Author Archives: davidr

The Catch-22 of Being a Caretaker

I think most of you would agree that nothing is life is all black or all white, though for many people, it feels like there is only one side to a situation. Rather, most things in life fall into a gray area.

Of course, when people only see one aspect of a situation, I believe it can cause them to get stuck in potential difficulties. As an old parable goes, it’s important to be able to see all parts of the elephant to understand with what it is you’re dealing.

Being a caretaker, I believe, takes a special person. It’s not easy to put yourself out for others. It often means putting aside your needs to care for another.

Today, this term is often associated with someone who’s taking care of another person who’s chronically ill. A lot’s written about what a stressful situation this is. Indeed, it is. Basically, such a person is now responsible for the welfare of two people — the person who’s ill and for him or herself.

As such, the demands become overwhelming and often lead to a condition called burnout. It’s not atypical for this person to predecease the sick individual. It’s often suggested that the caretaker make sure that he or she is taking measures for self-care as well.

But caretakers are not limited to this type of scenario only. In general, there are individuals who make sure they are available to others in times of need. They go out of their way to ensure that the comfort and well-being of others are provided for. This can be done through acts of kindness or providing emotional support. They are the ones who are there whenever needed.

I started to think more carefully about these “heroic” individuals recently as a result of both a personal experience with a friend and hearing a story from a client. I would classify both as caretakers.

When it comes to their needs, they have trouble asking for assistance. Not only that … they have difficulty taking the assistance when it’s offered. Not atypical of other patterns in our adult lives, it seems that the caretaking role is really a result of a pattern learned in childhood that’s been carried over.

For these individuals, and I’d guess for others like them, it’s far easier to give of themselves than to take. In fact, it’s downright uncomfortable for them to be on the receiving end. My best guess is that, as children, they weren’t accustomed to getting from their parents and so, it’s hard to do so as adults.

But … this really does make for a Catch-22, I believe. It’s hard to always be giving and not getting back. Eventually, it has to feel like you’re getting used or ripped off. It has to lead to a sense of “not fair.”

I’ll go even one step further … as the friend of a person like this, it feels really uneasy to me to never sense that I can do for her. My experience of our friendship is that it is unbalanced.

So, caretakers, as a gift for yourself … allow yourself to be take care of – at least once in a while!

Small Things Add Up in Your Relationship

As a relationship expert, understanding the nuances of how people behave, especially in response to one another is particularly fascinating to me. When people come to my office, most of them are able to tell me what event(s) has molded them or upset them. These are usually the big events … the ones that are easy to point to.

So, it’s without difficulty that you raise the harsh or insensitive remark made by your mate. It’s understandable that you’d be hurt because your partner forgot to ask about something important going on in your life. Or, naturally, if you’ve found out that your significant other has lied to you in some manner, it’s going to cause a breach in trust.

However, being an observer of human behavior, I’ve come to realize how very often there is disruption in the partnership due to circumstances that are far more subtle; ones that are not quite so discernible.

I think it would be fair to refer to these as butterfly effects. Wikipedia defines the butterfly effect in the following way: “Small differences in the initial condition of a dynamical system [which] may produce large variations in the long term behavior of the system.”

Let me offer you two real situations taken from my clients, who will, of course remain anonymous. A wife, who’s always been the initiator sexually starts to feel that she’d like to have her spouse be more proactive. She announces that she’s no longer going to be the one to make the first move. He has a negative reaction to this, but never lets her know … nor does he change his behavior of ten years.

The result is that she assumes she’s not desirable since he hasn’t made any advances and she, in response, withdraws; he feels her pulling back. This never gets discussed. Two years later for no apparent reason, he cheats on her! When we process this, her initiating always made him feel special. When she withdrew, he needed the attention.

Here’s another situation. The male was in a situation where he was going to sell his business. It was a very difficult time for him and his wife had some serious concerns about it. However, she never expressed them to him. Though she chose not to because she felt that if she did it would be construed as intrusive, he took it to mean that she didn’t care or didn’t want to be involved. Following her lead, he didn’t talk to her which led to a major point of disconnection in their relationship.

