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.

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Couples, Couples Therapy, Family Adventures, Love, marriage, Romance

One of the Easiest Ways to Immediately Feel Closer to Your Spouse

27241715 - portrait of couple looking at photo albumWhen my youngest son got in the car the other day, he mentioned Danny Elfman, which led to his selecting a song by Oingo Boingo to play from my iPhone. As the first few notes of “Stay,” drifted from the speakers, I thought, “Oh no. This is a song that makes me feel sad.” For some reason, the minor melody and message of loss combined with memories of my younger self often evoke a subtle melancholic yearning. I managed to hold it together enough to have one of our 80’s music conversations. That’s how we bond.

Taking a walk down memory lane can be a mixed emotional experience for most people. Nostalgia, often associated with a form of sadness and teariness, can elicit feelings of longing, but also fondness and a sense of belonging. It can motivate connection in the present. I believe we can shape our emotional responses by intentionally accessing memory.

Recalling positive memories creates closeness

Research on having spouses recall positive and significant autobiographical memories specific to their relationship has demonstrated gains in reported marital quality and closeness, via increased feelings of warmth toward one’s partner. Remembering significant relationship events can generate some of the same positive feelings in the present. I have tried this out myself and I’m suggesting two simple interventions for immediately feeling happier in marriage.

My Dollar Store Intervention

This year has represented a lot of change in my own immediate family structure. We married off our third child and sent two more to live overseas, leaving us only 2 out of 7 children at home. Right after our first grandchild was born this spring, I was trying to think of a meaningful date to create with my husband to define us as a couple amidst this sea of life transition…so of course, I thought of Dollar Tree…because what better place to choose from such a splendid assortment of leftover tchotchkes. First, I had to talk my husband into it. It took some verbal maneuvering on my part.

Me: I have an idea. Let’s go to the Dollar store and take ten minutes and each choose an item that represents our marriage for the past, present and future and then exchange them. What do you think?

Him: (Silence….then….) That sounds……………………hard.

Me: What do you mean, “hard?”

Him: Like I have to be creative.

Me: You’re afraid I’m going to judge you, aren’t you?

Him: Absolutely!

Me: I promise I won’t….it will be a no lose….come on, it will be fun.

He reluctantly followed me into the land of the misfit toys, and we set our phone timers for ten minutes and raced in opposite directions to find our conjugal representations. Miraculously, we were both finished in the limited time period.

Just by choosing the items, I was already feeling positive and excited about our marriage, regardless of his choices. We went to the car for the exchange (I would like to say we went somewhere more meaningful, like the location of our first date, but that would be a big fat lie). Interestingly, we had chosen items representing similar meanings. I was genuinely touched by my husband’s cheesy yet heartfelt offerings, and during the process, we exchanged a few meaningful memories that had been off our radar for awhile.

In short, I was right. It was a “no lose.” We both agreed that it had been worth the ten-minute detour from our traditional dinner and a movie date.

My Marriage Memory Highlights Intervention

My husband and I also celebrated our 30th wedding anniversary last week. That sounds so long, and yet it literally feels like yesterday that I married him. I still feel like the same person, despite so many varied life events. While we were at dinner, I pulled out my phone and said, “OK, let’s make a list of 30 of our favorite memories for our anniversary.”

We took turns, and I typed them into my phone for future reference. The process was more important than the outcome, because we had so much fun reminiscing. It was an automatic avenue to conversation. It also inspired tangential suggestions for things we wanted to do in the future.

I was having fun, and I appreciated my husband’s warm engagement in the conversation, though I’m sure he preferred to be watching a televised basketball game over my head at a less formal establishment. I figured he was just being a good sport, but when we reached the end of the list he suggested, “Let’s keep going to 50.”

On the way home, in the dark, because we were driving through the canyon, he began waxing sentimental about our thirty years, and it was a very endearing message, fueled, I believe, by our walk down memory lane.  A very simple exercise in identifying common special experiences invited shared authentic intimate feelings. It literally brought us emotionally closer.

