Category Archives: 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

 

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

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

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

Any Abuse in Marriage is Unacceptable. The End.

screenshot-2017-02-26-20-42-02I told my son I was writing a blog post about intimate partner violence, and he informed me that he had just developed an anti-domestic violence campaign ad as part of his advertising portfolio which can be viewed here.  The above photo is part of it, illustrating that things can look perfect on the outside but be chaotic within.  I might be biased, but I think he nailed it.  He and his team actually made the series of cross stitches themselves, which I find impressive, having completed a few myself.

This topic makes me sad, but it’s necessary to address.  I would much rather be writing one of my usual light, self-indulgent posts.  However, I want to be clear that any abuse is unacceptable.  I worry most about the abuse that doesn’t leave visible marks.

My first exposure to therapeutic services occurred in the context of domestic violence when I was a volunteer in a women’s shelter before I ever started graduate school in the late 80’s.  I’m old enough to remember when Martin Seligman, father of positive psychology was studying abused women and coined the term “learned helplessness,” to describe people in abusive situations.  Domestic violence was one of my early areas of research interest.  About a decade later, I led therapeutic programs for court-ordered domestic violence perpetrators.

Over the years, I have been amazed at how similar so many abusive situations look across the board.  Now commonly referred to as intimate partner violence (IPV), I still worry about the number of individuals who endure ongoing manipulative control from domineering partners.  They either don’t know how, don’t think they can, or believe they don’t deserve to get out.  Here are some questions to ask yourself if you think you are being abused.

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) supplies a standard definition of IPV.  Basically, intimate partner violence occurs in the context of a couple attachment relationship.  It includes any physical, sexual, and psychological aggression toward one’s partner.  It occurs across economic and educational levels.  Fundamentally, it is characterized by one partner exerting control over the other continually.

“He doesn’t hit me.”  That’s a common phrase I have heard from women over the years who are in psychologically abusive situations, but don’t think they have the right to leave because there is no physical aggression.  There is plenty of research indicating that emotional and/or verbal abuse can be just or more damaging than physical abuse.   People put up with it too long because it is insidious and sometimes difficult to identify.  No one deserves to be in a relationship where basic human dignity is repeatedly threatened.

Some of the common reasons why people stay in unhealthy IPV situations are that they are embarrassed, they don’t want to break up their families, they don’t know how to leave, they don’t trust anyone to help, or they are afraid they can’t survive alone.  Often, the controlling partner makes the other partner feel crazy, so they don’t have confidence that what they are experiencing is really abuse.

Here are some common characteristics of abusive partners, and it’s important to realize that they can be very charismatic and charming in public and when they aren’t being abusive.  That’s one reason why they get away with it:

  1. They isolate their partners from seeing family and friends.
  2. They control all of the finances.
  3. They make threats.
  4. They throw things in an argument, which often escalates into physical violence which includes but is not limited to pushing, shoving, kicking, slapping, punching, biting, scratching, pinching, choking, burning or hair-pulling.  This is criminal behavior and should NOT BE TOLERATED UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES.
  5. They keep partners from leaving, using any means necessary, such as hiding the car keys, locking a partner in a room, use physical force to restrain partner, etc.
  6. They make ongoing accusations against partners, driven by jealousy and possessiveness.
  7. They humiliate, ridicule, or embarrass their partners in front of other people.
  8. They demand that their high, rigid expectations be met and basically throw tantrums when they aren’t.
  9. They can be sexually coercive.
  10. They engage in a cyclical pattern in which tension builds, they aggress on their partners and then have a “honeymoon period,” in which they apologize and are extra conciliatory until the tension builds up again.  This is precisely why so many people stay.  They think because the abuser is being charming now that the abuse won’t happen again.

Leaving an abusive situation isn’t easy.  It’s common for abusers to become more aggressive when their partners try to leave.  In extreme circumstances, this is the point at which a partner is at risk for being murdered.

The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence has an entire section on their website dedicated to teaching victims how to get help, including how to prepare to leave and create a safety plan.  If you or someone you know is in this situation, please access this resource.

Men are also victims of IPV but are often embarrassed to access any resources.  Here is a fact sheet about male victims of IPV.

On several occasions, I have counseled with women who realized they were in abusive situations and left but went back.  I sometimes ask, “Where did you learn that you deserve to be treated like that?” Often, they can identify abusive patterns they experienced in their homes, but not always.  Sometimes part of the shame is knowing that they shouldn’t be treated like that, but they feel stuck.  For anyone in an abusive situation contemplating leaving, an important question I ask is “What do you want your daughters to learn about how they deserve to be treated by their husbands and what do you want your sons to learn about how to treat their wives?”

