Therapist Humor

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It seems that the psychiatrist and his wife found themselves unexpectedly alone at home on a Sunday afternoon. The youngest of their children, the only one living with them, had departed for an event anticipated to keep him away for a few hours. And so, the long married couple decided that love in the afternoon was in the offing.

But, much to their surprise, the teenager returned a good deal earlier than planned — in the middle of everything. Their bedroom had two doors, and they quickly sprang up to lock them both, so that the boy wouldn’t catch them in an embarrassing situation.

Just then, their offspring yelled to see if they were home.

No answer.

He ran up the stairs and tried the near door of their bedroom, once again calling for them.

No answer.

He ran around to try the far door of the bedroom, again knocking and turning the door handle, still loudly crying their names.

No answer.

Finally, he stopped moving, staying in front of the far bedroom door.

This time, he called not for them, but yelled something a bit different.

“What, sex makes you deaf?”

The above image, Laughing, was created by Eric Ward and is sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Teenagers, Chicago Parking Meters, and Left Fielders

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The “Windy City” — the “City of Big Shoulders” — has a way of making some big mistakes.

Recently, they’ve come in the form of some fiscal short-sightedness affecting both baseball and government. Just over four years ago, the Chicago Cubs signed Alfonso Soriano to an eight year contract, all for the measly sum of $136 million dollars. Alfonso was 31 before he ever played for the team. They will “own” his contract (although the words “owe” and “ouch” come to mind) for three more seasons beyond this one.

After only the first three, he demonstrated that his sunny personality, million dollar smile, and ability to hit home runs when no one is on base don’t make up for declining offensive production and an attitude toward playing left field that suggests, according to Baseball Prospectus 2010, that Soriano believes the outfield wall at Wrigley is actually covered with poison ivy.

Not to be outdone, the local city fathers decided to lease every last parking meter in the city for a term of 75 years to an independent company that agreed to pay 1.15 billion in up-front dollars for the privilege. They doubtless wished to out-do the Cubs in boondoggles, since it is reported that the money is already spent. It has also been said that the city could have negotiated a better deal, and certainly one that didn’t so offend the parking populace by the inflation of parking fees to multiples of their previous size.

In both instances, there is more to come — more parking fee increases and further productivity decline from the Cubs left-fielder. And, long before the end of either contracted term, we will be saddled, metaphorically speaking, with the back-end of an animal that didn’t even look too great from the front-end.

When I think about this sort of short-sightedness in clinical terms, the behavior of teenagers inevitably comes to mind. Teenagers are stereotyped for taking risks, acting on impulse, and using poor judgment. Some of them tend to allow tomorrow to take care of itself, not fully grasping that tomorrow will indeed arrive soon enough and claim payment for the errors of today.

Now, I’m not talking about all teenagers, but rather those prone to vices like smoking, drinking and drugging to excess, blowing off academics, etc. And, it is not as if adults are free from this “live for today” approach, even adults not employed in management by the City of Chicago and the Cubs.

In a just world, all such folks would pay for their indiscretions somewhere down the line.

But, of course, the world isn’t just. And sometimes this works out quite well for the impulsive and heedless joy-seekers in our midst.

I recall one woman who ate and smoked and drank and had unprotected sex as if there would be no tomorrow. When I reminded her that tomorrow would likely come, she assured me that she would be dead by then, and so it didn’t matter. Even as she entered middle-age, she ignored the pain in her joints and her diabetes, continuing to indulge herself well beyond the bounds of medical advice and good sense. This lady believed in the motto uttered by John Derek in the old Humphrey Bogart film, Knock On Any Door:  “Live fast, die young, and leave a good-looking corpse.”

I doubted the wisdom of this, but she turned out to be right, dying of a cancer unrelated to her excesses in her late-40s. I guess if you know with certainty that your time is relatively short, then indulgence might become the preferred path, although it can also create a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Of course, most of us don’t know the appointed day of our departure with the prescience that characterized my acquaintance. Many decisions depend upon just such an estimate of the future: whether to go to college, how much to save for retirement, the care and feeding of your body, the need to exercise, and so forth. In a way, we all are gamblers, those of us who imbibe and those who abstain, those who are profligate and those who save for a rainy day.

We place our bets on what “feels” right now, how we expect to feel in the future, and how long that future might last, if there is one.

Let’s just hope that our bets are wiser than those practiced by the City of Chicago and the Cubs.

The photo above taken by Scott Ableman at RFK Stadium on May 5, 2006 is of Alfonso Soriano in his days as a Washington National. It was sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Can You Sleep At Night? Being Ashamed and Feeling Guilty

There is an important distinction between being ashamed and feeling guilty. Both are connected to wrong doing, errors, mistakes, or failures. Both involve emotions. Feeling guilty, however, unlike being ashamed, doesn’t require an audience.

A person typically feels guilty almost automatically when he believes that he has done wrong. It matters not whether anyone else knows or finds out. Often, it doesn’t even matter that others might forgive the transgression. Thus, a sense of guilt is an internal state connected directly to an act thought to be wrong.

Shame, on the other hand, requires an audience, or at least, others’ knowledge of the inappropriate behavior or failure, even if they did not directly witness it.

By these definitions it is possible to feel guilty without being ashamed. One need only believe that one has done wrong. But someone who has been shamed (in other words, found out and condemned) might only come to feel bad if his behavior is widely known.

