Couples, Couples Therapy, marriage, Marriage and Family Therapy

Change in Marriage: Learning From an Iconic Fail

20501491 - couple reconciling on the couch while therapist watchesOne of my favorite quotes is used in several variations and has been attributed to several sources, including Zig Ziglar. It captures inspiration for marital change: We cannot go back and start over, but we can begin now and make a new ending. 

Whose Marriages get Better?

I can’t ever predict with any degree of accuracy which couples will significantly improve their marriages during the course of therapy. Research confirms that while therapists do need to create an environment for change in the therapy room, clients are the ultimate wild card variable that make the final difference. I know with confidence how to facilitate the necessary conditions required for change, and I’m prepared for just about anything couples throw my way in session. Being a therapist must be one of the most improvisational jobs there is, because at any given time, the possible set of client responses is infinite.

Sadly, however, I can’t force couples to leave my office and participate in relationship-building interventions. In the same way that medical doctors can’t follow their patients home and force adherence to recommended healing protocols, therapists can’t go home with couples and shape their interactions (although I have had several clients jokingly ask if they could take me with them). It’s one of the biggest challenges in couples’ therapy.

Adjusting Your Attitude of Change

What makes the difference between couples who successfully shift their negative patterns, placing their marriages on a trajectory of positive healing and growth, and those who gain awareness about their damaging interactions but nevertheless stay stuck, chipping away at reservoirs of hope over time? As a clinician, there is a certain “prototype,” of husband that in my anecdotal experience makes the difference. Much of it emanates from a specific observable attitude, which I refer to as the “William Hung attitude of change.”

Most Americans are familiar with the show American Idol, and die-hards will certainly remember a moment in 2004 when one contestant rocketed to fame for his jaw-dropping, off-key, auditory-molesting audition. I’ve never been a loyal viewer of that show, but Hong Kong-born Berkeley student William Hung’s audition was so terrible that it was covered in major news outlets and hung on (or “Hung” on) for months, exposing most of America to his ear-splitting serenade. I remember viewing his 15 minutes of vocalist fame curiously at first, wondering if it was for real, and then thinking, “Quick, someone find a way to bottle that man’s courage and confidence (recklessness?) so I can sell it for a profit.”

By any objective standard, Hung is an atrocious soloist. His entertainment quotient has depended on his ability to slaughter a tune. However, I can still remember listening to a television interview on an early morning news show featuring Hung, and stopping mid-towel-fold to look at the television to verify that I had just heard his response to a question correctly, because it was so startling.

The talk show host asked Hung if he thought he was a bad singer. Shockingly, Hung answered “No,” he would not say that. “What? Is today opposite day?” I puzzled. The interviewer persisted, “Well, what would you say?” and Hung said something like, “I would say that I’m a BEGINNER.” I was struck by his response not just because it was so unexpected, but because it was so EXCELLENT! “Wow,” I thought, “That might be spin, but it is just about the greatest example of attitude strategy that I have ever heard.” It put me in a good mood for the rest of the day. Sometimes I use his example in my presentations. No matter the circumstance, thinking of ourselves as “Beginners,” instead of beating ourselves up for lacking mastery always allows for the possibility of improvement.

This is the attitude I consistently perceive in husbands who achieve the most change in their marriages. I can spot them a mile away, usually as early as the first phone call, because there are some similarities discernible from other cases. For example, they say things like, “I really want to get this,” and “I know there’s a lot that I must not understand, because it’s not working, but I really care about my marriage, so I’m willing to do anything.” They arrive at therapy cloaked in sincere apologies and acknowledgment of previous marital misses. They are TEACHABLE.

Trusting the Attitude

Then, maybe more importantly, these husbands STAY that way. Instead of getting discouraged and giving up and blaming their wives, they display the grit necessary to muscle through the extended trial period of new interactions long enough to gain trust. Even if they experience disappointment in marital repair, they manage their emotions to prevent a spiral into demoralization and ultimate disconnection. In short, they maintain a motto of, “I still want to learn and get this right, as long as it takes.” They continue to “lay down their weapons.”

Unfortunately, I get this presentation rarely, but when I do, it’s such a relief to me, because their wives can see their engagement over time and can eventually safely attach to them. In most cases, I must continually manage the discouragement that laces most change processes occurring slower than desired; I constantly provide support for those husbands who too quickly begin thinking nothing can ever change. I become the source for hope. That’s fine with me, and if anything, I really try to be as authentic as possible, so I don’t say things I don’t mean, but when the hope is filtered through me instead of coming directly from the husband, it takes longer to cement change.

In summary, it’s the difference between a husband saying, “It will never be enough for you, you’ll never see me trying and we’ll never get better,” and a husband saying, “OK, if it’s not better yet, I really want to get this, so help me see what I’m not getting.” Just hearing a spouse acknowledge that they might not still get it but still want to (if it’s sincere) makes all the difference.

I saw this example just the other day with a husband who called me for marriage therapy several months ago. He was for sure in the upper tenth of male clients who had a history of betraying his partner, but who also consistently displayed sincerity in repair. He had a “beginner’s” attitude. EVERY time he came to session, he was completely engaged and curious about how he could make his marriage better. He changed in ways that his wife could see and articulate, even though she wasn’t sure she could completely trust the change.

