Couples, Couples Therapy, Grandparents, marriage

Adventures in Grandparenting: One of the Best Reasons to Avoid “Gray Divorce”

22159793 - grandparents having great fun with their grandchildI still had my eyes closed in a state of sleep one morning last month, when I felt a shift in the force field centimeters from my nose. My eyes flipped open to an image of my new granddaughter, beaming, in a sunny yellow dress. As I blinked, trying to make sense out of my surroundings, I slowly realized that my husband had pulled her photo up on his phone and stuck it in front of my face to wake me up. I wasn’t quite coherent when I heard him say, “Look, Grandma! We have a precious new granddaughter, and we get to see her in a few weeks. She wanted to wish you good morning!” Her parents were bringing her to visit and we were both beyond ecstatic.

I had been looking forward to watching my husband as a grandfather for months, and he did not disappoint. A few months before my grandchild was born, we had a Chilean family over at our house for dinner. Their 4 year-old son spoke no English. A few minutes after they arrived, my daughter elbowed me and said, “Mom, look…dad is going to be the cutest grandpa.” I saw him down on his hands and knees, helping the little boy with a toy car he brought over, speaking his language, “Listo? Tírelo….. Mira que rápido que va.“

I understood the general meaning of what he was saying as, “Ready…Look how fast it went,” or goes, or something like that. What was unmistakable, though, was the sheer joy exhibited on the little boy’s face as he laughed and clapped his hands. My husband’s expression was reflective, showing that he was having as much or more fun as his small Chilean playmate.

What makes grandparenting so awesome?

Given a general increase in health and longevity, the potential for grandparenting influences is greater than ever. Many people report the grandparenting role as one of the most rewarding. I agree with the oft-repeated definition of “The fun part of parenting without all the hard stuff.”

Grandparents are storytellers, mentors, nurturers, caretakers, family historians and sometimes surrogate parents (in which case they do take on a lot of the “hard stuff”). They commonly reinforce the transmission of family values. Sometimes they offer more stability than parents. The rewards are reciprocal. Many grandparents report a sense of fulfillment by influencing grandchildren.

Grandparenting can be rejuvenating. Some people report that involvement with their grandchildren keeps them young. I can verify that as soon as I held my new granddaughter, I experienced many of the same feelings I had when I held my oldest son as a baby. Suddenly, I saw the world a different way. I wanted to experience everything anew with my child. That’s exactly the feeling I had with my granddaughter. Rejuvenating is an accurate descriptor.

What is “gray divorce” and how does it affect grandparenting?

One rather unfortunate effect of longevity seems to be a phenomenon called “gray divorce,” referring to the increasing numbers of couples divorcing in midlife or later. People divorce after several decades of marriage for many of the same reasons couples divorce earlier. With couples living longer, some are deciding they don’t want to continue to endure a difficult marriage, particularly if all the children are grown, and they have primarily stayed together for the children.

Sadly, even though any negative effects of grandparent divorce can be mitigated, it’s still a stressor that reverberates through an intergenerational family system. Grandparents who divorce sometimes perceive the grandparenting role as less important…especially males. Depending on the post-divorce relationships, sometimes grandchildren suffer if, for example, one grandparent refuses to show up at a family event the ex-spouse is attending. Sometimes watching grandparents divorce can reduce grandchildren’s confidence in their own abilities to endure a long-term marriage.

I remember when a teenager came in for a session right after her parents announced they were getting a divorce. She burst into tears and the first thing she said was, “I’m never going to be able to take my children to their grandparents’ house together, because they will be in separate households. Forever.” I was quite surprised at how futuristically she was envisioning her losses, but I could easily see why she was upset over the anticipated rupture in household structure. She was right. It was going to shift, and she had to reorganize her hopes and dreams for the future.

Is there hope for distressed “gray” marriages?

I recognize that sometimes divorce is inevitable. Personally, I would rather divorce than stay in a terrible marriage. However, I occasionally see couples who have given up hope when there is still hope left to shift negative patterns and heal previous betrayals, depending on the marital history and current context.

Some of my most rewarding marriage cases are with couples who have been married more than 40 years and feeling entirely hopeless that there’s anything I can offer them for improvement. “Why would anything be different now after 44 years of marriage?” I’ve been cynically questioned.

More often than not, I can point to specific markers of disconnection from their reported history and explain at least theoretically why the marriage can still be healed.  I’ve noticed that many betrayals and injuries in marriage don’t heal automatically, and couples get stuck, confused about how to move forward and rebuild. Many of these couples were surprised that through therapy, they actually did heal past injuries and negative patterns and develop new ways of connecting.

I’ve had several couples experience a state of grieving after improvement, feeling sorrow over having lost so many years of connection, but they also treasure the time they have left. It’s fun to see them excited about each other, and realizing they may have developed more closeness than some of their aging peers in mediocre marriages.

I have only been a Grandma for a few months, but entering grandparenthood with my husband has so far been one of the dearest, most connecting times in our marriage. We are both so jointly entranced by this little person that we can’t be anything but happy when we are taking turns holding and playing with her. We keep looking at each other and saying, “This is our granddaughter. Isn’t she perfect? We had a part in creating this.”

