Life in a Dysfunctional Relationship

It may be a bully boss, a drug-addicted or alcoholic parent or brother, a mentally ill yet undiagnosed or untreated partner. You may feel trapped where you are economically dependent, such as the boss or partner, or simply torn apart with mixed emotions.

These are difficult relationships to navigate, both in terms of your own sanity, as well as often your caring for the other. Here are some suggestions to help you move forward:

Don’t feed the dragon

The core issue is most often that the afflicted person does not see his affliction but instead has tunnel vision and rationalizes and blames others for the state of affairs. Jack drinks, says Jack, because his wife is always nagging at him, especially about drinking. The bully boss or even the angry teen in her head feels justified in bullying or being angry because of what those around them are doing or not doing that “makes them mad.” If only they wouldn’t do whatever they are doing, they think to themselves, they wouldn’t get angry.

What you want to do when they get into these states of emotion or acting-out is not feed the dragon. Don’t argue back because you hoping to get them to see the error of their thinking. When they are emotional they literally can’t, their rational brains are offline, and anything you say is only going to be misinterpreted and used as fuel for feeding their emotional fire. You need to stay calm and sane and only talk or problem-solve when the waters are calmer. The reality, I realize, is those times may rarely come.

Tap into their problems

But if they do seem somewhat receptive, a safe starting point for sane conversation is talking about what they see as their problems, not what see them doing wrong. Why? Because it is often only one’s own problems that motivate people to change. The bully-boss may be a bully but he also may be worried about his company going under. The angry teen may feel overly micromanaged and resentful, or the drinking partner may feel worried about his job and fearlosing his family.

You don’t issue ultimatums or try and deny their reality, but instead try focusing on their concerns, talk in the language of their goals and how to reach them. See if some opportunity for compromise and change. You do the best you can.

Don’t enable

At Alanon meetings the focus is on helping members navigate a relationship without  fueling the problem. For family members dealing with drug or alcohol-addicted behaviors, it is about not covering for your partner and calling her boss on Monday saying she is sick when she is actually hung-over. It is about not giving money when you know in your heart it is going straight to fueling the addiction.

The problem is that what you feel to be caring (and what you actually do feel) gets lost in the other’s psychology; by your enabling you ultimately keep them from seeing the consequences of their behaviors and the power of their affliction. You feel better in the moment, you rationalize that this is the last time, you struggle inside that your not helping will only make matters worse and that thought is agonizing.

The reality is that your not helping may make matters worse, but in reality, sometimes that may need to happen.

Don’t engage in magical thinking

This often goes hand-in-hand with enabling. Here your brain is trying to break the code, figure what you exactly need to do or not do, figure out how to say exactly in the right way what the other person needs to hear. You just have to get it right, the right combination of moves (think groundhog day), and they will have a shattering insight, they will turn their behaviors around, they will stop what they are doing.

This is rapidly crazy-making because it is so easy to get caught up in this type of obsessive thinking, so easy to make irrational connections that aren’t there (my boss was in a better mood today — maybe it was because I wore this blue outfit; my partner drank less last night — maybe it was because I made chicken instead of the pot roast). This is you struggling to make sense, have some control, reduce your constant anxiety.

You’ll never figure it out because you are operating out of your own irrational brain where your anxiety, and that little-kid part of you, lives. Give it up.

Empathize with emotions not behaviors

If you care for someone you want to be empathetic and supportive, show compassion for their inner struggle, their pain even as it explodes in the moment. But such empathy needs to be separated from behaviors, for behaviors are the bottom-line. This is where you hold others accountable for what they do, whether it is mistreating you or simply being irresponsible. Again, you don’t need to feed the dragon and fuel the emotion, but neither do you rationalize and make excuses for what is happening — this is road to enabling and magical thinking.

Don’t be a victim

This is the probably the most important aspect of such relationships that you need to keep clear in your own mind and probably the most difficult. This means not taking on the blame they are dishing out, not falling into guilt or self-criticism, not avoiding holding others accountable. Don’t be the victim, push back when they try and make you one, plot your own course and be proactive to counter those helpless feelings that come from always walking on eggshells, always being in a reactive mode. Set your own bottom lines so you don’t feel trapped.

Get Along Without Asking About Feelings

Most readers of Psychology Today are a bit more in tune with that famous psychological question – how do you feel? While this question can make some people’s eyes roll to the back of their head and send them running as far away from their interrogator as possible, even the most psychologically inquisitive person who gets a thrill out of deep self-exploration can get stumped by this question when posed at certain times.

I’m here to offer a simpler solution to getting along with others without resorting to that dreaded feeling question.

Feelings can be complex. Old memories and unconscious associations can be triggered. Fear of abandonment can come up and leave someone flooded and in distress for seemingly no apparent reason. Some people—and lots of men—have been raised not to feel and are genuinely at a loss when they are asked to identify a feeling. Or worse, they have been abused for their feelings.

Therapists attempt to go around these delicate situations by asking the question differently, such as having the person identify any sensations they feel in their body or to name a color associated with their sensate state. It can be quite a lengthy fishing expedition and sometimes people just don’t have the time or resources to dedicate to it. They just want to get along and feel good (see, feeling states can’t totally be eradicated), so here’s a simpler way of connecting to your loved ones (or those pesky work people when you’re at the office).

While our feelings are complex, our primal states are simpler. We get hungry and we eat. We feel tired and we sleep. We get cold and we don more clothing. In relationships, the amygdala part of our brain processes four reactions from others and responds accordingly. You may have heard of fight, flight, or freeze when someone feels in danger. There’s also a warm loving response when someone is met with safety and love.

To further simplify the amygdala response, let’s put it in three easy motives to understand—attack, avoid or approach. People are either in attack mode (fight), avoid mode (flight or a more sinister form of attack mode), or approach (love, warmth, connection).

Here is the simple part. People tend to give what they receive. You don’t have to understand all the feelings someone else is feeling. Just ask yourself what you are giving them. Are you inadvertently avoiding or attacking them? Can you regroup and approach instead? Even if it is just energetic, try to engage via a warmer connecting approach.

Let’s think about text exchanges for a moment. Before you reply, ask if you’re attacking or approaching. Or are you blowing them off on purpose and falling into an avoidance mode?