You might think that this always happens, but it doesn’t. Take the recently removed Governor of Illinois, Rod Blogojevich, who has yet to admit any guilt and who certainly doesn’t act ashamed; indeed, who appears quite shameless. Shamelessness is never a compliment, but rather a statement about someone who has no “shadow,” no sense of ever doing anything inappropriate.

To cite a couple of other examples, one a therapist and one a minister, neither felt guilty even after having their iniquity publicly exposed. In both cases the misbehavior was of a sexual nature that involved infidelity, as well as a violation of the code of ethics of their professions.

In the former case, the therapist had sex with ex-patients; in the latter example, the clergyman had sex with parishioners. Both were married (not to each other) at the time of these acts. The public exposure of their actions and ensuing humiliation mortified each of them and, indeed, each one contemplated suicide. But neither really believed what had happened was terribly wrong, and rationalized the transgressions in defense of his own self-image. In both cases the rationale involved holding the sexual partners largely responsible for the romantic encounters.

The connection between shame and suicidal depression is interesting and can be found even in the epics of Greek mythology. When Achilles died in battle, the Greeks held a vote to decide who among them should be awarded the splendid armor of Achilles, which had been fashioned by the god Hephaistos. Ajax (Aias) the Greater, the best warrior after Achilles, lost this competition to the cleverest of the Greeks, Odysseus, who had designed the Trojan Horse strategy that won the war. In his humiliation, Ajax went mad and eventually killed himself. Such is the devastating effect of a “loss of face.”

It should be said that the therapist and the minister I have referred to were quite narcissistic people who saw themselves through a very forgiving lens. Both terminated contact with old friends following their public embarrassment, in order to avoid facing them. In a sense, the self-love and lack of a well-developed conscience of the two people in question set the stage for their wrong doing — they believed that they were without moral flaws and therefore that anything they thought to do would automatically be a morally acceptable behavior.

Beware of those who say that they can sleep easily at night and use this standard as their primary method of judging or evaluating their own behavior. I doubt that the worst of the totalitarian rulers and despots of history would have failed this test of moral correctness, despite the murder, unhappiness, and genocide they created.

In the USA, on the political front, we have seen lots of people who don’t admit wrong, who rationalize what they do, and who serve themselves while claiming to be acting “on behalf of the American People.” I’m sure some of them come to believe their own story, their own rationale — shameless, as I said before; indeed, almost a kind of self-delusion.

In my experience, people who come to psychotherapy because they feel ashamed (but not particularly guilty) don’t usually take responsibility for their actions in the course of treatment. Rather, if the process follows the typical course, they will recover from the injury to their ego and be able to go on with life, still guarded against significant self-awareness. Moral self-reflection doesn’t seem to come easily or naturally to them.

By contrast, individuals who experience guilt that causes them to enter counseling often can learn to forgive themselves and recover from the depression that usually accompanies their guilt. For them, however, the risk is in taking too much responsibility and being too severe in their self-judgment, exactly the opposite of the person who is only ashamed.

It is useful to be capable of feeling guilt, to admit wrong doing, and to feel ashamed; that is, if one is to lead a moral life. On the other hand, it might be argued that those who are shameless and who rarely feel guilt probably have more fun in life and are less troubled — the mirror reflects their image back to them in the way that they want to see it, and not in the way it actually looks. They live in a state of ethical blindness. Whether that permits a satisfying life is another story.

You be the judge.

The above image is Shame by Libertinus Yomango, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Relationship Warning Signs: Fighting the Last War

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Relationship choices are a little bit like the old military saying that generals are always preparing to fight the last war. Military men are apt to focus closely on past mistakes, without realizing the dangers of a new strategy, perhaps inadequate for whatever lies ahead.

In the same way, we try to avoid past relationship mistakes, without being aware our strategy might produce new, unfortunate problems in the future.

Let’s take an example. Suppose your last relationship was with an authoritarian, demanding, insensitive, maybe even somewhat abusive man. Now you want a lover who won’t be like him. Now you want someone who won’t push you around in any sense of the word — a companion less threatening and more accommodating. This might work well – for a while.

But, perhaps gradually, you will notice the same person who gives-in to you is also giving-in to others; not standing up for himself or for you; spending too much time away from you, instead doing favors for his parents or his friends. Perhaps you will conclude he is too passive and, that while he won’t often say “no” to you, you must push him to do the things you want.

Or maybe your last boyfriend wasn’t ambitious and industrious. You had to lend him money or serve as his source of financial support. You got tired of this of course. Now, you only choose to date someone who is hard-working and successful. You pick a workaholic mate and hardly ever see him, and you must do the job of raising the children pretty much on your own, even if the joint bank account is substantial

Or the discarded mate was easy with money and piled up debt. So now you select somebody with a dead-bolt lock on his wallet, cheap in the extreme, frugal to the point of wanting an accounting of every dollar spent by you, and nearly every small purchase the two of you make is treated with the gravity of buying a house.

Or your last companion didn’t pay much attention to you, seemed more interested in being with friends, playing football and computer games. So you target someone who wants to be with you nearly every minute and gets jealous when you even look at another man – a mate who requires an itinerary of your daily activities and seems interested in controlling you more than loving you.

Last but not least, the boring, by-the-book, ever-cautious man who you trade-in for a dashing, spontaneous, risk-taking, unpredictable, funny, charming, devil-may-care partner; later discovering he is reckless, unreliable, and inconsiderate.

