Category Archives: Modern Love, Sex & Relationships

Is Your Sexism Showing? It’s All in Your Smile!

Screen shot 2015-04-17 at 4.05.32 PMApril 14, 2015

Well, this is interesting: A new study finds that sexist men reveal their degree of sexist attitudes — from more hostile and malignant to benign and patronizing — by the way they smile towards women in social interactions; and how they speak to them in those situations.

That is, the study, conducted by Jin Goh and Judith Hall of Northeastern University, and published in the journal Sex Roles, found that if you want to uncover a man’s true attitude about women, you need to watch how he smiles and talks to her. 

in this study the researchers examined how men’s word choice, attitudes and smiles show their version of sexism in different ways when they interact with women they’ve just met. The researchers carefully examined the interactions of 27 pairs of American undergraduate men and women. They were filmed while they played a trivia game together and then chatted afterwards. Researchers analyzed the men’s behavior, including nonverbal behavior and choice of words used during the interactions, as explained in the journal article.

They found that the more “hostile sexists” were viewed as less approachable, less friendly, in their speech. They also smiled less during the interaction. However, the men who were more of the “benevolent sexist” variety were rated as more approachable, warmer, friendlier and more likely to smile. Moreover, the benevolent sexists used more positive emotional words and were overall more patient while waiting for a woman to answer trivia questions.

The authors argue that sexism can range from hostile to benevolent; either form reflects negative or discriminatory attitudes towards women. They describe hostile sexism as an Continue reading

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A True Test of Empathy Towards Others

Screen shot 2015-04-07 at 10.44.38 AMApril 7, 2015

Many people believe themselves to be compassionate beings who experience empathy towards others. That’s the capacity to put yourself “inside” the other person, and experience his or her reality. It’s different from just feeing sympathy for another’s situation. Research confirms our innate capacity for empathy; we’re “wired” that way. But practicing it? That doesn’t always occur, especially when you’re challenged to do so. I think the latter presents the true test. For example, say you’re feeling burdened with stressful situations or conflicts of your own; and a friend or family member is also experiencing major difficulties. Are you able to muster up and convey empathy to that person, when you’re dealing with your own difficult issues at the same time? That’s the real challenge. It’s a kind of corollary to the idea that virtue is meaningless in the absence of temptation: Empathy is meaningless in the absence of major self-concerns! 

Photo credit: HBR.org

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Look Over Your Shoulder: Generation Z is Rising!

Screen shot 2015-04-01 at 2.54.40 PMMarch 31, 2015

“These children are so mature and they learn so fast, they might just be ready to take over by the time they’re 22.”

Generation X and the aging baby boomers often have trouble understanding and dealing with the millennials. But now, Alexandra Levit’s article in the New York Times calls attention to the rise of Generation Z. Take note, in case you forgot: Everyone grows up and everyone becomes older. Levit writes, “While executives have been fretting over the millennials, though, a new generation is growing up behind the scenes — Generation Z (born starting in the mid-90s to the early ’00s depending on whom you ask). Within the next three years, Gen Zers will be the college grads in my audiences, and they are poised to be somewhat different from the millennials.” Moreover, “These children are so mature and they learn so fast, they might just be ready to take over by the time they’re 22.”

Levit describes her own encounter with them and, more seriously, points out some of their attitudes, values and behavior regarding work, diversity, and activism on issues that concern them. They are the future, and the older generations would do well to pay attention to them — and maybe even learn something from them. She writes:

I recall the exact moment the temperature changed in the workplace. It was 2005, and I was speaking to an audience of 100 young professionals. I was relating my experiences building a career as a Gen Xer (born 1964-79) in a world of traditionalists (born before 1945) and baby boomers (born 1946-63).

Every time I threw out phrases like “paying your dues” and “playing the game,” the audience stared at me blankly. This was not the reaction I had come to expect from early twentysomethings. Usually they took notes on how they could get ahead in corporate America as quickly as possible. Continue reading

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The Rapid Transformation of American Families

Screen shot 2015-03-30 at 10.50.17 AMMarch 24, 2015

A recent analysis from the Pew Research Center shows the continued evolution underway in the American families. It finds that less than half of children who are less than 18 years old live with two married heterosexual parents in their first marriage. The Pew report finds that this is a notable change from 1960, when the figure was 73%; and in 1980, when it was 61%.

 A good illustration of this is the rapid diversification of Astoria, Queens, as described in this recent NPR report. It shows the steady transformation of a traditionally Greek and Italian community to a highly diverse international population.

These findings join with the steady rise of multi-ethnic Americans, and the growth of diversity of our population from nation of origin. They show that American culture and society is becoming more mixed and diverse, both individually and within families.

The Pew analysis was based on the American Community Survey (ACS) and Decennial Census data. It found, for example, that

Americans are delaying marriage, and more may be foregoing the institution altogether. At the same time, the share of children born outside of marriage now stands at 41%, up from just 5% in 1960. While debate continues as to whether divorce rates have been rising or falling in recent decades, it’s clear that in the longer term, the share of people who have been previously married is rising, as is remarriage. According to our analysis, today 15% of children are living with two parents who are in a remarriage.

This summary from Pew contains visual depictions of these changes.

Photo credit: CPD Archive

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Must You Feel Trapped By Regrets About The Past?

Screen shot 2015-03-26 at 10.41.12 AMMarch 17, 2015

John, a 57 year-old man, consulted me for a mixture of “personal and career stagnation,” as he put it. His thoughts soon turned to a decision he made in his 20s, when he reluctantly entered a career path and profession that his father urged him to follow. He said he now saw that his need for parental approval back then was part of a larger pattern that also led him into a marriage with the “wrong” partner. “I feel so much regret, about how foolish I was not to listen to my own heart – if I even knew what it was back then.”

Throughout the decades I’ve heard many men and women express similar laments about turning points in their lives – significant experiences or choices they made, which they look back upon with deep regret and feelings of entrapment. They tell me the sadness they feel about the direction they took; what they turned away from, especially when they see the consequences over time that they feel entrapped by.

However, it’s possible to experience your regrets in life differently. Those regrets have likely taught you something about yourself and changed you. But you may not realize it. And, you may not have acted upon what’s changed within you, as you go forward in your life today.

To explain, lets first take a look at two examples of people’s regrets and how they can paralyze one’s present life: The woman who dropped out of graduate school when she was offered an entry-level editorial job with a newspaper. She was attracted by the seeming security of the position, and she said she had doubts about her journalistic skills, anyway. She remained with the paper for many years, while feeling increasingly stagnated. Ultimately, she was let go during a retrenchment. Now, at midlife, in a tight job market and an unforgiving life situation for people like her, she tells me, “If only I had stayed in grad school, how different my life would have been. But now…” She says she feels trapped and depressed about her life.
Continue reading

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Lulled Into Numbness at Midlife?

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March 10, 2015

Note: Some midlifers who consulted me recently about relationship and career conflicts brought to mind an article I wrote for the Washington Post a few years back. I think these issues will remain current for some time — and people of all ages would be wise to heed them — so I decided to repost it here: 

As a psychotherapist and a member of the booming midlife generation, I’ve heard many expressions of midlife distress, but few as poignant as this: A 47-year-old married mother of three told me about a dream. She’s on one of those moving sidewalks and can’t get off. On either side, scenes pass by of herself living different lives, with different people. Suddenly she recognizes the Grim Reaper standing at the end of the sidewalk, arms outstretched, awaiting her.

She wakes up, screaming.

Why the dream? And why did it provoke such distress?

The symbolism may be obvious, but I’ve found much of the research on midlife contradictory. A decade-long MacArthur Foundation study suggested that most people don’t experience a midlife crisis, that they sail through their 40s and 50s. More recently, though, two new studies suggest that midlife is a time if not of crisis then of common and sometimes severe depression.

One study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found a 20 percent rise in suicide among people ages 45 to 54 from 1999 to 2004 — a rise that exceeded that of all other age groups.

Another reported an increase in depression during people’s 40s to early 50s, after which happiness rises again. Researchers from the University of Warwick and Dartmouth College, who studied 2 million people from 80 nations, found this pattern to be consistent across sex and socioeconomic levels and among developed and developing countries.

Explanations for these data remain elusive. Some experts think the rise of midlife suicide may reflect something as specific as the decrease of hormone replacement therapy among women or as general as the stress of modern life. As for the rise in happiness after midlife depression, some speculate that people may simply have learned to set aside aspirations they know they will never realize.

