Couples

Better Couple Bonding with Ugly Holiday Sweaters 2017

63189203 - romantic moment for nerd couple

This is a modified version of last year’s post, with updated links and groovy additions. Please note that some items are technically not “sweaters,” but I’m trusting that my readers can adapt.

Since ugly Christmas sweater parties are all the ironic rage, I went on a hunt for couples’ combinations.  I’m sure there’s still time to pay double the price to get them before Christmas.  Now you can express your love, cohesion, and bad taste in one social setting.

I have added my own descriptive labels.

  1. The “Newlywed” Christmas Sweater. You only get one first post-nuptial Christmas, so why not make it memorable by declaring your connubial bliss on your person? I’m guessing we could conduct a quick and dirty study finding a significant statistical association between couples who wear matching holiday garb and a lower divorce rate; therefore, buying and wearing holiday couples’ attire prevents divorce, right? (Wink)
  2. The “You’re All I Need” Sweatshirts. Spouses, this might get you out of parting with your hard-earned cash…or it can be a new way to start an argument when your partner is upset that you didn’t buy a material gift, which can be a backdoor way to a make-up session. Therapists do love their reframes.
  3. The “Happy 70’s Christmas and Also I’m Hungry…Denny’s, Anyone?” Combo. The quirky combination of 70’s Elton John and Kiki Dee music hit paired with breakfast items sporting holiday threads. Need I say more?
  4. The “Minimalist” Pairing. For the couple who wants to make an understated statement of unity.
  5. The “AAAWWWWW SO CUTE” His and Hers Attire.  Extra points for getting your partner to go out in public wearing this. I have a soft spot for the endearing appeal of gingerbread men, but no amount of oobie doobie mind tricks will effectively convince my husband to leave the house wearing a cookie on his chest.
  6. The “Elf Yourself” Christmas Sweaters. Just order two of these androgynous crewnecks, and you have the perfect makings for an imaginative holiday role play…Quinkie and Snowflake get lost in Santa’s toy shop…a fantasy that will make shopping for your children while emptying your bank account less painful.
  7. The “Take That, PDA” Sweatshirts. This is for the couple who is still under the influence of a brain-induced love cocktail, thus clouding their vision of how nauseating their outward expression is to those around them.  If this sweater is sold out, you can make an even more impressive version with a photo of your love connection.  Print the words, “All I want for Christmas is,” and insert photo.  To add more “blech,” value, add the words, “This guy (or gal),” at the bottom.
  8. The “Enmeshment” Sweater.  Marriage and family therapists love this term, indicating too much closeness in family systems.  Don’t wear one of these to marriage therapy unless you want to earn a label soaked in psychobabble.  This sweater is perfect unless you want to walk in opposite directions.  For couples who are really in love, this will not be a problem, because they will be able to accurately mind read every move their partners are about to make, in addition to deciphering every unspoken emotional need.
  9. The “Monosweater of Christmas Shame.” Named for the spousal bonding potential in a shared “shame attacking” exercise à la Albert Ellis, a technique often promoted by cognitive behavioral therapy guru David Burns. If you’re confused, read more about it here.  In short, publicly embarrass yourselves together.
  10. The “You Complete Me” Set. A DIY project guaranteed to generate couple closeness.  Just be strategic about which part of the reindeer represents your better half.
  11. The “Communication Problems” Sweatshirts. An homage to the most common reason for seeking marriage therapy.  If you don’t understand the meaning at first, look closer at the “What,” gingerbread man’s head.  It took me a minute.  I’m pretty sure my husband wishes he could use that excuse.
  12. The “Light Me Up” Display. Can be used as an across the room signaling device in addition to being an excellent marital metaphor. Due to the gaudy detail, this model also gives you as a couple the clear advantage for winning the ugly sweater contest.
  13. The “Let Your Freak Flag Fly” Project. Because what is more bonding than using glitter, glue and additional craft décor to assemble exceedingly heinous matching vestures?
  14. The “Couple Cliché for Christmas” Tee. Technically for one, but the couple’s connotation was so rich I couldn’t leave it off the list.
  15. The “What Are You Going to do, Bleed on Me?” Shirt. Lastly, if you buy two of these, you can play a game together to count how many people understand the movie reference throughout the day.

