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>

 

 

 

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Couples, marriage

The Potential Impact of Prayer and Spiritual Practices in Romantic Relationships

7209372 - couple praying together**Note: This post is an update from one originally written almost two years ago, coinciding with the national release of a film related to prayer and marriage. I edited it to be relevant in the current context, and added what I think is a critical component of spiritual practices in couple relationships.

What is “sanctification of marriage?”

Most Americans still report a belief in Deity and a belief in a set of religious practices. Sanctification of marriage is a term in the research literature referring to the belief for some people that marriages contain spiritual meaning. In general, people who report that there is spiritual meaning behind their marriages, report higher marital quality. 

What does the research indicate about couple spirituality?

There are various pathways for how individual and joint couple spirituality are linked with higher relationship quality.  I’m not offering a comprehensive review, but here are some highlights:

  1. Couples who pray about relationship conflict demonstrate more self-responsibility for change, reduced emotional negativity, better perspective taking, gentler confrontation, and increased empathy and problem-solving skills.
  1. Individuals who prayed for a partner’s well-being demonstrated more effective communication dynamics.
  1. In general, higher religious attendance is associated with lower risk for domestic violence, although disagreement about spiritual matters may increase conflict with potential aggression.
  1. Couples who perceive their relationship as having spiritual significance and report feeling closer to God and attending services regularly have more sexual fidelity.
  1. Married couples who report a belief that their sexual relationship has Divine purpose and meaning have higher marital quality, higher sexual quality, higher sexual intimacy, and deeper spiritual intimacy.
  1. In one study, praying daily for a partner’s well-being led to fewer unfaithful thoughts and behaviors and increased feelings of sanctification of marriage, which leads to greater commitment. General prayer not specifically addressing the partner did not have the same effects.  Higher commitment between couples was found when they prayed for their spouses significantly more than when they were asked to just think positive thoughts about their spouses.
  1. Couples who prayed together developed significantly more feelings of unity and trust after a month than their counterparts who were just asked to have positive interactions with one another.
  1. Joint religious communication (prayer and talking about importance of Deity in marriage) is linked with higher marital satisfaction, and might be more important for mixed-faith couples.
  1. Partners who prayed after hurtful interactions were more cooperative in tasks after prayer.
  1. Partners who prayed had more forgiveness toward partners than those who were assigned to think positive thoughts about partners.
  1. Praying for a partner has been associated with decreased alcohol use over a period of time significantly more than in relationships in which partners were asked to just write positive things about their relationships or think positive thoughts.
  1. Praying for a partner increased forgiveness and selfless concern toward a partner.
  1. Scholars have suggested that prayer can be effective in a marital context by helping couples gain a long-term perspective on their relationships, interrupting negative thought processes, accessing a relaxation response, and engaging in a dialogue with a supportive other (Deity) when a time-out is needed from a spouse in the case of escalating conflict.

The vulnerable nature of spiritual practices

In my experience as a clinician, people’s beliefs and practices related to religious and/or spiritual belief are often held as sacred and special, and therefore an area of potential vulnerability. They can be a safe, bounded place for the individual and/or the couple. Keeping this space safe is vital.

In marriage, it’s not uncommon for some couples to consider these practices to be almost as or more intimate than sex. In other words, participating with a spouse in these practices is one way of revealing a part of oneself not revealed to everyone else. Again, the salience people assign to these practices increases a level of vulnerability.

Because spiritual practices can be so intimate, it’s not uncommon for partners who feel unsafe in their marriages to avoid jointly engaging in these behaviors, at least for a time. For example, praying with a partner who just had an affair, or who is abusive or dishonest can almost feel like the spiritual engagement is a mockery of a sacred practice. Some spouses can be negatively triggered by engaging in a religious practice with a dangerous spouse.

Sometimes people want to push partners into religious practices before they feel safe enough to do so. In my opinion, it’s very important for a betrayed or abused partner to have control over whether he/she participates in sacred spiritual practices with that partner. Sometimes, for religious people, participating individually for a time can be effective until they feel safe enough and choose to risk being spiritually intimate.

