Archives For Unraveling the Psychobabble

In so many couples, one person seems to be getting more than enough physical touch, the other partner is starved for more. In both cases, the parties involved often take the demands or rejection of the other very personally.

This got me thinking.

Does anyone know if there has ever been a study that is essentially the other end of the scale of the Harlow Monkey contact comfort experiment? In this study, researcher Harry Harlow effectively showed that physical contact with a soft mother was actually more important to the monkey than food.

However, when viewing the video of the experiment, it should be noted that the surrogate mothers don’t have arms. Does anyone know if anyone has ever tested for what I’d like to call HugMAX? In as much as a mother’s comforting touch is important, it must also be instinctual for animals to flee when trapped. Whether it is a thorn bush or a predator’s jaw, it seems to me that at some point a flight response should kick in to some types of prolonged physical touch, even if no actual pain is involved.

In our house, one child was a cuddler; the other was a squirmer. As a toddler, my son loved to cuddle, whereas my daughter would try to wriggle away from a hug as quickly as possible. With her, it was like trying to cuddle a bobcat.

I wonder if each of us has a different upper end for enjoyment for physical contact where initial contact is needed and craved, but above the HugMAX point it starts to feel threatening and dangerous. If my hypothesis is correct, it would have one very significant implication: Unless both partners have the exact same HugMAX value, there is the potential that one partner will either feel trapped by “too much” physical contact or deprived of sufficient contact in the relationship, depending on whose HugMAX value is honoured more often. This would also imply that the seeds of couple dissatisfaction around physical contact are planted for nearly every couple! Whether it would be possible to change a person’s HugMAX value, and if so how, would also make an interesting study. (My guess is yes, because my daughter is a legendary hugger now.)

One really simple study I can think of would involve having couples comfortably embrace in a non-sexual context, but one partner would be in on the experiment. That partner would hold the hug until the held partner started to squirm to get away. The time, HugMAX, would be recorded.

Try it on your heartmate. I’d love to know how long it takes them to try and get away. :)

Does anyone know of any formal studies related to this? If you have very different physical touch needs than your heartmate, how do you cope? How do you fill the contact comfort gap?

“My dad thought you were drunk,” one of my students told me the next day. He tried to stifle a chuckle.

Sadly, I totally understood – his father had seen me shaking like a leaf and turning all shades of purple on “meet the creature” night. Even I had to admit that there was a delicious irony in this tea-totalling, school teacher being mistaken for sloshed because of my phobia. I felt like the only teacher alive afraid of speaking in front of adults.

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What is Sadness?

June 25, 2011 — 6 Comments
Tears are tasteless by Megyarsh, on Flickr

What does it mean to be "sad?"

Is sadness the opposite of happiness? Clinicians, do you have a real definition? It seems ridiculous, but I’m not entirely sure I know.

During some quiet time, my wife and I were sharing answers to a few of the questions I’d read while flipping through the Love Maps app from the Gottman Institute.

The question for me was, “What was your partner’s happiest moment?”

That one was a easy – our wedding day. If you saw the smile on her face that day, the choice was obvious. Her face literally hurt at the end of the day. We talked about why that day made her happy. She talked about feelings of love, joy, accomplishment, and even relief. Like I say, an obvious choice.

But then the obvious discussion point coming back to me was “What was the saddest day in your life?”

“Hmmm… It depends on what you mean by sad,” was my reply. “Is sad the opposite of happy? I’ve felt misunderstood, hurt, frustrated, lonely, anxious, left-out, pained, and have even felt feelings of loss - occasionally in combination. Would my saddest moment just be one of those moments or is ‘sad’ something different? I’m not sure I’ve ever felt just plain ‘sad.’”

So my question is, by definition is “sad” in reality a combination of other emotions or is it something unto itself? e.g. If I am lonely am I a kind of sad, or is it possible to be lonely and sad.

Ya, some days I think too much. ;-) I look forward to reading your comments.