The list goes on. The point is, as with so many of life’s offerings, the opposite of what you have is often as bad or worse, only in a different way.

Best to consider all sides of the human mating grab bag and not pick someone at either extreme of most any dimension.

Just like King Midas, who wished for the power to turn everything into gold, sometimes you must be careful about getting too much of what you thought would be a good thing.

Or, as Oscar Wilde said, “there are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.”

The image above is Oscar Wilde in a photographic portrait by Napolean Sarony from about 1882, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

What To Expect From Your Partner When Your Baby Arrives

Sometimes the idea of a baby is a little different from the reality of a baby. Ask a parent. But the reality doesn’t comprise only the feeding and care of the little one. It also involves changes in the relationship to the spouse–the person who contributed half of the genes that make up your tiny new person.

Mostly I’m talking about a first child here, since the newness of the event and a number of other parts of it are things for which one cannot  prepare.

Let’s start with the sheer exhaustion you will feel. Babies are demanding creatures and will disrupt your sleep and test your stamina. Whatever schedule you had now must be altered to fit your child’s needs. How will you and your partner divide the new responsibilities?

Everything must now be planned out, so if you were a spontaneous, in-the-moment sort of person before, you will be thrown off your game. Do you want to go to the movies? Who will watch the baby? Are you breast-feeding? Will you leave some milk behind while you are out? Do you feel good about the person who is watching the infant? Is he/she conscientious and responsible?

The job of going out with the baby is not less demanding. Packing all his/her stuff, bundling him up, carrying or pushing him around, and trying to concentrate on driving or shopping or friends or your spouse at the same time.

Then there is the question of your parents and your in-laws. Do they want to be very involved with your new-born? How will you and your spouse feel if they are around more often? Will they be supportive or critical of you as new parents?

Of course, in order to go out, you must have a few dollars in your pocket. Most new parents have only a few–the mother (yes, its still usually the mother) has, at least temporarily taken time off from work. And now there is baby furniture and clothing and food to buy and baby sitters to pay for. Fewer dollars tends to mean more tension in the marriage and more decisions to be made about how to use those dollars.

New parents also face an increased sense of responsibility. After all, you have a little one who is entirely dependent upon you for everything–his life, safety, financial well-being, his clothes, food, and not least, his emotional health. Are you doing it right? Are you harming him/her? These concerns are enough to make nearly anyone insecure.

And, with the demands and responsibilities of this new life, you will necessarily have less time for each other and less time for yourself and your friends. Not surprisingly, especially among insecure men, jealousy can come into play. In an unexpected turn of events, the adoring sex-bomb he married just might have eyes for someone else–his own child! And, the needs of that kiddie will tend to come first. Moreover, if you have parents staying with you, your sexual spontaneity can be further diminished by their proximity. Later, you might also hear the phrase, “Not now–wait until the baby is asleep,” or later still “Not now, the kids might hear.” And one or both of you might occasionally find yourself thinking, to your surprise, that a nap sounds a lot better than sex.

In the time following the birth, the wife often feels less attractive, especially if her weight doesn’t come down to her pre-pregnancy number and the bags under her eyes reflect the sleeplessness of her new duties. Will the husband be understanding about this?

Heard enough? I haven’t even mentioned the differences in child-rearing styles that you will likely discover when your baby gets older.

Now that I’ve made the case against springing for a new off-spring, I will say something else: it can be one of the most wonderful times of your life. A time when you and your spouse pull together, find out new things about each other and about life, and glow with the love that only a child can evoke from you. If you are not dazzled by this new life, a life that you and your partner created out of nothing, a life that is different from any other one that exists now or ever existed, then you are missing one of the most wonderful experiences possible; it is a kind of falling in love, just as overwhelming as the romantic kind, but different.

Sure its a challenge, but what worthwhile tasks are not? It can be intense, delightful, joyous, worrying, demanding, and frustrating all at once.

But if you do it close to right and have a little luck, you will look back on your time on the planet knowing that it was the most important and rewarding thing you ever experienced.

Unfaithful and Feeling Guilty: Now What?

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Infidelity happens. I’m not condoning it, but humans are known for mistakes, and this is simply another example of our fallibility. Still, what should you do if you have realized the error and broken off the affair? Assuming that your spouse or significant other doesn’t already know what happened, should you confess?

Let’s add two more conditions to the hypothetical situation that I’m describing: first, that you feel guilty; and second, that you have no intention of ever violating your partner’s trust again. Let us further assume that it is unlikely that your spouse will find out about the affair from someone else.

This, in other words, is one of those moments between you and your conscience. I’ve counseled people who felt so guilty that they believed they had no choice but to confess. I’ve also treated people who didn’t tell, believing that they would injure the spouse unnecessarily.

Sometimes these affairs are very old. I remember the first patient who reported a situation such as this to me. The infidelity had actually happened years before. It had gone on for a few months, then ended. The man had been faithful ever since and, it was clear, had every intention of being faithful from then until the end of time. But he felt terrible about what he had done and couldn’t shake the feeling despite the passage of time.

One consideration that such a person needs to take into account is that, for the spouse, the event is new when it is uncovered, even if it happened years ago. The wound happens at the moment of discovery or confession and doesn’t exist until that time (assuming that no STD has been communicated). But once the indiscretion is revealed, the emotions of anger and sadness are triggered, as is the sense of betrayal, and the lack of trust. Even if the infidelity is 100 years old, it typically feels to the injured party as if it happened today. And the long climb back to marital accord now begins, with no guarantee that the summit will be reached and good relations will be reestablished.