It’s also important to note that because of the vulnerability of spiritual practices, sometimes partners are more comfortable transitioning into them with lower levels of risk. For example, reading and discussing a religious and/or spiritual article may feel less risky than praying with that partner. If they want to move toward spiritual intimacy, partners can identify and order religious practices from least risky to most risky and move toward that goal. Again, I want to emphasize, “if they want to.”

Forcing or coercing someone into a religious practice is abusive and harmful.

And counterproductive. Got it? Always.

Research Limitations

I want to point out that each study has a limited sample of individuals, as in all research, and many measures are self-report measures, which don’t necessarily capture phenomena accurately.   However, much of the research includes an experimental design with control groups to test effects, and outside observation was included in some of the studies.

Important Caveats

As a whole, there is growing evidence that praying for one’s partner in a relationship is associated with many potential positive effects.  This is not to suggest that prayer is an instantaneous and magical power one can access at will; to do so would trivialize a process that most people consider sacred, meditative and personal.

While spiritual practices in romantic relationships seem to be a potential boon for relationship quality, it’s important to note that spiritual practices can also be used in deleterious ways.  For example, one study reported that when partners align with Deity against each other to win a verbal disagreement, it is destructive to the relationship.

Overall, the research is incredibly validating for those who choose to incorporate spiritual practices in their romantic relationships.  

References:

Beach, S. R., Fincham, F. D., Hurt, T. R., McNair, L. M., & Stanley, S. M. (2008). Prayer and marital intervention: A conceptual framework. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 27(7), 641-669.

Butler, M. H., Stout, J. A., & Gardner, B. C. (2002). Prayer as a conflict resolution ritual: Clinical implications of religious couples’ report of relationship softening, healing perspective, and change responsibility. American Journal of Family Therapy, 30, 19-37.

David, P. & Stafford, L. (2015).  A relational approach to religion and spirituality in marriage: The role of couples’ religious communication in marital satisfaction. Journal of Family Issues, 36(2), 232-249.

Fincham, F. D. & Beach, S. R. (2014). Say a little prayer for you: praying for partner increases commitment in romantic relationship. Journal of Family Psychology, 28(5), 587-593.

Fincham, F. D., Beach, S. R. H., Lambert, N. M., Stillman, T., & Braithwaite, S. (2008). Spiritual behaviors and relationship satisfaction: A critical analysis of the role of prayer. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 27(4), 362-388.

Fincham, F. D., Lambert, N. M. & Beach, S. R. H. (2010). Faith and unfaithfulness: Can praying for your partner reduce infidelity? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 99(4), 649-659.

Gardner, B. C., Butler, M. H., & Seedall, R. B. (2008). En-gendering the couple-deity relationship: clinical implications of power and process.  Contemporary Family Therapy, 30, 152-166.

Hernandez, K. M & Mahoney, A. (2011). Sanctification of sexuality: Implications for newlyweds’ marital and sexual quality. Journal of Family Psychology, 25(5), 775-780.

Lambert, N. M., Fincham, F. D., Dewall, N. C., Pond, R., & Beach, S. R. (2013). Shifting toward cooperative tendencies and forgiveness: How partner-focused prayer transforms motivation. Personal Relationships, 20(2013), 184-197.

Lambert, N. M., Fincham, F. D., LaVallee, D. C., & Brantley, C. W. (2012). Praying together and staying together: Couple prayer and trust. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, 4(1), 1-9.

Lambert, N. M., Fincham, F. D., Stillman, T. F., Graham, S. M. & Beach, S. R. H. (2010).  Motivating change in relationships: Can prayer increase forgiveness? Psychological Science, 12(1), 126-132.

Lambert, N. M., Fincham, F. D., Marks, L. D., &Stillman, T. F. (2010). Invocations and intoxication: Does prayer decrease alcohol consumption? Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, 24,(2), 209-219.

