Tuesday, January 29, 2013

What Happened to Courtship?

In his recent article in the Sunday, January 13, 2013 edition of the New York Times, Alex Williams reflects on “The End of Courtship.” I've been noticing changes for the past several years in what used to be called dating in my counseling practice in Newport Beach, California. Young women in their college years and 20s particularly report dating changes, but so do people in their 30s and above.

Some of the changes have been facilitated by technology. With text messages, many people slide into lazy habits of not making definite plans, or avoiding rejection by not calling and inviting the other person for a specific date/time/place/activity. Text messaging to “see what the other person is doing,” and/or inviting them via text message to  meet up and “hang out” with you and your friends at the last minute is very common. It may be convenient, but it just doesn't make you feel special. As Williams reports, many young women report that invitations for dates have been reduced to the level of a last-minute text message Friday night reading “Hey,” or “sup.” What's a girl supposed to do with that? Hopefully, nothing.

Text messages can make it difficult to discern the tone or nuances. It takes very little effort. It often doesn't feel very personal, like a phone call can be. As people get more enmeshed in habitual texting, it can seem “safer” than real, live conversations where you have to respond right away, and can't take your time to wordsmith a response.

Hanging out and hooking up randomly are common with many college-age adults, with alcohol-induced random romantic pairings that mean nothing. I find this sad, and always urge the young adults I work to set their own standards, no matter what everybody else may be doing. Sex is not a sport, and making physical intimacy mean nothing is a huge mistake.

Online dating has changed the dating landscape as well. Some people get overwhelmed with the candy store mentality of choices, and are frantically dating multiple people at a time to the point of confusion, needing notes, and feeling stressed by it. It's similar to an online job application blitz, throwing lots of inquiry emails out there and seeing what sticks. In the age of Google-ing someone before the first meeting, the initial in-person conversation also changes when they already have gathered details about you from the dating or social networking sites.

Donna Frietas, who teaches Religion and Women's Studies at Boston University and Hofstra, has a soon to be released book I look forward to reading, entitled The End of Sex: How Hookup Culture is Leaving a Generation Unhappy, Sexually Unfulfilled, and Confused About Intimacy. The decline of courtship and shift to a hookup mentality is not progress as far as emotional intimacy, the art of getting to know someone over time, or one-to-one conversation is concerned. Most things that are valuable in life are not instant, and putting some effort and intentionality into dating is still attractive.

There are other societal shifts happening concurrently, including more longevity for most of us, and a prolonged “adultesence” into the mid-to late 20s with the age of first marriage happening later than in generations past. This could be changing the courtship dynamics, where no one wants to get too serious too soon.

Regardless, I still prefer that we all develop good social skills, call others rather than text whenever possible, and have the courage to risk rejection and create real intimacy. Women also need to know that they can ask for behaviors they prefer, and hold to their own personal standards. Texting may be useful for quick information, like the fact that you may be 5 minutes late, but it isn't a medium for developing a relationship. Online dating can be a good way to meet someone, but real relationships have to occur in real time. Email or texting are not good modes to work through relationship challenges. Some things will always be better in person or in conversation that isn't preplanned or cleverly crafted.

Friday, January 25, 2013

The Eight Habits of Love

We all have our daily habits: what we eat for breakfast or lunch, the route we drive to work, what programs we watch on television, and a thousand other little repeated patterns. What if we cultivated emotional and spiritual habits that made our lives warmer, bigger, and more transcendent?

In Ed Bacon's new book, The Eight Habits of Love: Open Your Heart, Open Your Mind (Hachette Book Group, 2012) he gives illumination and insight about how we can grow these emotional habits in our day to day lives. Ed Bacon serves as rector at All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, California, and is known for his radically inclusive views about building interfaith community between Christians, Jews, Muslims, and atheists. Ed has received awards his peace and interfaith work in Southern California.

What are the 8 habits of love?

1.      The habit of generosity: Overcoming fear to live daily with the spiritual practice of an open and generous heart. This means knowing that love flows through you, generously, to others. This includes not only giving money to less fortunate people, but also time, emotional and spiritual support, and encouragement. You can make a practice of lifting others up. Giving time and attention to others only enhances your own life.

