Couples, Couples Therapy

Typical Signs of Infidelity

11530941 - jealous wife, overhearing a phone conversation her husband“Here’s the thing,” I was explaining to one of the spouses that had recently come in for marriage therapy, “Your actions in here are very much like someone who is having an extramarital affair; I’m not just talking about physical or sexual contact—emotional affairs where you actually never see the person can be just as powerful.  I’m only going to ask you one time—are you at all involved with another person who is competing with your spouse for your affection and attention?  You can lie to me, and I’ll have no choice but to play along, but I can promise you that if you are involved in an affair, marriage therapy will not help you and you might as well go burn your money in the parking lot.”

This is a question I have had to ask repeatedly since starting marriage therapy in 1989.  Sometimes the answer is a solid, “No,” and sometimes there is an admission of a hidden dalliance.  However, if I’m asking the question to a spouse alone after meeting with the couple for a few sessions (since it’s an initial screening question), it’s because I’m about 90% certain that the spouse is having an affair and lying about it.  I can usually tell by how they are engaging in therapy.  More often than not, I eventually find out that I was correct and the person was indeed carrying on a hidden romantic relationship with someone else.

Sometimes I have been surprised that the spouse can’t see the signs of an affair.  Most of the time it’s because he/she cannot imagine that the partner could ever choose such duplicitous behavior, which is why the eventual revelation of betrayal is so devastating.

Here are clues that tip me off that a partner might be hiding an affair:

  1. They are very protective of their phones.  If your spouse won’t let you near his/her phone or it is always password protected, it’s quite possible that he/she is hiding communication with someone else.  They will use the excuse that they are entitled to their privacy, but as a general rule, people who have nothing to hide, hide nothing.
  2. They will let you see their phones but…the history and messages are deleted or  you see messages and contacts for people you don’t recognize.  People are very good at disguising names of their affair partners.
  3. They are suddenly taking more care with appearance.  It’s not uncommon for people in affairs to suddenly be more worried about their looks and hygiene.  They obsess over wardrobe choices, work out more to be physically in shape, spend more time at the tanning bed, wear make-up to the gym, and generally spend more time in front of the mirror.  Take note that if these behaviors are normal and ongoing for someone, it’s not a strong affair indicator.  Sometimes people preparing for divorce will do the same things even though they aren’t actively having affairs.
  4. They are suddenly a lot more distant and irritable or a lot more solicitous and loving.  The point here is that a sudden ongoing shift in behavior can be suspect.  Sometimes spouses will be more annoyed with their partners, aloof or distant for no apparent reason, or they will be more attentive, because their mood is lifted by the affair, and/or because they feel guilty and are trying to make up for it.
  5. Their behavior in the bedroom is suddenly different.  This is related to #3, where they can be more or less attentive suddenly.  It’s also the case that they might be learning new behaviors with a different partner and are trying them out.  Please note that just because your spouse wants to try something new doesn’t mean infidelity is occurring, but this is just one of several possible indicators taken as a whole.
  6. There are sudden changes in routine with no reasonable explanation. Longer and unexplained absences can be indicative of an affair.  Sudden and persistent shifts in past routines sometimes parallel a spouse meeting up with someone else.
  7. They are getting up in the middle of the night to use the computer, when this wasn’t a pattern before.  Lots of clandestine connections happen while the spouse is asleep and unaware.
  8. They have more password protection.  Changing passwords or setting up accounts without giving a spouse the password are sometimes clues to extramarital behavior.
  9. There is general weirdness and new, unexplained behavior.  I know this is kind of a catch-all category, but that’s because there is so much variation from case to case.  Spouses often have a sense that something is different, but can’t quite identify what’s happening.  Also, spouses who are having affairs do lie.  A lot.  That’s part of the infidelity—the deception.  When confronted, if they aren’t ready to come clean, they can get very defensive and make their spouses feel crazy for suggesting such a thing.  They gaslight.

