Life is all about who we spend it with. But relationships—with ourselves, our partners, our children, and especially our extended family—can be complicated.
Joining me to talk about his new book, Making Great Relationships, and to offer strategies for fostering healthy, effective, and fulfilling relationships of all kinds is neuropsychologist and NY Times best-selling author, Dr. Rick Hanson.
So whether you are looking to feel deeply connected to your child, learn how to set boundaries with your in-laws, or prioritize your own needs by focusing on 4 concrete and accessible areas that can make a big impact for busy parents, this episode will be helpful for everyone who wants to nurture their relationships!
Dr. Rick (00:00):
You can spend more seconds each day with a sense of, okay, I matter. My suffering, my stress, my weariness matters. I’m going to bring compassion. I’m going to bring a warmth to it, even if they’re not bringing warmth to me. And even if that warmth was missing when I was a child, and I’m going to let those little moments land that changes your whole day and it starts feeling like there’s more of a shock absorber between you and the world around you.
Dr. Sarah (00:30):
This week is all about relationships with our partners, our kids, our extended family, hello, setting boundaries with your mother-in-law and with ourselves. Dr. Rick Hanson is a psychologist, Senior Fellow at UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, and New York Times best-selling author. He’s the founder of the Global Compassion Coalition and the Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom, as well as the co-host of the Being Well podcast.
His latest book, Making Great Relationships is a comprehensive guide to fostering healthy, effective, and fulfilling relationships of all kinds. And I’m so excited for you to hear the incredible wisdom he has to share.
Hi, I’m Dr. Sarah Bren, a clinical psychologist and mom of two. In this podcast, I’ve taken all of my clinical experience, current research on brain science and child psychology, and the insights I’ve gained on my own parenting journey and distilled everything down into easy to understand and actionable parenting insights so you can tune out the noise and tune into your own authentic parenting voice with confidence and calm. This is Securely Attached.
So we have a really special guest today. I’m so excited to welcome Dr. Rick Hanson onto the podcast. You just came out with a really amazing new book, Making Great Relationships, and I was like, when I was reading this book, I was like, there are so many things that are so relevant to parenthood, and so I’m like, can’t wait to dive in. But I first just want to say welcome and maybe you could introduce yourself and share a little bit about how this book came to be.
Dr. Rick (02:20):
Oh, thank you. It’s an honor to be here, and as we were talking just before we started, personally, I just feel this deep moral commitment to children to parents, particularly the person who’s doing all of the bearing and most of the rearing much of the time, which is to say mothers. You want to change the world for the better. In one generation make taking care of mothers, the number one priority in public policy worldwide, boom, you’re done. So anyway, I was, I’m really happy to be here. It’s an honor. My book comes from oh, I’d say 50 years really, of being a counselor one way or another, and 40 years of marriage and doing a lot of business, raising two kids to adulthood, a lot of stuff. And I was really interested in the practicalities. What can we actually do? So many of us feel stuck or we try something, we say it, then they respond, and then we don’t know what to do next.
And this also includes very much what helps things go well with our children too. So there’s a lot of practical stuff, and I really wanted to zero in on empowering people. We all have the power with what we think and what we say, what we do with our mind and our mouth many times a day, basically, that can make all of our relationships better, including in situations in which they don’t change, but we change inside. So we’re less aggravated by what’s happening. We don’t take it so personally. Maybe we’ve taken a step back in some ways, so we’ve made a better relationship, even if they aren’t cooperating very much. Anyway, so that’s the territory, and I look forward to getting down to earth with you about totally the practical nightmare scenarios. That’s my favorite.
Dr. Sarah (04:00):
Right. Well, it’s funny because when I was learning about this book, I was like, okay, this book is about adult relationships, but I also think so much of the things that create healthy communication in adult mutually responsible adult relationships, they apply to our relationships, their kids too. But you got to tweak it a little bit because it’s a little bit more one-sided because the skillsets don’t match up.
Dr. Rick (04:26):
That’s right. You’re not dealing with an adult in a little body, which has been breakthrough in psychology. Kids were considered to be adults in little bodies until really this the last century the 19 hundreds onward research was showing. No, there’s tremendous change over time.
Dr. Sarah (04:44):
Yeah, yeah. No, I think that’s so critical because I think if we think that our kid, if we overshoot our estimation of our child’s cognitive abilities, we are going to get really frustrated. And I feel like you do a really good job of explaining this as well, and our interpretation of an exchange, whether it’s with our partner or our parents or our child, has a huge impact on how we then show up.
Dr. Rick (05:10):
Yeah, that’s right.
Dr. Sarah (05:12):
So having developmentally appropriate expectations is key to getting it right.