2.      The habit of stillness: Learn to quiet your body and your mind. This quiet space within us is where we plan, get inspiration, strategize, dream, and self-nurture. There are many roads to this inner stillness. Look for yours. You might start with 10 minutes a day.

3.      The habit of truth: This involves developing the courage to go against what is expected of you by others at times. Choosing your truth, rather than self-deception or the deception of others, takes daily practice. Telling the truth is both frightening and refreshing. Bacon says, “Truth leads us to a more honest and vital life.”

4.      The habit of candor: Using both tenderness and tact, candor helps us have difficult and important conversations with those we care about. We don't avoid in fear; we move towards the other person in love and candor. The habit of candor is one of the hardest habits to practice, because it involves risk. Candor is not a power grab. I notice the healing, transcendent power of honest, candid, heart-centered conversations in my counseling office on a regular basis. Couples often do not say the things they need to be saying to each other. When those difficult conversations begin in a safe way, transformation can begin between two people.

5.      The habit of play: Bacon reminds us that play and laughter change our brain chemistry. Play activates our imagination, creativity, and joy. Spending time with a child always helps me remember how vital play is. It relaxes and refreshes us. Play and lightness renew us, and are the perfect foil for dealing with life's challenges. Bacon suggests when you have made an error, acknowledge it with humor, poking fun at yourself. Invite play into your work, the things you do at home, your time with your partner, your family, and your friends.

6.      The habit of forgiveness: When you can, forgiving someone who has wronged you releases a powerful, loving energy. When we hold onto wrongs, we hold tension, anger, resentment, and hurt. You don't even have to reconnect with the person that hurt you in order to forgive. Forgiveness brings self-healing and self-empowerment. In his book, Bacon tells a heart-warming story about Nelson Mandela establishing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa after the end of apartheid. Those who acknowledged guilt to those they harmed weren't punished. Forgiveness, and moving past blame, moves individuals, families, and communities forward towards healing.

7.      The habit of compassion: Most religions are founded on it. The challenge is in trying to stretch the edges of your compassion to all living beings. Try not to dehumanize any group of people. In categorizing others, Bacon suggests, we cut ourselves off from the foundation of our own humanity. If you did not receive compassion growing up in your family, you may need to look outside the family to experience the compassion for yourself and others that is your birthright.

8.      The habit of community: It's not good for us to get too isolated. A shift in our awareness can help us realize that we need each other. Connecting with the people whose lives intersect with ours is practicing building community. Look for your community. Developing a sense of belonging in community is good for our mental and physical health. Whether you apply community by interacting kindly with counter staff or others you see at the gym, at work, or next door, or look for a group of like-minded people in the larger community, it makes a difference, both for you and for others. Respecting differences within the community is essential.

The Eight Habits of Love is a thoughtfully written reflection on ways to begin moving forward in your life in an open-hearted way. We will make mistakes, but stretching ourselves to live with a more generous spirit, playfulness, bravery, honesty, compassion, forgiveness, and community will help us to make our lives well-lived. Now that's success.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Your Social Circle: How Big is Too Big?

Here's a fun question in the age of social networking, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram: how many meaningful relationships with people can the average person have? The answer: about 150. This number was derived from the research of British psychologist and researcher, Robin Dunbar. This research has been coined “the Dunbar number.” This week's issue of Bloomberg Businessweek magazine (Jan.14-21, 2013) has a nice, concise write-up about Dunbar's studies, and how they apply to most of us, written by Drake Bennett.

Dunbar grew up in Tanzania, and has an academic career in England, where he teaches at Oxford. He began his research career studying the behavior of monkeys. He found that primates’ behavior changed based on the size of their social group. The larger the size of their social group, the more they seemed to exhibit behaviors to be seen favorably by other members of the group.

Dunbar went on to study brain size and look at the advantages and complications of animals that evolved into having larger brains. The complications of large social groups include competition for resources, like food, as well as the data that must be processed about the relative hierarchies and relationships with all the others in the social group. Dunbar’s research eventually led him to hypothesize that larger brains (and therefore higher intelligence) led to the development of larger social groups.

