Couples, Love, marriage

Recipe for a Better Marriage: Add Confetti and Mix Well

81312981 - cheerful couple celebratingWhile I was shuffling through some accumulated text messages on my phone the other day, one in particular caught my attention. I saw a familiar tagline on one of my husband’s messages that read, “sent with confetti.” As I touched the message, a “party In a text,” emerged, showering the words, “I’m so in love with you,” with a pop and an audible swoosh of virtual confetti. I smiled and replayed the message and noticed that as I did, I added to my personal reserve of positive feelings for my husband. One of the things he does well is find creative ways to send positive and romantic text messages on most days of the week, and one of his favorite effects is the confetti option, festooning his declarations with bright shards of color.

Research studies have shown that sharing positive events with romantic partners is significantly associated with positive emotion. By including our partners in the good things that happen to us, we can build positive feelings in the relationship.

Playing off his example, I suggested to my husband that we try our own little experiment and exchange text messages everyday at least once a day that were “celebratory,” in nature, meaning that we douse our gratitude in digital confetti and watch how it impacted our own feelings. I found that this exercise had a two-part impact: not only did receiving good news bring on the warm fuzzies, but thinking of positive things to share was bonding as well.

If you go looking, it’s amazing what you can find to celebrate. Here are some examples of our real-life exchanges, which I have categorized for ease. To gain the full celebratory effect, imagine the word “YAY!” before each statement:

“Making the ordinary extraordinary” celebrations:

  1. You remembered to put the garbage cans out!
  2. You put the lid on the toilet seat down!
  3. You remembered to get milk on the way home from work!
  4. You remembered to pick up our daughter from lacrosse on the way home from work!
  5. I remembered to turn on the crock pot!
  6. All the socks came back from the dryer in pairs!
  7. I found the source of the nasty odor in the fridge!
  8. I walked in the front door and no one’s shoes were sitting out on the floor!
  9. I walked in the front door and no one’s coat was hanging on the banister!
  10. You remembered to turn off the outdoor lights!

“Silver lining” celebrations: Tragedy with a bright side:

  1. When our son lost his fight with the lawnmower, and I wasn’t there to help him because I was taking a daughter to lacrosse, our neighbor who is a nurse saw what happened and took our son to the hospital!
  2. When I was freaking out that the ER docs said they wouldn’t try to reattach our son’s fingers, and I asked if they knew he was a musician, our good-natured, comedic son remarked, “Don’t worry mom, I’ll make more money as a lawnmower safety spokesperson than as a musician anyway.”
  3. When I was worried about our pianist son losing parts of his fingers, I had a friend who sent me a list of famous musicians who have lost parts of their digits, to make me feel better.
  4. Even though our son’s lawnmower accident necessitated the removal of some fingertips, he still has a hand that will likely be able to play the piano.
  5. When our son came home from surgery with parts of his fingers amputated, he took his bandaged hand and made a funny video with it.

“NULL” celebrations—celebrating the absence of terrible events:

  1. No one had to go to the emergency room today!
  2. Nothing in the house flooded today!
  3. No one is failing out of school!
  4. No one locked themselves out of a car today!
  5. No one dropped a full gallon of milk on the freshly mopped kitchen floor today!
  6. No one started a fire in the house today!
  7. No one put a dent in the drywall today!
  8. No one shattered the light fixture with a basketball!
  9. No one shattered the glass by throwing a football!
  10. No one got a flat tire today!

“Go us!” celebrations:

  1. My fortune cookie said, “You and your partner will be happy in life together.”
  2. We agreed on what movie to go see in less than two minutes!
  3. We were on time to the party!
  4. We assembled IKEA furniture without a single fight!
  5. Our kids like to be around each other!
  6. We still like each other!
  7. We are in our 50’s and I’m still physically attracted to you!
  8. We got to Skype all of our kids at the same time today!
  9. We have a beautiful granddaughter!
  10. We have reached the stage in life where we can go to the bathroom now without a child pounding on the door!

