Thursday, March 17, 2011

Caveman Cometh

By Joan Emerson, PhD
Originally published in Brooklyn Family

Gender differences help explain why, in this age of couple’s equality and open communication, we are still plagued by primitive needs from each other. Gender theories look way back to when humans belonged to tribes and lived in caves. We can picture women sitting around the fire cooking, making clothing, caring for children and sharing joys, woes and vulnerabilities with each other as the men roamed the hills, often alone, guarding against danger, and bringing home the spoils from a successful hunt.

A family’s survival depended on the male’s ability to keep it safe and content and this is how the men were judged by the rest of the tribe and how they judged themselves. A woman’s comfort came from the community, yes, but mainly from feeling valued and protected by her man and from the tribe recognizing his loyalty and attachment to her. Gender theory says those ancient dynamics are still part of our DNA and affect our behaviors and needs, resulting in clashes between our primitive and more evolved needs.

These days, women are fiercely independent and competent. Yet, they still have needs from their men which don’t seem rational. What seems to be hard-wired into women’s brains from caveman days is a need to have a man clearly indicating ownership, pride in them, and taking a protective stance.

One of the ways this need can get filled today is for the man to simply take his woman’s hand when they’re out for a walk together. Although I first noticed this desire on my own and felt silly about it, I really took note when conducting couples sessions and “taking my hand when we’re out walking” was often on the woman’s list of easy things the guy could do to make her feel loved and cared for. When we’re inside, having our man sit with his arm around us actually releases hormones that relax and calm us. Men are often not aware of the power of these acts, so I encourage women to speak up.

When it comes to men, the gender-based theory says that for a man to feel happy with himself, he needs to feel competent and successful in regard to protecting, pleasing and satisfying his mate. If he feels he can’t get it right, the resulting feeling is deep shame. Not intellectually maybe, but emotionally, if a man senses his woman’s dissatisfaction with his efforts, he internalizes it as his failure and incompetence. The shame he experiences is so strong that he’d rather withdraw, attack, escape — anything but confront, or talk about this devastating feeling. The tendency in men to feel that they alone must know how to solve all problems in the family no longer makes sense in the age of equality and communication that modern marriage strives for, yet gender theory says their well-being depends on feeling success in this regard. This goes for satisfying his mate sexually, all the way to knowing how to dress the kids, and amusing the family with stories about local sports or the less-than-gripping details about his day.

If this theory is true, that the primitive part of us still wields this power (and that’s what I have observed), we can try to use this awareness to meet each other’s deepest needs. When it comes to a man’s happiness, his woman must build his confidence and make him feel able and competent. So, for example, his wife can allow time for him to relax when he comes home from work, even though women also work, do most of the childcare, and never relax. Women can step aside when the men are caring for the children and not interfere with advice. Women can freely show affection, so that the men know they are physically pleasing. This is a true gift: behaviors that help men feel good about themselves.

To please these deep female needs, the men can take their women out in the world and attend to them in a protective, yet affectionate, way, showing the world how they value them. At home, he can invite his woman to sit next to him and reach out and hold her for a while.

Talk to each other and see how these gender differences play out in your relationship.

Dr. Joan Emerson is a New York psychologist who specializes in couples therapy. Visit her website at

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Being an Effective, Affectionate Communicator

By Joan Emerson, PhD
Originally published in Brooklyn Family

Guidelines for successful couples’ communication
When talking to your partner about something in the relationship that’s bothering you, you have to use the kind of communication that helps make things better, instead of just adding to resentment and alienation. Complaining, yelling, and blaming are certainly ways to let off steam, but they can leave your partner angry or hurt.

To be a better communicator, you need to recognize — and be willing to change — hurtful patterns. Unfortunately, it is a set of skills most people don’t have when starting a committed relationship. So, for most of us, it must be learned.