Dr. Rick (05:18):
Oh yeah. And to do that, it’s like they say on the airlines, put your own oxygen mask on first. My first book, Mother Nurture, I wrote it 20 plus years ago, and it was really about the importance of filling up your own cup because mothers, in particular, parents too, but mothers in particular including in our society, pour out, pour out, pour out while being stressed, stressed, stressed with very little replenishment, very little opportunity to sort of refuel themselves and repair. That’s not mother nature’s plan. Mother nature’s plan is to raise children in a super strong community of 50 people you live with for most of your life. That’s how humans walk the earth. For 97% of the time, our species has been here. So it’s really different today, and therefore it’s extremely important to do what you can, body, mind and relationships to refuel yourself because then obviously it’s so different.
There you are with your kid, you’re trying to get him into a car seat, one of the most stressful things known to humankind or settling a sibling squirrel. That’s right up there as well. There you are. We all know it. When we feel like we’re running on empty, it’s much harder to be patient. It’s much harder to not just lash out one way or another. On the other hand, when we’ve gotten a decent night sleep, when we’re not already mad at our partner for dropping the ball, yet again today when there’s an underlying mood of basic wellbeing with some frazzled certainly around the edges, then we’re much more likely to be skillful, to have access to what we know and have the capacity you were implying a moment ago to see the little being behind the eyes, that precious little vulnerable, innocent being is deeper than the tantruming that’s happening, the flailing, the resisting, the unreasonable demands. Mommy, I hate you. Don’t go. Right? There’s a being behind that, and we’re much more able to see the being behind the eyes if we feel already fed ourselves.
Dr. Sarah (07:36):
And I feel like that’s such a hard task for parents on a lot of levels, because one, I hear you’re talking about if we have a filled up, if I have our needs filled, we are so much more able to access the empathy and the perspective taking and the tools. But parents have a particularly challenging ability to fill their cups because of the demands of parenting. Good night’s sleep, pretty hard to come by. Feeding yourself nutritious food, sometimes kind of hard to come by if you’re running ragged. And I think that it doesn’t mean we can’t do things to reduce our vulnerabilities. We got to get creative and scrappy. But I do think it, it’s important technology. I think parents oftentimes are just a more vulnerable population sometimes from how much our nervous system and our bodies and our brains and our environments are taxing, and how stimulating working with little kids being kids is. But I think there are a lot of strategies that you teach that even if you’re starting behind the starting line because you can’t get eight hours of sleep or you’re not able to fill up every your cup the way you might want to, that you can still reduce those vulnerabilities or keep the perspective in the moment. What would you recommend if you’re already running on empty?
Dr. Rick (09:05):
Sure. Well, to a fault, and my kids tease me about this all the time. I’m a list maker sort of. The mind is so complex, that’s part of what fascinates us, right? It’s a mess. So it’s really helpful to have a little structure, a little checklist. So I’m going to, here’s like four. Okay, perfect. Number one, get on your own side. Be loyal to you. And it sounds so obvious, but in my personal experience, clinically, 50% at least primarily women of the people that I’ve worked with were not already on their own side. They were not loyal to themselves fundamentally, they were loyal to others fundamentally. And if everything was going great for the rest of the whole wide world, maybe there’d be some focus on themselves. So just that shift alone and that shift can happen. Deepen your innermost being doesn’t take a lot of time, but it’s sort of as if you’re taking a stand for yourself, you would take a stand for a friend. It’s not that you’re making yourself better than others, but there’s this fundamental feeling that you matter. Yeah, it’s really basic. And that’s hard for girls and women often to claim because they’re socialized into not mattering. You don’t matter as much as others. Their needs come first. Your job is to take care of their needs. And there’s a lot of different kinds of things that happen, including forms of punishment when girls and women assert their own needs.
So numero uno, try to find a sense that you matter and a feeling of being loyal to yourself morally and in a way that you said, kind of muscular, scrappy, I like the word moxie, scrappy, you’re on your own side. Okay? That’s number one. Number two, compassion for yourself. There’s so much research on the power of self-compassion for lowering stress, for buffering against so much self-criticism that parents, again, especially mothers, are dealing with, including external criticism. You’re feeding your child that, or why aren’t you feel feeding your child that? Or you’re supposed to do A, B, C, and D. And also just I don’t know what have this amazing life that comes right out of the Facebook pages, which are the highlight reels of other people’s lives, because that’s what they’re sharing. So compassion for yourself. And again, it’s not wallowing and self-pity simply, oh, I’m tired, I’m stressed, I’m worn out.