Mahoney, A. (2010). Religion in families, 1999-2009: A relational spirituality framework.  Journal of Marriage and Family, 72(4), 805-827.

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

Couples, Couples Therapy, marriage

Safety First in Marriage: Why it’s Necessary for Building Trust and Intimacy

16592637 - saving love marriage relationship 3d concept - heart on lifebuoyIf anyone asks my husband what I do for a living, he will say, “She makes people cry.”

While that’s an over-simplified misconception which he declares for shock value, there is a minuscule grain of truth in his response. That’s because I am generally trying to help couples have new emotional experiences with each other which build SAFETY and TRUST. When people express vulnerable emotions, and receive empathic responses in return, it’s a recipe for trustworthy intimacy. It’s safe. It promotes higher marital adjustment.

Research confirms that in close romantic relationships, support and caregiving elicits trust and security in relationships. Feeling nurtured and cared for is a critical component of stable, well-functioning intimate relationships. The world is stressful. If people have dependable partners to turn to for empathic support when life gets burdensome, they have increased well-being. In other words, the marriage can be a safe haven from the perils of the outside world.

In addition, it’s that type of safe environment that provides fertile ground for exploring and introducing novelty and play and passion…unpredictability within a predictable setting.

When I am supervising therapists in training, I am often asked whether a case is conducive to marriage therapy. My first question is usually, “Can you help them make the marriage safe enough so the partners can reliably reach for and receive emotional responsiveness.” Any barriers to that pattern of marital safety will keep the couple disconnected.

Here are some common elements that disrupt intimate safety in marriage:

  1. A partner reaches for support and gets a negative or neutral response instead. This could happen for different reasons. Sometimes partners miss emotional bids for support. Sometimes partners are ambiguous in their reaches for support. Some partners are uncomfortable with emotions and become paralyzed in the face of emotional need. The lack of empathic support may be intentional or unintentional, but will limit the possibility of future reaches and subsequent safe intimacy either way.
  2. A partner attempts to offer support but feels unsuccessful at having a soothing impact. This can also happen for a few reasons. If a partner expects emotional expression to stop and it doesn’t, he/she might perceive a lack of skills to comfort a partner, not realizing that sometimes comforting a partner might mean that the expression of emotional pain may continue. Sometimes, a partner offers comfort and it is openly rejected, which will also create withdrawal from future supportive actions.
  3. Ongoing ambivalence or equivocation. Partners who can’t make up their minds about whether they want to remain in the marriage and work on it or not, or who continually switch back and forth, are not safe. The unpredictability prevents any chance of risk for emotional intimacy.
  4. Addictions. People in addiction are generally turning to something outside of the marriage for comfort, and substances alter their behaviors in a way that makes them unpredictable, and therefore unsafe. A period of sobriety and predictability is required before any safe marital intimacy can develop.
  5. Affairs. Obviously, if your partner is turning to someone else, he/she is unsafe, and even emotional affairs will prevent emotional bonding within the marriage.
  6. Abuse. Abuse is scary and dangerous. Abusive partners often underestimate how dramatically they can destroy safety with one abusive episode.
  7. Past betrayals. A marriage can be made safe from past betrayals, but it’s much slower and more difficult. Also, if the betrayals are buried and ignored, they will still be present and will prevent closeness. They must be addressed in very specific ways to rebuild trust and safety.
  8. Threatening divorce. Sometimes partners threaten divorce as a way to send a strong message about how much they want change; however, threatening divorce is like holding a gun to a partner’s head and saying, “Make a move, and I’ll shoot.” People who threaten divorce often don’t realize how damaging it can be to overall safety.
  9. Turning to others for support. Sometimes if a spouse turns to outside family or friends, it can make the marital environment dangerous because it feels like the spouse is prioritizing those people higher. In other words, in a moment of high emotional need, the spouse may be more supportive of friends or family instead.
  10. Hostile emotions. Some people are so wounded that they have trouble expressing hurt, fear or other emotional pain because it’s too vulnerable, so the pain comes out as hostile anger. Anger is a distancing emotion. Even therapists have difficulty moving toward anger…it’s one of the hardest emotions for therapists in training to manage. Part of creating safety in marriage is helping partners regulate and express emotion in a way that they elicit empathic responses. Some people say, “Am I not entitled to my anger?” I answer, “Of course. You can have any emotion you want, and you may deserve to be angry; however, it’s an emotion that naturally pushes people away. It’s hard to be with. In fact, if I yelled at you right now, you would either leave or want to leave. You can choose anger, but you are decreasing your possibilities for gaining the understanding you really need.”
  11. Deception. Any. Lying or hiding is untrustworthy and can wipe out any previously accumulated safety in general, but if there is any history of deception or infidelity, it’s worse. I tell spouses, “It doesn’t matter how small the deception is…if you say you’re going to turn right and then you turn left, you immediately become as dangerous as when the betrayal was discovered. If you continue to lie, you will continue to place the marriage back at square one for healing, regardless of intent.
  12. Any unpredictable behavior. Even in predominantly safe marriages, anything too unexpected can throw partners off and make them question the relationship. This will vary according to relationship history and individual trust levels.

