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Are You Whistling Dixie in Your Marriage?
Dr. David Hawkins
The Relationship Doctor
Denial can be a good thing—in very small doses. Who wants to come home from work at the end of a long, wearying day and be faced with every family problem that occurred throughout the day? Or face every little difficulty percolating below the surface of your relationship? Not me, that’s for sure. I’d rather just whistle and pretend the problems aren’t there. Ignorance is bliss.
There is, however, a time when denial is not good. There is a time when denial and avoidance are like listening to distant elephants, believing they’re far away on the distant horizon, of no immediate threat, only to find them parading through your living room making a very stinky mess.
We all have our distant elephants—things we avoid talking about, but have negative effects on our relationships. These are issues that are easily avoided or minimized. However, these issues cannot continually be avoided without painful consequences. A couple came to see me recently and their story is a good example of whistling Dixie.
Dan and Shelly seemed like a nice couple, coming to their initial appointment holding hands and smiling warmly. He was a robust man who wore cowboy boots, a bright silver buckle, and a long sleeve Western shirt. The only thing missing from his ensemble was the hat. His handshake and greeting were generous. His demeanor carried none of the reluctance most men bring to their first counseling session.
Shelly was equally warm and friendly. She was modestly built, with big blond hair down to her shoulders and a brightly colored skirt. Her red lipstick matched her fingernails.
Dan and Shelly were both on their second marriage. Their intake sheet noted they had “a few small problems” they wanted to work on. Their first marriages had been lengthy, ending when their spouses left for someone else. Filled with bitterness and distrust, both remained single for several years until meeting at their church’s singles group where it was “love at first sight.”
Now in their late forties, Dan and Shelly obviously cared about one another. Openly affectionate, they approached their session as if nothing was seriously wrong, and I began with that point of view as well—though my opinion soon changed.
“So tell me what has brought you here,” I said.
“Well,” Shelly began tentatively, smiling at Dan. “We have a wonderful relationship. But I think Dan may have a problem.”
“Not as far as I’m concerned,” Dan replied, smiling back at her, a twinkle in his eye. “I don’t think it’s anything we can’t solve, but Shelly insisted we come here for a session or two. I’ll see a shrink if my sweetheart wants me too.”
I sat quietly, growing more suspicious as to why they were here. I waited for them to address the real issue, but both appeared reluctant to share anything. Finally, I broke the silence.
“So, what is this problem that needs our attention?”
“Dan likes to play blackjack at the casino,” Shelly blurted. “Ever since the new casino was built down the road, he’s their best customer. I think it’s a problem. He doesn’t.”
“Once a week or so I like to stop by The Lucky Eagle and play cards,” Dan offered firmly. “I keep my spending under control. It’s been a bit more lately but I can cut it back.”
“Is that all of it?” Shelly asked.
“It is for me,” Dan said tersely, now revealing his testy side. “I told you it is no big deal and I can cut back any time I want. And I will.”
"Remember three weeks ago when I called you on your cell at eleven o’clock, and you were still playing cards?”
“When was the last time I spent my paycheck at the tables? Like I said, this is nothing we can’t work out ourselves.”
Shelly looked at me, wincing. “Does it sound like we might have a problem to you?”
“It certainly sounds like there might be a more serious problem here than either of you has admitted. I think we should look a little closer.”
I spent the rest of the session exploring their relationship and “the problem.” What I discovered surprised me.
Dan appeared to be a gambling addict. He not only liked to play blackjack, as he originally admitted, but was also at the race track on many Saturdays. Reluctantly, he admitted that he had spent numerous paychecks on gambling and that it had played a role in the demise of his first marriage.
Dan’s gradual admission took courage on his part. What was more surprising, however, was Shelly’s posture toward him. As soon as he began to admit a greater problem, her concern for his gambling seemed to lessen. She said he had not spent his paycheck on gambling in the past month, going out of her way to avoid being critical of his behavior and defending his ability to control himself.
Shelly’s behavior shocked me. The more I confronted Dan, the more she came to his rescue. The more I indicated there might be a serious problem, the more she backtracked. She clearly enabled his addiction. She allowed the elephants to parade through her home, pretending they were still off in the distance.
As you listen to Shelly and Dan, perhaps you can see elements of their relationship in your marriage. You may be able to see how you have traits, like Shelly, of codependency—which is any attempt to ignore, and thereby reinforce, another’s weaknesses. This, of course, only makes matters worse. Dan needs immediate help, but will not likely volunteer to get it because of denial. Shelly, because of her own denial and codependency, fears forcing the issue. She enjoys the special attention he gives her, and fears rocking the boat. However, unless they face this problem, and quite whistling Dixie, they will undoubtedly have more serious problems in the days ahead.
Christ taught much about seeking peace with others, but also taught about breaking out of denial. He said that it was important to “speak the truth in love,” (Eph. 4: 15) and that “the truth shall set you free.” (John 8:32) His message challenges us to be honest instead of mincing words. We must occasionally look our mates in the eye and say we are unhappy with the way things are. We dare not approve of their excessive drinking, spending, work, drug use, deception, and yes, even avoidance of conflict. We cannot sit with the silence any longer. It’s time to talk! Take a moment with your mate and answer these questions:
- What are the topics we avoid?
- Why do you think we avoid them?
- What can we do to make it safer to talk about the tough issues?
- Is there any action we must take to end certain problems in our lives?
- How will we hold each other accountable for change?
Now, quit whistling Dixie, take a clear and honest look at the elephants parading through your home, and make a commitment together that you will practice speaking the truth in love. Even if it hurts! Solve problems. It’s better than waking up one day to stinky elephants lounging in your living room.
Taken (or Adapted) from: (Nine Critical Mistakes Most Couples Make). Copyright © 2005 by Dr. David Hawkins. Published by Harvest House Publishers, Eugene, OR. Used by permission.
About the Author: With more than 30 years of counseling experience, David Hawkins, Ph.D., has a special interest in helping individuals and couples strengthen their relationships. Dr. Hawkins’ books, including "When Pleasing Others Is Hurting You" and "When Trying to Change Him Is Hurting You", have more than 300,000 copies in print.
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