Couples, Couples Therapy

Involuntary Celibacy in Marriage

20790930 - close-up of couple's feet sleeping on bed in bedroomMost people get married with the expectation that they will have a sexual relationship.  Yet, it can become one of the most challenging aspects of a long-term marriage.  About half of all Americans report having experienced some type of sexual dysfunction.  Negotiating an ongoing sexual relationship is rather complex.  It includes questions about who initiates contact, how often sex happens, when and where it happens, and what behaviors are desired and accepted in the couple’s repertoire.  Obviously, if couple communication is strained, navigating this area becomes more challenging.

Sex researcher and clinician Barry McCarthy points out in his trainings that couples who report having satisfactory sex lives claim that it only makes up about 15-20% of their overall relationship happiness, but couples reporting low satisfaction with their sex lives estimate that it accounts for 50-70% of the overall relationship satisfaction (which is usually dissatisfaction).  In other words, if the sexual relationship is not going well, it’s going to take up a lot of space between the couple.

When I heard that the term “Sexless marriage,” was one of the most popular Google searches related to marriage, I wasn’t at all surprised.  Clinically, I see many couples who fall into this category, and it creates an environment of distress for both partners in the marriage.  Even though I hear “sex therapists,” (who don’t always have training in managing couple dynamics) make the point that a lot of couples can be emotionally disconnected and have “great sex,” I see those couples far less frequently than couples who feel completely emotionally disconnected or unsafe, and the sex is symptomatic of other things going on in the relationship.  I estimate the ratio of couples who have good sex while emotionally disconnected at about 1:20 of the couples I see at best.  Marital quality and sexual quality do have a high level of covariance and are probably recursive, meaning that a good overall marriage contributes to good sex, which also contributes to an overall good marriage, and vice versa.

Gaining reliable data about couples’ sexual relationships is nearly impossible because people who are willing to answer questions about sex are already going to be different than those who refuse (thus affecting the sample), people lie in surveys, and sex is such a broad and complex topic that it is measured differently across studies and is very subjective.

What is a “Sexless Marriage”

Even defining terms for a sexless marriage is difficult.  The most quantifiable definition with which I am familiar is “fewer than 10 times a year.”  However, if couples are having sex less frequently than this but are both happy with the amount of sex they are having, “sexless marriage,” is inaccurate.  I have seen couples who have sex this infrequently and are ok with it.

Another limitation is defining what couples consider “sex.”  Most people agree that traditional intercourse is sex, but an inclusion of other erotic exchanges could also be considered sex.  I have also had couples who are not able to have traditional intercourse but engage in other sexual encounters and don’t consider the marriage “sexless.”  It varies from couple to couple.  Ultimately, the partner decides if the marriage is “sexless.”

Sexual Desire Discrepancy 

The most common sexual clinical presentation is low sexual desire.  This becomes more complex in the context of a romantic relationship where one partner has higher desire.  The term “Sexual desire discrepancy,” or “SDD,” is used to describe this mismatch in a couple presentation.  Couples with SDD are more likely to have relationship conflict, less stability and fewer positive communication interactions.  Because the sexual relationship is so entwined with the interpersonal relationship, it makes sense to treat it in the couple context.

Involuntary Celibacy

When one partner wants sex and one doesn’t, sometimes sexual interaction can dry up completely between the couple.  It’s not uncommon to see couples in which one is desiring sex, but the other partner will not or cannot engage in the sexual relationship.  This creates a situation of ongoing “involuntary celibacy,” for the partner desiring sex.  Many individuals in long-term marriages live in this state indefinitely, albeit unhappily.  These are individuals who are resigned to having no sexual activity, but who answer “yes,” when asked if they would like to return to sexual activity.

Researchers studying the phenomenon defined it as desiring but being unable to have sexual contact with a partner for at least 6 months.  Their definition of sexual contact was any pleasurable interpersonal and physical interaction of a sexual or erotic nature, not limited to intercourse.  It is not uncommon for me to see couples in which a partner has been living in a state of involuntary celibacy for years. Again, the number of months is not as important as whether the person self-identifies as involuntarily celibate.

Both Genders

Despite the stereotype that men end up as involuntarily celibate more often because it is assumed that they have higher sex drives, I see many women in this situation as well.  Historically, I have seen more involuntarily celibate husbands, but I have definitely seen an increase in involuntarily celibate females over the last decade.  It’s also common that as some men age and face health challenges, they not infrequently withdraw from sexual activity if sexual performance is affected.

Types of Involuntary Celibacy

The course toward involuntary celibacy is different for every couple.  Here are four main types:

  1. Slowed over time—Most couples fall into this category.  These couples start out sexually active and diminish over time.  They can’t always identify when or why they stopped sex completely.  Common reasons are a combination of variables, including a partner’s lack of interest, trauma, relationship problems, changed physical appearances, chronic addictions, physical or mental illness, or affairs.
  1. Stopped abruptly—These couples started out sexually active and stopped because of some precipitating event, such as pregnancy, illness, infidelity or another intrusive stressor.
  1. Little sexual activity ever—These couples report that sex was always somewhat difficult from the beginning. I see this presentation nearly as commonly as the first type.  Sometimes couples desire but have not been able to consummate the relationship.  The main reason given for this type is that it was never very rewarding for one or both partners.  This can be related to some type of sexual dysfunction, sexual trauma, inhibition and shame, physical barriers, early relationship pregnancy, or other early relationship struggles.
  1. No clear pattern—This is a combination of starts and stops at different times in the marriage for various reasons, with the sexual relationship being compounded by other problems.

