Couples, marriage

When the Tortoise and the Hare get Married

17134701 - rabbit and turtle in a close-up imageThe other day I was asking my husband to read something to me out loud while I double-checked numbers. When I complained, “Hold on—you’re going too fast,” he remarked, “What do you mean? I’m never going too fast for you—you’re the queen of fast.” He does have a point. For much of my life, I have had a sense of urgency which is reflected pretty much everywhere, and not always for the better.

When my husband and I were engaged, my father invited us into his office so he could share a concern about our marriage. “You are like the tortoise and the hare,” he observed, “and I want you to be aware that it can be a problem, so you need to know how to manage it.”

I knew my dad thought I was the hare and I believed he was overstating the problem. He had repeatedly suggested that perhaps I could benefit from an intensive training course in patience, which I always dismissed with an, “OK, yeah, IknowpatiencegotitCanIgonow?” in the most impatient tone imaginable. I knew that my husband was more patient than I was, which was, in fact, a large part of the appeal. He was steady and solid—remaining fixed while I pinged relentlessly in and out of orbit.

What I didn’t realize in my idealistic naiveté, was the concept that the qualities you admire in your spouse are the very things that will drive you crazy. I have learned to appreciate my husband’s steadiness, but only after years of frustration that if he didn’t want to hurry when I wanted to hurry, he was not going to be pressured into rushing. In fact, I was certain that just when I wanted to get out the door faster, he would slow down just to annoy me.

What was less clear to me, but which I have come to understand after years of sitting in front of other couples with tortoise/hare marriages, is how annoying my rushing can be. I have had to work very hard to be more present with people, which comes much more naturally to my husband. I think one of the reasons I like being a therapist so much is that it’s the one place where rushing doesn’t help, so I have permission to slow down.

Couples frequently have mismatched pacing. It’s easy to spot in communication patterns. One of the pair will ask a question and just as the other partner begins to answer, the loquacious person will begin talking again, usually faster and louder than the more reticent partner, resulting ultimately in withdrawal and shut down in the relationship. If I notice the pattern, I will make it explicit to the couple. The couples often know they have different pacing, but they don’t always understand the relationship implications. Over time, mismatched pacing can naturally polarize. Therapists are usually trying to help couples find their way back to the middle.

So what do you do if you are a tortoise/hare couple?

  1. Know that tortoises and hares can have very good marriages. They serve separate functions, but compensate for each other’s weaknesses.
  2. Identify the emotions that fuel tortoise or hare-like behavior. For example, fast-paced people often experience anxiety when slowing down…they can only tolerate so much silence before filling in the blanks. Slower-paced people often feel anxious about potentially eliciting uncomfortable emotions from partner interactions, so they take their time as an attempt to be careful and exact. If both partners can acknowledge the feelings that drive fast or slow behavior, they can work together more effectively.
  3. When dealing with marital conflict, it’s important to SLOW DOWN (sorry, hares—I feel your pain). It’s easier to get someone to slow the heck down than to get someone to speed up their processing. Emotion is naturally FAST and fuels reactive behavior. If you are the fast partner, and notice yourself getting twitchy and edgy, BREATHE, and ask for increased understanding. It’s imperative to make more space for slower-processing partners.
  4. Be charitable about your partner’s differences. Couples can be so mean to each other when they process differently. As a general rule, the fast pace required in the complexity of our capitalistic society can diminish relationships. Relationships are qualitative and are compromised by efficiency-based models.

If nothing else, try to find some humor in your different styles. While I was driving my husband to the doctor for a post-op check-up a few months ago, he mumbled through a narcotics-laced haze, “Honey, your California driving is a turn-on.” I hadn’t even realized that I was exhibiting the predatory driving habits I picked up while indeed learning to drive among the aggressive motorists in Southern California. I have a habit of forgetting until the occasional driver in front of me pulls over, allowing me to pass, at which point I apologetically realize I was tailgating—a skill absolutely necessary to get from point A to point B in LA. “Oh, sorry, I am driving like a Californian, huh?” He reminded me about the time my son was driving with his friend and just as a light turned green, his friend pointed at a car and said, “Look–I have never seen a car beat you off the line before. You’re always the first one to go when the light turns green.” My son looked over at the car and laughed, “Dude, that’s my mom!” I hadn’t even seen him next to me. My son couldn’t wait to tell me, and it became a joke about my impatience and aggressive driving habits.

Marriage really is an ultra-marathon, not a sprint. If you need to slow down, it’s ok. You and your partner might enjoy more scenery along the way.

 

 

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Couples, Couples Therapy, marriage, Marriage and Family Therapy

The One Thing That Prevents Couples From Changing and the Question That Can Fix It

change is good photoI was walking through a store the other day when a simple painted sign stopped me in my tracks. It read, “Change is good….you go first.” I immediately picked it up to check the price, thinking, “I absolutely have to get this for my office.” It succinctly describes one of the biggest ongoing dilemmas I face as a marriage therapist. It sits on a small cupboard in an alcove halfway between the path from my waiting room to my office, and as I walk past it several times daily, I’m hoping it will somehow inspire my married couples who feel so stuck in their difficult relationships.

