Category Archives: Couples

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

ritual.flowers

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

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

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

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

Importance of Family Rituals

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

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

Importance of Comings and Goings 

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

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

Bedtime Connection

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

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

“Lucy, I’m Home!”

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

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

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

You’re welcome.

Reference:

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

Photo credit: Copyright: flairmicro / 123RF Stock Photo

 

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

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

Should I be Worried if my Spouse Doesn’t Wear a Wedding Ring?

50325480 - sad wife hands dropping her wedding ring marriage problems conceptWhile my husband was getting dressed this morning, I noticed something glinting off his finger.  “Hey, you’re wearing a wedding ring,” I observed. “I always do,” he nonchalantly replied.  “Since when?” I prodded, wondering if he remembered that he has spent 99% of our marriage not wearing a ring.  “Since a few months ago,” he replied, confirming that I wasn’t crazy for thinking this was a relatively new development.

My husband is not  a jewelry person.  Not long after we got married, he stopped wearing his wedding ring for various reasons:  It was “bugging,” him, It was too big, It was too small, It interfered with basketball, it got in the way while exercising, it made his finger too heavy to write code on the computer (OK I made that one up, but you get my drift).  I wasn’t about to engage in that power struggle with him–if he didn’t want to wear a ring, who was I to tell him he had to wear one?  I didn’t want to make an issue out of it, but I have wondered about the importance of wedding rings and their relationship to marital quality.

Wedding rings are a subtle signaling device.  Before I got married, my husband used to joke with me that every time he saw me on our college campus, I was surrounded by males.  I protested his assumption that they were trying to move in on me, and pointed out that we were always talking about school work.  “I’m a guy and I can tell you they aren’t interested in your study guide,” he admonished.  “Oh, whatever,” I repeatedly dismissed.  However, right after I got married, I noticed that I was completely invisible to males while walking around campus.  It had never occurred to me before that when they were friendly to me, they were testing the waters to start a relationship.  I just thought they were being nice.  I hadn’t even realized that the change was in my ring finger until one day a few months after I got married.

I went to the library to study for a few hours and sat myself at a table in the corner when two young men sat down across from me to study.  After a few minutes, one of them struck up a conversation.  I remember thinking, “Oh, this feels normal, these guys are talking to me instead of totally ignoring me.”  I engaged in the light conversation and realized I needed to leave.  As I stood up, I said, “Well, I have to go meet my husband.  Nice to talk to you.”  His countenance turned ashen.  “Wait—you’re married?”  he asked.  “Yes,” I answered, wondering why he was being so suddenly weird.  “Can I give you some advice?” he continued.  I haltingly said yes, still wondering what was going on.  “Don’t walk around on campus without your wedding ring on,” he offered.  I didn’t even know what to say; I had forgotten I wasn’t wearing it.  I glanced down at my ringless finger, thinking, “You were trying to hit on me?” because I was genuinely confused.  I was also annoyed.  I wanted to say, “Really?  Because the last time I checked, this was a library, not a singles bar, and by the way, you’re not even my type,” which he wasn’t.  I finally put two and two together and realized that I had become invisible on campus because I was “taken.”   The ring had power.

I’m not much of a jewelry person either, but I got into the habit of wearing my ring everywhere after that, largely because I didn’t want to be in any other awkward situations.  Now, if I accidentally leave the house without it, I have an unsettling feeling and a habit of touching the place on my finger where it is supposed to be.  It might as well be welded to my skin.

So, should you be concerned if your spouse doesn’t want to wear a ring?

Like most things in social science, it depends.

Research on wedding rings is sparse, but there is some interesting data.  In one study by law firm  Slater & Gordon, one-fifth of the 2,000 participants admitted that they took their wedding rings off after fighting with a spouse, or before going out, to attract more attention from potential alternative partners.  Interestingly, males were more likely to take it off before socializing and females after a fight.  Some people admitted that they didn’t want to be perceived as “boring,” so they took off their rings to shape perceptions.  One-fifth of the participants also said they perceived married men without wedding rings as not taking their marriages as seriously.

While wedding ring use can be indicative of relationship problems, the correlation isn’t strong enough to be compelling.  Each individual case is different.  Rings can be symbolic in certain situations, however.  Recently I asked a couple in a therapy appointment how they were doing, and in response, the wife held up her finger, displaying her wedding ring to indicate that they were going well enough that she had put her ring back on and recommitted to the relationship.

