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

Note To My Ex: What To Do With All That Stuff

Bitter Twitter: On August 22, the highest trending tweet was #NoteToMyEx. Thousands of tweets spewed across the Twitterverse with such as:

I can be happy without you and I’m doing so much better then when I was with you.

let’s clarify: you were LUCKY to have me. I was the one settling. So shut up.

when you see me I want you to recognize what you had, regret what you’ve lost, and realize what you’re NEVER getting back !

You always told me I deserved better, so I finally took your word for it :))

I never get jealous when I see you with someone else, cuz my parents always taught me to give my used toys to the less fortunate.

The flavor of the tweets was decidedly bitter. A major venting moment for many. Why? My observation over the years is that relationship endings, divorces particularly, leave a trail of ooze – much like a snail does as it moves from one moist green leaf to chew at another – that is hard to remove. And my impression is that the oozing isn’t only from those who were left, but also from those who did the leaving. In other words, relationships may end, but if they were powerful the remnants often remain twirling around in the brain for years to come and may provide fruitless hours of rumination and self-justification that lead nowhere, just recycling old refrains.

A Purification Process: There needs to be a process that purifies the heart’s brain or the brain’s heart, when a meaningful Coupledom comes to a halt. Like a fast car or a speeding bike, you need to slow down first, then stop. Otherwise it is quite jolting to the system when you end the ride. Yet it is the rare Coupledom that finds the mutuality or the means for a gradual slowdown. So you are left to decompress either with friends, therapists or hosting numerous interior dialogues with the absent partner in the mind’s theater, attempting to set the record straight, redeem your dignity, readjust the ego, or examine the self: “Am I really that bad or was it they who screwed up the whole thing?”

A Ritual of Goodbye: In a previous post entitled A Divorcing Option: A Gracious Ending I referenced an article by Abby Ellin in the New York Times Untying the Knots, and Bonds, Of Marriage in which the author describes rituals of goodbye designed for the terminated relationship, ceremonies that mark the finality of a marriage or a relationship with grace. Does it do the work of an exorcism that many seem to long for, a ritual designed to drive the evil spirits out of the individual, which in this case are the poisonous and bilious leftovers of a failed Coupledom? Does a ceremonial goodbye put a halt to flashbacks, regrets or hurts that smear a formerly cherished bond with the mucky stuff that clings and stains…the stuff that got spilled onto Twitter? A format such as Twitter invites you to write a “Note to My Ex,” and wow, an explosive venting in an abbreviated format ensues, inspiring a vision of a mob event at Grand Central Station, its vast floor space and domed ceiling filling up with venting hordes screaming out “note to my ex” all with the accompanying syncopation of a live band. According to Ms. Ellin’s article, a shared ritual of untying is a means to find closure by dignifying what you once had and together releasing its hold. Can a tweet do that too?

What Do These Tweets Reveal? The question someone raised with me is this: were the tweets a venting of never spoken words or were they spoken words that were never heard? Or both. Tweets are clearly not conversations yet they may speak volumes. What would those tweets have looked like as a conversation between partners before the relationship dissolved, a tweet cleaned up a bit and earnestly delivered as a “Let’s talk”? My hunch is that many tried to talk but weren’t heard. That others kept their feelings close to the chest, did not have the tools to convert emotion into communication, or didn’t even know what they were feeling and instead turned to “acting out” subconscious feelings into behaviors such as affairs and addictions that seemed to say it all and take it all away.

Venting Is Fun: It is great to vent. Venting is necessary, and Twitter is probably a venting free-for-all that doesn’t cost much, materially or emotionally. But unless you learn something new, something that shifts you out of stuck and into free, you will just have to vent again, and again, and again. Sometimes a new love that really takes and settles in for several years can actually ease the venting need. Happiness is a great antidote to unhappiness. Everyone hopes for that solution to the dilemma of what to do with the bitter leftovers of a failed love. But that takes time, too, and has some risks: the potential new love may not want to hear the vent. Or the new lovers may initially bond over their mutual venting about ex-spouses, but beware the bonding of perceived victimization. It sours like old milk.

A Proposal: I would bet that a significant number of women hunched over their iced teas or Pym’s Cups, lattes or beers at any number of coffee shops, bars or bistros around the country are talking about their exes. And a somewhat smaller number of guys are alluding to the trials, tribulations and financial losses from their previous wedlock too. A good number are venting and blaming; an equal number are probably grieving and being comforted. But none are really getting anywhere soon. My proposal, which I have offered to divorcing couples in my office, is that at any moment, now, later, next week or next year, they, the separating or divorcing team, can talk, listen and grieve together about what was once their family, their puppy, their apartment, their friends, their life that they have made together and now have to mourn and say goodbye to. Some have agreed to do this work with me. Most say, “No, if he’s done, I’m done.” Or, “No, I can’t be in the room with that person again.” Except when they have to appear in court. Or, “It is too much money for something that has too little value to me now.”

