Count your blessings

Recently I had the most unpleasant experience of being with a mother and her adult daughter (no relation to me) over a period of time. The daughter is an intelligent woman with a family and career of her own. The mother, now over 80 years old, is healthy- and physically and mentally comparable to a person 20 years younger. From the first time I met them, the daughter was critical of pretty much everything her mother said. However, the criticism was not even subtle; it was loud and harsh. When the mother would speak, the daughter would tell her loudly, “No one wants to hear you!” or “You’ve said that a hundred times already!” or “Why are you talking about that now!” The others who were present found the mother witty and charming. We also found the daughter’s hostile outbursts embarrassing to listen to. We reassured the mother that we were indeed interested in what she had to say.

For me, it was particularly hurtful. Although my mother was far from perfect, I always felt that it was my responsibility to act with kindness and respect toward her. After all, she did give birth to me and raise me and despite the negative things she said and did, I loved her. She died much too young and I miss her.

I wanted to say to the daughter, “Count your blessings! Your mother is alive and healthy and independent and completely mentally and physically fit. She is witty and clever and engaging. She has a unique perspective and lots of stories and experiences to share. Someday she will no longer be here and you probably will regret the way you acted toward her. Then, it will be too late to apologize or to make up to her for the pain you have caused her.”

We live with the illusion that life, as we know it, will continue forever, but unfortunately, those we love will not always be here. We need to know that the time we spend with them is precious.

The perils of modern technology

This is a guest post written by my husband. His name is Rabbi Aaron D. Michelson, but you can call him Saba. A lot of people do.

Somewhere I came across the idea that if two terms can be considered opposites then the existence of one of them implies the existence of the other even if only as the absence of the first one. In theology this led to many debates about the nature of evil with some saying that it has a real and palpable existence of its own and others saying that it is merely the absence of good, its opposite.

The same arguments could be held on the subject of intelligence/ignorance. Is ignorance a real force in its own right or is it merely the absence of intelligence. Many have experienced “creative” ignorance so concretely that they would argue for its reality. Similarly we may find that if there exists a class of an item that is called smart there is also a class that is stupid and the stupid class has an existence and a reality equal and opposite to the smart class.

Many of you have “smart” phones which are capable of all kinds of clever tricks and operations which can be helpful to you. ” Where,” you may ask, “are the stupid phones?” Until recently, I might have asked the same question had it occurred to me. This morning at 4:08 AM the answer was thrust upon me. and then for almost two hours it was periodically drilled into my eardrums.

In the past few days I have exchanged text messages with someone who is near and dear to me. At 4:08 AM and ff, that dear person’s stupid phone showed its true colors. Again and again it rang. Bleary eyed I tried to discern a message. None. Perhaps my dear one was in trouble. After two hours I sent a message. Dear one was well. Stupid phone had prevailed. No helpful advice; no cute games; no internet radio or even pictures that know which way is up. Just dumb ringing and if I failed to answer because I had fallen asleep momentarily beep beep beep to remind me that I had not answered the nonmessages that stupidphone had visited upon me.

Yes Virginia, there is a Stupid Phone and it is here among us.

How to break up a marriage

A long time ago my sister had a flirting acquaintance with law school. I was, at the time, studying family therapy. We used to joke that I would break them up and then she would get the cases.

But actually, as a therapist, I always did whatever I could to preserve marriages. No marriage is wonderful all the time. We go through difficult periods individually and as a couple that try our patience, that test our coping skills, that make us wonder why did we ever choose to marry this person. Usually, however, these times pass and some of us go along as we were beforehand and some of us grow through the experience and deepen our relationships and some of us grow further apart.

When a couple consults a family therapist, in my opinion, the therapist should never take the side of either spouse. S/he should take the side of the marriage. Particularly if there are children, the couple has a lot to lose by dissolving their marriage. Of course some marriages can’t be saved and shouldn’t be, but many can and should.

One trap therapists fall into is recommending a “trial separation.” Usually the complaining spouse pushes for it and often therapists decide that it would not be harmful. I disagree.

Imagine that you are in a contentious situation with your spouse. You feel that s/he is overly dominant and you have no breathing room. Or you feel that s/he is overly passive and you have to carry all of the weight of the marriage and family. Now imagine your spouse or you move out of the situation. Suddenly the domination stops. Suddenly it’s not your spouse opting out of the work of the family but his/her not being present. What does it feel like? It is a relief. It’s quiet. There is no contention. You sleep and wake on your own schedule. You eat if you’re hungry and don’t if you’re not. Life is a lot better.

