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.

Photo: Copyright: mukhina1 / 123RF Stock Photo

Couples, Couples Therapy

Typical Signs of Infidelity

11530941 - jealous wife, overhearing a phone conversation her husband“Here’s the thing,” I was explaining to one of the spouses that had recently come in for marriage therapy, “Your actions in here are very much like someone who is having an extramarital affair; I’m not just talking about physical or sexual contact—emotional affairs where you actually never see the person can be just as powerful.  I’m only going to ask you one time—are you at all involved with another person who is competing with your spouse for your affection and attention?  You can lie to me, and I’ll have no choice but to play along, but I can promise you that if you are involved in an affair, marriage therapy will not help you and you might as well go burn your money in the parking lot.”

This is a question I have had to ask repeatedly since starting marriage therapy in 1989.  Sometimes the answer is a solid, “No,” and sometimes there is an admission of a hidden dalliance.  However, if I’m asking the question to a spouse alone after meeting with the couple for a few sessions (since it’s an initial screening question), it’s because I’m about 90% certain that the spouse is having an affair and lying about it.  I can usually tell by how they are engaging in therapy.  More often than not, I eventually find out that I was correct and the person was indeed carrying on a hidden romantic relationship with someone else.

Sometimes I have been surprised that the spouse can’t see the signs of an affair.  Most of the time it’s because he/she cannot imagine that the partner could ever choose such duplicitous behavior, which is why the eventual revelation of betrayal is so devastating.

Here are clues that tip me off that a partner might be hiding an affair:

  1. They are very protective of their phones.  If your spouse won’t let you near his/her phone or it is always password protected, it’s quite possible that he/she is hiding communication with someone else.  They will use the excuse that they are entitled to their privacy, but as a general rule, people who have nothing to hide, hide nothing.
  2. They will let you see their phones but…the history and messages are deleted or  you see messages and contacts for people you don’t recognize.  People are very good at disguising names of their affair partners.
  3. They are suddenly taking more care with appearance.  It’s not uncommon for people in affairs to suddenly be more worried about their looks and hygiene.  They obsess over wardrobe choices, work out more to be physically in shape, spend more time at the tanning bed, wear make-up to the gym, and generally spend more time in front of the mirror.  Take note that if these behaviors are normal and ongoing for someone, it’s not a strong affair indicator.  Sometimes people preparing for divorce will do the same things even though they aren’t actively having affairs.
  4. They are suddenly a lot more distant and irritable or a lot more solicitous and loving.  The point here is that a sudden ongoing shift in behavior can be suspect.  Sometimes spouses will be more annoyed with their partners, aloof or distant for no apparent reason, or they will be more attentive, because their mood is lifted by the affair, and/or because they feel guilty and are trying to make up for it.
  5. Their behavior in the bedroom is suddenly different.  This is related to #3, where they can be more or less attentive suddenly.  It’s also the case that they might be learning new behaviors with a different partner and are trying them out.  Please note that just because your spouse wants to try something new doesn’t mean infidelity is occurring, but this is just one of several possible indicators taken as a whole.
  6. There are sudden changes in routine with no reasonable explanation. Longer and unexplained absences can be indicative of an affair.  Sudden and persistent shifts in past routines sometimes parallel a spouse meeting up with someone else.
  7. They are getting up in the middle of the night to use the computer, when this wasn’t a pattern before.  Lots of clandestine connections happen while the spouse is asleep and unaware.
  8. They have more password protection.  Changing passwords or setting up accounts without giving a spouse the password are sometimes clues to extramarital behavior.
  9. There is general weirdness and new, unexplained behavior.  I know this is kind of a catch-all category, but that’s because there is so much variation from case to case.  Spouses often have a sense that something is different, but can’t quite identify what’s happening.  Also, spouses who are having affairs do lie.  A lot.  That’s part of the infidelity—the deception.  When confronted, if they aren’t ready to come clean, they can get very defensive and make their spouses feel crazy for suggesting such a thing.  They gaslight.

You’re probably seeing the common theme that a big indicator of infidelity is a sudden shift in behavior, so the spouse feels different somehow.  This list isn’t predictive, but if you’re seeing a combination of several things on this list and your gut is telling you there is something wrong, you might want to check into it.  Please note that many spouses really have no idea that their partners were having affairs, because the partners were so adept at hiding it.  Sometimes, part of the injury is that the betrayed partners feel so ashamed that they didn’t see the signs.  This actually happens a lot.