And then not just having indifference toward that or blame like, oh, it’s your fault that you’re tired if you just did more exercise or, well, other people did it. What are you talking about? No, bringing a warmth and a kindness, a supportiveness, a warm, wishing that it wasn’t so hard for you. Simple stuff. Yeah. 10 seconds here, half a minute there. That’s all we’re talking about. Compassion for yourself is not where we start, but it’s not where we end. And there’s a lot of research that shows that compassion for oneself makes people more resilient and more ambitious. So it’s a really good thing, compassion for yourself. Third thing, take in the good along the way. In other words, as a neuropsychologist with a background in evolution, it’s so clear that we need to slow down for a breath or two multiple times a day and let good moments land rather than race onto the next thing.
And routinely something has happened. That is the basis for a genuine feeling of slowing down a little bit, calming a little bit, a sweet moment with the child, connecting with a partner, looking out a window, getting something done. Finally, the kids are in bed, right? There is an opportunity to stay with that experience for a breath or two or longer, literally, to start to hardwire the residues of that lived experience into your brain so that increasingly you build up traits of calm, self-worth, gratitude, feeling loved, feeling loving. You build it up over time, and everyone has the power to do that in the middle of full catastrophe, living with a three year old. If you have two kids, that’s when life as you know, it is totally all over. That’s when that second kid arrives you. It’s done. But anyway, whether you have one or two or three or whatever that number might be, we all have opportunities half a dozen times a day to slow down and take in the good.
That’s number three. And number four, even though I’m a software guy in the sense that I’m into the mind, one thing I’ve really come to appreciate is the hardware is the body. And I’ve just seen so many situations, partly as a result of the medical system and sexism and all the rest of that women tend to, mothers tend to put it aside, their own physical needs. They kind of skip a checkup or they’ll delay something, or they won’t pay attention to some nagging condition like their body aches more. And there’s a lot of research that shows that a major factor in increasing inflammatory conditions in the body, autoimmune conditions, in the body disorders of other kinds is the number of children you have. So I just want to not bang on about it too much, but I just want to say, take your physical health seriously. If you feel really run down and the medical establishment kind of pats you on the head in a patronizing way, as it often does, say, no, something’s not right here. And technically I might be within normal limits, WNL within normal limits, the normal range. But let me tell you, the way the normal range is calculated is tip is either from the 15th to the 85th percentile.
That means that you could be at the 20th percentile in iron or thyroid function, and they would patch you on the head and send you out the door. And maybe for you, that’s okay, or maybe it’s not okay because you’re run down. Actually, WNL is often technically two standard deviations away from the mean, which is essentially from the fifth to the 95th percentile.
Dr. Sarah (15:26):
Dr. Rick (15:27):
So you could be at the 90th percentile on some kind of inflammatory reactivity in your body that’s making you feel achy all the time and wearing down your mood, because inflammation is depressing, literally neurologically inside your brain. It’s through cytokine messengers and so forth. You know, could be at the 90th percentile on inflammatory vulnerability, and they pat you on the head and send you out the door. So it’s being an advocate for yourself and not going crazy, being finding your own path, what makes sense to you, but taking your body seriously. That’s my fourth suggestion.
Dr. Sarah (16:00):
I love that. And I think that there’s a lot of permission there to be tuned in to make noise, to say something, even though you medical system or patting me on the head saying, I’m fine. I don’t feel okay, I’m going to be the squeaky wheel. I’m going to advocate for myself. And it remind something you said earlier too, about how oftentimes girls and women, but a lot of times kids in general are punished for assertiveness because it’s considered aggressive or it’s not cooperative, or you’re not sharing. How often are kids told you can’t say, that’s mine. You have to share it or say, no, thank you if you don’t like something. I think I am a firm believer of teaching kids clear art, articulate, assertive skills to say, and especially little kids who don’t have complex language to be able to just say, no, or I don’t like that, or go away if they need space. So that gets a lot of times shut down and punished or trained out of kids, which teaches them, don’t make your needs known. And then the parents then see all these kind of side seeping out behaviors because they’re chronically not able to assert their needs. And so they get frustrated and they pull their brother’s hair or something seemingly out of the blue, but they’re sick of having to share.
Dr. Rick (17:30):
Totally. Right. And the thing that you and I were just talking about here, getting on your own side self-compassion, taking in the good along the way and starting to take your body seriously, right? It establishes an immediate shift that’s within the person’s power. You don’t need the cooperation of your partner or your nightmare boss or the public health system on your own. You can spend more seconds each day with a sense of, okay, I matter. I’m trying to take care of myself here too. My suffering, my stress, my weariness matters. I’m going to bring compassion. I’m going to bring a warmth to it, even if they’re not bringing warmth to me. And even if that warmth was missing when I was a child, I’m going to bring that warmth to me and I’m going to let those little moments land that changes your whole day. Suddenly your day is different. And it starts feeling like there’s more of a shock absorber between you and the world around you. The kids are doing what they’re doing. The dirty little secret of parenting is that kids are annoying sometimes. They’re also incredibly lovable and hello. And many partners are clueless. We haven’t even gotten there yet. But all that can be happening around you. But inside you, there’s more of this shock absorber. And inside there’s more of this sort of inner refuge, this core of resilient wellbeing that you’re literally hardwiring increasingly into your own nervous system changes.
