Monday, November 27, 2017

The Secret to Success

There are probably a lot of secrets to success. The thing that comes to mind first is that you can't really rely on anything more than you can rely on your own hard work, and sticking with it. I think that this is true, no matter what you are striving to be successful in, whether business, entrepreneurship, or even your relationship. It takes discipline and work.

I don't remember much about Calvin Coolidge, other than this one quote. I've seen several variations of it, with the wording slightly different, but this is what he said, in a nutshell:

"Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not;  nothing is more common that unsuccessful men with talent.  Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb.  Education will not;  the world is full of educated derelicts.  Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan "Press On" has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race."

You may disagree with him. But you can't disagree with him much.  I wish I'd have said it first.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

A Dirty Joke, With a Message--Adults Only

Back in the 1980's, I heard Eddie Murphy tell a joke that I have not forgotten. I may not present it exactly as he told it, but this is close.  If bad language offends you, skip the next three paragraphs.

A bear and a rabbit were taking a shit together in the woods.  The bear looked over at the rabbit and asked, "Do you have trouble with shit sticking to your fur?"

The rabbit boasted, "I never have trouble with shit sticking to my fur".

So the bear wiped his ass with the rabbit.

I started thinking that many of us have felt like the rabbit at one time or another.  We go through life, thinking that our relationship with someone is "safe" or "predictable", only to be shocked when we are taken advantage of. It seems to come out of the blue.

Yet, often, there are warning signs that we work hard to overlook or explain away. Warning signs do not necessarily predict disaster, but they do suggest the potential for it. It is important to look for and pay attention to warning signs, the "red flags", that are present in any relationship.

What should we pay attention to? Here are some obvious ones.

First, ask yourself honestly, whether the relationship is is "equal".  Although no relationship is exactly equal, pay attention to the amount of "give and take" that goes both ways.  It should go both ways, anyway.  It may seem selfish to ask yourself whether you are getting as much out of a relationship as you give, but it is more realistic than selfish. You may not want to face up to whether you are giving as much as you take, but if you cannot stand to think about this, you know the answer already.  Reciprocity is important in a relationship. We are all aware, whether we want to be or not, whether we get something back when we give to others.If a relationship is not balanced, with regard to reciprocity, it becomes a dependent relationship, and thus unfulfilling. Someone is eventually going to feel like the rabbit.

Second, observe how the other person interacts with others. This will give you an idea of how that person will interact with you, once the relationship gets to the "comfortable stage".  A bear cannot ever be a rabbit, even if it learns to hop about and eat carrots.   Sooner or later, the bear will behave like a bear.  So, if the other person is dishonest with other people, you can expect dishonesty toward you. If the other person is aggressive without others, or rude, or dependent upon them, guess what? He or she will eventually be that way with you.

Third, look for little signs. Is this person honest with you about little things, like age, financial stability, exes, etc.?  Is the person dependable, on time and following up on plans and promises, or is there always something that comes up to prevent plans from working out as promised?

Fourth, how do you feel around that person?  Do you feel like you are  a better person? Do you feel secure, or stronger, or protected? Get in touch with your own emotional reaction to being with that person.  Does that person have your back? If you feel fearful around that person, you should forget the rest of this article, and run.

Finally, be honest about alcohol and substance consumption. For each of you.

I could do multiple therapy sessions on each one of these issues, and I could fill multiple pages with more types of red flags. But the bottom line is this:   Be honest about not only yourself but the person you want to be in a relationship with. Don't go on  your journey through the woods with someone, if you haven't paid attention to the red flags.  Most of the time, red flags can be addressed satisfactorily. Remember, you deserve a relationship that is meaningful and fulfilling for you.  And, if you commit to someone, they deserve the same from you.  Good Luck.

Monday, November 20, 2017


Everyone knows that couples need to spend quality time together in order to build and maintain the bond that holds the relationship together. Over time, however, many couples find that their relationship begins to take a back seat to the demands of everyday life.   The demands of career, parenting, running errands, and managing obligations can lead to a loss of time with each other.  Even when couples spend time with each other, that time can often be filled with meeting other obligations, or sometimes, being so tired, that the "together time" can be stressful, or in some instances, boring. Needless to say, stress and boredom are not the ingredients for maintaining a healthy relationship.