I can’t help but think, “This is why we worked so hard to stay married…because now we get to have this.” She represents our expanding legacy. A grandchild brings unparalleled purpose and meaning to life, and it’s even more fun that my cute grandpa-husband and I are doing it together.

References:

Amato, P. R., & Cheadle, J. (2005). The long reach of divorce: Divorce and child wellbeing across three generations. Journal of Marriage and Family, 67, 191-206.

Brown, S.L., & Lin, I.-F., (2012). The gray divorce revolution: rising divorce among middle-aged and older adults, 1990–2010. Journals of Gerontology Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences, 67(6), 731–741.

Canham, S. L., Mahmood, A., Stott, S., Sixsmith, J., & O’Rourke, N.  (2014) ’Til Divorce Do Us Part: Marriage Dissolution in Later Life, Journal of Divorce & Remarriage, 55:8, 591-612.

Greenwood, J. L. (2012). Parent–child relationships in the context of a mid- to late life parental divorce. Journal of Divorce & Remarriage, 53, 1–17.

King, V. (2002). Parental divorce and interpersonal trust in adult offspring. Journal of Marriage and Family, 64, 924-938.

King, V. (2003). The legacy of a grandparent’s divorce: Consequences for ties between grandparents and grandchildren. Journal of Marriage and Family, 65, 170-183.

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

Couples, marriage

The Main Aspects of Commitment in Marriage and Why it Matters More Than a Decade Ago

commitmentLove or Commitment?

Researchers have confirmed that the single most important quality in keeping a marriage stable over the long-term is commitment. Commitment is an intention to maintain a relationship over time. In the words of commitment researcher, Dr. Scott Stanley, it is “We with a future.”

People generally commit to someone in long-term relationships in western cultures because they are “in love.” While that’s a difficult construct to define, there is general agreement that it is associated with positive feelings toward someone and a desire to be with them on a more permanent basis.

Love is a general term, tends to shift meaning in long-term relationships, and is highly subjective. Beginning stages of romantic relationships elicit physiological responses people associate with “love,” like higher motivation and energy, and a desire to seek out the love connection. Over time, physiology tends to return to baseline, and love can feel very different. In part, commitment is the constant in the shifting dynamic of long-term love.

Two Parts of Commitment

Commitment in marriage is commonly considered to have two parts, which are sometimes referred to as the “want to” and “have to” aspects:

  1. Personal dedication: This is the motivation to prioritize the relationship and link personal goals with another. It fuels putting forth best efforts for the marriage, and increases willingness to sacrifice personal interest for your partner’s welfare (in a non-abusive relationship).
  1. Constraint: This is what keeps people together during low points in the relationship. Dr. Stanley uses the metaphor of falling in love with a puppy to illustrate the need for constraint commitment. He explains that we fall in love with the “front end,” of the puppy, meaning its cuteness factor, but “every puppy has a back end,” that represents the work required to maintain the pet over the long-term. Examples of constraints that keep people together when the going gets rough are children, shared finances, shared households, legal contracts, religious imperatives, or the accumulation of investment one has put into a relationship over a long period of time.

Functions of Commitment 

In summary, it’s unreasonable to expect that long-term relationships will always provide high individual satisfaction. Commitment is the glue that keeps it secured when individual satisfaction is waning. Here are some specific functions:

  1. Commitment influences behaviors. It keeps people thinking of ways to protect and preserve the relationship over the long-term. It fuels constructive responses to negative partner behavior.
  1. Commitment keeps people from thinking of other options they could have chosen. Making a decision to commit to someone is a decision to not commit to someone else. The root of the word decide is associated with “cutting off,” implying cutting ties to an alternative decision.
  1. Commitment feeds a desire to persist on the chosen relationship path even when something is difficult. In every relationship, people have moments of boredom, frustration, hurt and other unpleasant emotions. That’s expected—the “back end,” of the puppy.
  1. Commitment provides a backdrop for secure attachment, reducing attachment anxiety. Attachment security is at the heart of relationship satisfaction and commitment can help when it has been damaged and couples are trying to rebuild.

Why Does Understanding Commitment Matter More Than a Decade Ago? 

This is my anecdotal opinion as a clinician, but there are important cultural shifts impacting long-term relationships which I have witnessed. Understanding commitment can help maintain marital stability in the face of these changes: 

  1. Easier access to previous romantic and alternative partners. This creates a risk for increased alternative monitoring, or considering other partners, which threatens relationship stability. I can still remember the moment when a couple’s presenting concern was that the wife was texting her old boyfriend six months after the wedding. I thought, “This opens up a whole new challenge for marriage.” I never had a cell phone in which to keep my old boyfriend’s number, and he wasn’t a text away. I didn’t have the option of reaching out so easily so quickly.
  1. The trend in thinking that cohabitation is a better substitute for marriage, and delaying marriage. Stanley refers to this as “Sliding vs. Deciding.” When people start living together to “try out,” their relationship, the problem is that they start the process of creating constraints without realizing it. They start sharing mortgages, car payments, may have children together, and slowly generate the type of investment which keeps people in a relationship when it’s hard. For example, when people move in together, it becomes harder to break up with someone you really don’t want to be with long-term, now that you’re sharing living quarters, so you’re more likely to just end up allowing the long-term relationship to be decided for you (sliding) instead of really choosing for yourself (deciding). This is likely why marital stability is actually lower for people who cohabitate first. When research claims otherwise, it is for a very select demographic of people, not the population at large. People need to realize that they are creating constraint commitment without realizing it and they may be doing it without the chosen “dedication” part of commitment.

