Good Marriage XXI: Forfending Disclosure Demand and Disclosure Phobia
Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then every man will receive his commendation from God. (1Cor 4:5)
Even a casual reading of Jesus’ encounters with others in the Scriptures shows that He did not demand anyone disclose their thoughts and feelings to Him. We could say that He had respect for mankind's free will, for those creatures which He made in His image and called to be like Him. He would ask a question, but never demand an answer. He counseled, but never forced compliance. He read the hearts and minds of many, but never coerced anyone to tell Him what came from their heart, against their will.
Consider the record of Jesus’ encounter with the rich young man told to us by St. Matthew (19: 16-22):
And behold, one came up to him, saying, "Teacher, what good deed must I do, to have eternal life?" And he said to him, "Why do you ask me about what is good? One there is who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments." He said to him, "Which?" And Jesus said, "You shall not kill, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother, and, You shall love your neighbor as yourself." The young man said to him, "All these I have observed; what do I still lack?" Jesus said to him, "If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me." When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful; for he had great possessions.
What is remarkable about this is that it is a respectful dialogue, even after the young man rejects Our Lord's counsel. Our Lord simply goes on to point out in response to His disciples’ question: ""Who then can be saved?" But Jesus looked at them and said to them, "With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible."" (Mt 19: 25-36).
The gentleness, non-demandingness, and non-confrontationalness of Jesus with the woman caught in adultery is singular. From the account of St. John (8 1-11) she is no doubt guilty, but Jesus makes her disclose nothing of her transgression and infirmity, rather he confronts those who would condemn her:
But Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. Early in the morning he came again to the temple; all the people came to him, and he sat down and taught them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in the midst they said to him, "Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such. What do you say about her?" This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, "Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her." And once more he bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. But when they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the eldest, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus looked up and said to her, "Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?" She said, "No one, Lord." And Jesus said, "Neither do I condemn you; go, and do not sin again.
As St. John (4: 17-19) tells us, when the Samaritan woman spontaneously discloses her marital state Jesus simply responds: "You are right in saying, `I have no husband'; for you have had five husbands, and he whom you now have is not your husband; this you said truly." The woman said to him, "Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet."
Marital Disclosure Demand
Compare the words and actions of Jesus to the dysfunctional demands some marital couples in troubled relationships make on each other. A husband or wife could hold to the attitude, “If my spouse truly loves me, they would be willing to talk about most anything that bothers them." Or think over this non-adaptive belief: "If my husband, or wife, refuses to tell me what they are really feeling and thinking it shows they don't love and respect me." In many troubled marriages this attitudes is in the back of the mind of either (or both) husband and wife.
It should be pointed out that disclosure itself is not the problem. In fact, under appropriate circumstances which I will discuss later, disclosure can be both psychologically and spiritually advantageous. The problem is the 'demand' that disclosure should occur and the conclusion that if it does not occur this is deleterious to the Godly blessed relationship of union of man and wife.
If a husband or wife does not communicate spontaneously and completely with the spouse wanting disclosure, and the latter comes to the conclusion that this means that they are personally deficient in some way and/or that the marriage is defective, the cognitive distortions leading to such perceptions are:
- Arbitrary Inference: drawing a conclusion unwarranted by the facts in an ambiguous situation. Lack of disclosure is perceived as a sign of marital defect.
- Personalization: blaming oneself for an event one is not responsible for. An individual perceives himself/herself as inferior or substandard and/or worthy of blame because their spouse will not communicate with them.
- Catastrophizing: the perception that something is more than 100% bad, terrible or awful. Non-Disclosure is 'more than' or 'nearly' the worst possible thing that can occur in a marriage.
- Emotional Reasoning: the judgment that one's feelings are facts. The aggrieved spouse 'feels' that spontaneous disclosure should be part of any good marriage.
- Demanding Expectations: beliefs that there are laws or rules that have to be obeyed. Example: Communication is not just a goal to work toward, that is to say a preference, but communication is demanded; it is a 'must, should, ought,' in a marriage.
The cognitive distortion challenging questions
Three questions are useful in challenging the cognitive distortions leading to disclosure demand.
- Where is the evidence?
- Is their any other way of looking at it?
- Is it as bad as it seems?
By answering these questions the demanding spouse may find the previous interpretations to be unrealistic. They may come to see that people differ in the comfort level of what they reveal about their thoughts, feelings and actions. There are any number of reasons for such individual differences. Some of these reasons may be realistic or may be due to the emotional state of the individual. Some variables accounting for these individual differences in communication are, anger, anxiety, cultural differences (McGoldrick, Giordano & Pearce, 1996; Morelli, 2009a), feeling they will be evaluated and judged as foolish or shameful, as well as personality variables (Tellegen et. al 1988). As discussed in Morelli (2006, 2007 2009b), when individuals feel pressured, they often resist in order to maintain a sense of healthy self-esteem and self-control.
