May 2012

Do You Love Your Smartphone?

Mark Zuckerberg has buckled to tradition and joined the ranks of the married — and he let the world know the change in his “relationship status” by announcing it on Facebook. Just few years ago, the same announcement would have been sent, via press release, to the media and announced in the pages of newspapers or on a news broadcast. The news would be essentially the same — “Zuckerberg weds longtime girlfriend” — but would be communicated in a way that seems more impersonal.

But is it really? Zuckerberg’s outreach was directed toward “persons” not people and presented in the form of digital data, read on a computer screen. There’s no hug. No eye contact. No physical or direct emotional conveyance of warmth.

Yet, reading the news on our smartphones, we feel like it’s directed toward us: a personal message from Mark — not because the news is personal but because it’s delivered on our very own screen, on an object to which we’ve developed a personal attachment.

The smartphone has evolved into more than a high-tech gadget. People love their phones. Literally. Recently, a successful and highly educated adult told me that she “couldn’t live” without her iPhone, which she then called “one of my best friends.” When people misplace these devices, they feel an intense panic that far outweighs the distress of losing a set of keys or even a wallet. They experience abandonment. How will they survive without their handheld computer?

Smartphones satisfy our basic needs for companionship through the newsfeeds and photos of social media. The smartphone delivers security — who hasn’t breathed a sigh of relieve that the GPS can lead us by the hand where we need to go? The tiny screen — or the larger one on a home computer — can satisfy sexual needs, through porn. It helps locate food when we’re hungry. It tells us when to wake up and lulls us to sleep at night with soothing music, a white noise app or a downloaded novel or movie.

Intense bonding to an object is not only necessary but an important phase of human development — if you’re a young child. Remember the “blankie” that Linus drags behind him or the stuffed animal you couldn’t live without? As any parent will tell you, pandemonium ensues if a child’s comfort object, as we therapists call it, is left at home in a car trip or forgotten on the seat of an airplane. And a child experiences loss and sadness. Comfort objects help ease the emotional sting of separation as a child grows independent from Mom.

So, there’s a template in the human for bonding with objects and taking comfort in them. Remember the “pet rock”? When the constant companion is a cell phone, one that can speak and guide us, there’s a human impulse to take comfort in it and even to grow to love it at the risk preferring it at times to actual relationships. It’s our high-tech blankie, and it speaks to the Linus in us all.

A Psychoanalytic Appreciation of Maurice Sendak

Sendak’s words and images personify Freud’s appreciation of a child’s complexity

Before the publication of “Where the Wild Things Are” in 1963, children’s literature was comprised largely of folk tales, fairy tales and near-Victorian tales of good little children whose job was to please their elders – or else. These stories were morality tales meant to teach children the lessons of how to behave in an adult world.

In Sendak’s work, the perspective is turned on its head, asking not how children can be adults but, “What is the inner life and worldview of a child?” In his words and images, Sendak answered that question boldly: the world is a scary and often overwhelming place. In Where the Wild Things Are, he created grotesque images, portraying the internal psychic landscape of children with authenticity and profound insight.

His message brought to children literature key concepts Freud had introduced a century prior: children are complex emotional beings, who experience powerful feelings – fearanger, love, and loss of control.

Freud’s view, as represented by Sendak became the culture’s as a whole. To understand how revolutionary it was, just take a look at the winner of the prestigious Caldecott Medal in 1960, three years before the publication of Wild Things – the publisher of Baboushka and the Three Kings describes the book as “about an old woman who was too busy to travel with the Wise Men to find the Child and now searches endlessly for Him each Christmas season.”

Contrast this adult, Christian perspective with Max, the hero of Where the Wild Things Are. Max employs fantasy – becoming king of “wild things” to cope with his own feelings of helplessness at being sent to his room, and with his anger at his mother. When he tames the Wild Things and becomes their king, Max is mastering his own emotions. At the end of the book, he’s able to feel his mother’s love again, when she leaves him a nice dinner (which is “still hot”).

Sendak’s work clearly speaks to a sophisticated understanding of key psychoanalytic concepts. In fact, the major psychoanalytic minds of the mid-20th century were setting forth many of the same ideas that Sendak conveys in his writing.

Following is a description that applies wholly to Sendak’s Max, published in the academic journal Psycho-Analysis and Consciousness in 1960, just three years before the appearance of Wild Things:

“the [young child] is unable to differentiate between hallucination and perception, or between hallucination and memory, and probably has a minimum of reflective awareness.”

It’s fun to imagine what the writer – Viennese psychoanalyst and physician, Johann Aufreiter – might have thought about Sendak’s Max, who personified so precisely Aufreiter’s description.

Sendak also reflects the psychoanalytic value of dreams and fantasies as a compass for the human psyche, which directs us to buried truths, as seen in both “Where the Wild Things Are” and “In the Night Kitchen.”

In images and words, Sendak expresses the complexity and ambivalence of human emotions. His work is a creative way to help children process their feelings – and to introduce kids to first-rate literature at a level they can appreciate and understand. It stands as an eternal testament to the power of the unconscious mind in both children and adults used to its most creative and humanizing ends.

As both a parent and as a psychoanalyst, I mourn the death of Maurice Sendak.

This was originally published on Psychology Today.

Cohabitation and a Healthy Marriage: Fact or Fiction?

Does living together before marriage increase the chances for a successful marriage? An informal poll suggests that most singles expect to live together before marriage because they assume it will provide assurance of compatibility and commitment.  Research shows that more and more couples choose to live together before marriage, so one would assume that with all this premarital cohabitation, there’d be fewer divorces.

Unfortunately, this is not the case.

In the first 5 years of marriage, the divorce rates between cohabitating and non-cohabitating couples is virtually the same. And, among couples married over 20 years, the divorce rate is much higher among couples who’ve lived together before marriage.  So is there any benefit to cohabitation or have we just slid into a new norm that provides few tangible benefits for the marital relationship?

When couples reach the point of making a commitment to marry, they are facing increasing demands and the possibilities for conflict that are not replicated in the premarital living arrangement. Miscommunication, false expectations and role responsibilities occur in marriage whether or not the couple has lived together first.

To help couples prepare for marriage, I developed the Emotional Prenuptial Agreement which encourages couples to lay the groundwork for a healthy and long lasting marriage before they enter into it, whether or not they have lived together first.  It is a spin on a traditional legal prenup, but this one is not binding nor does it address tangible possessions or finances.  It deals with the emotional needs, vulnerabilites and expectations each brings into the marriage and an honest assessment of what each learned about themselves from past relationships. Resolution of the issues is not the point. It is the communication and promise to work together that prepares them for marriage.

Cohabitation is all romance, divorce is all business. An emotional prenup prepares the couple for married life, which benefits best by maintaining a bit of both.

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