Nagging: Love Destroyer, Marriage Killer

Nagging is a symptom of deeper conflicts.

The media are not providing the level of intelligence on psychological issues that our world desperately needs.  A recent article on relationship disharmony in the Wall Street Journal —titled “Meet the Marriage Killer”—illustrates the point.  The content of the article fails completely to get to the heart of the widespread nagging problem.

Both my headline and the one in the Journal are not precisely correct. Nagging is just a symptom of a deeper psychological conflict, so nagging in itself is not the real marriage killer. Nonetheless, the problem of nagging is widely experienced and dreaded, and the Journal article was well-read (it had 472 comments at one point).

The article starts out satisfactorily, and it provides an adequate definition of nagging:

Nagging—the interaction in which one person repeatedly makes a request, the other person repeatedly ignores it and both become increasingly annoyed—is an issue every couple will grapple with at some point. While the word itself can provoke chuckles and eye-rolling, the dynamic can potentially be as dangerous to a marriage as adultery or bad finances. Experts say it is exactly the type of toxic communication that can eventually sink a relationship.

However, never at any point does the article ask (let alone answer) the question of how “toxic communication” arises in the first place. The author of the article summarizes the views of experts with this paragraph: [Read more…]

A Singular Cause of War

War can be understood in psychological terms.

Political scientists and other experts say there is no simple cause of war. Human nature, they say, is just another ingredient in the recipe for war, along with varying portions of racism and religion, geography and language, and economics and culture. This notion that war arises from highly complex factors conveys the idea that ordinary people are simply not going to understand it. In other words, war is too complicated for us to prevent.

Conveniently, that lets our leaders off the hook for starting wars and it lets us taxpayers off the hook for financing them. War, to put it in the guilt-free passive tense, just happens.

In fact, war can be understood in simple terms that enable us to take responsibility for this continuing shame upon the honor of our species.

Most people cite aggression as a primary cause of war. However, underneath the aggression, deep in our unconscious mind, resides the passivity that permits war to happen. This inner passivity largely takes the form of self-doubt about one’s value and significance. This self-doubt is a void—our heart of darkness—that strands us in the shadows of our better nature. The main cause of war is our difficulty in recognizing this grave liability, this waste land in our psyche where our consciousness and humanity have not penetrated. When this inner landscape of non-being is extensive, we cannot feel the horror of war or the shame of being associated with it. We cannot connect with our inner authority in order to say NO to war. Our self-doubt or lack of inner authority can be understood through this feeling: “Who am I to question authority and say I know the truth, that our wars are evil operations that blacken my good name and shame me to the core?” When we’re growing in consciousness, however, we are able to take personal responsibility for wars fought in our name and thereby oppose them. [Read more…]

The Temptations of the Injustice Collector

Trapped behind the illusion of injustice.

In matters large and small, we all want to see justice done. A lot of us, though, suffer greatly—more than actual situations call for—in seeing injustice, or what we identify as injustice, being done to others and in feeling it being done to ourselves.

We magnify injustices out of proportion, holding on fiercely to feelings such as being wronged, deprived, controlled, criticized, disrespected, or rejected. An example is the unfortunate partisan divide in American politics that is fueled, at least in part, by the willingness of people to complain about all the injustices that the other political side is allegedly inflicting upon them.

If we’re classic injustice collectors, we whine incessantly about the unfairness of life. We’re upset on a daily basis about all the affronts we have to endure. We’re figuratively dangling upside-down in a shaft of self-pity, clutching a charge sheet of outrages, piercing the darkness with night-vision goggles to see more “bad things” to moan and groan about.

Unconsciously, some dysfunctional people amass their collection of grudges the way a miser hoards his gold.

There are two kinds of injustices. The first is actual injustice caused by human folly or the capriciousness of life. Faced with this injustice, we know logically that it’s best to avoid extrapolating emotionally upon the sense of being victimized. If actual injustice is being done to us, we try to respond appropriately, which may include asserting our rights. At the same time, we strive to minimize the conflict or unpleasantness of the situation. We can, for instance, not take personally the malice or insensitivity of others. [Read more…]

The Dire Determinants of Divorce

Thwarted love can be the greatest of all hurts.

