Mid-Life Crisis: Cliche perhaps, but a useful construct with some thought and definition


I realize that the term "Mid-life crisis" has become a cliche that's probably used far more on late night TV and Comedy Central than it ever was in psychology consulting rooms! However, I often find myself using it to refer to the midlife points at which we feel thrust into re-evaluating our priorities and goals.  These are the points at which I often meet people in my counseling practice.

Some folks actually come in saying, "I think I'm having a mid-life crisis" (And it's a good thing if the cliche has people be more open to talking).  More typically it's a current circumstance that has tipped the balance and thrust the individual into this stage of taking stock.  For example, perhaps it's the death of a parent or care-taking an elderly parent, a career disappointment or loss, a health problem, struggles with children or extended family, marital difficulties culminating from years of growing apart, breakdowns in communications at home with increasing tensions, infidelity or boundary struggles, a spouse's point of questioning, or a point of change such as the proverbial "empty nest," etc.).

For so many folks their early adult years seemed liked "executing a program," carrying out what was expected of us. For example, going to school, choosing a career, marrying, establishing a home, having a child, another child, and maybe more ... advancing in the career, adding to the home ... There was an autopilot quality about it in some ways: You probably didn't ask "Why?" any more than we ask people "Why are you having a child?" or "Why are you marrying?" (But if you are not having children, or choosing not to marry, then we seem to wonder why? -- which reveals those expectations.) You roll down the proverbial train tracks of life, quickly passing one station after another.

Then in midlife the train stations seem further apart. Sometimes it feels like the next station is far away -- "Save for retirement?" "Wish my life away?"  You may lose parents in this time frame, and start to wonder how many of your goals were really to please your parents, to do what was expected of you. At the same time you may be hitting a plateau in your career, and maybe feel you just don't care about another promotion the way you once did. It wouldn't have the meaning it did years ago, and you're growing tired of dedicating too much of your life to your work.

Call it "depression"? Not so quick! Yes, for some folks depression sets in and magnifies the underlying process.  But think of it more as a normal part of life. It's time to reconsider -- and sometimes consider for the first time -- what's important, what's meaningful, what you will or won't regret when time runs out. And at this point in life you are suddenly more aware that time will run out.

So it's a time of great potential, when you might start to live a life much more aware and conscious ... Maybe much more connected and meaningful with your partner and family. It can be a scary time, evoking a range of defenses, and lots of ways of trying to avoid or deflect.   But there's no rolling the train backward.  Regrets and remorse are a danger for sure. Maybe we joke about "mid-life crisis" because of our discomfort about it, when we'd do so much better to embrace it.





                                                   [Photo by C. Hindy:  Just too many hoops? Or a hoop dance?]

The Future of Private Practice Psychology

I couldn't resist writing a quick reply to my local psychologist listserver where there is worry about the future of private practice psychology given the changes in the healthcare delivery system.  I certainly could elaborate, but here's the 10-minute treatise as I await my next client:



                                 [Photo after a recent snow storm.  I can see the general outlines, but clearly enough?]


Colleagues:

I don't think there is reason for so much pessimism about psychologist private practice.  Actually, I think psychology can shine brighter than ever in the years to come because of:  (1) The ever increasing need and psychological orientation of the population and openness to what we offer.  All living generations now are open to our services, and at least the older generations remember well, and often desire, the "psychotherapy" model as opposed to the technician/screening/checklist-writing, texting and tweeting ...  How satisfying will the 'fast food' versions of mental health care remain over time? (2)The media gives psychology widespread attention and opportunity to keep ourselves visible to the public.  So many folks have had at least an Introductory Psychology course in school, and we all see psychology and psychologists in all media outlets daily, and even more often around the big new stories. Psychology and psychologists are a much larger part of life than a line item in an insurance policy. (3) There is the ever less appealing alternative treatments, including growing legions of less trained or experienced providers, so many of whom will be entrenched in (and encumbered by) the medical system and the difficulties of access and threats to privacy involved there.  Just the threats to privacy, as we see in the news everyday, will encourage people to seek more private alternatives for the most personal issues in their lives. (4) The backlash against psychotropic medications and the data that's diminishing the appeal of these products of the pharmaceutical industry; (5) The increasing reality that people will need to be in charge of their own health care, and will research and choose how best to spend their healthcare dollars. With high deductibles and confusing health insurance policies, people will be wiser shoppers.

