I have been allowing thoughts to simmer for a while now even as I have spoken to most of my clients about what happened in Uvalde, Texas. You know the story--an 18 year old went into a classroom, locked the door and killed children and teachers. Like most Texans, if not all of America, I was shaken to the core. I felt hopeless and wrecked. The next day I saw a comment saying, "F--k the Republicans." Very helpful. What can be done? What do we do? What is wrong with us?
Stay with me here--I'll put it all together.
I was walking my pups in my neighborhood and right by a sign saying "A Proud Parent of a (Blank) High School Senior" was a sign that said, "F--k Governor Abbott." Nice.
I was walking said pups this morning and a woman probably in her 60s whom I have passed and waved to numerous times over the years, says to me in a shaken up voice, "Avoid the big house on the next street! The f---ing a--hole yelled at me for shooing his charging dog at me! He told me to 'Keep walking and stop being mean.'" This woman doesn't know me other than being a dog-walker with cute pups. Yet she didn't hesitate one iota to use harsh language telling me a story. I get it, she was shaken up, but he's a f---ing a--hole? Really?
We can talk about guns, we can talk about policy, we can talk about mental illness (I hate the term--brain illness is more accurate), we can talk about all of this until the cows come home. But it will NOT stop until we become a more civil country and people. Our political leaders ON BOTH SIDES use coarse language and vitriol to demonize the other. Parents scream obscenities at each other and flip drivers off in front to their children. Children no longer think twice about dropping the f-bomb in front of a stranger (me) and continue on talking.( I get it--I'm older--but when I was a teenager if we swore in front of an adult we would turn red and apologize profusely and pray to God they didn't know our parents.) Why do they do this? Because their parents and adult friends talk this way. And if they don't, our national leaders do and it's ok because, hey, they're right and on the "right side of history!" Everyone is so angry. Harshness is no big deal.
I could go on and on but I won't. So where does this leave us? We can decide RIGHT NOW to end the verbal vomit, the verbal violence and model civility and moderation. It starts with each individual and each one of us deciding to be moderate with our partners when we are angry. It starts with making decisions about how much (if any) violence we allow in our kids' video games so we aren't deadening the senses of seeing brains blown to pieces. It starts with taking a breath and yes, being angry but choosing to LOSE THE HARSHNESS. It starts with choosing to not join the mob and hating the political opposition and remembering that thoughtful debate and respectful disagreement used to be a thing and can be so once again. It starts with your own thoughts unspoken. When my thoughts are harsh, I try, not always successfully, to change what I thought and be more charitable to the person with whom I disagree. If you think about it, there is just no room for harshness.
I cannot change what happened in Uvalde, nor in any of the other mass shootings in our country. I wish things were different. But I am sure of one thing--kindness, a lack of harshness and a commitment to living a non-violent life, beginning with language and tone, allows me to be an agent of change in my house, in my community and in my interactions with others. And that gives me hope.
When I was a kid, there was an oft used saying; "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me." I would use that as a pithy line to whomever said something mean, or my mom would say that to me when I complained that someone hurt my feelings. Well intentioned, right? Maybe. But it's not right. In fact, it is seriously and harmfully incorrect.
Words matter. Think about something that someone has said to you that stung. You can (and should) put a good boundary up and scan for any truth to it, but nonetheless, it stings, even as it hits your protective boundary.
Now, think about when someone said something truly mean. It doesn't just sting, it reverberates in your brain, cuts to your soul and wounds you deeply. Even if you know the person said it in anger and, "didn't really mean it--I was just mad"--it is difficult to forget and forgive (I will blog on forgiveness another time). We tend to carry those wounds around like a bag of stones or an ugly scar.
