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 a 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 in 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 who 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 influence our feelings. We may not “feel it,” in immediate large shifts, but we can certainly encourage growth over time. Another little Arabic love language fun fact is that the word “hubb,” for love comes from the same root as the word “seed,” implying growth potential.

As Easy as an Internet Search

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

“I Love You” is Still Powerful

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

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

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

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

“I Love You,” as the Ultimate Reassurance

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Couples, marriage

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.

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Couples, Couples Therapy, marriage

Can This 7 minute Intervention Really Save your Marriage?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why would an intervention this simple work?

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

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

Would a marriage therapist try this intervention?

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

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

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

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

Reference:

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

Photo credit: Copyright: rido / 123RF Stock Photo

Couples, marriage

How Did We Get Here in our Marriage? When Past Pain Comes Alive in the Present and How to Fix it

33470896 - worried couple sitting on sofa arguing about billsDoug and Janice* were in an argument about the laundry.  Doug was looking for a pair of pants he had hoped had been washed when his wife threw in a load while he was at work.  His disappointment was perceived by his wife as criticism, and she thought of all the times her housework wasn’t up to his standards.  As the argument escalated, she finally yelled, “Well, I guess you should have divorced me and married Diane instead—I’ll bet she never lets any clothes get dirty at her house.  The two of you could have lived in your OCD paradise together where the laundry basket never gets full and where no one ever laughs!  That way, at least you wouldn’t be on my case all the time.”

Diane had been Doug’s co-worker during the second year of his marriage.  He had a 6-month emotional affair with her which was discovered by Janice while she was pregnant with their first child.  Janice found an exchange of emails in which they had both been talking about wishing they could leave their spouses for each other.  To top it all off, Janice remembered word for word what Doug had written to Diane about Janice’s substandard housekeeping skills.

Even though it was 15 years ago, it seemed to him like Janice brought her up every time they were in any type of argument.  He pushed back, “There you go again, changing the subject when you don’t want to take any responsibility for your own actions.  What does Diane have to do with anything?  Besides, you haven’t loved me from the moment we got married—why do you think I started a relationship with someone else in the first place?  How convenient for you that I made a mistake you can just beat me over the head with any time you want to justify rejecting me!”

When they recited the conflict to me, Doug said, “We have got to find a way to move past this.  Any time anything gets hard, she uses this woman as an excuse to punish me so she can do whatever she wants.  This has to stop!  I was 25 years old.  I can’t change the past, and nothing I have done ever since counts for anything.  I will go to my grave with her punishing me about it.  Honestly, sometimes I think it would have been easier if I had divorced her back then and married Diane.  At least I knew Diane loved me.  My wife has never really loved me and all she  wants to do is inflict suffering.”  She reacted with anger, “Are you kidding me?  All I want to do is inflict suffering?  Do you have any idea how much suffering you inflicted on me when you told another women you wished you could be married to her?”

This conversation was nothing I hadn’t heard in some variation thousands of times.  It was clear to me that both partners had generated a deep well of pain for each other during their 15-year marriage.  Janice had no idea how to heal after feeling so hurt and betrayed by her husband.  She felt like she could never completely trust him again.  As a result, she kept herself at a distance from him and threw herself into her children’s lives and kept busy with PTA and church responsibilities.  He felt helpless to ever make her trust him again, so he felt increasingly lonely and rejected.  As he grew more bitter, he did become more critical, which just reinforced to her that he was not safe and that he would never really accept or love her.

If you are having a moment of conflict in your marriage and suddenly you or your partner remembers or brings up something from the past, shifting the conversation entirely and leaving you helpless and hopeless in a sea of emotion, then you may have an unresolved attachment injury.  Attachment injuries happen when the attachment security in a relationship is damaged.  In short, they are moments when a partner shifts from being a safe ally to a dangerous threat.

In these moments, a spouse shifts from “I know my spouse and can count on him/her to have my back,” to “I have no idea who you are anymore, and I’m not sure you really care about me.”

