Monday, December 29, 2014

If Life Is a Game, These are the Rules

When I am working at life coaching with clients, I can always recommend Cherie Carter-Scott, Ph.D's excellent and simple book, If Life Is a Game, These Are the Rules: Ten Rules for Being Human. Scott's book originally began as a part of Jack Canfield's popular anthology Chicken Soup for the Soul, and was so well received it got expanded to a book of its own in 1998.

Scott's rules for being human include:

You will receive a body. You might love it or hate it, but it's yours for the duration of the game. Take care of it. Nurture it.

You will be presented with lessons. Try to learn from them.

There are no mistakes, only lessons.

Lessons are repeated until they are learned. If you don't learn the lesson, you get it again.

'There' is no better than 'here'. This reminds me of Jon Kabat-Zinn's concept of mindfulness: wherever you go, there you are.

Learning never ends. As long as you are alive, there are lessons to be learned. Even seniors have things to learn as they cope with aging, loss and change.

Other people in your life are mirrors of you. What you see in others is a reflection of yourself and how you see the world. Whether you see light or darkness in others, it all tends to be a reflection of you.

What you make of your life is up to you. The tools and resources you need are already with you.

Your answers lie inside of you. Learn to be quiet, take time for reflection, listen and trust yourself.

You will forget all these things at birth, and need to learn them in order to be fully human and live with wholeness.

All of these rules are great to take with you to launch into a beautiful, fresh new year. These mind-sets will help you create an attitude of openness and self-reflection, and  create personal and career growth. These core beliefs will assist you in becoming more proactive in your life, learning continually, and evolving. They will guard you against getting stuck in bitterness or negativity. Life is a game, and knowing the rules really helps.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The Gift of Emotional Literacy

Several times recently, I've been in session with young adults who were trying their best to get launched in their own lives, but were at a distinct disadvantage because they grew up in a family where nobody ever talked about feelings. It got me thinking about how helping our children to become aware of what they are feeling and to express those feelings appropriately and directly with others is one of the best gifts parents can give.

Children and teens often feel a jumble of feelings, and having a loving parent who can listen and reflect those experiences back to them and understand is very significant. Our first relationships with parents helps us learn to love and attach. If parents are open and aware of their children's feelings it helps children to become emotionally literate.

In order to help your children with this emotional development, it helps if parents are emotionally available, not self-absorbed or in constant crisis themselves, not chemically dependent, and in touch with their own feelings. Parents need to be able to respect that your children are likely to have their own distinct feelings, separate from yours.

If you didn't have the gift of a parent who helped you learn to identify and sort out your feelings, it's not too late. You can decide that you are going to be the one who stops the family transmission pattern of "we don't do feelings". You can work with a supportive therapist to re-parent yourself and begin to understand and sort out your own internal experiences. You can learn to take emotional risks in being open, direct, and communicative. Journaling is another channel in for cultivating self-discovery and greater self-awareness.

Teens often long for a parent who will listen more, care about them, believe in them and lecture less. Parents of teens often focus on the negative and further shut their teen down in doing so. Taking your teen out of the house to share a meal or do an activity together while you listen and ask about their friends (not their grades) can do wonders to help them open up with you.

In adult love relationships, being emotionally honest about your needs and feelings gives the relationship and the other person the best chance. Too many times adults process internally or not at all, don't keep their partner aware of changing needs and emotional distance is created. When couples are disconnected, not enjoying date nights and shared couples time together,  not sharing feelings and sleeping the same hours in the same bedroom the signal is clear: danger ahead.

As it turns out we all need to explore our own interior life and feelings and communicate about it to those we want to be close to. This kind of emotional literacy and transparency are building blocks for building intimate, satisfying relationships. In the new year ahead, get into the emotionally healthy habit of exploring and articulating your feelings in your most important relationships, and be curious and available for the other important people in your life to share their internal experience with you. With great openness and the risk of vulnerability come great rewards.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Never Enough: Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers

I recently reread Dr. Karyl McBride's excellent book, Will I Ever Be Good Enough? (Free Press, 2008). Its a useful resource for adult women who are trying to heal old wounds from a narcissistic mother. McBride estimates that there are over 1.5 million American women that are narcissists, and if one of them is your mother, you have probably been damaged by her insecurity, overbearingness, insensitivity and domineering personality.

Daughters of narcissistic mothers grow up understanding that mom is only happy with them if they do what she wants. The maternal love is entirely conditional. Mom is unreasonable and unrealistic about what she expects. She withholds love if she's not pleased.

Daughters of narcissistic mothers can feel empty, sad, disappointed, and like they are somehow not enough. I liked this poignant quote from Jan Waldron in McBride's book: "An adult woman can hunt for and find her own value. She can graduate herself into importance. But during the shaky span from childhood to womanhood, a girl needs help in determining her worth---and no one can anoint her like her mother."

Girls are vulnerable to whatever is happening with their mothers. Daughters can feel that they are valued for what they do rather than who they are. They may feel unlovable. It might be difficult to trust their own feelings. They may fear becoming like mother emotionally.

Here are some questions to help you determine if you are being affected by your mother's narcissism:

1. Do you find yourself constantly trying to get her approval, love, and attention but without success?

2. Did your mother emphasize how it looks to her rather than how it feels to you?

3. Is your mother jealous of you?

4. Does your mother not support your healthy expressions of self, especially when they conflict with her needs?

5. In your family, is it always about Mom?

6. Is it difficult for mom to empathize with others?

7. Does Mom have difficulty dealing with her own her own feelings? Is she limited to expressing anger,coldness and neutral? Does she have trouble letting others have or express their own(different) feelings?

8. Is Mom critical and judgmental of you?

9. Does your mother treat you like a friend, rather than as her daughter? Is she needy and trying to always get your attention and support?

10. Is it hard to have any privacy or boundaries from your mother?

Daughters of narcissistic mothers need to examine the negative messages they have absorbed from their mothers, and begin their own healing process. You can learn to replace the unhealthy maternal voice inside you for a healthier one that allows you to set your own boundaries, feel your own feelings and take good care of yourself. With counseling and self-reflection, you can begin to become a different kind of woman and mother than the one you grew up with. Good mothers don't engulf their daughters and tell them what to think, feel, do and wear.

