Friday, March 2, 2018

Social Work: The Good, the Bad and the Beautiful

adult, business, close-upAs we come into March, national Social Work Month, I've been reflecting on my ten years of social work experience. At times, social work seems simple, at times it seems unbearably hard, but it is exactly where God has led me to be.

So here are my thoughts about what social work really is:

Social work is too many clients and not enough time. It is endless paperwork, fighting with insurance companies, reviewing, reviewing and reviewing.

It is the highs – when you are able to reach across the divide between two people and regardless of our differences, you can truly connect because we are both humans and suffering is universal. It is squealing with teenagers who passed a difficult test or made the varsity team. It is finding the perfect placement for a child with an amazing foster parent.

It is the lows - hiding behind police cars while police kick doors down to make sure children are safe. It is crying with a police officer outside of an apartment after a horrific abuse case. It is feeling your own heart break as you watch a mom weeping as she pulls her syringes and drugs out of her baby’s diaper bag.

It is trying to keep a strong face in moments of chaos and terror. It is weeping with someone who has just lost a spouse, a child, a baby. It is crying when things are so horrific for your clients that there’s nothing else you can do.

It is walking through trailers filled with garbage, cockroaches, holes in the floor, mold on the walls, and realizing that you don’t need to travel to the third world to see complete and utter poverty.

It is buying children happy meals at two in the morning because they haven't eaten since lunch at school. It is spending the night at the department with a child because there are never enough foster families.

Social work is crying on the way home every day after working at a homeless shelter because no matter how many applications and programs there are, there will never be enough housing for your clients.

Social work is endless background checks, endless paperwork, endless reports.

But it is also the beauty of teamwork – working with incredible doctors, nurses, lawyers, police officers, teachers, counselors, and co-workers who have dedicated their lives and hearts to helping people.

It is the heavy moments, but it’s also playing Play-Doh, endless games of Uno, quoting Justin Bieber lyrics and Twilight, and connecting with teenagers over silly things and serious things.

Social work is maintaining a calm face as you sit in groups where men who have been convicted of domestic violence weep as they disclose their own childhood traumas and abuse. It is keeping your jaw from dropping as people disclose horrific sexual abuse, physical abuse, emotional abuse, or all three.

It is watching children melt down knowing they have to face their abusers in court…and breathing a sigh of relief with them as the abuser is sentenced to decades in prison.

Social work is being cussed out, degraded, and dismissed, but also being told that I’m the first caseworker to make them feel like a human being.

It is seeing terrible things and having no one to process with because you’re bound by confidentiality.

It is seeing incredible, miraculous things, and not being able to share them because you’re bound by confidentiality.

Social work is weeping as you watch the news because you can imagine what those counseling sessions with the victims will be like and how burdened those school counselors/police officers/child protection workers will be. It is compassion fatigue, vicarious trauma, but also joy.

It is feeling like no matter how many starfish you throw back, there will be too many for you to make a noticeable dent.

But it is also saying goodbye as you switch jobs and hearing stories from clients about how you have helped them. It is seeing past clients on the street years later and being told you helped change their lives, or their marriage is still going strong.

Social work is being the hands and feet of Jesus in every way that you can, even when your soul is broken and you are beyond exhausted.

Philippians 4:13: “For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength (NLT)” has taken on a deeper meaning for me as I see the good and the horrible, as I work 15-hour shifts, as I put my own struggles and pain aside to focus on listening and caring for others.

Social work is an emotional roller coaster, but I am exactly where God wants me.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Embracing the Lost and Disconnected Child

As a country still trying to wrap its head around the tragic loss of life in Florida, I’ve seen many people debating the whys. Why have there been so many school shootings? Why are so many young people willing to kill others? Why did the shooter have access to a gun? We are a country of confusion. Is this a gun control issue? Is it a school safety issue? Is it a community issue or a national issue?

As a social worker, I have been working with teenagers for 12 years, and over that time, I’ve seen a disturbing increase in rageful teenagers. Ones whose anger has caused them to completely disconnect from those around them. These are not simply frustrated or angry kids who don’t know how to express themselves. These are children with a chilling combination: they are furious at the adults around them and they are completely disconnected emotionally from their families.

