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Special Interview with John Bradshaw on Post-Romantic Stress Disorder

John Bradshaw is an educator, counselor, motivational speaker, and author. He has hosted a number of PBS television programs on such topics as addiction, recovery, codependency, and spirituality. Bradshaw is credited with popularizing such ideas as the wounded inner child and the dysfunctional family. With several New York Times best sellers, his books have sold over ten million copies and he is published in forty-two languages. At the age of eighty-one, Bradshaw is far from done. His latest book, Post-Romantic Stress Disorder will be published later this year by Health Communications, Inc. 


In Post-Romantic Stress Disorder, Bradshaw helps couples figure out “what to do when the honeymoon is over.” The book covers everything from the developmental stages of love and intimacy to skill-building exercises and the very latest research on love, lust, and attachment. As Bradshaw states himself, “My major goal in this book is to offer you a compelling argument that will stop you from throwing away what may well be your perfectly good marriage partner, or from ending a perfectly good relationship that seems stuck.” Post-Romantic Stress Disorder features case stories about Bradshaw’s patients and touches upon the work of several experts in the field, including Drs. Helen Fisher, Patrick Carnes, Pat Love, and Claudia Black. 


Counselor’s Consulting Executive Director, Gary Seidler, interviewed Bradshaw about his recovery, his work on the family, and his latest book. 


Gary Seidler: I am delighted to speak with an icon in the addiction and behavioral health field. Welcome, John. 


John Bradshaw: Hello, Gary. 


Gary Seidler: You first burst onto the scene with your PBS series Bradshaw on the Family. When and how did you come to understand that looking into families of origin was something important for the self?  


John Bradshaw: Well, I came from a severely dysfunctional, alcoholic family. As a child, I didn’t understand any of the dynamics that were going on. All of a sudden I got into the work of Murray Bowen and began to understand that the family is a social system. I later heard a lecture in Shreveport, Louisiana one day on the alcoholic family and the roles—“star,” “hero,” “scapegoat” and so forth—which suddenly put my family together in a way that I had never seen before. I probed it more and it became utterly fascinating for me to see what happens in dysfunctional families. 


There are things like a child becoming a surrogate spouse, which is a role that I took on for my mother because my dad was in and out of house for varying lengths of time. Emotionally, to take that on, you’re carrying all their problems—things that you shouldn’t even have to deal with. So that was it, really. It was deeply personal for me and very exciting to be able to put that all together. Families of origin can tell you a lot, even about sexual preferences. 


Gary Seidler: I’ll never forget the first time I saw you speak, in the early 1980s in a very crowded church lecture hall in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. You were talking about shame. I wonder what your “aha” moment was in regards to shame and families.    


John Bradshaw: I read Gershen Kaufman’s book on shame, which really became the missing piece of the puzzle to my personality and my life. Although I’d been the class president and a star on the football field, I still felt like an impostor. It just put my whole life together and it reduced my shame. I’ll never forget that night at the Fort Lauderdale lecture, and how enthusiastic you were and how you and Peter Vegso started talking to me about publishing my books. Interestingly, my books on shame still sell more than any of the other books I have published—it’s still an incredibly relevant issue today. 


The new book, Post-Romantic Stress Disorder, is about an issue that is very complicated by shame.  


Gary Seidler: I also remember very well the workshops you were conducting all over the country around that time on healing the inner child. Could you talk a little bit about the value of inner child work and perhaps bring us up to date on why we aren’t doing more inner child work in this current era?


John Bradshaw: Well, Gary, I really don’t know. To me, it is the most profound therapy that I have ever seen and I’ve seen a lot of them in fifty years. I started doing it independently, out of the work of transactional analysis, and I developed my own developmental model of it. That was the difference. It was the notion that I could embrace this kid, the one that I knew was still there, even after selling all these books, the one that was saying “You’re an impostor and they’re going to find out” and “You don’t really know anything.” It’s just amazing. 
What’s even more incredible is that I still get letters, even over ten years later, from someone who came to a workshop and is now a therapist, or someone who had been on their last leg, and how the inner child idea really changed them. 


Now what’s happened is that Allan Schore and Dan Siegel, these brain guys, have come along and they are saying that the “talking cure” and therapy is minimally effective. What’s important is the deep feeling work and now there’s the science and the brain chemistry that says it’s all the right brain. A lot of my workshops involve music, poetry, non-dominant-hand writing, all of which are elements of right brain healing. I now have a tremendously valuable, clinical way to say that this is one of the fastest healing tools I know. It’s faster than EMDR. In three days, peoples’ lives can change and I didn’t understand that for a long time. 


