Take Your Relationship Deeper

Ginger M. Sullivan, MA, LPC, CGP, FAGPA

Individual and Group Psychotherapy

As a child, I knew in my gut that there had to be more to relationship than the superficial. I was born with an ache for the authentic. Enough of the pretend pretty, the looking-good-on-the-outside stuff. Can someone please talk about what is really going on under the surface? I was dying a slow emotional death and finding more sustenance became mandatory. So, I started to search for depth and honesty, a journey of knowing and being known. To the heart, I descended.

I owe the beginning stages of this journey to my good friend from graduate school. The roommate lottery stuck me with Helen – the disciplined woman that went to bed at 9 p.m. and got up at 5 a.m. I went to bed at midnight and got up at 8 a.m. That left me three hours of homelessness. The ugly green couch in the student lounge became my nightly place to plop. The concerned RA took note and small talk ensued. It began with – why you are always sitting there every night at 9 p.m.? Initially, it was gossip about poor Helen. Then it became about my new friend’s dilemma – should she date the nice, boring guy or the fun, crazy one? And then it became about the recent death of my father and why I had moved back to Chicago. And so on. Our talk deepened. During the wee hours, we began to share organically. She revealed her story and I disclosed mine. Fast forward ten months and not only did we become close friends, but she had patiently taught me a thing or two about loosening my grip, melting my walls and learning through experience how to become emotionally intimate with another human being through the back and forth trading of words laced with feeling.

In this article, I offer a description of the layers of verbal and emotional communication.

Like the peeling of an onion, we go from the superficial to the profound, from outer to inner.

Let’s begin the plunge:

Layer 1:  Cocktail Party Conversation

“Hi! How are you?” “Good. And you?” “Good.” “Great. Good to see you.” “You too. Have a great day!” And on we travel through our day. No personal information is revealed. No impact has been made on either party. We have only engaged in a civil, social discourse. But, before we poo-poo its importance, it is the start to human contact. We have put words in the empty space which before divided us. We have acknowledged the other and initiated verbal engagement. After all, relationships must begin with “hello.” Furthermore, we may even feel some vibe which makes us curious and hungry for more. The fun has begun.

Layer 2:  The Outside World

Once we move past the initial hello, we have begun some kind of relationship. Our big toe goes into the water as a potential bond begins to form. Conversation at this level entails subjects outside of us, such as the weather, gossip, sports, politics or current events. Like the first layer, we are still existing primarily in our comfort zone; however, there is a little more personal information revealed. The other party gets some sense of what interests us and what our passions are. We find things we have in common, and if we are paying attention, we might pick up on an energy that is connective. One that evokes our desire to get to know someone at an even deeper level.

Layer 3:  Thoughts, Values and Opinions

At this level of contact, we are sharing with more ownership. We are letting someone in on the foundational principles that define our life’s frame whether they be political, religious or cultural. Such openness means that we have moved into potentially more treacherous waters in that judgment and rejection are now possibilities. Someone might not tolerate our opinions or the values that feel essential to who we are. Someone might discount us or shame us or even, ridicule us. In other words, hurt is now a real prospect. As I get closer to the prize of intimacy, the risk goes up exponentially. Both in terms of the pain I might experience but also the reality that the relationship we are starting to invest in might not survive the additional heat. We go deeper …

Layer 4:  Facts About Me

At this level of relating, we begin to tell our story. We share the significant narratives that have come to identify who we are. Often the telling and re-telling is done from a cognitive, head-space. It is as if I am reporting a series of events outside of me. Yes, you are getting to know the facts about my life which are revealing and relating but not as connective as …

Layer 5:  Feelings About Me

Now ask me how I feel about all those central stories of my life and we got a game-changer. The emotional temperature in the person talking and in the dialogue between the party’s plummets to an emotional and relational intensity. We now have a real possibility for presence, engagement and connection. We have crossed the grand chasm from head to the sacred space of the heart. It is in this place that relationships take root and bloom. That people go from strangers to intimate friends. But sadly, we often avoid this opportunity for such a gift because we fear the risk – the risk of showing you all my best wares – the insides of who I am – and your rejecting or discarding them. Thus, in such resistance, we often miss out on entering the candy shop of life. And just as the image portrays, this is where all the good stuff is. The magical content of poets and musicians, philosophers and artists.