Why is it that so many people may have increased insight about what they might need to do to change their relationships and yet feel restricted from altering negative patterns that maintain relationship distress?

The short answer is fear. This might seem confusing at first. Many people are removed from any awareness that fear might be keeping them stuck. However, upon investigating the layers of emotion that lie beneath the frustration and unyielding hopelessness that are so close to the surface for most distressed couples, there are long-buried softer raw emotions that bear the scars of previous relationship wounds.

Years of distress are inevitably entwined with multiple instances of hurt and invalidation. The longer people experience relationship pain, the more they don armor laced with more protected emotions: frustration and anger, which feel more powerful, and distance us from additional potentially harmful circumstances, or numbness and apathy, which display a lack of feeling manifested from desensitization to repeated hurtful interactions.

Both emotions are effective in the short-term for protecting us from partners who have hurt us in the past and who might hurt us in the future. Unfortunately, they are emotions which also prevent the potentiality for safe emotional bonding and connection.  

When people are hurt in relationships over time, the hurt breeds fear of being hurt again. It’s easy for me to view it with a military metaphor, because sadly, it is illustrative of two people warring on different sides. In short, it’s as if couples are dug down in foxholes to protect themselves from verbal artillery from their partners. Each wants desperately to come out waving the white flag to invite a truce and repair, but each is afraid that if he/she comes out first, the other will still be armed and use figurative weapons to harm the now disarmed and vulnerable partner.

It’s a game of relationship chicken to see who will capitulates first, and is loaded with perception of being the weaker partner. Since neither wants to be weak nor wounded, both stay hunkered down in their fixed positions.

Ultimately, you cannot create secure emotional bonding without vulnerability, which means there is always the potential for harm. C.S. Lewis said it like this, “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.” 

In other words, couples will stay protected, but their relationships will likely be “irredeemable,” which means that they will not be saved, improved or corrected.

Many if not most couples continue to come to couples therapy hoping their partners will be the ones to make the first move, while they continue to stay protected from potential harm. I’m usually trying to create safety for both partners to simultaneously drop their weapons and risk new engagement outside of the figurative foxholes. This is a very common and yet tricky reality to navigate. The conundrum represents a large portion of my practice. Fear of hurt and/or rejection is a powerful emotion to combat.

A Simple Way to Risk

Soooo, what is a practical strategy to reach out while maintaining some level of scaffolding for safety? It’s like moving into the deep end of the pool knowing you have something to grab onto if you need it.

I think the answer lies in a simple question anyone can ask a partner: Ask, “What is one thing that would help you feel safer in our relationship?” The question is a relatively low risk way to signal a desire to reach out and acknowledges that the other partner might be just as afraid to risk in the relationship. By implying that you want to do something to make the relationship feel safer for the other partner, it communicates that you do not wish to cause further harm. It signals one’s disarmament.

I can’t say it’s a no-risk question, because it’s not. It could be rejected quickly, e.g. “Why do you care? Why are you asking now? Since when do you care about my safety in our relationship? I’ve been trying to tell you for years, so if you don’t know by now, you’ll never get it,” etc., etc., etc., etc.

Expect a response like that. Couples have a hard time trusting change. It’s typical to be wary of a partner’s authenticity. You will not make things worse by reassuring your partner that you are sincere. It’s diffusible with something like, “I want to do something different. I don’t want us to both hurt anymore. I’m sorry I didn’t get it sooner. I’m attuning right now. Do you see me trying right now?” It needs to be a soft response, connected to the authentic desire for compassion and repair.

I can’t make guarantees that taking a low-level risk won’t fail, but I can guarantee that going into the interaction intentionally can potentially shift the relationship in a small but significant way, changing the trajectory of the entire relationship from increased disconnection to possible connection.

I can guarantee, however, that if you stay hunkered down in your foxhole, waiting to emerge until you see that your partner is completely disarmed so you are certain you won’t get hurt again, you will likely find yourself in the relationship distress of conflict or distance which C.S. Lewis described as “unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.”

If you do shed your armor, you can always put it back on again.

You decide.

 

Reference:

C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves, (2017) HarperOne.

Photo credit: Copyright: <a href=’https://www.123rf.com/profile_elwynn’>elwynn / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

Couples, Couples Therapy

How to Want Your Partner for Christmas

32213735 - couple near fireplace in christmas decorated house interiorI was feeling particularly generous the other day, so while I was getting my morning Christmas music fix with Hark the Herald Angels Sing by Train, I called to my husband, “I’m taking Christmas song requests, dear—what do you want to hear next?” “I Want You for Christmas by Cheap Trick,” he answered. “An homage to the artists of my very first LP. I like it!” I enthused, referring to The Dream Police album I got when I was twelve.

