Couples, Family, Humor

Couple Conflict After the Laughter

older couple laughing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Couples, Couples Therapy, marriage, Marriage and Family Therapy

Relationship Rule Number One: You Cannot Control Your Partner


Stacy came in looking angry.  Her husband had recently sounded the alarm bell on their marriage and told her he wasn’t sure he wanted to continue the relationship.  In an about-face, she behaviorally tried to do everything she could think of to reignite his commitment to the relationship.  He continued to avoid her.  She explained, “All week, I have done all these nice things for him that I thought he would like.  I made his favorite dinner and cleaned up all the dishes myself.  I’ve tried to express appreciation and tell him when he’s doing great as a father.  I’ve tried really hard to keep from yelling.  He still avoids me.  I don’t know what else to do.  It’s not fair.”

I glanced over at him, expecting no response, and noticed him staring at me, arms folded across his chest, daring me to comment on his unresponsiveness.  I knew there was a reason for his avoidance, because of their history.  I turned back to his wife.  “I know you are hurting.  This has all been incredibly painful and scary for you, and it’s hard to try so hard and feel hopeless.”  She nodded and added, “I don’t see how I’m expected to make all the changes.  If I’m putting myself out there and trying, then he should too.”  Her tone suggested that I should chastise him for his behavior.

I continued, “Can you do something for me right now?” “What?” she asked.  “Can you please start breathing for him right now?”  She looked at me like I was crazy and replied  “What do you mean?”  “I mean breathe for him.  Right now.  Go.  Make him breathe.”  Seconds later, she said, “I can’t make him breathe.”  “Right,” I affirmed, “You can’t make him breathe just like you can’t really make him do anything else.  You are an entirely independently functioning individual.  You can invite him to breathe and possibly influence him to breathe, but you cannot do it for him nor make him do it.  It may be unfair.  Your sense of justice may be violated, but you cannot make him do anything.  That is an incredibly helpless feeling, I know…and let me add this…even if you could control him, you wouldn’t want to, because he would resent you for it.”

She became teary, and I continued processing her softer emotions enough that I could turn to her husband and check in with him about his perception.  He had noticed changes, but he didn’t trust them.  He worried that if he did trust her changes, things would go back to the way they were before.  He stayed disconnected in part to avoid giving his wife false hope about their future.  It was a protective mechanism.

One of the simple hard and true facts about relationships is that we absolutely cannot control other people. Couples commonly end up in tug-of-war like power struggles over who will control the outcome of an argument.  People in general like to exercise decision-making and control over their lives.  In couple relationships, constant negotiation is necessary for joining two individuals who sometimes have conflicting desires and needs.  That’s normal and healthy.  There are big problems when people think they are going to manipulate or control their spouses to do what they want them to do, and even though it may feel like winning in the short run, it is a losing proposition in the long term.

People hopefully learn this in dating relationships.  Not everyone does.  When my oldest son was going through a difficult romantic break-up years ago, he asked me if he should write a letter to his girlfriend with specific explanations and questions.  I answered that if he chose to do that, it was fine, but absolutely not to send a letter with any kind of expectation for how she might respond.  I explained that, “You can do whatever you want.  However, you can’t choose how or even if she will reply.  You cannot ask her a question with the expectation for a certain answer—you must be prepared that she may not answer you, and even if she does, it may not be the answer you want to hear.  If you can do that, then go ahead and send the letter.  If you are sending it with an expectation for a certain response, think twice about it.  You absolutely do not get to control what someone else does.  You can only control what you do in response.”

Even if you could control your partner’s behavior, it is not in your best interest to do so.  Some people can be quite controlling and effectively bully their partners into regular capitulation.  What ends up happening is that controlling partners think they are getting their way and life is good while resentment builds in the partner that is constantly giving in to avoid conflict.  Over time (and by time I mean that it can take four decades or more), resentful partners get to the point that they have had enough and finally take a stand, which usually means shutting the partner out completely or ending the relationship.  Then, the controlling partners are confused because they had no idea their placating partners were angry for years.  I don’t know how many times I have heard a controlling partner say, “If he (or she) had only told me—I had no idea I was being controlling.”

In too many marriages and relationships, instead of power equality, there is a huge power differential in which one partner benefits at the expense of the other.  Unfortunately, many people lack the awareness that they are taking this kind of position in a relationship.  If you are able to persuade your spouse to agree with you all or most of the time instead of your adapting to them, you may be a controlling partner.  If you are constantly giving in, I believe you are at high risk for being a typical placating partner who is slowly building resentment that may explode later.

