Couples, Love, marriage, Romance

Rejuvenating the Magic of Those Three Little Words

48470551 - comic bubble heart i love you pop art retro styleSee if you can finish this sentence: I love you, but I’m not…………

Right…I love you, but I’m not in love with you.

It’s probably no surprise that I hear this sentence all the time in couples therapy. It’s not my favorite thing to hear, because I know it’s what people say when they aren’t “feeling it,” for their spouses, and they want to “feel it,” to stay married.

The Good News and the Bad News About Marriage Today

Long-term romantic relationships are a salad of chemistry, passion, friendship, emotional connection, expectations, commitment, forgiveness, acceptance, effort, benevolence, support and security, among other things……sprinkled with pain and joy.

Eli Finkel, a researcher at Northwestern University who is releasing a book next month titled The All or Nothing Marriage: How the Best Marriages Work, has pointed out that people in western cultures expect more from their marriages than ever. Higher expectations aren’t all bad. Finkel reports that right now, it seems that we have the best marriages and the worst marriages. In other words, people in average marriages are reporting lower marital happiness and stability than in times past, but the best marriages are linked with higher marital quality and individual well-being than before.

Basically, spouses today want the whole enchilada. We are more social disconnected than ever and rely on our spouses to fill roles that may previously have been filled by other people. We are connected to higher numbers of people more quickly maybe, but in a way that I call a mile wide and an inch deep…..the relationships are less meaningful, or at least serve different functions. That’s why in marriage most people want a best friend, a passionate partner, an economic supporter, and, Finkel reports, someone to help us self-actualize. We want our partners to help us achieve our highest individual psychological needs. Read more about it here.

Now, take all those expectations, wrap them in a red heart-shaped package called “love,” and you have a marriage therapist’s worst nightmare.

We Need Better Words for Love

The English language is sorely lacking in nuanced definitions of love. We use that word to express affection for any person, place or thing. We love our spouses, we love our children, we love our dogs, we love our houses, and we love our cars. Even French, la langue d’amour, is limited in expression. If we don’t have good ways to acknowledge and language the nuances of love, there is a more room for personal interpretation and judgment….and disappointment.

Several other languages, such as Sanskrit and Persian, offer scores of terms to describe specific types of love. My favorite set of words are those available in Arabic, which includes terms for various states and relationship stages. My limited understanding is that the construction of the language, structured with common roots, allows for words to be linked, which can increase nuance. Love can be expressed in distinctive stages and states, including attraction, amusement, passion, preoccupation, infatuation, adulation, heartburn, longing, excruciating pain, submissiveness, friendliness, unification, fervor, and madness.

There are additional expressions for romantic affection as well. I was fascinated with Ya’aburnee, which apparently means “you bury me,” and alludes to the hope that one die before one’s lover, because life would be too painful without them. So tragically romantic!

It’s interesting to me that such rich descriptions of love in exist in cultures where arranged marriage happens at a higher rate than western cultures. It makes me wonder about how we interpret “love.” In English, love is essentially a language monomial, defined by four letters, but a language polynomial when it comes to all the varied applications. Preoccupation, infatuation and adulation suggest something quite different from unification, and if all of those states were explicitly under the “love,” umbrella in English, people may not be as disappointed when feelings shift long-term.

Even though love is complex, we can influence our long-term feelings

The reason I’m droning on about this is that largely, whether one is “in love,” or not has to do with subjective interpretation, and is influenced by expectations. In other words, we don’t “fall out of love,” with our kids. We may not always have warm fuzzies toward them, but most of us recognize a sense of commitment and obligation which then fuel us to actions to increase love toward our offspring. We are proactive in managing our negative feelings toward them in order to be available, stable attachment figures.

It’s only in romantic love that we use the term “falling,” which implies a sense of helplessness about who we love, or for how long. However, we can use the same heuristic in marriage that we use in parenting, by searching for actions to influence our feelings.

