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.

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Couples, Holidays

Couples Christmas Gift Idea: Bonding Bees Boosts Bonding

IMG_0894-1

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 a 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 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

 

 

 

 

Couples, marriage, Marriage and Family Therapy

A Typical Marriage Fail Moment and How I Fixed it

marriage fail

Several years ago, I was late for a conference forty miles away in the next county north, and amped up my aggressive driving skills to attempt to arrive faster (admittedly a bad idea—do NOT do this at home). As I was approaching the boundary to the next county, weaving in and out of traffic, my cell phone rang (before cell phone use in cars was illegal in my state). I gave an exasperated “Hello,” just as one of my neighbors greeted, “Where do you think you’re going, driving like a maniac? You’re not getting there any faster than the rest of us.” “I’m late,” I acknowledged, laughing, because I was surprised I was literally being ‘called out,’ “And by the way, you’re increasing my anxiety and throwing me off, so thanks for making me later.” His reply was one I had heard a hundred times, “Physician, heal thyself.” “Well, good thing I’m not a physician then, isn’t it?” I sassed back, which elicited an argument based on the word’s etymology in which my neighbor insisted that I was, indeed, in the broad “physician,” category.

I know of no group of people associated with higher societal expectations for mood and behavior than mental health professionals. I’ve never heard someone say, “He has cancer—he must be a terrible doctor!” or “Don’t go to that doctor—I heard him coughing the other day,” but I have heard many people evaluate therapists based on the presence of any mental health or relationship challenges. Oh, that the world was that simple! Quite frankly, I would have no trust in a therapist who had not somehow faced emotional or relationship challenges, because we call those people…robots? Stepford therapists? Inhuman?

Being a therapist has certainly given me a variety of options for dealing with various facets of being human, and has probably increased my adaptability, decreased my reactivity, and alleviated various struggles, but it has in no way turned me into a perfect person (whatever that means). I have emotions just like everyone else, an individual history with various potential triggers, and varying propensities, some of which aren’t always potentiating ideal mental and emotional states (shocking, I know —sorry to burst anyone’s bubble). As a result, I will continue to have plenty of opportunities to try out my suggested interventions on myself.

This is a tale of one of those moments, and how even though my reactivity got the best of me, I was able to take a step back and reverse the situation. I’m in no way attempting to glorify myself, nor suggesting I get it right all, or even most of the time—I’m choosing to share this because it’s such a typical example of how quickly couples get stuck and stay stuck if something doesn’t change. I’m hoping other couples can see themselves in the situation.

Last year, my husband and I took a trip to Europe with another couple. I thought things were going better than expected. We all got along well and seemed to be having a great time. After a long day touring, my husband and I were alone in our room and he seemed to be irritated at me, answering in terse monosyllables, which is somewhat unusual for him. “What’s wrong with you?” I asked. With little prodding, he proceeded to explain that I didn’t seem to want to be with him at all, and that I was more interested in hanging out with my friend than with him, and I kept leaving him behind to talk to my friend and her husband. I think he said something like, “Maybe you should have just gone on a trip with them and left me home.”

I was completely thrown off. I never in a million years could have guessed that he would have perceived that, because it was so untrue. I don’t know that I’ve ever been so confused in a marital interaction. My husband has never been the jealous type. His unexpected accusation felt unfair and the anger behind his words really stung.

So, what do you think I did? Did I apologize and try to understand his feelings better?

Nope.

I immediately got defensive. I matched his tone and raised it a notch. “What are you even talking about?” I demanded. “You’re insane! I didn’t leave you behind at all! We were together all day! What more do you want from me?” and blah blah blah. Basically, I was trying to defend my position and explain to him why he was incorrect in his interpretation of the day.

And then, he admitted that he saw it all wrong and I was correct after all, right?

Nope.

He continued citing examples to support his viewpoint until I basically muttered something mature like, “Whatever, think what you want,” and rolled over to go to bed, stewing inside, certain that I needed to find the words to help him see that he was wrong. Note that this was me disconnecting and basically sending the message to “deal with it by yourself,” which is the polar opposite of what you would want to do for a healthier interaction.

I was feeling very upset. I wanted to remind him of all the efforts I have made in our marriage to show him that my marriage is important to me. I felt slighted. Didn’t he realize how good he had it? I wanted credit for everything I had done to be a good wife, and it felt like he was wiping it out in a day. How dare he misunderstand me so completely! It felt devastating. I silently fumed. I was the victim here–he was ruining my perfect vacation!

