Margie Nichols's blog
by Margie Nichols
The blog I wrote for Goodtherapy.org about bisexuality must have touched a nerve - more people have commented than any other blog I've written. Who knew, more than 20 years after I came out as 'bi' in the 1980's, that it would still be such a hot-button topic?
Read it HERE
by Margie Nichols
Check out Margie's blog on Goodtherapy.org about the problem of suicide among LGBT teens and young adults. Gay, lesbian, bi and trans and gender non-conforming kids make more suicide attempts than other adolescents - but we can do something about this!
by Margie Nichols, Ph.D.
On August 11 2013, The New York Times published an article by Judith Warner in its Sunday Magazine, entitled “The Opt-Out Generation Wants Back In,” a revisiting of the women interviewed in Lisa Belkin’s 2003 Times article “The Opt-Out Revolution.” The women, who had all given up high-powered jobs to be full-time mothers, now were working - or wanted to be. Sixty percent had returned to work, and some others were trying unsuccessfully. Not surprisingly, given that Warner’s sample is upper middle class, some had re-entered the work force with ease. But others could not find paying jobs and still others had to take whatever they could find because they had to bring in money after divorce or because husbands lost jobs. After the publication of the article, some reporters focused on the clear class bias and how working class and many middle class families cannot afford the choice to ‘opt-out.’ Some commentary focused on another problem highlighted by the account: none of the women wanted to return to the 50-70 hour work week they left, but there are still few employers who take part-time workers seriously.
As a feminist, I resonate with this second critique. The original goals of the second wave of feminism, at least the more radical branch, did not include simply succeeding in traditionally male workplaces, but instead, when we attained power ourselves, to transform the game itself into something more family-friendly, balanced and fair. We were all about day care, employment opportunities for women, job-sharing and becoming an active participant in the marketplace, knowing that in order to change the rules of the male-dominated business world, you needed power and money.
Instead, we got women ‘opting-out.’
As a white-collar, educated professional, I have a privilege and freedom most of my working sisters don’t have. But I also have a perspective that comes from a different place, informed by the fact that I am a queer Mom who, together with her female partner, chose to mother and raise a child who is now nearly 30. I’ve lived and worked my whole life in the LGBT community, where I’ve raised and shared in the raising of four kids, three still living, and worked soon after the birth or adoption of all of them.
Thirty years ago, when pregnant with our son, an older and wiser working mom gave me invaluable advice: “Never make friends with a stay at home mom,”. She was referring to the fact that many full time mothers look down on working mothers, subtly and not so subtly. The judgment can be particularly harsh for women who chose to work even though, with some lifestyle adjustments, they could afford to stay home fulltime. The upper middle class heterosexually married ‘opting out’ moms portrayed by Lisa Belkin and now Warner are not the poor and working class women who stay home because childcare is too expensive and/or of low quality, but the ones who have a personal choice. These "opting out" moms often seem to believe that their choice is the one more virtuous, the one made ‘for the children.’ And their husbands believe it too. As does the whole culture, really.
The myth, rarely articulated but widely shared, is that women are ‘naturally’ more skilled at parenting and that children need a full-time mother at home with them. Most men and women accept this myth despite decades of research showing that it makes no difference to kids’ well-being whether they are in raised in quality daycare or with a full time parent. Being a stay at home Mom can be hard work when there are several kids and a large household to run. For upper middle class women who have housekeepers and nannies – not so much. But because of the myth, straight women feel entitled to more options than their husbands, so they are invested in actually believing that their children need them to stay home. Women who consciously and willingly choose to go back to work and utilize daycare and childcare are seen somehow as selfish or at least as less adequate mothers. This post-modern version of the belief in the sanctity of motherhood has morphed into a ‘women’s choice and freedom’ issue. The practice of ‘opting out’ seems to blend traditional values with more modern notions of egalitarianism. The Opt-Out women feel entitled to choose work or home life while their husbands continue to work, and at the same time they maintain the feminist expectation that Dad share housework and childcare.