Gary Seidler: That’s impressive. Okay John, let’s get personal. You’ve always worn your own recovery on your sleeve. Where are you in your own recovery journey and have you beaten all your demons? Do you think we’re ever recovered, or are we always in a state of recovery?


John Bradshaw: I’ll jump right on that last question; I think we’re always in a state of recovery. Right now, at eighty-one years old, my demons are ice cream and candy, which I stash and hoard and try to hide from my little girl and from my wife so they don’t know I’m eating all this stuff! So my addiction is still hanging around, as it were, but the others—the alcohol, the love, the sex—they are gone. I’m thirty-six years sober from love and sex addiction and forty-nine years sober from alcoholism. So I feel really good about that. 


I don’t kid myself, though. About two years ago I was diagnosed with spinal stenosis and my doctor started giving me Vicodin. I was taking enough of that to sink a ship and because it doesn’t have the amphetamine-like kick of alcohol and other drugs, I didn’t think there was anything wrong with it. But when I was hospitalized, my wife just told me that I was “getting gone,” so I’m never out of it in that sense. Anytime a doctor gave me something that was mood-altering, I’d feel that it was all legitimate because a doctor did it. I don’t feel that way anymore. I have to really be careful. 


I think my demons are benign, but they’re not gone. So yes, I’m still recovering. 


Gary Seidler: Over the years we’ve had many conversations about these kinds of personal issues I want to share a similar story to the one you just shared. 


I stopped smoking thirty years ago. A couple of years ago I was at a social function and they were distributing these e-cigarettes, so I just thought “Okay, I’ll try one of those and see what it’s all about. There’s no smoke involved, it can’t hurt.” Within two seconds, it triggered my whole smoking addiction. Thankfully, my partner was with me to say “You know what, I don’t think this is a good idea.” I could see myself smoking that e-cigarette and spiraling off into who knows what. So I’m completely with you in that we are always in recovery and that no matter how benign the behavior is, it’s always just around that corner. 


John Bradshaw: Well I’m glad that you realized it! I want people to know that they can get out of this stuff, but that if they have an addictive personality and they’ve been addicted, they need to be careful. 


Gary Seidler: Definitely. So, your last book was about virtues, titled Reclaiming Virtue. What led you to write that particular book?


John Bradshaw: Well, my own struggle with morality was part of it. I was raised Catholic, I had very pious grandparents, and we were expected to believe the church in everything without question. I wanted to find a way to have morality without God, as it were. I don’t mean against God, or to spurn God for people who have that—and I certainly believe that some of the dogma is valuable—but morality is always contingent. You can’t have a science of moral acts. 


I had studied Aristotle in seminary, and Aristotle’s prudence virtue is about knowing how to make right decisions at the right time for the right reason. That’s really what I wrote the book about. Then there’s Aquinas’s ethics, the notion that anybody can learn and have their morality internalized. 


I remember one time when I was at a park here in Houston with my uncle, an all-American baseball player, and I watched him help this woman on a bucking horse. He didn’t know anything about horses, but his own personal ethics told him to go and help her in a split second. The rest of us were standing around with our thumbs in our mouths. That’s virtue; that ability to act spontaneously on an internalized morality. 


Reclaiming Virtue is not my most popular book and I definitely wrote it for me and not for anybody else. It has a lot of autobiographical stuff in it about a lot of personal things that I’ve struggled with for a long time. Thank you for asking about that. 


Gary Seidler: That actually leads very nicely into my next question. Many observers feel as though society is going to hell in a hand basket. There seems to be more hate, unwillingness to compromise, anger, and violence than ever before. Can you share your thoughts about that?


John Bradshaw: I believe that too. When I talk to elementary teachers, high school teachers, and college professors, it really is a nightmare—that’s how they talk about it now. Kids just don’t obey you like they once did. Maybe it’s that in trying to get out of mere obedience, or obedience without content, we’ve gone too far to the other side and there isn’t enough obedience.  I don’t think we should throw out all of the old values, but we have to understand that they need to be applied to this unique situation in this specific time. A choice I would make in this situation may not be the same choice you would make, but if both of us have virtue, we should be acting virtuously. Children don’t seem to have any sense of discipline and I think we need more of that in the family. 


As for married couples, they are the reason I wrote this new book, Post-Romantic Stress Disorder. About 50 percent of the couples that I have counseled who have divorced, did so needlessly. As the marriage goes, so does the family. When a marriage is dysfunctional, a kid will pick up on that and get caught up in all the dynamics of the family. Then the child is unable to develop his or her own internalized sense of morality and virtue. 