How to Maximize Commitment 

  1. Look for ways to Sacrifice. Sacrifice is a huge signal for commitment. Seeing a partner sacrifice for you builds trust in the relationship. In good marriages, sacrifice also increase good feelings in the partner who is sacrificing. I went to a training of Dr. Stanley’s a few decades ago and still remember his pointing out that small sacrifices can be more helpful than large ones, because when people go all out, they tend to keep score about whether the spouse is matching the sacrificial behavior. Right now, write down three small things you know you can do that your partner would appreciate.
  1. Manage alternative monitoring. Alternative monitoring is what happens when people see other potential partners and begin imagining what life would be like with those people instead. Sometimes people think if they are attracted to other people, it means they should pursue a relationship elsewhere. We are all built to potentially be attracted to many different people—otherwise, how would we regenerate our species? Someone exercising commitment might notice another person who is attractive, but he/she will self-talk in a way to reinvigorate commitment to the relationship. For example, “She’s cute, but she probably isn’t as good a mother as my wife—I’m glad I’m married to her,” or “He’s cute, but he’s probably not as kind as my husband.” People who are managing alternative monitoring refocus on the qualities they enjoy about their partners as a whole. Unfortunately, people low in marital satisfaction but high in constraint commitment will feel trapped, and people who feel trapped tend to alternatively monitor more frequently.
  2. Consider signaling commitment. Engaged and recently married people were asked to identify the “ultimate signal,” of commitment. There is a cool infographic about this on the Science of Relationships website. First on the list was wearing wedding rings. See my blog post about wedding rings here.
  3. Continue to dream and make future plans. Remember—commitment is “us with a future.” Write out what you want to be doing in 2, 5, 10 or 20 years to keep focused on the long-term.

It’s my perception that in our individualistic society, commitment in marriage is diminishing, which is unfortunate, because, the types of stable relationships fostered by commitment are ideal for raising children. If people understood it better, they might be more intentional in their long-term relationships.

References:

Assessing Commitment in Personal Relationships by Stanley, S. & Markman, H. J. (1992) in Journal of Marriage and the Family, 54 (3), 595-697. DOI: 10.2307/35324.x

Communication, Conflict and Commitment: Insights on the Foundations of Relationship Success from a National Survey by Stanley, S. M., Markman, H. J. & Whitton, S. W. (2002) in Family Process, 41(4) 659-675 DOI: 10.1111/j.1545-5300.2002.00659.x

Commitment: Functions, Formation, and the Securing of Romantic Attachment by Stanley, S. M., Rhoades, G. K. & Whitton, S. W. (2010) in Journal of Family Theory and Review, 2(4), 243-257 DOI: 10.1111/j.1756-2589.2010.00060.x

Photo Credit: Copyright: 72soul / 123RF Stock Photo

Couples, Couples Therapy, Love, marriage

If Money is Your Biggest Marital Problem, Money Might not be Your Biggest Marital Problem

money coupleIf my husband and I are out with another couple and there is a lull in the conversation, we can usually spark interest by bringing up the fact that we lived in a mortuary during the early years of our marriage.  Back then, newlywed and college poor, we jumped on the opportunity to live in a mortuary apartment and answer the phone at nights and on weekends in exchange for free rent and utilities.  As a bonus, we had a natural backdrop to create a spook alley on the way up the stairs to our front door.  We felt so lucky.

When my husband called my father and asked if he could propose to me, my father replied, “Go write up a financial plan for how you’re going to pay for it and call me back,” trying to scare him off. Undeterred, we jointly created a proposal for how we would support ourselves through college while married.  We spent the entire summer working in California, saving all of our money for the upcoming year.  We were so disciplined about hoarding our paychecks and not going out that my mom handed me a wad of cash and begged me to “go on a date already–you’re driving me crazy being here all the time.”

I had spent the previous year as a family financial planning major, believing that I would have a niche as a marriage therapist with a financial planning background.  I changed my major when a graduate school advisor told me if I really wanted to be accepted to a top marriage therapy program, I would need a bachelor’s degree geared toward therapy experience.  That financial planning year was valuable, however, in teaching me the importance of having a unified financial plan in marriage, not just for financial security, but for increased marital unity and happiness.

If someone asked you what married couples argue about the most, money would likely be at or near the top of your list. Although many publications purport that money is the leading cause of divorce or the number one conflict in marriage, studies with any statistical rigor addressing the topic are extremely scarce and don’t necessarily support that assertion.

