Couples, marriage, Uncategorized

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

 

Couples, Uncategorized

Some Surprisingly Good News About Long-Term Marriages

11217757 - senior couple relaxing in gardenThis week I called my husband and fretted, “Life as I know it is officially over.”  “Why?” he answered with a sigh that exasperated, “What now?”  “Thanks for asking,” I continued, ignoring the eye-rolling I heard on the other end of the phone, “When I was at the checkout line at the store, the female checker asked me if I was over 55 to see if I qualified for the senior discount.”

Silence.

Finally, “Is that it?” he prodded.  The eye rolling got louder.  “Honey, I just turned 50 less than a year ago and she shoved me half of a decade toward 60, and stop rolling your eyes at me!”  He sighed again, “You remember that I’m older than you, right?  It’s probably because you look so wise.”  “Is that supposed to be funny?” I countered, adding vocal intensity for emphasis.  “How old was she, 19?” he consoled, “They think anyone over 40 is elderly.”

I wish it hadn’t bothered me, but it’s one of my flaws—worrying about getting old—maybe because I watched my mom’s health deteriorate before she passed away, bringing my own limited mortality into sharp focus.  Later that evening, I was still mildly ruminating over the exchange and approached my husband again.

Me:  Do you want to know something about me?

Him:  That you have a low frustration tolerance?  I already know that.

Me:  No!  But it’s related.  I really really really really really really—how many reallys is that?  Multiply it by ten—hate getting old.  I’m trying not to, but I’m REALLY not happy about it.

Him:  Why?  It’s fun!

Me:  What?  It’s the opposite of fun—there is one thing it’s not and it’s called fun.

Him:  We are getting old together—that’s what makes it fun.

I must admit I admire his attitude.  He continually insists that he is “more in love,” with me than when we got married.  The cynic in me expresses doubt at these declarations, but I came across an encouraging study recently suggesting that maybe he’s telling the truth.

Researchers interviewed 274 randomly-selected participants in long-term marriages in a national sample to find out how in love they would say they were on a scale of 1 to 7 where 1 was “not at all in love,” and 7 was “intensely in love.”  They were surprised that 46.3% of women and 49% of men reported that they were “very intensely in love,” which was the most common response.  Even for people married 30 years or more, 40% of men and 35% of women reported that they were very intensely in love.  A replication study of a New York State sample reflected similar results.

The researchers also identified several strong love correlates.  The couples were more likely to report being intensely in love if they also reported these characteristics:

  1. Thinking about the partner in positive ways. 
  2. Thinking about the partner when not together. 
  3. Physical affection. More physical affection in the relationship was predictive of “very intensely in love,” responses.  Not a single individual who reported a complete absence of physical affection in the relationship also reported being very intensely in love.
  4. Sexual frequency. Sexual frequency was unsurprisingly correlative with intense love relationships.  Couples with intensity were more likely to answer that their bodies responded when touched by their partners.
  5. Doing novel and challenging things together. Doing any activities together is associated with higher marital happiness, but novel and challenging things seem to increase the intensity of love relationships.
  6. Generally being happy. In short, people with high levels of global happiness were more likely to report being intensely in love.
  7. Wanting to know the whereabouts of the partner. I thought this was interesting.  This was associated with “very intense love,” for men but not for women, which might make the fact that my husband uses the “find friends,” app to know where I am less creepy, and might explain why I never care to look at it to see where he is.

These findings are consistent with earlier research showing that when many people married long-term were shown pictures of their romantic partners compared to other close friendships, their brains lit up in the reward centers, like people in early romantic relationships.  Researchers used to think people in long-term marriages were doomed to a less intense “companionate,” love, suggesting more friendship than passion.  However, recent research is dispelling that myth.  Couples can have enduring intensity in love relationships.

My experience with many couples is that they are waiting for love to “happen,” to them.  They take a passive approach.  Even though the correlates outlined in this study can be a “chicken or the egg,” question, I 100% believe people can upregulate passion and intensity in their long-term romantic love relationships.  Personally, I can’t imagine taking a passive stance.  If you are married, do what you can to make the most of it!

This study is good news for couples who want to grow old together, which I must admit, makes the process seem a lot less scary.

