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Could Couples Therapy Really Save Us?

1 Mar

An honest look at what can—and can’t—improve because of couples therapy.

Originally published on YourTango.com

 
Going to couples therapy wasn’t something my boyfriend or I had to wrangle the other into. Our rough patch was more like a slick of black ice, and we were careening towards a precipitous ending. We had moved in together almost a year earlier, and couples therapy seemed easier than breaking up. It would at least buy us time to figure out how to split our belongings while I looked for my own place in New York City.

I went into counseling thinking Ryan had to change. If he didn’t fix at least eight of the things that were wrong with him, I was out. What were my issues? Everything. An aspiring actor, Ryan had no job security, no savings account or 401(k), and a penchant for buying every new electronic gadget on the market. He lives and breathes sports, while I swore I’d never date a jock. He can stew for an entire day if the Red Sox lose a game—an act I deem ridiculous and infantile. Why don’t you try dealing with your real life for a change? I’d think. I accused him of being a man-child who slept all day and didn’t know what responsibility meant.

Meanwhile, I had a great-paying job that I despised, and managed to sock away 30 percent of my income into savings and retirement. Ryan said my planning for the future got in the way of enjoying the present. His proof: I would buy a purse for $150, let it sit in my closet for 29 days, and then, overcome with spender’s guilt, return it for a refund the next day. But, I reasoned, the world is far too consumed with materialism and I didn’t want to be sucked into it.

When we called to make the appointment Dr. Schaffer said her schedule was full, but she would have an opening in a month. I wondered what led to her calendar freeing up. Did couples leave happy and cured, with a better understanding of each other? Or did they exit just as disgruntled as when they walked in? Maybe sitting together in a room for an hour week after week was all the confirmation husbands and wives needed to finalize their divorce. I toyed with asking what her success rate was but instead accepted the appointment and hung up.

An hour before our first session, I left work at and walked the two miles to Dr. Schaffer’s office. I wanted time to clear my head and expel my nervous energy. I was scared and didn’t know what to expect. Would she pit us against each other? Would she take my side or his? What if she liked Ryan better than me? We’d been seething for weeks. Who knew what was going to come up? By the time I got there, I was shaking and sweating.

The waiting room was beige—beige walls, beige carpet. If there were pictures on the walls, I didn’t register them. Ryan was sitting in one of the chairs (beige), playing with his iPhone. He looked up when I walked in, and we gave each other a tight-lipped half-smile half-grimace. I wanted to be mad at him, but instead I felt surprising relief.

Before we entered therapy, it never occurred to me that maybe I needed to do some work on myself as well. The first thing I said as we sat down in her office should have clued me in.

“You should know that I don’t usually like therapists, so you’re going to have to earn my trust,” I said. (If she scribbled anything on her notepad it was undoubtedly, “intimacy issues”.) It wasn’t meant to be bitchy. I thought of it as a helpful FYI. This was a business relationship, after all, and I wanted to be as efficient as possible. Yes, I also have control issues. But in my defense, my boyfriend’s are worse. And at that stage in the game, everything was a competition. In my head, I was winning.

We started seeing Dr. Schaffer every Monday. Liking her turned out to be the easy part. In our minds, we’d won the psychologist jackpot—she was funny, compassionate, illuminating and sarcastic. But couples therapy is not one of those things that you look forward to on a weekly basis, no matter how many times you’ve been or how great your shrink is. It’s more like going to the gym. You do it because it’s good for you. You talk about things that in normal conversation you might gloss over—like stinging details from childhood or fears about the people you both might become. Sometimes it makes you feel great. Other times, it’s agonizing.

During one particularly wrenching hour we talked about Ryan growing up without his dad, and how he felt he had to take care of his mother. He was embarrassed by how emotional he felt, like he should have been over it. At that moment Dr. Schaffer turned to me and said, “Jill, is this hard for you to hear? How is this affecting you?” When I tried to express how sad I felt for him I began sobbing. Then she asked Ryan, who was also fighting back tears, what it was like to see me react this way.