If we are willing to open ourselves up and share what is most raw and real, we likely draw compassion, understanding, care and warmth. We humanize ourselves which attracts other people to us – for what is most personal is also most universal. Our fears, pains, longings and aches are alike. You just couldn’t realize this when I was hiding so well.

Layer 6:  Feelings About You

At the core of human contact, the most intimate I can be with another person, is to tell him/her how I feel about them. The focus shifts from being about me, towards me and in me, to being about how I feel toward you. We stand naked, full-frontal, gazing at the eyes, heart and soul of the person across from us. Talk about risk at its height! Not only might the other not share the same feelings but he/she might not receive the feelings I have to offer. The cards are stacked to either stand tall or fall flat – something I won’t know or experience until I open my mouth and express my feelings toward the other person with my words.

So, how can this new knowledge of progressive communication assist us in our day-to-day lives? 

1. Respect yourself

You are precious. Gold. A trophy. A diva. A dame. A star.

If you really believed that, then you would learn not to reveal your inner life to just anyone. Why? Because they don’t deserve it. They don’t deserve you. You gotta make them earn it. In other words, don’t go diving into the deep end of any available swimming pool. Pace yourself. Because if you jump in and you get hurt from the undetected concrete bottom or the chilly waters or the man-eating shark that is lurking in wait, then you are the fool. You gotta test the water first. So, just put in one toe. How does that feel? Does the person seem interested, available, engaged, willing to share back? If so, stick in an ankle. See how that feels. At any point and time, if you sense danger or limitation, back it on out and take a sunbath until you muster the courage to try again – maybe with someone entirely new. In other words, respect yourself enough to reveal yourself slowly over time … not too quickly and not too slowly … and at each point, assess the other person’s capacity to receive you and reciprocate. Sometimes, you hold hands and walk together into deep waters. And sometimes, one person coaxes the other to come on in, the water is fine. And sometimes, you hit his/her cap and there is no going any further. You must stop there. Johnny might be a great bowling partner or business associate, but that is as much as there is ever going to be.

2. Respect others

No judgment, just disappointment. People bring to the table what they got for now. Accept it.

And, if you are in the mood to be generous and you sense an opening for more, be patient. Revealing one’s inner self is like a stack of cafeteria trays. You can’t get to tray #12 until you have gone through one to eleven. Sometimes, if a safe space is provided over time, people can tolerate swimming in more daring waters. That is what my graduate school friend gave to me and I am ever grateful to her for that. But she didn’t have to. She could have given up at my one-word answers and walled-off heart. And, don’t forget point #1 above – respect yourself. If you find yourself working harder on someone else’s life than they are on their own, it is time to back out. Knocking your head against a wall to try and get water from an empty well – not something I suggest. There are those that can join you in the less superficial waters. You must find them.

3. Tolerate the range

There is nothing wrong with any of the above-mentioned layers of emotional communication.

There is a time and a place for all the layers, no matter how shallow.

We need to learn how to both work a crowd at a party and how to let someone into our innermost world. Having the flexibility to stomach the range is a sign of emotional maturity. So, lighten up. Appreciate the fact that you can go as deep as there is and then back out with a good belly laugh at the silliest of things. Consider yourself one of the lucky ones who can enjoy it all.

4. Shoot for five

Heartfelt intimacy requires much time, effort and conscious intentionality. Therefore, reality precludes you from having more than a few at any given time.

The number of your Facebook friends withstanding, if you have five close, intimate relationships, you are the exception.

If you have less than five, make it a priority. Pinpoint a relationship that has potential and begin to take more risks. Stretch yourself past your comfort zone and go deeper.

So, there you have it, my friends. I’m ready for a swim. You coming in?

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Hope’s Double Edge

Ginger M. Sullivan, MA, LPC, CGP, FAGPA
Individual and Group Psychotherapy

What’s there not to love about hope?

It’s one of those feel-good concepts. Dreaming about a bright light at the end of the tunnel.

In fact, we welcome hope so that we ritualize her into the fabric of our lives. We get to kiss a tired, worn day good-bye and rise to the dawn of an unchartered day … seven days a week, 365 a year. We toot horns on New Year’s Eve and blow candles out every birthday in great anticipation for all the good things we imagine ahead. We birth babies who then carry all our fantasies into their yet-to-be-lived lives. Advertisements bombard us with expectation that this product, this medicine or this opportunity will make us a better, happier, richer or healthier person. And when life kicks us in the teeth, it is often desire for that better day tomorrow that keeps us keeping on.

