I am constantly shocked and reminded just how easy it is to hurt or be hurt by our loved ones due to problems of communication. Communication is supposed to consist of both talking and listening in somewhat equal measure. But regrettably, sometimes there is one but not the other. Sound familiar?
In some families, everyone seems to be talking but no one is listening. In others, members of a couple or family feel alone, left in the dark, because there is so little discussion or sharing. The truth is–healthy communication is much much more difficult than it seems at first glance.
This is why when couples or families start therapy, improving communication is often the first goal. Without it, no problem can ever get solved. Few people have been taught the necessary skills, and many have picked up some pretty bad habits along the way. Most people, in fact, enter therapy quite convinced that they are already good communicators, only to discover that many of their skills are problematic or lacking.
One of the most universal communication errors in our relationships with our parents, partners, and children is that we are tempted to speak without thinking first. This is understandable because we are typically less guarded with people we feel close to. The downside of having this increased freedom of expression is that we often blurt things that we would never even dream of saying out loud to a friend or colleague.
And then, to make matters worse, after having said something hurtful, tactless or even downright mean, we often make the further mistake of justifying what we’ve said rather than apologizing and owning up to the fact that we misspoke. (Here’s another blog on the problem of contempt in communication).
Most people are now aware that high levels of conflict–loud, angry or bitter fighting–can be tremendously destructive not only to marriages and intimate relationships but can cause lasting harm to the children caught in the crossfire.
As painful as divorce can be for kids, what we know now is that excessive fighting is what troubles kids–whether the family remains intact or not. On the flip side, disagreements and differences go hand in hand with any relationship whether it be marital partners, parents and children, co-workers or siblings.
One of the crucial skills we must master in order to sustain close, long-term relationships is healthy communication. Not only do we need to be able to communicate our positive feelings of love and appreciation but we need to be able to talk through issues when we don’t see eye to eye.
The Elements of Healthy Conflict
The Elements of Destructive Conflict
In destructive conflict, all bets are off. Psychologist John Gottman’s land-breaking research on couples brought to light the negative aspects that can lead any discussion to the dark side. He aptly labeled these the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse because once they are predominant in a couple’s conflict, the likelihood of divorce dramatically rises.
The White family overwhelms my office with noise and activity from the first moment they arrive for family therapy. The three boys, aged 6, 10, and 13, immediately begin to argue over who sits where.
Pouncing on one another’s laps, they push and poke. The youngest one screams as though he has been mortally wounded. Mom and Dad make a feeble attempt to create order out of chaos but they are clearly outnumbered.
Is this normal sibling rivalry? (After all, boys will be boys). Almost anyone who grew up with siblings, particularly those fairly close in age, will not have trouble imagining this scene or one like it.
Didn’t you fight over who got to sit in the front seat of the car (before the laws changed), who decided what channel the TV would be on, or who got first dibs at the dinner table? Or was it about who mom loved best?
Sibling Rivalry is Normal–and Annoying
I’ve listened to so many couples arguing about whether or not their kids are normal…
“It’s way too much!” insists Sylvia. “They might kill each other.” Her husband Sam rolls his eyes. “You never had brothers–girls are different!”
The parents sounded like two kids fighting over the rules of a game. The truth is–no one knows just how much is normal since it depends on the “rules” that silently govern each family.
Depending on your culture, your ethnicity, your gender, your age, the size of your family, and the rules of the family you grew up in, what seems inappropriate or out of control to one family can seem funny or like normal bickering to another.
That being said, one of the most frequent complaints I hear from parents is about the incessant fighting between the kids. If the conflict in your family is driving you crazy, perhaps it’s time to turn the volume down to the extent that you can. The first step is to understand what all the fighting is for.
The Roots of …
Hardly a day ever goes by when I don’t hear someone blaming someone for something. It is one of the most common–and one of the most frustrating patterns that confront couples and families. Blame can destroy a good marriage, wreak havoc on our friendships, and put innocent kids in the middle of their parents’ arguments.
Not only are families besieged by this destructive pattern, the whole culture is mired in it. We blame the President; the Democrats blame the Republicans and vice versa; women blame men; consumers blame companies; patients blame their doctors. The dance goes on and on all around us. Is there any way to break through the blame barrier and why should we even attempt to do so?
