Interpersonal Freedom



We have a curious relationship with the whole concept of  “freedom”, it seems to me.  Kind of like sex.  We love it and glorify it.  On the other hand, we deplore it and we’re afraid of it.  We acknowledge that a little bit is a good thing but it’s real easy to overdo it and when we do, that’s scary and dangerous.  Maybe it’s something like playing with nitroglycerin.  Mess around too much and it can hurt you.  And we just hate to get hurt, don’t we?

I’m sure that freedom can hurt you.  I just don’t think that’s a reason to avoid it.  There are worse things than getting hurt.  For example, what about living your entire life in a prison of your own design, constructed of fear and defensiveness.  Perhaps, you might say, life should be limited.  Too much risk is a bad thing.  Better to take the safe route.  OK, that’s one way to live.

But, if you dare, there is an alternative to this protective prison of fear.  You could try it in your relationship.  Once your partner realizes that he or she is free, then you’ll really see what’s what.

In the optimal case, this means total freedom.  If you dare to take the risk, give your partner “carte blanche”.  Then you’ll see what they’re made of because they’ll be free to be themselves.

Despite the fact that we live in a culture that idealizes and even worships freedom, there are many who are terrified by it.  They prefer to have an individual or some routine to control them because to manage their lives freely causes them anxiety.  In an effort to avoid any “bad”, anxious feelings, these people sabotage and sacrifice their own freedom, voluntarily.  You can’t give them freedom. They will reject it.

Only those who operate from their real selves are comfortable with freedom and the responsibility for self (and others) that goes with it.  They understand that they can’t always be successful at everything they try but they try anyway.  Life requires some trial and error.  With that comes occasional failure and the “bad” feelings that come with it.  To shoot for our own goals and live according to our own choices we must be ready to endure some frustration and embarrassment when we fail.  The real self can handle this.

The false self exists purely for the psychic protection of its creator.  Protection from what?  From the possibility of being found to be incompetent, unlovable, unworthy and/or inadequate and from the possibility of being abandoned and/or engulfed by others who see us for what we are and don’t approve.  Everyone experiences self-doubt sometimes.  But some of us are completely controlled by it.

This is so normal that we may not even see it as a problem.  If being normal is the goal then I guess it’s not a problem at all.  But I’d like to point to a different state, if you don’t mind—a more evolved one.  I don’t see what’s so great about being normal.  Normal means average.  What’s great about that?

OK, maybe we think it’s safe to be normal but is it really?  We’re dying left and right of diseases caused by our lifestyles.  Is that so safe?  Depression is endemic.  Do you call that safe?  People can’t stand themselves so they turn to alcohol and drugs to change the way they feel.  Is that safe?  I don’t think so.  In the name of safety and normality we’ve hamstrung ourselves.  It’s a fear of freedom, unpredictability and chaos.  Sometimes we call it “the devil”.  But that makes it seem more “evil” than it really is.

Now, I’m not suggesting that everyone start doing whatever comes to mind, without sensoring our impulses.  That would be to abandon humanity entirely.  But couldn’t you try to give your loved ones the freedom to be truly themselves, to make your love a little less conditional?

Some people believe that the opposite of love is hate.  I don’t agree.  Hate and love sometimes co-exist in the same relationship.  We can just flip back and forth.  Others  say indifference is the opposite of love, that is the absence of feeling is love’s dark side.  I beg to differ.  I think it’s fear that is the opposite of love.

Love is the gift we have to offer, the work we take on to assist each other to thrive and to glory in that thriving.  It is the attention we pay, the hope I have for your success and happiness.  It is fear that pulls back the gift and makes your thriving, on your terms, a threat to me.  But that’s all about my fear, not anything you did to me.  We can do better than that.

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Just Try Not Reacting



Here’s a good trick if you can manage it.  I admit, it’s not an easy one but if you can do it, it will help you.  Just try to stay calm when your partner is upset, without withdrawing, either emotionally or physically.  This will change everything about your experience of a conflict including, most importantly, the outcome.