Common Reasons (or a Combination) for Involuntary Celibacy

 These are common in the research as well as in my practice:

  1. Lack of interest by one partner
  2. Relationship problems and stressors
  3. Concern over physical appearance
  4. Addiction
  5. Physical or mental illness or disability
  6. Medications—common ones I see are SSRI anti-depressants and blood pressure medications, but medications should only EVER be altered under the advisement of the managing medical physician.
  7. Sexual trauma
  8. Time demands
  9. Aging (although people in good health generally remain sexually active)
  10. Infidelity
  11. Pregnancy/childbirth
  12. Low Sexual Desire
  13. Sexual dysfunction
  14. Habituation to lack of novelty
  15. Guilt or conflict with religious beliefs

Consequences of Sexual Inactivity 

Even though I realize that in many situations, a partner who decides that the marriage will be celibate is doing so out of a real or perceived inability to be sexual, the involuntarily celibate partner generally suffers greatly.  In worst case scenarios, low desire partners are purposely withholding or dismissive of a partner’s desire to be sexual, which I think is particularly cruel in a relationship assuming lifelong fidelity.  Additionally, it’s inappropriate to attach a religious banner to one’s low sexual desire, implying that the other partner is too “carnal,” or “devilish,” or generally “bad,” for wanting sex.  That’s complete nonsense and to advance that notion is misplaced, self-righteous, and inaccurate.  Refusing to get help  and requiring that a partner remain  celibate but monogamous without any hope for improvement is just a different type of betrayal .

Each relationship and individual will be different, but common consequences of involuntary celibacy are:

  1. Lower relationship quality
  2. Increased extra-marital sexual activity
  3. Decreased mental health—e.g. depression, low self-esteem, low self-worth, feelings of rejection and sexual and emotional frustration, decreased focus and concentration.

Why do People Stay? 

Again, these reasons are varied and case-specific, but common reasons are:

  1. Nonsexual benefits—Some people enjoy the close friendship, despite the lack of sex.
  2. Lack of alternatives—Some people think they can’t do better elsewhere.
  3. Financial constraints—Some people simply can’t afford to end the relationship.
  4. Investment in relationship—People who have invested time, money and other resources into a family are often unwilling to walk away from it, despite the distress, or don’t want to upset the children.
  5. Social prescriptions—In short, “What will the Joneses think?”
  6. Religious or moral imperatives—Some people see their marital relationships as having spiritual significance and don’t want to make the wrong choice by leaving.

Common Coping Strategies

Common ways of dealing with involuntary celibacy are:

  1. Channel energy elsewhere—Many people report putting time and energy into hobbies or other social relationships.
  2. Compartmentalizing—Some people become very skilled at walling off the sexual part of themselves. I have had clients describe how they completely avoid anything that might access any kind of sexuality—in essence they describe becoming almost asexual so they don’t have to feel the pain of ongoing sexual rejection.
  3. Therapy—Some individuals seek help in therapy, often for the resulting depression from living in this state long-term.
  4. Other sexual outlets—It’s not uncommon to see an increase in activities like masturbation, cybersex, or fantasy, or even seeking out alternative partners.
  5. Resignation—Some people give up entirely and capitulate to the partner barring sex.

If you are in an involuntarily celibate marriage and are unhappy, you are not alone, and there is treatment.  I am convinced that most people have no idea how many other couples are not having sex.  They think it’s just them, and there is so much shame and pain around it that they don’t get help.  The partner who doesn’t want sex often feels hopeless and broken and feels shame as much as the other partner feels the consequences of rejection.  These can be dark and dismal marriages, and if that describes your situation, consider possible change.

What to look for:  Most people have no idea where to get help.  I have a caveat about “sex therapists.”  Except for one state, this is a certification, not a licensed nor monitored profession.  Like anything else in therapy, training and background are so varied that you can tell very little from someone’s license.  In my experience, while there are some cases in which simple sexual interventions can address very specific problems, most cases are so complex and entwined with the emotional relationship, that I would only ever send my own children to someone HIGHLY specialized in couples’ treatment with POSSIBLY an additional background in sex therapy training.  In most cases, I would look for an LMFT who specializes in couples’ treatment, because sex therapy is at least part of the training for this profession.  The couples’ treatment part would be more important to me than the “sex therapy,” part, simply because in my experience, having taught human sexuality at the university level, having supervised marriage therapy students, and having studied sex therapy in detail, the sexual mechanics are far too simplistic for most complex couples’ cases.  The emotional aspects of a relationship are more nuanced and challenging to shift, and are inextricably linked with sex most of the time.

A lot of marriage therapists aren’t going to spend their time and money paying for a “sex therapist,” certification, simply because they don’t need to, so the designation is limited in usefulness.  I have seen many disappointing cases of sex therapists treating couples, who have no idea what they are doing; consumers don’t know how to tell the difference. Being a “sex therapist,” does not make someone a couples’ therapist.

Sex is a couples’ bonding activity. We are born to connect, and the hormones released in sexual exchanges are glue to a long-term monogamous relationship.  It’s worth fighting for.

Lastly, don’t feel embarrassed.  If you are struggling sexually, again, I promise you are not alone.

