A Little #MeToo for Men

A Little #MeToo for Men

Several heterosexual couples in my clinical practice have struggled of late with issues related to the #MeToo movement.  Memories can surface for the female partner that engender feelings of rage, tremendous pain, and fear.

Trainees ask how best to help navigate these important, but potentially difficult conversations between the couple.  The work of unpacking the dominant norms of masculinity and their subsequent impact on relationship can indeed be a daunting task in the hour allotted for couples therapy.

Both for couples and the therapists who treat them, I recommend The Little #MeToo Book for Men.

Written by  Mark Greene, whose work I have previously cited on our CCAF blog, it is a call to understand the cost exacted by the rules of manhood, or as Greene describes it “man box culture.”

He states:

For millions of men, manhood can seem like a foregone conclusion, mapped out for us by universally understood rules for being a ‘real man.’ These rules determine how we walk, how we talk, what we think and do, what we view as our responsibilities and most importantly, how we pursue or fail to pursue our deepest needs, wants and desires.
These rules of manhood become so central to what we believe as to render the distinction between ourselves and our culture of manhood invisible to us.
When millions of men live our lives subject to the rules of a culture we are not fully conscious of, it can be damaging for our families, our communities, our collective quality of life, and even our longevity. The Little #MeToo Book for Men seeks to encourage a conversation about how boys and men arrive at what we believe.”

Greene has that rare talent of being able to distill what can feel like such complex, and yes, terrifying, relational issues.  Elusive, and just beyond our reach, we can feel the weight of gender dynamics, and the attendant pain, but are often left without words.

The Little #MeToo Book for Men is a wonderful tool, a clear, and concise map that will help move the conversation forward.

I know my children’s generation has begun to imagine and enact a culture that defies gender binaries.

Perhaps it’s not too late for us.

If this conversation can reveal even the slightest glimmer of daylight between our dominant culture of masculinity and our own daily choices as men, my hope is we will find, in that space, a more vibrant and authentic connection to our agency, our power and our humanity.

Matters of the Heart

As a family therapy clinician and teacher, I am constantly talking about the importance of relationships.  I’m thus thrilled when those outside of my specialty acknowledge that as well – especially when it comes from my colleagues and collaborators in the medical community.

In “Why Your Cardiologist should ask about your Love Life,” Dr. Sandeep Jauhar discusses the link between heart health and our emotional and relational worlds:

We have learned, for example, that fear and grief can cause serious cardiac injury. During emotional distress, the nerves that control the heartbeat can set off a maladaptive “fight or flight” response that causes blood vessels to constrict, the heart to gallop and blood pressure to rise, resulting in damage to the body.

Those of us who are present daily to the intensity of marital strife can certainly attest to this fact. What is more tender to the heart than being hurt by someone we love?

It is becoming a known fact that the importance of relationship, and the quality of relationship, directly impact one’s health and well being.  Researchers here at Penn Medicine have examined the impact of marital status upon the recovery from cardiac surgery, as well as the involvement of family and friends in improving healthcare outcomes.

For example, colleagues at The Center for Healthcare Innovation studied how to engineer social incentives for health, and suggested that more of our healthcare delivery system take advantage of the highly influential nature of social relationships.

Other research focused on the connection between marital status and recovery from cardiac surgery, and found that married people may fare better than those who are divorced, separated or widowed.  Although there is a lot more to examine relative to this connection, it is heartening to see the significance of relationship included as a key factor in promoting health and well being – yes, even in recovery from cardiac surgery.

Indeed, cardiologist Sandeep Juahar suggests we deploy a paradigm shift away from the individualized mode of thinking:

We will need to shift to a new paradigm for heart problems, one focused on prevention, to continue to make the kind of progress to which patients and doctors have become accustomed. In this paradigm, psychosocial factors will need to be front and center. Treating our hearts optimally will require treating our minds, too.

Thank you, Dr.  Jauhar.  I could not have said that better myself.

