Thursday, November 29, 2012


Trust is an important component in close relationships. We learn how to trust initially as infants and small children who learn to have confidence that mom, dad, or the primary caregiver will respond to our needs and be there as we need them. If we aren't fortunate enough to get this platform as we grow up, then we have to try to create it as we go with others.

When we become parents ourselves, we are giving our children a platform for trusting others. Are we calm, reasonable, warm, available, and supportive? It means a great deal to have a parent who can be counted on. Children need parents who are predictable, present, involved, and providing meals, love, and attention. When parents are unpredictable, absent, hostile and volatile, it blows apart the empathic envelope of trust that parents should have around their growing children. For our children to trust us, we must be trustworthy as parents.

As a teen or an adult, it takes courage to let your guard down and be vulnerable with significant others ---to trust a few people to be there for you, to support you, and not to betray that trust. Some people have difficulty trusting others because they know that they can't be trustworthy themselves.

Trust is built over time, like depositing coins in a bank, or marbles in a jar. Every repeated experience where your trust is maintained, and the loved one is a person of their word, helps to keep that bank account balance up or that jar filled. If trust is broken, it is a much harder thing to rebuild later. Sometimes trust can't be rebuilt at all.

How is trust built or maintained at a high level?

1.      Being honest with others.

2.      Having difficult conversations when they need to happen. For example, you might begin resenting the other person, or needing to do something different, or wanting to change or upgrade the communication and quality of relationship between you. Sharing what you are thinking may be difficult, but keeps the other person in the loop and honors the relationship between the two of you. It gives the other person the opportunity to grow. I often see people in counseling who wish their former partner gave them a heads up right away about problems, rather than storing them up until there was nothing beautiful left.

3.      Be aware of the danger of side conversations. Talking with an objective person, like a trained therapist, can very helpful in getting clarity about what you are wanting, and how to best approach the other person. You can trust that the therapist has no hidden agenda. You can get insight as to how to change your own dance steps in any relationship so that you are operating from your best self. Side conversations with friends, extended family, etc. about an important relationship are potentially problematic, build outside alliances, and dishonor the other person.

Teens, in particular, tell me they shut down when they share something personal with a parent, and the parent shares that sacred trust with others.

4.      Be impeccable with your word. Keep your promises. Doing this also develops your own character and integrity.

5.      Ask for what you want. Be direct. Be brave. There are no bonus points for passivity or silent suffering.

6.      Don't keep destructive secrets. These are secrets that you know would hurt or damage the trust between you if the other person knew.

7.      Avoid passive aggressive behavior. If you are upset, hurt, or angry, own up to it with your loved one.

I like to think of it this way: in order to establish the feeling of safety with another person, you must be able to trust them. To build feelings of intimacy, you have to feel safe. These are the building blocks of close and caring relationships, whether between partners, between parent and child, or close friends. Safety, trust, openness, intimacy, and vulnerability are best when they travel as a team. A relationship can only be as strong and as deep as your commitment to these hallmarks of conscious relationships, and the similar commitment of the other person you are in relationship with.

So there are two parts to trust: being a trustworthy person yourself, and choosing intimate others who are deserving of your trust, and can give you that gift in return.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Tiny Beautiful Things

On a recent cross-country flight, I thoroughly enjoyed reading Cheryl Strayed's new book, Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar (Vintage Books, 2012). Strayed is the author of the current New York Times list bestseller, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Rim Trail. This book is a collection of her heartfelt responses to letters she has received as the advice columnist for The Rumpus, an online literature community.

Strayed deeply absorbs, wrestles with, and responds to the life and relationship dilemmas her readers write in with. She bravely opens up and shares some of her own personal tragedies and triumphs as well. People write to Sugar, and open up about dealing with the death of a loved one, betrayal by their partner, their career dreams and aspirations, settling for things and relationships for security, family troubles, sexuality, and a myriad of other topics. It's an anonymous forum for deeply personal dialogue and soul-searching.

While the responses are at times peppered with blue language, the answers are real, deep, and show her warmth and hard-won wisdom from being informed by her own life experiences. Strayed lost her mother to illness as a young adult. She married young and was divorced by 26. She remarries later, and survives her husband’s affair. She struggled to become a writer, with waitressing jobs, mentoring at-risk teens, teaching anger management to low-income families, teaching memoir writing, and lots of other adventures along the way. She is the mother of two children.

Strayed strikes just the right tone of radical compassion, acceptance, vulnerability, and challenge. She understands, but she encourages the writer (and us as readers) to stretch to become our biggest self.

