Guess What? Women Also Struggle with Emotional Expression

There is a commonly held cultural narrative which goes something like this: Men who share their emotions make better husbands and fathers. Women value this in a prospective partner because women are already naturally able to share their emotions. In a nutshell, women are the emotionally able ones, men can learn to be.

Growing more empowered relational capacities for men and women is crucial to making a better world. But the first step to getting there is to set aside these kinds of simplistic ideas about how we all operate emotionally and relationally.

So, for the record, women do not automatically navigate emotional expression better than men. It would be nice if they did, but given how our culture operates, it is simply not possible.

We need to acknowledge that gaining relational intelligence, the ability to navigate our shared emotional landscapes, is equally challenging for all of us. Exploring our own emotional histories can well can be the equivalent of opening an internal Pandora’s Box, which, once opened can unleash wide ranging and challenging consequences.

Men’s Hidden Emotions
One aspect of our simplistic cultural narrative is certainly accurate. Boys and men are not prone to sharing their emotions. But it is not because men are born without these capacities. It is because they are taught from childhood to hide their emotions; that “real men” are emotionally stoic, that real men “man up” and tough it out. Boys and men who express a wider range of emotions, especially those that present as vulnerability or sensitivity (behaviors wrongly labeled as feminine), are typically bullied and policed. They are called sissies and wimps. They are considered to be failed men.

To get a sense of what boys face in our culture, take a minute and view the trailer for “The Mask You Live In.” This is a powerful documentary about the messages that are hammered into boys on a daily basis.

When we are forced to be emotionally tough, boys and men are cut off from learning how to process our more complex emotions. Why? Because learning to process our emotions is not a private act. It is a social act. It happens in relationship to other people, in what we call relational spaces. For boys growing up in a culture of emotional toughness, the relational doorway is shut, the way forward, barred.

Men, Women and Emotional Fluency
Meanwhile, although women may be a bit freer to express their feelings, relational intelligence, the capacity to engage the shared landscapes of our emotions, is far more than simply being free to express ourselves. Relational intelligence is the result of learning via the trial and error of emotional expression within relationships over time. Learning to do this well can take years, even decades. Like learning a language, it is a skill set most easily acquired when we are young, engaging emotional expression in our homes.

But in America’s culture of emotional toughness, boys and girls alike aren’t typically given an opportunity to learn these complex skills in their families of origin. A crisis later in life, such as the potential collapse of a marriage or a challenging illness, can launch them on a journey to awaken these relational capacities.

But it is in these moments that men, doing this work with a spouse or partner, can unwittingly allow their spouses to become emotional gatekeepers for them by virtue of our myths about women and emotions. In doing so, men can get shut down again.

For example, a man learning to more openly express sentiments of love toward his partner or affection toward his children is likely to be encouraged. These “pleasing” expressions of emotion represent little or nothing in the way of a challenge for his partner.

But many men may stop there and proceed no further, because of the negative reaction they face when expressing less appealing emotions like loss, grief, and sadness. Not surprisingly, the expression of these emotions can create huge anxiety for women who have been given little opportunity to process these kinds of emotions in their own lives.

Our Culture and Women’s Emotions
When we assume women to be more adept at managing emotional communication, we are keying on the fact that women are granted permission to publicly express a somewhat wider range of emotions. But women have long been relegated to the greeting card school of emotional expression. Love or condolences with a nice filigree. Nothing threatening. Nothing dark. You won’t find a Hallmark card for despair or rage. You won’t find a Hallmark card for panic or insecurity.

When women express darker emotions like rage or despair, they are told to calm down, that their emotions are simply the result of “their time of the month”, or that the emotional frustration they feel is not based in a rational (i.e.: masculine) world view. While men’s emotional expression is marginalized as feminine, women’s emotional expression is infantilized. It is in this repressed emotional space that the alarming sense of being gaslighted can emerge for women.