What to do about it

Controlling partners can ask spouses what they think about the marriage, what changes they want to make, and what they really want in life, and try to honor and validate the information and requests.  In short, the best thing to do is increase your understanding of your partner’s position without trying to change it.  People who feel invalidated or misunderstood will cling tighter to their positions.  If you are inflammatory or reactive, your partner will probably not share this with you, and you will be no better off.  When controlling partners feel at all unsafe, placating partners will continue to give in and withhold expression of their opinions.  If your partner isn’t sharing his or her opinion, this can be a huge warning sign.

If you are a partner who constantly gives in to avoid conflict, be honest with yourself about how you are feeling toward your partner.  Try to find a way to discuss this dynamic with your partner.  If your partner is controlling to the point of being abusive, you may have to face some difficult questions about continuing the relationship.  Giving in to abusive partners does not make them less controlling—it feeds the pattern.

A typical example

 Although power struggles show up in every marital context, a really common area is in the bedroom.  A spouse who doesn’t want to be physically intimate because he or she doesn’t feel emotionally connected (and yes, that happens for men as well as women—people often don’t want to have sex with controlling partners), may end up giving in just to get the partner to go away.  The problem is, if they really don’t want to engage, they can become bitterly resentful.

In one typical session, a wife came in upset because after she verbally explained to her husband that she didn’t feel safe enough with him emotionally to want to engage in a physically close relationship, he pressed her on the issue until she gave in and had sex with him, even though she didn’t want to.  The result was another relationship rupture.  In this case, she tried to say no to him but then gave in and then punished him for it.  I asked what would happen if she said, “OK, I will have sex with you, but I want to be clear that I will hold a grudge and be resentful toward you afterward and it will disconnect us further.”  She said, “Oh I could never say that—it would hurt his feelings.”  I said, “But you are saying it—you’re just not using words—and you are hurting his feelings more because when you punish him with your anger, it’s an unclear message, and he doesn’t know what’s really going on.  All I’m asking you to do is to be congruent.  Verbalize what you are already creating, and give him the choice about whether he really want to participate in that process or not.”  The husband admitted that even though experiencing rejection would be painful, it was more painful and confusing to be punished after his wife gave in, and made him feel worse.  He didn’t realize he was coming across as controlling.

Control can work both ways here.  In other scenarios, a partner may refuse to engage in a physical relationship, and the absolute refusal becomes the control.  I believe there is a distinct lack of integrity in a partner who refuses separation or divorce but then refuses to improve the sexual relationship in a long-term marriage.  It’s one thing to temporarily abandon sexual relations while actively working on making the relationship safe—it’s entirely different to shut a partner out sexually with no hope for improvement.  This hopeless scenario in my opinion is quite cruel.

In the above cases, one partner was using verbal coercion to achieve sex and one was using icy withdrawal to avoid sex—both are controlling, and both are losing in the long-run.

(Side note:  sexuality is tremendously complex and there are many reasons why couples disconnect around physical intimacy.  The problems are usually a combination of individual difficulties AND relationship difficulties.  I don’t want to oversimplify the problem.  These particular scenarios don’t necessarily translate to many other scenarios)

Ultimately, realize that you can only really control yourself.  You can certainly influence and invite your partner, but do not use coercion to do it.  If you win with coercion or manipulation, you’re not really winning.  There must be a recognition of a partner’s right to his or her opinion.  You do not want to make your partner to do something they don’t want to do.  Conversely, if you constantly give in to achieve “peace at any price,” you’re not doing your partner any favors.  You are feeding into the cycle of manipulative control.

Take a serious look at your marriage to make sure you are not playing the part of puppet or puppeteer.  Either role is bad for you, bad for your partner, and bad for the relationship. 







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

Marital Trick…or Treat? Turn Your Scare-age into a Marriage by Understanding Your Fears

scared couple

As a college freshman, I have a very vivid memory of returning to my dorm room one evening by way of the elevator.  As I exited, I immediately startled, shrieked, and jumped as a tiny black object hanging from invisible thread brushed against my face.  Heart racing, I surveyed my surroundings and noticed a couple of fellow co-eds seated cross-legged against the wall facing the elevator, munching on popcorn.  I realized that they had rigged up a small and very real-looking fake spider to a piece of fishing line strategically so that as unsuspecting victims stepped onto the hall floor, they would be hit in the face with the 8-legged creature.  It was an arachnophobic’s  nightmare.  When I calmed down, I asked, “So, is this tonight’s entertainment?”  After they nodded, shoveling fistfuls of popcorn into their mouths, I continued, “OK, so how was my reaction on a scale of 1 to 10?”  They laughed, “A ten.  Definitely the best so far tonight!”

