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Archive for April, 2013

A 24-year-old daughter had to move back home because of her financial problems several weeks ago. Both mother and daughter were concerned that the arrangement might not work, and they asked if I had any tips on how to keep their relationship happy.

I suggested that one of the best techniques I knew to side step an argument was to refrain from making critical comments. I further suggested that both the mother and daughter write down their complaints. Writing them would dissipate their own feelings without damaging the relationship.

Less than a week had gone by when mother and daughter decided to share their lists with each other. This was not part of my plan. However, as they read their lists, their laughter grew. It seemed that the mother had a preoccupation with bathing and water and the daughter was preoccupied with Mom’s appearance.

Here are some of the items the mother had on her list:

Don’t you brush your teeth first thing in the morning?

Are you going to wear that shirt again without washing it?

Would you please get your car fixed before your engine blows up?

Isn’t that the fourth shower you’ve taken today?

There’s a button missing on that blouse.

Do you have your glasses?

Wear a jacket.  It’s cold out there.

Stop watching television and go do something constructive.

Your room is starting to look like a pig pen. Where is your pride?

Don’t forget to call your friend back.

The daughter listed these comments:

Those shoes look ridiculous.

Why are you wearing nylons with your shorts and sandals? If you could just see yourself.

Can’t you drive a little faster?

Get those curlers out of your hair!

That’s not the way to pronounce her name. It’s Oprah, not Oufrah.

Don’t you ever shave your legs?

Are you going to stand here and listen to my entire conversation?

Are you going to wear that? It has got to be a hundred years old.

Why don’t you just chill out, relax, calm down.

After going over each other’s lists, mother and daughter decided that they both needed to keep their criticisms to themselves if the relationship was to be a happy one.

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Every once in a while I’ll read a headline on the cover of a woman’s magazine that states “Affair Makes Marriage Better.”

What I’ve seen through the years, however, is that an affair does not help a marriage. In fact, an affair always damages a marriage. It causes tremendous pain to the partner who has been cheated on. It frequently brings pain to the partner who is forced to break off the affair. And the issue of trusting one’s mate again almost never resolves itself completely.

So why the headline about an affair helping a marriage?

Partly it’s a gimmick to sell more magazines.

Partly there is some truth in the fact that when a woman has an affair, it changes the dynamics of a marriage. And it is this change in the dynamics that often creates a better relationship.

When a woman starts focusing on someone else outside her marriage, she is not so focused on meeting her husband’s emotional needs. She no longer hangs on everything he says, nor does she do special things for him. Chances are, she stops complaining about what she wants him to change.  She is simply not focused on him.

On a subconscious level, her hus­band feels this pulling away. No longer does he receive the day-to-day attention, whether it be positive or negative, that he has become accustomed to.

When he starts to feel this lack of attention, he automatically starts looking toward his wife, who in the past has been the main source of his attention. And inadvertently he starts focusing on her. He may ask his wife about her day. He may fix her an iced tea. He does things he’s never done before.

Therefore, an equally valid headline might read “Break Your Leg and Your Marriage Will Improve.”

Why? Because if a woman breaks her leg, simply because she can’t get around and do a lot of caretaking, the dynamics in the marriage are going to change. The man is going to have to do more chores and focus more on his wife. The wife is going to have to do less and focus more on herself.

If you’re the woman who feels disgruntled in your marriage because you do not feel that your husband takes good enough care of you emotionally or physically, decide on your own to change the dynamics in the relationship. Don’t have an affair or break your leg, but do focus more on yourself and less on him.

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The other day, an editor called me and said, “Doris, I feel crazy. I have so much to do, and I’m never going to get it all done.”

Clearly, this man wasn’t going crazy; but after listening to his schedule with all the deadlines that he had to meet, I could understand why he felt so anxious. It sounded as though he had about 200 hours of work and only about 130 hours left in which to complete the work.

After listening to him list in detail everything he had to do, I asked if he wanted any suggestions, or if I could do anything for him.

He said that just talking helped; and in the end he knew he would get it all done, or at least get done what was absolutely necessary.

So often I hear the same lament in therapy. The person feels that he has too much to do and that he doesn’t have enough time to do it all. His life is disorganized; and if something doesn’t give, he’s going to die of a heart attack.

Usually when someone starts feeling overwhelmed, and most everyone feels overwhelmed occasionally, all the person needs is a good listening ear. In the telling of his tasks, he gets to dissipate some of his anxious feelings. And sometimes in the telling he is able to figure out what absolutely needs to be done versus what he would like to get done.

So when your friend or mate or child tells you how overwhelmed he or she is feeling, give the person an ear. By re­viewing aloud what they have to do, people start to feel more organized because they are sorting through and listing their chores. They feel more in control as they see what they must finish versus what they can put on hold for another week or two.

Rarely do over-extended people need suggestions, but almost always they need someone who will listen.

