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Dating

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    How to Be More Supportive

    Everyone has bad days and faces challenges in life, and we all need encouragement to keep putting one foot in front of the other. Sometimes in our efforts to be helpful and to avoid awkwardness, we say things like, “Look at the bright side of things,” or “Think positive.” While well-intentioned, the words may not be super helpful.

    The reality is, allowing people to be vulnerable, open and honest about where they are can be a real gift. We live in a world where 1 in 4 people struggles with anxiety about different aspects of life. Just telling them to be positive or pointing out what we see as the “silver lining” does not provide a solution or make things better for them.

    What might be more helpful than mere words is your presence as they walk the road. Acknowledge the reality at hand by being there and by saying, “I can tell this is so hard,” or “In the midst of the storm, it is hard to see past all the challenges.” Asking, “What can you do for yourself today that will be comforting as you try and sort things out?” can also make a world of difference in how they view the situation.

    Whitney Hawkins Goodman, licensed marriage and family therapist, posted a graphic on Instagram containing common positive statements that are meant to be helpful, but might not necessarily be beneficial to someone who is really struggling. She contrasted those statements with ones that offer validation and hope instead.

    Instead of saying, “See the good in everything,” Goodman suggests trying, “It’s probably really hard to see any good in this situation. We’ll make sense of it later.” Or, instead of, “Just be positive,” what about, “I know there’s a lot that could go wrong. What could go right?” The truth is, it’s super hard to see the good in anything when you literally can’t see your way out of the pit. With these statements, you aren’t trying to sugarcoat the problem, and you are giving them the opportunity to consider whether there is potential for something good to happen.

    Think about the hard times in your own life. Sometimes it doesn’t feel safe to express yourself because you aren’t sure how another person will respond. What we are looking for in moments like this is empathy. 

    It can be uncomfortable to see someone you care about struggling. What you really want to do is fix the problem, but you can’t and usually you shouldn’t. In the midst of not being sure what to say or do, our tendency is to “Don’t just sit there; Do something.” Perhaps in this instance we should turn the tables and say, “Don’t do something; Just sit there. 

    It’s freeing for both parties if you are able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and get into the trenches with them, even if you can’t fix it for them. However, you can listen, hold their hand and help them find perspective. In doing so, you are allowing them to feel what they feel without inadvertently being judgmental or condescending, and that is powerful.

    Sometimes we underestimate the power of just showing up. You don’t have to have all the right words. Nor do you have to figure out best next steps. It’s OK not to be OK sometimes.

    This article was originally published in the Chattanooga Times Free Press on April 21, 2019.

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    What Single Parents Need to Know About Dating

    Dating after divorce or death can be complicated, especially if children are involved. As people navigate the world of dating and blending families, they have asked Ron Deal, stepfamily expert and author of Dating and the Single Parent, the following questions plenty of times: How soon is too soon to start dating? Should I introduce this person to my children?

    “On the topic of blended families, someone once said, ‘People marry and form a blended family because they fell in love with a person, but they divorce because they don’t know how to be a family,’” says Deal. 

    Deal believes the key to dating as a single parent is to include the children in the bigger picture.

    “Certainly, it depends on the age of the children,” Deal shares. “A younger child is more open to new adults in their life, but you don’t want to introduce your 4-year-old to a person that you just started dating. You don’t even know whether you like this person. Wait until you think this relationship really has a chance of going somewhere, then you bring them into the picture with intentionality.”

    For older children, elementary and beyond, Deal suggests talking with them about it first. Ask, “What if I started dating? How would you feel about that?” This way, you are putting it on their radar that this might happen. 

    “Once you know that the relationship has potential, it is important to create opportunities for everybody to be together and for additional conversations to take place,” Deal says.

    Deal strongly encourages couples to discuss a few things before deciding to move forward with marriage, though.

    Some couples decide to test the waters with the two families by living together first. This creates ambiguity for the children. When children experience this uncertainty, it creates chaos and empowers resistance. If they don’t like the idea of the families coming together, the ambiguity leads them to believe they could actually make the whole thing unravel. 