I find these explanations unconvincing. What the data underscore is the need for a new understanding of the complexities of midlife, one that would enable people to deal more effectively with the positive and negative changes they encounter. Here’s my understanding: Continue reading

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Two Classic Ways To Damage Your Relationship

Screen shot 2015-02-11 at 12.23.46 PMFebruary 10, 2015

I’ve worked a great deal with individuals and couples in psychotherapy who are masters at damaging their relationships. They do so by engaging in a kind of dance: One partner withdraws, emotionally, when confronting differences or conflicts, and hunkers down, waiting – or hoping – for the conflict to go away somehow. The other partner conveys his or her desires or feelings by…saying nothing. The magical thinking, here, is that the partner will, of course, know how to mind-read, and then respond accordingly.

It’s classic – and you can almost hear a Strauss waltz playing as the couple does this little dance together. It’s very familiar in psychotherapy, and now some recent research has honed in on this pattern. It shows empirically the different ways in which both withdrawal and mind-reading harm relationships.

The research, conducted at Baylor University, examined these two patterns and demonstrated how they are harmful in different ways, and for different reasons. “Withdrawal is the most problematic for relationships,” said researcher Keith Sanford. “It’s a defensive tactic that people use when they feel they are being attacked, and there’s a direct association between withdrawal and lower satisfaction overall with the relationship.” And, “Expecting your partner to be a mind-reader” — which often reflects feeling anxious in the relationship – “…makes it especially difficult for couples to make progress toward resolving conflicts.

The study was published in Psychological Assessment, and is described in detail in this report from Baylor. It concluded that that withdrawal doesn’t necessarily influence whether a couple can resolve their conflict, but expecting or hoping the other person will be a mind reader has a direct influence on the couple’s ability to settle the issue.

The researchers found that withdrawing from a partner’s criticism or complaint can reflect feeling threatened, and is “more characteristic of unhappiness…you see more of that in distressed relationships.” Those who expect a partner to know what’s wrong without being told tend to feel anxious and neglected; vulnerable, rather than threatened. Conflicts in which one partner expects the other to mind-read were more likely to lead to negative communication and anger.

Either way, relationships suffer from any kind of hidden communications. Countless couples become entrenched in patterns that will undermine their mutual understanding, respect and intimacy over time. This research highlights the damage that results. In my view, it underscores the importance of building greater transparency throughout one’s relationship – “radical transparency,” as I’ve called it — as scary as that can feel at the outset.

Credit: Tetra Images/Getty Images

A version of this article also appeared in The Huffington Post.

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Do Couples Prefer Conflict Over Shared Power?

Do-Couples-Prefer-Conflict

January 20, 2015

Want a fast track to divorce? Paul and Kim can show you the way. Like many couples, they jockey around for power, control and “winning” arguments when there’s conflict. And their intimacy fades, as a result. Even when one of them apologizes for their role in the conflict, nothing changes. Neither of them realizes that they hold the key to turning things around before it’s too late. New research and observations from therapy show how that’s possible.

A typical situation of theirs: Married about 15 years, they’re on a long road trip to a vacation at the beach with their kids. They’re already locked in combat, having arguing over how much time to spend on a stopover visit to one set of in-laws. They fought until one of them just gave in and acquiesced to the other one’s wishes. That’s how they tend to “resolve” conflict. As they drove along the crowded highways they hunkered down into a mixture of sullenness and half-hearted efforts to change the subject. But the residue of their fight hung in the air, like dark clouds threatening rain at any moment.

Both know that “winning” doesn’t improve their relationship, but their conflicts often end with one “giving in” to the other, but then remaining angry and resentful. The “winner” feels smug with power, but also realizes that’s not a path towards a lasting, positive relationship. Both tend to turn inward and shut down regarding their feelings. Doing so has diminished their intimacy. They know they’re adding another brick in the wall, and that they could be headed down a path to a chronic, adversarial relationship or eventual divorce.

Periodically, new research and clinical insights pinpoint what it takes to reverse course Continue reading

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Post-Holiday Loneliness? It Has Many Sources — Here’s What May Help

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January 5, 2015

I was standing in a bar and watching all the people there
Oh the loneliness in this world well it’s just not fair

 — Brian Wilson, “Love and Mercy”

Holiday seasons often intensify feelings of loneliness for many – even if you’re in a crowded bar, as in Brian Wilson’s song, or in an unfulfilling relationship. Aside from what some people experience during holidays, loneliness can intensify at any point in the year. And it can have different roots for different people.

For example, Anne, a therapy patient, tells me that she’s felt lonely throughout her life. Growing up with an alcoholic mother and sometimes-present father, her intimate relationships have been brief and her friends, few, throughout her adult years. Now in her early 40s, she’s suffered from one physical ailment after another.

Another patient, Brian, has an active social life with friends and business associates, as well as a long-term marriage and an extended family. Despite this apparently full relationship life, he speaks of feeling lonely “right in the midst of everyone around me…something always feels missing.” Brian, too, suffers from frequent illnesses and allergies.

That both have physical complaints isn’t surprising, since our mind/body/spirit are all one. Each “part” affects each other “part.” In fact, some new research underscores this. It finds that loneliness can weaken your immune system, which then sets the stage for a range of physical illnesses. Continue reading

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Negative Relationships at Midlife Can Cause Mental Decline

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November 25, 2014

Hey, midlifers, this is definitely worth noting: New research led by University College London finds that stressful, difficult, or otherwise negative relationships can contribute to mental decline during the middle years of life.

The study was summarized by Reuters, and published in the American Journal of Epidemiology. The study found that those who reported more negative aspects of close relationships also tended to have more rapid cognitive aging. People who reported the most negative aspects of close relationships were also more likely to have symptoms of depression and diabetes than others.

In the Reuters report, the lead author Jing Liao said “Any relationship involves both positive and negative exchanges, especially those close relationships that are most likely to evoke ambivalent sentiments. Negative aspects of close relationships refer to unpleasant social exchanges when the recipient finds the relationship ineffective, intrusive or over-controlling,”

Similarly, “Previous studies…have found that close relationships that involve strain and conflict are associated with poorer executive functioning,” said Margie E. Lachman, director of the Lifespan Initiative on Healthy Aging and Lifespan Lab at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts.

Liao pointed out that “There is evidence that, in general, those with a partner or those who are less socially isolated report better quality of life and live longer…but healthy people are more likely to have a partner and be more socially engaged.”

For Reuter’s full report of the research and how it was conducted, click here.

 

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Millennials Reject Marriage…Some Adults Want Polyamory…What’s Happening?

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October 21, 2014

As our society, culture and world become increasingly co-mingled and diverse, I think we’re witnessing a corresponding evolution in what men and women — straight, gay; younger and older — look for in a relationship that they want to enter and build with a partner. Part of this shift includes the variety of ways people are constructing their intimate partnerships. It’s important to understand and learn from — whether one “approves” or not; or rejects as “unacceptable,” based on one’s own point of view.

For example, baby boomers’ children are accustomed to varieties of relationships that their midlife parental generation opened the door to. Today, we see LGBT relationships; interracial relationships; permanent cohabitation rather than marriage, even after having children; open relationships; redefining what “family” is; even polyamory as well as a movement to decriminalize polygamy. The capacity to understanding and make sense of change is important in life, but it’s especially crucial today as the definition of love relationships as well as families steadily evolve.

One part of the societal shift towards more open diversity of relationships includes changing views among millennials of how they perceive the relevance of marriage. Continue reading

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Can Distancing Yourself From A Conflict Help A Relationship?

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September 30, 2014

By “leaving” a conflict you can gain the expanded perspective needed to solve it. That means stepping out of your limited ego, and some new research shows how that can help.

It’s easy to become rigidly fixed and sclerosed within a view of who you are (“This is just the way I am”) — unable to envision possibilities for expanding your personal capacities, your thinking or emotions — outside of that fixed view. Unfortunately, that disables you from enlarging your perspective, which can be essential for solving conflicts or problems that you feel stuck inside of, unable to change or alter. That’s especially true for solving relationship difficulties.

President Eisenhower once said that if you’re having difficulty understanding a problem and how to solve it, “enlarge” the problem. Certainly that applies to life beyond the battlefield. That is, “enlarging” how you envision the problem or situation you’re stuck within can free yourself from the limitations of the perspective that imprisons you to begin with.

How can you do that? Some new empirical research shows that, in effect, distancing yourself from a problem or conflict enhances your reasoning; it helps you find new solutions through a broadened perspective. And that provides greater wisdom to bring to bear on the conflict. Researchers from the University of Waterloo and the University of Michigan, as reported in Psychological Science, examined “the ability to recognize the limits of one’s own knowledge, search for a compromise, consider the perspectives of others, and recognize the possible ways in which the scenario could unfold. The research found that you may think about a conflict more wisely if you consider it as an outside observer would.” Continue reading

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How Positive Relationships Help You Grow And Thrive

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September 16, 2014

It’s always good to see research that reveals how and why positive human connection in necessary for emotional and physical health, wellbeing, and growth — especially during adverse circumstances. A new study, reported in Personality and Social Psychology Review does that.

