Monthly Archives: September 2012

Regretting the Divorce

Over the many, many years I’ve worked as a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice and on the air, I’ve done a lot of research on divorce, especially when it involves kids.  The scientific literature differs very much from popular literature in what the happiness quotient is after a divorce.  Scientific literature suggests that a good three quarters of people who divorce regret it.  Maybe not immediately, but 10 years later, they do.  “I should never have done it” is the kind of thing usually uttered privately after a divorce.  And after the papers have been signed, the property divided, the child custody settled, and the emotional pain still lingering, it’s usually too late to go back. 

Half of women and a third of men stay angry at their former spouse after a divorce.  They mentally just don’t move on.   They have to deal with a host of things: loneliness, painful memories, having to get new friends, uncomfortable changes, uncertainty about how they are going to pay their bills (people don’t usually go up in economic standing after their family is torn apart).

In my opinion, most marriages careening into divorce can be saved.  By saved, I’m talking about turning a troubled situation into a good one – not just coexisting.  A lot of times I nag people to just stay in a marriage in the hopes that if they just cut down on the rage and realize they have to endure and make the best of it, the tension calms and better things come out of it.  Generally, there are very simple things they can do to make themselves and their spouse happy.  

Of course, if your spouse is abusive, has had affairs, is an addict, suffers from a mental illness, or refuses to get help or follow through with therapy, then although it’s sad, a divorce is probably inevitable and you’re going to be happier to unload all of that pain.  But I think for the most part, especially after hearing from all the people on my program over the years, most divorces (most, not all) happen because someone says, “I’m unhappy and I don’t know what else to do.”  They figure, “OK, I’ll get a divorce and I’ll be happier because my marriage is the source of my unhappiness.”

There are a number of factors which can minimize your chances of getting a divorce.   If I were empress for a day, I would make it so that nobody could get married without premarital counseling.  It creates a much lower divorce rate because people work out their differences in a calm and neutral setting before the problems arise.  They have a trained professional helping them deal with the things most people avoid, which later come up and bite them. 

Additionally, as it turns out, people who actively practice one religion together and pray on a daily basis have a much lower divorce rate.  It doesn’t matter which religion.  These people are more centered.  Also, very religious people are givers.  They are not as concerned with taking.  When you have two people who are givers, the marriage works out really well.  Now, “so-called” religious couples – couples who share the same religion but are not active – do not have a lower divorce rate.   

Another divorce factor is how early you get married.  The reason?  Maturity.  The closer you are to 28 years old before you marry, the more realistic it is that you’ll stay with your spouse.  

We live in a society today where marriage and family are no longer seen as sacred, permanent and unconditional.  This lack of stability hurts the entire country.  The increasing number of second marriages, the resulting stepfamilies, and the even higher divorce rates occurring after the stepfamilies are created all contribute to the problem.  It’s not just the dissolution of the nuclear family that’s so destructive – it’s what happens afterwards.

How to Not Lose a Friend

Friends are really important.  They make you feel anchored to the world, and without them, you feel lonely, isolated, and depressed.  They care about you and do things with you.  You can talk to different friends about different things – you can blow off steam, you can get feedback, or you might receive a badly needed dose of comeuppance and become a better person.  But most importantly, it feels good knowing it matters to other people that you exist.    

But even when people have great friends, they somehow still manage to screw it all up.  Here are some steps you can take to prevent losing a friend:

The best way to ruin a wonderful friendship is to make negative assumptions.  If a friend doesn’t call you for four days, you assume they don’t like you, they forgot you, or they are being rude and insensitive.  You lament that they should know you are going through stuff.  However, instead of making negative assumptions, you could just pick up the phone and say, “Hey, are you OK?  I haven’t heard from you, so I was concerned about you.” 

That’s a friend – the other is a parasite. 

Gossiping and betraying someone’s trust is another way to ruin a friendship.  Talking to anyone about your friend’s personal issues, feelings, and thoughts is a huge betrayal.