You’re probably seeing the common theme that a big indicator of infidelity is a sudden shift in behavior, so the spouse feels different somehow.  This list isn’t predictive, but if you’re seeing a combination of several things on this list and your gut is telling you there is something wrong, you might want to check into it.  Please note that many spouses really have no idea that their partners were having affairs, because the partners were so adept at hiding it.  Sometimes, part of the injury is that the betrayed partners feel so ashamed that they didn’t see the signs.  This actually happens a lot.

Unexpected Affair Partners

Sometimes people experience complex betrayal when their partners had affairs with other people close to them.  They don’t usually expect other people with whom they have a relationship to betray them.  If a spouse had an affair with a co-worker, it’s painful, but it’s also a commonly perceived risk factor.  Meeting people in hotel bars or at work events while traveling is another acknowledged risk factor which doesn’t surprise people, even though the betrayal hurts.  If they don’t know the affair partner, they feel pain, but they can easily villainize the partner who is a stranger.

However, affairs happen from proximity and opportunity.  In other words, people have affairs with people with whom they have ongoing contact.  Over time, familiarity increases and people don’t maintain boundaries and end up in affairs.  Betrayed partners in these cases feel doubly wounded and ashamed for missing the signs, but I think this type of affair might happen more often than not.  Here are common but unexpected types of affair partners:

  1. A best friend of the couple. People are always shocked by a spouse having an affair with their best friend, but it happens fairly regularly.  Sometimes it’s a situation where the couples hang out together all the time and build familiarity as a couple.
  2. A neighbor.  Same process as a best friend–right under the spouse’s nose.
  3. Someone in the same exercise group. I’ve seen it with cycling, running, hiking, cross-fit, and gym routines.
  4. A member of a church congregation.  This seems so ironic, and yet….proximity and opportunity.  I see lots of these grow from texting, particularly when people exchange regular communication related to church projects.
  5. A family member.  You might be surprised how often people have affairs with a spouse’s sister, brother, in-law, mother, father, aunt, uncle—I’ve seen it all (except every time I say that, someone surprises me with something new).

Lastly, please know that ANYONE can have an affair.  Most people who have had affairs are people who had no intentions of betraying their partners.  With easy access to former romantic partners via the internet, it’s more important than ever to maintain solid boundaries.  Preventing affairs is an active process nowadays.  Anyone who wants to have a long-term successful marriage must intentionally protect the marital relationship from ANY possible outside intrusion.

For a thorough explanation of the need for boundaries to prevent infidelity, read Not Just Friends by Shirley Glass.  It’s not the newest publication, but it remains one of the best classic works on infidelity on the market.

Photo credit: Copyright: tatyanagl / 123RF Stock Photo

Couples, Couples Therapy, Love

Good Fences Make Good Marriages: Setting Boundaries in a Technological Age

Uniting Couples to Strengthen Families

couple and fence

As an undergraduate student, I was introduced to a poem written by Joseph Malins in 1895, in which he essentially describes the sensibilities of building fences at the top of a cliff in order to prevent falls requiring an ambulance at the bottom of the cliff.  It is a poem about prevention.  As a marriage therapist, I would add that in order to avoid disaster, one of the most important components of a marriage is building and maintaining a good fence.

The Biggest Threat to Marriage Today

If I were asked what the biggest threat to marriage is today, I would say digital technology, realizing it is a broad and controversial answer.  I don’t want to be misunderstood.  Technology is not inherently bad.  I enjoy all of the conveniences of reading email on my phone, communicating instantly with anyone I want from just about anywhere in the world, and finding…

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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 have all developed 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, Couples Therapy, marriage, Marriage and Family Therapy, Uncategorized

Relationship Rule Number One: You Cannot Control Your Partner

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Stacy came in looking angry.  Her husband had recently sounded the alarm bell on their marriage and told her he wasn’t sure he wanted to continue the relationship.  In an about-face, she behaviorally tried to do everything she could think of to reignite his commitment to the relationship.  He continued to avoid her.  She explained, “All week, I have done all these nice things for him that I thought he would like.  I made his favorite dinner and cleaned up all the dishes myself.  I’ve tried to express appreciation and tell him when he’s doing great as a father.  I’ve tried really hard to keep from yelling.  He still avoids me.  I don’t know what else to do.  It’s not fair.”