A Spiritual Father exemplifies Patience on Disclosure
There is a beautiful story told to us by St. John Cassian (Philokalia I) about the patience, that is to say the non-demandingness, of disclosure of the Spiritual Father of Abba Serapion. When the Abba was a young monk he would steal some extra food from the refectory table. He never disclosed this failure to his spiritual father, but more importantly, his Spiritual Father never confronted the young Abba and demanded disclosure of his stealing. However, the Elder communicated the importance of disclosure in a non-confrontational manner by allowing Abba Serapion to hear his conversation with some other monks. St. John recounts: "But through God's love it happened that certain brethren came to the old man for advice and asked him about their thoughts. The elder replied that nothing so harms a monk and brings such joy to the demons as the hiding of one's thoughts from one's spiritual father. . . .As this was being said I came to myself. . . casting myself to the ground I begged his forgiveness for my past faults and his prayers for my future safety." A few pearls of wisdom from St. Dorotheos of Gaza (Wheeler, 1977) may summarize the spiritual principles that can be applied to overcoming the obstacle to good marriage of demanding disclosure: "Do not. . . be anxious about your own rights. . . make a point of acquiring a peaceful state of soul. . . ." Here St. Dorotheos references Christ Himself: "Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls." (Mt 11:29).
St. John of the Ladder (1991) gives us another insight into acquiring the gentleness of Christ in relationships with others. "If you want, or rather intend, to take a splinter out of another person [in this case demanding disclosure], then do not hack at it with a stick instead of a lancet, for you will only drove it in deeper. And this is a stick -- rude speech and rough gestures. And this is a lancet -- tempered instructions and patient reprimand."
Overcoming Disclosure Phobia: Preferring Disclosure
Disclosure can be appropriate and useful. However, even in such situations the value and decision to disclose must be perceived by the disclosing individual. The spouse desiring such disclosure also has to overcome any disclosure demandingness as discussed above, psychologically preferring disclosure and spiritually celebrating their spouse’s free will. This has to be communicated in a non-judgmental, inviting tone. Helping one's spouse in overcoming disclosure phobia would be greatly enhanced by interiorizing the words of St. Paul. "Put on then, as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness, and patience, forbearing one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive" (Colossians 3: 12-13). At times disclosure proceeds in small steps.
Consider the consequences for the good thief on his cross next to Christ. St. Luke (23: 39-43) recounts: "One of the criminals [bad thief] who were hanged railed at him, saying, "Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!" Jesus did not reply. But the other rebuked him, and in doing so disclosed his responsibility for the crimes he committed saying, "Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong." And he said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." And he said to him, "Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise."" The good disclosing thief was forgiven by Christ. Like Christ, the spouse desiring disclosure must be receptive to their spouse’s disclosure.
Wisdom and Prudence in Disclosure
Reflect on the Holy Spirit-inspired wisdom of St. John of Gaza (c. 525 AD). Chryssavgis 2003, records a question he entitles "On concealing truth partially" posed to the saint: "If I do something against my brother and he grieves upon hearing about it, is it perhaps a good thing to hide the truth from him in order to stop the grief? Or is it better to admit my fault and ask forgiveness?" The principles of St. John of Gaza's answer can be applied to a wide variety of life circumstances. St. John responds:
If he has clearly learned about it, and you know that the matter will be examined and revealed, then tell him the truth and ask for his forgiveness. For lying will only further provoke him. However, if he has not learned about it and will not examine the matter, then it is not improper to keep silent and not give occasion to grief.
For when the Prophet Samuel was sent to anoint David as king, he was also going to offer sacrifice to God. Yet, because he was afraid lest Saul learn about this, God said to him: "Take a heifer with you; and if the king asks you: 'Why did you come here?' tell him:' I have come to sacrifice to the Lord'" (1Sam 16:2). In this way, by concealing one thing, which brought the wrath of the king, he only revealed the other.
You too, then, should be silent about that which causes grief, and the problem will pass.
One common pastoral and clinical problem that arises is "should marital infidelity be spontaneously disclosed to one's spouse?" Considering the very serious and severe psychological, spiritual and legally deleterious consequences of such disclosure (Blow, A.J, Hartnett, K. (2005), consultation with a highly trained and licensed mental health practitioner-spiritual father should be sought in resolving this problem.i
The benefits of disclosure
Even our Holy Church Fathers have noted the healing value in disclosure (confession), and thus would promote overcoming any barriers to revealing one's heart or overcoming disclosure phobia. St. Isaac the Syrian, (Wensinck, 1923) encapsulates the benefits of disclosure: "The sick one who is acquainted with his sickness is easily cured; and he who confesses his pain is near to health. Many are the pains of the hard heart...."
