Couples, Love, marriage, Romance

Rejuvenating the Magic of Those Three Little Words

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

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

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

The Good News and the Bad News About Marriage Today

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

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

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

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

We Need Better Words for Love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As Easy as an Internet Search

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

“I Love You” is Still Powerful

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

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

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

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

“I Love You,” as the Ultimate Reassurance

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

Recalling positive memories creates closeness

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

My Dollar Store Intervention

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

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

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

Me: What do you mean, “hard?”

Him: Like I have to be creative.

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

Him: Absolutely!

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

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

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

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

My Marriage Memory Highlights Intervention

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Him: You’re so feisty!

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

Him: Well….sometimes.

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

Him: What did you say?

Me: Nothing.

Him: No. What did you just say?

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

Him: And there it is!

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

Positive memory and gratitude

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

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

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

References:

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

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

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

 

 

Couples, marriage, Romance

Once Upon a Time, They got Married, Fought Dragons, Paid Bills, and Created Their Happily Ever After

How couples rewrite history and how to make it work in your favor:

Uniting Couples to Strengthen Families

love story

One of my earliest memories is of my mother taking me to the library, where I fell immediately in love.  I looked forward to our weekly trips, where I would gather another collection of story books to take home and peruse for hours.  One of my favorite gifts as a child was a book of fairy tales that I read repeatedly.  As I read the adventurous tales, I felt transported in time and place and imagined interacting with the various characters.  I still remember sitting in front of the mirror at age 6 and wishing that I had hair as “black as ebony,” like Snow White because it seemed so exotic compared to my dirty blonde locks.   I still have an enthusiastic response to stories, which is one reason I love being a therapist.

Every couple who starts marital therapy has a story (or two versions of a story).  One…

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Couples, Love, marriage, Romance

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s how flirting can maintain a marriage:

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

Flirt Early and Often

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

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

Simple ways to flirt:

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

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

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

References:

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

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

Photo credit: Copyright: langstrup / 123RF Stock Photo

Couples, Love, marriage, Romance

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

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

Uniting Couples to Strengthen Families

fireworks

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

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

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

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Couples, Love, Romance

Should I be Worried if my Spouse Doesn’t Wear a Wedding Ring?

50325480 - sad wife hands dropping her wedding ring marriage problems conceptWhile my husband was getting dressed this morning, I noticed something glinting off his finger.  “Hey, you’re wearing a wedding ring,” I observed. “I always do,” he nonchalantly replied.  “Since when?” I prodded, wondering if he remembered that he has spent 99% of our marriage not wearing a ring.  “Since a few months ago,” he replied, confirming that I wasn’t crazy for thinking this was a relatively new development.

My husband is not  a jewelry person.  Not long after we got married, he stopped wearing his wedding ring for various reasons:  It was “bugging,” him, It was too big, It was too small, It interfered with basketball, it got in the way while exercising, it made his finger too heavy to write code on the computer (OK I made that one up, but you get my drift).  I wasn’t about to engage in that power struggle with him–if he didn’t want to wear a ring, who was I to tell him he had to wear one?  I didn’t want to make an issue out of it, but I have wondered about the importance of wedding rings and their relationship to marital quality.

Wedding rings are a subtle signaling device.  Before I got married, my husband used to joke with me that every time he saw me on our college campus, I was surrounded by males.  I protested his assumption that they were trying to move in on me, and pointed out that we were always talking about school work.  “I’m a guy and I can tell you they aren’t interested in your study guide,” he admonished.  “Oh, whatever,” I repeatedly dismissed.  However, right after I got married, I noticed that I was completely invisible to males while walking around campus.  It had never occurred to me before that when they were friendly to me, they were testing the waters to start a relationship.  I just thought they were being nice.  I hadn’t even realized that the change was in my ring finger until one day a few months after I got married.