Will wearing a wedding ring keep someone from hitting on my spouse?

In the above study, one-third of participants reported that they would feel more confident about spouse fidelity if their spouses wore wedding rings.  About ten years into my marriage, my husband put his ring back on (for at least 5 minutes) after he took a new job and one of the female co-workers saw his ringless finger and thought he was single, in an incident not unlike my library fiasco years earlier.  He didn’t want to give the wrong impression.

However, 10% of participants in the above study also said that they perceived their own wedding rings to be a “challenge,” to members of the opposite sex.  Men reported getting more attention from females after wearing a wedding ring, while women reported getting less.  There is a theory that for some women, a male with a wedding ring symbolizes a family man who is capable of committing, which can be an inviting possibility.  Unfortunately, in most affair cases, people aren’t considering how their actions will negatively impact the spouse and children in the family, and I can see how that theory could be true for some people. `

A wedding ring might keep some individuals away from your partner, but it’s just not enough to prevent affairs.

Questions to Ask

While there is no clear data on wedding ring adornment and relationship outcome, here are some questions to ask yourself as it applies to your marriage:

  1. Is it a new pattern?  If your spouse has never really liked wearing a ring, or has a job or a hobby or a medical condition that doesn’t allow for a wedding ring, then it’s unlikely to mean anything if they don’t wear one.  If, however, your spouse is suddenly not wearing a ring along with other unusual behavior (more trips to the gym all gussied up, increased trips to the tanning bed, long unexplained absences, hiding one’s phone), you might want to look deeper.  Keep in mind that a strategic partner trying to perpetuate an affair might wear a ring in the spouse’s presence to throw them off.  I can affirm that there are people in distressed marriages who will purposely take off their rings as part of testing the waters for attracting a different mate.
  1. Does my spouse take it off after we had a fight? This could just be a sign of reactive, immature behavior, but it’s also symbolic and could be a harbinger of more reactivity down the road.
  1. Does my spouse’s social media reflect marital status? People who are open to having affairs often don’t display their married status on social media.  That doesn’t mean that if your spouse has posted their marital status that he/she is immune to an affair, but it is a positive indicator that he/she isn’t trying to advertise for a new partner.

Bottom Line

Ultimately, a wedding ring is completely independent of partner infidelity.  If your partner wants to have an affair, or is naively developing an extramarital relationship that becomes an affair, a ring is not going to prevent it.  Many people have affairs with people they know are married, and unfortunately, for some people it can be added competition.

I’ve heard some psychologists say that not wearing a wedding ring is indicative of deeper problems in the relationship.  Maybe I should be more worried that my husband only occasionally and sporadically wears his ring?  No….That’s complete nonsense.  There just isn’t evidence to support that assertion, and plenty of people wearing wedding rings have distressed relationships.

If you’re really worried, you can look into the “anti-cheating ring,” which was manufactured with the ability to leave an indentation of, “I’m married,” in the wearer’s skin.  If that’s not enough, there are always cattle brands.  If you’re thinking, “That’s not a bad idea,” please get help.

In all seriousness, if you find yourself obsessing about your spouse’s ring use, however, you might be setting up a pattern to drive your spouse right out of the relationship. People who start to get anxious and try to control the details of partner behavior mistakenly believe that they can coerce loyalty from a spouse.  Most spouses will react to that kind of control by becoming more secretive or openly oppositional.  You can’t make anyone loyal to you.  Period.

My husband reminded me that he started wearing his ring because I said I liked it when he wore it.  I didn’t recall the conversation.  “Don’t you remember?” he asked, “I asked you if it bothered you that I didn’t wear my wedding ring and you said, ‘It doesn’t bother me, but I do like it when your wear it.'”  I vaguely remembered it.  “Plus,” he continued, “I’m basically risking my life for you because remember Jimmy Fallon had that wedding ring accident and ended up in intensive care?  It’s a feat of daring.”  “Wow, I actually had an impact on your behavior,” I marveled, enjoying the rare moment.  Ultimately, though, it was his choice.  And that’s how it should be.