But according to Warner, the choice to stay home didn’t turn out as well as they had expected. Over time, some women experienced a loss of personal self-confidence and self-esteem, and some began to feel like they really were inferior to their husbands. For some, conflicts arose when husbands resented having to share household chores they expected be done by their wives during the day, or resented that they never had the choices that their wives had to incorporate better work-life balance into their lives. It seemed that Opting-Out had as many problems as Leaning In.
How can the study of same-sex relationships inform the discourse about work versus full-time motherhood? How can we queers help the heterosexual family? We can learn a lot from the research on how same sex couples function relative to straight marriages, most aptly summarized in Liza Mundy’s June 2013 Atlantic piece titled ‘The Gay Guide to Wedded Bliss.’ Gay and lesbian couples with children do it differently than straight ones. First, lesbian families are the most egalitarian and least ‘specialized’ of all – there is less likely to be an arrangement where one parent stays home and the other is the sole breadwinner. It is more likely that both make modifications to their work schedules, or they take turns – one stays home a year or two then they switch. Lesbian moms share chores and child care more than other couples, and they even frequently ‘blend’ their incomes, both to mirror straight relationships and to neutralize the power that comes with one making more money than the other. Observational studies comparing lesbian moms to heterosexual parent pairs show that when interacting with kids together, two women tend to reinforce and support each other's parenting while straight couples often obstruct each other. Lesbian parents seem to have more inherent respect for each other’s abilities – and the right to share in parenting decisions. Gay Dads are egalitarian as well, but they tend to ‘specialize.’ In contrast to heterosexual couples, gay men argue over who ‘gets to’ work, not who ‘gets to’ stay home.
What can same-sex couples teach us? First, that no parent is ‘entitled’ to decide for both parents who will work and whether to work, and who will stay home. This is something I rarely hear broached in the ‘Opt Out’ vs. ‘Lean In’ discourse. Second, that money equals power. The partner who is the sole breadwinner may make you feel, perhaps unwittingly, like you are inferior – and you may feel that you are as well, deferring to the one who earns the money. Whether because of lack of social recognition for the importance of homemakers, having a husband who equates earnings with privilege, or something inherent in the role itself – it’s hard to maintain self-confidence and self-esteem when you are solely a stay-at-home mom for an extended period. For many women, it gets to be a boring and thankless role in life, especially when housework is a big part of it. There’s a reason gay Dads who ‘specialize’ fight to be the one to go to work – they recognize the inherent boredom in much of the routine of childcare as well as the power that money brings. Note I’m not denigrating ‘specialized’ households, as long as decisions are reached fairly by two partners with equal power. And as long as it is done with understanding that though this may the best choice for your particular household, it is not the best choice for all children, and this arrangement is no more inherently structured to raise healthy children than any other quality arrangement. There are pluses and minuses to all childcare and parenting options.
One negative to the stay-at-home option that people rarely discuss: the things you can’t do for your kids because you may not have the money. Kids are expensive, and some kids more expensive than others. While research doesn’t show any superiority of constant mother presence, it does show the superiority of better schools, better health care, better mental health care and the ability to pay for college. Because I’ve worked as hard as I have, my three surviving children have had tremendous educational resources, special services for their learning disabilities, life-broadening experiences – and all will graduate from college with zero student debt. Which is more important parenting? Being always physically close by when Junior is young? Or being there when it matters, giving her unconditional love and guidance as needed, as well as giving her the education, life experiences and a financial head start when she is in her twenties? I imagine it is different for different children and families; people have different values and beliefs about child-rearing priorities.
I think straight couples should take a lesson from this. For starters, I’d like to see women give up the sole privilege of choice, and start assuming that their spouses have equal footing when it comes to work-life balance and choice issues. At the same time, men have to give up the sometimes unconscious tendency to dominate their spouses through financial power, using their stay-at-home wife as a 'status symbol' or expecting they will be ‘taken care of’ by women.
In gay and lesbian couples, there are no inherent gender divisions because both partners are the same sex. So when responsibilities are divided, they can be portioned according to guidelines more rational than gender stereotypes. And there's more fluidity. The partner who seems ‘butch’ may do the cooking and the ‘femme’ change the oil in the car, because two women or two men aren’t locked into behavior based on appearance. The assumption of equality in same sex relationships automatically leads to more mutual respect and more balanced power relationships, eliminating a major source of relationship strife. Same sex couples interact better as a team than straight couples when parenting - because they have better teamwork in general. Isn’t that better for the kids, to see cooperation between parents and not discord? And getting a uniform message from both their parents?
