What Every Two-Year-Old Knows– The Power of “NO”

FayPsych Staff

"The word no must have a place in our lives if we want to live as healthy, happy, mature adults..."

A friend of mine had been experiencing a particularly bumpy few weeks and I invited her to lunch to blow off some steam.  She was troubled by her role as treasurer with a fundraising organization she had belonged to for the past several years.  Squabbles within the group’s leadership over the past few months had come to a head, and she felt torn between wanting to contribute to the group, and her desire to remove herself from the stress and anxiety of being exposed to all the bickering, along with the burden of the job of treasurer itself.

As we talked over a light lunch at our favorite restaurant, she recounted to me the three emails she had already received that morning related to the group’s latest saga.  “I’m
at my wit’s end with this – I have a full-time job I can barely keep up with as
it is.  I just don’t need this drama in my life. ” She said in exasperation.  I think
I’ve finally had it.”  The group’s dysfunctional ways were often the topic of our lunches, so I was not surprised to hear about this latest turn of events.

She was absolutely right. She didn’t need drama in her life. She had a very demanding career, as well as young children and a husband at home who needed her time and attention. As we talked, I reminded her that she had practically been made treasurer at gunpoint two years ago, and that it had not been enjoyable for her at any point since she had begun the job.  She had taken on the position with great reluctance, and it had proven to be as time-consuming and politically charged as she had feared.  She had hoped initially, that the good the fundraising organization did for the community
would outweigh the heavy toll the position took on her.  Over time though, it became clear that was not the case.

“I’m seriously thinking of resigning.” She told me.  “It’s just not worth it.”  She shook her head in frustration.  “I knew I never should have taken on this position.”

She had reached a crossroads, but on a journey that could have been avoided altogether with just one powerful little word – NO.  Had she had the courage two years prior to say no to the nominating committee (and she clearly knew she shouldn’t take the position back then), the stress and anxiety she had experienced over these last
two years could have been completely avoided. She would not have spent hours away from her family and her work, thanklessly trying to please the fundraising committee’s board, had she uttered that one small word– NO.  She knew she should have done it at the time, but she just couldn’t bring herself to say it.

It’s amazing how difficult it is for most adults to utter a simple two letter word.  I think of how often I have witnessed a toddler in a fit of two-year-old zeal throwing around
the word no as effortlessly as they might a toy.  At this stage of development, when a child is discovering his own sense of self and separateness from other people, he
delights in telling other people no as loudly and as often as possible–  especially if things aren’t going his way. He is learning how to establish boundaries and use language to make those boundaries clear.  While adults are reluctant to use the word no, a two-year-old relishes the word.

As we grow older we learn to be much less self-centered than our two-year-old selves, like my friend, who is a very caring and compassionate woman in every way.  This turn toward a more selfless outlook is a natural and necessary part of our development, but it can have a downside.  Our concern for others may make us vulnerable to suffering at tasks or in situations that make us miserable, or do damage to our relationships and sometimes even our health.  As we grow up, shame and guilt also enter our lives and become powerful motivators for our behavior.  We may make decisions based upon our fear that we are “not enough” or are “not living up to expectations.”  We find ourselves saying yes to things we are absolutely clear are not healthy for us, but we feel powerless to conjour up that two-letter word that holds the key to releasing us.

When we become disconnected from the ability to say no, out of misplaced altruism, guilt, shame or fear, we allow others to hold us hostage and use us for their own purposes. We may also wrongly believe that we are acting out of love when we fail
to say no to a parent’s, child’s, spouse’s or other family member’s requests,
when in fact, that failure to say no may be the most un-loving thing we can do,
both for that individual, and ourselves.

It’s easy to slip into the failure to say no trap over and over again;  it happens when we
over-indulge our children by not saying no (teaching them that they can expect to have whatever they want, whenever they want in life),  when we let our own parents
run over us with unreasonable expectations or demands (leaving us to simmer with silent anger at them while we limit our own life choices or our own family suffers from our misplaced loyalties),  when we let a friend coerce us into spending time doing something we don’t want to do (when we know it will make us anxious and cause friction at home), when we let our spouse’s desires overwhelm our own needs time and again (until resentment builds to the point of damaging or destroying our marriage).