Becoming your authentic self means overcoming the neediness and expectations of a narcissistic mother, and learning to love differently with your own partner and children. Breaking the patterns of narcissism in your family will help the next generation be mothered differently. McBride's book is a valuable read to get you started thinking about how you might have been impacted by a narcissistic mother, and begin the healing.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Wild: Creating Your Own Renewal Rituals

A new movie was released this week called Wild, featuring an excellent lead actress performance by Reese Witherspoon. Witherspoon plays writer Cheryl Strayed, who published the bestseller memoir Wild in 2012. Strayed has commented this week that she hadn't planned for her book to be a self-help book, but has noticed that it has hit an inspirational chord with many women.

Strayed's book portrays her as a flawed protagonist. She is at a transition point in her life: her marriage is ending, she's trying to give up her drug use, and she's never grieved the loss of her mother. She decides to hike the 1,000 mile Pacific Coast Trail, by herself. The journey gives her time to think and to process what has happened in her life, as well as challenge herself in very difficult conditions. The hike turns out to be transformational in her life. After she returns, she goes on to become an author, teach writing, remarry and raise a family of her own.

Wild lets the reader or movie fan watch the unfolding of Cheryl Strayed' s testing her own limits, learning about herself, and the emotional process of letting go of her marriage and her mother. The movie features Laura Dern in a standout performance as Cheryl's mother.

Wild has similar themes to Joan Anderson's 1999 book A Year by the Sea, where she tells of her year in a cottage at Cape Cod as she lives alone and takes a break from her long-term marriage to learn about herself. Anderson steps away from the busyness of her regular life and roles to do some important self-discovery. She realizes that in fulfilling her roles as a wife and mother, (and once her boys were raised) that her own hopes and dreams had been overtaken by those of others. In rediscovering herself, Anderson finds her true nature and new possibilities for her life. Anderson is just a more traditional woman, with a discovery journey that comes later in life, after raising her family.

Both books explore the value of women taking their own journey of self-discovery, outside of their relationships to other people. Women can be so focused on pleasing and caring for others that they don't have an opportunity to consider the dictates of their own heart. Learning to be alone with yourself and enjoy your own company is important, even if you don't want to hike the Pacific Coast Trail by yourself.

Men as well as women can benefit from the idea of taking on a challenge after going through a life transition or ending. After the end of a close relationship, or the end of a chapter of your life, setting  a new goal for yourself to work towards could allow you a positive focus and a chance to reflect, integrate and grow. We all need to develop our own personal rituals for self-renewal, and cultivate the ability to be alone without being lonely. Your own self-renewal can be different than Cheryl's or Joan's, but you can use their journeys for inspiration.

Monday, December 1, 2014

'Tis The Season : 10 Holiday Tips to Keep You Merry

December brings up a lot of different things for people. It can bring stress if you get overwhelmed by all the tasks you have to get through. December can bring up memories of past holidays, whether sad or joyful. It can bring up grief if you are dealing with a loss this past year or two. For children, the holiday season often brings anticipation. Some adults feel the gravitational pull of their family of origin sucking them back in to unhealthy patterns.

Even one of the founders of family therapy, Murray Bowen, wrote an essay called "Going Home" in which he explained how he could be a happily individuated adult most of the year, but could regress when back visiting his parents, like at holiday times. It is so easy to get pulled in to old patterns if you're not conscious and intentional.

Here are some ideas for staying emotionally healthy during December and into the New Year:

1. If you have experienced a loss this year --- the death of a close family member or close friend, a divorce, separation or break-up, or a move far from your support system, be patient with yourself during the holidays. You will need to rethink of all your usual December traditions so you can decide whether you want to keep or change them this year. Be flexible with your plans, and don't take on too much. Focus on what will be comforting and supportive.

2. Stay an adult this holiday season. Reconsider demands and expectations made by your family of origin, or your partner's family. Part of individuating is making choices about what is meaningful and enjoyable for you, rather than just doing things by autopilot.

3. Give yourself permission to mix up old patterns. At family gatherings, exercise your power to move closer and visit with the family members you really enjoy and admire. Move away from the negative and toxic people.

4. Keep up your healthy self-care patterns throughout this busy month: keep exercising, eating healthy (even if it's before a holiday party so you're not tempted to eat the wrong things), and get enough sleep and alone time.

5. Share the tasks. Women often feel more burden for holiday tasks. I always encourage families I see in family counseling to hold a family meeting to get everyone signed up to share holiday tasks. Sort through the regular tasks to check and make sure that you focus on holiday traditions that bring joy, as opposed to those that are just an energy drain. People enjoy the holidays more when they help create them, so don't do it all yourself. Share the cooking, the shopping, the decorating and wrapping. Even small children can have fun wrapping gifts if you loosen your standards and provide lots of tape.

6. Get outside yourself. Reach out to an elderly neighbor or volunteer with a local food bank or charity which needs extra help during December in your local community. I promise it will lift your spirits, no matter what you have going on in your own life. Develop your spiritual side.

7. Say 'no' to invitations which sound emotionally taxing. Carry your own boundaries throughout the season. Preserve some down time.

8. Go for the joy. Be sure to sprinkle in some holiday joy. What are the sensory experiences that will activate your creativity, senses and holiday memories? Do you like to smell cookies baking or walk through a Christmas tree lot? Would you enjoy looking at happy photos of holidays past? Could you enjoy a holiday Christmas movie fest? Do you delight in hanging some festive lights? Spending time with children also helps you rekindle the joy of the season.

9. Break up the visit. If you are visiting family during the holiday season or you will be hosting family staying at your house, think through ways to streamline and make the visit less intense. Have some breakfast foods out that guests can do self-serve. Get out for a walk by yourself, and get those endorphins pumping. Don't expect yourself to be "on" for days at a time. Taking a break from hosting or being hosted can help everyone stay less frayed. Help guests to do some things independently if possible.

10. As New Year's Day approaches, think about creating a vision board for 2015. You can use a piece of poster board to pull out pictures and ideas that inspire you in how you want to grow and what you want to experience in the beautiful new year ahead of us. It will serve to remind you that the holidays, while stressful, are fleeting. The last month of the year is a great time to begin setting your intensions for an emotionally healthy 2015, with new goals and new plans.

Move as lightly as you can through the next 4 weeks. A few last inspiring pre-holiday thoughts:

If you are facing a judgmental or critical family, or tend towards perfectionism: "The thing that is really hard, and really amazing, is giving up on being perfect and beginning the work of becoming yourself." -Anna Quindlen

If you're worn out by holiday crowds and shopping: "Sharing the holiday with other people, and feeling that you're giving of yourself, gets you past all the commercialism." -Caroline Kennedy

If you need inspiration: "The holiday season is a time for storytelling, and whether you are hearing the story of a candelabra staying lit for more than a week, or a baby born in a barn without proper medical supervision, these stories are about miracles." -Lemony Snicket

Take good care of yourself as you navigate a healthy holiday season. Be sensitive to what you are needing, rather than do things just out of obligation. Give yourself permission to do December your own way.