One relatively recent diary study, in which couples kept daily reports of their conflicts, actually found that the number one topic of conflict was children.  Next were chores, communication and leisure.  Money came in fifth and sixth on the list.  In another study, more marital conflict about money was predictive of lower marital quality, but not of divorce.

Interestingly, although money as a topic of conflict was lower on the list for both husbands and wives, it was associated with higher levels of negative emotions and lower levels of resolution.  When couples did argue about money, they reported experiencing more sadness and fear and more expressions of anger and hostility than with other issues.

In other words, couples didn’t necessarily fight about money the most, but when they did argue about it, they argued hard without solving the problem.

Money does come up in therapy somewhat regularly as a conflict area in marriage.  These are some common ways money becomes problematic:

  1. Financial dishonesty.  Common examples are when a spouse finds out another one charged up debt on a hidden credit card or when one spouse spends retirement money without telling the other.  Purchasing items and hiding them from a partner also happens relatively frequently.
  2. Lack of planning.  Couples either don’t know how or are too uncomfortable to experience the emotions necessary to have financial conversations, so they turn a blind eye and end up avoiding money.
  3. Disagreement about purchases.  It’s common to see couples who fundamentally disagree about how money should be spent.  A common narrative is a husband who wants to make large purchases, e.g. automobiles or electronics vs. a wife who spends more on household items than the husband thinks is necessary.

While it is true that a certain level of income is required for security, research shows that money and happiness has more to do with relativism than absolutism.  In other words, once you reach a certain income level, an increase in income won’t necessarily make you happier.  If you feel well off compared to those around you, you will experience more well-being related to money, but if you feel deprived compared to those around you, you will experience more unhappiness.

I have had people from many different economic backgrounds in therapy, from couples at the poverty level to couples who could purchase my net worth several times over, and I can attest to the fact that money doesn’t protect people from marital problems.  In fact, sometimes more money means more baseline expectations as well as more disagreement about how to distribute resources.

Money also doesn’t usually fix communication problems, in-law problems, parenting problems, sexual problems, betrayal, abuse, addictions or other common challenges.  I have noticed that sometimes money is used as a band-aid for some of those problems, but the fix is temporary.  Money can only mask other areas of discontent for so long.

It is for that reason that I believe money is often not the biggest problem when it comes to money in marriage.  In my observation, the biggest problem is a lack of respect, teamwork and unity.

My husband built a career from a computer science background, which seemed like a solid choice at the time, but came with some unpredictable ups and downs associated with economic globalization.  During one of the down turns, when a company for which he worked went out of business, I started to mildly panic about our future income.

As I thought about it, I recalled the early days of our marriage. Even though that time of our life had been far more financially restrictive than our current situation, I realized that I was no happier in the present with more financial resources than I had been in the past living in a mortuary.  I remembered how we had bonded around maximizing our scarce resources.  Because we were working together on common future goals, we tolerated our economic scarcity with a fair level of contentment.  I realized I could access the same attitude I had used back then in the present to deal with the economic setback.

While financial catastrophes can create conflict-inducing stress in a marriage, there are couples who experience severe financial strain without allowing it to impact their marital quality.

I had a neighbor whose husband had been unemployed for several years.  His area of expertise had become less marketable.  I noticed that his wife never spoke disparagingly about him.  She held his hand when they were out.  She was tired and stressed, and felt the burden of raising her children while getting a job herself, but she was focused on helping him integrate back into the workforce until he got a job in another state.  Instead of blaming or criticizing him, she was focused on solving the problem with him.  I marveled at her attitude when I had witnessed so much of the opposite as a marriage therapist.

For what it’s worth, as a marriage therapist and not as a financial expert, here are some tips for unifying around finances:

  1. Do not keep financial secrets.  It will only erode trust.  This happens a lot.  I was always surprised at how many women I knew hid their purchases from their husbands.
  2. Try to honor each other’s’ dreams.  This is where the Golden Rule might be effectively applied.
  3. Get help from an expert if needed.  If you can’t afford it, some universities or local organizations might offer financial planning or tax planning help. Ask.
  4. Create financial goals in the near and far future.  If you need to, create a Venn diagram in which you write each of your desires and identify the overlap in the middle where you both agree.
  5. In times of financial distress, remember that it’s the marriage against the problem.  Don’t allow the problem to divide the marriage.  Have an “us against the dragon,” attitude.
  6. Realize that to have financial conversations, you are probably going to have to be willing to tolerate some uncomfortable emotions.  Financial worries can trigger anxiety around future security, self-esteem and marital power and worth. Anchor yourselves to the idea that you are a team planning for the future.

Perhaps nothing has been pontificated about more than the topic of love and money.  Despite my general dislike for the country music genre (just an individual preference—don’t take it personally—my daughter-in-law loves country music and I adore her), I was drawn to a Garth Brooks quote that declared, “You aren’t wealthy until you have something money can’t buy.”  As a marriage therapist, I enthusiastically agree with that–as well as the Beatles lyrics that “Money can’t buy me love.”  Really, it can’t.

References:

For Richer, for Poorer: Money as a Topic of Marital Conflict in the Home by Papp, L. M., Cummings, E. M., & Goeke-Morey, M. C. (2009), Family Relations, 58, 91-103.

