Why Do People Cut Themselves?


Building Intimacy is Vital in Marriage

Why Building Intimacy in Marriage is Vital

The hardest quality to build into a marriage is intimacy, both sexual and psychological. Our culture over the last 25 years has emphasized the sexual at the expense of the psychological.

Intimacy is a fundamental need for human beings.  It means being able to share our innermost self with someone else and having that sharing reciprocated.  In watching what damages marriage, I am most impressed that withholding who we are and how we react has become the kiss of death.

We are very fragile to injury in relationships in which we feel the most vulnerable.  Many people try to control the level of intimacy because of fear of being hurt.  For most of us, the single, deepest experience of being known in all our strengths and flaws is in the marital relationship.

How to develop and strengthen marital intimacy deserves the attention of both parties.  Many people feel they are not finding the fulfillment they had hoped for in their marriage.  They have a sense of aloneness, emptiness or just something missing.  You may also be married to someone who does not need the same degree of intimacy that you do.  What can be done about this?

Some questions to ask are:  “How well do we know ourselves?” and “How have we felt our spouse has responded to us?”  In my experience as a psychologist, the reluctance to report our reactions to each other hinders marital growth.  Now some things will always remain trivial and do not deserve your verbal reactions, e.g., how your spouse manages a household chore is probably not worth talking about unless it consistently irritates you.

When expectations are unconscious, uncommunicated, unrealistic, or unreasonable, you can feel betrayed when you have not been.  You need to examine the validity of your own expectations about a relationship.  You may have wanted or expected something from another person, but he or she never agreed to give it.  Believing that if your spouse really loved you, he/she should be able to read your mind or that partners in “good” relationships rarely disagree are myths.

What you do with irritation is crucial.  Many times the temptation arises to blow such reactions off, but the resentment barometer rises.  The debris of irritation can collect into a sturdy pile.  Given sufficient time, enough material can get between partners that the distance increases and the silence becomes very telling.

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“I Love Them, I Am Just Not in Love with Them Anymore.”

“I Love Them, I Am Just Not in Love with Them Anymore.”: The Difference Between LOVE and IN LOVE

I hear those words with some regularity when I work with couples on their marriage issues.  There is a sadness when the words are spoken and often a resignation suggested, such as, “It’s just too damn bad we can’t do anything about it.”

I do not believe in that kind of doom.  If we were talking weight loss, stopping smoking, getting more exercise, lowering cholesterol and blood pressure, living a more balanced life, or saving for retirement or children’s education, we would be relentless in trying possibilities over a long period of time.

I tell people to work with me on their marriage for four months and then assess whether changes have occurred in the ways they desire.  Working on what we want with our partner is not mysterious.  We need to be direct and specific in expressing our needs and wants.  When you are in marriage counseling with us, we will measure as well the progress in getting those needs and wants met.

The most important aspect of changing a marriage patterns is saying out loud to our spouse, “Yes, I like it when you do that….”  Even the casinos know that sooner or later, everyone needs a payoff.

If you or someone you know is struggling with their relationship, please give us a call.  We can help you be in love again.


Parenting and Passing On Life Experience

Parenting and Passing on Life Experience: Why Parents Give Advice to the Next Generation

If there were a contest for the one activity on the planet that parents try most often and fail at most regularly, I’d vote for “passing on life experience.”  With all the research drug companies do, you would think they would come up with a pill, maybe an injection directly into the head, that would stifle the urge to give advice based on experience to the next generation.  Now before I get mail on what Santayana said about “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” let’s at least question whether his strategy worked with his own kids.  Nobody reports whether Santy, Jr. had a more productive life because he listened to the old man; of course, I would sure like to believe the kid did.  Some distinctions would help.

First, I think parents can learn a great deal talking with other parents in their own generation.  When people speak from their own experience to others in their own age group, credibility rises since the expectations and personal meaning are easier to understand.  As worthy and helpful as this dialogue can be, most parents are reluctant to share with others for the essential reason that such disclosure is emotionally risky.  One needs only to be zapped once by another’s judgmental remark to learn never to open up that way again.