The researchers, Brooke Feeney of Carnegie Mellon University and Nancy Collins of University of California at Santa Barbara, looked at the ways in which relationships can promote or hinder “thriving” in life. That is, not just with what helps people “cope with stress or adversity, but also in their efforts to learn, grow, explore, achieve goals, cultivate new talents, and find purpose and meaning in life,” said Feeney.

The researchers focused on five aspects of thriving: : happiness and life satisfaction; having purpose and meaning in life and progressing toward meaningful life goals; psychological well-being (positive self-regard, absence of mental health symptoms/disorders); social well-being (deep and meaningful human connections, faith in others and humanity, positive interpersonal expectancies); and physical well-being (healthy weight and activity levels, health status above expected baselines).

They found that positive relationships fuel thriving in two ways: One is enabling the person to embrace and pursue opportunities that enhance positive well-being, broaden and build resources and foster a sense of purpose and meaning in life. Here, the “support provider” serves as an active catalyst for thriving. This form of support emphasizes that the promotion of thriving through life opportunities is its core purpose.

The other function relates to situations of adversity. Here, positive support not only helps buffer individuals from negative effects of stress, but also by enabling them to flourish either because of or in spite of their circumstances. “Relationships serve an important function of not simply helping people return to baseline, but helping them to thrive by exceeding prior baseline levels of functioning,” Feeney said. “We…emphasize that the promotion of thriving through adversity is the core purpose of this support function.” Continue reading

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Does Your Sex Life Improve By Fighting With Your Partner?

Screen shot 2014-08-26 at 12.02.38 PMAugust 26, 2014

“Of course, we fight!” John said, “All couples do; that’s normal!” He looked at me incredulously, as Mary quickly added with a tight smile, “But then we have ‘make-up sex. And that makes things better.” Nevertheless, they sought therapy over their concern about the long-term impact of this “normal” pattern.

Perhaps you share John and Mary’s experience views. Many do. But the sex lives and relationships of couples today often descend over time into diminishing sexual excitement and passion; and increasing boredom and routine. Call it “marital sex,” in contrast to what couples often experience at the beginning of their relationship. In “marital sex” you’re bringing into the bedroom all the other parts of your relationship – the logistics, disagreements over finances or even over trivial things, like where to place the furniture or where to vacation. Or parenting challenges, which become a large part of any couples’ relationship. And aside from your relationship and family issues, each of you have your own, individual concerns – about your career, perhaps your own aging parents, or sibling relationship issues (“I don’t want us giving money to your dysfunctional sister!”)

Couples often assume that fighting and conflict are inevitable – “normal,” even, to be tolerated and managed, at best. They may not recognize that their diminished sexual and romantic life is interwoven with how and why they conflict as they do in their relationship overall. Then, they may focus on ways to re-energize their sex life, as though it’s disconnected from the rest of their relationship; and as though that will compensate for their relationship conflicts.

There’s a huge marketplace for that: Volumes of books and articles; websites like Your Tango, all of which offer ever-“new” techniques purporting to bring back passion and better orgasms. Of course, if they worked, there wouldn’t be an endless stream of them. This disconnect between what people want and what they do is visible, for example, in a recent survey of women who go to Ashley Madison in search of an affair. It found that most were looking for more sexual excitement, but they also wanted to keep their relationship with their partners.

Why Fighting Is Destructive

Most couples who seek help for their relationship conflicts want to stay together but often assume that they need to accept a slow downhill slide; inevitable conflict and fighting. And that if they can just learn how to manage it better, things will be fine; as “good as it gets,” perhaps. But they’re wrong. Emotional and physical damage accrues from how couples relate to each other while dealing with conflict and disagreement. And that has direct bearing on their emotional sexual intimacy.

Think of fighting as different from Continue reading

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Do Couples Who Share Housework Have Less Sex?

Screen shot 2014-08-19 at 11.13.29 AMAugust 19, 2014

Well, now, this is interesting: A previous study found that couples who divide housework along traditional gender lines have more sex than those in which the man does traditional “female” work. But a different picture emerges from a new study that took a closer look at the evolution of marriage relationships. It found that division of labor in the home does not lead to a decrease of sexual frequency or satisfaction. In fact, the researchers found that the early study failed to accurately depict the current state of American relationships.

The previous study examined data from the late ’80s and early ’90s, but the new research used data from a 2006 Marital and Relationship Survey. It was conducted by Georgia State researchers Daniel Carlson, Amanda Miller, Sarah Hanson and Sharon Sassler. They revisited the idea of housework and couples’ intimacy in their new study, “The Gender Division of Housework and Couples’ Sexual Relationships: A Re-Examination.” Their results show an equal division of labor in the home does not lead to a decrease in sexual frequency and satisfaction. Egalitarian couples have similar and sometimes better sex lives than their conventional counterparts.

Although women still do most of the housework in most households, the research suggests that this is steadily evolving. Carlson believes this new research proves Americans have grown to favor flexibility not only professionally, but personally. “Attitudes are a big difference,” he said. “Couples today have role models to look at to make this work. In the ’80s, egalitarian couples were at the forefront of change. Today’s couples have those examples to look to. It makes it a lot easier, resulting in higher quality relationships. I think we’ve moved to a place where a very stark division of labor is not something people want nor is it something couples want. It is clear what the vast majority of people want,” he said. “It’s just that right now our social institutions are lagging behind our cultural values. Eventually, as people continue to argue and fight for policies that promote gender equality at home and at work, people will be able to achieve their desires.”

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At Midlife, Arguing Can Kill You!

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August 5, 2014

This is worth heeding, if you’re in midlife: Frequent arguing with partners, children, other relatives or neighbors may significantly increase the risk of middle-aged death from all causes, according to a new study. Reported in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Healththe study is described in Medical News Today

All of us have engaged in arguments with others in the past, whether it is with partners, relatives, friends or neighbors. Although these experiences are stressful, we do not necessarily think about the health risks they pose. But a new study suggests that frequent arguing may dramatically increase the risk of middle-aged death.

According to the research team, led by Dr. Rikke Lund of the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, past research has indicated that good social relationships with others have positive effects on general health and well-being. But they say there are limited studies looking at how negative relationships impact health. With this in mind, the investigators set out to determine whether there was a link between stressful social relations with partners, children, other family members, friends and neighbors, and all-cause mortality. Continue reading

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Having Trouble Resolving A Conflict? Detach Yourself From It, Says New Research

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July 8, 2014

We can become rigidly fixed and sclerosed within a view of who we are (“This is just the way I am”) — unable to envision possibilities for our personal capacities, thinking, and emotions outside of that fixed view. That also disables us from an enlarged perspective, which is necessary to solve conflicts or problems that we feel stuck inside of; unable to change or alter. President Eisenhower reportedly said that if you’re having difficulty understanding a problem and how to solve it, “enlarge” the problem. And that applies to life beyond the battlefield — “enlarging” how you envision the problem or situation you’re stuck within can free yourself from the limitations of the perspective that imprisons you to begin with.

Some new empirical research demonstrates this. It shows that, in effect, distancing yourself from a problem or conflict enhances your reasoning, and helps you find new solutions through a broadened perspective. That provides greater wisdom to bring to bear on the conflict. Researchers from the University of Waterloo and the University of Michigan, reported in Psychological Science, examined the ability to recognize the limits of one’s own knowledge, search for a compromise, consider the perspectives of others, and recognize the possible ways in which the scenario could unfold. The research found that you may think about a conflict more wisely if you consider it as an outside observer would.

“These results are the first to demonstrate a new type of bias within ourselves Continue reading

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Having a Life Purpose Increases Your Longevity

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In the “all things are connected” department, a large-scale longitudinal study has found that people who having a sense of purpose live longer. The research, published in the journal Psychological Science, found that those who had died over the course of the study had reported lower purpose in life and fewer positive relations than did survivors.

Summarized in a report from the Association for Psychological Science, the study also found that having a life purpose consistently predicted lower mortality risk across the lifespan, whether for younger, middle-aged, or older participants.

According to the lead researcher, Patrick Hill, the findings indicate that creating “…a direction for life, and setting overarching goals for what you want to achieve can help you actually live longer, regardless of when you find your purpose.” The study examined data from over 6000 people, including their self-reported level of purpose in life, across a 14-year follow-up period.

