Couples, Humor, Love, marriage, Romance

What’s That Smell? The Magnifi-Scent Marriage

couple sniffingLast year while my husband and I were vacationing with another couple, I had one of those vicarious déjà vu moments. My friend, her husband and I were waiting for an elevator, and as it opened, I smelled something sulfurous, reminiscent of a diesel engine. Although it smelled vaguely of machinery to me, as the elevator doors closed, my friend looked at her husband and accused, “Something doesn’t smell good. Is that you?” I laughed out loud, because while I thought the smell was emitted from something on our ship, I could imagine saying the same thing to my husband.

Smells matter, especially for women. One study revealed that women ranked pleasant body odor in a mate as more important than even physical attraction. The research is mixed–it’s unclear whether we are drawn subconsciously to people with appealing pheromones or with excellent taste in chemicals that mask unappealing body odor. Regardless, it is obvious that we are drawn to those who smell good to us.

The importance of deodorant/anti-perspirant* became a theme of my recent family vacation. While standing in an amusement park line in Florida with my face melting off, my 16-year-old son casually announced that he forgot to put on deodorant that morning. “Really? You wait until we are visiting a park with the temperature of Hades to forget deodorant? Okay, you are hereby sentenced to walk at least ten paces behind me for the rest of the day,” I warned. “I am not kidding. You know about my highly-developed sense of smell.” I am lacking in many areas, but my husband has been known to call me “the nose,” because I can smell noxious odors that no one else seems to notice.

Later that evening, after my husband announced that he was almost completely out of deodorant, I went to the store to stock up, in an act of self-preservation. A visit that should have taken 5 minutes took 25, because I was captivated by the array of options.

“Hmm,” I thought to myself, spinning out in consumer overload, “Do I want to feel like I’m married to a Greek god or Michael Jordan? Someone with OCD/clinical cleanliness perhaps? Robocop? Paul Bunyan? Popeye? A ruthless dictator? A CEO with a lot of cash? Or the ever-entertaining Bozo the Clown?” The siren call of options sparkled with an implicit guarantee of life change. “Something big is going to happen as soon as he puts on this deodorant, I just know it,” I mused.

Old Spice has a clear market lead in choices with creative and amusing titles. How was I expected to decide between Steel Courage and Stronger Swagger? “Let’s see— will Steel Courage increase my husband’s tensile strength? Must my husband already possess swagger to add more? If not, is there a remedial option for beginning swaggerers? Oh—there—the unembellished Swagger—‘the scent of confidence, which happens to smell like lime and cedarwood.’  What? I’m 51 and I’m just barely finding out that the scent of confidence smells like lime and cedarwood?” Then, I gazed upon Ambassador and thought, “Nope. I can’t take that much ego. He’ll expect me to call him ‘Mr. Ambassador,’ while bringing him his slippers.”

And that is just the opener for the mental gymnastics I faced in the deodorant aisle.

Old Spice’s website contains intriguing if hyperbolic promises for using their products. For example, High Endurance Original Scent seems simple enough, but when “spiced up,” with the tagline, “boosts your man-smell and prepares you for success,” I had to wonder, “Are those presumptively related? Can it determine which ‘man-smell,’ needs enhancing? My husband has several ‘man-smells,’ some of which certainly don’t need boosting.”

Curiously, Citron is the scent that “traps your armpits in a whirlwind of zesty lime, leafy greans (and yes, it’s spelled that way on the website), and woman advances.” I definitely DON’T want my husband’s armpits “trapped in a whirlwind of woman advances,” so that choice was clearly out of the question. I was similarly wary of Nomad, because I did not want my husband wandering off unexpectedly in a paroxysm of adventure.

Then I encountered what appeared to be the “Geek Power” options—with labels appealing to video gamers as well as the motley crew of dungeons and dragons alumni.

Hawkridge is hawked with assurances to “outwit unsuspecting stink with its sandalwood and vanilla scent.” When did deodorant become the major player in a fantasy saga?

