What’s the matter?

I recently sat with a couple struggling with communication.

He said she gets mad when he asks her how she is doing. She said he’s always asking her “What is wrong?”

This is very common amongst couples and it speaks to critical differences between men and women.

For the women:

You need to understand most men are like puppies: We are scared to death of you and yet we want to please you.  He doesn’t understand you and is afraid that he did something wrong that made you mad. If you don’t know, men like to be in control. But he is not where you are concerned.  When he does something wrong, frequently, you will not say it directly (for fear of being seen as a bitch) but you let him know by your looks or actions.  This freaks him out because he doesn’t know what he did wrong and you won’t say so he is left guessing and out of control. Going back to the puppies comment….he wants to please you and is scared to death of you (If you don’t understand this, imagine what it might be like to live and sleep with an angry woman.).

So to resolve all this, he asks, “What is wrong?” This question, by the way, has “man” written all over it: It is direct; It is focused on the problem; It is action oriented (Let’s figure out what the problem is to solve it.), etc.

For the men:

The problem with this comment, however, is that it implies there is a problem and that the woman has it. Women don’t like this….they don’t want their man, or anyone, assuming they have a problem. Further, if there is a problem, most women assume that you should know what the problem is because we talked about it… at some point in the past.

What to do:

Men: STOP asking “What is wrong”! Engage her in another way, “What are you thinking?”, “How are you feeling?”, and “What is your mood?” Further, accept the fact that she may be mad but she may not be mad at you and even if she is, she has been mad at you in the past and you didn’t die.  Talk with her about it. If you forgot to do something, admit it and go on.  That won’t make you less of a man and you are not the first man who has forgotten for do something and this won’t be the first time you forget something in your life with her. Further, if you did what you thought was right, say that. You have a right to stand up for yourself and your decisions. If you tend to forget too much, you need to take responsibility for this.  Many men have to write things down about agreements with their spouse about important things, i.e., how to do the laundry, etc.

Women: Tell him directly what is bothering you and/or what he did wrong. Be aware that the aforementioned puppy analogy exists. We are concerned if you are mad and we don’t want you to be mad at us.  Be aware that men can’t always tell the difference between your angry face and that face you have when you are concentrating.

A Therapist’s Guide to Arguments with your Spouse

Recently, I had a couple come in. They’d been arguing….a lot. We discussed a number of aspects about the dynamics of communications between couples that I think were part of their problem.

In most couples, there is usually one person who wants to discuss an issue to its completion, win or lose. They are the “Approach” person. Their partner however, usually prefers to avoid a fight. They are the “Avoidance” person.

Approach people have been known to follow the Avoidance person throughout the house, trying to continue the discussion/fight.  They have also been known to provoke the Avoidance person to get them to engage in the fight, so they can finish it. They may also bring the topic/issue up again and again, in hopes the fight will be finished.  The Avoidance person is known for walking away from the Approach person; literally, in the middle of the discussion/fight. And they continually walk away from the Approach person if the Approach person follows them around the house.

What to do:

First. This is a common dynamic in couples. This is NOT an indication that they two people are fundamentally incompatible as a couple. In fact, some therapists suggest the “one approaches/one avoids” dynamic is more stable than both being avoiders or approachers.

Second. I suggest they agree to take a break when one or both feel they are getting too upset in the fight to listen to what their partner is saying. This usually is toughest for the approach person. Either person can suggest this…taking a break.  If the avoider is always the one to suggest it, the approacher may feel the avoider is just using a break to avoid the fight. So, I suggest both take on the responsibility to suggest taking a break.

Third. There is a right way to take a break; most reports doing it the wrong way when they first come into my office. The proper way is (something like): “I need to take a break.  I am going to go outside for about 30 minutes. When I come in, I will find you and we will decide if we are both at a point where we can continue this or if we need more time to calm down before talking.” Don’t just walk off. Most couples need to practice this when they are not fighting to be able to do it when they are fighting.  Yes, you will feel silly practicing this; but who said you would not feel silly doing a lot of the things we have to do in life?!!!