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Catherine who had a mastec­tomy  a few years back and has been gaining weight ever since, has slowly been losing confidence in herself. Through most of her life, Catherine has liked herself. But since her cancer, her self-esteem has been shot. “I’m also poor now,” she says, “so I can’t go out and buy myself something so I can feel good about me.”

Mike, on the other hand, has never felt good about himself. As a child he was underweight and the littlest in the class. Although he’s average size now, he still doesn’t feel good about his looks. He also feels badly about his lack of a college education. “My parents didn’t go to college and they didn’t push us kids. No one in my family ever asked, what do you want to be when you grow up? What are your goals?”

Jim doesn’t respect himself because he repeatedly manipulates his expense account and takes advantage of his partner. He says, “I always have this gnawing feeling that I’m not a good person.”

Mary lost her self-esteem when her husband left her.

Sue lost hers when she had to get a job outside the home and found she had few saleable skills. She works as a teacher’s aide and hates every minute of it. “It’s humiliating having someone fresh out of college telling me what to do.”

All these people are seeking counseling because of their poor self-esteem.

What is this elusive concept of self-esteem? Most psychotherapists would agree that it’s a feeling a person has that he is valuable. He likes himself.  He feels adequate.

Some people seem to have had high self-esteem most of their lives. As far back as they can remember they liked themselves. When others look back, all they can recall are only bad feelings about themselves.

For most of us, self-esteem goes up and down, depending on what’s happening in our life. Poor health, job loss, marital problems, inability to lose weight, and not being able to pay bills generally lowers self-esteem. A promotion, a happy marriage, a signed contract, a new hair-do, or a clean house may increase one’s self-esteem.

Most people can improve their self-esteem. The way to feeling better is to ask yourself, “What would make me feel more valuable?”

If you find that the answer is a college education, sign up now. Start with one class. If you believe the answer to your poor self-concept is to have a boyfriend, put yourself in more situations where you can meet someone. If your self-esteem has plummeted because of a job loss, set a goal of contacting fifteen possible employers per week. A person who is actively pursuing a goal automatically feels more self-esteem.

If you can’t get back something you’ve lost, such as health or a husband, come up with some substitutions in your life that will give you a feeling of self-worth. Become an expert on Matisse or Beethoven or mission furniture. Walk three miles a day. Visit your church once a week. When people set and pursue goals their self-esteem grows.

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Sometimes I’ll ask a couple I’m seeing in therapy to do the following exercise.

  1. The husband and wife stand about six feet apart.
  2. The husband walks slowly toward his wife until he reaches a point where he no longer feels comfortable. Some men stop about three feet from their wives. Others stop at 30 inches and still others at 27.

3. The wife now moves toward her husband or steps back from him, depending on how much space she feels she needs between the two of them.

The purpose of the exercise is to help a couple understand that each has an invisible boundary line. If the husband moves into the wife’s space, she’ll immediately step back to reestablish her boundary. Everyone has a different physical comfort level.

It’s a fascinating phenomenon to observe in yourself as well as others. Walk up to anyone and generally you’ll see the person step back from you or move toward you. If the person steps back, you may move closer. If the person steps forward, you may move back. Usually the two of you will move around until you establish a comfortable space between you.

Just as people have invisible physical boundaries, they also have unspoken psychological ones. When these are crossed, there is discomfort and sometimes even an argument.

One psychological boundary people have is their tolerance for talking. Some people like to talk. Others like quiet.

If a wife likes to talk and her husband likes quiet, her talking may create a sense of uneasiness in him. His psychological space is being invaded. He may address his discomfort by walking out of the room or tuning out.

The wife, on the other hand, may feel anxious when her mate doesn’t talk. One might say her psychological space has been invaded by his silence. She may address her uneasiness by picking a fight to get the verbal energy flowing.

Household noises often cross people’s psychological boundaries. One spouse may like the TV volume higher than the other. When the volume is up, one person feels intruded upon, but when it’s down, the other is uncomfortable.

One couple has trouble when the husband watches sporting events, particularly football. His wife becomes anxious and distressed. The continual talking of the announcer and the roar of the crowd impinge so much on her psychological boundary that she feels a need to run away and leave the house.

Another psychological boundary involves how much information spouses believe they should share with others about their relationship. The husband may see no problem with telling his best friend that they’re having financial difficulties. But the wife may think that discussing their problems with others is a betrayal of the relationship.

A couple may have different psychological boundaries when it comes to the number of things they like to have around the house. Some people feel most comfortable with many collectibles sitting around. Others want absolutely clean surfaces and a lot of knick-knacks create a sense of discomfort.

Think of yourself and your mate. How far apart are your psychological boundaries for talking? Noise level? Sharing information with others? Items around the house?

Conflict frequently results when couples fail to respect each other’s psychological boundaries. Understanding your boundaries as well as your mate’s will make you more tolerant and reduce stress between the two of you.

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