Monday, November 24, 2014

When Someone You Love has Chronic Mental Illness

What if you have an adult son, daughter, parent or sibling who has serious mental illness? How can you help? How can you get them help? What is your role? How do you deal with your own feelings of loss, sadness, anger, frustration, worry or helplessness? How do you set some limits?

You may notice self-destructive behaviors, racing thoughts, delusions, hallucinations, or other breaks with reality. You might be aware of rapidly cycling moods in your loved one, or angry rants.

If your relative is under 18 years old, parents can intervene, and get a psychological evaluation. Your family member may be helped by medication and counseling. Parents have the legal right to seek mental health assessment for a minor child.

After age 18, the situation becomes much more difficult. The individual themselves has to be willing to get treatment unless they meet the specific criteria for involuntary hospitalization, which are: danger to self, danger to others or gravely disabled.

As a family member, it is essential that you get informed about mental health/chronic mental illness and get support for yourself. One of the best ways to do both is to contact the National Alliance on Mental Illness at  In many areas of the United States there is a local chapter of NAMI which offers information, support groups, lectures and more. In Orange County, California where I have my counseling practice, the local chapter can be reached at
Getting to know other families who are also dealing with a family member with severe mental illness, like schizophrenia, personality disorders and untreated bipolar disorder can be incredibly helpful.

Another valuable resource is your local Mental Health Association, which can help you identify local resources for a family member you are concerned about. In Orange County, our local chapter can be contacted at  If you live elsewhere in the US, contact the Mental Health America national office at and they will put you in touch with your local MHA office.

If your family member has a personality disorder, be aware that many people who have this diagnosis do not see themselves as having a problem and will probably blame others and be reluctant to get help. There are different types of personality disorders, including narcissistic, borderline, paranoid, schizoid, schizotypal, antisocial, histrionic, avoidant, dependent, and obsessive-compulsive. All personality disorders are an enduring pattern of inner experience and behavior that varies far from what we normally expect. Most are difficult to treat, especially if the individual does not acknowledge their situation.

Family members need support in learning the best ways to help the mentally ill member, as well as how to set reasonable boundaries and limits for your own self-protection. For example, if you have an adult son or daughter who refuses to get help, but does not meet the strict criteria for involuntary hospitalization, you will need to sort through what your role will be. Perhaps you can see them and be emotionally supportive, but set limits that you will not accept physical, emotional or verbal abuse. It might be that you can help the grandchildren. You might be willing to help with the cost of some treatment, depending on your circumstances. You might be able to see them in limited amounts and provide emotional support, but not have them live with you.

A family therapist can help you learn not be codependent, and sort out how you can help and how you can  take care of yourself as well. Many people with chronic mental illness won't consistently take their prescribed medication or participate in talk therapy. As a family member who cares you won't be able to fix everything for another adult. Figuring out what you can do to help, and what is beyond your limits is key.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Parenting as a Team

I like it when parents get on the same team in parenting. Children and teens really respond better to it. Being on the same page really helps the parent's marriage as well. Nobody wants to play the bad cop all the time.

I taught Active Parenting classes for years, and still call on the program's clear description of the three most common parenting styles when I'm counseling parents and families.
The three parenting styles are:

Dictators: Set clear rules but enforce them by screaming, yelling, threats, spanking, punishment and taking things away. This style might work for a while, depending on your child or teen's  temperament, but at some point your child will shut you out and stop confiding in you. (Think about it- would you open up with a problem to a parent who yelled at you?)

Doormats: These parents either don't have rules or they only enforce them at times. Other times they let things slide, and their children and teens often get too much power by learning to manipulate these softies. Doormat parents are loving, but don't set limits effectively. The children of doormats may be delayed in developing skills for independent living in their future.

Active Parents: Have clear rules that are developed with the children and are consistently enforced. Active parents use natural and logical consequences, and offer choices. They try their best to stay calm and reasonable. Active parents care about being loving and approachable, but also raising children who can accept limits. They give children and teens expanding or contracting limits based on how responsible they are being.

Can you identify your parenting style here? How about the styles your own parents used?

Just imagine the challenges and resentment that develops when one parent is a dictator and the other parent can see how they are alienating their child. Equally bad is when one parent is a doormat parent and the remaining parent feels undermined because they are always the heavy in the parenting department. When both parents are doormats, children learn to manipulate to get their own way.

Whether parents are married, divorced or single, parenting from the active parenting style (where you are loving, but carry consequences, choices and clearly defined limits) is the way to go. We want to parent with the end game in mind: raising caring, loving, responsible and independent young adults who contribute to the world around them.  Consider holding weekly family meetings with school age children to get the whole team working in the same direction on cooperation, chores, homework, the morning and evening routine. Children need a place to have a say about what is going on in the family, and how we can work together to improve it.

If you are overwhelmed as a parent, or find yourself yelling or frustrated with your children, consider taking a parenting class or meeting with a family therapist who can help you and your partner get on the same team and build a less stressful, better family. Even divorced parents are actually still on the same team in terms of the parenting until every child is successfully launched into adult life. Let's work together and keep that goal in mind.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Giving Ourselves Permission: Women Pursuing Dreams of their Own

I like to ask women of all ages in counseling about their hopes and dreams, and what they would really be doing if they could. Too many women are awaiting permission from someone else to go for really want to be doing, creating or experiencing.

Writer Elizabeth Gilbert, who wrote Eat, Pray, Love speaks and writes about the importance of women giving themselves the opportunity to define their own life purpose, and considering  other paths than our mothers and grandmothers took.  Other women want to be brave enough to choose the same path their mother followed.

The messages that girls get while they are growing up often encourage women to defer, consider the needs of others, and accommodate. While awareness of the needs of others is valuable, women and girls need encouragement to develop their own dreams and their own voice in relationships and planning their lives.

Here are some of the situations where I want to have us all encourage the women in our lives:

To have life goals beyond being a parent or wife.

To decide to work it out to be a stay-at home-parent and raise our own children if we choose to.

To take time to develop our friendships with other women.

To end relationships that are abusive, demean or belittle us.

To start a business of our own.

To recreate our lives when children are grown if we choose to.

To create art.

To tackle issues, causes and problems we care about.

To do things that make us happy.