If you are feeling attacked or ignored, can you recognize your response? Are you attacking back or playing the deadly silent treatment game? Can you redirect and offer a healthier approach?

In communicating with each other, can you talk about the attack-avoid-approach ways of responding and make an agreement to self-assess and commit to trying to approach each other over everything else. If you do get into conflict, you can now discuss these three ways you are responding to each other and hopefully re-engage with a more loving approach method for connecting.

Of course, if this conversation helps illuminate deeper feelings, like that one person feels afraid of abandonment when the other person isn’t communicating. Or that the other person has shame and feels like they’re a failure when they are met with complaints about the timeliness of their communication, well great! Insights into our behaviors can really move us forward. Or just keep it simple and recognize when you’re in attack, avoid and approach mode.

Know If The Ecstasy that Comes with Balance

“Does anyone not remember the joys of that improvised, splinter-ridden fulcrum of Saturday pleasure, the seesaw? The delight in finding someone roughly our own weight, and after getting the board balanced between us, practicing sending them up in to the sky, and then being pulled ourselves up to the same dizzying height then down, then up again, augmenting and amplifying these movements by synchronous pushes until we made the board bounce? Then practicing the subtleties: balancing precariously at dead center; sliding treacherously forward as we let our partner crash with a thud to the ground, sliding suddenly back on the board to leave him stranded in the air; learning the precise leverage necessary to ride with someone heavier than we. And most critically learning that sustaining this almost sexual ecstasy required both our efforts. Once we got stranded in one position, the fun was over.” —Augustus Napier in The Fragile Bond

Linda: My husband and I have interviewed is that one of the reasons they are enjoying their relationship so thoroughly is because they are fluid, experimental, and creative about the ways in which they conduct themselves. Rather than be stuck in the up or down position, they are graceful in their movements. Here are some of the areas that they have found balance:

Work and Play: They have commitment to their work, and play a lot to offset the time spent working.

Giving and Receiving: There is a great deal of generosity of spirit and also having the quality of receptivity that allows for being a gracious receiver.

Yin and Yang: There are times to be a good follower and times that call for initiation.

Dependence and Independence: There is time to be the strong, autonomous one and other times to let ourselves lean on another.

Thinking and Feeling: The rational word of thoughts and logic has its place but so does that rich world of emotions.

Material and Non-material World: We all live in the practical world of the marketplace, requiring paying attention to jobs and money. And there is another elegant world that is spiritually, and/or relationship oriented.

Together and Apart: These couples seek both mutual and individual pleasures. They are not joined at the hip doing everything together. They have their shared interests and friends, but also have separate interests and friends.

Closeness and Distance: They are fluid about who pursues for connection and take turns being the stand for separateness.

Power and Vulnerability: Both partners can be powerful and give support and can also be open and receptive. They can be assertive and also express tender feelings of fear, pain and sadness.

Teacher and Student: Both can be open, and humble in the position of the student and can be in the leadership position being authoritative as a teacher.

Activity and Quiet: Periods of intensity, activity, and challenge are followed consistently with periods of restorative calm.

Self-care and Care of Other: They are adept at knowing their needs and negotiating to have them met. They do not make their own needs any more or any less important that their partner’s needs.

To establish a partnership characterized by balance is reaching into the highest realms of well-being. Like the seesaw, we can slide up and down. It is a balancing act that requires intentionality. But it is worth striving for because it’s the most fun you can have in relationship.

Know More About Long Distance Relationships

If you’re in a long-distance relationship, you probably already have some ingenious ideas for making things work with your partner. But have you started preparing for the time when you move closer together?

Chances are you aren’t planning for your relationship to be permanently long distance. You may already be looking ahead to a time when you and your partner will be able to live in the same town, or even the same home. And, while that anticipation might be really exciting, there’s a lurking danger that things might not go as smoothly as you hope.

We know from research that long-distance couples risk facing greater instability when they move closer together. In fact, the longer they spend apart, the more likely they are to feel unstable, or even break up, when they get back together. One study showed that 82% of couples broke up when they moved closer together [3].

However, all is not lost. Having managed the long-distance situation, it’s likely you already have a good idea of what makes a relationship strong and happy. Studies have shown that couples in long-distance relationships often report having similar or even better relationship satisfaction to those in geographically close relationships [1]. Many long-distance couples also report having higher levels of trust and, thanks to the availability of video calls and instant messaging, are happier with the way they communicate with their partners [2] [3].

All of this, however, runs the risk of creating unrealistic expectations of how the relationship will be when it is no longer long-distance. Couples who only get to see each other on the occasional weekend have a tendency to idealise each other and romanticise the relationship. When you live far apart, it is much easier to present the best side of yourself and keep you unpleasant habits and grumpy morning face out of sight of your partner [3].

One of the reasons it may be tough getting back together is that the non-idealised versions of yourselves suddenly have to get to know each other. Any transitional point in a relationship can be difficult to navigate, and switching from a long-distance relationship to a geographically-close one is no different.

If you’ve talked about living together, try living separately at first, and adjust to being in the same town before you share a home. Moving in together can present challenges for any couple, so if you’re accustomed to being apart from one another, it’s worth paying particular attention to how you manage the change.

Many of your routines and behaviours will be different, including sex. Increased availability may run the risk of making things feel less special or important. Talk to each other about what you want and figure out together how it’s going to work for you. Try not to put too much pressure on yourselves for everything to be perfect. Focus on the positives and enjoy the fact that you can do things together that you couldn’t before.

One of you may also be adjusting to living in a new town, which can be stressful in itself. If you’re the one who has moved, give yourself some time to discover your own things, rather than just falling into your partner’s routine. If your partner has moved closer to you, join in with their exploration by finding new places together that neither of you has been to before.

Give each other a bit of space so you can still be yourselves. Accept that it is a period of adjustment and take things slowly, particularly in the first few months. Talk to each other about what you both want from the relationship, and then work slowly towards your shared goal, allowing it to unfold slowly and naturally.

It may be a shock to the system, but the more openly you communicate about the changes, the easier you’ll find it to deal with the change together and come out smiling on the other side.

Know More About Soulmate

Is there one perfect person out there in the world for you? And, if so, what are the odds of finding them?

What is a soulmate?

