Adolescence, Couples, Couples Therapy, Family, marriage, Parenting Teenagers

Before Starting or Continuing your Extramarital Affair, Do This First

49639937 - teenage boy standing between parents who are ignoring each otherI am probably going to ruffle some feathers with this post, and I may not even sound very compassionate, but I have had a somewhat upsetting month from a therapy standpoint.  That’s saying a lot, considering the emotional challenges I face with people on a daily basis.  I feel a responsibility to address this topic.

Infidelity cases are a very typical presentation for a marriage therapist.  Considering the hours of therapy and supervision I have completed, I can easily say I have seen hundreds of these cases.  With an increase in ways to perpetuate infidelity through technological means, I’m not anticipating the phenomenon slowing down any time soon.

The emotions are always very painful.  It’s hard to sit with the emotions and not feel a great deal of compassion for the victims.  I am highly motivated to assist couples in healing severe betrayals, and I have high belief that marriages can heal and be stronger than before, despite the deep and unpredictable emotions.

However, something that is even harder than sitting with the pain of a betrayed spouse is sitting in front of an adolescent who has discovered that his or her parent had an affair.  Watching a teenager try not to cry while explaining the impact of a parent’s infidelity is heart-wrenching.  I have seen several of these cases in the last month, and the devastation heaped on children is inestimable.

Our culture encourages individual “fulfillment,” and downplays the real impact of marital dissolution on children—otherwise you might feel incapacitating guilt and shame about your betrayal—and we wouldn’t want that.  Aren’t you meant to be “happy,” after all?

Most teens find out by accident.  In worse cases, they are the ones that discover the affair and either feel responsible to hold the secret or feel guilty about blowing their families apart with the disclosure.

Here are common symptoms I anecdotally witness in teens and children who are exposed to a parent’s betrayals and related marital distress:

  1. Episodes of enduring worry and anxiety with associated panic attacks; in short, the children are TERRIFIED of what will happen to them and to their families.
  2. Increased nightmares
  3. Intense grief and anger about the conflict and/or dissolution that follows a marital betrayal; clients routinely explain that their parents’ infidelities had a relatively traumatic impact that changed their lives.
  4. Lost focus at school and difficulty maintaining academic success
  5. Depression
  6. Self-harming behaviors
  7. Increased substance use
  8. Decreased confidence about eventually maintaining long-term relationships
  9. A feeling of personal betrayal and rejection; they perceive that the parent was in many ways choosing the affair partner over them and their family, i.e. “He/she cares more about (the affair partner) than about me and our family.”
  10. Unpredictable crying episodes
  11. Increased aggression and externalizing behavior
  12. Insomnia
  13. An increase in stomach distress and other types of somatization
  14. Parentification; in an attempt to reduce stress in the marital system, they will increase roles of caretaking and comforting younger siblings.
  15. Disconnection from their own emotional needs because they don’t want to add more stress to the family system
  16. Generalized distrust in people and future love relationships
  17. Embarrassment, guilt and shame and feelings of unloveability
  18. Increased sexual promiscuity

That’s for starters.

Even if children don’t know explicitly about the affair, affairs have a direct impact on children.  Spouses who are having affairs are less emotionally and physically available to their children.  In short, infidelity has a very real and devastating impact on everyone in the family.

So, before beginning or continuing your extramarital affair, sit your children or and/or your affair partner’s children down and say, “Just so you know, I’m about to SHATTER your world.  You’re going to be really sick, sad, fearful, rejected and just absolutely devastated for an unknown period of time.  You’re going to lose confidence in pursuing your own relationships, but I really, really, really want to pursue this dopamine rush I get when I’m around this person who’s not your mom (or dad).  I really like how it feels.”

Some of you are thinking, “Oh, I could never do that.”

Right.

Your marriage is not just about you, or even just about you and your spouse.

Seriously—just stop it.

Photo Credit: Copyright: highwaystarz / 123RF Stock Photo

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Adolescence, Attachment, Couples, Couples Therapy, Family, Holidays, Marriage and Family Therapy, Parenting, Parenting Teenagers

Presents or Presence this Holiday Season?

couple presence presents

I sent my husband a text the other day by speaking into the phone as usual, and right before I sent it, I glanced at it to make sure it was comprehensible.  What I saw actually took me by surprise.  I was sending him a message saying, “I got you the best presents for Christmas,” and I noticed that the voice recognition message had printed, “I got you the best presence for Christmas.”

Most of us are so busy during the holidays (or ever) that presence is the last thing on our minds.  The concept of presence in interpersonal relationships implies intentionally focusing on the other person and really being with them.

