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A Friend Says Goodbye

In late August of 1979, I was still reeling from the accidental death of my fifteen-year-old son six months earlier. I decided to attend an Esalen “Radix” workshop in Big Sur, California. The Radix people believed if we allow unexpressed emotions to remain locked in our bodies muscular armor builds and restricts the flow of positive “Radix” energy (aka “Qi”) through our bodies. My hope was to emotionally unblock, get past the initial mourning stage (I could no longer cry) and free up some energy. 

The workshop leader was a fifty eight year old ex-businessman named Clair. He had attended a Radix workshop a few years earlier and the experience altered his life’s view. He left his high-powered sales management position, trained with Charles Kelly, the founder of Radix to become a certified Radix teacher.

As group leader, Clair was confident without being arrogant, empathetic without being unctuous and had an appealing old glove quality. I immediately trusted him and placed myself in his hands. It was a seven-day workshop and I was one of fourteen participants. Each day’s Radix therapy activities involved “mattress work” where we group members took turns lying on a mattress while Clair sensitively and effectively guided us through exercises designed to free up blocked emotions. The week was powerful and very helpful. I left feeling much more emotionally free and finally began to reawaken emotionally.

Because of our rich connection at the workshop, Clair and I became friends and have stayed in touch over the years by phone and by visits to his home in Ashland, Oregon when I attended plays at the Shakespeare festivals. A skilled carpenter and builder, he designed and built a round mountaintop home with a second story great-room which allowed a 360 degree view of the surrounding mountains. Clair is a generous host and staying at his mountain home has been both inspiring and comfortable.

After the challenge and satisfaction of building his mountaintop home wore off, Clair, fully retired and in his late seventies, invested all of his retirement savings in an old office building in downtown Ashland and then proceeded to  refurbish it. This included designing and opening an attractive and successful restaurant. It seemed that each time I visited Clair I discovered another of his talents. When I expressed concerned that he had risked all of his retirement security on such a venture. He responded to my concern, saying, “It’s all about risk. If there is no risk, there is no passion or excitement. I’m not willing to just stand around waiting to die, Ron.” These conversations with Clair, and the life style he was modeling, led me to question some of my values and led to important insights about living my life with more passion and risk. Clair was not only my friend; he was also teaching me by example.

One week ago, I received a phone call from Clair, now ninety-two years old. His voice is unmistakable and remarkably similar to that of the actor Alan Arkin—rich with authenticity and warmth. Clair opened our conversation by saying, “Ron, I’m calling you for a reason. Picture a Canadian goose about to land in a lake after a long, cross continental flight. He lands on the water smoothly and gracefully and prepares for a long rest. That is me. I’m in hospice now and I’m ready for the next step in this fantastic journey called life.” (Clair sprinkles all of his talk with such Esalen, “humpot” jargon—it is part of his charm) He explained he is in the final stages of prostate cancer, it has spread into his bones and he has fewer than six months to live.

He thanked me for my friendship and said he was calling those folks in his life with whom he had made a genuine, loving connection and I was on the list. I told him I was both honored and appreciative he had called. We talked for a while about life and how short and beautiful it is. He confessed he had always tried to live his live ethically but he had not always been emotionally available with those he loved. He wished he had been better at it but he was trying through these final phone calls to go out on a “real” note. I could hear the effects of the pain medication in his voice but he was lucid and totally present during the conversation.

Before he finished our call, he said, “I love you, Ron—you helped make the ride a special one.” I said, “I feel the same way, Clair.” As I hung up, I felt the tears and the pain build and experienced a peculiar mix of gratitude and sadness.

I have had two similar conversations with close friends. Like Clair, both had come to terms with their impending deaths and were able to say goodbye to those they loved. Each call was, to me, a gift. Yes—each was painful but I am grateful I had the opportunity to say goodbye to my friends. When my final days arrive I hope I have the opportunity and the courage to do the same with those I love.


Comments: 3

Making a Judgment and Having an Opinion vs Being Judgmental and Opinionated

I was forced to clarify my thoughts about these terms when a judgmental, highly opinionated client got into a pickle with his son. He offers his son uninvited, negative, judgmental opinions about his behavior and choices and when the son tells my client he feels judged my client says, “It’s my opinion and I have the right to express it.” Thus, when confronted he hides behind his “right to have an opinion” which conveniently allows him to avoid looking at how painful his judgments are. As a result his son avoids him because to be in his company is often too punishing. In order to discuss this issue with my client I first had to get clear on the distinction between making a judgment and having an opinion versus being judgmental and being opinionated. Unless we define our terms these kinds of discussions can be difficult since such terms often have different meanings for different folks. 

I think opinions are beliefs not necessarily based on fact and are based more on preference. E.g., In my opinion Beefeaters Gin is tastier than Gordon’s Gin. I think a judgment is more apt to be based on facts—more like an assessment which takes information into consideration. A courtroom judge makes a judgment based on the evidence. E.g., “Given all the facts of the case, I think Mrs Jones still owns the automobile.” Or, in a more personal vein, E.g.,  “I have decided that buying a new car is not a wise use of money since I can get the same car one year later for 20% less.” But, to be “judgmental” as I understand the use of the adjective, is to tend to be more rigid about one’s beliefs and to be less open and perhaps even critical of opposing views. The same holds true for the term “opinionated.” These two adjectives, when we use them to describe someone, are usually attempts to make a general statement about the person’s pattern of interactive behavior. We use them in a behaviorally “predictive” way. 

