Couples, Couples Therapy, Grandparents, marriage

Adventures in Grandparenting: One of the Best Reasons to Avoid “Gray Divorce”

22159793 - grandparents having great fun with their grandchildI still had my eyes closed in a state of sleep one morning last month, when I felt a shift in the force field centimeters from my nose. My eyes flipped open to an image of my new granddaughter, beaming, in a sunny yellow dress. As I blinked, trying to make sense out of my surroundings, I slowly realized that my husband had pulled her photo up on his phone and stuck it in front of my face to wake me up. I wasn’t quite conscious when I heard him say, “Look, Grandma! We have a precious new granddaughter, and we get to see her in a few weeks. She wanted to wish you good morning!” Her parents were bringing her to visit and we were both beyond ecstatic.

I had been looking forward to watching my husband as a grandfather for months, and he did not disappoint. A few months before my grandchild was born, we had a Chilean family over at our house for dinner. Their 4 year-old son spoke no English. A few minutes after they arrived, my daughter elbowed me and said, “Mom, look…dad is going to be the cutest grandpa.” I saw him down on his hands and knees, helping the little boy with a toy car he brought over, speaking his language, “Listo? Tírelo….. Mira que rápido que va.“

I understood the general meaning of what he was saying as, “Ready…Look how fast it went,” or goes, or something like that. What was unmistakable, though, was the sheer joy exhibited on the little boy’s face as he laughed and clapped his hands. My husband’s expression was reflective, showing that he was having as much or more fun as his small Chilean playmate.

What makes grandparenting so awesome?

Given a general increase in health and longevity, the potential for grandparenting influences is greater than ever. Many people report the grandparenting role as one of the most rewarding. I agree with the oft-repeated definition of “The fun part of parenting without all the hard stuff.”

Grandparents are storytellers, mentors, nurturers, caretakers, family historians and sometimes surrogate parents (in which case they do take on a lot of the “hard stuff”). They commonly reinforce the transmission of family values. Sometimes they offer more stability than parents. The rewards are reciprocal. Many grandparents report a sense of fulfillment by influencing grandchildren.

Grandparenting can be rejuvenating. Some people report that involvement with their grandchildren keeps them young. I can verify that as soon as I held my new granddaughter, I experienced many of the same feelings I had when I held my oldest son as a baby. Suddenly, I saw the world a different way. I wanted to experience everything anew with my child. That’s exactly the feeling I had with my granddaughter. Rejuvenating is an accurate descriptor.

What is “gray divorce” and how does it affect grandparenting?

One rather unfortunate effect of longevity seems to be a phenomenon called “gray divorce,” referring to the increasing numbers of couples divorcing in midlife or later. People divorce after several decades of marriage for many of the same reasons couples divorce earlier. With couples living longer, some are deciding they don’t want to continue to endure a difficult marriage, particularly if all the children are grown, and they have primarily stayed together for the children.

Sadly, even though any negative effects of grandparent divorce can be mitigated, it’s still a stressor that reverberates through an intergenerational family system. Grandparents who divorce sometimes perceive the grandparenting role as less important…especially males. Depending on the post-divorce relationships, sometimes grandchildren suffer if, for example, one grandparent refuses to show up at a family event the ex-spouse is attending. Sometimes watching grandparents divorce can reduce grandchildren’s confidence in their own abilities to endure a long-term marriage.

I remember when a teenager came in for a session right after her parents announced they were getting a divorce. She burst into tears and the first thing she said was, “I’m never going to be able to take my children to their grandparents’ house together, because they will be in separate households. Forever.” I was quite surprised at how futuristically she was envisioning her losses, but I could easily see why she was upset over the anticipated rupture in household structure. She was right. It was going to shift, and she had to reorganize her hopes and dreams for the future.

Is there hope for distressed “gray” marriages?

I recognize that sometimes divorce is inevitable. Personally, I would rather divorce than stay in a terrible marriage. However, I occasionally see couples who have given up hope when there is still hope left to shift negative patterns and heal previous betrayals, depending on the marital history and current context.

Some of my most rewarding marriage cases are with couples who have been married more than 40 years and feeling entirely hopeless that there’s anything I can offer them for improvement. “Why would anything be different now after 44 years of marriage?” I’ve been cynically questioned.

More often than not, I can point to specific markers of disconnection from their reported history and explain at least theoretically why the marriage can still be healed.  I’ve noticed that many betrayals and injuries in marriage don’t heal automatically, and couples get stuck, confused about how to move forward and rebuild. Many of these couples were surprised that through therapy, they actually did heal past injuries and negative patterns and develop new ways of connecting.

I’ve had several couples experience a state of grieving after improvement, feeling sorrow over having lost so many years of connection, but they also treasure the time they have left. It’s fun to see them excited about each other, and realizing they may have developed more closeness than some of their aging peers in mediocre marriages.

