Couples, Couples Therapy, Marriage and Family Therapy

When Jack Sprat and His Wife Go to Couples Therapy: Body Weight as a Problem in Marriage

couple weightOne day, pregnant with my second child, I went shopping for maternity clothes. I was feeling nauseous and suddenly experienced the familiar lightheaded dizzy feeling which accompanied all my pregnancies.  Afraid that I would pass out, I dropped down on the floor in the aisle of clothes, obscured from view.  A married couple walked up a few aisles over. The wife began questioning her husband about apparel and he reacted with indifference, communicating that he didn’t really want to be there. “That’s why I’m here by myself,” I thought, since my husband considers shopping a form of torture.

The wife was somewhat heavyset, and her spouse appeared to be average weight.  While considering different outfits, she suddenly pointed, “Oh, we can look over there in the “petites,” section.  His back was turned, so I couldn’t see his face, but I could absolutely hear the disdain in his voice.  His one word response was a jab, “Petites?”  He asked it so contemptuously that I also heard his intended message, which was, “Aren’t you too fat for the ‘petites’ section, Fatty?” She paused a moment and snapped monosyllabically, “Short!” which communicated, “Petite means short, Dummy, and by the way, I know I’m overweight—you don’t need to keep reminding me about it! Jerk!”

I remember sitting there, fighting nausea, thinking, “I can’t imagine my husband talking to me like that, even if I did fight weight gain.” I knew if anything, this man’s negative message would only serve to heighten her shame and anxiety, likely driving her more toward food as comfort, which is verified by research.

Empirical studies of mixed-weight marriages show that they are at risk for higher levels of conflict. Weight can create sexual and emotional distance. Occasionally, I will have a mixed weight couple in therapy in which the average weight partner expresses dissatisfaction with the heavier partner’s weight.  Sometimes it’s about health, but a lot of the time it can impact physical attraction.  Rarely, however, is weight the only presenting concern.  It’s usually just one of a myriad of complaints, but it’s a highly visible one, complex, and challenging in therapy.

For a while now, my husband and I have been answering couple questions in an app called “Happy Couple.”  This was one of my questions last week:

Steve pulls on jeans and finds that he can no longer zip them up.  How do you react?

A. Give subtle hints when he goes for second helping at dinner

B. Dole out a diet mandate

C. Probably wouldn’t be so into sex

D. Shrug it off and tell him to buy a new pair

Any guesses about my answer?  Definitely “D.” In fact, I was asked this question anonymously at a marriage presentation last year and I explained why I recommend the answer be “D.” Or, I might add an option “E,” for “Reassure him that you love him and ask how you can be supportive.”

Here’s why the other responses won’t work:

  1. Your partner doesn’t need a reminder that he/she is overweight. I guarantee that the broader culture is already reinforcing that message.
  2. Threatening a partner only increases anxiety and shuts people down. It’s the opposite of motivating.
  3. Attempting to control a diet makes it your problem, and if you have ownership of your spouse’s weight, your spouse cannot own it and be autonomous in developing healthier habits.
  4. Humiliating or shaming a partner also increases anxiety and hiding behavior.

Don’t get me wrong. I understand that weight gain can create fear about attraction to a partner, or fear for a partner’s health. In my marriage, my husband has always put on weight easier than I do, even though he always exercised more consistently than I while I was having babies. His weight generally fluctuates between 10-20 pounds with external stressors. It bothers him a lot and me not so much. While it has never affected my attraction to him (I simply see the person I married, and I always thought he was good-looking), I have occasionally worried about his health because of his father’s history with heart surgeries.

I know 100% that I cannot control what he does and if I tried he’d feel criticized and resentful. I also know it bothers him and he’s always hyper-aware and working on it, and the last thing he needs is a spouse to make him feel worse.  In fact, throughout our marriage, I have frequently joked that the “teenage girl,” persona is showing up, because he will complain about how fat he is, and I almost never notice if he’s putting on weight. “When did you turn into a 14 year-old girl and what have you done with my husband?” I’ve mused. I think it’s the obsessive cyclist part of him.

So, how do you handle it when a spouse is overweight and it’s scaring you because you are worried about their health or worried about your physical relationship?

  • Ask how you can be a support person. Once my husband tore a ligament in his foot which shut down his exercise for months. He was also working full-time and in MBA school and being a father to 7 children. He was cranky about it and complained about his weight constantly. I finally said, “I want you to know that your weight gain isn’t bothering me—I don’t notice–but you keep talking about it, so it’s bothering you. Do you want me to do something differently to help you?”  I had been trying to make dinner healthy, but I have always despised eating breakfast and usually skip it, so I’m really lacking in that area, and he lunched with his work buddies. We decided if I made up healthy snacks, it would help him stay on track with his eating.
  • Model behaviors. I’m not going to pretend that I’m a nutrition expert, but I know enough to impact the food choices in my home, and my family takes a lot of cues from what I purchase, eat and prepare.
  • Understand and respect differences. Cooked spinach and chard with lemon were my sometimes comfort foods growing up. While pregnant with my third child, I planted a garden with a bunch of chard and decided I would serve it to my family without telling my husband because he hates cooked spinach, so I didn’t want the protest. When he showed up, I started serving the kids with my sales job, “Look, daddy, this is the chard we grew, just like Grandpa Cluff—we’re eating it with lemon.  It’s yummy, right daddy?” I put a forkful in his mouth, winking at him to play along.  He did. He ate the serving on his plate with a smile and extolled its health benefits to our sons. I thought I had him sold. Then, he approached me while I was doing dishes, bent down and calmly whispered in my ear, “By the way, that was the most vile, disgusting thing I have ever had to eat; I choked it down because I knew you wanted the example for the boys, but if you ever serve that to me again, my serving is going right in the trash.” OK. Fair enough. I won’t make him eat cooked greens, beets, or cucumbers soaked in vinegar as long as I don’t have to eat melted cheese.
  • Find a physical activity to enjoy together. My husband is a cyclist and I’m a runner. We don’t usually exercise together, but we do like hiking and tennis, which count. Find something you both like. There’s always walking.
  • Identify whether the problem is really the weight or something deeper. Usually weight becomes symbolic of dissatisfaction coming from other areas of the marriage. Are there previous relationship injuries or conflicts to address?
  • If the sexual relationship is impacted, try focusing on other forms of physical affection first. Because weight and attraction and sex are intertwined, I’m not going to pretend like sexual connection won’t be affected. However, couples get hyper-focused on orgasm. Sometimes slowing down and increasing sensuality first can increase sexual desire and/or performance.
  • Focus on other characteristics you like about your spouse. I know this sounds trite, but it can shape your level of support. When my spouse gains weight, I really rarely notice, because I like HIM–I just like him for who he is, not for weight changes.

