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At Affordable Relationship Counseling in San Diego, CA , licensed marriage and family therapist, Dr. Barbara Cunningham, often sees clients who present with issues of loneliness around the holidays. It seems that people feel a heightened sense of loss around Thanksgiving and Christmas. Television, movies, magazines, and advertisments seem to emphasize pictures of happy families that are a stark contrast to what people wish they had in their own lives. Often times burned bridges and broken dreams come into bold relief at this time of the year and make it most difficult for people to get through the days of gift giving, Christmas carols, and holiday mirth. Allowing people a safe holding environment to process feelings of vulnerability may be a beginning point.  It takes courage to begin the therapy process. Talk therapy is a proven way to begin. Research has shown that isolation is not good for one’s overall health. If one is not connected, or feels isolated, one is at risk for myriad health problems. Human beings are a social species.  Adaptation to loss can, over time, bring increased integrity and deeper meaning to life. To learn more about Dr. Cunningham’s strength based model of practice, call 619 9906203 or visit her website at http://www.Cunninghamtherapy.com to get more information.

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At Affordable Relationship Counseling in San Diego, California, licensed marriage and family therapist, Dr. Barbara Cunningham, often suggests books to her clients that might lead them toward making deeper meaning of their own life experiences. TUESDAYS WITH MORRIE, by Mitch Albom, which covers existential themes, is reviewed below.,

“If you’ve found meaning in your life, you don’t want to go back. You want to go forward.” -Morrie Schwartz

The symbiotic nature of the mentoring relationship through time and space is beautifully depicted in TUESDAYS WITH MORRIE by Mitch Albom. Indeed, the term “mentor” is eponymous with a character in the Odyssey, who advises Telemachus, and pushes him forward in his search for his father. It is especially instructive for the student of marriage and family therapy studies to read TUESDAYS WITH MORRIE as if he were assessing both men from the psychosocial, contextual, and lifespan perspectives. From each of these vantage points, the careful reader will not only internalize Morrie’s lessons, but also become aware of changes in both men as a result of their interaction over time and space. Thus, observing both intrapersonal and interpersonal movement as well as changes one or both men make in their larger environments is cogent to the student of systems. In an effective manner, this remarkable bestseller serves as a kind of adjunct text for individual and family life cycle development students, for it will demonstrate to the budding clinician the notion that everything is connected and must, therefore, be interpreted in a contextual manner, and that when change occurs within one person, change will also become apparent in all whom he/she touches. In a Virgina Satir-like manner, the reader will be taken on a peak experience, the emotional learning experience, the real stuff of learning…the kind of teaching mold from which Morrie Schwartz emerged: the Confluent Educational Movement of the Sixties.

Clearly, Morrie, the former Brandeis, sociology professor of 37-year-old Mitch Albom, is not an ordinary man. He is an extraordinary man whom we meet as he faces his own slow but steady death from Lou Gehrig’s Disease; he is inspirational, because he exemplifies the apex of emotional maturity. It is with a sense of concomitant awe and recognition of developmental stages completed in a timely fashion that we watch him transition into this final life stage, exhibiting a joie de vivre to the end.

On the other hand, Mitch, consistent with his pattern of disconnectedness and negative feelings over his previous life cycle stages, has lost touch with his beloved professor since he graduated in ’79, despite his intention to always keep in touch. It is not surprising that he did not follow through, for in letting important relationships like the one he enjoyed with Schwartz go, we realize that he is merely following a familiar pattern of letting go all that is important to the heart. So, as might be expected, he has also lost touch with his old friend, his wife, and, ultimately, with the essence of his own personhood. In the fast-track culture in which he lives, a culture which is more egocentric and self-serving than those of other times, Mitch shows how his emotional maturity has been retarded by the interplay between family of origin issues and the materialistic values of his generation. His drive to succeed in the business world at the expense of his sense of connectedness to others suggests both a fear of intimacy and an abiding external locus of control (defining his worth in terms of society’s definition of success).

The question of individual differences in native-born resiliency should also be compared and contrasted. Morrie, who had a childhood colored by the loss of his mother, and impoverished further by a cold, distant father, apparently overcame even these attachment challenges, as can be inferred by his admirable responses to his final developmental tasks–end stage intimacy outcomes are positive and, this, in large part, results in an integrity of the life review. It is clear that Morrie displays an emotional maturity impressive to any lay person or to any clinician. Probably not lagging seriously in prior developmental milestones despite non-normative changes in earlier life, the clinician might have to consider biological, individual variants. This humanistic professor, product of the idealistic Sixties, well represents Steve Wolin’s Challenge Model of Resiliency (1991). No Damage Model was Schwartz, but rather a stellar example of initiative, humor, creativity, healthy relationship attachments, independence, insight, and morality.

Albom, a successful sportswriter and unsuccessful spouse, is lurched back in time when he mindlessly but serendipitously sees an ailing Morrie beamed into his living room from his television, which is tuned into Ted Koppel’s Nightline. He is transfixed as he hears how Morrie intends to ‘teach’ his last course to a nationally televised audience: a course on how to live even while dying. The dialectic of teaching others how to live while in the midst of facing death and even enjoying one’s last days when physical handicaps demand a return to the dependency of childhood is difficult at best (especially if one can smile despite needing someone else to ‘wipe my own ass”).

Morrie’s palpable enthusiasm to Mitch’s return to his life is illustrative of Morrie’s ability to enhance and enrich his own growth and development through connection. His manner of finding the positive in perceiving transitional challenges, thus reframing what might have once seemed overwhelming, buoys his journey, for it is all about the ability to live in the moment and in so doing, achieving a kind of freedom which subsequently empowers him to creatively move through and onward to the next milestone task in his life cycle.