So, what if you don’t tell your spouse? Will your guilt last forever, undiminished? That depends on an enormous number of factors, including your religion (if any), your anxiety that your husband or wife will eventually find out (no matter how unlikely that might be in reality), your need for forgiveness/absolution, your ability to rationalize mistakes, your own capacity to forgive yourself, and so forth. If you need absolution and have a religious background, confessing to a priest, or fasting and prayer on the Jewish “Day of Atonement” might be helpful, depending on your particular faith. Therapists sometimes also serve the role of unofficial confessor.

If you were hoping that I would give you a clear answer, a “right” way to handle this situation, I undoubtedly have disappointed you. I frankly don’t think there is a right or wrong way in this type of case, at least not in the abstract. There are only ways that work better or worse; well, less well, or poorly; and it will depend not only on your own psychology, but the psychological makeup of your spouse. Thus, a solution that might be effective or useful for one couple, might be awful for another and lead to the end of the marriage.

Best, of course, not ever to be unfaithful. But, as I said at the start, these things do happen and, when they do, can have an overwhelming emotional wallop on all concerned. How you handle it shouldn’t be automatic. Much depends on your decision.

Choose wisely. As carpenters like to say, “Measure twice, cut once.” And know that the news will “cut.”

The above image is called Pashtun Couple by Arsalan Khan, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Beautiful and Smart, But Unlucky in Love: The Reasons Why

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I have treated many beautiful women who reported a history of bad relationships: unfaithful boyfriends or husbands, frank physical or verbal abuse by their partners, or a loss of interest by the men from whom they most wanted that interest. There are lots of reasons for this. Here are a few:

1. If you came from a home where you were neglected, criticized, or abused, your self-worth is likely to be less than what it should be. Recall Marilyn Monroe: famous, beautiful, and talented, but insecure and unlucky in love. A woman with the background I’ve described often looks for approval from someone who unconsciously reminds her of the person who failed to love her as a child. It is as if the unconscious mind is still looking for the thing never achieved before (love or approval), and it only has value if it comes from a similar person. Since the parent in question was neglectful or critical, the chosen substitute will likely be that way as well, providing the woman with another chance to win loving attention. Given her poor choice of a partner, the sought-for affection and approval are no more likely than they were in childhood.

2. Whether male or female, if you moved too often as a youngster, the insecurity of being the new kid on the block is hard to shake. You may also feel the never-ending need to prove yourself. Once again, insecurity can lead to choosing someone less good and kind than you deserve.

3. Are you too needy? Are you dependent upon your boyfriend or husband to make decisions for you? Are you unable to support yourself financially? Can you bear to be without a boyfriend for very long? Do you need regular reassurance you are “the one and only?” This gets old. While that reassurance will temporarily calm your fears, your lover will almost surely tire of it, leaving you insecure if you don’t ask repeatedly for confirmation of his devotion (or him feeling put-upon if you do). As with a number of the concerns mentioned above, therapy is suggested if your self-worth requires an ever-present escort who constantly bolsters you; and a tendency to lose your sense of self in the relationship, forget about your friends when with a romantic partner, and give-in to the new love-interest for fear he will otherwise leave you.

4. Is your beauty (or sex) all you believe you have to offer? There are tons of gorgeous, sexy women out there and, unlike you, they won’t age! (Or at least it will seem so, since, as you get older there will be a new cohort of young females who eventually will look preferable in purely physical terms). Although men can be pretty primitive in their response to the physical characteristics of women, qualities like wit, kindness, intelligence, good humor, and integrity grow in their value to all but the most unenlightened men. As someone once said, “Beauty fades, but stupid is forever.”

5. If a man shows interest in you too early, are you turned off? It’s true that there is an element of gamesmanship in dating and mating, but don’t choose the intrigue of a man who is hard to get and miss the devotion and decency of another.

 

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6. Are you entitled? Do you believe your boyfriend or husband should keep you on a pedestal, shower you with gifts, and buy the best house in just the right neighborhood? Do you value money, status, and material things too much? If you do, a well-grounded man will tire of you or avoid you. One who is less secure or less enlightened may simply become weary of your demands for “more,” and instead seek a woman who is less self-involved and shallow.

7. Are you a good listener? I hope so, because relationships demand this. If you aren’t, your partner will not feel understood. Unless you respect the differences between yourself and your lover (which very likely were initially attractive), you will find the relationship works poorly or not at all.

8. As I’ve said before on my blog, sexual interest and enthusiasm are necessary parts of a good relationship. Abandon them at your own risk. However, this is not to suggest you should have sex simply because your partner wants (or worse) demands it.

9. Do you allow yourself to be demeaned in public by the man you are with? I always ask marital couples seeking therapy what attracted them to each other. One male I recall said, “She ‘shows’ well,” about his beautiful wife. The words and tone were demeaning, in no way a compliment. Indeed, the man might have said the same thing about a show dog or show horse. The lovely lady remained silent. A more self-respecting woman might have walked out of the room.

