The Trouble With Time Outs

Dear Readers,
I have stepped away from my blog for a time. Colleague Megan Stonelake is filling in with insightful posts about parenting. Enjoy.

Given the popularity of the time out on parenting websites, it may come as a surprise to many parents that time outs aren’t the most effective form of discipline. Parents may be in complete agreement about the damage that can be done by spanking, but the same parents might be surprised to learn that time outs are also largely ineffective and potentially harmful.

Why Time Outs Don’t Work
In No-Drama Discipline, Dr. Dan Siegel and Dr. Tina Payne Bryson explain that very few children actually sit in time out and think about what they could have done differently. More frequently, children sit in time out and fume about the injustice of being in time out. They feel angry at their parents and can become even more upset. Therefore, the intended outcome is rarely achieved.
When children are in a state of high emotional reactivity, their brains are stressed. Stressed brains operate from a “fight, flight, or freeze” mode, meaning the brain is focused solely on survival and is not equipped to act rationally or solve problems. Correction and discipline are ineffective and counterproductive in such a state. We must first offer empathic coaching to assist our children in identifying and regulating their emotions before we expect them to process what has taken place and what they could have done differently.

As with other forms of punishment, time outs reduce the opportunity for meaningful discussion and connection. Time outs send our children the message that their behavior makes them unacceptable, rather than it being a result of overstimulation, lack of skill, or developmentally appropriate frustration. “Putting them in time-out deprives them of a chance to practice being active, empathic decision makers who are empowered to figure things out” (No-Drama Discipline). Similarly, parenting expert Dr. Laura Markham states, “When you send him off to his room by himself, he’ll calm down eventually — but he’s no closer to learning to manage those emotions next time.” If our intention is to give our children the opportunity to reflect and brainstorm solutions, they would be better served by a collaborative approach which take places with a loving parent, “…the biggest reason we question the value of time-outs has to do with a child’s profound need for connection. Often, misbehavior is a result of a child getting overtaxed emotionally…It’s during these times that a child most needs our comfort and calm presence (No-Drama Discipline).

Dr. Siegel and Dr. Bryson also point out that time outs are often commanded from a place of anger and frustration rather than thoughtful intention. In this case, it isn’t so much about giving the child space to reflect as it is a way to isolate a child for a negative behavior. This punitive approach teaches our children that we only love them when we find their actions acceptable. As soon as they behave in a way we don’t like, they are separated from us until they are once again deemed “good.” Alfie Kohn keenly identifies this as a “time out from love” (Unconditional Parenting).

Time Outs Aren’t Developmentally Appropriate
Parent educator Sarah Ockwell-Smith explains that time outs with toddlers are an exercise in futility as it assumes young children have the neurobiology of adults, “Under the age of three the neocortex (the frontal section) of the brain is exceptionally immature, the neural connections are not yet fully formed and as such we may consider it grossly underdeveloped….The frontal cortex of the brain is the segment that is responsible for impulse control, emotional self regulation and critical, analytical and hypothetical thought.” In other words, small children are entirely incapable of accomplishing what time outs are intended to give the space to provide: the opportunity to reflect, problem solve, and regulate their own emotions. Those are skills which come with time, experience, and empathic coaching. Expecting toddlers to possess them is unrealistic. Ockwell-Smith explains that time outs may change behaviors, but it’s only because children learn that sharing their emotions is not safe and will be met with punishment.

Our most powerful tool in parenting is our connection with our children. Therefore, our discipline is only as effective as our relationship. By sending our children away, we weaken that connection, however slightly. In doing so, we also set ourselves up for a power struggle. Many parents who have tried time outs unsuccessfully explain that it was nearly impossible to keep their child in the time out. When this happens, it’s our will against theirs, and often physical intimidation is needed to make the child comply. Rather than choosing a collaborative method wherein we’re encouraging trust and mutual respect, we’re choosing to adopt a “parent vs. child” dynamic. Very little learning can take place in such an environment.