Indeed, Morrie delights in the prospect of teaching Mitch one final class: in it, he sees his opportunity to generate wisdom while completing an important task during the last life cycle stage, a life review. Through Mitch, Morrie will also re-connect with a piece of his past, tasks which are generative and are consistent with what is important to do during the eighth life stage.

Thus, in what will prove to be a mutually beneficial partnership, the young man and the old man agree to meet every Tuesday for fourteen weeks. Through deeply affecting dialogue, Morrie offers consummate love, liberally spiced with humor, aphorism, examples, reminiscences, and philosophy. Schwartz personifies successful completion of the developmental tsks of Eriksen’s seventh and eighth age life stages.

Conversely, through Mitch, the training clinician sees what it looks like to not age well…what it looks like when a man has experienced significant failure in negotiating the earlier developmental tasks of adulthood. Morrie offers a picture of intimacy instead of isolation, of generativity instead of stagnation and of ego integrity instead of despair. On the other hand, in listening to Morrie, Mitch, who feels an intensified awareness of his years of isolation and angst of emptiness, is in increasing pain and paralyzed to move forward. He can now admit his drive toward materialistic acquisition has been tragically misplaced over many years. As the sole audience for Morrie when he completed his life review, Mitch became empowered to reframe his own notion of what it meant to live and be a success.

The astute, psychologically-minded reader could handily identify points at which Albom hit developmental lags, just as Albom identified them himself as he listened to Morrie’s review of his own rich life course. Albom effectively illustrates how individuals are agents of change in one another, and then how profoundly individuals affects one another from differing generations, historical contexts, cultures and life experiences intersecting.

As a result of what had synchronistically become a highly successful theraputic alliance, Mitch begins to question his values and reorder his priorities. Most impressive to the training clinician is the fact that Morrie has moved him forward in his individual development, evidenced by his initiative in reconnecting with his brother, suffering from the same disease, from whom he had been estranged for many years. Morrie is able to go ever so ‘…gently into that good night’ (rather than railing against death, as Dylan Thomas exhorted his father to do)after completing his life review, taking joy from his own initiative in getting on Nightline, teaching a former student their mutually, most memorable class, his involvement in a book project, and organizing his own living tribute memorial.

From a holistic perspective, we see in these two men an example of the systemic concept that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Teacher and student are profoundly changed by and through one another. Teacher is empowered toward a more joyous letting go of mortality intersecting with his memories of his past history.

Though not free of stressors, he sees it as a life well-lived, exemplified and capped by his ability to be of benefit by connecting with a younger individual.

Conversely, instead of feeling the joys of intimacy through ties to mate, work, and larger society, Mitch suffered an emptiness borne of his compulsive need to define his success in material terms, not serving his healthy development. Mitch is a man whose psychosocial development got ‘stuck’ somewhere in time. Morrie models generativity when most people would allow the physical stagnation to spread to emotional anguish and/or stagnation, thus cutting off their life force energy in spite of the fact that they are still blessed with life.

The importance of connectedness between generations, within families, extended families, communities, career netweorks, agape friends, and between hearts and heads is repeatedly driven home throughout this spiritual book. With each metaphorical example, the reader is charged and changed. Circular causality is on bold parade as Morrie’s empending death marches toward finality before millions, and it is Mitch who, at the same time as his demise, seems to be reborn. Rippling further outward, Morrie’s exemplary way of dying is portrayed to a nation of television viewers, also affected, by witnessing Morrie’s inspirational approach up close and personal. Most saliently, Morrie offers himself to Mitch as an opportunity to develop intimacy with another human being, perhaps the crowning human achievement and one that has eluded the younger man until his professor’s death. Thus, old and young men goad one another toward increasing their respective levels of emotional connection in facing death by and through

one another. By comparing and contrasting where each of these men are when we meet them in terms of their lifespan stage and how each of them subsequently handles the respective tasks that their chronological age suggests, the student can see how feedback loops compliment the completion of milestones within a specific context.

It is difficult to say who got more out of the Tuesday meetings: Mitch or Morrie. Is there an irony to the fact that when people are dying, the living seem more able to hear what they have to say? Should an individual’s ability to reverse developmental emotional retardation as a result of their vertical communication with another be questioned? Did Mitch, in fact, change enough to donate a portion of the proceeds from his bestseller to Lou Gehrig’s Disease research” The circular causality of human interaction and the dialectic that it is possible to find joyous tranformation on the other side of painful transition, even unto death, is part and parcel of the beauty in this little book.

At the close of TUESDAYS WITH MORRIE, Morrie tells the story of a wise, little wave reminding another frightened little wave that he is ‘not part of a wave, [but]part of an ocean.’ Morrie Schwartz and Mitch Albom are testament to Katherine Kubler-Ross’ assertion that ‘…one of the most productive avenues of growth is found through the study and experience of death…individuals who have been fortunate enough to share in the death of someone who understood its meaning seem better able to live and grow because of the experience. Indeed it is patently clear that human beings do have the capacity to utilize an interpersonal relationship positively and move themselves forward, especially if the context is right. Morrie’s life–and death–reflect a man whose ego identity thrived as a result of the composite power and cumulative wisdom of most of his life choices. As Eriksen asserts, ‘Those who can accept [death]accept the whole [more than the sum total] of their own lives and those who get to such a point of maturity find that death loses its sting.

