“Don’t Touch the Stove!”

Do you remember being told that as a child, “Don’t touch the stove, you will get burned!”? I remember that. And, by the way, I did touch the stove as a child….tried to pick up the bright orangish-red grill….and burned the crap out of my hand!!!!

Anyway, the focus of this blog is the importance to learning to let go of childhood teachings like, “Don’t touch the stove!”, and replacing them with more relevant principles to live by.

I spend a lot of time in my office working with people who are successful in many areas of their lives but get tripped up by old childhood teachings. “Don’t touch the stove” is only one example of such. Others include:

“Good girls don’t”,

He should call her….ask her out for a date….and pay,

Masturbation is bad,

Saying “No” (especially if you are female),

Not always wanting sex or wanting to cuddle (if you are male),

Boys don’t cry,

Good parents never yell at their kids and

God will be angry with you if you divorce.

The best way to identify your childhood rules is to “follow your shame”. When we are children and are told important rules, most of us take these rules in at a very deep level. So deep that when we break them, we not only feel guilty, we feel ashamed. We feel not only was it bad that we broke the rule but that we are bad.

Just as you know, now, that you can touch the stove, it is important to look around in your life and identify other rules about which you still feel guilty and ashamed.

The link below is to a radio show on NPR, The Moth Radio Hour. This is a show during which participants tell stories about significant events in their lives. During the December 1st episode, entitled “Pizza, Polar Bears and Rock Stars”, a participant, Moshe Schulman recounts the very first time he (a devout Jewish young boy) ate sausage pizza (Pork is prohibited in the Jewish faith.). His description and the emotion in the story took me back to many rules I have worked to let go of (and some I still struggle with!). Worth a listen




Family Picture

I recently talked with a gentleman that commented that he was having a family picture taken soon with his wife and 2 sons. He commented on how much of a sham eh thought the picture would be in light of the struggles he had been having with his wife. In truth, he was struggling with his wife but it was nothing I would consider extreme or relationship-threatening. The issues were important but resolvable.

Anyway, I got to thinking about his comment about the picture being a sham….the ideal picture of the happy family and everyone smiling….and him knowing the reality…namely that recently, she and he had had some big fights.

After considerable thought, I realized some things:

  1. With all (family) pictures, there is the reality of the picture and what is behind the picture. There is the wonderful closeness, for example, of a couple or family all together and happy (when we are at our best) and the un-photographed moments of the angry looks, accusations, actions (when we are at our worst). This is life.


  1. With that having been said, there is the factor of degree to be considered. The more extreme the ugliness that occurs between the people in the photo, the more unreal or fake the happiness is presented in the picture. And, likewise, the less extreme the ugliness is, the more genuine the happiness is in the smiles of those in the picture.


  1. Be aware, if the ugliness behind the picture is extreme and the couple stay together, then, yes, the picture is a sham of what it represents….that of a happy family.


  1. Further, if the people are really not happy together (if the picture is a sham), then it, the picture, can be an unhappy motivator for one or both people of the couple to do something to change things in the relationship; either get into therapy or divorce, etc.


  1. Finally, our society looks upon a family picture as an iconic or status symbol in achieving happiness and success in personal maturity, marriage and living life in general. This can have a detrimental effect if there is extreme struggle present in the relationship and/or the couple needing therapeutic assistance. Simply, because the couple looks so good in the picture, they don’t want to acknowledge the reality that they are in fact unhappy together and need help.


Things to ponder.

More later….

Why Breaking Up is Hard to Do

I am working with a young woman, 33, beautiful, industrious, business-owner, intelligent….but struggling to break up with a boyfriend.

If allowed, she would spend A LOT of time talking about how thoughtful he can be, how giving he is, etc. Only when pushed however will she talk about how unstable she feels when around him, how unpredictable he is, how he can turn on her and yell at her for 30 minutes straight AND THEN apologize, telling her most of what he just said about her was “not fair”.

They have been together 3 years. They became intimate shortly after they began dating and he moved in within a few months thereafter given his lease ran out (He thought it was foolish for them to both pay rent especially if they were always going to be together as they had been up to that point.  She thought that made sense.). Their relationship was characterized, almost immediately, with fights and arguments followed by intense love making and intimacy. Gradually, he began to leave her and live with friends for weeks/gradually months. They broke up many times….only to start talking after a few weeks and his eventual move back in.

She wants to break up with him…knows she needs to.

She reports a history of dating men similar to her current relationship – frequent fights followed by passionate sex.

I picked her to discuss because her struggle with breaking up demonstrates how important one’s thinking plays in the process of making important decisions.

Based on the way the brain is structured, we are capable of thinking cognitively or emotionally. Cognitive (logical or rational) thinking is located in the Cerebral Cortex, the outer shell of the brain. Emotional thinking originates from the Limbic System, especially the Amygdala, located deep inside the brain.

Typically, we will use a mix of both types of thinking and the type of thinking used is selected automatically based on how we interpret our environment, but we do have the ability to switch from one type of thinking to the other.

Now, let’s look at the situation this young woman is facing and her thinking. She is trying to think through her situation with her emotional brain:

  1. She likes to focus on being “in love” with him…how wonderful it is to make love with him, how he is when he is thoughtful, caring, giving, etc. She is ignoring a larger picture…that he is also unpredictable, hurtful, mean, etc.; realizations that come from thinking logically through the situation.


  1. “If I break up with him, will another man like him (passionate, kind, thoughtful) ever come along.” emotional thinking. And she thinks this despite her long history of picking out guys exactly like him.


  1. “It feels so right”. This is emotional thinking again and FYI, the logic of affairs; “…it feels so right (when I am with my lover), it can’t be wrong”!


  1. “If I break up with him, I will never find another man.”…ignoring the fact that she has a lot of offer someone else and the fact that she has had a long string of boyfriend thus far!


  1. “It would all be ok if he just wouldn’t get so mad”….but he does, repeatedly, historically!


More later.



What is Love? via “Meet Joe Black”

Very frequently, I discuss what love is in my office with the people I see. Literally, I focus them on how love looks in relationships. Few times have I found a better description of it than that description given in the film, “Meet Joe Black”.

