Couples, marriage

How to Start a Marital Argument with Mind Reading

14358323 - funny wedding symbol - game overMy husband and I were recently asked to participate in a Newlywed Game activity with other couples in front of several hundred people at a summer camp for adolescent girls.  I feel pressure at events like these because someone always manages to harass me with some version of “OK Mrs. Marriage Therapist Lady—let’s see what you’ve got.”  It’s as if my entire professional career hangs in the balance of reading my husband’s mind for answers to 5 questions.  In my estimation, the Newlywed Game is just mind reading for dummies, AKA “How to pick a fight with your spouse without even trying.”

On the way up in the car, my husband suggested that we practice.  I was feeling good about our matched responses when he pointed out that, “Their questions aren’t going to be this easy—you know they are going to think of obscure questions to ask.”  At my agreement, he directed me to “think of some obscure questions.”  “Umm…I think by definition obscure questions are….obscured, so….questions we aren’t supposed to be able to figure out,” I responded.  “Yeah,” my husband agreed, “but you’re a marriage therapist—so think of some,” which sounded a lot like, “Dance, puppet!”  “Again,” I repeated, slower this time, “By definition, obscure questions are…” “Oh never mind,” he cut me off and wondered aloud why I had to be so difficult.

Sure enough, right out of the gate, the first question, to husbands, was, “My wife is a natural born (blank).”  “Wow,” I thought, “This is going to be worse than I thought—so many choices—I hope he’s nice.”  I quickly wrote “Reader,” crossing my fingers that my husband would recall the many times I had recounted my obsession with the kindergarten book corner.

We were chosen to reveal our answers first.  Feeling optimistic, I held up my card simultaneously with my husband’s, which was met with an eruption of laughter.  “Oh no,” I asked, “What did you write?”  He showed me his card which radiated “LOVER,” in all caps, underlined in bright red ink.  I raised my eyebrows and threw up my hands, mouthing “Wha….???” conveying, “Of all the available words in the English language, you really chose the word, ‘lover,’ dripping with a variety of potentially salacious interpretations…in front of the youth?”  He whispered, “I was about to write ‘reader,’ but that sounds boring and you’re definitely not boring.”  “OK, can you please remember that we are going for accuracy and not scandal?” I entreated.

I was excited that we were in the running for the win when wives were asked, “Name something that your husband is good at that no one else knows about.”  I enthusiastically scribbled “Juggling,” with hurried penmanship, desperately attempting to telepathically transmit my answer to my spouse.

As the answers were revealed, a few couples got a match on “Golf.” “Lame,” I judged, “That’s cheating…basically a safe answer that technically doesn’t meet the standards of something ‘other people don’t know about.’”  I felt fleetingly virtuous and hopeful about my legitimate response before my complete deflation when the moderator frowned and pronounced our answers a mismatch.  I turned toward my husband, “What did you…Waterskiing?  Seriously?  That’s not something people don’t know about!”

“But can he juggle while waterskiing?” someone heckled.

“Well,” he explained, “I was about to put ‘juggling,’ but then I decided I’m really not good at juggling.”  “No,” I argued, “Compared to a professional juggling circus clown you’re not good.  Compared to the average population, you’re really good.”  He rolled his eyes.  “Plus,” I continued, “People know you waterski.”  “People don’t know I waterski,” he contested.  “Are you kidding me?” I was so confused, “You have two different ski boats in our driveway alternating all summer long depending on your mood for the wake you want to ski that day.  I think the cat’s out of the bag…people know you waterski…at least more than know you juggle.”  “But I’m not good at juggling,” he repeated, which just increased my frustration.  He was focusing on the first part of the question and I was focusing on the last part.  “Just stop. We aren’t going to agree on this,” I declared, and he was happy to drop it.

A half hour later when we walked into the camp of our local congregation, the camp cook called out to me, “Hey Lori, the first thing the girls said when they walked into camp is that your husband told everyone you are a natural born lover.”  I shot him a look in “Told you so,” fashion.  Then, I explained our mismatch on the juggling question.  “But I’m not good at juggling,” he argued again.

“Watch…be amazed!” I told the group in front of us as I tossed him some oranges.  “Let them decide.  Juggle,” I ordered, which I’m sure sounded to him like “Juggle, clown!”  He was surprisingly cooperative as he smoothly juggled the oranges in the air, occasionally switching up his impromptu routine.  “We didn’t know you could juggle,” several people oohed and aahed.  “Right,” I made eye contact with him, “You didn’t.  That’s exactly my point.”  “But I’m not good,” he started in again.  “OK…right…you should probably keep your day job instead of running away with the circus, but you juggle well…at least well enough.  Observe…are they not entertained?” I gestured toward his adoring fans.  “OK, you were right.  I should have written juggling,” he conceded as I walked away, worn down by the struggle.

