Couples, marriage

What Research is Telling us About how Pornography is Impacting Long-Term Romantic Relationships

wife husband computer

A few years ago, I was sitting in front of my class of graduate students in a therapy training program when one of the students was describing some difficulty he was having with a case diagnostically coded in the DSM-5 (basically the diagnostic bible for mental health), but with a relatively rare prevalence. It made treatment trickier than some of the more common presentations assigned to the rest of his cohort.

Trying to empathize, I said that I could remember almost three decades earlier when I was assigned the only pornography case in the clinic, which was also associated with other paraphilic behaviors identified in the DSM-III-R (the version of the DSM at that time—which has since been altered to exclude any reference to sexual addiction). I added that as an early 20-something female, I had a “why me,” attitude when the intake staff informed me that they specifically wanted me to take the case so the male would have a real-life experience with a female instead of objectifying females in images.

The disbelief in the room was palpable. It took me a minute to decipher the incredulous stares boring into me from around the table. Suddenly, it clicked, “Oh,” I recognized, “You’re all thinking I can’t be telling the truth because you can’t imagine a time when couples weren’t bringing compulsive pornography use in as a problem at least 50% of the time, right?” “Yeah,” one student confirmed, “What do you mean you had the ONLY case of compulsive porn use?”

I knew it was the only case back then because the intake staff had driven the point home, explaining why they wanted me to agree to take it. “Well,” I continued, “Who in here is aware that Gambling Disorder is in the DSM?” All the hands went up. “OK, now, who in here is treating a gambling disorder case right now?” No hands went up. “So, you know it exists as a clinical presentation, but no one in here has that type of case. Well, that’s what compulsive pornography use was like before the internet.”

As I said the words out loud, a wave of nostalgia flooded my system. After watching the proliferation of compulsive pornography use through the decades, I longed for a return to the 80’s. I had anecdotally seen a shift in how pornography was impacting marriages, in a way the larger mental health community refused to openly acknowledge because the research was lagging and qualitative processes are always difficult to measure. Besides that, pornography covers such a broad range of materials and behaviors that trying to conceptualize it to regulate it is problematic when it’s viewed as normative and acceptable in varying degrees by a large percentage of the population. Another problem diagnostic professionals face is where to draw the line when pathologizing a natural biological human drive (except the DSM has an entire section on eating disorders, including binge eating–so…….).

However, regardless of whether pornography use is mentioned in the DSM, or whether it is officially an “addiction,” or not, it is showing up in couples’ therapy sessions in record numbers, and NOT just in religious populations. I tire of conservative religions taking the heat for sexual problems when the broader cultural messages and displays of sexuality are at least as much or more complicit in contributing to constraining sexual scripts for both males and females, which exacerbate disconnection in couples. In fact, research is verifying a clear decrease in religious beliefs and behaviors in general, so any increases in couples’ sexual challenges don’t seem to be correlated with increased religiosity (not to mention the fact that research also shows that higher rates of religiosity are significantly correlated with lower rates of pornography consumption).

The fact is that most media presentations of sexuality are dramatized and dichotomized in a way that denies the more complex and incremental ranges that exist for most people. Authentic displays about the emotional processes inherent to sexual intimacy are mostly absent at the societal level. Healthy relationship models of sexuality are nearly non-existent.

In my clinical opinion, many of the problems that come up with porn use in marriage have less to do with religious imperatives and more to do with attachment processes in long-term monogamous relationships. Sexuality is an expected part of a long-term monogamous romantic attachment, and is generally laden with special meaning. An expectation of sexual fidelity is normative in marriage. While some people report that porn can be beneficial to creating an erotic climate, or increasing comfort with sex, there are many partners who view it as betrayal and it makes them question whether they are loved or not.

Even in instances of consensual polyamory, attachment processes come into play in often unanticipated ways. I once attended a training with marriage researcher Dr. John Gottman in which he was questioned about long-term research related to polyamory, and he replied that his institute had problems gaining longitudinal research on those couples because they weren’t stable enough; in other words, too many of them ended their relationships to provide enough reliable data, implying that the lifestyle isn’t necessarily tenable for long-term couple relationships. Whenever I have treated polyamorous couples in therapy (which is admittedly not a lot), it is also my experience that they might agree to the arrangement but then struggle with emotions that arise when attachment security and a sense of “specialness,” to their partners are questioned. They start worrying that their partners will start caring about someone else more, and it often creates emotional pain for which they are unprepared. When many engage in the process, they report that it wasn’t “just sex,” like they thought it would be–there was emotional meaning attached.

Religious or not, many couples are displaying clinical challenges related to increased pornography use. After seeing hundreds of couples as a clinician and as a supervisor to therapists, if I said otherwise, it would be a lie. There are some anecdotally discernible differences in couples now compared to three decades ago, directly related to pornography. Now, research is emerging verifying the clinical challenges I have witnessed for some time.

Here is a short summary of what some of the research indicates about pornography use and its impact on marriage and other long-term romantic relationships, and which I have also seen clinically.