Unexpected Affair Partners

Sometimes people experience complex betrayal when their partners had affairs with other people close to them.  They don’t usually expect other people with whom they have a relationship to betray them.  If a spouse had an affair with a co-worker, it’s painful, but it’s also a commonly perceived risk factor.  Meeting people in hotel bars or at work events while traveling is another acknowledged risk factor which doesn’t surprise people, even though the betrayal hurts.  If they don’t know the affair partner, they feel pain, but they can easily villainize the partner who is a stranger.

However, affairs happen from proximity and opportunity.  In other words, people have affairs with people with whom they have ongoing contact.  Over time, familiarity increases and people don’t maintain boundaries and end up in affairs.  Betrayed partners in these cases feel doubly wounded and ashamed for missing the signs, but I think this type of affair might happen more often than not.  Here are common but unexpected types of affair partners:

  1. A best friend of the couple. People are always shocked by a spouse having an affair with their best friend, but it happens fairly regularly.  Sometimes it’s a situation where the couples hang out together all the time and build familiarity as a couple.
  2. A neighbor.  Same process as a best friend–right under the spouse’s nose.
  3. Someone in the same exercise group. I’ve seen it with cycling, running, hiking, cross-fit, and gym routines.
  4. A member of a church congregation.  This seems so ironic, and yet….proximity and opportunity.  I see lots of these grow from texting, particularly when people exchange regular communication related to church projects.
  5. A family member.  You might be surprised how often people have affairs with a spouse’s sister, brother, in-law, mother, father, aunt, uncle—I’ve seen it all (except every time I say that, someone surprises me with something new).

Lastly, please know that ANYONE can have an affair.  Most people who have had affairs are people who had no intentions of betraying their partners.  With easy access to former romantic partners via the internet, it’s more important than ever to maintain solid boundaries.  Preventing affairs is an active process nowadays.  Anyone who wants to have a long-term successful marriage must intentionally protect the marital relationship from ANY possible outside intrusion.

For a thorough explanation of the need for boundaries to prevent infidelity, read Not Just Friends by Shirley Glass.  It’s not the newest publication, but it remains one of the best classic works on infidelity on the market.

Photo credit: Copyright: tatyanagl / 123RF Stock Photo

Couples, Couples Therapy

Involuntary Celibacy in Marriage

20790930 - close-up of couple's feet sleeping on bed in bedroomMost people get married with the expectation that they will have a sexual relationship.  Yet, it can become one of the most challenging aspects of a long-term marriage.  About half of all Americans report having experienced some type of sexual dysfunction.  Negotiating an ongoing sexual relationship is rather complex.  It includes questions about who initiates contact, how often sex happens, when and where it happens, and what behaviors are desired and accepted in the couple’s repertoire.  Obviously, if couple communication is strained, navigating this area becomes more challenging.

Sex researcher and clinician Barry McCarthy points out in his trainings that couples who report having satisfactory sex lives claim that it only makes up about 15-20% of their overall relationship happiness, but couples reporting low satisfaction with their sex lives estimate that it accounts for 50-70% of the overall relationship satisfaction (which is usually dissatisfaction).  In other words, if the sexual relationship is not going well, it’s going to take up a lot of space between the couple.

When I heard that the term “Sexless marriage,” was one of the most popular Google searches related to marriage, I wasn’t at all surprised.  Clinically, I see many couples who fall into this category, and it creates an environment of distress for both partners in the marriage.  Even though I hear “sex therapists,” (who don’t always have training in managing couple dynamics) make the point that a lot of couples can be emotionally disconnected and have “great sex,” I see those couples far less frequently than couples who feel completely emotionally disconnected or unsafe, and the sex is symptomatic of other things going on in the relationship.  I estimate the ratio of couples who have good sex while emotionally disconnected at about 1:20 of the couples I see at best.  Marital quality and sexual quality do have a high level of covariance and are probably recursive, meaning that a good overall marriage contributes to good sex, which also contributes to an overall good marriage, and vice versa.

Gaining reliable data about couples’ sexual relationships is nearly impossible because people who are willing to answer questions about sex are already going to be different than those who refuse (thus affecting the sample), people lie in surveys, and sex is such a broad and complex topic that it is measured differently across studies and is very subjective.

What is a “Sexless Marriage”

Even defining terms for a sexless marriage is difficult.  The most quantifiable definition with which I am familiar is “fewer than 10 times a year.”  However, if couples are having sex less frequently than this but are both happy with the amount of sex they are having, “sexless marriage,” is inaccurate.  I have seen couples who have sex this infrequently and are ok with it.