Eventually, I tried to slow my emotions down and actually do what I would want my clients to do. Even though I thought he was completely off-base, and his anger was not a vulnerable display that increased my empathy, I was able to see that under the anger, he was extremely hurt about something. I recalled the day in my memory, trying to identify moments in which he may have felt left behind or unimportant. I realized that because I don’t like to make people wait for me, it was true that I stayed up with my friend and her husband and walked away from him. However, it was because I didn’t want to be a naggy wife, telling him to “come on,” if he wanted to linger. As I thought about it, I became more upset that he was assuming this was evidence that I didn’t want to be with him. I felt powerless to influence his opinion. How was I going to make him understand that he was wrong? We were back to that.

By the next morning, I was still feeling hurt, but I was determined to try to reconnect before we started the day again. He was still giving me the cold shoulder. I had not validated his feelings, so that was no surprise. Finally, I reached out to touch his arm and made eye contact. I explained that it was hard for me to hear his interpretation of the day because I saw it so differently. I said, “I don’t know that it will make a difference to you, but here’s what I think was happening,” and proceeded to recall that I didn’t want to be a nag but wanted to keep up with the group, etc.

I knew that wasn’t the real issue though—I still needed to understand how he could feel insecure about something that seemed so small to me, so I continued. I remember saying, “The bottom line is that it doesn’t matter if I saw it differently, because ultimately, I don’t want my husband to wonder if I love him or not. I’m sad that you would even think I prefer my friends to you. I’m always trying to reinforce the message that I love you, so if you can experience doubt so quickly, it worries me that I’m not building the kind of security I want you to have.” Then, I asked him to help me understand if my behaviors throughout the day seemed rejecting. I was more aware of my actions and the impact I was having on him for the rest of the trip, which generated increased emotional attunement and reciprocity on his part.

Some people might think my response was “rewarding bad behavior,” but it was a response to relational distress, and attuned responsiveness is actually more likely to reduce future triggers than to exacerbate them. Ignoring, diminishing or invalidating them will certainly increase their frequency, however. People get this wrong all the time–but hey–it keeps me in business, so keep invalidating your spouses, y’all!

Basically, I shifted from trying to convince him why he was wrong to expressing confusion about seeing it so differently and trying to understand more about his experiences, because the bottom line is that I want my husband to know I care about his feelings.

Most couples automatically do what I did first—try to convince their partners why they saw it incorrectly, why they are just too sensitive, why they need to change their perceptions, etc. That can keep a couple spiraling in one form or other for years.

Instead of arguing about who’s right, try this:

  1. Acknowledge that your partner may have a completely different experience with the same event than you had. It’s really okay.
  2. Orient yourself to what you really care about—do you care more about getting your point across or about bridging understanding to be able to move forward differently?
  3. If a partner seems accusatory because he/she was hurt, try to see it as an opportunity to bond differently instead of nursing your own pain.

This isn’t gender specific. In this case, my husband happened to be the one expressing pain. Notice that he expressed anger rather than hurt, which was really at the core of the event. That’s true for most people. That’s hard, because anger is a distancing emotion. It doesn’t elicit empathy. It naturally elicits defensiveness or withdrawal. Many individuals struggle expressing hurt, so it’s usually helpful to know that if anger is expressed, something painful in general is happening. Asking more about what is painful can be helpful.

As we really are all, in one way or another, physicians, it boils down to “show me where it hurts,” and trying to help soothe emotional pain instead of arguing about it.

Again, I’m not using this as an example of my awesomeness in marriage—I got it completely wrong at first, but I was able to come back in differently by focusing on the fact that I didn’t want my spouse to hurt, but to feel supported. Things can shift quickly when partners can accept a partner’s different experience and try to understand it better. Try it.

In the meantime, I’ll be making many more mistakes to create new opportunities for change.

Photo: Copyright: <a href=’https://www.123rf.com/profile_rafaelbenari’>rafaelbenari / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

Couples, Humor, Love, marriage, Romance

What’s That Smell? The Magnifi-Scent Marriage

couple sniffingLast year while my husband and I were vacationing with another couple, I had one of those vicarious déjà vu moments. My friend, her husband and I were waiting for an elevator, and as it opened, I smelled something sulfurous, reminiscent of a diesel engine. Although it smelled vaguely of machinery to me, as the elevator doors closed, my friend looked at her husband and accused, “Something doesn’t smell good. Is that you?” I laughed out loud, because while I thought the smell was emitted from something on our ship, I could imagine saying the same thing to my husband.

