Category Archives: relationships

How to Create a Peer Group

Peer groups are organized around a specific endeavor or vocation. They are a place to talk honestly and confidentially about your experiences in your shared field, and to get honest feedback and moral support.

In my last post, On the Value of Community, I talked about the many concrete benefits members of my peer group have reported. These benefits are a natural outgrowth of a well-functioning peer group. They are not the purpose of the group. Entering in to a peer group with any other purpose than improving one’s self through open and honest exchange is likely to have limited results (IMO).

The following comments are based on the group I belong to, but the principles can be applied to any type of peer group. The principles around which our group functions occurred organically. They are the common principles of any healthy group, as my former colleagues in the addictions counseling field can tell you.

We have few rules in our group.

    Rule #1: Be constructive and respectful.
    Rule #2: No politics.
    Rule #3: What’s said in group, stays in group.
    Rule #4 is unstated, but I have seen this in effect: If you think you may have accidentally stepped on someone’s toes (unavoidable on the internet), get with that person and clear the air immediately.

We have admins, but their role is supportive, not directive. Our group is unstructured. You may find your group functions better with some kind of structure, where everyone reports on their projects and progress and feedback is given. This is a good idea in groups that meet face to face for brief periods, when much must be accomplished in a short amount of time. It all depends on the personality of the group and its needs.

Our home is a private group on Facebook. There are other options. The advantages of an internet group are being able to include members from anywhere in the world and being able to participate from home, as time allows. Discussion threads can be reviewed at a later date. Members spend long and sometimes lonely hours glued to their computers while they are working. Our online venue functions as a lounge where members can take a break when needed.

As a closed group, new members are admitted by invitation only. They are chosen carefully, to keep the group small and personal (Okay, 80 members isn’t exactly small, but we aren’t looking to grow a union of thousands.)

It is critical to vet your members.

As the old knight said in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, “Choose Wisely.”

Our group was initially formed by Indie authors who simply wanted a safe place to talk about their experiences so we could take our careers to the next level through improved marketing. Some of us are self-supporting, some of us aspire to support ourselves through our writing. Some of us have hybrid Indie/Trad publishing careers. All of us believe in the viability of self-publishing.

For our group, a good candidate is one who is personally known by their sponsor, has a positive and constructive attitude, and has self-published at least one book or is in the process of publishing their first book. A sense of humor is also expected.

It is important that at least one person in the group know a candidate well, and can vouch for their online behavior as well as their commitment to writing. This ensures that trust and comfort levels in the group stay high, and that the person is an appropriate fit for our mix of personalities.

We have a range from new writers and old hands with very different backgrounds. Mutual respect is a guiding mantra, so that everyone can express their opinions freely. We keep the focus on writing, publishing and marketing. When our opinions differ, we each state our own opinions without judging those of others and leave it at that. There is no “right way.” We’ve seen different choices work for different people.

Something I learned when I led therapy groups back in the 90’s: An honest opinion is a rare and beautiful thing, especially when it is one you don’t like. It’s vital to protect your space to make it possible for people to speak freely. It is expected that any negative opinion be expressed in a constructive way, as it is just as important to have an environment where people can hear that which may be uncomfortable to say.

Attacking behavior of any kind is absolutely prohibited. If you choose your members wisely, you may not need to worry about this. In the event you wind up with abusive behavior, you must be prepared to act, first by counseling the perpetrator, then by removing them.

Participation is not mandatory. People who are invited to join may come and go, lurk or post, as they like.

We are not in the business of proselytizing or fixing anyone. Feedback is offered to those who ask for it. Members are free to accept or reject feedback as they like and follow their path without judgement. It is expected that people will assume responsibility for their choices, and if they don’t like the results of their choices, they can make new ones. This is not a stated philosophy in our group, but it is how we have come to function.

People are free to vent their frustrations, but chronic complaining is not encouraged. The group attitude is to find new strategies when something isn’t working. Surrounding yourself with people who have this attitude of personal responsibility is key to a group’s success.