I have only been a Grandma for a few months, but entering grandparenthood with my husband has so far been one of the dearest, most connecting times in our marriage. We are both so jointly entranced by this little person that we can’t be anything but happy when we are taking turns holding and playing with her. We keep looking at each other and saying, “This is our granddaughter. Isn’t she perfect? We had a part in creating this.”

I can’t help but think, “This is why we worked so hard to stay married…because now we get to have this.” She represents our expanding legacy. A grandchild brings unparalleled purpose and meaning to life, and it’s even more fun that my cute grandpa-husband and I are doing it together.

References:

Amato, P. R., & Cheadle, J. (2005). The long reach of divorce: Divorce and child wellbeing across three generations. Journal of Marriage and Family, 67, 191-206.

Brown, S.L., & Lin, I.-F., (2012). The gray divorce revolution: rising divorce among middle-aged and older adults, 1990–2010. Journals of Gerontology Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences, 67(6), 731–741.

Canham, S. L., Mahmood, A., Stott, S., Sixsmith, J., & O’Rourke, N.  (2014) ’Til Divorce Do Us Part: Marriage Dissolution in Later Life, Journal of Divorce & Remarriage, 55:8, 591-612.

Greenwood, J. L. (2012). Parent–child relationships in the context of a mid- to late life parental divorce. Journal of Divorce & Remarriage, 53, 1–17.

King, V. (2002). Parental divorce and interpersonal trust in adult offspring. Journal of Marriage and Family, 64, 924-938.

King, V. (2003). The legacy of a grandparent’s divorce: Consequences for ties between grandparents and grandchildren. Journal of Marriage and Family, 65, 170-183.

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Couples, marriage

The Potential Impact of Prayer and Spiritual Practices in Romantic Relationships

7209372 - couple praying together**Note: This post is an update from one originally written almost two years ago, coinciding with the national release of a film related to prayer and marriage. I edited it to be relevant in the current context, and added what I think is a critical component of spiritual practices in couple relationships.

What is “sanctification of marriage?”

Most Americans still report a belief in Deity and a belief in a set of religious practices. Sanctification of marriage is a term in the research literature referring to the belief for some people that marriages contain spiritual meaning. In general, people who report that there is spiritual meaning behind their marriages, report higher marital quality. 

What does the research indicate about couple spirituality?

There are various pathways for how individual and joint couple spirituality are linked with higher relationship quality.  I’m not offering a comprehensive review, but here are some highlights:

  1. Couples who pray about relationship conflict demonstrate more self-responsibility for change, reduced emotional negativity, better perspective taking, gentler confrontation, and increased empathy and problem-solving skills.
  1. Individuals who prayed for a partner’s well-being demonstrated more effective communication dynamics.
  1. In general, higher religious attendance is associated with lower risk for domestic violence, although disagreement about spiritual matters may increase conflict with potential aggression.
  1. Couples who perceive their relationship as having spiritual significance and report feeling closer to God and attending services regularly have more sexual fidelity.
  1. Married couples who report a belief that their sexual relationship has Divine purpose and meaning have higher marital quality, higher sexual quality, higher sexual intimacy, and deeper spiritual intimacy.
  1. In one study, praying daily for a partner’s well-being led to fewer unfaithful thoughts and behaviors and increased feelings of sanctification of marriage, which leads to greater commitment. General prayer not specifically addressing the partner did not have the same effects.  Higher commitment between couples was found when they prayed for their spouses significantly more than when they were asked to just think positive thoughts about their spouses.
  1. Couples who prayed together developed significantly more feelings of unity and trust after a month than their counterparts who were just asked to have positive interactions with one another.
  1. Joint religious communication (prayer and talking about importance of Deity in marriage) is linked with higher marital satisfaction, and might be more important for mixed-faith couples.
  1. Partners who prayed after hurtful interactions were more cooperative in tasks after prayer.
  1. Partners who prayed had more forgiveness toward partners than those who were assigned to think positive thoughts about partners.
  1. Praying for a partner has been associated with decreased alcohol use over a period of time significantly more than in relationships in which partners were asked to just write positive things about their relationships or think positive thoughts.
  1. Praying for a partner increased forgiveness and selfless concern toward a partner.
  1. Scholars have suggested that prayer can be effective in a marital context by helping couples gain a long-term perspective on their relationships, interrupting negative thought processes, accessing a relaxation response, and engaging in a dialogue with a supportive other (Deity) when a time-out is needed from a spouse in the case of escalating conflict.

The vulnerable nature of spiritual practices

In my experience as a clinician, people’s beliefs and practices related to religious and/or spiritual belief are often held as sacred and special, and therefore an area of potential vulnerability. They can be a safe, bounded place for the individual and/or the couple. Keeping this space safe is vital.

