Monday, July 30, 2007

Just going down the (computer) garden, dear

One of the biggest topics in my postbag right now - and for the past three or four years - is from women complaining that they have lost their partners to the Internet. I'm not talking about online cheating here, but the simple fact that many men are retreating to their computer screens more or less 24/7,leaving their women lonely and resentful.

On the surface it's a no-brainer. Anyone, male or female, who withdraws from relationship contact so decisively is surely making a statement about their commitment - and so the pages of outraged protest from abandoned partners has always left me sympathetic and supportive.

But I've suspected for a while that it's not quite as simple as that. Relationships are systems - what one partner does not only affects the other, but is a direct result of the other's actions. The outraged women who write to me are not simply victims; the situation almost always has two sides.

Plus, while - as I've commented on this blog before - women tend to react to stress by talking it through, men react by withdrawing. If a relationship is under strain, a man seeks solace on his keyboard - just at the very time when a woman needs the reassurance of interaction.

So I was pleased to see, in Saturday's Times, a piece making just this point. Such dynamics, writer Naomi Shragai quite rightly suggests, are not the cause of relationship problems, but the result of both partners' solutions-of-choice.

The piece not only posits a fresh - and in my mind entirely accurate - view of the Internet problem, but also offers some helpful hints. If you're suffering at either edge of this particular sword, I'd advise you to read it.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Morbid - no, necessary

Nice piece by Bel Mooney in the Mail this morning on the upcoming ITV documentary which shows, on primetime television, the last moments of a life. There's been a lot of controversy about this programme - as there was a decade ago when the BBC showed a death on The Human Body. Like Bel, however, I'm absolutely in favour.

Of course if a 'real death' is shown disrespectfully, humorously or violently, we should condemn it. But actually, we see 'pretend death'shown in all these ways, many times a week on the media, and barely an eyebrow is raised. This showing of real death in a serious, reverent - and above all, honest - way is to me a huge step forward.

I saw my father die. He was 78 years old, and he died of terminal lung cancer in a hospital bed with me and my uncle at his side. It was an unbearably upsetting moment - but nevetheless I am glad I was there. I had not been there when my mother died and I had always felt somehow cheated at that. We need to witness the moment of death.

But surely we only need to witness when the dying person is close to us? Surely when they are a stranger, as is the case on the upcoming documentary, our interest is morbid and voyeuristic. Not at all. Death, like sex, is something we rarely see in person - yet it is one of the defining elements that makes us human. We will all die, will all lose loved ones to death. We all want to know - and arguably deserve to know - what it looks like.

Seeing my father die has not removed my fear of being dead, because I don't know what follows. But it has removed my fear of dying - and thus made me far more able to live fully. If the upcoming documentary does that for even a handful of its viewers, then it will be worthwhile.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Be Prepared - take a condom!

Where did you learn about sex? If you're of a certain age, probably from an embarrassed parent... a giggling friend... or round the back of the bike sheds. Today's youngsters, on the other hand, are much more likely to get their facts about the birds and the bees attending a Girl Guide Jamboree.

Today's report that Girl Guides (as they used to be called) are scrapping their goody-goody image and demanding lessons on safe sex comes hot on the heels of July's survey from the British Youth Parliament suggesting that young people are campaigning for better sex education.

Now tthis is probably raising hackles in middle England, with worried parents seeing this as proof that the yoof of today is more debauched than ever before. I beg to differ.

I grew up in the Sixties, when we believed, to paraphrase Philip Larkin, that sex had just been invented. We acted accordingly. But we acted with very little responsibility, no awareness whatsoever of sexually transmitted infection, and a total presupposition that if you didn't want sex you were weird. The pressure from the lads to make a girl 'put out' would horrify today's confident young women. The irresponsibility of the girls to put out without contraception would horrify today's young men.

Yes, of course we live in a more sexualised society today than in the past. That's not down to teens however, who take their lead from the adults around them and the media which is controlled by said adults.

No, in my opinion, teens today are far more aware, sensible and responible than we ever were - and the proof of that pudding is in their asking for more sex education, to help them cope with a more sexualised society. Good on the Guides, I say, for following up on their motto...

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

You're not fat!

Coincidence is a funny thing. On the train this morning I sat opposite two boys and a girl, delightful teenagers of about 14 or 15. No, really, they were lovely - chatting among themselves about school, homework, friends, and what they'd done over the weekend.

But trains being what they are, I caught most of what they were saying, and when the girl started talking about a classmate, whom she eulogised for her face and figure, my attention homed in on the phrase "She's so skinny... whereas I'm fat."

I glanced across to see a sylphlike creature, with a waist you could have circled in both hands. And I winced. But I wasn't the only one - her male friends immediately took up the challenge. "You're not fat... come on... you look great."

