Tuesday, April 16, 2013

What’s Your One Thing?

When your romantic relationship is right, every other problem in life feels a lot less difficult. You feel stronger, more capable of handling whatever life throws at you; there lies waiting for you in your romance a respite from the storms, a refuge from the chaos, and a resource for handling almost anything.

When your romantic relationship is wrong, however, every other problem in life gets magnified. Nothing tastes as good, and everything feels heavier. This is because every event, every occurrence carries with it a reminder that your most significant relationship, what matters most to you, is at the core of your discouragement.

So what makes the difference? What tips the scales towards your romantic relationship being either the right that makes everything easier, or the wrong that makes everything more difficult? In one word, priority.

You ever notice those moments that are so significant that they bring into clarity all other moments?

  • Your baby’s being born, and there are some complications, and suddenly you don’t care about money—at all. Whatever it costs, doc, do it.
  • You finally get away for that anniversary trip, and the beauty and serenity of nature makes clear that you have been chasing after all the wrong things.
  • You connect with your spouse in such a sexually-charged way that it really does feel as if you’re the only two people in the universe, even though your kids are asleep in the next room.

All these moments carry weight because they refocus our priorities; we experience an authentic connection with what… matters… most.

Well, what are we supposed to do when those moments don’t seem to be happening enough? We’re not having any more children, or we’re not able to get away, or our romance seems distant at best. What do we do if life is not re-prioritizing itself for us?

We do it ourselves. In the words of Cowboy Curly in City Slickers, all that matters in life is “one thing, just one thing. You stick to that, and all the rest don’t mean $h!t.” Now, Jack Palance doesn’t tell Billy Crystal what that one thing should be, but given what we know about the transcending power of our romantic connection (see above), I think we can figure it out.

As long as we are trying to squeeze in time, energy, and effort toward keeping our most significant relationship alive and well, we will lose. The only way it happens is if it is our number one priority. Number one over our work. Number one over our extended family relationships. Number one over our friendships. And yes, even number one over our kids.

I’ve been telling my teenagers their whole lives that I love their mother more than I love them (just a little bit). My relationship with them is so dependent on my relationship with her, that I owe it to them to pursue her above all others. My marriage is my number one priority in all my human relationships, because that is the only way I will “find” the time necessary to nurture that relationship into the passionate, transcendent, and lifelong connection I crave the most.

Here are some practical applications of putting your romantic relationship in first place:

  • Times for dinner dates, important decision-making conversations, trips together, and yes, sex sessions, get put on the calendar—just like doc appts, kids’ soccer games, and business mtgs.
  • Great couples, who put that relationship in first place, usually schedule one relationship enhancement event a year, be it a marriage retreat, a few sessions of couples’ counseling, or at the very least a romantic getaway.

Most important—above all else—when your relationship is your greatest priority, you do NOT discuss problems in that relationship with anyone else first (unless you are working individually with a professional). This means you work hardest at authentically addressing your issues with each other, as uncomfortable as that may be, before you even think of complaining to your friends or family.

The Homework Cure

As the weather warms up, one consistent consequence is that the desire for doing homework cools down considerably. Whether the cause is spring fever or senioritis, resistance to schoolwork intensifies as the finish line of summer vacation approaches. Assignments are increasingly left unfinished. Homework routinely stays at school or gets lost. 

It can sometimes seem as if your teenager spends more time and energy skirting schoolwork than it would take to just sit down and do it! 

Needless to say, this can be frustrating for a parent and a teacher. No one likes to watch a child resist encouragement and rewards while their grades take a nosedive. So, what shall we do? How do you motivate the unmotivated? 

As stubborn and prevalent a problem as this is, there is a way to approach it that works quite well. It’s an elegant and simple approach, and there are no loopholes. 

First, obtain a small notepad. This is now your youngster’s best friend. Require him to carry it to and from school every day. 