Another limitation is defining what couples consider “sex.”  Most people agree that traditional intercourse is sex, but an inclusion of other erotic exchanges could also be considered sex.  I have also had couples who are not able to have traditional intercourse but engage in other sexual encounters and don’t consider the marriage “sexless.”  It varies from couple to couple.  Ultimately, the partner decides if the marriage is “sexless.”

Sexual Desire Discrepancy 

The most common sexual clinical presentation is low sexual desire.  This becomes more complex in the context of a romantic relationship where one partner has higher desire.  The term “Sexual desire discrepancy,” or “SDD,” is used to describe this mismatch in a couple presentation.  Couples with SDD are more likely to have relationship conflict, less stability and fewer positive communication interactions.  Because the sexual relationship is so entwined with the interpersonal relationship, it makes sense to treat it in the couple context.

Involuntary Celibacy

When one partner wants sex and one doesn’t, sometimes sexual interaction can dry up completely between the couple.  It’s not uncommon to see couples in which one is desiring sex, but the other partner will not or cannot engage in the sexual relationship.  This creates a situation of ongoing “involuntary celibacy,” for the partner desiring sex.  Many individuals in long-term marriages live in this state indefinitely, albeit unhappily.  These are individuals who are resigned to having no sexual activity, but who answer “yes,” when asked if they would like to return to sexual activity.

Researchers studying the phenomenon defined it as desiring but being unable to have sexual contact with a partner for at least 6 months.  Their definition of sexual contact was any pleasurable interpersonal and physical interaction of a sexual or erotic nature, not limited to intercourse.  It is not uncommon for me to see couples in which a partner has been living in a state of involuntary celibacy for years. Again, the number of months is not as important as whether the person self-identifies as involuntarily celibate.

Both Genders

Despite the stereotype that men end up as involuntarily celibate more often because it is assumed that they have higher sex drives, I see many women in this situation as well.  Historically, I have seen more involuntarily celibate husbands, but I have definitely seen an increase in involuntarily celibate females over the last decade.  It’s also common that as some men age and face health challenges, they not infrequently withdraw from sexual activity if sexual performance is affected.

Types of Involuntary Celibacy

The course toward involuntary celibacy is different for every couple.  Here are four main types:

  1. Slowed over time—Most couples fall into this category.  These couples start out sexually active and diminish over time.  They can’t always identify when or why they stopped sex completely.  Common reasons are a combination of variables, including a partner’s lack of interest, trauma, relationship problems, changed physical appearances, chronic addictions, physical or mental illness, or affairs.
  1. Stopped abruptly—These couples started out sexually active and stopped because of some precipitating event, such as pregnancy, illness, infidelity or another intrusive stressor.
  1. Little sexual activity ever—These couples report that sex was always somewhat difficult from the beginning. I see this presentation nearly as commonly as the first type.  Sometimes couples desire but have not been able to consummate the relationship.  The main reason given for this type is that it was never very rewarding for one or both partners.  This can be related to some type of sexual dysfunction, sexual trauma, inhibition and shame, physical barriers, early relationship pregnancy, or other early relationship struggles.
  1. No clear pattern—This is a combination of starts and stops at different times in the marriage for various reasons, with the sexual relationship being compounded by other problems.

Common Reasons (or a Combination) for Involuntary Celibacy

 These are common in the research as well as in my practice:

  1. Lack of interest by one partner
  2. Relationship problems and stressors
  3. Concern over physical appearance
  4. Addiction
  5. Physical or mental illness or disability
  6. Medications—common ones I see are SSRI anti-depressants and blood pressure medications, but medications should only EVER be altered under the advisement of the managing medical physician.
  7. Sexual trauma
  8. Time demands
  9. Aging (although people in good health generally remain sexually active)
  10. Infidelity
  11. Pregnancy/childbirth
  12. Low Sexual Desire
  13. Sexual dysfunction
  14. Habituation to lack of novelty
  15. Guilt or conflict with religious beliefs

Consequences of Sexual Inactivity 

Even though I realize that in many situations, a partner who decides that the marriage will be celibate is doing so out of a real or perceived inability to be sexual, the involuntarily celibate partner generally suffers greatly.  In worst case scenarios, low desire partners are purposely withholding or dismissive of a partner’s desire to be sexual, which I think is particularly cruel in a relationship assuming lifelong fidelity.  Additionally, it’s inappropriate to attach a religious banner to one’s low sexual desire, implying that the other partner is too “carnal,” or “devilish,” or generally “bad,” for wanting sex.  That’s complete nonsense and to advance that notion is misplaced, self-righteous, and inaccurate.  Refusing to get help  and requiring that a partner remain  celibate but monogamous without any hope for improvement is just a different type of betrayal .

