I am a magnet for bad habits and addictions. I know I am not alone in this. I have spoken to scores of men who have developed unwanted patterns in their work, relationships, stress management, and leisure. Part of what puzzled me about my habits over the years is that many of them are things I don’t really want to do, but it seemed like my mind would shift into automatic pilot time and again, allowing me to live out some impulse that I’d just as soon avoid. The following is a newspaper column I wrote looking at brain functions and why they make habitual behaviors so difficult to break.
This article was originally published in the Big Sandy Mountaineer 9/9/15.
There was a large wooded park with a lake behind the house my family lived in while I was attending high school. During the four years we lived in that home, my siblings and I frequently spent hours wandering through the woods around that lake. When we did, we usually walked along the trails and paths, because it was easier. Occasionally, I remember straying from the well-worn paths and crashing through the brush. This usually took longer and resulted in scratches, scrapes, and swearing to yourself that you’d stick to the path next time. The reason is obvious: well-worn pathways are easier to travel. There is a similar phenomena that takes place within the human brain. We all have a portion of our brain that controls motor functions and handles our actions/reactions during times of stress, often referred to as fight-or-flight moments. In moments when thinking isn’t possible and the body needs to act quickly, our actions will tend to follow the “well-worn paths” that exist within our brains. This is why athletes and soldiers practice the same movements over and over in training, to prepare them to act without thinking. It sometimes leads to strange behaviors under pressure. I recently read about soldiers collecting spent cartridges in combat, mimicking their repeated behavior on the shooting range. It’s a terrible decision to collect brass while being shot at, but the point is that it isn’t a decision. It’s rehearsed behavior. This is an extraordinary example, but there are far more common ones, like when a person reaches for a cigarette or drink without thinking – especially during times of stress. There’s a part of the brain that knows that a drink or a smoke helps manage stress, which makes this an easy pathway to develop in our brains.
A far more common example of this is seen in bad habits, particularly communication and coping habits that folks develop in their relationships. We learn to fight certain ways, and breaking those habits is difficult because it’s what we’ve memorized through repeated practice. We know our arguing strategies or our escape plans and go to them almost instinctively. Married couples often find themselves having arguments that follow the same course as every previous argument they’ve had over the last several years. Husbands sometimes respond to arguing by shutting down and running for the safety of the tv, late work days, or just hanging out in the garage. Wives learn to argue as effectively as possible or to hide out by focusing on the kids or some other part of life other than their spouse. The pattern repeats and repeats, even when it doesn’t make sense anymore or when both parties realize and acknowledge that it’s making them miserable. This is largely because they have found a pathway in their brains that works, even if it doesn’t. This easy path becomes the “go to” rut that they get stuck in, largely because it is practiced and repeated so often. Changing these trained behaviors can be terribly difficult, as anyone who has ever tried to break a bad habit knows. Success can frequently be short-circuited by new stress or frustration, which sends the individual running back to the old behavior. The last few installments of this column have looked at poor communication habits that develop in marriage. Part of what makes these habits so very difficult to break is that developed pathway. We learn them and they stay learned until we unlearn them. Unlearning involves an intentional effort to change our attitude and that couples work as a team in changing the relationship patterns. Only by intentional working together, sometimes with the assistance of a counselor, (or by an act of God) are most of well-worn pathways replaced with new healthier ones. The first step is always to acknowledge the problem and choose to work toward overcoming the habit.
I came across this quote from Arthur Pink today and thought it was worth sharing, particularly in light of the alarmist things I encounter in my social media feeds on a daily basis lately. It’s easy to find folks to blame for the problems in our nation. Folks post their outrage on social media, flock to politicians peddling easy answers, demand laws that will straighten up the world we live in, and pine for God to set things right. The problem with these solutions is that they are top-down fixes to a bottom-up problem. Decline and decay start in our own homes and churches. We must address our own messes before looking to those of others. In the 2 millennia since its birth, Christianity has changed the world, not through legislation and power, but through discipleship and devotion to the cause of Jesus. Fathers, follow Jesus and grow spiritually. Then, spend time with your families, loving and teaching them who Jesus is and how to follow Him. Devote yourself to your God, your marriage, your family, and your church (in that order). If you want this country to change, start with yourselves. Through prayer and discipleship, Jesus’ following grew to fill the world. It will only happen again through the same efforts.
I love my wife. I want her to love me and think I am a great husband. Heck, I want to be the kind of husband that makes my wife feel loved, appreciated, and treasured. Further, I want her to look to me as a source of comfort, assurance, and joy. Achieving this means courting her throughout our marriage. Sitting around and wanting our marriage to grow stronger without putting forth effort is unrealistic. I also want to be faithful to God’s command that I love my wife like Jesus loved the church. This means serving her. Over and over Jesus taught that love is demonstrated through service. Over the course of 18 years of marriage, I have learned through trial and error (lots and lots of error) that simply doing things for her is a start, but it is not everything. There are all sorts of things I, and lots of husbands, do to mess up the good things we do for them. We men can be thick-headed in regards to relationships and often act stupidly in ways that mess up what we are trying to achieve. Figuring out the big pitfalls and avoiding them is a huge part of courting our wives. Here are a few I have done or have observed in others.