An affair is an obvious attachment injury of betrayal, in which someone else is chosen above the spouse, and a pattern of deception has made the spouse dangerous and unpredictable.  Even though major injuries keep couples wounded and disconnected, I have found that depending on the circumstance and how people make meaning out of things, smaller injuries can happen in many different ways as well, leaving raw spots.  Here are some typical examples:

  1. A woman has a high level of emotional need for reassurance and comfort after having a miscarriage, but her husband acts indifferently because he has no idea how to help her and feels flooded himself by the emotion but has no tools to express it, so he walks away when she starts crying.
  2. A woman’s mother dies and she gets very depressed, and her husband minimizes the loss and says, “People have parents die.  It’s part of life.  They don’t let it stop them—why are you having such a hard time with it?”
  3. A husband is struggling with premature ejaculation and his wife tells him that he is the worst sexual partner she has ever had.
  4. A husband finds out that his wife has charged up $20,000 on credit cards she has been hiding from him.
  5. A husband tells his wife that maybe he wouldn’t struggle with erectile dysfunction if she had a breast augmentation.
  6. A wife tells her husband that she should have married his brother because he’s better looking and makes more money.

Significant betrayals can be traumatic in marriage and can generate strong emotions and flashbacks. Even smaller injuries can leave behind raw spots that can elicit emotional reactivity in the present.  If an injured partner gets emotionally overwhelmed and the offending partner can’t be reassuring, or if the injured partner can’t accept the other partner’s attempts, the relationship stays dangerous, or becomes even more dangerous.

If every argument devolves into past incidences, you might need to target those specific incidences for healing.  Here are some ways for a partner who injured another (even if it was unintentional) to start the healing process.

  1. Instead of getting defensive that your intent is misinterpreted and arguing about whether it is really an injury, shift to a perspective that if your spouse is still hurting over something, it really is a potential bonding opportunity. The expression of pain is a potentially connecting experience if handled well.
  2. Be prepared to feel shame if your partner talks about something you did to hurt/him or her.  Deal with the shame by describing that it’s painful to hear because of sorrow, shame or regret.  Process research shows that REPEATED expressions of shame and sorrow are key in healing.
  3. Recognize that repetition is one of the only ways to build up a solid foundation. If your partner needs reassurance a thousand times, see it like adding a brick to a secure foundation.  The need for repetition doesn’t mean you’re comforting incorrectly.
  4. If you think your partner should be over it, or if you thought your partner was over it, say something like, “Wow—if that is still coming up for you, it must have been more painful than I realized…can you tell me more about how and when you get triggered?”
  5. Express your sorrow and your desire to want to fix it, and even if you can’t fix it right away, affirm that you are present and want to show that you want things to be better. For example, “Is there anything I can do right now?  If not, I am so sorry and I want to help you heal any way I can.”
  6. Offer your own narrative for how you think/feel in a way that might prevent you from engaging in the same hurtful behavior. You can describe how you set boundaries differently, or what specifically you love about your partner, or how you see the relationship differently now.
  7. If your partner seems unresponsive, ask if what you are doing is helping or affirm that you will be available when he/she is ready. Like, “Does it help if I just sit next to you?  If you want me to go away, know that I’ll be in the next room or a phone call away if you need me.”

In general, looking for ways to prevent attachment injuries may be the most efficient.  Emotional responsiveness is the key.

When I had my 6th child, I got very anxious in the hospital thinking about going home to a house filled with 5 children, 4 of whom were very active boys.  My husband brought them to see me in the hospital and within 5 minutes of their climbing all over the place, opening and shutting every cupboard door and drawer, and flipping every possible switch in my hospital room, I hissed through gritted teeth, under my breath, “GET.  THEM.  OUT.  OF.  HERE.”  They were so overwhelming.  My husband remained his good-natured self and had them all give kisses and wave goodbye before he left.  I called him at 2 a.m., after my anxiety escalated thinking about going home and being mother to 6 young children under the age of 12–and again, it’s the combination of boys (and all their friends) that really did me in—four boys first was such a handful every single minute of every single day—just go observe a cub scout den meeting for 10 minutes.

I called him on the phone, and as soon as he answered, I whispered so the nurses couldn’t hear me, “Steve—I can’t come home.”  He whispered back, “Why, honey?”  I answered, “I can’t have 6 children.  I can’t do it.  It’s too much.”  He didn’t blow me off, criticize me for feeling afraid, or minimize my anxiety.  He comforted me with, “Honey, it’s ok.  You’ll be ok.  I’ll help you and we’ll get it figured out.”  He stayed on the phone with me for as long as I needed until I felt calmer and reassured.  Because he was so responsive, I didn’t have to be so anxious, because I knew if I needed him, he would be available to me.

Creating predictable responsiveness is the key to not just managing but healing past triggers.  If you find yourself getting triggered to past pain, know that it can be intentionally healed, and a secure foundation can become the story of the marriage.