They had tapped in to one of my greatest fears: Spiders.  Although I technically don’t have arachnophobia, spiders are to me as rats were to Winston Smith, the character in George Orwell’s classic political satire, 1984, which was my required reading in a political science class at USC in….1984.  I don’t remember a lot of details about the book, but I remember the rats, and I remember that I realized how much power someone could exercise over someone else if they truly knew their greatest fear.  (For those who don’t know what 1984 is and haven’t stopped reading yet, it’s basically a book about how the government, “Big Brother,” has surveillance everywhere, so they know everything about everyone and can use that information to control them—largely through their fears).

George Orwell understood that human beings have a lot of behavioral reactivity to their fears.  I recall that spider memory so well because it induced a state of deep fear and panic, though brief.  If we can remember scary, threatening events, we can prevent future pain for ourselves.  We are built that way.  It’s great for protecting us, but can diminish future risk-taking.

This appears in couples therapy over and over.  Couples have been so wounded or disconnected that they have fears about the relationship which maintain the disconnection, because to risk sharing the fears would be too risky.  Sometimes people use different names for fear: anxious, worried, panicky, desperate, and even “angry,” which often hides fear.  No matter the semantics, activated fear drives behavior in relationships that matter the most.

Here are some of the common fears that show up frequently.  They are related with some subtle differences:

  1. Fear of rejection.  Social rejection is incredibly painful, and if it is coming from the person you care about the most, it is that much more painful.  This is the person that you are supposed to be able to count on.  Rejection in marriages can take form in a number of ways.  It is commonly expressed through criticism or stonewalling.  It absolutely prevents partners from wanting to engage for fear of being hurt.
  2. Fear of abandonment. I realize that abandonment is a strong word, but the fear is strong because it is related to losing the relationship entirely, which is grief and pain.  That’s often why clients refer to the “D word,” (divorce) as a “bombshell,” or some other catastrophic metaphor, representing ultimate destruction of the relationship.  Nevertheless, when partners sense that they might ultimately lose the relationship, they act in desperate and panicky ways to preserve it.  From a relationships pursuer’s perspective, this means trying to get the other partner’s attention to improve the relationship quality (often because they are lonely and can feel themselves burning out).  From a relationship distancer’s perspective, this means trying to keep the emotional temperature of the relationship steady so that things don’t spiral out of control and create conflict and potential disconnection.  Distancers (often the male partners) will tell me over and over that, “If she’s upset and I say nothing, she will eventually give up and go away, but if I say the wrong thing, it might make things worse.”  In this regard, in the moment, it feels to them like they are actually saving the relationship by not risking saying the “wrong thing.”  This makes no sense to pursuers, who don’t understand how a relationship can ever get fixed by saying nothing.  In contrast, they are the ones who usually bring up the problems because they are trying to fix things to preserve the relationship.
  3. Fear of never being accepted. When partners try to engage and their efforts are rebuffed or criticized, they feel like, “It’s never going to be enough,” and because of the painful rejection of their efforts, they give up and withdraw further.  I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to appreciate a spouse’s attempts to improve, even if they are clumsy.  People must accept their partners as flawed.  Encouragement breeds more willingness to engage in those partners.  Criticism kills it.  Most people don’t realize how sensitive their spouses are to their criticism.  Critical partners don’t realize the extent of damage they create because their  spouses learn to numb themselves from feeling pain. Their masks make them seem oblivious to the criticism, but they are generally hyper aware of it instead.
  4. Fear of being alone. At first glance, this might look like I’m repeating abandonment, but it’s a little different.  Abandonment implies a loss of the relationship, and in some cases, that does mean loneliness, but many people stay in low quality marriages; they have high stability, but they still feel lonely.  People feel intensely more alone when they are in close attachment relationships and can’t engage their partners than they do if they are actually single and expect to be alone.  I often say, “It is more alone to be married and alone than alone and alone.”  This is why lonely pursuers who feel like they can’t reach their partners try so intensely to engage them, even if it means raising the volume and conflict.  It is more distressing to get no response from a partner than it is to get a reactive, angry or defensive response.
  5. Fear of not mattering. This is pretty universal, and it is also why something as simple as forgetting to get the milk on the way home can escalate into a huge fight.  When partners aren’t responsive, they feel devalued and invalidated, and get afraid that they won’t ever be important to their spouses.  Most people also want to know that they come first to their partners, which means before work, cell phones, extended family, neighbors, etc.  Most individuals have a strong expectation of being seen as special by their spouses.

When people’s attachment fears are activated, they tend to become more desperate and raise the volume, protesting the disconnection, or they withdraw, numb, and become silent and/or leave in order to bring the emotional temperature down.  If any of this sound familiar to you, then you are in the majority.

What You Can Do About It

  1. Ask yourself which of these fears describe you in your relationship.  How do you express it?  Does your partner know?  What would it be like to talk to them about it?
  2. Try to identify your partner’s fears. If your marriage isn’t too highly distressed, ask them if any of them apply to them and see what they say.  If you find out, ask how you can ease their fears.  Can you offer some type of specific reassurance to them?

