A Perfectly Good Frog

The woman, in her mid-fifties, told a familiar story. After much thought, she decided to end her thirty-year marriage. Disappointed, she yearned for a truly intimate relationship, one that offered greater sharing of feelings and experiences. The husband she described was someone she still respected and cared about, and there had been neither infidelity nor a clash of values. But she was so lonely, in what outsiders saw as a happy marriage. As I listened, I wondered about the expectations with which she grew up.

Do young people today believe that the person they choose as a lifetime partner will forever after meet all of their needs? That was the myth of my youth, literally the fairy tale first heard from the Brothers Grimm, then perpetuated by romantic films, and certainly by parents, fearing (before the pill) that their daughters might not wait for Prince Charming. Has that premise changed now that most marriages are postponed a few years, and partners are more mature and relationship savvy? Not from my vantage point.

Before Len and I were married, when we walked hand in hand on the sidewalks of our small college town, I would edge ever closer to him, until before long he was walking on the grass verge. It became a shared joke, the metaphor for my expectation of perfect togetherness. It didn’t happen.

Although we never stopped seeking the comfort and pleasure of physical closeness, over time, and not without periodic angst, (and an occasional resort to the talking cure) we learned to appreciate our differences, and to actually foster each other’s independence. Although we had a rich life together, we also enjoyed many friends and experiences we did not share. My earlier assumptions eased. And a good thing too.
.           When a friend or client tells me they are thinking about ending an otherwise good relationship because intimacy is lacking, their contemplation of moving on is so often coupled with the hope, even the anticipation, that the complete closeness they are yearning for will be found with a new partner.

Hearing this, I harbor a concern that the search for the idealized love will fail.
We put such a great burden on our mate to be all things to us, to fill each and every need, when we might be better served by calling upon others when lonely times arise. The road to hell is paved with unrealistic expectations.

On my desk I have a cartoon I share with some clients, in which Madame Gilda, the fortune teller, is being asked by the seeker of her supernatural powers: How can I save my marriage? Madame Gilda answers, as she consults her crystal ball: Stop trying to turn a perfectly good frog into a prince!

 

An Unquiet Mind

Can simply reading another’s personal history significantly impact our own?

Kay Redfield Jamison’s book “An Unquiet Mind” was given to me by a friend when I confided that a member of my extended family was exhibiting extreme behaviors. I’d begun to wonder whether I was witnessing the normal range of craziness that accompanies the breakup of a marriage, or a serious mood disorder, perhaps of long standing.

Jamison, a psychologist on the faculty of Johns Hopkins Medical School, is an expert on manic-depressive illness. The remarkable twist in her story is that she has suffered with this disorder since her late teens, though not diagnosed or treated for many years thereafter.

Publication of this revealing memoir in 1995, was made by a woman who had previously gone to great lengths to conceal her condition, knowing exposure would likely sidetrack her career. Then, at some considerable cost, she surrendered her privacy. Although “outing” herself was less risky than it might have been, as she was by then a tenured professor, writing about being psychotic and delusional did cause some of her colleagues, although generally supportive, to treat her differently, question her motivation and objectivity. But not for long.

Her book, expected to draw a limited audience, remained on bestseller lists for five months and soon sold over 400,000 copies, proving what great hunger there is for understanding when a loved one goes off the rails, and the ripple effect of mental illness on related lives. Others sought insight to their own troubling behaviors.

Jamison describes a time when although medicated, she was within the throes of the dreadful agitation of a manic state. Her work required she back away from these feelings in order to focus on analyzing research data she was preparing for a publication deadline. She needed to gain control over her irrational distorted thoughts.

Her words describing this effort had special meaning for me:

    “Much as I had done when frightened or upset as a child, I found that asking questions, tracking down answers as best I could, and then asking yet more questions was the best way to provide a distance from anxiety and a framework for understanding.”

Jamison’s method can be a prescription for us all. Even those spared the devastation of mental illness fall into periods of mild or moderate depression and anxiety. For me too, asking myself the right questions, and in this way becoming more self-aware, allays anxiety.

At this advanced stage of life, I’ve figured out which questions to ask, to manage those emotions which otherwise sweep away rational thought, a subject for another day.

