Monthly Archives: January 2010

Life, Love Lessons from the Developmentally Disabled


Sanford Rosenthal introduces PAIRS at ARC Broward

Sanford Rosenthal, a veteran PAIRS instructor who lost his vision to retinitis pigmentosa, teaches relationship skills to a developmentally disabled group at ARC Broward.

Nearly 50 million Americans live with a disability. For many within this community, the challenges of sustaining relationships can be life and death matters.

This week, I joined Sanford Rosenthal, a veteran PAIRS instructor and social worker who lost the last remnants of his vision several decades ago to the disease retinitis pigmentosa, to introduce PAIRS relationship skills to 70 disabled adults and staff members at ARC Broward.

The private, not-for-profit organization provides daily support and assistance to children and adults with mental retardation, autism, Down’s syndrome, cerebral palsy and other developmental disabilities, delivering a continuum of support to over 1,000 children and adults.

The audience fast embraced our invitation to begin an adventure into the miracles of their own lives and relationships, eagerly sharing insights into the logic of love and emotions from the unique perspective of the severe challenges they face daily.

As we introduced Virginia Satir’s powerful stress styles of communication, the men and women eagerly offered comments and perspective on behaviors such as people pleasing, blaming, computing, and distracting through facial expressions and words many struggled to share.

When we began teaching Satir’s Daily Temperature Reading, a powerful exercise for nurturing cherished relationships, hand after hand quickly rose for a chance to participate through heartfelt, specific appreciations for the people who make a difference in their lives. Many motioned to staff members, urging them forward to thank them personally for their daily counsel, faith, and support; others turned to one another to offer a warm embrace, words of acknowledgment, and other verbal and non-verbal expressions that communicated their gratitude. The 90 minutes allowed for our brief presentation could have easily turned into a full day, as the courage and example of each class participant inspired similar expressions from their enthusiastic peers.

Although close in proximity, this group – like similar groups in communities throughout our nation — lives a world away from millions of Americans who are not afflicted with a life-altering disability. It was impossible not to be touched by the deep gratitude they expressed for those who met their most basic human needs – someone to listen, believe in them, truly see them.

I suspect Sanford and I both left the group having learned as much, if not far more, than we shared.

I returned to my nearby home, wife, and nine-week old son more aware of my ability to speak, learn, listen, and share; more grateful than ever for the resources, freedoms, lessons, and challenges of my life as I reflected on the overwhelming obstacles each of these men and women endure daily to continue their own. I recalled my adolescent experiences with the late Virginia Satir and Daniel Casriel — the energy, authenticity, and faith they brought to developing the exercises and insights we shared with this audience, trusting they were smiling upon our efforts, offering their own blessings to the lives of these extraordinary human beings, grateful that their lives, values, and passions were continuing to make a difference in the world.

And I thought of Satir’s poetic words, “I am me,” penned in response to a teenage girl decades ago who turned to her for guidance as she struggled to understand her own life:

“I am Me. In all the world, there is no one else exactly like me. Everything that comes out of me is authentically mine, because I alone chose it — I own everything about me: my body, my feelings, my mouth, my voice, all my actions, whether they be to others or myself. I own my fantasies, my dreams, my hopes, my fears. I own my triumphs and successes, all my failures and mistakes. Because I own all of me, I can become intimately acquainted with me. By so doing, I can love me and be friendly with all my parts. I know there are aspects about myself that puzzle me, and other aspects that I do not know — but as long as I am friendly and loving to myself, I can courageously and hopefully look for solutions to the puzzles and ways to find out more about me. However I look and sound, whatever I say and do, and whatever I think and feel at a given moment in time is authentically me. If later some parts of how I looked, sounded, thought, and felt turn out to be unfitting, I can discard that which is unfitting, keep the rest, and invent something new for that which I discarded. I can see, hear, feel, think, say, and do. I have the tools to survive, to be close to others, to be productive, and to make sense and order out of the world of people and things outside of me. I own me, and therefore, I can engineer me. I am me, and I am Okay.”

Answering the Call


Sleeping on Maybelle's Lap

Sleeping on Maybelle's Lap, 1965.