What If I need a Time Out?
Maybe your child doesn’t need time apart, but you do. If you know separating from your child and taking a few deep breaths is the only way to stay composed, take care of yourself before attempting to care for your dysregulated child. We’ve all had moments when we know we’re on the verge of yelling, and in such an instance taking your own time out is the better option. Consider explaining to your child, “I love you, but I’m feeling frustrated and need a few minutes to calm down so I can help you.” Then make sure your child is safe and go in your room to beat the tar out of some pillows or practice deep breathing. We’re in no position to calm a dysregulated child when we are operating from a state of dysregulation ourselves.

Time outs aren’t the most punitive form of punishment we can practice, but they also aren’t the most effective mode of discipline. When we see our relationship with our children as an opportunity for collaboration, we naturally gravitate towards interventions which provide them with support and gentle guidance rather than isolation and judgment.

Megan Stonelake is a therapist, blogger, mama, and parent coach. She’s passionate about baked goods and supporting families in raising resilient, compassionate kids. You can find her on Twitter (, Facebook ( and on her blog:

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7 Strategies for Empathic Discipline

Dear Readers,
I have stepped away from my blog for a time but my colleague Megan Stonelake is filling in with insightful posts about parenting. Enjoy.

There are some misconceptions about how parents discipline when they don’t use punishment. The assumption about discipline appears to be that parents either punish their children with violence and isolation or they don’t provide any boundaries whatsoever. This dichotomous thinking completely disregards respectful, empathic parenting strategies. Here are some tools to use in lieu of punishment:

1. Connection

The quality of the connection we have with our children is in direct proportion to their willingness to work with us. I used to think that using our relationship to get our children to cooperate was emotional manipulation. I’ve come to understand that it’s not that our relationship is a tool to get our way. Rather, focusing on our connection with our children enriches our lives while creating a secure attachment from which our children can grow and thrive. We don’t focus on our relationship with our kids so they will listen, we do it so they know we’re on the same team. And when kids know we’re on their side, they naturally want to work with us rather than against us. As Dr. Laura Markham informs us, “…your ability to enjoy your child may be the most important factor in his development…Children freely, even enthusiastically, cooperate when they believe we’re on their side.” (Peaceful Parents, Happy Kids).

2. Empathic reflection

There’s a whole host of reasons to provide empathic reflection when our children are expressing intense emotions. Reflecting their feelings in a compassionate way helps children to accurately identify their emotions as they arise and be more mindful of them. It also lets them know they’re understood. Plus, acknowledging the emotions often naturally diffuses them. We’ve likely all had the experience of someone truly listening to us and reflecting back what we’ve expressed. Knowing that someone has given us his or her undivided attention to listen and really hear us is invaluable.

3. Containment

Today I read a great quote from Rebecca Eanes of Positive Parenting: Toddlers and Beyond, “Meeting a child’s aggression with equal grown-up aggression only adds fuel to the fire. To extinguish aggressive behavior, meet it with calmness and compassion. Being calm isn’t passive – it’s mature.” Children need to know that we can provide a safe container for them – that if they begin kicking or throwing, we’ll physically keep them safe. What they don’t need is an adult who reacts with the same violence our children are learning to control. Containment can look like stopping a toddler from punching us or smacking the dog. In some instances containment is taking away a toy. It’s important to note that this isn’t done punitively but rather as a strategy to keep a child safe. It’s our job to create safe boundaries.

Containment also requires us to focus on the emotions underlying a behavior rather than simply addressing the behavior itself. Another quote from Rebecca Eanes illustrates this point: “When we only look at behavior, we stop seeing the child and only look with an intent to judge whether we need to reward or punish. When we look behind the behavior, we see that little struggling human, our little human, who needs our help with something.” As a parent, I’m less concerned with the behaviors than I am the thoughts and feelings driving them. As Alfie Kohn explains, “…behaviors are just the outward expression of feelings and thoughts, needs and intentions. In a nutshell, it’s the child who engages in a behavior, not just the behavior itself, that matters” (Unconditional Parenting).