To spend time alone, in our own company.

To advocate and speak up on our own behalf.

To set our own goals.

To challenge ourselves.

To be brave.

To keep learning new things.

To ask for what you really want, at work and in your relationships.

To develop and utilize your talents and gifts.

It's important to encourage the girls and women in our lives to nurture their own dreams, and not just support the dreams of others. Being "nice" is overrated and doesn't really make you fulfilled. There are no prizes for suffering or being a martyr.

As women we deal with the way we were raised, and the feminine archetype of being selfless and all giving, which may set us up to be pleasers. It is essential to listen to that still small intuitive voice inside us which wants to express who we really are, outside of roles and other people's needs and expectations.

Perhaps now is a good time to be asking yourself what you could give yourself permission to do that would make you more fully alive and closer to your own true north. Maybe the permission you need is really your own.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Why Sooner Is Better For Couples Counseling

Men can be reluctant to come in for counseling. Often it's their partner who talks them into coming. Men can be depressed and not want to talk about it. Sometimes women start the conversation about getting couples counseling, and men can drag their feet until the marriage is at a breaking point.

It makes me sad as a couples therapist to see people delay and let a relationship deteriorate without getting professional help. Divorce is expensive and emotionally difficult for both adults and the children involved. Why ignore the signs of relationship tension, your distress or your partners? What if you wait too long and it's too late to save things?

What if we shifted the paradigm to working on couples or individual concerns when they are still small? I think we could prevent a host of relationship cancers developing. Even a tune-up, a couple of sessions with a couples therapist can help you get things back on track, more connected and communicating better. Sooner is better!

What are signs a couple should get some counseling, because there are couples issues developing?

1. One or both partners feel unappreciated.

2. Physical affection is tapering off or stopped. You don't hug, kiss, hold hands or have physical intimacy. You can't talk about your physical needs and preferences with your partner comfortably.

3. You are completely consumed by your children's needs and there is no energy or time left for you as a couple.

4. You can't recall your last date night with each other.

5. You are sleeping in separate bedrooms, or different places in the house.

6. You feel misunderstood on a frequent basis.

7. Your partner won't listen.

8. You can't solve problems together.

9. You're not having any fun together.

10. You don't feel respected by your partner and/or you don't respect them.

11. You or your partner are not emotionally available for any reason: working too many hours, alcoholism, substance abuse.

12. Your parenting styles conflict. One of you always has to be the bad cop.

13. One or both of you shut down, pout, threaten divorce, swear, rage, scream or otherwise make communication impossible. You can't fight fairly.

14. One of you doesn't set appropriate boundaries with others: your family or friends of the opposite sex.

15. There are difficult conversations you need to have with your partner, but you don't feel safe to have them.

Any of these relationship issues is so much easier and quicker to fix sooner rather than later. While counseling is a cost, you must consider what your happiness is worth. If your relationship isn't satisfying, not much else in life is enjoyable. When it comes to solving couples, family or individual counseling issues, recognize the value and intelligence of a tune-up rather than waiting for the point of no return. Why suffer with a mediocre relationship, when you can co-create something much better with some coaching and effort? Life's too short not to go for the marriage you really want. It makes me so happy to be a part of making that happen for couples.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Preparing for the Emotional Shift of Retirement

Depending on how you feel about your work, moving towards retirement can feel like a loss. It's certainly a big transition for most people, and especially so if you liked your work and enjoyed the people you worked with. It's important to consider what you will be retiring to do in the years ahead. I've heard it suggested that we should REFIRE rather than retire.

I'm working in life coaching with people who are coming up on the retirement transition, and planning for their next chapter of life. Here are some factors you may want to consider when you begin planning yours:

1. Figure out how you are going to stay active and keep moving. We know people age better if they keep active, so figuring out how you can safely get your 10,000 steps a day is key. Can you walk where you live? Swim? Go to a gym or exercise class regularly?

2. How are you going to contribute to others? Can you continue some volunteer work you have done earlier in your life? Do you have some ideas about how you could help a cause you care about, like seniors, animals, the environment, people with disabilities, children and youth, church, politics, hospitals, or something else? If you are not sure and need ideas, google your local volunteer center. In Orange County, California, where I have my counseling practice, we have a great organization called One OC that has a job bank for both board positions and direct service volunteer positions from non-profits all across the county (

Think about whether you want to use the same skills you've used at work, or have a chance to do something different. Would you like to work on projects alone and independently, or work with people? Volunteer work is a source of meaning and contribution. It's also a great venue for making new friends with great people with whom you share some common values with.

3. Keep learning new things. Upgrade your computer skills, take a class at the community college, look for opportunities with your local city community services, work crossword puzzles and otherwise challenge your brain to stay engaged. I like to encourage being a lifelong learner, so look for activities that will keep you learning and thinking. Would you like to join a film society, book club, or check your local university for continuing learning opportunities for seniors? Many retirees find new groups to learn with or do activities with on In Orange County, Cal State University, Fullerton has the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) with wonderful classes for retired and almost retired adults. You can contact them by phone or email, (, or 657-278-24460).

4. Keep up your people contact daily. Don't get isolated. Figure out how you can set a goal of being in contact with four or more people each day for maximum wellness. In the 1980's, the California Department of Mental Health did a campaign called, "Friends Can Be Good Medicine" about the mental and physical health benefits to being in relationships with others. It's still true. Put it into practice in your retirement, when you will need to reach out more to others than you did before.

5. Consider working part-time or reducing your hours gradually to ease the transition.

6. Consciously add new friends to your group.

7. Make sure to do at least an outing every day. Don't become a recluse.

8. If you are married or partnered, you will need time together, but you will be happier if you maintain some separate activities. You may be retired, but you still need some autonomy and different interests to keep things fresh. You don't want to suffocate each other. I've heard this called "retired to have dinner together, but not always lunch". You will have more to share with each other if you each pursue some of your own things. Everyone needs a separate sense of self.

9. If you are already, or become a grandparent during your retirement, that's another incredible opportunity for reaching out, transcending self, and creating meaning. Wouldn't it be meaningful to make the grandparenting role an important one? You may have skills to teach or be more available or patient than the children's parents who are at a busy stage in their lives. Making positive memories with your grandchildren is an incredible legacy. I know my girls will never forget Gram teaching them to make homemade pasta and bake pies, or Gramps teaching them to drive and garden.

10. Cultivate flexibility. There are losses that occur as we age, with our own aging process and with our partners. Try to develop an ability to adjust gracefully when it's time, knowing that the changes will continue.