I’ve often wondered if my life would really be different if someone had answered my mother’s phone call in the early sixties when she reached out for a therapist to help save her marriage to my father. The story I’ve heard recounted many times since is that it was the end of summer, a last desperate attempt to rescue a 17-year marriage, but since no one was available to help, the chance for reconciliation passed. Their union, and the last hope for our intact family, dissolved forever.

By four, Maybelle, a young widow who had arrived in the Washington, D.C. area from South Carolina seeking respite from the poverty and discrimination of the time that faced many African Americans in the south, became my primary caretaker.  Her devotion, love and joyful spirit remains my fondest childhood memory.

The youngest of four, by my twelfth birthday, I became the only child regularly living in our comfortable suburban home. For the most part, it was Maybelle and me, as my mother’s constant routine included busying herself to emotional and physical exhaustion week after week, year after year, serving her therapy patients and a father lawyering himself tirelessly for elite corporate clients and the new family he quickly created, with little time, patience or apparent desire to stay engaged in the life of a son he barely knew.

Throughout it all, Maybelle and I always found reason to laugh.

I don’t remember anyone ever asking if I’d done my homework, how I’d done on a test, what was happening at school, with friends, or talks about drugs, alcohol, sex or much of anything else important. I do remember my father’s rage when he had to take time from his busy law practice to go to court with me as a young teenager after I got in trouble for being delinquent. I can still see his angry face and feel his words as he told me how ashamed he was and that he’d never forgive me for embarrassing him.

The lessons I learned came mostly from friends I found whose parents were nearly entirely absent from their lives too. Many others emerged from the promises I vowed to myself during those years to one day give my own children a different childhood. When I found myself in a painful, destructive marriage with their mother, it took years to finally surrender to the realization that I could not save them from the legacy of divorce. Although I knew that what was in my hands was the ability to stay actively involved in their lives through shared custody, coaching their sports teams, volunteering in their schools, and choosing career and life decisions that allowed me to make being their father my top priority throughout their childhood years. Together, we could learn as much as possible about breaking the cycle of divorce to help our family and others.

Nearly half a century after the phone call that wasn’t answered for my parents and the marriage that wasn’t saved, I regularly find myself seeking out the young children of couples who attend marriage education classes I now help organize and teach to thousands of couples in South Florida and elsewhere, silently pledging to each of them that I will always do my best to competently answer their parents’ calls.

Last week, I had a chance to review and report on research looking at the impact our brief workshops are having on their parents. The results brought statistical, scientific evidence to support the testimonials and grateful appreciations that have become almost commonplace at the conclusion of our 12-hour classes. I was particularly eager to see the results from the fathers of these children, hoping to finally find an answer to the question I’d asked myself about my own parents’ relationship for much of my life.

In our six-month follow-up with nearly 500 men, we found:

  • 95% reported improvement in communication with their partner;
  • 93% reported improvement in regularly sharing appreciations;
  • 92% reported improvement in their ability to resolve conflicts constructively;
  • 84% reported improvement in their physical intimacy;
  • 89% reported improvement in their ability to confide emotions;
  • 94% reported improvement in their overall relationship.

[For a copy of the full report, see fatherhood.pairs.com.]

Would that have been enough to save my parents’ marriage, I wondered? Had my parents attended our class, would it have changed the course of my own life? While I’ll never really know the answer to that question, I do know that for these children, they’ll have a better shot at keeping the childhood, support, encouragement, and resources that are lost by millions of youngsters when their parents breakup, the childhood I lost too.

From her home in heaven, I hear Maybelle’s laughter, feel her warm embrace, and find comfort in the idea that perhaps that’s the grand scheme of it all.

Step Back from the Brink


Step Back from the Brink

A recent PAIRS Foundation study found that four out of five couples on the brink of divorce can transform their relationships through participation in brief, evidence-based marriage education classes.

A recent PAIRS Foundation research report found that four out of five couples on the brink of divorce can transform their relationships by participating in brief, evidence-based marriage education classes led by qualified instructors. The PAIRS study offers ample cause for distressed couples to step back from the brink of marital breakdown to explore how relationship skills training programs such as PAIRS could be the difference between creating a future of family and personal harmony or the lifelong cost and impact of marital breakdown.

The PAIRS study is additional evidence that the most important step a couple can take when facing a crisis in their marriage is not therapy, counseling, a divorce attorney, apathy, resignation or surrender, but enrollment in brief marriage education classes that are widely available online and in person at locations nationwide.

