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.
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 Reports, ready 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.
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.
WHY WOMEN, BUT NOT MEN, ARE JUDGED FOR A MESSY HOUSE
Claire Cain Miller
They’re still held to a higher social standard, which explains why they’re doing so much housework, studies show.
Even in 2019, messy men are given a pass and messy women are unforgiven. Three recently published studies confirm what many women instinctively know: Housework is still considered women’s work — especially for women who are living with men.
Women do more of such work when they live with men than when they live alone, one of the studies found. Even though men spend more time on domestic tasks than men of previous generations, they’re typically not doing traditionally feminine chores like cooking and cleaning, another showed. The third study pointed to a reason: Socially, women — but not men — are judged negatively for having a messy house and undone housework.
It’s an example of how social mores, whether or not an individual believes in them, influence behavior, the social scientists who did the research say. And when it comes to gender, expectations about housework have been among the slowest to change.
“Everyone knows what the stereotype or expectations might be, so even if they don’t endorse them personally, it will still affect their behavior,” even if they say they have progressive views about gender roles, said Sarah Thébaud, a sociologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and an author of one of the papers.
The additional time that women spend on unpaid household labor is a root of gender inequality — it influences how men and women relate at home, and how much time women spend on paid work.
“One possibility is what people believe is expected of them to be a good wife and partner is still really strong, and you’re held to those standards when you’re living with someone,” said Joanna Pepin, a sociologist at the University of Maryland, who wrote the paper with Liana Sayer, a colleague at Maryland, and Lynne Casper from the University of Southern California.
Other possibilities, Ms. Pepin said, were that men created more housework; single mothers were more tired; or children did more chores when they lived with a single mother.
Women tend to do more indoor chores, research shows, like cleaning and cooking, most of which occur daily. Men do more outdoor chores, like lawn mowing or car washing, which happen less often.
Another recent study, in the journal Gender & Society, looked at people in opposite-sex marriages and found that even though men who live in cities spend less time on outdoor chores than suburban or rural men, they don’t spend any additional time on other kinds of chores. Women spend the same amount of time on chores regardless of where they live.
The pattern demonstrates how much housework is considered women’s work, said the researchers, Natasha Quadlin at Ohio State University and Long Doan at the University of Maryland, who used data from the American Time Use Survey and the Current Population Survey.
One way to be masculine is to do typically male chores, they concluded — and another way is to refuse to do typically female ones.
These studies relied on survey data to show what people do. A study published last month in Sociological Methods & Research tried to explain why women do more housework. The researchers conducted an experiment to uncover the beliefs that drive people’s behavior.
They showed 624 people a photo of a messy living room and kitchen — dishes on the counters, a cluttered coffee table, blankets strewn about — or the clean version of the same space. (They used MTurk, a survey platform popular with social scientists; the participants were slightly more educated and more likely to be white and liberal than the population at large.)
The results debunked the age-old excuse that women have an innately lower tolerance for messiness. Men notice the dust and piles. They just aren’t held to the same social standards for cleanliness, the study found.
When participants were told that a woman occupied the clean room, it was judged as less clean than when a man occupied it, and she was thought to be less likely to be viewed positively by visitors and less comfortable with visitors.
Both men and women were penalized for having a messy room. When respondents were told it was occupied by a man, they said that it was in more urgent need of cleaning and that the men were less responsible and hardworking than messy women. The mess seemed to play into a stereotype of men as lazy slobs, the researchers said.
But there was a key difference:Unlike for women, participants said messy men were not likely to be judged by visitors or feel uncomfortable having visitors over.
“It may activate negative stereotypes about men if they’re messy, but it’s inconsequential because there’s no expected social consequence to that,” said Ms. Thébaud, who did the study with the sociologists Sabino Kornrich of Emory and Leah Ruppanner of the University of Melbourne. “It’s that ‘boys will be boys’ thing.”
Most of the time, respondents said a woman would be responsible for cleaning the room — especially if the occupants were in a heterosexual marriage and both were working full time.
“The ways it gets reinforced are so subtle,” said Darcy Lockman, the author of a new book about the unequal division of labor, “All the Rage,” and a clinical psychologist. “‘I should relieve my husband of burdens’ — it’s so automatic.”
Social scientists have been observing these pressures for decades. In 1989, the sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild wrote “The Second Shift,” documenting how even in dual-career couples, women did significantly more housework and child care than men. In 1998, the sociologist Barbara Risman described in the book “Gender Vertigo” how people feel pressure from members of both genders to perform certain roles.
Since then, men’s and women’s roles have changed in many parts of life — but not regarding housekeeping. In a study last year, Ms. Risman showed that Americans are now more likely to value gender equality at work than at home.
Bigger forces shape these beliefs. Employers increasingly demand employees to be on call at work, for example, which can end up forcing one parent (usually the mother) to step back from work to be on call at home. This happens for same-sex couples, too, showing that it’s not just about gender — it’s also about the way paid work is set up.
Policies that encourage men to take on more responsibility at home — like use-it-or-lose-it paternity leave in Canada and Scandinavian countries — could increase their involvement, evidence suggests.