Fourth. Guys generally are physically bigger, stronger, have a deeper voice than women.  Women, on the other hand, generally, can think faster, talk faster and talk longer than men. Consider these aspects (how they play out) in your relationship. If you are the man and the Avoider, do you use your size to intimidate her to back off?  Does she then need to scream at you to get your attention?   If you are the woman and the approacher, do you overwhelm him with how much you say, how fast you talk, etc. Does he withdraw because of how overwhelming you are?

Fifth. Consider your partner’s background. If your partner has told you their mother/father used to yell a lot or if they have told you that they don’t like yelling, if you really want to communicate with them, you must not yell or raise your voice. Conversely, if your partner tells you your father/mother never stood up for themselves or if they have told you they want you to be honest with you and speak up, walking away from them during a fight or discussion because you are uncomfortable is not going to help the relationship.

Sixth. When I was in my twenties and thirties (and married), I was not mature enough to make myself stop/take a break during fights. What helped me learn to stop/take a break was years of seeing the consequences of my persistence of making my point in a fight…. my ex-wife withdrawing from me for hours and days. After a while, it began to dawn on me that that was not what I wanted (….but by then, I had done considerable damage to our relationship).

If you are having difficulty taking breaks during fights, perhaps you don’t see the damage you are doing to your partner and your relationship. Or perhaps you don’t care if you hurt your partner or damage your relationship.


More later…

My Therapist is a Bartender!

I read Men’s Health magazine periodically.  In the October 2017 edition, on page 32, is the “Jimmy the Bartender” column.  It is an advice column; guys write in with common questions and Jimmy responds.  Sometimes, there is really good advice in this column; like this month.  Two questions; one from Stuart, one from Alan…..and good advice from Jimmy.


“Whenever I do the laundry, my wife says I do it wrong.  When I don’t do the laundry, she says I don’t help out.  What the hell?Stuart, Huntington Beach, CA

This is one of these smoldering-ash deals that can rage out of control and burn you alive.  Do you and the wife speak the same language?  Then ask her for laundry advice.  Yes, you’re still the man.  If an argument ensues, whatever you do, do not win it.  Because if you win that battle, you also win a lifetime of dirty laundry.


Is a text to Mom as good as a call to Mom?  It’s better than nothing, right?Alan, Portland OR

No, actually it’s not.  It’s worse than nothing.  Just pick up the phone, dial the number, and ask about her flight to Kalamazoo or her best friend’s niece’s baby shower.  Make “I’m listening” noises.  That 10 minutes of you taking an interest costs you 10 measly minutes.  And that’s a damn small price to pay for having such a cool mom.

A Therapist’s Guide to Dating

As I have mentioned before, my internet homepage is MSN.  Recently, they posted an article, “10 Questions a Woman over 40 should ask a Guy on the First Date”.  It is a great article; so much so, I decided to repost it.  I re-named it because I believe these questions need not be just for men or women.


  1. What are your short and long term goals in life? Basically, the question is looking into whether or not this person is a planner or “flies by the seat of their pants”.  Further, it gives insight into whether they are a spender or saver.


  1. What are your political viewpoints? What do you believe in?  Here, one is looking for similarities in your (in-part political) viewpoints.


  1. Do you have any religious or spiritual practices? The strength of this person’s convictions is as important as the nature of said beliefs.  Is this person extreme in their beliefs?  Are they accepting of your beliefs?  Are they going to insist you convert to their beliefs?


  1. What qualities do you value in a partner? What are you looking for?  This is a good questions to identify what motivates this person; are they looking for honesty, physical health, physical beauty, emotional security or comfort, etc.  Similarity in motivations is an essential in a successful relationship.


  1. What is this person’s views of family and relationships? The quality and/or lack of relationship is key here.  Does he have friends?  Does she have regular contact with family?  Does he/she spend too much time with either?


  1. What does he/she expect from a partner? Are they looking for a maid?  What are their reactions to your description of your expectations of a partner?


  1. How do they show affection? In private?  In public?  Does the style match your preferences?


  1. Do you have any health issues? As we get older, one’s health becomes a major issue.  Imagine traveling with this person; would their health preclude that?  Could they take a walk with you?  Down the road, how might their health effect retirement; will you become their primary care giver?


  1. What do you do in your free time? This points to how active they are, the variability of their interests and how their interest would fit with your interests.