There is no perceived emotional boundary between them and those around them. As a child, I couldn’t imagine assaulting my parents. I remember being angry at them, but there was an unspoken rule that they were still my parents. That even when I didn’t like them, I still loved them. That the school principal and teachers and adults may have angered me, but they were still valuable human beings (and that they cared about me at some level).

However, I’m starting to see an increase in kids who no longer view adults that way. Ones who are so incredibly angry at the world, that their fury overrides their ability to see others are human beings. I’ve worked with 9, 10 and 11-year-old boys (and sometimes girls) who have assaulted teachers, headbutted school counselors, beat up school nurses, and attacked their parents. I’ve had young children who have bitten, kicked and left bruises and scratches all over their siblings and parents and have no remorse about it. Their anger at the world consumes them.

I don’t believe these are sociopathic children who can’t feel remorse. These are normal children who in better circumstances, those who had a more involved, stable set of caregivers would probably do well. Many are intelligent and have the capacity to love, but their disappointment and resentment has suppressed their remorse to the point that they no longer care about others.

I’ve started calling these the “disconnected children.” The ones who are caught in the middle of highly contentious divorces, with parents who call child protection and the cops on each other constantly. The nine-year-old children who make statements like, “My stupid mother owes my dad $841 a month in child support, and she doesn’t pay him so she doesn’t love me” or “My mom says my dad doesn’t even want me, because if he did, he’d show up for things.”  The children, who starting at a young age, have learned to lie about the opposite parent to teachers, police and social workers to assist their parents in custody cases.

adult, alone, boy
The heart-breaking teenagers who are let down repeatedly by the adults in their life – the dad who doesn’t show up for the scheduled weekend over and over, the mom who is more interested in fighting with dad at the exchange of children than actually seeing her children, the parents who refuse to show up at football or basketball games because the other spouse might be there.

It is the children terrified to connect to adults because their parents have a revolving door of stepparents. I had a young (and very angry) boy tell me that he hated his mom because every time he got close to her boyfriends, she would break up with them and he was stuck grieving that loss. After several rounds of this, he was so bitter towards his mother that he would bite, hit, and kick her when angry. His anger overrode his feelings to the point where he didn’t care if he hurt her. He felt it was a fair payback for the times her actions hurt him.

This is not a condemnation of divorced parents. There are many divorced parents, who even if they can’t stand their ex, try very hard to remain civil. Who cautiously wait to introduce a new boyfriend or girlfriend and manage to work out the kinks in their second marriage to stay together. I’ve seen incredible stepmoms and dads work together and support and love these children.

However, I also see too many families where the children learn over time that anger is the only protective tool they have. Where they fall through the cracks at school because overworked teachers with huge classes don’t have the time to focus on every single child. Where harried school counselors are juggling the needs of 200 of the most “high-needs” children, but can’t help all 1,000 children in the school. Where school psychologists spend their time doing testing, and lack the time to work with every lost and broken child. Where they fall through the cracks at home because their parents are so distracted by their own brokenness and problems, that no one is nurturing and loving them.

The result is heartbreaking. These children push others away, and as their parents retreat because of untreated mental health issues, drug addiction, anger and hurt at their exes or simply too much time on their phone, these children become more lost and more angry. They lack mentors, connection with adults who love them, and the meaningful relationships that remind them of the beauty of human connection.

When you have angry and disconnected children, are we surprised they can walk into a school and shoot their peers (who they view as against them), adults (who they view as untrustworthy and against them) and themselves (who they view as worthless and abandoned)?

So how do we fix this? It is a complicated situation. There is no easy answer. However, as a community, there are things we can do.

We need to connect with the disconnected children around us. We cannot expect the schools alone to “fix” these children. We as adults, neighbors, church leaders, and parents need to reach out. A program in Portugal found that building community was the best way to “cure” drug addiction, what if the best way to cure rageful, disconnected children and adolescents is the same?

We need to teach our own children to love others. We need to constantly be having conversations with our children. How can they love that angry kid that sits alone in the cafeteria? How do they connect when they sense someone is hurting? It is often our children who see the lost children first, and teaching them how to connect and intervene, and tell us, teachers or principals when they see the warning signs - the angry rants on social media, the whispered words of rage or threats, the rumors of violence.

