Couples, Couples Therapy, marriage, Marriage and Family Therapy

The One Thing That Prevents Couples From Changing and the Question That Can Fix It

change is good photoI was walking through a store the other day when a simple painted sign stopped me in my tracks. It read, “Change is good….you go first.” I immediately picked it up to check the price, thinking, “I absolutely have to get this for my office.” It succinctly describes one of the biggest ongoing dilemmas I face as a marriage therapist. It sits on a small cupboard in an alcove halfway between the path from my waiting room to my office, and as I walk past it several times daily, I’m hoping it will somehow inspire my married couples who feel so stuck in their difficult relationships.

Why is it that so many people may have increased insight about what they might need to do to change their relationships and yet feel restricted from altering negative patterns that maintain relationship distress?

The short answer is fear. This might seem confusing at first. Many people are removed from any awareness that fear might be keeping them stuck. However, upon investigating the layers of emotion that lie beneath the frustration and unyielding hopelessness that are so close to the surface for most distressed couples, there are long-buried softer raw emotions that bear the scars of previous relationship wounds.

Years of distress are inevitably entwined with multiple instances of hurt and invalidation. The longer people experience relationship pain, the more they don armor laced with more protected emotions: frustration and anger, which feel more powerful, and distance us from additional potentially harmful circumstances, or numbness and apathy, which display a lack of feeling manifested from desensitization to repeated hurtful interactions.

Both emotions are effective in the short-term for protecting us from partners who have hurt us in the past and who might hurt us in the future. Unfortunately, they are emotions which also prevent the potentiality for safe emotional bonding and connection.  

When people are hurt in relationships over time, the hurt breeds fear of being hurt again. It’s easy for me to view it with a military metaphor, because sadly, it is illustrative of two people warring on different sides. In short, it’s as if couples are dug down in foxholes to protect themselves from verbal artillery from their partners. Each wants desperately to come out waving the white flag to invite a truce and repair, but each is afraid that if he/she comes out first, the other will still be armed and use figurative weapons to harm the now disarmed and vulnerable partner.

It’s a game of relationship chicken to see who will capitulates first, and is loaded with perception of being the weaker partner. Since neither wants to be weak nor wounded, both stay hunkered down in their fixed positions.

Ultimately, you cannot create secure emotional bonding without vulnerability, which means there is always the potential for harm. C.S. Lewis said it like this, “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.” 

In other words, couples will stay protected, but their relationships will likely be “irredeemable,” which means that they will not be saved, improved or corrected.

Many if not most couples continue to come to couples therapy hoping their partners will be the ones to make the first move, while they continue to stay protected from potential harm. I’m usually trying to create safety for both partners to simultaneously drop their weapons and risk new engagement outside of the figurative foxholes. This is a very common and yet tricky reality to navigate. The conundrum represents a large portion of my practice. Fear of hurt and/or rejection is a powerful emotion to combat.

A Simple Way to Risk

Soooo, what is a practical strategy to reach out while maintaining some level of scaffolding for safety? It’s like moving into the deep end of the pool knowing you have something to grab onto if you need it.

I think the answer lies in a simple question anyone can ask a partner: Ask, “What is one thing that would help you feel safer in our relationship?” The question is a relatively low risk way to signal a desire to reach out and acknowledges that the other partner might be just as afraid to risk in the relationship. By implying that you want to do something to make the relationship feel safer for the other partner, it communicates that you do not wish to cause further harm. It signals one’s disarmament.

I can’t say it’s a no-risk question, because it’s not. It could be rejected quickly, e.g. “Why do you care? Why are you asking now? Since when do you care about my safety in our relationship? I’ve been trying to tell you for years, so if you don’t know by now, you’ll never get it,” etc., etc., etc., etc.

Expect a response like that. Couples have a hard time trusting change. It’s typical to be wary of a partner’s authenticity. You will not make things worse by reassuring your partner that you are sincere. It’s diffusible with something like, “I want to do something different. I don’t want us to both hurt anymore. I’m sorry I didn’t get it sooner. I’m attuning right now. Do you see me trying right now?” It needs to be a soft response, connected to the authentic desire for compassion and repair.

I can’t make guarantees that taking a low-level risk won’t fail, but I can guarantee that going into the interaction intentionally can potentially shift the relationship in a small but significant way, changing the trajectory of the entire relationship from increased disconnection to possible connection.