References:

The Decision to Remain in an Involuntarily Celibate Relationship by Donnelly, D. A. and Burgess, E. O. (2008). Journal of Marriage and the Family, 70(2), 519-535.

Using Emotionally Focused Therapy to Treat Sexual Desire Discrepancy in Couples by Girard, A. & Woolley, S. (2016).  Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/0092623X.2016.1263703

Photo credit: Copyright: andreypopov / 123RF Stock Photo

Attachment, Couples, Couples Therapy

Mistress, Thy Name is Smartphone

cell-phone-ignoreHere’s a scenario I have seen play out in therapy with several iterations: I was carefully listening to a client in a marital  session when her partner suddenly picked up his phone.  My eyes widened at him as if to communicate, “Great—that just set you back at least an entire therapy session—that’s going to cost you.”  Predictably, his spouse stopped mid-sentence and expressed annoyance that he could not keep from looking at his phone even in a therapy session in which they were discussing their disconnection.  Just as predictably, he defended his logical reason for picking up his phone at just that moment, triggering an eye-rolling sigh from his wife.

Big disconnection.  In a moment when the couple is working on connecting.

Smartphones can be so paradoxical when it comes to romantic relationships.  They are a primary means of communication, both initiating and maintaining connections.  At the same time, they generate couple conflict at key moments when a partner feels replaced by something seemingly more appealing.

Phubbing

The behavior is so common it has even earned a unique term which was recently introduced into the common vernacular:  Phubbing—a portmanteau of the words, “phone,” and “snubbing.”  Taken a step further, “partner phubbing,” is referred to as “P-phubbing,” or “Pphubbing,” which I cannot mentally rehearse with a straight face, because it sounds too much like wannabe gangster talk.

Nevertheless, ignoring one’s romantic partner with a smartphone has become seemingly normative in modern culture, but is doing nothing for strengthening relationship quality.

Competing Attachments

Cell phones are too often a competing attachment in a relationship.  A competing attachment is exactly what it sounds like—something that competes with a relationship partner for time, attention, and energy.  All relationships have some competing attachments.  The obvious ones are children, careers, extended family and other responsibilities.

Most couples can name specific competing attachments in their marriages.  In mine, I used to call it the “3 B’s of Bromance,” or “BBBBromance,” alluding to the activities my husband frequently planned with his buddies:  basketball, bicycling, and boating.  Then, he got his BlackBerry and it became the “4 B’s,” because it takes time to schedule all those appointments with your bros.  That increased his bathroom time, which became the “5th B,” (Oh stop it—you all know exactly what I’m talking about and you’ve all done it).  There were times I wanted to smash his BlackBerry with a hammer. Then, cell phones became little computers, “smartphones,” decimating my alliterative list and romantic relationship quality simultaneously.

I’d complain except I’m (almost) as bad as my husband.  It’s true.  He can be in the middle of a sentence, and if I feel my phone vibrate, I will mindlessly pick it up—or “Phub,” him (snicker).  In fact, after I read him this post and asked if it made sense, he replied, “Yep–because you’re a phlippin’ phubber.”

Phubbing Infidelity

Say that ten times fast.  In more damaging circumstances, mobile devices can be used not only to ignore a partner, but to perpetuate connection with someone else while doing so.  I’ve been preaching and preaching and preaching about the dangers of developing traitorous relationships with phones, but despite my efforts, it looks like I will have a steady stream of clients healing from smartphone-assisted affairs.  It’s not even infrequent that couples will be in bed together while one is texting an affair partner.  Sometimes, they both are.

Universal Attachment Desires

EVERYONE wants to feel important and loved in their marriage.  Both males and females tell me over and over that what is distressing is that they feel like they “don’t ever come first,” in their relationships.  I’ve never had a client say, “I’m just so frustrated that I’m his priority—I really just wish his career or golfing came before I do.”

Put the #$%@*! Phone Down!

As a marriage maintenance strategy, do this:  Ask your partner if he or she feels “Pphubbed,” (giggle—I can’t help it).  If the answer is yes, create a plan to be more attentive.  The plan is easy to execute.  Its name is:  PUT YOUR PHONE ON SILENT AND PLACE IT OUT OF ARM’S REACH FOR A DEFINED AMOUNT OF TIME. 

Take a deep breath and back away from your phone slowly.  I promise that you will survive without looking at your smartphone for an hour—or 24 (gasp).

Or you can do what I did—Last week, my husband and I were on a date when I announced, “Honey, look at your phone—I found a new way for us to ignore each other at dinner—while connecting at the same time.”  I had sent him an invitation to play a mini-billiards game through texting.  My announcement was tongue-in-cheek—neither of us is a gamer.  However, I was alerting him to the fact that we should probably put our cell phones away and pay attention to each other.  There was no need to be defensive because we both know we are at fault at times.

We put the phones away.  We survived.  Relationship preserved.

I’m not in any way affiliated, but it looks like you can join an anti-phubbing crusade.  You can vote for or against Phubbing (but only on your laptop–if you visit the site on your smartphone, you won’t like the message you receive).  It might get your partner’s attention—but only if you alert him or her through his/her smartphone. Sigh.  Sometimes I really want to return to the 80’s.

References:

Mobile Phones in Romantic Relationships and the Dialectic of Autonomy Versus Connection, by Robert L. Duran, Lynne Kelly, & Teodora Rotaru, in Communication Quarterly, 59(1), 2011, 19-36.