This exercise in futility reminded me of my first year of grad school in a marriage and family therapy.  We were taught how common and harmful “mind reading,” is in marriage.  Spouses frequently assume that they know what their partners are thinking and make judgments based on those assumptions, which then direct their behaviors.  We don’t bother to verify because we are so certain we are correct.

Mind reading is also a problem when one spouse expects the other to know what he/she is thinking.  A common example starts with the words, “You should have known….”  I can confidently report that this tendency is alive and well in the annals of “How can I ruin my marriage today?”  It might even be more common than the first type, and is at the core of many an anniversary fail.

In actuality, all of us are natural born mind readers.  Social convention requires it. Human interaction is founded upon assessing others in social settings.  We naturally decipher non-verbal signals, comparing them to verbals for congruency.  Then, we act accordingly.  In close personal relationships like marriage, we get so good at reading our partners that we are unwilling to admit when we get it wrong and almost offended when they think differently than we do.

Did you notice what happened when my husband and I disagreed?  I tried to persuade him that my thinking was right.  He tried to convince me that his thinking was correct.  What we didn’t do was get curious about the other’s view and ask for more understanding or even take the time to try to see it from an alternative perspective.  Our cognitive biases are so fixed that it requires active intention to consider alternative explanations from our own.

The antidote to mind reading is to ask for understanding and to toy with the idea that someone else’s viewpoint might be valid…and not necessarily threatening to the relationship.

My husband I were both right…sort of…if you understand where we were both coming from.  Yes, there are many humans who juggle better than my husband, and yes, there are many people who don’t know he water-skis, and the bottom line is we were both disappointed that we didn’t mind read accurately for the win.

But we will be so prepared to win next time…especially if I can predict all of those obscure questions.

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Couples, marriage, Uncategorized

Embracing “How are we Even Married?” Moments in Marriage

69304027 - woman and man on a boring bad date at the restaurantI was at dinner with my husband the other night when I heard a song by Led Zeppelin playing in the background.  “Play ‘Name that band with me,’” I urged.  He looked up, “Is there music playing?  How do you even notice that?”  I could tell he was stalling.  “Come on, play with me,” I pleaded.  “You know I don’t care who sings what and I’m terrible at that game,” he resisted.  I played the game constantly with my youngest son, who shared my obsession for recognizing songs and bands.  “You’ll know this one, come on, just listen to it.”  He leveled his gaze at me and guessed, unblinking, “OK—Depeche Mode.”

It took me a speechless second to process whether he was serious.  I couldn’t tell, based on his deadpan expression.  My mind floated back to when we first met.  He knew Depeche Mode had been my favorite group, and he made it clear he despised their music.  On rare occasion, he would barely tolerate it for me.  Once, I answered the phone and heard “I Just Can’t Get Enough,” blaring on the other end.  I was certain it was the one friend I had found in my neighborhood who shared my love of 80’s alternative music.  I was shocked to find out it was my husband.  He finally responded to my “Hello-Hello-Hellos,” yelling over the music, “This is Depeche Mode, isn’t it?  You love Depeche Mode.”  “Yeah,” I hesitated, “but you hate Depeche Mode.”  This was weird.  What was he up to?  “I don’t mind fun Depeche Mode,” he said.  “I just don’t like that dark crap.”

My mind shot back to the present task at hand—making sense out of the fact that my husband had really just said out loud that a Led Zeppelin song was sung by Depeche Mode.  “For real?” I clarified, “How are we even married?  That’s your real live guess?  Are you trying to hurt me?”  He shrugged, reinforcing his disinterest in the song’s artists and silently asserting that if I was going to make him guess, he was going to come up with the worst guess possible.

I prodded, “Come on, LISTEN to the voice—you know that doesn’t sound a thing like Depeche Mode—it’s not even the same genre.  Just guess!”  “OK—AC/DC,” he conceded.  “Phew—OK that’s closer—you had me worried.”  He shrugged again, “You know I don’t care about that.”  “Yeah, I KNOW,” I snapped, irritated at his lack of effort.

Even though these moments seem trivial, they can be momentarily disconnecting.  How could he care so little about something that had always been energizing for me?  “Hey,” he interrupted my reverie, smiling, “I still love you even if I’m not as passionate about music as you are.”  He sensed my disconnect and was reaching out for reconnection.  I slid my hand across the table, “I know,” I responded as he took my hand, “Plus, I still have decades left to influence you.”

In my experience with couples, most of them can be fairly mismatched in many of their interests.  Sometimes it can feel distressing in contrast to the resonance experienced by realizing shared pursuits.  There is a natural attraction for people who like what we like.  We feel understood at some level.

It’s important for couples to know that dissimilar interests aren’t bad.  As long as couples agree about major life decisions and have common long-term goals, having different interests can enhance the marriage.