THE SURPRISING BENEFITS OF RELENTLESSLY AUDITING YOUR LIFE
We tend to think that good marriages and happy families are born of love and care, not spreadsheets. But what if that’s wrong?
My husband had been trying to sell me on his method for years before I finally relented. An efficiency consultant who had once worked in the car industry in Japan, he wanted to “Toyota Way” our lives. I wanted him to keep his spreadsheets to himself.
But a house, a baby and some career changes later, as I was folding tiny T-shirts while doing an interview and rocking the baby’s chair with my foot, I gave in. I was overwhelmed. Maybe a spreadsheet could help after all.
The method, as my husband would be shouting right now, is of course more than just a spreadsheet. It’s based on the Japanese notion of “kaizen,”or continuous improvement, made famous in 2001 when Toyota singled it out as one of the pillars of the company’s success. You pick a goal, figure out the main components behind it, collect data on those components and work out what you can do to move closer to the goal.
In the case of Toyota, the goal was higher quality and increased profits. When we translated the idea to our home life, the goal was a little simpler but also a lot more complicated — happiness. We weren’t sure what drove it, so we decided to collect data on everything: how many hours we were sleeping a night, how long we spent on housework or child care, the amount of alone time, social time, commuting time, you name it. We assigned a score from one to 10 to each day, and then gave a primary reason for each score: not enough sleep, work sucked and, sometimes, “relationship bad feeling.”
Soon enough, we began to spot patterns: It turns out that the minimum number of hours I can sleep without wanting to run away from my family is five and a half. Less than an hour a week of personal time also sent me to a dark place. My husband found that his happiness rose and fell with hours spent hanging out with friends or sitting in traffic.
And so we started trying to improve our scores. We started small. I tried to shift around my workload to include more time to read and think. My husband began commuting by train so that he could bike from the station to work, incorporating exercise into his day and eliminating time spent in traffic altogether.
The project led to a major life change. Our spreadsheets hammered home that what contributed most to our happiness was time spent together or with friends — while, crucially, not working — and there was no way to get more of that if we continued to live in the Bay Area, one of the most expensive parts of the country. So I proposed an idea that would have seemed radical were there not so much data backing it: “I think you should quit your job, we should sell our house, and we should move somewhere cheaper,” I told my husband matter-of-factly one day. So we did.
Feeling uncomfortable right now? I get it. There’s a lot to feel anxious or eye-rolly about. I fully admit that in the first weeks of the project, I found it preposterous. I groaned about the time required to type in data, assign a score, all of it.
But a funny thing happened as I huffed through weeks of data collection. In addition to leading to a better understanding of what made us happy as a family, I also found the spreadsheet to be an incredibly useful tool for expressing things I might have otherwise avoided. It made the invisible visible. Instead of arguing about housework, for example, both feeling like we were doing more than our fair share, we could talk about it relatively objectively. On a day where I spent 14 hours taking care of the kids and doing house chores while my husband spent three, I was going to be unhappy, obviously. But we could just look at the numbers and then divvy up the chores evenly. Easy. No fight, no resentment. (Others have recently attempted more high-tech versions of a similar approach: One man, for instance, invented a chore-splitting app intended to keep track of who’s doing the bulk of the household work.)
It also enabled us to talk about what the transition to parenthood had meant for both of us — fewer work hours and loss of alone time for me; an intense commute and loss of social time for him — in a way that helped us stay away from competition or blame.
Before the spreadsheet, I had an idea I think many share: Marriage and family should more or less work. If you’re with the “right” person and you’ve made the “right” choices, your family life shouldn’t require a lot of discussion or effort. Your spouse should know that you need alone time and should give it to you. The appointments you keep in your head, the family social schedule you juggle — all of it should be noticed and appreciated. Good marriages and happy families are born of love and care, not spreadsheets and a daily happiness score.
But in the years since, I’ve reconsidered. Far from making our marriage seem cold and robotic, the spreadsheet sparked more honest conversations than we’d had in years. It also reminded us that we had more control over our lives than we had been exerting.
We stopped the project after a year or so, but started again last month. It’s five years since we first tried it, and we’re both feeling overwhelmed again. We’re in a much more precarious place financially now, after a few non-spreadsheet-related surprises, but we’re still determined to make whatever decisions we can to improve our lives.
In the course of researching a book on the history of motherhood in America, it occurred to me that this sort of exercise might be helpful for a lot of families, onerous as it may seem. Because the really intractable problems — like the social expectations placed on mothers, the gendered division of labor in homes, the invisibility of all sorts of care work — are not going to magically disappear. They’re not going to be erased simply by getting the right politicians elected or the right policies enacted (although those things will help).
People’s weird ideas about gender, about mothers and fathers and marriage and nuclear families, about who should do what and how much of it, about what really makes us happy, are deeply entrenched, often in ways we don’t even recognize. And so sometimes, when the baby is crying, when no one has thought about dinner, when bills need paying — when we’re caught, in other words, juggling some of the most fraught areas of our family lives, feeling emotional, ready to lash out — sometimes it really helps to have a set of calm, cool numbers on a spreadsheet.
“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.
THE MANY FACES OF FAMILY AND LOVE: THERE IS NO “BEST” ONE
A commonsense manifesto for valuing all families, relationships, and life paths.
