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 look in “Told you so,” fashion.  Then, I 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…right…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>

 

 

 

 

 

Couples, marriage

Why that First Five Minutes at Home can be so Important in your Marriage

ritual.flowers

One evening, I stumbled home from work at 10:30 p.m., exhausted and fighting a pounding headache.  I staggered into my bedroom, sped through a bedtime routine and melted into bed.  A few minutes later, my husband walked into my room and demanded, “Hey, when did you come home?  Why didn’t you tell me you were home?”  I wearily replied, “I was exhausted.”  “You’re supposed to come find me,” he complained.

Was I detecting irritation in his voice?  “Why are you getting mad?  I was too tired to come find you,” I argued.  He sounded both frustrated and a little wounded as he continued, “I was waiting for you to come home.  I was looking forward to it, and then you just went to bed without even saying goodnight.”  “I didn’t know that and I didn’t think you would care,” I called to the back of his head as he walked out the bedroom door contesting back, “Why would you think that?  You always come find me.  You’re supposed to come find me.  Why would I not care?”

Wow.  He really was annoyed (and hurt) over such a small thing, in my perception.

This is a typical example of how the microprocess in a marriage ritual can be rich with meaning.

Importance of Family Rituals

 Marriage and family therapists have known for years how important rituals are in family life.  Rituals are more than just routines—they are special routines that bring significance and meaning to events and people.  In families, they serve several functions.  Here are some:

  1. Rituals aid identity development.  Shared rituals provide a sense of self in a particular context.  The “we-ness,” of rituals actually gives people meaning for who they are and where they fit in the world.
  2. Rituals provide predictability and safety. Predictability and safety provide a secure attachment base which aids confidence to individuals in exploring the world.
  3. Rituals increase positive memories and happiness in families. Even though the stereotype of the dysfunctional family Thanksgiving dinner is a heavily promoted scenario, many if not most of these holidays contain positive memories which aid happiness.
  4. Rituals are protective. Family rituals have been associated with decreased anxiety and depression in children and with increased marital and familial relationship quality.  They can be especially important in families where stability and structure are threatened, as in situations with a family member with a chronic illness.

Importance of Comings and Goings 

Marital rituals are a subset of family rituals and provide similar functionality.  Just like family rituals, there are different kinds:  Holidays, weekly dates, bedtime routines, etc.  What was reflected in my above example was a ritual of separation and coming together again.  When a couple is separating, or rejoining with each other, there is embedded attachment significance, which is why it is so important.  Saying goodbye or giving a spouse a kiss when you leave the house is a way of saying, “I will miss you, but I will keep you with me mentally while we are apart.  You matter to me.”  Finding a spouse when you come back home again is a way of signaling, “I missed you.”  It’s communicating that, “We are important together.”  It is the key to reconnecting after a physical disconnection.  My husband was wounded in a small way when I didn’t come find him because in part, it seemed like I didn’t care if I saw him and connected with him.  It was a mini-rejection.

Marital researcher John Gottman asserts that the first few moments of a couple reuniting after a separation are key in strengthening marital identity.  Reaching out to find a spouse to reconnect upon arriving home has the potential to set the relationship on a positive trajectory.

Bedtime Connection

People might be surprised at how often couples argue about bedtime.  In my clinical experience, a common point of contention is a marriage in which one partner wants to go to bed together and the other partner stays up or goes to bed earlier.  This isn’t primarily about sex (although that can be part of it)—it’s primarily about a sense of togetherness.  Some individuals protest the ongoing disconnection in the relationship that is maintained by differing bedtime schedules.

It’s probably not surprising that frequently, dissimilar bedtimes can be associated with lower marital quality, or that highly distressed couples are often not even sharing a bedroom.

“Lucy, I’m Home!”

One of the most iconic lines in TV land is Ricky Ricardo’s Cuban-accented, “Lucy, I’m home!” from the famous I Love Lucy 1950’s television series.  It has been referenced in modern media pop-culture, like in the ever popular Gilmore Girls.

I might be a simplistic optimist, but I actually believe that if more spouses followed Desi Arnaz’ example and bellowed, “(insert spouse name), I’m HOME,” we might actually see an increase in positive marital connection.  With or without the charming Cuban accent.  The flowers in the attached photo are also a nice touch–just sayin’.