Morrie tells Mitch that “We have a sense that we should be like the mythical cowboy…able to take on and conquer anything and live in the world without the need for other people.” Poignantly, at the end of the book, Mitch resumes a relationship with his ailing brother, Steve, thus exhibiting hope and promise that intimacy will no longer elude him, even after Morrie is gone. And at the beginning of the book, Mitch describes Morrie as “…a small man who takes small steps, as if a strong wind could, at any time, whisk him up into the clouds.” It is a certainty that Mitch Albom would echo the idea that big heroes can reside in small places.

Dr. Cunningham is a relationship counseling expert. She practices couples counseling, marriage counseling and treats relationships issues of all types in San Diego, CA. She offers evening hours and a complimentary telephone consultation. You may reach her at 619 9906203 or visit her website at http://www.Cunninghamtherapy.com

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At Affordable Relationship Counseling, licensed marriage and family therapist, Dr. Barbara Cunningham, offers insightful counseling for individuals and couples.  Psychotherapy can provide an opportunity to improve peoples’ capacity to see their part in problematic relationship dynamics. As Valentines Day approaches, some couples may be reminded that they have needed couples counseling for a long time and have simply been putting it off. It takes courage to embark upon a course of marriage counseling, relationship counseling, or individual counseling aimed at sorting out relationship questions. It requires people to search within and stop” fingerpointing,” expecting the marriage and family therapist to “fix” their partner.  Dr. Bowen’s natural family systems approach can offer frustrated couples a new way to think about what is happening between them. Indeed, this model of therapy can empower people by creating a growing knowledge that the only person they can change is themselves. What is exciting is that a change in one will predictably produce change in the dynamic flowing between two people over time.  Listed below are some quotes from Dr. Bowen that seem applicable to couples looking for a way toward increased fulfillment and greater satisfaction in their relationship. These quotes are taken from various chapters in the book entitled Family Therapy in Clinical Practice (Murray Bowen, 1978):

(Relationships often cycle)…”through intense closeness, conflict that provides a period of emotional distance, the makeup, and another period of intense closeness.”  (p. 204)

“Many spouses experience the closest and most open relationship in their adult lives during courtship.” (p. 203)

“Two spouses begin a marriage with lifestyle patterns and levels of differentiation developed in their families-of-origin. Mating, marriage, and reproduction are governed to a significant degree by emotional-instinctual forces. The way the spouses handle them in dating and courtship and in timing and planning the marriage provides one of the best views of the level of differentiation of the spouses. The lower the level of differentiation [the cornerstone of Bowen family systems theory], the greater the potential problems for the future.” (p. 376)

“People pick spouses who have the same levels of differentiation.” (p. 377)

“Early thoughts about marriage and children are more prominent in the female than the male….A female whose early thoughts and fantasies go more to the children they will have than the man they will marry, tend to become the mothers of impaired children.” (p. 380)

“Differentiation deals with working on one’s own self [in the context of relationship], with controlling self, with becoming a more responsible person, and permitting others to be themselves.” (p. 409)

Thus, if Valentines Day is a disturbing reminder that you remain frustrated and “stuck” in negative cycles as a couple or with your partner, perhaps the holiday is a good time to take charge and make the call to a marriage counselor or relationship therapist. Dr. Cunningham offers evening hours to accommodate working couples and a complimentary 15 minute telephone consultation to see if it makes sense to book an initial appointment. She can be reached at 619 9906203.  Do not delay-make the call today!

 

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HAPPY THANKSGIVING 2012
On this eve of Thanksgiving, I am reminded that I am blessed to travel along part of the life path of so many sojourners. At Relationship Counseling San Diego, where I provide couples counseling and individual counseling, I am pleased to offer evening hours to accommodate couples and individuals whose work schedules do not permit attending psychotherapy during daytime hours.  My model of treatment is explained on my webpage: just go to http://www.Cunninghamtherapy.com and click on Model of Practice to learn more about how I work. Or call me at 619 9906203 for a complimentary phone consultation.
A wonderful neighbor sent me these beautiful words tucked into a thoughtful Thanksgiving card:
Prayer is not a “spare wheel” that you pull out when in trouble, but it is a “steering wheel” that directs the right path throughout.
 
So why is a car’s windshield so large and the rear view mirror so small? Because our past is not as important as our future. So look ahead and move on.
 
Friendship is like a book. It takes a few seconds to burn, but it takes years to write.
 
All things in life are temporary. If it’s going well, enjoy it. It won’t last long. It it’s going badly, don’t worry. That won’t last long either.
 
Old friends are gold! New friends are diamonds.! If you get a diamond, don’t forget the gold! Because to hold a diamond, you always need a base of gold!
 
Often when we hose hope and this is the end, God smiles from above and says, “Relax, sweetheart, it’s just a bend, not the end!”
 
When God solves your problems, you have faith in His abilities; when God doesn’t solve your problems, He has faith in your abilities.
 
A blind person asked St. ANthony, “Can there be anything worse than losing eyesight?” He replied, “Yes, losing your vision!”
 
When you pray for others, God listens to you and blesses them; sometimes when you are safe and happy, remember that someone has prayed for you.
 
Worrying does not take away tomorrow’s troubles; it takes away today’s peace.”
May the spirit of the season guide your heart throughout the year. Happy Thanksgiving From Affordable Relationship Counseling San Diego!
 