Take this advice Strayed gives to a man after the end of his 20 year marriage, when he is struggling with whether or not to love the woman he is involved with a few years later, “Do it. Doing so will free your relationship from the tense tangle that withholding weaves. Do you realize that your refusal to utter the word ‘love’ to your partner has created a force field all its own? Withholding distorts reality. It makes the people who do the withholding ugly and small-hearted. It makes the people from whom things are withheld crazy and desperate and incapable of knowing what they actually feel...Don't be strategic or coy...Be brave. Be authentic. Practice saying the word 'love' to all the people you love so when it matters the most to say it, you will...We're all going to die. Hit the iron dinner bell like it's dinner time.”

Strayed's admonitions to her memoir writing class are profoundly true on multiple levels. “You get no points for living, I tell my students. It isn't enough to have had an interesting or hilarious or tragic life. Art isn't anecdote. It’s the consciousness we bring to bear on our lives. For what happened in the story to transcend the limits of the personal, it must be driven by what the story means.” I feel the same way as a therapist and life coach, as I help clients try to integrate their experiences into their current life, and cull the meaning from their own life's chapters.

There are a number of bittersweet sections in the book, like when Strayed reflects on her sense of wonder about life. You never know who will be in your life forever, and who will just be there for a while. As she points out, sometimes the people we start out thinking are going to be there with us forever don't end up being there. It’s also very surprising the people that show up in our lives and play a meaningful role when we didn’t expect them.

The final letter in the book, written by a 22-year old, is worth buying the book for. The writer asks for wisdom from Strayed about what she would write to her younger self, if she got the chance. It's funny, but it's also very honest. Stop worrying about being fat. Don't lament about your career so much; you have a life, not just a career. You can't convince people to love you. Either they love you or they don't. Resolve what childhood wounds you can in your 20s, knowing you'll have to go back and resolve more of them later as your life evolves. Watch your assumptions about other people, as they are often wrong. Do the work you’re supposed to be doing. My favorite, the very last piece of advice in the book, is to take the winter coat your mother bought you. Don't critique the coat. It may be very precious if it’s the last gift she gives you, because, in an autobiographical note, she may be dead by spring. Say thank you.

I fell in love with Sugar. I think you might, too. Cheryl Strayed's perspective is funny, honest, and speaks to the best self in each of us. The idea of writing a letter to your younger self is a particularly valuable one that just could help us offer ourselves guidance from our own earlier life lessons.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Thanksgiving Blessings: Appreciating What You Have

As the calendar turns to Thanksgiving this week, it seems a good time to reflect on the blessings, people, and things we have in our lives, as well as being grateful for the bad stuff we don't have. Thornton Wilder wrote "We are most alive in those moments when our hearts are conscious of our treasures." Too often, I see people take the special people in their lives for granted, not realizing the true value of those closest to them.

In his book,"How to Want What You Have: Discovering the Magic and Grandeur of Ordinary Existence" (Holt and Company,1995), therapist Timothy Miller does a brillant job of illuminating the grass is greener sort of longing that many people have, assuming that some other path taken in life would be more satisfying. Many people make the mistake of thinking, "If I just had this, life would be perfect."

Wanting what you have, and seeing the goodness in it is the surest way to create satisfaction, contentment, and joy. As Miller suggests, daily practice of compassion, attention, and gratitude is the surest way to be content.We all will do better at this some days than others, and that's okay. Contentment and happiness are not steady states of being. It is in cultivating the daily habits of compassion, attention, and gratitude that we become better at creating a receptiveness for appreciating the little joys of daily life.

It is a mistake to tell ourselves that we will be happy when....(we finish college, get married, get our dream job, have a certain amount of money, have children, get the house we want, get divorced, or move someplace else, etc.). It's elusive. Wherever you go, there you are, so we need to be able to enjoy now as an incredible gift, making the most of each day and each interaction. We want to keep a keen awareness of how good it is to love others, to be loved, to feel strong and healthy, to enjoy sunsets and nature, to appreciate art and music, and all the other little things that make life worth living. Loving life is in the details of our ordinary days.

Miller points out, wisely, that the desire for more often does harm. It does indeed. I have worked with a number of individuals in counseling over the years who really regreted losing something precious, like a relationship, because they didn't realize how valuable it was. Sometimes people put what is most important in their lives at risk in order to have something they falsely believe is more or different. Note how many celebrities are successful in their careers, but unsuccessful as partners or parents.

Focusing on identifying non-compassionate thoughts, about yourself and others, and replacing them with compassionate ones is a good start in cultivating more contentment. Next, act compassionately. Move away from the judgement of others. It is not your job, and it will not bring you inner peace. Be as attentive as possible to others, and be observant of yourself. Finally, practice living in reverence and gratitude. Express your gratitude to others.