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 Note: the commentary above was posted once before, several years ago. It recently came back to mind when a young man of my distant extended family began to display extreme and very troubling behaviors, refusing appropriate medication and treatment. The rippling effect of his mental illness on family members close to him are intense. I decided it is timely to describe my own questioning process when faced with anxiety or mild depression and wide awake at 3:00am.

I take paper and pen in hand and write down the answers to the following questions:

——-   What are the recent troubling events now on my mind? (i.e. report of an adult child’s illness, rejection of a friendly overture, a professional misstep).

——-   What emotions have been triggered (i.e. anxiety, sadness, anger, shame).

——-   What thoughts about my life are generated by those events and emotions? (i.e. I’m helpless, unloved, irresponsible, unworthy)

——    In what way are these thoughts irrational or distorted (i.e. all or nothing reasoning, predicting the future without sufficient evidence, plagued by old scripts of “shoulds” and “oughts”), categories so well explained and defined by my reading and study of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).

——-   What rational thoughts could replace those that are distorted and generate my anxiety or mild depression? (If having difficulty at this stage, I ask myself this question: if a dear friend brought this narrative to my door, what advice would I offer…..the ideas then flow.)

Then, my writings are set aside for review in the morning, and with thanks to Kay Redfield Jamison and CBT, I go back to sleep.

 A further note: The Hamilton County Public Library (and no doubt other libraries around the country) offers free access to many Great Courses audiotapes, including one on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.


 

Anger Revisited

As the scientific study of anger evolved, I failed to keep up. Until very recently I continued to believe that suppressing this emotion leads to high blood pressure and depression, and that seeking outlets, even physical release, for one’s anger is the healthy path. Here is how my new understanding unfolded:

A husband and wife entered mediation hoping to maintain a friendly relationship as parents, and their conversation in my presence was moderate, if guarded. In private, both described unhappy years as they drifted apart, and each blamed the other for the failure of the marriage. But, our work was proceeding well.

Then I received a copy of an email sent by the husband to his lawyer instructing him, in clipped abrupt language, to inform wife’s counsel that he had cancelled the insurance on her car. I called him to discuss his decision. Sounding tense, he reminded me of his wife’s reluctance to seek employment and said: I have to carry more than my share of the load. I’ve had it!

He told me that during a phone call the night before, something his wife said sparked his resentment, and he gave full force and voice to his anger. The end result: the next morning he decided to cancel her insurance.

I said: I get it. Venting provided some release, but reconsider the cancellation. You two are well on the way to completing your entire agreement. Will your move provoke a counter move and derail the process? Think it over. You play golf. Get out there and whack a bucket of balls.

He agreed, and I felt wise. But apparently I was not.

Coincident with these events, I happened to start a fascinating book by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson, “Mistakes Were Made (but not by me)”. Both writers are prominent social psychologists and their text cites significant research data. They conclude that the commonly held belief that the expression of anger results in a healthy catharsis, and reduced blood pressure, is dead wrong. Quite the opposite is true.

Yet the theory that acting out when angry (i.e. shouting at a family member when provoked, or hitting a punching bag while imagining the source of your anger) is an effective way to purge aggressive feelings, is still widely held. Instead, the findings of the experiments the authors cite establish that those who give full sway to their temper get angrier, not less angry. The conclusion: “aggression begets self-justification, which begets more aggression.”

Studies show that following angry outbursts, the mechanism of self-justification takes over, so that we can continue to see ourselves as the good person on which our self-esteem is based. In mitigating or excusing our own behavior, the predictable next step is to place blame on the “other”, which in the moment of increased aggressive feelings often leads to revenge (i.e. canceling the insurance).

Mental health professionals distinguish between suppressed and repressed anger, suppression being perfectly fine if done for good reason (i.e. to avoid losing a job), while repressing awareness of anger, and its source, can lead to trouble.

So, I called my client back, described my newly gained insight and said: I think it’s a good thing to recognize and even taste your anger, and do your best to understand the source. But scratch the golf ball plan. Try a hot fudge sundae instead.

He decided not to cancel the insurance.


 

 

 

To Go Or To Stay?

Anne rummages in her purse but then pauses, smiles, and remembers that she no longer smokes. It’s a tense moment and she wishes she still did. After a deep sigh she says: Tim tells me that he just needs some space and is suggesting we try living apart for awhile. What do you think?

