Follow The Money

An Important Key To Relationship Health:

One of the first questions I ask of a new couple when assessing the resiliency of their relationship relates to how money is “handled” in their day to day lives with one another.  Specific questions might be:  “Where do you actually put the money that one or both or you earns?”   “Do you comingle everything or have separate accounts?”   “Who pays the bills and how do you decide on minor or major purchases?”  Answers to all of these questions can reveal a lot about how the power dynamics work with this couple.  Also, I can tell by the answers I get and the “tone” of voice with which the answers are given weather money is an issue of contention with this couple.

For example, if I hear that all the money is “comingled” together then I know that for this couple, at least in theory, there is a sense of “what’s mine is yours, and what’s yours is mine” The money is “Ours”.  However, if I also hear that   one member of the couple tightly controls “access” to the money, and even the most minor purchase must be approved in advance…then I know there is a   “power” issue.  I may also hear of large purchase decisions being made “unilaterally” by one member of the couple. This also becomes an issue.  If the money is truly “ours”, should not we both be a part of decision making when it comes to spending it?  On the other hand, it may feel   “petty” and controlling when a household item is needed and you don’t have the autonomy to make this purchase.  It can feel quite insulting actually. Is your partner a co-equal or a parent?

The issue of personal autonomy can be perhaps handled by maintaining separate accounts and having an agreement about who handles which of the mutual bills. It may seem more “fair” in this case that you pay into mutual household bills according to how much money you make.  I have seen cases though, where one member of the couple  (usually the larger wage earner) insists on a 50/50 arrangement.  It always seems to me in these cases that there is an issue of trust and lack of generosity here. You are, after all, not roommates but a couple.  Should there not be some sense of looking out for one another and sharing your resources?  What does this mean about the other things you share in your life?  Does this mean that you can’t take the same vacation together because one of you can’t afford it?

A third option for people is a “hybrid” option where each has their own account, and also each contributes to a joint account for mutual ongoing household expenses. It has the advantage of allowing both people to maintain some kind of personal autonomy within the marriage and perhaps even “surprising” your partner with an unexpected gift that is part of your separately held money.  Obviously, this scheme will not work unless each member of the couple is actually making money to contribute to his/her t account.  Also, I think the danger of it is that keeping a separate account can become keeping a “secret” account.  What I always advise in this case is complete transparency between the couple.  You each should know how much money is held in your partners account.  Also, what is the end goal of this money? Is some of it being saved for a family vacation, or a child’s education?  Does some portion get to be “Mad money” that I can buy myself a toy with? If so, what if your partner does not have as much “extra” as you do?  How does that feel?

I’ve seen couples handle their money in each of the ways mentioned above and I think they can all be successful.  Here are some principles to keep in mind:

  • Complete honesty and transparency are a must. You must each know how much money is available, where it is coming from, and how much exactly needs to be budgeted for each household related expense. Family budget meetings can be really helpful.  Decide who will pay which bill, in the same way you decide how to divide all family chores and responsibilities
  • Establish a “Threshold” for how much an item needs to cost for it to be a purchase that needs to be agreed upon.  For every couple its different, but it needs to be set at some level.  If it’s a major purchase it affects the whole family and may mean a priority.  You need to agree on the priority
  • Discuss your values and life goals with each other frequently.  Do you have the same ambitions?  Do you agree on such things as public or private schools, or how much to spend on a house or a car?  Sometimes these things need to be discussed and negotiated.  Talk about how money was spent in your family of origin, to try to figure out your differences
  • Always keep in mind, if you are part of a couple and/or part of a family that its not just you anymore. The happiness and security of your partner and/or your children should be of utmost importance. Be generous with your money. Spending money on your loved one is a gesture of love. It will come back to you a thousand fold when you are in a healthy situation
  • I have worked with couples where it is assumed by either or both partners that the one who makes more money should have the most power. By Power, I mean.the right to decide how money is spent, or what the family values are or who is the true “authority” figure in the household.

In my view, assumptions about money that confer upon the earner of the money some extra status or a right to control anyone are just wrong.

At the very least, using money as a tactic to control another person is an unbalanced situation where one member of the couple is “less than”…has less voice, less agency, less solid “self”.

In the worst-case scenario, unbalance in relationship amounts to abuse of power.

Definitely not OK in any circumstances.

So, pay attention to money and how it operates in all your relationships.   Remember, it’s not a measure of your worth or anyone else’s.  