I went to the library to study for a few hours and sat myself at a table in the corner when two young men sat down across from me to study.  After a few minutes, one of them struck up a conversation.  I remember thinking, “Oh, this feels normal, these guys are talking to me instead of totally ignoring me.”  I engaged in the light conversation and realized I needed to leave.  As I stood up, I said, “Well, I have to go meet my husband.  Nice to talk to you.”  His countenance turned ashen.  “Wait—you’re married?”  he asked.  “Yes,” I answered, wondering why he was being so suddenly weird.  “Can I give you some advice?” he continued.  I haltingly said yes, still wondering what was going on.  “Don’t walk around on campus without your wedding ring on,” he offered.  I didn’t even know what to say; I had forgotten I wasn’t wearing it.  I glanced down at my ringless finger, thinking, “You were trying to hit on me?” because I was genuinely confused.  I was also annoyed.  I wanted to say, “Really?  Because the last time I checked, this was a library, not a singles bar, and by the way, you’re not even my type,” which he wasn’t.  I finally put two and two together and realized that I had become invisible on campus because I was “taken.”   The ring had power.

I’m not much of a jewelry person either, but I got into the habit of wearing my ring everywhere after that, largely because I didn’t want to be in any other awkward situations.  Now, if I accidentally leave the house without it, I have an unsettling feeling and a habit of touching the place on my finger where it is supposed to be.  It might as well be welded to my skin.

So, should you be concerned if your spouse doesn’t want to wear a ring?

Like most things in social science, it depends.

Research on wedding rings is sparse, but there is some interesting data.  In one study by law firm  Slater & Gordon, one-fifth of the 2,000 participants admitted that they took their wedding rings off after fighting with a spouse, or before going out, to attract more attention from potential alternative partners.  Interestingly, males were more likely to take it off before socializing and females after a fight.  Some people admitted that they didn’t want to be perceived as “boring,” so they took off their rings to shape perceptions.  One-fifth of the participants also said they perceived married men without wedding rings as not taking their marriages as seriously.

While wedding ring use can be indicative of relationship problems, the correlation isn’t strong enough to be compelling.  Each individual case is different.  Rings can be symbolic in certain situations, however, and are commonly viewed as a symbol of commitment.  Recently I asked a couple in a therapy appointment how they were doing, and in response, the wife held up her finger, displaying her wedding ring to indicate that they were going well enough that she had put her ring back on and recommitted to the relationship.

Will wearing a wedding ring keep someone from hitting on my spouse?

In the above study, one-third of participants reported that they would feel more confident about spouse fidelity if their spouses wore wedding rings.  About ten years into my marriage, my husband put his ring back on (for at least 5 minutes) after he took a new job and one of the female co-workers saw his ringless finger and thought he was single, in an incident not unlike my library fiasco years earlier.  He didn’t want to give the wrong impression.

However, 10% of participants in the above study also said that they perceived their own wedding rings to be a “challenge,” to members of the opposite sex.  Men reported getting more attention from females after wearing a wedding ring, while women reported getting less.  There is a theory that for some women, a male with a wedding ring symbolizes a family man who is capable of committing, which can be an inviting possibility.  Unfortunately, in most affair cases, people aren’t considering how their actions will negatively impact the spouse and children in the family, and I can see how that theory could be true for some people. `

A wedding ring might keep some individuals away from your partner, but it’s just not enough to prevent affairs.

Questions to Ask

While there is no clear data on wedding ring adornment and relationship outcome, here are some questions to ask yourself as it applies to your marriage:

  1. Is it a new pattern?  If your spouse has never really liked wearing a ring, or has a job or a hobby or a medical condition that doesn’t allow for a wedding ring, then it’s unlikely to mean anything if they don’t wear one.  If, however, your spouse is suddenly not wearing a ring along with other unusual behavior (more trips to the gym all gussied up, increased trips to the tanning bed, long unexplained absences, hiding one’s phone), you might want to look deeper.  Keep in mind that a strategic partner trying to perpetuate an affair might wear a ring in the spouse’s presence to throw them off.  I can affirm that there are people in distressed marriages who will purposely take off their rings as part of testing the waters for attracting a different mate.
  1. Does my spouse take it off after we had a fight? This could just be a sign of reactive, immature behavior, but it’s also symbolic and could be a harbinger of more reactivity down the road.
  1. Does my spouse’s social media reflect marital status? People who are open to having affairs often don’t display their married status on social media.  That doesn’t mean that if your spouse has posted their marital status that he/she is immune to an affair, but it is a positive indicator that he/she isn’t trying to advertise for a new partner.

Bottom Line

Ultimately, a wedding ring is completely independent of partner infidelity.  If your partner wants to have an affair, or is naively developing an extramarital relationship that becomes an affair, a ring is not going to prevent it.  Many people have affairs with people they know are married, and unfortunately, for some people it can be added competition.