I can guarantee, however, that if you stay hunkered down in your foxhole, waiting to emerge until you see that your partner is completely disarmed so you are certain you won’t get hurt again, you will likely find yourself in the relationship distress of conflict or distance which C.S. Lewis described as “unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.”

If you do shed your armor, you can always put it back on again.

You decide.



C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves, (2017) HarperOne.

Photo credit: Copyright: <a href=’’>elwynn / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

Couples, Couples Therapy, Love, Romance

Marriage Subscription Box Reviews 2018: Modern Love Box

modern love boxI’m writing about another excellent marriage date night subscription box company: The Modern Love Box.  This box was slightly more expensive than the box I previously reviewed, but totally worth it. The creators are a husband/wife team who recognize the importance of introducing novelty and the unexpected into a relationship, given that one of them is a relationship therapist who runs a private practice on the side. Their boxes are designed to promote connection and new experiences between partners via a ready-made date night. All the work is done for you, which is incredibly convenient. Customers can order single boxes centered around different themes, or pay for an annual subscription for boxes to be delivered in quarterly increments.

I chose the “Good Fortune,” box to try out with my husband and had no idea what to expect. To be honest, my expectations were low because I’ve been married for 30 years and was actively working toward a profession in marriage and family therapy before my husband and I were married. In other words, I have had decades of approaching my marriage like a marriage therapist, which includes being constantly on the search for new dating experiences. I often joke with my husband that we have “come to the end of the internet,” because it’s rare to find an idea I haven’t heard before. However, The Modern Love Box offered a genuinely new experience for date night.

The creators thought of everything. They included his and her notebooks to take notes about date night experiences for future reference. Besides questions to encourage discussion, the box included a book about various ways to determine one’s “fortune.” I never would have purchased it on my own nor viewed it as a couple activity; however, it’s presented as an interactive exercise in comparing “fortunes,” which led to new conversations. The exercise was the perfect balance between contemplative and light-hearted.

Another activity we had not done before was writing “wishes,” both for each other and for our marriage together and ceremoniously lighting them on fire to send them upward. Besides offering a new and whimsical experience, sharing the wishes cemented our dyadic commitment by identifying joint hopes for the future. In fact, this is the type of activity I routinely recommend as a relationship therapist.

The creators also included  materials to facilitate physical connection. Often, couples can  become either hyperfocused or avoidant of the sexual relationship forgetting how much other forms of intimacy can impact the quality of physical connection. From start to finish, the box includes elements designed to create emotional safety, which often leads to greater sexual safety and couple exploration of this important, intimate part of the relationship.

I will definitely be subscribing to The Modern Love Box because I’m confident that the creative team will not disappoint in their quarterly theme-related offerings. This would be a great idea for Valentine’s Day. In fact, the site is offering a discount for last year’s Valentine box.

Overall, it’s apparent that the contents are informed by a relationship therapist and a creative design expert. This company knows what it’s doing as far as promoting positive couple connection. I highly recommend!


Couples, Couples Therapy, gender stereotypes, Uncategorized

If the “Not About the Nail” Couple Came to Therapy

heart nailA few years ago, a video clip was released on YouTube that caught the attention of couples and therapists everywhere. Given the popularity of It’s Not About the Nail, I’m assuming most of my readers will know to what I am referring, but if you are confused, you can watch the video here.

The clip is a depiction of what might be considered a typical interaction between a heterosexual couple, and judging from the clip’s popularity, it feels relatable to many people. Repeatedly, the clip elicits laughter from mixed gender audiences.

I show the video in some presentations, but for different reasons than you might think. On the surface, I can see why it taps into gender stereotypes. Men and women are socialized very differently around emotions. Women are generally allowed to feel and explore a complex range of emotions, while men from near infancy get both implicit and explicit messages to not display or even feel emotions which might demonstrate weakness, such as fear and hurt. The long-term reinforced and reductive gender message is that women are “emotional,” and men are “logical.”

The clip is admittedly funny, but there is an oversimplification in the message that can feel dismissive and demeaning to many people in relationships. I’m going to review what I believe the clips gets right, but try to deepen the conversation around it.

There is truth in the depiction that men are often confused about what is being asked of them when their female partners want to talk about something that is upsetting. Again, they haven’t been socialized to approach or deepen vulnerable emotions. Often, they spend a lifetime perfecting various strategies for exiting and numbing emotion so they can remain socially acceptable.

However, the assumption that they aren’t emotional is incorrect. When I show the video, the question I ask audiences is, “What emotions do you think the male partner in that video is experiencing?”

