Thursday, April 21, 2011

Why is it So Hard to be Reasonable?

"Honey, I know you didn't mean to upset me, but you did. Let's clear the air so we can move on to enjoying our relationship again." Sound familiar? Of course not.
From "Friendly Fight: A Smarter Way to Say I'm Angry" (April 19, 2011 Wall Street Journal column)

Elizabeth Bernstein writes the weekly "On Relationships" column for the Wall Street Journal, a column I enjoy reading because it's well-researched, well-written, and almost always about what I consider a "real world" relationship issue.

This week's coumn is a good example. Ms. Bernstein deals with something that most of us have been guilty of at one time or another (and some of us are guilty of all the time): expressing anger inappropriately. As she puts it:

"If someone upsets us, we often shout, stomp off, roll our eyes, or refuse to speak to the person. Or we pretend we aren't upset, until one day we explode over the seemingly littlest thing."

Why is it so hard to express anger in a mature way? One reason, according to psychologists quoted in Ms. Bernstein's column, is biological. When you get angry, your brain is flooded with chemicals and hormones, including adrenaline, which makes you want to either fight or run, and which can remain in your system for hours. There are also "mirror neurons" in our brain that make us subconsciously mimic a person we're interacting with. Thus, if the other person is showing signs of anger, we'll probably show them, too. In that sense, anger is contagious.

Another reason is childhood conditioning: we probably learned a dysfunctional style of expressing anger---or handling someone else's anger---from our parents. If your mother was prone to having emotional meltdowns, while your father was quickly retreating into a shell, there's a good chance that you're now exhibiting one or the other of those behaviors.

So, it's not easy to overcome our self-defeating approaches to expressing or reacting to anger. But it's not impossible. One of the experts quoted by Ms. Bernstein teaches people how to do it in five steps. I think they make sense.

The first step is to calm down. Let your emotions cool. Pick a good time to talk about the situation with the other person, maybe a day or two later.

The second step is to begin the conversation by acknowleging, in a calm tone of voice, that some of it may be hard for you to say or for the other person to hear.

The third step is to say "I" and not "you." "I was hurt yesterday by what happened," is less threatening than "You behaved badly yesterday," and less likely to lead to a retaliatory "What do you mean? You're the one who behaved badly!"

The fourth step is to find out why it happened. Maybe the other person had no idea he or she was offending you in some way.

The fifth step is to deal with the issue completely (but without dredging up any and all other issues from the past that could sidetrack you). Work together to figure out how to avoid repeating the same problem. And once you've achieved an understanding, try to express some appreciation and affection.

As I say, doing all this won't be easy, especially if you've been ranting and raving and slamming doors all your life. But it's certainly worth trying, and trying again until you get it right, because there's nothing more corrosive to a relationship than wounds that haven't healed.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Tracking Down a Lost Love: a Good Idea or Not?

"We're in love again. To think we've found each other after all these years."
Phyllis Mitton, 86, who has recently been reunited with Mike Stadnyk, her long-lost boyfriend from 1945.

Thanks to Internet search engines and social networking sites, there are a lot of stories these days similar to that of Phyllis Mitton and Mike Stadnyk, who lost touch with each other after the Canadian Army transferred him to some distant base after World War II. They eventually married other people, and many years later were both widowed and wondering, "Whatever happened to...?"

It's a nice story, but there are also plenty of stories that don't turn out nearly as well: stories of people who are married to one person but have an irrestible urge to track down someone else. Ostensibly, the reason is mere curiosity ("I wonder if he ever finished that Ph.D. program he enrolled in"), but once the two former lovers get together the conversation quickly morphs from Ph.D. programs to how wonderful it was back then when they were together, and how unsatisfying their lives are now. It's not hard to predict what happens next.

So, should we or shouldn't we do a google search on someone we were once in love with? The answer, according to my friend, Dr. Nancy Kalish, is "It depends."

Dr. Kalish is a sociologist and university professor who is probably the world's leading expert on people who reunite with lost lovers (her website is She knows all the happy-ending stories, and she also knows the ones that have ended badly. She says there are three main lost-lover categories. Depending on which category you're in, you should either plunge in enthusiastically, or you should proceed with caution, or or you should totally forget about it.

The Mitton-Stadnyk story is a classic example of a situation where there is no good reason not to try to resume the relationship. Because their separation back in 1945 was due to something beyond their control, they didn't really "break up" in the usual sense. They may have been sad at the time that things didn't work out, but they didn't feel animosity toward each other. Beyond that, they were both widowed prior to the recent contact, so there was no chance that a long-term marriage could be jeopardized. There was nothing to lose and everything to gain by trying to get back in touch.

A "proceed with caution" situation usually involve former lovers who are currently unmarried, but who broke up in an unhappy or even nasty way. According to Dr. Kalish, unless the wounds have completely healed on both sides, it could be a mistake to try to start over again. A person in this situation should ask himself or herself: "How hurt would I be if we were to break up again?" If the answer is "very hurt," then don't risk it.

