Broadening Our Definition of Beauty

Kim KardashianIt has been reported that the area of greatest increase in plastic surgery requests for the year 2014 was for derrière enhancements. This doesn’t seem terribly surprising given the amount of media attention directed at certain music, acting and reality show stars who have so much attention directed at their bottoms.

Most of what I read about body enhancements through plastic surgery leaves me with concern that people are so frequently needlessly paying good money and taking health risks to achieve goals that usually strike me as rather minor, even unnecessary, and too often completely counterproductive.

One positive note this latest news strikes in me is this increased democratization in our culture’s definition of beauty and female allure. Much has been said in the past about the unfairness of requiring women to be slender in order to be pleased with how they look. Much ink has been expended bemoaning the unfairness of making it difficult for teenage girls to be comfortable in their bodies unless they are among the minority whose genetics gift them with the tall slender appearance so long the ideal for American female beauty. This theme invariably includes strong concerns we have for the negative physical and emotional impacts of eating disorders, obesity and body dysmorphia.

Ideally our standards of physical beauty for men and for women would be broad enough so that people from a wide variety of body types could be pleased with the physical self they have to work with. After all, individually we had nothing to do with what mother nature gifted us with physically. Happiness in this area seems to come from accepting comfortably the reality of who you are physically and embracing a lifestyle that nurtures and protects the healthiest and most physically competent body you choose to live in.

Let’s hear it for the broadening of our definition of female beauty!

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Married At First Sight

nametagWouldn’t you rather have a team of four human relations experts choose your marital partner for you rather than go through this daunting task yourself? In the second season of “Married at First Sight” now on the A and E channel, four experts- a sociologist, a psychologist, a sexologist and a spiritual counselor- spend long hours scrutinizing 7000 applicants to select three women and three men and pair them into three couples who agree to be married on the arranged marriage date when they would for the first time see each other or even know the name of their partner as they approach the altar.

This would seem to be setting our “select your own partner through dating” culture on its ear and returning to the millennia tested arranged marriage cultures typical of so many societies around the globe. At first glance this is a fascinating experiment with competent professionals applying their best skills at selecting and matching marital partners. Surely they can do a bang up job of this. As I’ve said elsewhere, Americans have long been exporting our mate selection through dating institution around the world, with little hard evidence that our marriages are more successful than the traditional arranged ones. Could this be the wave of the future? Could this approach produce more successful, more stable marriages than the way we’ve been doing for the last few centuries?

For years in Dallas I taught a course designed to aid singles in making wiser choices in the mate selection dating game. The people who need this information most are those who have not yet made their first marital choice, older teens through younger twenty somethings. Yet most of the people who took the course were in their late 20s and up, licking their wounds from a failed marriage or two and frustrated with their ongoing dating experiences. When teenagers or early 20s came they usually were brought by a parent who wanted them to gain wisdom hopefully avoiding making the same mistakes the parent had. Apparently when we are in our teens and early 20s we are bulletproof in the area of romance just as we are in all other areas of life. We need no help. We just want to have fun. We have all the necessary wisdom.

In watching the first segment of the new season I was struck by how similar the six people selected by the experts are to those who attended my classes. All were in their upper 20s through mid-30s and from their reports had been single for two years or for seven years indicating marriages or at least long-term live-in relationships after teenage years and prior to being cast out again into the cold world of singlehood.

Another critically important point is that these six people – and likely most of the 7000 who applied – are specifically looking to find a mate and get married. This is in sharp contrast to so many people in the same age range today who are not interested anytime soon in getting married or are specifically deciding to avoid it. The most natural marriages are between two people who have very similar sociological backgrounds, such as similar age, education, subculture and even geography. The strength of diversity tends to show up in psychological or personality traits, where the differences in temperament, interest and skills tend to bring real benefits to the union, where this complementarity adds real strength to the partnership. This is contrasted with the typical arranged marriage culture where the sociological factors are very nearly identical except that there is typically a significant age gap, with the woman marrying soon after puberty and the man having more years to establish himself as an adult prior to marriage. Each of the couples in this show are virtually identical in age.