Second, the very withdrawal parents do when hurt by a jerk’s comment is the principle to remember when speaking to our children.  Life is tough enough without feeling Mike Ditka is providing color commentary on one’s choices.  Most people nod to the truism that experience is the best teacher.  I am beginning to think that experience is the ONLY teacher.  The task for parents is to set up the conditions where the lessons taught by making mistakes are not catastrophically expensive for the child.

Third, parents can profit by occasionally examining what leads them to “hover.”  The desire to protect the young is a fortunate human trait.  Overprotection, though, can be as disabling as abandonment.  Perhaps, it is a need to shield ourselves from loss that prompts us to overstep the bounds of helpfulness.  One does not have to read the newspaper very much to see the heartache life dishes out.  It is better, though, to take our own responsibility for healing and own our anxieties than to minimize our children’s opportunities for growth.

Fourth, I believe the best parents can hope for in raising the family is that the encouragement is present for both generations to talk about their concerns.  The way for that kind of communication to happen is for the adults to take the initiative in talking about the feelings present in the urge to give advice.  Specifically, I mean talking about those brief, meaningful events in our own life and what those experiences came to represent for us, whether or not the child feels these experiences have relevance for them.  This kind of disclosure invites sharing and it is the sharing, I think, more than the lessons that matter in the long run of life.

Fifth, parents need to be gentle with themselves.  This parental job requires making mistakes in order to find out what works for our children.  In fact, living would be a mighty dreadful and dull event if everything we needed to know we knew when we were born.  That is the charm of growing up for children and parents:  learning what works.

If you need help implementing these suggestions or with other parenting concerns, please give us a call.

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Don't Worry, Be Happy

Don't Worry, Be Happy: How to Cope with Life

As we all know, some people worry too much.  Rather than solving a problem, too much worry becomes the problem.  Not only does excessive worry create much personal suffering, but it also affects the people around the worrier.  I wonder if a lot of our worrying in life is like this:  constant, spontaneous and effortless focus that gets dislodged by distracting external events or our own change of perspective.  Now, I think that anyone who does not worry is just living on a different planet; yet, as we know, just worrying about the weather does not make it rain.

9 Tips for Coping with Life, from a Psychologist

After 31 years of working in the field of psychology, I know a few things make a difference in coping with life.

  1. Pay Attention to the Important Things, More than the Urgent.  Sometimes the only way to get the important done is to stick it between the urgent things that drive our days. Worry is often related to disorganization.  Make a list of things to do each day and cross off tasks once they are completed.  Leave early enough to make appointments on time.  Put your keys in the same place every time you come home.  Keep your house straightened up.  When things are under control, there is less to worry about.
  2. Take Action on What You Want To Do And Figure Your Results As A “Prototype”. A handy friend of mine told me how he approaches building things.  He considers the first version as his working model.  Although I have two left hands with tools, I always thought I had to get it right the first time.  My combination of ridiculously high expectations and little tolerance for error was a deeply frustrating workshop ethic to follow.
  3. If You Do Not Know How To Do it, Ask For Help.  Most of us just need a little guidance or a resource with whom to check out our experience.  We all need support and positive feedback from time to time.  Other people may have solutions to problems that we haven’t thought about.  For reassurance, find people who know how to give it.  Many of us spend a lifetime looking in all the wrong places for approval.
  4. Try To Do The Right Thing.  Maintain your sense of integrity whenever you do something.  Tell the truth. Obey the law.  Keep to your promises.  Let your conscience be your guide.  Granted, we might tell an occasional lie or break a promise, and this is fairly common – but it can also set the stage for worry.  We may think sometimes that we can get ahead in the world the easy way – but the price we pay could be excessive worry, among other penalties.
  5. Minimize Catastrophic Thinking. Some people find it difficult to keep perspective when faced with even a minor stressor.  Not every mole means cancer and not every bill is going to lead to bankruptcy.  Test out the reality of these situations by talking them over with a trust friend.
  6. Limit Your Exposure to the News. Although there is value in keeping up with the latest news, understand that the media focus on bad news since this tends to sell best.  We seldom hear about the good news in the world on TV or newspapers.  Constant exposure to negative events increases our tendency to worry.  Instead, look for what is good in life.
  7. Sleep, Eat Properly, Exercise.  Lack of sleep and a bad diet can make us irritable, distracted, and anxious – all condition which set the stage for worry.  (Try to be mindful of the problem of overeating as a way of making our worries disappear.)  Exercise helps us dissipate the anxiety that often accompanies worry.
  8. Avoid Substance Abuse.  Drugs and alcohol may give the illusion of comfort for the time being, but using them has negative long-term consequences.  They increase depression, cloud judgment and may give you something to really worry about later.
  9. Learn How to Let Go of Worries. This is a skill that might require some practice and each of us will have our way of doing it.  Some people do this by allowing themselves perhaps half an hour a day of worry time – and at the end of the allotted time period, they will be free of worrying until the next day.  Some people give up their worries by writing them down on a piece of paper and then tearing them up.  Some people prefer to hand them over to a higher power.