To the tune of their own “I Want You to Want Me,” Cheap Trick crooned the words many of us long to hear in one form or another from our romantic partners. However, what’s a couple to do when they are feeling less than loving during the holidays? This creates anticipated distress for many people who are reluctant to face the awkward reality of relationship pain during the season of supposed joy. Sometimes the contrast between the desired state and actuality can be discouraging or even debilitating, and definitely depressing.

I’m actually not a huge fan of “fake it ‘til you make it,” when it comes to romantic love relationships, or “behaving your way to….” because I think all it does is set people up for falsity in relationships, and leads to placating behavior and probable resentment over time. Plus, it just feels gross to be dishonest. Couples are very good at detecting insincerity in each other, so “faking it,” will backfire eventually. In the best-case scenarios, it will confuse both partners and invalidate very real emotions people experience.

So, how does one deal with the disconnect between wanting to be in love with a partner but feeling a distinct absence of positive energy toward that person?

The question I ask a lot of couples who are essentially conflicted about wanting/loving their partners is, “Why would you WANT TO WANT your partner?” In other words, I have no interest in getting in a tug-of-war with people about whether they should stay married, or should want their partners, but I am very interested in whether they WANT the state of feelings to change. Some common responses are:

“I want to, but I just don’t think it’s going to happen.”

“I’m not really sure. I don’t think I even like who this person is anymore.”

“I’m not really sure. I don’t trust him/her, so I have a hard time wanting someone I can’t trust.”

“I feel like I should want to, but I just don’t feel like I do.”

Fair enough. I always take people where they are at. I usually try to expand the conversation with, “I can see that there is a big part of you that doesn’t want your partner, but it looks pretty complex. Tell me about the part of you that WANTS TO WANT your partner.” Then, I have a clearer understanding of motivating forces for change.  My least favorite answers are those related to duty or external constraints. However, when people can give me genuine reasons why they sincerely want to increase feelings of affection or “wanting,” a partner, I am confident that we can find a way to begin building from there.

This may seem semantical, but I am a big believer in individual agency, which is essentially a state of exercising power. It does no good to try to create change where it isn’t desired. Individuals in relationships must, at least in part, want something enough to influence it to happen.  If an individual reports that he/she absolutely doesn’t want to want the partner, but is showing up because a parent, or an ecclesiastical leader said they had to, I still want to know if there is even a sliver of the person that wants it for themselves.

Sometimes in marriage therapy, I will say, “I can see you sending all these messages about what you absolutely do not want in your marriage. Can you help me understand moving forward what you “DO want?” If you are going to stay with this person, what do you want to create? What do you think a good marriage looks like?

I want people to be able to imagine a future that represents their own desires and contributions. I want ownership of purpose and meaning in the relationship. That’s when people really feel motivated enough to put in required effort for change.

If you are feeling stuck in your marriage, think about giving the gift of imagining a better future together. It may seem trite, but I’m completely serious. If you have decided to stay in your marriage for now, sit down and write what you would like your marriage to look like in a year, or five or ten. What is one thing you could do today that increases the probability of getting you closer to those goals? It could be as simple as calling a marriage therapist, explaining the situation and asking for an explanation for how a marriage like that can change (Just make sure you choose a therapist who really is highly specialized with couples–if the therapist can’t explain how it can happen, there is a good chance you are overwhelming the therapist’s skill level). Remember that you don’t have to be “all,” in. It’s ok to honor the complexity of a mixture of feelings, but use the part that “wants to want” your partner for Christmas to articulate a place to start.

photo credit: Copyright: <a href=’https://www.123rf.com/profile_NejroN’>NejroN / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

 

Couples, Love, marriage, Romance

Rejuvenating the Magic of Those Three Little Words

48470551 - comic bubble heart i love you pop art retro styleSee if you can finish this sentence: I love you, but I’m not…………

Right…I love you, but I’m not in love with you.

It’s probably no surprise that I hear this sentence all the time in couples therapy. It’s not my favorite thing to hear, because I know it’s what people say when they aren’t “feeling it,” for their spouses, and they want to “feel it,” to stay married.

The Good News and the Bad News About Marriage Today

Long-term romantic relationships are a salad of chemistry, passion, friendship, emotional connection, expectations, commitment, forgiveness, acceptance, effort, benevolence, support and security, among other things……sprinkled with pain and joy.

Eli Finkel, a researcher at Northwestern University who is releasing a book next month titled The All or Nothing Marriage: How the Best Marriages Work, has pointed out that people in western cultures expect more from their marriages than ever. Higher expectations aren’t all bad. Finkel reports that right now, it seems that we have the best marriages and the worst marriages. In other words, people in average marriages are reporting lower marital happiness and stability than in times past, but the best marriages are linked with higher marital quality and individual well-being than before.

