Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Getting Our Daughters to Speak Up

I just got back from a wonderful psychotherapy conference in San Francisco. One of the keynote speakers was Harriet Lerner, Ph.D., a psychologist and the author of a number of very useful books, including The Dance of Anger, The Dance of Connection, and her newest book, Marriage Rules. Dr. Lerner is soft-spoken, very wise, and also extremely witty.

In her speech to a ballroom of therapists, Dr. Lerner retold a story that she had heard columnist Ellen Goodman share some years back. It had to do with a friend of Ellen's who had several daughters. The advice she always gave to her daughters was, "Speak up, speak up, speak up! The only person you are going to scare off is your future ex-husband!" The ballroom lit up with laughter after this story.

As a mother of daughters myself, and a relationship coach and therapist for many years, I couldn't help but think how wise and on-point that motherly advise was. It's difficult for women, and young women in particular, to demonstrate the courage that it takes to be themselves in close relationships. Women need encouragement to say what they truly think, want, and feel. This is especially true in intimate relationships, or on hot-button issues that you think may trigger your partner's anger.

In intimate relationships, the power balance will be off if we are underrepresented by ourselves. Girls and women often feel pressure to avoid conflict and please others. We need to help young women, and women of all ages understand that it is possible to integrate femininity and strength. You may be able to be calm and flexible about many things, but you cannot betray your core self or the values, beliefs, and interests that are authentically you.

It's easy to disagree when the stakes are low---like you prefer vanilla ice cream to chocolate. The stakes are considerably higher when you perceive a parent, a partner, a co-worker or boss to have a strongly opposing opinion about something big. It has to be okay for women to get angry, impassioned, or feel strongly about some core issues. It has to be okay to feel or think differently than the other person, and require a respectful dialogue about it.

Sometimes young women will try to be the perfect girlfriend or partner, and lose themselves in the exchange. It's a bad bargain, and will ultimately end in resentment and feeling misunderstood.

No matter how healthy and good a relationship is, no one will ever read your mind. It's our job to let others know what we like and don't like on the big things. And if it scares away your future ex-husband? Think about all the trouble you have saved yourself!

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