There is research about the weight of criticism vs the weight of a compliment. It takes many more compliments to negate or lessen the impact of a criticism. Something like 10 compliments to 1 criticism--and--we don't forget the criticism and we minimize the compliment. I remember when I was a TA at Pepperdine. I had one evaluation that said, "She is the most unethical professor I've ever had." I remember the chair of the department blowing it off, knowing it wasn't true. Even as I knew it wasn't, it still hurt. And do you know what? I remember that but I don't remember the compliments from the other students.
Words matter. Think about that the next time you are angry at your spouse, partner or children. Take a breath. Think about the weight of your words. Think about the damage that it will cause. Think about the impact it will have on your relationship. You may be able to get past it. You may even get to a place where you have a really great relationship, but you will never forget it.
Sticks and stones may break my bones--and words can hurt my soul.
Monica and Chandler (clearly not their real names if you are a Friends fan) are hard working 30 somethings who have been married for three years. They are both fit and good-looking, climbing the corporate ladder in higher education and oil and gas. If you saw them at a trendy restaurant in your area, you would guess that they are on top of the world and their big smiles and contagious laughter seem to confirm that. If you saw them at home, however, your thoughts of couple perfection would be shattered. Chandler takes his coat off and goes upstairs and plays video games up until the wee hours of the morning. Monica takes an melatonin and tries to sleep because she's already worried about the meeting she has tomorrow with the executives. They cannot remember the last time they went to sleep together, let alone the last time they had sex.
So what happened? It wasn't an affair, it wasn't porn addiction or binge drinking. It wasn't in-laws who butted in and caused trouble. It wasn't even that they worked long hours. No, it was just what happens to all of us at one time or another, particularly in the age of instant gratification on social media or web-browsing. It was just that they got lazy or less harshly, too comfortable. I see this every week in my office, and, if I'm honest, in my own living room with my husband and me. We all forget at times to pay attention.
I tell every couple that sees me the following story:
We are on Flathead Lake in Montana (go someday--it is gorgeous!) and our children are having a great time with their grandmother and we are taking a much needed break. We get on a canoe (But only because the water is almost still, the weather perfect and there's not a cloud in the sky. I hate water without being able to see the bottom.) and row into the crystalline lake. At some point we put the oars down and just visit, floating gently in the water. After a while, we decide to go back and the shore is so far away that I feel a bit panicky. And then just like that I think, "Wow. This is what marriage is like. You are coasting along and before you know it, you cannot see the shoreline." And it was there that I was clear that I will always have to pay attention in my marriage. Not that I always do, or always have, but I knew that if it was going to last and be fulfilling, one of us had to pay attention!
Back to Monica and Chandler. What brought them into therapy was that Monica began to notice that she was more excited to see her co-worker Joey (it couldn't be Ross because, you know, no.) than her husband. She had the courage to tell Chandler that that was the case, and she wanted to rekindle what they had before things got out of control. We talked about what habits they had gotten into, and what things they needed to change. After a month of meeting with me, they were more connected and excited about how their relationship had changed.
I don't often talk about clients in my blog (everything has been changed that could identify them), but once again I was reminded that we have to pay attention to our relationships. Ask yourself, if my partner was a plant, would that plant be dying or growing? Ask yourself this too; if I feel like I am withering away, have I asked my partner to do something so that we can get reconnected and begin to bloom again?
We are well into the eighth month of Covid, or at least when it all hit the fan and we began quarantining, locking-down, mask-wearing and the term I hate the most, "social distancing." When it first began, we thought we could "flatten the curve" by nobly staying in our homes, disinfecting the crud out of everything and hunkering down for 14 days. But 14 days became a month which became a half a year and beyond. Yes, depending on where you live we have fewer restrictions, but nothing is the same. It has become a shock when we see someone sans mask. Early on, I had the distinct feeling that I had to do something that created a sense of normal. So, I dressed up (normal), went to my office (normal), and began doing video sessions (decidedly NOT normal). What have I learned in the last eight months?