Bolder Bearglove left me scratching my head, but since it implies something I wouldn’t want to encounter alone in a forest, it must be powerful. The detailed specificity of Wolfthorn’s tagline was…odd…even for the gaming and DD crowd: “Wolfthorn is the sort of sophisticated wolf who wears a suit that has a suave, sweet orange scent.” Oh, come on! A wolf who wears a suit? They totally threw that in to see if anyone is paying attention.

And then I encountered the Elephant Man of deodorants. Krakengard. Really? For the partner who wants to feel bonded to a multi-tentacled cephalopod from the deep? It gets even weirder when you read the ubiquitous tagline on their website, “So easy to use you might accidentally put it on and only later realize your man-nificence.” Does that happen before or after the high-pitched shrieking one can expect when encountering a ginormous phlegm wad with legs?

Fiji, Denali and Timber Fresher seemed dull by comparison. How can I get excited about a soothing island adventure now that I’ve been offered the appeal of the Kraken? My consumer expectations suddenly exceeded the previously alluring possibility of olfactory transport to relaxing natural landscapes.

I’m certain that Old Spice has market research confirming that the more varieties they offer, the more deodorant people buy. They increased my purchase by 500% with their consumer complexity. I finally settled on Lasting Legend for obvious reasons. I also threw in the elegantly simple Extra Fresh, a few with “Sport” in the title and Desperado—which claims to emit a scent that is “unapologetically risky,” for my husband’s alter ego, or in case I wanted to feel like I was married to Butch Cassidy.  I topped off the lot with Captainthe scent of command, for the sheer amusement of being able to answer my husband with, “Aye aye, Captain!” throughout the day, and randomly asking my son, within my husband’s earshot, “What do I smell? Is that the scent of command?”

“I am armed and ready,” I thought, “in this humid weather, Old Spice better deliver on its declaration to ‘overpower stink with good-smellingness.'” As a mother of five boys, I believe I have earned the right to be some kind of anti-perspirant goodwill ambassador. That’s “Mrs. Ambassador,” in case you were wondering.

I returned to the hotel and announced, “OK son, I just bought a deodorant for each of your father’s personalities. Pick one and apply liberally. Take a lesson from your father—he uses at least half a stick in one sitting.” It’s true. Some people brush their teeth for the length of a song—that’s how long it takes my husband to apply deodorant. He does always smell delicious though, so who am I to question his methods? I’m occasionally concerned that he has a repressed traumatic adolescent experience with B.O.—but don’t tell him I said so.

I couldn’t help but think about the possibilities of marketing a line of deodorant describing characteristics for the type of men women want to attach themselves to long-term…not an easy task considering the risk of compromising the delicate male ego’s investment in hardcore masculinity.

Here is my “Monogamous Line” for starters:

  1. Ferocious Fidelity—the scent of strength—and of not incurring a bludgeoning at the hands of your spouse
  2. Dad Bod—for the husband who has earned those love handles because he is playing with kids on the playground instead of visiting the gym
  3. Chore Warrior—the female aphrodisiac
  4. G-LORI-OUS—my own eponymous scent eliciting a chorus of angels and a feeling of ecstasy
  5. Jedi Mind Trick—Why YES, I DO remember that time when….thank you for reminding me again
  6. A-GREE Force—maximizing the physics of YES, DEAR
  7. Zestosterone—Be in the mood when she’s in the mood—to watch that romcom
  8. Diaper Slayer—take that, Evilpoopers!
  9. Egalitarian Edge—When a dual ego is greater than the sum of the parts
  10. Pied Piper—for the husband who isn’t afraid to be a dad
  11. Mind Reader—the scent of the intellectually advanced and conflict-free
  12. Kitchen Hound–for the man who wants to share your bed and remembers that doing the dishes includes wiping off the counters
  13. Ken Doll—the scent of high performance–in plastic
  14. Emotional Enthusiast–for men who can feel their full range of emotions and validate yours
  15. Sir Dependable Defender—because you have her back–ALWAYS
  16. Romantic Raconteur—rose petals not included
  17. Role Model—perfection in chemicals on a stick
  18. Yestosterone–For the man who agrees to agree
  19. Altruistic Archetype—scents and sensitivity
  20. 3-Point Laundry Shot—the scent of swoosh
  21. Dad Joke—the redheaded stepson of deodorants
  22. Philophile (No, not the love of Dr. Phil. Look it up!)
  23. Mythical Male Unicorn— a mystical blend of all the above

