Late last Friday, my husband and I had a rare free evening at home so we decided to try to watch something on Netflix. I suggested, “What about that series we started last fall that we stopped watching?” and immediately saw an almost imperceptible guilty expression flash across my husband’s face. “You Netflix cheated, didn’t you?” I accused. “I might have,” he confirmed, trying not to laugh. “How could you? When?” I demanded. “While I was spinning,” he admitted. “How much did you watch?” My voice was getting shrill. He looked away and mumbled, “The whole thing.” “You really watched the entire rest of the seasons without me? We were only into the second season!” I was starting to sound like a crazy, desperate person and I knew it, but I really was feeling a little betrayed. “OK Lor, when is the last time you actually stayed awake for anything we started to watch on Netflix? I don’t think you saw one entire episode. I always end up watching it myself with you asleep next to me.”
True. But it was the principle of the thing.
The term Netflix cheating was coined in 2013 after a survey showed that 51% of people admitted that they would watch a Netflix show ahead alone that they had previously agreed to watch with their partners. Many of those reported that they would hide the fact from their partners and would re-watch it with fake emotion to hide it. A smaller percentage said they would feel guilty enough to confess. Netflix has used this information to their marketing advantage, dramatized in this 2014 Commercial.
One company jumped on the bandwagon, suggesting a set of commitment rings that link to a streaming service that won’t allow access to a certain series unless both partners are together. While that sounds extreme, I have seen couples controlling enough to actually want to pay for that kind of service.
Just last month, in an expansion of the clever marketing campaign with the tagline “Watch responsibly,” Netflix released data collected in a recent survey showing that Netflix cheating has tripled since 2013. They have continued the spoof with an ironic Michael Bolton video encouraging partners to apologize for the betrayal. They went so far as to actually create entertaining cheating profiles.
Sharing media with partners has been associated with greater relationship quality and may be particularly important for couples who are separated by geographical distance. According to research, media sharing can be a way that partners develop and maintain a joint identity. Sharing activities deepens interdependence. It’s a way of establishing “we-ness.”
So, why is Netflix cheating even a thing? Why would a partner feel betrayed by a spouse watching ahead? Like everything else in therapy, it’s a triviality that can be representative of something bigger. While Netflix cheating is a tongue-in-cheek phenomenon, there is some truth to the relationship risk of duplicitous watching ahead. As a marriage therapist, it makes perfect sense to me why people would be legitimately upset. If a partner Netflix cheats it can send a message that “You don’t matter to me,” or “I don’t care about sharing this with you.” It dilutes that concept of “we-ness,” and invites uncertainty into the relationship. It makes a partner more unpredictable.
I have to give my husband credit—while he has Netflix cheated before, he has always had the common courtesy to refrain from revealing spoilers. Also, since he falls into the small percentage of cheaters who feel guilty enough to admit it, I should admire his honesty. That being considered, he’s out of town and I have nothing better to do than to watch the next episode or three of our current shared series. He really should have signed that pre-viewing agreement I suggested the other night. In the interim, I have just enough time to perfect my look of surprise.
Let’s stay home and watch TV: The benefits of shared media use for close relationships (2016) by Sarah Gomillion , Shira Gabriel , Kerry Kawakami , and Ariana F. Young, Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, DOI: 10.1177/0265407516660388.
The other day, I was cleaning the bathroom while my husband was sitting in our bedroom. I grabbed a piece of toilet paper, poked my head into the bedroom where he was sitting and ceremoniously waved it over my head while calling, “I’m waving a white flag. This is me surrendering. You have officially won our passive aggressive contest over date night.” He looked confused so I held up the dust-laden copy of a date night ideas for married people book that I had placed in a magazine holder near the toilet literally years before. Its pages were warped from humidity and it was clearly untouched, because the last time it had been opened was, I’m certain, when I leafed through the pages at a bookstore. “Remember I put this here, hoping you would use it for date night ideas? You win. I’m finally throwing it away.” “Oh. Yeah,” he smoothly replied, “I read it already. We’ve done everything in there.”