Initially, it was the wife who told the story, and she was very hurt and angry at feeling excluded by her husband. It was easy for her to point out both the triggering incident and the reaction that resulted from it. However, not until we looked closely at the more subtle details, did she realize how her behavior had affected the larger picture.

Small behaviors really can have large influences. It’s important that when you reflect on things that have gone awry in your relationship that you consider all possible contributors, not necessarily just the ones that stand out like a neon sign.

On the flip side, also know that small positive behaviors can also have a major consequence on your partnership. You don’t even have to wait for your partner to do something to get a change to occur. I very much believe in the idea of Action = Reaction; that is, if you start to act a certain way, your partner will respond in kind. (On this website, there’s a free 3-week program based on this principle that will get your relationship back on track).

Reactions from the Past can Block Empowerment

Though many of you may not be aware of physical sensations in your body and may not even really know what your emotions are, it doesn’t mean that you don’t have them. As a matter of fact, I’d venture to say that all of us are experiencing emotions all the time … it’s just that some of you are not able to recognize what you’re feeling.

Another issue is that many of you are having emotions … strong emotions. Often, it’s as if these emotions are bursting out without rhyme or reason. Well, at the time that they occur, they do seem to make sense but you don’t really have control of them. It’s almost like they have a mind of their own – though emotions are anything but mindful.

Generally, the kind of situation I’m describing is when you feel as if your buttons have been pushed. Said another way, you feel like you’ve gotten grabbed. Some clients tell me that they actually feel like they were possessed! Can you relate to this?

The technical name for this type of reaction is called an implicit memory. Lots of things happen to you throughout your lives. You take in experiences all the time that you’re not necessarily paying attention to. However, these subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) experiences go into your memory bank. Sometime later, if there’s another situation that “feels” the same to you, it will trigger you into reacting as you would have years ago. Since you can’t actually recall the initial situation, you think you’re reacting to what just happened.

Without knowing about this, you’re not functioning from an Empowered place. If you continue to have these reactions, it will not allow you to become all that you can. However, as you learn about yourself, you are indeed moving on your journey to Empowerment.


Dr. Karen


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Love Yourself for Who You Are to Have an Empowered Relationship

There are so many topics that I plan to cover to help you have an Empowered Relationship with yourself.  I truly believe that the relationship you have with yourself is the most important one you have.  It is from this vital relationship that all others follow.

Most of the time, when people refer to relationships, they are thinking about significant others.  Of course, these are important.  But, for me, relationships go far beyond that.  They also include the interactions you have with everyone in your life … your parents, your siblings, your friends, even your neighbors and strangers!

I also very much believe that the best way to enhance relationships is through a sense of consciousness and love.  I’ll be addressing these topics in future blogs.  But, for today, let me just keep to the idea of the relationship you have with you.

You can’t give to someone else what you don’t have.  So, what that means is that if you don’t love yourself, it will be difficult to extend this feeling to someone else.  I’m not speaking about narcissism.  Rather, I’m referring to having a positive self-regard.

Sadly, too many of you still lack a good sense of self-regard or self-esteem. And though at this point in your lives, it many not be your fault, I do feel that it is your responsibility to be aware of how you feel about yourself … and then do something to improve your sense of self.  Of course, it is my great desire to offer my thoughts and insights to help you in that journey.

So, here’s the first insight.  No one is perfect.  Now, no doubt, you’ve heard that before.  But really it’s true.  You’re not perfect and neither am I.  But so what?  I even admit this to my clients and no one, no – no one, has ever run out of my office upon learning this information.

The trick, though, is that I accept this about myself.  I know that there are some parts of me that are just not that great.  And then there are the parts that are really terrific.  Once, you can come to this understanding and value yourself for who you are (warts and all), it allows you to focus on the strong points and let them flourish.  What you focus on will grow even more and you have started your process towards Your Empowered Relationship!

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How To Get Your Spouse To See A Therapist

You’ve recognized that your marriage could use some professional help, here’s how to get your spouse on board.

