How pottery can keep you sane

How pottery can keep you sane

Until fairly recently, I found it almost impossible to spend time alone. My attention span is short, and my concentration will lapse with even the slightest distraction, be that a call, an email, a text, a passing cloud, a thought or the second hand moving on a clock. The only way to quieten my mind was to spend time with other people. Socialising became my coping mechanism, particularly when acute anxiety and panic attacks came knocking.

My mother would regularly air her concerns about my hyperactive social life, which tended to leave me in a near-permanent state of exhaustion. During particularly stressful periods of my life, her advice to me was always to carve out space in my diary to have some quiet time alone. “And do what, though?” I would retort. “I don’t know, don’t you have any hobbies?”

When I was a child, my parents encouraged me find pursuits that I enjoyed and do them regularly. Over my childhood I tried many different things, from tap dancing to painting, football to sewing, singing to baking, you name it, I had a go. One of my favourite hobbies was pottery. I loved being completely immersed in a creative process and the satisfaction of creating something with my own hands.

In adulthood, free time becomes more of a precious commodity. It stands to reason that the way in which we choose to spend it is often viewed through the prism of cost versus benefit. Rather than assess activities based on the joy that they will add to our lives, we begin to consider their value in relation to their contribution to a specific goal or ambition. Will this make me richer? Fitter? Healthier? More successful? More loved?

I decided to revisit pottery to see if it could unlock the same stillness of mind I’d experienced as a child. I wanted to reach the promised land of “flow” – that is to say, a state of absorption, in which your awareness of the world around you ceases to exist. Lucky enough to live within a stone’s throw of south London’s busiest pottery studio, the Kiln Rooms, I signed up to a one-day taster session.

When I arrived at the studio on a Sunday afternoon, I was tired, stressed and unconvinced that the session would provide an adequate antidote to my malaise. In the class, we split into two groups and were given the opportunity to explore the two principle methods of ceramics making: throwing and handbuilding. Everybody was given the freedom to make whatever they desired, from plates to pots or, in my case, a vase and something vaguely resembling a cat bowl.

It is not an exaggeration to say that the next five hours flew past, and I left having looked at my phone only to feed my pride by taking photos of my creations. In my child-like glee, I sent one to my mum, who replied with a deadpan retort: “that actually looks quite good, I’m surprised.” So removed had I been from my usual negative thought-loops and worries that when I finally emerged from the studio at the end of the class, I felt like I had just woken up. I arrived home feeling unwound, relaxed and peaceful, and decided to switch my phone off for the rest of the evening. This is completely unheard of.

Demand for pottery courses in London has surged over the past few years. This means that the average waiting list to join a course at the Kiln Rooms is around six months, and within four years of beginning the company, they have already opened a further two studios. Stuart, the co-founder, agrees that the stresses of modern life, and in particular, screen addiction, are what have led people to engage in more traditional hobbies, such as pottery. Many people come to the studio in search of a safe space to set their creativity free without fear of failure or embarrassment. “In pottery, you can make mistakes and muck things up and not be too precious about it. You just start again. The pressures and expectations of modern life don’t allow for that sort of freedom.”

There’s a strong sense of community at the studio, which, in a big and sometimes isolating city like London, has a very positive impact on the mental health and wellbeing of members. Most of the people in my class expressed a desire to escape from their busy routines and be part of something. Some had suffered from mental illness in the past – one of the teachers had even been “prescribed” pottery by a GP for her depression. She has since given up her job to teach pottery full time.

Are creative hobbies the solution to the mental-health crisis? Not quite. But so convinced was I of the benefits of pottery to my mental wellbeing that I have joined a waiting list for a beginners’ course this autumn. I don’t think I’ll be quitting my job to pursue a career in pottery any time soon, but any activity that unsticks me from my phone – and helps me feel happy in my own company – is worth pursuing.

Is CBD Helpful, or Just Hype?

Is CBD Helpful, or Just Hype?

Suddenly, CBD is everywhere. CBD, short for cannabidiol, a non-psychotropic component of cannabis and hemp, is being promoted as the latest miracle cure. Enthusiasts rave about its supposed anti-anxiety, anti-inflammatory, antidepressant and, well, anti-everything-you-don’t-like effects.

You can get your CBD in a cocktail (a “Stoney Negroni” is being served at a Queens bar), skin creams and coffee. It’s only a matter of time before it turns up in avocado toast.

From pills to edibles, CBD is wildly popular, and it is easily available online and in stores. Indeed, sales are predicted to reach $22 billion by 2022, according to the Brightfield Group, a cannabis market research firm.

I first encountered CBD while on sabbatical a few years back. As I drove up the Oregon Coast Highway, it was hard to miss all the cannabis shops along the Pacific. I stopped in one, perused the menu, and selected two marijuana specials — Nine-Pound Hammer and Trainwreck — and some CBD gummy bears. The cannabis was, well, as advertised, and the CBD candy, as far as I could tell, was a fruit-flavored placebo.

Many of my patients have tried it or want to learn more about it. One of them, an educated, successful and anxious man in his 40s, recently told me he tried mixing CBD oil in his tea, but it didn’t make him calmer. Then he rubbed the oil on his injured knee, and pronounced it a magic cure.

Which invites the critical question: Just how effective is CBD, and for what kinds of ills?

Cannabidiol has little direct effect on the cannabinoid receptors in the brain, so it is largely devoid of the euphoric effects of THC, the major intoxicant in marijuana. But if CBD really had no psychotropic effect at all, it would be hard to understand its popularity. In fact, because it alters the brain’s serotonin receptors and may interfere with the breakdown of anandamide — a cannabidoid that is produced naturally in the brain — it could well affect feeling and thinking.

But what does the evidence show?

In 2017, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine convened a panel of experts to review the health effects of cannabis and cannabinoids. They examined more than 10,000 studies, most of which examined marijuana, not CBD. They found evidence that some cannabinoids — not including CBD — are effective for pain, nausea from chemotherapy and muscle spasms in multiple sclerosis.

When it comes to CBD, the panel found only a few small randomized clinical trials, and concluded that there was insufficient evidence that CBD was effective in treating conditions like insomnia, addiction to cigarettes and Parkinson’s disease, and limited evidence in its ability to treat anxiety.

This year, the Food and Drug Administration approved Epidiolex, a CBD concentrate, for two rare and severe forms of epilepsy, on the basis of several clinical trials.

To be fair, the paucity of data about CBD’s efficacy and safety in part reflects the federal government’s irrational restrictions on cannabis research. Because cannabis is classified as a Schedule 1 drug, you need a license from the Drug Enforcement Administration to research it and, until two years ago, you could use only the cannabis grown at the University of Mississippi.