Another way same sex parents can serve as role models is in how they tend to stay friends with ex-partners. I have seen nasty divorces in gay families, usually when one partner experiences a religious conversion and comes to believe their gay partner will corrupt their children. And the LGBT community has its fair share of insane and immature people who care more about revenge for hurt feelings than they do for their children’s welfare. But queer life has long normalized friendships among exes. It is the norm rather than the exception, so new partners are usually accommodating. When children are involved, this means that children do not experience being ripped apart between battling parents. The transition to blended households and step-parenting is made easier, and children have a resulting extended support system of relatives that care for them.
Heterosexual men and women have to give up the fiction that stay-at-home mothers are better for children. That assumption may seem to privilege women with choice, but once assumed, it chains women to domesticity. Feminists dating back to the 1960’s were aware of the dangers attached to the pedestal of motherhood, and some heterosexual women are learning it again in the 21st century. Heterosexuals have to stop pretending they are engaging in work/homelife specialization because it is for the good of the children. It’s a choice – like all parenting decisions – based partly on self-interest. It’s not inherently more child-friendly than many others.
There is nothing radical about opting out of the work world to be a full time mother. What will be more radical is if heterosexual men and women are inspired by the egalitarian nature of same sex relationships to fully share decisions about who does what with housework, childcare and working. Only if both men and women, gay and straight, are involved in a cultural push for more human work ethics, more European, less classically American lifestyles, do we have a chance of radically changing a culture that makes work/life balance next to impossible. Now THAT will be a movement.
by Margie Nichols
Starting in the 1980's a small handful of social science researchers began to study same sex couples, mostly to see their relationships lasted as long as straight folk and whether kids raised in gay households grew up to be 'normal.' Along the way, the studies have revealed a lot more about similarities and differences of heterosexual versus gay and lesbian relationships. Read the blog article I wrote for GoodTherapy.org:
by Margie Nichols
- From this feminist's perspective, Dan Bergner's new book, What Do Women Want? is an intriguing and important look at female sexuality. Read my blog about it, and why it validates a theory proposed by Dr. Mary Jane Sherfey in the 1970's.
by Margie Nichols
Daniel Bergner’s new book, ‘What Do Women Want?’, is getting a lot of attention, with glowing reviews on Salon.com and the cover of a recent New York Times Sunday Book Review section. Not all reviews have been positive, but it’s pretty clear his book has shaken up some people. One take-home message from the book that has been discussed at length is Bergner’s suggestion that women are less suited for monogamy than men.
But perhaps the aspect of the book most blogged about is the attempts to develop a drug that will increase a woman’s desire – but not too much. Bergner writes that the pharmaceutical companies are afraid of a drug that is ‘too good,’ one that would presumably turn women into crazed sex maniacs. It should not come as a surprise to anyone either that this is most newsworthy – it was the section of Bergner’s book made into a Sunday Times article at the beginning of June,2013, and it does smack of social manipulation through science. And it certainly shouldn’t surprise anyone that Big Pharma, ever eager to spin their efforts as serious, addressing a ‘medical problem,’ fears the bad publicity that would come from ‘Girls Gone Wild.’
What is surprising to me is that everyone assumes that this would be the outcome of such a pill’s release on the market, assuming that one is developed that is both effective and safe. Few commentators have noticed that this worry accompanied the discovery of Viagra, as well. What are the chances Viagra would become a ‘party drug,’ or that it would disrupt marriages because of husbands demanding more sex from their wives? Well, the former of course has come to be – there is widespread use of the PDE5 Inhibitors by 20 something men - but hasn’t really hurt Viagra’s image. As for the latter, undoubtedly this has happened in some marriages but it doesn’t appear to be a big trend.