However, even the smartest primates have limits!  While there are individual variances for personality, and particularly extroversion/introversion, Dunbar theorizes that for most human beings, the limit of meaningful relationships a person can have is 147.8. In the Bloomberg story, Dunbar deftly describes that number as “the number of people you would not feel embarrassed about joining uninvited for a drink if you bumped into them at a bar.”

Dunbar networks with his colleagues in a wide variety of disciplines to focus on the social brain hypothesis, including linguists, computer scientists, physicists, classicists, economists, archeologists, anthropologists, and literary scholars. He's spoken at TED conferences, and written several books for non-academics, including The Science of Love (2012).

Dunbar has been invited to consult with a former Facebook executive, who left to co-found Path, a mobile photo-sharing and messaging service, which began in 2010. After consulting with Dunbar, Path founders decided to limit their site’s users to 150 friends. Basically, Dunbar suggests that we, as humans, have an upper limit in the number of meaningful social relationships we can have, and beyond that is something else— perhaps marketing, or acquaintances, but probably not meaningful relationships. Dunbar recognized this pattern of 150-person limits across the world—many companies, clans, and even military units are often capped at 150.

No matter how technology expands, human beings have a finite number of intimate and meaningful relationships. Digital technology doesn't change the fundamentals of our biology and neocortex. I found it interesting that Dunbar, although well-liked by colleagues across disciplines, considers himself on the shy side. He doesn't use Facebook or Path, and says he got a LinkedIn account only by mistake.

Dunbar's research actually suggests other numbers as well. Most people, he believes, have an innermost circle of 3 to 5 people. The next circle has 12 to 15, and their loss would be difficult for us.

I found it interesting that Dunbar believes most friendships can survive only 6 to 12 months without face-to face contact. His research suggests that women can have 2 best friends, including her romantic partner, while most men have only one.

Dunbar's research has critics, but I found the Bloomberg article by Drake Bennett great food for thought and discussion about social networking, genuine intimacy, and the gaps between the two. It’s fascinating that Facebook allows 5,000 friends. Or maybe that’s just acquaintances.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Why Women Need Women

I recently finished an interesting new collection of essays about women and the importance of building a community of like-minded women around us. The essays, along with some beautifully photographed artwork, are compiled in Nothing but the Truth, so Help me God: 51Women Reveal the Power of Positive Female Connection (2012, Edited by Christine Bronstein and Carol Potts, and published in connection with A Band of Wives).

Most women do really benefit from their relationships with other supportive women. We have much to share and validate with each other, about our experiences as mothers, as wives, in finding time to do creative work, processing feelings about our bodies, aging, caregiving for elderly parents, nurturing ourselves, inspiring each other to go for our dreams, and empowering each other to take action to improve our world. If you have one or two or more women like this in your life, consider yourself blessed. A woman in your life who is generous, loving, and challenges you to ask yourself, "Why not?" can make an incredible difference in the kind of life you create.

Women do not have to be competitive with each other. If both are secure and grounded, women can be a great resource to each other, sharing ideas and providing comfort when needed. Many older women have told me they find friendships with other women only become more essential from mid-life and beyond into our later years. Some friendships endure and go the distance, while others may have a natural ending due to a change in life circumstances, or a break. In Nothing but…, one essayist suggests the average female friendship lasts seven years, so if you have some that are more enduring than that, you can feel doubly blessed.

I enjoyed the essay format of Nothing but..., and hearing the take of so many interesting, insightful, and articulate women about their own relationships with friends, and the impact those friendships have had on their own self-discovery. There are stories in the book of the role close women friends have played in getting through incredible challenge, loss, or transformation. I loved the story of a woman whose friend encourages her to write her book and meet weekly for coffee when their children are in school to read each other's writing that week; they provide encouragement and accountability for each other.

In my own life, I have witnessed the positive power of women supporting other women. In my first few years in private practice 20 years ago, when my children were small, I started and facilitated a community-based support group for working mothers that ran for 7 years, and also helped another mom start a group for stay-at home moms in our city. The power of a group of gentle, like-minded women is amazing. Connecting with other women helps us laugh, get perspective, and share ideas.