The good news is that in 2017, the National Institutes of Health funded cannabinoid research to the tune of $140 million, including $15 million on CBD. The F.D.A. also loosened restrictions on CBD research in 2015 and has announced that it is considering “pathways” to allow the sale across state lines of CBD in food and beverages, sales now confined to states that have approved CBD use.

Still, the explosive popularity of CBD is way ahead of any evidence to support its efficacy — or reliable reassurances that it has no serious adverse effects. Where is the healthy skepticism when we need it?

The public, rightly, is quick to demand proof of safety and efficacy when it comes to synthetic pharmaceuticals. Why should natural products, like CBD, get a pass?

Perhaps it’s because many people have romantic and misplaced notions about nature. Some even point out that we come hard-wired with cannabinoid receptors in our brains and they must have a purpose, so why not use them? This is not exactly a persuasive argument: Nature endowed us with our own cannabinoids, so unless you have a deficiency of them or sluggish receptors, you really don’t need supplementation.

Consumers who are still keen on the idea of CBD might want to know exactly what they are getting for their money — considering that the manufacturing of CBD products is completely unregulated.

Here, the evidence is not going to make them happy. A 2017 study in JAMA reported that only 26 of 84 samples of CBD oils, tinctures and liquids purchased online contained the amount of CBD claimed on their labels. Eighteen of them contained THC, which could lead to intoxication or impairment in some individuals. And a quarter had less CBD than advertised. The F.D.A. has likewise found many products that did not contain the amount of CBD they were claiming.

Future studies may show otherwise, but at present CBD looks more like an expensive placebo than a panacea.

The Uncommon Power of Grace

The Uncommon Power of Grace

In his book “What’s So Amazing About Grace?” Philip Yancey describes a conference on comparative religions where experts from around the world debated which belief, if any, was unique to the Christian faith. C.S. Lewis happened to enter the room during the discussion. When he was told the topic was Christianity’s unique contribution among world religions, Lewis responded: “Oh, that’s easy. It’s grace.”

Lewis was right. No other religion places grace at its theological center. It was a revolutionary idea; as Mr. Yancey puts it, grace “seems to go against every instinct of humanity.” We are naturally drawn to covenants and karma, to cause and effect, to earning what we receive.

Grace is different. It is the unmerited favor of God, unconditional love given to the undeserving. It’s a difficult concept to understand because it isn’t entirely rational. “Grace defies reason and logic,” as Bono, the lead singer of U2, put it. “Love interrupts, if you like, the consequences of your actions.”

There’s a radical equality at the core of grace. None of us are deserving of God’s grace, so it’s not dependent on social status, wealth or intelligence. There is equality between kings and peasants, the prominent and the unheralded, rule followers and rule breakers.

If you find yourself in the company of people whose hearts have been captured by grace, count yourself lucky. They love us despite our messy lives, stay connected to us through our struggles, always holding out the hope of redemption. When relationships are broken, my wife Cindy told me, it’s grace that causes people not to give up, to extend the invitation to reconnect, to work through misunderstandings with sensitivity and transparency.

You don’t sense hard edges, dogmatism or self-righteous judgment from gracious people. There’s a tenderness about them that opens doors that had previously been bolted shut. People who have been transformed by grace have a special place in their hearts for those living in the shadows of society. They’re easily moved by stories of suffering and step into the breach to heal. And grace properly understood always produces gratitude.

Of course, grace can easily be exploited by people who don’t want to be held accountable for their misdeeds; the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer referred to this as “cheap grace.” Nor is it easy to balance grace with the requirements of justice. We obviously can’t organize society entirely around the concept of grace. Yet the problem today is more the absence of grace than its presence.

It’s easy to understand why. Living a grace-filled life is hard. Most of us, when we feel wronged, want payback. Our first impulse, when hurt or offended, is to strike out, justifying our anger in the name of fairness. We forget the words of Edward Herbert (the poet George’s brother), “He that cannot forgive others breaks the bridge over which he must pass himself,” and we forget that only grace can break the cycle of ancient hatreds among peoples. (It is notable that while I have regretted not granting grace to others, I’ve never once regretted extending it.)

When Mr. Yancey was young, he rejected the church for a time because he found so little grace there. There is a tendency among many people of faith to come across as holier than thou, more eager to judge than to forgive. Jesus encountered this throughout his ministry, which helps explain why he was more comfortable in the company of the unclean and reviled, the lowly and the outcast, than religious authorities. The odds are that you know people who have had scars of ungrace inflicted upon them by the Christian church. Yet when we see grace in action — whether in acts of extravagant, indiscriminate love, in radical self-giving, or in showing equanimity in the face of death — it can move us unlike anything else.

In 2014, Steve Hayner, my spiritual confidant, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Upon learning it had spread, Steve wrote, “In all probability, the remainder of my life on this earth is now to be counted in weeks and months.” (He died in January 2015.) Steve acknowledged that pain and death are reminders of the nature of our broken world. Yet he went on to say: “There is a much bigger story of which this is only a tiny part. And it is God’s story of love, hope, forgiveness, reconciliation, and joy. We went into this journey choosing to trust God and to offer our fears to God. We’ve been so grateful for the freedom from fear and the abundance of peace that we have experienced.” He added, “There are, of course, times of discouragement, grief, pain, and wonder. After all, there are a lot of unknowns ahead of us.”

I sent Steve’s reflections to my friend Jonathan Rauch, who responded, “It’s letters like this — the wisdom, the grace — that make me wish I weren’t an atheist.”

When I recently asked Jonathan how, as a nonbeliever, he understood grace and why it inspires us when we see it in others, he told me that grace is “some combination of generosity and magnanimity, kindness and forgiveness, and empathy — all above the ordinary call of duty, and bestowed even (or especially?) when not particularly earned.” We see it demonstrated in heroic ways and in small, everyday contexts, he said. “But I guess, regardless of the context, it’s always at least a little unexpected and out of the ordinary.”

A lot like if the incarnate deity, veiled in flesh, were born in a manger in Bethlehem.

6 Ways to Have Better Relationships in 2019

6 Ways to Have Better Relationships in 2019

Even if the foundation of your relationship has long been built on trial and error, a relationship is nothing more than small growths and achievements, marked by the occasional misstep. The Smarter Living team has culled a few tips from our archive to help you grow in that new relationship, rekindle an old flame or turn a breakup into a positive experience.

Be a more patient person
Relax. It’s going to be O.K. A 2012 study in the Journal of Positive Psychology identified three distinct expressions of patience: interpersonal, which is maintaining calm when dealing with someone who is upset, angry or being a pest; life hardships, or finding the silver lining after a serious setback; and daily hassles, which is suppressing annoyance at delays or anything irritating that would inspire a snarky tweet.

The good news is the same study found that patience as a personality trait is modifiable. Even if you’re not a particularly patient person today, there’s still hope you can be a more patient person tomorrow.

