June 14, 2010

Must Love Dogs or At Least Want to Walk One

In previous posts I have talked about the challenge of finding friends and how to make small talk once you meet new people. Cultivating healthy friendships and getting social support are often such an integral part of therapy.

Not long ago I read a blog post on the topic, 13 Ways to Make Friends. You can read the full post, here.

There are a few additions in the 13 Ways that I hadn't talked about in my posts so I thought I would mention three of them here.

Volunteering: Not only will you come into contact with other caring, proactive fellow volunteers, but receptive and appreciative individuals at the receiving end of your efforts as well. Research has shown that engaging in meaningful work and activities helps alleviate depression, for example.

In short, good feelings can come from helping others.

I should know.

In my city of Austin, Texas, checking out the Get Involved section on the KUT public radio website is a great way to explore volunteer opportunities.

You might check out the websites of your local radio stations, newspapers, churches, or simply ask around. In addition to finding worthwhile volunteer work, asking someone to share their volunteer experiences is a great way to get someone to open up to you.

Get Cyber-Social: Though not as beneficial as face-to-face interactions, joining internet support groups and social networking sites have been shown to help lift a person's spirits and decrease feelings of loneliness. Sometimes that sense of "not being alone" via online discussion forums and emails can add to one's positive wellbeing. Feeling validated in one's thoughts, opinions, and experiences is described as helpful by many.

Whether you explore medical conditions, mental health issues, books, art, music, energy conservation, the list is virtually endless these days, there's a good chance you can find like-minded individuals who are willing to connect online.

Social networking sites, the ones where you can search and reconnect with old friends scattered far and wide, are seemingly the new wave of staying in touch.

But remember, spending time close up and personal, such as having lunch together, taking a walk, meeting face to face, tends to yield more benefits that limiting your interactions to the electronic screen. And second, when moving from an internet-only relationship to meeting in person, please take precautions and observe safety rules.

Get a Dog: Having completed my doctoral dissertation in the area of the health value of pet ownership, I learned there are many benefits, including lowering blood pressure. Increasing social opportunities is another. For example, I worked with someone who met his girlfriend at a dog park.

Studies have shown that people walking a dog tend to be viewed as more approachable and friendly. It's similar to the baby stroller effect. People are drawn to babies and pets, especially dogs.

I cannot say for sure that walking an iguana, say, would have the same effect, but maybe.

by Matthew Eastmond

I mean, an iguana is a curiosity and there are those that think iguanas are the cat's meow. But there are others who would run in the opposite direction if they saw a small, horny-backed creature scurrying their way. So factor in the social likeability factor when choosing a pet to parade in public.

Puppies probably rate highest but that doesn't mean you should run out and buy a new puppy when you've already got a dog. The expense and effort of too many pets could backfire.

I recently finished a cute book, Must Love Dogs, where the heroine borrows her brother's dog to meet a man from the personal ads and he, too, shows up with a borrowed dog.

The book was made into a really funny movie of the same title, starring Diane Lane and John Cusack, if you'd rather watch it on your home screen. Laughter is the best medicine, right?

Better yet, watch it with a friend. The two-footed or four-footed variety.

June 8, 2010

Making Marriage Work - A Recommended Book

Speaking of marital therapy, one book I really, really like to recommend for couples, one that has helped many that I've worked with, probably more than any other (in my experience), one that both partners seem to easily buy into (very important), is The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work by John Gottman, PhD.

This couples self-help book is fairly easy to understand, fairly straight forward. Gottman uses very common, everyday speak. It's largely research / outcome /evidence based advice, which means he bases his suggestions on findings in a lab, instead of touchy-feely, abstract, unituitive, flowery language that leaves readers feeling good and hopeful but without any explicit tools to apply to their relationship, and thus, no true or lasting impact.

Gottman's Seven Principles deals quite a bit with anger and how a high degree of anger can negatively impact a marriage, whether the anger is externalized - yelling, blaming, name-calling, stomping, hitting, having an affair; or internalized - stewing, turning away, shutting oneself off, silent treatment, self blame, martyrdom.

The portion in the book I refer to most often is the section Gottman refers to as the "Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse" -- four communication patterns to eliminate from your relationship:

1. Criticism - or as one psychologist described them, ad hominem personal attacks. Rather than make a complaint about a specific behavior, followed by a request for positive change, habitual criticisms and verbal attacks are toxic in a marriage or partnership.

2. Contempt - I like to describe this as saying one thing with your words but saying something entirely different, and critical or derogatory, with your voice tone and/or body language. Some researchers believe that 90% of communication is non-verbal. So ugly, harsh voice tone tends to be the loudest of all. Gottman's research has also suggested that men, in particular, are highly sensitive to women's voice tone. Maybe the condescending or critical female tone reminds them of being scolded by dear-old-Mom, the powerlessness associated with those unpleasant memories. I don't know. But it bears reminding that a shrill tone of voice is a huge turnoff.

3. Defensiveness - When faced with a partner's complaint, taking a super defensive posture can be a fast track to getting nowhere. So often in an arguement we see the pattern of complaint, followed by the partner's defensiveness, followed by the same partner's cross complaint.


Partner 1: You don't help enough around the house.

Partner 2: Me? I do plenty around this house! What about you? You never make the bed in the morning and you're always leaving a mess on the bathroom counter!

Defensiveness followed by cross complaint followed by defensiveness followed by cross complaint. It can be an endless, vicious cycle. No one is listening. No one is taking responsibility. No one is offering to make changes.

4. Stonewalling - Shutting down communication is the cornerstone of stonewalling. Refusing to talk, basically. And it isn't only verbal. Meeting a spouse's complaints with a blank stare or a hostile glare or other forms of aggressive body language (arms crossed, jaw jutted out), walking out, otherwise known as storming out, slamming doors, staying gone, pouting, sullen expression, avoiding the spouse who dared to voice displeasure.

Gottman is widely published in professional, peer-reviewed journals. He has been doing research on marriages for more than twenty years, looking at what helps marriage last and what behavioral trends are associated with divorce. He touts that he and his researchers are able to predict what factors bring couples to divorce court 95% of the time. Excessive anger is one communication pattern and behavioral style at the top of the list.

Many troubled couples come from families where a lot of anger was freely expressed and heartily justified. Individuals with this background often come into therapy looking for validation that anger is healthy, that anger is good to express.

Gottman's work cuts right through these justifications. Instead of loud, ranting discontent, expressing wants and preferences in a calm and respectful voice tone is at the heart of healthy communication. Disagreement is healthy, yes. Expressing disagreements is healthy, yes. In fact, Gottman points out that marriage with the least amount of conflict are often the most at risk.

But aggressive attacks and screaming matches? Not good.

Communicating in a healthy, assertive way isn't always natural and seldom is it easy. Gottman's work helps show the way in simple, concrete terms. In a world full of bookstores full of relationship self-help books, this one is a keeper.