Second, keep a daily record. At the end of each school day (or each period if that’s necessary), your teen will list in his pad all homework assignments, incomplete classwork, failed tests and anything else you think should be included. If he’s too young or has not yet developed the capacity to do this on his own, I’ve found most teachers are willing to do this for him. 

Third, make sure it’s accurate. Obviously, if the teacher has filled it out for him, you may assume it’s accurate. If your student fills it out for himself, he has the added responsibility of getting his teacher to initial it every day. The teacher initials it if and only if everything is listed properly. 

Fourth, schoolwork is completed after school. Set up a quiet, isolated spot at home where all homework can be finished. Only when everything is done may your student indulge in privileges or other activities. Schoolwork is the evening’s first order of business. 

Fifth, the notebook is the ticket to privileges. No notebook means no ipod, TV, laptop, games, no borrowing the car, no going to the movies with friends -- basically, everything but the basics of eating, breathing, bathroom, etc. If the process is going to break down, this is where it will happen -- and your teeanger knows it! They are incredibly resourceful at offering explanations for a missing or incomplete assignment. “We had a substitute today, and she wouldn’t sign anything without her lawyer present.” “The big bully at school ate my notepad.” 

Regardless of the reason -- even if it sounds legitimate -- the notepad must come home signed. That is your child’s responsibility. If you try to validate the excuses you hear, you are playing a guessing game without the facts. 

Finally, you must persevere in this. Odds are, this approach will not work overnight. It may take weeks. But it will pay off eventually. 

Keep these points in mind:

This approach is meant to be clear and to eliminate loopholes. You cannot be consistent and negotiate with your teen in this. School is their job. It will open doors for them in the future. They do not have a choice here. 

Homework may never become their favorite thing. This approach will not internally motivate them. This is purely external, carrot-and-stick motivation. However, in time, your kid will develop personal motivation, because he’ll see success, and that will change his self-image. Until then, you’ll be making him keep up with his work and develop the skills he’ll need when he finally does decide to push himself. 

Do not hover, prod, threaten, cajole, debate or nag. This is not your problem. You have no reason to feel guilty. Help when and if you think that is appropriate, but let the consequences do the screaming for you. Your child knows the rules. If he makes his life miserable at first, that’s his choice. Honor his choice. Honor the heck out of it! He’s not a fool. Eventually, he’ll motivate himself when he gets tired of the consequences of his chosen lifestyle. 

You may also want to set some positive goals. For example, if all the homework assignments are completed for three days in a row, he can earn an extension of his curfew or more TV time or something.

If you stick with this approach, it’s practically foolproof. If you stick with it. If you. But that will not be easy. It means you’ll have to stay calm. It means you’ll have to be the grown up. It means you’ll have to set boundaries and be willing to enforce consequences. 

It means you’ll have to be ScreamFree.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Holding On To Calm In The Midst Of A Divorce

Of all the subjects to write a blog post about, this one is probably my least favorite. I say least favorite because it is so stinking difficult to write about. What is it that I am referring to? Divorce. There, I said it. Divorce. One more time for good measure. 

As one who loves and appreciates the bond of marriage and as a Marriage and Family Therapist/Coach, writing about such a subject requires me to enter into a realm that heightens my anxiety. That’s because it’s unfamiliar territory for me personally. Sure, I’ve had clients that have gotten divorced, and I’ve helped to coach them through it. I’ve even had close family members to engage in the legal process of marital termination, but I’ve never gone down the road myself and...I don’t plan on it.

Divorce is a reality for many. You likely already know the statistics. Nearly half of all marriages end in divorce, and nearly one million children are affected by it. I seek not to try and give you advice here in this post on “how not to get divorced” or “what to do when getting divorced,” rather, I seek to tackle another alarming statistic that harms both the divorcee and their children. The statistic is this: 1/3 of all divorced parents remain bitter and hostile toward each other several years after the divorce. 

When tensions are at their highest and the emotional vitriol is spewing, how can one remain cool and calm? How can someone be ScreamFree through a divorce?