What has happened that is unexpected is the rate at which these drugs are ineffective –for about 30% of the men who try them – the number who develop side effects- 15% or more have headaches, for example – and the low rate of compliance for the PDE-5 Inhibitors, which some studies place at 50%. In other words, there are a lot of men for whom they don’t work or who discontinue use either because of side effects, high price, or unknown reasons. Viagra-like drugs have not caused an upsurge in aggressive male sexual behavior or a dramatic increase in sexual partners or sexual behavior.
Why wouldn’t these numbers be even higher for a female libido drug? The side effect numbers might be no different, but how about the percentage who discontinue for unknown reasons or decline to use it at all? Remember PDE5 inhibitors just mess with the plumbing – the men, presumably, already have sufficient desire and sexual stimulation. But desire, perhaps especially female desire, is a trickier issue. The women Bergner interviewed who were part of the drug studies were highly motivated to regain desire. For them, it might be true that a drug that would help rekindle lust for their husbands would be a godsend. But how about more complicated situations? How many women will decide that they just don’t care enough about their husbands to try to regain desire? How many will take the drug once and realize that even when they are lust-driven – it’s not for their partner? How many others will find that their increased desire upsets the balance of the relationship – perhaps the partner was hiding their own lack of interest behind that of their mate?
Beyond that, how will women experience this drug? After all, it will undoubtedly be tinkering with the brain, not the genitals. Will women have the experience that some have on antidepressants – that the drug makes them feel ‘better than good’ and thus unnatural, not authentic? It will be especially interesting to see if women, straight, bi , or gay, use this drug as a party drug in the same way that many men, especially gay men, use Viagra. I have uncomfortable inklings of women using it, not to enhance their own experience, but to be more appealing to prospective male partners.
What seems certain is that the drug is coming. And that it will have not only side effects, but also personal, relationship, and even social consequences we might not even be able to imagine now. Let’s hope the good outweighs the bad, on balance.
by Margie Nichols
Marriage equality laws continue to make change, but in the therapy world, people are still fighting Sexual Orientation Change Efforts. Also called 'conversion therapy' 'reparative counseling' or simply 'ex-gay' therapy, SOCE is considered unethical by all major professional counseling or therapy organizations worldwide. Yet in the United States, it is still practiced, mostly by Christian Right groups.
Read about the efforts to make it illegal to force this therapy on children in my first blog for Goodtherapy.org:
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by Margie Nichols
In a move that is causing consternation among psychiatrists, Thomas Insel, Director of the National Institutes of Mental Health, announced that NIMH will be ‘re-orienting its research away from DSM categories.’ Insel called the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, the Bible of psychiatry, nothing more than a dictionary at best. He made it clear that it is founded on symptom-based categories, and that this method of classifying disease has become outmoded in every other area of medicine. He says NIMH will replace the DSM with what he is calling RDoC, or ‘Research Domain Criteria.’ In this new system, mental illnesses will be categorized not by symptoms but by genetic, neural, and cognitive data. Only problem – the system doesn’t exist yet – because the data doesn’t exist.
In other words, Insel is saying having no category system at all for mental disorders is better than the current DSM. He did acknowledge that the DSM will still be useful for mental health treatment (although that is questionable) and will certainly be in place for insurance purposes for quite some time. But he was emphatic in stating that it would be a disaster to base scientific research on the DSM categories. There just isn’t any evidence tying DSM categories to underlying brain/biological based entities. As Insel said, “Biology didn’t read the book.”
Validity has been a chronic problem with the DSM. The first DSM begun in the 1950’s constructed mental illness categories based on psychoanalytic theory. But the tenets of psychoanalysis have never been proven scientifically and few professionals use that model in their work today. In 1980 the psychoanalytic system was replaced with a model based on symptoms; DSM III was a major departure from the past.
In other words, the DSM was first based on a theory never backed up with scientific evidence, and then by a system that assumed that things that looked alike were the same. This is like assuming that all illnesses with the symptom of ‘high fever’ were caused by the same pathogen. As Insel points out, the rest of medicine progressed beyond symptom-based models sometime in the mid-20th century. Today, most medical diagnosis is based on physical and structural evidence and some on etiology: we know that the HIV virus causes certain changes in the immune system which result in a dizzying array of mostly dissimilar symptoms, we realize that Kaposi’s Sarcoma and PCP pneumoni, despite their dissimilarities, are both the end result of the HIV infection, and we know how the infection is transmitted. By contrast we merely hypothesize that, for example, Major Depressive Disorder is different from Generalized Anxiety Disorder, because the symptoms are different, and we then presume that the brain mechanisms underlying the two are different as well.
