Here’s a little video I made to explain why parenting can make sane people feel insane… and what to do about it. Enjoy!
I’m in the business of promoting love, as you know. As a family minister and parent educator, my primary concern is not with what you believe or what you think, it’s in how you love: how you receive it, and how you give it, where your blocks are, and how you can participate in love more fully. I study love from every angle that I find helpful–the theology of it, the psychology of it, what it looks like on a structural/systemic level, what it feels like, and what the lack of it feels like, in the intimate realm.
My own life is of course my lab.
My starting assumption is that everyone wants to participate in love fully. I know this to be true because we are human, and by design we are driven to want to participate in the give and take of mutual connection.
Evolutionarily, our lives have depended on our ability to love one another really well. Or rather, well enough. We aren’t after all a species that can live for long in isolation. We have to find those with whom we can live in a dance of connection, and stick with them over time, in order to have any success in navigating our complex world. That’s what interpersonal neurobiologist Dan Siegel says anyway, in so many words.
Our survival depends on our ability to love one another well enough (thank you Donald Winnicott for the idea of the “good enough parent”). But the more skilled we get at the art of loving well, the more we can move beyond surviving and into the realm of thriving.
There are lots and lots of skills–learnable skills, it turns out–that help us get better and better at the art of loving.
I’ve been learning a lot lately about one skill set in the art of love: repair work.
Relationship repair is a skill that is absolutely necessary because none of us are perfect. Mistakes are downright inevitable in human affairs, and it’s actually really okay. Learning to repair our relationships after discord/upset/ruptured connection is critical though if we are going to stay and grow in relationships.
John Gottman, one of the leading researchers who studies couples, says that couples who learn to repair their relationships are 80% more likely to have longterm satisfying partnerships than those couples who do not master this skill. And apparently, repairing a relationship rupture can make a relationship more intimate and satisfying than if the discord hadn’t happened in the first place!
I’ve been thinking about relationship repair for awhile. Mostly I’ve noticed I’m not very good at it. And then in my relationship with my daughter I started to gain some skill. I made a little video called the Art of Apology awhile back about what I’ve learned about doing repair work in our relationships with our children–which is SO important–and if you’re interested, you can check it out.
I’ve also learned a TON about relationship repair from my husband Niels, who has modeled for me again and again how to stay open and avoid defending myself, how to stay even when I want to run away or shut down, how with him it is safe to admit my personal mistakes or deficits, and that it is okay–more than okay, required even–to ask for what I need.
But I still have so so much to learn. This week, in fact, I had a GREAT learning experience.
My stepdad called to tell me he had read my last blog post, Why I Helicopter Parent, and he wanted to say that he was sorry for having clearly hurt me with his comment about “helicopter parenting.” We spoke for a few minutes, I thanked him for apologizing–I really was grateful that he cared enough to reach out when he gathered I’d been hurt–and I reassured him that it was mostly a great opportunity to write about something I had wanted to write about for awhile. I was touched, and I thought we were done.
Then the next day, I got a voicemail message from him. From his tone, I could tell we were not done. I was with my daughter and wasn’t able to call back. He left another message to call him the next day because he and dad were going out to the opera for the night.
The next day, I took a deep breath and called him back.
“When we got off the phone, I realized something else,” he said, “I was stung by your comment about doctoring during the AIDS epidemic.”
I knew exactly what he was talking about: after making the point that there are good reasons why parenting in the U.S. at this time is hard work, I went on to say that many satisfying human endeavors are hard work, and I used the example of being a doctor in San Francisco doing the AIDS epidemic. I concluded the paragraph with the sentence, “I don’t lean across the table and tell family members that they must be tired from hyper-doctoring.”
What the audience of this blog didn’t know is that mystep-father was a doctor during the AIDS epidemicin San Francisco. When he said he had been stung by my “hyper-doctoring” comment, I realized that indeed I had been pretty hurt by his “helicoptering” comment and that my pointed comment in the post was a passive aggressive rebuttal.
Which of course, is not a highly skilled way of handling relationship repair.
I breathed for a minute and kept listening. He told me how he felt. I let in what he was saying. Thanks to my husband Niels, I had learned a tiny bit about not self-defending. I apologized more than once. Real from-the-heart apologies. I could really see my misstep. And I could see that my first misstep had been in leaping over my own hurt and moving to action: blogging action. When I could have called and done what he did: said, “Wow, that stung.”
We spoke for a few more minutes, and at the end of the conversation he said, “We are going to make mistakes with one another, especially given how close our family is. It’s okay, we’re not perfect.”
I was flooded with love for him, and gratitude that he is in our family now, bringing a whole new set of skills to add to our living system of interconnected limbic brains. I’m 41, but hey, it’s never too late.
What has lingered with me most over the past few days is this: during the entire conversation, my stepdad’s tone of voice was tender. He was tender when he said I had stung him. He was tender when he asked me to step softly with him when talking about the AIDS epidemic. He was tender when he said it was okay for us to make mistakes with one another.
I am reminded of what my longtime hero Cornel West says: the public face of love is justice; the private face of love is tenderness.
And I am reminded of what psychologist Dianne Poole Heller said in a recent training: Tone of voice speaks directly into the amygdala in the human brain–the part of the brain responsible for discerning threat and quickly mobilizing the rest of the brain and nervous system into fight or flight. A high pitched voice, a loud booming voice, or a tight constricted voice, sends the amygdala the message that it’s time to self protect. A tender tone of voice transmits the opposite message: stay, listen, receive me, you are safe. If we can notice and adjust our tone of voice in conflict, we can set the stage to move through it and into deeper connection.
I learned this week something new about the art of loving from my stepdad: hard truth spoken with tenderness WELCOMES relationship repair.
Thank you, Farfar. I think we just got closer.