Category Archives: Love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Like most things in social science, it depends.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Questions to Ask

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

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

Bottom Line

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

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

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

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

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

References:

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

Photo credit: Copyright: antonioguillem / 123RF Stock Photo

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

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

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

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

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

Myths about marrying the right person

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

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

Does premarital counseling work? 

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

What to do if you are considering marriage:

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

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

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

References:

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

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

photo credit:

Copyright: antonioguillem / 123RF Stock Photo

Holy Relationships, Batman! Eleven Relationship Truths We Can Learn from The Lego Batman Movie

batman-loveI have been waiting for almost a year for the Lego Batman movie to come out.  Last summer, when the trailers were available, I was using one of them in presentations to illustrate how males are so frequently socialized out of feeling and expressing any vulnerable emotions.  You can see what I mean in the second half of this trailer.  His butler, Alfred asks, “Do you want to talk about how you’re feeling?” and Batman shouts, “What? No!  I don’t want to do that!”  My husband and I watched that clip and laughed over and over.

We finally went with our kids to the movie last weekend.  In the middle of the show, my husband leaned over and whispered to me, “I feel like I’m in a therapy session with Dr. Lori Schade.”  If you aren’t familiar with Batman’s story, his parents were killed when he was younger and he lives largely in social isolation, emerging occasionally to save the city from the bad guys.  Alone in his billionaire mansion, he is a tortured soul.  There were many things about his character that I see in therapy all the time.  Just for fun, I identified the things Lego Batman can teach us about love.

  1. We all exist in relationship to others.  At the beginning of the movie, Batman declares that he doesn’t “do ships—as in relationships.”  He prefers to be alone.  However, as humans, we exist in relationships.  The question is whether we are proactive, as in using them for connection, or reactive, as in being avoidant or demanding.
  1. When people are wounded they often “numb out” and stop needing people.  In the first Lego movie, I laughed when Batman blasted music declaring, “Darkness!….No Parents!” demonstrating that he was still hurting over his familial loss.  I wasn’t laughing at his pain, but at the writer’s incisive observance of human behavior, and how we use music to express things for ourselves better than we can articulate them alone.  Sometimes music with this intensity follows numbness, because it allows the person in pain to “feel something,” even if only for a moment.
  1. People who are numb from emotional pain commonly have a restricted emotional range.   There was one emotion Batman admitted feeling: Rage.  It’s typical to see people with relationship trauma prevent themselves from feeling at all or only feeling anger, usually because they cannot hurt anymore.  This happens in marriage all the time.  Going numb keeps people from feeling and anger keeps people protected and effectively keeps other people out.
  1. People can have family of origin trauma or romantic relationship trauma that can follow them into the present. The loss of his parents was so painful that Batman didn’t want to get close to people again.  For many people, the injury can occur in the context of a previous romantic relationship in which someone was severely wounded.  The ghosts from these relationships show up, triggering people into reactivity in the present.  It’s not even always conscious.  Our brains remember pain.
  1. When you allow other people to get close to you, you are more vulnerable.  Batman was not willing to risk getting close to someone again, because he was not risk feeling the pain of loss again.  Very common and again, not always intentional.
  1. It’s scary to be vulnerable with other people. Batman’s butler, Alfred, conjectures that Batman is afraid of being in a family again.  Batman finally does admit that he is afraid to get close enough to people to hurt if they are taken away again.  Many people prevent closeness because of fear of the pain of loss or lack of connection.
  1. It’s more distressing to get no reaction than an angry reaction.  This relationship truth was manifested in Batman’s relation to the Joker, his nemesis.  The Joker wants confirmation that Batman hates him and sees him as a threat, but Batman is dismissive of him, driving his desperation for acknowledgment.  This relationship truth is that it’s more emotionally painful to get NO reaction from someone than an angry, bitter reaction.  This is why if a partner is stonewalling, it’s common to see another partner become more provoking.
  1. Relationship loss is normal, but you can’t stop letting people into your life.  Batman dispenses this advice at the end of the movie.  People who shut people out because of relationship pain are also denying themselves the benefit of having relationship support.  People thrive in the context of safe, close relationships.  They also function more effectively independently than people who are constantly trying to be completely independent and not need others for anything.  Safe, close relationships help us regulate distressing emotions more efficiently than when we are alone.  We literally feel less pain.
  1. We can want someone and push them away at the same time.  Even though he clearly has a thing for the commissioner, he pushes her away on purpose, to protect himself from future pain and to protect her from himself.  Batman knows he has a dark side.  There is fear that if he gets close to her, she won’t like who he really is, and there is fear that he will disappoint her.  This is a very real thing people do to stay in the safe zone.
  1. You can’t force someone to be vulnerable or close to you. As much as his friends tried to engage him, Batman ultimately had to be the one to decide that he would ALLOW people to be close.  There is a reaching out aspect, but the receiving aspect, at least in therapy, is often the hardest dynamic to shift.  People need to be willing to let their walls down to allow people to get close.  Demanding that someone, “BE VULNERABLE,” will never work.  Believe me, I have clients that try that approach constantly.  It will paradoxically push people away more.  All you can do is reassure and be consistently safe and hope that your partner will see it long enough to try to engage, especially if you have been a dangerous partner in the past, with criticism, blame, demand, or betrayal. 
  1. Being completely independent seems safe, but comes at a cost.  Batman is ultimately not a happy, albeit fictitious, soul.  His emotional isolation comes at a cost, which is loneliness, a restricted emotional range, rage and mistrust.  People who don’t risk getting close prevent the possibility of having close, bonding experiences with people, which can help build trust and safety.

