Couples, marriage

How to Start a Marital Argument with Mind Reading

14358323 - funny wedding symbol - game overMy husband and I were recently asked to participate in a Newlywed Game activity with other couples in front of several hundred people at a summer camp for adolescent girls.  I feel pressure at events like these because someone always manages to harass me with some version of “OK Mrs. Marriage Therapist Lady—let’s see what you’ve got.”  It’s as if my entire professional career hangs in the balance of reading my husband’s mind for answers to 5 questions.  In my estimation, the Newlywed Game is just mind reading for dummies, AKA “How to pick a fight with your spouse without even trying.”

On the way up in the car, my husband suggested that we practice.  I was feeling good about our matched responses when he pointed out that, “Their questions aren’t going to be this easy—you know they are going to think of obscure questions to ask.”  At my agreement, he directed me to “think of some obscure questions.”  “Umm…I think by definition obscure questions are….obscured, so….questions we aren’t supposed to be able to figure out,” I responded.  “Yeah,” my husband agreed, “but you’re a marriage therapist—so think of some,” which sounded a lot like, “Dance, puppet!”  “Again,” I repeated, slower this time, “By definition, obscure questions are…” “Oh never mind,” he cut me off and wondered aloud why I had to be so difficult.

Sure enough, right out of the gate, the first question, to husbands, was, “My wife is a natural born (blank).”  “Wow,” I thought, “This is going to be worse than I thought—so many choices—I hope he’s nice.”  I quickly wrote “Reader,” crossing my fingers that my husband would recall the many times I had recounted my obsession with the kindergarten book corner.

We were chosen to reveal our answers first.  Feeling optimistic, I held up my card simultaneously with my husband’s, which was met with an eruption of laughter.  “Oh no,” I asked, “What did you write?”  He showed me his card which radiated “LOVER,” in all caps, underlined in bright red ink.  I raised my eyebrows and threw up my hands, mouthing “Wha….???” conveying, “Of all the available words in the English language, you really chose the word, ‘lover,’ dripping with a variety of potentially salacious interpretations…in front of the youth?”  He whispered, “I was about to write ‘reader,’ but that sounds boring and you’re definitely not boring.”  “OK, can you please remember that we are going for accuracy and not scandal?” I entreated.

I was excited that we were in the running for the win when wives were asked, “Name something that your husband is good at that no one else knows about.”  I enthusiastically scribbled “Juggling,” with hurried penmanship, desperately attempting to telepathically transmit my answer to my spouse.

As the answers were revealed, a few couples got a match on “Golf.” “Lame,” I judged, “That’s cheating…basically a safe answer that technically doesn’t meet the standards of something ‘other people don’t know about.’”  I felt fleetingly virtuous and hopeful about my legitimate response before my complete deflation when the moderator frowned and pronounced our answers a mismatch.  I turned toward my husband, “What did you…Waterskiing?  Seriously?  That’s not something people don’t know about!”

“But can he juggle while waterskiing?” someone heckled.

“Well,” he explained, “I was about to put ‘juggling,’ but then I decided I’m really not good at juggling.”  “No,” I argued, “Compared to a professional juggling circus clown you’re not good.  Compared to the average population, you’re really good.”  He rolled his eyes.  “Plus,” I continued, “People know you waterski.”  “People don’t know I waterski,” he contested.  “Are you kidding me?” I was so confused, “You have two different ski boats in our driveway alternating all summer long depending on your mood for the wake you want to ski that day.  I think the cat’s out of the bag…people know you waterski…at least more than know you juggle.”  “But I’m not good at juggling,” he repeated, which just increased my frustration.  He was focusing on the first part of the question and I was focusing on the last part.  “Just stop. We aren’t going to agree on this,” I declared, and he was happy to drop it.

A half hour later when we walked into the camp of our local congregation, the camp cook called out to me, “Hey Lori, the first thing the girls said when they walked into camp is that your husband told everyone you are a natural born lover.”  I shot him a look in “Told you so,” fashion.  Then, I explained our mismatch on the juggling question.  “But I’m not good at juggling,” he argued again.

“Watch…be amazed!” I told the group in front of us as I tossed him some oranges.  “Let them decide.  Juggle,” I ordered, which I’m sure sounded to him like “Juggle, clown!”  He was surprisingly cooperative as he smoothly juggled the oranges in the air, occasionally switching up his impromptu routine.  “We didn’t know you could juggle,” several people oohed and aahed.  “Right,” I made eye contact with him, “You didn’t.  That’s exactly my point.”  “But I’m not good,” he started in again.  “OK…right…you should probably keep your day job instead of running away with the circus, but you juggle well…at least well enough.  Observe…are they not entertained?” I gestured toward his adoring fans.  “OK, you were right.  I should have written juggling,” he conceded as I walked away, worn down by the struggle.

