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, Love, marriage, Romance

Kissing Like you Mean it: The Benefits of Lighting Fireworks in your Marriage

Happy 4th of July–a repost from last year–sadly, the last time I tried to buy the Trader Joe’s Fireworks bar last month (mentioned in this post), they told me they were discontinued.

Uniting Couples to Strengthen Families

fireworks

As I was explaining to my husband that I was trying to write a blog post about kissing in marriage, he threw his arms open and offered enthusiastically, “And you want to practice?”  “No,” I answered, “But I admire your optimism and thanks for giving me my opening sentence.”

For most couples, kissing is a natural part of relationship development, particularly as they move toward higher levels of commitment.  Researchers confirm that kissing can be a strong reinforcer for mate assessment and attachment. In other words, if you think you like someone and the kissing goes well, commitment is likely to increase, while the reverse is true for couples who just aren’t “feeling it.”   As people form attachments, prolonged kissing behavior generally increases in romantic relationships.

However, I’ve noticed that really great make-out sessions diminish over time for lots of married couples.  Even couples who maintain frequency in sexual relations…

View original post 794 more words

Couples, Couples Therapy, Love, marriage

One Simple Thing You Can do to Protect Your Marriage

54955635 - woman checking her mobile phone while embracing a man at home

I was on a hike with another couple a few nights ago, and the husband asked me to identify the number one thing I would tell people to keep their marriages strong.  I’m not usually asked to reduce marital tips down to one dimension, but I was intrigued by the challenge.  I thought for a minute and realized I had a definite answer, informed by the cases I have had over the last 5 years.

“I would say,” I replied, “To realize that when you are texting someone, you are in essence entering a private room with that person.”  I’m expanding on the image here.  The room has no windows.  The social response is in real time, so it is as if you are right next to the person having an actual conversation.  If you text daily, you are entering that room daily.  If you text on and off all day long, you are in that room most of the day.  Everyday.

I see a lot of infidelity cases.  One hundred percent of them in the last few years  accelerated development through texting.  In most cases, a romantic interest did not precede the texting relationship.  Most of them started in a benign way between co-workers, church members working together on projects, neighbors and best friends of the couple.  Here’s the typical developmental course (IMHO):

  1. Begin texting to communicate practical information.
  2. Increase frequency of texting, still to communicate practical information.
  3. Add a joke to your text, making it more conversational in nature.
  4. Get a response to your joke, and continue the playful banter.
  5. Feel a positive chemical boost after a text exchange.
  6. Find yourself checking your phone to see if the person texted.
  7. Realize that you are starting to look forward to getting texts from that person.
  8. Tell yourself that since you aren’t seeing that person face-to-face, you are fine and not being disloyal to your spouse.
  9. Increase casual and playful texting.
  10. Shift from playful banter to deeper emotional disclosures.
  11. Experience an increase in the euphoric chemical boost.
  12. Find yourself hiding your phone from your spouse, because you don’t want the texts to be “misinterpreted.”  (ALERT: Tipping Point)
  13. Continue to tell yourself that nothing is going to happen, because you still aren’t in this person’s physical presence, so you are still in control.
  14. Realize you have an emotional yearning for this individual.
  15. As you increase the need to hide your texts, begin to see your spouse as the enemy.
  16. Find yourself disconnecting from your spouse to find a place to text this person more often and privately.
  17. Hide more.
  18. Declare your deepest feelings and yearnings for this person and plan to meet in a private location.
  19. Engage in physical affection.
  20. Bam!
  21. Feel as if you have “fallen,” in love with this person and want him/her more than your spouse.
  22. Tell yourself this is your true love connection…otherwise you wouldn’t have “fallen,” in love, and you wouldn’t have these feelings.
  23. See your spouse as the one thing standing between you and true love and happiness.
  24. Destabilize your family.
  25. Make an appointment with me.

This may sound harsh to some readers…definitely to those who see themselves somewhere on this continuum.  I’m not changing my story.  If you would not repeatedly enter a private room with someone without a window where someone can see in, frequently enough that you start to share feelings with someone that you wouldn’t share with your spouse, don’t do it on a cell phone.