I’ve heard some psychologists say that not wearing a wedding ring is indicative of deeper problems in the relationship.  Maybe I should be more worried that my husband only occasionally and sporadically wears his ring?  No….That’s complete nonsense.  There just isn’t evidence to support that assertion, and plenty of people wearing wedding rings have distressed relationships.

If you’re really worried, you can look into the “anti-cheating ring,” which was manufactured with the ability to leave an indentation of, “I’m married,” in the wearer’s skin.  If that’s not enough, there are always cattle brands.  If you’re thinking, “That’s not a bad idea,” please get help.

In all seriousness, if you find yourself obsessing about your spouse’s ring use, however, you might be setting up a pattern to drive your spouse right out of the relationship. People who start to get anxious and try to control the details of partner behavior mistakenly believe that they can coerce loyalty from a spouse.  Most spouses will react to that kind of control by becoming more secretive or openly oppositional.  You can’t make anyone loyal to you.  Period.

My husband reminded me that he started wearing his ring because I said I liked it when he wore it.  I didn’t recall the conversation.  “Don’t you remember?” he asked, “I asked you if it bothered you that I didn’t wear my wedding ring and you said, ‘It doesn’t bother me, but I do like it when your wear it.'”  I vaguely remembered it.  “Plus,” he continued, “I’m basically risking my life for you because remember Jimmy Fallon had that wedding ring accident and ended up in intensive care?  It’s a feat of daring.”  “Wow, I actually had an impact on your behavior,” I marveled, enjoying the rare moment.  Ultimately, though, it was his choice.  And that’s how it should be.

References:

Human mate choice and the wedding ring effect: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs12110-003-1006-0

Photo credit: Copyright: antonioguillem / 123RF Stock Photo

Couples, Romance

Flourishing in Blah Blah Land

24640009 - couple walking holding hands with sunset and palmsOccasionally, a movie is released that has enough universal impact that I hear about it repeatedly from my clients.  So far in 2017, the movie is “La La Land,” starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone.  Since its release, I have had many couples come in and report that the low point of their week was seeing the film.  Having read critics’ reviews, I realize that the movie’s ending is polarizing.  People like it or hate it.  I hated it.  As someone who dabbles in relationship angst daily, it gave me anxiety.  My husband liked it.  He pronounced, “I liked that ending—do you want to know why?  Because I didn’t let the girl get away.”  I’m sure many have experienced it that way, but after watching it, I realized why it was having such a depressing impact on my clients.

If you haven’t seen the movie and don’t want the ending spoiled, stop reading.  Basically, the movie highlights the utopian budding romance of a couple with enviable chemistry.  It generates nostalgia for the feelings associated with first love, which drive an obsessive need to be with one’s objet d’affection.  The feelings elicit hope and great expectations.

Then, in the last few minutes of the movie, everything is turned on end when viewers watch the female lead go on a date with her husband (who is not the original male love interest) and stumble upon her old boyfriend’s favorite haunt, which is now his dream-realizing jazz bar.  She sees him and immediately viewers experience a speedy montage of what her life and his could have been like if they had stayed together instead of following divergent paths.  And guess what?  Everything looked perfect.  Then, BAM, viewers are slammed upside the head with the scene back in the present in which the female lead is now with someone else.  Everything seems copacetic but also seemingly mediocre, even though she has realized her personal dreams and seems happyish.

Many critics like that the ending shook up the classic “happily ever after,” scenario which (sort of) suggests that life can go on even after lost relationships (All Hail Independence).  For any of my clients in distressed marriages, it elicited some discomfort about the present and fueled yearning for returning to the wildly hopeful state associated with new love.

I get squeamish when long-term marriage is contrasted with developing relationships.  They are quite different, but when they are compared, long-term love is usually presented with a stale energy, suggesting that people in those relationships are somehow missing out.  In other words, it is “Blah Blah Land,” vs. “La La Land.”  This feeling can be what drives some people to seek out alternative relationships which can ultimately destroy a marriage.

As humans, we are driven to attach to people, which often means setting up a long-term predictable relationship which can be a safe environment for raising children.  Sometimes, however, the predictability can diminish novelty and excitement, and dullness ensues.  When people talk about marriage being “work,” it’s more than just working at continual compromise—it also applies to actively putting energy and passion into the marriage.