I can’t over-estimate how important predictability is for marital safety. Even seemingly minor deviations from the norm can feel threatening. If a partner feels like a stranger somehow, the safety in the relationship comes into question.

Here’s an example of how quickly something small but unknown can feel threatening. My husband is one of the most predictable people on the planet. Our marriage is layered with his trademark fidelity and affirmations of interest in me as his spouse. However, I can still remember a moment back in 1992 (see, I remember the year) when I was instantaneously thrown off balance.

We had been finishing the basement in our first home, and while I was unpacking a box for his new basement office, I pulled out a CD I hadn’t seen before. It was the soundtrack from the movie, Beaches, which had been released in 1989. The CD wasn’t mine. I remember sitting there, staring at it, realizing that it must be my husband’s. “I’m married to a man who has a Bette Midler CD,” I thought, “and I didn’t even know this about him. How could I not know my husband likes Bette Midler enough to buy a CD?” To this day, I can remember the uneasy feeling it gave me. I marched up the stairs, CD in hand, and began peppering him with inquiries:

Me: Is this yours? (holding up the CD)

Him: (glancing up) Yeah, why?

Me: When did you buy it?

Him: I don’t remember…a few months ago, I guess.

Me: Why?

Him: Why what?

Me: Why did you buy it? (sounding like I needed a flashlight to accessorize my interrogation)

Him: Because I liked a song on it. (staring curiously at my descent down the rabbit hole)

Me: What song?

Him: The one about a hero.

Me: Wind Beneath My Wings?

Him: Yeah, that one.

Me: Since when?

Him: Since when what?

Me: Since when do you like that song?

Him: Umm….I don’t know…since I heard it…am I in trouble for something?

Me: I just had no idea that you liked that song enough to buy an entire CD. How did I not know that about you?

Him: Honey. I like the song. I bought the CD. I listened to it in the car. Is that a crime? Do I need your permission to buy a CD and listen to it?

Me: I don’t care that you bought the CD. I just don’t know why you didn’t even tell me you liked that song…enough to buy an actual CD.

Him: I didn’t even think about it. I’m not sure why this is upsetting to you. How many CDs have you purchased without telling me…and I haven’t complained? And why do I feel like I’m on trial?

Me: Yeah, but you KNOW that about me. You know I like music. You never buy CDs, and you never listen to anything but the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

Him: OK, well, I bought one. Now you know. I’m still not sure why you’re freaking out.

Me: Because it’s like I’m married to a stranger. What else don’t I know?