We need to teach our children empathy. Many of the children I see, both through work and in my personal life, lack empathy. They spend their free time in their rooms, lost in YouTube and hiding from the world, and never have a chance to build empathy and connection with others. Developmentally, teenagers tend to be fairly egocentric, but they do have the capacity to be empathetic. We as adults have a responsibility to teach them those skills, to help them be aware of suffering in others. (We also have to role-model it ourselves!).

We need to support struggling parents. We all have friends going through messy divorces and breakups. Whose marriages are on the rocks. Are we supporting them? Or do we distance ourselves because we don’t want to interfere or get involved in the messiness? I’m so blessed to have mentors and people in my life that can step in when I am frustrated with my children or my spouse, who remind me to stay calm and not say nasty things about my children or other adults when I am angry.  We need to wrap our struggling friends and neighbors in love. To let them vent, to gently remind them to not involve their children in the messiness, to offer tools and mentorship so they can build sustainable, stable relationships with their partners and children.

So many of us watch helplessly at the news footage and feel unsure of where to start. Start by reaching out to the disconnected children in you and your children’s lives. Commit to inviting a kid to church, to go lift weights with you. Commit to spending a few extra minutes asking that awkward kid who lives a few doors down how he is doing. Help support programs like Girls on the Run, Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, coaches and youth pastors that mentor those who are struggling. Volunteer at a school so the overworked teachers have more time to focus on the children and not just grading and testing. Help with your local youth group or ask if there are ways you can mentor teens in your church.

We have an obligation to connect with the lost youth in our communities. To support those and the programs who are helping them. To support the foster families in your area, so they can try to love the lost children. Tell your own children (as well as you!) to get off YouTube and serve and connect with those around you.

With repeated school shootings, we can no longer boil this down to an occasional “weird” kid. This is a culture of lost and broken children, and I believe the problem will get worse, not better, meaning these shootings won’t stop. And they need to.

Today, don’t just hug your own children. Hug other people’s children. Connect. Jesus uses the parable of the shepherd searching for and rejoicing over the one found sheep, and we have a culture with many, many lost sheep. Let us search and love on the broken. Love is the answer, but not just for your own little circle. For all the children in our communities.  

Friday, January 5, 2018

Three Practical Ways to Grow Your Child's Love for Jesus

Today, author and speaker Brad Klassen is sharing his knowledge about parenting and practical tips to help build your children's love for Jesus! If you want more, don't forget to subscribe to his mailing list to receive a PDF of 17 Practical Ways to Grow Your Child's Love for JesusEnjoy! ~ Hilary

As a parent, if you are like me, you have a desire and a heart to see your children love Jesus and grow in Him. This could be based on many different things.
  • Maybe for you, it’s because of the life change He has made in your life.
  • Maybe it’s because you know the truth of His word and you want your kids to know His truth too.
  • Maybe it’s simply because you want to see them in Heaven with you one day.
  • Maybe you have a different reason.

Whatever your reason, as a Christian parent, this is not a bad desire. In fact, this is a God-given job when you become a parent.

Paul writes in Ephesians 6:4 that fathers are to:
          “Bring them (their children) up in the training and instruction of the Lord.”

He also writes in I Thessalonians 2:12 that a parent is to be:
          Encouraging, comforting, and urging their children to “live lives worthy of God.”

Now, I know that the Bible has many other references to parenting.  In fact, it is a well of wisdom from where we, who did not get an instruction manual with each kid, can dive into and learn how to do what seems to be impossible.

But how do we do this in today’s world?  Paul didn’t have iPods, Netflix, and the next great video game system to compete against. He didn’t have unlimited texting or malls to shop at.
How do we teach our kids to love Jesus in a culture that is so overwhelming?

Let me offer few suggestions. This is by far not the only list of ideas out there, but it can be a start.

Let the Bible Come to Life in Your Home

In our North American culture, we tend to forget that the Bible stories were lived by real people with real emotions.
  • When David wrote the Psalms, he wept.
  • When King Nebuchadnezzar was furious in Daniel 3:19, he was really, really mad.
  • When Paul shouted at the jailer in Acts 17:28, he had to be heard over the chaos that came after an earthquake.  He SHOUTED!