The study also found that a sense of purpose had similar benefits regardless of retirement status, a known mortality risk factor. And, that the longevity benefits of life purpose held up even after other indicators of well-being, such as positive relations and positive emotions, were taken into account. “These findings suggest that there’s something unique about finding a purpose that seems to be leading to greater longevity,” says Hill.

Can Your Create a Sense of Purpose?

I think he’s right, but it’s more likely that they are interwoven factors: A sense of purpose is likely inseparable from a positive spirit about living, which infuses both physical and emotional wellbeing over the long-run.

So how can you create a sense of purpose within today’s turbulent, often confusing world? Most people acknowledge there are “parts” of themselves – desires, imaginative capacities — that remain stifled or dormant. Family experiences and conditioning into your beliefs and values often result in a limited, constricted definition of who you are. For example, Continue reading

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In a Depressing Marriage? Here’s Why

 

Screen shot 2013-05-22 at 12.30.57 PMThis is an updated and extended version of my previous post on Progressive Impact. This current version was for The Huffington Post.
May 10, 2014

This is a no-brainer, but it’s always good to see research that confirms what seems obvious — or resonates with your personal experience. This study found that stress within your marriage can make you more vulnerable to depression.

That is, people who experience chronic stress within their marriages have diminished enjoyment of positive experiences, as well as a higher incidence of depressive symptoms. I think these findings are important for two reasons: First, they add to the accumulating research showing the interconnections of all “parts” of ourselves, and how our mind/body system is affected by our “outer” life experiences and situations.

The second reason is that the findings point to a crucial question: What happens in so many marriages today that depression, unhappiness and stress often arise? This is not only important to unravel, but increasingly timely: Another recent study finds that midlife depression is linked with higher incidence of dementia.

Based on the first study, researchers are looking at what might help people become more resilient to stress and strengthen their ability to enjoy positive experiences. These are good steps, but I think it’s important to uncover the sources of stress and depression in marriages today to begin with. And, how partners could learn to relate to each other in ways that increase positive connection and vitality over the long-term. Doing so in today’s stressful world is especially challenging. Continue reading

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Depressed and Married? Here’s Why

 

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This is a no-brainer, but it’s always good to see research that confirms what seems obvious — or your personal experience.

This study found that stress within your marriage can make you more vulnerable to depression. It found that people who experience chronic stress within their marriages have diminished enjoyment of positive experiences, as well as higher incidence of depressive symptoms.

The study was conducted by researchers from the University of Wisconsin and published in the journal Psychophysiology. In a summary by the University of Wisconsin News, Richard Davidson, founder of the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the UW’s Waisman Center states that “This is not an obvious consequence, if you will, of marital stress, but it’s one I think is extraordinarily important because of the cascade of changes that may be associated. This is the signature of an emotional style that reveals vulnerability to depression.” He adds that the findings are important because “…they could help researchers understand what makes some people more vulnerable to mental and emotional health challenges.”

By understanding the mechanisms that make individuals more prone to depression and other emotional disturbances, Davidson is hoping to find tools — such as meditation — to stop it from happening in the first place. “How we can use simple interventions to actually change this response?” he asks. “What can we do to learn to cultivate a more resilient emotional style?”

As reported by the UW’s News, the researchers thought chronic marital stress could Continue reading

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We Need To Wake Up To ‘The Next America’

Screen shot 2014-04-17 at 2.22.27 PMThe new report from the Pew Research Center describes significant shifts and ongoing evolution in American culture. This emerging face of “the next America” will have profound impact upon our lives, work and politics. I plan to write a longer piece about the implications of the Pew report as they relate to new challenges for personal relationships, careers and public policy. But among the basic findings are that America is becoming less white, more diverse and older.

The Washington Post‘s Chris Cillizza has summarized the key findings and their implications, writing, ” The America of today bears little resemblance to the country of 50 years ago. It is older. It is less white. And those two demographic trends will only accelerate over the next 50 years.” Cillizza quotes Paul Taylor of the Pew Research Center: “Each of these shifts would by itself be the defining demographic story of its era,” writes “The fact that both are unfolding simultaneously has generated big generation gaps that will put stress on our politics, families, pocketbooks, entitlement programs and social cohesion.”

For Cillizza’s full article, click here.

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The Passing of Peter Matthiessen

Screen shot 2014-04-08 at 12.41.47 PMSo sad…the unexpected passing of Peter Matthiessen at 86. A great literary figure, non-fiction & fiction; Zen teacher, environmentalist, human rights advocate…

My personal contact with him was minor, really, and scattered over the years. But he’s always been a model for me – disciplined and focused; a gifted writer, keenly aware of the nuances of human character. Always generous with his time, I found him humble and wise; open and authentic…

The New York Times obituary appeared, ironically, on the same day a scheduled retrospective of his career and life was published in the Times Sunday Magazine. From the obit:

Peter Matthiessen, a roving author and naturalist whose impassioned nonfiction explored the remote endangered wilds of the world and whose prizewinning fiction often placed his mysterious protagonists in the heart of them, died on Saturday at his home in Sagaponack, N.Y. He was 86.

His son Alex said the cause was leukemia, which was diagnosed more than a year ago. Mr. Matthiessen’s final novel, “In Paradise,” is to be published on Tuesday by Riverhead Books. Mr. Matthiessen was one of the last survivors of a generation of American writers who came of age after World War II and who all seemed to know one another, socializing in New York and on Long Island’s East End as a kind of movable literary salon peopled by the likes of William Styron, James Jones, Kurt Vonnegut and E. L. Doctorow.

In the early 1950s, he shared a sojourn in Paris with fellow literary expatriates and helped found The Paris Review, a magazine devoted largely to new fiction and poetry. His childhood friend George Plimpton became its editor.

A rugged, weather-beaten figure who was reared and educated in privilege — an advantage that left him uneasy, he said — Mr. Matthiessen was a man of many parts: littérateur, journalist, environmentalist, explorer, Zen Buddhist, professional fisherman and, in the early 1950s, undercover agent for the Central Intelligence Agency in Paris. Only years later did Mr. Plimpton discover, to his anger and dismay, that Mr. Matthiessen had helped found The Review as a cover for his spying on Americans in France.

For the rest of the obit, click here. For the Sunday Times Magazine article, “Peter Matthiessen’s Homegoing,” click here.

 

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How To “Grow” Your Mental Health

Screen shot 2014-03-21 at 7.50.11 PMDespite our advances in understanding and treating emotional problems and the more serious mental disorders, we don’t know much about what mental health is, in contrast. I’ve been thinking about this issue for the last several years, and it was brought to mind again recently by the comments of two psychotherapy patients. As I reflected on them, in relation to some recent research findings from outside the mental health field, it struck me that we can identify some features of a psychologically healthy life in today’s tumultuous, stressed-out, digitalized world.

In fact, there’s a great deal of information that you can use and apply in your daily life to increase your mental health. But you’re more likely to find it from outside the mental health profession than within it.

To explain, consider this 40-year-old woman. Her career and family life feel to her like running on a permanent treadmill. She’s been depressed for years, and her long-standing use of anti-depressant drugs don’t make much of a dent. Moreover, they create many side effects. Nonetheless, she won’t consider how some research-based alternatives suggest ways she might help herself. She’s terrified that she’ll become more depressed if she tapers off her medications.

Then there’s the man with a successful career and seemingly stable marriage. He tells me that despite feeling “pretty normal,” now – he had several years of therapy in the past that helped him with some lifelong relationship issues – he experiences a kind of dullness in life. He works hard, is engaged with his wife and children, but feels little spark or excitement about his day-to-day existence, now or in the future.

Neither person knows what a fully healthy life would look like, or that they might be able to “grow” it. That’s understandable: Ironically, the mental health field doesn’t really deal with mental health. Continue reading

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Why Your Therapist Should Go “Back to the Future”

Screen shot 2014-01-28 at 9.22.27 AMI recently spoke to psychology doctoral students about the innovative contributions of some pioneering psychoanalysts in New York and Washington and who collaborated during the 1930s -1950s. Several found commonalities in their work to expand traditional psychoanalytic understanding about emotional conflicts and their treatment. Some were European, having fled the Nazis; others, American. Among the most prominent were Erich FrommKaren Horney and Harry Stack Sullivan. Their ideas were often rejected—or attacked—by the psychoanalytic establishment back then.

After I spoke to the students about the contributions of those three, it struck me that both the emerging generation and current psychotherapists could help patients by reclaiming their legacy. And not just their creative mindset, but an overlooked, core part of their contributions.