My own life was forever impacted by my parents’ divorce when I was barely a toddler. My father’s parents also divorced during the earliest years of his childhood. Like my father, I became an adult with no model of what a healthy relationship based on love and intimacy looked or felt like. I didn’t even know what I didn’t know – something we call “unconscious incompetence” — about the skills I’d need to sustain a happy marriage or the shared values and qualities I should look for in a potential long-term partner.

I married and had children knowing from the outset that divorce was an option. When my children were about the same age I was when my parents split-up, their mother and I separated and eventually divorced. Three generations of marital and family breakdown has taken a toll on each of us and those we love. Surely we’ve survived, and in some areas thrived, but we will never recover the years squandered, the lost opportunities and memories, the price children paid for not growing up with the support, security and model of a stable, two-parent home, and the financial and emotional scars that never fully disappear. It didn’t have to be; it shouldn’t have been.

My professional involvement in the field of marriage education over much of the past 15 years – personal experiences with thousands of participants in all stages of relationship who attended PAIRS classes — contributed immeasurably to my life, helping me learn, grow, mature, and, hopefully, model for my children skills and attitudes that are the foundation of lasting relationships based on love and intimacy. The experiences also helped me develop greater empathy for generations of men in particular who have tried their best to navigate their roles as husbands and fathers with either no example to build upon or examples that for whatever reason do not apply.

Time and again I’ve seen marriages and families transformed as couples discover the practical skills offered in PAIRS for understanding emotions in themselves and others, confiding, listening with empathy, releasing negative emotions, dealing with differences in ways that strengthen relationships, and discovering how to be a pleasure to each other. Historically, a very high percentage of couples who enrolled in PAIRS arrived only as a last resort, hoping and praying their participation would help them restore and reconnect with each other after months or years of turmoil, frustration, anger, often betrayal, enormous pain, hurt, and sadness. The far majority succeeded in finding each other again and creating successful relationships. For those who did eventually part, they did so with deeper understanding of what went wrong, greater empathy for each other, and significantly enhanced opportunities to lovingly co-parent their children and never have to repeat the mistakes that led to the dissolution of their marriages.

Today, more and more couples and singles are recognizing the benefits of relationship skills training as important building blocks to lasting marriages that are an ongoing source of love, pleasure, happiness and fulfillment for both partners, participating in record numbers in brief educational programs prior to or in the early years of marriage. That’s good news, as the skills they learn provide a lifetime of benefits that enhance their lives at home, work and in their communities and make a profound contribution to the health and well-being of their children.

The next time you or someone you love says any of the statements we frequently hear from participants who arrive at their first PAIRS class on the brink of separation or divorce, please think about their children; ask about the wishes, hopes and dreams that originally brought them together; encourage them to participate in a PAIRS class before making decisions that will have a lifelong impact. Help them step back from the brink.