Navigate a party like a pro
Whether you love them or hate them, parties are important. They are where people meet future business and romantic partners and friends, where small talk becomes the stuff of life. And who among us, save the most self-sufficient and confident partygoer (who is that insufferable person, anyway?), wouldn’t like to party better?

This guide will teach you how to make seamless, beautiful small talk that leads to important conversations and connections. It will ease you into mingling effortlessly, and it will even demonstrate the right way to leave (without ruining your life). Read more >>>

Revive an old friendship
People who are looking to recapture a close friendship after some time apart don’t quite fit into this framework. It can be disorienting to feel like you’re back at square one with a person (or sibling) you have a shared history with.

But given that most people are only a text message, email or phone call away, it’s not always clear how — and, frankly, if — you should approach them. For anyone thinking about reconnecting with a cherished friend, here are some smart ways to regain closeness once a friendship has cooled. Read more >>>

Stop being so hard on yourself
Self-criticism can take a toll on our minds and bodies. “We’re all our own worst critics.” Ever heard that one before? Yes, it’s an obnoxious cliché, but it’s not just self-help fluff. Evolutionary psychologists have studied our natural “negativity bias,” which is that instinct in us all that makes negative experiences seem more significant than they really are.

In other words: We’ve evolved to give more weight to our flaws, mistakes and shortcomings than our successes.

Turn a breakup into a positive experience
Pop culture has trained us to think of breakups as excuses to binge on ice cream in the dark for a month. But that doesn’t help anyone.

Immediately booking a flight to Cancun isn’t necessarily a suitable plan for everyone. Grieving takes time. It’s not a sign of weakness, but rather an essential step toward accepting change. Read more >>>

Navigate the financial side of a relationship
Couples can fight about anything. It’s just a fact of relationships. But arguments about money (like that expensive trip you took) have a tendency to be particularly toxic because they’re layered with deep emotional and personal history.

These chats do have their challenges, but they can also be deeply bonding. And more important, they can keep serious money problems at bay and help us save and invest more smartly.

How to Keep Your Skin Dewy During the Winter

How to Keep Your Skin Dewy During the Winter

To fight off dry, wintry skin, there’s a simple solution: Moisturize, moisturize and then moisturize some more. But slathering on thick balms all day is not for everyone, especially those who like their makeup to remain in tact.

A cold-weather alternative comes in the form of a new crop of moisturizing creams that are also foundations. They nod to BB creams of the past by pairing hydrating skin-care ingredients with tinted pigments, and do more than just moisturize on the surface. These “treatment” foundations now heal skin with an even lighter, more breathable feel — thanks to new “finishes, opacities and textures,” according to the Toronto-based cosmetic chemist Stephen Alain Ko. The resulting dewy glow lasts — even after washing off your makeup.

The first step is to pick a formula that matches your skin type. For complexions that are both oily and dry, Kosas’s Tinted Face Oil ($42) functions like a hybrid serum — it contains mineral pigments to subtly even out your tone, suspended in a base of moisturizing plant-based oils (meadowfoam, rose-hip seed, raspberry). “Over time,” says the company’s founder, Sheena Yaitanes, “the botanical-oil blend works to balance your skin’s sebum production, hydrate and protect your skin from damage.” Or consider La Prairie’s Skin Caviar Essence-in-Foundation ($195), a new spin on an essence, or lightweight lotion, that is infused with nutrient-rich caviar water to plump skin; you can pat on the tinted powder by itself or add it as the final step of your skin-care regimen.

For super-parched skin, richer formulas deliver higher doses of hydration and coverage but still glide on without feeling heavy. Sisley-Paris’s Sisleÿa Le Teint ($170), for example, contains the same acacia extract found in the brand’s famed Sisleÿa L’Intégral Anti-Age cream; it lifts and smooths creases in a more fluid format. Valmont’s Perfecting Powder Cream ($145), on the other hand, restores lost moisture on a cellular level, morphing from a soft cream into a velvety powder.

Sensitive types can look to more soothing options, like Omorovicza’s Complexion Perfector ($95), boosted with calming, mineral-rich thermal water, or La Mer’s Luminous Lifting Cushion Foundation ($120), spiked with the brand’s “miracle broth” to replenish skin and minimize inflammation.

Despite all this innovation, there are a few drawbacks: Shade ranges remain unfortunately limited — many treatment foundations only come in a handful of hues. Also, dermatologists caution that even if your formula has built-in sunscreen, you still need to wear SPF.

As for whether these glow-enhancing bases can replace your serums and creams anytime soon: the Manhattan dermatologist Dendy Engelman, M.D., a regular user of La Mer creams at home, says skin-care products — not makeup — still offer the highest concentration of active ingredients. But this new wave of foundations can supplement your routine and provide an extra, dewy boost. As she puts it, “They are good for synergy.”

How to Foster Empathy in Children

How to Foster Empathy in Children

As the year’s end approaches, most Americans get bombarded by emailed and snail-mailed requests for donations to all manner of charities, A to Z.

I’m an easy target, a softy readily seduced by impassioned pleas to help improve the well-being of people, animals and the environment, and I often respond to more appeals than my earnings warrant.

This year will be different, thanks to advice from one of the leading experts on empathy, Dr. Helen Riess, associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and author of a new book, “The Empathy Effect,” that explores the neuroscience behind concern for others and offers advice on how to nurture and implement it most effectively.

Instead of a scattershot of small gifts to a dozen or more charities, Dr. Riess suggested in an interview that I “pick one or two where a more substantial contribution can really make a difference.” She told me to use “cognitive empathy,” a more rational, less emotional approach. Empathy doesn’t mean saying “yes” to every request, she emphasized. “Recognize that you can’t save the world, and give to organizations that are most important to you.”

Let something from your own life experience determine which issues are closest to your heart and most deserve your money, she suggests in her book. For me, that would be education and food security; I’ll leave it to others to save abandoned pets and the planet this year.

Perhaps no one knows the importance of balancing feelings with thoughts better than Dr. Judith Orloff, a Los Angeles-based psychiatrist and the author of “The Empath’s Survival Guide.” Her book can help highly sensitive people avoid taking on everyone else’s needs and problems, which Dr. Riess says can lead to “compassion fatigue” and burnout.

“There’s healthy giving and there’s unhealthy, codependent giving that can ultimately make you feel worse,” Dr. Orloff said in an interview. “It’s important to be empathetic but also to set healthy limits and boundaries rather than being a doormat. If you’re a highly sensitive person, you have to learn how to channel your energy. Healthy empathy is when you give from your heart, but not martyr yourself.”

She added, “You have to practice self-care. ‘No’ is a complete sentence — no explanation needed.” If that seems too abrupt, ‘I’m sorry but I can’t do that’ is a reasonable add-on.