Even though many competent and educated women and men end up being victims of IPV, it’s hard for me to imagine putting up with it.  Realize that abusive patterns aren’t acceptable.  Some people just think it’s a normal part of a relationship.  It is not.  I literally never heard my father use a four-letter word, much less direct one aggressively at my mother.  I don’t even remember him raising his voice at her, and I can’t imagine him throwing anything or getting physical.  I don’t remember him criticizing her ever about who she was.  My parents had normal levels of conflict, but there was a strong foundation of basic respect.  If we children sassed my mother, he always stood up for her and told us to be respectful.  That was my baseline expectation for marriage, and my husband has been a lot like my father.  We often marry people that are like our parents.  You do not have to accept abuse as part of an intimate relationship.  If it was modeled for you, break the chain.

If you are a member of a religiously conservative congregation and your marriage has religious importance, abuse is still unacceptable.  I shudder when I hear of any ecclesiastical leaders minimizing abuse.  My father led ecclesiastical congregations from age 29 until his death, in administrative and spiritual capacities, and he had no tolerance for any kind of abuse.

I have a sister 14 years older than I who was in an emotionally abusive first marriage, and my father encouraged her to leave and she was divorced before they had their second wedding anniversary.  Fortunately, because she got out, she was able to marry again to someone much kinder.  My sister is literally one of the nicest, most generous, guileless people I know.  She’s one of those people that you wonder, “Are you for real?” because she is so giving (not sure how we can share DNA).  Sometimes those individuals attract abusers because they can get away with it.  Her life would be completely different today had she stayed in her first marriage.  It’s likely that staying would have worn down her self-esteem, which would have been terrible because she is brilliant.  Instead, she is spending her retirement years with her spouse traveling, going on cross-country Harley adventures, skiing, and working on getting her pilot’s license (I wish I were that cool).

My heart is heavy as I write this because I know that even though resources are available, many people still won’t get help, but I can at least know that I made this information available.  Please know that you can call a shelter and get protection, therapy, basic needs and support to access community resources.  There is no reason to stay in an abusive situation now.  There are more resources than ever.

Resources:

The National Domestic Violence Hotline

The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence Homepage

CDC Intimate Partner Violence Prevention

APA Intimate Partner Violence Page

Translating the Language of Love: A Caveat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And over.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References:

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

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

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Why a Husband’s Pornography Use Can be so Painful to so Many Wives

42915540 - offended the wife with her husband playing computer games**Side note—When I read the title to my husband, he said, “Do you really have to explain that?  Isn’t it obvious?”  The answer is that I don’t think it’s obvious enough, because men get socialized so differently than women.  As much as they try, I think they have a hard time understanding the pain of felt betrayal and rejection that can be associated with pornography.  Too often it is minimized.

Anyone practicing as a marriage therapist nowadays is going to have clients in which pornography is presented as a problem in the marriage by one or both spouses, regardless of religious belief.  Whenever sexuality comes up in marriage therapy (which is almost always), it’s a complex topic with varying emotions, histories, experiences, desires and outcomes.  Every situation is a little different.  However, a somewhat typical presentation is one in which a husband is or has been viewing pornography and his wife feels betrayed by his behaviors and has a decreased desire to engage sexually with him.  I want to attempt to explain why I think a husband’s pornography use can be so painful for women, and why I think it’s hard for men to understand why it’s so rejecting.

From the moment they are born, females get consistent messages that they are being evaluated by their looks.  The message is, “Be pretty.”  One of my earliest memories of elementary school is standing in line near my teacher and hearing my friend ask my teacher, “Ms. Hoffmann, do you think Lori’s pretty?”  I remember feeling a sense of panic and watching my teacher carefully to hear her answer.  “Yes,” she answered—what else was she going to say with me standing right there?  I wondered why my friend was asking her when she followed up with, “Because I think she’s pretty.”  I remember experiencing an emotion I hadn’t experienced before—fear that I wasn’t going to look good enough—fear that I wasn’t going to BE enough.  The message I got was clear—People were evaluating me based on my appearance—something over which I had limited control.

In junior high, the messages about image intensify.  Females are judged constantly and harshly on every aspect of appearance.  Boys comment on body parts continually.  This is the age at which some girls decide not to be “too smart,” and focus more on how they look.  Social rejection related to looks is painful.  Anyone who thinks this doesn’t happen more for girls than boys hasn’t been to a secondary school lately.  Once when I got the highest score in the class on a chemistry test, I was horrified, worrying that someone was going to find out it was me, because our scores were graded on a curve.  When one young man did find out, he said, “Lori Cluff’s too cute to be that smart.”  Whether I was that cute or that smart was debatable, but his statement represented the predominant message for females in our culture.  The message I got was that I needed to work harder to hide academic achievement to gain social approval.