That is, most therapists today recognize the significance of interpersonal and relationship issues that those three contributed: that our sense of self and much dysfunction is rooted in the web of relationships we experience from birth. That part isn’t overlooked. What many ignore is that Fromm, Horney and Sullivan also drew attention to social and cultural forces in our “outer” world, forces that shape—for better or worse—who we become: Our values, attitudes, personalities and level of emotional health or dysfunction. That dimension of their work became increasingly marginalized and disregarded over the decades, with few exceptions. That loss diminishes therapists’ capacity to discern the roots of patients’ conflicts and provide effective help.

Ironically, those early analysts’ insights about social conditioning are highly relevant to life conflicts in this second decade of the 21st Century—a time of great transition and turmoil affecting peoples’ relationships, career and life challenges. It would benefit psychotherapy patients if more therapists went “back to the future” in two ways:

First, Continue reading

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Caught Between “Longing” vs. “Settling” In Your Midlife Marriage?”

Screen shot 2013-12-24 at 11.50.23 AMOnce the world was new
Our bodies felt the morning dew
That greets the brand new day
We couldn’t tear ourselves away
I wonder if you care
I wonder if you still remember…

The Moody Blues, “Your Wildest Dream

Linda, a 53 year-old psychotherapy patient, was talking with me about a recent New York Times article about the rising numbers of midlife men and women who are divorcing. That, despite other data that the overall divorce rate has dropped somewhat, to around 40 percent. Linda was worried. She and her husband had been experiencing more conflict lately, especially since their two children had finished college and were off on their own. She said it felt like they were on different wavelengths about nearly everything – sex, money, lifestyle. “Sometimes I think we’re ‘on the brink’…” Linda said, not wanting to use the “D” word. “Maybe we’d both be happier going separate ways. Life is short…”

Linda is prone to anxiety, and has a lot on her plate with her career as a public relations executive. But given the rising numbers of midlife divorce, marital conflict is an understandable concern. (Disclosure: I’m a midlife baby boomer; been there, done that). There are several likely reasons for this trend, but I think there’s a particular dilemma that may remain under the radar. It’s that many midlife baby boomers are caught between feelings of longing for a relationship ideal that they think might be real but unfulfilled; and a pull towards settling for what they have, with all it’s imperfections and disappointments. This is a huge conflict. It’s worth understanding what it reflects, in order to deal with it in a healthy way; especially in the context of transformations occurring in people’s emotional and sexual relationships today.

Linda and her husband know of couples who had announced they were getting divorced, often to the surprise of many: “They seemed perfectly fine; no hint of trouble.” They knew of more than one couple in which one partner said, “I just felt the need to experience more of my own life, at this point.”

Linda wondered, were she and her husband mismatched to begin with and just didn’t realize it, back in their 20s? Had they grown in such different directions that they no longer wanted or cared about having a life together in their years ahead? Or had their work become their true “lover” rather than each other?”

Good questions for any long-term couple. But what is it that’s made baby boomers more prone – or receptive – to divorce? Continue reading

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“Husbands” and “Wives” Who Don’t Marry…And Want It That Way

Screen shot 2013-12-17 at 6.17.14 PMAnother part of evolving views about intimate relationships, as well as the definition of family in our society, is this emerging trend: Couples who chose not to marry, but continue to use the terms “husband” and “wife.” Koa Beck’s recent article in Salon describes it. She cites Brian: “Having been with his ‘wife’ for five years, he does not intend to legally marry her any time soon. He views marriage not so much as ‘a path to happiness,’ but simply a legal contract that doesn’t innately legitimize a commitment, which he feels he doesn’t need.” Brian says, “I don’t think that it’s a good fit for me, and the usage of the term ‘wife’ lets other people know about the permanence of my relationship, despite our legal standing.”

Beck describes another person, Frances, who “uses ‘partner’ interchangeably with ‘husband’ when referring to her children’s father, but reverts to nuptial language when in the presence of those from a ‘certain generation’ due to lingering social expectations. Frances, the mother of three, says that “The main reason that we use these words is to avoid the judgment that people have for unmarried couples with kids.”

I think this trend reflects a broader movement towards more diverse attitudes, values and behavior about how people define their relationships and the forms they take. Our society and culture is becoming more diverse, and more accepting of that diversity. That includes people who choose to be less confined by conventions that have, in many cases, constrained healthy development in personal and family relationships. For the full article, click here.

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As Sexual Relationships Change, So Do Families

Screen shot 2013-12-03 at 12.29.20 PMMy ongoing writing project aims to recast what we think describes and supports a psychologically healthy life in today’s world — one of interconnection, uncertainty and rapid change technologically, culturally and socially. In my view we need to reformulate and describe the emotional attitudes, mental perspectives, values and conduct that will support career success, internal well-being and also contribute to the common good, all within the context of our changed — and changing — world. Doing so includes combining new thinking and empirical research that joins Western and Eastern perspectives about human growth, development and “evolution,” psychologically and spiritually.

One major part of this transformation includes rethinking psychologically healthy relationships in general, but also within one’s sexual and romantic relationships. A recent New York Times special section, by Natalie Angier, focused on the changing notions of “family.” I think those articles portray the implications for families of an ongoing shift in how people conduct their intimate relationships. That is, how what people seek and want in their sexual and romantic lives is affecting family life; what “family” really means. This New York Times special section is right on target about that.

From the Times article: “Families are more ethnically, racially, religiously and stylistically diverse than half a generation ago — than even half a year ago.” And, “Researchers who study the structure and evolution of the American family express unsullied astonishment at how rapidly the family has changed in recent years, the transformations often exceeding or capsizing those same experts’ predictions of just a few journal articles ago.” For the full series of articles, click here.

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Why Reading Serious Fiction Benefits Your Psychological Development

Screen shot 2013-11-26 at 12.37.38 PMThe recent death of Nobel Laureate Doris Lessing—one of the most significant writers of our time, in my view—brought to mind that serious fiction spurs your spiritual and psychological development, your essential soul. It’s a gateway to “evolving” yourself during your lifetime, rather than stagnating within the person you’ve become. The latter path—which so many people descend into to—was captured by Norman Mailer in The Deer Park: “It is a law of life that one must grow, or else pay more for remaining the same.”

Delving into serious fiction engages you in the core human issues that everyone grapples with, consciously or unconsciously. The prime one is the question of, “What’s the meaning of life; of my life?

And, there are related issues concerning moral judgment, the impact of social conventions, conflicting paths in life, and so on. When you’re awakened — or threatened — by portrayals of those in good literature, you’re often forced to confront your own life choices and dilemmas in new ways, with new perspectives. You’re likely to resonate with the George Eliot quote, “It is never too late to be what you might have become.”

Lessing’s vast body of work is especially relevant to stimulating your soul’s evolution. Or, in Western psychology’s language, your “true self.” She portrayed the intertwined political, personal, sexual, cultural and ideological forces in people’s lives from pre-World War II, through the sexual and social revolution of the ’60s, to the present era. Among her novels is an interconnected series under the umbrella title, Children of Violence. Thery chronicled a woman’s character and life development via her social, sexual and political awakening.

Her final volume of the series, Continue reading

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The Orientation of Millennials at Work Highlights a Social Transformation

Screen shot 2013-11-19 at 10.09.06 AMA recent article in the New York Times by Tom Agan, co-founder and managing partner of Rivia, highlights a significant transformation underway in our culture. Although it’s linked with the rise of the millennials, I think it’s part of a broader shift of mentality, values, outlook on life, and behavior — and will increasingly impact how people conduct their personal relationships, what they seek from their careers, and public policy. Agan’s essay describes how this shift is visible in the workplace; and why embracing it can enhance innovation and creativity, especially when joined with the experience of older workers.

Agan writes, “Social media permeate the personal, academic, political and professional lives of millennials, helping to foster the type of environment where innovation flourishes. So when compared with older generations, millennials learn quickly — and that’s the most important driver of innovation.”

And, “If corporate cultures don’t align with the transparency, free flow of information, and inclusiveness that millennials highly value — and that are also essential for learning and successful innovation — the competitiveness of many established businesses will suffer. Millennials are becoming more aware of their rising worth. Coupling their ability to learn quickly with their insistence on having a say, they pack a powerful punch.” For the complete article, click here.

