Toolkit of New Years Vows for 2016

Photo of couple looking into each others eyes for The Couples Tool Kit blog post on New Years Vows for 2016_Credit - Stockbyte.

New Years Vows 2016: Each Day

1. Each Day I will wonder about you – how are you doing? How was your day? And each day I will take a moment to ask you. And each day I will actually listen to your answer.

2. Each Day I will tell you the truth. Each day I will undo a lie or omission from the day before. Each day I will remember that telling the truth takes a lot less time and causes a lot less damage than lying, avoiding or denying. Each Day.

3. Each Day you and I will play, share a joke, watch a show – just a flash of humor, each day. To remember we can play.

4. Each Day I will take a moment out to hold your hand or look into your eyes or kiss your lips or touch your cheek. Each day to remind myself that you are real too.

5. Each Day I vow that I will not let others define our relationship – turn our dyad into a triangle. Each day I will strive to make our unit the strong unit – the “to go to” unit – to strengthen ourselves within our Coupledom.

6. Each Day I will remember that one day I may lose you. So each day I will recall that you are my companion, my partner and my best friend. Even if each day isn’t always the same – some days I like you better than other days. Still.

Six Vows. Not too many. Just enough. Happy New Year Coupledom 2016.

@Jill Edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W. 2015

The Senior Coupledom*: Like the Elephant, Majestic and Scarred

Photo of an elephant for The Couples Tool Kit post, "The Senior Coupledom, like the Elephant, Majestic and Scarred." Photo Credit: 2630ben-iStock-Thinkstock.
Photo Credit: 2630ben/iStock/Thinkstock.

I am impressed by the sheer physicality of a couple who have spent four and more decades married. There is something implacable, massive, monumental, well worn and a bit weary in their presentation. I see them in my office, town events, airports and cocktail parties. Like the elephant whose swaying bulky splendor moves towards the watering hole, beautiful and beaten up but ultimately triumphant, the Senior Coupledom triggers curiosity and inspires awe. How have they done this, the elephant, the Senior Coupledom: Gotten so far and for so long?

(This may appear to be a false comparison: one elephant compared with two people. Elephants are matriarchal, the young males go off but the females remain with their babies and raise them with other females. But for me the Coupledom is one entity made up of two inhabitants. It is a single space, the domicile where the couple’s relationship resides.)

A couple’s decades of shared experience should be as visible and traceable as the aging spots, scars and freckles on their skin. But they are not. I too am a member of a Senior Coupledom – though I find my fascination and wonder draws me to ponder others, it is easier than pondering the intensely familiar. As recently as a month ago, standing up to debark from a plane ride south, someone called my name – a high school chum who sorted through my age related changes to recognize me. She and her husband were actually seated in the row behind me. How did I not see her? But there they were – together like forever – probably forty-five years now. So much personal history, so many hours and woes and triumphs and losses. Yet what I saw was an attractive, well-groomed couple who, in some ways, could have met each other yesterday. All those years of shared experience suggested only by how familiar they seemed with each other; the absence of tentativeness, no quick starts or searching glances – smooth like a well-worn boot.

The shared life is a precious thing. And what I see, and why people chuckled knowingly when I told them the title of my latest post, is just how hard and gratifying it is to accomplish this task – the sharing of a life with another over the decades. When I work with couples in the throes of life altering events – someone has an affair; someone feels isolated and alone in the marriage; someone feels unappreciated and exploited; in-laws and triangles and financial mistakes that create a loss of respect or spark hot rage; child disabilities or illnesses so burdensome that they shred slivers of the connective tissue; child rearing disagreements – to them none of this seems like a temporary phase. All appears as if a permanent truth – about a partner’s indifference or selfishness, cowardice or narcissism – like something that will last forever. But it doesn’t last forever. None of these “chapters” actually lasts forever. Yet they leave scars – blotches of pain – deep gashes. So with the elephant: scars from clashing tusks; infections; endless treks to watering holes; human cruelty. But they move along and the gashes become scars and the scarring ages too.