Dr. Sarah (18:57):
So would it be correct to say that even though your book is about making great relationships with others, that in order for that to be possible, there’s a foundational sort of relationship with yourself that you need to nurture first?
Dr. Rick (19:11):
Well said. And the book is structured. It’s got these 50, very, very short chapters that you can dip in or out of it anywhere you want. And in six parts, the first of the six parts is befriend yourself, befriend yourself, because it’s the foundation of everything else, including as we get to partners asserting yourself effectively
Dr. Sarah (19:33):
With Yeah, and I think it’s so funny because I’m always, there’s so many parallels when you’re talking about parenting, when we’re talking about in the context of parenting, when you talk about something the parent does for themselves, there’s always, in my mind, a parallel of what the parent is inadvertently or directly or indirectly doing for the kid. If you are taking the time to nurture your relationship to yourself, to be your friend, to listen to your body, and to advocate for your needs, and to take in moments of gratitude and in front of your child, they are going to learn those same skills. They’re going to learn when mom values her body, her time, her needs, her pleasure in the moment, I can do that too. When I’m a grownup, I’m allowed to do that. And I think that’s a very cycle breaking concept.
Dr. Rick (20:25):
Yeah, well said. Exactly. If it’s, I mean, we do it for our own sake. We also do it for the sake of others.
Dr. Sarah (20:34):
Yeah, yeah. It’s all connect. We’re all interconnected. Yeah. So it, it’s like a twofer. You’d work on yourself, your kid’s going to benefit.
Dr. Rick (20:43):
Dr. Sarah (20:45):
So yeah, talk to me about the parent relationship. What do we do? You’ve got a lot of gems when it comes to addressing conflict, resolving conflict, asking for what you need in a way that another person can hear it. This is probably really relevant to co-parents, whether you’re two people who are trying to parent a child together. You are two human beings who are sometimes going to do that differently, and that’s going to create conflict at times. What are some things that people can think about do to support the relationship with the person you’re raising your kids with?
Dr. Rick (21:21):
Yeah, and that’s an area with huge issues. I mean, when we became parents I was, was in grad school at the time, so I was learning about psychology and all the rest of that. And some of the statistics are just shocking. So I’ll just speak about America here. Something, one in six children will never experience living, growing up in the context of a stable marriage or the equivalent because their parents will separate before the kid is 18 months old, some one in six. The numbers, one of the greatest risk factors for this is about marriage. And a lot of the research is on heterosexual couples. There might probably be somewhat similar findings, I don’t know, but probably same sex couples. To the extent that category is of gender is meaningful. In any case the greatest typical average risk for the stability of a marriage is the arrival of children.
It’s a big deal. My wife and I had a really strong relationship, but many relationships, we kind of operated in separate spheres and we didn’t have to agree. But suddenly that child arrives. You have to agree because you can’t just split the difference. It’s not like King Solomon cut the kid in half, right? No, no, no. It’s one old child. Do you spank or not? Do you give sweets or not? How much tv or not how much time in day childcare or not? How do you share the load? And there are three kinds of loads, I know you’ve thought talked about this. Technically, there’s the time load, the stress load, and the mind load, the executive load. And there are families in which the couples really are roughly equal time on task. Even if the task might be different. Maybe one person’s a primary breadwinner, one person’s a primary caregiver, but when the breadwinner comes home, they continue sharing equally, but the stress load is not shared.
One parent does things like mows the lawn listening to rock and roll, having a beer while the other parent is trying to get the kids bathed and ready for bed and settling them down, which is more stressful. And then there’s the mind load. I mean, I got to admit it, I’m a guy. Our daughter would have ear infections when she was, and I would go through my mental checklist because I really did show up as a parent. I did not want to be Fred Flintstone, and I did not want to give my wife the basis for any complaint because I grew up in a fault finding home. I’d had enough of that. But there were still base complaints. There were very legitimate. But anyway, I’d go through my checklist, well, we’ve done this for Laurel and we’re going to take her to the doctor tomorrow.
