Couples, Couples Therapy, Love, marriage, Marriage and Family Therapy

Them’s Fighting Words: Marital Disarmament as a Noble New Year’s Resolution

Man and girl against a bright yellow wall. Stylish young couple standing back to back on holding hands in the form of arms

My husband and I were sitting in bed at the end of the day a few months ago when my teenage son walked in and asked out of nowhere, “Mom, I have a question. What weapons do you have that you think you use against dad?” My clarifying, “You mean besides my mouth?” was overshadowed by my husband’s simultaneous, “She has a lot of them,” delivered with the unabated zeal of a child high on the expectation of reciting his Christmas list to Santa.

I furrowed my eyebrows at him, “Whoa-a! It sounds like your father has something to say. Is this about my recent Hamilton obsession? Because I haven’t blasted it at 7 a.m. for weeks now, and I already forgave you for not fully appreciating the genius that is Lin-Manuel Miranda.”

“Well,” he replied, “I’m always telling you that you should have been an attorney. Enough said.” I looked back at my son, “I was right—my mouth.”

I must admit that I experienced a slight “ouch” to hear my husband’s enthusiastic reply, like he had been preparing for the 31 years of our marriage just to be asked that particular question. It was still bothering me the next day. I approached with, “I’m a little disturbed at the rapidity with which you answered that question. Do you think I try to hurt you?”

He laughed and tried to soften the initial blow, “Honey, no–I heard the question and answered. I didn’t say you hurt me all the time, I just said you know how to do it—you know you can hurt me more than anyone because basically you’re the person I care the most about–so where do you want to go to dinner?” (predictably attempting to maneuver me toward a less controversial topic)

I retreated into my head, where I live much of my life, recollecting the times I had hurt him, self-flagellating with a hefty dose of shame and regret, and reaffirming my commitment to work harder to increase my positives-to-negatives ratio in our communication.

The fact is, a bonded romantic relationship can precipitate the most emotional safety but also the most pain. We rarely set out to hurt our partners, except in instances in which we strike back to show how we are hurting. It is very hard to be reminded about pain we have caused to the people we love the most. I believe it’s at least in part because we know we aren’t at our best when we hurt people, whether it is intentional or not. In return, our partners tend to know our vulnerabilities and can hurt us the most.

There are infinite ways to cause harm to a spouse. ANYTHING, and I do mean ANYTHING can be weaponized. Even a shield can appear as weaponry to a spouse. Here are some common weapons partners use:

  1. Language—name-calling, labeling, and using aggressive and absolutist terms (“always,” or “never,” anyone?) are nearly ubiquitous.

 

  1. Withdrawing and withholding—anything can be withheld. Compliments, gratitude, sex, and basically any physical and/or emotional contact. It sends the message that, “You are so bad that I cannot even deal with you and you don’t deserve my positive acknowledgment. When you are behaving properly, perhaps then I will grant you the gift of my presence.” Withholding also tends to serve as justification for some twisted moral high ground—people who use these methods can sometimes feel more virtuous because they see their partners as the aggressors stooping to morally compromised behaviors. However, refusing to engage can be just as cold and punishing and cruel as the presence of aggressive behaviors.

 

  1. Bringing up the past to reinforce that your spouse is flawed and unchanging—this is tricky, because if a couple doesn’t have a good way to heal past injuries, the past will come up. Partners are often afraid they will get hurt again. Potential triggers for past pain are everywhere. However, the way the pain is communicated can either draw a partner in for potential connection and soothing, or push them out further. Bringing up the past is necessary to build safety, but most people use it as a way to shield themselves from injury and to justify staying disconnected rather than using it as a bridge toward future connection.

 

  1. Using other people to strengthen your case against your partner—For example, “Even your children think you are a robot, just ask them,” or “You are exactly like your mother.” This never helps, even if it’s true. The verity of the assertion is irrelevant. Anything between you and your partner must stay that way. Unless, of course you would like to hear about all the people that agree with your partner about how awful you are.

 

  1. Using non-verbals to express disapproval—Tone and facial expressions are common ways to communicate our disapproval to our partners, and they can be cleverly disguised as “Your skewed misperception.” See: passive-aggressiveness.

This is not an exhaustive list. People will even use marital therapy as a weapon. Common uses are, “You didn’t even do the homework or read the book the therapist recommended,” which is critical and blaming. I have not once seen a client respond to any version of this with an assenting, “Oh, I see the light now! You’re right! I didn’t realize it before, but now that you showed me the error of my ways, I will be 100% engaged. Thank you for pointing that out!” Instead, I can predict with a high degree of accuracy that a statement like that will elicit a highly defensive and counter-blaming response.