The common denominator of "forget about it" situations is marriage, particularly a marriage that's on shaky grounds. When one person or the other is married, or both of them are, there's a high liklihood, according to Dr. Kalish, that one or both marriages will be jeopardized if the ex-lovers try to reunite. Even if the impulse to contact the other person is an innocent one, the old feelings will almost always come back, especially if there's an in-person meeting. In theory, the meeting could result in a purely Platonic friendship, but in the big majority of cases it would lead to an affair, or at least an increase in the level of marital frustration and dissatisfaction that already exists.

For better or worse, the Internet has allowed all of us to play private detective. Anyone with basic computer skills can gather more information on someone in five minutes than any of the famous private detectives of the 1940's movies could in five weeks. The question is: what do we do with that information? Usually, the best answer is to think long and hard about the person---and about yourself---before doing anything. To paraphrase the old saying about getting married without thinking it through:  e-mail in haste, repent at leisure.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The Limitations of Niche Dating Sites

"Apple users match up well, because they tend to have creative professions, a similar sense of style, and an appetite for technology."
From a New York Times article about some some new "niche" dating sites, including one solely for owners of Apple computers.

By definition, niche dating sites are not everything-for-everybody, one-stop-shopping kinds of sites. They're for people who want to narrow the universe of potential partners to people who are like themselves in some way they consider important. Thus, if religion is a big part of your life, you can find sites limited to people of your particular faith. If you're a book lover, there are sites where you can search for people with reading tastes that are similar to yours. If you're unlucky enough to have a sexually-transmitted disease, there are dozens of STD sites that allow you to avoid all those worries about what to say and when and how to say it.

There are literally tens of thousands of niche dating sites, some of them so specialized that you wonder how they can attract enough members to stay in business (e.g. a site for men with mustaches and the women who are turned on by them). Some niche sites are free, but most of them charge anywhere from $5.00 to $50.00 a month.

I can see the appeal of some of these sites. If you're Mormon, say, or Greek Orthodox, and you're 100% certain you only want to date within your faith, why join a site like where only a tiny percentage of the members meet your requirements? If you don't feel you could date a meat-eater, why not join a vegetarian-only site? If opera is the biggest thing in your life, why waste your time with someone who not only hates it but ridicules it?

All of that makes sense. But it's important to realize that common interests and shared attitudes can only take you so far. For a relationship to succeed, there has to be chemistry between the two people. Having something in common may help break the ice by giving you something to talk about, but at some point a relationship requires more than just a mutual interest in, say, Apple computers or the novels of Jane Austen.

There's also a danger in attributing too much to a particular shared interest. We want to think that if a new person in our life is like us in some way, he or she will be like us in other ways, as well. But oftentimes that's not the case. We might both be dog-lovers, but that doesn't mean we have similar opinions about social or political issues. Or we might have similar opinions about social or political issues, but have incompatible communication styles.

The bottom line is that dating sites---whether niche or mainstream---can only, at most, identify candidates who might be suitable for us. No more, no less. That's why it's crucial that you meet someone you're interested in as soon as possible, and not get over-invested in him or her until then. When you're face-to-face, you can tell more about someone in five minutes than you can in five months' worth of e-mail exchanges. You can see what he actually looks like, how he dresses, how he talks, how (or if) he listens, whether he has any social skills, or, conversely, any annoying habits.

Chemistry may be hard to define, but one thing we know about it is that it can't be willed into existence. It's either there or it isn't, and all the common interests in the world can't create it or sustain it.

Friday, April 1, 2011

R.I.P. Elizabeth Taylor (1932-2011)

"I will never love anyone but you. Period."
(From a love letter written by the 17 year-old Elizabeth Taylor to her then-boyfriend, William Pawley).

Given all the men who subsequently played romantic roles in Elizabeth Taylor's life, it's easy to chuckle at the irony of her promise to William Pawley, whom she dumped less than six months later to marry hotel heir Conrad ("Nicky") Hilton (a man she would divorce nine months after that). But I'm sure she meant every word she said, just as I'm sure that all seventeen year-old girls mean it when they pledge undying love to their boyfriends.

But Taylor, unlike many girls, remained something of a seventeen year-old the rest of her life. A while back, I read "Hellraisers: The Lives and Inebriated Times of Richard Burton, Peter O'Toole, Richard Harris, and Oliver Reed," a book in which Taylor figures prominently---and not only for the marathon drinking sessions she and Burton engaged in. (She was the only woman who, as Burton put it, "could drink me under the table," and the only person of either sex who physically terrified him). Even though she divorced Burton twice, she could never speak of him afterward without crying, and she often said she would have married him a third time if he had lived longer.

Taylor was also, believe it or not, a traditionalist---or at least an idealist---on the subject of marriage. She may have had seven divorces, but, as she once said in an interview, "If I had just shacked up with guys instead of marrying them, no one would have kept count." If she loved a man, she had to marry him. And if a husband didn't keep up his end of the bargain she wanted out, rather than limp along in a marriage that she considered unworthy of the name.

It was sad when Taylor died, but anyone who knew anything about her knew that she had done enough living for ten lifetimes. And she had endured enough pain for ten lifetimes, as well. She's in a better place now, but I like to think that we're all in a better place now because of her.