Couples, Couples Therapy, Family Adventures, Love, marriage, Romance

One of the Easiest Ways to Immediately Feel Closer to Your Spouse

27241715 - portrait of couple looking at photo albumWhen my youngest son got in the car the other day, he mentioned Danny Elfman, which led to his selecting a song by Oingo Boingo to play from my iPhone. As the first few notes of “Stay,” wafted from the speakers, I thought, “Oh no. This is a song that makes me feel sad.” For some reason, the minor melody and message of loss combined with memories of my younger self often evoke a subtle melancholic yearning. I managed to hold it together enough to have one of our 80’s music conversations. That’s how we bond.

Taking a walk down memory lane can be a mixed emotional experience for most people. Nostalgia, often associated with a form of sadness and teariness, can elicit feelings of longing, but also fondness and a sense of belonging. It can motivate connection in the present. I believe we can shape our emotional responses by intentionally accessing memory.

Recalling positive memories creates closeness

Research on having spouses recall positive and significant autobiographical memories specific to their relationship has demonstrated gains in reported marital quality and closeness, via increased feelings of warmth toward one’s partner. Remembering significant relationship events can generate some of the same positive feelings in the present. I have tried this out myself and I’m suggesting two simple interventions for immediately feeling happier in marriage.

My Dollar Store Intervention

This year has represented a lot of change in my own immediate family structure. We married off our third child and sent two more to live overseas, leaving us only 2 out of 7 children at home. Right after our first grandchild was born this spring, I was trying to think of a meaningful date to create with my husband to define us as a couple amidst this sea of life transition…so of course, I thought of Dollar Tree…because what better place to choose from such a splendid assortment of leftover tchotchkes. First, I had to talk my husband into it. It took some verbal maneuvering on my part.

Me: I have an idea. Let’s go to the Dollar store and take ten minutes and each choose an item that represents our marriage for the past, present and future and then exchange them. What do you think?

Him: (Silence….then….) That sounds……………………hard.

Me: What do you mean, “hard?”

Him: Like I have to be creative.

Me: You’re afraid I’m going to judge you, aren’t you?

Him: Absolutely!

Me: I promise I won’t….it will be a no lose….come on, it will be fun.

He reluctantly followed me into the land of the misfit toys, and we set our phone timers for ten minutes and raced in opposite directions to find our conjugal representations. Miraculously, we were both finished in the limited time period.

Just by choosing the items, I was already feeling positive and excited about our marriage, regardless of his choices. We went to the car for the exchange (I would like to say we went somewhere more meaningful, like the location of our first date, but that would be a big fat lie). Interestingly, we had chosen items representing similar meanings. I was genuinely touched by my husband’s cheesy yet heartfelt offerings, and during the process, we exchanged a few meaningful memories that had been off our radar for awhile.

In short, I was right. It was a “no lose.” We both agreed that it had been worth the ten-minute detour from our traditional dinner and a movie date.

My Marriage Memory Highlights Intervention

My husband and I also celebrated our 30th wedding anniversary last week. That sounds so long, and yet it literally feels like yesterday that I married him. I still feel like the same person, despite so many varied life events. While we were at dinner, I pulled out my phone and said, “OK, let’s make a list of 30 of our favorite memories for our anniversary.”

We took turns, and I typed them into my phone for future reference. The process was more important than the outcome, because we had so much fun reminiscing. It was an automatic avenue to conversation. It also inspired tangential suggestions for things we wanted to do in the future.

I was having fun, and I appreciated my husband’s warm engagement in the conversation, though I’m sure he preferred to be watching a televised basketball game over my head at a less formal establishment. I figured he was just being a good sport, but when we reached the end of the list he suggested, “Let’s keep going to 50.”

On the way home, in the dark, because we were driving through the canyon, he began waxing sentimental about our thirty years, and it was a very endearing message, fueled, I believe, by our walk down memory lane.  A very simple exercise in identifying common special experiences invited shared authentic intimate feelings. It literally brought us emotionally closer.