The word no must have a place in our lives if we want to live as healthy, happy, mature adults with strong and enduring personal and professional relationships.  Without establishing appropriate boundaries with this powerful tool, we set ourselves up for lives filled with anxiety, depression and other psychological maladies. We also set ourselves up to fail as parents and as romantic partners; we doom ourselves to raise children with unrealistic expectations that the world will never be able to meet, and we assure that we will never give our partners the best of ourselves.   If we truly want to be loving, we must demand the best of ourselves, and for ourselves, and we cannot do so without the power of no in our lives.

My friend and I talked some more over dessert and she decided she would tender her resignation that afternoon.  I could see she was tense about having to talk to the board’s president about her decision. When we said our goodbyes I reassured her that her decision was sound.

I spoke to her the next afternoon and she told me she had officially resigned.  She also said the president had begged her to take another position on the board.  I asked her what she told him.  “No,” she said simply.  I could hear her smile and her relief over
the phone.

Over the next couple of weeks we caught up by phone several times, and the sheer delight she expressed at the free time she now had on her hands along with the stress she was not experiencing was almost contagious.

Copyright © 2011 Fayetteville Psychotherapy Associates, PLC

Apologetic Parenting – Why It’s the Kids Who Are Sorry

FayPsych Staff Fayetteville Psychotherapy Associates, PLC

I was standing on the cookie and cracker aisle of the local supermarket the other day, when I witnessed the most amazing transaction between a young boy and his mother.  The boy, who appeared to be about four or so, announced in a loud voice that he wanted “COOKIES!” as he snatched a box of chocolate chip cookies from a low shelf where the store had cleverly placed them.  His mother, who was following along behind him with her shopping cart, promptly parked her cart. A very lop-sided power struggle then began between the boy and his mother right there among the saltines and the vanilla wafers.

Mom: Now sweetie, I’m really sorry, but we can’t have any cookies today.

Boy: But I want cookies.

Mom: You know you’ve already had sweets today at grandma’s, Nathan, so we have to put the cookies back. 

Boy: (clutching the box of cookies tighter)  NO!  I want these cookies! 

Mom: No sweetie, you really have to put the cookies back now – I’m really sorry.

Boy: (teary) NO!!! I hate you!  I want cookies!

Mom: Nathan, that’s not a nice thing to say about Mommy.  We don’t use words like that.  Now, please put the cookies back.

Boy: No, no, no! You’re stupid!

Mom: Please, Nathan, I’m sorry, but it’s time to put the cookies back now…

Boy: (screeching) No mommy! No! I told you!

And with that, little Nathan and his box of cookies dashed off down the aisle and disappeared around the corner.  His mom ran after him and I heard screaming and crying a few aisles away.  I continued my shopping, but saw them again in line at the checkout.  Nathan was red-faced,  his mom looked harried and the box of cookies was on top of the other groceries in their shopping cart.  To the victor go the spoils – and it was clear who had been the victor in the cookie battle.

What was particularly interesting about how the whole cookie transaction played out is that Nathan’s mom is not a poor communicator or a poor negotiator.  I recognized her from our local bank where she holds a fairly powerful position in which she regularly conducts intense negotiations for the commercial loan department.  Despite her business skills, she began their little interaction with an incredibly weak move – an apology.  I highly doubt she would ever do this in a business context.  Her pleading, over-explaining and continued apologizing gave her four-year-old son the upper hand throughout the entire interaction.  She started weak and it was downhill from there.

What I witnessed at the grocery store is played out time and again all over this country – apologetic parenting.  Rather than approaching our children confidently and establishing appropriate boundaries, knowing that we are acting in their best interests, we feel we need to apologize for doing our jobs as parents.  When we come at our kids from this sheepish, half-hearted approach, they begin to discover from a very young age that we are gutless and unenthusiastic about enforcing the rules, discipline, and boundaries that they need to learn in order to become happy and successful members of our society.  They begin to react like Nathan – begging us to restrain them.  Why do we parent this way?   Perhaps we feel guilty because we are working parents, or we feel our parents were too harsh with us; whatever the reason for our hesitance, we are creating a whole lot of little Nathans with our apologetic approach to parenting.