Basically, spouses today want the whole enchilada. We are more social disconnected than ever and rely on our spouses to fill roles that may previously have been filled by other people. We are connected to higher numbers of people more quickly maybe, but in a way that I call a mile wide and an inch deep…..the relationships are less meaningful, or at least serve different functions. That’s why in marriage most people want a best friend, a passionate partner, an economic supporter, and, Finkel reports, someone to help us self-actualize. We want our partners to help us achieve our highest individual psychological needs. Read more about it here.

Now, take all those expectations, wrap them in a red heart-shaped package called “love,” and you have a marriage therapist’s worst nightmare.

We Need Better Words for Love

The English language is sorely lacking in nuanced definitions of love. We use that word to express affection for any person, place or thing. We love our spouses, we love our children, we love our dogs, we love our houses, and we love our cars. Even French, la langue d’amour, is limited in expression. If we don’t have good ways to acknowledge and language the nuances of love, there is more room for personal interpretation and judgment….and disappointment.

Several other languages, such as Sanskrit and Persian, offer scores of terms to describe specific types of love. My favorite set of words are those available in Arabic, which includes terms for various states and relationship stages. My limited understanding is that the construction of the language, structured with common roots, allows for words to be linked, which can increase nuance. Love can be expressed in distinctive stages and states, including attraction, amusement, passion, preoccupation, infatuation, adulation, heartburn, longing, excruciating pain, submissiveness, friendliness, unification, fervor, and madness.

There are additional expressions for romantic affection as well. I was fascinated with Ya’aburnee, which apparently means “you bury me,” and alludes to the hope that one die before one’s lover, because life would be too painful without them. So tragically romantic!

It’s interesting to me that such rich descriptions of love exist in cultures where arranged marriage happens at a higher rate than western cultures. It makes me wonder about how we interpret “love.” In English, love is essentially a language monomial, defined by four letters, but a language polynomial when it comes to all the varied applications. Preoccupation, infatuation and adulation suggest something quite different from unification, and if all of those states were explicitly under the “love,” umbrella in English, people may not be as disappointed when feelings shift long-term.

Even though love is complex, we can influence our long-term feelings

The reason I’m droning on about this is that largely, whether one is “in love,” or not has to do with subjective interpretation, and is influenced by expectations. In other words, we don’t “fall out of love,” with our kids. We may not always have warm fuzzies toward them, but most of us recognize a sense of commitment and obligation which then fuel us to actions to increase love toward our offspring. We are proactive in managing our negative feelings toward them in order to be available, stable attachment figures.

It’s only in romantic love that we use the term “falling,” which implies a sense of helplessness about whom we love, or for how long. However, we can use the same heuristic in marriage that we use in parenting, by searching for actions to influence our feelings.

Over the long-term, the reality is that marital satisfaction waxes and wanes. There are behaviors that can influence any of the expectations for love. Even physical attraction can be influenced by engaging in various activities in marriage. The way we talk to ourselves about our partners also influences our feelings. We may not “feel it,” in immediate large shifts, but we can certainly encourage growth over time. Another little Arabic love language fun fact is that the word “hubb,” for love comes from the same root as the word “seed,” implying growth potential.

As Easy as an Internet Search

In an internet’s search amount of time, you can find myriad ideas for activities designed to increase love toward a spouse. In fact, this blog is full of them. Imagine if people spent as much time researching that as they do for pornography….

“I Love You” is Still Powerful

Even though the English language is limited, don’t underestimate the power of the three little words.

When my husband and I got married, we used to go to my father-in-law’s brother and wife’s home for Sunday dinner. He was a retired, shrewd Hollywood attorney who had retained his sharp wit. One night, his wife decided to advise all of the newlyweds at her home about how to stay married long-term. She said, “Now kids, this is important for staying married: Every single day, when my husband and I wake up, he says those three little words…every….single….day…….and what are those three words, honey?” she nodded at her husband. On queue, with a mischievous grin, he started, “Go to…”

“OH HUSH!” his wife blurted, sparing us from his expletive, “You know that’s not it.” She turned back to us, “He says, ‘I love you,’ every single day, and it’s a reminder that we value our marriage. You remember that. Don’t ever forget to tell each other you love each other often.” We nodded as we stifled our laughter.

Since “love,” is so general in English, and “I love you,” can become so stale so quickly, it might be fun to look up alternative terms in foreign languages and see if you can share you feelings with more precision. I already texted one Japanese term to my husband today that doesn’t translate directly to English.

“I Love You,” as the Ultimate Reassurance

Over the years, my husband and I have had the opportunity to experience many stressful life events together. In fact, we had a lot of practice with stress during our first year of marriage. I had a complete meltdown at one point, certain that I had ruined my life and created an enduring mess for myself and him by association. I was sobbing about everything that was alarming me. I went on and on and on while my husband just listened. It was verbal vomiting at its worst. Looking back, he must have been totally freaked out, but he just sat with me. He said nothing.