The Effects of Cell Phone Usage Rules on Satisfaction in Romantic Relationships by Aimee E. Miller-Ott, Lynne Kelly, & Robert L. Duran, in Communication Quarterly, 60(1), 2012, 17-34.

My Life has Become a Major Distraction from my Cell Phone: Partner Phubbing and Relationship Satisfaction Among Romantic Partners, by James A. Roberts and Meredith E. David, in Computers in Human Behavior, 54(2016), 134-141.

Photo credit: Copyright: konstantynov / 123RF Stock Photo

Love, marriage, Romance

Everything is Awesome—When your Spouse Thinks You’re “The Special”

lego-couple

**Long and gushy—you’ve been warned.

On a recent family vacation, one of my children started watching the Lego movie loud enough that all of us were enjoying the snappy dialogue and “Everything is Awesome,” earworm. When Emmett was potentially identified as “The Special,” my mind wandered to how often that word comes up in therapy.  In short, distress often develops when spouses don’t feel “special,” to their partners anymore.

Spouses Want to Feel Special

I have NEVER  met a spouse in therapy who didn’t want to feel special to his or her partner in the classic definition of “unusual in a good way; better or more important than others; or especially important or loved.”

One of the best examples I know of someone who does this well is my husband.  He could give lessons on it. I was reflecting on the specifics of how he has reinforced that for me, and how it has enhanced my marital satisfaction.  This post will probably embarrass him, but he really is that good.

Don’t get me wrong—I know I can drive my husband absolutely crazy with some of my annoying qualities.  He will tell you that I can be very sassy and difficult for starters.  Despite our stepping on each other’s toes from time to time, I have never lost the sense that he thought I was “The Special.”

We Often Marry People to Whom we Feel Special

When I met my husband, I really liked him and went on a few casual dates with him, but I already had a long-distance boyfriend, so I had no interest in getting close.  We had known each other for two weeks when he called and said he wanted to go on a walk and talk to me about something.  My roommates started laughing that he wanted to go on a “DTR,” (define the relationship) walk and that I should prepare for a way to turn down the “marriage proposal.”  Because I was wanting the opposite of a serious relationship, I could not wrap my head around the idea that he could possibly be feeling that way, so I protested their mockery.

It turns out, they were 100% right.  He explained that he had dated a lot of girls and that he didn’t need to date anyone else because he knew I was the one for him.  I awkwardly explained that I was in a serious relationship with someone who was away in a volunteer capacity in a different part of the country, and that while I thought he was a really nice guy, he really needed to move on because I was taken.

He was not happy.  I shut the door behind him when he dropped me off at my apartment and exhaled a sigh of relief to be back home.   I wasn’t very sympathetic to his moping because I just wasn’t interested.

For several months, he would show up and walk alongside me on my frequent outings to campus and ask me out on informal dates.  It seemed like I ran into him everywhere.  We got along well and seemed to think a lot alike.  I felt entirely comfortable around him.  I agreed to go with him places as friends, because his likability was irresistible, but I still didn’t want to get serious with him.  I distinctly remember saying, “I don’t have any more ways to tell you that I’m not getting involved in a serious relationship.  I’m being very straight forward with you.  Date other people.  I am.”

Repeatedly we would have a version of this conversation:

Me:  Who did you take out this week?

Him:  I told you I’m not asking anyone else out.  I don’t want to date anyone else.

Me:  Well, that’s ridiculous because I told you I’m taken.  I’m dating people as friends, but I’m not getting serious with anyone.  What about so-and-so?  She’s cute, don’t you think?

Him:  Meh.  I don’t know.  Sort of, I guess—cuter than most of the other girls.

Me:  Why don’t you ask her out?

Him:  She’s not you.

I would avoid him for a few days, he would pout, and eventually he would show back up.  The thing is, he was incredibly safe and predictable.  I could count on him for anything.  He was a constant and continually sent the message that it was me he wanted, and no one else.  After about 6 months, it occurred to me that despite my regular rejection, he must really like me because he was still hanging around.

When I was talking to my roommates one night about the fact that he seemed very sincere about loving me, I decided maybe it wasn’t a bad idea to consider building a life with someone I liked (loved, but I didn’t want to admit it to myself at the time) who seemed so sincere and constant.  They responded that it was clear that, “Steve will always love you—even when you’re old and gross.”  I realized that if this was something they viewed from the outside, maybe the sense I had that I would always be able to count on him was real.

My roommates were right.  Despite all of our ups and downs, I can honestly say that I believe my husband still sees me as “The Special.”  I have no idea why, but he has just always really liked me for me.  Because of that, I am free to be myself and take risks with him.  I can be playful, physically affectionate, and exploratory because I know he will accept me at a fundamental level.  He can see who I am, even with my frailties, and still want me anyway.  This is the core of “specialness.”