Here’s one more thing that should not surprise you:  If your texting partner is an old boyfriend or girlfriend, you can expect to immediately resurrect the same emotions you felt when you were dating that person.  You will exaggerate all the good memories you had and minimize the negative memories you had from that relationship.  That’s not unique.  Your texting affair is not unique, and the effect is as if you are on drugs.  I’ve written this before, and I stand by it.

Lastly, realize that no matter how great you think your marriage is, this can happen to you.  It is the failure to be watchful and set boundaries that gets people into trouble.  If you think you could never end up having an affair, you’re kidding yourself—FWIW.

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

 

 

Couples, marriage

Intimacy: The Safe Adventure

webheartsunsetMy recent song fix lately* is John Legend’s All of Me.  One of my sons had me buy him the piano music so he could learn to play it after he heard it at Legend’s local concert appearance, and I have found myself humming it several times throughout the day.  The lyrics of the emotionally evocative ballad capture what I believe most couples want from each other:  All of me loves all of you, love your curves and all your edges, all your perfect imperfections.  Give your all to me, I’ll give my all to you, you’re my end and my beginning, even when I lose I’m winning, ‘cause I give you all of me, and you give me all of you.  The words imply complete security in a relationship.  In a nutshell, we all want to be understood and accepted for who we are, even if we are imperfect, and that kind of safety provides fertile ground for complete intimacy.

Complete Intimacy

Complete intimacy is a merging of physical, emotional, and spiritual intimacy.  Marriage therapist and sex researcher Gina Ogden found that most people see their sexual relationship as one infused with meaning and spirituality, and it is far more than simple physical sexual response.  There is no sex position, toy or technique that will enhance a couple’s sexual relationship if the individuals don’t feel accepted and safe enough to want to be close.  The foundation for high quality sex is emotional connection.   In the words of world famous marriage clinician, Dr. Sue Johnson, “Emotional connection creates great sex, and great sex creates deeper emotional connection.  When partners are emotionally accessible, responsive, and engaged, sex becomes intimate play, a safe adventure.  Secure partners feel free and confident to surrender to sensation in each other’s arms, explore and fulfill their sexual needs, and share their deepest joys, longings, and vulnerabilities.  Then, lovemaking is truly making love,” (p. 186).

This kind of accessibility, responsiveness and engagement was illustrated in a not atypical case of one couple who had come to therapy initially because the wife had been unable to achieve orgasm with her husband.  Complicating the situation and escalating her anxiety was the fact that she had previously been sexually active, and had been able to achieve orgasm with other men before she got married.  As I questioned her about her sexual history, she broke down sobbing and disclosed that she felt ashamed and embarrassed about her past and that she viewed her husband as somehow better than she was, and that she somehow didn’t deserve to have a good sexual relationship with him.  She was worried that he would figure this out and get rid of her.  When I encouraged her to talk to him directly in session about her fear and shame, her husband responded by saying, “I married you because I loved you.  I knew about your past, and it didn’t matter to me.  I just want you.”  He continued to share that he was having difficult emotions because he worried that he was undesirable to her.  He was afraid his performance was lacking, and that he didn’t have the ability to “turn her on.”  They clearly both had doubts and fears about being accepted by the other person, and when they shared their emotional vulnerabilities and received comfort and compassion from each other, they felt safer.  While I don’t think it’s often helpful to be sexually performance-oriented in therapy, it was no surprise to me when they came back to the next session reporting that she had in fact achieved orgasm, and they felt closer than ever.  By disclosing their mutual fears and uncertainties, they had created the “safe adventure,” of which Sue Johnson wrote, and could experiment with techniques for her to achieve orgasm.

Sex as a Litmus Test

As a couples therapist, I have come to think of sex as something of a litmus test in marriage.  When couples present with “communication problems,” or ongoing cycles of conflict or distance, it is usually only a matter of time before they reveal that their physical intimacy is suffering.  Rarely do I see a couple who report that the sex is “great,” when they aren’t getting along outside the bedroom (although it has happened).  It’s not uncommon for me to hear that the couple isn’t sharing a bed, or hasn’t had any physical intimacy, including physical affection, for months or even years.  On occasion, couples will present with sexual connection difficulties up front, and questioning almost always reveals that one partner doesn’t feel emotionally safe in the hands of their partner. The act of physical intimacy is literally the closest you can allow someone into your personal space, and it becomes very symbolic in marriages.  When the marriage doesn’t feel safe in other areas, it can seem almost dangerous to get that close to a partner.

