One of my favorite tv shows while I was growing up was The Brady Bunch. Mike and Carol Brady managed each contrived family challenge with ease and contentment. That’s why the popular sitcom is definitely a better example of fiction than of blended families. Some of the most challenging cases I have seen in therapy are those with combined households. Blended families are by nature exposed to a great deal of stress. Some reasons they are particularly challenging are:
Family structures are constantly shifting, with children coming and going. In families where both parents have children and the children spend time with both parents, they are in constant transition from one household to another. Transitions generate stress.
Children have loyalties to both parents. Children feel stuck in the middle trying to please their biological parents. They can easily feel disloyal to a bioparent by accepting a stepparent.
People often feel differently about their biological children than stepchildren. This isn’t how people want it to be, but the reality is that most people have an easier time empathizing with their own children.
Children from different households have often been raised with different rules and types of discipline. This can generate arguments between the parents about how to develop and enforce rules.
Blended families can have children in different life-cycle stages. For example, a parent with teenagers might marry someone with preschoolers, increasing the complexity of understanding and meeting the needs of all household members.
It’s important to note that blended families and step-parents have great potentiality for developing well-adjusted, secure individuals if the parents can work together and maintain amiable relationships with their former spouses. I know of many instances in which a stepparent provided the type of love and security children need to have confidence in stable relationships.
Some intentional things blended families can do are:
Promote a discussion acknowledging losses and gains of each family member. Have an actual meeting in which you allow children to draw pictures or voice the things they miss from their biological families. Then, ask what they have gained. If children are asked about losses, they can immediately feel more validated and safer sharing their fearful and uncomfortable emotions.
Establish a new family tradition with the blended family. Allow each family member to have input on what this might be. Don’t overthink it. Small rituals are powerful.
Make sure stepparents spend one-on-one time with stepchildren. I’m disappointed by how many blended families miss this opportunity. Parents have former history with their biological children. They need to create new history with stepchildren.
Think of parenting stepchildren as mentoring rather than traditional parenting. How would you mentor a niece or nephew? The stepparent relationship is different than the biological relationship. This must be acknowledged and respected. Do NOT require stepchildren to call you “Mom,” or “Dad,” but if they want to, let them.
Reinforce the marriage. This is even more important in blended families than in biological families. The issues with children can quickly fray the marriage. Take time to date, have discussions, attend workshops, and actively implement strategies to express love and care in the couple relationship.
As a general rule, if people focused more on improving relationships than on discipline, I believe there would be far less headaches with blended families. This requires a certain level of emotional regulation on the part of the parents, who may be rejected by stepchildren. Remember, your children are not there to meet YOUR emotional needs…you are there to meet your children’s emotional needs and help them develop into functioning, healthy human beings…those of the non-fictional variety.
We have all experienced that awkward moment of hanging out with a couple who suddenly escalate into an argument, leaving everyone around them feeling uncomfortable. Heck, I have even been part of that difficult duo on occasion (my apologies to those I have contaminated with my bad mood). You can be out with another couple having a great time, when suddenly, one person does something that irritates a spouse, and you’re instantly on a battlefield ducking grenades which on impact pollute the air with the fallout of negative emotions.
Take that negative feeling you have when you are around an arguing couple, and multiply it several times over, and you have a pretty good idea of what it’s like for children in a home with parents who chronically argue or ice each other out with coldness and distance. Too many married couples expose their children to toxic negative emotion regularly without realizing the harm that it can create. It’s more than just a matter of emotional contagion—It’s a matter of children fearing that their safety in the world will collapse.
If children perceive that marital distress might destabilize their environment (i.e. divorce), their basic emotional security is compromised. The newest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (basically the diagnostic Bible for mental health clinicians) even included a new subcategory of parent-child relational problems labeled, “Child Affected by Parental Relationship Distress,” acknowledging that this can be harmful to children.