While overly empathetic individuals can be their own worst enemy, more distressing to me, at least, are people who seem deficient, even devoid, of empathy. They are self-focused, narcissistic, always thinking about what’s in it for them and never recognizing and responding to the needs of others, a deficit that can undermine human survival, which depends on community support.

People with empathy deficiency disorder, as some experts call it, lack a moral compass. They can’t distinguish between right and wrong, Dr. Riess said.

Research by Dr. Riess and her collaborators has shown that we are each born with a given number of neurons that participate in an empathetic response. But whether this potential to care appropriately for one’s fellow beings is realized or undermined is largely molded by early life experiences, starting at birth and continuing throughout childhood.

How, then, can a healthy degree of empathy be instilled in a child? “Empathy is a mutable trait, it can be taught,” Dr. Riess told me. “We’re all born with a certain endowment, but it can be dramatically up-regulated or down-regulated depending upon environmental factors,” especially, she said, by the examples set by a child’s caregivers.

Dr. Riess urges parents to be role models who show respect and caring for others: “Billy scraped his knee. Let’s go get a Band-Aid for him,” or “Mrs. Jones just came home from the hospital. Let’s take her some soup.”

Teachers and caregivers in child care and pre-K settings can foster empathy by acknowledging rather than dismissing a child’s distress or by bringing a toy or doll to comfort a child who is upset or injured. Libraries and bookstores are replete with stories in print and video that demonstrate the giving and receiving of empathy for children at different age levels. Among the many choices: “I Am Human,” “What’s Wrong with Timmy?” and a personal favorite, “Wonder,” which was also made into a popular movie last year.

Dr. Riess has vivid memories of how her parents demonstrated empathy, by bringing turkeys before Thanksgiving to the homes of people who had almost nothing. “Kids tend to focus on what they don’t have — this exposes them to people who have so much less and gives them the gift of being a giver.”

She told me of a program called Cradles to Crayons, in which volunteers package up donated items for children in need. The program, currently operating in Boston, Philadelphia and Chicago, provides essential items for needy children from birth through age 12.

Last August in Boston, for example, Cradles to Crayons volunteers filled 40,000 backpacks for children across Massachusetts from low-income or homeless families. Parents and children can participate together in such programs, perhaps using this program’s model to establish similar projects in cities elsewhere in the country.

With older children, parents might take them to help out in a soup kitchen or visit a nursing home, Dr. Riess suggested. “It’s never too late to guide a child toward greater appreciation of others’ feelings,” she wrote.

Equally important is for parents to demonstrate empathy with their own children by acknowledging their concerns and feelings and recognizing their need for security. For example, she said, “When a child is fearful of a dog, instead of saying ‘Don’t be afraid, he won’t bite you,’ say ‘Are you scared of the dog? What scares you?’ This validates the child’s fears rather than negating them.”

At the same time, Dr. Riess said, parents should not overreact by being intolerant of “a single second of unhappiness in their child’s life” lest such misguided empathy deprive the child of developing the grit, perseverance and resilience that is essential to a successful life.

Parents can talk to their children about other people’s feelings. If a child breaks another child’s toy, Dr. Riess suggests that instead of saying “‘Why did you do that? That was bad,’ say ‘Sara is sad because you broke her toy. What can we do to make up for that?’ which leaves the door open for an apology.”

Also helpful is to “validate your child’s difficult emotions instead of being judgmental,” she said. “If the child says ‘I hate Tommy,’ rather than say it’s wrong to hate, ask what makes the child feel that way. Explore what’s behind the feelings, the back story.”

For very young children, stuffed animals or puppets can be used to help them act out different stories, Dr. Riess suggested.

This article was originally published in The New York Times. Read the original article.

Giving 101: The Princeton Class That Teaches Students to Be Less Selfish

Giving 101: The Princeton Class That Teaches Students to Be Less Selfish

Imagine walking along a road past a pond, when out of the corner of your eye you see a toddler boy flailing about in the water. You quickly look around. There is no other adult in sight. If you don’t jump in to save him, no one else will. He will drown. You know what you have to do. You dive right in and drag the drowning toddler from the water.

But what if that little child were drowning—proverbially—half a world away? What would you do to save him then?

This is one of many questions Peter Singer, an Australian professor of bioethics at Princeton University, asks undergraduates during his popular semester-long course on practical ethics. The lecture course covers euthanasia, animal rights, infanticide and abortion, effective altruism, and other weighty topics.

Singer puts a uniquely practical spin on how he gets his students to stretch their thinking. This semester, each discussion group in his course of almost 400 students was given $100 to donate to one of four organizations: the Future of Humanity Institute, the Fistula Foundation, GiveDirectly, and Princeton University. The Future of Humanity Institute is an interdisciplinary research center based at Oxford; the Fistula Foundation provides life-changing surgery to correct a devastating childbirth injury that affects women in poor countries; GiveDirectly is a charity that gives 90 cents of every donated dollar directly to impoverished families in Africa; and Princeton University is, of course, the prestigious Ivy League university these students are attending. Singer is not asking his students to play this giving game just to make things interesting. Singer wants them to consider why Americans and other privileged citizens of affluent countries show so little generosity towards those who have so much less. Why don’t we give more? What gets in our way, and what would it take for us to overcome that?

Singer is one of the world’s most controversial philosophers. He supports a parent’s right to end the life of a severely disabled infant and argues that animal and human suffering are on an exactly equal moral level; his views have inspired both fervent admiration and fierce denunciation. Shortly after Singer first arrived at Princeton in September 1999, billionaire publisher Steve Forbes told Princeton’s trustees that he would stop giving money to the university until Singer left. The trustees refused to rescind the appointment. Still, Singer has been what the New York Times once called a “public relations nightmare” for his employer. Nevertheless, over the decade since Singer first arrived at the university, his Practical Ethics course has become famous on campus, enrolling nearly 400 students this past semester.

In his book, The Life You Can Save, Singer cites OECD figures that show that the United States is “at or near the bottom of the list of industrialized countries in terms of the proportion of national income given as foreign aid.” Though many Americans consider themselves charitable, and as a people we give 2 percent of gross domestic product to charity, we overestimate the amount of money we spend on helping those who are far away; in fact, the amount of foreign aid we give as a percentage of gross national income has fallen. A third of our donations are to religious organizations; educational institutions are the second largest recipients of American charitable giving. All the while we continue to spend tremendous amounts of money on ourselves. We spend money on bottled water and daily lattes that, Singer argues, could save a child’s life.

Singer tells his students that though almost anyone would dive in to save a drowning child, Americans eschew giving to the world’s most desperately poor—including the 19,000 children dying every day of sheer poverty-related causes—even though it is well within our means to help. By failing to do so, Singer claims, we cannot consider ourselves to be living a “morally good life.”