References:

Does a long-term relationship kill romantic love? (2009) by Acevedo, B. P. & Aron,A. in Review of General Psychology, 13(1), 59-65. Doi: 10.1037/a0014226

Is long-term love more than a rare phenomenon?  If so, what are its correlates? (2012) by O’Leary, K. D., Acevedo, B. P., Aron, A., Huddy, L., & Mashek, D. in Social Psychological and Personality Science, 3(2), 241-249. Doi: 10.1177/1948550611417015

Neural correlates of long-term intense romantic love (2012) by Acevedo, B. P., Aron, A., Fisher, H. E., & Brown, L. L. In Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 7(2), 145-159.

Photo credit: Copyright: stockbroker / 123RF Stock Photo

Couples, marriage, Uncategorized

Why the “Men are Pigs” Narrative is Flawed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The three most common were:

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

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

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

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

Reference:

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

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Addictions, Uncategorized

Never Fight Another Craving! A Friendlier Way to Kick Habits & Recover from Addiction

55759548 - old habits new habits - blackbord with text and iconI am pleased to be publishing this guest post by a very respected colleague and friend, Dr. Mark Chamberlain,  who has extensive expertise working with individuals and couples dealing with various addictions.  I frequently recommend couples to his book and blog referenced below. This post describes an alternative strategy to fighting urges in addictions:

Two potent drives keep vying for the driver’s seat of our lives. One is the inclination to succumb to our cravings; the other, an equally potent desire to fight those cravings. Neither lasts long at the controls before the other gets restless and ramps up again, going to great lengths to take back the steering wheel, convinced that its map to happiness is the right one.

Our feelings are somewhat mixed, obviously, but we tend to spend most of our time in “fight those cravings” mode, pitching in and throwing our weight on that side of the tug-of-war. We never suspect that the way we fight our cravings actually helps keep us stuck in unwanted habits. 

But think about it: fighting is just as reactive as succumbing. In both modes our nervous systems get cranked up and our perception narrows to tunnel vision. Both also tend to operate silently, keeping us closed-off from others and stuck in our own inner world and typically involve behavior patterns that are familiar and repetitive in nature.

Fortunately, there’s a better way to go about kicking a habit. Instead of this roller coaster of resisting and succumbing, we can adopt a friendly, collaborative mentality toward both our cravings and our desire to fight. 

Like the “fight or flee” reflex and the “seek and succumb” reflex, this new approach taps into a basic human survival mode. It’s our “tend and befriend” instinct. 

What Is “Tend & Befriend”?

“Tend and befriend” behavior, a term coined by UCLA professor Shelley Taylor, is an instinctive way of thinking and acting that helps us deal with stresses and threats in a very unique way. It leads us to seek connection and collaboration instead of preparing for warfare or surrender. Instead of keeping us at odds, it gets us back in rapport with ourselves and others. 

Whereas our “fight or flee” reflex releases the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol and the “seek and succumb” reflex releases the pleasure chemical dopamine, “tend and befriend” mode releases the “cuddle and connect” chemical, oxytocin. 

No matter how high we ratchet up our efforts to fight cravings or how long we keep trying to fight, the stress hormones that get released simply don’t provide good long-term protection or boost our immunity to destructive behavior patterns. The “cuddle and connect” hormones, on the other hand, last longer in our system and have a much more settling effect. 

The “fight and flee” and “seek and succumb” reflexes ratchet up our sense of drivenness and put us in a closure-seeking, yearning for completion mode of operation. We keep feeling antsy until we reach the goal our nervous system circuitry has locked onto. “Tend and befriend”, on the other hand, is itself a settled state. It is accompanied by a sense of resolution. It’s our brain’s way of registering, “closure achieved”. And that is what enables this friendlier approach to sustain more successful change over the long haul. We can carry on with our lives over longer and longer periods without going back to addictive behaviors, eventually giving them up for good.

How Can We Tend & Befriend Our Way to Freedom from Bad Habits?

1. Reach out for understanding to dissipate distress. When we feel out of sorts, our sense of neediness can build and build, making us more and more susceptible to bad decisions. Fortunately, our nervous system has a release valve, and it’s opened when we voice our vulnerability to a loved one and we sense that they empathize with the hard time we’re having. Empathy is the Holy Grail of the Tend and Befriend mode, providing us with an inexplicably potent emotional sustenance. 