I glanced over at him, expecting no response, and noticed him staring at me, arms folded across his chest, daring me to comment on his unresponsiveness.  I knew there was a reason for his avoidance, because of their history.  I turned back to his wife.  “I know you are hurting.  This has all been incredibly painful and scary for you, and it’s hard to try so hard and feel hopeless.”  She nodded and added, “I don’t see how I’m expected to make all the changes.  If I’m putting myself out there and trying, then he should too.”  Her tone suggested that I should chastise him for his behavior.

I continued, “Can you do something for me right now?” “What?” she asked.  “Can you please start breathing for him right now?”  She looked at me like I was crazy and replied  “What do you mean?”  “I mean breathe for him.  Right now.  Go.  Make him breathe.”  Seconds later, she said, “I can’t make him breathe.”  “Right,” I affirmed, “You can’t make him breathe just like you can’t really make him do anything else.  You are an entirely independently functioning individual.  You can invite him to breathe and possibly influence him to breathe, but you cannot do it for him nor make him do it.  It may be unfair.  Your sense of justice may be violated, but you cannot make him do anything.  That is an incredibly helpless feeling, I know…and let me add this…even if you could control him, you wouldn’t want to, because he would resent you for it.”

She became teary, and I continued processing her softer emotions enough that I could turn to her husband and check in with him about his perception.  He had noticed changes, but he didn’t trust them.  He worried that if he did trust her changes, things would go back to the way they were before.  He stayed disconnected in part to avoid giving his wife false hope about their future.  It was a protective mechanism.

One of the simple hard and true facts about relationships is that we absolutely cannot control other people. Couples commonly end up in tug-of-war like power struggles over who will control the outcome of an argument.  People in general like to exercise decision-making and control over their lives.  In couple relationships, constant negotiation is necessary for joining two individuals who sometimes have conflicting desires and needs.  That’s normal and healthy.  There are big problems when people think they are going to manipulate or control their spouses to do what they want them to do, and even though it may feel like winning in the short run, it is a losing proposition in the long term.

People hopefully learn this in dating relationships.  Not everyone does.  When my oldest son was going through a difficult romantic break-up years ago, he asked me if he should write a letter to his girlfriend with specific explanations and questions.  I answered that if he chose to do that, it was fine, but absolutely not to send a letter with any kind of expectation for how she might respond.  I explained that, “You can do whatever you want.  However, you can’t choose how or even if she will reply.  You cannot ask her a question with the expectation for a certain answer—you must be prepared that she may not answer you, and even if she does, it may not be the answer you want to hear.  If you can do that, then go ahead and send the letter.  If you are sending it with an expectation for a certain response, think twice about it.  You absolutely do not get to control what someone else does.  You can only control what you do in response.”

Even if you could control your partner’s behavior, it is not in your best interest to do so.  Some people can be quite controlling and effectively bully their partners into regular capitulation.  What ends up happening is that controlling partners think they are getting their way and life is good while resentment builds in the partner that is constantly giving in to avoid conflict.  Over time (and by time I mean that it can take four decades or more), resentful partners get to the point that they have had enough and finally take a stand, which usually means shutting the partner out completely or ending the relationship.  Then, the controlling partners are confused because they had no idea their placating partners were angry for years.  I don’t know how many times I have heard a controlling partner say, “If he (or she) had only told me—I had no idea I was being controlling.”

In too many marriages and relationships, instead of power equality, there is a huge power differential in which one partner benefits at the expense of the other.  Unfortunately, many people lack the awareness that they are taking this kind of position in a relationship.  If you are able to persuade your spouse to agree with you all or most of the time instead of your adapting to them, you may be a controlling partner.  If you are constantly giving in, I believe you are at high risk for being a typical placating partner who is slowly building resentment that may explode later.