10. Do you have a drinking or drug problem? Does your male friend? How do you know you don’t? Just because friends and acquaintances drink as much as you doesn’t mean you can avoid the alcohol or drug-driven downside of heartache, arguments, and a bad end to the relationship. Read up on alcohol abuse to get a sense of where you stand: http://www.alcoholscreening.org/

11. Do you wind up with men you feel sorry for? Not a good choice. Do you give in to men who pursue you relentlessly, even though you aren’t enormously attracted to them? Again, this is not destined to lead to a successful match.

12. Do you believe you can change the man you are with? A miraculous transformation is unlikely to occur. Meaningful alternations in any of us take their own time and much painful effort. As the old therapy joke goes, “How many therapists does it take to change a light bulb?” Answer: “One, but the light bulb has to want to be changed.” Take a measure of who you are with while you are still capable of being objective, which means your evaluation needs to be done early in the relationship. Once your heart takes over, rational judgments are either too late or altogether impossible.

13. As a father two two career-minded, married daughters, I applaud independent women who forge careers. But just as a man needs to remember his wife and children require attention, so do women in high-powered careers need to live by the same rules. If you are neglectful of your partner, mentally or physically exhausted by the work you do between 9 and 5, and consumed by issues related to your vocation, the relationship is at risk.

14. Are you too critical? If you experienced or observed a fair amount of criticism growing up, it is easy to become like the person who did this. Indeed, we are often at risk of becoming the thing we hate, or of normalizing the unfortunate characteristics we observed in our parents because we had no other family to compare them to. Compassion, understanding, forgiveness, and acceptance are needed in any good relationship, and in large quantities.

15. Do you expect your boyfriend or husband to fulfill your life and make you happy? No one can really do that for you, although having a companion can be worthwhile and important. But a relationship will not solve all problems or make life perfect. Don’t expect it to. The weight of that expectation is more than most lovers can bear.

16. One final point, and a sad one. If you are smart and beautiful, and especially if you are professionally accomplished, there are men out there who will be intimidated by your competence, intelligence, authority, and attractiveness. As a result, you might have to generate more than the usual amount of effort to find a good match. Unfair, but true.

In closing, I should say that making a good choice of mate, regardless of whether you are a man or a woman, is challenging. But there are a lot of good people out there (albeit fewer men than women), so if your history shows a pattern of failed choices, its best to look in the mirror and ask why. And, if you can’t come up with an answer or change your pattern even though you are aware of repeating the same mistakes, therapy often helps.

This post has generated one very heated and critical comment. You might want to read it and see what you think: Dealing with Online Criticism of that “Bald, Ugly, Old” Man: Me.

The top photo is of Marilyn Monroe, a cropped frame from her 1953 movie, Gentlemen Prefer Blonds. The second image is of Céline Du Caju, Miss Belgian Beauty 2006, taken by Eddy Van 3000 and sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

What Happens in Psychotherapy?

What does psychotherapy do and how does it do that? Good questions, and even some therapists might have a hard time answering them. Of course, some of the goals are obvious: reduce depression, have better relationships, eliminate anxiety, enjoy your life more, and stop worrying. But what are the elements that get you there? I’ll give you a sense of some of the factors that permit those goals to be achieved.

1. Trust. Many people entering treatment have trust issues: they trust too easily or not at all, usually the latter. Trust will start with the relationship between you and the therapist. Simple things: does he listen? Does he understand? Does he seem interested and dedicated? Is he dependable? Does he care? If the answers to these questions are “yes,” then it will be a bit easier to begin to trust others. The experience of a benign relationship with one person can open you to the possibility that this experience can be achieved elsewhere in your life.

2. Validation. Many people coming into psychotherapy having been told that they should “get over it,” that they “shouldn’t feel that way,” that they shouldn’t complain or “whine;” or having been ignored, dismissed, or criticized too often when trying to express themselves. Some folks believe feelings are unimportant; others might state that it is not “masculine” to feel too much, and so forth. As a result, many new patients have so buried their feelings that they are alienated from themselves and don’t know whether it is appropriate to think or feel as they do. A good therapist creates a safe place for talking about such things (trust again), and gives the person a sense that there is value in what they feel and think. Over time, this action, by itself, can help improve self esteem and reduce sadness and alienation.

3. Grieving. If one has not had supportive relationships (with people who are both trustworthy and validating), the sense of loss or absence contributes to sadness, and sometimes to depression. The relationship with the therapist allows you to express the emotions related to loss (both sadness and anger) to someone who listens patiently and shows concern. As you process those feelings of loss, your sadness should gradually diminish. The therapist serves as a witness and again, as someone who validates your pain. Grieving in isolation too often contributes to the feeling of disconnection and alienation from the world. Grieving with someone who cares reconnects you to one of the things that can be good in life: human contact.

4. Learning new things. Any good therapist needs to provide some guidance and tools that enable change. This might come in the form of helping you learn and practice new social skills (including acting these skills out with the therapist), assisting you in changing how you think (cognitive restructuring) that helps you reduce self-defeating thoughts, training in how to be assertive (again with role playing in the therapy session), or meditation.

5. A change in perspective. A good therapist will provide you with new ways of thinking about the world and about your life. Since he can see you from the outside, he is more likely to see you in a way that you cannot see yourself.

6. Facing things, not avoiding things. We all practice avoidance some of the time, and some of the time it is a useful thing. Unfortunately, many of us practice it all too much. We distract ourselves from pain and avoid challenging situations. We can use food, TV, shopping, sex, drugs, alcohol, the internet, and computer games to get us away from whatever it is we can’t handle. We worry about problems rather than coming up with a plan of action and taking them on. We don’t ask out the pretty girl for fear of rejection, or say “no” to people who want to befriend us for the same reason. We stay at a “dead-end” job because of our insecurities. And, of course, unhappiness is the result.

