Thursday, January 22, 2015

Falling in Love with Anyone

The New York Times' "Modern Love" column of January 9, "To Fall in Love With Anyone, Do This," garnered more than 5.2 million online visits, 365,000 "Shares" on Facebook, and 745 comments. A reader even set up the fall-in-love procedure as a game on a website. People are desperate for love.

Writer Mandy Len Catron successfully tried "a Cupid-like technique to help two strangers fall in love," a series of 36 personal questions a pair asks each other, developed two decades ago by psychologist Arthur Aron. The process culminates in a four-minute eyeball-to eyeball stare-down. After a 45-minute interchange and gazing through the windows of the soul, the couple feels in sync.

Mandy Len Catron's take-away lesson: By building closeness through introspective communication, "it's possible--simple, even--to generate trust and intimacy, the feelings love needs to thrive."

If it's "simple, even" to create trust and intimacy, wouldn't it be even simpler to rekindle the same feelings, once entrenched and now faded? To re-fall in love, and avoid divorce?

Two married people drifting apart emotionally could take only a single hour answering 36 questions to steer themselves back together. With such an easy formula for closeness, why wouldn't every estranged couple give it a try? Revealing feelings is a lot less traumatic than moving out; a lot less costly than court; a lot less acrimonious than deciding custody.

Here's why not: willingness. Or lack thereof.

Willingness is a choice, of course. And certainly people have justifiable reasons to refuse. Justifiable, but often sadly selfish.

Perhaps withdrawing is the culmination of years of small slights, hurting comments or unfair expectations. And certainly there are times when a spouse feels so betrayed she can't bear the offender. (Divorce is indeed necessary in some cases.) But even after resentment and anger replace a chunk of original affection, a couple can still decide to set the bad stuff aside in order to choose closeness.

But few people now learn to put others ahead of themselves. The concept of self-sacrifice has abysmally low ratings.

Still, most who enter marriage claim intentions of "forever," and want the relationship to work (as long as it satisfies). A functioning, pleasurable, life-enhancing relationship for both partners is the prize--but it requires willingness to put others ahead of yourself.

Stubbornness is selfishness--and keeps too many partners from deciding to give in to the other. The 36 questions shift the focus. How can you stay estranged when you're telling your partner personal insights like your secret hunch about how you'll die? About why you haven't accomplished what you've dreamed of doing? About your feelings regarding your mother?

In the exercise, moving from your deepest interior life into questions focusing on the other cements the connection. "If you were going to become a close friend with your partner, please share what would be important for him or her to know." The process climaxes with question 36: "Share a personal problem and ask your partner's advice on how he or she might handle it. Also ask your partner to reflect back to you how you seem to be feeling about the problem you have chosen."

Why are these 36 questions so effective at producing love between strangers (and non-strangers, too)? Because embedded in the questioning is a course on communicating and bonding. The questions require looking inward about memories, emotions and desires (ie one's past, present and future).

They require forming these thoughts into cogent words, phrases and paragraphs--expressing one's interior--and checking to see that the receiver understood. This involves offering oneself to the other, becoming vulnerable; when both do this they form a relationship combining the two individuals.

The entire process rests on a bond and a goal--a commitment (bond) to work together to connect, "to fall in love with anyone" (goal).

That's marriage: A bond that supersedes a declaration, and an ongoing goal. Everyone knows how tough it is to undo the legal contract; neglect alone can dissolve the emotional bond. But few articulate that the goal, called by the 36 questions game "falling in love with anyone," must be pursued by daily choices placing the spouse, and the relationship, first.

The goal of marriage is continuing to fall in love, every day, every moment, with "anyone," the person you've got sitting in front of you, the person you may know better than all others, and still not yet know because he changes all the time. Understanding those changes brings closeness, the substance of love, and all you have to do is choose to keep asking the questions. And gazing into each others' eyes.

(Dedicated to the love of my life, as we celebrate our thirtieth wedding anniversary January 27, 2015.)  The 36 questions can be found here.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

My Husband's a Movie Critic. Here's why I skip 90% of screenings.