The point wasn’t to make us dredge up the past, or to put us on the spot. Ryan and I were uncomfortable letting the other person see us at our most vulnerable, which is probably why we didn’t talk about these kinds of things in the first place. But bringing tough things to light and acknowledging how they shaped us helped forge a bond. I was reminded of the pain Ryan’s been through, admired the person he’s become, and felt more protective of him—which may or may not have been the objective. It didn’t make us any less cynical, and we certainly didn’t start broaching soul-searching issues nightly over dinner, but it did bring us closer—and maybe even made us a little less fearful of intimacy as well.

The thing is, we’ve all got baggage that influences how we think other people should behave and therapy kind of clues us in to why we hold onto these beliefs. It helps our partner understand where we’re coming from and teaches us both how to respect each other’s points of view. No one is right. No one is wrong. And it’s impossible to get your therapist to choose a side. (Secretly, I think she’s with me on Ryan’s sports obsession, and I’m sure it has nothing to do with the fact that she’s a Yankees fan).

A year later, we’re still in therapy, but no longer in crisis mode. In fact, we’re thinking about inviting Dr. Schaffer to our wedding. I quit the job that I hated. Ryan started a savings account. And, believe it or not, I even watch Red Sox games and enjoy them—on our new 50-inch plasma TV.

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Sitting at a Desk All Day Is Worse Than We Thought

1 Mar

Why your job is slowly killing you — and what you can do about it

Originally published on iVillage.com

About six years ago, I worked in an office where my boomingly loud cubicle mate would take his phone calls standing up to avoid, as he said, “a flat, flabby ass.” Though it made me and my neighbors want to kick him in the aforementioned body part, it turns out he was onto something more than just maintaining a bootylicious butt.

If you spend all day sitting at a desk, like the majority of American workers do, what you suspected all along is true: Your job could in fact be killing you.

Research shows that the amount of time you spend sitting or lying down is strongly connected to your risk of heart disease, obesity, diabetes and an early demise. Even worse, meeting the federal guidelines for exercise (30 minutes a day of moderate activity) doesn’t really help much if the rest of your day looks like this (give or take the lute).

Basically, those of us who spend more than 23 hours a week in sedentary positions have a 64 percent greater risk of dying from heart disease than those who sit on their duffs for 11 hours or less a week. The reason: When sitting for long periods of time, your brain tells the body to shut down. Your metabolism slows down, your body stops burning fat. In a word, it’s ugly.

I work from home, hunched over a computer for most hours of the day — alone. My commute involves a few steps from my bedroom to my office, and I have no one beckoning me to meetings throughout the day. I also hate to be interrupted — especially by my bladder. I’ve even been known to avoid drinking water — cracked lips, dry throat and all — if it means I don’t have to move until my assignment is done. In a nutshell, I’m effed, and probably already half-dead. Which is why I’ve been trying to talk my husband into letting me get a $2,500 treadmill desk. So far, despite my pleas from the deathtrap formerly known as my desk, he’s not biting.

So, what’s an ambitious working girl who routinely logs 50 hours a week in front of her computer supposed to do? Well, don’t take this information lying down. Instead, become that annoying coworkerwho can’t sit still for an hour. Researchers have found that taking one-minute breaks that activate your muscles at least once an hour will keep your body from falling into a vegetative state. Do a jig, walk around the office, refill your water bottle or be the crazy colleague who does planks in the hallway. Or, use a stability ball as a chair to help engage your core.

And secondly, don’t give up on your fitness routine. Even if a visit to the gym won’t counteract the effects of sitting all day, the more active we are, the better our chances are at staving off a flabby ass and a bum heart.