“No matter how stressful things are, we can count on this” celebrations:

  1. The sunset is beautiful!
  2. We have good friends!
  3. We have been through stressful times before and survived!
  4. We get to go to bed together tonight!
  5. We are still in love!

The possibilities really are endless. This is one of the easiest things you can to do generate positive feelings in your marriage. Set your phone to generate a reminder even once a day and try sending a celebratory message and see what follows…but don’t forget the confetti!

Reference:

How was your day? Couples’ affect when telling and hearing daily events (2008) by Hicks, A. M. & Diamond, L. M. in Personal Relationships, 15(2), 205-228.

Photo credit: Copyright: <a href=’https://www.123rf.com/profile_kegfire’>kegfire / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

 

 

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Couples, Love, marriage, Romance

Rejuvenating the Magic of Those Three Little Words

48470551 - comic bubble heart i love you pop art retro styleSee if you can finish this sentence: I love you, but I’m not…………

Right…I love you, but I’m not in love with you.

It’s probably no surprise that I hear this sentence all the time in couples therapy. It’s not my favorite thing to hear, because I know it’s what people say when they aren’t “feeling it,” for their spouses, and they want to “feel it,” to stay married.

The Good News and the Bad News About Marriage Today

Long-term romantic relationships are a salad of chemistry, passion, friendship, emotional connection, expectations, commitment, forgiveness, acceptance, effort, benevolence, support and security, among other things……sprinkled with pain and joy.

Eli Finkel, a researcher at Northwestern University who is releasing a book next month titled The All or Nothing Marriage: How the Best Marriages Work, has pointed out that people in western cultures expect more from their marriages than ever. Higher expectations aren’t all bad. Finkel reports that right now, it seems that we have the best marriages and the worst marriages. In other words, people in average marriages are reporting lower marital happiness and stability than in times past, but the best marriages are linked with higher marital quality and individual well-being than before.

Basically, spouses today want the whole enchilada. We are more social disconnected than ever and rely on our spouses to fill roles that may previously have been filled by other people. We are connected to higher numbers of people more quickly maybe, but in a way that I call a mile wide and an inch deep…..the relationships are less meaningful, or at least serve different functions. That’s why in marriage most people want a best friend, a passionate partner, an economic supporter, and, Finkel reports, someone to help us self-actualize. We want our partners to help us achieve our highest individual psychological needs. Read more about it here.

Now, take all those expectations, wrap them in a red heart-shaped package called “love,” and you have a marriage therapist’s worst nightmare.

We Need Better Words for Love

The English language is sorely lacking in nuanced definitions of love. We use that word to express affection for any person, place or thing. We love our spouses, we love our children, we love our dogs, we love our houses, and we love our cars. Even French, la langue d’amour, is limited in expression. If we don’t have good ways to acknowledge and language the nuances of love, there is more room for personal interpretation and judgment….and disappointment.

Several other languages, such as Sanskrit and Persian, offer scores of terms to describe specific types of love. My favorite set of words are those available in Arabic, which includes terms for various states and relationship stages. My limited understanding is that the construction of the language, structured with common roots, allows for words to be linked, which can increase nuance. Love can be expressed in distinctive stages and states, including attraction, amusement, passion, preoccupation, infatuation, adulation, heartburn, longing, excruciating pain, submissiveness, friendliness, unification, fervor, and madness.

There are additional expressions for romantic affection as well. I was fascinated with Ya’aburnee, which apparently means “you bury me,” and alludes to the hope that one die before one’s lover, because life would be too painful without them. So tragically romantic!

It’s interesting to me that such rich descriptions of love exist in cultures where arranged marriage happens at a higher rate than western cultures. It makes me wonder about how we interpret “love.” In English, love is essentially a language monomial, defined by four letters, but a language polynomial when it comes to all the varied applications. Preoccupation, infatuation and adulation suggest something quite different from unification, and if all of those states were explicitly under the “love,” umbrella in English, people may not be as disappointed when feelings shift long-term.

