Couples, Couples Therapy, marriage

Can This 7 minute Intervention Really Save your Marriage?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why would an intervention this simple work?

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

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

Would a marriage therapist try this intervention?

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

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

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

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

Reference:

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

Photo credit: Copyright: rido / 123RF Stock Photo

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Couples, Couples Therapy, Marriage and Family Therapy

When Jack Sprat and His Wife Go to Couples Therapy: Body Weight as a Problem in Marriage

couple weightOne day, pregnant with my second child, I went shopping for maternity clothes. I was feeling nauseous and suddenly experienced the familiar lightheaded dizzy feeling which accompanied all my pregnancies.  Afraid that I would pass out, I dropped down on the floor in the aisle of clothes, obscured from view.  A married couple walked up a few aisles over. The wife began questioning her husband about apparel and he reacted with indifference, communicating that he didn’t really want to be there. “That’s why I’m here by myself,” I thought, since my husband considers shopping a form of torture.

The wife was somewhat heavyset, and her spouse appeared to be average weight.  While considering different outfits, she suddenly pointed, “Oh, we can look over there in the “petites,” section.  His back was turned, so I couldn’t see his face, but I could absolutely hear the disdain in his voice.  His one-word response was a jab, “Petites?”  His contempt spewed his intended message, which was, “Aren’t you too fat for the ‘petites’ section, Fatty?” She paused a moment and snapped monosyllabically, “Short!” which throbbed, “Petite means short, Dummy, and by the way, I know I’m overweight—you don’t need to keep reminding me about it! Jerk!”

I remember sitting there, fighting nausea, thinking, “I can’t imagine my husband talking to me like that, even if I did fight weight gain.” I knew if anything, this man’s negative message would only heighten her shame and anxiety, likely driving her more toward food as comfort, which is verified by research.

Empirical studies of mixed-weight marriages show that they are at risk for higher levels of conflict. Weight can create sexual and emotional distance. Occasionally, I have a mixed weight couple in therapy in which the average weight partner expresses dissatisfaction with the heavier partner’s weight.  Sometimes it’s about health, but a lot of the time it can impact physical attraction.  Rarely, however, is weight the only presenting concern.  It’s usually just one of a myriad of complaints, but it’s a highly visible one, complex, and challenging in therapy.

For a while now, my husband and I have been answering couple questions in an app called “Happy Couple.”  This was one of my questions last week:

Steve pulls on jeans and finds that he can no longer zip them up.  How do you react?

A. Give subtle hints when he goes for second helping at dinner

B. Dole out a diet mandate

C. Probably wouldn’t be so into sex

D. Shrug it off and tell him to buy a new pair

Any guesses about my answer?  Definitely “D.” In fact, I was asked this question anonymously at a marriage presentation last year and I explained why I recommend the answer be “D.” Or, I might add an option “E,” for “Reassure him that you love him and ask how you can be supportive.”

Here’s why the other responses won’t work:

  1. Your partner doesn’t need a reminder that he/she is overweight. I guarantee that the broader culture is already reinforcing that message.
  2. Threatening a partner only increases anxiety and shuts people down. It’s the opposite of motivating.
  3. Attempting to control a diet makes it your problem, and if you have ownership of your spouse’s weight, your spouse cannot own it and be autonomous in developing healthier habits.
  4. Humiliating or shaming a partner also increases anxiety and hiding behavior.

Don’t get me wrong. I understand that weight gain can create fear about attraction to a partner, or fear for a partner’s health. In my marriage, my husband has always put on weight easier than I do, even though he always exercised more consistently than I while I was having babies. His weight generally fluctuates between 10-20 pounds with external stressors. It bothers him a lot and me not so much. While it has never affected my attraction to him (I simply see the person I married, and I always thought he was good-looking), I have occasionally worried about his health, given his father’s history with heart surgeries.