At one session, I spontaneously laughed out loud from sheer delight, because I could not have scripted a better response from him. After his wife expressed her hesitancy to trust him, which could predictably shut down most husbands, he turned toward her with warmth and a smile on his face and said, “I know—that was the old me—but look, this is the new me—what do you want the ‘new me,’ to understand?” He was so sincere and disarmed and perfect in his response, that my laugh was joy and relief that I didn’t have to manage defensiveness. In other words, it was a way of saying, “I’m not an expert, but as long as I’m a beginner, and keep learning, we can keep making this better.”

I promise I’m not picking on husbands. Anyone who knows me knows this. I am a defender of both parties in marriage, and particularly of males who shoulder the blame for not navigating relationship emotion after they have spent a lifetime being socialized to avoid it. I’m using husbands as an example, because their engagement is empirically so important in couples’ therapy outcome, and they are often the partners expressing more confusion at why things are so distressed. When husbands are warm and engaged, they usually have a significant impact on therapy success. It’s a phenomenon probably related to Dr. John Gottman’s findings that husbands’ willingness to be influenced by their wives was a major factor predictive of marital stability.

Anyone can be a Beginner

So, if you’re frustrated that your marriage isn’t improving fast enough, even if you’re trying to change, approach it like a beginner. If you were just beginning improvement today, where would you start? What questions would you ask?

And, if necessary, watch a William Hung video for inspiration. Your performance as a spouse certainly can’t be worse than his imitation of a virtuoso.

References:

The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work: A Practical Guide from the Country’s Foremost Relationship Expert by John M. Gottman and Nan Silver, 1999, Harmony.

A Longitudinal View of the Association Between Therapist Behaviors and Couples’ In-Session Process: An Observational Pilot Study of Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy by Lori Kay Schade, 2013, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah.

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

 

 

 

 

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Couples, Couples Therapy, Marriage and Family Therapy

When Jack Sprat and His Wife Go to Couples Therapy: Body Weight as a Problem in Marriage

couple weightOne day, pregnant with my second child, I went shopping for maternity clothes. I was feeling nauseous and suddenly experienced the familiar lightheaded dizzy feeling which accompanied all my pregnancies.  Afraid that I would pass out, I dropped down on the floor in the aisle of clothes, obscured from view.  A married couple walked up a few aisles over. The wife began questioning her husband about apparel and he reacted with indifference, communicating that he didn’t really want to be there. “That’s why I’m here by myself,” I thought, since my husband considers shopping a form of torture.

The wife was somewhat heavyset, and her spouse appeared to be average weight.  While considering different outfits, she suddenly pointed, “Oh, we can look over there in the “petites,” section.  His back was turned, so I couldn’t see his face, but I could absolutely hear the disdain in his voice.  His one-word response was a jab, “Petites?”  His contempt spewed his intended message, which was, “Aren’t you too fat for the ‘petites’ section, Fatty?” She paused a moment and snapped monosyllabically, “Short!” which throbbed, “Petite means short, Dummy, and by the way, I know I’m overweight—you don’t need to keep reminding me about it! Jerk!”

I remember sitting there, fighting nausea, thinking, “I can’t imagine my husband talking to me like that, even if I did fight weight gain.” I knew if anything, this man’s negative message would only heighten her shame and anxiety, likely driving her more toward food as comfort, which is verified by research.

Empirical studies of mixed-weight marriages show that they are at risk for higher levels of conflict. Weight can create sexual and emotional distance. Occasionally, I have a mixed weight couple in therapy in which the average weight partner expresses dissatisfaction with the heavier partner’s weight.  Sometimes it’s about health, but a lot of the time it can impact physical attraction.  Rarely, however, is weight the only presenting concern.  It’s usually just one of a myriad of complaints, but it’s a highly visible one, complex, and challenging in therapy.

For a while now, my husband and I have been answering couple questions in an app called “Happy Couple.”  This was one of my questions last week:

Steve pulls on jeans and finds that he can no longer zip them up.  How do you react?

A. Give subtle hints when he goes for second helping at dinner

B. Dole out a diet mandate

C. Probably wouldn’t be so into sex

D. Shrug it off and tell him to buy a new pair

Any guesses about my answer?  Definitely “D.” In fact, I was asked this question anonymously at a marriage presentation last year and I explained why I recommend the answer be “D.” Or, I might add an option “E,” for “Reassure him that you love him and ask how you can be supportive.”

Here’s why the other responses won’t work:

  1. Your partner doesn’t need a reminder that he/she is overweight. I guarantee that the broader culture is already reinforcing that message.
  2. Threatening a partner only increases anxiety and shuts people down. It’s the opposite of motivating.
  3. Attempting to control a diet makes it your problem, and if you have ownership of your spouse’s weight, your spouse cannot own it and be autonomous in developing healthier habits.
  4. Humiliating or shaming a partner also increases anxiety and hiding behavior.

Don’t get me wrong. I understand that weight gain can create fear about attraction to a partner, or fear for a partner’s health. In my marriage, my husband has always put on weight easier than I do, even though he always exercised more consistently than I while I was having babies. His weight generally fluctuates between 10-20 pounds with external stressors. It bothers him a lot and me not so much. While it has never affected my attraction to him (I simply see the person I married, and I always thought he was good-looking), I have occasionally worried about his health, given his father’s history with heart surgeries.