When the idea of soulmates first emerged in the 1930s, it was seen almost as a magical connection between two people destined to be together. These days, we tend to think of a soulmate more as a person we can connect with and are compatible with – someone who shares the qualities that we feel are most important to us [1].

Does your soulmate exist?

The question of whether your soulmate exists is a very personal one. If you’re looking for someone, you may already have an idea in your mind of the important qualities they should or shouldn’t have.

Narrowing down the field like this can help give you an idea of what sort of person your ‘soulmate’ might be – their age, their interests, their hopes and dreams, and maybe even what they look like. Some of these qualities will be ‘deal-breakers’.

But here’s the exciting part: most of us don’t actually know what we’re looking for until we find it. According to relationship research, there isn’t really a specific set of factors that can accurately predict how well you’ll get along with someone. Some of your deal-breakers may even go out of the window if you find someone you really click with [2].

What are the odds of finding the right person?

If you choose to believe mathematician Peter Backus, the odds of running into your perfect partner are about 1 in 285,000 on any given night. That’s a pretty scary thought, so let’s break it down and see how he arrived at this figure.

In 2010, Backus wrote a paper called ‘”Why I don’t have a girlfriend” using maths to explain why it’s so difficult to meet the right partner. His theory went something like this:

  1. How many women are there who live near me? (In London -> 4 million women)
  2. How many are likely to be of the right age range? (20% -> 800,000 women)
  3. How many are likely to be single? (50% -> 400,000 women)
  4. How many are likely to have a university degree? (26% -> 104,000 women)
  5. How many are likely to be attractive? (5% -> 5,200 women)
  6. How many are likely to find me attractive? (5% -> 260 women)
  7. How many am I likely to get along well with? (10% -> 26 women)

As you can see, he left himself with just twenty-six potential partners, figuring his chances of running into one of them would be about 1 in 285,000 [3].

Put like this, it might seem the odds are really stacked against you, but it should all be taken with a pinch of salt – the sums were adapted from an equation devised to estimate the number of alien civilisations in our galaxy. So let’s take a look at what you can do to increase your chances.

How to find your soulmate

Hannah Fry, a slightly more optimistic mathematician, has delved a bit deeper into the figures. She says you can increase your chances of meeting the right partner by being active, getting out into the world, and approaching more people. Granted, this will probably increase your odds of being rejected, but it will ultimately increase your chances of meeting someone who ticks your boxes [2].

Even though our idea of soulmates is broader than it used to be, research tells us that people tend to have much higher ideals these days than in previous generations. But, despite our expectations being higher than ever, we are also happier when we enter into relationships that really work [4].

That doesn’t mean you won’t have to work on your relationship, as the two of you change and develop together, but the belief that your relationship is ‘meant to be’ is a good start. People who see relationships as something that can grow and improve, tend to be happier in the long run [5].

Remember Peter Backus, the guy who did the maths on why he was still single? Despite the odds he set for himself, he did finally meet someone and announced his wedding plans a couple of years ago.

You can increase your own chances of running into the sorts of people who’ll share your interests by going to the places where they’re likely to be. Get out there into the world and engage in life. Take a class, join a club, go to a party… You might just run into someone who resembles your idea of a soulmate.

Know More About Parenting Styles

The idea that different parenting styles can have different effects on children’s behaviour has been around since the early 1990s. So what happens when your partner’s style differs from your own?

What are parenting styles?

In 1991, the psychologist Diana Baumrind identified four key parenting styles that are still talked about today [1]. These are:

Authoritarian
Authoritarian parenting is used to describe a very strict kind of parent with clear rules in place, that aren’t to be questioned by children. It’s a sort of ‘do as I say’ philosophy which can be very effective in the short term but can lead to children feeling less happy, less confident, and with lower self-esteem in the long term.

Authoritative
Authoritative parenting differs from authoritarian parenting in that rules and guidelines are balanced with warmth and caring. Children can question the rules and are offered explanations as to why they are in place. Children with this type of background tend to be more confident and socially responsible, and may be better at making decisions for themselves [1].

Permissive
Permissive parenting is where parents have very few rules and allow children to set their own agenda. These parents may sometimes seem to be in a friendship role rather than a parental one. Children raised in very permissive environments may have trouble coping with stress and difficult situations when they get older [2].

Rejecting-neglecting
This is an extreme type of parenting where parents don’t respond to their children’s needs to the point of neglect. This can be incredibly damaging, leading to children with low self-esteem, a lack of self-control, and difficulty in school. Neglecting a child, which includes sustained emotional abuse, is illegal.

Do parenting styles matter?

The way you interact with your child has an impact on how they get on in life. Your parenting style will affect your child’s behaviour, the way they process their feelings, how they do at school, and even how they develop physically. It is generally thought that authoritative parenting, where you balance structure with warmth, leads to the best outcomes for children [1].

However, as a parent, you will develop your own style, which may be a result of the parenting you received as a child, your life experience, your beliefs and values, and any other learning you’ve picked up along the way. It may be close to one of the above styles, or perhaps a combination of two or more of them.

In addition to the effect on your children, your choice of parenting style can also affect your overall happiness as a couple and as a family. As long as you and your partner can agree on parenting decisions, you’re likely to feel better and have better relationship quality [4].

What if my partner has a different parenting style?

It’s fine for you to have different parenting styles, and even to have different goals as parents. Your child can get along perfectly well as long as you work together.

One really useful thing you can do is talk to your partner and try to identify both of your parenting styles. Work out your similarities and where you differ. This can help you prepare together and figure out where you might need to compromise. As long as you can reach a united front, your different parenting styles can be successfully managed [6].

It’s also worth remembering that a parenting style isn’t necessarily a permanent state. If you’re having a tough time, or you’ve been arguing with your partner, the impact on your feelings can affect the way you do anything, including parenting [5].

Try to be aware of how you feel, and work on resolving conflict when it comes up. With communication and compromise, the two of you will be able to give your child the best possible start in life.

Let’s Learn About Healthy Relationships For Healthy Bodies

New research suggests that having a caring partner could be good for your physical health as well as your happiness, and may even help you live longer.

It’s been known since the late 1980s that social isolation is bad for your health [1]. People with stronger personal relationships have been shown to live longer than those who are isolated most of the time.