And I’m really sorry. And oh, I’d fall asleep. My wife would be lying awake all night long because she just had that kind of emotional connection. So the mind load, okay. Lot of research shows just on the time load alone that in America, the average couple after kids come along heterosexual couple, the mom is on task 15 to 20 hours a week more than her partner is, whether or not she’s drawing a paycheck. That’s a huge inequity. Huge inequity in the trust load. And the mind load also on average has greater inequities as well. These are huge issues. So that’s the setup, right? Yeah. And well, you want to jump in
Dr. Sarah (24:54):
All too? Well, it’s so funny because I think, I don’t know if I’ve talked about this on the podcast before, but my personal situation is a little interesting because my husband is the primary parent in a lot of ways in our dynamic in our relationship, because I work full-time and he works part-time and works with the kids the rest of the time. And because I have that access to a much more equitable or shared parental load, it’s different in our family. And I’m so grateful for having a husband who finds joy in that and sees so much value in it and loves it. And yet I still find, so this is not to bash my awesome husband who really does carry his fair share, probably more sometimes of the time load.
But I don’t know if it’s a maternal thing. I don’t know if it’s an anxiety thing, but I am always feeling tremendous guilt. I’m feeling tremendous anxiety or worry or just rumination about what is happening next with the kids. What do we need to figure out with this? What’s going right, what’s going wrong? And maybe it’s because I’m not the primary time giver. I have another layer of tremendous guilt about that as a mom. So I feel very, yeah, personally, I can really, personally relate to a lot of the stuff you’re talking about as well as I see it all the time when I work with families.
Dr. Rick (26:26):
If he were more stressed, if he authentically or maybe just kind of playing a little bit, were acting really stressed about how the kids are doing. Would that help you worry less?
Dr. Sarah (26:41):
Man? I think it would stress me out more.
Dr. Rick (26:44):
Oh, really? That’s interesting.
Dr. Sarah (26:45):
Cause then it would feel contagious. I feel like that stress would be contagious. I wonder too, but perhaps I think I see where you’re going, but I wonder if it’s, it’s, do I want to see him more stressed? So I feel like my stress is there’s parody in the stress, or would I feel better if I felt like he acknowledged my stress? And I think I would in my mind, to see him say, wow, I think there’s a lot you have to hold just because of your emotional attachment and the load of the emotional and sort of mind load that you carry.
Dr. Rick (27:24):
Yeah, that’s very interesting. And touching part of it is sometimes when we’re in the foxhole and we’re, or we see a threat because we stress around threats and it’s about the future. So we see this potential threat, and if other people don’t seem stressed about it, we feel let down by them and we worry that they don’t see the issue either. So that was kind of where I was starting naming a separate thing, which is what I call intimate friendship. So there’s the teamwork aspect and there then there’s the intimate friendship and of the totality of the intimate vent, friendship of small fraction of it is a romantic erotic aspect, but that total sense of friendship with an ally who can see you and goes, wow, wow, wow. Sorry, you’re, you’re really worried about this. I get it. You’re connected with them in a really deep way.
It’s being witnessed, it’s being seen. And I think that tends to go out the window, that kind of empathic attunement to use the cycling lingo tends to really go out the window. It’s so interesting to me that people come together, they become a couple often, and whether they’re married or not, because they’re tuned into each other and they prize each other. And yet over time that quality of feeling that the other person is really tuned into you and is cherishing and praising you rather than taking you for granted or frankly being pretty disgruntled with you, that tends to fade over time, which is really sad. So I think for me, one of the things to focus on is to the extent that we could do it authentically, to go to the maximum we can on both really letting the other person land in your heart and separate that landing in your heart from your gripes about them.
You’re not giving up your gripes. You’re going to get to them. It’s counterintuitive, but you’re going to be much more effective in getting traction and lasting results when you do get to your gripes, if you start by getting in touch with yourself and then getting in touch with your partner, there’s so much evidence for that. And we just know it’s true, even though it’s counterintuitive because we want to come in guns blazing, I’ve got my list. Ah, slow it down, tune in, see the being behind their eyes. And then on the basis of that, then you can kind of connect kind of talk. So I think about that too. And then I also think about just the realness of making agreements after kids come along, even if they’re just implicit agreements, including around things like sharing the load. For example, one of the weird little exercises I would have couples do after they have kids is for each person to track their time really honestly for a week.
And don’t change anything. Just tell the truth. So get a little Excel spreadsheet or something. Keep it super simple. It should not take more than five minutes a day, otherwise it’s too complicated. And every 15 minutes, that’s your time. And then each column is a different activity like dressing or driving to work or doing stuff with the kids or talking with the teachers or coordinating with other parents or housework or billing by the hour near psychotherapy, practice, whatever it might be. And then at the end of the week, take a look at it. I find that it’s routinely shocking. People are stunned at how that extra 20 minutes here in the morning and that extra hour and a half in the evening, that extra hour or two on Saturday and Sunday, each really adds up to something big over time. And being grounded in facts can really cut through a lot of stuff about equity. Because as research shows, the typical father these days is doing less than he thinks he’s doing, but he’s doing more than his wife thinks he’s doing.