I know 100% that I cannot control what he does and if I tried he’d feel criticized and resentful. I also know it bothers him and he’s always hyper-aware and working on it, and the last thing he needs is a spouse to make him feel worse.  In fact, throughout our marriage, I have frequently joked that the “teenage girl,” persona is showing up, because he will complain about how fat he is, and I almost never notice if he’s putting on weight. “When did you turn into a 14 year-old girl and what have you done with my husband?” I’ve mused. I think it’s the obsessive cyclist part of him.

So, how do you handle it when a spouse is overweight and it’s scaring you because you are worried about their health or worried about your physical relationship, or that you’ll never be united?

  1. Ask how you can be a support person. Once my husband tore a ligament in his foot which shut down his exercise for months. He was also working full-time, in full-time MBA school, and being a father to 7 children. He was cranky about it and complained about his weight constantly. I finally reassured, “I want you to know that your weight gain isn’t bothering me—I don’t notice–but you keep talking about it, so it’s bothering you. Do you want me to do something differently to help you?”  I had been trying to make dinner healthy, but I have always despised eating breakfast and usually skip it, so I’m really lacking in that area, and he lunched with his work buddies. We decided if I made up healthy snacks, it would help him stay on track with his eating.
  2. Model behaviors. I’m not going to pretend that I’m a nutrition expert, but I know enough to impact the food choices in my home, and my family takes a lot of cues from what I purchase, eat and prepare.
  3. Understand and respect differences. Cooked spinach and chard with lemon were my sometimes comfort foods growing up. While pregnant with my third child, I planted a garden with a bunch of chard and decided I would serve it to my family without telling my husband because he hates cooked spinach, so I didn’t want the protest. When he showed up, I started serving the kids with my sales job, “Look, daddy, this is the chard we grew, just like Grandpa Cluff—we’re eating it with lemon.  It’s yummy, right daddy?” I put a forkful in his mouth, winking at him to play along.  He did. He ate the serving on his plate with a smile and extolled its health benefits to our sons. I thought I had him sold. Then, he approached me while I was doing dishes, bent down and calmly whispered in my ear, “By the way, that was the most vile, disgusting thing I have ever had to eat; I choked it down because I knew you wanted the example for the boys, but if you ever serve that to me again, my serving is going right in the trash.” OK. Fair enough. I won’t make him eat cooked greens, beets, or cucumbers soaked in vinegar as long as I don’t have to eat melted cheese.
  4. Find a physical activity to enjoy together. My husband is a cyclist and I’m a runner. We don’t usually exercise together, but we do like hiking and tennis, which count. Find something you both like. There’s always walking.
  5. Identify whether the problem is really the weight or something deeper. Usually weight becomes symbolic of dissatisfaction coming from other areas of the marriage. Are there previous relationship injuries or conflicts to address?
  6. If the sexual relationship is impacted, try focusing on other forms of physical affection first. Because weight and attraction and sex are intertwined, I’m not going to pretend like sexual connection won’t be affected. However, couples get hyper-focused on orgasm. Sometimes slowing down and increasing sensuality first can increase sexual desire and/or performance.
  7. Focus on other characteristics you like about your spouse. I know this sounds trite, but it can shape your level of support. When my spouse gains weight, I really rarely notice, because I like HIM–I just like him for who he is, not for weight changes.

In mixed weight marriages, studies verify that many partners try to regulate their spouses’ eating behaviors. A rule of thumb in addressing weight issues is to approach it with positive influences. Negative influences (criticism, nagging, shaming, lecturing, threatening, punishing, stonewalling, withholding) only make the problem worse.

Weight can become like a separate entity in the marriage, either dividing or uniting the spouses.  Think teamwork. If my husband is inspired by a certain program, because the structure gives him scaffolding, I will use the recipes in the program, as long as they’re consistent with the basics and simplicity I think are foundational to a healthy life style. The only way to address weight without compromising the marital relationship is to gain unity—the couple against the weight challenge.

Maybe that’s why Jack Sprat just helped his wife lick the platter clean.

References:

Romantic Relationships and Eating Regulation: An Investigation of Partners’ Attempts to Control Each Others’ Eating Behaviors by Markey, C. M., Gomel, J. N. & Markey, P. M. (2008) in Journal of Health Psychology, 13(3), 422-432.

The Meaning of Weight in Marriage: A Phenomenological Investigation of Relational Factors Involved in Obesity by Ledyard, M. L. & Morrison, N. C. (2008) in Journal of Couple and Relationship Therapy, 7(3), 230-247.

“You’re Going to Eat That?” Relationship Processes and Conflict Among Mixed-Weight Couples by Burke, T. J., Randall, A. K., Corkery, S. A., Young, V. J., & Butler, E. A. (2012) in Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 29(8), 1109-1130.