The list is long of the sundry ways we can suffer in a marriage or romantic relationship. We can, for starters, feel controlled, trapped, restricted, deprived, refused, criticized, belittled, disrespected, betrayed, rejected, abandoned, undervalued, and unloved.

If we’re really eager for punishment, we can feel many of these painful emotions at the same time, for much of the day and night. This inevitably produces growing resentment against one’s partner because we blame our partner for the strife that we ourselves are determined to experience and act out.

On the surface of our awareness, we all want tender love and intimacy. But deeper down we can have an unconscious program in place to act out negative emotions that are unresolved from childhood.

Of course, happy marriages and romantic unions exist in large number. Yet the more we are dysfunctional or neurotic, the more likely we are to turn our relationship into a turbulent free-for-all that is doomed to end in divorce.

Unresolved issues can converge around marriage and intimate relationships like singles at a love fest. Why? The hurt of feeling wronged by someone we are intimate with can be so much more intense. Thwarted love can be the greatest of all hurts, especially when we’re blind to the depths of our own contrariness. The thrill of new love is often a homing beacon for the desolation of rejection, betrayal, and abandonment.

Divorce is usually a result of our own failure to escape the clutches of self-suffering. We lug into marriage our toolkit for making misery; we stagger way from the divorce settlement unwilling to part with that baggage. [Read more…]

Enjoy the Quality of Your Consciousness

Pleasure and consciousness are closely allied.

Why don’t we feel more simple pleasure from being alive and conscious in a fascinating world? That has to be one of life’s great enigmas. We can feel pleasure easily enough when we’re stimulated by art, literature, movies, sports events, relationships, sex, food, alcohol, and racy cars. We have a hard time, though, feeling pleasure from everyday, moment-to-moment experience.

Plain, old everyday moments are often taken for granted. Or they’re overcrowded by worries and considerations, regrets and fears, toils and troubles, and desires and cravings. We chase after stimulation, catching speedy roller-coaster rides while missing the magical-mystery train that thumps out of our station every morning.

Basically, we block access to everyday pleasure because, unconsciously, we’re producing too much displeasure. (I described in some detail how that happens in an earlier post, “Mark Twain’s Mysterious Misery-Machine.”)

We automatically start to feel more pleasure from daily life as soon as we stop producing displeasure. The displeasure is produced when, unconsciously, we recycle and replay old unresolved emotions. Once we turn off this inner misery-machine, we enhance the quality of our consciousness and we can feel a higher degree of moment-to-moment pleasure. We also stop taking life for granted because the quality of our consciousness attunes us to the richness of the here-and-now.

Stephen Pinker, Harvard psychology professor and author, put it this way: “I would argue that nothing gives life more purpose than the realization that every moment of consciousness is a precious and fragile gift.” In this statement, replace the word purpose with the word pleasure. Also, consider Pinker’s use of the word “realization.” The word denotes an awakening to consciousness and an appreciation of it for its own sake. [Read more…]

The Helplessness Trap in Cravings & Addictions

Addicts can break free of the "helplessness trap."

This post is a revised and expanded version of an earlier post, “The Negative Emotions behind Addictions,” which was published here last October. In this version, I go into the heart of the emotional experience of the “helplessness trap” which addictive personalities experience when (or just before) their cravings strike.

When a craving strikes, we often react with a sense of inner helplessness. Will our intense desire for self-defeat prevail? Do we even have a chance to successfully resist, knowing our history of being overwhelmed by our cravings?

In depth psychology, an addiction is understood to be a self-defeating reaction to unresolved negative emotions. Unresolved negative emotions in our psyche produce inner conflict. Examples of common inner conflict include wanting to feel loved when entangled in self-rejection; seeking success when encumbered by expectations of being seen in a negative light; yearning to be praised and respected when tangled up in self-criticism; pursuing relationship stability when emotionally attached to betrayal and unworthiness; and struggling to self-regulate when undermined by unresolved helplessness and passivity.