Although our culture perpetuates rigid gender stereotypes of a husband wanting sex, regardless of emotional connection, it is my experience that husbands actually usually want the same kind of emotional engagement during physical intimacy that their wives want.  One of the differences is that men are socialized out of identifying and expressing vulnerable emotional need, so often the way they get those needs met is through sexual expression.  In the words of one male client, “If she will have sex with me, I know I’m okay with her, that she still wants me.”  It’s often a way men seek soothing and comfort, when they don’t have the know-how or comfort level to seek closeness in other ways.  In sexless marriages, I observe that men sometimes become seemingly numb to emotional needs, because their only way of gaining some kind of reassurance has been erased, and they emotionally disconnect to keep from feeling rejection.  The emotional disconnection makes the possibility for sex even less likely, because their wives don’t feel emotional responsiveness, and the cycle continues, downward spiral fashion.

When Safety is Threatened

Because acceptance and emotional engagement are so integral to a quality sexual relationship, any perceived criticism can absolutely kill the desire of either partner to get close physically.  In one case, a wife was complaining that her husband didn’t pursue her sexually, and she worried that he was viewing pornography.  He had repeatedly denied pornography use, but explained to me that every time he became intimate with his wife, she began directing him about what and what not to do.  While it’s an excellent idea for couples to dialogue about what they want their physical relationship to be like, and to help each other understand sexual preferences, in this case, the husband felt like he was on stage and always “getting it wrong,” and finally gave up wanting to connect at all.  On one occasion, he was having difficulty with performance, and while it’s common for men of a certain age to have some difficulty maintaining an erection due to cardiovascular or other health-related challenges, his wife became very emotional about it, and accused him of viewing pornography.  The situation was very anxiety-provoking and shaming for him, and he became avoidant of further physical contact, unwilling to risk feeling those emotions again.  His wife hadn’t realized she had had such an impact on him, and was blind to the fact that her fear had felt like criticism and blame to him, shutting him down.

The pornography use of a partner can also endanger safety in a sexual relationship.  Women whose husbands have a history of viewing pornography struggle with many barriers to getting physically close.  They worry incessantly that their bodies aren’t matching up to the computer generated images; they worry about the images playing out in their husbands’ minds; they don’t know how to discern normal patterns of sexual behavior and worry that any sexual requests are a result of viewing pornography.  I had one female client concerned that her husband wanted her to wear lingerie.  She didn’t know if this was normal or if it was because he had a history of viewing pornography.  When I told her it was not uncommon for men to respond to visual cues, and that back in 1989 when I started doing couples therapy, before internet pornography was available, there were indeed husbands who had a preference for their wives to wear lingerie, she felt a little more comfortable with the idea.  She did not, however, want to be objectified like the women in pornography, and she a very difficult time engaging in such a physically vulnerable way with someone who had been viewing images of other women.  It took a lot of her emotionally risking sharing her doubts and fears and receiving reassurance from him, while he was also abstaining from pornography use for a while, before she could risk engaging with him sexually.

Amidst the incessant noise surrounding sexuality in our culture, it is more important than ever for spouses to create a safe place.  Like any adventure, you want to know that your partner will be there to catch you if you fall, and sexuality is no exception.

Questions for couples:

  1. When have you felt sexually safe with your partner?
  2. When have you been able to be vulnerable with your partner?
  3. What does your partner not understand about what sometimes makes it difficult to engage sexually?
  4. What would safety with your partner look like?

References:

Johnson, Sue (2008).  Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love, New York: Little, Brown & Company.

Ogden, Gina (2013).  Expanding the Practice of Sex Therapy: An Integrative Model for Exploring Desire and Intimacy, New York: Routledge.

*This was originally published on an earlier blog of mine, Monogamy and Bliss

Couples, Couples Therapy, Love, marriage, Romance

Kissing Like you Mean it: The Benefits of Lighting Fireworks in your Marriage

fireworks

As I was explaining to my husband that I was trying to write a blog post about kissing in marriage, he threw his arms open and offered enthusiastically, “And you want to practice?”  “No,” I answered, “But I admire your optimism and thanks for giving me my opening sentence.”