Photo credit: Copyright: mukhina1 / 123RF Stock Photo

Couples, Couples Therapy, marriage, Marriage and Family Therapy

10 Tips for Riding the Rollercoaster of “Me to We” During the First Year of Marriage

24736329 - teenage couple on roller coasterRight after my husband and I got married, I talked him into going to a dance on our university campus. I was sitting on his lap with my arms around his neck when a co-ed approached and remarked, “It’s so nice to see a happily married couple who still love each other.” I remember thinking, “Uh…It’s not like we’ve been married for five years…we’ve been married for about five minutes…and you have no idea what my marriage is like from observing me in one limited context, but…ok, if that makes you feel happy….”

I was uncomfortable with her observation because while I WAS happy, I was also struggling with an array of conflicting emotions.

There is a cultural expectation that engagements and marriages will be singularly happy events, devoid of uncertainty, sadness and fear. In part, that expectation is why so many people suffer in silence and don’t seek resources for help during these stages. They can feel shameful if they aren’t blissfully happy. The colliding emotions often generate anxiety about whether the marriage was the right decision.

Possibly more often than not, the transition to marriage precipitates an onslaught of competing emotions. There can be elation, relief and contentment simultaneously with grief, sadness and fear. Newlyweds can experience disenfranchised grief, or grief around something that isn’t acknowledged because people expect you to be happy. However, with all the required changes in the life cycle shift, grief and loss, with other concomitant uncomfortable emotions should be expected.

Many couples cruise into married love problem free, which is great, but couples routinely struggle in unique ways during this transitional life stage. As a marriage therapist who sees many couples surprised by the difficulties inherent to married life, I want to acknowledge expected barriers in adjusting from a “Me to We,” paradigm.

Some  emotionally-laden challenges that regularly impact the transition into marriage include:

  1. Negotiating a joint identity. It can feel out of control to be connected to another individual impacting your life and potentially your identity. I still remember 29 years ago how frustrated I was when my husband was late or forgot something he said he would do. The main message I got growing up in my family was “Be reliable.” Lateness was unacceptable and if you said you would do something, you moved heaven and earth to do it—it was a “so let it be written, so let it be done” household. The End. My parents weren’t dictators, but they were both Depression Era, first-born, parentified children, and led by example. My husband was confused at my reactions when he made us 15 minutes late somewhere, or when he said he would do something and then forgot. It messed with my identity of being on time and responsible. “Good people” weren’t late nor forgetful. I figured that he didn’t care about me enough to be on time or work harder to remember. On the flip side, he couldn’t understand my level of frustration, I think because so much of his identity was linked to his adaptability, patience, and presence. In his mind, “good people” didn’t get upset over something like a spouse’s tardiness. Over the years, I’ve become more accepting of his habits, and he has tried to be more on time to adapt to my slightly obsessive qualities, but finding that middle place for a couple identity was challenging.
  2. Loss of individual identity. People often sacrifice important parts of themselves for the marriage. I absolutely don’t think I gave up my identity, but there were parts I struggled with. I didn’t love switching my last name when so much of my life had been associated with my father’s name, whom I adored.  I was a “Cluff,” not a “Schade,” and to tell you the truth, 30 years later, I still identify strongly with my maiden name.
  3. Adjusting to couple process. This sounds general, but what I’m referring to here is the fact that individual decision-making changes. Instead of doing what you want to do when you want to do it, marriage requires a commitment to collaborating and cooperating, thinking of the marriage partnership instead of oneself.
  4. Integrating with in-laws. It is true that in-laws are an everyday conflict area in marriage. As the youngest of six children, with all married siblings, my family had plenty of time to get used to in-laws. I thought the family process would be similar in my husband’s family. In short, he was the golden boy, the oldest and the first to get married, and it was nothing like the integration of in-laws in my family. This is an area where it’s probably best to have no expectations. I see many couples with various types of in-law problems. Because of that, my main goal as a mother-in-law is to just support my daughters-in-law in a way they want to be supported without being critical or intrusive nor completely disinterested, and to just love them; and since I have three of the best daughters-in-law on the planet, that has been so easy.
  5. Negotiating finances. Many couples can struggle here because of previous debt or dissimilar spending habits. Combining finances is fraught with stress for many if not most couples.
  6. Negotiating household routines. Even though this may seem trivial, when the transition is already stressful, things like squeezing the toothpaste from the middle (I get it—my entire life, my father hammered home that toothpaste tubes are to be neatly rolled from the bottom), failing to install a new roll of toilet paper, folding the towels in halves instead of in thirds, etc. can just highlight differences and exacerbate frustration.
  7. Friendsickness. This is a term often applied to college students who move away from a network of friends. This can also come up in marriage when people miss their old social networks. I can remember experiencing a great deal of pain and loss over my old social networks, because friendships shift after you get married. I didn’t have the same access to my single college friends, and “friendsickness,” is an accurately descriptive term—it became what I believe is a type of ambiguous loss.
  8. Adapting to new social norms and expectations. In short, “adulting,” on steroids.
  9. Creating new boundaries with families-of-origin. Neither my husband nor I have intrusive or controlling families, so we didn’t have to work hard to set boundaries, but many couples must learn how to set boundaries in systems with previous enmeshment. I did, however, feel differently about how I could approach my parents after marriage because I was supposed to “put on my big girl panties.”  When I was struggling, I couldn’t call them because I didn’t want to create worry; I knew my father would be distressed if he thought that I was even slightly unhappy. Also, the protocol in my family was to do your duty and shut up about it—there’s no question that you just do what you’re “supposed to do,” so I didn’t think there was any point talking about it. My parents wouldn’t have chastised me, but I knew they would worry and feel helpless to help me.
  10. Integrating rituals and traditions from two separate families. Because rituals and traditions are deeply infused with meaning, deciding how to enact holidays and other celebrations can be somewhat complex and potentially conflictual.