4. Redirection

If we’re setting a limit, it’s helpful to also provide an alternative so our children know an acceptable option. We all fall into the trap of simply telling our kids, “no.” If we counted how many times we reject our children’s ideas or behaviors in a given day, we would likely be astonished. This doesn’t mean we don’t need to set appropriate limits, but it means we do so in a way that lets our kids know we strive to understand their needs and intentions. Rather than, “No throwing balls in the house!” We can say, “It isn’t safe to throw balls in the house. Let’s go outside and you can show me how you throw the ball!”

5. Consistency

When we enforce a rule one day and ignore it the next, our children will be confused about what’s expected of them. Similarly, when we’re compassionate in the morning and then punitive in the afternoon, we will erode trust and show our children that we discipline erratically and based on emotion. It’s a kid’s job to test boundaries. The less consistency we model, the more they will search to understand where our limits lie. Children thrive with clear, consistent boundaries rooted in empathy and respect.

6. Regulating Ourselves

One of the most important tools we can cultivate in parenting is discovering how to self-regulate. When we lash out at our children, we escalate an emotional situation rather than diffuse it. There are countless strategies, and what works for you might not work for another parent. Some of us practice counting to ten, for others texting a friend to vent helps. Creating a plan that you know will help you stay calm (or compose yourself if you’re already upset) will allow you to model emotion regulation for your children while responding to them with calm intention.

7. Relinquish Control Whenever Possible

Children have so little control over their environments. Often they can’t choose when they go to bed, what they eat, or where they go in a given day. It’s vital that we provide structure and boundaries for our children, but we must do so without micromanaging them. Giving our kids control in small ways can make them feel empowered and more willing to cooperate. In particular, children should feel the freedom to play entirely unencumbered by our expectations and agendas. So many of us struggle to allow our children to complete a puzzle without our hovering or paint a picture without our unnecessary suggestions. We might direct them in how to play on the playground or fix a problem for them when they’re struggling with a project. Stepping back and allowing creativity to flow will lead our children to feel more confident and capable.

As parents we can assume that our children are fundamentally good or inherently bad. Choosing to believe in the goodness of children means preserving their joyful spirits with respect and dignity rather than viewing them as “feral” creatures who require taming.


Megan Stonelake is a therapist, blogger, mama, and parent coach. She’s passionate about baked goods and supporting families in raising resilient, compassionate kids. You can find her on Twitter (, Facebook ( and on her blog:

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Naps Are Good for You

I wish I could nap. But, I’ve never been someone who could lie down in the afternoon, close my eyes and take a snooze. I wish I could! I watch my husband do it. He can fall into a blissful sleep within minutes of arranging himself on the bed, sleep for a while and wake refreshed and energized for the next chapter of the day.

He is  fortunate. Recent research indicates there are many mental and physical advantages to napping including increased alertness, enhanced learning and memory, reduced anxiety and an increase in joy. Who doesn’t want all that?

So how can you optimize napping to make it most effective? Here are some ideas:

• Find a dark and quiet place where you won’t be disturbed.
• Limit nap time to 10-20 minutes unless you can go for a full 90 minutes. Naps of 10-20 minutes will typically leave you feeling refreshed, but if you sleep 30 minutes or more it can have you waking up groggy. A 90 minutes nap, however, allows for the entire sleep cycle and can be helpful for those who don’t get enough sleep at night. But be careful not to sleep too much during the day or you may not be able to get back to sleep at bedtime.
• Napping seems to be most effective in the late morning or early afternoon, and at those times there is less chance of interfering with nighttime sleep.
• Set an alarm to avoid oversleeping and to allow for full relaxation.
• Let go of guilt. Naps are good for you and like all forms of self-care are likely to actually help you get more done, not less.