Children exposed to chronic marital distress are at risk for:
Increased physiological arousal (placing the body in a state of stress)
Decreased ability to regulate their own emotions
Higher levels of depression
Higher levels of child aggression, oppositional defiance or delinquent behavior
Higher levels of social withdrawal
Decreased academic performance
Diminished interpersonal skills
Not all marital conflict is problematic. It’s not reasonable to expect a marriage to be completely free of conflict. The difference is that a high quality marriage exudes positive emotion over time which helps children feel safe. A strong marriage offers protective factors from children. Here are 7 easy ways to mitigate some of the effects of marital distress:
Let your kids see you repair conflict. Children learn important lessons about conflict resolution when parents talk it out and allow children to see that they can disagree but come back together again. This is preferable to a household in which children never see parents disagree, because often those people don’t know how to handle conflict in marriage later.
Tell your child what you love about your spouse in front of your children OFTEN. My children have no doubt that their father loves me because he is known in casual conversation to tell them what it is he loves about me regularly enough that they are sick to death of hearing it. His ritualistic expressions, however, do engender security.
Bring up a positive marital memory from the past in front of your children. My children love hearing my husband talk about the first time he met me at a dance and broke his “only dance with any girl one time all night rule,” because he just “had to dance with mom again because she was different from the rest.” Again, it builds security.
Plan an act of service for your spouse with your children. I remember once when my husband was out of town how excited my children were to help me clean his office for him. We were all in it together, and they couldn’t wait to show him what “Mommy had done,” for him when he came home.
Show positive affection in front of the children. My children see my husband and me hold hands, hug and kiss regularly. Even though they sometimes yell, “Ewww!!! Get a room!!!” it helps them witness our relationship as secure, and models healthy marital affection.
Find a way to use humor with the kids and your spouse. Once, my 3 year-old son came running in while I was fixing dinner and exclaimed, “My dad says he’s a big muffin!” I quizzed, “What? Dad’s a big muffin?” He answered, “Just a sec,” ran out and came running back in after checking in with his dad. He corrected, “Dad says to tell you he’s a studmuffin.” The whole exchange made me laugh out loud, and we still joke that dad’s a “big muffin.” Humor binds a family together with memories and positive emotion, building safety.
Don’t threaten divorce in front of your children. In the heat of emotional reactivity, this may seem impossible. Don’t. It scares children and sets them on a course for emotional dysregulation. JUST DON’T!!!!!!
Think about how much effort you put into protecting your children. Parents work hard to prevent accidents and injuries, kidnappings, illiteracy, illness, and general distress. As a marriage therapist, I sometimes wish more effort was put into infusing positive emotion into the marriage. Don’t be that awkward couple making your kids feel uncomfortable. Arm them with a shield of marital and family security.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, (5th edition) by the American Psychiatric Association (2013), Washington DC
Marital Conflict and Children: an Emotional Security Perspective by E. Mark Cummings and Patrick T. Davies (2011), The Guilford Press: New York.
Every so often, someone will notice my wedding ring and ask me about it, because it is somewhat unusual. It’s a ring that I had made in the jewelry district in Los Angeles back in 1987 while I was engaged to be married. I was trying to explain what I had in mind to the jeweler who was getting frustrated that I was rejecting everything he was showing me. Finally, I sketched out my envisioned design on a piece of paper and he asked if I just wanted them to custom make that design for me, and I happily agreed.
I am actually not a jewelry person. My accessorizing is generally haphazard, and I have a whole drawer full of baubles that sit mostly untouched. I have simple tastes. The one thing I almost never leave the house without, however, is my wedding ring. When the jeweler presented it to me, he was excited to show me how it turned out and I was happy that it reflected my unique conceptualization. I have always been disinterested in what other people thought about it, or whether or not it met a certain standard for jewelry design, because it was my own distinctive creation, and it was just what I wanted.
Right after I got married, my husband and I spent a week in Cancun, Mexico. The Cancun of 1987 wasn’t quite as developed as it is now. I avoided drinking the water and I ordered all my drinks without ice, but as my husband and I were preparing to fly back to the U.S., I realized that something must have made me sick. We flew to Portland, Oregon, to have a reception in his hometown of Lake Oswego, and were headed to a resort near Bend, to spend another week at his family’s condo, before driving back to Utah to continue our schooling. I spent the whole week in Bend feeling ill, and by the time we were driving toward Utah, I had a temperature and was so miserable that my husband stopped at a medical care facility in the small town of Baker, Oregon, where medical services were sparse.
