Couples, marriage, Marriage and Family Therapy

A Typical Marriage Fail Moment and How I Fixed it

marriage fail

Several years ago, I was late for a conference forty miles away in the next county north, and amped up my aggressive driving skills to attempt to arrive faster (admittedly a bad idea—do NOT do this at home). As I was approaching the boundary to the next county, weaving in and out of traffic, my cell phone rang (before cell phone use in cars was illegal in my state). I gave an exasperated “Hello,” just as one of my neighbors greeted, “Where do you think you’re going, driving like a maniac? You’re not getting there any faster than the rest of us.” “I’m late,” I acknowledged, laughing, because I was surprised I was literally being ‘called out,’ “And by the way, you’re increasing my anxiety and throwing me off, so thanks for making me later.” His reply was one I had heard a hundred times, “Physician, heal thyself.” “Well, good thing I’m not a physician then, isn’t it?” I sassed back, which elicited an argument based on the word’s etymology in which my neighbor insisted that I was, indeed, in the broad “physician,” category.

I know of no group of people associated with higher societal expectations for mood and behavior than mental health professionals. I’ve never heard someone say, “He has cancer—he must be a terrible doctor!” or “Don’t go to that doctor—I heard him coughing the other day,” but I have heard many people evaluate therapists based on the presence of any mental health or relationship challenges. Oh, that the world was that simple! Quite frankly, I would have no trust in a therapist who had not somehow faced emotional or relationship challenges, because we call those people…robots? Stepford therapists? Inhuman?

Being a therapist has certainly given me a variety of options for dealing with various facets of being human, and has probably increased my adaptability, decreased my reactivity, and alleviated various struggles, but it has in no way turned me into a perfect person (whatever that means). I have emotions just like everyone else, an individual history with various potential triggers, and varying propensities, some of which aren’t always potentiating ideal mental and emotional states (shocking, I know —sorry to burst anyone’s bubble). As a result, I will continue to have plenty of opportunities to try out my suggested interventions on myself.

This is a tale of one of those moments, and how even though my reactivity got the best of me, I was able to take a step back and reverse the situation. I’m in no way attempting to glorify myself, nor suggesting I get it right all, or even most of the time—I’m choosing to share this because it’s such a typical example of how quickly couples get stuck and stay stuck if something doesn’t change. I’m hoping other couples can see themselves in the situation.

Last year, my husband and I took a trip to Europe with another couple. I thought things were going better than expected. We all got along well and seemed to be having a great time. After a long day touring, my husband and I were alone in our room and he seemed to be irritated at me, answering in terse monosyllables, which is somewhat unusual for him. “What’s wrong with you?” I asked. With little prodding, he proceeded to explain that I didn’t seem to want to be with him at all, and that I was more interested in hanging out with my friend than with him, and I kept leaving him behind to talk to my friend and her husband. I think he said something like, “Maybe you should have just gone on a trip with them and left me home.”

I was completely thrown off. I never in a million years could have guessed that he would have perceived that, because it was so untrue. I don’t know that I’ve ever been so confused in a marital interaction. My husband has never been the jealous type. His unexpected accusation felt unfair and the anger behind his words really stung.

So, what do you think I did? Did I apologize and try to understand his feelings better?

Nope.

I immediately got defensive. I matched his tone and raised it a notch. “What are you even talking about?” I demanded. “You’re insane! I didn’t leave you behind at all! We were together all day! What more do you want from me?” and blah blah blah. Basically, I was trying to defend my position and explain to him why he was incorrect in his interpretation of the day.

And then, he admitted that he saw it all wrong and I was correct after all, right?

Nope.

He continued citing examples to support his viewpoint until I basically muttered something mature like, “Whatever, think what you want,” and rolled over to go to bed, stewing inside, certain that I needed to find the words to help him see that he was wrong. Note that this was me disconnecting and basically sending the message to “deal with it by yourself,” which is the polar opposite of what you would want to do for a healthier interaction.

I was feeling very upset. I wanted to remind him of all the efforts I have made in our marriage to show him that my marriage is important to me. I felt slighted. Didn’t he realize how good he had it? I wanted credit for everything I had done to be a good wife, and it felt like he was wiping it out in a day. How dare he misunderstand me so completely! It felt devastating. I silently fumed. I was the victim here–he was ruining my perfect vacation!

