My Month off Social Media

My daughter took a course in college last year that considered the impact of social media on the well-being of young women. In short, it’s not good. While it can connect people who are geographically apart, share ideas and inspire reflection, the way we have come to use most social media doesn’t inspire much. Except social comparison. So she left her social media accounts for the month of January. I was impressed. She announced she was doing it again this year, so I spontaneously decided to join her.

I had been growing increasingly sick of my News Feed on Facebook. I noticed myself spending many minutes a day, at various times in my day, just searching for something new or different to catch my attention. Surely I had enough contacts there that someone was doing something inspired, sharing an article I needed to read, or offering some news that was important to know. Well, it seems that those enlightened folks were increasingly off Facebook and living their lives. Who knew? Instead, I fed myself a steady diet of unimportant videos, repetitive misattributed inspirational quotes, and photo after photo that were the central cause of my quiet poor attitude: everyone else was having such a wonderful time, and I was just doing my work, the laundry, going to the gym for the millionth time, and thinking about what to make for dinner.

Twitter, my other account which promises more than it delivers, was much more idea, news and event driven, and to give that up for a month seemed a bit neglectful. But I didn’t miss much. Instead, I spent my Twitter time looking at the Star Tribune, MPR, NPR and NYT websites. I got the news from journalists themselves, and got less snark, smirks and repeats than I might on the Twitter.

The only social media account I let myself check this month, without much guilt I must add, was the beautiful professional and personal photography on Instagram. I always smile, feel calmer and more optimistic after looking at what shows up on my feed. I see yoga poses, black and white photography from NYC and Egypt, fountain pens galore (because, that’s my thing) and smiling faces of acquaintances and friends all living daily life and pausing to share it without much commentary. That is something that I will keep.

So, as January comes to an end, I will say that it was like stepping back in time, before I had a smart phone and two laptops and a tablet. I read more news, listened to more music, and read novels as much as I used to. All that needs to keep happening. I need to reignite the personal free time activities I enjoyed before social media stole my attention. I felt I suddenly had more space in my thoughts and emotions, and was more aware of my own present moments and less consumed by the gloat and glitter of my contact’s vacation photos.

I will be coming back to Twitter and FB but I have committed to myself to be a minimalist user. Twitter gets a check once a day on both my personal and professional profiles. FB? I’m first going to reconfigure what I see when it opens, stop following those who have nothing original to say, and only look at it once a day. And I think I need to get off several group pages, particularly those of the ELCA clergy. Those pastors need to stop arguing online and read some books and go for a walk, for heaven’s sake. Pathetic.

Instagram gets a pass on any changes. I’m there to stay. And Reddit? SnapChat? et al? Forget it. I’m a new Spotify user. Enough said.

 

What Every Husband Ought to Know about Marriage Conflict

Nobody likes to hear someone close to them be critical, blaming or shaming. It feels bad. And sometimes scary. It turns out that when women talk like that to their husbands, contrary to popular opinion, most men feel this intense criticism very strongly in their bodies. And because male bodies “rev up” faster than women’s in stress (heart rate, blood pressure, muscle tension, tunnel vision), in order to protect themselves and their relationships from too much emotion, men frequently, readily, as a default, go into Defense mode.

It’s vital for happy, flexible marriages to have partners who know how to manage difficult conversations. There will be many of them over the years.

As I said in my last post, women have to learn how to bring up their complaints softly, gently, and with a caring touch.

Men need to recognize their usual default of Defensiveness, and learn to lower their emotional walls quickly.  If men can do this, while at the same time women practice being more gentle, the best situation for a positive interaction around difficult topics happens.

The most successful couples work on this communication posture change together. Trusting that the other is doing their best to move out of their “automatic” thinking/behavior/posture and tone to a more couple-friendly communication strategy.

Because I talk about these automatic couple missteps every day in my therapy practice, I know this is one of the most common couple problems. No one part of the couple can fix the problem completely on their own : each person in the marriage has a piece of the solution!