The end result? Women’s path to growing their relational intelligence is also closed off.


Men and women growing their relational capacities is crucial to creating a healthier more humane society.  I have seen the power of stronger emotional connection play out in my own life and in the lives of my family and friends. I can tell you without a shadow of a doubt that learning to connect in relationships is the key to a better life.

Unfortunately, our culture’s Disney-esque views on the benefits of male emotional expression are a dangerous combination of simplistic and idealistic. To trivialize the process in these ways is to miss the fundamental levels on which emotional expression operates.

The source of our collective challenges is generational. Having grown up themselves in our emotionally averse culture, parents coach their sons to present a facade of emotional toughness and their daughters to admire that facade in men.

So, even as women might seek emotionally expressive men, they, like men, carry deeply retrograde conditioning that causes them to want confidence and emotional toughness in their partners. It is a double bind for both women and men, who, when under stress, are tempted to fall back on retrogressive gender stereotypes in an overly complex world.

The Damage Done
As a young boy, I remember distinctly the sensation of “feeling like I should be having a feeling.” I was seven when my father divorced my mother. He then went to work overseas. My father was the source of emotional warmth in our family. When he left, I spent years grieving his loss. Then, at some point, those emotions fell silent, creating a blank numb space. And below that? Something very bad was hiding. I call that place the basement.

Whatever emotions I was feeling, I was left to process in isolation. The end result was, I simply could not identify any of the emotions I was feeling; with the possible exception of a consistent baseline of self loathing.

I recall sitting in the pew at my grandmother’s funeral, witnessing myself attempting to cry. As if I was standing next to my own loss, detached, two steps removed. What should I feel? How should I feel it? Why can’t I feel anything? I stood there watching myself doing a vague performance of grief, feeling nothing. But there was something there. Just out of my line of sight. A place I had worked so hard not to see that I couldn’t look towards it now if I wanted to. A place of loss and loneliness that I simply walled off, reducing it to a dull ache. For decades I simply didn’t look.

To this day, I still don’t want to look.

The result? Years of binge drinking as a young adult; struggling to figure out how to present myself in relationships. Ten more years after that of lurching through emotional chaos, struggling day by day to make my way back up into some kind of emotional self awareness. Decades more of seeking a foothold and then beginning to sort out my past. To this day, its terrifying to “go down to the basement.” There’s a seven year old down there in the dark and he’s not happy. He’s full of rage and despair and he holds me responsible.

“Why didn’t you do something?” he screams at me. “Why didn’t you fight?” “Why didn’t you fight them back, hurt them back?”

Hurt who? I don’t guess I know. Ghosts, phantoms, bullies…family. The people who should have helped a young boy but did nothing. The violent bullies who ringed me around, smelling the damage and fear on me. I have yet to untangle all the anger and grief that I suppressed. I may never fully succeed in doing so.

But I know this. I would have talked. I always wanted to talk. It would have spilled out what I was feeling day after day, but we don’t do that with our sons. We assume they’re okay. We demand they be okay. We don’t want to see their fears, their sadness. It reminds us too much of our own. So, we don’t ask.

We subject our sons to a kind of emotional solitary confinement when we don’t engage their emotions. Our sons cease to trust their instincts. Their inner voice, their spiritual true north, given no external confirmation or support, falls silent, blocking them off from the innate resiliency that can help them navigate life’s challenges. We subject them to decades of lost connections.

And those of us who love them have to deal with the fall out.

The Missing Piece of the Relational Puzzle
So what about the men and women who are committed to achieving more emotional intimacy in their lives? For those of us who have grown up in the culture of male emotional toughness, what capacities are central to success if we want to grow our relational life?

Surprisingly, expressing our emotions is not the biggest challenge. The biggest challenge couple’s or parents face are the emotions that can arise in us when we hear our partners or children express theirs. Witnessing in others, the darker emotions of fear, sadness and grief, or even more challenging, witnessing emotions we cannot even name, is terrifying. How do we listen when our partners share emotions like these without collapsing into them?