In short, EVERYONE has “How are we even married?” moments.  If my husband were writing this post, he would probably mention that I don’t share his same fascination with slalom water-skiing, among other things.

Later that week, my son and I were driving in the car with my husband when “Shake the Disease,” shuffled on from my 80’s playlist, and my husband remarked, “THIS is Depeche Mode, right?”  “I don’t know—isn’t this Led Zeppelin?” I called over my shoulder to my son in the backseat.  “No, it’s definitely Depeche Mode,” my husband interrupted, “See,” he offered his hand to me, “I do pay attention sometimes.”

In that moment, I felt authentic gratitude for my husband’s efforts.  I knew that at the core, he really had no personal interest in music and was trying to connect again.  In this instance, our dissimilar interests highlighted my value to him.  He was attempting to understand something that mattered to me and only because it mattered to me.  It was a perfect example of how differences can actually be used as a source of attachment security.

And that is one of the great reasons to be married.

 

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Couples, Uncategorized

Some Surprisingly Good News About Long-Term Marriages

11217757 - senior couple relaxing in gardenThis week I called my husband and fretted, “Life as I know it is officially over.”  “Why?” he answered with a sigh that exasperated, “What now?”  “Thanks for asking,” I continued, ignoring the eye-rolling I heard on the other end of the phone, “When I was at the checkout line at the store, the female checker asked me if I was over 55 to see if I qualified for the senior discount.”

Silence.

Finally, “Is that it?” he prodded.  The eye rolling got louder.  “Honey, I just turned 50 less than a year ago and she shoved me half of a decade toward 60, and stop rolling your eyes at me!”  He sighed again, “You remember that I’m older than you, right?  It’s probably because you look so wise.”  “Is that supposed to be funny?” I countered, adding vocal intensity for emphasis.  “How old was she, 19?” he consoled, “They think anyone over 40 is elderly.”

I wish it hadn’t bothered me, but it’s one of my flaws—worrying about getting old—maybe because I watched my mom’s health deteriorate before she passed away, bringing my own limited mortality into sharp focus.  Later that evening, I was still mildly ruminating over the exchange and approached my husband again.

Me:  Do you want to know something about me?

Him:  That you have a low frustration tolerance?  I already know that.

Me:  No!  But it’s related.  I really really really really really really—how many reallys is that?  Multiply it by ten—hate getting old.  I’m trying not to, but I’m REALLY not happy about it.

Him:  Why?  It’s fun!

Me:  What?  It’s the opposite of fun—there is one thing it’s not and it’s called fun.

Him:  We are getting old together—that’s what makes it fun.

I must admit I admire his attitude.  He continually insists that he is “more in love,” with me than when we got married.  The cynic in me expresses doubt at these declarations, but I came across an encouraging study recently suggesting that maybe he’s telling the truth.

Researchers interviewed 274 randomly-selected participants in long-term marriages in a national sample to find out how in love they would say they were on a scale of 1 to 7 where 1 was “not at all in love,” and 7 was “intensely in love.”  They were surprised that 46.3% of women and 49% of men reported that they were “very intensely in love,” which was the most common response.  Even for people married 30 years or more, 40% of men and 35% of women reported that they were very intensely in love.  A replication study of a New York State sample reflected similar results.

The researchers also identified several strong love correlates.  The couples were more likely to report being intensely in love if they also reported these characteristics:

  1. Thinking about the partner in positive ways. 
  2. Thinking about the partner when not together. 
  3. Physical affection. More physical affection in the relationship was predictive of “very intensely in love,” responses.  Not a single individual who reported a complete absence of physical affection in the relationship also reported being very intensely in love.
  4. Sexual frequency. Sexual frequency was unsurprisingly correlative with intense love relationships.  Couples with intensity were more likely to answer that their bodies responded when touched by their partners.
  5. Doing novel and challenging things together. Doing any activities together is associated with higher marital happiness, but novel and challenging things seem to increase the intensity of love relationships.
  6. Generally being happy. In short, people with high levels of global happiness were more likely to report being intensely in love.
  7. Wanting to know the whereabouts of the partner. I thought this was interesting.  This was associated with “very intense love,” for men but not for women, which might make the fact that my husband uses the “find friends,” app to know where I am less creepy, and might explain why I never care to look at it to see where he is.

These findings are consistent with earlier research showing that when many people married long-term were shown pictures of their romantic partners compared to other close friendships, their brains lit up in the reward centers, like people in early romantic relationships.  Researchers used to think people in long-term marriages were doomed to a less intense “companionate,” love, suggesting more friendship than passion.  However, recent research is dispelling that myth.  Couples can have enduring intensity in love relationships.