However, if I had used Desi’s line in my aforementioned story, I wouldn’t have that awesome example to show how I completely sabotaged my own relationship connection. I, the marriage therapist, after spending an evening meeting with couples, had underestimated the importance of a small connection ritual.

You’re welcome.

Reference:

Family rituals in married couples: Links with attachment, relationship quality, and closeness. Crespo, Carla; Davide, Isabel N.; Costa, M. Emilia; Fletcher, Garth J. O., 2008, Personal Relationships, volume 15, issue 2, starting on page 191

Photo credit: Copyright: flairmicro / 123RF Stock Photo

 

Attachment, Couples, Love, marriage, Romance

Translating the Language of Love: A Caveat

11939377 - learning chinese language on a blackboard starting with Many years ago, when I was in major survival mode in the thick of raising my children, one of my friends with an interest in family life education found out that I had a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy and asked if I had read the “Love Languages,” book by Gary Chapman which had recently been released.  I had not.  She lent it to me and I thought it was an interesting way to conceptualize expressions of love by categorizing behavioral types.  The book inspired a fun conversation.  I joked with my husband that I did not see my main current love language in the book, which was “sleep,” but I did see his love language, which also started with an “s,” and happened primarily in the bedroom, but was not “sleep.”

If you’re not familiar with Gary Chapman’s book, he is an educated pastoral counselor who has identified 5 categories of love languages: words of affirmation, quality time, gifts, acts of service and physical touch.  The book is enormously popular and has grown into a branded enterprise with a huge following.

The book’s suggestions can be very helpful for some couples.  It can be a wonderful resource for couples who are kind to each other.  However, for many distressed situations, the seemingly benign model can quickly be weaponized to wreak havoc in a marriage. I want to warn people of the limitations of the paradigm.  While it can facilitate loving acts in a relationship, it can also justify a quality of stinginess which is harmful.  I rarely recommend the book in therapy because most couples have been previously introduced to it and use it in a way that is not helpful; to be fair, I’m a marriage therapist so people aren’t coming to me because they are blissfully happy, but allow me to explain.

Here are some examples of what I commonly hear couples express:

“He wants to kiss me when he gets home, but my love language is acts of service.”

“We did the love languages test, and she knows mine is physical touch, but she won’t let me near her, even when I do all the chores she wants….it’s never enough for her.”

“Well, he did wash the dishes and take out the trash and fold laundry and help put the kids to bed, but my love language is gifts, and he knows that, so I don’t know why he’s surprised that I didn’t want to have sex.”

“She said her love language was gifts, but every time I buy her something, she takes it back because I bought the wrong thing.”

“She knows that my love language is words of affirmation, but all I ever hear from her is criticism, and she spends all of our money and I don’t know what she expects me to use to buy gifts, which she says is her love language.”

“His love language is physical touch, but he knows mine is quality time, and he’s never around, so I don’t know how he expects me to want to kiss him.  Mine is also acts of service and he never does anything to help either, so he doesn’t do either of my love languages.”

See what I mean?  Couples routinely use the love languages to hurt each other more and to stay disconnected.  The related themes are, “My partner knows my love language and refuses to do it, so I know I don’t matter to him/her,” and “Why should I speak his/her love language when he/she doesn’t reciprocate with mine?”

I hear this over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over.

And over.

I think Chapman’s intent was to both expand people’s imaginations and to increase behavioral congruency in showing love, but too often, they use his classifications to be less flexible about how they give and receive l’amour.  His languages can be used as an excuse to reject a partner’s attempts to connect.  They sometimes give people an excuse to have constraining expectations.

Furthermore, they are often used as an impaired regulatory device to police partners about whether they are reciprocating loving acts.  For example, “I vacuumed the floor the other day because her language is acts of service, but she hasn’t done a single thing on my love language list.”  Wearisome.

Chapman argues that most people operate from one primary love language.  This makes for a tidy resale narrative, but it might be a tad simplistic.  As people develop healthy relationships, they generally exhibit partner adaptation.  They become more accepting of the offerings of their partners.  I believe this is what Chapman had in mind, and I think some couples probably use the model this way.  In fact, I think my husband and I use the model that way.  However, couples in distress who worry that they are no longer loved develop rigid rules for identifying their relational worth.  Their relational anxieties translate into inflexible demands for determining whether they are a priority.