Or I could just cut to the chase and market a deodorant labeled Sex and Weight Loss, and become an instant millionare. Maybe even a gazillionaire if I add a little junk science, expensive essential oils and a Gothic font. Ho hum…I’m sure it has been done. If not, you’re welcome.

I picked up both of competitor Axe’s male and female versions of Anarchy, because the marriage therapist in me said, “I can totally build a date around this.”  It’s in development. Stay tuned.

If you aren’t lucky enough to find deodorant containing the suggestive power of monogamy, at least stay away from Citron—those “woman advances,” are unpredictable. You do not want the hassle. The only person I want smelling my husband’s armpits is me.

Wait, what?

*This blog post assumes the use of conventional grocery store deodorants, complete with suspect parabens, carcinogens, pesticides and myriad multisyllabic chemicals. Evaluating the controversy of using such products vs. crystals, hedgehog urine, cancer-free incantations or other such alternative juju is not within the scope of this blog post.

References:

Human pheromones and sexual attraction (2005) by Karl Grammar, Bernhard Fink and Nick Weave. In Reproductive Biology, 118(2), 135-142.

Sex differences in response to physical and social factors involved in human mate selection: The importance of smell for women (2002), by Rachel S. Herz and Michael Inzlicht in Evolution and Human Behavior, 23(5), 359-364.

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

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Couples, Holidays, Humor, Romance

Better Couple Bonding with Ugly Holiday Sweaters

63128617 - couple with funny christmas masksSince ugly Christmas sweater parties are all the ironic rage, I went on a hunt for couples’ combinations.  I’m sure there’s still time to pay double the price to get them before Christmas.  If not, perhaps some readers will be inspired to pin this to a “Tacky romantic must-haves for Christmas 2017,” Pinterest list.  Now you can express your love, cohesion, and bad taste in one social setting.

I have added my own descriptive labels.

  1. The “Newlywed” Christmas Sweater.  This is for the couple who is still under the influence of a brain-induced love cocktail, thus clouding their vision of how nauseating their outward expression is to those around them.  If this sweater is sold out, you can make an even more impressive version with a photo of your love connection.  Print the words, “All I want for Christmas is,” and insert photo.  To add more “blech,” value, add the words, “This guy (or gal),” at the bottom.
  1. The “Enmeshment” Christmas Sweater.  Marriage and family therapists love this term, indicating too much closeness in family systems.  Don’t wear one of these to marriage therapy unless you want to earn a label soaked in psychobabble.  This sweater is perfect unless you want to walk in opposite directions.  For couples who are really in love, this will not be a problem, because they will be able to accurately mind read every move their partners are about to make, in addition to deciphering every unspoken emotional need.
  1. The “You Complete Me” Christmas Sweater.  A DIY project guaranteed to generate couple closeness.  Just be strategic about which part of the reindeer represents your better half.
  1. The “Communications Problem” Christmas Sweater.  An homage to the most common reason for seeking marriage therapy.  Also, technically a sweatshirt.  If you don’t understand the meaning at first, look closer at the “What,” gingerbread man’s head.  It took me a minute.  I’m pretty sure my husband wishes he could use that excuse.
  1. The “Light Me Up” Christmas Sweater.  Can be used as an across the room signaling device in addition to being an excellent marital metaphor.
  1. The “Let Your Freak Flag Fly” Christmas Sweater.  Because what husband does not want to use glitter, glue and additional craft décor to assemble an exceedingly heinous vesture?
  1. The “Simple Yet Definitive” Christmas Sweater.  Again, technically a sweatshirt, for the couple who wants to make an understated statement.