See how quickly I got thrown off? I really did have a strong emotional reaction, because it was so outside of his norm to display any real preference for music. To be honest, music was a raw spot in our relationship. Our music tastes were more different than alike. If I’m being honest, it kind of hurt me that he didn’t share one of his preferences with me. It was as if a part of him was unknown, which made me wonder what else was unknown, even though he had a history of being so reliable. It sounds so silly, but if anyone was the wild card in our relationship, it was I. He was so predictable to me that even this small discovery felt disorienting.

I have had a handful of clients who, with no prompting from me, have shared nearly identical incidents in their own marriages, when they found music they didn’t know their spouses liked. They described the same feeling of wondering if there was more they didn’t know…all because they found out something about a spouse’s preference that was previously unknown. It’s just human nature that if something feels unpredictable in a romantic, intimate relationship, it can feel scary.

People who grew up without reliable, safe attachment figures can have a harder time trusting even predictable partners, because they don’t have models for safe attachment. Sometimes those people need explicit education about what safe, reliable responsiveness looks like, so they can recognize and appreciate it.

If you are struggling with emotional intimacy in your marriage, a good place to start is to ask your partner whether he/she feels safe in the marriage, and if not, ask what you can do that would help build safety.

In summary, the real answer to the question about what I do for a living is that I teach couples SAFETY FIRST.

References:

A Safe Haven: An Attachment Theory Perspective on Support Seeking and Caregiving in Intimate Relationships (2000) by Collins, N. L & Feeney, B. C. in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78(6), 1053-1073.

Emotional Skillfulness in Marriage: Intimacy as a Mediator of the Relationship Between Emotional Skillfulness and Marital Satisfaction (2005) by Cordova, J. V., Gee, C. B. & Warren, L. Z. in Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 24(2), 218-235.

Photo credit: Copyright: koya79 / 123RF Stock Photo

Couples, Love, marriage

Just a Spoonful of Sugar Helps the Divorce Rate go Down

This is one of the simplest way to maintain positivity in marriage–and is this not the cutest picture you’ve ever seen?

Uniting Couples to Strengthen Families

Holly.couple kissing baby making face.SalmonI 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…

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Couples, Fatherhood, Mothers

Tips for Supporting a Spouse Whose Parent has Passed Away

funeral“I still feel betrayed that he wasn’t there for me when my mother died. I really needed him, and he abandoned me. I don’t know if I can forget that.” My client was explaining why she felt so disconnected from her husband. She acknowledged that they had created a pattern of increasing emotional distance throughout their marriage, but when her mother died and she really needed his support, he stayed emotionally distant. She felt more alone. “I mean, if he can’t even comfort me when I just lost my mother, why am I even married?”

Losing a parent to death is one of the most common loss transitions people experience, which is partly why it is often minimized by a spouse or the population at large. Though common, the loss still engenders increased risk for substance use, and various physical and mental health challenges. Because the marital relationship is so proximal to the intergenerational relationship, the marriage is almost always somehow impacted by the death of a parent.

The good news is that a marital relationship is an ideal context for a partner to support another during this difficult time, and is an opportunity for deepened emotional responsiveness and bonding.

However, it’s not uncommon for me to hear a spouse identify a parent’s death as a time point at which he/she felt abandoned and unsupported by a spouse. In my experience, this usually happens because the marriage is already distressed and disconnected to begin with, or the spouse doesn’t know how to help and can be confused by the intensity of emotion or feel helpless about how to be supportive.

Losing a parent commonly creates a time of high emotional need. The emotional need may be exacerbated by collateral stressors, such as caring for a remaining parent or dealing with a parent’s estate.

The high emotional need combined with a partner’s confusion about how to help can turn into withdrawal, which can leave the bereaved spouse feeling alone. It’s the perfect storm for an attachment injury, in which a spouse expects a partner to be supportive, but feels betrayed by absence or seeming nonchalance. The withdrawal is not always intentional but may be a PERCEIVED lack of support simply because the support partner is clueless about how intense the emotional need is. Bereaved partners aren’t always clear and explicit in their needs. In these events, a parent’s death can directly generate marital strain. The result may be diminished trust and marital quality.