In order for these techniques to work, conditions must be right so that your partner can really take in what you are saying, instead of becoming defensive, angry or withdrawn. This requires great self-control on your part. You cannot even think about talking to your partner when you’re in the throes of hurt or anger. Instead, the talk must take place at a time when you know that your partner can be willing and relaxed and that you, yourself, will be able to maintain a neutral and gentle tone without blame, contempt or resentment. Therefore, you both must find a mutually agreeable time to say, “OK, I’m ready, let’s talk.”

As you sit down to talk, instead of asking the loaded question that sets a negative tone (“Why can’t you just…”), turn the conversation to what you are feeling, what you notice yourself thinking about, what you’re wishing for, what pains, hopes and fears you have, and your desire to return to a state in which you can feel relaxed and loving.

Preface the talk with “I want to talk about some of the things I’ve been having trouble dealing with. I’m not saying I know the answer, maybe it’s even crazy to feel this way, but I’d like to let you know what’s been going through my head. All I want you to do is listen, OK?” Once your partner agrees, say “thank you” and start sharing. It shouldn’t take more than 15 to 20 minutes to describe what you’re having trouble with.

To keep your partner fully engaged, your talk must stay gentle and safe. For the best results, you can sit together, perhaps touch, and look into each other’s eyes. You might say something like, “I notice that one of the things that would help me feel more relaxed, comforted, loving (you choose your feeling), is if you would … (fill in the blank). When you don’t do this, I see myself start to worry, feel angry, withdrawn (again, you choose). Then, I start acting in a way that drives us apart, and I don’t want this. Do you think we could try to come up with something that would work better for us?”

The conversation must stay focused on the present and how you both can find solutions that would calm and comfort you and allow your loving feelings to return. Care must be taken to avoid talking about past hurts or getting into a blame mode. If your partner gets defensive, things have gone off track, and you’ll need to redirect the conversation by saying, “I know that things haven’t been going right, but I just want to talk today about what we can do to make it work better. I’m sure that there are things that I could do differently to help you give me what I need. I’d like to hear about that, too.”

Usually, partners are more than happy to present their side and talk about what each person could do to fix the problem. If your partner doesn’t, make sure you take the opportunity to ask, “What would you need from me in order to make these changes?” This is a time to listen thoughtfully since there is, no doubt, something to be learned about yourself and some of your less than perfect behaviors. Acknowledging your responsibility to your partner helps him acknowledge his to you. In a talk like this, you’re in charge of keeping the tenor calm and hopeful.

Once you’ve tried some of these techniques and can actually feel deep understanding, mutual concern and even, at times, humor and good feelings emerging between you both, make sure you show great appreciation for your partner’s efforts. Tell your partner how helpful the talk was for you and ask how it was for him. Ask if it’s OK to talk this way in the future when issues come up. If your partner agrees, it is key to show appreciation, appreciation, appreciation.

Dr. Joan Emerson is a New York psychologist who specializes in couples therapy. Visit her website at

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Guidelines for successful couples’ communication

By Joan Emerson, PhD
The Brooklyn Paper

Our Relationships: Being an effective, affectionate communicator

Unfortunately, marriage partners are not always on the same page, as we are different people who see things differently. In young families, conflicts over how we handle children, money, intimacy, housework, extended family or our visions for the future come with the turf. Sometimes we hold things in, but these issues need to be discussed in ways that lead to positive outcomes.

But how?
An exercise called “Couple’s Dialog,” part of a form of marriage therapy founded by Harville Hendrix, aims to help partners communicate calmly when talking about emotionally charged issues. It’s goal is to ensure partner’s treat each other’s feelings with the utmost sensitivity and respect. The dialog is not a conversation. One partner simply listens — and only listens — while the other speaks. It is an opportunity for the speaker to really feel heard about feelings that have been festering and creating resentments without having to worry about emotional reactions like defensiveness, criticality, and anger on their partner’s part.

