Couples, Couples Therapy, marriage, Marriage and Family Therapy

The One Thing That Prevents Couples From Changing and the Question That Can Fix It

change is good photoI was walking through a store the other day when a simple painted sign stopped me in my tracks. It read, “Change is good….you go first.” I immediately picked it up to check the price, thinking, “I absolutely have to get this for my office.” It succinctly describes one of the biggest ongoing dilemmas I face as a marriage therapist. It sits on a small cupboard in an alcove halfway between the path from my waiting room to my office, and as I walk past it several times daily, I’m hoping it will somehow inspire my married couples who feel so stuck in their difficult relationships.

Why is it that so many people may have increased insight about what they might need to do to change their relationships and yet feel restricted from altering negative patterns that maintain relationship distress?

The short answer is fear. This might seem confusing at first. Many people are removed from any awareness that fear might be keeping them stuck. However, upon investigating the layers of emotion that lie beneath the frustration and unyielding hopelessness that are so close to the surface for most distressed couples, there are long-buried softer raw emotions that bear the scars of previous relationship wounds.

Years of distress are inevitably entwined with multiple instances of hurt and invalidation. The longer people experience relationship pain, the more they don armor laced with more protected emotions: frustration and anger, which feel more powerful, and distance us from additional potentially harmful circumstances, or numbness and apathy, which display a lack of feeling manifested from desensitization to repeated hurtful interactions.

Both emotions are effective in the short-term for protecting us from partners who have hurt us in the past and who might hurt us in the future. Unfortunately, they are emotions which also prevent the potentiality for safe emotional bonding and connection.  

When people are hurt in relationships over time, the hurt breeds fear of being hurt again. It’s easy for me to view it with a military metaphor, because sadly, it is illustrative of two people warring on different sides. In short, it’s as if couples are dug down in foxholes to protect themselves from verbal artillery from their partners. Each wants desperately to come out waving the white flag to invite a truce and repair, but each is afraid that if he/she comes out first, the other will still be armed and use figurative weapons to harm the now disarmed and vulnerable partner.

It’s a game of relationship chicken to see who will capitulates first, and is loaded with perception of being the weaker partner. Since neither wants to be weak nor wounded, both stay hunkered down in their fixed positions.

Ultimately, you cannot create secure emotional bonding without vulnerability, which means there is always the potential for harm. C.S. Lewis said it like this, “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.” 

In other words, couples will stay protected, but their relationships will likely be “irredeemable,” which means that they will not be saved, improved or corrected.

Many if not most couples continue to come to couples therapy hoping their partners will be the ones to make the first move, while they continue to stay protected from potential harm. I’m usually trying to create safety for both partners to simultaneously drop their weapons and risk new engagement outside of the figurative foxholes. This is a very common and yet tricky reality to navigate. The conundrum represents a large portion of my practice. Fear of hurt and/or rejection is a powerful emotion to combat.

A Simple Way to Risk

Soooo, what is a practical strategy to reach out while maintaining some level of scaffolding for safety? It’s like moving into the deep end of the pool knowing you have something to grab onto if you need it.

I think the answer lies in a simple question anyone can ask a partner: Ask, “What is one thing that would help you feel safer in our relationship?” The question is a relatively low risk way to signal a desire to reach out and acknowledges that the other partner might be just as afraid to risk in the relationship. By implying that you want to do something to make the relationship feel safer for the other partner, it communicates that you do not wish to cause further harm. It signals one’s disarmament.

I can’t say it’s a no-risk question, because it’s not. It could be rejected quickly, e.g. “Why do you care? Why are you asking now? Since when do you care about my safety in our relationship? I’ve been trying to tell you for years, so if you don’t know by now, you’ll never get it,” etc., etc., etc., etc.

Expect a response like that. Couples have a hard time trusting change. It’s typical to be wary of a partner’s authenticity. You will not make things worse by reassuring your partner that you are sincere. It’s diffusible with something like, “I want to do something different. I don’t want us to both hurt anymore. I’m sorry I didn’t get it sooner. I’m attuning right now. Do you see me trying right now?” It needs to be a soft response, connected to the authentic desire for compassion and repair.

I can’t make guarantees that taking a low-level risk won’t fail, but I can guarantee that going into the interaction intentionally can potentially shift the relationship in a small but significant way, changing the trajectory of the entire relationship from increased disconnection to possible connection.