But we are beginning to accumulate evidence that turns the DSM categories upside down. For example, the same genetic anomalies found in schizophrenics are also found in some people diagnosed with autism and others with bipolar disorder. The same drugs that treat depression also work for panic attacks and obsessive-compulsive disorder, and medications developed for psychosis also help those with anxiety. In other words – categories based on symptoms may be very misleading. And research based on these categories will be both wrong and often irrelevant. Based on psychopharmacology , it is a reasonable working hypothesis that some underlying structure and etiology are similar in conditions that respond to the same medication. We should be looking at these similarities, but we won’t do that if our category system, our theory, considers them different and unrelated.
Insel is proposing a system he calls RDoC – Research Domain Criteria – which would be based on genetic, neural, and cognitive data. Data we are only just beginning to gather.
Basically, Insel is saying until we have the data it is better to have no theory and no categories than to use the DSM. And he is completely right. The designers of the DSM actually realized that their categories were basically stabs in the dark, a tentative work-in-progress model. But the DSM quickly became reified, and now we act like there actually is a distinct disease of ‘Major Depressive Disorder’ that has a precise location in the brain. And once we do that – we stop looking at the issue with what the Buddhists call ‘Beginner’s Mind,’ or ‘Don’t Know Mind.’
The truth is, we should have ‘Don’t Know Mind’ about psychology and psychiatry because – we really don’t know. And it’s not just categories of ‘mental illness’ we don’t know about. Our psychological theories are as flawed as the DSM, but that’s the subject of Part II of this blog.
The implications of the RDoC approach, when applied to sexology ,are profound, particularly the sexology of GSD (Gender and Sexually Diverse) people. First, RDoC, if it is truly atheoretical, must start with a neutral view, not a disease model. Without concepts like ‘Gender Identity Disorder,’ and ‘Paraphilias’ we are free to simply investigate the broad diversity of human gender and sexual behavior. This research has already begun. There are neuroscientists and biologists examining the role of genetic and epigenetic factors in influencing all aspects of sexuality, especially gender variation and same/opposite sex attraction. Second, the continuum concept will replace the categorical system we have now, making judgments about ‘normal’ vs. ‘variant’ a matter of judgment and debate. A new paradigm , being neutral, would have to assume that sex and gender diversity is innocent until proven guilty – i.e., variation, not disease. And that would have immense social implications: unusual gender presentations and expression, uncommon sexual desires, would not be assumed to be problematic unless evidence is discovered to suggest that they are.
Insel’s system would radically affect the science of sexology as well. Few people realize how much the category system we use to look at GSD has been influenced by modern psychiatry. We label some people ‘homosexual’ because psychiatry classified same-sex attraction as a ‘perversion:’ historically, the category came into being via psychiatrists. We label others trans* because psychiatry has categories based on the concept that atypical gender expression is an illness. Other cultures, and other time periods, have sliced up the GSD pie differently. Both the DSM and the culture at large draw a bright line between sexual orientation (narrowly defined as same vs. opposite sex attraction) and gender identity. But most cultures have not, and earlier, non-disease sexology models blended the two, as in the concepts of ‘inverts,’ or a ‘third sex.’
As Maria Konnikova explains in the New Yorker, the RDoC system is a dynamic one: as data continues to be accumulated from different sources, inter-relationships between variables will continuously evolve. Eventually, dimensions and processes that underly the behavior we observe will become clear, and they may have nothing to do with the categories we use now. Consider the above example, the bright-lining the distinction between same-sex attraction and gender. The fact is, we don’t actually know if there is a genetic/neural/cognitive difference between gender variation and sexual orientation, we don’t even know what ‘orientation’ is and whether other sexual drives (kink, nonmonogamy) should be considered ‘orientation.’ We have some reason to believe all these things are related: there is a good deal of overlap among people who are LG or B with those who are T, kinky, and nonmonogamous. Moreover, research on neuroanatomy, genetics, and prenatal hormonal influences is turning up similar results for transgender people and same-sex oriented people, suggesting some similar developmental pathways for both.