  1. How have your previous relationship ended? Listen carefully for what is said and/or not said. Did they own any of the circumstances that lead to these relationships ending?  Do they avoid this question?


Dating, as an adult, post-divorce, is not easy and frequently not (as much) fun as we hope.  There is so much more to consider when considering a mate than when we were 16 or 17.

I think this is a good set of questions when considering a person as your future partner but I would not recommend you ask all of these questions on the very first date!  They would feel exhausted and interrogated by the end of the night.  But the answers to some of these questions bleed over into answers to other questions so you may not need to hit every one to get a good sense of who you are considering.

Good Luck

Life after a Narcissist

Recently, a woman asked about how to let go of memories of her painful relationship with a narcissist.  The relationship had ended 6 months ago but she reported haunting memories that caused her to lose sleep, interfere with her concentration, appetite, and social interactions.  She asked for suggestions.

Aside from initiating counseling and addressing such directly, I also suggested the following:

Identify some items you have that symbolically represent these memories/aspects and perform and exercise.  Collect these items and decide on a way to destroy them, i.e. burning them.  Then prepare them to be burned as you burn them, notice ANY hesitation you have before you burn them.  If you do, stop the process and spend time right then thinking and writing about why you hesitated.  This hesitation reflects that there is a part of you that wants to hold on to these (painful/haunting) memories or aspects of the relationship.  You then need to ask yourself WHY?  Why do you want to hold on to this thing(s) that are painful to you?  What are you getting from it?  This is then something you need to discuss with your therapist.

The narcissist is sick/unhealthy.  Yes, we know this but we all have unhealthy parts.  And, our unhealthy parts and the narcissist’s sick parts can, at times, fit together.  The fact that they fit together is not a sign that we are pathological.  What we do with the fact that our parts fit into the pattern of the narcissist’s part is to learn about them (through discussion with a therapist) so that, in the future, you are more aware of these parts and can safe guard them the next time you are contemplating starting a relationship.  A classic example of this is the young woman who is intrigued by the “bad boy”.  After a number of broken hearts, she learns that she has to watch out for that type of guy and avoid them.

Things to consider…

“Discuss Ex-Etiquette before the Wedding”

The following article was recently in the Quincy Herald-Whig, (August 13, 2017).  In my therapy practice, the interactions with ex’s is a constant pressing concern.  This article presents this topic with very good principles and examples.  Worth a read, if you have an ex and children with that ex.

“Discuss Ex-Etiquette before the Wedding”

By: Jann Blackstone

Tribune News Service

Question:  My husband recently took his son on a backpacking trip.  It’s a family tradition that I thought was going to stop now that we are married.  When they returned, I found out that my husband’s ex-wife’s father and brother also went along.  I feel uncomfortable with my husband continuing to associate with his ex’s family.  I feel like they are always comparing me to my husband’s ex and what they really want is for them to reconcile.  This infuriates me!  I want my husband to stop! What’s good ex-etiquette?

Answer:  OK, there are a ton of red flags here.  To begin, although intellectually, most understand the parameters of co-parenting, when it comes to their own new relationship, all reason goes right out the window, and they revert to high school – “You can’t talk to her, she’s your ex.”

That mentality is completely impractical when your new partner has a shared custody plan.  The kids go back and forth between parents and extended family play a huge part in the child’s life.  Good ex-etiquette is based on the needs of the child, not the needs of the new partner.  Reframe these relationships – the child has a tradition of going backpacking each year with his dad, his grandpa, and his uncle.  Your husband broke up with his child’s mother – that’s the relationship changes.  New partners should not expect their partners or their partner’s children to cut off ties to the former extended family because of their personal insecurities.  This should have been discussed before marriage and clear boundaries established from the beginning.  In other words, you should have known what you were getting into before you signed the marriage license.  Your husband has a child.

Granted, it was awful ex-etiquette to keep the backpacking trip a secret – you should have been in on the planning, the more transparent, the better.  (Ex-etiquette for Parents rule No. 8, “Be honest and straight forward.”)  But it was apparently keep a secret because you’re openly having a problem with your husband continuing these relationships.  If he’s lying to you it’s because he felt like he had to make a choice – ask him to choose, and you will lose.  Your husband has a child.