If you think I’m overstating the difficulty of this, try it for yourself.  Some people may be able to do it readily but I know the majority cannot.  For most of us, this is a bit of a struggle and doesn’t come naturally.  Instinctively we abhor nondefensiveness and when we feel attacked or even confronted, we lash out immediately in hurt and anger.  Most of us are either too reactive to stay calm or too reactive to stay present.  Some, hoping to avoid the discomfort of confrontation are so unreactive they are never really present.  This is the famously unhelpful, unpleasant and unloving behavior known as “stonewalling”.  Stay away from that one.

In practice, what nonreactive presence usually means is disagreeing (or, at least, stating your case) without getting all excited about it, without getting angry, fearful, hurt or disgusted by the fact that your partner sees things another way.  People get bogged down in who’s right or wrong or in some drama about who’s offended whom.  It deteriorates to blame and counter-blame.  This useless sequence then escalates and, before you know it we’re off to the races for a no-holds-barred, throw-in-the-kitchen-sink knock-down-drag-out.  Then, for many couples, there’s the long, drawn-out recovery period—the cold freeze.  What a waste of time and love!

There’s no good reason why you have to give up your own truth to allow room for another’s in a conversation.  You don’t have to take on your partner’s truth or insist they take on yours.  Two different truths can exist side-by-side if the two individuals can accept and be comfortable with the fact that they are two separate individuals.  All it takes is a little courtesy and a lot of self-control.

Some fortunate people can even see the simultaneous truth of two opposing points of view.  It just depends how you look at it, like one of those figure and ground optical illusions.  Look once and see two faces.  Look again and it’s a vase.  With practice you can go back and forth or even see both at once.

This is a skill that works for you in two ways.  Many couples disagree more than they don’t and this nonreactivity skill allows them to stay together in relative peace without selling out, running away or driving each other off.  It’s having to be “right” and making the other “wrong” that stands in the way of a happier, more harmonious relationship.  Furthermore, sitting calmly in the presence of the opposition helps you to confront yourself, test the validity of your views and grow to meet your own potential.





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Moment of Silence for Kids





Every now and then we deal with the issue of whether or not children should be allowed or even encouraged to pray in public schools. There was one alternative that I really like but you don’t hear much about it, the non-denominational moment of silence.  Only I think it should be twenty minutes, not one.

I wouldn’t pretend that this would be easy for the kids to do.  On the contrary, it would be hard, at first.  Unless we did it the easy way.  Suppose we just gradually change naptime into quiet time as we move from kindergarten through the early grades.  Then the kids would be used to it.

Sitting quietly with oneself for twenty minutes ought not to be such a radical idea.  Clearly though, it is.  There are those who would worry about what the kids were thinking.  Some would say that the time was wasted and would be better used for more learning.

I would maintain that the kids would learn more during twenty minutes of silence than they do during an average twenty-minute period in class.  Self-control, equanimity, self-awareness, a sense of direction and purpose, an ability to tolerate disturbing thoughts, all these would seem to be desirable effects.

If students want to read or write quietly, or do homework on their own, this would be OK with me.  If someone wants to pray to their Lord, well, fine.  They can do that on their own in their own way, silently, in accord with their parents’ or preachers’ teachings. We might give students elevating moral thoughts to contemplate if they wish.  We could teach them how to empty their minds to achieve deep rest and inner peace.  Would that be so bad?

A daily habit of prayer or contemplation adds stability and self-awareness to life.  Too many children are navigating without a compass.  Let’s teach them to develop and use their inner compass.  Self-reflection will help them to make better choices.