  1. I can never forgive you. By design, human beings are works in progress, growing and learning throughout the duration of our lives. While we make many great decisions, sometimes we make bad ones, especially when we’re in pain, not getting our needs met, or feeling hopelessness, fear, or despair. As we learn to accept our own humanity, we’re also more likely to have compassion and empathy for others that can lead to a significant shift in how we interpret their actions, behaviors and decisions. While each person has to make their own decisions about whether or not to forgive those we feel have wronged, hurt, disappointed, or betrayed us, the process of choosing to let go of grudges and the choice to forgive is a profoundly healing, empowering, adult experience.
  2. I can’t talk to you. They say you can tell the married couples in a restaurant by looking for people who aren’t talking to each other. It didn’t start that way and doesn’t have to stay that way. Confiding is the lifeblood of intimacy. Couples at every stage of relationship can easily learn skills for creating an environment in which it’s safe to confide without fear of judgment, blame, or criticism. Sometimes that means first having the opportunity to release emotional intensity, often it requires fully recognizing the price we pay for losing the ability to talk and listen to each other – whether that’s with our children, spouse, or others we cherish. Many people bring behaviors that help them succeed (or survive) at work into their homes and families. Often what’s needed is the opposite. Very quickly in PAIRS classes, couples learn to talk and listen to others in ways that make it safe and natural to confide.
  3. I just don’t love you anymore. Love has its own logic, which too few people understand. Feelings of love naturally wax and wane. Quite simply, the logic of love is the logic of pleasure and pain. We’re drawn to what we anticipate will be a source of pleasure and will find all kinds of creative ways to avoid what we anticipate will be painful. The work of the relationship is to create an environment in which we’re consistently a pleasure to the people we cherish. How we do that changes during different periods, chapters and circumstances. PAIRS teaches couples how to create a positive balance in their relationship “Love Banks” so feelings of love don’t just survive, they thrive!
  4. I never really loved you. For generations, the basis for marriage was security, stability and raising children. That still remains true in many cultures across the globe. Yet in most western societies — increasingly after women entered the workforce in large numbers during and after World War II — the basis shifted to meeting each other’s needs for love and intimacy. The rate of marital and family breakdown increased dramatically as generations of men found themselves ill-prepared for the new rules of love relationships, often behaving as their fathers and their fathers before them only to discover their wives weren’t happy, satisfied, or committed to staying in relationships in which they didn’t feel loved, cherished and fulfilled. And in many cases, with the resources to leave, they did. Often, especially for couples who immigrated to the United States from other nations as well as seniors who have been married for decades, PAIRS offers a road map through the course of true love.
  5. I’ll never be happy in this relationship. The people we’re closest to are often the mirrors through which we see and experience ourselves; the witnesses to our lives. It’s not unusual to go through periods of self-doubt, contemplation, confusion, even turmoil and frustration as we navigate the passages, chapters and transitions that are a natural part of our collective human experience. It may be easiest to blame those people who are most present in our lives for periods of unhappiness. An important part of PAIRS is the chance to better understand emotions in ourselves and others, including a deeper understanding of what may be at the root of feelings of unhappiness. Too often, well intentioned friends and counselors advise us to treat the symptoms of unhappiness instead of getting to the heart of the situation. Most often, unhappiness comes from not getting our needs met, including our need for bonding (emotional openness and physical closeness). Once couples learn to create an environment in which they can meet each others’ needs for bonding, including confiding, releasing negative emotions, dealing with past hurts and disappointments, negotiating differences, and creating a positive balance in their “Love Banks,” happiness and feelings of love generally grow and flourish.
  6. I’m in love with someone else. The emotion of love develops as a response to the anticipation of pleasure. It’s normal to feel love for the people who are a pleasure in our lives and confuse fireworks we may feel as our body chemistry reacts to those experiences with “being in love.” Certainly, those feelings can eventually lead to true love, although so can creating an environment in which we have similar experiences within our existing relationships. It’s often easiest to be misled by the feelings we have connected to interactions with people who are only remotely and minimally connected to our lives versus those with whom we share nearly the entire field of our lives. Consider how easy it is to be a pleasure to someone when we have no expectations, obligations or responsibilities opposed to those with whom our lives are so intertwined that the slightest criticism or disappointment can leave us feeling intense sadness or anger. PAIRS is a chance to discover what’s possible when you create an environment that encourages connection, compassion, empathy, authenticity, and confiding within a committed relationship. Most often, couples discover feelings of love beyond what they may have ever imagined possible. For those who choose to end their relationship in pursuit of another, they’re generally able to do so with deeper understanding of what went wrong, empathy for all involved, and better opportunities to effectively co-parent and avoid finding themselves in a similar situation again with another partner.
  7. I’m so angry at you. It’s perfectly normal to experience feelings of anger, fear, sadness and disappointment and no surprise that emotions are most intense in our closest relationships. Negative emotions are like the waves of the ocean that frequently lose their energy as they dissolve upon the shore. We can spend our entire lives trying to keep those waves from breaking – struggling to control, manage, or deny our feelings — depriving ourselves of countless experiences and opportunities to feel love, joy, tenderness, and relief. PAIRS classes help participants expand their emotional intelligence, including a safe process for confiding the full range of emotions and being comfortable with authentic emotional expression from others. For many participants, as they discover their ability to release pent-up feelings of anger, fear, disappointment, and sadness, they realize how much more room they have for positive feelings as well as greater empathy, compassion and closeness within their relationships.