The key word is “simple.” Any couple can potentially generate warmth by taking a few moments to recollect favorite memories.

Your marriage doesn’t have to be perfect to try this

Lest anyone get the idea that my 30 years of marriage has been free of struggle, I can assure my readers that I’m in the same soup as everyone else. I’m sure my husband got more than he bargained for by marrying me. Just a few days before my anniversary, you would have heard this verbal exchange in my bedroom. I don’t remember what I said first, but this is how the conversation proceeded:

Him: You’re so feisty!

Me: And you wouldn’t have it any other way, right?

Him: Well….sometimes.

Me: (under my breath) Well, you know, there’s always a remedy for that.

Him: What did you say?

Me: Nothing.

Him: No. What did you just say?

Me: (louder) I SAID THERE’S ALWAYS A REMEDY FOR THAT!

Him: And there it is!

Having had two older brothers who tormented me relentlessly, I don’t have a very passive style. If challenged, I’m more likely to come out swinging than to back down. As a result, I can bump up against my husband probably more than he would like…but I also adore him to pieces, and we are masters at repairing our mishaps.

Positive memory and gratitude

Recalling positive memories can protect a marriage against the negative emotion that accompanies inevitable struggle. It is also a way of expressing gratitude, which is the opposite of nostalgic yearning. Going back to my Oingo Boingo serenade, right after my son played “Stay,” he told me the next one up was his favorite, which happened to be “Gratitude.” I was struck by the shift in mood I immediately experienced, because the song made me think about things in life with my husband for which I’m grateful, which facilitates happiness.

Try it. Right now, think of three of your favorite marriage memories.

See? It works whether you’re a quirky 80’s music fan or not.

References:

I’ll Keep You in Mind: The Intimacy Function of Autobiographical Memory (2007) by Alea, N. & Bluck, S. in Applied Cognitive Psychology, 21, 1091-1111.

The first sight of love: Relationship-defining memories and marital satisfaction across adulthood (2010) by Alea, N. & Vick, S. C. in Memory, 18(7), 730-742.

Photo: Copyright: <a href=’https://www.123rf.com/profile_andreypopov’>andreypopov / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

 

 

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Family, Family Adventures

Home Sweet Home…A World Away

house fisher price

My husband and I recently decided to remodel our bathroom. For many women, the expectation of choosing new colors and materials may seem energizing, but for me, it’s draining. Ask me to rappel down a waterfall, and I will strap on a harness and follow behind; ask me to pick out bathroom tile and I will break out into a cold sweat. Since my interest in home decorating is lukewarm at best, my efforts in this regard have been a cursory nod to social norms, simply to prevent my children from public ridicule. My recent foray into home decorating has left me thinking about what constitutes adequate shelter. I have visited large, aesthetically appealing homes oozing with coldness, criticism and unmet expectations; In contrast, I’ve been in small cement boxes in India, where warmth, generosity and laughter bounced off the roughly hewn walls. The difference was largely within the relationships.

The Shelter from the Storm

Mary Pipher’s book, “The Shelter of Each Other,” describes families as “the shelter from the storm.” As human beings, we are wired to connect with others. Families create natural environments in which children can benefit from healthy attachment relationships with parents and even siblings. Couples also benefit from safe romantic attachment relationships, building confidence and independence from the secure base of a safe marriage. When our safety is threatened in the broader social context, these relationships can sooth and comfort, restore confidence and foster exploration into the unknown. These safe familial relationships are more important than ever in our fast-paced technological world in which we have more ability to connect with people than ever before, but somehow the quality of our most important relationships has suffered. It always feels to me as if we are connected a mile wide but only an inch deep. We need a return to nurturing these close relationships.