Never before have people in the U.S. and other nations around the world organized their personal lives and their family lives in so many different ways. In the U.S., for example, nearly as many adults are not married as married. The most sentimentalized family type—mom and dad, married with children—now accounts for fewer than 20 percent of all households. There are more households comprised of one person living alone.
Children are living in many different kinds of families and households. A full 40 percent of them are not being raised by two married parents. Many are living with one parent, or with cohabiting parents, or with stepparents or grandparents, to name just a few of the most popular permutations.
“Family” is a many-splendored thing and it can take all sorts of shapes and sizes. Twitter embraced that notion when the writer Lucy Huber posted this tweet:
Stop saying “start a family” when you mean “have kids”. A couple is still a family. A single person and her cat is a family. A couple and their plants are still a family. Three weirdly close roommates could be a family. You don’t need kids to be a family.
Within a week, the tweet had been liked more than 185,000 times and shared more than 47,000 times.
Scholars have been writing about diversity in relationships and families and some of the most unlikely terms have been catching on. Take amatonormativity, for example. That one was coined by Elizabeth Brake. It refers to:
“the assumption that a central, exclusive, amorous relationship is normal for humans, in that it is a universally shared goal, and that such a relationship is normative, in the sense that it should be aimed at in preference to other relationship types.”
Professor Brake argues against that assumption. She thinks that other kinds of relationships and social circles, such as friendships and care networks, should not be valued less than romantic relationships.
Though growing in popularity, the valuing of many different kinds of relationships and families and life paths is still an idea that meets with considerable resistance. A new and important report recently released by the think tank, Family Story, documents the ways in which marriage has come to be privileged and promoted as the ideal family form, even as fewer and fewer people get married or have children.
“The Case Against Marriage Fundamentalism” argues that respect for all of our relationships, families, and life paths is built on four core values.
1. Equality “requires the reduction of social and economic inequality within relationships and between family types, as well as legal equality among different types of families and relationships.”
2. Autonomy “requires making it possible for people to freely choose their relationships and family types—including, but not limited to, marriage—by reducing structural and other barriers that stand in the way.”
3. Interdependence “means acknowledging we are all interconnected and dependent on countless other people (not just ones to whom we are biologically related or with whom we have a legally recognized relationship).”
4. Care “requires acknowledging all the ways that these different forms of relationships are supportive and meaningful, and the positive impact they can have on our lives and well-being.”
Principles of Family, Relationship, and Lifestyle Justice
The conclusion of the report spells out the principles of family justice. They include:
There is no hierarchy; stop saying that certain people, relationships, or families are better than others
“A person’s marital status, relationship status, and living arrangements say nothing about their character or value.”
“Unmarried people should not be treated as less mature, less valuable, or less accomplished than married people.”
“Families and relationships should not be ranked from best to worst based on their structure.”
“Marriage is neither more nor less important than other close adult relationships involving care and commitment.”
There are lots of ways to create a family
“Neither children nor marriage are necessary to create family.”
“Co-residence is not necessary to create relationships of commitment and care.”
People who live in ways that are not normative (or not perceived as normative) deserve respect
“There will always be people who prefer to live alone, to not have children, or otherwise opt to live their lives in ways that are not consistent with whatever the norm is at the time.”
“None of this is a reflection of their self-worth, and they all have a right to equal respect and concern.”
“An adult’s ability to freely choose a particular relationship status or living arrangement should not be restricted or blocked.”
For children, relationship quality matters more than the other factors that get so much attention
“Children do not need to live under the same roof as a same-gender parent (or same-gender role model) for proper development.”
“Children flourish in a variety of family types and living arrangements.”
“Relationship quality is more important than household structure.” (Examples of different household structures include single-parent families and nuclear families. This principle means that having a loving and secure relationship with a parent is more important to children’s well-being than whether they have one parent or two, whether their parents are married, or whether their parents live under the same roof.)
Family Story maintains that the marriage fundamentalists, who believe that “a family composed of a man and a woman in their first marriage is ‘the best’ or ‘ideal’ type of family, especially for children,” have promoted their ideas by distorting and weaponizing social science research. I have spent much of the past two decades critiquing that research and explaining what it really does show. It is good to have other prominent voices joining in.
WHY SOME CHILDREN ARE ORCHIDS AND OTHERS ARE DANDELIONS
W. Thomas Boyce
Many children are able to thrive in any environment, while others may flourish only under the most favorable conditions. New findings reveal the complex interplay of factors that creates “dandelion” and “orchid” kids.
One of the first skills taught to pediatricians and obstetricians is how to assess the physiological condition of a baby in the first few minutes after birth. As a novice physician, this was one of my favorite and most treasured duties—to be the first living soul to survey the condition of a never-before-seen human being, delivered red, squealing, and literally wet behind the ears at the end of a prolonged, critical, and one-way passage.