In the film, Death takes a holiday and visits earth as a human being, in the body of Brad Pitt, going by the name of Joe Black. He visits a particularly successful businessman played by Sir Anthony Hopkins, and his family. Death’s true identity is unknown to all but Hopkins; they are under the impression that Joe is simply a business associate/advisor. At one point, Death/Joe has a discussion with Hopkins’ son-in-law, “Quincy”, played by Jeffery Tambor.

Joe: “Quin, I find myself a little confused”

Quincy: “Confused…huh. What about?”

Joe: Love.

Quincy: Love. Ah… (Chuckles). Oh man…and I thought I had problems!

Joe: You love Alison (Quincy’s wife), don’t you.

Quincy: Yes!  I do (seriously, earnestly).

Joe: How did you meet?

Quincy: Well, I was this world-class loser and she was a happy little rich girl…and

for some reason, she took me in.”

Joe: “…but Alison loves you…?”

Quincy: (smiling broadly, he nods affirmatively)

Joe: “But how do you know?”

Quincy: “Because she knows the worst thing about me and it’s ok.”

Joe: “What is it?”

Quincy: “No…it’s not just one thing. It’s an idea…huh…it’s like….you know each

others deepest, darkest secrets…”

Joe: “Your deepest, darkest secrets…?”

Quincy: “Yeah…and then (with enthusiasm) you’re free!”

Joe: “Free…?”

Quincy: “…you’re free…to be with each other, love each other…totally. And there is

no fear…because there’s nothing you don’t know about each other and it’s


Joe: “Oh…”

I think that is a very good definition.

I read a book once about women and finances. It suggested before a woman marries, she and her espoused should sit and completely reveal to each other their personal finances, completely. I think they described this as “finding out who you are really getting into bed with”. Sounds like a very good idea, especially in the state of Illinois where spouses are held equally responsible for their partner’s debts.

You can see the similarities between this idea with finances and Quincy’s idea with revealing all your secrets with your lover.

I think the idea and practice is worth consideration, discussion and practice.

More later.

Guidelines for Sex After 60

Below is from a handout I received while attending a workshop recently.  Having reached 60 this past August, I found the ideas very compelling.  The information is worth a read and conversation with your partner.


  1. You are a sexual person throughout your life, no matter what your age.  Age does not cause sexuality to cease.


  1. Key to maintaining a vital sexuality is to integrate intimacy, non-demand pleasuring, and erotic scenarios and techniques.


  1. Contrary to popular mythology, when couples stop being sexual it is the man’s decision in over 90% of cases because he finds sex frustrating and embarrassing. He makes the decision unilaterally and conveys it non-verbally.


  1. Sexuality is more likely to remain functional and satisfying when both the man and woman value a variable, flexible, pleasure-oriented couple sexual style rather than an individual performance-oriented, pass-fail intercourse test.


  1. With aging your hormonal, vascular, and neurological systems function less efficiently, so psychological, relational, and psychosexual skill factors become more important in maintaining a healthy, resilient sexuality.


  1. The best aphrodisiac is an involved, aroused partner – you turn toward each other as intimate and erotic allies.


  1. The “give to get” pleasuring guideline has a particular value for the aging couple. This promotes mutual stimulation, multiple stimulation, and accepting asynchronous sexual experiences.


  1. The major physiological changes in male sexual response are that it takes more time and more direct penile stimulation to obtain an erection, your erection is not as firm and more likely to wane, and there is a lessened need to ejaculate at each sexual opportunity.


  1. The major physiological changes in female sexual response are diminished vaginal lubrication that usually necessitates using a vaginal lubricant, thinner vaginal walls, increased time and stimulation required for arousal and orgasm, and less intense orgasmic response.


  1. Small doses of estrogen replacement for women, use of Viagra for men, and testosterone for both men and women are not “magic cures.” However, these can be positive resources for sexual function when integrated into your couple intimacy, pleasuring, and eroticism style. These need to be prescribed and monitored by a physician, not purchased from an Internet site.


  1. Positive, realistic expectations are crucial in maintaining a health sexual relationship. Do not compare sexuality in the 60’s to the sexuality you experienced when you were 20. Focus on quality and pleasure, not quantity and performance.  The good news is you can be sexual when you are in your 80’s.


  1. Sexuality is more than genitals, intercourse, and orgasm. Sexuality involves sensual, playful, erotic and intercourse touch. Not all touch can or should result in intercourse.  Couples who enjoy the Good Enough Sex (GES) approach report high levels of desire, pleasure, eroticism, and satisfaction.

Him and Compliments

Recently, I spoke with a woman who had received a promotion and raise at her work. She was quite excited and told her husband as soon as he got home. “That’s great, babe” was his reaction as he passed her on the way to the bedroom to change his clothes. She was hurt at his lack of excitement but called her mother and soon there were plans made to celebrate her accomplishment the following weekend; her parents and brothers would be there, they would go out to her favorite restaurant, etc.

A week later, he, in passing, told her that his mother had called and said they, his parents, were not coming to visit as had been planned. “Oh honey, I am so sorry. I know you were looking forward to them visiting.” “Yeah, well….” was his only response as he booted up his video game and began to play. He plays video games a lot, especially when upset.

I have seen this dynamic before, in mostly younger couples….him having little sense of how to and the importance of compliments in a relationship and the inability to verbalize disappointment. In my experience, this leads to a lot of hurt feelings on her part and a lot of pent-up frustration and anger on his.

A couple of points….

  1. Women are taught and are hormonally geared to focusing on the needs and feelings of others. Girls watch their mothers, teachers, nurses, etc. take care other others. Further, their primary hormones are estrogen and progesterone and these facilitate the care-taking reaction with the people around them. Men, on the other hand, are taught to set, focus on and achieve their goals and provide/do for others, primarily their family; typically seen in the forms of a paycheck and “doing” things around the house. They have seen other men do this when they were young and their primary hormone is testosterone, which facilitates these actions. This explains some of his reactions above.

2. My experience is that men need to be taught how to give and the importance of compliments, especially when it comes to their partners. I                    have worked with a number of couples in which he really didn’t realize how important his compliments are to her…and had no idea how she                wanted to be complimented….and these were men from fairly well socialized families!

