Monday, January 23, 2012

Hello,Goodbye, and other Connecting Points

Connecting points are rituals of connection with the people you are closest to. They are touch points in your day and your week that make both you and the other person feel valued, important, and special. These actions make you feel like you belong. We need connecting points with all the special people in our lives: our partner, our children, our parents, and dear friends.
Couples need connecting points that include a kiss and a hug when you say goodbye for the day.
When one of you re-enters the home that evening, it is good relationship form to have the returning partner track down the partner at home for a hug and kiss hello. Even if they are cooking dinner, are on their laptop, or with the kids. The message is: everything else can wait for a minute. You are incredibly important to me. I am glad you are home.
Couples also need connection on a physical level on a regular basis, including holding hands and cuddling. Standing appointments with each other for a weekly date night also help re-romanticize the relationship. All week long you can both look forward to it. You wouldn't believe the number of good men I've seen in individual counseling over the years who are sensitive to the fact that their once affectionate partner never reaches out anymore.Be sure to kiss your partner good night, and tell them you love them often. Live without regret!
Rituals of connection are also bonding with your children and as a family. Have dinner around your kitchen or dining room table as often as you can. Share a prayer, and/or the best part of each person's day. Teens may protest, but they actually like it if you are serving food they like. Make Sunday dinner a big deal. I know someone in his 40's who still remembers the warmth of Sunday family dinners at his grandmother's house. Consider a game night, a pizza and a DVD night, or other great ideas the kids may have. Make it fun to be a part of your unique family. Create holiday traditions. Worship together. Read aloud together. I can still remember fondly my Dad reading to my sister and I. Bedtimes and tucking in time are terrific opportunities for end of the day connecting. Tell your children you love them. Hug them liberally and frequently.
Once you're on your own, and as parents age, create rituals of connection with your parents. They will look forward to a standing phone call, lunch, or dinner, and so will you. They won't always be there to enjoy. Get them talking about their life, their childhood, when they met their partner. Sharing happy memories about your aging parents' travel, work, relationships and life is wonderful for both of you. It's your family history, too! Make sure you tell them you love them. Many older seniors who are widowed don't get touched much, so be sure to connect with them with a hug. It might be the only touch they've had for a while, and touch is good for mental wellness.
Being intentional and conscious about staying connected to those you care about most is important. It's also some of the sweetest stuff in life. Make sure you don't miss out! Choose to be connected, rather than disconnected, from those you love. It will make your life much more meaningful.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Strong Enough To Be Vulnerable

Writer Louise Hay, the godmother of affirmations, wrote this one about vulnerability that I love:
"It is healing for me to show emotions. It is safe for me to be vulnerable."

One of the most beautiful things about people to me is when they have been through loss or difficulty, but it has not broken them. Life's challenges can break you open instead. It's been said that when your heart breaks, that's where the light can get in. I admire tremendously when people cultivate both their strength and vulnerability. It's an unstoppable combination of traits which will serve as a standard for others.

It takes a strong person to be honest about who you truly are, and what you are needing in your closest relationships. Many people do intimacy dances where they hide parts of themselves, and are fearful to really be known by the intimate other, or let the other person see your fears, hurts from childhood wounds, or your biggest hopes and dreams for your life and for the relationship.
I find people can't act forever. In your closest relationships, one will begin to resent and detach from the other person if you aren't brave about talking through your needs, your hopes, and your hurts, and listening from the heart to your partner's side on each of these concerns.

In relationships, we are always in motion, either getting closer, or drifting further away. It takes a brave and vulnerable individual to talk with your partner honestly about what is working well, and where you would like to do things differently with each other. Many people are starving emotionally in their relationship, and you can begin to correct the trajectory by talking about what you need and want, not in anger, but with love and vulnerability.

Being strong with your children may mean being a responsible parent who provides structure, consistency and predictability. (Think paying the bills, serving dinner at 6, helping them with homework, having household rules). Being vulnerable may mean being willing to apologize freely from the heart when you overreact or misstep. Sorry,but nobody's perfect, parents included. Being vulnerable might be hugging, tucking in, making plans to hang out together, or letting them know when you feel close to them, or what they mean to you. You can't imagine the number of adults I've seen in therapy over the last 20 years who never felt like they got the love, attention, tenderness, or approval from their parents that they needed. Good news! You can break the cycle and give your children that emotional tenderness they are needing. Start today by telling them, or writing them a personal letter about what they mean to you.

