Couples, Couples Therapy, Holidays, Humor, marriage, Marriage and Family Therapy

7 Gift Ideas for Maintaining Couple Connection

Copyright: halfpoint / 123RF Stock Photo
Copyright: halfpoint / 123RF Stock Photo

I often have couples ask me why it seems so difficult to maintain connection even after they have had deeply bonding moments together, and I usually answer, “Life.”  Daily demands come from many sources such as children, careers and community, and compete with a marital relationship for attention.  Unfortunately, the marriage is often the first thing to be sacrificed.  Couples who succeed at not only maintaining but deepening connection don’t get there by accident.  They are the ones who are intentional in their habits to work on the marriage.

There is an undocumented rumor that marriage therapists “have the worst marriages,” because their expectations are so high that they are never happy.  This might be perpetuated from the fact that many people become marriage therapists AFTER their bad marriages or divorces as a way to understand them better and prevent future disasters.  I’m not sure, but  I heard Dr. John Gottman once dispel this myth and said that actually marriage therapists often have pretty good marriages because it is so important to them that they continue to work at it.  I honestly believe this is probably more often the case.

It is true that I have high expectations for marriage, but it is also true that my experiences as a therapist have helped me become more adaptable and flexible in many ways.  I am always working at it, and I think I actually have a pretty great marriage (which admittedly might also have something to do with the fact that my husband is very accepting and easy to live with), despite the fact that I have marital challenges just like everybody else.  In fact, I honestly believe challenges I have endured have allowed me to have more compassion and understanding for my clients.

With Christmas right around the corner, I decided to compile a list of some of my favorite products for maintaining secure attachment in marriage.  Thank heavens marriage therapy is well past the days of batakas, when couples were encouraged to act out their emotional aggressions on each other (see: http://www.childtherapytoys.com/store/product9092.html).  Now, there are many items available for enhancing marital connection in a healthy way.   I have tested out many of them, and some of them are still on my bucket list.  If nothing else, here are some ideas:

Note:  I have no affiliation in any way with any of these sellers and can’t endorse trade with any individual websites.

  1. Conversation cards: There are many manufacturers of decks of cards with questions designed to spark conversation and ultimately more connection between married people (I must have a dozen different versions – my poor husband!) You don’t need to buy a deck – you could just make a jar with your own questions, but if you are feeling unimaginative, a good place to start is the classic “Ungame, Couples Edition,” found at http://www.ungame.com/
  2. Couple journal: Again, there are many, many versions of couple journals (and again, I have at least a dozen), but the idea is to access and share memories, dreams, thoughts, etc., as a way to create connection.  Even if you don’t write anything down, but just have a conversation using the journal prompts, I believe it can help.  One example is the 12 ways to say I love you journal, found at: http://www.uncommongoods.com/product/12-ways-to-say-i-love-you-journal
  3. Couple’s letter book set: In a day and age when we don’t write actual letters anymore, this product possesses vintage appeal.  I’ve always wanted actual love letters from my husband, since we never carried on a long-distance romance.  It’s sort of like the couple journals, but in a different format.  It can be found at: http://www.uncommongoods.com/product/couples-letter-book-set?utm_medium=cpc&utm_source=google&country=US&adpos=1o1&creative=32545578777&device=c&matchtype=&network=g&gclid=CMi-xJXrwcICFYWUfgod0hEAbw
  4. Rituals of connection/Opportunity cards: Drs. John and Julie Gottman have been marketing products for several years related to their research-inspired “Sound Marital House,” theory of marriage. Gottman sells several decks of cards designed to inspire friendship and ongoing connection.  I like these cards because they help couples become more intentional in their marital relationships: http://www.gottman.com/shop/open-endedrituals-of-connection-cards/
  5. Workbook: Unlike the previous products, a workbook for couples usually comes with specific goals and tasks based on a theoretical perspective for couple change. The one I prefer is An Emotionally Focused Workbook for Couples: The Two of Us by Veronica Kallos-Lily and Jennifer Fitzgerald.  Even though it is designed as a supplement to couples therapy, it can help couples identify negative patterns and the emotional meaning behind them in their own marriages.  I absolutely would NOT recommend this without therapy to any couples that are moderately to highly distressed; I would recommend therapy instead.  This can be found at many book retailers, but the Amazon link is: http://www.amazon.com/An-Emotionally-Focused-Workbook-Couples/dp/041574248X
  6. Date jar: Marriage therapists are always pushing marital dating, and I’m no exception. Increasing novelty in dating by trying new things together can actually help improve marital satisfaction (as documented in a study with a control group at a New York University several years ago).  There are examples all over the internet to make one yourself, with tons of ideas, but there is also one available for purchase at: http://www.notonthehighstreet.com/thegreengables/product/the-date-jar
  7. Products for promoting physical affection: Non-sexual, physical affection often drops off in marriage, which is unfortunate, because it helps couples stay connected. For Valentine’s Day one year, I hand knit my husband a “smitten,” which is one mitten couples wear together while holding hands, so we could take walks outside with it.  If you’re not the knitting type, there are several available for purchase at Etsy.  Here are a few: https://www.etsy.com/shop/lovedriven and https://www.etsy.com/listing/83821487/new-handknit-heart-shaped-mitten-for?ref=sr_gallery_32&ga_search_query=smitten+mittens&ga_search_type=all&ga_view_type=gallery.  Another item I haven’t tried, but looks intriguing is the “Cuddling pillow,” with a groove for arms to prevent the arm from getting numb.  I have no idea if it works, but if you are cuddling long enough to cut off the circulation, I have no objections.  If you do have circulation problems, though, you may want to check with your doctor before trying this out.  This product is available at: http://www.armadillow.com/index.php