The phenomena described here about grief and loss with marriage transition are processes I’ve witnessed with other married couples as well as experienced myself. For the whole first year of my marriage I was engulfed in a heavy cloud of sadness related to my losses. That just elicited confusion and guilt, because I was supposed to be happy, wasn’t I?

I still dearly loved my husband, was physically attracted to him, viewed him as one of the best humans on the planet, felt lucky to be married to him, admired him, and believed he was an awesome choice for me long-term. I can safely say I still feel the same way about him, because he is truly wonderful.

But I still felt loss, grief and sadness in the transition. Then, on top of feeling abnormal and broken, I felt shame because my feelings were directly wounding my husband, who is at heart a kind, gentle and highly likable person.  Every time he saw me cry, he felt terrible and perceived that I must not love him, so I withdrew from him to protect him from my sadness, which just increased my loneliness. He had no idea what to do with me. This sounds so dramatic, but I honestly felt like a part of me was dying. I tried to hide my suffering from him unsuccessfully.

I went through stages of sadness, confusion, shame, fear and depression until I finally just went numb.  I regularly went through the motions of life robotically, feeling nothing. I can remember believing I just could just stop feeling and detach from my emotions entirely.  I hadn’t previously experienced this kind of emotional pain, requiring such extreme measures.

As part of my emotional withdrawal to avoid hurting him, I completely threw myself into school and became obsessive about getting the highest score in all my classes, telling myself it’s what I had to do to get into graduate school. In addition to matriculating full-time, I took two different jobs, began a volunteer shift at a women’s shelter, and started a pre-professional organization on campus. I kept myself too busy to feel anything. It was my way of having control over something when my emotions and life felt so out of control. I never did feel like I could talk to anyone about it, which I don’t think was helpful. This is the type of situation where therapy might be really helpful, when the outside world doesn’t know what to do with your pain. In marriage, it’s also best to go to therapy sooner rather than later. I’m hoping anyone can possibly be helped from my disclosure to know that if they are experiencing any of these things in the newlywed stage, they aren’t alone.

Knowing that mixed emotions are likely the norm with marital transition, here are some things you can do to smooth the passage:

  1. Make a study of marriage. Read recommended books. Listen to podcasts. My husband and I routinely listened to audio recordings for marital improvement because it was my chosen profession. It normalized our stress and taught us strategies to improve our communication and negotiation. I couldn’t pay my husband to read a marriage book, but he might listen to one on audio.
  2. Seek out humor. Laughter really does make so many painful things manageable. I realize many people are more serious than I and probably don’t see the need or see it as silly, but for many people, just finding ways to share laughter can be bonding.
  3. Expect and allow grieving. Of course, you’re going to miss things from your single life! Acknowledge that almost any life transition with gains comes with some losses of leaving another stage behind.
  4. Connect with old friends. Actively seek out safe past connections to help alleviate losses.
  5. Make time for individual self-care. Transitions are inherently stressful, so actively do things to increase comfort. Get a massage. Participate in a hobby.
  6. Actively make new friends as a couple. One way of acknowledging gains is to make new married friends. Invite them over to play games.
  7. Create your own new traditions and rituals. For our first Christmas, my husband and I were so busy with finals that we didn’t have time to buy a tree until two days before Christmas, and literally found one for a dollar. I quickly handmade a bunch of inexpensive ornaments with materials around the house. It was cheap and ugly, but it was ours.
  8. Practice active acceptance. This implies owning your situation for all the conflicting parts it offers, which overlaps with grieving. It’s ok to desire acceptance and not feel it right away. Acceptance might need to happen repeatedly—think of it as a process more than an outcome.
  9. Exercise patience with yourself and your spouse. Expect it to take time to integrate all the emotions that come with transition.
  10. Master a metamorphosis mentality. Marriage really is a metamorphosis, so think in terms of how you want to shape the change together.

Remember that struggling with the transition to marriage isn’t predictive of future happiness. Sometimes couples think that early struggles mean they never should have been together and they are doomed for relationship disaster. One couple I saw years ago laughingly reminded me that when they were expressing hopelessness that their early years of marital struggle meant they were doomed, I said, “I’m sorry, I just can’t join with you in your catastrophic narrative.” Somehow that was validating that they could still create a marriage free of problem saturation. It’s true. In the absence of ongoing affairs, abuse or addictions, you can likely shift your narrative for the future.

In other words, you can influence the engineering of your own roller coaster ride.

Make it a good one!