What’s my point here? When couples are in their tenth year or sixteenth year of marriage (and now marriage is for everyone so I can freely use the term and mean all of us in the U.S.) or twenty-fifth year, and troubles bubble up like indigestion, chronic or incidental, stopping the pain frequently translates into stopping the marriage. That’s okay. Many marriages should be stopped for the benefit of all. But before the attorneys get the call, cast a glance over the full scope of the passage of years. Is this a chapter of hardship, perhaps developmental (empty nest; male or female menopause; crushed dreams of financial invincibility at midlife; a drug addicted child; a difficult or dying parent; a geographic shift that triggers loneliness and increased dependency on a spouse)? Is this a phase where maturing means recognizing that the person you married is imperfect, permanently so, despite all your hard work to change them; yet what they are not isn’t necessarily all that they are?

Be very careful here. Because an aged Coupledom, which yours could evolve into, is a warrior worth protecting. Memories shared become memories scattered when you break up the team that created them together. Generational family passages, new babies, new graduates, become complicated and frequently disjointed events. The couples that I work with, who have spent decades together but hit a wall whose bricks of resentment were assembled over decades as well, can deconstruct the wall, brick by brick, and move on in life together. They don’t have to forgive their partner for each and every scarring. They just have to tell them that they still can feel the hurt and the other has to get it, feel it and genuinely care. A couple with whom I have worked for two decades off and on, not steady so don’t be scared, came last week to tweak something with me. Unexpectedly for them, in the context of the session, each hauled out a pretty deep, very alive hurt from the recent and not so recent past. We did the work and then I checked in and took their pulse. “Do you guys still love each other?” “Yes more than ever.” It makes me tear up just writing this. Because I was their guide and I got scared. When the hurt is so palpable and the anger so alive, even the seasoned clinician can worry – are we all right here? Did I drop the ball somewhere?

Nope, they are an intrepid team of two, a Coupledom, like the elephant, majestic and scarred, in their love and in their shared life. And is it worth? Oh yes – “I love her more than ever.”


* My term Senior Coupledom is not restricted to couples 65 and older or of any particular duration or number of decades together. It can be a second or third marriage, even, but it has lasted over time and adversity and mostly for good reasons, in spite of the bad reasons – through turmoil and challenge but with humor and kindness too.

@Jill Edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W. 2015

Hidden In The Closet: Shopping Addiction & The Coupledom

Photo of a woman with lots of shoes, for a post on The Couples Tool Kit about shopping addiction. Credit: Ingram Publishing/Thinkstock.

Frequently, in couples therapy, a spouse will bring up concerns regarding what they view as their spouse’s excessive shopping. And this is not limited to the stereotype of the wife who has 100 pair of shoes lined up on the closet floor. It is also the husband with 100 shirts in duplicate colors, or a garage full of “toys.” What is common to both genders is the knee jerk of denial: “That’s not true; you’re exaggerating. Lots of women have lots of shoes. And anyway, they were on sale.” Or, “What’s wrong with owning a few motorcycles? I work hard for that money.”

Now I am not in their garages or their closets to verify anyone’s accounting of the other’s inventory, but I am fairly confident that there is truth in much of what is presented. When your spouse has a shopping addiction, like other addictions, it will impact negatively on your relationship, trust, honesty, family life and finances.

Compulsive shopping is a secret shame, often unmentioned, often unnamed. My colleague April Benson, Ph.D. is a specialist in over shopping and has written extensively on the subject. I have taken this opportunity to share Dr. Benson’s most recent and very compassionate post which speaks to the dilemma a spouse is faced with when he realizes that his wife is a compulsive shopper.

Please click on the link below:

©Jill Edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W. 2015

Pixar Outs Emotions in “Inside Out”: Denial Folds

Scene from "Inside Out". Credit: Disney.

Before I saw the latest Pixar film Inside Out I was working on a post, “Wild With Denial,” about how couples get into trouble by denying their problems, denying their emotions – and how it only takes one in denial to throw off The Coupledom. “No we are not having a problem; nope it’s just your peri-menopause; my hours; Susie’s adolescence; your commute; it’s not that bad.” In short, your partner’s reality is not your reality – not yet anyway – so guess what? – it is obviously just you. “We’re fine.”

Not only do individuals in The Coupledom actively participate in pushing down uncomfortable feelings and perceptions but our entire culture thinks that sadness, anger, disgust, envy, jealousy, competitiveness and many more human emotions are best left unacknowledged in ourselves and treated as aliens who must be exorcised from our children. Loss is one of the emotions that our heroine in Inside Out is feeling but it is the emotion that cannot be named – to be sad about leaving a small town in Minnesota to go live in a city as exciting as San Francisco is to disappoint mom and dad who are pretty ecstatic about moving. Don’t want to be disappointing the folks.

