Couples, Love, marriage

As the Weather Cools Down, Try on the Power of Warmth

In our social interactions, we are constantly assessing each other for safety, whether we realize it or not. We make instantaneous decisions about whether people are approachable largely based on their facial expressions and vocal tones. Genuine warmth is inviting and signals acceptance, so it’s much easier to move toward than disappointment and criticism.

It’s no secret that we respond to positive cues, and most people are familiar with John Gottman’s recommended 5:1 ratio for how many positive interactions it takes to counter the effects of one perceived negative interaction….and yet, my observation is that many couples still struggle with that ratio.

Recently, I was reviewing one of John Gottman’s assessments in my collection, and a pair of questions caught my attention. Essentially, the questions were something like, “My spouse acts pleased to see me when I walk into the room,” and “I act pleased to see my spouse when he/she walks into the room.”

“Wow. I could really improve on this,” I thought. I literally put a sticky note on my computer reminding me to go out of my way to look happy and greet my husband warmly if he walked into my space (within reason and authentically—not in a creepy, trying too hard sort of way–and I’m a terrible faker). Putting my phone down if he walked in and greeting him with a genuine smile or hugging him was an easy start. I wanted him to know that I was genuinely glad to see him, and I wanted to slow down enough to actually feel glad to see him instead of rushing right past it and on to the next concern occupying my brain.

Ask yourself: How do you feel inside when your spouse genuinely smiles at you? Is there a reason why you wouldn’t want to try to create that feeling for your spouse? I understand that couples feel uncertain of each other and that being warm is a risk—it hurts to try to reach out with warmth and be rejected. If smiling with warmth is too risky, can you just make the effort to acknowledge that your spouse walked in and be mindful of greeting him or her? If that’s too hard, can you release the death grip on your phone, signaling that you care that your partner walked into the room?

Warmth is like fertilizer to a relationship. Hurt couples commonly shape an environment of warmth scarcity, where they both end up starved of the type of love and acceptance necessary for thriving individually and together. Those relationships limp along unnecessarily, when small efforts would likely have enormous impacts if either partner could take a risk to break the ice (pun intended).

As the temperature drops, how are you willing to “warm up” to your spouse?

Couples

The Power of Eye Contact and Why it is Difficult for Many Couples

I’m so excited for the couple’s workbook I have coming out this month. Check it out by clicking here.

It’s not uncommon for me to request of a partner that he or she, “Look your partner in the eyes and tell him or her,” something important they just said while looking at me. I can predict that much of the time, I will get a protest of, “I’m pretty sure they just heard me,” to which I will say, “Right, but it’s so different if you say it to them—can you just try it, right now, look him or her in the eye and say what you just said to me?”

That might sound somewhat awkward, and I try to reduce the awkwardness as much as I can with space, but awkward or not, it doesn’t seem that difficult, does it—to just make eye contact with a partner and tell them something perhaps a tiny bit vulnerable that they shared with me, with eye contact?

Eye Contact is Vulnerable

More often than not, couples really struggle to make eye contact at all, much less maintain it for more than a few seconds. Even when couples turn toward each other to initiate an interaction, they generally will look anywhere except in a partner’s eyes. If I ask them to look in their partner’s eyes, they will quickly glance at their eyes and glance away.

Another thing that happens is that they might take the risk to look a partner in the eye, but the partner is looking somewhere else as well, so the couple is literally taking turns NOT looking at each other. It’s really quite interesting to watch because it is such a common display for how vulnerable it can feel to make mutual eye contact and more so to sustain mutual eye contact.

From the outside, when I see it happening, I usually feel a little bit sad because I know it’s likely the symptom of emotional distress. My informal assessment is that the more emotionally unsafe the relationship feels, the more partners struggle to make and maintain eye contact.

Eye Gazing and Pair Bonding

Eye gazing is a common connecting behavior in pair bonding, and is associated with the release of oxytocin. Courting couples engage in eye gazing more than couples who are not romantically involved. Some studies have suggested that the higher the relationship quality, the more couples engage in eye gazing.

Presumably most of the couples who come to see me are enduring at least mild distress, so it makes sense that eye contact is difficult. Many couples report that they can’t remember the last time they made eye contact with their partners. It’s a common symptom of disconnection.

When couples have fallen into a pattern of avoiding the type of closeness and intimacy associated with eye contact, it becomes harder and harder to feel comfortable with that level of closeness again.

I have adapted three exercises below for couples to practice variations of eye contact. The first two have other tasks included to reduce the raw vulnerability of simple eye gazing with no goal. For couples who want to try to practice emotional presence, this is a place to start. The exercises will be most effective in relationships in which safety is a foundation or in which both couples are actively working toward building safety for each other.

Eye Gazing Exercises

In each exercise, don’t worry about blinking. Blinking is normal and expected.

Exercise #1 (Eye gazing with breathing synchronization)

  1. Set a timer for between 90 seconds and three minutes
  2. Stand an arm’s length apart
  3. Reach out with your palms facing your partner’s palms and place them as close together as you can without touching
  4. As you gaze into each other’s eyes, bring your breathing into synchronization with your partner
  5. If you feel safe, you can choose to engage in a close hug, continuing to synchronize breathing

Exercise #2 (Eye gazing with emotional communication)

This exercise will require one person to be the emotional “communicator” and one to be the “receiver,” and then you will switch roles.