Even though love is complex, we can influence our long-term feelings

The reason I’m droning on about this is that largely, whether one is “in love,” or not has to do with subjective interpretation, and is influenced by expectations. In other words, we don’t “fall out of love,” with our kids. We may not always have warm fuzzies toward them, but most of us recognize a sense of commitment and obligation which then fuel us to actions to increase love toward our offspring. We are proactive in managing our negative feelings toward them in order to be available, stable attachment figures.

It’s only in romantic love that we use the term “falling,” which implies a sense of helplessness about whom we love, or for how long. However, we can use the same heuristic in marriage that we use in parenting, by searching for actions to influence our feelings.

Over the long-term, the reality is that marital satisfaction waxes and wanes. There are behaviors that can influence any of the expectations for love. Even physical attraction can be influenced by engaging in various activities in marriage. The way we talk to ourselves about our partners also influences our feelings. We may not “feel it,” in immediate large shifts, but we can certainly encourage growth over time. Another little Arabic love language fun fact is that the word “hubb,” for love comes from the same root as the word “seed,” implying growth potential.

As Easy as an Internet Search

In an internet’s search amount of time, you can find myriad ideas for activities designed to increase love toward a spouse. In fact, this blog is full of them. Imagine if people spent as much time researching that as they do for pornography….

“I Love You” is Still Powerful

Even though the English language is limited, don’t underestimate the power of the three little words.

When my husband and I got married, we used to go to my father-in-law’s brother and wife’s home for Sunday dinner. He was a retired, shrewd Hollywood attorney who had retained his sharp wit. One night, his wife decided to advise all of the newlyweds at her home about how to stay married long-term. She said, “Now kids, this is important for staying married: Every single day, when my husband and I wake up, he says those three little words…every….single….day…….and what are those three words, honey?” she nodded at her husband. On queue, with a mischievous grin, he started, “Go to…”

“OH HUSH!” his wife blurted, sparing us from his expletive, “You know that’s not it.” She turned back to us, “He says, ‘I love you,’ every single day, and it’s a reminder that we value our marriage. You remember that. Don’t ever forget to tell each other you love each other often.” We nodded as we stifled our laughter.

Since “love,” is so general in English, and “I love you,” can become so stale so quickly, it might be fun to look up alternative terms in foreign languages and see if you can share you feelings with more precision. I already texted one Japanese term to my husband today that doesn’t translate directly to English.

“I Love You,” as the Ultimate Reassurance

Over the years, my husband and I have had the opportunity to experience many stressful life events together. In fact, we had a lot of practice with stress during our first year of marriage. I had a complete meltdown at one point, certain that I had ruined my life and created an enduring mess for myself and him by association. I was sobbing about everything that was alarming me. I went on and on and on while my husband just listened. It was verbal vomiting at its worst. Looking back, he must have been totally freaked out, but he just sat with me. He said nothing.

When my tirade (cryrade) was over and he didn’t respond, I asked, “Well?” and he answered, “Well?” and I repeated “Well?” and he answered, “Well?” and I repeated, “Well?” Silence. Then, he took my chin in his hand and looked in my eyes and said, “Well, I still love you. I will always love you,” Which made me cry all over again for his enduring kindness. For some reason, even though all my problems weren’t solved, it was adequately comforting, and I felt reassured that everything would be ok.

He has repeated the same comforting words at various time points in our marriage when I have been at the end of my rope for one reason or another.

It’s one of the constants I can always count on if I’m beyond distressed.

And as a constant, “Love,” in the English language works just fine.

Photo credit: Copyright: <a href=’https://www.123rf.com/profile_studiostoks’>studiostoks / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

Recalling positive memories creates closeness

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

My Dollar Store Intervention

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

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

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

Me: What do you mean, “hard?”

Him: Like I have to be creative.

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

Him: Absolutely!

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

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

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

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

My Marriage Memory Highlights Intervention

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Him: You’re so feisty!

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

Him: Well….sometimes.