As a licensed clinical social worker, psychoanalyst/couples therapist or whatever designation makes for some communication of what I do, I know that in a social situation many individuals are made uncomfortable knowing what my professional life consists of – helping others identify and alleviate their emotional discomforts. Often folks will ask if I am analyzing them at a party or if my husband and I spend hours analyzing each other. People seem to worry that I can see through them into their individual secret shames, marital discords or deeply personal insecurities. It’s one of those occupational hazards not unlike how folks might feel around a proctologist or a psychic. Their fear is palpable.

So when I saw the Pixar movie my initial reaction was wow, a feature film is outing the emotion of sadness as useful, necessary, beneficial and developmentally important. In fact, without allowing sadness and other not-joyful feelings to be part of our children’s acknowledged experience and language, serious problems can set in – what we shrinks call “acting out,” or depression, or self-medicating.

This outcome is wonderfully depicted in the film and supported by clinical experience. The eleven-year-old runs away because she cannot allow herself to feel how sad she is, how alone she feels, and how much she misses her former home and friends. That she is able to buy a bus ticket and step onto that bus in the darkness of early evening is another story. But it happens – kids run away.

I have listened for decades to adults describe how in their childhood, a death of a parent, a move to a new school and town, a divorce, a sibling death, a protracted illness of a loved one, was not part of the conversation they were able to have with their parents or anyone close to them. They observed the events or were told something had happened, and may have been asked, “How are you doing with this?” Or maybe not. They often answered “O.K.” or “I’m fine” because kids have a hard time labeling and then articulating complex emotions. And they want to please. They also don’t know, unless they are allowed to experience it, that sad feelings don’t last forever. As parents we may unwittingly collude in that belief by avoiding our own sadness, fearing it will bring us and everyone else “down.” Our model of avoidance becomes the method of choice when our children are faced with the prospect of pain.

We are all eager to reassure ourselves that our children are emotionally O.K. even as they experience unsettling events – one parent spliced into shorter segments of the week or month; grief – a classmate dies, a grandparent develops dementia; or disappointment – they don’t make the team, don’t get into the school they want, are rejected by friends. “Its fine Mom.” If it is something we as parents have orchestrated, we are even more freaked out at the possibility that our choices might have “hurt” our children. So we are thrilled when they say, “I’m fine.” We may have to go back to work or go into detox or sell the house. It is normal and necessary at times for our parental decisions to have some painful repercussions for our children. Or our spouses. It is not the painful repercussions of our decisions (often we have no other option) that create emotional havoc. It is the denial of them that does the damage. Pixar’s frenzied characters Fear, Anger, Disgust, Sadness and Joy spin around popping and pinging like balls in a pinball machine trying to keep sad feelings from taking hold of Riley, as if sadness could kill her.

At the heart of the matter is our fear of non-joyful emotions and our efforts to banish them from our homes, our children’s experience and our memories as quickly as possible. That these feelings might take up residence in home and hearth makes us scamper to tamp them down like unwanted sparks flying off the logs in our fireplace – too close to the rug, the curtain, our hearts.

As a graduate student decades ago, one of my supervisors informed me, “There is only one theme in life and it is loss.” Loss!!!! No way! Hard to imagine when in our twenties. There are probably several themes in life, if we narrow living down to themes. But loss is one of the biggest – we are born into mortality and as we move from infancy to toddlerhood, toddler to preschooler, preschooler to kindergartner, there is loss. Loss never stops but it partners with growth and gain. Yet loss is often hushed because it hurts and we think hurting is weakness – being vulnerable – like a weakened abdominal muscle that reduces our core strength to mush. Easy to knock us over. That’s what tugs at us as humans in western culture – vulnerability.

It is my job to guide individuals to the regions of their pain – they are feeling it or not feeling it but acting it out, ignorant often as to its source and its solution. They may blame themselves for it, “I know I shouldn’t feel this way,” or someone else, as in sessions that begin with “She or He…” rather than “I.” I help them to haul out fear, disgust, anger, sadness, joy and a whole host of other Pixar cast characters, examine their roots, and work on finding useful and effective ways to ease and make use of them. In couples work this is a complex and intricate journey for two people to engage in – outing what hurts – sharing vulnerability. But a very worthy endeavor.