I was amazed at how many relationship truths were presented in the Batman Lego movie.  Many people aren’t presenting these characteristics in Batman’s extreme, but they use the same strategies nonetheless.  Bottom line:  We are social beings.  We thrive in the context of close, safe, special relationships.  The question is not whether you are doing relationships, but how you are doing relationships.  To maximize the benefit, see where and when you can be vulnerable to emotionally bond to people.  It is a risk, but we have lots of evidence to show that it’s worth it in a safe, healing context.

My guess is that with supportive people around him, Batman will be even more effective at saving the citizens of Gotham….but we will have to wait for the next Lego Batman movie to find out.

Na na na na na na na na na na na na na na na na…..Thatman…does…Relationships!

Photo credit.  Copyright: bubbers / 123RF Stock Photo

Love your Mate with a Regular Date*

couple-datingThe other day, I was cleaning the bathroom while my husband was sitting in our bedroom.  I grabbed a piece of toilet paper, poked my head into the bedroom where he was sitting and ceremoniously waved it over my head while calling, “I’m waving a white flag.  This is me surrendering.  You have officially won our passive aggressive contest over date night.”  He looked confused so I held up the dust-laden copy of a date night ideas for married people book that I had placed in a magazine holder near the toilet literally years before.  Its pages were warped from humidity and it was clearly untouched, because the last time it had been opened was, I’m certain, when I leafed through the pages at a bookstore.  “Remember I put this here, hoping you would use it for date night ideas?  You win.  I’m finally throwing it away.” “Oh.  Yeah,” he smoothly replied, “I read it already.  We’ve done everything in there.”

“What? No we haven’t!”  I exclaimed, “Look, on page 97, ** ‘The Backwards Date—Put your clothes on backwards and visit your local outdoor track and race each other walking backwards for a lap.’”  “Oh,” he continued, “I mean we have done everything in there that is not entirely stupid or just downright lame.” Well.

“OK honey, but remember the point was that YOU were going to plan what we do for date night.”  My husband finally made eye contact, “Lori, let’s get real.  Every time I make a suggestion for where we go, you change it and we go there, which is fine with me—I really don’t mind, but the truth is, you have strong opinions and I don’t.”

Oh.  He was right.  I hadn’t even realized that I set him up for failure.  I thought back to the previous weekend when he suggested, “Do you want to go get sushi?” and I pondered, “We can, but I think chicken tikka masala sounds better, or I read that a new Peruvian restaurant opened recently,” and he said, “OK, which of those sounds better to you?”  The more I thought, the more I realized that I was indeed the more particular of us.  I was the one who set up a sailing lesson, scheduled a hot air balloon ride, bought him a rope so we could rappel down a local waterfall, rented snowshoes, registered for a Santa run, set up couples’ massage dates and consistently scanned the internet for new restaurant openings and obscure locales, adding to my date night bucket list.  I thought of all the times he suggested something and I redirected him to something else.  In fact, the last time I remembered my going along with his idea instead of mine was when he had planned a surprise without my knowing, so I had to go along.