I felt for Nathan’s mom.  The scene at the grocery store had to have been embarrassing for her.  She still had on her name tag from the bank and I’m sure she had had a long day at work before the battle with her son began. But more than this, I felt sad fearing for her for what the future held if she does not come to grips with her parenting of Nathan.  Today the battle was over a box of cookies, but in the future, the struggles would progress to much more important things, and she will have far less power over Nathan at that point.  At four, he had already figured out how to best her – what would he be like at twelve? At sixteen?

I also felt for Nathan.  Nathan needed his mom to tell him “No” – to REALLY tell him NO.  He needed to hear, see and feel that his world had limits and that his mom was willing to enforce them.   Having such boundaries makes children feel safe and secure.  From the little glimpse I got, Nathan was living in a world in which he was calling the shots – a wild west with few clear boundaries. 

What Nathan wanted much more than cookies was to know that he was loved and for his mom to show him – clearly and without apology, how far he could go with his four-year-old power and what role she, and by extension, other adults would play in establishing the limits on his power.  These are the boundaries and limits every child wants.  Nathan could then use that information in his dealings outside his relationship with his mother – with his grandmother, at school, and at church; and this knowledge would help him to behave appropriately and to enjoy his relationships with others.  

A few key reasons why it’s so important for Nathan to learn about boundaries and limits now:

  • Without learning about these limits now, how would Nathan understand and follow his teacher’s request that he sit at his desk when he begins Kindergarten?
  • How will he understand how to make and keep friendships without knowing how to respect personal boundaries?  As it is, he is learning that if he perseveres, he can wear down his opponent.
  • How will he know how to respect other peoples’ property once he has more freedom to move about on his own?

So, it may be hard as a parent to say no to our children’s demands  and to limit their freedoms when we know they are going to protest (sometimes loudly).  We do not need to apologize for setting appropriate limits as parents – not ever.  We are making an investment in our children’s future ability to have healthy relationships and in their ability be a functioning part of our society.  It is through our tutelage that they learn these important lessons.  Sometimes, through our fear or reluctance to dissapoint our children we abdicate our role as teachers of these important lessons.  We instead choose to apologize for our roles as parents, which may reduce our anxiety in the short run and short-circuit some of the daily battles we have with our children.  But, in the long-run, we doom our children to lives of anxiety and chaos when we choose this path.  Nathan deserves better.  All children deserve better

Copyright © 2011 Fayetteville Psychotherapy Associates, PLC

Dating Again After Divorce – When is it Time?

FayPsych Staff

The best of times, the worst of times. The end of your marriage can be both devastating and liberating – ending one stage of your life and entering a new and uncharted world, unencumbered by your former partner and by the expectations that you and he/she had for you in that former life. At some point in this transition, most people begin to ask themselves “am I ready to date again?”

There are no arbitrary rules for how long to wait before beginning to date after a divorce, but it is wise to proceed with some caution before getting back in the game. While it may be easy to spruce up your wardrobe, lose a few pounds, or try out a new hairstyle to get ready to put yourself “ back on the market,” it’s important to give some thought to your emotional readiness to return to dating. Jumping back in before you’re ready can lead to more pain and poor decisions. You may end up hurting yourself, the person you’re dating, and if you are a parent, possibly your children. There is a lot at stake.

When it comes to being ready to date again, not everyone moves at the same pace. The timing is not driven by how long you were married or how long your divorce process took – each situation is different. And, for people who have been divorced before, they may be surprised that how they recovered from a previous divorce and returned to dating is very different the second go-round.

Here are some things to consider when you evaluate your readiness to date again:

Have you taken time to grieve the end of your relationship?