Sometimes I will have clients ask me to give them specific “communication skills,” in a desperate attempt to quickly repair the marriage. Unfortunately, this was really all the field of marital therapy had to offer back in the 80’s, and it was usually only useful in cases of newlyweds without a history of challenges, or vapid couples, where neither escalates (which is somewhat rare). When it is useful, it’s often only in the short-term or in instances in which the emotions are low. I absolutely know how to “teach communication skills,” and have various methods to do so, yet rarely recommend an explicit didactic approach for “skills” or “love languages,” except in low-distress marriages. Why? Because the “skill,” will either be tossed to the wayside in extremely emotional conversations, or weaponized to injure a spouse. Examples of this are parroting one of the skills sarcastically or criticizing a partner’s employment of the “skill,” as in, “You’re not doing that the way the therapist taught us.”

So why do we use weapons against each other and what can we do instead?

Some of the common reasons we hurt our partners are:

  1. We don’t realize we are doing it. We can’t experience the world exactly like our partners. We can unintentionally trigger pain by scraping up against vulnerabilities that are rawer than we realize. To make matters worse, when it happens, we tend to become defensive instead of validating the pain we caused, in an effort for our own intentions to be validated. However, this will escalate further argument or disconnection. If your partner approaches you by bringing up something that hurt them, a soothing response is to acknowledge the pain and try to understand it better and plan for the future. For example, “Oh, I hadn’t realized that was painful—It’s hard for me to hear that I hurt you—help me understand it better so it doesn’t keep happening,” is always more useful than, “Well, you are in charge of your own feelings—It’s not my fault if you choose to have your feelings hurt by me. Besides, you are always hurting my feelings—should I tell you all the ways you hurt my feelings?” Trust me, I have heard all the arguments for why a spouse should be able to give the second response, and my answer is that if your intent is to make the marriage worse so you can disconnect, then by all means, stick to that answer.

 

  1. To protect ourselves. The things we do to protect ourselves look like weapons of war to a partner. This is a predictable paradox. For example, withdrawing and refusing to communicate by either leaving or refusing to respond are protective for someone who is experiencing distress from a partner’s emotional behaviors, but that type of wall looks like aggressive shut-out to a partner. Conversely, getting louder or more repetitive as a desperate response to make an impact on a partner looks aggressively weaponized. If you believe your partner doesn’t care about your feelings, anything you do to manage your own difficult emotions can look weaponized. Instead, try having a discussion with your partner about what methods you use to manage your own distress in the marriage and whether it may look like a weapon from the outside. Then vice versa.

 

  1. Sometimes we use weapons to communicate how much pain we are in. Criticism, blame, name-calling, and aggressive language are all ways of saying, “I am in pain in this marriage and I don’t have a good way to tell you so that you will really hear me.” Most partners get into a tug-of-war about whose pain is bigger. Regardless of justification, this never works. Instead, externalize BOTH partners’ pain by writing it down and acknowledge the pain as “couple pain,” generated and experienced over time together. The goal is to understand how to NOT continue to cause pain for EITHER partner.

 

  1. To communicate that this feels like a “life or death” situation in a hurry. In short, we use weapons when we feel threatened. The loss of love and acceptance and connection in a bonded romantic relationship feels threatening to most individuals. The type of reactivity induced in couple arguments is such an automatic response to threat, that speed can be one of the biggest barriers to connection. Sometimes to try to help people slow down, I will ask them to not say anything in response to a partner’s triggering words, but to just notice inside how they are experiencing it, in their thoughts and in their physiological responses (heart rate, breathing, etc.). Then, once they have noticed, they can slow down and choose responses differently. People can improve by noticing their reactivity and regulating their emotions in order to engage at a slowed-down pace, which is more helpful for connection.

Unify together to make the stressors the enemy instead of allowing the stressors to make your partner the enemy

Once, I had a couple begin an argument about money, which is one of the most common areas of couple conflict. I said, “It would be great if you could be a team fighting the enemy of economic scarcity together, rather than fighting each other over your individual fears related to money.”  I explained that to ever feel like a team, I believed they needed a way to write down and acknowledge that they both had fears about money for different reasons. I believed they would feel more united when they could BOTH care take each other’s fears. There is also a need for ongoing evaluation to make sure both partners are still validated and working together. This environment also increases safety, which helps people become more flexible when working with their partners.