First, let me commend you on the fact that you’re looking to get help for your marriage—great! Many people are apprehensive to seek the assistance of a professional because they perceive a stigma attached to it; something along the lines of, “There must really be something wrong with me if I have to go see a therapist.” Sadly, this is an unfortunate commentary on our societal belief system.

So how do we get your spouse to join in? If when you raise the issue, your spouse has a bad reaction, I would first recommend letting the issue go for a little while. It’s never a good idea to try to force something on someone when their “back is up.”

After a little while, when things have calmed down and the two of you are in “a good place” with each other, broach the subject again raising it as something that is very important for the two of you.

Since everyone is different, there may be any number of reasons that might be given as to why he or she is hesitant to seek help. Let me offer some typical possibilities, as well as the ways you can respond.

  1. Your spouse doesn’t think anything is wrong with the relationship that the two of you can’t work on together.

    Let your partner know that you believe the two of you really are doing the best you can and want the marriage to work, but that you don’t feel as connected as you could be. Ask him/her to honestly assess if that feeling exists for them as well. Do not put blame on your spouse, but rather acknowledge that both of you need to learn better ways to respond to each other.

  2. Your spouse may have heard that another couple has gone for marriage therapy only to end up divorced.

    You might be surprised to learn research has indicated many times that therapists who attempt to offer traditional types of marriage therapy are not successful in keeping a couple together. It has been shown, however, when an educational, skills-based model is used, there is far greater success. Make sure when you speak to a possible therapist before you set up an appointment, you inquire as to whether the person employs an educational skills based technique.

  3. Your spouse raises a concern about not having the finances for marital counseling.

Suggest that you are willing to look at where else your budget can be slimmed down since this is such an important item. Note that you can try to find someone who is in your insurance network or ask the therapist if he or she works on a sliding scale.

If you are still met with resistance, all is not lost. Sometimes, people feel more comfortable in a setting that is not one-on-one. There are many good weekend retreats that work on marriages. I would suggest you look at the Married Life Events calendar or for comprehensive listings of such offerings.

There are also some wonderful books that I would recommend: Dr. Sue Johnson’s, “Hold Me Tight,” Patricia Love & Steven Stosny’s, “How to Improve Your Marriage Without Talking About It” and Gary Chapman’s, “The Five Languages of Love.”

Finally, I am a firm believer that very often you can change your marriage around if only one person makes a change. The reason for this is because if one person does things differently, very often the other person will start to react differently. It’s the principle of action is equal toreaction.

Some people need to get their feet wet before they can jump in, so to speak. Perhaps, after trying some of the more benign methods, if you still need some assistance from a counselor, your spouse will be more willing to go.

I hope these suggestions will get you going—and again, you’ve taken a wonderful first step by wanting to make a change!

Give Me Space!

Even the best relationships need space from time to time. Try these tips for turning the cling factor around

Question: I’m in a great relationship with a great woman, but I need some space. Do you have any advice?

Answer: The situation you raise is a case of good news and bad news. First the bad news: this is probably one of the most typical scenarios between couples, and most men get really frustrated, just like you. And now the good news: there is a way to understand what’s happening and turn things around.

You might be surprised to know this type of “dance” — guys needing space, and their partner coming after them — is really a biological gender issue. That’s right, she’s not just being a pest (and I might add to women, your man is not just tuning you out).

New research has found that women are designed to react more emotionally. Men, on the other hand, will have a negative response to too much stimulation. Starting to see where this is going? A woman gets upset, she reacts emotionally, it’s too much stimulation for the man, he does something to create space, she feels he’s pulling away and goes after him, which only provokes his need for more space. And so on and so on.

By not understanding the other gender, each person is creating his/her own interpretation from his/her perspective. So, to a man, it feels like a woman just won’t leave him alone — but he’s not leaving her, he’s just creating some breathing room. A woman, feeling far more comfortable with emotions and closeness, attributes a man’s desire for space as his not caring or pulling away from her. Therefore, she makes various gestures in an attempt to reconnect.

So, how do you handle this endless cycle?