I have learned that we are amazingly resilient. Somehow life does go on. We take care of our families, we go to work (more on that later), we fix dinner and we watch Netflix. We learned how to video friends and have happy hour (hopefully with only moderate drinking). We got into therapy when our marriages were in trouble, we tried to be creative with our children and we were respectful of others when we were walking our dogs, being careful to walk on the other side to give people physical space. We found our own rhythm and pace and found a schedule that somehow worked.
I have learned that our society is obsessed with physical health but much less concerned with emotional health and mental health. This is to our detriment. Media talks about safety ad nauseam, but the medical media is practically mum about suicide rates rising, increased addiction, depression and anxiety not only with the adult population but with children and young people in particular. My clients are hurting! We are social beings; we are healthier and live longer when we are connected and physically touched. We cannot do enough of that now.
I have learned that shutting down caused tremendous economic loss and therefore emotional and physical loss for millions of us. I cannot imagine losing a business that I spent my life-blood building, only to see it torn down by a virus and governmental restrictions. What about families whose caretakers have lost their job or jobs and struggle with paying bills and putting food on the table? I don't have the wisdom to offer another option, but I am willing to bet that the real cost will be seen even decades from now. And, what about the cost educationally? Children have disappeared from the educational system by the thousands. Where are they? What will happen to a generation of children who have lost at least a year of education? There are so many losses. Too many to name.
If you came to this blog hoping to find hope and reassurance, I have a feeling you will be disappointed. Do I think we will recover? Absolutely! Do I think we will eventually learn and be stronger because of it? Without doubt. But for now, I am with you. I am a fellow journeyman struggling with being sick of COVID in 2020.
WARNING: THIS ARTICLE IS NOT POLITICALLY CORRECT.
I was walking alone yesterday after I had let my dog back in the house, panting like crazy in the Houston heat. I wanted more exercise so I continued my walk, zig-zagging around the neighborhood. I was serene, listening to classical music and enjoying the flowers and green grass. Since our sidewalks are often not level due to tree roots, I happened to look down just in time to avoid a very large mound of dog poop, right in the middle of the sidewalk. My thoughts came like a rushing current: "How could someone be so entitled, so thoughtless and so selfish to let their dog take a dump and just walk away? Didn't they think of some unsuspecting person or dog stepping in it and having to deal with the after-effects? What the..." And then I thought about the couples that I see sometimes, that they figuratively take a dump (OK gross but I am making an important point here!) on their partner and walk away, leaving them to deal with their mess. And then I thought, "Of course they do! Their parents never taught them to manage their emotions and be kind! It wasn't modeled for them." I thought about the entitlement that we see on college campuses; you can't share your opposing thoughts/positions because it might offend someone (because it's all about me after all!) instead of modeling respectful dialogue. Let's reconsider grading because it might hurt a student's feelings, instead of allowing kids to learn from failure or learn to work harder. Or, let's not keep score because it might damage a child's self-esteem, instead of teaching them good sportsmanship. I thought about how children are not disciplined when they are being rude, how they are taught more about their rights then about living peacefully amongst others, considering the other's thoughts/feelings as they would want that to be reciprocated.I thought about living in LA and a 5 year old visiting my home for the first time and calling me Angela! Seriously? You are five!! I could go on and on with example after example of how we are FALSELY EMPOWERING our children and not teaching basic rules of kindness and mutual respect, and then we wonder why they cannot get along with others, and why they have difficulty launching, and why they have messy and destructive relationships.