I Get By With A Little Help From My Friends

I think I am not alone in my enjoyment of “sit-coms” that feature small groups of people who spend time with each other on a regular basis as they celebrate life’s great moments as well as console each other in times of grief. The 90’s show “Friends” comes to mind as an example of such a show, or the 80’s show “Cheers”
“You wanna be where everyone knows your name” is the song that “Cheers” opens up with, and hearing it always makes me feel a warm glow of longing. That’s what I want. That’s what everyone wants I think, but as I grow older I realize that it’s harder and harder to come by.

What Happened To My Close Knit Group Of Friends?

As a psychotherapist I often hear from my clients that they don’t have enough friends. Many people are genuinely lonely a lot of the time. This is in spite of having a gazillion friends on Facebook…. which is obviously not the same thing.

But…here’s the thing. As you scroll through your Facebook “friends”, how many of them would be available at a moments notice for a “face to face” real time encounter with you as you spill your guts about some terrible thing that has happened. Who would you call at 2am in the morning at a time of great despair?

Thinking back on the times when I have felt close to a group of friends, it occurs to me now that I was younger, more carefree. I had fewer responsibilities…such as a full time job or family. It was ok that the friends I had also did not know exactly who they were or where they were going in life. It was ok to be “goofy” and make mistakes and change your mind about things. After all…we were all young and it was “expected”…right. It was OK to “Play” also.

Now, I feel like everything has gotten very serious, and dare I say it, “competitive” in a certain sense. Now that I’m a full-fledged, middle aged “grownup” I feel like I should have it all together somehow. If I don’t, that’s somehow a judgment on me, and I’m aware of others who do have it together. I measure myself. I come up short.
The “competition” part is actually in my own mind, more than anything else.

So, What About Facebook? Isn’t this a good way to keep up with friends?

Well,…yes and no. Facebook is a good way to find friends, and keep up with their lives, but it has a “dark” side. In some ways, I think Facebook can make us all feel even more competitive and inadequate. With some exceptions, I find that people usually put their best foot forward in Facebook. They advertise themselves with flattering “selfies” or wonderful news about the great accomplishments of family members. Sometimes it’s pretty depressing when I’m not feeling so successful myself.

What Should We Do Then To Get Back To “Close Knit” Friend Groups?

Here are some ideas:

  • Go beyond your “comfort zone” bubble and suggest short in-person get together with people you think might be interesting. Risk rejection. It may happen. Go beyond the ‘virtual” world of Facebook and invite someone to do something with you.
  • Join an interest group and begin spending time with people who share your interests. This can be anything. .from a book club to a “meet up”
  • Most importantly, I think, is to have the courage to be your most authentic and vulnerable self. This is the best recipe for lasting, sustaining friendships. It’s also the most unique offering you possess, and as long as you are also encouraging others to be authentic and vulnerable you can’t miss. Take it slow, of course, and don’t fall into the trap of immediate indiscriminate “overshare”. Find the right people for you…and don’t give up until you find them.
  • Once you get your “peeps”….never let them go. Set up regular “get togethers” at each other’s houses, or a “meeting” place you all like.
  • Most of all, don’t expect this all to happen automatically. It not like college, where you all live in the dorm, or see each other in classes. The difference is that in our increasingly busy world, I think it has to be “intentional”.

One thing I do know though, is that we all need friends. We can’t “get by” without them

Five Essential Ingredients In The Recipe For a Mature, Lasting Relationship

Fulfilling mature relationships don’t happen overnight. Most often two people come together through the magnetism of mutual attraction. This is what brings people together but its not what keeps them together

Everyday life intervenes eventually in all relationships. This is when the real work of relationship building begins. It takes patience and commitment to build a lasting relationship. It’s also helpful to keep in mind the following key ”relationship building” guidelines:

1. Get To Know The Full Relationship History Of Your Partner

More than likely you are not the first person your partner has been in relationship with. For this reason it’s important to start the dialog early on about all of the romantic relationships that have preceded you. It’s also important to begin to understand relationships in a broader context as concerns your partner. What kind of friendships and family relationships are in his/her current and past life? All of this is important data when you want to develop intimacy with another person. You need to talk about and explore strengths and vulnerabilities with each other. Are you with someone who has lasting relationships or not? Does your love interest have close family and friends? If not, why not?

2. Practice Effective Communication Immediately With A New Love Interest

As you are getting to know someone new, remember to do at least as much listening as you do talking about yourself. Slow everything down and check that you are truly understanding what it is that is being said. You can even check your understanding by asking “Did I get that right?” Or, “Is this what you’re trying to say?” Don’t assume you know things, or interrupt the flow of another’s conversation. Ask questions and be curious.

3. Build A Deep Friendship Based On Mutual Respect And Trust

Focus on what you can give to another rather than what they can give you. How can you be of service to this person in support of who they are authentically as a human being? Do for them and they will do for you. That’s how it works. The love flows naturally from this.