If you’re not brave enough to don matching sweaters, consider matching Ugly Christmas Socks.  Then, you can work your way up to the ultimate in holiday wear–The Gaudy Holiday Suit by OppoSuits.  Because OppoSuits attract!

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

Photo credit: Copyright: <a href=’http://www.123rf.com/profile_gpointstudio’>gpointstudio / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

 

Holidays, Humor, marriage

Halloween, Happiness and a Holstein: A MOOving Memory

This story seriously never gets old for me

Uniting Couples to Strengthen Families

cow Copyright: tomwang / 123RF Stock Photo

The current trend in Psychology to study “happiness,” has resulted in consistent findings that making memories brings more enduring happiness than accumulating material possessions.  In our family, there are few holidays that evoke more lasting memories than Halloween.

I love Halloween.  However, I definitely prefer the kinder, gentler Halloween of smiling Jack-o-lanterns and friendly looking ghosts to the gruesome displays of zombies, open wounds and scenes from the dark side.  Mostly, I have enjoyed dressing my kids up in costumes and watching their excitement at being in character for the day.

Before I had so many kids, I used to sew my kids’ Halloween attire, because I thought that’s what good mothers did (I know—and I regularly thank the high heavens that I dodged the Pinterest bullet, which was non-existent in my young mother days).

One year, in a pregnancy-induced nausea fog, I managed…

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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.

 

 

Couples, Humor, Love, marriage, Marriage and Family Therapy

What Siri, Your Spouse and You Have in Common—Or as Siri Would Say, “With Serious Pouch in Chew Having Calm On”

texting

I was with my daughter at a youth event the other night when I received a text from my husband that made me laugh out loud.  He texted, “Your speech texting is the worst……or should I say, your pee testing is the works.”  I immediately reread the text I had previously sent which Siri interpreted as, “One of the ports people supposed to come?”   I think it was supposed to be, “When are the porch people supposed to come?” (in reference to repairing  our porch…not the people inhabiting the porch).

I have developed a bad habit of texting with speech recognition because it is so much faster and more efficient, but in my rush I rarely proofread and even if I do, since I know in the original meaning of what I want to say, I think my family members will be able to decipher my cryptic messages.  Somehow I haven’t learned that if Siri doesn’t know what I’m trying to communicate, it is unlikely that they will know either.  I resist playback audio messages because they are easier for my family to ignore.  Typing just takes too darn long.  Apparently, proofreading does as well.  In the end, if my messages can’t be interpreted then they aren’t efficient at all.

One of my favorite examples is from last October when I voice texted, “I got your dad a Pharaoh hat to wear for Halloween,” and the message read, “I got your dad a feral cat to wear for Halloween.”  My children are constantly telling me (usually in capital letters) to “STOP USING YOUR VOICE RECOGNITION MOM!!!!” Or “MOM!  PROOFREAD OR STOP!  SERIOUSLY!!!!”  (“Siri-ously?” is my sometimes response).  To make his point, my son texted me, “You moist hyped cat,” (I know…eww) to demonstrate that he knew from reading my previously sent message that I “voice typed that.”  I was tempted to type “Your neutered attempt,” for “You knew what I meant.”

The main problem is that I mistakenly think my family is going to know what I meant because it is so clear to me.  It occurred to me later that I observe a similar process A LOT between couples when they are verbally communicating.  The person sending the message knows exactly what they are trying to say, but when it passes through the filter of the person receiving the message, something entirely different can be heard.  I realize that this is Communication 101, but I think it worth revisiting because it continues to be a huge problem between couples, particularly because feeling understood is such a crucial component of couple connection (maybe that will be the alliterative title of my next couple presentation).