I know 100% that I cannot control what he does and if I tried he’d feel criticized and resentful. I also know it bothers him and he’s always hyper-aware and working on it, and the last thing he needs is a spouse to make him feel worse.  In fact, throughout our marriage, I have frequently joked that the “teenage girl,” persona is showing up, because he will complain about how fat he is, and I almost never notice if he’s putting on weight. “When did you turn into a 14 year-old girl and what have you done with my husband?” I’ve mused. I think it’s the obsessive cyclist part of him.

So, how do you handle it when a spouse is overweight and it’s scaring you because you are worried about their health or worried about your physical relationship, or that you’ll never be united?

  1. Ask how you can be a support person. Once my husband tore a ligament in his foot which shut down his exercise for months. He was also working full-time, in full-time MBA school, and being a father to 7 children. He was cranky about it and complained about his weight constantly. I finally reassured, “I want you to know that your weight gain isn’t bothering me—I don’t notice–but you keep talking about it, so it’s bothering you. Do you want me to do something differently to help you?”  I had been trying to make dinner healthy, but I have always despised eating breakfast and usually skip it, so I’m really lacking in that area, and he lunched with his work buddies. We decided if I made up healthy snacks, it would help him stay on track with his eating.
  2. Model behaviors. I’m not going to pretend that I’m a nutrition expert, but I know enough to impact the food choices in my home, and my family takes a lot of cues from what I purchase, eat and prepare.
  3. Understand and respect differences. Cooked spinach and chard with lemon were my sometimes comfort foods growing up. While pregnant with my third child, I planted a garden with a bunch of chard and decided I would serve it to my family without telling my husband because he hates cooked spinach, so I didn’t want the protest. When he showed up, I started serving the kids with my sales job, “Look, daddy, this is the chard we grew, just like Grandpa Cluff—we’re eating it with lemon.  It’s yummy, right daddy?” I put a forkful in his mouth, winking at him to play along.  He did. He ate the serving on his plate with a smile and extolled its health benefits to our sons. I thought I had him sold. Then, he approached me while I was doing dishes, bent down and calmly whispered in my ear, “By the way, that was the most vile, disgusting thing I have ever had to eat; I choked it down because I knew you wanted the example for the boys, but if you ever serve that to me again, my serving is going right in the trash.” OK. Fair enough. I won’t make him eat cooked greens, beets, or cucumbers soaked in vinegar as long as I don’t have to eat melted cheese.
  4. Find a physical activity to enjoy together. My husband is a cyclist and I’m a runner. We don’t usually exercise together, but we do like hiking and tennis, which count. Find something you both like. There’s always walking.
  5. Identify whether the problem is really the weight or something deeper. Usually weight becomes symbolic of dissatisfaction coming from other areas of the marriage. Are there previous relationship injuries or conflicts to address?
  6. If the sexual relationship is impacted, try focusing on other forms of physical affection first. Because weight and attraction and sex are intertwined, I’m not going to pretend like sexual connection won’t be affected. However, couples get hyper-focused on orgasm. Sometimes slowing down and increasing sensuality first can increase sexual desire and/or performance.
  7. Focus on other characteristics you like about your spouse. I know this sounds trite, but it can shape your level of support. When my spouse gains weight, I really rarely notice, because I like HIM–I just like him for who he is, not for weight changes.

In mixed weight marriages, studies verify that many partners try to regulate their spouses’ eating behaviors. A rule of thumb in addressing weight issues is to approach it with positive influences. Negative influences (criticism, nagging, shaming, lecturing, threatening, punishing, stonewalling, withholding) only make the problem worse.

Weight can become like a separate entity in the marriage, either dividing or uniting the spouses.  Think teamwork. If my husband is inspired by a certain program, because the structure gives him scaffolding, I will use the recipes in the program, as long as they’re consistent with the basics and simplicity I think are foundational to a healthy life style. The only way to address weight without compromising the marital relationship is to gain unity—the couple against the weight challenge.

Maybe that’s why Jack Sprat just helped his wife lick the platter clean.

