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Category Archives for "Marriage"

Forgiveness 101: what it is, and what it isn't. Black text on white background.
Sep 04

Forgiveness 101: what it IS & what it ISN’T

By Jessica Allen | Life , Marriage

Forgiveness can bring us peace and a path forward.  So why does it feel so impossible sometimes?


I'll answer that question by asking two more; the two big questions I ask myself every day:


Do I want to be well?

And,

How can I cultivate more peace in my life?

If I truly want to be well, it requires action on my part.  Which means I really have to be honest with my answer to this question. Because if I truly want to be well, it means evaluating my thought life, my spiritual and human relationships, and my physical health, and adjusting the sails accordingly.  

Which always leads me to my next big question:

How can I cultivate more peace in my life?  When I look at my thoughts, my relationships, and my health, it’s almost a guarantee that cultivating peace means letting go.  And the first step for me is forgiveness.

Forgiveness is the greatest gift you can give yourself.  The energy we spend holding onto resentment, frustration, and the score card is energy better spent literally anywhere else.  I can’t even get to Gratitude until I pay a visit to Forgiveness. 

Forgiveness gets a bum rap sometimes because our world likes justice instead.  Accountability.  No excuses. 

But forgiveness is a critical part of justice.  If you’ve ever watched emotional courtroom victim testimonies, even in the most heinous crimes, you will find seemingly-supernatural examples of victims forgiving their aggressor.  Not for the aggressor’s benefit… but for the sake of the victims’ own peace.  The only way to heal and move forward is to practice forgiveness within yourself. 

Before we dig into what forgiveness IS, let’s go ahead and call out what forgiveness is not

Forgiveness is NOT:

  • Extending trusting immediately (again or ever)
  • Excusing the violation
  • Saying “it’s okay” (because it wasn’t)
  • Forgetting what happened
  • A one-time solution
  • A magical happy-face pain eraser
  • Easy

Forgiveness isn’t easy.  It’s one of the hardest skills we can put into practice.  But the concept is simple. 

9 things forgiveness IS:

1. It releases the other person from the debt you feel/think they owe

Releasing expectations that the other person is going to change

This is the basis of forgiveness.  The deeper the wound, the harder it is to pardon the one who wounded you.  It's a choice.  Where we get bogged down in forgiveness is when we try to pack all these other peripherally-related things into the same backpack: trust, love, and hope.  Those may come again in time.  But the whole entire point of forgiveness is to help you move forward from the pain you're stuck in.  Nothing good happens until you decide anger is too heavy a burden to bear.  And honestly, releasing the other person from the debt you feel they owe is just good expectations-management - they're probably never going to "repay" you as fully as you feel you deserve anyway.)

2. Forgiveness is releasing any and all expectations that the other person will change. 

Forgiveness is releasing any and all expectations that the other person is going to change, black text on white background

We know the only person we can change is ourselves.  So let’s agree to stop setting ourselves up for disappointment by expecting our “punishment” to affect any change.  Drop the pressure.  The other person might surprise you.  (Also, they might not, and then you’ll know for sure.)

Related: Releasing Expectations

3. It does not mean you can or should trust the person again.

You don't have to trust someone now or ever again, black text on white background

If someone hits me with a 2x4, I can choose to forgive them.  But you bet I’ll never stand near them in a lumberyard.  (Thank you to our first marriage counselor for this illustration I still hold onto.). Trust is lost in an instant and earned back one tiny trustworthy behavior at a time.  Be patient.  But set good boundaries in the meantime. 

Tough truth I had to learn: so many of us get hung up on forgiveness because “I can’t trust him/her anymore.” ⁣⁣That’s not forgiveness. That’s trust. And they are two separate things.⁣⁣ You can have forgiveness without trust. But you can’t ever (ever, ever) rebuild trust without forgiveness. ⁣⁣Try forgiveness first. Trust may come in time.⁣

4. It sets aside your anger and pain in exchange for pursuing your own personal peace.

Set aside your anger and pain in exchange for pursuing your own personal peace, black text on white background

Seems impossible sometimes, but swapping out poison for peace within is the best trade ever.  

I'll note here that when forgiveness feels MOST impossible, faith takes over.  God, who has forgiven the unforgivable in me, can help me forgive what feels unforgivable in others.  There's not much we can do all by ourselves.  Especially forgiving someone who deeply wounded you.  This supernatural grace is available from the One who created you.  Just ask.  Be willing to try.  

Related: Choose love

5. It's choosing never to use a person's offense as a weapon ever again.

choose never to use a person's offense as a weapon ever again, black text on white background

You can’t simultaneously forgive someone and continue to blame them for what they did.  Healing won’t happen if you keep bringing up the offense... the shame and resentment they’ll feel, and the anger reward you’ll feel will both stand in the way of moving forward.

Related: The Blame Game

6. It's essential in any relationship you want to flourish.

Forgiveness isn't required in relationships, but forgiveness is essential in any relationship you want to flourish, black text on white background

It wasn’t until I made the mental switch from “fighting against him” to “fighting with him” that our runaway train wreck finally found some light at the end of the tunnel. It took both of us grasping that concept to move forward. Fighting (and the resulting wounds that follow) is normal. If you’re not arguing, even occasionally, someone’s not being honest. The real question is: are you fighting against each other, or with and FOR each other?

What’s the ultimate goal at the end of the fight: to be right, or to be closer as a couple?

Related: Marriage Fights: 10 things to say instead AND Say this, not that

7. You most likely have to offer it first before it's extended to you too.

Forgiveness is something you most likely have to offer first before it's extended to you too, black text on white background

I think this is the biggest reason it feels so hard to forgive people. Someone has to go first.

8. It brings healing but that healing is yours alone to choose.

healing is yours alone to choose, black text on white background

There's a doorway to healing, wide open in front of you. No one can force you to walk through that door to forgive them, but you'll stand in your own way of peace and healing every moment you choose not to.  It's an inside job: a daily choice, over and over again within yourself.

9. It can set you free.

Forgiveness is setting yourself free, black text on white background

Forgiveness is the greatest gift you can give yourself. The energy we spend holding onto unforgiveness in the form of anger, resentment, frustration, and the score card is energy better spent literally anywhere else. It will stand in the way of anything good you desire for your life. We talk all the time about reflecting in gratitude daily. But I can’t even get to Gratitude until I pay a visit to Forgiveness.

Today's personal forgiveness list:

  • I forgive myself for losing my patience with my daughter yesterday over a mundane household chore
  • I forgive my toddler for refusing to go to sleep last night
  • I forgive God for allowing suffering in the world (just a few light items on my mind last night!!!)
  • I forgive my knees for aching and my neck for pinching when I woke up
  • Some personal marriage and family stuff

Some of these pains sound fluffy when I look at them, but letting go of even these “simple” things frees my spirit up for the people and tasks which deserve my presence today.

So how do you know when you’ve truly forgiven?

When that person can pass through your mind peacefully and without stirring up trouble.  It might twinge you, because forgiving doesn’t mean forgetting, but you can bless and release them before they drill holes in your proverbial boat. 

Which is why forgiveness is 100% a gift to yourself.  It takes daily, intentional work. 