If you begin thinking creatively, your retirement years could be some of your very best ones. People are living longer, so recreating your life after the working years is a whole new chapter to choreograph and build health, connection, learning and contribution. Now that's a life well lived. Let's think not just about retiring from, but retiring to.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Your Family of Origin: It's Where Your Story Begins

You get more than your eye and hair color from your family. Understanding as much as you can about your family of origin is incredibly helpful as a starting place for working on yourself. Just as we inherit DNA, we also get patterns of behavior and ways of being in relationships scripted for us. If we have insight about what our parents' and grandparents' lives were like, how they related to others, and what their emotional lives were like, we can better understand ourselves.

As a structural family therapist, I often draw out maps of family experience known as genograms. In them, I work with individuals, couples and families to illuminate and bring the family history to life. We go as many generations back as we have information about. Here are some family patterns to consider:

1. Where were your family members raised? Did they immigrate from somewhere else? Why?

2. What do you know about their childhood experiences? Socio-economic status of each part of the family?

3. What educational level did people have? What kind of work did they do?

4. What do you know about how happy the marriages were in both sides of your family? Were family members expressive? Unexpressive? Affectionate? Aloof?

5. Are there family members who struggled with alcohol or substance abuse? Was it treated or untreated? How did family cope with challenges in healthy or unhealthy ways?

6. Who struggled with anxiety or depression? Was it treated or untreated?

7. For deceased family members, at what age did they die, and from what cause? How did losses impact the family? Are there suicides in the family? Are there chronic or life threatening illnesses? Deaths from war?

8. Who stays married no matter what ? Do people divorce and/or remarry? Are there patterns of infidelity?

9. What role does faith play in any of the family?

10. What is each generations' style of parenting? How small or large are the families? How did parents discipline? Do families stay close, or splinter apart?

11. Where are the alliances? Who is close to who? Who fights with who?

12.What are the family traditions and values on each side of the family?

13. Who moves away? Who stays close to home?

14. Who cares for aging relatives? What is home like?

15.What is the family most proud of in terms of accomplishments?

There are many subtle impacts of your family of origin role models. For example, if your parents fought a great deal and were not openly kind or affectionate with each other, that's the script you get by growing up with them. If you understand that, you can choose to love your parents but decide to rewrite how couples interact with each other. You can decide to be caring and loving, and model something completely different to your own children. That's powerful change.

Knowing your family genogram isn't about blame. It's about understanding where and how your story begins and what feels "normal" to you. When you marry, your partner comes with their own family story. Neither one is all good or all bad. It's just where you start. The more honest, open and non-defensive you can be about the patterns in your family, the better. It allows you the emotional freedom to make choices about which parts of the family transmission pattern you want to continue, and where you chose to edit and rewrite your own life story.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Choosing a Therapist and Making Therapy Effective

In a recent issue of the Wall Street Journal (9/25/14), they ran a helpful article by reporter Elizabeth Bernstein in the Health and Wellness section about how to choose the right therapist. It got me thinking about how important it is for patients to be active in the process of choosing a therapist, and then to actively participate in therapy in order to get the highest benefit from it.

Choosing a therapist is a very personal choice. You need to select someone who you can feel comfortable with, and open up with. You may not know where to start the search. Here are some things to consider:

1. No therapist is an expert at everything. Most therapists have a scope of practice. Ask potential therapists about their areas of practice. Do they see adults? Teens? Children? Couples? Families? In general, MFT's (marriage and family therapists) have special emphasis in helping with relationships. Psychologists do testing as well as individual counseling. Psychiatrists assess for medication. Social workers have special training with linking to community resources, and LCSW's have experience doing counseling as well. Find out how many years they have been in practice. Make sure they hold a state license in their field.

2.Ask people you trust for referrals. You can get names from friends, family members, co-workers, your child's school counselor, your family physician, the pediatrician, your Ob/Gyn. Think about whether your preferences (gender, age, language). Even if you are bi-lingual, most people feel more comfortable speaking about feelings in their first language.

3. Check the therapist's website. It should give you some ideas about their background, experience, training, specialties and office location.

4. Call several therapists. Start by screening them by phone. You should get a call the same day you call if it's a weekday, unless their message says they are out of the office. Responsiveness is important. Ask about their office location, availability, how far out you have to book an appointment, how long their appointments last (this can range from 45-60 minutes). Ask about hourly fees. Find out if you can pay by cash, check, debit, or credit card. Ask if they can bill insurance or provide receipts so you can submit them to insurance for reimbursement. You may want to ask if they are in full-time private practice, or part-time. Ask if they offer a brief complimentary meeting, so that you can meet with  a couple therapists in person, and determine the best fit. The therapist should ask you some questions too, to determine that it's an appropriate fit.

5. Meet in person. They should be on time, and have an office that makes you feel at ease. The office setting should be private and quiet.

6. Good therapists are good listeners. Make sure you feel comfortable with their style. Do you feel like this individual would be someone you could let in more deeply over time?

7. The best therapists are curious about you. They don't box you in or act like they know it all. They want to understand you in all your complexity. They don't jump to conclusions.

Once you select a therapist and begin treatment, stay involved. You will maximize the effectiveness of therapy if you:

1. Ask questions. Ask them to clarify if you're not following them.

2. If you have had previous therapy, the clinician should ask (or you can volunteer) what has been helpful and not helpful in the past. In the first few sessions, the counselor should take a thorough history.

3. Together with the therapist, define what you want to accomplish. Set goals. Within a few meetings, the therapist should be able to give you the diagnosis they have made, and what the treatment plan is. They need to explain how they can help.

4. Don't edit yourself in therapy. You need to be able to talk freely about anything that's on your mind. You need to speak up in counseling, because your therapist can't do therapy without your involvement. Anything is okay to talk about in therapy. There are no limits.

5. Good therapy is collaborative. It's a journey to understand yourself and to grow emotionally, and you and your therapist are on it together.

6. Try to do some of the constructive action your therapist asks you to. They should have your best interest at heart, but if you don't incorporate some of their suggestions you may be missing some of your potential growth.

7. Therapists need feedback. I try to always encourage my patients to give me some. Share positive and negative reactions. It may be critical for moving your therapy forward, as the therapeutic relationship between therapist and patient needs to be a safe place to learn about yourself in relationships, and how to express yourself and develop your voice. Therapist make interpretations, and we can be wrong. It's okay to feel angry with your therapist. Let them know and work it through.