  1. Male pornography use is correlated with lower sexual satisfaction for both the porn users and their partners (and sexual satisfaction is highly correlated with overall relationship satisfaction, so relationship happiness is likely collaterally impacted through this pathway).
  2. Some studies have shown that male porn use is associated with lower interest in relational sex, and lower satisfaction with sexual partners.
  3. In some studies, porn use was related to weakened commitment to romantic partners (as measured by both self-report and outward observation).
  4. Porn use is associated with higher rates of extra-relationship flirtation, considering alternative partners, and infidelity.
  5. Women whose spouses use porn report lower self-esteem and increased insecurity about physical appearance.
  6. Some studies show that higher porn use is related to higher divorce and infidelity.
  7. Some research shows an association between higher porn use and less global happiness.
  8. Recent longitudinal research (2017) shows that higher rates of porn use are associated with decreased marital quality OVER TIME (this matters, because most of the research is cross-sectional, so cause and effect can’t be determined).
  9. Females whose partners use porn report decreased attraction for their partners and more damaged senses of self.
  10. Increased porn use is sometimes associated with a negative impact on financial well-being and work productivity, which impacts relationships.

It’s important to note that men use pornography at a higher rate than females. The research has demonstrated some subtle differences among gender. It seems that female use doesn’t necessarily have the deleterious impact on marriage that male use has, which could be that females use porn more frequently in a relational context while men use it more individually, or that the fewer females users don’t provide enough statistical power to show significant associations.

Also, most porn research has been cross-sectional, self-report, which can be biased, and with limited sample sizes, so generalizability is limited. Longitudinal research that is finally emerging is demonstrated more causality between porn use and decreased relationship quality.

What have I seen clinically?

For what it’s worth, as a clinician, I have seen several changes in couples that I believe have arisen from increased porn use. I’m just one clinician, but in my conversations with other couples’ clinicians, they are verifying these shifts as well:

  1. More instances of low relationship sexual desire in porn-viewing males and females married to porn-viewing males. I was learning sex therapy back in 1989-1990, and fewer instances of low male desire in young adults appeared clinically than now.
  2. More instances of male erectile dysfunction. I used to see this presentation almost exclusively in older males or those with a health condition. Now, I see it in young men with no known medical conditions, but with high rates of porn use.
  3. More instances of lower sexual quality reported for males and females. 
  4. More instances of males blaming their inabilities to perform on their partners’ appearances.
  5. More instances of wives’ unwillingness to engage in sexual experiences, often because they don’t want to be compared to pornography. In general, sexual safety is diminished.
  6. More women reporting what looks like a type of porn betrayal trauma in which they can’t safely engage in sex because images of what their partners may have been viewing flash in their heads.
  7. More women reporting inability to engage sexually because of increased self-monitoring about their own bodies, after feeling compared to pornography.
  8. More women reporting feeling manipulated into sexual behaviors with which they are uncomfortable, reportedly introduced by pornography.
  9. Seeming lower relational sex frequency. Again, I don’t have research numbers on this–it’s just a clinical impression. It seems like couples are having less relational sex in part because porn users are having sex by themselves with porn.

In many ways, sex therapy was easier back in the early 1990’s. I actually had an easier time getting females to engage in sex therapy exercises because to them, collaboration didn’t feel like competing with supernormal images.

One of the biggest indicators that pornography is a problem appeared via an open letter on pornography posted by Dr. John Gottman, viewable here. He is a gold star researcher. Like many clinicians, he used to support couple porn use for upregulating desire and sexual quality. This letter explains how he has shifted his position because the supernormal images presented in porn have a negative impact, as well as increased portrayals of violence toward women.

Anyone who says pornography isn’t having a negative impact overall on long-term marriage is either lying, ignorant, or in denial.

Some of the studies including for this post are listed below, and the abstracts are easy to find online for anyone interested. There are many resources available for people who want to decrease porn use, or feel betrayed and injured by partners who use porn. Patrick Carnes and his daughter, Stefanie Carnes, have worked extensively in this area. I recommend both authors’ books to couples who want to deal with compulsive pornography use.

References:

A Love That Doesn’t Last: Pornography Consumption and Weakened Commitment to One’s Romantic Partner (2012) by Lambert, N. M., Negash, S., Stillman, T., Olmstead, S. B. & Fincham, F. D. in Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 31(4), 410-438.

Does Viewing Pornography Reduce Marital Quality Over Time? Evidence from Longitudinal Data (2017), Perry, S. L. in Archives of Sexual Behavior, 46(2), 549-559.

Pornography and Marriage (2014) by Doran, K. & Price, J. in Journal of Family and Economic Issues, 35:489-498.

Pornography Use: Who Uses It and How It Is Associated with Couple Outcomes (2013), Poulsen, F. O., Busby, D. M. & Galovan, A. M. in Journal of Sex Research, 50(1), 72-83.

Photo credit: Copyright: georgemuresan / 123RF Stock Photo

Couples, Couples Therapy, marriage

Safety First in Marriage: Why it’s Necessary for Building Trust and Intimacy

16592637 - saving love marriage relationship 3d concept - heart on lifebuoyIf anyone asks my husband what I do for a living, he will say, “She makes people cry.”

While that’s an over-simplified misconception which he declares for shock value, there is a minuscule grain of truth in his response. That’s because I am generally trying to help couples have new emotional experiences with each other which build SAFETY and TRUST. When people express vulnerable emotions, and receive empathic responses in return, it’s a recipe for trustworthy intimacy. It’s safe. It promotes higher marital adjustment.

Research confirms that in close romantic relationships, support and caregiving elicits trust and security in relationships. Feeling nurtured and cared for is a critical component of stable, well-functioning intimate relationships. The world is stressful. If people have dependable partners to turn to for empathic support when life gets burdensome, they have increased well-being. In other words, the marriage can be a safe haven from the perils of the outside world.