Last year, I read Theodore Rex, a biography of Teddy Roosevelt. Amongst the many things that stood out to me in the life of that great man was that he took his children camping almost every night while staying at his vacation home. This was a man who was the leader of the free world, a world class intellectual, and a war hero. He was not too busy or too important to sleep under the stars with his children. I am willing to wager that for all the great things that Teddy was, his kids valued that time spent with him more than anything else. As dads, we often get distracted by our work, our hobbies, and our comforts; all to the detriment of the time we spend with our kids. Putting forth the effort to create special times with them is important. It is when the real impact of our parenting will blossom. Camping is a unique way to do this, because it takes us out of our comfort zone and away from our distraction, forcing us to pay attention to each other. For a child, camping with dad is a great adventure and a privilege. Here are a few of the things I have learned from camping with my kids.
Typically, denial is broken when the addict experiences so much pain as a result of their using that they wake up to the problem. This is typically referred to as “hitting the bottom.” Unfortunately, the bottom is usually so bad that it kills the addict. Sometimes an addict will swear they won’t use again after an unpleasant experience and attempt to control their using. This fails and memories of the unpleasant experience are hidden behind the denial mechanism. Typically, these moments of clarity are not all-encompassing enough to really break down denial. The first step of the Alcoholics Anonymous program is acknowledging that life has become unmanageable, that the addict cannot control their behavior and that their addiction is destroying them. This is the level of acknowledgement that is necessary for the addict to begin recovery. They have to recognize that they are really sick. If an addict gets help or joins a group of other addicts, this can often lead to them coming to the realization that they are sick, largely because the recovering addicts can typically connect with other addicts in ways that non-addicts don’t necessarily emulate well. In the early days of AA, members would go to addicts in hospitals and sanitariums and proselytize them into the program. Addicts were able to successfully engage other addicts in ways that others weren’t. They could cut through denial because they understood it from the inside.
Years ago, I was replacing the clutch on my car. After removing the old clutch, I went to a high end transmission shop, where the guy at the counter explained that though they had the part, they did not have the alignment tool that normally comes with it. I had never replaced a clutch and had no idea how important the tool was, so I said “no problem” and was on my way. I discovered that it actually was a problem when I attempted to put the engine back into the car with the misaligned clutch. The engine simply would not fit the transmission. I tried several improvised fixes, but had no success. Finally, I pulled off the clutch and went back to the shop, where a different guy was now at the counter. He looked at the clutch and stated firmly that they didn’t sell the alignment tools separately and that the part was not returnable because I had attempted installation. After some arguing and effort, I realized I wasn’t going to make any progress. I then turned to the internet and discover that no one was selling my alignment tool. Finally, after days of working on the problem, I took the engine to the dealer and paid an hour’s worth of labor to a technician, who spent 3 minutes aligning my part. The little plastic alignment tool, that seemed so unimportant at the time, was vital to properly installing my clutch. Without the tool, the engine, which produces power, simply couldn’t connect to the transmission, which transfers power to the tires.
There is a similar problem in many marriages. Both members of the partnership have specific ideas as to how things ought to be, but struggle with making the ideal version in their head transfer into relationship reality. They want to communicate without arguing, agree on financial decisions, experience perfect harmony in their physical relationship, and find that spark of excitement that was present when they first started dating. The problem arises when the idea as to how marriage ought to be fails to translate into forward and harmonious movement in the relationship. This misalignment is a product of the fallen nature, which inclines us toward self-centeredness. If you take a look at Paul’s description of love in 1 Corinthians 13, you will find the antithesis of the sinful inclination of man. It’s natural for people to struggle with making their behavior match their convictions. Paul describes this struggle in Romans 7,
I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.
Our sinful flesh inclines us away from right and toward sin. It’s no coincidence that Paul talks about a perfect version of love in the context of spiritual gifts, because the love he describes is impossible for us to live out. It is a product of the Holy Spirit’s intervention.
One tool in the marital toolbox is similar to the one I was missing when the time arose for me to align my clutch. The great heart alignment tool available to believers is the intervention of the Spirit, aiding us toward Christlike action. As we submit our lives to Christ and learn to obey His teachings, the Holy Spirit produces new attitudes and behavior in our lives. If we simply try to obey a set of standards, apart from new life in Christ, we will find ourselves mired in legalism, which is ultimately impossible to maintain for the long haul. Ultimately, this will produce the same sort of results that my improvised alignment tools produced. The tool that was designed to fit my car is the only one that could successfully line up my engine and transmission.
The misalignment of heart and actions in the marital context is best illustrated by the responses of husbands to Paul’s teaching in Philippians 5:25-27
Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies.
When reading this passage with men, I find that they often get hung up on talk of wives obeying, which is addressed in the preceding verse. They complain that their wife doesn’t obey them, and they harbor resentment because of it. This is a product of a misalignment of heart with the heart of Christ, specifically because they aren’t looking at the passages that apply to them. They are only looking at what they are owed. Husbands bear the responsibility of loving their wives as Christ loved the church. This literally means that husbands should be willing to give everything for their wives and take on the role of servant. He ought to lead his family spiritually, not only in words, but also in action. The job of a husband is to align their attitude and behavior with that of Jesus. When she offends him, he forgives. He is patient, selfless, kind, and forgiving. When things are not as they ought to be, he guides through love and sacrifice. We do not see Christ demanding that He be served. The tool that helps us to align our hearts with his, and then our actions with our heart is the Holy Spirit. Prayer, confession, accountability, devotion to the Word, and obedience is our side of the equation. The Spirit convicts and changes us as we strive toward holiness. Without the Spirit, we simply cannot manage this on our own.