Realize that to reveal our deepest fears to our spouses is akin to handing them the algorithm with which to hurt us.  One of the markers of distress in a marriage is how safe it is or is not to reveal our fears to our partners.

If you think it’s too risky to share your deepest fears, then see what you can share that isn’t quite as risky and if that’s received well, you can move down the fear ladder.

When we share our fears and are not only accepted but reassured, we build marital resilience and actually increased independence, because the marriage feels safe…which is always a treat.

Attachment, Couples, Love, marriage, Romance

Anniversary or Anni-worse-ary: Sometimes you have to Agree to Disagree

couple heart sand beach

Recently, my husband and I celebrated our 28th wedding anniversary.  I’m customarily geeky and sentimental enough to try to find gifts that match pre-determined themes for the year (i.e. 25th—silver anniversary, 50th—gold, etc.).  Apparently the orchid is the traditional gift for a 28th anniversary.  I was trying to figure out how to incorporate that theme into something my husband wouldn’t think was completely lame, and all I could come up with was a type of orchid room fragrance I used to “set the mood.”  I think my husband was underwhelmed by the orchid theme, but hey, next year’s theme is furniture, so that’s a win for me.

After I handed my husband his thematic gift, I asked him if he was ready to admit that I was right about my first anniversary gift.  He was not.  Because I didn’t want to end up in a meaningless quarrel, I dropped the issue.

Allow me to explain.  The summer my husband and I were engaged, we were both living in California.  He was completing an internship at a company in Huntington Beach, California, and living with my brother, and I was working full-time and living at home.  We sometimes went on double dates with my brother and his wife.  At one point, we decided to attend a Chicago concert at the LA Forum.  The venue was packed, and we were actually seated behind the performers.  To this day, I can tell you what the lead singer was wearing—some whitish  pajama-looking thingie, like he stopped to sing on the way home from karate.

As our first anniversary approached, I was thinking of all the items I could give my husband to celebrate our big “paper anniversary.”  When I heard that Chicago was going to be performing in Park City, Utah, not far from our residence, I decided to present him with paper tickets to the concert, assuming that he would recall how much fun we had at the concert a year earlier.

It wasn’t until several years later that I said something about the time we went to see Chicago perform at the LA Forum, and my husband gave me a blank stare and replied, “I have no idea what you are talking about.”  I insisted, “Yes you do….remember I gave you tickets to see them in Park City for our first anniversary, and it was because we had seen them together at the Forum.”  It was downhill from there.  Here’s how the conversation proceeded.

Him:  You got me tickets because they are made of paper and you know I like Chicago.

Me (Disbelieving):  I got you tickets because they are made of paper.  I got you CHICAGO tickets because we attended the concert at the LA Forum.

Him:  I didn’t see them in LA.

Me:  Steven…(The formal first name as a clue that I am getting upset)…Yes you did.  I can tell you where we were sitting and what the performers were wearing.  I even remember walking across the parking lot.

Him:  That must have been one of your other boyfriends.  It wasn’t me.

Me (instantly mad):  None of my other boyfriends would have wanted to go see Chicago!  I can tell you every concert I have ever attended and with whom, and you are the only person I dated who would have wanted to go see Chicago.

Him:  Well I don’t know what to tell you, then.  It wasn’t me.

Me (Desperate, thinking that he’ll remember if I can find the right memory cue):  Don’t you remember that we had to sit behind the performers because we got our tickets last minute and it was sold out?

Him:  No.

(This exchange continued with various fun facts for a few more sentences while I’m becoming increasingly upset and powerless to make him see what is so clear to me)

Me:  Am I in the Twilight Zone?  Where are the cameras?  Am I being punk’d?  You cannot be serious.

Him (laughing):  Honey….I have no recollection of seeing Chicago anywhere but Park City.

Me (even madder, because now he thinks it’s a joke): The only reason I even suggested going to see Chicago is because you liked them so much.  They aren’t even in my top 20.

Him:  You got tickets because your older brother was going, and he likes Chicago.

Me (rabid now): HONEY!  Remember how you’re always saying that I have a really good memory?  Admit it—I am a more reliable source for our history than you are.

Him:  Well…you USUALLY have a good memory….with the exception of this time.

Me:  Just stop talking.  Please don’t say anything else.  I have to calm down enough to decide what to do about your early onset dementia.

Him:  Honey, I’m sorry, but it had to have been someone else at that con…..


Him:  Do you think I wouldn’t remember if I went to see Chicago in LA?


Him:  Honey it doesn’t matter.  You remember one thing, and I remember another.