Even if like me, it seems impossible to go to sleep when the sun is still up, closing your eyes for a few minutes and relaxing your whole body can still be helpful. Sometimes, when I have a break in my afternoon schedule, I go for a short, brisk walk and then lay on my office floor with my shoes off, feet propped on the couch. I close my eyes and imagine the nap I would take if I could. That feels good too.

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A Media Diet: Lose the Weight of the World

If you watch a lot of mainstream television, you might think our community is a dangerous place. You might even believe there are more terrible things going on than kindness and beauty. But you would be wrong. You would also most likely be anxious, depressed, fearful and cynical.

A steady diet of media and popular culture can fill our minds with graphic depictions, both real and imagined, of violent crime, murder, torture, rape, abuse, abduction, mean-spirited words and behaviors, along with greed and corruption. However, that is not an accurate picture of the world we live in.

First let me make clear, I am not proposing that terrible things don’t happen. They do. I deal with the fall-out of these terrible things every day in my counseling practice. People are hurt. People die. But it is also true that much more good is occurring everywhere all around us, than we know. So where does this perception of doom and gloom come from? It is based on several factors.

We live in a time when just about anything that happens anywhere in the world that is tragic, is reported on the news, and reported and reported and reported. Just the other day I learned that a young man in Los Angeles fell 800 feet to his death on his second day of work building a high rise. 100 years ago, even 50 years ago, it is doubtful I would have heard about this. Or if I did it would be weeks or months after the event and appear as a one inch column in the back pages of a newspaper. If we watch the news we hear about many, many of the painful things going on all over the globe. We see the pictures. We hear the cries. We are human and we are affected. We aren’t built to track and process so much, so quickly.

Another problem is with the media itself. Conflict and drama are the stuff of engaging story-telling, so news reports and crime shows enhance these qualities to keep viewers tuning in. If the survival part of the brain can be activated through fear, it will feel like a life or death matter to tune in for the latest news or to watch the latest crime drama. We often believe if we feed that old survival part of the brain with more details and information, we will feel safer, but typically just the opposite takes place. Instead, we feel filled with anxiety and fear. We may even begin to avoid going certain places, doing certain things…living our life.

The biggest problem of all may be that most of us are misinformed. Violent crime has actually been decreasing overall since colonial times and while it rose some during the period from 1970 to the late 1990s, since then it has fallen dramatically and is now again at levels equal to the 1960s. Read more about this here.  So  in general we are probably safer than we have ever been.

Finally, most of us just don’t get to hear about so much that is good. In my other job as a Program Officer for a local foundation, I have the privilege of learning about thousands of people working in hundreds of non-profit organizations who are making life in Southwest Oregon better. Many of these people are volunteers, or employees working long hours for little pay, to feed people, to teach skills or music or art, or to provide new clothes for kids living in poverty so they can go to school feeling good about themselves.

Then there are the mentoring programs and dance programs and people who work with horses specially trained for folks with disabilities to ride, so they can build their physical and emotion strength. There are doctors who donate their time to provide medical care to those who still can’t access insurance or afford to pay for premiums or co-pays. There are those who fight to restore the environment and teach kids how to grow food. The list goes on and on. In fact, I can drive down the streets of any town in our region and point out place after place where love and caring is being expressed in hundreds of different ways. I feel so lucky that I know this is all going on, all around us, all the time. Now you do too.

When my counseling clients are anxious or depressed or struggling with insomnia, I often ask what they watch on TV and how often. And, I often recommend that they start a media diet in which they limit their exposure to bad news and find a way to get involved in something that makes a difference. Try it for a week and see how you feel. I can almost guarantee your outlook will improve and you might just improve some little corner of the world too.