When my tirade (cryrade) was over and he didn’t respond, I asked, “Well?” and he answered, “Well?” and I repeated “Well?” and he answered, “Well?” and I repeated, “Well?” Silence. Then, he took my chin in his hand and looked in my eyes and said, “Well, I still love you. I will always love you,” Which made me cry all over again for his enduring kindness. For some reason, even though all my problems weren’t solved, it was adequately comforting, and I felt reassured that everything would be ok.

He has repeated the same comforting words at various time points in our marriage when I have been at the end of my rope for one reason or another.

It’s one of the constants I can always count on if I’m beyond distressed.

And as a constant, “Love,” in the English language works just fine.

Photo credit: Copyright: <a href=’https://www.123rf.com/profile_studiostoks’>studiostoks / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

 

 

 

Couples, marriage

What About Those Annoying Habits? Loving the Muddy Side of Long-Term Relationships

mudYears ago, I hung my favorite quote by Mary Engelbreit in my kitchen where I could see it often. It reads, “If you pray for rain, be prepared to deal with some mud.”

I remembered this quote when I was reading through a recent mixed methods research study on long-term relationships, conducted by the Economic & Social Research Council in the UK. They surveyed 4494 people who identified as being in a long-term relationship. One of the open-ended questions they answered was what they liked the best and least in their long-term relationships?

What’s the best part of long-term relationships?

People reported pleasures of shared humor and laughter being one of the best aspects of a long-term relationship.

One of the worst parts was:

ANNOYING HABITS were identified as an ongoing source of daily irritation and one of the least liked aspects in a long-term bond.

Every Relationship has Mud

No long-term relationship is absent of annoying habits. I hear about them all the time, and it’s amazing how many people complain about the same things.

Just for fun (and apparently because of some hidden masochistic streak), I asked my husband what my annoying habits are after thirty years of marriage. The conversation went like this:

Him: I don’t know.

Me: Everyone has them. For starters, you have that sneeze immodulation disorder (my pet term for his outrageous nasal outbursts)…which I hate and which I still think you do on purpose to bug me since no normal person sneezes that way (reflected exactly in this short clip—no kidding, this could be my bedroom).

Him: You’re exaggerating. I don’t sneeze that loud.

Me: If breaking the sound barrier isn’t loud. It’s just like when you suddenly crush a plastic bottle in your hand, which I also think you purposely do to startle me.

Him: Is there a quiet way to crush a plastic bottle? I’m just doing my part to save the planet.

Me: Anyway—what do I do that bugs you?

Him: Why do I feel like I’m being set up?

Me: You’re not. I just want to write a post about annoying habits because they’re in every marriage. OK, here’s what I put for you, besides your alarming trumpet sneezes and bottle squeezes:

Not wiping the counters when you do dishes

Leaving dirty dishes in a sink right next to an empty dishwasher

Folding the towels in fourths instead of thirds so they won’t fit in the closet

Not replacing the toilet paper when it’s used up

Leaving cupboard doors open

Leaving drawers open

Him: I don’t do that—it’s the kids.

Me: Well, it has gotten better. Still, for most of our marriage, our bathroom has looked like the scene from the movie “Date Night,” where she runs into the bathroom and right into the open drawers. I’m not finished:

Leaving the gas tank on empty (since he has some sick need for competing with himself in the game of “How many miles can we drive on fumes today?” which has provided us with several editions of “Prayer-assisted coasting into gas stations”).

Walking in the house and putting your stuff on my pristine countertop

Squeezing the toothpaste from the middle of the tube

Him: I don’t do that anymore.

Me: Well, I wouldn’t know, since I had to get my own tube and hide it.

Him: Look! (Opens bathroom drawer and retrieves toothpaste tube which is indeed rolled from the bottom)

Me: Nice! I apologize. Maybe we have graduated to a single tube…continuing:

Hanging your coat on the stair banister instead of the closet 6 feet away

Leaving your shoes out on the floor instead of the closet 18 inches away

Him: I don’t leave the toilet seat up anymore

Me: True. I haven’t splash-fallen into the toilet in the middle of the night in years. I give you full credit for changing that annoying habit. That’s most of them. Just so you know, there are a lot I left off the list that other wives commonly complain about. OK, so what are my annoying habits?

Him: I seriously can’t think of any…

Me: I know! You’re annoyed when I use your razor.

Him: Oh yeah, I do hate that.

Me: What else? Come on, this is your chance.

Him: Umm…I really can’t think of anything.

Me: What about my parking in the garage? (I found out about this when I pulled into the garage one day and my 3 year-old son blabbed, “Dad says you’re a bad parker.”) You complain that I park in your space and don’t leave you enough room to open your car door.

Him: I guess. I don’t really see that as an annoying habit, though.

Me: It is! Especially since I don’t try that hard to change it even though I know it’s annoying. Plus, I’ve never had good spatial aptitude. What else?

Him: Honey, I honestly can’t think of any annoying habits.

Me: What about me asking you these questions? Don’t you find that annoying?

Him: Umm….Yes? I don’t know what you want from me.

Me: Really? So is it safe to say that my most annoying habit is getting annoyed by your annoying habits? And then complaining about them?

