Feeling Overwhelmed Talking to Your Partner? Take a Break.

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A few weeks ago I announced on our facebook page that I was starting a new book, The Science of Trust, by Dr. John Gottman. Dr. Gottman is at the forefront of understanding the nuances of couple relationships. His research is fascinating so I thought I would share a tidbit with all of you. He measures couples physical responses when they are interacting in both positive and negative ways. Men and women are not equal when it comes to discussing difficult issues. Women are more likely to bring issues up and to do it using harsh start-up, where she criticizes her partner. Men are more likely than women to respond by stonewalling, where he emotionally and sometimes physically withdraws from the interaction. I’m sure men and women alike can relate to this experience. When interactions are characterized by harsh start-up and stonewalling partners are likely to become emotionally flooded, but men tend to become flooded faster and stay flooded longer. Hence the intense need to get away from the situation. When flooding happens the part of the brain that helps us to make rationale decisions stops functioning and our more primitive sides take over – this is why people do and say things they wouldn’t normally and this has the potential to create hurt and conflict beyond what the original issue was about.

So what can help when this happens?

Take a break. I’m sure everyone has heard of this strategy, but Dr. Gottman’s research shows there are important things that need to happen during this break in order to make it more likely that a couple can resume the discussion in a more helpful way. First the break needs to be long enough to allow both people’s bodies to clear the adrenaline horomones out of their blood and since this happens slower in men, he suggests 20 minutes is a safe time. Second, both people need to trust that their partner will come back to discuss the matter. I think this is especially important for women and a reason why they seem to not be able to stop and leave their male partners to calm down – they are afraid he will not want to resume the conversation and with good reason as many men having power do refuse. Third, it is important to do things that will calm your brain and body down during that time. If you just go to the other room and start ruminating over what happened (women are more likely to do this) your body is more likely to stay flooded. Doing anything that actively gets your mind or body or both involved in another activity will be helpful such as reading a magazine, going for a walk, meditation, or my favorite Sudoku. This is called self-soothing and if you need to do this 5 times in order to work an issue out – don’t worry in the long run your body will learn to sooth itself faster and it will take less time with practice.

Note: Content from this post was adapted from the following reference: Gottman, J. M. (2011). The science of trust: Emotional attunement for couples. New York, NY: Norton.

 

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Is Providing Emotional Support Bad for your Health? Absolutely not.

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Providing emotional support to others is good for health and relationship well-being for both men and women (Jensen, et al. 2013; Brown, 2003).  Could this be why women live longer than men? The problem for men is that providing and receiving emotional support is viewed by both men and women as feminine which decreases men’s motivation to engage in these health promoting behaviors. This starts from an early age affecting brain development; this deficit is felt by men on a daily basis and also motivates them to steer clear of emotional situations.  This has been supported by research that shows increased thinking complexity in those that provide helpful emotional support and women exhibit this capacity more than men (Samter, 2002).  The good news is that our brains are constantly developing and changing in response to our experiences, a phenomenon called neuroplasticity.   

So what is “helpful” emotional support and how do you learn to provide it?

I like to look to other fields to help me understand relationships better. I found an interesting study in a communications journal (Samter, 2002) that offers great information that can be spun into an instruction manual for developing skills in providing emotional support to others. This study differentiates between two kinds of support, person-centered support (helpful) and position-centered support (not so helpful). Person-centered support is acknowledging, validating, elaborating, and contextualizing the distressed feelings of another. Position-centered support disconfirms the other person’s emotional experience. For example, your partner comes to you and says he is feeling stressed over a disagreement he had with his boss at work today. Providing position-centered support you might  say, “I’m sure it wasn’t as bad as it seems, don’t let it bother you.”  Person-centered support is a more complex form of communication and might go something like this, “sounds like it really bothered you” (acknowledging), “that must have been difficult for you being that he is your boss and I know you like him” (validating), “how do you think it started?” (elaborating), “maybe your boss is feeling like he is losing control over the whole team and since you and him are closer he felt like he could cross some boundaries with you emotionally” (contextualizing). The overall process seems to be focused on sticking with the stressful topic. This might  seem counter-intuitive to some, especially men in my experience. Ever have a man in your life seem to want to change the subject when you are talking about something stressful? I have. I’ve talked with men who say, “how is it helpful to dwell on it” or “talking about it makes it worse.” And although the intention is good, it does not feel helpful. Changing the subject or trying to take the person’s mind off of it can send the message that you don’t want to deal with it, the person’s stress is a burden, and/or the person is a whiner. So here’s the scoop, staying with the stressful subject in a helpful way actually lowers the stress response in the body. Changing the subject makes it worse because it invalidates the person who came to you for support and now they also feel hurt that they have been shut down or shut out by someone they love and wanted support from. So if you’re not sure how to provide helpful support, trying following the formula provided above. It doesn’t have to be perfect, just think acknowledge, validate, elaborate, and contextualize. The outcome will not only be helpful for the person who came to you for help, but is also good for your health! It’s a win-win situation.