Me:  It DOES matter, because you didn’t even realize that I got you those tickets special because we had gone to that concert.  I went out of my way for you.  What else don’t you remember? (Because that’s how irrational I am at this point)

Him:  Honey, this is silly.  I love you, and we are just going to have to agree to disagree.  I don’t remember and you do.  Who cares?

Me:  Who are you and what have you done with my husband?  Are you a robot?  A clone?

You get the picture.  We finally called my brother and I asked if he remembered, and all he would commit to was, “It sounds familiar, but that was a long time ago.  I can’t be certain.”  I think he was protecting my husband.  Man code.  I even looked up the years Chicago was in concert at the LA Forum to prove to him that it was the summer of our engagement.  He still denies that it ever happened.

This is a perfect example of how the content of the argument isn’t what it’s really about.  This argument wasn’t about Chicago—my emotion escalated because it was about whether or not we were on the same page and united—and if he couldn’t remember a concert, what else was he going to forget?  Was he going to be safe and reliable?

The topic has come up a time or two over the years, and the disagreement always ends with us having to agree to disagree before I spontaneously combust.  I still don’t know if he really doesn’t remember, or if he’s amused by my reaction, or if at this point he’s just being stubborn.  I finally just had to tell myself that he was so smitten with me that it addled his brain and he wasn’t accessing his memory corridors like a normal person.

Do you have a Chicago concert conversation in your marriage?  Sometimes, or maybe more often, couples need to be able to step back and evaluate what is really vital to the marriage in the future.  While I wish my husband would remember, I realize that the foundation of our marriage doesn’t rest on this event.  At this point, he has me wondering if maybe I did take someone else to that concert.

A few years after the first Chicago concert “discussion,” we were out to lunch with my brother’s family to celebrate the birthdays of two cousins, born one day apart in different years.  I was ready to pop and exhausted, pregnant with our third child, and we were wrestling a toddler and a preschooler who didn’t want to stay seated to eat their food.  Suddenly, my sister-in-law said, “Hey, isn’t this your 7th anniversary?”  My husband and I both looked at each other and answered, “Oops.  Oh yeah…it must be the 7year itch.”  In the chaos of celebrating children’s birthdays, coming home from vacation, hosting guests, and preparing for a new baby, we had both entirely forgotten, which means that I didn’t get him that copper whatchamacallit I was planning to buy.  We had a perfunctory dinner date and called it good, and we’ve had plenty of anniversaries since then to make up for it, and I try to leave Chicago out of our anniversary conversations.

In short, if you have to agree to disagree, it’s really ok…Evaluate your unique strengths and choose to work on what you can fix, and try not to sweat the rest…unless it’s that your husband forgot that you took him to a Chicago concert during your engagement.

Even writing this generates feelings of unresolve.  One of these days, I’m hoping that he’ll remember and feel prompted to apologize.  On the other hand, I suppose it’s possible that I remembered incorrectly and did go with someone else.  Memory is rarely completely accurate.

In either case, my husband is indeed a “Hard Habit to Break,” and if a future apology is necessary, Chicago has provided us with the perfect way to begin with, “It’s Hard for me to say I’m Sorry.”

Because it is……except y’all know I’m right, right?

Couples, Couples Therapy, marriage

Race for your Marriage: Everything I Needed to Know About Marriage I Learned in Cross Country


Note:  I acknowledge that there are unhealthy marriages which shouldn’t remain stable, particularly in cases of ongoing abuse of any kind (I always think this should be assumed, but someone usually manages to respond to my posts by pointing this out—as someone who has worked with both domestic violence victims and perpetrators as a group, I wholeheartedly agree).

This is the time of year that I typically help my youngest daughter train for a few 5K races as part of her gymnastics physical fitness regimen.  As I was out running this morning, I was thinking about how prolific long distance racing has become, with specialty themes like “Krispy Kreme Challenge,” “The Color Run,” and “Twinkie run.”  I have often thought it would be fun to have a “Race for your Marriage,” event because long distance running is such a great metaphor for long-term marriage.   I usually resist writing anything using running metaphors because they always seem so….well…obvious!  I’m breaking my rule here because 1) Anyone who reads my blog knows I’m not above using journalistic-type clichés (see previous sentence and title), and 2) Almost every time I go running, this theme ricochets around inside my head, so I’m hoping to put it to rest by articulating my random thoughts on paper.

I joined the high school cross country team as a freshman, when my best friend wanted me to join with her.  I had always enjoyed sports and routinely rotated through powder puff football, basketball, softball and volleyball.  My favorite events were definitely in track and field because I had been a fairly strong sprinter and jumper (probably because of years of gymnastics).  My older brother had recently set several high school records in sprinting and jumping events, and I think that made me want to participate in track and field even more.  Even though I had never run more than two miles at a time, I was confident that I wouldn’t come in last in cross country races.