My experience with many couples is that they are waiting for love to “happen,” to them.  They take a passive approach.  Even though the correlates outlined in this study can be a “chicken or the egg,” question, I 100% believe people can upregulate passion and intensity in their long-term romantic love relationships.  Personally, I can’t imagine taking a passive stance.  If you are married, do what you can to make the most of it!

This study is good news for couples who want to grow old together, which I must admit, makes the process seem a lot less scary.

References:

Does a long-term relationship kill romantic love? (2009) by Acevedo, B. P. & Aron,A. in Review of General Psychology, 13(1), 59-65. Doi: 10.1037/a0014226

Is long-term love more than a rare phenomenon?  If so, what are its correlates? (2012) by O’Leary, K. D., Acevedo, B. P., Aron, A., Huddy, L., & Mashek, D. in Social Psychological and Personality Science, 3(2), 241-249. Doi: 10.1177/1948550611417015

Neural correlates of long-term intense romantic love (2012) by Acevedo, B. P., Aron, A., Fisher, H. E., & Brown, L. L. In Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 7(2), 145-159.

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Couples, marriage, Uncategorized

Why the “Men are Pigs” Narrative is Flawed

12285202 - crazy man. man wearing pig suit over gray background

If you read the title and thought, “Well, she doesn’t know my husband,” I admittedly don’t.  Trust me, I have met with plenty of men who model unfavorable gender stereotypes when it comes to sexuality.  However, I have met with many more who are far more relationally complex in their sexuality than modern western culture leads people to believe.

I felt validated by a recent Canadian study exploring the tenets of male sexual desire among 30-65-year-old heterosexual men in long-term relationships lasting 2.5 years or more.  The study used a small sample size (n=30) typical of qualitative studies, but the findings were so congruent with my experience with men in therapy that I wanted to shed light on the topic.  In essence, the authors wanted to know if the way men really feel about sex fits the predominant sexual scripts imposed on them in society.

In short, what elicits sexual desire and what inhibits sexual desire for adult men in long-term relationships?

The common expectation imposed on men is that they will have higher sexual desire than their female partners–pretty much always–and that they will generally have a high enduring interest in sex in general.  A basic assumption is that male sexual desire is independent of emotional closeness or relationship quality fluctuations.

However, the study found that male sexual desire was highly tied to relationships.  This did not surprise me at all.  The study reflected what I consistently see with most men in long-term marriages.

The three most common themes associated with evoking sexual desire were:

  1. Feeling desired—the majority of participants described this. This is incongruent with a social norm that men are the ones who should do the wanting.  Females often underestimate the importance of communicating desire for male partners, believing instead that they are the ones to be desired.  Please, can we just normalize the female sex drive already???!!!!!  Best way to communicate desire for a male partner:  initiate sex, which was described as the “ultimate expression or reassurance,” communicating “I (still) want you.” BAM!  I have explained this in therapy so many times I am sick of hearing myself say it out loud.  Need inspiration?  Play Cheap Trick’s I Want You to Want Me, circa 1979.  Catchy and straight to the point. (What? I’m old?  Yeah, I know).
  2. Exciting and unexpected sexual encounters—this was most often presented in the context of spontaneity. Kind of like—“Do you realize this is the first time we are actually in our house alone without children for the first time in 127 consecutive days? What should we do about it?” Extra points if that question comes from the wife—as an integration with #1.
  3. Intimate communication—defined as intelligent exchanges with talking and laughing.  Men explained that talking was actually connecting for them, which led to more intimate sexual encounters.  A lot of men said that they wished they could talk about the sexual relationship with their partners.  I can verify that this is a healthy and advisable process—it creates more possibilities for increased sexual quality.  Unfortunately, I can also verify that many couples struggle talking about their sex lives, and in my experience women are generally more avoidant and uncomfortable about it.  If you struggle with this, start with just discussing what it would be like to be able to talk about sexuality, or talk about what makes it hard for you, or what gets uncomfortable when you think about it?

The factors inhibiting sexuality were mostly things that inhibited general relationship closeness. 

The three most common were:

  1. Rejection—this is HUGE and way too many wives underestimate the profoundly devastating impact on their partners—mostly because men do such a good job of hiding their hurt by numbing, turning away, becoming dismissive, or transforming it into anger. They rarely talk about how painful sexual rejection really is.  In my therapy experience, it’s one of the most painful rejections and can have a long-term impact.  These men often stop initiating, and some wives experience that as favorable, or being “off the hook,” when in reality it is creating gargantuan relationship distance which can be difficult to repair.  Rejecting your partner makes you untrustworthy.
  2. Physical ailments and negative health characteristics.  This can be extra challenging if the physical ailment is directly affecting sexual performance.
  3. Lack of emotional connection with partner—This is where some people might be surprised and I’m not surprised at all–men commonly want to feel connected when having sex with their wives. Many of the respondents said they would still have sex if their wives initiated, but their desire would be lower.  This is an area where women may be generally different.  More women might outright refuse sex than participate with a disconnected partner, while men MIGHT be more willing to participate in sex even with lower desire, but they still described preferring emotional connection.  Most of them said their emotional connection was entwined with their physical desire.