We also believe, as a group, that there is plenty of success for everyone who is willing to work for it. As a group, we want to form the high tide that lifts all our members.

Sound stuffy yet?

It isn’t at all. We act like loons much of the time. It’s a blast. I love my group. I think everyone should have one. And now you can.

On the Value of Community


A long time ago, back in the dark ages when cell phones were the size of bricks and I looked like the the woman above (the one in cowboy boots), I was an aspiring artist. Or rather, I was an artist, aspiring to find my place in the art world.

My adorable younger sister worked in a new museum named the Menil Collection (It’s a wonderful place, highly recommended). I preyed upon her to use her status as cute young guard to get me a meeting with the director, Walter Hopps.

I flew into Houston and phoned the museum to verify my appointment. They had forgotten all about it. With a bit of sighing, they fit me in.

The day came. I arrived at the museum and expected to wait a bit, and I did. And did. Forty-five minutes after my arrival, Hopps blew in and past me, his long coat flapping, in an entrance to make any diva envious. Another wait, and finally, I was escorted into his presence.

I was in awe. My first museum director. I could be discovered. Anything could happen.

He looked at my slides, holding the sheet up to the light and more-or-less complimented my over-sized portraits (one of which you see above). He then asked me if I drew from a projected image. I said no, these were all free hand, from snapshots. No grids, even.

Does he act surprised? Does he praise my skill? Not a chance. He proceeded to say it was perfectly legitimate to create art from slide projections, as if he didn’t believe me and was encouraging me to come clean. He seemed stuck on this point and came back to it a few times during our meeting. I wondered if he was secretly needling me.

I decided that Walter Hopps was a sadist.

Walter told me he agreed to meet with approximately three artists per year. He said we all looked to museum directors to help us in some way, and he said flat out that he was not going to help me.

He then explained to me that we are all looking for someone who has already made it to help us, and it didn’t work that way. He said everyone thinks Leo Castelli made Robert Rauschenberg and the entire NYC art scene in the 60’s. This was wrong. Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns introduced their friends to Castelli, and the artists made him. He said, “Artists make galleries, galleries don’t make artists.”

He said to look to my peers, and for us to help each other. This is how things happened.

After that, he cited The Color of Money and said, “Character will out.” And I was ushered out of his office.

I pride myself on taking good advice, no matter the source.

Creative folk tend to be loners, obsessed with seeing their vision to fruition, and by nature, not inclined towards cooperation (too many cooks, you know?). I never quite found that group synergy as an artist. I stumbled into it as a writer.

A little over a year ago, I was a regular on the Kindle Direct Publishing forum, where I met a lot of truly fine people who gave me great advice and moral support in getting my first two books published. Unfortunately, the forum became overrun with trolls and flamers. I can ignore that. The part that was unacceptable was this: every time an author shared a significant success, they would suddenly wind up with a string of one star reviews on their books at Amazon. You could still get good formatting advice if you kept your head down, but you talked about how you were actually doing at your peril.

A fellow publisher got sick of this and asked me and another writer if we would be interested in a private, invitation only group. I jumped on this. We have since grown to more than 70 members, and it is the most amazing experience. People report their word count has increased, their writing has improved, their confidence has grown, and by sharing information, we have refined and adopted marketing strategies that have increased our income. We no longer feel alone on our path. We know it actually is a path, and that it leads somewhere, because we are able to safely compare our experiences with others. And we have fun while doing all this.

I feel blessed in these friends.

And no, I’m not going to invite you to join us. But I will share with you how to to create your magical haven.

Next post.

Yes, And . . .

I’ve had communication and relationships on my mind a lot lately. I’ve been wondering about failures in communication that allow people to retain utterly impossible expectations of their partners. I found the answer, not in my years of experience as a counselor, but in a bit of theater strategy given to me by a talented improv actress.

I was at the Houston Renaissance Festival, the biggest RenFest in the world. Its highly professional core company spends months preparing for each year’s offering. They excel at interacting with visitors.

