I am thrilled to have another contribution as part of the conversation going on in the Kindness Community, A Word Imagined, from Dr. Jeff M. Christian about how we can all grow a healthier discourse in our online communities. His thoughts offer some creative ways to cultivate a kinder experience that makes space for a healthier, healing discourse in our society. Thank you, Jeff, for your insights:
The New Dinner Table
Only about an hour before company arrives. The smells of onions and garlic are starting to permeate the rest of the house beyond the kitchen, smells that will hit the guests the minute they cross the threshold of the front door. By that time, the food will have magically transformed from separate ingredients into whole courses.
The table is set. You went through the stacks in the cabinet to make sure that you did not bring out one of the chipped plates. The glasses, forks, knives, spoons. The bread in the oven will not finish baking until five minutes after the guests arrive. That is on purpose. Everything is in its right place.
The guests arrive. You shake hands, perhaps a cordial hug shared among those who do not know one another quite well enough to embrace. These are not the kinds of guests like family where you let down your guard. These guests have never seen you on a bad day. They do not know about some of the pain you carry down deep. For now, handshakes and side hugs will do.
A Season of Handshakes and Side Hugs
I am wondering these days if a season of handshakes and side hugs might be in order, in some sort of general sense. The tone of voice with one another online, for instance, is more like that of a dysfunctional family forced to eat Thanksgiving dinner together when no one actually wants to be there. Comments sections of online news stories are filled with drunk uncles who yell more and more as the night wears on. Raised voices fly above the table cloth only a few inches above the appropriately placed fall colors and side dishes. Grandma makes a passing comment about the price of her prescription medication and three-sheets-to-the-wind-uncle verbally pounces on her for saying something that may have the potential to undermine all of western democracy.
I know things are strange. In no way do I suggest that we bury our heads in the sand. On the contrary, past civilizations thrived in times of healthy debate. When people think critically together, lights come on where people wind up saying things like, “Well, I never thought of it that way.” Civil discourse is not only necessary; it is good. It is healthy. It is, well, civil.
The only way to resurrect the corpse of civil discourse is to hit the pause button on the entire project and practice some recently forgotten virtues. We need to welcome one another like acquaintances spending time together for the first time, like people who will take the time to actually get to know one another. We need to set our tables assuming the best in others, rather than holding those who might potentially disagree with me in suspicious contempt.
Most of all, we need to listen to one another.
When triggered, we feel exposed and experience painful emotional and physical symptoms:
- Increased body temperature – a warm flush or even a “hot flash”
- Heaviness in the chest – perhaps to the point of feeling anxious and panicky
- Poor eye-contact and hesitant speech patterns
- Body minimizing posture – trying to hide shape of body or look invisible
- Low energy levels – work hard to excel and feel exhausted most of the time
Shame Resilience researcher, Brené Brown, has studied the impact of shame for more than a decade. In her TED Talks, “The Power of Vulnerability” and “Listening to Shame,” she shares how to create resilience that move us through the experience of shame toward deeper connection and “whole-hearted” living.
In the clip below from “Oprah’s Lifeclass,” Brown says people who have “high levels of shame resilience” — meaning they can acknowledge and move through shame — have a few things in common. We can follow their lead by taking these three steps:
- Talk to yourself like you talk to someone you love. “I would say to myself, ‘God, you’re so stupid, Brene,’” Brown says. “I would never talk to my kids that way.”
- Reach out to someone you trust.
- Tell your story. “Shame cannot survive being spoken,” Brown says.
I have noticed there seems to be way too much advice about relationships. If you struggle in your relationship, the conflicting opinions can feel frustrating and overwhelming. John Gottman’s recent article, “Debunking 12 Myths About Relationships,” is a helpful resource in sorting through advice that is actually helpful from the advice that causes harm. Over the past 30 years, John Gottman has studied extensively the practices that actually makes relationships thrive.