Gary Seidler: Do you think children today are suffering more than ever from abuse, bullying, egotism, and even the rape culture we’re seeing on college campuses? Is that all part of the same out of balance position?


John Bradshaw: Yes, I think we’ve overreacted to Victorian morality. Today you watch a show and there’s something wrong with them if they don’t sleep together on the first date. In my day, some of this stuff was just unheard of, but now we have teenagers having sex as fast as they can. A lot of parents don’t know where they are with their own morality and their own sexuality, so I think a lot of that behavior is coming from children rebelling because they don’t have a strong enough authority in their lives. A child will be angry when he or she doesn’t have an authority figure, something to live by or someone to look up to. A lot of that has gone away because mom and dad are so engrossed with the child and not worrying about their own marriage. 


In addition, a lot of parents are still resorting to physical punishment, even though that has lessened a great deal since my time. There’s a lot of rebelling among the youth because of the passing values that are not being carried on. I think in the future we will see more couples and parents paying attention to their marriages, which is oftentimes where the dysfunction will come from. 


Gary Seidler: Along those lines, do you think loving blended families, gay or straight, are good for our kids?


John Bradshaw: It really all depends on the parents. I know gay couples who have marvelous children. I know of blended families where the children are tremendously happy and healthy. However, these blended families can be just as dysfunctional as anybody else. The same laws that apply to relationships certainly apply to gays and lesbians. Blended families are harder because there are a lot of new roles, but there are a lot of families that work it out. I don’t think there’s any data that suggests that blended families divorce more than other families. 


Carl Jung once said that the most damaging thing to any child is the unlived lives of their parents. So when parents leave their wounded inner child untreated, they will pass that on to their kids. To answer your question, I think it really depends on the happiness and functionality of the parents. 


Gary Seidler:  So let’s take a minute to talk about the present. Tell us a bit about your new book, Post-Romantic Stress Disorder. What is that, exactly?


John Bradshaw: Well, I grabbed the title because it was catchy! Post-Romantic Stress Disorder is based on three new discoveries about the brain. In fact, I keep putting off the book and typing day and night because I kept finding stuff to add. The new data on the brain tells us that lust is complete brain circuitry. Without lust, the human race would die out in one hundred years. But lust and love are not the same—when you fall in love there is a whole other brain program. 


Everybody knows what it is when they’re in it, when they have that infatuation. When you’re in love, it’s like you’re drunk. You can’t do therapy with people who are in love—I’ve tried! I’ve tried over and over again to help couples sort it out and help them break it off when it got dangerous, but once they are in love, they’re impossible. However, that love lasts only eighteen months. After eighteen months, all the testosterone, all the “amazing” sex that was happening, all of it goes back to normal. At that point, the one with the lowest testosterone is usually the one who will say “Let’s just end this.” Now, if the other person is a shame-faced person, that one remark can start post-romantic stress disorder; they feel betrayed and ashamed. I start the book with an example of this kind of situation. 


Then there’s another program—after a couple has been together for the eighteen months and they’re starting to talk about marriage or a family—that begins to form attachment. Nature forms that kind of bond because the woman is getting ready to have a baby. What Helen Fisher says is that the whole point of being in love is to meet, mate, and procreate. When you have chemistry with someone, it’s because a certain thing in your brain that governs DNA is totally different from that of this other person. It’s evolutionary and it’s all nature. I think all this material is absolutely crucial to having couples realize that their sex lives are going to diminish as they prepare to recreate and keep their DNA going. 


So those are the main discoveries that I touch upon in Post-Romantic Stress Disorder. This book is about stopping people from throwing away perfectly good marriages because they don’t understand the natural dynamics at play in relationships. The book is trying to say “You can do this.” I think this book is just as important as my Bradshaw on the Family books, and it’s relevant because it’s full of brand new material and data. 


There’s a whole other side to the book about something that I learned in my recovery programs, the saying “Act yourself into a right way of feeling and thinking.” It’s about taking action and watching as your brain changes. Couples can learn that if they’re willing to actually do something, they can have an entirely different outlook on spouses, relationships, and anything else. 


Gary Seidler: Well, I know you have been working on this topic and this book for a long time. You’re a terrific teacher, and we still have a lot to learn from you. Thank you so much for taking the time to provide this interview for the readers of Counselor


John Bradshaw: Thank you, Gary.