  1. Set a time for between 90 seconds and three minutes
  2. Stand or sit an arm’s length apart
  3. While you gaze into your partner’s eyes, try to communicate an emotion to your partner using only eye contact
  4. While maintaining eye contact, the other partner is trying to pick up on what emotion is being communicated
  5. After the timer goes off, check in and see how close you were to picking up on your partner’s emotion. Don’t be alarmed if you were off—this is a practice exercise and is only information for helping improve attunement in the future
  6. Switch roles and repeat

Exercise #3 (Simple eye gazing)

  1. Set the times for 90 seconds to 3 minutes
  2. Sit an arm’s length apart
  3. Simply gaze into your partner’s eyes, both attempting to pick up nuances of non-verbal communication as well as trying to communicate to your partner
  4. If you feel awkward and don’t know where to look, look slowly from the left eye to the right eye and back again
  5. If you get distracted, notice yourself breath and go back to eye gazing
  6. When the timer goes off, answer the following discussion questions:
  • Did any emotions come up during the exercise and if so, which ones?
  • Did any memories come up during the exercise and if so, which ones?
  • What was the best part about the exercise?
  • What was the most challenging part?
  • What did you learn about yourself?
  • What did you learn about your partner?
  • How can eye contact improve your relationship?
Book Review, Couples Therapy

New Workbook for Couples Release Date Set!

CouplesTherapyWorkbookforHealing_preorder

I have had lots of blog post ideas this year, but they were all put on hold because I have been hard at work on a pet project of mine. For a long time, I have wanted to put a workbook into the hands of couples to help explain healing through attachment principles using what I have learned through a combination of clinical and research practices. I am hoping this will benefit couples all along the romantic connection spectrum. I’m convinced that safe attachment in couples benefits the greater community. The physical copy won’t be released until September 22, 2020 (which I consider a very fortuitous date), but the E-book can be previewed and delivered earlier here. I want to thank all the couples who have taught me so much throughout the therapeutic process–I am always learning new things from my couples and feel incredibly blessed to be allowed into a very sacred and beautiful space of human connection daily. I love my job!

Couples, marriage

Marriage Unmasked: Removing the Costume and Changing the Narrative

Crazy couple dancing and wearing dinosaur t-rex and unicorn mask

In a typical conversation with a couple the other day, the wife turned to me after her husband responded in a nurturing way and explained, “OK, here’s where I’m struggling: Imagine for years and years and years you are living with this big, angry Tyrannosaurus Rex, and you are constantly battling this creature and never feeling safe, because it is always coming at you with aggression, and as nice as you are, you always have this T-Rex coming at you, no matter what you do, and suddenly the T-Rex calms down and acts differently and seems safe, but you can only see this dangerous T-Rex and it doesn’t make sense that this angry dinosaur that is predisposed to aggression is something different, even if it’s behaving differently. How do you trust that when it still looks like a T-Rex to you? What am I supposed to do with that?”

She was alluding to the many years she spent with a husband who had learned to detach from emotion. He didn’t acknowledge his own vulnerable emotions and reacted to hers with irritation and annoyance. Like many men, he learned that emotions were “for women,” and not to be trusted. He had no interest in acknowledging that he even had vulnerable emotion. As a result, she gave up expecting him to be emotionally responsive.

Unfortunately, that’s when he realized that if he was going to preserve his relationship, he might need to face some childhood trauma and learn coping skills for the emotion that seeped out in reactive ways. For the first time ever, he gained understanding for how he avoided emotion and shamed the people around him for expressing any kind of  emotional need. He increased compassion and had serious regrets about his past actions.

My immediate response was, “Well, I would say your confusion and caution are very normal and to be honest, functional. It would not make sense for you to immediately get close to something that has caused you pain repeatedly. You would have to start having different, predictable experiences with the T-Rex to believe that the changes were durable before you could trust it, but please indulge me briefly in an alternative explanation:

“What if the Tyrannosaurus Rex was actually a costume with a zipper, and you unzipped it, revealing a gentle but flawed person who learned that to survive, he needed to wear the costume to keep people at a distance because they weren’t safe. He finally learned new ways of understanding and managing his uncomfortable emotions for the first time without the costume so he doesn’t need to wear it anymore, or at least as often. You realize the T-Rex wasn’t a T-Rex after all, but a scared person with the need for protective garb because he didn’t know how to survive without it until now. What if this is the real person and not the T-Rex?”

“Huh,” she responded, pondering the idea. “So you’re saying that maybe this is really who he has been all along but couldn’t show it and I’m just experiencing the real person for the first time?”

“I’m saying that it’s entirely possible that he has not felt safe enough to approach the world without the costume, but that now with different awareness and skills, he is finally showing his real self because he knows how and is willing to take the risk.”

“Oh. That changes it,” she replied.

Indeed it does.

We all wear masks. We learn early in life that if we don’t edit ourselves, or conform to expected standards, we will be hurt. We protect ourselves with personas to control how we are perceived to gain acceptance with social groups. Most of us have several personas at hand with which to cloak ourselves, depending on the various situations we face.

Most people yearn for connection, and maintain close connections where they feel acceptance. Ideally, we want to be accepted for who we are, unmasked. However, when we get hurt, we quickly shield ourselves from future pain by keeping people at a distance. That distance takes the form of figurative masks. For many of us, donning the mask is so automatic that it’s hard to know where the mask ends and the true self begins. Many people don’t know how to operate without them, or even realize that there’s a difference.

I believe people are fundamentally compassionate, but that trait is compromised when they have been wounded. We get so many messages to meet societal expectations that we don’t even trust bringing our true selves forward. It takes work to gain awareness of this and learn how to be different.

I’m hoping on this strange, fantastic holiday of Halloween with origins in Samhain, where costumes were used to ward off ghosts, that we might consider what “ghosts,” we are protecting ourselves from and consider the impact on our personal relationships. The “ghosts” of romantic relationships gone awry. The “ghosts” of ridicule. The “ghosts” of failure. The “ghosts” of rejection. We all have them.

Speaking of Halloween, removing our masks is one of the scariest things we can do. One of the most compelling “treats” we have to offer is our own compassion to other “masked,” frightened vulnerable humans who can only “unmask” when they have reassurance that they will be acceptable to us unmasked, warts and all. Happy Halloween.

