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Posts Tagged ‘Marriage Counseling’

At Affordable Relationship Counseling, licensed marriage and family therapist, Dr. Barbara Cunningham, specializes in issues of grief and loss. Death, divorce, breakups, pet loss, homicide, suicide, career transitions, moves and many other changes all may herald in a period that the client may experience grief and loss. Dr. Cunningham emphasizes that all people belong to an emotional system. Emotional systems are made up of individuals, all of whom are interdependent upon one another to a greater or lesser degree. Thus, exits from the family system may create a kind of “emotional shock wave effect,” wherein relationships shift among members upon the death of an important family member.

As Dr. Cunningham experiences just such a change…the serious illness of her own mother…she is observant of the emotional process swirling about her and within her. She often advises clients not to make major decisions or changes for a year following the death of an important family member or after a divorce. This is a cautious way to insure that the brain calms down enough to make a rational decision. Homo sapiens are a social species. When we lose a profound attachment, it is an automatic impulse to grieve and even to look for a replacement love object to comfort us in our loss. The idea of doing so is normal…letting the passage of time occur to insure the decision is made with reflection is good insurance. 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 telephone consultation.

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Dr. Barbara Cunningham, licensed marriage and family therapist, often suggests books to her clients that may be an accompaniment to aspects of their treatment journey in couples counseling or individual counseling. One such recommendation to clients exploring existential themes has been EINSTEINS DREAMS by Alan Lightman. Below is a review of Lightman’s novel.

IMAGINING TIME

In the novel entitled EINSTEINS DREAMS, Alan Lightman challenges the reader with the possibilities within each of us for imagining time, existence, and relativity. Thirty dated vignettes describe notions of time imagined during young Einstein’s dream states. These entries are introduced by a prologue wherein the reader meets Einstein at precisely six ten a.m. at the patent office in Berne, Switzerland, his place of employment. It is on this morning in late June of 1905 that the protagonist submits his electrifying paper on the Special Theory of Relativity to a typist. The novel spans only three hours, ending when the typist arrives at the office. Sandwiched between are the thirty dreams and three interludes that predate the prologue and epilogue, during which time Einstein obsessed on his theory and dreamed of myriad temporal worlds through the prismatic lens of human experience. It is fitting that LIghtman uses Einstein as a vehicle through which to paint the existential dilemmas and joys of human existence, and the reader-clinician who has a systemic orientation may draw many parallels between the imaginary worlds and exigencies of real life within individual and family life cycles of development.

Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity ushered in an era that challenged linear ways of viewing the universe in many disciplines, not the least of which was psychology. Einstein shattered previous thought when he proved that time is not an absolute. What he discovered was that if you sat on a train that is either stationery or moving at a constant speed and look at another passing train without viewing the landscape, you will not be able to ascertain which train is moving and which train is at rest; you can only say that each train moves past the other at a certain relative speed. Similarly, in the psychological world of relativistic (circular) causality, no reality exists in a vacuum, but rather depends on the interconnectedness of people and events as they move through time. A second for one person may feel different than a second for another, and the view that one person sees may be quite different from that seen by another. The idea that distance and time are not absolute and depend on the motion of the observer is akin to the idea that members of a family can only be viewed in their roles in relation to one another, to the times that precede them generationally, to the times in which they live, and to the individual and shared goals they may have for the future. In addition to the fact that the normative and non-normative changes within the normal family life cycle have a circular causality, there is also a constant dialectic action and a holistic reality, wherein the family is greater than the sum total of all its members. Culturally-directed timetables, familial, intergenerational interpretation of those timeframes, and individual developmental rhythms shape the personalities, behavior, thoughts, and outcomes of people, families, and nations. Indeed, various issues cogent to the clinician in the field of marriage and family therapy must be considered against the backdrop of time.

Subjective time is dramatically different from the mechanical time upon which most societies base their members’ lives. To spend a month on a surfboard on the island of Tavarua in the Fiji Islands might seem like a shorter month than to spend a month awaiting results of a biopsy. A jetlagged individual can attest to the relativity of temporal perception. Such a dichotomy is a dialectical phenomenon that exists in our lives continuously and is described as a literal fantasy in young Einstein’s entry dated 24 April 1905 (“There are two times, mechanical and body”). To analyze the meanings of subjective and objective time is to realize the impact of time on human behavior: the rewards, consequences, limitations, possibilities, attitudes, values, belief systems, and lifestyles. And, as in the novel, everything is connected and relative to other variables, not the least of which is human reactions to the passage of time. Some worlds in the novel are bustling and chock full of action; in others, there is little that happens. In most of Lightman’s imagined worlds, the concept of linear continuity, which defines our sense of time, does not exist. What is common to all the worlds in EINSTEIN’S DREAMS is that the characters’ lives are defined by the limits the nature of time places on what is possible.