“I’ve found many myths about relationships that are not only false but potentially destructive. They are dangerous because they can lead couples down the wrong path, or worse, convince them that their marriage is a hopeless case. The notion that you can save your relationship just by learning to communicate more sensitively is probably the most widely held misconception about happy marriages, but it’s hardly the only one.” (John Gottman, Debunking 12 Myths About Relationships)
Check out John Gottman’s article by clicking on this link: Debunking 12 Myths About Relationships
I often walk alongside couples struggling to understand what happened to the love they shared early on in their relationship. I find it comforting to know that all couples go through times of disorientation and that moving through this experience together can actually foster deeper love. Michael Fulfiler’s article “The 3 Phases of Love,” explains the transitions that promote growth in love relationships. The good news is that times of conflict and turbulence is a common experience for all couples:
What do you do if you love your partner, but you are no longer in love with your partner? Does the feeling of love transform or change over time? In his new book Principa Amoris: The New Science of Love, Dr. John Gottman explains that there are actually three natural phases of love. His research has shown that being in love is a very complex experience, and he has identified choice points in the life course when love may either progress to a deeper place, or deteriorate. (excerpt from The 3 Phases of Love)
For more, click on this link: The Three Phases of Love
If the title of this blog resonates with you, know that you are not alone. Many couples are currently navigating how to adapt to new technologies in a way that balances with their relationships. I have personally pondered this issue for a long time in my own experience with my husband. Our relationship began long before the advent of emails and texting. Like most couples in America, we acquired our first smartphones several years ago. We were thrilled at the ease of instant availability and connection. Then, our relationship subtly began to change. Often after a long day at work, we found ourselves mindlessly checking texts, playing a game, or messing with Facebook. We started to notice moments of irritation and even sadness seeping into our time together. What was happening? There was nothing wrong with playing a harmless game or checking work emails, so why did we find ourselves feeling frustrated with each other?
Around that time, I listened to a podcast where Sherry Turkle described the new challenges devices bring into the interactional patterns between partners, as well as parents and children. My husband and I began to take notice of the subtle impact our phones had on our interactions. We were not as attentive to each other, a little distracted, during down times and unstructured moments. We decided to experiment with ways to balance our technologies within our relationship in a way that protected the closeness we desired.
What are interactional patterns in relationships?
An interactional pattern happens when we make “bids” for connection, and those bids are either received or missed by our partners. A successful interaction happens when partners are emotionally responsive to each other’s bids. These unsuccessful interactions, these “missed bids,” begin to create little nagging insecurities and uncertainties about the relationship that can build over time.
What is a bid?
“Bids” are the active ingredient in a relationship. Gottman shows how people make bids in the fine grain of everyday life, often without knowing they are doing it: “Did you hear about…,” or “You’ll never guess what my sister told me today.” Much is happening all the time in the form of these signals that partners are often unaware they are sending. These signals—these bids—are nonverbal as well as verbal: a wink, a smile, a shoulder rub, a gentle shove, or a mutual look of understanding about a friend’s quirks. What matters, Gottman suggests, is not depth of intimacy in conversation, or even agreement or disagreement, but rather how people pay attention to each other no matter what they talk about or do. What matters is the quality of attention.” (Dan Wile, 2010)
What is emotional responsiveness and why is it important?
According to Sue Johnson, the key indicator of a secure bond is the presence of emotional responsiveness. In essence, emotional responsiveness is the ability to respond to our partner’s bids for connection. We need to know that our significant other is available and willing to be there when we need them. A useful tool to understand emotional responsiveness is the acronym A.R.E:
Accessibility – Can I reach you? Are you there for me?
Responsiveness – Can I rely on you to respond to me?
Engagement – Do I matter to you? (Johnson, 2008)
The fabric of our relationship is built on a consistent flow of checking in, often in tiny unstructured moments. Is my partner accessible? Can I count on him/her to be there when I need them? Do I matter? Our devices can impede the interactional flow between bids for connection and emotional responsiveness. We miss the subtle shifts in tone and nonverbal facial gestures that offer vital information. Relational interactions get out of sync when bids for connection are missed. Over time partners experience missed bids for connection as indifference and may stop bidding altogether. Multitasking connection can lead to disaster. Relationships thrive on full presence.
Smartphones are not going anywhere, and they serve many important functions in current life. However, I am reassured that my husband and I are not alone in navigating this new relationship with technology. Over the past couple of years, research has validated the potential problems that phone use can create with our emotional responsiveness to the people we love.
The most recent issue of Psychology Today explored some of the current challenges couples and families are facing in relationship with their technological devices; technoference, Iphone Effect, Absent Presence:
- Technoference (term coined by Sarah Coyne) – 70% of couples report that face-to-face conversations were stopped in their tracks by partner’s phone use or even active texting.
- IPhone Effect (term coined by Shalina Misra): The mere presence of a smartphone degrades private conversations making partners less willing to disclose their deep feelings and develop understanding.
