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

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Couples, marriage

Why that First Five Minutes at Home can be so Important in your Marriage

ritual.flowers

One evening, I stumbled home from work at 10:30 p.m., exhausted and fighting a pounding headache.  I staggered into my bedroom, sped through a bedtime routine and melted into bed.  A few minutes later, my husband walked into my room and demanded, “Hey, when did you come home?  Why didn’t you tell me you were home?”  I wearily replied, “I was exhausted.”  “You’re supposed to come find me,” he complained.

Was I detecting irritation in his voice?  “Why are you getting mad?  I was too tired to come find you,” I argued.  He sounded both frustrated and a little wounded as he continued, “I was waiting for you to come home.  I was looking forward to it, and then you just went to bed without even saying goodnight.”  “I didn’t know that and I didn’t think you would care,” I called to the back of his head as he walked out the bedroom door contesting back, “Why would you think that?  You always come find me.  You’re supposed to come find me.  Why would I not care?”

Wow.  He really was annoyed (and hurt) over such a small thing, in my perception.

This is a typical example of how the microprocess in a marriage ritual can be rich with meaning.

Importance of Family Rituals

 Marriage and family therapists have known for years how important rituals are in family life.  Rituals are more than just routines—they are special routines that bring significance and meaning to events and people.  In families, they serve several functions.  Here are some:

  1. Rituals aid identity development.  Shared rituals provide a sense of self in a particular context.  The “we-ness,” of rituals actually gives people meaning for who they are and where they fit in the world.
  2. Rituals provide predictability and safety. Predictability and safety provide a secure attachment base which aids confidence to individuals in exploring the world.
  3. Rituals increase positive memories and happiness in families. Even though the stereotype of the dysfunctional family Thanksgiving dinner is a heavily promoted scenario, many if not most of these holidays contain positive memories which aid happiness.
  4. Rituals are protective. Family rituals have been associated with decreased anxiety and depression in children and with increased marital and familial relationship quality.  They can be especially important in families where stability and structure are threatened, as in situations with a family member with a chronic illness.

Importance of Comings and Goings 

Marital rituals are a subset of family rituals and provide similar functionality.  Just like family rituals, there are different kinds:  Holidays, weekly dates, bedtime routines, etc.  What was reflected in my above example was a ritual of separation and coming together again.  When a couple is separating, or rejoining with each other, there is embedded attachment significance, which is why it is so important.  Saying goodbye or giving a spouse a kiss when you leave the house is a way of saying, “I will miss you, but I will keep you with me mentally while we are apart.  You matter to me.”  Finding a spouse when you come back home again is a way of signaling, “I missed you.”  It’s communicating that, “We are important together.”  It is the key to reconnecting after a physical disconnection.  My husband was wounded in a small way when I didn’t come find him because in part, it seemed like I didn’t care if I saw him and connected with him.  It was a mini-rejection.

Marital researcher John Gottman asserts that the first few moments of a couple reuniting after a separation are key in strengthening marital identity.  Reaching out to find a spouse to reconnect upon arriving home has the potential to set the relationship on a positive trajectory.

Bedtime Connection

People might be surprised at how often couples argue about bedtime.  In my clinical experience, a common point of contention is a marriage in which one partner wants to go to bed together and the other partner stays up or goes to bed earlier.  This isn’t primarily about sex (although that can be part of it)—it’s primarily about a sense of togetherness.  Some individuals protest the ongoing disconnection in the relationship that is maintained by differing bedtime schedules.

It’s probably not surprising that frequently, dissimilar bedtimes can be associated with lower marital quality, or that highly distressed couples are often not even sharing a bedroom.

“Lucy, I’m Home!”

One of the most iconic lines in TV land is Ricky Ricardo’s Cuban-accented, “Lucy, I’m home!” from the famous I Love Lucy 1950’s television series.  It has been referenced in modern media pop-culture, like in the ever popular Gilmore Girls.

I might be a simplistic optimist, but I actually believe that if more spouses followed Desi Arnaz’ example and bellowed, “(insert spouse name), I’m HOME,” we might actually see an increase in positive marital connection.  With or without the charming Cuban accent.  The flowers in the attached photo are also a nice touch–just sayin’.

However, if I had used Desi’s line in my aforementioned story, I wouldn’t have that awesome example to show how I completely sabotaged my own relationship connection. I, the marriage therapist, after spending an evening meeting with couples, had underestimated the importance of a small connection ritual.

You’re welcome.