So... what’s on your forgiveness list? What’s the most powerful form of forgiveness you’ve ever received?  And what aspects of forgiveness do you struggle with?  Drop a comment or send a message.  And be sure to check out our social channels for all these graphics and bite-sized forgiveness thoughts over the past week or so.  Facebook: Heartfully Present, and Instagram @heartfullypresent

Last but certainly not least, I humbly invite you to share this post with someone you know who is struggling with forgiveness, either on the giving or receiving end.  None of this is easy.  But we're stronger, smarter, better, and more grace-filled when we try it together.  

HP,

J <3

When hope feels impossible | text on plain background | dandelion picture
Jul 24

When hope feels impossible

By Jessica Allen | Marriage

When hope feels impossible...

How do you forgive the unforgivable?

How do you trust the untrustable?

How do you love the unlovable?

With acceptance that forgiveness is actually a gift you give yourself.

With acceptance that trust can only be earned with time and opportunity.

With acceptance that love looks different in every season... and that at times, you have been unlovable too.  

Acceptance

Acceptance is the part of the grieving process I hate the most because I actually think it's the hardest step to wrangle. I don't want to accept the brokenness in my life, in my faith, in my marriage, in my parenting, in my relationships, in my career. Because accepting unacceptable things feels like a cruel insult to injury. And staring at all that brokenness, hope feels impossible.  

How do I forgive someone who inflicted an unforgivable wound? How do I trust someone who has earned nothing but my distrust? How do I love someone who has hurt me so profoundly?

All three impossible feats truly are divinely possible, so hold onto hope. There is no human power that can truly forgive, trust, and love enough to repair irrevocable damage, so choose to be willing to rely on God's power, if only for this one moment.  (Before you get mad about that - what do you have to lose?)

So, sure, "God's got this," but what do I do in the meantime?!

Our human work begins here. All three impossible feats of forgiveness, trust, and love come with one same caveat: boundaries are key.

Boundaries

Forgiveness does not mean forgetting. And forgiveness also does not guarantee trust.

Trust is earned back one tiny trustworthy experience at a time. Yet the relationship may never look the same as “before.”

Love looks different in every season. You can love someone yet require them to earn back your trust. You can love someone yet request their patterns to change. You can love someone at arm's length - or from across a canyon - until they have found a path back to your embrace through reflection, hard personal work, and proven changed behavior.  

Because loving a person requires you to first love yourself. And loving yourself means understanding the respect and care you need (deserve) from the person who loves you too.  

But how do we get from fairy tale love… to tolerance… to disdain… to disgust? How does love so devastatingly erode?

Related: Choose love

Love in the trenches

Love - real, true love - is locking eyes in the trenches and choosing to make it through alive. Sometimes you fight together. Sometimes you fight alone. Sometimes someone needs to rest, or be carried, or tend to their wounds. Sometimes your radios will break and you will need a translator. A code breaker. Sometimes a spy throws you off course. Sometimes the enemy destroys any progress you’ve made. 

Sometimes you’ll both just want to lay down and quit.

There’s light at the end.  I promise.

So when you’re ready - stand up and trudge forward anyway. 

That’s doing the impossible. 

When hope feels impossible

Here’s a little something from our socials yesterday.  Let hope find you today.

Hope is sometimes a shiny pearl
Hope is sometimes a tiny ray of light
Hope is sometimes a resting place until your strength comes back
But mostly
For me
Hope is bloody knees and tear-stained cheeks
Facing forward into the wind.

However you’re striving to forgive, trust, love, or hope today, stand firm knowing you’re loved and held as a precious image bearer of the One who created you.  Keep going.  

HP,

J ❤️

Jack and Jessica in a cozy restaurant | when hope feels impossible


We snapped this pic during one of the lowest seasons of my personal and professional life - a season in the trenches where love looked like Jack doing all the carrying. I didn't deserve a second of his grace. He gave it anyway. I'm forever grateful.

self care isn't selfish
Jul 21

Self care isn’t selfish

By Jessica Allen | Life , Marriage

Giving feels hard right now. We’re all maxed out.  Stressed out.  Worried out.  Zoomed out.  News-ed out.  Social media-d out.  Tired out.  Worn out. 

So the idea of giving anything else “out” seems unreasonable. 

Yet in a twist of irony, the most gracious gift we can give out to the people we love is our own self care.

When was the last time you asked yourself, “what do I need today?”

A way to fail at self care

We tend to put ourselves last on the list.  Here’s how it usually looks in my own life:

24/7: caring/doing for other people

0/7: being mindful of my own personal needs

One random day for no reason: completely melting down because I feel overextended and taken for granted as a wife, mom, and friend

I stuff my own feelings and am a sucker subscriber to the “suck it up buttercup” channel, which serves me crappy messages all day long like:

  • You’re strong, and a strong person wouldn’t feel tired/overwhelmed/emotional about this
  • There’s nobody else who can do this thing right
  • You have to do this thing right now or the world will fall apart
  • You can sleep when you’re dead (I LOATHE THIS STATEMENT)
  • Self-care is for wimps and losers who have nothing else better to do with their time (what will all the people think if I sit down, rest, and read a book for pleasure?!  Who has time to eat these bon bons all day?!)

These are all really distorted messages that feed my insecurities and boost my ego (I am irreplaceable and “so busy and important” that I don’t have time to stop). 

When I don’t care for myself, when I run out of gas, my system starts fueling itself with whatever bottom-of-the-barrel reserves it can find, which is, 100% of the time, fear and insecurity

I can travel a good distance on fear-based motivation.  News flash: we all can, and we all do, much of the time.  But when that lousy fuel runs out, we combust. 

A better recipe for self care

Here’s a better structure for self care that works:

23/7: caring/doing for my people, with self-respect and good boundaries in place

1/7: paying attention to what I need, whether it’s a good walk, vitamin D, a sincere talk with a good friend, or a hot bath and a good book

Never and I mean not ever: exploding on the people I love most because I ran myself into the ground in the name of “selfless service to others”

The greater the demands on your energy, the higher priority self-care should take

This is a season where everyone needs so much.  My children need so much.  As spouses, we need each other so much.  We need a safe and truthful sounding board.  We need hope in all good things to come.  We need assurances of health and safety for our communities.  We need strong, confident, humble, resourceful leaders who can say, “I don’t have all the answers but we’re in this together.” 

Our emotional reserves are just about tapped out by the news and politics surrounding every decision we make. 

If we’re not careful, we set ourselves running on that last-resort reserve of fear-based fuel.  But with a bit of intentional self care, we could be fueling our minds and hearts with something much more reliable and healthy instead: faith, hope, love, and the grounding truth of our own clearly articulated beliefs. 

Real benefits of self care

When I pause to care for myself, the swirling cesspool of anxiety stops sucking me in.  When I talk with a trustworthy friend about things that matter, my perspective comes back.  

When I believe truths about myself like I am fearfully and wonderfully made… I have been given unique gifts to fulfill a unique purpose… I am the perfect, divinely-selected wife for my husband and mother for my children… I don’t have all the answers and that’s okay… I don’t have to be all things for all people… when I believe those truths about myself, I can make decisions with confidence and without fear.  When I sort through my thoughts and emotions during an hour of yoga or a walk with the dog, I can answer other people’s questions without biting their faces off.  When I leave my people to their own capable devices to singe my skin off in a hot bath and wander away in a book I’m enjoying, I can then respond to the needs of my family without feeling neglected or overwhelmed.