Him: Yeah, pretty much.

Me: Well,if it makes you feel better, I don’t complain about your loud chewing—that’s the kids. I don’t complain about your snoring, either.

Him: No, you just hit me in the middle of the night to roll over.

Me: Whatever it takes so that more than one of us can get some sleep.

That conversation with my husband instigated some self-reflection on my part. I was shamed by the fact that I had such a long trivial list, designed to make my life more convenient, while he struggled to identify anything. I like things orderly, but I am not a clean freak by any stretch of the imagination.

But then I remembered a time when my son came up from the basement and invited, “Mom, we want you to come downstairs and see what we have been doing, but here’s the thing: Please don’t come down and start telling us to shut any doors or cupboards or tell us to pick stuff up off the floor. We just want you to see what we are doing.” Oh. I did do that. All the time.

My anxiety level in a messy room was hurting my relationships, even if I didn’t qualify for a clinical diagnosis. No wonder my husband was the favorite parent. He could just “BE,” with my kids, without trying to control the surroundings. I envied him.

Looking on the Engelbreit Side

Almost every annoying habit has a flip side. My husband tolerates chaos better than I, and may not have an eye for tidiness, but he has also never criticized me for not meeting his expectations, around the house or otherwise. If I berate myself for my own inadequacies, he tells me I’m awesome and to stop it.

Another of Mary Engelbreit’s quotes is applicable here. She said, “If you don’t like something change it; if you can’t change it, change the way you think about it.” Classic CBT….beautiful artwork and sound psychological advice in one.

It’s easy to slap a negative character label on a spouse who isn’t meeting expectations. The ones I hear the most are “lazy,” and “selfish.”  Annoying habits can feel like a purposeful affront, designed to frustrate. That’s rarely the case. Most of the time, they are unintentional and a consequence of busy daily living.

So, instead of thinking, “Why is he such a slob?” it might be more helpful to think, “What do I need to change about myself or my thinking so this doesn’t bother me so much?”

You can only change yourself anyway.

The other day I got a photo text from my husband. It was a picture of my dirty clothes sitting on top of the hamper. I knew he didn’t care if I left my clothes there, but he was nailing me for my blatant hypocrisy. “I deserved that,” I pondered, remembering the week before when, after finding his clothes on the lid (again), I exaggerated a demonstration of opening the lid to the hamper and dumping the clothes inside, “Voilà,” emphasizing that the required force was less than that required to lift one’s fancy bike into a suburban.

As I viewed the photo, I could picture being at home when he gleefully discovered my negligence. He would have made a joke about it, unlike myself, who would have expressed annoyance. Again.

Wow. I really am annoying. I need to work on that.

Reference:

Enduring love? Couple relationships in the 21st century: Survey findings report by Gabb, J., Klett-Davies, M., Fink, J., & Thomae, M. (2013). The Open University and Economic Social and research council, UK, retrieved at: http://www.open.ac.uk/researchprojects/enduringlove/sites/www.open.ac.uk.researchprojects.enduringlove/files/files/final_survey_report.pdf

Photo credit: Copyright: <a href=’https://www.123rf.com/profile_famveldman’>famveldman / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

 

Couples, Couples Therapy, Family Adventures, Love, marriage, Romance

One of the Easiest Ways to Immediately Feel Closer to Your Spouse

27241715 - portrait of couple looking at photo albumWhen my youngest son got in the car the other day, he mentioned Danny Elfman, which led to his selecting a song by Oingo Boingo to play from my iPhone. As the first few notes of “Stay,” wafted from the speakers, I thought, “Oh no. This is a song that makes me feel sad.” For some reason, the minor melody and message of loss combined with memories of my younger self often evoke a subtle melancholic yearning. I managed to hold it together enough to have one of our 80’s music conversations. That’s how we bond.

Taking a walk down memory lane can be a mixed emotional experience for most people. Nostalgia, often associated with a form of sadness and teariness, can elicit feelings of longing, but also fondness and a sense of belonging. It can motivate connection in the present. I believe we can shape our emotional responses by intentionally accessing memory.

Recalling positive memories creates closeness

Research on having spouses recall positive and significant autobiographical memories specific to their relationship has demonstrated gains in reported marital quality and closeness, via increased feelings of warmth toward one’s partner. Remembering significant relationship events can generate some of the same positive feelings in the present. I have tried this out myself and I’m suggesting two simple interventions for immediately feeling happier in marriage.

My Dollar Store Intervention

This year has represented a lot of change in my own immediate family structure. We married off our third child and sent two more to live overseas, leaving us only 2 out of 7 children at home. Right after our first grandchild was born this spring, I was trying to think of a meaningful date to create with my husband to define us as a couple amidst this sea of life transition…so of course, I thought of Dollar Tree…because what better place to choose from such a splendid assortment of leftover tchotchkes. First, I had to talk my husband into it. It took some verbal maneuvering on my part.