The issue becomes even more difficult to clarify because non-verbal cues play a part in how opinions and judgments are interpreted. If I say, “I don’t like your blouse,” my non-verbal cues (tone of voice, facial expression, etc.) will color your interpretation of my meaning and therefore your response. That is, you may determine me to be both opinionated and judgmental if I speak with a sharp tone. 

Further, negative, uninvited opinions are almost always seen as judgmental. It is my experience that opinionated people are more apt to offer such uninvited feedback. It is also my experience that opinionated, judgmental people often hide behind the words “opinion” or “feeling” when they are called out about being judgmental. They will say, “I have the right to an opinion” and expect that to excuse their judgment. Or they will say, “I was only telling you my feelings,” when they were giving their opinion and not *sharing feelings. 

*(Clarification of sharing opinions versus sharing feelings: E.g., You were very selfish to eat all the shrimp.” This is not a feeling statement—it is name calling and an judgmental opinion. A feeling statement in this situation might be, “When you took all the shrimp off the dish and left me only vegetables I lost interest in eating the dish.” If you read my book, Play It By Ear: Improvise Your Way to Lasting Friendships, you’ll find a more complete explanation of  how to correctly express feelings) 

Most of us can be judgmental and opinionated at times but it is a pattern of interaction which can be problematic.  From this frame of reference I did ultimately ask my client the following question.  “Since you agree, based on my definition of the term, that you are opinionated, are you willing to examine whether or not it has negatively affected your relationship with your son?”  We are making headway.



Comments: 31

What on Earth Could They Have Been Thinking

During a recent get-together with some friends, one of the group told a horror story about boorish behavior she had suffered that afternoon in a supermarket: an aggressive woman shopper smashed into her with a cart and didn’t bother to apologize or acknowledge it. This prompted the sharing of other such offensive behavior by strangers, acquaintances, and friends. I’ve decided to title the collection of incidents “What on Earth Could They Have Been Thinking?” The stories fall into the following categories:

Supermarket Behavior
#1 A checker, after checking out a customer’s groceries, stands talking with the customer for long minutes while the customers in line stand watching impatiently. The checker is oblivious and does not acknowledge her dawdling when she finally deigns to begin checking out the next customer in line.

#2 A woman with a shopping basket piled high with items checks out at the “Ten Items or Less” checkout station. When the man behind her asks, “I only have two items, may I go in front of you?” she ignores him and begins placing her 50 to 60 items on the conveyor belt. The checker says nothing.

#3 There is a long line of customers at a single checkout counter. When the manager opens up an additional checkout station, the customer at the end of the customer line steps over to the newly opened station (ignoring the fact that seven or eight people were ahead of him) and loads his items on the checkout belt. The checker says nothing.

Guest Behavior
#1 A guest comes to stay for a week and is on his Blackberry for the entire time. He gives his phone calls precedence over conversations, dinners in restaurants or television watching. He constantly talks loud and long. After the guest leaves, the host feels as though he’d spent the entire week watching one long, fragmented phone conversation. He also wonders why the guest even bothered to visit since he seemed more interested in his phone friends than he did in the host and his family.

#2 A guest takes control of the TV remote and never asks once if anyone is interested in the shows he chooses to watch. When the host leaves the room due to boredom and frustration, the guest does not notice.

#3 A guest visits for a week and the host loans  him the use of his second vehicle. The host washes the car and fills the tank prior to giving the guest the keys. The guest uses the vehicle for a week and returns the vehicle with an empty gas tank and leaves the seats littered with food wrappers and assorted garbage.

#4 A guest who normally stays for a week each year with his hosts/friends at their winter vacation spot decides one year to instead rent a place nearby. Without asking his hosts/friends, he invites a different friend to take his place as their guest. The host/friends, who are mere acquaintances of this other person, are too polite to say no to the request and so they are stuck with the substitute guest for the week.

Restaurant Behavior
#1 Three couples go to dinner together. One couple orders six rare single malt scotches between them at $50 per shot. The other two couples order no drinks and split a single bottle of moderately priced wine between them. When the check arrives, the male half of the scotch-drinking couple takes charge of the bill, divides the total cost by three and tells the other two couples to each cough up their third. When one couple balks and argues that they should not have to pay for any of the scotch drinks, the scotch drinker accuses them of being cheapskates.

#2 Two men are sitting at a table having lunch in a nice restaurant. A mutual friend walks into the restaurant, spots them and comes over to say hello. One of the two men asks the newcomer, “May I treat you to lunch?” and motions for the friend to sit down. The friend sits down and says, “I can’t stay but I’ll order something to go and eat it for supper tonight.” He orders the meal and when it arrives, he picks it up and leaves.

#3 The morning after an out-of-town wedding, the bride’s father invites everyone who stayed at the hotel where the wedding was held to a brunch. All but one of the guests orders a moderately priced egg or pancake dish. The guest in question orders the most expensive item on the menu (a steak and lobster dish) and leaves half of it uneaten.

#4 A guest, taken out for a birthday dinner at an expensive restaurant, asks if he can alter the hosts wine choice, saying, “The bottle of wine I’d prefer is $30 more but I’ll reimburse you for the difference.” The host, not wanting to create tension by refusing, gives his consent with the intention of refusing to accept the reimbursement. He never gets to do so, however, because when the bill arrives, the birthday guest neglects to mention it again.