For most couples, kissing is a natural part of relationship development, particularly as they move toward higher levels of commitment.  Researchers confirm that kissing can be a strong reinforcer for mate assessment and attachment. In other words, if you think you like someone and the kissing goes well, commitment is likely to increase, while the reverse is true for couples who just aren’t “feeling it.”   As people form attachments, prolonged kissing behavior generally increases in romantic relationships.

However, I’ve noticed that really great make-out sessions diminish over time for lots of married couples.  Even couples who maintain frequency in sexual relations sometimes bypass the benefits of quality kissing in a rush toward goal-oriented orgasm in sexual behavior.

In our sex-centric society, kissing is often underrated.  This is unfortunate because there are multiple reported benefits from kissing in committed romantic relationships.  Some highlights are:

  1. Prolonged kissing decreases stress responses by reducing blood pressure, cortisol levels, and increasing skin temperature.
  2. Individuals assigned to increase physical affection in their relationships reported increased positive mood the following day.
  3. Individuals assigned to increase physical affection over six weeks reported increased relationship satisfaction.
  4. Individuals assigned to increase kissing over a period of six weeks had decreased total cholesterol levels.
  5. Engaging in prolonged kissing can increase sexual arousal for some women who don’t experience arousal prior to physical engagement.

Importantly, most of the research about kissing in romantic relationships is with “positively valenced,” relationships, meaning that the people generally like each other and are willing to kiss.  They experience positive emotions about each other.  That will skew the research.

Kissing can be one of the first casualties of emotional disconnection or unmanageable marital conflict.  Some couples report that an intimate kissing session can feel too vulnerable.  I have had many people say that if they feel disconnected, it is easier to actually participate in sexual intercourse than to spend time attuning to their spouses in mouth-to-mouth contact.  Kissing may just not feel safe, and if that’s the case, it can have a negative impact.

Even for people in good relationships, kissing can be a casualty of daily stressors and demands simply because it takes time.  For those people, intentional kissing is a tangible, measurable way to strengthen and enhance bonds.

Here are some ideas for increasing the mouth-to-mouth ratio in your marriage:

  1. Focus on kissing process rather than outcome.  Decide that you are going to have a really great make-out session as your goal.
  2. Incorporate kissing as ritual. Kissing can be a meaningful exchange after time apart, which communicates, “I missed you.  You matter to me.”
  3. Identify a regular kissing spot. My husband decided right after we were married that every time we passed by a certain location, he needed to kiss me.  Almost thirty years later, he still pulls me toward him for a smooch every time we walk through it.  He never forgets.
  4. Re-enact a first kiss or another meaningful kiss from earlier in the relationship.  My husband and I disagree about the particulars here.  He is tall, so I was standing two steps above him.  We were talking and as I recall, he pulled me so I fell into him.  His story is that I “attacked” him.  Highly unlikely, given our relationship history, but if it makes him feel better, I’ll let him think that.
  5. Look for novel opportunities to kiss. Once I saw a street on a map named with my first and middle names.  On a whim, I suggested that we needed to park and kiss on that street (don’t worry, residents—nothing illegal occurred). Silly, I know, but we haven’t forgotten it, either.
  6. Try a kiss of the month club. I once bought a book with different types of kisses and instigated a “kiss of the month,” program.  FYI, Trader Joe’s has a unique Fireworks chocolate bar, which is an excellent kissing accessory for July.

Since marriage provides great potentiality for close physical contact, it makes sense to intentionally maximize kissing benefits.

I have a pillow that says, “A kiss a day keeps the marriage counselor away.”  For low-distress marriages, I believe there is truth in that statement.

I was told as a beginning student in a marriage and family therapy program almost thirty years ago that I should never try to be my spouse’s marriage therapist, and I have followed that advice for the most part.  However, when it comes to the “romantic kissing intervention,” I completely have my husband’s support.  And NOW it’s time to go practice.

References:

Burleson, M. H., Roberts, N. A., Vincelette, T. M., Xin, G., & Newman, M. L. (2013). Marriage, Affectionate Touch, and Health. In Health and social relationships: The good, the bad and the complicated, (pp. 67-93), Washington D.C., US: American Psychological Association 

Burleson, M. H., Trevathan, W. R., Todd, M. (2007). In the Mood for Love or Vice Versa?  Exploring the relations among sexual activity, physical affection, affect, and stress in the daily lives of mid-aged women.  Archives of Sexual Behavior, 36, 357-368.