The Sylph was having none of it. She protested, argued, pushed back. But worryingly, this wasn't out of false modesty; there were no flirty giggles as she asserted that she really ought to lose the fat on her stomach (what stomach?). She was deadly serious in her belief that she was overweight and needed to lose half a stone. I winced again.

As we reached London and all got up to leave the train, my wincing turned into an active discomfort - and suddenly I abandoned that English rule about never talking to strangers. I tapped the Sylph on the shoulder and gently made my point... that she wasn't fat but slim, slim, slim... that I received countless letters from women with eating disorders... and that she desperately needed to rethink her body image.

The Sylph was shyly polite. Her male friends were fabulous "we keep telling her that... maybe now she'll listen...". We parted with mutual smiles.

But I did wonder, as I walked away, whether if she didn't listen to her mates she would listen to that strange woman who had accosted her on a train. And I also wondered whether, if she didn't listen, how she would end up.

I began this blog entry with the words "Coincidence is a funny thing." - and you're probably wondering where the coincidence in this tale lies. Well here we go. This morning's press covered a study by the Schools Health Education Unit which revealed that over half the teenage girls in Britain believe they need to lose weight, while 40% typically miss breakfast - and sometimes lunch - in an attempt to emulate the sticklike status of their celebrity idols.

I strongly suspect that one of that 40% travelled opposite me on the London train this morning....

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Money can't buy you love

Today's reports that Sir Paul McArtney has offered Heather Mills £70 million as a divorce settlement will doubtless spark a flurry of editorial or feature comment on greed and avarice in general and the financial battlegrounds of divorce payoffs in particular.

As a psychologist, I see it differently. Post-divorce fights about money (like all relationship fights about money) are never only about the finances. They're about a whole host of much more emotional issues - power, control, self-esteem, jealousy, revenge, guilt. It is no coincidence that a Relate survey identified money as the top issue in marital conflict. And when marital conlict peaks in divorce, and the currency of love has disappeared, what can ever replace it? The answer is all too often hard cash.

We fight over the money side of a breakup because that is the only power we still have left over our beloved, or because we want to punish them for the end of the relationship. We shrink from fighting over the money side of a breakup because it is the only way we know how to make amends for having stopped loving them, or because we still treasure hopes of their loving us again.

So what I as a psychologist see behind Paul's offer and Heather's counteroffer is not avarice or greed. At bottom, I see the deep pain of two people who thought they were loved and realise that they are not.

Tell us more...

It feels so good when what you've written hits a chord with your readers.

It feels even better when what you've written hits such a big chord that a national newspaper asks you to write a much longer think-piece on it. So nice to be wanted.

My blog of earlier this week about co-rumination entranced the Daily Mail so much that they asked me to tell them more. The expanded piece can be found on p65 of this morning's Mail - or click on this link.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

You are what they say you are!

I've always thought that the recent smoking ban is good news - what's not to like unless you're addicted? But I didn't predict that it would also give me a wonderful real life example of what I've always held to be true; people live up (or down) to the expectations that others have of them. So punish somebody for something they haven't done, and they'll more than likely go ahead and do it.

Here's the psychology. If you tell someone that they are a certain type of person, they automatically shift their behaviour somewhat towards being that kind of person. So tell a child they are naughty and their behaviour deteriorates; tell them they are good and their behaviour improves. It's not an overnight shift, but a refocussing of the child's attention onto certain elements of their personality, plus a reinforcing and rewarding of those elements. Result - the behaviour you prophecied, whether bad or good, becomes self-fulfilling.

Here's the linked smoking ban anecdote, reported in The Sun last week. Council warden hands out a £50 fine to a couple who looked as if they were about to drop their cigarette butts but hadn't yet done so. Couple immediately drop cigarettes. Couples' later comment "We thought if we were going to get fined, we might as well get our money's worth." Living up to expectations - you bet!

Sure, some people's behaviour needs a short sharp shock. But punishing someone - child, lover, team, or an entire society - for something they're not actually doing, and you're inviting them to do it anyway.

Call me Polyanna. But I reckon that council warden would get more results if he actively thanked people who are good in binning their butts, rather than fining people who he suspects might possibly be considering naughtiness...

Monday, July 16, 2007

Talk to me

Personally, I've always relied on friends to help me through the bad times. Professionally, I've always advocated the support of friendship as a way of getting through the bad times. But a recent study in the Journal of Developmental Psychology, suggests that friendship may not be the solution of choice when one has problems - at least, if one is a girl.

