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

Photo credit: Copyright: rido / 123RF Stock Photo

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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

Couples, Couples Therapy, marriage

Safety First in Marriage: Why it’s Necessary for Building Trust and Intimacy

16592637 - saving love marriage relationship 3d concept - heart on lifebuoyIf anyone asks my husband what I do for a living, he will say, “She makes people cry.”

While that’s an over-simplified misconception which he declares for shock value, there is a minuscule grain of truth in his response. That’s because I am generally trying to help couples have new emotional experiences with each other which build SAFETY and TRUST. When people express vulnerable emotions, and receive empathic responses in return, it’s a recipe for trustworthy intimacy. It’s safe. It promotes higher marital adjustment.

Research confirms that in close romantic relationships, support and caregiving elicits trust and security in relationships. Feeling nurtured and cared for is a critical component of stable, well-functioning intimate relationships. The world is stressful. If people have dependable partners to turn to for empathic support when life gets burdensome, they have increased well-being. In other words, the marriage can be a safe haven from the perils of the outside world.

In addition, it’s that type of safe environment that provides fertile ground for exploring and introducing novelty and play and passion…unpredictability within a predictable setting.

When I am supervising therapists in training, I am often asked whether a case is conducive to marriage therapy. My first question is usually, “Can you help them make the marriage safe enough so the partners can reliably reach for and receive emotional responsiveness.” Any barriers to that pattern of marital safety will keep the couple disconnected.

Here are some common elements that disrupt intimate safety in marriage:

  1. A partner reaches for support and gets a negative or neutral response instead. This could happen for different reasons. Sometimes partners miss emotional bids for support. Sometimes partners are ambiguous in their reaches for support. Some partners are uncomfortable with emotions and become paralyzed in the face of emotional need. The lack of empathic support may be intentional or unintentional, but will limit the possibility of future reaches and subsequent safe intimacy either way.
  2. A partner attempts to offer support but feels unsuccessful at having a soothing impact. This can also happen for a few reasons. If a partner expects emotional expression to stop and it doesn’t, he/she might perceive a lack of skills to comfort a partner, not realizing that sometimes comforting a partner might mean that the expression of emotional pain may continue. Sometimes, a partner offers comfort and it is openly rejected, which will also create withdrawal from future supportive actions.
  3. Ongoing ambivalence or equivocation. Partners who can’t make up their minds about whether they want to remain in the marriage and work on it or not, or who continually switch back and forth, are not safe. The unpredictability prevents any chance of risk for emotional intimacy.
  4. Addictions. People in addiction are generally turning to something outside of the marriage for comfort, and substances alter their behaviors in a way that makes them unpredictable, and therefore unsafe. A period of sobriety and predictability is required before any safe marital intimacy can develop.
  5. Affairs. Obviously, if your partner is turning to someone else, he/she is unsafe, and even emotional affairs will prevent emotional bonding within the marriage.
  6. Abuse. Abuse is scary and dangerous. Abusive partners often underestimate how dramatically they can destroy safety with one abusive episode.
  7. Past betrayals. A marriage can be made safe from past betrayals, but it’s much slower and more difficult. Also, if the betrayals are buried and ignored, they will still be present and will prevent closeness. They must be addressed in very specific ways to rebuild trust and safety.
  8. Threatening divorce. Sometimes partners threaten divorce as a way to send a strong message about how much they want change; however, threatening divorce is like holding a gun to a partner’s head and saying, “Make a move, and I’ll shoot.” People who threaten divorce often don’t realize how damaging it can be to overall safety.
  9. Turning to others for support. Sometimes if a spouse turns to outside family or friends, it can make the marital environment dangerous because it feels like the spouse is prioritizing those people higher. In other words, in a moment of high emotional need, the spouse may be more supportive of friends or family instead.
  10. Hostile emotions. Some people are so wounded that they have trouble expressing hurt, fear or other emotional pain because it’s too vulnerable, so the pain comes out as hostile anger. Anger is a distancing emotion. Even therapists have difficulty moving toward anger…it’s one of the hardest emotions for therapists in training to manage. Part of creating safety in marriage is helping partners regulate and express emotion in a way that they elicit empathic responses. Some people say, “Am I not entitled to my anger?” I answer, “Of course. You can have any emotion you want, and you may deserve to be angry; however, it’s an emotion that naturally pushes people away. It’s hard to be with. In fact, if I yelled at you right now, you would either leave or want to leave. You can choose anger, but you are decreasing your possibilities for gaining the understanding you really need.”
  11. Deception. Any. Lying or hiding is untrustworthy and can wipe out any previously accumulated safety in general, but if there is any history of deception or infidelity, it’s worse. I tell spouses, “It doesn’t matter how small the deception is…if you say you’re going to turn right and then you turn left, you immediately become as dangerous as when the betrayal was discovered. If you continue to lie, you will continue to place the marriage back at square one for healing, regardless of intent.
  12. Any unpredictable behavior. Even in predominantly safe marriages, anything too unexpected can throw partners off and make them question the relationship. This will vary according to relationship history and individual trust levels.

I can’t over-estimate how important predictability is for marital safety. Even seemingly minor deviations from the norm can feel threatening. If a partner feels like a stranger somehow, the safety in the relationship comes into question.

