Sunday, February 26, 2012

Who Are You Calling A Mama's Boy

Tried and true template for making a male child into a mama's boy:  An emotionally intimate relationship between a mother and her son to the degree that the son shares his thoughts and feeling with his mother, probably because he trusts and respects her. But other people think he's a sissy.

Who could trust and respect a woman, right?

The same recipe, the one that formerly described the makings of a mama's boy, now predicts a young man's self-assuredness, independence, and masculinity.  Establishing intimacy in the home is the way to teach children how to be happy, stable individuals, strong enough to be independent, mature enough to know how to be masculine when need be, soft when occasion calls for it. And we mothers do this best.

Not that fathers can't, but group findings indicate women are more empathetic.

The mother-son relationship is one variable, certainly, that predicts all of these good things. But what about confounding variables? Perhaps they are discussed in a new book, about to be released in March.  Somehow I doubt it, though.

The book is called "The Mama's Boy Myth," hopefully the results of dissertation research.  I read an excerpt sipping my morning coffee Saturday.  Kate Stone Lombardi cites a few studies to support her thesis that an emotionally intimate mother-son relationship fosters a young man's emotional maturity and positive relationships, while not undermining his masculinity:
(Sourced, Child Development) A study. . .6,000 children, age 12 and younger, found that boys who were insecurely attached to their mothers acted more aggressive and hostile later in childhood—kicking and hitting others, yelling, disobeying adults and being generally destructive.

(Not sourced, but variables in the last sentences lend credibility) A study of more than 400 middle school boys revealed that sons who were close to their mothers were less likely to define masculinity as being physically tough, stoic and self-reliant. They not only remained more emotionally open, forming stronger friendships, but they also were less depressed and anxious than their more macho classmates. And they were getting better grades.

(No source, but a relationships cited are reliable, meaning repeat in other research) There is evidence that a strong mother-son bond prevents delinquency in adolescence. And though it has been long established that teenagers who have good communication with their parents are more likely to resist negative peer pressure, new research shows that it is a boy's mother who is the most influential when it comes to risky behavior, not only with alcohol and drugs but also in preventing both early and unprotected sex.

(Arguably, there are studies considered to be reputable and scientific in the Ex-gay, Project Exodus community, but the motives of researchers are suspect). Finally, there are no reputable scientific studies suggesting that a boy's sexual orientation can be altered by his mother, no matter how much she loves him.

Why bring it up?  It's obvious Ms. Stone Lombardi is on to something.
Because so much is missing.

The confounding variables include but not are limited to: fathers, grandmothers, grandfathers, uncles, aunts, cousins, teachers, siblings, mental illness, and personality disorders in the family-- they all influence a child development, as do multiple combinations of relationships and genetics.

Ms. Stone Lombardi probably focused upon only one variable, or so it seems, the mother-son dyad. That's great, but it doesn't tell the whole story, not by a long shot.

Let's repeat what family therapists see, and what we want to see in families, just in case, the family therapy spin on family alliances.

Ideally, father-mother (or mother-mother, father-father, in the case of sexual minority parents) have the closest relationship in the family.  Each of them is emotionally intimate with each child, too.  But if theirs is the strongest bond, we think that sibling relationships are more likely to be intimate, too.

The picture of health looks like this.

See how the parents get their own little cocoon? Nobody's threatening the integrity of their relationship. And in the picture below, see how the kids get to plot and plan against them?

This is nothing new to family therapists, nor to those who lived in families like these, healthy ones. It isn't new to those who find themselves working on healthy boundaries in therapy, either.

It is when the alliances get messy that we worry. Take Junior #2 out of the picture for a moment. Perhaps he's off at boarding school.  Junior #1 and Mom have such an amazing relationship that Dad can't break in.  He feels he's on the outside of what is really the most intimate relationship in the family.

Now we have what we call a perverted triangle. Dad is a child, in a way, crying to break in. He's in the generation below his spouse and his son, poor guy.   That's not where he's supposed to be according to Sal Minuchin, a father of family therapy.  This is considered Structural Family Therapy, when we structure the family in a way that stacks the deck in a good way for the kids as children, and for the parents, for their future as a couple.

A picture tells a thousand words, no?