The actress told me, “If you want to do improv, you must always respond to your partner with ‘Yes, And . . .’, never ‘No, But . . .’ You have to accept whatever your partner adds to the moment and take it from there. If you argue against your partner, it kills the skit.”

It occurs to me that the problem with many relationships is that partners too often use communication in an attempt, not to understand and accept each other’s reality, not to build on that reality, but to bludgeon their partner into adopting their own reality.

How often have you said or heard: “You don’t mean that,” “there’s something you need to understand,” or “I don’t believe it”?

These are all “No, But” responses. Not only do they refute another’s experience, they imply that your partner is at best ignorant. At worst, they say your partner is lying or stupid.

What these responses really mean is, “I don’t like what I’m hearing! (hands over ears) Ain’t gonna listen, la, la, la, la…”

My actress friend said, “If your partner says she’s secretly an alien from Uranus, coming to eat your brains, better pull out your laser gun.” (Okay, I made up that part. It was back in the 90’s and I don’t remember it with 100% accuracy. But it looks cooler in quotes. Besides, I’m sure some actress, somewhere said this. Maybe not during the actual Renaissance. They didn’t have aliens or lasers back then. Or actresses, for that matter.)

The point is to accept their experience as real. Take in whatever your partner gives you and treat it as golden, at least for them.

“But what if my partner’s reality is just wrong?”

And you know this, how? The inside of someone’s head is their own territory. It’s a mysterious place with an internal logic that would confound visitors, if it was possible to get past the blood brain barrier to drop in. If it changes, it changes according to that person’s timeline, not yours. If you get anywhere near this territory, it’s best to do as Romans do and obey the local laws.

You gotta respect their reality. I don’t mean “go along with it, for now, at least,” but respect it as if the Sun coming up in the East depends upon it. It may not be your truth, but it is truth. Ignore your partner’s truth and eventually, you’ll find your relationship crumbling.

“But, their reality is just wrong! Seriously!”

I have to ask, “What are you doing with someone whose vision of life is so contrary to your own?” Maybe the problem isn’t them. Maybe the problem is you, wanting them to be someone else. In which case, you need to adjust your glasses and figure out who your partner is, and if you really should be with them.

There are times when a little education might help your loved one. Fewer times than most people think, but it does happen.

Okay, supposing your friend, partner, whoever, has an idea you don’t agree with and you think they would benefit from understanding your point of view. It’s not a good idea to suggest someone is wrong. Just share your experience, from your point of view. As in, “I found the French to be very helpful when approached with courtesy and a little of their own language.” Let them do with it what they will. They are adults, presumably you would not be hanging with them if they were not moderately intelligent and able to add 2+2 and get 4. If you are right, they will get around to it when they are ready. Say it once, and shut up about it (unless they come back, begging and pleading for advice. Then, and only then, may you repeat yourself). It can be hard to do this, but it will preserve your relationship.

So what happens when your perfectly good worldview collides with your partner’s? You have to find a creative solution that incorporates both realities. It may be possible to agree to disagree with small things, like “Was Elvis REALLY the King?” or “Sushi is so gross, I can’t bear to watch you eat it.”

When it comes to such things as, “I want to move across country” versus “I love it here and I can’t leave”, you have to work harder to find a common solution. Ask questions, of yourself and your partner, to understand the foundation of each position. Not to find evidence that allows you to refute it, but to get at the basic need/truth that underlies the desire. Look for a creative way to deal with the core needs driving the current conflict.

Yes, And . . . is the key to a working relationship. The best parents understand this. When their child doesn’t want to go to sleep because there are monsters under the bed, what does that parent do? Refute the belief? Pooh pooh the child for being afraid? Jolly them out of their fears by saying, “And they are coming to get you, mwuah ha ha ha!” Nope. They look under the damn bed.

Are you willing to look under the bed?

Would You Talk to a Dog That Way?

