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Friday, December 23, 2011

Keys to a Positive Marital Relationship--Understanding the Difference between Arguing and Fighting

Language is a very powerful tool in relationships.  It can hurt; it can heal; it can solve problems. 
It useful to think through how we use language with our partners--to know how we are using it with them and how they are using it with us.  Through such knowledge we have more control over ourselves and more power to improve our relationships. We can mold our  language to be useful and healing rather than hurtful..

Let's look at three of the most important types of language in relationships: problem solving, arguing, and fighting.  These are not the only three ways language can be used, but they are three of the most common forms.  They might be referred to as "the good, the bad, and the ugly."

First, let's consider one of the most important of the positive ways that language is used in relationships--problem solving.  Problem solving can begin with providing information.  One spouse says, "The garage door is broken."  There is not necessarily an explicit call for something to be done here, although that may be implicit.  But this is just mainly providing information.   Asking questions is also important in problem solving.  "Do you know if it is under warranty?" would be an example.  The exchange of information can then be followed by suggesting alternative solutions and discussing the merits of the different possibilities. 

In problem solving, each person is open to hearing good ideas.  There may be disagreement, but each person is listening and considering what the other person has to say.  There is an old saying that two heads are better than one.  If each brain contains four billion neurons, then eight billion nerve cells working on a problem are better than four billion working on it.  But that only happens when we are open to hearing the other person's ideas.  Problem solving is generally positive, helpful, and constructive.  It hurts no one.  It fixes things.  It generally goes more smoothly than the next two forms of communication I am going to discuss.

A second way people relate to each other in difficult situations is arguing.  In arguing, we become angry. We become defensive.  It usually does not fix anything.  It is like two debaters.  They are not going to convince each other.  They are constantly thinking how to outwit the other person and win the debate.  They want to show that their own ideas are correct and superior.  They are figuring out how to create arguments that are more powerful than the arguments of the other person.  Arguing doesn't solve problems. but if it is brief and not prolonged it may not create many lasting problems either.  Arguing creates tension, but if arguing does not occur too much, then the tension usually dissipates. 

When we start arguing, we need to become aware that that is exactly what has happened.  Nothing productive is going to come of it because we are determined not to lose.  We are not interested in the truth because we think that we already know the truth.  We are not interested in the best problem solution, if it is different than what we already think it should be.  We want to win because we know we are right.  Our ears are stopped up, so to speak.  Nothing good comes of it, unless one or both parties shift back into a problem solving stance.

A third way of interacting in problem situations is fighting.  In my way of thinking, I make a strong distinction between arguing and fighting.  This may just be a definition, but I think that it is a very important distinction.  The difference between the two is the main reason I decided to write this post.  The way that I am using the term "fighting" here is that it involves intentionally hurting the other person emotionally or physically.  Fighting goes beyond arguing.  In arguing we may hurt the other person, but if so it is unintentional.  In fighting, we want to hurt the other person.  We curse; we push; we throw things; we hit.  We dredge up things out of the past which can be used to make the other person feel bad.  Fighting doesn't solve problems.  It creates problems.

Of course, there are many other types of communication--playful, sarcastic, nurturing, emotive, and so on.  Some of these have an important role to play in relationships; some don't.  But the point I would like to make in this post is the importance of being aware of where you are in the problem solving/arguing/fighting cycle. 

The cycle can be thought of vertically.
We may start by problem solving. (Some couples skip this stage.)
Then we may devolve into arguing. 
Then we may devolve into fighting.

By trying to stay focused on the problem solving stage of an argument, we may prevent some types of misunderstandings.  For example, sometimes a partner may mistake the other person asking for information as being sarcastic, commanding, or aggressive. I think most couples have at one point time or another misunderstood the intent of the other: "Have you taken out the trash yet?" can be misinterpreted as, "WELL, HAVE YOU GOTTEN OFF YOUR BUTT AND TAKEN OUT THE TRASH YET?" As Freud said, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. And sometimes a spouse's question is only a question and not a command or criticism.  By trying to stay in the problem solving mode, some of this can be avoided.

