Thursday, May 16, 2013


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Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Therapist, Yes/Movie Critic, No

One of the drawbacks of being a therapist is that it makes me hyper-aware of the negative and hurtful aspects of much of life, even when watching a light comedy. Parts of Bridesmaids, for instance, were hard for me to bear. I have many clients who have problems that are so similar to Kristen Wiig's character, Annie, that it was painful to watch.

For those of you who haven't seen the movie, Annie has a relationship with a jerk named Ted, played by Jon Hamm, that consists of little more than sex and only when it's convenient for Ted. This type of relationship is all that Ted wants, but, though Annie puts up with it, it isn't satisfying for her. Take a look at this exchange between the two the morning after one of their nights together:

Ted: You slept over.
Annie: I did.
Ted: I thought that we had a rule against that.
Ted: Just kidding.
Annie: Oh, that's funny. You're funny in the morning.
Ted: I like hanging out with you.
Annie: I love hanging out with you. I think we get along really well. And you're so sexy...
Ted: I know. Look, I just have a lot coming up at work. And I don't want to make promises I can't keep.
Annie: We're on the same page. I'm not looking for a relationship right now either, let's just say that. Whatever you want, I can do. I like simple, I'm not like the other girls who would be like, "Be my boyfriend!" Unless you were like, "Yeah!" Then I'd be like, "Maybe."
[They hug tightly and he kisses her deeply. The he lets her go. Stares at her...]
Ted: Wow, this awkward. I really want you to leave but I don't know how to say it without sounding like a dick.

There's no hiding that Annie and Ted aren't "on the same page." He doesn't even want to see her in the morning, and she wants him to be her boyfriend ("maybe"). So why does Annie pretend that they are on the same page? As a therapist, I found Annie's understated desperation and humiliation excruciating. Also, as a therapist, I found this scene too true. This post will address the age-old question that Annie's plight raises—why do bright and attractive women put up with such "dicks"?

This question can be answered, at least in part, by looking at the interaction between a woman in Annie's state of mind and a man with Ted's personality. Annie is desperate to be in a relationship, and Ted is totally self-centered. This combination places the woman at high risk of being taken advantage of in the relationship. The more desperate a woman is, the more likely she is to be attracted to a jerky narcissist. This is analogous to the problem of going to the grocery store when hungry: the hungrier you are, the more prone you will be to buy junk food that will be a quick fix for your cravings.

It is easy for all of us to recognize why a Big Mac is appealing when we are starving, but it is less obvious to see why a woman who is longing for a loving and kind man would fall for a selfish, inconsiderate guy. I can begin to make some sense of this by looking at the relationship my old neighbor Cosmo had with his car.

Every night I would come home to find Cosmo making love to his car. At least that is the best way to describe what he was doing. He would wash it, and wax it, and then work his way under the hood in a way that was nothing short of an act of love. Then one night, I came home and he was doing what he always did, but it was a different car. He asked me what I thought. I told him, "It's beautiful, but where's your car?" He said, "I got rid of it, and this is my new car." I felt terrible for his old car and exclaimed, "But I thought you loved that car!" He looked at me like I was a touchy-feely weirdo and said, "I did love that car, but it was getting old, so this is my new one."

If you think about it, he did love his old car, but it's a selfish type of love. That is, he loved it for what it did for him. He had no interest in its thoughts, feelings, or wishes. If he wanted to drive to a ball game and the car wanted to drive to a movie theater, he wouldn't stand for it. I'm getting silly, but you get the point. This kind of selfish love is appropriate for an object but does not work well with people.

When something (or someone) is the target of this selfish love, that love is very intense. Cosmo was really into his cars. Remember, every night he would make love to it. When I get a new golf club, I want to show it off to all of my friends and take great care of it. However, when it is not the target of desire, it is out of sight and out of mind. At the end of the golf season, my wonderful new club goes in the basement and I don't think about it until spring.

So, if you're that woman who badly wants to be in a relationship and a jerk-in-good-guy's-clothing is intensely being attentive to you, it is easy to mistake his attention as a genuine interest in you and not a self-centered attempt to satisfy his desires. For a woman who is "hungry" to be with a guy, a self-centered man is the Big Mac of relationships. Annie's response to Ted in Bridesmaids is a great case in point. Presumably, the night before the scene described above, Ted was acting loving and attentive to her. Annie's desperation set her up to think "maybe he really is into me" and overlook the red flag that signified "booty call."