I was watching a man with his pup the other day.  The dog had scrambled up on the picnic table next to me.  Now his owner wanted his attention. “Sit,” he said.  Pup did nothing. So owner says, “Sit. Sit. Sit. Sit.” Eventually, Pup plops his butt down. Does owner say “Good Boy!” and pat the pup?  No, Owner says, “Sit.  S-i-i-i-t. Sit.”

Sometimes I’ll intervene when I see a newbie making obvious training mistakes.  This time I didn’t. I didn’t feel a receptive vibe, so I kept my mouth shut. But this scene came to mind after I spent some time on the phone with a friend who was dealing with long-standing relationship issues. The problem is, she communicates with her significant other the way this guy talks to his dog.

To explain what I mean, some basics of effective human to canine communication:

  1. Be consistent.  Use the same signals for the same commands.
  2. Keep it simple. Don’t add any extra words or flourishes.
  3. Demonstrate what you mean through action. If you say, “Sit,” and Fido doesn’t,  say “Sit,” once more and gently push his butt down to the floor.
  4. Never give a command unless you are willing to enforce it. Each time you say “Sit,” and Fido doesn’t, you have to demonstrate what it means by gently pushing his butt to the floor.
  5. Never escalate. Yelling at Fido or smacking him because he doesn’t do what you want will never teach Fido anything except to be afraid of you.
  6.  Once Fido sits, shut up.  Repeating the command makes him think you want something else, and he must not have understood you.  If you want him to keep sitting, the command should be “Stay.”

Consistency is important.  You have to follow through each and every time you make a command, or else Fido realizes that sometimes “sit” DOESN’T mean “sit” after all.  So Fido will start testing by not responding when you give that command.  What you do at that time determines what Fido decides “sit” actually means.  I know a dog who has been taught, through his owner’s consistent actions, that “Sit!  Sit!  Sit! Oh, to Hell with you!” actually means “Jump on me and I’ll give you a biscuit.”

Consistency is a pain in the patootie. My first dog was a marvel of obedience, but occasionally Beez would get a wild hair.  One day I walked him (off lead) down to the neighborhood convenience store, like I did every morning.  “Down,”  I said.  He went down, like he did every morning.  “Stay,” I said. I walked into the store and went to the coffee counter.  I looked up, and there was Beez, sauntering by the window.  I swear he looked in and grinned.  I went back out and took him back to his original spot.  “Down,”  I said, “Stay.”  I went back into the store and was pouring my coffee when I spotted Beez lazily walking by.  I went back out and put him back down.

I will make this story short.  It took 17 tries before I was able to buy my coffee and newspaper and get back outside to release him before he took off.  It didn’t help that it was a busy morning and the line was really long.  It didn’t help that everyone ELSE was highly amused.  But it was important to keep at it until he followed directions.  Other wise, he would know that I don’t mean what I say.  Yes, it was very inconvenient that morning.  But sticking to my guns meant that I had a dog neighbors offered to trade their children for.  I want to add, Beez was a feral dog rescued after spending several months in Red River Gorge. If it was possible to teach him, it’s possible to teach anyone.

I have friends who are terrific with their dogs and blow it with their humans.  When they try to set boundaries, they say the equivalent of “No. No. No.  Oh, all right.”  Maybe they add, “Just this once.”  What they communicate is: “Be patient and I will give in.”  They think they shouldn’t have to treat their humans like their dogs.  “Humans can reason,” they say.  “They already know my situation, they know I don’t want to, why do they keep asking me?  Why are they making me be the bad guy?”  Umm.  Because you eventually say yes?  Because your “nos” don’t really mean “no”?

Communicating boundaries is not the same as issuing threats.  At one time I worked in residential rehab for alcoholics and drug addicts.  Our clients were not only addicted, most of them came to us through the criminal justice system. We’re talking chronic professional rule breakers here. My boss was a terrific guy, and he loved helping drunks.  The only thing he had a problem with was clients breaking rules.  His solution was to make the penalty so big that it would act as a deterrent.  “Change the rule,” he said, “If they do that, we’ll throw them out of treatment.” He figured then nobody would break that particular rule.  Except that eventually every rule gets broken. When the time came, no one was willing to levy the consequence because it was too harsh. Which demonstrated to the entire house that the rules had no meaning. (I want to go on record here.  I was vocally opposed to this strategy when he adopted it.) Is it any wonder this wonderful, caring man suffered high blood pressure and heart attacks?