The love languages model has not been empirically validated, which obviously does not matter in most popular psychology circles.  Marketing and salesmanship are generally more important than accuracy when it comes to popular relationship ideologies.  There was one very limited study on love languages with a small sample size (N=110), primarily Caucasian, mostly between ages 18-22 and with people in a relationship for less than five years.  However, the authors only evaluated the factor structure and construct validity of the instrument.  In short, the five languages do seem to represent psychometrically distinct categories and the behaviors do correlate with one other instrument designed to measure related constructs, but there aren’t studies to my knowledge demonstrating that people operate from one primary love language.  It’s also difficult to know how people are applying the model, and that’s where a lot of the problem lies.  Self-report would be intrinsically flawed.

There is a lot to like in the love languages books.  If it encourages people to put more positive energy into their relationships, huzzah!  However, don’t think that because you are more “fluent” in your partner’s rigidly defined “love language,” that somehow your marriage is going to magically improve, especially if it’s used quid pro quo.  If you want to focus on your spouse’s happiness, love languages will help, but if you are constantly monitoring fairness, you will sabotage the book’s original intent.

Bottom line:  We all speak the same love language.  This fluency lies in secure relationship attachment.  When we feel secure in our marriages, we are more cooperative about the specific ways in which we give and receive love.  While it’s true that partners may have different foci at different time points in marriage, there is an ongoing fluidity of exploring and experimenting and expanding on ways to give and receive love, not a narrowing in exchange.

If you really want to be fluent in love languages, then increase your comfort level with all the categories.  Be intentionally receptive to your partner’s efforts across the board.

And PLEASE stop using love languages as a blunt force weapon with which to bludgeon your partner!  Those relational wounds that are invisible to the eye are the hardest to repair.

An excellent idea for a Valentine’s Day gift this year might be to increase your exchange of all 5 love language scales–I think it might be the best use of Chapman’s book.

References:

The 5 Love Languages: The Secret to Love that Lasts by Gary Chapman, 2015, Northfield Publishing.

 Speaking the Language of Relational Maintenance: A Validity Test of Chapman’s (1992) Five Love Languages by Nichole Egbert & Denise Polk, 2006, in Communication Research Reports, 23(1), 19-26.

Photo credit: Copyright: bbbar / 123RF Stock Photo

 

Couples, marriage, Uncategorized

Marriage is a Two-Part Targetvention: A Short Play in 4 Acts

42245464 - young couple choosing the best food in a supermarketWhen I got engaged, my husband and I thought alike about so many things that I foolishly thought we would have a perpetual conflict-free mind meld.  That lasted for about a month until I dragged him to a fabric store, trying to get his opinion on material for curtains I was going to sew for our first apartment.  I discovered very quickly that he considered shopping to be a unique form of torture.

Anyone who has been married for any length of time knows that marriage is an ongoing series of compromises and negotiations against a backdrop of mundane routines sprinkled with momentary triumphs and losses.  As a former piano student who was required to learn several of J.S. Bach’s two-part inventions (watch one of my favorites, #8 performed here), it is easy for me to think of a marriage like a two-part invention.  The pianist is playing a harmonious theme with both hands in counterpoint; both hands take turns playing a variation of the dominant melody while being supported by the other hand.  The hands seem disparate at times but work together to create an aesthetically pleasing tune.

While my husband and I shared a visit to Target recently, I felt like I was in a relational two-part invention.  We were both adapting to each other the whole time with some tension thrown in the mix. I felt like I was making the sacrifice of shopping with the equivalent of a recalcitrant youth and I’m sure he felt like his willingness to shop at my pace was the ultimate endurance test.  This is dedicated to those couples who think they are the only ones who aren’t always on the same page.

Act I:

The Scene:  My husband and I need to shop for household items.  My husband is “starving,” and we try to go to an early dinner at 4 pm, but discover that our favorite restaurant doesn’t open until 5.

Me:  Well, Target is just right around the corner.  I need to return something and we can get lots of the stuff on our list there, so let’s just go and come back.