The Role of Money Arguments in Marriage by Britt, S. L. & Huston, S. J. (2012), Journal of Family and Economic Issues, 33(4), 464-476.

Photo credit: Copyright: zimmytws / 123RF Stock Photo

Couples, Love, marriage

How do I Know if I’m Marrying the Right Person?

proposalAnyone considering marriage is trying to find the “right person.”  Choosing a marriage partner is always a risk of probabilities, and marriage is experiential.  You never know quite how it’s going to play out.  I asked my husband the other day if he knew how much trouble I was going to be, would he want to marry me again?  His answer was, “Lori, my worst day with you is better than any day I can imagine without you in it.”  Even though about this time 30 years ago I decided he would be someone I could count on long-term to be an adoring husband and father, I still feel more lucky than strategic about how things turned out.  I experienced a lot of turmoil about the decision three decades ago.

People can and do change in unpredictable ways.  Sometimes, when I have clients highly distressed or getting divorced, they are deeply confused about why they felt good about marrying people who turned out to be so difficult or disloyal.  The short answer is that predicting future human behavior is impossible.

Despite uncertainty, there are some empirically-based premarital correlates with future marital happiness and stability.  Here are some points of discussion and questions to ask yourself to guide your big decision.  I want to emphasize that these are not entirely predictive but are worthy of consideration.

  1. Is this person adaptable?  I once heard a speaker suggest taking a possible future partner on a hike after agreeing to bring the water, purposely forgetting the water at the end of the hike, and watching their reaction.  Someone who is very angry about the lapse is someone more likely to be rigid and unaccepting.  There is a positive correlation between more flexible, less neurotic personality types, and marital happiness. 
  1. Do we both have high levels of self-esteem? People with poor self-concepts struggle more in relationships.  Do not marry someone to be the hero therapist.
  1. Do this person’s parents have a stable and happy marriage? While having divorced or unhappy parents doesn’t necessarily mean someone can’t have a great marriage, it’s an important point of discussion, because I can verify that these experiences shape people’s reactions in marriage.  For example, people whose parents divorced or had aggressive conflict can be sensitive to normal levels of marital conflict.  Beliefs in marital longevity are molded by parental models.
  1. Are your family and friends supportive of the union? This matters for obvious reasons.  They can become antagonistic and affect the marriage later if unsupportive.
  1. Are you feeling any kind of pressure to get married? I have had numerous couples report that they didn’t want to get married weeks before the wedding, but the invitations were out and their parents told them they had to go through with it.  Don’t EVER get married to avoid disappointing someone.  Don’t get married because of religious pressure.  Get married because you want to and feel good about it.  Two nights before I got married, my father called me into his office and said, “I want you to know  that I want you to be happy, and if you have any reservations about getting married, you do not have to go through with it.  It doesn’t matter that the invitations are out.” He was worried about my age.  Even though this admittedly freaked me out a little bit, I know my father was trying to relieve any felt pressure.  My decision to marry was entirely my own.
  1. Is there a history of mental or physical illness? Anything can develop after the wedding, but because these are known stressors, if they are pre-existing conditions, there should be numerous conversations about how to handle peripheral effects.
  1. Do we have similar family backgrounds? There is some evidence that similar cultural, religious, educational and socioeconomic backgrounds can reduce some future conflict.  If you’re different, you’re not doomed, but you will want to acknowledge the differences and keep conversation open.
  1. Do we agree about gender roles? It’s important to have conversations about what you both want for yourselves in the future.  For example, some women want to stay home to raise their children and there can be conflict if the husband wants his wife to work. Conversely, some women want to work and it’s a source of conflict if the husband wants a wife who stays home.  Some men want to be home with their children, and their wives are unhappy if they feel responsible to financially support their families.  Couples in agreement before marriage will have smoother adjustments to gender roles.
  1. Do we have similar attitudes, values and beliefs? Similarity especially helps in areas directly impacting the marriage relationship and raising children together.
  1. How well do you know this person? This is where time helps.  Although time isn’t always correlated with future marital quality, I would be nervous for my children to marry someone they met a few months earlier.
  1. Do we agree about how many children we want and does my partner like children? Don’t ever marry someone thinking you are going to change his/her mind about having children if you aren’t in agreement.  Don’t ever try to force someone to have more children than they really want.  Make sure you see how that person acts around children.  My siblings used to call my husband “The Pied Piper,” because when we visited, he would play with my nieces and nephews and they followed him around.  I knew that because he liked interacting with children, he would be a great father.
  1. Can we steam up the car windows?  I’m not talking about sexual intercourse, which I will address below.  I’m adding this from clinical experience with highly religious couples, because sometimes, couples marry with little to no previous physical affection, and struggle because they just don’t experience physical “chemistry.”  Couples who started like this sometimes report later that they just aren’t physically attracted to each other.  Sometimes in religious unions physical affection can be underestimated, which can have future implications for marital quality.
  1. What have we done to educate ourselves about marriage? Premarital education is associated with future happiness and stability.  It’s easy with the internet to find online courses and books.