And yet. Establishing that intimate relationship between the parents can be exceedingly difficult, and is made even more difficult when addictions, mental illness, personality disorders, and the ordinary stress of living makes life difficult. And therapy, for some, seems inaccessible, expensive and time consuming.

So yes, moms. Do what you can to stay close to the boys.

Just try not to leave Daddy out.


Thursday, February 16, 2012

Must We Stroke That Ego?

We talk about universal needs, and one of them is to feel valued, loved, and admired. The need is beat out of some of us who become self-deprecating, very humble, omniscient in social settings. For others, it is a virus.

Those of us afflicted seek admiration at work and at home. The hunger isn't labeled or talked about, it is usually unconscious. Because it is present, however, in so many of us, therapists try to interrupt blame cycles. Blame robs the blamer of the opportunity to validate, to be a therapeutic agent in relationships. We all want to be therapeutic agents, don't we?

Social encounters, all kinds, are social experiments. We walk away feeling good (it worked!) or bad.

Although the virus is nearly universal, some have it much worse than others, present as bottomless pits for positive feedback. Somebody started digging the pit in childhood, perhaps, but adult experiences create and maintain fissures, too.

Unchecked,the need for validation, love, and admiration-- what some call positive feedback, others call healthy or unhealthy narcissism-- can be really disruptive in relationships.*

Let’s take a fictional married couple to illustrate. He dresses so that people will compliment him. His hygiene is great, and because he sees himself as very male, doesn’t overwhelm with aftershave or cologne to exude class. He shakes hands, makes eye contact, and is impressive to those of us who appreciate that sort of thing. It is likely we will compliment him on something Some of us, when we're with someone who dresses well who chooses to be with us, feel good. I'm with him.

The couple is in their late twenties, make them childless for now. (Without children, socializing with friends is easy.) The two go out three to four times a week for dinner and drinks, sometimes just drinks. Our hero gets many compliments. His wife can be drop dead beautiful or not, she can be mesmerizing or not. She doesn’t care, regardless, what others think of her. She only has eyes for him.

They are in therapy because they don’t seem to connect emotionally. They take turns at verbal blunders, hurt one another with their words. Reasons turns out to be complicated, of course. Both have life experiences that teach them the art of a good offense. Experience is fertilizer for sensitivity, insensitivity. We’re working in therapy on intimacy, understanding these things.

Our boy could have married any girl, the female partner tells me in an individual session. It is his incessant need for attention and flattery that bothers her, makes her jealous. She gives him plenty of compliments and attention, affection, but it is never enough. When she is present and he is shouting for attention, it is one thing, watching others fawn over him. But he will repeat how women do this when she’s not around, too, and he repeats it often. She doesn’t understand why he has to throw it in her face.

The whys are interesting, the nature of the human ego, narcissism. Intellectualizing it helps, and we will do this in the therapy when he's around. In healthy relationships we don’t try to make our partners jealous, we don’t add to the stresses of everyday life. Jealousy is a negative emotion, one of fear, intimidation, being threatened. Nobody likes it.

We can do that, or we can begin to treat it quickly, with some humor. Everyone likes humor.

I suggest that the next time they are at dinner or the bar in a large group, that she somehow command everyone’s attention and ask, “Raise your hand if you think ____’s tie (points at her partner's tie) is absolutely gorgeous and makes his eyes look sexy. Don’t be shy now.”

She doesn’t like this suggestion, and I don’t either. It is just a way to get her to think. She thinks a bit, I shut up, and she comes up with several alternatives. The one we like most is that she stops random beautiful women on the street as they walk together and asks, “What do you think of his tie, seriously?”

Why do this? She brings his need for compliments to the surface, takes charge, makes sure his need is met, and everyone enjoys the experience. He will get compliments. Women will make eye contact with him. Then they will be on their merry way.

Of course the two of them could have long, deep, psychological discussions about his neediness (or her lack of empathy) in my office, and if we have several of these, I could make a lot more money. But a strategic behavioral family therapy intervention like this, talking to strangers on the street or in the elevator, works just as well.


*Feedback, positive or negative, isn’t calledfeed back for nothing. It is emotional food, digests well or not, yet we come back for more. Some of us wish to change the menu. That’s therapy. (Okay, the metaphors are done for today.)