*Names and details have been changed to protect privacy.  Any resemblance to a real couple is coincidental

photo credit: Copyright: stockbroker / 123RF Stock Photo

Couples, marriage

Go Team Us! Marriage as the Original Team Sport

4554234 - man and woman fists isolated on white backgroundI’m always amused by watching IKEA ads featuring couples assembling furniture.  Observing this process provides cues for how well they work together as a team.  It’s also one of the few times I can feel smug, since assembling furniture is one of the things my husband and I do well together—my tolerance for reading instructions combined with his patience and ability to focus usually combine for construction success.  There are other times, however, when we can’t seem to align our actions for effective teamwork and end up disconnected.

When we had two very young children, we went on a Caribbean cruise.  After locating our cabin, we reviewed the schedule of activities and decided we would enter a doubles ping pong tournament, since we both liked to play and were sort of okay at it.

When it was time to play, we noticed that we were the only husband/wife team that signed up together.  The other teams were represented exclusively by the husbands from the other couples.  All the wives were in the cheering section.  I felt intimidated and suggested that we drop out if no other wives were going to play.  I wasn’t excited to play against all males.

My husband insisted that we were just there to have fun and told me to stop worrying about it and that I didn’t need brute strength to play against men.  Surprisingly, after several games, we found ourselves in the final round for the chance to be tournament champions.  I was worried that I wouldn’t play up to par and my husband would be disappointed, because when it comes to sports he can be a little competitive.  The last thing I wanted was to lose the tournament for us.

A few minutes into the game, we were ahead by 8 points and within only a few points of winning the entire tournament.  I was confident that if I just played the same way I had been playing, we would win.  The other team served and I returned the ball.  When it came back to my husband, he slammed it so hard it hit the wall behind the other team, missing the table, awarding the point to our competitors.  I looked at him like, “What just happened?”

We were still ahead by 7, so I wasn’t too worried.  However, as the ball went into play, we repeated the exact same playing sequence and lost the point again.  This happened four times in a row when I whispered to my husband, “OK Hulk, we’re ahead.  All we have to do is return the ball consistently every time until they mess up.  You don’t need to hit that hard to finish them off!  Can Bruce Banner come back for the rest of the game?”

Apparently, my husband was under some kind of alpha-male posturing spell, and just couldn’t help himself.  He continued his aggressive display until the score was tied.  For several minutes, we alternated points until the other team beat us by two after my clearly possessed spouse once again slammed the ball off the table.

My husband is a far better ping pong player than I am on any day of the week.  I can hold my own against him, but ultimately he always wins.  In this case, however, he admitted (shockingly) that he lost the tournament for us that day.

I was annoyed with him, but I let it go because it was just a ping pong match.  However, I felt some distress that we had devolved from a team working together to two separate individuals with different agendas.  He had gone rogue on me and I couldn’t get him back.  He was unreachable.

A silly ping pong tournament is trivial, but for many couples, this pattern develops over time in marriage.  A couple may start out together with unified goals but after having children and facing other life transitions and external stressors which threaten to divide them, they may find themselves living like roommates without a common cause.  Rather than using the potential energy from a marital team, they resort to individual strategies which can sabotage the team’s unity, and they stop consulting with one another entirely.

A marital relationship is greater than the sum of its parts.  If a couple works together, they can accomplish more than they could individually.  Couples who have a strong sense of “we-ness,” identify themselves in relationship to their partners and display higher marital commitment.  In short, these marital systems are generally more efficient and feel safer and more predictable for the children in the family.

If you have lost your sense of “we-ness,” here are some tips for getting back on track; I’ll use the acronym GO TEAM US just for fun:

  1. G – is for Goal-setting. What specific things do you want to accomplish together this year?  In 5 years?  In 20 years?  Dream together.
  2. O – is for Optimism. I purposely chose this word because couples lose optimism so quickly if they feel negative emotion.  Negative emotion is absorbing!  It can take great intentionality to step out of it.  How would an optimist think about your situation?
  3. T – is for Traits.  What traits do each of you bring to the team that can complement each other?  I can be impatient but efficient, and my husband is generally more patient and process-oriented.  Our differences can drive us crazy or work to our benefit, depending on how we use them.
  4. E – is for Encouragement. Good teammates encourage each other.  I know if I’m ever worried about something my husband will be my best cheerleader.
  5. A – is for Adaptation. As a couple moves toward conjoint goals in life, perhaps the most important skill is adaptation, or being flexible in problem-solving.  Unfortunately, couples in distress tend to get discouraged and more rigid, limiting rather than expanding their options.  Rigidity suffocates creativity.
  6. M – is for Maintenance. Couples can drift from cooperation because they aren’t maintaining or managing their joint relationship goals.  Intentionally create check-ins for where you’re at and where you want to be in your co-created journey through life.
  7. U – is for Understanding. Perhaps the most underutilized of couple strategies for teamwork.  Ask your partner what he/she thinks you may not understand about him/her or his/her desires.  Repeat it back in your own words to make sure you’re really on track.
  8. S – is for Sacrifice. Being part of a team means making some individual sacrifices.  Think of small sacrifices you can make right now to help you achieve your team goals.

While this seems overly simplistic, regrouping as a team really can be that simple.

One thing I love hearing as a therapist when I am meeting a couple is when they tell me that they “work well together as a team,” because I know their odds for therapy success are higher if that’s their perception.

Marriage is absolutely the original team sport….but you have to decide to get in the game.

Copyright: violin / 123RF Stock Photo

Couples, Holidays, marriage

How Some Fireworks of Conflict in Marriage can be a Good Thing

11881838 - sparkling love heart pulls a pair of hands at the rope.Around the 4th of July several years ago, my husband and I were out walking in a new development where homes were popping up right next to several charming storefronts.  We saw fireworks in the distance and walked closer to take a look. Several families were gathered, providing a show with aerial fireworks.  The setting was dreamlike—perfect weather in a shiny new neighborhood glowing with an idealistic, quasi-Seussian quality.

The mood shifted entirely when one of the aerial fireworks fell over, shooting into the open garage where the rest of the fireworks were stored.  My husband and I both felt sick as we watched a chain reaction of igniting fireworks which quickly started a larger fire.  In under a few minutes, the entire garage was in flames threatening to engulf the whole house.

There’s no question that fireworks come with risk.  The potential injury to body and environment is exactly why they must be managed so carefully.  However, despite the risk, they are still a common part of many festivities, because in general the celebratory aspects outweigh the risk.

In a way, this is a metaphor for marital conflict.  Too many fireworks can ignite a marriage into aggressive and destructive conflict. However, there can be such a thing as too few fireworks, which doesn’t just leave the marriage dull but potentially harmful in a different way.

In graduate school, one of the first things we were taught is that we had to worry more about the couples who weren’t having any conflict than about the couples that were having some conflict.  The absence of conflict is too often indicative of too much distance in a marriage, or an imbalance of one partner continually sacrificing individual desires for the other partner.

It’s so important to realize that if you are married to a partner who has a “peace at any price,” mentality, this is high risk for negative elements to creep into the marriage.  It’s easy to pick up on this dynamic in therapy.  One partner will start complaining that the other partner isn’t complying with a rigid set of rules for something, and when the other partner begins to state why he/she doesn’t think it should be such a big deal, the louder partner gets more upset and emotional and the other partner backs off and goes quiet and gives up trying to protest.

Partners who require compliance from their spouses unfortunately don’t even realize that they are creating damage, because their partners aren’t saying enough, if anything, about it.  When one partner is allowing a continual boundary violation, it’s bad for the marriage.  Over time, here’s what happens.

  1. Resentment builds in the quieter partner, but it’s not worth risking conflict to talk about it, so it continues to grow.
  2. The partner who gives in all the time is more likely to hide behavior from the other partner to avoid facing conflict.
  3. Overall trust in the relationship diminishes because the louder partner never quite knows what’s going on with the other partner, so the dynamic generates suspicion, which generates more control, and the cycle repeats, pushing the quieter partner away.
  4. The quieter partner is more likely to turn away to connect to someone or something else because the louder, more demanding partner feels too risky to connect with—there’s a continual feeling of conditional acceptance, i.e., “You will only love me if I do what you want.”

No one wants to be parented by a spouse.  Be aware that if you have a partner who gives in all the time, and you never have conflict, you might be creating resentment without even realizing it.  I see this happen over and over and over—and it can take decades before the quieter partner finally can’t take it anymore and disconnects from the relationship completely.

Couples who live together in close emotional proximity are going to step on each other’s toes.  It’s highly unlikely to be able to get close to someone without conflict.  Conflict can help you know your other partner better and can provide the possibility for negotiation.  It puts the relationship on center stage rather than the desires of one partner.  Think of it like sandpaper, smoothing away rough edges for a better fit and finish.

