My Election Choice


Almost there.  End of Election Day 2016.  In seriously considering how to be a good citizen in this election, I came across a sure fire one.  It’s research based, and all respected professionals agree with this one.

Communication in love = improved relationships.  

Yeah, that’s right.  I suckered you into reading this.  But why stop now?  This is good stuff!  

I’ve seen a lot of head-shaking and apathy this election season.  As a mental health specialist, I have been watching the behavioral and relational patterns of interactions, whether from leaders at a podium or the lay person on the street.  I actually DO see some really good communication patterns in some people who exhibit characteristics that follow.  But as I wrote about in a blog post entitled “Effective Communication” a few years back (right before the last election), the examples many of us see reflect abysmal communication styles.  Well, at least if we want to be respectful.  IF you’re attempting to minimize, disrespect, and emotionally distance, fair WARNING: do not read and apply the following.    


Passive, Aggressive, and Assertive Communication styles have very clear results in various settings (in case you are wondering, passive-aggression can often be placed as a subtype under aggressive).  Assertive communication is based on mutual respect, regardless of how much you disagree with the other person.  Abusive language or behavior are out of the question.  Assertiveness always involves respect.  You may strongly state a point or quietly listen, but finding an assertive sweet spot is key- speaking the truth in love, and sometimes learning to just close the mouth.  

Check out the Mayo Clinic’s thoughts on this one, or for organizational settings, look at Daniel Ames’ research at Columbia Business School.  

Turning Towards

The famous marriage researcher, Dr. John Gottman, found that turning towards a partner (which is not passive/casual agreement, but a positive stance of staying invested in one’s spouse), is significantly correlated with couples who stay together versus divorce.  This means that in every “bid” that’s made for attention or connection, the masters of marriage turn towards the other person most of the time.  I think there’s a lot to learn by studying successful couples’ interactions- after all, these are the people who are able to somehow stick with the same person for YEARS!!

Distress/Uncertainty Tolerance

Distress Tolerance is the ability to manage high levels of upset (distress), while staying grounded.  Intolerance of uncertainty (IU), seen especially in OCD and anxiety disorders, can be successfully redirected by developing Tolerance for Uncertainty.  Maybe the most common misconception with these are similar to misunderstanding forgiveness: to forgive doesn’t mean to just smile and approve.  These all involve character-building at a deep level of maturity where a person can still hold to what is true, while at the same time having peace when the world around seems (or is) out of control.  


Back to Gottman.  He joined up with Anatol Rapoport to form an amazing Conflict Blueprint.  It involves working hard to really “get” what the other person is saying, and it recognizes underlying longings- and respects them- in the other person.  READ: NOT the same as adopting their perspective.  Furthermore, Softened Startup entails bringing something of significance and/or pain to another’s awareness, while staying gentle and guarding against criticism, blame, and shame.  

These things are actually really simple.  But they take discipline and deeper metamorphosis to bring about in daily life.  What can you do when all around you people communicate with disrespect and contempt?  Be a difference maker by communicating in love.  

That’s my election choice.  What’s yours?


Justin K. Hughes


Quid Pro Quo

In Latin, Quid Pro Quo means, “something for something.”  You scratch my back; I scratch yours.  Tit for tat.  It’s how the world runs.

Or is it?

In the business world, this often works.  Social psychology calls it “reciprocity.”  In relationships, well, this is where it gets fuzzy.  Relationships require sacrifice regularly; they require that you stick around, presuming it’s reasonable to do so.  In business, if someone doesn’t offer you a good deal, you can move on.  If you keep doing this with relationships, you will bankrupt your heart and anyone close to you quicker than ever thought possible.  Relationships involve the molding and holding of hearts.  Business involves the flow of money.

I have no beef against business and am personally very entrepreneurial.  However, I want to call to the table that many principles that work for business DON’T in relationships, which is partly why someone can be extraordinarily successful in the business world but trade in relationships as often as changing underwear.  The concept of reciprocity is fascinating, and I regularly utilize it in respectful ways when I consider how to build my practice, such as when I “add value” to interactions with businessmen and women by offering helpful counseling materials.  This, in turn, increases my odds of getting a favorable response.  Nothing wrong with it.  I attempt to not do it ONLY for this reason.  However, when I expect a certain response- demand it, even- I am not respecting a person’s freedom, uniqueness, or spontaneity.  And this is precisely the problem when quid pro quo is present in relationships.