Thanksgiving is a wonderful time to refocus ourselves on what is most important. Don't miss an opportunity to tell someone close to you this week what you love or appreciate about them. Contentment has a great deal to do with being here now, and recognizing goodness, beauty, support, and love. If you want to truly prepare your heart for Thanksgiving, and feel really blessed, consider all the gifts that you have in your life that money cannot buy. I have a number of people in my life that I feel blessed to be close to, and then there are those two crazy golden retrievers who are pretty wonderful, too.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Mending a Broken Heart

Break-ups are hard at any point in life, but almost everyone has been through it once or more than once. It's a part of our human experience, and helps us appreciate the fragile nature of close relationships.

What do we need when a relationship ends? How can we process what has happened? What can we do to help ourselves move through the grief?

It's important to remember that loss is always felt in direct proportion to how attached we were to that person. The more attached the two of you were, and the more your lives were intertwined, the greater the feelings of  loss you will experience.

Allow yourself to feel the loss, including the shock, the sadness, the anger, the regrets, the bargaining in your own mind about if things had only been different. All of these feelings are normal. Grief is always easier and less complicated if you deal with it at the time of the loss. Look through old pictures if you feel the need. Listen to songs that remind you of that person if you want to. Let yourself cry if you can; tears are healing.

Avoid alcohol or drugs as you are grieving your loss. It will bury your grief, and delay you dealing with the painful feelings until sometime later, when it will be more difficult to deal with. Grief therapists notice that losses that don't get dealt with at the time can show up later in that person's life, when some subsequent loss occurs and it hits doubly hard.

Activate your support system. Let your close friends and family know what has happened, and that you need them to be available to support you. It's okay to spend some time alone, but spend some time with your friends and family and allow them to lift your spirits. Work and school can be healthy distractions, too.

Reflect about the insights and lessons you may have learned from this relationship. What will you do the same in a future relationship? Will you be more attentive, more open, or choose someone with different traits? Perhaps you have learned some lessons about what is important to you in close relationships.

Take extremely good care of yourself. Eat nutritiously. Grief is heavy emotional work, so be sure to get your sleep. After a break-up is an excellent time to step up your exercise. It will help you relax, sleep better, work out anger, and get a healthy dose of endorphins. You may want to change a few things---perhaps a different hairstyle, a new outfit, or something else that boosts your self-esteem a bit.

Take your time healing. It isn't a race to get back out there and begin dating again. It's healthy to take your time developing yourself again after a break-up. Focus on your friends, your career, your family, and your interests. It's important to learn how to not be in a relationship, and be by yourself.

Loss is a part of life. Time passing helps, as well as feeling your feelings. This is the only healthy way through the journey of grief. You can work through the grief process and even grow from it.

If you are stuck, feel you are slipping into depression, or can't figure out how to move through the pain to the rest of your life, meeting even a time or two with a therapist who is trained in grief work can be very valuable in moving you forward.

Break-ups happen. Some of the challenge is finding your way through it, feeling and processing your grief, and learning from the journey along the way. The human heart is an amazing and resilient thing.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Why do Marriages Last Better In New Jersey?

In the October 14th edition of The New York Times, I found an article in the wedding section with some interesting demographic data about staying married. Recently, the Census Bureau released its 2011 American Community survey, showing New Jersey ranking last among the states for its percentage of residents age 18 and older who are divorced.

A different study by Philip Cohen, a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland looked at the states with the lowest of divorces the previous year compared with their populations, finding these states to be Delaware, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, and North Dakota. All of these states had rates of divorce about 6-7% per 1,000 people, compared to 31 states that have above a 10% rate.

The Director of the National Center for Family and Marriage Research at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, Susan Brown, suggests that the data about less divorce in New Jersey has a lot to do with the demographic trends for first marriage there. Long-term marriages are more likely when couples marry later, have a higher level of education, and are more financially stable. In New Jersey, it seems that more people are delaying marriage until they are more ready for it and have fewer risk factors for divorce.

According to American Community’s 2011 survey, 23% of Americans married that year were between 18 and 24 years old. In New Jersey, only 13% of newlyweds were that young. The same survey found that of people 31% of Americans married in 2011 had a bachelor's degree or higher education. In New Jersey, this figure was 42%.

Public Policy professor Andrew Cherlin from Johns Hopkins notes that the divorce rates tend to be lower in the northeastern states because of this trend to marry later and at a higher educational level.