When I can dig out from under the weight of my own messy thoughts, I am better for everyone else, because I first took the time to get better for me.

Self care isn’t selfish 

It’s the furthest thing from selfish, actually.

Taking even the simplest, smallest time for personal self care is the greatest gift you can give to your people because it allows you to bring your very best self to the table.

Your patient self.

Your kind self.

Your healthy self.

Your no-strings-attached self.

Your nurturing self.

Your generous self.

Love well

I wrote a little something on my social channels yesterday about weapons and swords.  I woke up today still thinking about it, and ultimately, I don’t think we can get to this place until we intentionally engage in intentional self-care.  

Love well

Put away your shields of anger… resentment… irritation… skepticism.

Lay down your swords of blame… bitterness… assumption… the score card.

Be brave enough to peek over the wall at the person you want to love. Or, with a little more courage, maybe you’ll choose to dismantle that wall brick by brick.

Love cannot be fully given or received when it’s weighted down by fear. The more fear we feel, the more weapons and shields we gather up. And so becomes a vicious cycle which is hard to break: the harder a person is to love, the more weapons and shields we hide behind, which makes it harder to love them...

This is the state of our nation. So many weapons. So many shields. Hearts so far apart we can't even see the faces of who they belong to anymore.

I can’t think of anything I want more than to love well and be loved well in return. Freely, just as I am, without ever feeling the need to brandish a weapon or hide for protection.

If you’re willing to lay down whatever sword and shield you’re carrying, I promise you’ll experience more of the kind of love we were all created for. The kind of love lavished on us by the One who created us, and the kind of love we’re called to lavish upon one another too.

Love well today, and always. Let it set you free.

Make time for self care (or it'll never happen)

Set aside the time for the self care you really need.  Maybe it’s an hour to yourself.  Maybe it’s finally making the phone call to apologize, or ask the hard question, or book the appointment, or say the hard thing. 

Contrary to world view or popular belief, self-care isn’t selfish or frivolous.  Arguably, investing in the most present, nourished, healthy version of yourself is the best gift you can give to the world.   Because when we love ourselves well, we can love our people in the ways they crave to be loved too.

And other than the return of Jesus, there’s nothing the world needs more now than real, true, through-the-tough-stuff love.   

HP,

J

kindness | make kindness your greatest strength | confetti
Jul 07

Make kindness your greatest strength

By Jessica Allen | Life , Marriage

I have been trying my whole adult life to make sure other people “don't mistake my kindness for weakness."

It's exhausting. I'm exhausted.   

I understand the point of this phrase, and that the people in my life who tried to teach it to me offered it up with the purest of intentions. I know what this phrase means because I have allowed myself to be manipulated, misunderstood, taken advantage of, slandered, and personally and professionally attacked by people who have, ultimately, mistaken my kindness for weakness.

Kindness vs. Badass

I was 21 the first time I heard this kindness-as-weakness advice.  And ever since, I have been trying to "fix" this about myself by growing thicker skin, throwing up walls to protect myself, and practicing exuding confidence in every arena. I ask myself almost every day, "what would my ‘badass’ friends and mentors do in this situation?"  Every time I answer that question and act accordingly, I weave another thread into my own badass superhero cape.  It’s a legitimate tool in my arsenal – something I can pull off the shelf when I need it.  

My badass superhero cape looks… badass.  It’s bright and flashy and grabs attention.  It’s made of perfectly selected words and oozes self-assuredness.  But it’s itchy, and uncomfortable, and has a chip on both shoulders, and no matter how I style it, it just doesn’t fit right.  Because it’s not who I really am.  Wearing it gives me a false sense of confidence… which is really just fear, because what if all these people figure out I’m not a badass at all? 

Wrong lesson

I sold my baby-grownup-self on a warped concept of strength and leadership.  The world - or maybe just me? - values a certain kind of leader: charismatic, engaging, full of life and spark.  I can certainly adjust the dials on my personality and crank up these channels when I need to.  But all the energy that effort requires depletes me.  Because the most authentic version of me is quiet and introspective.  I am confident, but it doesn’t come from flash or volume; my confidence comes from knowing who I really am on the inside and living that way on the outside too.  (Everyone and anyone can gain true confidence from this kind of self-awareness and self-acceptance.)

Kindness and the professional arena

As a fresh college graduate, I dove headfirst into professional arenas requiring the highest levels of charisma and ambition. And therefore, all of a sudden, I hit a giant disconnect between my giftings and my career choices.  The softer, gentler (truest) nature of my personality became a liability in my line of work.  And that constant state of never feeling quite suited for the job left me open to the most painful shadow side of the comparison game – wondering if my brand of leadership could ever hold a candle to those leaders with more splashy and vibrant, or aggressive and commanding styles.  My confidence sank.  I started over-evaluating my conversations and responses.  And that hyper-vigilance shaped the way I navigated every professional and relational endeavor for the next 15 years.

But here's the thing: after all that time trying to conform myself to what I perceived as an ideal professional image, I've come to the stark realization that nothing about my hard-wiring needs fixing.  This isn’t a justification or an argument for the flawed parts of my personality; I don’t get a free pass to treat people poorly or behave inappropriately “because that’s just how I am.”  And on the flip side, I don’t get to blame other people for treating me poorly because I didn’t have the courage to speak up. 

We’re all called to grow and become more glorious versions of ourselves – not better versions of someone else.  I am exactly who I am.  Yet how often did I allow my environment to tell me I would have been much happier/better/more successful as somebody else?  We live in a gilded social media world that praises loud, fast, and snarky, and hails provocative content as king.  It’s the most sinister fertile soil for weeds of insecurity and alter-ego. 

Not funny anymore

The old joke around our house was that my husband married me because I’m nice.

It used to be funny.  Until our whole marriage fell apart and I got completely sick and tired of being nice.  In the real world, in a real damaging way, the person I trusted most mistook my kindness for weakness.  It was my last straw.  My ill-advised solution was to throw on my badass cape and make some really arrogant, desperate, bad decisions that cost me everything I cared about.   

The irony isn’t lost on me that in order to put it all back together, I had to draw deep from the well of kindness.  The thing I’m actually good at.

I had gotten so good at projecting what I thought was the opposite of kindness – badassery – that I missed every opportunity to maximize my own authentic potential.  I settled for a hollow image of superiority rather than a deep-rooted true confidence in who I really am. 

Who I am – and who you really are – is remarkable.

The kindness chip in my personality is more than "nice." It's gentleness for a maxed-out, spiraling child. It's patience for a stressed or hurting partner. It's forgiveness for words said in the heat of the moment.  It’s humility to share the spotlight with others and willingness to give more of yourself than you expect to receive in return.  It’s masterful ability to navigate hard conversations and comfort fragile feelings.  It's choosing to believe the best about people and trusting them with the most tender pieces of yourself.  