In marriage, it’s not uncommon for some couples to consider these practices to be almost as or more intimate than sex. In other words, participating with a spouse in these practices is one way of revealing a part of oneself not revealed to everyone else. Again, the salience people assign to these practices increases a level of vulnerability.

Because spiritual practices can be so intimate, it’s not uncommon for partners who feel unsafe in their marriages to avoid jointly engaging in these behaviors, at least for a time. For example, praying with a partner who just had an affair, or who is abusive or dishonest can almost feel like the spiritual engagement is a mockery of a sacred practice. Some spouses can be negatively triggered by engaging in a religious practice with a dangerous spouse.

Sometimes people want to push partners into religious practices before they feel safe enough to do so. In my opinion, it’s very important for a betrayed or abused partner to have control over whether he/she participates in sacred spiritual practices with that partner. Sometimes, for religious people, participating individually for a time can be effective until they feel safe enough and choose to risk being spiritually intimate.

It’s also important to note that because of the vulnerability of spiritual practices, sometimes partners are more comfortable transitioning into them with lower levels of risk. For example, reading and discussing a religious and/or spiritual article may feel less risky than praying with that partner. If they want to move toward spiritual intimacy, partners can identify and order religious practices from least risky to most risky and move toward that goal. Again, I want to emphasize, “if they want to.”

Forcing or coercing someone into a religious practice is abusive and harmful.

And counterproductive. Got it? Always.

Research Limitations

I want to point out that each study has a limited sample of individuals, as in all research, and many measures are self-report measures, which don’t necessarily capture phenomena accurately.   However, much of the research includes an experimental design with control groups to test effects, and outside observation was included in some of the studies.

Important Caveats

As a whole, there is growing evidence that praying for one’s partner in a relationship is associated with many potential positive effects.  This is not to suggest that prayer is an instantaneous and magical power one can access at will; to do so would trivialize a process that most people consider sacred, meditative and personal.

While spiritual practices in romantic relationships seem to be a potential boon for relationship quality, it’s important to note that spiritual practices can also be used in deleterious ways.  For example, one study reported that when partners align with Deity against each other to win a verbal disagreement, it is destructive to the relationship.

Overall, the research is incredibly validating for those who choose to incorporate spiritual practices in their romantic relationships.  

References:

Beach, S. R., Fincham, F. D., Hurt, T. R., McNair, L. M., & Stanley, S. M. (2008). Prayer and marital intervention: A conceptual framework. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 27(7), 641-669.

Butler, M. H., Stout, J. A., & Gardner, B. C. (2002). Prayer as a conflict resolution ritual: Clinical implications of religious couples’ report of relationship softening, healing perspective, and change responsibility. American Journal of Family Therapy, 30, 19-37.

David, P. & Stafford, L. (2015).  A relational approach to religion and spirituality in marriage: The role of couples’ religious communication in marital satisfaction. Journal of Family Issues, 36(2), 232-249.

Fincham, F. D. & Beach, S. R. (2014). Say a little prayer for you: praying for partner increases commitment in romantic relationship. Journal of Family Psychology, 28(5), 587-593.

Fincham, F. D., Beach, S. R. H., Lambert, N. M., Stillman, T., & Braithwaite, S. (2008). Spiritual behaviors and relationship satisfaction: A critical analysis of the role of prayer. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 27(4), 362-388.

Fincham, F. D., Lambert, N. M. & Beach, S. R. H. (2010). Faith and unfaithfulness: Can praying for your partner reduce infidelity? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 99(4), 649-659.

Gardner, B. C., Butler, M. H., & Seedall, R. B. (2008). En-gendering the couple-deity relationship: clinical implications of power and process.  Contemporary Family Therapy, 30, 152-166.

Hernandez, K. M & Mahoney, A. (2011). Sanctification of sexuality: Implications for newlyweds’ marital and sexual quality. Journal of Family Psychology, 25(5), 775-780.

Lambert, N. M., Fincham, F. D., Dewall, N. C., Pond, R., & Beach, S. R. (2013). Shifting toward cooperative tendencies and forgiveness: How partner-focused prayer transforms motivation. Personal Relationships, 20(2013), 184-197.

Lambert, N. M., Fincham, F. D., LaVallee, D. C., & Brantley, C. W. (2012). Praying together and staying together: Couple prayer and trust. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, 4(1), 1-9.

Lambert, N. M., Fincham, F. D., Stillman, T. F., Graham, S. M. & Beach, S. R. H. (2010).  Motivating change in relationships: Can prayer increase forgiveness? Psychological Science, 12(1), 126-132.

Lambert, N. M., Fincham, F. D., Marks, L. D., &Stillman, T. F. (2010). Invocations and intoxication: Does prayer decrease alcohol consumption? Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, 24,(2), 209-219.