 

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Infidelity as a Catalyst for Change

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Over the last few months, I’ve learned a lot about issues relating to power, gender, and couple relationships having been a part of the weekly Socio-Emotional Relationship Therapy (SERT) Clinical Group. Prior to moving to California to pursue doctoral studies in Marital Family Therapy, one of my dearest friends contacted me from overseas to discuss his continued difficulties with his wife of 15 years. As a growing feminist, I felt his way of thinking about relationships was far from conventional and patriarchal. Conversations revolved around challenges with accepting being just a provider and protector in his relationship. He had difficulties dealing with feelings of inadequacy as a man due to his inability to engage his wife in an emotionally intimate way. He loved his wife, yet longed for a deeper connection. He felt frustrated that his wife assumed his motives were primarily sexual. Not being privy to his wife’s experience, I was often left simply exploring his experiences and pains. It was easy for me to listen to his frustrations and have compassion and empathy for what I perceived was a loving and patient husband.

 

Fast forward a few months and the tone changed; “Have I ever told you about my first love?” . . . Silence . . . “Well, no. I didn’t know you had one.” This conversation didn’t come out of the blue. He reconnected with his first love and was reliving the frustrations of having been separated from her in the first place. He shared, for the first time, how he had focused all his energy on becoming an accomplished man and husband as a way to prove to the world that he would never be separated from something he wanted ever again. I felt he idealized her even though her values were starkly contrasted from his own. Why was this happening? What was truly going on? What did this lost love mean to him at this point in his life? What was it about this woman that brought up his resentments towards his wife? Why was he taking a chance? I struggled with honoring his story and not judging his behavior as rash and selfish.  It seemed to me that he was doing all of this because he was unhappy in his relationship with his wife.

 

Influenced by the SERT group, I started asking questions about opportunity, financial stability, and power imbalances in the relationship. At first, he dismissed them as irrelevant because in the end, she was the one who was rejecting him, right? Well, not really. She didn’t feel safe in the relationship. He was secure in that, with several children, she would never ask for a divorce no matter what. But he could and she knew it. Both worked but she wasn’t fully privy to his financial history even though he doted on her financially. He was also financially and legally responsible for several of her family members. He could easily pull his support of them at any time which would have severe ramifications on the whole family. He always had the privilege and power to do what he pleased. Basically, she didn’t feel safe with him. How could she experience a fully intimate relationship with husband she didn’t understand or trust? It didn’t matter how often he talked to her about it, she felt powerless and unsafe to be fully vulnerable with him. This was further exacerbated by her knowledge of the emotional affair.

 

There we have it, an imbalance of power fully on display. How could I have not seen that from the beginning? That’s the thing about power, the less powerful are aware of it and the powerful dismiss it.  As expected, he didn’t see himself as the powerful one in the relationship, at first.  We talked in length about his responses to her and her family members who came to her defense. He responded viciously. Those moments were the catalyst to a deeper understanding of his wife’s fear and sense of powerlessness. Only when the powerful partner understands how they perpetuate this imbalance, can they choose, with awareness, on how to proceed.