Read the Bible with emotion. Put yourself in the stories. Let it come to life. In our home, I tell our kids to look at the “buts” in the Bible. Yes, I tell them to look at Biblical buts. Once our preteen giggle fest ends, we look at what God is telling us with a big "but." For example, look at Romans 6:23 and be thankful for the God-sized "but" in there. If our kids don’t understand that it is a real book, with real people, and real emotions, it will always be a distant and boring read.

Don’t be Perfect

The truth is you won’t be. As much as we are called to a life of holiness, God knows we will make many mistakes along the way. In our pursuit of God, we live a life of grace. Grace for our kids AND grace for ourselves. Our kids are not perfect, and let’s face it, their parents aren’t either. 

Live a grace-filled life. A big part of this is being able to SAY SORRY to them when we make a mistake.

We need to model what an imperfect life with the perfect God looks like: one of confession, forgiveness, and grace.

Don’t be Normal

This is an interesting one. We once had a friend over for supper. As she watched us around the table, she told us that what she saw was not normal. We were all there, sitting together, sharing our day and our lives together.  In our society, what’s "normal" is not always beneficial.

Here are some small ideas that can make big differences:
  • Eat supper together.
  • Turn off the TV.
  • Get rid of music that is not God-honoring.
  • Have a device-free time at the restaurant.

I say this knowing that each family has its own set of circumstances.  In fact, I grew up in a trucking family where both my parents were on the road a lot, so the idea of the family dinner was not one I grew up with. However, it is one that we have implemented in our home. What are ways you could be abnormal to our culture in your home?

With saying these three, I do not want to neglect the truths of loving Jesus yourself and modeling a life of relationship and prayer with Him. How can we expect our kids to do that if we don’t do it ourselves?

Growing our kids to love Jesus may seem like a difficult challenge.  We are up against some pretty tough opposition, but we also have the best Teammate one could ever have.  Jesus wants us to know Him.  That means He wants our kids to know Him.  And as much as I question His decision to give my kids the dad He did, I trust that He will be with me to help me be the best parent I can be.

If you would like more on this, you can visit and subscribe to my free email and receive the PDF of 17 Practical Ways to Grow Your Child’s Love for Jesus.

Leave us a comment: which of these three ideas will you implement in your home? Or which ones have you already done and had success with?

Brad Klassen is a writer, storyteller, and public speaker.  His passion is to bring the Bible to life for all ages and help others grow in their walk with Jesus. In his spare time, he loves to longboard, play board games, and sit by a fire (but not all at the same time). He and his wife, Jen, have 4 kids and live in the frigid cold of Steinbach, Manitoba, Canada.  

Monday, January 1, 2018

Improving Intimacy: The one element every couple needs

Problems with physical intimacy are rarely something that bring couples to see me for marriage counseling, yet it often comes up within the first one or two sessions. The difficulty with eroding intimacy is that it is a complicated blend of physical and emotional connection and for many couples in crisis, they don’t even know where to start to fix the problem.

Over the course of a marriage, it is not uncommon to have times where external factors such as a new baby, medical issues, opposite work schedules can impact intimacy. Sometimes there are deeper issues – untreated medical or mental health issues, an addiction, affairs. However, for couples that report a decrease in intimacy without an obvious cause, there is often one underlying factor.


You might read this and think, “Are our problems really related to trust issues? We haven’t felt sexually connected in months, but it’s not like either of us have cheated.”

When we think of broken trust in relationships, we often associate it with an affair or pornography addiction. The problem is we view trust in terms of infidelity, but it is much larger than that.

Trust is an integral, daily part of your relationship. It is the sense that you can trust your partner to react kindly throughout the day. That you can trust that your spouse will leave the frustrations of work at work, instead of sulking for the rest of the evening. It is a deep sense that you can trust your partner to handle difficult conversations about money, sex, or parenting with grace instead of defensiveness.

The difficult thing is that even if there are not trust issues around physical intimacy per se, problems with trust in other areas will impact a couple’s sex life as well. Unfortunately, couples often minimize the role of emotional connection as part of sexual intimacy, but Ephesians 5:31 reminds us that, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh (ESV).” True intimacy is more than a physical act. It is the joining of two souls where we literally become one flesh.