 

 

Couples

What Kindergarten Taught Me About Romantic Love

Little girl kisses friend. 2-3 years. Girl and boy. The conceptI can recall various childhood memories durably with a vivid sense of time and place. One reminiscent collage is that of my “first love.” On my first day of Kindergarten, I set eyes on a strawberry-blonde 5-year-old boy with exceptional hygiene and the impeccable haircut of a tiny executive.

His name had appealing resonance, and while I will assign an alias to protect his privacy, let’s just say it sounded a lot like “Jeffrey Scott Jones.”

Not Jeffrey.

Jeffrey Scott.

ALWAYS…and “Jeff,” “Jeffie,” “JJ,” or “J-man,” were certainly out of the question.

I was smitten.

He ran with the male wolf pack that tangled with my newly acquired girl gang. We had a seemingly primal pattern of annoying the boys to get chased on the playground. I pretended to run away while secretly luring Jeffrey Scott to “catch me,” and take me to the “catching tunnel,” where I had to hang out for the arbitrary time-period before being again released into the Kindergarten wild. It was that simple. We were too young to imagine intimate physical connection—we were just a group of kids running around.

The details are fuzzy, but I can picture his face, and I remember that I wanted to be near him. I confidently displayed my sentiment by kissing him on the cheek which he promptly rubbed off, but in no way deterred my zeal. I liked the boy and I needed him to know it. In this day and age, I would probably have been suspended for sexual harassment. (if you are unfamiliar with the 2013 case of a 6 year-old boy suspended for kissing a girl on the hand, you can click here.)

On the way home from school, I noticed we shared the crosswalk and he lived just a few blocks away. Within a week, I convinced my mother to arrange a play date. When she agreed that Jeffrey Scott could walk home with me in 2 days’ time, I was ecstatic. I energetically planned several shared activities. My neighborhood had a predominance of boys my age, so most of my pre-teen childhood was spent joining the boys’ pick-up games. I felt certain that I could hold my own.

Finally, as the day arrived, I was practically skipping around him in circles as we walked to my house. After my mom gave us a snack, I led him down to our dank storage basement which I adopted as my own personal clubhouse, with child-sized furniture and playtime miscellany.

“OK,” I explained as I jumped up onto the shelves my father had assembled for storage, “We have to climb all the way around without touching the hot lava” (represented by the scraps of worn carpet my parents had thrown down). I demonstrated by deftly dodging assorted beams and oddly-shaped camping detritus, inching awkwardly toward the corner of the room, where I jumped onto an old dresser and tight-roped my way to safety across an obstacle course I had created from the household graveyard.

Just as I was nearing the end, I was still confused about why he was just standing there watching, when he protested, “I don’t think you’re supposed to be doing that.” “What? I do this all the time—now come on, jump up right there or there,” I encouraged (thinking he might engage with more options). “No—I’m telling your mom on you.” He had a way of drawling my mother’s first name, “Virginia,” with a nasally whine, tacking on a few extra syllables, so it sounded particularly irksome. After his blaring disapproval, I wanted to scratch my eardrum with a ballpoint pen.

I puzzled, “What do you think she’s going to do about it?” As my mother’s sixth child, any risk-related maternal anxiety had been spent on my older siblings. My mother never discouraged my acrobatics on the many occasions I had scaled outdoor brick chimneys, fences, trees, scaffolds, or any other objects on which I could practice my balance and leaping skills several feet off the ground. “Oh, be careful, dear, you shouldn’t be up there—you’ll get hurt,” was background noise from various non-parentals in my perpetual tomboy escapades. I heard the warnings and brazenly ignored them because, of course, they had no idea who they were dealing with. I was fall-proof.

“OK,” I thought, “Jeffrey Scott doesn’t like to climb–We’ll do something different.” Here’s where the details really dim. I invited several more activities, all of which contained risk and imagination. With each suggestion, his tattling to “VURR-GIN-EE-AA,” intensified while my attraction to him fizzled. Jeffrey Scott and I were the NOT chemical romance.

It only took an hour alone with him to realize that his personality was as stiff as his neatly-gelled hair. Time to move on.

My mother had little patience for tattle-tales. By the 4th or 5th time he called my mom’s name, she sweetly suggested, with impressive emotional regulation, “I think it might be time for Jeffrey Scott to go home now. Maybe he can come back another time.” I had acquired the social skills to mask my true thoughts to preserve his feelings. However, the minute we dropped him off, I turned to my mom and said, “That boy is a cry-baby tattle-tale. I don’t want him to come over again.” My mom sighed and mumbled, “Yeah, I can see why.”

Jeffrey Scott Jones, bless his tightly wound nerves and cautious little heart, taught me an important lesson about relationships. When we risk offering a part of ourselves to someone, and it is rejected, trust and attraction are compromised.

This is intuitive and the type of assertion that invites “hard science” quantitative researchers to roll their eyes and wonder why social scientists always feel the need to point out the obvious. In part, the reason why is that partner responsiveness is a skill that can be learned and increased with intention. However, people who feel stuck in negative patterns in their marriages and thus powerless to change anything forget the basics and experience doubt that they can actually actively provide the type of trust and safety to improve connection.

John Gottman explains that trust is built over time in small moments. If you want to hear him explain this in his words, click here.

An accumulation of emotional responsiveness to a romantic partner over time secures relationships. If someone expresses positive emotion toward a partner and is rejected, trust diminishes. As trust diminishes, partner contact feels more risky and dangerous. High partner responsivenesss offers predictability and inspires attachment longevity.

In other words, if I believe I matter enough to my partner to get a response predictably, I will experience the attachment safety necessary for risk-taking, playfulness, and exploration, thus perpetuating partner connection.

