Dealing With Interfering Grandparents

DEALING WITH INTERFERING GRANDPARENTS

Carla Bruce-Eddings

How to navigate a challenging relationship.

Parenting can often feel like trying to survive amid barely controlled chaos, so having a wise, experienced grandparent to help out can be lifesaving. But if that grandparent has trouble adhering to basic boundaries, it can feel as if the chaos has maddeningly multiplied.

When families expand, there is a significant shift in roles and responsibilities — one that is easy to make light of until conflicts emerge. Frustrating as these conflicts may be, it’s important to keep in mind that lots of families experience them. Joanne Gottlieb, L.C.S.W., a New York-based licensed clinical social worker, cited religious practices, disciplinary styles, technology and diet as some of the most common areas for intergenerational parenting conflict.

“I would place ‘intrusive grandparents’ in the general category of challenges that adults and couples face in managing relationships with their respective families of origin, and with parents in particular,” she said. “This is a constant theme of therapy.”

So how to best navigate the convergence of these new roles so that everyone feels respected and valued?

  • The moment you notice a negative pattern emerging, deal with it quickly. Don’t wait until you are ready to tear your hair out to approach Mom or Mom-in-Law.
  • Choose a time when everyone is calm to discuss conflicts — and remember that your parent or parent-in-law has your best interests at heart, and your child’s too. Put the child’s needs first – not your own.
  • Bear in mind that child-rearing advice often changes from one generation to the next, so there are bound to be some ideas that a grandparent subscribes to — most likely ones that you were raised with — that you find outdated now.

It’s vital to remember, in the thick of it, why grandparents’ presence in your child’s life is so crucial. “Grandparent love and knowledge is essential to a child’s self-esteem and self-identity,” said Roslyn Hunter, L.C.S.W., a psychotherapist in New York. “They need to see themselves as part of something larger than their parents. They need to find their place and feel part of a family that has a history.”

To try to resolve conflicts, therapists suggest you should say what you need to say — clearly, respectfully and, if necessary, more than once. Meagan Hammerbacher, mom to a 3- and 5-year-old, is committed to clear and consistent communication with her mother-in-law — even if it hasn’t yielded the desired results just yet.

“I have asked my mother-in-law multiple times to please refrain from giving my children sweet treats and sugary drinks, and to consider the food that she generally feeds my children. Sadly, she rarely listens to my requests,” she said. Enlisting her husband to join the discussion was difficult at first, but she encouraged him to attend a few therapy sessions to feel more comfortable about opposing his mother, and now they are on the same page.

Such harmony between partners is the ideal first step in approaching tough conversations with a parent or parent-in-law, but it has not led to harmony in this case. “In all honesty I do not see the situation being resolved because his mother is of a different era,” Hammerbacher said. “I have realized that she is never going to listen to me and follow my directive, and it is not worth the constant fight with my partner because he does not want to fight with his mother.”

Until she feels ready to re-approach this conversation, Hammerbacher has decided to back off: “The only other resolution is to teach my children about healthy eating so they can advocate for themselves,” she said. “It is more likely that she will listen to my children when they tell her ‘Grandma, that food is not good for me!’ ”

Other parents live with their frustrations for the sake of the overall relationship. For Tanya Copenhaver, 41, continual conversations with her mother about her 4-year-old have been stressful, but she has decided she can deal with the dynamic. “I often feel judged by my mother when it comes to my parenting,” she said. “I used to let these things really bother me, and often, I still find myself starting to defend myself.” But she has come to realize that her mother truly does have the best intentions, misguided as her efforts sometimes feel.

“Often I bite my tongue and remind myself she means well and loves my daughter dearly,” Copenhaver said. “And I remind myself that the benefits of having my mom so involved in our lives far outweighs the frustration I feel.”

Grandparents find navigating this relationship tricky, too. Keesha Davis has strong opinions when it comes to her 1-year-old granddaughter, but over the course of her first year, she has intuited the best times to speak up and to remain silent. “I’m still adjusting … I’ve learned to just be quiet, observe and chime in when I really think I should chime in,” she said. Recently she had a disagreement with her daughter and daughter-in-law about giving their daughter apple juice while babysitting. While the mothers stood firm — no juice — Davis told me that they are open to advice in other areas. “I think they’re coming to terms with saying, ‘You know what, my mother is very logical when it comes to certain things,’ ” she said. “I’ve raised kids, I babysit kids. … So they do sit back and say, ‘Wait a minute. What she is saying is correct and we can benefit from listening.’ ”

Try to bear in mind that each generation has its own parenting beliefs, and parenting advice has changed over the years. Today’s grandparents put their babies to sleep on their stomachs and used crib bumpers — practices that are no longer followed. Parental bans on corporal punishment can also be perplexing for grandparents, many of whom adhered to the “spare the rod” justification for spanking.

In these cases, making your stance crystal clear from the start is of utmost importance, Gottlieb said. “The parent needs to communicate clearly that physical discipline is not permitted,” she said. “If the parent is not sure that the grandparent, or any caregiver, will respect this wish, then I would advise that the parent not leave their child alone with that person.” Try to avoid long explanations or arguments; your rationale can be as short as a simple reminder that cultural norms have changed, so much so that a child’s mentioning in school that he was hit could prompt a call to child protective services.

“I would say that one of the frequent issues is cultural, particularly for immigrant families,” Hunter said. “Grandparents expect parents to follow cultural traditions from the old country. Parents often resist because old traditions are not practical for modern life.” In these cases, it’s important to avoid the instinct to be dismissive or overly critical of a practice that you may not understand. After all, your parent raised you. Talking through the reasons for your parenting decisions, and listening to grandparents talk about their own philosophies, may not lead to a quick solution, but it will help promote understanding and reduce discord.

Hunter reminds parents that they have the final word. “It’s important to remember that grandparents do not actually hold more power than the parent — even if the grandparent in question is providing some kind of support,” she said. If a parent asserting herself to advocate for her child jeopardizes the relationship with the grandparent, or vice versa, that is a different issue. “In either case the child’s needs are not being put first,” Hunter said. “The adult’s needs are being put first with the child being used as a tool.”

Parenting is a lifelong job; it doesn’t end when a child has entered adulthood. You are charged with creating a safe, nurturing environment for your child, as well as learning from the wisdom and, yes, missteps of your parents. A three-generation dynamic should feel fluid and mutually supportive, especially during times of conflict, experts stressed. Demonstrating positive examples of communication and compromise with a parent or parent-in-law will help your child navigate her own approach to problem solving, as these are skills that “make emotions and the world feel manageable,” Gottlieb added.

Finally, it always helps to take a deep breath and remember that your child has different needs from the other people in her life. Despite Tanya Copenhaver’s occasional misunderstandings with her mother, she is willing to turn a blind eye from time to time for the sake of offering her daughter a crucial childhood benefit: “Grandma’s house isn’t home, and grandparents get to have a different relationship with our children than we do,” she said. “When I’m not there, it’s O.K. if my daughter eats an extra candy or gets to eat applesauce, graham crackers and a marshmallow for lunch. Those are memories she will have forever.”

Remembering her own loving relationship with her grandmother, she added: “I can only hope that my daughter gets to experience that special bond with my mom.”