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

Him: What did you say?

Me: Nothing.

Him: No. What did you just say?

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

Him: And there it is!

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

Positive memory and gratitude

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

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

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

References:

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

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

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

 

 

Couples, Love, marriage, Romance

Fight Flirting with Flirting: Keeping your Marriage in the Fun Zone

flirtingIf you saw my husband calling out my name while holding up a piece of string cheese, and raising his eyebrows when I made eye contact, you might assume that he was just generously offering me a high-protein snack. You almost certainly would not construe it as open flirtation. That’s because you’re not me.

You see, when my husband and I were engaged, we went on a picnic, and in the silliness of young love, I peeled a strip from a piece of string cheese and offered, “Let’s race to the middle,” hanging one end out of my mouth. He put the other end in his mouth and just as we reached the middle, he vigorously bellowed, “OW!” pulling away from me, “YOU BIT ME.” I was rattled by his reaction. He pulled his lower lip down so I could see the blood oozing from soft tissue where I had indeed ripped out a small chunk in my over-zealousness to reach the middle first. “You’re so competitive!” he complained. I felt terrible. My intention was to meet up for a mozzarella kiss, but turning it into a race had destroyed the moment. That incident became part of our private language, so now if he offers a piece with raised eyebrows, I know he’s playfully alluding to this scene and inviting me for a “do over.” The flirtation is a small way of connecting—while trying to get me to kiss him.

People generally associate flirting with the first stages of a potential romantic relationship. It’s true that the ambiguous language, with non-verbals like smiles, touch and eye contact, can be used as a low-risk way to test interest in a love match. Flirtatious behaviors are generally playful and motivated by interest to pursue a romantic connection. Given that the sexual system is a common feature of romantic relationships, flirtation is often motivated by an interest in sex, particularly for males (unsurprisingly).

What if I told you that flirting might be even more important for a long-term relationship?

While many people think of flirting as an early stage relationship tool, it can be a useful maintenance strategy in marriage. It can shape a marital relationship toward increased happiness and commitment.

Here’s how flirting can maintain a marriage:

  1. It introduces positivity into the marital environment. This is important since many problems develop over time from “negative affect reciprocity,” meaning that eventually the negative emotional exchanges flood the marriage, so spouses are viewed through persistent negative filters.
  2. It creates a “private world.” In other words, if the innuendos are only understood by you and the other, it makes it special.
  3. It can reassure a partner that you still want him/her, or it can be a way to gain reassurance that you are wanted, reaffirming the marital relationship.
  4. It’s a way to reinforce commitment.
  5. It introduces playful fun.
  6. It invites physical connection.
  7. It invites sexual interaction.
  8. It reassures partners of ongoing desire and attraction, which increases confidence.
  9. It can help manage conflict.
  10. It adds interest to the relationship. It’s a way of stepping out of the box and inviting novelty.
  11. In general, all the above elements make the marriage feel SAFE, which sets up an environment where more risky playfulness can flourish.

Flirt Early and Often

The best time to be intentional about flirting is EARLY in the marriage, BEFORE DISTRESS has set in. One thing I’ve noticed about couples in therapy is that the playfulness is gone. Very little playful banter or flirting, if any, is happening. Sadly, playfulness and flirting, while less risky during relationship development, somehow become riskier in long-term relationships. Reaching out playfully in a shared context only to get rejected, is painful. When the marriage doesn’t feel safe to take risks, people essentially stop flirting. It doesn’t feel good to be playful and risky if the relationship is uncertain. I completely understand why this happens, because if my husband and I have had a negative exchange, the last thing I’m going to do is flirt with him.

For couples in distressed marriages, I’m going to propose that flirting can be approached from varying degrees of risk, and you can choose a less risky way to flirt as a start to try to reverse the downward trajectory of negativity.