The way to avoid falling into this trap is to pay close attention to the little voice in the back of your head that is whispering "something is wrong with this picture." This is not always easy to do. When you badly want to be in a relationship and the guy is professing his love, or at least his interest in you, it is hard to remain objective and exercise the self-control necessary not to fall into the same trap as Annie.

Furthermore, the situation is even more difficult when the guy's desire to be in a relationship is as great as the woman's, causing him to believe the declarations of love that he is making. That is, despite what many women believe, all men are not as self-centered as Ted. Of course, predatory men do exist, but I believe they are the exception. My male clients long for satisfying long-term relationships as much as my female clients do. Unfortunately, while a woman's insecurities put her at risk of being taken advantage of, the combination of a man's longing to be in a relationship and the effects of testosterone can make a good guy act more self-centered than his normal disposition. In the dance of life, whether you lead or follow, both men and women are equal participants.

In the short run, it's a lot more fun to give in to temptation and ignore the part of you that is being a buzzkill and telling you that you should exercise restraint—I’m sure that Annie enjoyed her night of being the center of Ted's world. But in the long run, the price that you pay is feeling bad about yourself and feeling used and taken advantage of. If you're trying to determine if the guy is a keeper or a jerk, you get a lot more good intel when you set limits out of respect for what you think is right than when you go along with his advances despite your reservations. It's a good sign if you can say, "I had a great time last night." It's a better sign if you can say, "I still feel great" the next day. If you haven't seen Bridesmaids I don't want to spoil the ending, but suffice it to say that the movie ended with Annie feeling great, and the angst that I experienced in the beginning was gone.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The Continuum

My last post about Joe and Gina shows a classic example of opposites attracting. Joe was an outgoing guy who needed to be the center of attention, and Gina played the role of Joe’s sidekick. She was content to be behind the scenes and did everything in her power to avoid having the spotlight on her. They came to counseling when their respective roles had become too extreme—Joe had become too self-centered and Gina had become, in a sense, invisible—but when they finished counseling, they were living “happily ever after” with their respective roles intact. Their personalities didn’t change. Joe was still outgoing and extroverted while Gina remained quiet and reserved, but Joe had “stretched” his personality in such a way that he gave more consideration to Gina’s feelings and Gina became more assertive permitting her personality to come out.

In this post I want to begin to look at some of the forces that bring people together and the bonds that keep them together—for good or ill. This topic is so huge that this post will barely scratch the surface, but I believe that a good starting point is looking at the way in which people get their needs met in relationships.

You old folks like me may remember that in the 1970s and 1980s assertiveness training workshops were extremely popular.  They had a great way of conceptualizing the manner in which men and women get their needs met. The most common participants in assertiveness training workshops were women like Gina who wanted to become more forceful and get their voices heard more effectively, but the concepts are relevant not only to meek women, but to overbearing men too, and everyone in between.

This model shows that the manner in which people get their needs met can be thought of as being on a continuum with the two ends being unhealthy or dysfunctional and the middle representing a healthy range:

The people on the right get their needs met by respecting their own wants, wishes needs and desires while disrespecting the needs of others. This is a working definition of self-centered behavior:


Although there are exceptions to the rule, men, more than women, tend to fall into the self-centered category. There is a range of personalities and behaviors that comprise this group. At first glance it may sound odd, but a lot of the people who fit this definition of self-centered are quite popular and a lot of fun to hang around with. Joe is an example of this. He was a great guy with many friends and, as Gina described, he was the life of the party. The negative aspects of his personality only showed up in his marriage, his most intimate of relationships.

Of course, the self-centered category also includes people whom everyone would agree have personality problems. This would include the selfish—“C’mon, I’m only on three softball teams and you can come watch”—the alcoholic—“what difference does it make when I get home? You’re asleep anyway”—the narcissist—“it pisses me off that you’re having your period when I want to have sex”—the abuser—“I wouldn’t have gotten so mad if you had listened to what I said”—and a myriad of other people who need to have power and control in relationships.