A therapist can assist you in identifying the patterns of avoidance, help you to gradually become able to tolerate anxiety (by use of such things as cognitive restructuring, role playing or meditation) and give you tasks that gradually increase in difficulty so that you reduce avoidance and begin to take action that works.

7. Acceptance. By acceptance I am referring to acceptance of the nature of life and the discomfort that comes with living; acceptance of the fact that being open to life allows you to experience satisfaction and joy, but also opens you to pain; and awareness of the temporary nature of most of that discomfort. The more that you take life on its terms, the less you will be trapped by it.

Remember playing with the Chinese Finger Puzzle as a kid, the cylindrical woven structure made of bamboo, open at both ends? You put your two index fingers into it, but when you pulled hard to get your fingers out, you became more stuck. Only by releasing the tension and moving your fingers toward the center of the device, did it collapse and no longer held you tight. Life is a lot like that to the extent that we must stop engaging in behaviors that only make us more “stuck.”Acceptance allows you to free yourself, at least somewhat, from what is distressing about life.

8. Valued Action. If you are caught in the struggle with your emotions, or focused on avoidance of pain, what is good in life will be hard to achieve. Therapy can help you to think about the life you would like to lead, the life that is consistent with your values, and help to relieve you of the habits that keep you so wound-up that you don’t have time to think about what it is you would really like to do, and what it is that would lead you to a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment. What is your true self? Therapy can help you find out and encourage that person to exist in the world.

The description I’ve given you is based, in part, on my experience in life and training, especially training in such therapeutic approaches as cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), mindfulness-based behavior therapy, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), and psychodynamic psychotherapy. Other therapists may have a different view of what is important and how to help you get to the point that your life is more satisfying and less fraught with depression, anxiety, or chronic relationship problems. But here, at least, I hope that I have given you some sense of direction and some reason to be hopeful about the possibility of change in your life.

A Few Relationship and Dating Tips

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What can one add to the guidance that people are always looking for in finding a mate? Here are a few things you might not have considered:

1. Don’t ignore all the little things. People often betray important disqualifying characteristics early in a relationship. In the heat of the sexual attraction moment, we might want to ignore those things that appear to be small problems. Does your new friend call when he says he will call? Does he show up on time? Is he really listening when you are talking? You might be able to forgive such failures now, but they can signal problems that will appear larger later on.

2. Are you attracted only to “bad boys;” or to women more concerned about how every inch of them looks in the mirror than to take the time to look at you? If so, you’d better ask yourself “why?” If you keep having bad relationships, perhaps it’s because of some of the people you are choosing to partner with. In that case, reflection on your decision-making process is in order.

3. Get past the small talk. Do you want to know someone well? You will have to ask them about more than their opinion of Michael Jackson’s death and the Cubs’ chance of getting to the World Series.

What things might you ask? If your date represents a good opportunity for a lasting and satisfying relationship, eventually you will need to know about his politics and religion, how he handles money and debt, whether he has made good decisions in life, and his capacity for emotional intimacy and openness; does he hold onto old friends and how does he treat them? How does this person deal with frustration, disappointment, and anger? Is he charitable and forgiving?

How does your companion explain past relationship failures? Can he be appropriately assertive? Is he too dependent on you and others? What are his relationships with parents and siblings like? How was he raised? Is his humor too often at your expense or the expense of someone else, perhaps including himself? You don’t have to know about these things right away, but you do need to know about them before your heart starts running the show and leaves your head behind.

4. Don’t expect your date to make you happy. You are looking for a partner and not a caretaker or parent (I hope). Don’t look for someone to make up for past injustices and misfortunes. Don’t expect him to shoulder most of the burden of bringing home the bacon (or rearing the children) alone. Don’t encourage him to make most of the important decisions for you or to expect you to make those decisions on your own.

5. Since most of you reading this are probably relatively young, its important to realize that people change. The person you are with today is not going to be the same in 10 or 20 years or longer. (It would be troubling if he is unchanged by the passage of time. Surely, in 10 years or more one should learn something new from the experiences of life).

There is an old saying that men expect their wives never to change, while women expect that they will change their husbands. If you subscribe to this theory, you are in for trouble. People change physically, and should grow in experience, knowledge, self-awareness, and compassion, but don’t always transform for the better or in a way that is compatible with the alterations that you will make yourself. Does the hot young person sitting across the table from you right now have the ability to grow and to adapt to your own growth? While you can’t know for sure, it would behoove you to have some opinion on the subject.

6. How much self-awareness does your date have? Does he understand what he does and why he does it? Does he know (or care) about how others perceive him and when (and why) he injures someone else? Can he look into the mirror and see himself for who he really is, not for who he might want to believe that he is?

7. Recognize that you are not going to change your new partner. People don’t change because others want them to, they change because they have come to recognize that their behavior isn’t working for them and the cost of continuing in the same way is too high. If you think the relationship will only work if your new love can be altered, think again.

8. How much of a role, if any, do alcohol and drugs have in your life and that of your romantic partner? People tend to minimize or deny the extent to which substance abuse is present. This is especially likely to be true if you come from a family where this kind of behavior was routine. Alcohol, for example, tends to fuel arguments as well as depression.