Smells matter, especially for women. One study revealed that women ranked pleasant body odor in a mate as more important than even physical attraction. The research is mixed–it’s unclear whether we are drawn subconsciously to people with appealing pheromones or with excellent taste in chemicals that mask unappealing body odor. Regardless, it is obvious that we are drawn to those who smell good to us.

The importance of deodorant/anti-perspirant* became a theme of my recent family vacation. While standing in an amusement park line in Florida with my face melting off, my 16-year-old son casually announced that he forgot to put on deodorant that morning. “Really? You wait until we are visiting a park with the temperature of Hades to forget deodorant? Okay, you are hereby sentenced to walk at least ten paces behind me for the rest of the day,” I warned. “I am not kidding. You know about my highly-developed sense of smell.” I am lacking in many areas, but my husband has been known to call me “the nose,” because I can smell noxious odors that no one else seems to notice.

Later that evening, after my husband announced that he was almost completely out of deodorant, I went to the store to stock up, in an act of self-preservation. A visit that should have taken 5 minutes took 25, because I was captivated by the array of options.

“Hmm,” I thought to myself, spinning out in consumer overload, “Do I want to feel like I’m married to a Greek god or Michael Jordan? Someone with OCD/clinical cleanliness perhaps? Robocop? Paul Bunyan? Popeye? A ruthless dictator? A CEO with a lot of cash? Or the ever-entertaining Bozo the Clown?” The siren call of options sparkled with an implicit guarantee of life change. “Something big is going to happen as soon as he puts on this deodorant, I just know it,” I mused.

Old Spice has a clear market lead in choices with creative and amusing titles. How was I expected to decide between Steel Courage and Stronger Swagger? “Let’s see— will Steel Courage increase my husband’s tensile strength? Must my husband already possess swagger to add more? If not, is there a remedial option for beginning swaggerers? Oh—there—the unembellished Swagger—‘the scent of confidence, which happens to smell like lime and cedarwood.’  What? I’m 51 and I’m just barely finding out that the scent of confidence smells like lime and cedarwood?” Then, I gazed upon Ambassador and thought, “Nope. I can’t take that much ego. He’ll expect me to call him ‘Mr. Ambassador,’ while bringing him his slippers.”

And that is just the opener for the mental gymnastics I faced in the deodorant aisle.

Old Spice’s website contains intriguing if hyperbolic promises for using their products. For example, High Endurance Original Scent seems simple enough, but when “spiced up,” with the tagline, “boosts your man-smell and prepares you for success,” I had to wonder, “Are those presumptively related? Can it determine which ‘man-smell,’ needs enhancing? My husband has several ‘man-smells,’ some of which certainly don’t need boosting.”

Curiously, Citron is the scent that “traps your armpits in a whirlwind of zesty lime, leafy greans (and yes, it’s spelled that way on the website), and woman advances.” I definitely DON’T want my husband’s armpits “trapped in a whirlwind of woman advances,” so that choice was clearly out of the question. I was similarly wary of Nomad, because I did not want my husband wandering off unexpectedly in a paroxysm of adventure.

Then I encountered what appeared to be the “Geek Power” options—with labels appealing to video gamers as well as the motley crew of dungeons and dragons alumni.

Hawkridge is hawked with assurances to “outwit unsuspecting stink with its sandalwood and vanilla scent.” When did deodorant become the major player in a fantasy saga?

Bolder Bearglove left me scratching my head, but since it implies something I wouldn’t want to encounter alone in a forest, it must be powerful. The detailed specificity of Wolfthorn’s tagline was…odd…even for the gaming and DD crowd: “Wolfthorn is the sort of sophisticated wolf who wears a suit that has a suave, sweet orange scent.” Oh, come on! A wolf who wears a suit? They totally threw that in to see if anyone is paying attention.

And then I encountered the Elephant Man of deodorants. Krakengard. Really? For the partner who wants to feel bonded to a multi-tentacled cephalopod from the deep? It gets even weirder when you read the ubiquitous tagline on their website, “So easy to use you might accidentally put it on and only later realize your man-nificence.” Does that happen before or after the high-pitched shrieking one can expect when encountering a ginormous phlegm wad with legs?

Fiji, Denali and Timber Fresher seemed dull by comparison. How can I get excited about a soothing island adventure now that I’ve been offered the appeal of the Kraken? My consumer expectations suddenly exceeded the previously alluring possibility of olfactory transport to relaxing natural landscapes.