  1. Understand that the genders are truly different in their styles, and the actions taken are not intentionally meant to hurt the other.
  2. Men: When you need to take some space, let your wife know that you are merely taking a “time-out” for a little while.
  3. Women: Allow your man to have some breathing room. Don’t assume his leave-taking is anything more than temporary.
  4. Men: Women are verbal creatures. They like to hear words of reassurance.
  5. Women: Don’t just tell him you’re sorry. Men like actions, not words. Don’t follow him around the house and you’ll see how much sooner he returns.
  6. Men: Be willing to listen to your partner. When a woman feels “heard,” she has less of a need to go on and on.
  7. Women: When speaking to a man, make your point directly and speak briefly, since he doesn’t feel comfortable with too much stimulation.

All That Glitters Is Not Gold

I truly believe that life offers you lessons all the time. What is significant, of course, is whether you pick up the lesson or not. Sadly, too many times, you only pay attention to the big lessons … the ones that hit you in the face like a cold pail of water.

Recently, I encountered a life lesson that I wanted to share with you. Though it’s a bit of a playful topic, there’s also a point that can be drawn from the situation. It all centers around my birthday — usually a day that gets duly noted.

A birthday tale

This year was not a milestone year. Since there was not anything I felt I needed or wanted, I have to consider myself especially blessed. However, because birthdays are a big deal to me, I wasn’t going to just let is pass with no gift. Therefore, I spent many hours truly surveying in my mind if there was something I’d regret not getting.

I finally decided that I’d request a Blackberry. Now many of you gals may be screaming, “Jewelry, jewelry you fool.” But there was not item of bling that called to me and a Blackberry was something I felt I wouldn’t go out and get for myself.

I did research on different products; I made inquiry of the younger generation since they are so far superior in knowledge in this “techie” world; and my husband even escorted me to a store to gain further information (so he felt like he was part of the gift-giving process).

I was just about set on this item being my birthday gift when I had a revelation: I’d forgotten that I wanted to reset my tennis bracelet! Now, as a point of information, I’ve really come a long way. I actually did the research again about the type of setting I wanted and found the best jeweler to go to. In years past, my doing all this work on my on behalf would be out of the question.

So, in the end, I was to get a beautiful newly set diamond bracelet for my birthday that my spouse told me he would pick up. Since it took me so long to decide, the bracelet was to be a few days late and … I was actually okay with that. Since the motto goes, “Diamonds are a girl’s best friend, you’d think this was the end of the story … but the best is yet to come.

The best

A few days after my birthday, my husband and I were sitting at a diner having a bite to eat. At the end of the meal, he said, “I have something for you, something that goes on your wrist.” As excited as I was, I objected, “Oh no, not here — it’s not really the right setting.” But he came back with, “But I really want to give it to you” and proceeds to pull out a small package from his pocket.

Well, the process is in the works … I’ve got to go with it. I open it up to see an elasticized funky looking bracelet made out of beads placed on safety pins. The overall look is gold and silver. Perhaps you’ve seen what I’m talking about. It doesn’t matter because the point is I absolutely loved the bracelet!

My husband is an Associate Director of a local day camp. When he saw that they were making these bracelets in Arts & Crafts, he asked that one be made for me. He did this without asking if I’d like one. He did this knowing it was my taste. He chose the color combination realizing it would go with a lot of what I wear. He did this as a total surprise! Now I ask you ladies, “Does it get better than this?”

So, the diamond bracelet came a few days later presented in a lovely box in a restaurant with a very nice ambiance. It sparkles a lot and I really think that it is beautiful. But it is truly hard to say which one means more to me.

The lesson? As I’ve so often suggested in the advice I offer, the love you give your partner to let him or her know he or she matters can be done in lots of small ways. It is the little things that count.

Virginia Tech – A Loss for All of Us

This has been a sad week for all of us.  I refer, of course, to the tragedy that took place at Virginia Tech.  I know I speak on behalf of millions across the country when I extend deepest support and prayers to all of you who have been impacted by this terrible loss.