I can guarantee, however, that if you stay hunkered down in your foxhole, waiting to emerge until you see that your partner is completely disarmed so you are certain you won’t get hurt again, you will likely find yourself in the relationship distress of conflict or distance which C.S. Lewis described as “unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.”

If you do shed your armor, you can always put it back on again.

You decide.



C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves, (2017) HarperOne.

Photo credit: Copyright: <a href=’’>elwynn / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

Couples, Couples Therapy, Love, Romance

Marriage Subscription Box Reviews 2018: Modern Love Box

modern love boxI’m writing about another excellent marriage date night subscription box company: The Modern Love Box.  This box was slightly more expensive than the box I previously reviewed, but totally worth it. The creators are a husband/wife team who recognize the importance of introducing novelty and the unexpected into a relationship, given that one of them is a relationship therapist who runs a private practice on the side. Their boxes are designed to promote connection and new experiences between partners via a ready-made date night. All the work is done for you, which is incredibly convenient. Customers can order single boxes centered around different themes, or pay for an annual subscription for boxes to be delivered in quarterly increments.

I chose the “Good Fortune,” box to try out with my husband and had no idea what to expect. To be honest, my expectations were low because I’ve been married for 30 years and was actively working toward a profession in marriage and family therapy before my husband and I were married. In other words, I have had decades of approaching my marriage like a marriage therapist, which includes being constantly on the search for new dating experiences. I often joke with my husband that we have “come to the end of the internet,” because it’s rare to find an idea I haven’t heard before. However, The Modern Love Box offered a genuinely new experience for date night.

The creators thought of everything. They included his and her notebooks to take notes about date night experiences for future reference. Besides questions to encourage discussion, the box included a book about various ways to determine one’s “fortune.” I never would have purchased it on my own nor viewed it as a couple activity; however, it’s presented as an interactive exercise in comparing “fortunes,” which led to new conversations. The exercise was the perfect balance between contemplative and light-hearted.

Another activity we had not done before was writing “wishes,” both for each other and for our marriage together and ceremoniously lighting them on fire to send them upward. Besides offering a new and whimsical experience, sharing the wishes cemented our dyadic commitment by identifying joint hopes for the future. In fact, this is the type of activity I routinely recommend as a relationship therapist.

The creators also included  materials to facilitate physical connection. Often, couples can  become either hyperfocused or avoidant of the sexual relationship forgetting how much other forms of intimacy can impact the quality of physical connection. From start to finish, the box includes elements designed to create emotional safety, which often leads to greater sexual safety and couple exploration of this important, intimate part of the relationship.

I will definitely be subscribing to The Modern Love Box because I’m confident that the creative team will not disappoint in their quarterly theme-related offerings. This would be a great idea for Valentine’s Day. In fact, the site is offering a discount for last year’s Valentine box.

Overall, it’s apparent that the contents are informed by a relationship therapist and a creative design expert. This company knows what it’s doing as far as promoting positive couple connection. I highly recommend!


Couples, Couples Therapy

Marriage Subscription Box Reviews 2018: Datebox Club


I’m so excited about this!

Since the new year is a time when people are generally more intentional about shaping the lives they want through goal-setting, I decided to sample and review some of the marital subscription boxes available online. This is a great time of year to start marriage anew by recommitting to date night. I have written a previous post referencing research related to the value of date night in marriage and the impact  of novel dating on marital quality, accessible here.

Now, several businesses are catering to our busy modern lifestyles by doing all the work for us. These boxes generally include theme-based date experiences which can be completed at home, so you don’t even need a babysitter. The boxes contain the required materials, and there is little to no prep-work for the dates. This is something I really wish had been available 25 years ago when I was scrambling for babysitters on a weekly basis. With all the options available, there is no excuse for neglecting one’s marriage.

Datebox Club

I’m starting my series with Datebox Club. The mission statement on their website states that, “Our mission is to make date night both easy and delightful. Everything you need for your perfect date is included in our monthly subscription boxes.” You can sign up for several options to receive a box between 1 and 12 times a year.

Their service was excellent and I received their datebox quickly. There were also just really nice and accommodating in their correspondence with me. I knew I was going to like the box before it even showed up. To order or for more information, visit

We received the November date centered on gratitude. First, the box contained items to set the stage for the activity and engage the senses. A simmering potpourri added a relaxing element to the dating activity environment, and candy, consistent with a fall theme, was an added bonus. We accessed the suggested Datebox playlist on Spotify, which was a huge branch-out for me, because I’m ultra-picky about my music, but the fact that it was new and soothing generated an element of novelty which kept me interested.

