Lying While Cycling: Do Liars Change?

Big Stakes Question: Will I ever be able to trust you again? Lies, a pattern of lying, finally exposed and then at last a forced coming clean; what does any of that mean? Frankly there is no more powerful issue in couples therapy – in all interpersonal linkages, than this question: Do liars change? Lance Armstrong, the current standard bearer, poster boy for living the lie, is a complex character who fought a lethal cancer, created philanthropies, is beloved by at least one of his five children (according to his Oprah interview) and yet excelled in extensive lying over a decade that smeared the reputations of friends (whom he went after with a vengeance) and created a model of success that youngsters all over the world revered that was based on one truth only, that he was lying while cycling, all the way. Is he any different than other famous liars or the liar in your bedroom or boardroom? Can liars ever be trusted again?

Reality Testing? Though this is a couples blog, infidelity is not the only form of lying that impacts trust between two people in an intimate relationship. There are the Bernie Madoffs and Lance Armstrongs of the world whose professional lives are based on a lie. These lies also embroil others in their web, many unknowingly. And impact others. One of Madoff’s sons killed himself. Lance Armstrong’s five children, most still very young, are about to find out that Daddy is the biggest fraud in professional sports ever! Where will their reality testing tools go now? The moral compass? People in the middle of their addictions lie all the time to cover up anything from where all the money went to why they were out until four in the morning to who stole mom’s engagement ring. Active in your addiction? You’re lying for sure. If your addiction is to keep up a falsehood about your accomplishments, you lie daily to maintain that falsehood.

A Model of Artifice: And the defense against accusers, personal or otherwise, is to claim that they are the liars. Or they misunderstand or are motivated by jealousy, competition or prejudice. Any number of explanations that make one wonder, “Well, maybe they are right.” Because artful liars lie with conviction. Reality falls into the hands of a master sculptor who is skillful in reshaping another’s reality to match their model of artifice.

Safeguarding The Lie: I am not a cyclist nor a sports informed individual but I am a student of character and I was spellbound while watching Armstrong being interviewed by Oprah, at how delusional he was during and still is to a great extent, throughout his decade of lying. That he could keep up this pace of deceit, attack his accusers and somehow land on his feet is stunning. And how similar this behavior is to all chronic liars everywhere. They share the delusion that their lie is protected and worthy of sustaining at all costs. And that the act of reversing course sooner and coming clean is so much worse than maintaining an existence of falsehood which requires a lot of energy, backtracking, and yes, eyes looking over the shoulder to check if something suspicious fell off the back of the lying bus of their life. What about all the people close to them who believe the lie? They are the true victims. At all costs throw them under the bus. Safeguarding the lie is the goal, not maintaining the trust that others hold in them. Is this sociopathy, folks who have a defective conscience, a deficit that rests in a part of the brain? Studies indicate that there may be some genetics here. Or is it trauma in childhood that leads to overarching ambition, knee-jerk lying or some kind of social learning defect that prevents the liar from evaluating consciously the cost to self and especially to others of the lie?

Temporary or Permanent Liar: Most of the lying I am privy to resides with the couple who is faced with the irreversible evidence that one of them has maintained a sexually intimate relationship for a period of time outside their bond. The fact of a love betrayal is only part of the trauma. That someone else became the partner in bed often involved daily or weekly lies about where someone was, what they were doing and why. The most banal aspects of daily life become the toxic details of betrayal. Were you putting gas in the car, caught in a traffic jam, working late or meeting with a former boss? No, you were with them. And strangely enough infidelities are not the only lies that poison trust in The Coupledom. Nope, the Armstrong/Madoff lies tamper with trust as much and perhaps more than sexual infidelities. There are the lies that cover addictions and simple dalliances that pollute trust. What is most undermining for the recipient of these lies is that their reality is spun all about, like a DJ’s turntable, topsy-turvy, undermined traumatically when the deception is revealed, leaving dirty nicotine like stains of humiliation and self doubt that don’t wash off: “how was I that stupid” “under my nose” “what’s wrong with me?” that necessitate the rebuilding of the self. The damage to the heart is only one part of the toll of living with a liar. The other is the damage to self-worth, self-respect, self-image, self-confidence, you name it. The self of the lied to is shattered for quite a long time. “What an idiot I was to trust you. I feel like such a fool. Duped.” And this blow to the self is not limited to infidelity. Being a partner, even unwittingly, to a fraudulent life, is to feel like a fraud.

Do Liars Change: The couple sits in my office. One member says they are changed, repentant and the other partner says, “How can I be sure?” Both have a responsibility here. The partner who lied has to be evaluated in very concrete ways. For how long did the lie go on? Was this the first lie or a history of lies? When did lying begin in your life? Why did you lie? The other partner has to ask questions too. Why didn’t I know? Was I choosing not to know? Did my partner try to tell me something but I refused to hear it? Did others? Where was I? Was I an accomplice, as Armstrong’s wife may have been, or perhaps more like Madoff’s wife, someone who benefited from not knowing? Did ambition undo me too? Or was I just so sure that the person I thought was my partner would never do this to me so I never even allowed myself to consciously wonder why there were so many unexplained moments? Or did I wonder but never asked because I didn’t want to have to deal with the consequences? Where did we get all this money? Why are your friends no longer your friends? Did I collaborate in the lie? Self-deception wreaking havoc on the self. Do liars change? It depends on who the liar is. How entrenched is the lying habit? (As with Armstrong, don’t hold your breath on that one.)