For example, if my spouse tells me her life “feels empty,” that’s going to be very hard to hear. For many, this emotional expression would lead to a defensive posture. “But we’ve been working so hard to make a good life!” It’s understandable. Its also not helpful.

Why? Because the challenge of living a life of emotional suppression is that the emotions we hide can become monolithic and distorted. Only by expressing these feelings can we hope of move past them. When first spoken, they can be difficult to say and even more difficult to hear. Additionally, our emotions emerge in relationship to others, in the relational spaces between people. When we attempt to hide the emotions that emerge there, or those that have emerged in the past, we self edit to the point of not being fully present in those spaces. We hide our authentic selves in our own relationships. This is why many men are described as being emotionally out of touch. They are not, as one might assume, unable to feel emotions, they are intentionally suppressing them.

But it is the expression of emotions, including our darker feelings, that are central to moving them out; to releasing them and moving on. On one side we have the need to express, to be heard.

The Powerful Magic of Holding
Dr. Saliha Bava, a New York City based couple and family therapist, specializes in helping couples and families navigate the complexity of emotional intimacy. Dr. Bava talks about the idea of holding the emotions of others. She views emotional expression as a relational activity that is, the back and forth by which we create what she describes as “meaning, understanding and coordination within our relationships.”

Dr. Bava explains:

Holding the emotions of others is a skill set that we already have in the form of listening.

The next steps in growing this capacity include listening without attempting to fix things. For example, instead of being a witness to our partner’s feelings, we might try to fix things by saying ‘It will all be okay, its not your fault, etc.’

We also need to set aside judgement. For example, we might judge by saying, ‘Oh, you shouldn’t feel like this.’

And finally we need to set aside the urge to categorize, name or explain. For example, we might try and assign a reason for our partner’s feelings by saying, ‘Oh, you’re feeling this way because you didn’t get the raise you wanted.’

We listen for how they are making sense and we accept that they may not have an explanation or an understanding yet, only the expression. They may not even be able to name it. By not naming their emotions for them, we let their truth emerge over time.

When we try to fix, judge or name the emotions of others, we are seeking to resolve the uncertainty our partner’s emotions create in us. Learning to set these urges aside takes practice.

One way to cultivate the practice of holding the emotions of others is to visualize that your partner is on the stage and you are in the audience. Your time will come to be on the stage, but for the moment, you sit and witness. When your partner is expressing emotions, let their story finish resonating for them. Let their story be complete. Let the room fall silent for a moment.

Remember, silence is not a lack of response, it is the response. And it comes with signals of connection though our eyes, our hearts, our presence. It is mix of intuition and calmness.

Imagine yourself as a container. Not ‘you lost your job and so you are feeling this’. Simply ‘you are feeling this and I am a container for it’. Nothing more.

What we are talking about for couples is ultimately a three act play.

  • Act one, your partner is on the stage, and you are their witness, holding their emotions.
  • Act two: you are on the stage and your partner is your witness, holding your emotions.
  • Act three: you both take the stage on behalf of the relationship. From there, the process of how to go forward together emerges. This co-creating emerges out of holding and compassionate listening.

The dance of holding between couples grows their emotional capacities because of the passing back and forth of witnessing and sharing. It creates greater intimacy and vulnerability, a stronger sense of connection and support. In the process, we learn to park the uncertainty such witnessing generates.

Our darker emotions, long suppressed, do not, like the contents of the mythical Pandora’s box, represent the evils of the world. What we view as dark emotions can be powerful and generative forces for creating growth in our lives, but only if we engage them.

We can, as partners and parents, sons and daughters, learn how to liberate our voices and grow our relational capacities in the relational spaces that exist between us and others. Sharing our feelings while holding the emotions of others is a transformational experience. It grants us more and better relationships in the world.

Which is the key to a wonderful life.


