A Divided House

Perhaps like you, I have been thinking continuously of how we have failed to overcome our national crisis of pandemic while other countries, such as New Zealand and Canada have had such different progressions of disease. There is a reason the pandemic continues in our country: we haven’t found a way to come together and fight this virus as one people.

Over the last 5 months our nation’s leadership seems split in two camps, one urging attention to strict social mitigation strategies, and the other minimizing the severity of the danger and ignoring the direction of our nation’s public health and infectious disease scientists. A portion of the population protests wearing cotton masks in public while others in their communities die. So, this is how we are going into a new school year: attempting to get back to in person learning, while trying to be safe, generally assuming that teachers, staff and families may all, at various times, come down with Covid19.

         I have run out of words to describe my feelings about the sorry state of our national attitude toward science, public health, the vulnerable, the poor, and necessary sacrifice for the common good. I am so sorry that you and I are kept from friends, from grandchildren, from vacations, graduations, weddings and normal on-campus college classes. But it’s not just our summer we have lost. Service and medical workers are exhausted and getting sick. Seniors are suffering from isolation and deep loneliness in nursing homes. Indigenous people on far flung reservations are falling ill without adequate fresh water sources or health services. Young adults are frozen in their job searches, businesses declare bankruptcy and millions have lost their jobs and benefits. And just this past week, current efforts to re-size the Postal Service come just as millions of Americans plan to vote by mail, threatening to impact the outcome of our November presidential election.

The days are long past that people of faith can say politics is not appropriate in church. White clergy have kept silent long enough. Many in our country seem intent on returning our nation to some kind of nostalgic vision of its past self, where we can pretend that black lives don’t matter, that individualism cloaked as “freedom” is the highest good, that we can build walls to keep out anyone who isn’t here already, and that white wealthy business owners know what is best for every American. If that is what Christianity looks like to you, you have only come in contact with a kind of white cultural American Christianity, one that worked hard to insulate itself from the actual life of Jesus Christ.

The God I believe created the world is the same God who, in Jesus, sought out the powerless, healed the sick, blessed the forgotten and challenged the way some accumulated wealth, privilege and power at the expense of the weak. He spoke of God’s kingdom as the power to free us from selfishness and fear and turn toward healing the world. This kingdom talk so threatened the men in power in Israel 2000 years ago that he was whipped and publicly crucified in order to silence him.

         I believe many Christians are so offended by Jesus they don’t want to hear how his priorities judge human politics. The values and policies we vote for and fund are exactly the way that we live our faith in our hometowns and states. Jesus called us to recognize the dark powers of sin that exist in us all, to turn from their illusions and be sent to live courageously in community with one another. What that means to me is that I’m called to be consistently for my neighbor and not against her.

         In a few weeks’ time, voters will again get a chance to choose a direction for our nation at the highest levels. No set of candidates is perfect because perfection isn’t humanly possible. But I urge you to reflect on how your faith intersects with politics, because if we claim to be Jesus followers, his kingdom critiques how we live together, how we solve problems, set laws and create vision for our nation. May we find a renewed commitment to become one people from many, as we seek to recover from such a difficult year.

The Legacy of Childhood Abuse

No child deserves to be born to a cruel, self absorbed, and dangerous parent. Sadly, there are some families who fit this description. Children born to drug addicted, violent, or seriously mentally ill parents are at risk during childhood of chronic hunger, physical injury, disease and neglect, emotional cruelty, and early death. Their lives are like a living hell. There is no way to survive this childhood intact.

Our social safety net of child abuse laws that make it possible to remove a child from danger try to keep a balance between safety and family rights. Our courts attempt to find the justice for families who can’t manage this themselves, but there are no guarantees of getting it right. It’s no wonder that many of these children run way to live on the streets, end up in the prison system, or become adults who leave their family and don’t look back.

Getting to adulthood with this dangerous life context means that safety for this person may be a rare, occasional feeling. The world has not been kind to them, and people are not dependable, even those who may step into later life to help. Their core sense of self may have never had a chance to develop solid, helpful boundaries and the internal world may be chronically anxious, sad and angry. Next time you find it easy to judge the life of another person whose life seems completely different than yours, remember you may be right. Nothing that you take for granted may be part of their lives, from the very beginning days of a loving family, a warm home, enough to eat and a quality school.

If only “pro life” meant that we could give every child born in the world the chance to develop into loved human being who can love in return. What a kinder, less frightening world this would be.

Your Big F***ing Job Can Ruin Your Marriage

As our economy has crawled out of the recession, so many people have experienced the shrinking of the job force at their companies, and the subsequent increase in the demands of their job descriptions.