In short, the death of a parent can elicit responses that either facilitate stronger emotional connection or trigger disappointment in empathic support.

If you haven’t lost a parent, you may not realize how devastating it can feel.

 I lost my mother very unexpectedly almost a decade ago. I was unprepared for the emotional upheaval. Even though I was in my early 40’s and knew my parents were aging, the stroke which led to her death took me completely by surprise. Sure, she had some health problems, but she looked great for her age, kept weight off easier than I did, and her mother had lived to age 90 with seemingly worse health issues. Besides that, my mother was fairly feisty—the type that you imagine putting up a fight with death, which in a way I guess she did via her 6-week coma.

I took it hard. The world felt dark. Everywhere I went, I would think, “How can these people just carry on normally when my world has fallen apart?” I felt sick. My mother was my most important support person next to my husband. I talked to her on the phone frequently. After she died, I kept reaching for the phone to process my emotional pain with the person with whom I usually processed it, only to realize she wasn’t there, sending me into another crying jag. Then, I would hear her pragmatic voice ringing in my head, “Well, don’t cry about it—you’re just going to give yourself a headache.” I really felt like I had nowhere to turn. My husband was as supportive as a husband could be, but he wasn’t my mom. Research indicates that an adult daughter losing a mother is often the most devastating loss when it comes to adults losing parents; of course, this would be expectedly moderated by the relationship quality of the parent/child relationship.

I had never experienced that combination of emotions before. It was any loss I ever had on steroids, and in fact, it seemed as if the loss rubbed the raw spots of any previous significant losses, so my sadness exponentially increased.

I had these textbook reactions for months:

  1. Disorientation and confusion. I felt scattered, like I couldn’t make sense out of anything. I kept feeling like I was in a dream. I had incoherent thoughts.
  2. Inability to focus. This was so interesting to me because I’m a pianist and an organist—I know how to achieve singular focus; but, my thoughts just raced and I was unusually distractible.
  3. Intense sadness and teariness, which could be triggered at any time.
  4. Depression and social withdrawal. I had no desire to do anything. I had to drag myself to work and hosting play group at my house when it was my turn felt—HARD.
  5. Fatigue. With the depression was a physical AND mental fatigue.
  6. Heaviness. Some people might think this should go with depression and/or fatigue, but it was different—I just felt smothering physical heaviness and emotional heaviness.
  7. Guilt and regret. In my case, I felt terrible because I didn’t talk to my mom on the phone right after she had a stroke before she slipped into a coma, because I thought the doctors would fix it since she got to the hospital early. I didn’t want to bug her until she felt better. Except, she slid into her coma and never came back. People self-flagellate over what they “woulda, coulda, shoulda,” done.
  8. Anger. This was also surprising because I usually feel collaborative with physicians and could reason myself through emotions. I was angry at the doctors who prescribed a medication that facilitated her death; I felt uncommon rage in the hospital when the neurosurgeon seemed cold and cavalier. I can’t remember wanting to punch someone in the face before. I knew it was irrational; I knew he was just doing his job and that we were just one more family with someone in a coma, but it felt cruel to me that to him we were just another number, and his explanation for the likely outcome was so callous and emotionless. I felt dismissed and unseen and insignificant. I said nothing, but I smoldered inside. I mentally rehearsed what I wanted to say, which was, “With some of the money you’re making profiting from my lifetime tragedy, why don’t you register for a course on gaining some #$%#@ compassion, you arrogant, insensitive #$%@?!” (Sorry if that sounds harsh, but that’s how strong the emotions were).
  9. Physical pain in my chest. I felt like an elephant was standing on my chest, making it hard for me to breathe. I would try to run and end up walking because I couldn’t get enough air—and I was a runner, so this was unusual. I can remember struggling to take deep breaths, like when I was 9 months pregnant.
  10. Loss of appetite. I had to force myself to eat. I had no appetite for months.
  11. Sleep disruption. I had difficulty with ruminating when I went to bed at night.

