Tuesday, February 25, 2014

You Were Always Mom's Favorite: Sisters

Writer and  Georgetown University Linguistics professor Deborah Tannen wrote a terrific book about the complex relationships between sisters, called You Were Always Mom's Favorite that might really help you understand the relationship better if you have a sister, are a sister, or have daughters of your own (Ballantine Books, 2010). Sisters have a life-long conversation that can reveal much about each of them.

As it turns out, girls often define themselves by the differences between themselves and their sister or sisters. There is often a lifelong tug of war between competition and closeness. Sisters compete for parents' time, attention, and financial support. Each sister tries to carve out her own identity within the family. If an older sister is seen by the family as the "smart" one, a younger sister might seek to differentiate herself by assuming a different identity.

Birth order plays a role in the relationship between sisters. Tannen found this even between twin sisters, where there is still a focus on who arrived on the scene first. Older sisters may be called on to help with the care, supervision, homework and responsibility for a younger sister by parents, and later be resented by a younger sister for treating them as a parent treats a child. Younger sisters may be babied and protected. Adult sisters sometimes have trouble renegotiating childhood roles. For example, ideally it would be best for an older sister to build a mutually respectful relationship, and not try to know more or be the boss all their lives.

As Tannen and her researchers studied conversations between sisters, they found  something she labeled "sister speak" where sisters can develop their own unique conversational flow and share the telling of stories. Because sisters usually share a common history, they can have conversational shorthand that they understand but others might not completely get.

Alignment in the family is important. If one sister is seen as "closer" to mom or dad, it can cause other sisters to feel left out.  As  a structural family therapist, I often want parents to be more aware of having as many good kids as they have children, and not joining in an alliance with one child, or playing favorites.

As adults, resentments can be exacerbated by one sister living closer to aging parents and assuming a larger or solo role in managing parents' increasing needs. Some adult sisters opt out and leave caring for aging parents, by default, to another sister. Some mothers add to sister conflict by over-praising one sister or her children.

Your sister might  represent the path you did not take in life. Acceptance, tolerance, and mutual respect can help soothe differences. So can lowering your expectations about your sister, and adding in other close female friends.

Sisters can be such different things to different women. It's wonderful when they are close emotionally, caring, supportive, and interested. Many women feel the loss of what they would have longed for if their sister is competitive, cold, disinterested or antagonistic. I have found women who feel sadness that their sister order got messed up.

Whether your sister is a strong ally or a stiff competitor, chances are she's one of the few people on the planet who knows your whole life story. The relationship between sisters, or the lack of it, helps to define us as women and as individuals.

Monday, February 17, 2014

How Marriage Is Changing

In today's New York Times, Northwestern University professor of psychology and management Eli Finkel wrote a very interesting article about how marriage is changing. I get to see how  marriages and our expectations for them are changing up close every week in my counseling office in Newport Beach.

After doing a year-long survey of the scholarly literature on marriage, including psychological research and commentary from sociologists, economists and historians, Finkel thinks that the average marriage is weaker, but that the best marriages now are better than ever. This means that for one group of married couples, satisfaction is lower and the divorce rate is higher. For the other group of marriages, they are stronger and provide more satisfaction and personal well-being to both partners than in past generations. Apparently, with marriage, it's all or nothing.

Finkel reviews the literature about the American view of marriage, which has evolved over time. Cherlin and Cootnz chronicled the era of "institutional marriage" from our country's founding to about 1850. Marriage was about survival: producing food, creating shelter and safety. These basics were the foundation of marriage at that time. If you had an emotional connection with your partner, that was lucky. Emotional connection was NOT the central purpose of the union.

Next up, from 1850 to 1965, marriages hit the era of "companionate marriage." This time frame mirrors the shift in American society from rural to urban life. Families became more prosperous, and men's and women's roles became more distinct and gender specific. As families grew more wealthy, they could afford the luxury of looking at marriage differently, having more to do with love and companionship, and less about survival.