The key word is “simple.” Any couple can potentially generate warmth by taking a few moments to recollect favorite memories.

Your marriage doesn’t have to be perfect to try this

Lest anyone get the idea that my 30 years of marriage has been free of struggle, I can assure my readers that I’m in the same soup as everyone else. I’m sure my husband got more than he bargained for by marrying me. Just a few days before my anniversary, you would have heard this verbal exchange in my bedroom. I don’t remember what I said first, but this is how the conversation proceeded:

Him: You’re so feisty!

Me: And you wouldn’t have it any other way, right?

Him: Well….sometimes.

Me: (under my breath) Well, you know, there’s always a remedy for that.

Him: What did you say?

Me: Nothing.

Him: No. What did you just say?

Me: (louder) I SAID THERE’S ALWAYS A REMEDY FOR THAT!

Him: And there it is!

Having had two older brothers who tormented me relentlessly, I don’t have a very passive style. If challenged, I’m more likely to come out swinging than to back down. As a result, I can bump up against my husband probably more than he would like…but I also adore him to pieces, and we are masters at repairing our mishaps.

Positive memory and gratitude

Recalling positive memories can protect a marriage against the negative emotion that accompanies inevitable struggle. It is also a way of expressing gratitude, which is the opposite of nostalgic yearning. Going back to my Oingo Boingo serenade, right after my son played “Stay,” he told me the next one up was his favorite, which happened to be “Gratitude.” I was struck by the shift in mood I immediately experienced, because the song made me think about things in life with my husband for which I’m grateful, which facilitates happiness.

Try it. Right now, think of three of your favorite marriage memories.

See? It works whether you’re a quirky 80’s music fan or not.

References:

I’ll Keep You in Mind: The Intimacy Function of Autobiographical Memory (2007) by Alea, N. & Bluck, S. in Applied Cognitive Psychology, 21, 1091-1111.

The first sight of love: Relationship-defining memories and marital satisfaction across adulthood (2010) by Alea, N. & Vick, S. C. in Memory, 18(7), 730-742.

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Couples, Love, marriage

Just a Spoonful of Sugar Helps the Divorce Rate go Down

This is one of the simplest way to maintain positivity in marriage–and is this not the cutest picture you’ve ever seen?

Uniting Couples to Strengthen Families

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…

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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.

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Love, marriage

Try this Simple Marital New Year’s Resolution

16948832 - love dialogueI have stated before that I’m resistant to New Year resolutions, partly because I don’t like coerced participation in implicitly mandated arbitrary social practices, and partly because it’s generally more helpful for me to evaluate goals on an ongoing basis, regardless of the time of year.  However, in the spirit of a new year, I can’t resist suggesting a simple technique that anyone can do today to potentially strengthen a marriage.

My suggestion is: Watch what you say about your spouse to your friends and social contacts, and attempt to focus on his/her positive qualities in those situations.

I’m not suggesting that you become inauthentic or play the social media game of pretending that your life is a bouquet of roses free of thorns, but I am suggesting that you experiment to see how your positive reflections about your spouse influence your relationship.

A few years after I got married, I recall going to one of my husband’s company parties.  I was approached by one of his coworkers who introduced himself to me, smiling, and said, “You must be Lori.  I want you to know that your husband always has such good things to say about you.  He thinks you’re amazing.”  I remember being pleasantly surprised by the man’s comment.  I mentally conjured the times I was with my girlfriends and considered whether they could say the same thing to him.  I wasn’t certain that they could.  I can easily list many things I admire about my husband, but that doesn’t mean I always focus on them.

This man’s comment to me was indicative of my husband’s trademark loyalty.  Since that time, I can think of several occasions in which someone with whom my husband worked said, “Your husband always speaks so highly of you.”  Two of them occurred within the last year, 25 years after the first coworker’s comment.  Each time, I re-evaluate how I represent him to other people, and wonder if I am being fair?