References:

Romantic Relationships and Eating Regulation: An Investigation of Partners’ Attempts to Control Each Others’ Eating Behaviors by Markey, C. M., Gomel, J. N. & Markey, P. M. (2008) in Journal of Health Psychology, 13(3), 422-432.

The Meaning of Weight in Marriage: A Phenomenological Investigation of Relational Factors Involved in Obesity by Ledyard, M. L. & Morrison, N. C. (2008) in Journal of Couple and Relationship Therapy, 7(3), 230-247.

“You’re Going to Eat That?” Relationship Processes and Conflict Among Mixed-Weight Couples by Burke, T. J., Randall, A. K., Corkery, S. A., Young, V. J., & Butler, E. A. (2012) in Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 29(8), 1109-1130.

Photo credit: Copyright: mukhina1 / 123RF Stock Photo

Couples, marriage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

photo credit: Copyright: stockbroker / 123RF Stock Photo

Couples, Holidays, marriage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reference:

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

photo credit: Copyright: refat / 123RF Stock Photo

Attachment, Couples, Love, marriage, Romance

Translating the Language of Love: A Caveat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And over.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References:

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

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

Photo credit: Copyright: bbbar / 123RF Stock Photo

 

Couples, marriage

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

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

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

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

Act I:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Him:  Yes?

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

Him:  I’m eating my snack.

Me:  You’re eating your snack where?

Him:  In the car.

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

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

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

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

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

Him:  (Yawns)  Great.  Perfect.

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

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

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

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

2 minutes later:

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

Him:  (Yawns): Oh yaaay!

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

Him: Huh?

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

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

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

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

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

Him: (Yawns–follows)

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

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

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

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

Act III: 20 minutes later

Scene: Standing by the cosmetics aisle

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

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

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

Him:  Honey you’re silly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Act IV: At the register

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

Me:  You’re ridiculous.

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

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

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

Me:  The carnival is worse than the circus.

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

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

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

Couples, Couples Therapy, marriage, Marriage and Family Therapy

The Slow Marital Death of Indecision: When Your Partner is Ambivalent about Staying Married

ambivalent couple

My job would be much easier as a marriage therapist if every couple came in with a unified set of desires for their marital futures.  Unfortunately, many couples come in with mixed agendas.  Commonly, one partner is entirely committed to saving the marriage, while one partner is ambivalent.

Ambivalent partners can be absolutely crazy-making for their spouses. They seem paralyzed about deciding whether or not to continue the marital relationship, because often they don’t like the looks of any of their options.  They commonly report that they don’t want to get divorced because, “It’s not the right thing to do,” or because they “Don’t want to mess up the children,” but at the same time, they don’t feel like getting close to their partners either.  Sometimes they are emotionally attached to partners outside the marriage.

Because neither option looks desirable to them, they show up to therapy physically, but tend to drag their feet in therapy, staying emotionally disconnected and inaccessible in the marital relationship.  They show up just enough to keep their spouses hopeful that they will fully engage and the marriage will eventually improve.

The more committed partners often get stuck in the partner’s indecisiveness, because their own decisions seem contingent on the ambivalent partners’ decisions. Over time, those more committed spouses report feeling like they are being manipulated and forced into making a decision about divorce due to the ambivalent spouse’s indecision.

In my opinion, some ambivalent partners are hoping their spouses will decide to pull the plug on the marriage so they don’t have to make that decision or take responsibility for that decision.

Ambivalence can last an indefinite amount of time, and in the meantime, the clock is ticking, children are growing up, and spouses are getting older.

I never have great answers for people in this situation.  It’s never my job to talk someone into staying in a marriage they don’t want to be in.  I’m not a marriage salesperson, even though I’m happy to help people stay married that so desire.  I’m also not the marital therapy godmother.  As much as I would like one, I don’t have a magic wand to make someone fall instantly “in love,” with a long-term partner.