References:

Human mate choice and the wedding ring effect: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs12110-003-1006-0

Photo credit: Copyright: antonioguillem / 123RF Stock Photo

How do I Know if I’m Marrying the Right Person?

proposalAnyone considering marriage is trying to find the “right person.”  Choosing a marriage partner is always a risk of probabilities, and marriage is experiential.  You never know quite how it’s going to play out.  I asked my husband the other day if he knew how much trouble I was going to be, would he want to marry me again?  His answer was, “Lori, my worst day with you is better than any day I can imagine without you in it.”  Even though about this time 30 years ago I decided he would be someone I could count on long-term to be an adoring husband and father, I still feel more lucky than strategic about how things turned out.  I experienced a lot of turmoil about the decision three decades ago.

People can and do change in unpredictable ways.  Sometimes, when I have clients highly distressed or getting divorced, they are deeply confused about why they felt good about marrying people who turned out to be so difficult or disloyal.  The short answer is that predicting future human behavior is impossible.

Despite uncertainty, there are some empirically-based premarital correlates with future marital happiness and stability.  Here are some points of discussion and questions to ask yourself to guide your big decision.  I want to emphasize that these are not entirely predictive but are worthy of consideration.

  1. Is this person adaptable?  I once heard a speaker suggest taking a possible future partner on a hike after agreeing to bring the water, purposely forgetting the water at the end of the hike, and watching their reaction.  Someone who is very angry about the lapse is someone more likely to be rigid and unaccepting.  There is a positive correlation between more flexible, less neurotic personality types, and marital happiness. 
  1. Do we both have high levels of self-esteem? People with poor self-concepts struggle more in relationships.  Do not marry someone to be the hero therapist.
  1. Do this person’s parents have a stable and happy marriage? While having divorced or unhappy parents doesn’t necessarily mean someone can’t have a great marriage, it’s an important point of discussion, because I can verify that these experiences shape people’s reactions in marriage.  For example, people whose parents divorced or had aggressive conflict can be sensitive to normal levels of marital conflict.  Beliefs in marital longevity are molded by parental models.
  1. Are your family and friends supportive of the union? This matters for obvious reasons.  They can become antagonistic and affect the marriage later if unsupportive.
  1. Are you feeling any kind of pressure to get married? I have had numerous couples report that they didn’t want to get married weeks before the wedding, but the invitations were out and their parents told them they had to go through with it.  Don’t EVER get married to avoid disappointing someone.  Don’t get married because of religious pressure.  Get married because you want to and feel good about it.  Two nights before I got married, my father called me into his office and said, “I want you to know  that I want you to be happy, and if you have any reservations about getting married, you do not have to go through with it.  It doesn’t matter that the invitations are out.” He was worried about my age.  Even though this admittedly freaked me out a little bit, I know my father was trying to relieve any felt pressure.  My decision to marry was entirely my own.
  1. Is there a history of mental or physical illness? Anything can develop after the wedding, but because these are known stressors, if they are pre-existing conditions, there should be numerous conversations about how to handle peripheral effects.
  1. Do we have similar family backgrounds? There is some evidence that similar cultural, religious, educational and socioeconomic backgrounds can reduce some future conflict.  If you’re different, you’re not doomed, but you will want to acknowledge the differences and keep conversation open.
  1. Do we agree about gender roles? It’s important to have conversations about what you both want for yourselves in the future.  For example, some women want to stay home to raise their children and there can be conflict if the husband wants his wife to work. Conversely, some women want to work and it’s a source of conflict if the husband wants a wife who stays home.  Some men want to be home with their children, and their wives are unhappy if they feel responsible to financially support their families.  Couples in agreement before marriage will have smoother adjustments to gender roles.
  1. Do we have similar attitudes, values and beliefs? Similarity especially helps in areas directly impacting the marriage relationship and raising children together.
  1. How well do you know this person? This is where time helps.  Although time isn’t always correlated with future marital quality, I would be nervous for my children to marry someone they met a few months earlier.
  1. Do we agree about how many children we want and does my partner like children? Don’t ever marry someone thinking you are going to change his/her mind about having children if you aren’t in agreement.  Don’t ever try to force someone to have more children than they really want.  Make sure you see how that person acts around children.  My siblings used to call my husband “The Pied Piper,” because when we visited, he would play with my nieces and nephews and they followed him around.  I knew that because he liked interacting with children, he would be a great father.
  1. Can we steam up the car windows?  I’m not talking about sexual intercourse, which I will address below.  I’m adding this from clinical experience with highly religious couples, because sometimes, couples marry with little to no previous physical affection, and struggle because they just don’t experience physical “chemistry.”  Couples who started like this sometimes report later that they just aren’t physically attracted to each other.  Sometimes in religious unions physical affection can be underestimated, which can have future implications for marital quality.
  1. What have we done to educate ourselves about marriage? Premarital education is associated with future happiness and stability.  It’s easy with the internet to find online courses and books.