I apologized and asked him if he cared, and he said he really didn’t, which I believed, but I wondered how many times my actions discouraged him from even trying to plan something.  This is a big reason why couples give up on putting forth effort in their relationships.  They feel as if their efforts don’t matter or are outright rejected.  I think my husband experienced more relief about not having to plan date night than outright rejection, but I have seen discouraged spouses completely give up over less.

Recent research by The Marriage Foundation has confirmed that setting aside time to date your spouse for just one night a month can make a significant difference in marital stability.  In reality, this is just one indicator and not a clear cause and effect (just like all research with human behavior), but people who take the time to set aside special time together even once a month probably care enough about their marriages to manifest commitment in other ways that strengthen relationships.  The dates don’t need to be complex.  It could be as simple as walking out the front door with a coin, and at every corner flip the coin to see if you walk left or right to see where you end up.

This sounds so simple, but I’m always surprised at the amount of married people who live week to week with no plan to get a babysitter and go out.  I can’t remember a time in my marriage when I would not have moved heaven and earth to get a night alone with my husband.  I think it has made a big difference for us.

Just going anywhere together sends a message that the marriage is important, but there is some research suggesting that trying something new together might even boost couple happiness.  I suspect this might be related to the fact that we are attracted to novelty, but also that happiness is so tied to experiences instead of things.  One of our most memorable dates was when my husband and I went to a new downtown restaurant.  As we walked in past a film crew, we realized that the restaurant was currently being used for a scene in a movie.  We were seated in the crowded restaurant for about ten minutes when we were approached by a waiter who said, “The film director saw you walk in and wants to know if you will come sit in a scene for his film.”  When my husband found out the film had “peloton,” in the title, he was more than willing to sit in for them, being a fellow cyclist.  Later, when the film was released, my husband and I bought it on DVD solely to have that scene from our date.  Novel.  Check.  Experience.  Check.  Memories.  Check.  Happiness.  Check.

So, the next time you go into the typical popular home accent store which could be aptly named, “A Bunch of Crap I Really Don’t Need,” consider spending that money on date night or a babysitter instead.  If necessary, both.  Comparatively speaking, you will get more bang for your buck.

Trust me, it’s cheaper than marriage therapy.  Or a divorce.

*Credit to the band INXS for inspiring this title from their 1987 song, “Mediate,” which never gets old for me.

**Since I threw the book away, I just made that up, but it’s typical of some of the more…ahem…creative suggestions.

Photo credit: Copyright: oneinchpunch / 123RF Stock Photo

Translating the Language of Love: A Caveat

11939377 - learning chinese language on a blackboard starting with Many years ago, when I was in major survival mode in the thick of raising my children, one of my friends with an interest in family life education found out that I had a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy and asked if I had read the “Love Languages,” book by Gary Chapman which had recently been released.  I had not.  She lent it to me and I thought it was an interesting way to conceptualize expressions of love by categorizing behavioral types.  The book inspired a fun conversation.  I joked with my husband that I did not see my main current love language in the book, which was “sleep,” but I did see his love language, which also started with an “s,” and happened primarily in the bedroom, but was not “sleep.”

If you’re not familiar with Gary Chapman’s book, he is an educated pastoral counselor who has identified 5 categories of love languages: words of affirmation, quality time, gifts, acts of service and physical touch.  The book is enormously popular and has grown into a branded enterprise with a huge following.

The book’s suggestions can be very helpful for some couples.  It can be a wonderful resource for couples who are kind to each other.  However, for many distressed situations, the seemingly benign model can quickly be weaponized to wreak havoc in a marriage. I want to warn people of the limitations of the paradigm.  While it can facilitate loving acts in a relationship, it can also justify a quality of stinginess which is harmful.  I rarely recommend the book in therapy because most couples have been previously introduced to it and use it in a way that is not helpful; to be fair, I’m a marriage therapist so people aren’t coming to me because they are blissfully happy, but allow me to explain.

Here are some examples of what I commonly hear couples express:

“He wants to kiss me when he gets home, but my love language is acts of service.”