Photo credit: Copyright: inkebeville / 123RF Stock Photo

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

Upcoming Marriage Workshop in Orem, Utah by Dr. Lori Schade, LMFT and Brian Armstrong, LCSW

 

holdmetight-bl-10-7-16-ver-3

My colleague, Brian Armstrong, LCSW, and I are offering this intensive marriage workshop based on Sue Johnson’s “Hold Me Tight,” book. This is an interactive educational format is limited to 12 couples. We are offering it as a Friday night/Saturday morning intensive program. These workshops are a great way to gain a foundation for marital attachment and to try out partner activities. It’s NOT group therapy, so you don’t have to worry about disclosing marital issues in front of other people. I have had really positive feedback from couples completing this course. Please help us spread the word to any couples who might benefit from this experience! To register, click here.

This couples workshop is based on the revolutionary work of world-renowned couples therapist, Sue Johnson, author of Hold Me Tight. She has developed a research-proven  program to help couples connect and heal previous relationship wounds.

For most of us, our romantic attachments are extremely important to us. Because they mean so much to us, it is common to experience deep distress when things are not going well in these couple relationships. As human beings, we can become very emotionally reactive in these scenarios. As couples start emotionally reacting to each other over time, they get caught up in negative cycles that perpetuate the disconnection.

Couples completing this workshop will be able to identify their own negative cycles. They will also learn skills that will help them repair relationship ruptures in their marriage and will discover how to create safe and meaningful emotional connection. When this occurs it can often lead to deeper physical connection. The workshop provides therapist-guided opportunities for couples to practice skills.  Couples will leave the workshop with a clearer vision for improving their relationships.

Workshop Price Includes:

  • 8 hours of instruction and practice
  • Handouts and notes
  • Engaging, professional, and experienced presenters
  • Small group for increased access to presenters
  • Light snacks and water
Couples, Couples Therapy, marriage, Marriage and Family Therapy

The Slow Marital Death of Indecision: When Your Partner is Ambivalent about Staying Married

ambivalent couple

My job would be much easier as a marriage therapist if every couple came in with a unified set of desires for their marital futures.  Unfortunately, many couples come in with mixed agendas.  Commonly, one partner is entirely committed to saving the marriage, while one partner is ambivalent.

Ambivalent partners can be absolutely crazy-making for their spouses. They seem paralyzed about deciding whether or not to continue the marital relationship, because often they don’t like the looks of any of their options.  They commonly report that they don’t want to get divorced because, “It’s not the right thing to do,” or because they “Don’t want to mess up the children,” but at the same time, they don’t feel like getting close to their partners either.  Sometimes they are emotionally attached to partners outside the marriage.

Because neither option looks desirable to them, they show up to therapy physically, but tend to drag their feet in therapy, staying emotionally disconnected and inaccessible in the marital relationship.  They show up just enough to keep their spouses hopeful that they will fully engage and the marriage will eventually improve.

The more committed partners often get stuck in the partner’s indecisiveness, because their own decisions seem contingent on the ambivalent partners’ decisions. Over time, those more committed spouses report feeling like they are being manipulated and forced into making a decision about divorce due to the ambivalent spouse’s indecision.

In my opinion, some ambivalent partners are hoping their spouses will decide to pull the plug on the marriage so they don’t have to make that decision or take responsibility for that decision.

Ambivalence can last an indefinite amount of time, and in the meantime, the clock is ticking, children are growing up, and spouses are getting older.

I never have great answers for people in this situation.  It’s never my job to talk someone into staying in a marriage they don’t want to be in.  I’m not a marriage salesperson, even though I’m happy to help people stay married that so desire.  I’m also not the marital therapy godmother.  As much as I would like one, I don’t have a magic wand to make someone fall instantly “in love,” with a long-term partner.

I treat ambivalence in part by having the ambivalent spouses clarify and own the ambivalence.  By identifying and verbalizing the parts that want to stay married and the parts that don’t, they can sometimes over time decide whether or not they want to lean into the marriage or get completely out.  I try to get them to identify their fears, which often keep people stuck.  I will clarify that failing to make a decision is making a decision–it’s just a more passive (and painful) approach to decision-making.

Sometimes, if the marriage starts to feel safer so ambivalent partners can engage with more acceptance, they will.  This isn’t always the case.

Being married to an ambivalent partner is incredibly stressful.

Here are some practical suggestions for people who see their marriages dying the slow death of ambivalence to try to gain clarity for moving forward.