Irénée Hausherr (1990) quotes an ancient Spiritual Father referred to simply as an anonymous old man: "The more one hides one's thoughts, the more they multiply and the stronger they become. As a serpent flees instantly as soon as it has left its hole, so an evil thought dissipates as soon as it begins to be disclosed. Like a worm in wood so a (hidden) evil thought devastates the heart. The person who discloses his thoughts is soon healed. Whoever hides them makes himself sick through pride."
Of course the purpose of disclosure for the monk was to subdue a self-will separated from God's Will, to be obedient to their Spiritual Father as to God and to achieve theosis, that is to say, becoming "partakers of the Divine Nature." (2Pt 1:4). As St. John Chrysostom tells us, even those married are called upon to this same goal of holiness. However, disclosure between spouses in a blessed marriage, male and female of one flesh, has psycho-spiritual benefits.
One benefit is that by sharing experiences, perceptions and feelings spouses can come to know one another better and reduce conflict. Through shared understanding of one another they may come to understand the viewpoint of the other. Each individual sees the world from their own perspective and many make the mistake of thinking others see the world the same way they do. In actuality, people can view the same event in very different ways. A husband trying to aid his wife to hang a picture, for example, might be viewed by him as a 'helping' act. She, on the other hand, may view his attempt to assist as an intrusion on her autonomy and independence and a challenge to her competence. Each disclosing their motives for feelings and actions may help in alleviating any dysfunctional feelings such as anger or depression that may ensue. This would give a chance for empathy, that is to say, thinking and feeling what the other is thinking and feeling, to develop, and could prevent or assuage ill feelings. Compassion for one another could develop. They could acknowledge and appreciate each other’s motives and needs. While this is going on each individual could come to accept themselves while simultaneously be able to see their spouse’s viewpoint. A closer relationship and deeper bond could develop.
Over the years, pastorally and clinically, I have observed that when individuals are upset about something, or about what someone around them has said or done, I have recommended that they just inform the other person of their unfavorable feelings about what the person said or did. At times the person being counseled will object saying, "what is the difference, they will do what they want to do anyhow." I point out, "this may be true, but try it out. Just expressing how you feel, at least you know that you have done what you can. It is now the other person's task or responsibility to respond." The overwhelming number of individuals I have counseled to simply perform this communication task, expecting nothing, experienced a calming effect on their own emotional state. Just expressing displeasure has an ameliorative effect.
Interestingly, although not directly related to marital relationships, psychologists have found improved emotional states among individuals who have disclosed troubling events.
Disclosure and Health
One interesting line of research initiated in the mid 1980's has been conducted by James Pennebaker (1997, 2004). Subjects were engaged over a several day period in expressive writing exercises about traumatic or stressful incidents they had experienced. In the prototypic experiment subjects wrote 20 minutes a day over a four day period. The experimental group were instructed to write about their "deepest thoughts and feelings concerning trauma;" the other group were instructed to write about superficial topics. Pennebaker's team found increased immune function in the experimental group (measuring blood T-lymphocytes which produce bacteria and virus fighting antibodies). The experimental subjects also had decreased visits to their local health care centers. Subsequent research by Pennebaker and his team has studied disclosure among various groups of subjects.
Pennebaker (1997) discusses spousal disclosure in terms of dealing with grief. He notes that "grieving styles"iii differ between husbands and wives, and when this takes place problems often arise. One "disclosing” spouse may be inclined to interpret the quiet spouse as uncaring or insensitive. On the other hand, the withdrawn spouse may feel his/her partner does not understand their intense emotions. This can be noted in the mindreading tendency in the Arbitrary Inference cognitive distortion noted above. The distortion challenging could be employed in aiding understanding of each other, both to avoid demanding disclosure and to facilitate willingness to share feelings.
Spouses in emulation of Christ
In emulation of Christ who respected the free will of His Human creatures, but still so welcomed those who revealed their inner hearts to Him, so, too, husbands and wives can work at interacting similarly with each other. In many of my essays I have ended with a quote from Scripture or from one of our holy Spiritual Church Fathers. In aiding spouses to forefend demanding disclosure yet work toward spontaneous deep communication I will give a quote by a contemporary psychologist commenting on his research findings:
"The more people prayed. . ..the healthier they were. Prayer, in fact worked the same way as talking to friends. . . . It is so easy to see why this is true. Prayer is a form of disclosure or confiding." (Pennebaker, 1997)
Blow, A.J, Hartnett, K. (2005). Infidelity in committed relationships II: A substantive review. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, Apr.