My Marriage Has a Third Wheel: Our Child

MY MARRIAGE HAS A THIRD WHEEL: OUR CHILD

Jancee Dunn

Jancee Dunn, left, with her daughter Sylvie and husband Tom.Creditvia Jancee Dunn

An only child can make the relationship between Mom and Dad uniquely complicated.

Here’s a typical weeknight scenario in our household: My husband, Tom, our 9-year-old daughter, Sylvie, and I feel like ordering in, and after a lengthy debate, we decide on pizza. Later, while the three of us are eating pepperoni slices and playing Bananagrams, Sylvie reminds Tom that our wedding anniversary is coming up and offhandedly mentions that my favorite flowers are peonies. After a few rounds of the game, we consider a movie. Sylvie proposes “Escape From New York,” a film that has piqued her curiosity after hearing her father repeatedly imitate Kurt Russell as Snake Plissken.

“I’ll look it up on Common Sense Media to see if it’s appropriate,” she volunteers, opening my computer. Unfortunately, she reports gravely, it’s for ages 16 and up. “‘Except for a severed head,’” Sylvie reads aloud, “‘there’s little explicit gore. An atmosphere of cynicism and darkness pervades, including a negative depiction of a U.S. President.’”

Tom points out that this sounds like his Twitter feed. But I balk at the severed head, which is a pretty big except for.

I would never have predicted that the hardest part of parenting would be that our only child would come to fully believe she is the third person in our marriage. This arrangement began roughly as soon as she learned to talk.

As family psychologists such as Dr. Carl E. Pickhardt, Ph.D., point out, only children often feel like one of the adults. As with our tripartite system of government, they view the daily running of the household as a three-way power-sharing agreement. This is an issue more parents may have to deal with, now that one-child families are gaining ground. According to a Pew Research analysis of 2015 U.S. Census Bureau data, today 18 percent of mothers at the end of their childbearing years have an only child — up from 10 percent in 1976.

Tom and I have fully enabled Sylvie to feel like one of the gang, because we go almost everywhereas a trio. We’re usually too cheap to hire babysitters, and tend to travel with Sylvie, too, as she slots fairly easily into our itineraries. As a result, Sylvie has gotten used to being included, consulted, part of our in-jokes. This is not uncommon, says social psychologist Dr. Susan Newman, Ph.D., who has spent decades studying only children — a term I loathe, as it calls to mind a kid alone in a shadowy room, whispering quietly to his sock puppet “friends.” (I think we should revive the much more sprightly “oneling,” used by 19th century author John Cole in his book “Herveiana.”)

But our efforts to “empower” our oneling and make her voice heard have begun to backfire. To paraphrase Princess Diana when asked about Camilla Parker-Bowles: There are three of us in this marriage, so it’s a bit crowded.

One reason for our fluid boundaries is physical. It’s almost impossible to maintain them in a Brooklyn apartment a realtor would euphemistically call “charming and cozy,” one with bizarrely porous doors that actually seem to amplify sound. But it’s also emotional: Tom and I, like many parents of our generation, make an effort to be open and communicative with Sylvie. (“You can tell us anything, sweetheart!”)

When I was growing up, I would never have dreamed of sharing anything remotely personal with my parents. I had two siblings, and our family dynamic was solidly Us vs. Them — my sisters and I were one unit, my folks another. I wanted a different kind of relationship with our daughter.

But one consequence of all this closeness is that our child feels insulted if Tom and I go out to dinner alone. If we’re on vacation, she balks at being “dumped,” as she puts it, in the Kids’ Club. She would be happy to Photoshop her picture into our wedding photos. If Tom and I give each other a hug, she has gotten in the habit of jumping in between us.

Jancee Dunn and her family. 
Jancee Dunn and her family. Creditvia Jancee Dunn

At least she doesn’t referee when we fight, as she did when she was smaller. A couples’ counselor put a stop to that when he advised me to put a photo of Sylvie in a drawer by my bedside table. Whenever I was about to lose my temper with Tom, he told me, I was to run to the bedroom, pull out the photo, and say to it: I know that what I’m about to do is going to cause you harm, but right now, my anger is more important to me than you are. I only had to repeat that brutal phrase a couple of times.

But Tom and I still squabble about minor stuff, like whose turn it is to empty the dishwasher — and when we do, Sylvie jumps in and takes sides. (“Mom, you did it last time.”)

As a self-flagellating parent, I was recently drawn to a book with the dire title “The Seven Common Sins of Parenting an Only Child.” Ooh, sins — what am I doing wrong? Among other iniquities — overprotection, overcompensating — Sin No. 6 resonated with me: Treating Your Child Like an Adult.

“It can become so pleasurable for parents of an only child to have a miniature adult by their side that they may lose sight of the fact that their kid needs to be a kid,” writes author Carolyn White, former editor of Only Child magazine. I read this aloud to Tom as Sylvie, nearby, perused the latest issue of Consumer Reportsready to counsel us on our next car purchase.

Sylvie may be comfortable around adults, but she is still a child, one who lacks the reasoning abilities and experience of a grown-up — so I must catch myself when I absently reply to her questions about money, or other parents, before realizing, whoops, shouldn’t have told her that.

As Newman advises, “Before you allow your child to weigh in, take a pause and ask yourself, ‘Is this really a topic or an issue that a 9-year-old should be involved in, or is this a decision for adults?’ ”

Sylvie needs time away from us to be a kid — time to act silly and make jokes about butts and drone on about the intricacies of Minecraft. She has a group of good friends, but I do see her picking up on her middle-aged parents’ habits, such as calculating how many hours of sleep she got every morning. Her posse at home is squarely in midlife, as evidenced by her choice of songs for her ninth birthday party — among them, Barbra Streisand’s LBJ-era “Don’t Rain on My Parade.” We are not the kind of posse a 9-year-old needs. Maybe she hasn’t yet subbed out her school backpack for a WNYC tote bag, but the danger is there.

And all of this coziness hurts our marriage, too. So I have to remind myself, sometimes daily, to cordon off our relationship. Our marriage has needs that deviate from my needs as an individual, as well as our needs as a family. I have to constantly ask, what would be good for the marriage? It’s important, as a couple, to have your own roster of in-jokes. It’s refreshing to drop F-bombs with impunity, and to gossip freely about other parents without having to hastily turn it into a teachable moment for your eavesdropping child about How Gossiping Is Really About Feeling Insecure About Your Own Life Choices. And it’s nice — no, essential — to go out to dinner, just the two of you, and speculate on which members of the waitstaff are sleeping with each other. You know, grown-up stuff.

A Better Me Makes A Better We: An Interview with Ellyn Bader, Ph.D.

A BETTER ME MAKES A BETTER WE: AN INTERVIEW WITH ELLYN BADER, Ph.D.

Kyle Benson

Interview Guest: Ellyn Bader, Ph.D., is a co-founder of The Developmental Model of Couples Therapy, which integrates attachment theory and differentiation. Through her work at The Couples Institute, she has specialized in helping couples transform their relationships since 1984.

The idealized relationship where partners are fused at the hip is not a healthy relationship, as it doesn’t allow for the unique differences of each partner. Bader highlights this fusion as a conflict avoidant stance that happens when one partner feels anxious or uncomfortable and attempts to merge with their spouse.