Many Christians limit their conversations to only focusing on sexual sin, yet it is crucial that we identify the elements that contribute to a healthy sex life. One where both partners feel connected and fulfilled, one they can bare their whole selves – slightly overweight, stretch-marked, and starting-to-sag – and know that their partner will be complimentary and loving, not mocking, distracted or dismissive.

So if you find yourself shying away from your partner, ask yourself: do you really trust your spouse? Not just in terms of their faithfulness. Do you trust their reactions, their commitment, their love? Sometimes, trust issues develop because your partner has been untrustworthy in the past, other times it may be the result of your own insecurities. When adults have parents that have had affairs, they often share that they have difficulty trusting their spouse, even if there is no infidelity.

If you are unsure what is causing your mistrust, meet with a counselor or a pastor. They will be able to help you identify the source of your unease so that you can work on rebuilding trust and intimacy with your partner.

Perhaps you are in the opposite position. You find that your partner is retreating and rejecting advances more and more. Make sure that you ask yourself honestly: are you acting in a trustworthy manner? Can your partner trust you to listen when they are struggling? Can they trust you to handle difficult discussions with grace and humility as opposed to anger?

If the answer is no, focus on changing your behaviors and rebuilding trust with your partner. Demonstrate kindness consistently, so at the end of the day, they can trust that you will embrace intimacy with them with that same kindness.

If you are struggling with intimacy in your relationship, know that it is not hopeless. With a little counseling and some honest conversations, many couples will overcome declining intimacy and report a stronger, more connected marriage. It just takes a little work. 

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Pursuing God: Reflections After a Car Accident

Seven weeks and one day ago, I was in a serious car accident. God was good and protected me, but it was such an eye-opening experience. Being laid up for weeks and stripped of all the things that give me identity (my job, running, crafting, writing, parenting), I was forced to truly examine myself.

And it wasn’t pretty. I realized that my justifications for avoiding an intimate relationship with God (I’m too busy, I’m too tired, at least I’m serving Him through work and church) were just that. Justifications. Because when I was finally home and had nothing to do, I still only devoted a tiny portion of time to Him. I filled my time with Candy Crush, endless episodes of Top Chef, book after book, far too much Facebook, but rarely did I seek Him.

A wonderful woman texted me and talked about using the time I was at home to draw closer to Him. Her words of encouragement were so beautiful, but I still found myself reaching for anything but the Bible. 

I’ve learned that although I’m often the “pursuer” in relationships - the one that calls, texts, and makes plans with others - I rarely pursue God. For someone that spends a significant amount of time pursuing relationships with those around me, spiritually, I often sit back passively, reading a few Bible verses here and there, and hoping that God will continue to pursue me.

Now the amazing news is that God’s love for us is unconditional, it doesn’t depend on how awesome and fully involved we are. Even when we struggle, He still offers us wisdom when we ask for it (James 1:5), a peace that passes understanding (Philippians 4:7), comfort in times of stress (Psalm 94:19). However, I cringe when I think about how easily I take His unconditional love for granted.

I am always incredibly convicted by Matthew 22:34-40:

Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

Over the past few weeks, I've had to ask myself: am I really loving God with all of my heart, soul and mind? Stripped of distractions - music, noise, busyness, talking, pride – it became obvious how much I fill my heart, soul, and mind with things other than God to avoid silence. Because ultimately, when I am silent, it is easier to hear the discontentment and self-doubt that often fill my soul, and the guilt that I’m not a “good enough” Christian/wife/mother/social worker. So I fill the silence with noise to drown out those thoughts. The downside is that I also inadvertently drown out His voice too. The distractions I pursue leave little time or room in my life to feel His presence. 

I've concluded that I don’t want to live a life where I expect Him to always follow up on His promises, but avoid time with Him and pray half-heartedly here and there.

Instead, I want to offer Him the firstfruits of my time, not a quick prayer at the end of the day where I fall asleep before I say Amen.

I want to pursue God not because I feel obligated to, but because I want to.

I am not naturally a disciplined person, and I don’t want to boil this down to “simply read the Bible more” or do a regimented one-hour quiet time in the morning because then it can quickly slip into obligation (which breeds resentment or guilt if I am unable to follow through).

