Couples, Couples Therapy, Love, marriage, Marriage and Family Therapy

Them’s Fighting Words: Marital Disarmament as a Noble New Year’s Resolution

Man and girl against a bright yellow wall. Stylish young couple standing back to back on holding hands in the form of arms

My husband and I were sitting in bed at the end of the day a few months ago when my teenage son walked in and asked out of nowhere, “Mom, I have a question. What weapons do you have that you think you use against dad?” My clarifying, “You mean besides my mouth?” was overshadowed by my husband’s simultaneous, “She has a lot of them,” delivered with the unabated zeal of a child high on the expectation of reciting his Christmas list to Santa.

I furrowed my eyebrows at him, “Whoa-a! It sounds like your father has something to say. Is this about my recent Hamilton obsession? Because I haven’t blasted it at 7 a.m. for weeks now, and I already forgave you for not fully appreciating the genius that is Lin-Manuel Miranda.”

“Well,” he replied, “I’m always telling you that you should have been an attorney. Enough said.” I looked back at my son, “I was right—my mouth.”

I must admit that I experienced a slight “ouch” to hear my husband’s enthusiastic reply, like he had been preparing for the 31 years of our marriage just to be asked that particular question. It was still bothering me the next day. I approached with, “I’m a little disturbed at the rapidity with which you answered that question. Do you think I try to hurt you?”

He laughed and tried to soften the initial blow, “Honey, no–I heard the question and answered. I didn’t say you hurt me all the time, I just said you know how to do it—you know you can hurt me more than anyone because basically you’re the person I care the most about–so where do you want to go to dinner?” (predictably attempting to maneuver me toward a less controversial topic)

I retreated into my head, where I live much of my life, recollecting the times I had hurt him, self-flagellating with a hefty dose of shame and regret, and reaffirming my commitment to work harder to increase my positives-to-negatives ratio in our communication.

The fact is, a bonded romantic relationship can precipitate the most emotional safety but also the most pain. We rarely set out to hurt our partners, except in instances in which we strike back to show how we are hurting. It is very hard to be reminded about pain we have caused to the people we love the most. I believe it’s at least in part because we know we aren’t at our best when we hurt people, whether it is intentional or not. In return, our partners tend to know our vulnerabilities and can hurt us the most.

There are infinite ways to cause harm to a spouse. ANYTHING, and I do mean ANYTHING can be weaponized. Even a shield can appear as weaponry to a spouse. Here are some common weapons partners use:

  1. Language—name-calling, labeling, and using aggressive and absolutist terms (“always,” or “never,” anyone?) are nearly ubiquitous.

 

  1. Withdrawing and withholding—anything can be withheld. Compliments, gratitude, sex, and basically any physical and/or emotional contact. It sends the message that, “You are so bad that I cannot even deal with you and you don’t deserve my positive acknowledgment. When you are behaving properly, perhaps then I will grant you the gift of my presence.” Withholding also tends to serve as justification for some twisted moral high ground—people who use these methods can sometimes feel more virtuous because they see their partners as the aggressors stooping to morally compromised behaviors. However, refusing to engage can be just as cold and punishing and cruel as the presence of aggressive behaviors.

 

  1. Bringing up the past to reinforce that your spouse is flawed and unchanging—this is tricky, because if a couple doesn’t have a good way to heal past injuries, the past will come up. Partners are often afraid they will get hurt again. Potential triggers for past pain are everywhere. However, the way the pain is communicated can either draw a partner in for potential connection and soothing, or push them out further. Bringing up the past is necessary to build safety, but most people use it as a way to shield themselves from injury and to justify staying disconnected rather than using it as a bridge toward future connection.

 

  1. Using other people to strengthen your case against your partner—For example, “Even your children think you are a robot, just ask them,” or “You are exactly like your mother.” This never helps, even if it’s true. The verity of the assertion is irrelevant. Anything between you and your partner must stay that way. Unless, of course you would like to hear about all the people that agree with your partner about how awful you are.

 

  1. Using non-verbals to express disapproval—Tone and facial expressions are common ways to communicate our disapproval to our partners, and they can be cleverly disguised as “Your skewed misperception.” See: passive-aggressiveness.

This is not an exhaustive list. People will even use marital therapy as a weapon. Common uses are, “You didn’t even do the homework or read the book the therapist recommended,” which is critical and blaming. I have not once seen a client respond to any version of this with an assenting, “Oh, I see the light now! You’re right! I didn’t realize it before, but now that you showed me the error of my ways, I will be 100% engaged. Thank you for pointing that out!” Instead, I can predict with a high degree of accuracy that a statement like that will elicit a highly defensive and counter-blaming response.

