Saturday, July 25, 2009


Dear Therapista,

I am a long-time supporter of President Obama and a big fan of his family. In fact, I think my own family has grown as a unit by following the press about the first family and modeling ourselves after them when we can. We even got a dog last month! But I have to admit that when I read about all of the President and Michelle's super glamorous dates, I get angry at my husband. He is a good man but we have not gone a date since I can remember. I don't want to nag, but I'd like a little romance myself!


The Original Obama Girl

As a psychotherapist, it has been fascinating and inspiring to observe how the family psychology of the first family is influencing the psychology of our nation's families. As we observed the Obamas on the campaign trail, many of us took an interest in Obama the family that went far beyond Obama the candidate. Like so many of my therapy clients and my friends, our family has looked to the Obama family as a positive and inspiring role-model.

For example, the Obamas have forever changed mornings in our household. Upon reading about Sasha's and Malia's morning routine during the general election campaign, my then seven year old daughter easily convinced my then five year old daughter that they should emulate the Obama daughters. Sasha and Malia use their own alarms and make their own beds, so why shouldn't they? Next thing I knew, we were heading to Target where my girls each picked out their own alarm clocks (one chose Hello Kitty and the other chose funky digital neon) and began the Obama-inspired routine of waking up each morning on their own, dressing themselves and making their beds. I was not alone among both clients and friends to be super impressed to read that, once elected, Michelle Obama directed the White House staff to make her bed, but to continue to allow her daughters to take responsibility for their own bed making. How cool is that??!!

The Obamas are obviously not a spoiled family raising precious spoiled children. Quite the contrary, so many of us can see ourselves in the Obamas -- hard working families struggling to balance competing priorities of family, work, and home life and contend with with homework, housework and financial pressures. We try our best to support our children's social, financial and emotional needs and we often feel like we are on a treadmill that doesn't seem to stop. How unusual to have a first family who seems (well, SEEMED, until Air Force One and the White House staff came into the picture) to struggle with so many of our same pressures and stresses. Maybe I'm off with this, but it is hard to picture Jenna and Barbara Bush making their own beds. Likewise, while the Clintons did not enter the White House with the vast financial resources of the Bush family, we never really got the impression that Chelsea was doing much bed-making.

What's the big deal about bed-making anyway? Well, from a psychological perspective, perhaps bed making resonates because it encourages a degree of autonomy, drive and responsibility that many of today's children do not develop. There is meaning in waking up and taking care of yourself, doing for yourself, and starting your day following a parental message that independence is important. Bed-making at a young age represents the antithesis of the helicopter parenting that has become so popular today in which parents micro-manage and over-schedule their children. Such over-scheduling and micro-managing may be well intended, but, next thing you know, parents are choosing their college courses and running their children's young adult lives. Children raised with such helicoptering probably never, ever learn to adequately think for and care for themselves, much less make a bed!

So, Orignal Obama Girl, all of this is to say that I wholeheartedly relate to and encourage the influence the Obama's healthy approach to child-rearing is having on your family. And I think you and your husband can take some steps to emulate the positive dynamics of the first couples' marriage as well. Tell your husband that you want to establish a monthly or if possible weekly date night. Suggest a simple, affordable plan like an early picnic in the park that gets you out of the house during crazy dinner, bath, homework time and gives the two of you time to connect. But please, by all means, remember, your husband does not have Air Force One at his command or the ability to clear our a restaurant just to impress you.

When you read interviews with Michelle Obama, you will notice that she has, at times, been quite open about how hard it was on her marriage when she and her husband were both working full-time, struggling to pay off school loans and trying to raise two young daughters. The dates the Obamas have today are not the dates they had before all the Presidential hype entered their lives. In fact, their very first date was a simple trip to the ice cream parlor. Remember, what makes the Obamas so very psychologically appealing is that they seem so real. They do not pretend to be perfect. They do not perpetuate the kinds of fantasies associated with the mega wealth of the first family that occupied the White House for eight years prior to this administration.

The importance of making time to date and keeping romance alive cannot be overstated. As a wise pediatrician once told me, "make sure you hire a babysitter and go on dates -- it's expensive, but couples therapy is more expensive!" And that's where couples find themselves when they don't make the time and the effort to keep connected. With everything that life throws at you when you are trying to raise a family in this economy, keeping the romance alive and staying intimate takes work. Kindly remind your husband that romance is important, but remember, romance does not have to take the form of Air Force One and a trip to Broadway. Michelle Obama fell for the guy who took her out for ice cream!