1) Above all Else, Be an Adult  

This will be one of the most challenging things you will have to do. Why? Because you are facing what is probably the most difficult time in your life.  Dealing with a divorce which could have been brought on by a myriad of reasons, some of which may have hurt and stung you to your core, is hard. It’s an adult issue that requires a mature approach. When it happens to come up or rears its ugly head in a relationship, our initial thought is usually to react or lash out in some way throughout the divorce process. Does this get you what you want most? Probably not. However, your intentional adult-like behavior can invite the same in your partner. Even if they don’t accept your invitation to adulthood, your integrity will thank you for it.

2) Ask the Difficult Questions

Asking yourself questions has a two-pronged benefit. First, they make you slow down; they create the opportunity for you to just pause, think and reflect. This is a tremendous benefit especially because we are often so prone to just react. Slowing down helps you to calm down.

The second benefit that can be derived from asking questions, especially the difficult ones, is that the answers you receive are from one of the two experts in this situation, you - with your spouse being the other. But remember, I said the questions could be difficult. When things are difficult, you may want to blow them off, but that response will not serve you. Walk toward those difficult questions, for there is powerful insight within them. 

Ask questions like:
How did we get here? 
Regardless of what happened, divorce is the reality for both of you.

What was my part in what brought us to this point? 
Many times, those who go through a divorce will feel inclined to only see the other person’s part in what went wrong. Even if the final straw was an act conducted by your partner, separate yourself from running toward the facts of what last happened to the process of what was happening all along. What was your part in it? Many family systems therapists have said that any pattern that persists in any relationship has two partners that are contributing to its existence. 

How do I want to be through this new reality? 
If you are here, this is what divorce is - your new reality. Since that is the case, how do you want to be? Non reactive? Kind despite your pain? Loving regardless of your hurt? Attentive to your children? An example? Once you decide, actively focus your attention on getting there.

3) Build Your Support System

Anger, sadness, disappointment, feelings of failure and frustration, these are all emotions that are typically felt by those going through a divorce. You might experience any of these or a combination of all of those plus 100 more. Without a doubt, you are going to feel something. The question then becomes, “What are you feeling exactly?” Further, once that question is asked, you will need to identify what you are going to do with the feelings you are experiencing. How will you process all of those feelings?

My encouragement for you is to seek unbiased, therapeutic help. I am not discounting family and friends, but the truth is that we often we seek validation when we turn to those we love. They may feel obliged to give it to us because they love us. A therapist or coach can walk shoulder to shoulder with you to keep you focused on what you want most. They can keep those challenging questions before you to help you reconcile all of what took place within the walls of your marriage, as well as what the next steps need to be in order for you to truly move on.

None of this will be easy. If divorce is your reality then you have a difficult road ahead of you. This is something that you already know, but I believe the peace you seek is available once you learn to just stay calm. 

Divorce can be a violent storm. Hold on. Calm can be yours. 

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Seven Spring Activities for Preschoolers

Spring has sprung, short sleeves are being brought to the front of the closet, and you’re wondering what in the world to do with your preschooler. After a winter of trying to entertain indoors, everyone is ready to head outside, but what to do? Here is a list of some fun, mostly outdoor, things to do with the little people in your life.
1. Make some bubbles! There’s nothing like bubbles to get the kids excited, so whip up your own concoction of bubbles, grab some wands, and head outside. Be sure to grab your camera, too! Here’s the recipe:
2 cups water
2/3 cup dish detergent
1/3 cup corn syrup
Add some food coloring if you’re feeling really daring!

2. Build a birdhouse or bird feeder. Now I know this sounds complicated, but it doesn’t have to be. Check out these super cute and super cheap ones from the ScreamFree Pinterest page:

3. Visit a local farm. All the farm animals are having babies right now, so why not introduce your babies to theirs. Who can resist a lamb, a chick, or a kid? And what better way for you to teach your babes a little about nature and farming? Again, don’t forget your camera!