“What? No we haven’t!” I exclaimed, “Look, on page 97, ** ‘The Backwards Date—Put your clothes on backwards and visit your local outdoor track and race each other walking backwards for a lap.’” “Oh,” he continued, “I mean we have done everything in there that is not entirely stupid or just downright lame.” Well.
“OK honey, but remember the point was that YOU were going to plan what we do for date night.” My husband finally made eye contact, “Lori, let’s get real. Every time I make a suggestion for where we go, you change it and we go there, which is fine with me—I really don’t mind, but the truth is, you have strong opinions and I don’t.”
Oh. He was right. I hadn’t even realized that I set him up for failure. I thought back to the previous weekend when he suggested, “Do you want to go get sushi?” and I pondered, “We can, but I think chicken tikka masala sounds better, or I read that a new Peruvian restaurant opened recently,” and he said, “OK, which of those sounds better to you?” The more I thought, the more I realized that I was indeed the more particular of us. I was the one who set up a sailing lesson, scheduled a hot air balloon ride, bought him a rope so we could rappel down a local waterfall, rented snowshoes, registered for a Santa run, planned a rafting trip by moonlight, set up couples’ massage dates and consistently scanned the internet for new restaurant openings and obscure locales, adding to my date night bucket list. I thought of all the times he suggested something and I redirected him to something else. In fact, the last time I remembered my going along with his idea instead of mine was when he had planned a surprise without my knowing, so I had to go along.
I apologized and asked him if he cared, and he said he really didn’t, which I believed, but I wondered how many times my actions discouraged him from even trying to plan something. This is a big reason why couples give up on putting forth effort in their relationships. They feel as if their efforts don’t matter or are outright rejected. I think my husband experienced more relief about not having to plan date night than outright rejection, but I have seen discouraged spouses completely give up over less.
Recent research by The Marriage Foundation has confirmed that setting aside time to date your spouse for just one night a month can make a significant difference in marital stability. In reality, this is just one indicator and not a clear cause and effect (just like all research with human behavior), but people who take the time to set aside special time together even once a month probably care enough about their marriages to manifest commitment in other ways that strengthen relationships. The dates don’t need to be complex. It could be as simple as walking out the front door with a coin, and at every corner flip the coin to see if you walk left or right to see where you end up.
This sounds so simple, but I’m always surprised at the amount of married people who live week to week with no plan to get a babysitter and go out. I can’t remember a time in my marriage when I would not have moved heaven and earth to get a night alone with my husband. I think it has made a big difference for us.
Just going anywhere together sends a message that the marriage is important, but there is some research suggesting that trying something new together might even boost couple happiness. I suspect this might be related to the fact that we are attracted to novelty, but also that happiness is so tied to experiences instead of things. One of our most memorable dates was when my husband and I went to a new downtown restaurant. As we walked in past a film crew, we realized that the restaurant was currently being used for a scene in a movie. We were seated in the crowded restaurant for about ten minutes when we were approached by a waiter who said, “The film director saw you walk in and wants to know if you will come sit in a scene for his film.” When my husband found out the film had “peloton,” in the title, he was more than willing to sit in for them, being a fellow cyclist. Later, when the film was released, my husband and I bought it on DVD solely to have that scene from our date. Novel. Check. Experience. Check. Memories. Check. Happiness. Check.
So, the next time you go into the typical popular home accent store which could be aptly named, “A Bunch of Crap I Really Don’t Need,” consider spending that money on date night or a babysitter instead. If necessary, both. Comparatively speaking, you will get more bang for your buck.
Trust me, it’s cheaper than marriage therapy. Or a divorce.
*Credit to the band INXS for inspiring this title from their 1987 song, “Mediate,” which never gets old for me.
**Since I threw the book away, I just made that up, but it’s typical of some of the more…ahem…creative suggestions.
My colleague, Brian Armstrong, LCSW, and I are offering this intensive marriage workshop based on Sue Johnson’s “Hold Me Tight,” book. This is an interactive educational format is limited to 12 couples. We are offering it as a Friday night/Saturday morning intensive program. These workshops are a great way to gain a foundation for marital attachment and to try out partner activities. It’s NOT group therapy, so you don’t have to worry about disclosing marital issues in front of other people. I have had really positive feedback from couples completing this course. Please help us spread the word to any couples who might benefit from this experience! To register, click here.