Divorce brings to an end the union of two people, a household, and often splits apart a family. As divorce has become more common in this country we have begun to look at it more as an outpatient surgery – a little pain today and you are up and around and “over it” tomorrow. As cavalier as we try to be, it is a time of loss, pure and simple. It is important to recognize this, and to allow yourself to fully grieve what has been lost.

Have you taken responsibility for your part in what led to the end of the relationship?

Your knee-jerk reaction to this question may be to say “He did ____” or “she was ______” and that’s why the marriage ended.” On the face of it, that makes some sense; however, a marriage always consists of two people. Unless your marriage lasted only 24 hours, what he did or how she was acting was interlaced with your own behavior. Taking responsibility for how you interacted in this relationship will help you better understand what to expect from yourself (and what you may need to work on) in future relationships. Identifying the patterns of behavior that are keeping you stuck and learning new ways of working within a relationship will be key to having a successful relationship next time around.

Have you reached a point at which you are comfortable being alone?

Being comfortable with yourself and really knowing yourself are important prerequisites to dating or entering into a new relationship. After having been in a marriage for some time, it is important to get to know who you are as an individual again. What do YOU want to do when you have the house to yourself? What are YOU going to do when you are the one calling the shots? How do YOU want the future to take shape? Dating or seeking a relationship should be done because you know who you are and what you want, NOT because you are trying to escape loneliness.

What will you do to avoid “picking” a similar partner and falling into old patterns the next time around?

Maybe your ex was controlling and that led you to fall into your passive patterns of behavior – you believe that’s what broke apart your marriage, so now, what you say you want is a sensitive man. When we become accustomed to interacting with certain personality types we tend to gravitate to them again and again because they feel so familiar and so comfortable – even when they aren’t good for us. So, when you are dating, if you frequent places where men like your ex like to hang out, you are likely to meet men like your ex. Dating these men is likely to lead you right back into your old ways of thinking and behaving.

Have you gotten your “house” in order?

In the aftermath of a divorce it often takes time to iron out the financial, legal, housing, and other logistical wrinkles left in the wake of the dissolution of the marriage. These housekeeping matters may seem mundane and somewhat laborious, but it is important that they are addressed before you proceed with dating or entering into a new relationship. If you are stressed by pressing money or other divorce-related matters, you cannot be your best self when dating. And what healthy person would want to date someone with lingering legal or financial entanglements?

Even if you feel that you are ready to date again you should proceed with caution if you are motivated by any of the following reasons. These are signs that you need more time to work on yourself, your current life situation, and/or to grieve your marriage before proceeding:

You feel your child or children need a Mom/Dad in their life to replace your ex in your home.

Dating to find a surrogate parent is unfair both to the people you date and to your children. While a divorce may leave a void because of custody or other issues, seeking to fill that void through a new and untested relationship is a dangerous recipe for everyone involved. If you have parenting concerns, community parenting support services are available to help you transition to your life as a single parent. Look online for local support groups and community service programs in your area.

You need financial support.

No healthy individual should want to date a person who is looking for financial rescue. If a divorce has left you in a difficult financial situation, credit counseling or other community support services are much more appropriate avenues to pursue than a relationship from which you are seeking financial stability. A relationship based on “rescue” is unhealthy for both parties.

Other people think you should be dating or in a relationship.

Family, friends, even co-workers may feel it’s time for you to “move on” and “get over your ex.” While they may be well-intentioned, you, and you alone should determine when you are ready to date again. If you are allowing this pressure to drive you back into the dating pool again, it may well be a sign that you have not regained a strong enough sense of yourself to be ready to date again.

You want to “get back” at your ex.

Revenge may be sweet, but dating should be about you and for you, and should have nothing whatsoever to do with your ex. If you are dating to get back at your ex, it is a sign that you have not completely gotten over him or her and you have more grieving to do before you can move on to another relationship. (Not to mention how unfair it is to any potential dating partners you may involve in your revenge scheme.)

You feel it would help you “get over” your ex.