Reference:

Family rituals in married couples: Links with attachment, relationship quality, and closeness. Crespo, Carla; Davide, Isabel N.; Costa, M. Emilia; Fletcher, Garth J. O., 2008, Personal Relationships, volume 15, issue 2, starting on page 191

Photo credit: Copyright: flairmicro / 123RF Stock Photo

 

Couples, Love

Holy Relationships, Batman! Eleven Relationship Truths We Can Learn from The Lego Batman Movie

batman-loveI have been waiting for almost a year for the Lego Batman movie to come out.  Last summer, when the trailers were available, I was using one of them in presentations to illustrate how males are so frequently socialized out of feeling and expressing any vulnerable emotions.  You can see what I mean in the second half of this trailer.  His butler, Alfred asks, “Do you want to talk about how you’re feeling?” and Batman shouts, “What? No!  I don’t want to do that!”  My husband and I watched that clip and laughed over and over.

We finally went with our kids to the movie last weekend.  In the middle of the show, my husband leaned over and whispered to me, “I feel like I’m in a therapy session with Dr. Lori Schade.”  If you aren’t familiar with Batman’s story, his parents were killed when he was younger and he lives largely in social isolation, emerging occasionally to save the city from the bad guys.  Alone in his billionaire mansion, he is a tortured soul.  There were many things about his character that I see in therapy all the time.  Just for fun, I identified the things Lego Batman can teach us about love.

  1. We all exist in relationship to others.  At the beginning of the movie, Batman declares that he doesn’t “do ships—as in relationships.”  He prefers to be alone.  However, as humans, we exist in relationships.  The question is whether we are proactive, as in using them for connection, or reactive, as in being avoidant or demanding.
  1. When people are wounded they often “numb out” and stop needing people.  In the first Lego movie, I laughed when Batman blasted music declaring, “Darkness!….No Parents!” demonstrating that he was still hurting over his familial loss.  I wasn’t laughing at his pain, but at the writer’s incisive observance of human behavior, and how we use music to express things for ourselves better than we can articulate them alone.  Sometimes music with this intensity follows numbness, because it allows the person in pain to “feel something,” even if only for a moment.
  1. People who are numb from emotional pain commonly have a restricted emotional range.   There was one emotion Batman admitted feeling: Rage.  It’s typical to see people with relationship trauma prevent themselves from feeling at all or only feeling anger, usually because they cannot hurt anymore.  This happens in marriage all the time.  Going numb keeps people from feeling and anger keeps people protected and effectively keeps other people out.
  1. People can have family of origin trauma or romantic relationship trauma that can follow them into the present. The loss of his parents was so painful that Batman didn’t want to get close to people again.  For many people, the injury can occur in the context of a previous romantic relationship in which someone was severely wounded.  The ghosts from these relationships show up, triggering people into reactivity in the present.  It’s not even always conscious.  Our brains remember pain.
  1. When you allow other people to get close to you, you are more vulnerable.  Batman was not willing to risk getting close to someone again, because he was not risk feeling the pain of loss again.  Very common and again, not always intentional.
  1. It’s scary to be vulnerable with other people. Batman’s butler, Alfred, conjectures that Batman is afraid of being in a family again.  Batman finally does admit that he is afraid to get close enough to people to hurt if they are taken away again.  Many people prevent closeness because of fear of the pain of loss or lack of connection.
  1. It’s more distressing to get no reaction than an angry reaction.  This relationship truth was manifested in Batman’s relation to the Joker, his nemesis.  The Joker wants confirmation that Batman hates him and sees him as a threat, but Batman is dismissive of him, driving his desperation for acknowledgment.  This relationship truth is that it’s more emotionally painful to get NO reaction from someone than an angry, bitter reaction.  This is why if a partner is stonewalling, it’s common to see another partner become more provoking.
  1. Relationship loss is normal, but you can’t stop letting people into your life.  Batman dispenses this advice at the end of the movie.  People who shut people out because of relationship pain are also denying themselves the benefit of having relationship support.  People thrive in the context of safe, close relationships.  They also function more effectively independently than people who are constantly trying to be completely independent and not need others for anything.  Safe, close relationships help us regulate distressing emotions more efficiently than when we are alone.  We literally feel less pain.
  1. We can want someone and push them away at the same time.  Even though he clearly has a thing for the commissioner, he pushes her away on purpose, to protect himself from future pain and to protect her from himself.  Batman knows he has a dark side.  There is fear that if he gets close to her, she won’t like who he really is, and there is fear that he will disappoint her.  This is a very real thing people do to stay in the safe zone.
  1. You can’t force someone to be vulnerable or close to you. As much as his friends tried to engage him, Batman ultimately had to be the one to decide that he would ALLOW people to be close.  There is a reaching out aspect, but the receiving aspect, at least in therapy, is often the hardest dynamic to shift.  People need to be willing to let their walls down to allow people to get close.  Demanding that someone, “BE VULNERABLE,” will never work.  Believe me, I have clients that try that approach constantly.  It will paradoxically push people away more.  All you can do is reassure and be consistently safe and hope that your partner will see it long enough to try to engage, especially if you have been a dangerous partner in the past, with criticism, blame, demand, or betrayal. 
  1. Being completely independent seems safe, but comes at a cost.  Batman is ultimately not a happy, albeit fictitious, soul.  His emotional isolation comes at a cost, which is loneliness, a restricted emotional range, rage and mistrust.  People who don’t risk getting close prevent the possibility of having close, bonding experiences with people, which can help build trust and safety.