Listen, when we have children, it is our responsibility to raise them for future relationships! We discipline bad behavior not because it's bugging us, but because it will hurt them and others in the future. We correct rudeness, lack of respect, pitching fits and the like because they will grow up to be rude, disrespectful and immoderate with their emotions because they were not corrected when they were young. We stop tantrums not because our ears are ringing, but because they need to use words for feelings and that being sad or angry is perfectly fine, but rolling around and screaming is not. Why? Because they will scream at their spouse, pitch fits and cuss when they feel badly or feel something unpleasant. We have to teach children that the world does not revolve around them and their feelings because if we don't we rob them of healthy relationships. They will look at their future therapists like they are aliens when we ask them about how their parents got along, how they were nurtured or disciplined and who taught them about regulating emotions.And, we will sadly understand perfectly well why couples dump on each other and have no skills to a) not do that or b) correct it when they forget to be relational. In so many ways, therapy can be like reparenting, and teaching skills to couples that were not modeled or taught when they were young. And so back to the dog mound--it made me wonder about what was going on in their household, what was modeled to them when they were younger, such that they could be so blatantly disrespectful to our community. I went from seriously angry to seriously sad.
A while back I heard a quotation by CS Lewis and it goes something like this: If you seek comfort at the expense of truth, you get neither. If you seek truth at the expense of comfort, you may get both. The truth is so hard to hear sometimes. Just this morning my husband pointed out something to me that was hard to hear. My first reaction was to get defensive, which is something I always talk to couples about (as in "don't get defensive!). But after I thought about what he said, I saw the wisdom in it, and I thought he was right and I began to think about a few instances recently when I should've responded differently.
I'm known to be a pretty straight-shooter by my clients. I often tell clients who see me for couple's therapy that I take sides and sometimes I'm on one person's side, and then I switch and I'm on the other person's side. In many ways, I am a behaviorist when it comes to couples. I pay attention to how couples treat each other, what they say, and what they do to and for each other. Sometimes, I know that what I am about to say could hurt someone's feelings, or that person may become defensive and make up that I'm attacking them in some way. I have to weigh this out in the moment. That being said, I am committed to being truthful to my clients, even if it causes momentary discomfort. What I tell them, and what I believe based on almost 30 years of experience, is that when your partner says something, or when your therapist says something (once trust and a good rapport has been established), there is usually some truth to what is being said. It may not be all true, but you can be sure that there is at least an element of truth.
Therapy is hard work, and most people don't come into therapy to just vent and have their ego boosted. Most people come in wanting to make a change or work through something. We are relational beings--in every aspect of our lives--even at Target or the dry cleaners. We effect others whom we encounter, We all have edges that need to be smoothed out. We all have rough patches and blind spots. To be sure it's much easier to hear truth from a trusted friend or individual. The relationship needs to be there to speak deep truth. If your rough patches or blind spots are exposed and confronted, do you want the truth or do you want comfort? In my better moments, I'll take the truth. In my not-so-good-moments, I can become defensive. With time, however, I have become much more appreciative of people loving me enough, and caring for me enough, to speak difficult truths to me so that I can become more relationally connected and kind. Good therapy promotes truth telling and you should expect it.
There are phrases you hear in life that stick with you, and this is one of them. I remember distinctly laughing when I heard the term, thinking, yes, I know exactly what that means. I have felt it, nursed the feeling, pushed it away, and let it pass. After twenty eight years of marriage, I know what it means, and I am equally sure that my husband does too. I talk to couples about it every time I see them, because I want to assure them that it's OK, it is normal, and it will pass if you let it go.
So what is it? Normal marital hatred can happen just because your partner had the audacity to breathe! It's the day in, day out nature of relationship that makes us irritable or bored. It's when we are feeling disconnected or just in a bad place and your person is there, in the cross-hairs of your mood. I always know when my husband feels it. It goes like this: Me: "Are you upset with me?" or "I'm making up that you are mad at me. Are you?" Him: "Yes, but I'll get over it." Stop right there! I used to get all activated and ask why, what did I do, what's going on until I realized that it's on him, he knows it, he's working through it and I don't have any responsibility to do anything at all. The other piece of that is that is that when I am experiencing normal marital hatred, I am irritated, I am mad and I will get over it. I just have to breathe and remember that this will pass, and it is up to me to not nurse the feeling but remind myself all of the reasons why I don't want to fight, that I am not perfect either and that my truest desire is to be in relationship.