While compiling this list, I came across a fake product, which I actually thought had promise.  The “no-phone,” found at: http://foolishgadgets.com/201412/nophone-helps-you-wean-off-your-smartphone-addiction/ is a substitute for the modern smartphone, and when substituted can actually allow the owner to, “…finally have real conversations in person with another human being physically over dinner.”  Now there’s a product that I can really get behind for increasing couple connection!  The would-be manufacturers are communication geniuses.  Sadly, this is not available for purchase – but I am seriously thinking of making my own…it can’t be any harder than a hand-knit “smitten,” after all.

Merry Christmas of Couple Connectivity!

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Attachment, Couples Therapy, marriage

Just a Spoonful of Sugar Helps the Divorce Rate go Down

Holly.couple kissing baby making face.SalmonI walked out to the waiting room the other night to witness a somewhat rare event in my practice: a couple holding hands!  I immediately felt just a little…..happier?  More hopeful?  Less burdened?  I’m not quite sure, but the gesture sent a non-verbal message that things were good, at least for that moment.  As an observer, it just made me feel better.

With the preponderance of sexual messages surrounding us, it is unfortunate that we don’t learn more about healthy, non-sexual, affectionate touch;  it is such a powerful form of connection, yet so often underutilized, often because couples just get busy with competing demands and drift apart.  Sometimes I think if we understood the power of warm, affectionate, non-sexual touch, we would promote its expression as readily as physical exercise, and its benefits might mitigate many common marital challenges.

On many occasions, when partners are distressed and I have asked them what they thought they needed in such circumstances, they have replied, “just a hug.”  If the other partner responds in kind, the couple leaves the session feeling more bonded and connected.  Every time.

Recent research around human touch is demonstrating that safe, warm touch in a close, pair-bonded relationship like marriage has particular health advantages and is actually influenced by the quality of the relationship.

In one study, women were exposed to pain stimuli alone and when their partners took their hands, if they were in happy relationships, the hand-holding decreased their stress responses in the brain as measured on an fmri.  The effect was drug-like.  In another study, married couples were taught to engage in warm, supportive touch, and the activity had beneficial effects on physiological responses like blood pressure and stress hormones.  Some researchers speculate that this kind of touch in marriage has advantages over being massaged by a stranger, because there is some evidence showing, for example, that the benefits of oxytocin only increase significantly when the touch is repetitive over a period of days, as with a secure attachment partner.

Bottom line: there is something uniquely beneficial about warm, supportive touch in the context of a stable, high quality marital relationship.  For couples who have high quality relationships and don’t take the time to hold hands, hug, or generally express physical affection, this seems like wasted marital capital.

Easy Ways to Increase Warm, Supportive Touch:

  1.  Take a walk and hold hands.
  2. Look into your partner’s eyes and touch his/her face like you might have when you were dating (it has to be authentic–don’t make it weird).
  3. Sit on your partner’s lap.
  4. Find excuses to hug your partner.
  5. Rub your partner’s back.
  6. Sit with your arm around him/her.
  7. Give your partner a shoulder massage.
  8. Play footsie under the table or in bed.
  9. Draw words in your partner’s palm and have him/her guess what it is.
  10. Whisper something affectionate to your partner, and linger in the close distance whispering requires.

On several occasions, I have had husbands in front of me in the therapy room in tears, explaining that their wives “never touch,” them at all in affectionate ways, and that they are envious of husbands whose wives touch them, just by holding hands or rubbing their backs, etc. I suspect this is because of a pattern that develops in which women start avoiding touch because they’re afraid it will lead to sex, but the pattern is nevertheless harmful and rejecting.

Most importantly, I’m going to propose that perhaps the greatest beneficiaries of a couple’s consistent engagement in warm, supportive touch are not the couple themselves, but their kids. 

Couples who hold hands, hug and touch in a warm supportive way model positive behaviors, and convey a sense that things are going well in the marriage and family.  Children are absolutely affected by their parents’ marital quality.  They garner a felt sense of security from parents who display marital happiness.

Remember how I said when I saw the couple in the waiting room holding hands, I just felt better?  I’m not even related to those people.  Can you imagine the impact viewing that behavior would have on the couple’s children?  To demonstrate this point when I make presentations, I will show audiences pictures of marital couples seemingly getting along, and seemingly arguing, and ask them to just yell out their their emotional responses.  It’s an easy way to see how much we are influenced by these displays.

“Get a room!” has become and oft-repeated cliché by my children whenever my husband and I display any kind of physical affection in front of them.  If I didn’t have a lot of confidence in those moments, I might be tempted to withdraw.  However, knowing what I know, I shoot back with, “I’m contributing to your mental well-being, so you should be thanking me.”

Then, they say something like, “Stop talking to me like a therapist,” and walk out….but then at least we are alone…..

If you are interested in a few of the studies to which I am referring, I will add a few links.

For a study about safe touch and decreased response to threat, see Jim Coan’s explanation here.

The link to his study is: here.

Julianne Holt-Lunstad headed up a study demonstrating how upregulating warm touch in marriage can have a beneficial influence on stress response.  It can be found here.

And now, go hug your spouse!