An example of the innovative and creative energy of this generation is a report in Just Means that a group of Millennials have created an alternative website to HealthCare.gov: Three twenty-something programmers have created a functional website, HealthSherpa.com, that tells consumers what health insurance plans are available, based on their zip code, plan preference, and personal information. Users can find and compare plans and prices, and work with a subsidy calculator. The trio had each tried to get information from the marketplaces created by the Affordable Care Act, but could not. So they built their own site, using data posted on HealthCare.gov and other information requested from state exchanges. Despite its limits (it can not sign up users), HealthSherpa.com has received 1.4 million views; the site’s “how to buy” buttons have been clicked over 150,000 times. It took the group just “a few days” to build out their minimal but useful site. The federal government should consider outsourcing to West Coast millennials instead of the “professionals” to get up a working HealthCare.gov.

 

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Why Men’s Self-Esteem Drops When Their Romantic Partners Succeed

Screen shot 2013-09-27 at 9.55.04 AMOne of the writer Gore Vidal’s famous bon mots was, Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies.

Some recent research gives credence to that, at least where men in relationships are concerned. It found that men feel bad about themselves without realizing it when their romantic partner succeeds or excels at something. Even worse, if the man fails or performs less than his partner on the same task or goal, his self-esteem drops even lower. Yet women feel no worse about themselves in the reverse situation.

I was reflecting on this and a couple of other seemingly unrelated research studies, that strike me as illuminating hidden themes. One theme is that higher status and material success are associated with attitudes of entitlement and narcissism, but with a positive caveat. The other theme is that couples who drift into power struggles secretly long for mutuality and collaboration.

Taken together, I think these findings indirectly reveal a significant upheaval and transformation underway, regarding what men have traditionally learned to define as “manhood” and “success” in our culture. In effect, their implications constitute a harbinger to us males — an unraveling of the traditional definition of “maleness,” or the values and behavior that have defined being a successful male at work, in intimate relationships and in society.

That is, I think we’re experiencing Continue reading

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A Good Love Relationship Is Associated With Good Parenting

Screen shot 2013-09-21 at 11.08.26 AMThis new research, published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, found that a positive, mutually supportive and sensitive love relationship was associated with positive, supportive and nurturing behavior towards one’s children. This is one of those “demonstrating the obvious” studies that I “love” from academic researchers, who always sound amazed at their “discoveries.” But it’s good for convincing people who are skeptical about believing their own experience and what they see around them.

I think the upshot of this “new” finding is that everything is connected in our lives — how we think, feel, relate, behave — are all part of an interconnected whole. The problem is that our life experiences often generate fragmentation, isolation, retreat into ego attachments which disconnect us from ourselves, within; and from others.

But to get to the research: The lead author, Abigail Millings of the University of Bristol, commented in a summary published in Science Daily, that the study sought to examine how caregiving plays out in families — “…how one relationship affects another relationship. We wanted to see how romantic relationships between parents might be associated with what kind of parents they are. Our work is the first to look at romantic caregiving and parenting styles at the same time.” Previous studies had looked at similar caregiving processes within romantic relationships or between parents and children, but rarely for both groups.

The research found – no surprise – that “a common skill set underpins caregiving across different types of relationships, and for both mothers and fathers. If you can do responsive caregiving, it seems that you can do it across different relationships.”

Millings added, “It might be the case that practicing being sensitive and responsive — for example, by really listening and by really thinking about the other person’s perspective — to our partners will also help us to improve these skills with our kids.”

Well, yes…

The full summary of the research in Science Daily: Continue reading

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An ‘Inside-Out’ Life Helps You Redefine Success

Screen shot 2013-09-17 at 9.18.35 AMIn a recent post I explained that you can’t balance work and life because both are part of your outer life, while “balance” comes from guidance by a strong inner life. Since then, many have asked me to describe more about the inner life — where your true self lies — and explain why that’s the core of redefining success –away from fixation with money, power and position, and towards more balanced, healthy and integrated lives.

In the present post I explain more about the inner life and why it’s so crucial for success and well-being in our society during these times of rapid change and turmoil. Previously, I’ve emphasized the parallel need for supportive, positive leadership within companies; and that we can already see examples of workplace and career trends that are redefining success for our “post-careerist” culture. All these shifts — underway and needed — reflect the rising awareness of the inner self and the need to respond to it.

Moreover, these shifts of consciousness, which propel what I’ve called the “4.0” career orientation, are visible among men and women across the generational spectrum: older baby boomers seeking “encore” careers of more meaning and service, and Millennials, who embrace transparency, collaboration and constant change in their careers. All seek career success within the economic climate and historical moment they live within but also feel the pull towards fulfilling something missing from the soul, the psyche, from relationships and life, itself — missing when only outer life criteria are the measures of success. Continue reading

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J. D. Salinger — New “Revelations” Miss the Vision Within His Glass Family Stories

Screen shot 2013-09-10 at 11.59.18 AMThe new book and documentary about J. D. Salinger by Shane Salerno and David Shields promote themselves as revealing substantial new information about Salinger’s writings and his famous reclusiveness. I think the most intriguing information from it is confirmation that several new works from Salinger will be published in the next few years. However, I think this new project misses the point about his writings and their meaning, as have previous critics over the years — including Mailer, Updike and others. They seem fixed on interpreting his work and life as indicating withdrawal and detachment from the world. However, quite the opposite is reflected in reading his Glass family stories. Contained within them is a vision of engaged connection and love — that’s his overriding theme, within an acknowledgement of our human flaws and failings (including his own.) No wonder Salinger disengaged from responding and replying to those who tried to interpret him within a Hemingway-esqe framework.

Now, in a very thoughtful and insightful piece about Salinger’s vision contained within his Glass stories, beyond the Catcher In The Rye, Andrew Romano presents a more accurate understanding of Salinger’s work. He writes in The Daily Beast, “Neither Mailer nor any of his fellow travelers seemed to notice that Salinger was trying to accomplish something different than what he was after when the Glass series began in the late 1940s.” And, “By the time Franny and Zooey came out in 1961, followed by Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction in 1963, Salinger’s style had changed. Gone was the idiomatic cool, the chic minimalism, and the formal shapeliness of “Bananafish”; in its place was something shaggier, more digressive, more self-conscious, and more explicitly spiritual.”

Romano’s essay is well-worth reading and reflecting upon. Click here for the entire piece.

 

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Do Couples Prefer Conflict Over Shared Power and Emotional Exposure?

Screen shot 2013-08-27 at 10.20.29 AMWant a fast track to divorce? Paul and Kim can show you the way. Like many couples, they jockey around for power, control and “winning” arguments when there’s conflict. And their intimacy fades, as a result. Even when one of them apologizes for their role in the conflict, nothing changes. Neither of them realizes that they hold the key to turning things around before it’s too late. New research and observations from therapy show how that’s possible.

A typical situation of theirs: Married about 15 years, they’re on a long road trip to a vacation at the beach with their kids. They’re already locked in combat, having arguing over how much time to spend on a stopover visit to one set of in-laws. They fought until one of them just gave in and acquiesced to the other one’s wishes. That’s how they tend to “resolve” conflict. As they drove along the crowded highways they hunkered down into a mixture of sullenness and half-hearted efforts to change the subject. But the residue of their fight hung in the air, like dark clouds threatening rain at any moment.

Both know that “winning” doesn’t improve their relationship, but their conflicts often end with one “giving in” to the other, but then remaining angry and resentful. The “winner” feels smug with power, but also realizes that’s not a path towards a lasting, positive relationship. Both tend to turn inward and shut down regarding their feelings. Doing so has diminished their intimacy. They know they’re adding another brick in the wall, and that they could be headed down a path to a chronic, adversarial relationship or eventual divorce.

Periodically, new research and clinical insights pinpoint what it takes to reverse course and turn towards deepening your intimacy and connection. The latest is a large-scale study from Baylor University. It found that couples really long for Continue reading

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Couples In Conflict Want Shared Power And Intimacy, Not Adversarial Strategies For “Winning”

Screen shot 2013-08-09 at 10.28.45 AMHere’s an interesting study that confirms what I find clinically true for couples, whether they’re in conflict or seeking to sustain positive energy and connection for the long-term. The research confirmed that couples seek what I call “mutuality” and “transparency” in their relationships. The researchers described those desires as seeking “shared control” and more investment in “sharing intimate thoughts, feelings and listening.” The research was published in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology and summarized in Medical News Today. I have found that mutuality — shared power in decision-making; transparency — two-way openness, showing and receiving each other’s intimate feelings, hopes, and fears; and “good vibrations” — an engaged physical/sexual connection — form the basis of sustaining positive connection in an intimate relationship; the source of feeling that you’re growing together, emotionally and spiritually. I’ve written about these in previous posts, here. This new research study focuses on two of those: mutuality and transparency, and provides empirical evidence for them.