The problem becomes readily apparent with couples who have children. Parenting can easily absorb any "free time" a couple may have.  And why not? We love our children, and what can be more fulfilling that spending time with them?  It becomes easy to overlook the fact that couples need to have time for themselves, as a unit of two, in order to maintain a fulfilling, meaningful relationship. Failure to spend time as a couple can lead to disillusionment with the relationship. Sometimes, relationships will end because couples lose sight of each other, even in the process of carrying out the responsibilities of being a family. More often, however, people will experience  a low-grade aggravation, a sense of being neglected, and a sense of being unfulfilled in the relationship.

So what can we do about it?  Planning "date nights" is one way to address the problem.  Date nights are reserved for the couple only, to spend time together, in a relaxing or stimulating activity, so that the focus can be on each other, and not on everything else in the world. Sometimes, however, date nights are not very effective in enhancing the relationship, and can become, all by themselves, a source of frustration and disappointment. 

I have worked with couples for over 30 years, and I have some suggestions about how to plan time together so that the time can be more interesting and more fulfilling, and hopefully, more beneficial in strengthening the bond in a relationship. My suggestions are not scientific. They are based upon my years of experience in treating couples, and observing how they spend their time together, and the results of their efforts.  So, call it "together time", "date night", or whatever you wish, here are my thoughts on the matter.

First, let me address the major objection to planning time together, that I encounter in providing therapy. Many people object to planning time together, because they believe that planned experiences are somehow not as genuine as spontaneous ones.  While most of us would prefer to be spontaneous, most of us also become so wrapped up in meeting the demands of life that we lose the ability to be spontaneous, or at least to be spontaneous as often as we would like. So, let's not throw spontaneity  out the window, but let us also accept that planned experiences are valid, genuine, and important, particularly when life gets busy.  Sometimes, planned experiences are all we have to work with .

Second, quality time does not require that one spend a lot of money. As a matter of fact, most of the time, quality time can be quite inexpensive. Having said that, sometimes it is important to spend some money for a special time together. It always amazes me how some individuals (usually male individuals) can become so unwilling to spend extra money for a couple's night out.  Remember that a relationship is an investment. It is an investment in time, emotion, and effort.  Occasionally, treat the relationship and your partner as if they are special. Invest in experiences that your partner will feel are extra special. It is an investment that will pay off in the long run.

There are four major things that are needed in order to strengthen our bonds through quality time:  Interaction, Stimulation, Mild Exertion, and Mild Challenges.  The first is obvious. In order to have quality time, couples should plan time that requires them to interact, to talk with each other. Movies are great, but by themselves, they offer little opportunity for the couple to interact. Plan an activity that requires a back and forth conversation, mutual acknowledgement, and an investment of attention in the other person. Watching a favorite television program is fine, as long as there is an opportunity to talk before, after, or during.  If a couple prefers to stay home, perhaps preparing dinner together, playing a parlor game, or engaging in a mutually enjoyable hobby would fit the bill.

The time should be stimulating. This means that the time should be interesting . Sometimes, going for a walk, maybe in a different neighborhood or on the beach or in the park can provide enough stimulation. There is the activity itself, observation of the environment and people in it, and the opportunity to talk. It feels great to see an eagle in the sky or a dolphin in the water, and it is even more fun to share that experience with someone.  Different people are stimulated by different things. The bottom line is that time spent together should provide the opportunity to share an experience. During the time together, each person should be observant and mindful of the world around them, so that the full benefit of the experience can be appreciated. 