I ran across an obvious example of how the DSM categories hinder sexology very recently. The April 2013 issue of the Journal of Gay and Lesbian Health contains two excellent reviews of the current biological science regarding male to female transgender people and gays and lesbians, respectively. A number of findings turned up in both reviews: fraternal birth order, for example, and digit ratios. But neither author seemed aware of the other area of research – because the research parameters were set by the DSM categories of homosexuality and transsexualism, and these two ‘conditions’ are presumed distinct.
If we get rid of our current categories based on the DSM, as Insel suggests, and replace it with a dynamic, atheoretical, data-based paradigm, we can truly investigate the similarities between gender identity, expression, and behavior and different sexual ‘orientations’, or desires and preferences. In short, if RDoC is implemented in the study of GSD, we might actually learn something.
By now most people have heard about John Gottman’s research comparing gay and straight couples, publicized a few years back. Gottman, a respected psychologist and researcher, did a study of gay relationships that revealed that for the most part same and mixed sex couples had similar similar levels of relationship satisfaction, similar problems, and coped with the ups and downs of relationship life in the same ways. There were differences however: same sex couples were more upbeat in the face of conflict, used more affection and humor during fights, and employed fewer hostile, controlling emotional tactics. (Ouch. To begin with, who sounds like the more mature, responsible type of couple?)
And usually, when people write about the Gottman study, that’s where the narrative about this research ends. Too bad, because if you look carefully there’s way more here. I’d like to expand on Gottman’s findings and interpret them, and then add some observations of my own.
In addition to these widely reported findings, Gottman also discovered that
“gay and lesbian partners displayed less belligerence, domineering, and fear tactics with each other than straight couples do……fairness and power-sharing between the partners is more important and more common in gay and lesbian relationships than in straight ones.”
Wow, that’s some powerful stuff! Why would this be so? Well, the attributes that gay male and lesbian relationships share, that mixed gender couples don’t have at all is – automatic equality of gender, and similarity of bodies and acculturation. In same sex relationships, the two partners, whether they were socialized male or female, were socialized the same way about gender. Neither assumes consciously or unconsciously that they ‘should’ be dominant or submissive to the other. Neither have reflexive patterns of thinking or reacting that make them assume either a one-up or one-down power position. In short, sexist roles do not exist in same sex relationships. Gottman’s finding suggests that straight couples still have some work to do on that patriarchy thing.
I’m not saying that same sex partners don’t have power struggles or that all of them are egalitarian. But there is not the ‘automatic’ power differential inherent in differently gendered partners. There is no one who thinks he should be the ‘boss’ of the relationships or that her role is to obey. No one who feels that housework is her responsibility, even if she works, and no one who doesn’t even think about how the chores of daily living get taken care of.
And – here we also learn some lessons from gay and lesbian parents – no one who automatically assumes that it is her duty and responsibility to stay home with the kids, and nobody who thinks he doesn’t have to participate much in child-rearing. Not to mention no partner who assumes it is her right to stay home if she wants, and no spouse who feels he must shoulder the bread winner role single handedly if his wife wants to be a homemaker.
It’s interesting that, to my knowledge, neither Gottman nor anyone else has tied his findings to traditional gender roles in marriage. It sounds like the belligerence, domineering, and fear tactics bely a certain dissatisfaction in relationships that don’t ‘value fairness and power-sharing.’ Is it possible that these roles PRODUCE the unhealthy couple interactions? I’d sure like to see someone study this.
But Gottman also described differences between gay male and lesbian couples, and these can tell us something about gender as well. Lesbians were more emotionally expressive with both positive and negative emotions- not surprising, that’s stereotypic behavior for women. More surprising was the finding that gay men whose partners attacked them during conflicts had a much harder time recovering from the negatives, and ‘repair’ attempts were stymied. Gottman suggests that gay men may need ‘extra help’ to offset this negativity – is this perhaps because in mixed gender relationships the woman plays a larger role in repair than the man, making it less necessary for her mate to recover quickly? This is worth investigating; it has implications for couples therapy, among other things.