Eventually, I tried to slow my emotions down and actually do what I would want my clients to do. Even though I thought he was completely off-base, and his anger was not a vulnerable display that increased my empathy, I was able to see that under the anger, he was extremely hurt about something. I recalled the day in my memory, trying to identify moments in which he may have felt left behind or unimportant. I realized that because I don’t like to make people wait for me, it was true that I stayed up with my friend and her husband and walked away from him. However, it was because I didn’t want to be a naggy wife, telling him to “come on,” if he wanted to linger. As I thought about it, I became more upset that he was assuming this was evidence that I didn’t want to be with him. I felt powerless to influence his opinion. How was I going to make him understand that he was wrong? We were back to that.

By the next morning, I was still feeling hurt, but I was determined to try to reconnect before we started the day again. He was still giving me the cold shoulder. I had not validated his feelings, so that was no surprise. Finally, I reached out to touch his arm and made eye contact. I explained that it was hard for me to hear his interpretation of the day because I saw it so differently. I said, “I don’t know that it will make a difference to you, but here’s what I think was happening,” and proceeded to recall that I didn’t want to be a nag but wanted to keep up with the group, etc.

I knew that wasn’t the real issue though—I still needed to understand how he could feel insecure about something that seemed so small to me, so I continued. I remember saying, “The bottom line is that it doesn’t matter if I saw it differently, because ultimately, I don’t want my husband to wonder if I love him or not. I’m sad that you would even think I prefer my friends to you. I’m always trying to reinforce the message that I love you, so if you can experience doubt so quickly, it worries me that I’m not building the kind of security I want you to have.” Then, I asked him to help me understand if my behaviors throughout the day seemed rejecting. I was more aware of my actions and the impact I was having on him for the rest of the trip, which generated increased emotional attunement and reciprocity on his part.

Some people might think my response was “rewarding bad behavior,” but it was a response to relational distress, and attuned responsiveness is actually more likely to reduce future triggers than to exacerbate them. Ignoring, diminishing or invalidating them will certainly increase their frequency, however. People get this wrong all the time–but hey–it keeps me in business, so keep invalidating your spouses, y’all!

Basically, I shifted from trying to convince him why he was wrong to expressing confusion about seeing it so differently and trying to understand more about his experiences, because the bottom line is that I want my husband to know I care about his feelings.

Most couples automatically do what I did first—try to convince their partners why they saw it incorrectly, why they are just too sensitive, why they need to change their perceptions, etc. That can keep a couple spiraling in one form or other for years.

Instead of arguing about who’s right, try this:

  1. Acknowledge that your partner may have a completely different experience with the same event than you had. It’s really okay.
  2. Orient yourself to what you really care about—do you care more about getting your point across or about bridging understanding to be able to move forward differently?
  3. If a partner seems accusatory because he/she was hurt, try to see it as an opportunity to bond differently instead of nursing your own pain.

This isn’t gender specific. In this case, my husband happened to be the one expressing pain. Notice that he expressed anger rather than hurt, which was really at the core of the event. That’s true for most people. That’s hard, because anger is a distancing emotion. It doesn’t elicit empathy. It naturally elicits defensiveness or withdrawal. Many individuals struggle expressing hurt, so it’s usually helpful to know that if anger is expressed, something painful in general is happening. Asking more about what is painful can be helpful.

As we really are all, in one way or another, physicians, it boils down to “show me where it hurts,” and trying to help soothe emotional pain instead of arguing about it.

Again, I’m not using this as an example of my awesomeness in marriage—I got it completely wrong at first, but I was able to come back in differently by focusing on the fact that I didn’t want my spouse to hurt, but to feel supported. Things can shift quickly when partners can accept a partner’s different experience and try to understand it better. Try it.

In the meantime, I’ll be making many more mistakes to create new opportunities for change.

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

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Couples, Humor, Love, marriage, Romance

What’s That Smell? The Magnifi-Scent Marriage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is my “Monogamous Line” for starters:

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

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

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

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

Wait, what?

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

References:

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

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

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

Couples, marriage

When the Tortoise and the Hare get Married

17134701 - rabbit and turtle in a close-up imageThe other day I was asking my husband to read something to me out loud while I double-checked numbers. When I complained, “Hold on—you’re going too fast,” he remarked, “What do you mean? I’m never going too fast for you—you’re the queen of fast.” He does have a point. For much of my life, I have had a sense of urgency which is reflected pretty much everywhere, and not always for the better.

When my husband and I were engaged, my father invited us into his office so he could share a concern about our marriage. “You are like the tortoise and the hare,” he observed, “and I want you to be aware that it can be a problem, so you need to know how to manage it.”