Each relationship and individual will be different, but common consequences of involuntary celibacy are:

  1. Lower relationship quality
  2. Increased extra-marital sexual activity
  3. Decreased mental health—e.g. depression, low self-esteem, low self-worth, feelings of rejection and sexual and emotional frustration, decreased focus and concentration.

Why do People Stay? 

Again, these reasons are varied and case-specific, but common reasons are:

  1. Nonsexual benefits—Some people enjoy the close friendship, despite the lack of sex.
  2. Lack of alternatives—Some people think they can’t do better elsewhere.
  3. Financial constraints—Some people simply can’t afford to end the relationship.
  4. Investment in relationship—People who have invested time, money and other resources into a family are often unwilling to walk away from it, despite the distress, or don’t want to upset the children.
  5. Social prescriptions—In short, “What will the Joneses think?”
  6. Religious or moral imperatives—Some people see their marital relationships as having spiritual significance and don’t want to make the wrong choice by leaving.

Common Coping Strategies

Common ways of dealing with involuntary celibacy are:

  1. Channel energy elsewhere—Many people report putting time and energy into hobbies or other social relationships.
  2. Compartmentalizing—Some people become very skilled at walling off the sexual part of themselves. I have had clients describe how they completely avoid anything that might access any kind of sexuality—in essence they describe becoming almost asexual so they don’t have to feel the pain of ongoing sexual rejection.
  3. Therapy—Some individuals seek help in therapy, often for the resulting depression from living in this state long-term.
  4. Other sexual outlets—It’s not uncommon to see an increase in activities like masturbation, cybersex, or fantasy, or even seeking out alternative partners.
  5. Resignation—Some people give up entirely and capitulate to the partner barring sex.

If you are in an involuntarily celibate marriage and are unhappy, you are not alone, and there is treatment.  I am convinced that most people have no idea how many other couples are not having sex.  They think it’s just them, and there is so much shame and pain around it that they don’t get help.  The partner who doesn’t want sex often feels hopeless and broken and feels shame as much as the other partner feels the consequences of rejection.  These can be dark and dismal marriages, and if that describes your situation, consider possible change.

What to look for:  Most people have no idea where to get help.  I have a caveat about “sex therapists.”  Except for one state, this is a certification, not a licensed nor monitored profession.  Like anything else in therapy, training and background are so varied that you can tell very little from someone’s license.  In my experience, while there are some cases in which simple sexual interventions can address very specific problems, most cases are so complex and entwined with the emotional relationship, that I would only ever send my own children to someone HIGHLY specialized in couples’ treatment with POSSIBLY an additional background in sex therapy training.  In most cases, I would look for an LMFT who specializes in couples’ treatment, because sex therapy is at least part of the training for this profession.  The couples’ treatment part would be more important to me than the “sex therapy,” part, simply because in my experience, having taught human sexuality at the university level, having supervised marriage therapy students, and having studied sex therapy in detail, the sexual mechanics are far too simplistic for most complex couples’ cases.  The emotional aspects of a relationship are more nuanced and challenging to shift, and are inextricably linked with sex most of the time.

A lot of marriage therapists aren’t going to spend their time and money paying for a “sex therapist,” certification, simply because they don’t need to, so the designation is limited in usefulness.  I have seen many disappointing cases of sex therapists treating couples, who have no idea what they are doing; consumers don’t know how to tell the difference. Being a “sex therapist,” does not make someone a couples’ therapist.

Sex is a couples’ bonding activity. We are born to connect, and the hormones released in sexual exchanges are glue to a long-term monogamous relationship.  It’s worth fighting for.

Lastly, don’t feel embarrassed.  If you are struggling sexually, again, I promise you are not alone.

References:

The Decision to Remain in an Involuntarily Celibate Relationship by Donnelly, D. A. and Burgess, E. O. (2008). Journal of Marriage and the Family, 70(2), 519-535.