“We did the love languages test, and she knows mine is physical touch, but she won’t let me near her, even when I do all the chores she wants….it’s never enough for her.”

“Well, he did wash the dishes and take out the trash and fold laundry and help put the kids to bed, but my love language is gifts, and he knows that, so I don’t know why he’s surprised that I didn’t want to have sex.”

“She said her love language was gifts, but every time I buy her something, she takes it back because I bought the wrong thing.”

“She knows that my love language is words of affirmation, but all I ever hear from her is criticism, and she spends all of our money and I don’t know what she expects me to use to buy gifts, which she says is her love language.”

“His love language is physical touch, but he knows mine is quality time, and he’s never around, so I don’t know how he expects me to want to kiss him.  Mine is also acts of service and he never does anything to help either, so he doesn’t do either of my love languages.”

See what I mean?  Couples routinely use the love languages to hurt each other more and to stay disconnected.  The related themes are, “My partner knows my love language and refuses to do it, so I know I don’t matter to him/her,” and “Why should I speak his/her love language when he/she doesn’t reciprocate with mine?”

I hear this over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over.

And over.

I think Chapman’s intent was to both expand people’s imaginations and to increase behavioral congruency in showing love, but too often, they use his classifications to be less flexible about how they give and receive l’amour.  His languages can be used as an excuse to reject a partner’s attempts to connect.  They sometimes give people an excuse to have constraining expectations.

Furthermore, they are often used as an impaired regulatory device to police partners about whether they are reciprocating loving acts.  For example, “I vacuumed the floor the other day because her language is acts of service, but she hasn’t done a single thing on my love language list.”  Wearisome.

Chapman argues that most people operate from one primary love language.  This makes for a tidy resale narrative, but it might be a tad simplistic.  As people develop healthy relationships, they generally exhibit partner adaptation.  They become more accepting of the offerings of their partners.  I believe this is what Chapman had in mind, and I think some couples probably use the model this way.  In fact, I think my husband and I use the model that way.  However, couples in distress who worry that they are no longer loved develop rigid rules for identifying their relational worth.  Their relational anxieties translate into inflexible demands for determining whether they are a priority.

The love languages model has not been empirically validated, which obviously does not matter in most popular psychology circles.  Marketing and salesmanship are generally more important than accuracy when it comes to popular relationship ideologies.  There was one very limited study on love languages with a small sample size (N=110), primarily Caucasian, mostly between ages 18-22 and with people in a relationship for less than five years.  However, the authors only evaluated the factor structure and construct validity of the instrument.  In short, the five languages do seem to represent psychometrically distinct categories and the behaviors do correlate with one other instrument designed to measure related constructs, but there aren’t studies to my knowledge demonstrating that people operate from one primary love language.  It’s also difficult to know how people are applying the model, and that’s where a lot of the problem lies.  Self-report would be intrinsically flawed.

There is a lot to like in the love languages books.  If it encourages people to put more positive energy into their relationships, huzzah!  However, don’t think that because you are more “fluent” in your partner’s rigidly defined “love language,” that somehow your marriage is going to magically improve, especially if it’s used quid pro quo.  If you want to focus on your spouse’s happiness, love languages will help, but if you are constantly monitoring fairness, you will sabotage the book’s original intent.

Bottom line:  We all speak the same love language.  This fluency lies in secure relationship attachment.  When we feel secure in our marriages, we are more cooperative about the specific ways in which we give and receive love.  While it’s true that partners may have different foci at different time points in marriage, there is an ongoing fluidity of exploring and experimenting and expanding on ways to give and receive love, not a narrowing in exchange.

If you really want to be fluent in love languages, then increase your comfort level with all the categories.  Be intentionally receptive to your partner’s efforts across the board.

And PLEASE stop using love languages as a blunt force weapon with which to bludgeon your partner!  Those relational wounds that are invisible to the eye are the hardest to repair.

An excellent idea for a Valentine’s Day gift this year might be to increase your exchange of all 5 love language scales–I think it might be the best use of Chapman’s book.

References:

The 5 Love Languages: The Secret to Love that Lasts by Gary Chapman, 2015, Northfield Publishing.