In therapy sessions, I frequently check out how he responds to her accomplishments…what he says to her, what he does, etc. and what his thinking is when he is not complimentary. Often, he will tell me he doesn’t think his compliments are that important…to her or anyone. He will also frequently report he had never seen any of the significant men in his life compliment their women. Men have told me they didn’t think their opinion/compliments meant that much to her or others and that if anything were to show his admiration for her success, it would be something like taking her out for dinner or buying her something (…or not complain when she does make such purchases.). You can see the male socialization impact in his reactions….doing is more important and saying and being (a provider) is more important than being present.

My suggestion: Women…understand your man may not know how important his compliments are. Explain this to him. He may not know how to compliment you, especially what to say. Tell him what to say when complimenting you. Only you know what the words you most want to hear.

Men…you need to develop this skill (unless you like sleeping with a sad, frustrated and/or angry woman!). You need to watch for opportunities to compliment her. You must learn it spot them. You need to think about what to say to her when complimenting her and/or ask her what she most wants to hear when being complimented and then say such at the appropriate times.


More later….




The Brain in Love

This is the transcript of a TED Talk on love…

The Brain in Love

  • Helen Fisher


I and my colleagues Art Aron and Lucy Brown and others, have put 37 people who are madly in love into a functional MRI brain scanner. 17 who were happily in love, 15 who had just been dumped, and we’re just starting our third experiment: studying people who report that they’re still in love after 10 to 25 years of marriage. So, this is the short story of that research.

In the jungles of Guatemala, in Tikal, stands a temple. It was built by the grandest Sun King, of the grandest city-state, of the grandest civilization of the Americas, the Mayas. His name was Jasaw Chan K’awiil. He stood over six feet tall. He lived into his 80s, and he was buried beneath this monument in 720 AD. And Mayan inscriptions proclaim that he was deeply in love with his wife. So, he built a temple in her honor, facing his. And every spring and autumn, exactly at the equinox, the sun rises behind his temple, and perfectly bathes her temple with his shadow. And as the sun sets behind her temple in the afternoon, it perfectly bathes his temple with her shadow. After 1,300 years, these two lovers still touch and kiss from their tomb.

Around the world, people love. They sing for love, they dance for love, they compose poems and stories about love. They tell myths and legends about love. They pine for love, they live for love, they kill for love, and they die for love. As Walt Whitman once said, “O I would stake all for you.” Anthropologists have found evidence of romantic love in 170 societies. They’ve never found a society that did not have it.

But love isn’t always a happy experience. In one study of college students, they asked a lot of questions about love, but the two that stood out to me the most were: “Have you ever been rejected by somebody who you really loved?” And the second question was: “Have you ever dumped somebody who really loved you?” And almost 95 percent of both men and women said yes to both. Almost nobody gets out of love alive.

So, before I start telling you about the brain, I want to read for you what I think is the most powerful love poem on Earth. There’s other love poems that are, of course, just as good, but I don’t think this one can be surpassed. It was told by an anonymous Kwakiutl Indian of southern Alaska to a missionary in 1896. And here it is. I’ve never had the opportunity to say it before. “Fire runs through my body with the pain of loving you. Pain runs through my body with the fires of my love for you. Pain like a boil about to burst with my love for you, consumed by fire with my love for you. I remember what you said to me. I am thinking of your love for me. I am torn by your love for me. Pain and more pain — where are you going with my love? I am told you will go from here. I am told you will leave me here. My body is numb with grief. Remember what I said, my love. Goodbye, my love, goodbye.” Emily Dickinson once wrote, “Parting is all we need to know of hell.” How many people have suffered in all the millions of years of human evolution? How many people around the world are dancing with elation at this very minute? Romantic love is one of the most powerful sensations on Earth.

So, several years ago, I decided to look into the brain and study this madness. Our first study of people who were happily in love has been widely publicized, so I’m only going to say very little about it. We found activity in a tiny, little factory near the base of the brain called the ventral tegmental area. We found activity in some cells called the A10 cells, cells that actually make dopamine, a natural stimulant, and spray it to many brain regions. Indeed, this part, the VTA, is part of the brain’s reward system. Its way below your cognitive thinking process. It’s below your emotions. Its part of what we call the reptilian core of the brain, associated with wanting, with motivation, with focus and with craving. In fact, the same brain region where we found activity becomes active also when you feel the rush of cocaine.

But romantic love is much more than a cocaine high — at least you come down from cocaine. Romantic love is an obsession, it possesses you. You lose your sense of self. You can’t stop thinking about another human being. Somebody is camping in your head. As an eighth-century Japanese poet said, “My longing had no time when it ceases.” Wild is love. And the obsession can get worse when you’ve been rejected.

So, right now, Lucy Brown and I, the neuroscientists on our project, are looking at the data of the people who were put into the machine after they had just been dumped. It was very difficult actually, putting these people in the machine, because they were in such bad shape.

So anyway, we found activity in three brain regions. We found activity in the brain region, in exactly the same brain region associated with intense romantic love. What a bad deal. You know, when you’ve been dumped, the one thing you love to do is just forget about this human being, and then go on with your life — but no, you just love them harder. As the poet Terence, the Roman poet once said, he said, “The less my hope, the hotter my love.” And indeed, we now know why. Two thousand years later, we can explain this in the brain. That brain system — the reward system for wanting, for motivation, for craving, for focus — becomes more active when you can’t get what you want. In this case, life’s greatest prize: an appropriate mating partner.

We found activity in other brain regions also — in a brain region associated with calculating gains and losses. You’re lying there, you’re looking at the picture, and you’re in this machine, and you’re calculating what went wrong. What have I lost? As a matter of fact, Lucy and I have a little joke about this. It comes from a David Mamet play, and there’s two con artists in the play, and the woman is conning the man, and the man looks at the woman and says, “Oh, you’re a bad pony, I’m not going to bet on you.” And indeed, it’s this part of the brain, the core of the nucleus accumbens that is becoming active as you’re measuring your gains and losses. It’s also the brain region that becomes active when you’re willing to take enormous risks for huge gains and huge losses.

Last but not least, we found activity in a brain region associated with deep attachment to another individual. No wonder people suffer around the world, and we have so many crimes of passion. When you’ve been rejected in love, not only are you engulfed with feelings of romantic love, but you’re feeling deep attachment to this individual. Moreover, this brain circuit for reward is working, and you’re feeling intense energy, intense focus, intense motivation and the willingness to risk it all, to win life’s greatest prize.