I can be sitting in a room and watch a spouse say something, igniting a partner into a flurry of defensiveness.  I’ll say, “Hold on.  What just happened?  What did you just hear?”  Often, the partner will repeat back something entirely different than what the person said.  On many occasions, I have said, “OK, I did not just hear those words and I was sitting right here, but I know that somehow you did hear those words, so please help me understand what this reminds you of in your past interactions?”  Then, my clients can provide me information explaining why they heard it differently, which usually includes their previous experiences with the partner.  They in essence add complex layers of meaning to the primary message, largely driven by the past.

Here’s an example of something that might typically be said in therapy, and it is not gender specific.  This same conversation could occur from wife to husband:

Husband:  It’s not that I don’t care about you or about us.  I just don’t want to bring anything up about our relationship because I’m afraid it will turn into a 4-hour conversation and I’ll say everything wrong end up feeling crappy at the end of it anyway, so I avoid talking to you about that stuff.

Wife:  So you’re saying it’s all my fault that we have a bad marriage?  You’re basically saying that because I’m a witch then you can’t be bothered to talk to me.

This is usually followed up by a litany of attacks on the other person’s character with a counter-attack strategy by the spouse as well as lots of solid evidence from the past supporting each partner’s position thrown out for good measure (Phew).  None of it, however, is at all useful for building connection.

Besides interpreting messages, our brains are excellent at recognizing potential threat based on our knowledge and past experiences in order to protect us from actual threat, and painful interactions with a partner are just that…threatening.  Our brains instantly recognize and warn us before we even have the cognitive awareness that this is happening…any marriage therapist can attest to this.  It’s the same fight or flight process you experience in everyday life.

For example, I often run in the foothills.  On three occasions, I have had an immediate startle response to perceived threat in which I recoiled and my heart started racing and I jumped in a different direction to avoid the stimulus.  Why?  Because my brain thought I saw a snake in the path.  I say “my brain,” because I reacted before I even realized why.  It was automatic.  On one occasion, the “snake,” was a dark piece of rope in the path, once it was a piece of tree branch, and once (my personal favorite), it was a snake skin left behind by a calculating snake, no doubt determined to frighten runners as payback for encroaching on his territory.

Couple interactions can be so similar.  When you are married to someone, you interact with them in habitual and sometimes painful ways, so your brain recognizes potential threat and mobilizes your body to protect itself, which is the fight or flight response, also referred to as “fight, freeze, or flee.”  Couples will do just that…fight or freeze or flight…or some variation of that.  People seem to have alarm bells go off in their heads, warning them of their spouses.  A message seems to scream, “Danger.  You have been hurt before so protect yourself.  This person can harm you.”  It is lightning fast….faster than you realize it is happening.  When this reactivity occurs with your attachment partner, it can be quite an emotionally laden event.

This is, at least in part, why one thing can be said but we hear something else.  There is also the ongoing pesky problem that people just have templates of recall and experience that are entirely unique from each other, so when you say the word, “dog,” I might think , “terrier,” and my husband might think, “black lab,” and yet we don’t take the time to check in and clarify differences.

So what do you do about it?  If this were texting, it may be as simple as proofreading (except not really, because then you have to deal with the absence of nonverbal cues…sometimes I have to add instructions to my text, i.e. “to be read in irritated voice…you left your stinky, nasty socks out on the floor again”).  At least if it is written out, you can see it and then just blame Siri for messing up what you meant to say, but it’s not that easy, because you may not know what your spouse even heard based on what you said.

Here are a few reminders for dealing with the mind meld challenge:

  1. Realize that your partner is not a mind reader. Be as clear as possible.  It is unfair and uncharitable to expect your partner to just know something in the absence of a clear message.
  2. Realize that almost always, even when you are trying to be very clear, your spouse has a filter and will hear something differently than how you said it. Expect it.  Check in on it from time to time.  Laugh about it.  People say they know this, but they continually act surprised when their spouses interpret something differently.  Why?  Because it is so hard to imagine that other people experience the same event so differently.  Once many years ago, I made an offhand comment about trying to figure out how to make our grocery budget work, because we had a very set grocery budget, and what my husband heard was, “You are not a good provider.”  It made me sad to know that’s what he thought I thought, when I was not thinking that at all…I was in fact questioning my own strategy in making the budget work.  It is so difficult to get outside of oneself.
  3. Realize that your brain is always searching for and reacting to potential threat. Your brain will automatically search for similarities and link present events to past experiences.  You must be open to the possibility that your spouse really may be seeing or trying it differently this time (especially if that has been made explicit).
  4. Slow down and practice mindfulness during the conversation. Watch yourself for reactivity and breathe and then clarify gently meaning in the present.
  5. Lower your voice and talk softer on purpose. The natural tendency is to speed up and get louder.  Purposely talk softer and slower.  It helps for staying mindful.
  6. Repeat back what you thought you heard. Even though this can be useful, I resist teaching specific “communication skills,” because too much of the time they are more problematic than useful.  They can be used ironically, they can be hard to remember, your partner can criticize your execution of the skill, and they just seem gimmicky to me.  I prefer a more organic process, but it really can be helpful sometimes to say, “So is this what you meant?”  Just stay slow and soft (but only if you don’t want to end up in a fight).
  7. Most importantly, KEEP TRYING! Repetition matters A LOT!  Couples who work at it really do get better, but sometimes it can take a long time.  I have couples work at it who took a year or two to really improve and solidify their patterns.  People in general just give up too darn fast.

Here’s an idea.  Before you talk to you spouse, try Siri’s voice recognition, speak paragraphically, and see how inaccurately Siri interprets the message.  This may remind you to be more patient with your spouse.

Remember, Shakespeare said, “The course of true love never did run smooth,”  or, in the words of 21st century poet, Siri, “The cursive two loves ever did young soothe.”  Figure that one out!

Couples, Couples Therapy, Humor, marriage, Marriage and Family Therapy

To Stay Together…Play Together

couple playing

Around this time last year, I was wandering the aisles of a department store with one of my good friends, hatching a plan to surprise our husbands with an unexpected double date.   I had arranged for an aerial yoga instructor to give us a private class in contorting ourselves in long scarves and on bars hanging from the ceiling, trapeze style.  The whole idea appealed to me, since I had a background in gymnastics and competition cheerleading.  What appealed to me more was the anticipation of seeing the look on my husband’s face when I told him what we were going to do.

Our plan was to tell our husbands that we going somewhere they would find completely unsavory (e.g. the opera) and then to show up at the yoga studio with outfits for them to change into for the class.  “I know….tights,” I mused, “If we put the word ‘cycling,’ in front of them, my husband will think they’re legit…Look, green shorts…They’ll be like oversized leprechauns!”  We laughed and schemed and found just the right clothes to fit their tall frames, and laughed some more in anticipation of their reactions.  The planning was a lot of the fun.  The evening went as planned, and fortunately our husbands were good sports, even though my husband protested that he does not wear “outfits;” the best part is that we have a great memory to laugh about when we go out with our friends.

The American Journal of Play, recently reported findings that playfulness is a significant role in not just attracting a mate, but in creating long-term relationships.  It makes sense to me that playfulness is very appealing in attracting a mate.  At least it was in my case.  Every boyfriend I had won me over in large part by making me laugh and playing off of my sometimes quirky personality.

When I met my husband, I had no interest in pursuing a relationship beyond friendship, and yet he kept showing up every time I turned around.  I remember that I was not particularly playful with him because I just wasn’t interested and didn’t want to get his hopes up, despite the fact that he did, as the quintessential All-American basketball player, represent my “type.”

One evening, he was walking me across the university campus and invited me to come watch him play intramural football.  “OK….maybe,” I offered hesitantly in order to be polite, with no intention of showing up.  Later that evening, I was thanking the heavens above for the snowfall that gave me a convenient excuse for not showing up without hurting his feelings.  When someone knocked at my door a few minutes later, I opened it to see him standing there with a bag over his head, illustrating the fact that I had “dogged,” him by not attending the game.  He made me laugh, which was how he eventually won me over.  I wasn’t trying to impress him, because I still didn’t want to pursue a relationship, so I felt free to be my quirky self without recrimination.  Once, I showed up to go on a date wearing black lipstick just to see how his conservative side would respond.  He just played along, acting like he didn’t notice.