One way of doing this is becoming more like your partner in hopes of being loved. There’s a deep fear that says, “If I express my needs and have different needs than my partner, I’m going to be abandoned.”

The other conflict avoidant stance is loving your partner at arm’s length. The fear in this stance says, “If I become more open and vulnerable, I’m going to get swallowed up and lose my sense of self.”

As Dr. David Schnarch states in his book entitled Passionate Marriage, “Giving up your individuality to be together is as defeating in the long run as giving up your relationship to maintain your individuality. Either way, you end up being less of a person with less of a relationship.”

Fusion happens when a person is fearful of encountering differences. These can be minor differences including how one spends their time or their hobbies, or major differences such as conflict style and desire for togetherness. The opposite of fusion is differentiation.

The Risk of Growth

Bader describes differentiation as an active process “in which partners define themselves to each other.” Differentiation requires the risk of being open to growth and being honest not only with your partner, but also with yourself.

  • If you’re anxious, it could mean realizing that you lean on partner so much that if they become unstable, you both fall down. Your demands on your partner and the way you discuss conflict may be pushing your partner away, which is the very thing you fear.
  • If you’re avoidant, it could mean noticing that you neglect your partner’s needs and prioritize yourself over your relationship. As a result, you perpetuate the loneliness you feel.
    To grow in your relationship requires a willingness to stand on what Bader calls your “developmental edge” and differentiate yourself as an individual. To risk getting closer to your partner without pushing them away.

What Differentiation Looks Like

In conflict, a differentiated lover can give space to their partner who is emotionally overwhelmed while also remaining close enough to be caring and supportive, but not so close that they lose themselves emotionally. Instead of reacting with overwhelming emotion, a differentiated partner, according to Bader, expresses curiosity about their partner’s emotional state:

“Can you tell me more about what’s going on?”
“Can you tell me about these feelings?”

The more differentiated you are, the less likely you are to take things as personally. As a result, you can soothe yourself or reach out to be soothed by your partner in a helpful way. Instead of saying, “You’re such a jerk. You never care for me,” a differentiated partner would say, “I’m feeling really overwhelmed and lonely. Could you give me a hug?”

To differentiate is to develop a secure way of relating to your partner. This earned security, as highlighted by Bader, is created both internally and developed within the context of a relationship. This requires being authentic with your feelings and needs.

You can cultivate a secure and functioning relationship by recognizing and taking responsibility for your part in creating unhealthy dynamics in your relationship. When you do this, you can then express your needs, desires, and wishes in a way that allows you and your partner to work together to meet each other’s needs.

When both partners are whole, not only is there more flexibility in the marriage, but there is also more intimacy.

Humility in Relationships

HUMILITY IN RELATIONSHIPS

Os Hillman

“All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because, ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.'” – 1 Peter 5:5b

I’ll never forget the first time I discovered what a feeling was. It was in my early forties. “Surely not!” you may be thinking. Yes, it is true. Since then, I have discovered many men still live in this condition. It took an older mentor to help me understand the difference between information and a feeling.

Wives are frustrated because their husbands share information, but not their feelings. They want to know what is going on inside their man. The fact is, most men have not been taught to identify feelings, much less how to share them. It is something that men must learn to do because it is not a natural trait. If they do share their feelings, society often portrays them as weak. No man willingly wants to be portrayed as weak.

In order to become an effective friend and leader, one must learn to be vulnerable with others and develop an ability to share feelings. It is a vital step to becoming a real person with whom others can connect emotionally. This is not easy to do if your parents did not teach you to share your emotional life with others. Emotional vulnerability is especially hard for men. Author Dr. Larry Crabb states,

Men who as boys felt neglected by their dads often remain distant from their own children. The sins of fathers are passed on to children, often through the dynamic of self-protection. It hurts to be neglected, and it creates questions about our value to others. So to avoid feeling the sting of further rejection, we refuse to give that part of ourselves we fear might once again be received with indifference. When our approach to life revolves around discipline, commitment, and knowledge [which the Greek influence teaches us] but runs from feeling the hurt of unmet longings that come from a lack of deeper relationships, then our efforts to love will be marked more by required action than by liberating passion. We will be known as reliable, but not involved. Honest friends will report that they enjoy being with us, but have trouble feeling close. Even our best friends (including spouses) will feel guarded around us, a little tense and vaguely distant. It’s not uncommon for Christian leaders to have no real friends. [Larry Crabb, Inside Out (Colorado Springs, Colorado: Navpress, n.d.), 98-99.]

If this describes you, why not begin on a new journey of opening up your life to others in a way that others can see who you really are? It might be scary at first, but as you grow in this area, you will find new freedom in your life. Then, others will more readily connect with you.

Insecurity Hurts Your Marriage. Here’s What To Do About It

INSECURITY HURTS YOUR MARRIAGE. HERE’S WHAT TO DO ABOUT IT

Isabella Markert

Close to the end of my college career, I applied to an internship that I had been dreaming about, working toward, and planning on for four years. I knew it was competitive, but everything my professors, peers, and bosses said to me made it clear that I would be getting that internship. “You’re a shoo-in for this job!” they would say to me.

But the rejection email came, and it deflated me. I was depressed. It was clear that I had placed my self-worth on my abilities as a writer and editor. The rejection was a message from certified experts: You are not good enough.

My depression didn’t get to dangerous proportions, but I did struggle with motivation and energy. I would come home, sit on the couch, and do nothing until bed. My husband was a champ through it all, but that summer wasn’t great for our marriage. He did all the giving, and I did all the taking. All because my self-esteem took a major hit.

Insecurity isn’t good for marriage. Whether it’s personal insecurity or insecurity about the relationship, individuals need confidence for their marriages to thrive.

To keep your insecurities from hurting your marriage, recognize the ways insecurities can do damage, meet your spouse halfway, recognize when insecurity is more than just a feeling, and try a couple of practical exercises.

Recognize how your insecurities may be hurting your relationship

When you’re insecure, it can be tempting to think “This just affects me.” But the truth is that how you feel about yourself affects your spouse and your relationship. Here are some signs that your insecurities are hurting your marriage:

  • You struggle to fully trust your spouse. This keeps you from being totally open and honest in your relationship.
  • You believe and act on your negative thoughts about yourself. Let’s say you tell yourself you’re boring often enough that you start to believe it. Next thing you know, you prove yourself right. “It’s not that you are not allowed to judge yourself,” says Caleb Backe, health and wellness expert at Maple Holistics. “Do it, but remember as you do it to be a wise advisor, not a vicious tyrant.”
  • You compare yourself to your spouse’s exes. Never a good idea, especially since none of those relationships worked out.
  • Your spouse constantly has to reassure you. There’s nothing wrong with needing reassurance now and then, but if you constantly need validation, that’s a sign your insecurities are getting the best of you. There’s a feeling of distance in your relationship. If you’re not communicating about your insecurities, your spouse will pick up on that, whether consciously or not.
  • You read too much into what your spouse says. “You begin to read into the words of your partner in a way that reinforces the insecurities you are feeling,” says Dr. Kelsey M. Latimer, PhD, CEDS-S, assistant director of operations for Center for Discovery. “The focus of the relationship becomes about proving the feelings the person has rather than enjoying the time.”