Many are doing the work that 2 (or even more) people have done in the past. More people are traveling more miles, more leaders are being pressured to increase production, or customers, or digital content, or whatever is on the front line of worry for stake or shareholders.

Add in the natural disaster that a very harsh 2014 Minnesota winter brought to several industries (transportation, energy, retail, just to name three), high level executives are using up all their available energy at work. They come home exhausted, worn out and without any emotional flexibility at all.

They don’t have the energy for the demands of parenting, or if they put in a bit of their work with the kids, they certainly have not one single thing left for their spouse. The Marriage Will Not Survive if this goes on for any length of time.

I tell my clients that if they are working like this, dedicating themselves to the salvation of their company, they must save at least 5% of themselves for their spouse. It isn’t much, but in the scheme of life, it can be enough to greet your partner, listen to them a bit about their day, share some of yours, and connect.

No one will care at the end of the job if you lost your marriage for it. But your spouse and children will.

Stop living for your work, and work for your family and life instead. And if you can’t seem to figure this out alone or together, please call me or a local family therapist for some coaching, understanding, and practical help.

What Goes Wrong in Marriage?

When I was a parish pastor, I counseled dozens of couples who were preparing for marriage and presided at their ceremonies. Every one of them was a hopeful (if too stressful) occasion for both bride and groom.

Virtually no one starts marriage without confidence that their relationship will last. Pledges are made, often “til death us do part.” Are some people marrying too fast, too young, too ill prepared for a joint married life? Yes. Add children into the mix and the normal stresses and strains of life pile on. But what really happens to the emotional closeness that most couples feel when they are preparing to marry? What happens to that experience of feeling “in love” that spurs so many to take on these very serious legal bonds of marriage?

Research into marriage done in the last 20 years by Dr. John Gottman (gottmanblog.com) points to a key phase of marriage that seems to make or break relationships. It is the second phase of the relationship, after the first “falling in love” phase in which couples have real conflict.

The couple argues. Words are said, decisions made, feelings hurt. But are they be able to feel that despite the differences, their partner really has their back? Does their partner still care about their opinion when they fight? Can they recover quickly after disagreements? Does their partner have empathy for their pain? This is the time a marriage either builds trust or does not. One partner may feel completely fine. But the other may feel lost, distrusting, and disconnected. This is precisely the time therapy can be very helpful.

It’s at this point that one person may decide to stop the relationship. But if the marriage continues, and the amount of negativity in the relationship builds, the relationship will deteriorate. And even if it lasts years, will never get to the more secure, lasting phase of marriages that are loyal despite differences, that are able to cast off hurts because there is so much positive connection to outweigh it.

Marriage is not just one long experience of being “in love.” That phase of human bonding is relatively short lived in our brains, and fades by the end of 2 years. But marriage can be about a deeper connection, a lasting kind of love that is full of security, joy in shared experiences, loyalty and commitment when life gets hard, and it will. It takes a lot of work to have conflict, to share the process, and land on the upside of emotional wellness. If you and your partner aren’t having success in this second trust-building and conflict-centered phase, good couples therapy can help you recover.


Please Don’t Lie to Me

I know as a person and therapist that Truth with a capital T is often a very subjective target. Your truth about an experience doesn’t have to be anywhere near my version of the truth of that same thing. You may LOVE Taylor Swift as a musician, and me? Well, I’m more Bruce. We went to the same concert perhaps, but did we have the same experience? No.

But when it comes to arriving at some shared version of what is or has happened in your family or marriage, or where you went on a vacation, or what your child said to both of you when she arrived after curfew last weekend, we should be able to agree on a mutual version of facts. We won’t get the details quite straight, but we should be in the same county. Even the same neighborhood. When we can and do, we can begin to talk about what is painful, or good, or what is not working or what you may want to talk about changing.

What sets us all up for failure, however, is when one person in the conversation is lying. Omitting facts or key feelings, covering up important details, scamming the rest of us in the group. I have to tell you, I’m a pretty good judge of people, most of the time. But I get slammed rather regularly by clients who have been lying to their spouse or to their family and friends for so long they are great deceivers. We will go session after session, even month after month, and I will notice that we aren’t getting much traction for emotional or behavior change. I will hear reports from one side of funny feelings or vague worries they have, and I keep working to be optimistic and focused.

And then the phone call, or the teary confession. “I’ve been having an affair.” “I want out.” “I can’t do this anymore.” Hits me up the side of the head every time.