Using a dating relationship to “recover” from your marriage simply does not work. If you feel you need to use a dating partner as a substitute for your ex, it is a sign that you have not completely grieved your marriage and that you have more work to do in this area. No relationship will ever replace your marriage and no person will ever replace your ex (that’s why it is so important to allow yourself to work through the grieving process). However, there are other wonderful people and wonderful relationships out there when you are ready and the time is right.

If you find that you remain “stuck” and cannot get to a place in which you are emotionally ready to date, consider talking to a qualified therapist. A good therapist can help you identify the issue or issues that are holding you back from moving toward new and healthy relationships post-divorce.

When you’re ready to date:

If you think you have reached a point at which you have grieved your marriage, gotten your “house” in order, know yourself better, and are truly ready to proceed with dating, take a deep breath and proceed slowly. Those old butterflies are likely to return as you embark on a new chapter of your life and begin exploring the possibility of new relationships. You will likely make some mistakes, but hopefully, with some self-reflection and lessons learned from your marriage, you will do better when you meet that next special someone.

Copyright © 2011 Fayetteville Psychotherapy Associates, PLC

Social Networking, CyberSpace and Couples – What Mark Zuckerberg Wrought

FayPsych Staff Fayetteville Psychotherapy Associates, PLC

In the black-and-white, cut-and-dried days of Leave it to Beaver, Ward and June Cleaver had a pretty good idea of what one another were up to most of the time. June, dutifully dressed in her pearls and heels was usually at home tending to the household chores; or, as was the case with any respectable married woman of the day, she frequented predictable places such as the market, her sons’ schools, or “safe” places such her friends’ homes. In turn, Ward haunted appropriate man-spots such as his office, the hardware store, the bank, and other locales where similarly-situated men would gather.

Likewise, they both had a pretty clear idea of to whom their spouse spoke on a regular basis. Telephone calls were limited to those made from the telephone in the house, the occasional pay phone, or Ward’s office phone. Other communication took place by way of mail service, telegrams, or face-to-face meetings with people. Clandestine communication took more than just a little work in those days (which is not to say that it wasn’t done). Meeting new people or reconnecting with people from their pasts’ would have taken significant effort for the Cleavers. Even Eddie Haskell had a hard time pulling off much subterfuge.

Generations later, a young man in a dorm room at Harvard, invented what would eventually become Facebook. This tool, along with a litany of other social networking tools and new technologies, now allow us to communicate with one another with a speed and ease that would have amazed Ward and June.

Using tools like Facebook allows us to quickly connect and reconnect with old friends and even old lovers that might have been lost to the past were it not for this amazing technology. With these tools we are also able to communicate out of earshot and out of sight of our spouses (and families) with great ease. We can share our most intimate thoughts, upload photos and even send private messages with just a few mouse clicks. With a smart phone, the technology is completely portable.

For all their benefits, these social networking platforms and new technologies raise unique challenges for couples that the Cleavers never could have envisioned. More and more couples come to our practice having been damaged in some way or another by one partner’s use of a social networking tool. That is not to say that Mr. Zuckerberg invented a marriage killer in that dorm room not so long ago. Individuals that use these tools to “hook up” with old flames, or to seek out new lovers already know, if not consciously, that they are not completely happy in their current relationships when they hit the “SEND” button. As marital therapists, we find this trend extremely disheartening. The energy that is redirected to the high school sweetheart that has been rediscovered online, or to the cute redhead from the accounting department who shares flirtations over Twitter, could be used to work on restoring a flagging marriage instead. It often seems easier though, and certainly much more exciting, to embark on a new relationship rather than face the reality of working to restore a current relationship that is not living up to one’s expectations. That is is the allure of the cyber-world – instant gratification with little effort in 32-bit high-definition color.

We regularly see social networking and Internet technology affecting couples in a number of ways:

Internet Affairs

The most obvious misuse of social networking tools that brings people to therapy is the use of these platforms as a launching point for online affairs. These online affairs often morph into more “traditional” sexual affairs over time. Most of us probably know personally, or know indirectly of a couple that fell apart over one partner’s online infidelity– it has become that common. Whether the partner reconnects with an old flame or meets someone new online, the results are similarly devastating.