In addition, it’s that type of safe environment that provides fertile ground for exploring and introducing novelty and play and passion…unpredictability within a predictable setting.

When I am supervising therapists in training, I am often asked whether a case is conducive to marriage therapy. My first question is usually, “Can you help them make the marriage safe enough so the partners can reliably reach for and receive emotional responsiveness.” Any barriers to that pattern of marital safety will keep the couple disconnected.

Here are some common elements that disrupt intimate safety in marriage:

  1. A partner reaches for support and gets a negative or neutral response instead. This could happen for different reasons. Sometimes partners miss emotional bids for support. Sometimes partners are ambiguous in their reaches for support. Some partners are uncomfortable with emotions and become paralyzed in the face of emotional need. The lack of empathic support may be intentional or unintentional, but will limit the possibility of future reaches and subsequent safe intimacy either way.
  2. A partner attempts to offer support but feels unsuccessful at having a soothing impact. This can also happen for a few reasons. If a partner expects emotional expression to stop and it doesn’t, he/she might perceive a lack of skills to comfort a partner, not realizing that sometimes comforting a partner might mean that the expression of emotional pain may continue. Sometimes, a partner offers comfort and it is openly rejected, which will also create withdrawal from future supportive actions.
  3. Ongoing ambivalence or equivocation. Partners who can’t make up their minds about whether they want to remain in the marriage and work on it or not, or who continually switch back and forth, are not safe. The unpredictability prevents any chance of risk for emotional intimacy.
  4. Addictions. People in addiction are generally turning to something outside of the marriage for comfort, and substances alter their behaviors in a way that makes them unpredictable, and therefore unsafe. A period of sobriety and predictability is required before any safe marital intimacy can develop.
  5. Affairs. Obviously, if your partner is turning to someone else, he/she is unsafe, and even emotional affairs will prevent emotional bonding within the marriage.
  6. Abuse. Abuse is scary and dangerous. Abusive partners often underestimate how dramatically they can destroy safety with one abusive episode.
  7. Past betrayals. A marriage can be made safe from past betrayals, but it’s much slower and more difficult. Also, if the betrayals are buried and ignored, they will still be present and will prevent closeness. They must be addressed in very specific ways to rebuild trust and safety.
  8. Threatening divorce. Sometimes partners threaten divorce as a way to send a strong message about how much they want change; however, threatening divorce is like holding a gun to a partner’s head and saying, “Make a move, and I’ll shoot.” People who threaten divorce often don’t realize how damaging it can be to overall safety.
  9. Turning to others for support. Sometimes if a spouse turns to outside family or friends, it can make the marital environment dangerous because it feels like the spouse is prioritizing those people higher. In other words, in a moment of high emotional need, the spouse may be more supportive of friends or family instead.
  10. Hostile emotions. Some people are so wounded that they have trouble expressing hurt, fear or other emotional pain because it’s too vulnerable, so the pain comes out as hostile anger. Anger is a distancing emotion. Even therapists have difficulty moving toward anger…it’s one of the hardest emotions for therapists in training to manage. Part of creating safety in marriage is helping partners regulate and express emotion in a way that they elicit empathic responses. Some people say, “Am I not entitled to my anger?” I answer, “Of course. You can have any emotion you want, and you may deserve to be angry; however, it’s an emotion that naturally pushes people away. It’s hard to be with. In fact, if I yelled at you right now, you would either leave or want to leave. You can choose anger, but you are decreasing your possibilities for gaining the understanding you really need.”
  11. Deception. Any. Lying or hiding is untrustworthy and can wipe out any previously accumulated safety in general, but if there is any history of deception or infidelity, it’s worse. I tell spouses, “It doesn’t matter how small the deception is…if you say you’re going to turn right and then you turn left, you immediately become as dangerous as when the betrayal was discovered. If you continue to lie, you will continue to place the marriage back at square one for healing, regardless of intent.
  12. Any unpredictable behavior. Even in predominantly safe marriages, anything too unexpected can throw partners off and make them question the relationship. This will vary according to relationship history and individual trust levels.

I can’t over-estimate how important predictability is for marital safety. Even seemingly minor deviations from the norm can feel threatening. If a partner feels like a stranger somehow, the safety in the relationship comes into question.

Here’s an example of how quickly something small but unknown can feel threatening. My husband is one of the most predictable people on the planet. Our marriage is layered with his trademark fidelity and affirmations of interest in me as his spouse. However, I can still remember a moment back in 1992 (see, I remember the year) when I was instantaneously thrown off balance.

We had been finishing the basement in our first home, and while I was unpacking a box for his new basement office, I pulled out a CD I hadn’t seen before. It was the soundtrack from the movie, Beaches, which had been released in 1989. The CD wasn’t mine. I remember sitting there, staring at it, realizing that it must be my husband’s. “I’m married to a man who has a Bette Midler CD,” I thought, “and I didn’t even know this about him. How could I not know my husband likes Bette Midler enough to buy a CD?” To this day, I can remember the uneasy feeling it gave me. I marched up the stairs, CD in hand, and began peppering him with inquiries:

Me: Is this yours? (holding up the CD)

Him: (glancing up) Yeah, why?

Me: When did you buy it?