In other words, unresolved negative emotions from childhood (including our readiness to feel deprived, refused, helpless, controlled, rejected, betrayed, abandoned, and criticized) produce inner conflict. This conflict in turn produces suffering, self-defeat, and out-of-control emotions and behaviors. We can overcome the disruptive influence of inner conflict, and thereby enhance our capacity for self-regulation, when we see our psyche’s inner dynamics clearly enough. [Read more…]

Mark Twain’s Mysterious Misery-Machine

It rusts away when sprayed by self-knowledge.

We all like to think we’re motivated by self-interest, self-protection, and self-love. Consciously, we are. Unconsciously, though, we operate a misery-machine inside us that churns up self-defeat, self-damage, and self-rejection.

A reference to a misery-machine is made by the character Satan in Mark Twain’s final novel, The Mysterious Stranger. The reference is found in this passage from the book:

Every man is a suffering-machine and a happiness-machine combined. The two functions work together harmoniously, with a fine and delicate precision, on the give-and-take principle. For every happiness turned out in the one department the other stands ready to modify it with a sorrow or a pain—maybe a dozen. In most cases the man’s life is about equally divided between happiness and unhappiness. When this is not the case, the unhappiness predominates—almost never the other. Sometimes a man’s make and disposition are such that his misery-machine is able to do nearly all the business. Such a man goes through life almost ignorant of what happiness is.

This short novel, while nihilistic and grim in places, presents many insights into human nature. Twain’s savvy on matters of human conduct and motivation is consistent, of course, with his greatness as a writer. Perhaps the novel’s most significant insight is the idea that truth about human nature is not as pleasant as we would like. That in itself is not a popular or pleasant idea. That resistance may account, in part, for why the novel is one of his least popular books.

So what is this misery-machine of which he writes? Twain presents only the machine’s finished products—ignorance, self-serving hypocrisy, violence, despair, stupidity, malice, anger, vanity. He didn’t get to the nuts and bolts of the machine itself, which at the time the emerging science of psychoanalysis was beginning to do. [Read more…]

Obesity and the Dopamine Fallacy

Neuroscience Adds Excess Weight to the Obesity Epidemic

Consciousness is the main factor in self-regulation.

The Flip Wilson Show was America’s second most-watched TV show for its first two seasons in the 1970s. In his role as the sassy Geraldine Jones, Wilson, a comedic genius, had a trademark line, “The devil made me do it,” that his character declared when she needed an excuse for her impulsive or questionable behavior.

Another trademark line is being trotted out, this time by neuroscience, to account for the nation’s obesity epidemic. Nobody is laughing, though we should, when they tell us, “The dopamine makes you do it.”

Yes, dopamine, we’re told, has taken possession of the brains of obese people and turned them into sugar and fat addicts, slaves of the midnight snack and prisoners of the cookery. “It’s not your fault,” they’re told, “the dopamine makes you do it.” Hang in there! Great minds are working on a pill.

Professor Gary L. Wenk, author of Your Brain on Food (Oxford, 2010), recently posted the essence of the dopamine explanation at the Facebook page for Psychology Today:

Initially, scientists assumed that obese people were simply addicted to food in the same manner that someone becomes addicted to heroin, i.e. food produces happy pleasant feels, and therefore eating lots of food would produce extremely pleasant feelings. Not so. A few years ago scientists discovered just the opposite was true; the brain’s reward center decreased its response to eating tasty foods. This induces people (and animals in experimental studies as well) to consume ever greater quantities of fat and sugar in order to mitigate the diminished rewards that were once experienced by consuming only one scoop of ice cream or a small donut.

The neurotransmitter in the brain for rewarding us for eating is called dopamine. Everything we do that is pleasurable requires the release of dopamine within the brain. . . . Needless to say, eating fat and sugar induces the release of dopamine. In both obese humans and animals dopamine function is significantly impaired. The key thing to point out is that this dysfunction occurs in response to many years of poor diet; dopamine dysfunction does not occur first. Our behavior leads to the dysfunction in this important pleasure-inducing neurotransmitter. [Read more…]