Using Emotionally Focused Therapy to Treat Sexual Desire Discrepancy in Couples by Girard, A. & Woolley, S. (2016).  Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/0092623X.2016.1263703

Photo credit: Copyright: andreypopov / 123RF Stock Photo

Couples, Couples Therapy, Love, Romance

Love your Mate with a Regular Date*

couple-datingThe other day, I was cleaning the bathroom while my husband was sitting in our bedroom.  I grabbed a piece of toilet paper, poked my head into the bedroom where he was sitting and ceremoniously waved it over my head while calling, “I’m waving a white flag.  This is me surrendering.  You have officially won our passive aggressive contest over date night.”  He looked confused so I held up the dust-laden copy of a date night ideas for married people book that I had placed in a magazine holder near the toilet literally years before.  Its pages were warped from humidity and it was clearly untouched, because the last time it had been opened was, I’m certain, when I leafed through the pages at a bookstore.  “Remember I put this here, hoping you would use it for date night ideas?  You win.  I’m finally throwing it away.” “Oh.  Yeah,” he smoothly replied, “I read it already.  We’ve done everything in there.”

“What? No we haven’t!”  I exclaimed, “Look, on page 97, ** ‘The Backwards Date—Put your clothes on backwards and visit your local outdoor track and race each other walking backwards for a lap.’”  “Oh,” he continued, “I mean we have done everything in there that is not entirely stupid or just downright lame.” Well.

“OK honey, but remember the point was that YOU were going to plan what we do for date night.”  My husband finally made eye contact, “Lori, let’s get real.  Every time I make a suggestion for where we go, you change it and we go there, which is fine with me—I really don’t mind, but the truth is, you have strong opinions and I don’t.”

Oh.  He was right.  I hadn’t even realized that I set him up for failure.  I thought back to the previous weekend when he suggested, “Do you want to go get sushi?” and I pondered, “We can, but I think chicken tikka masala sounds better, or I read that a new Peruvian restaurant opened recently,” and he said, “OK, which of those sounds better to you?”  The more I thought, the more I realized that I was indeed the more particular of us.  I was the one who set up a sailing lesson, scheduled a hot air balloon ride, bought him a rope so we could rappel down a local waterfall, rented snowshoes, registered for a Santa run, set up couples’ massage dates and consistently scanned the internet for new restaurant openings and obscure locales, adding to my date night bucket list.  I thought of all the times he suggested something and I redirected him to something else.  In fact, the last time I remembered my going along with his idea instead of mine was when he had planned a surprise without my knowing, so I had to go along.

I apologized and asked him if he cared, and he said he really didn’t, which I believed, but I wondered how many times my actions discouraged him from even trying to plan something.  This is a big reason why couples give up on putting forth effort in their relationships.  They feel as if their efforts don’t matter or are outright rejected.  I think my husband experienced more relief about not having to plan date night than outright rejection, but I have seen discouraged spouses completely give up over less.

Recent research by The Marriage Foundation has confirmed that setting aside time to date your spouse for just one night a month can make a significant difference in marital stability.  In reality, this is just one indicator and not a clear cause and effect (just like all research with human behavior), but people who take the time to set aside special time together even once a month probably care enough about their marriages to manifest commitment in other ways that strengthen relationships.  The dates don’t need to be complex.  It could be as simple as walking out the front door with a coin, and at every corner flip the coin to see if you walk left or right to see where you end up.

This sounds so simple, but I’m always surprised at the amount of married people who live week to week with no plan to get a babysitter and go out.  I can’t remember a time in my marriage when I would not have moved heaven and earth to get a night alone with my husband.  I think it has made a big difference for us.

Just going anywhere together sends a message that the marriage is important, but there is some research suggesting that trying something new together might even boost couple happiness.  I suspect this might be related to the fact that we are attracted to novelty, but also that happiness is so tied to experiences instead of things.  One of our most memorable dates was when my husband and I went to a new downtown restaurant.  As we walked in past a film crew, we realized that the restaurant was currently being used for a scene in a movie.  We were seated in the crowded restaurant for about ten minutes when we were approached by a waiter who said, “The film director saw you walk in and wants to know if you will come sit in a scene for his film.”  When my husband found out the film had “peloton,” in the title, he was more than willing to sit in for them, being a fellow cyclist.  Later, when the film was released, my husband and I bought it on DVD solely to have that scene from our date.  Novel.  Check.  Experience.  Check.  Memories.  Check.  Happiness.  Check.

So, the next time you go into the typical popular home accent store which could be aptly named, “A Bunch of Crap I Really Don’t Need,” consider spending that money on date night or a babysitter instead.  If necessary, both.  Comparatively speaking, you will get more bang for your buck.

Trust me, it’s cheaper than marriage therapy.  Or a divorce.