“Like he wants to fix it,” several people will inevitably yell out.

Right…Exactly…Except that’s not an emotion. That’s an action tendency following an emotion. Many men (and sometimes women) aren’t even aware that they are feeling emotions fueling the desire to want to “fix it.”

In fact, my husband actually started this conversation with me a few months ago:

Him: Let’s talk about our feelings.

Me: (Rolling my eyes, purposely not verbally responding because somehow it seems like I’m being set up)

Him: Okay? I’ll go first (smiling mischievously). My feeling is that one cycling sticker on our car looks good, but any more would be overdoing it.

Me: (Staring at him, eyebrows raised, remaining silent)

Him: Oh, also my feeling is that I’m hungry. Is it hunger pains or hunger pangs? I’m having both!

Me: I’m speechless. How do I even begin to match that level of emotional awareness?

In typical male fashion, his revelation of “emotions,” was devoid of any actual emotional language.

I often have the “nail,” couple in therapy. If I have the equivalent of the female client, I will often stop her and turn to the male partner and ask, “Tell me what feeling is coming up for you right now,” and yes, I often get back, “Well, I want to fix it.” If I had to throw out a guess, I would say I get that response at least 75% of the time.

Except again, that’s not an emotion, but they are definitely communicating that they want to make some kind of emotional discomfort go away…thus wanting to “fix it.”

So, I’ll say, “What feeling is coming up that makes you want to fix it?”

I might get, “I don’t know.” I have lots of ways of trying to tap into what is really going on, because it’s not uncommon for people to really not have awareness about their internal feelings. I might ask when they have had similar feelings to see if they can label them. I can get agreement that something feels uncomfortable to them if the partner is expressing distress. Eventually, clients in this situation identify something more specific, like, “It feels like failure,” which can be a devastating, dark, powerless, helpless or hopeless feeling. I can start conjecturing from there until I hit on something that resonates.

This is the part of the conversation I want to expand. The reason why is that men can be so good at masking emotions that their female partners don’t realize they are having an impact creating emotional discomfort. Instead, these male partners look like they don’t care.

In the video, the female chastises her partner for “trying to fix it,” and he begrudgingly placates her by responding, “That sounds….hard,” and she magically accepts his response, illustrating that women are simpletons and their emotions are nonsensical.

Except, that’s where it misses the point, and where it can feel dismissive to people, particularly females. I’m acknowledging that the video was made as a parody—but there are people who accept it at face value and use it as evidence that women are ridiculous. They also use it as an excuse to disconnect in relationships.

When people are needing emotional support, it’s about attunement, not about placating a partner, which, by the way, is true for both genders. Many problems are emotionally salient because they are complex, which is precisely why there is no quick fix, and why suggesting a solution can minimize the problem and fall flat.

Attunement is the process of moving in and trying to experience and understand the inner experience of someone else. This is relevant in light of research that people report a decrease in felt pain when they are in the presence of caring others, compared to when managing pain alone. It’s not about the words as much as knowing that someone is caring enough to want to understand what is happening for you and what may be distressing. People are much more likely to generate their own solutions or accept ideas from others when they feel really understood and supported.

There are some basic ways to increase attunement:

  1. Stand or sit closer to a partner.
  2. Maintain eye contact (but don’t be a creeper about it—natural eye contact).
  3. Focus on what is happening in the present. Distractions destroy attunement.
  4. Notice your own emotional reactions to your partner and find ways to language that, e.g. “I can find myself wanting to fix it, because it’s uncomfortable for me to see you upset and I’m afraid I won’t say the right thing here, even though I want to be supportive.” There’s no one answer—it’s more about finding an organic compassionate response—organic attunement. Use your own internal experience to connect.

Sometimes I point out that when our partners are emotionally upset about something, they can be hard to connect with, which is also what the partner wants “fixed.” Sometimes, men can lose the friendship of female partners who start spinning off into some kind of anxiety or related distress, and sensing that they could lose them, they might unknowingly verbally punish those partners out of the distressing emotion to get them back. Again, the partner’s distress is ricocheting back to the other partner. For example, if I’m stressed about something, my husband loses the happy, funny “girlfriend,” part of me that he enjoys connecting with, and sometimes he worries that we will stay disconnected if he can’t make the distress go away. That’s when he might want to “fix it.”