  8. It’s too late. It’s never too late. With good will and openness to learning, couples in any stage of life can learn skills to create and sustain happy, healthy, loving relationships. Whether or not to sustain a relationship is one of the most important decisions of a lifetime. When children are involved, the impact on them is both particularly significant and lasting. Often, especially for couples in crisis, both partners are not open to learning at the exact same moment. Regularly, one partner will attend PAIRS on their own, seeking to learn and discover what’s possible for themselves, even when the other is unable or unwilling to attend. Nearly a third of the people in a typical PAIRS class participate as individuals, either attending without their partner or because they’re not in a relationship. While our basic character and nature may be determined long before adulthood, behaviors are not. We learn to behave certain ways as a result of our life experiences; sometimes the very behaviors that enabled us to survive in one environment are sabotaging us in another. PAIRS is a safe opportunity to learn about the behaviors that help nurture and sustain loving relationships, to try them on, and discover what’s possible. Once you’ve had a chance to learn, practice, and integrate the skills into your life, you’ll have a much better idea of the real potential for experiencing love, happiness and fulfillment in your closest relationships.
  9. There’s no chemistry. As couples learn to become more emotionally open, expressive, and comfortable asking for what they want, being a pleasure to each other, and dealing constructively with differences, physical intimacy also improves. Research has repeatedly validated significant improvements in sensual and sexual satisfaction as couples deepen empathy, compassion, expand their ability to confide in each other, and learn to resolve typical conflicts. While the impact of chemistry is experienced in different ways at different stages of life and relationship, the depth of connection and pleasure many couples are able to bring to their lives as a result of relationship skills training is often far beyond what is typically referred to as good chemistry.
  10. You betrayed me. Like air, food, water, and shelter, bonding – the unique combination of emotional openness and physical closeness with another human being — is a biologically-based need for humans from our first breath to our last. Consistently meeting each others’ needs for bonding may be the most important work of a relationship; it is regularly the foundation of successful relationships. Relationships become extremely vulnerable when couples are not meeting each others’ needs for bonding. When a person is starving for connection – emotionally or physically – they can make decisions that contradict their most deeply-held values, similar to the impact of being deprived of other human needs such as air, food, water or shelter. As participants in PAIRS begin to understand the Relationship Road Map and symptoms of bonding deprivation, they often experience a paradigm shift in how they interpret decisions that may have led to behaviors that betrayed their values and vows. Many choose to forgive themselves and their partners for – more often than not – the incompetence that led them to lose each other along with a promise to invest time and energy daily to stay closely connected, open to listening, confiding, sharing, and bonding as the best protection for their marriage, vows, and most cherished wishes, hopes and dreams.
  11. You’re not the person I married. People change. Our experiences — positive and negative — the stories we tell ourselves about those experiences, and the decisions we make show up in our behaviors, attitudes and beliefs. Life itself is a series of opportunities to define and know ourselves through our responses to the circumstances and situations we encounter and the choices we make. Human behavior is often deeply connected to how we interpret the motivations of others, how we feel about ourselves at a given moment in time, and the choices of which we’re aware. When people are scared, sad, angry, feeling guilty, insecure, or going through a period of low self-esteem, those feelings show up in how they behave, especially (perhaps ironically and tragically) towards those they love most. When couples and families learn to create an environment in which it’s safe to be vulnerable, learn to respond to each other with empathy, authenticity, and compassion, they have the best chance of bringing out the parts of each other they most enjoy. PAIRS offers a road map to creating an atmosphere that is safe for the best parts of people – our most precious human qualities — to shine.
  12. You’ll never change.
  13. At any moment in our lives, we can change our behaviors. That doesn’t mean it’s easy or instant. Changing behaviors begins with recognizing what you want to change (including seeing and embracing the benefits), changing it, and then sustaining the change under stress and over time. Participants in extended PAIRS classes — including partners, fellow classmates, and instructors — help provide the supportive environment necessary for the best opportunity to make and sustain the changes we choose. Key concepts taught at the beginning of PAIRS contribute much to this process. First is an understanding of the “Levels of Learning,” beginning with recognition that in many important areas of our lives, we don’t even know what we don’t know (unconscious incompetence). Fairly quickly, participants reach the second level, conscious incompetence, where it’s safe to see the impact our lack of knowledge and skills (as opposed to bad intentions) has had on important relationships. As participants practice the skills and exercises offered, they recognize their ability to become consciously competent, meaning the new behaviors are not yet habits – support and reminders are vital – yet they experience the difference that’s possible. Long after the end of PAIRS, when participants have consistently decided and practiced the skills to create new habits and sustained those behaviors under stress, they reach the level of unconscious competence where the changes are part of their regular interactions with loved ones. PAIRS helps couples focus on the behaviors they want to change as opposed to trying to change a person’s character, values, or nature. While it takes patience, persistence, and determination, at any time in their lives, people can change their behaviors when they truly recognize the price they’re paying for their actions, clearly see what they want instead, and have the chance to grow within an environment that supports creating new habits.

