- The Washington Times - Monday, August 5, 2002

When clinical psychologist Harriet Lerner was packing for a September 11 flight to Washington, the most important thing on her mind was making the New York Times best-seller list.
The former staff psychologist at the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kan., had written nine books about human relationships. She was in New York for a tour highlighting her latest work, "The Dance of Connection," when terrorists struck.
After that, "I felt my work went utterly irrelevant," she says. "But I was very touched by the enormous gratitude by the people who came to hear me. People let me know my subject which is connection and how to navigate relationships with the most difficult people was important to them."
September 11 triggered many people to transform bad relationships into good ones and make good ones better, she said.
"The initial impact was to hold hands and sing, 'We are the world,'" the author says. "When people are anxious, they seek more togetherness."
Fear of death has a way of changing priorities, says Gary Buffone, a Jacksonville, Fla., psychologist specializing in trauma.
"When thousands of people die in one second, we are reminded that our life [is uncertain]," he says. "We are reminded that our time is limited. We have a new urgency."
Inspired by this urgency, people made decisions they had been delaying: quitting dead-end jobs, leaving abusive relationships and calling old friends, he says.
Right One and Together Dating, two national dating services, have experienced a 22 percent increase in membership since the attacks.
"Before September 11, people were saying, 'I've got the great job, the boat, but I don't have that person in my life,'" said Terry Fitzpatrick, director of business development for the dating services. "Now there is just one thing that people are talking about. People are saying they just don't want to go it alone."
Ms. Lerner, who will be in the District on Aug. 20 for a book signing at the Politics and Prose bookstore, says Americans still are recovering.
"People are still really under the influence of September 11," she says. "They are still very anxious. When [normal] stress is combined with tragedy as it was with September 11, it is an enormous human challenge to navigate relationships with calm."
Most Americans have "snapped back" from a focus on relationships to normal preoccupations, says Robert Butterworth, a psychologist based in Los Angeles who runs a trauma consulting agency.
"Psychologically, we have gone back to complacency," he says. "We all thought we had changed. But we have to go back to being human. We have kids to support."
The one place where trauma effects have lingered is New York, mental health specialists say.
Frightened New Yorkers immediately sought intimacy after September 11, says Robert Lawrence Friedman, a Queens, N.Y., psychotherapist who works with hospital staff and other groups to reduce stress.
A sense of safety is found in returning to regular routines. "People are focusing on routines, their jobs, getting their paychecks," he says. "They might feel more rooted in relationships. People will find the areas in their life they feel the safest."
Michael Nuccitelli, a psychologist at a private residential treatment and wellness clinic in Brewster, N.Y., an hour north of Manhattan, has seen an increased intensity in relationships for the people near the New York attack epicenter.
"What September 11 did was accelerate the decision-making processes as to whether or not to commit to the marriage or to file for divorce," he says. "It accelerated the decision-making process between couples to have children. It affected career decisions. It affected whether to buy a house or not. It has forced people to make decisions they would normally procrastinate."
If anything positive is to come from September's attacks, he adds, it will be people learning to get along.
"With every tragedy, there is a silver lining," he says. The attacks "have inspired in some families gratitude and appreciation for what they have. Previously, most of our culture was focused on what we didn't have."


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