This exercise in futility reminded me of my first year of grad school in a marriage and family therapy.  We were taught how common and harmful “mind reading,” is in marriage.  Spouses frequently assume that they know what their partners are thinking and make judgments based on those assumptions, which then direct their behaviors.  We don’t bother to verify because we are so certain we are correct.

Mind reading is also a problem when one spouse expects the other to know what he/she is thinking.  A common example starts with the words, “You should have known….”  I can confidently report that this tendency is alive and well in the annals of “How can I ruin my marriage today?”  It might even be more common than the first type, and is at the core of many an anniversary fail.

In actuality, all of us are natural born mind readers.  Social convention requires it. Human interaction is founded upon assessing others in social settings.  We naturally decipher non-verbal signals, comparing them to verbals for congruency.  Then, we act accordingly.  In close personal relationships like marriage, we get so good at reading our partners that we are unwilling to admit when we get it wrong and almost offended when they think differently than we do.

Did you notice what happened when my husband and I disagreed?  I tried to persuade him that my thinking was right.  He tried to convince me that his thinking was correct.  What we didn’t do was get curious about the other’s view and ask for more understanding or even take the time to try to see it from an alternative perspective.  Our cognitive biases are so fixed that it requires active intention to consider alternative explanations from our own.

The antidote to mind reading is to ask for understanding and to toy with the idea that someone else’s viewpoint might be valid…and not necessarily threatening to the relationship.

My husband I were both right…sort of…if you understand where we were both coming from.  Yes, there are many humans who juggle better than my husband, and yes, there are many people who don’t know he water-skis, and the bottom line is we were both disappointed that we didn’t mind read accurately for the win.

But we will be so prepared to win next time…especially if I can predict all of those obscure questions.

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

 

 

 

 

 

Couples, marriage, Uncategorized

Embracing “How are we Even Married?” Moments in Marriage

69304027 - woman and man on a boring bad date at the restaurantI was at dinner with my husband the other night when I heard a song by Led Zeppelin playing in the background.  “Play ‘Name that band with me,’” I urged.  He looked up, “Is there music playing?  How do you even notice that?”  I could tell he was stalling.  “Come on, play with me,” I pleaded.  “You know I don’t care who sings what and I’m terrible at that game,” he resisted.  I played the game constantly with my youngest son, who shared my obsession for recognizing songs and bands.  “You’ll know this one, come on, just listen to it.”  He leveled his gaze at me and guessed, unblinking, “OK—Depeche Mode.”

It took me a speechless second to process whether he was serious.  I couldn’t tell, based on his deadpan expression.  My mind floated back to when we first met.  He knew Depeche Mode had been my favorite group, and he made it clear he despised their music.  On rare occasion, he would barely tolerate it for me.  Once, I answered the phone and heard “I Just Can’t Get Enough,” blaring on the other end.  I was certain it was the one friend I had found in my neighborhood who shared my love of 80’s alternative music.  I was shocked to find out it was my husband.  He finally responded to my “Hello-Hello-Hellos,” yelling over the music, “This is Depeche Mode, isn’t it?  You love Depeche Mode.”  “Yeah,” I hesitated, “but you hate Depeche Mode.”  This was weird.  What was he up to?  “I don’t mind fun Depeche Mode,” he said.  “I just don’t like that dark crap.”

My mind shot back to the present task at hand—making sense out of the fact that my husband had really just said out loud that a Led Zeppelin song was sung by Depeche Mode.  “For real?” I clarified, “How are we even married?  That’s your real live guess?  Are you trying to hurt me?”  He shrugged, reinforcing his disinterest in the song’s artists and silently asserting that if I was going to make him guess, he was going to come up with the worst guess possible.

I prodded, “Come on, LISTEN to the voice—you know that doesn’t sound a thing like Depeche Mode—it’s not even the same genre.  Just guess!”  “OK—AC/DC,” he conceded.  “Phew—OK that’s closer—you had me worried.”  He shrugged again, “You know I don’t care about that.”  “Yeah, I KNOW,” I snapped, irritated at his lack of effort.

Even though these moments seem trivial, they can be momentarily disconnecting.  How could he care so little about something that had always been energizing for me?  “Hey,” he interrupted my reverie, smiling, “I still love you even if I’m not as passionate about music as you are.”  He sensed my disconnect and was reaching out for reconnection.  I slid my hand across the table, “I know,” I responded as he took my hand, “Plus, I still have decades left to influence you.”