One of the main benefits of having a close relationship with someone is the reassurance and comfort that one is not alone. If a partner is upset, a simple way to approach it is to think, “How can I send the message to my partner that I am here and have his/her back?” That’s the pathway to attunement, and literally decreases indicators of individual distress.

Lastly, have the humility to accept that your simplistic solution may not be appropriate for a complex problem.

My husband and I recently went with another couple on a trip, and while we were touring a European cathedral, my friend noticed that one of the Catholic saints had a hole in her forehead (St. Rita–mark of stigmata). She was asking me if I could read enough of the French to discern what created the hole, when her husband gleefully interjected, “It was the nail in the forehead,” clearly pleased with himself for finding a way to reference what he and my husband had already agreed was a hilariously authentic video. “She just needed to pull it out,” he continued, yukking it up with my husband, who had earlier pointed to a different statue of a woman whose forehead contained a protruding stake and gloated, “See–it is about the nail.” “Yeah, and look what happened,” I argued, “She bled out and died. See, it’s not so simple, is it? You can’t just pull something out of a puncture wound like that unless you are in range of adequate medical treatment facilities.”

I was joking. It can be therapeutic to laugh at our relational gendered quirks, but don’t use gender stereotypes as an excuse to stay stuck. Real connection is attainable and effective in preventing and soothing ruptures, but attunement takes practice, regardless of gender.

Photo: Copyright: <a href=’’>fotoson / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

Couples, Love, marriage

Recipe for a Better Marriage: Add Confetti and Mix Well

81312981 - cheerful couple celebratingWhile I was shuffling through some accumulated text messages on my phone the other day, one in particular caught my attention. I saw a familiar tagline on one of my husband’s messages that read, “sent with confetti.” As I touched the message, a “party In a text,” emerged, showering the words, “I’m so in love with you,” with a pop and an audible swoosh of virtual confetti. I smiled and replayed the message and noticed that as I did, I added to my personal reserve of positive feelings for my husband. One of the things he does well is find creative ways to send positive and romantic text messages on most days of the week, and one of his favorite effects is the confetti option, festooning his declarations with bright shards of color.

Research studies have shown that sharing positive events with romantic partners is significantly associated with positive emotion. By including our partners in the good things that happen to us, we can build positive feelings in the relationship.

Playing off his example, I suggested to my husband that we try our own little experiment and exchange text messages everyday at least once a day that were “celebratory,” in nature, meaning that we douse our gratitude in digital confetti and watch how it impacted our own feelings. I found that this exercise had a two-part impact: not only did receiving good news bring on the warm fuzzies, but thinking of positive things to share was bonding as well.

If you go looking, it’s amazing what you can find to celebrate. Here are some examples of our real-life exchanges, which I have categorized for ease. To gain the full celebratory effect, imagine the word “YAY!” before each statement:

“Making the ordinary extraordinary” celebrations:

  1. You remembered to put the garbage cans out!
  2. You put the lid on the toilet seat down!
  3. You remembered to get milk on the way home from work!
  4. You remembered to pick up our daughter from lacrosse on the way home from work!
  5. I remembered to turn on the crock pot!
  6. All the socks came back from the dryer in pairs!
  7. I found the source of the nasty odor in the fridge!
  8. I walked in the front door and no one’s shoes were sitting out on the floor!
  9. I walked in the front door and no one’s coat was hanging on the banister!
  10. You remembered to turn off the outdoor lights!

“Silver lining” celebrations: Tragedy with a bright side:

  1. When our son lost his fight with the lawnmower, and I wasn’t there to help him because I was taking a daughter to lacrosse, our neighbor who is a nurse saw what happened and took our son to the hospital!
  2. When I was freaking out that the ER docs said they wouldn’t try to reattach our son’s fingers, and I asked if they knew he was a musician, our good-natured, comedic son remarked, “Don’t worry mom, I’ll make more money as a lawnmower safety spokesperson than as a musician anyway.”
  3. When I was worried about our pianist son losing parts of his fingers, I had a friend who sent me a list of famous musicians who have lost parts of their digits, to make me feel better.
  4. Even though our son’s lawnmower accident necessitated the removal of some fingertips, he still has a hand that will likely be able to play the piano.
  5. When our son came home from surgery with parts of his fingers amputated, he took his bandaged hand and made a funny video with it.