In the New York Times Op Ed article, “The Science of Inside Out” research psychologists Paul Ekman and Daeker Keltner describe their role as consultants to the Pixar creators John Lasseter and Peter Docter (a man who built a tree house to live in with his family). Ekman and Daeker highlight the organizing aspects of emotions – to me, a very welcomed discussion. I loved how that was depicted in the film. Only when sadness was allowed to be part of Riley’s memory and emotional repertoire was she able to reconnect with her emotional bond to her parents, her childhood joys, her fear of the dark night, her grief and her powerful past attachments. Only then were tears allowed to roll down her cheeks in their animated glow. Only then was Riley able to return home and begin the next chapter in her developmental journey.

All our emotions deserve our respect. All emotions are part of a healthy development. It’s not feelings that get us into trouble. It’s denying them, repressing them, disapproving of them and most of all, being frightened of them. Ouch I have a feeling. Oh good, tell me what it is – I’m sure I’ve had that feeling too.

Thank you Pixar. You made my week/month/year.

© Jill Edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W. 2015



The Catch Phrases of Manipulation in The Coupledom

Image of woman being talked to by male partner, for post on The Couples Tool Kit about manipulating in communication.

How can you tell if someone is manipulating you? Let’s see. Are you frequently unsettled and confused after a conversation that didn’t go as you expected? Do you identify with that deer in the headlights scrambling up the shoulder of the road to escape from the semi heading its way? Do you leave conversations with loved ones with an icky aftertaste of guilt or humiliation coating your psyche? Do you return home after a couples’ night out layered in self-loathing and self-recrimination? Or puzzled and discombobulated? Are you likely to feel worse about yourself when with your partner or spouse than when in the company of friends, work colleagues or distant relatives?

If you answered yes to one or more of these questions you just might be a victim of manipulation by a loved one. (And yet another indication of manipulation, do you often feel like a “victim?”) Does the phrase manipulation by a loved one sound like a contradiction in terms? It shouldn’t. Our nearest and dearest are as skilled as any twitter tweeter for spinning the bland into a very personalized poisonous brew all about you.

In fact we all can take turns at being the victim of manipulation and the victimizer. It just takes activating a few key phrases coupled with body language and off we go. What might those phrases be? Well for beginners they start with “you” and are often accompanied by finger pointing, direct and formidable eye contact/forehead frowning, a hand gesture moving in a dismissive wave, lips pursed downward, possibly a body in a three quarter turn away from you or walking out of the bedroom, the kitchen or the family room leaving a trail of unattractive adjectives about you as they go.

So there you are left wondering if you are bad, stupid, uncaring, spoiled, careless, unloving, a cheater or a liar. Your partner has shared with you what they saw or heard or interpreted in an interaction with you and the first feelings you have are anxiety and confusion; you’ve lost your footing; you are metaphorically looking for a guardrail to steady you. Next you are scared: what is the reality after all? Did I say that, do that, mean that? Yes I am bad. Or no, I’ll fight this. Either way you have accepted your partner’s version of the story – you are provoked and reactive. But did you do your homework?

Reality may often be subjective – perception is personal. But certainly there are facts that bear on any interaction with another, accessible facts. And beware believing in an intention that someone else ascribes to you without checking into your psyche first. Only you can know your intentions for your actions, verbalizations or decisions. In truth you may have acted impulsively or spontaneously without examining your intention at the time. That’s fine. But it is your job to retrieve through memory the motivation for your behavior after the fact and share it. I didn’t say I wanted to leave the party because I was mad at you. I said it because I was really tired. The data is available in memory; just develop the skills to explore your own mind.

An exceedingly effective manipulation is the flip, a technique seamlessly introduced into a conversation. You might be sharing a feeling of sadness or disappointment with your partner and next thing you know, they are saying it is your fault that you feel that way. They flip it. You’re too sensitive; you’re too needy; you’re never satisfied. Or your partner takes you on a stroll down memory lane, digging up the bones of your past offenses. How did that happen? Distract by attack – a clever tool that works every time if you don’t catch on that someone has changed the subject and the new subject is “bad you.”