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Photo by TangOblivion

A Manifesto: Relational Intelligence For Our Children

A manifesto:

We must commit to granting our children their birthright, which is their inherent capacity to form authentic, emotionally vibrant relationships. All we need do is stop training them out of these capacities, either by action or inaction. Through helping them grow their relational intelligence, we can insure they become what they are born to be, emotionally connected, joyful and thriving human beings.


We Need to Redefine What Strength Is

For many American men, being a “real man” is defined as being tough and strong and confident and sexually dominant and a wage earner and heterosexual. But above all, these “real men” do not share their emotions. These ideas of manhood are generational. They are ingrained in our media, our stories our families and ourselves.

They are part of a wider narrative that not only defines men but also women in relationships to men. Central to this narrative is a kind of overarching complementarianism, which posits that whatever women are, men are not, and vice versa.  As part of this binary view of gender, men have been trained to believe that relational capacities like emotional expression, empathy, nurturing or caretaking, often dismissively called “soft skills” are feminine capacities and as such, are a sign of weakness for men. This belief is the source of America’s epidemic of loneliness, right here.

In the moment we gender emotional expressional and relational capacities as feminine and shame our sons for expressing their emotions, we cut our young sons off from the trial and error process of learning how to express and connect in relationship to others. We cut them off from expressing what is distinctive about themselves in relationship to others. When our young sons’ core relational capacities are suppressed, these capacities whither away.

And so, we banish our sons (and daughters) to an emotional wasteland of angry isolation. We strip them of the vibrancy and resiliency of relational communities.

When we encourage capacities like strength and self-reliance in addition to emotional expression and relational intelligence, these capacities dovetail to create powerful and resilient human beings. The result is men and women who are better resourced to deal with life’s challenges, both individually and collectively.

Let me be clear: traits such as toughness and self reliance are not in and of themselves negative. But boys and men are taught that toughness requires they hide their emotions. In order to be “real men” they are expected to be emotionally stoic, competitive, sexually aggressive, confident and immune to insecurities, fears or doubts. The result is they hide their authentic selves behind what documentary director Jennifer Seibel Newsom calls The Mask You Live In. This the cultural of male emotional toughness. And often, the enforcement of this culture of toughness can be brutal and unforgiving.

In privileging only the toughness aspects of masculinity to the exclusion of powerful emotional and relational capacities, we have effectively suppressed empathy, emotional self regulation, the capacity to hold difference, community building and collaboration in generations of boys and men. The result is a deadly epidemic of isolation for American adults.

A 2010 AARP study revealed that 1 in 3 American adults age 45+ are chronically lonely up from 1 in 5 just tens years before. Thats 44 million Americans who have no one  to talk with about the serious issues of life and living. It also means they are facing catastrophic health risks.

In an article published by the New Republic titled, “The Lethality of Loneliness.” we find these chilling facts:

Emotional isolation is ranked as high a risk factor for mortality as smoking. Diseases thought to be caused by or exacerbated by loneliness would include Alzheimer’s, obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, neurodegenerative diseases, and even cancer—tumors can metastasize faster in lonely people.

While male suicides outnumber female by a factor of three to one and are climbing, a whole additional population of men and women are dying too early in their lives. And they’re dying of loneliness.

Meanwhile, corporate cultures globally are awakening to the dynamic and productive power of relationally intelligent employees. Working in collaborative groups, hosting different points of view, allowing for improvisation, and being inclusive are now being seen as the key to productivity, job satisfaction, talent retention and customer satisfaction.

Clearly, if our children are to lead healthy successful lives, they need to grow their relational capacities.

All of this should raise alarms for parents, business leaders, and educators, because the dominant discourse which governs how we raise boys, the “strong and silent” model of American manhood, results in the suppression of relational capacities. And rest assured, we have a parallel version of emotional suppression for girls that results in similar outcomes. Collectively, we owe each of our children the gift of a lifetime of vibrant authentic relationships.

