Couples, Family

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

Couples, Family, marriage

Any Abuse in Marriage is Unacceptable. The End.

screenshot-2017-02-26-20-42-02I told my son I was writing a blog post about intimate partner violence, and he informed me that he had just developed an anti-domestic violence campaign ad as part of his advertising portfolio which can be viewed here.  The above photo is part of it, illustrating that things can look perfect on the outside but be chaotic within.  I might be biased, but I think he nailed it.  He and his team actually made the series of cross stitches themselves, which I find impressive, having completed a few myself.

This topic makes me sad, but it’s necessary to address.  I would much rather be writing one of my usual light, self-indulgent posts.  However, I want to be clear that any abuse is unacceptable.  I worry most about the abuse that doesn’t leave visible marks.

My first exposure to therapeutic services occurred in the context of domestic violence when I was a volunteer in a women’s shelter before I ever started graduate school in the late 80’s.  I’m old enough to remember when Martin Seligman, father of positive psychology was studying abused women and coined the term “learned helplessness,” to describe people in abusive situations.  Domestic violence was one of my early areas of research interest.  About a decade later, I led therapeutic programs for court-ordered domestic violence perpetrators.

Over the years, I have been amazed at how similar so many abusive situations look across the board.  Now commonly referred to as intimate partner violence (IPV), I still worry about the number of individuals who endure ongoing manipulative control from domineering partners.  They either don’t know how, don’t think they can, or believe they don’t deserve to get out.  Here are some questions to ask yourself if you think you are being abused.

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) supplies a standard definition of IPV.  Basically, intimate partner violence occurs in the context of a couple attachment relationship.  It includes any physical, sexual, and psychological aggression toward one’s partner.  It occurs across economic and educational levels.  Fundamentally, it is characterized by one partner exerting control over the other continually.

“He doesn’t hit me.”  That’s a common phrase I have heard from women over the years who are in psychologically abusive situations, but don’t think they have the right to leave because there is no physical aggression.  There is plenty of research indicating that emotional and/or verbal abuse can be just or more damaging than physical abuse.   People put up with it too long because it is insidious and sometimes difficult to identify.  No one deserves to be in a relationship where basic human dignity is repeatedly threatened.

Some of the common reasons why people stay in unhealthy IPV situations are that they are embarrassed, they don’t want to break up their families, they don’t know how to leave, they don’t trust anyone to help, or they are afraid they can’t survive alone.  Often, the controlling partner makes the other partner feel crazy, so they don’t have confidence that what they are experiencing is really abuse.

Here are some common characteristics of abusive partners, and it’s important to realize that they can be very charismatic and charming in public and when they aren’t being abusive.  That’s one reason why they get away with it:

  1. They isolate their partners from seeing family and friends.
  2. They control all of the finances.
  3. They make threats.
  4. They throw things in an argument, which often escalates into physical violence which includes but is not limited to pushing, shoving, kicking, slapping, punching, biting, scratching, pinching, choking, burning or hair-pulling.  This is criminal behavior and should NOT BE TOLERATED UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES.
  5. They keep partners from leaving, using any means necessary, such as hiding the car keys, locking a partner in a room, use physical force to restrain partner, etc.
  6. They make ongoing accusations against partners, driven by jealousy and possessiveness.
  7. They humiliate, ridicule, or embarrass their partners in front of other people.
  8. They demand that their high, rigid expectations be met and basically throw tantrums when they aren’t.
  9. They can be sexually coercive.
  10. They engage in a cyclical pattern in which tension builds, they aggress on their partners and then have a “honeymoon period,” in which they apologize and are extra conciliatory until the tension builds up again.  This is precisely why so many people stay.  They think because the abuser is being charming now that the abuse won’t happen again.

Leaving an abusive situation isn’t easy.  It’s common for abusers to become more aggressive when their partners try to leave.  In extreme circumstances, this is the point at which a partner is at risk for being murdered.