Him: I don’t remember…a few months ago, I guess.

Me: Why?

Him: Why what?

Me: Why did you buy it? (sounding like I needed a flashlight to accessorize my interrogation)

Him: Because I liked a song on it. (staring curiously at my descent down the rabbit hole)

Me: What song?

Him: The one about a hero.

Me: Wind Beneath My Wings?

Him: Yeah, that one.

Me: Since when?

Him: Since when what?

Me: Since when do you like that song?

Him: Umm….I don’t know…since I heard it…am I in trouble for something?

Me: I just had no idea that you liked that song enough to buy an entire CD. How did I not know that about you?

Him: Honey. I like the song. I bought the CD. I listened to it in the car. Is that a crime? Do I need your permission to buy a CD and listen to it?

Me: I don’t care that you bought the CD. I just don’t know why you didn’t even tell me you liked that song…enough to buy an actual CD.

Him: I didn’t even think about it. I’m not sure why this is upsetting to you. How many CDs have you purchased without telling me…and I haven’t complained? And why do I feel like I’m on trial?

Me: Yeah, but you KNOW that about me. You know I like music. You never buy CDs, and you never listen to anything but the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

Him: OK, well, I bought one. Now you know. I’m still not sure why you’re freaking out.

Me: Because it’s like I’m married to a stranger. What else don’t I know?

See how quickly I got thrown off? I really did have a strong emotional reaction, because it was so outside of his norm to display any real preference for music. To be honest, music was a raw spot in our relationship. Our music tastes were more different than alike. If I’m being honest, it kind of hurt me that he didn’t share one of his preferences with me. It was as if a part of him was unknown, which made me wonder what else was unknown, even though he had a history of being so reliable. It sounds so silly, but if anyone was the wild card in our relationship, it was I. He was so predictable to me that even this small discovery felt disorienting.

I have had a handful of clients who, with no prompting from me, have shared nearly identical incidents in their own marriages, when they found music they didn’t know their spouses liked. They described the same feeling of wondering if there was more they didn’t know…all because they found out something about a spouse’s preference that was previously unknown. It’s just human nature that if something feels unpredictable in a romantic, intimate relationship, it can feel scary.

People who grew up without reliable, safe attachment figures can have a harder time trusting even predictable partners, because they don’t have models for safe attachment. Sometimes those people need explicit education about what safe, reliable responsiveness looks like, so they can recognize and appreciate it.

If you are struggling with emotional intimacy in your marriage, a good place to start is to ask your partner whether he/she feels safe in the marriage, and if not, ask what you can do that would help build safety.

In summary, the real answer to the question about what I do for a living is that I teach couples SAFETY FIRST.

References:

A Safe Haven: An Attachment Theory Perspective on Support Seeking and Caregiving in Intimate Relationships (2000) by Collins, N. L & Feeney, B. C. in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78(6), 1053-1073.

Emotional Skillfulness in Marriage: Intimacy as a Mediator of the Relationship Between Emotional Skillfulness and Marital Satisfaction (2005) by Cordova, J. V., Gee, C. B. & Warren, L. Z. in Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 24(2), 218-235.

Photo credit: Copyright: koya79 / 123RF Stock Photo

Couples, marriage

Why the “Men are Pigs” Narrative is Flawed

12285202 - crazy man. man wearing pig suit over gray background

If you read the title and thought, “Well, she doesn’t know my husband,” I admittedly don’t.  Trust me, I have met with plenty of men who model unfavorable gender stereotypes when it comes to sexuality.  However, I have met with many more who are far more relationally complex in their sexuality than modern western culture leads people to believe.

I felt validated by a recent Canadian study exploring the tenets of male sexual desire among 30-65-year-old heterosexual men in long-term relationships lasting 2.5 years or more.  The study used a small sample size (n=30) typical of qualitative studies, but the findings were so congruent with my experience with men in therapy that I wanted to shed light on the topic.  In essence, the authors wanted to know if the way men really feel about sex fits the predominant sexual scripts imposed on them in society.

In short, what elicits sexual desire and what inhibits sexual desire for adult men in long-term relationships?

The common expectation imposed on men is that they will have higher sexual desire than their female partners–pretty much always–and that they will generally have a high enduring interest in sex in general.  A basic assumption is that male sexual desire is independent of emotional closeness or relationship quality fluctuations.

However, the study found that male sexual desire was highly tied to relationships.  This did not surprise me at all.  The study reflected what I consistently see with most men in long-term marriages.

The three most common themes associated with evoking sexual desire were:

  1. Feeling desired—the majority of participants described this. This is incongruent with a social norm that men are the ones who should do the wanting.  Females often underestimate the importance of communicating desire for male partners, believing instead that they are the ones to be desired.  Please, can we just normalize the female sex drive already???!!!!!  Best way to communicate desire for a male partner:  initiate sex, which was described as the “ultimate expression or reassurance,” communicating “I (still) want you.” BAM!  I have explained this in therapy so many times I am sick of hearing myself say it out loud.  Need inspiration?  Play Cheap Trick’s I Want You to Want Me, circa 1979.  Catchy and straight to the point. (What? I’m old?  Yeah, I know).
  2. Exciting and unexpected sexual encounters—this was most often presented in the context of spontaneity. Kind of like—“Do you realize this is the first time we are actually in our house alone without children for the first time in 127 consecutive days? What should we do about it?” Extra points if that question comes from the wife—as an integration with #1.
  3. Intimate communication—defined as intelligent exchanges with talking and laughing.  Men explained that talking was actually connecting for them, which led to more intimate sexual encounters.  A lot of men said that they wished they could talk about the sexual relationship with their partners.  I can verify that this is a healthy and advisable process—it creates more possibilities for increased sexual quality.  Unfortunately, I can also verify that many couples struggle talking about their sex lives, and in my experience women are generally more avoidant and uncomfortable about it.  If you struggle with this, start with just discussing what it would be like to be able to talk about sexuality, or talk about what makes it hard for you, or what gets uncomfortable when you think about it?