    Deal believes what a stepfamily needs more than anything are two adults who have clarity about their relationship and the future of the family. By having conversations ahead of time, you are valuing the “we,” and then the children. If you can’t come to an agreement on your parenting styles, Deal believes this is just as serious as marrying someone with addiction issues. The outcome of these discussions should be part of the equation as to whether or not you get married.

    “At least half to two-thirds of dating couples don’t have serious conversations about how they are going to parent when they bring their two families together,” Deal says. “If your parenting styles are vastly different, this can be a deal breaker.”

    In many instances, one parent has been making all the decisions for the children. Now add a second adult into the mix who isn’t their biological parent. What will you do when your child asks to do something and your answer would typically be yes, but your new spouse doesn’t agree with that?

    There is no question that negotiating parenting and romance all at the same time is complicated. You have to manage the complex moving parts, but Deal believes that if you are going to make a mistake as a blended family couple, err on the side of protecting your marriage.

    “The goal here is to protect your marriage, which is why it is so important to talk about these things prior to getting married,” Deal asserts. “Biological parents have an ultimate responsibility to and for their children, but if you make a parenting decision without consulting your spouse, it isn’t helpful to your marriage. The goal is to co-create your parenting response. You cannot have two different answers for two different sets of kids. That unravels your “us-ness” as a couple.

    “It typically takes four to seven years for a stepfamily to find their rhythm,” Deal adds. “There is no rushing it. You can’t will it into being. There are certain aspects of your family that will merge faster than others. Even in the midst of figuring out how to make it work, your marriage can be thriving.”

    This article was originally published in the Chattanooga Times Free Press on March 10, 2019.

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    Tidying Up Your Life

    Many people are looking to do some cleaning out at the beginning of a new year. Whether it’s a detox body cleanse or binge-watching “Tidying Up with Marie Kondo” on Netflix, people are interested in freeing themselves from toxins in their body and letting go of material things that seem to hold them back from living their best life.

    A relational cleanse could also be helpful. Start by asking yourself, “What did I drag into this new year that is holding me back?” It could be things like:

    • bitterness and resentment
    • a toxic friendship
    • lies you have taken on as truth about yourself
    • childhood experiences that still haunt you
    • a lack of forgiveness of yourself and/or others
    • disappointment that weighs heavily on your heart
    • despair that things will never change
    • an addiction
    • a job you dislike, or something else.

    Are there people who suck the life right out of you every time you are around them? If so, why do you choose to hang with them? How would your life be different if you moved on?

    What purpose does unforgiveness, resentment and bitterness serve? Holding on to emotions may seem powerful in some way or that it is actually impacting the other person, but it’s really killing you instead. Letting go of the poison doesn’t excuse the behavior; It gives you the freedom to live.

    What about disappointment and the complications of life? Spouses walk away, jobs end, unexpected illness hits, children make poor choices, and sometimes the biggest disappointments come from the ones you care about the most. Is collecting and carrying around disappointments helping you move forward? Sometimes you look back and realize that one of your biggest disappointments taught you one of your greatest life lessons. But, if you can’t figure out how holding on to disappointments is helping you be your best you, then it’s time to let them go. Doing this might feel like letting go of a very heavy weight.

    Excessive spending, gambling, alcohol, drugs, food, sex, pornography, video gaming, exercising, work and cutting are just a few of the addictions people often find themselves battling. Acknowledging that any one of these has a stranglehold on your life is the first step toward dealing with it and moving forward. Addictions are often bigger than what we can handle on our own, so don’t be afraid to seek professional help to get you moving in a healthy direction.

    Oftentimes, the hardest part is recognizing that we each make a choice, consciously or not, to continue hauling stuff around that isn’t helpful or healthy for us. Making an intentional decision to stop dragging around unhealthy relational things can give you a completely different perspective on a new year and your life. Opportunity lies ahead.

    This article was originally published in the Chattanooga Times Free Press on January 20, 2019.