This theory has been tested a number of times over the years, with nearly 150 studies and over 300,000 participants helping to show that positive relationships may be just as important for physical health as exercising and maintaining a healthy weight.

But there’s still a lot we don’t know about this, including which aspects of good relationships are best for us. A more recent study from 2015 looked into the idea of ‘partner responsiveness’, a key ingredient in the way romantic relationships affect our physical health [2].

Partner responsiveness refers to how well our partners seem to understand us, how well they respect our points of view and feelings, and how much they care for us.

The study looked at participants’ cortisol levels. Among other functions, cortisol is the hormone that regulates our immune system, and scientists believe that those with better health outcomes tend to have higher levels of cortisol in the morning with a steep drop-off during the day.

People who rated their partners as being more caring and responsive were more likely to have the cortisol levels that predicted better health outcomes, and this remained consistent when tested again ten years later. The same people were also better equipped to deal with negative emotions. So it’s possible that having a caring partner can indeed help us to feel better and stay healthier.

How Greater Relationship Satisfaction

Passionate love tends to decline for couples over time, though 40 percent of couples married for over a decade continue to report intense connection within their relationships (O’Leary et al., 2012). According to Welker and colleagues (2014), a number of factors are involved with maintaining and deepening passionate love when couples have been together for a longer time, including increasing closeness through opening up and sharing new and stimulating activities together. They note that most research has focused on factors associated with increasing closeness within couples, rather than looking at activities couples can do together with other couples.

Birds of a feather

Couples do not exist in a vacuum, but are contained within and shaped by their  network of other couples, friends, family, workmates, and society and culture at large. Birds of a feather flock together, and couples’ norms tend to approach a group average, whether a convention of greater intimacy, or of more detachment. Besides a bias toward monogamy, social forces specifically influence how relationships develop. This can make it easier for couples to grow apart and split up, especially if a lack of connection and intimacy is typical, or it could maintain a status quo of staying together in spite of a lack of satisfaction. Unsurprisingly, perhaps under the right circumstances the immediate social setting would increase openness and responsiveness for couples.

What can we do to build intimacy?

To explore this possibility, Welker and fellow researchers (2014) designed a pair of experimental studies to test whether friendship between different couples could increase feelings of intimacy and connection within couples. They wanted to see whether engaging in activities with other couples designed to create opportunities for self-disclosure would enhance experiences of passionate love, building upon prior work.

They did two studies to test the hypothesis that engaging in high levels of self-disclosure with other couples would increase intimacy more than activities either with groups (of couples) who did not self-disclosure or only self-disclosure as a lone couple.

In Study 1, they placed couples in conditions involving variations in self-disclosure and group cohesion, so that there were four different groups: high self-disclosure + high group cohesion, high self-disclosure + low group cohesion, low self-disclosure + high group cohesion, and low self-disclosure + low group cohesion. (This is called a “2×2” design.)

In Study 2, they looked more closely at the specific impact of responsiveness and self-disclosure on changes in passionate love, using a larger sample and similar but expanded protocol as Study 1.

Study 1: Researchers recruited 44 couples, average age of about 24 years old, who had been dating for at least 1 year. They were from diverse ethnic backgrounds, predominantly heterosexual, and the average relationship length in the sample almost 3 years. They were assigned in four groups to either single couple or group setting, and either a “fast-friends” manipulation designed to elicit high levels of self-disclosure, or the small-talk condition. They did not know each other beforehand. In advance of the experiment, they completed an online version of the Eros Scale of Passionate Love, asking about agreement with statements such as “My lover and I really understand each other” and “My lover and I have the right physical ‘chemistry’ between us”.

 In the “fast friends” group, participants (using an activity developed in prior research, Aron et al., 1997) took turns randomly drawing slips of paper with questions requiring greater and greater levels of self-disclosure. For example, questions proceeded from asking about who they would want as a dinner guest, to asking about their greatest accomplishments, to asking about regrets about major life experiences, increasing the emotional ante at each step. They either played this game within their own couple only, or with other couples. Afterward, they played a game of Jenga in order to consolidate the group experience.

In the small-talk condition, couples took turns answering surface questions such as when the last time was they walked more than an hour, what they had for breakfast, and so on. Afterward, they engaged in the less engaging task of sorting shuffled cards. Again, they did this either as a lone couple, or with other couples.

After the experiment, they completed post-test measures of self-disclosure, passionate love and relationship satisfaction. These measures included checking the novelty of the experience as well as seeing how much they learned about their partners. They completed the Passionate Love Scale and the Couples Satisfaction Index.

Survey says

They found that passionate love measures were significantly higher for the group fast-friends condition compared with groups small talk condition. They also found that for individual couples, passionate love did not change significantly between the fast-friends and small talk experiments. Being in the fast-friends closeness induction group increased passionate love scores for pairs of couples, and not for individual couples. In contrast, relationship satisfaction increased for the fast-friends condition, but it didn’t matter whether this was for individual couples or pairs of couples. Only self-disclosure with pairs of couples increased passionate love in Study 1.

Study 2: Welker and colleagues looked to replicate and expand the findings of the first study by using additional measures. They recruited 62 couples, average age 23.5 years, average relationship length of 2.76 years, predominantly heterosexual, and from diverse ethnic backgrounds. They completed half of the items from the Passionate Love Scale online before the experiment, and half of the items after the experiment. They also completed a pre-test Relationship Assessment Scale to measure relationship satisfaction, and measured self-disclosure and perceived responsiveness of their partners and members of other couples involved, reporting on who much they felt “cared for”, understood” and “validated” by their partner and members of the other couples. All the couples in this study participated in the group fast-friends condition, resulting in a larger sample size to further examine how group self-disclosure leads to higher feelings of passionate love.

They found that higher levels of self-disclosure predicted greater ratings of passionate love, though the effect was less significant after factoring in whether they couple started with higher levels of passionate love. This suggests that self-disclosure is more important for people who are building (or rebuilding passion). Regarding responsiveness, they found that greater responsiveness from partners and from other couples predicted higher levels of passionate love and relationship satisfaction. This effect was not different for couples with higher baseline passionate love, however, suggesting that responsiveness is of primary importance for overall relationship satisfaction in this sample.