What to do about it

Controlling partners can ask spouses what they think about the marriage, what changes they want to make, and what they really want in life, and try to honor and validate the information and requests.  In short, the best thing to do is increase your understanding of your partner’s position without trying to change it.  People who feel invalidated or misunderstood will cling tighter to their positions.  If you are inflammatory or reactive, your partner will probably not share this with you, and you will be no better off.  When controlling partners feel at all unsafe, placating partners will continue to give in and withhold expression of their opinions.  If your partner isn’t sharing his or her opinion, this can be a huge warning sign.

If you are a partner who constantly gives in to avoid conflict, be honest with yourself about how you are feeling toward your partner.  Try to find a way to discuss this dynamic with your partner.  If your partner is controlling to the point of being abusive, you may have to face some difficult questions about continuing the relationship.  Giving in to abusive partners does not make them less controlling—it feeds the pattern.

A typical example

 Although power struggles show up in every marital context, a really common area is in the bedroom.  A spouse who doesn’t want to be physically intimate because he or she doesn’t feel emotionally connected (and yes, that happens for men as well as women—people often don’t want to have sex with controlling partners), may end up giving in just to get the partner to go away.  The problem is, if they really don’t want to engage, they can become bitterly resentful.

In one typical session, a wife came in upset because after she verbally explained to her husband that she didn’t feel safe enough with him emotionally to want to engage in a physically close relationship, he pressed her on the issue until she gave in and had sex with him, even though she didn’t want to.  The result was another relationship rupture.  In this case, she tried to say no to him but then gave in and then punished him for it.  I asked what would happen if she said, “OK, I will have sex with you, but I want to be clear that I will hold a grudge and be resentful toward you afterward and it will disconnect us further.”  She said, “Oh I could never say that—it would hurt his feelings.”  I said, “But you are saying it—you’re just not using words—and you are hurting his feelings more because when you punish him with your anger, it’s an unclear message, and he doesn’t know what’s really going on.  All I’m asking you to do is to be congruent.  Verbalize what you are already creating, and give him the choice about whether he really want to participate in that process or not.”  The husband admitted that even though experiencing rejection would be painful, it was more painful and confusing to be punished after his wife gave in, and made him feel worse.  He didn’t realize he was coming across as controlling.

Control can work both ways here.  In other scenarios, a partner may refuse to engage in a physical relationship, and the absolute refusal becomes the control.  I believe there is a distinct lack of integrity in a partner who refuses separation or divorce but then refuses to improve the sexual relationship in a long-term marriage.  It’s one thing to temporarily abandon sexual relations while actively working on making the relationship safe—it’s entirely different to shut a partner out sexually with no hope for improvement.  This hopeless scenario in my opinion is quite cruel.

In the above cases, one partner was using verbal coercion to achieve sex and one was using icy withdrawal to avoid sex—both are controlling, and both are losing in the long-run.

(Side note:  sexuality is tremendously complex and there are many reasons why couples disconnect around physical intimacy.  The problems are usually a combination of individual difficulties AND relationship difficulties.  I don’t want to oversimplify the problem.  These particular scenarios don’t necessarily translate to many other scenarios)

Ultimately, realize that you can only really control yourself.  You can certainly influence and invite your partner, but do not use coercion to do it.  If you win with coercion or manipulation, you’re not really winning.  There must be a recognition of a partner’s right to his or her opinion.  You do not want to make your partner to do something they don’t want to do.  Conversely, if you constantly give in to achieve “peace at any price,” you’re not doing your partner any favors.  You are feeding into the cycle of manipulative control.

Take a serious look at your marriage to make sure you are not playing the part of puppet or puppeteer.  Either role is bad for you, bad for your partner, and bad for the relationship. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Couples, Couples Therapy, marriage, Marriage and Family Therapy

Good Fences Make Good Marriages: Setting Boundaries in a Technological Age

couple and fence

As an undergraduate student, I was introduced to a poem written by Joseph Malins in 1895, in which he essentially describes the sensibilities of building fences at the top of a cliff in order to prevent falls requiring an ambulance at the bottom of the cliff.  It is a poem about prevention.  As a marriage therapist, I would add that in order to avoid disaster, one of the most important components of a marriage is building and maintaining a good fence.