Remind yourself this week, by repeating Louise Hay's insightful affirmation to yourself ten times a day: "It is healing for me to show emotions. It is safe for me to be vulnerable today." Imagine not only an individual who cultivates strength and vulnerability, but also you and your partner, your family, your community, and all whose lives you touch. It's a wonderful, hopeful picture.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

What Are We Teaching Our Children?

I have a sweet photograph of a child walking away down a forested path that I have had framed for many years in my home. Underneath the photograph, it reads:

"Children are always the only future the human race has. Teach them well."

If you are a parent, the people your children become are likely to become your best legacy when you leave. Often as parents, we can become so busy trying to support the family financially, drive kids places, and stay happily married that we lose sight of our goals with our children. It is helpful, as I often do with parents I am coaching, to refocus on the goal.

What is our purpose in parenting? Every parent, or set of parents, needs to develop their own clear mission statement about the purpose of your parenting journey. It will help to guide your steps as you parent day by day. Let me share a few examples with you.

My goal as a parent is to finish raising our three wonderful children to become capable, independent, responsible, kind, well-balanced adults who can contribute to the world in their work and through their personal relationships. Then we can work backwards to figure out how to get there.

I wanted our children to be responsible,so we continually reevaluate what age-appropriate tasks they can be taught and take over for themselves. This is where strong self esteem really comes from. This means that girls and boys need to begin when little picking up after themselves, helping with a few tasks at home, and keeping up their room. We don't want to overprotect and make them lazy and weak. It is my preferences that early teens learn how to do their own laundry, make a few meals, and manage some small amount of money. Part-time and summer jobs can help teens learn to be on time, responsible, kind to counter help and servers, and learn the value of money. Even when they come back from college, evaluate if they can pay a few of their own bills while they save to move out on their own. If you are fortunate enough to have some housekeeping help, instruct that person not to do things the children should be doing for themselves.

Watch out for what you are role modeling. If you are a hoarder, throw your things around, or leave clothes and belongings around the house, your behavior will speak so loudly that it won't matter what you are trying to teach the children. They learn by watching you. This is another great way in which having children gives us the opportunity to grow up and mature ourselves. If you want them to understand the benefits of having a clean and organized home environment, you need to involve them alongside you in creating it. One family I am currently working with had a successful family clean up day recently, having the kids go through their rooms with a bag for trash and a bag for donation. That's living your values.

We are also teaching our children about selfless service to others, respect for older family members, commitment to a loving marriage, managing money wisely, practicing your faith, and how to treat people at stores and restaurants. We are constructing blueprints for how we want our children to handle disappointment, frustration, anger, and loss.

How you treat your partner also constructs an emotional blueprint for your children. Can you both apologize? Repair things after a fight? Do you fight fairly? Are you affectionate with each other? Do you have date nights as well as family time? Are you a faithful, devoted partner whose marital commitment means something? Are you honorable, kind, and fun to be with? I am now seeing several couples whose parents gave them no template at all for being a part of a loving couple, and they are starting from scratch in that department. We know we can do better for modeling to their young families.

We are also role modeling how to deal with stress. Do we go for a run or workout, rather than drink or overeat? Are we open emotionally, so that we teach emotional courage, generosity, and being vulnerable with those closest to us, rather than stuck in blame, pettiness,and control attempts? Do we role model practicing our faith? Are we resilient under challenges ourselves?
Being the very best person and parent you can be is an evolving, ongoing process designed to make us more the person we were meant to be. I had no idea when I became a parent 22 years ago what a fascinating, difficult and awe-inspiring journey was beginning. Truly, if we are open to it, our children polish us up and make us look at the lessons our life is teaching. I can't imagine my life without all the good things our three girls are teaching us.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Mad Men: Universal Themes Still Hit Home

Although the Mad Men television drama series is set in the 1960s, many of its human elements are truly timeless. There are struggles that are relevant to today: developing a sense of identity and trying to reinvent oneself, the challenges of attaching to another person in a genuine, intimate and enduring way, the desire to achieve, the impact and pitfalls of alcoholism and chemical dependency, the difficulties of divorce on both adults and children, the issue of feeling alone and disconnected. Pretty well hits most people, doesn't it? No wonder the series has won so many awards. It transcends the sixties beautifully. Change the furnishings and the wardrobe, and many of the dynamics relate well to life in 2012.