Shifting the paradigm from preservation of “myself” to preservation of “us,” can be a helpful way to think about it. Ultimately, marriages in which it’s “Us against the enemy,” have more potential for staying connected while solving problems. The “enemy” can be the economy, extramarital temptation, past affairs, the exhausting and crazy-making state of parenting, or any other content area. If partners villainize each other, they will sit in a homeostasis of monitoring each other for potential threat while keeping their weapons drawn, which will maintain the ongoing threat.

Exchanging weapons for compassion

Ultimately, I’ve observed that people are their strongest when they are compassionate, and compassion is a no-lose application. Compassion doesn’t mean staying in an abusive situation, but in a non-abusive environment, compassion is the balm that soothes and fosters healing required for safe emotional bonding.

Trading in weapons of war for joint compassion can be a helpful way to begin 2019. Think about it.

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Couples, Love, marriage

Emotional Attunement and the Final Frontier

I Love You To The Moon And Back - Vector love inspirational quot

I’ve written before about the “Nail in the Forehead,” video. I acknowledge that it is a humorous depiction of the way genders stereotypically interact around emotional distress, but the clip is reductive and overly simplistic, and misses a crucial element in real couple interactions. That element is emotional attunement.

In the clip, the male partner is uncomfortable when his female partner expresses emotional distress—his own distress about her emotion is what drives him to want to make her emotion go away so he can feel comfortable again. He is having unacknowledged emotional reactivity to her emotion (Hopelessness? Fear? Anxiety?) and makes an anemic show of support toward her. However, the male seems more placating than attuned. In other words, he mumbles an inane statement using words that sound validating, but with non-verbal gestures that can be construed as invalidating. What he is really saying is, “You’re ridiculous, but maybe this will shut you up.”

Genuine emotional attunement is a desire and effort to experience another person’s inner world. It’s not using words to make them go away—it’s an attempt to understand someone’s experience enough to elicit authentic empathy.

Men are often socialized to disown any vulnerable emotion, such as fear, insecurity, hurt or sadness. They learn to disconnect quickly from these emotions, which can be channeled into anger, sexuality, or numbness. In part, this is why it can feel unnatural to walk into a partner’s emotional experience. If you have learned not to feel your own emotions, why in the world would you want to feel anyone else’s?

I was amazed at how well genuine attunement worked in my own marriage a few months ago. My husband can be very stereotypically male in his response to emotional expression. I learned early to lower my expectations for his emotional response, but as he has listened to my presentations about marriage over the years, he has learned the difference between placating responses and attunement, and he surprises me with his sincere support when I least expect it.

A few months ago, I took my youngest son and daughter to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida while my husband was attending a conference. I knew my youngest son in particular would enjoy the visit, and I was excited to experience it with him. However, I had not anticipated that visiting the complex would trigger me into a state of melancholy that persisted throughout the day.

I grew up in a city with a historical link to space exploration. Rockwell International  contracted with NASA to manufacture spacecraft for the Apollo missions and subsequent explorations, including the reusable shuttles. The site is now home to the Columbia Memorial Space Center.

Visiting a NASA site elicited a flood of memories related to working for my father. He owned a chemical manufacturing which provided key materials used in the aerospace, defense and aircraft manufacturing industries. The summer after I turned 14, he insisted that I work at his company full-time during the summer instead of going to the beach with my friends. He was convinced that he was teaching me the value of work and saving me from being homeless and alone.

As I wandered around NASA, I recognized most of the company names from working with my father. I recalled organizing files several inches thick with invoices for Boeing, Honeywell, Lockheed Martin, Northrop, the U.S. government, and my city’s own Rockwell. My focused exposure to the recollection of the aerospace glory days flooded me with a feeling of loss and longing for my father. Throughout the day, I found myself getting choked up and teary as a reaction to various memories emerging in my head. Mostly, I recalled our rides to work together, where he would give me pep talks and tell me I had an “excellent mind,” and that I should smile more because, “You are so beautiful when you smile.” Even though I would discount his attempts with, “You have to say that–you’re my father,” I always appreciated his efforts to build my confidence. He was my biggest cheerleader and I missed him terribly. He and my mother were two of the few people I could really count on to care about me, and nothing was quite the same after they both died. I longed for their presence again.

When I got back to our hotel and my husband asked me about my day, I candidly replied, “I felt so sad all day.” I explained how the visit had triggered memories of working with my father, which highlighted his loss in my life.