Here are some basic ways to help a spouse feel “special” in marriage:

  1. Watch for unique things your spouse likes and present them as gifts regularly. My husband knows I love blue flowers, so whenever he sees them, he brings me some.  This is just one example of how I know he is thinking about me when I’m not around, and that he has paid attention to my unique preferences.
  2. Pay attention to what your spouse dislikes. My husband knows I despise melted cheese and mayonnaise, so if he ever orders food, he knows to check on this.  This seems obvious, but it’s not.  I have met with many couples where the fight is that “We have been married for how many years and you still don’t know that I don’t like that?”  I read an article once in which Cindy Crawford used the example of her ex-husband Richard Gere trying to bring her a drink, and she realized he still didn’t know she didn’t like that drink after they had been married for so long.  It influenced her decision to leave him.
  3. Generate a unique symbol with meaning for both of you. Once, my husband and I were looking up meanings of names.  I knew that Lori came from the laurel tree and was a symbol of victory, because my mother had told me this repeatedly.  Steve and I came across explanations of Steven meaning “victor,” and Lori meaning, “to the victor.”  I gushed, “Look, honey—we were meant for each other.”  Later, he bought me a ring with a laurel branch with 7 leaves (one for each of our children) and presented it to me as a reminder of this meaning.  I adore this ring for the special symbolism.
  4. Have a secret language. If you were to scroll through my husband’s and my texts, you would see a regular and odd exchange of numbers we send to each other throughout the day.  We started a habit of sending reflexive numbers (I like mathematical symmetry) at various time points almost daily.  In short, it means, “I’m thinking about you right now.”  It also means, “You’re special.”
  5. Have a special restaurant or treat. I have a foodie obsession, and my husband and I generally have a current favorite restaurant or food item.  Earlier this week, my husband surprised me with a crème brûlée I discovered at Real Foods Market a few years ago.  It’s a relatively out-of-the-way item, which makes it even more special that he remembered.
  6. Have a special song or music group you share together. When I was dating my husband, I watched him play a lot of basketball.  I have a distinct memory of watching him play while Club Nouveau’s cover of “Lean on Me,” was playing, on several occasions.  I heard it playing on the radio, recorded it with my phone and sent it to him.  He also does a great job of playing songs for me that he hears that remind him of us.  His most recent song dedication was a song by SafetySuit with lyrics declaring, “I will never get used to you.”  He still plays this for me as an iPhone alarm right now.
  7. Think of a special way to present an act of service. My husband also knows I have a weird obsession with hearts.  On countless occasions, he has brought me some kind of food in a heart bowl or drink in a heart-shaped cup.
  8. Verbal compliments. For years, my husband will be talking and will stop right in the middle of a sentence and say, “You’re so pretty.”  Sometimes this would be in the morning and I would protest, “Oh stop…when you’re insincere, you cheapen it.  I have no make-up on,” and he would say, “Right.  That’s specifically one of the things I loved about you—you didn’t look very different without your makeup on, while some girls I dated looked totally different.  You’re just pretty.”  On countless occasions, he has said to one of my children, “Isn’t your mom gorgeous?” and they roll their eyes.  I’m not, but I believe there is something he sees uniquely about me that he likes.
  9. Tell your spouse how and why they are special regularly. I have completely taken for granted the fact that my husband thinks I’m special, because he so often comes right out and says, “I am so lucky I am married to you. You’re_______ and_____and_______and______and I love that you’re__________.  How did I get so lucky to marry my dream girl?”  He’s specific, which makes it more believable.

My husband woke up a few months ago, rolled over and asked, “How did I get so lucky to land you?  I landed you!”  I answered, “Well…..you wouldn’t go away for one thing.”  He laughed and added, “That’s right, I wouldn’t,” at which point I laughed along with him.  “But I’m glad you didn’t,” I continued, “Because you have been the best husband.  I’m lucky to have you.”  I meant it.

I think most people would consider me to be very average, but I do believe my husband thinks I’m special–because the fact is that HE is “The Special.”

Life can be very scary.  It is full of lots of rejection, misunderstanding and pain.  However, for most of us, if there is one person out there who believes in us and treats us like we are special,  EVERYTHING is indeed “Awesome.”

**I told you.

Photo Copyright: <a href=’http://www.123rf.com/profile_rosinka79′>rosinka79 / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

Couples, Couples Therapy, Love, marriage

One Simple Thing You Can do to Protect Your Marriage

54955635 - woman checking her mobile phone while embracing a man at home

I was on a hike with another couple a few nights ago, and the husband asked me to identify the number one thing I would tell people to keep their marriages strong.  I’m not usually asked to reduce marital tips down to one dimension, but I was intrigued by the challenge.  I thought for a minute and realized I had a definite answer, informed by the cases I have had over the last 5 years.

“I would say,” I replied, “To realize that when you are texting someone, you are in essence entering a private room with that person.”  I’m expanding on the image here.  The room has no windows.  The social response is in real time, so it is as if you are right next to the person having an actual conversation.  If you text daily, you are entering that room daily.  If you text on and off all day long, you are in that room most of the day.  Everyday.