Sometimes I will have clients ask me to give them specific “communication skills,” in a desperate attempt to quickly repair the marriage. Unfortunately, this was really all the field of marital therapy had to offer back in the 80’s, and it was usually only useful in cases of newlyweds without a history of challenges, or vapid couples, where neither escalates (which is somewhat rare). When it is useful, it’s often only in the short-term or in instances in which the emotions are low. I absolutely know how to “teach communication skills,” and have various methods to do so, yet rarely recommend an explicit didactic approach for “skills” or “love languages,” except in low-distress marriages. Why? Because the “skill,” will either be tossed to the wayside in extremely emotional conversations, or weaponized to injure a spouse. Examples of this are parroting one of the skills sarcastically or criticizing a partner’s employment of the “skill,” as in, “You’re not doing that the way the therapist taught us.”

So why do we use weapons against each other and what can we do instead?

Some of the common reasons we hurt our partners are:

  1. We don’t realize we are doing it. We can’t experience the world exactly like our partners. We can unintentionally trigger pain by scraping up against vulnerabilities that are rawer than we realize. To make matters worse, when it happens, we tend to become defensive instead of validating the pain we caused, in an effort for our own intentions to be validated. However, this will escalate further argument or disconnection. If your partner approaches you by bringing up something that hurt them, a soothing response is to acknowledge the pain and try to understand it better and plan for the future. For example, “Oh, I hadn’t realized that was painful—It’s hard for me to hear that I hurt you—help me understand it better so it doesn’t keep happening,” is always more useful than, “Well, you are in charge of your own feelings—It’s not my fault if you choose to have your feelings hurt by me. Besides, you are always hurting my feelings—should I tell you all the ways you hurt my feelings?” Trust me, I have heard all the arguments for why a spouse should be able to give the second response, and my answer is that if your intent is to make the marriage worse so you can disconnect, then by all means, stick to that answer.

 

  1. To protect ourselves. The things we do to protect ourselves look like weapons of war to a partner. This is a predictable paradox. For example, withdrawing and refusing to communicate by either leaving or refusing to respond are protective for someone who is experiencing distress from a partner’s emotional behaviors, but that type of wall looks like aggressive shut-out to a partner. Conversely, getting louder or more repetitive as a desperate response to make an impact on a partner looks aggressively weaponized. If you believe your partner doesn’t care about your feelings, anything you do to manage your own difficult emotions can look weaponized. Instead, try having a discussion with your partner about what methods you use to manage your own distress in the marriage and whether it may look like a weapon from the outside. Then vice versa.

 

  1. Sometimes we use weapons to communicate how much pain we are in. Criticism, blame, name-calling, and aggressive language are all ways of saying, “I am in pain in this marriage and I don’t have a good way to tell you so that you will really hear me.” Most partners get into a tug-of-war about whose pain is bigger. Regardless of justification, this never works. Instead, externalize BOTH partners’ pain by writing it down and acknowledge the pain as “couple pain,” generated and experienced over time together. The goal is to understand how to NOT continue to cause pain for EITHER partner.

 

  1. To communicate that this feels like a “life or death” situation in a hurry. In short, we use weapons when we feel threatened. The loss of love and acceptance and connection in a bonded romantic relationship feels threatening to most individuals. The type of reactivity induced in couple arguments is such an automatic response to threat, that speed can be one of the biggest barriers to connection. Sometimes to try to help people slow down, I will ask them to not say anything in response to a partner’s triggering words, but to just notice inside how they are experiencing it, in their thoughts and in their physiological responses (heart rate, breathing, etc.). Then, once they have noticed, they can slow down and choose responses differently. People can improve by noticing their reactivity and regulating their emotions in order to engage at a slowed-down pace, which is more helpful for connection.

Unify together to make the stressors the enemy instead of allowing the stressors to make your partner the enemy

Once, I had a couple begin an argument about money, which is one of the most common areas of couple conflict. I said, “It would be great if you could be a team fighting the enemy of economic scarcity together, rather than fighting each other over your individual fears related to money.”  I explained that to ever feel like a team, I believed they needed a way to write down and acknowledge that they both had fears about money for different reasons. I believed they would feel more united when they could BOTH care take each other’s fears. There is also a need for ongoing evaluation to make sure both partners are still validated and working together. This environment also increases safety, which helps people become more flexible when working with their partners.

