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.


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

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

Photo credit: Copyright: bbbar / 123RF Stock Photo


Couples, marriage, Uncategorized

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

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

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

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

Act I:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Him:  Yes?

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

Him:  I’m eating my snack.

Me:  You’re eating your snack where?

Him:  In the car.

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

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

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

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

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

Him:  (Yawns)  Great.  Perfect.

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

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

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

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

2 minutes later:

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

Him:  (Yawns): Oh yaaay!

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

Him: Huh?

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

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

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

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

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

Him: (Yawns–follows)

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

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

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

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

Act III: 20 minutes later

Scene: Standing by the cosmetics aisle

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

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

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

Him:  Honey you’re silly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Act IV: At the register

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

Me:  You’re ridiculous.

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

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

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

Me:  The carnival is worse than the circus.

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

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

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

Couples, Couples Therapy, marriage, Marriage and Family Therapy, Uncategorized

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=’’>kmiragaya / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

Couples, Couples Therapy, marriage, Uncategorized

Is My Spouse Really Narcissistic? How People Are Commonly Overpathologized

13033830 - medical doctors group  isolated on white background

“How much do you know about Narcissism?” asked yet another female client, on the same day that a male client asked, “How much do you know about Borderline Personality Disorder?” It seems like therapists I supervise or I am asked a version of these questions at least weekly.  I can confidently state that I likely know more about both of them than most of my clients do.  I believe that these labels are used prematurely and inaccurately in short, because they simplify complex problems for people who are desperately trying to make sense out of the seemingly nonsensical.  Here are some reasons why they are incorrectly overused:

Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) and Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) are labels that describe sets of behaviors and internal states identified in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).  This is a tome published by the American Psychiatric Association for the purpose of categorizing and typifying groups of mental health disorders in order to conceptualize diagnoses and treatment options for various clinical presentations.  The book is the best we have for making sense out of mental health disorders.  As a collaborative clinician for the most recent issuance (5th edition), I have respect for the amount of study and diligence that goes into refining the descriptors as an attempt at diagnostic and treatment accuracy.  The problem is that the taxonomy is clumsy, largely subjective, politically influenced, and always controversial among mental health and medical professionals.

For example, one of the identifying specifiers for NPD is “Requires excessive admiration,” (p. 669).  What?  Who decides how much is “excessive?”  Another feature is, “Shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes,” (p. 670).  Do you see the problem?  What exactly is “arrogant or haughty?”  What is the context for such behavior?  Many of the remaining identifiers are equally ambiguous.  The lack of precision throughout the DSM is an enormous problem because it is so subjective and can vary tremendously from clinician to clinician.

Let’s look at BPD.  The first listed criterion is, “Frantic efforts to avoid real or imagined abandonment,” (p. 663).  So, what, exactly, is “Frantic?”  Does that mean if a spouse is threatening to divorce and walks out the door, the panicky reaction of a partner is “BPD?”  The 7th identifier is “chronic feelings of emptiness.”  Huh?  How empty?  Does “emptiness” mean the same thing to different people?  How about “Inappropriate, intense anger or difficulty controlling anger?”  I have seen plenty of that in partners who experienced betrayal, or a number of other emotionally-laden events.  This does not mean the individual has BPD.

Hopefully, most clinicians are very careful in using these labels.  Unfortunately, I see way too many who are not.  Many clinicians use the labels as a way to dismiss clients when they are overwhelmed with the behaviors, particularly in couple cases where the emotion is notoriously high, and the dynamics exceed the therapist’s competence and skill level.  Personality disorders are by nature considered durable and nearly unchangeable.  If a client has a legitimate personality disorder, in a sense, the clinician can just write off the case as untreatable.  Many do.  To be honest, sometimes I think it’s laziness at best and negligence at worst.  This is a particularly egregious practice when a therapist has diagnosed a spouse based on the report of their client, without ever actually meeting that individual (and yes, this happens, not infrequently).  I’m not a DSM expert, but as a licensed clinician with DSM training, I believe the actual prevalence of these cases in a population is far lower than they are diagnosed by mental health professionals, at least informally, behind closed doors.

