Couples, marriage

How to Start a Marital Argument with Mind Reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Couples, marriage, Uncategorized

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Couples, Uncategorized

Some Surprisingly Good News About Long-Term Marriages

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

Silence.

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

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

Me:  Do you want to know something about me?

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

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

Him:  Why?  It’s fun!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References:

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

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

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

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Couples, marriage, Uncategorized

Why the “Men are Pigs” Narrative is Flawed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The three most common were:

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

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

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

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

Reference:

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

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Couples, marriage

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

ritual.flowers

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

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

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

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

Importance of Family Rituals

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

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

Importance of Comings and Goings 

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

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

Bedtime Connection

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

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

“Lucy, I’m Home!”

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

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

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

You’re welcome.

Reference:

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

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Couples, Couples Therapy, marriage

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

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

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

Infidelity and Intense Grief

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

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

Oh dear.

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

How Infidelity is a Loss Issue

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

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

Physical Pain as a Metaphor for Emotional Pain

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: Copyright: mukhina1 / 123RF Stock Photo

Couples, Couples Therapy

Typical Signs of Infidelity

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unexpected Affair Partners

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

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

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

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

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

Photo credit: Copyright: tatyanagl / 123RF Stock Photo