Mahoney, A. (2010). Religion in families, 1999-2009: A relational spirituality framework.  Journal of Marriage and Family, 72(4), 805-827.

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

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

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

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

Recalling positive memories creates closeness

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

My Dollar Store Intervention

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

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

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

Me: What do you mean, “hard?”

Him: Like I have to be creative.

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

Him: Absolutely!

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

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

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

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

My Marriage Memory Highlights Intervention

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Him: You’re so feisty!

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

Him: Well….sometimes.

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

Him: What did you say?

Me: Nothing.

Him: No. What did you just say?

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

Him: And there it is!

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

Positive memory and gratitude

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

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

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

References:

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

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

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Couples, Couples Therapy, marriage

Can This 7 minute Intervention Really Save your Marriage?

38774765 - closeup of couple making heart shape with handsHow happy you are in your marriage is bound to affect you for better or worse. Marital quality is highly correlated with various facets of mental and physical health. High marital quality can benefit individual health while conversely, poor marital quality can actually generate health risk. Keeping this in mind, knowing how to preserve and improve marital quality has important implications for general health and well-being.

A few years ago, a study was released purporting that a brief intervention could halt a decline in marital quality. Eli Finkel, the study’s first author, explains the study and intervention at a Tedx Talk here.

Finkel makes the point that while marital quality is important, it unfortunately tends to naturally decline over time in marriage. He headed up a study in which 120 couples were recruited and assessed for various aspects of marital quality and marital conflict at successive time points.

After 12 months, half of the couples were assigned to participate in a brief 7 minute conflict reappraisal intervention while a control group of the other half of the couples were not. This intervention was assigned to the same groups at months 16 and 20 of the study, meaning that the couples in the intervention group had completed the 7 minute assignment three times for a total of 21 minutes in 8 months.

Interestingly, at the end of the first year of the study, BOTH groups of couples exhibited a DECLINE in MARITAL QUALITY.

However, at the end of two years, the couples who had participated in the intervention STOPPED their DECLINE in marital quality. This decline seemed to be mediated by reducing negative emotions like anger, which accompany conflict-related distress. In contrast, the control group who weren’t exposed to the intervention continued their decline in marital quality.

This is a somewhat compelling finding, considering the simplicity of the intervention. After writing a fact-based summary related to a disagreement they had during the previous 4 months, couples were given three questions to answer. Here are the three questions the intervention group responded to for 7 minutes, three different times, 4 months apart (Finkel, et al., 2013):

  1. Think about the specific disagreement that you just wrote about having with your partner. Think about this disagreement with your partner from the perspective of a neutral third party who wants the best for all involved; a person who sees things from a neutral point of view. How might this person think about the disagreement? How might he or she find the good that could come from it?
  2. Some people find it helpful to take this third-party perspective during their interactions with their romantic partner. However, almost everybody finds it challenging to take this third-party perspective at all times. In your relationship with your partner, what obstacles do you face in trying to take this third-partner perspective, especially when you’re having a disagreement with your partner?
  3. Despite the obstacles to taking a third-party perspective, people can be successful in doing so. Over the next 4 months, please try your best to take this third-party perspective during interactions with your partner, especially during disagreements. How might you be most successful in taking this perspective in your interactions with your partner over the next 4 months? How might taking this perspective help you make the best of disagreements in your relationship?

It’s important to note that the intervention did seem to halt a decline in marital quality but couples didn’t restore previous levels of marital quality. The trajectory did seem to shift from negative to positive, but it’s uncertain about how the intervention might have further impact over a longer period of time.

Why would an intervention this simple work?

The study authors point to the decrease in conflict-related distress as a likely mediator. I have some additional ideas for why an intervention this simple might have a statistically significant impact:

  1. Behavioral interventions can slow people down. One of the ways couples spin out in conflict is through rapid escalation. Emotions flare so quickly that couples get flooded and compromise problem-solving skills through reactivity. An intervention requiring a written response to specific instructions necessitates slowing down enough to access executive functioning.
  2. The intervention was completed while emotions weren’t escalated. This study demonstrates promise for repairing conflict after couples have successfully regulated their emotions, through a time-out, for example.
  3. This intervention provided a template for repair. Some couples might calm down and regulate their emotions, but they are uncertain about how to approach an area of conflict to achieve resolution later. The instructions provided here were explicit enough to guide couples toward resolution without too much specificity.
  4. Any positive and intentional marital intervention can potentially improve your marriage, just by shifting your attention to the relationship. Some studies have even shown that just by making an appointment with a marriage counselor, many people report increased marital satisfaction. Sometimes believing that you are working toward marital improvement provides hope that improves perception of the marriage.
  5. Knowing that your partner is engaging with you in this intervention primes cooperation and good will. Just by participating in this exercise, couples are sending a message about willingness to be conciliatory. There is an implicit message that “I’m doing this because you matter to me,” which increases marital security and opens couples up to more flexibility.

