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You Can Go Home Again

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For better or worse, we first learn about making and keeping relationships in our families. During our formative years, our parents establish patterns with us; patterns of connection and separation, of independence and dependence, of give and take, that literally shape our developing brains and how they work for the rest of our lives.

The problem, of course, is that this is a very imperfect process. Our parents have inherited their own patterns from their own parents, families and culture and combined them into their own style. Very few of these emotional patterns are conscious; we rarely notice or examine them.  This automatic process is why family emotional patterns are so often repeated generation to generation. When they work for us, they help us develop into caring, connected, loving human beings. When they don’t work well, we can be shaped by anxiety, demands, rigid roles and expectations, and inflexible rules for behavior. Of course, most of us have a unique, messy combination …

Not So Fast

I'm not sure I have anything useful to add when it comes to discussing the extra-marital affairs of Tiger Woods. The whole wide world has been writing and talking about him, and I will say I am now officially bored. (I'd rather talk about actor Meredith Baxter, Alex Keaton's "Mom" on sit-com Family Ties, who disclosed the same day Tiger came clean, that she is now officially out as a lesbian. She was afraid to talk on national TV, but did it anyway with Matt Lauer on the Today Show. It turns out she got overshadowed in the media by Tiger's failures, and I'll bet she is glad, glad, glad!)

Three observations about affairs, though:

1.  Affairs are not about sex. They're about chronic anxiety, and people taking that anxious energy out of the marriage (triangling), creating a new relationship that they believe can soothe or contain their emotional muddy water. Affairs don't and can't. 

2. It's very difficult to repair a marriage after a part…

Instincts and Drives: Powerful Stuff

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Human beings regularly ignore the fact that we are mammals: warm-blooded, live-birthing animals who share a lot of DNA with beings as diverse as chimpanzees and elephants.

When it comes to thinking, we win, hands down. At least, most of the time. But we often forget how deeply we are designed to do certain things, like eat, sleep, defend, or mate.

The deer in this photo is dead. It killed itself by head-butting a 640 lb. bronze elk statue in a Wisconsin backyard. In the rutting season, deer will defend territory, attempting to secure mating rights and sending the less powerful males on to other acreage.

I post it because I found it an astonishing image. Mammals, driven by the powerful brain chemicals of hormones, will do a lot of strange things. Like head-butting a statue to death.

Research proves again and again that human beings underestimate the power of instinct and arousal on their own behavior. This one fact of mammalian biology may help us understand why we keep doing what we do…

What Exactly is Closure?

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Convicted mass murderer John Muhammad was executed this week in Virginia. He and a teenage accomplice went on a three week killing spree in October, 2002, that left 10 people dead and a whole region of the country afraid.

Reports of the execution included select comments from some of the victims' survivors. Many spoke about getting or not getting, a sense of "closure" with his death. I have been wondering, as I often do when people use this popular emotional term, just what they mean.

I think that closure, in this context, has come to mean this: I can't forgive, and I can't forget. But at least I have some sense of justice done, and that closes the book on that nightmare. I can sleep at night without endlessly spinning on the fact that the one I love is dead, and the one who killed her is alive. I think that closure in the case of state execution may be a soft, acceptable term for vengeance.

But people say they find "closure" when some hidden secret is …

Secondary Trauma

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Lord, have mercy.

We have endured another mass shooting in our nation, this time on a military base. It will take time to sort out the details of this horrible crime, but we are impatient to know: was this an act of terrorism? The shooter is a Muslim, and some have reported that he shouted to Allah as he fired his weapons. There will be a good deal to learn of this man in the weeks ahead.

Of great interest to me: he is a psychiatrist who worked with soldiers suffering with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Mental health professionals of all kinds who regularly work with trauma survivors often find that hour after hour of listening to people recount horror is traumatizing. Without regular and systematic debriefing of their own work, therapists lose their own resilience and begin to suffer a secondary PTSD. They begin to show symptoms of chronic anxiety, restlessness, easy startle reflex, difficulty sleeping, intrusive images of trauma, and hypervigilance in the same way soldiers …