“NULL” celebrations—celebrating the absence of terrible events:

  1. No one had to go to the emergency room today!
  2. Nothing in the house flooded today!
  3. No one is failing out of school!
  4. No one locked themselves out of a car today!
  5. No one dropped a full gallon of milk on the freshly mopped kitchen floor today!
  6. No one started a fire in the house today!
  7. No one put a dent in the drywall today!
  8. No one shattered the light fixture with a basketball!
  9. No one shattered the glass by throwing a football!
  10. No one got a flat tire today!

“Go us!” celebrations:

  1. My fortune cookie said, “You and your partner will be happy in life together.”
  2. We agreed on what movie to go see in less than two minutes!
  3. We were on time to the party!
  4. We assembled IKEA furniture without a single fight!
  5. Our kids like to be around each other!
  6. We still like each other!
  7. We are in our 50’s and I’m still physically attracted to you!
  8. We got to Skype all of our kids at the same time today!
  9. We have a beautiful granddaughter!
  10. We have reached the stage in life where we can go to the bathroom now without a child pounding on the door!

“No matter how stressful things are, we can count on this” celebrations:

  1. The sunset is beautiful!
  2. We have good friends!
  3. We have been through stressful times before and survived!
  4. We get to go to bed together tonight!
  5. We are still in love!

The possibilities really are endless. This is one of the easiest things you can to do generate positive feelings in your marriage. Set your phone to generate a reminder even once a day and try sending a celebratory message and see what follows…but don’t forget the confetti!


How was your day? Couples’ affect when telling and hearing daily events (2008) by Hicks, A. M. & Diamond, L. M. in Personal Relationships, 15(2), 205-228.

Photo credit: Copyright: <a href=’’>kegfire / 123RF Stock Photo</a>



Couples, Couples Therapy, marriage, Marriage and Family Therapy

Change in Marriage: Learning From an Iconic Fail

20501491 - couple reconciling on the couch while therapist watchesOne of my favorite quotes is used in several variations and has been attributed to several sources, including Zig Ziglar. It captures inspiration for marital change: We cannot go back and start over, but we can begin now and make a new ending. 

Whose Marriages get Better?

I can’t ever predict with any degree of accuracy which couples will significantly improve their marriages during the course of therapy. Research confirms that while therapists do need to create an environment for change in the therapy room, clients are the ultimate wild card variable that make the final difference. I know with confidence how to facilitate the necessary conditions required for change, and I’m prepared for just about anything couples throw my way in session. Being a therapist must be one of the most improvisational jobs there is, because at any given time, the possible set of client responses is infinite.

Sadly, however, I can’t force couples to leave my office and participate in relationship-building interventions. In the same way that medical doctors can’t follow their patients home and force adherence to recommended healing protocols, therapists can’t go home with couples and shape their interactions (although I have had several clients jokingly ask if they could take me with them). It’s one of the biggest challenges in couples’ therapy.

Adjusting Your Attitude of Change

What makes the difference between couples who successfully shift their negative patterns, placing their marriages on a trajectory of positive healing and growth, and those who gain awareness about their damaging interactions but nevertheless stay stuck, chipping away at reservoirs of hope over time? As a clinician, there is a certain “prototype,” of husband that in my anecdotal experience makes the difference. Much of it emanates from a specific observable attitude, which I refer to as the “William Hung attitude of change.”

Most Americans are familiar with the show American Idol, and die-hards will certainly remember a moment in 2004 when one contestant rocketed to fame for his jaw-dropping, off-key, auditory-molesting audition. I’ve never been a loyal viewer of that show, but Hong Kong-born Berkeley student William Hung’s audition was so terrible that it was covered in major news outlets and hung on (or “Hung” on) for months, exposing most of America to his ear-splitting serenade. I remember viewing his 15 minutes of vocalist fame curiously at first, wondering if it was for real, and then thinking, “Quick, someone find a way to bottle that man’s courage and confidence (recklessness?) so I can sell it for a profit.”

By any objective standard, Hung is an atrocious soloist. His entertainment quotient has depended on his ability to slaughter a tune. However, I can still remember listening to a television interview on an early morning news show featuring Hung, and stopping mid-towel-fold to look at the television to verify that I had just heard his response to a question correctly, because it was so startling.