Recessions tend to have a mixed effect on the rates of divorce. While job loss, unemployment, bankruptcy, foreclosure and other economic instability are bad stress for couples, it may be that some couples do not separate or divorce because they cannot afford the additional expense of setting up and maintaining two households, plus legal costs.

Other writers wonder if other factors make divorce in New Jersey less likely. There are many foreign-born residents, which may reduce divorce rates. Unemployment is not as high in New Jersey as some other states. Perhaps the stress and impact of Hurricane Sandy will impact the next set of divorce statistics. Some question whether married people in New Jersey have a lower happiness set-point than those in other areas, or if they are settling.

At the very least, these national statistics about trends in marriage and divorce give us an interesting dialogue about that factors that make splitting up less likely. For my own daughters, and all the young people I work with in counseling, I still hope you will take your time. Don't partner too early. Finish your education and get financially stable on your own if possible before taking on the huge commitments of marriage and family. Be sure to get some pre-marital counseling so you know how you will deal with decisions, religion, parenting, finances, family, and sex.

Your core self isn't truly developed until close to age 30, so if you marry before then, it's anybody's guess if you will still be a fit with your partner later on. Give yourself the best chance at marital happiness and success that you can, because there are plenty of challenges you can't control in life. 

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Keeping the Happy in your Holidays

Remember when you were a child and the holidays were pretty magical? It might have been your favorite part of the year, other than your birthday.

Too often, adults dread the turn of the calendar to November, with the extra workload of the holidays: cooking, shopping, meal planning, wrapping gifts, more demands on your time, extra expenses, decorating, cleaning, entertaining, thinking of brilliant gift ideas. It's enough to make one want to schedule a long nap to rest up!

It's time to take back your holidays. This article is geared to help you stage your own holiday makeover so that you can put the joy and meaning back into the season, and not go passively into all the regular routines without some careful checking in with yourself and the people who matter most to you.

It can be helpful to make a list of the holiday tasks you normally do, and consider what brings you the most joy. If you live alone, you can do this by yourself. If you live with family, you can have a meeting with the family to find out what means most to each person. What is each person's favorite part of each holiday? What can you cut out because the effort isn't worth it?

Try to delegate and find out who can do what task to help bring the holidays together. Could meals be made into shared events where each person contributes a dish? Could your son, daughter, grandson or granddaughter home from college help you with decorating and un-decorating? Could you bring food in? Could you make things more casual? Ask for help! Some of the joy is in putting the holiday together, not just showing up for it. Don't hog all the tasks for yourself, or you are likely to resent it (and your resentment will leak out).

Could you schedule some self-care into your holiday season? Perhaps you could schedule some breaks for you to exercise, get a massage, watch a favorite holiday movie, or do something else that restores you. If you have been losing weight and taking care of yourself, maybe you want to reconstruct your holiday menus to not create backward motion on your health goals. You can also increase non-food related holiday activities, like seeing a play or a concert together. Those peanut butter balls are not going to be easy to burn off after the holidays. If we get a little creative, spending time together doing active things can be a refreshing change from one holiday meal after another.

Think creatively about doing things in a new way that would fit your life now. This would be a good time to suggest drawing names for gifts in your family, rather than trying to find and fund gifts for every single person. It's not worth stressing yourself out, or incurring debt that could depress you in January when you get the bills. Perhaps you can make this a cash-only holiday season, and avoid charging on credit cards.

You might have to update your holiday plans given the changes that have occurred in the past year. I am working with people in counseling that have moved into a smaller home space this year, and have had to rethink having all the adult kids stay over. Maybe the adult kids can stay in a nearby hotel, and meet up for some part of each day with you if you are hosting.

If you have divorced, been through a break-up or death this year in your life, it's definitely time to revisit your take on the holidays. Give yourself the permission and authority to rewrite the regular traditions, or keep them the same depending on what feels most comforting to you.

Seek peace and acceptance with your family during the holiday season. Don't expect miracles. Try to lower your sensitivities to slights, be generous with your forgiveness, and realize it's not your job to judge other family members. Choose to wage tolerance and extend yourself if you can.

Cut where you like, but don't cut out the meaningful things. If faith is important to you, or volunteering in some way during the holidays to get some perspective, then schedule that in first. It could be that you want to extend your holiday season and make plans to see close friends before or after, rather than getting too stressed and tired.

Keeping your own energy level up is important. Try to get your rest, exercise, and not get overwhelmed. Try to set boundaries with negative, toxic, demanding, and unreasonable people. Pay special attention to pacing yourself. Take breaks from entertaining and hosting.

Take control, and make this your new, updated, and improved holiday season. You just might have a lot more fun, and bring back some of the magic. Lighten up, and go for the joy!