In my experience with couples, most of them can be fairly mismatched in many of their interests.  Sometimes it can feel distressing in contrast to the resonance experienced by realizing shared pursuits.  There is a natural attraction for people who like what we like.  We feel understood at some level.

It’s important for couples to know that dissimilar interests aren’t bad.  As long as couples agree about major life decisions and have common long-term goals, having different interests can enhance the marriage.

In short, EVERYONE has “How are we even married?” moments.  If my husband were writing this post, he would probably mention that I don’t share his same fascination with slalom water-skiing, among other things.

Later that week, my son and I were driving in the car with my husband when “Shake the Disease,” shuffled on from my 80’s playlist, and my husband remarked, “THIS is Depeche Mode, right?”  “I don’t know—isn’t this Led Zeppelin?” I called over my shoulder to my son in the backseat.  “No, it’s definitely Depeche Mode,” my husband interrupted, “See,” he offered his hand to me, “I do pay attention sometimes.”

In that moment, I felt authentic gratitude for my husband’s efforts.  I knew that at the core, he really had no personal interest in music and was trying to connect again.  In this instance, our dissimilar interests highlighted my value to him.  He was attempting to understand something that mattered to me and only because it mattered to me.  It was a perfect example of how differences can actually be used as a source of attachment security.

And that is one of the great reasons to be married.

 

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

 

 

 

Couples, marriage, Uncategorized

Why the “Men are Pigs” Narrative is Flawed

12285202 - crazy man. man wearing pig suit over gray background

If you read the title and thought, “Well, she doesn’t know my husband,” I admittedly don’t.  Trust me, I have met with plenty of men who model unfavorable gender stereotypes when it comes to sexuality.  However, I have met with many more who are far more relationally complex in their sexuality than modern western culture leads people to believe.

I felt validated by a recent Canadian study exploring the tenets of male sexual desire among 30-65-year-old heterosexual men in long-term relationships lasting 2.5 years or more.  The study used a small sample size (n=30) typical of qualitative studies, but the findings were so congruent with my experience with men in therapy that I wanted to shed light on the topic.  In essence, the authors wanted to know if the way men really feel about sex fits the predominant sexual scripts imposed on them in society.

In short, what elicits sexual desire and what inhibits sexual desire for adult men in long-term relationships?

The common expectation imposed on men is that they will have higher sexual desire than their female partners–pretty much always–and that they will generally have a high enduring interest in sex in general.  A basic assumption is that male sexual desire is independent of emotional closeness or relationship quality fluctuations.

However, the study found that male sexual desire was highly tied to relationships.  This did not surprise me at all.  The study reflected what I consistently see with most men in long-term marriages.

The three most common themes associated with evoking sexual desire were:

  1. Feeling desired—the majority of participants described this. This is incongruent with a social norm that men are the ones who should do the wanting.  Females often underestimate the importance of communicating desire for male partners, believing instead that they are the ones to be desired.  Please, can we just normalize the female sex drive already???!!!!!  Best way to communicate desire for a male partner:  initiate sex, which was described as the “ultimate expression or reassurance,” communicating “I (still) want you.” BAM!  I have explained this in therapy so many times I am sick of hearing myself say it out loud.  Need inspiration?  Play Cheap Trick’s I Want You to Want Me, circa 1979.  Catchy and straight to the point. (What? I’m old?  Yeah, I know).
  2. Exciting and unexpected sexual encounters—this was most often presented in the context of spontaneity. Kind of like—“Do you realize this is the first time we are actually in our house alone without children for the first time in 127 consecutive days? What should we do about it?” Extra points if that question comes from the wife—as an integration with #1.
  3. Intimate communication—defined as intelligent exchanges with talking and laughing.  Men explained that talking was actually connecting for them, which led to more intimate sexual encounters.  A lot of men said that they wished they could talk about the sexual relationship with their partners.  I can verify that this is a healthy and advisable process—it creates more possibilities for increased sexual quality.  Unfortunately, I can also verify that many couples struggle talking about their sex lives, and in my experience women are generally more avoidant and uncomfortable about it.  If you struggle with this, start with just discussing what it would be like to be able to talk about sexuality, or talk about what makes it hard for you, or what gets uncomfortable when you think about it?

The factors inhibiting sexuality were mostly things that inhibited general relationship closeness. 

