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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Tags: conflict, relationships, family, 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

Family Food Fights: Communication Skills May Save the Holiday

Posted on Tue, Jun 02, 2015 @ 06:35 AM


Family-Matters-06-2-15_Food-Fights_1920x1080.jpg

Today's guest post is contributed by Dr. Ruth Nemzoff, author of Don't Bite Your Tongue: How to Foster Rewarding Relationships with Your Adult Children (Palgrave/Macmillan, 2008), and Don't Roll Your Eyes: Making In-Laws Into Family (Palgrave/Macmillan, 2012). A resident scholar at the Brandeis Women's Studies Research Center, Dr. Nemzoff also speaks and blogs about intergenerational relationships.

 

Q: All my children and grandchildren are gathering for a week at a beach house we rented in Florida. We all get along well, but I worry that differences in lifestyle will lead to tensions. One of my daughters eats only organic foods, another is a vegetarian and allows no meat to touch her table, and the third eats anything in sight. Obviously, each set of grandchildren is brought up with very different dietary practices. My six grandchildren range in age from 3 months old to seven years. My fantasy is that we will have wonderful meals together as I believe that sharing a meal is a great bonding experience. For me, cooking for my family is a way to show them my love. But I fear that our table will turn into a battlefield. We have not all been together in several years, so I have not had the opportunity to confront this situation before.

A: You will not be able to please everyone, so don’t try. Instead facilitate a conversation amongst your children, which will help you all figure out how to manage. Let all your children know that you desire to have some family time, and ask for their suggestions as to how this might be accomplished. Make it clear that you are trying to respect the needs of each of your daughters and their families. You are not trying to change anyone’s practices.

While all three families have agreed to spend their break with you despite their different culinary needs, the dining table is a most contentious place in your family and therefore not the best place for family bonding. You might need to forego your dream of meals together, but you enjoy your higher goal of unifying your family by bonding in other ways such as playing games, going for walks, or going on a trip to the beach.

In order to make sure this week is pleasant for all, you must raise your concerns in advance either with each child individually or with all of them by email or conference call/video chat. Ideally, two of your daughters might agree to be strictly vegetarian for the week so you could all sit down in the same room. However, this compromise may not be acceptable to your daughters and their husbands. You will not know unless you ask. The following are five essential questions that must be answered for this experiment to succeed:

  1. Can we come to a compromise or do we need to have family times that do not involve food?

  2. Who will buy the food and for whom?

  3. Is everyone willing to pitch in for the expense of organic foods, or are you willing to just buy organic for the whole family?

  4. Are the others willing to follow each other’s most restrictive rules? If not, how will the kitchen be managed?

  5. Are the carnivores willing to forego meat for a week?

  6. Are the vegetarians comfortable eating in the same space where others are eating meat?

You may find that your daughters come up with some innovative ideas just like they did when they were young. In any case, this is good practice for all of them and their families as they negotiate our complex society.

Sometimes we need to modify our dreams to achieve them.

_______________________

A version of this article originally appeared in the Jewish Journal MA and is reprinted with permission.

 

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Tags: relationships, communication, extended family, holidays

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

Is the Emotional Economy Suffering an Empathy Crisis?

Posted on Mon, Apr 08, 2013 @ 02:28 PM
EmpathyCrisis

When the world is in the throes of an economic crisis, everyone sits up and takes notice. After all, financial hardship hurts, both physically and emotionally. Without money, we become financially bankrupt and unable to supply our physical needs, which impacts our emotional well-being too. So, of course, we eagerly subscribe to news sources such as the Financial Times or the Wall Street Journal, because we want to know how vulnerable we are to economic collapse at any given moment.

But are we equally concerned about our vulnerability to emotional bankruptcy? Are we fully alive to the potential fallout of a global empathy crisis? What would such a crisis look like?

The Oxford Dictionary defines empathy as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another,” although an important dimension seems to be missing in this simple statement. I prefer the definition given by science writer Maia Szalavitz and child psychiatrist Bruce Perry in their 2010 book, Born for Love. “The essence of empathy,” they write, “is the ability to stand in another’s shoes, to feel what it’s like there and to care about making it better if it hurts.”

Szalavitz and Perry add theirs to the voices of many others who see empathy slipping as the tone of modern culture becomes increasingly harsh. To them, the indications of this change run the gamut “from calls for the legalization of torture to the actual practices uncovered at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, and ‘torture porn’ movies like the Saw series.” They also cite reality shows that present the pain and misery of others for our ghoulish entertainment. 