I see a lot of infidelity cases.  One hundred percent of them in the last few years have all developed through texting.  In most cases, a romantic interest did not precede the texting relationship.  Most of them started in a benign way between co-workers, church members working together on projects, neighbors and best friends of the couple.  Here’s the typical developmental course (IMHO):

  1. Begin texting to communicate practical information.
  2. Increase frequency of texting, still to communicate practical information.
  3. Add a joke to your text, making it more conversational in nature.
  4. Get a response to your joke, and continue the playful banter.
  5. Feel a positive chemical boost after a text exchange.
  6. Find yourself checking your phone to see if the person texted.
  7. Realize that you are starting to look forward to getting texts from that person.
  8. Tell yourself that since you aren’t seeing that person face-to-face, you are fine and not being disloyal to your spouse.
  9. Increase casual and playful texting.
  10. Shift from playful banter to deeper emotional disclosures.
  11. Experience an increase in the euphoric chemical boost.
  12. Find yourself hiding your phone from your spouse, because you don’t want the texts to be “misinterpreted.”  (ALERT: Tipping Point)
  13. Continue to tell yourself that nothing is going to happen, because you still aren’t in this person’s physical presence, so you are still in control.
  14. Realize you have an emotional yearning for this individual.
  15. As you increase the need to hide your texts, begin to see your spouse as the enemy.
  16. Find yourself disconnecting from your spouse to find a place to text this person more often and privately.
  17. Hide more.
  18. Declare your deepest feelings and yearnings for this person and plan to meet in a private location.
  19. Engage in physical affection.
  20. Bam!
  21. Feel as if you have “fallen,” in love with this person and want him/her more than your spouse.
  22. Tell yourself this is your true love connection…otherwise you wouldn’t have “fallen,” in love, and you wouldn’t have these feelings.
  23. See your spouse as the one thing standing between you and true love and happiness.
  24. Destabilize your family.
  25. Make an appointment with me.

This may sound harsh to some readers…definitely to those who see themselves somewhere on this continuum.  I’m not changing my story.  If you would not repeatedly enter a private room with someone without a window where someone can see in, frequently enough that you start to share feelings with someone that you wouldn’t share with your spouse, don’t do it on a cell phone.

Here’s one more thing that should not surprise you:  If your texting partner is an old boyfriend or girlfriend, you can expect to immediately resurrect the same emotions you felt when you were dating that person.  You will exaggerate all the good memories you had and minimize the negative memories you had from that relationship.  That’s not unique.  Your texting affair is not unique, and the effect is as if you are on drugs.  I’ve written this before, and I stand by it.

Lastly, realize that no matter how great you think your marriage is, this can happen to you.  It is the failure to be watchful and set boundaries that gets people into trouble.  If you think you could never end up having an affair, you’re kidding yourself—FWIW.

Photo credit: Copyright: <a href=’http://www.123rf.com/profile_wavebreakmediamicro’>wavebreakmediamicro / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

 

 

Couples, Couples Therapy, Love, marriage, Romance, Uncategorized

Kissing Like you Mean it: The Benefits of Lighting Fireworks in your Marriage

fireworks

As I was explaining to my husband that I was trying to write a blog post about kissing in marriage, he threw his arms open and offered enthusiastically, “And you want to practice?”  “No,” I answered, “But I admire your optimism and thanks for giving me my opening sentence.”

For most couples, kissing is a natural part of relationship development, particularly as they move toward higher levels of commitment.  Researchers confirm that kissing can be a strong reinforcer for mate assessment and attachment. In other words, if you think you like someone and the kissing goes well, commitment is likely to increase, while the reverse is true for couples who just aren’t “feeling it.”   As people form attachments, prolonged kissing behavior generally increases in romantic relationships.

However, I’ve noticed that really great make-out sessions diminish over time for lots of married couples.  Even couples who maintain frequency in sexual relations sometimes bypass the benefits of quality kissing in a rush toward goal-oriented orgasm in sexual behavior.

In our sex-centric society, kissing is often underrated.  This is unfortunate because there are multiple reported benefits from kissing in committed romantic relationships.  Some highlights are:

  1. Prolonged kissing decreases stress responses by reducing blood pressure, cortisol levels, and increasing skin temperature.
  2. Individuals assigned to increase physical affection in their relationships reported increased positive mood the following day.
  3. Individuals assigned to increase physical affection over six weeks reported increased relationship satisfaction.
  4. Individuals assigned to increase kissing over a period of six weeks had decreased total cholesterol levels.
  5. Engaging in prolonged kissing can increase sexual arousal for some women who don’t experience arousal prior to physical engagement.

Importantly, most of the research about kissing in romantic relationships is with “positively valenced,” relationships, meaning that the people generally like each other and are willing to kiss.  They experience positive emotions about each other.  That will skew the research.

Kissing can be one of the first casualties of emotional disconnection or unmanageable marital conflict.  Some couples report that an intimate kissing session can feel too vulnerable.  I have had many people say that if they feel disconnected, it is easier to actually participate in sexual intercourse than to spend time attuning to their spouses in mouth-to-mouth contact.  Kissing may just not feel safe, and if that’s the case, it can have a negative impact.

Even for people in good relationships, kissing can be a casualty of daily stressors and demands simply because it takes time.  For those people, intentional kissing is a tangible, measurable way to strengthen and enhance bonds.

Here are some ideas for increasing the mouth-to-mouth ratio in your marriage:

  1. Focus on kissing process rather than outcome.  Decide that you are going to have a really great make-out session as your goal.
  2. Incorporate kissing as ritual. Kissing can be a meaningful exchange after time apart, which communicates, “I missed you.  You matter to me.”
  3. Identify a regular kissing spot. My husband decided right after we were married that every time we passed by a certain location, he needed to kiss me.  Almost thirty years later, he still pulls me toward him for a smooch every time we walk through it.  He never forgets.
  4. Re-enact a first kiss or another meaningful kiss from earlier in the relationship.  My husband and I disagree about the particulars here.  He is tall, so I was standing two steps above him.  We were talking and as I recall, he pulled me so I fell into him.  His story is that I “attacked” him.  Highly unlikely, given our relationship history, but if it makes him feel better, I let him think that.
  5. Look for novel opportunities to kiss. Once I saw a street on a map named with my first and middle names.  On a whim, I suggested that we needed to park and kiss on that street (don’t worry, residents—nothing illegal occurred). Silly, I know, but we haven’t forgotten it, either.
  6. Try a kiss of the month club. I once bought a book with different types of kisses and instigated a “kiss of the month,” program.  FYI, Trader Joe’s has a unique Fireworks chocolate bar, which is an excellent kissing accessory for July.