If you are going to spend the money and time and energy to do therapy, please know that I will begin by trusting you to tell me the truth. Maybe not the Whole Truth, and Nothing But, but some version of truth that helps me know what we are all talking about. If you want some help uncovering that secret in the rest of your life, you will need to start by trusting me to hear it. Please don’t lie to me. I can’t help you when you do.


Do People Ever Really Change?

The final episode of the season of AMC’s Mad Men has aired, and many of us who have watched the series have spent some time in reflection on its many observations about human behavior. The main character Don Draper, a premier ad man in New York City during the 1960’s, is such a deeply flawed character, it was often painful for me to watch. But with such wonderful writing, I was compelled to watch hour after hour, as I would read a great novel.

One of the lasting questions of this masterpiece of television is an astute observation about the nature of human development and the possibility of change. Since I am in the business of helping people achieve some measure of self understanding, often leading to attempts at change, I was struck by the perfectly wrought words of one television critic, Matt Zoler Seitz, as he wrote his piece about the finale for the online site, Vulture. In sum, yes, people can change. But it takes more sustained effort and energy than most of us may want to muster. (Hence, our need for help, i.e., psychotherapy.) Here’s the core of his essay. I couldn’t have said it any better myself.

“… Mad Men was never so cynical as to say people are never capable of deep and lasting change, only that it requires more sustained concentration, work, and self-inquiry than most of us can manage. The show’s characters tended to be comfort-driven creatures who didn’t know themselves well enough, or understand psychology deeply enough, to repair the damage done by conditioning and trauma, much less the dedication required to follow through on anything they did figure out.

If anything, the series excelled at showing us how people think they’re moving forward, yet keep ending up in a place that looks eerily familiar…

A lot of epiphanies don’t stick, but one that often does is the realization that other people are in just as much pain as we are at times, and that by reaching out, we momentarily heal ourselves as well as them. Once you’ve learned that lesson, you don’t forget it. It colors all the other problems that you continue to deal with, and suggest solutions to them. Whether you decide to pursue them is, of course, entirely up to you.”

Matt Zoller Seitz, Vulture: “Mad Men Understood Human Behavior Better Than Any Show on TV”

Why I Told My Clients about My Surgery

Years ago, when I was 6 years old, my family was in a massive car accident. That event, which nearly killed my parents, is a nodal life event for me. It is the source of many years of mental suffering, as well as the focus of eventual healing and my interest in psychology.

I was seated behind my father, who was driving, when the drunk driver hit our station wagon head on. The driver’s seat slammed into my knee, and jammed my hip into its socket. For the last 20 years or so, I have gradually lost range of motion in that leg, and felt occasional pain that has kept me in PT steadily for the last 5 years.

I finally decided it was time to find out what was what with my leg. It turns out the joint is destroyed by arthritis, and that there remains nothing more to do for it but replace it. I am going in for surgery next week.

As I have had to plan for a gap in my practice for the 2 weeks my surgeon anticipates I will need to rest and rehab at home, I decided to tell my clients why. I know that most of them would have asked me directly anyway, since we regularly talk about vacations, or trainings, or family obligations that change my practice schedule.

But the primary reason I share my personal health decision with my clients is that appropriately sharing more of myself within our therapeutic relationship is central to the way I believe good therapy works. I bring the whole of myself to our conversations, and that includes general personal information that connects me as a human being to their own lives.

I don’t believe that my clients need to know everything about me. Far from it. After all, therapy is about Them, and the worlds and issues they wrestle with in my presence and with my help. But sharing basic social information, stuff that connects us at a human level, is healing because it builds our connection as well as our equality before one another. My clients know I’m married, something about my hobbies, that I have young adult children, that I worry about how they are doing in their lives, that I have family I visit on vacations. They know I was a parish pastor; some of them have asked me why I left. I have shared some of that deeply personal and difficult journey with them. And we continue to build our relationship, even as we focus on their lives.

I believe what the research describes: that with over 200 or so discrete psychological theories, techniques and perspectives on human change that currently exist, what lies at the center of all of their effectiveness is the relationship between the clinician and the patient. The trusted, caring space between us that I work to sustain.

That is why I have told my clients about my hip surgery. My leg issue is not secret; most of them have noticed my limp. Nearly all of them have wished me well. For me, the old model of a clinically distant, intensely private therapist is less than helpful. As I see it, without trusting me to be human and real, how can my clients be real and human with me?

When Empathy Goes Awry : Mirror Touch Synesthesia

How do we come to understand another person’s emotions?