Myths about marrying the right person

There are some enduring myths about what is needed for finding the right long-term partner.  Most people operate from societal assumptions rather than empirical findings.  Here are common misperceptions:

  1.  Age at marriage.  Yes, age matters.  An 18-year-old has a higher chance of divorce than a 23-year-old.  However, people often treat age like a straight linear correlation—the older you marry, the better.  That’s not true.  Marrying in your 20’s comes with a level of flexibility that makes the divorce rate for this group of people lower than those who wait until they are in their 30’s.
  1. Amount of premarital sex. Another faulty assumption is that lots of premarital sex will make a couple more “sexually compatible,” and less likely to divorce.  The research doesn’t bear this out, and high levels of premarital sex CAN be predictive of extramarital sex.  As far as timing of premarital sex, there is also research demonstrating that the longer people wait to have sex, the higher marital quality they will have later.
  1. Cohabitation.  There is a myth that living together to “try out marriage,” should make the union more solid.  In short, people who cohabitate have a higher divorce rate than those who set up a joint household after marriage.  Researchers think it’s because people who cohabitate don’t proactively decide to be together, but tend to fall into it without the same levels of commitment as people who really want to set up a long-term joint household.

Does premarital counseling work? 

I’m not going to say it doesn’t, because any education or guidance can probably help, but I will say that premarital counseling can be somewhat limited in helpfulness.  The reason is that people in love and wanting to marry are often people in a brain-altered state because of the chemicals produced in the brain during the early phase of a relationship.  They tend to idealize their romantic partners.  I know from experience teaching premarital university courses that these couples tend to explain away any identified relationship weaknesses or areas of concern.  For example, I had my engaged students take the relationship assessment mentioned below and write me papers describing how their weaknesses might impact their marriages.  In almost every case, they wrote about why it might be a weakness for other couples, but not for them.  They saw themselves as exceptional.  They weren’t exceptional, but they were under the influences of the brain in love, so they thought they were exceptional.  They genuinely had difficulty imagining future conflict.

What to do if you are considering marriage:

  1. Take a relationship assessment to help identify your relationship strengths and weaknesses.  The Relate Institute has one  you can take very inexpensively. The tool can be found here.  You and your partner both fill out a relationship assessment with questions about yourself and your relationship.  You will both get a printout of your strengths and weaknesses to address in a discussion.  The instrument isn’t a compatibility test or predictive, but is meant to inspire communication to reduce surprises in marriage.  I don’t see any good reason to not take this type of assessment.
  1. Take a premarital education course in person or online.  With the internet, it’s easier than ever to access education.

Take comfort in the reality that people who are committed to a high-quality marriage can be intentional about making it happen.  As I have previously mentioned, soul mates are more crafted than discovered.  There is not just one “right,” person.  We are born with the potential to attract and set up a long-term relationship with a variety of possibilities.

Lastly, there is wisdom in the saying that marriage is more about being the right person than finding the right person.  In short, be the kind of person you want to attract.  It works much better than trying to find someone who meets your checklist.

References:

Premarital Predictors of Marital Quality and Stability (1994) by Jeffry H. Larson and Thomas B. Holman in Family Relations,43(2), 228-237

https://ifstudies.org/blog/slow-but-sure-does-the-timing-of-sex-during-dating-matter/

photo credit:

Copyright: antonioguillem / 123RF Stock Photo

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

March Madness and my Mom’s Magnanimous Matrimonial Model

basketballMarch Madness is an annual holiday at my house.  My son sent out a family text reminder yesterday to everyone to set up their brackets.  My husband has trained all 7 of his children to care about basketball (or die).  It has been a source of fun and frustration in my home for years.

When my oldest son was 13, my husband quietly hung a poster-sized photo in his room.  The photo was one his own father had taken of him making a shot at a state championship basketball game a few decades earlier.  He waited.  After several days with no response from my son, my husband asked, “Did I see a picture hanging in your room of an amazing athlete shooting a basket?”  My son, unimpressed and teenagery, replied, “I don’t know about that, but there’s a picture of some weirdo wearing basketball shorts that are too short.”