Would a marriage therapist try this intervention?

I can only answer for myself. I’m skeptical of behavioral interventions, because in my experience, when conflict escalates, emotions are high, couples are in panic mode and reactive and therefore unlikely to follow a set of behavioral guidelines or “fair fighting,” rules. Also, couples rarely respond in the textbook manner so neatly laid out in example case illustrations or video demonstrations. Most of the time, those presented responses are so uncommon and over-simplified that they are laughable.

However, I was intrigued by the longitudinal effect over the 8-month period during which couples completed the intervention, so I talked my husband into doing it with me. I must admit, that after answering the questions myself in written form for 7 minutes, I had a more cooperative spirit. If nothing else, it did increase my willingness to be collaborative instead of clinging to my own opinion. In fact, it entirely changed our previously conflicted conversation. Emotion wasn’t entirely absent, but much more regulated, and we reached resolution faster…and we still kind of liked each other at the end.

This study of course came with important limitations in sample size and the usual problems with quantifying a qualitative construct.

However, considering the promising impact on marital quality, it might just be worth 7…or even 21…minutes of your time.

Reference:

A Brief Intervention to Promote Conflict Reappraisal Preserves Marital Quality Over Time (2013) by Finkel, E. J., Slotter, E. B., Luchies, L. B., Walton, G. M., & Gross, J. J. in Psychological Science, 24(8), 1595-1601. DOI: 10.1177/0956797612474938

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Couples, marriage, Romance

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

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

Uniting Couples to Strengthen Families

love story

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

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

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Couples, Couples Therapy, marriage

How Your Home is Your Sandcastle When Healing any Betrayal: Ten Tips for Exercising Care

20793588 - sand castle on the beachAny time I am helping a couple rebuild after a betrayal, I’m reminded of how alike couples are in the healing process, with predictable hiccups along the way. Here’s a typical example:

“Why can’t you just forgive me and move on?!” The husband sitting in front of me gesticulating with his hands and shouting his frustration at his wife clearly felt helpless about successfully repairing his relationship. Saying nothing, she folded her arms and just stared, and based on my history with this couple, I could tell he was microseconds from an angrier outburst, protesting her withdrawal and demanding that she heal from his betrayal.

I immediately moved closer to him and put my hand out, “Hold on. Let me help you. Can you look at me?” I asked quietly. He turned his head and I held eye contact with him. “I know you’re hurting and in pain, right?” He nodded. I continued, “It looks like you’re becoming desperate and afraid you will never be able to repair this relationship with her, yeah?” He signaled a “yes.”

“Can we track what just happened?” I asked. “She started talking about how some days she thinks she can move on and trust you, but on days like today, she starts getting worried that if she does lean into you and trust you, she will fall and get hurt again, metaphorically speaking.” “Yeah,” he immediately flared, raising his voice, “So what’s the point? If she’ll never trust me again, even after all I’ve done to be trustworthy, why are we even here?”

Before I could speak, she fired back, arms folded tighter, “I never said I’ll never trust you again,” and he quickly cut her off, louder, “That’s exactly what you’ve been saying ever since this whole thing happened.” In a split second, he had gone from 0 to 100 again. I quickly reached out again, “Hold on. This feels really important, but did you see how fast that same cycle took over? Let’s slow it down and help you get unstuck.” At this point, they both looked at me like I’m nuts, because they’re uncertain about what I just psychobabbled and where I’m going. It’s ok. I’m used to it.

“I think your wife has been saying that because she cares so much about you, she has been trying to find ways to trust you, did you hear that?” “No,” he smoldered, turning slightly away from her, “All I heard is that she doesn’t trust me and will never trust me.” “I know,” I supported, “That’s part of how you get disconnected so quickly.”

I turned to his wife, “Did I get that right?” I asked. She nodded, “That’s right. I wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t trying to fix our relationship. I just don’t know how to control the triggers.” “Right,” I validated, “So you start feeling safer, and a trigger happens and you get scared again and uncertain about how to reach out to him, so it’s easier to withdraw. Sometimes, I’ll bet that when you start trusting him, you get even more afraid that you can’t really trust him, so you have to be really careful, right?” She confirmed, “That’s exactly what happens.”

At this point I turned back to him, “You see, the paradox is that as she starts to trust you more, there is a part of her that gets afraid that she’s wrong, that she really can’t trust you, and she hasn’t had enough safe experiences with you yet to know for sure that your change is durable, so there might be moments when she seems to shut you out more. On your end, you start feeling hopeful that she is trusting you, and you want to connect more, and when she pulls back because she gets scared, it’s as if she’s shutting a door in your face, or something like that, right?” “That’s absolutely what it’s like,” he confirmed, “Slamming the door in my face, actually.”

