This Emotional Recap: Friends, Families & Lovers

by Melissa Karnaze

In the first of three episodes of PBS’s This Emotional Life, Harvard social psychologist Daniel Gilbert guides us through a mature and thoughtful look at how human happiness is defined by the quality of relationships.

A smooth delivery

Gilbert also co-wrote the series, and you can read his heartfelt conviction in how he narrates the story. And yes, though there are several real-world narratives covered, this episode captures a single story.

And that’s the story of what makes us human, and why being human is vulnerable and hard, but at the same time beautiful.

Gilbert takes us on a journey through several social psychology studies, which are a great introduction to the complex subjects of infant attachment, empathy, social interaction, cooperation, friendship, and romantic love. And each of the researchers who are interviewed shares nuggets of wisdom in their areas of expertise.

Interwoven with the academic backstory are compelling interviews with celebrities like Joan Rivers, John McEncroe, and John Leguizamo. They share anecdotes, jokes, and personal insights, which serve as nice mini conclusions to each of the major topics.

All the transitions flow well, which is very important, given the breadth of the subjects discussed, as well the complexity of each.

A real connection

The real jewels of “Friends, Families, & Lovers” are the families, friends, and lovers who are interviewed in such candid ways.

We meet a couple of two adopted children, a well-adjusted and vibrant daughter, and a caring son who has reactive attachment disorder, but wants to contribute to research on the disorder so that future generations born with it will have it easier than he currently does.

We meet Jason Ross, a sweet young man with Asperger’s syndrome who blogs at Drive Mom Crazy, “mostly to inspire people.”

We meet a mother who lost her son to suicide, because he couldn’t bear the bullying he endured at school. A mother who then worked hard to get Jeffrey’s Law passed in Florida, which requires schools to stop bullying.

And we meet many more.

And each of these people is real, rare, and gracious in showing us their lives, so that we may reflect on our own.

A courageous connection

What makes “Friends, Families & Lovers” shine, is how it takes the camera into Phillip Pitts and Monica Stafford-Pitts’ lives, all the way into their couples therapy sessions with clinical psychologist Xavier Amador.

Without giving too much away about their personal journey, Phillip and Monica fell in love and married with a fiery passion. After several years of raising four young children and enduring betrayal, they turned to a Amador to help salvage their marriage.

To see how Dr. Amador helps them rediscover one another as well as their own selves, is simply a must-see.

In a matter of sessions, you can see through Phillip and Monica’s body language how they go from distance on the couch, with very little eye-contact, and talking mostly to their therapist… to sitting together with his arms over her, and her affectionate smiles as she looks thoughtfully over at him while he’s talking.

Dr. Amador understands that broken trust will become either an open wound or a scar healed over, and that arguing will either bring people together by bringing out important issues, or tear them apart.

He also says, “Emotions are always right. From the perspective of the person feeling the emotion, they’re always true.” (Of course, this one of my favorite parts of the show.)

And that for a relationship to survive you have to focus on yourself first, not this “myopic” view on changing the other person, which comes with putting a lot of blame and pressure on them as well.

An honest look at our human nature

Our host, Dr. Gilbert does an elegant job of keeping the viewer on track in deconstructing love and happiness.

When we look at this emotional life — of being human — we cannot overlook our animal heritage. It’s who we are wired to be, and we need to make peace with that.

Following the lead of “Friends, Families & Lovers,” let us not forget that:

  • We are animals with our strengths as well as our limitations, and that sometimes we “choose conflict over cooperation, and dominance over diplomacy.” But ultimately, we always have the choice of response ability.
  • “Cooperation is complicated. We have to decide what another person wants, and decide if that’s what we want to give them,” as Gilbert cuts to it. Meaning, successful relationships hinge upon healthy interpersonal boundaries.
  • The male brain prefers youth and indications of fertility in a mate, while the female brain looks for social status, ambition, and resources — a mindful look at gender differences which can ease a lot of misunderstanding and resentment between the sexes.
  • “Friends are good for us,” and as social psychologist John Cacioppo says, that loneliness has such an adverse affect on health because it signals, “Something that’s critical for your survival is missing.” Because, “We work well collectively. That’s what makes us such a powerful species.”
  • Our success in adult relationships has a lot to do with how we were wired to love — or to give up on love — through our infant years, when secure and healthy attachment to our caregivers was crucial in shaping our ability to trust others and the world. Meaning, we need to be especially mindfully in how receptive and attentive we are to our children. Just as we need to be to our Inner Children, or emotional selves.
  • Reading emotional signals, body language, and the subtle cues in between the lines people say, are extremely valuable in how we can connect to others socially. And that we need to be compassionate toward those who struggle with these abilities that come naturally for neurotypicals.
  • The biggest single lesson from managing conflict, as social psychologist J. Richard Hackman says, is to go toward the conflict, not away from it! Because, “It is in the conflict that we capture differences of perspectives, that is the reason that we have groups in the first place.”
  • “Emotions are great. But unless they’re handled well, they’re not great,” says Research Scientist Marc Brackett. So to handle them well and keep them great, let’s work with them.
  • And let us not forget that we need to care about one another to make it together, become more than the sum of our parts, and to continue on the human species.

“Friends, Families & Lovers” is a must-see for everyone

“Families, Friends & Lovers” demonstrates with visual tapestry just how empowering it is to deconstruct This Emotional Life.

With each social psychology and case study, we learn more about who we are and why behave in the ways that we do.

It’s only from this clearer space that we can mindfully lead our lives toward healthier relationships with our families, our friends, and our lovers.

Which will naturally make ourselves, and our a world, a happier place indeed.

Stay tuned for Episode 2

If you watched tonight’s episode, please share your thoughts below.

I invite you to watch along for tomorrow’s episode of This Emotional Life, called “Confronting Our Demons.”

I hope it follows the same formula of honesty and fearlessness in delving into all things emotional (which as I outlined in the critical precap for This Emotional Life, can be tricky when it comes to the darker emotions).

And I look forward to recapping it with you tomorrow night as well.

This is the 2nd article in the series, “This Emotional Life.”

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Miche - Serenity Hacker January 5, 2010 at 5:40 am

Hi Melissa,

Watched the show last night and discovered it because of your “precap”, so thank you! I’m really looking forward to the second part tonight. While last night’s episode contained a lot of things I already knew, one thing that really struck me was the seeming hopelessness regarding helping children connect and feel love once they’ve been “abandoned” for so long, like the boy in the eastern Europe orphanage. I found it rather sad that these children aren’t able to make and feel the bonds that other children do. Is there any research out there on what can be done about that? Does anything really work? Honestly that part made me quite sad.


Melissa Karnaze January 5, 2010 at 10:42 am

Hi Miche,

I was astounded to see that one study on adopted children and oxytocin. Human infants are so vulnerable, and we need to remember that. I’m not familiar with the literature on how to ease such early damage, but I imagine there are cases where victims of neglect and abuse do make it as adults in loving relationships. It seems to me the issue is a rebuilding of trust, which would be a very slow and painstaking process, requiring total commitment, emotional honesty, and most likely professional facilitation.

I’m sure there’s been little done by way of how to tap into the brain’s neuroplasticity to essentially build trust in adult relationships while also perhaps grieving the past. But this is not to say that there are clear disadvantages to coming into the world without the care and love that human infants need to survive.

I think in Alex’s story, if that’s who you are referring to, is he said that he wants to gets better and help the research on his disorder progress… so that adults can be better prepared to take care of future children who have the same problems. The statement was compassionate and profound at such an early age, and it looks to me as if he knows where he wants to go, and just needs the right support, training, and resources to continue making progress. And I noticed the same quality in Jason Ross.

If I come across anything more uplifting on this subject, I’ll let you know. I’m glad you watched the show! Yes, there was a lot of recap from basic psychology courses, as well as some recent research that I was happy to learn about for the first time.

Miche - Serenity Hacker January 5, 2010 at 11:44 am

What got me too was the oxytocin part… I’d like to think that love, trust, intervention, emotional honesty, etc. could heal the broken trust stuff, but learning that there was a biological component, a needed chemical that aids in all this that’s just not firing, that’s what was so disheartening. It would definitely be very interesting to learn of any long term studies in that area… how these children turn out later, how that part of the brain functions, and what works or doesn’t work.

Melissa Karnaze January 5, 2010 at 2:48 pm

I will keep my eyes open for such studies, and let me know if you come across any as well. :)

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