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Coping with Crisis in Families



If you’re like me, you eat Chinese a lot better than you

speak it.  Nevertheless, you may have heard, as I have, that

the Chinese word for “crisis” is the same as that for


Anyone who has successfully negotiated a crisis knows

that this is not just wild optimism on the part of the

Chinese.  Opportunity is inherent in crisis but this is only

realized by those who can manage the changes that a crisis


Families face many types of crisis which threaten their

stability.  Conflict, divorce, economic hardship, illness,

job changes–these are just a few of the stressors that can

upset a family’s equilibrium.  The goal is adaptation.

To consider adaptation successful, a family must

maintain two essential functions:

1.  the preservation of an adequate level of

organization and unity

2.  the promotion of individual growth and development

of its members

Keeping these two requirements in view will help a

family to weather changes.  Major crises can be endured, even

turned to advantage (opportunity) if these two functions are

preserved, or, if necessary, re-established.

There are a number of coping skills a family can use to

maintain the balance between demands and resources in times

of crisis.  The McCubbin group at the University of Wisconsin

has identified five of these and there are others:

1.  Direct action to reduce the number and intensity of

demands (like refusing a job promotion that would

require a move.)

2.  Direct action to acquire additional resources (like

finding medical services for a chronically ill


3.  Maintenance of existing resources (like social ties,

doing things together to maintain group cohesion).

4.  Managing tension (exercise, play together, use

humor, express emotions).

5.  Change the meaning of the situation (lower

expectations, emphasize competence, optimism,

acceptance of what cannot be changed.)




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Severing Family Relationships


      A man refuses to speak to his sister for 15 years.  The reason?  At the time of their mother’s death, he was left alone to care for her as she died.  Then, to add insult to injury, her sister questioned his family loyalty.

After years of criticism and rejection, a wife decides not to speak to her in-laws anymore, a decision that causes chronic problems in her marriage.

The child of a closely-knit family moves across the country and only communicates with the family through greeting cards on holidays.

These are all examples of emotional cut-off, a process in which one or both parties in a relationship effectively terminate that relationship in response to uncomfortable feelings between them.  It’s not uncommon within families.

To understand emotional cut-off it is necessary to understand the concept of emotional fusion.  Fusion has to do with the degree of emotional reactivity that exists between people.

If our reactivity to each other is so powerful that I cannot define and hold my own position as a self in our relationship, I might feel I need to “cut-off” in order to feel functionally independent.

If my feelings in reaction to you are intense and unpleasant enough, I may “cut-off” from you rather than dealing with my own strong feelings.  Once I am “cut-off” from you, I no longer feel I have to deal with our relationship.  It relieves my anxiety.

The problem with emotional cut-off is that it is a short-term solution, which creates a long-term problem.  People grow, emotionally, through working our relationship hassles.  In the process, they achieve “differentiation,” the opposite of fusion.

First, I can tell the difference between me and you.  I don’t have to react blindly to things you do or say.  Second, I can differentiate my emotions from my reason.  I can choose my responses rather than reacting automatically.  This is emotional maturity.

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The Hardest Part of Marriage



As a society, we seem to be acknowledging the cost of

family instability.  We’re looking for ways to address the

problem.  Welfare reform, teen-pregnancy prevention,

abolishing the “no-fault” divorce, chasing down runaway

parents and prosecuting abusers are just a few of the legal

and social remedies being considered.  The cry for “family

values” is heard across the land.

I don’t believe we will succeed in imposing family

values through institutional measures.  Maybe we can create a

climate more conducive to family stability but that won’t

solve the problem.  People won’t give up their own freedom to

choose, not in America.  Nor should they.  We cherish our

right to make the same mistakes over and over.

We ought to replace some of this family values chatter

with information about “marital values”.  Marriage is the

beating heart of the family.  Sadly, most people don’t know

that marriage is not just about love for another person.

It’s about transformation of the self.

To do marriage right you must be willing to let it

change you.  This is not an easy thing to bear and yet most

of us need to change some things about ourselves in order to

reach our full potential.  The problem is that it hurts.