Here’s an example of how quickly something small but unknown can feel threatening. My husband is one of the most predictable people on the planet. Our marriage is layered with his trademark fidelity and affirmations of interest in me as his spouse. However, I can still remember a moment back in 1992 (see, I remember the year) when I was instantaneously thrown off balance.

We had been finishing the basement in our first home, and while I was unpacking a box for his new basement office, I pulled out a CD I hadn’t seen before. It was the soundtrack from the movie, Beaches, which had been released in 1989. The CD wasn’t mine. I remember sitting there, staring at it, realizing that it must be my husband’s. “I’m married to a man who has a Bette Midler CD,” I thought, “and I didn’t even know this about him. How could I not know my husband likes Bette Midler enough to buy a CD?” To this day, I can remember the uneasy feeling it gave me. I marched up the stairs, CD in hand, and began peppering him with inquiries:

Me: Is this yours? (holding up the CD)

Him: (glancing up) Yeah, why?

Me: When did you buy it?

Him: I don’t remember…a few months ago, I guess.

Me: Why?

Him: Why what?

Me: Why did you buy it? (sounding like I needed a flashlight to accessorize my interrogation)

Him: Because I liked a song on it. (staring curiously at my descent down the rabbit hole)

Me: What song?

Him: The one about a hero.

Me: Wind Beneath My Wings?

Him: Yeah, that one.

Me: Since when?

Him: Since when what?

Me: Since when do you like that song?

Him: Umm….I don’t know…since I heard it…am I in trouble for something?

Me: I just had no idea that you liked that song enough to buy an entire CD. How did I not know that about you?

Him: Honey. I like the song. I bought the CD. I listened to it in the car. Is that a crime? Do I need your permission to buy a CD and listen to it?

Me: I don’t care that you bought the CD. I just don’t know why you didn’t even tell me you liked that song…enough to buy an actual CD.

Him: I didn’t even think about it. I’m not sure why this is upsetting to you. How many CDs have you purchased without telling me…and I haven’t complained? And why do I feel like I’m on trial?

Me: Yeah, but you KNOW that about me. You know I like music. You never buy CDs, and you never listen to anything but the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

Him: OK, well, I bought one. Now you know. I’m still not sure why you’re freaking out.

Me: Because it’s like I’m married to a stranger. What else don’t I know?

See how quickly I got thrown off? I really did have a strong emotional reaction, because it was so outside of his norm to display any real preference for music. To be honest, music was a raw spot in our relationship. Our music tastes were more different than alike. If I’m being honest, it kind of hurt me that he didn’t share one of his preferences with me. It was as if a part of him was unknown, which made me wonder what else was unknown, even though he had a history of being so reliable. It sounds so silly, but if anyone was the wild card in our relationship, it was I. He was so predictable to me that even this small discovery felt disorienting.

I have had a handful of clients who, with no prompting from me, have shared nearly identical incidents in their own marriages, when they found music they didn’t know their spouses liked. They described the same feeling of wondering if there was more they didn’t know…all because they found out something about a spouse’s preference that was previously unknown. It’s just human nature that if something feels unpredictable in a romantic, intimate relationship, it can feel scary.

People who grew up without reliable, safe attachment figures can have a harder time trusting even predictable partners, because they don’t have models for safe attachment. Sometimes those people need explicit education about what safe, reliable responsiveness looks like, so they can recognize and appreciate it.

If you are struggling with emotional intimacy in your marriage, a good place to start is to ask your partner whether he/she feels safe in the marriage, and if not, ask what you can do that would help build safety.

In summary, the real answer to the question about what I do for a living is that I teach couples SAFETY FIRST.

References:

A Safe Haven: An Attachment Theory Perspective on Support Seeking and Caregiving in Intimate Relationships (2000) by Collins, N. L & Feeney, B. C. in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78(6), 1053-1073.

Emotional Skillfulness in Marriage: Intimacy as a Mediator of the Relationship Between Emotional Skillfulness and Marital Satisfaction (2005) by Cordova, J. V., Gee, C. B. & Warren, L. Z. in Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 24(2), 218-235.

Photo credit: Copyright: koya79 / 123RF Stock Photo

Couples, Love, marriage, Romance

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s how flirting can maintain a marriage:

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

Flirt Early and Often

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

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

Simple ways to flirt:

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

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

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

References:

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

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

Photo credit: Copyright: langstrup / 123RF Stock Photo

Couples, Love, marriage

Just a Spoonful of Sugar Helps the Divorce Rate go Down

This is one of the simplest way to maintain positivity in marriage–and is this not the cutest picture you’ve ever seen?

Uniting Couples to Strengthen Families

Holly.couple kissing baby making face.SalmonI walked out to the waiting room the other night to witness a somewhat rare event in my practice: a couple holding hands!  I immediately felt just a little…..happier?  More hopeful?  Less burdened?  I’m not quite sure, but the gesture sent a non-verbal message that things were good, at least for that moment.  As an observer, it just made me feel better.

With the preponderance of sexual messages surrounding us, it is unfortunate that we don’t learn more about healthy, non-sexual, affectionate touch;  it is such a powerful form of connection, yet so often underutilized, often because couples just get busy with competing demands and drift apart.  Sometimes I think if we understood the power of warm, affectionate, non-sexual touch, we would promote its expression as readily as physical exercise, and its benefits might mitigate many common marital challenges.

On many occasions, when partners are distressed and I have asked…

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