8. Discuss with your therapist if you want to change the frequency of sessions, or need a change. Sometimes you can only do part of your journey with one therapist, and your therapist should be open to helping you work through making a change if you need it. They shouldn't be defensive. Therapy doesn't go on forever, so it's important to talk about when therapy will end, and how you can continue to grow after it terminates. It is a great joy for me when my patients complete therapy and then call later in their lives to come in and check-in and perhaps work on a different life stage.

9. A good therapist should challenge you to grow. They should care about you, but they aren't your friend. You should be continuing to learn new things about yourself. They shouldn't JUST be listening, you also want feedback.

10. No therapist is an island. They should be networked with other helping professionals, so that they can make referrals for you as needed, for educational testing, career testing, medication evaluation, dieticians, support groups, parenting classes, divorce recovery programs and more.

Choosing the right therapist and actively collaborating with the therapist you choose can be the beginning of greater self-understanding, insight, healing and  healthier relationships. It might be one of your most important decisions.

Monday, October 6, 2014

What Do Our Children Want Us to Know? (15 Tips)

Over the years, as I meet for counseling with children and teens, I often wish parents could listen in and be moved by their children's reflections about what they really need and want. It isn't stuff. If we can think about the great honor it is to become a parent, it puts our hearts in the right place. Instead of mold children into shapes, I like to think of parents being curious about who we've been sent, and doing your best to help them develop their skills, abilities and unique interests.

So, what do children want from parents?

1. Not to be compared to others: siblings, classmates, or you at their age. Don't play favorites.

2. Listen, really listen from the heart.

3. Put down our phones and tablets and be present.

4.  Give our attention. Our children and teens want it, and if they can't get it in a positive attention, they will often try for negative attention.

5.  Offer constancy and predictability. Children like the structure of family dinners, activities, movie nights, and bedtimes. Teens need all these things, too, even though they give pushback. (It's their job to push away from us.)

6. Give encouragement. Notice their strengths. Comment on hard work, effort and improvement.

7.  Provide acceptance. Our children need us to accept their innate temperament, their body type, their interests. If your child is an introvert, don't try to 'remake' them into an extrovert.

8.Don't lecture. It makes your kids tune out.

9. Don't embarrass them. If you have to discipline, do it in private. Watch pictures you post about them on social media, that they don't embarrass.

10. Be a good role model. Work on yourself. They learn more from what you do than what you say. By being kind, treating other people well, picking up after yourself, working hard, etc. you teach these things best.

11. Remember it's not YOUR childhood, and they're not YOU. Don't try to get them to ice skate, play lacrosse, be on debate team, major in accounting or become a doctor because you did or you wish you did. We call that projection, and it's not fair.

12. Have some fun together. All of life shouldn't be a drag. Kids often tell me they wish they could engage and play more with parents. Think board games, outings, hiking, biking, baking, crafting, art, and more.

13. Teach them skills. Self-esteem comes from feeling capable. Have them tell you things they want to learn. Keep teaching independent living skills all the way along, as it's age appropriate. Even four year-olds can set the table, and enjoy helping.

14. Help them understand their emotions. Don't tell them not to feel what they are feeling.  Let them know that all feelings are okay, it's your internal experience and it's understanding it that's key. Help them to sort out what they are feeling, and how to express it to others.

15. Don't yell.  It makes you scary. It doesn't motivate your children to do better. Speak calmly and carry reasonable consequences you can follow through with.

Think of your child as you would a beautiful sunset at the beach, or a rose that's opening. You wouldn't critique them as not quite the right color. You wouldn't judge them as not as good as others,  not smart enough or pretty enough. You accept them for the unique gifts they bring to life. We need to value each child or teen for their uniqueness, what they bring to teach us and give to the planet.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Teaming with your College Student for Successful Launching

During the past few years, I've been doing more counseling than ever with college-age students and/or their parents.  I've observed, both from my working with patients, and from my husband and I launching our three into college, grad school and adult life, that this launching phase has gotten harder than it was when parents did it years ago. The job market is increasingly competitive, and the cost of living is so high. For many college grads, there is some disappointment, sadness and loss after graduating and seeing how excruciatingly slow the job search process is.

What can parents do to help their college-age sons and daughters launch successfully? How do we help them grow stronger and prepare real life skills which will help them in the post-college transition?

 Here are some tips for mom and dad:

1. Help, but not too much. Have them do as much for themselves as you think they can do, more each year during college. Have them get their car serviced and maintained, make all their own appointments with professionals. Down shift your parenting.

2. Help them create a budget and clearly define what you are and are not paying for. It's a good idea to begin having them pay one small bill monthly as a way to get started on financial responsibility. Take them with you to a simple financial/budgeting workshop, which discusses not getting into debt. Dave Ramsey has some one-day workshops across the country that are inexpensive and will do the job.

3. Strongly encourage internships, beginning by junior year in college. Ideally, it will make your grad stand out to potential employers to have had several internships for their resume after graduation. At many colleges, no one will bring up this option to your student, so encourage your student to be their own advocate and go visit their academic department office and professors to ask about internship possibilities by spring of sophomore year. Internships help familiarize your son/daughter with the world of work.

4. After the initial first freshman semester adjustment, have your student work part-time a few hours a week. On-campus jobs often pay well and will work with their class schedule.

5. Whenever possible, let them fight their own battles without parents getting involved.

6. When they move back home during or after college, set clear expectations about what you need them to handle at home and how they can fit in the quieter household with mom and dad.

7. Consider having college grads who are living at home and working pay rent monthly so that can get accustomed to it. You can always surprise them with a gift of some or all of the money back when they move out.

8. Remind your student that if they are struggling with a lack of direction they can get career testing done on campus or privately. Most students benefit from getting a battery of career and skills testing done so that they can choose a major that makes sense and will lead to a job they will like.

9. Make your student aware that if they are struggling with adjusting to college, managing their time or studying, balancing building a new college social identity and finding friends, dealing with a romantic break up, anxiety, depression, or loneliness that even a few sessions of supportive counseling can really help. They can visit the college counseling center for a few sessions, or get some private counseling.

10. Let your adult son or daughter take the lead in contacting you. Don't helicopter parent.

11. When they are home, don't do their laundry, clean their room/bathroom, or prepare all their meals. Have groceries, offer some dinners when you are cooking, but don't enable regression into childhood.

12. Praise and encourage self-sufficiency and resourcefulness. If they come to you with problems, do reflective listening, and follow up by asking them what they think they should do to improve a situation they are concerned about.