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How Our Place in History Affects Mental Health

I began working as a mental health therapist four years ago. It was a time when the great recession, which began in a blinding crash in 2008, was still winding its poison tendrils through our community. Today, the effects of that worldwide financial crisis are still dramatically affecting our lives. This has been a time when food banks have had to double services and then double them again, when many people have lost housing either through foreclosure, job loss or rent increases. It is a time when people in their fifties and sixties, who in decades past would be ready, willing and able to retire, have had to continue to work, or find second or third jobs to make ends meet, send kids to college, or save for a possible retirement in their seventies or eighties. This then, has narrowed the job market for young people just entering adulthood or leaving college. Unemployment and under-employment are widespread and figures reported by the government ignore millions who don’t have enough work, work full time and are still at the poverty line, and those who have given up looking for work entirely.

We live in a time when expansion of the economy and an increased standard of living, that were expectations since the industrial revolution, have screeched to a halt for most people. Those of us born in the late 1960s, 1970s and 1980s are likely the first generations in our country’s history to be facing a lower standard of living than their parents! Even those who lived through the depression did not face this prospect, as World War II provided an economic driver that helped many recover and even prosper.

What does all of this have to do with mental health? As it turns out, our place in history and thus the environment we live in with its challenges and opportunities has a profound impact on well-being, motivation, meaning and fulfillment, the essential features of mental health.

Unfortunately, in our culture many of us are taught that we have the power to shape our own destiny with nothing but hard work, perseverance and grit. Those things do matter, but not as much as we are led to believe. When we are born, to whom we are born, and the forces of politics, history and the economy that shape our world, often play a larger role in the trajectory of our lives than our own will and industry.

Over the last few years I have had sessions with many clients who come to my office demoralized, ashamed and depressed about what they perceive as their own failure to succeed. They talk about graduating from college and being unable to find a job, about bankruptcy, homes in foreclosure, extended unemployment, even homelessness. And, invariably they place the blame for these problems on themselves. They really believe that if they were just smarter, more educated, better with their finances, or had chosen a more lucrative profession, the problems they have would not exist. Rarely do they realize that all of us have been caught up in a powerful sweep of history that changed the rules of the game in the middle of play.

It is often one of my first tasks with these clients to help them separate what really is their responsibility, what they could do more effectively, from what is beyond their ability to control. We often talk a lot about radical acceptance and how difficult it is to have peace when we don’t accept what is. I tell them about the origin of the word radical, which comes from the Latin root radi (think of radish) and like a radish, radical acceptance must come from a deeply rooted place, the place of wisdom within each of us.

We also talk about change and how often to change something, we must first accept it. For example, I needed to accept that I would not be retiring at an age typical in the past, before I could embrace a new profession that now brings meaning to my life. Change can come in the form of protest, political action, service to others, or a shift in priority and expectation. But before all those possibilities, is acceptance.

If we believe we “should” have achieved certain things and we haven’t, it makes it much more difficult to appreciate what we do have, what we have achieved and to be grateful. It is also true that when we blame ourselves for the state of our lives and don’t factor in the impact of our place in history, we may lose the motivation to be involved with the political process, to engage in improving our community and to take care of others in need. We may think to ourselves, “If it’s my fault, it must also be their fault. So they should just pull themselves up by their bootstraps.”

We may need to grieve the things we’ll never have, the places we may never go, the sense of security we can’t enjoy, as we navigate this difficult cultural, economic and political moment in which we are living. And, if we can grieve, we can accept and if we can accept we can, perhaps, build a life worth living in this new paradigm of uncertainty and challenge.

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What Keeps Us From Forgiving?

Nelson Mandela once said, “Resentment is like taking poison and then hoping your enemies will die.” This, from a man whose enemies imprisoned him for a good share of his life. If ever a person had the opportunity to learn about resentment and forgiveness, he did. And, apparently he learned that hatred, bitterness and harboring resentment (not forgiving) creates far more pain in us than it inflicts on the person or people who harmed us. Most of us can readily acknowledge the intuitive truth of this. We know that harboring bitterness toward another person causes us pain and suffering. Yet, even when we understand the cost to our own well-being, the process of forgiveness can be difficult and confusing.