Chryssavgis, J. (2003). Letters from the desert: Barsanuphius and John: A selection of questions and responses. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press.
Hausherr, I. (1990). Spiritual direction in the early Christian East. Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications.
McGoldrick, J. & Giordano, J., M., Pearce, (1996). Ethnicity and Family Therapy. 2nd Edition. NY: Guilford.
Morelli, G. (2006, January 06). Self Esteem: From, Through, and Toward Christ.http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles6/MorelliSelfEsteem.php.
Morelli, G. (2007, May 15), Good Marriage III. Nagging: The Ultimate Marriage Over-Control. http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles7/MorelliSmartMarriageIII.php.
Morelli, G. (2009a, January 13). Suicide: Christ, His Church and Modern Medicine. http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/OT/view/morelli-suicide-christ-his-church-and-modern-medicine.
Morelli, G. (2009b, December 25). Good Marriage XIX. Overcoming The Coercion Perception Stumbling Block. http://www.orthodoxytoday....
Palmer, G.E.H., Sherrard, P. & Ware, K. (Eds). (1979). The Philokalia, Volume 1: The Complete Text; Compiled by St. Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain & St. Makarios of Corinth . London: Faber and Faber.
Pennebaker, J. W. (1997). Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotion. NY: Guilford Press.
Pennebaker, J. W. (2004). Writing to heal: A guided journal for recovering from trauma and emotional upheaval. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.
St. John Climacus, (1991). The Ladder of Divine Ascent. Boston, MA: Holy Transfiguration Monastery.
Tellegen, A. P., Lykken, D.T., Bouchard, T.J., Wilcox, K.L., Segal, N.L., & Rich, S. (1988). Personality similarity in twins reared apart and together. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology., 54, 1031-1039).
Wensinck, A. J. (ed., trans.) (1923). Mystic Treatises by Isaac of Nineveh. Amsterdam, Holland: Koninklijke Akademie Van Wetenschappen.
Wheeler, E.P. (1977). (ed., trans.), Dorotheos of Gaza: Discourses and Sayings. Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications.
i Attention to Culture and Life Context:
"Any therapeutic intervention (and spiritual direction) must take into account the family culture of the patient. It is far beyond the scope of this paper to go into the particulars of each family culture. However, it is necessary to stress a point made in the overview of an of important work: Ethnicity and Family Therapy by McGoldrick, Giordano, & Garcia-Preto (2005). These researchers stated:
It is almost impossible to understand the meaning of behavior unless one knows something of the cultural values of a family. Even the definition of “family” differs greatly from group to group. The dominant American (Anglo) definition focuses on the intact nuclear family, whereas for Italians there is no such thing as the nuclear family. To them, family means a strong, tightly knit three or four-generational family, which also includes godparents and old friends. African American families focus on an even wider network of kin and community. Asian families include all ancestors, going all the way back to the beginning of time, and all descendents, or at least male ancestors and descendents, reflecting a sense of time that is almost inconceivable to most Americans." (Morelli, 2009a)
ii Blow and Harnett (2005) point out the extreme aversive consequences that accompany disclosure, including rage, loss of trust, decreased personal and sexual confidence, damaged self-esteem, fear of abandonment, and a "surge of justification to leave the spouse." They point out that "Twenty-five percent of those who had engaged in infidelity and nearly 60% of their primary relationship partners said that they suffered emotional problems and depression [and major depressive episode] following disclosure." Additional untoward consequences ensue, including ruining other relationships (children, parents, and friends); legal consequences (arrest); and financial loss, such as unemployment, increased expenses and costs of treatment. The prevailing wisdom is that confession (disclosure) "metanoia," that is to say a deep, honest re-directing one's heart, mind and action to be guided by one's spiritual father (who collaborates with a highly trained and experienced mental health practitioner) is strongly advised. The wisdom of St. John of Gaza, referenced above, and repeated here, may well be the guiding point: "However, if he has not learned about it and will not examine the matter, then it is not improper to keep silent and not give occasion to grief."
iii I thank one of my reviewers and editors, Anne Petach, who made a very important comment on this section: "This, hopefully, is discussed in marriage preparation so that fiancés can think ahead about their individual disclosure styles. If/when sharp grief hits during the early years of marriage (e.g. death of parent or sibling) and this hasn’t been pre-examined, the spouse who has grown up in what might be termed a “full disclosure” family, with the expectation and a practice of disclosure, can feel “shut out” even “emotionally abandoned” by the withdrawn spouse – feelings strong enough to carry them beyond the reasonableness of challenging cognitive distortions."