4. Build A “We” In Relationship That enhances Rather Than Detracts From Each “I”

By This I mean that in the best and most mature relationships, neither individual needs to force the other to sacrifice who they are as an individual. You each become who you are, and this is a source of pride and wonder for your partner, rather than a source of competition or derision. Together you become more than the sum of your parts because of the unique “blend” that you are. Individually you are each of you whole human beings and you value and support each other on your lifelong journey.

5. Find the right “balance” in your relationship… in all things.

Time together should ideally be balanced with time alone. Time with “Us” friends should be balanced with time with “Me” friends. Always find ways to have “me” time. Balance of “power” means equality in terms of making mutual decisions, and taking the needs and preferences of your partner into consideration.

These five concepts are just “starter” ideas I have come up with though my experience with watching and counseling children, individuals, couples, and families. It’s about finding and keeping relationships that are about growth and change, rather than suffocation and dominance. It’s also about valuing equally the “relationship” and the” individual”.

Relationships In Adolescence

LOOKING FIRST AT PRESCHOOL RELATIONSHIPS:

Observing Preschoolers as they “play” taught me that there are three ways young children interact. First, there are the natural “leaders” who always come up with ideas and delegate “roles” or “tasks” to other children. Then there are the “followers” who are perfectly happy to follow along with whatever the leader delegates to them. In the third group, are the kids who can flexibly move between being a “leader” or a “follower” depending on the type of play, and the personalities of the other members of the playgroup?

Members of the third “flexible” group” have the easiest time fitting in with a new situation when it is necessary to make new friends or leave behind old friends. This is because a more “flexible” child can participate in the “give and take” that is part of forming successful relationships. A flexible child can allow another child to choose the game this time, knowing that next time it will be his/her turn.

Equally important, a more socially flexible child is perfectly happy being alone for a time, and will spend more energy figuring out which friends are the best “fit”
When we “coach” young children to have better social skills we always try to coach them into more flexibility.

AND NOW ADOLESCENT RELATIONSHIPS:

Working with preschoolers ended up to be the best possible training for understanding the complexity of adolescent relationships…especially when you add “romance” and the urgency of raging hormones into the mix.

In the same way as preschoolers, adolescents want to be a part of their peer group. They are looking to form close friendships with peers as well as more intimate relationships with opposite or same sex partners. The added pressure of sexual attraction obviously complicates the situation.

What I have found is that teenagers who were more “flexible” as preschoolers in terms of their friendship bonds, have an easier time in High School, college, and early adulthood. When a young person hits adolescence and has already had the experience of many types of relationships, as well as the experience of being comfortably alone, that person will form better and more lasting bonds. I think its because an adolescent who spends time both alone and with many types of people knows him/herself better. The question of “Who am I when I am not with you?” is more easily answered.

In short, the “flexible” preschooler has the opportunity for a more stable adolescent and adult identity. Lasting relationships are then built upon a strong sense of solid “self”

There is a lot of research out there that suggests early education is important for intellectual development, but I’d like to make the case that its also important for social and emotional development.

It can make all the difference

Relationship Formation In Early Childhood

Early on in my training to be a pre-school teacher I took a course in The Observation Of Young Children”. The idea was to observe children ages 2 thru 5 as they “played” in a natural environment. The experience was “Eye Opening”

What I found is that children become very social at an early age. Making friends is of paramount importance and not all pre-school children are very good at it. Some are very dominating (bossy). Others are extremely shy and easily dominated. It is the beginning of the power dynamics that we see playing out in relationships throughout the life cycle. You see it in couples, in siblings, in the workplace, and even politically on the National and global scale.

What I grew to understand over the years is that individuals who have the need to dominate others are not that different in a certain way from those who are easily dominated. They are both fundamentally very insecure in terms of their own identity. Here is how I see it:

Even though the seemingly more powerful can manipulate and bully others to do their bidding (and yes I see this in a 3 year old), underneath that “bravado” is someone who feels like they can’t just simply ask for what they want. The fine art of relationship formation whereby there is a “give and take” of getting to know one another is unknown to a bully. In truth they are afraid. I have seen this fear in a three year old who does not know how to make a successful social approach, but is dying for a friend.

The easily “dominated” have a different kind of problem. These kids on the playground were often painfully shy. As shy as these kids were, I would observe them agreeing to do “anything” to curry favor with the more dominant children on the playground.