The third shift began around 1965 to the present, with the era of "self-expressive marriage." American societal changes in the 1960s and the personal growth movement helped shift expectations of marriage less as a necessary institution, and more as a way to develop, fuel self-discovery, self-esteem and personal growth.

These different expectations of marriage parallel the hierarchy of needs designed by psychologist Abraham Maslow in the 1940s. There are five levels in Maslow's hierarchy, and if a lower level, such as food and shelter, is not met, then a couple can't get past that basic need to focus on happiness and self-actualization. In recent years, our expectations for marriage have soared. It requires more time and energy invested into a marriage to meet those higher level needs for connection, depth, and mutual growth.

Sociologists Jeffrey Dew and W. Bradford Wilcox have found in their research that couples who spend time alone with each other, either talking or sharing an activity at least once a week are 3.5 times as likely to be very happy in their marriages than those who do not. Having shared mutual friends also seems to help couples. This can be especially hard on couples with different work hours, juggling multiple jobs, or lack of support with their children, so that time alone together is a scarce resource. It creates more challenges for couples who are raising a family at a distance from extended family support.

For creating enduring marriages, the research is helpful. Don't just focus on the children or work. To the extent that you can, couples need to try to increase the amount of time spent together, whether in conversation or in shared activities. Happier couples also try to encourage each other's growth and development. Taking each other for granted is old school in marriage. Most partners are unlikely to lower their expectations of their marriage, so the importance of investing time and energy in making your relationship a priority is more important now than ever. More people now are expecting better, not worse. 

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Two Secrets of Great Relationships: Listen and Reveal

With Valentine's Day coming up this week, there are people scrambling for gift ideas: jewelry, perfume, dinner someplace special, and cards that are loving, funny or flirty. After several powerful hours spent this week with couples I am seeing for emotionally-focused couples counseling, I've been thinking that there are two most significant gifts you can give in a relationship.  They are actually free. They are listening effectively and well to the other person, and speaking up with your partner to reveal more about yourself, your emotions and interior life.

We often don't get trained growing up to listen very well. I find that many people may pause or stop speaking, but they are not actively listening from the heart. Try to remember: who are the people in your life who have REALLY listened from the heart? They will stand out. Did you have a parent who really listened? Were your parents too busy with work or their own problems?

Even if you've never had someone who really listened in your life, it's a learnable skill. You can be the first in your family or in your relationship.

It's important to do some self reflection about yourself as a listener. Do you make eye contact with your partner when they are speaking with you? Can you put away distractions? Do you interrupt? Do you ask questions to more deeply understand something the other person is expressing to you? Do you summarize what they have expressed to make certain that you understand? Can you be honest if you do not have time to listen and ask to meet up again later so that you can listen more completely?

Here are the keys to being an exceptional listener:

1. Stay calm. Don't get defensive or cross-complain. Try not to overreact or take it personally.

2. Ask questions to deepen your understanding. Develop a curiosity about the other person. You don't know it all about your partner, and you never will. That's what keeps things fresh and interesting.

3. Remind yourself to stay open, and not get upset. This way you can support your partner in sharing more with you. They will shut down if you get reactive.

4. Express empathy. Put yourself in your partner's shoes. Imagine how they might be feeling about what they are expressing. Respond with what makes sense about how they may be feeling. You can hold on to you and still empathize with their feelings. It will help your partner relax with you to know that you empathize with them. They will feel more partnered and less alone.

5. Recap. As accurately as you can (without any spin), restate in your own words what your partner has shared with you. Ask if you have understood correctly. Ask if they wish to tell you more.

Doesn't being listened to this way by someone you love sound like it would feel wonderful? It does! I have seen couples visibly soften with each other, feel closer, and be moved to tears with this kind of listening.

The other key relationship building skill is learning to initiate conversations----even difficult ones---- and reveal one's self. What's the best way to do that?

1. Ask your partner for a time to talk. Ask them to be your active listener (as above). Make sure your partner is engaged and ready.

2. Pick one, and only one, topic to focus on. Describe what you want.

3. Share your thoughts and your feelings. Go for the vulnerable feelings underneath, such as sadness, loneliness, rejection, hurt, guilt, etc.