Everyone from Hendrix to Gottman to Eggerichs (see references below) point out the necessity of proactive initiative in love- an active, intentional doing what’s best for another, choosing love over “balancing the budget.”  In fact, the eminent researcher John Gottman states the myth of quid pro quo in The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work (2002): “But it’s really the unhappy marriage where this quid pro quo operates, where each feels the need to keep a running tally of who has done what for whom” (p. 15).

Isn’t this the definition of selfishness?  And it tears relationships apart.  I don’t know of anyone who says, “Yes, being completely selfish is good; I want to live by the principles of selfishness and teach my kids to do the same.”  No one really debates this.  How quickly this happens, though!  My role as counselor isn’t to point a finger; it’s to help uncover what’s holding clients back.  Consider how you might be “losing while winning,” holding grudges, keeping a record of wrongs.  These things are the opposite of contentment- and love.

Don’t wait for a person to do good to you.  That’s the whole importance of the Golden Rule and the Greatest Commandment.  If you wait around for the other person to “play by the rules” in loving you, prepare to be unsatisfied.  There will come a time (in EVERY relationship) when loving another becomes hard- when the brain-chemical high of newness wears off, when the attractiveness of another becomes the norm, when that little quirk that you thought was wonderful turns out to annoy the heck out of you.  If it’s left up to reciprocity, we’re screwed.

Disclaimer: I want to be very clear.  I am NOT suggesting anyone becomes a “doormat,” pushover, or passive.  I am not saying that you do not focus at all on yourself.  (Consider how eating food may be the most self-focused thing we do, but it is clear that if we don’t care for ourselves in that way, there might be a problem!  Self-care is important.)  Hopefully the heart of what I am passing on is clear: If a relationship fundamentally relies on quid pro quo, it will prove an unhappy ending.  Find out how to love others despite what they bring to the table, and reap the overflowing results.  If one person brings a feast to the table, not having the other person bring a feast doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy yours.

References (the first two describe reciprocity):
Influence by Robert Cialdini
Business Networking that Works: It’s Called Quid Pro Quo by Forbes
Love and Respect by Emerson Eggerichs
Getting the Love You Want by Harville Hendrix
The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work by John Gottman

Stages of Courtship


Who of us has gotten an education on how to romantically pursue another person?  Taken a class?  Learned steps and stages of courtship?  But how many of us would say that having romantic relationships is one of the most important facets of life?  I am often surprised that I didn’t really even learn anything about stages of romance/courtship until well after my graduate studies in counseling, despite the importance of it.  Now is never too late.  Grab a seat, a warm drink, and prepare for class, ya’ll.

Dr. Patrick Carnes (2010), expert on addictions and intimacy, suggests 12 stages of courtship based on his research.  [By the way, “courtship” here is just a reference to the development of a romantic relationship.]  He states, “One problem is that there is no systematic and reliable way in our culture to learn the basics of courtship.  You probably never attended a course that taught you how to appropriately and successfully flirt.  Courtship failure can mean that you start repetitive patterns because what you do does not work.  So it is important to learn the basic elements of courtship.”  Let’s go!

  1. Noticing

When we see attractive traits in another, this is called noticing.  Along with seeing the good, we can screen for traits that don’t fit us.  Being discriminating is part of this.  In an existing relationship, we must stay aware of traits that are desirable in the other person.

  1. Attraction

Though the first part of courtship is noticing attractive traits, this next level involves feeling the attraction- while considering acting on it.  Curiosity ensues.  To do this well (and not make stupid choices), a person must be able to determine what is suitable for themselves in relationship.  For existing relationships, flexibility with change/unknown is still essential- discovery must continue.  It is discovery that drives passion.  It also can keep relationships strong over time.

  1. Flirtation

Once the “target” has been acquired (haha, joking), flirtation sends information that conveys interest and attraction.  Various cues are sent and received- knowing when this is appropriate requires being functional (not dysfunctional).  Long-term love relationships continue to flirt.

  1. Demonstration

The next part of the process is demonstration, where a person displays what they bring to the table- whether skills, physical traits, abilities, etc.  If the receiver is interested in the “sent” message, the sender experiences great pleasure.

  1. Romance

This is when we express (and receive) passion.  Not only are we aware of attraction and express it, but vulnerability occurs.  This involves risk, of course.  Self-worth is required in receiving true expressions of love.  Furthermore, this necessary self-worth means determining the accuracy of the other person’s involvement- as opposed to a projection/imagined feelings.  Carnes cuts to the core with this question: “Are the people selected consistently positive, or bad choices for you?”