I remember George Albee, Ph.D., saying a few decades ago that we will rue the day that we get involved with the medical insurance industry.  Yes, before we were included in medical insurance.  So many of my colleagues seem to rue it every day, and all the while pursue it.  What a dysfunctional relationship!  I think about how so many psychologists have seemed driven to be 'real doctors' by inclusion in the medical system.  Now again there seems to be such worry that we need to change and accommodate or else be left behind, excluded.  OK, I am the person who sells my stock market investments when I see the masses rushing in.  I have the same attitude here.  I believe in Psychology, want to keep the public informed and desiring what we provide, and believe we can stand on our own.

I think there will be psychologists practicing within the medical system, and there will be a larger number of psychologists increasingly outside of the medical system.  You will get your triage and referrals to a limited menu of possibilities within the medical system ... But when you really want someone to talk with about your problems in living -- your difficulties in your family, your struggles in your marriage, the pressures in your workplace, your worries about your children, your concerns about the meaning and direction of your longer life filled with so many more concerns -- you will seek a more substantial relationship. That can be with a psychologist outside of the medical maelstrom. There will be fewer satisfying alternatives and a chance for psychologists to feel more special again about what we do.


Carl

Carl Hindy, Ph.D.
Clinical Psychologist
120 Main Street, Suite 103
Nashua, NH 03060
(603) 880-8773

A sampling of journalists chatting with me on various topics of interest.

















Thankfulness and Gratitude on Thanksgiving Day: Unsticking the Phonograph Needle



As a psychologist I think a lot about my own inner emotional life, and I try to use images and metaphors to help my clients do the same.  Some people have said, Carl, your mind is like a steel trap"!  Actually, I think of it more like a phonograph!  Remember the vinyl 33 rpm record albums when we were kids?  Remember how annoyingly the needle would sometimes get stuck and play the the same lyrics over and over?  Sometimes a few minutes might go by before your realized it!  Then you'd get up and tap the needle to get it back in the groove.

It often seems that our minds are like that phonograph. We get caught on a track thinking about something, worrying about something, over and over ... We dwell on it, and it continues until something else comes along to tap the needle.  Often we are then dwelling on the next topic!  Our inner lives too often seem like an endless progression of these.  We worry about one thing until the next worry comes along!

Psychologists have shown that our thought patterns in daily life are influenced by a number of "cognitive biases" that I believe make this 'stuck needle' feeling so common.  For example, we all are aware of the recency bias in memory:  If we have a list of things we've just read, the last one often is the easiest to remember.  Then there's what we might call the myopia bias, an emotional nearsightedness, where we focus on the short-term problem or seek the immediate reward, not paying enough attention to the longer term (and very often bigger and more important) aspects of our lives.  Then there's the well known and researched Zeigarnik effect, which captures how it's the nature of our memory to latch onto things that we haven't finished, such as the incomplete tasks and the unsolved problems in our daily lives.  These are just a few of the ways that human nature plays into our minds, and our daily lives, feeling like a stuck phonograph needle.  

I believe that thoughts of thankfulness and gratitude are an important way that we can tap the phonograph needle and get it back in the groove, back to the harmony and melodies that really define our lives.  Much recent psychological research has shown that thankfulness and gratitude correlate with lots of good things in life:  from reduced stress, illness, and pain, to increased happiness, life satisfaction, productivity, even longevity. Perhaps thankfulness and gratitude exert their positive effects by dislodging the stuck needle.  Some people are more adept at this than others.  They're quicker to recognize that the same lyrics are repeating again and again and they nudge the needle by thinking about the many positives in their lives.   Thanksgiving Day is a time that we all can nudge the needle together.  We can get beyond the recency bias, the myopia bias, the Zygarnik effect, and all the daily worries and smaller goals, and think about what's really important: the bigger things, in the longer term of our lives, for which we know we are grateful but just don't think about often enough. 



                  [Can you remember the feelings of wonder, the innocence of childhood?]