Over the long-term, the reality is that marital satisfaction waxes and wanes. There are behaviors that can influence any of the expectations for love. Even physical attraction can be influenced by engaging in various activities in marriage. The way we talk to ourselves about our partners also influence our feelings. We may not “feel it,” in immediate large shifts, but we can certainly encourage growth over time. Another little Arabic love language fun fact is that the word “hubb,” for love comes from the same root as the word “seed,” implying growth potential.

As Easy as an Internet Search

In an internet’s search amount of time, you can find myriad ideas for activities designed to increase love toward a spouse. In fact, this blog is full of them. Imagine if people spent as much time researching that as they do for pornography….

“I Love You” is Still Powerful

Even though the English language is limited, don’t underestimate the power of the three little words.

When my husband and I got married, we used to go to my father-in-law’s brother and wife’s home for Sunday dinner. He was a retired, shrewd Hollywood attorney who had retained his sharp wit. One night, his wife decided to advise all of the newlyweds at her home about how to stay married long-term. She said, “Now kids, this is important for staying married: Every single day, when my husband and I wake up, he says those three little words…every….single….day…….and what are those three words, honey?” she nodded at her husband. On queue, with a mischievous grin, he started, “Go to…”

“OH HUSH!” his wife blurted, sparing us from his expletive, “You know that’s not it.” She turned back to us, “He says, ‘I love you,’ every single day, and it’s a reminder that we value our marriage. You remember that. Don’t ever forget to tell each other you love each other often.” We nodded as we stifled our laughter.

Since “love,” is so general in English, and “I love you,” can become so stale so quickly, it might be fun to look up alternative terms in foreign languages and see if you can share you feelings with more precision. I already texted one Japanese term to my husband today that doesn’t translate directly to English.

“I Love You,” as the Ultimate Reassurance

Over the years, my husband and I have had the opportunity to experience many stressful life events together. In fact, we had a lot of practice with stress during our first year of marriage. I had a complete meltdown at one point, certain that I had ruined my life and created an enduring mess for myself and him by association. I was sobbing about everything that was alarming me. I went on and on and on while my husband just listened. It was verbal vomiting at its worst. Looking back, he must have been totally freaked out, but he just sat with me. He said nothing.

When my tirade (cryrade) was over and he didn’t respond, I asked, “Well?” and he answered, “Well?” and I repeated “Well?” and he answered, “Well?” and I repeated, “Well?” Silence. Then, he took my chin in his hand and looked in my eyes and said, “Well, I still love you. I will always love you,” Which made me cry all over again for his enduring kindness. For some reason, even though all my problems weren’t solved, it was adequately comforting, and I felt reassured that everything would be ok.

He has repeated the same comforting words at various time points in our marriage when I have been at the end of my rope for one reason or another.

It’s one of the constants I can always count on if I’m beyond distressed.

And as a constant, “Love,” in the English language works just fine.

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

 

 

 

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, 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, 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

Some Surprisingly Good News About Long-Term Marriages

11217757 - senior couple relaxing in gardenThis week I called my husband and fretted, “Life as I know it is officially over.”  “Why?” he answered with a sigh that exasperated, “What now?”  “Thanks for asking,” I continued, ignoring the eye-rolling I heard on the other end of the phone, “When I was at the checkout line at the store, the female checker asked me if I was over 55 to see if I qualified for the senior discount.”

Silence.

Finally, “Is that it?” he prodded.  The eye rolling got louder.  “Honey, I just turned 50 less than a year ago and she shoved me half of a decade toward 60, and stop rolling your eyes at me!”  He sighed again, “You remember that I’m older than you, right?  It’s probably because you look so wise.”  “Is that supposed to be funny?” I countered, adding vocal intensity for emphasis.  “How old was she, 19?” he consoled, “They think anyone over 40 is elderly.”

I wish it hadn’t bothered me, but it’s one of my flaws—worrying about getting old—maybe because I watched my mom’s health deteriorate before she passed away, bringing my own limited mortality into sharp focus.  Later that evening, I was still mildly ruminating over the exchange and approached my husband again.

