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The Growth Mindset l March 2014

“Just as there are no great achievements without setbacks, there are no great relationships without conflicts and problems along the way.”*

Judging by the words we use, we often view the rough patches in our relationship through a harsh and critical lens: “we’ve hit the skids” or “we’ve fallen on bad times.” How easy it is to scare ourselves into thinking that our partnership is doomed, or that we’re stuck living forever with so much unhappiness. Moments of such pessimism are probably familiar to most of us.

Believing that something is permanently wrong when we and a partner struggle to get along, or wrestle with differences, or trip over each other’s words, leads us to view relationship problems as the result of either a core flaw in our partner or in ourselves. It’s a point of view that Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck sees as an expression of the fixed mindset — the perspective that human attributes are set in stone, unlikely to change, and must simply be accepted (or at best tolerated). The fixed mindset makes it easy for us, in our deep discouragement, to blame one another (“If only she weren’t so…” or “The problem is his…”). And with blame comes anger and disgust (or shame, when the blame is self-directed), plus the feeling of helplessness that nothing can be done.

In contrast to the fixed mindset, Dweck offers the growth mindset — the view that people are always evolving, that the brain and its habits can be modified so long as we’re willing to make the effort. (Neuroscience research affirms with certainty that the brain is malleable and its habits alterable.) The growth mindset allows us still to acknowledge imperfections in our partner (or in ourselves) but without the hopelessness that nothing can be done, without the sense that we’re forever victims of unchanging and unfortunate traits.

So think of those tough relationship events as invitations to stretch beyond your comfort zone, to develop (perhaps with the help of a counselor) new habits and new skills that can push your partnership to wonderful new heights. It’s absolutely possible: the growth mindset reminds us of that.

*Dweck, Carol. (2006) Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. (New York: Ballantine Books, Inc.)

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Sacred Spaces with Each Other l January/February 2014

“The feeling that ‘no one is listening to me’ makes us want to spend time with machines that seem to care about us.”*

Machines that seem to care? Psychologist Sherry Turkle is referring to robots designed to function as companions. But she might as well be referring to Facebook and email and text messaging — all the ways we experience ourselves, via our devices, as the target of other people’s interest. The ding announces an email received and our heart speeds up: someone cares, someone is interested. Ditto when the sweet chime announces a text message, or new entries appear on our Facebook page.

So much “traffic” seeking us out in our online world and yet many of us go through our days with a sense that “no one is listening.” Not even our spouse. Especially our spouse.

We must create sacred spaces in our partnerships, device-free zones where pings or whistles can’t interrupt, stealing our attention from one another. “Sacred” because it’s time — when we use it well — that can nourish heart and soul in ways online connection rarely can. Device-free zones make room for real contact, including voice tone and facial expression, pauses and gasps and sighs … everything that’s missing when we’re online. We need the entire complex mix to really know each other; emotional connection requires that.

Consider creating these sacred (device-free) spaces:

  • Car rides. When it’s just the two of you staring straight ahead (rather than the more vulnerable face-to-face), get nosy, pry a little, inquire about one another’s day, or be so bold as to say, “How’s your life lately?” Take a chance; stretch farther than usual.
  • Before bed. Establish, say, a half-hour before shut-eye for quiet conversation and sensitive listening. For listening tips, read The 5:1 Ratio and substitute “partner” in place of “child.” Whether conversing with our kids or our spouse, good listening skills aren’t that different.
  • Mealtimes, whether at home or in a restaurant. If you’re a partnership of two, protect it: let the invisible others somewhere in cyberspace wait until dessert’s done.

Our devices make it easier than ever to avoid the “work” of real connection with the person we claim to hold in our top spot. That’s why many of us feel lonely even though we’re together. So establish sacred spaces and let your partner know you’re listening.

*Turkle, Sherry. 2012 TED talk. http://www.ted.com/talks/sherry_turkle_alone_together.html

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Security Blanket Part 2 l December 2013

We’re thirsty — and so we say, “I need a drink.” We’re hungry and we say, “I want something to eat.” But when it comes to our essential need for secure attachment, we’re tongue-tied about saying, “I’m feeling insecure and need reassurance.”

As we examined last month, breakthroughs in neuroscience have taught us that along with the fundamental human needs for water, food, and air, we homo sapiens — adults as well as children — have a fundamental need for secure attachment. In other words, feeling safely and securely connected to a special person in our lives is not just for babies.

Imagine if we could never say “I’m thirsty” or “I’m hungry”; imagine how helpless we’d feel. That’s what it’s like when we’re unable to express our insecurity during those inevitable moments — they happen in all relationships — when something shakes our secure foundation. It’s a true and unsettling moment of vulnerability. But most of us over a lifetime have learned to hide vulnerability, especially the vulnerability of feeling insecure with our partner. Many of us mistakenly regard vulnerability as a weakness, a sign that we’re not tough enough or independent enough, or maybe we’re “too needy.” So we do the absolute opposite of what leads to a stronger and healthier relationship: we cover up insecurity and fear, hiding it from the person who most needs to hear it, who is in the best position to offer what we need to receive: comfort and reassurance. (Words of reassurance might include: You’re the most important person to me, or It’s you who I love and care most about, or My feelings for you are as strong as ever.)

Until we adjust our thinking to recognize that it’s perfectly natural to feel fear and insecurity when a secure sense of attachment is threatened — when a spouse walks or looks away before the conversation is over, or slow dances too closely with an attractive family friend, or spends hours playing electronic games while begging off the walks we used to take after dinner — until we learn that exposing vulnerability is a true act of courage, we’re going to have a hard time saying what should be said: “I’m feeling insecure and would like some reassurance.”

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