But what about normal marital hatred when you are in an argument and the feeling inside you burns a hole in your stomach and at the moment you truly feel hatred towards your partner? Then what? Here's truth: Feelings are just feelings and they should not dictate what you do. Here's an example. I am driving on 45 and someone cuts me off and I have to slam on my brakes and the grocery go flying in the trunk. I feel rage. So what? Who cares?! What I do is what separates me from animal instinct and responsible adult. I do not allow myself to salute him or her with my middle finger. I do not spew violent language. I remind myself that there is a possibility that the person in the other car may be on their way to a hospital to see a dying family member. Or maybe that person is dangerous and I want to be safe. Again, who cares? It is up to me to choose what to do with it. So back to arguing with my husband. I do feel hatred in the moment. And it is again, up to me to decide what to do with it. In my best days, in my most relationally healthy days, I breathe, step back and remember that I really want to be in a good relationship. I remind myself that I am no picnic to live with at times either. I remember that crossing a line in arguments leads to shame, and I hate that feeling worse that I hate my husband at the moment. I remind myself that this will pass, and I have felt this hundreds of times over 28 years of marriage, and I will again, and I have a choice to give into feelings, or give into relational health. There is a fine line between love and hate, or so the saying goes. Let it go, take a deep breath, it's going to be OK. After all, it really is normal.
I just went to a conference that focused on collaborative divorce. What, you might ask, is a marital therapist doing at a collaborative divorce conference? It's a good question. In 2008 I was asked by someone to go to a training on collaborative divorce and I asked myself the same question when the idea was pitched to me. Within ten minutes of the beginning of the training, I was hooked and thought, "Now this is something that I could buy into for clients who, for whatever reason, cannot save their marriage." Let me be clear. I always want couples to turn a bad marriage into something beautiful, meaningful and lasting. But you and I know that that doesn't always happen.
So what is Collaborative Divorce? (For those of you who want a more detailed explanation, I would refer you to collaborativedivorcetexas.com) Basically, it is a way of divorcing that keeps couples out of court and allows for more privacy as they settle one of the most difficult matters of their lives. Most impressively, it allows the couples to learn how to work together collaboratively as they deal with issues like custody and/or division of assets in an open, cooperative way with their attorneys in the same room working together! That was not a typo. The attorneys work together, cooperatively for the good of the clients, and most importantly, for the good of the children if children are involved. Further, there is a neutral (meaning that person is not working for one client but both) mental health professional (MHP) who helps facilitate communication with the couple (and the professional team) as well as deals with children's issues such as parenting time or making appropriate referrals to other professionals if needed. There is a neutral financial professional (FP) who assists clients with financial matters and can help with preparing for post-divorce financial issues. Often, the MHP and the FP work with clients separately between group meetings in order to keep cost down and get things done that are later shared with the whole collaborative team in a joint meeting. My take away from the training in 2008 and since I have been an MHP is this: The clients that I see as a therapist who are either the children of divorce or themselves divorced who say they went through litigation tell war stories of anger, manipulation, vitriol, recrimination and months to years of fighting. This is NOT the case with collaborative divorce. Is it ever "easy?" No. But it is a much more respectful, decent and honest way of divorcing.
Last week, I made one of those really big errors, mistakes, blunders whatever you want to call the moment when you make such a big mistake that you are red in the face, full of shame and just all around mortified. Yes, those kind of mistakes. I had what sounded like a very nice potential client call me up and interview me to see if I was the right fit. It was a really good interview insofar as the person asked really good questions--really thoughtful. About a week later I got a call from the potential client requesting an appointment. I was really excited and eager to begin work with this person, who, incidentally, had never been in therapy before. It was a big deal.