#5 An employee invites his boss out to lunch at a Jewish deli. At the conclusion of the lunch, the boss orders two dozen bagels to go and tells the waiter to put it on the employee’s tab.

Dog-Owner Behavior
#1 A woman with three dogs on three expandable-contractible leashes approaches a single walker on a 10-foot wide walking path. When the walker sees that she will most likely not pull in the dogs so that he can remain on the path without the possibility of being jumped on, he leaves the path and stands on an adjacent grassy area. The woman allows the leashes to lengthen even further and walks closer to the man allowing the dogs to jump up on him. The man says, “Could you not see that I left the path to avoid having your dogs jump on me? Is the entire path not enough for you?” The woman says, “Oh, don’t be a jerk—what’s the big deal.”

#2 A couple is walking a frisky, 160-pound dog and allows the dog off the leash in an area requiring that dogs be kept on a leash. The dog runs full speed at a solitary walker, leaps into the air, bounces off his chest almost knocks him over. The couple, having watched the entire episode, approaches the walker and one of them says, “Rollo must really like you to jump on you that.” The walker says, “Why is your dog not on a leash and why do you assume I enjoyed being jumped on and almost knocked over?” They look at the walker with resentful, narrowed eyes and continue walking.

#3 On a path a woman is walking a large German Shepherd, using a “leash” which looks like a piece of bakery string. When the dog spots a solitary walker coming toward him he growls, shows his teeth, flattens his ears, and strains against the string-leash. Intimidated, the walker leaves the path and stands in the street to avoid the dog. The dog owner says, “Don’t be afraid—his bark is worse than his bite.” The walker says, “Thanks. Your reassurance and that sturdy leash took away all my concerns.” The woman does not seem to catch the irony.

Money Behavior
#1 A business man invites an acquaintance and his wife to share his private box at an NFL playoff game. Pleased, the couple accept the invitation and attend the game. The following week they receive a bill for $400 with an explanatory note saying that it is their share of the cost of the box for the evening.

Phone Behavior
A woman calls a friend and talks nonstop for 40 minutes about everything she’s been doing since they last talked. Then, without ever inquiring about the listener’s activities, she abruptly says, “Well, that’s all I have to say—I’m going to hang up now” and does.

There were many more such stories shared by the folks at the get-together but you get the idea. My guess is visitors to this site must know of many similar stories, perhaps related to situations involving auto and air travel, etc. If you’d like to share such stories, email them to me and I’ll post them under the “What on Earth Could They Have Been Thinking” heading.

Do you have a question or comment for me? Feel free to post it by clicking on the comments link below.

Comments: 4

The Joy of Talking to Strangers

It’s a therapeutic axiom that what we learn in our home while growing up determines how we act in the world as adults. If we have outgoing friendly parents, we will be comfortable with other people and probably reach out to others and build a network of friends. If we have shy, withdrawn parents, we will be less prone as adults to initiate social contact and therefore will most likely make fewer friends. Our social interactive comfort level is pretty much determined by the time we are teenagers.

If we’re lucky, we might meet folks during our formative years who can offset those things we learned that aren’t conducive to building a social network of friends. 

I was lucky to have two people in my life who were outgoing and liked interacting with others—my mother and my uncle Len. Both would initiate spontaneous conversations with strangers. As a result, I thought such social reaching out was acceptable and I began doing it at a young age. 

I discovered early on that such spontaneous interactions can lead to rich and joyful experiences. I’ll share three such instances with you. 

I once went on a vacation to Hawaii and mistakenly booked one of those “ten days at a beach hotel for ninety-nine bucks” offers. Sadly, the room was horrible, and my companion and I found ourselves surrounded by loud twenty-year-olds, each trying to see who could projectile-vomit the farthest. We knew after the first two nights that we had made a big mistake. On the third day, while drinking a Mai Tai at a beach bar, I struck up a conversation with a couple next to me by commenting on their tan and opining they were  Hawaii residents. They were pleased and invited us to their table for a round of drinks. When they asked where we were staying, I explained we had ignorantly booked ourselves into party hell and described the nightly insanity. They commiserated and as we chatted it turned out  they were property owners and had an unoccupied beach condo for rent on Maui. They offered it to us at a reasonable price and we accepted. The condo was beautifully appointed and situated so conveniently we opted to extend our stay. It was a wonderful vacation. 

The second instance occurred recently while I was riding my bicycle on my regular pedaling route here in Florida. Part of it passes through a street with some very large homes on the water. There was a couple walking by and they said hello. Spontaneously, I made the comment that the big home we were adjacent to (a huge, overdone affair) looked “like Tony Soprano’s vacation home.” They both laughed and the woman said, “And from the size of the columns, it looks like Tony is a big fan of Gone With the Wind. I think I can hear Tara’s Theme.” The man chirped in, “And if the columns were any bigger, visitors would need a library card.” I broke up and we laughed together. After chatting for a few minutes, we parted company, and I think it’s safe to say the three of us, for those few minutes, enjoyed the playful albeit short social connection. 

The third example occurred years ago in New York City’s Little Italy. My folks and I were eating at the Grotto Azure, one of our favorite places. The tables were close to each other and we could see the dishes of food being served at neighboring tables. My mother spied an interesting dish and spontaneously asked the recipients,  “May I ask the name of that wonderful looking dish?” One replied,  “It’s such and such—would you like to try a bit of it?” My mother said, “Yes, I would,” and the man gave her a little portion on a bread plate. When our dishes came, we shared portions with them. Then, a person at a different table asked us if we’d ever eaten a certain dish on his table, and within a short period, we had a three-way food-sharing party going on. I still remember the evening with great pleasure. It all came about because of my mother’s initial inquiry. 