 Speaking the Language of Relational Maintenance: A Validity Test of Chapman’s (1992) Five Love Languages by Nichole Egbert & Denise Polk, 2006, in Communication Research Reports, 23(1), 19-26.

Photo credit: Copyright: bbbar / 123RF Stock Photo

 

Try this Simple Marital New Year’s Resolution

16948832 - love dialogueI have stated before that I’m resistant to New Year resolutions, partly because I don’t like coerced participation in implicitly mandated arbitrary social practices, and partly because it’s generally more helpful for me to evaluate goals on an ongoing basis, regardless of the time of year.  However, in the spirit of a new year, I can’t resist suggesting a simple technique that anyone can do today to potentially strengthen a marriage.

My suggestion is: Watch what you say about your spouse to your friends and social contacts, and attempt to focus on his/her positive qualities in those situations.

I’m not suggesting that you become inauthentic or play the social media game of pretending that your life is a bouquet of roses free of thorns, but I am suggesting that you experiment to see how your positive reflections about your spouse influence your relationship.

A few years after I got married, I recall going to one of my husband’s company parties.  I was approached by one of his coworkers who introduced himself to me, smiling, and said, “You must be Lori.  I want you to know that your husband always has such good things to say about you.  He thinks you’re amazing.”  I remember being pleasantly surprised by the man’s comment.  I mentally conjured the times I was with my girlfriends and considered whether they could say the same thing to him.  I wasn’t certain that they could.  I can easily list many things I admire about my husband, but that doesn’t mean I always focus on them.

This man’s comment to me was indicative of my husband’s trademark loyalty.  Since that time, I can think of several occasions in which someone with whom my husband worked said, “Your husband always speaks so highly of you.”  Two of them occurred within the last year, 25 years after the first coworker’s comment.  Each time, I re-evaluate how I represent him to other people, and wonder if I am being fair?

I’m not naïve.  I wouldn’t be at all surprised if my husband also made an, “It must be that time of the month,” comment from time to time (which would be legitimate), but the point is that his overall representation of me was positive enough that other people mentioned it to me.  Each time, it touched my heart and increased my feelings of love toward him.

In addition, if other people are noticing good things about your spouse, pay attention.  A few years ago, I was reciting my problems to my older sister, who listened patiently and then said, “But you have a cute husband who adores you, so I think you’re going to be ok, right?”  At first I thought it was such a strange thing to say, and then I realized that she was making a point that I wasn’t appreciating the strength offered by a loyal marital partner, and how that relationship can help overcome other challenges.  Another time, a divorced friend of mine was over, and she watched my husband walk in from work, shout a ritualistic “Hi gorgeous,” and reach down to give me a kiss.  I was giving him the “Ok, now go away, I’m busy with my friend,” vibe, and she said, “All I ever wanted was for my husband to look at me the way yours looks at you.”  It stopped me in my tracks, and I realized that I know he’s a good man, but I don’t always appreciate or focus on it.  Unfortunately, too many of us fail to appreciate our spouse’s positive qualities.

When I say genuine good things about my husband, I immediately feel more appreciative.  I feel the same increase of love toward him that I feel when someone tells me he has said good things about me.  The small irritants fall away and perspective shifts.

Lastly, when other people tell me something good about their spouses, I feel a positive energy boost, and it influences me to think about similar things I like about my spouse.  If you want to practice, leave me a comment about what you love/admire/respect about your spouse.  I would love to hear it.  Make my day!

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

 

 

 

Good Fences Make Good Marriages: Setting Boundaries in a Technological Age

Uniting Couples to Strengthen Families

couple and fence

As an undergraduate student, I was introduced to a poem written by Joseph Malins in 1895, in which he essentially describes the sensibilities of building fences at the top of a cliff in order to prevent falls requiring an ambulance at the bottom of the cliff.  It is a poem about prevention.  As a marriage therapist, I would add that in order to avoid disaster, one of the most important components of a marriage is building and maintaining a good fence.

The Biggest Threat to Marriage Today

If I were asked what the biggest threat to marriage is today, I would say digital technology, realizing it is a broad and controversial answer.  I don’t want to be misunderstood.  Technology is not inherently bad.  I enjoy all of the conveniences of reading email on my phone, communicating instantly with anyone I want from just about anywhere in the world, and finding…

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