Among the client population, the overpathologizing might be more pervasive.  Currently, the ability to easily research anything on the internet has provided fertile ground for spouses to gain just enough information to be dangerous.  Most of us are guided by confirmatory bias, meaning that we have a tendency to give more credence to information that supports what we already believe.  If I think I’m married to a narcissist (or an autistic or a bipolar individual or…) then I will find all kinds of information supporting my viewpoint.  Ditto for borderlines.  Then, if I read that it is not very treatable, I might prematurely give up on the relationship.

Much of the highly emotional behavior observed in panicky, anxious pursuing partners (often wives who get labeled “Borderline”), is exacerbated by, if not a direct result of, the withdrawing or stonewalling behavior by spouses who are flooded.  Likewise, the withdrawing husband who numbs himself because he doesn’t ever feel like he can calm down his wife’s emotions, may appear incapable of empathizing (Aha!  Narcissism!), when the apparent lack of empathy is really a conditioned response generated from years of feeling helpless to impact a partner’s emotional reactions.  The pattern becomes cyclical, more pronounced, and anticipatory until partners can and do appear to be Narcisstic and Borderline.  In short, protective behaviors of stonewalling and withdrawal that make sense in an intense situation are incorrectly labeled, and desperate, clingy, panicky emotional behaviors that come as a result of not knowing what else to do to save a relationship are prematurely pathologized.  Various trauma responses based on previous client history can also be prematurely lumped into a personality disorder.

I have no illusions about my self-indulgent blog post changing anything in general.  That would require a readership larger than three people.  However, I want to be on record somewhere articulating and highlighting this problem because it is endemic with therapists who don’t place behavior in a highly emotional couple context, and it is a problem with spouses who are desperately trying to make sense out of painful marriages they feel powerless to change.

Don’t get me wrong.  I have seen clients who I believe meet criteria for both of these disorders.  However, far more often, I see people who are very reactive to each other after years of feeling rejected, and their behaviors look like some of the personality disorder specifiers.  In other words, I see more instances which are treatable than those which aren’t.  If you think your spouse has a personality disorder, you could be right, but it is more likely that you are incorrectly labeling contextual, reactive behavior.  Be very careful in your unofficial diagnosis.

Now it’s time to return to my real life of being mom to 7 children, or, as I like to call it, my “Acute Stress Disorder,” or my “Circadian Rhythm Sleep-Wake Disorder,” for which the recognized treatment is “birth control.”  Oops….too late!  Happy diagnosing!

Reference: Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (2013), American Psychiatric Association: Arlington, Virginia.

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

Couples, Family, Humor, Uncategorized

Couple Conflict After the Laughter

older couple laughing

My husband can never just gently get into bed.  At any given time, he outweighs me by 80-100 pounds, and it always feels to me like he is flopping onto the bed with as much force as possible, which has the effect of both startling me and bouncing me out of my comfort zone.  He denies that he has this habit and always responds to my protests with, “What?  I’m just getting into bed like a normal person. What do you want me to do?”

So, the other night, while I was sitting in bed knitting, my husband got into the bed with his usual vigor, and my arm jerked several stitches off of my knitting needle which I had to go back and fix, and which also annoyed me.  I immediately snapped, “Steve!  Seriously?” which was code for, “How many times have we talked about this?  How hard is it to just ease into bed without announcing your arrival with the exertion of a bull elephant?”

I expected him to defend his technique as usual when instead, he said, “Well, it could have been worse…I could have done this…,” at which point he popped up on the bed and started jumping up and down like an 8 year-old.  The scene was so absurd that I couldn’t stop laughing, and instead of engaging in another tired quarrel, we shared  a moment of playful connection.

Dr. John Gottman identified humor as a common “repair attempt,” that many functional couples use to manage conflict.  If used well, and in a way that is inclusive and not contemptuous, it can be a very effective technique.