Dr. Sarah (31:44):
It’s also about aligning your, taking the goggles off a little bit.
Dr. Rick (31:48):
That fact thing is really useful. And then get down to concreteness. A lot of people argue at the level of, well, first of all, they complain about the past, but they don’t make agreements for the future that goes round and round and round. Yeah. It’s just much different and much better to be able to say what you need to say about the past. But there are so many dead end arguments that happened about the past. Plus you can’t change anything. The future is the undiscovered country, a Star Trek subtitle anyway some kind of poem or phrase, the undiscovered country that’s full of possibility from now on to make agreements going forward and to try to make them around things that are concrete. How are we actually going to spend our time? What tasks are we actually going to deal with differently? What problems that are recurring?
Are we going to pre solve rather than vague stuff? Well, I just want more help, or I just want you to do your share. Or can we just be nicer? What does that actually mean? Yeah. Okay. So that’s a bit of a riff on teamwork and agreements. In my book, there’s so much about the details of how to actually pin people down, how to deal with people who are very slippery. A lot of frankly, men are slippery around family agreements. They’re quite prepared to be very pinned down at work. But when it comes to the home, it’s somehow a weird category. It’s not fair. So what do you do about that? Yeah. So yeah, what do you think about that?
Dr. Sarah (33:19):
Yeah, I know. And it’s funny, you know what I was thinking? I’m like, okay, yeah, husband sometime definitely. I’m also thinking I get a lot of people asking me about my mother-in-law or my the grandma, or it’s like, how do you, a lot of setting boundaries. I mean, I think you got to figure out any of the nuclear family, how to have communication and be really clear about what you need. I love what you say about, you need to name it explicitly in a simple concrete way. You can’t just say, I need you to do more, or I need you to be nicer. You need to say, this is exactly what I think I need going forward. How can we help work together to make that happen? What does it look like specifically? And I think that’s so important. And then I also think a lot of the effective communication skills are really helpful with extended family and feeling like I’m, as I’m assuming that most parents have some alignment in their value.
Not always, but quite often have some alignment in their values. They might not have the same standards. They might not execute everything the same way. There’s work there, but the values are probably similar, but you can have very different values from other generations, and that can cause cultures tons of pain and conflict. And for both sides. I don’t think most grandparents who are or in-laws who are seemingly judging the way that a couple is raising, their kids are doing it because they’re just want to be judgy. I think they see that and they feel like, Ooh, is that a referendum on how I did it because I didn’t do it that way. Are you calling me out by doing it differently? Are you saying I wasn’t a good enough parent? I think there’s a lot of pain that comes from the critical micromanaging and intrusiveness that some grandparents or in-laws can do. And then of course, the parents have to be able to say like, Hey, I don’t, this is not how I’m going to do it. It’s not a referendum on you. I have different information today than you had.
Dr. Rick (35:32):
Oh, it’s a huge issue. And and our family my mom in particular, very loving person who communicated love by helping people to improve and to do it better, right? Which started to drive my wife crazy. I had been more used to it. I kind of ignored it and rolled off my back. But it was not good. We had to really do something. And I finally actually had to have a conversation with my mom, in which I said, mom love you all good. And from now on notice I put in anything about the future from now on. Could you not give any evaluations or advice unless I specifically asked for it? She said, oh, I don’t do that, Rick. And I said, well, that’s great. Then there won’t be a problem. And then I just watched her for the next hour. I was visiting at home.
We were just hanging out. She kept wanting to give advice. He kept wanting to suggest a better way, and then she would catch herself. And that was the beginning of a real turnaround there. One thing I’ve kind of seen around that is that sometimes we ask for what we need. So we frame it as a vulnerable request, right? Initially it may eventually get to the point of just simply a matter of fact statement. If you keep talking with me in that way, I’m going to hang up the phone if you have to becomes matter of fact. But starting out with a vulnerable, heartfelt, it doesn’t mean that you’re spilling your guts on the table or you’re blaming yourself a communication with dignity and gravity that’s framed as a request, while knowing that if they don’t fulfill the request, there may be consequences. There may be consequences.