The formal assessment is done using the Apgar score, named for its inventor, Virginia Apgar, at one and five minutes following birth. Scores range from 0 to 10, the sum of a 0, 1, or 2 assessed in each of five areas of postnatal functioning, arranged into the acronym APGAR: Appearance (the pink or blue color of the body, hands, and feet); Pulse rate; Grimace (the crying or grimacing response to nasal or oral suction, or other stimulation); Activity (the degree and vigor of muscle flexion); and Respiration. Most babies receive scores ranging from 7 to 10. Those with scores below 7 may need more active and rapid stimulation or resuscitation, including a heated bassinet or a suctioning of the airway. For scores less than 4, we might insert a breathing tube to support respiration or even begin external heart compressions.
HOW DO KIDS COPE? To get a sense of how school-age children think about resilience, PT asked a few how they cheer up others or whether they have a go-to strategy for themselves. Their portraits follow.
Orchids and Dandelions
As a pediatrician for more than four decades, I have become vividly aware of the great unevenness—the disproportion—evident in the differences in health and development among individual children from the first moments of life. Even within single families, parents often tell me that all of their children were basically healthy, “except for Sarah,” or Julio, or Jamal. Pediatricians implicitly understand, from simple, day-to-day observation, that some children are inordinately affected by the forces that protect health and those that imperil it. And at the level of the community, we know that, within any given population of children, a small minority—about 20 percent of individuals—will suffer the majority of all illnesses and disorders.
Developmental science has convincingly shown that one of the origins of such differences is children’s early experiences of psychological trauma and adversity. Such experience can impede normal brain development, create obstacles to effective learning, and impair mental and physical health during childhood and over the remaining life course. This is why children growing up in poverty, children who are mistreated by their parents or others, and children exposed to violence within the family or community are all at risk for compromised development, educational achievement, and mental or physical health.
But all children are not equally susceptible to these effects. While some are powerfully affected by trauma, others are able to effectively weather adverse experiences, sustaining few, if any, developmental or health consequences. People tend to view these differences in susceptibility as attributable to an inherent vulnerability or resilience, imagining that some small number of resilient or “unbreakable” children have a special capacity to thrive, even in the face of severe adversity. Our research suggests instead that such variance is attributable not to innate traits but to differences in children’s relative biological susceptibility to the social contexts in which they live and grow, both the negative and the positive.
A majority of children show a kind of biological indifference to experiences of adversity, with stress response circuits in their brains that are minimally reactive to such events. Like dandelions that thrive in almost any environment, such children are mostly unperturbed by the stressors and traumas they confront. We think of them, metaphorically, as dandelion children. A minority of children—about one in five—show an exceptional susceptibility to both negative and positive social contexts, with stress response circuits highly sensitive to adverse events. Like orchids, which require very particular, supportive environments to thrive, these children show an exceptional capacity for succeeding in nurturant, supportive circumstances, but sustain disproportionate numbers of illnesses and problems when raised in stressful, adverse social conditions. We think of these as orchid children.
IVO, 10: “If someone is down, I try to promise them something complex, that takes some effort—and then I do it for them.”Photo by Karjean Levine
Developmental science is increasingly revealing that the relative indifference of dandelion children and the special sensitivity of orchid children to the character of their early environment are likely attributable to the joint effects of genes and social contexts. These epigenetic processes—in which environmental cues regulate the expression of genetic differences—are the likely regulators of children’s differential susceptibility to environmental influences. Recognizing this differential susceptibility is an essential key to understanding the experiences of individual children, to parenting children of differing sensitivities and temperaments effectively, and to fostering the healthy, adaptive capacity of all young people.
Origins of the Types
So, are orchids born that way, or do they become orchids by way of early life experience? Our first hint at an answer came from the very first moments of postnatal life.
What is especially interesting about the Apgar score is the degree to which the things it measures are controlled by the fight-or-flight autonomic nervous system involved in dealing with stress. Each subscore is an indicator of the body’s adaptation to the considerable physical (and possibly emotional) stressors of being born; low scores are a reflection of insufficiently adaptive responses. After all, birth is an extreme and unprecedented experience, and it is such experiences that tell us most about who we are as extensions of our individual biology.
Given that we all begin life by being plunged into an epic stress reactivity experiment, might we not wonder whether the Apgar score could tell us more than just whether we need to have our mouths suctioned or our bodies warmed? If lower scores were reflective of less adaptive, less compensatory fight-or-flight responses, might they also be telling us about a baby’s longer-term proclivity toward maladaptive responses to stress? Could our first extrauterine moments augur something important about our whole life yet to come?
That is exactly what we have found. Careful epidemiologic work by one of my doctoral students and a former postdoctoral fellow has found that in nearly 34,000 children from Manitoba, Canada, five-minute Apgar scores were predictive of teacher-reported developmental vulnerability at age 5 for a variety of developmental dimensions. For example, the teachers of children who had Apgar scores of 7 identified more areas of developmental vulnerability than they did for children with Apgar scores of 9 or 10, and kindergartners who had Apgar scores of 3 or 4 had more reported developmental vulnerabilities than did peers with scores of 6 or 7. (The teachers had no prior knowledge of their students’ Apgar scores.) The vulnerabilities that teachers reported might have included lower competence in following rules or instructions; an inability to sit still and focus; a relative lack of interest in books and reading; or an inability to properly grasp and use a pencil. At each lower step on the Apgar scale, such physical, social, emotional, language, and communication domains of development were all significantly more compromised five years later. Babies entering the world with greater fight-or-flight instability and less capacity for physiological recovery were more developmentally vulnerable.