2. Come up with a diminutive, an endearing nickname, for your craving. See if you can make it a nickname that highlights the good in that part of you and gives her the benefit of the doubt. “Sweet Tooth” works better than “Glutton” and something like “Soother” may work better than “Escape Artist”. Start calling your craving self by name and take the time to get to know what makes him tick. 

3. Record “wanting selfies”. When a craving hits, use your phone to record a video. Put into words what it’s like to want to give in. Say what you want to do and why it seems so attractive right now. Describe what you feel in your body as you pay attention to that wanting. You are giving your inner craver her say instead of giving her her way. Now watch the “wanting selfie” you just recorded. Adopt the mindset of a curious, compassionate supportive self who wants to understand and learn how to better collaborate with this inner craver. 

4. Extend compassion toward your craving self. When your inner craver tugs at your consciousness, give him your full attention in a caring way. Tell him you understand that this is a moment of wanting, and when we don’t follow through right away on our wants we feel deprived, and deprivation is a form of suffering. Assure him that his desires are real and understandable. Let him know that you get how potent his feelings are and that, because he’s important to you, his feelings are important to you. 

5. Comfort your craving self with a pat on the back or a hug. Reach back and place your palm on the back or your neck or between your shoulder blades. Or try wrapping your arms across your chest like you’re giving yourself a hug. In your mind, let your craving self know that you’re sorry you’ve been at war with her and that you have no intention of treating her that way anymore

6. Give a hero’s welcome to your holdout. Hiroo Onoda, the last known holdout Japanese soldier, emerged from hiding in the jungle of a Philippine island in 1974, three decades after World War II ended. He returned to Japan to a hero’s welcome. You may not usually agree with the objectives for which your craving self has been fighting. But you have to hand it to him: he’s kept trying to do his best to give you what he thinks you should want. Celebrate his persistence and heart, even as you ask him to hand over his sword. 

7. Prioritize connection to lessen the frequency and strength of cravings. Research has shown that spending time with loved ones, physical touch, and talking all release the “cuddle and connect” hormone, oxytocin. And increases in oxytocin diminish the strength of cravings and reduce drug-seeking behaviors in addicts. Amazingly, our time with loved ones doesn’t even have to feel peaceful or seem pleasing to have all these beneficial effects. Even periods of extended silence with a teen or the turmoil of dinner time with toddlers leaves us in a more stress-reduced, emotionally inoculated state. 

8. Empathize with the benevolent intent of your craving. Don’t stay caught up in its surface manifestation; let your craving know that you see its deeper desire for you. “Thank you for reminding me that life shouldn’t be all work and no play. I appreciate this unmistakeable signal that my life is starting to get out of balance.”

9. “Tend and befriend” loved ones to activate your own circuitry. You don’t need to wait to be tended and befriended; your “tend and befriend” system gets turned on whether you’re in a giving or receiving role. Get in the habit of giving your kids foot rubs before they go to bed. Become the one in your social circle who gives hugs freely. Massage your spouse’s shoulders or hold hands as you take a walk. Comb your pets hair–or your teenage daughter’s. Oxytocin dosin’ in these ways inoculates us in very real ways against future relapse risk.

You can develop a stronger, more cooperative relationship with your craving self. You can invest time cultivating closer, more satisfying relationships with others. Both of these will strengthen your efforts to abstain from self-defeating behaviors. These endeavors make up an entirely different way of increasing self-discipline. If you’re willing to do the work, human connection can become a healthy addiction for you, and it will be the last addiction you’ll ever need!

Mark Chamberlain is a psychologist and the Clinical Director at Suncrest Counseling, which offers intensive treatment for individuals and couples healing from addictions. He is the author of several books including Love You, Hate the Porn: Healing a Relationship Damaged by Virtual Infidelity and a blog on the same topic.

