Sunday, May 29, 2011

Talking to your Tween about about Teen Suicide

I wanted to share this article that I wrote with a colleague with mine, Rayanne Coy, who is a parenting coach. In the Barrington area where I practice, the community has had to confront the problem of teen suicide several times over the past several years.

Relationship Tip

I wanted to pass on a tip which I have found helpful in my practice. The next time you have a problem to discuss with someone, ask yourself the following question: how would I bring up my concern if I genuinely believed I would receive a positive response?  It can help to visualize the other person listening carefully and responding with warmth. How emotionally present and receptive would you be in this scenario? What would your tone of voice be like? What words would you use? How relaxed would your facial muscles be? What would your posture be like? How much eye contact would you choose? How would you bring up the topic in the first place?

When we don't expect to be heard, we can speak in a way that makes it hard for someone else to give us that positive response we desire. Here are some things people commonly do when they expect an antagonistic response: talk loudly, use aggressive body language, tense up physically, speak overly apologetically, avoid eye contact, hurl insults, shut down emotionally, avoid the conflict altogether, make threats, refuse to listen, or try to prove to the other person that they are wrong. In other words, we fall into a "fight or flight" way of communicating (see my blog entry on Trust.)

The tip does not always work--e.g. if you are speaking to someone who is emotionally detached from you or who genuinely believe your concerns are not legitimate. But, in many cases, it is one step toward not only defusing conflict but deepening the intimacy level of a relationship.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

A Plea for Couples - Seek Help Early!

One of the greatest challenges for any couples therapist is helping a couple rebuild trust when at least one person has years of resentment piled up. In these situations, even when the person in the "dog house" is finally ready to make changes, it can be too late. A relationship problem is like a weed in your garden. When it is an inch tall, it is easy to pluck. When it becomes a 4-5 foot tall plant with thistles with a root system just as deep, it is much more challenging. To make this practical: if your alcoholic spouse is finally in recovery after 20 years, how do you move forward? How do you forgive them for the impact the drinking has had on you and your children? How can you possibly trust that things will be different? How can you even picture your relationship without the addiction?

This is why I am sending out this plea--if problems in your relationship are just beginning and you cannot seem to resolve them as a couple, do not pass go, do not collect $200, apply the $200 you already have toward your couples therapy fund! If you are considering making a long-term commitment but have any significant reservations it is better to face those things now before becoming more deeply invested in building your life together. If you feel your partner is spineless with the in-laws, come in before you come to despise both your spouse and the in-laws. If you and your partner have nasty, explosive arguments, it is better to seek help before you have years to nurse grudges over insults hurled in the heat of the moment. If you feel emotionally neglected or intruded upon with some regularity, realize that these issues often do not get resolved without intervention. Even if you decide to move on, these issues can reappear in subsequent relationships, so getting therapy for yourself can be worthwhile even if your partner refuses to come to counseling.

This is not to say that all is lost if you have been stuck in the same pattern for years. It is difficult to soften your heart toward someone who you believe has failed you significantly and/or repeatedly over the years. But that softening is where hope lies. Being open to your partner's efforts to change, even if those changes are small and gradual, helps to cultivate the soil where your relationship can grow. 

Wednesday, May 25, 2011


Relationships cannot exist without trust. The absence of trust can keep people isolated from each other, or in a combative pattern of relating to each other. All of us have a built in "fight-or-flight" response to danger. If a tiger is racing toward me, I will flee to safety, if possible, or fight for my life if there is no alternative. In The Gift of Fear, Gavin de Becker writes about the value of this response pattern in protecting us from physical violence. However, physical violence is not needed to activate this system. When day-to-day relationships start to sour, the other person may feel like that tiger. When this happens, your instincts may tell you to fight (i.e. verbally attack the other person, defend yourself) or to flee (i.e. emotionally withdraw or physically leave the relationship). Sometimes these responses are entirely appropriate. At other times, our fears serve to shape  reality as we unwittingly help to create a corrosive dynamic in a valued relationship.

To add a layer of complexity, our judgment is not perfect. I must ask myself--am I truly under attack or do I just expect to be attacked because of my (or our) past? These kind of questions are sometimes difficult to answer on one's own. Part of my job as a Clinical Psychologist is to help people sort through when trust is appropriate, how much trust is warranted, and when "fleeing" might be the best choice. People with a history of trust violations due to emotional, physical, and/or sexual abuse find these questions especially challenging.