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Equally Shared Parenting Part Two

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This week’s post is a continuation of questions we posed to two experts on Equally Shared Parenting. In last week’s Equally Shared Parenting Part One we covered the “demanding mom” and splitting gendered housework. This week we learn about discipline, righting wrongs, and parenting opposite sex children.

How do you have conversations about the distribution of parenting when one person feels they are doing more?

By keeping the spirit of the conversation neutral and exploratory. By saying, “Gee, I’ve been noticing that I’m organizing 95% of the playdates (or doing 95% of the diaper changes, or arranging 95% of the doctors’ visits). Isn’t that interesting, honey? Why is that?” It can be kind of fun to dissect how the imbalance began! And once the couple discovers what is really going on, they can set about fixing it together – without judgment. Or, in some cases, they can agree that the current imbalance is actually a great solution to that particular task that is imbalanced, because it opens up opportunities to balance out the total of parenting in another way.

A real-life example of this type of discussion is how we decided to share laundry duty. I noticed that I was doing almost all of our laundry, despite our wish to share this rather large task. I brought up the issue with Marc and we explored together why I was getting stuck cleaning all of the family’s clothing. It turns out, we discovered, that the problem lay in our two very different standards to starting a load. I see a full laundry basket, and interpret this as, “time to wash the clothes.” Marc prefers to let the laundry pile up a bit and then tackle a few loads at once on the weekend. Voila…the reason why I was doing it all! We reaffirmed that, yes, we wanted to split this task between us. Then we acknowledged that we each had perfectly acceptable methods of tackling the chore (in other words, I wasn’t ‘right’ and Marc ‘wrong’). Our solution was to have two laundry baskets – darks and lights – that all family members would sort their clothes into; Marc would wash the darks at his pace and I’d wash the lights as often as I wanted to do so. Our solution allowed us to honor each other’s wish to contribute and unique way of doing so, split the task so neither of us felt saddled with too much, and keep out of each other’s way while doing so.

How do you manage equality in disciplining your children so you don’t fall into the good cop/bad cop pattern?

We do our best at this (although we’re not perfect) by falling back on pre-agreed-upon standards for discipline. Together, we make the rules about chores for our kids, behavior musts, and consequences. It helps that we each spend about the same amount of time alone with our kids, so that we are fully ‘up’ on their activities, moods, etc. Our kids do their best to find the chinks in our armor, of course, so the rules are definitely continuously being re-evaluated. Equal partnerships require lots of communication!

As our kids are now older (7 and 10), we’ve begun weekly family meetings at which we decide, together as a foursome, about new rules and changes to old ones. This holds all of us accountable to the same standards, and both Marc and I can fall back on what we decided together as a family when problems arise.

Since you have a boy and a girl how do you or don’t you fall into gendered parenting? Where you take primary responsibility for your daughter and your husband takes primary responsibility for your son.

Having a boy and a girl is a really nice outcome for us as equal, different-sex parents! We hope we are teaching our kids that gender doesn’t dictate behavior, although they are also being influenced greatly by the outside world (especially their peers, where gender stills seems to matter very, very much). They see us both in the workplace, both taking care of them, both caring for the home, and both out having fun doing something for ourselves.

 That said, we do divide up primary responsibilities to be practical – either based on our schedules or our interests. I came from a musical family, and am our kids’ primary music parent. I’m the one who nurtures them, prods them, challenges them, and helps them the most as they progress on the violin or cello. But Marc can pinch hit for me on this front in a split second because he goes to enough of their lessons, knows what they are working on, attends all of their recitals, and cares deeply about their education, their enjoyment, and their growth. On the flip side, Marc is terrific at sports and takes charge of the kids’ sports activities and education while I play the pinch-hitter role.

I don’t think there are activities, however, in which I take primary responsibility for our daughter and Marc takes primary responsibility for our son…other than sex education topics! Sometimes the same-gender child gravitates toward each of us perhaps because of some underlying feeling of similarity (our son likes to watch football, imitating Marc; our daughter likes to play violin duets with me), but I think we can keep the rest of our responsibilities gender-neutral because we both love being involved in our kids’ lives to the fullest.