For some months now, I’ve been aware that the marriage of my friends was troubled, although Anne was sure they both still valued their bond. Counseling was rejected, her husband determined to protect their privacy and insisting, not without some bitterness, that he didn’t need to “get fixed”. My cautionary words were: if respectful conversations are still possible, give it more time. Separations usually become permanent.

I realized as I spoke, that although invited to give advice, I had no sound knowledge base for my statement, no actual data to support my conclusion, so I added that caveat.

All of the evidence from my professional life was anecdotal. Those who separated and then reconciled did not end up on my office couch, so my evidence was not only imperfect but also skewed. Yet many of my divorce mediation clients reported having separated for a trial period, sometimes for as long as a year, only to later decide to end the marriage. For many, I surmise, a proposed temporary parting was often a way of letting their partner down easy, suggesting only the need for space, but knowing that their decision to end the marriage was made, and for them was the right one. For others, I believed that the motive was more sincere, a testing time. But what was being tested? Whether solitude was preferable?

I quizzed a friend who had been a Magistrate in the Domestic Relations Court and got another perspective on separations. She commented on the number of dramas that had played out informally in her courtroom where it was revealed that one spouse had asked, even demanded, that the other leave, only to later acknowledge that their real intent in suggesting a separation was to test the commitment of their partner, The departed spouse had then become happier living on their own, and declined to return. A risky request probably made impulsively at a moment of hurt or anger. I too had heard this scenario a number of times.

I shared my personal experience with my friend, for I well remember those times during my marriage when we were both unhappy, though not always at the same time. It was toughing out those difficult days, struggling to understand, and to be understood, that repeatedly brought us to a new and better place. Long walks were taken, sometimes together, sometimes alone. There were tearful but also loving times, because we had opportunities to reconnect with spontaneity. While still together we could reach out and touch, smile, or fix a favorite meal, do something to bridge the gap and then begin again to talk. But I know others within my own family who took a different path, lived apart for a time and came back together.

On balance, I’ve come to believe, even without reliable evidence, that when unhappy partners remain committed and respectful, most problems are best worked out in close proximity, ideally with professional help.

Although I know there are exceptions that prove, or probe, this rule, is it not also true that nature abhors a vacuum? How often does the intimacy vacuum created by a separation get filled with new directions, new confidants, and new connections?


 

 

 

 

 

The Power of Words

When in law school I was introduced to the decisions of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, staunch defender of the First Amendment. He never wrote a free speech decision I didn’t like.

From my perspective, even symbolic speech, armbands worn by protesting high school students, flag burning, etc. however offensive, should be protected. Expose all that is spoken or written or symbolized to the light of day and encourage conversation in the “free market place of ideas.” Of course, I make exceptions for speech or symbols that create a clear and present danger (i.e. shouting “fire” in the theater), and allow for protection of youngsters from that deemed too frightening or perverse, but little else.

So, that is my public stance about state censorship, even of words with the power to cause significant anger and pain.

One might conclude that on a personal level I would be equally accepting of speech I might abhor. Not so. However gently, I protect myself from words that have the power to make me inwardly cringe.

Perhaps the unspoken restrictions I would happily impose are best illustrated by a conversation I had a few years ago with two colleagues discussing a particular judge’s decision about a subject now long since forgotten. One said, “he didn’t have the balls to . . .” and for two seconds I stopped breathing. I turned to the non-speaker and asked: “were you surprised when she used those words?”

His jovial answer: “of course not. I use language like that and far worse, but never in front of you.”

By now we were all consumed with laughter, but mine was a bit uneasy.

Yes, I know all the words, even suffer through their endless use in modern film, literature and overheard cell phone conversations, but they have never been part of my vocabulary, and without being asked, perceptive friends and family protect my ears. There is a disconnect between what I believe must be protected and what I require on a personal level. My emotional response belies my intellectual outlook. Will I be perceived as protesting too much by insisting that I am not a prude? I am not. I was urged to view the audacity of George Carlin’s seven unspeakable words routine on U-Tube and found it hilarious. So why this inconsistency?

Swear words that don’t reference an almighty being typically allude to sexual or bodily functions. For generations younger than mine, repeated use of these words has apparently robbed them of all shock value and probably of any real meaning. Just a way to let off steam.