The three most common were:

  1. Rejection—this is HUGE and way too many wives underestimate the profoundly devastating impact on their partners—mostly because men do such a good job of hiding their hurt by numbing, turning away, becoming dismissive, or transforming it into anger. They rarely talk about how painful sexual rejection really is.  In my therapy experience, it’s one of the most painful rejections and can have a long-term impact.  These men often stop initiating, and some wives experience that as favorable, or being “off the hook,” when in reality it is creating gargantuan relationship distance which can be difficult to repair.  Rejecting your partner makes you untrustworthy.
  2. Physical ailments and negative health characteristics.  This can be extra challenging if the physical ailment is directly affecting sexual performance.
  3. Lack of emotional connection with partner—This is where some people might be surprised and I’m not surprised at all–men commonly want to feel connected when having sex with their wives. Many of the respondents said they would still have sex if their wives initiated, but their desire would be lower.  This is an area where women may be generally different.  More women might outright refuse sex than participate with a disconnected partner, while men MIGHT be more willing to participate in sex even with lower desire, but they still described preferring emotional connection.  Most of them said their emotional connection was entwined with their physical desire.

The big takeaway here is that the men’s answers were so similar to what we know from studies of women and reported sexual desire.  Male sexual desire waxes and wanes in long-term relationships with other relationship variables.

In our sexcentric society, multiple casual, disconnected and meaningless sexual encounters are presented as the norm, while co-created meaningful sexual encounters in long-term relationships seem almost non-existent.  However, in my clinical experience, both men and women generally have greater sexual desire when the emotional relationship is safe and healthy and when mutuality is high, meaning both partners want to participate.  We limit ourselves in marriage when we categorize our partners according to socially projected stereotypes.  We limit ourselves even more when we allow the media to inform our sexual relationship expectations.

Before you feel the urge to email or message me about your stereotypically hypersexual and insensitive husband, I can assure you I already know those humans exist.  So do mean, critical, withholding wives.  So do emotionally disconnected wives.  My point is that before you write off your spouse, take some time to get to know him individually and try to suspend preconceived malicious intent.  If you can do that, you can generate different possibilities for connection…as in WE WE WE….all the way home.

Reference:

A Qualitative Exploration of Factors That Affect Sexual Desire Among Men Aged 30 to 65 in Long-Term Relationships (2017) by Murray, S. H., Milhausen, R. R., Graham, C. A., & Kuczynski, L. in The Journal of Sex Research, 54(3), 319-330.

Photo credit: Copyright: dasha11 / 123RF Stock Photo

Couples, marriage

Why that First Five Minutes at Home can be so Important in your Marriage

ritual.flowers

One evening, I stumbled home from work at 10:30 p.m., exhausted and fighting a pounding headache.  I staggered into my bedroom, sped through a bedtime routine and melted into bed.  A few minutes later, my husband walked into my room and demanded, “Hey, when did you come home?  Why didn’t you tell me you were home?”  I wearily replied, “I was exhausted.”  “You’re supposed to come find me,” he complained.

Was I detecting irritation in his voice?  “Why are you getting mad?  I was too tired to come find you,” I argued.  He sounded both frustrated and a little wounded as he continued, “I was waiting for you to come home.  I was looking forward to it, and then you just went to bed without even saying goodnight.”  “I didn’t know that and I didn’t think you would care,” I called to the back of his head as he walked out the bedroom door contesting back, “Why would you think that?  You always come find me.  You’re supposed to come find me.  Why would I not care?”

Wow.  He really was annoyed (and hurt) over such a small thing, in my perception.

This is a typical example of how the microprocess in a marriage ritual can be rich with meaning.

Importance of Family Rituals

 Marriage and family therapists have known for years how important rituals are in family life.  Rituals are more than just routines—they are special routines that bring significance and meaning to events and people.  In families, they serve several functions.  Here are some:

  1. Rituals aid identity development.  Shared rituals provide a sense of self in a particular context.  The “we-ness,” of rituals actually gives people meaning for who they are and where they fit in the world.
  2. Rituals provide predictability and safety. Predictability and safety provide a secure attachment base which aids confidence to individuals in exploring the world.
  3. Rituals increase positive memories and happiness in families. Even though the stereotype of the dysfunctional family Thanksgiving dinner is a heavily promoted scenario, many if not most of these holidays contain positive memories which aid happiness.
  4. Rituals are protective. Family rituals have been associated with decreased anxiety and depression in children and with increased marital and familial relationship quality.  They can be especially important in families where stability and structure are threatened, as in situations with a family member with a chronic illness.