Me:  Do you want to know something about me?

Him:  That you have a low frustration tolerance?  I already know that.

Me:  No!  But it’s related.  I really really really really really really—how many reallys is that?  Multiply it by ten—hate getting old.  I’m trying not to, but I’m REALLY not happy about it.

Him:  Why?  It’s fun!

Me:  What?  It’s the opposite of fun—there is one thing it’s not and it’s called fun.

Him:  We are getting old together—that’s what makes it fun.

I must admit I admire his attitude.  He continually insists that he is “more in love,” with me than when we got married.  The cynic in me expresses doubt at these declarations, but I came across an encouraging study recently suggesting that maybe he’s telling the truth.

Researchers interviewed 274 randomly-selected participants in long-term marriages in a national sample to find out how in love they would say they were on a scale of 1 to 7 where 1 was “not at all in love,” and 7 was “intensely in love.”  They were surprised that 46.3% of women and 49% of men reported that they were “very intensely in love,” which was the most common response.  Even for people married 30 years or more, 40% of men and 35% of women reported that they were very intensely in love.  A replication study of a New York State sample reflected similar results.

The researchers also identified several strong love correlates.  The couples were more likely to report being intensely in love if they also reported these characteristics:

  1. Thinking about the partner in positive ways. 
  2. Thinking about the partner when not together. 
  3. Physical affection. More physical affection in the relationship was predictive of “very intensely in love,” responses.  Not a single individual who reported a complete absence of physical affection in the relationship also reported being very intensely in love.
  4. Sexual frequency. Sexual frequency was unsurprisingly correlative with intense love relationships.  Couples with intensity were more likely to answer that their bodies responded when touched by their partners.
  5. Doing novel and challenging things together. Doing any activities together is associated with higher marital happiness, but novel and challenging things seem to increase the intensity of love relationships.
  6. Generally being happy. In short, people with high levels of global happiness were more likely to report being intensely in love.
  7. Wanting to know the whereabouts of the partner. I thought this was interesting.  This was associated with “very intense love,” for men but not for women, which might make the fact that my husband uses the “find friends,” app to know where I am less creepy, and might explain why I never care to look at it to see where he is.

These findings are consistent with earlier research showing that when many people married long-term were shown pictures of their romantic partners compared to other close friendships, their brains lit up in the reward centers, like people in early romantic relationships.  Researchers used to think people in long-term marriages were doomed to a less intense “companionate,” love, suggesting more friendship than passion.  However, recent research is dispelling that myth.  Couples can have enduring intensity in love relationships.

My experience with many couples is that they are waiting for love to “happen,” to them.  They take a passive approach.  Even though the correlates outlined in this study can be a “chicken or the egg,” question, I 100% believe people can upregulate passion and intensity in their long-term romantic love relationships.  Personally, I can’t imagine taking a passive stance.  If you are married, do what you can to make the most of it!

This study is good news for couples who want to grow old together, which I must admit, makes the process seem a lot less scary.

References:

Does a long-term relationship kill romantic love? (2009) by Acevedo, B. P. & Aron,A. in Review of General Psychology, 13(1), 59-65. Doi: 10.1037/a0014226

Is long-term love more than a rare phenomenon?  If so, what are its correlates? (2012) by O’Leary, K. D., Acevedo, B. P., Aron, A., Huddy, L., & Mashek, D. in Social Psychological and Personality Science, 3(2), 241-249. Doi: 10.1177/1948550611417015

Neural correlates of long-term intense romantic love (2012) by Acevedo, B. P., Aron, A., Fisher, H. E., & Brown, L. L. In Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 7(2), 145-159.

Photo credit: Copyright: stockbroker / 123RF Stock Photo

Couples, Love, Romance

Should I be Worried if my Spouse Doesn’t Wear a Wedding Ring?