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Dr. Barbara Cunningham, licensed marriage and family therapist, specializes in relationship counseling for couples and individuals seeking relief from acute problems or for personal growth. She enjoys a busy couples counseling practice and offers working couples evening hours at her office in the heart of San Diego. Whether you are seeking marriage counseling, couples counseling, or individual psychotherapy, Dr. Cunningham has affordable rates and provides a safe environment to work on increasing relational health. Seeking help through counseling is a sign of courage and strength of character. It is not a sign of weakness to enlist the help of a professional in sorting out issues.

Dr. Cunningham encourages couples to continue working on increasing their emotional connection with one another. Even though each partner may think they “know” the other, over time, sometimes this perception stops couples from becoming more engaged. Taking your partner for granted makes a relationship stale. Becoming more curious about how your partner thinks about a myriad number of issues can be stimulating.

One “fun” way to accomplish this goal is to make time for weekly  “pillow talk” evenings. Take a stack of blank 3×5 cards and write a conversation starter in the form of a question on each card and place each completed card in a box. After the children have been put down for the night, or if you do not have children, after you get ready for bed, settle down with your box of 3×5 cards between you. Take turns choosing a card and each of you speak to the topic on the card. Talk, agree, disagree, laugh, and then laugh some more. Be respectful. Demonstrate active listening skills. Do not interrupt. Ask clarifying questions to show interest in hearing what your partner has to say.  See the list below for conversation starter suggestions:

If you knew you had only one week left to live, what would you do with the remaining time?

What do you consider the greatest accomplishment of your life thus far? What do you hope to do that is even better?

Given the choice of anyone in the wold, alive or dead, what five people would you most like to invite to dinner? As your close friends?

Do you believe in free will or in predestination? Why?

For what in your life do you feel most grateful?

Can you name a challenge we faced in our relationship and describe how you were proud of how we handled it as a couple? Of how you handled yourself as an individual?

Talk about a point of pride in your own reaction to an outside challenge that you experienced this week. A regret?

How do you want people to remember you most after you are gone?

In what ways has knowing me influenced you to be a better person? How do you think that I have become a better person as a result of knowing you?

Do you believe that you have enough time? In what ways has your notion of time changed over the years?

Do we spend enough time together? If not, how could we improve our time management to make more time for one another?

Going back to earlier, important romantic relationships in your life, what did you learn about YOURSELF after time passed and you took another look at the breakup? What was YOUR part in the unraveling of that relationship?

As you can see, the list can go on and on. It is almost as much fun to come up with ideas for conversation starters as it is to actually converse about them.  Research has shown that couples who know more rather than less about one another have a more stable and fulfilling relationship. You can never stop getting to know someone better. Curiosity is a kind of aphrodisiac-showing interest in another person’s thoughts, feelings and emotions can be a turn-on!

To learn more about Dr. Cunningham’s model of relationship counseling, visit her website at http://www.Cunninghamtherapy.com or call 619 990-6203 for a complimentary telephone consultation.

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Dr. Barbara Cunningham practices marriage and family therapy in San Diego, utilizing a family systems, strength-based approach when counseling couples and individuals. Notably, siblings are the first peer relationship that children experience. In some ways, the sibling relationship history may be a template upon which other very close peer relationships may be built throughout the life course, including the marital relationship. Sibling birth order may also be an important factor in looking at adults’ manner of “being” in their mature relationships with close others. 

In 2006, Dr. Cunningham completed her doctoral dissertation. It is entitled A Resiliency-Based, Bowen Family Systems Approach to Treating a Sibling Survivor of Homicide: A Case Study. One of the topics in her literature review included siblings. The history of one’s sibling relationships may, in fact, be relevant to one’s capacity to develop fulfilling intimate relationships as an adult. What follows is the research cited on siblings in Dr. Cunningham’s dissertation:

The Sibling Relationship

“The relationships in life that usually endure the longest are those between siblings (McGoldrick, Anderson, & Walsh, 1989).  Most people experience the death of parents a generation before they die, and their children live a generation longer.  Marital partners usually do not know one another until early adulthood.  Friendships that last from earliest childhood till the end of life are rare.  Thus, McGoldrick et al. noted that “our siblings share more of our lives genetically and contextually than anyone else” (p. 246).  In this sense, the sibling relationship is distinctive from all other human relationships.  Siblings have a shared personal and familial history, and this history includes experiences, values, and traditions.  Brothers and sisters are each other’s first playmates and confidants, even sharing 50% of their genetic composition (Wray, 2003).  Carter and McGoldrick (1999) pointed out that “the more time siblings spend with one another and the fewer siblings there are, the more intense their relationships are likely to be” (p. 154).

In a longitudinal study of successful aging among men from the Harvard classes of 1938-1944, the single best predictor of emotional health at age 65 was having had a close relationship with one’s sibling in college.  This was more predictive than childhood closeness to parents, emotional problems in childhood or parental divorce, and even more predictive than having had a successful marriage or career (Valliant, 1977).

Birth order has a significant role in later experiences with marital partners, colleagues, and friends (Toman, 1976).  Because siblings are an individual’s earliest peer relationship, he or she is probably most at ease in other relationships that reproduce familiar sibling patterns of birth order and gender (Carter & McGoldrick, 1999).  Although not always honored or acknowledged as leaders, firstborn sisters are often assigned the role of caretaker of disabled family members (Carter & McGoldrick, 1999).

Bank and Kahn (1997) interpreted the sibling bond from a psychoanalytic perspective, basing their conclusions on an in-depth study of 100 clinical case histories in which the sibling relationship was problematic.  They identified three conditions for the development of a strong sibling bond in childhood:  (a) high access between siblings, (b) the need for meaningful personal identity, and (c) insufficient parental influence. Processes of identification with the sibling constitute the essence of the sibling relationship.  According to Bank and Kahn, both close and distant sibling identification can lead to rigid relationships and clinical problems.