Meet your spouse in the middle

Sometimes insecurities come because you’re afraid your spouse doesn’t appreciate the ways in which you differ. Maybe you’re fun-loving and adventure-seeking, and you worry that your spouse doesn’t think you’re serious enough. This discrepancy requires you to talk with your spouse and determine how you can meet each other halfway.

Maybe “meeting halfway” means the two of you meet weekly to discuss your finances, and then afterward you get to pick a zany restaurant to try out. But in the compromise, realize that being carefree doesn’t make you less desirable—it just makes you you!

Realize when insecurity is more than just a feeling

Let’s say you’ve noticed people aren’t laughing at your jokes as much as they used to. It would be natural to feel a little insecure about your sense of humor. You have the choice to use that feeling of insecurity to do a little self-reflection. “Sometimes, those feelings are guides,” says Gail Grace, LCSW.

Maybe you’re making it up, and your insecurity is telling you that you need to be a little kinder to yourself. Maybe people aren’t laughing at your jokes because your humor has crossed the line from witty to rude, which just isn’t like you. In this case, your insecurity is telling you that you might have some bitterness you need to work through.

The same goes for insecurity about your marriage. Maybe your insecurity is a reflection of something you need to work on personally. Or maybe you and your spouse have an obstacle that’s keeping you from trusting each other. In either case, it’s a good idea to communicate your feelings to your spouse and work through it together.

Try these exercises:

Exercise #1

“It requires more attentional effort to disengage from a negative thought process than a neutral one,” says cognitive therapist Jennice Vilhauer, PhD. So it might take a formal exercise to overcome your insecurities. Here’s the exercise Vilhauer suggests:

  1. Each night right before you go to sleep, write down three things you liked about yourself that day.
  • Read the list before you get out of bed the next morning.
  • Add three items to the list each night.
  • Repeat this sequence every day for 30 days.

“This simple-to-do but nonetheless effortful exercise essentially helps you build the strength to disengage from any negative thought stream,” she explains. “But remember: There is no benefit to your mental health in just understanding how the exercise works, just as there is no benefit to your physical health in knowing how to use a treadmill. The benefit comes from the doing.”

Exercise #2

How do you get to the point where you can feel happy for someone else without comparing their successes to yours (or to your failures)? Charlie Houpert, founder of the YouTube channel Charisma on Command, tells the story of how after he and his girlfriend broke up, he couldn’t help but compare himself to the guys he was sure she was hanging out with. He wasn’t happy she had moved on so fast, and he sure wasn’t happy for the (imagined) guys that got to spend time with her.

He went to see a therapist, and this is the three-step exercise the therapist recommended for when you are feeling jealous or insecure:

  1. Interrupt your thought pattern with an eye scramble. Hum a simple tune like “Happy Birthday to You” and move your eyes back and forth to the rhythm. This will get you to a neutral place.
  • Feed yourself whatever you need. Chances are that, whatever you’re feeling—less-than, abandoned, disrespected—you need to feel loved. Look at yourself in a mirror (or imagine looking at yourself in a mirror) and say, “I love you exactly as you are.” You might feel goofy because you’re talking to yourself, but it will get you in a better mood. And the more you say this to yourself, the more you’ll believe it.
  • Extend that unconditional love to the person you least want to extend it to. In Houpert’s story, he tried to imagine his girlfriend happy with someone else and feel happy for her. Then he imagined the guy she was with and was happy for him because the guy was with someone Houpert knew was so great. After extending that love, come back to the present. Rather than comparing, now you get to “look around you and see all the happiness in the world, and you get to partake in it,” Houpert says.

Becoming secure in yourself and your relationship will heal and strengthen your marriage. To overcome your insecurities, recognize the ways insecurities can do damage, meet your spouse halfway, recognize when insecurity is more than just a feeling, and try practical exercises for overcoming insecurity. Next time you face a difficulty, you and your marriage will be ready for it.

The Best Way to Get Revenge

THE BEST WAY TO GET REVENGE

Steven Berglas

Most people mollify psychic pain by attacking back; we yearn for revenge. But achievement striving is better. It opens the mind to the possible, instead of hitching it to the horrible.

In 2015, Dee Carroll was billing $17 million a year in her Washington, D.C.-based organizational development firm, heading a team of 18 in two locations, including a recently added IT arm, when her board suggested bringing on a chief financial officer. She found a candidate, and the board approved of her hire. Carroll, with a Ph.D. in business administration and 28 years at the helm, turned her attention back to growing the company.

“We were doing well,” she recalls. Every once in a while, she checked the books. The numbers added up, but she couldn’t figure out why the borrowing wasn’t decreasing on her line of credit. “We’re self-financing,” the CFO assured her. Then a day came when some documents needed reviewing and she called the bank. Its numbers and her numbers didn’t align. Carroll summoned outside auditors to search for a discrepant half million. The day she confronted the CFO, he admitted to running two sets of books. It took forensic accountants months to figure out how the guy had walked off with more than $2 million.  

Carroll cashed in her 401k and filed for reorganization to keep the company afloat—while she spent a year in and out of hospitals with stress-induced illnesses. Then the bank froze her assets, and it was all over. “I was so angry, all I wanted was to get my hands on that CFO and punch him out,” says Carroll. Miraculously, a few months later, the day came when she could. They found themselves side-by-side in the parking lot of a giant Walgreens—she in her old Land Cruiser, he in a new Audi. Ever the planner, she pulled out her phone and called her attorney: “Get down here—and prepare to get me out of jail.”

Carroll chased the CFO through the superstore. He outpaced her. So she shifted strategies: I’ll just ram his car. Behind the wheel, it hit her. “If he had me going like that, he was in control of my life. I drove off—and I felt good.”

The desire for revenge, she felt, “had stripped my courage, my convictions, my confidence. It had me beating myself up for my failures: ‘I should have known.’ ‘I should have checked more often.'” Crumbling was not an option. “I decided I’m not going to give him the pleasure. He’ll only see me flying high.”

And maybe he does—literally. Carroll has not only successfully launched a new company, she spends much of her time traveling the globe, promoting “emotional emancipation.” She focuses on persuading women that no one controls what they can accomplish. “I needed to embrace the possible,” she explains. “Now I can grow.”

What Carroll apprehended, sitting in that parking lot, was that nothing she could do to punish the CFO could harm him as badly as her desire for revenge was harming her.

Rerouting the Amygdala

Revenge-seeking has deep, seemingly instinctual roots in the human behavioral repertoire. Since the dawn of civilization, the highest authorities have sanctioned harming someone in the same manner as he or she has harmed you. From the 1754 B.C. Code of Hammurabi, the sixth Babylonian king, to the Bible—Exodus chapter 21: “You shall appoint as a penalty life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth”—the ancients specified how the impulse for revenge was to be carried out.

From the time we are barely able to put together full sentences, we yearn for revenge, screaming, “That’s not fair” in response to a perceived injustice (a sibling getting dessert that we don’t, because we are being punished) and following that outcry with the vow, “I’ll get you!” targeted at Mom, Dad, or the babysitter for giving preferential treatment to the kid who shares our bath.

As adults we’re only slightly more sophisticated in response to abuses by others. A small insult—getting cut off by a driver—can launch a highway chase for miles, either to cut that motorist off in the same way or to deliver the hand gesture known as “flipping the bird.”