EDDIE, 12: “To cheer up, I tell myself it’s going to get better; the problem won’t persist.”Photo by Karjean Levine
Nature vs. Nurture
One source of such variation in adaptive stability is surely genetic difference among infants, but genes alone do not make a child an orchid or a dandelion. As work by other researchers has shown, the genetic characteristics of children create their predispositions, but do not necessarily determine their outcomes.
For example, a consortium studying Romanian children raised in horribly negligent, sometimes cruel orphanages under the dictatorship of Nicolae Ceauşescu, before his fall in 1989, discovered that a shorter version of a gene related to the neurotransmitter serotonin produced orchid-like outcomes. Children with this shorter allele (an alternative form of a gene) who remained in the orphanages developed intellectual impairments and extreme maladjustment, while those with the same allele who were adopted into foster families recovered remarkably, in terms of both development and mental health.
Similarly, a team of Dutch researchers studying experimental patterns of children’s financial donations—in response to an emotionally evocative UNICEF video—found that participants with an orchid-like dopamineneurotransmitter gene gave either the most charitable contributions or the least, depending upon whether they were rated securely or insecurely attached to their parents—that is, depending on factors that were not genetic.
We used to think that any trait or feature present at birth was “congenital” and therefore determined by genes or, in ancient terms, fated in the stars. A somewhat more contemporary version of this vision is known as genetic determinism, according to which all of our differences are firmly situated at conception in the merged DNA we inherit from our parents. We can think of this view as the “nature” side of the classic debate of nature versus nurture.
SAHANA, 7: “To cheer myself up, I play with my toys, call over my friends, and tell them jokes.”Photo by Karjean Levine
The Human Genome Project—the ultimate “nature” approach—promised to uncover the “genes for” autism, schizophrenia, heart disease, and cancer. But no such unitary genes or even sets of genes have been elucidated. It is now clear that who we become is not determined by a straightforward, one-to-one route from genes to behavior, or DNA to phenotype—the set of observable characteristics, such as eye color, personality, and behavior, that describe an individual. Our most vaunted, prized, and carefully articulated hypotheses pale in the face of the exquisite complexities of the natural world.
There’s an old pediatric adage that all parents-to-be are environmental determinists until they have a baby in hand, at which point they become genetic determinists. Here is what I mean: Before we have kids, we’re prone to seeing the misbehavior of a child as the product of flawed parenting. That kid throwing a tantrum at the table next to us in a restaurant? It’s obviously the parents’ fault for not controlling him—their nurture hasn’t accomplished what it needed to do. Once we’re responsible for our own felon-in-training, throwing the tantrum in the adjacent airplane seat, we hope that those around us understand that we’ve done our best, but the child came into the world with this temperament. It’s far more comforting to ascribe the behavior of our own noisy or troubling toddler to genes, for which we have only passive responsibility, than to our capacities as parents, for which we are more directly accountable.
In his book Either/Or, Søren Kierkegaard proposed that to fully understand the human condition, we need to dispense with the tendency to perceive the forces that form us as clear-cut dichotomies. Such binary views run counter to the complexities of our true character. Developmental science has in recent decades faced an “either/or” divide: The environmental view has demanded an allegiance to external causes, located within our social and physical contexts, and the genetic view has asserted that internal causes are preeminent, with genomes driving our phenotypes and lives. The positions have emerged as contradictory answers to the fundamental questions, “Why do some get sick and others do not?” and “Why are some so healthy and fulfilled while others are not?” We now know that it is almost never a matter of either/or, but rather both/and.
CALVIN, 9: “When I’m down, I think about things differently and try not to be nervous or stressed.”Photo by Karjean Levine
Unpuzzling Human Disposition
Every human disposition and disorder of mental or physical health depends on an intricate interaction between internal and external causes to take root and advance. The key to understanding human difference and to abating and preventing morbidity will involve a keener knowledge of how genetic difference and environmental variation work together to change biological processes. This approach to “unpuzzling” human nature and wellness brings us closer to understanding what makes orchids and dandelions bloom, wither, or move between these states over the course of a changing life. Both genes and social environments are almost certainly influential for both orchid and dandelion phenotypes, but it is likely the interaction of genes and environments that determine where the kids in my studies ended up on the graphs that we created to chart their behavior and health.
Human infants, even prior to birth, are remarkably and finely attuned to the dynamic features of their environment, first in the womb and later in the nest with which their parents surround them. The brain of the human fetus and newborn is a “black hole” of sensory capacity that can respond to its environment even before consciousness registers it. A newborn unconsciously adapts in the service of “early life programming,” as biological adjustments begin, without awareness, as soon as the brain begins to detect challenges. This early programming enhances the likelihood of short-term survival—at least until the capacity for reproducing comes online in puberty, but it may also have the downside of generating greater risks of chronic adult conditions, such as coronary heart disease, obesity, diabetes, and mental disorders. It is an evolutionary strategy of trading survival in the short run for diminished and less vigorous longevity.