Within our brain are a cluster of nerve cells that scientists call “mirror neurons.” These cells and circuits turn on and develop when, as infants and toddlers, our primary caregivers express on their own faces what they sense in us. We are wailing because we are in pain? A caring parent has some of that same suffering in their facial expressions. We laugh and smile when we begin to recognize our mother’s face, and our mother smiles and laughs with us. This is how the human baby begins the long process of understand the self, what s/he is experiencing, and who others are, and what they are experiencing.

Most human beings have adequate care as children; their caregivers give more or less consistent emotional feedback to them day-to-day, and the emotional skills of knowing how we feel and how other might be feeling develop naturally. Those children who suffer early life deprivation (e.g., orphans in mass care settings, like those in China) may never completely catch up with their peers who were raised in small family groups. Others, who may have the terrible fortune to be born to uncaring, chemically addicted or violent parents, will suffer personality changes that will hamper their natural capacity to feel their own emotions and care about others for the rest of their lives. Those early life experiences of caring, love and emotion are that important to normal human development.

But that is the normal or mainstream human experience of noticing emotion in others, understanding what they might be feeling, and sharing human experience. What if those mirror neurons don’t stop developing? What if those experiences of feeling another person’s pain actually become your own body feeling not your own emotions, but those of people you see and feel?

That is the extremely rare and the terrible lost-self experience of those with Mirror Touch Synesthesia. These folks have mirror neuron circuits that in some mysterious way over-developed. Out among people, they “catch” the emotional experiences of others in such deep ways that it is hard for them to know what is their own emotion and not the experience of others. This disorder seems to run in families, and has the capacity to ruin not only individual experience, but the relationships that person tries to maintain.

Want to hear more, including an interview with a woman who suffers from MTS? The new NPR podcast “Invisibilia” just included a story on this phenomenon — here’s the link for the January 29, 2015 broadcast:


It’s fascinating, and disturbing. As it turns out, helpful empathy, the kind we want our parents, friends, teachers, chaplains and therapists to cultivate in themselves, has normal limits. None of us, it turns out, wants to so inhabit the emotional lives of others that we don’t know exactly what it is we are feeling. Because what we feel is the center of who we are.

What Every Husband Ought to Know about Marriage Conflict

Nobody likes to hear someone close to them be critical, blaming or shaming. It feels bad. And sometimes scary. It turns out that when women talk like that to their husbands, contrary to popular opinion, most men feel this intense criticism very strongly in their bodies. And because male bodies “rev up” faster than women’s in stress (heart rate, blood pressure, muscle tension, tunnel vision), in order to protect themselves and their relationships from too much emotion, men frequently, readily, as a default, go into Defense mode.

It’s vital for happy, flexible marriages to have partners who know how to manage difficult conversations. There will be many of them over the years.

As I said in my last post, women have to learn how to bring up their complaints softly, gently, and with a caring touch.

Men need to recognize their usual default of Defensiveness, and learn to lower their emotional walls quickly.  If men can do this, while at the same time women practice being more gentle, the best situation for a positive interaction around difficult topics happens.

The most successful couples work on this communication posture change together. Trusting that the other is doing their best to move out of their “automatic” thinking/behavior/posture and tone to a more couple-friendly communication strategy.

Because I talk about these automatic couple missteps every day in my therapy practice, I know this is one of the most common couple problems. No one part of the couple can fix the problem completely on their own : each person in the marriage has a piece of the solution!

What Every Wife Ought to Know about Marriage Conflict

If I had the opportunity to share one essential marital tool with every wife in America, I know exactly what I would say:

Learn to bring up difficult topics with your partner in a calm, quiet and focused voice.

Marital researcher Dr. John Gottman has studied tens of thousands of marital conversations over 30 + years. He has found that there are 4 distinct communication habits that are poison to happy relationships. He calls them the “Four Horsemen,” like the biblical horsemen that bring in the end of times in the book of Revelation.

He has learned that men have a faster body response of adrenaline (increased heart rate, blood flow to the extremities, tunnel focus of attention) than most women to partner conflict. That means that when many women are just getting into the meat of their problem, their partner has become ready to run, fight and defend. It makes it very hard for men to stay focused and listen calmly without enormous effort.

If every woman could develop the personal skill of bringing up difficult discussions with their partner in a calmer way, their male partner is less apt to “flood,” focus and defend. And the conversation is more likely to be productive and problem-solving.

It’s a skill we practice in therapy all the time. Are you able to bring difficult topics up to your partner in a calm, cooperative way? If not, you may want to start working on this skill.

What is it that I wish I could tell every husband in America? Well, that’s for next time.