If your boss grumbles about your lunchtime escapes to yoga class or your newfound penchant for roaming the office corridors, bite your tongue, because what she doesn’t know could hurt her — and if you aren’t too fond of her, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Digital Rules for Relationships

1 Mar

Originally published on YouBeauty.com

Technology, like most things in life—food, TV, super powers—can be used for good or for evil. Our beloved on-the-go gadgets can be a boon for relationships: They help us find each other in a crowded room; send a sweet message when we’re too busy to talk; and see each other’s faces when we’re half a world away. But as much as our devices can help bring us together, they can also drive a wedge in the strongest of relationships.

“Mobile technology makes it easier than ever to be distracted from your partner’s needs. It’s important to make an effort to get disconnected from school, work, and social media and just be present with our partners. This is hard to do when our gadgets are buzzing and flashing all the time,” explains David A. Sbarra, Ph.D., YouBeauty Relationship Expert and a psychology professor at the University of Arizona.

It’s Not a Competition, But Facebook Is Winning

Marriage therapist Rachel Sussman, LCSW, author of “The Breakup Bible,” hears this complaint all too often in her practice. Technology, it seems, creates a competitive atmosphere where significant others often lose out to their partner’s Twitter and Facebook feeds. “The instant gratification of someone reaching out to you can, in some ways, be more enticing for the brain than your regular interpersonal relationships.”

Research bears this out. A recent survey of mobile phone users by Telenav found that 33 percent would rather give up sex than their smart phone for a week. What’s more, 28 percent said they’d go a week without seeing their significant other before forfeiting their iPhone.

Luckily, we don’t have to choose between our mate and our gizmos; relationship experts like Sussman believe ditching our digital devices isn’t the answer especially since they help us manage the more mundane aspects of our relationship to make room for more quality time together.

Using Technology for Quality Time

Editor Melissa Milrad Goldstein likes to joke that she and her husband rarely have time to coordinate their calendars so they send each other Outlook invites: “Dinner with your wife, tonight: accept or decline.” Though some people may cringe at the thought of using a meeting request to book a romantic date with their spouse, it’s an example of how technology can facilitate intimacy, says T. Scott Gross, author of “Invisible,” and a consumer research expert who studies the habits of Gen X and Y. “We’re redefining intimacy. It doesn’t mean we’re less intimate. It just means this is the technology that we now use to communicate,” he explains.

Gross cites an example from a recent focus group he conducted. “A woman in her 30s said her husband isn’t the talkative type, but he does like to text. Two or three times a day, he’ll say, ‘I love you, babe.’ That’s intimate for him and she’s learned to make that intimate for her,” says Gross.

When Digital Opposites Attract

But what if what works for one half of the couple doesn’t work for the other? Technology has given us so many different ways to communicate—Facebook, texting, instant messaging, phone calls, email— that we’re bound to butt heads when our partner doesn’t use our preferred method.

Susan Maushart, Ph.D., journalist and author of  “The Winter of Our Disconnect,” suspected a burgeoning relationship wouldn’t work out when she realized her partner’s idea of staying in touch was sending a quick text. “I’m more of the one-hour-minimum phone call-type,” she says.

You don’t have to be on the same page digitally if you’re compatible in other ways, says “Take Back Your Marriage” author William Doherty, Ph.D., professor of family social science and director of the marriage and family therapy program at the University of Minnesota. “Accept that people have preferred and uncomfortable ways of connecting.”

“Digital incompatibilities don’t have to be a real problem if we accept each other’s differences and find a middle ground,” says Doherty. Instead of saying, “I don’t know why you can’t do this,” ask, “how can we compromise in some way?” For the spouse that dislikes the phone, perhaps that solution is keeping calls brief, or having your partner ask if now is an OK time.

In fact, says Doherty, digital incompatibility can actually be a good thing if it gets couples to lay down some laws on how and when it’s appropriate to use your devices. If both people are buried in their phones and neither has a problem with it, “there will be less tension, but they may also slowly drift apart. Complaining is actually a good sign,” he says.