My husband didn’t try to tell me why I shouldn’t feel sad, or why I should just be glad I had good memories. His reply was genuine and attuned. He responded with, “It’s ok to be sad, honey. I can see why that would make you sad. I miss your dad too. You can be sad.”

Suddenly, his telling me he understood why I would be sad and that I could be sad alleviated my sadness. In essence, he communicated that even though I experienced a deep loss, I wasn’t alone, and he was with me.

His words couldn’t have been more simple, and yet, it wasn’t really about the words. It was his authentic validation. He confirmed that sometimes in life, pain happens, and nothing can fix it, and that it was really ok if I felt less than chipper in the moment, even if it could potentially impact him. He normalized my feelings and signaled that he wouldn’t leave me alone, even in times of distress.

It’s not rocket science.

 

Photo credit: https://www.123rf.com/profile_21kompot

 

 

 

 

Couples, marriage, Marriage and Family Therapy

A Typical Marriage Fail Moment and How I Fixed it

marriage fail

Several years ago, I was late for a conference forty miles away in the next county north, and amped up my aggressive driving skills to attempt to arrive faster (admittedly a bad idea—do NOT do this at home). As I was approaching the boundary to the next county, weaving in and out of traffic, my cell phone rang (before cell phone use in cars was illegal in my state). I gave an exasperated “Hello,” just as one of my neighbors greeted, “Where do you think you’re going, driving like a maniac? You’re not getting there any faster than the rest of us.” “I’m late,” I acknowledged, laughing, because I was surprised I was literally being ‘called out,’ “And by the way, you’re increasing my anxiety and throwing me off, so thanks for making me later.” His reply was one I had heard a hundred times, “Physician, heal thyself.” “Well, good thing I’m not a physician then, isn’t it?” I sassed back, which elicited an argument based on the word’s etymology in which my neighbor insisted that I was, indeed, in the broad “physician,” category.

I know of no group of people associated with higher societal expectations for mood and behavior than mental health professionals. I’ve never heard someone say, “He has cancer—he must be a terrible doctor!” or “Don’t go to that doctor—I heard him coughing the other day,” but I have heard many people evaluate therapists based on the presence of any mental health or relationship challenges. Oh, that the world was that simple! Quite frankly, I would have no trust in a therapist who had not somehow faced emotional or relationship challenges, because we call those people…robots? Stepford therapists? Inhuman?

Being a therapist has certainly given me a variety of options for dealing with various facets of being human, and has probably increased my adaptability, decreased my reactivity, and alleviated various struggles, but it has in no way turned me into a perfect person (whatever that means). I have emotions just like everyone else, an individual history with various potential triggers, and varying propensities, some of which aren’t always potentiating ideal mental and emotional states (shocking, I know —sorry to burst anyone’s bubble). As a result, I will continue to have plenty of opportunities to try out my suggested interventions on myself.

This is a tale of one of those moments, and how even though my reactivity got the best of me, I was able to take a step back and reverse the situation. I’m in no way attempting to glorify myself, nor suggesting I get it right all, or even most of the time—I’m choosing to share this because it’s such a typical example of how quickly couples get stuck and stay stuck if something doesn’t change. I’m hoping other couples can see themselves in the situation.

Last year, my husband and I took a trip to Europe with another couple. I thought things were going better than expected. We all got along well and seemed to be having a great time. After a long day touring, my husband and I were alone in our room and he seemed to be irritated at me, answering in terse monosyllables, which is somewhat unusual for him. “What’s wrong with you?” I asked. With little prodding, he proceeded to explain that I didn’t seem to want to be with him at all, and that I was more interested in hanging out with my friend than with him, and I kept leaving him behind to talk to my friend and her husband. I think he said something like, “Maybe you should have just gone on a trip with them and left me home.”

I was completely thrown off. I never in a million years could have guessed that he would have perceived that, because it was so untrue. I don’t know that I’ve ever been so confused in a marital interaction. My husband has never been the jealous type. His unexpected accusation felt unfair and the anger behind his words really stung.

So, what do you think I did? Did I apologize and try to understand his feelings better?

Nope.

I immediately got defensive. I matched his tone and raised it a notch. “What are you even talking about?” I demanded. “You’re insane! I didn’t leave you behind at all! We were together all day! What more do you want from me?” and blah blah blah. Basically, I was trying to defend my position and explain to him why he was incorrect in his interpretation of the day.

And then, he admitted that he saw it all wrong and I was correct after all, right?

Nope.