Years ago, a friend of mine who overheard a marital spat between my husband and me declared self-righteously that she would “not have any arguing,” in her home because it was just unacceptable.  I felt terrible for days afterward until my husband and I went out with her and her husband.  All night long I observed that anything she told him to do, he did without protest, and she had a long list of rigid demands.  She monitored what he wore, what he ate, and how he behaved in social settings.

I never cease to be amazed by wives who think it’s their job to manage their husbands so carefully.  I just did not grow up with that kind of control, and as a therapist, I view it as very unhealthy and intrusive.  A spouse is a separate, unique individual–not an idealized extension of oneself.

When we got home, I whined to my husband, “It’s not fair—it’s easy for her to not have conflict in her house because her husband just does everything she says.  She’s ten times bossier than I am, but you’re not compliant like her husband—if I had a husband like that, I wouldn’t have conflict in my home either.”  “Do you want a husband like that?” my husband asked.  “No!  Boyfriend needs to get a backbone!”  I exclaimed.  “Exactly,” he agreed.

About 15 years later, that couple got divorced.  The husband got tired of not having a voice and by the time he let his wife know, all his feelings for her were coated with resentment and he was unwilling to work on the marriage.  Any variation of, “my way or the highway,” comes with risk of slowly destroying interpersonal relationships. High control can be a lot more problematic than people realize.

This is a co-created dynamic.  The partner who doesn’t set boundaries to avoid conflict is as much at fault as the partner with the demands, because failure to communicate is unspoken agreement.  It’s easy to blame the more demanding partner, but the placating partner has as much to do with keeping the negative pattern going.

Evaluate your marriage.  If you are always getting your way, there is something seriously wrong.  If you are always giving in, you’re hurting your marriage.

I’m not promoting contention.  High levels of conflict can be as much or more damaging.  I’m merely encouraging the acceptance of normative conflict in close relationships and suggesting that it can provide some value for eventual intimacy.

In short, be willing to risk a few sparklers now to prevent an M-80 of resentment from blowing your relationship apart.

Reference:

Reconceptualizing Marital Conflict: A Relational Perspective by J.A. Ostenson and M. Zhang (2014) in Journal of Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology, 34(4), 229-242.

photo credit: Copyright: refat / 123RF Stock Photo

Couples, marriage

How to Start a Marital Argument with Mind Reading

14358323 - funny wedding symbol - game overMy husband and I were recently asked to participate in a Newlywed Game activity with other couples in front of several hundred people at a summer camp for adolescent girls.  I feel pressure at events like these because someone always manages to harass me with some version of “OK Mrs. Marriage Therapist Lady—let’s see what you’ve got.”  It’s as if my entire professional career hangs in the balance of reading my husband’s mind for answers to 5 questions.  In my estimation, the Newlywed Game is just mind reading for dummies, AKA “How to pick a fight with your spouse without even trying.”

On the way up in the car, my husband suggested that we practice.  I was feeling good about our matched responses when he pointed out that, “Their questions aren’t going to be this easy—you know they are going to think of obscure questions to ask.”  At my agreement, he directed me to “think of some obscure questions.”  “Umm…I think by definition obscure questions are….obscured, so….questions we aren’t supposed to be able to figure out,” I responded.  “Yeah,” my husband agreed, “but you’re a marriage therapist—so think of some,” which sounded a lot like, “Dance, puppet!”  “Again,” I repeated, slower this time, “By definition, obscure questions are…” “Oh never mind,” he cut me off and wondered aloud why I had to be so difficult.

Sure enough, right out of the gate, the first question, to husbands, was, “My wife is a natural born (blank).”  “Wow,” I thought, “This is going to be worse than I thought—so many choices—I hope he’s nice.”  I quickly wrote “Reader,” crossing my fingers that my husband would recall the many times I had recounted my obsession with the kindergarten book corner.

We were chosen to reveal our answers first.  Feeling optimistic, I held up my card simultaneously with my husband’s, which was met with an eruption of laughter.  “Oh no,” I asked, “What did you write?”  He showed me his card which radiated “LOVER,” in all caps, underlined in bright red ink.  I raised my eyebrows and threw up my hands, mouthing “Wha….???” conveying, “Of all the available words in the English language, you really chose the word, ‘lover,’ dripping with a variety of potentially salacious interpretations…in front of the youth?”  He whispered, “I was about to write ‘reader,’ but that sounds boring and you’re definitely not boring.”  “OK, can you please remember that we are going for accuracy and not scandal?” I entreated.