So, find time for an uninterrupted half hour at a location where both partners are fully present and calm. Then, follow these four dialog rules:
• Let your partner speak without interruption. It’s rare to have the experience of being listened to with total interest and concentration — and it feels great. When you, the listener respond only with encouraging remarks like, “Tell me more,” or, “What else?” it’s easy for the speaker to get those pent-up feelings out.
• Show that you understand by reflecting back the essence of what was said. This step cannot be taken lightly, as it creates safety for the speaker. Listen and, at appropriate times, interject something like, “So you’re saying that…” or, “If I understand right, you said…” followed by a short summary of the emotions expressed. Once the speaker agrees that you do understand what’s being said, ask for more. If you got it wrong, ask for a repeat and try again to reflect back correctly until your partner feels that you do get it accurately and completely.
• Be empathetic and communicate that empathy. If the relationship is going to include ongoing, open communication, there must be a reward for exposing those private feelings. Your partner’s greatest reward is to see that you can understand and empathize without reacting.
• Validate your partner’s feelings by expressing that it’s not crazy to feel that way. It’s no doubt different from your own take on things, but reply with, “You know, it’s helpful to see it through your eyes; I never thought of it that way.”

When your partner has gotten it all out, a good response is simply “thank you” — a way of expressing appreciation for being so vulnerable. You can say things like: “That wasn’t so easy to hear, but I’m glad to know what you’re feeling” or “Let me sit with this information for a while and we’ll talk again soon.”

Being a successful listener is not always easy: the urge to present your own side, and to react defensively are hard to combat. Avoiding reactions like these on your part take containment and discipline, but the reward for following the dialog rules is that they bring great benefits. However, with all its challenges, being a good listener is actually much easier than being a successful speaker when it comes to sharing emotional issues.

Next time we’ll talk about skills for the speaker. Meanwhile, practice the listening skills and notice what it does for the relationship.

Dr. Joan Emerson is a New York psychologist who specializes in couples therapy. Visit her website at

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

And Baby Makes Stress

By Joan Emerson
The Brooklyn Paper

A new baby plus a new marriage equals major stress for both partners — and yet there’s no guide available for first-time parents to help deal with this joyous and difficult time.

Until now.
From watching and hearing about these situations with family, friends, and clients — while remembering my own experience — I have seen that, along with the love, joy and wonder of watching a new life begin, stresses on the relationships between new mom and new dad are typical.

Yet, I also get the sense that it takes everyone by surprise.

It will be the goal of this column to discuss the conflicts that typically emerge during this time, and provide some of the tools needed to keep couples’ connection intact and help new parents:
• Create a safe, loving place to reveal themselves and learn about their partner.
• Build a solid, reliable, loving relationship.
• Maturely work through the throes of the inevitable periods of disappointment and anger.

The July 12 edition of New York Magazine cover story “I Love My Children. I Hate My Life,” described study upon study showing the stress of raising kids and the effect those children have on the relationships of the married individuals. Indeed, studies show that children reduce marital satisfaction and adversely affect relationships, with the hardest period being the baby-toddler stage. A walk to a nearby Barnes and Noble helped explain why that is the case.

In the “Relationships” section, there are shelves of books by theorists whose names we all know about how to work on creating successful marriages. But there is nothing dedicated to the difficulties of new parenthood.

In the “Raising Your Children” section, there are the “What to Expect…” books along with topics like “how to talk to your child,” and “advice to dad to let mom sleep and learn how to change diapers.” But there is nothing directed at safeguarding a marriage after a child is born.

We all know that along with the warmth and pleasure associated with the new baby, there’s a ‘hold on for dear life’ experience for at least the first six months: a period plagued with worry, lack of sleep, total unpredictably of the baby’s behaviors and needs, insecurities, postpartum emotionality, differences in parenting approach, changes in roles, surprises and sometimes disappointments with the other parent’s coping style.

It isn’t until the child reaches the 6- to 12-year-old stage that marriages begin to bounce back to mom and dad remembering that they are also husband and wife.