I have written before about how important gratitude is in marriage, so I was excited to open the contents of the Datebox to see how this concept would be incorporated into a date.  There were cards for each of us to fill out identifying special people in our lives who impacted us in various ways. For example, we were asked to identify someone who would “bail you out of jail,” or who “always makes you laugh.”

As intended, filling out and discussing our answers did increase feelings of warmth and gratitude, but it was also bonding, because we told stories we hadn’t heard before from each other’s lives. It generated the type of conversation that bonds couples during the process of relationship formation.

The kit included tastefully designed artwork for us to record our answers and hang up as a remembrance. They even provided a frame for the artwork with different choices for easy hanging. From start to finish, Datebox provided an affordable, novel, simple, pleasant and meaningful experience. As a marriage therapist who sees couples in therapy regularly, I highly recommend this product.

Even if you don’t want to order a box, visit the Datebox website for a link to free dating ideas to start improving your relationship.

HintValentine’s Day is just around the corner.

Photo credit: Copyright: <a href=’’>jabkitticha / 123RF Stock Photo</a>




Couples, Couples Therapy

How to Want Your Partner for Christmas

32213735 - couple near fireplace in christmas decorated house interiorI was feeling particularly generous the other day, so while I was getting my morning Christmas music fix with Hark the Herald Angels Sing by Train, I called to my husband, “I’m taking Christmas song requests, dear—what do you want to hear next?” “I Want You for Christmas by Cheap Trick,” he answered. “An homage to the artists of my very first LP. I like it!” I enthused, referring to The Dream Police album I got when I was twelve.

To the tune of their own “I Want You to Want Me,” Cheap Trick crooned the words many of us long to hear in one form or another from our romantic partners. However, what’s a couple to do when they are feeling less than loving during the holidays? This creates anticipated distress for many people who are reluctant to face the awkward reality of relationship pain during the season of supposed joy. Sometimes the contrast between the desired state and actuality can be discouraging or even debilitating, and definitely depressing.

I’m actually not a huge fan of “fake it ‘til you make it,” when it comes to romantic love relationships, or “behaving your way to….” because I think all it does is set people up for falsity in relationships, and leads to placating behavior and probable resentment over time. Plus, it just feels gross to be dishonest. Couples are very good at detecting insincerity in each other, so “faking it,” will backfire eventually. In the best-case scenarios, it will confuse both partners and invalidate very real emotions people experience.

So, how does one deal with the disconnect between wanting to be in love with a partner but feeling a distinct absence of positive energy toward that person?

The question I ask a lot of couples who are essentially conflicted about wanting/loving their partners is, “Why would you WANT TO WANT your partner?” In other words, I have no interest in getting in a tug-of-war with people about whether they should stay married, or should want their partners, but I am very interested in whether they WANT the state of feelings to change. Some common responses are:

“I want to, but I just don’t think it’s going to happen.”

“I’m not really sure. I don’t think I even like who this person is anymore.”

“I’m not really sure. I don’t trust him/her, so I have a hard time wanting someone I can’t trust.”

“I feel like I should want to, but I just don’t feel like I do.”

Fair enough. I always take people where they are at. I usually try to expand the conversation with, “I can see that there is a big part of you that doesn’t want your partner, but it looks pretty complex. Tell me about the part of you that WANTS TO WANT your partner.” Then, I have a clearer understanding of motivating forces for change.  My least favorite answers are those related to duty or external constraints. However, when people can give me genuine reasons why they sincerely want to increase feelings of affection or “wanting,” a partner, I am confident that we can find a way to begin building from there.

This may seem semantical, but I am a big believer in individual agency, which is essentially a state of exercising power. It does no good to try to create change where it isn’t desired. Individuals in relationships must, at least in part, want something enough to influence it to happen.  If an individual reports that he/she absolutely doesn’t want to want the partner, but is showing up because a parent, or an ecclesiastical leader said they had to, I still want to know if there is even a sliver of the person that wants it for themselves.

Sometimes in marriage therapy, I will say, “I can see you sending all these messages about what you absolutely do not want in your marriage. Can you help me understand moving forward what you “DO want?” If you are going to stay with this person, what do you want to create? What do you think a good marriage looks like?