This couples workshop is based on the revolutionary work of world-renowned couples therapist, Sue Johnson, author of Hold Me Tight. She has developed a research-proven program to help couples connect and heal previous relationship wounds.
For most of us, our romantic attachments are extremely important to us. Because they mean so much to us, it is common to experience deep distress when things are not going well in these couple relationships. As human beings, we can become very emotionally reactive in these scenarios. As couples start emotionally reacting to each other over time, they get caught up in negative cycles that perpetuate the disconnection.
Couples completing this workshop will be able to identify their own negative cycles. They will also learn skills that will help them repair relationship ruptures in their marriage and will discover how to create safe and meaningful emotional connection. When this occurs it can often lead to deeper physical connection. The workshop provides therapist-guided opportunities for couples to practice skills. Couples will leave the workshop with a clearer vision for improving their relationships.
Workshop Price Includes:
8 hours of instruction and practice
Handouts and notes
Engaging, professional, and experienced presenters
I often have couples ask me why it seems so difficult to maintain connection even after they have had deeply bonding moments together, and I usually answer, “Life.” Daily demands come from many sources such as children, careers and community, and compete with a marital relationship for attention. Unfortunately, the marriage is often the first thing to be sacrificed. Couples who succeed at not only maintaining but deepening connection don’t get there by accident. They are the ones who are intentional in their habits to work on the marriage.
There is an undocumented rumor that marriage therapists “have the worst marriages,” because their expectations are so high that they are never happy. This might be perpetuated from the fact that many people become marriage therapists AFTER their bad marriages or divorces as a way to understand them better and prevent future disasters. I’m not sure, but I heard Dr. John Gottman once dispel this myth and said that actually marriage therapists often have pretty good marriages because it is so important to them that they continue to work at it. I honestly believe this is probably more often the case.
It is true that I have high expectations for marriage, but it is also true that my experiences as a therapist have helped me become more adaptable and flexible in many ways. I am always working at it, and I think I actually have a pretty great marriage (which admittedly might also have something to do with the fact that my husband is very accepting and easy to live with), despite the fact that I have marital challenges just like everybody else. In fact, I honestly believe challenges I have endured have allowed me to have more compassion and understanding for my clients.
With Christmas right around the corner, I decided to compile a list of some of my favorite products for maintaining secure attachment in marriage. Thank heavens marriage therapy is well past the days of batakas, when couples were encouraged to act out their emotional aggressions on each other. Now, there are many items available for enhancing marital connection in a healthy way. I have tested out many of them, and some of them are still on my bucket list. If nothing else, here are some ideas:
Note: I have no affiliation in any way with any of these sellers and can’t endorse trade with any individual websites.
Conversation cards: There are many manufacturers of decks of cards with questions designed to spark conversation and ultimately more connection between married people (I must have a dozen different versions – my poor husband!) You don’t need to buy a deck – you could just make a jar with your own questions, but if you are feeling unimaginative, a good place to start is the classic “Ungame, Couples Edition,” found here.
Couple journal: Again, there are many, many versions of couple journals (and again, I have at least a dozen), but the idea is to access and share memories, dreams, thoughts, etc., as a way to create connection. Even if you don’t write anything down, but just have a conversation using the journal prompts, I believe it can help. One example is the 12 ways to say I love you journal, found here.
Couple’s letter book set: In a day and age when we don’t write actual letters anymore, this product possesses vintage appeal. I’ve always wanted actual love letters from my husband, since we never carried on a long-distance romance. It’s sort of like the couple journals, but in a different format. It can be found here.
Rituals of connection/Opportunity cards: Drs. John and Julie Gottman have been marketing products for several years related to their research-inspired “Sound Marital House,” theory of marriage. Gottman sells several decks of cards designed to inspire friendship and ongoing connection. I like these cards because they help couples become more intentional in their marital relationships, found here.