  1. Gather information.  I tell people to use what is available to get intentionally informed, and to write it down.  Past behavior and present behavior are valuable information.  Past behavior is also highly correlated (though not predictive) with future behavior.  If you realize that two years ago your spouse was saying the exact same thing as today, and that actions haven’t changed, that is important information.  By explicitly identifying patterns, you can gain clarity about future decisions.
  1. Ask trusted others close to the situation to help you make sense out of what is happening. Identify people close to you who understand your situation and have your best interests at heart and ask what they think.  Are several people seeing and telling you the same thing?  That’s important.
  1. Write down what life will be like in 5 years or 10 years if nothing has changed, except now you and your children are that much older. When people actually write this down for me, they develop more clarity about decision-making.  Often the response is, “Oh……yeah.”
  1. Identify your own greatest fear and create a plan for dealing with it. Many, if not most of us, get stuck in indecisiveness because we are afraid.  The anxiety we can conjure about what might happen is almost always more mentally painful than actually experiencing it.  Face the fact that your worst fear could happen, but create a plan for what you will do when it does, even if it will be uncomfortable.  For example, are you afraid your kids will be adversely affected by a divorce?  Then imagine how you will talk to them to mitigate negative effects and identify resources for helping children in divorce scenarios.  Score more points for actually imagining this case scenario over and over until you can imagine handling it.  (Kids are always affected, which is why divorce isn’t my favorite choice, but sometimes it’s a necessary choice, and there are resources to help)
  1. Identify your support resources. Friends and family are obvious choices, but some people overlook broader community support.  Now there are even support groups online for just about any challenge.  Find out what is available to you.  Look up websites and books.  If you are afraid of earning capability, talk to people who have been where you are now and have moved past it.  Talk to people, talk to people, talk to people.
  1. Identify your identity outside of your marital relationship. If you aren’t in a romantic attachment relationship, what are your other meaningful relationships?  What kind of friend do you want to be?  What kind of parent or grandparent?  What kind of community member or human being at large? What skills do you want to develop?  What are you curious about?
  1. If your marriage has spiritual or religious significance, reinforce that spiritual or religious relationship in order to achieve peace and confidence. People who see their marriages as spiritually significant can develop confidence that Deity, or whomever they honor and respect as a guiding force, understands their pure intentions.  I believe people in these situations can attain peace they need to move forward in decision-making, even if the decision is painful.
  1. Allow yourself time and space to grieve. I don’t believe we get out of this life without feeling deep grief and loss.  Losing relationships are some of the most painful emotional experiences we have as human beings.  It’s normal to feel pain that a relationship is ending.  I’m big on creating grieving rituals to make space for allowing yourself to feel pain while setting boundaries around grief in an intentional way so it doesn’t take over your life.  Since it’s common for some pain to hang on indefinitely, I’m also big on a mindfulness approach in which you can feel pain but still know that you can function.

I really, really, really wish this were easier.  It’s just not.  Many people end up having to make decisions they don’t want to make.  Even though it’s not likely to bring comfort, I want to end by pointing out that ambivalent marriages, while painful, are actually not uncommon.  You may feel alone, but I can assure you that you are not.  There might be someone out there who can benefit from your experience.  Finding that person may actually help you feel more resolved.

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

Couples, Couples Therapy, marriage, Marriage and Family Therapy

Relationship Rule Number One: You Cannot Control Your Partner

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Stacy came in looking angry.  Her husband had recently sounded the alarm bell on their marriage and told her he wasn’t sure he wanted to continue the relationship.  In an about-face, she behaviorally tried to do everything she could think of to reignite his commitment to the relationship.  He continued to avoid her.  She explained, “All week, I have done all these nice things for him that I thought he would like.  I made his favorite dinner and cleaned up all the dishes myself.  I’ve tried to express appreciation and tell him when he’s doing great as a father.  I’ve tried really hard to keep from yelling.  He still avoids me.  I don’t know what else to do.  It’s not fair.”

I glanced over at him, expecting no response, and noticed him staring at me, arms folded across his chest, daring me to comment on his unresponsiveness.  I knew there was a reason for his avoidance, because of their history.  I turned back to his wife.  “I know you are hurting.  This has all been incredibly painful and scary for you, and it’s hard to try so hard and feel hopeless.”  She nodded and added, “I don’t see how I’m expected to make all the changes.  If I’m putting myself out there and trying, then he should too.”  Her tone suggested that I should chastise him for his behavior.

I continued, “Can you do something for me right now?” “What?” she asked.  “Can you please start breathing for him right now?”  She looked at me like I was crazy and replied  “What do you mean?”  “I mean breathe for him.  Right now.  Go.  Make him breathe.”  Seconds later, she said, “I can’t make him breathe.”  “Right,” I affirmed, “You can’t make him breathe just like you can’t really make him do anything else.  You are an entirely independently functioning individual.  You can invite him to breathe and possibly influence him to breathe, but you cannot do it for him nor make him do it.  It may be unfair.  Your sense of justice may be violated, but you cannot make him do anything.  That is an incredibly helpless feeling, I know…and let me add this…even if you could control him, you wouldn’t want to, because he would resent you for it.”

She became teary, and I continued processing her softer emotions enough that I could turn to her husband and check in with him about his perception.  He had noticed changes, but he didn’t trust them.  He worried that if he did trust her changes, things would go back to the way they were before.  He stayed disconnected in part to avoid giving his wife false hope about their future.  It was a protective mechanism.

One of the simple hard and true facts about relationships is that we absolutely cannot control other people. Couples commonly end up in tug-of-war like power struggles over who will control the outcome of an argument.  People in general like to exercise decision-making and control over their lives.  In couple relationships, constant negotiation is necessary for joining two individuals who sometimes have conflicting desires and needs.  That’s normal and healthy.  There are big problems when people think they are going to manipulate or control their spouses to do what they want them to do, and even though it may feel like winning in the short run, it is a losing proposition in the long term.