In mixed weight marriages, studies verify that many partners try to regulate their spouses’ eating behaviors. A rule of thumb in addressing weight issues is to approach it with positive influences. Negative influences (criticism, nagging, shaming, lecturing, threatening, punishing, stonewalling) only make the problem worse.

Weight can become like a separate entity in the marriage, either dividing or uniting the spouses.  Think teamwork. If my husband is inspired by a certain program, because the structure gives him scaffolding, I will use the recipes in the program, as long as they’re consistent with the basics and simplicity I think are foundational to a healthy life style. The only way to address weight without compromising the marital relationship is to gain unity—the couple against the weight challenge.

Maybe that’s why Jack Sprat just helped his wife lick the platter clean.

 

References:

Romantic Relationships and Eating Regulation: An Investigation of Partners’ Attempts to Control Each Others’ Eating Behaviors by Markey, C. M., Gomel, J. N. & Markey, P. M. (2008) in Journal of Health Psychology, 13(3), 422-432.

The Meaning of Weight in Marriage: A Phenomenological Investigation of Relational Factors Involved in Obesity by Ledyard, M. L. & Morrison, N. C. (2008) in Journal of Couple and Relationship Therapy, 7(3), 230-247.

“You’re Going to Eat That?” Relationship Processes and Conflict Among Mixed-Weight Couples by Burke, T. J., Randall, A. K., Corkery, S. A., Young, V. J., & Butler, E. A. (2012) in Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 29(8), 1109-1130.

 

Photo credit: Copyright: <a href=’https://www.123rf.com/profile_mukhina1′>mukhina1 / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

 

 

Couples, Couples Therapy, marriage, Marriage and Family Therapy

10 Tips for Riding the Rollercoaster of “Me to We” During the First Year of Marriage

24736329 - teenage couple on roller coasterRight after my husband and I got married, I talked him into going to a dance on our university campus. I was sitting on his lap with my arms around his neck when a co-ed approached and remarked, “It’s so nice to see a happily married couple who still love each other.” I remember thinking, “Uh…It’s not like we’ve been married for five years…we’ve been married for about five minutes…and you have no idea what my marriage is like from observing me in one limited context, but…ok, if that makes you feel happy….”

I was uncomfortable with her observation because while I WAS happy, I was also struggling with an array of conflicting emotions.

There is a cultural expectation that engagements and marriages will be singularly happy events, devoid of uncertainty, sadness and fear. In part, that expectation is why so many people suffer in silence and don’t seek resources for help during these stages. They can feel shameful if they aren’t blissfully happy. The colliding emotions often generate anxiety about whether the marriage was the right decision.

Possibly more often than not, the transition to marriage precipitates an onslaught of competing emotions. There can be elation, relief and contentment simultaneously with grief, sadness and fear. Newlyweds can experience disenfranchised grief, or grief around something that isn’t acknowledged because people expect you to be happy. However, with all the required changes in the life cycle shift, grief and loss, with other concomitant uncomfortable emotions should be expected.

Many couples cruise into married love problem free, which is great, but couples routinely struggle in unique ways during this transitional life stage. As a marriage therapist who sees many couples surprised by the difficulties inherent to married life, I want to acknowledge expected barriers in adjusting from a “Me to We,” paradigm.

Some  emotionally-laden challenges that regularly impact the transition into marriage include:

  1. Negotiating a joint identity. It can feel out of control to be connected to another individual impacting your life and potentially your identity. I still remember 29 years ago how frustrated I was when my husband was late or forgot something he said he would do. I grew up in a family where being late was not acceptable and if you said you would do something, you moved heaven and earth to do it, because that’s just how it was—mine was a “so let it be written, so let it be done” household. The End. My husband was confused at my reactions when he made us 15 minutes late somewhere, or when he said he would do something and then forgot. It messed with my identity of being on time and responsible. “Good people” weren’t late nor forgetful. I figured that he didn’t care about me enough to be on time or work harder to remember. On the flip side, he couldn’t understand my level of frustration, I think because so much of his identity was linked to his adaptability, patience, and presence. In his mind, “good people” didn’t get upset over something like a spouse’s tardiness. Over the years, I’ve become more accepting of his habits, and he has tried to be more on time to adapt to my slightly obsessive qualities, but finding that middle place for a couple identity was challenging.
  2. Loss of individual identity. People often sacrifice important parts of themselves for the marriage. I absolutely don’t think I gave up my identity, but there were parts I struggled with. I didn’t love switching my last name when so much of my life had been associated with my father’s name, whom I adored.  I was a “Cluff,” not a “Schade,” and to tell you the truth, 30 years later, I still identify strongly with my maiden name.
  3. Adjusting to couple process. This sounds general, but what I’m referring to here is the fact that individual decision-making changes. Instead of doing what you want to do when you want to do it, marriage requires a commitment to collaborating and cooperating, thinking of the marriage partnership instead of oneself.
  4. Integrating with in-laws. It is true that in-laws are an everyday conflict area in marriage. As the youngest of six children, with all married siblings, my family had plenty of time to get used to in-laws. I thought the family process would be similar in my husband’s family. In short, he was the golden boy, the oldest and the first to get married, and it was nothing like the integration of in-laws in my family. This is an area where it’s probably best to have no expectations. I see many couples with various types of in-law problems. Because of that, my main goal as a mother-in-law is to just support my daughters-in-law in a way they want to be supported without being critical or intrusive nor completely disinterested, and to just love them; and since I have three of the best daughters-in-law on the planet, that has been so easy.
  5. Negotiating finances. Many couples can struggle here because of previous debt or dissimilar spending habits. Combining finances is fraught with stress for many if not most couples.
  6. Negotiating household routines. Even though this may seem trivial, when the transition is already stressful, things like squeezing the toothpaste from the middle (I get it—my entire life, my father hammered home that toothpaste tubes are to be neatly rolled from the bottom), failing to install a new roll of toilet paper, folding the towels in half instead of in thirds, etc. can just highlight differences and exacerbate frustration.
  7. Friendsickness. This is a term often applied to college students who move away from a network of friends. This can also come up in marriage when people miss their old social networks. I can remember experiencing a great deal of pain and loss over my old social networks, because friendships shift after you get married. I didn’t have the same access to my single college friends, and “friendsickness,” is an accurately descriptive term—it became what I believe is a type of ambiguous loss.
  8. Adapting to new social norms and expectations. In short, “adulting,” on steroids.
  9. Creating new boundaries with families-of-origin. Neither my husband nor I have intrusive or controlling families, so we didn’t have to work hard to set boundaries, but many couples must learn how to set boundaries in systems with previous enmeshment. I did, however, feel differently about how I could approach my parents after marriage because I was supposed to “put on my big girl panties.”  When I was struggling, I couldn’t call them because I didn’t want to create worry; I knew my father would be distressed if he thought that I was even slightly unhappy. Also, the protocol in my family was to do your duty and shut up about it—there’s no question that you just do what you’re “supposed to do,” so I didn’t think there was any point talking about it. My parents wouldn’t have chastised me, but I knew they would worry and feel helpless to help me.
  10. Integrating rituals and traditions from two separate families. Because rituals and traditions are deeply infused with meaning, deciding how to enact holidays and other celebrations can be somewhat complex and potentially conflictual.

The phenomena described here about grief and loss with marriage transition are processes I’ve witnessed with other married couples as well as experienced myself. For the whole first year of my marriage I was engulfed in a heavy cloud of sadness related to my losses. That just elicited confusion and guilt, because I was supposed to be happy, wasn’t I?

I still dearly loved my husband, was physically attracted to him, viewed him as one of the best humans on the planet, felt lucky to be married to him, admired him, and believed he was an awesome choice for me long-term. I can safely say I still feel the same way about him, because he is truly wonderful.

But I still felt loss, grief and sadness in the transition. Then, on top of feeling abnormal and broken, I felt shame because my feelings were directly wounding my husband, who is at heart a kind, gentle and highly likable person.  Every time he saw me cry, he felt terrible and perceived that I must not love him, so I withdrew from him to protect him from my sadness, which just increased my loneliness. He had no idea what to do with me. This sounds so dramatic, but I honestly felt like a part of me was dying. I tried to hide my suffering from him unsuccessfully.

I went through stages of sadness, confusion, shame, fear and depression until I finally just went numb.  I regularly went through the motions of life robotically, feeling nothing. I can remember believing I just could just stop feeling and detach from my emotions entirely.  I hadn’t previously experienced this kind of emotional pain, requiring such extreme measures.

As part of my emotional withdrawal to avoid hurting him, I completely threw myself into school and became obsessive about getting the highest score in all my classes, telling myself it’s what I had to do to get into graduate school. In addition to matriculating full-time, I took two different jobs, began a volunteer shift at a women’s shelter, and started a pre-professional organization on campus. I kept myself too busy to feel anything. It was my way of having control over something when my emotions and life felt so out of control. I never did feel like I could talk to anyone about it, which I don’t think was helpful. This is the type of situation where therapy might be really helpful, when the outside world doesn’t know what to do with your pain. In marriage, it’s also best to go to therapy sooner rather than later. I’m hoping anyone can possibly be helped from my disclosure to know that if they are experiencing any of these things in the newlywed stage, they aren’t alone.

Knowing that mixed emotions are likely the norm with marital transition, here are some things you can do to smooth the passage:

  1. Make a study of marriage. Read recommended books. Listen to podcasts. My husband and I routinely listened to audio recordings for marital improvement because it was my chosen profession. It normalized our stress and taught us strategies to improve our communication and negotiation. I couldn’t pay my husband to read a marriage book, but he might listen to one on audio.
  2. Seek out humor. Laughter really does make so many painful things manageable. I realize many people are more serious than I and probably don’t see the need or see it as silly, but for many people, just finding ways to share laughter can be bonding.
  3. Expect and allow grieving. Of course, you’re going to miss things from your single life! Acknowledge that almost any life transition with gains comes with some losses of leaving another stage behind.
  4. Connect with old friends. Actively seek out safe past connections to help alleviate losses.
  5. Make time for individual self-care. Transitions are inherently stressful, so actively do things to increase comfort. Get a massage. Participate in a hobby.
  6. Actively make new friends as a couple. One way of acknowledging gains is to make new married friends. Invite them over to play games.
  7. Create your own new traditions and rituals. For our first Christmas, my husband and I were so busy with finals that we didn’t have time to buy a tree until two days before Christmas, and literally found one for a dollar. I quickly handmade a bunch of inexpensive ornaments with materials around the house. It was cheap and ugly, but it was ours.
  8. Practice active acceptance. This implies owning your situation for all the conflicting parts it offers, which overlaps with grieving. It’s ok to desire acceptance and not feel it right away. Acceptance might need to happen repeatedly—think of it as a process more than an outcome.
  9. Exercise patience with yourself and your spouse. Expect it to take time to integrate all the emotions that come with transition.
  10. Master a metamorphosis mentality. Marriage really is a metamorphosis, so think in terms of how you want to shape the change together.