I treat ambivalence in part by having the ambivalent spouses clarify and own the ambivalence.  By identifying and verbalizing the parts that want to stay married and the parts that don’t, they can sometimes over time decide whether or not they want to lean into the marriage or get completely out.  I try to get them to identify their fears, which often keep people stuck.  I will clarify that failing to make a decision is making a decision–it’s just a more passive (and painful) approach to decision-making.

Sometimes, if the marriage starts to feel safer so ambivalent partners can engage with more acceptance, they will.  This isn’t always the case.

Being married to an ambivalent partner is incredibly stressful.

Here are some practical suggestions for people who see their marriages dying the slow death of ambivalence to try to gain clarity for moving forward.

  1. Gather information.  I tell people to use what is available to get intentionally informed, and to write it down.  Past behavior and present behavior are valuable information.  Past behavior is also highly correlated (though not predictive) with future behavior.  If you realize that two years ago your spouse was saying the exact same thing as today, and that actions haven’t changed, that is important information.  By explicitly identifying patterns, you can gain clarity about future decisions.
  1. Ask trusted others close to the situation to help you make sense out of what is happening. Identify people close to you who understand your situation and have your best interests at heart and ask what they think.  Are several people seeing and telling you the same thing?  That’s important.
  1. Write down what life will be like in 5 years or 10 years if nothing has changed, except now you and your children are that much older. When people actually write this down for me, they develop more clarity about decision-making.  Often the response is, “Oh……yeah.”
  1. Identify your own greatest fear and create a plan for dealing with it. Many, if not most of us, get stuck in indecisiveness because we are afraid.  The anxiety we can conjure about what might happen is almost always more mentally painful than actually experiencing it.  Face the fact that your worst fear could happen, but create a plan for what you will do when it does, even if it will be uncomfortable.  For example, are you afraid your kids will be adversely affected by a divorce?  Then imagine how you will talk to them to mitigate negative effects and identify resources for helping children in divorce scenarios.  Score more points for actually imagining this case scenario over and over until you can imagine handling it.  (Kids are always affected, which is why divorce isn’t my favorite choice, but sometimes it’s a necessary choice, and there are resources to help)
  1. Identify your support resources. Friends and family are obvious choices, but some people overlook broader community support.  Now there are even support groups online for just about any challenge.  Find out what is available to you.  Look up websites and books.  If you are afraid of earning capability, talk to people who have been where you are now and have moved past it.  Talk to people, talk to people, talk to people.
  1. Identify your identity outside of your marital relationship. If you aren’t in a romantic attachment relationship, what are your other meaningful relationships?  What kind of friend do you want to be?  What kind of parent or grandparent?  What kind of community member or human being at large? What skills do you want to develop?  What are you curious about?
  1. If your marriage has spiritual or religious significance, reinforce that spiritual or religious relationship in order to achieve peace and confidence. People who see their marriages as spiritually significant can develop confidence that Deity, or whomever they honor and respect as a guiding force, understands their pure intentions.  I believe people in these situations can attain peace they need to move forward in decision-making, even if the decision is painful.
  1. Allow yourself time and space to grieve. I don’t believe we get out of this life without feeling deep grief and loss.  Losing relationships are some of the most painful emotional experiences we have as human beings.  It’s normal to feel pain that a relationship is ending.  I’m big on creating grieving rituals to make space for allowing yourself to feel pain while setting boundaries around grief in an intentional way so it doesn’t take over your life.  Since it’s common for some pain to hang on indefinitely, I’m also big on a mindfulness approach in which you can feel pain but still know that you can function.

I really, really, really wish this were easier.  It’s just not.  Many people end up having to make decisions they don’t want to make.  Even though it’s not likely to bring comfort, I want to end by pointing out that ambivalent marriages, while painful, are actually not uncommon.  You may feel alone, but I can assure you that you are not.  There might be someone out there who can benefit from your experience.  Finding that person may actually help you feel more resolved.

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