Gottman calls these opportunities for connection “sliding door moments,” which can eventually lead to dissolution and disconnection if not acknowledged. The good news is that Gottman is referring to observational behaviors; the bad news is that most people fail to respond to partners’ bids because of mindlessness—not intentional rebuffs. However, a failed bid is a failed bid, intentional or not.

That means we really need to up our relationship games.

My observation is that couples who have been married long-term are often monitoring their partners for warmth and acceptance cues before risking engagement. For example, if my husband walks in the door and announces an energetic, “Hi Beautiful,” I experience a very different feeling toward him than if he walks in, says nothing, and answers in monosyllables.

In close relationships, we are so attuned to our partners that we believe we can always read them accurately. However, I have noticed that negative emotion that may be caused by something else, like stress at work, which is not directed toward a spouse, is often experienced as if it is directed at them. It’s like a game of chicken where couples are watching each other to see who will make the first move and match their emotion.

I have written blog posts before about knowing my father would be walking in moments after I heard the garage door. I was very happy when I heard that garage door because I knew my father would walk in and shout energetically, “Is everybody happy?” He was warm and affectionate and safe. I’ve noticed when I walk in the door and take the time to greet my husband with warmth, he is happier and more responsive, probably because I feel more trustworthy to him in those moments. He gets the message that he matters to me.

Warmth is easy to apply if you really want to connect. I actually do believe there is so much power in warmth and acceptance that I would be out of a job if people used it more intentionally.

Warmth is experienced as a felt sense, but in general we code warmth by expressions of positive affect. When I ask people how they know their partners are upset, they almost never refer to verbal content. Instead, they routinely mention things like “tone of voice,” or “facial expressions.” That’s how we lose connection without even realizing it.

Simple ways to practice warmth in interpersonal connections are:

  1. Smile
  2. Signal warmth in your tone of voice
  3. Use more positive physical touch
  4. Compliment your spouse

I understand that these are very basic, but I have been practicing couples therapy on and off since 1989, and I am still shocked by how many couples will live in a constant state of withdrawal, waiting for the other to come close and signal warmth and responsiveness. It’s like two people in a foxhole and one will come out and walk to the middle only if there is certainty that the other is not armed. The result is that they both come out armed, and react similarly to the metaphorical armament with shields of distrust, maintaining distance.

Bringing warmth into a cold relationship is a big risk. When a spouse decides to be warm, it can potentially be rejected. I have never met someone who hasn’t experienced rejection. We know how to do rejection, even if it is unpleasant. I remind people of this often.

If you risk warmth, you are not going to be worse off, but you can potential shift the trajectory of a relationship.

 

 

 

 

Couples, Couples Therapy, marriage, Marriage and Family Therapy

Micro-Cheating and its Insidious Risk to Marriage

Man Walking With His Girlfriend Looking At Another WomanAnyone who has read my blog for any length of time will know that I am continually harping on boundaries as an important construct for marital stability. In the current digital social climate, if there are any natural boundaries at all to prevent infidelity in a marriage, they are so diffuse and easily crossed that their existence is barely recognizable.

Micro-cheating is a relatively new relationship buzzword alluding to small behaviors that both approach and potentiate infidelity.

Common micro-cheating behaviors include contacting exes, sexting, complaining about your marriage to others, secretly maintaining contact with anyone behind your spouse’s back, and any level of flirting; but there are limitless ways to micro-cheat, because it has more to do with both a state of mind and deception than anything else.

In my clinical practice, more couples than ever are arguing about partners’ decisions for interacting with extra-marital acquaintances who feel threatening. In addition to traditional face-to-face flirtatious behaviors, a whole new threat exists in digital flirting, such as email, texting, Facebook messaging, Instagram likes, online games, and any other mechanism for messaging someone in a forum closed to the other spouse. It’s not uncommon for me to be moderating a power struggle between couples arguing about whether or not a spouse’s actions are considered micro-cheating or harmless contact. Some people are fighting for their right to autonomous decision-making, but that path can lead to unintended harmful consequences.

I believe the most dangerous aspect of micro-cheating is that people rarely recognize the very real threat to relationship stability, so they aren’t careful. While I recognize that there are exceptions, I have never heard an affair client state that they went looking for an affair. Instead, I hear things like, “I never planned to be unfaithful,” or “It just happened,” or “I just fell into it,” or “I can’t believe I’m in this situation,” or many other phrases describing a feeling of being helplessly pulled into the nightmarish drama.

The problem with crossing boundaries is that you’re safe until you’re not.

Duh, right? But what I mean by that is that in every situation, two people are exchanging playful and flirtatious messages because it’s intoxicating to get positive affirmation from another person, and they mistakenly believe that they are safe from infidelity. Most people tell themselves, “I’m not the type to have an affair so it won’t happen,” or they underestimate the emotional bonding resulting from repeated contact. Eventually, there is a predictable “tipping point.” Malcolm Gladwell, in his same titled book, describes this as overall effect when an accumulation of minor phenomena reach a critical point to create a major change.

Micro-cheating behaviors can eventually cause a tipping point. In almost every situation, couples shift from playful banter into deeper emotional connection seemingly instantly and surprisingly, when it is actually the predictable result of eventual connection from micro-cheating.

Extra-marital emotional connection has a real-life impact on disrupting marital connection. Two people can have a virtual affair without ever being in the same physical location. The feelings experienced in emotional affairs are real, and commonly starve a marriage. People in emotional affairs usually decrease their attention and effort toward their spouses, and the result is unhappiness and possible marital dissolution.

Remember, while there are a myriad of behaviors that can be labeled as micro-cheating, the concept has more to do with attitudes than behavior. Can you safely like someone’s Instagram post or make a comment and not be flirting? Of course! Can you email, text or otherwise message someone platonically without compromising your marriage? Out of practicality, yes. However, micro-cheating is ultimately the biggest problem when it is hidden or minimized. 