Personal impact

For me, personally, this incident has hit me on a number of different levels.  The first, naturally, is the plain horror of “How could something like this happen?”  How senseless, how unfair!

Being a mother of two daughters not that many years out of college, my thoughts stray to: “What if they had been on a campus where something like this took place?  How could I help them cope if they survived; I could ever cope, if they didn’t?”

Many of you may not know it, but aside from my private practice, I also serve as an adjunct professor at a local university in the Psychology Dept.  The day after the incident, I found myself periodically glancing at the door of the classroom.  I was aware of a vulnerability I have never felt in my 15 years of teaching.

And then there is the psychologist part of me.  I had the same reaction I did after the Columbine shootings.  Please understand that in no way do I condone either situation.  But what torture must each of the perpetrators been feeling to believe that there was nothing left for them to do other than these actions?

What help should we be offering

In what way have we let these children down?  In this case, an English teacher became aware that the perpetrator was a troubled young man.  He was assessed, but nothing more was done.  Why?  What are we missing in the early years when there is bullying that isn’t being addressed (as was the case in the Columbine situation)?  Why aren’t we paying more attention to the quiet students who are clearly screaming out for help?

I’m frustrated.  We live in a wonderful state of democracy that respects personal freedom and, therefore, does not charge someone with a crime until there is actually one committed.  And yet, there are often warning signs.  There definitely were in this case.  I am presently working with a client whose son presents with warning signs for a future headline.  Though she tries her best to get him help, her hands are tied due to lack of cooperation of her husband and due process of the law.  How exasperating.for her, for us.


And then I step back and ask myself as I always do, “What can be taken from this situation, what can be learned?”  This question reflects my belief that though I certainly think each person must grieve and heal their pain, I don’t believe that living in a past that can’t be changed serves the healing process.

The answer to my query came from one of the victim’s fathers who I heard being interviewed.  Of the various questions posed, it seemed the interviewer kept trying to tap into his anger about the way the situation was handled.  One specific question had to do with his feelings about how things were handled in the two-hour period between the initial dorm shootings and the later ones.  Did he wish things had happened differently?  The father replied that he understood that there were circumstances, that his wish was that his daughter had skipped class that day.

The interviewer did pick up on the father’s ability to not focus on anger and asked about it.  The reply was that his daughter was a beautiful energetic young woman and that she had taught him a great deal about living life.  This man, who had just suffered an unimaginable loss, was choosing to focus on his cherished memories rather than the horror of what should have or could have been.

In anticipation of some of your comments, I’ll pose the possibility that this father is in denial.  Or, perhaps this is only a transitional reaction.  Far be it for me to dictate to people how they should grieve or for how long.  But I want to say that I am absolutely in awe of this man and suggest that he is an inspiration to us all.

It is true that even in your pain, you can choose on what to focus.  And as with everything else, our perception is our reality.

Again, my heartfelt love and prayers to all of you who have been touched by this very painful incident – including the family of Seung-Hui Cho.

Relationship Loss in All Different Shapes

I’m on a plane coming back from a weekend visiting my mother-in-law who resides in Florida.  I purposely use the word “resides” rather than lives because she has Alzheimer’s, and I don’t think I could say that her existence is living.  Alzheimer’s is considered “the long good-bye.’  It’s a terrible way to lose one’s parent.

You can only imagine how hot and humid Florida is in August.  In all honesty, I have a tough time dealing with the elderly when they’re ill.   And continuing with my truthfulness, our relationship was quite strained initially.  And as the saying goes, I did forgive, but I never forgot!  So, all in all, this was not a trip I was looking forward to.

As many of you know, my father-in-law passed away a few months ago.  So I felt I needed to go as a support for my husband – perhaps a bit of sacrifice that I spoke of last week.

Well, in fact, the one and a half days of the weekend were tough – but tough in ways that I had not anticipated.

The facts

When we go to Florida, we always stay with our brother-in-law.  It’s the same place we stayed all those countless times we went to care for my father-in-law when he was sick and we took turns taking care of him.  It was where my father-in-law stayed while he recuperated.  Throughout the bedroom were reminders of him.  And the loss hit me like a bad memory as soon as we came in.