Be clear—I’m not suggesting we barge into the private social space of strangers as a matter of course. I’m simply suggesting that strangers at the right time and place can offer opportunities for rich human connections of short duration. For a final example, I often talk to the register folks when checking out at supermarkets. I make comments based on what I see. For example, today, after a checkout woman had to remind me to push “enter” on the credit card machine, I asked her how many times a week she had to remind people to do it. She crossed her eyes and said, “Oh—maybe a thousand times.” We both laughed and at that moment, our connection altered in an important way—we left the robotic realm of the impersonal and entered the world of human connectedness. 

I suggest you try speaking to strangers. There’s a lot of fun and richness to be experienced.

Do you have a question or comment for me? Feel free to post it by clicking on the comments link below.

Comments: 5

Gift Giving and Friendship: Not Always Simple

With the holidays upon us, many of us will be spending time picking out, giving and receiving gifts. On the surface these seem like simple things to do–the giver happily gives and the receiver happily receives. But, human nature being what it is, many folks find creative ways to complicate this seemingly uncomplicated process.  After experiencing and observing gift giving problems and issues over the years I’ve broken them into categories.   

Knowing when to give a gift

I think Larry David’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm” television series is funny and insightful. He clearly finds the beliefs and prejudices tied to gift giving fascinating and he examines them in funny and insightful ways. In one episode Larry takes the “no gifts” request on a friend’s birthday party invitation at face value. Then, when he is told he hurt the celebrant’s feelings by not bringing a gift, he argues that he was only following the invitation’s directive. He is then told, “Everybody knows it’s an unwritten rule that you must ignore the ‘no gift’ order and bring a gift!” 

There is a similar unwritten rule tied to the following wedding anniversary scenario. The wife says, “Please don’t buy me an anniversary gift this year; if we go to dinner that’s enough.” The husband agrees but when he keeps his promise and fails to buy a gift the wife gets her feelings hurt and accuses him of not caring about her. Again, it’s the “Curb Your Enthusiasm” unwritten rule—“Everyone knows you should always break your promise and buy the gift!” 

Gift Appropriateness

As far as gift appropriateness, some choices are no-brainers. Not too many folks would give a book of porn photos to Father O’Flaherty for Christmas; but sometimes there are more subtle choices to be made. For example, my friends know I love to listen to jazz and to read jazz criticism and history; but most have learned to not buy me things in these categories because my preferences have become specialized. So, I find it a bit sticky when well intentioned friends buy me an introductory jazz history book or a vanilla pop jazz CD. I usually exchange it but I do worry about hurting their feelings. As a result of my own experience I try to not buy gifts related to others’ passionate hobbies because chances are I will miss the mark. For example, my friend Jon is a highly accomplished fisherman. I would never consider buying him a fishing rod unless I had inside information about which rod he was planning to buy.    

Keeping score and the meaning of price

I can’t speak for other extended Italian families but the mothers in mine all kept a close eye on wedding and birthday gifts. They knew who gave what to whom and could guesstimate within five bucks each gift’s cost. If it was determined that less than equal reciprocal birthday or wedding gifts were given, mental notes of the debt were made and the basis for a grudge was born. Price was the measure of respect and caring. A cheap gift was often a death knell for a friendship. I used to joke that when I’d visit my folks after the Christmas holidays, I’d need a family sociogram to determine who I was allowed to visit because I couldn’t keep track of the grudges. 

My mom, a very generous person, had a habit of always asking about the price of gifts she received and of announcing the price of gifts she gave. After years of experimenting I finally figured a way to keep what I paid a secret, yet still keep her happy. When she’d ask the price of a gift I’d say, “Let’s just say this—it cost a pretty penny.” She would then smile, look pleased, and stop pestering me. All she needed was the reassurance that I cared enough to lay out some bucks. 

She was also famous for her inability to keep private the price she paid for gifts. I and my sibs would break up each Christmas because, inevitably, just as one of us was opening her gift and about to compliment her decision, she would announce, “Sears, on sale, nine ninety five.” Or, “Don’t be impressed with the umbrella—I got it free along with the raincoat.” 

Conditional gift giving

It’s not uncommon for folks to assume they have the power to determine what you do with a gift after they’ve given it to you. An amusing example of this also occurred on the “Curb Your Enthusiasm” TV comedy. Larry gives a 300 dollar restaurant gift certificate to a couple for their wedding anniversary. Later he happens to be at the restaurant when they are treating another couple to a dinner using his gift card. Larry goes to their table and tells them he should have been the one invited because he gave them the certificate. One of the foursome asks, “Was that condition printed on the certificate?” Another says, “So, in that case, you were giving yourself half of the gift.” Larry never gets it—he’s convinced he’s been slighted. 

In a related scenario, a woman client recently came to see me about her boyfriend. Her complaint had to do with his gift giving “take-backs.” She explained, “He’ll give me a lovely gift and then, if I don’t agree with him about something or make him unhappy, he will inevitably take the gift back.” She added, “At this point his gifts have no meaning—I know I’ll only have temporary custody.” 