How Emotional Suppression Happens
Judy Chu’s When Boys Become Boys as well as Niobe Way’s Deep Secrets, detail studies that clearly show how we train our sons away from emotionally vibrant friendships, beginning at age four and on throughout their adolescence. The result? Many men rely on their spouses social networks and their workplaces to provide friendships; friendships that are shallow by products of proximity instead of more meaningful authentic connections. When these men’s jobs change or their marriages fail, these friendships of proximity evaporate. This is why the death of a spouse can be a killing blow for men, leaving them to confront unrelenting social isolation.

Everything we know about human beings tells us that we are widely diverse and varied creatures. But we have one thing in common. We are all born highly attuned to the nuances of interpersonal signals and non verbal human communication. It is a powerful gift. Yet, as young people, we are often shamed and policed into using those very tools to suppress our own connection in the world.

This is how boys are able to learn as early as age four which parts of themselves to hide away. And if we do nothing, effectively leaving the teaching of emotional expression to our culture, our sons and daughters will be taught to hide their authentic internal selves so completely that eventually, they will no longer be able to locate them.

Over the years, the rigid performance of masculine emotional toughness has caused many men to loose this sense of connection to our internal voice, our moral and emotional true north. It is in this space that we become isolated, angry and reactive. Relying ever more heavily on the narrow definition of manhood we are performing, and growing every more angry when it fails to satisfy our basic human need for connection.

And the worse part? We angrily police others who fail to make the manhood bargain that we made. Shaming and attacking men and women who perform versions of manhood or womanhood that don’t follow the narrow rules of our culture of male emotional toughness.

The Good News
Our sons and daughters need only a few primary relationships in their lives in which they are free to explore emotional expression through a trial and error process over the long term. Regardless of what damaging narratives the world would teach our children, we can encourage them to grow their relational capacities in the safety of our family relationships. If we do this joyful relationship building work, our children will reach a tipping point of relational connection and never look back.

Humans are born with incredible skills for tracking and responding to the most nuanced interpersonal cues and signals. But the culture of male emotional toughness takes hold early. By age four, boys start self policing. So, we too must begin early.

The good news is, we can. All we have to do is start the conversation.

To learn more about relational intelligence, come see us at Remaking Manhood.

Photo by: geir tønnessen



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How We Help Children Create Relationships is Crucial

When we help our kids grow their relational capacities; namely how they create and care for relationships, it insures a better life for them.

Emotional intelligence or emotional quotient (EQ) is commonly understood to mean emotional self-awareness, the ability to name, understand and manage our emotions. You may also be aquainted with the term Social Emotional Learning, commonly used in educational settings. These are all good terms.

But we want to make the following distinction: it is in relationships that we discover, learn about and grow our emotional capacities. For better or worse, relationships represent the central mechanism by which human beings operate in the world. From the moment we are born, engaging the emotional universe is not an internal experience. It takes place in relationship with others.

We are born out of a relationship into relationships. We are never without a relationship; in fact, hundreds of them.

As it is with us, so it also is with our children. They, too, are social animals. In isolation they wither, in connection they thrive. This is the core truth of being human. Yet, in many ways, our culture actively suppresses our children’s relationship building capacities.

Often children are shamed and punished for emotional expression; especially our sons, leaving them little choice but to hide their emotions in order to fit in. This suppression of their natural ability to connect emotionally, puts at risk their personal and professional futures. It can limit their social success and hurt their educational performance. It can lead to behavioral challenges. It can severely impact their emotional and physical health over the course of their lives.

So whatever terminology you prefer, we, as parents, can help our children grow their emotional capacities. We can guide our sons and daughters toward richer more joyful, more fulfilling emotional lives. All we need to do is protect and grow their natural relational capacities. But we must begin now.

“Don’t be a crybaby” is the single most consistent message American boys get. Whether you grew up in the relative security of the suburbs or on the streets of the inner city, ask any American man and they’ll tell you the same thing.