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    Marriage, Millennials and the Divorce Rate

    Millennials are causing the U.S. divorce rate to plummet, according to a Bloomberg News report. In fact, divorce is down 18 percent since the Great Recession. On the surface this sounds like great news, but peeling back the layers reveals some good news accompanied by some not-so-good news.

    Young couples are looking at marriage differently. They are marrying later in life, waiting until after they have completed their education and have found a job. They are also being pickier about who they marry.

    Sociologist Brad Wilcox studies marriage and divorce trends as the director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia. He agrees that there is some news worth celebrating, but there is also a downside.

    Based on the data, Wilcox believes marriage is becoming more stable, and the adults who are entering marriage are more intentional about commitment. They don’t want to make the same mistake their parents often made at the height of the divorce revolution. 

    Wilcox says, “The Great Recession is really the first time we have seen the unwed childbearing trend go down. Many young women and young couples have become more cautious about having children outside of marriage.”

    “We will see a stabilization in families for children,” Wilcox says. “We might actually see more children raised in two-parent, married families than in the past decade.”

    Now for the bad news. 

    “Based on the research, we are going to see a decline in marriage for millennials and those coming behind them,” Wilcox says. “They are more cautious. Many of the young men are less accomplished and appealing as potential mates, and both young men and women are more reluctant to commit.” 

    Census figures show the median age of first marriage in America is now around 30 for men and 28 for women. And while millennials may be holding off on marriage, they are not holding off on living together. More Americans under 25 live with a partner than are married to one.

    The second piece of bad news? It's still true that one in two children born to parents without college degrees will experience family instability. By contrast, only about one-fourth of children born to college-educated parents will see their parents break up. The class divide in American family life seems here to stay, according to Wilcox. There is an interesting caveat to note, however. In looking at the data, Wilcox found that religious attendance is as powerful a predictor of marital stability as is a college education.

    “People who regularly attend religious services are more likely to enjoy stable, happy marriages,” Wilcox shares. “This makes me think we need to expand our thinking beyond just the socio-economic factors... One factor that fuels stronger marriage among less educated Americans is an active faith.”

    More people are getting married are staying married, but there is a very significant issue going on that cannot be ignored. A large portion of the population is not experiencing the benefits of marriage, and it doesn’t only impact the couples who aren’t marrying; it affects the children and society as a whole.  

    Click here to read the entire article, which was originally published in the Chattanooga Times Free Press on December 2, 2018.

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    8 Warning Signs of Unhealthy Dating Relationships

    Jessica was a junior in college when she started dating Jason. She had her eye on him for a while, thinking he was cute. When he finally asked her out, she was very excited.

    Within a month of their first date, Jessica’s girlfriends complained that she never spent time with them anymore. Her whole world seemed to revolve around Jason. Initially Jessica made excuses, but she finally told them that Jason got jealous and angry when she spent time with them.

    Rather than make him angry, she was willing to give up her time with friends for the sake of the relationship. She loved him.

    Jessica's friends thought Jason was controlling, possessive and had an anger problem. On more than one occasion after one of Jason’s outbursts, friends warned her that the relationship was not healthy and that she needed to end it. She ignored them.

    When she finally broke up with Jason six months later, her friends had moved on and she found herself alone, heartbroken and face to face with the reality that her friends had been right all along.

    Why hadn’t she listened to her friends?

    This common scenario plays out on many high school and college campuses, more so for girls than guys.

    Key findings from a College Dating and Abuse poll conducted in 2011 by Fifth and Pacific Companies (formerly Liz Claiborne) indicated that a significant number of college women are victims of violence and abuse.

    • 52 percent of college women report knowing a friend who has experienced violent and abusive dating behaviors including physical, sexual, tech, verbal or controlling abuse.

    • 43 percent of dating college women report experiencing some violent and abusive dating behaviors including physical, sexual, tech, verbal or controlling abuse.

    A 2009 study by the same company among dating high school students found that American teens are experiencing alarmingly high levels of abuse. Furthermore, the economy appears to have made it worse.

