From Conflict to Support: Tips for Healthy Relationships

Posted on Wed, Nov 23, 2016 @ 04:20 PM

iStock-174915986.jpgTraditionally at this time of year I’ve posted about gratitude for those cherished relationships that mean so much to us. It’s easy to point to the abundant research telling us that emotionally supportive relationships, and our expressions of gratitude for them, are crucial to good physical and mental health. But what is a supportive relationship? Does “supportive” mean our spouse or friend is always in complete agreement with us? When their opinions and preferences don’t mesh with ours, does that make them “unsupportive”?

Certainly life would be monotonous if we were all identical—and clearly we are not—so we might expect to encounter conflicting agendas even among those with whom we feel the closest bonds. The good thing is that conflict in a healthy relationship can be a welcome springboard for personal growth as well as for growth within the relationship.

But how do you know whether your relationship is healthy or destructive? One way to tell is to look at how conflict is handled when it (inevitably) occurs. 

In his book The 3 Dimensions of Emotion, psychologist Sam Alibrando suggests that one key to handling conflict constructively is to balance the way we relate to one another in three emotional dimensions. Physiologically, scientists refer to these dimensions as “fight, flight and freeze,” but awareness of three such dimensions is not really a modern thing. As Alibrando points out, one ancient writer known simply as Paul (or Saul of Tarsus) describes what essentially amounts to similar dimensions using the terms “power, love and a sound mind” (see 2 Timothy 1:7). Alibrando refers to them as Red (fight/power), Blue (freeze/heart) and Yellow (flight/mindfulness).

All three dimensions contribute something positive to our interactions when they are in balance. But each has a negative side when not balanced by the other two. For instance, if you operate primarily in Red mode (fight/power), you are highly attuned to differences between yourself and others. In other words, your first emotional instinct is to diverge. In balance with Blue and Yellow, Red is the basis for courage, protectiveness and confidence. But without the influence of the other two dimensions, Red mode can come across as aggressive, critical, hurtful and angry.

In Blue mode (freeze/heart) you converge: you don’t want to fight; you want to focus on similarities. In balance, this mode is the basis for empathy and support, but without being tempered by the other two modes, Blue can come across as helpless, subservient, too deferential.

In Yellow mode (flight/mindfulness) you want to drop out of the action, go silent and observe. In balance, Yellow is a sound mind: the basis for self-awareness, patience, calm objectivity and careful consideration. But without the empathy of Blue and the courage of Red, Yellow becomes isolated, aloof, indifferent and disconnected.

In conflict, someone acting out of negative Red mode would go on the attack with impatient criticism and blame. In negative Yellow, their spouse or friend might respond by retreating into a hole, disconnecting emotionally. Or a Blue spouse or friend might give up his or her agenda completely, choosing compliance simply to appease the other.

Most of us have a tendency to rely on a habitual approach that may favor one or two of these dimensions. But with a little self-awareness we can recognize our weak areas and tweak our style. And as Alibrando points out, when it comes to managing our relationships, our style is the obvious place to start any program for change—for the simple reason that I can’t change anyone but me, and you can’t change anyone but you. Fortunately, the changes we make to our own reactivity can influence the reactions of others and will usually (though perhaps not in the most extreme cases) make a tremendous difference to the overall outcome.

To reach the overall outcome we want (i.e., a healthy approach to conflict), Alibrando recommends a strategy he calls “working the triangle.” This exercise is less about focusing on what we’re doing that’s unhealthy and more about focusing on what we’re not doing that is healthy. For instance, the best way to overcome a tendency to criticize and blame (unhealthy Red), is to take the time to stop, think and listen objectively (healthy Yellow); and with the resulting calm, express your feelings (healthy Red) with kindness, in love and humility (healthy Blue).

Perhaps you’re an Orange (Yellow and Red) or a Purple (Red and Blue). Or maybe a Green (Yellow and Blue). You probably wouldn’t try sitting on a stool with only two legs, would you? Just as that third leg forms a plane and offers stability for the stool, so when we have these three interpersonal dimensions in balance, we are more likely to have stability in our relationships.

If Alibrando’s model seems to echo ancient concepts, perhaps it’s because these concepts are as relevant today as ever. As we “work the triangle,” we are essentially working toward exercising power, love, and a sound mind in our interactions with others. In doing so, we reap the benefits of a universal law that governs healthy relationships and opens the door to the kind of supportive connections we can truly be grateful for.