            Teti (1992) noted the remarkable changes that occur in the life of the first-born child with the birth of a sibling.  The older child must adapt to sharing parental attention with an infant.  Teti found that older siblings might display increased anxiety and aggression toward either the new baby or their parents.  Furthermore, Teti noted that older children frequently regress developmentally in areas such as toilet training.  There are individual differences in how children adjust to this change, however.  Two studies found that in families in which parents involved the older sibling in the care of the baby and discussed the baby’s needs and desires, siblings had particularly close relationships later (Dunn & Kendrick, 1982; Howe & Ross, 1990).  Crouter and McHale (1989) noted that siblings spend a great deal of time together in early childhood, and, in fact, spend more time together than do parents with their children.  In the early stages of the sibling relationship, the older sibling usually takes on a leadership role and teaches the younger sibling, while the younger sibling often imitates the older sibling.

            In middle childhood, sibling relationships tend to be more egalitarian than those in early childhood.  The younger sibling may become more cognitively sophisticated, allowing for a greater ability to communicate and negotiate with older siblings (Buhrmester & Furman, 1990; Vandell, Minnett, & Santrock, 1987).

            As siblings enter the adolescent phase of development, their relationships become more distant than in childhood.  Affection and hostility levels are lower in adolescence than in adulthood (Buhrmester & Furman, 1990; Stocker & Dunn, 1994).  Additionally, siblings spend less time together as adolescents than they did as children.  Supportive sibling relationships have been linked to decreased anxiety and greater maturity in young adolescents (East & Rook, 1992).

            Research on sibling relationships in childhood and adolescence has shown that children’s sociability is associated with sibling warmth, and emotionality is linked to conflict and rivalry in sibling relationships (Brody, Stoneman, & Burke, 1987; Stocker, Dunn, & Plomin, 1989).  Furthermore, the match between siblings’ temperaments is related to the quality of their relationship (Munn & Dunn, 1988).

            The research on sibling relationships for individuals during late adolescence, a period characterized by increasing independence and identity formation, has received scant attention (Tseung & Schott, 2004).  Tseung and Schott investigated late adolescents’ perceptions of the quality of their sibling relationships in a British sample of 165 participants, using the Sibling Relationship Inventory.  Significant correlations were found between sibling affection and the capacity to have close friendships.

            Stocker, Lanthier, and Furman (1997) offer one of the few studies on sibling relationships in early adulthood.  They found that such relationships, like those in childhood, varied in the areas of warmth, conflict, and rivalry.  In another observational study, it was noted that young adult siblings who felt close to one another had fewer power struggles, more positive affect, and lower heart rate activity than siblings who rated their relationships as distant (Shortt & Gottman, 1997).

            Recent research has found associations between the quality of the sibling relationship in young adulthood and affective-perspective taking.  Young adults who rated their sibling relationships as close had higher scores on measures of emotional and cognitive empathy than did those who rated their sibling relationships as distant (Shortt & Gottman, 1997).

            Scharf (2005) conducted a study with 116 emerging adults and adolescents.  The subjects completed questionnaires and were interviewed about their relationship with a sibling.  Emerging adults were found to spend less time and to be less involved in joint activities with their sibling than adolescents, but they reported being more involved in emotional exchanges with and feeling more warmth toward their siblings.  Narrative analyses of the questionnaires showed that emerging adults had a more mature perception of their relationship with their siblings.  Unlike in adolescence, the researchers found that the quality of emerging adults’ relationships with their siblings was less related to their relationship with their parents.

            Many theorists and researchers have discussed the associations between sibling relationships and parent-child relationships.  Dunn (1992) found that in families in which parent-child relationships are warm and supportive, high levels of affection also characterize sibling relationships.  Conflictual parent-child relationships are associated with sibling relationships fraught with rivalry and conflict.  In addition to associations between each sibling’s relationship with his or her parent, differences in parents’ behavior toward each sibling are related to the quality of sibling relationships.  Siblings have more positive relationships with one another when parents treat them similarly (Brody, Stoneman, & Burke, 1987).

            Associations between the quality of parents’ marital or extra-marital relationships and children’s’ sibling relationships have been documented in the literature (Brody, Stoneman, McCoy, & Forehand, 1992; Kerr & Bowen, 1988; MacKinnon, 1989; Stocker, Ahmed, & Stall, 1997).  Despite the positive links between marital conflict and hostile sibling relationships, some research suggests that siblings can act as supports for each other.  For example, Jenkins and Smith (1990) found that in families with high levels of marital conflict, children with close relationships with brothers and sisters had fewer adjustment difficulties than those with conflictual sibling relationships.

            One of the most consistent and striking findings about siblings is that they differ from one another on most measures of personality and psychopathology as much as any two people randomly selected from the population (Dunn & Plomin, 1990).  Why should sisters and brothers who grow up in the same family and share 50% of their genes be so different?  Researchers have discovered that even though they come from the same family, siblings experience different environments within that family.  Parents treat siblings differently, and these differences have been linked to differences in siblings’ outcomes (Dunn & Plomin, 1990).

Murray Bowen (1978) offered a way to understand family emotional processes that create sibling differences.  In a live-in family research project at the National Institute of Mental Health, he studied how it was that the same parents could raise one quite impaired child and another fairly normal child.  He theorized that the unit of treatment is the family system, not the individual.  He postulated that if parents do not work on difficulties they are having with each other in their marriage or relationship, then one or more children would be vulnerable to filling this breach in their relationship.  The child who is fortunate enough to avoid intense focus by one or more parents is freer to grow and develop.