Women responded more strongly to self-disclosure than men did, suggesting that when men open up to women it has a greater enhancing effect on passion than when women open up to men. When researchers analyzed the combined effects in a more sophisticated sophistical model, they found that responsiveness of one’s romantic partner as well as members of the other couple, but not self-disclosure, ultimately predicted higher levels of passionate love and relationship satisfaction. Self-disclosure may be necessary, but not sufficient.

The rub

There is a lot to say about couples communicating more effectively and having more high quality communication. People grow closer when they open up and share with one another, and more importantly are perceived as responsive to one another. Self-disclosure alone isn’t enough. Interesting that this effect was observed with only one brief intervention. If this were repeated several times, perhaps part of a semi-regular routine social activity with other couples, the effect might be stronger before leveling out.

Understanding that the social dimension significantly enhances this effect is powerful. For starters, it speaks to the strong effect of teamwork (McEwan et al., 2017). McEwan and colleagues found in their meta-review that teamwork is enhanced in work groups by simulations, group performance, self-review, and workshops, while simple instruction did not improve teamwork. The intervention in this experiment is a kind of simulation. It shows that teamwork can be leveraged for couples by having them interact in groups with other couples. Chapter 9 Couples In Recovery uses a similar model, for example, as do couples retreats.

It also speaks to the deep texture of social life as a real part of each individual couples’ intimate lives together. When communities were smaller and more tightly knit, it would be more common for couples to go through life together, to share the ups and downs of relationships, and family life. Nowadays, people are more isolated in general, marriages break up commonly, families are less likely to be a part of close communities in many areas, and the very notion of monogamy and long-term relationship is being re-worked and is morphing. This is not to take away from the many close knit communities with couples who spend time with other couples, and benefit in their own relationships, but the future of relationships is in uncertain on a more collective level.

For couples seeking to deepen their own feelings of passionate love, a simple prescription is to meet up with other couples and partake together in meaningful conversations, and engage in an activity which involves building group cohesion. I also believe that playing together is a key component, and for sure comes up with games like Jenga.

Couples played a fun game together, shared in healthy competition, and enjoyed the excitement of not quite knowing when the tower of logs would collapse along with the focused concentration required to play. It may be that the playfulness and physiological activation of the game was a relevant part of building the sense of passion, though that was not formally looked at as a possible factor in the experiment. They did not specifically measure sexual satisfaction with this study design, though that presumably may have gotten a bump, too.

So… consider hosting a couples night and inviting friends over who you would like to get to know better, and pick up an intimacy-building game which is similar to the “fast-friends” condition (or get a copy of the study protocol). Try to capture the experience of the fast-friends game, as well as the playful team spirit of the Jenga game, and see if that enhances your passion and relationship, and possibly sexual, satisfaction.

Have a Good Breakup

How to end a relationship

Is there a right way to break up with someone? Does it really make a difference how you go about severing the tie that once kept your hearts intertwined?

Well, yes it does, actually. And there are two key variables you should try to keep in mind. The first is how direct you are, and the second is how much concern you express towards the person you’re breaking up with [1].

The more direct you are, the more considerate you’re likely to be. Imagine a scenario where you break up with someone by avoiding them, or drifting away, or even putting all your flaws on display in the hopes that they’ll break up with you.

Not only would that show a lack of compassion on your part, but it’s might also make things harder after you breakup. So, while ending a bad relationship is sometimes the right choice to make, it really is worth trying to do it as kindly as possible.

While it may seem harder, being direct is a much more compassionate way to leave your lover. Be clear that you want to end the relationship, and show your soon-to-be-ex-partner that you care how it affects them. It won’t be entirely painless, but you’ll have a much better breakup as a result [1].

What are the plus points of a breakup?

Even the person who initiates the breakup can feel a sense of loss [2]. The post breakup grieving can be categorised by anger, sadness, and sometimes even anxiety [3]. It can be a very lonely time, which is not surprising, considering how much we share with our partners.

But, in the long run, it’s not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, one study showed that two out of three people felt their breakups were a positive or neutral experience overall [4].

For one, breaking up with a partner can give you a new sense of freedom. Your plans are no longer built around somebody else’s routine, and you don’t need to factor someone else in every time you make a diary commitment. You’ve got more time for yourself, and your own interests.

If the relationship wasn’t working and you’d been indulging unhealthy habits or self-destructive ways of thinking, then getting a bit more space for yourself can give you a chance to change things up a bit. Many people end up feeling better adjusted after breaking up with someone [5].

In addition, research shows that single people tend to have more active social lives than those in romantic relationships [4] so a breakup may present the perfect opportunity to catch up with friends and family, or even to take up a new hobby and meet new people.

Getting over a breakup

You may have heard lots of advice about avoiding ‘rebound relationships’, and not getting involved in anything too serious too soon.

An interesting study published in 2015 suggests that starting something new might not be as bad as we once thought. The results showed that people entering new relationships shortly after a breakup tend to have higher self-esteem and feel more confident in their desirability.

But, before you get carried away, you might like to know that these relationships don’t often last, especially when people are still hanging onto mixed feelings about their exes [5].

So, before you get into a new relationship, try to make sure you’ve given yourself sufficient time to deal with any feelings that are left hanging. You may need some time to remind yourself of who you are and want you want from life before you get too involved with someone new.

Know More About Divorced

A claim we have been hearing for decades is that marriage makes people healthier. In the vast majority of studies used to bolster that claim, people who are currently married, or people in their first marriages, or people who got married and stayed married, are compared to single people.

Do you see what’s missing from those groups of married people? None of them include people who got married and then got divorced. (Widowed people are excluded, too, but that’s a topic for a different day.)

The lesson is supposed to be, get married and you will get healthier. But the people who got divorced did get married. They just didn’t stay that way. If you get married, you could end up divorced. What does that mean for your health?

We already know the answer to that. People who get divorced are less healthy than they were before – at least at first. And if you compare people who are currently married to those who are divorced and those who have always been single, it is the divorced group that typically has the worst health.

Instead of just looking at the health of divorced people just after they divorce, and comparing it to before they divorced, we can also look at the health question a different way: Is the health of married people a factor in whether they get divorced? For example, are married people who are especially healthy more likely to get divorced? Or is the reverse true – that married people who are especially unhealthy are more likely to get divorced? Or does it make no difference?