Someday they may change their minds. And my office doors are always open. Or they may wish to do what Abby Ellin’s article suggests, design a ceremonial goodbye, maybe along the Great Wall of China, or on the banks of a river, where words can finally be spoken, and threads of a former life thrown into the current, to pass alongside rocks and rapids that replicate the not-so-smooth journey of that shared life. Tweeting and venting are fun. But saying goodbye to the good, the bad and the ugly takes more than that. It takes some mutual cleansing too.

Just a proposal.

©Jill Edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W. 2012

Sexual Pain Or Impaired Performance: No Shame, No Blame

What Is Not Spoken: As a couples’ therapist I am accustomed to learning from my patients that they have not experienced sexual intimacy for months or years leading up to their visits with me. Numbers of years. What is equally significant is the common admission that paralleling the absence of physical contact has been the absence of conversation or problem solving efforts along the same timeline. Attempts to discuss sexual matters often are derailed because “there was never a good time” or blaming battles ensued before a true exchange could occur, or “I didn’t want her/him to feel bad.”

The Nemesis of Good Coupling, Avoidance: The nemesis of good coupling, avoidance, tends to be the preferred defense in dealing with sexual intimacy issues, either by one or both parties in The Coupledom. It is hard to have a conversation of any kind if only one person is talking. Yet the problems of sexual intimacy, though sometimes complex, can also be very simple, treatable, and eliminated by conversation and education. What tends to be complicated is the sorting through and overcoming of the emotional byproduct of years of distancing and avoidant behaviors, years without the intimacy of honest communication, perhaps most damaging of all.

Solutions, Not Shame or Blame: Jane Brody, The Personal Health Columnist for the New York Times, published an informative article entitled Persistence is Key To Treating Vaginal Pain. Ms. Brody offers her readers a pragmatic and concise guide to an important element in sexual compatibility for couples that often is unspoken, vaginal pain. Avoiding conversations about this difficulty surely leads to a pile up of misunderstandings over the years. Not only menopausal women but women of all ages can experience vaginal pain and discomfort from intercourse, the causes of which are succinctly outlined by Ms. Brody. Unfortunately many of these women, young, middle-aged or older, may fear that their pain or discomfort represents a sexual defect, when actually there is always a reason for pain – and accompanying solutions to “fix it.” Their partners, hurt by the apparent lack of pleasurable response in their wives or lovers, may have tried to counteract a feeling of inadequacy in themselves, and hurt from perceived rejection, by placing blame on their lovers, suggesting that they are “cold, uptight, frigid or sexless.” Ouch!

The Male Energizer Bunny: Similarly men, who are expected to be the Energizer Bunny of sexual batteries, always ready, never sated, can experience sexual difficulties at any age, also stemming from varied causes. Sometimes their line of defense against embarrassment and shame can be a preemptive strike, that is, rejecting their partners for not being sexy enough to arouse desire. Some may pressure their wives or lovers to wear “hot” lingerie or get breast enhancement surgery, when the true cause of the unsatisfying sexual intimacy might rest with their own performance anxiety due to a physical and treatable condition. Whether it is premature ejaculation or erectile dysfunction, lessened libido, lowered testosterone or masturbation dependent orgasm, the penis is just not up to the culturally expected conventional standards of always on and ever powerful. Ouch again.

Never Defective, Just Human: But this is never about “defectiveness.” This is about discussing a problem and finding a solution. There are useful articles such as WebMD’s Men’s Health on the Internet that are designed to inform, not scare or insult. And while the man is preoccupied by the worry that he is sub par, the woman is convinced that she is no longer desirable to him. To reduce her vulnerability to this perceived rejection and humiliation, she may shut off her desire for him so that both parties wind up lying side by side in bed each night, frozen by fear, iced over by shame. “He doesn’t want me. Well I don’t need him either.” Either partner may eventually fall prey to the come hither of someone outside The Coupledom who “does desire me.” Oops and Ouch! Now we have a far more challenging problem to solve than sexually imperfect performances.

Same-Sex Coupledoms: There is nothing uniquely heterosexual about sexual intimacy challenges. Whether you are engaging in same-sex relationships or heterosexual relationships, the rules are the same: open acknowledgement between the partners that something just doesn’t seem right and a search for information and solutions.

Shame Stalls Solutions and Avoidance Creates Alienation: It is just that simple. Courage, at the heart of real intimacy, requires that we tell ourselves the truth and then share that truth with our partners. And if your fear is that your partner will use that acknowledgement to “blame or shame” you, then this is another challenge to face straight on. “Why are you blaming me or shaming me for something that I cannot as yet control and am willing to work on fixing? It took enough courage to own this problem. Don’t shame me for it. Help me with it. It is for both of us, after all.”