I want people to be able to imagine a future that represents their own desires and contributions. I want ownership of purpose and meaning in the relationship. That’s when people really feel motivated enough to put in required effort for change.

If you are feeling stuck in your marriage, think about giving the gift of imagining a better future together. It may seem trite, but I’m completely serious. If you have decided to stay in your marriage for now, sit down and write what you would like your marriage to look like in a year, or five or ten. What is one thing you could do today that increases the probability of getting you closer to those goals? It could be as simple as calling a marriage therapist, explaining the situation and asking for an explanation for how a marriage like that can change (Just make sure you choose a therapist who really is highly specialized with couples–if the therapist can’t explain how it can happen, there is a good chance you are overwhelming the therapist’s skill level). Remember that you don’t have to be “all,” in. It’s ok to honor the complexity of a mixture of feelings, but use the part that “wants to want” your partner for Christmas to articulate a place to start.

photo credit: Copyright: <a href=’’>NejroN / 123RF Stock Photo</a>


Couples, Couples Therapy, gender stereotypes, Uncategorized

If the “Not About the Nail” Couple Came to Therapy

heart nailA few years ago, a video clip was released on YouTube that caught the attention of couples and therapists everywhere. Given the popularity of It’s Not About the Nail, I’m assuming most of my readers will know to what I am referring, but if you are confused, you can watch the video here.

The clip is a depiction of what might be considered a typical interaction between a heterosexual couple, and judging from the clip’s popularity, it feels relatable to many people. Repeatedly, the clip elicits laughter from mixed gender audiences.

I show the video in some presentations, but for different reasons than you might think. On the surface, I can see why it taps into gender stereotypes. Men and women are socialized very differently around emotions. Women are generally allowed to feel and explore a complex range of emotions, while men from near infancy get both implicit and explicit messages to not display or even feel emotions which might demonstrate weakness, such as fear and hurt. The long-term reinforced and reductive gender message is that women are “emotional,” and men are “logical.”

The clip is admittedly funny, but there is an oversimplification in the message that can feel dismissive and demeaning to many people in relationships. I’m going to review what I believe the clips gets right, but try to deepen the conversation around it.

There is truth in the depiction that men are often confused about what is being asked of them when their female partners want to talk about something that is upsetting. Again, they haven’t been socialized to approach or deepen vulnerable emotions. Often, they spend a lifetime perfecting various strategies for exiting and numbing emotion so they can remain socially acceptable.

However, the assumption that they aren’t emotional is incorrect. When I show the video, the question I ask audiences is, “What emotions do you think the male partner in that video is experiencing?”

“Like he wants to fix it,” several people will inevitably yell out.

Right…Exactly…Except that’s not an emotion. That’s an action tendency following an emotion. Many men (and sometimes women) aren’t even aware that they are feeling emotions fueling the desire to want to “fix it.”

In fact, my husband actually started this conversation with me a few months ago:

Him: Let’s talk about our feelings.

Me: (Rolling my eyes, purposely not verbally responding because somehow it seems like I’m being set up)

Him: Okay? I’ll go first (smiling mischievously). My feeling is that one cycling sticker on our car looks good, but any more would be overdoing it.

Me: (Staring at him, eyebrows raised, remaining silent)

Him: Oh, also my feeling is that I’m hungry. Is it hunger pains or hunger pangs? I’m having both!

Me: I’m speechless. How do I even begin to match that level of emotional awareness?

In typical male fashion, his revelation of “emotions,” was devoid of any actual emotional language.

I often have the “nail,” couple in therapy. If I have the equivalent of the female client, I will often stop her and turn to the male partner and ask, “Tell me what feeling is coming up for you right now,” and yes, I often get back, “Well, I want to fix it.” If I had to throw out a guess, I would say I get that response at least 75% of the time.

Except again, that’s not an emotion, but they are definitely communicating that they want to make some kind of emotional discomfort go away…thus wanting to “fix it.”

So, I’ll say, “What feeling is coming up that makes you want to fix it?”

I might get, “I don’t know.” I have lots of ways of trying to tap into what is really going on, because it’s not uncommon for people to really not have awareness about their internal feelings. I might ask when they have had similar feelings to see if they can label them. I can get agreement that something feels uncomfortable to them if the partner is expressing distress. Eventually, clients in this situation identify something more specific, like, “It feels like failure,” which can be a devastating, dark, powerless, helpless or hopeless feeling. I can start conjecturing from there until I hit on something that resonates.