A Character Analysis: When you share your life with a liar, you are tainted by their lies. When their lies are revealed, both your character traits and those of the lying partner need intensive analysis and scrutiny, but the work together is only worthwhile if something of value in the relationship remains. And if the liar is complex in good ways too. I would personally avoid couples therapy with either a Madoff or an Armstrong except to give my voice the integrity and dignity of being heard in their presence. Can one discriminate between a chronic liar and a circumstantial liar where acute pressures or childhood trauma provided a context in which lying became a temporary device for survival? And even then, can the habit of lying be unlearned? If you tell a Nazi that no one in fact is being hidden in your attic, aren’t you a good liar, a liar for good? But if you have to lie for years and years to survive, is the lying brand permanent? Caution: do not make the effort to help extricate the liar from his or her web, so they can become the trustworthy partner you wish them to be, without professional help. And most significant of all, to the recipient of the lies, the primary goal is to find a means to re establish (or to establish for the first time) a trust in their perceptions, their reality; not to be bullied out of, dismissed, mocked or belittled out of the perceptions that constitute their hold on reality. Develop or sharpen tools of character assessment that may have been sadly absent. No relationship is worth maintaining at the cost of one’s self-trust.

©Jill Edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W. 2013

Tidying Up The Holiday Mess: The Coupledom Hangover

Blight on the New Year: The ornaments are boxed, the ball has dropped and the seasonal remains of the day have been put away yet there remains some unwanted detritus from the holiday past. Those sticky, hard-to-get-off-the-soles-of-your shoes type of goo where some clash or alienation has occurred, either within the Coupledom or between the Coupledom and the outsiders – an endless list of pickles to climb out of or try to ignore which place a bit of a blight on the New Year.

Typical Pickles: Amongst the more common are the generational type, where older folks want more time visiting and sharing with the younger generation than the younger members can supply. Families loaded with stroller-age offspring are hard to pin down, or suddenly may yearn to hunker down with their little family “this year” rather than join the hordes or open their doors to them. Or perhaps there are very few sightings of the college age kid, who came home with their laundry and then vanished as if magnetically pulled out of the house to attach themselves to that north pole of friendship.

The Coupledom gift exchange can provide some ticklish moments as well. One spouse is pleased and excited, the other decidedly not. Someone feels cheated, someone feels unappreciated.  And the  ever-popular pickle where one mate is convinced that they did most of the work, bought the gifts, made the meals, did the clean-up, while the other just “benefited from all my labors.” You can almost smell the smoke rising out of someone’s skull.

How To Tidy Up The Mess: The first task is to notice the tension in the air or the tightness in your chest and give it a name. Regarding your Coupledom, are you avoiding each other? Or perhaps it is someone else? Is the caller I.D. the key to your safety? Are you already dreading next holiday season? Are you all the way over on the other side of the bed and if it weren’t a king you would be in trouble? On Facebook less or postponing email responses to family members because you know that they are unhappy with you? Or you with them? Whatever the discomfort, notice it, identify it, give it a “feeling” name: anger, hurt, fear, guilt. And then ask your partner, mate, spouse, that person with whom you share a life, to help you work on things; to aid you in your challenge with others or be part of the collaborative effort needed to help your relationship with them. Remember, if one of you in the Coupledom is hurting, the entire Coupledom is suffering as well.

More Distance, Less Guilt: Distress triggered by awkward or hurtful exchanges with in-laws, siblings or other extended family can benefit from pooling the impressions of both spouses to come up with a viable means to move forward with these relationships. Never underestimate the usefulness of the non-blood-related partner’s insights. They have more distance, less guilt and greater objectivity, all of which can be enormously liberating. What may seem callous or not getting it, is actually a beneficial byproduct of the “outlaw” status and likely just what is needed.  Sometimes not having lived the family history is what allows the other to help you leave that history behind.

From A Different Lens: Behaviors that are hurtful or provocative to one partner in the Coupledom may have little emotional impact on the other. A good example is that of  the college age kid who spent most of the holiday “out” which caused pain to one parent yet was insignificant to the other. The difference in impact should not lead to a shouting match. Rather, providing support and empathy for the more hurting parent is the first order of business. Then the other parent can share their view of the behaviors through a different lens and ultimately the combined wisdom and experience of both parents should  yield a more stable and solid approach to their child going forward.

A Head’s Up: And then there is the Coupledom gook. Someone is unhappy and needs the airing and sharing of disappointments, the unmet expectations; perhaps feelings of betrayal or abandonment (“where were you when your parents were insulting me; your brother was hitting on me; Johnny threw up and the cat peed in the foyer.” “Why are your never satisfied with what I give you. That hurts too.”) We are not always going to be what the other wants no matter whether it is Christmas morning or Flag Day. And if someone needs more help next year, sit down together and write up a plan now, save it in a file and open it ten months later as a heads up, hey, let’s do it right this year.

In The Details: So much of the work of creating a good relationship is in the details, all year long. Anticipate and plan the holiday, identifying who are the important people in your lives, how best to include them in the holiday, while avoiding the traps of previous years.  And most vital, keep your Coupledom important and smart so that it can be the resource both of you rely on, all year long. You can be so much smarter each year, if you huddle after the latest “round” and come up with an improved set of tactics that deal with each other and with the world outside of your Coupledom. A simple example: if the gift exchange tends to bomb, then don’t buy each other individual gifts. Instead, decide on a joint activity to pour your Christmas money into: a trip, theater tickets, a big screen TV, a journey of discovery, a regular baby sitter. Avoid setting up disappointment. There are so many options. Look around you. Which couples seem to handle things smoothly? The smart couples!

No emotional hangovers after the ball descends in 2014. Nope. We will tidy this mess up right now.

© Jill Edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W. 2013




Coupledom Resolutions Revisited: New Years 2014

New Couples, Veteran Couples: Here are a few suggestions for the ritual of joint resolution that we call the New Year. When the ball drops this even numbered New Year be prepared.