Tell me: how is this supposed to motivate couples to get back together?

There was a period of 4 years when my husband and I lived in two different countries because of work and family obligations. I would visit him for periods adding up to 3-4 months a year and he would visit me for about one month a year. I loved the times when we were together. But the times we were apart were good times too. I liked the freedom of being able to establish my own rhythms and activity patterns. Had our relationship otherwise been problematic, the time that we were apart would have convinced me that it was a good arrangement.

Sure, family life brings strength and love and security. We enjoy the closeness and warmth of being together, working on common goals, sharing experiences together, supporting each other in difficult times. But what if all of that is missing? Then wouldn’t separation be less painful than a problematic relationship? Couples who have gotten to the point that interactions with each other are painful have difficulty picturing warm, close family family relationships.

In the over 30 years I have been a therapist, I have never known of a couple who had a trial separation who ended up working on their marriage.

If the intention is to break an abusive cycle and allow people to get the distance and perspective to realize that they really shouldn’t be together, trial separation is a good idea. Otherwise, it’s a mistake.

Families and honesty

As if I really have to tell you…

The basis of any close loving relationship is honesty. Family members should know that they can count on each other to tell the truth. Children must be able to trust their parents in order for them to feel secure. One way that parents can teach this is to let the children know that even if it means getting into trouble with mom and dad, it is always better to tell the truth. Sometimes we would explain it to our children like this: Suppose I told you that if you act nicely now I will give you ice cream after dinner and then after dinner I say I didn’t really mean it, how would you act the next time I promised a reward? How would it feel if you couldn’t trust me?

My own children were, by and large, pretty honest growing up. I am certain there were some lies and deceptions, but if so, they were not of consequence. I knew I could count on them to tell me the truth and they knew they could count on me to take them seriously.

In fact, once we had a babysitter that one of my children didn’t like. The child asked me not to have that babysitter again, but wouldn’t tell me why– and I did not call that babysitter again. Only months later did I learn the reason, and it was good that the sitter did not return. Similarly, when there was a problem at school, I always asked the child first to tell me what had happened. I always got a straight story and I always advocated for my children when appropriate.

When our oldest son left for college in Israel, we all still were living in the US. Before he left, he asked me to promise to let him know if anything happened to anyone in the family– illness or other important things he should know. I told him that I would because I knew that if I didn’t assure him that he would know, he could be in a constant state of tension- wondering if everything is OK at home. After all, back then, before mobile telephones and before the university dorms even had hall telephones in them, communications consisted of letters that took between 5 and 10 days to arrive from the US. But it was only because he knew that he could trust me that my answer was reassuring.

Some families are not honest about things like illnesses and other unpleasant information because they want to protect either themselves or others. That can create big problems.

Once we knew a family where a somewhat distant family member died suddenly at 92 years of age. Members of the family decided not to tell one of the older people to spare her feelings. However, a few weeks later there was a wedding to which both would have been invited. How to explain the absence of the deceased family member? Their solution : a trip to Europe. In our family, from then on, “going to Europe” took on a sinister connotation.

In my own family, my mother hid information about my father’s illness that was essential to my sister’s and my health. My mother hid her own illness from her friends, many of whom were like sisters to her. It robbed them of their ability to support her and it robbed her of the support they could have provided.

Bad news is hard to share, but secrets and lies separate people and doing that at a time when love and support are needed is simply a very bad choice.

Pre-Pesach musings

Last time I wrote a serious post, it was about not taking what people say seriously when they are not being rational (throwing a tantrum). This time I want to talk about taking people seriously, because, in fact, most people do.

Sometimes, we take people too seriously. We allow the nasty comment of a stranger ruin our day. We allow the unfeeling statement of a friend or acquaintance to hurt us.

My mother used to say, “consider the source,” meaning that if the person said something nasty or cruel, chances are he/she wasn’t such a nice person to begin with.

On the other hand, we should pay attention to those who are kind and helpful and to people who we can trust.

Many years ago, my dear friend Susan said only a few words to me that changed (for the better, of course) my whole life. From time to time, I run into people I have had as clients and other acquaintances and they tell me that something that I had told them in the past really helped them.