Most people seek to mollify psychic pain by attacking back. But there is a better, far more adaptive way—showing ’em, by achieving something personally and socially significant related to the offense. To first turn the other cheek and then build something meaningful, to oneself and to others, out of the abandoned anger requires a psychological shift—within just about anyone’s reach—that harnesses the brain’s amygdala, its processing center of danger, and redirects its impulses.

When you cope with psychic pain via achievement striving, your mindset is on the possible. Revenge-seeking hitches it to the horrible.

“A man that studieth revenge keeps his own wounds green, which otherwise would heal and do well,” wrote English philosopher, statesman, and scientist Francis Bacon. He captured the core problem with revenge: It demands ruminating about wrongs, which amplifies their significance, aggravates what sparked anger, and makes it impossible to let go.

Freud was the first to dissect the amplification of suffering brought on by anger born of distressing events. Paradoxically, despite the pain that such recollections cause, the events are “reviewed, repeated, or rehearsed”—through dreams or obsessional ruminations.

The continual mental replaying of an event, however humiliating, is a primordial propensity to revisit hurtful interactions in an attempt to master through imagery what could not be mastered behaviorally. As the initial injury is relived, negative alterations in cognition and mood grow progressively worse—negative thoughts and assumptions about oneself or the world, exaggerated blame of oneself or others for causing the trauma, feelings of isolation, and difficulty experiencing positive affect. The original insult remains a focus of cognitive imagery.

Failing to consummate revenge fantasies turns them into obsessions. American literature offers the definitive example of obsessional revenge seeking in Herman Melville’s MobyDick; or, The Whale. After losing a leg to a white whale, Captain Ahab embarks on a hunt to destroy that whale, a quest that ends in his demise. To this day, “white whale” is another term for an obsessional pursuit.

Photo by Reinhard Hunger

Cultivating Congruence

My own clinical experience corroborates what decades of medical evidence demonstrates: People who harbor thoughts of exacting revenge exhibit systemic turmoil, courtesy of an activated amygdala preparing against the threat of attack. They experience sleeplessness, owing to nonstop rumination; irritability; hyperarousal; and distractibility that often impedes their ability to function. As Confucius said: “Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.”

Orthopedist Richard “Rock” Barnes, 46,* walked into my office because I had written a book about burnout. Trained as a psychiatrist, he had worked at a prestigious mental hospital before feeling burned out. His remedy—changing medical specialties by retraining and moving across the country—wasn’t working.

In our initial session, Barnes didn’t seem burned out so much as burned up—consumed with rage from an incident early in his career. A patient under his care had been sexually exploited by a senior psychiatrist. Barnes had sought to avenge the wrong by exposing the abuser, but learned that filing a claim would harm the fragile patient and would be refuted by the VIP doctor as a tale told by a mentally ill woman.

In my office, Barnes raged at himself, but especially at the abuser. And he railed at the vestiges of a medical hierarchy that had made him feel so impotent as a young physician. How, I asked, could he “right the wrong in an ego-syntonic manner?”—that is, in a way congruent with his values, his personality, his self-concept, and his future. Certainly not by killing the doctor.

A decade and a half later, Barnes is still mending bones but he is also helping physicians everywhere to articulate perceived problems at their institutions without fear of rebuke or retaliation. Through an organization he started, first at his own hospital, he speaks at hospitals around the country, reducing the likelihood of abuse like that his patient suffered.

Fast Forward

My work with Barnes led me to recognize that it’s possible to say “Screw you!” to harm-doers in indirect but active ways that are not only personally gratifying but also socially constructive. Revenge is so tightly bound to pain because the eye-for-an-eye mindset is backward-looking, focused on the original insult—but also because it is irreconcilable with most people’s goalsfor themselves.

“Showing ’em,” not “socking ’em,”—taking a behavioral step beyond the amygdala’s bidding—brings relief not least because it jump-starts growth. It renders people no longer vulnerable to the forces that originally harmed them. For that reason, it directly enhances feelings of self-efficacy and power.

For sure, psychotherapy has value. It is especially useful for exploring conflicted feelings. But dealing with revenge through psychotherapy may bring slow healing. En route to relief, the victim must relive the original injustice. Mind and body return to the scene of the crime, again and again. Achievement striving, on the other hand, need never recall the actual insult.

The Power of Striving

Some Turn Away from avenging a wrong as if they had an innate understanding of the Buddha’s observation: “Anger will never disappear so long as thoughts of resentment are cherished in the mind. Anger will disappear just as soon as thoughts of resentment are forgotten.” But for most, this is near impossible.

Revenge is rooted in a brain network involving the amygdala and temporal areas that are fired up very specifically by acts of perceived unfairness perpetrated by another human being, University of Geneva researchers recently found. The greater the neural activation, the greater the inner push for punishment. It’s common for people to yield to the urge.

But rage for revenge is thoroughly alterable. If the dorsolateral area of the prefrontal cortex (DLPFC), a key area for emotion regulation, is activated during the provocation stage, the amygdala is muted, inhibiting the desire for later punishment, neuroscientist Olga Klimecki and colleagues observe in Scientific Reports. “The DLPFC is coordinated with the motor cortex that directs the hand that makes the choice of vengeful behavior or not. There is a direct correlation between brain activity in the DLPFC and behavioral choices.”

Striving toward positive goals, research has long shown, naturally subdues the amygdala. In my own clinical experience, the majority of patients experiencing profound trauma are able to flourish afterwards by channeling their anger into a meaningful endeavor, typically one that focuses on others. They do well by doing good. Revenge becomes an opportunity for exercising values mobilized by the insult.

Not all wrongs to be avenged are born of injury inflicted by individuals. Social injustice is a prime motivator, too, and the one that impelled lawyer Barry Scheck to create the Innocence Project, a consortium of attorneys that, since 1992, has been devoted to overturning wrongful convictions of (mostly) indigent people.

While in elementary school, a fire destroyed Scheck’s family home, injuring his parents and killing his beloved sister. At first debilitated, by high school he was academically motivated enough to gain entry to Yale, where he protested the Vietnam War on the grounds that the deferments granted to students discriminated against poor teenagers. He used his law degree to become a public defender in New York’s then-distressed South Bronx and a staff attorney for the Legal Aid Society.

After co-founding a law firm specializing in civil rights litigation, he joined the “Dream Team” that got O.J. Simpson acquitted of double murder charges in 1994. By then, the Innocence Project was already deploying its legal skills to show the world that those who suffered injustice had an ally to undo what was done to them.

Beyond Herself

If ever a deed could conceivably justify the wish to exact lex talionis, the death of a child by murder might top the list. Yet that is not what happened in May 1980, when 13-year-old Cari Lightner was struck and killed by a drunk driver. The driver, who had been convicted of drunk driving offenses three times in four years, never even stopped his car. And when he struck the girl, he was out on bail for a hit-and-run arrest two days earlier.

Candy Lightner’s pain at her daughter’s death was amplified when the responding police officer told her, “Lady, you’ll be lucky if this guy gets any jail time, much less prison.” As she later told People magazine, “This was not an ‘unfortunate accident.’ Cari was the victim of a violent crime. Death caused by drunk drivers is the only socially acceptable form of homicide.”

The societal pass that drunk drivers received at the time served, Lightner recalled, to “double my anger.” And she immediately vowed to make people horrified by the consequences of drunk driving. Four days after Cari’s death, she quit her job and organized Mothers Against Drunk Drivers (later, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, or MADD).