“Right. Slamming the door in your face,” I repeated, “Of course it feels like that. That’s why it gets so painful and desperate for you so fast, and that’s when you start protesting by yelling and threatening to leave…you’re trying to reach her through the slammed door. Unfortunately, all this time, all she can see is your rage, which makes her retreat further, and the sad part is that she never gets to see all the tender feelings you really have for her, because they are so hard to see through the anger. She has no idea how very sorry you are that you hurt her and can’t seem to fix it, and how afraid you get that you won’t be able to heal the relationship that matters the most to you. Am I right?”

He’s starting to tear up and nods. I go on, “This is hard for you. You’re a very accomplished and competent person. You’re respected in your profession and you feel confident there, right?” He nodded again and I continued, “It must be so difficult for you to be so highly competent in so many areas of your life and feel so helpless in this important relationship. You love her so much and you’re so desperate for her to see that, that it makes you want to try harder, right?” He indicated agreement, wiping his eyes.

I asked, “I can see that you have learned that if something isn’t working, you keep trying harder to figure it out, and eventually it works, right?” He agreed, so I continued, “A lot of times, working harder means applying more pressure, working faster and stronger, right?” He’s still signaling that I’m getting it, so I go on, “Except sometimes that approach might ruin what you are trying to accomplish, like for instance building a sandcastle. If you were going to build a sandcastle, you would have to be very careful to not bring in too much pressure too quickly or you would destroy it. Can you see how this relationship is kind of like that?”

“Yeah,” he fretted, “I can, but I still don’t know what to do.” “It’s ok,” I comforted, “I’ll help you. I just want to make sure I’m getting this right. Is anything I said off a little bit?” “No,” he replied, “That sounds about right.”

I looked at her, “Would you change anything about what I said?” She jumped in, “No. I do have a hard time seeing that he loves me and doesn’t just want to control me when he gets mad. I really am trying to feel safe with him.” “Does that sandcastle analogy fit for you?” I questioned. “Yes,” she confirmed, “Because when he is really gentle with me and acts like he wants to comfort me and apologizes, that’s how I know he really means it…that he really is sorry, and will let me heal at my pace. That’s when I feel closer to him…so the sandcastle part fits, because it’s his carefulness and gentleness that I can trust.”

I turned back to him, “What’s happening for you while you listen to her.” He was considerably calmer, “I can see what she means, and it is like building a sandcastle, because you have to be really careful to do that. There are times when I’m more careful and I can be comforting, but sometimes, I’ve done that and if she’s still sad or withdrawing, I don’t know what else to do.” “Exactly,” I confirmed, “Because that’s when you go in and demolish the sandcastle, right?” “Yeah,” he recognized.

I added, “So another way you can manage that and be careful at the same time is let her know that you are at one of those sandcastle moments when you are starting to feel a little helpless because you don’t know what the next step is. Attuning to her and asking for guidance is another way to treat the relationship like a sandcastle.”

I know this was a long exchange, but I use the sandcastle analogy a lot because people relate to it so well. Everyone understands that sandcastle success is dependent upon an element of care. The foundation in this instance is curiosity about your partner’s betrayal experience and repetition of safe, reassuring interactions. Here are some ways to rebuild and treat a relationship more like a sandcastle instead of a brick house:

  1. Move in close enough to attune to your partner—make eye contact, reach your hand out to offer safe touch if it is allowed by your partner and slow the heck down.
  2. Ask what has been the hardest part about healing so far.
  3. Ask when your partner has felt safer with you.
  4. Ask what your partner is afraid you might not understand.
  5. Remind your partner about how sorry you really are, but only if you really mean it. By the way, you are going to have to do this many times.
  6. Ask your partner if he/she would like you to explain how you feel differently about the relationship now.
  7. Ask your partner what he/she still fears in general about the relationship.
  8. Ask your partner what can help and if he/she says nothing, then just reassure your partner you are there for when he/she does know.
  9. Reassure your partner that you are there because you are wanting to help make it better in any way you can.
  10. Do NOT impatiently demand that your partner get over it.

I have had several clients report that thinking of the relationship like a sandcastle has helped them slow down, breathe and approach their spouses differently.

In the end, a man’s (or woman’s) home really is his/her sandcastle.

Photo credit: Copyright: subbotina / 123RF Stock Photo

Couples, marriage

What Research is Telling us About how Pornography is Impacting Long-Term Romantic Relationships

wife husband computer

A few years ago, I was sitting in front of my class of graduate students in a therapy training program when one of the students was describing some difficulty he was having with a case diagnostically coded in the DSM-5 (basically the diagnostic bible for mental health), but with a relatively rare prevalence. It made treatment trickier than some of the more common presentations assigned to the rest of his cohort.

