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Mall Therapy  

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By Kim Lamb Gregory
September 14, 2003
Ventura County Star

We asked Star columnist and Westlake Village psychotherapist Barton Goldsmith to spend an afternoon offering his expert advice to mall shoppers.

The concept was simple: Goldsmith set up a pair of chairs at The Oaks mall in Thousand Oaks where shoppers with relationship questions could sit down and get free sessions. Goldsmith, whose column appears in the Star on Mondays, decided to have the interviews videotaped with the intention of pitching the concept of therapy in the mall to a TV producer.

On the day the doctor was in among the shoppers, Goldsmith fielded questions that dealt with everything from battling siblings to a disapproving mother and a friendship being drowned out by the clang of wedding bells..

What do you do if Mom doesn't like your new boyfriend?

After walking arm-in-arm into The Oaks, Ashley Carter, soon to be 21, and Courtney Wildebaur, 18, sat down with Goldsmith in a chair and on a circular bench in front of J.C. Penney and shared an age-old problem for many brand-new relationships.

"My mom doesn't like him," said Wildebaur, who has been dating Carter for a month.

"She doesn't like the age difference," explained Carter.

Carter also suspects he didn't make a good first impression when he met Wildebaur's mom at a summer camp the couple attended through Pepperdine University in Malibu, where both are students. Carter considers himself a friendly guy, and Mom seemed to think the hugging and hand-holding with her daughter was a bit much.

"He's demonstrative and my mom doesn't understand that," said Wildebaur, who has been trying to convince her mom that Carter is a good guy.

Goldsmith started by tackling the almost three-year difference in their ages.

"I don't think that's an inappropriate age gap at all," he said.

He then addressed Carter's concerns about that first impression, offering suggestions to help Carter woo Wildebaur's mom.

"I believe most women in the world can be swayed with poetry and flowers," said Goldsmith.

Send her a bouquet, Goldsmith suggested, or just one flower with a note. Something worthy of William Butler Yeats might be a bit much, but something simple would be ideal, he said. A good choice:."Thank you for having your daughter because she's a wonderful human being."

Both Carter and Wildebaur warmed to the idea.

"It actually might make her cry," Wildebaur said.

Goldsmith counseled Wildebaur to continue having conversations with her mom, and to remind her that Carter is a quality guy who is pursuing a college degree -- and who treats her daughter well.

"Let her know, 'I'm dating a professional.' It could be worse," Goldsmith said. "You're in Malibu at Pepperdine. You could be dating an actor."

What do you do if an old friend pushes you aside after getting engaged to the wrong guy?

Ever since her friend became engaged, a 19-year-old woman from Thousand Oaks has felt both hurt and worried.

Her name withheld to protect the identity of the people she was talking about, the woman told Goldsmith she and her friend have been close since they were children. Then, just a few weeks ago, the friend, also 19, agreed to marry a man she has known for four months.

Besides worrying about her friend marrying a man she doesn't know well, the Thousand Oaks woman felt pushed aside.

"She feels that, because she's getting married, she needs to start a new birth in her life and leave behind old friends," she said.

"He says he's everything to her," she added. "He's her best friend."

The woman expressed concern that her friend's fiance is encouraging her to isolate herself from old friends because "he knows that it's not a very good idea that they're getting married very quickly," she said.

She also worries that the man, who is from another country, asked her friend to marry him to gain citizenship.

Goldsmith tackled the multi-faceted problem by offering some perspective.

"At 19, romance and love become so all-encompassing. It becomes our whole world," Goldsmith said.

"As she gets older, she'll realize love expands, it doesn't contract. You can love more if you have love in your life."

As for the marriage, Goldsmith agreed with the Thousand Oaks woman that four months was too short a span of time to know someone well enough to get engaged. Goldsmith recommends couples date a minimum of six months before committing to marry.

That said, Goldsmith advised her to refrain from sharing her feelings about her friend's marriage.

"She sounds a little confused right now and perhaps this guy may be exerting a little control over her, but let's not make it about her (marriage), but about your relationship," Goldsmith said.

Goldsmith suggested she tell her friend, gently, that she feels hurt because it seems her friend is pushing her away.

"Tell her you'd like to maintain some sort of friendship," Goldsmith said.

The wedding isn't until the spring, and a lot can happen between now and then, he said, so she might want to be patient and wait -- within reason -- for things to settle back into perspective.

"If you continue to get your feelings hurt, then it would be time to pull back," he advised.

How do you know if you've found the right person to marry?

Joseph Go, 27, of Northridge thinks he may have stumbled into true love, but can he be sure?

Go has been dating a woman around his own age for about three months, after having been friends with her for three years. He's even thought about (gulp) marriage.

Sorry, there are no guarantees in this life, said Goldsmith. But there are questions you can ask yourself when trying to figure out if you've met The One.

"Are you in love with her?" Goldsmith asked.

"Absolutely" Go said. "I feel like she's the one."

"I know you love her, but do you like her?" Goldsmith asked.

"Oh yes," Go said.

Excellent signs, Goldsmith said. Also, they both want children and Go feels his girlfriend would be a good mother. Go also couldn't think of any habits that irritate him: "I accept her the way she is," he said. And her parents like him.

Check, check, and check.

"Then you probably are with the right person," Goldsmith said.

"Marriage at some point is always a leap of faith," he added. "You can never be 100 percent sure."

If you're at least 80 percent sure, you're doing pretty well, Goldsmith said.

Because they've been an item for only three months, Goldsmith encouraged Go to wait to get engaged for at least four to six months. After that, the odds of Go's relationship being a go were good.