There is a caveat here: just because your partner is telling you that something you did or said created unpleasantness for them doesn’t mean that they are manipulating you or implying that you are a bad person. The other half of the education in interpersonal communication is to learn how to grapple with your own distortion tendencies. No matter how old, big or tall you may be, there is a child lurking within the confines of your psyche who still perceives a world of good or bad, loved or unloved, attached or abandoned. And depending on how severe the ravages of one’s childhood, the inclination to process a fairly mild reproach or even just a partner’s sharing of some hurt feelings might have the power to reduce you to a quivering mass of insecurity or a fire-breathing dragon of self-defensiveness – distortions both.

So keep a keen eye out for manipulations – those of your partner and those of your psyche. Armed and empowered by fact checking and self-knowledge will place you at the top of your game and your Coupledom in a healthy interactive mode for the shared life.

©Jill Edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W. 2015



Think Outside The Candy Box: Valentine’s Day 2015

Photo of candy hearts for Valentine's Day, from The Couples Tool Kit.

Here we go again. Heart shaped red ribboned candy boxes full of chocolate promises deck the shelves of the local CVS. A few days ago I noticed some harried looking males anxiously flipping through the stacks of Valentine cards in the supermarket aisle. The pressure is on to perform the mating ritual and renewal that Valentine’s Day heralds. TA DA!

Marketed as the year’s most romantic moment, Valentine’s Day is a hot potato of performance for many couples wary after disappointments of the past anticipating or planning activities together. Some rely on the “read my mind” solution – “By now he/she should know what would please me.” Or “Better not to expect anything and then I won’t be hurt.” Somehow none of these attempts at self-protection seem to pan out. Everyone is walking on little candy hearts and we know how easily they are crushed.

So here is a simplistic but possibly useful suggestion: how about together just figure out what would be a fun time. Fun here means sharing in an activity that both members of the Coupledom enjoy. There must be at least one, and probably many, that are attainable on a Saturday in February. Dictionary definitions of romance include the words mystery and excitement, which can be difficult to achieve in a long-term relationship, but fun can incorporate both without the sticky sentimentality that often makes a muck of the Valentine’s Day exercise.

Most successful missions in life are collaborations. Valentine’s Day should be one of the easiest to achieve. After all it is one day and with a budget that matches real life resources, a time frame that takes in the realities of children, sitters and work obligations, and an evenly shared amount of energy and time put into the planning, this just might work. Oh yes, and love.

Happy Valentine’s Day as in Have Fun.

©Jill Edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W. 2015



Relationships 2015: Married and Otherwise

Holiday Greetings and Wishes for a robust Coupledom in 2015 – a relationship between two consenting adults that flourishes and bares healthy fruit, whether that means children, pets or simply a fulfilling shared life.

I’d like to share some of my thoughts on how to approach your relationship in 2015.

A couple of weeks ago The New York Times published an article The Divorce Surge Is Over But the Myth Lives On that summarized recent data on divorce in our country. The good news is that the divorce rate that peaked in the seventies during the feminist movement and sexual revolution has come down to levels previously attained before the historic upending of the mores of the nineteen fifties. The reasons for this trend are postulated as the following: the older age of the marrying pair; living together prior to signing up for the license; and that women and men today share breadwinning responsibilities. In short less female dependent brides, more love based relationships amongst older/more mature peer adults and previous experience being domestic together appear to be some of the ingredients in a better marital cocktail.

Unfortunately this positive trend has a class caveat. Middle and working class individuals with less education are more likely to remain single because they cannot afford marriage – jobs are fewer so the financial foundation that marriage depends upon is missing. Sadly these statistics also show the trend in that economic strata to more single-parent households.

These are trends with interesting implications for the couples therapist in me. What I read between the lines and care to share with you is the notion of respect for the other: admittedly an elusive quality to measure, the equality of partnership of any relationship that is anchored in interdependency. In other words, setting aside the very sad news that our economy is not providing sufficient employment for lower middle and working class citizens (a very big deal), those who are lucky enough to be amongst the educated and employed are apparently marrying folks they like, and with whom they share the burdens and joys of providing for their household. No one is the boss of anyone!

