When In Doubt….Do Something

A good friend of mine who is a great fellow and an excellent therapist has this websiteadage  he likes to share: “When in doubt, do something” – meaning that if you are stuck, doubtful about yourself and feeling blue or down, take some action.  Move.  Do something.  It doesn’t have to be a “big” something.  It shouldn’t be a “big” something.  Any move is a gift.  So I had an interesting experience recently that put the proof to that statement and some may find this a helpful story.

I had been feeling down for a while and was having a hard time kicking it.  My website came to the rescue….well it helped me come to my own rescue.

I really like my website.  I worked hard on it and get nice complements.  A great designer named Stephan Laenan who lives near Portland put it together for me.  I gave him content, he designed it…but once in a while there were tweaks I wanted to make and I didn’t know the first thing about how websites are put together.  It was aggravating, since I was totally dependent on someone else who rightfully charged me for his time.  Last year I bought an Idiot’s book on HTML and CSS (how you create the code to make a website) and after reading it for a few weeks, I was so cross-eyed that I had to put it down – defeated.  Then a month ago,  a lawyer friend of mine was telling  me how he created his own site and I thought, “Well, if he can do it……..” so I checked a bunch of books out of the library and suddenly had this “Ah-ha” moment and figured out how to make all the changes I wanted.  I dove in and over the next week updated everything I wanted updated.

I absolutely felt a spring in my step.  A big weight was lifted from my shoulders and I found that things that had been aggravating me only the week before weren’t so important.  My mood absolutely shifted because….well, I did something.  (And really, it’s not a big deal to learn about website coding, even for a tech dweeb like me.)

Lawyers and Personal Conflict

angry.couple.1I like lawyers.  Some of my oldest, dearest friends are lawyers.  It’s really the same thing that has me coming back year after year to teach counseling skilargumentls to law students.  Lawyers, as people, are smart, funny, generally very positive and full of life.  This is even more so for law students – with their youth and energy.   Yet one thing has always bemused me about lawyers – They are a conflict resolution profession that hates interpersonal conflict.  Take mediation, for example.  The classic approach to mediation is to sit the disputing people down together and have them talk to each other.  The mediator’s job is to help this process by creating a safe environment where each person will have their space to express what’s on their mind and help in phrasing it in a way that is both true for the speaker and also said in way that can be heard without defensiveness.  It is almost guaranteed that if we are accused of something (or feel we are being accused) we will automatically become defensive and the speaker will be hugely frustrated at the fact that they are not being heard.  This is just one of the realities of interpersonal conflict resolution – helping people speak to each other in a productive fashion.  Lawyers, however, find the possibility of sitting in the presence of emotion that can become hot and possibly escalate to be too potentially destructive, so they choose, almost invariably, to separate the people (or groups) in argumentdispute.   This is kind of consistent with one of the most poignant elements of lawyers’ discomfort with conflict - how they fight at home.

One of the real problems with legal training is that lawyers feel they have to “win” an argument.  Often by “winning” this means being able to explain their position either clearly enough or with enough supportive evidence (and examples from the past) that their partner will ultimately relent and admit that they are right.  So how does one deal with the reality that you don’t “win” marital arguments?  When what is at stake is each person’s deepest needs, fears and vulnerabilities, “winning” seems beside the point.  It certainly won’t get us what we want, which is peace and connection.  I wrote a blog post about a year or so ago about the two different conversations couples have when they are in conflict.  The one that we try to win is the unwinnable one.  How’s that for a conundrum?  The way out of it, I think, is to understand that no relationship will touch on our deepest needs, fears and vulnerabilities like our intimate partnership.  If we are going to have these feelings, this is going to be the place.  Learning to understand them, express them, listen to them and connect with them, while often uncomfortable, is the way out of that maze.

Remember the McDonald’s Coffee Case?