    Findings also showed that parents are disturbingly out of touch with the level of teen dating violence and abuse among teens. The large majority of abused teens are not informing parents, and even when they do, most stay in abusive relationships.

    People need to know the red flags of an unhealthy relationship and they need to know how to get out.

    The warning signs include:

    • Checking the other person’s cell phone or email without permission.

    • Constant put-downs.

    • Extreme jealousy, insecurity or anger.

    • Isolation from family or friends.

    • Making false accusations.

    • Physical violence.

    • Possessiveness.

    • Controlling behavior.

    Breaking it off can be complicated, but putting a plan together will help. Asking for help from a trusted person is a sign of strength.

    To make a clean break, move on to a different group of friends; otherwise it might be tempting to fall back into the unhealthiness. Remember, this is a dating relationship, not a marriage. If it isn’t good while you are dating, it won’t get better over time.

    There’s nothing wrong with having great expectations for a relationship. However, if you have to change and sacrifice your friends to make it work, it’s time to move on.

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    How Family Structure Impacts Loneliness

    For decades, concern has been expressed about how family breakdown impacts children, but the future impact on adults hasn’t received much attention. That's changing.

    In 2018, a Cigna study set off alarms about loneliness and its potential root causes as it indicated loneliness is at epidemic proportions in America. 

    In an article for City Journal, Kay Hymowitz, William E. Simon Fellow at the Manhattan Institute and author of Manning Up: How the Rise of Women Has Turned Men into Boys and The New Brooklyn: How to Bring a City Back, addresses how the rise in the breakdown of the family has created an increase in kinlessness. This phenomenon is impacting older adults in profound ways.

    Hymowitz cites studies, including one by Ashton M. Verdery and Rachel Margolis, that showed a surge in the number of “kinless” older adults. 

    “A jump in the number of never-married and divorced adults is also part of the kinlessness story,” writes Hymowitz. “Baby boomers were the first generation to divorce in large numbers, and they continue to split up even as they amble into their golden years, giving rise to the phenomenon known as “gray divorce.”

    Hymowitz also cites Robert Putnam’s work Bowling Alone, where Putnam raised the caution flag about the decline people were experiencing in social capital, especially the likelihood that boomers would experience a lonelier old age than the greatest generation before them. 

    Divorced people don’t typically have ex-spouses who are willing to take care of them in their old age or illness, nor do stepchildren typically care for stepparents as they would care for their biological parent. Even biological parents who walked away from their children now find themselves navigating old age alone

    Verdery and Margolis summarize their findings: “Evidence is accumulating that the legacy of divorce and remarriage has a long reach straining intergenerational relationships and suppressing the support that divorced parents, stepparents and remarried biological parents might expect from their children later in life.”

    Additionally, Hymowitz mentions cohabitation as a key ingredient in the rise of kinlessness.

    “Superficially, cohabitation looks roughly equivalent to marriage; couples live together as ‘husband and wife,’ sharing a bed, living space, meals and in many cases children, but without the ring and city-hall certificate,” Hymowitz says. She asserts that the increase in couples who are living together has added to the fragility of post-transition relations.

    Consider this: Cohabiting couples break up faster and more often than married couples. Separated, cohabiting fathers are more likely to withdraw from their children’s lives than divorced dads. Cohabiting and single parents have looser ties to their own parents and friends than marrieds. Plus, the Cigna study found that single parents are about the loneliest Americans.

    “Even evolutionary-psychology skeptics, might notice that though marriage has shape-shifted over the centuries and across cultures, it has always defined those people - spouses, parents, children, grandparents, siblings, in-laws - to whom we owe special attention and mutual protection,” Hymowitz says. “Marriage creates kin; cohabitation does not. Some of the most crucial obligations of kinship have always been to tend to the sick and to bury the dead.”

    It is worth noting that even today, the vast majority of unpaid caretaking of the aging in the U.S. is done by relatives, according to Putnam. Hymowitz surmises that a lot of what’s happening is due to a change in our understanding of what the family is and its purpose. Hymowitz points out that kinless elders are often hoarders who hang on to every stray electric bill, used coffee cup or odd bit of broken furniture. They cling to their stuff for lack of meaningful human interaction.