Me: I have an idea. Let’s go to the Dollar store and take ten minutes and each choose an item that represents our marriage for the past, present and future and then exchange them. What do you think?

Him: (Silence….then….) That sounds……………………hard.

Me: What do you mean, “hard?”

Him: Like I have to be creative.

Me: You’re afraid I’m going to judge you, aren’t you?

Him: Absolutely!

Me: I promise I won’t….it will be a no lose….come on, it will be fun.

He reluctantly followed me into the land of the misfit toys, and we set our phone timers for ten minutes and raced in opposite directions to find our conjugal representations. Miraculously, we were both finished in the limited time period.

Just by choosing the items, I was already feeling positive and excited about our marriage, regardless of his choices. We went to the car for the exchange (I would like to say we went somewhere more meaningful, like the location of our first date, but that would be a big fat lie). Interestingly, we had chosen items representing similar meanings. I was genuinely touched by my husband’s cheesy yet heartfelt offerings, and during the process, we exchanged a few meaningful memories that had been off our radar for awhile.

In short, I was right. It was a “no lose.” We both agreed that it had been worth the ten-minute detour from our traditional dinner and a movie date.

My Marriage Memory Highlights Intervention

My husband and I also celebrated our 30th wedding anniversary last week. That sounds so long, and yet it literally feels like yesterday that I married him. I still feel like the same person, despite so many varied life events. While we were at dinner, I pulled out my phone and said, “OK, let’s make a list of 30 of our favorite memories for our anniversary.”

We took turns, and I typed them into my phone for future reference. The process was more important than the outcome, because we had so much fun reminiscing. It was an automatic avenue to conversation. It also inspired tangential suggestions for things we wanted to do in the future.

I was having fun, and I appreciated my husband’s warm engagement in the conversation, though I’m sure he preferred to be watching a televised basketball game over my head at a less formal establishment. I figured he was just being a good sport, but when we reached the end of the list he suggested, “Let’s keep going to 50.”

On the way home, in the dark, because we were driving through the canyon, he began waxing sentimental about our thirty years, and it was a very endearing message, fueled, I believe, by our walk down memory lane.  A very simple exercise in identifying common special experiences invited shared authentic intimate feelings. It literally brought us emotionally closer.

The key word is “simple.” Any couple can potentially generate warmth by taking a few moments to recollect favorite memories.

Your marriage doesn’t have to be perfect to try this

Lest anyone get the idea that my 30 years of marriage has been free of struggle, I can assure my readers that I’m in the same soup as everyone else. I’m sure my husband got more than he bargained for by marrying me. Just a few days before my anniversary, you would have heard this verbal exchange in my bedroom. I don’t remember what I said first, but this is how the conversation proceeded:

Him: You’re so feisty!

Me: And you wouldn’t have it any other way, right?

Him: Well….sometimes.

Me: (under my breath) Well, you know, there’s always a remedy for that.

Him: What did you say?

Me: Nothing.

Him: No. What did you just say?

Me: (louder) I SAID THERE’S ALWAYS A REMEDY FOR THAT!

Him: And there it is!

Having had two older brothers who tormented me relentlessly, I don’t have a very passive style. If challenged, I’m more likely to come out swinging than to back down. As a result, I can bump up against my husband probably more than he would like…but I also adore him to pieces, and we are masters at repairing our mishaps.

Positive memory and gratitude

Recalling positive memories can protect a marriage against the negative emotion that accompanies inevitable struggle. It is also a way of expressing gratitude, which is the opposite of nostalgic yearning. Going back to my Oingo Boingo serenade, right after my son played “Stay,” he told me the next one up was his favorite, which happened to be “Gratitude.” I was struck by the shift in mood I immediately experienced, because the song made me think about things in life with my husband for which I’m grateful, which facilitates happiness.

Try it. Right now, think of three of your favorite marriage memories.

See? It works whether you’re a quirky 80’s music fan or not.

References:

I’ll Keep You in Mind: The Intimacy Function of Autobiographical Memory (2007) by Alea, N. & Bluck, S. in Applied Cognitive Psychology, 21, 1091-1111.

The first sight of love: Relationship-defining memories and marital satisfaction across adulthood (2010) by Alea, N. & Vick, S. C. in Memory, 18(7), 730-742.

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Couples, Couples Therapy, marriage

Can This 7 minute Intervention Really Save your Marriage?

38774765 - closeup of couple making heart shape with handsHow happy you are in your marriage is bound to affect you for better or worse. Marital quality is highly correlated with various facets of mental and physical health. High marital quality can benefit individual health while conversely, poor marital quality can actually generate health risk. Keeping this in mind, knowing how to preserve and improve marital quality has important implications for general health and well-being.

A few years ago, a study was released purporting that a brief intervention could halt a decline in marital quality. Eli Finkel, the study’s first author, explains the study and intervention at a Tedx Talk here.

Finkel makes the point that while marital quality is important, it unfortunately tends to naturally decline over time in marriage. He headed up a study in which 120 couples were recruited and assessed for various aspects of marital quality and marital conflict at successive time points.