Shifting the paradigm from preservation of “myself” to preservation of “us,” can be a helpful way to think about it. Ultimately, marriages in which it’s “Us against the enemy,” have more potential for staying connected while solving problems. The “enemy” can be the economy, extramarital temptation, past affairs, the exhausting and crazy-making state of parenting, or any other content area. If partners villainize each other, they will sit in a homeostasis of monitoring each other for potential threat while keeping their weapons drawn, which will maintain the ongoing threat.

Exchanging weapons for compassion

Ultimately, I’ve observed that people are their strongest when they are compassionate, and compassion is a no-lose application. Compassion doesn’t mean staying in an abusive situation, but in a non-abusive environment, compassion is the balm that soothes and fosters healing required for safe emotional bonding.

Trading in weapons of war for joint compassion can be a helpful way to begin 2019. Think about it.

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Couples, marriage, Marriage and Family Therapy

A Typical Marriage Fail Moment and How I Fixed it

marriage fail

Several years ago, I was late for a conference forty miles away in the next county north, and amped up my aggressive driving skills to attempt to arrive faster (admittedly a bad idea—do NOT do this at home). As I was approaching the boundary to the next county, weaving in and out of traffic, my cell phone rang (before cell phone use in cars was illegal in my state). I gave an exasperated “Hello,” just as one of my neighbors greeted, “Where do you think you’re going, driving like a maniac? You’re not getting there any faster than the rest of us.” “I’m late,” I acknowledged, laughing, because I was surprised I was literally being ‘called out,’ “And by the way, you’re increasing my anxiety and throwing me off, so thanks for making me later.” His reply was one I had heard a hundred times, “Physician, heal thyself.” “Well, good thing I’m not a physician then, isn’t it?” I sassed back, which elicited an argument based on the word’s etymology in which my neighbor insisted that I was, indeed, in the broad “physician,” category.

I know of no group of people associated with higher societal expectations for mood and behavior than mental health professionals. I’ve never heard someone say, “He has cancer—he must be a terrible doctor!” or “Don’t go to that doctor—I heard him coughing the other day,” but I have heard many people evaluate therapists based on the presence of any mental health or relationship challenges. Oh, that the world was that simple! Quite frankly, I would have no trust in a therapist who had not somehow faced emotional or relationship challenges, because we call those people…robots? Stepford therapists? Inhuman?

Being a therapist has certainly given me a variety of options for dealing with various facets of being human, and has probably increased my adaptability, decreased my reactivity, and alleviated various struggles, but it has in no way turned me into a perfect person (whatever that means). I have emotions just like everyone else, an individual history with various potential triggers, and varying propensities, some of which aren’t always potentiating ideal mental and emotional states (shocking, I know —sorry to burst anyone’s bubble). As a result, I will continue to have plenty of opportunities to try out my suggested interventions on myself.

This is a tale of one of those moments, and how even though my reactivity got the best of me, I was able to take a step back and reverse the situation. I’m in no way attempting to glorify myself, nor suggesting I get it right all, or even most of the time—I’m choosing to share this because it’s such a typical example of how quickly couples get stuck and stay stuck if something doesn’t change. I’m hoping other couples can see themselves in the situation.

Last year, my husband and I took a trip to Europe with another couple. I thought things were going better than expected. We all got along well and seemed to be having a great time. After a long day touring, my husband and I were alone in our room and he seemed to be irritated at me, answering in terse monosyllables, which is somewhat unusual for him. “What’s wrong with you?” I asked. With little prodding, he proceeded to explain that I didn’t seem to want to be with him at all, and that I was more interested in hanging out with my friend than with him, and I kept leaving him behind to talk to my friend and her husband. I think he said something like, “Maybe you should have just gone on a trip with them and left me home.”

I was completely thrown off. I never in a million years could have guessed that he would have perceived that, because it was so untrue. I don’t know that I’ve ever been so confused in a marital interaction. My husband has never been the jealous type. His unexpected accusation felt unfair and the anger behind his words really stung.

So, what do you think I did? Did I apologize and try to understand his feelings better?

Nope.

I immediately got defensive. I matched his tone and raised it a notch. “What are you even talking about?” I demanded. “You’re insane! I didn’t leave you behind at all! We were together all day! What more do you want from me?” and blah blah blah. Basically, I was trying to defend my position and explain to him why he was incorrect in his interpretation of the day.

And then, he admitted that he saw it all wrong and I was correct after all, right?

Nope.

He continued citing examples to support his viewpoint until I basically muttered something mature like, “Whatever, think what you want,” and rolled over to go to bed, stewing inside, certain that I needed to find the words to help him see that he was wrong. Note that this was me disconnecting and basically sending the message to “deal with it by yourself,” which is the polar opposite of what you would want to do for a healthier interaction.