Him:  (In a voice suggesting that he has just done some heavy lifting) But that’s a whole hour and there’s no way I can spend an hour at Target.  Plus, I’m starving now.

Me:  OK—I know—Target has lots of snacks—you can just march yourself over to the produce aisle right by the entrance.  Get yourself some organic hummus or almond butter and organic baby carrots or some other snack that is healthy enough to leave you feeling virtuous.  That should hold you over.

Him:  (With utmost reluctance and another heavy sigh) OOOkaaaay.

Me:  OK drop me off at the entrance and I’ll go get in line at the returns and I’ll meet you in there.

Act II:  30 minutes later (He says 20—I’ll compromise to 25)

The Scene:  I’m standing in the bathroom organization aisle and wonder why I haven’t heard from my husband for a half hour, and he isn’t responding to my texts. I’ve decided he either ran into someone he knows or is taking an important call.  I finally take my chances at calling him on the phone.

Him:  Yes?

Me:  Where did you go?  Is that sports radio I hear in the background?

Him:  I’m eating my snack.

Me:  You’re eating your snack where?

Him:  In the car.

Me:  You went in and bought a snack and went back out to the car? (Restating the obvious, trying to express my incredulity) Why didn’t you just come find me and eat it in the store?

Him:  They would have thought I was shoplifting.  I’m almost done.  I was just about to come find you.

Me:  (knowing that shoplifting is not his main concern) Hmmm…..K well I’m making my way over to the kitchen aisle so I’ll meet you over there, ok?

Him:  OK I’ll be right in. (Shows up at the kitchen aisle a few minutes later)

Me:  What do you think about this new mat for the sink?

Him:  (Yawns)  Great.  Perfect.

Me:  OK—so I was thinking that if we added one of these items to the silverware drawer, it would eliminate the black hole in the back—or do you think this size is better?

Him:  (Yawns—starts to put head down on cart) I don’t know, dear.  I can’t bring anything but apathy to this conversation.  Whatever you think.

Me:  OK let’s get this one.  Now, I need to run over to the pet aisle so can you go over to the bathroom organization aisle and return this thing I don’t think I want anymore?  I’ll meet you over by the cleaning aisle, OK?  Oh, and while you’re over there, look at the storage stuff and see what you think about the different options for our bathroom.

Him: (Yawns—looks up, rubbing eyes) OK.

2 minutes later:

Me:  (Look up, surprised to see my husband back in the pet aisle so soon) Hey, you’re just in time to help me go pick out a kitchen sponge.

Him:  (Yawns): Oh yaaay!

Me:  (Ignore his sarcasm) Hey, so what did you see in the bathroom aisle?

Him: Huh?

Me:  The bathroom aisle—did you look at storage options?

Him:  Oh.  Yeah.  I didn’t see anything that would be useful.

Me:  (Laughing) You saw nothing that would be useful?  Oh, honey, you didn’t even look, did you?

Him:  Nope.  I’m bad at picking out that kind of stuff.

Me:  Well, we need some bathroom storage stuff, so let’s run over there really fast.

Him: (Yawns–follows)

Me:  Oh, look, this is the lazy susan I was telling you I thought would work for our daughter’s hair products.  What do you think?

Him:  (Gazing over my head, suddenly alert)  Is that….a Squatty Potty?  It is!  Look, there’s a unicorn! (If you’re new to the Squatty Potty, see explanation here)

Me:  Oh yeah—a healthy colon is a happy colon—are you kidding me?!!   You’ve been acting like you have narcolepsy for the last half hour and suddenly you come alive when you see a Squatty Potty?

Him:  (Handling one reverently) These things are the best!

Act III: 20 minutes later

Scene: Standing by the cosmetics aisle

Me:  Oh, I forgot, I need a lighted mirror—there they are.

Him:  How about that one?  It matches our bathroom.

Me:  Wow!  You actually noticed that?  (I look closer, 10x magnification, gasp) Oh NO!  That is WAY too much information.  I prefer to see myself at a distance.

Him:  Honey you’re silly.

Me:  (Glued to “Mirror, mirror, on the wall”) It’s like a train wreck and I can’t look away—when did all those wrinkles happen?

Him:  Come on, I just remembered we need steel cut oats.