No question, hope is essential for the survival of the human spirit. Hope is the necessary ingredient for an optimistic future. Without it, we can move to that place of resigned despair that can accompany the darkness of depression and self-destruction. But out of context, hope can be misleading and even harmful. It can prevent us from living life on life’s terms in a present and full manner. Allow me to expound:

Hope without realistic evidence is denial.

Sometimes, the marriage cannot be saved. Sometimes, cancer wins. Sometimes, character flaws carry a poor prognosis. Hanging on to false hope grounds us in denial and stalls the process of accepting reality on reality’s terms. Learning when to keep holding on tightly with both hands clenched and when to pry back our fingers and finally let go … that is one dance we must stumble through in life. And sadly, it does not come with an instruction manual. Hope without action is passivity. It is one thing to dream but it is quite
another to put one’s feet to the fire and make it happen. Hope is not an excuse to do nothing – to sit and to wait as if we have front row tickets to a magic show. But rather, true hope demands hard work, goal-setting and perseverance through fear, risk, criticism and failure. Hope alone can prevent necessary action when it needs to be the fire that fuels it.

Hope, without an honest evaluation of our limitations, is grandiosity.

Let’s face it … I am never going to win an Olympic medal. Never gonna get him to love me again. Never gonna have another baby. Never gonna erase the mistakes of my past. There are some things, many things, that are not within my reach. I can try with all my stubborn will, but it is futile. I have only wasted my time, breath and energy hoping for the impossible rather than working toward the realistic. Without an honest, and perhaps harsh assessment of my limits, I cannot embrace the me that I am now. Humility means facing my truth and recognizing what I can and what I cannot do. Accepting my limits gives me the freedom to flow with the current of life rather than spending useless energy trying to fight against it.

Contrarily, I wonder if hope is most hopeful when it is paired with surrender. I think St. Francis got this idea. His famous serenity prayer speaks to this exact paradox “… to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and wisdom to know the difference.”

May compassion be your companion as life keeps you engaged in the struggle of knowing when either to hold on to hope for dear life or to find hope in the hopelessness. Because, sometimes the path to peace is letting go.

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Today’s Youth: Super Connected yet Completely Disconnected

Avi Muschel, PsyD

Yeshiva University Counseling Center, NYC                                   DrMuschel@gmail.com

Let’s start with a game: Which of the following statements about today’s youth (people born after 1995) is false?

• Today’s teenagers and young adults are starting to have sex at younger ages than teenagers and young adults of previous generations.

• Today’s teenagers and young adults engage with more sexual partners than members of previous generations did.

• Most of today’s teenagers and young adults do not want to be in emotionally connected relationships.

Think of your answer (even say it out loud to avoid cheating), and hold onto it for a moment.

Considering that I spend most of my waking hours at a college counseling center, with students born in the late 1990s and early 2000s, a book written exclusively about this age group seemed like a must-read. And so I was excited to come across “iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood” by San Diego State University psychologist Jean Twenge. Twenge’s volume is fairly enlightening not only in helping understand the issues unique to this post-Millennial generation she refers to as “iGen’ers,” but in providing context for these issues. Twenge is careful to highlight that the unique characteristics of this generation are neither inherently positive nor negative; rather, they have positive and negative features.

As a general theme, she consistently finds tremendous importance given to two key components in the lives of many iGen’ers: safety and individualism. For our purposes, we will only explore and expound upon these two features as they relate to my personal area of expertise, relationships.

Twenge begins her chapter about relationships by dismissing all three of the statements I listed at the beginning of this essay as myths. As it turns out, today’s youths are less sexually active than their parents or grandparents were at their age. Similarly, although the media typically highlights the frequency and widespread nature of the casual “hookup culture,” not only is the hooking up not as pervasive as is often reported, but more importantly, despite the culture, most teens and young adults still desperately seek emotional connection. So why can’t they find it?

Individuality vs Relationships

The importance of individualism is a prominent part of growing up today, for better and for worse. Politically, for example, this emphasis on individual autonomy has manifested through unprecedented activism in support of tolerance toward any and every kind of minority in America and across the world. One clear downside of this individuality, which directly impacts relationships, is the resulting belief that relationships negatively impact one’s individuality. More and more iGen’ers report avoiding relationships out of the fear that it will ruin their ability to grow individually. While many members of the previous generation either ignored their own individuality for the sake of a relationship, or considered their relationships as a part of their identity, kids growing up today consider relationships a “distraction,” which “hold you back from your true potential.”