Remember that struggling with the transition to marriage isn’t predictive of future happiness. Sometimes couples think that early struggles mean they never should have been together and they are doomed for relationship disaster. One couple I saw years ago laughingly reminded me that when they were expressing hopelessness that their early years of marital struggle meant they were doomed, I said, “I’m sorry, I just can’t join with you in your catastrophic narrative.” Somehow that was validating that they could still create a marriage free of problem saturation. It’s true. In the absence of ongoing affairs, abuse or addictions, you can likely shift your narrative for the future.

In other words, you can influence the engineering of your own roller coaster ride.

Make it a good one!

Photo credit: Copyright: <a href=’https://www.123rf.com/profile_inkebeville’>inkebeville / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

 

 

 

Couples, marriage

How Did We Get Here in our Marriage? When Past Pain Comes Alive in the Present and How to Fix it

33470896 - worried couple sitting on sofa arguing about billsDoug and Janice* were in an argument about the laundry.  Doug was looking for a pair of pants he had hoped had been washed when his wife threw in a load while he was at work.  His disappointment was perceived by his wife as criticism, and she thought of all the times her housework wasn’t up to his standards.  As the argument escalated, she finally yelled, “Well, I guess you should have divorced me and married Diane instead—I’ll bet she never lets any clothes get dirty at her house.  The two of you could have lived in your OCD paradise together where the laundry basket never gets full and where no one ever laughs!  That way, at least you wouldn’t be on my case all the time.”

Diane had been Doug’s co-worker during the second year of his marriage.  He had a 6-month emotional affair with her which was discovered by Janice while she was pregnant with their first child.  Janice found an exchange of emails in which they had both been talking about wishing they could leave their spouses for each other.  To top it all off, Janice remembered word for word what Doug had written to Diane about Janice’s substandard housekeeping skills.

Even though it was 15 years ago, it seemed to him like Janice brought her up every time they were in any type of argument.  He pushed back, “There you go again, changing the subject when you don’t want to take any responsibility for your own actions.  What does Diane have to do with anything?  Besides, you haven’t loved me from the moment we got married—why do you think I started a relationship with someone else in the first place?  How convenient for you that I made a mistake you can just beat me over the head with any time you want to justify rejecting me!”

When they recited the conflict to me, Doug said, “We have got to find a way to move past this.  Any time anything gets hard, she uses this woman as an excuse to punish me so she can do whatever she wants.  This has to stop!  I was 25 years old.  I can’t change the past, and nothing I have done ever since counts for anything.  I will go to my grave with her punishing me about it.  Honestly, sometimes I think it would have been easier if I had divorced her back then and married Diane.  At least I knew Diane loved me.  My wife has never really loved me and all she  wants to do is inflict suffering.”  She reacted with anger, “Are you kidding me?  All I want to do is inflict suffering?  Do you have any idea how much suffering you inflicted on me when you told another women you wished you could be married to her?”

This conversation was nothing I hadn’t heard in some variation thousands of times.  It was clear to me that both partners had generated a deep well of pain for each other during their 15-year marriage.  Janice had no idea how to heal after feeling so hurt and betrayed by her husband.  She felt like she could never completely trust him again.  As a result, she kept herself at a distance from him and threw herself into her children’s lives and kept busy with PTA and church responsibilities.  He felt helpless to ever make her trust him again, so he felt increasingly lonely and rejected.  As he grew more bitter, he did become more critical, which just reinforced to her that he was not safe and that he would never really accept or love her.

If you are having a moment of conflict in your marriage and suddenly you or your partner remembers or brings up something from the past, shifting the conversation entirely and leaving you helpless and hopeless in a sea of emotion, then you may have an unresolved attachment injury.  Attachment injuries happen when the attachment security in a relationship is damaged.  In short, they are moments when a partner shifts from being a safe ally to a dangerous threat.

In these moments, a spouse shifts from “I know my spouse and can count on him/her to have my back,” to “I have no idea who you are anymore, and I’m not sure you really care about me.”

An affair is an obvious attachment injury of betrayal, in which someone else is chosen above the spouse, and a pattern of deception has made the spouse dangerous and unpredictable.  Even though major injuries keep couples wounded and disconnected, I have found that depending on the circumstance and how people make meaning out of things, smaller injuries can happen in many different ways as well.  Here are some typical examples:

  1. A woman has a high level of emotional need for reassurance and comfort after having a miscarriage, but her husband acts indifferently because he has no idea how to help her and feels flooded himself by the emotion but has no tools to express it, so he walks away when she starts crying.
  2. A woman’s mother dies and she gets very depressed, and her husband minimizes the loss and says, “People have parents die.  It’s part of life.  They don’t let it stop them—why are you having such a hard time with it?”
  3. A husband is struggling with premature ejaculation and his wife tells him that he is the worst sexual partner she has ever had.
  4. A husband finds out that his wife has charged up $20,000 on credit cards she has been hiding from him.
  5. A husband tells his wife that maybe he wouldn’t struggle with erectile dysfunction if she had a breast augmentation.
  6. A wife tells her husband that she should have married his brother because he’s better looking and makes more money.