What keeps us from forgiving? It is often false beliefs about why to forgive and how to go about it. Here are some examples of ideas that can get in the way.

They don’t deserve it: Forgiveness has nothing to do with the person who wronged us and everything to do with our mental health and ability to move forward in our life. When we forgive we can move on. When we forgive we stop spending mental and emotional energy thinking about, reliving, plotting revenge or building walls of protection. Forgiveness frees us. It is for us. Artist and writer, C.R. Strahan puts it this way, “Forgiveness has nothing to do with absolving a criminal of his crime. It has everything to do with relieving oneself of the burden of being a victim–letting go of the pain and transforming oneself from victim to survivor.”

Forgive and forget: Forgiveness does not mean forgetting what the person has done, or even resuming a trusting relationship with them. There are many instances when to do so would be detrimental to our lives or the lives of those we love and care about. For example, a woman might forgive the step-father who sexually abused her in childhood, but would also need to protect her own children from contact with him. In other circumstances we may be able to forgive and over time rebuild trust and relationship, but it is not required.

I tried and failed: Forgiveness is usually a process that takes time. It often begins with a decision to let go of the pain and suffering caused by resentment, but that decision is rarely the end of it. Sadness, grief and anger may arise again and again. When they do we can feel those things rather than suppress them, and decide once more to forgive. We can recognize forgiveness as often more of a journey than a destination, and be gentle with ourselves as we travel along this difficult path.

Time heals all: Often we have trouble focusing on forgiveness because the wrongs done to us are painful to think and feel about, and so we avoid. We believe that burying memories will somehow bring about healing. Yet, research shows that submerging emotions causes them to increase in intensity. This is where a skilled therapist, loving and safe friend or clergy, or your own journal can offer assistance. Talk or write about what happened, how you feel and what you think. Let yourself grieve. That is the first step towards forgiveness, healing and freedom.

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A Recipe for Making LOVE Last

Listen deeply
Open-up: Take the risk to reveal your tender places. Be vulnerable.
Validate: You may not agree, but you can search for what makes sense from your partner’s point of view.
Evolve: Invest in your own growth, development and self-care. When we feel good about ourselves we are better partners.

Sift 2 heaping cups of deep listening into a bowl, add ¾ cup of vulnerability and mix thoroughly. To this mixture sprinkle liberally with validation that has been mashed together with tenderness. Fold in validation using a gentle whisking motion. Transfer to baking dish. Bake in oven set to E (for evolution). Add additional ingredients as needed and stir gently at regular intervals. Taste for sweetness. Enjoy! Repeat.

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Staying Connected To The One We Love

The last two weeks I have been writing about a new way of understanding love relationships, based on the idea that we are meant to be bonded to our mate, and that the way we were nurtured, or not, in childhood, shows up in how we relate to our lover.

The really good news is that no matter how we were treated as children it is possible to heal. A safe, stable relationship in adulthood can be the salve that treats our early wounds. But how do we go about this?

The first step is to identify times when we go from feeling connected to our partner to afraid and vulnerable. These times are sometimes hard to see because often rather than experiencing the fear that our mate is not really there for us, we get angry instead. This is our brain’s ingenious way of trying to protect us. Fear is triggered and BAM! we are thrown right into the survival part of the brain and anger takes over. The wiser part of us doesn’t even get a chance to weigh in.

If the pre-frontal cortex had been consulted, we may have been able to see that rather than being angry at our partner’s inattentiveness or what seemed like criticism, we were actually afraid or sad. If this was recognized, then we could have responded in a different, more effective way. Perhaps we would ask for clarification about what was happening with our lover, what they meant or how they are feeling, or maybe we would request a hug or some other kind of reassurance.

For many of us, however, it is difficult to stop ourselves from saying and doing things when we are angry that actually end up making the situation worse and our partner more distant. As a result we end up getting exactly the opposite of what we really want and need, which is to be close and to feel safe and loved.