The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence has an entire section on their website dedicated to teaching victims how to get help, including how to prepare to leave and create a safety plan.  If you or someone you know is in this situation, please access this resource.

Men are also victims of IPV but are often embarrassed to access any resources.  Here is a fact sheet about male victims of IPV.

On several occasions, I have counseled with women who realized they were in abusive situations and left but went back.  I sometimes ask, “Where did you learn that you deserve to be treated like that?” Often, they can identify abusive patterns they experienced in their homes, but not always.  Sometimes part of the shame is knowing that they shouldn’t be treated like that, but they feel stuck.  For anyone in an abusive situation contemplating leaving, an important question I ask is “What do you want your daughters to learn about how they deserve to be treated by their husbands and what do you want your sons to learn about how to treat their wives?”

Even though many competent and educated women and men end up being victims of IPV, it’s hard for me to imagine putting up with it.  Realize that abusive patterns aren’t acceptable.  Some people just think it’s a normal part of a relationship.  It is not.  I literally never heard my father use a four-letter word, much less direct one aggressively at my mother.  I don’t even remember him raising his voice at her, and I can’t imagine him throwing anything or getting physical.  I don’t remember him criticizing her ever about who she was.  My parents had normal levels of conflict, but there was a strong foundation of basic respect.  If we children sassed my mother, he always stood up for her and told us to be respectful.  That was my baseline expectation for marriage, and my husband has been a lot like my father.  We often marry people that are like our parents.  You do not have to accept abuse as part of an intimate relationship.  If it was modeled for you, break the chain.

If you are a member of a religiously conservative congregation and your marriage has religious importance, abuse is still unacceptable.  I shudder when I hear of any ecclesiastical leaders minimizing abuse.  My father led ecclesiastical congregations from age 29 until his death, in administrative and spiritual capacities, and he had no tolerance for any kind of abuse.

I have a sister 14 years older than I who was in an emotionally abusive first marriage, and my father encouraged her to leave and she was divorced before they had their second wedding anniversary.  Fortunately, because she got out, she was able to marry again to someone much kinder.  My sister is literally one of the nicest, most generous, guileless people I know.  She’s one of those people that you wonder, “Are you for real?” because she is so giving (not sure how we can share DNA).  Sometimes those individuals attract abusers because they can get away with it.  Her life would be completely different today had she stayed in her first marriage.  It’s likely that staying would have worn down her self-esteem, which would have been terrible because she is brilliant.  Instead, she is spending her retirement years with her spouse traveling, going on cross-country Harley adventures, skiing, and working on getting her pilot’s license (I wish I were that cool).

My heart is heavy as I write this because I know that even though resources are available, many people still won’t get help, but I can at least know that I made this information available.  Please know that you can call a shelter and get protection, therapy, basic needs and support to access community resources.  There is no reason to stay in an abusive situation now.  There are more resources than ever.


The National Domestic Violence Hotline

The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence Homepage

CDC Intimate Partner Violence Prevention

APA Intimate Partner Violence Page

Adolescence, Couples, Couples Therapy, Family, marriage, Parenting Teenagers

Before Starting or Continuing your Extramarital Affair, Do This First

49639937 - teenage boy standing between parents who are ignoring each otherI am probably going to ruffle some feathers with this post, and I may not even sound very compassionate, but I have had a somewhat upsetting month from a therapy standpoint.  That’s saying a lot, considering the emotional challenges I face with people on a daily basis.  I feel a responsibility to address this topic.

Infidelity cases are a very typical presentation for a marriage therapist.  Considering the hours of therapy and supervision I have completed, I can easily say I have seen hundreds of these cases.  With an increase in ways to perpetuate infidelity through technological means, I’m not anticipating the phenomenon slowing down any time soon.