Myths about marrying the right person

There are some enduring myths about what is needed for finding the right long-term partner.  Most people operate from societal assumptions rather than empirical findings.  Here are common misperceptions:

  1.  Age at marriage.  Yes, age matters.  An 18-year-old has a higher chance of divorce than a 23-year-old.  However, people often treat age like a straight linear correlation—the older you marry, the better.  That’s not true.  Marrying in your 20’s comes with a level of flexibility that makes the divorce rate for this group of people lower than those who wait until they are in their 30’s.
  1. Amount of premarital sex. Another faulty assumption is that lots of premarital sex will make a couple more “sexually compatible,” and less likely to divorce.  The research doesn’t bear this out, and high levels of premarital sex CAN be predictive of extramarital sex.  As far as timing of premarital sex, there is also research demonstrating that the longer people wait to have sex, the higher marital quality they will have later.
  1. Cohabitation.  There is a myth that living together to “try out marriage,” should make the union more solid.  In short, people who cohabitate have a higher divorce rate than those who set up a joint household after marriage.  Researchers think it’s because people who cohabitate don’t proactively decide to be together, but tend to fall into it without the same levels of commitment as people who really want to set up a long-term joint household.

Does premarital counseling work? 

I’m not going to say it doesn’t, because any education or guidance can probably help, but I will say that premarital counseling can be somewhat limited in helpfulness.  The reason is that people in love and wanting to marry are often people in a brain-altered state because of the chemicals produced in the brain during the early phase of a relationship.  They tend to idealize their romantic partners.  I know from experience teaching premarital university courses that these couples tend to explain away any identified relationship weaknesses or areas of concern.  For example, I had my engaged students take the relationship assessment mentioned below and write me papers describing how their weaknesses might impact their marriages.  In almost every case, they wrote about why it might be a weakness for other couples, but not for them.  They saw themselves as exceptional.  They weren’t exceptional, but they were under the influences of the brain in love, so they thought they were exceptional.  They genuinely had difficulty imagining future conflict.

What to do if you are considering marriage:

  1. Take a relationship assessment to help identify your relationship strengths and weaknesses.  The Relate Institute has one  you can take very inexpensively. The tool can be found here.  You and your partner both fill out a relationship assessment with questions about yourself and your relationship.  You will both get a printout of your strengths and weaknesses to address in a discussion.  The instrument isn’t a compatibility test or predictive, but is meant to inspire communication to reduce surprises in marriage.  I don’t see any good reason to not take this type of assessment.
  1. Take a premarital education course in person or online.  With the internet, it’s easier than ever to access education.

Take comfort in the reality that people who are committed to a high-quality marriage can be intentional about making it happen.  As I have previously mentioned, soul mates are more crafted than discovered.  There is not just one “right,” person.  We are born with the potential to attract and set up a long-term relationship with a variety of possibilities.

Lastly, there is wisdom in the saying that marriage is more about being the right person than finding the right person.  In short, be the kind of person you want to attract.  It works much better than trying to find someone who meets your checklist.

References:

Premarital Predictors of Marital Quality and Stability (1994) by Jeffry H. Larson and Thomas B. Holman in Family Relations,43(2), 228-237

https://ifstudies.org/blog/slow-but-sure-does-the-timing-of-sex-during-dating-matter/

photo credit:

Copyright: antonioguillem / 123RF Stock Photo

Couples, Romance

Flourishing in Blah Blah Land

24640009 - couple walking holding hands with sunset and palmsOccasionally, a movie is released that has enough universal impact that I hear about it repeatedly from my clients.  So far in 2017, the movie is “La La Land,” starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone.  Since its release, I have had many couples come in and report that the low point of their week was seeing the film.  Having read critics’ reviews, I realize that the movie’s ending is polarizing.  People like it or hate it.  I hated it.  As someone who dabbles in relationship angst daily, it gave me anxiety.  My husband liked it.  He pronounced, “I liked that ending—do you want to know why?  Because I didn’t let the girl get away.”  I’m sure many have experienced it that way, but after watching it, I realized why it was having such a depressing impact on my clients.

If you haven’t seen the movie and don’t want the ending spoiled, stop reading.  Basically, the movie highlights the utopian budding romance of a couple with enviable chemistry.  It generates nostalgia for the feelings associated with first love, which drive an obsessive need to be with one’s objet d’affection.  The feelings elicit hope and great expectations.

Then, in the last few minutes of the movie, everything is turned on end when viewers watch the female lead go on a date with her husband (who is not the original male love interest) and stumble upon her old boyfriend’s favorite haunt, which is now his dream-realizing jazz bar.  She sees him and immediately viewers experience a speedy montage of what her life and his could have been like if they had stayed together instead of following divergent paths.  And guess what?  Everything looked perfect.  Then, BAM, viewers are slammed upside the head with the scene back in the present in which the female lead is now with someone else.  Everything seems copacetic but also seemingly mediocre, even though she has realized her personal dreams and seems happyish.