Sexual Knowledge Is Surely Sexual Power: Keeping sexual matters closeted empowers shame and weakens the core of the self by feeding it negative falsehoods. Once the door is opened and the “secret” shared, then your partner has a chance to show that they can be caring and perhaps even part of the solution. Seek out an expert to guide both of you toward that solution. This is the twenty-first century, and though we may pride ourselves as a culture on our sexual openness, a good part of that so-called openness is a glamorized version of intimacy. Real intimacy is founded on a shared honesty, not the individual perfection of a performance. Leave that requirement to the Olympics.

For more on this subject, please also read my post, Sex In The Coupledom: A Powerful Absence.

©Jill Edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W., 2012

The Red Couch Is A Year Old: 8-9-12

The Red Couch Is A Year Old: The Ability Beyond Disability services manager, mover and shaker of our daughter’s residential component, invited the two moms and the residential staff to lunch to mark a year since the ladies moved into their cozy duplex/CRS (Continuous Residential Support) on August 1 in Ridgefield, Connecticut. The atmosphere and conversation were strikingly different from group exchanges twelve months prior. The three staff and two moms had literally weathered two big power outages, “dramas in the duplex”, a couple of staffing changes and DDS (Department of Developmental Services) challenges to get to the calm and conviviality of the grilled salmon over lettuce luncheon upon which most of us dined. In fact, we were more than halfway through our time together before we actually focused on the two young ladies whose special needs adulthood brought us all together.

Slimming Down and Growing Up: A year ago both moms were in the infancy of building trust in this ABD team that is the vital force and anchor of our girls’ adult lives today. We spoke of that process of trust building at the luncheon. Though the staff are sensitive to the journey, only the other mother and I know how far back trusting challenges date; from the “experts” who we were told to trust, but actually disappointed and hurt us; to the bruises from encounters with school systems and the occasional personal friend whose attitude reflected ignorance or indifference; to the well-meaning souls who just didn’t have sufficient knowledge or expertise. Trust is earned in all relationships, no matter the reputation of the physician, the teacher or the potential spouse. Though our family’s experience was far more abundant in trustworthy souls, still the gift of trust is handed out very carefully and selectively as it should be. Only with time and observation of the passionate dedication to our daughter’s welfare and happiness and by witnessing the expertise and skill of the ABD team was I able to suspend my vigilance and lessen my grip. And what do I see now, looking at my daughter twelve months into this new life under their care? I see a powerful petite (and slimmer) package of self-confidence, greater focus and accomplishment, pride and self-respect, with more self-control over emotions and empathy towards others. Her apartment-mate, too, matches her in all these growth and slimming down areas.

And the red couch? How has it fared? Well it has taken a teeny bit of a beating but with our goof proof plan guarantee, one day the staff will pull out the contract from Bob’s Discount Furniture Stores, read the small print and put the call in to report on the chaffed edges of the red leather blend cushions that our daughter has scuffed while happily watching TV in the cozy living room and make arrangements for a replacement. Scuffed edges are a small price to pay for days of cozy comfort, and as the only casualty of the twelve-month cohabitation, that is pretty darn good.

How Long Does Bliss Last? We are all at the mercy of events, not just special needs adults. No life is static no matter what level of “bliss” it may have attained. Fate, family, funding, illness, weather, politics domestic and global, planetary alignments, all can bounce and trounce our daily lives in a nano second. Yes, I know that. But there is something quite specific about a life funded by the government that is (understandably so) constantly being reviewed to assess “need” with the intent to reduce funding aspects of that life whenever possible. And so DDS is in the process of reviewing the ladies’ life together with an eye to proving less need. ABD is our ally in this challenge. What is so interesting/ironic is that “doing well” – as in thriving in their new lives – signals not its true meaning, that their new life is working well. No it translates into something far less intuitive – that the ladies don’t need that life anymore. How long will bliss last? I am prepared at all times to scrutinize signs of future trends to locate the optimal existence for our special needs adult daughter who is so worthy, and gives back to society in so many ways. And as she improves her vocational skills and acquires new agility with the outside world, who knows what might be possible. But for now, the changes that would signal a profound shift in need, are nowhere in sight. Will DDS see the obvious too? I think so.

My Book: On another note, my book on Parenting Adult Special Needs: How Did We Get Here? One Day At A Time (tentative title) will be out early this fall available both as an e-book and in print. The book, which comprises the collected posts that covered the period prior to our daughter’s aging out through several months into her new life, is illustrated with our daughter’s collages and will have a list of resources. The book also weaves in the twenty-one years of preparation leading to the successful launch of our daughter’s adult special needs life to provide a glimpse into the process for other families who are on this journey. Stay tuned for more information as we draw closer to publication.

©Jill Edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W. 2012