This is the part of the conversation I want to expand. The reason why is that men can be so good at masking emotions that their female partners don’t realize they are having an impact creating emotional discomfort. Instead, these male partners look like they don’t care.

In the video, the female chastises her partner for “trying to fix it,” and he begrudgingly placates her by responding, “That sounds….hard,” and she magically accepts his response, illustrating that women are simpletons and their emotions are nonsensical.

Except, that’s where it misses the point, and where it can feel dismissive to people, particularly females. I’m acknowledging that the video was made as a parody—but there are people who accept it at face value and use it as evidence that women are ridiculous. They also use it as an excuse to disconnect in relationships.

When people are needing emotional support, it’s about attunement, not about placating a partner, which, by the way, is true for both genders. Many problems are emotionally salient because they are complex, which is precisely why there is no quick fix, and why suggesting a solution can minimize the problem and fall flat.

Attunement is the process of moving in and trying to experience and understand the inner experience of someone else. This is relevant in light of research that people report a decrease in felt pain when they are in the presence of caring others, compared to when managing pain alone. It’s not about the words as much as knowing that someone is caring enough to want to understand what is happening for you and what may be distressing. People are much more likely to generate their own solutions or accept ideas from others when they feel really understood and supported.

There are some basic ways to increase attunement:

  1. Stand or sit closer to a partner.
  2. Maintain eye contact (but don’t be a creeper about it—natural eye contact).
  3. Focus on what is happening in the present. Distractions destroy attunement.
  4. Notice your own emotional reactions to your partner and find ways to language that, e.g. “I can find myself wanting to fix it, because it’s uncomfortable for me to see you upset and I’m afraid I won’t say the right thing here, even though I want to be supportive.” There’s no one answer—it’s more about finding an organic compassionate response—organic attunement. Use your own internal experience to connect.

Sometimes I point out that when our partners are emotionally upset about something, they can be hard to connect with, which is also what the partner wants “fixed.” Sometimes, men can lose the friendship of female partners who start spinning off into some kind of anxiety or related distress, and sensing that they could lose them, they might unknowingly verbally punish those partners out of the distressing emotion to get them back. Again, the partner’s distress is ricocheting back to the other partner. For example, if I’m stressed about something, my husband loses the happy, funny “girlfriend,” part of me that he enjoys connecting with, and sometimes he worries that we will stay disconnected if he can’t make the distress go away. That’s when he might want to “fix it.”

One of the main benefits of having a close relationship with someone is the reassurance and comfort that one is not alone. If a partner is upset, a simple way to approach it is to think, “How can I send the message to my partner that I am here and have his/her back?” That’s the pathway to attunement, and literally decreases indicators of individual distress.

Lastly, have the humility to accept that your simplistic solution may not be appropriate for a complex problem.

My husband and I recently went with another couple on a trip, and while we were touring a European cathedral, my friend noticed that one of the Catholic saints had a hole in her forehead (St. Rita–mark of stigmata). She was asking me if I could read enough of the French to discern what created the hole, when her husband gleefully interjected, “It was the nail in the forehead,” clearly pleased with himself for finding a way to reference what he and my husband had already agreed was a hilariously authentic video. “She just needed to pull it out,” he continued, yukking it up with my husband, who had earlier pointed to a different statue of a woman whose forehead contained a protruding stake and gloated, “See–it is about the nail.” “Yeah, and look what happened,” I argued, “She bled out and died. See, it’s not so simple, is it? You can’t just pull something out of a puncture wound like that unless you are in range of adequate medical treatment facilities.”

I was joking. It can be therapeutic to laugh at our relational gendered quirks, but don’t use gender stereotypes as an excuse to stay stuck. Real connection is attainable and effective in preventing and soothing ruptures, but attunement takes practice, regardless of gender.

Photo: Copyright: <a href=’’>fotoson / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

Couples, Couples Therapy, marriage, Marriage and Family Therapy

Change in Marriage: Learning From an Iconic Fail

20501491 - couple reconciling on the couch while therapist watchesOne of my favorite quotes is used in several variations and has been attributed to several sources, including Zig Ziglar. It captures inspiration for marital change: We cannot go back and start over, but we can begin now and make a new ending. 

Whose Marriages get Better?