At the counseling center, I have heard many students describe their lack of time for relationships. Students have insisted to me that they need to “work on themselves” or “find themselves” first before they are ready for a relationship. Jack, a 23-year-old college student, told me that he “hit it off” with a girl he met at a recent event, but decided not to pursue the relationship in order to take time away from relationships and figure out his own life path first.

What I’m also seeing concurrently is the feeling of guilt or confusion students experience over their feeling bad about a breakup. Rachel, a 25-year-old graduate student, had broken up with her boyfriend of four years, and was struggling to move on, often catching glimpses of his Facebook page to see pictures of his newest girlfriend. “I consider myself a feminist and it doesn’t make sense that I need a man to be happy, but then why do I care about him so much?” she asked me. “I don’t know. Maybe because you’re a person, and you went out with him for years and you really loved each other,” was my empathic reply, a not-so-subtle attempt to help her appreciate her humanness in seeking, and missing, a romantic relationship.

She, like many others her age, struggle to appreciate that it is appropriate in life, even as a feminist, to rely on others for emotional support. Several decades ago, John Bowlby made famous what we now all intuitively believe: a child needs love and emotional support, what he called “attachment,” to thrive in life. Sue Johnson, the world-renowned marriage therapist and developer of Emotionally Focused Therapy, simply extended Bowlby’s discoveries about children and applied them to adults. As it turns out, people don’t grow out of their innate need for others. iGen’ers’ desire for individual autonomy is praiseworthy; their belief that emotional relationships hijack this autonomy is perilous.

Pursuit of Safety

The second prominent feature of today’s youth is their emphasis on safety. Aside from physical safety, which has fortunately led to reduced rates of teen pregnancies and STDs, iGen’ers also fear emotional pain, an unfortunate but natural byproduct of life and development. This fear is understandable–no one wants to experience pain–however, like their attempts at achieving individuality, iGen’ers pursuit of safety is not without cost.

Stress Therapy

The easiest way to understand the fallacy in avoiding emotional pain is through a basic comparison to physical pain. Nobody wants to have the flu, but to increase the likelihood of avoiding the actual flu, most healthy people receive an injection of a small amount of the flu in a vaccine, to help protect the body against stronger versions of the flu in the future. This idea is as true in mental health as it is in physical health. In fact, certain psychology techniques, such as stress inoculation therapy and attitude inoculation, demonstrate the notion that exposing a person to small doses of something negative can be helpful in the long-term. The same is true with emotional pain. Experiencing rejection or other frustrations in emotional relationships can feel devastating, but completely avoiding those feelings hurts a person even more in the long-term. Pain is inevitable, but experiencing some pain throughout life helps develop the very “immune system” that helps cure the pain a person will continually face.

This, too, is a challenge that presents all too often at our counseling center. One student I worked with for a long time, Nancy, told me about how she would always have “emergency exits” in her relationships to protect herself from any form of rejection. If a boy she dated would show any sign of not being interested in her, even for a minute, she would immediately “escape” the relationship and avoid feeling rejected. As she explained so elegantly, before he can dump her, she would dump him.

Another student, Brian, related to me that relationships are challenging because of the inherent requirement to make himself vulnerable. He realized that he even struggled to make eye contact with the girls he dated, as well as with me, his therapist, lest he become too vulnerable and allow someone to see into his eyes and into his soul.

As Twenge explains, iGen’ers believe ‘tis better to never have loved at all, than to have loved and lost. Like with their pursuit of individuality, iGen’ers understandably seek to avoid pain, and often make good choices as a result, but their firm insistence on avoidance of any pain paradoxically hurts them more than it helps.

Contrary to the way they are portrayed in popular television shows, kids, teens, and young adults of the current generation are not stupid, lazy, or bad. They are, like every generation, endowed with their own unique strengths and weaknesses that are a product of parenting styles and the culture around them. The best way to help them thrive in life is to understand their unique traits, namely their focus on individuality and safety, and help foster positive growth as a result.