Indefatigable in her quest to save others from a similar tragedy, Lightner was named to the National Commission on Drunk Driving in 1984 by President Ronald Reagan. MADD has sparked new penalties for drunk driving and changed the legal drinking age in many states.

Significant as the achievements are, they pale in comparison to what Lightner got from harnessing her anger and taking up a cause instead of seeking revenge. She not only gained kudos from around the world, she also gave meaning to her daughter’s life.

Getting out of oneself and giving back constitute a sure antidote to the emotional cancer of rumination. An added advantage of working for a cause is that you don’t act in a vacuum. On the contrary, such endeavors demand contact with like-minded people. Social support is the best-documented balm for almost every ill of mind and body.

Photo by Reinhard Hunger

Photo by Reinhard Hunger

Beating ‘Em at Their Own Game

Doing well by doing good could have been the epitaph for Benjamin Franklin, drafter of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution and one of the richest men in American history, certainly its ultimate Renaissance man. Writer, philosopher, scientist, diplomat, musician, and oenophile, he spoke five languages—exclusively self-taught; he also invented bifocals, the urinary catheter, and swim fins! You probably recall schoolbook illustrations of Franklin flying a kite in a thunderstorm to study electricity—a daredevil venture that led to his invention of the lightning rod (which has saved countless lives and millions of dollars).

What’s missing from textbook accounts of Franklin is the truth about his early life. Because his father could not afford to send Benjamin to school, he arranged for his older son James (then in the process of establishing a printing business) to employ Benjamin, at age 11, as an indentured apprentice. Almost immediately, James became so jealous of Ben’s precocity that he demeaned and beat his younger brother regularly.

Things only got worse as Benjamin mastered the basics of printing and learned to read and write better than most adults in Colonial New England. He asked his brother if he could write for his newspaper and was denied. But instead of getting angry, he turned to writing articles under the pen name Silence Dogood. Slipped under the door of James’s shop, they quickly became the most popular part of the paper. When James learned who wrote them, all hell broke loose. Benjamin fled to Philadelphia, arriving with three shillings in his pocket and rags on his back.

Although wronged, Franklin never once sought to exact revenge directly or engage in displays of dominance. Instead, he found a psychologically satisfying way to “show” his brother—and thrive: by behaving better than him. He was driven to become the best printer in the 13 colonies. Starting as a journeyman in Philadelphia, Franklin soon established his own shop, leapfrogging from printing mundane legal forms to culturally significant pamphlets, newspapers, and books, including his own. As the leading printer in Colonial America, he ultimately printed its currency.

In 1748, after amassing the equivalent of more than $10 billion in today’s money, Franklin retired at age 42. It was time, he said, “to do something useful.” His next 42 years (40 beyond the life expectancy of males at the time) were a case study in generativity—not simply a Founding Father of the country and its first foreign diplomat, he also founded the American Philosophical Society, America’s first scientific society, its first science library and museum, and the nation’s first modern liberal arts college, later renamed the University of Pennsylvania.     

Franklin stands as the quintessential example of coping with the pain of trauma in an entrepreneurial, ego-enhancing way—by building something that not only helps the world but brings authentic personal rewards, from praise and respect to a host of new and exciting experiences.

*name has been changed

This Simple Communication Rule Can Rescue Your Marriage

THIS SIMPLE COMMUNICATION RULE CAN RESCUE YOUR MARRIAGE

Harriet Lerner

The columnist Ellen Goodman once quoted a friend who gave her daughters terrific advice:

“Speak up, Speak up, speak up!” this mother said. “The only person you’ll scare off is your future ex-husband!” What an improvement over the pre-feminist advice I was raised on:  “Listen wide-eyed to his ideas and gracefully add your footnotes from time to time.”

All ways of speaking up, however, are not equal. One of the challenges in marriage is to make authentic “I” statements that express our beliefs and feelings without judging or attacking your partner.  This may be easy enough if your partner is nodding vigorously in agreement (“I thought you were brilliant tonight”) or if the subject matter is a neutral one (“I know you like vanilla but I prefer chocolate”).  But when you’re dealing with a defensive partner or a high-twitch subject, nothing is simple or easy.

“I” statements, however, can keep a difficult conversation from exploding into an all-out fight. An “I” statement starts with “I think…” I feel…”  “I fear…”  “I want…”  Practice making these kind of statements.

Most importantly, remember that a true “I” statement:

* has a light touch

* is nonjudgmental and non-blaming

* does not imply that the other person is responsible for your feelings or reactions

* is only about you—not about your partner.

Every “you” statement (“You’re being controlling!”) can be turned into an “ I” statement. (“I need to make my own decision here”). Keep in mind, however, that changing the grammatical structure of your sentences is only part of the challenge.  You also need to get the edge out of your voice. An intense, reactive tone will “undo” even the most carefully constructed  “I”-statement” and may come across as blaming.  So hold off until you can state your “I” position without the edge.

A note of caution:   Beware of Pseudo “I” Language!

We may think we’re talking in “I” language when we stick “I think” or “I feel” in front of a sentence, but that doesn’t do the trick.   Sometimes it’s easy to detect a pseudo “I” statement  (“I think you have a narcissistic personality disorder”) that judges or diagnoses the other person.  

In many cases, however, the difference between a true “I” statement and a pseudo  “I” statement can be subtle.  My friend tells this story about his wife Jill.  It’s a good example of his wife making an “I” statement that was really a “you” statement dressed up in “I” statement clothing.

My friend writes:  My home office has been a mess lately and Jill, who shares the space, is a much more organized person than I am.  After glancing at the stacks of papers everywhere on my desk and floor, she said to me:

 “When I walk into this room, I feel like our household is totally falling apart.”

Totally falling apart! Our household?  I’m her hardworking faithful partner of 14 years and because my half of the office is a mess she feels like everything is crumbling around her? And yet when I said, “That’s a pretty extreme statement, she simply responded, “Well, it’s how I feel.”

How can I possibly respond to that?

A partner is unlikely to have the space to consider his behavior, much less apologize for it, if he feels he’s putting his head on the chopping block and taking responsibility not only for his behavior but for your unhappiness, as well. 

Remember this:  An “I” statement should serve to clarify our position, not act as a Trojan horse for smuggling in judgments and accusations.

5 Things Every Wife should Know About Her Husband

5 THINGS EVERY WIFE SHOULD KNOW ABOUT HER HUSBAND

Sheqoz

Become a better wife

Men Don’t Always Get Emotional:

After years of marriage, I’ve come to learn a lot about men and their triggers. Personally I’m overly emotional which has made me fall as well as progress in life. Evidently, men have difficulty communicating their emotions. This has been misinterpreted by women.

When a woman opens up emotionally, she can speak nonstop, cry and laugh at the same time. She can juggle her emotions and thoughts with ease. Men on the other hand think more than they feel; they do either one of them but never both at the same time.

For example, once a man confesses his love to a woman and things fall in place, he thinks that the only reason to have a real conversation is money or breaking up. So when you walk up to your husband each time you get emotional and tell him the dreaded words “We need to talk,” he quickly realizes that he has to think and feel at the same time. That’s something that is a real challenge to men which may feel like life is being sucked out of them.