9. Recognize that the honeymoon always ends. The nature of new love is to see the other in an idealized state. Your friend’s self presentation, attentiveness, and kindness are not likely to increase over time. The flame of sexual intensity will not always burn so bright. Something more will need to be present for the relationship to continue to be satisfying.

10. What do your friends really think about your current romance? Sometimes they can see things that you can’t.

11. Are you looking for someone stronger than you are? Or are you looking for someone docile who won’t challenge you, but simply be devoted and doting? In either case you are almost certain to be in for trouble. Relationships based on this sort of inequity typically become fractious and unsatisfying for both partners. They can transform into hostile dependencies, where the strong, dominating partner feels unappreciated, and the yielding, self-effacing individual morphs into someone who is aggrieved and simmering, or shuts down.

12. Are you insecure? Can you bear to be without a girlfriend or boyfriend for very long? Do you need regular reassurance that you are “the one and only?” This gets old quickly. While that reassurance will temporarily calm your fears, your friend will almost surely tire of it, leaving you less secure if you don’t ask again for a sign of his devotion, and him feeling put-upon if you do.

As with a number of the concerns mentioned above, therapy is suggested if your self-worth requires the presence of an escort; along with constant bolstering and a tendency to lose yourself, forget about your friends, and give-in to your new love for fear that he will otherwise leave you.

13. Are you still in love with someone else? Is your new date on the rebound himself? The presence of strong feelings which are still attached to someone else can complicate your new relationship. You are discouraged from entering into a “rebound romance” for good reasons.

14. Do your values match up well with the your potential love? Do you share the same vision of life, the same goals; the same stance toward integrity, devotion, loyalty, work, and children? Not just in what you say, but in what you do.

15. Do you tend to be drawn to partners who are much younger or much older than you are? In the former case, this can suggest the need to dominate the less experienced partner or simply to be looking for good looks rather than something more lasting. In the latter instance, its possible that you might be unconsciously trying to find a parent figure or someone to rely on and take care of you. In either case, some honest self-reflection regarding this pattern is worth your attention.

16. If commitment is what you want, beware of the man or woman who says that he or she is not ready for a serious or long-term relationship . To date someone like this is rather like buying a shiny, dashing new car that will start to fall apart after six months.

17. Watch out when you hear yourself thinking that, although you can see that there are problems in your burgeoning twosome, you will stay a while to see if things get better since you aren’t (yet) risking a broken heart. Often your heart leaps ahead in situations like this and you discover that you are in love with the wrong person only too late.

18. Take your time! You might hear the clock ticking on the days of your life (or your life since your last relationship), not to mention the time left on your fertility, but rushing things out of desperation will prevent you from making the best possible choice. Remember, the point of this is not only to win the affection of the other individual, but to determine whether he is worth the winning!

The top photo is an Austrian Road Sign photographed by Pirosko. The second image is described as a “short animated gif with 2D-boy.” Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Infidelity and Its Treatment

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The names don’t really matter. Today they are Tiger Woods; Mark Sanford, Governor of South Carolina; and John Ensign, U.S. Senator from Nevada. Tomorrow they will be someone else. Every day, there are other names, little known, but causing no less pain.

How does it happen? How does it happen that people who claim to live by well established moral norms, who have taken a public oath to remain faithful to their spouse, violate that promise? There are several reasons:

1. Power and celebrity = opportunity. People in positions of power and celebrity have more opportunity than most to be unfaithful. They are surrounded, sometimes literally, with admiring and attractive younger people. As Oscar Wilde said, “I can resist anything, except temptation!” The famous and powerful have plenty of that.

2. Contiguity. You might think that the separation of sexes in some religious fundamentalist societies is unfortunate or wrong, but it does keep opportunity at a minimum. In modern Western secular civilization, men and women work together, eat together, and travel together on business. Repeated contact with a sympathetic business associate, pulling together with that person as a team on a business project, creates not just the opportunity for sexual contact, but the chance to get to know and like one another. Perfectly moral and decent folk can find themselves stirred by the presence of a person to whom they are not married, even though they weren’t looking for anything outside of the marriage.

3. Disinhibition. Alcohol and drugs. If you are around sexually attractive people in a party atmosphere or when you are “under the influence,” your judgment and hesitation are more likely to be set aside.

4. The “Great Man” rationale. More than once, I’ve heard men justifying the concept of infidelity in the case of those who are accomplished and powerful. Often, the rationale includes reference to the role that “the great man” plays in benefiting society. According to this line of reasoning, the “heroic” figure is thought to have earned the right to live by a different set of rules than the common man, and should be given the chance to be compensated for his contribution to society by being allowed multiple sexual partners.

5. The “It won’t hurt anyone” rationale. The faithless sometimes persuade themselves that there is nothing wrong with their behavior so long as anyone who might be injured (spouse/children) never knows about it. This is akin to the old philosophical question, “If a tree falls in the forest, but no one is present to hear it, does it really make a sound?” What the argument ignores is that the transgressor is changed by his act of betrayal, that he must tell a continuing set of lies in order to maintain the fiction of his character, that he risks his partner’s physical health in the event that he has become a carrier of a sexually transmitted disease, and that it is impossible to guarantee that the secret will never be revealed.

6. Mid-life crisis. Poor humanity. Poor man. We age, we lose our youthful good looks, sometimes our hair, our virility, our energy, our strength, our stamina. The antidote? A youthful or new sexual partner who, for a time, can help us shut out the dreaded and self diminishing passage of time.