If you’re not brave enough to don matching sweaters, consider matching Ugly Christmas Socks.  Then, you can work your way up to the ultimate in holiday wear–The Gaudy Holiday Suit (see tabs for both men and women) for the most advanced couples. Because OppoSuits attract! (My husband read this post and asked, “So did you order our suits?” I would love to see the look on his face if they actually showed up on our doorstep).

Until my next post, have a happy holiday and merry mind-reading of your partner’s emotional needs!

Photo credit:Copyright: https://www.123rf.com/profile_gpointstudio’>gpointstudio/ 123RF Stock Photo

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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=’https://www.123rf.com/profile_fotoson’>fotoson / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

Couples, Love, marriage

Recipe for a Better Marriage: Add Confetti and Mix Well

81312981 - cheerful couple celebratingWhile I was shuffling through some accumulated text messages on my phone the other day, one in particular caught my attention. I saw a familiar tagline on one of my husband’s messages that read, “sent with confetti.” As I touched the message, a “party In a text,” emerged, showering the words, “I’m so in love with you,” with a pop and an audible swoosh of virtual confetti. I smiled and replayed the message and noticed that as I did, I added to my personal reserve of positive feelings for my husband. One of the things he does well is find creative ways to send positive and romantic text messages on most days of the week, and one of his favorite effects is the confetti option, festooning his declarations with bright shards of color.

Research studies have shown that sharing positive events with romantic partners is significantly associated with positive emotion. By including our partners in the good things that happen to us, we can build positive feelings in the relationship.

Playing off his example, I suggested to my husband that we try our own little experiment and exchange text messages everyday at least once a day that were “celebratory,” in nature, meaning that we douse our gratitude in digital confetti and watch how it impacted our own feelings. I found that this exercise had a two-part impact: not only did receiving good news bring on the warm fuzzies, but thinking of positive things to share was bonding as well.

If you go looking, it’s amazing what you can find to celebrate. Here are some examples of our real-life exchanges, which I have categorized for ease. To gain the full celebratory effect, imagine the word “YAY!” before each statement:

“Making the ordinary extraordinary” celebrations:

  1. You remembered to put the garbage cans out!
  2. You put the lid on the toilet seat down!
  3. You remembered to get milk on the way home from work!
  4. You remembered to pick up our daughter from lacrosse on the way home from work!
  5. I remembered to turn on the crock pot!
  6. All the socks came back from the dryer in pairs!
  7. I found the source of the nasty odor in the fridge!
  8. I walked in the front door and no one’s shoes were sitting out on the floor!
  9. I walked in the front door and no one’s coat was hanging on the banister!
  10. You remembered to turn off the outdoor lights!

“Silver lining” celebrations: Tragedy with a bright side:

  1. When our son lost his fight with the lawnmower, and I wasn’t there to help him because I was taking a daughter to lacrosse, our neighbor who is a nurse saw what happened and took our son to the hospital!
  2. When I was freaking out that the ER docs said they wouldn’t try to reattach our son’s fingers, and I asked if they knew he was a musician, our good-natured, comedic son remarked, “Don’t worry mom, I’ll make more money as a lawnmower safety spokesperson than as a musician anyway.”
  3. When I was worried about our pianist son losing parts of his fingers, I had a friend who sent me a list of famous musicians who have lost parts of their digits, to make me feel better.
  4. Even though our son’s lawnmower accident necessitated the removal of some fingertips, he still has a hand that will likely be able to play the piano.
  5. When our son came home from surgery with parts of his fingers amputated, he took his bandaged hand and made a funny video with it.