According to M. E. Kerr:

The usual way that marital distance places one child in harm’s way is that the mother focuses less energy on her husband and turns to the child to gratify desires for a comfortable emotional connection.  In the process, the child becomes so important to her well being that he easily triggers her worries as well.  This mix of needs and fears cements a powerful connection.  The father invests much of his energy in work and is usually less entangled emotionally with the child.  However, he participates equally in the child focus by playing his part in marital distance and getting anxiously entangled in his wife’s relationship with the child.  (personal communication, October 29, 2005)

 

M. E. Kerr explained:

If one child fills the breach in the parents’ relationship, his sibling is relatively off the hook.  The parents expend their needs and fears on the overly involved child.  It enables them to be more relaxed and at their best with his sibling.  The sibling’s reality needs rather than their anxiety largely govern their interactions with him. Developing in a less emotional climate, the sibling tunes into social cues, but without being programmed to overreact to them.  (personal communication, October 30, 2005)

 

Kerr (personal communication, October 29, 2005) noted that functioning between an overly involved sibling and his brother or sister often become apparent during toddlerhood.  One child may be more easily bored and depend more completely on his or her mother for direction.  The freer sibling can entertain himself and manage himself more independently.  By the time the child reaches school age, the freer child is not as dependent on his teacher for approval and direction.  Peer relationships are freer and less of an issue for a child who is free of intense focus by one or more parents.

The overly focused upon child will be more prone to rebel or move into harm’s way during adolescence, according to Kerr (personal communication, October 29, 2005). His rebellious streak parallels his or her difficulty in being an individual while the freer adolescent sails through this life cycle stage more easily.  Kerr theorized:

The overly involved child may function fairly well until stumbling badly in trying to make the transition into adult life.  At whatever point problems surface, the parents intensify their focus on the child in an effort to fix him.  This further escalates the tension, particularly if the child does not respond.  (personal communication, October 28, 2005)

 

Kerr emphasized that

a parent being overly involved with a child is harmful because the ongoing emotionally intense interactions over the years of his development program the child’s well being and functioning to depend heavily on relationships….like a moth drawn to a bright light, he becomes preoccupied with [mother’s] attention, approval, expectations, and distress.  His mood and motivation become linked to how she and others view him.  Being ensnarled in the emotionality constrains the child’s instinctive urge to develop his individuality.  (personal communication, October 29, 2005)

In the sections above, the nature of the sibling relationship has been explored from individual, systemic, and lifespan perspectives. “

Relationship counseling may be an avenue toward encouraging personal growth in the context of marital or couples challenges. Relationship counseling may also be an avenue toward resolving chronic or acute issues between partners. To learn more about Dr. Cunningham’s marriage and family therapy counseling practice, visit her website at http://www.cunninghamtherapy.com or call 619 990-6203 for a complimentary phone consultation.

 

 

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“Anger is a signal, and one worth listening to.” Harriet Lerner

Dr. Barbara Cunningham, licensed marriage and family therapist in San Diego, CA, sees many couples who complain that chronic anger has eaten away at their relationship or marriage over time. What follows are some of  her thoughts on how negative feelings can cut into relational quality.

Anger is an emotion that can erode an individual’s quality of life and play havoc with the dynamic in one’s most important relationships. In my clinical practice, I see many couples who complain that anger has infected their relationship satisfaction. The roller coaster quality of living with someone who has trouble managing his/her anger can be devastating. At http://www.Cunninghamtherapy.com, Dr. Cunningham works on helping people learn new tools and apply new principles to their relationships that can help them lead calmer, more satisfying lives. 

Dr. Cunningham, for example, emphasizes that it is important to be clear about one’s bottom line. What will you do and what won’t you do for the other person? Consider your “yes-es” as carefully as you consider your “no’s.” If you accommodate and give in again and again, over time, resentment toward your partner may build. Then as normal day-to-day stresses of life accumulate, a person with anger management problems may explode and hurt those he or she loves deeply.

A person with anger management problems needs to learn that they can shape their world rather than being at the mercy of outside forces. They need to increase their sense that they can become the CEO of their own life instead of exerting energy upon trying to control others. If a person can become aware of triggers that make them say yes when they really want to say no (or conversely, make them say no when they really want to say yes), they will know where they stop and the other begins.

People who work on developing this type of “emotional muscle” will not be quite as governed by the responses of others. This simple yet difficult self-management skill can help curb resentment toward an important other. When one works on managing one’s own boundaries more carefully, it can help to control the risk of festering and growing resentment and anger. Such an effort can empower people to become long distance runners in the art of intimacy. Dr. Cunningham sees individuals and couples for relationship counseling on issues of all kinds. To learn more, visit her web site at http://www.cunninghamtherapy.com or call for a complimentary phone consultation at 619 9906203.

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At Affordable Relationship Counseling in San Diego, I specialize in counseling couples for many problems, including infidelity. Recently, I had cause to reflect on the growing effects of social media on relationship functioning in today’s technologically-dominated world. In the May, 2012 issue of ATLANTIC, Stephen Marche states that “We are living in an isolation that would have been unimaginable to our ancestors, and yet we have never been more accessible. Over the past three decades, technology has delivered to us a world in which we need not be out of contact for a fraction of a moment…Yet within this world of instant and absolute communication, unbounded by limits of time or space, we suffer from unprecedented alienation. We have never been more detached from one another, or lonelier. ..We live in an accelerating contradiction: the more connected we become, the lonelier we are.”