More importantly, by avoiding the fighting phase and staying as much as possible in the problem solving phase (with a unavoidable detour now and then into the useless arguing phase) we can keep from hurting our spouses and improve the overall health of our relationships.

Monday, December 12, 2011

On Forgiveness

Psychologists are increasingly looking at the importance of forgiveness in mental health.  It appears to have a positive impact on both physical and mental health.

What does forgiveness mean? The current research focuses on two types of forgiveness: the behavioral decision to forgive, and emotional forgiveness. We can decide not to do anything against someone (decisional forgiveness), and we can also emotionally let go of hard feelings (emotional forgiveness). In my way of thinking, forgiving means that we no longer are blowing on the embers of out anger towards someone. Moreover, when we forgive, we no longer want any retribution against them.  We not only decide that we are not going to retaliate against them, we also quit wishing them any bad luck or misfortune.  If we have really forgiven, we are free to wish good things to happen to them. That can be a very liberating freedom.  But forgiveness does not mean that we take someone back as our best friend and tell them our secrets.  It does not mean that we loan them money when they have proven to be untrustworthy in the past.  We do not forget in that sense.

In some ways, forgetting is impossible.  Our brains won't let us simply wipe events from our memories.  Consider the following example:
     Don't think about an elephant.
     Please, don't think about an elephant.
     Really!!! Don't think about an elephant!!!
And, of course, what do we do?  We think about an elephant.

But emotionally, we can do something similar to forgetting.  In forgiving, we let go of the energy and the attentional focus we are putting into a grudge.  Active forgetting may be impossible, but we can passively let our minds allow the offense to slide into the past, where it is remembered less and less.  The opposite of forgetting is to rehearse something.  We blow on the dying embers of a flame of anger to keep it alive.  When we hold a grudge, we want to make sure that we keep thinking about it.  Not rehearsing a grievance is possible.  We can be determined not to blow on the embers of a grievance just as we could choose not to blow on the red hot coals of a fire to keep it alive. 

What we can do is let the whole event drift away from us. It is like being on a boat in the middle of the lake.  We place something which floats into the water--a leaf, a toy boat, a piece of paper.  We can try to push it away, but it will only go so far when we push it.  But we can choose to let it drift away over time.  On the other hand, we can choose not to let it drift away; we can reach out and try to keep it near to us.  It's our choice--let it drift away or keep it near.

And that is how our mind works.  I know my mind does.  If I don't rehearse something, I tend to think of it less and less.  It is a positive aspect of the way that our brains work that we have the capacity for emotions to die down and slip into the past.

Her is another issue.  Can we--should we--avoid the person thereafter?  There is a great scene from the musical Fiddler in the Roof.  A man approaches the rabbi of a small Russian village.  He asks, "Rabbi, is there is a blessing for the czar?

"A blessing for the czar?" the Rabbi echoes.  "May God bless the czar and keep the czar, far away from us."

So maybe instead of the phrase "forgive and forget," we could use the phrase "forgive, let go, and avoid."  Maybe  avoidance is the wrong word here; it does sound kind of harsh.  But I am not sure what the right one would be.  As the rabbi said, "May God bless the Czar and keep the Czar--far away from us."  There is no sense continuing to expose ourselves to possible harm.

But let's end on a positive note.  When we forgive someone, we are free to wish them good and positive things in their life.  I don't necessarily mean mean money, or winning the lottery, or fame.  "Good things" are all in how you define them.  If someone has offended me, then when I forgive them, the good things I wish for them are happiness, good character, harmonious family relationships, and so on.  All of these are much more satisfying to most people than money--at least that's what I think the psychological research indicates.  This attitude of not carrying a grudge can free us up and be quite liberating.  It costs us nothing but can make our lives freer and happier.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

How Do You Use Your Power?