“NULL” celebrations—celebrating the absence of terrible events:

  1. No one had to go to the emergency room today!
  2. Nothing in the house flooded today!
  3. No one is failing out of school!
  4. No one locked themselves out of a car today!
  5. No one dropped a full gallon of milk on the freshly mopped kitchen floor today!
  6. No one started a fire in the house today!
  7. No one put a dent in the drywall today!
  8. No one shattered the light fixture with a basketball!
  9. No one shattered the glass by throwing a football!
  10. No one got a flat tire today!

“Go us!” celebrations:

  1. My fortune cookie said, “You and your partner will be happy in life together.”
  2. We agreed on what movie to go see in less than two minutes!
  3. We were on time to the party!
  4. We assembled IKEA furniture without a single fight!
  5. Our kids like to be around each other!
  6. We still like each other!
  7. We are in our 50’s and I’m still physically attracted to you!
  8. We got to Skype all of our kids at the same time today!
  9. We have a beautiful granddaughter!
  10. We have reached the stage in life where we can go to the bathroom now without a child pounding on the door!

“No matter how stressful things are, we can count on this” celebrations:

  1. The sunset is beautiful!
  2. We have good friends!
  3. We have been through stressful times before and survived!
  4. We get to go to bed together tonight!
  5. We are still in love!

The possibilities really are endless. This is one of the easiest things you can to do generate positive feelings in your marriage. Set your phone to generate a reminder even once a day and try sending a celebratory message and see what follows…but don’t forget the confetti!

Reference:

How was your day? Couples’ affect when telling and hearing daily events (2008) by Hicks, A. M. & Diamond, L. M. in Personal Relationships, 15(2), 205-228.

Photo credit: Copyright: <a href=’https://www.123rf.com/profile_kegfire’>kegfire / 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.

References:

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=’https://www.123rf.com/profile_wavebreakmediamicro’>wavebreakmediamicro / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

 

 

 

 

Couples, Love, marriage, Romance

Rejuvenating the Magic of Those Three Little Words

48470551 - comic bubble heart i love you pop art retro styleSee if you can finish this sentence: I love you, but I’m not…………

Right…I love you, but I’m not in love with you.

It’s probably no surprise that I hear this sentence all the time in couples therapy. It’s not my favorite thing to hear, because I know it’s what people say when they aren’t “feeling it,” for their spouses, and they want to “feel it,” to stay married.

The Good News and the Bad News About Marriage Today

Long-term romantic relationships are a salad of chemistry, passion, friendship, emotional connection, expectations, commitment, forgiveness, acceptance, effort, benevolence, support and security, among other things……sprinkled with pain and joy.

Eli Finkel, a researcher at Northwestern University who is releasing a book next month titled The All or Nothing Marriage: How the Best Marriages Work, has pointed out that people in western cultures expect more from their marriages than ever. Higher expectations aren’t all bad. Finkel reports that right now, it seems that we have the best marriages and the worst marriages. In other words, people in average marriages are reporting lower marital happiness and stability than in times past, but the best marriages are linked with higher marital quality and individual well-being than before.

Basically, spouses today want the whole enchilada. We are more social disconnected than ever and rely on our spouses to fill roles that may previously have been filled by other people. We are connected to higher numbers of people more quickly maybe, but in a way that I call a mile wide and an inch deep…..the relationships are less meaningful, or at least serve different functions. That’s why in marriage most people want a best friend, a passionate partner, an economic supporter, and, Finkel reports, someone to help us self-actualize. We want our partners to help us achieve our highest individual psychological needs. Read more about it here.

Now, take all those expectations, wrap them in a red heart-shaped package called “love,” and you have a marriage therapist’s worst nightmare.

We Need Better Words for Love

The English language is sorely lacking in nuanced definitions of love. We use that word to express affection for any person, place or thing. We love our spouses, we love our children, we love our dogs, we love our houses, and we love our cars. Even French, la langue d’amour, is limited in expression. If we don’t have good ways to acknowledge and language the nuances of love, there is more room for personal interpretation and judgment….and disappointment.