On the Eve of the NH Primary Election, PBS Shoots Video About Main Street, Nashua NH

January 6, 2012:
  

Co-producers John Larson and William Brangham made a brief documentary in Nashua about the impact of the economic recession.  Entitled, Help Wanted: New Hampshire, it aired nationally on PBS, on the eve of the NH Presidential Primary.  It is an installment of the weekly PBS program, Need to Know:





Watch Fri., Jan. 6, 2011 on PBS. See more from Need to Know.


I was glad to get my thirty seconds as "the marriage counselor" in this engaging video shot on the Main Street where I head to work each day.  I've looked out that window onto Main Street, Nashua, NH for twelve years, and worked locally for twenty-five:  that's how many recessions?

Frankly, I would argue that "the recession" was the one which occurred in the 1989-1990 time frame, and that's when so much changed, never to fully "recover" in the sense that many of us would wish.  When I saw counseling clients during that recession circa 1990, they were long time employees laid off from major companies where they'd worked for decades, and often where a parent worked for decades as well.  They were devastated financially, but especially wrought with feelings of betrayal.  Those companies in which they'd worked their way up, those companies which had seemed to invest in them and their families to keep them for the long term (and fund their retirement thereafter) were cutting them loose based on numbers and organizational charts at headquarters far away.  "How could they do this to me?" was what I heard day after day.

These folks were heading into the new era, and handed the new lexicon of buzz words that were to be their hope for the future:  "Network ... Keep your skill set up to date along with your resume ... Go to the outplacement service, see the headhunters, attend support and networking groups ... log onto Monsterboard..."  Everyone was to be a free agent now, looking out for him or her self, not expecting long term employment (That actually would look like a negative on your resume!). 

And the stock market recovered.  Or did it?  And the recession ended.  Or did it?  It seems to me that we entered an era where corporations increasingly lived quarter-to-quarter -- or even more tempestuously, as news of the quarter presaged the quarter's end.  The stock market has risen and declined, but always seems to be on a razor's edge, susceptible to so many forces (international, political, psychological) and fluctuating as much from the superficial factors as the fundamental ones.  It's a short-term world.

I'm a psychologist and marriage counselor, not an economist or politician.  What hits home in the therapy room, I believe, is that we are living longer term lives in a shorter term world.  And this is very stressful.  I believe that individuals, couples and families need always to feel that they're "getting somewhere," "making progress," "have something to show for the year," "are further ahead this year than last year" ... That we are "getting somewhere," not just getting older (and approaching whole new sets of worries!)  The sense of forward movement seems very important.  Without forward movement, we feel more buffeted by all the daily problems and pressures.  In a quarter-to-quarter short term world, this seems increasingly difficult. Psychologists always talk about the influence of our pasts.  I think it's important to see that we are pulled toward the future ... and when the picture of the future is fuzzy and uncertain, anxiety and depression increase.  We need to feel an "internal locus of control," "self-efficacy" ... Call it what you will, it's the belief that our efforts, our work, our determination, will lead to the goals we want in life.  What is the opposite?  It's that the rewards in our life are not under our control, but under the control of luck, chance, and powerful others  (And folks point to a gridlocked political system, corporate greed, shortsighted profit-taking over longer term "values," and so on).  Maybe if folks feel little control over their future, we can understand why they might just run-up their credit cards, buy lavish items they can't afford, head out on vacations using their home equity, and care less about their weight and nutrition ... The future is NOT where it's at.  Spend!  (Hey, we are told that spending is what's needed to invigorate the economy!)

In doing marriage counseling, I believe that couples need to have their dreams for their future.  They need to be able to share those dreams by talking about them, exploring them and dreaming them together ... It's part of that pull toward the future.  When we have the degree of uncertainty about the future which we now face, it seems that the pull of the dreams is lost.  More than lost, it can cue feelings of powerlessness and despair. Talking about "what we hope to do in retirement," "selling our house and moving to the lake," and "sending our children to top notch colleges" now raise our blood pressure rather than give us pleasure, and they come between husbands and wives rather than bring them together. So we are more likely to avoid those conversations about future hopes and plans.  The sharing of the dreams is too often replaced with the sharing of the tensions of the day.  Couples come to counseling increasingly bickering about the daily minutia as they don't feel they are "getting anywhere."