It’s human nature to feel compelled to save those who are close to us—our immediate kin, our friends, the little boy we stumble upon whose desperate movements in the water tug at our hearts. It’s much harder to feel that sympathy for faceless children somewhere else (whether in another neighborhood in our town, or halfway across the world). Studies have shown that people tend to give more generously when they are shown a photo and told a story about one, identifiable, specific child. They will spend more on a child they know something about than on saving several statistical lives—in one study, people told that a single child needed a $300,000 dollar lifesaving medical treatment gave more than those who were told that $300,000 would cover medical treatment for eight children.

One reason, according to Singer, that people are so hesitant to give is they think their kindness will not matter. This tendency to think that one can’t do very much, or to dismiss all forms of aid as useless, is what researchers call “futility thinking:” What difference can one person even make? Research indicates that money makes people more individualistic and less altruistic. In other words, as societies become wealthier, their citizens become more individualistic and depend less upon one another. Self-interest becomes the norm.

But one antidote against futility thinking is to carefully research charities and organizations—something that Singer’s $100 donation experiment allowed students to do. They were presented with four organizations, asked to research and discuss their merits, and vote on where the $100 should go. They applied the lessons they’d learned in the course: that not all donations are equal, and that some donations have a measurably more positive impact than the same amount donated elsewhere (consider, for instance, the difference between donating $2000 to an organization ranked highly by the charity evaluator GiveWell, such as the Against Malaria Foundation, which provides mosquito nets to help protect children from contracting malaria, versus the same amount of money donated to an arts museum in the United States). They learn that their money will always go much further overseas: that a very small amount of money for an American can be life-saving to someone who is desperately poor. In other words, they learn about the tenets of effective altruism: how to evaluate organizations for transparency and benefits, and figure out which forms of aid are the most cost-effective. This is information that tends to inspire more giving.

What would ultimately help people overcome their tendency to not give? “We don’t really have a good answer to that question,” Singer admitted. He did mention research that indicates that people are more influenced by emotions than by reasoning, which is why that picture of a small girl in a distant land would promote more spontaneous giving than information about African girls in general. A photograph is specific and concrete. In his book, Singer argues that global tragedies that have been filmed have attracted more contributions than those that have not, regardless of the actual amount of casualties and damage. Altruism is often, at a gut level, emotionally prompted. But when combined with an understanding of human nature and the right sort of rational information, emotions and reasoning can combine to cultivate a formidable culture of giving.

“I’ve always been inclined to give to charity,” Adam Tcharni, a junior at Princeton who took the course his freshman year, told me. But the class made him think about giving differently. He now believes that geographical borders don’t matter, that there is no difference between his obligation to the hypothetical drowning child in front of him and the dying child half a world away. As Singer calls his students’ attention to the tremendous inequality in how the world’s resources are allocated, he suggests that it’s hardly ethical to live in luxury when so many do not and that it’s unethical to fail to save a single life when so little money would be needed to do so.

The result of the $100 giving game? The 36 discussion groups in Singer’s class chose unanimously to donate to the Fistula Foundation ($1750) and GiveDirectly ($1850). None chose to donate to the Future of Humanity Institute or Princeton University. “It seems that students believed the money would do more if it went to people who are very poor, rather than to an already wealthy university or to promoting research about the future of humanity,” Singer told me.

One group did seriously consider donating to Princeton with the specific goal of funding an endowed chair in ethics similar to Singer’s, the idea being that helping to educate more students in the ethics of effective altruism might serve a greater good. Although in the end the group decided their limited resources would go further if donated to GiveDirectly, Singer’s impact on a generation of Princeton students is clear. Laura Hildebrand, a senior at the university, says Singer’s course was enlightening. “He shows all perspectives; at the same time, he presents what is really entailed in being entirely altruistic and entirely unselfish. He teaches his students: This is how you can maximize your impact on the world.”

This article was originally published in The Atlantic. Read the original article.

The First Lesson of Marriage 101: There Are No Soul Mates

The First Lesson of Marriage 101: There Are No Soul Mates

Research shows that practically every dimension of life happiness is influenced by the quality of one’s marriage, while divorce is the second most stressful life event one can ever experience.

Yet nearly half of all married couples are likely to divorce, and many couples report feeling unhappy in their relationships. Instructors of Northwestern University’s Marriage 101 class want to change that. The goal of their course is to help students have more fulfilling love relationships during their lives. In Marriage 101 popular books such as Mating in Captivity and For Better: The Science of a Good Marriage are interspersed with meaty academic studies. Students attend one lecture a week and then meet in smaller breakout groups to discuss the weekly topics, which range from infidelity to addiction, childrearing to sexuality in long-term relationships.

At first glance this class may seem a tad too frivolous for a major research university. But the instructors say it’s not an easy A and its reputation as a meaningful, relevant, and enlightening course has grown steadily over the 14 years it’s been offered. In fact, teachers are forced to turn away eager prospective students every year. This spring, the enrollment will be capped at 100. The class is kept to a manageable size so that students can grapple at a deeply personal level with the material during their discussion sessions.

The Marriage 101 professors believe college is the perfect time for students to learn about relationships. “Developmentally, this is what the college years are all about: Students are thinking about who they are as people, how they love, who they love, and who they want as a partner,” says Alexandra Solomon, a professor and family therapist who will be teaching the course along with a team of four other faculty, all affiliated with Northwestern University’s Family Institute, and 11 teaching assistants. “We’re all really passionate about talking about what makes a healthy relationship.” The professors see the course—which requires journaling exercises, interviews with married couples, and several term papers—as a kind of inoculation against potential life trauma.

Historians tell us that marriage education in America began as a way to keep women’s sexuality in check. “Marriage education has been for hundreds of years aimed at women. It was considered their responsibility to keep the marriage going,” Stephanie Coontz, co-chairwoman of the Council on Contemporary Families and author of Marriage: A History, tells me. During the 1920s and 1930s, Coontz explains in her book, fears about sexual liberation and the future of marriage led eugenics proponents like Paul Popenoe to become enthusiastic about marriage counseling. “If we were going to promote a sound population, we would not have to get the right kind of people married, but we would have to keep them married,” Popenoe wrote.

College-level marriage courses became even more popular during the post-World War II period, when marriage rates were at an all-time high and women were encouraged to embrace a new role as happy homemakers. Marriage education during that time, Coontz explains, was similarly driven by a strong emphasis on stereotypical gender, race, and class ideas about how a marriage should ideally be conducted. “The received wisdom of the day was that the only way to have a happy marriage was for the woman to give up any aspirations that might threaten the man’s sense of superiority, to make his interests hers, and to never ask for help around the house.” In one case, cited in Rebecca Davis’s book More Perfect Unions, a young wife became convinced, after a series of sessions at Ohio State University’s marriage clinic, that her husband’s straying was a result of her failing to do her duty by taking care of her looks and keeping a proper home. And New York University’s College of Engineering presented “Good Wife Awards” to women who put their spouses first, providing the domestic support that allowed their husbands to concentrate on their studies.