Knowing that I could Reach Him, Helped me Face the Unknown

A few years ago I traveled to Beijing, China, with several professors and students gathered for the first ever Sino-American Marriage and Family Therapy Conference. I spent two decades reading many personal accounts of the turbulent political transformations in China and was excited to see the country firsthand. Once I arrived at Beijing Normal University, I set up my room and ventured out by myself to buy water. The sights and sounds seemed harsh. I was unprepared for my inability to communicate with anyone, naively thinking that most Chinese people would speak some English; worse, I couldn’t read any of the storefront signs or labels, since everything was written in Chinese. I immediately felt alone and somewhat dismayed at my inability to carry on a conversation. It felt claustrophobic. I am not typically a highly anxious person in novel environments, but in this case, surrounded by strangers who didn’t know me, I felt threatened. As soon as I purchased my water, I returned to my room and started texting my husband on the other side of the globe. His response was immediate and soothing. Just knowing that I could reach him, helped me face the unknown. After texting him, I returned alone to the streets of Beijing. After that, I stayed close to my Taiwanese friends, who willingly translated for me. Eventually, I met up with my oldest son who had been living in rural China and knew enough Mandarin to get us around and negotiate in stores. Exploring with my son allowed me to relax even more. Something about the fact that I was with a family member helped me feel safe. Heck, I even learned to say, “Thank you,” in Mandarin … sometimes … if I tilted my voice just right.

Redecorating our Relationships

When I see how much time and energy goes into decorating our physical shelters, I wonder about the concept of redecorating our relationships. This was brought into sharp focus for me as I was saying goodbye to my father on his deathbed. He had been my biggest fan and supporter. He had an intuitive sense about me, and could always tell when I was experiencing one of my episodes of discontent. His last words to me, literally, were, “I love you. You have everything you need to be happy. You have a husband who loves you as much as anyone I have ever seen love his wife. You have a beautiful family.” He had always been a safe attachment figure for me growing up, and my husband had many of his characteristics. His words resonated with me and reminded me that our most important shelters are our close interpersonal relationships.

Protective Function Families Offer

I remember a cartoon from the early ’90s that displayed a banner strung across a room that read something like: “Annual Meeting: Adult Children of Functional Families.” The room was filled with chairs, with only one person sitting in the audience. The obvious message was that functional families are the exception. While somewhat amusing, this disregards the protective function families offer in various ways. Mary Pipher’s book was published in 1996, before the advent of ubiquitous cell phone use and texting. Indeed, since her call to strengthen our families in a disconnecting social context, our cultural has only become more fragmenting. Our family shelters are more important than ever.

To see one of my favorite periodicals celebrating the power of family in ordinary life, visit seeingtheeveryday.com.

Family Adventures, Humor, Uncategorized

What Ann Romney and I Have in Common: Toilet Humor from the Skaddy Shack

toiletA few years ago, I was listening to an interview between a talk show host and Ann Romney, wife of presidential candidate, Mitt Romney.  My ears perked up when the host began questioning her about raising five sons, since 5/7 of my children are male.  My first four were boys, meaning that I developmentally progressed from living in a perpetual cub scout den meeting to a male locker room to a frat house.  My experience with my last four children, in a gender-alternating sequence of boy, girl, boy, girl, was exponentially less draining and demanding than the experiences with the first four boys together.  When I think back to when they were all young, I start twitching, remembering the necessity of living my exhausting life in a perpetual state of hypervigilance, never knowing what they were going to spring on me next.

When Ann was asked what dinner time was like at her house, she asked, “Do you really want to know?”  As the host affirmed that he did, she answered, without missing a beat, “Non-stop toilet humor.”  Finally!  A woman who understands my life!  I felt an immediate kinship with Ann, though it’s unlikely that our paths will ever cross.

As a tribute to mothers of young children, I decided to recycle a true story for my blog that I wrote several years ago, illustrating a day in my household, The Skaddy Shack (for those of you who don’t know, my last name is pronounced “Skaddy”).  It represents typical challenges that a couple with young children may face, and hopefully will put a smile on your face as well.  I would love to hear your similar funny stories.  I call it my “omniflusher story,” or “The Rush to Flush.”  Enjoy.