What Every Wife Ought to Know about Marriage Conflict

If I had the opportunity to share one essential marital tool with every wife in America, I know exactly what I would say:

Learn to bring up difficult topics with your partner in a calm, quiet and focused voice.

Marital researcher Dr. John Gottman has studied tens of thousands of marital conversations over 30 + years. He has found that there are 4 distinct communication habits that are poison to happy relationships. He calls them the “Four Horsemen,” like the biblical horsemen that bring in the end of times in the book of Revelation.

He has learned that men have a faster body response of adrenaline (increased heart rate, blood flow to the extremities, tunnel focus of attention) than most women to partner conflict. That means that when many women are just getting into the meat of their problem, their partner has become ready to run, fight and defend. It makes it very hard for men to stay focused and listen calmly without enormous effort.

If every woman could develop the personal skill of bringing up difficult discussions with their partner in a calmer way, their male partner is less apt to “flood,” focus and defend. And the conversation is more likely to be productive and problem-solving.

It’s a skill we practice in therapy all the time. Are you able to bring difficult topics up to your partner in a calm, cooperative way? If not, you may want to start working on this skill.

What is it that I wish I could tell every husband in America? Well, that’s for next time.

Men Have Emotions, Too

“Men seem to have a mental file drawer where they can store unpleasant experience. Open it up, drop it in, slam it shut. Done.” One of my friends was talking about her own experience in her marriage, and wondered if I agreed.

Well, it’s complicated. I do think that in western culture, men are expected to be problem solvers: movers, shakers, thinkers. This is what it takes to succeed in a market economy, where competition for work and other resources parallels the competition for food, shelter and safety of our earliest human ancestors. This ability to compartmentalize their lives? I see it as a psychological defense. Men are taught early in life that boys don’t cry, that when in pain they should shake it off, and that they need to be prepared to bring themselves, if not their families, and their communities to the front lines of life’s battles every day. And if their life battle isn’t a literal one, it certainly is core male metaphor.

That old saw, biology is destiny, is rather real. Men don’t bear children; women do. And women’s bodies and brains have for tens of thousands of years shaped women’s experiences of themselves as child bearer, child protector and nurturer. Women’s brains (recent fMRI imaging bears this out) have been primed to first see the world through relationship and emotional perspective. Men have brains that have developed to give a stronger preference to problem solving.

No wonder we can have trouble talking to and with each other. Women complain that their men don’t listen to them; that they simply hear every conversation with their partner as a plea for information, solution or fix. Men complain that they don’t know what their women partners want from them, if it isn’t what they are naturally good at.

I see this difference in my work as a therapist, but I see it as much through a cultural and family lens as I do a biological or neurological one. Yes, human beings have had gendered roles around children and family life as long as we have recorded history. Yes, we inherit strong personality traits from our parents, who themselves have inherited similar traits from their families. Yes, our culture has deep, anxiously held gender meanings for men (witness the current chaos that transgendered or gender-queer youth have when trying to play high school sport of their gender preference, not their biology) and you will begin to understand how hard it is for men to be really comfortable with their emotional lives.

But men, like women, are people. And we human beings all have these biological responses to the world called emotions that give us information and neurological action split seconds BEFORE our brains kick in to gear with thinking. Men are just taught to rush through them to get to their preferred way of being, thinking. Women are encouraged by biology and culture to notice emotion and better integrate it into their thought.

How can we get through this gendered issue to a better, more satisfying way of being with each other? I teach my clients to reach for their emotional reactions first. I ask men to think about looking for their female partner’s emotional experience, to respond to that, before they begin to problem solve. “Empathy first,” I intone, time and time again. And for women, I teach them tolerance for their partner’s (perceived) emotional dismissal, and patience as they must ask time and time again for their husband to listen and understand them first before they tell them what they ought to do.

We are in this together, men and women. We are all emotional beings, whose preferences with those experiences seem to differ fundamentally. But we are also creative, plastic, changeable beings, too. We can learn to better dance together. Couples who have adjusted to one another in this fundamental way can find a continuous, subtle joy in talking with and sharing life with each other.