How to break up ‘logjams’ in our relationships

By Elisa Tremblay | For The Compass | March 19, 2020

I happened across an article recently from the Wisconsin State Journal which told the historical account of a young man named Billy Alft, who lived around the 1900s, and whose job it was to blast out log jams with dynamite. Logjams, I came to learn, were quite common in springtime, because lumberjacks would stack logs onto frozen rivers, so that in the spring thaw, the rivers could be used as a flume to transport the cut logs to the mill. Whenever there was a bend in the river, or a narrow pass, the logs would accumulate and prevent progress. Many times the only way to solve these buildups was to do something drastic such as blast the logs apart, to get them all moving again.

Young Billy Alft was a river driver who had the dangerous job of lighting fuses and would sometimes have to endure the blast waves for the sake of progress, even if it meant a tremendous amount of personal sacrifice.

Logjams and the folklore that surrounds them have been linked to many things that can build up in our own personal lives. We are upon the season of Lent again, and as we are leaving the dark months of winter, we can start to do some self-assessment and see some of the areas that may block our own personal progress.

There is an entire genre of information in marriage and family ministry called Skills-Based Relationship Techniques. These essentially are practical tools a couple can use to break through some bad habits or continual frustrations that may creep up into any relationship. Some of these great tools include setting a “time-out” boundary, mirroring, active listening and negotiation.

Author Bill Coffin gives an excellent overview of what these and some other techniques are and where more information can be found online at usccb.org/issues-and-action/marriage-and-family. One of these practical skills is setting a time-out boundary.

I am sure you have heard the old saying, “Never go to bed angry.” Couples have found that when discussions start to rise and become more heated, it is very helpful to have an identified stopping point where each of you have agreed to take a break and let things settle. When things are not strained, take a moment to mutually agree to what the stopping point is. That way, if it has been a long day, or you might be very tired and/or hungry, you both understand that you can temporarily table the conversation to step back and take a deep breath which prevents arguments or discussions from getting too heated.

Another very practical skill is mirroring. This simple technique is the process of literally repeating what the person said, so you can demonstrate that you heard them. This technique is similar to active listening, which also is a way to repeat back to your spouse what you heard them say. Mirroring is a literal repeat of information whereas active listening seeks to summarize what was said to demonstrate understanding.

While both methods may seem awkward initially in the conversation, couples find that doing these simple techniques ensures that each other is being heard and helps to prevent other communication pitfalls such as interrupting and formulating responses without listening. As you might imagine, if both parties can agree to slow down a conversation and demonstrate understanding, then each spouse will walk away feeling heard and solutions will be easier to come by.

A final technique, called negotiation or sometimes collaboration, is when couples agree to remember that there are three entities at stake in their marriage: the husband, the wife and the relationship. As each party seeks to solve a problem, the conversation should revolve around not what is best for the individual, but what is best for the relationship.

This technique is effective in helping couples to see things from a different perspective and doing what may be necessary to keep the relationship front and center. By agreeing to work together to come to a mutual solution that benefits both parties, the relationship inevitably will grow stronger.

Not all issues in a relationship or family can be solved with simple techniques. If larger problems arise, it is always encouraged to seek help professionally. We have a network of resources that can help couples and families in our diocese and more information can be found by calling Catholic Charities or our office.  For the smaller logjams that enter our relationships, use some of these practical techniques to blast those out of your lives this Lent.

Finally, the most powerful blast we can give to our old habits is the sacrament of confession, which surely will not only set ourselves, but all of our relationships, moving swiftly in the right direction towards God.

Tremblay is Marriage and Life Ministries director for the Diocese of Green Bay.

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