Workbook: Unlike the previous products, a workbook for couples usually comes with specific goals and tasks based on a theoretical perspective for couple change. The one I prefer is An Emotionally Focused Workbook for Couples: The Two of Us by Veronica Kallos-Lily and Jennifer Fitzgerald. Even though it is designed as a supplement to couples therapy, it can help couples identify negative patterns and the emotional meaning behind them in their own marriages. I absolutely would NOT recommend this without therapy to any couples that are moderately to highly distressed; I would recommend therapy instead. This can be found at many book retailers, but the Amazon link is here.
Date jar: Marriage therapists are always pushing marital dating, and I’m no exception. Increasing novelty in dating by trying new things together can actually help improve marital satisfaction (as documented in a study with a control group at a New York University several years ago). There are examples all over the internet to make one yourself, with tons of ideas, but there is also one available for purchase here.
Products for promoting physical affection: Non-sexual, physical affection often drops off in marriage, which is unfortunate, because it helps couples stay connected. For Valentine’s Day one year, I hand knit my husband a “smitten,” which is one mitten couples wear together while holding hands, so we could take walks outside with it. If you’re not the knitting type, there are several available for purchase at Etsy. There is one example here. Another item I haven’t tried, but looks intriguing is the “Cuddling pillow,” with a groove for arms to prevent the arm from getting numb. I have no idea if it works, but if you are cuddling long enough to cut off the circulation, I have no objections. If you do have circulation problems, though, you may want to check with your doctor before trying this out. This product is available here.
While compiling this list, I came across a fake product, which I actually thought had promise. The “no-phone,” found here, is a substitute for the modern smartphone, and when substituted can actually allow the owner to, “…finally have real conversations in person with another human being physically over dinner.” Now there’s a product that I can really get behind for increasing couple connection! The would-be manufacturers are communication geniuses. Sadly, this is not available for purchase – but I am seriously thinking of making my own…it can’t be any harder than a hand-knit “smitten,” after all.
WARNING: If you are a raging Nicholas Sparks loyalist and can’t wait for the next book or movie to come out, then you will likely feel defensive and misunderstood if you read this post. Continue at your own risk.
I believe in the concept of keeping romance alive in marriage (apologies to those who think marriage has nothing to do with romance—in my marriage, it does). However, I’m something of a romance curmudgeon when it comes to the silver screen.
Recently, my husband and I were trying to find a movie to attend, and for lack of options decided to go see Nicholas Sparks’ new movie, The Best of Me. I’m always somewhat resistant to Sparks’ movies because they so often seem schmaltzy and formulaic, and filled with delusions of destiny. I TRIED to read one of his romance books. Once. (Confession—not a fan of the traditional romance genre).
As I exited the theater, my husband asked me if I liked the movie, and I told him I felt annoyed. The premise is that a man and woman who dated twenty years previously met up together again, and of course immediately felt fueled by fate as they had a brief sexual fling, declared their true love for each other, and painfully separated so he could return to his mediocre lonely life, and she could return to her predictably distant and colorless marriage.
The message: It is burdensome to keep your commitments and do the right thing. You are sad. You might as well curl up in a fetal position now. Oh, and you just passed up your chance at true love…Loser… Lonely loser.
Then, the movie shifted. I won’t COMPLETELY spoil the movie, but SPOILER ALERT and BIG SURPRISE, she divorces her husband. In the brief scene with her son post-divorce, he seems perfectly well adjusted to the fact that his mother and father have ended their nearly 20-year marriage, and she is of course happier than ever, pursuing a new career which will undoubtedly lead her back to “true love.”
As a marriage therapist, I felt sick inside. Since it is easier than ever to reignite former romances and to communicate clandestinely through technology with someone outside of the relationship, there seems to be an endless stream of people damaging or ending their marriages in order to pursue new or former romantic relationships to chase what they think is “true love.”
What the movie did not show was any emotional pain experienced by the son when his parents divorced after their long marriage. Nor did it portray the real grief, pain and loneliness many if not most endure after a divorce, or after the end of the romantic affair that imploded the marriage. That, my friends, is much more realistic.