There was another resurgence of interest in marriage education a decade ago when the George W. Bush administration undertook an initiative, with bipartisan Congressional support, to promote marriage. The Healthy Marriage Initiative was met with mixed reception; criticism was leveled at the lack of evidence that the proposed marriage-promotion strategies even worked, as well as the possibility that low-income women would feel pressured to remain in abusive or dysfunctional marriages. “We did not know if the existing scientific literature on predicting successful marriages would apply to poor families because it was mostly conducted on middle-class families,” Matthew Johnson, Director of the Marriage and Family Studies Laboratory at Binghamton University, told Forbes in an interview.* “Some in the scientific community were trying to point out that we did not know whether investing [large amounts of money] in marriage education for poor couples would work, but our voices were drowned out by those who felt that it was worth the gamble.”

Nowadays, when colleges and universities offer courses on the topic of marriage, rather than explicitly offering practical marriage advice, they often survey the institution of marriage from a historical point of view or look at larger sociological trends.

Today’s marriage education classes are most often aimed at high-school students, usually as part of a home economics or health class, where teens are taught how family structure affects child well-being, learn basic relationship and communication skills, or are required to carry around a sack filled with flour for a week so they can learn what is entailed in being responsible for a baby 24 hours a day. Other courses are taught at specifically religious colleges, or are meant for engaged couples, like Pre-Cana, a marriage prep course required of all couples desiring to marry in a Catholic church.

Northwestern’s Marriage 101 is unique among liberal arts universities in offering a course that is comprehensively and directly focused on the experiential, on self-exploration: on walking students through the actual practice of learning to love well.

While popular culture often depicts love as a matter of luck and meeting the right person, after which everything effortlessly falls into place, learning how to love another person well, Solomon explains, is anything but intuitive. Among the larger lessons students learn in this class are:

Self-understanding is the first step to having a good relationship

“The foundation of our course is based on correcting a misconception: that to make a marriage work, you have to find the right person. The fact is, you have to be the right person,” Solomon declares. “Our message is countercultural: Our focus is on whether you are the right person. Given that we’re dealing with 19-, 20-, 21-year olds, we think the best thing to do at this stage in the game, rather than look for the right partner, is do the work they need to understand who they are, where they are, where they came from, so they can then invite in a compatible suitable partner.”

To that end, students keep a journal, interview friends about their own weaknesses, and discuss what triggers their own reactions and behaviors in order to understand their own issues, hot buttons, and values. “Being blind to these causes people to experience problems as due to someone else—not to themselves,” Solomon explains. “We all have triggers, blind spots, growing edges, vulnerabilities. The best thing we can do is be aware of them, take responsibility for them, and learn how to work with them effectively.”

You can’t avoid marital conflict, but you can learn how to handle it better

The instructors teach that self-discovery is impossible without knowing where you came from. “Understanding your past and the family you grew up in helps you to understand who you are now and what you value,” Solomon says. To help students recognize what has shaped their views on love, she and her colleagues have students extensively interview their own parents about their own relationship. Many find this to be the most demanding and yet the most rewarding assignment of the course. Maddy Bloch, who took the course two years ago along with her boyfriend at the time, learned a lot when she interviewed her own parents about their own marriage, despite the fact that they are divorced. “I learned that in an intimate relationship each person holds a tremendous amount of power that you can easily turn on someone,” she says. “This is why relationships require a lot of mutual trust and vulnerability.”

Once you have a sound, objective sense of why you behave the way you do, you are better equipped to deal with conflicts—inevitable in any long-term relationship—with the appropriate tincture of self-awareness so that you avoid behaving in ways that make your partner defensive. The class instructors teach their students that blaming, oversimplifying, and seeing themselves as victims are all common traits of unhappy couples and failed marriages. They aim to teach students that rather than viewing conflicts from a zero-sum position, where one wins and one loses, they would benefit from a paradigm shift that allows them to see a couple as “two people standing shoulder to shoulder looking together at the problem.”

Thus, one of many concrete conflict-resolution skills that they teach is to frame statements as “X, Y, Z” statements, rather than finger pointing: When you did X, in situation Y, I felt Z. In other words, calmly telling my husband that when he left his clothes on the bathroom floor in the morning because he was late for a meeting, I felt resentful because I felt he didn’t notice that I was busy too, would lead to a better outcome than if I were to reactively lash out and accuse him of being a messy and careless slob. “‘You’ statements,” Solomon explains, “invite the other partner’s defensiveness, inviting them to put their walls up.” So too do words (tempting though they may sound in the moment) such as “always” or “never.”

A good marriage takes skill

There’s no doubt that the largest takeaway from the course is that fostering good relationships takes skills. “We’re a very romantic culture,” Solomon says, “and it seems a little unromantic to talk about skill building and communication skills. But it’s important.” One of our more beloved cultural myths about marriage is that it should be easy. The reality is that most of us don’t have adequate communication skills going into marriage. That’s why Marriage 101 students are required to interview another couple in addition to their own parents: a mentor couple (typically a local couple who has been married anywhere from several years to several decades). The professors hand out a list of more than 80 suggested questions and tell their students to think of the interview as a sort of lab experiment, a chance to observe the theoretical concepts they’ve been learning in a real-life context. During a 90-minute interview, a pair of students asks each couple questions such as what most attracted them to the other at the start of their relationship, which moments stand out as the best ones of their marriage, how they’ve weathered severe stresses, whether they ever thought about divorce, and what their sex life has been like over time. They watch the couple interact and engage in good couple skills: bringing a spouse a glass of water, for instance, as an unspoken gesture of caretaking. The interview is itself also a chance to observe a couple doing something that research shows is good for marriage: reminisce together as they look back on their relationship.

You and your partner need a similar worldview

Yet, despite how often we hear about the importance of good communication, even the best communication skills won’t help a couple that sees the world completely differently. One of the texts used in the course, Will Our Love Last? by Sam R. Hamburg, argues that people can be incredibly proficient communicators, yet never see eye to eye because they simply can’t understand how their partner can hold a position they see as untenable. “For people to be happy in their marriage they must be able to understand not just what their partner is saying, but the experience behind the words,” writes Hamburg. If partners are unable to do that, “they cannot understand what it’s like to be their partner—to understand their partner empathically—and the best communication in the world won’t help.”

The instructors teach students that once they learn to identify what is important to them, what values they hold, what they like to do on a daily basis, and what their sexual preferences are—in other words, once they know who they are—they will then be in a much stronger position to be able to recognize when they are with a partner who is compatible and shares their worldview.