Back in the 1990′s a New Mexico jury awarded Stella Liebeck more than $2.8 million against McDonald’s because she spilled hot cocoffeeffee on her lap.  This has been brought up to me many times over the years as proof of the dangers of frivolous personal injury suits.  “She sues because she is burned by hot coffee?  Ridiculous.”  A new documentary is on Netflix called Hot Coffee which explores the case and its aftermath.  I invite you to take this short quiz to see what you know about this case:

1.  Stella Liebeck was: (a) A 16 year old girl (b) A 32 year old mother of 3 (c) A 79 year old widow.   Answer

2.  When the accident occurred, Stella was: (a) Driving (b) In the passenger seat of the moving car (c) In the passenger seat of a parked car.  Answer

3.  The temperature of the coffee was: (a) Over 180 degrees F. (b) Around 120 degrees F. (c) Around 150 degrees F.  Answer

4.  Stella Liebeck’s injuries were mainly: (a) A painful rash on her thighs which lasted for a month (b) Third degree burns on 6% of her body (c) Painful blistering on her thighs and buttocks: Answer

5.  The case went to trial because: (a) McDonald’s offered to pay her medical bills, but she thought they should pay punitive damages (b) McDonald’s offered $250,000 but she wanted $1,000,000 (c)  She asked for payment of her medical expenses and lost income (about $160,000) but McDonald’s offered only $800.  Answer

6.  Had McDonald’s been given any notice that hot coffee may be a problem? (a) About as much notice as you and I have that hot coffee is hot (b) A couple of people over the past 5 years had been burned (c) McDonald’s had received about 700 complaints of burns from excessively hot coffee.  Answer

The point is:  READ ON

The Little Things

I went out to my car last week and found the rear window smashed and two things taken from my back seat – an empty briefcase and aLock.3 ratty old Jansport backpack with my gym stuff in it.  “They” did it in the middle of the night. (Don’t you want to find out who “they” are?…your own personal “they’s”)  Anyway, while the briefcase was well worn and nice, my biggest sense of loss came from the theft of my combination lock.  I remember years ago when I opened the packaging and read that the combination was 28 -2-8.  C’mon!  It just can’t get any easier than that….and I loved my combination lock.  I felt so lucky to have picked it out.

Martin Seligman, one of our greatest psychologists, has long studied happiness.  He has been striving for years to develop an approach to mental health treatment which transcends the age-old medical model of diagnosis of a “disorder” and then working to eliminate the “disorder.”  Seligman wondered why we can’t move above the baseline of functionality, into the realm of happiness and well-being.  This notion has captured the enthusiasm of a large segment of the mental health community.  Just note the surge of people incorporating “mindfulness” into their practices.  Mindfulness is both a way to ease stress and internal pain and a path to affirmative well-being.

So what does a combination lock have to do with Seligman and positive psychology?  Well, one of the most important tools for achieving well-being is appreciation.  Cultivating a sense of appreciation for the good in our lives cushions us against the deeper dismay which will always accompany loss.  Also, appreciation buoys our spirits in the day to day.  One of Seligman’s best exercises is the “Three Blessings.”  Each night before you lay down to sleep, take a notebook or piece of paper and write down three blessings of the day just ending.  This will train your mind to be alert to both the big and the little things which we can appreciate in life.  These little things can be a pleasant exchange with our partner or a friend; the burst of life in the leaves that are unfolding as Spring arrives; the wag of our dog’s tail because we are really, really loved; the good feeling from not eating something we know isn’t good for us; a great movie we just watched or the bike ride we completed.  Nothing should be taken for granted.  We live in a world which may often seem bent on eroding any sense of well-being.  We can keep that force at bay when we embrace the little treasures.

I’m going to store today and will myself to pick a lock with my birthday as a combination.  I’ll tell you how it goes.