50325480 - sad wife hands dropping her wedding ring marriage problems conceptWhile my husband was getting dressed this morning, I noticed something glinting off his finger.  “Hey, you’re wearing a wedding ring,” I observed. “I always do,” he nonchalantly replied.  “Since when?” I prodded, wondering if he remembered that he has spent 99% of our marriage not wearing a ring.  “Since a few months ago,” he replied, confirming that I wasn’t crazy for thinking this was a relatively new development.

My husband is not  a jewelry person.  Not long after we got married, he stopped wearing his wedding ring for various reasons:  It was “bugging,” him, It was too big, It was too small, It interfered with basketball, it got in the way while exercising, it made his finger too heavy to write code on the computer (OK I made that one up, but you get my drift).  I wasn’t about to engage in that power struggle with him–if he didn’t want to wear a ring, who was I to tell him he had to wear one?  I didn’t want to make an issue out of it, but I have wondered about the importance of wedding rings and their relationship to marital quality.

Wedding rings are a subtle signaling device.  Before I got married, my husband used to joke with me that every time he saw me on our college campus, I was surrounded by males.  I protested his assumption that they were trying to move in on me, and pointed out that we were always talking about school work.  “I’m a guy and I can tell you they aren’t interested in your study guide,” he admonished.  “Oh, whatever,” I repeatedly dismissed.  However, right after I got married, I noticed that I was completely invisible to males while walking around campus.  It had never occurred to me before that when they were friendly to me, they were testing the waters to start a relationship.  I just thought they were being nice.  I hadn’t even realized that the change was in my ring finger until one day a few months after I got married.

I went to the library to study for a few hours and sat myself at a table in the corner when two young men sat down across from me to study.  After a few minutes, one of them struck up a conversation.  I remember thinking, “Oh, this feels normal, these guys are talking to me instead of totally ignoring me.”  I engaged in the light conversation and realized I needed to leave.  As I stood up, I said, “Well, I have to go meet my husband.  Nice to talk to you.”  His countenance turned ashen.  “Wait—you’re married?”  he asked.  “Yes,” I answered, wondering why he was being so suddenly weird.  “Can I give you some advice?” he continued.  I haltingly said yes, still wondering what was going on.  “Don’t walk around on campus without your wedding ring on,” he offered.  I didn’t even know what to say; I had forgotten I wasn’t wearing it.  I glanced down at my ringless finger, thinking, “You were trying to hit on me?” because I was genuinely confused.  I was also annoyed.  I wanted to say, “Really?  Because the last time I checked, this was a library, not a singles bar, and by the way, you’re not even my type,” which he wasn’t.  I finally put two and two together and realized that I had become invisible on campus because I was “taken.”   The ring had power.

I’m not much of a jewelry person either, but I got into the habit of wearing my ring everywhere after that, largely because I didn’t want to be in any other awkward situations.  Now, if I accidentally leave the house without it, I have an unsettling feeling and a habit of touching the place on my finger where it is supposed to be.  It might as well be welded to my skin.

So, should you be concerned if your spouse doesn’t want to wear a ring?

Like most things in social science, it depends.

Research on wedding rings is sparse, but there is some interesting data.  In one study by law firm  Slater & Gordon, one-fifth of the 2,000 participants admitted that they took their wedding rings off after fighting with a spouse, or before going out, to attract more attention from potential alternative partners.  Interestingly, males were more likely to take it off before socializing and females after a fight.  Some people admitted that they didn’t want to be perceived as “boring,” so they took off their rings to shape perceptions.  One-fifth of the participants also said they perceived married men without wedding rings as not taking their marriages as seriously.

While wedding ring use can be indicative of relationship problems, the correlation isn’t strong enough to be compelling.  Each individual case is different.  Rings can be symbolic in certain situations, however, and are commonly viewed as a symbol of commitment.  Recently I asked a couple in a therapy appointment how they were doing, and in response, the wife held up her finger, displaying her wedding ring to indicate that they were going well enough that she had put her ring back on and recommitted to the relationship.

Will wearing a wedding ring keep someone from hitting on my spouse?