Failing to reciprocate.  One of my main definitions of a friendship is that it’s reciprocal.  Now, that doesn’t mean you have to do the same things back and forth, that’s sort of silly (i.e. you got me a piece of bread, so I need to get you one).  Reciprocating means making an effort to do something benevolent for the other person (e.g. getting your friend bread if they’re hungry, or helping them untangle their hair if their hair is tangled). 

Talking and not listening.  Somebody ruined a friendship with me by not listening and only talking.  She didn’t even listen when I tried to talk to her about not listening.  I took her hands in mine, sat really close to her so that we were almost nose to nose, and told her that I loved her and enjoyed doing things with her, but there was an issue.  I told her that I couldn’t talk to her about anything without her stopping me and talking about herself.  I talked about how it always got either intrusive or competitive (i.e. I couldn’t talk to her about a toe without her stopping me to tell me that she had 20 toes).  She said she was sorry and that things would change, but they never did.  So we took a break.  The break has lasted two years, and it has been good.  It’s not that she is a bad person, she’s just not a good friend.

You need to have an attitude in life that your problems are not more important than anyone else’s.  There are a lot of people who have a problem hither and thither, and they are just horrible to everybody.  We all are a little grumpier or more reserved when we are stressed out, but when that happens, just hold up a Post-it note that reads, “I’m stressed out beyond comprehension, don’t take anything I say seriously.”  Just communicate it any way you can, and make it fun.

Another way to ruin a friendship is failing to stay in touch.  With technology these days, there is almost no excuse for not staying in contact.  You can send a text or an email if you don’t want to lick a stamp, or you can video chat.

You also lose friends by only making use of them when you need them.  When you don’t need them, they get dismissed.  You have to do things to nurture the friendship.  Think of cute things to say to them and do with them.  Ask them how they are doing.  If they have a lot on their plate, tell them that you’re worried and ask if there is anything you can do to lighten the load.  Even if they say no, talking to you may be just what they needed. 

If you know your friend is having an exhausting time with a new baby or some other crisis, come over one night with a fully prepared dinner in Tupperware, hand it to them, and then turn around and leave.  Little things like that show you are thinking of him or her.  Don’t be stingy.  Give more than you get.

Don’t sneak around with your friend’s spouse, boyfriend, or girlfriend.  I can’t even begin to tell you how many people say that their husband or wife left them for their best friend.  Excuse me?  “Best friends” don’t become intimate with each other’s boyfriends, girlfriends, husbands, or wives.  You just don’t do that.

Another tip: learn to compromise and don’t be competitive with their other friends and family.  Just because they don’t do A, B and C with you, appreciate that they do L, G and H with you.  Don’t make them feel stressed out to the point where they feel like they have to choose between you and the rest of the universe.  And if your friend wants to try something new, don’t say no.   People get a little compulsive about their comfort zones.  Both you and your friend should stretch out and try new things. 
 
Don’t make fun of their errors all the time.  I have a friend named Sam who I play tennis with.  One day he was eating dinner at our house after a game, and we started making jokes.  Because he had missed a shot, he sighed and said, “Does that mean I can’t have salad?”  It has become a running joke between the two of us.  Whenever we miss shots we should have made, we keep going back and forth with which parts of dinner we should and shouldn’t get.  You can have a good time poking fun, but don’t belittle each other.

Lastly, act like a friend, not a parent.  You can’t control how other people behave.  If you see your friend being self-destructive in any way, tell them, “It just kills me to see you hurting yourself like this because this is in your control.  It doesn’t feel like it, but it is.”  That’s not being a parent, that’s being a friend.  If their self-destructive behavior becomes more typical, then you have to draw a line.  You’re not telling them how to act – you’re telling them what your expectation of a friend is.  If they don’t fall into that category, then they’re not a friend and they’re not somebody you should put effort into. 