But for me, each “forbidden” word is more than an expletive. When spoken in my presence, my privacy boundary is crossed. Unwanted, uninvited crude images are evoked. In some instances the beautiful is made ugly. Is this why for me, but not for most others, they carry the negative impact they do? Perhaps so. Will my new insight bring about a shift, a relaxation? Actually after viewing George Carlin’s hilarious seven words shtick, I’ve loosened up a bit. But will those words ever fall easily from my lips?

Not likely.

But now I am faced with a new challenge.

Earlier this month in Garland, Texas, a contest was held to glorify the most offensive cartoon submission depicting the Prophet Muhammad. I’ve never found cartoons that satirize politicians in any way offensive, but now my belief in free speech pales somewhat in the face of this bigotry and hatred. I find deliberately inflicting misery on devout peace loving Muslims in the name of freedom of expression is abhorrent. And adding to my confusion is the memory some years ago of supporting the right of neo-Nazis to march with their symbols in Skokie, Illinois.

No doubt in time I will come down on the side of free expression, but not without a long thoughtful pause.

 

Some Beliefs To Reconsider

Never a fan of televised sporting events, there was a time in my past that I pretended to be, just as a way of sharing cozy moments with my husband. I wasn’t a complete fraud. I could get caught up in the ballet of basketball or the graceful beauty of skiing and skating. And, although I found football a bore, I loved watching the post touchdown hugging, and even the congratulatory slap on the rump.

I’m used to seeing women embrace when they greet each other in a social setting, while most men show greater reserve and shake hands. Seeing men lose their restraint with other men, joyously sharing a celebratory bond, I find heartwarming. Sporting events used to be the only time I witnessed this, except among close family members. And in many families, the male embrace, even between fathers and sons, remains awkward or absent.

But over the past decade or so, this stereotype, that women are more physically expressive in a joyous moment, began to fade. I still vividly recall when, in the televised view of millions, President Bush, just before addressing a joint session of Congress, exchanged bear hugs with both Senator Daschle and Representative Gephardt. Those hugs were worthy of comment on the front page of the New York Times the next day, so at least then, men hugging in public outside the sports arena, was remarkable. Less so today.

Other gender stereotypes have also fallen by the wayside. Here are some I now often witness:

As more and more women entered the marketplace over the last 40 years, many men began to significantly share the care of infants and young children and found the role of nurturer as natural and rewarding as women have over time. These fathers are modeling for their sons and daughters that men and women alike can provide tenderness and comfort.

Many of the women who happen to have the higher income when couples divorce are no happier paying alimony than most men ever were. Those who’ve accumulated larger pension funds than their divorcing husbands often fail to see the fairness in having to share them with their spouse. They are likely to use the exact same rationale so often previously expressed by men: I’m the one who worked so hard to earn it, surely it is mine alone to keep.

Clearly, economic savvy and self-interest is not gender specific.

Women entering scientific fields so long dominated by men are proving, just as those who entered the legal profession have done, that they are as able as their male counterparts. Whether women are equally comfortable in this competitive arena is far less clear. I think not yet.

How often do we thoughtlessly accept, even act upon, stereotypes distinguishing the characteristics of men and women, the generalizations we grew up with, that men are more analytical and less emotional, that women are more nurturing, more intuitive? I leave it to scientists now bent upon identifying those sectors of the brain that light up to display different functions to catalog the impact of male and female hormones on behavior. For now, our assumptions bear reexamination.

I hope that women don’t diminish the importance we place on being expressive and fostering intimate relationships, as we continue to break through the glass ceiling and become more politically visible. The negative impact of social isolation on both brain and body is scientifically well established. So far better, from my perspective, for it to work just the other way round, with men more comfortable expressing their feelings and loosening their hold on cool reserve.

 


 

 

A Father’s Day Wish

A small porcelain bird sits on a shelf in my bedroom always in view if I glance away from reading the morning paper or when I check the illuminated dial of my clock. It’s not something I would have purchased for myself. Too cute, too sentimental. But it was a gift from my father.

He brought it to my home over fifty years ago when he traveled to my city on business, a rare visit unaccompanied by my mother. He probably purchased it at an airport kiosk, the only present I, as an adult, ever received from him that hadn’t been handed to me, and likely chosen, by my mother.

After our marriage, Len and I lived quite some distance from both sets of parents. We visited them several times a year, and in that pre-internet era wrote often, and had weekly long distance phone conversations. The letters I received were in my mother’s hand and she did most of the talking on the phone, with my father listening on an extension. When my parents were together, it was my mother who filled the air with her presence.