Importance of Comings and Goings 

Marital rituals are a subset of family rituals and provide similar functionality.  Just like family rituals, there are different kinds:  Holidays, weekly dates, bedtime routines, etc.  What was reflected in my above example was a ritual of separation and coming together again.  When a couple is separating, or rejoining with each other, there is embedded attachment significance, which is why it is so important.  Saying goodbye or giving a spouse a kiss when you leave the house is a way of saying, “I will miss you, but I will keep you with me mentally while we are apart.  You matter to me.”  Finding a spouse when you come back home again is a way of signaling, “I missed you.”  It’s communicating that, “We are important together.”  It is the key to reconnecting after a physical disconnection.  My husband was wounded in a small way when I didn’t come find him because in part, it seemed like I didn’t care if I saw him and connected with him.  It was a mini-rejection.

Marital researcher John Gottman asserts that the first few moments of a couple reuniting after a separation are key in strengthening marital identity.  Reaching out to find a spouse to reconnect upon arriving home has the potential to set the relationship on a positive trajectory.

Bedtime Connection

People might be surprised at how often couples argue about bedtime.  In my clinical experience, a common point of contention is a marriage in which one partner wants to go to bed together and the other partner stays up or goes to bed earlier.  This isn’t primarily about sex (although that can be part of it)—it’s primarily about a sense of togetherness.  Some individuals protest the ongoing disconnection in the relationship that is maintained by differing bedtime schedules.

It’s probably not surprising that frequently, dissimilar bedtimes can be associated with lower marital quality, or that highly distressed couples are often not even sharing a bedroom.

“Lucy, I’m Home!”

One of the most iconic lines in TV land is Ricky Ricardo’s Cuban-accented, “Lucy, I’m home!” from the famous I Love Lucy 1950’s television series.  It has been referenced in modern media pop-culture, like in the ever popular Gilmore Girls.

I might be a simplistic optimist, but I actually believe that if more spouses followed Desi Arnaz’ example and bellowed, “(insert spouse name), I’m HOME,” we might actually see an increase in positive marital connection.  With or without the charming Cuban accent.  The flowers in the attached photo are also a nice touch–just sayin’.

However, if I had used Desi’s line in my aforementioned story, I wouldn’t have that awesome example to show how I completely sabotaged my own relationship connection. I, the marriage therapist, after spending an evening meeting with couples, had underestimated the importance of a small connection ritual.

You’re welcome.

Reference:

Family rituals in married couples: Links with attachment, relationship quality, and closeness. Crespo, Carla; Davide, Isabel N.; Costa, M. Emilia; Fletcher, Garth J. O., 2008, Personal Relationships, volume 15, issue 2, starting on page 191

Photo credit: Copyright: flairmicro / 123RF Stock Photo

 

Couples, Couples Therapy, marriage

How Finding out About a Spouse’s Affair is Like a Death

finger wife cryingTears.  Lots of them.  “I am just so tired of hurting.  I want the pain to go away.”  As usual, my heart was breaking for the spouse sitting across from me who had recently discovered that her partner had an extramarital affair.  Like many spouses before, she declared, “Of all the things I thought I knew in the world, I was certain that my spouse would never in a million years be unfaithful and now I don’t know which way is up.  I can’t count on anything anymore.  All my safety is just completely washed away.”  “I am so sorry that this is so painful,” I offered, “I wish I could make that better for you—I really do, but the truth is that it is going to hurt for a long time.  Eventually, it won’t hurt as much, but when I say eventually, I mean that a year is short in affair healing time.”  Even though I’ve been doing therapy for a long time, the emotions still impact me.

I hate seeing people in pain.  I feel things deeply and enduringly, which is what drew me to the therapeutic profession.  I wanted to alleviate emotional suffering for people.  However, there are certain types of pain which need to be healed over the course of time, and sometimes tender emotional scars never go away.  Some of the deepest emotional pain I witness occurs in cases of grief and loss in which relationships with people are ended or intensely damaged.  The loss of human relationships through death, divorce or other means just hurts.  A lot.

Infidelity and Intense Grief

In cases of betrayal, sometimes people don’t understand the principles of grief and loss that are at play which complicate recovery.  Here is a typical presentation I’ll encounter maybe three months after the disclosure of an affair:

Betrayed partner:  “He couldn’t understand why I was still crying about the affair, and I tried to explain that it still hurts and he just got mad and asked why I couldn’t see that he was sorry and just focus on our future.  I don’t know why it’s still hurting so bad.  I’m embarrassed that it is still making me cry.  I don’t want to make him mad, but it hurts.”

Oh dear.

