Lessons to officers about finding ‘happily ever after’

We are embracing a peaceful transition. Not in the presidency, but in this column, as I step back to welcome the current Psych Services staff to this space. On my way out, I challenged myself to shape my most frequently given advice to officers’ families into a single column. Ready?

Start with troubled teens. I encouraged the parents who escorted them to talk to the emerging adult under the scowling exterior. Don’t just seek obedience, I said, because your kids will need to make tough decisions in tempting circumstances where you can’t give marching orders. They must learn to think.

Private sessions with the same adolescents often involved agreeing that their parents could not stop them from doing interesting, ill-advised stuff, while persuading them to hold off, at least for a while. If you reject your parents’ authority, I told them, you must act authoritatively, and make decent decisions.

Flunking out won’t get you anywhere. Earn a GED if you really cannot stomach high school, and if your parents are willing to pay for college, go. Don’t get pregnant or get anyone pregnant, don’t get arrested, and don’t do drugs.

One teenaged girl’s eyes opened wider, literally, and metaphorically, during this discussion. “It’s not really that hard, is it?” she asked. That was a good day.

Another vulnerable and adorable adolescent had a boyfriend who scorned condoms and did not fear pregnancy. I told her that if she chose to reject her family’s moral code, she needed to create one of her own. After some thought, she dumped the guy who cared so little for her. An unvarnished “don’t” would have bounced off. Respect got through.

Pillars of Parenting

Smaller children, smaller problems. Parental attention is such rich fertilizer that I implored families to spread it carefully. What you pay attention to grows stronger, whether it’s the habit of doing chores or sibling conflict. Kids do what works and contact with you is the ultimate payoff. (Ahem. This is especially true if you work around the clock.)

On Wednesdays in my house, we battle the slightly terrible twos. Giving children choices is magical through the elementary school years. Let an assertive toddler express herself by choosing between the green bib and the pink bib, and she forgets to fuss about wearing one.

As I watch my small grandchildren navigate the pandemic, sometimes, now, with anxiety about new people, I am reminded that half of parenting is ignoring unwanted behavior, which in this case means not overreacting. “It’s a phase,” my daughter-in-law says, hugging and moving on, and she’s absolutely right.

Letting children and teens learn from mistakes is also key. Please don’t rant and rescue. When kids lose or break stuff through negligence, they can do without for a while.

Teach managing failures and hard times by example. Let your children see you doing your best, accepting responsibility, attempting restitution, and perhaps, leaning on faith. Another half of parenting is being a role model. You should also be able to say, “That’s really cool!” convincingly, but I’ve run out of halves.

Finding ‘Happily Ever After’

Other than stress management and sleep hygiene consults, advice to adults centered mostly on two themes. First, clients worked toward “wise-mind mode,” that is, using your head and your heart to make decisions. Ignoring your own emotions leads to a lack of fulfillment and disaster down the road. Relying exclusively on gut instincts, on the other hand, promotes tantrums, chaos, and sabotaging relationships at home and at work.

The second theme, of course, was making love last. Here’s my summary of 37 years of marriage: It gets harder. It’s worth it.

Accept that staying married, for cops, is swimming upstream. Don’t buy the Hollywood myth that “happily ever after” requires no effort. The grass is greener where you water it. We’d all like to eat carrot cake for dinner in stained sweats while binge-watching our favorite shows, but it’s not fair to our spouses.

Be kinder, listen more, and give compliments. Above all, don’t stray. Heed the country singer who enjoyed his drink with an attractive woman but refused a second one: “No, honey, I’m good…You’ll make somebody’s night, but it sure as hell ‘s not mine.”

If she’s damaged goods, skip the first drink. Do your rescuing on-duty.

Open Up

The genuine privilege of working with HPD officers confirmed my belief in widespread stupidity. Don’t get mad—we’re all this kind of stupid, that is, deeply ignorant of our spouses’ hidden wishes.

Relax, it’s okay. Marriages do better when couples see each other as ignorant—which is fixable—instead of cruel and uncaring. If anger at your partner stains your life, consider this shift in perspective.

In therapy, I frequently brought out an imperfect list of 10 features people seek in spouses: admiration, affection, intimate conversation, sex, companionship, honesty, physical attractiveness, family commitment, financial support and homemaking support. I challenged clients to rank their own top needs, and their spouses’. If you do the exercise, like many shocked clients you may realize that your partner’s list is completely different than yours, or that you don’t know your partner’s list at all.

Different is fine. Cluelessness about the needs of the person you’re married to is not. That, my friends, is why communication matters.

Officers often recognized next that their own stinginess in the communication department contributed to marital problems. They ditched the myth that heroes don’t have needs and started talking. They were poised to forgive, heal, and bring down the curtain on a happy ending.

Give it a Shot

Truthfully, the piece of advice I gave most often was probably, “Try it.” You don’t have to sign an oath in blood promising you’ll stick with counseling or a mood-altering medication. You can always quit (tapering drugs as needed—ask). But if you or your child is miserable or barely getting through the day, please take the risk. Strength lies in confronting your depression or ADHD or marital dumpster fire, not in denying it. Meds for common problems, including ADHD, are not addictive. Alcohol is.

And if you were a person of faith when you were younger but fell away from spiritual practices and now, you’re in a therapist’s office saying nothing feels right—hello? Try finding a house of worship. Get back to where you once belonged.

I’m smiling as I insert yet another classic rock reference into this column. The whole experience has made me smile, and I am deeply grateful to editor Tom Kennedy for the education and the opportunity. As this COVID winter ends, I wish for all my readers smiles returning to their faces, plus security, health, and happiness in a bright new year.

Next month will bring my last regular column. Watch this space!

See marriagebuilders.com for more about the list of marital needs. Send feedback to lisagarmezy@gmail.com