Many critics like that the ending shook up the classic “happily ever after,” scenario which (sort of) suggests that life can go on even after lost relationships (All Hail Independence).  For any of my clients in distressed marriages, it elicited some discomfort about the present and fueled yearning for returning to the wildly hopeful state associated with new love.

I get squeamish when long-term marriage is contrasted with developing relationships.  They are quite different, but when they are compared, long-term love is usually presented with a stale energy, suggesting that people in those relationships are somehow missing out.  In other words, it is “Blah Blah Land,” vs. “La La Land.”  This feeling can be what drives some people to seek out alternative relationships which can ultimately destroy a marriage.

As humans, we are driven to attach to people, which often means setting up a long-term predictable relationship which can be a safe environment for raising children.  Sometimes, however, the predictability can diminish novelty and excitement, and dullness ensues.  When people talk about marriage being “work,” it’s more than just working at continual compromise—it also applies to actively putting energy and passion into the marriage.

There are several reasons why life in “Blah Blah Land,” (not meant to be pejorative, alluding to prosaic but meaningful process in quotidian family life) is worth pursuing.  People in healthy long-term marriages overall enjoy better mental and physical health and financial benefits.  They are likely to have better sex lives.  Children raised in those environments also experience the same benefits and greater opportunities for academic achievement.  Research is indicating that after children are raised, many marital relationships start becoming like they were during “La La Land” courtship.  Keep in mind, though, that in contrast, a highly distressed marriage can be deleterious for well-being.

Here are some tips for surviving “Blah Blah Land” to get to the other side where “La La Land” is alive and well.

  1. Accept that feelings of love normally wax and wane in long-term relationships. If you wake up next to your partner thinking, “Really?  This is my life?” it doesn’t mean that you are doomed.  It means you are uncomfortable in that moment.
  2. Refuse to be boring. I started marriage knowing that I was going to be a marriage therapist.  I have always put a lot of effort into my marriage because I wanted a marriage that stayed fresh.  Fortunately, my husband has been on board, because it takes two people.  The internet is full of ideas.  Check out the dating divas for a plethora of options.  Be spontaneous.  Be unpredictable.
  3. Have something to look forward to. Research indicates that planning and looking forward to something can be more satisfying than the event itself.  I try to always have a future event or trip planned for my husband and me.
  4. Try something new together. Anything—new food, a new activity, new restaurant, etc.
  5. Realize that today is not forever. If anyone understands the monotony of the daily grind of raising children, it is I.  I don’t even try to explain to people what it was like to have 7 children under the age of 14, with 5 boys, and a husband working full-time and in MBA school.  I had periods of time when I had to do a lot of self-talk just to keep from ending up in a fetal position in the closet.  A few times, I was in the fetal position in the closet, hoping no one would find me.  FYI—They ALWAYS find you (Just ask this mom with quadruplets who tried to get 30 seconds alone).
  6. Don’t ignore the sexual relationship. This is a sensitive topic, but I believe it’s worth doing what it takes to prioritize physical affection.  If you need therapy because of past trauma, make that a priority.  Don’t deny yourself the ability to have a bonded and satisfying sex life.
  7. Write down what you would miss if your spouse were gone. I have always known that if I weren’t married to my husband, I would never stop missing him.
  8. Make a “year’s worth of new things” calendar (See 2, 3 and 4 above).  It only takes 12 things.  You can do it!
  9. Ask your partner why he/she still loves you and tell him/her why you love him/her. I asked my husband this a few weeks ago and his answer was, “It’s 100% your mind,” which put me into a laughing fit.  “Is that some kind of fat joke?” I challenged, and he said, “No.  I like the way you think.”  If I hadn’t asked, I wouldn’t have that reassurance to carry around with me.  Thinking about it brings me joy.
  10. Laugh, laugh, laugh. Anyway, anyhow.  This isn’t always automatic.  It takes effort.
  11. Different person, different problems.  Sometimes it’s tempting to think that if you were with a different partner, you wouldn’t have problems, but the fact is that when you marry a person, you marry a set of problems.  Sometimes people who remarry wish they had the old set of problems back.
  12. Don’t buy into the myth of soul-mateism.  In the words of Gary Chapman, “Soul mates tend to be crafted, not found.”  I can say comfortably that my husband feels like my “soulmate,” but I also know that I have worked very hard to make it that way.  John Gottman asserts that, “There are tens of thousands of people out there that anyone could be happily married to.”  I believe that.

I was still feeling a little melancholy about the movie’s ending when I walked into our kitchen and my son sensed that I was not in the best mood.  He said, “Uh oh.  Mom’s in a bad mood.  OK Google, play ‘Eaten by the Monster of Love,’ by Sparks.”  Immediately, our Google Home blasted the upbeat, electronic, bubble gum, everything-you-love-to-hate-about-80’s-music, song.  I was assaulted with echoes of “Don’t let it get me, ow.”  “How appropriate,” I thought, but it did have a cheering effect.  I’m at the stage in my life where I can actually see “La La Land,” on the horizon.

In the game of long-term love, effort matters.  Refuse to be boring.  You will up your happiness quotient.

