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.  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) 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

Couples, Couples Therapy, Love, Romance

Love your Mate with a Regular Date*

couple-datingThe other day, I was cleaning the bathroom while my husband was sitting in our bedroom.  I grabbed a piece of toilet paper, poked my head into the bedroom where he was sitting and ceremoniously waved it over my head while calling, “I’m waving a white flag.  This is me surrendering.  You have officially won our passive aggressive contest over date night.”  He looked confused so I held up the dust-laden copy of a date night ideas for married people book that I had placed in a magazine holder near the toilet literally years before.  Its pages were warped from humidity and it was clearly untouched, because the last time it had been opened was, I’m certain, when I leafed through the pages at a bookstore.  “Remember I put this here, hoping you would use it for date night ideas?  You win.  I’m finally throwing it away.” “Oh.  Yeah,” he smoothly replied, “I read it already.  We’ve done everything in there.”

“What? No we haven’t!”  I exclaimed, “Look, on page 97, ** ‘The Backwards Date—Put your clothes on backwards and visit your local outdoor track and race each other walking backwards for a lap.’”  “Oh,” he continued, “I mean we have done everything in there that is not entirely stupid or just downright lame.” Well.

“OK honey, but remember the point was that YOU were going to plan what we do for date night.”  My husband finally made eye contact, “Lori, let’s get real.  Every time I make a suggestion for where we go, you change it and we go there, which is fine with me—I really don’t mind, but the truth is, you have strong opinions and I don’t.”

Oh.  He was right.  I hadn’t even realized that I set him up for failure.  I thought back to the previous weekend when he suggested, “Do you want to go get sushi?” and I pondered, “We can, but I think chicken tikka masala sounds better, or I read that a new Peruvian restaurant opened recently,” and he said, “OK, which of those sounds better to you?”  The more I thought, the more I realized that I was indeed the more particular of us.  I was the one who set up a sailing lesson, scheduled a hot air balloon ride, bought him a rope so we could rappel down a local waterfall, rented snowshoes, registered for a Santa run, set up couples’ massage dates and consistently scanned the internet for new restaurant openings and obscure locales, adding to my date night bucket list.  I thought of all the times he suggested something and I redirected him to something else.  In fact, the last time I remembered my going along with his idea instead of mine was when he had planned a surprise without my knowing, so I had to go along.

I apologized and asked him if he cared, and he said he really didn’t, which I believed, but I wondered how many times my actions discouraged him from even trying to plan something.  This is a big reason why couples give up on putting forth effort in their relationships.  They feel as if their efforts don’t matter or are outright rejected.  I think my husband experienced more relief about not having to plan date night than outright rejection, but I have seen discouraged spouses completely give up over less.

Recent research by The Marriage Foundation has confirmed that setting aside time to date your spouse for just one night a month can make a significant difference in marital stability.  In reality, this is just one indicator and not a clear cause and effect (just like all research with human behavior), but people who take the time to set aside special time together even once a month probably care enough about their marriages to manifest commitment in other ways that strengthen relationships.  The dates don’t need to be complex.  It could be as simple as walking out the front door with a coin, and at every corner flip the coin to see if you walk left or right to see where you end up.

This sounds so simple, but I’m always surprised at the amount of married people who live week to week with no plan to get a babysitter and go out.  I can’t remember a time in my marriage when I would not have moved heaven and earth to get a night alone with my husband.  I think it has made a big difference for us.

Just going anywhere together sends a message that the marriage is important, but there is some research suggesting that trying something new together might even boost couple happiness.  I suspect this might be related to the fact that we are attracted to novelty, but also that happiness is so tied to experiences instead of things.  One of our most memorable dates was when my husband and I went to a new downtown restaurant.  As we walked in past a film crew, we realized that the restaurant was currently being used for a scene in a movie.  We were seated in the crowded restaurant for about ten minutes when we were approached by a waiter who said, “The film director saw you walk in and wants to know if you will come sit in a scene for his film.”  When my husband found out the film had “peloton,” in the title, he was more than willing to sit in for them, being a fellow cyclist.  Later, when the film was released, my husband and I bought it on DVD solely to have that scene from our date.  Novel.  Check.  Experience.  Check.  Memories.  Check.  Happiness.  Check.

So, the next time you go into the typical popular home accent store which could be aptly named, “A Bunch of Crap I Really Don’t Need,” consider spending that money on date night or a babysitter instead.  If necessary, both.  Comparatively speaking, you will get more bang for your buck.

Trust me, it’s cheaper than marriage therapy.  Or a divorce.

