What I Want My Daughter to Know About How to Make a Brave Face

lonely

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“Make a scared face.”

It’s bedtime and my wife and I are in the bathroom with our six-year-old, Caitlin. She’s brushing her teeth, and I’m looking on, enjoying the banter, as my wife prompts Caitlin to make faces in the mirror.

Caitlin’s eyes grow wide and her mouth goes agape. “That’s not scared, that’s surprised,” her mother teases her. Caitlin giggles, smiling around the gap where her two front teeth used to be.

“Make a sad face.” Caitlin’s lower lip juts out and she bats her eyelashes repeatedly. “That’s not sad, that’s pouting!” her mother exclaims. Caitlin laughs again, knowing she got caught.

The life of a psychologist’s kid.

They continue to cycle through faces, each one some mixture of emotions and experiences, never quite pure, until I chime in, “Make a lonely face.”

Instantly, without thought, my daughter’s face goes dark, she turns her face not toward the mirror but away from it and from us, and she casts her eyes downward at the ground. My heart leaps into my eyes, where it takes liquid form. My wife’s breath catches in her throat, and a tender, “Oh,” escapes her lips.

Caitlin is six and she knows exactly what loneliness feels like.

And she knows exactly what we all do to make it worse.

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Why Healing Our Hearts Might Be Simpler Than We Think

broken heart

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I didn’t know the drinking glass was broken until I stepped on it.

My wife had dropped it a day earlier. It had shattered, and she had done a meticulous job of cleaning it up. But an impossibly small shard had wedged itself in the rug in front of the kitchen sink. Sticking straight up.

When my heel landed on it, the pain was exquisite.

It took a while for me to realize the shard was still in there, it took a while for my wife to dig it out, and it took while for the wound to heal—every step felt like I was wounding it all over again.

So, I started limping.

And it helped. It protected the wound from further injury and, within a week, my foot was healed. Because our bodies have been built to heal themselves.

Our hearts have been crafted that way, too.

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The Only Real Secret to a Healthy Marriage

The only real secret to a healthy marriage is to not have any secrets. In AA, they say our secrets make us sick. They’re right. And marriage is the place we learn how to empty ourselves of them…

marriage secrets

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I keep secrets from my wife.

Just last week, the kids were released early from school, due to a heat wave and old buildings with no air conditioning. While debriefing the shortened day, they mentioned their mom had taken them to an ice cream shop the day before after the early dismissal. It seemed like a random comment, but I’m sure it was strategic.

They know how to work me.

And I knew they didn’t need the sugar two days in a row, and I knew we didn’t need to spend the money, but who doesn’t want to be the cool-dad, especially when you’re married to a woman who’s always the cool-mom?

So, we piled in the car.

When we got home, I collected the empty ice cream cups, and I buried them deep in the garbage. I actually did that. Rearranged some dirty paper towels over the top of them. Like I was six years old again, sneaking a spoonful of fudge swirl from the freezer at 6am.

Of course, when I was six, I didn’t have three accomplices to spill the beans.

When my wife got home and asked about our afternoon, I didn’t mention the ice cream. But my partners in crime did. And I cringed. I cringed a little because I got caught. But I cringed a little more because marriage isn’t a place for secrets.

It’s a place for pouring them out.

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The Power of Friendship (When Friendship is a Verb)

The word “friend” is a derivative of the verb “freon,” which means, “To love.” A friend is a person. And a friend is a verb

friendship

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Two years ago, as my daughter was sprouting up through her fourth year of life, I was helping her put on a pair of jeans, and the waistband strained mightily. I asked her if she would like me to loosen it. She looked at me with puzzlement and asked, “Why?” So I found the stretchy strap inside the waistband and loosened it several notches.  I looked at her and asked, “Better?” This time, she looked at me with awe and she sighed,

“Oh my, that’s a lot of better.”

My daughter didn’t know how uncomfortable her pants were, because she didn’t know how comfortable they could feel. When dis-ease sets in like a slowly dripping faucet, we don’t notice it. We unconsciously adapt to it. This can happen to our pants. But it can also happen to our hearts.

We steadily, quietly get flooded by the almost imperceptible drip-drip of disinterest.

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How to Know Who Loves You Best

The people who love us best can’t read our mind. They don’t know what we’re going to say or do next. But when we say something or do something clumsy, they trust the goodness of who we are. They can read our heart

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It’s spring again in Illinois, and that means a lot of things—green-soft grass, pollen everywhere, thunderstorms, soccer games, and the countdown to summer. It also means a big empty box sitting in the foyer of my daughter’s preschool, advertising the countdown until the chicks hatch. We arrive at the school on day zero and peer over the edge of the box.

Nothing yet.

I ask her where the eggs are.

My daughter looks at me somberly and says, “The chicks didn’t have a momma, so we needed to keep them warm in an escalator.”

I think about telling her it’s called an incubator, but I know what she means and not every moment needs to be a teaching moment. I smile. She smiles and grabs my hand and we walk into her class together.

How do we know when we belong?

The people we belong to know what we mean.

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Why It’s Exhausting to Hide

It’s exhausting to hide who we truly are, because the true self is like a beach ball. It wants to float, and it takes an awful lot of work and energy to keep it pushed beneath the waves…

true self

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The cold brick dug into my forehead.

Spring 2005. Early morning. I’d walked out the back door of our small, third-floor apartment, and I was leaning my head against the brick wall on the outside landing. I was exhausted and I had all sorts of good excuses for that—a clinical internship, a young and struggling marriage, a sick baby—but the truth was, my false self was slowly killing me.

