Thursday, January 23, 2014

Running From Crazy

Last week, one film at the Irvine International Film Festival really captured my interest. The film is "Running From Crazy," and it is about actress/author/model Mariel Hemingway. She is the granddaughter of famed American writer Ernest Hemingway. Her grandfather fought depression, chronic pain following a near-death plane crash, alcohol abuse and finally committed suicide in 1961. There are 6 other suicides in the family history, including Ernest's father, two of his brothers, and Mariel's sister Margaux. That's quite a gene pool to inherit.

This film is beautifully made by Oscar winning director Barbara Kopple. It also showed at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. It is an honest film about inheriting genes that carry mental illness and a tendency for substance abuse, and using your own personal power to keep ahead of it through education, openness, awareness, exercise, diet, counseling, being outside in nature, and getting good medical coaching. She is concerned not only for herself, but for her two daughters.

Mariel is interviewed informally in the film, sharing her own journey. She was born the same year her grandfather killed himself, but no one in the family told her the truth about it. Growing up in Ketchum, Idaho, she had two sisters. The girls were very competitive with each other. Her mother, who she was closer to, was very ill with cancer during her childhood. Her two sisters were closer to her dad, who Mariel suspects may have molested her sisters, but not herself.

Mariel had early success as an actress, starting at age 16 with a Golden Globe nomination for Lipstick, and later starring in Woody Allen's Manhattan, as well as other films. She is involved in the fitness industry, along with her current partner.

The film explores the "Hemingway Curse" of the legacy of the Hemingway family. Despite Ernest Hemingway being one of the most respected American writers, with a larger-than-life machismo persona, he was actually a very troubled soul. He had multiple marriages, estranged relationships with his children, and deep depression that he self-medicated with alcohol. Mariel says that her grandfather's wife at the time of his death in Idaho explained the death as an accident to the family. It was not.

In the film, Mariel is shown in the activist role she plays for a large suicide prevention organization, where she gives speeches about the need for awareness of the symptoms that a friend or loved one may be considering suicide. In 2009, suicide was the 10th leading cause of death in the US. It is more common in men than in women. Other risk factors include previous attempts, family history of suicide, physical or sexual abuse, guns in the home, chronic pain, family history of substance abuse or mental illness, and family violence.

"Running From Crazy" is an excellent film that helps us consider using our own power to manage our lifestyle and minimize the stresses that might turn risk factors into risk. Whether there is a history of anxiety, depression, suicide, or alcohol/substance abuse in your family, you still have the opportunity to be aware of the history, but do everything in your power not to succumb to it. You can't choose your family or the genetic predisposition, but you absolutely reduce the risk through awareness, education, avoiding alcohol and drug use, exercise, counseling, strong relationships, and good medical advice. Running from crazy? Aren't we all?

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The Defining Decade: Why Your 20s Matter

For the past several years, I have been doing a great deal of counseling and life coaching with young adults in their 20s. I also now have three young adult children in this phase of life. I think this age group gets a lot of bad information from the media and popular culture. I really like them to focus on what's important developmentally to set a strong foundation for their lives. I've recently read a treasure of a book, which I would recommend for any young adult in their 20s,or anyone who has an adult child in this decade of life. The book is The Defining Decade: Why Your 20s Matter --and How to Make the Most of Them Now, by psychologist and University of Virginia assistant clinical professor Meg Jay, Ph.D. ( Hachette Book Group, 2012).

Here's a taste of Jay's excellent and direct style:

"Your twenties matter. Eighty percent of life's most defining moments take place by age thirty-five. Two-thirds of lifetime wage growth happens in the first ten years of a career. More than half of us are married, or dating, or living with our future partner by age thirty. Personality changes more during our twenties than at any time before or after. The brain caps off its last growth spurt in the twenties. Female fertility peaks at age twenty-eight."

Jay's research-based book goes directly in the face of a lot of bad information that the post-college set gets. Thirty is not the new twenty. For example, she doesn't like to see twenty-somethings have meaningless hook-ups and not begin the process of learning strong relational skills. As Jay points out, just because you wait to start a love relationship later doesn't necessarily mean the relationship is any higher quality. After 30 or 35, Jay points out, the choices can narrow, and it can feel like you are playing musical chairs, feeling pressure to take any seat available. That's not the best way to pick a life partner, which is one of the most important decisions anyone can make.

Jay encourages people in their 20s to become intentional in their career moves. Finish your education. Work hard. Confidence will come with 10,000 hours or so at your chosen profession, so have realistic expectations. You will not be CEO by year's end. Pay your dues.  Learn from your mistakes. Jay compares new college grads to leaves that can be unsettled and blown about by any criticism at work. Dig deep, she advises, and get back to work. Have confidence in knowing that after you have worked at your career for 20,000 or 30,000 hours, you will become like a tree with strong roots, so that when you are criticized or feel badly about a mistake it won't uproot you. It's normal to feel insecure in a new career, especially as you may be the only person in your age group in your office.