*Credit to the band INXS for inspiring this title from their 1987 song, “Mediate,” which never gets old for me.

**Since I threw the book away, I just made that up, but it’s typical of some of the more…ahem…creative suggestions.

Photo credit: Copyright: oneinchpunch / 123RF Stock Photo

Attachment, Couples, Love, marriage, Romance

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.

Photo credit: Copyright: bbbar / 123RF Stock Photo

 

Attachment, Couples, Holidays, Love, marriage, Romance

Giving a Gift to Shift Marital Drift

49590108 - man standing and holding a white gift box behind his backMarital drift is a common concept among marriage therapists.  When couples aren’t proactive about securing their marriages, the stressors of life fragment the relationship and distance creeps in.  Unfortunately, the distance places the marriage at risk for intrusive elements like extramarital affairs, and many couples are caught off guard because they have been too busy to notice how distant they have become.

I encourage constant and consistent attention and effort to the marital relationship.  The holiday season is a great time to renew commitment with a gift you and your spouse can use together.  Here are my 2016 picks:

Note:  I have no affiliation in any way with any of these sellers and can’t endorse trade with any individual websites.

  1. My top pick is the Picnic Backpack.  Picnics ooze romance—unless you happen to have a bunch of kids underfoot.  I like the idea of going on a hike and finding an impromptu picnic spot.  I may or may not recommend taking a picnic to a ski resort in the summer to listen to the symphony outdoors where your husband may or may not fall asleep and start snoring loudly in the middle of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 overture–with cannons–defeating the whole purpose of the outdoor concert (which just goes to show he may really not hear that baby in the middle of the night).
  1. While you are on your picnic, you can languidly lounge in your Double Hammock.  For an added challenge, try getting in and out without poking each other’s eyes out or dislocating something.
  1. For rainy days, here’s the Double Umbrella, because nothing says love like walking side by side in a frigid downpour, armed with an unwieldy yet water-repellent implement.  For the daring, try a romantically suggestive Heart Umbrella.  I’m pretty sure my husband would only stand under this one if I am holding the handle–because masculinity–but I do think the red heart might liven things up (Read here for an interesting study about how red enhances men’s attraction to women, in another social science research installment of Whaaaa???).
  1. For literary nerds, I recommend the Fill-in Love Sonnets.  This is perfect if you are married to someone like my husband, who refuses to pen a simple verse, but will play along in Mad-Libs fashion by filling in the blanks.  To my husband’s credit, there was that one verse that one time on a card with flowers that read, “Roses are red, violets are blue, I don’t write poetry, so quit bugging me about it.”  That’s true love, people!
  1. When I came across this Handblown Wishing and Gratitude Globe, I loved the idea of tucking away a weekly note of appreciation to a spouse and then reading them at the end of the year.  Appreciation generates positive feelings for both parties.
  1. For a unique gift, consider the Personalized Connect 4 Heart Game.  I have learned that my husband is always more interested if I can turn something into a friendly competition.  Scoring several hearts in a row might not seem like the most compelling contest, but I can always think of some type of added incentive to maintain interest.  My husband recently sent me a text that read, “You are so competitive and type A” which Siri interpreted as “You are so competitive in Taipei” (read more about  Siri and her twisted communication antics here); only a competitive person would make such a comment, but that’s us keeping it real.
  1. Why not start the new year with the Date Night Bucket List, complete with prompts for date night ideas?  Husbands, I’m looking at you—I promise you will score lots of points for planning date night, babysitter included.
  1. Now for my soapbox on the importance of physical affection:  I ordered the Kisstixx a few years ago.  The lip balms are designed to work together with two compatible flavors that mix when you kiss.  I recommend the fire & ice variety, but mostly because “fire & ice,” sounds more passionate than “raspberry & lemonade.”  If you want to get really crazy, give the gift of kissing along with the Car Travel Inflatable Mattress, because if we are being honest, the gear selector shiftie thingie is NOT AT ALL comfortable.
  1. I have mentioned before that I am the owner of several “love journals,” but this one is a favorite of mine because it is short and sweet.
  1. Dual Heat ANYTHING.  I don’t have a link because these products can be found in so many varieties and locations, but these items have pretty much saved my marriage.  When my husband says, “Let’s turn up the heat,” he is not referring to the thermostat.  We are in a constant cold (hot?) war.  Him: “It’s like a sauna in here!”  Me: “Are you kidding me?  I’m freezing!”  Now, I can fall asleep on my heated mattress pad, under my heated blanket while my husband is luxuriating in his frosty paradise on the cool side of the pillow.  Worth every penny.