I was feeling very upset. I wanted to remind him of all the efforts I have made in our marriage to show him that my marriage is important to me. I felt slighted. Didn’t he realize how good he had it? I wanted credit for everything I had done to be a good wife, and it felt like he was wiping it out in a day. How dare he misunderstand me so completely! It felt devastating. I silently fumed. I was the victim here–he was ruining my perfect vacation!

Eventually, I tried to slow my emotions down and actually do what I would want my clients to do. Even though I thought he was completely off-base, and his anger was not a vulnerable display that increased my empathy, I was able to see that under the anger, he was extremely hurt about something. I recalled the day in my memory, trying to identify moments in which he may have felt left behind or unimportant. I realized that because I don’t like to make people wait for me, it was true that I stayed up with my friend and her husband and walked away from him. However, it was because I didn’t want to be a naggy wife, telling him to “come on,” if he wanted to linger. As I thought about it, I became more upset that he was assuming this was evidence that I didn’t want to be with him. I felt powerless to influence his opinion. How was I going to make him understand that he was wrong? We were back to that.

By the next morning, I was still feeling hurt, but I was determined to try to reconnect before we started the day again. He was still giving me the cold shoulder. I had not validated his feelings, so that was no surprise. Finally, I reached out to touch his arm and made eye contact. I explained that it was hard for me to hear his interpretation of the day because I saw it so differently. I said, “I don’t know that it will make a difference to you, but here’s what I think was happening,” and proceeded to recall that I didn’t want to be a nag but wanted to keep up with the group, etc.

I knew that wasn’t the real issue though—I still needed to understand how he could feel insecure about something that seemed so small to me, so I continued. I remember saying, “The bottom line is that it doesn’t matter if I saw it differently, because ultimately, I don’t want my husband to wonder if I love him or not. I’m sad that you would even think I prefer my friends to you. I’m always trying to reinforce the message that I love you, so if you can experience doubt so quickly, it worries me that I’m not building the kind of security I want you to have.” Then, I asked him to help me understand if my behaviors throughout the day seemed rejecting. I was more aware of my actions and the impact I was having on him for the rest of the trip, which generated increased emotional attunement and reciprocity on his part.

Some people might think my response was “rewarding bad behavior,” but it was a response to relational distress, and attuned responsiveness is actually more likely to reduce future triggers than to exacerbate them. Ignoring, diminishing or invalidating them will certainly increase their frequency, however. People get this wrong all the time–but hey–it keeps me in business, so keep invalidating your spouses, y’all!

Basically, I shifted from trying to convince him why he was wrong to expressing confusion about seeing it so differently and trying to understand more about his experiences, because the bottom line is that I want my husband to know I care about his feelings.

Most couples automatically do what I did first—try to convince their partners why they saw it incorrectly, why they are just too sensitive, why they need to change their perceptions, etc. That can keep a couple spiraling in one form or other for years.

Instead of arguing about who’s right, try this:

  1. Acknowledge that your partner may have a completely different experience with the same event than you had. It’s really okay.
  2. Orient yourself to what you really care about—do you care more about getting your point across or about bridging understanding to be able to move forward differently?
  3. If a partner seems accusatory because he/she was hurt, try to see it as an opportunity to bond differently instead of nursing your own pain.

This isn’t gender specific. In this case, my husband happened to be the one expressing pain. Notice that he expressed anger rather than hurt, which was really at the core of the event. That’s true for most people. That’s hard, because anger is a distancing emotion. It doesn’t elicit empathy. It naturally elicits defensiveness or withdrawal. Many individuals struggle expressing hurt, so it’s usually helpful to know that if anger is expressed, something painful in general is happening. Asking more about what is painful can be helpful.

As we really are all, in one way or another, physicians, it boils down to “show me where it hurts,” and trying to help soothe emotional pain instead of arguing about it.

Again, I’m not using this as an example of my awesomeness in marriage—I got it completely wrong at first, but I was able to come back in differently by focusing on the fact that I didn’t want my spouse to hurt, but to feel supported. Things can shift quickly when partners can accept a partner’s different experience and try to understand it better. Try it.

In the meantime, I’ll be making many more mistakes to create new opportunities for change.

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Couples, Couples Therapy, marriage, Marriage and Family Therapy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Simple Way to Risk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You decide.

 

Reference:

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

Photo credit: Copyright: <a href=’https://www.123rf.com/profile_elwynn’>elwynn / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

Couples, Couples Therapy, marriage

Can This 7 minute Intervention Really Save your Marriage?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why would an intervention this simple work?

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

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

Would a marriage therapist try this intervention?

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

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

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

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

Reference:

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

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Couples, 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