If one accepts the idea that the proceeds of a will are technically a gift, this behavior is similar to that of some parents who routinely take their children in and out of their will depending upon their degree of compliancy.   

My first introduction to the irrational concept of conditional gift giving occurred years ago when I gave a used TV to a friend. Later when I went to visit him I discovered he’d given the TV to his son. I complained that I’d given the TV to him, not to his son. My friend, peeved by my words, said, “So your definition of a gift is that I have to first clear with you any decision I later make about it?” I got the message and clammed up. He was correct—a gift by definition belongs to the receiver and he can do what he wants with it. 

Timeliness of gift giving and gift acknowledgment

In another Curb Your Enthusiasm show, Larry attempts to deliver a wedding gift to a couple and they refuse to accept it, saying, “It’s an unwritten rule that one must give a wedding gift within one year or it doesn’t count. You’re one week past the twelve month mark so we cannot accept your gift.” Their conversation gets funnier and more ridiculous from that point forward. 

In a related vein, I’ve had the experience of giving a wedding gift and not receiving a thank you card until ten or twelve months later. While I don’t get upset by the delay, I am nonplussed by the decision to finally send the card. By then the gesture seems so pointless. 

Gift piggy-backing

I include the following because it is both endearing and funny. Two women friends in my neighborhood have been doing the following for a while. The scenario’s gifts may change but the pattern does not. 

One woman gives the other a gift to honor some occasion. The gift receiver then sends cupcakes over as a thank you. The original giver then sends a thank you card for the cupcakes. The cupcake giver, as an acknowledgment of the thank you cupcakes, invites the original present giver to tea. The original present giver, as a thank you for the tea time, leaves a hand written thank you note and fresh cut flowers at the other’s front door. The flower receiver calls and leaves a thank you message saying she received the flowers. If you’re confused reading this you can see why I now have an Excedrin headache from writing it. 

I’ll leave you with a question that came up in a recent conversation: When, prior to your visit, a friend or relative pulls a gift you gave out of the storage closet and puts it in plain sight, is she being thoughtful or phony? I’d love to hear your opinion. Just leave a comment at the end of this blog. 

I hope these thoughts about gift giving make your holiday giving more fun and that you enjoyed at least a few chuckles. 

Happy Holidays.

Do you have a question or comment for me? Feel free to post it by clicking on the comments link below.

Comments: 4

The “Brutally Honest” Syndrome: Some Gender Differences

I try for the most part to write blog articles about non-romantic friendship issues but in this case I’m making an exception and examining a marital communication problem. It’s one which comes up frequently between men and women and I think it deserves to be addressed.

Lynn, a female client, complained during an individual session that her husband Norm was so “brutally honest” she had gotten into a pattern of avoiding conversations with him. She said, “If I express an opinion with which he disagrees, he will ridicule me. Recently, when I told him I enjoyed the wine we had been served at a friend’s house, he said, ’I can’t believe you actually liked that swill. Your taste is up you’re a–.’

“When I suggested we go to the Denver Museum of Art last Saturday, he said, ‘Have you lost your mind, what on earth gave you the idea I would even consider wasting one of my two days off in that dump?’”

I asked her if she had tried telling him how it felt when he spoke to her in such a manner and she said, “Yes, many times. I tell him it hurts my feelings but it doesn’t do any good. He thinks I’m whining and he tells me to toughen up—that I’m too sensitive.”

I asked her if he acted this way during their courtship and she said, “No, never. It was only after we got married that he began to talk to me in this manner.”

While I sat silent, pondering my next question, she volunteered more information. “You know, he’s no different than all the husbands in the group we socialize with. They’re all like that. When the men are sitting around talking they are incredibly mean to each other. They seem to enjoy it but when I listen to the way they insult each other it makes me cringe. They argue and bicker and say things like, ‘You’re such a dumb ass! You don’t know what the f—k you’re talking about,’ and ‘You’re an idiot to buy that piece of s—- car–it looks like you found it in a junk yard.”

She sat thinking for a moment and then said, “Norm is close friends with Frank, and the two of them kind of set the tone for the group. They’re actually proud of their rudeness. It’s so constant and annoying that I and the other wives refer to Norm and Frank as the ‘Normally and Frankly Brutal Twins’—and they think the nicknames are funny! We wives think they’re all from a different planet.

Given her deep concerns about their relationship, I suggested she ask Norm to attend our next therapy hour. She did so and in response to her request he called and expressed the desire to first see me by himself in order to, in his words, “check me out.” I agreed to do so and we set up an appointment.

He opened the hour by commenting on my office setup, which is in the lower walk-out half of my home. He said, “Huh! I was expecting a real office. This is a hokey setup.” I said, “What makes you say that?” He said, “Oh, I don’t know; my guess is that if you knew what you were doing you’d be in an office building like all the other shrinks.” I chuckled and said, “Well, the good thing is that you’ll get to evaluate me during this hour. If you decide I know what I’m doing, maybe you’ll agree to some marital counseling. Obviously it’ll be your call.”

When Norm saw that I didn’t take his insulting banter seriously he relaxed and we had a good talk. As he spoke it became clear that he loved his wife and knew something was wrong but had not yet figured out he needed to relate to her differently than he did to his male buddies. I explained that what he calls being “honest and frank” is, from his wife’s perspective, mean spirited and hurtful. I told him she was hungry for intimacy and romance but the way he talked to her made such closeness impossible. I added, “Spouses are supposed to be each other’s best friend. When you talk down to her like that she sees it as evidence you don’t cherish or respect her.”