We think that differential susceptibilities to the environment—and thus orchid and dandelion children—emerge in this way. In certain kinds of early social and physical contexts, important benefits to survival and thriving might accrue for children with special, enhanced sensitivities. Children reared in environments of continuous threat and predation, for example, might logically be protected by the vigilance and hawk-eyed attentiveness of orchid sensibilities. Millennia ago, having a few orchidish individuals within a hominid band might have been protective of the group, as attacks from animals and other groups arose. On the other hand, being an orchid might also be of great benefit to those living at the other extreme—in environments of exceptional safety, protection, and abundance. Here, the propensity of orchid children to be open and porous to environmental events and exposures would garner even greater advantages. Most children would thrive in such settings. Orchids would thrive spectacularly.
Outside of these most extreme conditions, however, being a dandelion must surely yield the greatest rewards at the smallest price. Dandelions seem impervious to all but the most virulent of threats and insults. Within the typical ups and downs of human societies, these are the individuals deemed resilient, hardy, and buoyant. Evolution should thus tend to favor a proliferation of orchid phenotypes at the extremes of environmental conditions, while dandelion phenotypes should predominate within the broad middle range of challenges. Sure enough, there is at least preliminary evidence that dandelions are disproportionately represented in settings where neither menaces nor great fortune predominate.
SIERRA, 9: “If I’m down, I think of my favorite things. My friend taught me this song [“My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music], and I sing it to myself.”Photo by Karjean Levine
Marking Our Genes
During a formative, seven-year sojourn in the frigid green wilds of Canada, at the University of British Columbia, I had the good fortune to meet Mike Kobor and Marla Sokolowski. Mike studies the molecular biology of the yeast genome, and Marla is a fly geneticist who discovered the foraging gene (known as for ) in fruit flies and is responsible for the work defining two major behavioral phenotypes in flies (and other species)—”rovers” and “sitters”— determined by DNA sequence differences in that gene.
Mike and Marla share a capacity for broadly envisioning the implications of discoveries in basic animal models for human societies: They discern our civilizations in our genes. We converged under the sponsorship of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR), forming the Child and Brain Development Program, which Marla and I now co-lead. Our program quickly closed in on the captivating question of how genes and environments, especially environments of adversity and inequality, together produce known individual differences in susceptibility, behavior, health, and disease. The answer has proven key to a provisional understanding of where orchids and dandelions come from.
We have established that genetic variation—differences in the DNA code that makes up individual genes—plays a role in the genesis of orchid and dandelion children. Although many genes likely contribute to the phenotypes, those involved in brain development and function are almost certainly implicated. The expression of genes involved in emotion regulationand behavioral control, for example— features that are highly salient in orchids and dandelions—govern neurotransmitter communications among individual neurons.
But early environmental experiences undoubtedly play an additional role, especially exposure to adversity and threat and experiences of family or community support and nurture. Emerging science suggests that genes and environments contribute to the emergence of orchids and dandelions, additively and interactively, but until recently we had no real idea of how this interaction actually took place. The field that has now flooded this enigmatic landscape with new light is epigenetics, the science of how environmental exposures can modify gene expression without altering the DNA sequence of the gene itself. The Greek prefix epi—meaning “upon” or “above”—connotes how the epigenome, a lattice of chemical “marks” or tags, literally lies upon the genome and controls the expression or silencing of DNA.
KARSON, 6: “To cheer people up, I say to them, ‘Don’t worry, everything will be all right.'”Photo by Karjean Levine
Every type of cell we possess—blood, liver, lung, skin, brain—contains precisely the same genome, the same collection of genes with the same DNA sequences, half from our mothers and half from our fathers. The only way that the 200 or so different human cell types, each with a different structure and different functions, could be made from a single genome is if the functioning of our 25,000 genes could be independently controlled. That’s how the epigenome comes into play in embryonic development. Stem cells can become kidney cells or white blood cells only through the programmed, epigenetic regulation of those thousands of genes. Once a stem cell is differentiated—say, into a white blood cell—the functioning of that cell can also be adjusted (again, epigenetically) to accommodate or adapt to the conditions with which the cell or the whole organism is contending. For example, a child facing a seriously stressful environment might need to change white blood cells’ rate of division (increasing the number of available immune cells), the cells’ responsiveness to stress hormones (sensitizing them to the effects of cortisol), or their production of the molecules initiating and governing inflammation (such as the chemical messengers called cytokines).
So, the epigenome has two major functions: It regulates the differentiation of cells into their various types and tissues, and it facilitates an adjustment of cell function to respond to the conditions at hand. It does both of these by regulating the epigenetic chemical tags that attach to the genome, turning up or turning down the expression of the thousands of genes in each cell. It is a great and agile improviser.
Pianos and Equalizers
Think of the genome and epigenome like this: Your genes are the keys on a piano; each plays a distinctive note. But while a piano has just 88 white and black keys, your genome houses around 25,000 individual genes, making it thousands of times more complex. In the first kind of epigenetic regulation—cell differentiation—these keys can be played in different combinations, sequences, and timings to create a whole variety of different tunes—200 different ones, for each of the different types of cells in a human body. One corresponds to the production of neurons, another to white blood cells, yet another to skin cells, and so on.
