What’s in a name?
More than you might think
When Adam was commissioned by God to name all the animals (Gen 2: 19-20), it established an important idea in Judeo-Christian tradition; being able to name a person or thing, brings that thing under the authority of the one doing the naming.
The scriptures are rich in examples where names are an important part of the divine message. For example, we read about how the names of various figures were changed by God to indicate a new identity established by God for that person. Thus, Abram becomes Abraham, Jacob becomes Israel, Simon becomes Peter, and Saul becomes Paul.
As parents, God gives us authority over our children to name them, for “God allows parents to choose the name by which he himself will call their child for all eternity” (Pope Francis, Amoris Laetitia 166). In a rich symbolism, our child will choose a name of his own from among the saints for his Confirmation, thus completing the Sacraments of Initiation and entering a new spiritual maturity.
One of the most important strategies we have learnt in our marriage, is that being able to identify and describe a troublesome marital dynamic, that is to ‘name’ it, is incredibly empowering and an essential first step to taming it.
We remember when we were able to recognise and name the conflicting decision-making strategies that each of us had adopted from our family of origin. We were engaged at the time and planning our wedding was hugely stressful, not because we disagreed on what we actually wanted, but because we approached decision-making from totally different angles.
Francine’s family were highly organised, and she had adopted the practice of being proactive and efficient in making a decision and moving on to the next thing. Byron’s family worked on the ‘keep your options open’ principle and Byron instinctively avoided committing to a decision for as long as possible so as to optimise the outcome.
Both of these strategies have their merits and their limitations, so it wasn’t about one of us being right and the other wrong. It was really about our adopted approaches to decision-making being fundamentally incompatible.
After three months of weighing up the pros and cons of a Saturday versus Sunday wedding, we finally had a date…in a mere four months’ time! By now, the anxiety for Francine and her family was extreme and her parents had secretly reserved three venues on three different dates. Byron’s family were riding with it happily as they were used to frenetic deadlines.
If this had been the only point of contention during our engagement, it might have been easy from then on. But alas, almost every decision we made was complicated by our incompatible decision-making styles. It has been a thirty-year saga that continues to complicate our life, but we are now far more adept at recognising when this particular demon is at play, calling it out, and consciously choosing to ‘name’ another, more important factor; that our commitment and devotion to each other is stronger than our decision-making differences.
In the Gospel of Mark, we read the story of Jesus casting evil spirits from a man who was so wild, not even chains could restrain him. In a dramatic confrontation, Jesus demands to know the name of the demon who possesses him. “My name is Legion, for we are many”, is the reply (Mark 5:9). Asserting his authority over the demons, Jesus expels them and the man regains his sanity.
Sometimes it feels like our marriage is under attack by ‘Legion’. When we get overtired, too busy, undernourished spiritually or emotionally, or time-starved in our relationship, our marriage becomes vulnerable to all sorts of craziness. Things that would normally not faze us become hurtful exchanges, and our normal good will and affection gets tested.
Being able to name what is going on for us is incredibly powerful and has been a life-saver for our marriage. When the negative dynamic is playing out of sight of our conscious awareness, we’re more vulnerable to being overwhelmed by it. It’s like a rip at the beach – if we don’t know we’re in it, trying to swim against it is exhausting.
The ability to recognise a damaging relationship dynamic is like having underwater vision. When we can see the outgoing current, we can avoid swimming in that dangerous zone, or if we must, we can be smart about how to swim across it so that we avoid exhausting our good will towards each other.
One of the best strategies for developing our ‘underwater vision’ and navigating these sorts of challenges is what we call the “Time out to ask Why?” tool. It simply involves the practice of calling a ‘time out’ when things are tense between us, stepping back from the issue and reflecting on what is driving our reactions. It takes real discipline as often one or both of us really wants to drive home our point.
Part of using this strategy successfully is adopting an attitude of curiosity about ourselves and about the other: What’s really going on here? Why am I reacting this way? Where did it come from?
Curiosity helps us suspend judgement and stay open to learning more about ourselves and our relationship. It helps us to presume good intentions when the other is annoying us and directs our attention towards the underwater currents rather than the surface behaviours.
It’s really more of a mindset than a tool but it is a powerful practice and a revolutionary approach for every marriage. Combining it with prayer amplifies its impact and makes it even more effective in naming and taming the ‘demons’ that afflict us.
So when you next find yourself feeling irritated or upset by something your spouse did or said, try it! Call a ‘time out’, say a quick prayer for insight and dive beneath the surface. We can personally testify; it’s a whole other world down there!