Trying to empathize, I said that I could remember almost three decades earlier when I was assigned the only pornography case in the clinic, which was also associated with other paraphilic behaviors identified in the DSM-III-R (the version of the DSM at that time—which has since been altered to exclude any reference to sexual addiction). I added that as an early 20-something female, I had a “why me,” attitude when the intake staff informed me that they specifically wanted me to take the case so the male would have a real-life experience with a female instead of objectifying females in images.

The disbelief in the room was palpable. It took me a minute to decipher the incredulous stares boring into me from around the table. Suddenly, it clicked, “Oh,” I recognized, “You’re all thinking I can’t be telling the truth because you can’t imagine a time when couples weren’t bringing compulsive pornography use in as a problem at least 50% of the time, right?” “Yeah,” one student confirmed, “What do you mean you had the ONLY case of compulsive porn use?”

I knew it was the only case back then because the intake staff had driven the point home, explaining why they wanted me to agree to take it. “Well,” I continued, “Who in here is aware that Gambling Disorder is in the DSM?” All the hands went up. “OK, now, who in here is treating a gambling disorder case right now?” No hands went up. “So, you know it exists as a clinical presentation, but no one in here has that type of case. Well, that’s what compulsive pornography use was like before the internet.”

As I said the words out loud, a wave of nostalgia flooded my system. After watching the proliferation of compulsive pornography use through the decades, I longed for a return to the 80’s. I had anecdotally seen a shift in how pornography was impacting marriages, in a way the larger mental health community refused to openly acknowledge because the research was lagging and qualitative processes are always difficult to measure. Besides that, pornography covers such a broad range of materials and behaviors that trying to conceptualize it to regulate it is problematic when it’s viewed as normative and acceptable in varying degrees by a large percentage of the population. Another problem diagnostic professionals face is where to draw the line when pathologizing a natural biological human drive (except the DSM has an entire section on eating disorders, including binge eating–so…….).

However, regardless of whether pornography use is mentioned in the DSM, or whether it is officially an “addiction,” or not, it is showing up in couples’ therapy sessions in record numbers, and NOT just in religious populations. I tire of conservative religions taking the heat for sexual problems when the broader cultural messages and displays of sexuality are at least as much or more complicit in contributing to constraining sexual scripts for both males and females, which exacerbate disconnection in couples. In fact, research is verifying a clear decrease in religious beliefs and behaviors in general, so any increases in couples’ sexual challenges don’t seem to be correlated with increased religiosity (not to mention the fact that research also shows that higher rates of religiosity are significantly correlated with lower rates of pornography consumption).

The fact is that most media presentations of sexuality are dramatized and dichotomized in a way that denies the more complex and incremental ranges that exist for most people. Authentic displays about the emotional processes inherent to sexual intimacy are mostly absent at the societal level. Healthy relationship models of sexuality are nearly non-existent.

In my clinical opinion, many of the problems that come up with porn use in marriage have less to do with religious imperatives and more to do with attachment processes in long-term monogamous relationships. Sexuality is an expected part of a long-term monogamous romantic attachment, and is generally laden with special meaning. An expectation of sexual fidelity is normative in marriage. While some people report that porn can be beneficial to creating an erotic climate, or increasing comfort with sex, there are many partners who view it as betrayal and it makes them question whether they are loved or not.

Even in instances of consensual polyamory, attachment processes come into play in often unanticipated ways. I once attended a training with marriage researcher Dr. John Gottman in which he was questioned about long-term research related to polyamory, and he replied that his institute had problems gaining longitudinal research on those couples because they weren’t stable enough; in other words, too many of them ended their relationships to provide enough reliable data, implying that the lifestyle isn’t necessarily tenable for long-term couple relationships. Whenever I have treated polyamorous couples in therapy (which is admittedly not a lot), it is also my experience that they might agree to the arrangement but then struggle with emotions that arise when attachment security and a sense of “specialness,” to their partners are questioned. They start worrying that their partners will start caring about someone else more, and it often creates emotional pain for which they are unprepared. When many engage in the process, they report that it wasn’t “just sex,” like they thought it would be–there was emotional meaning attached.

Religious or not, many couples are displaying clinical challenges related to increased pornography use. After seeing hundreds of couples as a clinician and as a supervisor to therapists, if I said otherwise, it would be a lie. There are some anecdotally discernible differences in couples now compared to three decades ago, directly related to pornography. Now, research is emerging verifying the clinical challenges I have witnessed for some time.

Here is a short summary of what some of the research indicates about pornography use and its impact on marriage and other long-term romantic relationships, and which I have also seen clinically.