  1. Individuation

Being an authentic human being, aka, YOU is necessary- no, essential- for good relationship.  If intimacy is about knowing and being known, how can this occur if you aren’t honest with who you are?  Loving relationships do not wield control over another- “FOG,” i.e., fear, obligation, and guilt.  You can be free to be truthful with what you think and feel, all the while being respectful and caring for the other.  A healthy person can survive the tension of not having the other person be exactly the same.  [For more on this topic, check out Extraordinary Relationships by Roberta M. Gilbert, M.D.]

  1. Intimacy

The passion of early relationship will fade.  Let me say this again: the passion of early relationship WILL fade.  It is not meant to stay at the “honeymoon” high forever.  Here’s what’s special: there is opportunity to deepen.  It can become more meaningful.  Vulnerability (that knows the other person more fully and lets oneself be known) incredible.  Of course, this is much, much harder than the natural “click” of falling in love- because it takes work, sacrifice, maturity.

  1. Touching

For physical touch to be beneficial, it must be underscored by care, good judgment, and trust.  It respects the context and another person’s boundaries.  Without another’s consent, touch destroys trust.  However, great healing can come from respectful touch, seen most markedly in those who have not received it in a caring way.

  1. Foreplay

Passion- as expressed sexually- builds through foreplay.  Examples are holding, kissing, fondling, general sexual play, and (don’t forget) verbal expressiveness.  This exciting stage is often reported as the best part of sex, though in our fast-paced culture, it is often rushed or missed altogether.

  1. Intercourse

Surrender.  The best sex requires the ability to let go, trust the other person and yourself with being transparent.  Many couples struggle with this because of control or trust challenges.  Making love well presupposes abandonment to the other.

  1. Commitment

Being able to form meaningful relationships of depth necessitates commitment.  Stability occurs when commitment and faithfulness are present.  Relationships of significance offer connection that is craved- commitment cements the foundation.

  1. Renewal

The mature are able to maintain and sustain each courtship dimension (i.e., “keep dating”) in an ongoing relationship when it is best for them to stay in it.  They let the other know consistently that they are valuable; they share in deep meaning; they take responsibility for problems; they move beyond habit and neurochemical highs to the continual renewal of their relationship.

The implications of this work are too numerous to write in a single post.  Hopefully it can help you to consider how you might approach a current or future relationship- or how you have in the past.  Understand that these dimensions are descriptive, meaning they are observations on how healthy relationships progress.  This also means they are not necessarily prescriptive, i.e., they don’t say exactly what to do or when a relationship is to begin or end.  With courtship: be excited / be thoughtful.  Relationships have great power to help and heal or hurt and harm.

Yours truly,

Justin K. Hughes

Each of the stages and their descriptions can be found here:
Carnes, P. (2010). Facing the shadow: Starting sexual and relationship recovery (2nd ed.).Carefree, AZ: Gentle Path Press.


“Why can’t I stop thinking about this?”  “I know it’s stupid, but I can’t get it out of my head.”  “Why must I put up with this?” 

William went to Afghanistan after a Platoon was deployed from Ft. Hood.  Most of what he heard about soldiers’ experiences in the Middle East were rumors and media stories- he had no way to be prepared for what would happen to him.  After nearly 6 months of swallowing sand stirred up by 110 degree winds, William had 5 days left until he would return home.  Momentarily losing his hearing, all his senses were shaken when an IED tore shrapnel through his three closest friends.  They were dead.  Just like that.  After being rushed by helicopter for triage medical care, William soon discovered he narrowly missed death himself- the same shards of nails and rocks that killed his friends were found inches away from where he stood. 

Returning home is where cleaning up the fragments took the longest.  After being debriefed and allowed medical and family leave, Bill struggled getting back to civilian life.  Some of the most difficult times he faced were trying to overcome his own unexpected reactions to situations, usually late at night where he would awake from a noise, pulling his wife down from the bed onto the floor to take cover.  When he became calm, he was covered in sweat, visually stunned by recalling what had happened weeks before- and so embarrassed to be dragging his wife- literally and metaphorically- into the center of his problems. 

This is trauma.  This is the story of William’s PTSD (post-traumaticstress disorder).  Hopefully his story can help bring understanding to struggles faced by those dealing with trauma and respect for our service men and women. 

It’s not very difficult to have some sense of empathy for William’s situation.  It’s often much harder to understand another very real and very overwhelming problem.  It is called obsessive compulsive disorder(OCD).  You may be curious why this article spends so much time talking about PTSD, only to discuss OCD.  Two reasons.  OCD has similar features and neurobiology to PTSD, and secondly, if we are to listen to the struggles of others, often we must start with something wedo understand.