The emotions are always very painful.  It’s hard to sit with the emotions and not feel a great deal of compassion for the victims.  I am highly motivated to assist couples in healing severe betrayals, and I have high belief that marriages can heal and be stronger than before, despite the deep and unpredictable emotions.

However, something that is even harder than sitting with the pain of a betrayed spouse is sitting in front of an adolescent who has discovered that his or her parent had an affair.  Watching a teenager try not to cry while explaining the impact of a parent’s infidelity is heart-wrenching.  I have seen several of these cases in the last month, and the devastation heaped on children is inestimable.

Our culture encourages individual “fulfillment,” and downplays the real impact of marital dissolution on children—otherwise you might feel incapacitating guilt and shame about your betrayal—and we wouldn’t want that.  Aren’t you meant to be “happy,” after all?

Most teens find out by accident.  In worse cases, they are the ones that discover the affair and either feel responsible to hold the secret or feel guilty about blowing their families apart with the disclosure.

Here are common symptoms I anecdotally witness in teens and children who are exposed to a parent’s betrayals and related marital distress:

  1. Episodes of enduring worry and anxiety with associated panic attacks; in short, the children are TERRIFIED of what will happen to them and to their families.
  2. Increased nightmares
  3. Intense grief and anger about the conflict and/or dissolution that follows a marital betrayal; clients routinely explain that their parents’ infidelities had a relatively traumatic impact that changed their lives.
  4. Lost focus at school and difficulty maintaining academic success
  5. Depression
  6. Self-harming behaviors
  7. Increased substance use
  8. Decreased confidence about eventually maintaining long-term relationships
  9. A feeling of personal betrayal and rejection; they perceive that the parent was in many ways choosing the affair partner over them and their family, i.e. “He/she cares more about (the affair partner) than about me and our family.”
  10. Unpredictable crying episodes
  11. Increased aggression and externalizing behavior
  12. Insomnia
  13. An increase in stomach distress and other types of somatization
  14. Parentification; in an attempt to reduce stress in the marital system, they will increase roles of caretaking and comforting younger siblings.
  15. Disconnection from their own emotional needs because they don’t want to add more stress to the family system
  16. Generalized distrust in people and future love relationships
  17. Embarrassment, guilt and shame and feelings of unloveability
  18. Increased sexual promiscuity

That’s for starters.

Even if children don’t know explicitly about the affair, affairs have a direct impact on children.  Spouses who are having affairs are less emotionally and physically available to their children.  In short, infidelity has a very real and devastating impact on everyone in the family.

So, before beginning or continuing your extramarital affair, sit your children or and/or your affair partner’s children down and say, “Just so you know, I’m about to SHATTER your world.  You’re going to be really sick, sad, fearful, rejected and just absolutely devastated for an unknown period of time.  You’re going to lose confidence in pursuing your own relationships, but I really, really, really want to pursue this dopamine rush I get when I’m around this person who’s not your mom (or dad).  I really like how it feels.”

Some of you are thinking, “Oh, I could never do that.”


Your marriage is not just about you, or even just about you and your spouse.

Seriously—just stop it.

Photo Credit: Copyright: highwaystarz / 123RF Stock Photo

Couples, Couples Therapy, Family

Navigating the Transition to a Mixed Faith Marriage

12915846 - hand giving the bible to another personA fair amount of my therapy practice is with couples who started their marriages with the same religious orientation and are disrupted when one spouse experiences a considerable shift in religious belief.  This faith transition is a major event in a marital relationship, requiring many adjustments to the family system.  In my observation, it is very painful for both parties involved.  Here are some of the commonly expressed emotions:

  1.  Fear. Individuals who shift their beliefs describe it as a scary experience to feel doubt about previously held theological assumptions.  Both partners experience intense fear about what the shift means for the future of the marriage and family.  Both often develop a deep-seated fear that he or she will never fully be understood and accepted by the spouse.  Both can feel unsafe about expressing real thoughts and feelings.
  2. Hurt and Betrayal. Marrying someone with the expectation for a long-term religious commitment and having him or her change directions can feel like an enormous betrayal, and is often traumatic and disorienting.  The partner who shifted sometimes feels betrayed and misunderstood by a religious institution or by gossip and exclusion by extended family, friends or neighbors.  Since both partners are hurting, it can be hard for either of them to hold the pain of the other person.
  3. Rejection.  Both partners can feel rejected by each other, or at least fear rejection.  Sometimes spouses have a hard time separating the rejection of religious beliefs from personal rejection.  The inability to accept a partner’s new belief system can also be a felt rejection.
  4. Loneliness.  A faith transition can be isolating for both partners who previously shared social ties in a religious community.  They can also feel isolated from each other.
  5. Shame and embarrassment. The partner who changed belief systems commonly experiences shame about causing disappointment for a spouse, and the partner whose spouse changed can feel shame and embarrassment about having a partner who has left the religion, particularly if that religion defines expectations for marriage and family life.
  6. Grief.  Both partners will feel the loss of having unified doctrinal beliefs.  The grief is dark, intense, deep, and scary.  Grieving the theologically unified marriage can last for a long time.
  7. Ambivalence.  It’s not uncommon for spouses to equivocate and feel uncertain about how they want to move forward.  This state can seem interminable.  Often, people feel conflicted because they doubt their own abilities to navigate a mixed faith marriage.
  8. Sadness.  The need for rebalancing a family’s dynamics with a religious shift can just feel plain sad for both partners.  They will often avoid having conversations about the elephant in the room, which is the disconnection of ecclesiastical beliefs, because it creates such heavy feelings.

Routinely, couples will come into therapy after one spouse has a faith crisis culminating in disengagement from a religious system.  Normally, they are stuck in a pattern of withdrawing from discussions about the differences because it is just too painful for both parties.  Most of the time, however, the topic is difficult to avoid because it affects issues about how to parent the children, participation in future family religious rituals, and the addition of elements which may have previously been absent, e.g. alcohol, individuals who actively oppose religious beliefs, etc.

Religious belief is at the core a manifestation of intensely personal experiences.  It’s never a good idea to try to force or coerce someone back into a particular set of beliefs, either for the believer or the non-believer.  Lecturing a partner with religious dogma will elicit defensiveness and bitterness.  Most people who announce a faith transition have spent a lot of time internally struggling with the implications for their marriages and families, and can anticipate the arguments they will receive.  It’s rarely a flippant decision.

This is always a uniquely challenging set of circumstances to navigate, but I know many couples who have found ways to retain marital stability despite religious differences.  Once they learn to safely express emotions and reaffirm their commitment to each other despite religious differences, they can create a respectful space to negotiate the details of family life pertaining to specific religious practices.  These negotiations are ongoing and different for every couple.

Here are some basic tips for navigating these types of conversations for couples who want to preserve their marriages after a faith transition:

  1. Spend a LOT of time validating the emotions of your partner.  Take a curious stance about what the faith transition has been like for each of you.  What has been the hardest part of this for each of you?  What is the scariest part?  Both people are hurting.  It helps if the partner who shifted can first be curious about the pain and betrayal and fear experienced by the partner who didn’t shift.  Then, it is helpful if that partner can understand the deep fears and yearnings of the partner who has changed.  Sometimes partners who shifted will hold back in expressing their emotions because the pain of betrayed partners is so big that they don’t want to add more stress to the system.  However, if these fears and ambivalence with a mix of other emotions aren’t heard and validated, they will still take up space and become a barrier to resolution and connection.
  1. Actively identify what you have in common besides the religion.  This isn’t a trivial matter, especially in situations in which the religion was the main identifying feature for the couple previous to the faith transition.  You can, however, actively create a new joint identity.  Usually, people can start with their joint desires for raising well-adjusted children.  Sometimes, they will develop a new hobby together.  I don’t mean for this to sound trite, because this negotiation often occurs against a backdrop of grief for the couple’s lost joint religious identity.  In my anecdotal opinion, however, couples who proactively look for ways to be together outside of the religion experience smoother adjustment.
  1. Create a pattern of reassuring one another. Couples can learn to reach out for reassurance and comfort about the marriage.  For example, a partner might ask, “What do you still love about me?  Why are you still with me?” and a partner can give a reassuring response.  Tip:  A reassuring response doesn’t sound like, “I’m only here because of the kids.”  If that’s the case, the conversation might need to be about whether or not to continue the marriage.
  1. Seek external support. As mentioned, many couples in this situation feel embarrassed and need to have a group of safe people with which they can process the new development.  Since support communities can be polarized in beliefs, try to find moderate support systems that can be affirming for both parties.  Sometimes disengaging from a rigid system creates the need for a period of polarization.  If you don’t have family or friends who can be supportive without arguing, a therapist can be helpful in processing difficult circumstances.
  1. Perpetuate family rituals. Since children are so sensitive to the emotional environment in a family, it’s important to reassure them that they are safe.  One way children experience safety is in predictable rituals.  This includes daily rituals, like bedtime, and annual traditions, like birthdays.
  1. Perpetuate couple connection rituals. It’s more important than ever to have ways to reinforce a joint identity with shared patterns, like a goodbye kiss or daily texts, etc.  Even having a regular discussion about how to keep connection is intrinsically connecting.
  1. Find ways to reach out to others in the same situation. Once you have negotiated a safe space to move forward with different religious beliefs, look for ways to support other couples facing the same challenge.  As mentioned, this can be very isolating, and both partners can benefit from guidance by people who are in the process of making it work.

Sometimes the choice after a faith transition is to end the marriage.  If this is the case, the couple can still maintain a respectful tone and negotiate a low-conflict separation or divorce and find ways to mitigate the stress for children involved.  Seek resources.

This is never easy, and is always painful at some level.  However, I see many couples who truly love each other at the core and want to continue a life together despite religious disconnection.  The couples who are successful at mixed faith marriages are generally able to feel compassion for each other and allow their partners to hold their own beliefs without ongoing aggression.  Theological differences don’t need to signal the end of a marriage and family. 

Photo credit: Copyright: balazschristina / 123RF Stock Photo

blended families, Family, Parenting

Hope for Blended Families: When Your Brady Bunch is a Weighty Bunch

3774955 - beautiful family on the dock

One of my favorite tv shows while I was growing up was The Brady Bunch.  Mike and Carol Brady managed each contrived family challenge with ease and contentment.  That’s why the popular sitcom is definitely a better example of fiction than of blended families.  Some of the most challenging cases I have seen in therapy are those with combined households.  Blended families are by nature exposed to a great deal of stress.  Some reasons they are particularly challenging are:

  1. Family structures are constantly shifting, with children coming and going. In families where both parents have children and the children spend time with both parents, they are in constant transition from one household to another.  Transitions generate stress.
  2. Children have loyalties to both parents. Children feel stuck in the middle trying to please their biological parents.  They can easily feel disloyal to a bioparent by accepting a stepparent.
  3. People often feel differently about their biological children than stepchildren. This isn’t how people want it to be, but the reality is that most people have an easier time empathizing with their own children.
  4. Children from different households have often been raised with different rules and types of discipline. This can generate arguments between the parents about how to develop and enforce rules.
  5. Blended families can have children in different life-cycle stages. For example, a parent with teenagers might marry someone with preschoolers, increasing the complexity of understanding and meeting the needs of all household members.

It’s important to note that blended families and step-parents have great potentiality for developing well-adjusted, secure individuals if the parents can work together and maintain amiable relationships with their former spouses.  I know of many instances in which a stepparent provided the type of love and security children need to have confidence in stable relationships.

