Debunking Relationship Myths, Part 2
Omega: With the subject of marriage equality in making national and international headlines, do you feel that we are at a dawning of a new era where the institution of marriage has an opportunity to find more relevance and meaning?
Julie: Yes, I think so. I don’t know if I’d say it can have more relevance and meaning, because I think it’s had different forms of relevance and meaning all along, but I think that its relevance and meaning can certainly be more inclusive. John and his colleague Bob Levinson conducted a 12-year study on gay and lesbian relationships. I think we have a great deal to learn from them. I’m thrilled at the success of gay and lesbian couples finally, in the United States, state by state, winning the right to be legally recognized in their relationships.
Marriage continues to shift and change with the decades, and the centuries. I don’t think that this particular time is one in which we're valuing the meaning of marriage more. I think there’s always been debate about who marriage can include and what foundation marriage should be built on. That just continues to change over time.
John: I think what’s new is that there is more acceptance of diversity in our culture. There’s also a convergence of scientific knowledge from various sources. The empiricism is really converging to say, “You know, relationships aren’t all that complicated.” There are qualities that make them work and qualities that make them not work. And you can learn about this. And you can make your relationships work well.
I don’t think we had that knowledge 30 years ago. We’re starting to understand how all of these factors play into it, including personality and genetics, including really observing people using objective data. The unconscious has been rediscovered in psychology and can be studied now very empirically.
I think the science is going to help, if scientists can communicate well with the general public, and if their findings become part of our educational system—so we’re educating people not only about reading, writing, and arithmetic, but also about how to get along with one another.
Omega: While there is no shortage of resources for parental advice available online and in books, you've said that much of the popular parenting advice given today ignores emotion. What did you mean by that, and how can we restore an emotional component to parenting?
John: Almost all of the parenting books out there are centered around discipline, and they’re focused on the cognitive development of children. While there's nothing wrong with having cooperative children—it’s certainly a worthy goal—people want more for their children. They want them to think well of themselves, to have meaning in their life, to not be materialistic, to care about other people, and to have a good sense of morality. They want their children to fulfill their potential, to be happy in their life, and to have good families and good relationships. You can’t accomplish that in the discipline situation. You can’t accomplish that by just working on children’s intellectual development. You only accomplish that in the magic moments when kids are emotional.
We know now that you don’t create a respectful child unless you treat children with respect; you don’t create a loving child unless you treat children in a loving manner; you don’t create an empathetic child unless you display empathy. So, these emotional moments are very important. Emotions contain very good information. Psychologists have learned that when people are frustrated and angry, they generally have a goal that’s being blocked. So, what’s the goal? What’s frustrating it? If you pay attention to your own emotion and to your child’s emotion, then you wind up being able to connect with kids during these moments and build loyalty and love in a family.
Julie: A lot of folks still rely on the thoughts of Murry Bowen and people who have a more general systems theory about families, where the emotions are pitted against rational thinking and one interferes with the other. That is, moderate kids’ emotions so that they feel very little and rationality always wins the day.
The reality is, we know from brain research that emotions are a very important part of making decisions, solving problems, and controlling our behavior in a positive way. Neural-scientific research suggests that emotion and thinking processes are very much integrated and interactive and strengthen each other.
The more we support children to feel what they’re feeling, validate those feelings, and integrate their feelings into the decisions they make about who to be and how to behave, the better off our kids are going to be—as opposed to splitting them off from their emotions, especially boys.
A lot of the child work that’s done today is trying to change kids’ behavior. What John’s work has shown is that when you really pay attention to kids and emotions, help kids name their feelings, and validate their own feelings and the judgments they make based on some of those feelings, often times the kids will do much better.