After 12 months, half of the couples were assigned to participate in a brief 7 minute conflict reappraisal intervention while a control group of the other half of the couples were not. This intervention was assigned to the same groups at months 16 and 20 of the study, meaning that the couples in the intervention group had completed the 7 minute assignment three times for a total of 21 minutes in 8 months.

Interestingly, at the end of the first year of the study, BOTH groups of couples exhibited a DECLINE in MARITAL QUALITY.

However, at the end of two years, the couples who had participated in the intervention STOPPED their DECLINE in marital quality. This decline seemed to be mediated by reducing negative emotions like anger, which accompany conflict-related distress. In contrast, the control group who weren’t exposed to the intervention continued their decline in marital quality.

This is a somewhat compelling finding, considering the simplicity of the intervention. After writing a fact-based summary related to a disagreement they had during the previous 4 months, couples were given three questions to answer. Here are the three questions the intervention group responded to for 7 minutes, three different times, 4 months apart (Finkel, et al., 2013):

  1. Think about the specific disagreement that you just wrote about having with your partner. Think about this disagreement with your partner from the perspective of a neutral third party who wants the best for all involved; a person who sees things from a neutral point of view. How might this person think about the disagreement? How might he or she find the good that could come from it?
  2. Some people find it helpful to take this third-party perspective during their interactions with their romantic partner. However, almost everybody finds it challenging to take this third-party perspective at all times. In your relationship with your partner, what obstacles do you face in trying to take this third-partner perspective, especially when you’re having a disagreement with your partner?
  3. Despite the obstacles to taking a third-party perspective, people can be successful in doing so. Over the next 4 months, please try your best to take this third-party perspective during interactions with your partner, especially during disagreements. How might you be most successful in taking this perspective in your interactions with your partner over the next 4 months? How might taking this perspective help you make the best of disagreements in your relationship?

It’s important to note that the intervention did seem to halt a decline in marital quality but couples didn’t restore previous levels of marital quality. The trajectory did seem to shift from negative to positive, but it’s uncertain about how the intervention might have further impact over a longer period of time.

Why would an intervention this simple work?

The study authors point to the decrease in conflict-related distress as a likely mediator. I have some additional ideas for why an intervention this simple might have a statistically significant impact:

  1. Behavioral interventions can slow people down. One of the ways couples spin out in conflict is through rapid escalation. Emotions flare so quickly that couples get flooded and compromise problem-solving skills through reactivity. An intervention requiring a written response to specific instructions necessitates slowing down enough to access executive functioning.
  2. The intervention was completed while emotions weren’t escalated. This study demonstrates promise for repairing conflict after couples have successfully regulated their emotions, through a time-out, for example.
  3. This intervention provided a template for repair. Some couples might calm down and regulate their emotions, but they are uncertain about how to approach an area of conflict to achieve resolution later. The instructions provided here were explicit enough to guide couples toward resolution without too much specificity.
  4. Any positive and intentional marital intervention can potentially improve your marriage, just by shifting your attention to the relationship. Some studies have even shown that just by making an appointment with a marriage counselor, many people report increased marital satisfaction. Sometimes believing that you are working toward marital improvement provides hope that improves perception of the marriage.
  5. Knowing that your partner is engaging with you in this intervention primes cooperation and good will. Just by participating in this exercise, couples are sending a message about willingness to be conciliatory. There is an implicit message that “I’m doing this because you matter to me,” which increases marital security and opens couples up to more flexibility.

Would a marriage therapist try this intervention?

I can only answer for myself. I’m skeptical of behavioral interventions, because in my experience, when conflict escalates, emotions are high, couples are in panic mode and reactive and therefore unlikely to follow a set of behavioral guidelines or “fair fighting,” rules. Also, couples rarely respond in the textbook manner so neatly laid out in example case illustrations or video demonstrations. Most of the time, those presented responses are so uncommon and over-simplified that they are laughable.

However, I was intrigued by the longitudinal effect over the 8-month period during which couples completed the intervention, so I talked my husband into doing it with me. I must admit, that after answering the questions myself in written form for 7 minutes, I had a more cooperative spirit. If nothing else, it did increase my willingness to be collaborative instead of clinging to my own opinion. In fact, it entirely changed our previously conflicted conversation. Emotion wasn’t entirely absent, but much more regulated, and we reached resolution faster…and we still kind of liked each other at the end.

This study of course came with important limitations in sample size and the usual problems with quantifying a qualitative construct.

However, considering the promising impact on marital quality, it might just be worth 7…or even 21…minutes of your time.

Reference:

A Brief Intervention to Promote Conflict Reappraisal Preserves Marital Quality Over Time (2013) by Finkel, E. J., Slotter, E. B., Luchies, L. B., Walton, G. M., & Gross, J. J. in Psychological Science, 24(8), 1595-1601. DOI: 10.1177/0956797612474938

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