Me:  Wait—I need a minute to mourn my youth—steel cut oats is not going to fix this!  Even if they’re organic!

Him:  Come on, you don’t have wrinkles.

Me:  You’re just saying that because you’re getting farsighted—your vision is compromised—There is a reason that one of the pictures hanging in the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland is a young lady turning wrinkled and haggard.  It’s frightening!  Honey, we are getting old!

Him:  Yes we are.  Together.  OK I’ll meet you at the register.

Act IV: At the register

Him:  This shopping trip has actually taken us 90 minutes.  I don’t even feel this tired after a hundred mile bike ride!

Me:  You’re ridiculous.

Him:  I’m serious.  If I go to Hell, they are going to make me shop at Target for 90 minutes at a time.

Me:  You said your personal Hell was having to watch a parade.

Him:  Well, it’s watching a parade while shopping at Target…(ponders) at the Circus!

Me:  The carnival is worse than the circus.

Him:  Good point–definitely worse.  You can’t sit down at a carnival.  Shopping at Target while watching a parade at the circus at the carnival.  See honey, this proves I would go to the depths of Hell for you.  You’re welcome.

This was a very typical shopping trip, and if I’m being honest, it felt somewhat arduous to both of us.  We were both bored and tired and hungry.  We were both operating under obligation.  We both would have preferred to be a hundred other places that were more exciting.  That’s real life.  We’re just two different people trying to run a household with limited time, energy and resources.  Sometimes my opinion takes front stage and sometimes his does, with plenty of tension in between, but in the end we are hoping for a relationship with the same resonance as a two-part invention—and we are one shopping trip closer to that end.

Photo credit: Copyright: <a href=’http://www.123rf.com/profile_stocking’>stocking / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

Love, marriage

Try this Simple Marital New Year’s Resolution

16948832 - love dialogueI have stated before that I’m resistant to New Year resolutions, partly because I don’t like coerced participation in implicitly mandated arbitrary social practices, and partly because it’s generally more helpful for me to evaluate goals on an ongoing basis, regardless of the time of year.  However, in the spirit of a new year, I can’t resist suggesting a simple technique that anyone can do today to potentially strengthen a marriage.

My suggestion is: Watch what you say about your spouse to your friends and social contacts, and attempt to focus on his/her positive qualities in those situations.

I’m not suggesting that you become inauthentic or play the social media game of pretending that your life is a bouquet of roses free of thorns, but I am suggesting that you experiment to see how your positive reflections about your spouse influence your relationship.

A few years after I got married, I recall going to one of my husband’s company parties.  I was approached by one of his coworkers who introduced himself to me, smiling, and said, “You must be Lori.  I want you to know that your husband always has such good things to say about you.  He thinks you’re amazing.”  I remember being pleasantly surprised by the man’s comment.  I mentally conjured the times I was with my girlfriends and considered whether they could say the same thing to him.  I wasn’t certain that they could.  I can easily list many things I admire about my husband, but that doesn’t mean I always focus on them.

This man’s comment to me was indicative of my husband’s trademark loyalty.  Since that time, I can think of several occasions in which someone with whom my husband worked said, “Your husband always speaks so highly of you.”  Two of them occurred within the last year, 25 years after the first coworker’s comment.  Each time, I re-evaluate how I represent him to other people, and wonder if I am being fair?

I’m not naïve.  I wouldn’t be at all surprised if my husband also made an, “It must be that time of the month,” comment from time to time (which would be legitimate), but the point is that his overall representation of me was positive enough that other people mentioned it to me.  Each time, it touched my heart and increased my feelings of love toward him.

In addition, if other people are noticing good things about your spouse, pay attention.  A few years ago, I was reciting my problems to my older sister, who listened patiently and then said, “But you have a cute husband who adores you, so I think you’re going to be ok, right?”  At first I thought it was such a strange thing to say, and then I realized that she was making a point that I wasn’t appreciating the strength offered by a loyal marital partner, and how that relationship can help overcome other challenges.  Another time, a divorced friend of mine was over, and she watched my husband walk in from work, shout a ritualistic “Hi gorgeous,” and reach down to give me a kiss.  I was giving him the “Ok, now go away, I’m busy with my friend,” vibe, and she said, “All I ever wanted was for my husband to look at me the way yours looks at you.”  It stopped me in my tracks, and I realized that I know he’s a good man, but I don’t always appreciate or focus on it.  Unfortunately, too many of us fail to appreciate our spouse’s positive qualities.