In fragmented time, relationships cannot develop. In backwards time, life demands a loss of achievement and knowledge. In fact, in a world where one dies to be born, the conventional birth mother would be seen not as the giver of life, but as the taker of life. It is interesting to consider, for example, how this might change attachment or object relations theory. The child would avoid the primary caregiver and avoid attachment to her as the woman who would signal the end of life.Death would not be the dreaded villain, but the welcomed friend. The thought of “life after death” would be looked upon with horror.

Lightman is himself an example of the dialectical nature of existence. He is a distinguished physicist and professor of creative writing at MIT, seemingly paradoxical interests. Similarly, Eisnstein discovers a theory about the outside world, even though he is a loner who lives primarily in an inner world. Indeed, EINSTEIN’S DREAMS is less a reflection of many worlds and more a reflection of all the lenses through which an individual could view his own world.

To learn more about Dr. Cunningham’s couples counseling practice, visit her website at www.cunninghamtherapy.com or call 619 9906203 for a complimentary telephone consultation.

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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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“Nobody’s ready for marriage – marriage makes you ready for marriage.” (Schnarch, 1998, p. 25)

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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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In my practice in San Diego, I specialize in relationship counseling, couples counseling, and marriage counseling. I do counseling with straight, gay, lesbian and transgendered couples in my practice.

Presently, I see a couple with two grown children. They have remained stuck for years in the repetitiveness of a distancer-pursuer cycle. The more he puts up walls, goes into his “cave.” or just gets too busy to make time for them, the more she pursues him by asking to “talk,” and even getting critical and blaming, just to get some reaction-any reaction- out of him. Both partners appear for treatment with a resigned look on their faces and seem to be frustrated and hopeless about their relationship. This cycle has gone on for years, and no matter how many times the woman complains about their lack of connection or no matter how many times the man pleads with his wife to stop nagging and just let him be, the battle continues. Sometimes the battle takes place underground-for example, in his resentment, he knows that it will make his wife angry whenever he is late. So he’s habitually late. His wife knows that it will make him mad if she buys too many new shoes at Nordstrom, so she splurges on multiple pairs of Jimmy Choo’s. Other times, the batttle takes place above ground, and they just go over and over what is stopping them from moving forward until one of them tires of the blaming behavior and withdraws. And so it goes.

When this couple finally appears in my office, early in the assessment phase of treatment, I assign them each two books : The 8 Concepts of Bowen Theory and Extraordinary Relationships, both by Roberta Gilbert, M.D. I explain a bit about my model of practice. I emphasize that when two people are anxious, it is common to blame the other for all the problems. Our brains are hardwired to do this. The work is to use that tiny part of our brain that has evolved above other forms of life and, on a good day, allows us to think about our thinking. Reading the books is an example of using that cognitive capacity to calm down the emotional while at the same time learning a new kind of causality about relationship functioning. Blaming behaviors reflect a linear causality. My model looks at problems from the perspective of a circular causality. This means no one is blame! Instead, problems are co-created, or tri-created and,in some cases, may be rooted in each partner’s multigenerational story as well as unfinished personal business from past relationships that ended poorly.

In order to find out context (with the idea that nothing ever happens in a vacuum anyway), in the second and third sessions, I take a family diagram of three or four generations. I look for patterns of strength as well as  problematic patterns that may repeat over generations. I look at levels of functioning and variation in each generations’s sibling group. I look at patterns of closeness and distance. Some partners come from families who are emotionally expressive and, in the extreme, “into each other’s business.” Oftentimes, the other partner comes from a family that is the polar opposite: family members are distant and isolated from one another, emotionally, and, at times, this can be reflected in family members being flung all over the globe or just not communicative despite living in the same town. I look for levels of functioning academically and professionally. I look for how well members can “hold” intimacy over the long haul through each members’ number of marriages. I look for patterns of loyalty and infidelity. I like to think of this effort as being akin to climbing to the top of the bleachers to see the football game rather than sitting on the fifty yardline. Past is, indeed, prologue.