I can’t ever predict with any degree of accuracy which couples will significantly improve their marriages during the course of therapy. Research confirms that while therapists do need to create an environment for change in the therapy room, clients are the ultimate wild card variable that make the final difference. I know with confidence how to facilitate the necessary conditions required for change, and I’m prepared for just about anything couples throw my way in session. Being a therapist must be one of the most improvisational jobs there is, because at any given time, the possible set of client responses is infinite.

Sadly, however, I can’t force couples to leave my office and participate in relationship-building interventions. In the same way that medical doctors can’t follow their patients home and force adherence to recommended healing protocols, therapists can’t go home with couples and shape their interactions (although I have had several clients jokingly ask if they could take me with them). It’s one of the biggest challenges in couples’ therapy.

Adjusting Your Attitude of Change

What makes the difference between couples who successfully shift their negative patterns, placing their marriages on a trajectory of positive healing and growth, and those who gain awareness about their damaging interactions but nevertheless stay stuck, chipping away at reservoirs of hope over time? As a clinician, there is a certain “prototype,” of husband that in my anecdotal experience makes the difference. Much of it emanates from a specific observable attitude, which I refer to as the “William Hung attitude of change.”

Most Americans are familiar with the show American Idol, and die-hards will certainly remember a moment in 2004 when one contestant rocketed to fame for his jaw-dropping, off-key, auditory-molesting audition. I’ve never been a loyal viewer of that show, but Hong Kong-born Berkeley student William Hung’s audition was so terrible that it was covered in major news outlets and hung on (or “Hung” on) for months, exposing most of America to his ear-splitting serenade. I remember viewing his 15 minutes of vocalist fame curiously at first, wondering if it was for real, and then thinking, “Quick, someone find a way to bottle that man’s courage and confidence (recklessness?) so I can sell it for a profit.”

By any objective standard, Hung is an atrocious soloist. His entertainment quotient has depended on his ability to slaughter a tune. However, I can still remember listening to a television interview on an early morning news show featuring Hung, and stopping mid-towel-fold to look at the television to verify that I had just heard his response to a question correctly, because it was so startling.

The talk show host asked Hung if he thought he was a bad singer. Shockingly, Hung answered “No,” he would not say that. “What? Is today opposite day?” I puzzled. The interviewer persisted, “Well, what would you say?” and Hung said something like, “I would say that I’m a BEGINNER.” I was struck by his response not just because it was so unexpected, but because it was so EXCELLENT! “Wow,” I thought, “That might be spin, but it is just about the greatest example of attitude strategy that I have ever heard.” It put me in a good mood for the rest of the day. Sometimes I use his example in my presentations. No matter the circumstance, thinking of ourselves as “Beginners,” instead of beating ourselves up for lacking mastery always allows for the possibility of improvement.

This is the attitude I consistently perceive in husbands who achieve the most change in their marriages. I can spot them a mile away, usually as early as the first phone call, because there are some similarities discernible from other cases. For example, they say things like, “I really want to get this,” and “I know there’s a lot that I must not understand, because it’s not working, but I really care about my marriage, so I’m willing to do anything.” They arrive at therapy cloaked in sincere apologies and acknowledgment of previous marital misses. They are TEACHABLE.

Trusting the Attitude

Then, maybe more importantly, these husbands STAY that way. Instead of getting discouraged and giving up and blaming their wives, they display the grit necessary to muscle through the extended trial period of new interactions long enough to gain trust. Even if they experience disappointment in marital repair, they manage their emotions to prevent a spiral into demoralization and ultimate disconnection. In short, they maintain a motto of, “I still want to learn and get this right, as long as it takes.” They continue to “lay down their weapons.”

Unfortunately, I get this presentation rarely, but when I do, it’s such a relief to me, because their wives can see their engagement over time and can eventually safely attach to them. In most cases, I must continually manage the discouragement that laces most change processes occurring slower than desired; I constantly provide support for those husbands who too quickly begin thinking nothing can ever change. I become the source for hope. That’s fine with me, and if anything, I really try to be as authentic as possible, so I don’t say things I don’t mean, but when the hope is filtered through me instead of coming directly from the husband, it takes longer to cement change.

In summary, it’s the difference between a husband saying, “It will never be enough for you, you’ll never see me trying and we’ll never get better,” and a husband saying, “OK, if it’s not better yet, I really want to get this, so help me see what I’m not getting.” Just hearing a spouse acknowledge that they might not still get it but still want to (if it’s sincere) makes all the difference.