People who have betrayed their spouses don’t like to witness the pain they have caused because it makes them feel shame, which is uncomfortable.  They also commonly feel fear that this might be the emotional episode in which the spouse decides to leave.  Frequently, they get defensive and upset with their spouses for not healing fast enough.  Men in particular, as a general rule, have an aversion to tears and emotional pain resulting from something they have done in relationships.  They want to run from it, regardless of the cause or validity of the emotion.  They feel almost panicky and search for ways to “fix,” the emotion, which means make it stop.  I think it’s because they get so socialized out of feeling vulnerable emotion themselves that they literally have no idea what to do with it when their spouses display strong vulnerable emotion, at least in many instances.

How Infidelity is a Loss Issue

In cases like these, I normalize the intensity of emotional pain for both partners, but also try to help them understand the deep grief.  I have explained to many husbands, “This is a loss issue, and loss is always painful.”  “What do you mean loss?  I’m still here.  Why can’t she see that I’m trying to fix it and I’m sorry,” the husbands fire back.  I’ll explain, “She can see you, but first of all, she has no idea who you really are because you’re not who she thought you were, so she needs time and safe experiences with you to be able to even think about trusting you.  Second of all, she is still grieving the marriage she thought she had but doesn’t have and will never get back—the marriage in which her partner stayed faithful to her.  She married you with that expectation and has lost that dream.  She needs time to be sad over losing that marriage.”

When I explain this, partners can be a little more tolerant of the deep expression of emotions.  However, for some reason when it comes to emotional injuries, we want people to be better faster than is reasonable to expect—mostly because we don’t like feeling our own uncomfortable emotions when seeing emotional pain.

Physical Pain as a Metaphor for Emotional Pain

Sometimes if I compare the wound of infidelity to a physical injury, partners understand a little better.  “What if you had run over her with your car and she ended up in a body cast?  Would you be getting upset that she wasn’t walking in a week?  No, you wouldn’t, because you would know that the injury takes time to heal.  If while she was in a body cast she told you her pain was flaring up, would you say, ‘It’s been 6 weeks since I ran over you.  Why do you insist on focusing on the pain instead of looking ahead to the future?’  No, you wouldn’t, because you would realize that sometimes pain flares up.  Emotional injuries are the same.  You don’t get to argue with her about whether she is in pain.  Your job is to move toward her and say, ‘Show me where it hurts,’ as if it were a physical injury.  You can’t fix this for her, but you can just be with her and ask if there is anything you can to do reassure her or help her feel more comfortable or safe.  If there isn’t, you just sit with it.  If you want, you can talk about how uncomfortable and sad it is for you to see the pain you caused, but you can’t argue about whether the pain is valid or demand that she heals right away.”

Relationship loss is searing, no matter the type, and infidelity is a type of relationship loss.  Partners need time to grieve and be sad.  Most importantly, they need to be validated and comforted in their pain.  As long as it takes.

Again, people always want emotional pain from infidelity to heal faster than it does—both the betrayed partner and the offending partner.  My experience is that in affair time, it’s not uncommon to see people have deep emotional triggers regularly for at least two years.

If your partner betrayed you, know that the disorientation, fear and hurt are normal.  Give yourself time to grieve the loss of the marriage you thought you had, just like you would give yourself time to grieve the death of a loved one or a lost relationship.  Eventually, grief diminishes in intensity, but if grief is criticized and shut down by a partner instead of honored and respected, it will last longer.  Clinically, I tell people to write when they are experiencing episodes of grief.  Articulating pain through writing is a way to manage emotional intensity.  Intentional self-care and deep breathing and meditation can also be helpful.

You’re not crazy if you’re in intense pain months after discovering a spouse’s infidelity—you’re just a human with a big attachment injury.  I don’t know if time heals all wounds, because some wounds can persist for decades, but usually time does decrease emotional intensity.

Photo: Copyright: mukhina1 / 123RF Stock Photo

Couples, Love, marriage

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

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

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

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

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

Myths about marrying the right person

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

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

Does premarital counseling work? 

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

What to do if you are considering marriage:

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

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

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

References:

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

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

photo credit:

Copyright: antonioguillem / 123RF Stock Photo

Couples, marriage, Uncategorized

Why Friending Your Ex on Facebook May be More Hazardous to Your Marriage Than You Think

32041547 - strong addiction to the internet at night*While this article is focused on Facebook use, because it’s such a popular medium for online connection, this really applies to any connection, technology-assisted or otherwise.