When you have to hide your passwords from your spouse, there’s a bigger risk for micro-cheating. 

When your spouse is feeling threatened by your extra-marital interactions, and you continue those interactions, you are very likely micro-cheating. 

Ultimately, the most effective boundaries in marriage are built by creating safe emotional and physical connection within the marriage. As much as marriage experts affirm that this takes effort, I am continually surprised by the general apathy many people have toward their spouses. Without effort and energy, marriages drift. Distance leaves marriages more vulnerable to infidelity.

I loved “falling in love,” as much as the next person. The heightened motivational state, fueled by novelty and the “love cocktail,” of brain chemicals is euphoric. However, I have difficulty with the word “falling,” because it implies an absence of power to influence our own feelings of being in love.

When people report “falling out of love,” I respect their experiences and don’t dispute their perceptions. However, I also know that staying in love is an active endeavor. I always wanted a good marriage. I have also consistently focused on my spouse by promoting time together and adjusting my own desires and needs to fit his desires and needs. I admit that I have a spouse who is easy to love, and I’ve seen many individuals I cannot imagine spending a life with, but I am also committed to “staying in love,” which requires focus, practice, repetition, conflict resolution, forgiveness, repair,  and commitment. I’m going to love my spouse because I said I would. As long as he is respectful and loving in return, “falling out of love,” is not an option.

Ultimately, if you don’t want to “fall out of love,” with your partner, evaluating and curbing your own micro-cheating is a good place to start.

 

Reference: The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference by Malcolm Gladwell (2000), Little, Brown.

Couples, Couples Therapy, Love, marriage, Marriage and Family Therapy

Them’s Fighting Words: Marital Disarmament as a Noble New Year’s Resolution

Man and girl against a bright yellow wall. Stylish young couple standing back to back on holding hands in the form of arms

My husband and I were sitting in bed at the end of the day a few months ago when my teenage son walked in and asked out of nowhere, “Mom, I have a question. What weapons do you have that you think you use against dad?” My clarifying, “You mean besides my mouth?” was overshadowed by my husband’s simultaneous, “She has a lot of them,” delivered with the unabated zeal of a child high on the expectation of reciting his Christmas list to Santa.

I furrowed my eyebrows at him, “Whoa-a! It sounds like your father has something to say. Is this about my recent Hamilton obsession? Because I haven’t blasted it at 7 a.m. for weeks now, and I already forgave you for not fully appreciating the genius that is Lin-Manuel Miranda.”

“Well,” he replied, “I’m always telling you that you should have been an attorney. Enough said.” I looked back at my son, “I was right—my mouth.”

I must admit that I experienced a slight “ouch” to hear my husband’s enthusiastic reply, like he had been preparing for the 31 years of our marriage just to be asked that particular question. It was still bothering me the next day. I approached with, “I’m a little disturbed at the rapidity with which you answered that question. Do you think I try to hurt you?”

He laughed and tried to soften the initial blow, “Honey, no–I heard the question and answered. I didn’t say you hurt me all the time, I just said you know how to do it—you know you can hurt me more than anyone because basically you’re the person I care the most about–so where do you want to go to dinner?” (predictably attempting to maneuver me toward a less controversial topic)

I retreated into my head, where I live much of my life, recollecting the times I had hurt him, self-flagellating with a hefty dose of shame and regret, and reaffirming my commitment to work harder to increase my positives-to-negatives ratio in our communication.

The fact is, a bonded romantic relationship can precipitate the most emotional safety but also the most pain. We rarely set out to hurt our partners, except in instances in which we strike back to show how we are hurting. It is very hard to be reminded about pain we have caused to the people we love the most. I believe it’s at least in part because we know we aren’t at our best when we hurt people, whether it is intentional or not. In return, our partners tend to know our vulnerabilities and can hurt us the most.

There are infinite ways to cause harm to a spouse. ANYTHING, and I do mean ANYTHING can be weaponized. Even a shield can appear as weaponry to a spouse. Here are some common weapons partners use:

  1. Language—name-calling, labeling, and using aggressive and absolutist terms (“always,” or “never,” anyone?) are nearly ubiquitous.

 

  1. Withdrawing and withholding—anything can be withheld. Compliments, gratitude, sex, and basically any physical and/or emotional contact. It sends the message that, “You are so bad that I cannot even deal with you and you don’t deserve my positive acknowledgment. When you are behaving properly, perhaps then I will grant you the gift of my presence.” Withholding also tends to serve as justification for some twisted moral high ground—people who use these methods can sometimes feel more virtuous because they see their partners as the aggressors stooping to morally compromised behaviors. However, refusing to engage can be just as cold and punishing and cruel as the presence of aggressive behaviors.

 

  1. Bringing up the past to reinforce that your spouse is flawed and unchanging—this is tricky, because if a couple doesn’t have a good way to heal past injuries, the past will come up. Partners are often afraid they will get hurt again. Potential triggers for past pain are everywhere. However, the way the pain is communicated can either draw a partner in for potential connection and soothing, or push them out further. Bringing up the past is necessary to build safety, but most people use it as a way to shield themselves from injury and to justify staying disconnected rather than using it as a bridge toward future connection.

 

  1. Using other people to strengthen your case against your partner—For example, “Even your children think you are a robot, just ask them,” or “You are exactly like your mother.” This never helps, even if it’s true. The verity of the assertion is irrelevant. Anything between you and your partner must stay that way. Unless, of course you would like to hear about all the people that agree with your partner about how awful you are.

 

  1. Using non-verbals to express disapproval—Tone and facial expressions are common ways to communicate our disapproval to our partners, and they can be cleverly disguised as “Your skewed misperception.” See: passive-aggressiveness.