My father died in 1977. I regret not having sought to know him better when an adult, after leaving home at 17 for college and then marriage. He was a kind, quiet and reserved man who readily answered questions about his views on politics or world affairs, but even those conversations when visiting, were often interrupted by one of my youngsters or by a practical concern of the moment raised by my mother.

Thinking back, I knew little about the feelings hidden behind the gentle smile of this man who immigrated to this country as a teenager, struggled to get a foothold and then lost virtually everything after the 1929 crash and had to start over. He rode the Grand Central railroad into N.Y.C. early every morning, usually returning well after dinner, working long hours to rebuild his family’s security.

My husband’s experience with his parents while growing up was not too different, a vibrant mother at home who held the family together, while his father commuted to long and arduous work days in Chicago, returning home weary and often wordlessly retreating into a world of music, his piano.

Born of this past, many years ago, Len and I realized that we wanted our adult children to really come to know their father, another quiet man, in ways we both had missed. So, when we phoned our grown kids, we did not share the conversation. One of us would talk and then the phone was handed off. The more verbal of their parents, me, did not eclipse the other.

And Len went a step further.

He took our oldest grown son on a wilderness canoe trip, and flew his small plane across the country with our second son to revisit towns in which the family had spent summers many years before. And he went to Alaska with our daughter, then 15, for a flying camping adventure neither would ever forget.

At least once a year we visited our adult children separately, traveling alone to their distant homes. Even without witnessing the quality of the interaction they had when I wasn’t there, I knew it was a more significant connection for them in my absence. I, in turn, enjoyed being with them on my own.

Len wept bitterly at his father’s funeral for what never had been.

And I wish I’d been wise enough, so many years ago, to be more aware of what I was missing.


 

Warning Signs

As the mediation session ended, Elizabeth put her arms around her husband and hugged him. He stiffened, but did not pull away.

The marriage of this handsome older couple was ending, at the wife’s insistence. John, the husband, made no effort to hide his anger, albeit controlled. Earnestly he questioned the morality of having to share assets with a wife who chose to leave him, when he had done nothing wrong.

Both parties are highly educated professionals, she a retired college librarian, he a well compensated corporate executive, their children grown. No infidelity. No hint of physical abuse. In my presence they spoke to each other respectfully. I was told they had worked with a counselor a number of times, but they agreed, unsuccessfully.

Elizabeth’s behavior confused me, but when I met with her alone she explained: I simply have to get away, even though in some ways I still love him. He’s been a good father and wonderful provider. But for 32 years, I’ve been subjected to his scorn. When no one else is there, I’m constantly belittled, even told that I’m stupid. Of course, he knows I’m not, but he needs to feel superior. No more. I’d rather be alone.

Had I not previously read about the work of the psychologist, John Gottman, I might have probed further. Gottman and his colleagues, renowned for their work on marital stability and divorce prediction, have actually developed mathematical models* that allow them to record, and then analyze, three minute video clips of couples talking about a serious matter. They then forecast which of the couples will split up at some point in the next fifteen years. And with follow up studies they’ve proved their ability to make this prognosis with 90% accuracy!

Two hundred marital therapists and graduate students of clinical psychology also viewed the three-minute clips, but could do no better than guess right 54% of the time, just above pure chance.

This is no parlor trick. Gottman and his team apply their equations to 20 separate emotional states witnessed in the brief videotaped conversations, by those specially trained to see them.

The scientific work is complex and beyond my ken, but the conclusions are not. Gottman says he can find out much of what he needs to know by focusing on four predictors of marital failure: defensiveness, stonewalling, criticism, and contempt. And the one he considers most important is contempt, which he says is qualitatively different, and far more damaging than the other three.

Contempt shows in words tinged with sarcasm, a glance that conveys disgust, personal insults, all delivered from a superior plane. The expression of contempt is hierarchical. An assertion of power over another. Standing alone, this is the greatest predictor of marital collapse.

Interestingly, women tend to be more critical, men more likely to stonewall. But contempt is gender neutral, as many women as men manifest that power stance.

One up, one down. It drains away love.

. . . . . . . . . . . .

*for those so inclined, you can Google John Gottman. Even the intricacies of his scientific work are available.