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Equally Shared Parenting

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For all the strides toward equality we have made in recent years, there is one area at home that research consistently shows is still unequal. Dual earner couples are more common than not these days and are usually able to maintain higher levels of equality – that is until children enter the picture. Parenting duties have traditionally been divided by gender and the majority of responsibility for children, especially small children, has been put on mothers with the argument that they are “naturally” more nurturing and “just know” what to do. So when women come home from work they usually start the second shift. It is very rare that a man has sole responsibility for the second shift and his wife gets to go home and put her feet up after a hard days work!  Believe it or not parents actually do more equal parenting when they are divorced!  I am hopeful for change because I see more and more fathers who have a strong desire to want to know their children on a deeper level which often means being an integral part of everyday care and responsibilities.

We are very privileged to have a couple who have fully embraced the goal of equal parenting share their experiences with us and answer some of our burning questions about how they manage this with the all the forces pulling us into our gendered roles.  Amy and Marc Vachon have authored a book Equally Shared Parenting which you can purchase on Amazon.com and also have a great blog on the subject.

How do you balance the gendered daily household tasks? Does the woman still seem to take more responsibility with inside chores or…

Our schedule is the magic ingredient that helps us break out of typical gendered task division, at least when it comes to routine, daily, must-be-done-today chores like making dinner, preparing the kids’ lunches for school, or driving them to sports or music activities. We have purposefully set up our schedule so that we alternate who is physically home to handle these things. If it’s Monday, dinner is my job. On Tuesdays, I know Marc will think about, shop for (if necessary), prepare and clean up dinner. When others hear that we alternate dinner duty, to continue this example, they often assume we’ve got a tit-for-tat scorekeeping system going. But in reality, we’ve built our work schedules so that it’s practical and sensible to share dinner this way; the parent who picks up the kids from school and is home to make dinner is the parent who does so.

Even as we share much of the daily chores in a non-gendered way, we still fall into typical gender expectations on many other things. Marc loves to do handyman projects around the house; I love to organize the closets (well, I get pleasure out of tackling this type of chore); Marc takes on doing our taxes; I handle the birthday party planning and clothes organizing. We want others to know gendered divisions are okay too as long as they are purposeful. If one partner gets stuck with a chore just because of gender, it’s time to take notice and speak up!

How do you deal with the stereotypical notion that women have specific ways she likes things done and so she should just do those herself?

It would be easy for me to lay claim to my ‘right’ to dictate our household furnishings, the way the kids are dressed, how we entertain, or how often the rugs are shampooed. But the minute I do so, I have no right to an equal partner in these things any longer. The prize of equality far outweighs my dreams of dominion, at least for me, and keeps me on my toes when I dare to think I can push for my way based on my gender. It also gives me the courage to ignore societal judgment of me, as the woman, for the cleanliness of our home or the way the kids are dressed! If I tried to exert ‘my way,’ my booby prize is exactly as you describe…I would (and should) end up doing things myself because a dictatorship is never a partnership.

The key is to decide together, as a couple, what your partnership will stand for when it comes to hot button tasks. Together, you can decide how often this family changes the bedsheets, dusts the bookshelves, or vacuums the carpets. When the dishes are done, how the dishwasher is loaded, whether the kids are ready for sleepovers, or whether to redecorate in Victorian or Shaker style. When you both participate in creating the family standards, you’re both invested in making them come true. But if I secretly harbor a desire to change the bedsheets more often than I’ve agreed to, I’m welcome to have at it – using my own time – and I can’t blame Marc for not doing so.

Next week we will find out how they avoid the good cop/bad cop trap when disciplining and how they have conversations when one person feels like they are doing more.

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Deconstructing Valentine’s Day

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Today is Valentine’s Day. I know what I thought that meant before I was aware of relationship inequalities. I believed that was the day it was OK for men to profess their love for their partner. Do it any other day…and maybe you’re not a real man or I dare say “whipped!”  I’m not sure why, but I always thought of it as a day that men did things for women. Probably because women did things all year round and this was the one day they would be showered with affection and praise. Also perhaps birthdays and other holidays. Seems like an awfully long time to wait to know that you are appreciated/loved. I think this sets women up to have high expectations and I wonder what the effect is on the relationship when he does not meet those expectations.