It takes a lot of guts to tap into true kindness, gentleness, patience, and humility because it makes you vulnerable to wounds.  It’s easy to get eaten up by people less mindful of softer personalities.  And when that happens (because it will), fight the instinct to throw on your badass cape.  Instead, go back to the drawing board on how you can be a better advocate for yourself.  Refine your communication.  Reset and clarify some boundaries.  Practice saying no.  Be specific about what is and is not okay.  You can be kind and not be a doormat.  This is teaching people how to treat you. 

Unlearning image and learning authenticity

I’m still learning how to use kindness as my superpower.  It started with lots of unlearning, actually.  Sometimes I trusted the wrong people and failed to set healthy boundaries.  I allowed myself to be taken advantage of.  I didn’t speak up when I felt disrespected.  I cared too much about what other people thought.  I sacrificed my own needs to dangerous ends.  

And then sometimes I see someone’s aggression coming and I overcorrect.  I cut people with words.  I throw up too-thick-too-tall boundary walls and live scared behind them.  I get self-righteous and critical.  I go back to that old caped-up version of myself.  I still mess this up.  Probably will until the end of time.   

Yet I’m practicing better every day.  Kindness doesn’t mean submissiveness.  Gentleness doesn’t mean spinelessness.  Patience doesn’t mean laziness.  Now I understand that kindness means speaking directly, honestly, timely, and with no room for confusion.  Gentleness means listening with compassion and honoring what’s lovely in the other person.  Patience means carefully waiting and choosing not to act on impulse. 

These are qualities I’d admire in any leader.  No matter how colorful or how calm their style. 

What’s your superpower?

If you’re that tender person too, who feels itchy and uncomfortable when you put on your badass cape, or any other disguise that makes you feel more like someone else you think is “better,” please throw that disguise away.  It doesn’t look good on you, just like mine doesn’t look good on me… because it doesn’t really fit. 

Whatever that softer side of you is, that’s your real superpower.  It's just as valuable as any other bold characteristic in our more outspoken friends.  Your superpower might be kindness, like mine.  Or it might be prudence, or generosity, or listening, or perspective.  The big loud world doesn’t like to hold much space for these quiet strengths.  But they’re the healing medicine people need for their tired, hurting hearts.    

How much more fulfilling would our relationships, our work, our dreams and goals be, if we chose to intentionally cultivate those softer superpowers as our greatest strengths? 

What’s yours?

HP,

J

choose love | happy anniversary | marriage
Jun 25

Choose love

By Jessica Allen | Marriage

We had absolutely no idea what we were doing.  Our ceremony was so short we actually panicked at the end – we thought surely they forgot some stuff.  But how could you make a couple of naïve and starry-eyed babies on the altar understand that marriage is going to take every bit of your strength and humility and forgiveness and grace… that sometimes God and grit are the only things that’ll hold it together… and that it’ll be the hardest and best thing you’ll ever choose? 

15 years and so much life later, we still have pretty much no idea what we’re doing, but we’ll keep fighting for every beautiful part of this love.  Stay grateful for the hard stuff.  And even more grateful for the good.  

And commit to the long-haul mindset, because a lot of stuff's gone down in 15 years, and we know it's only the tip of the iceberg.    

15 marriage adventures in 15 years:

  1. Young working newlyweds
  2. Infertility
  3. Entrepreneurship
  4. Infant loss
  5. Adoption
  6. Bed rest
  7. 2 under 2
  8. Completely self-employed
  9. 2 moves
  10. Financial stress
  11. Infidelity
  12. Counseling
  13. Reconciliation
  14. New baby
  15. Career changes

It would take me a whole 15 years to tell you the longer version, but you can find it here.

As I looked forward to our anniversary this year, originally to be spent baking in the sun on a deserted beach somewhere (thanks Covid), as usual my mind went right past our wedding day, which was so fun, and straight to all the life we've lived together since.   We’re in the best (marriage) shape we’ve ever been, but it didn’t come without a boatload of heartache and wreckage.  We're living proof of God's promise that we'll be "pressed down but not destroyed."  

We held on for dear life, grasping at whatever straws we could get our hands on to keep our marriage and our little family together. 

15 things that held us together when nothing else would

  1. Belief that God put us together for a reason
  2. Belief that the reason God put us together wasn’t over yet
  3. Counseling (seriously – just go.)
  4. Willingness to have the hard conversations
  5. The life we wanted for our children
  6. Our beautiful backyard
  7. Weekly date nights (even when we glared at each other and sat in silence)
  8. Daily coffee club
  9. Sacrificial love
  10. Refusal to quit
  11. Staying under the same roof (it was hard)
  12. Staying in the same bed (that was even harder)
  13. Tightening our circle
  14. Speaking only kind words about each other to other people (we learned this the hard way)
  15. Trashing old, bad patterns and committing to better, healthy ones 

We have lots of scar tissue.  But our life heals and thrives despite it.  Not one year of our marriage has been like the next, and neither one of us imagined the life we’re still building now.  Every choice we’ve made, good, bad, and ugly, has brought us here.  And there’s nothing I’d trade away.  Every horrible conversation was/is worth it.  So was every tear we cried.  Every prayer.  Every apology.  Every reluctant forgiveness.  Every scared offering of trust.  Every embarrassing admission and vulnerable truth-telling.  

Choose love

We’re only one choice away from pointing our lives, our marriages, our parenting, our faith, our health, our wealth, and our futures in a different direction. What a relief it is to know that the mistakes we make (while some of them are much messier to recover from) can be repaired by making intentional choices in the going-forward. 

If your marriage needs that kind of “redirection” (I’m laughing because that’s the most G-rated way to say “If your marriage is staring over the cliff of complete destruction”), or you feel defeated, be encouraged that you still have the power of choice. 

Choose to say the kind word, or nothing at all.  Choose to affirm something in your spouse even when they’re breaking your heart. (This is not being a doormat.  This is intentionally deciding to be kind.)  Choose to give love instead of deliberately withhold it.  Choose to stay in the conversation instead of walking away.  Choose to answer politely instead of throwing a grenade.  Choose your body language.  Choose your tone.  Choose your facial expression.  Choose how you spend your time.  Choose how you speak about your spouse to others.  Choose a better inner monologue.  Choose to believe things can and will change for the better… one small choice at a time. 

Choosing love does work in the real world

In case all this sounds like a braggadocious fairy tale of utopian marital bliss, here’s how it went down this morning:  All three children were awake and in our bed before 7AM because of a lightning storm, we can’t get rid of horseflies in the kitchen, and I found a weeks-old moldy bottle while I was cleaning up from the dog scattering the inner workings of a beanie baby all over the living room rug.  Oh, and I've been eating so much salt my rings won't come off and so much sugar my pants don't fit.  We live in the real world, people. 

There’s so much magic in it, though.  You just have to decide you want to see it.

HP,

J

P.S.

Local friends, if you need a little support right now, head to True North Counseling.  You can find them on Facebook at True North, The Woodlands.  This is not an ad – this is how strongly I feel about good counseling.  True North is offering a steal of a deal for new clients, whether you need marriage support, personal support, or just a listening ear to help sort through the many emotions the ‘rona is dredging up.  If finances have been standing in your way of seeking help for your wellness, let this be the day you move forward.     

stress of parenting on marriage
Feb 11

The stress of parenting on marriage

By Jessica Allen | Family , Marriage

The stress of parenting on marriage is insane.  Luckily, a good marriage will bear a lot of weight.  Its trunk is made to bend, sway, take on storms and the occasional freeze.  A good (and maybe even a mediocre) marriage will survive all these stress factors.  A struggling marriage might snap as it succumbs to the pressure. 