He said, “So, what’s the alternative? Do I have to be all syrupy and drippy and kiss her behind?” I asked, “Norm, you’re assuming there is no middle road. You’ve framed it so that the only available choices are insulting her or being phony and kissing up. There’s another option; a respectful, tactful approach that is still honest. It’s something I teach couples and it works.”

Fortunately, at this point I managed to get Norm’s attention and he agreed to come in with Lynn and learn more appropriate ways to communicate.

This therapeutic scenario with Lynn and Norm is one I have encountered many times over my decades of working with couples. I believe there are two important differences between men and women which contribute to this problem.

Men and women have different definitions of intimacy
During courtship, men are tactful, respectful and romantic. They are not being phony—they mean everything they say and do. But for them, courtship is an achievement issue. They are trying to “win the woman.” Once they win her they then slowly but surely shift into a different way of relating, one whose focus is building a more comfortable life—i.e., making more bucks, getting a bigger house, building an estate, etc. For men these activities are intimate and their way of saying, “I love you.” Naturally, they want sex and are occasionally romantic but certainly not to the same degree they were during courtship.

Wives, however, often interpret this shift away from the initially intense, consistently romantic courtship behavior as a disappointing “bait and switch” situation. Referring to this, one deeply disappointed wife said, “I bought what I thought was a superior product but when I went to use it I discovered everything on the label was a lie.”

Men learn to relate to others by talking to other men
The primary way men talk to each other about their relationship is in code. When a man says, “You’re a dumb son of a bitch and I’m going to kick your ass at pool,” he’s saying, “I love your company and I’m having a great time.” Men generally hug each other goodbye only if they’ve had a couple of drinks and then they almost always accompany the hug with some macho utterance—e.g., “Take care, you dumb son of a bitch.”

If you watch professional athletes greet each other at the beginning or after a game they never establish eye contact and they do more of a constricted, one armed bounce off each other rather than a hug. Warm male contact in a competitive context is easily seen as a sign of weakness.

So, the point is this: After a man meets a woman, courts her and marries her, he then slides into his less romantic definition of intimacy—one he learned from his dad and from other men—and he then relates to his wife the same way he has historically related to his male friends. Unless he learns at some point that this will not work, his marriage will suffer and maybe even come to an end. Why? Because women are wired differently. They expect to be cherished and adored and the typical male style of relating via insulting banter and brutal honesty flies in the face of this expectation.

I hope this brief examination of a couple of the basic differences between how men and women prefer to relate increases your awareness and enhances your ability to talk about these differences in a way that allows your relationships to thrive.

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When Friends Move Away

One of the more difficult challenges a friendship can face is when one friend moves away. I personally experienced the difficulties that such a move causes when I moved away from a city where I had friendships of twenty years duration.  I discovered some hard facts about the effect of such a move. 

Fact: The burden for continued contact falls on the friend who leaves.  With the exception of a few calls made to me right after I moved, most of my friends assumed that I would be the one calling, writing or E-mailing. There is a logical reason for this.  When I left town I did not disrupt my friends’ usual social routine.  Yes, they initially missed me, but only one small cog had fallen out of their social machine and so, from their perspective, the machine was working just fine. On the other hand, having moved to a new area where I knew very few people, I initially felt lost.  I thought often about the friends I had left behind and missed them very much.  I called to maintain contact with my old friends, but the number of calls I made far exceeded the calls that came back to me.  Life continued as usual for my old friends and they had adjusted to my absence. 

Fact: Friends sometimes resent the person who moves away, interpreting it as a personal rejection.  They may not be consciously aware of their resentment, but the reaction is not uncommon. I discovered this when the wife of one of my friends described his reaction after I’d informed him I was moving. He said, “I feel like I was slapped in the face.”  When I asked her how she interpreted his remark, she said: “I think he feels abandoned by you.” 

Fact: Some friends do not know how to maintain a long distance friendship.  Ralph, one of my patients, told me that after he moved away from his hometown, his then closest friend, Stan, called him only twice over a five year period.  Surprisingly, Stan’s wife, during a visit with Ralph and his spouse while on a business trip in their area, told them Stan still considered Ralph to be his closest friend.  

Ralph, while telling me the story, was perplexed.  He said: “I don’t get it.  I have called and E-mailed Stan numerous times and never get anything more than a lukewarm reception on the phone or a cursory email response.  When I’ve suggested ski trips or visits, he has consistently put off making any commitments. When I have shared joys or fears with him by E-mail, he has not responded.  How can he believe that we are still close friends?  He has made little or no effort to stay in touch for five years. Best friend? I think he’s living in a dream world.” After discussing with Ralph his specific history of relating to Stan, it became clear that Ralph had been the one to initiate almost all of their socializing.  Once Ralph left, Stan did not know how to reach out and do the things necessary to keep the friendship alive.  Further, since Ralph was no longer living in town, the geographical distance acted as a kind of inertia builder in Stan. Ralph finally realized that his friendship with Stan was over and made a conscious decision to let go of it.  He said, after making this choice, “It’s a sad state of affairs.  I miss the guy.  We shared a strong intellectual bond. I miss talking with him. We had even re-built an automobile together and we had great talks during that project.” 

As you can see, long distance friendships can suffer if both people do not make an effort to maintain an ongoing connection.  While it is not easy to do,it can achieved if the friendship is highly valued and both make a conscious decision to stay in touch on a regular basis.