Several other languages, such as Sanskrit and Persian, offer scores of terms to describe specific types of love. My favorite set of words are those available in Arabic, which includes terms for various states and relationship stages. My limited understanding is that the construction of the language, structured with common roots, allows for words to be linked, which can increase nuance. Love can be expressed in distinctive stages and states, including attraction, amusement, passion, preoccupation, infatuation, adulation, heartburn, longing, excruciating pain, submissiveness, friendliness, unification, fervor, and madness.

There are additional expressions for romantic affection as well. I was fascinated with Ya’aburnee, which apparently means “you bury me,” and alludes to the hope that one die before one’s lover, because life would be too painful without them. So tragically romantic!

It’s interesting to me that such rich descriptions of love exist in cultures where arranged marriage happens at a higher rate than western cultures. It makes me wonder about how we interpret “love.” In English, love is essentially a language monomial, defined by four letters, but a language polynomial when it comes to all the varied applications. Preoccupation, infatuation and adulation suggest something quite different from unification, and if all of those states were explicitly under the “love,” umbrella in English, people may not be as disappointed when feelings shift long-term.

Even though love is complex, we can influence our long-term feelings

The reason I’m droning on about this is that largely, whether one is “in love,” or not has to do with subjective interpretation, and is influenced by expectations. In other words, we don’t “fall out of love,” with our kids. We may not always have warm fuzzies toward them, but most of us recognize a sense of commitment and obligation which then fuel us to actions to increase love toward our offspring. We are proactive in managing our negative feelings toward them in order to be available, stable attachment figures.

It’s only in romantic love that we use the term “falling,” which implies a sense of helplessness about whom we love, or for how long. However, we can use the same heuristic in marriage that we use in parenting, by searching for actions to influence our feelings.

Over the long-term, the reality is that marital satisfaction waxes and wanes. There are behaviors that can influence any of the expectations for love. Even physical attraction can be influenced by engaging in various activities in marriage. The way we talk to ourselves about our partners also influences our feelings. We may not “feel it,” in immediate large shifts, but we can certainly encourage growth over time. Another little Arabic love language fun fact is that the word “hubb,” for love comes from the same root as the word “seed,” implying growth potential.

As Easy as an Internet Search

In an internet’s search amount of time, you can find myriad ideas for activities designed to increase love toward a spouse. In fact, this blog is full of them. Imagine if people spent as much time researching that as they do for pornography….

“I Love You” is Still Powerful

Even though the English language is limited, don’t underestimate the power of the three little words.

When my husband and I got married, we used to go to my father-in-law’s brother and wife’s home for Sunday dinner. He was a retired, shrewd Hollywood attorney who had retained his sharp wit. One night, his wife decided to advise all of the newlyweds at her home about how to stay married long-term. She said, “Now kids, this is important for staying married: Every single day, when my husband and I wake up, he says those three little words…every….single….day…….and what are those three words, honey?” she nodded at her husband. On queue, with a mischievous grin, he started, “Go to…”

“OH HUSH!” his wife blurted, sparing us from his expletive, “You know that’s not it.” She turned back to us, “He says, ‘I love you,’ every single day, and it’s a reminder that we value our marriage. You remember that. Don’t ever forget to tell each other you love each other often.” We nodded as we stifled our laughter.

Since “love,” is so general in English, and “I love you,” can become so stale so quickly, it might be fun to look up alternative terms in foreign languages and see if you can share you feelings with more precision. I already texted one Japanese term to my husband today that doesn’t translate directly to English.

“I Love You,” as the Ultimate Reassurance

Over the years, my husband and I have had the opportunity to experience many stressful life events together. In fact, we had a lot of practice with stress during our first year of marriage. I had a complete meltdown at one point, certain that I had ruined my life and created an enduring mess for myself and him by association. I was sobbing about everything that was alarming me. I went on and on and on while my husband just listened. It was verbal vomiting at its worst. Looking back, he must have been totally freaked out, but he just sat with me. He said nothing.