Lastly, for the apathetic, there is a disturbingly realistic greeting card on Etsy that reads, “There is nobody else I’d rather lie in bed and look at my phone next to.”  At least it’s a start.

And on that note, stay tuned for my next blog post entitled, “Mistress, thy name is cell phone.”

SHIFT THE DRIFT.  HAPPY HOLIDAYS.

Copyright: innervisionpro / 123RF Stock Photo

Couples, Love, marriage, Romance

Improving Marriage by Building a House of Memories

40809334 - girl holding instant photo of young happy coupleSince many popular songs address romantic relationships, I often recognize common themes that show up in couples therapy.  Earlier this year, I began listening to House of Memories by Panic! At The Disco because it was congruent with my general preference for minor scales and chords, or as my husband calls it, my “brooding dark side.”

The opening lyrics immediately caught my attention.  Lead singer Brendon Urie croons, “If you’re a lover you should know, the lonely moments just get lonelier, the longer you’re in love, than if you were alone.”  Consistently, couples report that being with a partner and feeling alone is lonelier than actually being alone.

I view this lonely feeling as a huge risk factor in marriage, because it is these moments, just as House of Memories, suggests, when people float back in their minds to previous relationships which they imagine as more satisfying than the present lonely relationships. Because it’s so easy to connect with past relationship partners through technology, the risk factor of loneliness in marriage is likely more threatening to relationship stability than in the past.

As the song progresses, the chorus repeats, “Baby, we built this house on memories, take my picture now, shake it ‘til you see it, and when your fantasies become your legacy, promise me a place in your house of memories.”  I believe the song is suggesting that an individual wants to be remembered with fondness by a past lover, and is somehow hinting that the memories are associated with a more powerful connection than a present relationship.

Unfortunately, many people experience life by living in the past instead of intentionally generating ongoing memories in the present.  Memories in relationships matter because they are related to perceptions of the present relationship and to future happiness and stability.  Memories of the past are also shaped by the present emotional environment in a relationship.

We can influence our emotions and hope for the future by strategically accessing specific memories and generating new ones.  Here are some ways to maximize the power of marital memories to influence future happiness and stability.

  1. Recall and revisit the moment you fell in love. I like to tell my husband that I fell in love with him because I fell in love with his father (but not in a creepy way).  My husband had invited me skiing with him, his father and a bunch of male friends over President’s Day weekend.  As the day progressed, my husband was trying to coax me down a black diamond hill of moguls which I knew exceeded my skill level.  His father volunteered, “You go with your friends and I will stay with her.”  He accompanied me down the slopes, skiing to the bottom of a hill and waiting for me at various points while I skied down at my pace.  This was the first time I met him, and I was embarrassed that he had to wait for me.  Eventually, I said, “I’m really sorry you got stuck with me,” and he warmly replied, “Oh, it’s ok.  I prefer taking a slower pace down the mountain anyway.”  I knew my father-in-law, who highly identifies with his Norwegian ski roots, was just trying to make me feel better, but he was an incredibly safe and warm person.  I thought to myself, “If Steve is anything like his father, he will be a great husband.”  This event was a tipping point in our relationship, and I remember it every February, when we celebrate Valentine’s Day with a ski date.
  1. Identify a past struggle you have overcome together.  Speaking of my father-in-law, a difficult event for my husband and me occurred when he suffered a head injury in a cycling accident.  While my father-in-law was in a coma for weeks, I think I cried more than I ever had previously in my life, because he had always been so kind to me.  My husband considered his father his best friend and was understandably devastated.  When he finally came out of his coma, he recognized that he had a relationship with my husband, but when my husband asked if he knew who I was, he smiled and said, “I don’t know who she is, but she’s really really cute.” I was so happy to have my father-in-law back.  We recall how we counted on each other emotionally and spiritually during this time, and we are so glad that he’s still around.
  1. Look at photos of key happy moments.  Our present feelings can be influenced by the recollection of memories.  Sometimes viewing photos of key moments, like a child’s birth or a favorite vacation can elicit positive hopeful feelings.  Looking at one of my children’s scrapbooks is a powerful source of happiness for me.
  1. Spend money on experiences instead of things. Recent happiness research suggests that people get more bang for their buck in happy memories from experiences rather than things.  I can elicit immediate happy feelings from remembering a time when I was overwhelmed with 5 small children and my husband surprised me by driving me to the airport for a spontaneous trip to Monterey, Carmel and Bug Sur in California. He knew I loved the California coast from my childhood experiences and wanted to recreate that for me.