Let’s say, for example, that you have a friend who is married with little kids and is flagrantly having an affair.  I would discuss it with them several times, talk about the impact on the kids, their marriage, etc.  If that doesn’t work, I would ultimately say, “I don’t have friends who betray the people who love them and are willing to have fun at the expense of their kids’ well-being.  I am not interested in putting effort into somebody like that as a friend.”   If they respond by saying, “Oh, well you’re just being judgmental,” you just say back, “Damned straight I am, except I’m judging you as ‘friend’ material.  Whether you’re ‘mother’ or ‘wife’ material is certainly not in my venue.  All I’m judging is whether or not I want to call somebody who is doing this my friend.” 

That’s the kind of discussion you should be having and feel no guilt about.

Anti-Bullying Laws Are Not the Solution

Anti-bullying laws have recently been popping up all over America.  They allow children to report their classmates to the police if they feel they are being bullied.  However, in my opinion, these laws are stupid.  

I have always said that if another kid lays a hand on your child, tell your kid to drop them down and hurt them.  If a kid lays a hand on someone else’s child, tell your kid to drop them down and hurt them.  You have a responsibility to teach your children to stand up for themselves and other people.  Put them in jujitsu classes so they know how to do it without any blood or broken bones. 

Of course these days, bullying is not only limited to the playground.  It happens outside of school on the Internet (in my day, the equivalent was spreading notes and gossiping).  I am well aware of how people can be damaged and hurt on the Internet, but I also grew up with the motto, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”  We have totally given that up and told our children that the second their feelings are hurt, it’s all over.  Nobody has a right to not be offended, and no kid has the right to not have hurt feelings.  You need to teach your kids how to stand up for themselves and respond to bullying. 
 
Now, these anti-bullying laws are largely based on anecdotal circumstances.  Sadly, some children and young adults have committed suicide over being harassed.  However, there haven’t been scores of children killing themselves.  There have been unique incidences of suicide, and we’ve always seen those.  Every kid who gets picked on doesn’t kill him or herself.  It has a lot more to do with their mental constitution and family dynamics than the bullying.  These experiences are horrible, but they aren’t the norm, and making laws based on the exceptions is ridiculous. 

I can’t imagine the pain of being a parent whose child has terminated his or her own life.  It’s impossible to understand and appreciate, and I am in no way minimizing it.  All I’m saying is that these are isolated cases of individual people and their inability to cope. 

Do I have a definitive solution to all of this?  Not in our society anymore.  When I was a kid, the school called your parents, they gave you crap, and you were disciplined at school.  These days, if the school calls a parent, they give the school crap.  We’re becoming a disordered, self-defending society.  I may not have a solution, but the solution is definitely not to involve the police because somebody is calling you names.  Whatever happened to kids working out their own stuff? 

Here’s what I would do.  If I had a kid right now who was being bullied on the Internet, I would link it to another page saying, “These are the kids who are using the Internet to hurt other kids.”  I wouldn’t say anything mean or attack back.  I would just list all the things they are doing.  And at the bottom of the page I would also put, “Are these the kinds of kids you have come over and play with your kids?”   That way you bring the problem to light.  Embarrass the bullies and let their parents deal with them.  Smear their reputations with facts.  I think there should be websites that show facts about adults and kids who do bad things.  FACTS!  No exaggerations.  No bad-mouthing. Just facts.   

We live in a country where hurt feelings are the most important thing in the world.   It’s time to toughen up folks.  Have your kids toughen up.  It’s really important to you teach your kids to stand up for themselves and be able to handle life.  

Quote of the Week

…there is a harmony
In autumn, and a lustre in its sky,
Which through the summer is not heard or seen…

Percy Bysshe Shelley
English Romantic poet
1792-1822
From “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty”

Tomorrow, September 22, marks the first day of autumn.

Feeling Envious or Jealous?

People get jealousy and envy mixed up a lot.  Let me give you a thumbnail sketch of each:

Envy is the emotion you get when you want something that someone else has.  It’s a two-person thing: there’s you and the person you’re envious of.   You could want beauty, wealth, socioeconomic status…whatever.  Envy is wishing and wanting. 