The people on the left side of the continuum are the opposite of self-centered. They are selfless to an unhealthy degree. They get their needs met by showing respect to the wants, wishes, needs, and desires of others while showing disrespect to their own needs:


The majority of people who fit the description of selfless are women. This does not mean that men are immune from giving to others at their own expense but, in general, selflessness—giving more than you get—is an issue that women struggle with. Everyone tends to like these women and the bonds they form with one another create strong, BFF-type relationships. However, when they connect with Alpha males (and females!) they, sooner or later, feel “used and abused.” At first glance, it may seem that putting the needs of others before one’s own needs is a positive trait. However, when it crosses a line and the person finds herself being taken advantage of or treated like a doormat it is no longer a virtue.

Although the label that is most frequently given to selfless people is co-dependent, I think that we can come up with several subtypes. There is the people-pleaser—“don’t worry about me. As long as you’re happy, I’m happy”—the self-sacrificer—“no, no you take the chair. I’m fine right here on the floor”—the mother hen—“stay right where you are. I’ll get your plate ready”—the I-need-a-boyfriend-or-I’m lost—“the reason that I’ve come to therapy is that I don’t have a boyfriend”—and the victim—“I shouldn’t have disturbed him. He’s been under a lot of stress lately.”

I saw something apropos to the people who fall on the selfless side of the continuum on the Discovery Channel. I learned that every animal that has eyes on the side of its head—squirrels, mice, and rabbits, to name a few—are always, in nature, somebody else’s lunch. These are nature’s victims. If we stopped and talked to one of them, “Mrs. Rabbit, how are you today?” She would answer, “Well there is a fox over there and he’s smacking his lips and there’s a hawk flying overhead and there is a hunter in the distance with a rifle.” In other words, nature’s victims base their sense of wellness on what others are doing. Similarly, if you ask a co-dependent woman how she is doing, she’ll answer in terms of how the people in her life are doing—“I’m great. Tom was in a good mood all weekend and Danny got to school on time without me waking him up and Kristin found the most wonderful dress for the prom.”

Returning to the continuum and the question of what attracts people to one another, we always marry someone the same distance from the middle as ourselves. This isn’t always opposites attracting. Two people who reside on the right side of the continuum can become a couple. Their relationship will tend to be passionate and their conflicts will tend to be heated. While two people who reside on the left side can also become a couple. Their relationship will tend to lack passion and they’ll describe themselves as “never arguing” but not really happy. But, as often as not, opposites do attract. Joe and Gina are a good example of that.
When a relationship falls within the healthy range:
The relationship is well functioning and stays in balance. It has the potential for a “‘'til death do us part” life expectancy. The person on the left does not get taken advantage of and the person on the right is respectful of his (or her) partner. Incidentally, in this arrangement, the person on the left is the quintessential mother. She would be described as loving, compassionate, and nurturing.  While the person on the right has the personality that is made for rising through the corporate ranks, he is an ambitious go-getter.

When a relationship falls outside the healthy range problems are inevitable:


The people who come to therapy most frequently are women who are feeling unhappy, overwhelmed, and unfulfilled as the result of living life on the left side of the continuum. They give and give and give and don’t get much in return. Often they report that they know that they are getting the short end of the stick in their marriage or relationship but feel powerless about doing anything about it. Other times, even though it is clear that they give far more than they get, they report that they are happy in their marriages—“Bill is a great guy, he is just very busy with work and under a lot of stress”—but they report they are suffering from depression. Many people in our post-Prozac era find it too threatening to acknowledge marital dissatisfaction but are comfortable with attributing their unhappiness to genetics and a chemical imbalance.

With regards to the people on the right side of the continuum, they tend not to come to counseling on their own volition. Rather, they seek help when their partner has had enough and forces couples counseling. Or these types come when their self-centeredness has gotten them in hot water. All of the “boys will be boys” types of problems like extramarital affairs and alcoholism fall into this category.