"The Artist" is a film I saw...and loved.
Though my husband hosted Sneak Previews, the movie review show on PBS, for twelve years, and has continued to review new movies as a national radio talk-show host for the last 18 years, I seldom go with him to screenings.

Here's why: I don't want anything in my head with violence, suspense or slapstick. If I go to a movie, I want it to be fun, interesting and/or uplifting. You don't need violence, suspense or slapstick for that.

Many people call me a wimp. A whuss. A ridiculous extremist. Let me try to convince you that I'm right to be so picky.

First, violence. I don't like to see people get hurt. I know it's not real, but animation, camera work, "foley" sound and special effects put us in the middle of the gore and mayhem. When I see an image, I don't just forget it. I wince. My brain has taken an indelible snapshot of the scene with its literally sickening, graphic components. Sickening: even in real life, I'm squeamish, and in real life in America, you don't typically see such disgustingly horrible mutilations and murders as screenwriters devise. There is far too much placed before my eyes from the real world without my consent; why would I want to add even more bloodshed to fuel my recollections?

There's been way too much research on the impact of violence on children, and more than necessary on the influence of violence on adults. After the first fifty studies, we should have understood that images, plot lines and even incidental content all change us. Watching violence makes kids more aggressive, and even if it doesn't change actual behavior, it influences how they perceive the world (more menacingly). Please read Michael Medved's classic book Hollywood Vs. America.

He makes the unassailable point that advertisers spend tons of money for sixty seconds of content, which they'd definitely save if they thought their commercials didn't impact anyone. Certainly the TV shows surrounding those commercials sink into our consciousness just as much as the ads. In movie theaters, with all distractions removed and images oh, thirty times life-size, doesn't it make sense that blood spattering across your field of view, with severed limbs or mangled bodies creates an impression that's, well, larger-than-life?

I know: you watched all that stuff and you came out okay. In fact, you keep watching that stuff, and you're a virtuous model citizen who sleeps just fine. Well, you may have a clean slate and your heart might melt at LOL Cats, but this doesn't mean you're unscathed. Desensitization to cruelty and others' suffering, proven in scads of those over-funded studies as an outcome of watching violence, may not express itself overtly or even often, but still offers subtle influences to personality.

Does seeing violence really help you in any way? You can say that it's necessary when telling some stories; that the plot couldn't move forward without it. You could say it, but it's not so. Remember Alfred Hitchcock's movies? He worked during times of strictly imposed standards of the Motion Picture Production Code (called the Hays Code after its champion Will H. Hays, the first president of the Motion Picture Association of America). Yet he was able to clearly communicate horrifying events, causing plenty of nightmares in viewers, without oozing blood, graphic hackings or shocking dismemberment.

And frankly, I don't want to wrap my brain around a story with even implied violence. OK, this may be too wimpy for most, but in my limited hours on earth, I'd rather use my brain cells for less wrenching focus. As a psychologist, I cultivate empathy; if I have any for a fictional screen character--which is what all good writers strive for--then I'll still experience some degree of anguish or discomfort to see the protagonist suffer. There is enough real suffering in the world; for that I reserve my heartfelt caring and distress.

So, I eschew viewing violence. I'll never see an Alfred Hitchcock film, though, due to my second criterion: no suspense.

Well, little suspense. Even the most lighthearted films have some sort of hurdle or obstacle or conflict, and of course these create some level of suspense. Boy meets girl, they fall in love, there's some problem (causing suspense) but it's overcome and, well, Sleepless in Seattle. You've Got Mail. When Harry Met Sally. Biggest RomCom grosser of all time? My Big Fat Greek Wedding.

Why refuse movie suspense? Because suspense is imposed stress. Life is stressful enough, see my note re suffering, above. Some people find tension invigorating. I do, but only self-imposed stress, like when I'm cooking big meals for guests for the Jewish Sabbath and I've got only a few minutes until it begins but three dishes left to finish.

That's blissful stress. I set it up that way; when I do get everything done under the wire, I'm flying into Shabbat. Feelin' good! Feelin' fine! Feelin' in control! If I miss the deadline and have to turn off the oven with the challah bread still baking inside, well, okay, it's my own fail, and I'm still pumped from the exercise of trying. That's why God made freezers--to keep bread ready for when yours isn't quite done on time.