Some intentional things blended families can do are:

  1. Promote a discussion acknowledging losses and gains of each family member.  Have an actual meeting in which you allow children to draw pictures or voice the things they miss from their biological families.  Then, ask what they have gained.  If children are asked about losses, they can immediately feel more validated and safer sharing their fearful and uncomfortable emotions.
  2. Establish a new family tradition with the blended family. Allow each family member to have input on what this might be.  Don’t overthink it.  Small rituals are powerful.
  3. Make sure stepparents spend one-on-one time with stepchildren. I’m disappointed by how many blended families miss this opportunity.  Parents have former history with their biological children.  They need to create new history with stepchildren.
  4. Think of parenting stepchildren as mentoring rather than traditional parenting. How would you mentor a niece or nephew?  The stepparent relationship is different than the biological relationship.  This must be acknowledged and respected.  Do NOT require stepchildren to call you “Mom,” or “Dad,” but if they want to, let them.
  5. Reinforce the marriage. This is even more important in blended families than in biological families.  The issues with children can quickly fray the marriage.  Take time to date, have discussions, attend workshops, and actively implement strategies to express love and care in the couple relationship.

As a general rule, if people focused more on improving relationships than on discipline, I believe there would be far less headaches with blended families.  This requires a certain level of emotional regulation on the part of the parents, who may be rejected by stepchildren.  Remember, your children are not there to meet YOUR emotional needs…you are there to meet your children’s emotional needs and help them develop into functioning, healthy human beings…those of the non-fictional variety.

Photo: Copyright: creativestoc / 123RF Stock Photo

Couples, Family, Humor

Couple Conflict After the Laughter

older couple laughing

My husband can never just gently get into bed.  At any given time, he outweighs me by 80-100 pounds, and it always feels to me like he is flopping onto the bed with as much force as possible, which has the effect of both startling me and bouncing me out of my comfort zone.  He denies that he has this habit and always responds to my protests with, “What?  I’m just getting into bed like a normal person. What do you want me to do?”

So, the other night, while I was sitting in bed knitting, my husband got into the bed with his usual vigor, and my arm jerked several stitches off of my knitting needle which I had to go back and fix, and which also annoyed me.  I immediately snapped, “Steve!  Seriously?” which was code for, “How many times have we talked about this?  How hard is it to just ease into bed without announcing your arrival with the exertion of a bull elephant?”

I expected him to defend his technique as usual when instead, he said, “Well, it could have been worse…I could have done this…,” at which point he popped up on the bed and started jumping up and down like an 8 year-old.  The scene was so absurd that I couldn’t stop laughing, and instead of engaging in another tired quarrel, we shared  a moment of playful connection.

Dr. John Gottman identified humor as a common “repair attempt,” that many functional couples use to manage conflict.  If used well, and in a way that is inclusive and not contemptuous, it can be a very effective technique.

With nearly 30 years of marriage and 7 children, my husband and I have had lots and lots of practice both engaging in and averting typical couple power struggles.  A long time ago, I remember at one point saying to my husband, “Stop trying to control me.  You can’t control me,” because I do have a rebellious streak a mile wide with a tendency to do the opposite of what someone is trying to make me do (which is all coming back to me through my teenagers).  Neither of us likes to feel controlled.  It has become an ongoing joke now that if things start escalating, one of us will commonly interrupt with, “Are you trying to control me?” with a tone of voice that suggests that we are being ridiculous, and we end up laughing.  Once, I remember him throwing out, “I’m trying to control you right now and you’re not cooperating,” and it was so unexpected with the comical look on his face that I was completely disarmed and laughed, and another conflict was avoided.

Humor can be used to manage potential family conflict as well.  Parenting and finances are two common potential points of contention for many couples.  On one family vacation, I remember an incident in which those both collided, and I started getting irritated with my husband.  It was a typical vacation in which one child had already vomited in the car, there were ongoing quarrels about who was in whose space and who was breathing whose air, and my nerves were raw from all the noise.  On the way home, when my husband stopped at a gas station, I couldn’t wait to get out of the car and walk away somewhere by myself to breathe.