The factors inhibiting sexuality were mostly things that inhibited general relationship closeness. 

The three most common were:

  1. Rejection—this is HUGE and way too many wives underestimate the profoundly devastating impact on their partners—mostly because men do such a good job of hiding their hurt by numbing, turning away, becoming dismissive, or transforming it into anger. They rarely talk about how painful sexual rejection really is.  In my therapy experience, it’s one of the most painful rejections and can have a long-term impact.  These men often stop initiating, and some wives experience that as favorable, or being “off the hook,” when in reality it is creating gargantuan relationship distance which can be difficult to repair.  Rejecting your partner makes you untrustworthy.
  2. Physical ailments and negative health characteristics.  This can be extra challenging if the physical ailment is directly affecting sexual performance.
  3. Lack of emotional connection with partner—This is where some people might be surprised and I’m not surprised at all–men commonly want to feel connected when having sex with their wives. Many of the respondents said they would still have sex if their wives initiated, but their desire would be lower.  This is an area where women may be generally different.  More women might outright refuse sex than participate with a disconnected partner, while men MIGHT be more willing to participate in sex even with lower desire, but they still described preferring emotional connection.  Most of them said their emotional connection was entwined with their physical desire.

The big takeaway here is that the men’s answers were so similar to what we know from studies of women and reported sexual desire.  Male sexual desire waxes and wanes in long-term relationships with other relationship variables.

In our sexcentric society, multiple casual, disconnected and meaningless sexual encounters are presented as the norm, while co-created meaningful sexual encounters in long-term relationships seem almost non-existent.  However, in my clinical experience, both men and women generally have greater sexual desire when the emotional relationship is safe and healthy and when mutuality is high, meaning both partners want to participate.  We limit ourselves in marriage when we categorize our partners according to socially projected stereotypes.  We limit ourselves even more when we allow the media to inform our sexual relationship expectations.

Before you feel the urge to email or message me about your stereotypically hypersexual and insensitive husband, I can assure you I already know those humans exist.  So do mean, critical, withholding wives.  So do emotionally disconnected wives.  My point is that before you write off your spouse, take some time to get to know him individually and try to suspend preconceived malicious intent.  If you can do that, you can generate different possibilities for connection…as in WE WE WE….all the way home.

Reference:

A Qualitative Exploration of Factors That Affect Sexual Desire Among Men Aged 30 to 65 in Long-Term Relationships (2017) by Murray, S. H., Milhausen, R. R., Graham, C. A., & Kuczynski, L. in The Journal of Sex Research, 54(3), 319-330.

Photo credit: Copyright: dasha11 / 123RF Stock Photo

Couples, marriage

Why that First Five Minutes at Home can be so Important in your Marriage

ritual.flowers

One evening, I stumbled home from work at 10:30 p.m., exhausted and fighting a pounding headache.  I staggered into my bedroom, sped through a bedtime routine and melted into bed.  A few minutes later, my husband walked into my room and demanded, “Hey, when did you come home?  Why didn’t you tell me you were home?”  I wearily replied, “I was exhausted.”  “You’re supposed to come find me,” he complained.

Was I detecting irritation in his voice?  “Why are you getting mad?  I was too tired to come find you,” I argued.  He sounded both frustrated and a little wounded as he continued, “I was waiting for you to come home.  I was looking forward to it, and then you just went to bed without even saying goodnight.”  “I didn’t know that and I didn’t think you would care,” I called to the back of his head as he walked out the bedroom door contesting back, “Why would you think that?  You always come find me.  You’re supposed to come find me.  Why would I not care?”

Wow.  He really was annoyed (and hurt) over such a small thing, in my perception.

This is a typical example of how the microprocess in a marriage ritual can be rich with meaning.

Importance of Family Rituals

 Marriage and family therapists have known for years how important rituals are in family life.  Rituals are more than just routines—they are special routines that bring significance and meaning to events and people.  In families, they serve several functions.  Here are some:

  1. Rituals aid identity development.  Shared rituals provide a sense of self in a particular context.  The “we-ness,” of rituals actually gives people meaning for who they are and where they fit in the world.
  2. Rituals provide predictability and safety. Predictability and safety provide a secure attachment base which aids confidence to individuals in exploring the world.
  3. Rituals increase positive memories and happiness in families. Even though the stereotype of the dysfunctional family Thanksgiving dinner is a heavily promoted scenario, many if not most of these holidays contain positive memories which aid happiness.
  4. Rituals are protective. Family rituals have been associated with decreased anxiety and depression in children and with increased marital and familial relationship quality.  They can be especially important in families where stability and structure are threatened, as in situations with a family member with a chronic illness.