Couples with whom I have worked also seem to grow together when  they engage in mild exertion.  Mild exertion means something like walking, riding a bike, perhaps planting something in the yard or garden. Some people like greater exertion, and if both individuals agree, that can be fine. Usually, however, mild, pleasant exertion is sufficient. Remember, as you each put effort into your activity, you become more invested in it, even if you are not consciously aware of if.  You can share in the effort involved in exertion and in a sense of accomplishment afterward.  When an activity requires too much exertion, it may cease to be fun. So be careful. The idea is to have fun, and to be active enough to be stimulating, but not strenuous.  Also, remember that together time is not necessarily competitive. Some people (again usually the guys) are so competitive that they can turn "mild exertion" into a competition. If you ride bikes together, stick together and go at a leisurely pace. If one person takes off at a pace that the other cannot keep,  you stop having together time, and start having individual time. It becomes an exercise in selfishness. The same is true for "mental" exertion. If your activity is to do something that is mentally challenging, be sure to work together, at a similar pace, and avoid being so competitive that the activity stops being fun for the other person. 

Some activities seem to exist for the purpose of triggering arguments . Be careful to choose activities that are conducive to working together or getting along . For example, going for  a walk or a jog are activities that lend themselves to cooperative exertion. Paddling a two-person kayak or canoe, or wallpapering a bathroom are activities that lend themselves to frustration. Choose a form of exertion that each person can physically and mentally perform and enjoy.

Finally, mild challenges help to create stronger bonds. When we work together overcome challenges, we have the shared experience of being a team. Usually the challenge takes the form of exertion, so an activity that requires exertion would fit the bill. Going for a walk to a bar or restaurant a mile away is an example of an activity that involves the exertion of walking and the mild challenge of traveling a mile each way. Sometimes challenges are unplanned. Going for a walk and being caught in a light rain can be a mild challenge.  It is inconvenient, but easily dealt with. Major challenges or adversity should be avoided if possible. Going for a walk and being caught in a thunderstorm, with lightning flashing all around is an example of a greater challenge. Sometimes, greater challenges/adversities can lead to behavior that is not conducive to building a bond. If possible, avoid these. If not, remember that the experience is all about building a bond through shared experience. Make sure that you have each other's back, and that you work together to overcome any obstacles.

Finally, communicate . If you love someone , tell them, even if you are not sure how they will respond. Talk about yourself, but listen to your partner. Ask meaningful questions. Pay attention to what they say. Notice them. Build them up. And once in a while, do something really special, because anyone who is willing to put up with another human being for a long period of time deserves something special once in a while.

Managing Thanksgiving Family Dinners

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday.   It is a time to get together with family and friends, for a relatively brief period of time, to contemplate the good things in our lives and to enjoy the company of those we love. It is a time to be genuinely thankful.  Even with the current emphasis on shopping, it remains, for many of us, a time to simply spend time with loved ones. And then, we go home, or they go home, and it is over until next year.

For many of us, however, family get-togethers can be difficult to navigate.  Oftentimes, there are old hurts and slights that can interfere with what should be an enjoyable day. Have you encountered any of these people on Thanksgiving?

The Talkative One, who dominates conversation, telling stories, making every topic about him/herself?

The Gassy Older Gentleman, who eats, belches (or worse), and turns on the football game while others are still visiting?  The louder the conversation gets, the louder the TV gets, in an endless cycle of increasing volume.

The Sullen One, who holds resentments for past injustices, real or imagined? Who may still be demanding an apology for something that happened a long time ago?

The Happy One, who brings a new partner to the occasion, even though the rest of the family has not gotten used to the end of the previous relationship?

The Judgmental One, who is usually critical of the Happy One, or anyone else who does not, at the moment, meet his/her standards for how life should be lived?

Or what about Buzz Kill, the person who finds some way to deflate others' joy and accomplishments?

Or the Comedian, who tells embarrassing stories or stories about others' prior relationships to the crowd, trying to elicit uncomfortable laughter?

There are many more. These are the ones I hear about after Thanksgiving.

Even though we cannot control these people, we can navigate through the day and still enjoy it, in spite of them.

First, we have to accept that we cannot change others. We control only ourselves. So adjust your idea of how family is supposed to interact, to accept that others may not be on the same page. Expect some discomfort. After all, a lot of these people know all about your most embarrassing moments anyway. And yes, they already talk behind your back, so take a "live and let live" approach and try to avoid reacting in a negative manner to comments by others.