The Biggest Threat to Marriage Today

If I were asked what the biggest threat to marriage is today, I would say digital technology, realizing it is a broad and controversial answer.  I don’t want to be misunderstood.  Technology is not inherently bad.  I enjoy all of the conveniences of reading email on my phone, communicating instantly with anyone I want from just about anywhere in the world, and finding information immediately.

However, the most common cases I see in couples therapy right now are those in which: 1) pornography use is hurting the marriage (accessed most often now through technology), and those in which 2) emotional affairs are hurting the marriage (most often perpetuated through technology).  Both of these presentations existed before the internet, but they are exponentially more common than they were prior to 1992, when I graduated with a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy.

In short, technology can expose marriages to more intrusive forces.  There is so much more availability to corrosive materials and to relationships with people outside the marriage, that people who want to stay in committed relationships need to realize the risks and set intentional boundaries in a boundless world. 

This applies to both spouses.  I would say that clinically I see more men using pornography and more women having emotional affairs, but there are women who use pornography excessively, and there are definitely men having emotional affairs.  I might see more women show up in therapy for emotional affairs because they are perhaps more emotionally invested than their male technological affair partners, but that’s just one guess; I have seen men who are deeply embedded in emotional affairs, ready to dump their marriages to chase the alternative digital connections.

The Problem with Pornography

Wendy Maltz, co-author of The Porn Trap, is another therapist who has been a witness to how technology has disrupted marriages with pornography.  She admitted that early in her career, she had sometimes recommended pornography use for couples wanting to address sexual concerns in their marriage, such as low sexual desire.  However, she confessed that after her clients began accessing pornography on the internet in a broad and immediate way, she realized how potentially harmful it was.

She pointed out that most internet pornography invites the user to have a relationship with it (the computer porn), rather than with their partners.  In this way, it was actually diminishing rather than enhancing her couples’ sexual relationships.  Additionally, many spouses feel betrayed and violated by their spouses’ porn use and experience it as an infidelity.  In fact, in many cases, the porn becomes preferable to the spouse, entirely fracturing the committed relationship.  It can diminish sexual performance and sexual quality as well.  She wrote her book in part to clarify the reversal of her opinion in the age of technology, and to try to mitigate some of the effects of pornography.  I agree with her observations about how internet pornography is negatively impacting marriages.

The Trouble with Emotional Affairs and Technology

Besides porn, I see a HUGE problem with emotional affairs maintained through digital technology.  I remember the very first time a couple came in and the issue was related to cell phone texting.  The wife had her old boyfriend’s cell phone number programmed into her cell phone from when she was dating him a few years earlier.  After she was married, when she was unhappy with her husband, she would text her old boyfriend.  She didn’t see the harm in just finding out how he was doing.  The problem was that over time, she began texting him more and more, and since texting is such an immediate form of communication, she had access to him 24/7.  I recall recognizing in that moment the reality that technological access had profoundly shifted the playing field for boundaries in  marriages.   The natural boundaries that existed when I got married that prevented association with previous love interests had disappeared.   I accurately predicted that many more marriages would be affected by this lack of boundaries.

Texting is a low investment but  high response form of communicating, meaning that it takes very little effort to respond to someone with texting, but it can be perceived as highly responsive.  The couple began exchanging texts essentially all day long, and that relationship started to become more real to her than her daily interactions with her husband, which were often colored by the daily stressors and realities of life.  In many ways her real life partner couldn’t compete with the seeming emotional responsiveness of her texting boyfriend.

As she disclosed her complaints about her husband, her old boyfriend “validated her feelings,” that she didn’t deserve to be treated like that, and he shallowly declared that he would “never treat her that way.”  He continued to look like the hero by doing essentially nothing but moving his fingers, while her husband was trying to meet the demands of real-life experiences that inevitably arise when you live with someone.  The comparison was unfair.