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Whitney Houston Found Dead

The bloggers are saying that Ms. Houston's untimely death at 48 is drug related. She admitted to struggling with them in a 2002 interview with Dianne Sawyer. Under pressure from fans, perhaps from family, too, she has been in and out of rehab for years.

It's heartbreaking. In therapy (some would call it vaudeville therapy, at times), it is so hard not to break into song, and Whitney's song, I Will Always Love You, generally gets a laugh. But nobody's laughing now.

So many love songs. Didn't We Almost Have It All, You Light Up My Life, How Will I Know, Greatest Love, I Will Always Love You and more.

Quintessential Whitney Houston. She fell from fame, she died on the eve of the Grammy's.  You have to wonder, really, if this was not intentional, a suicide.  Millions will read the biography, wanting to know more. I'll want to know the depths of her narcissism (losing her voice, losing her fans) and the depths of depression, and if there was some way to save the pop star.

But at the end of the day will posit that women get sicker quicker, is all. We don't do well with drugs and alcohol. Our bodies aren't made for toxins. Men somehow tolerate them better, some who live self-destructively get a decade or so more.

Such a beautiful woman, right? We should have been able to see her age, gracefully, as time goes on, like so many Hollywood icons. Is it a Forest Gumpism, crazy is as crazy does? I hate that word, crazy, but it sums up psychotic mental illness, when a person goes to extremes, takes a life. If it even is a suicide, of course.


Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Creative Numbing

Maybe it is aging, but I don't think so. By evening I'm so wiped out physically and emotionally (and it isn't from work, although working can be emotional sometimes) that all I want to do is numb.

You know what that means, right?

For some people it is Spider Solitaire (played for months, nonstop, before realizing I'm addicted! Quit cold turkey).  There are other games, of course.  Think Angry Birds

Another way to numb, a personal fave, is exercise, which is recommended by doctors, so it can't be bad. But when you aren't listening to educational tapes, when you pair exercise with television, it could be filed under numbing.

For some, eating is numbing.  Drink and drugs, surely.  Numbing.

I complained to FD about it this morning, told him that it is mortifying to me that my entire evenings have been spent munching black olives and numbing.

"What's that?  What's numbing?" he asks.

Hearing the explanation, behavior that diverts negative affect but wastes time and isn't socially proactive,* he smiles. "Oh! I do that all the time!" He does work a lot of crossword puzzles.

I think of numbing as coping, really. It is a good thing, and it doesn't have to be a waste of time. FD reinforces this thought.  "Be more creative at night.  Creative numbing! I could compose songs, you could help with the  lyrics, write books!  Why don't you write a book, Creative Numbing?  Ask people who read the blog for help!"

It is what we talk about in therapy, creativity as a venue for mental health, an intervention.  Entire schools of therapy, Music Therapy, Art Therapy, exist because creativity is positive energy, life sustaining in its way.  But it is so hard when you're depressed. Creativity sparks the serotonin, gets the wheels going-- it is what some of us call really getting high. How to spark that creativity to spark that serotonin to get those wheels to turn is the million dollar question.

So we are taking suggestions. We'll put it together, write a book, call it Creative Numbing. Everyone gets an acknowledgment, and maybe even gets to write a personal explanation, take full credit for the idea.  I'll say it  right now, if it's about sex, write your own book.

We are still going to need a really good list of numbing behaviors that aren't necessarily creative, too, for comparison.
How hard could that be?


*You heard that definition here first.  It's copyright for the book, of course.

Monday, February 06, 2012

Snapshots: Dogs and Eye Glasses


We’re at Big Bear Mountain and my daughter is tubing down a big hill with my grandsons, holding the 3 year old in her lap.  She tires out, brings the baby to me (he's three), takes off to attend to the other kids who are having the time of their lives. California kids don't see much snow.

My charge, the little guy, is very interested in the dogs. It seems that many people vacation with their dogs.

We methodically check out every animal, ask the owners if their dogs bite, if it’s okay to pet them. All of them tell us that their pets love people and don’t bite, and the little guy has the run of the place, determines that the huskies are the best. There are two, a grey and a brown.