- Absent Presence (term coined by Kenneth Gergen): smartphones fragment human consciousness and lower quality of conversation. The diminished empathy comes about through our habitual use of devises. Communication becomes marked by delayed responses and lack of eye contact. The rhythms of responsiveness and synchronicity of feelings degrades. What comes across is indifference. (Psychology Today)
How can I create balance between my relationships and my devices?
Smartphones may pull our attention, but we can implement changes that create the balance and closeness we desire. In my own relationship, we have found that it is essential to maintain awareness between the use of our phones and our ability to be available to each other. We continue to negotiate changes as needed any time we notice we are out of sync in our relationship or with our children.
I have also taken some time to talk with friends and family about their own challenges with balancing their relationships and technologies. I have learned some terrific ideas of things to try:
- Implement “cell free” zones at family meal times, running errands, and coffee time. My husband and I love our “cell free” coffee time every morning. We start off the day connected and in sync.
- Tech Sabbath (http://www.onbeing.org/program/tiffany-shlain-growing-up-the-internet/8545) – Take a day off each week from checking emails. Enjoy cooking together, folding laundry with the kids, running to soccer games, etc.
- Vacation responder – Set vacation responder while on vacation to protect the time with your partner/family.
- Airplane mode – A friend of mine who is a medical doctor set her phone on airplane mode during her family vacation. She was able to turn work off and soak in her time with her husband and children. When she turned her phone back on, she was inundated with texts and emails. But, she said it was worth it to be free of distractions and feel connected again with her family.
- One of my friends told me that he exchanged his smartphone for a flip phone for a couple of years. After time at work all day on a computer he wanted to create a break from emails and Facebook at home. He found that his time away from a smartphone now helps him use it when he needs it and set it aside more easily.
A great way to experiment and implement changes is to talk openly with the people you love. Psychology Today has a helpful list of discussion points to get you started on creating balance in a way that best fits your relationship:
- What are your expectations about tech use by your partner and by you?
- Exactly what kind of contact does each partner regard as cheating?
- What is appropriate to disclose about the relationship; about your spouse?
- Do you exchange passwords or not?
- Do you tell your partner whom you are texting?
- When is it okay to be anonymous online?
- What, if any, places in the home are off-limits to electronic devices?
- What are some potential times to set tech free zones?
- What are the rules for the car?
- When is it okay to post photos of your children?
- How much checking on each other is okay?
Some people, friends or coworkers, might not understand why you would turn your phone off or set aside times to be unavailable. That is okay. You are setting a protective boundary around those little moments of emotional connection with the people most precious to you. Remember you are not alone. These technologies are new and all of us are navigating how to adapt in a way that balances our relationships with the precious people in our lives.
Is My Relationship Abusive?
For those that wonder if a relationship is destructive, Leslie Vernick created an “Emotionally Destructive Relationship Quiz” to help create some clarity. At the end of the quiz is a description of how the selected answers match up with different types of destructive relationships.
What if someone I know may be in an abusive relationship?
Getting out of an abusive relationship is not easy. Offer support without judgment of criticism. Let them know that they are not at fault and that they are not alone. Encourage them to get help and respect their decisions.
Check out this helpful resource for friends and family members of those in abusive relationships: Help for Friends and Family
*Safety Alert: Computer use can be monitored and is impossible to completely clear. If you are afraid your internet usage might be monitored, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1−800−799−7233 or TTY 1−800−787−3224.
If you think your friend is in danger, or you want more resources to bring to your friend, help is available 24 hours a day from the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or TTY 1-800-787-3224.
How Can My Church Help?
In a recent article, Churches and Domestic Violence, Chelsie Sargent shared some excellent advice on how churches can be part of the solution for the violence in many families. “As a people called to participate in God’s healing of our world, the church is strategically aligned to be first responders to domestic violence. What would it look like to create a sheltered place where people can share the inner workings of their relationships? How do we develop a safe haven for women (or men) experiencing abuse in their marriage?”
Domestic Violence Resources
Signs of Domestic Violence and Abuse
Create A Safety Plan
Financial Tools for Survivors of Domestic Violence
Help for Abused and Battered Women
Private Online Support Group with Trained Advocates
Sue Johnson’s article, “Losing a Loved One to Porn (and What You Can Do About It)” is an excellent resource for couples wondering if porn has hijacked their physical intimacy and emotional connection. In the article Sue offers tools to recognize a porn addiction and steps toward healing.