The emotions experienced in these low-investment, high response relationships are very real.  People also emotionally disclose faster and more deeply with technology than with face-to-face interaction, so the relationships are often characterized by high emotional sharing, and the result is that the people involved experience heightened emotional closeness.  The emotions are linked with physiological responses, some of which are very rewarding and powerful.  People in emotional affairs experience a dopamine rush just like people in physical affairs, and they become confused by the experiences.  Because the emotions are real, the relationships feel “real,” even though they are in fact extremely limited in nature.

Most emotional affairs are relationship fragments—users are in essence taking the best part of the romantic relationship without having to invest or sacrifice like they would to maintain a real long-term committed relationship.  When people pursue dopamine-induced emotional affairs over their real relationships, the real relationships become casualties.  Let’s say the partner then pursues the emotional affair by developing a real relationship with that person.  Over time it becomes as predictably mundane as the original relationship (usually after about 18 months to 2 years).  This is often when a new emotional affair is started and the whole cycle repeats, damaging people in the process.

Your Affair is not Unique

As you read this from an outside perspective, I have no doubt that you can see the problem.  However, when people are caught up in emotional affairs, they think their emotions mean that their relationships are “special.”  Even though I point out to people repeatedly that their affairs are not unique from the other hundreds of affairs I have seen in my practice, they don’t believe me.  That’s because they are feeling such powerful emotions.  Sometimes they also mistakenly think they aren’t harming the marriage if they aren’t meeting with the affair partner in ongoing face-to-face contact.  Ongoing emotional affairs are in many ways more challenging than in dealing with pornography in a marriage.  I have seen women openly expressing true love and the desire to run off with an old boyfriend on Facebook while criticizing their husbands for looking at online pornography, which I find confusing and hypocritical.

Many people cling to their emotional affairs and refuse to set boundaries.  Many are dishonest about how much the distant but powerful contact with others is hurting the marriage.  Many unfairly expect their spouses to be ok with their casual contact with potential affair partners because they “aren’t seeing them in person, so what’s the big deal?”

In the example cited above with the cell phone texting, I asked the wife if she had any boundaries about texting other men.  She defensively inquired, “Are you telling me that I have to stop texting my old boyfriend completely even if I know that I’m not going to start a real relationship with him?”  I responded, “Neither I nor anyone else can tell you that you have to do anything.  However, if your spouse says it is hurting him, and you knowingly engage in behavior that you know is hurting your spouse, it is unreasonable to expect that this won’t chip away at the relationship over time, so you are putting your marriage at risk.  The question is, ‘Do you want to put your marriage at risk for divorce or not?’”  Sometimes also I have to point this out when a husband thinks his wife should just be okay with his pornography use.

You Must Set Boundaries to Preserve the Marriage

If you want to build a long-term, high quality and stable relationship, build a sturdy fence.  Protect your relationship.  No one can make you.  You can hide just about anything in this day and age at some level, but if you are, you are injuring yourself and your relationship the most.  Set boundaries intentionally.  In short, if you are engaged in a conversation you wouldn’t want your spouse reading over your shoulder (commonly texting, Facebook, chat rooms, messaging capabilities through your online game, etc.), you are making your relationship vulnerable to eventual decay. It’s a risky choice.

Remember, if you build a fence around your relationship now, you are less likely to need an ambulance later. 

References:

An Ambulance Down in the Valley, poem by Joseph Malins (1895).

The Pornography Trap: The Essential Guide to Overcoming Problems Caused by Pornography by Wendy Maltz and Larry Maltz (2009), William Morrow Paperbacks.

Couples, Couples Therapy, Family, marriage, Marriage and Family Therapy, Parenting

How to be a Marital Superhero for your Children to Infinity and Beyond in One Easy Step

How Mom Found Her Love
My son’s picture

My husband taught me a simple, yet powerful tool to build safety and security in marriage as well as in the entire family.  It’s kind of humbling, considering the fact that I’m the one with two advanced university degrees in marriage and family therapy.  Here’s the story behind it:

Several years ago, I was tidying up a room in my house and picked up some random papers upon which my children had been sketching various pictures.  One paper immediately caught my attention because my son had printed in crayon the words, “How mom found her love,” at the top of the page.  Under the words was an amusing hand-sketched version of me with bad hair, wide-eyed and open-mouthed (and a little crazy looking), with the words, “gasp,” spelled out in a speech bubble flowing from my mouth.