The central character in Mad Men is advertising executive Don Draper. While he is now a hugely successful Creative Director, and later a partner at a Madison Avenue advertising agency, he has a secret past. In a locked drawer in his desk at home are the remains of his former life as Dick Whitman, the son of a prostitute who died as he was being born. He grew up with hostile and abusive caregivers in extreme poverty. During his military service in Korea, Dick's commanding officer was killed. In a powerful moment of reinvention, Don switched his military dog tags with his deceased officer's. He then returns to the US and assumes the other man's identity. While his methods are dramatic, many people can relate to his desire to improve their life circumstances, and begin again....hopefully in a more integrated way. Over the years I have coached many people to navigate and create a life again after a significant loss, of a partner, a family member, a career, or serious health concerns. It takes courage and tenacity to begin again. While Whitman/Draper's situation is extreme, it does capture our imagination. It is symbolic of the changes one makes as we continue to evolve across the lifespan, just without this level of drama.

The relationships in Mad Men are interesting dances to watch.Infidelity abounds. Some of the physical intimacy is completely empty and meaningless. I can't easily identify a love relationship on the show which seems ideal. There is a sadness that is revealed at times, a longing for a deeper, more lasting connection. Roger, another partner at the ad agency, divorces his wife of many years, and remarries a young secretary at the firm closer to his daughter's age than his. At times he seems lonely, and like he has little in common with his much younger wife. Don's wife, Betty, seems like a horrible mother and completely disinterested in the day to day business of raising their family. She appears lonely while Don works incredibly long hours and has a whole string of extramarital affairs. When all is revealed about Don's multitude of secrets, Betty seems unable to forgive him. The timing is off, which, we are reminded in our own lives, sometimes happens. I often wonder what marriages I work with in couples counseling would look like if we could get both partners really putting their commitment into being all in. Mad Men reminds us that relationships are complicated, some people have never learned to attach securely, and great marriages take BOTH people living empathetically, transparently, and lovingly with each other.

On the ambition front, we get to watch through this series the desire most of the characters have to achieve something and be noticed. Organizational psychology illuminates how the work environment is like another family. Siblings (co-workers) are jealous of the credit and kudos others receive from the parent figure (boss). There are issues of jealousy, competition, rage, acting out, mentoring, support, and alliance-building. Just like at home! In particular, I find Don's relationship with his longtime copywriter, Peggy, interesting. Peggy admires Don and continues to seek his approval each season, even as she develops her strengths and assertiveness.

What about the drinking and smoking? It's excessive, and seems to begin first thing in the morning. At work! Clearly the characters are coping with a fast paced life, anxiety, sadness, loneliness and lots of other things by drinking and other substance use. They don't seem to have a very healthy lifestyle, and are numbing many of their feelings. Never a good choice, then or now.

A number of characters divorce, including Don and Betty. The pain that the children feel at losing their father from their life is palpable, and will hit home with anyone who is a child of divorced parents, or has gone through this trauma with their own children. Family therapists know that among the nodal events in family life, entrances and exits (like divorce), are two of the hardest. Watching the pain in Bobby and Sally Draper's eyes as they hear the news about their parents' break-up is heart-wrenching.

Lots have things have changed since the Mad Men era. We wear seat belts and bike helmets. Women can play different roles at the office besides secretary. Hopefully nobody is drinking at the office or chain-smoking through pregnancy. Beyond these differences and the style changes in design and fashion, many of the human themes transcend across these fifty years to challenges we each face in our lives and hopefully come to some more lasting and satisfying resolution. The outfits are different, but the desires for connection, closeness, support and achievement endure.