I was amazed at how many relationship truths were presented in the Batman Lego movie.  Many people aren’t presenting these characteristics in Batman’s extreme, but they use the same strategies nonetheless.  Bottom line:  We are social beings.  We thrive in the context of close, safe, special relationships.  The question is not whether you are doing relationships, but how you are doing relationships.  To maximize the benefit, see where and when you can be vulnerable to emotionally bond to people.  It is a risk, but we have lots of evidence to show that it’s worth it in a safe, healing context.

My guess is that with supportive people around him, Batman will be even more effective at saving the citizens of Gotham….but we will have to wait for the next Lego Batman movie to find out.

Na na na na na na na na na na na na na na na na…..Thatman…does…Relationships!

Photo credit.  Copyright: bubbers / 123RF Stock Photo

Attachment, Couples, Love, marriage, Romance

Translating the Language of Love: A Caveat

11939377 - learning chinese language on a blackboard starting with Many years ago, when I was in major survival mode in the thick of raising my children, one of my friends with an interest in family life education found out that I had a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy and asked if I had read the “Love Languages,” book by Gary Chapman which had recently been released.  I had not.  She lent it to me and I thought it was an interesting way to conceptualize expressions of love by categorizing behavioral types.  The book inspired a fun conversation.  I joked with my husband that I did not see my main current love language in the book, which was “sleep,” but I did see his love language, which also started with an “s,” and happened primarily in the bedroom, but was not “sleep.”

If you’re not familiar with Gary Chapman’s book, he is an educated pastoral counselor who has identified 5 categories of love languages: words of affirmation, quality time, gifts, acts of service and physical touch.  The book is enormously popular and has grown into a branded enterprise with a huge following.

The book’s suggestions can be very helpful for some couples.  It can be a wonderful resource for couples who are kind to each other.  However, for many distressed situations, the seemingly benign model can quickly be weaponized to wreak havoc in a marriage. I want to warn people of the limitations of the paradigm.  While it can facilitate loving acts in a relationship, it can also justify a quality of stinginess which is harmful.  I rarely recommend the book in therapy because most couples have been previously introduced to it and use it in a way that is not helpful; to be fair, I’m a marriage therapist so people aren’t coming to me because they are blissfully happy, but allow me to explain.

Here are some examples of what I commonly hear couples express:

“He wants to kiss me when he gets home, but my love language is acts of service.”

“We did the love languages test, and she knows mine is physical touch, but she won’t let me near her, even when I do all the chores she wants….it’s never enough for her.”

“Well, he did wash the dishes and take out the trash and fold laundry and help put the kids to bed, but my love language is gifts, and he knows that, so I don’t know why he’s surprised that I didn’t want to have sex.”

“She said her love language was gifts, but every time I buy her something, she takes it back because I bought the wrong thing.”

“She knows that my love language is words of affirmation, but all I ever hear from her is criticism, and she spends all of our money and I don’t know what she expects me to use to buy gifts, which she says is her love language.”

“His love language is physical touch, but he knows mine is quality time, and he’s never around, so I don’t know how he expects me to want to kiss him.  Mine is also acts of service and he never does anything to help either, so he doesn’t do either of my love languages.”

See what I mean?  Couples routinely use the love languages to hurt each other more and to stay disconnected.  The related themes are, “My partner knows my love language and refuses to do it, so I know I don’t matter to him/her,” and “Why should I speak his/her love language when he/she doesn’t reciprocate with mine?”

I hear this over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over.

And over.

I think Chapman’s intent was to both expand people’s imaginations and to increase behavioral congruency in showing love, but too often, they use his classifications to be less flexible about how they give and receive l’amour.  His languages can be used as an excuse to reject a partner’s attempts to connect.  They sometimes give people an excuse to have constraining expectations.

Furthermore, they are often used as an impaired regulatory device to police partners about whether they are reciprocating loving acts.  For example, “I vacuumed the floor the other day because her language is acts of service, but she hasn’t done a single thing on my love language list.”  Wearisome.