The Serenity Prayer

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference. Living one day at a time, enjoying one moment at a time, accepting hardships as the pathway to peace, taking, as He did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it, trusting that He will make all things right if I surrender to His Will, that I may be reasonably happy in this life and supremely happy with Him forever in the next.

As this year continues, on behalf of the psychologists in the practice, I want to thank you for recommending us to others.

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Young Couple Sitting on Love Seat

Communication Dead Zone

The Communication Dead Zone: What to Do When Your Partner Refuses to Talk

I don’t want to talk about it.”  Few sentences conjure up as much feeling for the listener as hearing this refusal to talk.  Such a commitment to silence often dooms a relationship, whether between a husband and wife, or child and parent.  The listener feels so very frustrated in not knowing what to do next.

4 Tips to Break a Communication Deadlock

The following are several suggestions to change this communication deadlock.

1. The listener needs to drop the desire to pursue the refused topic.

No jackhammer or psychological technique will open up someone committed to silence on a particular area. If the listener realizes the topic itself is far less important than the reasons for not talking, it is easier to move away from a concentration on whatever the “it” is.

2. It is logical and important to focus on the reasons for not wanting to talk. 

The listener is advised not to badger the other, but rather to offer several possibilities as a way of learning what is stiffing communication. It is worth exploring whether there is a conviction on the silent one’s part that talking about it just won’t do any good. There are many people who really believe that talk is unnecessary because actions speak louder than words. This confusing logic suggests talking is not a behavior.  More importantly, though, how has the conviction that conversation is futile been reached?  Usually there are some specific experiences that have driven this point home and talking about those experiences may help resolve and offer a different perspective to the present decision to remain silent. Others believe that silence is golden if the alternative is to hurt someone’s feelings. It is up to the listener to determine if he or she would rather be ignorant and blissful or learn some painful bad news.  Ordinarily knowing what is wrong is easier to deal with than being left in the dark. Another possibility is that the refusal to talk is in reality a statement of anger.  If this is the case, then asking the speaker to elaborate on his resentment becomes the pertinent topic.  A final possibility is that the speaker is unclear and unsure of what exactly his or her reasons are to avoid discussions.  The listener can reassure the other that he or she is willing to be tolerant of the fuzziness or the lack of eloquence in the spoken word because the message itself is worth working on no matter how plainly and/or foggily put.

3. The listener can promote communication, even with this deadlock, by talking about his/her reaction to this impasse. 

It is natural that the first response to being closed out is an angry one, but it becomes important to go beyond that to elaborate on the sense of hurt that this isolation brings.  There is nothing as persuasive to opening up as the experience of seeing another person sincerely reveal himself or herself.

4. The listener concluding this interaction with a willingness to listen at another time, at least puts in the other's mind the chance that a time for talking is possible in the future. 

