Love Triangles

“Betrayal” is on the lips of Londoners and New Yorkers alike this fall. Across the pond the phone-hacking trial of Murdoch editors Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson, has outed their six-year extramarital affair. On Broadway, the play “Betrayal” by Harold Pinter, a dramatization of his eight-year love affair –has been revived by director Mike Nichols to much acclaim.

Last Sunday, Maureen Dowd drew connections between these two spectacles–both of which involve love triangles–in a New York Times column, “From Love Nests to Desire Surveillance.” As she parsed the notion of betrayal, Dowd quoted Nichols, who noted the “mythic” hold of the love triangle, which originates in life’s earliest days with Baby, Mom and Dad. Ah, the Oedipus emerges.

“We’re born in a triangle” that “determines who we are,” the director said.

Freud must be smiling.

The handling of that primal triangle’s vectors–as well as the acuity of its angles–sets the pattern for lifelong love relationships. (In fact, one of Nichols earliest films, “Carnal Knowledge,” is a portrayal of a decades-long triangle.)

As a therapist I have witnessed the pain that love triangles inflict. Typically–as in the Nichols play–the triangle results from an extramarital affair. The psychic fallout is primordial: loyalty versus sexual desire; the thrill of possessing and being possessed versus the fear of abandonment; the need for dependence versus the thrill of breaking free from the bonds of love.
From birth, the love triangle is imprinted on every human brain. Even in single sex or single parent families, the dictate of nature is that an infant begins with mother/caregiver as primary love object, but soon must include father and others in his world, ultimately leaving both objects behind and finding substitutes in adult love.

In some families, navigating the triangle becomes a battlefield. Children learn that “love” is synonymous with betrayal, pain, and competition. It’s a win-lose proposition. This is the psychic murk where some love triangles first take shape–where the story of Mommy, Daddy and Me becomes a maddening mythos–and an entrapment.

In loving families, the relationship between parents is a living organism that encourages and protects the children and encourages their independence. And provides a template for finding respect, support and passion in adult love.

Mature and loving couples gratify each other, so they don’t rely on a child as a primary source of love and emotional security. They focus on the child jointly and not in opposition to one another. They embrace rather than seduce him or her with rivalrous attentions.

When parents love one another, the triangle morphs into another shape: a circle of two, the shape of enfolding arms–and this is what their children, both consciously and unconsciously will seek out in a mate.

But healthy relationships are not the stuff of headlines and drama. To paraphrase Tolstoy, it is the unhappy relationships, not the healthy ones that are of greatest interest–thus the fascination of the piercing angles of the triangle.

Advice for Parents of Millennials

Adults: You need to sit down and read “Adulting,” a blog by a very wise Millennial, Kelly Williams Brown. A printed collection of the blog has been published under the same name, subtitled “How to Become a Grown Up in 468 Easy(ish) Steps.” It came to my attention via front-page coverage in The New York Times. “Adulting” is, in essence, a how-to manual for understanding the world of adulthood and easing into it. Williams tackles a swath of problems from career to relationships, to setting up utilities and managing a home. (And there are also tips about manners and etiquette.)

On her blog recently, Williams wrote a message to older generations who may be quick to condemn Millennials. For anyone who deals with young adults, from parents to employers, take a look at William’s self assessment of her generation:

We grew up with a model, and set of assumptions, that proved untrue. During our childhoods, unemployment was low, houses gained in value, a bachelor’s degree left you prepared for a variety of employment opportunities and investing was a sound decision. Now all of those things aren’t the case. It’s our job to deal with that, and that’s fine. Generations have faced much worse. But it’s easy to distrust a system that melted down so spectacularly just as it was time for us to buy into it.

When you look behind the curtain — or the digital screen–of young adults, there’s more anger and fear than most of us (meaning their parents) guessed. Instead of expressing their discontent and disappointment in the highly visible mode of former generations (riots in the streets, sit-ins on college campuses), they express their angst on social media, in blogs, and, I’m guessing, in fiction, too. The genuine despair of many Millennials is real, but not necessarily palpable or relatable to the rest of us.

Why do Millennials distrust the system? There are many answers: social, economic, and legal — but the most honest answer is that Baby Boomers sold them a bill of goods.

We made them feel entitled to success in America — and preached the American Dream — but also pulled the rug out from under them by ransacking the economy for our own gain.

We stressed the importance of good healthcare — and prevention! — and then presented them with a system of health insurance that requires they work two jobs to afford coverage. (And we’re not talking Dental coverage, even with two jobs.)

We touted the centrality of marriage and family, while often our own marriages were imploding in front of them.

We promoted parenthood as a key part of happiness, and then created a society where both parents must work to survive, and good, affordable childcare and flextime are the exception. At the same time, we tell Millennial women to “lean in,” implying that the real problem is their ambivalence and timidity.

So, Millennials are complaining and delaying the buy-in to total adulthood. And a lot of the complaining is going on in their parents’ homes because they cannot afford a place of their own.

My fear is they are only talking to each other, not to us. Yet, even if we’ve screwed the pooch on several major fronts, we can still be useful to this generation . . . by listening to them . . . and empathizing with them.

We didn’t face identical challenges, but we certainly felt the combination of anxiety and culture shock that comes after the structure of formal education falls away, when kids graduate from college.

And as older adults, we do know a thing or two about entering and coping with the workplace, and dealing with the Baby Boomers who are still mostly in charge there. (I’m talking about basic things Millennials may not know, like “Never, ever look at your cell phone while your boss is talking to you.”)