I knew my dad thought I was the hare and I believed he was overstating the problem. He had repeatedly suggested that perhaps I could benefit from an intensive training course in patience, which I always dismissed with an, “OK, yeah, IknowpatiencegotitCanIgonow?” in the most impatient tone imaginable. I knew that my husband was more patient than I was, which was, in fact, a large part of the appeal. He was steady and solid—remaining fixed while I pinged relentlessly in and out of orbit.

What I didn’t realize in my idealistic naiveté, was the concept that the qualities you admire in your spouse are the very things that will drive you crazy. I have learned to appreciate my husband’s steadiness, but only after years of frustration that if he didn’t want to hurry when I wanted to hurry, he was not going to be pressured into rushing. In fact, I was certain that just when I wanted to get out the door faster, he would slow down just to annoy me.

What was less clear to me, but which I have come to understand after years of sitting in front of other couples with tortoise/hare marriages, is how annoying my rushing can be. I have had to work very hard to be more present with people, which comes much more naturally to my husband. I think one of the reasons I like being a therapist so much is that it’s the one place where rushing doesn’t help, so I have permission to slow down.

Couples frequently have mismatched pacing. It’s easy to spot in communication patterns. One of the pair will ask a question and just as the other partner begins to answer, the loquacious person will begin talking again, usually faster and louder than the more reticent partner, resulting ultimately in withdrawal and shut down in the relationship. If I notice the pattern, I will make it explicit to the couple. The couples often know they have different pacing, but they don’t always understand the relationship implications. Over time, mismatched pacing can naturally polarize. Therapists are usually trying to help couples find their way back to the middle.

So what do you do if you are a tortoise/hare couple?

  1. Know that tortoises and hares can have very good marriages. They serve separate functions, but compensate for each other’s weaknesses.
  2. Identify the emotions that fuel tortoise or hare-like behavior. For example, fast-paced people often experience anxiety when slowing down…they can only tolerate so much silence before filling in the blanks. Slower-paced people often feel anxious about potentially eliciting uncomfortable emotions from partner interactions, so they take their time as an attempt to be careful and exact. If both partners can acknowledge the feelings that drive fast or slow behavior, they can work together more effectively.
  3. When dealing with marital conflict, it’s important to SLOW DOWN (sorry, hares—I feel your pain). It’s easier to get someone to slow the heck down than to get someone to speed up their processing. Emotion is naturally FAST and fuels reactive behavior. If you are the fast partner, and notice yourself getting twitchy and edgy, BREATHE, and ask for increased understanding. It’s imperative to make more space for slower-processing partners.
  4. Be charitable about your partner’s differences. Couples can be so mean to each other when they process differently. As a general rule, the fast pace required in the complexity of our capitalistic society can diminish relationships. Relationships are qualitative and are compromised by efficiency-based models.

If nothing else, try to find some humor in your different styles. While I was driving my husband to the doctor for a post-op check-up a few months ago, he mumbled through a narcotics-laced haze, “Honey, your California driving is a turn-on.” I hadn’t even realized that I was exhibiting the predatory driving habits I picked up while indeed learning to drive among the aggressive motorists in Southern California. I have a habit of forgetting until the occasional driver in front of me pulls over, allowing me to pass, at which point I apologetically realize I was tailgating—a skill absolutely necessary to get from point A to point B in LA. “Oh, sorry, I am driving like a Californian, huh?” He reminded me about the time my son was driving with his friend and just as a light turned green, his friend pointed at a car and said, “Look–I have never seen a car beat you off the line before. You’re always the first one to go when the light turns green.” My son looked over at the car and laughed, “Dude, that’s my mom!” I hadn’t even seen him next to me. My son couldn’t wait to tell me, and it became a joke about my impatience and aggressive driving habits.

Marriage really is an ultra-marathon, not a sprint. If you need to slow down, it’s ok. You and your partner might enjoy more scenery along the way.

 

 

Couples, Love, marriage, Romance

Crated with Love: A Small Date Box with a Big Punch

cratedwithlove

This may be one of my favorite date night boxes yet! My husband and I opened the box we received from Crated with Love and found various materials for not just one date, but for at least a month’s worth of potential dates. I really like this company and will be ordering from them again.

This was my husband’s favorite date box so far, because it included a number of games–he’s always stoked by a friendly competition. I was impressed by the variety and creativity of this product. The creators were thorough and intentional in their efforts to spark romance and connection between couples. They even took the time to explain the rationale behind each activity and how it pertained to couple bonding. Not only did the box contain a wide range of materials for games and a massage tool, but a special password for unlocking additional content on the Crated with Love website

After my husband and I played four of the games, we visited the website for ideas and continued the fun. Some of the website’s content included recipes, additional night-out instructions, ideas for using the boxed materials in various ways, and many extra date ideas.