In regards to feeling that you’re being compared to the ex and “I feel like the extended family wants a reconciliation…”  Any time you start a sentence with “I feel like…” make sure it has something positive following those words.  Otherwise, you’re reaffirming a negative expectation and undermining your own impact on this relationship.  Dad married you for a reason.  Reinforce that.  Don’t get wound up in a battle for position.  Work toward no preconceived notions – a clean slate for each meeting, holding no grudges, no spiteful behavior.  (Ex-etiquette for parents rule No. 5, “don’t be spiteful” and No. 6, “Don’t hold grudges”), and giving that little boy the best life you can.  That’s what, “Put the children first” means.  (Ex-etiquette for parents rule No. 1)  He didn’t ask for the divorce, and since you joined the club, your responsibility is to help, not hinder.  That’s good ex-etiquette.

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is an anxiety disorder that is characterized by repetitive/obsessive thoughts and recurrent/compulsive behaviors.

Obsessions are recurrent and persistent thoughts, urges and images that are experienced as intrusive and negative in nature and makes one feel uncomfortable. The person often attempts to ignore or suppress such thoughts, urges or images or neutralize them with some other thought or action….compulsions.

Examples of obsessions include, for example, a driver suddenly becoming convinced that, while checking his rear-view mirror, s/he ran over someone on the street; becoming convince that one’s clothes are not clean; believing that one has picked up germs after touching something or someone; fearing that the stove, somehow, is not turned off and could cause an explosion, etc.

Compulsions are behaviors or mental exercises that a person feels driven to perform in response to an obsession. These behaviors or mental exercises are meant to relieve the stress/anxiety the person feels due to the obsessions.  Sometimes, the person develops specific rules about the performance of the behaviors or mental exercises.

Examples of compulsions include: driving around the block repeatedly to see is someone is lying in the road after being hit and run over by a/your car, inspecting one’s clothes before putting them on, washing one’s hands repeatedly (to the point that they chaff and bleed), checking and rechecking the stove to see if it is off, praying, counting, repeating words silently, organizing, etc.

The obsessions and compulsions become increasingly time-consuming and cause significant impairment in the person’s ability to meet responsibilities in different areas of the person’s life, i.e., socially, occupationally, sexually, etc.

When working with someone who presents themselves complaining of being OCD, I’ll ask about the following:

Hand-washing:  After shaking a person’s hand or touching something, do they feel a strong need to wash their hands or feel they have been contaminated?

Does the person spend excessive amounts of time looking at/examining their body and/or body functions, i.e., blinking, swallowing, and breathing?

Over Cleaning: After typical cleaning activities for a home or apartment, does the person feel what they have done is not enough? Do they subsequently re-clean, doing the exact same cleaning procedures? Does not re-cleaning make them feel uncomfortable?

Checking and Re-checking:  Do they feel the need to recheck doors, windows, stoves, appliances?  Do they repeatedly perform an action associated with checking, i.e., lock and unlock and lock a door 4-5 times, turning on and off a light fixture repeatedly, etc.

Counting Compulsions: Does the person find themselves counting….anything?  Do they count and not realize that they have started counting? Also, do they fixate on certain numbers (when this is part of their counting or not), believing these numbers have special significance?

Perfectionism: Closely related to cleaning, the person with OCD struggles with trying to get everything or certain things perfect in their lives. This drive for perfectionism helps them avoid making mistakes and experiencing the anxiety associated with making mistakes.

Dwelling on Relationships: The person struggling with OCD will obsess over what they said/did with others. They will over-analyze what they and the other person said/did, look for hidden meanings in such and lament what they didn’t say/do.

Need for Reassurance: Does this person constantly ask for reassurance about decisions they have made, comment they have made, etc.? The motivation for the want for reassurance is to avoid making a mistake and dealing with the anxiety they feel over decisions/action they have already taken.

Trouble concentrating and failing to meet social/work obligations: This person is frequently distracted because they are obsessing about mistakes they have made or will make in the future; thus, they find it hard to focus on what is in front of them.  This causes them to waste time and subsequently be late in meeting work deadlines; or they will be late for work or social events because for example they must examine and re-examine their clothes for dirt or imperfections.

A lot of people have some of these traits.  Only a few have enough of these behaviors to warrant a diagnosis. Typically, the combination of (outpatient) talk therapy and medications help most people overcome the obsessions and compulsions.