    “Uprootedness uproots everything except the need for roots,” wrote American historian Christopher Lasch. Hymowitz believes one of our greatest challenges is to communicate that need to coming generations before they make decisions that will further fragment their lives and communities.

    In conclusion, Hymowitz reminds us that the policy discussions about the troubles of the American working class and poor center on vocational and technical education, higher-paying and reliable jobs and benefits. These are necessary efforts, but they are not enough to counter the loneliness, kinlessness and despair crushing so many spirits. There must be what Tom Wolfe called a “great relearning” about how to satisfy the human longing for continuity and connection.

    This article was originally published in the Chattanooga Times Free Press on June 14, 2019.

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    4 Must-Dos for Parents After Divorce

    Based on hundreds of peer-reviewed studies, Dr. Warren Farrell, co-author of The Boy Crisis, says that “Dad’s time trumps Dad’s dime.” 

    “More than 100 psychologists and researchers got together. They wrote in unanimous consent that the children need their father about equally to their mother in the case of divorce,” says Farrell. 

    Farrell explained that for years researchers believed that children did better with an involved father because intact families had more money and lived in better neighborhoods. However, researchers controlled for virtually every variable and found that father involvement plays a vital role in the health of a child. It’s not just about the money he may provide, although that is very important. It is the combination of presence and provision.

    “The degree of difference between the health of a child who has both father and mother involvement, who has four things after divorce is so different from the health of the child that doesn’t,” Farrell says. 

    Farrell goes on to say that whether babies are born prematurely or full-term, the importance of the father being involved is enormous. 

    “Prematurely-born children are more likely to develop their brains better and get out of the hospital sooner and have more psychomotor functioning when the father is visiting the hospital as much as possible, according to research from Yale University,” he says.

    “The father breathing on the child when it’s first born helps the bonding process to occur and changes the dad’s brain,” Farrell says “The sooner the father gets involved with the child, a whole nest of neurons in the male brain begins to develop and connect with each other that mimics the mother instinct - overlapping with mother instinct. Oxytocin levels go up, testosterone levels go down. Dads connect emotionally with their children.”

    According to Farrell, in the event of an unavoidable divorce, here are four must-dos for your child to have a reasonable chance of doing well.

    The first one is ensuring an equal amount of time with mother and father. Being in checks and balance mode with each other never means the father going away and working 80 hours a week and coming back when he is exhausted and the children are in bed. Farrell asserts that children need more than a Disneyland Dad or just a visitor on the weekends. They need time, and plenty of it.

    The second must-do is for the mother and father to live within a 20-minute drive time from each other. This gives children greater stability and creates less resentment, because if parents live further away, the kids may have to give up activities or friends in order to see the other parent. 

    It’s also important that children are not able to hear or detect bad-mouthing or negativity from one parent about the other. If one parent responds negatively about something concerning the other one, it can affect the child’s intimacy with one or both parents. Bad-mouthing isn’t just by words, it’s also via body language and tone of voice. Farrell says that many parents will swear that their kids did not overhear them saying something negative about the other parent while on the phone, but the child could detect the difference in the tone of voice, even from another room.

    Finally, it’s beneficial for the kids if parents spend significant time doing consistent relationship counseling, even if it only happens every few weeks. If parents only seek counsel in an emergency, the chances are you need to solve the problem sooner, and you are more likely to make the other parent wrong and you only see the other parent when you are emergency mode. Therefore, you don’t have the chance to think and feel through with compassion the other parent’s best intent to solve the problem and make decisions.

    “Before you make a decision to have a child, do the research on why children need a significant amount of father involvement so that you don’t raise a child on your own and think it is just fine to do so and think that having a stepfather or you doing the father-type of role is going to be enough,” Farrell says. “If you believe your new husband is going to be a better stepfather than the biological father is a father, know that almost always the stepfather perceives himself to be an advisor, and the dynamic between a biological mother and stepfather is one where the biological mother does make the final decision. All of the dad-style parenting that a stepfather could potentially bring to a child’s life, like roughhousing, is likely to be inhibited by a biological mother with a lot more power and potency than she will use with the biological father. There’s a tendency for the stepfather to back out of equal parent engagement and just become a breadwinner.”