I also like the purchasing options for this box. You can choose whether or not you want the “Story Mode,” $19.99/month membership including themes, challenges and an invitation to write your own love story, or a “Diamond Membership,” which for $7 more allows you to access additional content and provides all the materials for the suggested date activities in the boxes. If you order a year in advance, you get a 33% discount per box. My husband and I tried the “Diamond Membership,” box, so this review is specific to that line of products. The website also has an option for sending two date boxes as a gift or ordering date boxes individually.

With Valentine’s Day only a few days away, this is a great gift idea!

 

Couples, Love, marriage, Romance

Valentine’s Day Idea: Order a Free Sample Date Night Box with Datelivery

48902701 - happy couple opening cardboard box or parcel at home

OK, y’all know I’ve been trying out date night box subscriptions in time for Valentine’s Day, and I’m excited to tell you about Datelivery, where for the cost of shipping, you can order a sample date box, which is a smaller version of their regular date box.

This is some of what the box includes:

  • A fun and sexy seven-part scavenger hunt
  • A couples’ massage guide and massage oil
  • The Bonus Round relationship builder (you’ll just have to open it to find out how it works!)

If you order it, my helpful hint is to open it right away to prevent massage oil leakage. Even though the oil was wrapped with multiple layers of bubble wrap, the oil still managed to leak out over the 4 weeks I had it stored in my room. Even after that little mishap, however, the box was fun and convenient. I so wish this service had been available when I was in the throes of raising my family and had a minimum of three loads of laundry a day just to keep up (four boys at once playing sports year-round, so…..yeah, that happened).

Like the other date subscription boxes I’ve reviewed, Datelivery also offers a monthly subscription option, which can be cancelled at any time.

With a free sample box option, there’s no reason to not try out Datelivery.

Happy Valentine’s Day.

 

 

Couples, Couples Therapy, marriage, Marriage and Family Therapy

The One Thing That Prevents Couples From Changing and the Question That Can Fix It

change is good photoI was walking through a store the other day when a simple painted sign stopped me in my tracks. It read, “Change is good….you go first.” I immediately picked it up to check the price, thinking, “I absolutely have to get this for my office.” It succinctly describes one of the biggest ongoing dilemmas I face as a marriage therapist. It sits on a small cupboard in an alcove halfway between the path from my waiting room to my office, and as I walk past it several times daily, I’m hoping it will somehow inspire my married couples who feel so stuck in their difficult relationships.

Why is it that so many people may have increased insight about what they might need to do to change their relationships and yet feel restricted from altering negative patterns that maintain relationship distress?

The short answer is fear. This might seem confusing at first. Many people are removed from any awareness that fear might be keeping them stuck. However, upon investigating the layers of emotion that lie beneath the frustration and unyielding hopelessness that are so close to the surface for most distressed couples, there are long-buried softer raw emotions that bear the scars of previous relationship wounds.

Years of distress are inevitably entwined with multiple instances of hurt and invalidation. The longer people experience relationship pain, the more they don armor laced with more protected emotions: frustration and anger, which feel more powerful, and distance us from additional potentially harmful circumstances, or numbness and apathy, which display a lack of feeling manifested from desensitization to repeated hurtful interactions.

Both emotions are effective in the short-term for protecting us from partners who have hurt us in the past and who might hurt us in the future. Unfortunately, they are emotions which also prevent the potentiality for safe emotional bonding and connection.  

When people are hurt in relationships over time, the hurt breeds fear of being hurt again. It’s easy for me to view it with a military metaphor, because sadly, it is illustrative of two people warring on different sides. In short, it’s as if couples are dug down in foxholes to protect themselves from verbal artillery from their partners. Each wants desperately to come out waving the white flag to invite a truce and repair, but each is afraid that if he/she comes out first, the other will still be armed and use figurative weapons to harm the now disarmed and vulnerable partner.

It’s a game of relationship chicken to see who will capitulates first, and is loaded with perception of being the weaker partner. Since neither wants to be weak nor wounded, both stay hunkered down in their fixed positions.

Ultimately, you cannot create secure emotional bonding without vulnerability, which means there is always the potential for harm. C.S. Lewis said it like this, “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.” 

In other words, couples will stay protected, but their relationships will likely be “irredeemable,” which means that they will not be saved, improved or corrected.

Many if not most couples continue to come to couples therapy hoping their partners will be the ones to make the first move, while they continue to stay protected from potential harm. I’m usually trying to create safety for both partners to simultaneously drop their weapons and risk new engagement outside of the figurative foxholes. This is a very common and yet tricky reality to navigate. The conundrum represents a large portion of my practice. Fear of hurt and/or rejection is a powerful emotion to combat.