7. Solace. The ups and downs of life are inevitable, even in the luckiest of lives. The best marriages are not immune to the daily stress that  takes a toll on a spouse’s ability to be compassionate, encouraging, and supportive. Financial worries, business reverses, family illness, house keeping, and child rearing soon diminish the “date night” and honeymoon atmosphere of the early days of the relationship. A fresh and sympathetic set of ears, all understanding and acceptance, often develops into something more, and something sexual.

8. “It’s not natural.” Some people, mostly men, justify infidelity with the notion that man was not meant to be a monogamous creature and the flowers of the field (i.e. the opposite sex) were meant to be enjoyed.

9. Longevity. At the turn of the last century in America, that is, about 1900, the average life expectancy was about 50 years. By that standard it was usual for marriages to be relatively short, 25 to 35 years at the most, many much shorter. No longer. Many now last 50 years and more. What happens in that time? People get older, their bodies change, and their personalities alter as well. When I do marital therapy, I usually ask couples what initially drew them together. The most frequent answer I get is something like, “He was hot and we had a lot of fun.” Thirty years on, it goes without saying, he isn’t so “hot” and they sure aren’t having fun.

In order for marriages to thrive into mid-life and beyond, the couple has to work very hard at the relationship, to keep the sexual spark alive despite physical changes and familiarity, and to see to it that personality alterations are compatible or synchronous. Too often one partner wants the marriage to be exactly as it was at the beginning and believes that both the personality and physical changes in the other person amount to a breach of contract. Meanwhile, the other might feel held to a contract that is no longer appropriate to the current state of the couple’s life together and to their age, personality, and experience. One or the other very well may see infidelity as tempting under such circumstances.

10. The scoundrel factor. Although an injured spouse sometimes believes that “evil”  is the most likely explanation for her spouse’s betrayal, in most cases it really isn’t. Most people don’t set out to behave badly and many feel guilty when they do. That said, there are certainly more than a few cads among us, and they do with impunity what others only do with hesitation, a troubled conscience, or not at all.

11. Boredom. Boredom doesn’t cause anyone to stray, but it does set the stage for the temptation. Routine can kill even the things that we love. The pattern is well-known: wake up, go to work, come home, play with the kids, do the bills, and collapse from exhaustion. Or, the stay-at-home parent’s version: wake up, make food, shop, make food, take care of the kids, do the housekeeping, make food, clean, and collapse from exhaustion. Either way, the routine is deadening and there is little room for excitement.

12. A lack of sex. Again, this doesn’t cause infidelity, but can set the stage for it. A warning here: cease sexual contact at your own risk and at the risk of your marriage. But, this is not to suggest that you should have sex only because your partner wants to.

13. Cruelty, sarcasm, and a lack of appreciation. If the marriage has turned into a battle ground, with gratitude replaced by indifference or hostility, infidelity is more likely on either side.

When the infidelity is exposed, the result is devastating to the victimized spouse. Rage, sadness, a loss of self-regard, and feelings of inadequacy are common. What did I do? What didn’t I do? Why did he do that? If he felt that way, why didn’t he leave first before he took on another partner? The devastation occurs whether the infidelity is fresh, or the betrayed person discovers it years after it occurred. The emotional clock of devastation only begins to run from the point that one becomes aware of what happened.

If a couple comes to therapy in the wake of such news, several factors go into the therapist’s evaluation of the situation. First, is the infidelity over or is it still going on? If the marriage is to have any chance, the “other” relationship has to end. Moreover, it has to end because the spouse having the affair wants it to end and believes that the marriage is worth saving, not because his marital partner is threatening to leave or because of the fear of financial devastation in the course of a divorce.

The therapist will try to gauge what still binds the marital couple together, if anything. Do they still have positive memories of their courtship? Do they have children and are they concerned about the effects of a divorce on their offspring? Are they still in love? If there is no love on the part of even one partner, therapy is almost certain to fail to recreate it.

If the both parties want to save the marriage, have positive memories of the start of their relationship, and if loving feelings still exist between them, treatment often can help to repair things. One of the first items in need of attention will be allowing the injured spouse to grieve. This will require both tears and anger, but will need to be time limited. That is, however great the injury, the victimized spouse must understand that he cannot forever bring up the infidelity to be used as a weapon when he feels unhappy or aggrieved in the future. As the old farm expression goes, “Don’t burn down the barn to kill the rats.”

Of course, apology by the roving partner will be necessary and it will take time to rebuild trust. Once the immediate crisis is over, the couple needs to look at what contributed to their estrangement and what changes need to be made in their relationship. They have to reaffirm a set of values by which to live and goals for their relationship and for the family. Changes in patterns of communication will likely be necessary, as will time and attention to each other. Serious self-reflection and responsibility-taking will be particularly important for the unfaithful member of the relationship, but the partner too must be willing to look at the possibility that he contributed to his spouse’s feelings of disaffection.

Such situations aren’t easy, but they can come out well. Good will, sincere contrition on the part of the person who strayed, and emotional generosity on the part of the victim are all key. The betrayal is never forgotten, of course. But time does its work on the scar of infidelity, just as bodily scars tend to soften and fade over time, even if they never fully disappear. Happiness and love may yet flourish.

The image above is a cropped screenshot of Lana Turner from the film The Postman Always Rings Twice, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.