“Boys and men don’t cry.” If you do, you’re a wimp, or a sissy… or a target.

And make no mistake, “Don’t be a crybaby” is code for a larger, more overarching cultural message; a message which is reinforced over and over again in every professional, social and interpersonal context men encounter. Don’t show your emotions. This is our culture of male emotional toughness. This is the Man Box.

This rule of American manhood begins to make itself known the day our little sons enter the larger world, gently at first, but with ever increasing degrees of severity.

Whether we are fathers or sons, brothers or husbands, we can learn to explore and express our emotions. The question is, will we teach the next generation of men to pursue lives of emotional literacy and connection or will our sons be left with little choice but to suppress their emotions, as dictated by a range of traditional cultural influences?

Living emotionally guarded lives is robbing men and women of their hope, their aspirations and for many, their very lives.

Think I’m overstating the problem? Read on.

Our sons, like our daughters, are hardwired with vast capacities for relational connection, but to activate these capacities, boys must overcome almost every message our culture gives them about how to be a man. And these damaging messages are coming fast and furious by the time our sons are in kindergarten.

For boys and girls alike, the capacity to access and engage the complex landscape of relationships all around us is the result of learning via:

trial and error  —> over time —> with people they trust.

Learning to do this well can take years, even decades. Like learning a language, it is a skill set most easily acquired when we are young, by exploring emotional expression in safe relational spaces intentionally created within our families.

Think of it this way. As we learn a language, the broadest and most obvious rules, the simplest and most useful words quickly become second nature. Then, we spend years drilling down to the nuances and subtleties of language. We learn what to accentuate in order to be better understood. We learn how to hear the nuances of meaning based on a speaker’s age or circumstances. We learn what to take to heart and what to question. As part of the journey to literacy, we are encouraged to ask people, “what does that word mean?” Without shame or fear. All of this learning of language serves one major purpose, to help us connect with others.

What would happen if our toddlers were bullied, shamed or laughed at every time they mispronounced their first words?

— How quickly would they stop trying to talk? Our young children, especially our sons, are at risk for this very outcome when they attempt to connect emotionally.

In America’s culture of emotional toughness, we block our sons from learning complex emotional skills. We shame and bully them into hiding their emotions. But if we live life never expressing our emotions, we’ll never learn to fully engage in relationships. Its that simple.

Our culture teaches us a set of false assumptions about men and toughness. Toughness does not come from being stoic, manning up or suppressing our emotions. Resiliency, the ability to confront and overcome challenges, and yes, the ability to fight on if needed, depends on how well we are resourced by the relationships in our lives.

Furthermore, unlike a person who can be goaded into a fight against his or her better judgement, we can help our children learn to keep from collapsing into the emotions of others. Relational intelligence brings us a vast range of choices and options. It is the conduit by which our greatest human capacities are found and accessed in relationship to others.

Girls Have it No Easier
One of the primary myths in our culture is that girls are allowed to express emotions more openly, or even more illogically, that they are just naturally better at it. But here’s a little secret about girls. Their emotional expression is also curtailed. While boys are policed and bullied to not express emotions at all, girls are relegated to the “Hallmark Card” school of emotional expression.

Women are allowed to publicly express a somewhat wider range of emotions, typically, love or condolences with a nice filigree, but a vast range of other emotions are not approved of. Nothing threatening. Nothing dark. You won’t find a Hallmark card for despair or rage. You won’t find a Hallmark card for panic or grief.

If women express darker emotions like rage or despair, they are told to calm down, that their emotions are likely the result of “their time of the month”, or that the emotional frustration they feel is not based in a rational (i.e.: masculine) world view.

While men’s emotional expression is marginalized as feminine, women’s emotional expression is infantilized.

It is in this repressed emotional space that the alarming sense of being gaslighted can emerge for women.