How has the psychology of the Obama's family and marriage influenced your own life experience? Please comment!

Friday, July 24, 2009

Facebook Widows

Dear Therapista,

My husband is on Facebook all day! He has more than five hundred friends! Who are these people anyway? At this point it's official, I'm a full-fledged Facebook Widow. Help!

In desperation,

Frustrated Facebook Widow

As a practicing psychotherapist, I have heard this term, Facebook Widow (or Facebook Widower), more times than I can count. In fact, it is fast becoming one of the most common issues to surface in my psychotherapy practice. In most relationships, it seems that one partner Facebooks and the other doesn't. OR, if both partners are on Facebook, one has hundreds of friends and spends a good deal of time Facebooking while the other never gets around to changing their blue bald alien head photo and simply does not understand what the Facebook rage is all about.

Facebook relationship troubles tend to start out innocently enough. The Facebooker may join Facebook simply for professional reasons or because they have received so many friend requests they figure, why not? Next thing you know, couples are fighting about who has more ex-girlfriends or ex boyfriends as friends, who friended whom ("I forget" being the most common answer to this all-important question) and why it is that people mention things on their status updates that they don't bother to mention to their partner.

Facebook obviously has endless appeal. It helps you keep in touch with old friends and helps you connect with new friends. It also helps you feel in the technological loop by allowing you to scale back your email and communicate in a fashion that resembles those cool, tech-savvy college students. And who doesn't get an ego boost by having an impressive roster of friends?

What's wrong with Facebooking? Everybody is doing it -- in fact, many professions are starting to require it. Facebook has clearly taken our cultural lexicon by storm -- it's ubiquitousness is unprecedented. (Unless, that is, you consider twitter!) If someone is upset by their partner's Facebook habits, why not live by the old adage, if you can't beat em, join em?

In fact, that is just what many frustrated non-Facebookers decide to do.  They join up and friend their way to revenge.  From a psychological perspective, there are a couple of problems with this approach:

a) they don't tend to enjoy Facebook if they are simply joining out of spite; and
b) spiteful Facebooking typically results in a relationship with TWO partners over-emphasizing their cyber life instead of ONE.

There is no simple answer to the Facebook imbalance that exists in many relationships. But I will say that Facebook seems to be opening all kinds of doors that can compromise relationship intimacy. It is so darn easy to friend someone. Chatting via Facebook (on wall or off) is so much more innocent than, say, calling up the cute new guy at the office or, for that matter, your ex. As a result, it seems that Facebook is causing conflict for many couples.

The most common Facebooking phenomenon that occurs involves the escalation of communication with either professional colleagues of the opposite sex OR with one's ex. This usually starts out innocently enough, but then can devolve into situations ranging from simply too much time and energy going to someone outside of your romantic relationship OR into full on, flirtations or emotional affairs. Of course, emotional affairs easily and often escalate into physical affairs, but that's a blog for another day. For now, let's just focus on the concept of energy and how much should go into your real life relationships versus your cyber ones.

The other day, one of my clients -- a self-proclaimed "recovering Facebook junkie" -- said it best:

  • "Facebooking is great for those who are never, ever, under any circumstances, going to cheat on their partner. It's also great for cheaters who are going to cheat either way -- Facebook just makes it easier. Facebook represents a serious problem for folks like me -- the teeterers. By that I mean for those of us who are not one hundred percent likely to cheat, but who might, unintentionally, teeter on fidelity's edge. Facebook is to teeterers what a bar is to recovering alcoholics. Don't go there!"

If Facebook frustrations bring you into therapy, my job is to help you figure out WHY you are are a "teeterer" or why it is so hard to tear yourself away from your iphone and connect with your partner.  Therapists tend to delve deep.  But for persons who are simply concerned about blossoming Facebook widowhood, some basic parameters may suffice.

What do you do when you are in a relationship where one person feels like a Facebook widow (widower)? My best advice is to try logging off for a whole weekend. Yes, that's right, a WHOLE WEEKEND! No Facebook AND NO email! If you must email for work, set specific times that you will do so (no more than two times per day!) and stick to those parameters. Then, every time you have the urge to update your status or check your homepage, try asking your partner a question. OR giving your partner a status update. Try putting the same effort, flair and energy into your real life relationship as you do with your cyber ones. You may find great satisfaction from making this effort. If so, seriously consider cutting back on your Facebook time and expanding your real-life relationship face time. If you don't feel satisfied by taking this advice -- OR if you find yourself unable to tear yourself away from Facebook, even for one weekend, you may want to ask yourself how much you have in common with the recovering Facebook junkie quoted above and/ or re-evaluate your relationship.