There are several reasons why life in “Blah Blah Land,” (not meant to be pejorative, alluding to prosaic but meaningful process in quotidian family life) is worth pursuing.  People in healthy long-term marriages overall enjoy better mental and physical health and financial benefits.  They are likely to have better sex lives.  Children raised in those environments also experience the same benefits and greater opportunities for academic achievement.  Research is indicating that after children are raised, many marital relationships start becoming like they were during “La La Land” courtship.  Keep in mind, though, that in contrast, a highly distressed marriage can be deleterious for well-being.

Here are some tips for surviving “Blah Blah Land” to get to the other side where “La La Land” is alive and well.

  1. Accept that feelings of love normally wax and wane in long-term relationships. If you wake up next to your partner thinking, “Really?  This is my life?” it doesn’t mean that you are doomed.  It means you are uncomfortable in that moment.
  2. Refuse to be boring. I started marriage knowing that I was going to be a marriage therapist.  I have always put a lot of effort into my marriage because I wanted a marriage that stayed fresh.  Fortunately, my husband has been on board, because it takes two people.  The internet is full of ideas.  Check out the dating divas for a plethora of options.  Be spontaneous.  Be unpredictable.
  3. Have something to look forward to. Research indicates that planning and looking forward to something can be more satisfying than the event itself.  I try to always have a future event or trip planned for my husband and me.
  4. Try something new together. Anything—new food, a new activity, new restaurant, etc.
  5. Realize that today is not forever. If anyone understands the monotony of the daily grind of raising children, it is I.  I don’t even try to explain to people what it was like to have 7 children under the age of 14, with 5 boys, and a husband working full-time and in MBA school.  I had periods of time when I had to do a lot of self-talk just to keep from ending up in a fetal position in the closet.  A few times, I was in the fetal position in the closet, hoping no one would find me.  FYI—They ALWAYS find you (Just ask this mom with quadruplets who tried to get 30 seconds alone).
  6. Don’t ignore the sexual relationship. This is a sensitive topic, but I believe it’s worth doing what it takes to prioritize physical affection.  If you need therapy because of past trauma, make that a priority.  Don’t deny yourself the ability to have a bonded and satisfying sex life.
  7. Write down what you would miss if your spouse were gone. I have always known that if I weren’t married to my husband, I would never stop missing him.
  8. Make a “year’s worth of new things” calendar (See 2, 3 and 4 above).  It only takes 12 things.  You can do it!
  9. Ask your partner why he/she still loves you and tell him/her why you love him/her. I asked my husband this a few weeks ago and his answer was, “It’s 100% your mind,” which put me into a laughing fit.  “Is that some kind of fat joke?” I challenged, and he said, “No.  I like the way you think.”  If I hadn’t asked, I wouldn’t have that reassurance to carry around with me.  Thinking about it brings me joy.
  10. Laugh, laugh, laugh. Anyway, anyhow.  This isn’t always automatic.  It takes effort.
  11. Different person, different problems.  Sometimes it’s tempting to think that if you were with a different partner, you wouldn’t have problems, but the fact is that when you marry a person, you marry a set of problems.  Sometimes people who remarry wish they had the old set of problems back.
  12. Don’t buy into the myth of soul-mateism.  In the words of Gary Chapman, “Soul mates tend to be crafted, not found.”  I can say comfortably that my husband feels like my “soulmate,” but I also know that I have worked very hard to make it that way.  John Gottman asserts that, “There are tens of thousands of people out there that anyone could be happily married to.”  I believe that.

I was still feeling a little melancholy about the movie’s ending when I walked into our kitchen and my son sensed that I was not in the best mood.  He said, “Uh oh.  Mom’s in a bad mood.  OK Google, play ‘Eaten by the Monster of Love,’ by Sparks.”  Immediately, our Google Home blasted the upbeat, electronic, bubble gum, everything-you-love-to-hate-about-80’s-music, song.  I was assaulted with echoes of “Don’t let it get me, ow.”  “How appropriate,” I thought, but it did have a cheering effect.  I’m at the stage in my life where I can actually see “La La Land,” on the horizon.

In the game of long-term love, effort matters.  Refuse to be boring.  You will up your happiness quotient.

I Predict.  (A little something for my Sparks fans)

Reference: The Science of Marriage (2017). Edited by Nancy Gibbs.  Time Magazine Special Edition.  Published by Time, Inc., New York.

Photo credit: Copyright: gllphotography / 123RF Stock Photo