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.

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Mass Murder & Mental Illness

As the roar of reaction begins to quiet following the horror in Newtown, many media comments I have read express a demand for better “access to mental health services.”

I’m not sure what that means in this case.

The biggest gap in mental health care in our country, as I have come to know it, is in in-patient hospital care. After Congress passed laws in the 1980’s that down-sized state hospitals, hundreds of people were released from care. States and communities were expected to provide needed services, but in many places, such care never materialized. The numbers of homeless, mentally ill and/or addicted persons swelled, and state and federal dollars for the seriously and/or persistently mentally ill dwindled and has stayed low.

We have now have a chronic shortage of psychiatric hospital beds, and an even more critical shortage of child and adolescent psychiatrists. The cost of in-patient care is close to $1000 a day in some cities like Minneapolis. We have a shortage of psychiatrists because our medical system is controlled by the third party payer system of insurance companies, and they don’t pay psychiatrists commensurate to their 10 year + post-college medical training. Fewer medical students want a job with longer training and lower pay.

If the shooter in Connecticut wanted mental health care, there are plenty of master and doctorate level out-patient counselor/therapists in Fairfield County. Family physicians are often the first level of care for mental health, and would have been able to offer referrals for counselors and medication if needed. If anyone feared for his life or someone else, state laws around the country commonly allow for persons to be held in a locked hospital ward for up to 72 hours for evaluation.

But that is all for those whose mental health is clearly disturbed and dangerous. We’d like to believe that we can see the most dangerous among us coming from a mile away. The plain truth is that we often can’t.

Contemporary research into the minds of mass killers in America has shown that the majority are men who have had difficult lives and blame their pain on everyone else. They don’t have a sense of their own responsibility for their lives, and when pressed even harder by some large stressor like the loss of a job or an important relationship, plan a sweet revenge upon their oppressors. These are usually men with personality disorders, people whose characters have little concern for the well-being of others. These folks make up about 10% of the population and don’t seek mental health care. Or when they do, can fake their way through and get released without any improvement.

Stalin. Hitler. Mussolini. Pol Pot. Idi Amin. These men are mass murderers too. Do you think more mental health care would have solved the problem of human evil in them? No. We will always need to build a world that takes human sin seriously. That does what it can to control for access to weapons that kill quickly. That knows that evil doesn’t come at us through normal channels. That remembers that evil seeks power, and that power can overtake governments, too.

We weep with those whose lives have been shattered by evil in the form of a silent 20 year old killer. For their young lives lost. But also for all who, throughout human history, have died at the hands of evil persons. Evil does exist, and it exists not outside of us, in some kind of satanic underworld of the devil. Every evil I know of is born of a bent human mind, and the continuous will to wreck vengeance, power and control of others.

We can’t medicate, hospitalize, or counsel our way around human evil. Looking for relief from the mental health system is looking in the wrong direction.

We Can’t Choose our Parents

It’s true; we can’t choose our parents.

Whatever skills or deficits they possess as people: their readiness or disinterest at caring for us, their physical and mental health, and their ability to meet basic needs for food, shelter and safety have an immediate and lasting effect on our own development. The human brain is shaped every day by the way we are cared for by those closest to us, and grows fastest during the first two years of life.

If a child is born to a parent who neglects their needs, is addicted, or who is violent, abusive or mentally ill, the effects are devastating. A human mind can be ruined if not helped and supported to develop in a healthier, more stable and flexible way.

It’s also true that in America the first time a failing family may come into contact with an institution that could help it recover is with the justice system or the public schools.

In this wonderful episode of This American Life radio show, stories are told of educational and therapeutic systems that work to re-parent our cultures disordered parent-child relationships.  If you’ve ever wondered how schools cope, or how family and in-home therapy works, take a listen. It’s great.

The American Life : Back To School, Episode 474

Tiger Woods : How Far the Great Have Fallen

With news this morning that Tiger missed the cut in the latest PGA tournament, sports journalists are beginning to comment on his astonishing fall from golf and sports greatness. It does seem as if his personal and professional troubles have created a failure that reminds us of an airplane in free fall. How could someone with such unusual talent lose it so disastrously?

There is something of gloating in all this talk, too. After all, who among us doesn’t feel just a bit of pleasure in seeing the untouchable hero now seem so human?

While the sports writers opine over this and that detail, it seems sadly simple to me. He is suffering, and his life is demonstrating the difficulty he is having holding all the pieces of his super-star world together. What propelled him to greatness – his focus, consistency, precision, unflappability – are all possible because he once managed an internal calm. Even if that calm was managed, or maybe controlled, even masked, by dozens of handlers, unlimited resources and a sex addiction. What we are seeing is a man whose masks have been ripped away, and what is left is the internal chaos, doubt, confusion and frustration that remains.

I hope, for his sake and the sake of his children, he can heal his mind (and his chronic injuries) and successfully return to the game around which he shaped his life. It doesn’t matter if he returns to his former greatness. I doubt that is possible. But what is possible is a re-made adult life, a life he can live in the long run, a healthier, happier, more whole self.

And wouldn’t that be a fabulous story? I just doubt it will make the front page of the Sports sections. No matter. It will make for a better life.