But somebody else imposing unpredictable stress? No thank you. Even if I've begged for the spoiler, and found out the plot turns out fine, I don't want a movie manipulating my emotions like that.

And most of the time, I don't know what will happen, except that the music is getting faster with lots of thumping, and you see the car careening with a very upset driver. That's when I leave the room and don't finish the movie. If I made a poor choice and am stuck inside a dark theater, that's when I duck under my jacket, put my fingers in my ears and start humming. I never have to worry about disturbing my neighbors because that thumping about-to-crash music gets awfully loud.
The Three Stooges. Hilarious?

No, a script-writer's imposed stress is not for me. That brings me to the final movie device I avoid: slapstick.

I don't find people doing stupid things, usually getting injured doing them, funny. The Three Stooges were prime offenders. The cruelty poking eyes, flipping brooms and crowding doorways appalled me as a kid watching the black-and-white TV show. How many pies were pushed onto those guys' faces? What did they have against pie? I did not laugh; I cringed. This does not mean I am humorless, and in fact, I'm the first to laugh at even fairly lame jokes. I just don't laugh at slapstick, because it's always at someone's expense.

As intimated earlier, that leaves me with romantic comedies. Or unromantic comedies. Or interesting stories that aren't even funny, but end up happy (or at least not sad). I prefer exiting a movie more upbeat than when I entered. I prefer being entertained, perhaps with good singing and dancing, as offered in most musicals. But if the show is called "dark" (Into the Woods) or a tragedy (the characters you care about die) or a suspense thriller (duh), there's no chance I'll enjoy it.

Like most people, before taking the hour-and-a-half for the movie plus the extra hour-and-a-half for transportation and mandatory waiting for the show, I check out the film's trailer online. When I saw the one for The Theory of Everything (2014), about handicapped scientist Stephen Hawking, it appeared the film was the story of a couple in love fighting together to overcome a debilitating disease. Looked romantic, but it bothered me to see Hawking succumbing to illness, so I skipped the screening. My husband returned saying that the trailer was misleading--the film was really about the Hawkings' divorce. He said it depicted each's affairs and their split. Rather than an uplifting story of love trumping physical limitation, it apparently told of love's demise.  No matter how well acted or beautifully shot a film, if its story is one of coming apart, betrayal and sadness, it's not for me.

Most people love sharing their responses to movies, and who better to do that with than a real movie critic? If I'm standing by when friends start talking to my husband, I listen politely but only rarely want to see the movie discussed. I've got far too much to accomplish, experience, and heck, just maintain (ie housework) to indiscriminately enter some screenwriter's made-up world. I admire excellent artistry but not at the risk of my sensibilities.

I do enjoy many films, though. The Artist, winner of the Oscar for Best Picture in 2012, is at the top of my list. Why? It was a film in which every character was likeable, yet it told a complex story with a message--and even did it silently, in black-and-white. Recently, I liked Chef, this year's Jon Favreau film, and while we're on the subject of food, Julie and Julia (2009) and The Hundred Foot Journey (2014), were delightful films that met all my criteria.

Which brings me to the final point. Most movies lower the quality of discourse, and drag me into milieus and neighborhoods I'd rather avoid. The ones I appreciate contribute to my enjoyment of the world. I am blessed with a fabulous, exciting life, and while I love broadening it with travel and non-fiction and beautiful images and music and especially study and learning, I want to restrict the tainting influences in our culture as much as possible. So, I'd rather hear a lecture on Jewish text than a movie with profanity. I'd rather even read the newspaper than "experience" a character's grimy, drug-centered downfall. Yes, that limits my experiences to half of the possibilities of life, for surely there is as much negative in the world as positive. But one can be aware of the negative but choose the positive. One can read about criminals and choose admirable people as friends.

So don't expect to see me with my husband at screenings. I'll remain blissfully naive of the latest box-office smash. And as free as possible from gruesome images and soul-wrenching stories, hoping to make the most of this awesome existence.