Know what you want, and politely ask for it. Don't expect others to be able to answer what you should be doing career wise. You might need some career testing to figure it out, which is usually well worth the money. Don't make the mistake of staying in a part-time or temporary job too long before figuring out how you get on the right track. Many kind adults are happy to meet and talk with you, and will remember clearly how that felt to be a new college grad trying to get started with a career. Jay compares twenty-somethings to planes ready for takeoff, and that right after takeoff any little change can alter the course, while later on after the plane lands it is less likely to be redirected.

Our job in our 20s is building an identity and a feeling of mastery as an adult: creating a career we enjoy that can support us financially, developing our self-esteem, developing a sense of agency, building post-college friendships,and learning how to be in an intimate relationship. There is a sense of being less of a group than when in college, and more on your own. Parents also need to step back, not hover, and allow this maturation and individuation process to happen: emotionally, financially, and relationally.

Jay has a funny chapter on social media's impact on those in their 20s called "My Life Should Look Better on Facebook," which explores how many young adults feel worse after following their peers on Instagram, Facebook, etc. Twenty-somethings have to get past living to impress others, and stay focused on their own path.

In choosing love relationships, about half of young adults have lived through their parents' divorce. There is a legacy of divorce emotionally, where most adult children of divorce are fearful of not living through another divorce, and sometimes delay dating or getting serious with anyone as a way to delay dealing with that fear. With this one decision about who you marry, Jay likens it to "walking over to the roulette wheel and putting all your chips on red 32. With one decision, you choose your partner in all adult things. Money, work, lifestyle, family, health, leisure, retirement, and even death became a three-legged race."

In choosing a partner, Jay encourages young adults to consider "The Big Five" Personality Factors that have been researched. In addition to sharing common core values, it is helpful to be at the same end on most of these continuums:

1. Openness (low to high)
2. Conscientiousness (low to high)
3. Extroversion (low to high)
4. Agreeableness(low to high)
5. Neuroticism (low to high)

The Big Five are how you live, and they are thought to be 50% inherited and are not likely to change.

Jay points out that many women ignore dating seriously in their 20s and then feel somewhat panicked at the age 30 transition, as friends begin marrying and changing their Facebook relationship status. Perhaps we should look at the 20s differently in the relational area.

The author is also very direct with young women about the limits of fertility. While Hollywood celebrities may be extending childbearing into their 40s, most women can't. There are many women, including some I've counseled, who are grieving at 40 that they forgot to have a child, or kept telling themselves they would deal with it later. While men might be able to wait until after 40, it might not be smart, either. What if you have toddlers AND aging parents? What if the aging process makes it harder to be active with small children? What if you aren't there to finish raising your children?

I highly recommend this informative and thought-provoking book to anyone in their 20s. Don't throw away this important decade-- it's setting the essential foundation for the life you want to create. Make the most of it by being intentional about yourself  and your goals.

Monday, January 6, 2014

9 Strategies for Moving Past Your Partner's Affair

You love your partner, and never dreamed they would be unfaithful. Now you found out. Perhaps you had been noticing different behaviors in your partner, or you found a heap of text messages or phone calls to the other person. Maybe you found the restaurant or hotel receipts, or the credit card bills, or a mutual friend saw your partner out with the other person and reported it to you. It may be that your partner came out and told you directly. You are grief-stricken, and your whole life appears not to be what you thought it was. Now what?

If you are married, love your spouse, and  have children and a whole life together, it's a big decision to give up all your dreams because of their affair. Infidelity is wrong, and involves a third person in your relationship. Practically speaking, it is also very common. Can couples heal and move on together after an affair?

I have seen many couples deal with the aftermath of one partner's affair, and some couples really can heal and get past it. An affair can, but often does not have to, end your marriage. If you choose to stay and repair the marriage, you have a whole journey of healing ahead of you. It helps to know what to expect, what to talk with your partner about, and what to do on your own to take responsibility for your own healing.

Your partner's response when the details of the affair matters: Were they remorseful? Did they sincerely ask for your forgiveness? Were they more arrogant and defensive? Were they willing to work hard to repair the marriage with you? If they weren't truly repentant and deeply sorry, you may want out of the marriage, because this affair may be foreshadowing of more affairs to come.

What if they really regret the affair and want to repair things with you? How do you manage the myriad of feelings the spouse feels who has been cheated on? How do you work through the trust being broken with your partner? How do you move through the current hell you are living through,with an eye to rebuilding the future of your marriage?