Do you have a question or comment for me? Feel free to post it by clicking on the comments link below.

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Self-Surveillance, Humility and Friendships

In order to successfully relate to others in authentic and meaningful ways, we must be willing to do honest self-surveillance. This skill allows us to spot our underlying feelings and understand how they drive our behavior. Here are a couple of specific examples.

In a recent email, I asked Tobiaz, my son-in-law, how he was enjoying being the assistant soccer coach for my grandson’s team. I mistakenly erased his emailed response but here’s a paraphrased version of it:

Ron, thanks for asking me about my soccer coaching. Being the assistant coach of Lars’ team has reminded me of my own experience in Sweden as a young boy when my uncle’s friend, a father of one of my teammates, coached my soccer team. He clearly favored his son and gave him more attention and playing time than he did the rest of us. I was resentful and didn’t like that he played favorites. I remember to this day what that felt like. But guess what? I find myself wanting to do the same thing with Lars now that I’m coaching his team. I have to keep a close eye on myself to make sure I don’t.”

I find Tobiaz’s willingness to do such honest self-surveillance an admirable quality. Further, his willingness to share his thoughts about it makes me feel closer to him. Such vulnerability both touches me and inspires trust. It also confirms my belief that my daughter made a wise choice in a husband.   

In this same vein, I recently had an email exchange with a new acquaintance, John Keahey, a published author and journalist who has kindly consented to share some of his extensive knowledge about Sicily (He’s currently writing a second book about the island). After picking his brain and receiving a generous number of in-depth, single-spaced email pages of information, I asked, “So, how’s your new book coming?” His response included an insight into his own feelings and motivations:

“I had a major interview this weekend in LA with a food historian; this coming weekend, it’s Chicago for two days with an Italian literature professor who is being unbelievably generous with her time. Then, the research has to cease and the real writing to begin—beyond the 10,000 words now sitting in a rough-rough, stream-of-consciousness draft. (Often, I have a hard time stopping the research, which is a lot of fun, and starting the writing, which is just plain hard. Hemingway admitted once that he used to love writing long letters to his friends and publisher; that way, he could delay the pain of writing. Maybe that’s why I write long emails!)”

I appreciate his generous sharing of information and insights about our mutual area of interest, but I am even more impressed by his ability to look inward and identify his feelings and motivations, and by his willingness to share these with me. Clearly, John knows how to connect with others in authentic, meaningful ways. I find his openness to be an attractive quality. I suspect John has a well-developed ability to build and maintain friendships.

What I find additionally intriguing about these email exchanges with Tobiaz and John is that they’re both confined to the written word. We are not talking on the phone about these things. Yet, the  richness in the exchanges convinces me that written correspondence can somehow allow a pure meeting of minds, which at times can be inhibited during verbal exchanges. I don’t pretend to know why this is so; it may have to do with the absence of confusing verbal or nonverbal signals. However, that’s a topic for another day and a different blog article.

I hope this brief look into the concept of self-surveillance piques your interest and motivates you to think more about the benefits of looking inward and the possible joys of sharing your insights with friends.

Do you have a question or comment for me? Feel free to post it by clicking on the comments link below.

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A Case of Understanding

A woman friend of mine recently teased me about my habit of watching the NBA playoffs. With her tongue planted not so firmly in her cheek, she laughingly said it was a mindless pastime and that my concern about who won and who lost was beyond her understanding. I told her there were many reasons I watched, but one of the most compelling was that televised sports are, to me, the most honest things on TV. And compared to the current shallow, so-called news-talk shows, they are far more meaningful.

She smiled and said, “I just don’t get it—overgrown men in shorts fighting over a ball—what’s so interesting? Can you explain what it is you find so riveting?”

I saw this as an interesting challenge. Could I explain to her why I was such a committed sports fan? I had some ideas about why but had never put them down on paper. Clearly, I had very little chance of converting her to sports watching but perhaps I could help her understand what motivated me to do it. I came up with the following letter of explanation.

Dear Mary,

Your question, What’s so interesting about sports? got me thinking. Hopefully, the  following will clarify why I enjoy watching sports and how it has held my interest over the years.

1. As a fan I’m always looking for the “perfect game.” Such a game is characterized by:

   —Opponents with an equal level of skill

   —Opponents who are equally well conditioned

   —Opponents with equal tactical and strategical skills

   —A level playing field

   —A contest where the outcome is unknown until the very end

Perfect games can give fans a unique high. The drama of such games is so intense and appreciated that they become legendary.

2. I appreciate the psychology of “momentum.” When both teams or individuals are playing well, momentum can change to the opposition in a heartbeat. Maintainance momentum is fragile and can change X number of times during a given game. Great coaches and athletes know how to bring about such shifts, and it’s fun watching the strategies and tactics they use in order to do so.

3. Teams are made up of players who are young and old, experienced and inexperienced, and the development of the intangible but important qualities of leadership and team chemistry is interesting to observe. Seeing players develop leadership confidence and watching them learn to gracefully exert it with teammates and bring about team chemistry is psychologically fascinating. 

4. Sports operate within a true meritocracy. As an athlete, you either perform under pressure or you are off the team. The ability to meet that pressure is a monstrous challenge. You’re scrutinized by your coaches, scores of writers and millions of fans. You cannot fake acceptable play. You must perform. Watching players learn to perform under pressure and change from being merely good to consistently great is inspiring and immensely entertaining.