And of course, it is always important to say what you mean.  I’ll never forget my beloved grandmother repeatedly imploring a guest to stay and have another glass of tea.  The woman insisted, no, she really had to go.  Grandma finally closed the door behind this woman.  Then she shook her head and said, “I thought she’d NEVER leave!”  Seriously.  Would you tell your dog to “come” if you wanted it to “stay”?

Do your loved ones take advantage of you?  Do they ignore your feelings?  Try talking to them the same way you should talk to your dog.

Dialing it Back in a Relationship

Last week I spent an hour walking back and forth across the dog park with a friend while she vented about her boyfriend.  For several years she helped him out while he was unemployed and in school, putting herself in debt on his behalf.  He finally has a good job.  What does he do?  Does he cheerfully take on the credit card bills he ran up?  Does he offer to whisk her away to Bimini? You guessed it, he chose Door Number Three:  “I can’t do this anymore.  I want out.”

You don’t know my friend, but you’ve heard some variation of this story.  I’ve known people who have ruined themselves financially over love. One wasted an entire inheritance on her boyfriend.  One took out a loan to buy a car for the woman he loved and is also paying insurance on this vehicle while she cheerfully drives by his house with her new boyfriend. She always waves. Meanwhile, he is eating peanut butter and Vienna sausages for lunch.

I am talking about finances because that’s the most obvious place to look for inequities in a relationship.  But we could be talking about affection, attention, empathy, or even how often each person gets to choose which movie to see.

There’s a hint of this tired tale in my first book, “A Shot in the Bark.”  Lia’s boyfriend Luthor is a selfish schmuck, and part of Lia’s ongoing evolution in the series is learning how to have a healthy relationship.  I would not be able to write about such things if I had not at some point given too much of myself in pursuit of love.  I have, more times than I care to confess.  And it NEVER has a happy ending.

I want to help my friend. I offered to round up a crew to dump his stuff on the lawn and change her locks.  She declined. She’s at that exquisite  point where she wants to kill him, but she hasn’t given up hope yet.  It’s painful to watch.  I wish I could fast-forward her life to that day when it sinks in:  He’s NEVER going to change.

Our conversation got me thinking. What do I know about relationships?

All adult relationships are reciprocal.  If they are not reciprocal, what you have could be a parent/child relationship, even if it involves sex.  If you aren’t related, it might be legal, but it’s still icky. If there is little to no sex involved and you are putting out all the energy in keeping things going, your relationship might edge over into stalking territory.  If the other person is a willing party who adores you as long as you pay for everything, look in the mirror.  You probably have “Patsy” tattooed on your forehead.

If your relationship is not reciprocal, you’ve got to ask yourself why you’re investing so much into it.  If it’s not reciprocal there’s something important you need to understand about giving.

People give on their own terms.  Everyone has rules for what and how much they give and when, and it’s based on their personality, their particular circumstances, how they were brought up and how invested they are in the relationship. You don’t get to decide how someone else gives or reciprocates.  You might nag, guilt or blackmail them into giving what you want for a time, but all that does is create resentment and set up barriers to a truly healthy give-and-take.  You have to decide whether or not you are happy with the way the other person responds/reciprocates to your overtures/efforts. You have to realize that “what you get is what you get.”  They don’t have a closet full of goodies stashed away somewhere, just waiting for a special day when they jump up and and cry, “Surprise!  I really do love you and today is the day I show it!  Take your shoes off and let me rub your feet while I tell you all the marvelous things I’m going to do for you now!”