But what about more subtle clues? For instance, how quick are we to jump to judgments about the intentions of others, or to offer smug “eye for an eye” solutions to complex problems? It can feel deceptively good to strike back, especially when we coat our strike with a veneer of concern and call it “tough love.”

Don’t misunderstand—firm boundaries are a vital expression of love. But the “love” part of the phrase is supposed to refer to the attitude that is clear and present in their enforcement. Unfortunately, the oft-prevailing attitude might well provoke a bystander to remark, “I do not think that word means what you think it means.” 

It’s interesting that the term “tough love” was coined by therapists Phyllis and David York, who developed a program in 1979 to support parents of problem teens. The intent was to help parents lay down appropriate boundaries in a context of unconditional love

Since then, the term seems to have taken on a life of its own, however, and is now used to describe boot-camp approaches that overlook the love part of the equation almost entirely. It seems that many in our society believe love can accomplish more when unfettered by “soft” emotions like empathy and compassion. 

This is far from the case. Empathy feeds relationships; and the human brain develops in the context of relationships. When they are secure and we feel safe in them, we learn and grow. When we are stressed and afraid, learning shuts down. To think that fear, competition, anger and vengeance can reliably motivate others to new, positive ways of thinking is a serious miscalculation. And it would also be a serious miscalculation to suppose that politicizing empathy could have a positive outcome.

“Empathy is not just a warm, fuzzy feeling,” Szalavitz and Perry conclude. “It makes the modern world possible and allows the economy to grow. It’s not just a liberal thing: while conservatives may have attacked President Obama for emphasizing empathy in judges, the right wing’s opposition to violent and sexual media and its charitable missions recognize and seek to protect this quality.”

Suspicion and distrust are archenemies of empathy, which is one reason it’s much easier to extend empathy toward those in our “in-groups” rather than to outsiders. But it’s the ability to extend empathy beyond these natural barriers that is likely to make the difference in resolving some of our most complex global challenges. And while it may not solve all of them alone, Szalavitz and Perry rightly point out, “few of them can be solved without it.”

Tags: empathy, relationships, tough love

Relationship Basics: The Importance of Communication

Posted on Wed, Apr 16, 2008 @ 03:13 PM
Life as a Series of Conversations

A family weblog could be fed for years by studies that illustrate why good relationships are important for families, for society, for the global community. But without some attention to the "hows" of good relationships, it's only an academic exercise.

Arguably the most basic of relationship building blocks is the art of communication. At leastit is often referred to as an art, although there is certainly skill required, as well as a certain amount of science if one person is curious enough to delve a little deeper into a more accurate understanding of another.

Deborah Tannen, professor of linguistics at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. is one who does apply science along with art and skill as she approaches the field of communication within interpersonal relations. In her 1990 bestseller, You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation, she explores the complexities and misunderstandings that plague communication attempts between men and women.

"Each person's life is lived as a series of conversations," she points out. Acknowledging that there are dangers in generalizations, and always exceptions, she nevertheless sees it as important to note that: "There are gender differences in ways of speaking," and that "we need to identify and understand them. Without such understanding, we are doomed to blame others or ourselvesor the relationshipfor the otherwise mystifying and damaging effects of our contrasting conversational styles."

The common denominator that emerges from many of the studies reviewed by Tannen is that women often tend to emphasize similarities between themselves and their conversational partners, playing to an underlying interpersonal theme of "do you like me?" Men, on the other hand, more often converse to solve problems or impart information, their interpersonal theme being, "do you respect me?"

These differences may lead to misunderstandings because each expects the other to converse in a similar style to their own. A woman may perceive a man as being dismissive of her problem because he doesn't commiserate or offer a similar experience of his own to show he understands. Instead, he may offer a quick solution and change the subject, orif he sees no quick solutionhe may flatly state that he doesn't understand why she is letting it bother her since nothing can be done about it.

On the other hand, a husband may perceive his wife as belittling his problem when she offers a similar experience of her own to express her understanding and solidarity. To him, her response seems to mean, "your problem isn't so bad, I've had worse."

While acknowledging that there are plenty of individual exceptions to her general observations, Tannen illustrates her points with solid research and helpful real-life examples.

There are so many "aha!" moments in her book, that I have few reservations recommending it, though I don't do this often.

Tags: relationships, conversation, lingustics, men and women

For Those Who Grieve

Posted on Thu, Mar 20, 2008 @ 03:20 PM
Neuroscience provides a window into coping with sorrow

In Shakespeare's MacBeth, Malcolm advises the bereaved MacDuff to "Give sorrow words: the grief that does not speak whispers the o'er-fraught heart and bids it break."

This was not bad advicebut while psychologists agree that narrative is an important step on the road back from trauma and grief, there is much more that comes into play.