So, what have I learned from this experiment that I would like to tell the world? Foremost, I have come to think that romantic love is a drive, a basic mating drive. Not the sex drive — the sex drive gets you looking for a whole range of partners. Romantic love enables you to focus your mating energy on just one at a time, conserve your mating energy, and start the mating process with this single individual. I think of all the poetry that I’ve read about romantic love, what sums it up best is something that is said by Plato over 2,000 years ago. He said, “The god of love lives in a state of need. It is a need, it is an urge, and it is a homeostatic imbalance. Like hunger and thirst, it’s almost impossible to stamp out.” I’ve also come to believe that romantic love is an addiction: a perfectly wonderful addiction when it’s going well, and a perfectly horrible addiction when it’s going poorly.

And indeed, it has all of the characteristics of addiction. You focus on the person, you obsessively think about them, you crave them, you distort reality, your willingness to take enormous risks to win this person. And it’s got the three main characteristics of addiction: tolerance, you need to see them more, and more, and more; withdrawals; and last: relapse. I’ve got a girlfriend who’s just getting over a terrible love affair. It’s been about eight months, she’s beginning to feel better. And she was driving along in her car the other day, and suddenly she heard a song on the car radio that reminded her of this man. Not only did the instant craving come back, but she had to pull over from the side of the road and cry. So, one thing I would like the medical community, and the legal community, and even the college community, to see if they can understand, that indeed, romantic love is one of the most addictive substances on Earth.

I would also like to tell the world that animals love. There’s not an animal on this planet that will copulate with anything that comes along. Too old, too young, too scruffy, too stupid, and they won’t do it. Unless you’re stuck in a laboratory cage — and you know, if you spend your entire life in a little box, you’re not going to be as picky about who you have sex with, but I’ve looked in a hundred species, and everywhere in the wild, animals have favorites. As a matter of fact, ethologists know this. There are over eight words for what they call “animal favoritism:” selective proceptivity, mate choice, female choice, sexual choice. And indeed, there are now three academic articles in which they’ve looked at this attraction, which may only last for a second, but it’s a definite attraction, and either this same brain region, this reward system, or the chemicals of that reward system are involved. In fact, I think animal attraction can be instant — you can see an elephant instantly go for another elephant. And I think that this is really the origin of what you and I call “love at first sight.”

People have often asked me whether what I know about love has spoiled it for me. And I just simply say, “Hardly.” You can know every single ingredient in a piece of chocolate cake, and then when you sit down and eat that cake, you can still feel that joy. And certainly, I make all the same mistakes that everybody else does too, but it’s really deepened my understanding and compassion, really, for all human life. As a matter of fact, in New York, I often catch myself looking in baby carriages and feeling a little sorry for the tot. And in fact, sometimes I feel a little sorry for the chicken on my dinner plate, when I think of how intense this brain system is. Our newest experiment has been hatched by my colleague, Art Aron — putting people who are reporting that they are still in love, in a long-term relationship, into the functional MRI. We’ve put five people in so far, and indeed, we found exactly the same thing. They’re not lying. The brain areas associated with intense romantic love still become active, 25 years later.

There are still many questions to be answered and asked about romantic love. The question that I’m working on right this minute — and I’m only going to say it for a second, and then end — is, why do you fall in love with one person, rather than another? I never would have even thought to think of this, but Match.com, the Internet dating site, came to me three years ago and asked me that question. And I said, I don’t know. I know what happens in the brain, when you do become in love, but I don’t know why you fall in love with one person rather than another. And so, I’ve spent the last three years on this. And there are many reasons that you fall in love with one person rather than another that psychologists can tell you. And we tend to fall in love with somebody from the same socioeconomic background, the same general level of intelligence, of good looks, the same religious values. Your childhood certainly plays a role, but nobody knows how. And that’s about it, that’s all they know. No, they’ve never found the way two personalities fit together to make a good relationship.

So, it began to occur to me that maybe your biology pulls you towards some people rather than another. And I have concocted a questionnaire to see to what degree you express dopamine, serotonin, estrogen and testosterone. I think we’ve evolved four very broad personality types associated with the ratios of these four chemicals in the brain. And on this dating site that I have created, called Chemistry.com, I ask you first a series of questions to see to what degree you express these chemicals, and I’m watching who chooses who to love. And 3.7 million people have taken the questionnaire in America. About 600,000 people have taken it in 33 other countries. I’m putting the data together now, and at some point — there will always be magic to love, but I think I will come closer to understanding why it is you can walk into a room and everybody is from your background, your same general level of intelligence, good looks, and you don’t feel pulled towards all of them. I think there’s biology to that. I think we’re going to end up, in the next few years, to understand all kinds of brain mechanisms that pull us to one person rather than another.

So, I will close with this. These are my older people. Faulkner said, “The past is not dead, it’s not even past.” Indeed, we carry a lot of luggage from our yesteryear in the human brain. And so, there’s one thing that makes me pursue my understanding of human nature, and this reminds me of it. These are two women. Women tend to get intimacy differently than men do. Women get intimacy from face-to-face talking. We swivel towards each other, we do what we call the “anchoring gaze” and we talk. This is intimacy to women. I think it comes from millions of years of holding that baby in front of your face, cajoling it, reprimanding it, educating it with words. Men tend to get intimacy from side-by-side doing. As soon as one guy looks up, the other guy will look away.

I think it comes from millions of years sitting behind the bush, looking straight ahead, trying to hit that buffalo on the head with a rock. I think, for millions of years, men faced their enemies, they sat side-by-side with friends. So my final statement is: love is in us. It’s deeply embedded in the brain. Our challenge is to understand each other.

Thank you.


What People REALLY Want in a Long-Term Relationship Partner

This is an article in the September 21, 2019 edition of Time Magazine (pg. 31).  Very short but interesting.


What People Want in a Mate

What do humans really want in a long-term partner?  And how much of what we want is influenced by culture, as opposed to innate?

In a new report out of Swansea University in the U.K., researchers got 2,700 college students from five countries—three from Western cultures and two from Eastern cultures—to progressively narrow down which characteristics were most important to them in a lifetime mate.