The assumptions I hold are myriad. Four key assumptions involve the following: 1.) We are all more alike than we are different; 2.) we are interconnected; 3.) the human being has a need for both connection and separateness; and 4.) functioning is reciprocal (for example, the more one overfunctions in relation to another, it may, in part, determine the level of underfunctioning in another).

An example of interconnectivity can be seen in emotional shock wave effects after the death of an important family member. It is common to watch dramatic changes among the relationships of those who were closest to the deceased family member. We all can think of someone, for example, who has been married for many years and one partner dies. Within a year, the other partner passes. It may reflect how profoundly connected the partners may have been, so that even their mortality is affected by the distance of death.

In my view, change is about going outside your comfort zone. It is in a frustrated partner’s comfort zone to blame and criticize the other person to justify why he/she is right. Paradoxically, this blaming effort merely serves to solidy the other partner’s opposing position. There is gridlock. The therapy effort is to work toward being able to visualize your own part in a problematic relationship dynamic. This involves getting some separateness from all the togetherness in order to see how you are impacting the dynamic yourself.

Learning and then applying family systems principles to one’s own life is an ongoing challenge and lifelong process. My model of therapy sets people on the road to making this shift in their thinking. To be able to transform ones thinking from individual (blame) to systemic (cocreated) is a continuing effort. Keeping one’s eye on oneself instead of on other can change a couple’s dynamic in a dramatic way.

Dr. Cunningham has her doctorate with a specialty in marriage and family therapy. She is licensed in the state of California as a marriage and family therapist. Dr. Cunningham has published an academic book chapter on her family systems treatment and has been an adjunct professor at a COAMFT accredited graduate school of marriage and family therapy. She has long life experience and has enjoyed seeing thousands of couples in her career. For more information about Dr. Cunningham’s model of practice, visit her website at http://www.cunninghamtherapy.com or call 619 990-6203 for a complimentary telephone consultation.

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After years of seeing distressed couples as a licensed marriage and family therapist in my office in San Diego, I have learned that love can be messy. Relationship counseling offers couples a counseling opportunity to take on the work of deepening their love in the face of current challenges they are facing.

Judith Viorst got it right when she said, “One advantage of marriage, it seems to me, is that when you fall out of love with him, or he falls out of love with you, it keeps you together until you maybe fall in love again.” Couples who come into marriage  expecting it to be easy are deluding themselves. The good news is that it is in the triumphs over challenges that love can deepen.

It is a “given” that infatuation has a limited shelf life. There is something a bit delusional that drives the euphoria of infatuation. A physical attraction combined with one’s wish to find a companion with whom he/she has a lot in common drives the “urge to merge.” Over time, as warts begin to appear, all the hopes and dreams one pins on a person in one’s wish for a “perfect union” may become shattered. The people who once reflected one another in such a flattering way may begin to find fault or seem less exited. Now, instead of euphoria, one or both become reactive, as they stand by watching another dream crumble. Once again, Judith Viorst shows remarkable insight when she says, “Many of us are done with adolescence before we are done with adolescent love.”Many people seek counseling trying to re-establish that blind euporia that comes from infatuation.

The deeper, more mature love that poets have written about for centuries is borne of hard work and effort. In the case of love, effort means having the capacity to see your part when there are problems and being a proactive rather than a reactive partner. Realistic expectations and the ability to see one’s part in a difficult relational challenge remain part of what defines the successful couple. To learn more about Dr. Cunningham’s model of marriage and family therapy practice, visit her website at http://www.cuuninghamtherapy.comor call 619 9906203 for a complimentary consultation.

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Dr. Cunningham often hears couples come to marriage counseling and relationship counseling with issues related to anger. Each partner often begins couples counseling with a wish for the therapist to “fix” the other.  Counseling aims to help each partner increase their capacity to visualize their own part in the dance. This increased self-responsility to at once be true to expressing your feelings to your intimate other and, still, to decrease blaming him/her is an overarching goal of most psychotherapy within my model, no matter what the presenting problems.

In his book entitled TO A DANCING GOD: NOTES OF A SPIRITUAL TRAVELER, Sam Keen has a dialogue with anger (pp. 114-119).  Anger says, “If you doubt that I am the companion of love, remember the ecstasy of the reconciliation that comes after fighting. After a good expression of clean anger, lovers have established the integrity of their separateness, and they may come together without fearing that either will be eradicated by the act of love. If you can’t fight, you can’t love.”