I was excited that we were in the running for the win when wives were asked, “Name something that your husband is good at that no one else knows about.”  I enthusiastically scribbled “Juggling,” with hurried penmanship, desperately attempting to telepathically transmit my answer to my spouse.

As the answers were revealed, a few couples got a match on “Golf.” “Lame,” I judged, “That’s cheating…basically a safe answer that technically doesn’t meet the standards of something ‘other people don’t know about.’”  I felt fleetingly virtuous and hopeful about my legitimate response before my complete deflation when the moderator frowned and pronounced our answers a mismatch.  I turned toward my husband, “What did you…Waterskiing?  Seriously?  That’s not something people don’t know about!”

“But can he juggle while waterskiing?” someone heckled.

“Well,” he explained, “I was about to put ‘juggling,’ but then I decided I’m really not good at juggling.”  “No,” I argued, “Compared to a professional juggling circus clown you’re not good.  Compared to the average population, you’re really good.”  He rolled his eyes.  “Plus,” I continued, “People know you waterski.”  “People don’t know I waterski,” he contested.  “Are you kidding me?” I was so confused, “You have two different ski boats in our driveway alternating all summer long depending on your mood for the wake you want to ski that day.  I think the cat’s out of the bag…people know you waterski…at least more than know you juggle.”  “But I’m not good at juggling,” he repeated, which just increased my frustration.  He was focusing on the first part of the question and I was focusing on the last part.  “Just stop. We aren’t going to agree on this,” I declared, and he was happy to drop it.

A half hour later when we walked into the camp of our local congregation, the camp cook called out to me, “Hey Lori, the first thing the girls said when they walked into camp is that your husband told everyone you are a natural born lover.”  I shot him a “told you so” look and explained our mismatch on the juggling question.  “But I’m not good at juggling,” he argued again.

“Watch…be amazed!” I told the group in front of us as I tossed him some oranges.  “Let them decide.  Juggle,” I ordered, which I’m sure sounded to him like “Juggle, clown!”  He was surprisingly cooperative as he smoothly juggled the oranges in the air, occasionally switching up his impromptu routine.  “We didn’t know you could juggle,” several people oohed and aahed.  “Right,” I made eye contact with him, “You didn’t.  That’s exactly my point.”  “But I’m not good,” he started in again.  “OK…I’ll concede that you should probably keep your day job instead of running away with the circus, but you juggle well…at least well enough.  Observe…are they not entertained?” I gestured toward his adoring fans.  “OK, you were right.  I should have written juggling,” he conceded as I walked away, worn down by the struggle.

This exercise in futility reminded me of my first year of grad school in a marriage and family therapy.  We were taught how common and harmful “mind reading,” is in marriage.  Spouses frequently assume that they know what their partners are thinking and make judgments based on those assumptions, which then direct their behaviors.  We don’t bother to verify because we are so certain we are correct.

Mind reading is also a problem when one spouse expects the other to know what he/she is thinking.  A common example starts with the words, “You should have known….”  I can confidently report that this tendency is alive and well in the annals of “How can I ruin my marriage today?”  It might even be more common than the first type, and is at the core of many an anniversary fail.

In actuality, all of us are natural born mind readers.  Social convention requires it. Human interaction is founded upon assessing others in social settings.  We naturally decipher non-verbal signals, comparing them to verbals for congruency.  Then, we act accordingly.  In close personal relationships like marriage, we get so good at reading our partners that we are unwilling to admit when we get it wrong and almost offended when they think differently than we do.

Did you notice what happened when my husband and I disagreed?  I tried to persuade him that my thinking was right.  He tried to convince me that his thinking was correct.  What we didn’t do was get curious about the other’s view and ask for more understanding or even take the time to try to see it from an alternative perspective.  Our cognitive biases are so fixed that it requires active intention to consider alternative explanations from our own.

The antidote to mind reading is to ask for understanding and to toy with the idea that someone else’s viewpoint might be valid…and not necessarily threatening to the relationship.

My husband I were both right…sort of…if you understand where we were both coming from.  Yes, there are many humans who juggle better than my husband, and yes, there are many people who don’t know he water-skis, and the bottom line is we were both disappointed that we didn’t mind read accurately for the win.

But we will be so prepared to win next time…especially if I can predict all of those obscure questions.

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