*Credit to the band INXS for inspiring this title from their 1987 song, “Mediate,” which never gets old for me.

**Since I threw the book away, I just made that up, but it’s typical of some of the more…ahem…creative suggestions.

Photo credit: Copyright: oneinchpunch / 123RF Stock Photo

Couples, Couples Therapy, marriage

Why a Husband’s Pornography Use Can be so Painful to so Many Wives

42915540 - offended the wife with her husband playing computer games**Side note—When I read the title to my husband, he said, “Do you really have to explain that?  Isn’t it obvious?”  The answer is that I don’t think it’s obvious enough, because men get socialized so differently than women.  As much as they try, I think they have a hard time understanding the pain of felt betrayal and rejection that can be associated with pornography.  Too often it is minimized.

Anyone practicing as a marriage therapist nowadays is going to have clients in which pornography is presented as a problem in the marriage by one or both spouses, regardless of religious belief.  Whenever sexuality comes up in marriage therapy (which is almost always), it’s a complex topic with varying emotions, histories, experiences, desires and outcomes.  Every situation is a little different.  However, a somewhat typical presentation is one in which a husband is or has been viewing pornography and his wife feels betrayed by his behaviors and has a decreased desire to engage sexually with him.  I want to attempt to explain why I think a husband’s pornography use can be so painful for women, and why I think it’s hard for men to understand why it’s so rejecting.

From the moment they are born, females get consistent messages that they are being evaluated by their looks.  The message is, “Be pretty.”  One of my earliest memories of elementary school is standing in line near my teacher and hearing my friend ask my teacher, “Ms. Hoffmann, do you think Lori’s pretty?”  I remember feeling a sense of panic and watching my teacher carefully to hear her answer.  “Yes,” she answered—what else was she going to say with me standing right there?  I wondered why my friend was asking her when she followed up with, “Because I think she’s pretty.”  I remember experiencing an emotion I hadn’t experienced before—fear that I wasn’t going to look good enough—fear that I wasn’t going to BE enough.  The message I got was clear—People were evaluating me based on my appearance—something over which I had limited control.

In junior high, the messages about image intensify.  Females are judged constantly and harshly on every aspect of appearance.  Boys comment on body parts continually.  This is the age at which some girls decide not to be “too smart,” and focus more on how they look.  Social rejection related to looks is painful.  Anyone who thinks this doesn’t happen more for girls than boys hasn’t been to a secondary school lately.  Once when I got the highest score in the class on a chemistry test, I was horrified, worrying that someone was going to find out it was me, because our scores were graded on a curve.  When one young man did find out, he said, “Lori Cluff’s too cute to be that smart.”  Whether I was that cute or that smart was debatable, but his statement represented the predominant message for females in our culture.  The message I got was that I needed to work harder to hide academic achievement to gain social approval.

Fortunately, I had a father who valued competency above appearance, but sadly, for many girls, any dimension of competency is underrated in comparison to their looks.  Also, my father’s voice was influential but was often easily lost in the surrounding cultural message.  It didn’t matter if I outperformed all but two boys in my high school cohort on every academic measure—it didn’t matter if I studied the piano enough for my teacher to encourage me toward a music major—it mattered if I looked good.  Boys, conversely, are more frequently praised for their performances rather than their ornamental values.  They simply don’t experience the same pressure about appearance, which I believe makes it harder for them to understand as men how deeply their porn use can hurt their wives.

As women age, the messages don’t get any better.  Aging is to be feared because it makes you ugly.  In my late 30’s, after my mother experienced serious heart health issues, I went to the library to check out every book I could on aging and health, determined to learn how to use exercise and nutrition to try to attain a better quality of life than she was experiencing.  The female librarian recognized me from my previous frequent visits.  She took at a look at my books and comforted, “Oh, honey—I always thought you were the prettiest girl.”  I smiled wanly and thought, “What does that have to do with it?”  It didn’t even occur to her that my concern was my physical health and not my looks.  I can promise that if my husband walked up to the library counter with the same books, the assumption would be that he was trying to preserve his physical condition and not that he was clinging to his hotness factor.

Not only are women CONSTANTLY evaluated on how they look, but they are CONSTANTLY compared, implicitly and explicitly, as a group.  Marketers target women by inciting insecurity to fuel consumerism—very effectively–so effectively that it’s rare to find a female who thinks she is skinny enough, toned enough, glamorous enough, pretty enough, sexual enough, young enough, shapely enough, perfect enough, flawless enough, enough ENOUGH.  At age 5, I sat in front of the mirror wondering how I could get my hair to change to black like Snow White.  I asked my mom if we could make my hair black, and she acted confused.  My response came from comparing myself to the iconic Disney princess.  Now, the pressure is SO much greater—with SO many more princesses to compare.