    Since research consistently shows that both parents are the best parents, Farrell expresses concern for unmarried biological moms who are living with the father. Farrell wants these moms to understand that when Mom is the primary parent, it often leads to the father being uninvolved and feeling that he is not valued. In situations like this, many fathers leave the child’s life within the first three to four years. 

    A word of caution here: While there is no question that some parents are unfit when it comes to filling the parent role, careful evaluation may be necessary to discern whether an ex is truly not fit to parent, or if it would "just be easier not to have to deal with them." If your thought process is more along the lines of, “I made a mistake marrying them. I want to start life over again without them. I don't like them. I don't like dealing with them,” it might be wise for you to reconsider your stance.

    There’s a big difference between safety and abuse issues and misunderstanding the other parent’s reasoning, thought processes or parenting style. If the goal is for children of divorce to be healthy in adulthood, it is important to follow these 4 must-dos after a divorce when it is possible and safe to do so.

    This article was originally published in the Chattanooga Times Free Press on June 7, 2019.

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    10 Tips for Getting Fit as a Family

    There seems to be constant buzz about how little time busy families spend together. Even during summertime, between work, screens, music, sports, and other commitments, families stay on the go.

    According to “The State of Obesity: Better Policies for Healthier America” survey released in 2015, some 78 million Americans are obese, which puts them at an increased risk of health problems, including heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. 

    In 2018, the adult obesity rate was at or above 35% in seven states and at least 30% in 29 states - but in 1980, no state had an adult obesity rate above 15 percent. Among children and teenagers, 31.8 percent were overweight or obese and nearly 17 percent were obese, including 5 percent of children between the ages of 6 and 11 and 6.5 percent of those between the ages of 12 and 19 who were severely obese. 

    "In order to build a national Culture of Health, we must help all children, no matter who they are or where they live, grow up at a healthy weight," said former Robert Wood Johnson Foundation President and CEO Risa Lavizzo-Mourey. "We know that when we take comprehensive steps to help families be more active and eat healthier foods, we can see progress."

    Regular exercise, adequate rest and healthy eating can be the difference in a family that lives, plays, learns and works well together and one that does not. 

    “Research shows that children need regular exercise to build strong bones and muscles,” says Teresa Wade, Health and Fitness Director at the Sports Barn. “Exercise also helps children sleep well at night and stay alert during the day. Habits such as these, established in childhood, help adolescents maintain healthy weight despite the hormonal changes and social influences that can lead to overeating. Active children are more likely to become fit adults.”

    Getting your family in shape does not have to be costly, but it does require you to move away from the screens and do something. Here are some suggestions for busy families who want to get and stay active during the summer months.

    • Schedule a regular time throughout the week for physical activity. 
    • Take turns selecting a weekly family activity. 
    • Start a log of daily fitness activities for each family member. 
    • Adapt all activities to suit those with special needs and preferences. 
    • Help everyone find something active that makes them feel successful. 
    • Buy equipment or toys that promote physical activity.
    • Discover what free and low-cost physical activity spots are nearby (park, bike trail, hiking trail, tennis court, swimming pool, etc.). 
    • Limit screen-time.
    • Use physical activity as a reward instead of food (e.g. Family goes skating). 
    • Emphasize the importance of having fun and learning. Avoid a push "to win." 

    “I encourage families to slow down a bit, schedule time in your week to be active together - actually pencil your family into your planner,” Wade says. “If you wait for it to happen, it isn’t going to happen. Believe it or not, exercise can be fun. Start slowly with something like walking or biking in the neighborhood. When my grandchildren are with me, we often take a walk around the block at night before we go to bed. It is a wind-down time and helps us connect before the end of the day.”

    This article was originally published in the Chattanooga Times Free Press on May 31, 2019.