I've noticed the psychological research of eminent psychologist Carol Dweck, at Stanford.  She asks the question, "Is there such a thing as will power?"  Her research, in short, indicates that there is will power for people who believe in it!   This sounds a lot like the "internal locus of control" and "sense of self-efficacy" of which I spoke earlier.  How do we restore it, for more people more of the time?  How do we restore the belief that we can achieve what we want in life through our self-determination and hard work?  We need to find ways to take that back. 

With my clients I share the sentiment that, amidst all of this, we need to find ways to give meaning and purpose to our lives, and to have that sense of forward movement even if it's not with money-linked-goals.  If there is a silver lining in these financially challenging and always changing times, it's that it requires us to think about things differently.  Even in discussing this challenge, I feel some camaraderie with others who know what I mean, and that's a start (like people bonding in hard times) ... And I try to remind myself that psychological studies of happiness show us that it's our relationships with others, our daily experiences and engagement in life that brings happiness.


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Tiffany Williams-Jallow Talked With Me for Her BlogTalkRadio Show, "Relationships 360."

The title of this podcast was, "How to Get Him to Propose, and Her to Say Yes."   It turned out to be a more free-flowing chat about commitment, "commitment phobia," and marriage.   So many of the ideas are ones that I enjoy discussing and wish I could have elaborated.  They are very relevant to premarital counseling and marriage counseling more generally, and come up regularly in the course of my work as a relationship-focused  psychologist.

You can listen to this interview by clicking below:




Listen to internet radio with Relationships360 on Blog Talk Radio





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Social Networking Sites Can Strain Marriages




This WMUR-TV interview and story dates back to 2009 but of course it's a never ending story!  The problems for relationships -- with boundaries, trust, fidelity, sharing, decision making, and communications -- certainly aren't new, but Internet technology magnifies the problems ... And some things about Facebook in particular seem to add to this.

For example, when couples have profiles on Facebook, they have his and her profiles, not a shared profile. There's no convenient and fully functioning way to have a Couples Profile.  Yes, they can link to one another and make their relationship status clear.  Still, they are found by others and friended as individuals.  It can easily become too much about "me" not "us." One is found and friended by people more often from their individual past ... and partners' pasts may not intersect that much prior to their relationship with one another.  Not only are there people from your distant past, but there are people whose paths crossed with yours in inconsequential ways (You said hello at the sports bar or the gym, were introduced in a group of people, helped them with a task at work, or flirted with them in a way that seemed harmless at the time) and then they "find you" on Facebook.  With FB so widely used,  and with powerful search capacities, you will be found!

"You've got a Friend Request!" Names appear requesting to be "friends" (Friend is the only status offered:  they don't ask to be distant acquaintances, familiar faces, or ex-boyfriends!).  Then you are given the choice either to accept the friend request, deny or ignore it.  It's an awkward choice, not exactly like the real world (People don't tap you on the shoulder at the mall and ask, "Friend or not friend?")   Since it's "just on Facebook," too often it's almost automatic to accept the friend offer.  Once a friend, hard to delete!

What a mixture you then have among your cadre of so-called friends.  On your friend list are a few genuinely close friends and relatives, distant relatives, Aunt Jane who you haven't seen in years,  acquaintances, names and ghosts from the past, your work colleagues, your neighbors and local merchants, someone you just met yesterday, and who else?  What a gathering -- mishmash of people with whom you'd generally maintain very different "boundaries" and levels of sharing that could range from highly personal to nothing at all.  You are strangely exposed behind a nebulous boundary, yet may feel hidden, at a distance, alone behind your laptop or smart phone.

Then there's all that personal psychological stuff.   There can be a false sense of familiarity with some of these people whom you really don't know:  You may have grown-up in the same town, went to the same elementary school, were somewhere down the hall in the college dorm, have an interest or two in common, or feel some attraction you don't (really want to) understand.  But do you really know this person?  How much do you really have in common?  You dated her in ninth grade?  Do you really know her any better than a total stranger?  Or is she just someone who was present at an earlier time in your life, maybe a time to which you'd like to return for a visit?  Maybe a person and a time where there's unfinished business.  It's not a Pandora's Box that you usually would set out to open.  Ten years ago would you have hired a private detective to track down this person so you could re-unite!  No!  But Facebook is different.