 

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Making Conflict Productive

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Tags: family, relationships, conflict, human emotion

Forging Healthy Chains: Social Support and the Roseto Effect

Posted on Wed, Jul 27, 2016 @ 03:14 PM

Chances are, you already know that love is better for your health than hate or indifference. It's a no-brainer that physical health and mental health are interdependent, although the nature of the bidirectional link is only just beginning to be understood by researchers. Studies testing the direction of the link seem to indicate that depression is more likely to lead to inflammation in the body rather than occur as a consequence of inflammation in the body—but in any case, the evidence has been stacking up for some time that social support has a profound effect on mental health, which in turn pays dividends to our physical health. The story of a little town in Pennsylvania illustrates this well.

During the 1950s, a Pennsylvania physician named Benjamin Falcone had been treating patients near the small towns of Bangor and Nazareth for 17 years when he noticed that older residents from a third nearby town, called Roseto, hardly ever needed to be seen for heart problems, even though the rate of heart attacks within the other two towns and across the United States in general was on the rise.

Roseto was a close-knit community consisting of about 1,200 inhabitants who had emigrated almost en masse in the 1890s from an Italian village called Roseto Valfortore. After arriving in America, the immigrants built a relatively isolated hillside community—separate from nearby English, Welsh or German communities. By 1912, Roseto’s population had exceeded 2,000 and it incorporated to become the first American municipality governed by Italians. By the time Dr. Falcone began to notice the extraordinary heart health of its residents, Roseto was a thriving town, accepted—and even admired—by neighboring Bangor and Nazareth, and served by the same doctors and hospitals.

One day, Dr. Falcone attended a local medical society talk given by a visiting physician from the University of Oklahoma, Dr. Stewart Wolf, who frequently spent summers at a nearby farm. Dr. Falcone invited Dr. Wolf out to a local pub for a beer and in the course of their conversation, mentioned the strange phenomenon he had noticed in the Roseto residents.

It was now 1961, and Wolf was intrigued enough to engage some of his colleagues from the University of Oklahoma in taking a deeper look at the Roseto effect. Along with sociologist John G. Bruhn, the research team began to compare medical histories, physical exams, and lab tests in a large sample of Rosetans—as well as the inhabitants of Bangor and Nazareth—hoping to find the key to the apparent health and happiness of this unusual community.

What they found stymied them. Yes, the evidence confirmed it was true that coronary heart disease and death from myocardial infarction (heart attack) was strikingly lower in Roseto than in its neighboring towns. Importantly, mental illness (including senile dementia) was also much lower: half the rate of Bangor, and only a third the rate of Nazareth. But at first, no one could understand why.

“The findings were surprising because of a greater prevalence of obesity among the Rosetans,” wrote Wolf and Bruhn in their report, published in 1979 under the title, The Roseto Story: An Anatomy of Health. “A meticulous study of dietary habits established that Rosetans ate at least as much animal fat as did the inhabitants of Bangor and Nazareth.” This was reflected, not only in the high obesity rates of Roseto, but also in the fact that the town’s rates of hypertension, diabetes, and measures of serum cholesterol concentration closely matched those of the other communities. Smoking and exercise habits were also similar, and the researchers were able to eliminate ethnic and genetic factors from the mix. After all, inhabitants who left Roseto to live in other communities soon became subject to the higher death rates that plagued the rest of the nation.

What, then, could explain Roseto’s strange effect? (And no, people weren’t drinking from a special communal well or making mysterious concoctions from South American miracle plants). Having already ruled out diet, exercise, genetics, and other factors that the medical community has long believed to be “risk factors” for heart disease, the researchers turned to studying the way Rosetans lived.

What they discovered was that their initial rejection by outlying communities had forced Rosetans to turn to one another for support and mutual help. Ultimately, the researchers found, the only real differences between Roseto and its neighboring communities were social ones. Roseto’s citizens enthusiastically took on the responsibility of being their neighbors’ keepers.

The researchers described the character of the townsfolk as buoyant, fun-loving, enterprising, optimistic, cohesive, and mutually supportive. “Our first sociological study of Roseto revealed that crises and problems were coped with jointly by family members with support from relatives and friends,” wrote Bruhn and Wolf. “Following a death in the family, interfamilial differences were forgotten, and the bereaved received food and money from relatives and friends, who at times temporarily assumed responsibility for the care of the children of the bereaved. When financial problems arose, relatives and friends rallied to the aid of the family, and in instances of abrupt, extreme financial loss the community itself assumed responsibility for helping the family.”