This one-dimensional version of me was apparently meant to be a portrayal of the first time I met my husband, who was pictured inches away on the same page, with Hulk-like tattered shorts and an impressive four-pack on his abdomen.  I laughed out loud and decided this picture was a keeper.

When I asked him about it later, he told me that he drew it because, “Dad is always saying you’re his dream girl, and you’re in LOOOVE.”  He was right, and I suddenly felt a little bit sad, because I realized that he drew the picture based on how his father treated me instead of the reverse.  My husband had a ritualistic habit of asking my children various rhetorical questions to which they had learned to shout specific replies.

Question: Do you know who my best friend is?

Answer: Mommy!!!

Question:  Guess who I love the most?

Answer: Mommy!!!

Question:  Guess what? (This question usually elicited several guesses based on his past responses)

Answer:  You love mommy!  Mom’s your dream girl!  You think mom’s gorgeous!  Mom’s your best friend!

He would smile and answer, “That’s right,” while winking at me from across the room.  He was always coming up with new questions to let them (and me) know that I mattered to him.

The embarrassing thing to me was that he was so good at it, and I was the marriage therapist.  He was always beating me at my own game.

When I found my son’s picture, I actually got a little teary, because I didn’t play the part of the adoring wife nearly as well as he had played the adoring husband.  I made a resolve to do a better job of following his example, and I started asking my younger children the same types of questions he asked all the time, like, “Do you know what I love about daddy?”  I was surprised at the immediate effects.

Asking your children if they know what you love about your spouse is a simple strategy which provides a variety of benefits, such as:

  1. It can increase authentic positive feelings about your spouse.    When I verbalized to my children what I loved and appreciated about their dad, I actually generated those positive feelings within.  The process of thinking of things to say, and remembering scenes from our past to share with my children was associated with real feelings of love.  Recent brain research verifies this process.
  2. It helps children feel more secure. When children are reminded consistently that their parents love each other in an authentic way, they enjoy protective mental health benefits, also supported by research.  Children gain what theorists and researchers call a “felt sense of security,” from displays of a high quality marriage.
  3. It puts money in the relationship bank.  This is an easy way of building the positive to negative interactions ratio John Gottman promotes, which can buffer a relationship from the inevitable conflicts and struggles of life.
  4. It provides modeling for children later in their own marriages. Children learn how to be spouses in large part by watching marital process in the home–also research-documented.

I have sometimes presented this strategy as an idea at marriage workshops, and have on several occasions had couples report back to me how powerful it was for them in maintaining positive feelings in the marriage.  For many individuals, it helps them remember why they married their spouses in the first place.

So, if you are feeling a little less than sparkly in your own marriage, think of some questions to ask your children to affirm your feelings of love for your partner.  You might just think back to those days when he or she was rocking that amazing four-pack!  Remember – you are your children’s marital superheroes!

Couples Therapy, Marriage and Family Therapy

7 Reasons why the Smartphone can be Relationship Kryptonite and the one Sure way to Protect Yourself

kryptonite

Buckle up for a serious topic:

“We were texting back and forth about a project we were working on, because we were on the same church committee.  Gradually, the texts became a little more familiar.  Then, I found myself looking forward to the texts, and over time we started sharing more, and…I guess you could say I’m involved in an emotional affair.  I want to stay married, but I feel like I love this other person.”

I have heard some version of this explanation several times over the last year alone.

In just the last few months, 80% of my new couples cases in therapy have centered on emotional affairs perpetuated through electronic communications.  In every instance, a smartphone facilitated more frequent and ongoing connection than a traditional computer or laptop.

I realize that one therapist isn’t necessarily a representative sample, but in my conversations with other therapists, they report the same phenomenon.  I see this as a growing problem.  It scares me.  It should scare you enough to be very cautious.