Even now, time with my close women friends, my adult daughters who are fabulous women I admire, or my Saturdays with the wonderful women in our book group are precious to me. Most women find their souls are filled in a unique way by time spent with other generous women. Nothing but... is an easy and fun read, and may get you thinking about the role of friendship with other women in your own life. As women, we need each other.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Setting Your Intentions for 2013

We’re beginning a brand new year, and it seems like a good time to set intentions for what you want to work towards as your goals this year. I have set a couple, and shared them with someone close to me. I'm encouraging the individuals I counsel and coach to do the same.

If we don't set goals and readjust our life course from time to time, or add in a new personal challenge, we can get stale. One year can roll into the next without the conscious intention to chart our course.  It's taking personal leadership in your own life.

Intentions are different than resolutions. New Year's resolutions often involve giving up something, or losing weight. Some people make the same resolutions every year, and experience a burnout factor with making or keeping them.

Setting intentions has more to do with looking at your life more broadly, with its different facets, and identifying a couple of areas that could be developed. While common New Year's resolutions could be to drink less alcohol, exercise more, eat better, or save money, intentions could expand the focus to consider improving your career situation, personal relationships, emotional health, travel goals, relocating or changing your living situation, or other areas of your life.

While setting goals to increase your physical fitness, or your finances, many people don't consider setting some goals for emotional growth over the next year. Don't overlook this very important part of your life. Here are some ideas to get you thinking:

·         Becoming more patient

·         Expressing my feelings more openly to my partner

·         Taking more responsibility for managing my moods, depression, or anxiety

·         Asking for the support I want

·         Empathizing more with others, realizing my perspective is not the only right one

·         Doing more self-care

·         Being a better, calmer parent

·         Not taking out my anger on others, learning to do something constructive with my anger

·         Honoring my commitments, keeping promises

·         Being on time

·         Being honest and truthful, even when it's hard to do so

·         Expressing my affection, using loving touch

·         Overreacting less

·         Managing my own stress, not taking it out on others

·         Listening from the heart

·         Putting away electronics  to better connect with loved ones

·         Playing more

·         Making time to teach my children/grandchildren life skills

·         Having more fun with my partner

·         Being a better husband/wife/partner

·         Begin dating

·         Make more friends

·         Not doing destructive or secretive behavior that is bad for me and/or dishonors those I love

·         Transcend self more/volunteer for a cause I care about

·         Develop my spiritual beliefs

·         Learn how to resolve conflicts respectfully, fight fairly

·         Express my appreciation to others

·         Apologizing when I am wrong, making repairs

·         Saying "I love you" often

·         Spending time with the small children and seniors in my life

·         Making family dinners at home, with candles and conversation, as often as possible to stay connected

·         Decide not to email or text about personal things, some things are only for person-to person conversation

·         Stop yelling, bullying, threatening to leave

·         Invite a family member to go to counseling with me to make things better

·         Court my partner, not take them for granted

·         Go on a weekly date night (no children)

·         Make your home a sanctuary: quiet, peaceful, organized, and a place to recharge

·         Be more supportive of other family members

·         Ask for feedback about how you are doing in your closest relationships

·         Initiate affection with your partner, don't make men make all the effort

·         Set healthy boundaries

·         Go direct to speak with the person you are upset with

·         Create some downtime

·         Create positive surprises

Hopefully this list will inspire you to set an emotional health or relationship intentions of your own for 2013.

Pick a couple, and write down the steps of how you will work towards your goal. What support will you need to reach your goal? Who can you ask for ideas on what steps to take? For my clients, I am an accountability partner and we can follow up on their path to each goal, but you can pick an accountability partner in your life if you like. Having someone else know our goals and check in with us about our progress helps our intentions get traction.

You can also create a vision board on a piece of posterboard to keep your goals front and center all year. Put it at the front of your closet or where you get ready in the morning for your day. Create conscious awareness of your goals. Check in monthly to determine if you are making progress.

Have an emotionally healthy and relationally close 2013. Set your intention to grow a little!