You see, whether a person is triggered into feeling distress from trauma or obsessive anxiety, their limbic system (the area of the brain dealing most with survival and protective reactions) becomes active to ward off a threat.  This is a wonderful system when it is working properly, but when it is overly sensitive, it is like a faulty check engine light on a car that becomes counter-productive.  It is a normal reaction- out of context.  Think of the panic you would feel if you saw someone almost being run over by a car- your limbic system would activate and prepare the body and mind to fight, flee, or freeze.  Now imagine it occurring at random times and being uncontrollable.  

Despite popular references of, “She’s just OCD!” and “He really likes his house OCD,” the diagnosable mental health condition is a serious foe- and far beyond a person’s immediate ability to just “stop” their ruminating thoughts.  Because the anxiety and distress a person with OCD feels is so bothersome and intrusive, they naturally seek to alleviate it- sometimes with elaborate mental rituals to “do away” with the anxiety, sometimes with physical compulsions to feel better (for example: “I feel anxious when some unknown object touches my clean clothes, so I either have to wash the affected area or change clothes”).  To some people, this sounds crazy.  But for the person with diagnosable OCD, their mind and body both SCREAM with discomfort until they do something to alleviate it.  And the compulsion works!  Momentarily.  But what it does is reinforce the neuropathways linked to disorder as opposed to reinforcing healthy, non-compulsive behavior. 

What it takes to find longer-lasting relief is to accept the problem and productively counter it, pursuing a number of treatment options that help free the person from thinking obsessive thoughts or acting upon mental or physical compulsions.  There is hope and treatment that WORKS.  We don’t have to understand, ultimately, to love.  As many as 1 in 100 people wrestle with this.  Look around- that’s someone in your neighborhood or at the restaurant where you last went.  Will you lend a helping hand to those who suffer?

Yours truly,
Justin K. Hughes

What is Love?

For many, a popular electronic song of the 90’s came to mind when you saw that title.  I certainly hope so.  It’s an amazing song.  It’s also an amazing question.  What is love, really?  I love my parents; I love fall weather; I love guitar; I love burgers.  But what does it mean?  The ancient Greeks had multiple words for love, so we will “Greek-out” in exploring multiple definitions of this simple word. 

Let’s start with the definition that’s maybe the most commonly used (and abused)- eros.  The English word “erotic” comes from this word.  Defined as romantic and/or sexual love, it comes and goes quickly.  This is usually what is meant when someone says they are “in love.”  It is passionate, intense, and usually finds itself in short bursts; it is not maintained at a constant rate. 

Phileo is the concept of “brotherly love,” or love between friends.  This entails taking special interest in someone and building a connection.  There is commonly enjoyment that is experienced with phileo.   As it grows, it often develops into loyalty.  It is love based on give-and-take.

The third word we will explore is storge.  Translated as ‘affection,’ it is based on familiarity and the natural flow of roles- as found in a family.  Present in close relationships, it can be easy to expect this as a way of life.  Storge may take the form of a hug when you leave the house, an “I love you” at the end of a phone call, or helping complete a task for someone.  This acceptance of others does not require passion or excitement.  Another way to look at it is “motherly love.”

The last word is agape.  Unconditional at its core, this love gives and expects nothing in return.  Regardless of the circumstance or reason, this is a love that, well, loves- despite feelings or reasons to the contrary.  In the Bible, when it says “God is love,” (in 1 John 1:8) this is the word that’s being used.  In Matthew 5:44, “love your enemies” is agape love; it is freely given, not under compulsion or fear- but chosen. 

What is love?  What definition do you use when you say “love”?  Which one do you want to use?  This post is intentionally different from the rest in that I usually give a takeaway application.  This time, I leave the application to you.  In the midst of Black FridayCyber Monday, Christmas shopping, end of the year company goals, determining tax deductions, and the like, will you take a second to ponder these meanings and how they are relevant to you?  May you be blessed in this season.  

Yours truly,



The Psychology of Family Holidays

As the U.S. heads into the heaviest holiday season of the year, an interesting blend of emotions often come up.  Even for those who find great joy in time with family, it can also be a stressful time.  Join me on a little journey of psychology through some of these dynamics.

Expectations.  We all have them, and most are unspoken.  This is one of those big surprise areas for couples when they first get married.  Do you: Like to relax by being at home or going out?  Sit down at the table for all meals or sit in front of the TV?  Spend your time talking or doing activities?  Spend money or save it?  Navigating differences takes patience and effort with one couple alone.  Now consider the impact of bringing family together with as many routines, styles, and personalities as a house can hold.