Floyd, K., Boren, J. P., Hannawa, A. F., Hesse, C., McEwan, B., & Veksler, A. E. (2009). Kissing in marital and cohabitating relationships: Effects on blood lipids, stress, and relationship satisfaction. Western Journal of Communication, 73(2), 113-133.

Wlodarski, R. & Dunbar, R. I. M. (2013). Examining the possible functions of kissing in romantic relationships. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 42,1415-1423. DOI 10.1007/s10508-013-0190-1

Couples, Love, marriage

Is Long-term Love Where Butterflies go to Die?

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Sandra had been married for five years when she came in with her husband for therapy.  “I just want to be ‘in love,’ again,” Sandra disclosed, after I asked her to identify her goals in marriage therapy.  “OK,” I answered, “then let’s talk about how you will know you are ‘in love.’”  She gushed, “Well, you know, that feeling you get when you look at your partner and you feel so excited to see them and you think about them all the time?”  “Do you mean that feeling that some people call ‘twitterpation,’ or ‘butterflies,’ when you are with your partner?” I clarified.  “Yes…well, I know it won’t be exactly like when we were first together, but I miss having those feelings.”

The first year or two of a romantic, committed relationship is indeed an intoxicating experience.  This euphoric state is linked to words like “passion,” “infatuation,” or even “madness.”  There is a social science term called “limerence,” to describe this state, characterized by increased energy, motivation and focus.  Scientists are always learning more about people in this stage with an increased ability to measure physical responses, such as a functional MRI for viewing brain activity.  People in this condition experience physiological changes which have been likened to the heightened experience of people on cocaine.

So, is this “love?”

Despite attempts to define and conceptualize love, it is ultimately a subjective experience, and carries deep meaning for most people, which can make it tricky to address in therapy.  Romantic love comes with high expectations for people in the western world.  I have learned that everyone is different when it comes to definitions and expectations for romantic love.

I do believe, however, that for a long-term committed relationship to survive, partners must develop a more mature definition of love beyond the limerence stage in order to enjoy the benefits of long-term attachment.

In my anecdotal experience, sometimes people who married the first person they experienced this feeling with are surprised and disappointed when it fades.  Some even assume it means that they aren’t “in love,” anymore.

Even though there is not technically a “love addiction,” in the field of mental health, I have had clients who seem to chase the high of new relationships by engaging in repetitive infidelity, looking for that one relationship which will allow them to keep that pleasurable sensation of “falling in love,” permanently.   It doesn’t have to be a physical relationship.  People can experience the same feelings in digital relationships in which they have never even met the individual in person.  Deep mutual emotional disclosure can generate the same euphoria.  Sometimes, even concealing an extramarital relationship can fuel the release of pleasurable chemicals, which keeps people returning to the behavior.

In conversations with many clients, I have pointed out that chasing the sensation of a new relationship can deprive them of enjoying the benefits of a safe long-term attachment.  My clients have expressed that, “it’s such a great feeling, though!  You have more energy, and you feel so motivated!”  “Yes,” I add, “And you would have a lot more energy if you took amphetamines right now, too, but you wouldn’t do it because of the long-term negative implications for stability.”

So, in a long-term relationship, must you just accept that you have moved into a new stage of love and abandon hope of getting back those “feel-good hormones?”

Well, in my opinion, yes….and, no.

In some brain imaging studies, partners who had been together for 20 years or more demonstrated brain activity similar to people in the limerence stage of love.  Even so, for most people, the intensity of physical sensations changes, and if we evaluate the changes as bad, we are more prone to experience negative emotions about it and think something is wrong.  If, however, we acknowledge that relationships shift and transform continually, and the changes can mean improvement in other aspects of the relationship, we are more likely to accept the attrition of limerence-related hormones.  We influence a lot of our personal feelings about things according to our evaluations, and we have complete power to change our evaluations.  This is in part how we can change our feelings about our relationships.

Out of curiosity, every so often, I have asked my husband, “Do you ever wish you could get back the intense feelings with the butterflies you had in the beginning of our relationship.”  He always answers the same way, which is, “No, because I still have those feelings everyday when I look at you.”  Good answer…and I don’t believe him for a minute.  I do believe, however, that it is important for him to love his wife and family, and so he does, because he wants a long-term relationship.  He has developed a mature definition of what love is.