Ben Eisenberg, who majored in learning and organizational change at Northwestern, took the course last year as a senior, right after the breakup of a long-term relationship. He found it enlightening as he looked back at his past and towards his future. “Pairing up with a partner is one of the biggest decisions you’ll make in life, more important than some of the other things you’ll learn in college,” he mused. Among other things, he learned to recognize that the more aligned you are on certain crucial dimensions—such as day-to-day compatibility, or whether you are on the same wavelength about larger issues—the better off you’ll be as a couple. He learned that all the communication skills in the world won’t help if you haven’t learned how to recognize and invite in a compatible partner. “How similarly you spend your day, your money, how you view the world, greatly affects that day-to-day happiness with your partner, more than whether you have initial attraction.”

The greatest lesson Eisenberg learned from Marriage 101? “I learned that the modern idea about love at first sight is a myth. Love is a lot of work, but it’s worth it if you put the work in.”

This article was originally published in The Atlantic. Read the original article.

So Is Living Together Before Marriage Linked to Divorce or What?

So Is Living Together Before Marriage Linked to Divorce or What?

Late last month, the Journal of Marriage and Family published a new study with a somewhat foreboding finding: Couples who lived together before marriage had a lower divorce rate in their first year of marriage, but had a higher divorce rate after five years. It supported earlier research linking premarital cohabitation to increased risk of divorce.

But just two weeks later, the Council on Contemporary Families—a nonprofit group at the University of Texas at Austin—published a report that came to the exact opposite conclusion: Premarital cohabitation seemed to make couples less likely to divorce. From the 1950s through 1970, “those who were willing to transgress strong social norms to cohabit … were also more likely to transgress similar social norms about divorce,” wrote the author, Arielle Kuperberg, a sociology professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. But as the rate of premarital cohabitation ballooned to some 70 percent, “its association with divorce faded. In fact, since 2000, premarital cohabitation has actually been associated with a lower rate of divorce, once factors such as religiosity, education, and age at co-residence are accounted for.”

It’s not unheard-of for contemporaneous studies on the same topic to reach opposite conclusions, but it’s somewhat surprising for them to do so after analyzing so much of the same data. Both studies analyzed several cycles of the National Survey of Family Growth, a longitudinal data set of women (and men, starting in 2002) between the ages of 15 and 44, though Kuperberg’s study incorporates some data from another survey as well. And, this isn’t the first time researchers have come to differing conclusions about the implications of premarital cohabitation. The practice has been studied for more than 25 years, and there’s been significant disagreement from the start as to whether premarital cohabitation increases couples’ risk of divorce. Differences in researchers’ methodologies and priorities account for some of that disagreement. But in the curious, still-developing story of whether cohabitation does or doesn’t affect the odds of divorce, subjectivity on the part of researchers and the public may also play a leading role.

After a landmark study from 1992 suggested a link between living together and divorce, a flurry of subsequent studies investigated why this might be. Intuitively, a trial run of living together before marriage should increase the stability of a relationship. One such study questioned whether the relationship between cohabitation and divorce was a product of selection: Could it just be that people who were more likely to consider divorce an option were more likely to live together unmarried?

However, over the years, many researchers began wondering whether earlier findings that linked cohabitation to divorce were a relic of a time when living together before marriage was an unconventional thing to do. Indeed, as cohabitation has become more normalized, it has ceased to be so strongly linked to divorce. Steffen Reinhold, of the University of Mannheim’s Research Institute for the Economics of Aging, pointed out in a 2010 study that in European countries, the correlation disappeared when the cohabitation-before-marriage rate among married adults reached about 50 percent; the U.S. seems to have just gotten to this threshold. In 2012, a study in the Journal of Marriage and Family concluded that “since the mid-1990s, whether men or women cohabited with their spouse prior to marriage is not related to marital stability.” This is the same journal that just published a study finding the opposite.

Galena Rhoades, a psychologist at the University of Denver, has a few theories as to why it’s so difficult to glean what effect, if any, cohabitation has on marital stability. For one, she says, it’s hard to study divorce in ways that are useful and accurate, because the best data sets take so long to collect. Many people don’t get divorced until many years into their marriage, and the social norms around cohabitation in the U.S. have evolved quickly, so “if we study a cohort of people who got married 20 years ago, by the time we have the data on whether they got a divorce or not, their experience in living together and their experience of the social norms around living together are from 20 years ago,” Rhoades told me. In other words, by the time researchers have enough longitudinal data to know whether one is meaningfully linked to the other, the social norms that shaped the findings will hardly be of use to couples today trying to figure out how cohabitation could affect their relationship. Thus, Rhoades said, longitudinal studies tend to paint a full picture of the relationship between living together and divorce, while simultaneously telling Americans today little about the time they actually live in.

Rhoades believes that studies should take into consideration couples’ intentions when they move in together—something neither of the recently published studies does. As she and her colleague Scott Stanley have found in their own research, when analyzing only couples who move in together with the intention of getting married, and thus excluding those who eschew marriage or just want to save money on rent, the heightened risk of divorce disappears. That’s because living together—which often results in a shared apartment lease or ownership of a home, joint custody of pets, or at the very least a shared accumulation of stuff—makes breaking up a greater logistical challenge.

“Some couples move in together without really having a plan for their relationship, and they can ‘wind up’ getting married even though they may not have if they hadn’t been living together,” she says. Which in turn leads to a lower degree of marital satisfaction and a higher risk of divorce.

But as Justin Lehmiller, a sex researcher at the Kinsey Institute and the author of the book Tell Me What You Want, says, there might be more to the scholarly controversy over cohabitation than just disagreements about methodology or analysis.

“It’s not just that we’re talking about different outcomes; we’re talking about using the same data and showing different outcomes,” he told me. It comes down to: “Whose judgment do we trust more?”

One reason Lehmiller thinks premarital cohabitation may be controversial among researchers is because the practice is controversial in general. It has historically been culturally frowned upon—it is, after all, an unapologetic signal to the outside world that premarital sex is being had in a particular household. In many places, that stigma lingers today, which could give the studies linking it to unsuccessful marriages some staying power.

“Popular beliefs tend to die hard, even in the face of evidence that might disconfirm them,” Lehmiller said. “Some people might want to believe certain things about the impact of living together before marriage, maybe stemming from religious or moral beliefs.”

But Rhoades pushed back on the suggestion that some bias toward confirming researchers’ own beliefs may be at work. “In general that can be true in psychology and in sociology; any scientific field, I think that can happen,” she said. “But because there’s such heated debate, I would bet that good researchers are extra careful about what they wind up publishing.”