Ours broke under the stress of parenting (among other factors).  But we're growing back stronger than before.  

I had the funniest encounter at the jeweler.  I took my wedding ring in for repair after noticing I was missing a small diamond out of the setting (I was actually missing two).  After noticing my toddler covered in lollipop sticky and realizing that my ring was filthy and in disrepair, the jeweler diplomatically encouraged me, “You know, you might choose to put this on only when you leave the house.  Having children is really hard on a wedding ring.” 

I just started laughing.  Yes, ma’am, having children IS hard on a wedding ring.  Having children is hard on a marriage.  Having children is hard on your mental health, physical health, financial health, life goals, career goals, time management, emotional management, kneecaps, pets, countertops, wall paint, and car seats. 

Having children is hard on a marriage 

It’s the most incredible gift, to be entrusted by God (and in our case, another human family) to love and raise these tiny little people in the way of Our Lord.  To protect them, teach them, model for them, trust them, and finally release them to make their way in the world.  It makes my heart ache just thinking about it.

But LORD ALMIGHTY these children are hard on our marriage. 

We’re just so tired and stretched in every direction all the time. 

There are days where the sheer number of “things” I have to coordinate pushes me to near-or-actual tears.  And right behind that lump in my throat is the voice of the guy downstairs who loves to feed me B.S. like “you know, you don’t have any business having personal or professional goals right now.  This motherhood stuff is too hard.”

That is a lie.  And a whole different story for a whole different day.

But the point is that being a parent can drain the life, energy, spirit, drive, and confidence right out of a person.

That is not the kind of “me” I want to bring to our marriage.  And that’s not the kind of “him” I need him to bring to our marriage either. 

We’ve seen each other through the worst versions of ourselves, so I know we can make it through literally anything.  But as a general rule, we need the best versions of each other to make this circus run right. 

Good things we do to reduce the stress of parenting on our marriage:

  • Put our phones down when we talk to each other
  • Ask each other how we can help/support the other
  • Schedule a regular date night
  • Take care of our individual and collective physical health
  • Get enough sleep
  • Set boundaries with our work
  • Set boundaries with our friends/extended families
  • Set boundaries with our children
  • Read good brain food and talk about ideas instead of people or problems

Kids… even the world’s sweetest kids… wreck all of that.  The stress of parenting on marriage is no joke.  These kids need everything.  There is So. Much. Need.  Permission slips.  Water bottles.  Clean jerseys.  Birthday party presents.  Snacks.  Bigger underwear.  A bath.  A bandaid.  A signature.  A chauffeur.  A hug every 45 minutes in the middle of the blessed night.  (None of this is a complaint, and I wouldn’t wish one single bit of it away.  It just wears on a body!)

And our children are still little enough that their needs and problems are little.  I pray every day that as they get bigger, and their problems get bigger, that God will see us all through.  I have dear friends with teens and grown children and real big problems.  Life-changing stuff that brings true worry and heartache.  I can only imagine the stress that kind of parenting has on marriages.  Someday we will be there too and I will realize yet again that I don’t know jack squat about this marriage and parenting thing.  

We’re all just trying our best.  And when we're stretched to the max, something's gotta give.  

Bad habits we slip into when we’re exhausted from the stress of parenting:

  • Scrolling social media instead of talking to each other
  • Picking at the other person’s flaws or mistakes
  • Losing our senses of humor/snapping at each other
  • Letting the kids’ schedules trump our date night without rescheduling
  • Staying up too late, sleeping in, and skipping coffee club (this is usually the first red flag waving)
  • Overcommitting our calendars to work obligations
  • Skipping sit-down meals where we pray together
  • Assuming the other one heard/understood/received our communication
  • Binge watching bad TV or get sucked into politics (one of us loves the fire of political debate and one of us wants to cry over all the discord)
  • Failed connection in every area (mind, body, and soul)

Combine all ingredients, mix until volatile, and bake at a million degrees until it explodes.

No marriage can sustain that kind of unmitigated stress.

Which leads me back to our small-ish children: I’m a big fan of empowering our children to do just about any age-appropriate task they can, even down to their own laundry and simple supervised cooking.  They will likely make mistakes and as they are learning, the mess they often make in the process creates more work for me in the right-now.  But I am confident it will pay out in the long run.  (she says as she cries and dust-busters laundry detergent granules off the soles of her feet and scrubs peanut butter off the counter which is what likely knocked the diamonds out of her wedding ring in the first place)

Teach a kid to fish…

I can hear this in my mother’s voice: I am not my children’s maid and I am not their personal assistant.  I want these little people to make a way in the world and the best gift I can give their future spouses is an independent, capable, responsible human who sees a need and takes the initiative to meet it.  If they are capable of a task, I will ask them to do it, even if I need to trip around the misplaced shoes until they get home from school.  Not for a dollar, not for a sticker, but because we all live in this house and I expect it of them.  (For the record, I am absolutely not above bribery and incentives.  They work.)

This is not for the sake of standing on principle.  Rather I’m trying to help our children develop simple mindfulness – and confidence in their own abilities - that will eventually make adult life much more pleasant for them and everyone else in their space.  It’s work on the front end to teach kids how to do stuff but I’m playing the long game. 

Noble pursuit, sure.  But additionally, selfishly, I need their help.  Because when I am exhausted, I get frustrated, and when I get frustrated, I snap. And the first person I’m going to snap at is the one I’m married to.  He’s a safe snapping place.  Thank GOD.  But he shouldn’t always have to be, and I shouldn't have to be his easy target either.   The stress of parenting on our marriage shouldn't push either one of us to a meltdown.

When mama ain’t happy…

Everybody in this house has to pull their weight.  Because I can’t pull it all by myself.  You know that saying, when mama ain’t happy, nobody’s happy?  It’s not because mama’s a miserable nag.  It’s because she’s flat out exhausted

The stress of parenting on our marriage is real but it doesn’t have to own us. 

The cost for the diamonds I needed replaced in my ring was so minimal it wasn’t even worth filing the insurance claim. 

The cost for peace in my marriage is so minimal – intentional time, intentional effort, intentional attention to what’s good between us.  Refusing to believe the lie that “I have to do everything around here.”  They’re not going to do it as well as I would.  But guess what?  I didn’t have to do it… and that leaves room in my mind and my heart for more rewarding things.  For snuggles, and compliments, and reading, and jokes, and peaceful bedtime, and good sleep, and coffee club, and presence, and real connection, and a marriage I love. 

HP,
J

PS: I shared a candid video of the jeweler story in our Facebook group.  Have you found us yet?  Come breathe fresh air at Heartfully Present on Facebook and @heartfullypresent on Instagram.  

  

Suggestion box | affair in marriage
Feb 04

Suggestions please

By Jessica Allen | Marriage

There’s this thing I think I’m supposed to write but I don’t want to do it.  I DON’T WANNA.