Supporting Divorce Recovery

Writer, Abigail Trafford once said that divorce is “a savage emotional” journey.  Trafford is but one of the scores of people who have studLicking.woundsied the “divorce recovery process” over the past two decades.  Noted researchers like Judith Wallerstein and Mavis Hetherington as well as leading divorce mediators like John Haynes all agree that the period of “divorce recovery” is about 24 months.  This means that, if allowed to move through the expected steps from separation through a sense of “being okay” and free of the psychologically intense and depressing forces of divorce, most people will take about two years to complete that process.  However that caries with it a big “if.”

If people are allowed to proceed through the process of divorce and not gouge additional psychic wounds in each other in the process, most people will be through the journey in two years.  (That, by the way, doesn’t mean that they will be miserable for two years.  Most divorce experts say that the acutely painful passage occurs in the first six months.)  However, here’s my biggest beef with conventional divorce litigation.  It has been my experience (time and time again – seen throughout the 25 years I’ve been doing this work – first as a lawyer and now as a mediator and counselor) that the conventional divorce process does inflict avoidable damage on both people.  The shame of it is that these poor folks have to devote psychic energy to licking the wounds that are gouged by the divorce process. This leaves them with fewer internal resources to manage the natural progression of divorce recovery.  It will prolong the period of intense distress beyond the normal six months and stretch the entire divorce recovery process out to beyond the natural 24 months.

Divorce hurts.  It is the most stressful experience that many will ever undergo in their lives.  The process of stabilizing a new sense of self; managing the intense emotions and solving a myriad of practical challenges are daunting.  My advice: Find professionals who will help you make good decisions and support you in the tasks of this life transition who will not contribute to prolonging the pain.

That Intuitive Sense of Safety

As one who has worked in the field oembracef intimate relationships for many years, one abiding fascination of mine is the question: What draws us to our partner?    Sadly, many who are in conflict and estranged don’t remember, or dismiss the idea that they were really attracted at all.  As Dan Gilbert says in his wonderful book Stumbling to Happiness, we see both the past and the future through our present experience.  So if we’re really alienated from our lover, we have an almost impossible time thinking of how we felt when we were first drawn to that person.  However, I have observed another reality in my work.

When we get beyond the physical attraction and compatibility, I find over and over that what drew individuals to one another is the force of an intuitive sense of safety.  Like magnetic attraction, it is unseen and not easily measured, while at the same time, it is intense in its invisible strength.   Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy is based upon Attachment.   This is a deep need in the center of our being for connection and it exists in all of its intensity when we are infants and persists until our dying day.  However, many of us (perhaps most of us) had these tender, vital and consuming needs thwarted when we were very young.  This left many with a deep, yet not consciously recognized, sense of shame for our fundamental being (after all this is what was rejected when these needs were unfulfilled).  Perhaps we may not resonate to the word or notion of “shame” but somewhere inside we carry some combination and gradation of feeling completely alone or inadequate or unlovable.  We may silently despair of ever being with another person and being truly accepted – to find that safe harbor where we don’t have to protect ourselves from buffeting winds of judgment or rejection “if they really knew what was inside.”  Most of us who carry these wounds inside, learn to cope and carry on.  We can be very attractive, smart, sociable, supportive, accomplished or supremely self-sufficient.  Any one or a combination of these attributes – or any number of others – help us get through life.  Yet, there is a niggling voice, if we are attuned to it, which yearns for a safe place – “where I can be myself.”

I think what often draws us into the intense bond of an adult intimate relationship is that the voice whispers to us (so that whether we actually hear it, the voice registers) that “Here, you have found someone who understands.”  Somehow, you intuitively sense that this person may have experienced loss, or fear, or shame in the recesses of their early life that somehow resonates with your own and that they are safe.  If this is so, then it certainly explains the intensity of the hurt, anger and sense of betrayal when, in the throes of the inevitable intimate conflict, this person flips from uniquely safe, to dreadfully unsafe.  To have taken the risk to open up, only to be judged and rejected is horribly destabilizing.

But there is good news!  With time and working with a good couples therapist, we can find that the judgment and rejection were actually the reaction of their partner to their own fears and pain of feeling rejected themselves.  It takes time, but that safety can be regained.   This will be the subject of future posts.