It seems to me that of the entire throng at this public resort, the dog owners are the most confident, the friendliest people on the hill. Not that everyone else isn't confident and friendly. There just seems to be something about having a dog.  People feel good when they are showing off their dogs.

This is only a long weekend trip, and within minutes, it seems, I'm passing along the California byways, on my way to the airport to go home.  They don't have these where I come from, mountains and hills.

Although we have nice skies sometimes and less smog.

An elderly woman in dark glasses is alone at the airport gate, leaning on her walker. She has one of those white canes that shouts: visually impaired. I look down, and at her feet is a toy poodle, what we used to call a seeing-eye dog, her eyes. This pup is better groomed than any of the dogs we petted at the toboggan hill, and probably more tuned in, more alert, maybe even snippy.  My grandson would have liked her regardless.


I’ve been fighting a cough the last few weeks, can't seem to ever quite heat up  It doesn't help having missed both good snow falls in Chicago (travel for work), meaning I haven't had any exercise, can't work out the kinks.  

I quit downhill skiing years ago, finding myself half-way down a mountain, flat on my back, looking up at the sky and the trees, no idea where my second ski might be. That was enough for me.  But FD still likes to zig zag down a mountain if he can, and he takes our daughter.  Meanwhile, I don't mind catching up on the movies, sitting close to a fire indoors.

And it's Oscars month, you know.


My family in Los Angeles are in the business, meaning they are privy to DVDs, films nominated for Academy Awards.  The Descendants is up for best picture.

In my book it didn't hold a candle to The Artist, which I saw at the theater with a couple of friends.  One of us loved The Artist (me), another very much liked it, and the third didn't like it at all.  A patient asked me, "Have you seen The Artist?" Yes.  "How was it?"  What can I say?  "I saw it with a couple of friends, the only one who loved it was me. Don't go by me if it will cost you ten bucks a ticket."

But let's talk about The Descendants.  The film starts with a boat accident and the obligatory family psychodrama follows toute de suite.  FD turns to me, whispers, “This is going to be like work for you.  Sure you don't want to come ski with us?”

We're good.  But of course, he’s right.  It is a little too much like work for me to really enjoy this film.   (Spoilers coming up, will try to keep them to a minimum).

Father of two (George Clooney) admits he played understudy as a parent for seventeen years.  Now he'll play the role of single dad to two very disturbed, very angry daughters.  Scottie (Amara Miller, wonderful) is ten; Alexandra (Shailene Woodley, fabulous) is in her late teens.  Both are rebellious.

I resent having to work, but am intrigued by the girls, if a little tired of watching George Clooney in every single scene. He morphs into a wonderful parent, very patient for the most part, gentle but assertive. The way he either bristles or doesn’t bristle is the thing to watch in this movie. As a social skills how-to, it works, and in the end, you know, this is Hollywood.


It’s pretty exciting, getting new glasses, and those of us who do it only every 11 years or so, can’t wait for the day they are ready.  It’s so exciting that you almost want to forgo the anti-glare feature to save time, but you know you’re being ridiculous, so you order that, wait out the week.

Then you wear them and hope other people will like them, assume that your significant other will not have a violent reaction.  Then lo and behold, he does!

FD freaks! He hates them! What do you do when you love something, but your partner hates that something, and it is something he will be seeing every day, and will likely comment upon, if not every day, then often.

He tells me, “You’re beautiful. Except for . . .” and his voice trails off.

It becomes a joke. "How do you like my new boots? I got them for 75% off."

“Great, but. . .”

My glasses. Yes. I get it.

I tell him that I can buy a second pair, that he can join me and he can pick them out, but he just mumbles something that sounds like, Too late.

Psychologically, this is a fabulous mind game. How much do we have to care about what our partners like?

Half the time I could wear a green sock and a red sock and FD wouldn’t bat an eye. All of a sudden, he cares. I guess the face is different than the ankles. Some of us will marry for a face, a face alone.

I tell him, “But darling, you know, when you factor in the anti-glare, plus the progressives (bifocal lines are gone), my eyes are easier to find.  We can look into each others eyes. These are superior lenses, even if you hate the frame, the lenses alone should sell you.  This could be a romantic situation.”

It's not working.


Empty Spaces