The study, which involved 813 American girls and boys aged 9 to 15, got them revealing how much - and how effectively - they discussed their problems with friends. As expected, girls did it more. As expected, both boys and girls felt closer to friends after doing it. But, not as expected, girls felt more anxious and depressed as a result. Boys simply chatted things through and then let them go, but female teens ended up reinforcing each other's negative thoughts, feeling worse and worse about themselves - and then talking about it all even more as proof of friendship!

This study was done on adolescents but I strongly suspect this theory holds true across the board. Women like to talk things through and we tend to think that in and of itself is the solution. But actually, we may have a lot to learn from the boys. They don't get bogged down in the negatives. Their strategy - define the problem, find a solution, but avoid overthinking and overtalking - leaves them feeling more positive and more resourced. Perhaps, just perhaps, we should take a leaf out of their book and use some of the Mars approach rather than being unilaterally Venus.

Let me be clear. I'm not arguing against talking. Properly done, it supports, clarifies, and inspires. The problem is what the Developmental Psychology study calls "co-rumination" - going over and over negative issues, and so spiralling into ever more negative states.

And, let me be even clearer, I'm not arguing either against talking therapies. Well-done, counselling isn't co-rumination - any therapist worth their salt will slash straight through a client's descent into that kind of unhelpful thinking, and encourage them to find solutions to their problems.

No, the message of this study for me is not to drop our friends - or flee the counselling room. It's to learn just when, where and above all *how* it's good to talk - and when you need to simply take action and move on.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Friday snippets

Three pre-weekend stories.

Firstly, Radio Cambridge called me in to do a comment piece for their Drivetime Programme. Apparently a new text flirting service has just been launched, specifically aimed at people stuck in traffic jams who want to chat each other up! Light and lively little piece, but it turned serious when the presenter, Antonia Brickell, asked whether I approved of all this new technology; surely texting, chat rooms and internet dating sites were dangerous?

Lovely contentious question, Antonia - and great radio. Because I was then able to counter that actually I'm the Internet's biggest fan. It's not just the increased communication that I love. It's not just that research suggests people are *more* honest on the web because they're wary of being found out because they have to put things down in black white. I also love the Internet because folk who have formerly been marginalised in society now have a much bigger chance of getting involved and accepted. Example? My quadraplegic reader who ten years ago had no mates, and now has hundreds of friends who adore his lovely mind and personality as revealed in his emails - and don't care in the least that he can't move.

Secondly, though I try never to stray into the political arena, this week Gordon Brown has delighted me by coming down heavily against the supercasino plans. Yes, I do understand the regeneration argument. But if the casino-supporters were at the receiving end of the agony mailbag that I get from desperate wives and husbands who see their lives trashed by a gambling-addicted spouse, they would think twice about doing anything at all that supported the 'sport'. (Breaking news: Nokia has now banned gambling ads from its mobile ad network... considering how much revenue that will lose them, I think that's an incredibly brave move!)

Finally, on a more personal note, I've spent a good deal of time over the past few days being gobsmacked (as they say oop North where I come from) by the positive response to this website and this blog. Big thanks to all those people who have written to tell me they love it.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

But what do you actually dooooo?

As I've mentioned earlier, my working life has no clear pattern - any two days are usually utterly different. But Mondays and Thursdays have something in common - on both I write and submit agony columns. Today, it's my column for That's Life, a woman's weekly for whom I've written for over a decade now.

My postbag always moves me. A few sentences on lined paper torn from a notebook and hand-scribbled in a guy's coffee break. Several paragraphs inside a pink card with kittens on the front carefully printed by a fourteen-year-old, probably during a maths lesson. Fourteen pages of stream of consciousness, almost certainly written at the dead of night and downstairs, while the hated and feared spouse sleeps on upstairs.

How do I respond? Always from the gut. Yes of course I research around the problems presented, of course I refer on to an appropriate organisation. But the core of my answer is always instinctive, a reaching out to the letter writer, to make them feel understood and to give them a way forward.

I haven't got the answers. But what I can do - what my expertise and experience enables me to do - is to help my readers see their problems differently. The guy writing in his coffee break needs to realise that ending his affair will be hard but not impossible. The schoolgirl writing at her desk needs to realise that she doesn't need to sleep with the boy in order to get the love she craves. The spouse writing in the dead of night needs to realise that leaving the violent partner is the best thing for everyone.

Of course, I'm not just addressing those people. Yes, I originally write person-to-peson, but I'm published to an audience of millions, who buy the magazines and websites that run my columns. What I say needs to help them too see their problems differently - needs to give them permission to stay, to leave, to say yes, to say no.

Above all, my agony aunt columns need to give people the message that when times get tough, they're not alone - and that they deserve not to be alone. If not from friends and family, then from advisors, counsellors, therapists - and from agony aunts - people should feel able to reach out and get the help and support they need.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Eat your heart out, Corrie!