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The Bare Facts

Rabbi Steven Pruzansky                                                 The spiritual leader of Congregation Bnai Yeshurun, Teaneck, New Jersey, and Senior Rabbinic Fellow at the Coalition for Jewish Values.                Rabbi@bnaiyeshurun.org

Miss America

The Miss America pageant recently announced that it will no longer feature the participants in swimsuits or evening gowns, heretofore staples of the event, proudly proclaiming that their contestants will no longer be judged on their physical beauty. Instead, the pageant will consist of a competition of goals, achievements and passions, sort of a Gong Show with better talent.

That’s fine with me. I have never watched a pageant and am totally unfamiliar with the winners, losers and various attributes that decide their fates. I have heard comedians joke for generations about the lame questions the finalists had to answer, a query that usually requested their formula for world peace or an end to global hunger – and in 60 seconds or less. I do have a hunch that ratings for the event will plummet and probably kill the entire enterprise in a short period of time but I do not know how this sartorial modesty will play in the international pageant, whatever it is called, where such reticence probably violates the rules and very purpose of the competition.

On one hand, looks do matter and people are often judged based on appearance. The Elephant Man may have cast a sympathetic figure but you don’t see him reading the evening news on television.

But on the other hand, Jewish values certainly uphold the notion of human dignity and protest against the objectification of women implicit in these contests. As a rabbi, I can certainly appreciate the motives and sentiments of the pageant organizers, especially in the light of the recent revelations of male malfeasance born of a sense of entitlement fed by a culture of promiscuity.

Why Stop at the Miss America Pageant?

The entertainment industry is saturated with the objectification of the female body in a way that is designed to appeal to the most prurient instincts of man. Movies and television shows (especially cable) are saturated with nudity that – if we are honest with ourselves – is completely gratuitous, wholly unnecessary to the stories, plot lines or message trying to be conveyed and is provided simply because of audience expectation and male gratification. These days, I am told, male nudity is also becoming common on these shows because of, you know, the spirit of egalitarianism sweeping the country.

Somehow, classic romantic movies – think Gone with the Wind or Casablanca – were able to tell their tales while the performers remained fully clothed. Imagine that! Indeed, one can cogently argue that what is suggested or hinted at is more alluring than what is graphically displayed to all, and for all time.

It is interesting that radical feminists have also diverged on this question, with one group arguing that women should not demean themselves in becoming easy objects of male fantasy and another asserting that women have the right to do what they wish with their body, even flaunt it for money and fame.

Judaism is clear and unequivocal in its regard for elementary decency and the modest deportment of both men and women, as well as in its distaste and abhorrence of the culture of exhibitionism that caters to the lascivious predilections of the few. I assume, perhaps in error, that they are the few.

What to do?

Obviously it cannot be banned in a modern society and laws tend to drive these activities underground but not out of sight. There is another possibility, implicit in the new policy of the Miss America pageant.

A Possible Solution

What if every actress just refused to perform in any scene that required her to disrobe, partially or fully? What if every actor did the same? In other words, what if every lad insisted on remaining clad and every lass retaining some class? Imagine if every actor or actress would say to every producer, director or screenwriter in Hollywood that he/she will not appear naked, and so they should not ask for it, expect it or write it into a scene. That would be a different world. No one really believes that the narrative requires it.

Well, you might say, there will always be some actress interested in getting ahead and making a name for herself as one who pushes the limits, unabashed, unafraid, and therefore uncovered. Undoubtedly, there will be some women or men who want to be defined by their bodies, seek glory in their physique and thus will look for opportunities to parade about wearing only a smile. But isn’t that the problem? And aren’t they the problem – and the audience that laps it up?

There is a solution to that dilemma as well: ostracism. Let every other actor or actress refuse to appear alongside the offenders in any movie or show in which the bare skin detracts from the raw dialogue. There is strength in numbers; if most refuse, the minority will eventually go along as well.

If society is genuinely interested in recovering lost virtues and redrawing the boundaries of acceptable conduct between men and women, then to halt the process with Miss America would seem to be futile at best and hypocrisy at worst. Hollywood is an obvious target as a leading cause in America’s cultural decline into debauchery, decadence and despicable behavior – as well as the leading offenders in the male treatment of women. Hollywood can also lead the way to a better and more virtuous society by going cold turkey in its too-frequent depictions of human beings in the altogether.

Then we can get to work on the obsession with profanity.

And what do you think?

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