I’m not naïve.  I wouldn’t be at all surprised if my husband also made an, “It must be that time of the month,” comment from time to time (which would be legitimate), but the point is that his overall representation of me was positive enough that other people mentioned it to me.  Each time, it touched my heart and increased my feelings of love toward him.

In addition, if other people are noticing good things about your spouse, pay attention.  A few years ago, I was reciting my problems to my older sister, who listened patiently and then said, “But you have a cute husband who adores you, so I think you’re going to be ok, right?”  At first I thought it was such a strange thing to say, and then I realized that she was making a point that I wasn’t appreciating the strength offered by a loyal marital partner, and how that relationship can help overcome other challenges.  Another time, a divorced friend of mine was over, and she watched my husband walk in from work, shout a ritualistic “Hi gorgeous,” and reach down to give me a kiss.  I was giving him the “Ok, now go away, I’m busy with my friend,” vibe, and she said, “All I ever wanted was for my husband to look at me the way yours looks at you.”  It stopped me in my tracks, and I realized that I know he’s a good man, but I don’t always appreciate or focus on it.  Unfortunately, too many of us fail to appreciate our spouse’s positive qualities.

When I say genuine good things about my husband, I immediately feel more appreciative.  I feel the same increase of love toward him that I feel when someone tells me he has said good things about me.  The small irritants fall away and perspective shifts.

Lastly, when other people tell me something good about their spouses, I feel a positive energy boost, and it influences me to think about similar things I like about my spouse.  If you want to practice, leave me a comment about what you love/admire/respect about your spouse.  I would love to hear it.  Make my day!

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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.

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

Humor in Marriage: The Gift that Keeps on Giving

In the hunt for the perfect gift for your significant other this holiday season, why not consider an offering of humor and laughter?

Laughter has many documented immediate and long-term individual health benefits; it essentially increases physical and emotional coping and resilience.  However, shared laughter also generates important bonding experiences in interpersonal interactions and is perhaps the most valuable in close attachment relationships.  When someone shares your sense of humor, it’s a form of responsiveness and a way of feeling understood.

I think many people underestimate the power of humor.  I grew up in a household with a father who was uniquely witty in a way that was classy.  He made people laugh without sarcasm or tearing others down, which is hard to come by, and in the process developed in me a huge appreciation for humor.  I don’t consider myself particularly witty, but I hold humor in high regard.

Negative emotion is so absorbing that it makes sense to actively infuse as much positivity as possible into marriage outside of conflictual moments. Some of John Gottman’s marital research demonstrated that healthy couples were often able to repair rifts in their relationships by using humor.  I think sometimes couples forget that they can use humor intentionally in their relationships to promote bonding and positive affect.  In other words, you don’t need to just sit and wait to come across something that might induce laughter.  You can make it a practice to seek it out.

A few years into marriage, my oldest son was born, and 3 weeks later I started a fairly rigorous graduate program.  He was extraordinarily colicky for almost the entire first year of his life, SCREAMING full force whenever he was put down in a baby carrier or swing, despite all the well-meaning advice I received from countless people.  Every shower I took during that year was accompanied by his blood-curdling serenades.

I was constantly trying to balance coursework, my client caseload and my fussy baby.  I was experiencing more stress than I ever had previously (which I think is sort of the point of a combined clinical and research program WITHOUT the new baby), and I had literally never been so tired in my life.  I was so depleted and fatigued during that year that my weight dropped to well under a hundred pounds and I developed shingles and mononucleosis, yet I still had to attend school and see clients and nurture a baby.  There was absolutely no time to be sick.  My husband would leave his full-time day job and come home at night and take over baby duty so I could see clients and study, but I was still constantly spinning in a tornado of demands.   I’m not even sure how I got through it, looking back.  It’s not something that I EVER recommend.