I learned lessons from cross country that have always stayed with me, which weren’t reinforced as well anywhere else.  I don’t consider myself a great long-distance runner.  You could probably outrun me in a race.  My greatest strength is probably consistency.  I think it’s almost always painful and difficult, and yet if I am driving and a runner crosses my path, I experience a kind of microjolt in my brain and it makes me want to go running.  As creepy as it sounds, I still hear my high school coach’s voice in my head as part of my running self -talk.  Many of the lessons can be applied to my marriage, as listed below:

  1. It’s important to set your pace. Even though this seems obvious, I’m still surprised by how many people start a race too fast only to burn out partway through.  In marriage, sometimes people come out of the gate strong, but crumble at the first sign of disillusionment (which will happen for every marriage).  Expect to have to set a pace.
  2. There is going to be pain. Despite the runner’s high talk, I think running is enjoyable but also painful.  When I was competing, I definitely experienced a lot of pain.  In marriage, there will be pain, plain and simple.  Don’t be surprised that it hurts.
  3. You will get better with consistent practice. The more I ran, the faster I got.  I read everything I could about running technique.  I practiced particular breathing strategies.  I ran intervals to get faster.  In marriage, couples almost always get better the more they work at it.
  4. Adding extra challenges makes the easy times easier. My high school cross country team came in first place at the district and regional level year after year.  One of our coach’s secret weapons was sand.  About ½ mile of our course was through soft, deep sand at the bottom of a concrete riverbed.  When runners from other high schools came and ran on our course, they often slowed down in the sand.  By comparison, every other course I ran was easier.  I hated that sand.  It was awkward for running.  However, it made me a stronger runner.  Challenges in marriage (like unemployment, raising children, financial stress, marital disconnection) can be like the sand which slows couples down temporarily but makes them stronger in the long run.
  5. Know your strengths. My coach gave me an assessment of my specific strengths early on.  He said, “You’ve got speed and you’ve got endurance, and you’ve got a great kick at the end; so, what I want you to do is find your pace and settle in behind someone who is barely faster and let them break the wind for you (yes, I know how that sounds–I have five sons).  Then, at the end, sprint past as many people as you can.”  It worked like a charm.  Similarly, every marriage has strengths.  Some couples don’t have high conflict, so they are able to discuss things without fighting.  Some couples may have conflict, but they are passionate and continue trying even when it’s hard.  Assess your unique strengths.
  6. Don’t stop while you can still keep going. I have a vivid memory early in my cross country season of being in so much pain during practice that I stopped and started walking.  Seconds later, my coach rounded the street corner and started screaming at least 50 yards behind me, “Don’t you stop, Cluff! DON’T! YOU! STOP!!!  Start running right now!”  He caught up to me and said, “I don’t care how slow you are going, but I don’t ever want to see you stop and walk again.  Slow down to a slower jogging pace, but don’t stop.”  He wanted us to persist in running to become better.  In marriage, couples slowly drift apart because other things occupy their time and they stop working on the marriage.  Continuing to put forth effort is key.
  7. People usually perform better with a cheerleader. I remember many times near the end of the race, I would hear my coach yell out, “OK Cluff, baby, kick it in right now.”  As soon as I would start to gain on the next runner, he would yell, “OK, you’ve got her.  Move to the next one.”  Because he believed in me, I’m sure I passed many more people than I would have otherwise.  In marriage, when couples hear what they are doing well from their partners, they are more motivated.
  8. Sometimes you might take your situation for granted. I turned out to be a better runner than I thought I would be.  At our first race of the season, I came in third for our whole team and ended up being the only freshman on varsity for the season.  As a confession, I was incredibly lazy.  I often cut my workouts short.  I saw a lot of teammates work harder than I did, and I knew I was taking advantage of some natural ability.  I see marriages in which some partners are hyper-critical of their spouses, who are really trying very hard to be kind and committed.  Sometimes I want to tell them they don’t know how good they have it, and they are taking their situations for granted.
  9. Sometimes you will lose. I had such a habit of sprinting past several people at the end of a race that I expected to pass anyone I could approach at the end.  I distinctly remember one time when I approached a runner from behind and she sped up with me, which made me speed up faster because I was determined that I was going to pass her.  I didn’t.  I couldn’t catch her because she out-sprinted me, even if only by a hair.  I was humbled by losing to her.  In marriage, people have differences of opinion.  You have to be willing to lose sometimes to be in the race.  People who want to win every disagreement will end up losing the marriage.
  10. No one can make you do something you really don’t want to do. After my first year of cross country and track, I wanted to try out for the tennis team because my good friend was ranked 8th in the state of California for her age group and said she would teach me.  My cross country coach really wanted me to keep running.  I didn’t want to, because I wanted to join the tennis team, even if it meant I would be playing junior varsity.  My coach badgered me constantly and finally called my father to try to convince him that I should keep running.  My father entered my room and said, “Lori, your cross country coach says you have a lot of natural ability for running and if you keep running, he thinks he can get you a college scholarship.”  Without even looking up, I said, “I want to play tennis and I don’t need a running scholarship because I’m getting an academic scholarship.” As a result of my father scouring my academic schedule to make sure I was always taking the hardest math and science classes possible, I was setting the curve in my chemistry class and actively participating on math competition teams for my school, so I was confident that I didn’t need to run to go to college.  I just didn’t want to.  My father stood there for a minute watching me and then said, “OK,” and left.  He could not have made me run if I didn’t want to.  Similarly, nobody can make you stay really engaged or present in a marriage if you don’t want to be there.  It’s something you have to want for yourself.
  11. Enjoy the changing landscape. Sometimes when I run, I forget to enjoy the beautiful scenery because I’m so focused on finishing.  We do that in our relationships all the time.  Slowing down and appreciating the small moments really makes a difference.
  12. Lastly, you decide if you are too injured to finish the race. I still run even though I have had back surgery.  However, almost everyone I know who has had the same surgery doesn’t run anymore.  It’s too painful.  I feel blessed that my pain is mild enough that I can keep running, but I know it’s worse for others.  Sometimes marriage is too abusive, broken or painful for people to continue.  I particularly believe that an enduring loss of human dignity is no way to live.  I would not do it, but nobody else can tell me what I can and cannot endure.  Only I know, just like individuals in painful marriages have to be the ones to decide if it’s too painful to go on or not.