In my practice, I often treat couples who complain of the ruptured bond between them. Some people look to escape their grief and loss instead of facing it head on. In fact, research has found that a couple waits an average of six years before seeking marriage counseling.

One of the many ways that people escape their growing sense of alienation with one another is by becoming more active on sites such as Facebook. or chatting late into the nite in internet chat rooms. Marche observes that “What Facebook has revealed about human nature…is that a connection is not the same thing as a bond, and that instant and total connection is no salvation, no ticket to a happier, better world.” On the internet, one can be social while still being free of the challenges inherent in relationship functioning between truly bonded people. It can be a way to feel as if one has developed an intimate relationship with someone else and yet this is a delusion. There is no need to do more than preen one’s presentation feathers and one rarely has to deal with the stuff of real relationship challenges. It is as if one is creating a flattering mirror through which to see oneself in the eyes of others who also occupy the ethernet.

Years ago, I saw a couple who came in to therapy because one of the spouses finally relinquished a “connection” which had developed over two years on the internet. The spouse involved in the internet, emotional affair had been communicating with her for years and had, in fact, never met the object of his affection. This was a key focus of the sessions. He had finally freed himself of this escape from his grief about the fracture in his primary relationship and was now ready to work on restoring a connection to his marriage. In early therapy, the wife wanted to talk about the affair and would obsess on the who, the what, and they why of how it happened and whether she could trust him ever again. This was encouraged and allowed in order to rebuild trust as the wife could observe the husband’s (encouraged) efforts at increasing his transparency, even about a subject as difficult as disclosing the details of his affair. The husband wanted to “move on” and put the affair into the past where he said “it belonged.” Such polarized efforts to deal with an affair are common. Therapy helped the husband understand the nature of healing as a process, and the import of increasing his capacity for vulnerability in front of other instead of a focus upon covering content. I allowed the couple sufficient time to process their respective thoughts, feelings, fears, and regrets.

Eventually, I suggested that a proper focus of treatment would be to get at the factors in their marriage which contributed to the affair. It was important to key in on the affair as a trauma that required healing and that each person played a part in how the marriage become susceptible to such traumatic symptomology. Questions are asked which should generate more questions. Increasing the capacity to be transparent in front of one another and to decrease defensiveness is central. A safe holding environment is created by having each partner talk through the therapist. I asked each partner to discuss what they think contributed to the affair. I wondered aloud how long there had been unspoken (and spoken) marital tension and was this a contributing factor to each person running away from facing their part in the tension as well as the reality of the broken primary bond? In what ways did the wife look to criticize and blame her spouse, in a last ditch effort to get him to connect to her? How did the other spouse accommodate and give in when it was merely to avoid “ruffling her feathers?” Could these behaviors be fertile breeding grounds for growing resentment and alienation between them? How did the cheating spouse decide to stop the affair? How long had the other spouse ignored her part in the procrastination of dealing with the growing problem of a hardened distance and rift in the marriage? How could the couple join hands to provide future immunity from affairs? What does having an affair/ignoring one’s part in criticalness, emotional distancing or blame say about the emotional maturity of each partner’s former capacity to face their relationship challenges head on? Might not coming to therapy be an opportunity to congratulate one another on their increased emotional maturity and newfound capacity to address existing problems in the maintenance and nurture of their bond? Each partner was called upon to monitor their own “automatic” tendencies to withdraw, pursue, and/or become critical and blaming. The reciprocity of accommodation and pursuit were considered as cul-de-sacs leading to growing resentment and alientation. Over time, this couple began to grow in their confidence to at once regulate themselves as individuals while at the same time maintaining connection and safety within their relationship. The work emphasized regulating self to insure the viability of the relationship connection rather than using the relationship to insure that the individual would feel like a valid human being. The rewards of therapy led them to become increasingly confident that they could continue to insure the integrity of their relationship connection .

Social media offers an ineffective and dangerous avenue of escape to people feeling the grief and loss borne of a growing disconnect from their most significant other. People who are disconnected from their primary significant other may at one time or another look to meet their connectedness needs on the internet. The avenue leads to a deadend. To learn more about Dr. Cunningham’s model of practice, visit her website at http://www.Cunninghamtherapy.com or call 619 9906203 for a complimentary phone consultation.

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As a marriage and family therapist in San Diego, I practice couples therapy and individual therapy using an intergenerational perspective. I specialize in helping couples and individuals live more meaningfully in their most important relationships. Relationship counseling and individual counseling is better to seek sooner rather than later when one experiences chronic challenges in relational functioning. Research has shown that couples typically wait 6 years before seeking couples counseling. It is wiser to get help earlier and before problems fester, causing resentments to harden and become more resistant to treatment.

Dr. Murray Bowen was a pioneer of marriage and family therapy.   He believed that human beings live in interdependent emotional systems. His insights are profound. I am guided, in large part, by his ideas. James Framo, another early MFT leader, observed that clinically, Bowen’s ideas address the basic question of how one can deal with one’s family’s nuttiness without cutting off from the family. Just as Socrates urged people, “Know thyself,” Dr. Bowen encouraged people to “Know your family.”  Such an effort can enhance one’s ability to live in a more fulfilled way in one’s current relationships. In an early post I listed five of my favorite quotes from Murray Bowen. Below are *more quotes that typify Bowen’s deep and unique  level of understanding of the human condition:

“Family systems theory is based on the assumptions that the human is a product of evolution and that human behavior is significantly regulated by the same natural processes that regulate the behavior of all other living things….Homo sapiens are far more like other life forms than different from them.”