We actually believe that we are right. Since the time human beings lived together in tribes and villages, there had to be laws to govern our behavior. Rules and laws are typically black and white with a right and a wrong answer. You are guilty or not guilty of a crime. When it comes to interpersonal relationships, we simply apply this black and white reasoning (whether or not it is helpful or endearing) to our partner or child’s behavior.
We are blind to our side of an interaction. Most all of us are trained to see the world in a linear sequence: A causes B. In …
I received a call from a distressed mother last week asking if her whole family could come to see me. “I’m really worried,” she explained. “Every one of us in the family is completely stressed out, and we need to find out how to cope better.”
I am used to getting calls when someone is suffering from any of a number of symptoms-illness and loss, depression and anxiety, addictions, behavioral problems in children and teens, communication breakdowns in couples–but these days more and more calls simply describe unmanageable stress as the presenting problem. What is going on?
If you answered a resounding yes to most of these questions, you are certainly not alone. Recent studies not only in America but across the world indicate that far too many people are suffering from the excessive demands of modern life. Stressed to the limit with no end in sight.
Stress has been studied since the 1950’s by medical doctors as well as psychologists and social scientists. Whenever circumstances put more physical or psychological demands on an individual than that person can handle, stress is the inevitable response. When pressures mount up, the body’s natural fight or flight mechanism goes into high gear.
Stress is most likely to occur whenever the demands put on us are intense, …
“It is not a lack of love, but a lack of friendship that makes unhappy marriages.” -Friedrich Nietzsche
The TV ads would have all of us believe that the best cure for depression is the latest and greatest medication. First it was Prozac and now it’s Pristiq and Abilify. Although medication is a life saver for many, for others the side effects are too debilitating, and the meds don’t seem to help enough anyway.
Study after study has shown that the best treatment for depression includes some form of psychotherapy. Once again, there is always the cure du jour–right now it is cognitive behavioral (CBT or DBT). Nothing wrong with that. It’s just that something is missing from the information.
Your doctor or family may have told you (if you are the depressed one) to get help. What you haven’t been told is to make sure you do some counseling with your spouse, your children, and/or your family as well. Here’s why this missing information is so important…
Psychotherapists have long known that social support is crucial–not only when the patient suffers from depression but with any physical or emotional illness or disability. When you visit your doctor for your annual check-up, how often are you asked about the quality of your relationships? We now know that this is even more important than we thought.
A new study by Alan Teo and his team in the Psychiatry Department of the University of Michigan conducted a ten-year follow-up of almost 5000 adults aged 25-75 to determine just how big a part relationship factors played in the risk of developing depression years later. Their conclusion: the magnitude of the impact of social relationship quality on risk for depression is as strong as the effect of biological risk factors (like obesity, smoking, high blood pressure) for cardiovascular disease.
I’ve been counseling couples and families for over three decades and one thing stands out. Most people wait too long before they reach out for help…years too long. Problems that might have been solved in five to ten sessions become crises that break up perfectly good relationships.
Since only a precious few learned the necessary skills to weather the ups and downs of a long-term relationship, it is easy to slip into negative patterns of relating–either to oneself or to loved ones–or both.
What are the warning signs of problems that need to be addressed?
Sometimes the signs are glaring and obvious–domestic violence, high levels of conflict on a daily basis, serious addictions, repetitive infidelity–but far more often, problems seem to creep up on people a little bit at a time.
In a famous 19th Century science experiment, researchers described how if they put a frog in a pot of boiling water, it would quickly jump out, recognizing the danger instinctively. But if the frog was put in cold water that was heated to boiling very slowly, the frog had no idea of the trouble brewing. By the time the water was boiling, the frog was dead meat.
So it can be with dysfunctional families, marriages, or even organizations. It seems OK until suddenly it doesn’t.
Happy loving couples look up from what they are doing and smile when their partner comes home from work. They touch one another with some frequency–a hug hello or goodbye, a hand on the shoulder or leg, a kiss goodnight, holding hands watching a movie, rubbing the back of the neck after a long day.