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

Couples, marriage, Uncategorized

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Unique Risk of First Love 

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Dark Side

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

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

There is no Time Limit

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

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

Here are some references and further reading:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo credit: Copyright: bialasiewicz / 123RF Stock Photo

Uncategorized

My Parable of the Wedding Ring

I still see decades of built up resentment between too many couples:

Uniting Couples to Strengthen Families

ring

Every so often, someone will notice my wedding ring and ask me about it, because it is somewhat unusual.  It’s a ring that I had made in the jewelry district in Los Angeles back in 1987 while I was engaged to be married.  I was trying to explain what I had in mind to the jeweler who was getting frustrated that I was rejecting everything he was showing me.  Finally, I sketched out my envisioned design on a piece of paper and he asked if I just wanted them to custom make that design for me, and I happily agreed.

I am actually not a jewelry person.  My accessorizing is generally haphazard, and I have a whole drawer full of baubles that sit mostly untouched.  I have simple tastes.  The one thing I almost never leave the house without, however, is my wedding ring.  When the jeweler presented it to…

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Couples, marriage, Uncategorized

Marriage is a Two-Part Targetvention: A Short Play in 4 Acts

42245464 - young couple choosing the best food in a supermarketWhen I got engaged, my husband and I thought alike about so many things that I foolishly thought we would have a perpetual conflict-free mind meld.  That lasted for about a month until I dragged him to a fabric store, trying to get his opinion on material for curtains I was going to sew for our first apartment.  I discovered very quickly that he considered shopping to be a unique form of torture.

Anyone who has been married for any length of time knows that marriage is an ongoing series of compromises and negotiations against a backdrop of mundane routines sprinkled with momentary triumphs and losses.  As a former piano student who was required to learn several of J.S. Bach’s two-part inventions (watch one of my favorites, #8 performed here), it is easy for me to think of a marriage like a two-part invention.  The pianist is playing a harmonious theme with both hands in counterpoint; both hands take turns playing a variation of the dominant melody while being supported by the other hand.  The hands seem disparate at times but work together to create an aesthetically pleasing tune.

While my husband and I shared a visit to Target recently, I felt like I was in a relational two-part invention.  We were both adapting to each other the whole time with some tension thrown in the mix. I felt like I was making the sacrifice of shopping with the equivalent of a recalcitrant youth and I’m sure he felt like his willingness to shop at my pace was the ultimate endurance test.  This is dedicated to those couples who think they are the only ones who aren’t always on the same page.

Act I:

The Scene:  My husband and I need to shop for household items.  My husband is “starving,” and we try to go to an early dinner at 4 pm, but discover that our favorite restaurant doesn’t open until 5.

Me:  Well, Target is just right around the corner.  I need to return something and we can get lots of the stuff on our list there, so let’s just go and come back.

Him:  (In a voice suggesting that he has just done some heavy lifting) But that’s a whole hour and there’s no way I can spend an hour at Target.  Plus, I’m starving now.

Me:  OK—I know—Target has lots of snacks—you can just march yourself over to the produce aisle right by the entrance.  Get yourself some organic hummus or almond butter and organic baby carrots or some other snack that is healthy enough to leave you feeling virtuous.  That should hold you over.

Him:  (With utmost reluctance and another heavy sigh) OOOkaaaay.

Me:  OK drop me off at the entrance and I’ll go get in line at the returns and I’ll meet you in there.

Act II:  30 minutes later (He says 20—I’ll compromise to 25)

The Scene:  I’m standing in the bathroom organization aisle and wonder why I haven’t heard from my husband for a half hour, and he isn’t responding to my texts. I’ve decided he either ran into someone he knows or is taking an important call.  I finally take my chances at calling him on the phone.

Him:  Yes?

Me:  Where did you go?  Is that sports radio I hear in the background?

Him:  I’m eating my snack.

Me:  You’re eating your snack where?

Him:  In the car.

Me:  You went in and bought a snack and went back out to the car? (Restating the obvious, trying to express my incredulity) Why didn’t you just come find me and eat it in the store?

Him:  They would have thought I was shoplifting.  I’m almost done.  I was just about to come find you.

Me:  (knowing that shoplifting is not his main concern) Hmmm…..K well I’m making my way over to the kitchen aisle so I’ll meet you over there, ok?

Him:  OK I’ll be right in. (Shows up at the kitchen aisle a few minutes later)

Me:  What do you think about this new mat for the sink?

Him:  (Yawns)  Great.  Perfect.