The medical team immediately gave me an IV drip for my dehydration and began running some tests. The nurse used a needle that was so small that the drip was taking a long time to drain, so he jerry-rigged a pressurized system to increase the flow by wrapping a blood pressure cuff around the bag and pumping it up. The drip did start flowing faster, but soon the bag drained enough that the pressure needed to be increased again. I suggested that my husband pump up the blood pressure pump a second time. Neither of us had any experience with medical instruments.
A few seconds after my husband started pumping, we heard something pop, and I felt something raining down on my head. I instinctively shut my eyes and asked my husband what had happened. He said, “Don’t open your eyes. Mercury just shot out of the instrument and you have it in your eyelashes.” I was freaking out a little bit because I had heard that mercury can be dangerous if ingested. He meticulously picked it out of my eyelashes and off of my body.
A few hours later, after I was discharged, I looked down and noticed that my wedding ring was now silver instead of gold. I surmised to my husband that the jewelers in Los Angeles must have used cheap materials instead of real gold, and my beloved wedding ring was ruined. Later, I called my parents to complain about it. Then, I proceeded to tell them about my adventures with mercury, and my father asked, “Wait a minute. Did you have your wedding ring on when the mercury exploded all over?” “Yes, why?” I replied. “Because mercury bonds to gold. That’s why your wedding ring looks silver,” he explained, “You need to go to a jeweler right away and have it buffed off of the ring.”
I blew off his explanation, and lazily replied that I might get around to it eventually, but that I was under a lot of stress moving into an apartment, starting a new semester, buying books, starting a new job, and paying for my emergency room bill, since these were the days before COBRA, and I had no insurance. “I can’t afford to pay a jeweler to do that right now,” I whined.
My father was a chemical engineer and the owner of an industrial chemical manufacturing company. He knew a thing or two about chemicals. He warned, “Lori,” (now using his no-nonsense, authoritative voice), “if you do not go and get that mercury buffed off of that ring, then it will become part of the molecular composition of the metal, and you will not be able to get the silver color off of it. It will be part of the permanent structure of the ring,” (or something like that…in terms a chemical engineer and manufacturer would use). Sure enough, a jeweler restored the ring to its former purity.
I think about that incident every so often, and my father’s warning that I needed to buff off the mercury before it permanently tainted the structural integrity of the gold from which my ring was constructed. It seems like an appropriate analogy for marital relationships.
By and large, the most challenging cases with which I am faced are those in which one partner spent years building resentment toward another partner without addressing the discontentment or hurt. This happens for many reasons: conflict avoidance, fear, confusion, perceived need to be long-suffering, hopelessness, etc. The reasons don’t matter as much as the effect this strategy has on a long-term partnership. Almost inevitably, the partner who often gives in or placates the other partner without saying anything reaches a breaking point which is manifested as a distinct and firm disconnection.
Allow me to give an example. In one situation, which is almost exactly like many other situations I have seen, a husband spent years focused on his career. Making a lot of money was very important to him, and became part of his identity. He was determined to “succeed.” In the eyes of the world, he was successful, having developed a business and selling it for millions of dollars, giving him the freedom to retire early and invest his profits in a variety of income-generating ventures. However, his wife wanted nothing to do with him. It seemed as if his “success,” had cost him his marriage.
He pleaded with me to help him save his relationship. He said all the right things. He was completely cooperative in therapy. He did everything she asked. And nothing changed. As much as he apologized for ignoring her for so many years, and as much as he explained that he wanted to move forward in a different direction with her, she was past feeling. She seemingly had become comfortable with their disconnection, had accepted it as part of her marriage to him, and had no desire to get close again. Many times, she repeated, “He never listened to me when I tried to tell him before, and eventually I just gave up. I just don’t care anymore. I don’t care if we are disconnected…In fact, I’m comfortable with it. I like it that way.” The couple was willing to stay married, “for the children,” but the marriage was very low quality by any standard. There was nothing I could do.
