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=’https://www.123rf.com/profile_fotoson’>fotoson / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

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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!

Reference:

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=’https://www.123rf.com/profile_kegfire’>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.

References:

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.

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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.  

References:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Couples, Couples Therapy, marriage

Can This 7 minute Intervention Really Save your Marriage?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why would an intervention this simple work?

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

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

Would a marriage therapist try this intervention?

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

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

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

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

Reference:

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

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Couples, marriage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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