1. You need to take time to grieve. Finding out that your beloved spouse was unfaithful to you---physically, emotionally, or both, is a huge loss. In some ways it's worse than a death, because it was a willful decision to turn to someone else without regard to hurting you.To grieve, you must  feel all the feelings that you experience: shock, anger, bargaining, sadness, hurt, and eventually, acceptance.Grief comes in waves. It can be very intense.You can feel it as physical symptoms, including an inability to sleep, not being able to eat, a hollow feeling in your chest, etc.You have lost the trust and the innocence you once had in the marriage. Something has happened that you won't be able to forget, but can work hard to forgive over time. You may want to journal or talk with a therapist on your own to process all your feelings, and decide what you most want to communicate to your partner. It is usually a better choice not to share everything with friends, family, or your children (especially if you want to work it out, as you may forgive your partner, but they might not).

2. Do extreme self-care. In the months following your finding out about your partner's infidelity, it is  important to rebuild your confidence and self-esteem. Few things in life feel more like a personal hit and rejection that a partner's affair. Take some time to reinvest in yourself. Exercising might save your life during the first few months. Change a few things up about yourself. Find ways to be your own best friend. This is a time to reinvest in yourself, because you have to get stronger to fight for and rebuild your marriage. Whether your repair attempts work, and you are able to rebuild your marriage or not, you are with you either way.

3. After you get the facts on the affair and have talked openly with your partner, try not to obsess about your partner's every move. Better to act with integrity and self-esteem, and put your partner on notice that you are "all in" the relationship with them, as long as they are "all in" as well. Let them know that if you find out they are continuing their unfaithfulness, you may need to end it. This is about reclaiming your own power. You are not willing to be repeatedly victimized. Go on record about this with your partner.

4. Restructure the relationship with your partner. You need to understand what the affair meant to them. Are their unmet needs that they have? How about needs that you have? Create a format where you can each check-in with each other about how you are doing with the other. Do you have a regular date night? Weekends and vacations away together? If not, set it up, take turns making the plans, and get going. Begin having fun together again if you weren't. Find a safe way to make behavior change requests with each other.

5. Require new transparency in the marriage. As a marriage therapist, I don't like couples to have secrets. Discuss and negotiate new boundaries on Facebook, cell phones, email, lunches with the opposite gender, etc. Modern technology makes infidelity an easier temptation, but inappropriate and hurtful behavior needs to be addressed. If your partner can't agree on some reasonable compromises with you, it's a huge red flag. It is reasonable for you to want new boundaries.

6. Coping with triggered grief, anger, and sadness is an inside job. Much like war veterans can get triggered PTSD symptoms, lots of little things can surprisingly trigger the downward emotional spiral of people who have been betrayed. You have to be able to sort it out yourself, or get help doing so. If you fall apart or get angry or paranoid over every little thing,your partner will begin to feel hopeless that you two can get back on track. You have to be able to choose which items are the big things, and how to ask your partner for comfort (as in holding you). You can't stay stuck in angry, attack mode or it will drive your spouse further away. Remind yourself that your partner CHOSE to return to you, rather than pursue a future with the other person. It may help you to keep a list of your negative thoughts and check the evidence, making sure you are not using distorted thinking like emotional reasoning. You need to sort this out and be aware of not coming across as hostile, defeated, and stuck with your partner. Pick your battles, don't beat your partner up every time you get triggered. You can also learn to do thought stopping, where you go run a few miles when triggered, or remind yourself your partner stayed with you.

You need to be able to develop your own internal dialogue to deal with the insecurities that have gotten stirred up inside you. It may be overwhelming to your partner for you to be consistently needy, angry, and hyper-vigilant. You need to stay grounded, and keep a mindful of creating a new, better relationship with each other. Keep in mind that your partner may have given up the other person, but is actually grieving that relationship concurrently to working out things with you.

7. When you feel safe to do so, begin to address the sexual relationship between the two of you. If it has been dormant in recent months or years, heat things up again. I find many marriages have become disconnected in this intimate part of the relationship after having children. Begin to talk about what you would like in this intimate area of your life again, and get your partner to talk about what they have always wanted in this area. If at all possible, do not ask for specifics about sexual activities between your partner and the other person. It will be harder to get rid of these images. Make your partner wonder why they ever got involved with anyone else! Again, get out of victim mode as soon as you can. You can't undo what has happened, but you can try to rebuild and move forward.

8. Develop your spiritual life together as a couple after the affair is uncovered. A shared faith could be a huge help as you try to heal.

9. After the initial grieving, try to introspect about whatever part you may have played in the distance that happened in your marriage. It's perfectly possible you played no role in it, and certainly your partner involving another person was wrong. It is also possible that you need to own things you did or didn't do that distanced your partner (Did you get busy and ignore him? Over-focus on the children? Not invite her for date nights or couples time? Not share responsibility for a great sexual relationship?)

Marriages change after infidelity, but with your strength, the right support, and a good effort from both you and your partner, you may be able to get back on track and not lose your love and your life together. Hopefully, years from now you can look back and be glad you rebuilt your life together. In a world where the divorce rate is this high, being a couple who dug deep and renewed your commitment to each other and rebuilt the trust over time is something to be proud of you both for. There are times in life when digging deep and growing through difficult times can make you grow as an individual and as a partner.