In addition, families weren’t secretive. Their problems were shared—and then worked out with the help of the local priest or family “pillars.” Pillars were often older single women in the community who had taken on the responsibility of aging parents and who were highly respected and valued for their role in maintaining cohesive family and community ties.

In Roseto, nearly everyone had a vital role to fulfill—whatever their age or gender. At the end of the day, they gathered together in each other’s homes, social clubs or the local diner. But the cornerstone of life in Roseto was the family. “Family traditions provide a buffer in times of crisis and a source of stability for the community,” wrote the researchers in their 1979 report.

Of course, even in Roseto life wasn’t always rosy, and a good study wouldn’t be complete without taking a look at the “outliers,” or those whose circumstances were remarkably different from the main sample. There were some who were marginalized in Roseto, either because they had no ethnic or social ties within the community or because, for whatever reason, they had been excluded or had excluded themselves from the community’s social culture. Like their neighbors in Bangor and Nazareth, these marginalized Rosetans showed a higher incidence of illness and myocardial infarction than the general population. Indeed, in one case history, a seemingly healthy “Mr. F.” commented to the researchers (five years before he died of a heart attack) that “I don’t fit in the town—I don’t live like they do—I’m not like the Rosetans.”

He was not the only marginalized inhabitant who missed out on the health benefits of living in Roseto. “Hard work and family and personal problems were common to most of them,” wrote Bruhn and Wolf. “In addition they emphasized self-reliance and responsibility for their own actions and hence enjoyed little or no family or community support in times of crisis.”

With these observations in hand after two years of study, it wasn’t difficult for the researchers to predict in 1963 that, “If and when Roseto’s traditional close-knit, mutually supportive social structure began to crumble . . . the town’s relative immunity to death from myocardial infarction would gradually come to an end.”

In fact, that is exactly what happened. As Roseto gradually became Americanized, adopting what the researchers called “materialistic and individualistic values,” mortality from heart attacks shot up, reaching the prevailing rate in Bangor by 1975. 

Today, self-reliant attitudes are still pervasive in Western society: we don't like to accept help, nor do we like to offer it to others if we judge that they have brought their problems on themselves. Sitting in our emotional silos we watch distressing news stories that add burdensome weights to our everyday worries, and these leave us vulnerable to the accompanying advertisements that offer magic pills or dietary regimens to counteract the damage these stresses have inflicted on our health. 

Fixing broken relationships may be more difficult than taking a pill or latching on to a fad diet, but it's impossible to manufacture the joy, resilience, optimism and general well-being that is a natural byproduct when we are surrounded by love and support rather than criticism and mistrust. And it isn't only the receiver of love and support who benefits: research tells us the health of the giver benefits as well.

True, it can be difficult to maintain an atmosphere of love and support when we are constantly bombarded by the voices of those who assert their power by stirring up hate and controversy. But we don't have to allow self-righteousness, anger, fear, suspicion, and competition to rule our thoughts and actions. We don't have to be reactive, we can be proactive: purposefully and mutually accepting the role of my neighbor's keeper. We can show love toward the enemies that we are being asked to hate. When we fail to do this, we fall prey to precisely the “materialistic and individualistic values that brought Roseto into the myocardial mainstream.

A well-known quote from Martin Luther King Jr. points out that “Hate does not conquer hate. But there is much more in the context of that statement and it is just as relevant now as when it was written—if not more so:

“Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction. So when Jesus says ‘Love your enemies,’ he is setting forth a profound and ultimately inescapable admonition. Have we not come to such an impasse in the modern world that we must love our enemies—or else? The chain reaction of evil—hate begetting hate, wars producing more wars—must be broken, or we shall be plunged into the dark abyss of annihilation"(Strength to Love, p. 47).

Every day there is something in the news that begs us to respond with hate, mistrust and suspicion, and invites us to contribute to the chain of hate and violence that arises all too naturally in human relationships. But we can't break that chain by controlling our opponents, we can only do it by controlling ourselves. 

If, as Charles Dickens suggested, "we forge the chains we wear in life," we have a clear decision to make. We can wear the chains of hate and reactivity . . . or we can forge chains of love and social support, like the Rosetans did by taking on the responsibility to be their neighbors' keepers. The choice we make could mean all the difference to our health.