Over the past decade, science has brought us closer than we've ever been to understanding what goes on in the brain when we experience certain emotions and mental states. In fact, technology now allows scientists to see what goes on materially in the brain when we have certain feelings. There is still much to understand, but it's clear that the discoveries of neuroscience can be very helpful to those who are grieving, especially when it comes to avoiding the pitfalls that lead to depression.

With this in mind, what can we do to keep our minds healthy even during long periods of grief?

Because neurogenesis and depression are incompatible states, reason compels us to pursue those activities that are known to increase neurogenesis. And "activity" is the operative word. Researchers suggest that this boils down to exercise in three key areas:

The physical body: cardiovascular activity boosts levels of seratonin and endorphins which helps activate neurogenisis.

The mind: active learning and engaged attention cause neurons to "fire and wire" together, especially when we step out of our comfort zone and challenge ourselves.

And finally, but most important is the heart—or close personal relationships. The positive emotions we feel when relationships are working release neuromodulators that heighten and sustain brain plasticity. This process goes a long way toward helping us heal from trauma and loss, and toward protecting us from spiraling into severe depression.

It's been a full year since I wrote about this subject in Give Sorrow More Than Words, but subsequent research has only underscored how important positive relationships are to those who are struggling with sorrow, depression, trauma or intense stress.

Shakespeare was half right—giving sorrow words can be important—although some people prefer to keep their narrative to themselves. But deep sorrow needs more than words. The bereaved need the safety net of trusted and positive supporters who are willing to step around the walls put up by mobile phones and e-mail and reach out to touch someone in the old-fashioned way instead. For if there's one adage that applies to the bereaved and their supporters alike, it would be the tried and true "Actions speak louder than words."

Tags: relationships, depression, stress, trauma, sorrow

The Pet Connection

Posted on Thu, Jan 24, 2008 @ 04:07 PM
Or: Some Animals Have More Sense Than Some People Do

BearA long-time friend wrote yesterday to say a beloved family dog, Bear, had died. Bear had been with Chris and Lorie for a decade, and was a member of the family as much as a pet.

Most people are easily able to empathize when things like this happen, because many of us have also experienced the grief that results from the loss of a special animal and we identify with the love and companionship shared between humans and their animal friends.

Those who have never experienced first-hand the many benefits of the human-animal bond can consult a wide array of research that effectively makes the point. Here are only a few examples:

Cardiovascular studies show that pet owners have lower blood pressure and lower triglyceride levels.

Clinical studies indicate that abused children who had a strong human-animal bond with a pet in childhood show more resilience in adulthood. In fact, when explaining their ability to cope with the emotional results of their abuse, they often name their childhood pet as their most important source of support during the critical period.

Studies of animal-assisted therapy (which, incidentally, dates back at least to the 18th century) have proven repeatedly that companion animals are extremely therapeutic, and that even the presence of a non-companion animal calms stress and decreases recovery time in patients of all ages.

There is clearly something special about the positive bond that can be forged between people and their pets, and everyone involved is elevated by the relationship. The animal is elevated because it receives physical benefits from its human companion that it couldn't provide for itself, and because it gives back in the amazing ways we've already talked about. The human is elevated by the opportunity to unselfishly care for a less self-sufficient living thing, and by the increase in personal well-being.

Leashes by Gypsy RockNow, I hate to bring the level of this conversation down, but it's time to compare the positive and elevating bond that forms between humans and their animal pets to a very different relationship recently reported by BBC News.

In case you didn't click on the link, let me summarize:

A young couple in England was recently refused passage on a public bus because the 25-year-old male was leading his 19-year-old girlfriend by a dog leash, as is apparently the couple's habit.

The indignant young man, a Mr. Graves, indicated that although he is used to strange looks and comments, he never expected such treatment from the public transportation system. The couple agreed that the leash was "a sign of trust." According to the young lady, a Miss Maltby, previous attempts to employ her idea of being led by the collar prompted earlier boyfriends to brand her a "weirdo."

Mr. Graves proudly describes his pet/partner as very "animal like" and he does everything for her in view of the fact that, in his words, "You wouldn't expect your cat or dog to do the washing up or cleaning round the house."

The obvious question for this couple is, "Who exactly is elevated by this relationship?"  But on video, the apparently nonplussed BBC interviewer could only think to say, "I've never met a man who has a pet girl before."

One can only wonder whether having a real dog might help this couple learn how elevating and fulfilling an actual human-animal bond can be.