Another possible positive influence from my observation of the trends of recent decades is that couples who hit minor or major roadblocks to a healthy Coupledom are more inclined to seek help from others; are less ashamed to reveal the sore festering in their relationship; and both genders are more willing to go into couples therapy, a support group, AA, pastoral counseling or other relationship aiding resources. Less shame, more gain.

To handle the complexities that abound in couples relationships – parenting, bills, sexual needs, in-laws and economic vicissitudes – optimally requires two evolved and self-reliant individuals. So the data makes clear. The evolution of the individual into a mature adult who believes that they are worthy and able makes the peer-based interaction of a Coupledom more likely. First depend on yourself. Next interdepend with another. What does that mean? Look at the data and have a great New Year.

©Jill Edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W. 2015



Lonely in The Coupledom: Post Holiday Blues

How Were The Holidays? The post holiday season can be an especially challenging time for couples. Perhaps you are empty nesters and the kids went back to school. Could be your vicarious thrill in watching your young children’s Christmas joy has waned with the new year or maybe when the grandparents flew back to home base leaving you with garbage bags full of recyclable wrapping paper (if there is such a thing) and dried pine needles on the floor. Or you are the grandparents returning home with unwanted baggage awaiting you there. Possibly the eighth night of Hanukah, though glowing with candlelight, foreshadowed the winter solstice, short days and long evenings together that added a chill to the Coupledom atmosphere. Winter can be tough on couples if cozy together is not a part of the vernacular.

The Fundamentals of Loneliness For Two: You can be very lonely in your Coupledom. In fact, feeling lonely emerges as one of the more common unrecognized emotions often unveiled in my office, to the surprise of everyone. Two people living within the same walls, even under the same bed sheets, which seemingly imposes an atmosphere of intimacy and connection and yet, walls and sheets do not a closeness make. What are the fundamental requisites for a sustained and enduring sense of being part of a couple, part of a team of two, distinct individuals but emotionally not all alone? This is a question with a complicated and really open-ended answer, one each individual needs to define for themselves.

Soul Mates? To define something you often have to cull out what it is not. In the case of intimate relationships there needs to be a differentiation between “fusion,” whose price is loss of individual identity and “intimacy,” which means an ease of communication, physical and otherwise, between two separate beings. Soul mate is a term typically used to describe the feeling of being understood so well by another that after a long search, finding and marrying one’s soul mate is considered the ideal, the platinum of mating choices. This is a glorious but often transient “fusion” fabulously fueled by sexual chemistry, where two individuals identify so much with each other that it appears as if they are one. They share similar visions of the world, people, food, movies, friends, religion, politics, backgrounds, trauma history. They read each other’s thoughts; second-guess each other’s answers. They are finally known and understood, and know and understand another. The perfect loop of love. Yet when they are actually in the trenches of daily life much of that similarity seems to dissolve and folks are shocked to find out that in fact they are very different in some fundamental ways, such as how they interact with or discipline their children; their approach to money, in-laws, holidays, entertaining; their work ethic or their preferred time for sex; all now have become disappointing and insurmountable differences, personalized as rejections or callous indifference, stubbornness or power plays. Sadly over time, feeling safe, secure and trusting is replaced by feeling duped and deceived, even scared. Why this atmospheric shift, the tipping of the earth’s axis? Because love was based more on identifying with each other than actually knowing each other. That’s fusion, not intimacy, projection, not true understanding. The holiday season is notorious for underlining in bold those differences that simply smolder for the rest of the year.

The Antidote to Loneliness in The Coupledom: What really reduces loneliness inside ourselves is when we feel seen, known and understood by our partner. This is not an automatic outcome of being loved by another. This is an active and daily transaction between two people that involves knowing what’s important to each of you to share with the other, whether it be the good news, chit chat, embarrassments, dreams, wants, disappointments, anger, insult, shame and pride. And to be the recipient of the same sharing, with a loop of mature love that warms up the chilly winter nights. Being known and also loved is what folks often mean when they say “unconditional” but it isn’t unconditional. How we treat each other counts more than the words we use to describe our feelings. Both have to be in that loop and then the loneliness will subside, and when it comes up again, check to make sure you are both revealing enough of you to be seen. If you don’t and won’t, then you will feel alone.