The big takeaway here is that the men’s answers were so similar to what we know from studies of women and reported sexual desire.  Male sexual desire waxes and wanes in long-term relationships with other relationship variables.

In our sexcentric society, multiple casual, disconnected and meaningless sexual encounters are presented as the norm, while co-created meaningful sexual encounters in long-term relationships seem almost non-existent.  However, in my clinical experience, both men and women generally have greater sexual desire when the emotional relationship is safe and healthy and when mutuality is high, meaning both partners want to participate.  We limit ourselves in marriage when we categorize our partners according to socially projected stereotypes.  We limit ourselves even more when we allow the media to inform our sexual relationship expectations.

Before you feel the urge to email or message me about your stereotypically hypersexual and insensitive husband, I can assure you I already know those humans exist.  So do mean, critical, withholding wives.  So do emotionally disconnected wives.  My point is that before you write off your spouse, take some time to get to know him individually and try to suspend preconceived malicious intent.  If you can do that, you can generate different possibilities for connection…as in WE WE WE….all the way home.

Reference:

A Qualitative Exploration of Factors That Affect Sexual Desire Among Men Aged 30 to 65 in Long-Term Relationships (2017) by Murray, S. H., Milhausen, R. R., Graham, C. A., & Kuczynski, L. in The Journal of Sex Research, 54(3), 319-330.

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Addictions, Uncategorized

Never Fight Another Craving! A Friendlier Way to Kick Habits & Recover from Addiction

55759548 - old habits new habits - blackbord with text and iconI am pleased to be publishing this guest post by a very respected colleague and friend, Dr. Mark Chamberlain,  who has extensive expertise working with individuals and couples dealing with various addictions.  I frequently recommend couples to his book and blog referenced below. This post describes an alternative strategy to fighting urges in addictions:

Two potent drives keep vying for the driver’s seat of our lives. One is the inclination to succumb to our cravings; the other, an equally potent desire to fight those cravings. Neither lasts long at the controls before the other gets restless and ramps up again, going to great lengths to take back the steering wheel, convinced that its map to happiness is the right one.

Our feelings are somewhat mixed, obviously, but we tend to spend most of our time in “fight those cravings” mode, pitching in and throwing our weight on that side of the tug-of-war. We never suspect that the way we fight our cravings actually helps keep us stuck in unwanted habits. 

But think about it: fighting is just as reactive as succumbing. In both modes our nervous systems get cranked up and our perception narrows to tunnel vision. Both also tend to operate silently, keeping us closed-off from others and stuck in our own inner world and typically involve behavior patterns that are familiar and repetitive in nature.

Fortunately, there’s a better way to go about kicking a habit. Instead of this roller coaster of resisting and succumbing, we can adopt a friendly, collaborative mentality toward both our cravings and our desire to fight. 

Like the “fight or flee” reflex and the “seek and succumb” reflex, this new approach taps into a basic human survival mode. It’s our “tend and befriend” instinct. 

What Is “Tend & Befriend”?

“Tend and befriend” behavior, a term coined by UCLA professor Shelley Taylor, is an instinctive way of thinking and acting that helps us deal with stresses and threats in a very unique way. It leads us to seek connection and collaboration instead of preparing for warfare or surrender. Instead of keeping us at odds, it gets us back in rapport with ourselves and others. 

Whereas our “fight or flee” reflex releases the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol and the “seek and succumb” reflex releases the pleasure chemical dopamine, “tend and befriend” mode releases the “cuddle and connect” chemical, oxytocin. 

No matter how high we ratchet up our efforts to fight cravings or how long we keep trying to fight, the stress hormones that get released simply don’t provide good long-term protection or boost our immunity to destructive behavior patterns. The “cuddle and connect” hormones, on the other hand, last longer in our system and have a much more settling effect. 

The “fight and flee” and “seek and succumb” reflexes ratchet up our sense of drivenness and put us in a closure-seeking, yearning for completion mode of operation. We keep feeling antsy until we reach the goal our nervous system circuitry has locked onto. “Tend and befriend”, on the other hand, is itself a settled state. It is accompanied by a sense of resolution. It’s our brain’s way of registering, “closure achieved”. And that is what enables this friendlier approach to sustain more successful change over the long haul. We can carry on with our lives over longer and longer periods without going back to addictive behaviors, eventually giving them up for good.

How Can We Tend & Befriend Our Way to Freedom from Bad Habits?