Most of my clients have reported experiencing some or all of these reactions. I don’t generally love using the stages of grief as a guideline for grieving because it’s so unpredictable. People expect grieving to follow a linear path through the stages when grief is actually complex and unique to each individual, so it can look like anything. At times, partners using these grief stages as a guideline ineffectively judge their spouses for not grieving in the “expected” pattern.

Things for non-bereaved spouses to understand are:

  1. Intense and shifting emotions are the norm. As described above, people routinely have an unprecedented mixture of emotions, varying in intensity.
  2. Pain. Pain. Pain. I felt diffuse pain emotionally and physically. The only relief I could get was when I was working or running. I started running for 2-3 hours a day, because running pain felt better than grieving pain. I lost so much weight that people started asking if I was sick or had cancer.
  3. Triggers can be anywhere at any time. I remember bursting into tears while cleaning out my daughter’s closet and finding a blessing dress my mother made using leftover fabric from making my wedding dress. Ditto on the Halloween costumes she had sewn for her and sweaters she had knit for me.
  4. Holidays and seasons can be especially hard. My mom descended into a coma on Easter and was buried the day before Mother’s Day. Every year, those holidays are laced with the pain of her highlighted absence.
  5. The living but bereaved parent may also be less accessible. My father, a man I had never seen depressed, became a shell of himself. I would call him to talk and hang up and cry to my husband, “That’s not my father. I’ve lost them both. Both my parents are gone.” He just wanted to be with her and was trying to cope himself.
  6. Parents usually fill a unique role that can’t be replaced by another individual. Research shows that a daughter losing a mother can be particularly painful. I only had one mother, and no one else filled that role, including my beloved father.
  7. The loss can trigger other loss issues. It seemed like every relational or personal loss of mine came bubbling to the surface. I had a chain reaction of grief-related memories, catapulting me deeper into despair. The best way to explain it is that I felt like I was drowning in a sea of grief and had no way to come up for air.
  8. Fear and anxiety can increase. In essence, the world can feel like a scarier place with more uncertainty. Security is diminished.
  9. If the relationship was strained, grief can be more complex and difficult. After my mom died, I attended a training with marriage expert, John Gottman, who explained that he was crying after his father’s death and his friend said, “My father died and I didn’t shed a tear.” His point was that crying is one sign that the relationship was cherished, and if the relationship is damaged, grieving is more challenging.
  10. The relationship with the living parent may change. This can heighten unpredictability.
  11. The loss can elicit new feelings about one’s mortality and life’s meaning. This change may affect behaviors.
  12. If the loss is the second of two parents, feelings of loneliness can be unprecedented. I don’t know how to explain the feeling when my father also died because I hadn’t experienced it before, but it was definitely tinged with existential dread and an awareness that the only two people who really loved me unconditionally were gone.
  13. Positive events can have triggers. Any time something good happened in my life, like my son going to India on a church mission, a son giving the valedictory address at graduation, a son being the all-state musician in his category, a son gaining admittance to dental school, my PhD graduation, etc. those events were all negatively colored with the sadness of my parents’ absences. Any time something good happened to me, I would think, “The only two people who might really care about this are gone, so who cares?”
  14. Gender can have an impact. Fathers and mothers often serve separate functions and can impact different gendered children in different ways.
  15. Wives may be more emotionally responsive to husbands than vice versa and wives more frequently turn to others for support. In other words, husbands can usually get support from spouses, but wives often don’t, creating emotional injury in the marriage.
  16. Everyone experiences loss differently. Don’t have expectations nor compare. EVER.
  17. A spouse who hasn’t lost parents to death or who experienced grieving differently may be very confused (and scared) at how deep the emotions can be for the bereaved.
  18. If a parent died unexpectedly, it can be experienced more intensely than a situation in which the death was expected or unsurprising. I felt far worse when my mom died unexpectedly than when I knew my father had 9 days to live, even though that was still painful. I could plan and prepare.
  19. It’s a myth that grieving ends. Most of the time, grieving decreases in intensity over time but doesn’t disappear completely. There can be lifetime sporadic triggers. 
  20. In general, the world at large doesn’t support grieving people. The repeated message is, “Stop doing that around me–you’re making me uncomfortable.” That’s another reason it’s so important to have a spouse’s support.