“For men and women from both cultures, the most important trait, hands down, was kindness,” says lead author and psychology lecturer Andrew G. Thomas.  After that, there was a split by gender: across cultures, men said they value physical attractiveness while women prioritized financial stability.  But there were international nuances too.  Western partners tended to desire humor more than those from Eastern cultures, who leaned a little more toward religiosity and chastity.  Western women also valued mates who wanted to have kids.  Thomas attributes this to a higher use of contraceptives in their countries, which makes childbearing more a matter of choice.

  • Belinda Luscombe

Surviving the Narcissist – Your Background

This is an article I wrote recently on the roll that one’s background plays if they suspect they are in a relationship with a narcissist.  It doesn’t apply to everyone’s situation, but can help explain whey one might (unconsciously) pick out a narcissist to be in a relationship with.


After she had spent most of the first hour talking about her narcissist, I asked Carol (not her real name) to tell me about her family and childhood years.

She explained that she was the only child born to working class parents; her mother was a nurse and her father owned a small-engine repair business.

Her parents fought constantly and it was usually her mother that “won” these fights. The fights were about money (her mother’s spending) and how unhappy/miserable her mother was with her life.

As a child, Carol recalled always feeling responsible for her mother feeling upset. Consequently, she always tried to please her mother, i.e., trying to get good grades, being quiet, being “good”, taking tap/jazz (she remembers Mom talking about how beautiful the girls were in a dance class she saw once. Later, she was crushed when she took dance and her mother refused to or always had excuses for not coming to her performances).  None of this worked, as her mother remained perpetually unhappy and frequently mad.

As she got older and into middle-school, she was encouraged by her teachers to be more independent. Carol developed a reputation for good grades and being a hard worker. She was asked to be in different groups and selected to be in “talented and gifted” classes. Carol was proud of these accomplishments but her independence and success in school made her mother jealous. He mother complained about having to drive Carol to school early for practices or pick her up after school late due to meetings/practices or competitions. She said her mother was always complaining about how much she did for Carol, how much she had sacrificed for her. Carol said she loved her mother and felt sorry for her mother always being so unhappy but nothing ever seemed to help. No matter how many A’s Carol brought home or how many people complimented her mother on how smart and polite Carol was, her mother was unhappy and angry and increasingly critical of Carol.

Her only refuge at home was her father, but only when he was not drinking.

In high school, Carol and her mother fought frequently and intensely. Nothing Carol did was good enough or right in her mother’s eyes. Her academic success continued but other significant changes occurred that blunted these accomplishments.

Her father withdrew from interacting with her. Hugs stopped. He didn’t come to her games/performances anymore. He didn’t ask her about her day. He barely talked to her. Further, his drinking increased, which in turn lead to more attacks by and fights with her mother. His obvious alcoholism was now undeniable evidence of his neglect of her and the misery of her life.

Carol developed into a beautiful young woman, attracting the attention of many young men. Carol’s mother now began accusing her of being sexual with any or all these young men. The terms “whore” and “slut” were frequently thrown at Carol. Her mother also used this situation as an opportunity to once again, point out how ungrateful Carol was and how disrespectful she was being to her mother – by slurring the family name with her selfish sexual pursuits.

Carol’s response to the young men’s’ attentions was to withdraw. She felt very insecure about her body and emerging sexuality….and withdrawing was easy. Further, in a perverse way, withdrawing helped her feel closer to her mother. She felt withdrawing was what her mother really wanted her to do and perhaps, eventually, would be proud of her. Carol fantasized that when that day came, she would be vindicated! None-the-less, the arguments between Carol and her mother continued. Often, Carol would find herself becoming speechless in response to her mother’s attacks, running to her room and crying herself to sleep. Despite all this, Carol still hoped her mother would be proud of her someday.

After she turned 16, Carol put off getting her driver’s license. She described having a lot of anxiety about getting her license and being able to drive; all the possibilities for accidents, all the things she had to watch out for. Besides, if she asked her mother to drive, despite her mother’s complaining, she could show her mother how responsible she was by being where she was supposed to be and being ready to go when her mother arrived to pick her up, etc.

Carol began to suspect there would never be any satisfying her mother. But what accompanied this awareness was frustration and resignation rather than anger and resentment.  She was alone in the world and had to put up with her mother if she was to survive.

Carol went on to attend college, 30 miles from her home. She lived at home during these years and majored in communications. After college, she obtained an “Executive Assistant” position at a firm about 3 hours from her home.


At the time Carol came in for therapy, she had been dating a young man for 4 years. We will call him “Bob”.  She said she was attracted to him by his good-looks and British accent (she’s apparently always had a “thing” for men with foreign accents). He was gainfully employed, drove a nice car, seemed stable and very attentive to her. They lived in the same city, about 45 minutes away from each other.

Initially, the attention was wonderful. This guy seemed to truly be interested in her, without any complaints or criticisms (so different from her mother). Then, red flags began appearing. He began texting and emailing her multiple times per day. He always wanted to be with her, daily, if possible. He was always asking her about her day, what she was doing, who she was with, what they said, what Carol said back to them, etc.

Bob declared his love for Carol within about 6 weeks of dating. Carol was both thrilled and yet a bit uncomfortable. It seems way too quick. But, that put her closer to her ultimate dream of getting married and starting a family. She could fantasize visits home with Bob and their son or daughter, and perhaps most importantly, a happy mother and (sober) father. A dream she had long been dreaming.

Bob’s behavior, while attentive, soon began to seem intrusive.  Carol tried to just relax and just enjoy the attention but she began noticing how she bristled when she saw him calling or again text or email from her. Not wanting to create a problem by saying something, she just began to respond with one-two word answers and waiting until she had received 2 or 3 messages before responding.

This was not to be ignored, as Bob quickly brought these actions to Carol’s attention. He wanted an explanation as to why she had changed and more importantly, why hadn’t she told him what was bothering her? He had been open and honest with her. Why was she ghosting him? Why couldn’t she be open and honest with him? What was she hiding?

Strangely, if felt like times she recalled with her mother…trying to explain something, fearful of the rejection, feeling confused and frustrated; never being able to satisfy the other person. But Bob was different and much more important. She was in her late twenties now (the clock was ticking!!!).  Bob seemed to love her. She didn’t want to regret letting a “good one” get away.  She was very afraid there may not be another after him.