So what can we do about the marriage in the meanwhile?

One of the upsides that can evolve during this young-family phase of marriage is that partners will, for better and worse, really get to know new each other, as that time of euphoria during which we saw each other through the rosiest of colored glasses has passed. Instead, we can use this time to create a safe environment in which to reveal our hopes, fears, difficulties, secrets, disappointments, and wishes.

Sharing these most private vulnerabilities with each other and receiving empathy and reassurance are the building blocks of a strong bond between partners and lead into a stage of mature, safe and dependable love.

Next time we’ll discuss one of the most basic rules for successful communication: being effective in expressing one’s feelings, while giving your partner the feeling that they’ve really been heard and understood.

Joan Emerson is a New York psychologist who specializes in couples therapy. You can learn more about her by visiting her Web site at

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Appointment for love

By Joan Emerson, PhD

When you first started dating your partner, you had chemistry, attraction and, yes, sex. But now that you’re in a committed relationship, raising a family, and building good lives, you may notice that, at times, your sexual connection starts to falter and all but cease. This is an issue that all couples struggle with: keeping their sexual intimacy alive for the long haul. Sometimes, there are bumps in the road, but you may find that it takes a date on the calendar to ignite the passion that you first felt in your dating days.

It can be hard to admit that you and your partner are not clicking. It’s easy to blame it on being too tired, too busy, too involved with the kids, or telling yourself that you’re fine without the sex. But in reality, you feel that absence on your mind and it’s causing discomfort.

Knowing that your partner loves you, desires you, and is as committed as you are to keeping sex alive is something that you need — and he needs from you — for a deep feeling of wellbeing. Since maintaining this bond is a fairly universal challenge, and remains a challenge through everyone’s lifespan, there’s much thought and knowledge about how one can realistically keep the sexual connection alive.

So what’s to be done? The answer is hard to hear, at first. Spontaneity and waiting for passion to overtake you is apparently not something you can rely on these days. Instead, you must make a commitment to plan a time for sex and make sure that you follow through. Yes, a sex date seems cold and calculated compared to how you wish it could be, but this seems to be the only way to get the sex going again and keep it going.

In order for this to work, there are a few steps to follow:

Begin with a gentle talk about how you’re missing the lovemaking, and explain that you need to hear that your partner is, too. Talk about whether you’re both willing to do what’s necessary to resume your sex life.

If so, the next step is to have a somewhat theoretical conversation — no pressure — about what would be a frequency that both of you would feel comfortable with (at this point, weekly may seem to be a great start) and a mutually agreeable time for your sex date.

In this conversation, you also want to confirm if both of you are willing, until things are back on track, to do your part in keeping the topic and the outreach alive, and not leave all the responsibility to your partner.

As you continue on the path, and are committed to making sex happen, you will see that getting it going is a departure from your old dreams, as well. You’ve made the date, the time has come, you’re both lying there, and you don’t even feel emotionally or physically in the mood.

This is the time for a hero to emerge: one of you has to have the bravery to reach out for the other. And, it’s a commandment that if either has the courage to suggest a time, and at that time actually physically reaches out, the other will consider it a sacred obligation to be loving and receiving, because, as we know, one can feel very vulnerable — and can shut down — if one thinks her sexual outreach is being rejected.

Most amazingly (since you’re following the commandment), as you relax into your partner’s arms, and start nuzzling and kissing, you notice your resistance melting away and the emergence of pleasure and desire in your body.

The rest is history: the history of how this really does work. The passion does comes back, resulting in satisfaction, and best of all, in the days after, you feel affectionate toward your partner and notice that your mind is at peace. It’s comforting to know that, since you’ve seen it work, it’s a drop easier to make the next sex date and follow through. There’s no other way. Enjoy.

Dr. Joan Emerson is a New York psychologist who specializes in couples therapy. Visit her website at

reprinted from The Brooklyn Paper, Feb. 2011