From the report: Continue reading

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Why “Learning” Compassion Leads to Greater Altruism

Screen shot 2013-06-08 at 10.12.13 AMIt’s good to see research that demonstrates our capacity to awaken and evolve our consciousness and become more fully “human” – in our mental perspectives, our emotions and our behavior towards others. Two recent strands of such research illustrate this. One is the increasing, legitimate research on the beneficial powers of psychedelic drugs, especially psilocybin and MDMA (ecstasy), being conducted after a long stretch of unwarranted legal prohibition. The other strand provides accumulating knowledge of how we are able to alter our brain, our attitudes and conduct through conscious effort and practice. And, that meditation is powerful vehicle for this.

For example, new research demonstrates that you can “learn” compassion through specific meditative practices fairly quickly; and, intriguingly, that teaching yourself to become more compassionate directly translates to altruistic behavior. This latest study was summarized in a University of Wisconsin press release. Conducted at the University of Wisconsin’s Center for Investigating Healthy Minds, founded by Richard Davidson, the leading researcher in this field, it investigated whether you can train adults to become more compassionate; and whether that results in greater altruistic behavior and changes in related brain activity. Well, you can, and it does. Continue reading

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Train Your Brain To Become More Compassionate

Screen shot 2013-06-01 at 4.36.21 PMThis isn’t new, but it’s good to see accumulating research demonstrate that we are able to alter our consciousness, attitudes and behavior in positive directions. This research, published in the journal Psychological Science, and conducted at the University of Wisconsin’s Center for Investigating Healthy Minds, examined whether training adults in compassion can result in greater altruistic behavior and related changes in neural systems underlying compassion. It found that it does.

“Our fundamental question was, ‘Can compassion be trained and learned in adults? Can we become more caring if we practice that mindset?'” says Helen Weng, lead author of the study. “Our evidence points to yes.” In the study, the investigators trained young adults to engage in compassion meditation, a Buddhist practice to increase caring feelings for people who are suffering. In the meditation, participants envisioned a time when someone has suffered and then practiced wishing that his or her suffering was relieved. They repeated phrases to help them focus on compassion such as, “May you be free from suffering. May you have joy and ease.”

Participants practiced with different categories of people. They began with a loved one, someone whom they easily felt compassion for, like a friend or family member. Then, they practiced compassion for themselves and, then, a stranger. Finally, they practiced compassion for someone they actively had conflict with called the “difficult person,” such as a troublesome coworker or roommate. “It’s kind of like weight training,” Weng says. “Using this systematic approach, we found that people can actually build up their compassion ‘muscle’ and respond to others’ suffering with care and a desire to help.”

I’ve found this to be true, clinically, with psychotherapy patients, and also with others to whom I’ve recommended some exercises that help expand and enhance their experience of empathy and compassion. That is, Continue reading

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Is It Good To Sacrifice In A Relationship?

Screen shot 2013-05-22 at 12.30.57 PMAn interesting new study indicates that it may not always be good or useful to make sacrifices or be giving to your partner in a relationship. It may depend on the level of stress you experienced during the day. The study, from the University of Arizona, suggests that while making sacrifices in a romantic relationship is generally a positive thing, doing so on days when you are feeling especially stressed may not be beneficial. Researchers found that individuals who made sacrifices for their significant others generally reported feeling more committed to their partners when they performed those nice behaviors. But when they made sacrifices on days when they had experienced a lot of hassles, they did not feel more committed.

The study found that the daily hassles reported by an individual affected feelings of closeness and satisfaction for both partners, regardless of which one experienced those hassles. The study, published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships is summarized in the following report by Science Daily: Continue reading

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The Link Between Depression And Your Love Relationship

Screen shot 2013-05-09 at 2.38.38 PMAn interesting new study of 5000 adults conducted by researchers at the University of Michigan finds that there’s an important link between what goes on in your relationship with your intimate partner and the likelihood of depression over the years. That is, the poorer the quality of the relationship, the more likely the person was to become depressed over time, Researchers found that people with the lowest quality relationships had more than twice the risk of depression than people with the best relationships. The quality of a person’s relationships overall was also linked with future depression potential, but the relationship with one’s spouse was most significant.

From the research, published in PLOS ONE, and reported by Science News: The study assessed the quality of social relationships on depression over a 10-year period, and is one of the first to examine the issue in a large, broad population over such a long time period. Nearly 16 percent of Americans experience major depression disorder at some point in their lives, and the condition can increase the risk for and worsen conditions like coronary artery disease, stroke and cancer. Continue reading

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6 Keys to Well-Being and Growth Relevant to Life in Today’s Unpredictable World

Screen shot 2013-04-23 at 11.10.31 AMJim, who’s in his early 40s, consulted me about a troubling dilemma. He told me that he’s worked on himself for years, both with and without the help of therapists, and that he’s “tamed many demons” from the traumas and family dysfunctions he experienced growing up. He’s now living a stable and reasonably successful life. Yet he finds himself asking “Now what?” and “Is this it?” He explained that he’s learned to manage and cope pretty well with the residue of conflicts that had, in the past, derailed successful relationships as well as his career. Nevertheless, he feels trapped by the past actions that continue to have a shelf life. And, especially, he wants to experience a more fulfilling, expansive existence, beyond the “flat-lined comfortableness” that Cheryl, a 38-year-old small-business owner, described about her own life.

They and others reflect the impact of living in today’s world, especially since the new century began. Our lives now exist within a new normal of uncertainty and turmoil, of unpredictable events and rapid social change, as well as ever-evolving technology that infiltrates every aspect of daily life. This new environment raises an important question: What describes a fulfilling, positive and psychologically healthy life today? Moreover, what can you do to create it?

That’s where our traditional thinking and prescriptions fall short. Continue reading

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Daily Stress Affects Long-Term Mental Health

Screen shot 2013-04-06 at 10.51.03 AMOnce again, we find more evidence that daily stress has a long-term negative impact on mental health. Any research that highlights this fact is helpful, but it also draws attention to the role our social conditioning plays in generating the stress that debilitates mental health. And that’s not addressed as much as it should be. I’m referring to the ways we learn to behave in our public and private roles – in relationships, in our careers — that define “success,” and what you learn to do to achieve it, in ways that steadily create emotional conflicts. Without addressing those issues, which include over-emphasis on manipulation, self-centeredness, domination-submission struggles, to name a few — it’s difficult to describe what can support the “emotional balance,” the researchers cite as crucial for avoiding long-term emotional problems.

The latest research about this, published in the journal Psychological Science, was conducted by Susan Charles, UC Irvine professor of psychology and social behaviour, and her colleagues. Here’s what they reported:

Our emotional responses to the stresses of daily life may predict our long-term mental health. The research suggests that maintaining emotional balance is crucial to avoiding severe mental health problems down the road. The study examined this question: Do everyday irritations add up to make the straw that breaks the camel’s back, or do they make us stronger and “inoculate” us against later tribulations? Using data from two national, longitudinal surveys, the researchers found that participants’ negative emotional responses to daily stressors – such as arguments with a spouse or partner, conflicts at work, standing in long lines or sitting in traffic – predicted psychological distress and self-reported anxiety/mood disorders 10 years later. Continue reading

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If Everyone Is Disturbed, Then Who’s Healthy?

Screen shot 2013-04-01 at 8.51.31 AMFollowing a recent talk to a group of business people, a man cornered me and said, “I work hard, I’m pretty successful, I have stable, second marriage and kids who are doing well…and yet I often feel unsatisfied with my life and don’t know why. Am I disturbed?”

His question reminded me of an ongoing controversy over the forthcoming revision of the Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the DSM-5. Many are criticizing it for turning normal variations of human emotions and behavior into mental disorders. That’s likely to generate more diagnoses for depression or ADD, for example. Its most prominent critic is Allen Frances, the psychiatrist who chaired the committee that drafted the previous edition. Among his and others’ criticisms is that the revisions will lead to more drugs to “treat” ever-expanding definitions of mental disorder.

This drift towards defining mental disorder upwards is troubling. But I think it masks another important, but largely ignored, problem on the flip side: There’s no good definition of what psychological health looks like in today’s world, in contrast to disturbance.
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How Fears Shape Your Political Views…And Much More

Screen shot 2013-02-15 at 12.17.30 PMMobilizing your fear of an opposing political party’s agenda and policies has become pretty commonplace in political campaigns, today. Now, some new research sheds light on a previously unrecognized link between fear, its source, and just how it shapes one’s political position on polarizing issues. However, I think these findings also point to a much broader but overlooked role that fear plays in many facets of people’s lives. That includes career dilemmas, conflicts around personal values, and problems in intimate relationships. Fears can be subtly conditioned by society’s norms and family pressures. They remain largely unconscious, and can fuel a range of emotional conflicts and dilemmas about life-shaping decisions.