Simple ways to flirt:

  1. Wink from across the room.
  2. Allude to an inside joke.
  3. Smile at your partner.
  4. Touch your partner while you are talking.
  5. Make eye contact.
  6. Share something that makes you laugh.
  7. Compliment your partner specifically about how he/she looks.
  8. Take a risk to invite a sexual encounter in a playful way. If I can be stereotypical, this is especially geared toward females, because we are socialized that males should be the sexual pursuers; that’s probably why the innuendos come from them more often. A wife’s inviting sexuality in a playful way can be a powerful affirmation for many husbands.
  9. Bring home your partner’s favorite snack or drink.
  10. Text flirtatious messages. Don’t skimp on emojis or the various dazzling effects. My husband likes to use the fireworks, heart and confetti effects on a regular basis, and it’s adorable.
  11. Think initials carved into a tree as a love declaration. I mention this because for my entire marriage, my husband has found various clever ways of presenting me with “SS + LS,” surrounded by a heart. He has printed them as a watermark on paper, written them on the bathroom mirror with my lipstick and shower door with soap, written on my car windows with window paint, stamped it in the snow, mowed it in the grass, traced it in the sand, squirted it on a sandwich with mustard, written it in whipping cream on dessert, traced it in almond butter, written it in a text message, wallpapered it on my iPhone, chalked it in the driveway, etc. He started before we were married and has never stopped. At least once a month I will find it somewhere. Small gesture with huge reaffirming impact.
  12. Have a secret non-verbal code. Right after we got married, my husband sat me down and said, “When I squeeze your hand in this pattern, it means ‘I love you,’ so if we are around a bunch of people, I can say it in a way only you will know.” He still uses that pattern frequently if we are in public.
  13. Whatever you do, don’t stop. This might be the most important. When flirtation stops, many couples end up in a game of chicken to see who will make the first move at reaffirming desire and love for the other.

My husband walked into our bedroom last week and noticed the clothes I had dumped on our bed. He saw his opportunity, “Honey, if I fold these clothes, will it turn you on?” Used to his ongoing innuendos, I matched his tone, “I don’t know. I guess you’re going to have to fold them to find out,” keeping it ambiguous.

If I’ve learned anything after three decades of marriage, it’s to fight flirting with flirting.

References:

The “How” and “Why” of Flirtatious Communication Between Marital Partners (2012) by Frisby, B. N. & Boothe-Butterfield, M. in Communication Quarterly, 60(4), 465-480.   DOI:10.1080/01463373.2012.704568

“Without Flirting, it Wouldn’t be a Marriage”: Flirtatious Communication Between Relational Partners (2009) by Frisby, B. N. in Qualitative Research Reports in Communication, 10(1), 55-60. DOI: 10.1080/17459430902839066

Photo credit: Copyright: langstrup / 123RF Stock Photo

Couples, Love, marriage

Just a Spoonful of Sugar Helps the Divorce Rate go Down

This is one of the simplest way to maintain positivity in marriage–and is this not the cutest picture you’ve ever seen?

Uniting Couples to Strengthen Families

Holly.couple kissing baby making face.SalmonI walked out to the waiting room the other night to witness a somewhat rare event in my practice: a couple holding hands!  I immediately felt just a little…..happier?  More hopeful?  Less burdened?  I’m not quite sure, but the gesture sent a non-verbal message that things were good, at least for that moment.  As an observer, it just made me feel better.

With the preponderance of sexual messages surrounding us, it is unfortunate that we don’t learn more about healthy, non-sexual, affectionate touch;  it is such a powerful form of connection, yet so often underutilized, often because couples just get busy with competing demands and drift apart.  Sometimes I think if we understood the power of warm, affectionate, non-sexual touch, we would promote its expression as readily as physical exercise, and its benefits might mitigate many common marital challenges.

On many occasions, when partners are distressed and I have asked…

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Couples, Love, marriage, Romance

Kissing Like you Mean it: The Benefits of Lighting Fireworks in your Marriage

Happy 4th of July–a repost from last year–sadly, the last time I tried to buy the Trader Joe’s Fireworks bar last month (mentioned in this post), they told me they were discontinued.