When I walked back to the car, my then three year-old began pulling my hand to show me something she wanted at a vending machine.  It was a pink mustache for 75 cents, and she was so insistent that I decided to hit her dad up for the money.  Instead of thinking it was cute like I did, he thought it was a ridiculous waste of 75 cents and he was tired of bleeding money on our vacation.  Instead of agreeing, he gave me a look that said, “A pink mustache? Really?  Why don’t I just hand you three quarters to go flush down the toilet?”

Soo…instead of lashing out about what a cheapskate he was, I decided to take a different approach.  I knew he was tired and stressed like I was from the torture of being in a confined space with 7 noisy children.  I picked up a quarter from the bottom of my purse and announced to my teenage sons, “Okay everyone…your sister wants a pink mustache that costs 75 cents, and I personally think that would be amusing to look at, and so I am willing to donate a quarter to her pink mustache fund.  Does anyone else want to donate to see the pink mustache?”  Immediately, two brothers anted up and even offered to take her in to purchase the disguise.  When she came back, delighted to be wearing a pink mustache, we all laughed, and even my husband had to admit it was adorable, and instead of being upset with me over an argument, he was grateful that I hadn’t undermined him in front of the children and escalated conflict.

Humor is effective if the relationship already feels safe.  If you see your partner as your collaborator, you are more likely to join with them in the silliness.  You take bigger comedic risks, because humor is often about presenting the unexpected.  If you see him/her as the enemy, it can easily be misinterpreted.  Humor also requires a fair amount of creativity, which is more expansive when people are not emotionally flooded, so when people struggle to regulate emotion, it can be more challenging to access humor.

Couples who can use humor are couples who work at building friendship actively outside of conflict.  They are couples who have lots of experiences laughing together.  I don’t think I could endure a relationship in which my spouse didn’t appreciate my sense of humor; I am well aware that not everyone finds me as amusing as my spouse does.  However, because he laughs at my lame jokes and laughs at shared comedic references with me, it feels safe to explore humor with him.

Humor can be accessed intentionally in a spirit of playfulness.  If you don’t know where to start, listen to a funny podcast.  My favorite is NPR’s Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!  For additional inspiration, watch the Argument Clinic by Monty Python’s the Flying Circus, which you can access on YouTube here.  I might be showing my age with that suggestion, but I promise you won’t look at an argument the same way again.



Adolescence, Attachment, Couples, Couples Therapy, Family, Holidays, Marriage and Family Therapy, Parenting, Parenting Teenagers

Presents or Presence this Holiday Season?

couple presence presents

I sent my husband a text the other day by speaking into the phone as usual, and right before I sent it, I glanced at it to make sure it was comprehensible.  What I saw actually took me by surprise.  I was sending him a message saying, “I got you the best presents for Christmas,” and I noticed that the voice recognition message had printed, “I got you the best presence for Christmas.”

Most of us are so busy during the holidays (or ever) that presence is the last thing on our minds.  The concept of presence in interpersonal relationships implies intentionally focusing on the other person and really being with them.

When Mitch Albom wrote Tuesdays with Morrie, about his experiences with a former university professor who was afflicted with ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, he explained how Morrie Schwartz taught him by example how to be present.  He wrote, “When Morrie was with you, he was really with you.  He looked you straight in the eye, and he listened as if you were the only person in the world.”  Morrie himself said, “I believe in being fully present…That means you should be WITH the person you’re with.”

One of the things I love about being a therapist is that I share a very well-defined space and time with another set of individuals.  This allows me to focus all of my attention on those people during that time with no other distractions.  It’s easy to be present in those situations.