Because we were clearly “just friends,” and he wasn’t going anywhere, we spent months in a relationship absent of physical affection, but rich with playful friendship types of experiences.  If I was running at the track, he would show up and run alongside me (and around me).  If I was going to play tennis with a roommate, he would show up with a tennis racket and the skills of a country club trained tennis player (literally).  He kept making me laugh.  Our natural abilities to be increasingly playful facilitated a more secure courtship.

After we got married and had children, life started to become more serious and stressful, but I still valued our playfulness, and I would use holidays like April Fool’s Day to play tricks on him with my children, continuing our tradition of whimsy.  One year I read my children a book about a little boy who hid insects in homemade chocolate, and that was the year we made homemade chocolates for daddy with gummy worms and bugs hidden inside.  One year, because I had all boys, I dressed the baby up as a girl and tried to hand my husband his “daughter,” when he walked through the door.  I previously wrote a post about another April Fool’s Day that you can read HERE.

I still believe in the power of play for couples.  There are many benefits in a long-term relationship:

  1. Increased well-being.  The byproduct of playfulness increases coping ability.
  2. Expressing affection. It’s a way of conveying that the other person matters.
  3. Increasing excitement in relationship. Relationships are often created and fueled by novelty, which diminishes in long-term bonds.  Playfulness brings that novelty back, which has been significantly associated with increased relationship quality in marriage.
  4. Cultivating the relationship. There is an exploratory aspect of playful behavior that generates memories, securing bonds.
  5. Increased problem solving capability. Playfulness accesses creativity, which broadens the ability to seek solutions to common relationship problems.

The problem is, being playful requires some vulnerability and risk, and couples who are distressed have often lost this element in their relationship.  It’s not safe to be playful with someone who might be critical or contemptuous in return.

If a relationship has lost its playfulness, one of the best segues back in is reminiscence.  Sometimes my husband and I play the “remember when,” game.  Viewing old photo albums or watching home movies from the past can also be useful.  This usually invites positive emotions and can lead to an instant feeling of connection.  It’s the perfect launching pad for additional playful behavior….and April Fool’s Day is the perfect time to start.  Come to think of it, I might even break out the black lipstick…

References:

Aron, A., Norman, C. C., Aron, E. N., McKenna, C. (2000).  Couples’ shared participation in novel and arousing activities and experienced relationship quality. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78(2), 273-284.

Proyer, R. T. & Wagner, L. (2015).  Playfulness in adults revisited: The signal theory in German speakers.  American Journal of Play, 7(2), 201-227.

Couples, Couples Therapy, Holidays, Humor, marriage, Marriage and Family Therapy

7 Gift Ideas for Maintaining Couple Connection

Copyright: halfpoint / 123RF Stock Photo
Copyright: halfpoint / 123RF Stock Photo

I often have couples ask me why it seems so difficult to maintain connection even after they have had deeply bonding moments together, and I usually answer, “Life.”  Daily demands come from many sources such as children, careers and community, and compete with a marital relationship for attention.  Unfortunately, the marriage is often the first thing to be sacrificed.  Couples who succeed at not only maintaining but deepening connection don’t get there by accident.  They are the ones who are intentional in their habits to work on the marriage.

There is an undocumented rumor that marriage therapists “have the worst marriages,” because their expectations are so high that they are never happy.  This might be perpetuated from the fact that many people become marriage therapists AFTER their bad marriages or divorces as a way to understand them better and prevent future disasters.  I’m not sure, but  I heard Dr. John Gottman once dispel this myth and said that actually marriage therapists often have pretty good marriages because it is so important to them that they continue to work at it.  I honestly believe this is probably more often the case.