 

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Tags: relationships, family, health, social psychology, social relationships, social support

A Grain of Truth in a Slice of Pizza

Posted on Wed, Jan 29, 2014 @ 10:16 AM

FamilyMattersPizzaPost2Today's guest post comes to Family Matters from Dr. Ruth Nemzoff and Dr. Ellen Rovner, both Brandeis University scholars.

 

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio caused a stir when he ate pizza with a fork, reported The New York Times on January 11, 2014. This tidbit is not as newsworthy as the criminal activities of Italy’s former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi. Nor is it as juicy as Bill Clinton’s White House liaison with an intern. But it gives us all a chance to examine how even small details of eating can cause big brouhahas.

De Blasio defended himself, “In my ancestral homeland, it’s more typical to eat with a fork and a knife.” True enough, every culture has its manners. We shudder to think how many of us have used the wrong end of the chopsticks to take from the serving platter or have not understood the subtleties of politesse when we eat curry with a chapatti and our hands.

It is more than obvious to state: Different families eat differently. While the way one eats is a marker of one’s background, it is not a marker of one’s character. So, then, how does a run-of-the-mill political outing to a pizza joint on Staten Island end up as a scandal now known as “forkgate”?

The obvious answer is that de Blasio’s latest job, leader of the oft-claimed (especially by New Yorkers) “Greatest City in the World,” means that whatever he does is news, whether he’s taking out his garbage in his pajamas or eating pizza with a knife and fork. But the fact is that similar “scandals” are played out every day between family and friends at ordinary dinner tables around the world.

The food we eat and how we eat it tells us loads about who we are, so it’s no wonder that we often conflate eating habits with personality and morality. Indeed, food behaviors often lead to judgments about a person’s character. How many times do we hear people sanctimoniously espouse their own nobility in eating environmentally correct or animal-rights-sensitive food? The implication is that bad people eat everything else. Those obsessed with eating healthy and local foods may sometimes have contempt for others who even occasionally chomp down fast food. Yet one person’s “healthy eating” is another person’s definition of orthorexia, a severe phobia about eating impure or unhealthy food.

Indeed, different backgrounds, different values and different definitions of hospitality, as the pizza fiasco shows, can lead to hostility. Often, name-calling follows: we cast one another as “snobs,” “show-offs,” “not like us” or “uncivilized.”

And the kinds of food we eat are only the beginning.

As de Blasio’s aghast supporters on Staten Island demonstrated, not only what one eats but how food is eaten can lead to vexing criticism and even more heartburn than pizza. Some of us prefer to sit down together to eat, while others like to grab a meal from the fridge. Some families follow Emily Post’s etiquette instructions, while others follow their own cultural conventions. None of these behaviors are bad. They just are different. What is bad, are supercilious attitudes toward manners, customs and ideas that are different from our own.

Pizza and de Blasio, regardless of culinary or political preferences, have much to teach us: a little understanding and a lot of respect go a long way to help the pizza go down more easily, even with a knife and fork.

RUTH NEMZOFF AND ELLEN ROVNER

 

Ruth Nemzoff is the author of Don’t Bite Your Tongue: How to Foster Rewarding Relationships with your Adult Children, and a popular speaker on the topic of parenting adult children, intergenerational relationships, and family dynamics. 

Ellen Rovner is a cultural anthropologist who began her professional career working with adolescents and incarcerated youth. She has directed a delinquency prevention program and battered women's advocacy project and is currently studying the cultural and emotional impact of food.

Tags: relationships, family, Ruth Nemzoff, Ellen Rovner, cultural differences, etiquette, manners, family conflict

An Anxiety Epidemic for Children?

Posted on Tue, Mar 11, 2008 @ 03:24 PM
Britain may be the "Unhappiest Place on Earth"
Google News
Details: An  Anxiety Epidemic for Children?
childhood stress

According to the online Independent, "teachers are to take the extraordinary step of calling for an independent Royal Commission to investigate why so many of Britain's children are unhappy."

The United Nations Children's Fund ranks British schoolchildren the unhappiest in the West, pointing to Britain's lack of social cohesion as the culprit. Other studies point to increased homework, a loss of childhood, and decreased family time, factors which some say add up to excessive stress and anxiety for children.