About a decade ago, when Facebook was still new and Apple was just rolling out its first iphone, I was among the group of people who thought it was fun to be able to reconnect with old friends.  I saw no harm in reaching out online to catch up with people I had not seen in a few decades, including a few I had dated.  I viewed it as a high school reunion of sorts, and we have high school reunions all the time, right?  I was in a happy marriage and had no intentions of crossing any boundaries.  I was excited about sharing Christmas cards with my high school and college friends over the internet.  To be honest, it was fun…

…and then I started practicing marriage therapy again after a hiatus of several years.  I had a front row seat to the utter destruction these types of connections have had and are having on marriages and families.  Now, research statistics corroborate that social media use can have a negative impact on marital happiness and stability.   I don’t think any voice of warning is too strong in this instance, and people seem oblivious to the potential corrosive influence of online connections.  Reconnecting in any way with a former love interest is risky, especially if that individual is considered a “first love,” which I will explain later.

I don’t want to seem all cray cray, and I do think some people can manage Facebook relationships with former flings—my husband has a few in his friends list right now.  Lest any of those people happen to be reading this and think I’m calling them out, I don’t find that threatening in my case.  He has little interest in Facebook, but a great deal of interest in his family.  My son’s recent verbal observation was, “Mom, you have to admit you got so lucky with dad because you have him totally whipped,” and while I don’t know about the “whipped,” part, because he’s not necessarily a pushover, he is very loyal.  However, spouses need to understand the general risk these contacts impose, because too many people are surprised when they are entangled in an emotional mess.

It’s not uncommon for people who have ended up in affairs with Facebook friends to ask, “How did this happen?  I had no idea I would feel these strong emotions.  It doesn’t make sense.”  I’ll explain why it does make sense.  Most people are ignorant to how quickly dormant emotions can be awakened.

The Unique Risk of First Love 

As mentioned, connecting with a “first love,” is by far the riskiest move, and most people don’t realize the intensity of emotions that can arise from these circumstances. The relationships are sticky.  While people sometimes minimize “adolescent love,” or even “young adult love,” the truth is that these are very impassioned experiences for people and are imprinted in memory.  Nancy Kalish, a qualitative researcher of rekindled love relationships who headed up a study with 2000 participants, explained that men and women told her that their first loves became “the standard for all the rest,” and they don’t forget.

Here is a list of reasons why these relationships can make sparks:

  1. It is familiar. There is shared history and experiences. Bottom line:  It feels comfortable instantly.  Kalish put it this way, “The emotionally loaded memories of attachment were still there, but the person was not.  When they reunited, the sight, smell, touch, and sound of the long-lost love activated these stored emotional memories.  Like the key to a lock, the first love matched the memories, and everything felt right.”  She added that early relationships can be only a few months long and still have the same explosive effect.  This is important because people often assume that because they have had a longer-term relationship with someone else, they can’t be easily influenced by a comparatively short-term connection.
  1. It is formative. Love relationships in one’s late teens or early 20’s are associated with high levels of bonding hormones and sexual fervor, “forged in the fire of the teenage brain,” in Kalish’s words.  This unique attachment pairing sets the stage for a lifetime association.
  1. Our brains are excellent at recalling memories with sensory triggers. My son recently has taken an interest in the song, “I Melt with You,” by Modern English.  Every time he plays that song, I’m immediately transported to a scene in my high school boyfriend’s Porsche when he was teaching me to drive a stick shift, and I was laughing hysterically at what a disaster I was at first.  I can hear him saying, “I can’t wait to play you this new song I found that made me think of you.”  I don’t even remember him with fondness.  Our relationship was burned to a crisp after the 5 year period of on-again, off-again drama.  Regardless of the fact that my memories of him are emotionally neutral, my brain recalls that scene every single time I hear it. Contact with a former love will elicit sensory triggers.  Online conversation patterns with an ex can create sensory recall, and you can and will be transported in time.
  1. We usually remember positive emotional experiences with first loves more than negative experiences. Contrast that with a spouse who may have annoyed you five minutes ago.  First loves are associated with the nostalgia for youthful days—with emotional higher hopes and more energy.
  1. People don’t usually alter requirements in a partner, so if they were appealing once, they will be appealing again.  Romantic love researcher Helen Fisher explained that our partner preferences don’t really change all that much.  She said, “Romantic love is like a sleeping cat and can be awakened at any minute.  If it can be awakened once, it can probably be awakened a second time.”
  1. Love relationships in one’s late teens/early adulthood are often ended with ambiguity and If you started a relationship that was never fully realized, it’s easy to pick up right where you left off.  I had never heard this articulated until I read Kalish’s book.  Kalish pointed out that the “lost love,” relationships with the most intensity occurred after an ambiguous break-up, e.g. the couple’s relationship dissipated because of distance, interfering parents, or other circumstances unrelated to the couple’s formally ending it.  It’s common for people to think if they contact a previous love interest they will get closure for this ambiguity.  That logically seems to make sense, and yet it doesn’t work.  Kalish said, “closure is a myth (because) the old feelings come back.”  Most people are unaware of this and don’t expect it.
  1. The years of separation can make the heart grow fonder.  Helen Fisher used the term, “frustration attraction,” to explain that barriers to a relationship can increase yearning and feelings of ardor. She explained that passionate love stimulates dopamine-producing neurons which make people want to seek out that person.  She posited that our brain cells prolong their activities if the lover associated with those chemicals is unavailable, increasing potency of the fond feelings.