Significant betrayals can be traumatic in marriage and can generate strong emotions and flashbacks.  If an injured partner gets emotionally overwhelmed and the offending partner can’t be reassuring, or if the injured partner can’t accept the other partner’s attempts, the relationship stays dangerous, or becomes even more dangerous.

If every argument devolves into past incidences, you might need to target those specific incidences for healing.  Here are some ways for a partner who injured another (even if it was unintentional) to start the healing process.

  1. Instead of getting defensive that your intent is misinterpreted and arguing about whether it is really an injury, shift to a perspective that if your spouse is still hurting over something, it really is a potential bonding opportunity. The expression of pain is a potentially connecting experience if handled well.
  2. Be prepared to feel shame if your partner talks about something you did to hurt/him or her.  Deal with the shame by describing that it’s painful to hear because of sorrow, shame or regret.  Process research shows that REPEATED expressions of shame and sorrow are key in healing.
  3. Recognize that repetition is one of the only ways to build up a solid foundation. If your partner needs reassurance a thousand times, see it like adding a brick to a secure foundation.  The need for repetition doesn’t mean you’re comforting incorrectly.
  4. If you think your partner should be over it, or if you thought your partner was over it, say something like, “Wow—if that is still coming up for you, it must have been more painful than I realized…can you tell me more about how and when you get triggered?”
  5. Express your sorrow and your desire to want to fix it, and even if you can’t fix it right away, affirm that you are present and want to show that you want things to be better. For example, “Is there anything I can do right now?  If not, I am so sorry and I want to help you heal any way I can.”
  6. Offer your own narrative for how you think/feel in a way that might prevent you from engaging in the same hurtful behavior. You can describe how you set boundaries differently, or what specifically you love about your partner, or how you see the relationship differently now.
  7. If your partner seems unresponsive, ask if what you are doing is helping or affirm that you will be available when he/she is ready. Like, “Does it help if I just sit next to you?  If you want me to go away, know that I’ll be in the next room or a phone call away if you need me.”

In general, looking for ways to prevent attachment injuries may be the most efficient.  Emotional responsiveness is the key.

When I had my 6th child, I got very anxious in the hospital thinking about going home to a house filled with 5 children, 4 of whom were very active boys.  My husband brought them to see me in the hospital and within 5 minutes of their climbing all over the place, opening and shutting every cupboard door and drawer, and flipping every possible switch in my hospital room, I hissed through gritted teeth, under my breath, “GET.  THEM.  OUT.  OF.  HERE.”  They were so overwhelming.  My husband remained his good-natured self and had them all give kisses and wave goodbye before he left.  I called him at 2 a.m., after my anxiety escalated thinking about going home and being mother to 6 young children under the age of 12–and again, it’s the combination of boys (and all their friends) that really did me in—four boys first was such a handful every single minute of every single day—just go observe a cub scout den meeting for 10 minutes.

I called him on the phone, and as soon as he answered, I whispered so the nurses couldn’t hear me, “Steve—I can’t come home.”  He whispered back, “Why, honey?”  I answered, “I can’t have 6 children.  I can’t do it.  It’s too much.”  He didn’t blow me off, criticize me for feeling afraid, or minimize my anxiety.  He comforted me with, “Honey, it’s ok.  You’ll be ok.  I’ll help you and we’ll get it figured out.”  He stayed on the phone with me for as long as I needed until I felt calmer and reassured.  Because he was so responsive, I didn’t have to be so anxious, because I knew if I needed him, he would be available to me.

Creating predictable responsiveness is the key to not just managing but healing past triggers.  If you find yourself getting triggered to past pain, know that it can be intentionally healed, and a secure foundation can become the story of the marriage.

 

*Names and details have been changed to protect privacy.  Any resemblance to a real couple is coincidental

 

photo credit: Copyright: <a href=’https://www.123rf.com/profile_stockbroker’>stockbroker / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

 

 

 

 

 

 

Couples, marriage

Go Team Us! Marriage as the Original Team Sport

4554234 - man and woman fists isolated on white backgroundI’m always amused by watching IKEA ads featuring couples assembling furniture.  Observing this process provides cues for how well they work together as a team.  It’s also one of the few times I can feel smug, since assembling furniture is one of the things my husband and I do well together—my tolerance for reading instructions combined with his patience and ability to focus usually combine for construction success.  There are other times, however, when we can’t seem to align our actions for effective teamwork and end up disconnected.

When we had two very young children, we went on a Caribbean cruise.  After locating our cabin, we reviewed the schedule of activities and decided we would enter a doubles ping pong tournament, since we both liked to play and were sort of okay at it.

When it was time to play, we noticed that we were the only husband/wife team that signed up together.  The other teams were represented exclusively by the husbands from the other couples.  All the wives were in the cheering section.  I felt intimidated and suggested that we drop out if no other wives were going to play.  I wasn’t excited to play against all males.

My husband insisted that we were just there to have fun and told me to stop worrying about it and that I didn’t need brute strength to play against men.  Surprisingly, after several games, we found ourselves in the final round for the chance to be tournament champions.  I was worried that I wouldn’t play up to par and my husband would be disappointed, because when it comes to sports he can be a little competitive.  The last thing I wanted was to lose the tournament for us.

A few minutes into the game, we were ahead by 8 points and within only a few points of winning the entire tournament.  I was confident that if I just played the same way I had been playing, we would win.  The other team served and I returned the ball.  When it came back to my husband, he slammed it so hard it hit the wall behind the other team, missing the table, awarding the point to our competitors.  I looked at him like, “What just happened?”