Questioning Codependency

January 16, 2011 — 2 Comments
L:  The therapist is in.
GB: Is this going to hurt?
L: Probably. But I’m asking the questions here. I hear you lavish gifts and favors on your Mrs. It that correct?
GB: Flowers, love notes, small tokens of my appreciation. That sort of thing, sure. Lavish may be a bit strong, but…
L: Lavishes gifts. Check. Do you have to be “needed” in order to have a relationship with others?
GB: Erm… Sure? I’m not sure what you mean. I don’t like to force myself on others so I guess if they didn’t want me around; if they didn’t need me in their lives; I’d be OK with…
L: Needs to be “needed.” Check.  Would you consider yourself loyal?
GB: To a fault. Think golden retriever in man form.
L: Loyal even if things aren’t good for you?
GB: Sure. There are bumps in every relationship and…
L: I’ll take that as a yes. Check. Would you say you are sensitive to other’s feelings?
GB: I like to think I’m empathetic. Sure. Hey, what are you writing there?
L: Do you value others’ opinions more than your own?
GB: Sometimes, I suppose. I like to think I’m open to other’s ideas and reasoning. I’ve been known to change my opinion after a conversation. But that’s normal, right?..
L: And would you say you “freely offer others advice and directions without being asked.”
GB: Doesn’t every self-help writer? It’s kind of the point!
L: [Sigh] I don’t think we need to go any further. It is quite apparent that you have co-dependent tendencies and are therefore miserable. We can work on that. I’ll see you next Wednesday.
GB: Co-de-what? Miserable? But I’m happy and…
L: I know you think so, but I know better. See you next week.

The concept of codependency seems to permeate North American psychotherapeutic thought and the more I learn about it, the more concerns I have about how it is being applied. Rooted in the addiction treatment successes of Alcoholics Anonymous, it is built around the notion that those close to dependent personalities often have behaviors that inadvertently contribute to the addiction process. From this origin, the concept seems to have morphed in popular culture to include a much broader connotation and is often expressed as consistently putting other’s needs ahead of your own. As one twitter friend worded it, “selflessness is codependency.” This succinct interpretation landed like a holy hand grenade in the middle of my ideology and I’ve been disturbed by it ever since. What I’ve read subsequently regarding the diagnosis of codependency has only added to my concern.

First off, I need to acknowledge that the concept has value. It has helped countless individuals create healthier relations with their dependent others. There are also significant and useful truths throughout Melody Beattie’s self-help book “Codependent No More,” the layman’s handbook on codependency. To be honest, I picked up this influential book wanting to dislike it, but ultimately found that it is not the concept or how her book presents it that I am chafing against. Rather, it is how people are choosing to interpret and apply the concept. Like using a chainsaw as a letter opener, I believe that the struggle against codependency can actually be harmful if applied inappropriately to everyday, long-term relationships.


What follows are just a few of the warning signs for codependency and some of the unintentionally harmful ways that they have been interpreted:

“You may be codependent if you are very sensitive to how others are feeling and feel the same.”

How it is being interpreted: “I am solely responsible for my emotions, you are solely responsible for your emotions, and our emotions should not be connected in any way.”

My value challenged: Empathy

I smiled when my babies giggled, I was upset when they cried. As a wannabe-writer, I feel sincere joy when I hear that a collegue’s book has been accepted by a publisher. I feel pain and am drawn to prayer when a friend or loved one is having difficulties in life. I seek to comfort. In my mind empathy, “walking in anothers shoes,” is part of walking through life with those around me. We affect each other.

Yet, I have met those who are actually outright suspicious of anyone that feels connected in this way. “Your emotions should not be attached in any way to the emotions of others.” And some take it even further saying that, given the disconnect, they are in no way responsible for the emotions of others. To me that is the equivalent of saying, “Since you are responsible for your own tears, I can punch you in the face anytime I want. If you cry, that’s your problem.”

What I think is actually meant: “Do you do yourself harm by being sensitive to what others are feeling? Are you so connected that you cannot feel the happiness or sadness of your own circumstances? Are you able to disconnect from other’s troubles to recharge if needed. Is your empathy enabling negative behaviors in the other person?”


“You may be codependent if you are extremely loyal and remain in harmful situations too long.”

How it is being interpreted: “If anything harmful or uncomfortable happens in my relationship, it is time to move on. Loyalty is for chumps.”

My value challenged: Loyalty

The saying used to be “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” Now it seems to be “when the going gets tough, get going far away” and I believe that notions around codependency are frequently used to justify this approach to life.  In so doing, it has inadvertently robbed people of growth (I believe all personal growth involves some initial discomfort) and deep, rich, constantly adjusting long-term relationships.

In my own life, my Mrs. has fought an on-again, off-again battle with chemical clinical depression that first appeared after the birth of our children. Before we figured out what was going on, life was hard -  very hard. But knowing that we were going to stay together led us to find a solution and our relationship is stronger and life happier for conquering that demon together – if we could get through that, we can get through anything. Loyalty rocks: long term.

What I think is actually meant: “Addiction of any kind is very difficult to overcome and your staying close during the recovery process may be harmful to you and actually enable the addict. You may need to step away.”


“You may be codependent if you lavish gifts and favors on those you care about.”

How it is being interpreted: “Selflessness is codependency.”