If this is happening in your relationship, start the process of healing by making a commitment to refrain from saying or doing anything until you no longer feel angry. Instead of reacting, take a break, go for a walk, splash really cold water on your face or hold an ice cube in your hand or on the back of your neck. Take ten deep, slow breaths. Do math in your head, or count all the rectangles in the room. Do anything that moves you out of survival brain and into a calm place where you can access logic and wisdom. Be sure to tell your partner ahead of time (at a time when you are not in conflict) that you will be doing this and tell them that you promise to return and be with them when you have regulated your emotions.

The next step is to identify what was under your anger. Something happened that irritated one of your “raw spots” as Sue Johnson calls them in her book Hold Me Tight. (Raw spots are places where, due to our own history, we are vulnerable and easily injured by someone we love.) What was it? Was it something your partner said, or did, a look or gesture, a failure to respond? Try to be as precise as possible about what rubbed your raw spot.

It is common to get into a never ending feedback loop with our significant other in which they rub our raw spot and we respond by either attacking or withdrawing, which then triggers their raw spot angst and they attack or withdraw, which triggers us again, and round and round it goes. Both people are responding to their own fear and pain in a never ending circle of disconnection.

Once you have identified what is going on for you, the next step is to tell your partner in a gentle and loving way what it was that affected you and to ask for what you need to feel close again. It is important in this part of the process that we take responsibility for our own reaction, our own raw spot, and at the same time ask our partner to be extra careful not to irritate it. If there has been a lot of disconnection, anger, withdrawal and hopelessness in the relationship it can take a long time to begin to heal and reconnect. But, it is possible. Keep trying, and let your partner know how important it is to you. Make the never ending circle of disconnection the enemy instead of each other.

It is often helpful to work with a skilled therapist during the initial stages of healing a relationship. Books and videos can also support the process. Below are links to one of Sue Johnson’s talks about attachment and love relationships, as well as a link to a how-to video that describes a style of embrace that seems to synchronize partner’s nervous systems and helps keep us more securely bonded to the one we love.

Sue Johnson speaks about attachment in adult relationships.

The welcome home embrace.

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Interdependency: The Key to a Successful Love Relationship – Part 2

When we are in conflict with our spouse or partner there is almost always something else going on underneath the anger and the details of the argument. We are not fighting about the kids or the laundry or the dirty socks on the floor, although these can easily be the catalyst for our rage. No, we are fighting about something much more basic, much more primal. As Sue Johnson, researcher and developer of Emotion Focused Therapy puts it, “Underneath all the distress, partners are asking each other: Can I count on you, depend on you? Will you respond to me when I need, when I call? Do I matter to you? Am I valued and accepted by you? Do you need me, rely on me? The anger, the criticism, the demands are really cries to their lovers, to stir their hearts, to draw their mates back emotionally and reestablish a sense of safe connection.”

In her work Johnson recommends that we learn to identify patterns of behavior that keep us from feeling safe and secure with our partner. Once we have identified the patterns those patterns themselves can become the enemy, rather than our loved one, and we can fight against them together. What are the typical patterns? Here is a primer:

The Protest: In this type of disconnection one person becomes critical and aggressive and the other defensive and distant. The couple is usually caught up in the content (the details) of the fight and who is right and wrong. In this scenario the more one party blames, the more the other withdraws. This often leads to louder blaming and more rigid and frigid withdrawal. Protest can also quickly turn into a round of finger pointing and blame that goes in both directions. Johnson calls this, “Find the Bad Guy”. When we are stuck in this kind of interaction we are often only able to see how our partner is affecting us and unable to be aware of our impact on them. All that seems to matter is who is right and who is wrong.

Freeze and Flee: Often after the protest phase of a relationship has been going on for a long time, both partners give up. There is no more protest or defense, everyone just retreats to their corners and a deep, dark winter descends on the relationship. There may be no fighting, and on the surface all may seem well, but under the ice and snow of withdrawal both people are in great pain, feeling disconnected and very alone.