Gottman’s research, intriguing as it is, just scratches the surface of the differences between couples, differences that teach us a great deal. For example, 40 to 50% of gay male couples are nonmonogamous, and open relationships are way more common among lesbian and bisexual women than in the heterosexual world, although women tend to structure nonmonogamy differently than men. Kinkiness is way more common among gays and lesbians as well. It could be that the genetic combinations that predispose one to queerness also predispose towards other forms of variant sexuality. Or it might be that once you break down cultural taboos about one aspect of sex, other taboos get easier to transgress. If heterosexuals follow the lead of gay people, those who are repressing their sexual desires might develop the courage to be more honest with themselves and their partners. That could mean fewer people having affairs and fewer doomed to sexually mismatched marriages.
Gottman just scratched the surface of differences. Gay men and lesbians tend to be different from each other sexually – they ‘do’ sex differently, and not just in the obvious ways - and these differences can tell us something about male-female sexual differences. Queers tend to stay friends with their ‘exes’ much more frequently than heterosexuals, even when there are no children involved, and everyone can learn from this how to build family units that maintain connections even after divorce.
The list is long, too long to do justice to in one blog post. Here’s hoping other researchers follow Gottman’s lead. For myself, this is a topic I’ll be blogging about frequently in the future.
by Margie Nichols
Lately I’ve been excited by this book I’m reading, The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking. And then last week I had an experience that highlights one particular aspect of ‘the power of negative thinking.’
First, let’s spend a brief moment on what’s negative about positive thinking. I acknowledge that for many endeavors, having a positive and confident attitude increases the odds of your success. But as a total life strategy – it’s got some major flaws. For starters, unless you’re unusually lucky, as you go through life you will encounter numerous situations where good is NOT rewarded, evil goes unpunished, and bad shit happens to you that you can’t control, and it happens for no particular reason, let alone a good one.
And positive thinking can get you in trouble here. For the entire ‘positive thinking’ philosophy rests on two flawed assumptions: That most of our life is under our control, if only we approach it correctly; and that things that we can’t control are at least governed by laws that are fair and just. In short, the principles of “visualize and you will attain it” and “what goes around comes around.” So if your positive thinking doesn’t work – it means either life is pretty random, God is cruel, or you screwed up, and thereby you are to blame for your own failure. And I’ve seen people who suffered unfair and uncontrollable adversity react in all three ways: with fear and anxiety about the future, anger at God or the world in general, and self-doubt and blame.
I could say a lot more here (and undoubtedly will in a future blog since this is one of my favorite topics) but the point of this blog is the virtues of negative thinking and negative experience. Because another precept of the ‘positivity power’ philosophy is that negativity must be avoided. You visualize success because failure is deemed not only undesirable, but even harmful. And you avoid dark emotions of fear, anger, shame, or pessimism, for they will bring you down or hold you back. Positive thinkers allow that some dark thoughts and feelings are unavoidable, but encourages us to expel, expunge, or ‘resolve’ them.
But a philosophy of negative thinking embraces different assumptions about the world. This world view – Burkeman calls it a Stoic world view, but it is also a Buddhist world view – sees humans as relatively powerless in the universe, believes that pain and loss are inevitable, and values acceptance of the world as it is over what we think of as happiness. The laws that govern our lives are the laws of Mother Nature, the cycle of life and death that spares no one and does not conform to human notions of fairness, and as humans we have very limited control over our own lives. Rather than strive towards only positive, pushing away negative experience, the ‘negative thinker’ hopes through a clear-eyed acceptance of all experience to attain a life of some peace, equanimity, and to be able to enjoy and appreciate the moment. It is said that some Buddhist monks are trained to meditate while gazing on decomposing bodies, not to make them morbid, but rather to fully accept their own death in the future, and thus to be freed to fully live in the present.
You can see how ‘negative thinking’ might not be a popular world view, especially in we-can-all-pull-ourselves-up-by-our-own-bootstraps America. On the face of it, the Stoic/Buddhist philosophy of being doesn’t seem very comforting. Admittedly, it doesn’t have the obvious advantages of ‘positive thinking.’