People have a variety of reactions to the word "power."  Some want it and crave it.  Others try to be "nice" to the point that they seem to be trying to avoid exerting any power.  Some believe that that they don't have any power.

But power comes with being human.  Perhaps not the Donald Trump kind of power.  But there is always power to be constructive or damaging towards those around us.  There is always power to have a positive or negative impact on the people.

It may be true that as we get older our power wanes, but we still have some until we can no longer speak and/or move.  We still have the power to curse or to bless by our words and actions.  (I can tell you that doing testing on geriatric wards in the hospital, I have been cussed out a few times.  I have also had times that were truly delightful working with elderly patients.  Our power to bless or to curse remains until the very end.)

As children we discover that we have power, even before we understand the meaning of the word.  We can taunt or tease others and hurt their feelings.  I remember once as a child that I called a child "Pat, the Brat."  It was a taunt based on a comic cartoon strip.  It hurt his feelings, and I just kept saying it that day because I found it had an effect on him.  Without knowing what I was doing, I was finding that I had the power to hurt someone's feelings.  I liked it.  Fortunately, hurting others was not a major temptation of mine, and I generally chose not to use my power to hurt people's feelings after that.  Young boys tend to be fascinated by the power of fireworks, and they may go through phases of trying to blow things up.  In the worst case scenarios they use the power of the fireworks to hurt animals or people.

Children need to be taught to use their power and to use it for good.  I remember a conversation I had with one of my sons when he was in elementary school. I told him to make sure that he used his influence to make others around him feel good--not to feel bad.

Now the example of me calling a kid "Pat the Brat" was a trivial example, but we all know that our forays into using our power may start small but end up in adulthood in much more important, powerful ways of hurting people.  The power to hurt people in really bad ways generally comes later on in our lives.

Then, on the other hand, there is the "myth" of the nice person.  Some people believe that power is a bad thing and that they should always be nice, never offending.  They believe that they can be a better person by NOT being powerful.  That is wrongheaded.  The point of life is not to be "nice" to the point of avoiding power.  The point is to use power for beneficial purposes, to build people up rather than putting them down.  It is not loving to be powerless.  It is loving to use your power in beneficial ways.

Even Gandhi and Jesus exerted power, but it was different.  We normally think of them as "meek and mild."  After all, didn't Jesus say to "turn the other cheek"?  Wasn't Gandhi a believer in non-violence?  However, they used non-violence as a specific type of power.

Jesus said to turn the other cheek.  But this was actually not teaching people to be passive.  It was actually teaching them a form of active expression of power but in a paradoxical way.  It would show love but with great restraint.  When Gandhi started his protest movements, he was out to hurt no one.  But he was also intending to bring down an empire.

So I believe it is important for us to accept the fact that we do have power.  Then we can spend a lifetime honing it so that it blesses rather than harms those around us.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

A Theory of Life

As I work with patients, I often am confronted with horrible stories of childhoods of neglect and abuse.  The level of suffering that some of my patients have gone through as children leaves me wondering about the meaning of life.  After all, finding meaning in the midst of pain is one of the ways that people attempt to cope with life's difficulties.  Is life just a Woody Allen movie, searching for meaning but never finding it?  We live, we feel pain, we have a few laughs, and then we die, and that's it?

Well, no.  I don't believe that.

My clients come from a variety of religious and philosophical belief systems, and I try to work within a philosophical framework which makes sense to as many of them as possible.  I believe that life does have meaning and purpose.  Many of my patients also believe that, or at least hope that it is true.

My view is based on a belief that no matter how terrible a client's life has been, there is a point and a purpose to their living.  I do not believe that life is just random suffering.

And so my theory helps me to think of each life, and each person's suffering, from a perspective which attempts to be both psychological and spiritual at the same time.  Sometimes I share this idea with my clients, and sometimes they find it useful.

So, what is my theory?