  • Talking Heads: Vow to aim for eye contact when you have verbal exchanges as much as possible. The walking out of or into other rooms while sharing details of daily living, shooting comments that crackle with anger or hurt as you depart to work, or turn off the light at night, even compliments on the fly, need to be delivered directly to the recipient. And for several critical reasons: to show respect to each other; to get the details right; to allow time for the other to integrate the information being shared and provide a response. Many of these exchanges are designed to avoid legitimate contact and, as such over the years, create havoc with mutual respect and intimacy. Your choice this year is to not let your Coupledom pull these stunts. Stop, Look and Listen!
  • Triangle Traps: This resolution is indispensable for every couple. Resolve to out all triangulations in your Coupledom life. I Spy a Triangle should be a new couples’ game. And then resolve together to extricate the Coupledom from the sticky poison that triangles exude.
  • Transparency: This is a tough one but resolve to aim for as much transparency as possible. In a Coupledom that means that financial books should be shared regularly; secrets about other family members that might confuse loyalties should be avoided; and when compromising closeness or trust, past histories should be revealed – if they are harmful to intimacy and honesty. Your first loyalty, once you sign on to the shared life, should be with your partner. Be brave and share shame.
  • Having Fun: I know, easier said than done, but this aspect of the shared life is especially crucial to the health of the relationship. The definition of what is fun should be created by both parties, sometimes taking turns. And should be as regularly scheduled as checking to see if you need more milk. If you are home rearing little kids, have a tight budget or one of you is infirmed and home-bound, the rules still apply. The range of choices can be limitless. If you don’t create a texture of pleasure frequently enough, the lining of love will wear out.
  • Comforting and Grieving Together: Take a vow this year, a particularly tough one in our country for many, to learn how to comfort each other when pain strikes or grief enters your worlds. This is not so easy as it sounds. If you don’t know what would be comforting to the other, take the time this year to ask them and learn. We lean toward sharply distinct styles of self-soothing and consoling others. Some folks want space and time. Some want talk and hugs. Together figure out how to speak in a language of caring that both recognize when loss and hardship hit your Coupledom.
  • Learn Something New Together: Nothing stimulates the Coupledom more than a newly discovered common interest. Children and grandchildren can be strong forces that bind and keep the energy alive in the Coupledom. But it is exceedingly dangerous to exclusively rely on the stimulation of their evolving lives to provide either the glue or the new and exciting in yours. You are safest searching and discovering places, causes or hobbies that draw your coupledom towards something that infuses the relationship with vitality, and each individual with renewed interest in the other.
  • The Sex Resolution: One of you may not be happy with the quantity, the other, the quality, or the lack of both, but no matter. The most important thing in this New Year is to break the ice or quell the noxious flames of hurt and finger pointing with a vow to talk about how to make it better, not perfect, but better. Removing the taboo and outing the problem as shared and human will take your intimacy a long distance away from the hallows of 2013.

Happy 2014 To All. May We Be Blessed With Joy. 

©Jill Edelman, M.S.W. L.C.S.W. 2014


Bracing For Santa: Holiday Performance Anxiety In The Coupledom

Anticipating Complications: If you notice, as the days darken and talk of turkeys and Black Friday fill the air, that your insides have begun to retract and breathing has become a more shallow affair, perhaps you are suffering from Holiday Performance Anxiety. And if the communication between you and your partner about when to leave for Grandma’s house, what gifts to buy the children or how big a tree to purchase this year is laced with irritation or edged in annoyance, then the pressure of holiday prep is upon your Coupledom.

Money and Relatives: Just what are the biggest, most aggravating holiday complications? Well they are probably innumerable. After all, according to Paul Simon there are at least fifty ways to leave your lover, and there must be at least that many to ruin your holiday. But what leaps to my clinical mind are these: “Which relatives to visit and for how long?” and “Just how much money can be spent this holiday without losing the farm, the mortgage or the kids’ college education?” Under each of those two general categories are multiple subcategories: “When to leave for the in-laws, Christmas Eve or Christmas Day?” “Do we bring the dog?” “Whose turn is it to make the Christmas cookies?” “How do we deal with my stepchildren, your stepchildren and crazy cousin Eddie?”

The Holiday Joys of Triangulation: The maternal party’s mother will be insulted if we don’t include her sister and crazy Uncle Harry. “But he spoils every Christmas by getting drunk.” “Oh yeah, well, we put up with your brother-in-law every Easter, and he ruins the egg hunt by scooping up all the eggs for himself so the kids don’t get to find any.” “Well, he is disabled, he just doesn’t get it.” Then there is the material version of the discordance. “Should we give gifts to grown up nieces and nephews or their offspring? What’s the age cut off here? And what about the tipping? The mailman (isn’t that illegal?) The UPS driver, the garbage man and the manicurist, the cleaning lady, the doorman, and don’t forget the teachers’ gifts.” “What am I, made of money?

Funding Christmas in A Tough Economy: Likely there will be different points of view as to how many and just what gifts should be purchased for the children and others. A conversation, perhaps with a spreadsheet and a giant signpost that spells out COMPROMISE hanging somewhere nearby, is a wise and worthy move. As I have described in previous posts, there is always a third option if the suggestion of each partner is unacceptable to the other. Respecting each family of origin’s philosophy of gift giving and trying to cobble together a tolerable alternative when not getting exactly what you want allows the creation of a mutually agreed upon vision of holiday spending that can be put in place each year. Why not? If there is someone who is in charge of the family bookkeeping, then he/she might have a gross figure in mind, which provides a basis to begin the allocations. If not, create one together. Facts and figures can help ground the process in a reality of sorts.

Pressure: The holiday season is full of pressure, but divorced families are particularly vulnerable to the poison of triangulation, with seemingly impossible choices of how much time to give to multiple in-law couples. After all, if one member of the Coupledom has divorced and remarried parents, that can add a whole other set of grandparents to the mix. If both are products of divorce, then you have two sets of added grandparents to insult. As my son would say during his toddler days, A MESS! A mess in the making, indeed. Usually there is the closeness factor that influences and confuses. Certainly one set of the divorced parents is easier to be with and offers cozier moments and more attention to the grandkids. The other set may be more distant or dysfunctional, saddled with alcoholic behaviors (very common) or other forms of alienation.

Forty-Eight Little Hours: How can twenty-four to forty-eight hours of sacred holiday tradition be divided between all the vying parties? Well they can’t be and if the Coupledom is unified in their decision about that allocation, well, a united force is stronger than a divided force. So brainstorm potential solutions together and always look for the third option if nothing obvious and unanimous surfaces.