Are you a facebook widow or widower? Or has your partner complained that they feel like one? Please post a comment!

The Divorce Dividend

Dear Therapista,

My boyfriend of three years wants a commitment. He thinks that if we don't plan to get married and make it official, then it's time to call it a day and move on. In theory, the idea of marriage sounds just lovely, but my parents had an awful marriage and a disastrous divorce and I am determined to avoid repeating their mistakes. My boyfriend is a wonderful guy. We share common interests and values and I respect and trust him completely, but how do I know that the marriage will last?

With fear and apprehension,

Contemplative Commitmentphobic

Did your parent’s divorce when you were growing up? Do you fear commitment in romantic relationships? Do you worry about repeating your parents’ mistakes?

If you answered yes to the questions above, you are not alone. Today, more than 40 percent of all Americans between the ages of eighteen and forty are children of divorce, and fear of commitment is a noted long-term consequence of growing up in a divorced household.

Hollywood's hype about nasty divorces may have you thinking about your own parents' divorce and the long-term consequences. But having divorced parents does not mean that you are doomed to be unlucky in love. Yes, many experts cite reports of how adults with divorced parents fear commitment and therefore face a gloomy romantic future. No, these predictions are not necessarily accurate.

Many adults with divorced parents build happy, healthy marriages. But this inspirational phenomenon has largely been overlooked by therapists and the media. Many adults with divorced parents struggle with dating and commitment, overcome their struggles, and go on to build happy and rewarding partnerships. In this article, I briefly outline five critical steps to achieving a happy relationship.

If your parents divorced when you were growing up and you want to avoid repeating their mistakes, explore the following steps and apply them to improve your current relationship or develop a new one that is healthy and lasting.

Hopefully today's blog can help you take steps to overcome your fear of commitment and help you avoid repeating your parents' mistakes. If you like what you read, check out my book on this topic, Overcoming Your Parents' Divorce.

Step One - Re-Write Your Story:

This first step involves a two-part process of recounting and exploring the narrative of your family history in order to understand your past from an adult perspective. If you have vivid memories about your past, you may think you un

derstand all there is to know about your parents, your grandparents and their relationships. But memories of the past may be colored by a child's perspective.

Take the time to talk with your parents and grandparents and you may be surprised by what you learn. Gathering this family history provides an important foundation for your efforts to forge healthy relationships. The more you know about your parents and your grandparents, the more likely you are to successfully break dysfunctional family patterns and grow from your parents' mistakes.

  • Ask each parent to share their version of how they met and what initially appealed to them about the relationship. Learn more about your parents' early courtship and have a direct discussion about what the marriage was like and why they divorced. Next, learn more about your grandparents and their relationships by asking similar questions.
  • If your grandparents are still living, talk to them. If they are not, ask your parents to tell you more about their marriage and their lives. Information about your grandparents can help you better understand your parents and their adult choices. For example, if your grandparents were unhappily married, learning more about their relationship may reveal how your parent didn't get much of a chance to understand what a healthy relationship would look like. Maybe this information could shed light on your parents' divorce.

Keep in mind that you are the best judge of whether your parents and grandparents can handle a direct and honest conversation about the past. If they can, go for it! If not, consider talking with a relative or a trusted family friend.

Step Two – Face the Mirror:

The second step requires frank, honest reflection about how your parents' divorce affected you as a child and how it continues to affect you as an adult. This step may seem straightforward; many adults with divorced parents can describe, in detail, how their parents' divorce rocked their emotional world. However, in order to understand how your parents' divorce can actually help you have a happy relationship, it is not enough to intellectually acknowledge how your current struggles are related to your past. Instead, you must take full ownership of the extent to which your family history leads to specific behavior and patterns that do not work for you in your adult life.

For example, one of my psychotherapy clients -- I'll call her Martha -- whose father left her mother and started a family with another woman. Martha's parents never officially divorced and her mother continued to view her father as the main man in her life. By facing the mirror, Martha made the difficult realization that she completely bought into her mother's mantra that "a bad relationship is better than no relationship." Like her mother, she lacked self-esteem and remained in relationships with men who were openly unfaithful.

Facing and taking full ownership of this dysfunctional pattern became an important step in Martha's process of beginning to change her patterns and choose healthy relationships.

Step Three – Confront Your Commitment Phobia:

In order to have a healthy relationship, you must identify the specific ways in which you avoid commitment. Many adults with divorced parents struggle with commitment; however, fear of commitment is often more complicated than a conscious reluctance to take a healthy relationship to the next level.