But Carol noticed something else. Bob had a habit of turning her answers around on her. Carol would be talking about a conversation she’d had with a co-worker. When she told him what she had said, Bob would ask immediately why she said what she said. He seemed to be looking at not only what she was saying but how she was thinking. Then, the inevitable question, “Why’d you say that?” This would put Carol on the defense. It seemed like she was always on the defense now with Bob (she had always been on the defense with her mother.).

Once, Carol asked Bob to sit, cuddle and watch TV with her. Bob made an excuse, citing office work he had to do on his computer. After this occurred 3-4 times, Carol complained.

Carol: “You always have work to do. I miss you. Can’t you just take a break this evening and come sit with me?!”

Bob: “What are you getting so mad about? After all, I am working so we can do fun things, have nice things.”

Carol: “But all I want is to sit and watch TV with you a little. We never do that anymore. You are always too busy!”

Bob: “I’m not the problem here. You are. You are so needy. It is just like with my texts and emails. Here I am reaching out to you and you give me the cold shoulder! And why can’t you just tell me what you are thinking or feeling instead of blaming me by suggesting I will get mad. No, if there is anyone here that has a problem, it is you. The shit I put up with, with you!”

Carol was confused, speechless, and tearful; “What did I do wrong?”

On another occasion, Bob asked her, “How many men have you slept with?” Immediately, Carol was scared to answer but hoping to show vulnerability and trust, she answered honestly. Bob became angry. He accused her of being “loose” and having betrayed his fidelity to her. Carol withdrew and cried herself to sleep that night. While they had had sex by that time in the relationship, it had not been frequent (nor that remarkable!). After this conversation however, Bob stopped initiating. If Carol brought it up, he always had an excuse as to why that night he couldn’t but promised he would in the near future.


Many times, when working with a spouse or partner of a narcissist, the question, “Why do I stay?” comes up. Let’s look at the role of Carol’s background in her decision to stay.

When I posed that question (“Why do you stay?”), she initially cited finances. Bob had been paying some of her bills. When pushed, Carol admitted she didn’t need him to pay any of her bills but it was comforting to have him in her life, “Because what happens…I don’t know….. if my water heater goes out?”

I challenged her on this; what would she do if her water heater went out. After a lot of “I don’t knows”, she concluded she could call her girlfriend, her dad or even her boss to find out what they would do. When pushed further, she thought she could call an appliance repairman to look at it and probably could buy one if she had to.

Carol next cited marriage and kids as her reason to say. I asked her, with some surprise, “Would you really want to marry him (in light of the fact that in 4 years they had dated, she thought they averaged having sex about 4 times a year)?” “No but what if he’s the last one who is interested in me?” she responded. I challenged her on that…and she admitted other guys had “hit” on her with some frequency.

I proposed she stays because Bob is much like her mother and despite the negativity of that primary relationship, he is familiar. Carol gave this theory and the relationship serious thought. She eventually concluded it fit. About 12 months later, she broke up with Bob.

Not every narcissistic relationship is like this one but, as a therapist, I look for similarities between the relationships with each parent and the relationship with the narcissist. In this case, there were strong similarities between Bob and Carol’s mother. As Carol began to see the similarities between Bob and her mother, she naturally began to pull away from Bob. But this was a slow process (12 months).

Often I find, especially in narcissistic relationships, a person has sought out and established a relationship with a person who is similar to their parents.  This selection process is unconscious to the person; they have no idea they are searching for/selecting a toxic person. What they are aware of this that the interactions with this new person feel “right” or comfortable. What they are actually feeling comfortable with in this new person is the narcissism their parents displayed when they were a child.

As children, we can’t leave the relationship with our parents.  As adults however, we can leave but often people find reasons not to leave. People will select what is familiar, even when it is toxic, over the unknown (as in breaking up with the person and living alone).

If you are in a relationship with a narcissist, I encourage you to spend some time looking at your parents’ personalities and relationship. If one of them was narcissistic, look for ways you find yourself interacting with your partner as you did with your parents. This would be important information to share with your therapist.


Invisible, Part 2

Debbie and Jim continued therapy. While some sessions were focused on Annie’s disordered eating, a large portion of the rest of the sessions were dedicated to Debbie and Jim’s relationship, specifically, Jim’s narcissism and Debbie’s response to such. The following is nearly a complete session, followed by analysis and recommendations for Debbie.

One evening, in between sessions, I unexpectedly met Jim and Debbie at a local pizza restaurant. In this particular restaurant, a small room was set aside for parties and a long table ran the length of the room. On the wall behind the head of the table was the phrase “El Presidente” in large Mexican script.

On the occasion at hand, Jim was seated at the head of the table. Debbie, the girls and extended family sat around the table. I was following a waitress past the room to another table when Jim spotted me.  Debbie was standing by Jim and in the process of handing him a gift-wrapped box (it appeared to be Jim’s birthday). Suddenly, Jim yelled, loudly, “Edward, I’m the president…and this (gesturing to Debbie) is my staff!” I quickly looked at Debbie. She looked embarrassed and then quickly smiled, to her family and then to the rest of the restaurant, as Jim’s loud comment brought the restaurant to a quiet standstill. I briefly smiled, waved and moved on to my table.

About a week later, Debbie and Jim came in for a session. As is my habit, I asked them, “What have you two created between yourselves since our last appointment?”

Debbie quickly looked at Jim and then down to the floor. After a minute, Jim broke the silence.

“Well, I guess I will start…since no one else will. Debbie has been angry with me since we saw you at the restaurant.” Jim rolled his eyes. “She’s been ranting non-stop, wanting me to apologize for saying hello to you! Can you believe that?  I have no idea what she is so mad about but Lord, doc, anything you could do to get her over her fit would be much appreciated.”

“What do you think Debbie is mad about, Jim?” I asked.

“I have no idea.” Said Jim.

“No idea at all?” I pushed.

“No! She gets like this every so often.” Jim shrugged.

“Does Annie ever act like this?” I inquired.

“Yeah, now that you mention it….maybe it’s a period thing (Jim chuckled.). Annie is old enough to be having periods now.” Jim seemed pleased with his ‘insight’.

“Did you ask Debbie what she is mad about?” I inquired.

“Yeah, a number of times actually.” Jim defended.

“And what did she say?”

“I don’t know….she keep going on and on about me ‘always doing that’ or some such baloney. I don’t know what she is talking about. She gets like this!” Jim rolled his eyes again. “How do you think Annie is doing?” he asked, moving the topic.