Some people try to defend their lack of physical warmth by saying it’s not how they are built but when you see them with their children, they touch and tussle, smile and cuddle. Often when affection begins to wane in a marriage, it is a symptom of unexpressed resentment that needs to …
If you don’t know exactly what I mean by contempt, it is disdain for another, openly acting patronizing, insulting, and disrespectful. Contempt is criticism with a twist. When I have contempt for another, I put myself above them. It is criticism with a holier-than-thou attitude mixed in.
Who could possibly act this way? The answer is: we all do. Hopefully, not very much.
On the other hand, if you grew up in a family where your parents had lots of contempt for each other or for people who were different-racially, politically, religiously, ethnically-then you probably picked up this bad habit without even knowing it. If you want, as most of us do, to have close, loving relationships, it is essential that you know about contempt, and that you do your best to eliminate it from your arsenal of emotional weapons.
Many of the couples that come to me for therapy love one another and are trying to practice good communication. They usually have no idea how often contempt creeps into their relationship, particularly in times of disagreement and difficulty. Or how much damage it can do to an otherwise happy marriage.
The Face of Contempt
The psychologist Paul Eckman is probably one of the world’s foremost experts on human emotions and how they can be seen in facial expressions and body language. (If this interests you, watch reruns of the TV series Lie to Me, based on the application of Eckman’s research to uncover liars).
Eckman studied contempt in both Western and non-Western cultures around the world, and believes it is universally communicated in the same way. When a person feels contempt for another, the corner of the lip on one side of the face is tightened and raised slightly and the head is tilted slightly back. It is even easier to spot when it is accompanied by the rolling of eyes.
Eckman classifies contempt as …
If you ask parents to name the most important values that they want to instill in their children, honesty is almost always high on the list. The same is true of qualities that we look for in a mate or close friend. In order to build trust, we need to believe in someone’s word. How many times have you asked a loved one, “Please, just tell me the truth…”
If your goal is to build honesty and discourage lying in your children, what’s the best way to do it? If you do catch your child in a lie, what should you do then?
The answer is not so simple. Indeed, it depends a great deal on the age of your child, the type of lie being told and the motives behind it. In the last blog, we explored the when, where, and why and just how often kids lie. The first step in dealing with lying–or any other troublesome behavior–is to know what is normal given the age of your child. Bright, lovable (normal) kids lie–first as a way of avoiding punishment but eventually learning how to lie to be liked and accepted by others and to avoid hurting someone’s feelings.
Step #1: Remind yourself that children who tell lies are not bad–they are simply afraid of getting in trouble or making someone angry at them.
Step #2: Don’t press your child to confess or act like a private investigator trying to catch someone.
Usually you know that your child has done something wrong and then has lied about it. For example, your older child takes a toy away from the baby and then denies it; or your daughter eats cookies before dinner when you told her not to; or your son has not finished doing homework but starts playing video games which is against your rules.
Step #3: …
Stan and Tiffany came to see me for marriage counseling after an argument over the children erupted into a shouting match. Although they were each embarrassed that they had screamed and used foul language, what confused them the most was what they had said to one another in the thick of the fight. Both of them had said cruel, blaming words, and they had been unable to reconcile and feel close again afterwards.
When I pushed for more details, Stan had said things like, “You’ve turned out to be just like your mother–I don’t know why I thought you were different–but you’re not! I don’t even like you anymore.” Tiffany hadn’t minced words either, screaming “I hate you–you’re not a man, you’re a child who throws a tantrum when he doesn’t get his way. Don’t touch me!”
Stan had stomped out of the room, slamming the door behind him. He slept on the couch, and neither had been able to talk things out any better in the morning. When I probed them each to tell me where they were stuck, they both said essentially the same thing, Each of them was afraid that the cutting words shared that night were the other’s deep truth. “If that’s what he/she really feels about me, how can we stay together,” they asked me.
Stan and Tiffany, like most couples, have never been taught about what happens when emotions take over the driver’s seat and grab the wheel. What they had experienced that night was what Dan Goleman named “an amygdala hijacking.”
Here is what happens when emotions take the wheel: The seat of emotions is in the old part of the brain called the limbic system–the part we share not just with all our fellow mammals but with reptiles. Animals in the wild and our early human ancestors had to be vigilant in order to survive, constantly searching for something to eat and, at the same time, desperately avoiding being eaten.
Similarly, humans are wired …