Chapman argues that most people operate from one primary love language.  This makes for a tidy resale narrative, but it might be a tad simplistic.  As people develop healthy relationships, they generally exhibit partner adaptation.  They become more accepting of the offerings of their partners.  I believe this is what Chapman had in mind, and I think some couples probably use the model this way.  In fact, I think my husband and I use the model that way.  However, couples in distress who worry that they are no longer loved develop rigid rules for identifying their relational worth.  Their relational anxieties translate into inflexible demands for determining whether they are a priority.

The love languages model has not been empirically validated, which obviously does not matter in most popular psychology circles.  Marketing and salesmanship are generally more important than accuracy when it comes to popular relationship ideologies.  There was one very limited study on love languages with a small sample size (N=110), primarily Caucasian, mostly between ages 18-22 and with people in a relationship for less than five years.  However, the authors only evaluated the factor structure and construct validity of the instrument.  In short, the five languages do seem to represent psychometrically distinct categories and the behaviors do correlate with one other instrument designed to measure related constructs, but there aren’t studies to my knowledge demonstrating that people operate from one primary love language.  It’s also difficult to know how people are applying the model, and that’s where a lot of the problem lies.  Self-report would be intrinsically flawed.

There is a lot to like in the love languages books.  If it encourages people to put more positive energy into their relationships, huzzah!  However, don’t think that because you are more “fluent” in your partner’s rigidly defined “love language,” that somehow your marriage is going to magically improve, especially if it’s used quid pro quo.  If you want to focus on your spouse’s happiness, love languages will help, but if you are constantly monitoring fairness, you will sabotage the book’s original intent.

Bottom line:  We all speak the same love language.  This fluency lies in secure relationship attachment.  When we feel secure in our marriages, we are more cooperative about the specific ways in which we give and receive love.  While it’s true that partners may have different foci at different time points in marriage, there is an ongoing fluidity of exploring and experimenting and expanding on ways to give and receive love, not a narrowing in exchange.

If you really want to be fluent in love languages, then increase your comfort level with all the categories.  Be intentionally receptive to your partner’s efforts across the board.

And PLEASE stop using love languages as a blunt force weapon with which to bludgeon your partner!  Those relational wounds that are invisible to the eye are the hardest to repair.

An excellent idea for a Valentine’s Day gift this year might be to increase your exchange of all 5 love language scales–I think it might be the best use of Chapman’s book.

References:

The 5 Love Languages: The Secret to Love that Lasts by Gary Chapman, 2015, Northfield Publishing.

 Speaking the Language of Relational Maintenance: A Validity Test of Chapman’s (1992) Five Love Languages by Nichole Egbert & Denise Polk, 2006, in Communication Research Reports, 23(1), 19-26.

Photo credit: Copyright: bbbar / 123RF Stock Photo

 

Couples, Couples Therapy, marriage

Why a Husband’s Pornography Use Can be so Painful to so Many Wives

42915540 - offended the wife with her husband playing computer games**Side note—When I read the title to my husband, he said, “Do you really have to explain that?  Isn’t it obvious?”  The answer is that I don’t think it’s obvious enough, because men get socialized so differently than women.  As much as they try, I think they have a hard time understanding the pain of felt betrayal and rejection that can be associated with pornography.  Too often it is minimized.

Anyone practicing as a marriage therapist nowadays is going to have clients in which pornography is presented as a problem in the marriage by one or both spouses, regardless of religious belief.  Whenever sexuality comes up in marriage therapy (which is almost always), it’s a complex topic with varying emotions, histories, experiences, desires and outcomes.  Every situation is a little different.  However, a somewhat typical presentation is one in which a husband is or has been viewing pornography and his wife feels betrayed by his behaviors and has a decreased desire to engage sexually with him.  I want to attempt to explain why I think a husband’s pornography use can be so painful for women, and why I think it’s hard for men to understand why it’s so rejecting.

From the moment they are born, females get consistent messages that they are being evaluated by their looks.  The message is, “Be pretty.”  One of my earliest memories of elementary school is standing in line near my teacher and hearing my friend ask my teacher, “Ms. Hoffmann, do you think Lori’s pretty?”  I remember feeling a sense of panic and watching my teacher carefully to hear her answer.  “Yes,” she answered—what else was she going to say with me standing right there?  I wondered why my friend was asking her when she followed up with, “Because I think she’s pretty.”  I remember experiencing an emotion I hadn’t experienced before—fear that I wasn’t going to look good enough—fear that I wasn’t going to BE enough.  The message I got was clear—People were evaluating me based on my appearance—something over which I had limited control.