I’m certain that Old Spice has market research confirming that the more varieties they offer, the more deodorant people buy. They increased my purchase by 500% with their consumer complexity. I finally settled on Lasting Legend for obvious reasons. I also threw in the elegantly simple Extra Fresh, a few with “Sport” in the title and Desperado—which claims to emit a scent that is “unapologetically risky,” for my husband’s alter ego, or in case I wanted to feel like I was married to Butch Cassidy.  I topped off the lot with Captainthe scent of command, for the sheer amusement of being able to answer my husband with, “Aye aye, Captain!” throughout the day, and randomly asking my son, within my husband’s earshot, “What do I smell? Is that the scent of command?”

“I am armed and ready,” I thought, “in this humid weather, Old Spice better deliver on its declaration to ‘overpower stink with good-smellingness.'” As a mother of five boys, I believe I have earned the right to be some kind of anti-perspirant goodwill ambassador. That’s “Mrs. Ambassador,” in case you were wondering.

I returned to the hotel and announced, “OK son, I just bought a deodorant for each of your father’s personalities. Pick one and apply liberally. Take a lesson from your father—he uses at least half a stick in one sitting.” It’s true. Some people brush their teeth for the length of a song—that’s how long it takes my husband to apply deodorant. He does always smell delicious though, so who am I to question his methods? I’m occasionally concerned that he has a repressed traumatic adolescent experience with B.O.—but don’t tell him I said so.

I couldn’t help but think about the possibilities of marketing a line of deodorant describing characteristics for the type of men women want to attach themselves to long-term…not an easy task considering the risk of compromising the delicate male ego’s investment in hardcore masculinity.

Here is my “Monogamous Line” for starters:

  1. Ferocious Fidelity—the scent of strength—and of not incurring a bludgeoning at the hands of your spouse
  2. Dad Bod—for the husband who has earned those love handles because he is playing with kids on the playground instead of visiting the gym
  3. Chore Warrior—the female aphrodisiac
  4. G-LORI-OUS—my own eponymous scent eliciting a chorus of angels and a feeling of ecstasy
  5. Jedi Mind Trick—Why YES, I DO remember that time when….thank you for reminding me again
  6. A-GREE Force—maximizing the physics of YES, DEAR
  7. Zestosterone—Be in the mood when she’s in the mood—to watch that romcom
  8. Diaper Slayer—take that, Evilpoopers!
  9. Egalitarian Edge—When a dual ego is greater than the sum of the parts
  10. Pied Piper—for the husband who isn’t afraid to be a dad
  11. Mind Reader—the scent of the intellectually advanced and conflict-free
  12. Kitchen Hound–for the man who wants to share your bed and remembers that doing the dishes includes wiping off the counters
  13. Ken Doll—the scent of high performance–in plastic
  14. Emotional Enthusiast–for men who can feel their full range of emotions and validate yours
  15. Sir Dependable Defender—because you have her back–ALWAYS
  16. Romantic Raconteur—rose petals not included
  17. Role Model—perfection in chemicals on a stick
  18. Yestosterone–For the man who agrees to agree
  19. Altruistic Archetype—scents and sensitivity
  20. 3-Point Laundry Shot—the scent of swoosh
  21. Dad Joke—the redheaded stepson of deodorants
  22. Philophile (No, not the love of Dr. Phil. Look it up!)
  23. Mythical Male Unicorn— a mystical blend of all the above

Or I could just cut to the chase and market a deodorant labeled Sex and Weight Loss, and become an instant millionare. Maybe even a gazillionaire if I add a little junk science, expensive essential oils and a Gothic font. Ho hum…I’m sure it has been done. If not, you’re welcome.

I picked up both of competitor Axe’s male and female versions of Anarchy, because the marriage therapist in me said, “I can totally build a date around this.”  It’s in development. Stay tuned.

If you aren’t lucky enough to find deodorant containing the suggestive power of monogamy, at least stay away from Citron—those “woman advances,” are unpredictable. You do not want the hassle. The only person I want smelling my husband’s armpits is me.

Wait, what?

*This blog post assumes the use of conventional grocery store deodorants, complete with suspect parabens, carcinogens, pesticides and myriad multisyllabic chemicals. Evaluating the controversy of using such products vs. crystals, hedgehog urine, cancer-free incantations or other such alternative juju is not within the scope of this blog post.

References:

Human pheromones and sexual attraction (2005) by Karl Grammar, Bernhard Fink and Nick Weave. In Reproductive Biology, 118(2), 135-142.

Sex differences in response to physical and social factors involved in human mate selection: The importance of smell for women (2002), by Rachel S. Herz and Michael Inzlicht in Evolution and Human Behavior, 23(5), 359-364.