One of the most profound differences between picking a mate through dating and having a mate picked through arrangement is that arranged marriage cultures traditionally do not put high emphasis on or expect romance and strong physical arousal in each other’s presence. Such an emphasis is typically seen as being shallow and even to potentially add an instability factor to the relationship. Yet in our culture being physically and emotionally in love with your partner is virtually the holy grail to be sought in order to guarantee a fulfilling marriage. In our movies and stories, to be married for any number of practical reasons unconcerned about physical and emotional chemistry is downright un-American.

My brief viewing of this first installment of the new season displays the thinking of our four experts in applying their best insight to selecting the best matches. They seem to have given real emphasis to selecting mature and stable individuals and to pairing partners with promising similarities. They seem much less certain of what will be the chemistry that will be generated beginning at the moment each partner for the first time lays eyes on an individual he or she has promised ahead of time to marry, trusting that the experts who arranged it can make the right choice.

It will be fascinating to see how all this plays out in successive installments. As time moves on will each couple be pleased to have turned this much of their future over to recognized professionals? If the experiment comes to disappointment for any couple will it be because there were unrecognized immaturities or personal demons that prevented one or the other from being a viable marital partner? Will it be because there were differences too great to be successfully negotiated? Or will it be because of the inability to effectively communicate the vast differences that seem always to be between two human beings, even those who on paper seem so right for each other?

Late Life Love

latelifeloveThe new movie “The Age of Love” by Stephen Loring explores the dating and romantic desires of singles over the age of 70 where a number of senior citizens are filmed giving speed dating a try. Many younger people will find it surprising and some even gross the idea of people of this age deliberately moving into the dating scene attempting to experience again the thrill of romance and perhaps mate selection. I find nothing surprising about this.

As I’ve written elsewhere I grew up in Bradenton, Florida where retired couples lived in large numbers and where remarriage of widows and widowers was an regular occurrence. My father was a minister and I would sometimes go to the weddings and join in the festivities. It was clear that the romance and the affection, to say nothing of the teasing and banter, between bride, groom and friends was essentially the same as I typically witnessed at the weddings of young people being married for the first time. I have never found it surprising that romantic love can be rekindled at any age. I have never found surprising that romantic love between a husband and wife could last for a lifetime. It clearly did with my parents.

I’ve also never found it offputting to realize that physical attraction and affection could be enjoyed among people decades beyond their prime in youthful beauty. Perhaps the older we get the less picky we are. Perhaps physical beauty as traditionally defined just becomes less important with each decade as deeper qualities become more valued. After all, aging doesn’t occur suddenly but is a process that takes decades, decades to allow for the gradual adaptation to change.

A point that I’ve frequently made is that dating is the American way of mate selection. It is seen as an individual’s right in America to choose one’s own dating partners. We are not an arranged marriage culture where permission of family members is required for dating and marriage. All young people cherish their individual rights to choose in this area without undue meddling from those around them. I have however frequently found that when senior citizens reenter the dating world their adult children have a real difficulty extending to their parents the same rights they claimed when they were teenagers and young adults. Many times it seems too challenging for the adult children to not intervene to block a budding romance of a widowed parent.

The practical reasons given for such concern are hardly surprising. By this time in life financial arrangements for retirement have long been established. There is a real fear on the part of the adult children that reckless financial decisions could be made by a parent under the influence of a new romantic partner. In more extreme cases there is even the fear for the physical safety of an aging parent in a new relationship.

Less practical but much more emotional reasons are often at the heart of the adult children’s opposition to a single parent dating. Even where one parent has been dead for some time the child could see it as an act of betrayal or unfaithfulness to the dead partner to seek love with another. Such dating could also awaken rather childlike feelings of having a mother or father’s affection taken away by a rival. There is also the fear of simply introducing a new complication to the already established extended family structure and patterns of interactions.

This is only a quick look at what can be a very complex phenomenon that most extended families will have to deal with at some point. These late life romances can frequently bring with them some real emotional and practical challenges. The more adult and rational all parties can be in discussing each one’s real concerns about these situations the greater likelihood that the extended family will simply become stronger and better meet the emotional needs of all. This is enormously more desired than using power plays, ultimatums, threats and withdrawal of love. The healthy way is to stay engaged, with everyone hearing and taking seriously the concerns of each other family member. No one has the right to dictate one adult to the other and should not try. Yet each is connected to the other frequently by decades of relationships that are precious and hopefully endure for a lifetime.