This is not an exhaustive list. People will even use marital therapy as a weapon. Common uses are, “You didn’t even do the homework or read the book the therapist recommended,” which is critical and blaming. I have not once seen a client respond to any version of this with an assenting, “Oh, I see the light now! You’re right! I didn’t realize it before, but now that you showed me the error of my ways, I will be 100% engaged. Thank you for pointing that out!” Instead, I can predict with a high degree of accuracy that a statement like that will elicit a highly defensive and counter-blaming response.

Sometimes I will have clients ask me to give them specific “communication skills,” in a desperate attempt to quickly repair the marriage. Unfortunately, this was really all the field of marital therapy had to offer back in the 80’s, and it was usually only useful in cases of newlyweds without a history of challenges, or vapid couples, where neither escalates (which is somewhat rare). When it is useful, it’s often only in the short-term or in instances in which the emotions are low. I absolutely know how to “teach communication skills,” and have various methods to do so, yet rarely recommend an explicit didactic approach for “skills” or “love languages,” except in low-distress marriages. Why? Because the “skill,” will either be tossed to the wayside in extremely emotional conversations, or weaponized to injure a spouse. Examples of this are parroting one of the skills sarcastically or criticizing a partner’s employment of the “skill,” as in, “You’re not doing that the way the therapist taught us.”

So why do we use weapons against each other and what can we do instead?

Some of the common reasons we hurt our partners are:

  1. We don’t realize we are doing it. We can’t experience the world exactly like our partners. We can unintentionally trigger pain by scraping up against vulnerabilities that are rawer than we realize. To make matters worse, when it happens, we tend to become defensive instead of validating the pain we caused, in an effort for our own intentions to be validated. However, this will escalate further argument or disconnection. If your partner approaches you by bringing up something that hurt them, a soothing response is to acknowledge the pain and try to understand it better and plan for the future. For example, “Oh, I hadn’t realized that was painful—It’s hard for me to hear that I hurt you—help me understand it better so it doesn’t keep happening,” is always more useful than, “Well, you are in charge of your own feelings—It’s not my fault if you choose to have your feelings hurt by me. Besides, you are always hurting my feelings—should I tell you all the ways you hurt my feelings?” Trust me, I have heard all the arguments for why a spouse should be able to give the second response, and my answer is that if your intent is to make the marriage worse so you can disconnect, then by all means, stick to that answer.

 

  1. To protect ourselves. The things we do to protect ourselves look like weapons of war to a partner. This is a predictable paradox. For example, withdrawing and refusing to communicate by either leaving or refusing to respond are protective for someone who is experiencing distress from a partner’s emotional behaviors, but that type of wall looks like aggressive shut-out to a partner. Conversely, getting louder or more repetitive as a desperate response to make an impact on a partner looks aggressively weaponized. If you believe your partner doesn’t care about your feelings, anything you do to manage your own difficult emotions can look weaponized. Instead, try having a discussion with your partner about what methods you use to manage your own distress in the marriage and whether it may look like a weapon from the outside. Then vice versa.

 

  1. Sometimes we use weapons to communicate how much pain we are in. Criticism, blame, name-calling, and aggressive language are all ways of saying, “I am in pain in this marriage and I don’t have a good way to tell you so that you will really hear me.” Most partners get into a tug-of-war about whose pain is bigger. Regardless of justification, this never works. Instead, externalize BOTH partners’ pain by writing it down and acknowledge the pain as “couple pain,” generated and experienced over time together. The goal is to understand how to NOT continue to cause pain for EITHER partner.

 

  1. To communicate that this feels like a “life or death” situation in a hurry. In short, we use weapons when we feel threatened. The loss of love and acceptance and connection in a bonded romantic relationship feels threatening to most individuals. The type of reactivity induced in couple arguments is such an automatic response to threat, that speed can be one of the biggest barriers to connection. Sometimes to try to help people slow down, I will ask them to not say anything in response to a partner’s triggering words, but to just notice inside how they are experiencing it, in their thoughts and in their physiological responses (heart rate, breathing, etc.). Then, once they have noticed, they can slow down and choose responses differently. People can improve by noticing their reactivity and regulating their emotions in order to engage at a slowed-down pace, which is more helpful for connection.

Unify together to make the stressors the enemy instead of allowing the stressors to make your partner the enemy

Once, I had a couple begin an argument about money, which is one of the most common areas of couple conflict. I said, “It would be great if you could be a team fighting the enemy of economic scarcity together, rather than fighting each other over your individual fears related to money.”  I explained that to ever feel like a team, I believed they needed a way to write down and acknowledge that they both had fears about money for different reasons. I believed they would feel more united when they could BOTH care take each other’s fears. There is also a need for ongoing evaluation to make sure both partners are still validated and working together. This environment also increases safety, which helps people become more flexible when working with their partners.

Shifting the paradigm from preservation of “myself” to preservation of “us,” can be a helpful way to think about it. Ultimately, marriages in which it’s “Us against the enemy,” have more potential for staying connected while solving problems. The “enemy” can be the economy, extramarital temptation, past affairs, the exhausting and crazy-making state of parenting, or any other content area. If partners villainize each other, they will sit in a homeostasis of monitoring each other for potential threat while keeping their weapons drawn, which will maintain the ongoing threat.

Exchanging weapons for compassion

Ultimately, I’ve observed that people are their strongest when they are compassionate, and compassion is a no-lose application. Compassion doesn’t mean staying in an abusive situation, but in a non-abusive environment, compassion is the balm that soothes and fosters healing required for safe emotional bonding.

Trading in weapons of war for joint compassion can be a helpful way to begin 2019. Think about it.

Couples, Holidays

Couples Christmas Gift Idea: Bonding Bees Boosts Bonding

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I really should have reviewed this box months ago, because Bonding Bees offers a consistently high quality product for couples who want to prioritize date night without the headache of generating new ideas. I have ordered several date boxes, and Bonding Bees has not disappointed me yet.

