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

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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

Couples, Love, marriage

Back to the Future Marriage Edition: The Most Important Question to Ask Yourself as a New Year Begins

couple futureI am not a New Year’s resolutions kind of gal.  I am more of a “lifestyle,” approach person, attempting to maintain preferred habits and patterns with consistent evaluation and correction throughout the year.  There is nothing magical about January 1st for me, and the word “resolution,” is too loaded, as it often sets people up for failure.  The grandiosity is what bothers me.  People often set themselves up with grand expectations.  When they can’t meet those self-imposed expectations, they get discouraged and give up.

I know that the start of a new year is when many people are aware of life changes they want to make for the future, and as a marriage therapist, of course, I wonder how this motivation may be used to enhance relationships.

When I meet with people who are contemplating what to do about their marriages, I ask them to ponder, “What will my marriage look like in five years if nothing changes?”  I follow this query up with specific considerations, such as the impact on children as they developmentally advance during that time period, or how the individual will feel being five years older in the same situation.  When people carefully consider the future, this often impacts their present opinions and behaviors.

There is a common saying in therapy that, “Nothing changes if nothing changes.”  This concept plays out repetitively when people are mired down in destructive patterns.  My reason for asking the aforementioned question is to help people understand that if they want things to be different, they must start changing something NOW in order to avoid feel stuck in the future.

Certainly, there are environmental changes that can peripherally impact people passively, even if they aren’t taking proactive measures to change their situations.  Economies shift, children grow older, financial pressures change, etc.  In some cases, it is true that marital situations can just improve on their own if the couple just waits until the kids get a little older, or if other current stressors dissipate over time.

More often than not, it seems, couples set themselves on a passive course toward marital drift.  While they are stuck, or waiting for something to change, their disconnection can increase, resentment can build, and hopelessness can set in, keeping couples from ever repairing the relationship.

If the patterns you currently perpetuate in your marriage are leading you toward the course you want in five years, congratulations!  That’s great!  Your children will thank you for it, and you will likely transition into new life cycle stages with grace.

However, if when you ask yourself the above question, the scenario appears bleak and burdensome, ask yourself what small changes you can make today in order to shift your life to what you want.  For some people, that might mean changing an attitude or apologizing.  For some, it might mean altering expectations or finding small ways to show appreciation for a spouse.  It could be as simple as going back and looking at wedding photos to remember why your partner is the one you chose.  If you want to feel closer physically, find a small way to demonstrate physical affection.

If you are in an abusive situation, it might mean making a call to a domestic violence shelter to get information about how to leave an abusive relationship.  If you are addicted to a substance, it might mean googling addictions recovery information, or asking a friend for support.

If you know you want the marriage to be different, but feel overwhelmed about where to start, google, “How to improve my marriage,” and resources galore will be at your fingertips.  Simply reading about marital improvement is a legitimate small change.

I have heard it said that the hardest part about going running is putting on your running shoes.  I can relate to this as a runner.  I often dread the thought of experiencing physical pain for an hour, and delay putting on my shoes, but once they are on and I am dressed for running, it is easy to take those few steps out the door and continue on until I am finished.  Sometimes I have even said to myself, “Just put on your shoes and then see how you feel,” with no firm commitment to the entire process, recognizing that once they are on, I still have the prerogative to take them off without running if I choose.

I think this principle applies to marriages.  Sometimes the first step toward changing the trajectory is the largest hurdle, and yet waiting for things to happen is a very risky proposition when it comes to relationships.

If you want your marriage to look differently in five years, write down the small things that are within your power to change things and choose one.  I also tell people that if they are making changes and nothing is changing in their marriage, then that is important feedback information for evaluating the next step.  Unfortunately, sometimes that might mean ending a destructive relationship, but even the painful process of ending a relationship is preferable to feeling powerless and victimized by others, for most people.

Remember, if you feel so overwhelmed that the suggestions in this post seem like too much work, just ask yourself the question and write down the answer.  That’s all.  Odds are that it will at least promote thinking about changing current behaviors, and that is just the start of potentially huge change.