Tags: relationships, animal assisted therapy, family pets, health benefits pets

Bouncing Back

Posted on Thu, Dec 27, 2007 @ 04:28 PM
Relationships as the foundation of resilience

Image by Jamie CampbellThe ability to bounce back from misfortune, change, trauma or loss rather than succumbing to depression is referred to by psychologists as "resilience." Though it's true that parent-infant attachment is crucial to the physical development of the areas of the brain that foster resilience and the success of future relationships, there are other considerations that may be encouraging to those who have difficult childhoods to overcome.  One of these is the fact that the human brain has amazing plasticity and can grow and change well into adulthood. The other factor is that adults have attachment needs just as children do. Therefore, the adult brain can be reshaped by key relationships, long after childhood has passed.

Louis Cozolino says there are all sorts of ways to help people with attachment difficulties and help change their outcomes. He pointed out one of them in a recent Vision interview. "If someone with an insecure attachment manages somehow to marry someone with secure attachment, then after about five years or so, research Image by Katie Tegtmeyershows that there’s a shift in their attachment pattern to a more secure profile."

This underscores how important healthy family relationships are throughout our lives, not just in childhood. But successful relationships are not only important to individual and family well-being.

Sociologist Peter Marris, whose studies in loss and life change drew on John Bowlby's attachment theory to explain the differences in the way different people handle uncertainty, believed that most of society's problems can be traced to breakdowns in human relationships.

In 1991, he wrote, "Our theories of human behavior split into largely independent systems of thought: psychology and social science. . . . We rarely explore the interaction between each unique human actor and the social systems of which she or he is part. Yet, surely this interaction ought to be at the foundation of any theory of human behavior. How can we begin to understand ourselves except as creatures of the societies from which we learned the language itself to think about ourselves? And how can we understand society except as a network of patterns of relationship which each of us is constantly engaged in creating, reproducing, and Image by Mr. Krischanging? We need a way of thinking about the interaction between unique human beings and the social relationships they form, not only because our theories are crippled without it, but because without it we cannot articulate clearly many of the gravest causes of social distress."

Government and social institutions, which have sometimes sought to solve human problems by financial means alone, are now showing signs of realizing this. One human security study prepared by the Harvard School of Public Health for the United States Agency for International Development recently argued that "a narrow focus on material resources has prevented analysts from identifying the true sources of vulnerability or resilience in a population, . . .these complex situations are best explained by a composite model of human security. For a society to be resilient, we find that it need not necessarily be rich." Instead, the report says, "individuals and communities have greater resilience when their core attachments to home, community and the future remain intact."

Tags: resilience, relationships, society, attachment

The Effect of In-Laws on Marriage Success

Posted on Thu, Dec 20, 2007 @ 04:33 PM

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Getting to Know the In-LawsSpeaking of the importance of grandparent and grandchild relationships (as we have been so far this week), Linda Elliott's latest article at Vision makes a good point about the intergenerational role of in-laws.

Elliott points out how important it is to maintain good relationships with your child's mate, not only for the sake of their marriage and the happiness of your child but also with your own future in mind. "The transfer of intergenerational wisdom that can occur if we don’t alienate our daughters-in-law is unlimited," says Elliott. "There may be grandchildren . . . great-grandchildren. These future generations need grandparents in good standing. Make each occasion together pleasant, quality time. Leave them hungering for more, not dreading the next visit or phone call."

As Elliott noted, mothers-in-law tend to be the main focus of derogatory jokes. But fathers-in-law can wreak just as much havoc in an adult child's marriage. In a 2001 Iowa University study, researchers looked into the connection between in-law relations and the future success of marriage, examining each relationship individually: mothers-in-law to sons-in-law, mothers-in-law to daughters-in-law, fathers-in-law to daughters-in-law, fathers-in-law to sons-in-law.  Each of these family relationships proved to be important indicators of the quality and ultimate success of the marriage. In other words, fathers-in-law as well as mothers-in-law can affect the quality of the younger couple's marital ties. 

The researchers noted that this is true for two important reasons. "First, spouses are obligated to form familial bonds with these nonblood kin. As some researchers have noted, 'rarely is this forced relationship a natural match of kindred spirits.' (Berg-Cross, 1997, p. 177). Second, in-laws can create hostility and stress between spouses who have emotional and psychological loyalties to their own kin."

While the researchers noted more study is needed to fully understand the effects of in-law relationships, they did conclude that "even after an average of two decades of marriage, unhappiness and conflict with in-laws still leads to decreased perceptions of marital success. This is significant because it implies that the influence of in-laws continues far beyond the early years of marriage, when couples are probably most vulnerable to social influences on their marriage. Perhaps that vulnerability to the opinions and behaviors of those who are close to them never ends."

Tags: relationships, father-in-law, in-laws, marriage success, mother-in-law