As well as covering "drugs, sex and rock and roll" for the mass media, I'm also heavily involved in the more academic side of things - most particularly sexual health. Yesterday, for example, I attended the quarterly meeting of the Editorial Board of the Journal of Family Planning and Reproductive Health, a cute little mag that belies its rather ponderous name to give coverage of a range of topics from menstruation to the menopause by way of contraception, sexually transmitted diseases and cervical cancer - anything to do with women's and men's bits, basically.

Of course it's a serious journal - the list of contributors always reads like a Who's Who of key world figures in sexual health. But what always amazes me during our meetings is the fact that in addition it's so much about real life, real stories of patients who have had to make difficult choices, real concerns of health professionals who have had to face difficult challenges. Granted, unless you have a medical interest in the topic, you won't keep a copy on your bedside table; but beneath the long Latin words and the carefully correlated statistics, there lie so many human stories - stories that frankly, I find much more interesting and inspiring than any TV soap.

Saturday, July 7, 2007

I can't believe I just did that!

Psychologists at Exeter University have made a neat discovery. Apparently they've tracked down a brain mechanism that alerts us, in the present, to mistakes we've made in the past. So volunteers who messed up on a set task experienced a sort of instinctive mental flinch when they were about to repeat that mess-up. Useful, say the psychologists, because it provides us with an early warning system in skills such as driving.

My thought was this. If we have such a mine detector for physical competencies, what about emotional competencies? Wouldn't it be great if we could learn not to date the partners who make us miserable, or not to run the addictive behaviours that cause us heartbreak? Wouldn't it be great if we could learn to avoid mistakes in our relationships?

Well actually, we do learn. We develop emotional mine detectors from the day we are born - and many of them stand us in very good stead. Problem is, we also overlearn. We learn, too quickly for our own good sometimes, that we need to flinch and run away from certain situations. And then, because of our past mistakes we can end up emotionally paralysed, scared of ourselves, scared of other people, scared of living our lives.

The vast majority of my agony aunt correspondents - and the vast majority of people worldwide who turn up in therapy - are folks who have a wired-in early warning system that leaves them believing that they can do nothing, be nothing, love no-one - for fear of making the same mistakes again.

Note to Exeter, then. Once you've tracked down not only our physical but also our emotional early warning system, can you please work out a way that - when we need and want to - we can also put that system on hold for a moment, relax, and start trusting the world and trusting ourselves

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Equality equals happiness - proof at last

Yessssss.... finally, some backing for what has always seemed to me to be a no-brainer. The Pew Research Center in Washington has surveyed 2000 couples about marital satisfaction and has concluded that sharing household chores is one of the most important factors.

This isn't a trivial issue. Not equalising housework was all very well when housework was what women did and out-of-housework was what men did. But all change - now everyone has a job and yet women still do the bulk of the childrearing and home-cleaning. For a partner to help isn't just easier all round - it's a sign of respect, concern and love.

Lads, I totally understand that you don't want to do the ironing because you find it boring and unfulfiling. But the hidden message in opting out of that stuff that you think it's OK for us to be bored and unfulfilled.

Monday, July 2, 2007

Sex, drugs and rock n' roll!

I spent the weekend catching up on a backlog of work. It's never the same day twice. Yes there are regular commitments - Monday column for AOL, Tuesday phone-in for Heart Radio, Thursday page for That's Life. But otherwise... what do I do, what have you got?

This weekend it was a mixture of sex, drugs and rock and roll.

Sex? I've been working for a while on a rewrite of a (rather famous) sex book, and we've just reached a new phase of firming up on what needs to be done: working through tens of thousands of words of research on such disparate topics as vibrators... orgasms... oral sex and pompoir (don't ask), I caught myself wondering happily how on earth I had, by some miracle, ended up doing as an enjoyable career what most people do just for enjoyment.

Drugs? I'm deeply involved - for personal as well as professional reasons - in cervical cancer campaigning; so on Saturday I spent some time looking over the news clips covering the latest vaccine. Lots of debate about whether 12-year-old girls should be injected, or whether the very act of vaccinating would make them more likely to have early sex. For me it's a no-brainer. If a 12-year-old girl is aware enough to be having the vaccine, then she's probably aware enough to know not to have sex for a while. It's the kids who don't have the vaccine that I worry about - they're much more likely to get caught not taught.

Rock and roll? Well, no, not really... but I did write a comment for a weekly glossy on the Spice Girls Reunion. I love serving up serious psychology that can teach people how to best live their lives... in the guise of a celeb news story. Sneaky, I know, but... such fun!