These situations cause me pain because they are so preventable if addressed early and often by both partners. Quite simply, if you find yourself feeling resentful toward your partner, the best thing you can do for your marital future and your children is to address it immediately, even if it hasn’t been previously heard. This doesn’t mean being “brutally honest,” or rigid and demanding. Kindness and generosity are ALWAYS important with any degree of honesty. It means to continue to evaluate the condition of your marriage and recorrect the trajectory toward closeness instead of disconnection, so hard feelings don’t build up enough to completely divide the marriage. If your partner isn’t hearing you, giving up will not fix it. It is not heroic to avoid conflict while allowing discontentment to become bitterness.
Dr. Carlfred Broderick, Harvard and Cornell-educated former director of USC’s marriage and family therapy program, identified unaddressed resentment as one of the main factors weakening a marriage and making it more vulnerable to disconnection and affairs. In my experience, he was absolutely correct. Fast and frequent marital repair is a recipe for success.
In the parable of the wedding ring, if you do not buff off the mercury in your marriage (resentments, discontentments, hurts, slights), it will become part of the permanent structure of the relationship, unchanged by delayed apologies and tardy responsiveness, leading to something of a lower quality alloy.
In essence, it becomes more difficult for a marriage therapist to “buff off,” the layer of toxicity that is poisoning the marriage. Difficult doesn’t mean impossible, however. Please don’t give up. Try to repair the quality of the relationship instead of just enduring a low-quality but stable marriage–for the sake of the children. It may be challenging, but if BOTH partners put forth required effort, the “ring,” can be restored to its former beauty, and I daresay it empowers the family as well–a ring for which Tolkien may even agree is worth enduring the epic adventure.
My husband taught me a simple, yet powerful tool to build safety and security in marriage as well as in the entire family. It’s kind of humbling, considering the fact that I’m the one with two advanced university degrees in marriage and family therapy. Here’s the story behind it:
Several years ago, I was tidying up a room in my house and picked up some random papers upon which my children had been sketching various pictures. One paper immediately caught my attention because my son had printed in crayon the words, “How mom found her love,” at the top of the page. Under the words was an amusing hand-sketched version of me with bad hair, wide-eyed and open-mouthed (and a little crazy looking), with the words, “gasp,” spelled out in a speech bubble flowing from my mouth.
This one-dimensional version of me was apparently meant to be a portrayal of the first time I met my husband, who was pictured inches away on the same page, with Hulk-like tattered shorts and an impressive four-pack on his abdomen. I laughed out loud and decided this picture was a keeper.
When I asked him about it later, he told me that he drew it because, “Dad is always saying you’re his dream girl, and you’re in LOOOVE.” He was right, and I suddenly felt a little bit sad, because I realized that he drew the picture based on how his father treated me instead of the reverse. My husband had a ritualistic habit of asking my children various rhetorical questions to which they had learned to shout specific replies.
Question: Do you know who my best friend is?
Question: Guess who I love the most?
Question: Guess what? (This question usually elicited several guesses based on his past responses)
Answer: You love mommy! Mom’s your dream girl! You think mom’s gorgeous! Mom’s your best friend!
He would smile and answer, “That’s right,” while winking at me from across the room. He was always coming up with new questions to let them (and me) know that I mattered to him.
The embarrassing thing to me was that he was so good at it, and I was the marriage therapist. He was always beating me at my own game.
When I found my son’s picture, I actually got a little teary, because I didn’t play the part of the adoring wife nearly as well as he had played the adoring husband. I made a resolve to do a better job of following his example, and I started asking my younger children the same types of questions he asked all the time, like, “Do you know what I love about daddy?” I was surprised at the immediate effects.
Asking your children if they know what you love about your spouse is a simple strategy which provides a variety of benefits, such as:
It can increase authentic positive feelings about your spouse. When I verbalized to my children what I loved and appreciated about their dad, I actually generated those positive feelings within. The process of thinking of things to say, and remembering scenes from our past to share with my children was associated with real feelings of love. Recent brain research verifies this process.