But things don’t go well for me when I run away.  To be fair, I reject ideas all the time, which I’m sure (in the words of Liz Gilbreth) get passed along graciously to the next willing steward of the gift. 

However, from time to blessed time God and the universe reject my rejection and instead relentlessly nudge me until I can either say yes or fall off the cliff I’m backing up towards. 

The last time I said no, I fell off that proverbial cliff, and wound up crying in the pool on my 36th birthday.  Like winners do.

So I think I’m supposed to write about this thing but I’m scared to do it.  I’m scared because I know it will force me to touch some wounds that are still tender and unearth some skeletons that weren’t even pleasant the first time around. 

So here’s where I need some help.  Your help. 

Just so I’m clear here and that there are witnesses: I am tentatively saying yes to God and the universe and I am willing to dip a toe into this project if and only if they (and you) will help me with the process.

The thing I think I am supposed to write is how to leave an affair behind.

I have been afraid to even tell Jack about this but I finally did and he was exceedingly gracious about it. His humble suggestion for the project title is “Why My Affair Was F***ing Awesome” but that’s not A) appropriate, B) my tone/style at all, or C) what this project is about.  I told him not to worry; that’s actually a pretty bitchin’ post title for some time down the road.  Or maybe a companion piece to this one. 

But what I think I’m supposed to tackle is slightly different.  This would be written from the betrayer’s perspective.  The twisted path through a marriage that broke, the distorted reality of the affair itself, the loss of love in both relationships, turning your heart back to your spouse (I think this is the most important key part), and how to rebuild - or build anew - a marriage and a life you truly love.  This piece would cover some big topics like trust, communication, money, relationships, faith, sex, family, therapy, honesty, shame, things that still hurt your heart and haunt your mind…. you name it, it’s part of the muck of an affair. 

I don’t talk a lot about the a-word here in this blog partly because it’s really personal and embarrassing and partly out of respect for all parties involved.  We’re all still healing and trying to find peace and closure and life on the other side.  Most importantly, it’s not just my story to tell and it’s not my place to put that story out there.  I learned the hard way there are people who will abuse it, distort it, use it as a weapon, seek personal gain from it, and judge unfairly because of it.  So I’m not going to allow that story to be exploited or used for harm, and that means keeping it sealed in the vault. 

But how my family and I healed from the experience is my story to tell and I think it’s an important one.  I cannot tell you how many people I’ve encountered who’ve said some version of “we just don’t love each other anymore like we used to.” 

I started to believe that was reason enough to quit.

But what I’ve learned is that you really can choose to turn your heart around.  It is a choice.  If you truly want to, you can turn your heart back towards the person you promised it to in the first place.  It takes two people (and the power and grace of God) to repair something as devastating as an affair, and it starts with eliminating any other options – especially the option of another person. 

I remember sobbing on my hands and knees in our counselor’s office, as she asked Jack to step outside after a particularly gnarly session.  The look on his face was priceless.  Kind of a mix of “Oh, $%&@” and “Now what do I do?”

She said, in no uncertain terms, “None of this is ever going to work if you aren’t willing to let him go.”  (Him being the other man.)

I dripped all over her floor and choked out, “BUT I DID.”

She let what felt like an eternity of silence pass and then gently replied, “No, you didn’t, and you know it.”  I just laid down on the floor and cried until there were no tears left.    

This pain of letting go is excruciating.  During that season of my life I felt like everything was one giant suffocating act of letting go, losing hold of the edge of that cliff one desperate finger at a time.  Everything I imagined my life would look like, everything I felt I needed and wanted and deserved, everything I ever dreamed for myself and my family, everything I thought I valued and would never betray… I had to let go of all of it.  And all that letting go felt impossible. 

I’ve never been a Marine but after reading a little about it (and subsequently having the craziest dreams later that night) I understand their process is to break you down through intense training and then push you to overcome your fears to become a warrior and a champion.  

This whole affair was kind of like that.  Except instead of running and pushups, my heart was ripped out of my chest and then sewn back inside.  It pushed me to my limit, broke me apart, and then built me up stronger, softer, more determined, and fearless.   

So after becoming a warrior for marriage and life and belief and redemption and faith, this running-scared feeling I have about writing this piece is starting to tick me off. 

This is why I need your help.  I guess what I’m asking here is twofold:

  • Would this piece – in any form – be something you see as helpful/beneficial for people healing from or facing an affair?  If so, what format would be most easily accessible and helpful – e-book, blog post, an actual book, article submitted to a larger forum i.e. Focus on the Family, etc? 
  • What questions or topics do you think could/should be covered to offer people a practical guide for focusing their minds and hearts and healing their marriages?  i.e. If you could ask me anything or learn anything from my experience, what would you want to know?  There’s much to learn even for people in healthy marriages or singles hoping to start out strong in a relationship. 


If you’d feel most comfortable sending me an email or a private message, please feel free.  Top Secret: Eyes Only.  This stuff isn’t easy, and sometimes it can feel really raw and embarrassing to ask about or talk about.  Similarly, if there’s a person you think might have valuable feedback to offer, I’d be so grateful if you’d share this with them. 

HP, and ever-grateful for you,

J

True Marriage Story | Marriage Help | Engagement ring
Jan 28

True Marriage Story

By Jessica Allen | Marriage

We've had a typical morning for us... coffee club a few minutes before the kids wake up, car line in our most fancy clothes (duds and my cozy robe), and dishing the day's agenda in the kitchen before we open our laptops and get to work.  Him at the kitchen table and me on the living room floor with the baby, with my computer wedged as far back as the couch will allow to keep the keys away from his slobbery little fingers. 

marriage | husband and wife | black and white

Ain't marriage grand?

Today I'm regrouping after a horrible night's sleep (I see you, teething) and resetting my mind.  Because once or twice a semester we get to share our story with a group of couples committed to growing their marriages through a program called ReEngage, and tonight's the night.  All ages, all stages; some are the most fulfilled they’ve ever been and some are there as a last-ditch effort to save their relationship. 

We’ve been in both those places.

Our marriage story is hard to tell but it’s important to share. It’s good for us to remember where we came from and where we still want to go.  And in the version we share at ReEngage, there is no black and white filter.  We share the whole technicolor version.  No edits.  No cuts.  The whole true marriage story, from happy newlyweds to stress, finances, an affair, #btp, renewing our vows, starting over, and how each of our miracle children shaped and impacted our marriage along the way.

The ugly parts of the story are still cringy for me, and saying them into a microphone puts me so far out of my comfort zone I have to pretend nobody's there.  That's saying a lot for someone who puts her whole life out on the internet on a daily basis.  But we don't sugar coat anything.  We call it was it was, and describe in vivid detail how we got there, what happened, and how we came through it (by the grace of God).  

It was a bloody battle but the outcome was worth it. We’re different people now and the understanding/respect/love we cultivated is more than I ever dreamed for. (It’s still really hard sometimes... marriage is hard because we’re all hopelessly humanly flawed. I’m grateful for all we learned. It helps us when old wounds and patterns come haunting.)