Marriage is a type of long-term endurance race.  Some finish and some can’t, for many reasons.  As long as you are still in the race, however, it makes sense to try.

Couples, Family, Holidays, Humor, marriage

Halloween, Happiness and a Holstein: A MOOving Memory

Copyright: tomwang / 123RF Stock Photo

The current trend in Psychology to study “happiness,” has resulted in consistent findings that making memories brings more enduring happiness than accumulating material possessions.  In our family, there are few holidays that evoke more lasting memories than Halloween.

I love Halloween.  However, I definitely prefer the kinder, gentler Halloween of smiling Jack-o-lanterns and friendly looking ghosts to the gruesome displays of zombies, open wounds and scenes from the dark side.  Mostly, I have enjoyed dressing my kids up in costumes and watching their excitement at being in character for the day.

Before I had so many kids, I used to sew my kids’ Halloween attire, because I thought that’s what good mothers did (I know—and I regularly thank the high heavens that I dodged the Pinterest bullet, which was non-existent in my young mother days).

One year, in a pregnancy-induced nausea fog, I managed to sew my way through my oldest son’s costume:  A stuffed chicken eggshell for him to wear over yellow, fuzzy, baby chicken-like pajamas, complete with a top half which he wore like a hat and bottom half which he wore pulled up like shorts.

The expression on my husband’s face when I showed him the costume I had sewn was priceless.  His eyes got big and he nearly shrieked, “My SON is going to be a CHICKEN?  Could you have thought of anything less masculine????!!!!”

“Why yes,” I replied, “Actually, I can in fact name many things stereotypically less masculine right now, starting with fairy princess.  Do you want me to continue the list?  Besides, he’s a baby rooster, and it doesn’t get any more masculine than that.  He’s also a riddle, as in ‘Which came first?’”

My husband rolled his eyes at me, but how could he argue with a Halloween costume which doubled as a deep philosophical question?  As we took my son trick-or-treating, the homemade chicken in an egg costume was a big hit, and my husband admits that it made for a good memory.

While I enjoyed dressing up my kids, we have never been one of those couples who goes all out on our own costumes.  We’re both too reserved and too tired for that.  The last time we had to dress up for a Halloween party, I wore a bathrobe with my hair in curlers and attached a baby doll to my leg, representing a clinging toddler, with two more baby dolls strapped to my front and back in baby carriers.  I bought my high tech husband a pocket protector, nerd glasses, an orange oxford button-up. We appeared as the “reality-based couple.”  Easy Peasy.

One year stands out, however, and it’s one of those instances in which my husband’s loss was my comedic gain (which really is a win-win if you think about it).  We got invited to a costume party a few days before Halloween.  I had only a few hours to pull costumes together in the short time I had a babysitter for our two young children. I rushed to the nearest store to try to find anything that wasn’t too complex or cost-prohibitive.  This was back in the days before large brick and mortar Halloween superstores were available in my area, and Halloween didn’t have quite the same hype that is does today, so I had far more limited options.