It helps children feel more secure. When children are reminded consistently that their parents love each other in an authentic way, they enjoy protective mental health benefits, also supported by research. Children gain what theorists and researchers call a “felt sense of security,” from displays of a high quality marriage.
It puts money in the relationship bank. This is an easy way of building the positive to negative interactions ratio John Gottman promotes, which can buffer a relationship from the inevitable conflicts and struggles of life.
It provides modeling for children later in their own marriages. Children learn how to be spouses in large part by watching marital process in the home–also research-documented.
I have sometimes presented this strategy as an idea at marriage workshops, and have on several occasions had couples report back to me how powerful it was for them in maintaining positive feelings in the marriage. For many individuals, it helps them remember why they married their spouses in the first place.
So, if you are feeling a little less than sparkly in your own marriage, think of some questions to ask your children to affirm your feelings of love for your partner. You might just think back to those days when he or she was rocking that amazing four-pack! Remember – you are your children’s marital superheroes!
WARNING: If you are a raging Nicholas Sparks loyalist and can’t wait for the next book or movie to come out, then you will likely feel defensive and misunderstood if you read this post. Continue at your own risk.
I believe in the concept of keeping romance alive in marriage (apologies to those who think marriage has nothing to do with romance—in my marriage, it does). However, I’m something of a romance curmudgeon when it comes to the silver screen.
Recently, my husband and I were trying to find a movie to attend, and for lack of options decided to go see Nicholas Sparks’ new movie, The Best of Me. I’m always somewhat resistant to Sparks’ movies because they so often seem schmaltzy and formulaic, and filled with delusions of destiny. I TRIED to read one of his romance books. Once. (Confession—not a fan of the traditional romance genre).
As I exited the theater, my husband asked me if I liked the movie, and I told him I felt annoyed. The premise is that a man and woman who dated twenty years previously met up together again, and of course immediately felt fueled by fate as they had a brief sexual fling, declared their true love for each other, and painfully separated so he could return to his mediocre lonely life, and she could return to her predictably distant and colorless marriage.
The message: It is burdensome to keep your commitments and do the right thing. You are sad. You might as well curl up in a fetal position now. Oh, and you just passed up your chance at true love…Loser… Lonely loser.
Then, the movie shifted. I won’t COMPLETELY spoil the movie, but SPOILER ALERT and BIG SURPRISE, she divorces her husband. In the brief scene with her son post-divorce, he seems perfectly well adjusted to the fact that his mother and father have ended their nearly 20-year marriage, and she is of course happier than ever, pursuing a new career which will undoubtedly lead her back to “true love.”
As a marriage therapist, I felt sick inside. Since it is easier than ever to reignite former romances and to communicate clandestinely through technology with someone outside of the relationship, there seems to be an endless stream of people damaging or ending their marriages in order to pursue new or former romantic relationships to chase what they think is “true love.”
What the movie did not show was any emotional pain experienced by the son when his parents divorced after their long marriage. Nor did it portray the real grief, pain and loneliness many if not most endure after a divorce, or after the end of the romantic affair that imploded the marriage. That, my friends, is much more realistic.
At this point (especially for the Sparks fans), you may find yourself saying, “Settle down, lady…it’s a fiction romance movie, not a documentary on human relationships.” I know. I get it. However, I get very worried about how “true love” is portrayed in these romances, because the truth is, it affects viewers and their relationships.
If we define true love, by the very real dopamine-induced twitterpation experienced early in a romantic connection which inevitably diminishes over time as relationships become more predictable and secure, then it might be easy to feel like our long-term relationships aren’t “true” at all, and we are missing out. This is more dangerous when that feeling is used as a measuring stick for what is genuine. There is a very real physiological response in a new, exciting relationship, or in a secret affair, and people regularly mistakenly believe this feeling means that the relationship is somehow more legitimate than the long-term one which may seem prosaic in comparison. Over time, the long-term partner can even be viewed as the enemy, preventing “real happiness.”