A study of about 10,000 Dutch adults looked at the health of people over the course of various marital transitions. At the start of the study, the participants were asked about their health in general. They were also asked if they had each of 13 health complaints (such as regularly having an upset stomach, or often feeling tired) and 23 chronic conditions (such as serious heart disease or heart attack, or chronic obstructive lung disease).

The participants were followed for 4.5 years. In the key comparison, the authors looked at the health of the people who started out married but were divorced by the end of the study – that is, 4.5 years later.

The results were dramatic. Married people who said that they had 4 or more of the 13 health complaints were 1.5 times as likely to be divorced by the end of the study than those who had fewer than 4 health complaints. The findings were even stronger for chronic conditions. Married people with 2 or more of the 23 chronic were more than twice as likely to end up divorced.

The authors ruled out, statistically, other factors that could account for their results, such as changes in health with age. They also did analyses in which they only looked at divorces that occurred in the last 2 years of the study instead of all 4.5 years. None of that mattered. The married people who were particularly unhealthy were still most likely, by a lot, to end up divorced by the end of the study.

Now let’s go back to where I started. In the future, you will continue to read about studies that compare currently married people to single people, or people in their first marriages to single people, or people who got married and stayed married to single people. You will be told: “Look, the married people are healthier! Get married and you will be healthier, too.” When that happens, remember that all these different comparisons take all of the divorced people out of the marriage group. Then remember the study I just told you about.

The married people who got divorced in the Dutch study were much more likely to have health complaints and chronic conditions than the married people who did not get divorced. What researchers are typically doing is setting aside all those people who were especially unhealthy and ended up divorced, and then comparing the remaining married people (the ones skimmed off the top) to single people. And then they want to tell you that getting married makes people healthier.

That’s cheating.

Sometimes it is even worse than that. Sometimes researchers toss the divorced people in with the lifelong single people, and compare the resulting group to the people who are left in the married group (the currently married people, or the people in first marriages, or the people who got married – whether for the first time or not – and stayed married). Lifelong single people are typically healthier than divorced people. So the social scientists, in these instances, take the least healthy people – people who did get married and then got divorced – out of the marriage group and reassign them to the not-married group. Then they say, “see, marriage makes people healthier.” And they get away with it. They should instead be comparing everyone who ever got married to people who stayed single.

Here’s something remarkable. Even when social scientists use cheater techniques like these – and they use them constantly – they don’t always find that marriage makes people healthier. Recent studies, often more sophisticated methodologically than their predecessors, are not showing that people who get married get healthier than they were when they were single. I described one of those studies in “Health benefits unlikely even from the longest marriages.” Another study found that people described their overall health as somewhat worse after they married than when they were single.

I know it sounds intuitively reasonable to compare people who are currently married to people who are not married. If the married people are doing better than those who are not married, it seems fine to conclude that marriage improved their lives. But that’s cheating, because it does not include the people who got married, found that marriage was not at all improving their lives, and got divorced.

Whenever you hear about a study that compares married people to people who are not married, remember that someone is trying to pull a fast one on you. They may not be deliberately trying to mislead you. They may actually think that such a comparison counts as good science. I hope you understand that it doesn’t.

Know More About Love and Fear in Parenting

I wasn’t having the sort of week where I felt on top of academics, summer activities, nutrition, behavior, and temper tantrums. Those are fewer and further between when you’re, well, a human being leading a normal life. I was having the sort of week where everything bled into everything else. I wasn’t sleeping well, which in turn impacted my pace at work, which then made me feel even more tired and frustrated, which then affected my self-esteem, which sort of negatively impacted my relationship, which then, of course, impacted my parenting.

Isn’t it funny how all the seemingly “little things” quickly add up?

It was a weekday morning, and I was working on math skills with my soon-to-be second grader. I know, I know, who makes their kid do math during the summer? Well, this Asian mama does, and that’s beside the point. We were working on subtraction with two-digit numbers. He had been doing so well all week. He had been picking up the skills rapidly, and even enjoying the math. In my moments of patience, we had played with quarters and dimes to practice lining them up and taking them away. I wanted to make it fun and tactile, but this day was reserved for a plain old boring worksheet.

It was off to a strong start. Relieved, I left him at the kitchen table and started focusing on other chores around the kitchen. Suddenly, in the middle of the page, he stopped. He was stuck. “Mamaaaaa,” he threw in all the aaaa’s to emphasize the whining, “I don’t get this.”

I went up to him and crouched down beside him. I used his pencil to gently point out the process, just as I had before. Soon, “I don’t get this.” turned into “I’m not good at this.” “I’m not good at this.” turned into “I hate this.”.

“Let me explain it differently.” I told him. Internally, I wondered how something that started off so well was suddenly taking a different turn. My tone was getting stiffer. I was no longer sing-songy and upbeat, but short and nervous. That’s when I know I’m venturing into frustration territory, but by then, his head was resting atop his folded little arms on the table. He was done.

“Are you really going to give up so easily?” I said. I was losing it. After a few (very) brief moments of patience, affirmation, and encouragement, I started to freak out. I mean, really freak out.

So, to be completely vulnerable and authentic with you, let me just share some of the thoughts going through my head, from the fleeting snapshots to those dangerous “spiraling out of control” cognitions.

What the heck is happening? How was 25-13 on the page before so easy, but 45-13 was suddenly so difficult? Did I teach him to subtract incorrectly? Did I do something wrong? Why is he giving up so easily? What’s the matter with him?

Then… are we bad parents? We haven’t been home much lately…is he falling behind? Work has just been so hectic. Are we giving him enough? Are we doing enough? Is he getting enough enrichment? Why is he having such a hard time focusing? Could he meet some criteria for ADHD? Oh no, I’m becoming one of those parents who thinks it’s okay to pathologize childhood. He’s just a squirmy, seven-year-old boy, right? What’s the matter with me! What if is he isn’t prepared for his new school? What if he gets distracted in class? What does this mean for the rest of elementary school? What about his future? If he’s so behind now, what will everything else moving forward look like?

The list goes on. The bottom line is, I was angry.

