Tuesday, February 26, 2013

What Makes Families Happier?

How do we build happier families?

I've been thinking about this question and discussing it with my own family since I ran across excerpts from a new book this week titled The Secrets of Happy Families: Improve Your Marriage, Rethink Family Dinner, Fight Smarter, Go Out and Play, and Much More (2013, published by William Morrow).

The author, Bruce Feiler, has some good ideas, and even backs them up with some recent research about families, children, and couples where he can. Here are some of his ideas that rang true with me as a family therapist:

1.      Happier families talk. They communicate with each other.

2.      Happier couples, and families, celebrate each other's accomplishments.

3.      Healthier families adapt to changes. Change happens. You might as well embrace it!

4.      Happier families try. They put time and effort into making family a top priority.

5.      Happier families do their best to eat dinner together as often as possible. If not dinner, then breakfast, or a snack, or something else is almost as good. Just do something! Feiler cites one cross-cultural study showing the US ranking 23rd out of 25 countries when it comes to eating meals together.

The article about Feiler’s book got me thinking about my own observations and reflections about other ways of helping create a happier life as a family:

1.      No family, just like no individual, can be happy all the time. We need to be realistic about our expectations that families are made up of individuals whose needs will differ at times. Conflicts will occur. Sibling rivalry is normal. We need to be able to disagree respectfully, compromise at times, and make repairs when needed.

2.      Mutual respect is key, between the adults, between the children and adults, and between the children. We need to make room for individual differences.

3.      Look for connecting points. Every week, we need to work some into our busy schedules. These include hugging goodbye or hello, having fun together in a shared activity, date nights, family game night, working on projects together, bedtime rituals, shared meals, playing sports together, cooking together, doing outdoor activities together, and making check-in points with each other.

4.      Encourage each other. Most adults and children get far more critical comments each day than positive ones. Happy families make a point to express what they see in each other's behaviors that they like. This is known as ‘catching your loved ones being good.’

5.      Happy families come in different shapes and sizes. Not all happy families have two adults. There can still be a decision to be a happy family even after the loss of parent by death or after divorce. I’ve seen it happen. It’s a decision and a choice. Happy families focus on being resilient. In fact, this makes you a good role model for your children, to be happy anyway, and try to live the best life you can, despite challenges.

6.      Loyalty. Happier families have each other’s back, and go direct with problems to the person they have the problem with, rather than to someone else.

7.      Credibility. In happier families, people keep their commitments. They do what they say they are going to do. The adults can be counted on, both by each other, and by the children.

8.      There are clear rules, consistently enforced. There is structure, but also some flexibility within that structure. The adults are the architects of the family. The children are not in charge.

9.      Mix it up and have some high-energy fun together. It might not be football, like the Kennedy clan, but doing some high-energy activity together is bonding.

10.  Everyone takes out their own stress/trash. Every adult needs to learn how to deal with their own stress and not bring it home to take it out on the family. Children and teens need to be taught how to do the same. Just like we need to teach our children to clean up after themselves, and not leave messes around the house for others to clean up, think of stress in the same way. Do it yourself.

11.  Make it okay to ask for help.

12.  Don't be so child-focused that the adults ignore each other. It’s helpful for children to realize that there are other needs in the family besides their own.

13.  Apologize when you are wrong. This makes it easier for your children to do the same.

14.  Get outside yourselves. Families are happier when they volunteer, or in some way become aware of the needs of others. It puts things in perspective.

15.  Warm it up. Express affection with touch, hugs, a kiss, or a verbal or written “I love you” as often as possible.

If these are some of the secrets of happy families, let’s share them! If your family life isn't happy, not much else matters.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The Vulnerability Guru

Thinking about the concepts of emotional intimacy and vulnerability? Think Bren√© Brown, a researcher at the University of Houston's Graduate College of Social Work who has been spending the last 12 years studying shame, fear, and vulnerability. Over 7 million viewers have watched her TED Talk on YouTube. She recently published a new book, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead.