Springsteen

springsteenIn 1975, I was a year out of law school and a pal asked if I wanted to drive up from L.A. to Santa Barbara to catch a Bruce Springsteen concert.  I hadn’t heard of the guy.  I went up on a “what the heck” ride.  It remains the most rocking, outrageous concert experience of my life.  What I remember now years later is that he had a band that was so tight, had practiced so much, that they acted as one instrument.  The other thing I remember was the man’s energy.  Jon Stewart once said that Springsteen empties the tank in his concerts and that is an apt description.  When he was young, the guy would light up a city when he’d come through.  He did 4 consecutive nights in L.A. in the late 70′s and everywhere you went for days afterward, people were in a daze – “Which night did you go?”  “Did he play ‘It’s My Life’ (an old 60′s classic) at your concert?” “Can you believe it….3 encores!”  Set aside his great melodies and poetic lyrics.  The guy found the thing he knew he was 10+ on a scale of 10 and he did it.  Every public pronouncement from him is admonition to us to do the same.  Embrace the passion of being alive.  It’s a hard road for so many of us and the only thing we can ever control is our belief in ourselves.  Encouragement of that is one of therapy’s goals.  Many of us learned who we were in this world through families that told us we weren’t much (or worse, were burdens and fundamentally bad).  Perhaps more common was the encouragement of aspects of self that didn’t reflect what we somehow knew to be our essence.  This would go hand-in-hand with discouragement or disregard for parts of our character that we knew were truly an expression of our true and best selves.  One reason I think that Bruce Springsteen galvanized so many people to loyalty bordering on idolatry is that his work provided the constant message: “Life can be hard.  You’ll be challenged – but you’re up to the task.”  Seligman would add, “Learn and embrace your signature strengths (see my earlier post).  They’re yours.  Their expression in your life is where you’ll find meaning and happiness.”  Right on, Marty!  Right on, Bruce!

The Shadow of the Law and The Culture of the Marriage

Our goal, in any negotiation of terms of a divorce, is (in the words of a valued colleague) to arrive at a Durable Agreement.  What docontractes that mean to you?  In my view, it is an agreement that each person feels comfortable signing and comfortable with the next morning – six months later and five years later.  There are no big regrets or resentments; no “if only’s” or “why didn’t I’s…”  The agreement is understood completely – those things which I am conceding, I accept, and those things which  I am receiving, I acknowledge.  In my experience every Durable Marital Settlement Agreement should be consistent with two things: The Shadow of the Law and The Culture of the Marriage.

The Shadow of the Law is a great phrase I first came across in a seminal article about divorce mediation by Robert Mnookin and Lewis Kornhauser.   It is impossible to arrive at a durable agreement in a legal process without some basic understanding of the legal principles that are applied to the conflict.  Each state has its own set of laws which pertain to divorce – how marital property is defined and divided;  whether there will be alimony and, if so, how much and for how long; what standards are applied in making the residential decisions in parenting and how to determine the financial elements of raising children (in the child support decision).  These rules, which are found in the written laws, or statutes, which are passed by the state legislatures (usually more than 100 years ago and selectively amended since) and the interpretive decisions by the appellate courts,  reflect the public policy and values of each state.  Understanding the “shadow of the law” is not to understand what a judge would decide (because as any lawyer will tell you, this is often impossible to divine beyond a broad range of possibilities – and even then, judges have been known to issue rulings that are far beyond the predictions of the lawyers arguing their case).  It is to appreciate the policies and the principles that underlie these rules.  However, if an agreement is based on “the law,” alone, then it will be flawed.  This is because the individuals must also take into account “the culture of the marriage.”