At one point, my mother was visiting to help out and offered to stay with the baby while my husband and I went on a date (As an aside, my son was her 28th grandchild or so, and she commented that she had never seen such a fussy baby—just sayin’).  My husband asked what I wanted to do and I replied, “I really, really just need to go laugh,” because I couldn’t remember the last time I found anything funny.  We purposely sought out a comedic movie which tapped into many of the absurdities of parenthood, and I laughed harder than I had laughed in a long time.  After the movie, I suddenly felt like I could handle life again.

Since that time, there have been many occasions in our marriage and family life that my husband and I have used humor together to reinforce interpersonal bonds.  We regularly share humor by watching particular shows, listening to podcasts, or even reading books together that make us laugh.  I am always excited to show him something that I find amusing.  In the spirit of good fun, we even play jokes on each other.

Once, I purchased a picture frame with the words, “My Mr. Wonderful,” emblazoned across the bottom.  It is equipped with a button which activates one of several stereotypic phrases from the “ideal guy.” I will include a photo and type out the phrases uttered by the frame-o-male-perfection.

My amateur photo of the frame
My amateur photo of the frame (my husband is going to be thrilled when he sees it on my blog)

Here are the various phrases:

  1. Why don’t we have lunch together more often?  I miss you so much during the day!
  2. Enough about me….I want to know how your day’s going.
  3. Anytime you need me, just call. You know I’m always ready to listen.
  4. I wish I was there with you right now. I bet you could use a shoulder rub.
  5. Of course I want to spend more quality time with you. I’ll just cancel that big night out I had planned with the boys. [if this were really accurate, it would say, “bike ride”]
  6. Let’s go dancing tonight!
  7. Do you want to go see that movie you were talking about? There’s nothing on TV but ball games.
  8. I’m sorry we argued. I knew you were right all along.  I just couldn’t admit it.
  9. I found this great cozy hideaway with no TVs. Let’s make plans to go!

Plus one more that’s too stupid to put into print.

I waited until just the right moment to set it up.

While he was out of town, I told him that I missed him, but that I had found a surrogate who said all the right things and didn’t take up as much room in the bed and didn’t snore.  When he came home, he found the picture frame on his nightstand with his photo inside.  When my husband first started pushing the button, he rolled his eyes at me, but it was couple comedy gold.  It is the gift that keeps on giving, because just when I forget it exists, we will be in the middle of a conversation (sometimes heated), and suddenly my husband will pull it out and push the button, eliciting one of the many phrases.  It never fails to make me laugh.  The funniest is, “Let’s go dancing tonight,” because for someone who used to move like a gazelle across the basketball court, my husband is astoundingly clumsy on the dance floor, by his own admission (and he is correct, which has completely delayed my bucket list item of mastering the Argentine Tango).

Differences in marriage can often be managed with a sense of humor.  It’s no secret that my husband and I have different tastes in music.  For his birthday, I was excited when I found a song composed entirely of sounds made from bicycle parts.  When I presented him with “Bespoken,” by Johnnyrandom (no, I’m not making that up) I told him I finally found a song speaking a language he understands – from Johnnyrandom’s garage and heart, to my itunes account, to him.  His response was “Of course you did…,” laughing, which was exactly the response I was looking for. The song is surprisingly mesmerizing, and I occasionally pull it out and announce, “Let me set the mood,” which generally elicits more laughter, and it is now an inside joke that we share.

If you’re stumped about how to incorporate more levity into your marriage, you can always try “Laughter Yoga.”  I’m considering registering my husband and me for a class just to see the look on his face when I surprise him with it.  I believe laughing about laughter yoga is a meta-process, and therapists love nothing more than meta-processes.

Now I need to go think of a great comeback for when my husband discovers that I have plastered a photo of him on my blog…  I think I’ll consult with my surrogate picture frame husband.  He is, after all, “always ready to listen.”