Grow your Family’s Relationship Superpowers

I’m so pleased to share this recently published book by my friend and colleague, Dr. Saliha Bava, and her partner, Mark Greene.

Although we might agree in theory that parenting is indeed a relational endeavor, our language belies this perspective. For example, we describe the child as “oppositional defiant” as though she existed in a relational vacuum, without that ‘other’ person she must oppose.

Diagnostic criteria focuses on the individual and obscures the parts of the relational system that promote imbalance and ill health.  This extends beyond the family system to the school, community and environment in which families are situated.  But responses to poverty or racism are not part of our diagnostic nomenclature.  We focus instead on the interiorized pathology of the individual, as if divorced from her community and relational world.

Bava and Green eloquently describe what happens in the relationship between parent and child:

“As we are shaping them, they are shaping us”

Indeed, we are changed as we parent,  uncovering parts of ourselves as we are buffeted from one intense emotion to the next.

Green talks about the opportunities in this process:

“for me to discover that I have some agency in those relationships, in those spaces, that there are ways I can operate that help me not fall prey to my own doubts, fears or concerns. “

The doubts, fears and concerns we harbor as parents are openings for change:

“If we have more flexibility, if we can look at problems from more angles, if we can hold our fears and concerns more lightly, if we can be more playful and collaborative,

If we can wait and see what’s emerging before we name and define our responses, all of these things are possible .”

 

I invite you and yours to hone your “family relationship superpowers” by engaging with this brilliant and captivating guide.  The Relational Book for Parenting: Raising Children to Connect, Collaborate, and Innovate by Growing our Families’ Relationship Superpowers is now available.

Enjoy this video by the authors https://player.vimeo.com/video/267271358“>video by the authors and you and your family can grow your relationship superpowers!

Happy Valentines Day

Family historian,  Stephanie Coontz, is admittedly one of my favorites.

Former President of The Council on Contemporary Families, Dr. Coontz brings a much needed perspective to our cultural discourses about marriage and family life.  Her capacity to mine enormous bodies of data and expose trends about the current state of relationships is remarkable – and very much needed.  The landscape of marriage and family is not easy to navigate, and I’m grateful for her clarity and perspective.

In that spirit (and because tomorrow is Valentines Day), I wanted to share her New York Times piece, For a Better Marriage, Act Like a Single Person.

Couple and family therapists are well aware of the hazards when two people believe they can be ‘everything’ to each other.  From a historical perspective, this “soul mate,” “one and only,” “romantic love” narrative is a fairly recent phenomenon.  In the not too distant past, one’s marital partner was not expected to fulfill so many needs; rather, marriage was more of an economic arrangement, with less expectation of emotional fulfillment from that one person. (For a full discussion, check out Dr. Coontz’s 2006 book: Marriage, A History: How Love Conquered Marriage). 

I’ve said before that one of the more exciting things about being a Couple and Family Therapist today is the research that shows the significance of relationship in one’s life.  In a shift from the traditional, individual paradigm that has dominated psychological theory, the new “science of relationship” and data from a wide variety of studies shows what we family therapists have intuited for so long: that the quality of one’s relationships matters to health and well being.

In her Times article, Coontz shifts her lens to the impact of community on marriage.  She finds that social networks of friends and family are enormously helpful to the couple:

“having supportive friendships is associated with more satisfying marriages, even among couples already content with the support they get from each other.”

And, the benefits go beyond the psychological health of the marriage:

“…..health researchers report that maintaining high levels of social integration provides as much protection against early mortality as quitting smoking. In fact, having weak social networks is a greater risk factor for dying early than being obese or sedentary. One analysis of 148 separate health studies found that people who cultivated a wide network of friends and other social relationships had a mortality risk 50 percent lower than those with weak ties.”

Therapists typically attempt to shift the dynamics between the members of the couple they see for treatment.  Coontz warns against using such a narrow lens:

“Many marriage counselors focus narrowly on improving partners’ couple skills without taking into account how the marital relationship is affected by interactions with other people. Yet a 2017 study found that when people socialize more frequently with good friends, they not only report fewer depressive symptoms themselves, but so do their partners.”