Digital Rules to Live—and Love—By

While Sbarra, Doherty and Sussman all concede that what works for one couple isn’t going to work for everyone, here are a few digital ground rules they believe can help establish the basis of a healthy digital duo:

  • Impose tech-free zones: Keep gadgets out of the bedroom and off of the dinner table. Never keep your devices out when you’re on a date or in the company of guests. If you’re waiting on an important call, explain when you first sit down why you may need to leave it out, but don’t look at it otherwise, says Sussman.
  • Keep multitasking to a minimum: Train your brain to be content with one distraction at a time. If you’re watching TV, put away the laptop, iPad or phone.
  • Disconnect daily: Maushart, who pulled the plug on her family for six months, suggests carving out time together. Find a routine—something you can count on—for disconnecting with your gadgets and reconnecting with your partner or spouse.
  • Stifle your Pavlovian response: Don’t automatically react to your phone, says research psychologist Larry Rosen, Ph.D., author of “iDisorder.” From a neurological point of view, if you’re checking your phone 20 times a day or responding to it every time someone comments on your status, it’s going to over-activate parts of your brain, so that you’re thinking about it even when you’re not logged on.
  • Work out disagreements in person: It’s too easy to shoot off an angry text that you might later regret, says Sbarra. It’s a cop-out that keeps couples from having real discussions. “By avoiding them, you’re not fostering change that would bring you closer as a couple,” says Sussman. Gadgets encourage superficial exchanges, and only by digging in deeply can you forge meaningful connections.

Playtex Wants Your Vagina to Smell Like Bubblegum

1 Mar

Originally published on iVillage.com

Ladies, do you ever get that not-so-fresh feeling? Cue embarrassed teen on the beach with her mom. If you grew up in the ’80s like me, you’ll know I’m referring to those douche commercials that left an indelible impression upon my brain that said My. Vagina. Stinks.

You never see douche ads anymore because the consensus is that shooting chemical-laced water up into your vajayjay does more harm than good. But in its place have sprung a host of other products that urge a little spring-cleaning for your nether regions, like Playtex’s new Fresh & Sexy pre- and post-coital wipes. You know, because the natural scent of your lady bits is so off-putting to men that you need to freshen up before doing the deed.

At this moment, you’re probably having PTSD flashbacks to the time your guy was like, “oh, hell no, I can’t do this, because your vagina smells like — a vagina.” Oh, wait, that never happened because most (heterosexual) dudes, as it turns out, actually enjoy the scent of a woman. Flash to a guy telling another guy to smell his fingers — it’s pretty much a bro’s badge of honor.

I checked in with my husband about it and he agreed: A woman is more worried about how she smells down there than a guy is. And if you really do have some stink going on, well, you’re either not showering as much as you should be or had better hightail it to your gynecologist.

We did, however, come up with one suitable demographic for Fresh & Sexy: professional escorts. If sex is your business, and you’re going door-to-door, you probably don’t have time for a bubble bath between customers, and might want to give yourself a good wipe-down with these.

These Fresh & Sexy wipes are nothing more than overpriced baby wipes whose packaging — and scent — remind us of chewing gum. Seriously, I’m tired of companies trying to Febreze my vagina like it’s a dirty couch cushion. Manufacturers, take note: We don’t need scented tampons, pantiliners, intimate wash or post-coital wipes. Maybe if we weren’t fed so much crap about how unsuitable our vaginas are for intimacy, we might be able to relax a little more in the sack and focus on enjoying it.

And, by the way, Playtex, your product just came out. Do you really have four five-star reviews on Amazon from guys who have only reviewed football jerseys up until now? Just saying, it smells a little fishy to us.

My name is Jill…

11 Jul

…and I’m a hypochondriac. I became a health editor probably for the same reason some people go vegan, to live a healthier than thou existence: “White rice? Do you really expect me to eat white rice? Why don’t you sprinkle arsenic on my spinach while you’re at it?”

It was always gratifying to read the latest nutrition headlines and be able to say, “oh, yeah, I’ve been doing that for ages.” Blueberries in the morning with flaxseed and Greek yogurt. Salad with chicken, apples and avocado — no dressing — for lunch. Fish, fish and more fish for dinner. You get the point. But lately, every health article I read is scaring the hell out of me.