Uniting Couples to Strengthen Families

fireworks

As I was explaining to my husband that I was trying to write a blog post about kissing in marriage, he threw his arms open and offered enthusiastically, “And you want to practice?”  “No,” I answered, “But I admire your optimism and thanks for giving me my opening sentence.”

For most couples, kissing is a natural part of relationship development, particularly as they move toward higher levels of commitment.  Researchers confirm that kissing can be a strong reinforcer for mate assessment and attachment. In other words, if you think you like someone and the kissing goes well, commitment is likely to increase, while the reverse is true for couples who just aren’t “feeling it.”   As people form attachments, prolonged kissing behavior generally increases in romantic relationships.

However, I’ve noticed that really great make-out sessions diminish over time for lots of married couples.  Even couples who maintain frequency in sexual relations…

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Couples, Couples Therapy, Love, marriage

If Money is Your Biggest Marital Problem, Money Might not be Your Biggest Marital Problem

money coupleIf my husband and I are out with another couple and there is a lull in the conversation, we can usually spark interest by bringing up the fact that we lived in a mortuary during the early years of our marriage.  Back then, newlywed and college poor, we jumped on the opportunity to live in a mortuary apartment and answer the phone at nights and on weekends in exchange for free rent and utilities.  As a bonus, we had a natural backdrop to create a spook alley on the way up the stairs to our front door.  We felt so lucky.

When my husband called my father and asked if he could propose to me, my father replied, “Go write up a financial plan for how you’re going to pay for it and call me back,” trying to scare him off. Undeterred, we jointly created a proposal for how we would support ourselves through college while married.  We spent the entire summer working in California, saving all of our money for the upcoming year.  We were so disciplined about hoarding our paychecks and not going out that my mom handed me a wad of cash and begged me to “go on a date already–you’re driving me crazy being here all the time.”

I had spent the previous year as a family financial planning major, believing that I would have a niche as a marriage therapist with a financial planning background.  I changed my major when a graduate school advisor told me if I really wanted to be accepted to a top marriage therapy program, I would need a bachelor’s degree geared toward therapy experience.  That financial planning year was valuable, however, in teaching me the importance of having a unified financial plan in marriage, not just for financial security, but for increased marital unity and happiness.

If someone asked you what married couples argue about the most, money would likely be at or near the top of your list. Although many publications purport that money is the leading cause of divorce or the number one conflict in marriage, studies with any statistical rigor addressing the topic are extremely scarce and don’t necessarily support that assertion.

One relatively recent diary study, in which couples kept daily reports of their conflicts, actually found that the number one topic of conflict was children.  Next were chores, communication and leisure.  Money came in fifth and sixth on the list.  In another study, more marital conflict about money was predictive of lower marital quality, but not of divorce.

Interestingly, although money as a topic of conflict was lower on the list for both husbands and wives, it was associated with higher levels of negative emotions and lower levels of resolution.  When couples did argue about money, they reported experiencing more sadness and fear and more expressions of anger and hostility than with other issues.

In other words, couples didn’t necessarily fight about money the most, but when they did argue about it, they argued hard without solving the problem.

Money does come up in therapy somewhat regularly as a conflict area in marriage.  These are some common ways money becomes problematic:

  1. Financial dishonesty.  Common examples are when a spouse finds out another one charged up debt on a hidden credit card or when one spouse spends retirement money without telling the other.  Purchasing items and hiding them from a partner also happens relatively frequently.
  2. Lack of planning.  Couples either don’t know how or are too uncomfortable to experience the emotions necessary to have financial conversations, so they turn a blind eye and end up avoiding money.
  3. Disagreement about purchases.  It’s common to see couples who fundamentally disagree about how money should be spent.  A common narrative is a husband who wants to make large purchases, e.g. automobiles or electronics vs. a wife who spends more on household items than the husband thinks is necessary.