With nearly 30 years of marriage and 7 children, my husband and I have had lots and lots of practice both engaging in and averting typical couple power struggles.  A long time ago, I remember at one point saying to my husband, “Stop trying to control me.  You can’t control me,” because I do have a rebellious streak a mile wide with a tendency to do the opposite of what someone is trying to make me do (which is all coming back to me through my teenagers).  Neither of us likes to feel controlled.  It has become an ongoing joke now that if things start escalating, one of us will commonly interrupt with, “Are you trying to control me?” with a tone of voice that suggests that we are being ridiculous, and we end up laughing.  Once, I remember him throwing out, “I’m trying to control you right now and you’re not cooperating,” and it was so unexpected with the comical look on his face that I was completely disarmed and laughed, and another conflict was avoided.

Humor can be used to manage potential family conflict as well.  Parenting and finances are two common potential points of contention for many couples.  On one family vacation, I remember an incident in which those both collided, and I started getting irritated with my husband.  It was a typical vacation in which one child had already vomited in the car, there were ongoing quarrels about who was in whose space and who was breathing whose air, and my nerves were raw from all the noise.  On the way home, when my husband stopped at a gas station, I couldn’t wait to get out of the car and walk away somewhere by myself to breathe.

When I walked back to the car, my then three year-old began pulling my hand to show me something she wanted at a vending machine.  It was a pink mustache for 75 cents, and she was so insistent that I decided to hit her dad up for the money.  Instead of thinking it was cute like I did, he thought it was a ridiculous waste of 75 cents and he was tired of bleeding money on our vacation.  Instead of agreeing, he gave me a look that said, “A pink mustache? Really?  Why don’t I just hand you three quarters to go flush down the toilet?”

Soo…instead of lashing out about what a cheapskate he was, I decided to take a different approach.  I knew he was tired and stressed like I was from the torture of being in a confined space with 7 noisy children.  I picked up a quarter from the bottom of my purse and announced to my teenage sons, “Okay everyone…your sister wants a pink mustache that costs 75 cents, and I personally think that would be amusing to look at, and so I am willing to donate a quarter to her pink mustache fund.  Does anyone else want to donate to see the pink mustache?”  Immediately, two brothers anted up and even offered to take her in to purchase the disguise.  When she came back, delighted to be wearing a pink mustache, we all laughed, and even my husband had to admit it was adorable, and instead of being upset with me over an argument, he was grateful that I hadn’t undermined him in front of the children and escalated conflict.

Humor is effective if the relationship already feels safe.  If you see your partner as your collaborator, you are more likely to join with them in the silliness.  You take bigger comedic risks, because humor is often about presenting the unexpected.  If you see him/her as the enemy, it can easily be misinterpreted.  Humor also requires a fair amount of creativity, which is more expansive when people are not emotionally flooded, so when people struggle to regulate emotion, it can be more challenging to access humor.

Couples who can use humor are couples who work at building friendship actively outside of conflict.  They are couples who have lots of experiences laughing together.  I don’t think I could endure a relationship in which my spouse didn’t appreciate my sense of humor; I am well aware that not everyone finds me as amusing as my spouse does.  However, because he laughs at my lame jokes and laughs at shared comedic references with me, it feels safe to explore humor with him.

Humor can be accessed intentionally in a spirit of playfulness.  If you don’t know where to start, listen to a funny podcast.  My favorite is NPR’s Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!  For additional inspiration, watch the Argument Clinic by Monty Python’s the Flying Circus, which you can access on YouTube here.  I might be showing my age with that suggestion, but I promise you won’t look at an argument the same way again.



Couples, marriage, Uncategorized

The Number One Question to Ask to Restore Harmony in Marriage and Make Beautiful Music Together

couple music instrument

I was in the middle of a “discussion,” with my husband the other day in which I could feel myself getting more frustrated that he wasn’t understanding my viewpoint.  I found myself doing something I often observe couples do, which was saying the same thing louder using different words, in an effort to be heard.  I even felt myself getting a little panicky that he wasn’t understanding me.

Predictably, what I was getting back from him wasn’t an increase in understanding…it was his same responses fed back to me using different language and…louder.