  1. Male pornography use is correlated with lower sexual satisfaction for both the porn users and their partners (and sexual satisfaction is highly correlated with overall relationship satisfaction, so relationship happiness is likely collaterally impacted through this pathway).
  2. Some studies have shown that male porn use is associated with lower interest in relational sex, and lower satisfaction with sexual partners.
  3. In some studies, porn use was related to weakened commitment to romantic partners (as measured by both self-report and outward observation).
  4. Porn use is associated with higher rates of extra-relationship flirtation, considering alternative partners, and infidelity.
  5. Women whose spouses use porn report lower self-esteem and increased insecurity about physical appearance.
  6. Some studies show that higher porn use is related to higher divorce and infidelity.
  7. Some research shows an association between higher porn use and less global happiness.
  8. Recent longitudinal research (2017) shows that higher rates of porn use are associated with decreased marital quality OVER TIME (this matters, because most of the research is cross-sectional, so cause and effect can’t be determined).
  9. Females whose partners use porn report decreased attraction for their partners and more damaged senses of self.
  10. Increased porn use is sometimes associated with a negative impact on financial well-being and work productivity, which impacts relationships.

It’s important to note that men use pornography at a higher rate than females. The research has demonstrated some subtle differences among gender. It seems that female use doesn’t necessarily have the deleterious impact on marriage that male use has, which could be that females use porn more frequently in a relational context while men use it more individually, or that the fewer females users don’t provide enough statistical power to show significant associations.

Also, most porn research has been cross-sectional, self-report, which can be biased, and with limited sample sizes, so generalizability is limited. Longitudinal research that is finally emerging is demonstrated more causality between porn use and decreased relationship quality.

What have I seen clinically?

For what it’s worth, as a clinician, I have seen several changes in couples that I believe have arisen from increased porn use. I’m just one clinician, but in my conversations with other couples’ clinicians, they are verifying these shifts as well:

  1. More instances of low relationship sexual desire in porn-viewing males and females married to porn-viewing males. I was learning sex therapy back in 1989-1990, and fewer instances of low male desire in young adults appeared clinically than now.
  2. More instances of male erectile dysfunction. I used to see this presentation almost exclusively in older males or those with a health condition. Now, I see it in young men with no known medical conditions, but with high rates of porn use.
  3. More instances of lower sexual quality reported for males and females. 
  4. More instances of males blaming their inabilities to perform on their partners’ appearances.
  5. More instances of wives’ unwillingness to engage in sexual experiences, often because they don’t want to be compared to pornography. In general, sexual safety is diminished.
  6. More women reporting what looks like a type of porn betrayal trauma in which they can’t safely engage in sex because images of what their partners may have been viewing flash in their heads.
  7. More women reporting inability to engage sexually because of increased self-monitoring about their own bodies, after feeling compared to pornography.
  8. More women reporting feeling manipulated into sexual behaviors with which they are uncomfortable, reportedly introduced by pornography.
  9. Seeming lower relational sex frequency. Again, I don’t have research numbers on this–it’s just a clinical impression. It seems like couples are having less relational sex in part because porn users are having sex by themselves with porn.

In many ways, sex therapy was easier back in the early 1990’s. I actually had an easier time getting females to engage in sex therapy exercises because to them, collaboration didn’t feel like competing with supernormal images.

One of the biggest indicators that pornography is a problem appeared via an open letter on pornography posted by Dr. John Gottman, viewable here. He is a gold star researcher. Like many clinicians, he used to support couple porn use for upregulating desire and sexual quality. This letter explains how he has shifted his position because the supernormal images presented in porn have a negative impact, as well as increased portrayals of violence toward women.

Anyone who says pornography isn’t having a negative impact overall on long-term marriage is either lying, ignorant, or in denial.

Some of the studies including for this post are listed below, and the abstracts are easy to find online for anyone interested. There are many resources available for people who want to decrease porn use, or feel betrayed and injured by partners who use porn. Patrick Carnes and his daughter, Stefanie Carnes, have worked extensively in this area. I recommend both authors’ books to couples who want to deal with compulsive pornography use.

References:

A Love That Doesn’t Last: Pornography Consumption and Weakened Commitment to One’s Romantic Partner (2012) by Lambert, N. M., Negash, S., Stillman, T., Olmstead, S. B. & Fincham, F. D. in Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 31(4), 410-438.

Does Viewing Pornography Reduce Marital Quality Over Time? Evidence from Longitudinal Data (2017), Perry, S. L. in Archives of Sexual Behavior, 46(2), 549-559.

Pornography and Marriage (2014) by Doran, K. & Price, J. in Journal of Family and Economic Issues, 35:489-498.

Pornography Use: Who Uses It and How It Is Associated with Couple Outcomes (2013), Poulsen, F. O., Busby, D. M. & Galovan, A. M. in Journal of Sex Research, 50(1), 72-83.

Photo credit: Copyright: georgemuresan / 123RF Stock Photo