Since marriage provides great potentiality for close physical contact, it makes sense to intentionally maximize kissing benefits.

I have a pillow that says, “A kiss a day keeps the marriage counselor away.”  For low-distress marriages, I believe there is truth in that statement.

I was told as a beginning student in a marriage and family therapy program almost thirty years ago that I should never try to be my spouse’s marriage therapist, and I have followed that advice for the most part.  However, when it comes to the “romantic kissing intervention,” I completely have my husband’s support.  And NOW it’s time to go practice.

References:

Burleson, M. H., Roberts, N. A., Vincelette, T. M., Xin, G., & Newman, M. L. (2013). Marriage, Affectionate Touch, and Health. In Health and social relationships: The good, the bad and the complicated, (pp. 67-93), Washington D.C., US: American Psychological Association 

Burleson, M. H., Trevathan, W. R., Todd, M. (2007). In the Mood for Love or Vice Versa?  Exploring the relations among sexual activity, physical affection, affect, and stress in the daily lives of mid-aged women.  Archives of Sexual Behavior, 36, 357-368.

Floyd, K., Boren, J. P., Hannawa, A. F., Hesse, C., McEwan, B., & Veksler, A. E. (2009). Kissing in marital and cohabitating relationships: Effects on blood lipids, stress, and relationship satisfaction. Western Journal of Communication, 73(2), 113-133.

Wlodarski, R. & Dunbar, R. I. M. (2013). Examining the possible functions of kissing in romantic relationships. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 42,1415-1423. DOI 10.1007/s10508-013-0190-1

 

 

 

 

 

Couples, marriage, Uncategorized

The Number One Question to Ask to Restore Harmony in Marriage and Make Beautiful Music Together

couple music instrument

I was in the middle of a “discussion,” with my husband the other day in which I could feel myself getting more frustrated that he wasn’t understanding my viewpoint.  I found myself doing something I often observe couples do, which was saying the same thing louder using different words, in an effort to be heard.  I even felt myself getting a little panicky that he wasn’t understanding me.

Predictably, what I was getting back from him wasn’t an increase in understanding…it was his same responses fed back to me using different language and…louder.

He was matching my communication process, and I was matching his.

We were stuck in a typical and dissonant couple communication pattern in which all we could hear was ourselves.  We were like two musicians trying to play a piece together, but we couldn’t hear the other person’s part over our own.

Continuing in this pattern is unlikely to restore harmony, but there is a question that couples can ask when they find themselves in one of these déjà vu episodes.

The question is, “What do you think I still might not understand about your position?”

Then, listen to the answer.

You might be asking yourself, “Why would I ask my partner that question when I am actually worried that he/she isn’t understanding where I am coming from?”  The answer is that harmonious communication requires your partner believing you are really listening to him or her.  Also, if you are really curious about asking more about your partner’s viewpoint, you might learn more about where he/she is coming from than you assumed you knew—especially because couples treat each other in the present according to past interactions and often incorrectly assume motive and meaning.

Going back to the music world, anyone who has studied a musical instrument enough to have performed with other musicians knows that a harmonious performance requires that each musician not only listen to themselves, but that they also listen to the other parts being played by the other musicians.

I frequently accompany vocalists and musicians on the piano.  If, for example, I’m not listening to a violinist play her part as much as I am listening to myself, I can easily end up moving ahead or trailing behind the violinist, with a resulting dissonance akin to nails on a chalkboard instead of a pleasing harmony.  An effective performance always requires that I listen to the other performers.  Like many other things, it is a skill that takes intention and practice.

Communication is similar.  If you are only listening to yourself, you are likely to end up with friction.  Asking your partner what you might not understand slows down the process, and allows your partner to be more flexible about hearing your position.  If asked authentically, it can actually have a soothing effect.

The best time to ask this question is while things are not escalated.  Over time, it can become part of regular problem solving…with practice…and if you need to be reminded, you can always start out your discussions with a harmonious symphony playing in the background.

 

 

Attachment, Couples, Couples Therapy, Love, marriage, Uncategorized

The Art of Noticing: Putting the “App” in Appreciation

thanks photo

“See?” exclaimed a husband in therapy, “It will never be enough for you.  No matter what I do, you will always want something different or more, so I might as well just give up trying.”

There is a process that I regularly witness between couples in therapy that genuinely saddens me.  What happens is that I will observe one partner really trying to please the other partner, but the efforts are viewed as disingenuous or minimal, so they are disregarded or criticized, at which point the partner gives up.

This phenomenon occurs with both partners in a marriage regularly.  Here’s a typical example:

Sandy was exhausted from caring for her young children, driving them around, and keeping the house picked up.  She was hurt that her husband didn’t make a bigger effort to support her in daily household chores, and that it seemed like he was content to ignore her all night while expecting sex before bedtime.  She was offended that he wanted to be physical with her after seemingly preferring to be alone most of the time.  When she tried to talk about it, he would withdraw by leaving the room or just refusing to engage in conversation.