Disney princesses are literally child’s play when juxtaposed with the pressure elicited from pornography where surgically altered bodies are the norm.  When prevailing female cosmetic insecurity meets the porn industry in marriage, the result can be devastating.  In a relationship in which a female felt presumably safe and reasonably confident (not entirely—because let’s not get too crazy or unrealistic), suddenly she has to worry again about her appearance in a big way.  Having a husband who is viewing porn can trigger every self-doubt a women has ever had about how she looks.  In short, it’s common for a woman to conclude, “If he has to look at porn (other women), I must not be enough.”

Now, think about wanting to be sexual with a spouse who doesn’t think you are enough.  For most couples, sexuality is an area of utmost vulnerability.  I have often said that if you really want to destroy your marriage, criticize your spouse’s sexual performance.  Both men and women are usually highly sensitive to evaluations of their sexuality, which is entwined with desirability.  I have seen men withdraw from sex in a big way based on one performance-related comment.  Women withdraw similarly when they find out their husbands have been hiding a porn-viewing habit.

In short, being married to someone who is viewing pornography can feel threatening to the attachment safety in a relationship.  Part of attachment security is knowing that one is “enough,” for one’s partner.  I believe that pornography can strike so deeply for women because intensely socialized insecurities (physical appearance) are combined with an intensely vulnerable aspect (sex) of the relationship.

Another important facet of attachment is predictability in a partner.  Usually the deception that has accompanied porn use completely erodes trust. Commonly, women have reported discovering a partner’s hidden porn habit as a trauma and/or an infidelity.  Many become afraid and hypervigilant and disconnected sexually and emotionally from their partners.  Women repeatedly tell me that they can’t have sex without wondering what images of other women are flashing in their husbands’ minds.  Building safety back into the relationship can be a slow process.

An important step in healing is to try as much as is possible to understand a partner’s experience.  To understand better, ask your wife what messages she got about her appearance growing up and how pornography impacts those messages.  Then, really listen and see if you relate.  Be honest.

Reference:

Wives’ Experience of Husbands’ Pornography Use and Concomitant Deception as an Attachment Threat in the Adult Pair-Bond Relationship by Spencer T. Zitzman and Mark H. Butler (2009), in Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity, 16(3), 210-240.

Photo credit: Copyright: kosmos111 / 123RF Stock Photo

Attachment, Couples, Couples Therapy

Mistress, Thy Name is Smartphone

cell-phone-ignoreHere’s a scenario I have seen play out in therapy with several iterations: I was carefully listening to a client in a marital  session when her partner suddenly picked up his phone.  My eyes widened at him as if to communicate, “Great—that just set you back at least an entire therapy session—that’s going to cost you.”  Predictably, his spouse stopped mid-sentence and expressed annoyance that he could not keep from looking at his phone even in a therapy session in which they were discussing their disconnection.  Just as predictably, he defended his logical reason for picking up his phone at just that moment, triggering an eye-rolling sigh from his wife.

Big disconnection.  In a moment when the couple is working on connecting.

Smartphones can be so paradoxical when it comes to romantic relationships.  They are a primary means of communication, both initiating and maintaining connections.  At the same time, they generate couple conflict at key moments when a partner feels replaced by something seemingly more appealing.

Phubbing

The behavior is so common it has even earned a unique term which was recently introduced into the common vernacular:  Phubbing—a portmanteau of the words, “phone,” and “snubbing.”  Taken a step further, “partner phubbing,” is referred to as “P-phubbing,” or “Pphubbing,” which I cannot mentally rehearse with a straight face, because it sounds too much like wannabe gangster talk.

Nevertheless, ignoring one’s romantic partner with a smartphone has become seemingly normative in modern culture, but is doing nothing for strengthening relationship quality.

Competing Attachments

Cell phones are too often a competing attachment in a relationship.  A competing attachment is exactly what it sounds like—something that competes with a relationship partner for time, attention, and energy.  All relationships have some competing attachments.  The obvious ones are children, careers, extended family and other responsibilities.