Parents of college-age students must step in if you believe your student is failing classes, depressed, or anxious to make sure those important issues are addressed. Otherwise, prepare to shift your thinking about the parenting of your adult child when they are in college and preparing for launch. Be a part of the launch, not over-functioning in a way that interferes with their success. You may really enjoy the new adult to adult relationship that emerges. We're really liking it in my family.

A few thoughts on the college transition from my daughter Ally, age 20 and a college junior...

Being an adult to me is handling situations with more maturity and being able to balance your own activities independently. There is a common saying, "Grades, sleep and social life. Pick two." And that doesn't include outside obligations like work or internships! It's important to find the harmony in your schedule and to not get overwhelmed. Students need to work out the right amount of time for friends, family and themselves. As a parent, you can start helping your student schedule their time in high school so they are adjusted by the time they get to college.

As a college student, it is tough to balance being an adult and not yet being financially independent. You are old enough to take care of yourself but not yet equipped with the tools you need to do it. Being financially responsible is a big part of separating from your parents. Working a part-time job is great experience in working hard and staying humble. Minimum wage paying jobs in restaurants and retail helped me respect money and think carefully about where I spend it. Parents can be clear with students about what they are paying for so students know how to spend their money and decide if they need to work. Students often feel guilty taking money from their parents for tuition, rent and outside activities as they don't feel they are contributing enough. Making sure you save and spend responsibility can alleviate some stress and know that you have a lifetime left to repay your parents in other ways. 

Monday, September 22, 2014

Rethinking Your Anger

Anger isn't all bad. Growing up, many of us got raised to believe anger is wrong, unladylike or uncivilized. Anger often travels with emotional partners, like hurt. Direct and appropriate expression of anger is a skill that emotionally healthy people need to develop. Cultivating a healthy respect for managing stress, frustration and anger is a key skill.

Nobody gets what they want all the time. You will run into traffic. Your boss will demand unreasonable things. Your partner and your children won't always read your script. Things will break. How you handle that frustration makes an incredible difference to your health and your close relationships.

If you don't manage anger well, it can negatively impact your health. One study in Psychosomatic Medicine (January, 1998) identified a correlation between anger and high blood pressure and heart rate, as well as neuroendocrine and cardiovascular responses. More recent studies suggest a link between anger or repressed anger and elevated cholesterol, hypertension, heart attacks and cardiovascular disease, immune system disorders, asthma, diabetes, anorexia nervosa, backaches, headaches, stomachaches, diabetes and increased susceptibility to pain.

There are patterns of aggression in close relationships which can drive others away. Threat-based aggression includes threatening things when you don't get your way. I've treated couples where one partner threatened to end the relationship or divorce almost every time they didn't get what they wanted. This is both immature and exhausting.

Irritable aggression includes lashing out at others when you are in pain, uncomfortable, or annoyed. It's like having the people close to you take a verbal lashing because of your discomfort. This is not a good way to manage your stress.

Frustration-based aggression involves a person being stopped from what they desire, when they really expected to get it.

Instrumental aggression happens when we take aggressive action to get something we want, like a child who hits their sibling to take a toy.

Indirect aggression is sort of a sneak attack that instigates a problem situation.

In relationships, individuals need to listen deeply, and also speak up assertively and respectfully about how each wants to be treated.  It's much healthier to go direct to the person you are hurt, angry or disappointed with than to hold it in or be indirect with passive digs at the person. Direct and appropriately expressed anger or hurt can be a relief, healing and constructive. Pouting, sulking and suffering in silence get the relationship nowhere.

Being appropriate with anger means talking with that person one on one. (No audience, please.) Don't yell or scream. Talk about how their behavior made you feel, and what you want from them in the future. Focus on one issue only. Don't label the other person or hurl insults. In close relationships we have to train the other person how we want to be treated. Not everything is okay in terms of behavior, and expressing justified anger directly and appropriately is an important counterbalance in the relationship. Withdrawal is not always healthy.

The National Institute of Mental Health suggests using the acronym RETHINK to better manage anger:

R- Recognize what you are feeling.

E- Empathize with the other person. Use "I" messages, not "You" messages.

T- Think about your thinking. Am I being reasonable? Will it matter next month or next year?

H- Hear what the other person is communicating to you.

I- Integrate respect for every human being. (I'm mad, but I still love you.)

N- Notice your own body responses. Take time to calm yourself down. Most of us need 20 minutes to cool the fight or flight responses to strong anger.

K- Keep on topic.

All feelings are okay, including anger. It's what you do with it that matters. Being effective at expressing anger directly and appropriately will help you have more satisfying relationships and optimum physical health. Anger sometimes has important information for us, like boundaries we need to set. Identify when you are angry and what you need to do about it to be a good role model and someone who is safe to be close to.

Monday, September 15, 2014

What's Your Attachment Style?

Attachment is the way you connect with other people. We learn it from our parents and attachment figures while we are growing up. We carry our attachment style into our adult relationships, and it helps to shape who we become as a parent and partner.There are four types: preoccupied, fearful, dismissing and secure. None of the styles is bad, just part of who you are and the life experiences you've had. We may each be able to shift our style of attaching over time and through healing experiences.

If you are securely attached, you can trust others and let them close to support you. In this style, you allow yourself a full range of emotions, knowing that all feelings are okay. Securely attached people feel basically happy and capable, and they tend to view their partner as well-intentioned and trustworthy. If you have an anxious attachment style and choose a securely attached partner you are likely to find that the reliable bond with them helps you to grow more secure over time. You don't overreact to a partner's small mistakes or slights.

What if you have the preoccupied style of attachment? You may feel fearful of rejection. You might overreact to problems, and easy jump to the feeling that you can't cope. This type can drain a partner with a sense of being perpetually overwhelmed, vulnerable and needy. Your sensitivity may cause you to overreact to perceived slights by a romantic partner. It may mean that you pick fights or instigate conflict which may exhaust your partner. The attachment need feels so strong and the fear of not getting needs met is so intense that little things can have huge meaning for you. A slow response to a call or text message may create high levels of anxiety and upset, and cause you to jump to (negative) conclusions. No partner is ever going to intuit your every need perfectly. Preoccupied style of attachers "activate" their strategy to sort of scan for any possible problems in relationships in a hyper-vigilant way, which can cause stress and anxiety.

If you have the dismissing style of attachment, you move away from attachment and fight strongly for your autonomy and independence. You also predict that important people in your life will not be there for you when you need them, so you avoid your own feelings and the feelings of others. You may withhold from expressing affection to a partner and make an insecure partner feel more insecure. You probably feel conflicted about both wanting love, comfort and connection and also wanting to protect yourself from the risk of it. You want to believe you don't need love, but you do.