“One of the most important aspects of family dysfunction is an equal degree of overfunction in another part of the family system. It is factual that dysfunctioning and overfunctioning exist together. ..An example would be the dominating (overfunctioning) mother and passive father.”

“The more a therapist learns about a family, the more the family learns about itself; and the more the family learns, the more the therapist learns, in a cycle which continues.”

“The overall [clinical] goal [is] to help family members become ‘system experts’ who could know [their family system] so well that the family could readjust itself without the help of an outside expert, if and when the family system was again stressed.”

“Relationships are cyclical. There is one phase of calm, comfortable closeness. This can shift to anxious, uncomfortable overcloseness with the incorporation of the ‘self” of one by the ‘self ‘ of the other. There there is the phase of distant rejection in which the two can literally repel each other. In some families, the relationship can cycle through the phases at frequent intervals. In oher families, the cycle can stay relatively fixed for long periods.”

“The basic building block of any emotional system is the triangle. ”

“Important changes [between the couple] accompany the birth of children.”

“The problem of the ‘triangled’ child presents one of the most difficult problems in family psychotherapy.

Dr. Murray Bowen was one of the important pioneers in marriage and family therapy. As a clinician who specializes in relationship counseling, I am guided, in large part, by his ideas. To learn more about my model of practice, visit me at http://www.Cunninghamtherapy.com or call 619 9906203 for a complimentary telephone consultation.

* Quotes are cited from FAMILY THERAPY IN CLINICAL PRACTICE by Murray Bowen (1978)

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  In my private practice in San Diego, I work to provide quality services for marriage counseIing, relationship counseling, and individual psychotherapy. Oftentimes, I listen to young girls and women of all ages obsess about their weight, their appearance and their disappearing youth. I try to provide a safe holding environment as they work to relieve themselves of the overwhelming social pressures to be the prettiest, the skinniest, and the sexiest version of themselves they can create. I coach them to practice self care and take pride in themselves. However, I also coach them to make their life purpose revolve around what they can accomplish rather than merely upon a superficial and dangerous emphasis upon appearance and youth.

After talking at lunch with a close friend and colleague about the troubles of Demi Moore, I had a moment to reflect upon society’s demands to value appearance over substance. Magazines, movies, tv shows, and internet blogs seem to scream that “youth” trumps wisdom-that what we wear matters more than what we think. Some young women and many older women buy into this message so passionately that they kill themselves trying to meet these youthful, botoxed, skinny standards.

This week,  ABC News reported on Demi Moore’s downward spiral as reflecting her obsession with losing weight and battling against the clock as she approaches the big 5-0.  After public humiliation in the face of her estranged younger husband, Ashton Kutcher, betraying her with gorgeous, younger women, she seemingly dropped off her own psychological cliff. Demi appeared so emaciated in this week’s photos that she could have been mistaken for a cancer patient. Sad. Really sad. As she moves into a new decade, her refusal to eat seemed to say symbolically that she just could not swallow it. That she simply wants to disappear. 

Moore’s reported erratic behavior and alleged drug abuse sends a loud message to her daughters that adulthood is not fun and that aging gracefully must be for fools. She makes it appear that it is devastating to cross from youth to middle age. This woman’s daughters are learning deep lessons by watching their mother. Partying with their mother. Suffering as they watch their mother suffer. Wondering if growing older is really as devastating as Mom would have them believe. Moore reportedly gave an interview to Harper’s Bazaar and said, “What scares me is that I am ultimately going to find out at the end of my life that I am not really loveable, that I’m not worthy of being loved…that there is something fundamentally wrong with me.”

When daughters watch their mothers obsess about weight, worry about their changing appearances, be more ambitious about choosing their wardrobes than they are about the enduring consequences of their life choices and try to “hang” with and/or marry much younger men in an effort to cling to their own youth, they are receiving a devastating message. As mothers, we must realize that we are always modeling something–but what? In fact, the deepest lessons our daughters learn is by watching what we do, not what we say. So what are the lessons that we teach our daughters by our own actions?

Little girls learn at an early age if Mom is more concerned with style over substance. Sadly, Rumor, Scout and Talullah may have learned that their mother believes that her greatest value is in her appearance–that her validity as a human being is wrapped up in what she weighs, how she looks, and whether she is still “hot.” In a mad effort to deny her own mortality, she hangs with young people and seemingly tries to deny she is turning fifty with erratic behavior and recreational drugs. If Demi’s daughters are fortunate, they will look at life and their own intrinsic value differently than their mother. They will try to make meaning out of their life in a way that honors experience and wisdom over youth and appearance. Instead of survival of the prettiest, they will see their survival as being rooted in resilience-in the lessons they can discover that are present, but must be uncovered, in each of their life challenges.  Hopefully, Ms. Moore will benefit from professional help so that she can turn her life around. As a woman and as a mother who is facing myriad challenges, she now has an opportunity to teach her children more about the meaning of life by giving new meaning to her own. She has the opportunity to show that there is no shame in stumbling if one picks themselves up from the fall. She can model the joy of recovery from all of the Sturm and Drang so publically displayed. She has the opportunity to review and perhaps modify her values that have privileged vanity over inner substance gained from a life well lived. She has the opportunity to bounce forward, not just back-because of, not in spite of, her recent adversities.

To learn more about Dr. Cunningham‘s strength-based practice, visit her website at http://www.Cunninghamtherapy.com or call her at 619 9906203 for a complimentary telephone consultation.

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