Me:  OK—so I was thinking that if we added one of these items to the silverware drawer, it would eliminate the black hole in the back—or do you think this size is better?

Him:  (Yawns—starts to put head down on cart) I don’t know, dear.  I can’t bring anything but apathy to this conversation.  Whatever you think.

Me:  OK let’s get this one.  Now, I need to run over to the pet aisle so can you go over to the bathroom organization aisle and return this thing I don’t think I want anymore?  I’ll meet you over by the cleaning aisle, OK?  Oh, and while you’re over there, look at the storage stuff and see what you think about the different options for our bathroom.

Him: (Yawns—looks up, rubbing eyes) OK.

2 minutes later:

Me:  (Look up, surprised to see my husband back in the pet aisle so soon) Hey, you’re just in time to help me go pick out a kitchen sponge.

Him:  (Yawns): Oh yaaay!

Me:  (Ignore his sarcasm) Hey, so what did you see in the bathroom aisle?

Him: Huh?

Me:  The bathroom aisle—did you look at storage options?

Him:  Oh.  Yeah.  I didn’t see anything that would be useful.

Me:  (Laughing) You saw nothing that would be useful?  Oh, honey, you didn’t even look, did you?

Him:  Nope.  I’m bad at picking out that kind of stuff.

Me:  Well, we need some bathroom storage stuff, so let’s run over there really fast.

Him: (Yawns–follows)

Me:  Oh, look, this is the lazy susan I was telling you I thought would work for our daughter’s hair products.  What do you think?

Him:  (Gazing over my head, suddenly alert)  Is that….a Squatty Potty?  It is!  Look, there’s a unicorn! (If you’re new to the Squatty Potty, see explanation here)

Me:  Oh yeah—a healthy colon is a happy colon—are you kidding me?!!   You’ve been acting like you have narcolepsy for the last half hour and suddenly you come alive when you see a Squatty Potty?

Him:  (Handling one reverently) These things are the best!

Act III: 20 minutes later

Scene: Standing by the cosmetics aisle

Me:  Oh, I forgot, I need a lighted mirror—there they are.

Him:  How about that one?  It matches our bathroom.

Me:  Wow!  You actually noticed that?  (I look closer, 10x magnification, gasp) Oh NO!  That is WAY too much information.  I prefer to see myself at a distance.

Him:  Honey you’re silly.

Me:  (Glued to “Mirror, mirror, on the wall”) It’s like a train wreck and I can’t look away—when did all those wrinkles happen?

Him:  Come on, I just remembered we need steel cut oats.

Me:  Wait—I need a minute to mourn my youth—steel cut oats is not going to fix this!  Even if they’re organic!

Him:  Come on, you don’t have wrinkles.

Me:  You’re just saying that because you’re getting farsighted—your vision is compromised—There is a reason that one of the pictures hanging in the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland is a young lady turning wrinkled and haggard.  It’s frightening!  Honey, we are getting old!

Him:  Yes we are.  Together.  OK I’ll meet you at the register.

Act IV: At the register

Him:  This shopping trip has actually taken us 90 minutes.  I don’t even feel this tired after a hundred mile bike ride!

Me:  You’re ridiculous.

Him:  I’m serious.  If I go to Hell, they are going to make me shop at Target for 90 minutes at a time.

Me:  You said your personal Hell was having to watch a parade.

Him:  Well, it’s watching a parade while shopping at Target…(ponders) at the Circus!

Me:  The carnival is worse than the circus.

Him:  Good point–definitely worse.  You can’t sit down at a carnival.  Shopping at Target while watching a parade at the circus at the carnival.  See honey, this proves I would go to the depths of Hell for you.  You’re welcome.

This was a very typical shopping trip, and if I’m being honest, it felt somewhat arduous to both of us.  We were both bored and tired and hungry.  We were both operating under obligation.  We both would have preferred to be a hundred other places that were more exciting.  That’s real life.  We’re just two different people trying to run a household with limited time, energy and resources.  Sometimes my opinion takes front stage and sometimes his does, with plenty of tension in between, but in the end we are hoping for a relationship with the same resonance as a two-part invention—and we are one shopping trip closer to that end.

Photo credit: Copyright: <a href=’http://www.123rf.com/profile_stocking’>stocking / 123RF Stock Photo</a>