But What if My Facebook Friend and I Only Went on a Few Dates?  We Weren’t Even Romantically Involved.

It’s probably easy to see why an intense early love relationship could be quickly reignited, but many individuals are surprised at the affairs that develop from “someone I just dated a few times,” or “someone I thought was cute but never went out with—we were just friends.”  There are several reasons why it’s still easy to become romantically attached to an old friend.

  1. Most affairs start with a platonic relationship.  People think if they aren’t already romantically involved, it’s safe.  There is a natural progression from initial familiarity to deeper emotional sharing to bonding, which people underestimate as fertile ground for affairs.
  1. Our brains respond to novelty, and it’s a new rediscovery.  Whether the person is a former love interest or not, it’s new, which begs attention.
  1. We disclose emotions more quickly and deeply online than in person.  That emotional sharing is a bonding experience.
  1. If you start hiding your communication from your spouse, the hiding alone fuels feel-good hormones.  For example, adrenaline.
  1. Connecting with anyone from the past reminds us of when we were young and had more energy and our whole lives ahead of us. That individual becomes associated with those emotions—there is a cohort effect of sorts.
  1. Carrying on an online relationship is fragmented and lacks the mundane aspects of daily life. Getting immediate responses from a partner far away while your spouse may be ignoring you may beget an illusion that the online partner is more responsive.
  1. Communicating online with anyone in a private conversation provides a natural close, shared intimate experience. It may be more surprising when affairs DON’T develop from these relationships than when they do.
  1. Fantasy.  It’s amazing how many of these relationships are experienced in the minds of the individuals instead of in actual physical contact.  That can generate persistent emotions.

The Dark Side

According to Kalish, people rekindle first romances all the time, and if they are both unmarried, they often create stable relationships.  However, she warned that many people she interviewed were in happy marriages and were shocked when they felt feelings for former lovers.  In some instances, they destroyed their marriages and hurt their spouses and children.  In other cases, some reported an increase in unhappiness and emotional pain and yearning for their past partners.   Individuals often tell me that they are having more dreams about the lost love, which creates guilt.

Energy that is going into the online relationship is energy being sucked out of the marital relationship. Sharing that’s happening online is sharing that’s not happening with a spouse. Sometimes, the spouse becomes the enemy, preventing the extramarital connection.

There is no Time Limit

Some people think, “That was decades ago when I was a teenager…I’m a completely different person now and too old to have an affair.”  I was surprised at how many couples in Kalish’s study had not seen each other in more than 50 years and still reported the same chemistry that they experienced in their late teens.  In one case, a couple who were both in their 90’s and hadn’t seen each other in over 70 years rekindled a former romance.  This is important to know because sometimes people think they are old enough that they won’t have extreme emotions.  False.

I am certain that there are tens of thousands if not millions of people engaging in clandestine Facebook affairs with old lovers and friends as I type.  I’m not saying that you can’t ever friend an ex on Facebook, but it’s a good idea to be aware of the potential dangers before you do….along with shared passwords with your spouse.

Here are some references and further reading:

Why We Love:  The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love by Helen Fisher.  2005, Holt Paperbacks.

The Lost Love Chronicles: Reunions & Memories of First Love by Nancy Kalish.  2013, Dr. Nancy Kalish published.

https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/sticky-bonds/201204/in-the-time-machine-lost-love-vs-spouse

https://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/200607/lost-love-guess-whos-back

https://qz.com/578395/the-psychology-of-why-rekindled-romances-are-so-intense/

https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/sticky-bonds/201310/10-points-about-lost-loves-might-surprise-you

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0747563214001563

Photo credit: Copyright: bialasiewicz / 123RF Stock Photo