1. Reach out for understanding to dissipate distress. When we feel out of sorts, our sense of neediness can build and build, making us more and more susceptible to bad decisions. Fortunately, our nervous system has a release valve, and it’s opened when we voice our vulnerability to a loved one and we sense that they empathize with the hard time we’re having. Empathy is the Holy Grail of the Tend and Befriend mode, providing us with an inexplicably potent emotional sustenance. 

2. Come up with a diminutive, an endearing nickname, for your craving. See if you can make it a nickname that highlights the good in that part of you and gives her the benefit of the doubt. “Sweet Tooth” works better than “Glutton” and something like “Soother” may work better than “Escape Artist”. Start calling your craving self by name and take the time to get to know what makes him tick. 

3. Record “wanting selfies”. When a craving hits, use your phone to record a video. Put into words what it’s like to want to give in. Say what you want to do and why it seems so attractive right now. Describe what you feel in your body as you pay attention to that wanting. You are giving your inner craver her say instead of giving her her way. Now watch the “wanting selfie” you just recorded. Adopt the mindset of a curious, compassionate supportive self who wants to understand and learn how to better collaborate with this inner craver. 

4. Extend compassion toward your craving self. When your inner craver tugs at your consciousness, give him your full attention in a caring way. Tell him you understand that this is a moment of wanting, and when we don’t follow through right away on our wants we feel deprived, and deprivation is a form of suffering. Assure him that his desires are real and understandable. Let him know that you get how potent his feelings are and that, because he’s important to you, his feelings are important to you. 

5. Comfort your craving self with a pat on the back or a hug. Reach back and place your palm on the back or your neck or between your shoulder blades. Or try wrapping your arms across your chest like you’re giving yourself a hug. In your mind, let your craving self know that you’re sorry you’ve been at war with her and that you have no intention of treating her that way anymore

6. Give a hero’s welcome to your holdout. Hiroo Onoda, the last known holdout Japanese soldier, emerged from hiding in the jungle of a Philippine island in 1974, three decades after World War II ended. He returned to Japan to a hero’s welcome. You may not usually agree with the objectives for which your craving self has been fighting. But you have to hand it to him: he’s kept trying to do his best to give you what he thinks you should want. Celebrate his persistence and heart, even as you ask him to hand over his sword. 

7. Prioritize connection to lessen the frequency and strength of cravings. Research has shown that spending time with loved ones, physical touch, and talking all release the “cuddle and connect” hormone, oxytocin. And increases in oxytocin diminish the strength of cravings and reduce drug-seeking behaviors in addicts. Amazingly, our time with loved ones doesn’t even have to feel peaceful or seem pleasing to have all these beneficial effects. Even periods of extended silence with a teen or the turmoil of dinner time with toddlers leaves us in a more stress-reduced, emotionally inoculated state. 

8. Empathize with the benevolent intent of your craving. Don’t stay caught up in its surface manifestation; let your craving know that you see its deeper desire for you. “Thank you for reminding me that life shouldn’t be all work and no play. I appreciate this unmistakeable signal that my life is starting to get out of balance.”

9. “Tend and befriend” loved ones to activate your own circuitry. You don’t need to wait to be tended and befriended; your “tend and befriend” system gets turned on whether you’re in a giving or receiving role. Get in the habit of giving your kids foot rubs before they go to bed. Become the one in your social circle who gives hugs freely. Massage your spouse’s shoulders or hold hands as you take a walk. Comb your pets hair–or your teenage daughter’s. Oxytocin dosin’ in these ways inoculates us in very real ways against future relapse risk.

You can develop a stronger, more cooperative relationship with your craving self. You can invest time cultivating closer, more satisfying relationships with others. Both of these will strengthen your efforts to abstain from self-defeating behaviors. These endeavors make up an entirely different way of increasing self-discipline. If you’re willing to do the work, human connection can become a healthy addiction for you, and it will be the last addiction you’ll ever need!

Mark Chamberlain is a psychologist and the Clinical Director at Suncrest Counseling, which offers intensive treatment for individuals and couples healing from addictions. He is the author of several books including Love You, Hate the Porn: Healing a Relationship Damaged by Virtual Infidelity and a blog on the same topic.

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Couples, marriage

Why that First Five Minutes at Home can be so Important in your Marriage

ritual.flowers

One evening, I stumbled home from work at 10:30 p.m., exhausted and fighting a pounding headache.  I staggered into my bedroom, sped through a bedtime routine and melted into bed.  A few minutes later, my husband walked into my room and demanded, “Hey, when did you come home?  Why didn’t you tell me you were home?”  I wearily replied, “I was exhausted.”  “You’re supposed to come find me,” he complained.

Was I detecting irritation in his voice?  “Why are you getting mad?  I was too tired to come find you,” I argued.  He sounded both frustrated and a little wounded as he continued, “I was waiting for you to come home.  I was looking forward to it, and then you just went to bed without even saying goodnight.”  “I didn’t know that and I didn’t think you would care,” I called to the back of his head as he walked out the bedroom door contesting back, “Why would you think that?  You always come find me.  You’re supposed to come find me.  Why would I not care?”