4. Plant a garden. Do you want your kids to eat their veggies? Studies show that kids who grow their own vegetables are more likely to eat them! There’s something about taking ownership that makes the food taste that much better. Maybe you’re thinking you don’t have enough space at your house or apartment. Check out these cool ideas (vertical gardens and raised bed gardens) from the ScreamFree Pinterest page:

5. Sunset, Sunrise, or Stargazing. Now that the weather is warmer, head outside to see nature at its finest.

6. Geocaching. If you’re not familiar with Geocaching, think of it as a giant scavenger hunt using GPS.  You and your child will enjoy looking for a hidden object at the location of the GPS coordinates. Geocaching has taken off all over the US, so go to www.geocaching.com where you can plug in your zip code to find treasures near you.

7. Spring Crafts. For those rainy days, pull out the paint, paper, and craft supplies and create some beautiful spring art. Here are some ideas from our ScreamFree Pinterest page:

Monday, April 1, 2013

I Got Married for This?!?!

Oh marriage! What a complex species you are! You lure the unsuspecting into your intricate web with grand promises of “happily ever afters,” Prince Charmings and other Walt Disney related themes. Once we fall prey to your seductive pledge of happiness, we often awaken to something much different...much, much different. 

Yes, there were those that told us about the potential pitfalls that would seek to befall us, but let’s be honest; we believed in the back of our minds that, “It won’t happen to us.” Sure, we saw glimpses of things that we didn’t really like about our spouses when we were dating, but the fact that we were married seemed to amplify those minor annoyances. As a matter of fact, most things within the marital relationship seemed more intense. Arguing...more intense. The cold distance after the argument...more intense. No one told us these things about marriage. 

Why did we get married though? Surely it was because of something more than just a way to capture what was portrayed to us in an animated film. If you are like me, it was because you found someone that you truly wanted to go through the rest of life with. You loved them. It was unadulterated, unconditional love. You were certain that they felt the same. You could picture buying a house with them, taking vacations and even retirement. 

You just knew that your spouse would make a great father or mother and you couldn’t wait to have kids with them. You envisioned holidays together as a family. You even saw far enough into the future where the kids would leave home, go to college and one day have families of their own. You believed in them and you knew when all the chips were down that they would always have your back. 

This list isn’t comprehensive by any means. You and I have many more reasons why we married our spouses. Those reasons, however numerous they are, often fly out of the window when things get “hot.” When we fight about those things that we never saw coming - the finances, the housework, her family or his, time management and even sex (or the lack thereof), these subjects seem to take us to another level emotionally and we have knock-down-drag-out confrontations about them. In the heat of “battle” we often ask ourselves, “Did I get married for this?” Let me help you answer the question. Yes, you did. We did.

Please, don’t misunderstand. I am in no way suggesting that we anticipated these emotional battles. I am, however, calling us back to the reason that we said, “I do.” We wanted to do “life” together. Part of going through life together means walking through these difficult fires with one another. So often we try to avoid the difficult conversations, but we all know this leads to the resentment that produces most arguments in the first place. Our discussions can become so heated that over time it leaves us feeling burnt out and not wanting to continue on. This is when the thought crosses our mind of just saying, “I’m done! This isn’t why I got married!”

Can I sound cliché for a moment and say “Just hold on?” Arguments, especially the ones that have been taking place over a period of time; those that seem to be about sex, money, their mother or how you can’t seem to get any help with the kids, beg for our reaction. They plead with us to say and do things that we will later regret. They call on us to storm out, shut down or scream. When the emotional temperature is turned up, it is important that we not react, but that we remain calm.

You said, “I do.” Did you notice that punctuation mark at the end of that sentence? It’s a period. It is fitting because that is exactly what you said, “I do,” period. Tucked beneath the emotionality lies the person that you made this pledge to. That one that you pictured buying a house with, retiring with, raising kids with. Even if it seems that you are far from being those newlyweds who made those promises long ago, admit it, those are the things you still want. This is why you got married. When you feel like reacting, call yourself back to those reasons.