The end result? Girl’s and women’s path to learning relational intelligence is also closed off. In part, because they are also blocked from doing this work when young, and in part, because eventually those who are in heterosexual relationships, will be with men who have been trained by our culture of male emotional toughness to not connect emotionally.

Sadly, not only do we teach our sons to display emotional toughness, we train our daughters to admire emotional toughness in men.


The High Costs of Emotional Withdrawal
As a young boy, I remember distinctly the sensation of “feeling like I should be having a feeling.” I was seven when my parents divorced. My father went to work overseas. When he left, I spent years grieving his loss. Then, at some point, those emotions fell silent, creating an emotional blank space. And below that? Something very bad was hiding. I called that place the basement.

Whatever emotions I was feeling, I was left to process in isolation. The end result was, I simply could not identify any of them; with the possible exception of a consistent baseline of self-loathing.

We subject our sons to a kind of emotional solitary confinement when we don’t acknowledge their emotions.

Without relational engagement, our sons can cease to trust their instincts. Their inner voice, their spiritual true north, given no external confirmation or support, falls silent, blocking them off from the innate resiliency that can help them navigate life’s challenges. We subject them to decades of lost connections.

Our capacity to express emotions in nuanced and empowered ways is born and developed in relationships. It is this capacity to express that sustains vibrant relationships in both our personal and professional lives. If instead, we teach our sons to “man up” and tough it out, we’re setting them up for an ugly fall somewhere down the road. Especially when tragedy strikes.

In The Expanded Family Life Cycle, McGoldrick, Carter and Preto write:

“Men who are raised to deny their emotional interdependence face a terrible awakening during divorce, illness, job loss, or other adversities of life. Indeed the traditional norms of male development have emphasized many of the characteristics including keeping emotional distance, striving for hierarchical dominance in family relationships; toughness; competition; avoidance of dependence on others; aggression as a means of conflict resolution; avoidance of closeness and affection with other males; suppression of feelings except anger; and avoidance of “feminine” behaviors such as nurturing, tenderness and expressions of vulnerability. Such norms make it almost impossible for boys to achieve the sense of interdependence required for mature relationships through life.” [p22-23].

Without what McGoldrick, Carter and Preto call mature relationships, men are subject to ever increasing degrees of emotional isolation and the catastrophic risks this presents.  In a survey published by the AARP in 2010, we learn that one in three adults aged 45 or older are chronically lonely. That’s over 44 million Americans.

In an article for the New Republic titled The Lethality of Loneliness, Judith Schulevitz writes:

“Emotional isolation is ranked as high a risk factor for mortality as smoking.”

“Diseases thought to be caused by or exacerbated by loneliness would include Alzheimer’s, obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, neurodegenerative diseases, and even cancer—tumors can metastasize faster in lonely people.”

We are confronting an epidemic of loneliness in America. We lock ourselves inside gated communities, fearful of our neighbors and our society. We drink ourselves to sleep or fling ourselves compulsively into sex, work or consumption, as if the next sexual conquest or technical gadget will make up for the lack of connection we feel in our lives.

Our collective emotional isolation is at the heart of our society’s inability to correct injustices around race, class, and economics. We are not caring for each other. We are lashing out. For millions of us, our collective lack of authentic emotional community has stripped our lives of meaning. Is it any wonder when we look at our bright eyed loving little children, we feel the prickling of fear?


And Now for the Good News
Dr. Saliha Bava and I believe there is a powerful solution, for us as individuals, and for our children. The solution is to grow our childrens’ relational intelligence. We can do this by listening with curiosity to what our children have to say while talking and playing with them. Through this simple mindful practice, we can help them grow their emotional literacy and change the world for the better.

Our upcoming book titled “The Forever Book” is about this process. It does not seek to present a one size fits all steps or techniques. The Forever Book is instead designed to spark a lifelong conversation between parent and child. Each family’s conversation will be distinct and like no other. And the best part? This process of being in conversation with our children will give us the rich and rewarding relationships that we long for as parents, because our children will feel seen and heard and held, and so will we.