The Culture of the Marriage is simply, what the people talked about between themselves.  What they wanted for themselves and the other person.  People enter the divorce process after a long relationship (even if it has been only two years – but usually it is far longer) with the attendant intertwining of life histories and dreams – joys and disappointments.  There were understandings that people had which were discussed and assumed.  Sometimes these understandings are not 100% consistent with what “the law” provides or what a court might decide, but they are consistent with what these people have discussed and believe is right for them.  Yet, again, an agreement based solely on “the culture of the marriage” will be flawed, because it does not take into consideration the principles of the larger culture of the community in which these people live.

Thus, any durable agreement must reflect a balance between these two critical values – the societal values reflected in the law and the personal values reflected in the couple’s history and interactions.

Your Signature Strengths

A few years ago Martin Seligman (former President of the American Psychological Association and developer of positive psychology, a significant force in the current mental health environment) and Christopher Peterson came up with this notion of Signature Strengths – those qualities we are nstrengthsaturally drawn to and which are considered to be positive (and have for millennia).  There are 24 of these and it is possible to visit a web site and go through a 30 minute test that will give you a sense of your top signature strengths.  You can access this test here (scroll down to the VIA Survey of Character Strengths).    Seligman describes these different strengths so well in his book Authentic Happiness.  In a more detailed discussion, Seligman and Peterson in their book Character Strengths and Virtues (a book I purchased out of an excess of enthusiasm only to decide that the tome was helpful, but did not merit it’s size or price) break the 24 strengths into Six Categories: Wisdom and Knowledge; Courage; Humanity; Justice; Temperance and Transcendence.  What I particularly appreciated about this material is similar to the value I find in Myers-Briggs psychological type.  Many of us struggle with the belief that there is something about our basic nature that is inadequate.  We aren’t smart enough, or clever enough, or spiritual, empathic, mentally tough, athletic or social enough.  These products of “programing” we received from parental figures who, themselves, struggled with their own sense of defect and want,  leave us with an inflated sense of what is missing in our character and an altogether limited idea of our own personal assets.   The most successful, content people in the world have holes in their character and the most confused have great, though unmined, character strengths.  Recognizing, and playing to, those strengths is a key to life satisfaction, as Seligman teaches.  He suggests that we seek out work that allows us to exercise these strengths and indulge in recreation that lets us express them.  Great advice in my book.  I invite you to take the test linked above and explore it’s benefits.

The 69%

John Gottman is the pre-eminent researcher of intimate couples – both in conflict and getting along.  One of Gottman’s insights – and onedifferences I find of, perhaps, the greatest value – is this: Of all the couples he has studied – with those who separate after a brief time together to those who are together for 60 years (and through all those years others marvel at what a strong, enduring bond they display) – among all of these couples, roughly 69% of their conflicts are perpetual.  They will never be resolved.  Put another way, if each person is waiting for the other to just compromise (“If they’ll move a little toward me, I’ll move toward them.”) each will be continually disappointed, irritated and estranged.  It’s just not going to happen – for either person.  The areas of conflict  are myriad and examples provided by Gottman include differences in: Approach to finances; Preferred love-making style or frequency; Approach to child-rearing; Sociability; Relationship to extended family or in-laws; Emotional expressiveness; Work before play vs. Play before work; Neatness/Organization; Private time vs. Alone time; Punctuality; Activity level; Religious observance and Approach to conflict.

Think about it.  Of these differences (and others) about 69% will be there on the first day of the relationship and remain until the 60th year.  “Why, then, don’t all relationships blow apart?” you might ask.  Excellent question.  The couples who endure and thrive are those who are able understand and appreciate the underlying values that support the other’s approach.  Also, it is so important to understand that the other’s persistence in making their way through the world in their way is not a rejection of us or a statement that we are not important (after all they are probably feeling that they are not important to us because if they were, we would not be so upset about them being the way they are).  I have seen many people sigh with relief, and lower their shoulders in relaxation at the understanding that this difference is not a toxic and irredeemable flaw in their relationship, but, rather just something that comes with all connections between two different people and which is shared by long, long term relationships.