As the song House of Memories suggests, our fantasies do become our legacies, but we can continually shape those fantasies by focusing on positive memories in our core relationships.

References:

How a couple views their past predicts the future: Predicting divorce from an oral history interview by Buehlman, K.T., Gottman, J.M., & Katz, L.F. (1991) Journal of Family Psychology, 5(3-4), 295-318. 

Revision in memories of relationship development: Do biases persist over time? by Frye, N.E. and Karney, B.R. (2004). Personal Relationships, 11, 79-97.

Photo credit: Copyright: radub85 / 123RF Stock Photo

Love, marriage, Romance

Everything is Awesome—When your Spouse Thinks You’re “The Special”

lego-couple

**Long and gushy—you’ve been warned.

On a recent family vacation, one of my children started watching the Lego movie loud enough that all of us were enjoying the snappy dialogue and “Everything is Awesome,” earworm. When Emmett was potentially identified as “The Special,” my mind wandered to how often that word comes up in therapy.  In short, distress often develops when spouses don’t feel “special,” to their partners anymore.

Spouses Want to Feel Special

I have NEVER  met a spouse in therapy who didn’t want to feel special to his or her partner in the classic definition of “unusual in a good way; better or more important than others; or especially important or loved.”

One of the best examples I know of someone who does this well is my husband.  He could give lessons on it. I was reflecting on the specifics of how he has reinforced that for me, and how it has enhanced my marital satisfaction.  This post will probably embarrass him, but he really is that good.

Don’t get me wrong—I know I can drive my husband absolutely crazy with some of my annoying qualities.  He will tell you that I can be very sassy and difficult for starters.  Despite our stepping on each other’s toes from time to time, I have never lost the sense that he thought I was “The Special.”

We Often Marry People to Whom we Feel Special

When I met my husband, I really liked him and went on a few casual dates with him, but I already had a long-distance boyfriend, so I had no interest in getting close.  We had known each other for two weeks when he called and said he wanted to go on a walk and talk to me about something.  My roommates started laughing that he wanted to go on a “DTR,” (define the relationship) walk and that I should prepare for a way to turn down the “marriage proposal.”  Because I was wanting the opposite of a serious relationship, I could not wrap my head around the idea that he could possibly be feeling that way, so I protested their mockery.

It turns out, they were 100% right.  He explained that he had dated a lot of girls and that he didn’t need to date anyone else because he knew I was the one for him.  I awkwardly explained that I was in a serious relationship with someone who was away in a volunteer capacity in a different part of the country, and that while I thought he was a really nice guy, he really needed to move on because I was taken.

He was not happy.  I shut the door behind him when he dropped me off at my apartment and exhaled a sigh of relief to be back home.   I wasn’t very sympathetic to his moping because I just wasn’t interested.

For several months, he would show up and walk alongside me on my frequent outings to campus and ask me out on informal dates.  It seemed like I ran into him everywhere.  We got along well and seemed to think a lot alike.  I felt entirely comfortable around him.  I agreed to go with him places as friends, because his likability was irresistible, but I still didn’t want to get serious with him.  I distinctly remember saying, “I don’t have any more ways to tell you that I’m not getting involved in a serious relationship.  I’m being very straight forward with you.  Date other people.  I am.”

Repeatedly we would have a version of this conversation:

Me:  Who did you take out this week?

Him:  I told you I’m not asking anyone else out.  I don’t want to date anyone else.

Me:  Well, that’s ridiculous because I told you I’m taken.  I’m dating people as friends, but I’m not getting serious with anyone.  What about so-and-so?  She’s cute, don’t you think?

Him:  Meh.  I don’t know.  Sort of, I guess—cuter than most of the other girls.

Me:  Why don’t you ask her out?

Him:  She’s not you.

I would avoid him for a few days, he would pout, and eventually he would show back up.  The thing is, he was incredibly safe and predictable.  I could count on him for anything.  He was a constant and continually sent the message that it was me he wanted, and no one else.  After about 6 months, it occurred to me that despite my regular rejection, he must really like me because he was still hanging around.

When I was talking to my roommates one night about the fact that he seemed very sincere about loving me, I decided maybe it wasn’t a bad idea to consider building a life with someone I liked (loved, but I didn’t want to admit it to myself at the time) who seemed so sincere and constant.  They responded that it was clear that, “Steve will always love you—even when you’re old and gross.”  I realized that if this was something they viewed from the outside, maybe the sense I had that I would always be able to count on him was real.