Facebook is on your desktop or smartphone, and you may start to check-in regularly.  You start to pass through regularly,  kind of like going through the fast food drive-through  (Theme:  If it's too easy and convenient, it can become a problem).  It can be habit forming, and increasingly take the place of other activities and connections.  Then, at times of personal vulnerability -- when you're feeling down, stressed, preoccupied, lonely, old, insecure -- it can be too easy to turn away from the people in your life with whom you should strive to stay close and connected,  and instead find (perilous) comfort on Facebook ...

It is common now for couples to come to relationship and marriage counseling when Facebook play into an assumed "boundary" in their relationship being over-stepped and trust broken.   This can be very distressing for couples.  If there is a potential positive aspect, it's that it brings these concerns out into the open sooner for a couple to address.  Hopefully it allows the couple to face these risks, better understand what makes them vulnerable, talk about their needs and what's getting in the way, stop bad habits, make more explicit and understood their relationship agreements and commitments, and sure-up their relationship with one another.  While there might be a lasting loss of innocence for the couple, hopefully it will help "inoculate" them against some of these problems in the future.

[To Be Continued]



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Should You Tell Your Teenagers About Your Past Love Relationships?

Should you tell your teenager about your own past sweethearts?  How much do you tell and how do you talk about it?  A journalist recently e-mailed me those questions and it got me thinking.  She quotes me in her story, but I feel the urge to elaborate a bit.

Recent psychological research on "happiness" makes clear that relationships are pivotal to happiness.    Studies of people's regrets in life show that relationship regrets top the list  [Not financial regrets, which actually are low on the list].   Personally, we all know that we have experienced the heights of happiness and the depths of despair over relationships.  Now we are parents and want our children to be happy.   We've learned a lot, wish we knew then what we know now, and want to help our teenagers. 

Don't you sometimes wish you could teach them what you've learned about relationships?  We probably all wish we could somehow "download" to our children all that we've learned about men or women, about love and loss, and about what's most important if a relationship is going to last for decades.   We could lead them to happiness and shelter them from despair!  But, alas, it's one of the harshest (or perhaps most splendid) facts of life:  Our children will struggle and learn about love and relationships for themselves.   We can't tell it to them!  Maybe we can watch and guide a bit.

And these aren't new topics.  Ovid tried to teach about love more than 2000 years ago.  Available in a modern translation, in reading Ovid's "Art of Love" we see how little has changed!  Whether you're taking your girlfriend to a gladiator match or a hockey game!  Scribing on parchment or sending text messages ... So little changes at the core of relationships and love, yet everyone has to struggle to learn it for themselves.  As parents we certainly can help, but it has its limits (e.g., What teen is going to listing to their Mom or Dad lecture on love?) and its pitfalls (e.g., The parent may convey negative or defensive attitudes, or push their teen away, even if they had the best of intentions).

We can talk around the dinner table about how people relate to one another -- how people may be thinking and feeling, how their words and actions reflect what's happening "inside them," "down deep."    Self-awareness and perspective-taking.  We can teach "understanding others," which I've long argued is at least as important as understanding ourselves.  This is something we want to be doing with our children from the youngest age.  It isn't something we start doing the day our daughter announces that she has a boyfriend! 



[Photo by C. Hindy:  If your first love was a Ford Mustang, that's a whole different story!]

Keep in mind that we are "teaching" them much more effectively about relationships by what we role model for them in the present time, than by what we tell them, or God forbid, preach to them about our pasts.  The love relationships which your children observe in their own home, throughout their childhood and teen years, are one of the two most important influences on their own relationships.  The other is the relationship you have with each of them.  Together, what they observe and experience, will shape them far more than what you try to teach verbally.  As parents, it sometimes seems that our words are used by our teenagers more often to point out how we are hypocrites!  "Well, you say one thing and do another." What you do will carry more weight than what you say.