If you aren’t happy with how much/what the other person is putting into the relationship, you have two choices. You can end the relationship. Harsh, but in the event of disappearing trust funds and looming bankruptcy, this may be the only intelligent option.  Or, you can dial it back.  Dialing it back means reducing your efforts to match what’s coming back to you. It means redefining the relationship based on what is, rather than what you hope it will be. Out in the Ether somewhere, I hear someone screaming, “But if I did that, There would BE no relationship.  To that I say, “Uh, Doh?”

The first rule of dialing it back, is do not do anything you are going to resent later. “Not fair!” That same voice screams out in the Ether. “How am I supposed to know what I’m going to resent later?”  It’s not that hard.  Anytime you are doing something you would not ordinarily do to please someone else, stop and take a good hard look.  Notice, I did not say, don’t ever do anything nice for someone.  But take a moment to imagine that they don’t notice, don’t care, don’t reciprocate.  And if that thought has you feeling hurt and/or embarrassed and/or resentful, don’t do it.  If you are denying your own basic needs and obligations to please someone else, don’t do it.  If you are making sacrifices for someone who will not sacrifice on their own behalf, don’t do it.  And if the person has a history of not taking care of their obligations, don’t do it. Lastly, if you feel that little tingle of shame inside, the one you get when you are hoping that this time your beloved is going to respond if you try just one more time, Call your best friend immediately and have them duct-tape you to your kitchen chair, well out of reach of any means of contacting your so-called beloved.

When you think about giving something (time, energy, attention, as well as actual gifts), imagine that this person is going to give back only what they have given you so far. This is important, because, as Dr. Phil says, the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior.  Does this outcome make you happy?  If it doesn’t, then don’t do it.

Dialing it back means ending resentment.  It means giving up on the idea that you are “investing” in a relationship by giving more than you receive.  It means setting boundaries so that you put yourself first and never give more than you can afford (financially, physically, mentally, emotionally).  It is not romantic or noble to give blood to someone who pours it on the ground and asks for more. It means that when you give, you give wholeheartedly, without a hidden agenda, and without hope or expectation of return.

It also means recognizing and appreciating what the other person has to give to the relationship. You’ve got to understand who you are dealing with through small gestures first.  You’ve got to decide if that’s what you truly want. It means assessing your light-of-love’s level of reciprocity early in the relationship, BEFORE you give them the keys to your home and your ATM password.

This is not about bean counting, exactly.  Playing tit-for-tat will destroy a relationship.  But you have to feel secure that your relationship is not one-sided, that your partner is also invested in it, and will be there when you need them. Maybe not all the time, every day, but enough. That your relationship will feed you in some way, in return.

Every relationship is unique.  It may be that you have a good job and plenty of discretionary income, and your friend is always broke.  If you find your friend’s company truly worthwhile, say they are a great listener, or always cheer you up, maybe it gives you pleasure to treat your friend to things they can’t afford.  If you can do so without resentment and without making your friend uncomfortable, that’s a viable option.  Or you can dial it back by meeting your friend on their turf, where they can afford the price of admission. You can mix apples and oranges here. You cook meals.  They fix appliances.  As long as you both understand what you are getting out of the relationship and are happy with it, fine. Just don’t kid yourself.  It’s okay to mix apples and oranges.  Not so much if we’re talking watermelon and grapes.  Unless it’s a whole lotta grapes.

Transparency is important.  Can you talk with your friend/lover about what you are each getting out of the relationship?  If not, that’s a red flag.  Can you talk to yourself about what you are giving and getting out of your relationship?  Be honest.  Write it down in two columns.  Take a good look at it.

There’s another side of this.  When you give more than the other person can (on their terms) reciprocate, you are likely to make that person feel uncomfortable because you’ve created an obligation they can’t or aren’t willing to repay.  We’re talking about normal people here, not users.  This will push that person away rather than bring them closer. Someone who cares about you will not want you to overextend yourself on their behalf. They’re happy with your company without any grand gestures. On the other hand, greedy, selfish people will be happy to suck you dry. Want to find out who they are?  Dial it back.