So, Happy Valentines Day.  Here’s to celebrating the many relationships that edify our lives, and contribute to our health and well being.

Read Dr Coontz’s full article here

Observing Traditional Holidays in Updated Ways, New Expressions

For nontraditional families, including same-sex couples, single parents, and people raising their grandkids, the ways in which holidays like Father’s Day are celebrated continue to evolve. Jacqueline Hudak, PhD, clinical director of the Penn Center for Couples and Adult Families, explains how these family dynamics grow and change.

Communications placement

WHYY NewsWorks

Holiday Tips from a Family Therapist

Fir Branch With Pine Cone And Snow Flakes

 

Each year around this time, conversations with clients turn to the predictable stress of time with family over the holidays.

Like ghosts in the night, old issues, long dormant, reappear at holiday time. How is it that an adult with partner and children can walk into their parents’ home and instantly feel 10 years old again? The anticipation of a holiday encounter can lead any adult to feel slightly unhinged in a way that few other situations do.

Let’s face it, no one can upset you like a family member.

Here are some ideas to try on this holiday season. They are born of basic tenets of family therapy theory and are utterly applicable to a variety of anticipated holiday situations:


1. Plan and be strategic. 

It’s always a good idea to warn someone that you are going to make a change before you actually do:

“I was thinking about the holiday, and this year I might do something a bit different.”

You don’t even have to be sure of what specific change you’re going to make, the point is to warn others first. That way, you can attempt to avoid their shock and surprise when you decide not to follow the family script – you know, ‘the way it’s always been and everyone (but you) wants to continue’.

This can be particularly useful when, for example, you have young children and want to begin to create your own traditions around the holidays. Perhaps you feel the stress of traveling with small children in an effort to please everyone, or because ‘you’ve done it every year, and they’re counting on you.’ So let people know in advance and find allies to support your change.

Which brings me to the next point.

2. Expect a reaction.

It is true that relationships have much in common with physics: for every action there is a reaction. Families attempt to maintain a homeostasis – a state of balance, maintained by familiar patterns and expectations. Think of the tremendous impact it has upon relationships when a family member joins or leaves the system; these points of normative developmental crises, birth, adolescence, marriage, or death, each require a renegotiation of previous roles and rules in the family system. Holiday traditions are valued as markers of continuity, so changes, however minor, can feel disruptive and unsettling.

3. Focus on yourself.  

You can change only your behavior, not the behavior of others.

Admittedly, this is a tough one. It’s the balancing act between giving up the dream of what can be, and accepting what is. There is much integrity in changing one’s own behaviors in a respectful and compassionate way, and it’s sad to realize that, for now, others may just not be who you want them to be.

Developing a curiosity about yourself may help. This might be a good time to entertain the questions:  Why does this person still hold so much power over me?  Why do I still need my mother/father/sibling to compliment or recognize me? How is it that I have come to this place in my life carrying that old wound?

4. There’s always next year.

Your opportunities to practice being different in your family are boundless. Try to think of this as one of many steps toward change. It will most likely take more than one conversation and there can be complicating factors: addiction, trauma, divorce, remarriage. Relationships take time, so keep in mind the long term; families are full of surprises and unpredictability as the family life cycle inevitably moves into the future.

When I hear a person in their 20’s or 30’s say “I’ll never have a relationship with my brother, I respond, “Well, let’s think about this for a moment. If you both live until you’re 80, are you telling me nothing will happen over the next 50 years? Most likely, your parents will predecease you, and you and he will together become the oldest living generation in the family. You may each partner with someone, and perhaps become aunt and uncle to each other’s children.”

There are endless circumstances that create opportunities for us to evolve in our family system.

Lastly, I try to remember at this time of abundance and giving thanks, that to even think about the quality of relationship is, of itself,  both a blessing and a privilege.

With all my best to you and yours during this special season,

Jacqueline Hudak