Growing our children’s relational intelligence is a gift that will last them a lifetime.

What’s more, it will echo down generations to come. When we help our children grow their relational intelligence, they are better able to manage conflict, grow self-confidence, and engage others’ points of view. And as they grow up, they will have the skills needed to build lasting and satisfying relationships and communities both in their professional and personal lives.

Most of us are already doing this work on different levels with our children, creating change and growth in little and big ways every day. But, if you feel you would like to be more mindful about how you encourage the growth of relational intelligence; if you’re feeling stuck and would like new ideas about how to go forward with your kids, join us for our online workshop! To stay in touch, join our mailing list below.

Our children need simple consistant play and encouragement to develop their powerful relational capacities. We have a range of theoretical frameworks, strategies and games from which parents can design and grow the practices that fit best for their families.

Its up to us to walk with our children through the world’s emotional landscapes, a place which exists in the powerful relational spaces between them and others. Like any complex skill set, our kids can acquire relational intelligence in layered and nuanced ways over time. There is no single end goal here. It is a lifelong process but it is one that will provide vast rewards.

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The Idiot, Horrible, Stupid Game


It can break our hearts when our kids say, “I’m an idiot.” The Idiot, Horrible, Stupid Game is a fun game designed to turn that situation upside down! Its one of the many games that can be found in our upcoming The Forever Book, a guide for growing our kids relational intelligence. 

Idiot. Horrible. Stupid. Ah, the joys of kid talk. All of these words are tumbling out of our children’s mouths, and it can be difficult to hear. When our kids call someone stupid, we quickly tell them that its not right to use those words. “Apologize,” we say. “We don’t use those words in our house,” we say.

But what gets to us most is when our child says, “I’m horrible at this” or “I’m stupid”. On one level, they may be feeling frustrated with themselves, but on another, they also know how to push our buttons. I’ve seen the same frustrated echoes in myself, and they can make me very reactive. Telling my son he’s not horrible isn’t enough. It never feels satisfying for either of us.

Its a stuck moment.  And what do we try to remember to do in stuck moments? Play.

Our playful solution?  We took those loaded words and made them into abbreviations for very long compliments.

HORRIBLE becomes…

Honestly – Out of this world – Remarkably – Right – In – Being – Lovely and – Enjoyable

The fact is, we parents take ourselves too seriously.

Always setting ourselves up in opposition to things that we disapprove of can be a trap. It can give those things power over us. Instead, let’s be playful with them.

The next time my son says he’s horrible and I start up on the “Honestly-Out of this world-Remarkably-Right in-Being-Lovely and-Enjoyable” and I’m tripping over the words and getting them out of order and doing it wrong and so on, and nine times out of ten, things shift to laughter.

My son starts picking other terrible words, stupid, idiot, and so on, and trying to create sentences from their letters. See what your son or daughter can do with POOPYHEAD. You’d be surprised.

Words are what we make of them.

The power of words and how we choose to re-purpose and reinterpret them is a huge lesson. Its the beginning of learning how to re-frame events or ideas. It ties in with a central story we can tell about ourselves. “We play with things!”

More than once, since we started playing this game, our six year old son, days later, used a word like “idiot” with a very serious expression. And then he would get that glint in his eye, go to the fridge where we pasted up the reconstructed meaning of the word, and read it out, laughing. He would say, “Remember? Remember, we did this?”

Whether or not to employ these kinds of games depends heavily on context. If the mood just isn’t right, if something more serious has just occurred, if there isn’t time or the location won’t allow for it, that’s okay. As parents, we continually have to do a 360 degree check in and see if our plan for the moment is a good fit. We are already doing this dozens of times every hour of every single day.

But when we choose to play instead of instruct, it is part of the relationship building process that grows connection, conversation and self reflection for our children.

Photo by: cheriejoyful


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