Boundaries.  Can you draw clear, respectful boundaries?  In families, boundaries often get mixed up.  Boundaries are really no more than understanding what’s mine, what’s yours, and what’s ours.  Being around the same people day in and day out, it is easy to expect that situations will just work themselves out- and rest on the comfort of familiarity.  However, being healthy in relationship requires speaking the truth and showing grace.  Do you tell others your needs and wants, or do you guilt them into doing what you want?  Do you really listen to understand?  Do you fear ‘rocking the boat’ and don’t speak up?  The error arises in being overly passive or overly aggressive (passive-aggressive is just a form of aggression).  These extremes involve not taking enough responsibility OR taking too much responsibility to change that which is not in our care.  This is a basic definition of drama, and what ends up happening is hurt feelings, resentment, and helplessness.  This can be countered by love- speaking up when necessary and being quiet equally as well.  Love is not guilt and obligation, though you won’t always enjoy loving, because its highest form involves sacrifice and patience.

Family rules and roles.  Ever feel a sense of freeness and independence away from all of your family only to revert to a frustrating old pattern when you are with loved ones?  Such as how the youngest sibling “performer” gets all the attention?  How your normal patience goes down the toilet when you hear incessant complaining about your life choices?  The realization that you sound like your dad though you always swore you would be different?   Family dynamics are deeply rooted.  See the next point to understand why.  It is easy to slide back into the old patterns.  Don’t put unrealistic pressure on yourself or others to change deeply rooted dynamics quickly.  Also, points of growth must be happening at other times during the year- consistently.

Old habits and brain pathways.  Think of it.  When dressing, which leg goes first into your pants?  What side of the face (or which leg) do you shave first?  Habits and routines are ingrained into our brain chemistry.  They can change, because the brain is “plastic,” but it takes work and time.  Now bring together good and bad habits with people you may or may not enjoy spending time with, and there are bound to be some sparks of tension.

Differentiation.  Healthy family functioning requires interdependence.  This is being mutually dependent on each other for the good of everyone involved.  Additionally, healthy families will encourage what’s known as differentiation- being connected, yet being a unique, independent human being.  Raising a child means transitioning this little marvel from total dependence to total independence- in a few short years.  Being over-connected (enmeshed) or disconnected (diffuse) will create problems real fast.

Truly, time with family needs patience.  And it often takes work.  It can be wonderful, too.  You may want to have a plan going into the holidays to make it successful.  Don’t forget to remember what you are grateful for and the incredible blessings you have.  It’s easy to lose vision when it seems like your family is driving you crazy.  This is where I reflect on a great example of love: Jesus had a bunch of guys that abandoned him- every one- when support was most needed.  But he loved.  I need this love.  It’s a love that speaks truth.  It’s a love that shows kindness.  It’s a love that has courage.  And I pray I can show it well during the holidays.
Yours truly,


Intensity vs. Intimacy

Possibly the simplest definition of intimacy is this: knowing another and being known.  Intensity is defined as strength, power, or force- in relationship terms, it’s getting a surge of whatever makes a person feel good.  Intimacy is developed over time, with patience, with love, with understanding, with compassion, with sacrifice.  Intensity happens quickly and fades quickly- it is not long lasting.  Those that trade it for intimacy will find themselves dissatisfied and using people like objects.

The implications of this are profound.  It has changed the way I look at relationships.  I have been a “thrill-seeker.”  Oh no, you never would see me cliff-diving, jumping out of airplanes, or swimming with sharks.  I learned to seek intensity in subtle ways- especially with people.  I would feed off of the praise of others; I would pursue the “high” of new connections; I would live for recognition.  I became aware of this through support, seeing my own counselor, and study.  You see, I made a major error- I substituted intensity for intimacy.

They are not the same thing.

This concept is important in understanding Addiction, Bipolar, Personality Disorders, and just plain ol’ dysfunctional relationship patterns.  For instance, with addiction, a person adapts to the world and copes using a substance or person or thing as if it were a relationship- gaining comfort, support, investing time and energy, and to soothe pain.  I commonly hear addicts say that their addiction became their best friend.  Of course, the problem with relying on an intense “high” to feel better is that our brains weren’t made to sustain constant highs.  Our brains will normalize to constant surges of feel-good intensity (aka, dopamine highs), and then we naturally begin to feel depressed when we don’t have this now “normal” high.  The classic term for this is ‘tolerance.’ 

Healthy relationships don’t run on constant highs.  Hear me out: good, healthy relationships can give the greatest satisfaction and offer wonderful highs.  But this is not all the time.  They require consistency, work, patience, suffering, and perseverance.  This goes way beyond just romantic relationships.  Running after intensity leaves a person “high and dry,” trying to be satisfied in ways they were not created to be fulfilled.  The substitute kills.  The real thing fulfills.
Yours truly,