When my tirade (cryrade) was over and he didn’t respond, I asked, “Well?” and he answered, “Well?” and I repeated “Well?” and he answered, “Well?” and I repeated, “Well?” Silence. Then, he took my chin in his hand and looked in my eyes and said, “Well, I still love you. I will always love you,” Which made me cry all over again for his enduring kindness. For some reason, even though all my problems weren’t solved, it was adequately comforting, and I felt reassured that everything would be ok.

He has repeated the same comforting words at various time points in our marriage when I have been at the end of my rope for one reason or another.

It’s one of the constants I can always count on if I’m beyond distressed.

And as a constant, “Love,” in the English language works just fine.

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Couples, marriage

What About Those Annoying Habits? Loving the Muddy Side of Long-Term Relationships

mudYears ago, I hung my favorite quote by Mary Engelbreit in my kitchen where I could see it often. It reads, “If you pray for rain, be prepared to deal with some mud.”

I remembered this quote when I was reading through a recent mixed methods research study on long-term relationships, conducted by the Economic & Social Research Council in the UK. They surveyed 4494 people who identified as being in a long-term relationship. One of the open-ended questions they answered was what they liked the best and least in their long-term relationships?

What’s the best part of long-term relationships?

People reported pleasures of shared humor and laughter being one of the best aspects of a long-term relationship.

One of the worst parts was:

ANNOYING HABITS were identified as an ongoing source of daily irritation and one of the least liked aspects in a long-term bond.

Every Relationship has Mud

No long-term relationship is absent of annoying habits. I hear about them all the time, and it’s amazing how many people complain about the same things.

Just for fun (and apparently because of some hidden masochistic streak), I asked my husband what my annoying habits are after thirty years of marriage. The conversation went like this:

Him: I don’t know.

Me: Everyone has them. For starters, you have that sneeze immodulation disorder (my pet term for his outrageous nasal outbursts)…which I hate and which I still think you do on purpose to bug me since no normal person sneezes that way (reflected exactly in this short clip—no kidding, this could be my bedroom).

Him: You’re exaggerating. I don’t sneeze that loud.

Me: If breaking the sound barrier isn’t loud. It’s just like when you suddenly crush a plastic bottle in your hand, which I also think you purposely do to startle me.

Him: Is there a quiet way to crush a plastic bottle? I’m just doing my part to save the planet.

Me: Anyway—what do I do that bugs you?

Him: Why do I feel like I’m being set up?

Me: You’re not. I just want to write a post about annoying habits because they’re in every marriage. OK, here’s what I put for you, besides your alarming trumpet sneezes and bottle squeezes:

Not wiping the counters when you do dishes

Leaving dirty dishes in a sink right next to an empty dishwasher

Folding the towels in fourths instead of thirds so they won’t fit in the closet

Not replacing the toilet paper when it’s used up

Leaving cupboard doors open

Leaving drawers open

Him: I don’t do that—it’s the kids.

Me: Well, it has gotten better. Still, for most of our marriage, our bathroom has looked like the scene from the movie “Date Night,” where she runs into the bathroom and right into the open drawers. I’m not finished:

Leaving the gas tank on empty (since he has some sick need for competing with himself in the game of “How many miles can we drive on fumes today?” which has provided us with several editions of “Prayer-assisted coasting into gas stations”).

Walking in the house and putting your stuff on my pristine countertop

Squeezing the toothpaste from the middle of the tube

Him: I don’t do that anymore.

Me: Well, I wouldn’t know, since I had to get my own tube and hide it.

Him: Look! (Opens bathroom drawer and retrieves toothpaste tube which is indeed rolled from the bottom)

Me: Nice! I apologize. Maybe we have graduated to a single tube…continuing:

Hanging your coat on the stair banister instead of the closet 6 feet away

Leaving your shoes out on the floor instead of the closet 18 inches away

Him: I don’t leave the toilet seat up anymore

Me: True. I haven’t splash-fallen into the toilet in the middle of the night in years. I give you full credit for changing that annoying habit. That’s most of them. Just so you know, there are a lot I left off the list that other wives commonly complain about. OK, so what are my annoying habits?