I haven’t experienced the intense sensations associated with limerence for years, but I do experience a discernible pleasurable boost when my husband walks into a room.  Once, at Target, when I was Christmas shopping for 7 kids, I remember wandering the toy aisle feeling overwhelmed about the financial cost of the annual holiday.  He had gone to a different part of the store to look for something.  I was on a downward spiral of depressed feelings, as my eyes searched the aisle for consumer inspiration.  Suddenly, he appeared at the end of the aisle with a big smile on his face, and my heart jumped, and I felt immediately better.  The butterflies weren’t as intense, but they were definitely there.  He was my partner in this crazy endeavor, and we would figure it out together.

One thing butterflies demonstrate for sure is the power of transformation.  Perhaps considering this aspect of “butterfly-ness,” is more helpful than thinking of the fluttering feeling as the end goal.

In the meantime, if any one has a legit Cupid’s arrow for sale this Valentine season, I’m in the market.

 

Attachment, Couples, Love, marriage

The Number One Question Men Ask me About their Marriages

man and wife in bed

From time to time, I deliver presentations in the community related to marriage.  I have noticed that a common question comes up repeatedly from the married males in my audiences.  I am asked this question often enough that I am choosing to address it in a blog post.

Before I address the specific question, I want to be clear that I believe these inquiries are coming from individuals in relatively low to moderately-distressed marriages.  Many people in my audiences are feeling well in their marriages and are looking for improving upon what is already a solid foundation.  I’m making that clear because I realize that this point of view isn’t representative of many other marriages which are experiencing more disconnection and outright criticism from their partners.

The question I am asked routinely by men is, “How can I make my wife believe that I really think she is beautiful and I am happy with the way she looks?”  The question is usually followed up by an explanation that the female partner talks regularly about not measuring up when it comes to physical appearance, and expresses a lack of confidence in body image.  Overall, men routinely report diminished quality in physical and emotional intimacy as a result.

This may not seem like a big deal to some people, but it can actually be an enormous barrier to connection in marriage.  When husbands try to compliment or reassure their wives about their physical appearances and it is dismissed, this is actually a form of rejection.  Not only that, but many women tend to self-monitor during physical intimacy, because it feels vulnerable, so this is when many of them focus on their appearances instead of on their partners, and they generate a huge disconnect.  This behavior also reduces their own sexual satisfaction.  If the husband has a history of viewing pornography, there is often increased vulnerability and fear around measuring up to some kind of media-generated, false standard.  In those cases, healing the injury related to porn use may be necessary before developing any kind of real closeness.

In short, I try to explain to men that our culture is particularly toxic to women when it comes to accepted standards of beauty, and it is so pervasive that it is very common for women to worry that they don’t look good enough—especially for those who have experienced permanent alterations with some pregnancy and childbirth experiences.  Then, in the brief period of time I have to address the question, I try to explain to men how they can communicate to their wives how this negative self-talk affects them and keeps them from being able to get close, e.g. “When I tell you I like the way you look and you say, ‘I don’t believe you,’ it leaves me with no way to get closer to you, which feels lonely somehow,” (or something similar—if I have time, I will find out specifically from the husband how it impacts him and help him find language for that).

With the negative messages women receive about body image, it’s actually amazing that any of us has a shred of confidence with a body that hasn’t had cosmetic surgical intervention.  As a mother of 7 children and who hasn’t had cosmetic surgery procedures, I completely understand.  However, I want to be a voice for how damaging it can be to our marriages when we allow ourselves to be victimized by the dominant negative messages about appearance.

Women are not completely powerless.  Here are a few things to do prevent negative body image talk from disrupting marriage.

