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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Couples, Fatherhood, Mothers

Tips for Supporting a Spouse Whose Parent has Passed Away

funeral“I still feel betrayed that he wasn’t there for me when my mother died. I really needed him, and he abandoned me. I don’t know if I can forget that.” My client was explaining why she felt so disconnected from her husband. She acknowledged that they had created a pattern of increasing emotional distance throughout their marriage, but when her mother died and she really needed his support, he stayed emotionally distant. She felt more alone. “I mean, if he can’t even comfort me when I just lost my mother, why am I even married?”

Losing a parent to death is one of the most common loss transitions people experience, which is partly why it is often minimized by a spouse or the population at large. Though common, the loss still engenders increased risk for substance use, and various physical and mental health challenges. Because the marital relationship is so proximal to the intergenerational relationship, the marriage is almost always somehow impacted by the death of a parent.

The good news is that a marital relationship is an ideal context for a partner to support another during this difficult time, and is an opportunity for deepened emotional responsiveness and bonding.

However, it’s not uncommon for me to hear a spouse identify a parent’s death as a time point at which he/she felt abandoned and unsupported by a spouse. In my experience, this usually happens because the marriage is already distressed and disconnected to begin with, or the spouse doesn’t know how to help and can be confused by the intensity of emotion or feel helpless about how to be supportive.

Losing a parent commonly creates a time of high emotional need. The emotional need may be exacerbated by collateral stressors, such as caring for a remaining parent or dealing with a parent’s estate.

The high emotional need combined with a partner’s confusion about how to help can turn into withdrawal, which can leave the bereaved spouse feeling alone. It’s the perfect storm for an attachment injury, in which a spouse expects a partner to be supportive, but feels betrayed by absence or seeming nonchalance. The withdrawal is not always intentional but may be a PERCEIVED lack of support simply because the support partner is clueless about how intense the emotional need is. Bereaved partners aren’t always clear and explicit in their needs. In these events, a parent’s death can directly generate marital strain. The result may be diminished trust and marital quality.

In short, the death of a parent can elicit responses that either facilitate stronger emotional connection or trigger disappointment in empathic support.

If you haven’t lost a parent, you may not realize how devastating it can feel.

 I lost my mother very unexpectedly almost a decade ago. I was unprepared for the emotional upheaval. Even though I was in my early 40’s and knew my parents were aging, the stroke which led to her death took me completely by surprise. Sure, she had some health problems, but she looked great for her age, kept weight off easier than I did, and her mother had lived to age 90 with seemingly worse health issues. Besides that, my mother was fairly feisty—the type that you imagine putting up a fight with death, which in a way I guess she did via her 6-week coma.

I took it hard. The world felt dark. Everywhere I went, I would think, “How can these people just carry on normally when my world has fallen apart?” I felt sick. My mother was my most important support person next to my husband. I talked to her on the phone frequently. After she died, I kept reaching for the phone to process my emotional pain with the person with whom I usually processed it, only to realize she wasn’t there, sending me into another crying jag. Then, I would hear her pragmatic voice ringing in my head, “Well, don’t cry about it—you’re just going to give yourself a headache.” I really felt like I had nowhere to turn. My husband was as supportive as a husband could be, but he wasn’t my mom. Research indicates that an adult daughter losing a mother is often the most devastating loss when it comes to adults losing parents; of course, this would be expectedly moderated by the relationship quality of the parent/child relationship.

I had never experienced that combination of emotions before. It was any loss I ever had on steroids, and in fact, it seemed as if the loss rubbed the raw spots of any previous significant losses, so my sadness exponentially increased.

I had these textbook reactions for months:

  1. Disorientation and confusion. I felt scattered, like I couldn’t make sense out of anything. I kept feeling like I was in a dream. I had incoherent thoughts.
  2. Inability to focus. This was so interesting to me because I’m a pianist and an organist—I know how to achieve singular focus; but, my thoughts just raced and I was unusually distractible.
  3. Intense sadness and teariness, which could be triggered at any time.
  4. Depression and social withdrawal. I had no desire to do anything. I had to drag myself to work and hosting play group at my house when it was my turn felt—HARD.
  5. Fatigue. With the depression was a physical AND mental fatigue.
  6. Heaviness. Some people might think this should go with depression and/or fatigue, but it was different—I just felt smothering physical heaviness and emotional heaviness.
  7. Guilt and regret. In my case, I felt terrible because I didn’t talk to my mom on the phone right after she had a stroke before she slipped into a coma, because I thought the doctors would fix it since she got to the hospital early. I didn’t want to bug her until she felt better. Except, she slid into her coma and never came back. People self-flagellate over what they “woulda, coulda, shoulda,” done.
  8. Anger. This was also surprising because I usually feel collaborative with physicians and could reason myself through emotions. I was angry at the doctors who prescribed a medication that facilitated her death; I felt uncommon rage in the hospital when the neurosurgeon seemed cold and cavalier. I can’t remember wanting to punch someone in the face before. I knew it was irrational; I knew he was just doing his job and that we were just one more family with someone in a coma, but it felt cruel to me that to him we were just another number, and his explanation for the likely outcome was so callous and emotionless. I felt dismissed and unseen and insignificant. I said nothing, but I smoldered inside. I mentally rehearsed what I wanted to say, which was, “With some of the money you’re making profiting from my lifetime tragedy, why don’t you register for a course on gaining some #$%#@ compassion, you arrogant, insensitive #$%@?!” (Sorry if that sounds harsh, but that’s how strong the emotions were).
  9. Physical pain in my chest. I felt like an elephant was standing on my chest, making it hard for me to breathe. I would try to run and end up walking because I couldn’t get enough air—and I was a runner, so this was unusual. I can remember struggling to take deep breaths, like when I was 9 months pregnant.
  10. Loss of appetite. I had to force myself to eat. I had no appetite for months.
  11. Sleep disruption. I had difficulty with ruminating when I went to bed at night.