I want to live a life where God is the first one I turn to when upset, when happy, when content. When I open the Bible to hear His voice, not just because it’s been a while or I feel like I “should.”

A life where I pray, not because there is nothing else to do, but because I want to spend time with my Father.

A life where I have a vibrant relationship with the Creator of the Universe who loved me so much that He “showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners” (Romans 5:8, NLT).

A life rejoicing “in our wonderful new relationship with God because our Lord Jesus Christ has made us friends of God” (Romans 5:11, NLT).

The best part? It starts with a single baby step. To open my Bible before I check Facebook. To pause and pray this afternoon in the middle of my work day instead of waiting until late tonight when I’m exhausted. To examine my heart and write this post that may not be that “flattering” to myself, but is honest and authentic. 

For me, change isn’t about starting with a huge list of “shoulds” (I should pray this often, should read my Bible this much, should do quiet time for this long). Instead, it is spending less time pursuing others, distractions and my own needs and more time pursuing Him, little bit by little bit.

Some of you are much further down the road than I am – you are disciplined and have a vibrant relationship with God woven through your everyday life, but for those of you, who like me, struggle with actively pursuing Him, I pray that this simply encourages you to start, one baby step at a time. 

Sunday, September 3, 2017

The Five Skills Needed for a Healthy Marriage

After years of working as a counselor, I’ve seen couples in all stages, and I am always intrigued by what makes a marriage work. How do couples overcome messy childhoods, unhealthy habits, and constant conflict to have a strong, healthy marriage? What skills or characteristics do we need as spouses to work towards the marriage that God designed for us? There are many important elements, but with God at the center, here are five skills that I believe are needed for a healthy marriage.

*My caveat is that none of these should be used to justify abusive behaviors in a marriage. God does not call us to have abusive, selfish marriages. If you are experiencing high levels of conflict or emotional or physical abuse in your marriage, please seek help from a trained professional. 

1. Humility. Throughout the Bible, humility is a consistent theme. Ephesians 4:2 tells us to, “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.” James 3:13 says, “Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom,” and 1 Peter 3:8 tells us, “Finally, all of you, be like-minded, be sympathetic, love one another, be compassionate and humble.” In Matthew 5:5, Jesus taught that “God blesses those who are humble, for they will inherit the whole earth” (NLT).

Although most Christians would tell you humility is important, we often become so focused on being “right” or “winning” arguments that we become arrogant and unkind towards our spouses. We justify being patronizing or nitpicking because we are determined to prove that we are right and they are wrong.

It is always interesting when I ask couples about conflicts they’ve had and how they resolved it. Even if it’s been weeks (or years!) since the argument, unhealthy couples will continue to point at their spouses and say, “Yes, I yelled, but he/she said this,” or “Sure, I made a mistake, but look how badly he/she treated me.” It takes humility to take responsibility and apologize first, to realize that we are as flawed as our spouses, and acknowledge that attacking our spouse to win an argument is never okay.

To truly resolve conflict, each partner has to take responsibility for their actions and identify ways they can improve their own behaviors in the future. If you are more focused on pointing out what your partner did wrong, then it will be difficult for you to have a healthy marriage.

I have had couples work through addiction, affairs, and high levels of conflict. The ones who are the most successful are the ones who wake up every morning committed to being gracious and humble towards their spouses.

2. Flexibility. Rigidity will destroy a marriage over time. If you or your spouse are constantly focused on how things should be or how he/she should act or should look, eventually, it will drive you apart.

I’ve worked with couples have been married for decades and are still arguing over a statement one of them made ten years ago (“But remember that one fight? You said that you would be one who takes out the trash.”). 1 Corinthians 13:5 tells us that love " not easily angered, it keeps no records of wrongs." When couples lack flexibility, they keep getting stuck on the same arguments and fights because they are hung up on how their partner should have handled things or should be treating them instead of reevaluating the situation and moving forward.

While it appropriate to have standards in a relationship, overly rigid expectations are not healthy. Over the years, you will deal with many situations that require flexibility: a cancer diagnosis, the passing of parents, lost jobs or an unplanned job transfer. Flexibility enables us to change our plans, expectations or behaviors in the face of unexpected situations and roll with life’s punches, instead of spending years arguing about what the other person should have done differently.