Brown feels that shame is a common emotion among us, and that many feel shame in our current social climate, even if they are just leading an ordinary life. Fear and shame consume a great deal of emotional energy. They rob us of the ability to apply our gifts and use our strengths.

In her research over the past 12 years, Brown identified some people, who are termed “wholehearted,” who feel that they are enough. They relate to the world from a platform of feeling basic self-worth. These individuals are aware that they have the power to make choices every day, and they exercise that choice. They operate with compassion, for themselves and others. “Wholehearted” people are mindful of the balance between work, rest, and play in their lives. They respect the courage it takes to be vulnerable. They choose openness with others.

No intimacy can take place without vulnerability-- it is a necessary precursor. Vulnerability is honesty about our fears, our feelings, and what we need from the people we are closest to. Vulnerability is a kind of glue that makes relationships closer. Brown notes that being vulnerable enough to express our joy is a particular risk, because joy is often fleeting. Sometimes we are reluctant to share it, thinking that it will cause the other shoe to drop.

Brown considers it a great loss when people disengage in their closest relationships, as if not being “fully in” will protect them from getting hurt. Living in a wholehearted way requires staying engaged with the intimate other, and being able to discuss it if it feels either one of you has disengaged. It's as if we have to risk disappointment, hurt, and rejection in order to be fully known, and know others.

Shame can mess up being vulnerable with those closest to us. It can make us judge ourselves unworthy of love, and not give others a way to reach us. Being resilient to shame means understanding what triggers yours, being self-aware, and being able to sort it out aloud with someone you feel safe with.

Setting boundaries with work and other demands on us can also take courage. Our society is very productivity oriented, so protecting your time for creative work, self-care, or family time can be disrespected or not understood by others. It takes bravery to construct the limits and boundaries you need to find your own personal balance for your life.

Brown finds, generally speaking, that there are unique gender differences with regard to dealing with shame. Men tend to get angry with others or disengage when shamed. Women tend to take their anger out on themselves. Keeping shame a secret inside you can impact your physical health. Letting shame out to a therapist, or someone close to you, can take away the powerful secret the shame held over you. (For example, those who carry the shame of having been abused as a child.)

Sexuality can bring up vulnerability and shame issues. For men, there are societal pressures to be stoic, calm, strong, work-oriented, and in control. Men are often afraid to be perceived as weak. They can fear rejection and criticism from women around courtship, intimacy, and sexuality. Women, Brown notes, have opposite norms to overcome, as they are supposed to be thin, nice, pretty, and quiet. What if being vulnerable makes you go up against these norms and be you?

Brown also has an interesting take on pornography, which she terms “looking for connection in all the wrong places.” Men may think they will spend a few dollars and avoid the risk of rejection, shame, or criticism, but then the behavior triggers more shame. Sexuality and intimacy can also be complicated for women by body image shame issues. (So then we have two people who don't feel worthy enough to connect authentically!) We must realize that we are each worthy of love and connection.

Brown's new book, and her body of research, challenge us to live fully, authentically, and with vulnerability. We need to support each other in asking for we want, and risking rejection and disappointment in life to get to the good stuff. Now that's a recipe for a life well-lived.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Feel The Fear: Do It Anyway

At times, my sessions with clients have a pattern. This past week, I saw several people who really need to be courageous and do something that both takes guts and is absolutely necessary for moving ahead. I thought about Susan Jeffers' classic book, Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway, and how at times we have to summon the courage to face fear and push past it towards a better relationship, career, life, and version of ourselves.

Many of us live in a world that is too small. One concept of Jeffers' that I love is that we all live in a box. Fear exists outside of your comfort zone-- your box. To grow, we need to move to the next larger box. If you are living without any experience of fear at all, it may be because you are not growing. Fear isn't necessarily a bad thing.