Second, be forgiving. Let go of past slights and insults. Holding onto resentments only makes you bitter. It requires mental energy to be upset with others. Let them off the hook. Avoid them, if they can't learn to behave, but today, be kind, and allow people to change if they desire to do so.

Third, find something complimentary and kind to say to each person there. Make it a point to engage each person, if only for a second.

Fourth, ask others questions about themselves. Encourage them to talk.

Fifth, kindly suggest to those who talk too much, or who tell embarrassing stories to let others talk. Say something like, "I want to hear from Aunt Sarah", or something of the sort.  And don't react to stories about yourself, at least not on this day. Avoid explaining yourself. Just smile and let the moment pass. You can always address the story teller privately at a more appropriate time.

Finally, be yourself. You really don't have to impress anyone. Be honest, humble, and just be yourself. Remember, you are worth everyone's respect, just as you are. Let that be enough.

And keep the volume on the TV down!

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Cognitive Dissonance and Valentine's Day

Cognitive Dissonance is a psychological phenomenon  that affects how we experience our relationships and it has implications for how we behave on Valentine's Day. Very simplistically, Cognitive Dissonance refers to the discomfort we feel when we experience two conflicting emotions, or when our behavior conflicts with our feelings or beliefs.  When we feel that discomfort, we must  find a way to relieve it, and we often do so by reframing the situation and explaining it to ourselves in such a way as to relieve the discomfort we feel.

For example, suppose I think of myself as a "good boss". Today, however, I harshly criticized one of my employees, to the point that she was in tears. This would create Cognitive Dissonance for me, because my harsh, uncaring behavior is inconsistent with my self-image as a "good guy".  I might relieve my Cognitive Dissonance by reframing the situation, by deciding that my employee was egregiously in error, and that she deserved the harsh criticism I gave her.  I would essentially "re-write" the incident in such a manner that my behavior would seem to be consistent with my self-image.

Cognitive Dissonance is quite powerful. It usually happens without us being aware of it. We can use it, in positive ways, to enhance our relationships. We can create positive emotions and expectations that we will then feel compelled to live up to, thus making our relationships stronger. This brings us to Valentine's Day, as well as other occasions, such as birthdays and anniversaries.

In couple's therapy, I often hear comments like, "We don't do anything for Valentine's Day. It doesn't mean anything". I also hear, "It's a commercial holiday. We love each other all the time, so there is no need to do anything special on Valentine's Day."  These sentiments may be valid and true, but they do nothing to enhance our relationships. In fact, by honoring "special days", including Valentine's Day, we are doing much more than simply adhering to commercial holidays and traditions. We are actually strengthening our bonds and creating positive emotions and expectations in our relationships.

Honoring Valentine's Day, by giving a card or gift, accomplishes several things. First, the receiver is reminded that he/she is loved and appreciated. It is alwyas better to allow your loved one to feel acknowledged on a special day, than to leave him/her feeling forgotten or unacknowledged.  The simple act of remembrance validates, for the receiver, that he/she is important. the thought process goes something like this:  "He/she remembered me on this day. He/she must love me. I must be important."

Second, the giver will actually love a little more, simply by giving. the thought process goes like this:  "I remembered to acknowledge her/him on Valentine's Day, so I must love her/him."  Even if you do not believe in contrived holidays, you can strengthen your commitment and bond by acknowledging your loved one on Valentine's Day and other special days. By giving, you create the expectation that you will remember to validate your love, respect your loved one in traditional ways, and have your loved one's back. It creates an expectation for each of you, that you will communicate about your feelings for each other.   Cognitive Dissonance ensures that you will work just a little harder to live up to those expectations and feelings. So use Valentine's Day and every other special occasion, to strengthen your relationship, a little more each time.

For men, especially, it is important to remember that the greater the effort you put into your acknowlegment of love, the stronger the effect will be for both of you. Cards and chocolates are great. They work. but  when you try to go beyond that, to be creative in your expression of love, you will find a greater payoff in the long run.  Use one of the most fundamental principles in psychology to enhance your relationship. Celebrate Valentine's Day.