Smart Holiday Planning: It is kind of funny that all the planning that couples typically do going into the holidays rarely includes strategies to deal with the pressures ahead, pressures that bear down on the relationship and are oh so predictable but predictably remain unnamed or avoided. Kind of like not saying Voldemort in a Harry Potter movie, “he who must not be named,” as if it will unleash dark forces. Yet it is just the opposite. By not identifying trouble spots ahead, how can you put in place plans to avoid them?

Preventing Predictable Snafus: I have written a number of articles on holiday strategies, some are available by clicking on the links above. You can find a collection of them under Holiday Toolkit. They all prescribe the same course of action. Get with the program early and if a conversation about preventing the predictable snafus of the past cannot be handled civilly and usefully together, bring in an expert. This is actually a wise wizard’s way of making the holiday season a happy one for your Coupledom. To coin a phrase from a clever friend, you don’t want to be a Coupledumb again this year.

Happy Hanukah, Merry Christmas, and Happy New Year.

©Jill Edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W. 2012


You Don’t Need The FBI to Out Your Affair: Mechanisms of Denial

Lordy, Lordy: General Petraeus, General Allen, authors, triathlon athletes, West Point, Harvard, Tampa, military hostesses, radiologists, the FBI, a colossal mess for the U.S. And we were just trying to gain some footing after the tumult and havoc of Sandy and Election 2012. Nope, there is no peace for the human psyche when under the influence of hormones, grandiosity, entitlement, egoism (aka self-interest), ambition and best of all, that ever-reliable human instrument of destruction, Denial.

What Trips Judgment? Two decades ago I was sitting in my office listening to a very unhappy woman in a miserable marriage describe the small shards of joy she was extracting from an affair with a local in her town. Local was the operative word for me. As she reported the details, how they met, where he lived, what hour of the day she ventured to his home for their rendezvous, I felt fear seep into my pores, my pores, not hers. Oh no, in broad daylight, your car, his home, a condominium complex. You’ve got to be kidding! What was the difference between her reaction and my own? Well, several factors of course, but most important of all was that she was getting gratification from the romance, endorphins and all, and I was just sitting there with the stark reality of the chance that she was taking. Though her affair was one further step towards finding the courage to leave her marriage, she did have young children and a lot at stake. She waved away my concerns and in fact, never did get “caught” so to speak. But that was twenty plus years ago. The times have changed and the data that swirls in and out of my office weekly provides evidence that it is only a matter of time before “your illicit liaison” will be outed, if not by the FBI, at least by your son, daughter, cleaning lady, spouse or Facebook pal.

Competition and Lust: What is particularly intriguing to me about this latest great man slide is not that he fell for her or she for him. That part is easy. But that much like the Monica Lewinsky/Bill Clinton affair, this Petraeus episode was exposed by a second woman, someone seemingly outside of the intimate clutch of the affair. As with Linda Tripp in the Lewinsky case, the woman/friend of Monica’s who tapped her phone conversations with Bill and submitted them to the authorities, Jill Kelley sent the FBI looking for the source of “harassing emails” that led to the discovery of a trail of amorous communications between Petraeus and Ms. Broadwell. So in addition to the mechanism of denial that allows normally intelligent people to lose a basic capacity for judging risk, combine that with ambition/competition/envy in the stew pot of lustful adventure and the whole house of cards comes crashing down.

My Point, You Ask? There is a strange transparency in our world today. It is called the “Internet.” I have worked with people who send or receive photos on their phones of their lover’s sexual body parts, don’t delete them and then reassure me that “no one ever picks up my phone.” I have discussed at length the usefulness of truthfulness because it is easier than being “found out” by your eight-year-old daughter or already pot-addicted teenage son. The damage differential between admitting to an affair, and being found out is simple: both include betrayal but the former comes equipped with some respect for the person you are betraying, the dignity of facing them, telling them and taking what comes with it. The other variety adds several more gobs of the poisonous gook of humiliation including the recognition that others knew this was going on while “I was the schmuck left in the dark.”

Back To Denial and The Internet: There is an even greater chance these days than decades ago for our secrets to be accessed by almost anyone with time on their hands and curiosity. I warn people, but they are in love or lust or on a mission to track down evidence of their partner’s lust for another. Their brains and bodies are cranking the chemistry of obsessive desire, which undermines the psyche’s alert system/risk assessment apparatus. Furthermore, as folks love to point out, falling in love with oneself, through the  years of unstoppable achievement and recognition, likely intensifies the belief in one’s invincibility. “I can do this because I have been able to do everything else.” This is why it is so necessary to have a backup system of personal checks, like the generators we all relied on, if we were lucky, to get through Sandy with toilets flushing and some heat. If brain number one fails, we can bring in brain number two. Woody Allen’s infamous line “The heart wants what the heart wants,” coined to explain his seizure of girlfriend Mia Farrow’s adopted daughter for his own lustful gratification, sounded at the time so juvenile and yet seems to have become almost biblical in its wisdom. Yuk, but it’s true. Unless you get that back-up generator of an observing alter ego working in anticipation of the next powerful climatic challenge, you will become another casualty of the Internet, because the heart will have its way.

It’s All About The Brain: I feel sorry for our country right now. We don’t deserve this mess. We spent months listening to the candidates, years watching politicians undermine each other, decades watching people of all kinds die in wars led by our leaders and their generals, and now we have to see the highest level of military brass walk around with their pants down, in front of us all. Silly/tragic but human. When will our country educate its citizens in the workings of their psyches, their bodies and brains, so that we can prevent such a waste of talent and time? Perhaps my post last week can offer some ideas on how to do that. Yes, we are just simply human but we do have great untapped personal resources that can aid us in being better at risk assessment, smarter at anticipating consequences, and more reliable for those who are dependent on us for their safety and happiness. Take a look again at this piece: Missing Teeth and Bully Wives: Aggression in The Coupledom. We need to become better generals in command of our desires, our distortions and our options.