While it is true that a certain level of income is required for security, research shows that money and happiness has more to do with relativism than absolutism.  In other words, once you reach a certain income level, an increase in income won’t necessarily make you happier.  If you feel well off compared to those around you, you will experience more well-being related to money, but if you feel deprived compared to those around you, you will experience more unhappiness.

I have had people from many different economic backgrounds in therapy, from couples at the poverty level to couples who could purchase my net worth several times over, and I can attest to the fact that money doesn’t protect people from marital problems.  In fact, sometimes more money means more baseline expectations as well as more disagreement about how to distribute resources.

Money also doesn’t usually fix communication problems, in-law problems, parenting problems, sexual problems, betrayal, abuse, addictions or other common challenges.  I have noticed that sometimes money is used as a band-aid for some of those problems, but the fix is temporary.  Money can only mask other areas of discontent for so long.

It is for that reason that I believe money is often not the biggest problem when it comes to money in marriage.  In my observation, the biggest problem is a lack of respect, teamwork and unity.

My husband built a career from a computer science background, which seemed like a solid choice at the time, but came with some unpredictable ups and downs associated with economic globalization.  During one of the down turns, when a company for which he worked went out of business, I started to mildly panic about our future income.

As I thought about it, I recalled the early days of our marriage. Even though that time of our life had been far more financially restrictive than our current situation, I realized that I was no happier in the present with more financial resources than I had been in the past living in a mortuary.  I remembered how we had bonded around maximizing our scarce resources.  Because we were working together on common future goals, we tolerated our economic scarcity with a fair level of contentment.  I realized I could access the same attitude I had used back then in the present to deal with the economic setback.

While financial catastrophes can create conflict-inducing stress in a marriage, there are couples who experience severe financial strain without allowing it to impact their marital quality.

I had a neighbor whose husband had been unemployed for several years.  His area of expertise had become less marketable.  I noticed that his wife never spoke disparagingly about him.  She held his hand when they were out.  She was tired and stressed, and felt the burden of raising her children while getting a job herself, but she was focused on helping him integrate back into the workforce until he got a job in another state.  Instead of blaming or criticizing him, she was focused on solving the problem with him.  I marveled at her attitude when I had witnessed so much of the opposite as a marriage therapist.

For what it’s worth, as a marriage therapist and not as a financial expert, here are some tips for unifying around finances:

  1. Do not keep financial secrets.  It will only erode trust.  This happens a lot.  I was always surprised at how many women I knew hid their purchases from their husbands.
  2. Try to honor each other’s’ dreams.  This is where the Golden Rule might be effectively applied.
  3. Get help from an expert if needed.  If you can’t afford it, some universities or local organizations might offer financial planning or tax planning help. Ask.
  4. Create financial goals in the near and far future.  If you need to, create a Venn diagram in which you write each of your desires and identify the overlap in the middle where you both agree.
  5. In times of financial distress, remember that it’s the marriage against the problem.  Don’t allow the problem to divide the marriage.  Have an “us against the dragon,” attitude.
  6. Realize that to have financial conversations, you are probably going to have to be willing to tolerate some uncomfortable emotions.  Financial worries can trigger anxiety around future security, self-esteem and marital power and worth. Anchor yourselves to the idea that you are a team planning for the future.

Perhaps nothing has been pontificated about more than the topic of love and money.  Despite my general dislike for the country music genre (just an individual preference—don’t take it personally—my daughter-in-law loves country music and I adore her), I was drawn to a Garth Brooks quote that declared, “You aren’t wealthy until you have something money can’t buy.”  As a marriage therapist, I enthusiastically agree with that–as well as the Beatles lyrics that “Money can’t buy me love.”  Really, it can’t.

References:

For Richer, for Poorer: Money as a Topic of Marital Conflict in the Home by Papp, L. M., Cummings, E. M., & Goeke-Morey, M. C. (2009), Family Relations, 58, 91-103.

The Role of Money Arguments in Marriage by Britt, S. L. & Huston, S. J. (2012), Journal of Family and Economic Issues, 33(4), 464-476.

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