Fortunately, I had a father who valued competency above appearance, but sadly, for many girls, any dimension of competency is underrated in comparison to their looks.  Also, my father’s voice was influential but was often easily lost in the surrounding cultural message.  It didn’t matter if I outperformed all but two boys in my high school cohort on every academic measure—it didn’t matter if I studied the piano enough for my teacher to encourage me toward a music major—it mattered if I looked good.  Boys, conversely, are more frequently praised for their performances rather than their ornamental values.  They simply don’t experience the same pressure about appearance, which I believe makes it harder for them to understand as men how deeply their porn use can hurt their wives.

As women age, the messages don’t get any better.  Aging is to be feared because it makes you ugly.  In my late 30’s, after my mother experienced serious heart health issues, I went to the library to check out every book I could on aging and health, determined to learn how to use exercise and nutrition to try to attain a better quality of life than she was experiencing.  The female librarian recognized me from my previous frequent visits.  She took at a look at my books and comforted, “Oh, honey—I always thought you were the prettiest girl.”  I smiled wanly and thought, “What does that have to do with it?”  It didn’t even occur to her that my concern was my physical health and not my looks.  I can promise that if my husband walked up to the library counter with the same books, the assumption would be that he was trying to preserve his physical condition and not that he was clinging to his hotness factor.

Not only are women CONSTANTLY evaluated on how they look, but they are CONSTANTLY compared, implicitly and explicitly, as a group.  Marketers target women by inciting insecurity to fuel consumerism—very effectively–so effectively that it’s rare to find a female who thinks she is skinny enough, toned enough, glamorous enough, pretty enough, sexual enough, young enough, shapely enough, perfect enough, flawless enough, enough ENOUGH.  At age 5, I sat in front of the mirror wondering how I could get my hair to change to black like Snow White.  I asked my mom if we could make my hair black, and she acted confused.  My response came from comparing myself to the iconic Disney princess.  Now, the pressure is SO much greater—with SO many more princesses to compare.

Disney princesses are literally child’s play when juxtaposed with the pressure elicited from pornography where surgically altered bodies are the norm.  When prevailing female cosmetic insecurity meets the porn industry in marriage, the result can be devastating.  In a relationship in which a female felt presumably safe and reasonably confident (not entirely—because let’s not get too crazy or unrealistic), suddenly she has to worry again about her appearance in a big way.  Having a husband who is viewing porn can trigger every self-doubt a women has ever had about how she looks.  In short, it’s common for a woman to conclude, “If he has to look at porn (other women), I must not be enough.”

Now, think about wanting to be sexual with a spouse who doesn’t think you are enough.  For most couples, sexuality is an area of utmost vulnerability.  I have often said that if you really want to destroy your marriage, criticize your spouse’s sexual performance.  Both men and women are usually highly sensitive to evaluations of their sexuality, which is entwined with desirability.  I have seen men withdraw from sex in a big way based on one performance-related comment.  Women withdraw similarly when they find out their husbands have been hiding a porn-viewing habit.

In short, being married to someone who is viewing pornography can feel threatening to the attachment safety in a relationship.  Part of attachment security is knowing that one is “enough,” for one’s partner.  I believe that pornography can strike so deeply for women because intensely socialized insecurities (physical appearance) are combined with an intensely vulnerable aspect (sex) of the relationship.

Another important facet of attachment is predictability in a partner.  Usually the deception that has accompanied porn use completely erodes trust. Commonly, women have reported discovering a partner’s hidden porn habit as a trauma and/or an infidelity.  Many become afraid and hypervigilant and disconnected sexually and emotionally from their partners.  Women repeatedly tell me that they can’t have sex without wondering what images of other women are flashing in their husbands’ minds.  Building safety back into the relationship can be a slow process.

An important step in healing is to try as much as is possible to understand a partner’s experience.  To understand better, ask your wife what messages she got about her appearance growing up and how pornography impacts those messages.  Then, really listen and see if you relate.  Be honest.

Reference:

Wives’ Experience of Husbands’ Pornography Use and Concomitant Deception as an Attachment Threat in the Adult Pair-Bond Relationship by Spencer T. Zitzman and Mark H. Butler (2009), in Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity, 16(3), 210-240.

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