Importance of Comings and Goings 

Marital rituals are a subset of family rituals and provide similar functionality.  Just like family rituals, there are different kinds:  Holidays, weekly dates, bedtime routines, etc.  What was reflected in my above example was a ritual of separation and coming together again.  When a couple is separating, or rejoining with each other, there is embedded attachment significance, which is why it is so important.  Saying goodbye or giving a spouse a kiss when you leave the house is a way of saying, “I will miss you, but I will keep you with me mentally while we are apart.  You matter to me.”  Finding a spouse when you come back home again is a way of signaling, “I missed you.”  It’s communicating that, “We are important together.”  It is the key to reconnecting after a physical disconnection.  My husband was wounded in a small way when I didn’t come find him because in part, it seemed like I didn’t care if I saw him and connected with him.  It was a mini-rejection.

Marital researcher John Gottman asserts that the first few moments of a couple reuniting after a separation are key in strengthening marital identity.  Reaching out to find a spouse to reconnect upon arriving home has the potential to set the relationship on a positive trajectory.

Bedtime Connection

People might be surprised at how often couples argue about bedtime.  In my clinical experience, a common point of contention is a marriage in which one partner wants to go to bed together and the other partner stays up or goes to bed earlier.  This isn’t primarily about sex (although that can be part of it)—it’s primarily about a sense of togetherness.  Some individuals protest the ongoing disconnection in the relationship that is maintained by differing bedtime schedules.

It’s probably not surprising that frequently, dissimilar bedtimes can be associated with lower marital quality, or that highly distressed couples are often not even sharing a bedroom.

“Lucy, I’m Home!”

One of the most iconic lines in TV land is Ricky Ricardo’s Cuban-accented, “Lucy, I’m home!” from the famous I Love Lucy 1950’s television series.  It has been referenced in modern media pop-culture, like in the ever popular Gilmore Girls.

I might be a simplistic optimist, but I actually believe that if more spouses followed Desi Arnaz’ example and bellowed, “(insert spouse name), I’m HOME,” we might actually see an increase in positive marital connection.  With or without the charming Cuban accent.  The flowers in the attached photo are also a nice touch–just sayin’.

However, if I had used Desi’s line in my aforementioned story, I wouldn’t have that awesome example to show how I completely sabotaged my own relationship connection. I, the marriage therapist, after spending an evening meeting with couples, had underestimated the importance of a small connection ritual.

You’re welcome.

Reference:

Family rituals in married couples: Links with attachment, relationship quality, and closeness. Crespo, Carla; Davide, Isabel N.; Costa, M. Emilia; Fletcher, Garth J. O., 2008, Personal Relationships, volume 15, issue 2, starting on page 191

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Couples, Love

Holy Relationships, Batman! Eleven Relationship Truths We Can Learn from The Lego Batman Movie

batman-loveI have been waiting for almost a year for the Lego Batman movie to come out.  Last summer, when the trailers were available, I was using one of them in presentations to illustrate how males are so frequently socialized out of feeling and expressing any vulnerable emotions.  You can see what I mean in the second half of this trailer.  His butler, Alfred asks, “Do you want to talk about how you’re feeling?” and Batman shouts, “What? No!  I don’t want to do that!”  My husband and I watched that clip and laughed over and over.

We finally went with our kids to the movie last weekend.  In the middle of the show, my husband leaned over and whispered to me, “I feel like I’m in a therapy session with Dr. Lori Schade.”  If you aren’t familiar with Batman’s story, his parents were killed when he was younger and he lives largely in social isolation, emerging occasionally to save the city from the bad guys.  Alone in his billionaire mansion, he is a tortured soul.  There were many things about his character that I see in therapy all the time.  Just for fun, I identified the things Lego Batman can teach us about love.