Fast forward to last Friday and I am in my car about to go out when I see a text asking where I was. The person was at my office, text was at 2:00 (the appointment time) and it was 2:12! I pulled over and texted immediately. No response. I left a voice message, full of apology and asked for a call back. No response. I drove to the office (there at 2:20) and hoped that the client was there. Empty. I left one more message, and said I was happy to give a complimentary appointment but completely understood if the person was not comfortable seeing me. I think (though honestly I cannot be certain), that I even said I would be happy to give a referral. No response.
I have no idea what happened. Did I fail to put the appointment in my calendar? Did technology fail me (which it has in the past, by the way)? I don't know. What I do know is that I failed this person, and I am very sorry for it. So now what? Is this post just a confessional? No. The point is this. We have all failed. We will fail again. I think I have done this once before in 25 years and I sincerely hope I never do again, but if I do I have a choice to make. I can go into toxic shame ("Oh I'm so awful, I am the worst, I've ruined this person's life"--grandiosity for sure!--"I should just stop doing this...") or I can own what I did, try to make amends and then move on and learn from my failing. Was I shaken up? Most definitely. But I did what I could to repair it, I didn't get to have a happy ending and make it up to this person, but I did my part and I had to let it go.
So many of my younger clients are absolutely paralyzed by the fear of failing, of disappointing someone, of trying something new or difficult, or of being vulnerable and getting hurt. I get it. But here's the thing. You WILL make mistakes, and sometimes you will fail miserably. But, if you don't try, if you don't put yourself out there, if you don't push yourself you will not really live. You will be safe, but you will wither. Does failing, or disappointing, or getting hurt, or taking a risk and it didn't work out--does it hurt? So much! But you fail, you pick yourself up, you take responsibility for your part and yours alone, and you get right back up and try again. And, after all is said and done, you really, really do have to let it go.
One of my favorite things to explore with couples and really, everyone I see in therapy is what they make up. When I first introduce the idea, I typically get a "huh?" look and then, more often than not, a "I don't make up anything, I know what he/she's thinking." I get it, I do. When I was first married I just knew that my husband was mad at me when he came home and was quiet. If a friend didn't respond the way I though she should, it was because I was sure that I did something wrong or if I didn't, then something was wrong and she didn't want to tell me so something was wrong with me because otherwise she would've told me. We make things up all the time. We do judge books by their cover regardless of how we were taught not to. It is human nature.
So why is all of this important? It's important because so often in relationships, we have feelings based on what we've made up--so it's what we've made up that brings the feelings of anger, sadness, rejections, or whatever negative feeling we have.
It looks like this: I come home and I notice that my husband didn't take out the trash, again. I am livid because this is the millionth time I have asked and it didn't happen, again. Why am I livid? Because in my head I have made up that my husband is entitled and taking advantage of me. My husband comes home and notices that I am not happy. He asks, "Is everything OK?" I give a terse, "yes" and says "OK" and sits down and reads the paper. Now I am really, really livid. I am making up that he knows that I am mad and if he really cared, he would draw it out of me, and since he didn't, then he doesn't care and then the trash becomes a catastrophe of epic proportions because the meaning of it all is that he is entitled, he enjoyed taking advantage of me and the bottom line is that he doesn't really care about me at all. Does any of this sound familiar?
Rewind. Now suppose I walk in the door and I notice that he didn't take out the trash. I am aware that I am making up all of the reasons why he didn't do it, but I am aware that it is what I am making up. He comes home, sees I am not happy and asks, "Is everything OK?" But this time I say, "Well, maybe. When I came home I noticed that you didn't take the trash out and I made up that you are entitled and that you are taking advantage of me. I was pretty angry when I thought about that. Would you please remember to take the trash out?" And this time he says, "You know you're right. I did forget to take the trash out. I can see why you might think that" and from there we can go on to find out how this can work for both of us. Maybe he does the dishes and I'll take out the trash--or maybe he comes up with an idea that reminds him to do it next time. Who knows? But what I do know, is that when we begin to take responsibility for what we make up and check it out, we are often wrong. And, even if we are right, then we know that there is something to work on that will hopefully bring about a change that works for everyone.