Interestingly, this quote from Keen has been backed up by specific research in the field. John Gottman’s research disspelled a prevalent myth about marriage. He found that fighting is not predictive of divorce. If couples are engaged with one another and learn principles of “fair” fighting, learning more effective ways to resolve conflict can, in fact, lead the way to deepening relational growth. Notably, important work by John Gottman identified lethal forms of communication between partners that were predictive of divorce and he called them the four “Horsemen of the Apocalypse” (stonewalling, criticism, contempt, and defensiveness). He found that these communication patterns in relationships were dangerous to holding relationships on a course of stability and longevity.

Thus, Keen’s quote is backed up by Gottman’s empirical findings.  Anger that is not expressed or held back may be classified as a kind of stonewalling. So-called happy couples may be ignoring or hiding the anger that exists within and between them. Marital partners who are more able to express anger in a timely, reflective, and respectful manner, especially with a Gottman technique that he referrs to as “soft startups,”  may be more adept at repair attempts and thus are more likely to stay together in a more fulfilling way.

Anger has to be a respected member of the partnership. If not, the couple may not be genuine with themselves or with each other. Furthermore, anger unrecognized or in disguise may be more dangerous than when it is out in the open and dischargeable. Hidden anger can lead to sudden disruptions, including failure in the marriage, a damaged sex life, domestic violence, and anxious child-rearing that may even lead to child abuse. When unconscious and unexpressed anger festers, it grows and becomes regressively more primitive.

If one considers the tasks of loving from the perspective of  Bowen Family Systems Theory, lovers must also be able to establish the integrity of their separateness if they are to remain connected as effective marital partners. If partners are fused too tightly, they will not be able to come together without fearing eradication by the other. Bowen would wholeheartedly agree with Keen that lovers who can cleanly express their anger are likely to be more engaged lovers. Lovers must have a bottom line and be differentiated enough to not “cave in” or accommodate to another just because they fear losing the relationship if they do not give in. Those who can make a move for “self” are also able to freely choose to make a move for “other” instead of just going along, with resentment following closely behind. They are able to be at choice about when they wish to be separate and when they wish to be connected while, at the same, they have a greater capacity to respect a differing need for closeness and/or distance at various times in their partner.

Makeup sex often occurs without a clear resolution to existing problems. It occurs because the couple just gets tired of fighting and feeling all the  negative energy and want to restore the illusion that they are really doing ok without necessarily doing the work to get there. In my view, an accurate description of problems brought to therapy always addresses the reciprocity between a couple and one’s ability to identify or visualize one’s own part in a dynamic. The “automatic” impulse is to focus on what is wrong with other instead of working to see what one’s own part may be and then moving toward changing it. Part of the work in “fair” fighting, from my perspective, then,  is the capacity to “step up” and see what you can do to shift the unhelpful dynamic that led to the fight. Makeup sex can feel goodin the moment, but may be a mere escape from taking responsibility on your end to make things better in the longterm. Makeup sex that does not include each partner’s effort to change can feel euphoric, but without the promise of future increased connectedness. Some people have compared the feeling to getting high on cocaine.

The more you love, the more susceptible you are to being hurt. When a person is hurt, the natural response is anger in some form or other. While anger is a painful emotion, it also brings wakefulness, alertness, and, if it does not burn out of control, can even lead to clearer thinking and action about one’s own functioning in relation to important others. Anger is an emotion creeping into many of our expressions. Problems are tackled, obstacles are attacked, roadblocks are smashed, fears are conquered, and skills are mastered. I believe that it is not enough to be angry about some things.  If you can be aware of your anger, express it with an eye to including in your expression what you have done to trigger such anger-provoking behavior in another, and fight fairly, then you will discover that you can love better and not be in a state of chronic festering resentment Anger needs to be expressed and recognized as an integral part of life and living. At one time or another, it  is part of being transparent to a significant other. Being emotionally “naked” with another is difficult;  the process of this effort describes the challenges in the journey toward increasing transparency. As David Schnarch noted in his book entitled PASSIONATE MARRIAGE, this capacity to increase transparency can lead to what he refers to as ” wall socket sex.”  Certainly, the expression of anger in a nonblaming manner with an eye to what one has done to trigger the other to behave in ways that inspire anger is a helpful, systemic approach to conflict resolution. 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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“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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