In junior high, the messages about image intensify.  Females are judged constantly and harshly on every aspect of appearance.  Boys comment on body parts continually.  This is the age at which some girls decide not to be “too smart,” and focus more on how they look.  Social rejection related to looks is painful.  Anyone who thinks this doesn’t happen more for girls than boys hasn’t been to a secondary school lately.  Once when I got the highest score in the class on a chemistry test, I was horrified, worrying that someone was going to find out it was me, because our scores were graded on a curve.  When one young man did find out, he said, “Lori Cluff’s too cute to be that smart.”  Whether I was that cute or that smart was debatable, but his statement represented the predominant message for females in our culture.  The message I got was that I needed to work harder to hide academic achievement to gain social approval.

Fortunately, I had a father who valued competency above appearance, but sadly, for many girls, any dimension of competency is underrated in comparison to their looks.  Also, my father’s voice was influential but was often easily lost in the surrounding cultural message.  It didn’t matter if I outperformed all but two boys in my high school cohort on every academic measure—it didn’t matter if I studied the piano enough for my teacher to encourage me toward a music major—it mattered if I looked good.  Boys, conversely, are more frequently praised for their performances rather than their ornamental values.  They simply don’t experience the same pressure about appearance, which I believe makes it harder for them to understand as men how deeply their porn use can hurt their wives.

As women age, the messages don’t get any better.  Aging is to be feared because it makes you ugly.  In my late 30’s, after my mother experienced serious heart health issues, I went to the library to check out every book I could on aging and health, determined to learn how to use exercise and nutrition to try to attain a better quality of life than she was experiencing.  The female librarian recognized me from my previous frequent visits.  She took at a look at my books and comforted, “Oh, honey—I always thought you were the prettiest girl.”  I smiled wanly and thought, “What does that have to do with it?”  It didn’t even occur to her that my concern was my physical health and not my looks.  I can promise that if my husband walked up to the library counter with the same books, the assumption would be that he was trying to preserve his physical condition and not that he was clinging to his hotness factor.

Not only are women CONSTANTLY evaluated on how they look, but they are CONSTANTLY compared, implicitly and explicitly, as a group.  Marketers target women by inciting insecurity to fuel consumerism—very effectively–so effectively that it’s rare to find a female who thinks she is skinny enough, toned enough, glamorous enough, pretty enough, sexual enough, young enough, shapely enough, perfect enough, flawless enough, enough ENOUGH.  At age 5, I sat in front of the mirror wondering how I could get my hair to change to black like Snow White.  I asked my mom if we could make my hair black, and she acted confused.  My response came from comparing myself to the iconic Disney princess.  Now, the pressure is SO much greater—with SO many more princesses to compare.

Disney princesses are literally child’s play when juxtaposed with the pressure elicited from pornography where surgically altered bodies are the norm.  When prevailing female cosmetic insecurity meets the porn industry in marriage, the result can be devastating.  In a relationship in which a female felt presumably safe and reasonably confident (not entirely—because let’s not get too crazy or unrealistic), suddenly she has to worry again about her appearance in a big way.  Having a husband who is viewing porn can trigger every self-doubt a women has ever had about how she looks.  In short, it’s common for a woman to conclude, “If he has to look at porn (other women), I must not be enough.”

Now, think about wanting to be sexual with a spouse who doesn’t think you are enough.  For most couples, sexuality is an area of utmost vulnerability.  I have often said that if you really want to destroy your marriage, criticize your spouse’s sexual performance.  Both men and women are usually highly sensitive to evaluations of their sexuality, which is entwined with desirability.  I have seen men withdraw from sex in a big way based on one performance-related comment.  Women withdraw similarly when they find out their husbands have been hiding a porn-viewing habit.

In short, being married to someone who is viewing pornography can feel threatening to the attachment safety in a relationship.  Part of attachment security is knowing that one is “enough,” for one’s partner.  I believe that pornography can strike so deeply for women because intensely socialized insecurities (physical appearance) are combined with an intensely vulnerable aspect (sex) of the relationship.

Another important facet of attachment is predictability in a partner.  Usually the deception that has accompanied porn use completely erodes trust. Commonly, women have reported discovering a partner’s hidden porn habit as a trauma and/or an infidelity.  Many become afraid and hypervigilant and disconnected sexually and emotionally from their partners.  Women repeatedly tell me that they can’t have sex without wondering what images of other women are flashing in their husbands’ minds.  Building safety back into the relationship can be a slow process.

An important step in healing is to try as much as is possible to understand a partner’s experience.  To understand better, ask your wife what messages she got about her appearance growing up and how pornography impacts those messages.  Then, really listen and see if you relate.  Be honest.

Reference:

Wives’ Experience of Husbands’ Pornography Use and Concomitant Deception as an Attachment Threat in the Adult Pair-Bond Relationship by Spencer T. Zitzman and Mark H. Butler (2009), in Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity, 16(3), 210-240.