Him: I seriously can’t think of any…

Me: I know! You’re annoyed when I use your razor.

Him: Oh yeah, I do hate that.

Me: What else? Come on, this is your chance.

Him: Umm…I really can’t think of anything.

Me: What about my parking in the garage? (I found out about this when I pulled into the garage one day and my 3 year-old son blabbed, “Dad says you’re a bad parker.”) You complain that I park in your space and don’t leave you enough room to open your car door.

Him: I guess. I don’t really see that as an annoying habit, though.

Me: It is! Especially since I don’t try that hard to change it even though I know it’s annoying. Plus, I’ve never had good spatial aptitude. What else?

Him: Honey, I honestly can’t think of any annoying habits.

Me: What about me asking you these questions? Don’t you find that annoying?

Him: Umm….Yes? I don’t know what you want from me.

Me: Really? So is it safe to say that my most annoying habit is getting annoyed by your annoying habits? And then complaining about them?

Him: Yeah, pretty much.

Me: Well,if it makes you feel better, I don’t complain about your loud chewing—that’s the kids. I don’t complain about your snoring, either.

Him: No, you just hit me in the middle of the night to roll over.

Me: Whatever it takes so that more than one of us can get some sleep.

That conversation with my husband instigated some self-reflection on my part. I was shamed by the fact that I had such a long trivial list, designed to make my life more convenient, while he struggled to identify anything. I like things orderly, but I am not a clean freak by any stretch of the imagination.

But then I remembered a time when my son came up from the basement and invited, “Mom, we want you to come downstairs and see what we have been doing, but here’s the thing: Please don’t come down and start telling us to shut any doors or cupboards or tell us to pick stuff up off the floor. We just want you to see what we are doing.” Oh. I did do that. All the time.

My anxiety level in a messy room was hurting my relationships, even if I didn’t qualify for a clinical diagnosis. No wonder my husband was the favorite parent. He could just “BE,” with my kids, without trying to control the surroundings. I envied him.

Looking on the Engelbreit Side

Almost every annoying habit has a flip side. My husband tolerates chaos better than I, and may not have an eye for tidiness, but he has also never criticized me for not meeting his expectations, around the house or otherwise. If I berate myself for my own inadequacies, he tells me I’m awesome and to stop it.

Another of Mary Engelbreit’s quotes is applicable here. She said, “If you don’t like something change it; if you can’t change it, change the way you think about it.” Classic CBT….beautiful artwork and sound psychological advice in one.

It’s easy to slap a negative character label on a spouse who isn’t meeting expectations. The ones I hear the most are “lazy,” and “selfish.”  Annoying habits can feel like a purposeful affront, designed to frustrate. That’s rarely the case. Most of the time, they are unintentional and a consequence of busy daily living.

So, instead of thinking, “Why is he such a slob?” it might be more helpful to think, “What do I need to change about myself or my thinking so this doesn’t bother me so much?”

You can only change yourself anyway.

The other day I got a photo text from my husband. It was a picture of my dirty clothes sitting on top of the hamper. I knew he didn’t care if I left my clothes there, but he was nailing me for my blatant hypocrisy. “I deserved that,” I pondered, remembering the week before when, after finding his clothes on the lid (again), I exaggerated a demonstration of opening the lid to the hamper and dumping the clothes inside, “Voilà,” emphasizing that the required force was less than that required to lift one’s fancy bike into a suburban.

As I viewed the photo, I could picture being at home when he gleefully discovered my negligence. He would have made a joke about it, unlike myself, who would have expressed annoyance. Again.

Wow. I really am annoying. I need to work on that.

Reference:

Enduring love? Couple relationships in the 21st century: Survey findings report by Gabb, J., Klett-Davies, M., Fink, J., & Thomae, M. (2013). The Open University and Economic Social and research council, UK, retrieved at: http://www.open.ac.uk/researchprojects/enduringlove/sites/www.open.ac.uk.researchprojects.enduringlove/files/files/final_survey_report.pdf

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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.

References:

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.

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