Do the Right Thing, Do the Smart Thing

ethical-dilemaDo the right thing. Do the smart thing. Which one of these guides your decision-making? What career should I pursue? What person should I marry? Should I get divorced? Is it time to get pregnant? Should I spend money on that item? Should I take on a partner or go it alone.

Everyday we make decisions, mostly very minor to minor. Sometimes we make major decisions, life-changing and permanent in their impact. Some people very clearly think long and hard about what is the smart thing to do, what will make me the most money or get me the greatest pleasure. What will get me what I want, or who I want? How can I win; what do I need to do to succeed? This type of thinking essentially involves looking at the variables in the equation and following the most compelling logic to design a plan of operation to achieve the chosen goal. All of us use this type of thinking repeatedly in the small decisions and even in many of the larger decisions we make on a regular basis.

Others primarily concern themselves with what is right, what is moral or ethical. Every day we conduct ourselves based on the rules we have been taught since birth about what we should do if we are being good and what we should avoid doing in order not to be bad. These are dependable guidelines for most of the decisions we make repeatedly. As long as these rules are grounded in excellent moral guidance they serve us well.

Help in making decisions is a major reason people seek out therapists. People do not want to come to regret having made a decision they later came to see as a mistake. We have all had that experience. We could regret that we weren’t smart enough and failed to achieve an important goal. If we have a conscience we could regret doing something wrong, something about which we feel guilty or remorseful.

Sometimes what has us on the horns of a dilemma is that it seems the smart thing to do is clearly also unethical given the moral standards we consciously embrace. When someone is seeking help choosing the best course of action I listen carefully to get the most accurate reading of all the things this person is wrestling with in trying to finalize an appropriate decision. Sometimes it is clearly, “Do the smart thing:” sometimes it is clearly, “Do the right thing.” Most frequently the two are intertwined. And sometimes it is obvious that the clever thing to do is also an immoral thing to do.

Are you aware of which of these is your primary course to follow in planning your course of action? Most of our decisions do not require us to choose one course or the other. In a stable environment doing the right thing, treating people and the world around us with respect is also clearly the smart thing to do, especially looking into the future.

This is too big a subject to address in one post so I plan to revisit the issue again later. Let me just leave you with a thought. Where coming to a decision gets really difficult is when it seems we must, to be smart, do something that really troubles our conscience. Count yourself fortunate if at such a time you really have to wrestle with the various factors you have to consider. Many people never have such a wrestling match with themselves. They know they are in no danger of later having to feel guilt or remorse at having done something that was so clearly clever yet so clearly damaging to others. These are called sociopaths: no guilt, no shame, no remorse, no embarrassment.

How important is your ZIP code for your child?

San Francisco“Right now the biggest predictor of how a child will do in life is the ZIP Code in which they are born,” according to Eva Gladstein head of Philadelphia’s Office of Community Empowerment as reported at CBSnews.com. One of the major global demographic trends for well over a century has been the movement of people from rural areas to urban areas. Their driving impetus as reported by sociologists who study the phenomenon is that they are looking for a better life for themselves and a better future for their children. For most of them it seems that even living in urban squalor is superior to staying in poverty-stricken rural areas.

The rural heartland of America has for decades been losing its population to nearby cities. The standard practice since World War II is for children growing up in rural areas to go off to the nearest city for work and education and never return to the rural areas.

The accompanying major trend is the movement from inner-city to the outer rings to improve life and provide a better future for children. One of the main concerns of parents today in choosing where to live, if they feel like they have the choice, is where they can get the best education for their children along with the most desirable subcultural surroundings for them to grow up in. This is what wise parents do.

Since so much of child rearing is the non-deliberate influence on children from their surrounding sub culture starting with the parents, going to other adults then to their peers, the choice of where to have your children grow up is vitally important in shaping how their lives will turn out.

I would suggest – and I think the data would back it up – that after the ZIP Code in which you were born being of most critical importance, the ZIP Code to which you move as soon as possible with the greatest opportunity for your family and your children would be a close second as a predictor of how your child will do in life.

Trying To Make You See I’m Right

arguing coupleOne day reading an old issue of life magazine I came across the brief story of a woman driving along a city street when a drunken sailor stepped in front of her car. She slammed on brakes, came to a screeching halt and jumped out of the car to find witnesses to prove she wasn’t at fault. Fortunately for her a few city officials happen to be standing there including two traffic judges who witnessed the reckless behavior of the sailor. Unfortunately for her they also witnessed that she was driving on the wrong side of the street and gave her a ticket. The sailor was apparently unharmed and wandered on his way.