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Couples, Love, marriage

Healing a Broken Heart

38591257 - close up of a heart shape with bandage on white background

Sometimes I listen to the British band, Bastille, because their sound appeals to my Anglophilic tendencies and is reminiscent of some of my favorite 80’s alternative bands.  A recent song that caught my attention is Good Grief.  The lyrics describe the phenomenon of grief as a terrifying event (“watching through my fingers”–like at a horror movie) with complex twists and turns.  Triggers are described as, “Caught off guard by your favorite song, Oh I’ll be dancing at a funeral, dancing at a funeral,” with a chorus that echoes, “Every minute and every hour I miss you, I miss you, I miss you more.”  In a split second, people can go from feeling okay to feeling devastatingly sad. This is the norm for relationship loss.

I’ve become more aware of the song lately because I was recently asked to participate in a question/answer webinar about moving on and healing from lost relationships.  Just about anyone who has been in romantic love agrees that it can be a uniquely and exquisitely joyful experience, but that it can also be proportionately and uniquely painful.

Although I’m usually in the business of helping people preserve and repair relationships, much of my practice consists of people in the throes of grief from recent relationship loss, or who are embarking on new relationships and terrified to proceed because of previous losses.

Losing important relationships can be downright traumatic.  The pain is so deep and often unpredictable, that it can also be disorienting and, as Bastille hints, terrifying.  People are extremely vulnerable in these scenarios.  One of my wishes is that we as human beings were more validating toward people in this kind of pain.  Most people are so uncomfortable with it that it can be hard to get adequate support.

Here are a few things to know and do when facing breakup recovery:

  1. It’s going to hurt.  No duh, right?  Except that it’s one thing to know it cognitively and another thing to experience it.  The brain registers grief and loss as actual pain.  There are even studies demonstrating that taking an analgesic like Tylenol can blunt emotional pain.  I explain to people that it is NORMAL to be in pain, and if they were not in pain something would be wrong.  The pain from a lost relationship means that there was a connection, and as human beings we feel pain with lost emotional connection.  Feeling pain means you can also feel joy.
  2. It’s going to hurt for a while. People often expect to feel better faster than they do.  It’s not atypical to see people in active grief for a year, or even a few.  For some relationships, grief triggers may not ever entirely disappear, but they generally get less intense, and the time between triggers increases.
  3. Feel pain well. This sounds strange, but what I mean by this is to actually set up a specific amount of time daily or weekly to actively grieve a relationship. Create a grieving ritual.  Write stream-of-consciousness style for a number of minutes.  Think about memories you want to keep.  Allow yourself to express sadness.  Set the timer, and when the timer is up, have a ritual to transition into another activity. Complete a mundane task and then move on toward a new activity.  There will still be diffuse pain, but I believe that actively grieving in a specific time and space helps create a boundary and contain some of the grief.  It moves people through the process with less complexity.
  4. Practice mindfulness. You cannot control when and where triggers will show up.  They are everywhere.  They lie in songs, places, dates, smells–potentially in any stimulus.  When a trigger happens, focus on breathing and become curious about emotional physical reactions and just “be” with yourself.
  5. Actively restore, strengthen or begin other new connections. Our society places a premium on romantic love and underrates other types of human connection.  Think about what kind of son/daughter, brother/sister, parent, neighbor, friend, grandchild, grandparent, community member, etc., you want to be and reach out to someone.  Write a note—even if it’s a text.  An attempt at human connection is movement toward health.
  6. Find self-care activities to appeal to the senses. Yoga is an excellent idea—calming, restorative and tactile.  Take warm baths.  Listen to music.  One of my favorite calming sensory activities is to sit near a container of kinetic sand and just handle it.  I used to provide sand tray therapy, and I noticed that my clients often significantly visibly relaxed while playing with sand.  These are all soothing activities for targeting distress.
  7. Write down anything you have learned from the loss of this relationship. Yes, really.
  8. Figure out how you would be happy if you never got involved in another romantic relationship again. Why would I ask this?  Because you will be less likely to rush into a compromised relationship.  Yes, romantic love can be nice (although being in a romantic relationship and feeling alone is MORE alone than being alone and alone), but people do survive and finds ways to be happy through other connections (see #5). What do you want to accomplish in life?
  9. Do something new.   Visit somewhere new.  Read something new.  Take a new class.  Go to a new restaurant.  Do new by yourself.  Do new with others.
  10. Write down a few things you would like to be doing in 2 years. Rule number one is that it cannot include the break-up partner.
  11. Practice visualization. Visualization is powerful, but most of us talk ourselves out of it instead of actually doing it.  Visualize a time, without the break-up partner, when you felt confident and happy.  Sit with that image and see if you can imagine guiding yourself toward the future (see #10) preserving those confident feelings.