Her husband, Sam, admitted that he gave up on household chores because, “It’s never up to her standards,” and the criticism he received was painful.  He added that he did reach out for physical connection because it was the only time he felt really accepted in the relationship.

It’s common that after a session of therapy, partners will gain a little more courage to try again.  The problem is that when they do try, their efforts do seem small.  That’s because after years of rejection, making small shifts can feel like enormous risks.  Then, their partners either don’t notice the small efforts, or actively reject the efforts because they are afraid that if they “reward,” the small effort, their partners will think it’s enough and stop there.

So, with the above example, Sam returned to therapy and explained that he volunteered to do household chores without asking, and instead of his wife noticing and expressing gratitude, she asked why he didn’t do a few more things.  In return, Sandy explained that she tried to risk being more physically affectionate with her husband by hugging him when he came home, but that he “pouted,” all night because she didn’t want to have sex.  Thus, both partners experienced more rejection and felt discouraged to continue.

Change can be very tricky between couples, because the two people are so sensitive to each other emotionally.  No one wants to feel like he or she is making efforts to change while the other person doesn’t notice or isn’t trying to change as well.  Both partners want love and acceptance.

It’s important to know that NOTICING is a skill that can be actively expanded and implemented.  Then, people need to realize that APPRECIATING and ENCOURAGING is powerful in priming more change, but nothing will destroy a partner’s desire to try faster than criticism, even if the criticism seems small.  Most people don’t realize the huge impact their criticism has on partner withdrawal and disconnection.

So, why aren’t people better at using encouragement and accepting their partners’ changes instead of criticizing?

  1. They want so much more than their partners are often willing to give up front that they really don’t notice their partners are trying to change.
  2. They are afraid that if they accept the small effort, the partner will think that’s good enough and stop trying.
  3. They are afraid that if they accept the larger effort, it won’t last.
  4. They don’t trust the change, because it may be viewed as manipulation.

Here’s how to implement the art of noticing and appreciating in order to promote change:

Look for and acknowledge ANY change efforts.  People want their efforts to matter.  Many times, I have pointed out, “You see, he’s here right now with you in therapy trying to improve his relationship with you—this is him trying to change.  You are experiencing it right now.  Especially since couples therapy is the LAST place most men want to be.”  Or, “Did you notice her reach out and put her hand on your leg when you were talking about how painful it is when she rejects you physically?  That is her trying to reach out to you and comfort you in a way that you desire.”  When I point this out, most partners acknowledge, “Yes, this is hard for him (or her) and I can see he’s trying.” I can also help them add, “I just get scared that he will stop trying or things won’t ever get better, even though it helps me to know he’s here with me right now.”  This helps the rejected partner understand what is happening more clearly.

Sometimes it’s helpful to think in PARTS.  For example, “There’s a part of me that can see you trying and gets excited that thing might get better, but there’s another part of me that gets afraid it won’t last or this is as good as it will ever get, and that thought is so scary that I want to make more demands.”

Understand SHAPING.  There is a behavioral concept called “shaping,” in which people reward approximations of behavior in order to move someone toward the desired behavior.  It is used a lot in parenting, but it actually applies in all our relationships.  I reject pure behavior therapy as an application for change, because our emotions interact with our behaviors in complex ways, but it is true that acceptance and praise are rewarding, and we are more likely to become approaching and try harder in those circumstances.

Understand that criticism and contempt are more powerful in a toxic way than appreciation, praise and encouragement are in a relationship-building way.  In other words, one line of criticism can wipe out a month’s worth (or more) of genuine effort in seconds.  People give lip service to this, but then behave as if their criticism shouldn’t be taken so seriously.  CRITICISM KILLS RELATIONSHIPS, AND IT DOES NOT MATTER WHETHER YOU THINK THE CRITICISM IS JUSTIIFED OR NOT.  For emphasis, I repeat, CRITICISM KILLS RELATIONSHIPS, AND IT DOES NOT MATTER WHETHER YOU THINK THE CRITICISM IS JUSTIFIED OR NOT.

Even if you notice and encourage your partner when you see a change, EXPECT RELAPSE into old patterns.  People need to be allowed to get it wrong without being severely punished even if they have been nearly perfect.  Sometimes people won’t try to change, because they are afraid that they won’t be “perfect,” at it and if they aren’t, their partners will flare up (because they do).  Most patterns change like the stock market—a general trend upward with lots of ups and downs in between.

Recognize that NOTICING really is a skill that you can acquire.  If I asked you to watch your spouse’s or child’s behavior and notice what they were doing well, you would be able to tell me.  Everyone knows how to do this but we forget that noticing does take some effort on our part.  It’s rarely natural.  Instead, we tend to view partners through a lens based on an accumulation of interactions over the years, and we don’t notice variations in the present.  Also, undesirable behavior always gets our attention more readily than desired behavior.

It is highly unlikely that your partner will even try to fully meet your expectations until he or she believes that you notice and appreciate his or her efforts.  People need to feel safe from rejection and criticism to take relationship risks.  This is the standard.  Your partner is not an exception.

Lastly, I complement you on finishing this longish article and by doing so implementing a small immediate change to make your relationship better.  See, I noticed!  Did you notice?