Jill Edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W. 2012


Missing Teeth and Bully Wives: Aggression in The Coupledom

Guatemala: I journeyed to Antigua, a Spanish colonial World Heritage city in Central America’s Guatemala, where a family member currently resides. At the steps of a church in partial ruins were a little girl and her mother who were selling votives. I purchased a votive in exchange for a photo of the pair. When I made my request in Spanish the mom answered with her hand over her mouth. I thought perhaps she was shy. However when I aimed the camera at her, I saw that she was missing her top two front teeth. The next day, in reference to work with battered woman, it was mentioned to me that it seemed to be a badge of honor for some men to knock out the top two front teeth of their wives in a domestic dispute. Light bulb!

The Popularity of Bully Wives: In another corner of the Western Hemisphere, I sit and write this blog. Of late, I have seen the statistics of my popular posts shift and in ascendance is the one entitled Bully Wives. Over the three years since I began posting, I have published 371 posts. Bully Wives is now amongst the top 3 posts. Light bulb!

Aggression Comes Dressed in Many Robes: Yes, it is true that verbal aggression, whether it is ridicule, insult, cursing, mocking or screaming, does not knock out teeth. Nor does it show up on the police blotter or rob children of their mothers. But it is aggression. Emotional and psychological aggression and not limited to bully wives. There is no shortage of bully husbands as well. Cultural norms range widely and what is a tragically acceptable macho statement in one culture or a tolerated wifely prerogative in another does not offset its costs. All these behaviors smack (pun noticed) of dysfunctional outlets for intense anger in the Coupledom. Here’s the question: why don’t we teach how to fight fairly in elementary school, to disagree with dignity? At least in a country where there is compulsory education.

The Reptilian Brain: The human brain has three parts that match our evolution from animals to humans, though they are enclosed in our skull as one. Our earliest is the reptilian brain, pre-verbal, pre-historic, the flight fight adrenalin rush, compulsive and rigid. This layer of cerebral matter is followed by the limbic brain, and now, officially mammals, both memory and emotion are introduced. The neocortex section of the brain arrives with the advent of the primate. Finally we are capable of standing up, using abstract reasoning, being self-aware (consciousness) and able to communicate thought with language. We access all three sections of the brain all day everyday for survival, but there are moments when we do yield dominance wrongfully and dysfunctionally to the primitive brain, at great cost to all.

Grunts and Spitting: Threats to our safety, psychological or physical, can activate the primitive brain without the influence of the upper chambers. Sometimes that is great. We jump in front of trains to save a fallen subway rider. We don’t know why but we do it, some of us. We stick our arm out when we have to stop short in a car, to protect our child even though they are wearing seat belts. We just do it and think about it later. But when we are very angry, we do it too. We pick up the nearest weapon, our curses and insults (like grunts and spitting), pitchers and platters, and tragically, our fists and guns. Of course we need these lower brain parts, for sex, for amorous attraction, for rescues and memory, for sports and breathing and moving, for digestion. But for negotiating with the emotional realm, the interpersonal realm, we need to call upon the neocortex.

The Neocortex: This is the part of the brain that has “almost infinite learning abilities” and can be taught to search for the language of expression of emotion, to interrupt the knee jerk fight/flight option through practice. But few are teaching this course in the home or in the school, though that is changing through programs such as The RULER. RULER is an acronym for the five key emotion skills: Understanding, Recognizing, Labeling, Expressing and Regulating emotions. This program was developed by Mark Brackett, Ph.D. Deputy Director of Yale’s Health Emotion and Behavior Laboratory, to train anyone from school children to top administrators across the country and abroad in the healthy utilization of “emotion skills” for all aspects of living, including and importantly “relationship quality.”

The Mute Coupledom: This is where I come in. Many of the couples that end up in my office appear emotionally mute at first. They were not trained in the skill of identifying their own emotions, let alone the language of communicating those emotions to their partner. We start from scratch and develop together the interest in and curiosity about feelings, thoughts, interpretations, and projections. Even though individuals know that they are hurt and angry, and stuck, which is what brings them to my office, they are often aware of only the surface aspects of those feelings and are limited to a fairly primitive method of communicating them: tone, look, words that are nasty or whining; the read my mind if you care type, the passive-aggressive punch format of communication or just the punch. Much like grunts and spitting. We need to do better, to teach better so that we don’t bust out front teeth or give “honey-do” lists laced with acid.

Here Is My Suggestion: If you are reading this post, let’s assume that you are open to learning, tapping that marvelous asset, your neocortex. Terrific. Now pass this post on to your partner with these words: “Here is something we can learn together” for our Coupledom, our kids, our future. We have a chance to learn the art, the skill, the tools of identifying our feelings and finding the language to communicate using “our words.” Very civilized? Well yes. The best emotional language starts with “I feel…” not “You are” and draws on one’s curiosity to know oneself and one’s willingness to learn about the other person’s feelings. Then there is a negotiation that links both parties to a common goal: to improve our lives together through a higher level of emotional conversation, tolerance, awareness and negotiation. For adults, now out of school and therefore not as able to benefit directly from such training programs as RULER, this goal can be achieved by reading, searching within and embarking on a shared process together.

Surprising Outcomes: Couples therapy is one way. Earlier is usually better but I have seen couples come to therapy deeply stuck in the cement of mutual alienation and have been happily surprised that, though laden with rigid thinking about each other, with help they successfully crack open new avenues of connection. Hard work, courage and a growing belief in the benefits of RULER: Understanding, Recognizing, Labeling, Expressing and Regulating emotions provide the chisel, the hammer and the heart of the process.

You can’t always tell a Coupledom by its cover. That neocortex has an almost infinite ability to learn.

Jill Edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W. 2012



Tone, Look, Word (TLW): Stop the Poison Communication

A Volley of Gunfire Or A Conversation: Negative Communications. There are endless reasons why couples find themselves choosing tones, looks and words that insult, mock, tease and demean their partner. Hurt and angry feelings are no strangers to any relationship. The sarcastic tone, rolling eyes, mouth twisted in a smirk, and words that sting, all pack a wallop that overtime and repeated use, will rip apart the fine threads that weave two people together.