Once cells are differentiated on this magnificent piano, the epigenome is then used for a second kind of process: the adjustment of cell function to the conditions the organism is encountering. Here, the epigenome serves as an “equalizer” that adjusts each cell’s functions, changing the way its tune sounds, like the levers on an audio equalizer adjusting the balance between sound frequency ranges to emphasize treble or bass notes. Although each type of cell always plays the same tune—a white blood cell will stay a white blood cell—the way that the cell functions can be adaptively adjusted to suit specific circumstances.
MILEVA, 7: “When I need cheering up, I snug with my stuffed animals.”Photo by Karjean Levine
For example, the body of a child encountering a major early life stressor, like maltreatment, might automatically adjust the functioning of many different cell types in order to adapt as well as possible to the experience. Adrenal gland cells might be called upon to produce more cortisol; nerve cells could activate the fight-or-flight system; white blood cells could respond to any physical injuries; and brain cells might dampen the child’s emotional response. And these would be only four adjustments among probably hundreds occurring at the same time.
Just as biobehavioral phenotypes, like orchid and dandelion children, are likely influenced by DNA sequence variations in many genes, it is probably also true that the effects of early experience on these phenotypes involve many epigenetic changes within multiple genes. Just which genes are different in sequence and where the epigenetic marks occur is still being worked out, for orchid versus dandelion, introvert versus extrovert, predispositions to depression versus predilections for joy, and other human differences.
What we now know with some certainty, however, is that most variation in human character, nature, and health will eventually be attributable to an interactive combination of differences in the DNA sequences of multiple genes, along with experience-driven differences in the epigenetic marks that shape the expression, or decoding, of multiple genes. What is wickedly complex in the number of variations involved is elegantly simple in design: Genes and experience interactively affect human destiny, and the epigenome is the physical link between a gene and its environment. You can think of human life as the song that issues from the epigenetic piano and its equalizer, the result of a complex compositional process shaped by both genes and environments. Each person is predisposed to play certain types of scores, like those of the orchid or the dandelion, but there is abundant space for unique variation and improvisation.
I’m sitting by the fireplace watching the flames make patterns as if dancing to some silent music which only they can hear. l cannot help but replay the day’s events. Today l had an extraordinary chance to show love. It was a moment filled with sadness and joy at the same time.
l went in a certain restaurant for lunch because l just felt the need to have a complete meal. Seated in front of me was an elderly couple, perhaps in their late 70’s or early 80’s. Their food was already served but what caught my attention is the gentleman.
He seemed very hungry but couldn’t get his food into his mouth for some reason. It appeared as if his hand and brain were not coordinating. He tried hard but each time his folk missed his mouth. Aware of my gaze, his wife said to me, “He’s so hungry.” Her eyes filled with compassion and helplessness.
I kindly asked if l could join them and they accepted. I offered to help feed the man but he was too embarrassed to accept. l then introduced myself a little more which helped break the ice. Finally l started feeding him, he had a good appetite and ate to the last spoon.
They told me his medications do that to him on regular basis. l couldn’t help but wonder how safe we all are with the pharmaceutical giants legally distributing medications with such side effects. Anyway to cut the story short. l offered to pray for them which they gladly accepted.
We also exchanged phone numbers as they insisted right before they left. I honestly believe that in order to live a meaningful life, one must help enrich the lives of others. For the value of a life is measured by the lives it touches. Those who choose to be happy must help others find happiness.
For the welfare of each is bound up by the welfare of all. It is the power of collectivity, none of us truly wins until we all win. Learn this secret as you move forward with your life. When you do good, you achieve the best.
It is important to love one another, for that is how the soul of the universe is brought into our world. It is how the vast energy of all that is brought into the being of each one of us. It is how the soul’s infinity is focused here in our lives. To love is to experience the mystery of the soul with our being.
There is a greater image that would have us love one another thus. It is the image for which the soul reaches out, from which it had created us, and with which we are creating in our greater reality.
Perhaps when l am 80 years old someone will show me some kindness too. The love l felt and still feel for that precious couple is priceless. We all need to love and care for one another because we’re all sailing in the same ship. When all else fails, love will forever prevail.
l love you all, please pass some love and kindness whenever you can.
WHY DOES DATING GET HARDER WHEN YOU REACH YOUR 20’S?
You’re older and wiser. You know what you want from life. You
want a relationship, but there’s none in sight. Why is dating so hard in your
Dating through high school and college is one of the most
challenging experiences. These periods mark the beginnings of love, trust, sex
and heartbreak that shape the way your future-self deals with relationships for
years to come. You’re finally out of school with your new adult job, and things
are going great, but there are no romantic prospects in sight. What happened?
There are many emotional and situational difficulties in finding
a mate as you get older. Not only has the world changed since you took a break
from the dating world, but your priorities have changed, and now it seems like
you’re destined to be single forever.
Reasons why dating gets harder as you get older
We’re looking at 10 reasons dating gets harder from 20 onward,
and what you can do about it!
#1 You’ve become set in your ways. It’s true. The
older we get, the more stubborn we become about what we do and do not like.