It is true that I have high expectations for marriage, but it is also true that my experiences as a therapist have helped me become more adaptable and flexible in many ways.  I am always working at it, and I think I actually have a pretty great marriage (which admittedly might also have something to do with the fact that my husband is very accepting and easy to live with), despite the fact that I have marital challenges just like everybody else.  In fact, I honestly believe challenges I have endured have allowed me to have more compassion and understanding for my clients.

With Christmas right around the corner, I decided to compile a list of some of my favorite products for maintaining secure attachment in marriage.  Thank heavens marriage therapy is well past the days of batakas, when couples were encouraged to act out their emotional aggressions on each other.  Now, there are many items available for enhancing marital connection in a healthy way.   I have tested out many of them, and some of them are still on my bucket list.  If nothing else, here are some ideas:

Note:  I have no affiliation in any way with any of these sellers and can’t endorse trade with any individual websites.

  1. Conversation cards: There are many manufacturers of decks of cards with questions designed to spark conversation and ultimately more connection between married people (I must have a dozen different versions – my poor husband!) You don’t need to buy a deck – you could just make a jar with your own questions, but if you are feeling unimaginative, a good place to start is the classic “Ungame, Couples Edition,” found here.
  2. Couple journal: Again, there are many, many versions of couple journals (and again, I have at least a dozen), but the idea is to access and share memories, dreams, thoughts, etc., as a way to create connection.  Even if you don’t write anything down, but just have a conversation using the journal prompts, I believe it can help.  One example is the 12 ways to say I love you journal, found here.
  3. Couple’s letter book set: In a day and age when we don’t write actual letters anymore, this product possesses vintage appeal.  I’ve always wanted actual love letters from my husband, since we never carried on a long-distance romance.  It’s sort of like the couple journals, but in a different format.  It can be found here.
  4. Rituals of connection/Opportunity cards: Drs. John and Julie Gottman have been marketing products for several years related to their research-inspired “Sound Marital House,” theory of marriage. Gottman sells several decks of cards designed to inspire friendship and ongoing connection.  I like these cards because they help couples become more intentional in their marital relationships, found here.
  5. Workbook: Unlike the previous products, a workbook for couples usually comes with specific goals and tasks based on a theoretical perspective for couple change. The one I prefer is An Emotionally Focused Workbook for Couples: The Two of Us by Veronica Kallos-Lily and Jennifer Fitzgerald.  Even though it is designed as a supplement to couples therapy, it can help couples identify negative patterns and the emotional meaning behind them in their own marriages.  I absolutely would NOT recommend this without therapy to any couples that are moderately to highly distressed; I would recommend therapy instead.  This can be found at many book retailers, but the Amazon link is here.
  6. Date jar: Marriage therapists are always pushing marital dating, and I’m no exception. Increasing novelty in dating by trying new things together can actually help improve marital satisfaction (as documented in a study with a control group at a New York University several years ago).  There are examples all over the internet to make one yourself, with tons of ideas, but there is also one available for purchase here.
  7. Products for promoting physical affection: Non-sexual, physical affection often drops off in marriage, which is unfortunate, because it helps couples stay connected. For Valentine’s Day one year, I hand knit my husband a “smitten,” which is one mitten couples wear together while holding hands, so we could take walks outside with it.  If you’re not the knitting type, there are several available for purchase at Etsy.  There is one example here.  Another item I haven’t tried, but looks intriguing is the “Cuddling pillow,” with a groove for arms to prevent the arm from getting numb.  I have no idea if it works, but if you are cuddling long enough to cut off the circulation, I have no objections.  If you do have circulation problems, though, you may want to check with your doctor before trying this out.  This product is available here.

While compiling this list, I came across a fake product, which I actually thought had promise.  The “no-phone,” found here, is a substitute for the modern smartphone, and when substituted can actually allow the owner to, “…finally have real conversations in person with another human being physically over dinner.”  Now there’s a product that I can really get behind for increasing couple connection!  The would-be manufacturers are communication geniuses.  Sadly, this is not available for purchase – but I am seriously thinking of making my own…it can’t be any harder than a hand-knit “smitten,” after all.

Merry Christmas of Couple Connectivity!