A Simple Way to Risk

Soooo, what is a practical strategy to reach out while maintaining some level of scaffolding for safety? It’s like moving into the deep end of the pool knowing you have something to grab onto if you need it.

I think the answer lies in a simple question anyone can ask a partner: Ask, “What is one thing that would help you feel safer in our relationship?” The question is a relatively low risk way to signal a desire to reach out and acknowledges that the other partner might be just as afraid to risk in the relationship. By implying that you want to do something to make the relationship feel safer for the other partner, it communicates that you do not wish to cause further harm. It signals one’s disarmament.

I can’t say it’s a no-risk question, because it’s not. It could be rejected quickly, e.g. “Why do you care? Why are you asking now? Since when do you care about my safety in our relationship? I’ve been trying to tell you for years, so if you don’t know by now, you’ll never get it,” etc., etc., etc., etc.

Expect a response like that. Couples have a hard time trusting change. It’s typical to be wary of a partner’s authenticity. You will not make things worse by reassuring your partner that you are sincere. It’s diffusible with something like, “I want to do something different. I don’t want us to both hurt anymore. I’m sorry I didn’t get it sooner. I’m attuning right now. Do you see me trying right now?” It needs to be a soft response, connected to the authentic desire for compassion and repair.

I can’t make guarantees that taking a low-level risk won’t fail, but I can guarantee that going into the interaction intentionally can potentially shift the relationship in a small but significant way, changing the trajectory of the entire relationship from increased disconnection to possible connection.

I can guarantee, however, that if you stay hunkered down in your foxhole, waiting to emerge until you see that your partner is completely disarmed so you are certain you won’t get hurt again, you will likely find yourself in the relationship distress of conflict or distance which C.S. Lewis described as “unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.”

If you do shed your armor, you can always put it back on again.

You decide.

 

Reference:

C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves, (2017) HarperOne.

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

Couples, Holidays, Love, marriage, Romance

A Great Idea for Valentine’s Day: Modern Love Box!

48902701 - happy couple opening cardboard box or parcel at home

My favorite holiday is just around the corner! This would be a unique and easy gift!

I loved loved loved The Modern Love Box.  The creators are a husband/wife team who recognize the importance of introducing novelty and the unexpected into a relationship, given that one of them is a relationship therapist who runs a private practice on the side. Their boxes are designed to promote connection and new experiences between partners via a ready-made date night. All the work is done for you, which is incredibly convenient. Customers can order single boxes centered around different themes, or pay for an annual subscription for boxes to be delivered in quarterly increments.

I chose the “Good Fortune,” box to try out with my husband and had no idea what to expect. To be honest, my expectations were low because I’ve been married for 30 years and was actively working toward a profession in marriage and family therapy before my husband and I were married. In other words, I have had decades of approaching my marriage like a marriage therapist, which includes being constantly on the search for new dating experiences. I often joke with my husband that we have “come to the end of the internet,” because it’s rare to find an idea I haven’t heard before. However, The Modern Love Box offered a genuinely new experience for date night.

The creators thought of everything. They included his and her notebooks to take notes about date night experiences for future reference. Besides questions to encourage discussion, the box included a book about various ways to determine one’s “fortune.” I never would have purchased it on my own nor viewed it as a couple activity; however, it’s presented as an interactive exercise in comparing “fortunes,” which led to new conversations. The exercise was the perfect balance between contemplative and light-hearted.

Another activity we had not done before was writing “wishes,” both for each other and for our marriage together and ceremoniously lighting them on fire to send them upward. Besides offering a new and whimsical experience, sharing the wishes cemented our dyadic commitment by identifying joint hopes for the future. In fact, this is the type of activity I routinely recommend as a relationship therapist.

The creators also included  materials to facilitate physical connection. Often, couples can  become either hyperfocused or avoidant of the sexual relationship forgetting how much other forms of intimacy can impact the quality of physical connection. From start to finish, the box includes elements designed to create emotional safety, which often leads to greater sexual safety and couple exploration of this important, intimate part of the relationship.

I will definitely be subscribing to The Modern Love Box because I’m confident that the creative team will not disappoint in their quarterly theme-related offerings. This would be a great idea for Valentine’s Day. In fact, the site is offering a discount for last year’s Valentine box.

Overall, it’s apparent that the contents are informed by a relationship therapist and a creative design expert. This company knows what it’s doing as far as promoting positive couple connection. I highly recommend!

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