It’s not that you’re threatening, it’s just that you reserve your rights. Right? Yeah. So then you go forward. Sometimes what will happen is that people will blow you off or blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. But they change. They actually got the message. It actually did sink in. I would have two kind of suggestions from the standpoint now of, I don’t know how old your kids are or the age of the kids of most of your listeners here, ours are 35 and 32. One thing I’ve seen is both in marriages, relationships broadly and with relatives is seemingly is that fairly little things that happen early on can cast a shadow for the next 30 years and can create a lot of trouble going down the road. So I think it’s really helpful early in your relationship if the actual divorce rate really is about two out of three, when you take into account not just the 50% of legal marriages that go through a legal divorce, but legal marriages that become a functional divorce or relationships that were not married and yet functionally married, they owned property, they raised children and they separated.
Well, one in three chance of staying together. And it’s probably lowered odd slightly for people who have children together. So I don’t say that to freak people out, but in kind of an old school way, we have work to do. So it doesn’t mean walking on eggshells, but it means being really thoughtful about the impact on our marriage or a relationship of things that get said, or balls that get dropped, demands that get placed, take the long view. And also within in-laws is it that big a deal if they give your child a smoothie from 7-Eleven once, do you need to really go to war with them about it? Maybe you do because that child’s got a is diabetic, and that was a nearly fatal event. Okay, maybe you do need to talk about that. But I just want to introduce that even though I’m big on assertiveness and all the rest of that, just some thoughtfulness for the long term impact of especially negative emotion tone is a lot. What lands getting all upset about it personalizing it, taking it personally or making it personal on the other side. Whoof.
Dr. Sarah (39:54):
Yeah. A lot of mindful awareness of how big of a task is this to pick? How much is it my job to change what’s happening here? Yeah. Or is it my preference or is it just a wish? Yeah. How critical is it that I make a change? Sometimes it, it’s funny cause I talk about this a lot with people when I talk about setting boundaries, whether it’s with my patients or with parents, and I think you have to decide, is something an internal boundary? Do I need to just sort of say, Ooh, that’s Perth stuff. I don’t need to take that in. And that’s an internal boundary I’m setting with myself. It’s personal. No one needs to participate in order for me to set that personal boundary. When my mom or my mother-in-law or my neighbor starts to tell me about how cold my children’s toes look when I’m walking them, I’m just going to say, that’s their stuff.
They’re not used to this and they have trouble holding it in. That’s an internal boundary, kind of the I’m rubber your glue sort of thing. And then the external boundary is when you actually need the person’s cooperation to assert the boundary, I need you to do this, or I need you to stop doing this. And how assertive and how direct you are in your ask can be dependent on lots of factors, right? But then there’s also concrete physical boundaries, and that usually comes after, had to set the external boundary repeatedly and it’s repeatedly disrespected. Then you have to say, can I be around this person in this capacity this frequently? What is the impact? Do I need to create a physical boundary where I don’t see this person as much anymore? And I think, yeah, there isn’t a right or a wrong and you don’t always have to go in that order. I think it’s just kind of like you are the only person who’s going to know which boundary is going to work for me in this moment. I get to pick,
Dr. Rick (42:03):
Oh, they’re classic line fences, make for good neighbors, and I’ll show you as funny visual here. Okay. I call it the blob. I don’t know how much it’ll show up on the screen. The basic idea is that we start out with a relationship that’s this big in terms of its possibilities, and then various things happen that we start to carve out and we do what I call it, it’s one of the chapters in the book, resize the relationship if only inside your own mind, but often out there in the world as well. And you end up basically it’s the blob. You start out with a giant circle. Yeah.
Dr. Sarah (42:39):
It almost looks like the world for people who are listening, it looks like a big globe, a circle with continents on it, kind of, and water.
Dr. Rick (42:48):
That’s right. And what is left is the size of the relationship. So maybe you start seeing that friend only once a month, or you have lunch twice a year because honestly, weekly was just too much. Or you arrange to no longer do carpool with them. Or you make sure that when you’re going to visit the in-laws, you stay at a motel nearby and you have your own transportation, or you just stop talking about politics with them because it just does not go well, whatever it might be. That’s resizing the relationship.
Dr. Sarah (43:25):
Okay, so you’re kind of editing out the edges a little bit.
Dr. Rick (43:28):
Dr. Sarah (43:29):
So it’s like the negative space. So I see what I was looking at with the circles, I’m trying to describe this to people who are listening, is you have a circle, it’s almost like a circular sandwich, and you’re nibbling out parts of the crust and you’re working your way through.
Dr. Rick (43:39):
Working. Yeah, that’s exactly right. You’re chewing it out. So what remains, and then that part that remains is the ways that you can have a good relationship. Maybe you realize that in certain settings, if your mother-in-law can ever get you alone, you’re just going to get a dump truck of unwanted advice. So you just make sure you’re never alone with her, for example. And think about anticipating settings where that might happen. Or maybe you’re in a different situation with your partner where you start to realize that with your partner, they are just not ever going to the five love languages kind of material. They’re just not ever going to be deeply psychologically minded and intimate sharing. On the other hand, they really are. They want be a great parent to your children, and they want to be a really strong partner, particularly around what they do.