“Let’s stay with you and Debbie for now Jim. I want you to ask her, right now.” I directed Jim.

“Here….in here? Look, like I said, I have done that a number of times at home and I’ve told you, she makes no sense. She just gets angrier and angrier at me.” Jim refused.

“No Jim, this is important. I want you to ask her again. I know, she could get angry again at you but I’ll be here for you. You ask and I’ll watch. Maybe I can understand her and explain it to you.” I pushed. I looked at Debbie as I spoke. She had no expression on her face but met my gaze.

Jim rolled his eyes again. “Ok”, looking at the floor, “what are you so mad about?” Jim asked.

“Stop” I interjected. “Jim, you were looking at the floor.”

“So….I was talking to her.” Jim said.

“No, you were talking to the floor.” I insisted.

“Oh, for crying out loud! Ok, (Jim now looking at Debbie). What are you so mad about?”

“About you, about how you treated me at the restaurant!” Debbie said with a fairly loud voice. I was impressed with her firmness.

Jim shook his head from side to side and looked at me. “You see doc, she doesn’t make any sense. I don’t understand her. Are all women like this?”

“She made sense to me. I heard why she is angry with you.” I countered.

“What…..what is she mad about because I didn’t hear anything.” Jim refused.

“Ask her again Jim.” I pushed.

“You said you were going to explain it to me.” He resisted.

“I did but I think you can do this yourself Jim” I pushed again. “Ask her again and listen real hard this time.”

“I am not a child! … What are you angry about (Jim said to Debbie, looking at her with considerable frustration in his face)?”

“You Jim, I am angry with YOU! In the restaurant, you called me your ‘staff”!” Debbie said, now almost yelling. Again, I was impressed.

“What are you talking about?” Jim bit back, now engaged with Debbie.

“You. I am talking about you, in the restaurant, you called me your staff…in the restaurant….in front of about, and I don’t know, 50 people. Everyone was looking at me! I felt like a fool. I felt like a…servant.” Debbie, again, almost yelling.

“I don’t know what you are talking about. I remember saying hello to him (motioning to me) but that was all. You are just too sensitive. You are crazy.” Jim answered, now also loud.

“No Jim, she is not…not crazy and yes, you did call her your staff. You said, in front of the all the people in the restaurant, “Edward, I am the president and here is my staff” pointing to Debbie.” I affirmed.

“I did not.” Jim refused.

“You did.” I stood firm, looking at Jim in the eye. Neither of us looked away for a minute.

“I did not. Jesus, what is this. Can’t I say hello to someone without it being a big deal?” Jim said continuing to claim ignorance.

“Yes you can but in this case, you didn’t do that. You didn’t say ‘Hi Edward”, you said, “Edward, I am the president and here is my staff!”

“So what!  What…was I supposed to ignore you? Jim looked at me with an expression of ignorance and indignation on his face.

“Does that mean you remember saying this Jim? I pushed.

“Ok, fine, next time I will ignore you in public!” Jim pouted.

“Does that mean you remember saying this Jim?” I pushed again.

“This is crazy. No! (Turning to Debbie) You are crazy! You have blown this whole thing out of proportion. I work my ass off for you and this is how you repay me!” Jim now fully in defense mode.

Debbie, looking pale and worried, looked at me.

“Jim, Debbie is not crazy. What she said you said, you said. I was there, I heard you.” I affirmed.

“What, now you are on her side? I thought this was to be about Annie and how she is going crazy.” Jim continued to defend himself almost wildly now.

“Jim, Annie is not crazy, Debbie is not crazy and I am not on her side. I am on both your sides. But you did say that. I heard it. Not only did I hear it, I felt embarrassed for Debbie. What you said was embarrassing… belittling.” I continued.

Debbie began to cry.

“Jim, ask Debbie why she is crying.” I urged.

Jim gave a great sigh. “…What is the matter? Jim said with contempt.

“No, Jim…Ask her why she is crying, nicely. I pushed.

“I did” Jim demanded.

“No, you didn’t. You insinuated she was crazy by your sigh and then you spoke down to her. Ask her why she is crying, nicely.” I insisted.

“Why are you crying!” he demanded.

“Again Jim, no! As……” Debbie cut me off.

“I am crying because he is right and that is the first time I feel supported.” Debbie was clear, despite her tears.

“WHAT! I support you every day. Who gets to say home all day….going to your book club, having lunch with your girlfriends? Who is that? It is not me but it is because of me that you can do that!” Jim was yelling now.

Debbie shrank in her chair.

“Jim, I want you to stop yelling. I understand you are mad but you don’t need to yell. What Debbie is saying is important. You need to hear her. Now, did you say, “Edward, I am the president and this is my staff?” I pushed.

“Yes…..godammit, I said that! What is your point?” Jim said loud but not yelling.

“So, when you said you didn’t say that, that was not true. You knew you said it but were…not admitting to it…. right?” I continued to push, knowing he was at his breaking point.

“What is the point of all this? So what if I said it? She was the one that took it wrong. Like I have been telling you, if you would listen to me for once, she is always too sensitive about things. She gets a stick up her ass and then goes crazy….and I then have to apologize! This is crap.” Jim sat back; very angry.

“No Jim, this is not crap. This is your marriage and in this case, this is a problem that is your fault.” Jim looked at me with an expression of surprise. He snorted and rolled his eyes.

“Jim (I continued), what you said to Debbie in the restaurant was insulting, belittling. You may not see that but you need to see it….because you are insulting and belittling at times. Not all the time…but some times. And…. you love your wife and girls and work hard to provide for them. But….you are belittling at times. I know, because I felt embarrassed at what you said. I was there. You were talking to me.”

“What, I can’t even talk now?” Jim continued to fight.

“No, that is not my point and this is part of your problem; you can’t admit when you are wrong.” I pressed.

“This is crazy (Jim shot back). Did she get to you? She has, hasn’t she? She’s convinced you that I am the problem; that I am the cause of Annie’s problems. The truth is that it is her that is the cause of Annie’s problems. She (gesturing to Debbie) is always getting obsessive about shit around the house. Annie sees this and is now starting to act just like her.”

“You are a jackass!” Debbie said. I was shocked but certainly could appreciate her observation.

“Debbie, I think it would help Jim if you could expound on your comment.” I suggested, wanted to laugh.

