor emotionally attached to the situation. The reality is that the choice to stay or leave is incredibly difficult and not one that can be made quickly or lightly. There will be pain and complications either way. Seldom does anyone “get over” such trauma, though he or she will eventually get through it. Such flippant statements fail to acknowledge the depth of grief the wounded party is feeling.

10. “God wants you to                  .”

Be very, very careful about speaking for God. Job’s friends spent considerable time representing to him what they were convinced were God’s ways. In the end, the Lord spoke to Eliphaz and said, “I am angry with you and your two friends, because you have not spoken of me what is right” (Job 42:7). Even if what you plan to say is biblically accurate, are you sure this is the right time to say it? Saying the right thing at the wrong time is still wrong.

What should we say?

With so many things we shouldn’t say, how can we know what we should say? “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry” (James 1:19). When someone you care about is suffering due to betrayal trauma, show up and focus more on listening than speaking. Will Rogers went straight to the point: “Never miss a good chance to shut up.”

Before you do speak, ask God for wisdom. “If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him” (James 1:5).

Offer practical assistance. When Jesus was dying, he asked his closest friend, John, to take care of his mother. The Bible says, “From that time on, the disciple took her into his home” (John 19:27). You can help by bringing a meal, taking the kids for the afternoon, giving a gift card for a massage, or anything else that might relieve some of the pressure your friend may be experiencing. Jesus’ example of love was in deed, not word. We can’t go wrong when we follow his example.

Why Marriage Won’t Cure Your Porn Problem

WHY MARRIAGE WON’T CURE YOUR PORN PROBLEM

Bobby Angel

For many of us who have grown up with the presence of pornography from a young age—magazines, movies, or the Internet—marriage is sometimes viewed as the healthy “cure” to end a pornography habit.

I’ll stop when I’m married” or “I won’t bring this into my marriage” is usually the rationale. The problem is that there is no superpower in that wedding ring that will magically imbue you with the discipline (and the freedom) to renounce pornography; your ring is not forged in the fires of self-mastery. There’s no switch thrown on your wedding day that will make you impervious to temptations. Nor will your spouse magically satisfy all the illicit sexual fantasies that porn trains your brain to expect.

Marriage will not cure your porn problem; your porn problem will undermine your marriage.

You bring into your marriage who you are, and that includes your daily habits and behaviors. Good habits and bad habits alike take time to cultivate. I have to make a conscious effort to floss my teeth everyday for a few weeks before the habit can take root into an internalized behavior. I have to deliberately stop gossiping or disparaging my coworkers before the actions become habitual and improve my character. And I must take seriously my battle with pornography long before I am ever married; otherwise that habit will shoot down my marriage before it starts.

Thank God, that’s exactly what happened for me.

Several years before I was married, I decided that my chastity (and my future wife, and my soul) was indeed worth $10.99 a month for accountability software. So I installed Covenant Eyes and asked a close friend to be my Accountability Partner. I didn’t want pornography to come anywhere near my vocation (whether it was marriage or the priesthood), and so I took the necessary steps to purge it from my life. It wasn’t an overnight story of victory, but it was a huge first step and the necessary action to be free of porn years before I met the woman who would become my wife. But I had to first admit that I needed help and needed the motivation of protecting my prospective family before I could act.

We’re a culture with a widespread porn problem. That much has been well established by churches, psychologists, and a few honest media outlets. Deceitful magazines and talking heads will still tell you that bringing pornography into your marriage will help you, not hurt you, but this is an evil lie that is losing more and more of its steam.

Pornography, by its very nature, undercuts the commitments needed to love one’s spouse faithfully. It negatively influences behavior and leads to a perpetuation of brokenness, mistrust, and heartache. If the habit of viewing pornography has been well established for many years, the daily stresses of marriage and family life will only stir those temptations and can call for release. Many wives have been abused or even raped by their husbands because of the poisonous influence of pornography. And if the person conditioned by pornography finds no willing release from his or her spouse, then the person will look elsewhere to feed the disordered appetites. This is not authentic love.

In my church we teach, “Grace builds on nature.” Human and spiritual growth happens in tandem. The graces poured out upon a person on their wedding or ordination day are only effective insofar as the individual has been conforming to God’s will. If you haven’t cultivated a habit of prayer, nothing magical happens on the day you become a pastor. If you haven’t addressed why you’re running to pornography and subsequently rooting it out, you’ll return to it after a disagreement with your spouse or an evening where you’ll feeling lonely.

God desires to bless us with the strength we need, but we also have to put in the work.

“My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9). God does not hijack our natures, but His grace will pour down once we welcome it and make room for it. And it is often through our weaknesses—say, a habit of viewing pornography—that we are humbled and willing to accept God’s strength. He continually invites us to surrender control and not rely on ourselves for our own redemption.

Beyond merely building on, grace also perfects nature. We must first make the steps necessary to own our porn habit and increase in discipline, call for help when needed, and rely on God always. God’s grace will perfect us in our weakness; where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more (Romans 5:20).

We need to have cultivated discipline and mastery of self before we take our marital vows, not after. For love of your family and love of God, root out pornography now to save your marriage before it even starts.

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