Photo: Copyright: <a href=’https://www.123rf.com/profile_beatleoff’>beatleoff / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

Couples, marriage

When the Tortoise and the Hare get Married

17134701 - rabbit and turtle in a close-up imageThe other day I was asking my husband to read something to me out loud while I double-checked numbers. When I complained, “Hold on—you’re going too fast,” he remarked, “What do you mean? I’m never going too fast for you—you’re the queen of fast.” He does have a point. For much of my life, I have had a sense of urgency which is reflected pretty much everywhere, and not always for the better.

When my husband and I were engaged, my father invited us into his office so he could share a concern about our marriage. “You are like the tortoise and the hare,” he observed, “and I want you to be aware that it can be a problem, so you need to know how to manage it.”

I knew my dad thought I was the hare and I believed he was overstating the problem. He had repeatedly suggested that perhaps I could benefit from an intensive training course in patience, which I always dismissed with an, “OK, yeah, IknowpatiencegotitCanIgonow?” in the most impatient tone imaginable. I knew that my husband was more patient than I was, which was, in fact, a large part of the appeal. He was steady and solid—remaining fixed while I pinged relentlessly in and out of orbit.

What I didn’t realize in my idealistic naiveté, was the concept that the qualities you admire in your spouse are the very things that will drive you crazy. I have learned to appreciate my husband’s steadiness, but only after years of frustration that if he didn’t want to hurry when I wanted to hurry, he was not going to be pressured into rushing. In fact, I was certain that just when I wanted to get out the door faster, he would slow down just to annoy me.

What was less clear to me, but which I have come to understand after years of sitting in front of other couples with tortoise/hare marriages, is how annoying my rushing can be. I have had to work very hard to be more present with people, which comes much more naturally to my husband. I think one of the reasons I like being a therapist so much is that it’s the one place where rushing doesn’t help, so I have permission to slow down.

Couples frequently have mismatched pacing. It’s easy to spot in communication patterns. One of the pair will ask a question and just as the other partner begins to answer, the loquacious person will begin talking again, usually faster and louder than the more reticent partner, resulting ultimately in withdrawal and shut down in the relationship. If I notice the pattern, I will make it explicit to the couple. The couples often know they have different pacing, but they don’t always understand the relationship implications. Over time, mismatched pacing can naturally polarize. Therapists are usually trying to help couples find their way back to the middle.

So what do you do if you are a tortoise/hare couple?

  1. Know that tortoises and hares can have very good marriages. They serve separate functions, but compensate for each other’s weaknesses.
  2. Identify the emotions that fuel tortoise or hare-like behavior. For example, fast-paced people often experience anxiety when slowing down…they can only tolerate so much silence before filling in the blanks. Slower-paced people often feel anxious about potentially eliciting uncomfortable emotions from partner interactions, so they take their time as an attempt to be careful and exact. If both partners can acknowledge the feelings that drive fast or slow behavior, they can work together more effectively.
  3. When dealing with marital conflict, it’s important to SLOW DOWN (sorry, hares—I feel your pain). It’s easier to get someone to slow the heck down than to get someone to speed up their processing. Emotion is naturally FAST and fuels reactive behavior. If you are the fast partner, and notice yourself getting twitchy and edgy, BREATHE, and ask for increased understanding. It’s imperative to make more space for slower-processing partners.
  4. Be charitable about your partner’s differences. Couples can be so mean to each other when they process differently. As a general rule, the fast pace required in the complexity of our capitalistic society can diminish relationships. Relationships are qualitative and are compromised by efficiency-based models.

If nothing else, try to find some humor in your different styles. While I was driving my husband to the doctor for a post-op check-up a few months ago, he mumbled through a narcotics-laced haze, “Honey, your California driving is a turn-on.” I hadn’t even realized that I was exhibiting the predatory driving habits I picked up while indeed learning to drive among the aggressive motorists in Southern California. I have a habit of forgetting until the occasional driver in front of me pulls over, allowing me to pass, at which point I apologetically realize I was tailgating—a skill absolutely necessary to get from point A to point B in LA. “Oh, sorry, I am driving like a Californian, huh?” He reminded me about the time my son was driving with his friend and just as a light turned green, his friend pointed at a car and said, “Look–I have never seen a car beat you off the line before. You’re always the first one to go when the light turns green.” My son looked over at the car and laughed, “Dude, that’s my mom!” I hadn’t even seen him next to me. My son couldn’t wait to tell me, and it became a joke about my impatience and aggressive driving habits.

Marriage really is an ultra-marathon, not a sprint. If you need to slow down, it’s ok. You and your partner might enjoy more scenery along the way.