When I say genuine good things about my husband, I immediately feel more appreciative.  I feel the same increase of love toward him that I feel when someone tells me he has said good things about me.  The small irritants fall away and perspective shifts.

Lastly, when other people tell me something good about their spouses, I feel a positive energy boost, and it influences me to think about similar things I like about my spouse.  If you want to practice, leave me a comment about what you love/admire/respect about your spouse.  I would love to hear it.  Make my day!

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Couples, Couples Therapy, Love

Good Fences Make Good Marriages: Setting Boundaries in a Technological Age

Uniting Couples to Strengthen Families

couple and fence

As an undergraduate student, I was introduced to a poem written by Joseph Malins in 1895, in which he essentially describes the sensibilities of building fences at the top of a cliff in order to prevent falls requiring an ambulance at the bottom of the cliff.  It is a poem about prevention.  As a marriage therapist, I would add that in order to avoid disaster, one of the most important components of a marriage is building and maintaining a good fence.

The Biggest Threat to Marriage Today

If I were asked what the biggest threat to marriage is today, I would say digital technology, realizing it is a broad and controversial answer.  I don’t want to be misunderstood.  Technology is not inherently bad.  I enjoy all of the conveniences of reading email on my phone, communicating instantly with anyone I want from just about anywhere in the world, and finding…

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Couples, Couples Therapy, Family

Navigating the Transition to a Mixed Faith Marriage

12915846 - hand giving the bible to another personA fair amount of my therapy practice is with couples who started their marriages with the same religious orientation and are disrupted when one spouse experiences a considerable shift in religious belief.  This faith transition is a major event in a marital relationship, requiring many adjustments to the family system.  In my observation, it is very painful for both parties involved.  Here are some of the commonly expressed emotions:

  1.  Fear. Individuals who shift their beliefs describe it as a scary experience to feel doubt about previously held theological assumptions.  Both partners experience intense fear about what the shift means for the future of the marriage and family.  Both often develop a deep-seated fear that he or she will never fully be understood and accepted by the spouse.  Both can feel unsafe about expressing real thoughts and feelings.
  2. Hurt and Betrayal. Marrying someone with the expectation for a long-term religious commitment and having him or her change directions can feel like an enormous betrayal, and is often traumatic and disorienting.  The partner who shifted sometimes feels betrayed and misunderstood by a religious institution or by gossip and exclusion by extended family, friends or neighbors.  Since both partners are hurting, it can be hard for either of them to hold the pain of the other person.
  3. Rejection.  Both partners can feel rejected by each other, or at least fear rejection.  Sometimes spouses have a hard time separating the rejection of religious beliefs from personal rejection.  The inability to accept a partner’s new belief system can also be a felt rejection.
  4. Loneliness.  A faith transition can be isolating for both partners who previously shared social ties in a religious community.  They can also feel isolated from each other.
  5. Shame and embarrassment. The partner who changed belief systems commonly experiences shame about causing disappointment for a spouse, and the partner whose spouse changed can feel shame and embarrassment about having a partner who has left the religion, particularly if that religion defines expectations for marriage and family life.
  6. Grief.  Both partners will feel the loss of having unified doctrinal beliefs.  The grief is dark, intense, deep, and scary.  Grieving the theologically unified marriage can last for a long time.
  7. Ambivalence.  It’s not uncommon for spouses to equivocate and feel uncertain about how they want to move forward.  This state can seem interminable.  Often, people feel conflicted because they doubt their own abilities to navigate a mixed faith marriage.
  8. Sadness.  The need for rebalancing a family’s dynamics with a religious shift can just feel plain sad for both partners.  They will often avoid having conversations about the elephant in the room, which is the disconnection of ecclesiastical beliefs, because it creates such heavy feelings.

Routinely, couples will come into therapy after one spouse has a faith crisis culminating in disengagement from a religious system.  Normally, they are stuck in a pattern of withdrawing from discussions about the differences because it is just too painful for both parties.  Most of the time, however, the topic is difficult to avoid because it affects issues about how to parent the children, participation in future family religious rituals, and the addition of elements which may have previously been absent, e.g. alcohol, individuals who actively oppose religious beliefs, etc.