In Pirke Avot, wise people are instructed to be careful with their words– and even those of us who are not wise, should be careful. Words can hurt and words can heal.

And here is the real challenge that we live with: people listen when we speak. When we say something that helps or hurts them, they remember what we’ve said far longer than we do. A word said in anger can ruin a relationship. A kind word can save a life.

So maybe when we’re thinking of cleaning for Passover, when we rid ourselves of even the tiniest crumbs of what is unfit, it’s a good time to think of the impact of what we say and to realize that even the smallest negative remark can hurt someone a very long time and the smallest expression of support can change someone’s life.

But seriously, folks

Back to the real reason I started this blog– this blog that has wandered around the world, engaged in politics, and has told you how I feel about Israel. Back to talking about family relationships…

Let me begin by saying something rather radical that will summarize what I am about to say:

Don’t take people who are upset seriously.
That’s it. Don’t.

OK, Let me go back and talk about it and then you will understand, I hope.

When we are little and non-verbal, our tantrums usually consist of non-stop crying, flailing, and throwing things. As we get a little older, our parents encourage us to express our displeasure in more socially acceptable ways, i.e., talking about it. So, by the age of twenty or so, we (most of us) stop screaming, yelling and throwing things and instead use words to express our displeasure.

So far, so good.

However, it sometimes happens that we use words in the same way as we used our stuffed toy animals and blocks and little train cars–we take them and throw them at others like weapons.

In response, those who love us are hurt, surprised, and often themselves become angry and hurtful.

So here we are. Mature, adult two year olds having a simultaneous tantrum.

Now what happens in tantrum state?

The person who is having the tantrum has two major objectives
1. To get his/her point across.
2. To let the other person/people know how upset he/she is.

In accomplishing the second, often the message of the first is lost. Not only that, but the listeners may actually be less motivated to hear the message as they move to defend themselves and pay back in kind. Which is why most arguments do not end well.

Few people realize, however, that when someone is in tantrum state he/she often loses control of his/her ability to think clearly and may say lots of things that he/she doesn’t mean. Some of those things may have dire consequences.

Take my uncle.

When my cousin was a freshman in college my cousin decided to grow a beard. My uncle did not like the idea of his son having a beard. He tried to cajole him and finally, in a tantrum state, threatened him- telling him that if he didn’t remove the beard, he couldn’t come home.

Do I have to tell you the rest of the story?

It was not a happy story.

Did my uncle mean to lose his son for a long period of time? I strongly doubt it. He just got carried away.

What could have happened instead:
My cousin could have listened to the tantrum. He could have responded calmly or not at all, he could have gotten up and walked away. Chances are pretty good that once my uncle got back in control of himself, he would have still not liked the beard, but might have realized that it wasn’t worth losing his son over it.

Example two:

When I began studying for my doctorate at the University of Pennsylvania at age 42– after having been in clinical practice as a family therapist, I was ambivalent. On the one hand, the idea of getting a doctorate was very exciting. On the other hand, I felt the level of instruction in certain areas was naive and simplistic and since the tuition was high, I wasn’t sure I wanted to make the investment of our family’s resources.

I don’t remember what specifically set me off, but one morning, early in November, before we had received any tuition bills, I got really angry and told my husband that I was dropping out and didn’t want any more part of the nonsense going on at the school and that I could think of a lot of things to do with my time and our money that would be more productive etc. I went on and on. He didn’t answer. I’m pretty sure it was because he didn’t know what to say. But after a while, it just ran down. I was finished and I picked up my books and left for school.

Could it have ended otherwise? Surely. Had he gotten sucked into the tantrum, he would have urged me to continue and I would have dropped out just to show him that he couldn’t control me.

Tantrums do bad things to people.

When I was seeing couples in marital therapy, often what the spouses would complain about was what the other one had said at the height of a tantrum. Usually, the spouse either didn’t remember having said it or regretted saying it. In fact, it was not the spouse speaking from his/her rational mind. It was that reptilian brain that all of us have inside of us. It is that primitive fight or flight mechanism that that springs into action when we begin to feel any sort of threat.