The culture permeates every aspect of family life.  In a recent family charades game, my husband picked out a slip of paper and started gesturing wildly, jumping with a hip-contorting sideways motion, arms over his head.  Everyone in the room looked confused, except my youngest son, who yelled out, “Larry Bird!”  “What the heck?  How did you get Larry Bird from that?” I asked.  My husband looked surprised that I wouldn’t know.  “That’s his shot…he’s famous for it,” he explained, sparing me the word, “OBVIOUSLY!”  “Oh….Yeah,” I said, rolling my eyes at my future daughter-in-law, “How did I miss that?”

Until my husband tore a ligament in his foot about a decade ago, and was completely grounded for over a year, basketball was his main escape.  He was either playing, coaching or watching.  I think he had more fun coaching his son’s championship team than winning anything himself, even though I have accused him of trying to relive his glory days’ state championship game through his children.  It’s one of the few things he gets intense about.

My son of the championship team walked in the door from a game his father coached, tattling, “Mom, dad  got kicked out of the game.”  “Really?” I was shocked.  My calm husband is not someone who typically gets riled up…unless it involves basketball…and he’s “had it up to here with the horrible calls.”    He’s completely okay and understanding with anything his kids do…unless any of them have “an ugly shot,” which is unforgivable.  He will say I’m exaggerating.  I say, ask his children.   Once, when the kids wanted to go see a movie with a Disney actor playing the part of a basketball player, my husband refused, because, “There’s nothing more painful than having to sit and watch an actor who doesn’t know how to play basketball pretend to be a basketball player.”

I should have known.  I had a foreshadowing the first time I told him I loved him, 6 months after we met.  From a few weeks after we met until March Madness 1987, he was at least weekly declaring his love and intent to marry me, but I had no interest in getting serious.  Finally, after a lot of internal struggle, because I liked him but didn’t want a long-term relationship, but couldn’t stand the thought of losing him either, I sat down next to him on the couch in his apartment and haltingly said, “I’ve been thinking a lot…and we have a lot in common….and we want the same things for our future and family…and I guess what I’m trying to say is….I think I love you.”  He sat staring straight ahead at the television set, which was broadcasting a very important basketball game.  I said, “Hello?  Did you hear what I just said?”  He glanced at me and gestured toward the TV, “Did you see that dunk?!!” He asked.

“OK, see you later,” I said, standing up to leave.  He grabbed my arm, laughing.  “Wait.  It’s just taking a minute to sink in.  You’ve been rejecting me for months.  I’m not sure I believe you.”  Over the years, “Did you see that dunk?” has become a tagline for one of us to recite if we feel ignored.

I know from marriage therapy experience that I’m not the only wife who is a basketball widow, at least during March.  My mother is gone now, but she set a great example for me that I have not taken to heart.  When my husband says, “Why can’t you be more like your mother?” he is referring to my mother’s ability to talk sports with him every time we visited.  She always knew what was happening in the sports world, and it was rather impressive, especially considering her age.  My husband used to sit and talk sports with her like she was one of his buddies.

Except I’m not her.

My mother told me that if she wanted to have a conversation with my father, she needed to be able to sports speak.  She read everything she could and paid attention.  My father had season tickets to the Dodgers, and it dominated a large part of my childhood.  I remember being at the 1977 World Series, heart-broken when Mr. October led the Yankees to victory in our home stadium.  Despite the exposure and my mother’s consistent chatter about various players in the news, I never quite adopted her authentic enthusiasm and motivation to be sports literate.

However, I think my mom’s attitude was a great example for marriage.  Instead of whining that my father cared more about sports than her, she tried to speak his language.  My father loved my mother.  He was devastated when she died.  He did so many things for her to make her life better, and I’m certain that her willingness to take part in his interests motivated him to meet her more than half way.

In a culture of individualism, I don’t think my mother’s philosophy is very popular.  I can imagine a rebuttal, accusing my mother of “losing herself,” for someone else, or the more egregious “forfeiting her identity completely.”  However, my mother didn’t lose anything.  She gained a trustworthy companion whose joy was her own and vice-versa.  She secured an enduring connection with her romantic life-partner.

Maybe this will be the year that I follow my mother’s example and really learn basketball speak.  I made a deal with my husband that I will…but only if he brings back the short basketball shorts…along with the Larry Bird move…and a slam dunk.

It’s a small price to pay to see that winning combination…and the look on my son’s face.

Photo credit: Copyright: antoniodiaz / 123RF Stock Photo