And yet – it can be comforting in its own way. For one thing, you don’t have to try so damn hard to be cheerful all the time. That alone is enough reason for some of us to flee the cheerleaders of positivity. And let’s face it, the Stuart Smiley’s of the world can be damn annoying, and being consistently upbeat takes a lot of energy.
For another thing, you don’t have to monitor your mind for ‘negative thoughts’ or be afraid of dark emotions- you learn in fact, that you can survive them quite successfully. If you accept your own ‘dark side’ you don’t have to fear it or push it away; if you see life as a mixture of good times and inevitable loss and pain, bad times still hurt but they don’t shake up your whole belief system. In addition, the more you embrace this world view the more open you are to ‘data’ about the world you would have tried to reject. Some research has shown that ‘pessimists’ are actually more effective at real life tasks, because they tend to be more realistic. And those who visualize positive outcomes for tasks work less hard than those who don’t: it’s as if visualizing makes your brain think you already have attained your goal.
In fact, the more you can accept both good and bad, negative and positive, the more you see what you can’t control in life, and you stop expending so much energy running into brick walls. A final advantage of ‘negative thinking’: you don’t have to feel guilty when your ‘positive thinking’ doesn’t succeed. I acknowledge the power of intention, motivation, self-motivating and encouraging cognitions, self-care mental and physical, and doing things to optimize ‘flow’ – in other words, the things positivity proponents tell us to do to be successful. Those things work – but only to a point. A million other things affect achievement in any endeavor, including sheer luck.
No one seeks out hardship, suffering, or trauma, and many people are destroyed or seriously damaged by it. Excessive or intrusive negative emotions and dark thoughts can be destructive. Certainly, the main ‘lesson’ most of us want to learn from painful life experiences is how to avoid them in the future. And that is a worthwhile goal, when it is attainable, that is, when you are dealing with something over which you actually have control. But that’s not always possible, so we need to develop a more positive attitude about experiencing the negative.
I would argue that everyday bad experiences – not trauma or abuse, not extreme pain and suffering, but the ordinary mistakes, failures, and disappointments we encounter all the time – can be more helpful than we realize, if we can learn to roll with them a little. As Thich Nat Hanh says, ‘It is very important that you experience toothache, because without that you would never know how wonderful non-toothache is.’
Recently, I had an experience that taught me this lesson all over again. Like many other people my age, I’ve had a mild to moderately disruptive chronic physical pain condition that has come and gone for years, and I’ve managed it. About a year ago it got substantially worse, and so recently I tried a relatively simple medical procedure that I’d been avoiding, and it has given me remarkable relief. And I’ve having Aha! moments ever since.
For example, I’ve been, for the most part, in a terrific mood. And it got good really rapidly, like as soon as the pain was gone. Which made me realize how much the physical pain had affected my mood, and probably my perceptions, without my knowing it. And how the sudden absence created almost a ‘high’ feeling. I experienced a phase of intense appreciation for (relatively) pain free body. I am delighted by the ordinary things – going up and down stairs, walking longer on the treadmill, standing and washing dishes at the sink- that I couldn’t do easily before. And I am reminded how grateful I am to be able to feel gratitude, what a gift it is, how it makes everything in life a little sweeter, shinier, prettier.
But I’ve also been struck by how much the pain taught me. It’s given me increased empathy for those who have to manage pain on a day to day basis. It has reminded me of how permeable the boundaries are between physical pain and depression, and between physical vitality and joy. I also realized, as soon as the pain was gone, how intense it really was and how much I had adjusted to it. And this, in turn, has made me feel more confident about my ability to manage pain in the future. Before I had it, I imagined the amount of pain I was in every day as a disaster, my fear was that I wouldn’t survive it. Now I can harness the power of ‘negative visualization:’ when you imagine your worst fear (that the pain will return and be worse) and know you will survive, much of the fear abates, and equanimity is possible. So paradoxically, the pain directly and indirectly has given me joy – through my gratitude – and freedom from fear.
And as Buddhists, Stoics, and many others throughout the ages have believed – happiness is elusive and not within our control; but some measure of tranquility and enjoyment of everyday life is attainable. Do we really need more than that?