Most couples can name specific competing attachments in their marriages.  In mine, I used to call it the “3 B’s of Bromance,” or “BBBBromance,” alluding to the activities my husband frequently planned with his buddies:  basketball, bicycling, and boating.  Then, he got his BlackBerry and it became the “4 B’s,” because it takes time to schedule all those appointments with your bros.  That increased his bathroom time, which became the “5th B,” (Oh stop it—you all know exactly what I’m talking about and you’ve all done it).  There were times I wanted to smash his BlackBerry with a hammer. Then, cell phones became little computers, “smartphones,” decimating my alliterative list and romantic relationship quality simultaneously.

I’d complain except I’m (almost) as bad as my husband.  It’s true.  He can be in the middle of a sentence, and if I feel my phone vibrate, I will mindlessly pick it up—or “Phub,” him (snicker).  In fact, after I read him this post and asked if it made sense, he replied, “Yep–because you’re a phlippin’ phubber.”

Phubbing Infidelity

Say that ten times fast.  In more damaging circumstances, mobile devices can be used not only to ignore a partner, but to perpetuate connection with someone else while doing so.  I’ve been preaching and preaching and preaching about the dangers of developing traitorous relationships with phones, but despite my efforts, it looks like I will have a steady stream of clients healing from smartphone-assisted affairs.  It’s not even infrequent that couples will be in bed together while one is texting an affair partner.  Sometimes, they both are.

Universal Attachment Desires

EVERYONE wants to feel important and loved in their marriage.  Both males and females tell me over and over that what is distressing is that they feel like they “don’t ever come first,” in their relationships.  I’ve never had a client say, “I’m just so frustrated that I’m his priority—I really just wish his career or golfing came before I do.”

Put the #$%@*! Phone Down!

As a marriage maintenance strategy, do this:  Ask your partner if he or she feels “Pphubbed,” (giggle—I can’t help it).  If the answer is yes, create a plan to be more attentive.  The plan is easy to execute.  Its name is:  PUT YOUR PHONE ON SILENT AND PLACE IT OUT OF ARM’S REACH FOR A DEFINED AMOUNT OF TIME. 

Take a deep breath and back away from your phone slowly.  I promise that you will survive without looking at your smartphone for an hour—or 24 (gasp).

Or you can do what I did—Last week, my husband and I were on a date when I announced, “Honey, look at your phone—I found a new way for us to ignore each other at dinner—while connecting at the same time.”  I had sent him an invitation to play a mini-billiards game through texting.  My announcement was tongue-in-cheek—neither of us is a gamer.  However, I was alerting him to the fact that we should probably put our cell phones away and pay attention to each other.  There was no need to be defensive because we both know we are at fault at times.

We put the phones away.  We survived.  Relationship preserved.

I’m not in any way affiliated, but it looks like you can join an anti-phubbing crusade.  You can vote for or against Phubbing (but only on your laptop–if you visit the site on your smartphone, you won’t like the message you receive).  It might get your partner’s attention—but only if you alert him or her through his/her smartphone. Sigh.  Sometimes I really want to return to the 80’s.

References:

Mobile Phones in Romantic Relationships and the Dialectic of Autonomy Versus Connection, by Robert L. Duran, Lynne Kelly, & Teodora Rotaru, in Communication Quarterly, 59(1), 2011, 19-36.

The Effects of Cell Phone Usage Rules on Satisfaction in Romantic Relationships by Aimee E. Miller-Ott, Lynne Kelly, & Robert L. Duran, in Communication Quarterly, 60(1), 2012, 17-34.

My Life has Become a Major Distraction from my Cell Phone: Partner Phubbing and Relationship Satisfaction Among Romantic Partners, by James A. Roberts and Meredith E. David, in Computers in Human Behavior, 54(2016), 134-141.

Photo credit: Copyright: konstantynov / 123RF Stock Photo

Couples, Couples Therapy, Love

Good Fences Make Good Marriages: Setting Boundaries in a Technological Age

Uniting Couples to Strengthen Families

couple and fence

As an undergraduate student, I was introduced to a poem written by Joseph Malins in 1895, in which he essentially describes the sensibilities of building fences at the top of a cliff in order to prevent falls requiring an ambulance at the bottom of the cliff.  It is a poem about prevention.  As a marriage therapist, I would add that in order to avoid disaster, one of the most important components of a marriage is building and maintaining a good fence.

The Biggest Threat to Marriage Today

If I were asked what the biggest threat to marriage is today, I would say digital technology, realizing it is a broad and controversial answer.  I don’t want to be misunderstood.  Technology is not inherently bad.  I enjoy all of the conveniences of reading email on my phone, communicating instantly with anyone I want from just about anywhere in the world, and finding…

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