Their boxes arrive regularly, depending on what plan you choose, and are theme-based. Each box offers a different surprise, but are a combination of games, activities, snacks, recipes, and relationship building activities designed to generate positive feelings and create memories.

There are a variety of products and options on their website, with photos of past boxes. I’m receiving no remuneration for promoting this product. As a marriage therapist, I just like it. If you’re looking for a unique gift for a partner, I recommend Bonding Bees date boxes as a potential option.

 

Couples

When the Man of Your Dreams Isn’t the Man in Your Dreams or Other Marital Nightmares from the Past

25941441 - conceptual image of young couple hugging each other and dreamingLong, long ago, when one was required to use a phone limited by the length of a cord attached to the wall, one of my roommates called out to me, “Lori, your dream man is on the phone.” Had I heard correctly? I was confused because my boyfriend was across the country and not able to call me. “Who?” I squinted at her. She sassed, “Your dream man—the ONE guy you said was cute the other night when we were talking about all the guys we met at the opening social. I’m sure this is him!” My roommate was teasing me because she knew I had no interest in meeting new guys.

A few days previous, I was sitting listening to my roommates holding a powwow about who were the cutest and most dateable guys they had noticed at a social event. I was not an active participant, but after several minutes of discussion, one of my roommates turned to me, “What about you? Who would you want to date?” I hesitantly said, “Well, I don’t want to date anyone, but there was only one person I met that I thought was cute—it was this tall blonde guy named Steve, I think.” “Oh yeah, he was cute,” my roommates chimed in, and one pointed to a door about 20 yards beyond our kitchen window, “I think he lives right there with a bunch of other cute boys.” “OK, well, it doesn’t matter because I have a boyfriend,” I said, and left it at that.

The “boy named Steve” was the one on the phone asking me on a date, and I went, seeing casual dating as a more viable option than staying home every weekend. The “dream man” moniker became a bigger joke to my roommates when, after a few dates, he was convinced he wanted to marry me, sending me into active avoidance.

My roommates shortened “Dream Man,” to “D.M.,” and went into hysterics after finding out another girl in the apartment complex made a list of “Dream Men,” of our apartment complex and my husband was on the list.  After that, every time he made efforts to go out, I equivocated between rejecting him and agreeing to go as friends, because he was one of the nicest guys I knew, and I didn’t envision it going anywhere romantically, but my roommates seemed to enjoy watching my distress when “D.M.” stopped by or called me.

Six months later, when I finally allowed myself to feel any feelings for him, I attached to him quickly; now I tell him that he was, indeed, my “Dream Man,” which is usually met with his skeptical, “Yeah, whatever—took you long enough to decide that.”

Despite his skepticism, I do consider him the man of my dreams. I have been fortunate that his behaviors and attitudes have been consistent with my predictions and daydreams about the future family I had imagined. I admired him as a person and had the sense that he would always love me, even when I was less than lovable, and he so far has exceeded my expectations.

When Dreams Clash With Reality, People Question Their Choices

The term “dream man,” denotes an ideal which precisely no one meets unequivocally in real life. All of us at some point are required to practice “radical acceptance,” when we don’t get everything we want in a close long-term relationship. There is always negotiation. Sometimes when people are feeling loss about unmet expectations, they question their marital decisions and compare currently flawed partners to “dream partners,” which existed in the past or can even be in the present in relationship fragments, as with affairs.

Dreaming (night or day) about an ex is not a confirmation that you made a bad choice in marriage

It’s not uncommon to have dreams about exes, and not particularly damaging to a relationship if they are viewed as is: dreams, plain and simple. The damage comes when people create meaning out of this phenomenon. I remember attending a training by Scott Stanley, a highly regarded marital researcher. He pointed out that we are built to be attracted to many people. He noted that it’s not uncommon to see others we find attractive, or to miss parts of past relationships, but people in committed relationships who want to protect the union and keep it healthy will engage in self-talk to remind themselves of the virtues of their current partners.

This might seem obvious, but it’s not uncommon for me to see clients who are distressed by unwanted dreams or thoughts about previous relationships. They can feel disloyal and bad for grieving glimpses of old flings. It’s important to understand that what we are missing in these situations are usually the feelings we had at the time associated with the individual, rather than the individual, and they are different. For example, I might remember a past relationship with fondness and feel a little sad about the loss, when I’m really missing the carefree feelings and attitudes associated with that stage of life. We also idealize past relationships. There is no way to view a past relationship entirely accurately.

In a recent episode of the popular Poldark series, Ross Poldark’s wife had a brief fling with a young man who passed away, which seemed to some like a possible “revenge affair,” for her husband’s infidelity. Most familiar with the story line know about the ongoing tension between Ross and his old girlfriend, who became engaged while he was in America fighting for the British and was presumed dead. After he returned to England just in time to see her marry someone else, they both experienced powerful feelings of loss which eventually led to a one-night extramarital sexual encounter and of course, a pregnancy, forever connecting the star-crossed lovers and ensuring plenty of ensuing drama.

Ross questioned his wife about her ability to rejuvenate her feelings for him after her fling died off and stated accurately, “I cannot compete with a ghost,” to which she replied, “No more than I could compete with an ideal,” referring to the fact that his image of his old girlfriend was fashioned from his best memories of her, and was several deviations shy of reality. That’s why it’s dangerous to attribute too much meaning to memories.

Dreams are Dreams are Dreams

We all have inexplicable dreams from time to time. I worry when people try to make sense out of their dreams without supporting evidence. Sometimes dreams can elicit all kinds of emotion, and we are meaning-making creatures and want to generate understanding, but dreams can have multiple meanings for multiple reasons and are often unpredictable.