  1. We all exist in relationship to others.  At the beginning of the movie, Batman declares that he doesn’t “do ships—as in relationships.”  He prefers to be alone.  However, as humans, we exist in relationships.  The question is whether we are proactive, as in using them for connection, or reactive, as in being avoidant or demanding.
  1. When people are wounded they often “numb out” and stop needing people.  In the first Lego movie, I laughed when Batman blasted music declaring, “Darkness!….No Parents!” demonstrating that he was still hurting over his familial loss.  I wasn’t laughing at his pain, but at the writer’s incisive observance of human behavior, and how we use music to express things for ourselves better than we can articulate them alone.  Sometimes music with this intensity follows numbness, because it allows the person in pain to “feel something,” even if only for a moment.
  1. People who are numb from emotional pain commonly have a restricted emotional range.   There was one emotion Batman admitted feeling: Rage.  It’s typical to see people with relationship trauma prevent themselves from feeling at all or only feeling anger, usually because they cannot hurt anymore.  This happens in marriage all the time.  Going numb keeps people from feeling and anger keeps people protected and effectively keeps other people out.
  1. People can have family of origin trauma or romantic relationship trauma that can follow them into the present. The loss of his parents was so painful that Batman didn’t want to get close to people again.  For many people, the injury can occur in the context of a previous romantic relationship in which someone was severely wounded.  The ghosts from these relationships show up, triggering people into reactivity in the present.  It’s not even always conscious.  Our brains remember pain.
  1. When you allow other people to get close to you, you are more vulnerable.  Batman was not willing to risk getting close to someone again, because he was not risk feeling the pain of loss again.  Very common and again, not always intentional.
  1. It’s scary to be vulnerable with other people. Batman’s butler, Alfred, conjectures that Batman is afraid of being in a family again.  Batman finally does admit that he is afraid to get close enough to people to hurt if they are taken away again.  Many people prevent closeness because of fear of the pain of loss or lack of connection.
  1. It’s more distressing to get no reaction than an angry reaction.  This relationship truth was manifested in Batman’s relation to the Joker, his nemesis.  The Joker wants confirmation that Batman hates him and sees him as a threat, but Batman is dismissive of him, driving his desperation for acknowledgment.  This relationship truth is that it’s more emotionally painful to get NO reaction from someone than an angry, bitter reaction.  This is why if a partner is stonewalling, it’s common to see another partner become more provoking.
  1. Relationship loss is normal, but you can’t stop letting people into your life.  Batman dispenses this advice at the end of the movie.  People who shut people out because of relationship pain are also denying themselves the benefit of having relationship support.  People thrive in the context of safe, close relationships.  They also function more effectively independently than people who are constantly trying to be completely independent and not need others for anything.  Safe, close relationships help us regulate distressing emotions more efficiently than when we are alone.  We literally feel less pain.
  1. We can want someone and push them away at the same time.  Even though he clearly has a thing for the commissioner, he pushes her away on purpose, to protect himself from future pain and to protect her from himself.  Batman knows he has a dark side.  There is fear that if he gets close to her, she won’t like who he really is, and there is fear that he will disappoint her.  This is a very real thing people do to stay in the safe zone.
  1. You can’t force someone to be vulnerable or close to you. As much as his friends tried to engage him, Batman ultimately had to be the one to decide that he would ALLOW people to be close.  There is a reaching out aspect, but the receiving aspect, at least in therapy, is often the hardest dynamic to shift.  People need to be willing to let their walls down to allow people to get close.  Demanding that someone, “BE VULNERABLE,” will never work.  Believe me, I have clients that try that approach constantly.  It will paradoxically push people away more.  All you can do is reassure and be consistently safe and hope that your partner will see it long enough to try to engage, especially if you have been a dangerous partner in the past, with criticism, blame, demand, or betrayal. 
  1. Being completely independent seems safe, but comes at a cost.  Batman is ultimately not a happy, albeit fictitious, soul.  His emotional isolation comes at a cost, which is loneliness, a restricted emotional range, rage and mistrust.  People who don’t risk getting close prevent the possibility of having close, bonding experiences with people, which can help build trust and safety.

I was amazed at how many relationship truths were presented in the Batman Lego movie.  Many people aren’t presenting these characteristics in Batman’s extreme, but they use the same strategies nonetheless.  Bottom line:  We are social beings.  We thrive in the context of close, safe, special relationships.  The question is not whether you are doing relationships, but how you are doing relationships.  To maximize the benefit, see where and when you can be vulnerable to emotionally bond to people.  It is a risk, but we have lots of evidence to show that it’s worth it in a safe, healing context.

My guess is that with supportive people around him, Batman will be even more effective at saving the citizens of Gotham….but we will have to wait for the next Lego Batman movie to find out.

Na na na na na na na na na na na na na na na na…..Thatman…does…Relationships!

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Couples, Couples Therapy, marriage

Why a Husband’s Pornography Use Can be so Painful to so Many Wives

42915540 - offended the wife with her husband playing computer games**Side note—When I read the title to my husband, he said, “Do you really have to explain that?  Isn’t it obvious?”  The answer is that I don’t think it’s obvious enough, because men get socialized so differently than women.  As much as they try, I think they have a hard time understanding the pain of felt betrayal and rejection that can be associated with pornography.  Too often it is minimized.

Anyone practicing as a marriage therapist nowadays is going to have clients in which pornography is presented as a problem in the marriage by one or both spouses, regardless of religious belief.  Whenever sexuality comes up in marriage therapy (which is almost always), it’s a complex topic with varying emotions, histories, experiences, desires and outcomes.  Every situation is a little different.  However, a somewhat typical presentation is one in which a husband is or has been viewing pornography and his wife feels betrayed by his behaviors and has a decreased desire to engage sexually with him.  I want to attempt to explain why I think a husband’s pornography use can be so painful for women, and why I think it’s hard for men to understand why it’s so rejecting.

From the moment they are born, females get consistent messages that they are being evaluated by their looks.  The message is, “Be pretty.”  One of my earliest memories of elementary school is standing in line near my teacher and hearing my friend ask my teacher, “Ms. Hoffmann, do you think Lori’s pretty?”  I remember feeling a sense of panic and watching my teacher carefully to hear her answer.  “Yes,” she answered—what else was she going to say with me standing right there?  I wondered why my friend was asking her when she followed up with, “Because I think she’s pretty.”  I remember experiencing an emotion I hadn’t experienced before—fear that I wasn’t going to look good enough—fear that I wasn’t going to BE enough.  The message I got was clear—People were evaluating me based on my appearance—something over which I had limited control.

In junior high, the messages about image intensify.  Females are judged constantly and harshly on every aspect of appearance.  Boys comment on body parts continually.  This is the age at which some girls decide not to be “too smart,” and focus more on how they look.  Social rejection related to looks is painful.  Anyone who thinks this doesn’t happen more for girls than boys hasn’t been to a secondary school lately.  Once when I got the highest score in the class on a chemistry test, I was horrified, worrying that someone was going to find out it was me, because our scores were graded on a curve.  When one young man did find out, he said, “Lori Cluff’s too cute to be that smart.”  Whether I was that cute or that smart was debatable, but his statement represented the predominant message for females in our culture.  The message I got was that I needed to work harder to hide academic achievement to gain social approval.