I started seeing my first couple in therapy in the fall of 1989, long before the ubiquitous use of cell phones.  At the time, I couldn’t even imagine carrying an entire computer around in the palm of my hand.  I have to admit I love my smartphone…enough that I might hurt you if you try to take mine.  However, as a couples’ therapist, I have observed how it has changed the playing field for potential relationship infidelity.

In many ways, emotional affairs are more difficult for me to deal with in therapy than physical affairs.  Here’s why:  technology-facilitated communication creates real emotional bonds.  In fact, relationships in which people never meet face-to-face are some of the most long lasting and stable, largely because they are in essence relationship fragments and not whole relationships.  Because they lack reality testing, resolution is seemingly more difficult.

Affairs occur from proximity.  In short, people have affairs with people with whom they share space and experience.  Smartphones have increased the range and duration of proximity.  In a way, you could argue that they have provided us with some “superpowers.”  However, I too often see the kryptonite side.  Here are 7 reasons I believe smartphones with their digital technology exacerbate potential risk for emotional infidelity:

  1. Real time response – When you carry your phone around all day, you can continuously carry on a conversation with another individual and receive immediate responses from them, which essentially keeps you potentially connected all the time, and getting a response from someone generates a very real physiological reaction.
  2. Relationship fragmentation with low investment– Any smartphone affair is a relationship fragment. It’s easy to have a relationship with little investment where all that is required of you is to chat.  It’s different when you need to help with the dishes or bills or other mundane events of daily life.
  3. Lack of reality testing –Smartphones do not have bad breath in the morning. They do not leave their dirty socks all over the house or the toilet seat up.  They do not argue.  So, now you have a partner who responds but doesn’t have body odor.  Enough said.
  4. Control of presentation – When people are engaged in digital relationships, they have the ability to hide their undesirable qualities and promote their desirable ones and accommodate partners easily.
  5. Ability to hide – Even though digital relationships are often discovered, they can be hidden for indefinite amounts of time, and when they are discovered, partners get better at hiding them.
  6. Faster emotional disclosure – People disclose emotional vulnerabilities more quickly in digital relationships, so paradoxically, they often develop deeper relationships faster than in face-to-face interaction. This emotional sharing generates real emotions.
  7. Multitude of ways to connect – The possibilities are endless. I have had clients start affairs with various apps on smartphones, including Facebook, games with messaging capability, email, Instagram, Snapchat, etc.  ANYTHING that connects to you to someone is potentially hazardous.

It’s about more than boundaries.  Anytime online emotional affairs are brought up, most people go to the obvious discussion of boundaries.  While it’s a no-brainer that lack of contact will inhibit an affair, I don’t think this is the biggest problem.   I am certainly an advocate for boundaries in communication, but the biggest problem with emotional affairs lies within the marital dynamic.  When one partner begins disclosing something to someone he/she can’t tell his/her spouse, that’s when the relationship is vulnerable to possible infidelity.

When one partner experiences the other as unsafe or unapproachable, and can’t share fears or hurt, the partner can sometimes literally become the enemy, and a wall is erected to prevent closeness.  If a wall is erected between partners, any intrusion from the outside is more likely to occur.

What to do about it:  If you feel like you can’t approach your partner, the fastest way to begin shifting the relationship is to talk about the wall and how you would like to be able to have the kind of relationship in which you can disclose.  Get relationship therapy, if this doesn’t seem likely.

Please, please please, I am BEGGING you, as a couples’ therapist who swims in a sea of infidelity pain every week…deal with the resentment in your relationship.  Do NOT leave it alone.  Silence is not going to save you.  What you think is long-suffering is placing the relationship at risk.

The smartphone is not the enemy.  The distressed relationship is the enemy.  However, your smartphone doesn’t care if you save the relationship or not.  It can indeed be kryptonite.

photo credit: <a href=”https://www.flickr.com/photos/gudmunda/481366617/”>Gúnna</a&gt; via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/”>cc</a&gt;