If you’re even a little curious about our story or ReEngage itself, come sneak in the back tonight and check it out. You’ll at least hear a story that will make you feel a little better about your own life and choices. 😂 6:30 PM at The Woodlands United Methodist Church, in the Harvest worship space.  If your spouse won't come, it doesn't matter - Jack and I each attended alone on separate occasions before we could agree to go together.  

Healthy people get help. I admire anyone willing to work on themselves and work on their marriage. It’s not easy, and it takes time, but it’s totally worth it. If your marriage is in great shape, it’s the perfect way to connect and deepen your love.  (It's a built-in date night and free child care every Tuesday!) . And if you’re at that call-it-quits point, I promise this program is worth the try. At the very least, at the end, you’ll know you gave it all you had. 

If you’re not local, I bet there’s a ReEngage happening in your neck of the woods. And if not, search for a program that helps you connect with your spouse, whether it’s a weekend intensive, a great counselor to help you work through some tricky topics, or a group of friends that will hold you accountable and encourage you as a couple. Nobody gets through it alone.

You are the only one responsible for your one amazing life.  Your most important relationship is deserving of every ounce of loving care and attention you invest in it.  Your marriage story will be full of lots of bumps and cliff's edges.  And if it haven't seen them yet, I promise they'll surprise you when you least expect it.

Send up a little prayer today, if you're so inclined... that the marriage story we share tonight will be a light and a blessing to each person and couple listening.  And while you're at it, pray for your marriage too.  You're meant for a union that has lasting impact for good.

HP,

J

marriage habits | crash and burn | rocket ship crashing
Jan 14

Marriage Habits

By Jessica Allen | Marriage

Marriage is hard.  Did you know that?

So is life.  So is parenting.  Adulting is hard all on its own even without any of the other variables thrown in. 

No matter how much we evolve as creatures of faith and compassion, we are still - more than anything – creatures of habit. 

Ultimately this is a good thing.

Because habits are just skills.  And we can “level up” literally any moment we choose. 

You can train yourself to do just about anything.  From drinking more water to walking across hot coals, the human mind and body and spirit are capable of limitless achievement. 

Yet drinking more water and even walking across hot coals are a piece of cake compared to the habits we need in our relationships.

Contradicting yet complementary marriage habits we all need to develop:

Selflessness yet also self-respect.

Patience and persistence.

Strength and vulnerability.

Courage and trust.

Honesty and respect.

Kindness and boldness.

Love and boundaries.

Communication and restraint.

Awareness and maturity. 

Just to rattle off a few… and those are the easy ones.

Practice makes permanent (how to build a habit)

Fortunately, or frustratingly, however you choose to look at it, these habits are built by doing.  If you want more trust, you’re going to be thrown into situations that will require you to trust more, or be more trustworthy.  If you desire better communication, you’ll be faced with circumstances that call for deeper conversations. 

With intention and repetition, these habits can all be learned, practiced, and even taught to your children, becoming instilled within your family to shape for good every generation to come. 

And they all lived happily ever after.  The End.

Just kidding.

Because at some point, you’re going to blow it. 

The time machine

Every once in awhile in the dark corners of our marriage, there appears a door to a little time machine.  Ours pops open when we’re working through pain or hurt or lingering/unresolved issues. 

It feels really appealing to step inside that time machine.  It’s comfortable in there, albeit musty and stale.  It’s equipped with a (broken) communication system, an (outdated) atlas and an (obsolete) operations manual.  Systems we used to use before we knew any better.  Old marriage habits that served us until we outgrew them, at which point they almost crashed the whole ship.

I know that time machine is a hunk of junk.  Yet any time either one of us is sitting in pain, anger, resentment, shame, or regret, it’s really tempting to get back in. 

Bad marriage habits

We can hop inside and start blaming each other for our own personal unrest.  And we revert back to the way we used to talk to each other – dripping with sarcasm and arrogance (him) and martyrdom and condescention (me).  We can forget everything we’ve learned about forgiveness and grace and self-reflection and patience and kindness and actual communication and instead behave like selfish children. 

And then, before we know it, we’re swirling in the muck of our past, lost in space, out of touch with any reality we now know.  I can hear the words coming out of my 5-years-ago-me mouth, and I can see the look on his 5-years-ago face.

But we’re not those people anymore.  (Thank God and His infinite mercy.)

And we’re not going the same direction we were 5 years ago. 

So why do we keep getting back inside that time machine?

Because charting a new course is scary.

It’s hard to use new skills in a new way.  Habits are HARD to break.  And we’ve each lived a lifetime using those old, broken habits. 

He likes to annihilate his opponent with arguments and trick questions.

I like to play the martyr and slink away. 

So it’s harder for him, and not nearly as comfortable, to listen and respond with kindness and care instead of planning his next crushing blow in the debate to mow over the competition.  And it’s the most uncomfortable for him to entertain the idea that he might not be the “winner.”  (Helpful hint: there’s never one “winner” in marriage.  You either win together, or you lose together.  Strive not to fight each other but rather to fight for each other.)

It’s harder for me, and super uncomfortable, to stay in the fray and respond with clarity and bold honesty instead of using vague words and then walking away.  It’s most uncomfortable for me to say what I really need, instead of what I think will simply smooth over the fight.  (If this hits home, practice asking yourself these questions: what I am I really upset about, and what do I really wish could happen right now?  And then say it, like a grown-up person.  In actual words that other grown-up persons can understand because “clear is kind.”)

Get out of the past

We’ve spent some moments in the time machine this week, staring at old versions of ourselves. It stinks.  And it always takes a few days to recover from the experience; lots of reflection and practice for me to remember who I really am, for him to remember who he really is, and for us to remember who we really are as a couple. 

I like who we are now, and who we’re becoming.  I'm proud of the new, better, healthier marriage habits we're creating.  And I think we’re both ready to haul that time machine out to the curb.  (Don’t come get it.)

HP,

J

surviving the holidays | grief | divorce | marriage recovery | struggling marriage
Dec 03

Surviving the holidays when you’re barely surviving

By Jessica Allen | Family , Grief , Marriage

Surviving the holidays seems impossible when your life is falling apart.  (Spoiler alert: you can do it.  Keep reading and you'll see how we made it through too.)

Maybe you're grieving the loss of a loved one.  Maybe your marriage is on the rocks, or one of your children is troubled.  Your career or finances might be hanging by a thread.  All these things bring grief.  And grief is grief.  No matter the source.

Holiday grief

Waves come when you least expect.  Nine years after LJ died I had a meltdown on the floor at Hobby Lobby because I couldn't find six matching stocking hangers.  Everything came in sets of four or five... but not six.  

It came on like a panic - I could feel my heart rate skyrocket and my face get hot.  And I couldn't stop it from coming.  I was on my belly, face down, reaching for the back of the bottom shelves, when I finally just put my head down and cried.  People were sweet, mostly... scared, probably, but compassionate.  I pulled myself together, abandoned my cart, and left.  

There is no rhyme or reason for how grief manifests itself during "the holidays."

Surviving the holidays minute by minute

If you're approaching the holidays with a feeling of heaviness, anxiety, dread, or even despair, sentiments of "joy" or "merry" or "calm and bright" or even basic gratitude might be too much to hope for.  My prayer is that you will find simple pockets or even just tiny flickers of peace and comfort.  A good meal, a conversation with a friend, a book or song that speaks your heart.  