A twist to this issue that often finds its way to our office is the online “emotional affair.” These Internet affairs never lead to any physical or sexual interaction between the affairees, but the emotional resources that are drained from the primary relationship can eventually starve it completely. Persons involved in this type of affair will often rationalize their behavior by saying things like “We’re not having sex,” or “We’re just talking.” Be assured though, that this type of affair can be devastating to a relationship and certainly to one’s partner and/or family when the affair is discovered.

Collateral Damage

Social networking and online technology do not erode relationships strictly through Internet affairs. For couples who do not experience infidelity issues surrounding a social networking or Internet site, some are negatively impacted by the amount of time one or more of the partners in the relationship devotes to a site or sites on the Internet. This alone can have an extremely negative impact on the couple’s relationship. Partners may complain that they “lose” their significant other for hours at a time to a particular site or an online game. Their partner has, in effect, taken a lover by way of their physical and emotional absence from the relationship while they are online. It’s a hell of thing to lose your partner to an online world of farming games, old friends and instant messages when you are sitting just two rooms away from him or her.

Throwin’ His Clothes Out On The Lawn

Another complaint we hear about social networking sites as they relate to couples is how they are sometimes used to air a couple’s dirty laundry in a very public fashion. A marital spat or a general complaint about a partner or relationship can quickly turn into a full-out Internet sensation. Soon, dozens, if not hundreds of people are weighing in with their opinions as to who was in the right and who was in the wrong. This online sharing of marital woes not only violates the sanctity of the marital relationship, but opens up one’s partner to external criticism. For couples with children, these public revelations can be damaging to the children as well. Posting details about the private aspects of a couple’s life online is a significant betrayal, and some couples find it very difficult to recover from the fallout. Although sometimes a “wronged” partner (a partner who has been cheated on for example) may feel righteous in posting the news of their betrayal online, it leaves little room for reconciliation, or for that matter, dignity, down the road.

Technology and the Modern Couple

So how do couples safely deal with social networking technologies with in the context of their relationship? First, we recommend that couples establish clear ground rules for the use of social networking sites that they both agree to adhere to– period. Begin by having a conversation about what each partner’s expectations are up front, before an issue has arisen.

Typically, one partner will be more cautious about what is acceptable online behavior and negotiations will begin from this framework. Remember, the goal is to have a successful relationship and access to social networking. It is important to balance each partner’s needs for privacy and autonomy with the needs of maintaining a healthy relationship.

Here are some things to consider including in your discussion:

  • Is it acceptable for either partner to participate in a social networking site at all?
  • Are some sites off limits?
  • Is it acceptable to “friend” members of the opposite sex?
  • If I’m contacted by an old girlfriend/boyfriend online, how will I handle it?
  • If I’m contacted by an old girlfriend/boyfriend online, how how does my partner want me to handle it?
  • If I located my high school sweetheart online is it okay to contact him/her?
  • Is it acceptable to send private or off-line messages to members of the opposite sex?
  • Is it okay to send pictures of myself to members of the opposite sex?
  • Will my partner have access to my account?
  • How much time is acceptable to spend online each day?
  • How will it be handled if a posting or message makes my partner feel uncomfortable?
  • What, if any aspects of our private life as a couple are okay to discuss online?
  • If I received a message from an “old flame” that makes me feel uncomfortable, will I be able to safely approach my partner about it?

Note: Generally, the more open you are about your activities online, the more comfortable your partner will feel AND the less likely you will be to engage in risky behavior.

Once you’ve established your guidelines, stick to them. If after a period of weeks or months, the rules appear to be out of synch with the reality of your relationship, or the reality of your online experience, sit down again and have another discussion. Remember– having a Facebook account is not going to end your marriage. Having a vulnerable marriage and being reckless on Facebook or elsewhere on the Internet may end your marriage.

If you you are unable to work through these issues yourselves, we strongly encourage you to seek the advice of a qualified couples’ therapist for assistance. Even Ward and June might need a little help keeping up with the digital age.

Copyright © 2011 Fayetteville Psychotherapy Associates, PLC