One of my favorite episodes of This American Life, is #339 from 8.24.2007, entitled, “Break-up”.  Radio producer Starlee Kine wrote about a painful break-up during which she listened to Phil Collins songs and asks Phil to help her write her own break-up song.  In her description, she wrote, “I was no longer listening to his (Phil’s) songs for pleasure, but for pain. They were break-up songs. And hearing them was the only thing that made me feel better. And by better, I mean worse.”

I laughed when I first heard her assessment, because that resonated with me.  In short, hearing the songs created pain, but facilitated grieving in the long-run.  That, in essence, is how to mend a broken heart.

Lastly, I know you feel alone, but you are not alone.  The reason there are so many break-up songs is that it is such a ubiquitous human experience.  You can heal, and choosing activity over passivity can help.

Photo credit: Copyright: picsfive / 123RF Stock Photo

Love, marriage, Romance

Everything is Awesome—When your Spouse Thinks You’re “The Special”

lego-couple

**Long and gushy—you’ve been warned.

On a recent family vacation, one of my children started watching the Lego movie loud enough that all of us were enjoying the snappy dialogue and “Everything is Awesome,” earworm. When Emmett was potentially identified as “The Special,” my mind wandered to how often that word comes up in therapy.  In short, distress often develops when spouses don’t feel “special,” to their partners anymore.

Spouses Want to Feel Special

I have NEVER  met a spouse in therapy who didn’t want to feel special to his or her partner in the classic definition of “unusual in a good way; better or more important than others; or especially important or loved.”

One of the best examples I know of someone who does this well is my husband.  He could give lessons on it. I was reflecting on the specifics of how he has reinforced that for me, and how it has enhanced my marital satisfaction.  This post will probably embarrass him, but he really is that good.

Don’t get me wrong—I know I can drive my husband absolutely crazy with some of my annoying qualities.  He will tell you that I can be very sassy and difficult for starters.  Despite our stepping on each other’s toes from time to time, I have never lost the sense that he thought I was “The Special.”

We Often Marry People to Whom we Feel Special

When I met my husband, I really liked him and went on a few casual dates with him, but I already had a long-distance boyfriend, so I had no interest in getting close.  We had known each other for two weeks when he called and said he wanted to go on a walk and talk to me about something.  My roommates started laughing that he wanted to go on a “DTR,” (define the relationship) walk and that I should prepare for a way to turn down the “marriage proposal.”  Because I was wanting the opposite of a serious relationship, I could not wrap my head around the idea that he could possibly be feeling that way, so I protested their mockery.

It turns out, they were 100% right.  He explained that he had dated a lot of girls and that he didn’t need to date anyone else because he knew I was the one for him.  I awkwardly explained that I was in a serious relationship with someone who was away in a volunteer capacity in a different part of the country, and that while I thought he was a really nice guy, he really needed to move on because I was taken.

He was not happy.  I shut the door behind him when he dropped me off at my apartment and exhaled a sigh of relief to be back home.   I wasn’t very sympathetic to his moping because I just wasn’t interested.

For several months, he would show up and walk alongside me on my frequent outings to campus and ask me out on informal dates.  It seemed like I ran into him everywhere.  We got along well and seemed to think a lot alike.  I felt entirely comfortable around him.  I agreed to go with him places as friends, because his likability was irresistible, but I still didn’t want to get serious with him.  I distinctly remember saying, “I don’t have any more ways to tell you that I’m not getting involved in a serious relationship.  I’m being very straight forward with you.  Date other people.  I am.”

Repeatedly we would have a version of this conversation:

Me:  Who did you take out this week?

Him:  I told you I’m not asking anyone else out.  I don’t want to date anyone else.

Me:  Well, that’s ridiculous because I told you I’m taken.  I’m dating people as friends, but I’m not getting serious with anyone.  What about so-and-so?  She’s cute, don’t you think?

Him:  Meh.  I don’t know.  Sort of, I guess—cuter than most of the other girls.

Me:  Why don’t you ask her out?

Him:  She’s not you.

I would avoid him for a few days, he would pout, and eventually he would show back up.  The thing is, he was incredibly safe and predictable.  I could count on him for anything.  He was a constant and continually sent the message that it was me he wanted, and no one else.  After about 6 months, it occurred to me that despite my regular rejection, he must really like me because he was still hanging around.

When I was talking to my roommates one night about the fact that he seemed very sincere about loving me, I decided maybe it wasn’t a bad idea to consider building a life with someone I liked (loved, but I didn’t want to admit it to myself at the time) who seemed so sincere and constant.  They responded that it was clear that, “Steve will always love you—even when you’re old and gross.”  I realized that if this was something they viewed from the outside, maybe the sense I had that I would always be able to count on him was real.