My value challenged: Altruism

I frequently teach that “Romantic gestures are not about you. They aren’t for getting you out of trouble or even for making your heartmate love you more. The gift is all about him/her.” Conceptually, romance is to be altruistic (although in reality the initiator often receives reciprocal benefits). Our ability to be altruistic is one of the few characteristics that separates our species from most others. It is extremely rare in nature. Whether giving a flower to a heartmate or sending aid to Haiti, our ability to give selflessly is part of what makes us human.

What I think is actually meant: “If you are being hurt by giving, stop. Expecting anything in return for a gift or favor is not actually giving. It is lending and such behavior ties up the recipient with the strings you’ve attached.”

I believe that a true alpha romantic is empathetic, loyal, and altruistic. In so much as popular notions of co-dependency have made those and other values suspect, I believe we need to sound a warning bell that not everything that has been learned from codependency therapy is being interpreted correctly. Or maybe I am wrong and the interpretations that I am hearing are actually what is being taught by therapists. If that is the case, then colour me a happy and may I have many more co-dependent years ahead of me.

If you do a Google search on the phrase “you are perfect just the way you are,” you’ll turn up over a 100,000 occurrences! preaches it, musicians sings it – the phrase is deeply engrained in our culture. Countless self-help gurus and psychology professionals incorporate the phrase into their work and advice to others.

The problem is that we are not perfect and I believe that taking this truism too literally is eating away at our ability as a culture to maintain authentic relationships that grow and adapt over time.

Think about it. To claim we are perfect is to say that we no longer need to grow or change… ever. Like a painting hung in the Louvre, there is nothing that needs to be added or subtracted from our make-up. A literal interpretation of perfect implies done. And nothing could be further from the truth. We are not perfect paintings. Each of us is more like a rose – beautiful, elegant, amazing in our own way – but still in need of pruning and cultivating from time to time. And we need to grow always.

I believe the unintended relationship consequences of misinterpreting this phrase have been huge. Consider the following paraphrased scenario that I have seen played out in real life – “I am perfect and you are perfect. So if our relationship is going through a tough spot we must simply not be meant to be in each other’s lives. Like oil and water, we just don’t mix and if the situation isn’t working we should part ways. After all, we are both perfect and neither of us will be changing anytime soon.” There is no room in a “perfect” world for “broken, but fixable.” In this sense, the phrase has become a justification for emotional paralysis and using the easy way out, comfortably cloaked in culturally acceptable self-righteousness.

I know that in my own case, some of the relationship moments in my life I am least proud of ironically have come from moments where I’ve felt “perfect” and wanted to teach others how wrong they were. There have been times that I needed to remind myself that there is a huge difference between humbly sharing and hoping to learn from each other and imparting “perfect wisdom” from on high to teach another the errors of their ways. But if I am perfect, doesn’t it follow that I am justified in teaching others a lesson and that I certainly don’t need to listen to their objections or feedback? Only in embracing my imperfection can I make room for wise council from others and truly be comfortable with the fact that they may choose to ignore my input.

In my seeking, I found it particularly confusing when I read therapists “you are perfect just the way you are” – after all, isn’t much of therapy about finding ways to work on and deal with brokenness? I don’t think there is a single therapist that believes that they personally are “done,” never mind the clients that come to them seeking help with specific difficult issues. So what do they mean? What is being lost in the translation from dictionary definition to psychobabble?

Rather than “perfect,” I get the sense that most professionals actually mean something closer to “worthy.” They are saying that you are the best version of you that you can be right now, and that version of you is worthy of love and acceptance. As Dr. Brené Brown (@BreneBrown) notes, “people who have a strong sense of love and belonging believe they are worthy of love and belonging.” There is no requirement for picture perfect in that phrase. Each of us is like a child’s finger painting placed proudly on the fridge. We are precious and cherished as we are; not perfect, but “enough.”

For further reading: Self Esteem Doesn’t Make Better People Of Us

2010 has been another year of discovery for me. Inspired by incidents in my own life and in those of others on my RatedGRomance Twitter feed, I’ve become fascinated with relationship psychology. However, my formal science education is not in psychology but rather in biology and computer science, so I am a newcomer to this fascinating field. As such, I often find myself somewhere between “Wow, that makes sense” and “Seriously? Prove it.”

In this ‘Seriously?’ series of posts, I want to use my sceptical fresh eyes to challenge a few psychological truisms that have invaded pop-culture in ways that I believe are detrimental to the maintenance of rich, long term relationships. But please know that I am approaching this only as an anecdotal expert; a “seeker” hoping to enrich my own life and those in my sphere of influence through research supported knowledge. I want to thank everyone in advance for their references, comments and feedback. Each one of you is a guide on my journey. Know that whether you agreed with me or not, your words are greatly appreciated.