©Jill Edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W. 2014



In Time For Love: Opportunities Are Unlimited

Fifty and Older: A deeply distraught senior in his seventies faces the prospect of living in marital misery “until death do us part.” The chasm between the pair has widened over the decades and may be unfixable. His wife feels the same way. What are their choices: divorced and alone or together and unhappy? A decade or so ago my best offer would be to help the couple paste together whatever shards of former friendship, history or affection they could find to make the passage of time tolerable enough. Today when faced with a similar task and questioned as to options, I offer something else: possibility.

The possibility of finding friendship, compatibility, fun and possibly passion with someone new. Despondent grownups over fifty who are trapped financially and emotionally in torturous or hollow marriages risk damaging their psychological and physical health when they don’t allow themselves to imagine other options including the benefits of the changing mores of the times. These changes include not only Viagra, hip replacements and bypass surgeries but the resources of the ever-proliferating world of dating sites and social networking. The fifty and older set has mastered technology sufficiently (after all they invented it) to jump on the bandwagon of locating love in just the right places: close to home, affordable, and potentially full of gratifying fun.

Pro-Active Approach: What has changed over the last two decades is opportunity. If you are prone to passivity, then seeking new love at any age is risky. But if you’re not, then the age of instant contact is made for you. Not only are there many dating sites for the mature adult, but also social media such as Facebook and LinkedIn allow people to connect with past friends, colleagues and future friends. High School and college reunion organizers can locate and entice almost anyone who was a graduate to assemble together one more time to review unfinished business or renew interests left behind. In earlier decades snail mail might not have unearthed this possibility and certainly without the Internet, cell phones and text, would have not made it so easy to sustain the connection.

The blind date motif is still a practical option, meeting someone through someone. But more often today, when you ask folks how they met, if they are over fifty, it is either through online dating, a class reunion, or a reconnection through social media.

Does that mean we give up on existing marriages for the possibility of a new like/love option? I am a couples therapist so that would be like a car mechanic telling you to trade in your current car even before you open up the hood to see if the problem is fixable – after all, an oil change might suffice. New cars are very expensive. Divorce is very expensive and emotionally costly to everyone, the Coupledom most of all. But years of clinical experience has shown me that offspring of any age are heavily impacted by the demise of their parents’ marriages, as is the extended network of cousins, friends and pets. Couples therapy is a worthy enterprise – a shared life should never be squandered. But for those who find themselves unmarried or uncoupled, whether widowed or divorced, or married and deeply miserable, the notion that one might find a quotient of happiness before the lights go out, is not wildly delusional. In fact, it is wild not to consider that alternative.

Big Love/ Big Business: Our time, mingle, cupid, harmony, match: just some of the language that bedecks the websites of dating services, all smack of possibility. If cupid were up to speed I would meet my match in harmony, to mingle together in our time happily ever after. Fingers crossed everyone can get a second (or more) chance at love. The marketplace is packed full of dating sites competing for our dollars: Christian Mingle, JDate, Match, eHarmony, Our Time and many more. This is not because they don’t work. It is because in many cases they do work, as does social media connecting for business, for philanthropy, for creativity and for love. With effort, patience and the muscle needed to withstand the predictable disappointments, frustrations and rejections (according to all reports the vicissitudes of dating at any age appear to be similar) that accompany the search for a mate, the opportunities appear to be unlimited. All you need is imagination, energy and the courage to leave something known and unfixable for the possibility that you may still be in time for love.

©Jill Edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W. 2013



Fates Entwined: Now Take Care of Yourself

The Unspoken Contract That Needs To Be Spoken: Decades ago my husband told me a funny anecdote about one of his aunts. She was a mother of four and her husband passed out in front of her. Not that funny? But what he quoted that she said both jolted me and made me laugh, as he survived for many decades more: “Don’t you die on me, you expletive!” Hardly the statement I expected from the lips of a loving wife. But dead on, pun or not.

I have often referred back to that anecdote over the years as it began to make more and more sense to me. Once the threads of individual lives are sown together, with shared responsibilities and deepening mutual significance, nothing happens to one that doesn’t impact the other, especially related to health.