We were still ahead by 7, so I wasn’t too worried.  However, as the ball went into play, we repeated the exact same playing sequence and lost the point again.  This happened four times in a row when I whispered to my husband, “OK Hulk, we’re ahead.  All we have to do is return the ball consistently every time until they mess up.  You don’t need to hit that hard to finish them off!  Can Bruce Banner come back for the rest of the game?”

Apparently, my husband was under some kind of alpha-male posturing spell, and just couldn’t help himself.  He continued his aggressive display until the score was tied.  For several minutes, we alternated points until the other team beat us by two after my clearly possessed spouse once again slammed the ball off the table.

My husband is a far better ping pong player than I am on any day of the week.  I can hold my own against him, but ultimately he always wins.  In this case, however, he admitted (shockingly) that he lost the tournament for us that day.

I was annoyed with him, but I let it go because it was just a ping pong match.  However, I felt some distress that we had devolved from a team working together to two separate individuals with different agendas.  He had gone rogue on me and I couldn’t get him back.  He was unreachable.

A silly ping pong tournament is trivial, but for many couples, this pattern develops over time in marriage.  A couple may start out together with unified goals but after having children and facing other life transitions and external stressors which threaten to divide them, they may find themselves living like roommates without a common cause.  Rather than using the potential energy from a marital team, they resort to individual strategies which can sabotage the team’s unity, and they stop consulting with one another entirely.

A marital relationship is greater than the sum of its parts.  If a couple works together, they can accomplish more than they could individually.  Couples who have a strong sense of “we-ness,” identify themselves in relationship to their partners and display higher marital commitment.  In short, these marital systems are generally more efficient and feel safer and more predictable for the children in the family.

If you have lost your sense of “we-ness,” here are some tips for getting back on track; I’ll use the acronym GO TEAM US just for fun:

  1. G – is for Goal-setting. What specific things do you want to accomplish together this year?  In 5 years?  In 20 years?  Dream together.
  2. O – is for Optimism. I purposely chose this word because couples lose optimism so quickly if they feel negative emotion.  Negative emotion is absorbing!  It can take great intentionality to step out of it.  How would an optimist think about your situation?
  3. T – is for Traits.  What traits do each of you bring to the team that can complement each other?  I can be impatient but efficient, and my husband is generally more patient and process-oriented.  Our differences can drive us crazy or work to our benefit, depending on how we use them.
  4. E – is for Encouragement. Good teammates encourage each other.  I know if I’m ever worried about something my husband will be my best cheerleader.
  5. A – is for Adaptation. As a couple moves toward conjoint goals in life, perhaps the most important skill is adaptation, or being flexible in problem-solving.  Unfortunately, couples in distress tend to get discouraged and more rigid, limiting rather than expanding their options.  Rigidity suffocates creativity.
  6. M – is for Maintenance. Couples can drift from cooperation because they aren’t maintaining or managing their joint relationship goals.  Intentionally create check-ins for where you’re at and where you want to be in your co-created journey through life.
  7. U – is for Understanding. Perhaps the most underutilized of couple strategies for teamwork.  Ask your partner what he/she thinks you may not understand about him/her or his/her desires.  Repeat it back in your own words to make sure you’re really on track.
  8. S – is for Sacrifice. Being part of a team means making some individual sacrifices.  Think of small sacrifices you can make right now to help you achieve your team goals.

While this seems overly simplistic, regrouping as a team really can be that simple.

One thing I love hearing as a therapist when I am meeting a couple is when they tell me that they “work well together as a team,” because I know their odds for therapy success are higher if that’s their perception.

Marriage is absolutely the original team sport….but you have to decide to get in the game.

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Couples, Love, marriage, Romance

Kissing Like you Mean it: The Benefits of Lighting Fireworks in your Marriage

Happy 4th of July–a repost from last year–sadly, the last time I tried to buy the Trader Joe’s Fireworks bar last month (mentioned in this post), they told me they were discontinued.

Uniting Couples to Strengthen Families

fireworks

As I was explaining to my husband that I was trying to write a blog post about kissing in marriage, he threw his arms open and offered enthusiastically, “And you want to practice?”  “No,” I answered, “But I admire your optimism and thanks for giving me my opening sentence.”

For most couples, kissing is a natural part of relationship development, particularly as they move toward higher levels of commitment.  Researchers confirm that kissing can be a strong reinforcer for mate assessment and attachment. In other words, if you think you like someone and the kissing goes well, commitment is likely to increase, while the reverse is true for couples who just aren’t “feeling it.”   As people form attachments, prolonged kissing behavior generally increases in romantic relationships.

However, I’ve noticed that really great make-out sessions diminish over time for lots of married couples.  Even couples who maintain frequency in sexual relations…

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Couples, Holidays, marriage

How Some Fireworks of Conflict in Marriage can be a Good Thing

11881838 - sparkling love heart pulls a pair of hands at the rope.Around the 4th of July several years ago, my husband and I were out walking in a new development where homes were popping up right next to several charming storefronts.  We saw fireworks in the distance and walked closer to take a look. Several families were gathered, providing a show with aerial fireworks.  The setting was dreamlike—perfect weather in a shiny new neighborhood glowing with an idealistic, quasi-Seussian quality.

The mood shifted entirely when one of the aerial fireworks fell over, shooting into the open garage where the rest of the fireworks were stored.  My husband and I both felt sick as we watched a chain reaction of igniting fireworks which quickly started a larger fire.  In under a few minutes, the entire garage was in flames threatening to engulf the whole house.

There’s no question that fireworks come with risk.  The potential injury to body and environment is exactly why they must be managed so carefully.  However, despite the risk, they are still a common part of many festivities, because in general the celebratory aspects outweigh the risk.

In a way, this is a metaphor for marital conflict.  Too many fireworks can ignite a marriage into aggressive and destructive conflict. However, there can be such a thing as too few fireworks, which doesn’t just leave the marriage dull but potentially harmful in a different way.