Those moments are treasures, like delicate shells to collect in your pocket.  Because the only thing that makes the anger and pain you're feeling even more distressing is the knowledge that the holidays are coming.  I remember starting to drown in the anxiety that I was going to have to swim in a sea of happy people when I was still such a wreck.  

Why surviving the holidays seems impossible when you're grieving

Entering the holiday season in grief is just about as hard as the loss you're grieving in the first place.  Regardless of the source of your grief, the holidays only magnify the pain grief brings.  What should be such a happy season just isn't happy at all.  

You wish you could close your eyes and wake up on January 2nd.  Skip it all.  Even the New Year, which feels ridiculous because the idea of a "fresh start" is insulting after your whole life has been upended.  If only a snap of your fingers could make it all go away: grief, frustration, confusion, Santa, the mall, the Salvation Army bell ringers, picture-perfect family photos, the Hallmark movie channel, and the blowups on your neighbors' lawn.  Everywhere you look are reminders that the world has moved on... and you're still stuck in sadness or anger.  

It's the most terrible time of the year

We had a rough Christmas once, more than normal.  Sadly, this one was even more awful than the year our son died.  This particular season was just weeks after our marriage detonated.  We both approached the holidays with heaping piles of disappointment, anger, resentment, and fear.  

Neither one of us was able to admit it to the other, but I know we were both terrified it would be our last Thanksgiving and Christmas together under one roof.  So surviving the holidays was especially critical, and doubly hard.  I was mortified to face his family, just as mortified as he was to face mine.  I was positive I was going to become a fold-over in the annual family Thanksgiving picture.  True story.  I think by chance I wound up on the far corner of the group in the photo… I’m sure I manifested that for myself.  (As far as I know, I didn’t get cut out!)

Make the holidays exactly what you need them to be

It was more important that year than ever before for us to create some special memories as “just us.”  We had to set some boundaries that season that confused and likely disappointed our families.  It was uncomfortable, and in many ways it probably would have been easier to just “do what we’ve always done.”  But that’s not what we needed that year, and I’m grateful we had the courage and determination to chart our holiday course differently. 

Surviving those holidays meant getting creative.  We intentionally established a new Christmas Day tradition in our home.  I knew after a full day of Christmas Eve services at church I would be exhausted, and trying to haul everyone out of the house with gifts and merriment strapped on would push me over the edge.  So, we didn’t.  And it is one of the best decisions we’ve ever made for our little family.  We stayed in our jammies, made memories and food together, and stayed present to enjoy what we truly thought was going to be our last Christmas together.  Tragically, if that had been true, it would have been our only Christmas together prepared and enjoyed with that much intention.

For more help on repairing your marriage, especially during the holidays, click here.  

I keep that Christmas in mind whenever I start feeling anxious about what each holiday is going to look like this time around. 

Things I learned from surviving that sweet and special Christmas:

The people who love you most will still love you. 

They will still love you even if you change all the plans and move all their cheese.  They will get over it.  Grit your teeth and wait them out!

Creating your own traditions is priceless.

These are memories you'll have forever.  If this isn't the year for traditions, go do or try something you'd never otherwise do.  Being together is the whole point.  Screw "normal."  There's no normal right now anyway.

Give your children the gift of present and loving parents on holidays.  

You can’t do that if you’re stressed to hell.  A wonderful funny friend of ours said, and I quote: “We don’t want our kids to think we suck at holidays.”  Our children really don’t want as much stuff as we think they do.  They just want us.  

Cook – or cater – a fantastic meal.  

We ordered a gorgeous prime rib, prayed we wouldn’t screw it up, and enjoyed the most incredible Christmas dinner.  One of my best memories of all time is sitting with Jack at the table after the kids had scampered off to play with their new toys.  With full bellies, and no run-around-town stress that day, conversation opened up that brought us some peace.  We were still a long way from reconciled then but I treasure that evening spent together with our guards lowered.  Magic really can happen over a great meal.  

Here are some easy ice-breakers if your relationship is so strained you don't know where to start.  

Thoughtful gifts don’t have to be expensive.  

Maxing yourself out financially only adds to your stress and mental garbage.  There are countless ways to say I love you that don't cost a penny.

But JUST SAY NO to anything that doesn’t bring you absolute peace and presence this season.  

Dragging yourself to and through obligations is a recipe for self-implosion. Saying no is harder for some people than others.  If that’s you, go back and read #1. 

It’s exhausting to stand on principle or try to punish or hurt someone you love on a holiday.  

Stick a pin in the feud; you can always come back to it later.  Be kind to each other, if for no other reason than to give yourself the gift of putting down the heavy weight of anger for just one day.

Don't make any big decisions

Your emotions, stress, fatigue, and blood pressure are all at DEFCON 5.  This is not the time to decide to split up, move out, quit your job, go skydiving, or get a tattoo or a puppy.  Those are all valid ideas that can wait until January.  That's when you'll think a little straighter and make better, more rational choices.

When you’re hurting, it’s time to circle the wagons, hunker down, and put your needs and the needs of your nuclear family first.  

This doesn’t mean shutting people out.  It simply means budgeting your time and energy so that you can give your most important people the best of yourself.  They deserve more than our "leftovers." 

Take pictures only if you want to.  

If someone else really needs a picture, suck it up and pose, while repeating to yourself you never have to look at the photo if you don’t want to.  Especially if it’s a painful reminder of a painful time. You DO have every right to request that it not appear on social media.  

Speaking of social media, STAY OFF SOCIAL MEDIA.  

You can “like” everybody else’s “perfect family pictures” another day.  I say "perfect" because I promise you, they yelled at each other trying to get the perfect outfits or the perfect location or the perfect shot.  And one of the kids probably got threatened within an inch of his life for acting exactly like a kid forced to take pictures in itchy new clothes would act.  When our marriage fell apart, I wish I had a nickel for every time someone said, "we just had no idea anything was wrong."  (It would have paid for all the therapy!)  WE were that perfect family on social media.  Proof that you never truly know what's going on behind the scenes.  

Holidays are not going to magically make pain or struggle disappear.  

But you can find moments of peace and glimpses of goodness if you’re willing to look for them.

Surviving the holidays when you're a mess means simply making it through.  And once you've done it, you'll breath a sigh of relief.  And you might even have a glimmer of hope and gratitude.  (It's okay if you don't, though.  Some years, surviving the holidays is the very best you can do.  We are meant to thrive in the right time, and that time will come.  Just not right now.)

All this being said, if you do feel up to making merry this Christmas in spite of your grief, let your people love you the way they know how.  This means they will feed you and hug you and make you take uncomfortable family pictures.  And even if you stand on the far back corner of the group, I promise they won’t fold you over.

HP,

J

PS: This will help you survive the holidays! 

My new book, Joy Comes in the Mourning, releases Thursday, and it's that kind of book that might bring you a flicker of peace in a difficult season.  It's a raw and real look at the grieving process, no matter your loss or struggle, and will bring you the reassurance that what you're thinking and feeling is okay.  I found the brightest light on my life's darkest path.  And it's my joy to share what I've learned along the way.  Check back here and our social channels on Thursday for where to find the book, and for more help on grief and the holidays.

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