4. Avoid accusing, name calling and blaming. That will shut your partner down or make it nearly impossible for them not to get defensive. Focus on your own part.

5. Be open to learning more about yourself. See what you can learn about how you react, feel, and process experiences.

Having great relationships isn't just about finding the right person or buying them the best gifts.Truly great love relationships are where you challenge yourself to grow emotionally, listen  more deeply from the heart ,and learn to speak up and reveal more of yourself in ways that allow your partner to get closer. Understanding someone you love and their vulnerabilities, and having them understand you is about the best gift I know of.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Let's Disconnect: Put Down That iPad and Come to the Dinner Table

Families are struggling as they figure out how to cope with family members isolating and plugging into their technology. We've lost the boundaries where parents could easily protect the childhoods of their children. Partners notice how distracted their partner is. Work emails can bleed into evening and weekend space as it shows up on your iPad or iPhone. Children complain about parents that won't put down their phones; parents complain about teenagers doing the same thing.

There is an unspoken message being delivered anytime we are using technology that the person you are presently with is not the most important. It feels bad to be ignored. We long for breaks from feeling plugged-in and anxious. We need deep connection, but it's getting harder to protect emotional space and time for it. We long for being present with intimate others without distraction and multi-tasking. This generation of young people is known as "always on."

What's a family to do?

Psychologist, Harvard Medical School instructor, and writer Catherine Steiner-Adair has written an excellent new guide called The Big Disconnect (Harper Collins Books, 2013). Her book has lots of valuable reminders, such as:

1. Children and teens can't set reasonable limits. You need to be the parent and set off times.

2. Children and families still need time for independent, creative, self-generated play.

3. Make mealtimes family and connecting time: no technology of any kind. Children and parents need to practice and role model social skills and the art of connecting.

4. Don't miss your baby's, child's, or teen's important developmental moments because you are texting.

5. Help preschoolers learn to identify and manage their emotions, learn to take turns, and be patient.
Screen time can't help teach any of those soft skills. They are developed through 1:1 interaction.

6. Have conversations with your children and grandchildren of all ages, including eye contact. These are valuable zones of interaction. Story time or reading together with young children is better than iPad time.

7. Try not to use technology to get children to be quiet or not need you.

8. Be aware how technology accelerates exposure to gender stereotypes, sexuality, aggression, violence, and "cool to be cruel" comments on blogs and social media. Discuss these issues with your children at different developmental points.

9. Beware putting computers and televisions in your children's rooms too early, such as before 13. You may never see them.

10. Facebook and Instagram can emphasize a culture of obsessing about presentation of one's public self.

11. Text messaging gives an artificial sense of pre-planned wittiness and a false sense of confidence. It doesn't translate to in-person social skills.

12. Be an approachable parent, so that your children know they can talk with you about their concerns, and you won't lecture or overreact. In Dr. Steiner-Adair's research, she has learned that kids and teens won't open up and approach parents who are "scary, crazy, or clueless." Scary parents get judgmental, too intense, and harsh. Don't be reactive or hot-headed, or your children won't open up to you about their challenges. Crazy parents hold grudges, and email teachers and coaches when their child doesn't get what they want. Clueless parents are na├»ve, ineffective, passive, and act like their child's best friend.

13. The best approach is to become a parent who is informed, calm, approachable, and realistic.

The Big Disconnect is well worth reading. It will help you think through keeping the balance of using technology to your advantage, but not being mindless about letting it take over your family's life and connectedness. Don't sit passively by as your family ties loosen.

Engage your children. Simple contracts that your child or teen understands and signs about the conditions for the privilege of using a cell phone you pay for may be a good idea. Encourage texting only about quick details, not as a way to avoid conversations in person. Get the password for the phone, so that if their safety is in danger you can intercede. No sleeping with your phone. Technology has a bedtime. No phones at meals or family times. Ask your children to help you plan some fun time together that doesn't involve technology.

Close relationships and families require in person connecting, undistracted and completely available. Let's disconnect to really connect.