Charles Gustafson, MFT

Lic.# 5983

Does she/he embarrass you with bad names and put downs?

Does he/she look at you or act in ways that scare you?

Does she/he try to control what you do, who you see or talk to or where you go?

Does he/she try to stop you from seeing friends or family?

Does she/he take your money and make you ask for money?

Does he/she make all the decisions?

Does she/he tell you that you are a bad parent or threaten to take the children away?

Does he/she act like abuse is no big deal?

Does she/he say it’s your fault or deny doing it?

Does he/she destroy your property or threaten your pets?

Does she/he intimidate you with weapons?

Does he/she shove, slap or hit you?

Does she/he force you to drop charges?

Does he/she threaten suicide or threaten to kill you?



A long-term staple of emotional problem solving has been the understanding that when stressed, people move toward a “fight or flight” response behavior.  Such behavior seems to have been programmed into the human nervous system as an automatic response since the beginning.  When stressed, one’s body automatically prepares for combat or flight.  Our adrenal gland dumps adrenaline into our bloodstream, our heart rate increases, our breathing deepens, the flow of blood through our body redistributes itself from the midline of our body to our extremities and we basically prepare ourselves for strenuous physical exertion, i.e. to go to war or to flee a threatening situation at high speed.  This understanding has not been challenged until recently when a female grad student in Minnesota examined the structure of previous experiments that documented the fight or flight behavior and she noticed that all the studies had been done with males exclusively.  Even the lab rats were male!

This student then set up similar studies using females and found that the results did not hold for females.  When stressed, females were likely to engage in behavior that she named “nest and befriend”.  Women were likely to confirm and cement relationships and pay attention to their living quarters when stressed.  They connected with close friends and initiated new friendships or paid attention to cleaning and decorating.  These behaviors helped them deal with the stress of conflict!

These findings are particularly pertinent when we look at how conflict is handled in intimate relationships.  While all people find conflict stressful, men and women respond to conflict in very different ways.  Some men get angry and verbally “attack” their partner while others, realizing the foolishness of “attacking” their partner attempt to “flee”.  They may leave the house or head for the garage.   While this might be a good idea in terms of giving them time to cool off, it may not work well for the partner who needs to affirm the relationship in order to quiet the anxiety related to the experience of conflict.

Now we may have a man who wisely heads for the garage to avoid doing or saying something he may regret and when he gets there he finds his partner may have tearfully followed him out so they can “talk”.  Faced with the inability to “flee”, he may say something hostile and the conflict escalates!  Understanding how men and women handle conflict differently can help avoid escalation.

It seems clear that Freud was right when he spoke about people being governed and directed by the “pleasure principle”.  That basically means that people automatically make choices designed to create more pleasure and less pain in their lives.  When people are questioned about what they want, their answers can range from a newer car or a bigger house to more and bigger toys or a nicer work environment.  But……….the ultimate outcome of such desires would be in increased levels of peace, joy and satisfaction.

People are actually programmed to create just those qualities in their lives.  That is the natural outcome of informed choices guided by the pleasure principle.  However, there is one big catch to this programming.  

The tools and guiding principles of life for all of us are those which were taught to us by word and deed in the family we grew up in.  This means that if we grew up in a family wherein the adults had achieved a life of peace, joy and satisfaction; then we are in pretty good shape.  But for those of us who may have been raised by parents who have not been able to create a life of peace, joy and satisfaction for themselves, it stands to reason that they were not able to pass the tools by which one gains peace, joy and satisfaction to their children, namely us. 

The good news is that there are other ways to learn how to create the desired life we want.  We can read some of the many books on the topic, we can attend lectures and workshops on building the life we want, attend community institutions that promote peace and love  and, finally, we can find a psychotherapist we feel comfortable with and get direct weekly feedback on our search for the life we want.  This is also the life to which we are entitled for ourselves.

Babies are thought to divide their experiences into two categories.  These are ‘things that they like’ and ‘things that they don’t like’.  Experiences they like and are experienced as pleasurable are differentiated from experiences they don’t like and are experienced as unpleasant or painful.  This behavior tends to continue in to childhood and can remain into adulthood.  This is also called black and white thinking.

For many people, however, a class in high school or college leads to the realization that life isn’t always so clear.  For instance, a student might be asked whether stealing is bad or good.  The student would be likely to answer that stealing is bad.  Then the question might be asked how they would judge a man who stole a loaf of bread for his starving children.  This might be the first time the student has been aware of the presence of grey in the world of black and white.  Most of life’s situations aren’t black and white even though we may wish they were.  

Labeling situations as bad or good doesn’t really move us any closer to a true understanding.  Simply judging something allows us a false sense of understanding that doesn’t really move us any closer to a deep understanding of the issue.

About Charles Gustafson

Charles L. Gustafson has been a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist since 1973. He offers a combination of interactive psychotherapy and educational information in his approach to counseling.