What’s my point? Frequently in couple therapy where the wife goes on, usually with much frustration and even hurt about the husband’s irritating, irresponsible, selfish and in general not smart marital behavior, the husband’s response is to go on about equally bothersome behavior of which the wife is guilty. They are giving me a live demonstration of how they attempt unsuccessfully to resolve issues in their marriage. They’re also giving an illustration of why they fail to achieve meaningful changes and merely add to the collective anger moving them toward the destruction of their marriage.

It usually occurs to me as I’m listening to the wife complain about the husband that almost any wife would have the same complaints if she were married to that man. The smart thing obviously would be for him to pay attention to her problems with him and use these as suggestions for self-improvement from someone who perhaps knows him best. Chances are that a lot of what she finds infuriating about him would be pretty much what his boss, fellow workers, friends, parents and siblings would echo. But instead of perceiving them as wiser courses of action his response to her complaints about him is to essentially say, “Well you’re not perfect either.”

The wife’s strategy in responding to her husband’s complaints is the same strategy he’s using. Don’t give any credence or validity to his concerns about you. Change the subject. Turn the spotlight of criticism on him. As long as they continue like this the marriage is heading down a bad road.

Each one of them is feeling very helpless, so troubled is he or she at being unable to get any cooperation from the partner. It also is interpreted that my partner doesn’t really love me. Each feels there’s nothing I can do to turn this marriage around.

Fortunately neither one of them is helpless to change the marriage. Either one can without any argument, capitulation or disagreement, without any request for cooperation, simply choose one of the items on the partner’s irritation list that is easiest to change and change it. I don’t mean change it briefly for a day or two to see if he or she will notice and reward you for it. You’re not doing this to win an argument. You are doing this to change the relationship for the better. Pick the next easiest-to-change behavior and do the same thing. Noticing will be done whether it’s voiced or merely pondered for how long is the change really going to last and what’s the meaning of it. This is empowering, moving you from helpless to effective in creating a better marriage for yourself and your partner and any children you have.

You are likely changing something that makes you more companionable, perhaps more likable and even more efficient. You get the benefits elsewhere in your life as well. You are not losing the power struggle with your partner; you are moving beyond it to a more mature strategy. You are stepping up your value as a human being… value to yourself and to the others whom your life impacts. Step up your game, not your arguing.

Dating Insight From an Arranged Marriage Mom

momIn a delightful post in NYMag.com, Beejoli Shah portrays the challenges a young person faces in America when she comes from an Asian culture of arranged marriages such as her parents had back in the 70s. The first thing that struck me was that her mother seems to have accepted her daughter choosing her own marriage mate through the American institution of dating. Beejoli then humorously portrays herself as a very boy crazy girl growing into a  romance obsessed young lady, all the time sharing her travails with her mother. Her mother somewhat surprisingly seems to be the very model of a mother who keeps the lines of communication fully open between her and her adventurous daughter by restraining herself from attempting to berate or control her high-spirited daughter. Rather, at the appropriate time, mom shares pithy observations about the realities singles face in the American find- your- future- mate- through- dating world. Mom’s advice seems amazingly spot on through the years of her daughter’s delightedly becoming fascinated with first one exciting male then another. It seems that Beejoli needs to learn everything by experience, with mother by contrast seeming to have the uncanny ability to learn all the same lessons, not by having to personally experience them, but by keen observation. I call that wisdom.

Even though daughter doesn’t seem ready to accept mom’s advice before diving headlong into the next questionable relationship, she shows great wisdom in keeping open the lines of communication with mom and in willingly recognizing each time mom’s observations prove eerily accurate. Parents who come from arranged marriage cultures face a real challenge in how to respond to their own children being so strongly influenced by the dating and mate selection behavior of their American peers. Beejoli’s mom seems to portray one of the more successful ways of responding to this powerful challenge. Perhaps mom should also be writing a blog, obviously being of help to dating singles but also likely offering some real understanding and support for other parents, especially those in arranged marriages, navigating these treacherous waters with their adventuresome children. Can we hear from mom?