Religious belief is at the core a manifestation of intensely personal experiences.  It’s never a good idea to try to force or coerce someone back into a particular set of beliefs, either for the believer or the non-believer.  Lecturing a partner with religious dogma will elicit defensiveness and bitterness.  Most people who announce a faith transition have spent a lot of time internally struggling with the implications for their marriages and families, and can anticipate the arguments they will receive.  It’s rarely a flippant decision.

This is always a uniquely challenging set of circumstances to navigate, but I know many couples who have found ways to retain marital stability despite religious differences.  Once they learn to safely express emotions and reaffirm their commitment to each other despite religious differences, they can create a respectful space to negotiate the details of family life pertaining to specific religious practices.  These negotiations are ongoing and different for every couple.

Here are some basic tips for navigating these types of conversations for couples who want to preserve their marriages after a faith transition:

  1. Spend a LOT of time validating the emotions of your partner.  Take a curious stance about what the faith transition has been like for each of you.  What has been the hardest part of this for each of you?  What is the scariest part?  Both people are hurting.  It helps if the partner who shifted can first be curious about the pain and betrayal and fear experienced by the partner who didn’t shift.  Then, it is helpful if that partner can understand the deep fears and yearnings of the partner who has changed.  Sometimes partners who shifted will hold back in expressing their emotions because the pain of betrayed partners is so big that they don’t want to add more stress to the system.  However, if these fears and ambivalence with a mix of other emotions aren’t heard and validated, they will still take up space and become a barrier to resolution and connection.
  1. Actively identify what you have in common besides the religion.  This isn’t a trivial matter, especially in situations in which the religion was the main identifying feature for the couple previous to the faith transition.  You can, however, actively create a new joint identity.  Usually, people can start with their joint desires for raising well-adjusted children.  Sometimes, they will develop a new hobby together.  I don’t mean for this to sound trite, because this negotiation often occurs against a backdrop of grief for the couple’s lost joint religious identity.  In my anecdotal opinion, however, couples who proactively look for ways to be together outside of the religion experience smoother adjustment.
  1. Create a pattern of reassuring one another. Couples can learn to reach out for reassurance and comfort about the marriage.  For example, a partner might ask, “What do you still love about me?  Why are you still with me?” and a partner can give a reassuring response.  Tip:  A reassuring response doesn’t sound like, “I’m only here because of the kids.”  If that’s the case, the conversation might need to be about whether or not to continue the marriage.
  1. Seek external support. As mentioned, many couples in this situation feel embarrassed and need to have a group of safe people with which they can process the new development.  Since support communities can be polarized in beliefs, try to find moderate support systems that can be affirming for both parties.  Sometimes disengaging from a rigid system creates the need for a period of polarization.  If you don’t have family or friends who can be supportive without arguing, a therapist can be helpful in processing difficult circumstances.
  1. Perpetuate family rituals. Since children are so sensitive to the emotional environment in a family, it’s important to reassure them that they are safe.  One way children experience safety is in predictable rituals.  This includes daily rituals, like bedtime, and annual traditions, like birthdays.
  1. Perpetuate couple connection rituals. It’s more important than ever to have ways to reinforce a joint identity with shared patterns, like a goodbye kiss or daily texts, etc.  Even having a regular discussion about how to keep connection is intrinsically connecting.
  1. Find ways to reach out to others in the same situation. Once you have negotiated a safe space to move forward with different religious beliefs, look for ways to support other couples facing the same challenge.  As mentioned, this can be very isolating, and both partners can benefit from guidance by people who are in the process of making it work.

Sometimes the choice after a faith transition is to end the marriage.  If this is the case, the couple can still maintain a respectful tone and negotiate a low-conflict separation or divorce and find ways to mitigate the stress for children involved.  Seek resources.

This is never easy, and is always painful at some level.  However, I see many couples who truly love each other at the core and want to continue a life together despite religious disconnection.  The couples who are successful at mixed faith marriages are generally able to feel compassion for each other and allow their partners to hold their own beliefs without ongoing aggression.  Theological differences don’t need to signal the end of a marriage and family. 

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