If these forces seem interconnected it's because they are, and they are not unique to the U.K. 

What makes happy children? If society finds the answer to that question, it will have the guidance it needs to make decisions about how a child's time is best spent.

Tags: family, children, education, childhood, happiness

Feeling Single but Seeing Double

Posted on Sun, Jan 13, 2008 @ 04:14 PM
Do people always go two by two?

Singled  Out, by Bella De Paulo, PhDAs mentioned in the last post, break-up season should be in full swing right about now. So what’s a single person to do? Rely on married friends to find them a new dating prospect? Find a hobby? Take a class? Bury themselves in their work?

These questions bring to mind a book by Bella DePaulo, PhD, titled: Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After. Published just over a year ago, DePaulo’s book uses humor and sometimes stinging sarcasm to explain (to singles as well as couples) that singles can be just as happy as their married friends.

What? A post about singles on a family blog? Singles don’t have families, do they?

“To be stereotyped is to be prejudged,” DePaulo reminds us. “Tell new acquaintances that you are single and often they think they already know quite a lot about you. They understand your emotions: You are miserable and lonely and envious of couples. They know what motivates you: More than anything else in the world, you want to become coupled. If you are a single person of a certain age, they also know why you are not coupled: You are commitment-phobic, or too picky, or have baggage. . . . From knowing nothing more about you than your status as a single person, other people sometimes think they already know all about your family: You don’t have one. They also know about the important person or persons in your life: You don’t have anyone. In fact, they know all about your life: You don’t have a life.”

Image by David BlaikieSome of DePaulo’s basic accusations may have more merit than the average “coupled” person would like to admit. After all, we barely blink when we see a book titled, If I’m So Wonderful, Why Am I Still Single? We may even buy it as a gift for one of our single friends. But, DePaulo makes the tongue-in-cheek proposal, what if the title was: If I’m So Wonderful, Why Am I Still Married? Would we understand the implications then?

And what if government entities also recognized that single people have relationships and lead productive lives? What if singles, like couples, could leave their Social Security benefits to the person who is most important to them, whether that’s their elderly mother or their brand new nephew? What if, instead of feeling sorry for them, others recognized their ability to contribute as productively to the family community as anyone else?

Fortunately, DePaulo stands ready to shatter every preconceived notion anyone may have of single life. “I am happy,” she says, “I have a life, and there is no way I will grow old alone (a matter that has little to do with having a serious coupled relationship or even living by yourself).” One has to concede she’s right here. If you’re the type of person who reaches out to build relationships, you may find yourself surrounded by friends even when you’re single. These people will not die alone—whether they ever get married or not. Alternatively, the reclusive couple rarely dies in each others’ arms. One of the two goes first—statistically this is usually the husband—and the second is left to die completely alone, not having nurtured the friendships that will stand by them at the end.

DePaulo contends, “The conventional wisdom about people who are single is a mythology, a gloss. It is not an accurate description of the textured and varied lives of real people who are single.”

Though readers may find areas of disagreement and some of her assertions don't quite seem to come from the happy place DePaulo insists she's in, it’s difficult to argue with the over-arching point. Singles can live happily ever after, all the while enjoying fulfilling relationships and accomplishing great things on the way.

Image by  Dave McKeagueFortunately DePaulo makes some (though not enough) qualifications. “I’m not against coupling," she insists. "Coupling itself . . . is in fact timeless. The kind of interest that people have in coupling cannot be manufactured from whole cloth the way a sudden intense desire for a Cabbage Patch doll can be. It is based on something real. So, my problem is not with our current interest in coupling or our valuing it.”

Instead, says DePaulo, her problem is with society’s tendency to undervalue the contributions and potential of singles, and to under-define terms like “family.”

For example, while the conventional question, “Do you have a family?” is often proposed in order to find out whether an adult is married with children, DePaulo remarks that “There are, of course, other meanings of family.” This leads her to question why we don’t often hear responses like: “Oh, yes, I have a family: I have a mother and father.” Or perhaps, “Yes, I have a brother, a sister, three cousins, a grandmother an uncle and two aunts.”

When we realize that sibling relationships are some of the longest-standing relationships any of us will ever have in our lives, and that there are long-time friends with whom we may have sibling-like relationships, we understand that the term “family” is meant to have implications that do not leave singles out in the cold.

Tags: Singles, couples, marriage, family, dating, siblings Bella DePaulo