The talk show host asked Hung if he thought he was a bad singer. Shockingly, Hung answered “No,” he would not say that. “What? Is today opposite day?” I puzzled. The interviewer persisted, “Well, what would you say?” and Hung said something like, “I would say that I’m a BEGINNER.” I was struck by his response not just because it was so unexpected, but because it was so EXCELLENT! “Wow,” I thought, “That might be spin, but it is just about the greatest example of attitude strategy that I have ever heard.” It put me in a good mood for the rest of the day. Sometimes I use his example in my presentations. No matter the circumstance, thinking of ourselves as “Beginners,” instead of beating ourselves up for lacking mastery always allows for the possibility of improvement.

This is the attitude I consistently perceive in husbands who achieve the most change in their marriages. I can spot them a mile away, usually as early as the first phone call, because there are some similarities discernible from other cases. For example, they say things like, “I really want to get this,” and “I know there’s a lot that I must not understand, because it’s not working, but I really care about my marriage, so I’m willing to do anything.” They arrive at therapy cloaked in sincere apologies and acknowledgment of previous marital misses. They are TEACHABLE.

Trusting the Attitude

Then, maybe more importantly, these husbands STAY that way. Instead of getting discouraged and giving up and blaming their wives, they display the grit necessary to muscle through the extended trial period of new interactions long enough to gain trust. Even if they experience disappointment in marital repair, they manage their emotions to prevent a spiral into demoralization and ultimate disconnection. In short, they maintain a motto of, “I still want to learn and get this right, as long as it takes.” They continue to “lay down their weapons.”

Unfortunately, I get this presentation rarely, but when I do, it’s such a relief to me, because their wives can see their engagement over time and can eventually safely attach to them. In most cases, I must continually manage the discouragement that laces most change processes occurring slower than desired; I constantly provide support for those husbands who too quickly begin thinking nothing can ever change. I become the source for hope. That’s fine with me, and if anything, I really try to be as authentic as possible, so I don’t say things I don’t mean, but when the hope is filtered through me instead of coming directly from the husband, it takes longer to cement change.

In summary, it’s the difference between a husband saying, “It will never be enough for you, you’ll never see me trying and we’ll never get better,” and a husband saying, “OK, if it’s not better yet, I really want to get this, so help me see what I’m not getting.” Just hearing a spouse acknowledge that they might not still get it but still want to (if it’s sincere) makes all the difference.

I saw this example just the other day with a husband who called me for marriage therapy several months ago. He was for sure in the upper tenth of male clients who had a history of betraying his partner, but who also consistently displayed sincerity in repair. He had a “beginner’s” attitude. EVERY time he came to session, he was completely engaged and curious about how he could make his marriage better. He changed in ways that his wife could see and articulate, even though she wasn’t sure she could completely trust the change.

At one session, I spontaneously laughed out loud from sheer delight, because I could not have scripted a better response from him. After his wife expressed her hesitancy to trust him, which could predictably shut down most husbands, he turned toward her with warmth and a smile on his face and said, “I know—that was the old me—but look, this is the new me—what do you want the ‘new me,’ to understand?” He was so sincere and disarmed and perfect in his response, that my laugh was joy and relief that I didn’t have to manage defensiveness. In other words, it was a way of saying, “I’m not an expert, but as long as I’m a beginner, and keep learning, we can keep making this better.”

I promise I’m not picking on husbands. Anyone who knows me knows this. I am a defender of both parties in marriage, and particularly of males who shoulder the blame for not navigating relationship emotion after they have spent a lifetime being socialized to avoid it. I’m using husbands as an example, because their engagement is empirically so important in couples’ therapy outcome, and they are often the partners expressing more confusion at why things are so distressed. When husbands are warm and engaged, they usually have a significant impact on therapy success. It’s a phenomenon probably related to Dr. John Gottman’s findings that husbands’ willingness to be influenced by their wives was a major factor predictive of marital stability.

Anyone can be a Beginner

So, if you’re frustrated that your marriage isn’t improving fast enough, even if you’re trying to change, approach it like a beginner. If you were just beginning improvement today, where would you start? What questions would you ask?

And, if necessary, watch a William Hung video for inspiration. Your performance as a spouse certainly can’t be worse than his imitation of a virtuoso.


The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work: A Practical Guide from the Country’s Foremost Relationship Expert by John M. Gottman and Nan Silver, 1999, Harmony.

A Longitudinal View of the Association Between Therapist Behaviors and Couples’ In-Session Process: An Observational Pilot Study of Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy by Lori Kay Schade, 2013, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah.

Photo credit: Copyright: <a href=’’>wavebreakmediamicro / 123RF Stock Photo</a>





Couples, Love, marriage, Romance

Rejuvenating the Magic of Those Three Little Words

48470551 - comic bubble heart i love you pop art retro styleSee if you can finish this sentence: I love you, but I’m not…………

Right…I love you, but I’m not in love with you.