As researchers move toward a more nuanced understanding of what cohabitation means for the future of unmarried romantic partners, several factors urgently need to be considered, according to the experts I spoke with. Lehmiller said studies of cohabitation should start working with data sets that include same-sex couples and move away from equating the stability of a marriage with its success. “Some people have views about marriage that would lead them to stay in one even if it’s not satisfying,” he said. In other words, just because a marriage lasts doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the best outcome for either party.

Rhoades, though, believes that research should acknowledge the many simultaneous ways marriage itself is changing versus just couples’ living situations before they tie the knot. As the average age of when Americans marry rises, so does the average number of Americans’ sexual partners before marrying. People are simply experiencing more before committing to one partner for life, she said, and expectations of the institution are shifting accordingly. As the research on what makes people get married and stay married matures, it’s important for researchers to think about all those premarital experiences as having an aggregate impact on marriages and families. “Cohabitation is just one part of it,” she said. “There’s a larger landscape for us to be considering.”

This article was originally published in The Atlantic. Read the original article.

People Didn’t Used to Ask for ‘Space’ in Their Relationships

People Didn’t Used to Ask for ‘Space’ in Their Relationships

The Amazon show The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel has been praised for the “intricate,” “meticulously created” fictional 1958 world that the titular comedian Midge Maisel and her loved ones inhabit. But while the visuals of the series may be transporting, the dialogue, for the sociologist Jay Livingston, is occasionally jarring. He’s written a couple of blog posts about the anachronistic words and phrases characters have used on the show—“totally,” “kicking ass,” and “alternate universe” among them.

The second season of Mrs. Maisel just came out, and in the first episode, Livingston heard another modern phrase, this time spoken by Midge’s estranged husband, Joel Maisel: “I think it would be better to have a little space right now,” he tells her.

But in the 1950s, people didn’t ask for “space” in a relationship. According to Google Ngram, the phrase need some space was nearly nonexistent, in published books at least, until the 1970s, and it really took off in subsequent decades. The phrase likely entered the lexicon a few years before it showed up in this data (accounting for the time it takes for books to get to publication), the linguist Scott Kiesling of the University of Pittsburgh told me, “so it was probably there in the ’60s as a popular phrase.”

It makes sense that this phrase, which people use to assert their individuality within a relationship, didn’t catch on until the ’60s and ’70s, when the sexual revolution and the women’s-rights movement helped loosen the vise grip of marriage. The United States was emerging from a time when the median age of marriage was the youngest it had ever been, and the strict gender roles expected in heterosexual relationships meant that asking for “space” would have been unnecessary for most men and impossible for most women.

“Husbands, traditionally, and men in relationships had a lot of space because they were the ones who went out to work and who were still allowed to go out with their friends,” says Stephanie Coontz, a professor of history and family studies at Evergreen State College. But space, she says, is “just not a concept that women in the 1950s and ’60s were allowed in relationships.”

In the 1970s, as young people began delaying marriage (a trend that would only accelerate in the decades to follow), and, presumably, spending more time dating before settling down, self-help books began to populate the nation’s shelves. “These new self-help ideas are specifically about getting people to recognize and accept their individual needs as opposed to the demands that family puts on you,” Coontz says.

At the same time, in the psychology world, Gestalt therapy was catching on—a form of psychotherapy that focuses on the individual’s needs and responsibilities. Fritz Perls, the German psychiatrist who founded the method, summed it up thusly in the “Gestalt prayer,” circa 1969:

I do my thing and you do your thing.
I am not in this world to live up to your expectations,
And you are not in this world to live up to mine.
You are you, and I am I,
and if by chance we find each other, it’s beautiful.
If not, it can’t be helped.

Though the exact origins of needing some space are unknown, multiple people I spoke with for this story said that they suspected the idea came from the same stew that produced individualistic psychotherapy ideas and popular self-help. Indeed, it seems that the phrase is almost always used in reference to the self. Looking at Google Ngram again, it’s clear that “I need some space” is a far more common thing to say than “You need some space” or even “We need some space.”

Frequency of variations on “need some space” over time

GOOGLE NGRAM
Space for oneself, or a lack thereof, likely became a salient issue for couples from the ’70s on, according to Coontz. “That was a period when expectations of intimacy were actually getting larger,” she says. “This is the time when we first begin to think that men and women should be really good friends as opposed to just two gender-role stereotypes.” This creates the possibility for a deeper, more meaningful relationship, but when people start expecting their partner to fill more of their needs, they may find themselves feeling too close, too interdependent.

Wherever the phrase came from, once it was out there, it likely fueled its own acceleration. “Language gives you tools,” says Kiesling, “and tools often make you do things in particular ways that you wouldn’t otherwise do.” Once needing some space was a commonly understood term, it stands to reason that a person wanting some time away from her partner, or to put the brakes on a relationship, would likely ask for “space” rather than finding another way to convey her meaning.

But “space” is a vague thing to need, and that lack of clarity can be frustrating for the person who is being asked to give it. The phrase is so common now as to be cliché, and yet there are still seemingly endless Reddit threads, Quora questions, and Yahoo Answers posts from worried lovers all beseeching: “When my partner asks for ‘space,’ what does he really mean?”

According to William Bumberry, a couples’ therapist in St. Louis who works with the Gottman Institute, a person who says she needs space in a relationship is typically saying one of two things: Either she wants space from her partner, which Bumberry says is often “a step toward the dissolution of a relationship,” or she wants space for herself, to reflect on her own needs and desires, or on what is and isn’t working in the relationship. “In my experience,” Bumberry says, the people who ask for space for themselves tend to “at least come back and really give the relationship a good effort.”

Those are two very different messages, with two very different potential outcomes. “Space” could spell doom for a relationship, or it could herald a period of renewal. No wonder the phrase sparks such anxiety.

Read: The divorce-proof marriage

Interestingly, according to Bumberry, the concept of needing space is particularly stressful for heterosexual couples. For gay and lesbian couples, he says, “there seems to be less panic over this.” Some research shows that homosexual couples are more upbeat in the face of relationship conflict and experience fewer negative emotions. And, Bumberry adds, “historically in the gay community, it’s been more easily accepted in an intimate relationship that you don’t possess somebody; they have a right to be themselves too.” The history of heterosexual relationships, on the other hand, carries a different message.

For any couple, being clear about just what “needing space” means and doesn’t mean can help partners know where they stand. Bumberry referenced a situation with a couple he works with, in which the woman was staying at her mother’s house. Bumberry asked if she and her husband were separated, and the woman said, “No, we’re just taking some space. Living at my mom’s isn’t about leaving the marriage, it’s about finding myself.” That’s a case where asking for “space” could easily lead to a misunderstanding without her additional clarification.

“To me, when somebody asks for ‘space,’ that’s like the title of an essay,” Bumberry says. “That’s the title—now tell me what that means.”

This article was originally published in The Atlantic. Read the original article.