The Banal Becomes Lethal: Seemingly benign exchanges, such as “Remember to pick up a container of milk on your way from work tonight” or “Where were you when I called today?”, can sail through the air with the lethal speed and content of a bullet. Pow! “What’s for dinner?” can be an inquiry or a challenge. “I see your mother stopped by today.” can be an observation or an accusation. It all depends on the choices of tone, look and word.

How To Stop the Poison: Listen to your tone, sense what your face is doing, notice what words you choose to communicate with your partner. Be honest with yourself and you may see that these veiled messages would be better delivered directly and clearly. Spend some time figuring out the true nature of your feelings and the words that best represent them. Then ask your partner to have a “conversation” with you, to listen and to share. They may be using tones, looks and words to send messages that damage as well.  With both of you acknowledging the danger in these choices,  you can agree to find honest words that truly represent what you feel and what you need your partner to understand.

Prevention: If you can no longer make this conversation happen, seek help. Tell your partner that you are having trouble saying what you need to say and ask them to join you in finding someone to help you do that together. With the help of an expert, you will find that truthful exchanges cut out the ugly tones, nasty looks and demeaning words that over time erode what was once a good relationship.

Don’t Wait: Though it may mean admitting that you are imperfect, or that you are vulnerable, the common thread in all of us, you are better served by humbling yourself a bit and taking some risks to make your relationship viable once again.

©jill edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W.

Shining Boots, Shifting Staff and Book Clubs: 9-25-12

Thirteen Months and Twenty-Four Days: That is how long our daughter has lived in her new home. And today the Ability Beyond Disability team, along with the Connecticut Department of Developmental Services case manager, met with our daughter and her parents for her DDS annual review. The residential coordinator opened up the ceremonies by saying to our daughter, “This meeting is all about you,” and with that announcement, invited her to begin the meeting with a presentation of her recent accomplishments and the goals for the coming year. She did appear a bit subdued, likely nervous speaking to thirteen people, but she perked up by the time the meeting ended. During the hour, her cell phone rang – which she considered an act of rudeness on the part of the caller, despite the fact that it was she who forgot to turn the phone off. Perhaps this attitude was to cover her embarrassment. It was her boyfriend. Somehow she felt as if he should have known that she was otherwise engaged. Special needs are still special needs, even with great progress, which she has certainly made in the last year.

Her View: The accomplishments she cited were weight loss (fifteen pounds), portion control, increased focus and attention on the job and a steady and enjoyable exercise program. What she identified as goals for this next year were continuing to improve in these areas.

Shining Boots and Grooming Kitties: From the team’s perspective, one of the more outstanding accomplishments of the last year has been our daughter’s increased ability to stay focused on tasks both in her volunteer work settings and at home. This was accomplished in part by prescribing Focalin, a medication to enhance concentration and recommended strongly by the behaviorist on the team. By increasing our daughter’s ability to concentrate and complete tasks, the medication has reduced her anxiety as well. “I feel less overwhelmed” is how she described the effect of the pill. I notice that when something does upset her, she is able to let go of it sooner.

Worries No More: Ironically, the vocational component of our daughter’s new life, which initially had worried me most, has turned out to be one of the strongest links in the Agency chain, a chain replete in strong links. Not only is our daughter in two animal care settings, but also ABD started a new collaboration with Pegasus, the therapeutic equestrian program that our daughter so loves. Now, in addition to her weekly riding class, she returns to the Brewster, New York riding complex to work at the Rider’s Closet, founded by Georgina Bloomberg, where donated riding apparel are available for students. Our daughter’s job has been to shine boots and sort through the donated clothes for stains and missing buttons

A Keen Eye for Fluff and Stuff: I heard this from the Pegasus program director; our daughter has become an awesome boot shine. With careful training from her ABD vocational life skills staff and Pegasus she now adds a gleam not only to the eyes of all who know her, but also to their boots. She has whipped through the donated boots in the Rider’s Closet so swiftly and thoroughly that the Pegasus crew had to move her over to spot checking clothes for stains, missed buttons and other unseemly elements, an excellent choice for a girl who can spy the smallest of insects in a bag of rice… and a teeny bit of infinitesimal fluff emerging from an almost new toy elephant. Last week we delivered more than thirty such stuffed souls to Goodwill (“I don’t have enough room for all of them.”) each one scrutinized for an imperfection, a leaky seam, a smudged or tattered limb.

Truly it would be hard to fathom someone more skilled in identifying the smallest of imperfections in a product than our daughter, but who would have thought that this skill could be harnessed as a work-related asset. She was about four when she pointed to the teeny bug in the bag of rice on the shelf of the Middle Eastern store in the next town, and though the owner was appalled, I was awed.

Same Old and Critical: A critical concern that has not abated at all is safety. Our daughter remains at risk in any vehicular situation, negotiating parking lots, street corners, all settings where spatial awareness in a travel environment is required. This skill has remained outside our daughter’s reach, despite years of travel training at her boarding school. I suggested that staff review a comprehensive evaluation completed two years ago by a specialist, which they will do. Also, from my perspective, though our daughter was trained over and over again to stop at crossings and look both ways, integrating what she is seeing – a complex, two- or three-step process that her brain has not incorporated successfully – has eluded her. Alas.

Time, Money and Measurements: Our daughter used to cook, omelets mainly. She could whip a sandwich together in no time and heat up her spaghetti in the microwave, though I would set the time. In boarding school, cooking became a supervised and teacherly event, as it is at her ABD apartment, and over these years our daughter has become increasingly wary and reluctant to take care of her food needs. Staff try to teach her to measure and help prepare components of the meal, a very difficult task for her. She has lost all interest in food preparation, though she remains passionate about eating. Time, money and measurement challenges produce anxiety and as a result become paralyzing entities for our daughter. Here is where one wonders what the fine line is between facilitating learning versus creating learning blocks. Time is less scary. She can read her digital watch and knows that her Focalin is taken at 8 A.M. and 2 P.M. I see more hope for time awareness. But this is where special needs defines a person’s future. If you cannot travel safely, make a meal or pay your bills, can you be safe on your own in the world? Nope, you cannot.