He was matching my communication process, and I was matching his.

We were stuck in a typical and dissonant couple communication pattern in which all we could hear was ourselves.  We were like two musicians trying to play a piece together, but we couldn’t hear the other person’s part over our own.

Continuing in this pattern is unlikely to restore harmony, but there is a question that couples can ask when they find themselves in one of these déjà vu episodes.

The question is, “What do you think I still might not understand about your position?”

Then, listen to the answer.

You might be asking yourself, “Why would I ask my partner that question when I am actually worried that he/she isn’t understanding where I am coming from?”  The answer is that harmonious communication requires your partner believing you are really listening to him or her.  Also, if you are really curious about asking more about your partner’s viewpoint, you might learn more about where he/she is coming from than you assumed you knew—especially because couples treat each other in the present according to past interactions and often incorrectly assume motive and meaning.

Going back to the music world, anyone who has studied a musical instrument enough to have performed with other musicians knows that a harmonious performance requires that each musician not only listen to themselves, but that they also listen to the other parts being played by the other musicians.

I frequently accompany vocalists and musicians on the piano.  If, for example, I’m not listening to a violinist play her part as much as I am listening to myself, I can easily end up moving ahead or trailing behind the violinist, with a resulting dissonance akin to nails on a chalkboard instead of a pleasing harmony.  An effective performance always requires that I listen to the other performers.  Like many other things, it is a skill that takes intention and practice.

Communication is similar.  If you are only listening to yourself, you are likely to end up with friction.  Asking your partner what you might not understand slows down the process, and allows your partner to be more flexible about hearing your position.  If asked authentically, it can actually have a soothing effect.

The best time to ask this question is while things are not escalated.  Over time, it can become part of regular problem solving…with practice…and if you need to be reminded, you can always start out your discussions with a harmonious symphony playing in the background.



Attachment, Couples, Couples Therapy, Love, marriage, Uncategorized

The Art of Noticing: Putting the “App” in Appreciation

thanks photo

“See?” exclaimed a husband in therapy, “It will never be enough for you.  No matter what I do, you will always want something different or more, so I might as well just give up trying.”

There is a process that I regularly witness between couples in therapy that genuinely saddens me.  What happens is that I will observe one partner really trying to please the other partner, but the efforts are viewed as disingenuous or minimal, so they are disregarded or criticized, at which point the partner gives up.

This phenomenon occurs with both partners in a marriage regularly.  Here’s a typical example:

Sandy was exhausted from caring for her young children, driving them around, and keeping the house picked up.  She was hurt that her husband didn’t make a bigger effort to support her in daily household chores, and that it seemed like he was content to ignore her all night while expecting sex before bedtime.  She was offended that he wanted to be physical with her after seemingly preferring to be alone most of the time.  When she tried to talk about it, he would withdraw by leaving the room or just refusing to engage in conversation.

Her husband, Sam, admitted that he gave up on household chores because, “It’s never up to her standards,” and the criticism he received was painful.  He added that he did reach out for physical connection because it was the only time he felt really accepted in the relationship.

It’s common that after a session of therapy, partners will gain a little more courage to try again.  The problem is that when they do try, their efforts do seem small.  That’s because after years of rejection, making small shifts can feel like enormous risks.  Then, their partners either don’t notice the small efforts, or actively reject the efforts because they are afraid that if they “reward,” the small effort, their partners will think it’s enough and stop there.

So, with the above example, Sam returned to therapy and explained that he volunteered to do household chores without asking, and instead of his wife noticing and expressing gratitude, she asked why he didn’t do a few more things.  In return, Sandy explained that she tried to risk being more physically affectionate with her husband by hugging him when he came home, but that he “pouted,” all night because she didn’t want to have sex.  Thus, both partners experienced more rejection and felt discouraged to continue.

Change can be very tricky between couples, because the two people are so sensitive to each other emotionally.  No one wants to feel like he or she is making efforts to change while the other person doesn’t notice or isn’t trying to change as well.  Both partners want love and acceptance.