Or, rather, the work of maintaining my false self was killing me.

Building an image. Preserving a reputation. Appearing confident and competent. Keeping everyone happy with me. Feeling like I was never enough but always looking like I was more than enough. Falling apart but acting like I had it all together.

Utterly draining.

It’s tiring to hide your true self.

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The Fault in Our Scars

How often do we protest, “It’s not my fault,” both loudly with our tongues and silently in our hearts? Why do we hide our faults? And what if we quit protecting them, and started celebrating them?

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“It’s not my fault!”

The most popular phrase in our house.

My son has just accidentally opened the refrigerator door into the dishwasher door, which was hanging ajar, knocking the dishwasher backward, off the hardwood and onto the subflooring. It becomes a box of crashing porcelain and before I have a chance to say anything, he is denying responsibility.

I stare at him blankly, at a loss for words. I watched it happen. I saw him throw one door into another. Either he thinks I’m blind, or there’s more to his denial than meets the eye.

There’s more to his denial than meets the eye.

He’s seven and, already, he has scars.

When he declares, “It’s not my fault!” with his chin out and his eyes a little scared, he’s not saying he didn’t do it. Of course he did it. What he’s doing is fighting not to be wounded again. He’s asking to be absolved of the emotional consequences of his mistake. He’s saying, “I didn’t do it on purpose, so please don’t blame me or shame me or reject me or leave me feeling alone.”

The thesaurus lists these synonyms for fault: defect, error, evil doing, failing, flaw, frailty, guilt, liability, misconduct, misdeed, negligence, offence, transgression, vice, wrongdoing. Is it any wonder our kids deny responsibility for their innocent mistakes?

Is it any wonder we adults do the same?

Is it any wonder no one wants to be at fault for anything?

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The 5 Empathy Fails in Marriage (And How to Avoid Them)

Empathy is the foundation of any authentic connection. It’s the bedrock of togetherness, the fuel of compassion, and the mortar of grace. We must hone our ability to feel it and to give it. But empathy can be elusive, for at least five reasons…

empathy

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Dusk is closing in when I arrive home from work and walk in the back door.

Some nights, all is well when I get home—my wife is happy and the kids are smiling. But some nights, my wife is tired and worn thin after a long day at work and the onslaught of demands for food and attention. Some nights, my oldest son is anxious and fretting about homework and standardized testing. Some nights, my younger son is distraught about the inevitable injustices of a middle child. Some nights, my daughter will settle for nothing less than a Daddy mirror—a father who will show his interest by reflecting all her energy and joy.

Some nights, everyone wants a little empathy and, some nights, I don’t want to give it.

Some nights, I get home, and I want someone to notice how tired I am, to soothe my anxiety, to correct the injustices done to me, and to mirror me. I could embrace my fatigue, fear, anger, and neediness as common emotional ground and I could reach out and connect in the midst of that shared experience.  But, some nights, I don’t.

Because even for psychologists, empathizing with the people we love is hard to do. And it’s particularly hard to empathize with the person we’ve promised to love for better or worse, for at least five reasons:

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Curiosity May Have Killed the Cat But It Saves Relationships

Good communication is easy, but curious communication is anything but easy. And it may be the difference maker in every relationship. Because words matter, but they mean something different to everybody…

marriage

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It’s about a hundred degrees below zero, as my daughter and I get out of the car at her preschool on a winter Wednesday morning. She grabs my hand, I look at her, and I say, “Let’s run into the warm building!”

She won’t budge.

She looks at me like I’m crazy.

“That’s not a building,” she says in a severe teacherly tone, as if she’s the one who’s almost forty and I’m the one who’s just getting started.

I’ve already lost feeling in my toes and I’m pretty sure the skin on my face will never be the same, but I’m curious about how her little brain works, so instead of arguing and pulling her along like a fish on a line, I ask, “If that’s not a building, what is it?”

“Daddy,” she says, “that’s not a building; that’s a school.”

Now all feeling is gone from my fingers, too, but my curiosity gets the best of me again.

“So, what is a building?”

A lopsided smile appears on her face. She doesn’t say, “Duh,” but it’s implied. “Daddy, a building is a place you go to work.”

Oh.

Then she drags me inside like a fish on a line.

Words matter. But they mean something different to each of us. Which can be a small problem in a parking lot, but a much bigger problem in a marriage or partnership or friendship or any meaningful relationship of any kind.

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The One True Thing About the Perfect Valentine’s Date

Is that it doesn’t exist. Because the perfect Valentine’s date doesn’t seek perfection. It seeks reality. It acknowledges who we are as individuals and where we are as couples. Which means, the most loving Valentine’s date could happen in a restaurant. Or in a therapist’s office…

perfect Valentine's date

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I’m a marital therapist

And I’ve worked on Valentine’s night.

While couples across the world were dining by candlelight, riding in carriages, and sprinkling rose petals—attempting to orchestrate the perfect evening and the most romantic moment—I’ve sat with couples in the midst of their pain and sorrow. On the most romantic night of the year, I’ve sat with lovers while they got as honest as possible about who they are, turned over rocks most people won’t even look at, fought to forgive, and dug deep to find empathy and intimacy.

On the most romantic night of the year, I’ve sat with couples while they got real.

In other words, I’ve been a witness to the most Romantic Valentine’s dates of all.

Yes, that’s Romance with a capital R.

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