First, we are born.  So far, so good.  Everybody can agree with that part of my theory.  Existential philosophers talk about our "thrownness."  We are "thrown" onto the stage of life.  We cannot choose to whom we or born, in what time era we live in, or in which culture we will live.  No matter what our belief system, I believe that we can agree that the infant or child is in a sense tossed onto the stage of life.  They are somewhat bewildered, at least about some things.  They don't have a rule book.  Or more accurately, they are given a rule book by their culture.  But the rule book of the family and of the culture they live in is often full of mistakes, and they don't have a perfect one to correct the one that they have been given.  They have to figure out for themselves a better way of living.

For some people, traumas and problems start very quickly. They might have a deformity.  They might have physical pain.  They might begin life addicted to drugs because their mother was on drugs during the pregnancy.  They might be born into an abusive family, or have a mother who is emotionally withdrawn because of post partum depression.  And so on. 

Almost all of us experience some form of problem or dilemma in our childhood.  At least most of us do.  Maybe all of us do.  The dilemma may be obvious, such as sexual abuse, or having a deformity, or being an unwanted child.  Or the dilemma may be subtle, such as having everything handed to us on a silver platter.  (How is this a dilemma?  I think that having things too easy creates difficulties for people later on in life.)  I'm not sure that anyone makes it through childhood without some kind of a dilemma.  Maybe they do, but I've not met that person yet.

We are immersed in the dilemma.  We are totally unprepared for it.  We don't even know that we are in a dilemma, but we experience the negative effects of it.  As a child we generally blame ourselves for the problems we experience.  We are immersed in them.  But we don't understand them.  We experience the fear of abuse or the uncertainty of war or the pain of hunger.  We don't know that we are innocent.  We are innocent, but we don't know it.  We are victims.

As the child grows older, their ability to think logically and abstractly gives them the ability to think more abstractly.  They no longer blame ourselves for everything that happens to them.  They start to blame their parents and other people (and sometimes rightly so) for what has happened to them.  If they are being abused, they may start to realize that what is happening is the abuser's fault, not theirs.

They may start to rebel or withdraw from the problem.  They may run away from home; or maybe they get pregnant or married in order to leave home..  They are sick and tired of being treated the way they have been.  They rebel.  They fight with their parents. Or they use drugs to try to make the problem go away.  They try to escape the pain.

But all too often, whatever their form of escape, the teenager has not actually escaped the problem.  They have internalized it. They thought they had gotten away from it; but they hadn't.  If they were abused by an alcoholic father, they may have picked an alcoholic husband to "act out" the problem over and over again--perhaps choosing several alcoholic husbands.  Women who have been sexually abused sometimes become promiscuous.  And sometimes they totally lose interest in sex.  They have not escaped the sexual problem.  They are only acting it out in various ways.

Next in life's sequence of events, the person's brain reaches maturity.  The frontal lobes reach maturity around age 25 (or later).  The frontal lobes give the person the ability to think and to act in fully mature ways.  The person has the ability to see their problems from a new perspective.

And at age 30, I think we may perhaps grow up in a different way.  The brain has theoretically matured by 25 or so, but at 30 I think that we may start to realize that things are not magically going to "just get better" by getting older.  We realize that if things are going to change (i.e., not being abused by alcoholic husbands) we are going to have to start making different decisions and doing things differently.

We can then use our mature brain and our emotional maturity to break free of the cycle of acting out the internalized dilemma.  We can opt out of the old dysfunctional cycles.  We can quit doing what we were doing, which was thinking we were escaping the dilemma when we were actually perpetuating it. 

And if we realize what we are doing, why we are doing it, and then stop acting out the dilemma then we have OVERCOME the dilemma. 

We gain wisdom from overcoming the dilemma.  Whenever we overcome a dilemma by refusing to act it out anymore, we have gained a type of knowledge that can be described as wisdom.  It is existential wisdom.  It cannot be learned out of a book, and to some degree it is unique to us and no one else.  Your wisdom is different from my wisdom, even if we went through somewhat similar dilemmas.  The dilemmas were never exactly the same, and so our wisdom can never be exactly the same.