I saw this example just the other day with a husband who called me for marriage therapy several months ago. He was for sure in the upper tenth of male clients who had a history of betraying his partner, but who also consistently displayed sincerity in repair. He had a “beginner’s” attitude. EVERY time he came to session, he was completely engaged and curious about how he could make his marriage better. He changed in ways that his wife could see and articulate, even though she wasn’t sure she could completely trust the change.

At one session, I spontaneously laughed out loud from sheer delight, because I could not have scripted a better response from him. After his wife expressed her hesitancy to trust him, which could predictably shut down most husbands, he turned toward her with warmth and a smile on his face and said, “I know—that was the old me—but look, this is the new me—what do you want the ‘new me,’ to understand?” He was so sincere and disarmed and perfect in his response, that my laugh was joy and relief that I didn’t have to manage defensiveness. In other words, it was a way of saying, “I’m not an expert, but as long as I’m a beginner, and keep learning, we can keep making this better.”

I promise I’m not picking on husbands. Anyone who knows me knows this. I am a defender of both parties in marriage, and particularly of males who shoulder the blame for not navigating relationship emotion after they have spent a lifetime being socialized to avoid it. I’m using husbands as an example, because their engagement is empirically so important in couples’ therapy outcome, and they are often the partners expressing more confusion at why things are so distressed. When husbands are warm and engaged, they usually have a significant impact on therapy success. It’s a phenomenon probably related to Dr. John Gottman’s findings that husbands’ willingness to be influenced by their wives was a major factor predictive of marital stability.

Anyone can be a Beginner

So, if you’re frustrated that your marriage isn’t improving fast enough, even if you’re trying to change, approach it like a beginner. If you were just beginning improvement today, where would you start? What questions would you ask?

And, if necessary, watch a William Hung video for inspiration. Your performance as a spouse certainly can’t be worse than his imitation of a virtuoso.


The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work: A Practical Guide from the Country’s Foremost Relationship Expert by John M. Gottman and Nan Silver, 1999, Harmony.

A Longitudinal View of the Association Between Therapist Behaviors and Couples’ In-Session Process: An Observational Pilot Study of Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy by Lori Kay Schade, 2013, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah.

Photo credit: Copyright: <a href=’’>wavebreakmediamicro / 123RF Stock Photo</a>





Couples, Couples Therapy, Grandparents, marriage

Adventures in Grandparenting: One of the Best Reasons to Avoid “Gray Divorce”

22159793 - grandparents having great fun with their grandchildI still had my eyes closed in a state of sleep one morning last month, when I felt a shift in the force field centimeters from my nose. My eyes flipped open to an image of my new granddaughter, beaming, in a sunny yellow dress. As I blinked, trying to make sense out of my surroundings, I slowly realized that my husband had pulled her photo up on his phone and stuck it in front of my face to wake me up. I wasn’t quite conscious when I heard him say, “Look, Grandma! We have a precious new granddaughter, and we get to see her in a few weeks. She wanted to wish you good morning!” Her parents were bringing her to visit and we were both beyond ecstatic.

I had been looking forward to watching my husband as a grandfather for months, and he did not disappoint. A few months before my grandchild was born, we had a Chilean family over at our house for dinner. Their 4 year-old son spoke no English. A few minutes after they arrived, my daughter elbowed me and said, “Mom, look…dad is going to be the cutest grandpa.” I saw him down on his hands and knees, helping the little boy with a toy car he brought over, speaking his language, “Listo? Tírelo….. Mira que rápido que va.“

I understood the general meaning of what he was saying as, “Ready…Look how fast it went,” or goes, or something like that. What was unmistakable, though, was the sheer joy exhibited on the little boy’s face as he laughed and clapped his hands. My husband’s expression was reflective, showing that he was having as much or more fun as his small Chilean playmate.

What makes grandparenting so awesome?

Given a general increase in health and longevity, the potential for grandparenting influences is greater than ever. Many people report the grandparenting role as one of the most rewarding. I agree with the oft-repeated definition of “The fun part of parenting without all the hard stuff.”

Grandparents are storytellers, mentors, nurturers, caretakers, family historians and sometimes surrogate parents (in which case they do take on a lot of the “hard stuff”). They commonly reinforce the transmission of family values. Sometimes they offer more stability than parents. The rewards are reciprocal. Many grandparents report a sense of fulfillment by influencing grandchildren.