When Mitch Albom wrote Tuesdays with Morrie, about his experiences with a former university professor who was afflicted with ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, he explained how Morrie Schwartz taught him by example how to be present.  He wrote, “When Morrie was with you, he was really with you.  He looked you straight in the eye, and he listened as if you were the only person in the world.”  Morrie himself said, “I believe in being fully present…That means you should be WITH the person you’re with.”

One of the things I love about being a therapist is that I share a very well-defined space and time with another set of individuals.  This allows me to focus all of my attention on those people during that time with no other distractions.  It’s easy to be present in those situations.

Exercising that kind of presence at home with the multiple demands on my time is a different story.  I understand how difficult it can be to be present.  I am by nature a fairly hurried person.  I became very aware of this on our last family vacation when we were visiting various places.  I routinely end up walking alone tens of yards in front of everyone.  My family is endlessly amused by this.  I think it’s a habit I picked up from trying to keep up with my mother when I was young.  She was also a very fast walker, and I seem to have a lot of the same nervous energy she possessed.  I am also a relentless multi-tasker, which makes it very difficult to slow down and focus on one thing.

The other night, I was on my computer, and my husband walked in and said something to me, put something next to me with a flourish, and while I was staring at my screen and typing, I was mumbling, “OK, thanks, Hon,” not paying any attention at all.  I was vaguely aware that he blew me a kiss before walking out the door.  It wasn’t until after he left that I looked down and saw that he had brought me something with almond butter that he had spread in the shape of a heart.  As I looked at it, the words he had used echoed in my mind and this time I paid attention.  He had walked in and said, “Notice that I spread this in a heart shape to show my love for my beautiful bride,” and then he blew me a kiss even after I was completely dismissive and inattentive to him.

This time, I was able to correct the interaction because I noticed.  I called him back in and apologized that I had been so inattentive when he had put forth effort for me.  Unfortunately, that was the exception.  Most of us can benefit by trying to increase our presence in our familial relationships.

Here are some ideas to increase your presence with family members:

  1. Slow down and breathe.  You can’t be present if you are hurried.  This is hard for me.  When I’m trying to slow down, I often purposely breathe to stay focused and keep my mind from racing.  If I get distracted, I can breathe and return to the immediate conversation.
  2. Put down your electronic devices. Sit on your hands if you have to.  The other day, I heard my daughter say, “Hello!  I am trying to have a conversation with an actual human…and also, did you know that you are messing up your melatonin levels by staring at that little screen and it’s going to be harder for you to sleep tonight?” (Thank you, medical anatomy).  When I explained that I did know that, which was why I had a store of melatonin in the medicine cabinet, I earned another lecture on the pitfalls of artificially altering my hormone levels, blah blah blah, which made me want to look at my phone more.  I realized that as long as I had my phone in my hand, I kept getting distracted by other things I “had to do,” and I kept returning to the alluring siren’s song of the cell phone during the gaps in our conversation.  Shame on me!  My teenage daughter actually wanted to talk to me, and I was dismissing her.
  3. Make eye contact. Eye contact is so simple, yet it is powerful.  Many couples in therapy have a very difficult time making eye contact because it is so connecting, and they often feel vulnerable in the process.  Eye contact improves empathy.
  4. Be curious. Be a detective of what it’s like to be the other person in front of you.  What are they really experiencing?  Have there been times when you have felt that same way?  What are they trying to tell you?  If you communicate that you really want to understand, and it feels authentic, people will usually disclose more.
  5. Check in with the Other Person.  By this I mean authentically reflecting back key points of the conversation to make sure you are really understanding correctly.  This isn’t so much a “communication skill,” as a way of being with someone.  If you are faking it, your spouse can usually tell, and it will be ineffective.
  6. Figure out how to make Your Presence Helpful. Does this person need some kind of validation or support?  If you don’t know what that is, communicate that you would like to know how to be helpful.
  7. Create time and space to be present. This seems obvious, but if it’s not scheduled in, I guarantee many other things will take your time, and it just won’t happen.

While I have been typing this, I have successfully dismissed a spouse and three of my seven children.  Ironic, I know.  The good news is that being present can start NOW if you want.  Before you go to bed tonight, see if you can practice being really present for five minutes with a family member, and then notice whether it had any kind of immediate impact.  Even though I’m still learning how to be present, I do believe it is one of the best presents you can give to a family member this season.

Now excuse me while I go check my email…..

Reference:

Tuesdays with Morrie: An old man, a young man, and life’s greatest lesson by Mitch Albom, 2007, Random House, LLC, Broadway Books.