Though, that’s not quite the bottom line. You see, anger functions like an iceberg. Imagine anger as the tip of the iceberg with all kinds of emotions lingering underneath. Anger gives us a false sense of security and protection. It makes us feel powerful and safe. In truth, anger is an instrumental emotion covering up all our real feelings beneath. Usually, there’s a lot more to the story than what you see above the surface. Remember what sank the titanic? It wasn’t the visible stuff on top, it was the massive portion of ice floating quietly below. It sliced through the metal and ripped apart the boat. That was the part worth paying attention to.

Similarly, below the small tip of the anger iceberg lies a whole ton of emotions. Embarrassment, guilt, worry, regret, nervousness, pain, hurt. You name it. If it’s uncomfortable, vulnerable, and scary, that’s where it is. We don’t want to go there. We don’t want to share it. So, what do we do? We protect ourselves with anger. We hide behind anger so we don’t have to reveal our true selves and authentic feelings. You can read more about the Anger Iceberg through The Gottman Institute here.

To share my own experience with the anger iceberg, I realized that beneath my anger and frustration was a whole lot of fear.

I was letting my fear for my son’s future at a new school get the best of me. I was fearful that our household of two working parents was inadequate. Most of all, I was letting my own fears about my parenting insecurities take over.

What I have learned about fear from mentors, working in therapy, and my own life experience is that it is both toxic and informative. It is such a revealing, fundamental human experience. Fear, however, simply cannot exist in the same space as love. When we are fearful, we retreat from life. When we experience safe and healthy love, we are at peace.

Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler Ross worked with dying individuals who were forced to face their fears head-on during their very last days. She once said that we must choose to be in one place or another, fear or love. Every moment offers a chance to pick one over the other, and like everything else, choosing love over fear is an ongoing process. It isn’t always easy.

I want to say here that emotions aren’t bad. I would be a terrible practitioner if I placed a value judgement on specific emotions. All feelings provide data, and from the data we can derive a story. We can say, “Okay, what’s really going on here? What’s this feeling actually about?” From there, we can change our behavior. We can invite new emotions into the arena. We can make more positive and healthy choices in our lives and in our relationships.

I decided to forgive myself and acknowledge that this is one of many parenting “ef ups” I will have on this journey. Unlike the other day, this morning I decided to choose love instead of fear. I love my child dearly. I love his willingness to take on challenges. I love his goofiness. I love his sense of humor and his spunk. I love him through the easier, lighthearted moments, and through all the tough moments. I love him when I’m exhausted and questioning my sanity, and I love him when we’re snuggled on the couch watching his favorite show. If I can push past those pesky fears, what I am left with is the purest acceptance and warmth. It might not be a perfect moment, but it is a moment of love that we have together

How If Weddings Hurt

Weddings — the ceremony celebrating the beginnings of marital bliss. While they provide monumental joy for some, they also wreak havoc for others, particularly friends. What is it about female friendships and weddings that causes so much pain?

The following questions came to me from Meredith, an editor in New York:

First of all, I was hoping you could provide some insight into why weddings might be particularly fraught for women. What about female friendships makes the type of cultural ranking that happens during weddings so painful?

What we know from research is that the female brain, on the majority, is literally wired to be more attuned to social ties, which makes us particularly sensitive to social rejection and perceptive of cues that might suggest social exclusion. In our historical “hunter and gatherer” days, approximately 1.8 million years ago, being rapidly perceptive of these cues — and adjusting accordingly — would literally make the difference between life and death.  Unfortunately, the part of our brain which regulates social ties has not evolved as quickly as our society has, and the very same mechanisms are at play when it comes to feeling excluded at weddings.

As weddings are amongst the most ritualized events in the world that have spanned millennia, they are rife with social markers which can clearly indicate the mutuality, or lack thereof, of friendships and relational ties. These markers can include macro-events within the wedding process, such as being chosen to be a bridesmaid, or being invited to more intimate events like the bachelorette party; or micro-events, such as being seated, as a guest, at the reception table closest to the bathroom near the exits, with the idea that the further the table, the further the friendship. While these markers are, of course, taboo to discuss, they are common cultural knowledge that provide a clear delineation of the friendship, and thus, ample opportunity for the female brain to rapidly perceive an inequality in her friendship with the bride and feel very hurt. The reason why this is so “painful” is because when it comes to feeling excluded, our brains literally cannot tell the difference between physical and emotional pain, making the entire ordeal quite distressing, to say the least.

And relatedly, why do weddings seem to so clearly play into this type of hierarchy? Is the fault of the ceremony itself? Of the couple? Of adult women?

I wouldn’t necessarily say that it’s the fault of any one individual, but rather, the cultural and historical norms associated with weddings. For instance, after a proposal, it’s socially expected that there will be a wedding with a set list of invited guests, and within that wedding guest list, there will be a bridal party, and that within that bridal party, there will be a Maid of Honor and Best Man; all of these traditions carry a heavy connotation of how much a single person means to the couple, in rank. After all, in no other time or place in one’s life would it ever be socially acceptable to classify friends so deliberately, but the traditional nature of weddings makes it common practice. This process can be quite distressing for the bride, as well, who must make certain decisions about who to include or exclude, and face the potential resulting hurt feelings from those decisions.

Apart from revealing the closeness of the bond, I would also wager that the reason why high ranking positions, such as the Maid of Honor, are so coveted — and, conversely, why it can be so upsetting not to be chosen — is because it singularly publicizes all of the perceived positive universal attributes that come along with being a best friend, such as warmth, modesty, loyalty, and trust, to all guests in attendance and beyond. The title carries with it significant social influence, an increase in dominance within the social group, and an accompanying uptick in the “chosen one’s” level of serotonin, a neurotransmitter playing a major part in happiness.

Many women have shared stories with me about feeling left out, either because they weren’t picked to be a bridesmaid or something similar. It feels like there’s a lot of anxietyaround this tradition specifically. Importantly, however, weddings seem to be getting bigger and bigger, with the result that the rankings become even more clear. Is there a way to avoid this? 