3. Willingness to try new things. I’m always wary when people say, “He never tries new foods” or “She always goes to the same restaurant.” While routine can be comforting, especially for those with chaotic childhoods, a willingness to branch out and try new things allows a relationship to grow and develop.

When my husband and I were young (before kids), we tried different restaurants, traveled to new places, and tried different types of dates – movies, frisbee golf (which I was terrible at), outdoor activities, and different hiking trails.

Now that we’ve been married for 15 years, our lives have settled into more of a routine, but we still make an effort to try new recipes at home, experiment with different hobbies, and volunteer in different settings. If you or your spouse aren’t willing to try different things, you can get so stuck in a routine that you no longer have things to do or talk about.

However, a willingness to try new things isn’t just related to dates and experiences. It is also about the capacity to embrace new situations, places, and things.

I had friends who were so resistant to trying new things that every “new” situation in their lives caused conflict. Everything from traveling to buying their first house became a source of contention, and ultimately, they divorced. Instead of viewing new experiences as a positive way to grow and learn about each other, change was perceived as something negative and became a barrier in their relationship.

Life is full of new experiences as a couple: buying your first house, traveling, new careers and jobs, and having children. If you or your partner are unable to embrace those new experiences willingly, it can damage the relationship over time.

4. A Heart for Service. A friend once told me that the happiest place in a marriage is when two people are actively serving each other. Unfortunately, many couples become imbalanced in this area. One person feels entitled to be served by the other ("I'm working hard and she's not," "He just doesn't understand that I'm always tired"), and while one person may be okay always serving their spouse initially, this can breed resentment if it continues for years.

Service in a marriage must go both ways. We are all called to serve each other. Galatians 5:13 tells us, “…but do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love” (NIV) and 1 Peter 4:10 reminds us that, “Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms” (NIV).

If you are feeling stagnant in your relationship, ask yourself: am I serving my spouse or expecting them to do everything? Over the years, I’ve noticed a decrease in our marital satisfaction when my husband or I become complacent and expect our partner to do all the work.

Learning to serve each other must be a mutual goal. This means if your spouse asks you how they can help, give them ideas! Sometimes I see couples where the husband wants to serve the wife, but in her effort to be a supermom, she refuses to let him help her. Or the wife wants to serve the husband, but he is so focused on not looking weak, that he won't allow her to help him. 

Helping each other and working as a team is a great way to build better communication and intimacy.

5. Introspection. Healthy couples often have good introspection, which simply is the ability to look inward and be aware of your internal motivations, background, and expectations.

Think of times your child does something wrong. When you ask them why, would you rather have them sullenly say, “I don’t know” or respond with, “I did it because I was mad about _______”? When your child is willing to talk about their feelings and motivations, you can have a discussion about what went wrong and how to fix it in the future.

It is the same in a healthy marriage. The skills needed to sit down after an argument and analyze what happened, why it happened, and ways to resolve it are necessary for a healthy marriage. It is the ability for someone to say, “Hey, I didn’t even realize I was doing that, I’m sorry,” or “I grew up with a family where they did ___________, and I’m repeating that same unhealthy behavior.”

It is having the capacity to say, “I’m sorry, let’s figure out a better way to do this,” or “I'm sorry I've been irritable. It’s been rough at work and I’m taking it out on you, which isn’t okay.”  Introspection is not innate for many people, but it can be developed over time and makes resolving conflict easier.

All five of these skills are needed for a healthy relationship. However, do not expect your partner to demonstrate them 100% of the time, but be unwilling to use them yourself. If you find yourself being rigid, struggling with humility or lacking introspection, seek help. Sometimes just meeting with a counselor or pastor to work through your issues – a traumatic childhood, insecurity or limited introspection – can allow you to grow and become a better spouse.

If you are working diligently and changing, but your partner is still struggling, a few sessions of marriage counseling or guidance from a pastor can be beneficial. The beautiful thing about marriage is that it should always be growing and improving, and although it may be difficult to develop these skills, it is worth the hard work. You will begin to experience a greater intimacy with your partner and move towards the marriage that God designed for you.

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