For more information on PAIRS classes, visit www.pairs.com, e-mail info@pairs.com, or call (877) PAIRS-4U (724 7748). For information on other marriage education programs, visit www.letsstrengthenmarriage.org or Diane Sollee’s SmartMarriages.com website.

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Seth Eisenberg is President & CEO of PAIRS Foundation, one of the nation’s oldest and leading relationship skills training organizations.

January’s Announcements Reveal December’s Reflections


Resignations, retirements, chapters closing, new beginnings. January’s announcements reveal December’s reflections.

Jackie and Chris Dodd

After three decades in the U.S. Senate, Chris Dodd announces he won't seek re-election.

America awoke this week to news that one of the most influential members of the United States Senate, Democrat Chris Dodd of Connecticut, a former Presidential candidate, was joining North Dakota’s Byron Dorgan and Colorado Governor Bill Ritter in announcing he will not seek re-election.

Politicians are not the only ones calling it quits this month. In divorce filings nationwide, an estimated 100,000 American couples will throw in the towel on their marriages in January. While those decisions will not receive the attention of this week’s political announcements, for their children especially, the lifelong impact will be far more significant.

The tragedy for the far majority of these couples is that not only can their marriages be saved, they can become the foundation for lives overflowing with love, pleasure, happiness and fulfillment.

Marriage Education Prevents Divorce

Nearly eighty percent of couples on the verge of divorce transformed their relationships by participating in PAIRS marriage education classes.

More often than not, what’s missing isn’t the right partner, but knowledge and skills that decades of research has proven transform even the most challenged relationships when two people have good will and are open to learning. With so much at stake for children who count on their parents to have the maturity, wisdom, love and determination to provide security and stability to their own lives, it’s tragic that couples more quickly call a lawyer than a qualified marriage educator when love hits the rocks.

Two recent studies published by the nonprofit PAIRS Foundation offer vital information for couples considering joining the legions of men and women beating a path to divorce lawyers or websites promoting quick dissolutions.

The first study looked specifically at couples who enrolled in PAIRS brief (9 – 12 hours) marriage education classes at the lowest levels of marital cohesion, meaning, for most, they were on the verge of separation or divorce. Six months after participating in three to four three-hour classes, nearly eighty percent of these couples had transformed their relationships.

Another study looked at the specific areas of lasting improvement in a highly diverse pool of nearly 1,000 participants in PAIRS relationship skills training. Again, the far majority had significant improvements in their ability to confide, share appreciations, physical intimacy, and other areas that are key to creating and sustaining thriving love relationships.

“…Finally, preliminary research shows that marriage education workshops can make a real difference in helping married couples stay together and in encouraging unmarried couples who are living together to form a more lasting bond. Expanding access to such services to low income couples, perhaps in concert with job training and placement, medical coverage, and other services already available, should be something everybody can agree on…”

Barack Obama
The Audacity of Hope

This research doesn’t mean every marriage can or should be saved, but it should provide ample reason for couples to pause before filing for divorce and consider if evidence-based relationship skills training could be the difference between a child growing up with the security, stability, safety and example of seeing parents work through the natural challenges of life and love or paying the lifelong price that comes with marital and family breakdown.

The equivalent of less than a day in a proven marriage education class should be the first suggestion any attorney, friend or family member offers a distressed husband or wife seeking to dissolve a marriage, especially when children are involved.

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PAIRS Foundation, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, is one of the nation’s oldest and leading providers of relationship skills training and marriage education classes for couples and singles in all stages of relationship. Learn more at www.pairs.com, e-mail info@pairs.com, or call 877-PAIRS-4U (724 7748).