Men Use Less Words:

When you want to start a discussion, it might seem like he’s not engaging enough. This may make you feel unappreciated. Due to the fact that women talk faster when excited, it interrupts your husband who is already struggling to find the right words.

When this happens, he may lose track or shut down because he feels cut off and is unable to express his feelings. At this point he becomes what we interpret as cold, a state which makes any woman race her mind into conclusions.

Imagine changing from the kind, friendly wife your husband knows to a resentful, nagging stranger all because of conclusive imaginations which women are good at! In the circumstance even the strongest, most patient man will become withdrawn.

This is why women should take time to understand how they differ from men when it comes to talking. It would give everyone a little more empathy when it comes to discussing emotional issues. Understanding one another is a big step towards creating and maintaining an emotionally fit and loving relationship.

Most Women Are Guilty:

A perfect example would be my own experience. When l want my husband and l to discuss something, l walk up to him while he’s watching his game and tell him that we need to talk. He gives me that look of “Oh my goodness, what have l done now?” He then has to pause his game and wait for my million words – which he can summarize in one sentence. Once I’m done talking, his response is usually calm and in very few words. This doesn’t mean he’s not excited; it’s just the way men respond.

Before l took time to understand him, l would get all upset and emotional and race my mind into conclusions. “He acts like I’m bugging him,” l would think to myself. Once l conclude that something is not right, and commit to finding out what it is… You do not want to know the extent of my amateur investigations.

In addition, l acted differently and stayed on negative vibrations which the whole family picked up on. All of that was just because my husband’s reaction was not in conformity with my expectations. I can only imagine what was taking place in his mind as he tried to figure me out.

Stay on the Reality Lane:

A perfect husband only exists in fairy tales but your marriage is in real life. Stop focusing on your husband’s mistakes and start recognizing the wonderful things he does. By doing so, you will encourage him to do even more to become the man of your dreams.

It is human nature to focus more on the wrong than the right. As the saying goes, thoughts are things. You will attract more of what you invest your energy in. Things are prone to happen, If he wrongs you, don’t announce him to the whole neighborhood and on social media.

Get down on your knees and allow the One who controls all things to make the necessary adjustments. A praying woman is a powerful woman! Take this from me.

Men Are Not Mind Readers:

Women often feel overwhelmed with stuff, wishing that their husbands would help. I’ve been there too. The only way you can get anyone to help is by communicating. How many times have you heard women complain about their husbands not helping with house chores?

I remember when we both worked all week from morning till late. We would catch up with everything on Saturdays. First thing l wanted to do after breakfast was shopping, then cooking and cleaning at the same time.

My husband would want to just relax and enjoy a beautiful day with his family. That means he would call the kids and choose a nice family movie. Any woman reading this can already see the look on my face, when l walked into the family room and found them watching a movie.

Instead of asking for help, l would go shop, come back and start cleaning and cooking. By the time “the movie” was over, I’d have completed everything and showered. What would have taken less than two hours with help took a maximum of four hours. It would then be a resentment-filled, stressed-out weekend – because no one helped me.

Once again, my husband would spend the day trying to cheer me up. He remained clueless about all this, until l decided to verbally complain. If mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy. Men are strong, aren’t they? I know I’m spoilt rotten but l thank God for His grace has changed me.

As wives, we shoulder a lot of responsibilities and go through a lot of hardship. However, we should never allow life and its challenges to break the person God created us to be. We don’t have to camouflage our identity to blend with circumstances.

Why am l saying this? l have spoken to many hurting women who confess to changing their personalities in retaliation for bad experiences. If you were created a humble, kind and loving person, continue being you and find the grounds which allow you to do that. Each creation thrives in its own unique habitat. Find yours and bloom as you.

If by any chance there are existing issues with your marriage, look at the person in the mirror first before blaming anybody. More often than we realize, we create marital problems from very small issues. With our thoughts being too noisy, we miss out on the facts which steered things to the wrong direction. We live in a very stressful world, and everyone is seeking peace, acceptance and love.

If this life’s essentials are missing in our own homes, our families are more likely to be scattered in search of them. For this reason, make your family miss home whenever they are out there. All women have the ability to do this, not just for your husband but for your sons and daughters too. Build a solid foundation for your family, will you?

All the best, I love you all.

Thought For the Soul:

“The world never fails us; our inability to learn and change is the culprit.”

The Meaning of Money in Marriage: Arguments Are Not Just About Saving or Spending

THE MEANING OF MONEY IN MARRIAGE: ARGUMENTS ARE NOT JUST ABOUT SAVING OR SPENDING

Kyle Benson

It doesn’t make sense when you think about it logically. Money is simple. Keeping a budget is something an 8-year-old can do.

For a marriage to be wealthy, a couple needs to have more money coming in than going out. It’s just addition and subtraction. Debt needs to be eliminated, and money needs to be saved and invested for the things we want. You know, toes in the sand with a drink in our hand.

If you and your partner follow this rule, you’ll have no financial issues for the rest of your lives. But it doesn’t feel that way, does it? It feels like we need a Master’s degree in Finance and Wealth Management.

But do we?

Dr. John Gottman wanted to find out, so he went to a group of 8-year-olds and asked them for money advice. He told them he works with moms and dads who are fighting about money, so they can stop fighting and love each other more. All the kids understood this.

He told them a story about a couple.

The husband’s story went like this: “I don’t want to save for tomorrow. I want to live for today. I want to spend money enjoying life. Uncle Jack saved up millions of dollars living in a one-room condo and he never went out. He never truly enjoyed life. I don’t want that.”

The wife’s story went like this: “My family grew up poor. We never had any money when an emergency came up or if somebody got sick. We never had enough to plan for the future. When my parents got older and couldn’t work as hard, they had nothing. They couldn’t retire. I don’t want to be like my parents.”

One wants to spend now. The other wants to save for later. They are stuck in financial gridlock.

Dr. Gottman looked at the kids and asked, “What should this mom and dad do?”

A hand shot up. “Save some and spend some.” The other kids looked at each other and agreed.

The 8-year-old believed that the couple should work out a compromise with each other. The best option would be to work hard for a while, put some of the extra money in savings, and use the rest of it to enjoy life so they don’t end up like Uncle Jack.

That’s all it takes. Kids are totally logical.

So what’s wrong with us adults? Why do we struggle with money when an 8-year-old knows what’s best?

Money Isn’t About Money

Money, to a degree, defines us. It determines how we dress. How we eat. What social groups we join. Whether we like it or not, money influences what we can and cannot do with our lives. So where does all this start?

Out of all the forces that determine our relationship with money, the most influential is our personal history – the melting pot of our childhood, teenage, and adult experiences that have sculpted and resculpted our likes and dislikes about money throughout our lives.

Our unique experiences come together to form what Dr. Gottman calls our Money Map.

We spend our lives swimming in a sea of moments that sculpt our financial dreams and fears. Maybe it was your father’s gambling problem or your mother’s uptight way of controlling the household finances. Maybe it was your sister’s expensive interest in riding horses. Maybe it was your wealthy uncle who had a nine-car garage, leaving you to feel like you couldn’t measure up.

These, along with thousands of other moments, create our individual beliefs about money.