People often seek to change partners in order to avoid

having to change themselves.  That’s what having affairs is

about, too.  With a new partner you can run all your old

games again.  You can use your bag of tricks to convince

someone that you are who you wish you were.  If you can make

it stick then you can believe it yourself.

Unfortunately this won’t hold up.  As soon as anyone

gets close they start to reflect you as you really are.  Once

again you’re faced with the need to change.  Or hide.  Or


The high art of monogamy is in facing who you are as

reflected in the eyes of your partner and, of course,

allowing them to do the same.  You have to give up your

illusions about yourself and about your partner, too.  That’s

when the real adventure begins.




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Adult Siblings



If there is one family relationship we are most prone

to neglect, it is that between adult siblings.  One reason is

that this is a “horizontal” relationship–one between peers

in which responsibilities are limited and choices for

interaction unlimited.  We maintain these relationships if we

feel like it or think of it.  Otherwise, maybe not.

We feel obligated to our parents and children in a way

that we don’t towards our siblings.  Also, our mobility these

days means we’re less likely to stay in close touch.  We may

see our siblings only on major holidays and, then, only in a

crowd of family and friends.  We may call each other

rarely.  One on one encounters may be infrequent or never.

It’s not only distance and infrequent contact that comes

between siblings.  An ancient quarrel or some left-over

competitiveness from younger years can linger, with past

events contaminating the present and foreclosing the future.

We may not be aware to what extent our sibling relationships

are still determined by out-moded family “rules” about who

must be loyal to whom, which side of a family struggle you’re

on or how close we’re “allowed” to be to each other.  Indeed,

some parents have stressed individual achievement so strongly

that it inevitably pushes siblings away from each other.

There are reasons to bridge the gap.  Our siblings have

much to offer us in terms of knowing our selves and enjoying

our memories.  They were there.  They witnessed and lived in

the same environment we did.  They understand things

about us others cannot.  They know what made us.  Then,

there’s the insider humor only a sibling could fully


Siblings who were once connected have a good chance of

renewing their bond.  They may have to overcome old scripts

about who’s dominant or submissive, who’s right or wrong, who

called whom last, who owes whom what.  One key could be

recognizing your separateness.  Sometimes resentments arise

because we want and expect our siblings to be more like us.

Often siblings are almost as unlike as strangers.  True

intimacy is only possible when we recognize and respect our

fundamental differences as individuals.



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Extreme Conflict Management


      The ultimate purpose in seeking psychotherapy is to become your own therapist.  On occasion, you may find yourself acting as therapist for your loved ones.  This is very commonly done by parents with their children.  In fact, the parent is probably the best therapist for a child.  You certainly have frequent access to your kids!  It may be a little trickier with your spouse though.  You might have to make it look like changing is their own idea.  Good luck with that.

Therapy is always about change so if you don’t want change stay away from therapy.  The solution to many problems will involve some change.  But, in marriage and family life, the problems, like wonders, never cease.  You will have opportunities!  Spouses and parents can do a lot to help themselves and their loved ones get through difficult situations (i.e. help them change.)  But there may be some frustration involved before you can get there.

Since conflict and frustration are inevitable, so is anger.  Anger, like other emotions, is contagious.  If you have a plan going in, it’s going to be easier to control your own angry behavior.  Then, by using a simple method, you can help your loved one to control theirs, too.  This is where you start doing “therapy”.

The simple method I recommend is called Confrontation Counseling.  I learned it while working with juvenile delinquents at the Florida Keys Marine Institute, a highly praised treatment program for wayward youth.  It works well in families, too.  Here’s how it goes.

When angry behavior gets out of hand, you just focus on that specific behavior until it ceases or at least is under control.  Yelling, getting in your face, threats and violence all make it impossible to continue a discussion with any hope of resolving an issue.

Since resolution is the goal, you calmly refuse to engage the issue until resolution is again possible.  Instead, you tell the angry person that they must stop the disruptive behavior before you will go on with the discussion.