In the article Sue Johnson lists the signs and symptoms that indicate compulsive porn use:
Signs and Symptoms of Porn Addiction
- Escalation—increasing amounts of time that a person spends on porn, and/or an increased intensity of the material they view (moving from vanilla porn to hardcore, fetish, or violent porn).
- Withdrawal—becoming restless, irritable, and discontent when porn is not available.
- Dishonesty—lying and keeping secrets about porn use (amount of time, content they view, etc.).
- Disconnection—loss of interest in family, friends, work, and previously enjoyable activities.
- Sexual Dysfunction—loss of interest in real-world partner sex and/or problems with delayed ejaculation (DE), erectile dysfunction (ED), and/or anorgasmia (inability to reach orgasm)
Click on this link to read more: “Losing a Loved One to Porn (and What You Can Do About It)”
I recently had the honor of facilitating a class about healthy relationship practices. During one discussion about the importance of anger as an emotion, we examined how anger in relationships can be detrimental if we are not gentle with those we love. Anger is neither good nor bad. In fact, it is an essential emotion for our health and safety, and part of a healthy human experience. Anger can alert us to unjust treatment, and gives us needed energy to address harmful behavior.
“Negative emotions most likely aid in our survival. Bad feelings can be vital clues that a health issue, relationship or other important matter needs attention. The survival value of negative thoughts and emotions may help explain why suppressing them is so fruitless. Even if you successfully avoid contemplating a topic, your subconscious may still dwell on it.” (Negative Emotions Are Key to Well-Being, Scientific American, 5/1/13)
But anger is not a thinking emotion. Our ability to think clearly is diminished when we are angry. The front part of our brain goes dim. In the midst of conflict we can say and do things we later regret. We can protect our relationship when we first cool down and then seek to understand each another.
Seek to Understand
The goal of conflict in a relationship is to understand each other. The relationship loses when someone has to win. During times of conflict, relationships can actually grow and become stronger when our conversation focuses on understanding and care. If you argue well, it is even possible to feel closer. Unfortunately, people are often more focused on “winning” than understanding. This often occurs when the intensity of the anger becomes greater than the desire to seek meaningful solutions. With this in mind, we need to develop strategies to decrease the intensity of the anger and increase our ability to listen to one another.
Learn to Cool Off
Learning to control your emotions rather than allowing your emotions to control you is an important skill to develop. Instead of allowing your anger to build up until you “explode,” it is more productive to disengage until you are able to think clearly and feel at the same time.
Once both people in an argument have “cooled off,” it is easier to re-engage and reach resolution. Unfortunately, many people want to “finish” the argument immediately, rather than allowing “time-outs” to occur. Frequently, this results in one person pursuing and the other person running away until they feel cornered. When this occurs, the argument often becomes destructive. Remember, in a relationship, you do not have to resolve everything “right now.” It is appropriate to cool off and re-engage when the anger has subsided.
Boundaries that Protect
Creating safety is essential for a relationship to thrive. The behaviors listed below are destructive and will harm the relationship. When we draw the line at these behaviors, we create a foundation that protects and respects the relationship.
- No hitting
- No cursing
- No name-calling
- No yelling
- No throwing
- Stay focused on one issue at a time
Commit to Resolving Issues
It is important to remember that calling a “time-out” does not mean that you never have to talk about the issue again. A designated time needs to be established to re-engage in the discussion. If you do not create a time to return to the discussion, the anger tends to re-emerge in later arguments. “Time-outs” only work if both people are committed to continuing the discussion until true understanding is reached.
A number of communication tools are available to help couples communicate with understanding and care. One of my favorite tools is L-O-V-E Conversations. If you are unable to work through issues without anger dominating your relationship, couples therapy can provide support, as well as healthy alternatives to address conflict.
In the following video, Bruce Muzik uses the metaphor of a game of tennis to illustrate healthy communication skills. His video is informative, witty, and fun to watch. Many of the couples I work with in my therapy practice have found this useful in their efforts to improve their communication skills.
Many of us want “happily ever after” relationships. How can we cultivate relationships that stand the test of time? Many marriage vows are based on commitment to the marriage that includes phrases such as “til death do us part,” and “in sickness and health.” Before marriage we often assume that we all know what “commitment” means. Oftentimes, however many people differ in their opinions about what it means to be “committed” in a relationship. Unless we talk openly about our assumptions, as well as the possible pitfalls that hinder a committed relationship, we can set ourselves up for disappointment.