I Predict.  (A little something for my Sparks fans)

Reference: The Science of Marriage (2017). Edited by Nancy Gibbs.  Time Magazine Special Edition.  Published by Time, Inc., New York.

Photo credit: Copyright: gllphotography / 123RF Stock Photo

Couples, Couples Therapy, Love, Romance

Love your Mate with a Regular Date*

couple-datingThe 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.

Photo credit: Copyright: oneinchpunch / 123RF Stock Photo

Couples, Love, marriage, Romance

Improving Marriage by Building a House of Memories

40809334 - girl holding instant photo of young happy coupleSince many popular songs address romantic relationships, I often recognize common themes that show up in couples therapy.  Earlier this year, I began listening to House of Memories by Panic! At The Disco because it was congruent with my general preference for minor scales and chords, or as my husband calls it, my “brooding dark side.”

The opening lyrics immediately caught my attention.  Lead singer Brendon Urie croons, “If you’re a lover you should know, the lonely moments just get lonelier, the longer you’re in love, than if you were alone.”  Consistently, couples report that being with a partner and feeling alone is lonelier than actually being alone.

I view this lonely feeling as a huge risk factor in marriage, because it is these moments, just as House of Memories, suggests, when people float back in their minds to previous relationships which they imagine as more satisfying than the present lonely relationships. Because it’s so easy to connect with past relationship partners through technology, the risk factor of loneliness in marriage is likely more threatening to relationship stability than in the past.

As the song progresses, the chorus repeats, “Baby, we built this house on memories, take my picture now, shake it ‘til you see it, and when your fantasies become your legacy, promise me a place in your house of memories.”  I believe the song is suggesting that an individual wants to be remembered with fondness by a past lover, and is somehow hinting that the memories are associated with a more powerful connection than a present relationship.

Unfortunately, many people experience life by living in the past instead of intentionally generating ongoing memories in the present.  Memories in relationships matter because they are related to perceptions of the present relationship and to future happiness and stability.  Memories of the past are also shaped by the present emotional environment in a relationship.

We can influence our emotions and hope for the future by strategically accessing specific memories and generating new ones.  Here are some ways to maximize the power of marital memories to influence future happiness and stability.

  1. Recall and revisit the moment you fell in love. I like to tell my husband that I fell in love with him because I fell in love with his father (but not in a creepy way).  My husband had invited me skiing with him, his father and a bunch of male friends over President’s Day weekend.  As the day progressed, my husband was trying to coax me down a black diamond hill of moguls which I knew exceeded my skill level.  His father volunteered, “You go with your friends and I will stay with her.”  He accompanied me down the slopes, skiing to the bottom of a hill and waiting for me at various points while I skied down at my pace.  This was the first time I met him, and I was embarrassed that he had to wait for me.  Eventually, I said, “I’m really sorry you got stuck with me,” and he warmly replied, “Oh, it’s ok.  I prefer taking a slower pace down the mountain anyway.”  I knew my father-in-law, who highly identifies with his Norwegian ski roots, was just trying to make me feel better, but he was an incredibly safe and warm person.  I thought to myself, “If Steve is anything like his father, he will be a great husband.”  This event was a tipping point in our relationship, and I remember it every February, when we celebrate Valentine’s Day with a ski date.
  1. Identify a past struggle you have overcome together.  Speaking of my father-in-law, a difficult event for my husband and me occurred when he suffered a head injury in a cycling accident.  While my father-in-law was in a coma for weeks, I think I cried more than I ever had previously in my life, because he had always been so kind to me.  My husband considered his father his best friend and was understandably devastated.  When he finally came out of his coma, he recognized that he had a relationship with my husband, but when my husband asked if he knew who I was, he smiled and said, “I don’t know who she is, but she’s really really cute.” I was so happy to have my father-in-law back.  We recall how we counted on each other emotionally and spiritually during this time, and we are so glad that he’s still around.
  1. Look at photos of key happy moments.  Our present feelings can be influenced by the recollection of memories.  Sometimes viewing photos of key moments, like a child’s birth or a favorite vacation can elicit positive hopeful feelings.  Looking at one of my children’s scrapbooks is a powerful source of happiness for me.
  1. Spend money on experiences instead of things. Recent happiness research suggests that people get more bang for their buck in happy memories from experiences rather than things.  I can elicit immediate happy feelings from remembering a time when I was overwhelmed with 5 small children and my husband surprised me by driving me to the airport for a spontaneous trip to Monterey, Carmel and Bug Sur in California. He knew I loved the California coast from my childhood experiences and wanted to recreate that for me.

As the song House of Memories suggests, our fantasies do become our legacies, but we can continually shape those fantasies by focusing on positive memories in our core relationships.

References:

How a couple views their past predicts the future: Predicting divorce from an oral history interview by Buehlman, K.T., Gottman, J.M., & Katz, L.F. (1991) Journal of Family Psychology, 5(3-4), 295-318. 

Revision in memories of relationship development: Do biases persist over time? by Frye, N.E. and Karney, B.R. (2004). Personal Relationships, 11, 79-97.

Photo credit: Copyright: radub85 / 123RF Stock Photo