Of course you don't want to tell your teens about your past relationships in ways that are disparaging, which might say more about yourself and your "baggage."  Nor do you want to talk in ways that would be hurtful about children's parent or others in the household.   Judging others often says more about the judge than the judged, and your teens' radar will detect that quickly.

Be aware of the attitudes about men and women that are embodied or implied in what you communicate.   This also is true of subtle attitudes about sex roles, about how men and women treat one another, what they expect of one another, how relationships end, and so on.  These attitudes may have more cumulative impact on your children than you realize now.  The attitudes, the tone, the implied judgments will be 'heard' much more than the content (e.g., the child may dismiss much of the content as somehow irrelevant because it's coming from Mom or Dad, or because  they think it's "ancient history" that doesn't apply to them.  I think of those cartoons where you here talking-type sounds but can't make out the words, or a conversation in another room that you can't quite hear:  the tone comes through even when the words do not.

Can we agree to one rule?  If you're talking about an ex-sweetheart, then please be sure you portray the father (or mother) of your children in the better light?  "I am so glad I met your father!"  Certainly don't have your children's parent portrayed as the lesser in the comparison, nor sound as though you have regrets about your spouse, or wistful thoughts of how it might have been better!

I do not believe a parent should talk about their own sexual relationships.  References to sexuality should be framed in the context of loving relationships, not callous sexual behavior, in the context of mutual sharing rather than self-centered need fulfillment, etc.  There are ways to talk about the thoughts and feelings involved in sexuality.  Be mindful of the developmental stage of your teens.  You want to validate the normal emotional struggles of teenage life.  You want them to know that they can  learn from their struggles.  It is better for them to be consciously aware and open about all the mixed feelings and contradictory thoughts, the impulses and fears, and the short term versus longer term concerns.  By validating their struggle, you can encourage their openness, encourage their being more mindful than impulsive, more sensitized than repressed ... Open to learning rather than repetition.

As parents we can gently impart our values while empathizing, and do it in a non-lecturing way.  Yes, we can say "I wish I knew then what I know now,"  and use it to convey understanding, empathy and encouragement (rather than condescension, judgment, or negativity).

Would you rather be a teenager in love, or a parent watching your teen go through it?  Is there a third option?



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Personality Chasms Between Partners Seem to Widen If Not Addressed

Have you ever noticed how certain personality differences between partners in a relationship can grow larger if the partners are not aware of them and careful to address this diverging tendency?  In working with couples,  I have seen how personality differences can reverberate between two people over time, making their differences seem larger and larger.  Eventually they become major recurring themes in couples' struggling or growing apart.

For example, so many times I've seen couples where one person is "The Worrier" while the other is "The Laissez-Faire."  The Worrier does not feel better to hear from the Laissez-Faire partner, "Don't worry about it," "You worry too much,"  or "Just forget about it."  The Worrier may conclude that the partner "just doesn't get it," doesn't understand, believe or respect his or her concerns.  The Worrier feels increasingly alone with the worriers, bottled-up, not understood or appreciated, and may radiate the tension in other ways (e.g., irritable behavior, distancing, demeaning comments, etc.)   The Laissez-Faire partner, who means well and is trying to comfort,  may feel more badgered in return, or feel married to someone who seems "obsessed with one thing" and "just won't let it go."  It becomes harder for both.

Another common emerging dichotomy is "The Cynic" and "The Pollyanna."  Many readers will identify with "The Rational" and "The Emotional," "The Intensifier" and "The Suppressor," "The Aggressive" and "The Passive Aggressive," "The Future-Oriented" and the "Present Moment Person," the "Action Oriented" and the "In Their Head Person," "The Security-Seeker" and "The Risk Taker," and so on.  Have I forgotten any?

Each polarity seems to grow more extreme over time because of the counter pressure from the other, and the accumulating ballast of disagreements.  Rather than acquiesce, each person tries, again and again, to drive home the points that aren't being acknowledged ... Sometimes it seems that, in our closest relationships, we can become like caricatures of ourselves.  Our own arguments can feel like two people dueling over strongly expressed views that even we ourselves may not really believe.  You know this is true, for example, when you think how embarrassing it would be if others heard the argument; or if you could imagine seeing yourself on a videotape trying to make your point!




    [Photo by C. Hindy:  Yes, it's a photo of the Grand Canyon!]