While some risks are foolish, there are other risks which honor our true self, and help us become more developed. How can we know what our potential is, if we live in a world that's so small that we never experience any fear?

Fear is sometimes to be noticed, but not given the power to cripple you. Everyone is afraid of something. The bottom level fear for most people, as Jeffers identifies, is the fear that “I won't be able to handle it.” That “it” could be different for each of us: it might be dealing with illness, being alone, losing someone you love dearly, experiencing financial loss, or any number of other fears.

Developing your own life is important. Loss and changes happen. Preparing yourself for change and loss by developing a life with multiple facets and sources of satisfaction and growth helps. Jeffers created a whole life grid, a grid with different boxes which can represent areas of your life. Each box can symbolize one sector: work, family, physical health, spirituality, emotional health, finances, volunteer work, friendships, home, travel, creative life, etc.

In each box, you can set a goal and a first step. This might look like, in your physical health area, setting a goal to become more toned and flexible. Your step could be checking out the Pilates studio closest to your home or office about an introductory lesson. In each box of your grid, you can choose a step and a goal. Then pick about 3 boxes to start with, so you don't feel overwhelmed.

The more you invest in different aspects of your life and more developed you become, the better! It acts as an insurance policy of sorts, so that all of your energy is not invested in one box--for example, work. Life is uncertain, so building a broad foundation with multiple sources of satisfaction and strengths puts you in your strongest position.

A few months ago, I participated in a seminar where each person was asked to share what they would do this year if they were not afraid. The responses and positive energy were powerful. You might ask yourself this same question and see what comes to mind. If you need a gentle push towards setting some goals, reading Susan Jeffers' delightful classic Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway might be just the ticket.

Growing new edges, taking smart risks, and trying new things are all important for our personal growth. Notice fear, but don't let it stop you from becoming a better version of yourself.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Couples: Watch out For The 4 Horsemen

Reseachers John and Julie Gottman, couples researchers and founders of the Gottman Institute in Seattle,Washington, have studied couples for decades. John Gottman runs the "Love Lab" at Seattle University, where he and his researchers are able to observe and collect data about how couples communicate, argue, do repairs, and express affection to each other. They are able to track biological feedback about each individual while they are interacting with their partner.

Gottman's research gives us some valuable information about what unhappy and happy couples do differently.

Four traits predict break-ups, and Gottman named them the four horsemen of failed relationships.They are:

1. Criticism: attacking your partner's personality

2. Contempt: putting your partner down

3. Defensiveness: not being able to take in your partner's concern, but attacking them instead

4. Stonewalling: shutting down and shutting your partner out, rather than discussing concerns

Couples who do these behaviors, in certain combinations, are more likely to head towards divorce or a break-up. All couples do these behaviors at times, but developing your skills for listening to your partner, not just reacting and getting defensive, can really turn things around.

A good couples therapist can teach you how to fight fairly, stay respectful of each other, listen more fully, and frame requests appropriately so you can be successful. For example, I ask couples not to frame concerns with "you always" or "you never." Those starting points trigger a cascade of negatives from your partner, and don't help you find win-win solutions. Being a couple takes teamwork.

What about some good news? Happier couples tend to be more positive in their interactions, with a ratio of 20 to 1 positive to negative comments in normal interactions, and 5 to 1 when arguing. Try to increase the positive, encouraging, and supportive comments you make to your partner. Point out what you like about what they do. Researcher Terri Orbuch with the Early Years of Marriage Project at the University of Michigan found something similar, that 67% of happy couples report that their partner often makes them feel good about themselves, while only 27% of unhappy couples reported the same.

Doing pleasureable activities together helps couples enjoy each other more. The most common cause of divorce is "growing apart," not infidelity or domestic abuse. Working on the soft side of your relationship, including positive conversations, mutual encouragement, shared pleasureable time together, expressing appreciation specifically, and staying connected physically are the real glue in a happy marriage.