Men and Marriage

A few days ago, I met with a couple: young, in their 30’s.  They farm his land together.  They had been living together for 6 years.  She wants to marry.  He is reluctant.

I asked why he was reluctant:  “She could take half of my stuff”, “I don’t see how a piece of paper would make anything different from the way they are now.”  And “Marriage is a sham.  I know people who have married and nothing has change.”  She said that when they are alone, he says he wants to marry her.

I am not an attorney and don’t know Illinois law as it applies to marriage and divorce.  I am divorced.  We used an attorney.

From what I understand, his first comment is true.  If there were to be a divorce, she could take “half of my stuff”.  As a therapist however, I wonder if he is even a candidate for marriage if he looks at it this way.  This comment suggests A LOT of suspicion and a serious lack of trust of his partner.  So it leads me to believe he is not a candidate for marriage.

What would lead her to take half of his stuff?  The implications is that that desire is present in her and hidden from him.  I believe however, what may motivate her to take half of his stuff is HIM!  People treat others based on how others treat them.  So, if she wants to take half of his stuff, it is because, at least in part, due to how he has treated her.  And if he begins the relationship with the belief that she will take half of his stuff, this will skew how he sees everything she does.  This suspicion will drain the relationship of its love and affection.  He will continue to suspect her, doubt her, check on her, etc.  This will create resentment and anger.  It could eventually drive her a way and if she feels unjustifiably accused, she may retaliate and sue for half of his possessions, citing, “mental abuse”.

A healthy relationship or marriage REQUIRES vulnerability.  He is vulnerable to her.  She is vulnerable to him.  The two people must let down their walls to mix all their parts to create something unique to them.  The relationship is not “his” relationship or “her” relationship.  It is THEIR relationship.  All aspects of the relationship is or should be a compromise between the two partners.

For this vulnerability to exist, both partners must have some maturity.  This situation reminds me of the older sibling that says to the younger sibling, “My toys…my toys”!  They have not yet learned to share and give with the understanding that they will be given to as well.  If you don’t want her to take half of your stuff, ALWAYS treat her with respect!  If she doesn’t treat you always with respect, look for another partner.

This speaks to the aforementioned man’s comment about marriage being a sham, that nothing changes when two people marry and what could a piece of paper mean.  Either he is not looking too closely to the marriages around him or the marriages around him are of poor quality.  When you marry, EVERYTHING changes…or it should.  I believe the line is “….and the two shall become one”.  How could everything NOT change if the two people become one entity?  Further, has this man never bought a house or car?  EVERYTHING can change with a piece of paper!

This brings up another issue:  What have you been taught about how women or men REALLY treat their partners.  If you were raised with parents with modeled suspicion and distrust, you are more likely to act in the same way.  If you see such behavior in your parents but don’t see such in yourself, ask a trusted friend if you act this way.

Consider a third issue:  How are men and women socialized when the question of marriage comes up?  Women, in general, are taught to take care of everyone else’s needs before caring for themselves, cooperate, negotiate, to give in hopes of receiving.  Men are taught to be independent, fight for what they want, provide for the family, but don’t actually participate in the emotions of the family.  It seems pretty clear to me how the socialization of the male leads to fear of their stuff (representing their independence) being taken from them.

Strong Women Should Never Do These Things For a Man – or Anyone Else

** Again, I got this from my MSN home page, BUT IT IS SO CORRECT!

     I see women in my office frequently who learned these lessons the hard way.

     I encourage you to read these and contemplate.   Ed


When you’re head over heels for someone, or maybe when you’re feeling insecure, it’s sometimes easy to put someone else’s wants and needs before your own. But if you don’t catch yourself in time, you may lose a part of who you are. Ladies, don’t ever do the following five things for a man – or for anyone.

  1. Change your appearance.

If your SO is a decent human being, they won’t ever force you to alter the way you look for their benefit. They should love you for you, and all of you. If your weight, hair, or style really bothers him, he’s clearly not with you for the right reasons. Any physical changes you make should be made because you want them, not for attention or for someone else.