  • Recognize the negative impact the media and broad culture have on appearance and body image (with no sign of retreat). In short, we are in a consumer culture.  Most of the time, people are selling something, and it is basically their job to make you feel like you are lacking.  One of the easiest ways to do this is by preying on outward appearance.  I cannot approach any makeup counter in a major department store without someone tsk-tsking about the crow’s feet developing around my eyes, or some other visible “flaw,” etc., because they want to upsell me some kind of anti-aging miracle cream.  They want me to feel bad about how I look so I will buy more product.  I have been tempted at times to say, “No thank you—I would like to develop as many wrinkles as possible, and I’m afraid that cream will interfere with the process,” just to see what kind of reaction I would get. Please recognize that you are so much more than your appearance.
  • Have the courage to challenge the false messages of the toxic culture. Prevailing messages often, if not always, have nothing to do with truth.  However, when we are constantly wading through them, we accept them as fact and don’t bother challenging them.  Physical beauty and attraction in marriage is actually influenced by many variables.  So-called objective standards of beauty are not enough to maintain a long-term relationship, and partners can become more or less attractive to each other based on their accumulation of experiences together.
  • Recognize the false messages that the culture teaches about men. Personally, I experience my male clients as far more complex and deep than the media would have us believe.  In popular television shows, movies, etc., men are presented as emotionally dull, unavailable, simple, and almost always hypersexual.  This is insulting to both genders.  It is normative for men to express the desires they have to be close to their wives physically because they feel acceptance and love from their wives in those moments; they do have a harder time becoming emotionally vulnerable, because, quite frankly, our culture socializes (beats) it out of them (I addressed this in an earlier post entitled, “In Defense of Men,” that you can access here).  Men don’t always have the higher sex drive, but when they do, I believe it’s about more than just testosterone levels–men are socialized to seek connection through physical means–it’s a societal norm.  Men are seeking deeper connection with their wives far more than they are given credit for.  Many men have explained to me that if their wives aren’t willing partners, they would rather not be physically close at all, because of the way it makes them feel emotionally to have a disengaged partner.  In the words of more than one husband, “I don’t want to feel like a rapist.  I want to connect with my wife.  I want her to want to be with me.”
  • Recognize the benefits of a close physical relationship. One of our drives as human beings is to have sex, and it’s not gender-specific.  However, men are generally expected to be sexual, and women are expected to be desired.  Women have very limited societal role models for healthy sexuality.  Instead, they are presented with polar opposites of prudes or prostitutes, with no happy medium.  This is unfortunate, since sex is a bonding behavior and can increase overall closeness in a long-term couple relationship.  If women had permission to be sexual, they would likely be more invested in nurturing close physical relationships, despite body type and perceived flaws.
  • Try attuning to your partner instead of self-monitoring in vulnerable moments. When people focus on their own body flaws in intimate moments, they aren’t available to focus on their partners.  This practice of focusing inward is referred to as “spectatoring.”  Non-verbal attunement, which makes up a great deal of physical intimacy, is disrupted.  If tempted to ruminate on that extra ten pounds or the leftover stretch marks, try purposefully attuning to your partner as well as to experienced sensation.  I recommend author Barry McCarthy for books related to physical intimacy.
  • Use mindfulness to shift out of negative self-talk/thoughts. In simplest terms, focus on breathing, and if your mind is wandering to your flaws, notice that you have shifted (which might also mean you are becoming more fearful), and refocus yourself back to your breathing.  Try to stay present and engaged.
  • Ask your partner what they like about your body, and what they like about you besides your body, and then risk believing them. Most of us do not have what is sold to us as the ideal body type—that’s one of the ways that a consumer culture can perpetuate constant insecurities and reap financial benefits from them.  People become cherished and special to us through a variety of experiences and means.  Yes, it is possible that even though you wish you were 4 inches taller, and had a smaller waist, your husband likes you just the way you are, because you are his partner, and you are the one with whom he wants to bond.

In short, risk believing that you can actually be enough.  If you can never be enough, you are in a constant state of victimization, and it generates a state bereft of contentment and joy.  If you can see yourself for the complex individual you are, complete with talents, a personality, and character, instead of just a body type, you can also reach out and help others feel more acceptance and peace.

As long as we feel insecure in how we look, and don’t believe our husbands when they try to tell us they are attracted to us, we are allowing faceless entities to disrupt our marriages.  We are in essence denying ourselves potential connection and happiness.

References:

Ackard, D. M., Kearney-Cooke, A., & Peterson, C. B. (2000). Effect of body image and self-image on women’s sexual behaviors. International Journal of Eating Disorders,28(4), 422-429.

Pujols, Y., Meston, C. M. & Seal, B. N. (2010). The association between sexual satisfaction and body image in women. The Journal of Sexual Medicine, 7(2pt.2), 905-916.