It’s important to know that NOTICING is a skill that can be actively expanded and implemented.  Then, people need to realize that APPRECIATING and ENCOURAGING is powerful in priming more change, but nothing will destroy a partner’s desire to try faster than criticism, even if the criticism seems small.  Most people don’t realize the huge impact their criticism has on partner withdrawal and disconnection.

So, why aren’t people better at using encouragement and accepting their partners’ changes instead of criticizing?

  1. They want so much more than their partners are often willing to give up front that they really don’t notice their partners are trying to change.
  2. They are afraid that if they accept the small effort, the partner will think that’s good enough and stop trying.
  3. They are afraid that if they accept the larger effort, it won’t last.
  4. They don’t trust the change, because it may be viewed as manipulation.

Here’s how to implement the art of noticing and appreciating in order to promote change:

Look for and acknowledge ANY change efforts.  People want their efforts to matter.  Many times, I have pointed out, “You see, he’s here right now with you in therapy trying to improve his relationship with you—this is him trying to change.  You are experiencing it right now.  Especially since couples therapy is the LAST place most men want to be.”  Or, “Did you notice her reach out and put her hand on your leg when you were talking about how painful it is when she rejects you physically?  That is her trying to reach out to you and comfort you in a way that you desire.”  When I point this out, most partners acknowledge, “Yes, this is hard for him (or her) and I can see he’s trying.” I can also help them add, “I just get scared that he will stop trying or things won’t ever get better, even though it helps me to know he’s here with me right now.”  This helps the rejected partner understand what is happening more clearly.

Sometimes it’s helpful to think in PARTS.  For example, “There’s a part of me that can see you trying and gets excited that thing might get better, but there’s another part of me that gets afraid it won’t last or this is as good as it will ever get, and that thought is so scary that I want to make more demands.”

Understand SHAPING.  There is a behavioral concept called “shaping,” in which people reward approximations of behavior in order to move someone toward the desired behavior.  It is used a lot in parenting, but it actually applies in all our relationships.  I reject pure behavior therapy as an application for change, because our emotions interact with our behaviors in complex ways, but it is true that acceptance and praise are rewarding, and we are more likely to become approaching and try harder in those circumstances.

Understand that criticism and contempt are more powerful in a toxic way than appreciation, praise and encouragement are in a relationship-building way.  In other words, one line of criticism can wipe out a month’s worth (or more) of genuine effort in seconds.  People give lip service to this, but then behave as if their criticism shouldn’t be taken so seriously.  CRITICISM KILLS RELATIONSHIPS, AND IT DOES NOT MATTER WHETHER YOU THINK THE CRITICISM IS JUSTIIFED OR NOT.  For emphasis, I repeat, CRITICISM KILLS RELATIONSHIPS, AND IT DOES NOT MATTER WHETHER YOU THINK THE CRITICISM IS JUSTIFIED OR NOT.

Even if you notice and encourage your partner when you see a change, EXPECT RELAPSE into old patterns.  People need to be allowed to get it wrong without being severely punished even if they have been nearly perfect.  Sometimes people won’t try to change, because they are afraid that they won’t be “perfect,” at it and if they aren’t, their partners will flare up (because they do).  Most patterns change like the stock market—a general trend upward with lots of ups and downs in between.

Recognize that NOTICING really is a skill that you can acquire.  If I asked you to watch your spouse’s or child’s behavior and notice what they were doing well, you would be able to tell me.  Everyone knows how to do this but we forget that noticing does take some effort on our part.  It’s rarely natural.  Instead, we tend to view partners through a lens based on an accumulation of interactions over the years, and we don’t notice variations in the present.  Also, undesirable behavior always gets our attention more readily than desired behavior.

It is highly unlikely that your partner will even try to fully meet your expectations until he or she believes that you notice and appreciate his or her efforts.  People need to feel safe from rejection and criticism to take relationship risks.  This is the standard.  Your partner is not an exception.

Lastly, I complement you on finishing this longish article and by doing so implementing a small immediate change to make your relationship better.  See, I noticed!  Did you notice?