Working through college-age relationships, while frustrating and sometimes
emotionally crippling, also taught you exactly what you’re looking for in a
mate, as well as all those little flaws you’re simply too old and too wise to put
up with now.
However, it also causes you to become slightly jaded and less
open to new types of people. Like it or not, you’ve become “old” and set in
your ways, and not even Mr. Right can seem to break your stance.
#2 You have more emotional baggage. When you’re a
teenager, you feel like your whole life is ahead of you. Love is blissful, life
is free, people are genuine, and you have all the naivety in the world. It’s
that same naivety that gives you the balls to trust in love and continue
putting yourself through relationship torture for years and years. It is also
during this time in our lives that we begin to develop emotional baggage.
Suddenly the way our first love hurt us sets the pattern for how
we handle future relationships. By the time we’ve hit our mid-20s, 30s and 40s,
our emotional and physical baggage only grows, and if you’re dating within your
age range, then that would mean your potential partner has some baggage of
their own, creating a sticky situation for your future relationship.
#3 It’s way harder to meet people. Ironically, once
you’ve matured and feel like you’re finally ready for a serious relationship,
there seems to be no avenue to find one! Once you’re outside of high school and
college, your dating pool seems to shrink drastically.
The simplicity of taking a chance with that cute girl in class
has now turned into you trolling the gym or your workplace for someone to date.
This only gets harder as you get older, as you’re not exactly keen to go
clubbing for potential partners when you have a 7AM meeting.
#4 You’ve gotten too used to casual dating. On the flip side,
perhaps you’ve spent a little *too* much time in the dating world, and not
enough time in the world of relationships to remember how to do it. As silly as
it sounds, sometimes jumping into a relationship isn’t as easy as riding a
bike, if you haven’t done it for a while.
After 3 years with my serious long term boyfriend, I suddenly
felt like I had no clue how “kids” these days were
pursuing each other. This can be incredibly discouraging to those trying to
jump back into the dating pool, but don’t give up! It may
be hard, but it sure isn’t impossible.
#5 It’s harder to meet someone with your goals. The fabulous thing
about getting older is that you only become surer of what you want out of life.
The only bad side? It becomes harder to meet someone who shares your life goals
after college, especially when life becomes tangled with demanding jobs,
children from a previous relationship, ex-wives and husbands, and other
#6 It’s awkward approaching someone new. While you realize
you’re not in elementary school any longer, the thought of approaching someone
new with the thoughts of dating can sometimes be overwhelming. This may be
easier when you are still in your 20s. However when you hit your 30s, 40s, and
50s, the thought of approaching a stranger for a date becomes as uncomfortable
a thought as approaching a child on your first day of school and asking: “Want
to be friends?”
#7 Someone else has had a chance to shape your potential
mate. Your potential new mate has already had a handful of
relationships, and may even be divorced or separated, meaning they’ve had
dozens of opportunities for someone else to shape their likes, dislikes, intuition,
trust, and everything else in between.
This doesn’t mean your potential mate has entered a “no-go”
zone. It is simply a fact of life. Still, you can’t deny how awesome it would
be to have someone at least a little impressionable to roll in the hay with.
#8 Social media and cell phones have ruined our social
capabilities. This is especially true of those in their 20s. The hard fact is
that while technology has created a fun, diverse, and explorative spin on the
current world we live in, it has also drowned our abilities to properly
Phone call, anyone? Instead, youths today would rather
communicate impersonally via text message than actually get to hear their new
crush’s voice. Ever seen a couple on a date at a restaurant, yet both of them are
glued to their cell phones? Point taken.
#9 Looks have faded. You’re not getting any younger. A
ridiculous thought for those in their 20s, but true for the rest. Don’t deny
checking yourself out in the mirror studying your face at the sleep line that
takes just *that* much longer to go away than it used to, or that one gray hair
that seemed to have five friends attend its funeral.
When you’re young, shallow as it is, you feel like you can skate
by on your looks to at least hook in your man and eventually make him see how
awesome your personality is, too. The same goes for younger guys who subsist on
beer and ramen noodles, and still look like they jumped out of a Chippendale’s
ad. Now you may be finding you’re working your magic the other way around.
#10 The good ones are taken. This applies to
most generations after 20. It seems all the good, cute guys who still have
hair, or the smart, attractive women without children are already committed to
Don’t sweat the small stuff when it comes to finding
relationships in your later years. You may be set in your ways, but you know
what you want, and when you do find that special someone, they’re going to be
of the highest quality, because you won’t accept any less.
Try not to dwell too much on the negatives when it comes to aging and meeting people. The process may be a little more difficult than when you were in your teens, but the result of a mature, loving relationship is totally worth the struggle.
By the time you hit your 20s, 30s, 40s and so on, finding that one guy or gal whom you can spend the rest of your life with may be tougher. But don’t lose hope! Someone out there may be thinking the exact same thing as they wait for your opportunity to meet to finally arise!
INSECURITY HURTS YOUR MARRIAGE. HERE’S WHAT TO DO ABOUT IT
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
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
Recognize how your insecurities may be hurting your
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
You struggle to fully trust your
spouse. This keeps you from being totally open and honest in your
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
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.
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
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:
“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:
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.”
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:
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.