Most of my clients have reported experiencing some or all of these reactions. I don’t generally love using the stages of grief as a guideline for grieving because it’s so unpredictable. People expect grieving to follow a linear path through the stages when grief is actually complex and unique to each individual, so it can look like anything. At times, partners using these grief stages as a guideline ineffectively judge their spouses for not grieving in the “expected” pattern.

Things for non-bereaved spouses to understand are:

  1. Intense and shifting emotions are the norm. As described above, people routinely have an unprecedented mixture of emotions, varying in intensity.
  2. Pain. Pain. Pain. I felt diffuse pain emotionally and physically. The only relief I could get was when I was working or running. I started running for 2-3 hours a day, because running pain felt better than grieving pain. I lost so much weight that people started asking if I was sick or had cancer.
  3. Triggers can be anywhere at any time. I remember bursting into tears while cleaning out my daughter’s closet and finding a blessing dress my mother made using leftover fabric from making my wedding dress. Ditto on the Halloween costumes she had sewn for her and sweaters she had knit for me.
  4. Holidays and seasons can be especially hard. My mom descended into a coma on Easter and was buried the day before Mother’s Day. Every year, those holidays are laced with the pain of her highlighted absence.
  5. The living but bereaved parent may also be less accessible. My father, a man I had never seen depressed, became a shell of himself. I would call him to talk and hang up and cry to my husband, “That’s not my father. I’ve lost them both. Both my parents are gone.” He just wanted to be with her and was trying to cope himself.
  6. Parents usually fill a unique role that can’t be replaced by another individual. Research shows that a daughter losing a mother can be particularly painful. I only had one mother, and no one else filled that role, including my beloved father.
  7. The loss can trigger other loss issues. It seemed like every relational or personal loss of mine came bubbling to the surface. I had a chain reaction of grief-related memories, catapulting me deeper into despair. The best way to explain it is that I felt like I was drowning in a sea of grief and had no way to come up for air.
  8. Fear and anxiety can increase. In essence, the world can feel like a scarier place with more uncertainty. Security is diminished.
  9. If the relationship was strained, grief can be more complex and difficult. After my mom died, I attended a training with marriage expert, John Gottman, who explained that he was crying after his father’s death and his friend said, “My father died and I didn’t shed a tear.” His point was that crying is one sign that the relationship was cherished, and if the relationship is damaged, grieving is more challenging.
  10. The relationship with the living parent may change. This can heighten unpredictability.
  11. The loss can elicit new feelings about one’s mortality and life’s meaning. This change may affect behaviors.
  12. If the loss is the second of two parents, feelings of loneliness can be unprecedented. I don’t know how to explain the feeling when my father also died because I hadn’t experienced it before, but it was definitely tinged with existential dread and an awareness that the only two people who really loved me unconditionally were gone.
  13. Positive events can have triggers. Any time something good happened in my life, like my son going to India on a church mission, a son giving the valedictory address at graduation, a son being the all-state musician in his category, a son gaining admittance to dental school, my PhD graduation, etc. those events were all negatively colored with the sadness of my parents’ absences. Any time something good happened to me, I would think, “The only two people who might really care about this are gone, so who cares?”
  14. Gender can have an impact. Fathers and mothers often serve separate functions and can impact different gendered children in different ways.
  15. Wives may be more emotionally responsive to husbands than vice versa and wives more frequently turn to others for support. In other words, husbands can usually get support from spouses, but wives often don’t, creating emotional injury in the marriage.
  16. Everyone experiences loss differently. Don’t have expectations nor compare. EVER.
  17. A spouse who hasn’t lost parents to death or who experienced grieving differently may be very confused (and scared) at how deep the emotions can be for the bereaved.
  18. If a parent died unexpectedly, it can be experienced more intensely than a situation in which the death was expected or unsurprising. I felt far worse when my mom died unexpectedly than when I knew my father had 9 days to live, even though that was still painful. I could plan and prepare.
  19. It’s a myth that grieving ends. Most of the time, grieving decreases in intensity over time but doesn’t disappear completely. There can be lifetime sporadic triggers. 
  20. In general, the world at large doesn’t support grieving people. The repeated message is, “Stop doing that around me–you’re making me uncomfortable.” That’s another reason it’s so important to have a spouse’s support.