There have been actual reports of people ending their marriages after watching some of Sparks’ movies, because they felt so disillusioned in their comparatively boring committed relationships.
Interestingly, Sparks is still in a long-term relationship, married to the woman he met in college, and raising a family of five children. That is undoubtedly not easy, even for someone with steady cash flow from writing fantasy romance scripts. He seems like a very committed family man. If I could conduct an interview, I might ask him about how he reconciles his fantasy romance tales with the realism in his own life. I’m guessing Sparks knows how to fuel a real-life romance, and the formula is different than in his stories.
I began wondering what I, as a couples therapist, would include in a really good true love romance, were I to write one (which I am certain will never happen)….one in which the partners have set up a life together, complete with children. Just for fun, I used “romance,” as an acronym.
A really good romance should include:
R for reality: As in real life. Like when your entire family begins vomiting in the middle of the night, and you and your husband both have somewhere to go the following morning, and you stay up all night cleaning up truckloads of vomit, and scrubbing the carpet, and you are cranky, and stinky…oh, and the mortgage was due yesterday and…..well, you get it.
O for obstacle: As in unemployment. As in chronic or devastating mental or physical illness. As in your preschoolers deciding while you are nursing a baby that it would be a good idea to mix the rice, flour and sugar bins together, put some of the mixture in the dishwasher, and then top it off with just the right amount of maple syrup for good measure, and you found out 15 minutes before you are supposed to have your baby at the doctor. As in your kids discovering that if you stomp on Christmas lights while they are still screwed into the string, on your garage floor, it makes a really cool popping, crunchity sound, so they must stomp on ALL of them on ALL of the strings—even the ones stored in the Christmas boxes on the shelf—rendering them useless and leaving miniscule shards of glass strewn about which, like the demon glitter, will find their way into your house months after evading the Shop-Vac…I could go on…
M for Memory: Memory is always being constructed, and has everything to do with the narrative we tell ourselves. People who want to stay married tell their marriage story with the positive things at the forefront. Like, do I want to remember the time my husband and I had one car and he left me standing in the freezing cold because he forgot to come get me, pre-cell phone days, or do I want to remember the time I had been out of town and walked into my room and there were dozens of floral bouquets everywhere? Be careful of entertaining narratives that someone else was your true love—brains remember things better (or worse) than they were. Memories are also notoriously inaccurate and more fluid than most people want to admit.
A for Attitude: Whether you focus on the positive or negative elements of your relationship is completely within your control. I can focus on the fact that my husband can step over a clean basket of clothes that needs to be brought up stairs and folded, for a seemingly indefinite amount of time (since I gave up on the experiment after 5 days) instead of picking it up and folding it himself, or I can focus on the fact that my husband never complained about a wife who asked him to please bring that basket of clothes up the stairs and fold it after it sat there for 5 days.
N for Negotiation: Negotiation is ongoing and necessary for romance to work out. Like when your husband wants to go to a Nicholas Sparks movie, but you really want to go see that action film (patience, dear reader…I threw that in to see if my husband is really reading my blog posts like he says).
C for Commitment: This is the most important variable in long-term relationship durability, and is necessary with any romance. C is also for “children,” who benefit from having parents who they can tell are in love, or who can distract you from your couple relationship because they are dependent on you for their survival. They are also guaranteed to make you both laugh and cry.
E for Effort: A good romance requires work, plain and simple, and it’s not always rainbows and unicorns. Once, when I had small children, I was feeling resentful because my husband was traveling for business, and I didn’t like the way I was feeling about him, mostly because I was envious that he was able to go to the bathroom by himself. I tried to think of what I could do for him, and I remembered the pile of shirts that needed missing buttons replaced, which I had successfully hidden underneath my more interesting sewing projects so that he would forget about them. I got them out and put buttons on 8 shirts and surprised him with them when he got home. Seeing how appreciative he was made me happy. Romantic indeed.
Please, enjoy romance, but get your education about romance outside of Hollywood.
I’m not a Nicholas Sparks hater. I actually did finish and enjoy, Three Weeks with my Brother, an autobiographical memoir which was actually quite interesting. I just don’t love his romances.