And wisdom may just be the point of life.  Not just happiness.  Not wealth.  Not fame.  But deep understanding and mastery--existential wisdom learned the hard way that means that a particular dilemma will never again have control over us.

Now as we get older, we start to become less flexible in our thinking.  And if we live long enough, we are all likely to develop some form of dementia, such as Alzheimer's.  At that point, our ability to overcome our dilemma is lost.  We no longer have the self-awareness, the abstract thinking, the flexibility of personality, and the decision making power to overcome such powerful issues.  Probably we are best equipped to overcome dilemmas from the ages of 30 to 65.  That does not mean that we cannot do it before or after that time period, but the likelihood of doing so decreases in our later years.

Now, this theory of life is inadequate in some ways.  Notice that it does not really mention the importance of relationships, having children, spirituality, love, creativity, giving, and so on.  All of these could be fit into my theory, but each of these could be a theory of life in its own right.

My theory also does not take into account dilemmas that crop up in the middle of life rather than childhood (such as war, a severe car accident, death of a child, etc.). 

And it leaves open the question of what the meaning of life is when someone does not overcome their dilemma.  What if they are simply broken by the dilemma rather than overcoming it?

But the theory does, I believe, get at one very important issue.  If life is not random, and if it is more than a cruel joke, then there is a purpose.  And I think that the purpose of life if to learn and to love--to be people  of beauty and character--despite our dilemmas.  And that leads to wisdom.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

A New Kind of Contest

As a psychologist who has concerns about the state of the world and humankind (and who doesn't?), I am aware that one thing which will be needed in the future will be a greater level of cooperation between people.

Cooperation always exists in a tension with competition.  I doubt if that will ever change.  Competition has always been around, and I think it is built into us.  At the same time, the world's survival may also depend on cooperation as much or more than our competitive drive.

One way that we train out children in both cooperation and competition is through sports.  Sports almost always involves competition.  But it always involves cooperation as well.  Only the football team on which players cooperate well has a chance of winning.  Even two tennis players competing with each other have to at least agree on a set of rules and cooperate in the sense of abiding by the rules.  Without that type of cooperation, there could be no game, no fun, and no sense of accomplishment.

But I would suggest that there is a type of competition which could be an even better experience for our children, teaching them to cooperate through competition.  Here is my idea. 

This could be easily be done with elementary schools, high schools or colleges.  It would not have to do with sports but with any activity that requires problem solving and creativity.  Let' say that the contest subject matter is not a sporting event but more like a science fair competition, or a contest of technological innovation.  A pair of teams would be given a goal to achieve, such as building a better mousetrap (or a computer, or a robot, whatever).  They might be a given assortment of materials or tools to use.

Then let's say that the "league" of teams consists of eight school teams.  Each competition date links up two teams together.  (So, for example, in a league of eight teams, there would be four pairs of teams on any given day of competition.)  The two teams linked together on that day then work together towards the goal.  All of the four pairs of teams would have their outcome judged by a single set of judges and given scores.  There would be four scores each week.  Each team would make the same score as the team they were paired with for the week (eight scores but only four different scores.)

Each week, a team would be paired up with a different team, so that by the end of the "season," they would have been paired up with each of the other teams in the "league."  (Seven overall contests in this example.)  The team that would win would be the one with the highest score at the end of the season.  Thus, there would still be competition.  All eight teams would end up with different scores; but in the process, each team would have to learn how to cooperate with another team every week.  Only through such cooperation could they obtain the highest score at the end.  If they failed to cooperate and to use the best skills of the other team, then they will not score well.  Each day of competition would require that they look for, understand, appreciate, and utilize the strengths of the other team members to the maximum extent possible.

Maybe this is already being done somewhere.  If not, I would like to see it tried.  I think that it could be very interesting and that it could train very prosocial values important to our national and global existence.