At this point (especially for the Sparks fans), you may find yourself saying, “Settle down, lady…it’s a fiction romance movie, not a documentary on human relationships.” I know. I get it. However, I get very worried about how “true love” is portrayed in these romances, because the truth is, it affects viewers and their relationships.
If we define true love, by the very real dopamine-induced twitterpation experienced early in a romantic connection which inevitably diminishes over time as relationships become more predictable and secure, then it might be easy to feel like our long-term relationships aren’t “true” at all, and we are missing out. This is more dangerous when that feeling is used as a measuring stick for what is genuine. There is a very real physiological response in a new, exciting relationship, or in a secret affair, and people regularly mistakenly believe this feeling means that the relationship is somehow more legitimate than the long-term one which may seem prosaic in comparison. Over time, the long-term partner can even be viewed as the enemy, preventing “real happiness.”
There have been actual reports of people ending their marriages after watching some of Sparks’ movies, because they felt so disillusioned in their comparatively boring committed relationships.
Interestingly, Sparks is still in a long-term relationship, married to the woman he met in college, and raising a family of five children. That is undoubtedly not easy, even for someone with steady cash flow from writing fantasy romance scripts. He seems like a very committed family man. If I could conduct an interview, I might ask him about how he reconciles his fantasy romance tales with the realism in his own life. I’m guessing Sparks knows how to fuel a real-life romance, and the formula is different than in his stories.
I began wondering what I, as a couples therapist, would include in a really good true love romance, were I to write one (which I am certain will never happen)….one in which the partners have set up a life together, complete with children. Just for fun, I used “romance,” as an acronym.
A really good romance should include:
R for reality: As in real life. Like when your entire family begins vomiting in the middle of the night, and you and your husband both have somewhere to go the following morning, and you stay up all night cleaning up truckloads of vomit, and scrubbing the carpet, and you are cranky, and stinky…oh, and the mortgage was due yesterday and…..well, you get it.
O for obstacle: As in unemployment. As in chronic or devastating mental or physical illness. As in your preschoolers deciding while you are nursing a baby that it would be a good idea to mix the rice, flour and sugar bins together, put some of the mixture in the dishwasher, and then top it off with just the right amount of maple syrup for good measure, and you found out 15 minutes before you are supposed to have your baby at the doctor. As in your kids discovering that if you stomp on Christmas lights while they are still screwed into the string, on your garage floor, it makes a really cool popping, crunchity sound, so they must stomp on ALL of them on ALL of the strings—even the ones stored in the Christmas boxes on the shelf—rendering them useless and leaving miniscule shards of glass strewn about which, like the demon glitter, will find their way into your house months after evading the Shop-Vac…I could go on…
M for Memory: Memory is always being constructed, and has everything to do with the narrative we tell ourselves. People who want to stay married tell their marriage story with the positive things at the forefront. Like, do I want to remember the time my husband and I had one car and he left me standing in the freezing cold because he forgot to come get me, pre-cell phone days, or do I want to remember the time I had been out of town and walked into my room and there were dozens of floral bouquets everywhere? Be careful of entertaining narratives that someone else was your true love—brains remember things better (or worse) than they were. Memories are also notoriously inaccurate and more fluid than most people want to admit.
A for Attitude: Whether you focus on the positive or negative elements of your relationship is completely within your control. I can focus on the fact that my husband can step over a clean basket of clothes that needs to be brought up stairs and folded, for a seemingly indefinite amount of time (since I gave up on the experiment after 5 days) instead of picking it up and folding it himself, or I can focus on the fact that my husband never complained about a wife who asked him to please bring that basket of clothes up the stairs and fold it after it sat there for 5 days.
N for Negotiation: Negotiation is ongoing and necessary for romance to work out. Like when your husband wants to go to a Nicholas Sparks movie, but you really want to go see that action film (patience, dear reader…I threw that in to see if my husband is really reading my blog posts like he says).