Shifting Staff: Something that I was concerned about and anticipated when Ability started to take over the management of our daughter’s life was the likelihood that staff changes would be a part of the experience as well. In the first couple of weeks after our daughter moved into her apartment the vocational life skills staff person departed unexpectedly. I wrote of this in my post Pregnant, Tired, Fired, No Just Gone. Over a year ago, when we were novices in this “adult special needs” world, that loss scared me and troubled the girls. However, since then, there have been staff changes for reasons such as going to graduate school for one residential staff member; for another, moving up the career ladder. All good reasons and all with sufficient notice. And through these various changes, the ABD team has covered the gaps with familiar faces and seasoned members of the agency. And though the apartment-mates are pretty bonded with their staff, they weather these changes with barely the flutter of an eyelash. Why? For one, there is a solid core group of professional staff that are reliably available and pretty savvy about how to make the young ladies feel safe. Another is the presence of a residential staff member who is mature, mothering and steadfast. And finally, and very significant, both young ladies had been at boarding schools for years prior to their new life and witnessed the comings and goings of staff so that these changes, though individually significant, are in fact familiar and endemic to the system. In both our daughter’s boarding school setting and now with ABD, the changes are handled well by the “governing bodies.” Both young ladies have their families living within a stone’s throw (by car that is) of their apartments, which offers a dependable backup at all times.

Apartment-Mate Absence: Recently I was curious to see how our daughter would feel about a ten-day separation from her apartment-mate. The ladies are very close and bonded. When not together they text and FB each other. But last week the apartment-mate travelled south with her family. Staff reported that our daughter seemed quite content throughout the separation (3 days of it were spent with our family at a reunion in Maine) and apparently relished the one-on-one attention for the seven days she was the solo consumer. Her daily routine remained unchanged, a key ingredient. I did not hear a grumble or groan out of the gal for the duration of their separation. In fact, the two ladies are choosing to spend a bit more time apart during the week by separating out attendance at day service options, apparently both realizing that sometimes too much intimacy can be constricting.

Book Clubs: And finally the book club suggested by our daughter to her day services programmers, not six months ago, is a mainstay of the day program for several of the attendees. And for the mom, the “mother’s group book club” that I have been a member of since our daughter’s first months of life (almost 23 years now) held our September dinner Monday night coincidentally at the same restaurant we attended a year almost to the day when I published my post: All About Me: 9-26-12.

This post described my experience as a parent of a special needs child who month after month, year after year, sat amongst the moms of our daughter’s chronological peers while they chatted about the sports, dances and classes that their children shared in. Most of the women in this group do not subscribe to my blog or read the posts. Only one or two have read last year’s piece. But I am quite sure that all will read my book Parenting Adult Special Needs: One Day At A Time that will be published later this Fall and is an edited version of the collected posts.

These are women whom I treasure and who treasure me. But when you are a member of the parenting special needs club, you make choices about how you share what it’s inside you. And often those choices lean toward protecting that special child, at least from your perspective, from the judgment of others, and protecting yourself from pity. It never seemed tempting to shift the focus of an entire group from their relevant conversations about their normal children, (though it certainly happened at times) about whom they had plenty of concerns, to the uniqueness of my particular situation. For that I turned to my husband, other special needs parents and the individuals in the institutions that supported us through our journey. These women saw me as strong and confident, celebrating our daughter for what she was and not for what she could not do. The truth is much more complicated. But then it always is, whether special needs, typical or flavored with any other complexity.

Last night I had no pain, and perhaps less worry than many of my book club moms, at least about my youngest child. She has for now all that she needs for her young adulthood, and that’s mighty amazing, indeed.

©Jill Edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W. 2012

Married to Wikipedia: The Evolving Marriage

The Expert: About a decade ago, I worked with a May-December Coupledom, the wife almost twenty years junior to her hubby, who were at a marital crossroads. The images each had originally held of the other were now anachronistic. The husband seemed trapped in the patriarchal position of most knowledgeable, the decider and the protector. In his view, his wife’s strivings to make independent decisions, to go back to school and work, were incomprehensible and reflected a personal rejection of him. The wife was roiled by his resentment and inability to recognize that she had matured. She had grown up. He was not the expert on her anymore, nor was she his worshipful Pygmalion yielding to his benevolent guidance and direction.

You Are Not The Same Person I Married: From the perspective of the wife, she had begun to recognize and develop her own strengths and was eager to exercise them. Her husband, who had taken pride in his ability to protect and provide for her, saw her energy being directed outside the marriage and family, and was not just threatened by this but hurt and confused. There was an added and significant element; the husband was ill. The image of the once invulnerable, all-knowing guardian was permanently shattered. He could die. He might die. He was imperfect, unreliable and weakened. Just as she was beginning to soar, he was on the verge of crashing to earth. They both saw shattered images; each looking across the dinner table at someone whom they felt had betrayed them. “You are not the same person I married.” Really?

Marriage Is Not A Sitcom: Marriage is not a sitcom where character traits are scripted and remain stereotyped and static for the run of the series. Marriage is a relationship between two earth-bound, flesh and blood, psychologically complex and physically mortal entities. Spells trouble? You bet. Being alive means continuous change, in every quadrant of our being, from the molecular level to the conceptual level. This is the nature of marriage. Now what to do?

Wikipedia Man aka Renaissance Man: All marriages occur within a broad cultural context and for the purposes of this narrative, I speak of the American culture, the United States of America variety. Recognizable gender biases mold our expectations of our partners and shape our attitudes and beliefs. Views introduced to us in early childhood seem to cling like the plastic wrap used to seal leftover cheese. You can’t shake it off your hands. It has to be peeled away deliberately and painstakingly. One characteristic expectation that clings to many today, in spite of women’s leaps as bread winners, CEO’s and physically competitive, powerful beings, is the notion that men know more about the world than women. It is true that family sitcoms have evolved from the Father Knows Best/Leave It To Beaver nineteen fifties motif depicting a highly revered male figurehead with a clever but supplicant wife, tothat of the mocked and laughable dads of All in The Family and Everyone Loves Raymond, morphing into the current genre with Modern Family style scripting, where everyone is reduced to humiliation and redemption in one hour. But despite depictions of less traditional Coupledoms, from a clinical perspective I see men and women continuing to struggle with the culturally resilient belief that men are the experts, the ‘go to’ person, the problem solver, the final word. In fact, both men and women can be burdened and confused by this construct, as were the May-December couple, whose marriage bogged down when one member of the dyad started to change that paradigm without first getting permission i.e. establishing a communication and understanding between them.