Once in therapy, the goal is to get the self-centered to be more mindful of their partners’ wants, wishes, needs, and desires and to get the selfless to show respect for their own wants, wishes, needs, and desires. Joe and Gina sought help when their marriage was in a state of crisis. The trick was to help Gina gain—and, importantly, maintain—a sense of empowerment and to help Joe find a way to be comfortable when sharing the limelight.
In therapy Gina was able to identify the fears and anxieties that made her comfortable staying in the background, and with Joe’s help and support, she addressed these fears and developed behaviors that allowed her to get her fair share of attention. Similarly, Joe became aware of the insecurities that drove him to be the center of attention, and with Gina’s help and support, he developed the confidence to share the stage with her and he learned to place value on being sensitive to Gina’s feelings. To their credit, they pulled it off beautifully. At last report, their marriage was on track and their relationship was thriving.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Joe and Gina

As a couples therapist and matchmaker, the most overriding questions that I deal with concern the nature of relationships. These questions include: Why is someone attracted to one person but not another? What makes a relationship successful? Why do some people seem to have all the luck while others never seem to be able catch a break? Similarly, why do some people keep repeating the same mistakes? And why do so many people stay in relationships that have clearly gone south? This entry, and for that matter all future entries, will be taking a look at these questions.

Theories abound about these questions. The aforementioned "some people have all the luck" theory is popular with country–western singers. Astrologers believe that the answers are the result of the alignment of the sun, the stars, and the moon. Ancient Romans held Cupid and his arrows responsible. Many psychoanalysts attribute theories of love and attraction to an unconscious search for a mother's (or father's) love. I, too, have my own thoughts on the subject.

Unfortunately and predictably, I cannot share all my thoughts on this topic in a single blog entry. I have thus decided to write a series of entries, beginning with this one, devoted to the question of what brings couples together and what keeps them together—for better or for worse. Now, let me introduce you to Joe and Gina, a married couple and former clients of mine who can show us a lot about the rules of attraction.

It would be an interesting exercise if we could somehow see a videotape of a married couple's first date. I bet that we could see the seeds of what would develop into the relationship's strengths and weaknesses. Joe and Gina, a couple whom I saw in marriage counseling many moons ago, are my favorite illustration of this. They were a couple in their mid-thirties who sought help because Gina was very unhappy in the relationship and contemplating divorce. Several weeks into the therapy they mentioned something about the night they had first met. I hadn't heard this story so I asked them about it.

They told me that they had met at a party at a mutual friend's house. Gina said that they clicked right away. I asked what the attraction had been and Gina said that during the party she had been drawn to Joe because he had been the funniest person she had ever met. She went on to say that he started talking about his work and told story after story about what he did at work and whom he worked with. Then he talked about his family and all of his crazy aunts and uncles. Then he talked about high school and all of the antics the he and his buddies pulled. She concluded by saying that she had laughed so hard between 8:00 and midnight that her side hurt and she had just about wet her pants.

Bear in mind that I knew these people fairly well, so when she was finished I pointed out that they hadn't even been on a date at this time but I wondered by the end of the evening what they knew about each other. Gina said, "What did I know about Joe? I knew a ton about him. I knew where he worked, who he worked with, what he wanted to do with his career, where he grew up, the constellation of his family, where he went to high school, the names of his high school friends, and the activities that he participated in."

So I asked Joe what he knew about Gina. Joe was very clever and he didn't miss a beat. He said, "By the end of the party I knew three things, "I knew that I loved the sound of her laugh, the shape of her ass, and I also knew her telephone number." When Gina heard that, she got an incredible "aha" look on her face and said that she now understood things in a way that she had never understood before. She said, "That night was fifteen years ago and I now see that all of the issues that have me in a marriage counselor's office contemplating divorce were present at the party. Joe was a self-centered son of a bitch who only thinks of himself that very first night when I fell for him." She added that she could also see how her opinion of his stories had evolved from finding them amusing to finding them obnoxious.

Although I was glad that Gina had developed some insight into Joe's personality and her marital problems, in order for counseling to be beneficial, people must have insight into their own problematic behavior. So the next question that I asked her was what I considered to be the most important. I asked her what she would have done if Joe had stopped himself and said, "What's the matter with me? I'm monopolizing the conversation. Tell me who you are, what you think, what you believe." Gina said, "What would I have done? I would have excused myself ASAP to see if the hostess needed help in the kitchen. I would have been so uncomfortable."