Fortunately, I had a father who valued competency above appearance, but sadly, for many girls, any dimension of competency is underrated in comparison to their looks.  Also, my father’s voice was influential but was often easily lost in the surrounding cultural message.  It didn’t matter if I outperformed all but two boys in my high school cohort on every academic measure—it didn’t matter if I studied the piano enough for my teacher to encourage me toward a music major—it mattered if I looked good.  Boys, conversely, are more frequently praised for their performances rather than their ornamental values.  They simply don’t experience the same pressure about appearance, which I believe makes it harder for them to understand as men how deeply their porn use can hurt their wives.

As women age, the messages don’t get any better.  Aging is to be feared because it makes you ugly.  In my late 30’s, after my mother experienced serious heart health issues, I went to the library to check out every book I could on aging and health, determined to learn how to use exercise and nutrition to try to attain a better quality of life than she was experiencing.  The female librarian recognized me from my previous frequent visits.  She took at a look at my books and comforted, “Oh, honey—I always thought you were the prettiest girl.”  I smiled wanly and thought, “What does that have to do with it?”  It didn’t even occur to her that my concern was my physical health and not my looks.  I can promise that if my husband walked up to the library counter with the same books, the assumption would be that he was trying to preserve his physical condition and not that he was clinging to his hotness factor.

Not only are women CONSTANTLY evaluated on how they look, but they are CONSTANTLY compared, implicitly and explicitly, as a group.  Marketers target women by inciting insecurity to fuel consumerism—very effectively–so effectively that it’s rare to find a female who thinks she is skinny enough, toned enough, glamorous enough, pretty enough, sexual enough, young enough, shapely enough, perfect enough, flawless enough, enough ENOUGH.  At age 5, I sat in front of the mirror wondering how I could get my hair to change to black like Snow White.  I asked my mom if we could make my hair black, and she acted confused.  My response came from comparing myself to the iconic Disney princess.  Now, the pressure is SO much greater—with SO many more princesses to compare.

Disney princesses are literally child’s play when juxtaposed with the pressure elicited from pornography where surgically altered bodies are the norm.  When prevailing female cosmetic insecurity meets the porn industry in marriage, the result can be devastating.  In a relationship in which a female felt presumably safe and reasonably confident (not entirely—because let’s not get too crazy or unrealistic), suddenly she has to worry again about her appearance in a big way.  Having a husband who is viewing porn can trigger every self-doubt a women has ever had about how she looks.  In short, it’s common for a woman to conclude, “If he has to look at porn (other women), I must not be enough.”

Now, think about wanting to be sexual with a spouse who doesn’t think you are enough.  For most couples, sexuality is an area of utmost vulnerability.  I have often said that if you really want to destroy your marriage, criticize your spouse’s sexual performance.  Both men and women are usually highly sensitive to evaluations of their sexuality, which is entwined with desirability.  I have seen men withdraw from sex in a big way based on one performance-related comment.  Women withdraw similarly when they find out their husbands have been hiding a porn-viewing habit.

In short, being married to someone who is viewing pornography can feel threatening to the attachment safety in a relationship.  Part of attachment security is knowing that one is “enough,” for one’s partner.  I believe that pornography can strike so deeply for women because intensely socialized insecurities (physical appearance) are combined with an intensely vulnerable aspect (sex) of the relationship.

Another important facet of attachment is predictability in a partner.  Usually the deception that has accompanied porn use completely erodes trust. Commonly, women have reported discovering a partner’s hidden porn habit as a trauma and/or an infidelity.  Many become afraid and hypervigilant and disconnected sexually and emotionally from their partners.  Women repeatedly tell me that they can’t have sex without wondering what images of other women are flashing in their husbands’ minds.  Building safety back into the relationship can be a slow process.

An important step in healing is to try as much as is possible to understand a partner’s experience.  To understand better, ask your wife what messages she got about her appearance growing up and how pornography impacts those messages.  Then, really listen and see if you relate.  Be honest.

Reference:

Wives’ Experience of Husbands’ Pornography Use and Concomitant Deception as an Attachment Threat in the Adult Pair-Bond Relationship by Spencer T. Zitzman and Mark H. Butler (2009), in Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity, 16(3), 210-240.

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gender stereotypes

In Defense of Men

This isn’t necessarily a popular opinion, but I think men get beat up on a lot in our culture in ways that are considered normative and are yet unacknowledged:

Uniting Couples to Strengthen Families

lego men largerA few days ago, my husband and I were in our bedroom, and I was addressing him with a pile of concerns.  At one point, I asked him if he would grab my running skirt out of the laundry basket, and he enthusiastically replied, “Yes!  I would love to get your running skirt!  Finally, a problem I can solve!”  As he tossed it to me, I replied, “Thanks.  Now, let’s talk about our feelings.”

If my husband wants to get a laugh at the end of a night out with another couple, he will sometimes announce, “Goodnight.  Now we’re going to talk about our feelings.”   The cliché is comedic, of course, because it’s so ironic.  It works against gender stereotypes.  I have had a lot of time to think about those gender stereotypes in romantic pairings, and I want to specifically address how I think they may harm both men…

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