Prior to Wikipedia, Safari, iPhone, and Quora I used to turn to my husband for all my answers spanning the sciences, history, medicine, the sunset, the sunrise and right and wrong. He was my renaissance man, the one-stop shopping for all data. And I, the eternal novice. Of course now I have technology. But even before the lighting speed access to answers, I found myself an increasingly resourceful ‘go to’ person. I discovered the fountain of my own intelligence and retired the male spousal crown. Now we are resources for each other. What I have noticed both personally and clinically is that motherhood shifts the paradigm from man as expert to a more multifaceted social construct: women are the domestic experts who know what’s best for the children, the running of the household, and the social agenda. And men, who often do not desire that particular status, remain the authority and ‘go to’ person for the remaining essential life tasks. The male uses his breadwinner role as his measure of all things which can appear to their partners as if everything boils down to dollars and cents. The woman stands by her expertise on domestic matters, the children, the decor (maybe) and social network. This construct works well for a while but as the sands of life, marriage and growing children shift, so does the construct lose its footing in the shifting sands.

Old Fashioned? Perhaps this description of today’s Coupledom sounds outmoded. I would have thought so too but that is not what I see. Of course, my sample is limited, but that is the sample I am addressing in this post. I am surprised too, at just how tenacious this outmoded view of the male-female dyad remains.

Reconfiguring Me and Us: What we probably need less of is “expert” status and more of influence ability in the evolving Coupledom. The playing field changes as marriages age. Aging marriages are not the same as maturing marriages though. I have seen men yearning to have more influence in child rearing matters when their youngsters reach school age, engage in sports and prepare for higher education. No longer the father of infants or toddlers, they see themselves in their growing offspring and have opinions on discipline and goal setting. I have seen women become more confident in their financial muscle after working or managing volunteer jobs with budgets and running a household for years. And I have seen both sexes dig their heels in, unwilling to share or relinquish a role that they perceived as their exclusive domain. Men who won’t share financial information with their wives. Who, though burdened by being the primary breadwinners, or at least the ones who worried the most about mortgage payments, are now reluctant to share their CFO status with their wives. Wives who see the men as imposing their agenda on the children’s academic direction or athletic choices, when once they seemed content to let the wife be the decider, are offended or resentful. “Where were you years ago for the midnight feedings? Now you want to be hands on?” All this disgruntled stuff indicates that it is time to change the previously held cultural notions of the male and female construct and reconfigure expectations that acknowledge competence and allow turf to be shared. He is not the expert. She is not the eager, grateful recipient of his expertise. He is not her invulnerable ‘go to’ protector and she is not his compliant and dependent spouse. The marriage contract has to reconfigure itself for the marriage to mature into a collaborative venture with shared responsibilities and mutual influence.

Marital Maturity Crossroads: Some people call it the midlife crisis when the marital step begins to stumble but I call it a marital maturity crossroads. The relevant question is “Can this marriage mature?” Our culture may have taught us to idealize the opposite sex for circumscribed and limited traits. The male is knowledgeable, expert, strong and protective. The female is yielding, nurturing, sexy, socially attuned and good at whipping up a meal. Both are archaic idealizations, perhaps unavoidable in youth, and have to be cast aside like an old pair of glasses; they once fit the prescription but vision changes over time. Marital vision needs to change too. Get a new pair of glasses on your marriage, on your partner and your self and that midlife marital crisis will morph into midlife marital maturity. It may sound terribly boring but in fact, it is a lot of fun.

Jill Edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W. 2012


9-11-01: Eleven years ago today our son was in the second week of his freshman year of high school, our daughter a fourth grader, their grandma marked her 83rd year of life and the world we all depended on ended.

Battery Park: I heard the news on the radio driving back from a walk in the park with the dog. I raced into the house to switch on the television at the same moment I heard my niece’s voice on the answering machine, calling from her family’s Battery Park apartment. I grabbed the phone. A thick coat of something was covering their windows and my brother-in-law had turned around on his walk to the dry cleaners on his way to work, when folks running away from the first tower’s bilious smoke warned him to venture no further. Our phone connection broke off. I felt sick.

Shared Panic: My first patient was already in the waiting room. Her niece was living in an NYU dorm way downtown. We rung our hands together and decided to abort the session. Later she kindly called to inform me that she had heard Battery Park was to be evacuated by tugboats. No longer able to reach my niece by phone, I emailed that news hoping somehow she would receive it. She did, her laptop still had some remaining battery power.

Our family was evacuated to Liberty State Park. Within days we learned that an alumnus from our high school, his wife and two-year-old daughter died on one of the planes. Two years later we learned that the brother of the owner of our daughter’s special needs camp, which she hadn’t as yet attended, was amongst the heroes on the plane that went down in a field in Pennsylvania.

A Visit To Ground Zero: I forced myself to go to Ground Zero shortly after the tragedy but I have no recollection whether it was a week or ten days later. All reports are true. Fumes, sirens. I witnessed a fire at the site and wrenching notes and faces of the missing were plastered everywhere. All our hearts were pierced and remain so today. Most of all, our children’s world and our role as their parents took one of those historic turns that sociologists and psychologists will study for eons to come.

In Memory Of All Whose Lives Were Stolen Eleven Years Ago Today: And in honor of their loved ones who have had to develop the courage to face each new dawn without them. We are with you today and every day. Everyone knows that any one of us could be you.

© Jill Edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W. 2012