Sometimes fatigue or stress can make it difficult to open up.

In summary, gentle focus on “I don’t want to talk about it,” remains important.


Happiness, Addictions, and Letting Go

Happiness, Addiction, and Letting Go

I hope this time of year finds you and your family happy. I want to share some thoughts on this topic of happiness and also to inform you of developments in the office since our last blog.

One happy note since then, Dr. Kevin Cubala has joined our practice with a particular specialty with children and adolescents. He also sees adults and has worked with a geriatric population. He has an added clinical focus as a Certified Alcohol and Drug Counselor. I have long thought that much of the unrecognized distress in individuals and families is how to deal with addictions in ways that promote early focus on problem solving.

Can We Predict Our Own Future Happiness?

Regarding the area of happiness, there is a psychological concept called Affective Forecasting. The main idea behind this research by Dan Gilbert (Harvard) and Tim Wilson (University of Virginia) is that we have a bias when we predict future affect states in relation to positive or negative events. As it turns out, we are terrible at predicting how we will feel in the future. Our feelings in the present blind us to how we will make decisions in the future when we might be feeling differently, e.g., will that new car make you happy for as long as you imagine, will a job failure be as crushing as you assume, will the death in your family leave you bereft for year upon year, forever and ever?

I want to share with you a personal story. More than a few years ago, my wife and I drove our 18-year-old son off to college.  Michael had not said much about his upcoming college adventure to either of us. I suppose one might expect a psychologist’s son to be a little more chatty, but he takes after the dairy farmer side of my family: work hard, observe, and let your actions speak for you. So, figuring that no news is, of course, trustworthy, I was prepared to say good-bye to Michael and deal with my own grief of letting go. This adult strategy crashed completely with Michael’s tear constrained voice saying he was scared as we were driving toward the first campus meeting. I felt powerless to protect the one I loved from the fear of leaving home. I tried some fatherly advice that felt hollow. I talked with my wife who was feeling equally distressed, teary, and frustrated at comforting and leaving this man-child. Overall, I was miserable; he was miserable; we were all miserable. My wife wondered if we should not have let him choose a school so far away and was this a terrible mistake? Not a Kodak moment.

Blessedly, the next day we attended several orientation sessions that blunted a chunk of this heartache.  As we prepared to drive home, Michael did not want a long good-bye. He gave us all a hug, told us he loved us, and walked off to his dorm with his younger sister, Elizabeth, walking beside him for their final words. I will never forget this picture of my son walking away from us and towards his future. Shortly, my daughter returned to the van and we all climbed in and cried.

Two weeks later…as you might expect, with the passage of 14 days, my head, my heart, and my son were all at different spots. Michael regularly e-mailed and called us since the college launch. We provided regular advice that he continued to discount as typical parent advice and out of touch. I was glad to see, however, that he was reluctant to spend his own money on entertainment because “…things cost so much.” Was this be the beginning of financial wisdom. . .not quite?

So you can see, Michael was now at a better place and so were we. It is seductive to say the crucial difference is the passage of time, but I think not. Michael’s regular communication from the front made the difference.  Also, once again and not for all time, I learned that both sadness passes and the micromanagement of children, even 18 year olds, is not for the manager or one being managed. Life and separation from my son felt better, not perfect though.

The enduring principle is that happiness or sadness cannot be held onto with a conclusive grip. We falter when it comes to imagining how we will feel about something in the future. It isn’t that we get the big things wrong; but we overestimate the intensity and the duration of our emotional reactions to future events.  Happiness is related to the process of letting go. Bad events prove less intense and more transient than you will predict and good events prove less intense and briefer, as well.

There is wisdom in working on letting go in several areas, including:

  1. The need to control others and nature (I like the latter area, as I have labored long and hard trying to control my lawn and garden).
  2. The need to be right.

Experiment with the notion of letting go and see if practicing release does something positive to your heart.


Don't We All Want to Belong?

Don't We All Want to Belong?