Truly, I think the only way to fully avoid having guests feel left out would be to destruct meaningful signifiers by abandoning the norms associated with weddings altogether (such as a bridal party or assigned seating), but that isn’t too realistic or appealing for the majority of couples. I would say the best way to atone potential hurt feelings of loved ones is to control the narrative: Create a list of close friends and family members that would be disappointed if they were not chosen to be in the bridal party, for example, and send a hand-written note still affirming their friendship early on. For instance: “I’ve asked my cousin to be my Maid of Honor and two childhood friends to be in my bridal party. I wish I had room to ask all of my closest friends and family, including you. I want you to know that I really value our friendship, and it would mean the world to me if you would be a guest at my wedding.” A friend’s hurt feelings over not being chosen to be in the bridal party are likely directly proportional to the amount of time they are left doubting the equality in your friendship, so communicating reassurance early on can certainly help preserve the bond.

Have you had any personal experience with this problem? And if so, how did you deal with it?

I’ve always tried to evaluate friendships from a realistic lens in terms of mutuality. This helps manage expectations quite well. I have found that with friends who I have felt particularly close to, and who I believe, in terms of the amount of personal information we share with each other, have felt the same way about me, I have been thankful to be in their bridal party as either a bridesmaid or as the Maid of Honor. The only exception to this is my childhood best friend, who will be getting married in a few days: Although she chose not to have a bridal party, as her groom is a fairly recent immigrant who, with the exception of his mother and cousin, will have no family or friends attending their 120-guest wedding, it certainly didn’t eliminate the sting of the imaginary role we had planned, since children, to play in each other’s presumed future weddings. Understanding of the circumstances, I never voiced my disappointment, but I found so much of that feeling centered around what had been historically described and what I had come to expect, not what current reality dictated. I dealt with it by putting myself in her shoes and understanding that she was being incredibly kind towards her soon-to-be husband, putting the most important relationship of her life first, and approaching their special day as theirs, and not simply hers, which I very much respect.

Are there broader lessons that we can learn from the whole wedding process, especially for adult friendships. It all feels a little juvenile—why are adults having the same kinds of problems (jealousy, clique-ness) that girls deal with in middle school? Do we ever outgrow our insecurities about friendships, specifically who is “the best friend?”

I don’t think that we necessarily outgrow our insecurities about friendships, given how strong our evolutionary roots are and that self-esteem is directly tied to social acceptance, but I do think we can change our beliefs about events which will dictate our consequential feelings, whether that’d be in the wedding process or beyond. I think there’s a lot more to be gained, in terms of personal well-being, from understanding and respecting a friend’s decision and adjusting accordingly, instead of tormenting oneself or questioning one’s worth over a perceived social slight.

Manage Your Emotions

We all suffer from emotional overreactions. In the heat of the moment we say something to a person we love without stopping to consider the shockwaves. Or we blast off an email and wonder why we didn’t sleep on it before pressing ‘Send’. Our emotions spill over and, by the time they recede, the damage is done.

There’s no denying that this kind of behavior is on the rise. In the public domain, barely a day passes without newspapers splashing the story that a comment, tweet or email has caused an uproar. Demands are made for heads to roll, and responses range from retractions (‘I apologise unreservedly for my lack of judgement …’) to defiance (‘This is a ridiculous case of political correctness…’). And then the next story breaks.

The converse situation is that we feel gripped by fear or anxiety and fail to seize the moment to speak up or act according to our values. The consequences of freezing can be just as deleterious, and sometimes more so, than overreacting. Either way, managing our emotions is a tricky business.

When we look back on these situations our stock explanation is, ‘My emotions got the better of me’. But this raises a serious question: am I in charge of my emotions, or are they in charge of me? Nobody asked me this question at school, or told me the answer. Consequently I stumbled into the adult world with a royal flush of emotions – ranging from joy and excitement to fear and anger – without a manual for how to live with them.

The truth is that we’ve ended up with a tangled mess of advice in this area. Much of the prevailing literature tells us to squash negative emotions and replace them with positive ones. Other experts tell us this is tantamount to putting icing on dog food and calling it cake. So which, if any, is right?

To navigate through this emotional battleground, some important distinctions need to be made:

  1. We cannot turn emotions on and off like a tap. They will come and go whether we like it or not. Once this is clear in your mind, you can stop waiting for unwanted emotions to go away. The idea that we can banish them is unhelpful and doesn’t hold up to scrutiny; they are part-and-parcel of the human experience. Besides, the more we strive to live according to our values and commitments, the more our emotions will rise up to challenge us.
  2. Emotions aren’t positive or negative. The human brain is wired to categorize things as positive or negative, and is particularly alert to threats. This made good evolutionary sense for our ancestors, who learned to react to external threats for the purposes of survival. As humans developed language, we employed the same process of classification to our internal state, including our emotions. Thus we see joy as positive, and therefore welcome, and fear as negative and unwelcome. However, this creates new problems. On the basis that ‘what we resist persists’, suppressing emotions that we perceive to be negative only tightens their grip. So what’s the alternative? If we can experience the full range of human emotions without attaching positive and negative labels to them, the result can be hugely liberating. Take Dame Judi Dench as an example, who has won one Oscar, two Golden Globes and 10 BAFTA awards. She says that the more she acts the more frightened she becomes. In contrast to thousands of aspiring performers who are waiting for the day when they’ll overcome their fear, she treats it as a companion rather than an enemy. This is not to say that she finds her fear comfortable, but she makes no attempt to resist it, and therefore it doesn’t define her. ‘I have the fear,’ she says. ‘I wouldn’t be without it.’ Perhaps this is why her on-screen characters brim with humanity.
  3. You are not your emotions. Emotions are, by their very nature, strong. However, it’s important to get clear that you are not your emotions. You are a person with values and commitments who happens to have emotions that are triggered on a regular and ongoing basis. This point might seem semantic, but it isn’t. When we become fused to our emotions – thinking that ‘they’ and ‘we’ are one and the same thing – we are effectively hijacked by them. If you can notice emotions without becoming them, they no longer determine your behaviour.
  4. We always have a choice. A thought or feeling in itself doesn’t prevent you from taking any action. It’s easy to think, ‘I’m frightened and can’t speak’, but this is a trick of the mind. It would be more accurate and authentic to say, ‘I’m frightened and I’m choosing not to speak.’ Being able to observe our emotions – even when they feel overwhelmingly powerful – creates a space in which we can reference our commitments and values. While we cannot always choose our emotions, we can choose our response to them. This gets to the heart of responsibility, and responsibility is probably the closest thing to a superpower that human beings possess.