It will help if you do not stand toe-to-toe with the angry person.  Don’t make yourself a target.  You are not trying to control them.  You’re asking them to control themselves.  Back off a little.  Turn away but don’t run away.

Anger is not a problem to be solved.  It’s just an emotion.  It’s the behavior associated with anger that is disruptive, destructive and sometimes dangerous.  We must all learn to monitor and control angry behavior to have healthy relationships.

Confrontation Counseling is a way you can help your loved ones to regain control so that conflicts can be resolved.  And it couldn’t be simpler.  Hopefully, with a little consistent and patient counseling from you, they will learn to control themselves and we will all be a little safer.

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Goodbye Wife

How Love Ends


A tragedy walked into my office.  This man arrived a year late.  His wife is leaving.  She’s decided she doesn’t love him anymore and she can’t go on living this way.  And he’s devastated.

Last year she came in to see me alone.  She wanted him to come but he wouldn’t.  In fact, he became rather outraged over it.  What she had to tell me convinced me that this marriage wasn’t going to last unless something changed, radically.  She was completely frustrated.  There was no affection, little sex and hardly any fun.  He was all work, work, work.  On top of that he abused her, verbally, calling her nasty names and criticizing.  To me he sounded perfectionistic, compulsive, driven by materialism and achievement needs.

I told her I wanted to contact him by E-mail or phone, to invite him to see me alone or join us or, at least, to warn him that he was losing her.  She asked me not to.  She was afraid he would take it out on her and it might make things even worse.  So, naturally I didn’t call him.

As of our last session she was still determined to stick it out.  She had already had one divorce, felt bad about failing again, and had persistent ideas that she could or should, somehow, make it OK.  For years she had operated from the delusion that if she just loved him enough, cooked the right dinners, did what he asked, he would come around and love her the way she needed him to.  But he never did.

Then one day he got mad and called her a nasty name again.  Suddenly she gave up.  He wants to change everything now.  Too late.  She’s over it, down the road and around the bend.

It can seem, at times, that love is durable, that it will stand up over the years to abuse and neglect.  Well, it may appear that way when people don’t look closely at the emotional undercurrents.  We tend to see what we want to see, what we expect to see, what we’re used to seeing.  But love that isn’t nourished rots from the inside.  Hurts and insults pile up.  When the positive is neglected the negative can over-balance it.  Then one day the illusion crumbles.  It was just a shell.  What was inside has disappeared.

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Happiness Attitudes



Most people want to be happy, or say they do anyway.  Trouble is, most people just lack the knack.  To be happy you have to maintain the right attitude—a willingness to be tickled by your experiences and a freedom from lingering negativity that prevents spontaneous pleasure.  Happiness happens in the present.  Regrets from the past and fears about the future can interfere.  Robert Louis Stevenson left us a list of twelve attitudes that ought to help:


  1. Decide to be happy.  Make up your mind to look for pleasure in the simple things.
  2. Make the best of the situation you’re dealt.  We all have to deal with both good and bad.  Try to make the laughter outweigh the tears.
  3. Don’t take yourself too seriously.  Accept that you will have to deal with some misfortune, just like everyone else.
  4. Don’t try to please everyone.  You will be criticized.  Don’t worry about it.
  5. Don’t imitate your neighbor.  Just be yourself.
  6. Do the things you enjoy but stay free from debt.
  7. Don’t invent problems.  Imaginary troubles are actually harder to bear than real ones (because there’s no imaginary solution.)
  8. Hate poisons the soul so do not carry a grudge.  If someone makes you unhappy, avoid them.
  9. Have many interests.  Go places.  And if you can’t do that, at least read about other places.
  10. Don’t worry about mistakes you’ve made.  Correct them if you can and then move on.  Get over things easily.
  11. Try to help others less fortunate than yourself.  This is one of the biggest steps you can take towards happiness.
  12. Stay busy and involved.  Then you won’t have time to brood over misfortune.

And most importantly, remember that happiness comes not from having what you want but from wanting what you have.

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