One of the advantages of adulthood is being able to selectively avoid new situations and, I suppose, that’s a reason, too, why more adults are lonelier than kids.  It sure is tough to make the transition from elementary school to junior high.  Even with old friends by our side, there are the inner jitters of a new place.  “Where do I go?” “What if I end up in the wrong class?” and then what happens if we meet some kid who just does not like our looks, our name, or the color of our backpack?  Don’t we all want to belong?

Junior high presents the firsthand conscious experience of fitting in or not.  Look back on your own experience and recall what memories are stirred up in that block of grades from sixth to eighth. I think of sitting next to Bill and laughing at our private jokes during class.  I remember, too, getting tackled on the playground by an eighth grader for the “fun” of it.  The guy who wrote the screenplay for the old movie, My Bodyguard, knew something about the difficulty of belonging in a new school.

So how do we help those whom we love punch through the necessary new events in life?  The simplest wisdom is that it will get better if you work at it.  When “get better” arrives is, of course, not guaranteed for this year.  Nonetheless, while most John Hughes movies suggest adolescent anguish is wrapped up in about two hours, helping kids see that sustained efforts at friendliness can pay off in the long run and in life, and is a durable lesson worth learning. Allowing a child to sort through options and experimenting with alternatives promotes the kind of growth school is about.  My son informed me shortly into the start of sixth grade year that a fellow classmate was peeing on him during showers after gym.  Three years of study at Northwestern University never covered that psychological topic.  Fortunately, with parental ballistic responses under firm control, Michael spoke up to the teacher and got the leak plugged.

Outside of school activities, it is important to encourage the interests the child expresses.  Finding a place to shine and a thing to do that is enjoyed for its own pleasure is a goal worth pursuing for the sake of contentment as well as personal achievement.  Having a natural refuge from some of the stresses of transition does much for the spirit.

Finally, we can do a great deal for our children’s hope by telling them that it really does get better as you get older.

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Too Much Instruction is a Dangerous Thing

Here she is, entering eleventh grade, and her father interrogates her weekly, “…so what do you want to major in and whereabouts are you thinking of college?”

We have moved ahead these last years.  She no longer requires a winter temperature of 70 degrees as a college selection criterion.  Her father has reduced his home lecture schedule on the importance of choosing a major by fifth grade and determining promising career paths after the year 2016.  Some progress, at least.

But what is there to tell a son or daughter about the future, based on our own experience?  Is any of that personal, bloody, often boring learning time relevant to the offspring?

Let’s see, what wisdom should I impart in my note in her lunch bag for the first day of college?

First of all, it is okay to admit that higher education is often drier education.  Jimmy Kimmel and Conan O’Brien are not retiring to deliver any monologues in the classes you’ll be taking.  There will be a few teachers who touch the soul, but many are on automatic pilot.  So find the professors by the student grapevine that knows what they are doing and like doing it.

Get the classes you need to qualify for what you are generally aiming for.  There is a great debate between education and vocational training, between learning to think and learning a skill.  Both are necessary.  Knowing how to type makes self-expression a whole lot easier.  Using a computer makes writing a lot less laborious.  At a more advanced level, keep checking to be sure you have the courses necessary to qualify for admission to the next level of study or the certificate and/or diploma required for practiced in the field of choice.

There is rarely enough said for steady persistence.  Expect that a few people or committees will decide you don’t have “the right stuff.”  Rejection hurts, but it doesn’t kill.  Learn what you can from the disappointment.  Even though your heart says no, share it with friends and family.  Remember, too, the length of this game is a lifetime and, if you’re going to play, it’s never too late to score.

Look at what works for you.  Find your groove – it may take 25 years.  There needs to be a match between what you do well (talent) and what you love to do (desire).  Once you own that connection, good things will happen.

Finally, take the above and mix it with your own experience.  Use what works and discard the rest.

Well, that is what I would put in the note for my daughter’s first day of college lunch bag; but what would you tell her?  If you drop me a note, tell me your age so I can see if wisdom alters over time.


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