First, it is important in any relationship to begin by building a healthy foundation that includes protective walls around the relationship. Actively work to build trust, emotional connection, and intimacy with one another. A healthy marriage does not come naturally. It takes investment. A number of resources are available like books, videos, retreats, classes, couple’s counseling, and marriage seminars that offer great tools to cultivate love and also increase awareness of behaviors that damage trust and intimacy.
Second, talk openly about how to protect the walls around the relationship. What are some “red flags” that can alert each partner that the marriage is in need of attention? Talk about how to approach one another when feeling disconnected or taken for granted. If we receive emotional support from someone outside the marriage other than our spouse, cracks begin to form in our walls and weaken the relationship. If it is difficult to approach one another, seek professional help to work through challenges or obstacles together.
Third, talk openly about the potential of temptation outside the marriage. Just because we are committed does not mean that we will not find someone else attractive. This is perfectly normal. How can we protect our relationship when we find someone else attractive, or when someone makes advances on us? Shirley Glass, author of “Not Just Friends,” offers a brief list of suggestions to consider:
- Know that attraction is normal. But just because you feel it doesn’t mean you have to act on it. Being attracted to someone else doesn’t mean you’ve chosen the wrong person. One of the measures of true commitment is that you don’t allow yourself to be pulled away from your priorities by distractions.
- Don’t let yourself fantasize about what it would be like to be with that other person.
- Don’t flirt.
- Avoid risky situations. (Glass, 2004)
Above all, keep communication inside the walls of marriage. If outside support is needed, make it a rule to confide only in someone that puts the marriage first.
In her book, “Not Just Friends: Rebuilding Trust and Recovering Your Sanity After Infidelity,” Shirley Glass has several quizes that offer warning signs that a partner may be on the slippery slope to an affair. The book also offers great insights on how to build healthy walls around the relationship and close cracks or openings that appear.
Quiz: Is Your On-line Friendship Too Friendly?
What are the warning signs that you (or your partner) are on the slippery slope to an on-line affair? Take this quiz and see:
- Do you find yourself coming to bed later at night because you are chatting on-line?
- Do you ever exit a screen because you do not want a family member to see what you are reading or writing to a chat room member?
- Have you ever lied to your spouse about your personal Internet activities?
- Would you feel uncomfortable sharing your Internet correspondence with your spouse?
- Have you ever set up a separate e-mail account or credit cared to carry on personal correspondence with an individual on-line?
- Has your Internet correspondence had a negative effect on your work or household tasks?
- Have you ever lied in response to a question from your spouse about your e-mail correspondence?
- Have you ever exchanged photos of yourself with a secret e-mail correspondent?
- Since beginning a secret e-mail correspondence, have you ever experienced a loss or an unusual increase in sexual desire with your spouse?
- Have you made arrangements to talk secretly on the phone with your e-mail correspondent?
- Have you made arrangements to meet with your secret e-mail correspondent?
Two or more yes answers to questions 1,2,3,4 indicate a potential Internet romance developing. It is time to either share your on-line correspondence with your mate or break off the correspondence and begin to examine how to improve your marriage.
A yes answer to any of questions 5,6,7 indicates you are crossing a boundary from an Internet friendship to an Internet romance. Acknowledge this relationship for what it is about to become and take action to preserve and enhance your marriage.
A yes to questions 8 or 9 indicates you have begun a fantasy romantic relationship with your on-line correspondent. Even if it never moves to a physical stage, this relationship has great potential to damage or destroy your marriage.
A yes to questions 10 or 11 indicates that you have taken positive action toward initiating an extramarital affair. Consider the impact this will have on the marriage and your children and take steps to sort this out with a professional. (Glass, 2004)
A “happily ever after” relationship goes through a number of ups and downs. It takes investment, a willingness to be open, and a good amount of courage. Healthy walls take work and need to be maintained daily in order to grow a life-long relationship.
In his recent article, “The Difference Between Passive, Aggressive, and Assertive Communication,” Guy Harris discusses the impact communication has on the health of relationships. He offers helpful insights into the difference between passive, aggressive, and assertive styles of communication and to create healthier conversations.
“Communication breakdowns are a common cause for conflict, and poor communication strategies can lead to rapid escalation. Likewise, effective communication strategies can help you correct these miscommunications to move conflicts quickly towards resolution.
One idea that can help you choose the best communication strategy for the situation comes from what I call the communication continuum.” (Guy Harris, The Difference Between Passive, Aggressive, and Assertive Communication) Read more….