How to help—what does empathic support look like?

  1. Focus on comfort, not on fixing it. Just being with a partner matters, and comfort doesn’t require words.
  2. Reassure your spouse that you are there for them REPEATEDLY for as long as they need.
  3. Share your own positive memories about your spouse’s parent. My husband’s favorite memory of my mom was watching her march out to the street (all 110 pounds of her) to singlehandedly take on a construction crew for the way they were managing the project just beyond her driveway. His laughing about it cheered me momentarily. He continually brought up positive memories of her, which felt validating, like he was on my team.
  4. Ask your spouse about their favorite memories and what they learned from the deceased parent.
  5. Ask your spouse how they would like to honor the parent’s memory.
  6. Be aware that if you haven’t lost a parent, it is likely that you are underestimating the loss. As supportive as my own husband is, I still don’t think he has a clue what it feels like to lose a parent.
  7. Expect repetition. Your spouse may need to talk about the same things over and over to gain new meaning and integrate the loss.
  8. Suggest and support grieving rituals. Small, predictable ways to honor a deceased parent can be helpful–visiting gravesites, having a certain time of the day to share memories–really anything with predictable space for expressing grief.

What does empathic support NOT look like?

  1. Avoidance. Some partners keep their distance from the emotions.
  2. Walking away from tears or strong expressions of sadness.
  3. Preaching doctrines of the after-life to discourage grief. Even if I believed that my parents existed beyond mortality, I still missed their presence and felt the absence palpably.
  4. Criticizing your partner for not grieving fast enough or for not being functional fast enough, like “Everyone goes through this—shouldn’t you be feeling better by now?”
  5. Minimizing or telling your partner why he/she shouldn’t be that upset, like “You didn’t even get along with your dad most of the time. Why are you so upset?”
  6. Comparing, like, “I wasn’t this upset when my mom died, what is wrong with you?” Every loss is different.
  7. Getting angry or frustrated that a spouse is having a grieving episode AGAIN.

Over all, supporting a spouse whose parent has passed away can be a way to achieve more emotional security in a marriage. In fact, with the death of parents comes the opportunity to attach more enduringly to a spouse.

The last conversation I had with my father was one in which I believe he intentionally turned me toward my husband. My father knew I had a mercurial tendency toward brooding and discontent. “What am I going to do without you, dad?” I sobbed. The last thing he said to me was, “I want you to remember that you have everything you need to be happy. You have a husband who loves you. You have a beautiful family. Be happy. You’re so beautiful when you smile.” Hearing those last six words, which he had repeated to me hundreds of times in my lifetime, made me cry harder. Even as I read this, the memory is bringing up tears. I have tried so hard to be more appreciative of my relationships, which can be one way of honoring my father’s legacy.

When I’m flooded with this now familiar sadness, I can approach my husband with a quaking voice, “I miss my dad,” and my husband will give me a hug and say, “I’m sorry, honey. I miss your dad, too. He was a uniquely great man.” He’ll be responsive even though I’ve approached him a myriad of times.

And that kind of predictability in comfort is how it’s done.

References:

The Dance of Closeness-Distance in Couple Relationships After the Death of a Parent (2006) by Rosenblatt, P. C. & Barner, J. R. in Omega, 53(4), 277-293.

The Influence of Intergenerational Relationships on Marital Quality Following the Death of a Parent in Adulthood (2014) by Stokes, J. E. in Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 33(1), 3-22.

Photo credit: Copyright: kzenon / 123RF Stock Photo