They’re not going to give you a lot of that emotional support, but they’re going to do a lot of stuff. So you just give up about the emotional support. You ask for it, you do what you can. You try to get it, but after a while, you get in reality about what other people are capable of. It’s that line. You’ve a distance in the service of attachment. Sometimes we take a step back to be able to maintain a connection, and then maybe there’s some grieving around that. Gee, I wish I could get more of that. Sometimes people, they limp along in their marriage up to a certain point. Maybe the kids are stabilized in high school or beyond, and then they make some fateful choices. But you know, can still have something be really good. You can preserve relationships with people that are really good in terms of where you connect in terms of what still remains in the blob.
Dr. Sarah (45:38):
And I’m glad you brought up grief, because I think there’s no way to etch out that shape, etch out parts of a relationship without grieving the loss of either the fantasy of that person being able to do that thing or be that person for you or perhaps actually the loss of what they once were able to and currently can’t. For whatever reason that that’s right, you might have lost something very real. And I think it’s important that we acknowledge that there’s grief there. And sometimes I just, there’s the, it’s not black and white. It’s not like if you can’t get your needs met by a person, the relationship is doomed. Sometimes relationships are complicated and they’re messy, and there is some really good stuff that’s worth preserving the relationship in honor of those great things. And you have to radically accept that it won’t look as perfect as you wish. And also if it’s really not working for you to be able to say, we have to do something different or we can’t be what we currently are. And I think that’s hard. It’s messy. And also it’s very empowering to know you’re allowed to do that. Either way, you’re allowed to make something not great work, and you’re allowed to make something not great. Say, I don’t want to do this.
Dr. Rick (46:55):
And along the way and this is also in the book part two, what I found is really remarkable is that myself, if someone has mistreated me, let’s say, and you’re dealing with grievances, they let you down. It’s real. They let you down or they did something else. I don’t get to piece about it unless I’ve done two things along the way. One is I’ve sorted out what, if anything, I’m actually responsible for myself.
And sometimes the answer is zero. But it’s because I’m entirely open to and really interested in getting at what’s my own responsibility in the matter. Not even that I did something bad, but I could be more skillful going forward. This is how my well-intended words had a negative impact on them. Okay. The other thing that I have to do before I get to freedom is to find compassion for that other person to find some fundamental sense. It’s not approval or agreement, it’s not forgiveness. I’m not giving up my rights, but some feeling for them as a suffering, being like other beings. And so even when we’re talking about resizing, what’s really cool and remarkable in part because it’s, it’s enlightened, because it protects us and feeds us, is to rest in a kind of unconditionally good heart that sees others, clearly stands up for your own needs while not letting hatred or ill will or ranker or meanness, invade and remain.
It may arise, we’re big monkeys. Stuff happens, but it doesn’t have to invade us and occupy us, right? Yes. We don’t have to fuel it, we don’t have to identify with it. And then your own warmheartedness becomes almost like a wifi base generator, a field that others move through, that it’s not about them. It’s about you retaining a fundamental inner freedom to rest in a basically good heart, which feeds you and protects you, helps you become less stressed and upset and increases your odds of getting a good result from that other person. When you finally do talk about something
Dr. Sarah (49:17):
That is so profound and so much permission giving and empowering how much power we have to create our little wifi field to create, to do that work for ourselves so we’re not beholden to the moods and the behaviors of others. We really do own what we experience.
Dr. Rick (49:37):
Yeah, that’s right.
Dr. Sarah (49:38):
Wow, that’s amazing. Ugh, I’m so glad you came on, and this was such a great conversation. I really enjoyed talking with you about this. I cannot wait for people to read this book.
Dr. Rick (49:50):
Dr. Sarah (49:51):
If people want to learn more about your work or find this book or other, you’ve written so many amazing books.
Dr. Rick (49:57):
It’s number seven. Somehow.
Dr. Sarah (49:59):
So prolific how can they find more from you?
Dr. Rick (50:05):
Oh, that’s kind. You’ll probably put something in the shownotes. Just Google my name, Rick Hanson, s-o-n go to rickhanson.net. Almost everything I do is freely offered and the stuff that’s for sale has scholarships for anyone with financial need. That’s sort of a fundamental stance. And so you can just see all kinds of great stuff, including the material that I developed for parents, really parenting from the same page, ways of raising kids, different ways of taking care of yourself, taking care of your own health. So just go to rickhanson.net and you’ll see it all there. Yeah, welcome. It’s been great talking with you. I’m glad we did this.
Dr. Sarah (50:44):
Me too. Thank you.
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