Is My Life Really in the Toilet?

Each of my children has, at about 18 months of age, developed a fascination with the flushing mechanism of the toilet.  I refer to this stage as “omni-flushing,” for the obvious reason that everything within flushing distance of the toilet will likely disappear into the dark portals below as part of a toddler’s ongoing science experiment.

For readers wondering why not just use toilet latches to prevent omni-flushing, I have a two-part answer: 1) most household latching devices designed to keep children out of various domestic areas were routinely broken off or dismantled by my boys long before I could figure out how to operate the devices, and 2) By the time older children in the house were using the toilet, they would inevitably unlatch toilets and leave them that way.  Omni-flushers, armed with some kind of toilet-detection super powers, rush to flush open toilets, after throwing in any loose items not bolted to the floor.  I never was successful at figuring out how to be physically present in more than one place at a time to effectively police toilet usage in the home.

One evening, my fourth son and 18 month-old omni-flusher had, in a matter of ten minutes, successfully clogged two of our three toilets on two different levels of the house.  After my husband’s failed attempts to unclog the toilets with the plunger and snake we had purchased for previous sewage-related adventures, we locked the doors to the bathrooms, shrugged our shoulders and expressed gratitude for a remaining working toilet.  In the morning, April Fool’s Day, a week before my fifth child was born (I mention this detail because my condition just added to the fun at the time), my omni-flusher clogged the final working toilet after an hour into the day, and I finally called the plumber.

After removing two toilets from the floor and snaking a third to retrieve a large “L-shaped” Lego, a hockey puck, a hairbrush and a toothbrush, I thanked the plumber effusively and sent him on his way.  Feeling suddenly rejuvenated by the availability of indoor plumbing, I remembered that it was April Fool’s Day and decided it would be fun for my boys to plan a trick to play on Daddy.  We unanimously agreed that we should buy rubber dog feces and place it on the floor of the bathroom.  Our plan was that when my husband came home and entered the room, he would see the mess and think my youngest son had missed the toilet, and hopefully provide us with a proportionately entertaining reaction.  I could already imagine him calling my name, since this would be a crisis requiring my attention.  At least the boys would have a good laugh over playing a trick on Daddy, immature and feeble though it may be.  Wholesome family togetherness, right? Choreographing memories that last!

We drove to the joke shop, purchased the goods and drove home to prepare the scene.  After the set-up, I waddled to the living room couch, collapsed and breathed a sigh of exhaustion.  Seconds later, I heard a toilet flush, a bathroom door slam, and an omni-flusher pitter-pattering into the kitchen.  Suddenly, with sub-conscious recognition, my eyes widened and I sat up.  I realized what may have happened and ran into the bathroom.  Sure enough, the “joke,” was gone.  I proceeded to the toilet, flushed and watched open-mouthed as water rose to the rim of the bowl, threatening to overflow yet again.  My newly unclogged toilet had just been clogged with fake doo-doo!  What irony!  “Happy April Fool’s Day to me,” I thought.  I chided myself for my failure to recognize the inevitable result of placing anything resembling waste next to a toilet in a home with an omni-flusher.

That evening, when I could finally laugh about what happened while my husband and I unclogged the toilet, this time with success, I realized that life’s frustrations can be blessings in disguise.  What better way to develop patience and endurance, not to mention a sense of humor, than living in such an unpredictable environment, which was (at least for me) an apt description of life at home with several young children.  After all, this was not an atypical day.

Sometimes parenting can feel like preparation for some kind of combat, but the rewards in memories, character development and love are worth it.  When I start to feel discouraged because I have been cleaning all day and my house isn’t clean or my home isn’t as contention-free as I had always imagined, I like to think of the future when I have hopefully been refined by the process of mothering a large family of mostly boys.  I will say to myself, “That was hard, but I did it!”  Then, while I am visiting my adult children in their homes, I will ask, “May I please just use your bathroom….?”

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