  1. Compromise your passions.

Absolutely no one should get in the way of your goals. It is your life, after all, and nobody else will regret leaving any dreams behind more than you. The decision to pass on a job opportunity or put an idea on hold might seem best at the moment, but the future is never guaranteed. Your partner should support your endeavors, and if he’s willing to come along for the ride, that’s just a bonus.

      3. Wait for his approval.

A strong woman plays by her rules and doesn’t sit around for instructions. You should be assertive and go forward with your own decisions rather than seek validation from someone else. You’re grown enough to know what’s best for you.

  1. Cancel already-set plans.

It’s different to reschedule when something important comes up, but it’s problematic when you drop what you’re doing just to be with him. Your friends and family should not be on the sideline and only brought in when he’s unavailable. You should never be on standby, and if he’s respectful, he won’t mind catching you another time.

  1. Let him change who you are.

Don’t change who you are for anyone but yourself. And if you do decide to make any self-adjustments, they should be improvements that will better you. It’s possible that he’d be more interested if you do x, y, and z, but he wouldn’t genuinely like you for you. Never lose sight of who you are.


Anger Management for Teens

“Anger” consists of two parts:

1. The issue that you are mad about.

  1. The energy the emotion of anger creates in you.

Consider this example: You are laughed at in class. Consequently, you pick a fight with the kid that laughed at you between classes. Teachers intervene and you are sent to the principal’s office, where you wait for 20 minutes before you are lectured by the principal.

What is going on in this example?

While being laughed at, you feel humiliation and anger. Humiliation usually makes a person feel weak/no energy.  Anger, on the other hand, always results in the body producing a lot of energy (Perhaps you have noticed physical changes in your body when you are angry.  Some of these changes include a tingling in your hands, sweating, rapid breathing, etc.).

All emotions impact our thinking. Setting aside the effects of humiliation for the moment, anger usually always makes us want to get active, quickly and strongly. And when this occurs, you don’t take time to think through want you want to do and you react with too much force.

So, you pick the fight. Why? Because we are energized and not thinking clearly.

Teachers break up the fight and send you to the principal’s office, where you wait (and have time to calm down). The energy your anger produced in your body has now been expelled by the fight; consequently, you calm down and your thinking returns to normal.

Later, you say something like, “I don’t know what got into me!” What got into you was the energy your body created when you got mad…and you let it come out in the form of a fight, thus getting yourself into more trouble.

So, if you want to manage your anger, what should you do?

First. Understand the above principles: When you get angry, your body produces energy.  That energy must be expressed before you address the issue that made you made in the first place.  Once you have expressed the energy, then go back and address the issue that made you mad.

Second. Think about safe and “ok” ways of expelling or channeling this energy in a variety of settings, i.e., in school, at home, in a store, at your girl/boyfriends house, etc.

Three. Practice these methods.  Learning to address such powerful emotions takes a lot of practice!

Fourth. Ask people you respect and/or you feel are mature how they handle their anger when they get angry.  Other people, especially older persons have more experience and can give ideas on how to handle your anger energy that you may never have thought of.

Fifth.  Here are some other ideas for managing your anger:

  • Know your triggers. Pay attention to what upsets you by noticing how your body feels when you are angry. Sometimes people are first aware of experiencing anger through their bodies rather than their thoughts or feelings. You may feel like your heart is racing, you might be breathing faster, your muscles may tighten, or you could feel hot or sweaty. When you notice your body beginning to react, it’s time to slow down and identify the feeling before reacting. If there are certain things that you know bother you, sometimes you can avoid them.  Sometimes your triggers may not be avoidable and then it’s up to express your emotional energy first and then address the trigger or issue.
  • Plan your time wisely. One of the most common anger stressors is being in a rush. The simplest way to avoid this is to plan ahead.
  • Talk to someone you trust. Reacting in anger often causes the reasoning center of the brain to shut off for a time and the way you can turn it back on is to talk rather than act out when anger takes hold. Taking a few minutes to gather your thoughts and speaking them out loud to a trusted person can do wonders to diffuse an angry situation.
  • Think about the consequences of your behavior. Do this before you act.
  • It is not a good idea to bottle up anger because it will usually explode later. If you have a problem with someone, talk to them about it at a time that you are calm. Many times disagreements can be worked out quickly and painlessly when everyone has a cool head.