So how do we begin to unravel the patterns of behavior that lead to disconnection? The first step is to identify the most common ways in which the disconnection begins. Does one person criticize and the other defend? Do both try to determine who remembers a specific situation correctly or try to prove their point is the only correct perspective? Have both withdrawn and given up?

The next step is to identify what Johnson calls, “raw spots”. These are signals sent by our partner or the environment that set off alarm bells in us. Often they are automatic responses that can be just below our conscious awareness (until we begin paying close attention), and are echoes of past hurts and rejections born in childhood or in later relationships. Our brains and body believe we are in danger and the survival part of us leaps into action.

If a raw spot gets activated, we may feel angry and attack, if fearful retreat, if ashamed we may hide, if sad we could give up on our partner.  None of these are effective if we want to stay connected and loving in our relationship. All lead to more pain and suffering.

Join me next time when I share some of the ways to intervene in the patterns discussed here. Until then, consider what the patterns are in your relationship. Who protests? Who retreats? What attachment style do you bring to your relationship? Do you know what some of your raw spots are?

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Interdependency: The Key to a Successful Love Relationship

Our culture is steeped in the idea that to be successful in love we must be independent and strong. Neediness can be seen as a dirty word, and relying on our partner is often considered weak or co-dependent. But what if reliance on our mate is exactly what evolution has primed us for? What if self-reliance when it comes to love relationships is really a recipe for isolation, loneliness and despair?

In between the two extremes of co-dependency and independence lies another way of being called interdependence. This is the idea that we can rely on each other in a mutuality of dependence and connection. We can be attached to our partner and both give and receive the support and comfort we need. If this can be achieved, it is from such a secure base we can then function most effectively in the rest of our lives. From the love and security of our partner’s arms we can face the greatest challenges of life including illness and loss, aging and perhaps even death.

Sue Johnson,  author of the book Hold Me Tight and a ground breaking researcher in couple’s therapy, has discovered that we all bring the attachment style we learned as young children into our love relationships. So, if we had good-enough parents who came when we cried, fed us when we were hungry, comforted us when we were sad or scared, and were warm and generous with their attention, we grew up finding it easy to connect with a lover and to rely on them. We trusted them and let them into our world with ease. If, on the other hand we were born into a chaotic or alcoholic family, if we were abused or neglected, then were learned that important people would not be there for us when we needed them, we learned to be afraid of abandonment and to protest at the smallest hint of it, or to avoid connection all together to try to protect ourselves.

The good news is that even if we learned an insecure or avoidant attachment style as children our spouse or partner can help us heal and we can learn to be securely bonded to them. It is possible to repair the damage and create healthy interdependence.

One of Johnson’s key revelations is that fear of abandonment is part of being human. If we think about it from an evolutionary point of view it makes a lot of sense since being excluded from our family or tribe would have meant near certain death when we were a hunting and gathering people. Our brains still retain a direct route to the primal terror ignited when we believe the one we love is rejecting us, retreating from us or throwing us over for another. The first step to securely bonding with our love is to recognize this as normal.

However, just because its normal doesn’t mean it is effective to act on this fear. Instead, if we can recognize it for what it is, an automatic warning signal that may or may not be based on fact, we can make wise choices about how to proceed. For example, the look on my husband’s face may mean he is annoyed with me, but it could also mean he is tired or in pain or annoyed with someone else. If I assume he is angry with me I may move away from him emotionally or pick a fight, in both cases making the situation worse and our connection weaker. On the other hand if I can realize my own fear and ask for clarification about what is really going on with him, discuss any real concerns or upsets he has, and ask for comfort and reassurance from him and give him the same, then we can move closer together and avoid disconnection.

Join me next time when I will discuss more of Sue Johnson’s work including the ways we disconnect, how to recognize when that is happening and what to do about it.

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