Money Maps, like Love Maps, are often subtle and difficult to read. You may have grown up with an alcoholic mother who spent food money on liquor, making your meals unpredictable, so you made a promise to yourself that high-quality, expensive food was more important than saving for retirement. Or maybe you were picked on by kids in school for the way you dressed, so you spent all of your savings on custom tailored suits and ate Mac and Cheese every night so you wouldn’t get made fun of.

It’s these personal meanings that guide how we deal with money in our marriage. Logic has very little to do with it.

So when your partner complains about the expensive organic groceries you bought at Whole Foods or the silk tie that costs more than a plane ticket, an argument breaks out, and to you it’s not just food or a tie. These privileges represent stability and success. They protect you. They define you.

Money is loaded with power and meaning that can make can discussions heated and hurtful. Arguments about money aren’t about money. They are about our dreams, our fears, and our inadequacies.

What 8-year-olds don’t understand is that the key to managing conflict about money is to not focus on how much something costs. Instead, it’s to go beneath the dollar value to explore what money really means to each person in the relationship.

To move past these arguments, you need to use conflict about finances to understand how your partner came to be that way. Work together with this new understanding of each other to create shared meaning around money that brings you closer, rather than pushes you apart.

So what does money mean to you in your marriage? Is this different than your partner?

4 Steps to Overcome Financial Gridlock in Your Marriage

4 STEPS TO OVERCOME FINANCIAL GRIDLOCK IN YOUR MARRIAGE

Kyle Benson

All couples are bound to have arguments about money. When they struggle to manage these ongoing disagreements with constructive conflict conversations, the result is what Dr. John Gottman calls “gridlock.”

Gridlock is like a Chinese Finger Trap. Each partner pulls for his or her position, making compromise impossible.

My Dreams Are Becoming My Worst Nightmare

Our dreams are full of aspirations and wishes that are core to our identity and give our life purpose and meaning. Gridlock is a sign that each partner has dreams that the other hasn’t accepted, doesn’t respect, or isn’t aware of.

Some financial dreams are practical, like obtaining a certain amount of savings, while others are profound, like owning a beach house in Hawaii. The profound dreams often remain hidden beneath the practical ones.

For example, Kurt wants to make a seven figure income, but why is that so important to him? Underneath his dream is a deep need for financial security.

When couples are in gridlock, it is only by uncovering the hidden dreams and symbolic meanings that they can get out of the Chinese Finger Trap.

Overcoming Financial Gridlock

The way out is to first identify the dream within conflict. When partners are gridlocked, they see each other as the source of marital difficulty. They tend to ignore their part in creating the conflict because it’s hidden from view.

If you find yourself saying, “the only problem is his lack of money smarts,” that’s probably not the whole story.

Uncovering a hidden dream is a challenge and it won’t emerge until you feel the marriage is a safe place to talk about it. If you don’t feel comfortable enough to open up, focus on the first three principles in The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work.

My Dreams Are Silly

Personal dreams often go unmentioned because people worry they will burden their partner or negatively impact the relationship. It’s common for partners not to feel entitled to their dreams, but when you bury a dream, it can lead to resentment and ultimately gridlock.

When you share your dreams with your partner, you give your marriage the opportunity to have a profound purpose and sense of shared meaning. As Dr. Gottman explains in The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, “couples who are demanding of their marriage are more likely to have deeply satisfying unions than those who lower their expectations.”

4 Steps to Overcome Financial Gridlock

When you begin to uncover the dreams beneath your financial gridlock, the problems in your marriage will not immediately go away. They may actually seem to worsen rather than improve. Be patient. The very nature of gridlock is that dreams are in opposition.

Step 1: Explore Each Other’s Dreams
Pick a money issue that you both feel causes gridlock in your marriage. Take time to reflect on the hidden dreams that may underlie your position. Talk about it with your partner by using Dr. Gottman’s Money Conflict Blueprint for a truly effective conflict conversation. Focus on understanding your partner’s position.

What not to say:
Kris: I’ve always dreamed of buying a beach house in Hawaii.
Kurt: First of all, we can’t afford something like that. I can’t think of anything more stressful than trying to upkeep a property in the middle of the ocean. Think of all the wear and tear we will need to replace.
Kris: Forget it…

What to say instead:
Kris: I’ve always dreamed of buying a beach house in Hawaii.
Kurt: Tell me more about what it means to own a beach house in Hawaii. What would it do for you?
Kris: It would be heaven on earth. My family and I used to go every year and my parents always said they wanted to buy a beach house. I’d feel such a sense of accomplishment and we’d be able to invite my parents over! They’d be so proud.

Acknowledging and respecting each other’s deepest most personal hopes and dreams is key to saving and enriching your marriage.

Step 2: Soothe Yourself and Each Other
Discussing deeply held dreams that are in opposition can be stressful. Pay attention to your stress levels. If flooding occurs, stop the conversation, take a break, and use repairs.

Step 3: Reach a Temporary Compromise
Now it’s time to make peace with this issue (for now) by accepting your differences and establishing some kind of initial compromise. Understand that this problem may never go away. The goal is to remove the hurt so the problem stops being a source of pain.

To do this, refer to the Money Conflict Blueprint to separate the issue into two categories:

  1. Non-negotiable areas: Aspects of the issue that you are unwilling to give up on because it will violate your basic needs or core values. Try to make this section as small as possible.
  2. Areas of flexibility: Parts of the issue where you can be flexible. Try to make this section as large as possible.

Share your list with your spouse and work together to come up with a temporary compromise. This compromise should last about two months. Afterwards, you can review where you stand. Don’t expect to solve the problem yet. Your goal here is only to live with it more peacefully.

Here’s what Kris and Kurt did:

  1. They defined minimal core areas they are unwilling to change. Kris says she must have a house in Hawaii. Kurt says he must save $40,000 in order to feel financially secure.
  2. They defined areas of flexibility. Kris says she can settle for a condo, rather than a beachfront house. Even though she wants to buy now, she is willing to wait 3 years as long as they can work together to make it happen. Kurt says he can be flexible about how quickly they save, as long as he knows both of them are working towards this goal. They decide that 5% of their income goes into this savings account.
  3. They found a temporary compromise that honors both of their needs. They will buy a condo, but not for another three years. Meanwhile, they will devote half of their savings to a down payment and half into a mutual fund. In three months, they will review this plan and decide if it’s working or not.

Both Kris and Kurt realize that the underlying perpetual problem will never go away. Kris will always be the visionary, imagining a life on a beach, and Kurt is going to worry about their financial security. By learning to work with each other, both partners are able to cope with their differences, avoid gridlock, and work support each other in achieving their dreams.

Step 4: Give Thanks
Overcoming financial gridlock requires more than just one discussion about the issues that have deeply troubled your marriage. The goal with this step is to cultivate a culture of appreciation in which you express your gratitude for all you have. This will feel difficult after talking about such an emotionally charged issue, but that’s all the more reason to make effort to end the conflict conversation on a positive note.

The best way to cope with financial gridlock is to avoid it in the first place. Don’t wait until resentment has set in to ask your partner about their dreams – Dr. Gottman suggests becoming a “dream detective.” By building your Love Maps, turning towards each other, and cultivating fondness and admiration, you will build trust and deeply understand each other. As you do this, you’ll discover the financial disagreements that once overwhelmed your marriage actually bring you closer together over time.

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