How do you keep a marriage going?

James and Tina Calhoun were celebrating their fourth wedding anniversary with a leisurely shopping trip the day Goldsmith was giving therapy in the mall.

"We're celebrating by hanging out together," Tina explained.

Goldsmith asked the Thousand Oaks couple to share the wisdom they have gleaned about marriage.

"I think it's such a stereotype that your first year is supposed to be bliss," said Tina.

The past two years of their marriage have been near bliss, but the first two were anything but, they said.

"We were close to separating, actually," Tina admitted. "Then we just decided to hang in there and kind of changed from one day to the next. We just both committed ourselves again."

Goldsmith asked James what made him decide to work at the marriage.

"A little voice in my head said, 'You know, reinvest in your life. What was it that originally attracted you to her?' I went back looking for those things and those things were still there," said James.

Tina decided to hang in there because she realized "we were friends above all."

The two also started attending church together, which they believe helped enormously. Also, both Tina's and James' parents have been married more than 30 years, which is a good model for them, Goldsmith pointed out.

"We didn't want to be the first to fail," Tina agreed.

Goldsmith predicted at least 40 more anniversaries for the couple, if not more, as long as they stick to what could be the Golden Rule of Marriage.

"Never go to bed angry," Goldsmith said. "If it means staying up until 3 in the morning hashing it out, so be it."

How do you get a boyfriend to practice safe sex?

Goldsmith is among those who believe anyone 16 years old is too young to have sex. But when he was approached by a Simi Valley teen who is sexually active, he answered her intimate question.

"My boyfriend and I ... when we're alone, we like to get down ... this is so embarrassing," said the 16-year-old girl. "He refuses to wear a condom."

Goldsmith's answer was clear.

"If your boyfriend has a problem wearing condoms, then he doesn't care about you," he said. "That's selfish. He's only caring about himself."

The girl has some power here, Goldsmith said, and that power is to say no.

"He's got one of those really cute, kind of like movie-star pouty faces where it's like, I can't say no to that face," the teen countered.

Goldsmith wasn't certain if the girl, who was dressed in leather and sunglasses, was simply playing "Shock the Therapist." But if she was telling the truth, she was gambling with her health and possible pregnancy. So he gave her a direct answer.

"This is serious stuff, hon'," he said. "And you need to say no. You need to set down the rules. You have to be a little bit stronger.".

How do you keep a family close when their schedules don't match?

Sitting on her dad's lap, Brieanna Casson, 11, talked with Goldsmith about how she feels about her dad's job as an Oxnard police officer with the K-9 unit.

"It's pretty cool because he gets to bring the dog home," Brieanna said.

The uncool part is the toll Daniel Casson's job sometimes takes on family time.

"There are rough times sometimes with the shift change, the odd hours,".said Casson, who works from 6 p.m. to 4 a.m.

"It becomes hard on everybody when you're not there all the time. When you're up, they're sleeping and vice versa."

Casson, 40, who is divorced, lives in Moorpark with Brieanna, his girlfriend of two years, a chinchilla, four fish, a pet dog and a police dog named Levi.

To help build cohesiveness, Goldsmith suggested a once-a-week family meeting, a time "where you sit down, all three of you -- and Levi if you want -- and you have dinner together and you say, 'OK, this is my schedule.' "

Discuss schedules, Goldsmith said, and then move onto the subject of your feelings.

"Find out what everybody needs and what everybody's feeling," said Goldsmith.

Casson told Goldsmith he and his girlfriend are struggling to agree on which chores are appropriate for an 11-year-old.

Goldsmith suggested the couple ask Brieanna which chores she thinks are appropriate.

She was ready with suggestions.

"Keeping my room clean. Doing my chinchilla's cage. My bathroom, 'cause I use it," Brieanna said.

Kitchen chores like clearing or setting the table are also good for kids this age, Goldsmith said.

He also suggested placing a "star chart" on the refrigerator. Brieanna could earn a star for every week she does her chores; when she gets 10 stars, she gets a present.

Brieanna welcomed that suggestion with a nod so vigorous that both of her pigtails bobbed up and down.

What do you do if your brother hurts your feelings?

Brent Sehati, 8, of Camarillo sat on his mom's lap on the bench that doubled as Goldsmith's office at the moment. Brent's brother, Arvin, 9, sat next to Brent and their mom, Azita Sehati, and discussed a boy Arvin thought was a friend.

"Last year he was being mean and this year he's being nice but still sometimes he's calling me names," Arvin told Goldsmith.

Some people act rude or mean because they think it's cool, Goldsmith explained. But it's not cool, so Goldsmith suggested Arvin speak up.

"Anytime somebody says something that hurts your feelings, you say, 'Now, that hurts my feelings. Please stop doing that,' " Goldsmith said.

If the friend keeps abusing Arvin, the boy should find another friend. "There are a lot of nice people out there," said Goldsmith. "You.don't have to hang out with the mean ones."

But what if the conflict is with a sibling?.Azita confirmed that sometimes Arvin and Brent have spats.

"I let him sleep in my room every night and he won't even let me go in his room and sit in his chair," Arvin complained.

Brent started to reel off his side of the story, but Goldsmith stopped them.

"You want to be the best of friends with your brother because this is the longest relationship you'll ever have," Goldsmith said. "Some day, you're mom's not going to be around and all you'll have is each other. So you want to be as good to each other as you can."

The boys listened, quiet now, as Goldsmith gave a one-size-fits-all piece of advice:

"Communication is the most important thing in any relationship."