My roommates were right.  Despite all of our ups and downs, I can honestly say that I believe my husband still sees me as “The Special.”  I have no idea why, but he has just always really liked me for me.  Because of that, I am free to be myself and take risks with him.  I can be playful, physically affectionate, and exploratory because I know he will accept me at a fundamental level.  He can see who I am, even with my frailties, and still want me anyway.  This is the core of “specialness.”

Here are some basic ways to help a spouse feel “special” in marriage:

  1. Watch for unique things your spouse likes and present them as gifts regularly. My husband knows I love blue flowers, so whenever he sees them, he brings me some.  This is just one example of how I know he is thinking about me when I’m not around, and that he has paid attention to my unique preferences.
  2. Pay attention to what your spouse dislikes. My husband knows I despise melted cheese and mayonnaise, so if he ever orders food, he knows to check on this.  This seems obvious, but it’s not.  I have met with many couples where the fight is that “We have been married for how many years and you still don’t know that I don’t like that?”  I read an article once in which Cindy Crawford used the example of her ex-husband Richard Gere trying to bring her a drink, and she realized he still didn’t know she didn’t like that drink after they had been married for so long.  It influenced her decision to leave him.
  3. Generate a unique symbol with meaning for both of you. Once, my husband and I were looking up meanings of names.  I knew that Lori came from the laurel tree and was a symbol of victory, because my mother had told me this repeatedly.  Steve and I came across explanations of Steven meaning “victor,” and Lori meaning, “to the victor.”  I gushed, “Look, honey—we were meant for each other.”  Later, he bought me a ring with a laurel branch with 7 leaves (one for each of our children) and presented it to me as a reminder of this meaning.  I adore this ring for the special symbolism.
  4. Have a secret language. If you were to scroll through my husband’s and my texts, you would see a regular and odd exchange of numbers we send to each other throughout the day.  We started a habit of sending reflexive numbers (I like mathematical symmetry) at various time points almost daily.  In short, it means, “I’m thinking about you right now.”  It also means, “You’re special.”
  5. Have a special restaurant or treat. I have a foodie obsession, and my husband and I generally have a current favorite restaurant or food item.  Earlier this week, my husband surprised me with a crème brûlée I discovered at Real Foods Market a few years ago.  It’s a relatively out-of-the-way item, which makes it even more special that he remembered.
  6. Have a special song or music group you share together. When I was dating my husband, I watched him play a lot of basketball.  I have a distinct memory of watching him play while Club Nouveau’s cover of “Lean on Me,” was playing, on several occasions.  I heard it playing on the radio, recorded it with my phone and sent it to him.  He also does a great job of playing songs for me that he hears that remind him of us.  His most recent song dedication was a song by SafetySuit with lyrics declaring, “I will never get used to you.”  He still plays this for me as an iPhone alarm right now.
  7. Think of a special way to present an act of service. My husband also knows I have a weird obsession with hearts.  On countless occasions, he has brought me some kind of food in a heart bowl or drink in a heart-shaped cup.
  8. Verbal compliments. For years, my husband will be talking and will stop right in the middle of a sentence and say, “You’re so pretty.”  Sometimes this would be in the morning and I would protest, “Oh stop…when you’re insincere, you cheapen it.  I have no make-up on,” and he would say, “Right.  That’s specifically one of the things I loved about you—you didn’t look very different without your makeup on, while some girls I dated looked totally different.  You’re just pretty.”  On countless occasions, he has said to one of my children, “Isn’t your mom gorgeous?” and they roll their eyes.  I’m not, but I believe there is something he sees uniquely about me that he likes.
  9. Tell your spouse how and why they are special regularly. I have completely taken for granted the fact that my husband thinks I’m special, because he so often comes right out and says, “I am so lucky I am married to you. You’re_______ and_____and_______and______and I love that you’re__________.  How did I get so lucky to marry my dream girl?”  He’s specific, which makes it more believable.

My husband woke up a few months ago, rolled over and asked, “How did I get so lucky to land you?  I landed you!”  I answered, “Well…..you wouldn’t go away for one thing.”  He laughed and added, “That’s right, I wouldn’t,” at which point I laughed along with him.  “But I’m glad you didn’t,” I continued, “Because you have been the best husband.  I’m lucky to have you.”  I meant it.

I think most people would consider me to be very average, but I do believe my husband thinks I’m special–because the fact is that HE is “The Special.”

Life can be very scary.  It is full of lots of rejection, misunderstanding and pain.  However, for most of us, if there is one person out there who believes in us and treats us like we are special,  EVERYTHING is indeed “Awesome.”

**I told you.

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