In graduate school, one of the first things we were taught is that we had to worry more about the couples who weren’t having any conflict than about the couples that were having some conflict.  The absence of conflict is too often indicative of too much distance in a marriage, or an imbalance of one partner continually sacrificing individual desires for the other partner.

It’s so important to realize that if you are married to a partner who has a “peace at any price,” mentality, this is high risk for negative elements to creep into the marriage.  It’s easy to pick up on this dynamic in therapy.  One partner will start complaining that the other partner isn’t complying with a rigid set of rules for something, and when the other partner begins to state why he/she doesn’t think it should be such a big deal, the louder partner gets more upset and emotional and the other partner backs off and goes quiet and gives up trying to protest.

Partners who require compliance from their spouses unfortunately don’t even realize that they are creating damage, because their partners aren’t saying enough, if anything, about it.  When one partner is allowing a continual boundary violation, it’s bad for the marriage.  Over time, here’s what happens.

  1. Resentment builds in the quieter partner, but it’s not worth risking conflict to talk about it, so it continues to grow.
  2. The partner who gives in all the time is more likely to hide behavior from the other partner to avoid facing conflict.
  3. Overall trust in the relationship diminishes because the louder partner never quite knows what’s going on with the other partner, so the dynamic generates suspicion, which generates more control, and the cycle repeats, pushing the quieter partner away.
  4. The quieter partner is more likely to turn away to connect to someone or something else because the louder, more demanding partner feels too risky to connect with—there’s a continual feeling of conditional acceptance, i.e., “You will only love me if I do what you want.”

No one wants to be parented by a spouse.  Be aware that if you have a partner who gives in all the time, and you never have conflict, you might be creating resentment without even realizing it.  I see this happen over and over and over—and it can take decades before the quieter partner finally can’t take it anymore and disconnects from the relationship completely.

Couples who live together in close emotional proximity are going to step on each other’s toes.  It’s highly unlikely to be able to get close to someone without conflict.  Conflict can help you know your other partner better and can provide the possibility for negotiation.  It puts the relationship on center stage rather than the desires of one partner.  Think of it like sandpaper, smoothing away rough edges for a better fit and finish.

Years ago, a friend of mine who overheard a marital spat between my husband and me declared self-righteously that she would “not have any arguing,” in her home because it was just unacceptable.  I felt terrible for days afterward until my husband and I went out with her and her husband.  All night long I observed that anything she told him to do, he did without protest, and she had a long list of rigid demands.  She monitored what he wore, what he ate, and how he behaved in social settings.

I never cease to be amazed by wives who think it’s their job to manage their husbands so carefully.  I just did not grow up with that kind of control, and as a therapist, I view it as very unhealthy and intrusive.  A spouse is a separate, unique individual–not an idealized extension of oneself.

When we got home, I whined to my husband, “It’s not fair—it’s easy for her to not have conflict in her house because her husband just does everything she says.  She’s ten times bossier than I am, but you’re not compliant like her husband—if I had a husband like that, I wouldn’t have conflict in my home either.”  “Do you want a husband like that?” my husband asked.  “No!  Boyfriend needs to get a backbone!”  I exclaimed.  “Exactly,” he agreed.

About 15 years later, that couple got divorced.  The husband got tired of not having a voice and by the time he let his wife know, all his feelings for her were coated with resentment and he was unwilling to work on the marriage.  Any variation of, “my way or the highway,” comes with risk of slowly destroying interpersonal relationships. High control can be a lot more problematic than people realize.

This is a co-created dynamic.  The partner who doesn’t set boundaries to avoid conflict is as much at fault as the partner with the demands, because failure to communicate is unspoken agreement.  It’s easy to blame the more demanding partner, but the placating partner has as much to do with keeping the negative pattern going.

Evaluate your marriage.  If you are always getting your way, there is something seriously wrong.  If you are always giving in, you’re hurting your marriage.

I’m not promoting contention.  High levels of conflict can be as much or more damaging.  I’m merely encouraging the acceptance of normative conflict in close relationships and suggesting that it can provide some value for eventual intimacy.

In short, be willing to risk a few sparklers now to prevent an M-80 of resentment from blowing your relationship apart.

Reference:

Reconceptualizing Marital Conflict: A Relational Perspective by J.A. Ostenson and M. Zhang (2014) in Journal of Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology, 34(4), 229-242.

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Couples, Couples Therapy, Love, marriage

If Money is Your Biggest Marital Problem, Money Might not be Your Biggest Marital Problem

money coupleIf my husband and I are out with another couple and there is a lull in the conversation, we can usually spark interest by bringing up the fact that we lived in a mortuary during the early years of our marriage.  Back then, newlywed and college poor, we jumped on the opportunity to live in a mortuary apartment and answer the phone at nights and on weekends in exchange for free rent and utilities.  As a bonus, we had a natural backdrop to create a spook alley on the way up the stairs to our front door.  We felt so lucky.

When my husband called my father and asked if he could propose to me, my father replied, “Go write up a financial plan for how you’re going to pay for it and call me back,” trying to scare him off. Undeterred, we jointly created a proposal for how we would support ourselves through college while married.  We spent the entire summer working in California, saving all of our money for the upcoming year.  We were so disciplined about hoarding our paychecks and not going out that my mom handed me a wad of cash and begged me to “go on a date already–you’re driving me crazy being here all the time.”

I had spent the previous year as a family financial planning major, believing that I would have a niche as a marriage therapist with a financial planning background.  I changed my major when a graduate school advisor told me if I really wanted to be accepted to a top marriage therapy program, I would need a bachelor’s degree geared toward therapy experience.  That financial planning year was valuable, however, in teaching me the importance of having a unified financial plan in marriage, not just for financial security, but for increased marital unity and happiness.