A good example of envy can be seen in Snow White.  The evil queen envies how pretty and sweet her stepdaughter is and does the whole “mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fairest of them all?” routine.  The film also portrays one of two types of envy.  There is malicious envy (i.e. Snow White’s evil stepmother), and then there’s sort of everyday benign envy.  When you are maliciously envious, you become vicious and try to hurt other people by trying to take things away from them.  If you are feeling just benign envy, you are looking at other people and thinking, “Wow, I wish I had that,” or “I wish I could do that.”  It’s more motivating than destructive.

Jealousy, on the other hand, is a three-person thing.  It’s the emotion you get when you fear that someone or something is going to be taken away from you by someone else.    

Jealousy was the main theme of the movie, Gladiator.  Caesar’s son was very angry with Russell Crowe’s character because his dad admired this soldier guy more.  So the son killed his dad, took over his position, killed the wife and kid of Russell Crowe’s character, and put him in “gladiator hell” because Daddy – just like in the “Cain and Abel” story – loved one of them more.  

Envy and jealousy affect everyone’s life.  I think, statistically speaking, we’re envious infinitely more than we are jealous.  However, what really matters is what we do when we feel jealousy or envy: How do we experience it?  How do we cope with it?

I have always rejoiced when someone who I perceive as having earned something has success.  I have a tough time not resenting people who get things they haven’t earned.  That, personally, is my struggle.  But it’s not in my nature to do something evil to them because of it.  I don’t wish to give into “the dark side.” 

Here’s what you can do the next time you are feeling jealous or envious.  Let’s say that one of your coworkers gets a promotion and you don’t feel like they deserve it.  Or maybe you’re jealous that your spouse gets to be the breadwinner and you have to parent, or vice versa.  Well, you can either say, “Oh gee, I wish I had ‘x’,” and spend your time being miserable, or you can be motivated by it.  You have to choose between misery and motivation. 

Ultimately, you have to put your I.Q. over your emotions.  I talk about that dichotomy on my program on a daily basis.  Emotions are irrational and powerful, and they can only be combated with your brain.  You have to realize that although you may be 100 percent correct about something being unfair, there is not a damned thing you can do about it.  You can tear yourself up or tear them down, but either way, you won’t be acting like the kind of person someone else would envy.  Instead, use it as motivation to turn yourself into the kind of person everybody envies. 

No matter if it is envy or jealousy you’re consumed by, it’s going to be difficult for you to enjoy others’ success if you continue to dwell on it.  And furthermore, nobody’s going to envy you if you’re a bitter, frustrated, ugly, angry person.

Sexualizing Our Kids

The problem with exposing kids to sex has far more to do with trivialization and objectification than simply encouraging kids to do it.  It has to do with what kids are taught about human connection. 

Feminists are always saying that it doesn’t matter how a woman dresses.  Well, actually it does.  It sends both gals and guys a message.  When a woman dresses provocatively, it basically tells the universe that it is the best she has to offer.  Sure her body may be beautiful, but you have to realize that for guys, the beauty of a woman’s body eclipses her inner beauty (especially with all the movies out there that are geared towards teenage boys and celebrate guys sleeping around).

Women who tend to objectify themselves are more likely to have eating disorders, low self-esteem, and depression, and they are more prone to being sexual risk-takers.  If women are going to represent themselves as sex objects, then there will be no equality between males and females. 

I get so many calls from parents concerned about their kids being out of control and acting like they are adults in committed relationships.  Their kids are shacking up because they’re still rebelling and don’t want to follow the rules.  This behavior is dominating our society, and for parents, it’s like being up against Goliath. 

So, what can we do?

Parents have to spend a lot more time being invested and involved with their kids. Stop with the divorces and working 17 jobs.  Realize that if you are going to have kids, you have a huge responsibility ahead of you.  Parents should praise kids’ intellectual, creative, and athletic abilities, but value their effort, hard work, and character over achievements.  Character is far more important than looks or personal accomplishments.  In short, parents really need to recommit to being parents. 

And remember, if you don’t put the time, effort, and caring in to your kids, somebody else will.  Do you want it to be you or their buddies and the media?