How to help—what does empathic support look like?

  1. Focus on comfort, not on fixing it. Just being with a partner matters, and comfort doesn’t require words.
  2. Reassure your spouse that you are there for them REPEATEDLY for as long as they need.
  3. Share your own positive memories about your spouse’s parent. My husband’s favorite memory of my mom was watching her march out to the street (all 110 pounds of her) to singlehandedly take on a construction crew for the way they were managing the project just beyond her driveway. His laughing about it cheered me momentarily. He continually brought up positive memories of her, which felt validating, like he was on my team.
  4. Ask your spouse about their favorite memories and what they learned from the deceased parent.
  5. Ask your spouse how they would like to honor the parent’s memory.
  6. Be aware that if you haven’t lost a parent, it is likely that you are underestimating the loss. As supportive as my own husband is, I still don’t think he has a clue what it feels like to lose a parent.
  7. Expect repetition. Your spouse may need to talk about the same things over and over to gain new meaning and integrate the loss.
  8. Suggest and support grieving rituals. Small, predictable ways to honor a deceased parent can be helpful–visiting gravesites, having a certain time of the day to share memories–really anything with predictable space for expressing grief.

What does empathic support NOT look like?

  1. Avoidance. Some partners keep their distance from the emotions.
  2. Walking away from tears or strong expressions of sadness.
  3. Preaching doctrines of the after-life to discourage grief. Even if I believed that my parents existed beyond mortality, I still missed their presence and felt the absence palpably.
  4. Criticizing your partner for not grieving fast enough or for not being functional fast enough, like “Everyone goes through this—shouldn’t you be feeling better by now?”
  5. Minimizing or telling your partner why he/she shouldn’t be that upset, like “You didn’t even get along with your dad most of the time. Why are you so upset?”
  6. Comparing, like, “I wasn’t this upset when my mom died, what is wrong with you?” Every loss is different.
  7. Getting angry or frustrated that a spouse is having a grieving episode AGAIN.

Over all, supporting a spouse whose parent has passed away can be a way to achieve more emotional security in a marriage. In fact, with the death of parents comes the opportunity to attach more enduringly to a spouse.

The last conversation I had with my father was one in which I believe he intentionally turned me toward my husband. My father knew I had a mercurial tendency toward brooding and discontent. “What am I going to do without you, dad?” I sobbed. The last thing he said to me was, “I want you to remember that you have everything you need to be happy. You have a husband who loves you. You have a beautiful family. Be happy. You’re so beautiful when you smile.” Hearing those last six words, which he had repeated to me hundreds of times in my lifetime, made me cry harder. Even as I read this, the memory is bringing up tears. I have tried so hard to be more appreciative of my relationships, which can be one way of honoring my father’s legacy.

When I’m flooded with this now familiar sadness, I can approach my husband with a quaking voice, “I miss my dad,” and my husband will give me a hug and say, “I’m sorry, honey. I miss your dad, too. He was a uniquely great man.” He’ll be responsive even though I’ve approached him a myriad of times.

And that kind of predictability in comfort is how it’s done.

References:

The Dance of Closeness-Distance in Couple Relationships After the Death of a Parent (2006) by Rosenblatt, P. C. & Barner, J. R. in Omega, 53(4), 277-293.

The Influence of Intergenerational Relationships on Marital Quality Following the Death of a Parent in Adulthood (2014) by Stokes, J. E. in Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 33(1), 3-22.

Photo credit: Copyright: kzenon / 123RF Stock Photo

Uncategorized

Finding your Marriage of Awesome

The power of looking for “awesome” moments in marriage:

Uniting Couples to Strengthen Families

marriage of awesome Photo by Gray Wren Photography, http://www.graywren.com

As the mother of 7 children, one word I admit I have grown fatigued of hearing over the years is “awesome.”  I don’t have anything against that particular word – it’s even a bit energizing – it’s just that it brings so much promise and then falls flat when it’s used to describe something that’s really just copacetic.  Then, it just feels tawdry, like Christmas decorations in February.

However, I have to admit that I am a big fan of Neil Pasricha, author of The Book of Awesome, and other related titles.  He’s just so darn optimistic – but in a way that feels authentic.  He highlights the moments in life that when juxtaposed with the mundane, become downright exceptional – things like popping bubble wrap, high-fiving babies, sleeping in new bedsheets, etc.  It’s an excellent strategy, and one that I think could effectively be applied…

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