So instead of condemnation for a generation of “slacktivists,” let’s rally as family, neighbors and friends to let these kids vent openly, and to give them a hand. They don’t need us as Friends or Followers. They need us to be grown ups, and to get this intergenerational conversation going.

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Does A College Rejection Letter Mean You’re a “Loser”?

With the Oscars behind us, it’s time for America’s next gladiatorial event: college acceptances and rejections.  Many schools are mailing out (or posting online) their admissions decisions during the next few weeks.  Each letter carries a potent message.  The notions of “accepted” and “rejected” are emotionally loaded ideas —a clear demarcation of “winners” and “losers”—and parents are as invested in those rejections and acceptances just as much as their kids.   As a therapist working on the Upper East Side in Manhattan, where expectations for success run sky-high—I’ve seen many tears shed over rejections from Ivy League schools

So, why do parents personalize this process?  For one thing, they break from the gate very early, often sacrificing precious free time to “help” write reports about The Navaho, or construct classical Greek temples from toothpicks and papier mâché.   Then there’s the whiteboard calendar in the kitchen, crammed with a 24/7 schedule of activities from football practice and fencing lessons to afterschool enrichment classes in Shakespearean dramaturgy or string theory. (And we haven’t even mentioned the tutors and SAT pre classes yet).  All these activities represent a lot of time, money and effort for parents—and many do this with some idea in the back of their mind of creating a “perfect” college candidate, one that will catch the attention of an admissions officer.

Here’s what many parents often fail to understand: College admissions are a concrete and obvious goalpost—but that’s only the pregame show. The true test of a child’s successful transition to independence lies next September, in the first semester of college. That’s when the rubber meets the road and a young adult must draw on the precious internal resources that have hopefully been cultivated over the course of childhood and adolescence: impulse control, maturity, self-guidance, and overall independent functioning.   All of these are the signposts of successful parenting—not the acceptance letter.  If a kid can do laundry, study unsupervised, stay organized amid the lack of structure, and manage alcohol consumption reasonably, then the parent can step into the spotlight and take a bow.

So, parents, take a deep breath and see the long term view.  If you are lucky, your child will attend an institution of higher learning.  Whether that school is located in Cambridge, New Haven or Columbus, your child can thrive.  In the coming weeks, try to tamp down your ego, your guilt at having missed a holiday school show, your competitive spirit, and whatever else may be driving you to ruminate over a “rejection” or “acceptance” by a college.  If your child can bounce back from a college rejection, if he can be happy over an acceptance without its being regarded as the top tier of lifetime achievement, then you’re on the right track.  Take pride in creating a kid who can fly solo.  And if you want a dose of reality, a recent NYT article revealed that many students in poor neighborhoods don’t even apply to top colleges because they never realized it was an option. That’s something to cry about.

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Working Families

Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s COO, caused a stir recently promoting her new book “Lean In”, which advocates for women’s success in the workplace. Many women misconstrued her message as anti-motherhood. My take is different:   If you lean in and listen, she’s not advocating that women burn their Baby Bjorns.

Rather, Sandberg encourages women to form a clear intention about their professional path: If you are in the game, she says, play like you mean it. But, if women want to claim a seat at the power table, they should begin by claiming a seat at the kitchen table. This means being honest and up-front with their partners about career ambitions and finding a workable parenting arrangement. Ambivalence just won’t cut it.

As a couples’ therapist in Manhattan,  I am privy to fallout of the parenting v. career conflict.  Here’s what I’ve learned. The nexus of a family’s emotional life is the marital relationship—and it calls for mutual understanding about each parent’s role in the upbringing of their children. Couples who argue about parental responsibility come into my office upset, depleted of energy and short on intimacy. Worse, this type of conflict can have a lasting impact on childhood development.

What does this mean on the ground? It means that parents have to pick up each other’s slack and think outside the box of traditional gender roles. Cultural expectations work against this level of collaboration, often leaving women vulnerable to feelings of guilt and self-doubt and fathers vulnerable to uncertainty and frustration. For children, their parent’s collaboration gives them a solid foundation, so that mother’s drive to break the glass ceiling doesn’t rain shards on the family nest.

Even if a working family can hire a phalanx of domestic workers, from nannies to housekeepers, they still need each other’s full cooperation. They are each other’s  partners in life. Let each one reach for the starts, but first a mutual agreement on who is tending the nest. A successful work-life balance can be achieved when both are honest with each other–and themselves–about their ambitions.

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Divorce and Parenting

Breaking up a marriage is hard to do–especially when you have children. Having children means your marriage is never totally over, even after you divorce. This is a rude awakening for many divorced couples, who are anxious to move on with their separate lives. You may be legally divorced from your former spouse, but where children are concerned, your marriage is never over.

Why? Adults can divorce each other, but children can’t divorce their parents.

For adults, divorce means a future separate from your former spouse. But healthy parenting requires maintaining connection.  A child is unable to choose one parent over another, and should never be asked to. In matters of parenting it is helpful to remember that in your child’s mind, you are still together.

This means mutual respect, collaboration and communication. It doesn’t mean having affectionate feelings for your former spouse, family dinners or going on vacations together. It doesn’t even mean you won’t fight. Parents fight.

It means finding a way of communicating and working together for the best interests of the children. It means compartmentalizing parenthood from other aspects of your relationship. A couples therapist can help by maintaining a neutral stance, facilitating dialogue and containing the negative emotions that may get in the way.

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