As we talked about this in the counseling, it became clear that Joe dealt with his issues and insecurities by needing to be like Johnny Carson (remember, I saw Joe and Gina years ago). What was less clear was whether Gina needed to be like Ed McMahon or the audience. Ed, as you will recall was always there to back up Johnny and never was the center of attention himself while the audience was always present, but for all intents and purposes, was invisible.

This anecdote serves as a great illustration of the way in which people's personalities blend together to form a relationship, but we still don't have any answers to the questions raised at the beginning of this entry. Clearly, Joe and Gina had an opposites attract thing going. But why did Joe need to be the center of attention and be with someone who found him funny? And why did Gina need to keep herself out of the limelight, and why didn't she find it odd that she and Joe had spent hours together and he hadn't asked any questions about her? These are the types of questions that future entries will be looking at.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Listen to the Robot—Don't Settle for Mr. or Ms. Wrong

Holding out for the ideal mate is crucial to attaining a truly satisfying and enduring relationship. It's never a good idea to settle for less when it comes to love. When you can't find the person who's right for you, dating gets tiresome and discouraging. It's easy to lose hope that you'll ever find the right person, but that's no reason to settle for someone who is not your Mr. or Ms. Right.

Dating is no exception to life's rules. When I was first out of grad school, I thought that I was hot stuff because the agency I worked for offered me a starting salary of $12,000 and I was able to talk them into $12,500. Even in those days, that wasn't much money. I was able to manage, but I didn't have much left over at the end of the month and I certainly didn't have anything extra to spend on clothes. Wearing the same thing day after day bugged the hell out of me. In grad school I was able to get by at my internship with a blue blazer and a couple of ties, but working full time at an agency in the Loop was a different story. I was painfully aware that my one sport coat wasn't cutting it. One day at lunch I passed a men's store with a big sign in the window, "Lost Our Lease. Everything Must Go. Prices Slashed." I went in and found a beautiful tweed coat that fit great and was going for a fraction of the original price. I didn't particularly like the lapels, but the deal was too good to pass up. I took it home, put it on, and showed my girlfriend (who now happens to be my wife). She looked at me, looked at the lapels, looked back at me, and then asked me with a tone of disbelief, "What's with the lapels?" My heart sank. I was crushed and was never able to bring myself to take the coat out of the closet again.

I wouldn't exactly say that I learned this lesson at the school of hard knocks, but that is how I learned the hard way to hold out for what you really want. Settling for less brings heartache and grief. The goofy thing is that people tend to apply this principle to the mundane aspects of life but not to something as important as love. It kills me when I'm talking to a guy who describes the lengths that he undertook to find the ideal fishing reel or the woman who shopped for hours to find the shoes that were a perfect match for her new purse, but are willing to overlook traits in their partners that they don't like.

The response that I usually get when I point this out is "but nobody's perfect." Hold on with that one. Is the guy's fishing reel perfect? Maybe it's not perfect, but it is the ideal for what he was looking for. I know that to a fisherman a good rod and reel is invaluable, and who could argue with the value of the right shoes, but let's put this in perspective. We shouldn't have a higher standard for sports equipment or fashion accessories than we do for someone whom we could potentially marry and spend the rest of our lives with.

Once people move beyond the "nobody's perfect" concern, they often worry that they are being too fussy. This is the point where I often hear friends and family quoted. For example, many a well-meaning, but anxious, mother has been known to exclaim, "You're never going to find anyone if you're going to be so picky." It's easy to understand the anxiety that would prompt this statement, but nevertheless, it is not a good message.

Not only can pressure from friends and family and pressure that you put on yourself cause you to settle for the wrong person, it can also make you overlook flaws with the rationale that you are setting too high a standard. (BTW, psychologically speaking, the mechanism of overlooking flaws or minimizing their importance is denial. That's the same defense mechanism that permits the alcoholic to declare that his/her drinking isn't that big of a deal.") Many people at this juncture echo the concerns of the mother's statement from above. they declare that the person they are seeing is "really a good person" and question whether they are nitpicking by being hung up on seemingly trivial things. Being too fussy is rarely the problem. If you're at a restaurant and you don't like the gazpacho, you're not being too fussy. The soup is not right for your palate. To overlook this fact would be disrespectful to your own unique, personal taste.