He continued citing examples to support his viewpoint until I basically muttered something mature like, “Whatever, think what you want,” and rolled over to go to bed, stewing inside, certain that I needed to find the words to help him see that he was wrong. Note that this was me disconnecting and basically sending the message to “deal with it by yourself,” which is the polar opposite of what you would want to do for a healthier interaction.

I was feeling very upset. I wanted to remind him of all the efforts I have made in our marriage to show him that my marriage is important to me. I felt slighted. Didn’t he realize how good he had it? I wanted credit for everything I had done to be a good wife, and it felt like he was wiping it out in a day. How dare he misunderstand me so completely! It felt devastating. I silently fumed. I was the victim here–he was ruining my perfect vacation!

Eventually, I tried to slow my emotions down and actually do what I would want my clients to do. Even though I thought he was completely off-base, and his anger was not a vulnerable display that increased my empathy, I was able to see that under the anger, he was extremely hurt about something. I recalled the day in my memory, trying to identify moments in which he may have felt left behind or unimportant. I realized that because I don’t like to make people wait for me, it was true that I stayed up with my friend and her husband and walked away from him. However, it was because I didn’t want to be a naggy wife, telling him to “come on,” if he wanted to linger. As I thought about it, I became more upset that he was assuming this was evidence that I didn’t want to be with him. I felt powerless to influence his opinion. How was I going to make him understand that he was wrong? We were back to that.

By the next morning, I was still feeling hurt, but I was determined to try to reconnect before we started the day again. He was still giving me the cold shoulder. I had not validated his feelings, so that was no surprise. Finally, I reached out to touch his arm and made eye contact. I explained that it was hard for me to hear his interpretation of the day because I saw it so differently. I said, “I don’t know that it will make a difference to you, but here’s what I think was happening,” and proceeded to recall that I didn’t want to be a nag but wanted to keep up with the group, etc.

I knew that wasn’t the real issue though—I still needed to understand how he could feel insecure about something that seemed so small to me, so I continued. I remember saying, “The bottom line is that it doesn’t matter if I saw it differently, because ultimately, I don’t want my husband to wonder if I love him or not. I’m sad that you would even think I prefer my friends to you. I’m always trying to reinforce the message that I love you, so if you can experience doubt so quickly, it worries me that I’m not building the kind of security I want you to have.” Then, I asked him to help me understand if my behaviors throughout the day seemed rejecting. I was more aware of my actions and the impact I was having on him for the rest of the trip, which generated increased emotional attunement and reciprocity on his part.

Some people might think my response was “rewarding bad behavior,” but it was a response to relational distress, and attuned responsiveness is actually more likely to reduce future triggers than to exacerbate them. Ignoring, diminishing or invalidating them will certainly increase their frequency, however. People get this wrong all the time–but hey–it keeps me in business, so keep invalidating your spouses, y’all!

Basically, I shifted from trying to convince him why he was wrong to expressing confusion about seeing it so differently and trying to understand more about his experiences, because the bottom line is that I want my husband to know I care about his feelings.

Most couples automatically do what I did first—try to convince their partners why they saw it incorrectly, why they are just too sensitive, why they need to change their perceptions, etc. That can keep a couple spiraling in one form or other for years.

Instead of arguing about who’s right, try this:

  1. Acknowledge that your partner may have a completely different experience with the same event than you had. It’s really okay.
  2. Orient yourself to what you really care about—do you care more about getting your point across or about bridging understanding to be able to move forward differently?
  3. If a partner seems accusatory because he/she was hurt, try to see it as an opportunity to bond differently instead of nursing your own pain.

This isn’t gender specific. In this case, my husband happened to be the one expressing pain. Notice that he expressed anger rather than hurt, which was really at the core of the event. That’s true for most people. That’s hard, because anger is a distancing emotion. It doesn’t elicit empathy. It naturally elicits defensiveness or withdrawal. Many individuals struggle expressing hurt, so it’s usually helpful to know that if anger is expressed, something painful in general is happening. Asking more about what is painful can be helpful.

As we really are all, in one way or another, physicians, it boils down to “show me where it hurts,” and trying to help soothe emotional pain instead of arguing about it.

Again, I’m not using this as an example of my awesomeness in marriage—I got it completely wrong at first, but I was able to come back in differently by focusing on the fact that I didn’t want my spouse to hurt, but to feel supported. Things can shift quickly when partners can accept a partner’s different experience and try to understand it better. Try it.

In the meantime, I’ll be making many more mistakes to create new opportunities for change.

Photo: Copyright: <a href=’https://www.123rf.com/profile_rafaelbenari’>rafaelbenari / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

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.

 

 

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.

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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.

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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.

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