As I shuffled through the rack of costumes, a clearance item marked down 75% caught my attention.  It was an adult-sized costume in an XL.  Since my husband is over 6’2” and fairly broad-shouldered, I thought I hit the jackpot.   As I examined the white fabric with black splotches, for a split second, I worried that he might not want to dress up as a Holstein cow, but then I envisioned a gingham skirt hanging in my closet that looked just like it belonged to a farm girl, and decided that if I put my long hair in two braids and carried a bucket, we could go as a milk maid and a cow, and he would surely see the wisdom in my decision.  Mission accomplished.

Then, he came home from work and saw what I wanted him to wear for the party.

“You can’t be serious,” he whined at me when I presented him with my brilliant idea.  “What is it with you and farm animals?” he complained.  “What?” I answered innocently, “It’s just a cow—they’re everywhere.  It’s not like people haven’t seen a cow before—besides, that’s all the store had left in your size–now hurry and put it on because we are going to be late.”  While he reluctantly started undressing, I ran downstairs to give final instructions to the babysitter.  When I ran back up to our room, he was standing there looking bovine-ish, and I couldn’t help it.  I started to laugh.  He was not amused.  “There is no way I can go out like this,” he explained, “I look obscene.”

“What do you mean?” I asked, trying to stifle my laughter, averting my gaze from the obvious source of his discontent.  He gestured toward the large, disturbingly realistic looking polymer udder protruding from his lower abdominal region and explained, “Just look at this!  It looks inappropriate.”

I couldn’t help myself, “Well, you could be an exhibitionistic cow, which is way more interesting than just a cow.”  He wasn’t amused, and suddenly narrowed his eyes at me, fixing me with an icy stare.  “Wait.  Where’s your costume?” he demanded.   “I’m wearing it,” I answered quickly, “Now come on, let’s go.”  I was hoping he would drop it and just follow, but the reptilian gaze continued, “So…I’m going…looking like…this….and you’re going…looking…normal,” he said slowly, as if English was my second language.

“No way,” I said, “I look like I just walked out of an episode of Little House on the Prairie.  Plus how often have you seen my hair in braids?  And look—when have I ever left the house with a galvanized accessory for a purse?” I tried to be convincing as I swung my bucket toward him.  “Now come on, let’s go, and stop staring at me like that.  I keep expecting your tongue to dart out and catch a bug.”

He sighed heavily for the first of many times that evening, but followed along begrudgingly.

On our way to the party, I apologized for not having the foresight to realize what a focal point the udder was going to be, but tried to be optimistic.  “I really don’t think anyone will notice.  They’ll all be so busy with conversation and everything.  You’ll be fine.”  I was also wondering how with my Southern California street smart public school background I had missed any torrid implications of dressing us up like a milk maid and a cow.  I was hoping that my fellow Utahns wouldn’t notice.

We walked into the party a little bit late, and the guests were sitting around in a circle, chatting warmly.  I kid you not when I say that palpable silence descended upon the room as we walked in.  In other words, EVERYONE noticed the udder.  In fact, the udder was now center stage.  As my husband and I greeted everyone and sat down, the man sitting near my husband burst out, “Don’t aim those things at me,” and laughter erupted, bouncing off the walls.  I tried to lighten his darkening mood.  “Can you MOOve over?” I asked, and then whispered, “You’re a MOOvement–A costume that is also a pun.  How cool is that?”  He rolled his eyes at me and sighed.  Again.

I do believe that as the evening wore on and we engaged in a variety of games and activities, there were moments my husband had enough fun that he forgot for a moment that he was dressed as a female cow.  However, as soon as we walked into our bedroom that evening, he made a point of saying, “Take a good look, because this is the last time you are ever going to see me in this costume again.  That was humiliating.”

I replied, “But that was such a MOOving experience…you actually look LITERALLY udderly ridiculous,” and laughed.  He didn’t, so I went on, “I understand, honey.  The next time I get a cow costume, I will get the one for two people and I will even be the back end if you want.”  He made his position clear, “No more cow costumes.”

True to his word, he absolutely refused to ever put the costume on again, and I ended up giving it away to a friend.  However, the costume was the gift that kept on giving, because now every time we are out together and see anything cow-related, I can say, “What does that remind you of?” and we dissolve into laughter, although I admittedly laugh a little harder.

You cannot just go to the store and buy memories like these, people.  It takes special talent to be clueless enough to create something so “a-moo-sing.”  Sometimes our best memories are the mishaps we make as we stumble along and bump into each other in our relationships.  Fortunately, my husband is a good sport.  So, do you think he’ll like the Holstein-print sheets I got him for our bed for Christmas?  Animal prints are neutral, after all!

Couples Therapy, marriage, Marriage and Family Therapy, Romance

Too Many “Sparks” in Your Romance May Set Fire to Your Marriage

Emily frame
Photo by Holly Robinson at

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.”

Now, that’s a romance!