First there was the article, originally titled A Deadly Twist, in Self magazine that chiropractics can cause arterial tears and strokes. Then, I came across the other article in Self saying the same thing can happen from yoga. Would you care to guess what happened the next time I went to my gym class and overdid it on ab work? I thought I was having a stroke. My stroke triggered a panic attack, which resembled all the signs of a stroke, thus pushing me further and further into the I’m Dying abyss. Good times.

After I finally convinced myself that my symptoms could be caused by nerves (thank you, John Sarno), I looked up panic attacks online. Bad, bad idea. Did you know that panic attacks can actually raise blood pressure and trigger all sorts of cardiac events, like, for instance, a stroke?

So now, I have been carefully monitoring what articles I allow myself to read. Lyme disease? Too fucking scary and impossible to avoid. Basically, if my eye is drawn to the article out of morbid fascination, I have to push myself on to the next article. While it might help my emotional well-being, it really is doing nothing for my job as a health writer. Check back in a year, and please feel free to stab my eyes out if I’m writing about the best way to apply lip gloss (which, fyi, increases your susceptibility to skin cancer. Not that I’m paranoid or anything).

All Part of a Healthy Breakfast

30 Jun

In an attempt to pretend I’m eating a healthy breakfast, I have added almond slices and flaxseed to my Cookie Crisp cereal. It’s kind of like saying “It’s okay that I had sex with a prostitute, honey. I used a condom.”

I am seriously delusional.

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Anatomy of a Workout

29 Jun

Me as I dragged my ass down the street to Crunch yesterday: Dear gym, I hate you. Lovelessly and resentfully, my body.

Me upon entering the gym: Why is there always a line at the counter? Of course the desk girl doesn’t have any towels out. “Can I have a large towel, please?” Instead of handing me one of the nicely folded towels that she has stacked behind the counter, out of reach, she wades through the basket of unfolded ones and pulls out a small one. Whoops. Puts it back. Reaches in again. Pulls out another small one. Puts it back in. Reaches in a third time. Pulls out another small one. Are you for real? Then I realize what she’s doing. Are you so lazy that you can’t give me a towel that’s already folded because it takes away from the work you’ve done? God forbid you have to FOLD AN EXTRA TOWEL on my account. We are at a gym you know. Jesus, burn a calorie or two. Grrr. Fourth time in, she pulls out a large one. Halle-fucking-lujah. I snatch it and storm off. Uh-oh, am I becoming one of those self-important New Yorkers for whom everything is an inconvenience? Fuck.

Oh, hooray. Machines galore. But, damn, those ellipticals are pushed closely together. I’m going to be rubbing sweaty elbows with the girl next to me. I sigh and hop on, hoping the peeps on either side of me don’t reek of b.o.

Four minutes in: Grumble. Booooooring. Is this almost over?

Six minutes in: Okay, this isn’t so bad. Wait, I’ve only been on here for six minutes? Fuck. I’ve got so much stuff to do.

Eight minutes in: Oh, hello, body, is that you? I didn’t recognize you without the couch attached to your ass. I’m sorry I’ve been neglecting you.

Ten minutes in: Man, I can do anything.

Twenty minutes in: Fuck you, world, ain’t no one going to hold me back.

Thirty minutes in: Whoo! I am one strong motherfucker! I’m never getting off this machine. Just try and make me. Uh-huh, that’s what I thought. I wouldn’t want to mess with me, either.

Thirty-five minutes in: Take that (gasp, gasp), stress… (gasp). I showed you.

On the way home: God, I love exercise. What would I do without it? Note to self: remember how good it feels to work out.

Next day: I am so not going to the gym today. No, no, no, you can’t make me. I’m in control of my body and I say no, I’m not going.

On the way to gym: I hate you, gym. I. Hate. You.

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