It’s probably no surprise that I hear this sentence all the time in couples therapy. It’s not my favorite thing to hear, because I know it’s what people say when they aren’t “feeling it,” for their spouses, and they want to “feel it,” to stay married.

The Good News and the Bad News About Marriage Today

Long-term romantic relationships are a salad of chemistry, passion, friendship, emotional connection, expectations, commitment, forgiveness, acceptance, effort, benevolence, support and security, among other things……sprinkled with pain and joy.

Eli Finkel, a researcher at Northwestern University who is releasing a book next month titled The All or Nothing Marriage: How the Best Marriages Work, has pointed out that people in western cultures expect more from their marriages than ever. Higher expectations aren’t all bad. Finkel reports that right now, it seems that we have the best marriages and the worst marriages. In other words, people in average marriages are reporting lower marital happiness and stability than in times past, but the best marriages are linked with higher marital quality and individual well-being than before.

Basically, spouses today want the whole enchilada. We are more social disconnected than ever and rely on our spouses to fill roles that may previously have been filled by other people. We are connected to higher numbers of people more quickly maybe, but in a way that I call a mile wide and an inch deep…..the relationships are less meaningful, or at least serve different functions. That’s why in marriage most people want a best friend, a passionate partner, an economic supporter, and, Finkel reports, someone to help us self-actualize. We want our partners to help us achieve our highest individual psychological needs. Read more about it here.

Now, take all those expectations, wrap them in a red heart-shaped package called “love,” and you have a marriage therapist’s worst nightmare.

We Need Better Words for Love

The English language is sorely lacking in nuanced definitions of love. We use that word to express affection for any person, place or thing. We love our spouses, we love our children, we love our dogs, we love our houses, and we love our cars. Even French, la langue d’amour, is limited in expression. If we don’t have good ways to acknowledge and language the nuances of love, there is more room for personal interpretation and judgment….and disappointment.

Several other languages, such as Sanskrit and Persian, offer scores of terms to describe specific types of love. My favorite set of words are those available in Arabic, which includes terms for various states and relationship stages. My limited understanding is that the construction of the language, structured with common roots, allows for words to be linked, which can increase nuance. Love can be expressed in distinctive stages and states, including attraction, amusement, passion, preoccupation, infatuation, adulation, heartburn, longing, excruciating pain, submissiveness, friendliness, unification, fervor, and madness.

There are additional expressions for romantic affection as well. I was fascinated with Ya’aburnee, which apparently means “you bury me,” and alludes to the hope that one die before one’s lover, because life would be too painful without them. So tragically romantic!

It’s interesting to me that such rich descriptions of love exist in cultures where arranged marriage happens at a higher rate than western cultures. It makes me wonder about how we interpret “love.” In English, love is essentially a language monomial, defined by four letters, but a language polynomial when it comes to all the varied applications. Preoccupation, infatuation and adulation suggest something quite different from unification, and if all of those states were explicitly under the “love,” umbrella in English, people may not be as disappointed when feelings shift long-term.

Even though love is complex, we can influence our long-term feelings

The reason I’m droning on about this is that largely, whether one is “in love,” or not has to do with subjective interpretation, and is influenced by expectations. In other words, we don’t “fall out of love,” with our kids. We may not always have warm fuzzies toward them, but most of us recognize a sense of commitment and obligation which then fuel us to actions to increase love toward our offspring. We are proactive in managing our negative feelings toward them in order to be available, stable attachment figures.

It’s only in romantic love that we use the term “falling,” which implies a sense of helplessness about whom we love, or for how long. However, we can use the same heuristic in marriage that we use in parenting, by searching for actions to influence our feelings.

Over the long-term, the reality is that marital satisfaction waxes and wanes. There are behaviors that can influence any of the expectations for love. Even physical attraction can be influenced by engaging in various activities in marriage. The way we talk to ourselves about our partners also influences our feelings. We may not “feel it,” in immediate large shifts, but we can certainly encourage growth over time. Another little Arabic love language fun fact is that the word “hubb,” for love comes from the same root as the word “seed,” implying growth potential.

As Easy as an Internet Search

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

“I Love You” is Still Powerful

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

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

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

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

“I Love You,” as the Ultimate Reassurance

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

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

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

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

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

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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.  


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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