People hopefully learn this in dating relationships.  Not everyone does.  When my oldest son was going through a difficult romantic break-up years ago, he asked me if he should write a letter to his girlfriend with specific explanations and questions.  I answered that if he chose to do that, it was fine, but absolutely not to send a letter with any kind of expectation for how she might respond.  I explained that, “You can do whatever you want.  However, you can’t choose how or even if she will reply.  You cannot ask her a question with the expectation for a certain answer—you must be prepared that she may not answer you, and even if she does, it may not be the answer you want to hear.  If you can do that, then go ahead and send the letter.  If you are sending it with an expectation for a certain response, think twice about it.  You absolutely do not get to control what someone else does.  You can only control what you do in response.”

Even if you could control your partner’s behavior, it is not in your best interest to do so.  Some people can be quite controlling and effectively bully their partners into regular capitulation.  What ends up happening is that controlling partners think they are getting their way and life is good while resentment builds in the partner that is constantly giving in to avoid conflict.  Over time (and by time I mean that it can take four decades or more), resentful partners get to the point that they have had enough and finally take a stand, which usually means shutting the partner out completely or ending the relationship.  Then, the controlling partners are confused because they had no idea their placating partners were angry for years.  I don’t know how many times I have heard a controlling partner say, “If he (or she) had only told me—I had no idea I was being controlling.”

In too many marriages and relationships, instead of power equality, there is a huge power differential in which one partner benefits at the expense of the other.  Unfortunately, many people lack the awareness that they are taking this kind of position in a relationship.  If you are able to persuade your spouse to agree with you all or most of the time instead of your adapting to them, you may be a controlling partner.  If you are constantly giving in, I believe you are at high risk for being a typical placating partner who is slowly building resentment that may explode later.

What to do about it

Controlling partners can ask spouses what they think about the marriage, what changes they want to make, and what they really want in life, and try to honor and validate the information and requests.  In short, the best thing to do is increase your understanding of your partner’s position without trying to change it.  People who feel invalidated or misunderstood will cling tighter to their positions.  If you are inflammatory or reactive, your partner will probably not share this with you, and you will be no better off.  When controlling partners feel at all unsafe, placating partners will continue to give in and withhold expression of their opinions.  If your partner isn’t sharing his or her opinion, this can be a huge warning sign.

If you are a partner who constantly gives in to avoid conflict, be honest with yourself about how you are feeling toward your partner.  Try to find a way to discuss this dynamic with your partner.  If your partner is controlling to the point of being abusive, you may have to face some difficult questions about continuing the relationship.  Giving in to abusive partners does not make them less controlling—it feeds the pattern.

A typical example

 Although power struggles show up in every marital context, a really common area is in the bedroom.  A spouse who doesn’t want to be physically intimate because he or she doesn’t feel emotionally connected (and yes, that happens for men as well as women—people often don’t want to have sex with controlling partners), may end up giving in just to get the partner to go away.  The problem is, if they really don’t want to engage, they can become bitterly resentful.

In one typical session, a wife came in upset because after she verbally explained to her husband that she didn’t feel safe enough with him emotionally to want to engage in a physically close relationship, he pressed her on the issue until she gave in and had sex with him, even though she didn’t want to.  The result was another relationship rupture.  In this case, she tried to say no to him but then gave in and then punished him for it.  I asked what would happen if she said, “OK, I will have sex with you, but I want to be clear that I will hold a grudge and be resentful toward you afterward and it will disconnect us further.”  She said, “Oh I could never say that—it would hurt his feelings.”  I said, “But you are saying it—you’re just not using words—and you are hurting his feelings more because when you punish him with your anger, it’s an unclear message, and he doesn’t know what’s really going on.  All I’m asking you to do is to be congruent.  Verbalize what you are already creating, and give him the choice about whether he really want to participate in that process or not.”  The husband admitted that even though experiencing rejection would be painful, it was more painful and confusing to be punished after his wife gave in, and made him feel worse.  He didn’t realize he was coming across as controlling.

Control can work both ways here.  In other scenarios, a partner may refuse to engage in a physical relationship, and the absolute refusal becomes the control.  I believe there is a distinct lack of integrity in a partner who refuses separation or divorce but then refuses to improve the sexual relationship in a long-term marriage.  It’s one thing to temporarily abandon sexual relations while actively working on making the relationship safe—it’s entirely different to shut a partner out sexually with no hope for improvement.  This hopeless scenario in my opinion is quite cruel.

In the above cases, one partner was using verbal coercion to achieve sex and one was using icy withdrawal to avoid sex—both are controlling, and both are losing in the long-run.

(Side note:  sexuality is tremendously complex and there are many reasons why couples disconnect around physical intimacy.  The problems are usually a combination of individual difficulties AND relationship difficulties.  I don’t want to oversimplify the problem.  These particular scenarios don’t necessarily translate to many other scenarios)

Ultimately, realize that you can only really control yourself.  You can certainly influence and invite your partner, but do not use coercion to do it.  If you win with coercion or manipulation, you’re not really winning.  There must be a recognition of a partner’s right to his or her opinion.  You do not want to make your partner to do something they don’t want to do.  Conversely, if you constantly give in to achieve “peace at any price,” you’re not doing your partner any favors.  You are feeding into the cycle of manipulative control.

Take a serious look at your marriage to make sure you are not playing the part of puppet or puppeteer.  Either role is bad for you, bad for your partner, and bad for the relationship. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

Presents or Presence this Holiday Season?

couple presence presents

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reference:

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