To explain, let’s look at the research. Conducted by a team from Brown University, Penn State, and Virginia Commonwealth University, and published in the American Journal of Political Science, it found that some people appear to have greater inborn tendencies toward social fears. That is, they tend to experience fear at lower levels of threat or danger than others. In effect, they’re wired that way.

The researchers found that such individuals tend to have more negative attitudes toward “outside” groups, such as immigrants and racial-ethnic groups. When the researchers looked at the self-reported political attitudes of the research participants — on a liberal-conservative scale — they found a correlation between negative attitudes toward those groups and conservative political views.

However, as the researchers pointed out, Continue reading

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The Harmful Effects Of Loneliness Are Rooted In Our Culture

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A recent psychotherapy patient, Ms. A., tells me that she’s felt lonely throughout her life. Her intimate relationships have been brief; her friends, few. In recent years she’s been suffering from one physical ailment after another. Another patient, Mr. B, has an active social life with friends and business associates, a long-term marriage and an extended family. Despite this socially full life, he complains of feeling lonely “right in the midst of everyone around me.” He, too, suffers from frequent illness.

Some new research finds that loneliness can harm your immune system and set the stage for a range of illness. Of course, our mind/body/spirit is all one. Each “part” affects each other “part,” so that’s no surprise. But there’s a lot more to the story. People like Ms. A and Mr. B appear different, yet are alike in other ways. That is, some people’s loneliness reflects an absence of positive relationships. That, in turn, may be rooted in long-term emotional issues that interfere with forming and maintaining relationships. Yet others have a full social life but feel lonely anyway. These apparently different situations raise a question: What promotes or creates the conditions for loneliness in today’s society? And, what would help alleviate the painful isolation and disconnection that some feel, regardless of the extent of their social connections? Continue reading

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Loneliness Can Harm Your Overall Health

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A new study finds that loneliness has a negative impact on your immune system, and makes you more susceptible to illness. This should be no surprise: Everything is connected; we are one mind-body-spirit interwoven system, interconnected with the social and other “external” forces that shape our experience of life. The research, conducted at Ohio State University, was summarized in Science Daily as follows:

New research links loneliness to a number of dysfunctional immune responses, suggesting that being lonely has the potential to harm overall health. Researchers found that people who were more lonely showed signs of elevated latent herpes virus reactivation and produced more inflammation-related proteins in response to acute stress than did people who felt more socially connected.

These proteins signal the presence of inflammation, and chronic inflammation is linked to numerous conditions, including coronary heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, arthritis and Alzheimer’s disease, as well as the frailty and functional decline that can accompany aging. Reactivation of a latent herpes virus is known to be associated with stress, suggesting that loneliness functions as a chronic stressor that triggers a poorly controlled immune response. Continue reading

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The Fallen Generals…And Our Own Private Truths

Reading about General Petraeus’ affair with Paula Broadwell and General Allen’s voluminous correspondence with Jill Kelley – and their ignominious fall from grace – brings to mind the Egyptian myth, Osiris. He was killed and dismembered, and each of the 14 pieces of his body was buried in a different place. His wife Isis found all the parts and put them back together. Then Osiris came back to life, and they conceived a child together.

Later, I’ll explain what this myth can teach us about this latest “sex and power” scandal, which signifies more than just different views about affairs and adultery among high-profile people. One the one hand, some contend that adultery among military personnel is a personal matter, as foreign policy and military analyst Thomas Ricks said in a recent interview. In fact, Ricks argues in The Gamble that the significant issue for the military is the failure and decline of leadership. But others are morally offended by what they see as personal character flaws behind the sex scandal, and that such behavior indicates poor judgment on the part of leaders, as well.

But step back: I think this scandal is just a more extreme, titillating version of deceptions and lies that many people maintain in their public behavior, at the expense of private truths. For some, the chasm between public lies and private truths is driven by Continue reading

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Can True Solitude Be Found In A Wired World?

This article, by AP writer Martha Irvine, highlights an issue worth deeper exploration: the simultaneous upside and downside of being always wired. Especially its impact on both well-being and a sense of interconnection, of community. The latter is visible during Hurricane Sandy’s impact on our lives.

She writes:

When was the last time you were alone, and unwired? Really, truly by yourself. Just you and your thoughts — no cellphone, no tablet, no laptop. Many of us crave that kind of solitude, though in an increasingly wired world, it’s a rare commodity. We check texts and emails, and update our online status, at any hour — when we’re lying in bed or sitting at stop lights or on trains. Sometimes, we even do so when we’re on the toilet.

We feel obligated, yes. But we’re also fascinated with this connectedness, constantly tinkering and checking in — an obsession that’s starting to get pushback from a small but growing legion of tech users who are feeling the need to unplug and get away.

“What might have felt like an obligation at first has become an addiction. It’s almost as if we don’t know how to be alone, or we are afraid of what we’ll find when we are alone with ourselves,” says Camille Preston, a tech and communication consultant based in Cambridge, Mass.

“It’s easier to keep doing, than it is to be in stillness.”

One could argue that, in this economy, Continue reading

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Have Doubts About Marrying? You Should Heed Them!

Here I expand on a previous post that described some interesting research findings:
 

Would it surprise you to learn that according to new research, men and women who harbored doubts about marrying their partners have a higher rate of divorce after four years of marriage? It sounds like one of those no-brainer discoveries. But it reminded me of what one of my graduate school professors said some decades ago, that it can be useful to “demonstrate the obvious.”

Here’s why, in this case: The research underscores how often people know an inner truth, but don’t act on it. They might hold back because of various fears, such as fear of affirming themselves. Or, from pressure to acquiesce to what their families or conventional thinking tells them their “right” decision should be.

I’ve seen several examples, such as a corporate executive I’ve been helping to better integrate his leadership role and his personal life goals. While reflecting on the latter, he said, “I remember, as I was walking down the isle – literally – to marry her, I said to myself, ‘I shouldn’t be doing this. I’m making a huge mistake.’”

Let’s look at what the new research found, and what it tells people that’s important to heed – for those at the entry point of marriage, and for those much further down that road. Continue reading

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Doubts About Marrying? You Should Heed Them!

One of my grad school professors decades ago said that there can be value in research that demonstrates the obvious. Here’s a good example: A UCLA study of 464 couples found that those who harbored doubts about marrying their spouses had a much higher divorce rate after 4 years, than those who didn’t. The study, reported in the Journal of Family Psychology, found that 47 percent of husbands and 38 percent of wives said they had doubts about marrying their partners. But after marriage, women divorced more: That is, 19 percent of women who had pre-wedding doubts were divorced four years later, compared with 8 percent of those who did not report having doubt; while 14 percent of husbands who reported premarital doubts were divorced four years later, compared with 9 percent who did not report having doubts. Old but true idea: Listen to your inner voice!

Here’s a summary of the study and its findings, from Science Daily:

In the first scientific study to test whether doubts about getting married are more likely to lead to an unhappy marriage and divorce, UCLA psychologists report that when women have doubts before their wedding, their misgivings are often a warning sign of trouble if they go ahead with the marriage. The UCLA study demonstrates that pre-wedding uncertainty, especially among women, predicts higher divorce rates and less marital satisfaction years later. Continue reading

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Leave Your Lover To Re-energize Your Relationship

Paul Simon’s song, “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover” may come to mind here, but I’m referring to a different kind of “leaving:” departing from how couples typically relate to each other in day-to-day life — struggling over power and control while also longing for greater mutuality and equality.

Power struggles and lack of equality are visible in what couples actually do with each other in their interactions, their decisions; in how they behave towards each other around differences of needs, desires, and personalities. In my recent post about “radical transparency I explained that two-way exposure of your inner life generates emotional and sexual vitality. Not your personal fantasies or crazy thoughts, which we all have from time to time, but rather, your intimate feelings, fears, hopes, and vulnerabilities. Another source is building “whole person sex,” which I’ll discuss in a future post.

 But here, I explain why learning to relate more as equals, as collaborative partners, is also crucial. It’s similar to what many people have had to learn in today’s rapidly changing workplace, by necessity. “Leaving” your lover in the ways I describe builds greater equality because it’s more than just learning new communication skills or new sexual techniques. They won’t create mutuality or equality by themselves. What it does is shifting away from how you’ve learned to envision a relationship to begin with. And then, shifting to serve the relationship itself; not just whatever serves your own desires.
To explain, power-struggles are features of Continue reading
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