Exercising that kind of presence at home with the multiple demands on my time is a different story.  I understand how difficult it can be to be present.  I am by nature a fairly hurried person.  I became very aware of this on our last family vacation when we were visiting various places.  I routinely end up walking alone tens of yards in front of everyone.  My family is endlessly amused by this.  I think it’s a habit I picked up from trying to keep up with my mother when I was young.  She was also a very fast walker, and I seem to have a lot of the same nervous energy she possessed.  I am also a relentless multi-tasker, which makes it very difficult to slow down and focus on one thing.

The other night, I was on my computer, and my husband walked in and said something to me, put something next to me with a flourish, and while I was staring at my screen and typing, I was mumbling, “OK, thanks, Hon,” not paying any attention at all.  I was vaguely aware that he blew me a kiss before walking out the door.  It wasn’t until after he left that I looked down and saw that he had brought me something with almond butter that he had spread in the shape of a heart.  As I looked at it, the words he had used echoed in my mind and this time I paid attention.  He had walked in and said, “Notice that I spread this in a heart shape to show my love for my beautiful bride,” and then he blew me a kiss even after I was completely dismissive and inattentive to him.

This time, I was able to correct the interaction because I noticed.  I called him back in and apologized that I had been so inattentive when he had put forth effort for me.  Unfortunately, that was the exception.  Most of us can benefit by trying to increase our presence in our familial relationships.

Here are some ideas to increase your presence with family members:

  1. Slow down and breathe.  You can’t be present if you are hurried.  This is hard for me.  When I’m trying to slow down, I often purposely breathe to stay focused and keep my mind from racing.  If I get distracted, I can breathe and return to the immediate conversation.
  2. Put down your electronic devices. Sit on your hands if you have to.  The other day, I heard my daughter say, “Hello!  I am trying to have a conversation with an actual human…and also, did you know that you are messing up your melatonin levels by staring at that little screen and it’s going to be harder for you to sleep tonight?” (Thank you, medical anatomy).  When I explained that I did know that, which was why I had a store of melatonin in the medicine cabinet, I earned another lecture on the pitfalls of artificially altering my hormone levels, blah blah blah, which made me want to look at my phone more.  I realized that as long as I had my phone in my hand, I kept getting distracted by other things I “had to do,” and I kept returning to the alluring siren’s song of the cell phone during the gaps in our conversation.  Shame on me!  My teenage daughter actually wanted to talk to me, and I was dismissing her.
  3. Make eye contact. Eye contact is so simple, yet it is powerful.  Many couples in therapy have a very difficult time making eye contact because it is so connecting, and they often feel vulnerable in the process.  Eye contact improves empathy.
  4. Be curious. Be a detective of what it’s like to be the other person in front of you.  What are they really experiencing?  Have there been times when you have felt that same way?  What are they trying to tell you?  If you communicate that you really want to understand, and it feels authentic, people will usually disclose more.
  5. Check in with the Other Person.  By this I mean authentically reflecting back key points of the conversation to make sure you are really understanding correctly.  This isn’t so much a “communication skill,” as a way of being with someone.  If you are faking it, your spouse can usually tell, and it will be ineffective.
  6. Figure out how to make Your Presence Helpful. Does this person need some kind of validation or support?  If you don’t know what that is, communicate that you would like to know how to be helpful.
  7. Create time and space to be present. This seems obvious, but if it’s not scheduled in, I guarantee many other things will take your time, and it just won’t happen.

While I have been typing this, I have successfully dismissed a spouse and three of my seven children.  Ironic, I know.  The good news is that being present can start NOW if you want.  Before you go to bed tonight, see if you can practice being really present for five minutes with a family member, and then notice whether it had any kind of immediate impact.  Even though I’m still learning how to be present, I do believe it is one of the best presents you can give to a family member this season.

Now excuse me while I go check my email…..


Tuesdays with Morrie: An old man, a young man, and life’s greatest lesson by Mitch Albom, 2007, Random House, LLC, Broadway Books.