Do we really need a day to acknowledge our love for one another? Love is present everyday, all day! I mean how much sense does it really make to bank on one day of the year to let your partner know how important they are to you. If people made a habit of doing this continually would there even be a need for a day like Valentine’s Day? Wouldn’t it seem silly? I think the reason why it doesn’t seem silly is because in our culture Love is so far removed from our everyday individualistic lives that we need to set aside a time to remember that it is important to honor the relationships and people we love. Maybe it seems easier for men to buy a gift or spend money, rather than doing the more vulnerable things to show love. Marketers and companies probably picked up on this and capitalized at the expense of many men’s wallets and relationships. Think about it, is it easier to make a reservation at a restaurant? Or anticipate your partner’s needs day by day and do little things to make sure they are being met? Women do this more “naturally” because we are socialized from birth to do so – this is what we call attunement. And once you sense what someone else is needing – it is difficult not to be affected by it and subsequently act upon it.

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I think some men are missing this critical relationship skill. Ever receive a gift from a man and think HUH?! Why would he think I would like this? If you get a gift or gesture that you really love and didn’t have to tell your partner what you wanted, then you can be assured your partner is attuned to you — unless he cheated and asked someone else who is attuned to you what you would like.

Just for the record…I’m not anti-Valentine’s Day…I just think we should treat one another like everyday is Valentines Day, minus spending all the money we have on gifts for one another, by mutually attuning to one another’s needs and acting to meet them. This can be one of the simplest, yet most profound  ways to show love and it doesn’t cost a dime.

I’d love to hear other’s thoughts, both men and women on the meaning of Valentine’s Day to you. Who knows? Maybe my ideas are outdated. Anything is possible.

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I’m a Real Boy

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A special thank you to Clayton Koh the author of this week’s blog post. I met Clayton at a friend’s birthday dinner where we had a great conversation about how we are socialized to be male and female. It is always refreshing for me to meet men who are willing to question how healthy “normal male development” really is for men and relationships. Reading this post helped to open my eyes to the new struggle younger men and boys experience hearing the conflicting messages about masculinity today.

In our world, kids are constantly bombarded by ideas about gender. “That’s a boy color, That’s a girly thing to do, Why don’t you do things like your sister?, or Be a man!” 

As I reflected on my own childhood and the way that society teaches our boys about masculinity, I realized that there are strong stereotypes relating to what it means to be a “real man.”  Society tells boys that they must be stoic with their emotions, risk-taking and rugged, muscular and macho, independent and confident, and never express weakness.  The effects of the struggle to fit in (or the inability to fit in) to society’s stereotypical mold of masculinity can be devastating–ranging from depression, serious physical health problems, anti-social behaviors, marital problems, or social group shunning.  To make matters more complicated, society now expects men to mirror the traditional “macho” image of masculinity as well as the modern, more sensitive/loving image.

With conflicting messages about masculinity given by parents, teachers, and society at large, it can be confusing for boys to figure out how to be “real boys” and also be true to the unique talents, interests, and dreams they have.  How can they fulfill their artistic dreams when their parents are pushing them to master football?  How can they learn to express their emotions in a healthy way when teachers and coaches reprimand them when they cry?

To address these issues, I wrote and illustrated a book called I’m a Real Boy.  The aim of this book is to open up dialogue between parents and children or teachers and children about what real masculinity is, because I believe that one of the best ways we can help to change the harmful pressures of masculine stereotypes on boys is to help adults (namely parents and teachers) become more aware of the subtle and overt ways in which they are perpetuating some of these stereotypes.  I hope that this book will be one of many voices that will be heard to empower boys with the knowledge that being a real man is really the same as being authentic and true to the way they were created to be.  

If you’re interested in getting a copy of Clayton’s book I’m a Real Boy please leave a comment indicating your interest. He will contact you through the email address you provided in order to comment. Please note: You do not need to write your email address in the comment.

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