Let's talk about a rule that I like to call "if it gets under your skin then it's a big deal." When you have an under-your-skin reaction to something, it almost certainly indicates that the offending trait is symptomatic of a larger issue. Having the confidence to respect your gut reactions is a sign of a high self-esteem. Stating "I'm being superficial" is a put down to yourself and it ignores what your guts are trying to tell you. This is an easy trap to fall into because the offending trait can, at first, seem trivial. Typical examples of things that seem minor but may represent a significant problem include being turned off by your date's car, clothes, or haircut. I believe that it's crucial that you trust yourself enough to recognize that if these things grate on you they are the tips of much bigger icebergs.

Laura, a client of mine, found herself in this situation. Despite being attractive and having a great personality her well had run dry in the dating department. She'd been very excited about a new prospect that she'd met on He met all of her specs—he was good looking, had a good career, and their predate Internet banter had been going well. However, when I saw her after their date, the first words that poured out her mouth in utter exasperation were, "He drives a Yugo!" Of particular note was the next statement that Laura, an Audi owner made, "I wish I weren't so superficial. What difference does it make what car he drives?" I felt that the comment was way off base. I don't believe that I or anyone else who knows her would ever consider her to be superficial. Yet, this is where she landed and she was really kicking herself.

When I was able to get her to stop berating herself and take a more objective view of her date, she was able to identify things that she had noticed on some level but had not fully appreciated the signifcance of. That is, his economic choice of vehicle was part of a pattern (tip of the iceberg) that ran throughout his life. The highlight of a recent trip to Europe had been the deal he got on a hotel room; his greatest source of pride concerned his ablity to find bargains that were "better than Costco"; and he showed their waiter his appreciation with a nine per cent tip. There is nothing wrong with this man's frugality (although the lousy tip really is pretty cheap), but it is not right for Laura. I believe that her ability to accept her true feelings is a sign of self-respect and a high self-esteem. Her Superman will almost certainly buy his cape at Nordstroms.

This post is already way longer than I had intended but I would be remiss if I didn't make connections between my advice on dating and something was a part of my childhood, the 1960s TV show, "Lost In Space." Way before I had heard of Freud or Jung, I was painfully aware of  Dr. Zachary Smith. You folks of my generation may recall that Dr. Smith was the lead scientist on the Jupiter 2, the spaceship occupied by the Robinson family and crew on "Lost In Space." The show was about the Robinsons et al. who were, as the name states, lost in space, trying to get back to earth. The way that I remember it, there was a formula that was repeated every week. Each episode would begin with the ship landing on a strange planet where all of the capable, competent adults, i.e. all of the adults but the loathsome Dr. Smith, had a job to do repairing the ship. 

This left nine year-old Will Robinson with nothing to do. He would ask his mother if he could go with Dr. Smith to explore the planet. It should be noted that Dr. Smith was a weasley, cowardly guy who couldn't help but cause problems wherever he went. I'm not sure what Will's mother was thinking but she would let Will go off with Dr. Smith under the condtions that they promise not to go too far and that they take the robot with them for protection. Everybody who ever saw the show remembers the robot. He was this big lovable guy who would start flapping his accordion-style arms when he got excited. Off the three of them would go and before long the robot would stop short and start flapping those arms, shouting, "Danger. Danger Will Robinson. Danger!" Will would ask, "What is it? What is it?" To which the robot would respond, "Does not compute. Need more data." This meant that he didn't have enough information to know the exact nature of the danger, but nevertheless, his sensors were telling that there was a problem.
I believe that we all have something inside us analogous to the robot. Call it gut feeling or a hunch. Ladies, you can call yours "women's intuition." Regardless of what you call it, you must pay attention to it in order to avoid having weird aliens enter your life.

Everybody deserves a shot at true love. Don't get me wrong, once you find Mr. or Ms. Right there is still a lot of work that needs to be done to make the relationship work. A successful relationship doesn't simply happen automatically. But in order to give yourself a chance of finding the right partner for you, you have to hold out for the right person. He or she is out there. Keep your sights high.