“I’m obsessive because you want things around the house to be perfect. Do you remember telling me how you thought there was a ring around the collar of your dress shirt a couple weeks ago? Do you know how embarrassed I felt about that? Not so much because there was a ring but because I see how you work your ass off for us and I don’t feel I measure up in return as your wife. DO YOU KNOW THAT!? Do you know that!? Yes, I am obsessive about things being clean and perfect….but that is to please you! And then you say crap like that, “here is my staff”. Fuck you Jim!! FUCK YOU! Debbie yelled.

I was shocked beyond words not only because Debbie had never talked like this before, but, more importantly, she was really confronting Jim and I didn’t think she knew how he would respond.  What if he decided to leave her? This was her biggest fear, based on her comments in our prior session.

“No name calling.” I quipped, wanting to do something to stop this run-away train.

Debbie looked at me, embarrassed.

“Jim, I think what Debbie is saying is the truth; not the fuck you part but from watching you two, I see and hear what she is saying. You want everything to be just so and Debbie has been running around trying to do that. Before kids, you two were able to do that with no apparent problems. But now, with kids, this can’t be done. The girls, or at least Annie is picking it up and exhibiting it. I’m surprised the girls haven’t been exhibiting problems before now.  You two both have created this problem. It is not all Debbie’s fault. It is not all your fault.  Between now and our next appointment, I want both of you to watch yourselves. Jim, I want you to look at all the things you expect from Debbie. Debbie, I want you to look at all the different things you try to do or make perfect for Jim. Ok?” I concluded.

“Ok (said Jim) but before we stop, I have a question. What is the big deal now about my coffee?” Jim retrenched.

“What do you mean?” I asked, looking quickly at Debbie and back to Jim.

“It used to be I always had a cup of coffee waiting for me when I went into the bathroom in the mornings. Now, she doesn’t bring it. What is the deal?” Jim pressed.

“Jim, I want you to ask Debbie this”, I directed Jim.

Jim looked at Debbie with an expectant look. “What is the problem?” Jim asked with sarcasm.

“No Jim.” I said. “That was sarcastic….and you know it. Ask her with respect. After all, she has been bringing you a cup of coffee for quite some time now.”

“…and I am working my ass off for her for quite some time!” Jim forced.

“There are two ways to look at this Jim. You are working your ass off to allow her to stay home and take care of the girls and your home or she is staying home taking care of the kids and your house so you can work. Which is it?” I pressed.

“What is your point?” Jim was still stuck.

“I don’t want to get you your coffee any more in the mornings….or at least for a while.” Debbie interrupted. Again, with admiration and surprise, I thought, ‘Who is this woman?’

“Jim (Debbie continued), I love you and have done almost anything for you in the past but at times I have felt like a slave and I don’t want that anymore. And more importantly, I think Annie is starting to feel that same way….like she has to please you…with good grades, with everything.”

“Here we go again….It is my entire fault” Jim dug in.

“No, Jim that is not what I am saying. You get your own coffee at work. I want you to get your own coffee at home.” Debbie concluded.

“Fine!” Jim sulked.


This is narcissism! Or, at least, one face of it.

I did not get far with Jim in this (one) session…and that is the nature of working with narcissists and what spouses experience when they begin trying to make changes at home. Persistence (when confronting inappropriate behavior, making a request, clarifying a point you are making, etc.) is critical and is a good reason to consider engaging the aid of therapist; to support you over time in this process.

Note the different ways Jim avoids, denies and outright lies about what he said. First, he says he has no idea what Debbie says she is mad about. Next, he balks at the idea of engaging her in a conversation in the session. Then he tries to talk to her when looking at the floor. Later, he changes the topic to focus on what he is supposed to do when we meet in public. Then he claims to not understand what Debbie is saying. Ultimately, he denies what he said when confronted directly. This is classic narcissism! To be successful in confronting a narcissist, you must be able to see such tactics and be able to respond to them calmly but firmly.

Note the comment, “I am not a child.” This is important in understanding what is going on inside the narcissist (but not a piece of information to use when confronting him, at least in the beginning). Internally, the narcissist feels powerless, insecure and afraid. He defends himself by projecting the exact opposite in public. This is why his defenses are so strong.

Also be aware, typically, an outside person’s opinion may have more weight or authority when confronting the narcissist on their inappropriate behavior. Many times during the session, I confronted Jim and he denied…and I re-confronted…and eventually, he admitted what he’d done. If you try this at home, he probably won’t confess his wrong-doing; because you are his spouse (Haven’t you ever doubted your spouse’s opinion because you didn’t think they knew what they were talking about?). Because of this, it is critical that you remain calm when addressing him, persist in your point and not get emotional or “give-up” the struggle to make your point.

He may never confess…to you; and later, confess to a therapist. Still, don’t give-up in the fight. Why? By showing him you are not going to back down and remain calm and not be derailed or confused, you are showing him strength and determination. Most spouses, by the time they end up in my office, have a history of starting to confront him for inappropriate behavior but when encountering denials, avoidance, etc., they give up the fight. By then, he knows you are someone who will give up and in most cases, when in a fight, he is just waiting for you to do that (give up).

Further, showing this determination and strength is important because you will need this to face your future. Narcissists are hard to live with! Most who live with one assume a subservient role.

This is another important point to notice in this dialogue. If you get the “feel” of Debbie’s position in the relationship during the session, she bounces between being quiet (but aware of what Jim was doing), to being assertive, then aggressive (“You jackass!” I don’t approve of name calling but that was well placed!), then tearful, then assertive and clever. The jury is still out on this couple – I don’t know if they will stay married. Whether they stay together or not, Debbie is going to need strength and determination.

Jim gives a wonderful example of “gas-lighting” in the session. When confronted about the comment, he denies, changes the subject, tells Debbie she is crazy, etc. It is only when I address him directly and oppose his views of his behavior does he admit to being rude and then in a fit of anger.

Which brings me to my last point, are you strong enough to resist Jim’s emotional sabotage? At the end of the session, Debbie says she is not going to bring him coffee, citing that he gets his own coffee at work and thus, he can get his own coffee at home. Jim agrees but pouts, “Fine!” Can you resist the impulse, so prevalent in women, to take care of the other person? In many spots in the session, Jim gets emotional. Can you resist being bullied by this?