Adolescence, Family, Humor, Parenting, Parenting Teenagers

This is Your Brain on Parenting

lazy parenting
Copyright: haywiremedia / 123RF Stock Photo

Here is an actual text exchange that occurred between my teenage daughter and me the other night.  I’d spent the entire evening seeing clients and was coming home exhausted.  As soon as I walked in the door, my phone buzzed.  Here’s how the text conversation proceeded:

Her: Can I get a gym pass please?

Me: How much?  Ask dad.

Her: xx per month, but I think it’s more up front to register.

Me: K

Her: So I can?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!

Me: Ask dad

Her: Will you?  He says he doesn’t have time to talk about it, but if it’s you he will because he likes you more.

Me:    😦

Her: *read in British accent*  Mother, please, you are my only hope

Me: Well—since you wrote it with a British accent and everything sounds better with a British accent….

Her:      🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

Her (30 minutes later, after she knew my husband had come in to talk to me, but not about her gym membership): What did the beast say….BFG….Big Friendly Giant?

[I’m typing my response while saying out loud to husband…”Watch this…she’s going to freak out.”]

Me: He said, “No,” but with a British accent

 Her (within seconds): Not friendly anymore, he’s the BRMLTMTAOKG BIG RUDE MEAN LOVES (son’s name) MORE THAN ANY OTHER KID GIANT

Me:  Am I supposed to read that in a British accent?

Her: You don’t read it in any accent because I’m going depressed and not talking to anyone since dad hates me

Me: So should I find you a British therapist?

Before I proceed, lest you judge me for being flippant, I should point out that my daughter does not have a history of depression or suicidality, so I was pretty sure she was joking.  My kids all enjoy dangling psychobabble in front of me to see if I’ll take the bait.

My laziness in this short transcript exists in my immediate and not unusual response to “Ask dad,” especially in this instance in which I believed my daughter should already know that I am the “gymnastics, dance, music, theater” parent and my husband is the “sports, scouts, gym membership” parent.  Besides that, my kids all know I’m the “bad cop,” and my husband is “good cop.”   Sheesh!  Hadn’t she lived in this household for 16 years already?  She was in clear violation of an implicit standard.

However, this was really about the fact that I didn’t want to put forth the energy to deal with it and was clearly trying to make it my husband’s problem instead.  The fact is, I just didn’t want to think about one more thing.

This exchange probably sounds familiar.  In fact, I can’t count how many times when I have said, “Ask dad,” my kids will say, “I did.  He said to ask you,” and I have the audacity to be annoyed that he was beating me to the punch.  Plus, he’s way better at avoidance than I am, largely due to my impatience for unresolved concerns, so he can usually win at that game.

I have to admit that I know better.  This is not the stuff you learn in parenting classes, folks.  I have researched many, many parenting programs.  I had to write my own parenting program to graduate with my bachelor’s degree and I don’t remember including, “When your child asks your permission for something, immediately tell them to ask the other parent.”

If I were following my own parenting advice, I would say something mature and intelligent like, “This sounds really important to you.  Let me discuss this with your father, and when we have made a unified decision, I will let you know, and we can figure out the details about cost, payment, etc.  We might be able to help you out, but you will be expected to contribute…” blah blah blah.

So why didn’t I?  The words take up less than a paragraph.  It would have been less than a minute of my time.

The answer lies in three words: Parental Brain Fry.

We get tired.  I wasn’t in the mood to deal with any emotion if she didn’t like my answer.  Plus, I didn’t want to have to decide on the fly and then regret my decision later.

Bottom line:  I just didn’t WANT to deal with it.

Welcome to the messy world of parenting.  We’re tired.  Our kids are younger and more energetic than we are.  In the world of parenting, the most predictable feature is unpredictability, which is why most parenting programs are so theoretically elegant and so executably clumsy.  Many parenting programs read like recipes where one of the ingredients is “children,” but there is little acknowledgment that each child brings individual temperament, preferences, and responses to the equation.  It’s like adding a different spice to the recipe every time, so you’re never quite sure what you’re going to get.

So, when it comes to riding the parenting roller coaster, we are inevitably going to have those crazy moments when we really just want to hand off the parenting torch for a while.  That’s normal.  We will all engage in lazy parenting.  Cultivating a sense of humor can help you with the ride and sometimes preserve a precarious relationship with teens.  It also helps to spend as much time as you can engaging in positive ways to buffer yourself against the storms of adolescence, so that when you are exhausted, your missteps won’t completely derail the bond you have created.  After all, parental brain fry is quite common – even in Britain.