People with the fearful attachment style feel that they aren't loveable. Attachment figures growing up may have been unavailable, perhaps having their own problems. They deeply desire connection and closeness, but can avoid or send mixed messages to their partner. These individuals can be vulnerable to depression, anxiety and passivity, and need to express their needs directly. Individuals who have the fearful style of attachment often view their partner negatively and can't empathize much with them.

Understanding how your style of attaching creates challenges for you in building a satisfying, secure and joyful relationship gives you a good start. Close relationships give us emotional availability, safe haven and a secure base. Insight for how your early attachments with parents influenced your ability to attach will help you develop self-compassion for why you struggle with certain things. It may also help you build more compassion for your intimate partner as you discuss how your childhoods and past relationships colored your ability to get close.

Leslie Becker-Phelps has an insightful new book on this topic called, "Insecure In Love: How Anxious Attachment Can Make You Feel Jealous, Needy, and Worried and What You Can Do About It" (New Harbinger Publications, 2014). Becker-Phelps offers strategies for becoming a more securely attached person and partner.

We want to both become and look for a partner who can be securely attached, mature, non-defensive, effective at communication, appreciative, and affectionate. All intimate relationships will have some miscommunication at times. The best we can do is to choose wisely, have compassion for ourselves and the beloved, risk our own vulnerability, and try our best not to avoid, distance or act out of insecurity.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Making Friends With Yourself

Nobody is born disliking themselves. Along the journey growing up, far too many people develop the habit of making themselves miserable by becoming their own best and constant critic. I recently read a new book by Anneli Rufus called "Unworthy: How to Stop Hating Yourself" (Penguin Books, 2014) which has valuable ideas for each of us, no matter the level of your self-esteem.

If your self-esteem is diminished, who stole it or what lowered it? Your parents may have projected their own self-esteem issues on you, but you have a choice about rejecting those old messages and not carrying them forward in your life with you. Picture yourself now looking in the window of your childhood home when you are about age 4. What do you see? What are you doing? Are you by yourself? Are you with family? What is the four year old you doing, seeing, hearing and feeling?

These early memories may connect you with your authentic self before your self-esteem took any hits. If there was abuse or anger in the home, it may remind you of how you began to be at war within yourself. Either way, you can choose to return to your birthright--- being at ease with yourself and others and authentically your unique self.  I remember that line on a decorative sign I saw recently: Be yourself, as everyone else is already taken.

Rufus explains the unhealthy habits that people with a sense of unworthiness and low self-esteem develop. Here are the things we should stop doing in order to heal past wounds in this area and start
nurturing our own esteem:

1. Telling lies.

2. Apologizing too much, including for things that we had nothing to do with and weren't responsible for.

3. Indecisiveness, or difficulty making choices.

4. Ruining our own fun, by worrying even when something wonderful is happening.

5. Acting. Many people feel they have to "fake it" in social situations or in relationships rather than being authentically yourself.

6. Being stuck in the past.

7. Deflecting praise.

8. Being perfectionistic with ourselves.

9. Difficulty saying "no".

10. Hating our bodies.

We can stop these habits or reflexes that entrench us in lower self-esteem by reversing each behavior. Be honest. Stop apologizing for errors that you didn't make. Savor joyful moments. Be you. Be gentle with yourself. Stay in the present, knowing we have all made mistakes in our past. Accept compliments graciously with a warm smile and a hearty "thank you". Say 'no' and set boundaries. Let joy sink in. Appreciate your body and be gentle with it by treating it well. Speak up and express what you want and what you prefer.

Realize that everyone has weaknesses and strengths. So do you. You can decide not to spend any more time on self-loathing talk. Making peace with yourself and becoming your own best friend is all about realizing that you've usually done the best that you can at a certain time in your life. All any of us can really change is what is happening now. Cultivate your strengths and your quirkiness. Set your intension to be as kind to yourself as you would to a dear friend or family member you love.

Self-loathing, Rufus writes, is at the core a kind of prejudice against yourself. Most of us wouldn't judge anyone else as harshly. Think of all the wonderful things you could do on the planet without wasting energy on harsh self-talk and low self-esteem. It may be time to update your internal hard drive if it's critical and harsh. Choosing to shift from being your toughest critic to becoming your own best friend is an important first step. I  recommend burning your membership card to the low self-esteem club, and Anneli Rufus's book is a great way to start.

Monday, September 1, 2014

What If Other People Aren't Supposed to Make You Happy?

So often in counseling I see people disappointed that marriage or parenting doesn't make them happy. What if we rework that expectation, and consider the possibility that relationships are really about choosing someone who helps you to grow? Or, what if being in a committed relationship or being a parent is really more of an opportunity to give rather than get?

Nobody stays in a perpetual "in love" state. It's a temporary condition. Falling in love activates the pleasure center in our brain. It lasts for months, not years. When we fall in love, we focus on the similarities between the other person and oneself. We love how it makes us feel to be with the beloved. A year or two later, it becomes easy to see the differences between you and perseverate on them if you don't shift your consciousness.

When we have expectations that we will fall in love and that person will "make" us happy forever after, that's an unrealistic idea. Actually, a better expectation is to take responsibility for making yourself happy and fulfilled, and sharing that happiness with the partner of your choice.

 It's important to know that marriages have seasons. There are some predictable hard spots, like when couples have children, when children become teens, and when couples launch their children and need to reconnect in some new ways.

In a marriage or committed, monogamous relationship, I like to see each partner make the choice to bring their best self to the relationship. Focus on giving, not getting. The happiest couples encourage each other's growth and support their unique interests. Each person takes personal responsibility for shining a light and being a beneficial presence in their little corner of the world. Marriages work best when each person sees the best in the other.

You also don't want to look to becoming a parent as a way to make yourself happy. Raising a family can be a very fulfilling experience, but it also tests you. Sweet little babies grow into teens who need to push away from you to individuate and launch. They aren't there to meet your needs or read your script. Being a good parent is a lot about letting go of some of your selfishness, transcending self,  seeing who you've been sent and how you can contribute to helping them along their path.

In short, let's rethink our expectations for our closest relationships. Marriage and parenting aren't supposed to make you happy. They are supposed to make you grow. Love is about a choice, and about doing the right, loving behaviors. You are supposed to make you happy, and then share. Relationships are about giving, rather than getting. Life, lived well includes a process of growing, opening up, and sharing more of your true self with others.