The task for these couples is to increase mutual understanding and empathy, so that each person can move somewhat toward the middle again.   When each person feels more understood and appreciated, there is less need to overstate or dramatize, to convince, to "make the case" or defend it.  They can better see that each person is just trying to cope in his or her own usual ways.  Maybe they even can help one another move toward the center (A complementarity which may have attracted them to one another to begin with!).  Of course this may be difficult.  Often each polarity has accumulated so many "examples" over time, each an unfinished disagreement with hurt feelings (i.e., resentment), and their "being so close to it all" makes it harder to see.  Counseling can be helpful with this.
 
I think of that old TV show, "Crossfire."  There were intense political discussions "From the Right" and "From the Left" and certainly they had very different views ...  But I always assumed they went out to dinner together after the show and were the best of friends!



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"We Mirror One Another In Ways that Feel Good"

Have you ever noticed that, in a happy relationship, the partners mirror one another in ways that feel good?  That are mutually validating?  That give a quick and hearty sense of understanding and support?

I like the metaphor of a relationship being like two mirrors.  Each reflects back at the other an image that is consistent with the partner's positive self-image.  It's pleasing to know that your partner sees you the way you like to see yourself.  He or she appreciates who you are, and values you for the traits that you see as special and defining of yourself.  It doesn't take a lot of explaining or enhancing (as it might in the world outside of your love life).  At home you don't have to Photo Shop the image! 

When a relationship starts to turn negative these images can get fuzzy and non-distinct.  The sense of understanding and appreciation gets blurred.  When relationships continue to spiral negatively, we each try to fix the image.   However, these efforts to "fix it" often can be defensive, and can bring out qualities in each partner that run quite contrary to our positive self-image.   Over time and accumulated resentments, the fuzzy images can become more distinct and unlike who we "know" ourselves really to be.  They can become like circus mirrors, where we are frightened to think, "She thinks that's me?" "He sees me that way?"




[Photo by C. Hindy:  This photo is of a plant in my office, coincidentally a "Crown of Thorns."  A pretty flower for such a name.]

It makes me think of various ways we could build on this "mirror" metaphor.  For example, while flattering images of one another might feel good, they simply cannot always be so pristine!  We have to be able to give helpful feedback to one another in order to grow (and not grow apart).  However, irregularities in the evolving images need to be in proper perspective, and be incorporated in ways that we both can appreciate and experience as caring rather than hurtful.  Because a couple typically knows one another better than anyone else on Earth, there are so many insights about one another that can help or hurt.


Every so often I think of this quote from Nietzsche:

"You should honor even the enemy in your friend. In your friend you should possess your best enemy. Your heart should feel closest to him when you oppose him." (Friedrich Nietzsche)

What to share?  How to share?  When?  When not?  "How can we have a deep discussion and not let it become an argument?"  "We just don't talk about things like we used to."   Here is the huge topic of "communication" in a close relationship:  To be able to bring those images to life, allowing them to change,  develop, and adapt to all that life brings us.   The mirrors cannot be images frozen in time.




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Should You Make Premarital Counseling Part of Your Wedding Plans?

As a counselor for many years here in Southern New Hampshire,  I must say that I truly enjoy working with couples in premarital counseling.   For example, meeting with couples comparatively early in their relationship, we can explore communications and decision-making patterns which are just taking shape.  This makes it so much easier to understand their developing relationship patterns, reinforcing the nice ways in which they support and complement one another, and bring out the best in each other ... but also the potential foibles and pitfalls.  We can talk about these in ways that might actually be an enjoyable part of a couple getting truly to know one another, and a helpful thing in the longer term.

Of course premarital counseling involves talking about the here-and-now stress of all the decisions you face together as you head toward marriage.  This may include the wedding plans and details (and family topics that often come with that), careers and housing, child and family hopes, and so on. Also open for discussion  are more abstract topics of commitment and security, affection and intimacy needs, boundaries and how you define your relationship, and so on.  The topics of concern to you typically provide the "content" for the premarital counseling conversations  as we simultaneously explore the "process" or dynamics of how you relate to one another.  For example, how you communicate with one another, how communications can sometimes get disrupted, how decisions are made, and how disagreements are managed.