I did recently see Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, which looked a whole lot more like my life than the Sparks romance. My husband reminded me that I had given him the book while we were engaged when he was having a bad day, and told him it was my most favorite children’s book of all time. I had forgotten. The fact that he remembered, however, made it romantic.
If you are hankering for that romantic film, pick up The Princess Bride. It will make you laugh, unless you have no sense of humor at all, in which case you might want to consult a doctor…or a therapist…or a humor whisperer, I guess.
My favorite line in the movie is when the disguised Wesley said, “Life is pain, highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.”
I walked out to the waiting room the other night to witness a somewhat rare event in my practice: a couple holding hands! I immediately felt just a little…..happier? More hopeful? Less burdened? I’m not quite sure, but the gesture sent a non-verbal message that things were good, at least for that moment. As an observer, it just made me feel better.
With the preponderance of sexual messages surrounding us, it is unfortunate that we don’t learn more about healthy, non-sexual, affectionate touch; it is such a powerful form of connection, yet so often underutilized, often because couples just get busy with competing demands and drift apart. Sometimes I think if we understood the power of warm, affectionate, non-sexual touch, we would promote its expression as readily as physical exercise, and its benefits might mitigate many common marital challenges.
On many occasions, when partners are distressed and I have asked them what they thought they needed in such circumstances, they have replied, “just a hug.” If the other partner responds in kind, the couple leaves the session feeling more bonded and connected. Every time.
Recent research around human touch is demonstrating that safe, warm touch in a close, pair-bonded relationship like marriage has particular health advantages and is actually influenced by the quality of the relationship.
In one study, women were exposed to pain stimuli alone and when their partners took their hands, if they were in happy relationships, the hand-holding decreased their stress responses in the brain as measured on an fmri. The effect was drug-like. In another study, married couples were taught to engage in warm, supportive touch, and the activity had beneficial effects on physiological responses like blood pressure and stress hormones. Some researchers speculate that this kind of touch in marriage has advantages over being massaged by a stranger, because there is some evidence showing, for example, that the benefits of oxytocin only increase significantly when the touch is repetitive over a period of days, as with a secure attachment partner.
Bottom line: there is something uniquely beneficial about warm, supportive touch in the context of a stable, high quality marital relationship. For couples who have high quality relationships and don’t take the time to hold hands, hug, or generally express physical affection, this seems like wasted marital capital.
Most importantly, I’m going to propose that perhaps the greatest beneficiaries of a couple’s consistent engagement in warm, supportive touch are not the couple themselves, but their kids.
Couples who hold hands, hug and touch in a warm supportive way model positive behaviors, and convey a sense that things are going well in the marriage and family. Children are absolutely affected by their parents’ marital quality. They garner a felt sense of security from parents who display marital happiness.
Remember how I said when I saw the couple in the waiting room holding hands, I just felt better? I’m not even related to those people. Can you imagine the impact viewing that behavior would have on the couple’s children? To demonstrate this point when I make presentations, I will show audiences pictures of marital couples seemingly getting along, and seemingly arguing, and ask them to just yell out their their emotional responses. It’s an easy way to see how much we are influenced by these displays.
“Get a room!” has become and oft-repeated cliché by my children whenever my husband and I display any kind of physical affection in front of them. If I didn’t have a lot of confidence in those moments, I might be tempted to withdraw. However, knowing what I know, I shoot back with, “I’m contributing to your mental well-being, so you should be thanking me.”
Then, they say something like, “Stop talking to me like a therapist,” and walk out….but then at least we are alone…..
If you are interested in a few of the studies to which I am referring, I will add a few links.
Julianne Holt-Lunstad headed up a study demonstrating how upregulating warm touch in marriage can have a beneficial influence on stress response. It can be found in Psychosomatic Medicine, 2008, volume 70, pages 976-985 and is entitled Influence of a “Warm Touch” Support Enhancement Intervention Among Married Couples on Ambulatory Blood Pressure, Oxytocin, Alpha Amylase, and Cortisol.