C for Commitment: This is the most important variable in long-term relationship durability, and is necessary with any romance. C is also for “children,” who benefit from having parents who they can tell are in love, or who can distract you from your couple relationship because they are dependent on you for their survival. They are also guaranteed to make you both laugh and cry.
E for Effort: A good romance requires work, plain and simple, and it’s not always rainbows and unicorns. Once, when I had small children, I was feeling resentful because my husband was traveling for business, and I didn’t like the way I was feeling about him, mostly because I was envious that he was able to go to the bathroom by himself. I tried to think of what I could do for him, and I remembered the pile of shirts that needed missing buttons replaced, which I had successfully hidden underneath my more interesting sewing projects so that he would forget about them. I got them out and put buttons on 8 shirts and surprised him with them when he got home. Seeing how appreciative he was made me happy. Romantic indeed.
Please, enjoy romance, but get your education about romance outside of Hollywood.
I’m not a Nicholas Sparks hater. I actually did finish and enjoy, Three Weeks with my Brother, an autobiographical memoir which was actually quite interesting. I just don’t love his romances.
I did recently see Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, which looked a whole lot more like my life than the Sparks romance. My husband reminded me that I had given him the book while we were engaged when he was having a bad day, and told him it was my most favorite children’s book of all time. I had forgotten. The fact that he remembered, however, made it romantic.
If you are hankering for that romantic film, pick up The Princess Bride. It will make you laugh, unless you have no sense of humor at all, in which case you might want to consult a doctor…or a therapist…or a humor whisperer, I guess.
My favorite line in the movie is when the disguised Wesley said, “Life is pain, highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.”
I have a favorite movie. It is the Italian Life is Beautiful, starring the Oscar-winning Roberto Benigni. The plot is centered around a father protecting his son from the horrors of a concentration camp during World War II by creating a game out of it. The father’s ingenuity was fascinating and his sacrifice was moving.
Being a romantic at heart, I also enjoyed watching his adoration for his wife. Something about his attention reminded me of my husband, and for months after watching it, my husband would walk into a room and shout, Roberto Benigni style, “Bongiorno, principesa!” picking me up and swinging me around in front of my small children. It was actually super enchanting.
If more men watched this movie and were inspired to treat their wives in like fashion, I’m convinced that I could work myself out of a job.
Movies can actually be used as a type of marital intervention. Any time we are presented with a story that includes characters to whom we relate, it can be like looking into a mirror, reflecting parts of ourselves back to us that aren’t always readily apparent. We can use that information to be more expansive in our own problem-solving and actually enhance our relationships.
Recent research led by Dr. Rogge at the University of Rochester reveals how watching movies can actually be used to help couples work through problems in their own marriages, or to prepare for problems in marriage. A few months ago, I was interviewed for an online article related to this topic, and was asked to comment on the research that had just been published in an academic journal, showing that by watching movies together and discussing a set of questions after, couples could reduce their divorce rates as effectively as couples who received formal training in relationship skills.
One of the main criteria for movies was that they devoted some screen time to show what a couple was doing well and some time to show a couple making common relationship mistakes. The couples were then asked to spend a certain amount of time identifying aspects of the onscreen couples’ relationship dynamics, such as friendship and conflict management, and to discuss how their own relationship might have similar issues. This process allows couples to pinpoint specific relationship processes and hopefully apply them in their own marriage.
I am guessing that a substantial part of how this helps couples is that it normalizes some level of conflict and challenge in marriage. Too many couples think that if they have conflict, they are doomed. Untrue. If you dance with someone, you are going to get your toes stepped on, and if you live in close proximity with someone, the only way to avoid any conflict is to never get close enough to have contact. The trick is managing the conflict.
My worst nightmare as a marriage therapist is a couple who comes in and reports that they “never fight,” because it almost always means they either don’t get close enough to have conflict, or they just don’t really care enough about the partner to get wounded in the marriage.
So, the next time you are looking for a date idea, you might consider watching a movie and answering some of Rogge’s discussion questions.
If nothing else, this method for a stronger marriage might be cheaper than marriage therapy.