So what should we do when someone we care about starts having a tantrum? Don’t respond in kind. Listen, to the message but don’t take everything he/she says seriously. Really. He/she doesn’t mean half of what he/she is saying. There’s no need for there to be more than one two year old in the room. Not feeding the flames helps extinguish them. And once the person is rational again, maybe the problem can even be solved!

Feeling grumpy!

I am slowly recovering from my jet lag. We left Lima, Peru, at about 9 on Sunday night (Lima time), arrived in Madrid about 2 in the afternoon Monday (Madrid time) and took off again at about 11:50 pm, landing in Israel about 4:30 am on Tuesday– spending two nights on planes. So, I am a bit grumpy. And here’s what’s been really irking me:

Why is it that the woman in front of me on the last plane (the one that took off from Madrid at about midnight) who got onto the plane with her husband had to put on not only her own reading light, but the one beside her ALL NIGHT and proceed to blab with the 60 year old hippie guy with the earrings who stood in the aisle much of the trip talking to her and sounding like nothing so much as an overconfident teenager?

OK, I know there’s no good answer, but really people, isn’t it time that we grew up and started thinking about others? I mean, I understand that people want to do what they want to do, but at the expense of others? I mean I wouldn’t go and stand outside her window in the middle of the night and have a loud conversation. I wouldn’t take a flashlight and shine it in her face. Yes, I could. Yes, there’s no law against it. But is that the world you’d want to live in?

And while I’m grumping… Is it really necessary to push in front of everyone in order to get onto a plane? I seem to recall this thing called assigned seats. Best I can tell, if you have a boarding pass, chances are pretty good you’ve also got a seat. The first people onto the plane are not going to get to the destination any faster than the last ones.

And also, lines. People! Unless you’re having a health crisis, it probably isn’t going to kill you to wait your turn.

Yes, grumpy.

Anger as a motivational tool

It doesn’t work.*

*Really. Believe me. Kindness works wonders. Anger, not helpful. Need I say more?

My husband always…

Hmmm… are you interested in the rest of the sentence? Thought so. I became a family therapist because statements like this intrigued me.

Well, if you must know… the full sentence is “my husband always tells me that he loves me.” Yes, really.

But how many people start that sentence (and yes, it can be “husband” or “wife”) and end it with something not quite so nice?

And we hear things about their spouse that are not complimentary. Sometimes it’s a one time thing, and sometimes people complain repeatedly.

Here’s the problem:

1. The listener is in no position to solve the problem

2. The speaker may be upset temporarily, but the listener may take the complaining to mean that there is real trouble in the relationship.

3. The listener may draw negative and lasting conclusions about the speaker or the spouse.

4. The listener may take the disclosure as permission to complain about his/her own spouse.

Can you see where this is going? It’s not going anywhere good.

When couples have issues with one another, they should be worked out between them. If they find it difficult, there are any number of self-help books, seminars, and yes, therapists to help them.

But please– if you’re angry with your spouse, don’t broadcast it. I can guarantee that it will come back to bite you.

Sisters 2

I wrote about sisters once before– here. I actually enjoyed rereading the post and hope you will too. But today I want to write about a specific issue in the relationship between sisters.

As anyone who is a sister or who has two daughters knows, despite coming from the same genetic pool, sisters can be very different from each other. They can look different.

Ayala (left) and Tamar (right)

Ayala (left) and Tamar (right)

Matan with Lilach (his twin) and Hadas (his older sister)

Matan with Lilach (his twin) and Hadas (his older sister)

And just as they can look very different, they can have different preferences, interests, levels of extraversion, talents, etc. But, just the same, they share so very much that they have the potential of being each others’ best friends through life.

Here’s how.
1. Understand that your sister really is different from you.
2. Understand, though, that there is such a richness in shared ties and experience that your sister can offer you a friendship unparalleled by anyone else.
3. When you have disagreements think about what is at stake.
a. Your pride (you can get over it)
b. Your health and welfare (talk to her about it)
c. Her health and welfare (talk to her about it)
4. Don’t trash your sister to others, whether inside or outside the family. (There are no secrets and this one will come back to bite both of you)
5. And most important: Forgive. Nothing is sadder for a family than being split by the hostility of two of its members.

My sister lives thousands of miles away. I don’t see her nearly as much as I would like. Anyone who met us would tell you that aside from the voices, we have almost none of the same traits. Yet we share a bond that is strong and healthy. It’s one I cherish. Here’s our song.