Grandparenting can be rejuvenating. Some people report that involvement with their grandchildren keeps them young. I can verify that as soon as I held my new granddaughter, I experienced many of the same feelings I had when I held my oldest son as a baby. Suddenly, I saw the world a different way. I wanted to experience everything anew with my child. That’s exactly the feeling I had with my granddaughter. Rejuvenating is an accurate descriptor.

What is “gray divorce” and how does it affect grandparenting?

One rather unfortunate effect of longevity seems to be a phenomenon called “gray divorce,” referring to the increasing numbers of couples divorcing in midlife or later. People divorce after several decades of marriage for many of the same reasons couples divorce earlier. With couples living longer, some are deciding they don’t want to continue to endure a difficult marriage, particularly if all the children are grown, and they have primarily stayed together for the children.

Sadly, even though any negative effects of grandparent divorce can be mitigated, it’s still a stressor that reverberates through an intergenerational family system. Grandparents who divorce sometimes perceive the grandparenting role as less important…especially males. Depending on the post-divorce relationships, sometimes grandchildren suffer if, for example, one grandparent refuses to show up at a family event the ex-spouse is attending. Sometimes watching grandparents divorce can reduce grandchildren’s confidence in their own abilities to endure a long-term marriage.

I remember when a teenager came in for a session right after her parents announced they were getting a divorce. She burst into tears and the first thing she said was, “I’m never going to be able to take my children to their grandparents’ house together, because they will be in separate households. Forever.” I was quite surprised at how futuristically she was envisioning her losses, but I could easily see why she was upset over the anticipated rupture in household structure. She was right. It was going to shift, and she had to reorganize her hopes and dreams for the future.

Is there hope for distressed “gray” marriages?

I recognize that sometimes divorce is inevitable. Personally, I would rather divorce than stay in a terrible marriage. However, I occasionally see couples who have given up hope when there is still hope left to shift negative patterns and heal previous betrayals, depending on the marital history and current context.

Some of my most rewarding marriage cases are with couples who have been married more than 40 years and feeling entirely hopeless that there’s anything I can offer them for improvement. “Why would anything be different now after 44 years of marriage?” I’ve been cynically questioned.

More often than not, I can point to specific markers of disconnection from their reported history and explain at least theoretically why the marriage can still be healed.  I’ve noticed that many betrayals and injuries in marriage don’t heal automatically, and couples get stuck, confused about how to move forward and rebuild. Many of these couples were surprised that through therapy, they actually did heal past injuries and negative patterns and develop new ways of connecting.

I’ve had several couples experience a state of grieving after improvement, feeling sorrow over having lost so many years of connection, but they also treasure the time they have left. It’s fun to see them excited about each other, and realizing they may have developed more closeness than some of their aging peers in mediocre marriages.

I have only been a Grandma for a few months, but entering grandparenthood with my husband has so far been one of the dearest, most connecting times in our marriage. We are both so jointly entranced by this little person that we can’t be anything but happy when we are taking turns holding and playing with her. We keep looking at each other and saying, “This is our granddaughter. Isn’t she perfect? We had a part in creating this.”

I can’t help but think, “This is why we worked so hard to stay married…because now we get to have this.” She represents our expanding legacy. A grandchild brings unparalleled purpose and meaning to life, and it’s even more fun that my cute grandpa-husband and I are doing it together.


Amato, P. R., & Cheadle, J. (2005). The long reach of divorce: Divorce and child wellbeing across three generations. Journal of Marriage and Family, 67, 191-206.

Brown, S.L., & Lin, I.-F., (2012). The gray divorce revolution: rising divorce among middle-aged and older adults, 1990–2010. Journals of Gerontology Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences, 67(6), 731–741.

Canham, S. L., Mahmood, A., Stott, S., Sixsmith, J., & O’Rourke, N.  (2014) ’Til Divorce Do Us Part: Marriage Dissolution in Later Life, Journal of Divorce & Remarriage, 55:8, 591-612.

Greenwood, J. L. (2012). Parent–child relationships in the context of a mid- to late life parental divorce. Journal of Divorce & Remarriage, 53, 1–17.

King, V. (2002). Parental divorce and interpersonal trust in adult offspring. Journal of Marriage and Family, 64, 924-938.

King, V. (2003). The legacy of a grandparent’s divorce: Consequences for ties between grandparents and grandchildren. Journal of Marriage and Family, 65, 170-183.

Photo credit: Copyright: <a href=’’>AnaBGD / 123RF Stock Photo</a>