So…there you have it. In preschool the power dynamics in relationship are already beginning to show themselves. Preschool social development is where you see lasting patterns of social interaction. Later on, these dynamics show up again when superficial relationships deepen and become intimate. This is what I discovered as I moved from being a preschool teacher to becoming a relationship therapist

Why Did I Decide To Be A Relationship Therapist?

 I found myself thinking the other day about why I do the kind of work I do.  It’s a good question to ask, I think.  I’m at the age now when I could at least begin to think about retirement, but for some reason it doesn’t even cross my mind.

This leads to the question of how I got here.  I love this work.  It feels important.  It feels to me that working with people and improving their relationships is the obvious culmination of all work I have done before.  This is where I was meant to “land”.  So what was the first step on my journey?

The first step on my career path was as a pre-school teacher.  This entailed getting a good understanding of child development and learning about the very first stages of becoming a human being.

Here is where the importance of relationship first entered my consciousness, and became a pivotal concept for me in my work…and in my life.

A child comes into the world literally through the process of his/her physical relationship to “mother”. Very quickly this helpless infant must bond to a mother or caregiver in order to just survive.  Relationship is survival. It is as simple as that, and yet as profound as that.

So…no wonder that early relationships in a child’s life have a profound and lasting effect on all subsequent relationships.

This is how it all started for me.  Studying the interactions of babies with their mothers/fathers/ caregivers/family and teachers laid the foundation for interest in all relationships of people as they interact and are interdependent all over the planet.

I began to realize that disruption, abuse, loss, or any kind of trauma in the early baby/caregiver bond set a blueprint for how a human is able to form necessary attachments throughout life. Secure attachments are the bedrock of healthy relationships throughout life. I’m still learning about this and trying to help people “re attach” successfully at all stages of their lives

This is the work that I do

Who Am I? Celebrating Ancestral Roots On Memorial Day 2017

A week ago I was walking casually through Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington Virginia when I made an unexpected discovery. Without any intention whatsoever, I ran across the gravestone of my Great Grandfather Augustus Fechteler. (pictured here) I was stunned.

I knew, of course, in a vague and abstract way that I had a great grandfather who was an Admiral in the US Navy, but I just was not expecting such concrete evidence at this particular moment.

It got me to thinking…

All of us have a past. It stretches out untold generations before we were born. Likewise…we all have a future. We may have children who will have children…but even if this is not the case we all have pieces of ourselves that continue on..long after we are no longer physically present. We leave traces of ourselves…always.

The truth of our enduring continuity as a ‘human” family strikes me this Memorial Day weekend as simple and yet incredibly profound. It reminds me that the totality of life extends way beyond my small occupancy in time and space.

I take comfort in this truth, and yet feel awed by a sense of responsibility to all who come after me. The beauty I see all around me is, after all, at least in part attributable to all of my ancestors.

I hope I can be worthy of this responsibility.

Thank you greatgrandfather Fechteler for your part in making my life possible

 

Is This Love For Real?

 

The experience of “falling In Love” is exciting and romantic. On a physical level, our bodies are infused with an intoxicating blend of “feel good” neurotransmitters that are pre-programmed for bonding and procreation. We are obsessed with our beloved. It certainly feels like love!!

Later on, the picture is not so rosy. We begin to see aspects of our partner that annoy and anger us. This is when the “honeymoon” is over and the “real work” of the relationship begins. Now we begin to have moments where we doubt our choice of partner. Our question now becomes:   “How do I know that this is “true love?” Or, “How do I know this love real and lasting?”

CONDITIONAL LOVE

One way to explore this question is to ask yourself what your expectations of your partner are. Do you love him/her only when certain conditions are met…such as your partner continues to look a particular way or treat you a particular way? Does your love hinge on your partner agreeing to make “changes” that you deem to be in the best interests of creating YOUR ideal mate? Is your love possessive and controlling in some manner that demands your lover to be a certain way in order to receive love from you?

This is CONDITIONAL LOVE. It usually does not last.

There is an alternative that can last a lifetime

AUTHENTIC LOVE

Authentic love is based on a fondness and admiration of the other person, which does not depend upon how they feel about you…even if you wish with all your heart that your love were reciprocated. When your love is authentic you can bravely declare it and not retreat into bitter vengeance when the one you love does not feel the same way. Authentic love exists of course in non-romantic settings as well…but is particularly sweet when Romance and Authentic love co-exist and are felt by both people in the relationship.

Now there is a love worth waiting for

 

 

 

Mastering The Art Of Deep Listening

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I think it is fair to say that there is a deep socio/political divide in America right now. All around me it feels like there is evidence that we are not all on the same page about who we are as a people, what our values should be, and how we treat other people.