In the above study, one-third of participants reported that they would feel more confident about spouse fidelity if their spouses wore wedding rings.  About ten years into my marriage, my husband put his ring back on (for at least 5 minutes) after he took a new job and one of the female co-workers saw his ringless finger and thought he was single, in an incident not unlike my library fiasco years earlier.  He didn’t want to give the wrong impression.

However, 10% of participants in the above study also said that they perceived their own wedding rings to be a “challenge,” to members of the opposite sex.  Men reported getting more attention from females after wearing a wedding ring, while women reported getting less.  There is a theory that for some women, a male with a wedding ring symbolizes a family man who is capable of committing, which can be an inviting possibility.  Unfortunately, in most affair cases, people aren’t considering how their actions will negatively impact the spouse and children in the family, and I can see how that theory could be true for some people. `

A wedding ring might keep some individuals away from your partner, but it’s just not enough to prevent affairs.

Questions to Ask

While there is no clear data on wedding ring adornment and relationship outcome, here are some questions to ask yourself as it applies to your marriage:

  1. Is it a new pattern?  If your spouse has never really liked wearing a ring, or has a job or a hobby or a medical condition that doesn’t allow for a wedding ring, then it’s unlikely to mean anything if they don’t wear one.  If, however, your spouse is suddenly not wearing a ring along with other unusual behavior (more trips to the gym all gussied up, increased trips to the tanning bed, long unexplained absences, hiding one’s phone), you might want to look deeper.  Keep in mind that a strategic partner trying to perpetuate an affair might wear a ring in the spouse’s presence to throw them off.  I can affirm that there are people in distressed marriages who will purposely take off their rings as part of testing the waters for attracting a different mate.
  1. Does my spouse take it off after we had a fight? This could just be a sign of reactive, immature behavior, but it’s also symbolic and could be a harbinger of more reactivity down the road.
  1. Does my spouse’s social media reflect marital status? People who are open to having affairs often don’t display their married status on social media.  That doesn’t mean that if your spouse has posted their marital status that he/she is immune to an affair, but it is a positive indicator that he/she isn’t trying to advertise for a new partner.

Bottom Line

Ultimately, a wedding ring is completely independent of partner infidelity.  If your partner wants to have an affair, or is naively developing an extramarital relationship that becomes an affair, a ring is not going to prevent it.  Many people have affairs with people they know are married, and unfortunately, for some people it can be added competition.

I’ve heard some psychologists say that not wearing a wedding ring is indicative of deeper problems in the relationship.  Maybe I should be more worried that my husband only occasionally and sporadically wears his ring?  No….That’s complete nonsense.  There just isn’t evidence to support that assertion, and plenty of people wearing wedding rings have distressed relationships.

If you’re really worried, you can look into the “anti-cheating ring,” which was manufactured with the ability to leave an indentation of, “I’m married,” in the wearer’s skin.  If that’s not enough, there are always cattle brands.  If you’re thinking, “That’s not a bad idea,” please get help.

In all seriousness, if you find yourself obsessing about your spouse’s ring use, however, you might be setting up a pattern to drive your spouse right out of the relationship. People who start to get anxious and try to control the details of partner behavior mistakenly believe that they can coerce loyalty from a spouse.  Most spouses will react to that kind of control by becoming more secretive or openly oppositional.  You can’t make anyone loyal to you.  Period.

My husband reminded me that he started wearing his ring because I said I liked it when he wore it.  I didn’t recall the conversation.  “Don’t you remember?” he asked, “I asked you if it bothered you that I didn’t wear my wedding ring and you said, ‘It doesn’t bother me, but I do like it when your wear it.'”  I vaguely remembered it.  “Plus,” he continued, “I’m basically risking my life for you because remember Jimmy Fallon had that wedding ring accident and ended up in intensive care?  It’s a feat of daring.”  “Wow, I actually had an impact on your behavior,” I marveled, enjoying the rare moment.  Ultimately, though, it was his choice.  And that’s how it should be.

References:

Human mate choice and the wedding ring effect: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs12110-003-1006-0

Photo credit: Copyright: antonioguillem / 123RF Stock Photo