5. With individual sports like tennis and cycling, watching players grow from inexperienced to experienced—from immature to mature—is intriguing. Talented young players are challenged to compete gracefully while millions watch and evaluate them on TV. Some don’t meet the maturity challenge even after years in the spotlight (e.g., tennis player Serena Williams’ graceless remarks when she loses). Some succeed (e.g., Rafael Nadal’s graceful post-match speeches whether he loses or wins).

With team sports, learning to be unselfish and to gracefully accept one’s given role on the team is a major challenge. There is a saying: “Until age 18, sports is a character builder, but after 18, it is a character revealer.” Self absorbed, non-team players are traded, fall by the wayside or end up playing for second-rate teams.

In his book Life on The Run, Bill Bradley, the ex-senator and legendary New York Knicks basketball player, wrote that he was asked why he continued to play past his prime. He explained that the willingness of an athlete to accept a lesser role on a team once it becomes clear he has diminished skills is a powerful opportunity for personal growth. We cannot be permanently at the top of our game, athletically or otherwise, and the willingness to contribute in a meaningul but diminished role is a sign of maturity.

For all these reasons, sports have held my interest for sixty-plus years (I was an avid Brooklyn Dodger fan by age eight). Naturally, whether my favorite team wins or loses is important to me, but it is not nearly as important or interesting as the above. I hope this letter gives you some insight into why I’m so passionate about sports watching.

Not surprisingly, my friend, in her answering email, wrote, “I understand now what it is you’re enjoying. I didn’t know sports offered so many things to appreciate. Sadly, it still seems like a waste of time to me. But I’m glad you get such fun and stimulation out of it.”

I’m fine with my friend’s reaction. All I wanted was her understanding of what I found worthwhile about sports. She gave me that. Sometimes when friends take an open-minded look at our passions and beliefs, they’ll choose to share our passion and sometimes they won’t. It is our openness to another’s experience when it is different from ours that makes the enrichment of a given friendship possible.

Do you have a question or comment for me? Feel free to post it by clicking on the comments link below.

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When Preoccupied Friends Are Thoughtless

During a recent therapy session, my client Rick wondered out loud about how to handle an on-again, off-again problem with his close friend Steve. Rick described the following scenario.

“Over the years, whenever Steve finds a new lady friend, he becomes so undependable it falls under the heading of irresponsible and disrespectful. I have no problem with Steve having a relationship and making me lower priority. Heck, I’m married with a kid, so I’m not that available to hang out anyway. The problem is that once Steve is in a romantic relationship, he stops keeping his word. He’ll call me, suggest we get together for a beer, agree on a time and place, and then he simply doesn’t show up. He doesn’t even bother to call and cancel.

“It’s so predictable. Once there’s a lady in his life, he acts this way, not just with me but with all his friends. This is his third serious relationship in the last five years, and during each one, he has blown off our get-togethers on a regular basis.”

I said, “Rick, I don’t blame you for being hurt and annoyed by his behavior but I can’t help wondering why you haven’t yet confronted him about it. What’s your reasoning?”

Rick said, “My fear is that if I confront him, he will see me as judging him, be hurt, and stop being my friend. I think part of the problem is that we have always had an easygoing, laissez-faire friendship. I guess the quick answer is that I’m not sure if I have the right to do so.”

Rick’s dilemma asks an important question, one that does not have a simple, formulaic answer. My daughter Shannon, in a discussion about the same topic, framed the question in the following way. She asked, “How does one make a distinction between accepting people for who they are versus being appropriately assertive about one’s own rights within the friendship?”

She could not, in my opinion, have framed it more accurately. I believe in order to make the distinction she refers to, one must have the ability to look inward and identify one’s feelings and then identify those specific behaviors that cause the hurt feelings. Then, once one determines if the hurtful behaviors are or aren’t a departure from the implicitly agree-upon rules for the friendship, one can make the distinction.

For example, in Rick’s case, he has clearly identified his fears of being low priority and of being disrespected by Steve. Additionally, and importantly, he can tie specific behaviors by Steve to these feelings. When Steve doesn’t bother to show up or bother to call and cancel a get-together, he is being disrespectful of Rick’s time, energy, and feelings. Finally, Rick said that when Steve is not in a romantic relationship, he does not have a history of breaking appointments in this manner. It is clearly a breach of their implicit agreement over time about how they will relate to each other as friends.

My Recommendation:

It seems to me that if Rick wants to keep this friendship healthy and honest, he must not sell Steve short. If he assumes Steve will be defensive and withdraw, he is not giving Steve the opportunity to honor their friendship by changing. Further, by not confronting Steve, he is continuing a pattern of storing up resentments against him that could, over time, kill the friendship. In his words, Rick said, “I’m so hurt by this situation that I’m tempted to dump the guy as a friend.”

It seems Rick’s best shot is to at least let Steve know how he is feeling and what Steve is doing to generate those feelings. He can soften the message if he likes by first stating that he knows Steve is in love and so preoccupied with his new lady that he may be unaware of the liberties he’s been taking with their friendship.

Note: A communication technique called a “Feeling Message”  facilitates the kind of tactful confrontation I am recommending that Rick have with Steve. It is one of the best tools for mending and strengthening friendships. Click here to learn more. 

Do you have a question or comment for me? Feel free to post it by clicking on the comments link below.   

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