Wow.  He really was annoyed (and hurt) over such a small thing, in my perception.

This is a typical example of how the microprocess in a marriage ritual can be rich with meaning.

Importance of Family Rituals

 Marriage and family therapists have known for years how important rituals are in family life.  Rituals are more than just routines—they are special routines that bring significance and meaning to events and people.  In families, they serve several functions.  Here are some:

  1. Rituals aid identity development.  Shared rituals provide a sense of self in a particular context.  The “we-ness,” of rituals actually gives people meaning for who they are and where they fit in the world.
  2. Rituals provide predictability and safety. Predictability and safety provide a secure attachment base which aids confidence to individuals in exploring the world.
  3. Rituals increase positive memories and happiness in families. Even though the stereotype of the dysfunctional family Thanksgiving dinner is a heavily promoted scenario, many if not most of these holidays contain positive memories which aid happiness.
  4. Rituals are protective. Family rituals have been associated with decreased anxiety and depression in children and with increased marital and familial relationship quality.  They can be especially important in families where stability and structure are threatened, as in situations with a family member with a chronic illness.

Importance of Comings and Goings 

Marital rituals are a subset of family rituals and provide similar functionality.  Just like family rituals, there are different kinds:  Holidays, weekly dates, bedtime routines, etc.  What was reflected in my above example was a ritual of separation and coming together again.  When a couple is separating, or rejoining with each other, there is embedded attachment significance, which is why it is so important.  Saying goodbye or giving a spouse a kiss when you leave the house is a way of saying, “I will miss you, but I will keep you with me mentally while we are apart.  You matter to me.”  Finding a spouse when you come back home again is a way of signaling, “I missed you.”  It’s communicating that, “We are important together.”  It is the key to reconnecting after a physical disconnection.  My husband was wounded in a small way when I didn’t come find him because in part, it seemed like I didn’t care if I saw him and connected with him.  It was a mini-rejection.

Marital researcher John Gottman asserts that the first few moments of a couple reuniting after a separation are key in strengthening marital identity.  Reaching out to find a spouse to reconnect upon arriving home has the potential to set the relationship on a positive trajectory.

Bedtime Connection

People might be surprised at how often couples argue about bedtime.  In my clinical experience, a common point of contention is a marriage in which one partner wants to go to bed together and the other partner stays up or goes to bed earlier.  This isn’t primarily about sex (although that can be part of it)—it’s primarily about a sense of togetherness.  Some individuals protest the ongoing disconnection in the relationship that is maintained by differing bedtime schedules.

It’s probably not surprising that frequently, dissimilar bedtimes can be associated with lower marital quality, or that highly distressed couples are often not even sharing a bedroom.

“Lucy, I’m Home!”

One of the most iconic lines in TV land is Ricky Ricardo’s Cuban-accented, “Lucy, I’m home!” from the famous I Love Lucy 1950’s television series.  It has been referenced in modern media pop-culture, like in the ever popular Gilmore Girls.

I might be a simplistic optimist, but I actually believe that if more spouses followed Desi Arnaz’ example and bellowed, “(insert spouse name), I’m HOME,” we might actually see an increase in positive marital connection.  With or without the charming Cuban accent.  The flowers in the attached photo are also a nice touch–just sayin’.

However, if I had used Desi’s line in my aforementioned story, I wouldn’t have that awesome example to show how I completely sabotaged my own relationship connection. I, the marriage therapist, after spending an evening meeting with couples, had underestimated the importance of a small connection ritual.

You’re welcome.

Reference:

Family rituals in married couples: Links with attachment, relationship quality, and closeness. Crespo, Carla; Davide, Isabel N.; Costa, M. Emilia; Fletcher, Garth J. O., 2008, Personal Relationships, volume 15, issue 2, starting on page 191

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Couples, Couples Therapy, marriage

How Finding out About a Spouse’s Affair is Like a Death

finger wife cryingTears.  Lots of them.  “I am just so tired of hurting.  I want the pain to go away.”  As usual, my heart was breaking for the spouse sitting across from me who had recently discovered that her partner had an extramarital affair.  Like many spouses before, she declared, “Of all the things I thought I knew in the world, I was certain that my spouse would never in a million years be unfaithful and now I don’t know which way is up.  I can’t count on anything anymore.  All my safety is just completely washed away.”  “I am so sorry that this is so painful,” I offered, “I wish I could make that better for you—I really do, but the truth is that it is going to hurt for a long time.  Eventually, it won’t hurt as much, but when I say eventually, I mean that a year is short in affair healing time.”  Even though I’ve been doing therapy for a long time, the emotions still impact me.