Underlying the “divide” is the collective emotion of FEAR. In my 25 years as a therapist it is my observation that fear often divides us as human beings. We struggle to connect, to understand each other, and to create harmonious, peaceful, nurturing relationships, but we often fall short. We fall short in our family relationships, in our community and institutional relationships, and even in our relationships as citizens of a particular country or of the world as a whole.

At this particular point in time I find the reality of the “disconnect” between people to be particularly distressing. How did this happen? I sometimes feel like I inhabit a different country than other people, and yet I somehow missed how different our realities really were. I guess I was afraid to really look.

It’s dawning on me recently that I am responsible for my part in creating this disconnect. I have been asleep. I have been complacent. I have surrounded myself with others who believe as I do and we have congratulated ourselves on how right and smart and compassionate we are. We are not. I am not.

For me, the reality is that I have not been listening. I have not been listening in a deep way. I have not been listening in a way that promotes deep understanding and empathy. I have not attempted to put myself into the reality of someone who does not share my view with the goal of just really “getting” them. The truth is I often enjoy the argument. I want to be “right”. I can’t solve the problems in the world as a whole, but I can change the way I listen to people regardless of weather or not they agree with me. This is the only way to begin to dispel the fear that continues to divide us.  It must begin with me. Below are the communication skills that I teach to couples when they have trouble communicating. I’m going to start using these skills all the time…. not just in my therapy room

HOW TO START REALLY LISTENING:

  1. Suspend all preconceived notions you may have about the views held by the person you are trying to communicate with. Take the view that you are here to “learn” about a different point of view… a different reality. Zen people would call it “beginners mind”. Your job as “listener” is not to defend yourself, or prove the other wrong. Lay your weapons down.
  1. After you have heard the other person out without interruptions, ask “clarifying” questions. Basically this is not about refuting what you have heard. It’s about understanding what you have heard. When you feel you have a decent understanding, check it out. Repeat back what you think you heard and correct the parts that aren’t right.
  1. Part three is the most important. Try your best to find an empathy bridge to this other persons view. “I can see how you might feel this way” for example. Try to find a way to understand and communicate to this other person that their point of view makes sense

In an ideal world, the other person in your dialog would become your “listener” in the second part of this exercise. Sometimes this is not possible, and you are up against someone who does not have the empathy for you that you are able to have for him or her. I would argue however, that you are still better off. You have given the best possible opportunity for understanding and “breakthroughs” are possible and do happen. From these “breakthroughs” are created new and more inclusive points of view, and the world becomes one where there are not “winners” and “losers” (zero sum game), but multiple “winners” (non zero sum game

That’s the world I want to live in.

 

 

 

 

 

Giving Thanks For Friendships That Sustain Us

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This Thanksgiving I want to give a giant “Shout Out” of thanks to the “Best” of my Best friends. So, who are these people? Over the years I have evolved a definition for exactly who they are, and who they are not. Here is what I have come up with: 

  1. I may have known you for a very short time, or for a very long time. Regardless of this, I know that you “see” me in the very fullest sense of this word. In your “seeing” of me you convey to me through word and deed that you “accept” all that you see.
  2. I understand, and I would like you to understand that fully “seeing” me does not mean that you always agree with me, or that you agree with a particular course of action I may have taken. Quite the contrary, I value you, and would hope that you value me for having the courage to tell me when you feel I am “off course”. I want to know when something I do or say does not “align” with who you think I am. I want to do the same for you. I want to know if I have “hurt” you in anyway….knowingly or unknowingly.
  3. Please do not ignore me when I have displeased or hurt you. Nothing is more insulting or “relationship killing” than a complete lack of communication when there has been a breach in our relationship. Even if you can’t talk to me right now, just tell me that. I can deal with that, rather than the feeling that I am invisible and have no impact on you. If you are doing this to punish me, then you have achieved your purpose, but you have also damaged our relationship.
  4. I find myself wanting to say “please don’t judge me”, but I catch myself wanting to amend this understandable sentiment. Lets be real. Let’s be authentic. You will judge me. I will judge you. Maybe the word “judgement” is the problem. What I want from you is an honest assessment, lovingly delivered, of how I “come across” from your standpoint. I want to know if you are concerned about this. Please…be my mirror…when my own mirror has become clouded or distorted. I will do the same for you. You have my word.

So, that’s it…my list of four essential characteristics of relationships in my life that have nurtured and sustained me. These are the resilient relationships I treasure. They are the ones that last and last, and are unaffected by the boundaries of time and space. I feel the lasting impact, even after death separates me physically from my loved one.

My wish for everyone is to have at least a few of these deep, connecting, and sustaining relationships in your life. You can never have too many, but you need at least a few