At some point later on, I walked in on my husband, as he was going through some of the yet to be cleaned up items from his father.  He was gently crying and said he could actually feel emotional pain.  “Of course,” I replied.  My heart went out for him.  I have lost both my parents but have never felt the kind of pain he is experiencing – my loss came long ago by not having the childhood parents I needed.  I’m not sure who has suffered more.

My husband’s uncle joined us for lunch.  They reminisced and looked over my husband’s Bar Mitzvah album.  Great stories, great laughs.  I was keenly aware of not only how many of the people in those pictures are no longer with us (including the loss of the uncle’s divorced wife) but also how numbered the years are for this last remaining member of my husband’s extended family.

The surprise

And then it was time for us to go.  Somehow, deep within the recesses of my mother-in-law’s slowly deteriorating mind, though all she is compromised to is the ability to repeat the last phrase she hears, when I went to say, “good-bye,” she held on to me and a tear rolled down her cheek.  She knew I was leaving and was sad.

As we got into the car, I started to cry which surprised me.  I’ve always been so matter-of-fact about her illness.  And then I realized it’s been my defense from experiencing – in fact, I’ve been holding back a great many feelings.  The feelings of loss are just too painful.

But loss is a part of life.  And unless it is acknowledged and faced, you are cut off – just as I had been.  It was only by opening up to allowing myself to feel that I was able to take something rich and peaceful from this visit.  I do know that in those few brief moments there was a connection between my mother-in-law and myself.  And what I realize is that my hesitation in going was really my fear.  Thank goodness my willingness to sacrifice won out.

And, one more thing – as I reflect on that which I do have in my life – it feels so much richer now!

Anatomy of a Commitment Issue

In last week’s post, I discussed with you the need everyone has to feel attached. In other words, we all want to feel like we matter to someone. This is a basic biological need that is present at birth and continues throughout life.

I also told you a little bit about some research studies which indicated that the early attachment styles of children proved to be indicative of how someone relates in their later relationships.

A Different Child

One type of child in the study I referred to in last week’s post did not seem to have a problem when Mama left. She didn’t cry upon Mama’s leave-taking, was able to play on her own, didn’t need soothing from the stranger, and didn’t pay attention when Mama returned.

When I teach about this study to my college class, the students will often incorrectly think that this scenario is the one where the child is securely attached. After all, the child seems to display independent behavior rather than needing Mama. But at the age of 12- 18 months, children are supposed to still need their caretaker. A securely- attached child will want closeness to Mama.

In fact, the label that is given to this type of child is insecurely-attached avoidant. Doesn’t sound too good, eh? Here’s what has happened: an infant is totally dependent on her parents/caregivers. And although no one can be perfect, when a parent is pretty much responsive and available to the child, she feels secure and safe. A secure attachment is formed.

But when a parent is not responsive, not caring, not available, a child will shut down. A child doesn’t have too many tools available to her. She can’t discuss her needs with her parents. But how often can she feel the pain of an unmet need? So, eventually, she shuts the need down — she becomes avoidant.

But here’s the catch … the need for attachment is still there! Remember it’s a basic biological need to feel like you matter.

Years Later

The way this all translates into an adult relationship is as someone having a commitment problem. The desire to be attached to someone is there. But as the relationship becomes too close, the fear takes over that there will be hurt (as was experienced in childhood). To avoid this, the person moves away. Once there is distance, the fear subsides and the yearning for the attachment is more present. The person comes back into the relationship.

And so this dance continues — back and forth, back and forth … making a commitment and then pulling back.

This, of course, is maddening to the partner who is ready to be involved. The trick is to help the person with the commitment problem see what is happening and realize that this concern is really from the past. Sometimes, it is enough to show concrete examples of how the present relationship has been loving and consistent. For others, there will be a need for some professional help.

By no means does this kind of issue mean doom and gloom. It is a challenge. But by realizing what is going on and offering a loving, understanding heart to the person who has been hurt, it will certainly help to heal.