My roommates were right.  Despite all of our ups and downs, I can honestly say that I believe my husband still sees me as “The Special.”  I have no idea why, but he has just always really liked me for me.  Because of that, I am free to be myself and take risks with him.  I can be playful, physically affectionate, and exploratory because I know he will accept me at a fundamental level.  He can see who I am, even with my frailties, and still want me anyway.  This is the core of “specialness.”

Here are some basic ways to help a spouse feel “special” in marriage:

  1. Watch for unique things your spouse likes and present them as gifts regularly. My husband knows I love blue flowers, so whenever he sees them, he brings me some.  This is just one example of how I know he is thinking about me when I’m not around, and that he has paid attention to my unique preferences.
  2. Pay attention to what your spouse dislikes. My husband knows I despise melted cheese and mayonnaise, so if he ever orders food, he knows to check on this.  This seems obvious, but it’s not.  I have met with many couples where the fight is that “We have been married for how many years and you still don’t know that I don’t like that?”  I read an article once in which Cindy Crawford used the example of her ex-husband Richard Gere trying to bring her a drink, and she realized he still didn’t know she didn’t like that drink after they had been married for so long.  It influenced her decision to leave him.
  3. Generate a unique symbol with meaning for both of you. Once, my husband and I were looking up meanings of names.  I knew that Lori came from the laurel tree and was a symbol of victory, because my mother had told me this repeatedly.  Steve and I came across explanations of Steven meaning “victor,” and Lori meaning, “to the victor.”  I gushed, “Look, honey—we were meant for each other.”  Later, he bought me a ring with a laurel branch with 7 leaves (one for each of our children) and presented it to me as a reminder of this meaning.  I adore this ring for the special symbolism.
  4. Have a secret language. If you were to scroll through my husband’s and my texts, you would see a regular and odd exchange of numbers we send to each other throughout the day.  We started a habit of sending reflexive numbers (I like mathematical symmetry) at various time points almost daily.  In short, it means, “I’m thinking about you right now.”  It also means, “You’re special.”
  5. Have a special restaurant or treat. I have a foodie obsession, and my husband and I generally have a current favorite restaurant or food item.  Earlier this week, my husband surprised me with a crème brûlée I discovered at Real Foods Market a few years ago.  It’s a relatively out-of-the-way item, which makes it even more special that he remembered.
  6. Have a special song or music group you share together. When I was dating my husband, I watched him play a lot of basketball.  I have a distinct memory of watching him play while Club Nouveau’s cover of “Lean on Me,” was playing, on several occasions.  I heard it playing on the radio, recorded it with my phone and sent it to him.  He also does a great job of playing songs for me that he hears that remind him of us.  His most recent song dedication was a song by SafetySuit with lyrics declaring, “I will never get used to you.”  He still plays this for me as an iPhone alarm right now.
  7. Think of a special way to present an act of service. My husband also knows I have a weird obsession with hearts.  On countless occasions, he has brought me some kind of food in a heart bowl or drink in a heart-shaped cup.
  8. Verbal compliments. For years, my husband will be talking and will stop right in the middle of a sentence and say, “You’re so pretty.”  Sometimes this would be in the morning and I would protest, “Oh stop…when you’re insincere, you cheapen it.  I have no make-up on,” and he would say, “Right.  That’s specifically one of the things I loved about you—you didn’t look very different without your makeup on, while some girls I dated looked totally different.  You’re just pretty.”  On countless occasions, he has said to one of my children, “Isn’t your mom gorgeous?” and they roll their eyes.  I’m not, but I believe there is something he sees uniquely about me that he likes.
  9. Tell your spouse how and why they are special regularly. I have completely taken for granted the fact that my husband thinks I’m special, because he so often comes right out and says, “I am so lucky I am married to you. You’re_______ and_____and_______and______and I love that you’re__________.  How did I get so lucky to marry my dream girl?”  He’s specific, which makes it more believable.

My husband woke up a few months ago, rolled over and asked, “How did I get so lucky to land you?  I landed you!”  I answered, “Well…..you wouldn’t go away for one thing.”  He laughed and added, “That’s right, I wouldn’t,” at which point I laughed along with him.  “But I’m glad you didn’t,” I continued, “Because you have been the best husband.  I’m lucky to have you.”  I meant it.

I think most people would consider me to be very average, but I do believe my husband thinks I’m special–because the fact is that HE is “The Special.”

Life can be very scary.  It is full of lots of rejection, misunderstanding and pain.  However, for most of us, if there is one person out there who believes in us and treats us like we are special,  EVERYTHING is indeed “Awesome.”

**I told you.

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