Many times, it involves a pattern of choosing flawed relationships and trying, at times desperately, to save them. People who follow this pattern may tell you that they embrace rather than fear commitment, as they try so hard to make their relationships work. But trying to save a relationship with an unsuitable partner is not a form of embracing commitment; it is a pattern of avoiding intimacy. Think long and hard about your dating history:

  • Do you choose suitable partners or unsuitable partners?
  • When you choose suitable partners, are you nice to them?
  • Or are you only nice to the unsuitable ones?

Honest reflection about your underlying commitment phobia is a necessary step in the process of overcoming your parents' divorce.

Step Four – Calculate Your Dividend:

This step infuses the task of learning how your parents' divorce can help you achieve a healthy relationship with optimism and energy. Take stock of any potential good that has occurred as a result of your parents' divorce. Take an inventory of any good relationships that are in your life as a result of your parents' breakup. While you're at it, take stock of any bad or mediocre relationships to see if you have learned anything of value from them. For example:

  • How have you grown and what have you learned from your father's girlfriend?
  • What have you gained from becoming a step-sibling?

Once you have taken stock of relationships that may have a dividend, conclude this step by considering the ways in which your commitment phobia identified in step three may be a dividend in disguise. Ask yourself:

  • How has it been adaptive or protective to delay commitment?
  • How has it worked for you to remain single?
  • What have you learned from your relationships thus far?
  • Are you more emotionally mature than your parents were when they married?

By understanding that even something as traumatic as divorce can carry a dividend, you position yourself to use a positive lens moving forward.

Step Five – Forge Healthy Relationships:

Once you have completed steps one through four, you are ready to practice doing things differently with respect to dating. I use the term "practice" intentionally; approach step five as if you are training yourself in a new skill. If dating unsuitable partners is what you have done thus far, then this negative pattern is what will feel most comfortable. If being unavailable to your partners is what you are used to, you can expect the urge to continue to do so. We are all most comfortable with patterns that feel most familiar. As you learn to stop engaging in dysfunctional relationships and start forging healthy partnerships, you are likely to experience a good deal of anxiety and feel various forms of discomfort.

One way to deal with your discomfort is to approach dating as a laboratory in which you will practice and experiment with change. Remember when you first learned to drive a car? In the beginning, there was so much to think about – stepping on the gas pedal, hitting the brake, remembering to use your turn signals, putting the car in drive when your wish to go forward and reverse to go backward.

Driving took a great deal of conscious effort. Over time, however, you learn to think about and employ all of these necessary skills without having to put as much conscious effort into the process. Forging healthy relationships takes practice and hard work. As you practice doing so, you will need to coach yourself to be open to different kinds of people. Coach yourself to go slow when getting to know potential partners.

As I say to my clients, "shop the relationship supermarket!" This concept was introduced to me years ago when I was explaining the importance of step five to a psychotherapy client whom I'll call Mary. Mary was a self-described "serial monogamist" who had been in one long-term relationship after another and had never, ever been single. I encouraged Mary to give herself a chance to date and experience different kinds of people, rather than jumping into a new relationship as soon as her old relationship ended.

I explained the value of getting to know different types of people and determining what qualities are genuinely most important, and what qualities you might be willing to compromise on if enough other positive qualities are present. As I presented my "forge healthy relationships through dating" talk, Mary interrupted me with a laugh and a smile and replied: "Oh, Elisabeth, you make it all sound like there's one big relationship supermarket and everyone's walking around squeezing each other the way they would squeeze fruits and vegetables!"

While I would not recommend going around squeezing people as if they are fruits and vegetables, Mary was onto something. My experience working with many clients over the last fifteen years confirms that you will have more success with dating if you approach it similarly to the way you would approach a trip to the supermarket.

You will have more relationship success if you do not approach dating as an all-or-nothing experience in which another person's opinion, acceptance or rejection is excessively important and relevant to your self-worth. You will have more success with dating if you shop in the fruits and vegetables sections and stay out of the candy aisle. Be an informed, empowered shopper. Concentrate on your own preferences and avoid over-emphasizing the approval of others. Focus on what you like, what you don't like and what the healthiest choices are on the market.

Mary is just one of many adults with divorced parents who learned to shop the relationship supermarket, overcame the impact of her parents' divorce, and eventually built a happy and lasting relationship. Of course, it is never easy to overcome a life event as altering and encompassing as your parents' break-up, but with hard work and honest reflection, you can do it!