If someone asked you what married couples argue about the most, money would likely be at or near the top of your list. Although many publications purport that money is the leading cause of divorce or the number one conflict in marriage, studies with any statistical rigor addressing the topic are extremely scarce and don’t necessarily support that assertion.

One relatively recent diary study, in which couples kept daily reports of their conflicts, actually found that the number one topic of conflict was children.  Next were chores, communication and leisure.  Money came in fifth and sixth on the list.  In another study, more marital conflict about money was predictive of lower marital quality, but not of divorce.

Interestingly, although money as a topic of conflict was lower on the list for both husbands and wives, it was associated with higher levels of negative emotions and lower levels of resolution.  When couples did argue about money, they reported experiencing more sadness and fear and more expressions of anger and hostility than with other issues.

In other words, couples didn’t necessarily fight about money the most, but when they did argue about it, they argued hard without solving the problem.

Money does come up in therapy somewhat regularly as a conflict area in marriage.  These are some common ways money becomes problematic:

  1. Financial dishonesty.  Common examples are when a spouse finds out another one charged up debt on a hidden credit card or when one spouse spends retirement money without telling the other.  Purchasing items and hiding them from a partner also happens relatively frequently.
  2. Lack of planning.  Couples either don’t know how or are too uncomfortable to experience the emotions necessary to have financial conversations, so they turn a blind eye and end up avoiding money.
  3. Disagreement about purchases.  It’s common to see couples who fundamentally disagree about how money should be spent.  A common narrative is a husband who wants to make large purchases, e.g. automobiles or electronics vs. a wife who spends more on household items than the husband thinks is necessary.

While it is true that a certain level of income is required for security, research shows that money and happiness has more to do with relativism than absolutism.  In other words, once you reach a certain income level, an increase in income won’t necessarily make you happier.  If you feel well off compared to those around you, you will experience more well-being related to money, but if you feel deprived compared to those around you, you will experience more unhappiness.

I have had people from many different economic backgrounds in therapy, from couples at the poverty level to couples who could purchase my net worth several times over, and I can attest to the fact that money doesn’t protect people from marital problems.  In fact, sometimes more money means more baseline expectations as well as more disagreement about how to distribute resources.

Money also doesn’t usually fix communication problems, in-law problems, parenting problems, sexual problems, betrayal, abuse, addictions or other common challenges.  I have noticed that sometimes money is used as a band-aid for some of those problems, but the fix is temporary.  Money can only mask other areas of discontent for so long.

It is for that reason that I believe money is often not the biggest problem when it comes to money in marriage.  In my observation, the biggest problem is a lack of respect, teamwork and unity.

My husband built a career from a computer science background, which seemed like a solid choice at the time, but came with some unpredictable ups and downs associated with economic globalization.  During one of the down turns, when a company for which he worked went out of business, I started to mildly panic about our future income.

As I thought about it, I recalled the early days of our marriage. Even though that time of our life had been far more financially restrictive than our current situation, I realized that I was no happier in the present with more financial resources than I had been in the past living in a mortuary.  I remembered how we had bonded around maximizing our scarce resources.  Because we were working together on common future goals, we tolerated our economic scarcity with a fair level of contentment.  I realized I could access the same attitude I had used back then in the present to deal with the economic setback.

While financial catastrophes can create conflict-inducing stress in a marriage, there are couples who experience severe financial strain without allowing it to impact their marital quality.

I had a neighbor whose husband had been unemployed for several years.  His area of expertise had become less marketable.  I noticed that his wife never spoke disparagingly about him.  She held his hand when they were out.  She was tired and stressed, and felt the burden of raising her children while getting a job herself, but she was focused on helping him integrate back into the workforce until he got a job in another state.  Instead of blaming or criticizing him, she was focused on solving the problem with him.  I marveled at her attitude when I had witnessed so much of the opposite as a marriage therapist.

For what it’s worth, as a marriage therapist and not as a financial expert, here are some tips for unifying around finances:

  1. Do not keep financial secrets.  It will only erode trust.  This happens a lot.  I was always surprised at how many women I knew hid their purchases from their husbands.
  2. Try to honor each other’s’ dreams.  This is where the Golden Rule might be effectively applied.
  3. Get help from an expert if needed.  If you can’t afford it, some universities or local organizations might offer financial planning or tax planning help. Ask.
  4. Create financial goals in the near and far future.  If you need to, create a Venn diagram in which you write each of your desires and identify the overlap in the middle where you both agree.
  5. In times of financial distress, remember that it’s the marriage against the problem.  Don’t allow the problem to divide the marriage.  Have an “us against the dragon,” attitude.
  6. Realize that to have financial conversations, you are probably going to have to be willing to tolerate some uncomfortable emotions.  Financial worries can trigger anxiety around future security, self-esteem and marital power and worth. Anchor yourselves to the idea that you are a team planning for the future.

Perhaps nothing has been pontificated about more than the topic of love and money.  Despite my general dislike for the country music genre (just an individual preference—don’t take it personally—my daughter-in-law loves country music and I adore her), I was drawn to a Garth Brooks quote that declared, “You aren’t wealthy until you have something money can’t buy.”  As a marriage therapist, I enthusiastically agree with that–as well as the Beatles lyrics that “Money can’t buy me love.”  Really, it can’t.

References:

For Richer, for Poorer: Money as a Topic of Marital Conflict in the Home by Papp, L. M., Cummings, E. M., & Goeke-Morey, M. C. (2009), Family Relations, 58, 91-103.

The Role of Money Arguments in Marriage by Britt, S. L. & Huston, S. J. (2012), Journal of Family and Economic Issues, 33(4), 464-476.

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