I hate seeing people in pain.  I feel things deeply and enduringly, which is what drew me to the therapeutic profession.  I wanted to alleviate emotional suffering for people.  However, there are certain types of pain which need to be healed over the course of time, and sometimes tender emotional scars never go away.  Some of the deepest emotional pain I witness occurs in cases of grief and loss in which relationships with people are ended or intensely damaged.  The loss of human relationships through death, divorce or other means just hurts.  A lot.

Infidelity and Intense Grief

In cases of betrayal, sometimes people don’t understand the principles of grief and loss that are at play which complicate recovery.  Here is a typical presentation I’ll encounter maybe three months after the disclosure of an affair:

Betrayed partner:  “He couldn’t understand why I was still crying about the affair, and I tried to explain that it still hurts and he just got mad and asked why I couldn’t see that he was sorry and just focus on our future.  I don’t know why it’s still hurting so bad.  I’m embarrassed that it is still making me cry.  I don’t want to make him mad, but it hurts.”

Oh dear.

People who have betrayed their spouses don’t like to witness the pain they have caused because it makes them feel shame, which is uncomfortable.  They also commonly feel fear that this might be the emotional episode in which the spouse decides to leave.  Frequently, they get defensive and upset with their spouses for not healing fast enough.  Men in particular, as a general rule, have an aversion to tears and emotional pain resulting from something they have done in relationships.  They want to run from it, regardless of the cause or validity of the emotion.  They feel almost panicky and search for ways to “fix,” the emotion, which means make it stop.  I think it’s because they get so socialized out of feeling vulnerable emotion themselves that they literally have no idea what to do with it when their spouses display strong vulnerable emotion, at least in many instances.

How Infidelity is a Loss Issue

In cases like these, I normalize the intensity of emotional pain for both partners, but also try to help them understand the deep grief.  I have explained to many husbands, “This is a loss issue, and loss is always painful.”  “What do you mean loss?  I’m still here.  Why can’t she see that I’m trying to fix it and I’m sorry,” the husbands fire back.  I’ll explain, “She can see you, but first of all, she has no idea who you really are because you’re not who she thought you were, so she needs time and safe experiences with you to be able to even think about trusting you.  Second of all, she is still grieving the marriage she thought she had but doesn’t have and will never get back—the marriage in which her partner stayed faithful to her.  She married you with that expectation and has lost that dream.  She needs time to be sad over losing that marriage.”

When I explain this, partners can be a little more tolerant of the deep expression of emotions.  However, for some reason when it comes to emotional injuries, we want people to be better faster than is reasonable to expect—mostly because we don’t like feeling our own uncomfortable emotions when seeing emotional pain.

Physical Pain as a Metaphor for Emotional Pain

Sometimes if I compare the wound of infidelity to a physical injury, partners understand a little better.  “What if you had run over her with your car and she ended up in a body cast?  Would you be getting upset that she wasn’t walking in a week?  No, you wouldn’t, because you would know that the injury takes time to heal.  If while she was in a body cast she told you her pain was flaring up, would you say, ‘It’s been 6 weeks since I ran over you.  Why do you insist on focusing on the pain instead of looking ahead to the future?’  No, you wouldn’t, because you would realize that sometimes pain flares up.  Emotional injuries are the same.  You don’t get to argue with her about whether she is in pain.  Your job is to move toward her and say, ‘Show me where it hurts,’ as if it were a physical injury.  You can’t fix this for her, but you can just be with her and ask if there is anything you can to do reassure her or help her feel more comfortable or safe.  If there isn’t, you just sit with it.  If you want, you can talk about how uncomfortable and sad it is for you to see the pain you caused, but you can’t argue about whether the pain is valid or demand that she heals right away.”

Relationship loss is searing, no matter the type, and infidelity is a type of relationship loss.  Partners need time to grieve and be sad.  Most importantly, they need to be validated and comforted in their pain.  As long as it takes.

Again, people always want emotional pain from infidelity to heal faster than it does—both the betrayed partner and the offending partner.  My experience is that in affair time, it’s not uncommon to see people have deep emotional triggers regularly for at least two years.

If your partner betrayed you, know that the disorientation, fear and hurt are normal.  Give yourself time to grieve the loss of the marriage you thought you had, just like you would give yourself time to grieve the death of a loved one or a lost relationship.  Eventually, grief diminishes in intensity, but if grief is criticized and shut down by a partner instead of honored and respected, it will last longer.  Clinically, I tell people to write when they are experiencing episodes of grief.  Articulating pain through writing is a way to manage emotional intensity.  Intentional self-care and deep breathing and meditation can also be helpful.

You’re not crazy if you’re in intense pain months after discovering a spouse’s infidelity—you’re just a human with a big attachment injury.  I don’t know if time heals all wounds, because some wounds can persist for decades, but usually time does decrease emotional intensity.

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