[Photo by C. Hindy: Couples counseling before marriage is a way to explore together your hopes and dreams, wishes and fantasies. I think of it as "priming" so many important topics that become lifelong "conversations."]


Premarital counseling often involves some exploration of one another's family backgrounds to appreciate how personality patterns, communications styles, and relationship expectations more generally have been shaped by what we learned growing up:  the memories and joys of our childhood and adolescence, as well as the challenges, what came to be important to each of us, and how we learned to pursue our goals.

Your expectation on entering into premarital counseling should be that you will become even closer as you learn more about one another. It can help the you put your differences (and potential future differences) into a less threatening context.  Years later, when life is more complicated with children, careers, in-laws and extended families, and so on, it can make it easier to 'get back to the basics' when problems develop.  Frankly, I think that couples who had a good experience in premarital counseling are more willing to return to counseling -- and return to reflecting and sharing -- when there are new concerns.

It is my hope that premarital counseling will be approached as an educational and pleasurable sharing rather than some dreaded clinical procedure!  It's a conversation; it's an aide to the lifelong conversation that really defines your marital relationship.  I often joke that we should ask premarital couples, “Would you like the service contract?” Maybe it’s not such a joke, though. Establishing a relationship with a counselor early-on, and viewing that person (or at least such an option) as a future resource, might be very helpful.





[Photo by C. Hindy:  Think of premarital counseling as interesting and maybe profitable shared exploration, NOT a dredging up of bad things]


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Have you ever noticed how the very qualities that attract a man and a woman to one another often become the main problems when they're married?

In so many years doing marriage counseling here in Nashua, I have routinely asked couples, "What attracted you to him?"  "Why did it become serious with him, compared to other guys you dated?"  "How did she seem special compared to women you dated but didn't commit to marry?"  "Yes, other than her looks, what really enamored you about her?"


What I see, again and again, is how the same basic personality qualities that made that man or that woman seem very special in the early stages of the relationship now seems to be a main theme in their marital difficulties.  Of course those personality traits are framed in a different way later:  in a more negative way tinged with frustration, disappointment, and hurt feelings.  Yes, yes, I could joke about it:  "Love is blind ... And marriage restores vision!"  However, I believe there's a lot more to it.   We could talk or blog at great length about the significance of this, of what can be learned from it about the man, the woman, and the marital interaction patterns, and ideas for helping them through their impasse.


For example ...


In the summer of their romance:   The woman says that she was so impressed with "How he has a head on his shoulders, he's a thinker." "He knows what he wants in life and he accomplishes what he sets his mind to." "He's responsible, and he puts responsibilities first.  He's not out playing, not out with the guys." "He's the marrying kind of guy.  He'd be a great husband and family man."  He, in turn, recalls how "She's so passionate about life." "She's open and you know what she's thinking and feeling; You don't have to read her mind." "We had so much fun together, like she could breathe enthusiasm into things we did," "Just so sweet and nice to me..."  "She's so in-tune with feelings, she'll be a great mother.  She's like my other half..."
 



But in the winter of their 'business as usual' hectic married life:  The woman says, "He's always in his head and I don't know what he's thinking.   He's a clam."  "It's always what he wants."  "He's set in his ways ... rigid ... controlling."  "He worries about money,  about paying the bills, and we just don't have fun."  "Yes, we get all the chores done, then do them all over again..."  "I'm so lonely."   He, in turn, says "She is so darn emotional,  she's all over the board with her emotions."  "Does she have a problem?"  "I don't know what to say or do.  I just can't please her."  "All I hear is what I did wrong, what's bothering her."  "I worry about paying the bills and she couldn't care less.  I feel like I'm alone in it."  "She seems to have no respect for me."

Of course it's not only the adjectives that have changed.  Along with the change of adjectives often are building resentments that become more entrenched and 'automatic' over time.  These can lead to negative cycles in communications, affection, and intimacy, and to an overall loss in happiness in the marriage.  A major goal of marriage counseling is to become aware of the "why's" and "how's" of these negative cycles, and to work on restoring those earlier feelings of pleasingly complementary rather than clashing personalities.



[Photos by C. Hindy]




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