One morning I woke up from a rare but disturbing dream in which my husband had been unfaithful to me. It was an awful feeling, and when I awoke, I looked over at him asleep and still felt contaminated by the residual negative emotions. I nudged him awake and explained, “I just had a dream that you had an affair and you were a really big jerk, and I don’t have good feelings at all toward you right now. It feels real.” He mumbled, “Honey, it was a dream. Go back to sleep.” It colored my feelings toward him throughout the day, even though it was just construct of my imagination. It had nothing to do with reality. I still can’t tell you why I had that dream, because fidelity is important to him in all aspects of life.

With similar randomness, my husband began his day recently by sharing the dream he had about me in which I was “naked in the backyard helping barbecue when (a certain ecclesiastical leader neighbor) walked back there.” “Hmm….so I’m guessing your own ecclesiastical persona is conflicting with your worldly desires?”

I knew, however, it was just a weird, random dream.

On the way out the door that morning, he turned to me and said, “Oh yeah, I forgot one thing from the dream. You were also covered in bacon grease.” “You forgot? That seems like a pretty important detail to land on the periphery,” I joked. “Also, that’s just….ewwww!!!! I hope that’s not one of your weird fantasies, because that’s not happening. Also it’s unsanitary.”

He laughed and added, “Well, you are my dream girl.”

There you have it: Dream partners—with a huge side of reality. Heaven.

Couples, Love, marriage

Emotional Attunement and the Final Frontier

I Love You To The Moon And Back - Vector love inspirational quot

I’ve written before about the “Nail in the Forehead,” video. I acknowledge that it is a humorous depiction of the way genders stereotypically interact around emotional distress, but the clip is reductive and overly simplistic, and misses a crucial element in real couple interactions. That element is emotional attunement.

In the clip, the male partner is uncomfortable when his female partner expresses emotional distress—his own distress about her emotion is what drives him to want to make her emotion go away so he can feel comfortable again. He is having unacknowledged emotional reactivity to her emotion (Hopelessness? Fear? Anxiety?) and makes an anemic show of support toward her. However, the male seems more placating than attuned. In other words, he mumbles an inane statement using words that sound validating, but with non-verbal gestures that can be construed as invalidating. What he is really saying is, “You’re ridiculous, but maybe this will shut you up.”

Genuine emotional attunement is a desire and effort to experience another person’s inner world. It’s not using words to make them go away—it’s an attempt to understand someone’s experience enough to elicit authentic empathy.

Men are often socialized to disown any vulnerable emotion, such as fear, insecurity, hurt or sadness. They learn to disconnect quickly from these emotions, which can be channeled into anger, sexuality, or numbness. In part, this is why it can feel unnatural to walk into a partner’s emotional experience. If you have learned not to feel your own emotions, why in the world would you want to feel anyone else’s?

I was amazed at how well genuine attunement worked in my own marriage a few months ago. My husband can be very stereotypically male in his response to emotional expression. I learned early to lower my expectations for his emotional response, but as he has listened to my presentations about marriage over the years, he has learned the difference between placating responses and attunement, and he surprises me with his sincere support when I least expect it.

A few months ago, I took my youngest son and daughter to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida while my husband was attending a conference. I knew my youngest son in particular would enjoy the visit, and I was excited to experience it with him. However, I had not anticipated that visiting the complex would trigger me into a state of melancholy that persisted throughout the day.

I grew up in a city with a historical link to space exploration. Rockwell International  contracted with NASA to manufacture spacecraft for the Apollo missions and subsequent explorations, including the reusable shuttles. The site is now home to the Columbia Memorial Space Center.

Visiting a NASA site elicited a flood of memories related to working for my father. He owned a chemical manufacturing corporation which provided key materials used in the aerospace, defense and aircraft manufacturing industries. The summer after I turned 14, he insisted that I work at his company full-time during the summer instead of going to the beach with my friends. He was convinced that he was teaching me the value of work and saving me from being homeless and alone.

As I wandered around NASA, I recognized most of the company names from working with my father. I recalled organizing files several inches thick with invoices for Boeing, Honeywell, Lockheed Martin, Northrop, the U.S. government, and my city’s own Rockwell. My focused exposure to the recollection of the aerospace glory days flooded me with a feeling of loss and longing for my father. Throughout the day, I found myself getting choked up and teary as a reaction to various memories emerging in my head. Mostly, I recalled our rides to work together, where he would give me pep talks and tell me I had an “excellent mind,” and that I should smile more because, “You are so beautiful when you smile.” Even though I would discount his attempts with, “You have to say that–you’re my father,” I always appreciated his efforts to build my confidence. He was my biggest cheerleader and I missed him terribly. He and my mother were two of the few people I could really count on to care about me, and nothing was quite the same after they both died. I longed for their presence again.

When I got back to our hotel and my husband asked me about my day, I candidly replied, “I felt so sad all day.” I explained how the visit had triggered memories of working with my father, which highlighted his loss in my life.

My husband didn’t try to tell me why I shouldn’t feel sad, or why I should just be glad I had good memories. His reply was genuine and attuned. He responded with, “It’s ok to be sad, honey. I can see why that would make you sad. I miss your dad too. You can be sad.”

Suddenly, his telling me he understood why I would be sad and that I could be sad alleviated my sadness. In essence, he communicated that even though I experienced a deep loss, I wasn’t alone, and he was with me.

His words couldn’t have been more simple, and yet, it wasn’t really about the words. It was his authentic validation. He confirmed that sometimes in life, pain happens, and nothing can fix it, and that it was really ok if I felt less than chipper in the moment, even if it could potentially impact him. He normalized my feelings and signaled that he wouldn’t leave me alone, even in times of distress.

It’s not rocket science.

 

Photo credit: https://www.123rf.com/profile_21kompot