Difference Even Here: Let me expand a bit on what I mean. Under average circumstances, couples meet while still in good health due to relative youth, though it is not unusual for someone already to be managing a chronic condition, maybe Lupus or Crohn’s Disease, or any number of autoimmune diseases. But generally speaking there is the absence of medical threat in the early stages of forming the shared life and the family that often accompanies it. By the time couples dip into their forties, stuff begins to happen; menopause; high blood pressure; breast and other cancers, heart disease. And the peer group begins to witness friends who tragically succumb to some of these diseases while still in the throes of raising their children. A new and unwelcomed sense of vulnerability ensues and couples look at each other with different eyes: this could happen to you, to me, to us. Perhaps it is a family of origin’s genetic profile that pulls us out of the sand, ostrich-like, when a parent dies, or a sibling, or a cousin. But not everyone behaves the same way following these frightening wake up calls. There is often a very striking and often problematic difference in how each member of The Coupledom responds to that call.

Defenses Again? Yes, how we handle threats of any kind, psychological, physical, social, you name it, depends on our psyche’s typical response to uncertainty, to the sense of vulnerability that new information, unanticipated situations and unpredictable challenges convey. And this difference in our defenses for a couple can make for serious and protracted negative interactions for the usual reasons: we expect the other to think as we do and take action as we would. But they don’t. And that makes us feel powerless, angry and frightened. After all, we are entwined, our fates are interdependent: “Don’t you die on me…!” is not just anecdotal. It speaks to the essence of the joined life: I am vulnerable to you, whether I like it or not. That’s the contract. Now what do we do?

Choices: A man has a chronic condition, he is on medication for it and needs blood levels checked every few weeks. He doesn’t adhere to that protocol and ends up in a life threatening condition. A woman believes that breast-feeding her child for two or more years takes precedence over getting a mammogram, though breast cancer killed her sister. The man is lucky to survive. The woman dies before her youngest child has completed elementary school. Both families are affected: one with permanent damage to one of its members that impacts the family; the other by death, a mother lost to her children and her spouse, forever.

What Happens to You Happens to Me: Smoking, obesity, excessive drinking, driving without a seat belt are just some of the common threats that couples impose on their relationship. Avoidance of check ups or follow-ups is another typical pattern. Even more stunning is how often partners neglect to share the information from those doctor meetings with their partner. Selective hearing is a powerful though unconscious tool in the service of avoidance and denial; unless both partners attend the check-up or the follow-up visit, the spouse may not even know they are in effect “lying” when they relate to their mate what they were told about their health or their test results.

Adolescent Rebellion at Age Forty Doesn’t Help Either: One spouse asking the other to get a check-up or lose weight or stop smoking not only triggers defenses such as avoidance and denial because it taps fears and the individual’s psyche responds to threats in a characteristic style, but also those same requests can trigger some developmental arrest responses/regressions. In other words, though your partner is your peer, the voice may evoke the image of the nagging parent and the response follows in kind. “Stop bugging me, I’ll do it on my own schedule.” Or, “What I choose to do with my body is my own business. What’s it to you? I don’t tell you what to do with your body!”

It is the unusual spouse who outs their long hidden phobias or fears of doctors and willingly traces their roots. Nope, hide that vulnerability, look tough and just say, “I’m fine.” Women or men who have an idealized image of the sacrificing or tough as leather gender paradigm do not realize how endangering their belief system is to those whom they presume to love and protect.

A Mutual Pledge: When two people commit to sharing a life together, something important needs to be added to the spoken contract, even written down and mutually pledged:

The decisions that each of us makes regarding our individual health will be transparent to the other with the understanding that how we take care of ourselves impacts the other. For that reason, each of us vows to be respectful of, and influenced by, the other’s opinion, and provide all data, symptom descriptions and test results to them. That we will aim to share our fears and seek support from the other to face health challenges with mutual respect and the awareness that what happens to each happens to both.

Our Fates Our Entwined, Now Take Care of Yourself: Couples fight about this health stuff, insult each other, avoid each other and lie to each other. Often the spouse who picks up the pieces of the other’s avoidance, neglect or abuse becomes bitter and loses interest eventually in caring for their mate. That is a defense, a reactive defense, to lessen feeling vulnerable, scared, powerless, disrespected, all or any of the above. And often these behaviors are characteristic of other transactions in the relationship. Outing this problem can also help in outing other transactional problems. Take a moment and share this post. And good health to all.

©Jill Edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W. 2013